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Alexander Shaw was sailing his 29ft Westerly GK-29 yacht 150 miles from land when he found himself sailing through a storm - the record-breaking Storm Janus to be precise
Eighteen months ago, I left East Anglia in my Westerly GK-29 cruiser-racer, bound for Istanbul. My progress was naturally slow at first as I had never sailed before but, by the time I left Reggio Calabria, on the toe of Italy, I felt pretty confident that I could take the passage to Kefalonia in my stride.
My sharp lookout gradually relaxed as the Strait of Messina opened into the Ionian Sea – the open expanse of light traffic and promised steady winds.
Alexander Shaw is a former European civil service staffer and a broadcaster for the Polish ministry of finance. In 2019, he attended a two-week competent crew course with Blue Oyster Sailing in Palamós and purchased his Westerly GK-29, Granny Knot, a week later
I don’t carry an Automatic Identification System (AIS), so I opted to head out and avoid the crowded shipping lanes and temperamental winds closer to land. My course might add a day or two to what would otherwise be a three-day crossing but, as the sun went down behind the plume of Etna, I smiled at my good instinct. A dark anvil of thunder clouds was growling and flickering over the Italian coast.
In open water I could adjust the sails less often and sleep longer to the soft creaking of the pulleys which comprise my self-steering system. For the next 72 hours I read, swam, gazed at the constellations above the mast light and started looking forward to sitting down with new friends over a good meal in Greece.
Living like a sea-gypsy can get expensive and my cost-cutting extends to refrigeration, which always makes landfall a bit special after a long voyage living off couscous and canned tuna. This time it would be a real treat, as the wind had been disappointing.
After five days, I was radioing other ships for forecasts and, with a relentless easterly breeze, I eventually adjusted my course back northwards.
I can still hear the voice of the Shanghainese container vessel captain who first alerted me to a tropical depression and mounting wind in the South Adriatic. I told him my plan was to aim for Corinth. ‘You’re a warrior’ he came back, cheerfully. I asked him how Shanghai was these days and we shared some banter about the upcoming Autumn Moon Festival, which he would be missing this year.
I imagined his wry smile and nearly asked him to relay a message to my family to let them know I was OK. But I knew it would be a fiddle-faddle and that I’d be in port within another couple of days. I had only been gone for five days so far, so I didn’t think anyone at home would be too worried yet.
That night, another thunderstorm struck and, reducing my sails, I made my last 12-hour bid to head east – though, with the wind coming straight from Kefalonia, I could only head in the direction of Corfu.
With just six hours’ worth of fuel on board, motoring was out of the question. Besides, the engine wouldn’t have been able to handle what was to come.
The calm before the storm with high sirrus clouds building. Photo: Alexander Francis Shaw
A sparrow flew down the hatch and disappeared somewhere among my toolboxes. In ancient times, sailors might have read such signs of nature, but there was no use in speculating.
At dusk on day six, I made distant contact with a Russian ship, which buzzed me a barely comprehensible warning of a storm – but I was still 150 miles from land and, frankly, it made no difference.
The wind was still mounting and I’d just have to take whatever hit me.
A school of flying fish skimmed one side of the boat. Working through the muggy wind and intermittent deluges, static discharge fizzed and crackled off the capstans and stanchions until the circuit breakers flipped and lightning arced down.
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One direct hit would fry the radio, so I unplugged everything – plunging myself into darkness and radio silence.
A week and a day after I had set out, I was two-thirds of the way to the Greek coast and heading due north, back to the heel of Italy, through a cyclone which experts in distant, halogen-lit offices were helpfully christening ‘Storm Janus.’
As another deluge of sea thundered down the hatch and I was thrown over to nearly 90º, I realised that this was beyond anything I had seen on Mediterranean forecasts before.
My fate now lay in the strength of the boat. Either the standing rigging would snap or it would not, but a glance up through the cabin windows showed the entire rig was flexing like the wings of an airliner bumping through heavy cumulus.
If the mast went, I would be smashed around by the sea, powerless to do anything until the storm blew over.
I had flares, but they would be useless in the driving curtains of spray which now engulfed me.
Mentally, I prepared myself to shelter in a dismasted vessel until, blinking in the sunlight, I would emerge from the hulk, raise a makeshift aerial, and call for help for however long it took until another ship appeared on the horizon.
Then, with a flash and bang, the cabin was filled with the reek of burned plastic. A lightning strike had welded the headlining to the foot of the mast, but nothing was broken.
I thanked my lucky stars I’d had the presence of mind to unplug the radio. If I needed to, I could still call for help. But even in this dark hour, I had no good cause to do so.
One of the few shots taken by Alex mid-storm, clearly (or not) showing the lack of visibility. Photo: Alexander Francis Shaw
Outside, the howl was rising in volume and in pitch. Soon, the boat was heeled over at around 45º. I climbed out into the cockpit one last time, sat on the coaming side with my back on the cockpit seats and worked the winches between my knees to reduce the size of the headsail from the shape of a bath towel to the size of a pillowcase.
The waves that thundered over me were so violent that I had tied myself to the mast inside the cabin, so that, should I be thrown overboard, I would not be separated from the boat.
That – after all – is how people die. That or a direct collision, but visibility was far too low to be worth keeping any kind of lookout.
Tying the rudder to hold a course into the waves, I closed the hatches and lay below in salty darkness as water washed across the floor of the tiny cabin and the cyclone screamed in the rig above.
I watched the morning twilight glow in the windows. I watched it grow dark again. I had been gone for more than a week and the wind was now pushing me back into the instep of the boot of Italy.
I’ve never really believed in the power of prayer, other than to prepare oneself to accept a fate. But I suspected that, far away, people would be starting to worry. I wished that I had some way of urgently transmitting a message to say that, so far, I was OK.
My brothers had indeed started the manhunt – which is precisely what I would have done in their position. The British embassy in Rome, the Hellenic Coast Guard and a Balkan military attaché were combing my social media accounts for photos, drawing circles over maps and briefing air sorties.
But without any means of locating the boat by AIS, they couldn’t really do much other than report back if I pulled into a harbour. The vortex of online speculation intensified by the hour.
Pride is a sin
An irony of mass communications is that, without the technology that is supposed to put our minds at ease, everyone would have remained in blissful ignorance and the outcome would have been exactly the same.
20 years ago, even if the storm had been reported as far as the UK nobody would expect a boat like mine to have any means of satellite identification and the hundreds of commentators and well-wishers and prayers would have found some more worthy cause than an upper-class twit who had decided to follow through on a drunken pledge that he would take back Constantinople.
Semitone by semitone, the howl of wind was subsiding. My tinned food rations were depleted.
Spectacular skies as the storm finally abates. Photo: Alexander Francis Shaw
Having been blown halfway to Benghazi and back, I was now on course to land a mere 40 miles from where I had started.
At this point in proceedings I could think of nothing but my crushed pride and how much hell there would be to pay when I finally managed to make landfall again and make contact with my family.
The little sparrow flew up from his perch on the galley tap and started circling round and round the cabin. I opened the hatch and watched him disappear into the night.
My own energy was returning. On the ninth and final night of the voyage, I mixed some oats with my last remaining bottle of fresh water.
A tungsten glow lit the sky from below the north horizon. Opening the sails to the stiff breeze, I ate my cold porridge slouched at the helm.
The sails whispered on into the agate dawn and the first bar of reception appeared on the screen of my phone, followed by a hurricane of pinging SMS messages and Facebook updates to which I could finally respond by telling my family I was alright and would communicate when I had moored and sorted things out.
The nearest harbour – aptly named Porto delle Grazie – granted my request for entry then, after a pause, asked me to repeat the name of my vessel.
Satellite view of Medicane Ianos as it approaches western Greece on 17 September 2020. Photo: Geopix / Alamy Stock Photo
The channel was suddenly inundated with Italians clamouring to identify me as ‘that British boat that everyone is looking for.’ I breathed an expletive into the dawn air, then started to clear the decks for landing.
Back on dry land
The uniforms of the Guardia Costiera shimmered white along the wharf. I fired up the engine and got my mooring lines ready for the approach. Mooring is a tricky manoeuvre when you’re overtired and being scrutinised by an audience of professionals.
I knew my credibility hung on perfect execution and my guardian angel guided my hand until I had switched off the engine and handed over my passport. Once the formalities had been dealt with, I shouldered a backpack and headed to town.
Passing the Harbour Master’s office window, I caught a glimpse of a naval officer gesticulating at a vast wall map with a drill cane: ‘…so as the storm moved that way, he was blown in a huge anticlockwise circle round the Ionian, you see? Like that!’
Mine had been the only sailing vessel at sea in the centre of ‘Medicane Ianos’, a rare Mediterranean tropical-like cyclone – which built into winds of 34-46 knots, with gusts of up to 54 knots, and heavy rain.
I found an osteria and ordered a quattro stagione pizza, half a chicken, six arancini and a lasagne with a side of potatoes, a large Caesar salad and two pints of beer.
Two old men drank coffee at the bar. ‘You know, apparently he has shown
up here! He came into the port a few hours ago!’
After I had checked into the hotel located in the town square, I consumed three large granitas with brioche and cream for good measure.
I stood under the shower and felt a thousand cuts and bruises sing as the fresh water gradually ran clear in the plughole. Then I flicked on the TV and saw a satellite image of what I had just sailed through and the footage of the havoc the storm had caused.
My last conscious thought was that, had I had made it to Kefalonia, I would almost certainly have been wrecked on arrival.
Have AIS fitted – Even the correct safety equipment and training can’t prevent a panic if you have no means of contacting land while sailing in offshore waters. A satellite phone is probably necessary to put people’s minds at ease. As my passage will now be within coastal waters anyway, I’m getting AIS fitted as a sensible compromise.
Write a will – You may be surprised by the banality of some of your concerns while in a storm. I found myself wishing that I had written a will.
Maintain contact – I spoke to several ships during the time I was reported missing. Coast Guard services may be excellent, but don’t assume that even large freighters are keeping tabs on alerts.
Appreciate RNLI – We are extremely lucky in Britain to have the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Had I found it necessary to call for help, I would have ended up selling the boat to pay for the rescue.
Forge online connections – Though an agent of anxiety and fake news, Facebook pulls together very well in a crisis. It is worth joining all the yachting groups which receive and distribute alerts, as well as very useful practical advice.
Stay positive – Blaming yourself for incompetence is less attractive to the opposite sex than ‘I got hit by a freak hurricane.’
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