Ex­pe­ri­ence

Nigel Calder comes close to los­ing his boat in a fa­mil­iar har­bor en­trance

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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

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