Nigel Calder comes close to losing his boat in a familiar harbor entrance
Nigel Calder runs hard aground in Portugal
We hit the sandspit on our way out of the harbor at something over 5 knots and went hard aground. A moment before, the bottom had risen suddenly from 10ft to now visible sand in the wave troughs just ahead of us. The sandspit lay off the northeast corner of a small island at the entrance to the Minho River in Portugal. Modest Atlantic swells were working around the island and running into each other from opposing directions, creating 3ft breaking seas that were hitting our Malo 46, Nada at the bow and stern. It was too rough to launch the dinghy and set a kedge anchor.
I knew we had deeper water to port, so I put the helm hard over and throttled up to bring our head around, watching the engine gauges intently as sand began to plug the cooling system and the temperature crept inexorably upward. We were turning as each wave broke against Nada, momentarily lifting us. We were clearly moving at least a little, plus we still had an hour or so of incoming tide with a favorable current coming across the sandspit, so I was reasonably confident that as long as the engine did not violently overheat we could eventually power off. As with all Malos, Nada is exceptionally strongly built, so I was not worried about the hull; however, I was not at all sure about the rudder— I could feel it taking a beating as it crunched into the hard sand in every wave trough. It is designed such that the lower section is sacrificial, and I hoped this would tear away before irreparable harm was done.
Eventually, our bow came around enough to put us broadside to the competing wave trains, and we began rolling down to the gunwales, first to port and then starboard where the sandbank was. The edge of it was steep enough for the turn of our bilge to be aground in the troughs, with exposed sand visible immediately abeam of us. Then another wave would come in from that direction, breaking over the sand-
spit, sweeping up onto the side deck, over the dodger and around the cockpit coaming into the cockpit, dumping sand behind our bulwarks, and flipping us over so that the port side was down. One of these waves dumped a flood of water through the cabintop ventilator into the aft head compartment, driving the fan blade off its shaft. Things were getting a little out of hand, and I began to wonder if we were going to be able to save the boat.
At the time we had our friends Mike and Kate with us, Kate in the cockpit and Mike below making breakfast. Both remained remarkably calm. “Should I get lifejackets?” asked Kate. “Good idea,” I said, and she went to grab them. From below, Mike yelled, “Nigel, you’re really messing up my breakfast!”
All this while we were slowly crashing and banging along and away from the face of the sandspit into deeper water. A passing fishing boat was headed toward us, and with considerable skill it rapidly maneuvered close to our bow. My wife, Terrie, went forward to catch a line, hanging onto the rigging as Nada lurched from side to side. The only rope the fishing boat had on board was lightweight polypropylene, which was difficult to toss any distance. We had heavier line in a bow locker, but in the conditions it was not an easy task to get it out. It took three tries to get the fishing boat’s line across and secured. After that, with its additional pull we were in deep water, and the wheel was turning freely and we had steering. Another local boat led us offshore. We began to think we might have survived the pounding without any significant damage.
As things settled back down, the first task was to check the bilges, where I found a disconcerting amount of water, with the bilge pump running continuously and not keeping up. I made a quick check of the pump’s overboard discharge. No flow—the strum box must be plugged! After that we put the manual pump into service, and the water rapidly receded until the bilge was dry. (It appeared the water was no more than what had found its way below from the waves coming on board.) Next, I pulled up the suction hose and strum box for the bilge pump, cleaned the strum box, which was completely plugged, and put the pump back in service.
The breakfast Mike had been getting himself consisted of a hard boiled egg and buttered bread, and we found the egg white in one sink, the yolk in another and the butter upside down on the cabin sole. Remarkably, none of the crockery in the galley cupboards appeared to have been broken, and the wine bottles in the bilges were all OK.
The nearest protected anchorage where I could safely snorkel down and inspect the rudder was 20 miles away in Baiona. It also had a boatyard with a Travelhoist that would enable us to haul out if necessary. The conditions offshore were reasonably calm with light winds, not at all threatening, and we had an easy threehour motorsail into a calm anchorage. Along the way I checked the bilge repeatedly, periodically finding some small amounts of saltwater. I also pulled up sections of the cabin sole from all the way forward aft to the engine room and checked the through-hulls and found no leaks. I suspected the seal on the rudder tube was damaged; however, to access this we would have to unload a large locker under the helm seat and then remove the floor underneath. Our bilge pumps (we have a small one and a second high-volume one for damage-control) could keep up with any conceivable leak from this seal so I decided the inspection could wait.
Eventually, we anchored at Baiona and pulled up the locker floor, after which I was shocked to see the entire reinforcing structure for the rudder tube had been destroyed, so that the rudder and its tube were now flexing in the hull. The Malo 46 has a partial skeg with a rudder bearing at the base of the skeg, and for the rudder to flex this way the lower bearing had to have failed or the skeg had to be breaking loose from the hull. One way or another, any significant steering loads would likely have ruptured the hull with a distinct likelihood of sinking the boat. I had in mind the only Malo I had ever heard of sinking, which went down in the Indian Ocean after sustaining precisely this kind of damage.
Rather than take time to dive on the rudder, I called Pantaenius, the insurer, to approve an immediate haulout and the marina to arrange a lift. Both were terrific, and we were shortly out of the water, at which point we could see the skeg was fractured entirely around its base, with substantial cracks in the hull at the base of the rudder tube. Considering the extent of the damage, it was
amazing how little water had come in. Still, we were looking at a difficult, time-consuming and expensive repair job, with the loss of weeks of cruising time. How had I got us into this mess?
In fact, our cruising guide to Atlantic Spain and Portugal (by Henry Buchanan, published by Adlard Coles) has this to say about the Rio Minho, which forms the border between Spain and Portugal: “The entrance is difficult and can be dangerous, and has claimed more than one yacht as well as innumerable local craft. It is an option only in calm weather with little or no swell… There are many rocks, shoals and banks in the approaches and the river itself, the sands shift, and the currents run hard in the narrow entrance.”
We first came here in 2017, in flat calm conditions at low tide. There is a small island at the mouth of the river with an ancient Portuguese fort. Relatively deep water can be found into its lee, after which there is an extensive bar that must be crossed at right angles to any swells rolling in from the Atlantic. This is where boats get rolled.
The entrance has a set of range markers, but the cruising guide had warned us not to rely on them. Coming out of the lee of the island, we therefore proceeded slowly, more-or-less following the range markers until we touched bottom. We then backed off and anchored behind the island, after which we launched the dinghy and made an extensive exploration of the bar, determining a suitable route into the river—a course that took us somewhat to the west of the range, close to the edge of a steeply-sided sandspit at the NE corner of the island, then a little to the east of the range. As an added benefit, this route coincided closely with the details on our Navionics electronic charts, which we had already found to be remarkably accurate on a couple of other infrequently used river entrances.
A short while later about, two hours after low tide, we entered without problems, after which I saved our track on the chartplotter. When we exited we used more or less the same track, deviating slightly to establish more soundings. We returned later that same summer in moderate swell conditions, finding substantial turbulence off the tip of the sandspit caused by the seas working around the island from both the north and south. However, we still entered and left without incident, using the same saved tracks and adding a couple of more.
On June 2 this year we returned to the Rio Minho and found significantly more swell than on the previous two occasions. We entered cautiously using the tracks from 2017 and found the same depths and turbulence off the tip of the sandspit as in the previous year. We then exited on June 4 without incident and returned again on June 19 in similar swell conditions— entering a little after half tide, on a falling tide, without incident, although the turbulence off the sandspit was significantly more than on previous visits, and in fact for a few seconds quite wild. This should have set off alarm bells, but instead I attributed it to the Atlantic swells coming from a slightly different direction and running into the 4-knot outgoing stream.
We left the following day, well after half tide on a rising tide, expecting to see several more feet of water on the bar. Just before the gronding, I noted the turbulence ahead of us seemed to be even worse, but I was on mental autopilot, simply following the seven tracks we had already established and assuming we had more than enough water. As fate would have it, we crashed into the sandspit at a point in the center of the previous seven tracks and almost exactly where we had passed with 10ft of water on June 4. It appeared that in a couple of weeks the sandspit had extended by around 30 yards. It was not until I put dates on the various tracks a week or so later that I realized we had been marginally to the east of the earlier tracks on the way in and had just skimmed the end of the sandspit, which accounted for the chaotic seas we had seen.
My chart tracking system keeps a log of every saved track, recording our position approximately every two minutes. You can see clearly where we hit the sandspit and the 30 yards or so of pounding we endured before we cleared the end of it. A day later, after Nada was safely ashore and we had all had time to settle down, I asked the crew how long they thought we had been on the sandspit. The estimates varied from 10 to 20 minutes, when in fact it was between four and a
half and six. Time slows down when you are in mildly terrifying conditions!
We were lucky. A couple of more hard bangs to the rudder, and the skeg would likely have sheared off altogether, opening up large cracks and potentially a large hole in the hull. We could very easily have lost Nada. Not only that, but had she been a more lightly constructed boat, I do not believe she could have survived.
Nada is repairable. However, what is going to be harder to repair is Terrie’s trust. We have been cruising together for 35 years, and over that time have explored many poorly charted and otherwise navigationally dubious areas. We have run aground numerous times, but have taken care to ensure it never happens with any seas running or in conditions that might threaten the boat. This is the first time we have grounded with waves. It is also likely the last time I will be permitted to explore a river the cruising guide recommends avoiding! s
Nada lies at anchor as the crew checks the depth in Portugal’s Minho River
Waves break over the sandbar the day after the grounding
The damage to the skeg (right) was obvious; the rudder tube was flexing (below right), and the rudder had split (below left); clearing the blocked strum box (inset)
The tracks of Nada’s prevous visits are overlaid by the one showing the encounter with the sandbar