Gale at Sea

Adra, Almerimar, Herradura, Motril, Sailing, Storm

After Caleta de Velez, we motorsailed in light airs about 17 nautical miles to anchor off a beach near a small town called Herradura. The anchorage was slightly rolly, but we were happy to not be paying for a marina, and the beach looked much nicer than the dirty harbours did.

Peaceful evening at Ensenada de la Herradura.

During the night, the swell had become progressively worse and by morning the boat was rolling unpleasantly. The swell seemed to be working its way around the corner that was supposed to protect us from it. We raised anchor and went to look for a better anchorage, or failing that proceed to Adra, where we heard of an unfinished marina with potentially free berthing.

It was mid May. In the distance is the Sierra Nevada, which is Spanish for snow-covered mountain.

Winds were light and we took a passing glance at the little marina on the other side of the Herradura headland (Marina del Este), but it was very small and apparently only for small motorboats. Two Peñóns lay ahead, a type of big rocky outcrop, often with a castle on top. Neither provided much shelter from the round-the-corner swell and that was all the potential spots this part of the coast had to offer.

This rock offered no shelter.

We passed Motril, a large commercial harbour with a small marina. The harbour was open to the SE, where our swell was coming from, and the pilot book warned about uncomfortable conditions inside and limited visitor berths. We wanted to head to Adra anyways. At this point, conditions seemed to pick up a bit, but not worryingly so.

Just before Motril, trucks were carrying sand to the beach.

We headed onwards to Adra. On the way there, the wind was seriously picking up. The forecast had suggested a day of light airs, but clearly that wasn't the case. By the time we were nearing Adra, we had the washboards in, waves were coming over the bow and the ride was getting quite unpleasant.

The seas had picked up very fast and were very short and steep, something we had been warned about in the Mediterranean. Apparently it has to do with the much higher salinity and a different surface tension. The waves were perhaps 2-3m at this point, nothing special in the Atlantic and we had sailed in larger seas there with little trouble. But Atlantic waves were much gentler and further apart. Here the waves came in very short succession, with very abrupt edges.

We realized that since the entrance to Adra was facing into the waves and was only a bit over 5m deep, we couldn't safely enter. The seafloor getting shallower near the coast would kick up an even bigger surf than the 3m waves we already had, and with our 2m deep keel we could well run aground in the trough of a wave. There was also a sharp right turn to make right inside, to get behind the shelter of a wall. If we were picked up by a wave and surfed into the harbour, we could very well miss that turn and end up on the rocks.

As we were contemplating this, a fishing trawler was passing us, heading for Adra. They were doing a close pass to the right and in front of us, crew gesturing for us to follow them, clearly intending to guide us in. A kind thing to do, but we had to wave them off and continue on, as it was better to face the weather at sea than to risk thumping the keel in the ground or being smashed on the breakwater.

The Drama develops.

The next harbour was Almerimar. Their entrance was facing the opposite way and would permit us get out of the seas and enter in sheltered waters. But having approached Adra, Almerimar was now straight upwind from us. The alternative was to turn around and head downwind, which surely would've made for a much more comfortable ride. But the next safe harbour that way would've been all the way back in Caleta de Velez, more than 50 miles back where we came from. Almerimar was only a bit over 10 miles ahead. We decided to head that way.

We turned dead upwind under engine. The sails would do no good and we did not want to waste time tacking upwind with no certain forecast of what was coming. Conditions were seriously rough now. The wind was averaging above 40 knots and gusting 45 - top gust recorded was 47 knots. Waves were probably over 3m now and I had to hand steer to negotiate each one. The autopilot had been doing a good job so far, but it had no eyes to see the waves, and whenever the boat went head on over a wave, it would fall down the next trough with a big bang that made the boom clang and the rig shake frighteningly.

At least it was warm and sunny, which made the whole scenario even more bizarre. Waves were shooting over the deck and all the way up the windscreen, where they found the holes where the control lines pass through to the rope clutches. We had to block them with towels. The water had lubricated the sliding hatch and it kept trying to slide open - Elvyra was sitting under the sprayhood and holding it shut. Her other job was to clean my sunglasses regularly of encrusted salt, as with the warm weather, the water was rapidly drying, leaving salty crusts behind, obscuring my vision. I needed the glasses to see, as the wind driving saltwater into my face was quite painful and I couldn't keep my eyes open without them. Occasionally I took them off to give to Elvyra to clean, often causing me to miss a wave and the boat would fall down the edge and slam into the trough. When waves slammed into the bow, the Rocna anchor's wide fluke would rise up under the force of the water and smash into the pulpit, trying to dislodge it. Drama!

For obvious reasons, there are no pictures of this part of our voyage. So here's some funny labeling I discovered in a Chinese supermarket somewhere in Spain.

We were going slower and slower. The engine was at full throttle, but by the time we navigated around the shallows prior to turning northwest into Almerimar, we were doing less than 3 knots over ground - normally at full throttle the boat goes just shy of 8 knots. To avoid crashing into the wave valleys, I had to turn the boat about 20° before reaching the crest of each large wave, then straighten back up to face the next one, slowing us down further. At one point I turned around and saw we had lost most of the contents of our fruit net, which hangs under the solar arch at the stern of the boat. The cover from the lifesling bag had been torn off as well and flown away. The dinghy seats were trying to escape. I went aft to lash them on once, but they escaped again and I decided they'd just have to fend for themselves. Luckily they managed to hang on.

Once we passed the shallows, avoiding the breaking waves there whilst eyeing the depth sounder carefully, we could turn northeast towards Almerimar, which made for a more rolly, but less bouncy ride, and we were going a bit faster again. We had been hand-steering and bashing upwind for many hours and it was going to get dark soon. Reaching the lee of the breakwater at Almerimar was heaven. The seas instantly disappeared and we only had to figure out how to dock in 40 knot winds. We circled in the entrance, Elvyra deploying lines and fenders while I radioed the marina.

After a while, I got an answer and two marineros came to wave at us - they probably hadn't expected any visitors in this weather. They very kindly waved us towards a berth between some buildings, where the wind died down to under 20 knots, making berthing trouble-free. We tied the boat up and then did something we don't normally do after arriving somewhere - we hugged each other.

Salt everywhere, but happy to have arrived.

People from a neighbouring boat looked at us in disbelief, so we asked if we could borrow their shower keys. We checked the boat and showered the salt off. Damage was minimal. Apart from some tragically lost fruit and a superflous cover gone from the lifesling bag, the exterior handles from the sail locker hatch on the foredeck had been ripped off and washed away, and there was a small puddle on the floor in the forward cabin where the Dorade vent had been overwhelmed - it was the the closeable type, but nobody had thought to go below to close it. I had remembered to close the sink seacocks, so we avoided the fountain up the sink scenario this time. We mopped up and fell into bed exhausted. Elvyra's phone has a "fitbit" like step counter. It counted about 23'000 steps - while we were sitting on the boat.

In hindsight, I think we made the right decision. Broad reaching 50 miles back to Caleta would've seen us sailing through the night, which could've gotten quite exhausting in these conditions and we had no idea how bad it would get or how long it would last. The gale blew for several days while we huddled happily in Almerimar. Probably should've realized we wouldn't be able to enter Adra a bit sooner, which would've given us a better angle to Almerimar. We definitely need to add some kind of latch to the sliding hatch, so it stays shut in such conditions. On the upside, we gained valuable experience and faith in the boat and in what it can handle. The engine deserves praise too, for pushing us along at full throttle for hours without issue.