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GMDSS A User's Handbook

By Denise Bréhaut

GMDSS A user's handbook








The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) provides a fast and efficient way of calling for assistance at sea, whatever the size of craft or its geographical position. Since it was first published, this book has helped explain the system for anyone using GMDSS and has been excellent pre-course reading for students.


The Long Haul South

The rest of the journey down the Atlantic coast of Portugal was perhaps quite typical. The wind was pretty constant from the west, albeit not very strong. The temperature rose steadily, the water turned bluer and the dolphins continued to tease every now and again. Bob and I broke into two watches of four hours about whilst the rest of the crew enjoyed 1-in-3 with all the down time that offered. We stayed relatively close inshore with light winds on the stbd beam averaging around 5kts, clocking the 1000 mile point late that evening.

Early the next morning the wind began to increase slightly and veer around to the NW. Andy and I were on watch for the sunrise but had a bit of a scare close inshore on our way towards the Peniche peninsular. We were only about 3 miles or so offshore when Andy noticed that the depth sounder was unexpectedly reading 4 metres!

"Is that correct?" he quizzed. "Shouldn't be," was my reply.

We were close to shore but not that close to cause concern as there should have been in excess of 30m beneath us. I immediately swung Cushla around to stbd to head for deeper water but no matter where I headed the depth continued to indicate we were in the shallows. A quick check of our position showed that we were on track and far enough offshore with no charted obstacles to trip us up. For about fifteen minutes I altered course left and right trying to find a safe passage out but to no avail; we seemed to be trapped in a shallow patch. I stopped the boat and went back to the chart once again, this time to take a proper look. This is when I remembered that a good pilot will read the chart and not just stare at it. It transpired that we were near to Ponza de Nazare directly over the Canahao de Nazare trench with a charted depth of over 300m. The seabed had literally dropped away from under us leaving the echo sounder confused and unable to compute the true depth. Somewhat relieved that we had plenty of water I pressed on with the original course and very soon the depth returned to normal. I put my mistake down to fatigue and complacency and vowed to sharpen up on my navigation skills!

By mid afternoon we had passed through the gap between the Isla da Berlenga and Cabo Carvoeiro and with sufficient wind behind us we hoisted the spinnaker once again. After faffing about for 20 minutes or so we had it flying and with adjustment we found a course where she would fly herself almost unattended. At least now we wouldn't need the good engine to give us a push so in quiet and glorious sunshine we sailed on due south into the evening, staying offshore. In 20kts true wind we made good 7½ kts towards Cape St Vincent some 120nm ahead.

Dolphin hunting under Spinnaker

The wind remained favourable and with a desire to maintain our speed I decided to leave the spinnaker up for as long as possible. Some might question my decision to carry on under spinnaker into the night but with a good moon to light her up and with some sharp steering I managed to fly her up until 10pm. The wind began to fill so I knew that the spinnaker would have to come down before the end of my watch but the decision was taken out of my hands when the guy came loose. With great haste the kite was recovered and stowed. This was to be the last time she was flown.

Fortunately, the wind was strong enough to continue our run and so with some gybing we managed to get over 9kts. It was whilst surfing down the following seas that we recorded our top speed of 14½ kts; the fastest I had seen Cushla go, albeit with the help of gravity.

We rounded Cape St Vincent at 10am that Sunday morning and set off onto the home straight for Vilamoura with 25kts on the beam. Cushla responded well to the reach and with full sail and the rig singing we shot off at 9kts, with an ETA of 5pm. However, the last ten miles or so before Vilamoura turned into a bit of a slog as we had to goose-wing the sails in light airs towards the breakwater.


We drew alongside the reception pontoon at 5.40pm where Richie, Anne and Lee were waiting expectedly. There was much jubilation at our safe arrival and I felt proud of Cushla and the crew for performing so well under the circumstances. After 9 days at sea they were 'old hands' but now it was time to take on some fresh 'legs' and to start the learning curve once more.

I granted the crew some 'shore leave' to grab a shower and a beer if they could find one. With the order "We sail at 7pm sharp" ringing in their ears they set off in search; It took Steve, Rachel and Andy about two minutes to find the nearest bar! For me it was the obligatory chore of booking into the marina. The usual passport and paperwork checks took about twenty minutes but all I could think of was the pressing need to fit the new propeller.

On paper the process seemed to be straight forward and probably no longer than 15 minutes to carry out. However, in reality it was more difficult. Having talked it through with my helpers I slid into the water trying not to draw attention to what was probably an illegal manoeuvre. The water, albeit warmer than before at 17ºC, was quite murky and there was a strong ebb flow out of the harbour. The new prop and tab washer went on easily as did the cone retaining nut, each just taking one gulp of air to complete. I tried using a breather hose but found that pulling in the air against the pressure on my chest quite alarming so decided to hold my breath instead.

The difficult task was to bend the tabs of the washer over the flats of the cone. I needed to hold a hammer in one hand, a punch in the other whilst jamming myself under the hull of the yacht between the rudder and the prop. This proved to be a challenge in the murkiness as I was only able to get half a dozen taps each dive. I was conscious of the consequences should I fail to set the tabs sufficiently so I went back under time and again to make sure the prop was sully secure. After around 30 minutes of doing my best Jacques Cousteau impressions I declared that the prop was now in place and that Cushla was now fit again to resume 'full steam ahead'.

Prop replacement

With that major task complete there was just enough time to grab a shower, a quick celebratory bottle of beer and a bit of a wind-down. Half the crew were still away at the bar, Bob was busily sorting out our passage plan for the leg down to Gibraltar and the remaining crew were unpacking and finding their way around the boat. The Marina had graciously granted us a free stay for a couple of hours so not wishing to abuse their generosity I was keen to push on. Unfortunately, Steve, Rachel and Andy had obviously gotten the taste for the local ale and had not returned for the 7pm departure! After one or two stern texts to their mobiles they reluctantly returned and by 7.30pm we were on our way once again, this time with a crew of eight.

That evening Cushla felt somewhat busy on board and we found ourselves getting in each other's way. There was reluctance for the crew to break into watches as there was so many of them and the promise of Gibraltar the next day put a spark of excitement in the air. For me and Bob it was a chance to catch up on some sleep as we had been 1-in-2 for three days so with Richie now taking a watch we too could break into three watches. The evening was clear so in a northerly F4 we set course for Cape Trafalgar.

Overnight the conditions remained steady until about 8am when the wind began to veer to the east and freshen. By mid-morning on the 11th we found ourselves about 20nm south-west of Cadiz with the Straits of Gibraltar beckoning and about 50nm to go to the next waypoint off Tarifa. The crew were enjoying every minute and at one point I heard a request from Steve at the helm for someone to pass him out his Sudoku book! I leapt into the cockpit ready to dish out a rebuke but found him furiously swatting wasps. Clearly he needed a weapon and not something to pass the time at the wheel!

Despite the glorious conditions it became apparent as the winds increased that the Straits were going to be a bit of a grind and it was whilst nearing Cape Trafalgar late in the afternoon that it began to get tough. The wind had risen to 30kts plus and was now on the nose. Not only did we have to battle against the current but we also had to tack all the way to Gib. Firstly the mainsail was reefed, closely followed by the genoa and by 7.30pm with the wind gusting F9 the genoa was furled completely. At one point we came down the back of a wave and registered 60kts of apparent wind!

Cape Trafalgar - well known to all who've sailed south!

Cushla battled on into the evening passing Tarifa at around 8pm, making a paltry 4 miles every hour towards our destination. We were getting severely battered with the heavy seas thumping into the bridge deck, shaking every fitting violently. Nobody was having fun or getting any sleep! I had worked out that we could possibly make Gibraltar before the end of the day if the current was kind to us and then realised that we had another hour to add to the ETA as we were still in Portuguese time. This put a bit of a downer on things and the promise of a run ashore began to look decidedly dodgy. We pressed on, wincing at every bone shaking crash, finally rounding the headland into Gibraltar Bay after midnight.

The 'Rock', was shrouded by Levant cloud and so did not appear as magnificent as one would expect, only the lights of the town being visible. The bay was littered with ships at anchor and a mess of unrecognisable lights surrounded us. All we could do was to pick a course for the northern mole and weave our way through the ships, keeping a sharp lookout as we went. With a boat speed of 7kts we transited the bay quickly and by 1.15am we had dropped the sails and turned at the Waterport for Marina Bay. All we had to do was get alongside!

The night watchman, rigorously waving his torch, guided us towards a small opening alongside the concrete pier between a couple of big boats. It was a tight approach and an even tighter turn into the berth, not helped by the fresh breeze whistling along North Front. I decided on a starboard-side-to so that I had a good view of the pier but in hindsight I should have just slid straight in from the approach. The turn was extremely tight with no room for error but with no more than a foot or so ahead and to the stern we got our lines ashore without incident. Thank God for two props! Now we could relax after what was an exhausting and testing passage.

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