Distress in Greek Waters – Don’t Press That Red Button!

Distress in Greek Waters – Don’t Press That Red Button!

What happens if you end up in a distress situation in Greece, and call the coast guards? We tested, and lived to tell the story.

After a brief visit to Kalamata, we were happily sailing south along the Mani peninsula on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. We were two Finnish boats travelling together, planning to sail around the Peloponnese. All of a sudden we saw a water spout not very far. And soon another – and another. It must be a whale! We could hear excited cries from our buddy boat. They had seen it too!

Yes, it was that big!

We saw a large black form close to the water’s surface, regularly appearing and disappearing. We slowed down, approaching slightly until we could see this huge whale near the surface. Perhaps he was taking an afternoon nap when suddenly two sailboats came and woke him up. He swam a short distance, showing a small hump on his back a few times. Then he dived, and the last thing we could see was his huge tail as he gracefully disappeared.

What an experience! Intense googling followed, and we learned that there is indeed a population of sperm whales in Greece. They have been spotted here before, as they live in the deep waters of southern Ionian, and south of Peloponnese and Crete, in an area called the Greek Trenches. They can be up to 18 metres in length – the one we saw looked considerably larger than our 12-metre boat.

All of us were grinning, it felt like Poseidon himself had blessed us. Little did we know that the day would end very badly. Whether Poseidon had his hand in it, we will never know, but against the whale, we certainly bear no grudge!

Pressing the distress button

In the late afternoon, we decided to anchor in a nice looking bay called Mezapos. As soon as the engine was turned off, we could hear the bilge pump going. How strange – our bilge had been bone-dry for months!

But now there was water inside the boat up to the floorboards, more than the bilge pumps could cope with! Where was it coming from? I put our emergency pump to work right away, while Jorma was frantically searching for the leak. It turned out to be from the propeller shaft. It looked like the shaft seal was damaged, there was a gap between bronze parts that was oozing water. Jorma was able to tighten the seal to some extent, and the leak diminished, but he was afraid of overtightening it, to avoid breaking the threads – then there would be absolutely nothing to stop the boat from flooding.

In the middle of this mayhem, we kept calling the coast guards on VHF channel 16 – the international distress channel. There was no reply. We tried for fifteen minutes, then we pressed the distress button on the radio, hoping the digital message would reach further. It did, and we were finally contacted by the coast guard. By the time the coast guard patrol boat arrived, we had the situation under control, with the help of vulcanizing emergency tape we had applied over the leak. It was such a relief to see the patrol boat coming – but what followed was a mind-boggling bureaucratic nightmare!

In a bureaucratic vortex

Our boat was immediately placed under a ban of sailing and we were presented with loads of paperwork from the local port authority. We were also informed, in writing, that the local coast guard does not monitor channel 16, but uses the working channel 12 instead. Hmm – how would that comply with the SOLAS regulations, now..? Nobody seemed concerned about the leak on our poor boat. The first patrol crew never boarded our boat. The second one did, but they mostly seemed interested in the amount of bunkers we had. No one wanted to see the leak, and no rescue operations were discussed.

Coast guard patrol on Aina’s side. The picture was taken by Mirja H. from the neighbouring boat

We were not allowed to attempt to get ourselves to a safe harbour – our friends even offered to tow us back to Kalamata, some 32 miles away – until we’d had a mechanic fix the leak and an authorized inspector to prove that the boat was seaworthy for the journey.

The port authority insisted we needed our embassy to authorize the inspection. They refused to believe us when we told them that in a Finnish flagged vessel the captain is the highest authority, and thus capable of making such decisions on their own. So, we had to wait until Monday morning for the embassy to open.

O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea

On Monday, with the help of our embassy, we could present the port authority with an assurance from our boat registry officials, that on a Finnish boat the captain’s word is indeed the law. The port police didn’t seem pleased with the information, but they could not argue – we had the authority to call whatever inspectors we wished. But two days had already been wasted!

So, we had a mechanic do a temporary repair, which he did with more vulcanizing tape. A diver came and found some line and debris wrapped tightly around the propeller – we must have caught it while setting the anchor. Finally, we authorized an engineer to inspect the repair.  All was well, but – wait! – all was not well! Suddenly the engineer, after a phone conversation with the port authority, insisted that we should be towed to Kalamata, instead of being allowed to sail on our own.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, the only towing offer we got was from a local fisherman, who was willing to do the job for a humble sum of 4000€. Naturally, we refused, since our insurance company was still debating whether or not to cover our incident, and we didn’t happen to have that kind of sum in our pockets. Our friends had gone their way days ago, so we were on our own. And no, towing services are not part of the Greek coast guard’s repertoire.

So, we waited some more. It was not pleasant, in a boat that was slowly leaking, patched up with a temporary bandage, and with an engine that couldn’t be used. There was a very weak internet signal in the cove, so we mostly relied on our phones as we tried to sort things out with the authorities. My phone log shows over a hundred calls during those few days. Meanwhile, the local people offered us their sympathy and help, such as a ride to the nearest minimarket.

Whenever the mobile signal allowed, we kept our eye on the weather and saw that there would be strong westerly winds in a few days. We informed the port police of this and asked to be released. The bay was totally open to the west, and the wind and waves would likely turn it untenable. If our anchor broke loose in those circumstances, there was no way we could save the boat. We told the port police of our plan to pack our belongings and row ourselves to shore well before it got dangerous – or they could just let us go now, and we could try and make it safely to Kalamata. This plea they finally heard and understood.

Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

Bob Dylan

Permission to leave

At last, late Tuesday evening, we were given permission to sail to Kalamata on our own keel. We had to agree to various terms of the port police and the inspector, but we were free to go!

We rigged our dinghy with its 8 hp outboard as our auxiliary engine. We tied it well on Aina’s side, waited for the wind to subside, and just before midnight began our long journey towards safety.

Our dinghy – the accidental hero of the story!

There was a lot of swell during the first four hours, so Jorma had to ride in the dinghy to keep it steady, while I hand steered nonstop. Then the seas calmed down and we were able to let the dinghy do its job alone. Flat water made us a little faster, we motored on at a steady speed of 2.5 knots – quite an accomplishment for our tiny dinghy since our boat weighs more than 12 tonnes! – and the autopilot could now hold the course.

The rest of the night was spent dozing off in turns, but hardly sleeping. Sweet dreams have a hard time finding you when you know there’s just a length of plastic tape between your home and the depths.

All sails up

As the sun rose, a little breeze greeted us. We were able to hoist all of our sails and give the poor dinghy motor a break. We sailed slowly but surely all day – our Aina is no light wind performer, she’s more of a heavy weather freight train kind-of-girl. But we were doing well, all things considered, and on Wednesday evening we reached Kalamata.

The marineros came to assist us into the marina, and after a quick supper we both fell into our bunks drop-dead-exhausted and slept the night through for the first time in 5 days.

Being towed into the marina

Next, it was time to lift the boat, assess and repair the damage – that’ll have to wait till the next chapter.

In hindsight

What we did to save ourselves from Mezapos bay to Kalamata might be considered reckless by some people. We used a very small dinghy with a very inadequate outboard motor as our auxiliary engine, considering the size and weight of our boat. The leak was only temporarily patched up, and because of our slow speed it took us 18 hours to complete the 32-mile journey – that’s a long time in the Mediterranean, notorious for its changeable weather. Sure, there were many risks involved.

But, we are somewhat experienced sailors. Jorma is also an experienced Search and Rescue man – he crewed on a SAR ship for 15 years. He was involved in many similar rescue operations and was familiar with the technique of towing a larger boat with a rib tender – just never quite as small as our own!

Our boat Aina is indeed a sailboat, and although not the best light wind performer, it can be sailed under most conditions to get from A to B. In Mezapos bay, however, the prevailing wind was from the northwest, meaning we were in a lee shore situation. That’s why we decided to wait for the night, when the wind usually dies in this area, before weighing anchor, and to use our dinghy to help us get out of the bay. As soon as we were in the open water, the risk of drifting dangerously close to land diminished, and we could take advantage of even the slightest wind.

We are generally well prepared for emergency situations at sea. During our journey, we’ve crossed large bodies of water, such as the Bay of Biscay, and long distances between the Mediterranean islands – Balearics to Sardinia to Sicily and so on – and our boat is equipped accordingly. We have a liferaft and provisions, an EPIRB emergency beacon, handheld VHF radios in addition to the fixed one, and we’re used to preparing a ditch bag for any longer passages – including this one.

What we had not experienced thus far was being very close to actually losing our boat. If we hadn’t been able to slow the leak down, it would have caused our boat to sink. The bilge pumps would not have coped with it, and there’s no strongman on earth who can keep operating a hand pump till kingdom come. The most surprising thing about the situation was the complete calm with which we performed our duties in saving our boat. There was no panic, hardly any yelling or screaming, no desperate thoughts of losing our home and everything we own in this world – just focused, rational action. I must say I’m really proud of us!

The whole ordeal changed the way I think about our boat and our journey. However precious our Aina is to us, and however much our friendly boat feels like home, I understand now that it’s just a boat. It’s a thing that can be replaced. All of our belongings are just things, too. There’s nothing on this boat that I would regret leaving behind, apart from my husband and myself. Not the cameras and memory cards, not the stories I’ve written or the pictures I’ve painted.

Sadly, what we had to endure in the anchorage has also changed the way I think about Greece, more precisely its authorities and administration. With a sinking boat, you know what to do – try and save it! But the indifference, arrogance, even ridicule, with which some of the officials treated us in our stressful situation, we didn’t know how to cope with.

The kindness and helpfulness of the local people – now that’s an entirely different story! We’ve always found the Greeks some of the nicest people in the world, and now I think I understand at least one reason why. When there’s no help from the authorities, it’s up to you to help people, and trust that they’ll help you in turn.

In our own country, and all of Scandinavia, calling the coast guards in an emergency leads to immediate action in order to save lives and boats. The paperwork will follow when the situation is under control. This applies to all vessels, regardless of their flag. In Greece, we were left to float in an unsafe anchorage for days, with a quickly patched-up leak, to wait for the long and winding decision process of the various levels of administration.

The fact that we were eventually released, we believe, was only due to the coming bad weather. It finally made the officials understand the seriousness of our situation, and given that there still was an alternative, they weren’t willing to take the risk of our boat sinking.

Reaching a safe harbour during benign conditions we have ourselves to thank for. Thank you, and thank me! Well done! And maybe a little thank you, too, Poseidon!

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