Thursday, 26 April 2012

Goodbye Tunisia

20-22 March 2012

We carefully eased Moksha out of her berth where she was closely surrounded by motorboats on three sides and glided out of the protection of Kelibia’s delightful little harbour leaving behind all its brightly coloured fishing boats and old world charm nestled in the shadows of the fortress.

Our weather forecasts initially predicted twenty plus knots of wind from the stern quarter for our sail up the coast towards the marina at Sid Bou Said before dropping away late in the afternoon. It was most likely a little far away to reach in daylight but with Moksha’s speed in good winds anything is possible. Arriving at a marina after sunset is not a good idea. Apart from dangers involved in finding your way through channels and around massed boats, most marinas simply aren’t staffed at night so there’s no way of knowing where to berth. However our course took us north around Cape into the Gulf of Tunis and then west towards Sid Bou Said and once we’d rounded the cape there were a number of bays that would provide shelter for us to anchor for the night.

Rob on the helm in perfect sailing conditions. Life is good.

We got our predicted wind and along with it came a fairly lumpy sea state so through the morning we really rocked and rolled along making good speeds up the coast. If the sun’s shining and you’re not freezing it really doesn’t matter if the swell gets up a bit. Get the sails trimmed right then it’s just great to let the boat do her thing and enjoy the ride.

Rob was on the helm as we rounded the Cape, keeping a little way off so it didn’t block all our breeze. Initially we were rewarded with flat seas and great wind. If the sailing was good before now it was absolutely, bloody fantastic. The boat heeled well over in the smooth waters, zooming along past spectacular cliff faces, often topped with ancient watchtowers, not boat or other people in sight and enjoying the sunshine, cruising life doesn’t get much better.

Mid afternoon we spied in the distance a big wind farm with scores of massive generators with their slowly turning propellers spread over a series of low hills. It may be very eco-friendly power generation but it did destroy our illusion of sailing by a deserted ancient land. As we got closer we realised something was odd. They appeared to be facing a different way to our wind direction. Sure enough. A few minutes later the wind backed right around and dropped to almost nothing. Bugger!

On went the engine, down came the sails and rather than zooming we were now moseying along. With no chance of reaching Sid Bou Said before sunset, we decided to implement the always more likely Plan B and anchor up for the night under the cliffs in one of the many little bays along this stretch of coastline. The one we chose was said to be near some thermal hotsprings that flow out of the cliffs, that sounded interesting. The information in our Tunisian Pilot book also indicated we would be anchoring on a rocky bottom so we rigged a trip line on the anchor and used one of our fenders as a float. The theory is that if the anchor gets pulled under a rock by the chain and wedged, you can use the trip line to pull it back in the other direction to free it. With overnight winds predicted to stay in the sub five knot area and very little tide or current in the area we didn’t really expect any problems but better to be prepared, hence the trip line and nearly a hundred metres of stainless steel anchor chain were put out. By the time all this was achieved Karen had dinner on the table and we settled in for another fine feed of vegetable pasta and a quiet night.

You can’t always believe forecasts. Rob was woken by Tim at midnight to discover the wind was howling at 25 knots and gusting well above. The boat was merrily dancing around on the end of her chain and Tim had decided rotating anchor watches were called for. Basically this just entails crew members taking a turn at being up and awake for an hour through the night to make sure the anchor is holding and the boat isn’t dragging. That’s an easy process with Moksha’s GPS system. We’d marked on the chart plotter the spot we’d dropped the anchor and the monitor was set to show exactly where the boat was now and her track of previous movements. As long as the track shows the boat swinging back and forth through the same arc you know the anchor is holding. Unlike being on active lookout watch while sailing during the night, anchor watch means grabbing a book to read or movie to watch on your I-Pad or PC and just keeping a casual eye on the chart plotter until it’s time to wake up your relief.

Karen also enjoyed helming Moksha

Satisfied the anchor was well set, Rob settled in to watch a movie on his lap top. About twenty minutes into the thriller, just when things were getting interesting, an almighty flapping noise on deck overtook the suspense of the movie. What the hell? A quick check above revealed the entire mainsail had blown out of the boom and was now trying to fill with wind over the side of the boat. Oh shit - the horrifying realisation that he and Phil had headed straight below for dinner and had forgotten to put the sail cover on after we anchored the previous afternoon. One quick but failed attempt to pull the sail back aboard against the wind and Rob knew he would have to face the wrath of Tim. There was no choice but to wake him up for help.

By now we had worked out that Tim’s bark was indeed worse than his bite. Shouted questions such as ‘What do you think you’re doing? Are you entirely stupid or have you just not been listening to me?’ were surely simply his way of trying to get us quickly up to speed on this very advanced and powerful but potentially dangerously boat. Weren’t they? Never the less it was with not a small amount of trepidation that Rob wrapped on the door of Tim’s cabin, stuck his head in and said meekly ‘Tim, the sail’s come out of the boom’ met with a muffled reply from under the bed covers of ‘Shove it back in and put a sail tie around it.’ Rob continued the exchange with ‘ Ahh- I tried but I think I’m going to need a bit of help’ then quickly withdrew back up on deck and waited for the coming explosion.

Tim bounded out of the companion with a look of ‘why are you so useless that I have to get up for every little thing’ on his face before seeing, not the small section of sail out of the boom he expected but rather the entire, very large main, all billowing over the side with Moksha responding to the windage by straining at her chain and trying to get underway. His face quickly altered to a surprised bloody hell but the expected eruption never happened. Instead with two sets of hands, he and Rob quickly worked together to gather all the sail back into the boom and secure it with a number of sail ties. Job done Tim quietly asked ‘How did that happen?’ After Rob explained his and Phil’s oversight his answer was a simple ‘Well that won’t happen again will it. Good night,’ and he disappeared back to his bunk.

By now Rob’s hour on anchor watch was up and he was due to wake Karen but veins running full of adrenaline saw him decide sleep was unlikely to come in a hurry so he decided to see the rest of his movie leave Karen in bed and do her watch as well. Murder mystery solved followed by the world saved by yet another American action hero it was 4.30am and he was still no closer to sleep so he pulled out the ultimate sedative. Half an hour into watching a chick flick and mission accomplished. The eyes were drooping heavily so he woke Jayatma to take over the anchor watch and got a couple of hours sleep before starting the new day.

Hot springs were a unique experience
In the morning, Richard, Jayatma, Tim and Rob decided to investigate the nearby hotsprings, so the dingy was lowered from its garage in the stern and was quickly headed for the shore. Hot, steaming water could be seen flowing down over the rocks into the Mediterranean. The pilot guide indicated that the average temperatures of the springwater was around 50C while the boat’s instruments showed the sea water was very nippy in the 14 to 15C range.

There was nowhere to beach the dingy so we took it in close to where the springs were. Putting your hand in the water you could feel the temperature rising as we got closer finally anchoring about 15 metres offshore. Rob was the first to roll over the side into the water and the first to find out that the warm water was only a very thin layer on the surface and underneath it was still bloody freezing. Amazing how a shock like that can produce Olympic like performances as he swam for the shore at Thorpedo pace.
The spring water was indeed way too hot to stand under, so the trick was to find the right rock under the water to sit on. Too close to the spring verged on scalding, too far away was brass monkey territory. When you got it right it was fantastic. Richard and Jayatma followed Rob while Tim snapped some photos before also joining in the fun. We knew we had to swim back through the icy water but fortunately, after getting very nice and toasty courtesy of the hotsprings, our core body temps were so far up the cold didn’t bite anywhere near as badly on the way back to the dingy. Very invigorating, a stack of fun and not something you get to do every day.

Fender floating on end of our anchor trip line

Back on board we got prepared for our short passage to Abu Said. In between watching movies through the night, one thing Rob did notice on the chart plotter was that the arc that the boat was swinging through didn’t have the anchoring spot as its centre but rather a point about thirty metres west. The fender float tied to the trip line indicated that the anchor was still where we dropped it so Rob speculated that the anchor chain must be wrapped around a rock. Tim and Richard agreed it was a likely scenario but we all hoped it would come up OK, and it did. That is, it did after nearly an hour of manoeuvring this way and that, tugging the chain with engine and anchor windlass. The good news was that in another fine example of Murphy’s Law, the anchor itself came up perfectly with no need of the trip line at all.

Tim checking the approachs to Sid Bou Said
So on to Sid Bou Said which was only a short hop across the bay. The wind strength was still OK but the direction was directly astern so rather than haul out down wind sails for such a short trip we motored across. We were very much looking forward to Sid Bou Said being the highlight of our Tunisian wanderings. The old town was said to be very picturesque, spread over a hill directly above the harbour and extremely well preserved. From here we were also going to be able to visit the nearby ancient remains of Carthage, the home of Hannibal.

Our marina berth was booked and approaching the harbour Tim radioed and confirmed our spot so what could possibly go wrong? It all started when we entered the marina and the local harbour assistant saw Moksha. He instantly and correctly decided she would not fit in the spot he intended to put her. It turned out that a large dredge had supposed to leave that morning but for whatever reason hadn’t gone and was still tied up in our berth. Apparently he had in mind that he could put us in an alternative spot against the rock quay, that is, until he saw that a 72 foot yacht is bigger than he thought. Like Kelibia we were treated to another session of shouting backwards and forwards across the water as we idled around and Tim used his best French to try to convince the official to let us raft up outside a large ketch that was nearby. Not understanding a word of French we weren’t sure how it was going until the official simply yelled ‘Non!’ turned his back and walked away down wharf. French or no French we knew that couldn’t be good.

So now we were stranded without a berth. Again the strongish onshore wind meant that anchoring was not an option. A quick look back at the pilot guide (published in 2009) revealed that a new marina was under construction around the headland so we crossed fingers it had been completed by now and headed back out through the breakwaters and further north.

With no channel or depth information we carefully approached a new big breakwater that appeared to guard the entrance to a marina and had to avoid a long fishing net spread across the water. Not a good sign but with the keel lifted to reduce our draft we edged on. Rounding the breakwater we entered a beautiful and very large, brand new marina. So new in fact it wasn’t finished. It was surrounded by apartment blocks in various stages of construction along with what was obviously going to be the port office and facilities when completed. What was finished however was a beautiful, long concrete quay complete with bollards to tie up to, so we did.

We´ve got the whole place to ourselves
Tim did a bit of exploring ashore and determined that there was absolutely no one around to ask about staying here so therefore there was also no one to say we couldn’t. It may not have offered all the comforts of home but we were nice and safe from the dangers of anchoring off a lee shore in strong winds and perfectly happy to be the only boat in town. There was no internet service at all however and Richard had business to attend to so he and Jayatma decided to find a taxi and check in to a hotel back in Sid Bou Said for a few days so back packs in hand off they went.

Us crew then had dinner and settled back in the saloon to watch a movie on the big screen TV with surround sound. Life’s tough on Moksha. The plan was next day Tim and Phil would stay aboard, do a few jobs and keep an eye on the boat while we went off and explored Carthage and the following day we’d reverse roles so they could visit the ancient sites. Perfect. What could go wrong?

When the Police car pulled up on the dock beside the boat we knew it really wasn’t our day. Of course we sent Tim out alone to deal with things and stayed below. We were considerate enough to pause the movie however so he wouldn’t miss anything. Tim was quickly led over to the car and disappeared into the back seat while the two officers got in the front. Peeking out the porthole we watched wondering what was going on. Almost an hour later with the conference still going on in the Police car we weren’t sure whether to A: Go to the Police car and see what was happening, B: Ring Richard to have Tim’s bail ready, or C: Start the movie again and let Tim look after himself. We decided to watch the rest of the movie.

Eventually the Police car drove away, fortunately leaving Tim behind. They’d told him because the marina was not occupied, there was no security for us so we couldn’t stay and would have to go to the marina at Sid Bou Said . Tim had explained that we had been turned away from there. They then said we’d have to go to the major shipping port further down the coast or somewhere else, anywhere actually as long as we left. It had then taken Tim the hour to convince them that we were all simply crew and the Captain had gone for the night, we didn’t know where and we weren’t capable of taking the boat back to sea without him.

Be nice when it´s finished. Pity we couldn´t stay
So rather than head to Carthage next day, we got on with boat jobs while Jayatma tried to get us a berth in Sid Bou Said or anywhere nearby. The big shipping port was now also a naval base and private vessels were not permitted so it was out of the equation. The dredge was still showing no signs of moving from Abu Said and no amount of asking could convince them to let us raft against another boat. The next marina up the coast was quite a long way and far beyond where we’d intended to go so in the end we ran out of ideas. We had to say goodbye to our seeing Carthage, cut short our time in Tunisia and head straight to the Italian island of Sardinia. Bugger!

Options exhausted, decision made, then things became a little farcical. Tim rang the customs office in Abu Said to say we needed to check out of the country and where did he need to come with our paperwork and passports. They said we needed to check out in Sid Bou Said Marina but when he said fine he get a taxi and be over shortly they insisted that no, the boat must come to. No amount of explaining that we couldn’t berth in Sid Bou Said made any difference so in the end, away we went in Moksha back around the headland . Here we launched the dingy and Tim headed into the customs office with all the documents while we circled in the very choppy conditions outside the marina.

But wait it gets better. The customs boss decided it was necessary to match the passport photos to the actual faces. The small problem was that the passports were on his desk and we were going around in circles half a mile out to sea. After much discussion with Tim insisting it was impossible for us to come to the office and it’s not required anywhere else a compromise was reached. A Junior Customs Officer would accompany Tim out to the boat in the dingy, sight the faces and then Tim would return him to the marina.

The wind was now twenty knots with a steep chop blowing straight onshore. By the time the dingy bashed its way through the waves out to Moksha the poor Customs Officer in his lovely uniform was so wet, cold, scared and sea sick there was no way he was going to try to board the boat in the big seas. We all lined up across the stern, Tim did a close pass by in the dingy, and the Customs guy decided that yes we were definitely all the correct people. He didn’t actually look at any of the passports because that would of required letting go of the death grip he had on the dingy. Tim then returned the drenched, freezing and very green looking victim of his boss’s idiocy to the dock and made another bumpy trip back to the boat.

After securing the dingy away in its stern garage we then turned the bow towards Sardinia and said goodbye to North Africa.

Goodbye North Africa - Hope we´re back someday.
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