When cruising guru Nigel Calder grounded in the entrance to a river in Portugal the rudder was damaged so badly he might have sunk
We hit the sandspit at something over five 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 north-east corner of a small island. Modest Atlantic swells were working around the island and running into each other from opposing directions over the sandspit, creating 3ft breaking seas which were hitting us at bow and stern. It was too rough to launch the dinghy and set a kedge anchor.
I knew we had deeper water to port. 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 upwards. We were turning as each wave broke against our Malö 46, 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 favourable current coming across the sandspit, so I was reasonably confident that so long as the engine did not violently overheat we could eventually power off.
As with all Malös, Nada is exceptionally strongly built. I wasn’t worried about the hull, but 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. The rudder is designed such that the lower section is sacrificial and I was hoping this would tear away before irreparable harm was done.
Our head came around. This put us broadside to the competing wavetrains. We were rolled down to the gunwales alternately to port and starboard. The sandbank was to starboard.
The edge of it was steep enough for the turn of our bilge to be aground in the wave troughs (roughly two feet of water beneath us), with exposed sand visible immediately abeam of us.
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And then the next wave would come in from that direction, breaking over the sandspit, sweeping up onto the side deck and over the dodger, and around the cockpit coaming into the cockpit, dumping sand behind our bulwarks, and flipping us over so now the port side was down.
One of these waves dumped a flood of water through the cabin top ventilator in the aft heads 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 Nada.
We had 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.” She went to grab them. From below, Mike yelled: “Nigel, you’re really messing up my breakfast!”
Edge of the sandspit
We were slowly crashing and banging along and away from the face of the sandspit into deeper water. A passing fishing boat was headed towards us. With considerable skill, it rapidly manoeuvred close to our bow. Terrie, my wife, went forward to catch a line, hanging onto lifelines and rigging as Nada lurched from side to side.
The only rope the fishing boat had on board to throw to us 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 their line across and secured; with an additional pull we were in deep water. 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.
The first task was to check the bilges. 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 clogged!
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. I pulled up the suction hose and strum box for the bilge pump, cleaned the strum box and put the pump back in service.
The breakfast Mike had been getting himself consisted of a hard-boiled egg and buttered bread. We found the egg white in one sink, the egg yolk in another, the butter upside down on the cabin sole and his coffee cup down the back of the galley stove. Remarkably, none of the crockery in the galley cupboards appeared to be broken and the wine bottles in the bilges were 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, enabling us to haul out if necessary. The conditions offshore were reasonably calm with light winds, and not at all threatening. We had an easy three-hour motorsail into a calm anchorage.
I checked the bilge repeatedly. We periodically had some additional small amounts of salt water. I pulled up sections of cabin sole from all the way forward aft to the engine room, and checked through-hulls, and found no leaks.
I suspected the seal on the rudder tube was damaged, but to access this we had to unload a large locker under the helm seat, and then remove the floor of the locker. Our bilge pumps (we have a small one, and a high-volume damage-control one) could keep up with any conceivable leak from this seal so I decided the inspection could wait until Baiona.
We anchored at Baiona and unloaded the helm seat locker. I pulled up the locker floor and was shocked at the sight: the entire reinforcing structure for the rudder tube was destroyed. The rudder and its tube were flexing in the hull.
The Malö 46 has a partial skeg with a rudder bearing at the base of the skeg. For the rudder to flex in this manner the lower bearing has to have failed, or the skeg has 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 Malö I had ever heard of sinking, which went down in the Indian Ocean after precisely this kind of damage.
Rather than take time to dive on the rudder, I called my insurer, to approve an immediate haul-out, and the marina to arrange a lift. Both were terrific. 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 been coming in. 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?
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 which 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 proceeded slowly, more or less following the range markers, and touched bottom. We backed off and anchored behind the island.
We launched the dinghy and explored the bar to find a suitable route into the river. This took us somewhat to the west of the range, close to the edge of a steeply sided sandspit at the north-east corner of the island, and then a little to the east of the range. The 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.
Two hours after low tide we entered without problems. 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 in the summer of 2017 in moderate swell conditions, finding substantial turbulence off the tip of the sandspit caused by seas working around the island from both the north and south, but entered and left without incident using the same saved tracks, and adding a couple more.
On 2 June 2018 we returned to the Rio Minho with significantly more swell than on the previous two occasions. We entered cautiously using the tracks from 2017 and found the same turbulence off the tip of the sandspit, and depths as in the previous year. We exited on 4 June without incident.
We returned again on 19 June in similar swell conditions, and entered 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 four-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.
I noted the turbulence ahead of us seemed to be even worse but I was on mental autopilot, simply following – and trusting – the seven tracks we had already established, and assuming we had more than enough water.
We crashed into the sandspit at a point that put us in the centre of the previous seven tracks, and almost exactly where we’d passed with 3m of water on 4 June – in a couple of weeks the sandspit had extended by around 30m.
It was not until I put dates on the various tracks, a week or so later, that I realised we’d 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 saw.
My chart tracking system keeps a log of every saved track. You can see clearly where we hit the sandspit and the 30m or so of pounding before we cleared the end of it. A day later, after Nada was safely ashore and we’d all had time to settle down, I asked the crew how long they thought we’d been on the sandspit.
The estimates varied from 10 to 20 minutes; in fact it was between four-and-a-half and six minutes. Time slows down when you are in mildly terrifying conditions!
We were lucky. A couple 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, and in fact had this been a more lightly constructed boat I do not believe it could have survived.
Nada is repairable; 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, with caution, explored many poorly charted and otherwise navigationally dubious areas.
We have run aground numerous times, but have taken care to ensure this does not happen with any seas running or in conditions that threaten the boat. This is the first time we have grounded with waves. It is likely the last time I am permitted to explore a river the cruising guide recommends avoiding!
What I did wrong
I ignored my instincts, which told me the seas ahead were trouble and were likely breaking over shallow water. Instead, based on the previous tracks, I persuaded myself we had plenty of water and that this was just some effect of competing wave trains and tidal stream. I was slow to react when we first hit. I assumed we would be momentarily into deeper water and would just have a couple of bumps.
I completely forgot we have a powerful bow thruster (because I rarely use it). This would have pushed our head around and away from the sandspit considerably faster than I did it with the engine, maybe significantly reducing the damage.
I was totally focused on getting Nada off and not on crew safety (the two are closely correlated, but not completely). Terrie should not have gone forward without a lifejacket, and Kate had to remind me to get them out.
What we did right
Everyone remained calm in really difficult and sometimes frightening conditions. As soon as I realised there was no path forward, I rapidly figured out a means of getting Nada into deeper water and made a reasonable determination that we could do this without losing the boat. Terrie saw the passing fishing boat and without hesitation took action to secure a tow.
About the author
Nigel Calder is best known as the author of the indispensable Bible of boat maintenance, Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual (Adlard Coles, £35). He has also recently published Shakedown Cruise (Adlard Coles, £15). In it, he says, he: ‘details our first long cruise 30 years ago with a one-year-old and Terrie pregnant, with all our screw-ups and hard-won lessons!’