EXCLUSIVE “So I was shipwrecked in the middle of the Atlantic.”

Nicolo Gamenara had a dream
, to cross the Atlantic solo. Coming out of the Nautical Institute, he has always sailed for work. He was a deckhand on the 12 m International Tonnage Thea in Denmark and is currently commander of another 12 m S.I. in Norway, the “Vema III.”

At the age of 26, he decided it was time to embark on an adventure. Without advertising himself, he salvaged an old Mini 650, prepared it with his own hands (and renamed it Caretta Caretta, the scientific name for the sea turtle), and set sail last November from Cecina, Tuscany, in the direction of the Bahamas (and then Florida), via Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, and Cape Verde. It went smoothly all the way to Mindelo.

Then, disaster struck, with the shipwreck halfway between Cape Verde and the Caribbean due to a keel problem. Fortunately for him, he was rescued by a Bulk carrier (the vessels used to transport non-liquid, non-unitarized cargo in containers or pallets) that also winged the boat on board. Arriving after two weeks in Cape Town, South Africa, he was welcomed and “adopted” by Southernwind Shipyards.

We could not help but share with you the “hot” story he sent us as soon as he set foot on the ground in Cape Town. It’s written in a rush, the adrenaline still hasn’t gone down. Read on, stepping into the shoes of a boy who, as Nicholas writes, “cared to see if the child’s spark was still alive.”

Nicolò aboard the Vema, the 12 m S.I. of which he is commander (source Facebook)

“I had wanted to go on a long boat trip for many years without too many ports or anchorages but only hundreds of miles in each direction. Finding the selfie needed to leave was not easy. In the winter of 2017 I bought a minitransat in Olbia, a Naus 6.5: a somewhat lame, slow, strange mini with little commercial value, the latter point of which interested me greatly.

In November 2018, I left Cecina with the intention of arriving in the Bahamas and then Florida. The exit from the Mediterranean was long but supported by good will and a great desire to find myself in the Ocean. Tangier my last port before the Canary Islands.

Then just Ocean. I am overjoyed, the boat is loaded but enduring and we make decent averages. I try to helm as much as I can, I remember summers on Thea in Denmark when having no pilot meant spending nights and days at the helm. After a beautiful crossing I land in La Graciosa (Canary Islands) on December 13 in the morning, I am bewildered and dazed. Fortunately, it is full of French people; I make good friends. After a few days I move to San Miguel Tenerife and then fly to Rome, it’s Christmas.

After New Year I return to the boat, I feel the pressure again I don’t know why. Local friends support me and downplay my doubts. Eventually I leave with a nice taut North. The plan is to arrive in San Salvador, Bahamas, 3200 miles on the orthodromic.

Everything is fine, I respect my usual habit, first 24 hours quiet then you start to push a little more and make it walk well. On the third day just after making the noon point on the chart, a time when I usually reflected on the course, I notice that the starboard rudder has its bushings jarred and the autopilot arm is working poorly as the axis plays in the shady. The pilot is a Raymarine tiller, mechanical outer arm, just sufficient if the boat is sailed with balance and care. I reflect, I am quiet I know I have the option of Mindelo still. Okay, let’s go for one last leg, too bad I had just done my highest average in 24 hours, 190 miles, I was delighted and I was catching almost a lampuga a day.

In Mindelo I suffered bad thoughts and did not appreciate the place one bit, acrid smells and noises to which I was no longer accustomed. Too much confusion. I find a blacksmith makes me 2 new bushings, straightens the axle, and plunks me down. I restart with a nice strong NE, thirty and more knots, I unload a couple of gribs before leaving, all normal. Just a little high pressure between Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, I don’t worry about it I want to go straight, to go back up to San Salvador I will think about it later.

Instead after the first few days the problems begin, I break the halyard spi block and have to wait for the wind to drop to go up and put on a new one. When the wind drops, it drops for real for the next 4 days I will do only upwind in inconstant westerly breezes that in the night usually disappeared completely leaving me drifting. A crossed ship after the second day of flat passes me the weather tells me to expect as many, not mentioning anything else. I take advantage of this by going up the tree to put on the new block, unfortunately I have no system other than Prussian knots, it works but when I come back down I am purple all over and drenched in sweat. When the wind returns I will have my Spi this is what counts.

The trade winds unfortunately I will not see them again, in the following days from Jan. 27 to Feb. 1, I will battle with westerly winds of 30 knots that will then strengthen again. The boat is starting to show signs of failure, it is old I know and not the best mini built for sure but as long as we were flying on the slack we were doing fine.

The keel shell, which is not bolted but only threaded, had already started to get a little water on me in the Canary Islands, little and I had managed to buffer, the dream had to continue. Now, however, it is becoming more worrisome, every wave the log was spitting water into it, and even the handkerchiefs of the stern rudder louvers were now making water. What really made an impression on me, however, were the movements of the casing and the water that had found its way between my Tenerife-made tappulas.

I slowed the boat down, took a different course to keep it from beating too much, and reduced it down to just the turmentine. Until the last night I decided in the morning to activate the epirb, it was the first of February, the cask was too scary for me, the water kept coming in by now the smell of water and rotting resin from homosis was terrible.

Water must have been getting into the fiberglass casing for a long time without being able to notice it until it began to ooze, but unfortunately the structure was already damaged at that point. Having activated the Epirb, I began to prepare the boat for abandonment and the raft in case it was needed.

In the evening around dusk a freighter contacts me by radio, I am in VHF range!
I jump out and see it in the distance approaching, its name is Baltimore and it is from the Greek company Diana. The commander immediately makes sure that I am okay, and then we begin to discuss how to proceed. He tells me that they want to try to load the boat on the freighter, I think he is joking, I tell him that there are still at least three meters of wave and the wind is dropping but it is still about 20 knots. Either way, I approach using the outboard to the ship on the left broadside, pass a messenger, retrieve to the top and pass it around the mast, then jump onto the biscuit and fly aboard the ship.

As soon as I hit the deck I almost can’t balance, the slow but pronounced roll of the ship as the sea crosses is so different from what I’m used to! They welcome me with open arms, they are all Filipino they tell me but they speak good English, I smoke a cigarette, the first one in a month, okay I am better. “Okay let’s go to the commander on the bridge,” I’m told by what I later learn is the third officer. We climb the accomodation and meanwhile I see the crane they would like to use. I am puzzled about the chances of being able to pull it up, the boat meanwhile bumping and jumping against the ship’s broadside.

The captain asks me if I have an eyebolt to lift the boat, negative unfortunately, to lift the boat we have to pass the straps. I tell him that if it’s okay with him we can tow it, I tell him that the boat surfs quietly and if it lost its keel and capsized he could always cut the tow line. He doesn’t like the idea, actually I can understand that, so we start the operations to load it on board.

They first bring the boat close to the stern almost to the small garden under the supply crane, between the sea and the ship’s sickle there will be 15 meters almost.Almost all the crew is involved in the operation, including the cook. Using very long sticks they are able to pass a band under the keel to the stern and then the bow band as well. The bands to get them so far down were stretched with lines that then go around the crane hook.

The bosun starts to pull up, it’s scary, the boat swings on the hook in counter time to the ship’s roll and then slams on the bulwarks several times, I start to imagine the end. Instead, in a moment, the boat arrives at the height of the gunwale where they secure it to the ship’s drapes and accommodation ladder poles. The problem arises that the skipper did not realize that underneath in addition to the rudders I still had attached albeit wobbly a five-foot keel.

The hook is at the end of the stroke and the boat does not pass the overhead drapes with the keel. They think about sawing off the dragnets but then the bosun suggests leaving it on suspenders around the hull attached to the sickleboard to make it look like a lifeboat, then re-stripe the straps and shorten the throw by the amount necessary to get it through.

Another pair of new bands appear in a moment, pass them on, and release the load from the crane hook. At that point the pitch shortens and the keel is ready to pass over the dragnets.
All that remains is the obstacle of the vertical poles, behind the dredges, of the accommodation ladder, between the poles there is two and a half meters of space, the boat is three meters wide, I can imagine it already stuck in the poleo….

The coxswain can’t take it anymore it’s been two hours he’s had the crane control in his hand and is starting to think he can’t get it through, the skipper watches from the flap. He then decides to disembark and take command of the crane, at which point he shouts a couple of commands in Filipino counts one two and three and with the rolling of the ship and the boom of the crane while the sailors hold the boat with the winds in place he swipes it between the two poles, a miracle.

Then in a moment they make a saddle with empty oil barrels and pallets and the boat is on the fixed deck. I can’t believe it, it took three hours but it was an incredible maneuver. Unfortunately, however, several damages were done during the operation, especially when the mini hung lifeboat-like on the broadside.

I learned a lot during the operation and in the following days on the freighter, thanks to a very helpful and knowledgeable crew. For a moment I was in danger of landing in Korea, the final destination of the trip. But then thanks to the company’s helpfulness, we were able to arrange a quick disembarkation and tow to port here in Cape Town.

On the ship I read and practiced with the sextant, as much as it matters to make a point on a 300-meter thing that you can barely hear move with an outstanding Japanese sextant, an immense chart table, and an officer taking your time.

Nicholas (center) in Cape Town

I had left because I wanted to test my passion in some way, after years of comfortable big boats equipped and maintained great I was interested to see if the child’s spark was still alive; I can say that it is and more than ever, even though the ending is hard to digest and accept, all you do is think and pin down what you would do different and what you wouldn’t do again, in short, the thoughts grip you. Because the passion is alive and alone is all right I want to continue sailing, and soon I will do so with a new boat.”

Nicholas Gamenara



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Read the latest issue

Are you already a subscriber?

Latest announcements
Our socials

You may also be interested

Ubi Maior sul Nacira

VIDEO In search of the perfect deck plan with Ubi Maior

How to equip the deck of a sailboat to make it as comfortable as possible to handle-even with a small or “family” crew-without, however, sacrificing performance? The perfect deck plan with Ubi Maior Italy We illustrate this with an example.

Scroll to Top