A Spanish Hurricane

Wednesday it was blowing even more so we resigned ourselves doing a few jobs around the boat. By bedtime the wind was blowing around Force 8 (a gale). Kevin did the Skippers bit of checking the warps before we retired. Sleep though was almost impossible as the noise was horrendous. Temptress was bouncing around, the wind was roaring in the rigging and the pontoon creaking and groaning. Just after 12:30am unable to sleep, Susie put the kettle on for cocoa and slipped into the chart table seat to take a look at the chart plotter graph of the wind it was constantly blowing Force 11. Kevin put his clothes on and went out to check the mooring lines. He rapidly became worried that the finger we were tied to was taking a lot of strain and twisting relative to the main pontoon so he took a line from Temptress’s midships across the empty berth the other side of the finger to the main pontoon. By 1am the wind was blowing force 12, a hurricane – and gusting more. How much we couldn’t tell as our wind indicator has a maximum of 70 knots (force 12); the chart plotter repeater was showing 0.00 knots: “it must be off the scale” Susie yelled up against the noise.  As Kevin came back on deck there was a loud bang; he shouted a very rude word, Susie stuck her head out of the main hatch and we watched as the boats on the opposite side of the marina came heading towards us, or were we heading that way? In fact the entire windward pontoon, the opposite side of the basin to us had left its mounting posts and complete with about 30 boats was heading across 50 metres towards us. As the left-hand end came up against the catamaran the pontoon started to break into sections. The twisted metal ends of two parts hit the lowest part of our transom and one piece began to edge around to the port-hand side of the boat whilst the other was moving round the starboard-side. “Get Will up quick” Kevin yelled. Will was asleep in his aft starboard cabin and Temptress could be holed fairly shortly only feet from where he lay. Will and Kevin worked to move as many fenders as we could muster into the gap between boat and the jagged aluminium ends of the broken pontoon. We even borrowed two huge ones from a Junta de Andulucia patrol vessel just down our pontoon, one for us and one for our German neighbour who by now had the bow of a boat from the other side of the marina rubbing up and down his midships. By some odd quirk it was another Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 47 just like Temptress. Later we realised it had come to rest on the diagonal line Kevin had just put on and acted as a huge fender holding the worst of the weight off Temptress.

Meanwhile it was mayhem everywhere. Most of the crews were like us already awake but nothing prepared them for what they saw as they came on deck. To our left further into the basin Karsten & Tina’s Aquavit was only attached to the main pontoon by the extra lines they had put out earlier. Their finger pontoon had turned turtle and was sinking with their boat still attached. Between them and the patrol vessel lay several yachts. Pavlov was sitting serenely untouched by anything and the other two had a large 50-odd foot wooden motorboat pressing against them. To our right, David & Viola’s steel Zeehund was being leant upon by a large steel motorboat coming in at right angles to their stern. We later discovered that the Dutch Skipper a retired merchant navy man had been woken by the bang and the only thing he could think of doing was to put his engines in full reverse. It was probably this that lessened the impact when the windward pontoon hit. At the seaward end Double Up had two large motor boats pressing against her starboard hull; her bow fittings had in fact gone through a port hole in the larger of them.

It was a spring tide (the highest sort of tides) and close to the March Equinox so with the wind behind it at around 2am the water was within a couple of feet of the top of the basin. In the car park beyond were the blue flashing lights of the Guardia (police) cars and Barbate’s one fire engine (a volunteer force). A young policeman was shouting at us against the wind. Susie went forward to hear what he had to say: “You have to leave your boat now” was the gist of it; looking left toward the inner end of the basin it was obvious why. Our pontoon was beginning to buckle under the press of boats and wreckage. Already planks were coming out. Along with our friends we had no choice but to abandon ship. All the seacocks and hatches were closed, the power systems switched off a grab bag containing the ships papers, our passports and wallets was packed and a change of clothes pushed into a rucksack. We stood shell-shocked in the cockpit as the washboard was put in for maybe the last time, it is hard to say good-bye to your home. One of the things that every sailor is always aware of is that one day he or she may have to climb up into a liferaft but we never ever expected it to happen in a marina. With heavy hearts the three of us made the short two-foot step up from the pontoon onto the quay. The policeman told us to head for the marina office on the seaward side of the basin. Walking against the hurricane with the salt spray lashing our faces was hard work. The wind was such that the outer harbour had three or four waves in it even though it was only a few hundred yards across. Once in the office we were warm and dry; everyone was gathering. The teenagers disappeared up stairs whilst the adults stood or sat around the reception area. No-one knew what to say but we were all glad that nobody had been hurt and that we were all there. The delivery skipper from a 60 foot new motor boat that had spent the night so far tied up to the reception pontoon came in to offer a couple of spare bunks. We were all too shocked to take them up but were amused to hear that they were going to be keeping an ‘anchor watch’ in case their pontoon too decided to go walkabout.

The young lady that ran the office was busy phoning berth-holders to tell them what was happening. One German couple drove twenty odd miles in the storm from their villa further up the coast. Their brand new Halberg Rassey was on the windward pontoon. Eventually the manager turned up; he was reluctant to do anything until daylight. Kevin, David, Karsten and Cap’n Trish (from Double Up) were determined otherwise. His grasp of English was not good so Viola and Trish took up the argument in Spanish. Eventually things started to happen. The firemen tied some long lines to the windward pontoon and tied them to pillars on the seaward quay. These were rather slack for our liking but it was something.

As the tide went down so the wind began to ease. Trish�s American pushiness paid off – she persuaded an army of marinaros to help put in more fenders. But she was still desperate for the load on her Catamaran to be eased and the owner of the largest motorboat, who had been called from his bed, wanted to extract his boat. A small jeep was driven round to the seaward quay beyond the office building. What followed was farcical but had some success. A single rope from the windward pontoon was tied to the jeep which had about ten feet of quay in front of it. The driver revved his engine but the small vehicle was no match for the windage of a high-sided motorboat. Even if it could drive forward it couldn’t go far without falling into the harbour! Eventually some movement was made and the marinaro army were able to extract both the motorboats at that end. Meanwhile both David and Kevin were pleased that their insurance companies answered the phone at 3 in the morning and offered both sympathy and constructive help. We struggled through the wind around the basin to peer down at the carnage. So far Temptress had not sunk but Kevin’s inspection of the damage did not hold out much hope. By torchlight he could already see the fibreglass matting poking through along the starboard transom edge; was there a hole below this? Fenders and wreckage obscured his view.  Gradually the crews braved the rickety pontoon and went aboard their boats. Karsten managed to free Aquavit from the capsized finger but not before the cleat had gouged great lumps of gelcoat and GRP away below the waterline, fortunately not actually making a hole.

About then staff from the fishing harbour arrived bringing huge rolls of polypropylene line from the fishermen�s cooperative. As dawn broke a web of lines was strung from the posts on seaward side of the basin to the rogue pontoon.  David was down on the wreckage trying to ease the strain on Zeehund and he quickly realised that by heaving on the lines the pontoon pieces could be moved back towards the wall from whence they came. Soon everyone was working together to heave and bit-by-bit the gap between our boats and those that belonged on the other side widened. There were a few panicky moments. A large wooden motorboat became entangled in all the gear that a typical long distance cruiser has hanging off its stern, Kevin climbed up onto the motor boat to cut it free only to find the bow section was rotten, within seconds it was academic; the diving platform-like bow fittings simply ripped out of the deck taking with them a large section of the stemhead.  There was comedy too, two small motor-boats of the style beloved by the Spanish for weekend fishing had been so far unaffected by the turmoil. They were on the endmost section of the wayward pontoon which was still in place but as the wreckage had moved down the basin they were now in danger of being crushed! Heaving stopped whilst the marinaros decided what to do. The owners weren’t around so no engines. Viola suggested to them that they get their own substantial tin dinghy and use it. First though they had to saw through the service pipe containing the mains power and lighting supply for the pontoon which had somehow encircled the boats, good job that the power had gone off when the incident first started. Meanwhile on another boat an elderly Spaniard in his carpet slippers was anxiously trying to sort out his lines making ready to leave which he did as if it was completely normal to motor out of your berth with bits of pontoon floating all around you.

As the small boats were towed to safety a cry went up from Karsten. He and Tina had managed to move Aquavit to a safer berth just opposite. The team on the quay had decided to take a break from heaving whilst the boats were dealt with so put down their lines. Once more the wreckage was floating downwind towards Aquavit.  Eventually the wreckage was reasonably secure and we gradually all retired to our bunks; it was 10 am and it had been a very long night. In the late afternoon we inspected each others boats. All in all despite the serious nature of the Barbate Incident as it was now being referred to, there was surprisingly little damage. No boats sank and no one was injured. We later learned that out in the fishing harbour one traditional 50-foot wooden trawler at the end of a raft of trawlers sank earlier in the night.

Friday dawned bright and clear with the easterly wind still blowing but much moderated. Virtually all the boats decided it was time to leave; most were heading through the Straits but Temptress sailed north to Rota.  We were joined by the ex-merchant seaman, his crew (a young black Labrador) and his steel motorboat. A few glasses of wine were drunk that evening, going over the events of the night before, which may account for the embarrassing event of Saturday morning. As we motored away from our berth Kevin realised that we were still attached to the pontoon. by our 50 foot power cable. It was already too far to jump ashore so Will scrambled to unscrew the plug at the boat end. Our Dutch friend, stood on the pontoon to wave us off, grabbed the cable from the junction box and waved it as Will threw his end into the water. The Skippers intention was to return to collect it all. Too late we realised that it had already snapped and that £90 of screw-on plug was now sinking into the marina mud! Never mind we had a glorious downwind sail to Vilamoura tying up just after mid-night.

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