Robbie Didn’t Make It!

Very happy to be sailing again!

Kerry’s blog left off with us about to depart from Port Napoléon. There looked to be a fairly good three-day weather window starting on Tuesday 4th July, so we planned to set off for Nice then, and thought we could do it in three days, with stops at anchorages along the way. We had no idea what to expect as this was our first time on the French south coast and all we had known so far was the very industrial areas around Port Napoleon. 

We sailed past some spectacular scenery.

Before we set off, we spent some time provisioning with plenty of food (difficult to get to shops when at anchor) and Fraser also serviced the engine. This meant the usual chaos of tools all over the place and lots of oil spills. Kerry normally hides in a corner for all this as she knows to stay out of the way! Fraser slightly overfilled the gear box so a bit more oil was spilt as he tried to suck it out again with a wee syringe and then the job was done.

Different boat job, same scattering of tools everywhere. There’s not much space on a small boat, and it’s hard enough to work in this heat, even first thing in the morning.

It was a 7am start on Tuesday, although skipper Kerry kindly allowed breakfast to be taken before we set off. Probably very wise as a fed crew is a happy crew — the first rule of sailing. There was a nice breeze for most of the day, so we managed to sail or motor sail most of the way. The marked channel is narrow coming out of Port Napoleon, with a lot of commercial shipping so we needed to keep a good look out, until we rounded a shallow sand spit and were into open water. The sand spit had two masts sticking out of it from a sunken ketch. A stark reminder of what happens if you drift out of the channel here!

This sad sight is a reminder to all sailors that the sea can be unforgiving. A beautiful ketch, once someone’s pride and joy, being gradually consumed by the sand.

Once we were out of the commercial port the scenery became picturesque and typically Mediterranean, with steep sea cliffs and little islands around the headlands. We had about a 6-to-7-hour cruise to our planned anchorage, and were really enjoying being back at sea. It was a very different sea to the one we left behind at the English Channel in terms of colour and clarity. Also, it lacked the big swells that we had encountered on the first part of our trip — thank goodness!

The rock formations along this part of the coast are unusual.

It was time to get the sails up as the wind was increasing and we were keen to switch the engine off for a while. As we sailed out of the bay, we realised that we would need to gybe (pronounced jibe) the boat to get onto the collect course. This is a risky manoeuvre as care has to be taken to avoid the boom whipping across the boat as the wind catches it. The gybe all went smoothly, and Fraser went to secure a ‘gybe preventer’ (a rope that holds the boom against an accidental gybe). Kerry asked if it was ok to switch on the autopilot and Fraser said to go ahead, but before he had secured the gybe preventer. The autopilot decided to do something strange and steered us straight into a ‘crash gybe’ (out of control and very violent) before Kerry could correct the course. The boom whipped across with terrific force, but luckily nothing broke. The crew were somewhat shaken though, and realised that their sailing skills had become a little rusty since the canals!

Our first overnight anchorage, in the beautiful Calanque de Sormiou.

We spotted what we thought could only be a sunfish. These are quite rare in the Mediterranean, but we could not think what else it could be as they are very characteristic. They have a weird shape for a fish and almost look like just a head without the body. They tend to swim near the surface so can be spotted by sailors. Unfortunately, we were past it before photos could be taken. It is actually the largest boney fish in the world, so we were very excited about it. Amazingly we spotted another one the next day too!

A few other people had the same idea as us. We were surprised it wasn’t busier in July, but there’s a new law out this year, barring boats over 12m in length from anchoring in the calanques. Despite this, we were still one of the smallest boats there, with several huge boats with skippers who apparently hadn’t read the news about restrictions.

We planned to anchor in one of the Calanques just to the east of Marseilles. These are deep, cliff-sided inlets that can provide good shelter from the waves and wind, so long as the wind is not blowing directly into them. The wind for that night was mainly from the west and the Calanque de Sormiou, where we chose to go, faced southeast, so hopefully we would be well protected. We had not anchored much before in Barberry and had never actually spent a night on her at anchor, so we were a little anxious about getting it right.

A giant catamaran (definitely >12m!) anchored way too close to us after failing to get purchase several times, dragging up clods of seagrass with each attempt. Fraser’s expression says it all.

There were a few boats in the anchorage already when we arrived so some of the best spots were taken. It was also quite deep for anchoring with nowhere less than about 10m. When anchoring, it is best to let out about 4 times as much chain as there is water depth, which for us meant 40m of chain. We were very glad of our electric windlass that we had recently fitted, as otherwise all that chain would have needed to be retrieved by hand. We had also bought some fancy headsets so we could easily communicate between bow (where Fraser and the anchor were) and stern (where Kerry and the engine controls were). Alas, we found that one of the headset had flat batteries after accidentally turning itself on in its storage case, so we had to resort to good old shouting and hand gesturing! 

View to seaward from the anchorage.

Kerry crept Barberry into the shallower water as Fraser monitored the seabed for signs of sand for good anchor holding (a lot of the sea floor is covered in sea grass, which offers very poor holding and incidentally is home for sea horses and food for sea turtles, so needs to be protected from anchors). When it was shallow enough, he spotted a clear patch of sand and dropped the anchor while Kerry stopped the boat and let it drift backwards with the wind as the chain was paid out. The boat needs to move backwards, otherwise the chain tends to land in a big heap on top of the anchor and would not hold. Job nicely done, so we could relax — or so we thought. We realised that we had let out so much chain that we were getting close to hitting another boat behind us, so up the anchor came again, and we had another go. 

Faulty windlass, showing the casting fault in the casing that allowed gearbox oil to leak out.

As Fraser operated the windlass, he noticed a patch of oil on top of it. Not good. It seemed that there was a small hole in the casing — a manufacturing defect that had not previously been noticed. That was depressing. It would need to be replaced, as we planned to do lots of anchoring in the next part of the trip. How on earth could we get a windlass that weighs over 20kg, to a windlass shop to change it for a new one? Oh well, at least the anchor seemed to be holding, so we decided to cheer ourselves up with a swim.

Not sure what species these fish were, but they were quite big with huge fins that made us think of flying fish

The swim was, shall we say, interesting. We had never actually swum off Barberry before as it had always been too cold, but now the sea looked really inviting as we watched fish swim below us. Anyway, we were keen to swim out to the anchor and have a look to see if it was set well in the sand. Kerry went first, being more resistant to cold water than Fraser, but just before she jumped in the water, she told Fraser that she was not certain she could use the ladder to get out. Before Fraser could object, she jumped in whilst declaring, “I guess we’ll find out!”

There’s nothing to beat a fair wind and a calm sea, especially in the Med.

It turned out the water was colder than expected, so Kerry made a panicky dash back to the ladder. Now a ladder on a boat is not like a normal ladder. It has hinge allowing it to swing down into the water, but the hinge also meant that, as Kerry tried to push with her feet to get up the ladder, the whole thing just swung under the boat and she couldn’t get any purchase. She tried pulling with her arms, but to no avail. She then got Fraser to set up a rope as a handhold, but that was no good either. At this point Fraser realised that we were in quite a predicament, and he couldn’t think of a way to retrieve his skipper from the water.

The anchorage starting to fill up. We were glad we’d got there early.

Kerry announced that she would swim to the beach, but it was a very long way away and Fraser was not happy that it was safe. He suggested that she swim to the closer, rocky shore while he attempted to launch the dingy to rescue her.

We also use Google Maps to research our anchorages, as the satellite photographs are a useful guide to where the sandy patches are.

So, Fraser hurriedly jumped into the dingy and rowed after Kerry, while trying to remember how to steer — he had not rowed for a long time. Kerry reached a jagged inlet and scrambled onto some rocks that were a couple of feet below the surface. Fraser edged the dingy towards her but then realised she was surrounded by very sharp rock outcrops, the sort that might burst a dingy. A burst dingy and a Kerry who could not get back into Barberry would be quite a serious matter! As he cautiously moved forward, he realised that the swell was pushing him uncontrollably towards the rocks. It didn’t help that Kerry then announced that she was not entirely sure if she could climb into the dingy from where she was. So it was all or nothing. As he moved closer again, she made a dive for the dingy and plonked into it, while Fraser attempted to fend off rocks with his oar. 

Those interesting rock formations turned out to be pretty jaggy on closer inspection!

Finally, we made it safely back onboard Barberry and it was Fraser’s turn for a swim to check the anchor. The sea felt freezing to him after the warm beach swims of a few days ago. Fraser made a panicky swim for the anchor, managed to locate it, then frantically swam back to the boat. 

We just couldn’t believe our luck, anchoring in such impressive surroundings.

Before he could climb out, Skipper Kerry remembered that the little paddlewheel underneath the boat that gives us our speed through the water had been jammed since somewhere in the middle of France (canal weed, probably). She ‘suggested’ that Fraser might as well clean it out while he was in the water anyway, with snorkel and mask. The wind had got up by that point, and pretty soon the rescued Kerry was beginning to worry in case she might have to rescue Fraser. She threw him a rope in case he needed it, but he made it back and we decided that that was enough aquatic antics for one day and both headed below to warm up and have a wee rest.

We expected the weather to get windy, and we weren’t disappointed. This is a screenshot of our second anchorage, from a forecasting app we use called Windy.

The next day was forecast to be windy, possibly over 20 knots, which is sail reefing weather for most sailors. This means taking in part of the sails to reduce their overall area and therefore stop the boat heeling over too much (leaning sideways, AKA sailing on your ear). At least the wind was from behind. Right enough, the wind started to blow hard so we played about with sail configurations to try to make the most of it. The main sail tends to mask the wind from the foresail when it is from behind, which means that the foresail tends to flap around a bit and needs to be held out by a long pole. Fraser did not fancy setting this all up as the boat was rolling quite a bit by this stage. As the wind increased, the foresail came in anyway as we had enough sail out just with the reefed main. It was exciting sailing with a following sea and wind blowing over 20 knots. Kerry was finding it exhilarating, although Fraser fretted a little as to whether the mast would stay up after his recent attempt at rig tensioning.

For some reason, the camera rarely captures the size of the waves. Take it from me, these were big. Not Bristol Channel big, but big enough!

At this point the autopilot (Robbie) started to make an unhealthy clunk, so he was switched off and the intrepid duo took turns at hand steering. This was a bit of a worry as we really needed Robbie to help out on longer passages. It gets tiring if you have to hand steer the boat constantly for hours on end. However, the problem would have to wait until we got to our anchorage.

We forgot to take photos of our second anchorage while it was still blowing up to 30kn, but this is it in the calm of the following morning. The wind didn’t die down until the wee small hours.

As forecast, the wind really got up as we headed into our planned anchorage, gusting up to 30 knots. Fraser suggested wearing the headsets to improve communication over the noise of the wind, but then decided it might be blown straight off his head, so he didn’t bother! The anchorage, Anse du Gau, was a fairly large bay, with good protection from the wind, but it seemed that all the other sailors in France had realised this too, so it was really busy. Kerry steered for the quieter end of the bay, and Fraser dropped the anchor in 8m of water on sand. He let out about 40m of chain, then Kerry reversed the boat hard to ensure the anchor was holding. It did, but when we looked at where we were we realised that we were actually nearly outside the bay, beyond all the other boats; at least no one would swing into us!

Fraser sipping whiskey and trying to look relaxed while 30 kn winds howl all around us in the anchorage.

The wind howled as we went below to try to get some rest after the long sail — no swimming this time! We both set our phones to ‘anchor watch’. This is an app that warns us if the anchor starts to drag. That’s really important, as we don’t want to wake up having drifted out to sea or even onto rocks. The app allows us to relax a little, although we would jump out our skins if the anchor-dragging alarm went off at night!

The anchor alarm app shows us the boat position relative to the anchor (ignore ghost anchor! The squiggly line shows how the boat has moved around as the wind changes.

We were almost at Nice by then, only about a 10-hour sail away, but, as we set off the next day, the autopilot decided to pack in completely (RIP Robbie I). Kerry texted the Raymarine dealer, Brian, back home in Bangor, who immediately got back to us and told us he was still under warranty. In fact, he ordered a new one there and then (Robbie II), before even working out how he might get it to us. What great support!

Hand steering can be tiring, and requires concentration, especially when it’s really windy.

Despite hand steering, the hours passed quickly. Dolphins were also spotted, swimming past the boat — always a welcome sight. We also lost count of the number of very expensive motor yachts that went past us at speed — how on earth were we going to fit in at Nice!

Typical super yacht, with full complement of uniformed crew. They’re mostly registered to tax havens like Jersey. Presumably the owner is down below in his air-conditioned cabin, sipping pink gin while the crew carry out all the challenging berthing manoeuvres!

As we approached Nice harbour, we saw how built up the area was, so very different from our quiet anchorages of the previous two days. We were anxious about the ‘stern-to’ Med mooring technique we would need to do. This means reversing into our berth, and Barberry, with her long keel, does not actually steer in reverse (genuinely!), so it’s challenging. We had not done it before, so tried to think it through as we got close to the entrance. We realised that we would need to drop the dingy off its davits, as it was in the way at the stern, and then we would need to move it around to the bow before finally manoeuvring Barberry into her berth. It was all quite frantic, and we kind of blocked the entrance to Nice Harbour for a while as we got everything sorted. Just glad a big yacht didn’t want to come out at the same time! 

Barberry tucked into her stern-to berth in the small boat section of Nice Harbour.

As usual, radio communications were confusing, and the marina staff told us ‘starboard side’. Fraser took this to mean going alongside the pontoon with the starboard side of our boat, but this turned out to be completely wrong as the staff member had just meant us to turn right once inside the harbour. As it happened, Kerry reversed the boat into its tight spot beautifully using the bow thruster to turn, and Fraser was not really needed at all, as the marina staff grabbed our lines.

In Nice, surrounded by super yachts and posh people with shiny handbags!

So we’re now in Nice— wow, very different. Tourists wander around the harbour area in fancy clothes, holding shiny handbags. Fraser felt a little underdressed. Showers were had (definitely needed) and preparations made for meeting Kerry’s long-lost cousin, Monique, but Kerry can tell you all about that in the next episode. 

The entrance to Port of Nice, which we succeeded in blocking for a while as we got sorted, ready for our first ever Med Mooring in Barberry.

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