Adam Dunlop and his wife Maria learned a few hard lessons when their engine started to struggle mid-Channel in worse conditions than forecast
It was time for us to leave Dunkirk having spent a lovely couple of days there with our friend Lisa.
We decided that we would return via Ramsgate. The weather – south-westerly, around 20 knots – looked near perfect for our journey.
We checked our engine and fuel. Half a tank should have been fine, as we would be sailing all the way. Everything set, we decided to leave early on Easter Sunday.
The first few hours were uneventful and the wind was as predicted. However, because of various sandbanks, we kept the engine on, as well as using a little bit of sail until we reached the point where we could turn south and make a course towards Ramsgate.
Suddenly, the wind changed, turning northerly and pretty much on the nose. Noticing it was getting stronger (it peaked at 45 knots) I said ‘Oh dear,’ or something along those lines, and we reduced sail to our deepest reef.
Fortunately, we were already wearing our lifejackets and, as the wind increased, Maria went below to get the lifelines to ensure we were attached to the boat. I stood at the aft steering position, steering manually as we weren’t sure that the autopilot could cope with the conditions and didn’t want to find out.
We got thrown around quite a bit as the waves increased to 4m. Despite this, our Dufour 45 Mariadz kept trying to make progress, but got nowhere fast against the wind. She is 45ft and the waves had a short period. Perhaps it’s a slight exaggeration, but at times it felt like the final scene in the film The Perfect Storm.
Despite the weather, Lisa had not stirred from her cabin. We had enjoyed a fair bit to drink the previous day and had nothing to eat that morning. Maria was sat in the cockpit and, for the first time since we had been sailing, she felt queasy.
Unfortunately she had positioned herself on the windward side of the boat and looked a little panicked as she realised that she was not going to be able to hold back. She turned, and what can only be described as a shower of vomit came flying back across the boat, carried by the wind. I had enough time to turn my face away as it hit me. Four seconds later, the next wave crashed over the boat and washed me clean again.
Then, the last thing we needed, the engine started to stutter. We had no idea what the problem was but in an evil-looking sea, with limited knowledge or spares to repair, we agreed that we needed to inform people of our situation but that we were still in control.
We found we couldn’t hear anything on the radio in the cockpit and the remote is useless, so one of us had to venture below to radio the coastguard, find out what had happened to our perfect weather forecast and call in a pan- pan.
Going below when the boat was being thrown about was likely to make someone unwell and we couldn’t afford both inexperienced skippers to be suffering from seasickness. So, Maria volunteered. She gave our position to the Thames Coastguard, who ascertained that we were on the French side of the Channel and said that we needed to talk to their Gallic counterparts.
At this stage Lisa appeared, happy as you like. She was wanting a chat and suggested that she would join us in the cockpit when Mariadz was hit hard by a wave and the girls went flying – Maria holding the radio and Lisa some potatoes from a previous meal.
They picked themselves up and Maria continued to talk to the coastguard. They offered to send a boat out with someone to help us, but we decided that we were not in imminent danger and agreed instead that we would call in every half hour to give an update on our situation and confirm that we were okay.
After half an hour we didn’t seem to be making any progress and so on the update with the coastguard, Maria asked if we were getting through the weather. The French coastguard confirmed that it was set for a few hours more and recommended that we return to port in France.
When she told me the plan, I was worried. The reason for this was that boats are in most danger from waves when the height of the wave is greater than the width of boat it is crossing.
Mariadz has a beam of 4m and the waves were higher than that. If one of the waves broke over Mariadz half way through her turn, it would knock her flat – the top of the mast would hit the water. People could fall overboard and it would be no fun at all.
A turn for the better
Despite this, we agreed to go for the turn as we thought it was our least worst option given our situation. Maria warned Lisa about what was about to happen. We chose the point to turn, on the back of a wave and before the next wave hit.
Mariadz was agile as always and completed the turn as we got into the trough between the waves. It was never in doubt!
Life from this point on was completely different. We surfed at 10-11 knots, and it seemed a lot calmer because we were going in the same direction as the wind.
We flew back, covering the distance it had taken us 20 minutes one way a minute in the opposite direction. We were, however, still experiencing a stuttering engine, although it seemed to be getting a little better and we had power more often than not.
Maria had the sight of me with a large wave towering over me as we were in the trough, before the next wave picked us up and took us surfing again.
In no time at all we found ourselves approaching Dunkirk again. Maria spoke to the harbourmaster who suggested that we go to a different marina with better facilities since there seemed to be a problem with our engine.
We recalled from a few days previously that the entry to Dunkirk had a very nice three-banded lighthouse on one side of the entrance and what could be described as the most famous sea wall in history on the other (where the Allied troops were evacuated from in 1941).
I could see the top of the lighthouse and just about see the bands, but there was nothing but sea on the other side. I knew they hadn’t moved the wall in the couple of hours we had been away, so we tried to remember how wide the entrance was and go for the right hand side of what we thought was probably the centre.
Maria would then be able to explain to the coastguard that we were crossing into Dunkirk harbour and out of harm’s way. However, the waves were still crashing and we needed to turn to go towards the marina.
We could now understand why we couldn’t see the wall from outside – the waves were breaking right over the top of it! As we got further into the harbour, the waves started to have less of an impact and the water became calmer.
As we approached the marina, Maria took control of Mariadz while Lisa and I set up her lines and fenders.
We arrived at the fuel pontoon to a welcoming party, a small crowd of people ready to assist. It was a nice gesture, but they pulled us in a little too enthusiastically and scraped the hull against a gantry. A shame, but we decided it could have been a lot worse and they were only trying to help.
As we finished with the lines, they asked why we had left, and had we not seen the forecast? I showed the one we had looked at and they said that they all used Meteo France, which had predicted terrible weather.
But what was wrong with the engine? We visited the on-site Volvo engineers and found out that they would not be available until Wednesday at the earliest.
It was clear we were a little low on fuel and as we were on the fuel pontoon, we decided to fill her.
Mariadz had looked after us so it was the least we could do. The Dufour has a 250-litre tank and we put over 200 litres in!
Clearly our half tank wasn’t quite a half tank. That explained the engine problems: the fuel tank would have been three parts air to one part fuel.
With the way we were thrown about, the engine was being fed with little more than froth. No wonder it kept losing power. We ran the engine for an hour after realising that it was okay. It ran like a dream. And then, we rested!
Use VHF below decks
In foul weather, cockpit radios are next to useless. Go below where you can hear and think clearly to transmit and receive, even if it’s not the most appealing place to be.
Establish position before calling the coastguard
Determine how far across the Channel you are before deciding which coastguard to call. We were still in French territory, but didn’t check before calling England.
Use multiple forecasts
Use multiple weather forecasts to gain a more realistic picture of what’s likely to happen. The picture we had was very different to the local forecast.
Exercise fuel gauge reading caution
Don’t place every bit of faith in your fuel gauge, it may well be wrong. Only a dipstick check in calm conditions can give you an accurate indication.
Remember where you’ve been in case you return
Approaching Dunkirk Harbour wall in big seas, the entrance was hard to identify.
Think downwind when feeling seasick
Brief crew to be sick to leeward, a lesson hard learned. Going to windward can be hard, but vomiting to windward is even harder.