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Barry's Blog # 41 - Oh shit, we're on the rocks!

None of our training prepared us for the events that unfolded at 10.30pm on a moonless Friday night in August 2018.

Thursday afternoon at 6.30pm we arrived in the big bay at Javea and after our previous uncomfortably rolly experience on the free mooring balls just outside the harbour wall we decided to take one of the free mooring balls at the southern end of the bay. After an interrupted night's sleep due to the wind shifting hourly we woke to strengthening winds and swell coming from the north east. The forecasts said that the wind was going to peak at 15 knots by lunchtime with gusts up to 20 knots. We were not in a protected position at all.

Our reason for visiting Javea was to catch up with my brother Phil and his family and we had tentatively made plans to meet for breakfast at 10.00am, however that morning my gut feeling was telling me that the rolling sea was going to make it difficult for us to lower our dinghy into the water without issues and there was no way we'd be able to get it back up on the davits should we need to.

The dinghy on our davits

I was still pondering whether or not to lower the dinghy when my phone rang, it was Phil. He was standing on the shore looking at us and the huge swell that was causing A B Sea to roll like a Saturday night drunk. He said he'd been to look at the northern mooring balls outside the harbour wall and that it was quite calm up there. A decision was made, we started our engine, slipped our mooring lines and headed across the bay. Later at lunch Phil did say that he hadn't realised how big the waves were until he watched us leave the southern mooring and the whole hull of A B Sea was completely hidden from view as we dipped between the incoming waves.

Arriving at the northern end of Javea bay the huge cliffs offered reasonably good protection from the wind and swell and we decided to tie up to one of the new yellow mooring balls, which had only been installed 3 months ago. We chose it over one of the older white mooring balls because we'd previously seen how poorly maintained the white ones were.

White and yellow mooring balls at Javea

As always we put two separate lines from our foreward cleats onto the mooring. Scuba diving has taught me that redundancy is better than regret, so there's always a second option should the first option fail.

Happy that we were doubly secured to the mooring and pleased that the wind and swell were easily manageable due to the protection of the cliffs, we launched the dinghy and motored off to our meeting with Phil.

Plan A was to take the dinghy into the small protected canal at El Arenal, however eight minutes later I took one look at the huge waves rolling into El Arenal beach I decided to abort the approach. I know only too well from scuba diving off my kayak how easily a small vessel can be turned over if it gets itself side on to big rolling waves. I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid.

Plan B was to sneak our dinghy quietly into Javea marina, tie her up in a secluded corner and wander off before we got spotted. Javea marina is quite exclusive and there is nowhere in the harbour to park a dinghy. Plan B worked out perfectly and we headed off to lunch. At some point as we sat enjoying good food and good company I pointed out A B Sea's wildly swinging mast which was the only part of her visible over the harbour wall and jokingly said "As long as we can see her mast doing that, she hasn't lost her mooring and crashed onto the rocks." Everyone laughed. Little did we realise how true those words would become.

After a great day out we motored our dinghy back to A B Sea and by 8.30pm we were settled in our cockpit with a cold beer ready to enjoy another sunset. I noted that it was good that the wind had dropped and the swell was lessening, we were hopefully going to enjoy a good night's sleep. At 10.00pm Aannsha announced that she was going to bed, I said I was going to watch an episode of Sons of Anarchy to wind down before I hit the sack. After a final look around to confirm that we were the only vessel staying the night and the weather was calming down significantly we went below.

At 10.30pm the shit hit the fan

Boom, crunch, grind.

"What the fuck was that? Did someone just hit us?"

Boom boom, crunch, grind.

As Aannsha came out of the princess suite I was already making my way to the companion way steps, I ripped down the fly screen and threw it to the floor, scrambled up the steps as A B Sea lurched oddly sideways accompanied by yet another boom, crunch, grind. It's a sound I will never forget and a sound I never want to hear ever again. It tore at my guts and sent dread through my heart.

Stepping into the cockpit was like stepping into an alternate reality, a nightmare reality. Boom, crunch, grind.

"Shit we're on the rocks!" I shouted. My mind began asking questions "How did this happen? What happened to the mooring ball?" Useless ponderings at this point in time. Adrenalin kicked in and in a split second I began to prioritise what action needed taking. When the shit hits the fan on a sailing yacht events unfold extremely fast, you just have to prioritise which (proverbial) fire you are going to put out first.

Keys in the ignition

"I need all the light we've got and I need the engine keys." I shouted to Aannsha who was halfway up the companion way steps. She went back down, grabbed the keys and as she handed them up to me A B Sea lurched madly with another horrendous boom, crunch, grind. The keys fell at Aannsha's feet, she made a grab for them while trying to steady herself against the lurching boat. On the second attempt I got hold of the keys and took the ten long steps to the helm position. One hand was removing the helm protective covers while the other hand fumbled in the pitch darkness trying to get the key in the ignition and the engine started. I estimate that between Aannsha grabbing the keys and me getting the engine started was 40 seconds and in that time there were four more horrifying boom, crunch, grind moments.

As the engine started and I slowly acquired some night vision I could see that A B Sea was side on to the jumble of concrete blocks that make up the outer wall of Javea harbour and with each wave coming in and pushing us onto the rocks there was a corresponding boom, crunch, grind.

"Oh shit, please don't let the rudder or prop be damaged." I eased her into reverse getting the revs up to about 2,500rpm. She didn't seem to respond. Boom, crunch, grind. "If she is holed would she be better left on the rocks for salvage purposes?" my mind questioned. "No, if she's taking on water there's plenty of time to get into the marina where we can tie her up in shallow water." Decision made I pushed the revs up to 3,500 and thankfully she slowly eased backwards and away from the rocks. There was a final boom, crunch, grind before the horrendous gut wrenching sounds stopped as A B Sea gained deeper water.

Mooring field just outside Javea port

Aannsha wanted to go straight into the marina, I wanted to secure the vessel to a mooring ball and assess the situation. Under engine power the marina entrance was literally 2 minutes away. In the darkness it took us two approaches before we managed to hook a mooring ball, this time I chose one of the older white mooring balls, unfortunately it was the one with the very old and frayed loop of rope. "It will do temporarily until we find out what damage there is." I told Aannsha.

With A B Sea secured and out of immediate danger my next priority was to find out if we were taking on water. I left the engine running in neutral and went below to listen for the bilge pump. With the noise from the engine I couldn't be sure if the bilge pump was making a noise or not. There were now two possibilities. We were holed, taking on water and the bilge pump had failed or there was no breach of our hull and we were watertight.

Visual access to our bilge is via the storage compartment under the central settee at the salon table. I'm sure I didn't breathe as Aannsha and I removed the seat cushions, opened the storage lid and began removing various items to be able to open the inspection hatch. What would my next move be if there was sea water filling our bilge? Time slowed to a standstill as I reached down and opened the hatch. Nothing. I blinked several times in disbelief at what I was seeing. Nothing. Just the usual couple of centimetres of dirty bilge water sitting just below the bilge pump float switch. Oh thank you Universe!

Relief swept through my body, my guts unclenched, my mind relaxed, I began to breathe again. We were safe for now, our home and possessions were not going to sink to the sea floor. Our dream was not going to be shattered on the rocks and end here on a dark Friday night outside the marina wall at Javea.

We went back on deck and I asked Aannsha about our mooring lines. How did they both fail? "They didn't." She replied. "They're both securely attached to our cleats, the problem is the mooring ball is attached to the other end of our lines, its line has failed and separated from its concrete block."

The mooring ball float and rope

I was gobsmacked that a 3 month old mooring could fail, which immediately brought my thoughts back to the mooring ball we were temporarily attached to. It was never going to last the night with 9.6 tonnes of A B Sea bouncing up and down on it. I shone a torch onto another white mooring ball slightly further out than the one we were on and instructed Aannsha to slip our lines and get ready to tie off to the next mooring. We hooked it straight away and got one of our lines attached. It's not the easiest thing to do in the dark on a vessel that's bouncing around on the wind whipped waves. Our boat hook became entangled and it took us a good 15 minutes to get it free and after we'd retrieved it we once again made secure two lines from our cleats to the mooring.

It was now midnight, just 90 minutes after the whole nightmare had begun and with A B Sea now firmly attached to a reasonably integral mooring and definitely not taking on water Aannsha and I slumped down onto the foredeck and hugged each other as a wave of relief washed over us. Aannsha asked what was next, I replied that however unlikely it would be for two moorings to fail the prudent approach would be to set an anchor alarm and share a watch until dawn. Aannsha said she wouldn't be able to sleep so she took the first watch. I said wake me in 2 hours as I headed off to bed. I needed sleep.

At 4.00am Aannsha woke me and said she couldn't stay awake any longer and she knew that four hours sleep is enough for me to function without a problem. I spent the next four hours sitting in the cockpit rehashing and reviewing the event and the steps we took prior to, during and after the event had happened.

At 8.00am I woke Aannsha and said that I needed her to walk the dinghy around the outside of the hull so that I could visually inspect it from the waterline. There was great trepidation as I slowly went along the hull looking for gouges. To my absolute surprise and relief there was nothing. The hull was completely unscathed, not a single scratch. I put on my fins, mask and snorkel and had a good look below the waterline and the only damage I could see were long thick scratches along the port side of the keel bulb where the antifouling paint had been scraped away right down to the bare iron of the keel. I needed scuba equipment for a proper inspection. Getting in the water once again, I submerged to the level of the keel and took a closer look. The keel had taken all of the impact, there were a lot of scratches covering almost the entire underneath of the keel bulb in addition to the scratches down the port side of the keel. I also inspected the rudder and prop which confirmed what I had suspected, neither of them had any signs of contact with the rocks.

On deck removing my scuba gear we could hear the rumblings of a thunder storm coming down from the north and not wanting to be in Javea bay when it arrived we decided to head south to an anchorage at Calp (Calpe) which is well protected from almost everything. It was only the next day, after a peaceful night's sleep at Calp, that we began noticing the cuts and bruises that we sustained during the event. I have no idea how or when I got hurt, it's quite amazing how the mind just shuts out or ignores superfluous information when you're in the middle of dealing with a crisis.

Battered and bruised

Several lessons were learned from this event and we have put in place some new procedures.

If we have a choice to grab a mooring ball or drop our big Mantus anchor, the Mantus is ALWAYS our first choice.

On a mooring ball ALWAYS snorkel to inspect the mooring below the water line.

At anchor ALWAYS snorkel to check that the anchor is set.

On a mooring ball or at anchor, ALWAYS set an anchor alarm.

ALWAYS have a waterproof torch hanging off the throttle handle during dark hours.

Any incident during dark hours, whoever is first to the electronics panel, switches on every exterior light we have.

Four days after the event and writing this blog in the calm anchorage of Calp it all seems so surreal, like a fleeting shadow of a nightmare that I'm not even sure happened. We count our blessings that we were so lucky to be able to sail away from that event and the only physical evidence that anything went wrong at 10.30pm on a moonless Friday night in August are the big scratches on our keel and our slowly healing cuts and bruises.

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