A close encounter with a very big ship

I mentioned yesterday that we had one of our worst boating experiences ever, here in the South of France, just outside the Port of St Jean Cap Ferrat.


We were on our Nordhavn 62, Sans Souci, and had spent a wonderful day at anchor off a nearby island, near Cannes. As we were returning home to the marina, we decided that the weather was so nice that we should anchor out overnight. We bypassed our marina, and dropped anchor in a nearby bay, just off Cap D’Ail, close to Monaco.


Our 62 was like our current 68, in that we have an upper aft deck, behind the pilot house, which is where we normally dine. We like being outside, up high, and having the view. This means we have to lug all the food up the stairs, but it’s a small price to pay. Roberta made a pizza for dinner, and I was carrying it up the stairs, when we were suddenly hit by a strong wave. I dropped the pizza, which scattered EVERYWHERE. At the same time, the dishes, wine glasses, silverware, and the wine, that had already been set at the table, skidded off the table, shattering. In seconds, our idyllic moonlit dinner had transformed into a disaster.


I assumed we had been hit by the wake of another boat, but our boat hadn’t stopped rocking. Our calm bay had suddenly become a nightmare of swell. Waves were breaking not far from us. My first thought was that we had somehow drifted closer to shore, but that wasn’t it. The wind had come up. There had been essentially no wind all day, and none was in the forecast. But a quick look at the wind indicator confirmed the obvious, the wind was now over 20 knots, and gusting higher.


We decided to “wait it out” and hope the wind died down, which it didn’t. We were trying to clean up broken glass, sprayed pizza sauce and spilled red wine, while being tossed from side to side. During the cleaning, Roberta was constantly reminding me that it had been I who chose our anchorage.


As the wind continued to rise, it was becoming obvious that we had to move. I really did not want to pull anchor, but we had no choice. We were taking quite a beating, and our marina was only a few miles away. Once out of the bay, we realized that we were only seeing a fraction of the wind. We were now in 30+ knot winds, gusting over 40 knots. There was no chance of making it into port at our home marina. I have long forgotten which direction the wind was coming from, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Entering the marina in 40 knot winds, at dark, was not going to happen. The best we could hope for was a place to hide from the wind, that had less swell.


We noticed that dozens of boats were anchored in front of the port of Cap Ferrat, and that they seemed to be resting fairly calmly. Our general rule has been that “When in doubt, look to see what the local boats are doing.” We quickly agreed that we needed to drop anchor with the rest of the boats. There didn’t seem to be much room, but we were sure we could find a place.


The anchor on our current boat is a Rocna, which has always held the first time it was dropped. The anchor on our 62 was a CQR, that we had bad luck with. It held well once set, but setting it was usually a problem. This was to be no exception.


We had to maneuver, in the dark, through a tight anchorage, looking for a “hole” between the boats large enough for us to drop our anchor. The wind was greatly limiting our ability to maneuver, and we were exhausted. We had risen early to go cruising, and had spent the day swimming and hiking (around an island). Roberta was inside the boat, driving, while I was standing on the boat using hand signals to guide her towards a spot to drop the anchor. The wind was howling too much to make any kind of walkie-talkie communications possible.


The anchor would not stick. There is a lot of crud (sea weed) here on the bottom. Our CQR anchor just would not dig in. We would carefully maneuver into position drop the anchor, think we were stuck, but as soon as we would put a little pressure on it, it would come free. When the anchor would drag, we ran the risk of backing into another boat, or being pushed to shore. Roberta was doing a great job getting us into position, and dealing with the mess when the anchor wouldn’t hold, but each failure meant raising the anchor, and making a large sweeping pass around all the boats, in order to line up again for another drop. I’ve forgotten the details, but I bet we failed three times, at a minimum, with nearly an hour of effort on each pass.


Finally, the anchor did stick. But, that’s when the real fun began. I should explain that Roberta and I rarely agree on the best spot to drop an anchor. Whereas on television, the captain gives an order, and the crew obeys, it doesn’t seem to work like that in our family. Usually, I signal from the bow that I’d like to drop the anchor, and Roberta shakes her head violently to indicate that she doesn’t like the location. Or, often, I’ll not like a location and she’ll come out of the pilot house waving her arms signaling that I should be dropping the anchor now. Anchoring locations are usually the result of a debate, especially in tight situations. On this night, we were exhausted, visibility was limited, and the wind was making controlling the boat difficult.


Although the anchor had stuck, we were much too close to a four-story tall megayacht. In fact, as the wind shifted we realized just how close we were. Studying our position, from the calm of the pilothouse, I realized that our anchor chain was directly across the anchor chain of the megayacht. We were inside his swing circle, and our chains were tangled. I hadn’t tested to see if our chains were tangled, but I had no doubt that any attempt to raise our chain would be likely to also pull his chain from the bottom. Given the wind, both of us would be on the rocks within minutes.


Adding to the “fun”, the megayacht was reacting to the wind much differently than our boat. The Nordhavn 62 is an awesome boat in many respects. It sits very low in the water, and doesn’t get driven around too much by the wind. This is not the same on a four story megayacht. In fact, this thing was dangerously unstable (in my opinion). Megayachts are designed for the comfort of the guests, not necessarily to be seaworthy. Whereas we sat fairly stable with our nose into the wind, the megayacht was zigzagging back and forth over a roughly 60 degree arc.


For the megayacht to hit us, nothing more would be required than for the wind to change directions. I tried to call them on the radio, figuring they could watch as we pulled our anchor, and pull in some chain if needed, to help keep us apart. They did not answer my calls. I couldn’t imagine that on a 250’ (or more) boat, that someone wouldn’t be standing watch, in winds over 40 knots, but no one responded. We tried blinking the lights on the bow, and even the horn – but, nothing got their attention. I thought about dropping the tender, but even if we could get it down in the wind, and didn’t sink running the short distance to the other boat, I don’t know how I’d have gotten their attention.


The wind seemed steady, and unlikely to change directions, so we weren’t in immediate danger, although I really didn’t like watching the wide swing of the megayacht. Roberta and I knew what this means: anchor watch. One of us would need to be in the pilot house all night, to watch for any change in the wind, or our relative position to the megayacht. I wasn’t sure what we’d do if the wind shifted, but knew I had more options sitting alert in the pilot house than asleep in my bunk.


We plotted out a watch schedule that was useless. Neither of us was going to sleep. We watched DVDs for a while, and Roberta did laundry. We fiercely debated whose “big idea” it was to drop anchor instead of going into port, who picked the anchorage at Cap D’Ail, why the anchor was so stubborn on sticking, and of course: Who chose the location too close to the megayacht? As the evening ground on, and tempers flared, no resolution was reached on any of these points.


We never came closer than 100’ to the skyscraper (the megayacht) anchored next to us – but, that was enough that our neck was straining from looking up at it.


When the wind died suddenly just after daybreak, we waited impatiently for any sign of activity on the other boat. When finally we saw some stirring, we dropped the tender, and ran over. A guest on the back deck went to fetch the captain. I explained our predicament, and the captain said “We saw you drop anchor and wondered why you dropped so close to us. We had someone watching you all night.” I was going to complain about why he didn’t respond on the radio, when he went on to say that he was a fan of Nordhavn, and wanted to retire someday and buy a Nordhavn. This moved him much higher on my list of good people. We worked out what channel we would communicate on, and what he would do, and what I would do – and, my anchor came up on the first try.


Boating is never dull!


One Response

  1. Hello Ken,

    It must be nice to sit safely ashore and reflect on this situation. Oddly, It makes me “homesick” to be back in Washington and out on our boat. Actually, I only ran the 9 foot Boston Whaler this summer as we were building a 300 foot sea-wall in Liberty Bay across from Poulsbo to protect our home. Someday soon, before too many years pass and after Alexis finishes her degree at Arizona State University, we will be buying a Nordhavn 43/47 and cruising the Inside Passage. They are incredible boats as I learned at TrawlerFest this year when I went and looked at the engine room of a 43. Yes, the helicopter on the F.B.C.was cool, but the Nordhavn definitely got my People’s Choise Award.

    Enjoy Safe Travels and Fair Winds,

    David Evans

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