The wife, where danger or dishonour
Safest and seemliest by her husband
Who guards her, or with her the worst
John Milton from Paradise Lost
She bucked again with a crushing bang that made us flinch. And again, she was thrown beam side to the howling winds,the crashing and scraping noise from down below sickened me.
I dared not look down, the fenders were rolling around the cabin floor, mixed with bread, mushrooms, pans, shoes and ropes.
” Get the boat hook “ yelled the captain over the horrendous noise of the maelstrom. We were being pushed dangerously close to the swimropes that were strung across the bay. Just with that the winds picked the dinghy up and it was flying tethered by its rope, the outboard miraculously still on. In an instant the propeller hooked itself around the swimrope and I felt sure it would be ripped off. I readied to attempt to hook the rope and try to free it but the wind was too ferocious and the boat being tossed around like a buoy, the captain grabbed the knife and cut the cord that held the dinghy to us, just as one of the flanges of the propeller snapped, the dingy was free and we were temporarily clear off the rope.
With a huge surge of power from the main engine we forced the boat away from the dangerous rope that threatened to foul our main propeller and it would be game over. The engine roared as we powered out towards the entrance to the bay, the boat reeling and bouncing.
“What’s our depth?” yelled the skipper “We’re getting too close to the submerged rocks!”
We were stuck. Our anchor was out there somewhere, lain down that morning but we had no means to pull it up, other than by hand and in this freak storm, there was no chance of that. We had no choice but to attempt to ride it out, trapped in the bay , surrounded by high cliffs and rocky promontories with fishing buoys and lines strewn across the bay, threatening to wrap around our propeller.
We had watched a movie the night before in the tranquil Blue Lagoon of Comino, entitled “Doom“, please don’t let this be an omen, I thought.
The rain was lashing down, we were soaked to the skin and with the winds were getting very cold. The captain was shivering and my feet were numb. I managed to dive below and grab some bananas and biscuits which we devoured to keep some kind of energy up as we had not eaten now for 18 hours. The roar of thunder terrified me as the flashes of lightning were thrown at us like spears from the black sky.
“Oh please don’t let this be it” I pleaded to myself, as more sickening scrapes and jolts violently threw the boat around.
It had all started so beautifully that morning. We were anchored in the famous Blue Lagoon of Comino, after sailing over from Malta the previous day. We were quite proud of ourselves, having swum ashore and attached a line to the rocks to keep her bow out and stop her scoping round as it was a relatively tight bay with many day tripper boats buzzing in and out the bay. We had been for a swim and were just thinking about breakfast when the line to the shore came free. No big deal. We swung round a little but it meant we got some swell which is not conducive to a pleasant breakfast experience. A small pantomime ensued as I was set to reattach the line with the dinghy. Now I am ashamed to say though I have a power boat qualification, I have not used the dinghy in over 4 years and was a bit rusty. I managed to figure it out but avoided looking at the captain who was raising his eyes to the heavens. A few bumps into the cliff, one wrap of the rope round the prop and a temporary fail at going backwards later, I did manage and even acted as a bow thruster to push the boat back against the wind. It was set again and I was safely – and thankfully- back on board but the wind was building a little and we decided to move round to a more sheltered bay 5 mins away and also avoid the inevitable Saturday tour boats. Seemed simple enough, we towed the dinghy behind and raised the anchor. Now the day before, in Paradise Bay, Malta, we realised the anchor remote switch was faulty. It would go down but not up, however the ingenious captain had made a temporary repair with crocodile clips and wires and it worked fine, though a little jerky.
We motored round beneath high pink cliffs, with amazing archs and stacks decorating their feet. We slowly entered a complete round of a bay but it felt too enclosed so we popped out and set anchor down a little further round, still sheltered but not so intimidating. It was deep though and we were not happy.
“Pull her up” said J, “Lets get out of here” Something just didn’t feel right. I operated the improvised switch but my finger slipped and made a connection, short circuiting it. The chain just kept coming up, fast!
“I cant stop it!” I yelled. J ran below and switched off the windlass. “I’m sorry ” I think I’ve broken it.” I said mournfully.
“Its ok, we can operate it with the switch down below” J said encourgingly. We managed to get the anchor up and decided to head back over to Paradise Bay, a bay we knew was a good and safe anchorage from two nights before and we would sort it all out. The forecast was good for that bay, winds blowing us off but not too strong. Perfect.
We motored the 10 mins back across the channel between Malta and Gozo, blue skies and sunshine lightening the mood and I was looking forward to brunch as it was now 1pm and a swim in the clear blue waters.
We entered the bay and went to the same spot as before, laid the anchor down, bedded her in and I went below to make some food. It had got a bit cloudy and a slight rain shower started, so J came below to effect repairs to his switch, pulling out various tool boxes and electronic bits. I fried some mushrooms and beat up some eggs.
“Eh, hold the food a minute” he said” Looks like a squall coming”
And that was it. It was not forecast, it came out of nowhere and in minutes we were hit by 40mph winds that blew the sea flat at times, black skies, set up a swell that would not have looked out of place in the mid Atlantic, lashing rain with hail and a full on lightning and thunder storm.
Three hours it lasted. Three hours of extreme physical effort to hold the helm steady as we had lost the auto helm though it could not cope in these conditions. Three hours of being thrown across the small bay, the anchor chain jolting like a mad dog flying out its den then yanked back by its chain.
I thought for a couple of times we were going on the rocks for sure. I wasn’t afraid for our lives or physical safety really as we were in a bay, a little beach at one end which was now awash with surf raging across it. A modern hotel lay in a curve round the other side, I could see a couple of tourists on their balcony peering out at the tempest, no doubt feeling grateful they were not out in this. I began to wonder if anyone would come to help us or should we call for help. I was afraid J was getting exhausted. I was too terrified to feel sick though the boat was a roller coaster every second.
“There is nothing anyone can do” stated J. “We cant get the anchor up in this, we just have to hold on, keep her out in the bay away from the rocks and wait til it dies down a bit then I need to get a second anchor in”
“Ok ” I nodded pathetically. We hauled the second anchor out the fender locker and fed out the chain, at one point it threatened to fall over the side before we grabbed it and secured it until we could deploy it. It was getting dark, the lightening exploding white light over the bay periodically.
Slowly it did die a little and we took our chance. J managed to lower the spare anchor and feed down the chain, hopefully locating it near the primary anchor. We felt it hold as it yanked us with the huge waves pounding us.
Gradually, it did lessen, the rain ceased, the winds reduced and we realised we were held in position, not dragging, finally.
“Go below and get dry and warm” J stated.
I was only too glad, exhausted and pretty shaken up. I stripped everything off as it was soaked and crawled into my bunk, wrapping the quilt round me. Hurriedly putting a sea sick patch on too. It took four hours for my feet to warm and I was relieved when J finally crawled in beside me instantly warming me.
“Is everything ok now?” I ventured
“Its fine, were holding, storm has passed, I’ve had dinner and set the alarm for first light then I reckon we can get the anchors up and get the hell out of here”
“Where will we go?
“Back to Sicily”
Good” I wrapped my arms round his warm body and fell asleep.
Thankfully it was a peaceful night and first light found us clearing up the debris from the day before, thankfully nothing broken down below. Now we had to set too and raise the anchors manually, a tough feat using winches and elbow grease.
The first one came up not too bad but it pulled us too close to the rocks. With all the violence of the storm we had been pushed and pulled across the bay countless times and the chain must have been like spaghetti down there.
Now for the second one. We managed to winch up the chain and I had to keep on the helm to prevent us being pulled towards the cliffs. With a dreadful jerk we realised we were free but no anchor on the end of the chain!
Nothing we could do. We left. Thoroughly beaten up. The metal rollers at the bow were twisted like spun sugar, the gel coat gauged by the chain, the anchor lost, however it could have been a whole lot worse. Paradise Bay, really???
We had sailed over to Malta some days earlier, a last minute notion, the weather forecast was good, I had been back for a few days after my trip home and we had planned to go at some point before Christmas. Why not? The 10 hour sail was good though I suffered a bit and was glad to reach Sliema that afternoon. We checked into a nice marina though was the most expensive of the whole voyage so far, however it was so central and J was desperate to revisit his childhood haunts which were nearby.
We had spent a delightful few days touring round his old homes from when his father was based there in the RAF. I could envisage Big John, Shackleton flight crew, flying jacket, Aviators, sports car, that tall handsome man. It sounded idyllic days of speed boats, picnics, playing in the coves, friends from school and especially his nannies. Lovely ladies he talked about over the years and we finally met up with them, Grace and Tess, two delightful ladies, sisters, two of 18 children, nine still living and so many stories to tell. There had been 9 girls and 9 boys, all raised in a small house, six to a bed, babies in drawers of the huge dresser, so tragically 7 of the boys were lost in the war. Tess still lived in that family home in Zurrieq, a fascinating home built into the stone like caves inter-connected by hallways , built for small Maltese people, I had to stoop like Alice-in-Wonderland, I loved it. It had every ornament and picture imaginable, some peeking out of recesses in the stone wall, some proudly displayed in well oiled wooden display cabinets. I was treated to a dram of whisky as it was my birthday and buttery biscuits. Tess could not take her eyes off “her boy” and told us the funniest stories of her trip to Scotland to stay with the family when they were back in Grantown on Spey. She had never left Malta at all before when at 28 she was asked to come and stay with the family for a few months. She jumped at the chance. It must have been a huge adventure for her, as her orders were to take a flight from Malta to London then up to Glasgow and then a train to Grantown, deep in Speyside. She made her way to the airport, never having been on an airplane before,
“We had a car for during the week and a horse for the weekend!” she proudly declared.
She duly awaited to board the plane but as she took her seat she felt the need to visit the loo. She asked the flight attendant who said it was fine and she went to the toilet which was behind the pilot and opened the door.
“Oh Madonna” she cried “There was a women already in there. I was so embarrassed. I went to go back to my seat but the air hostess came after me and said “No my dear there is no one inside, that’s a mirror“
“Oh ok” and in she went. “Well I never seen a toilet like this before, all buttons and slits so anyways I did what I need to do and don’t know how to flush? I see a button that said “PUSH” so I push and oh my God, I started the plane!”
“ I ran out the toilet and cried to the air hostess, I’m so sorry I have started the airplane”
“No its ok , the pilot has started the plane, not you, see? ” and she showed her the cockpit with a laughing pilot, smiling at her.
“Oh thank The Madonna! So I sit in the seat and think I will touch no more buttons and I look out the window and see the flashing light of the light house at the end of my bay, way down below. I never seen my island like this before. I watch this for a long time and it does not seem to get much further away.
Ah well maybe the pilot must circle round for a while I think. After a long time, I ask the man next to me, why have we not left Malta yet, I can still see the lighthouse?, he says, “lady put on your seat belt we are landing at Gatwick, that light is on the wing!”
I was in tears by this stage, her stories were hilarious; never seeing snow before she flew into a bank on the deck at the house in Grantown and disappeared. Standing on the back of John’s skis and hitching a ride – the trip she said was the best she had ever had. The house the captain’s family had in the village they named Dar Il-hena (house of happiness) in memory of their happy times in Malta.
Grace proudly took us to her home in Birzebbuga (Pretty Bay), a three story mansion, beautifully furnished and decorated with her husband Simon’s art works. He was a lovely man, a slim Michael Douglas and just as pretty! They adored each other and it was lovely to see.
We had cycled round the tourist places, enjoyed Maltese bread (a desire of J’s since we met!) and drank Maltese wine which was pretty good. We had hired a car and went on a search of LPG to refill out cooking gas bottle, this led us through the less touristy parts to an industrial estate but we learned later Malta has 98% employed and it showed. Even the immigrant population mostly from Somalia and Eritrea were working, all busy, the economy was good.
I had been treated to an amazing birthday meal at a bay side restaurant five mins stroll from the boat. Salt baked sea bass and red snapper that was flambed at the table, all eyes on us! Then a dessert with the obligatory sparkler and a round of Happy Birthday by the waiting staff, I was thrilled and felt very spoiled. Life was good. Another dream fulfilled as we had always wanted to come to Malta, we never expected it would be on our own boat all the way from Scotland.
A tanned slim, glinty-eyed cousin of the ladies’ who made us amazing tajjeb hobz (good bread) declared we were mad sailing all that way “Why you not fly?” he quizzed “Much faster!!”
He told us about the crazy cat lady who drives round the island feeding the countless stray cats and declared her mad too.
He then told us about his friend who had decided to fly to Scotland but his wife died on the plane.
“See ” I said “safer on a boat”
He laughed out loud and nodded, fair play.
I loved the Maltese people, they were so welcoming and helpful, I felt comfortable there. We saw the Phoenicia Hotel in Valletta that Mum had stayed in when they visited my uncle stationed there with the army during the war, he was only a kid. She was happy we were there and phoned me on my birthday, I was happy to tell her I had been out for dinner sporting the beautiful cashmere and silk, mustard yellow, stole she gave me, with matching handbag gifted by the husband.
On leaving we went to the marina office to settle the bill, we were expecting a fairly hefty one however it had been a treat, though the receptionist certainly took the wind from our sails when she declared there would be no charge, we were their guests! We had had a tricky start when we first arrived as the facilities were basic ( no hot water in the shower, no laundry or Internet etc) and given the fee we had commented it was expensive. She said they were new and were hoping to improve and insisted we should not pay anything. However we insisted she accept something to cover water and electricity and give a tip to the staff who were lovely and she graciously accepted. Yes we liked the Maltese people.
Leaving Malta was bitter sweet, our time initially had been delightful and we had hoped to visit Gozo too however after the storm we felt we better quit while we were ahead. The sail back over took almost half the time in good strong winds, in a good direction. A lone bottle nose crossed our bow and a few tiny migratory birds flitting by as we sped along. Arriving back at our berth in Marina Di Ragusa never felt so good. After we were safely tied up, we lay back in the cockpit and took a long stiff drink. No more sailing now for the winter, the next few weeks would be about exploring Sicily by car, bike and foot and maybe some trips further afield but mainly enjoying being liveaboards on Stravaigin. It really is paradise.