A straightforward Mediterranean delivery turned into an epic cruise from Tunisia to Scotland as the crew battled the elements and the lockdown to get her home.
Working with Halcyon as a delivery skipper can never be described as dull. I’ve enjoyed some exceptional trips all over the globe from Bora Bora to the Baltic and from Mexico to the Med. So when a call came in to deliver a Halmatic Butler 40 from the southern Tunisian town of Monastir to Almerimar on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, I took it on, thinking it would be a straightforward six-day trip. This is not how things turned out!
Before arriving, I made my usual pre-confirmation call through the owner to introduce myself and discuss the delivery and the vessel. There is always an interesting backstory but this one immediately stood out. Otters Moon was built in 1979 in Emsworth for the owner of Clyde Marine. As a master mariner and owner of several successful commercial vessels, he knew what he was looking for.
This was to be a family boat, capable of navigating the islands of north-west Scotland safely and comfortably. She sported a superb pilot house with 360-degree views and excellent protection from the elements.
The engine was a Gardner 10.5 litre 6LXB – a marinised version of the beautifully simple and strong engine used in London buses and other hard working public service vehicles. With this lump purring away at 800rpm burning 6 litres per hour for a cruising speed of 6 knots, she had a range of 4,000nm from her 4,500-litre fuel tank.
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Otters Moon proudly flew a Blue ensign – the owner being a member of the Royal Scottish Motor Yacht Club – and had spent many years doing just what she was built for, providing a safe and comfortable floating home for family holidays cruising the beautiful but remote Scottish islands, regardless of the vagaries of the Scottish weather.
Sadly, after a period of ill health, the original owner passed away in 2019. His son had sold the boat to a French man a couple of years previously. The new owner spent much of his life in Reunion, a French island province in the Indian Ocean, where Otters Moon was re-registered as Lotre Moun.
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As soon as he sold her, however, the son regretted his decision and two years later, he contacted the new owner to see if he could buy her back. Negotiations took some time, as the boat was now located in Tunisia and flagged outside of Europe, causing further complications.
Eventually, a deal was finalised and Halcyon (and myself) were contracted to complete the sales legalities and get the boat back to Europe. I had a two-week time slot for the delivery before my next job, and with approximately 800 miles to cover from Tunisia to Almerimar via Sardinia and the Balearics, it looked manageable.
The lack of suitable ports of refuge along the Algerian coast and Noonsite advising that “visits by cruising yachts cannot be recommended” meant that the direct route carried some increased risk, particularly for an older, single-engine vessel, but this turned out to be the least of our challenges!
As always, Halcyon select their teams carefully. Both my two crew mates were commercially endorsed Yacht Masters, one with his own boat on the west coast of Scotland and the other a professional marine engineer and experienced charter skipper – truly a dream team!
I called my crew to get acquainted and agreed the best options for travel to the boat. As this was 9 March, we were already aware of the rapidly changing situation surrounding COVID-19. On arrival at Tunis Airport, our temperatures were checked and we filled out some hastily prepared new forms logging our intended movements. Thankfully, we had arranged a private transfer for the two-hour drive to Marina Monastir.
Arriving at the Marina just before dusk, we had time to meet the vendor. He was a charming character and we agreed to meet again the next day to go over the boat and complete the sales formalities.
The following day we went through the boat from bow to stern, recording any issues we found and getting to know its foibles before we headed out to sea. Even though the engine had just been serviced, the fluids needed topping up, the alternator belt tensioning, the fuel injector leaks fixing and various other minor errors resolving. Fortunately, I had brought all the engine spares we needed with me, as well as the tools to carry out the work.
Having spotted a weather window to move the boat before the next Mistral kicked in, we set our sights on departing Monastir on the morning of 12 March. The rapid spread of the virus through Europe and lockdowns being put in place was also starting to worry me so I decided to cut our proposed stopovers in Sardinia and the Balearics and make a direct 800nm passage to Almerimar, with options to stop along the Tunisian coast if we ran into any difficulties early on.
We provisioned and fuelled accordingly (at 50 cents a litre!) and after completing departure formalities, we were ushered out of the marina by the port police at 9am on 12 March. We found out later that we had only just managed to leave before the country locked its ports for leisure vessels.
Once clear of the marina, we set Otters Moon on a northerly path to clear the local fishing grounds in light winds and little swell. It was good to be moving at last and the boat’s pleasant rolling motion set up the rhythm for the journey ahead.
We agreed on a three-hour watch system and with the autopilot working well, we chugged away at a pleasant 6 knots. The rota allowed for plenty of rest as well as a schedule for cooking meals. Through the first night we stuck close to the coast at Ras At Tib (Cape Bon), so that we could get updated reports on travel restrictions before heading across the Gulf of Tunis.
On a number of occasions through the night we were hailed by the Tunisian Coastguard to check on our intentions but the communications were always brief and courteous. I did get woken at some ungodly hour to be asked by the crew on watch what I made of the strange glow on the horizon. After a quick check on the charts and radar, I advised that it was most likely a squid fleet using floodlights to attract its prey and as we came closer, that’s exactly what it proved to be.
Rock of ages
On the whole though, we stuck to deeper waters, clear of fishing hazards. Our route took us inshore of the traffic separation schemes and close to the Galite Islands, 24 miles off the Tunisian coast near the border with Algeria. As expected, naval activity was particularly intense for this part of the passage but as we were transmitting on AIS (class B), we were left to carry on our way.
As we passed the halfway point, around 50nm off El-Jazair, we received an Inmarsat text message from Halcyon informing us of the closure of borders in Spain, Algeria and Morocco. This was our planned point of departure from North African waters to make the crossing to Spain so we carried on east as advised and made our European landfall during the fourth night, close to La Manga.
With steadily increasing NE winds, we were grateful for the shelter the Sierra Nevada mountains and rugged Spanish coastline provided. With Almerimar no longer a viable option, we agreed with Halcyon to continue towards Gibraltar.
Whilst I was on watch in the early hours, I listened to an increasingly fraught VHF conversation between two Greek-registered leisure vessels and the Spanish coastguard. The boats had just returned to European waters from the Caribbean and were seeking permission to enter Almerimar. They had already been refused entry to Gibraltar and were now running very low on food, fuel and water.
They were told in no uncertain terms that it was illegal to enter and if they did, they would be arrested and the boats impounded. After some extended and increasingly despondent communications, the Greek vessels elected to enter anyway. They were genuinely concerned for their safety and felt they had no choice but to seek a port of refuge.
As the day progressed, we were advised by Halcyon that, using our commercial papers, we would be allowed to refuel in Gibraltar under quarantine. We were also delighted to hear that another Halcyon skipper and crew were in Gibraltar and would be happy to provision for us so that we could continue on all the way back to the Clyde, the boat’s ultimate destination, but a passage which the owner had intended to do himself.
Whilst not on our original agenda, we soon realigned our thoughts to this new assignment but now we faced a new challenge. Detailed weather routing showed we were in for quite a blow with building seas, as the Mistral spread its tentacles into the Alboran Sea.
As there were hardly any leisure vessels about, I elected to take the normally busy inshore route to avoid the worst of the waves. This proved prudent and we enjoyed a fast and relatively comfortable passage all the way to Sotogrande. The boat had been well prepared for an offshore passage so even the final exposed part of this trip from Estopona to Europa Point, before we ducked into Gibraltar, shouldn’t pose any major issues.
I had travelled this route many times before so I wasn’t particularly concerned that our ETA off Europa Point was around 01:00. With 40-knot winds and a 3m swell it was an interesting passage and we resorted to hand-steering our way through the worst of it with all hands in the wheelhouse for the last two hours. We finally tied alongside in a deserted Gibraltar at around 03:30. Having covered over 900nm in five days, we collapsed into our bunks and slept like the dead.
I was woken at around 08:30 by our Halcyon shore crew. They could see our quarantine flag over the walls but were unable to reach the boat so we arranged for the delivery of our supplies through the fuel station. After some gratefully received bacon sandwiches, we learnt that this other Halcyon crew had only just made it through to Gibraltar.
Their delivery from the Canaries to Denia had been similarly curtailed and just before the borders closed, they had managed to leave the boat in La Linea and crossed into Gibraltar by foot, where they were waiting for flights. We were very grateful for the supplies and the understanding of the authorities, who allowed us to stay another night, giving us time to service the engine and get another night’s rest before pushing on into the Atlantic.
Once more unto the breach
Leaving early on 19 March with the Levante wind whistling past the wheelhouse at a full 50 knots, I knew we were in for another interesting ride and so it proved to be. Fortunately we were running from the wind and with a 3m swell scooping us up and carrying us along at 13-second intervals, we made fast progress along the inshore passage through the Gibraltar straits. By now we had built a lot of confidence in Otters Moon’s abilities and she handled these conditions with aplomb.
We surfed past Tarifa and on into the night for the offshore stretch between Trafalgar and the Portuguese Algarve. These coasts are so beautiful and having enjoyed clear skies all the way from Tunisia, we felt a sense of sadness that we were unable to appreciate them now. But this was not our mission and, keen to get the job done, we focused on keeping Otters Moon rolling on.
Passing Cabo São Vicente on the south western corner of Portugal just before dark, we made the big turn from east to north. With the wind and waves dying overnight we were then blessed with a day of calm seas as we made our way towards Cascais. Now our only issue heading north from Cabo São Vicente was the frequent sight of fishing pots, often with barely visible black markers.
We kept outside the 100m contour line to avoid these during the night and on the two occasions we thought we might have come into contact with one, the boat’s fully protected prop and rudder meant they slipped harmlessly past us.
We closed Cascais just before dark the following evening and with the wind slowly setting from the north, I gave my crew a quick familiarisation circuit of the protected anchorage in Cascais bay before heading back around the corner of Cabo Raso. The sunset was perfect, illuminating the palace at Sintra in the hills above the cape. As if on cue we were joined by a playful pod of dolphins.
We crossed back into Spanish waters and the dramatic entrance to the Ria de Vigo just after dawn and informed the VTS operator and Spanish coastguard of our intentions to anchor overnight in the protected Ria de Vigo until the low pressure system in the north of Biscay had moved on, giving us a safe window to cross.
The operator couldn’t have been more understanding and agreed for us to anchor off the Islas Cies, the beautiful islands guarding the entrance to the bay. Despite the situation we felt blessed to be seeing these locations in total solitude and perfect weather. I even celebrated by jumping into the chilly water for a swim!
Cornwall to the Clyde
The weather forecast gave a tight window for crossing Biscay before a strong but short-lived easterly in the English Channel backed and became an untenable northerly in the Irish Sea. So we pressed on early into a 20-knot NNE, which took us into the route for our next big cape – Finisterre.
Although over 40 years old, our Decca 150 autopilot had been reliable in all but the strongest conditions thus far. However, just to the south of Finisterre, in the dead of night and with large seas and Force 6 northerlies, it suddenly failed causing the boat to veer hard to starboard.
I tried to reset it but after the second attempt, I gave up and elected to hand steer until the change of watch. On closer inspection we found two broken transistors and some free play in the rudder, which we suspected was caused by a worn keyway.
After further investigations and discussions with Halcyon and the owner, I decided the play in the steering was not a game-changer, so we increased speed again and entered Biscay in dying winds with a course set for the Île d’Ouessant, some 300 miles to the north-east.
We changed the rota to two-hour watches to allow for hand steering. We were now having to work hard for every mile north. The seas were very confused and for the first time Otters Moon felt out of her comfort zone. At one point, some 30 miles off the coast of Galicia, we took a detour south for 30 minutes just to get some rest from the constant battering.
Happily, the seas gradually settled down and we turned back onto our course as the long swells began to dominate and the continental shelf dropped away into the Abyssal Plain of Biscay – over 5,000m deep. Here, we were clear of all traffic, just south of the major shipping routes and away from the fishing boats that plied their trade along the continental shelf.
We made rapid progress across the 320 miles or so of Biscay to Ouessant, before pressing on for the last 100 miles across the western approaches towards the UK. Another lumpy day was once again made bearable by an escort from dolphins and dying winds as we passed the Lizard lighthouse with another perfect sunset as the Cornish coast came into view.
Due to the concerns over our steering and the need to replenish supplies, Halcyon had arranged for us to stop in Mylor under quarantine. Arriving in the early hours of the morning, we were initially treated with some hostility by one of the residents now under lockdown. But when we explained our circumstances their attitude soon melted. A journey that had taken the previous Breton owner two years to complete had taken us two weeks, including short stops in Gibraltar and Vigo.
Although one day merges into another when offshore, coming to land brings new challenges and with most things shut due to coronavirus restrictions, we felt very fortunate to be given safe harbour. The engineer soon confirmed the steering fault was caused by the suspected loose keyway and over tight bearings, and repaired our navigation lights but not the autopilot.
Furthermore the forecast northerly in the Irish Sea was now belting out 40-knot winds, making a journey past Land’s End untenable. We agreed to wait things out for a couple of days and moved to anchor in the Helford River for the second night.
What a beautiful place the Helford is and we were privileged to have it all to ourselves, with another perfect sunset followed by a spectacular sunrise as we weighed anchor on 1 April and headed west for the Lizard and Land’s End.
With the tail end of the easterlies assisting us, we made the inshore route past Longships light in benign conditions, sheltering from the remnants of the blow that had just passed through the Irish Sea. After Longships we headed north, altering course as the seas turned to a muddy brown and the light faded in the Bristol Channel, aiming for the corner of southern Ireland and Tuskar Lighthouse.
The strong tides of the Bristol Channel were now behind us and the sea changed to a grey/green as we passed Tuskar and approached the Irish Coast. The winds were forecast to build again as we progressed north, so we were grateful for the shelter the Irish coast provided.
We entered Dublin Bay, passing through the narrow sound between Dalkey Island and Sorrento Point just as the evening light illuminated Dún Laoghaire and the chimneys of Dublin beyond. Never has Dublin looked so inviting, but with a strict lockdown in place, we were unable to stop and pressed on into the night.
Just after I fell asleep at 10pm, my crew woke me to say we were being approached by customs and border vessels. Sure enough, two vessels were chasing us down under blue lights and soon after, boarded us to question our intentions and search the vessel. After a two-hour check and radioing though to base to verify our story, they finally gave their blessing to carry on north.
At dawn, with winds backing to the south-east and easing, we broke free of the shelter provided by the coast of Northern Ireland and set our sights on making the short hop over to Scotland. Savouring the taste of things to come, we cooked up bacon sandwiches together and all remained on the bridge for the rest of the day.
Otters Moon seemed to sense she was close to home and plodded away with a new spring in her step. Under April skies, we managed to avoid the worst of the showers, catching just enough rain to clear the pilothouse windows from the salt accumulated since leaving the Helford River.
The wide outer reaches of the Clyde are protected by the majestic granite bastion of Ailsa Craig, which slowly loomed out of the enveloping mist as we approached. We came within a stone’s throw of this amazing island and gazed in awe at the thousands of gannets sitting on their nests.
Later, we passed between Arran and Holy Island, admiring the spectacular small bays dotted with crofter’s cottages set against the dramatic backdrop of mountains and gathering rainclouds. As we entered the narrows between the islands of Cumbrae, I made a quick call to Otters Moon’s owner to confirm our mooring for the night in Greenock before making landfall on April 6, just as the sun set, in a strictly closed marina.
Having packed and tidied the boat the night before, we awoke before dawn and took her across to Gareloch, the Police and Royal Navy guard vessels kindly moving away to let us enter the harbour. The scene was perfect – a mirror-calm loch in that intense northern light reflecting the remnants of snow on the surrounding mountains.
We tied Otters Moon to one of the deep water mooring buoys, putting her trusty Gardiner to rest after her long journey north. The silence was broken by the sound of curlews welcoming Otters Moon back home. After final checks, we locked up and rowed ashore in the tender, tying it up to one of the work boats as agreed for the yard to deal with when they were allowed to return to work.
As we left the marina, Otters Moon’s owner called us again to tell us how much it meant to him and what a wonderful achievement it was to get her back home in such challenging circumstances. He had seen us pass his house that very morning and had already been contacted by friends, excitedly telling him that his father’s boat was finally back home where she belonged. What a wonderful ending to an epic but memorable journey.
First published in the August 2020 edition of Motor Boat & Yachting.