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Surviving a storm in harbour: lessons learned

After experiencing a storm in harbour while moored in Sicily, Trevor McIlwaine asks himself – do I really like to be beside the seaside?

Surviving a storm in a harbour: storm conditions at a marina
The normally idyllic visitors’ marina in Licata, Sicily, transformed into a seething cauldron as the tempest hit. Credit: Trevor Mcllwaine

Surviving a storm in harbour: lessons learned

Sitting onboard our Sun Odyssey 37, Gianti in the safety and comfort of Marina di Cala del Sole in Licata, Sicily, I pondered the last three years of sailing, writes Trevor McIlwaine.

There have been some memorable events, including the times I’ve flapped about in the cockpit, desperately trying to figure out what to do.

Before leaving the UK, the prospect of contending with a big storm, catastrophic rigging or engine failure would have seemed far more anxiety-inducing than
sitting comfortably and securely in a marina in the Mediterranean.

However, in a strange twist, the latter scenario was the most stressful situation I’d faced during my three-year absence.

We’d chosen Sicily as our 2019 winter base, with a plan to cruise the Greek Islands the following spring.

Boats in a marina as a storm hits

A heavy swell meant boats were thrown against the pontoon. Credit: Trevor Mcllwaine

After a few weeks we were nicely settled and cracking on with a few jobs.

The urge to monitor weather forecasts was still strong, so I was aware a storm was on its way though the precursor was a complete surprise.

Sarah and I were pottering below decks when a mini tornado unexpectedly swept across the bay.

It struck in seconds and the first we knew of it was when Gianti lurched violently sideways, throwing us both off balance as we lunged to grab anything hurtling away from us.

The sound of the wind was deafening.

As I looked out towards the cockpit, I saw a rigid solar panel ripped from the catamaran moored behind.

A chart showing the location of Marina di Cala del Sole in Sicily

Credit: Maxine Heath

At the same time our hefty boarding plank was yanked vertically into the air, jolting to a sudden halt before plummeting straight into the water.

The tornado moved away as quickly as it arrived to reveal damaged roofs and assorted debris.

The sky had turned an angry dark yellow, looking more like an old oil painting than anything familiar. This was just the taster.

Storm gains momentum

The next day started blustery and grey, the sky becoming more ominous as we moved towards the afternoon.

Plastics and polystyrene waste were being washed over the pontoons before clustering around the moored catamarans and the head of the marina.

Winds built as the day wore on, but it was the incoming southerly swell that was the real concern.

The inner harbour wall was being subjected to serious stress as it became overwhelmed.

The sea was breaking over it and gaps were appearing as large boulders dislodged in a slow-motion demolition.

Continues below…

The pontoon started snaking as it rose and fell, and a genuine air of concern had set in.

I saw the first pontoon cleat fail as boats were thrust back and forth with increasing vigour. A sense of foreboding built, as did the storm as darkness fell.

Vessels were now sustaining damage as they were hurled violently away before jolting to a halt and slamming back against the pontoon.

There was no uniformity to this chaotic movement, with each boat acting independently of the next.

surviving a storm in a harbour: a cleat mishapened by the power of the tide

The power of the surge caused cleats to warp and fail. Credit: Trevor Mcllwaine

The result was a sustained and violent battle between pontoon and boat.

More cleats were failing, mooring lines were snapping and an increasing number of vessels bore battle scars from the storm.

By now the inner harbour wall was doing nothing to break the southerly surge, it was simply a case of managing and mitigating damage as best we could.

Surviving a storm: damage limitation

Mooring lines for the motor boat and yacht either side of Gianti failed and they weren’t the only ones.

I was desperate to minimise damage and managed to board each vessel by timing a jump aboard to secure both using whatever spare lines and warps I had.

Marina staff were frantically trying to manage the situation, but by now boats were breaking free and drifting into the open area between pontoons, held only by the marina’s mooring lines, which are secured to a block on the sea bed.

Boats moored underneath a storm sky after a passing storm

The storm abates allowing Trevor to assess the damage. Credit: Trevor Mcllwaine

Around 2200 the rain and wind peaked, by which time seven vessels had broken free, all snaking and pitching precariously about their anchor point.

Adjacent marina outbuildings were utilised as giant bollards and mooring lines criss-crossed pontoons, secured to displaced vessels in an attempt to check any further drifting or damage.

It was a very long and uncomfortable night. The next morning was sunny and still.

I discovered that a primary structural steel section of the pontoon had failed catastrophically leading to an evacuation of those cruisers still aboard.

A storm hitting the inner wall of a harbour

Trevor looked on helplessly as the inner harbour wall was breached. Credit: Trevor Mcllwaine

One of the two rolled steel joists supporting the pontoon had completely sheared where it attached ashore and there had been serious concern that the whole pontoon might be lost.

I’ve no idea how we’d been missed from the evacuation, but I was relieved that I’d been onboard and able to look after Gianti, despite missing out on the free pizza supplied to the evacuees!

Lots of the vessels around us had suffered extensive damage, including smashed sterns, twisted and deformed swim ladders, missing cleats and fairleads, gouged and dented gelcoat and at least one missing outboard engine.

Gianti had got away lightly with a smashed GPS mushroom antenna, light gelcoat damage and a small section gouged from the plastic moulding protecting the stern. the

Repairs begin

Many cruisers in other parts of the marina were unaware of the full extent of the mayhem of the previous 24 hours and it seemed that our little section had been worst hit.

The following days were a hive of activity with cleaning and repairs. I bolstered our existing mooring tackle with larger compensators and shock absorbers as further storms were forecast.

Lines going through a pontoon

Mooring line snubbers are essential. Pontoon cleats failed, so lines had to be passed through the pontoon itself. Credit: Trevor Mcllwaine

The following weeks saw extensive repairs to the pontoon framework and the progressive installation of larger cleats.

The damaged inner harbour wall took much longer to repair, making for a few nervous and uncomfortable nights.

A man wearing a black fleece and sunglasses on the top of his head at the helm of his boat after surviving a storm in a harbour

Trevor Mcllwaine, a retired firefighter, and his wife Sarah, left UK shores in June 2018 on their Sun Odyssey 37 for a big adventure in the Med. Big storms and a global COVID-19 pandemic haven’t extinguished their desire to explore further and they’re currently back in the UK preparing their boats for an even bigger voyage. www.bigboatadventure.com

It took nearly six months to reconstruct, hampered by Covid-19, though thankfully the wall had been completely reconstructed by the time of our departure at the end of May 2020.

And so, as a result of my current pondering about the last three years, I’ve decided that while I do like to be beside the seaside, it is, based on my own experience, probably better to steer well clear of it wherever possible!

Surviving a storm in harbour: Lesson Learned

  1. False sense of security: Don’t underestimate the destructive power of a Mediterranean storm, even when in a relatively safe marina or port.
  2. Love thy neighbour: Don’t simply consider your own boat when prepping; neighbouring vessels could do significant damage if not properly secured.
  3. Safety checks: Check warps and mooring lines regularly and supplement well before needed.
  4. Keep spares: Have additional warps and lines readily available in case they’re needed to secure neighbouring vessels.
  5. Be self-sufficient: Don’t rely on marina staff or anyone else for help as things deteriorate. They will all be busy with damage control.
  6. Ensure you’re protected: Make sure you have adequate fenders to protect the stern of your boat in addition to your top sides.
  7. Don’t skimp on shock absorbers: A number of snubbers, compensators and shock absorbers failed that night as they weren’t up to the job, so ensure you have plenty.
  8. Makeshift option: Old motor scooter tyres make excellent shock absorbers. They might not look pretty but they’re normally free to collect.

Enjoyed reading Surviving a storm in harbour: lessons learned?

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