Swept Away

Thursday, August 11, 2011 4:45 am

I am woken up by the wind, it’s howling. Ondine is anchored off a beach called, Agios Prokopis, on the island of Naxos in Greece. Captain James is not on board, he’s  in New York.  My biggest fear when James is away is that we will slip on our anchor and be dragged out to sea. Whenever he is not on board I spend many nights/early mornings on deck trying to work out if we are moving any closer or further away from the objects around us, scolding myself the whole time for being paranoid and telling myself  “It would be bloody obvious if we were slipping, go back to bed.”  Paranoid or not I know this is different. The Meltemi is screaming. I get up and put the instruments on. The wind is gusting to 40knots. That’s really strong.  I go outside, it’s noisy and nasty but we seemed to be in the same place. I go upfront and check the anchor, I watch the chain pull out taught, and then slacken off as the boat comes forward.  That’s good. I take in the washing and wet bathers hanging on the back of the boat, I don’t want lose anymore clothes to the Meltemi. I’m concerned that the noise is going wake everyone up and that they might be scared. Paloma and Ronan are fast asleep. I close their hatches. Cindy Abramson, my best friend from New York is staying with us. We met fifteen years ago on my first trip to New York. Cindy worked for Fox Searchlight and they had just brought my first film. Cindy was assigned to look after me for the weekend because everybody else was in the Hamptons. We joked for years that she did such a good job I just kept her on.  She is fast asleep. I creep in and close her hatch too.  I’m awake and a little freaked out, so I skype James. I read out the wind speeds to him and I tell him that I snorkeled the anchor during the day and  it was still dug in. James says he is sure we will be fine. Around 6am I close the computer and go back to sleep.

Thursday, August 11th, 2011 11am

The Meltemi continues to blow hard all day. We abandoned any shore plans we had. We stay inside reading and playing endless games of Uno. We occasionally go on to the deck and marvel at the brave souls on the beach. We speculate that this is their one holiday and they are going to go to beach even if means being sand blasted, damn it. In the evening the wind seems to lessen and we decide to get off the boat and have dinner at the taverna on the beach. There is a little dinghy drama due to the wind and I end up swimming in and out, so we can leave the dinghy with Ondine. The taverna has a view of the anchorage and I take a photo of the crazy white-capped waves surrounding Ondine in the normally calm bay.  We are back on the boat as the sun is setting around 9pm. We have one last round of Uno, We call James, he’s on the way to the airport and we all tell him how excited we are that we will see him soon.  I read a chapter of Birds, Beasts and Relatives to the kids.  It’s Cindy’s last night with us so we watch the last episode of the Sherlock series that she had brought with her, and we go to bed.  I can’t sleep. I look at stuff online. At around 1am I think “This is dumb, I should go to sleep”. I look out my stern porthole and see that the small tanker that sometimes anchors behind us is back. I look out the side window and check that the two speed boats off our port side are in the same place, they are. I notice that the one closest to us doesn’t have his light on, “ idiot” I think as I turn off the light and go to sleep.

Friday, August 12, 2011  2am

I wake with a start, something is wrong. The wind is howling and we’re rocking. I look out the back porthole. I can see the tanker but it looks like its moving way from us. Maybe the sound of him pulling up his anchor is what woke me. My gut is telling me that’s not it. Something is wrong.  I look out the side window I don’t see the speedboats. Something is really wrong. I scramble out of bed and out into the cockpit.  It’s really dark I don’t recognize anything. My heart is pounding. I tell myself I’ve panicked before and all that’s happened is the boat has turned around in the wind, but this time all the lights on land look really far away. I run upfront to the anchor. The chain is pulling back under the boat. I just look at it. I can’t work out what it means.  It means you have dragged your anchor and you are being swept out to sea, you freaking idiot. My worst fear has been realized but I can’t get my head around it. I go back below and turn everything on, the instruments, the VHF, my computer, the mobile phone. I think about calling James then I remember he’s on a plane.  I put on a pair of leggings. My heart is pounding in my ears and it feels like all my blood is rushing to my stomach. I’m still really confused. I don’t know what’s going on, I know it’s not good and that it’s getting worse fast. I go back up on deck. I look around, I still have no idea where I am. I look at the depth meter, it’s reading in the hundreds, not the twenties we were anchored in. Ondine is really rocking, things are banging around inside. I hear glasses smashing.  Suddenly, I’m not confused anymore. I know exactly what’s happened and exactly what I have to do.  I turn on the engine. Paloma comes up. I tell her to go tell Cindy I need her.  I make my first distress call. I still don’t know where I am, so I give my position as off Agia Anna, Naxos. No one responds.  I have to get the anchor up.  Our windless (the thing that pulls up and is meant to lower the anchor) is temperamental at the best of times. It only works in the up direction, we have to manually drop the anchor. Bringing it up is usually a three person job: one person to push the windless control button, one person to crouch in the anchor locker and pull on the chain so that it doesn’t get caught around the windless in a big tangled mess, and one person at the helm to move the boat and take the pressure off the anchor when needed. It’s a delicate art form even in a quiet bay, nevermind in what is starting to feel like offshore in a storm. Cindy and Paloma are on deck with me. I have us all put on life jackets. I ask Paloma to help me raise the anchor. Paloma and I put on tethers.  I tell Cindy I don’t really know where I am and if she should could look around and see if  she recognizes anything, that would be helpful.  I turn the boat in the direction I think will take the most pressure of anchor. I don’t know how I made the decision.  Paloma and I hook into the lifelines and go up front. Waves are starting to break over the bow of the boat. I climb into the anchor locker, attach the windless control, put on my gloves and tell Paloma to hit the button. Nothing. I futz with the connection. “Try again” I shout. It works. I pull and pull and pull on the chain. The wind blows the locker door on to my head a few times. I don’t feel it.  The anchor is up.  I run back to the helm. Now we have to get back to the anchorage. Ondine has been turning back around again and is heading back out to sea. I ask Cindy if she has any idea where we come from. She points confidently in the other direction. I turn the boat around. I am struggling against the wind, the current and waves, I only have one engine (a legacy of the P bracket incident) but I manage to wrestle control. If I only knew where I was.  I remember the helm GPS! In my defense it had been on the blink for a while and we only recently got the part to fix it. I could have kissed it when it came to life. Cindy had been right we are heading in the right direction and now we have a chart and our GPS position.  I make our first distress call giving our position. It’s still really rough and I need to give most of my attention to the helm. I ask Cindy to take over the radio. I show her how to use it and where to read our latitude and longitude.  Just as she is about to call another voice comes on the radio, it’s a woman, she’s French and she sounds really distressed.  She is on a boat called Stray Cat.  They’re out in the channel near us and they have no steerage. She keeps saying, “This is no joke.” It seems unreal that someone else is calling in a may day too.  I look at Cindy I tell her “We just have to wait for them to finish. They sound worse off than us.”  It’s a strange feeling, it seems bizarre that we are both in trouble in the same place and the same time (of course it’s not, if the conditions are bad people get in trouble, but it felt very strange at the time) I feel an instant kinship with them and concern. I also know two boats in trouble is not good. Meanwhile Ronan has been clinging to his bunk trying to stay a sleep, despite being banged into the wall and thrown to the floor, he only abandons his bunk after a wave comes in his port and he is drenched with water. I have Paloma put a life jacket on him, he lies down on the couch and becomes our own Eeyore, “We’re going to sink. Do I have to wear this life jacket? It itches, ask Mama if I really have to wear it. I can’t sleep in it. We’re all going to drown”.

When Stray Cat is done, I tell Cindy what to say and she gives the calmest distress call ever. The harbormaster responds now but there is a lot of confusion with two boats and everyone speaking different versions of English. It was also a struggle to hear the radio above the roar of the wind and the angry sea. I ask Cindy to use the radio inside.  I only catch snippets of the conversations. They’re coming, but to who? They tell Stray Cat to look for a yellow light and us to look for a red boat or is it the other way around? Stray Cat reminds them repeatedly that there are two different boats. Ronan imparts one more pearl of wisdom: “Go toward the yellow light”, before passing out.

I’m starting to recognize things. I can see the tanker. Then one of the speedboats. I know the one without lights is there but I can’t make him out yet. I take his name in vain.  I can see another light in the distance. I wondered if it’s Stray Cat. The time has come to think about dropping the anchor, preferably without hitting anything. Paloma puts the deck lights on. I tell Cindy my plan, I’m going to get us  as close as I dare, put the boat in neutral and drop the anchor. I need her to stay at the helm and if it looks like we are going hit something, move away from it. I tell her “It’s easy, just like driving a car”. I look at her blank face and then I remember she doesn’t drive.  You’ll be fine I say trying to sound upbeat and confident. I could just make out the unlit speedboat to port and I curse him again. I move into position, put the boat in neutral, run to the bow and drop the anchor as fast as I can, then I run back to the helm. Cindy is standing looking at the controls “I have no idea what I’m doing”. I know the feeling. I tell her it’s fine. The current is pulling us back out and around.  The anchor did not catch. Then the coastguard arrive in their shinny red boat. They throw me a line and I attached them to our stern cleat. They ask me to attach a line to the bow. Attaching the rope feels like the most awkward thing I’ve done all night, I struggle to get it the right side of the safety line.  I can hear them asking Cindy the name of the boat, they seem confused and it isn’t clear to me how they’re going to help. They tell Cindy that we are the wrong boat and they have to go. Cindy asks if will come back. They are none committal. I run to the stern and cast them off. I don’t think twice about it. Stray Cat needs them more and with them gone I know what I have to do. I have to get the anchor back up.  I turn the boat back toward the anchor. We try the windless. Nothing, nothing and more nothing.  I pull on the chain in frustration. Yeah right, like that’s going to work. I look at chain in the water; it’s being pulled back under the boat and to the side. We’re being pulled out fast. I have to get this anchor up.  I want get as much pressure off as I can. I go back to the helm, turn the boat towards anchor and gun it forward, I leave it moving forward slightly in the hope of counter acting the current. I jump back in the anchor locker. The windless starts. I’m flooded with relief. We are going to get another chance to try and anchor.  I head back out so that we can approach the anchorage again.  I can hear Cindy calling the harbormaster and asking for help. I hear Paloma telling her the information she doesn’t know: “Yes we have AIS”. Paloma makes sure it’s on. I can hear them tell Cindy they can see us and that they could maybe send someone in an hour and half.  Okay I just have to get this boat anchored without help.  I plan to go in closer this time and leave the engine slightly in forward to try and counteract the current pulling us out.   Paloma and Cindy join me at the helm. We joke about being abandoned and wonder if we were too calm on the radio. Just as I am in position, the engine makes a funny noise. I have no revs and I have no control. Paloma says: “The engine doesn’t sound good, Mum” I don’t answer. I know I’ve lost the engine and I know that this is perhaps my only chance to anchor. I run to the front and hurl the chain down as fast as I can, maybe faster.  I run back to the helm. I turn the dead engine off. I call in a new mayday saying my situation has gotten worse, I am now without an engine. My mind is spinning, if we don’t hold I’m not sure what to do next.  Then another voice comes on the radio, it’s the Captain of the tanker anchored behind us. He has me change channels to 12 (the one the Naxos harbormaster monitors) He’s calm, helpful and optimistic just when I was running out of all of the above. He translates our situation to the harbormaster in Greek, when I tell him I have dropped the anchor but am not optimistic about it holding he says, “let’s see”. Most importantly, when I needed it most he is there and cares about my situation. Then even more miraculous than the kindness of Greek oil tanker captains, suddenly I realize that we’re not being dragged out to sea. I look at depth meter we are still in less than thirty feet of water. I look to Cindy for confirmation “We’re not moving, right?” She nods.  We stand transfixed by the depth meter, when it goes up we hold our breath, when it  moves back down we’re flooded with relief.  The tanker captain calls back, hardly believing it myself, I tell him I think we’re holding. He lets the coast guard know.  He tells me he’s due to leave soon and wants to know that I will be okay. I feel grateful all over again that there is someone who isn’t indifferent to our plight. I thank him profusely and tell him that we are going to be okay and I almost believe it.

Friday, August 12, 2011 4am

The wind is still blowing hard; I can’t believe we are actually holding.  I’m still keeping my depth meter vigil. It’s getting lighter and we can see Stray Cat now attached to red shiny speed boat.  They come into the bay and do big laps of it together. I connect to someone’s WIFI  (4am is apparently a good time to do this) I leave a message for James, which I know he won’t get until after 10am and I look up the forecast for the wind. It should ease up later in the day; I wish didn’t have to wait twelve hours but at least isn’t going to get worse.  I send Cindy to bed. Paloma and I stay on watch, drinking tea. Then she also passes out.

Friday, August 12, 2011 5:32am

Feeling lonely on watch and wanting to make last night’s events real to the outside world. I post on Facebook: Being swept out to sea @ 2am goes down as my worst night ever! The response is fairly immediate. It feels good to tell the story and talk to people outside. My body is still pretty sure that the danger is not over but telling the story helps my mind to start putting it in the past tense. I go and look at the anchor alot.  There is strange rope attached to it, and looking at it, I think I know why the engine stopped last night.  I stand staring at the depth meter like a trader watching a stock.  I see Stray Cat and its escort leave the bay and head towards the Naxos marina. I veto my own impulse to call them on the VHF; I wish them well in my head instead.  I take a photo of the sunrise because I’m so happy to see it, everything looks better in the daylight. The bright sun also makes the events of last night seem unreal, like a bad dream, I take a photo of my really dirty anchor mud covered feet, see it did really happen.

Friday, August 12, 2011 9:30am

I physic myself  up to go and look at the anchor. I put on a swimsuit and snorkel.  I can see the drama play at on the sea floor. There is a long drag mark from the point the anchor hit the sand until it finally hooked in a patch of seaweed. It’s really dug in but I float above it for a long time, watching the chain move, the anchor stays still. The rope is caught around the anchor is more than one place, I follow it, the other end is attached to a large sandbag. It’s a makeshift mooring of some kind, maybe one of the buoys marking the swimming areas, it is another casualty of last night and it must have dragged right in to our path. I swim to our propeller, my suspicion is confirmed, wrapped around the prop is part of the rope.

Friday, August 12, 2011 6pm

The rest of the day is spent feeling shell-shocked and watching the depth meter. We congratulate each other on being so calm and collected, for saving ourselves. We wonder if we sounded more distressed on the radio it would have helped. Cindy does a hilarious imitation of herself on the radio that sounds a lot like a very laconic Julie Kavner (the voice of Marge Simpson) giving a mayday.   We count our many miracles. It was a miracle that we didn’t hit anything on the way out; it was miracle that we got the anchor up twice and the biggest miracle of all was that the anchor held after the engine had been disabled by the stray rope.  The meltemi is easing up a little and I’m starting to believe we are going to stay were we are.  We decide it would be nice to get off the boat, see Cindy off and pick up James.

Friday, August 12, 2011 9pm

We bid farewell to Cindy at the dock but have to wait a while for James’ delayed ferry. We walked in to the he old market town to look for something to eat. We find a lovely little jewelry store. I buy us all something featuring the eye of Naxos.  I feel compelled to buy them. I joke with Paloma that it was a survivor’s gift, a medal, a trophy. There was something else as well.  I’ve gone through an intense experience, I feel changed but there’s nothing physically different about me. I want something physical, tangible evidence that I had lived through this.

Saturday, August 13th, 2011 6pm

We are in Naxos so that James can get his stitches out  (oh my we have been accident prone). We decide to see if we can find Stray Cat. We find her pretty quickly but now that we are standing in front of the boat, we hesitate. I’m worried they might be upset about the confusion that two boats calling maydays had caused. Of course they’re a lovely couple (he’s Canadian and she is French) and very happy to meet us.  We swap war stories. They were anchored in the main Naxos anchorage. They had slipped several times and then lost control of their windless and dragged on to the rocks, losing a rudder. The rest we had heard on the radio. She mentioned how calm she felt, how it all seemed like dream.  I had to laugh (not out loud) to myself, in our story we had cast her as the hysterical French woman. It made me wonder about the story I tell myself.  What did it  look like from the outside? Do I care?  This is what it felt like to me.  The Stray Cat couple is moving to Australia, we talked about Brisbane versus Perth. We all wish each other well and say again how happy we all are that everyone is safe and okay. We all agree that in the end that’s all that matters. Then the family green go to the movies.













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