After more than two months at sea, a series of errors left solo sailor Paul Heiney precariously anchored off the Azores with few options

False hope

Darkness fell as we bounced over the growing seas. My attention was suddenly taken by the GPS which was showing our direction of downwind drift.

I looked at it, then looked at the chart. We were drifting directly towards the western most of the islands, Flores.

Wild Song under tow from pilot boat. Photo Neil King

I scrabbled for the pilot book, looked it up, and saw on the western side of the island a bay with shelter from the east off the village of Fajä Grande. Perfect! And I didn’t have to do a thing about it except spend the night drifting, then hoist some sail and pass north of Flores and into a flat sea.

From there, sail down to that sheltered bay, beat into shelter, get the anchor set, row ashore for diesel and wait for the wind to drop. I thought all my problems were now behind me.

Inevitably, the islands were surrounded in thick mist and Flores did not appear until I was less than a mile off. It was now midday.

As I rounded the northern end of the island, I believed shelter to be surely within my grasp. The water ahead looked invitingly smooth and I could even see the small promontory which gave the anchorage shelter. The big plan was working out.

Then ‘BANG!’ Like a shot from a canon, a terrific blast of wind got hold of the boat, pushing her over as far as I have ever seen her go.

It was a katabatic wind whose spiteful gusts tumble down the lee sides of mountains, accelerating as they fall. They are the nastiest kind of wind for when they drop on a boat, she heels. But in heeling, instead of spilling wind you are presenting more sail to the wind and matters get worse.

I let fly, went down to the third reef as quickly as I could, and rolled the headsail. Then the gust vanished and I was in total calm.

This lasted for five minutes before another blast, stronger than the first, hit us. I needed to tack, but in the calm the boat had no way on her, and so the bow blew instantly downwind, and by the time she was up on the wind again and gathering some speed, the wind fell back to calm and no progress had been made.

The frustration cannot be described. I could see the village, the small pier, a man out for a stroll, but I could not close the shore.

When it goes from gale force to calm every five minutes, beating is not easy when you are on your own, handling sheets, winding winches, and gripping the wheel.

Alongside at last.

Tacking was almost impossible too, and on many occasions I could not get her through the wind and had to resort to wearing her round by gybing.

It was during one of these gybes that the wind unexpectedly stiffened and shifted. It caught me aback.

The boom crashed over and the mainsail split from luff to leech, and just above the third reef so there was no part of it that I could set. I scrambled onto the coach roof to stow the tatters and noticed on the port quarter something grey and flabby swimming alongside us.

A seal, or a dolphin? No! It was the Avon dinghy which had been washed off the deck the night before by that crashing wave and which I had been unwittingly towing ever since, out of sight just beneath the surface.

No wonder the old girl wouldn’t tack! I cut it free and wished it well on its way towards America.

Westward drift

Which was roughly the direction I was now heading. I was quite safe, and although I didn’t think of it at the time I could have set the storm trysail and eventually I would have got back to the Azores.

But impatience is a dangerous companion and land looked so close. I decided to beat inshore once again.

I tacked till my arms were turned to jelly, the tendons in my elbows screamed with pain, and I felt I could beat no further.

It was now late afternoon and darkness was falling. I’d had nothing to eat or drink for 12 hours, not wanting to trust the wheel to the electric autopilot with fading batteries, the wind vane being too tricky to use for short tacking.

Eventually I edged inland, not to where I wanted to be but I hoped close enough to gain shelter. I rushed forward, took the brake off the windlass, and nothing happened. Nothing!

Weeks of motion had caused the chain to tangle itself and the anchor remained in the bow roller, mocking me. Another gust came through and we were off out to sea again. I have never felt more depressed.

The process of working my way back to shore, very slow now with headsail and staysail only, began all over again. It had just gone dark when the anchor finally rattled out and hit the bottom, bringing up the boat with an almighty bang.

There was a single light on the shore and I watched it like a hawk knowing that if it shifted then I was in trouble. It stayed exactly where it should have been, and we were well and truly anchored.

It was time to take stock once again. Too tired even to boil another kettle, I ripped the lid off a tin of cold rice pudding and spooned it down and felt revived.

My position was still not ideal. If the anchor dragged it would have been a disaster, and with insufficient power in the batteries to work the windlass I doubted I could raise it in what was still a Force 7.

I was also mindful that if the wind went back to its default westerly position I was on a lee shore. I put out a call on VHF hoping a fishing boat might give me a tow to the main harbour on the east side of island. There was no reply.

Then a ping alerted me to my mobile phone, which had come to life. I always have Falmouth Coastguard on speed dial and I was soon on the receiving end of their unmatchable professional assistance.

Ten minutes later, the phone rang. It was the Azores Coastguard who had arranged a tow. ‘When would I like it?  Tomorrow? What time?’ It was like booking a black cab.

The following morning a pilot boat was specially launched, a crew of harbour workers gathered, and by noon they were with me. It took four strong lads no less than 45 minutes to haul 60m of chain.

The tow rope broke six times in the three hour passage round to Lajes, but the adventure was not quite over. That small marina, possibly the most optimistic marina ever built, is open to the north-east, from where the gale had been blowing for days.

Inside, it felt no more sheltered than it had in the anchorage. The friendly young harbour master later told me that during the previous winter, a huge north-easterly swell had lifted the pontoons off the tops of the piles. Even so, it felt like heaven to be alongside.

It was two days before the wind moderated and I spent every minute of them enjoying the sounds and smells of dry land, the calling of birds, the scent of grass, the smell of cooking drifting from village kitchens.

A chap came up to me, an English-speaking resident, who said he’d seen me from the land tacking furiously a couple of days before. “I wondered at the time if you needed any help,” he said to me, “but you rather looked as though you were enjoying yourself.”

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. False hope
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