NO ORDINARY DELIVERY!
Motor Boat & Yachting|August 2020
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
Justin Crowther

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 back story 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 pilothouse with 360° 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.

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.

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.

BEST- LAID PLANS

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 crewmates 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 9 am 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

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