‘We again felt the full force of the wind through the gap between island and headland’
Extract from Mediterranean: A Year Around a Charmed and Troubled Sea
By Huw Kingston
Published by Whittles Publishing
Change of Direction: Attempting to Outrow an Approaching Winter Storm
We saw few fish jumping or wildlife of any description; just us, the sea and occasional passing ships. A tiny bird rested briefly on an oar, and I wondered when he had begun his journey and where he would be going to next. The open sea does not offer enough to nourish me, much less so than a desert. In the desert you can at least move all around. This row across the Mediterranean was a very special solution for the continuation of my journey but overall the monotony and continual motion ensured that it was primarily a physical and mental challenge rather than offering the satisfaction I derive from changing landscapes.
Then Jure warned of a change afoot. Of a very strong easterly wind change that would reach us before we reached Crete. A wind that would stop us dead in our tracks and send us scuttling, helpless, backwards, for three or four days at least. Jure, with the computer models and weather maps of all Europe at his disposal, had been wrong before and we hoped he would be this time. Wrong not through any fault of his own but through the sheer unpredictability of Mediterranean weather in winter. But if he was right there was no way we could reach Crete before the storm hit. Initially it was a throwaway line I used, like tossing a baitless hook into the sea: ‘Perhaps we should go north to the Peloponnese in Greece?’
Then on Thursday 5th, bad wind hit us and we paid out the para anchor again. For another 24 hours we were jolted left, right, left, right by waves. Every organ in my body was smashed against its neighbour in a cabin just too small for two. The wind was bad outside and in. I slept not a wink, everything ached. Then Marin announced a plan. This young man, possessed of fierce intellect and determination, had sketched out a ‘give it our all’ option to reach the Peloponnese. If Jure was right we might, just might, make it in time. But it was all or nothing, never mind the bollocks, every second counts rowing for 36 hours or so.
The wind swung in our favour so we hauled in the para anchor and began. But I had become lazy, my strokes insincere. With less than a half century of days to the end of my year-long journey I was thinking too much of that end. I was thinking of time back home with the family, of seeing a house that I had left as a half-renovated building site, now complete. Of the smells and sounds of the Australian bush.
Marin was not blind to my tardiness and announced part-way through my dusk shift that once my shift was done he would row the next 24 hours alone to improve our chances of success. He then shut the hatch door to sleep. I was pissed off; angry that he had announced his intentions without any discussion, disbelieving that on his own he could do better than the two of us.
But I was indeed letting the team down and had no excuse. Marin had kicked me in the arse and I woke up to myself and our position. I rowed as hard as I could for the rest of that shift and, when Marin appeared again, told him that sure he could row alone but only if I could not match his speed or at least come close. He checked the distance covered that past hour, smiled and simply said, ‘Good job.’
We began to scrawl the distance covered per shift in red pen onto the inside of the cabin wall. H 4.3 miles, M 4.3 miles, H 4.6 miles, M 4.7 miles, H 5.1 miles, M 5.5 miles. We pulled on those oars like there was no tomorrow; we stuffed food into ourselves, we grabbed sleep… We pulled on those oars like there was no tomorrow; we stuffed food into ourselves, we grabbed sleep… We pulled…
Ten days out from Malta and land appeared, hung over by grey. Rain squalls began to hit us. We pulled… We planned one landing place then another as time and weather changed. The middle finger of the Peloponnese? No, not possible; it’ll be the most westerly one, Methoni, perhaps. Finally we took aim for tiny Finikounda and told Dimitris. He was just about to take the ferry from Athens to Crete to meet us with some of his supporters. Indeed some had already left for Crete to put the finishing touches to a meticulously planned welcome party; a party we were not going to show up at.
Marin’s cogs and wheels whirred and ground, calculating drift, wind, what time that fucking easterly would hit that could mean all was in vain. He feverishly plugged new waypoints into the GPS, and as if to challenge him further our electronic compass said thanks and goodnight. Bastard! We pulled…
Darkness fell and the light show began. Clouds, blacker than the night, issued seashaking claps of thunderous applause first, before then opening their bladders to piss on us. Bastards! Hail, rain, cold. We pulled…
As we came toward small Venetiko island it was Marin’s shift. I peeled off soaked gear in the cabin and tried to warm up. Then I heard it amongst our tiny radio masts: I heard the whistle of a new wind. The wicked witch of the east had arrived. Bastard, bastard, bastard!! Soon the sea was up, and Marin, already 24 hours into this marathon, pulled ever harder toward the island. I shouted instructions: 2 miles, 1.7 miles, 1 mile… Another cloud dropped its load and waves broke on rocks nearby, unmarked on our chart: 0.4 miles… 0.3 miles… 0.2 miles… Mr Hops came around to turn up the lee of the island as the moon shed some light through a gap in the clouds. It was 8 p.m. and we were some 7 nautical miles from Finikounda.
The respite was temporary as we again felt the full force of the wind through the gap between island and headland. The moonlight went out, again. It was my turn, again. I squeezed Marin’s shoulder hard as we swapped places and he collapsed into the cabin. Still-tired arms pulled on the oars, wasted legs sprung lifelessly against the footplate. The wind blew us sidewards, but Mr Hops inched his way across the gap. I was certain that, once in the lee of the headland, all would be calm. But we were pushed further out from it. Progress was painfully slow: less than a mile in two hours. I tried to pull back toward the land but my resolve began to weaken. It was pouring rain again. It was Marin’s turn again. Better he sleep and stay dry than cop another soaking. I didn’t wake him and buckled down and rowed as hard as I had rowed before. Finally, finally, I found myself in water that was calm aside from the raindrops on its surface. I rowed another hour, before the realisation that all I was doing was dropping a blade in the water and pulling it straight out again made me call ‘10 minutes’. After four hours on the oars and with two miles to go, I climbed into the sleeping bag, wet clothing and all.
As torches and headlights flashed from the wall of the tiny harbour of Finikounda, I exited my damp cocoon into a handshake offered by Marin: ‘It’s unbelievable what we have done, Huw.’ An hour later, or even less, we would not have been there, could not have beaten the storm. Many months later Marin told me that there was no way he could have rowed solidly to get us to the Peloponnese. That his words to me were meant to motivate me to pull my finger out. They had indeed.
Mediterranean: A Year Around a Charmed and Troubled Sea by Huw Kingston is out now published by Whittles Publishing priced £19.99.