This happened just over ten years ago and the memories are still as still fresh as if it happened yesterday. Happy days!
There were four of us, Andy and Juliet, Yachtmaster instructor and experienced Day Skipper respectively, my wife Sam and I, both newly qualified, inexperienced Day Skippers. And there was Toria, a 34 foot Jeanneau Sun Odyssey, charted out of Split, Croatia.
The plan was to sail gently between the islands of the Kornati archipelago over a July week.
Everything started well, with clear blue skies and light winds barely warranting getting the sails up. We spent the first two days motoring until the sea breeze kicked in and then under sail until it dropped again in the evening. Lunch and swimming stops in deserted coves, dolphin watching and general relaxation were the order of the day.
So it was that we were well and truly relaxed by the time we reached our third night’s destination, a sheltered, south easterly facing bay on the island of Zlarin, due west of Sibenik and the entrance to the Krka National Park, our next day’s destination.
With a barely noticeable breeze from the north west, we dropped our anchor and took a stern line ashore in the inflatable. A brief trip to the top of the hill to watch the sunset was followed by a couple of chilled beers and a tuna and pasta dinner. Then, just as darkness began to fall, the breeze began to back and freshen. Within less than an hour it had picked up to a good four and was coming straight into the mouth of the bay, a full 180 degree shift.
Andy was concerned enough to set an anchor watch and, with the wind gusting 17 knots, asked to be called if it got much over 20. I got first watch, from 2300 to 0100.
It was a very short watch. Within minutes of settling myself down in the cockpit, the wind was beginning to howl in the rigging and a quick glance at the instruments showed it gusting 25 knots. I didn’t have to call Andy because he had already felt the anchor dragging and soon we were all on deck, dragging on life jackets and harnesses.
The first task was to clear the stern line and, as I was the most suitable volunteer, I soon found myself in the tender, pulling my way along the warp towards an already threatening looking shoreline. Since our first trip ashore, the seas had built to the extent that any attempt to get ashore to untie the warp would almost certainly shred or at least overwhelm the inflatable. A brief shouted discussion resulted in a decision to cut the warp.
This was where I made a potentially disastrous mistake, I assumed that I would be able to cut the warp and keep hold of the end attached to Toria. Wrong. Never attempt to cut a loaded warp. I no sooner touched the blade of my knife to the nylon than, bang, it was gone, flown away into the night.
With the glorious clarity of hindsight, I know I should have tied the painter onto the warp with a rolling hitch, but even that might have been a mistake and resulted in the tender being swamped. We should have abandoned that warp altogether.
So there I was, paddling – the oars did not fit the rowlocks on the inflatable, but that’s another story – against a 25 knot wind to try to regain Toria.
It was a futile effort and, seeing that I was just exhausting myself, Andy shouted for me to get ashore. Luckily, a few meters further inland from where the warp had been anchored, there was a tiny little inlet in the rocks, just sufficient to take the inflatable and I was able to haul myself out onto dry land. Thankfully it was a baking hot wind and, after securing the tender, all I had to do was wait.
And that was when Toria’s stern light began to disappear slowly into the darkness. With no means of communication, I had no way of knowing that Andy and the rest of the crew were struggling with warps over the side and taking great care recovering the anchor cable. All I could see was them vanishing into the night. It looked as if Andy was going to stand out to sea and either call for help or come back for me in the morning, so I was just resigning myself to a night in the open when I saw a glimmer of red, Toria’s port light, soon followed by her starboard green.
I discovered later that Andy had swum right up to the end of the bay earlier in the evening and had discovered that there was adequate depth all the way to the beach. Unfortunately there was no searchlight on the boat nor a powerful torch, so he found himself conning Toria towards a lee shore by guess and by God and with only a little help from the glimmer of my head-torch in the pitch darkness.
As soon as her starboard light drew level with me, I slid the inflatable into the water and paddled hell for leather for Toria’s side.
Once on board, we tied off the painter as hard up against the stern as we could and made a careful 180 degree turn before motoring out into the open sea.
By the time we reached the mouth of the bay, the wind was gusting an unhealthy 35 knots and we were already pitching uncomfortably into the increasingly heavy seas.
There was only one light visible at that time, a tiny glimmer hard on our port bow which we reckoned to be the lighthouse on the northern tip of Drvenik island.
Andy asked for a volunteer to go below and man the chart plotter. Reckoning my stomach was as much up for it as anyone’s, I volunteered, partly to make up for my warp cutting error.
Despite having completed both the shore based and practical elements of the Day Skipper course, that was the first time I have ever come face to face with a chart plotter in anger and, at first glance, in the dark and in a heavily pitching boat in the middle of a storm, I didn’t feel all that confident.
Luckily, once I had worked out how to get the thing out of stand-by mode and worked out how to work the zoom in, zoom out buttons, I managed to construct a course to get us out into clear water to the west of Dvainka island.
Next thing was to try and identify some of the lights that were being shouted down to me from the cockpit. Despite having completed a successful night passage from Southampton to Gosport barely three weeks before, the Croatian chart notation proved too much to decipher. The only thing I could determine was the frequency and flash duration of each light within our circle of visibility, and the colour of the light. But it quickly became apparent that lights which should have been on our bow according to the chart plotter were instead on our beam and others that should have been visible just didn’t seem to exist at all. It was only when I zoomed right in tight on the plotter that I could perceive any movement at all in the tiny boat icon and convince myself that the machine was in fact functioning.
Andy told me later that we were barely making two and a half to three knots into the teeth of the gale for the first half hour or so and that later, once we started powering diagonally into the wind, the angle of the bow was so offset into the wind that all my angles were at least forty five degrees out.
Anyway, onwards we steamed, the wind howling in the rigging and the bow crashing into ever deeper troughs with a series of bangs that threatened to jar the teeth right out of my head (they did in fact dislodge an entire bulkhead in the bows of Toria, but we only discovered that the following day). Although it was as hot as a sauna down in that saloon with all the hatches dogged and the movement of the boat at times quite terrifying, I reckon I had the best of it that night because I couldn’t see the two metre plus white capped swells roaring down on the boat.
We plugged on for two hours towards the sheltered bay we had earlier identified on the chart, Grebastica, which conveniently face north west and would, we hoped, provide adequate protection from the gale.
Andy had selected Grebastica as having the most trouble-free approach, all other options involving tricky pilotage between islands or around rocks or shallows. So it was with a rising flood of relief that the little boat icon at last approached the sheltered southern shore of the bay and I could feel the movement of the boat easing. Andy conned Toria to within fifty feet of the steeply forested shore using the headlights of cars on the coast road, the wind easing with every foot we crept in under the lee. Luckily, as with most of the shorelines we had encountered, the bottom shoaled as steeply as the land rose above water. Soon the anchor was down and Toria settled back on her cable.
Seldom was a more heartfelt sigh of relief uttered. As soon as we were certain that the anchor wasn’t dragging and that the boat was in no immediate danger, we all got our heads down. End of adventure, or so we thought…
I can’t have been asleep more than two hours when a hand shook my shoulder gently, it was Andy. ‘I think you ought to come and take a look at this’, he said, leading the way up the companionway. As I climbed out of my pit, I could see a deep red glow though one of the saloon ports and was fully expecting a spectacular dawn as I lifted my head to deck level. What I saw instead I will never forget to my dying day. The entire hillside to the east of the boat was wreathed in fire, monstrous swirling tongues of flame rearing into the superheated air, scattering blazing fragments of forest hundreds of feet into the night sky. The fire must have been nearly a mile away, but I could feel the heat on my face already as I stood, rooted to the spot by the terrifying spectacle. It was only then that I noticed the roar and the sharp cracks of explosions as trees burst apart in the heat, showering flaming fragments into the sea.
We can only have been standing there for a minute or two when a hideous realisation dawned, the fire was heading our way. No sooner was the decision taken to retreat back out into the storm than a giant tongue of flame reared over the intervening ridge and set fire to the area immediately in front of us. Within seconds the whole hillside above the boat was ablaze from the summit ridge right down to the shoreline. As I hurried forward to raise the anchor – praying that the anchor winch which had failed earlier that day didn’t do the same again – the heat of the flames on my naked skin was almost unbearable and I could feel my eyebrows singeing. I wondered if we hadn’t left it a little too late.
I pressed down on the control button until my thumb hurt, desperately trying to ignore the white hot fragments drifting around my head. After what felt like a year and a half, the anchor was on the roller and we were reversing away from the shoreline as fast as we could. Even as we did so, blazing chunks of debris pattered into the sea where Toria had been lying only moments before.
Once clear of immediate danger, our next task was to escape the rolling bank of impenetrable, and almost certainly un-breathable, smoke that was rapidly rolling towards us from the east. Unfortunately, the only way to go was back out into the storm which didn’t appear to have diminished one bit. Andy took us as far away from the smoke as possible without leaving the shelter of the hills and there we stooged around to wait for the first light of dawn.
As we watched, the blue flashing lights of fire crews on the coast road gradually retreated from the leading edge of the fire before giving up altogether and hurrying off to warn the occupants of a village out on the headland which lay in the direct path of the fire.
Soon we could make out the loom of the surrounding hills and islands and, watching the progress of the fire all the while, we rolled out a scrap of Genoa and headed west towards the open sea and the island of Zirje.
With the gale on her port quarter, Toria settled into a long, swooping ride, only occasionally taking water over the bow and we all wedged ourselves into the cockpit as comfortably as possible. Juliet handed round a packet of biscuits, but we were all too parched to swallow.
The sun eventually clawed its way above the smoke and turned the roiling sea to gold. What a difference daylight makes.
The fire was still crawling inexorably towards the village on the headland, now far astern, and we all offered up a prayer for all those people and for their homes.
Suddenly, half a mile on the starboard bow, we spotted a yacht rolling heavily, its bare mast whipping across the sky. She was plainly lying beam on to the seas and not under power. Barely a couple of miles to seaward of Zlarin, she was obviously in trouble. We gybed round and headed towards her, hollering as soon as we were close enough to be heard. Her washboards were in and there were no signs of life or occupation so we assumed she had broken away from a mooring somewhere to the south. However, she was a danger to navigation and so Andy put out a mayday which was picked up and answered with reassuring speed.
Split radio informed us that she was a ‘known wreck’ and thanked us for the message. As there was no way of getting a line on her, we had to sail away and leave her to her fate, a pretty little boat that would soon be matchwood.
And that was that really. Two and a half hours of exciting sailing brought us to the northern tip of Zirje and around to the sheltered harbour of Muna. Never had a dusty little village and an old concrete quay looked more welcoming. We moored, made some strong coffee and luxuriated in the calm before turning in for the third time in eight hours.
The rest of the holiday passed most enjoyably and without incident.
© Dave Hermelin 2018