I recently survived a record-breaking storm in the Ionian Sea. Here is my interview with Yachting International Radio.
Here’s my written account, featured in
Alone, a hundred miles from land, I encountered Storm Janus
Eighteen months ago, I left East Anglia in my 29ft racing sloop, bound for Istanbul. My progress was naturally slow at first as I had never sailed before but, by the time I left Reggio Calabria on the toe of Italy last month, I felt confident that I could take the passage to Kefalonia in my stride.
My sharp lookout gradually relaxed as the Strait of Messina opened into the Ionian Sea – the open expanse of light traffic which promised steady winds. I don’t carry AIS (a modern satellite identification system which transmits your position to other maritime traffic), so my methods are fairly 20th Century. I opted to head out so as to avoid the crowded shipping lanes and temperamental winds closer to land. My course might add a day or two to what would otherwise be a three day crossing but, as the sun went down behind the plume of Etna, I smiled mirthlessly at my good instinct. A dark anvil of thunder clouds was growling and flickering over the Italian coast.
In open water I could adjust the sails less often and sleep longer to the soft creaking of the pulleys which comprise my self-steering steering system. For the next 72 hours I read, swam, gazed at the constellations above the mast light and started looking forward to sitting down with new friends over a fresh meal in Greece. Living like a sea-Gypsy can get expensive and my cost-cutting extends to refrigeration, which always makes landfall a bit special after a long voyage of couscous and canned tuna. This time it would be a real treat, as the wind had been disappointing. After five days, I was radioing other ships for forecasts and, with a relentless Easterly breeze, I eventually adjusted my course back northwards. I can still hear the voice of the Shanghainese container vessel which first alerted me to a tropical depression and mounting wind in the South Adriatic. I told him I was aiming for Corinth.
“You’re a warrior” he came back, cheerfully. I asked him how Shanghai was these days and we shared some banter about the upcoming Autumn Moon festival, which he’d be missing this year. I imagined his wry smile under horn rimmed glasses and pompadour haircut and nearly asked him to relay a message to my family to let them know I was OK. But I knew it would be a fiddle-faddle and that I’d be in port within another couple of days. I had been gone five days so far, so nobody should be too worried yet.
That night, another thunderstorm struck and, reducing my sails I made my last twelve-hour bid to head East – though, with the wind coming straight from Kefalonia, I could only head in the direction of Corfu. I should mention that, with six hours’ of fuel on board, motoring was out of the question. Besides, the engine wouldn’t handle what was to come. A sparrow flew down the hatch and disappeared somewhere among my toolboxes. In ancient times, sailors might have read such signs of nature, but there was no use in my speculating.
At dusk on day six, I made distant contact with a Russian ship, which buzzed me a barely comprehensible warning of a storm – but I was still a hundred and fifty miles from land and, frankly, it made no difference. The wind was still mounting and I’d just have to take whatever hit me. A school of flying fish skimmed one side of the boat. Working through the muggy wind and intermittent deluges, static discharge fizzed and crackled off the capstans and stanchions until the circuit breakers flipped and lightning arced down. One direct hit would fry the radio, so I unplugged everything – plunging myself into darkness and radio silence. A week and a day after I had set out, I was two-thirds of the way to the Greek coast and heading due north back to heel of Italy through a cyclone which experts in distant, halogen lit, offices were helpfully christening: ‘Storm Janus.’ As another deluge of sea thundered down the hatch and I was thrown over to nearly 90 degrees, I realised that this was beyond anything I had seen on Mediterranean forecasts before. My fate now lay in the strength of the boat. Either the steel cables which hold the mast up would snap or they would not, but a glance up through the cabin windows showed the entire rig was flexing like the wings of an airliner bumping through heavy cumulus. If the mast went, I would be smashed around by the sea, powerless to do anything until the storm blew over. I had flares, but they’d be useless in the driving curtains of spray which engulfed me. Mentally, I prepared to myself to shelter in a dismasted vessel until, blinking in the sunlight, I would emerge from the hulk, raise a makeshift aerial, and call for help for however long it took until another ship appeared on the horizon.
Then, with a flash and bang, the cabin was filled with the reek of burned plastic. A lightning strike had welded the headlining to the foot of the mast, but nothing was broken. I thanked my lucky stars I’d had the presence of mind to unplug the radio. If I needed, I could still call for help. But even in this dark hour, I had no good cause to do so. Outside, the howl was rising in volume and in pitch. Soon, the boat was heeled over on an average approaching 45 degrees. I climbed out into the cockpit one last time, sat with my back on the lateral seats and worked the winches between my knees to reduce the headsail from the size of a bath towel to the size of a pillow case. The waves which thundered over me were so violent that I had tied myself to the mast inside the cabin, so that, should I be thrown overboard, I would not be separated from the boat. That – after all – is how people die. That or a direct collision, but visibility was far too low to be worth keeping a lookout.
Tying the rudder to hold a course into the waves, I closed the hatches and lay below in salty darkness as water washed across the floor of the tiny cabin and the cyclone screamed in the rig above. I watched the morning twilight glow in the windows. I watched it grow dark again. I had been gone for over a week and the wind was now pushing me back into the instep of the boot of Italy.
I’ve never really believed in the power of prayer, other than to prepare oneself to accept a fate. But I suspected that, far away, people would be starting to worry that I hadn’t shown up yet and I wished that I had some way of urgently transmitting a message to say that, so far, I was OK.
My brothers had indeed started the manhunt – as I would have done in their position. The British embassy in Rome, the Hellenic coastguard and a Balkan military attache were combing my social media accounts for photos, drawing circles over maps and briefing air sorties. But without any means of locating the boat by AIS, they couldn’t really do much other than report back if I pulled in to a harbour. The vortex of online speculation intensified by the hour.
An irony of mass communications is that, without the technology that is supposed to put our minds at ease, everyone would have remained in blissful ignorance and the outcome would have been exactly the same. Twenty years ago, even if the storm had been reported as far as the UK nobody would expect a boat like mine to have any means of satellite identification and the hundreds of commentators and well wishers and prayers would have found some more worthy cause than an upper class twit who had decided to follow through on a drunken pledge that he’d take back Constantinople.
Semitone by semitone, the howl of wind was subsiding. My tinned food rations were depleted. Having been blown half way to Benghazi and back I was now on course to land a mere forty miles from where I had started. I could think of nothing but my crushed pride and how much hell there would be to pay when I finally managed to make landfall. The little sparrow flew up from his perch on the galley tap and started circling round and round the cabin. I opened the hatch and watched him disappear into the night.
My own energy was returning. On the ninth and final night of the voyage, I mixed some oats with my the last remaining bottle of fresh water. A tungsten glow lit the sky from below the North horizon. Opening the sails to the stiff breeze, I ate my cold porridge slouched at the helm.
The sails whispered on into the agate dawn and the first bar of reception appeared on the screen of my phone, followed by a hurricane of pinging SMS messages and facebook updates to which I could finally respond by telling people I was alright and would communicate when I had docked and sorted things out. The nearest harbour – aptly named Porto Alle Grazie – granted my request for entry then, after a pause, asked me to repeat the name of my vessel. The channel was suddenly inundated with Italians clamouring to identify me as ‘that British boat that everyone is looking for.’ I breathed an expletive into the dawn air, then started to clear the deck for landing.
The uniforms of the Guardia Costiera shimmered white along the wharf. I fired the engine and got my mooring lines ready. Docking is a tricky manoeuvre when overtired and scrutinised by an audience of professionals. I knew my credibility hung on perfect execution and my guardian angel guided my hand until I’d turned off the engine and handed over my passport.
Formalities dealt with, I shouldered a backpack and headed to town. Passing the window of the Harbour Master’s office, I caught a glimpse of a naval officer gesticulating at a vast wall map with a drill cane: “…so as the storm moved that way, he was blown in a huge anticlockwise circle round the Ionian, you see? like that!”
I found an Osteria and ordered a Quattro Stagione Pizza, half a chicken, six Arancini and a lasagne with a side of potatoes, large Caesar salad and two pints of beer. Two old men drank coffee at the bar.
“You know, apparently he has shown up here! Came into the port a few hours ago!”
I checked into the hotel in the town square, consumed three large Granitas with brioche and cream, stood under the shower and felt a thousand cuts and bruises sing as the blessed fresh water gradually ran clear in the plughole. Then I flicked on the TV and saw a satellite image of what I had just sailed through and the footage of the havoc along the Greek coast. My last conscious thought was that, had I had made it to Kefalonia, I would almost certainly have been wrecked on arrival.