If you are looking for action, adventure and much more, this inspiring story is the book for you. Follow Mainbrace as he unknowingly embarks on one of his most difficult sea journeys to date. This time it’s not just the rough waters he has to ride. Mainbrace has a way of making you feel like you’re right there with Mainbrace. You just want to jump in and help, as he constantly struggles against the Tunisian authorities, who seem determined to make life difficult for him. This is a story of perseverance and never giving up hope. This book is nail biting right to the very end but well worth the read. You’ll be glad you picked it up.
It was still calm in the shelter of the anchorage, but if the weather forecast came true I should have fair winds in a couple of hours. I was well fed and rested, it was late in the afternoon and it made good sense to get the anchor up and go to sea in daylight. I did my last minute checks and went online to check the latest weather update. It was looking good, a nice fresh breeze coming from behind. I could run down wind using foresail only, perfect when you’re single handed. I negotiated the moorings and fish farms in daylight and shortly after that, I was in open water. It was a lovely evening and looked like being a very pleasant trip. It was the 13th of March, approaching the Spring Equinox, which is always a little bit unpredictable weather wise.
I had been monitoring three different weather websites for the last few days and most of their predictions were pretty much spot on, so I was feeling confident. I set the foresail and plotted my course, then watched the sun disappear over the horizon. It was still a bit chilly in the evenings so I went below and put the kettle on.
A few hours passed and we were sailing nicely, jogging along without a care in the world. There was a small island on route and the chart was showing an anchorage outside of the harbour, but protected by the outer sea wall. My plan was to break the journey up into two shorter legs; I could stop and rest up there, before continuing on my way.
I glanced at the instruments and noticed that the boat speed had increased, so I poked my head out of the hatch and the wind strength seemed stronger than before. A quick look at the wind instrument, confirmed that we had six more knots now. The boat was made of steel and quite heavily built. The fact is, she doesn’t sail very well in light winds, she needs a blow.
I noticed that the boat was beginning to roll about more; the wind direction had changed slightly and was now on my port quarter. The wave height was increasing as the wind became stronger and the swell was now lumping into me. It was almost gale force now, but I wasn’t too bothered by that, I was a seasoned sailor and the boat was a lot tougher than me. My school had a canoeing and sailing club, by the time I was ten years old, I was a competent dingy sailor and I’ve never looked back, its been a passion ever since. I particularly enjoy the challenge of single handed sailing; I was in my element and had been caught out in some seriously bad weather over the years. I decided to go on deck and reduce sail, the boat was going too fast and was sailing off the wave crests, then falling into the troughs, all very uncomfortable. Soon afterwards, the waves were catching me up slowly, picking me up gently and putting me down in a nice easy motion.
Less than an hour later, there were forty three knots of wind and a severe gale, so I had to go up again and furl more sail away. It was nearly dawn and I was closing in quickly on the island. I reached for the pilot book with the port plan in and because the wind direction had changed in the night, it was going to make it difficult to enter the harbour. I calculated the arrival time, I should be somewhere near in about four hours. I was feeling a bit tired and very hungry, there was no way I was going to try and cook in these conditions, so I put my hand in the galley cupboard and found the Marmite. Gripping the jar between finger and thumb, and holding a hand rail with the remaining three fingers, I found a spoon with the other hand. It wasn’t quite as pleasant as a hot drink, but it wasn’t going to scold me, I washed it down with a glass of mineral water. As I was putting the jar away, I spotted the marmalade and dug my spoon into that as well, that actually seemed to give me some zest. There was just one boiled (high energy) sweet left, I smiled to myself and put it in my pocket. Now in daylight, I could see everything through the wheelhouse windows, everything was fine and with any luck, I would be in the harbour and asleep on my bunk in a few hours. Visibility wasn’t good, to say the least, but I was expecting to have sight of the island any time now. Shortly afterwards it came into view and I made a slight course change, so as to be a safe distance offshore. I wanted sea room and time to observe the conditions in the entrance. When I arrived, I grabbed the binoculars and braced myself in the hatchway, oh blast, it was horrific.
The waves were crashing up against the breakwater and rebounding to meet the other incoming waves, it was a complete turmoil. To even think about attempting an entry would have been crazy. That meant my original passage plan was completely out of the window, all I could do was sail on by and re-evaluate the situation.
As the island disappeared from view, a sudden squall came through, it read sixty one knots and lasted for about three minutes then dropped down to a steady forty eight to fifty. I went to study my chart; the next problem was, at my present speed, I would be blown onto the Tunisian coast in the hours of darkness. I was just thinking about putting my waterproofs on and furling what little sail was left, when the whole boat shuddered. There was a loud bang followed by the horrible roar of a sail, flogging itself to pieces. I knew if it fouled itself up and I couldn’t take it down, there was a real possibility that the boat and I would be lost on some piece of coastline. There was no time for waterproofs, this was very urgent. When I got to the foredeck I saw that the furling line had chafed and parted, the whole sail had released itself. I cut what frayed line was left on the drum, then reattached what was left and took it directly onto one of the mast winches. I was able to furl it away but it was a bodge and I wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. Where I was standing at the mast, there were some short pieces of line that I kept there for just such emergencies. I grabbed one and carefully made my way back to the bow. I leant against the forestay, so as to free up both hands and reach out to pass the line around it. Just then, a wave hit and I fell backwards. I landed back first on the anchor windlass, the pain was instant and intense. I couldn’t move, I was sat on the fore deck soaking wet and cold from the wind chill and hanging on, in near hurricane force winds. I needed to sort my act out and quickly. The pain was coming from the rib cage but there didn’t appear to be any spine damage, but in any case I couldn’t stay here I had to get myself back inside somehow. With the wind and salt spraying in my face, I crawled along the side deck with my eyes closed, going from hand hold to hand hold, from memory. I managed to get myself into the hatchway and could open my eyes again. All I had to do now was get down the steps. Once inside, I sat on the floor, in a door frame and braced myself, with my legs. With no sail up and no engine, the boat was crashing about in what were now, seven meter waves, but she could take it. I needed to look at my own problems now.
I put my left hand behind me and applied some pressure on the ribs then braced myself for the pain, I covered my mouth with the other hand and forced a cough, there was no sign of any blood. I wouldn’t normally have done that for fear of causing more damage but I wasn’t about to get an x-ray and I needed to know how bad things were. The wind chill on deck had gone through my wet polo shirt and I was very cold. I raised my arms to pull the wet shirt off, the pain made me draw a sharp breath, which also hurt.
I reached in my pocket to find my knife, I’d have to cut it off. Just as I was about to open the knife, another huge wave slammed into the side and I lunged forward. To impale myself on my own knife wouldn’t exactly improve my current situation, I decided it was quite a nice shirt; I’d keep it on for a while. As I slipped the knife back into my pocket I felt something small and pulled it out, it was my boiled sweet. I thought I was due a break, I popped the sweet in my mouth and braced in my doorframe I sucked on it until the cherry f lavoured delight had completely gone. From my doorframe I could see all the instruments. I knew it was clear open sea all the way to Tunisia, the only danger was other shipping and I couldn’t see out of the windows. I must force myself to get up. Once up, I started the engine and put us back on a course. Straight away, the violent motion eased slightly, and with the engine running, I had all the battery power I needed, I turned the radar on. At our present speed, we would indeed be dangerously close to land well before dawn. I had only enough engine revs on to work the autopilot so as to minimise boat speed. The only other thing was, to put in a few dog legs and zig zag my way to increase the mileage. This meant that the wind and waves were now catching me up as before, and things onboard were a lot more comfortable.
I gently sat back down in the security of my doorframe and now with the radar on, I didn’t need to see out of the windows, that thing could see much further than I could, especially in these conditions. I turned my thoughts to planning ahead and avoiding any potential problems. I wasn’t able to attach the safety line on the foresail furler, that was washed overboard by the same wave that injured me. I could only hope the bodge repair held up until we were in port. I certainly wasn’t going back out there, unless my life depended on it. The engine was purring away nicely. In calm weather I’ve rarely experienced engine problems, any muck and dirt just lays in the bottom of the tanks. It’s only when the boat starts rolling about, that it all gets stirred up and clogs the filters, that would be all I needed right now. Anyway, I had recently serviced my dearly loved Perkins and drained both fuel tanks it should get me to a safe haven somewhere. I had spare filters at hand but was in no physical condition to be climbing around the engine room in this weather and bleeding air out of the system with fan belts and alternators spinning furiously in such a confined space.
I turned my thoughts back to forging some kind of plan and deciding which port to head for. I eased myself up and went to the chart table, the zig zag tactics had worked well and considerably improved things. I was now forty miles offshore and it would be daylight in three hours, so which port then? The plans I had of the various different ports along the coast and the wind direction, persuaded me to alter my course for Mahdia. The layout of the port was such that, if I put full speed on, there was only about two hundred meters of significant danger and once I had rounded the breakwater, we were home free. That was the new plan then, I could see from the drawing that there wasn’t that much room inside and I wasn’t going to be able to jump around at the last minute. All the mooring lines and fenders needed to be laid out before I arrived and with any luck, and I felt I was due some, there would be someone on the quayside to help. I sat back down and watched the instruments; my clothes had nearly dried but were still cold and clammy with the salt. With the engine still purring away as sweet as a nut and the heater on, it was quite comfortable inside. The thought of going on deck to prepare the mooring lines didn’t turn me on at all, and anyway if the wind changed direction again, the plan could well change too.
Also, if a mooring line was washed over the side and made fast to the boat at one end, it would trail along side and the next thing would be a fouled propeller. I didn’t fancy going for a swim with the bread knife between my teeth, and in this sea state, I would be very lucky to get back onboard. It’s more likely that I would die in the water. I would wait for a bit and certainly until daybreak, anyway. As a dim loom of light appeared on the horizon, to the east, my spirit lifted immensely. I went to the chart table again and double checked everything, as exhausted as I was it would be easy to make a mistake or overlook something. But I hadn’t, it was all working out now and it was nearly time to prepare the mooring lines, only this time I would wear my waterproofs. Putting them on was a painful task but I would have to work carefully and take my time so I expected to be on deck for a while. As I knelt down and reached in the locker the pain was severe, it took everything I had just to lift the ropes out of the locker. It was daylight now and the wind started to reduce, I had experienced this several times before when a storm would rage all night and then die away to nothing, at daybreak or shortly afterwards. I hoped that would be the case today. Indeed it was, as I worked, it became calmer and easier. The boat had slowed down and there was less spray blowing from the wave crests. The waves were still high, but the boat was riding up and down a lot smoother and hanging on, while I worked. It wasn’t anywhere near as painful as before. The lines were soon ready and I returned to the warmth of the wheelhouse. Now that the boat had slowed down, my arrival time would be later, around midday I thought, but that didn’t matter, for every hour that past, the waves would slowly reduce.
I rounded the breakwater at 11.47 with no trouble at all and was alongside the quay just before midday. The police were ambling about, but didn’t offer any help. Thankfully, a couple on another boat just in front of me, took my lines and helped me tie up. As soon as the last mooring line was made fast, I slumped down on the cockpit seat with my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands, the boat was safe. Or I thought it was, little did I know my ordeal was only just beginning.
Midday 16th of March.
As I sat there with my head in my hands, I felt myself starting to shut down. I could hear voices but they sounded very distant, when I opened my eyes everything was blurred. I had been running on adrenalin and the supply was subsiding. I could hear, Documents, give Documents, want passport. I half raised my right hand and said “Okay sure just give me a minute.” I had previously laid my documents on the chart table in readiness, I took hold of the rigging and tried to stand up, I couldn’t, I slumped back down, and as I did a sharp pain shot up my left side. I let a slight grunt go and then heard laughter. I tried again to get to my feet and this time managed it. Slowly, I made my way down the steps and picked up my folder, then went on deck again. The police office was right on the quayside, only 5 meters from the boat, thankfully. I went into the office and was told to sit at a table with a police officer opposite. He was talking in French and I didn’t understand a word, my second language is Spanish; also I’d forgotten to pick up my glasses. I couldn’t read a newspaper headline in this state. He put his elbow on the table and cupped his hand under his chin; he glared at me as though I had offended him, then turned the paper around and started to fill it in on my behalf.
“Wine,” he said “wine.” I had previously been told by another yachtsman that I’d met the year before, a bottle of wine will get you everywhere. All I wanted to do was get to bed. “Yes wine,” I said “you can have wine.” He was still speaking French and becoming a little bit annoyed with me, I really was doing my very best. He ticked away at the form, then turned it around and stabbed his finger where he wanted me to sign. I didn’t understand what I was signing but all my papers were in order and it was only a port police form and I didn’t feel up to making a fuss. He beckoned me to leave, ahh my bed at last. As hungry as I was, I just wanted to lay my head down, no sooner had I done so, then there was the sound of footsteps and voices, three men clambering about on deck calling “hello hello.” I got myself up, the customs had arrived, oh well might as well get it done then I can eat and sleep as much as I liked. They were speaking English, that was easier, “Good afternoon Customs,” they said. “Yes please come in” I replied. One was in plain clothes, another was in uniform and wearing body armour, he was carrying a side arm on his belt and the other was a short fat young man with big dirty boots, in a kind of mixed dress. As they entered the wheelhouse they spotted the electronic instruments, these were permanently installed since the boat was new and no different to any other vessel. They said “you must declare” I said yes I have nothing to hide. He asked me for a piece of paper then told me to list all electrical equipment. Still absolutely exhausted I started the list, there were constant interruptions from the other two officers who were searching the other cabins and my concentration was not at its best anyway. One of them asked “Do you have a camera?” “Well, yes on my mobile.” I replied. Then he produced a camcorder from behind his back, “And this” he said “you must declare.” That was about six years old and had been left onboard by my ex girlfriend, I had forgotten I had it. Now I was desperately trying to focus on what else was onboard, I had a food blender, a shaver and hair trimmer, then there was a call from the forward cabin, alcohol you have lots of alcohol. Yes I replied, I have lots of everything in preparation for the coming sailing season I have tinned and dried food and cleaning products, tea and coffee and especially alcohol because I didn’t think it was on sale here and anyway its not illegal to have alcohol on board.
“You must declare” he said. “Yes well, I’m still trying to declare my bloody electronics, I can’t be in three places at once, be reasonable please.” Then came a call from the after cabin “What is this?” “One moment please I’m coming.” I shouted back. He was referring to the gun cabinet; I went for the keys and unlocked it. Inside were an air rif le and my shotgun and also the license for it, which I handed him while I produced the guns.
When they saw them their eyes lit up like children in a toy shop, they were passing them to each other and babbling away in Arabic at the top of their voices. The little fat one lost interest in my alcohol and waddled his way to the after cabin to join the party. I also had a one inch emergency flare pistol registered on the same certificate but during the storm the night before I had seen fit to remove the previous customs seal on the cabinet door to have it at hand just in case, it was in my draw along with the cartridges.
It was the uniformed man who had called me and was now waving the shotgun about trying to open the breach. It was a pump action gun and you had to press a detent button to open it. I held my hand out and he passed it to me. I opened the breach and showed him it was not loaded then eased the firing pin and reapplied the safety catch. In the meantime, fatty had found the flare pistol and figured out how to load it. He put a cartridge in, inside the boat. Before he could close it, I grabbed it with my hand across the hammer and snatched it from him. When I had made it safe, I laid it down and told him to get out. The search seemed to have paused, I asked why and they told me they were waiting for their boss to arrive, and in due course he did, well two of them actually, both in plain clothes. The uniformed man took the guns into the wheelhouse and squatted down with them across his leg, while one of the newcomers produced a camera and took several photos. He was looking very pleased with himself; you would have thought he had just shot a Bengal Tiger at the very least. I bet this was going to be big news tomorrow. I said “Are you going to put the guns away now and put your seal on the cabinet?” “No we are taking them, but they are legally in my possession and registered in my name, why?” He repeated “We are taking them.” I said “Okay, on one previous occasion customs have taken the shotgun into bond and issued me with a receipt to reclaim it immediately before my departure, can I have my receipt please.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a piece of folded paper, he unfolded it and waved it in my face pointing to my signature “You did not declare.”