Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Up in smoke, all in a matter of minutes

Sailboat fire: Our beautiful Dolphins being consumed by fire.

Mahon fire department eventually extinguished our boat fire, but in the process, Dolphins sank.

Below is the report I had to submit for insurance purposes. It is rather dry, but it gives the blow by blow of what happened.

At 18:40, we departed fuel dock in Mahon harbor and headed for anchorage. We were anchored at 1900. We started preparing for dinner. Jennifer was preparing dinner in galley and I was sitting in cockpit. About 15 to 20 minutes had passed since we had dropped anchor. Jennifer called to me and said the boat’s lights all just out and came back on again. That’s odd, I said and asked whether the electrical panel lights went out too. Yes, she said. Then a moment later, it happened again. This time, I looked down into the boat and saw that white smoke was wisping up from under the companionway stairs.

I immediately ordered Jennifer into the cockpit and rushed down and pulled away the companionway stairs. I saw white smoke rising from behind the engine up to the ceiling of the compartment and pouring out through the companionway. There were no flames.

I grabbed a flashlight to see if I could identify the source of the smoke, but when I turned it on, it just brightened the white smoke and I couldn’t see anything. I reached to the gas solenoid switch and turned off the gas.

I grabbed my portable VHF radio and issued a Securitee warning that we had a possible fire onboard and to stand by for further communications.

I grabbed one of my two one-pound fire extinguishers and emptied it around the engine. That seemed to stem the smoke a bit. I went into the cockpit, opened a hatch to see below where my battery and 110/220 transformer is. The cockpit lazerette was completely clear of smoke and I didn’t smell anything unusual.

By now the smoke from the companionway had increased again. It was getting more in volume and was now getting darker, blacker. I felt I had to go in again and try to empty the other extinguisher. I was anxious about getting caught in the cabin, but I knew the butterfly hatch over the salon table was open as an escape.

At this time, I issued a May Day call on my VHF several times.

I went below and grabbed my second extinguisher and emptied that one into the engine compartment. There were still no flames at that time. Then I climbed back into the cockpit. I told Jennifer we were abandoning ship. We went forward and untied the lashed RIB dinghy. We attached a painter to it and threw it overboard. We grabbed the two oars and then climbed in over the whiskerstays at the bow. We had nothing with us except the clothes we wore. No shoes, no glasses, no wallets, no phones. Nothing.

I paddled to a nearby sailboat, crewed by a German couple. As we were climbing aboard, an official on the VHF asked for the exact position of the boat on fire and if there were any endangered people. I gave the coordinates and said that we were both safe on another boat.

As we watched, the smoke became thicker and blacker. Within about five minutes of being aboard, we could see flames leaping out of the companionway. We watched in shock as the flames became brighter and bigger. We couldn’t believe this was happening.

On the nearby north shore, we saw a vehicle with a blue light flashing. But we were surprised that no fire boats were arriving. We watched for what must have been for about 45 minutes as the flames spread and engulfed the whole boat. And no one arrived.

We felt there was nothing left to do and we needed to begin the process of getting to authorities and reporting the incident and finding a place for  the night. So the couple motored us to the harbor, past the fire boats which still were not launched. By this time, more than hour had passed.

During the whole ride in, I kept calling on VHF 16 for Guardia Civil, police and finally for anyone to respond, but no one responded. The couple finally called emergency on their cellphone, and the dispatcher suggested calling Guardia Civil, which we did and two officers came to the dock. They didn’t take a report but just drove us to a hotel.

The German couple loaned us a cellphone and 40 Euros, and shoes. I called my brother in Germany and he arranged for payment with the hotel by phone.

The next day, the hotel clerk was a saint and drove us all over town and translated for us. We drove to the airport to give our report to the island’s Guardia Civil chief. He interviewed us for over an hour and the hotel clerk translated.

The resulting report is referenced above.

Then we received word of a minor miracle. The fire department was doing a sweep of the bay and found a floating Pelikan suitcase containing our passports and boat documents. Our hotel clerk drove us to get the case and documents.

Personal addition which was not included in the report:

Roland and his girlfriend Dagmar arrived within 24 hours of the fire. Today, all of us, including the hotel clerk, got into a dinghy and followed a diver out to the site. I asked him to find our money box and our jewelry. 
He took a long time and came up with a melted tool box and said it was difficult to maneuver in the boat because the deck had collapsed into the boat and everything was burned. But he was determined and went down again.

Finally, he came up with our money box. He couldn't find any jewelry.

Tomorrow, Sept. 29, a team will re-float Dolphins and bring her to a workdock.

The technical side of me will be fascinated to see this. But I know Jennifer's and my hearts will sink as the burnt hull surfaces. I'm sure there will be more tears. That will be very hard to see.

I have little hopes that anything can be salvaged.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dolphins RIP

Last night our beautiful, wonderful Dolphins burned.

Jennifer and I escaped unharmed but without anything but the clothes we were wearing. No shoes. No glasses for me. We have our wedding rings.

We don´t know how the fire started. We had just anchored in a bay inside the large natural harbor of Mahon, Menorca. Jennifer was cooking and we noticed the lights in the boat flicker. Moments later, smoke was wafting from the engine room.

I unloaded two fire extinguishers into the engine room, to no avail.

We untied the dinghy, threw it overboard, grabbed oars and rowed away to a nearby sailboat with a German couple and their son.

It all happened within minutes. All surreal. This could not be happening. We were in shock. We still are. Every move I made, I thought I was overreacting. This could not be that serious.

We still could hardly believe it, as we watched Dolphins burn to the waterline from the other boat. Our May Day calls were acknowledged by the coast guard, but I suppose upon hearing that we were safe, they did not send any fire boat. Or at least not during the 45 minutes we waited and watched.

We were dropped off at the harbor and we are now in a hotel.

We have no means of communication. Using hotel computer now. So if you have an emergency and need to contact us, you can via Roland at his cell.

We will give more information once we are settled.

We are sadder than we can say. Our boat, our home, our life.

Monday, September 19, 2011


We arrived in Formentera the day before yesterday, following a three-day passage. It was Jen's and my first passage alone together and we are glad to report, it went well. Weather was great. We caught and ate a small dorado on our third day.

Yesterday, for the first time during this trip, we rented a motor-scooter. What a blast! We kept laughing because we couldn't stop thinking about Eddie Izzard's schtick about scooters.

Here's a clip:
But find and watch the whole monologue someday. That guy is a riot.

Here's Jennifer doing the ciao:

In reality, I did all the driving, while Jennifer did all the hugging. These little scooters are fun, but dangerous as hell. Such small wheels! It's like trying to hold onto a child's scooter with loose handlebars that's fitted with a nitro-rocket booster.

Anyway, so there we were, zipping around, going "Ciao!" and we ended up on the other end of the island at this craft market, which is officially known as "The Hippie Market."

Actually, some pretty decent crafts are offered here. Mostly jewelry, leather goods and clothes. And yes, some presents were bought here. 

The hippie market runs from 4 to 8 p.m. We left around six, just when the musicians were starting.

As we "ciao-ed" around the island, we drove by lots of dry, red-earthed fields that were separated by stone walls. It was hard to tell what is grown here, because most fields looked as if they are regularly tended, but they were bare. 

Apparently, at one point, this island produced a lot of grain because the latin origin of the name Formentera is frumentarium, or granary.

Around the harbors, coves and lagoons, there are boat ramps. Some are covered and appear to serve working fishermen.

Others are almost hard to believe they are for real:

On the second day of our "ciao-ciao" rental, we zipped out to a far-flung cove with a beach-side restaurant and had delicious paella,

while watching the sun-worshipers.

and yes, if you click on the photo and zoom in enough, you will see that Formentera's beaches are quite relaxed when it comes to requiring proper attire. Or any at all. Though, it seems that most people believe in the principle of preserving some mystery.

And finally, this is my favorite scene. It is from a shallow bay just next to our harbor. It is full of run-abouts and local dories. 

"Ricky" here reminds me of a dory being built by my friend Gordon in his barn in Huntington, Vermont.

I like this island. To me, it seems like the European equivalent of Cape Cod.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

El Alhambra

We left our hotel in Granada and walked through the city, seeking our way to a hillside ridge in the Albaycin neighborhood. It was a 45-minute walk, but actually more like a blind man’s tapping through the narrow alleys. First tapping down one cobblestoned way to our left, and then feeling we had headed too far away from the sun and thus trying the next steeper street to our right.

There was a certain urgency to our trek up this hillside neighborhood. It was getting on eight o’clock and the sun was due to set at around quarter of nine.

Finally, we rounded a corner, ascended an alley that was more like extended platforms than stairs and arrived at our destination: a small open plaza, called the Mirador de San Nicolas, in front of the church of the same name. A small church. Unremarkable, really, in a city where even grand churches are dwarfed by Granada’s cathedral. But dozens pilgrimage to this church’s plaza every evening because of its location.
From the plaza’s perch on this hill, the view opens dramatically like a sudden curtain presenting the city below, but more importantly, across a small valley, the grand and enormous El Alhambra.

Alhambra is a colossal complex dating back about a thousand years. It has served as fort, palace, mosque, catholic church, seats of various political powers, and royal retreat to its sultans and kings.

It is one of Europe’s most important historical sites, not just because of its age and sheer size, but also because it is the grandest manifestation of how the Catholics, upon succeeding (read: defeating) the Moors, didn’t demolish and rebuild, but simply subsumed the Moorish mosques and forts with surprisingly few changes. They integrated architectural and religious elements into redesigns of form and function; even leaving the inscriptions to Allah in place and adding their dedications to God right next to them; a religious mingling which is hard to imagine these days.

Alhambra is overwhelming in its enormity, its significance, its beauty, its historical richness, and its latent lessons quietly offered to the receptive.

After touring it for four hours in the early hours of the day, we had taken a siesta back at the hotel and then trekked to this plaza in time for the sunset.

We stepped away from the plaza and sat at an outdoor café and had drinks while waiting for the sunset. A bit offsides of the action. We watched others arrive and vie for a perfect photographic position along the wall. We watched the guitarist arrive and begin his flamenco performance, busking for euros.

All awaited the magical moment when the setting sun would bathe El Alhambra in an orange glow allowing The Red One (literally) to flaunt the awe of its presence and the origin of its name.

This vantage point is perfect for letting your imagination revive this multi-dimensional, multi-faceted complex in various eras. If you start from the right, you can see the fort, the earliest part with its labyrinthine design common to defensive structures.
In the middle, you see the palaces and churches. Now a church, but in this light, in our imagination, we can easily replace the church tower with one of a mosque.

And to the far left, beyond the edge of my composite photo, the Generalife area, which provide a retreat for the royalty. This area originally was the site of the camps for the Christian slaves which built the fort and later the palace structures. Later, it was transformed into a royal retreat with gardens and fountains. An early equivalent of Camp David, if you will.

The evolution of El Alhambra is a quasi-manifestation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: First safety; then development of political and social order; then a garden for creativity and spontaneity.

And yet, how magical can this moment be if elbows are jostling, trying to secure a space wide enough for a view and high enough to snap a photo over the rows of heads in front? Are we here for the moment? The experience and the awe? Or just for the picture? The picture is supposed to be a reminder of the experience. But in actuality, it is, at best, an inadequate, two-dimensional facsimile. Or, at worst, a robber who, as efficiently as a pocket thief, distracts you from the experience, leaving you no time to adequately stow it in your memory.

Stowing “it” in your memory requires more than just the image. Because “it” is not just the visual of the Alhambra. It is the experience of perceiving El Alhambra.

The experience consists of the warm dry air, which must be remembered through the skin. The warmth here in the foothills of Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains is more bearable now than in the afternoon when the temperatures hovered in the mid-nineties. The warmth on this ridge is felt more intensely by the slight breeze, as if you were standing in front of warm heater.

The experience consists of the silence in the gap of the valley between this ridge and the monstrous, majestic Alhambra, contrasted with the sounds of the busker, the cars, the mopeds, and the tourists’ chatter.

The warm, sound-filled silence is complimented by clean scents blowing off the Sierra Nevada ridge on the horizon, across the hills and valleys and mingling with the Alhambra’s gardens fecund with pomegranate trees, lime trees, juniper hedges, cedar, the myrtle courtyard, and the flower gardens.

Ever so gradually, the light of this vista becomes richer. The sky, a deeper blue. The lit surfaces of buildings and walls, a sharper bright. The sun’s angle lowers, becomes more relaxed, lengthening shadows of the church steeples and buildings in the city below.

All of this luscious light casts Alhambra in more nuanced hues, deepening the red of its walls, revealing their rutty textures. The proud towers with their crenellation crowns.  The arched windows, darker now and thus inviting the reverse imagination of what a sultan or prince or king might thought at this slanting hour as he gazed out at this ridge or the kingdom below.

In a word, the experience of El Alhambra is, at this hour, more present.

I wanted to write so much more about the Red One. The interior detail of the Arabesques amazed me most. But I have run out of time to write more, so these photos will have to tell the thousand words:

 An arabesque detail.

From this panel:

And that panel would just part of a larger wall, or part of an arch like this one:
Click on this photo of the arch and appreciate the dappled sunlight coming through the grated "windows."

A fuzzy photo of an interior room, with stalactite, honey-comb arches and more detailed tiling:

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fouled. Again.

We had a nice run from Estepona. Following winds. Favorable current of almost two knots. We motored along the coast. Set the genny at times for a little extra boost. (Wind was directly aft, so we had to take it in much of the time.) We saw some dolphins. Jen made wonderful meals.

Then, at around 2 in the morning, the motor started stalling. 

We remember motor stalling. It's what happened to us as we rounded Cape St. Vincent and we had to be towed into the Lagos harbor.

So, I shut of the engine and we drifted in the darkness as I replaced the clogged, secondary fuel filter. As we got going again, I checked the log and found that the filter clogged after only 30 hours. Normally, that filter is rated for about 500 hours.

To say this was a frustration is to say the Mediterranean is a cute little pond.

I fiddled with our plotter and changed our course. Instead of heading for fabulous Formentera, we are now berthed in Almerimar. A port with a lot of marine services but little charm since it is a new, condo-type of village.

After talking to some people here, we’ve decided to try and solve our fuel clogging issues once and for all: We will have the tank completely drained. This is a major undertaking that will involve hiring a man who will bring hoses, a pump, a barrel and probably fifteen rolls of paper towels.

But since this marina is relatively inexpensive, we have decided to use this delay as an opportunity to get away for a few days and visit Zoe in Leipzig.

I’ll let Jennifer take over from here:

All of these delays have put us so far behind our planned schedule, that we have been resigning ourselves to the fact that we will not make Turkey this fall.  But after speaking with so many cruisers who have gone to Turkey and ended up staying for months and sometimes years, it had re-energized us push ourselves and cover the necessary 2,000 miles to the Turkish coast.  This will mean taking many more 2-3 day passages and sacrificing some of those wonderful siestas we have grown so accustomed to, but I think it will be worth it.  This way we can start from Turkey next spring and ensure that we won’t have to miss out on exploring the dozens of Turkish and Greek islands in the Aegean or forego the Dalmatian Coast.  I realize I am sounding a little too relaxed, cavalier even, about all of these passages and potentially hash weather we will surely encounter, but my desire to get east is stronger than my buried fears.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Off to Formentera

We have been in Estepona for just an over-night. Right around the bend from Gibraltar. There is a guy here, the only one in all of Spain apparently, who fills American-style tanks with propane. He filled our tank and sold us a conversion set so we can now use the European "camping gaz."

So this evening (in a couple of hours) we are cast off for Formentera, a little island just south of Ibiza. Almost attached to Ibiza.

It should be a three-day run, making our arrival sometime Sunday evening. It will be our first multi-day passage together with just the two of us.

No internet during the passage, so we will be out of touch.

Here's the Matty-Jen watch schedule:

0700 - 1200 (five hours) Matty
1200 - 1600 (four hours) Jen
1600 - 2100 (five hours) Matty
2100 - 2300 (two hours) Jen
2300 - 0100 (two hours) Matty
0100 - 0300 (two hours) Jen
0300 - 0500 (two hours) Matty
0500 - 0700 (two hours) Jen

From now on, you can see our location on a map, if you click on the link ALL THE WAY at the bottom of this post. Underneath all the goofy social network icons, there is the written location of where we are posting from. If you click on that, you will get a map.

Walking the Plank

We are officially in the Mediterranean, and consequently, we have to do the "Mediterranean Moor."

Sounds like a dance. And it is, in a way. Here's the deal:

All boats head nose first, or back in with their sterns, to a concrete dock. You squeeze  your boat in between other boats into a slot that is barely big enough. Everyone has their fenders overboard to minimize scuff marks.

For us, we need to have someone at the dock to help us. They attach our bow lines. Then they hand us this little line attached to the harbor wall, sunk in the water. We follow this little line back and it is attached to a larger docking line, lying on the harbor floor. This pleasant line is mucky, ucky and encrusted with tiny barnacles that will leave your palms in shreds. So now we have muck-gloves for this job. The muck line is our stern line.

Some harbors won't have a muck line. Then we will have to use a stern anchor to hold our stern out into the harbor.

Then the real trick is getting off Dolphins by climbing over our bow rail to the dock without falling into the water.

To do this, a passerelle is used. A passerelle is a homemade rig. The million dollar yachts have ones that will deploy, complete with handrail, by the push of a button through a trap door and have hydraulics to adjust them just so. Us sailing mortals design our own. And there are literally as many designs as there are boats. Everyone has something different.

Here's ours. First you climb over the bowrail and balance on the bowsprit.

Then, you step onto the wiggly passerelle which is dangling by lines from the bowsprit.

Then you balance, and walk backwards, while holding on:

And, if all goes well, voila:

Now: Try this with bags of groceries.

For the geeks: I bought our passerelle at Home Depot. It is one of the tracks used for wheeling your lawnmower or ATV into the back of a pickup truck.

We have to keep it loose and dangly because the boat rises and sinks relative to the dock with the tide. In this set of photos, the passerelle is below the bowsprit. But sometimes, the passerelle is on top of the bowsprit.