We are barely recognisable, sheltering in our wet weather gear.
My attention is gripped by a doomed mission to extract a piece of blue fluff from a small knotted section of hair on the crown of my head. This tiny morsel the only relic of a hat lost to the sea while I worked on the bow that morning, bracing myself against the fierce wind, waves and the weight of 50 m of galvanised anchor chain. I now smirk at the irony of the loss, my RNLI beanie, their motto “Saving Lives at Sea” in my mind.
I lay in my cabin after a light, nourishing sleep reflective of the events of the last 10 hours. I have a slight sense of dampness at my extremities, feet hot with sweat and water soaked up from the saloon floor, thick hair in plaits still evaporating the last of the seawater with which it was involuntarily washed. Salt leaves a white crystalline dust over my whole exposed being; my hair, eyelashes and eyebrows sticky, my lips taste like the sea when I lick them. Small beads of water enter my cabin at the head of my berth, and through the ancient seal of my window where a bolt has sheared off. I can deal with these with much greater fortitude since Biscay.
My fight with the anchor chain amply echoes the events which led up to my current position. We had been anchored in a beautiful, quiet anchorage on the small, arid island of La Graciosa, Canary Islands. We had arrived after a week at sea and were gorging ourselves with time on land, ice creams and waves. A small anxiety gripped Max, as he had seen an increase in wind forecast, potentially putting Elixir into a compromising position. We made an enquiry in broken Spanish to the “Puerto Official” about moving to the marina. We were met with possible sympathy, but mostly a strict adherence to authority as it was highlighted that despite the many empty berths, we should have made a reservation 3 days in advance.
Resultantly, our only path for dealing with a wind that had built far higher than predicted overnight, was to leave the island to seek shelter on Lanzarote. Even if we had wanted to take our chances with the marina at La Graciosa, the wind- funnelled through the “acceleration zone” between the two islands- would have been an impossible upwind battle. The only way was out.
A slow and incredibly physical fight ensued to pull up the anchor and chain without the electric windlass. It was a delicate balance masterfully managed by Max as he negotiated a headwind pushing us back from the anchor, and the threat of the land being in our lee. A tug-of-war between the anchor on the sea bed and all the strength of myself and Harry was marked by sequential wins and losses to each side. Eventually we managed a system of directing Max on the helm to where the chain snaked along the floor, pulling up a little of it, wrapping it around the sturdy galvanised cleats, and feeding it back through the redundant windlass into the anchor locker. We were soaked through as we’d hastily only half dressed in our foul weather gear, Elixir’s bow offering no sympathy as she bounced over the mess of waves, buckets of cold saltwater soaking us with every bound.
Buckets of seawater were thrown across the cockpit as the wind swept the water straight off of the ocean’s surface.
We’d changed the Genoa for a smaller, thick foresail, and released just the smallest scrap to the wind. The gusts accepted this offering and soon powered Elixir forward out of the channel between the islands and into the open sea. Our prediction that the wind may slacken as we put distance between ourselves and the land was not fulfilled, and we spent the first hours fantasising about the luxury we would bargain for when we arrived to land. For me- a hot shower, for Lily- that first coffee. Dreams were quickly washed from us as waves continued to break over the port side of the boat, periodically bringing the situation back to reality. We thanked our blessings that it’s not nighttime.
Still no relief came as Harry put in a valiant fight on the helm. He grabbed my attention and pointed me towards the roll-up solar panel mounted on the spray hood. The wind had whipped under it and one corner of the panel was flapping violently in the gale. Since the conditions were in no way fit for the tow generator it was essential we did not lose one of our modest means of generating power. I braced myself against the spray hood and fought with my gloved hands to re-thread the string through the punched hole on the panel. There was no time for fumbling and I urged Lily to pull off my gloves and stow my hat- I wouldn’t make that mistake twice. Freed, my dexterous fingers made light work of re-lashing the panel and I hoped it would be enough to keep it down.
Harry mans the helm in very challenging conditions (video)
The wind rose and the fight continued, still the tiny slice of sail pulled Elixir forward, now with a juddering motion as if she were a vehicle on the last breaths of fuel. The mast was flexing under the strain of the wind, which was swiftly remedied by bringing the backstay to the stern. I noticed that my legs still juddered even after this, and my tightly clenched teeth gave away my fear more than my managed mind had. Deep breaths.
Eventually it was too much, the wind was insurmountable and it would be impossible to head into it to reach the sheltered marina in Lanzarote. Max made the decision to heave-to and I was filled with dread at the thought of remaining stationary in the inclement weather. The Genoa was backed, the steering wheel lashed and we hunkered down below. Naturally, my mind ran to worst-case-scenarios and thoughts of my anxious mother- how could I be doing this to her? I sat in a ball braced against the lower saloon berth and the table and imagined myself out of the situation. Then I came to bed.
We’re now heading downwind with hopes of reaching Tenerife. We have done no provisioning as we thought this would be a day sail, and are running short on stove fuel and toilet paper. The strength of my crew mates impresses and inspires me and I work to summon the energy to return the optimism. It may be a few more days of this yet.
The sea was littered with whitecaps, at some points it was more white than blue, the disturbed water looking like snow.
To find out the skipper’s perspective of this day, check out Max’s blog.