Barry Grey and crew feel the full force of a downslope wind and end
up running aground and being rescued by the Coastguard
South of the Straits of Hormuz in the Sultanate of Oman is Musandam, known locally as the Arabian Fjords.
Stretching some 15km inland from the Arabian Gulf, steep, rocky mountains plunge into deep, broad waterways only accessible by boat, with a few traditional villages clinging to narrow foreshores.
To preserve the ecosystems, Omani regulations only allow a few lucky sailors access to the stunning scenery each year, where two resident pods of dolphins play alongside visiting boats.
Having obtained our permit from the Omani embassy in our home port of Dubai, my wife Judi, I and our co-owner Asli Plail excitedly planned our trip to Musandam on Rahala (Arabic for ‘voyager’), our Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 36i.
We set off mid March, anticipating temperate spring weather before the summer arrived.
After the two-day sail to Musandam, we enjoyed three days of cruising, dolphin watching and relaxing. Sunday, 19 March was to be our final night before heading home.
We’d checked weather forecasts and it seemed we had a small window to make the two-day sail south to Dubai before a storm front arrived.
The forecast for the next couple of days was for relatively calm seas and 10-15km winds.
To give ourselves an easy exit the next morning, in late afternoon we anchored towards the end of Kawr Nafizi channel opposite a shoreline village, just a few kilometres from our exit to the Arabian Gulf.
Rather than sitting in the middle of the channel open to the elements and possible traffic, I picked a spot with a little shelter from a rocky outcrop and dropped our Danforth anchor, all 25m of chain and about 5m of rope – a ratio of over 5:1 to the depth.
We settled down to enjoy our last night in a picturesque location, chatted with a couple of villagers who came alongside in fishing boats and enjoyed supper in the cockpit. We tied our bimini back for a better view of the clear night sky.
Our first sign of anything untoward came just after 2000 when occasional lightning could be seen over the mountains and out at sea. Had we known the area better, we would have realised this was a warning to be heeded.
At around 2045, the wind suddenly picked up. We urgently started to clear away the remnants of dinner.
Asli was in the galley with my wife passing dishes and cutlery down to her. Before the job was completed and we could get more prepared, a hurricane-force wind howled down the channel, hitting us from astern.
Accelerated by the mountains bordering the channel, the katabatic wind screamed like a banshee. Rahala, tethered by her anchor, held her position for a few seconds and then, without warning, heeled violently to starboard before flying around on the complete length of the anchor rode.
The boat that rocked
In the cockpit, Judi clung to the backstay and bimini frame to avoid being flung out of the boat. Later, she said it was like being on a fairground ride.
Asli in the galley was thrown to the cabin sole by the sudden heeling. I had jumped down the companionway to turn on the engine battery in the hope I could get us out of trouble.
In the seconds this took, the boat swung around over 180° with the violent heeling leaving me to clamber up the side of the companionway steps to get back to the cockpit.
Strained by the tremendous wind and the weight of the boat, the anchor rode was stretched to its maximum.
Luck stayed with us; the anchor held fast and now, facing into the wind, the boat came to a halt, facing the direction from which we had come, but lying on its starboard side in the sandy shallows at the end of the channel.
The sea was lapping a foot below the toerail. Our keel was digging into the soft seabed with the anchor rode straining against the boat. We were stuck fast and we had time to assess our situation.
First thing was for us all to don lifejackets, and throw essentials such as passports, phones and drinking water into the grab bag always kept in the cockpit lazarette.
I knew we were not at high tide, but was unsure of tidal levels or precisely when high tide would occur.
With one ‘mature’ male on board and two women, one who isn’t a strong swimmer, a call to the Oman Coastguard seemed appropriate.
Asli made the call in anticipation they’d respond more quickly to a female voice.
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The telephone number for the Oman Coastguard command centre was on the front of our sailing permit and our call was answered quickly.
The Omani officer spoke perfect English and quickly understood our situation.
We provided both our local position and GPS coordinates and were promised assistance soon. In case we had to abandon Rahala, I launched our dinghy and tethered it to the stern.
Anticipating an insurance claim, I took a few photos of our instruments and the boat to record our position and situation.
We also undertook a thorough inspection inside and out and – everything visible seemed intact and the bilges were dry.
After the initial blast, the wind quickly subsided to around 10 knots but I was concerned it would return.
With the promised response from the Coastguard, reduced wind and calmer crew, we made ourselves busy attempting to refloat the boat.
We swung on the boom, hung over the lifelines and used the windlass and engine, all without success.
Less than an hour after our call, the Omani Coastguard arrived with not one boat but two.
A Royal Oman Navy and a Coastguard launch came alongside giving us enormous relief.
The officer in charge explained they had urgent emergencies to attend to; high tide would be at midnight, and they promised to return.
As midnight approached, we were becoming concerned when the Coastguard hadn’t arrived and we’d failed to refloat.
However, at around 0015, a Royal Oman Coastguard launch arrived. He brought his launch alongside and we tied to him with stern and bowlines.
After a few gentle manoeuvers by the Coastguard boat, Rahala was bobbing in unison with their boat. We were floating! Our relief was ecstatic.
It was approaching 0200 and we happily hosted the Coastguard team to tea and chocolate biscuits aboard Rahala. Later, before they left, they helped us move to deeper water in the centre of the channel and we reset our anchor.
However, just before 0400, the katabatic wind returned, howling at nearly 60 knots. We were awake and prepared.
Again, the wind screamed down the channel, straining the rode and whipping up the sea. I decided to lift the anchor, leave the channel and motor out to the wide main waterway.
In pitch dark, with high winds and choppy seas, this was challenging, but once out of the channel, everything became more manageable.
We motored to the far end of the Musandam inlets where we had comfortably anchored the previous three nights.
For the third time that night, we set anchor and tried to get some sleep.
A couple of hours later, an Omani Coastguard launch pulled alongside to check on us, and were obviously pleased to see we were all safe.
They asked us to make our way to Khasab Harbour, the small seaport outside Musandam, saying the storm front would make it too rough to attempt our passage to Dubai.
When we arrived in Khasab, the Coastguards provided a swinging mooring for Rahala, helped us tie up and even collected a longer, thicker rope to complement our mooring lines.
Once secure, they hosted us to a grilled tuna and salad lunch in their port office and later, one of their officers ferried us to a local shop.
We attribute surviving the beaching due to the strength of Rahala, to having the right anchor, and a fair amount of good luck.
The timely and professional assistance of the Royal Oman Coastguard, however, helped transform a potential disaster.
A few days later and back home in Dubai, we lifted Rahala out for an expert survey. No damage was found other than a little missing antifoul.
Keep your communication tools fully charged at all times. Had we not had the ability to contact the Coastguards, our predicament would have been far more frightening and the outcome possibly less positive.
Keep in comms
Keep contact details for key sailing authorities handy for the areas you’re sailing. Having the phone and VHF contacts for the Royal Oman Coastguards readily at hand made contacting them straightforward. Their immediate response instantly reduced our anxiety and stress.
Move with the tide
Keep relevant tide timetables to hand during any passage. We were sailing in an area of relatively small tidal movement. Knowing the exact time of high tide and its height would have saved us anxiety when the boat didn’t initially refloat at the time we were wrongly told was high tide.
When anchoring in areas close to steep inclines that could create katabatic winds, leave sufficient space for the maximum possible, or even a 360° swing. Alternatively, have both a bow anchor out with plenty of chain and a stern line strongly fixed.
Keep a weather eye open
Heed weather warnings – both official and informal. Although, the websites we consulted forecast winds of 10-15 knots in our general area, a local fisherman told us ‘wind’s coming’. We should have listened!