Tsunami ?

On Boxing Day, on the second anniversary of the dreadful tsunami in the southern hemisphere, we were also reminded of something that happened during our sailing years.
In 2003 there was an earthquake in Algeria. At the time, we were berthed in the little marina at Guardamar del Segura, south of Alicante in Spain .

We first heard about it on the BBC World Service at 0800 hours. I think it registered about 7 on the Richter Scale. Spanish boatowners on our pontoon told us about it too.

Then on the Spanish TV News, we saw video of bewildered Menorcan waiters scratching their heads and trying to understand why their beachside terraces were underwater and their kitchens flooded. This was not something they were accustomed to as there are no effective tides in the Mediterranean.
We began to wonder just how far reaching the repercussions would be and we did not have to wait long. That afternoon, the level of the water in our marina dropped by one and a half metres, very suddenly, leaving the boat straining on her sternlines…. just a bit scary as we didn’t know what would happen next.

Would there be a wave of water, (tsunami) trapping boats under pontoons? Or would it be an even bigger surge throwing the boat onto the top of the concrete walkway, or onto other boats? We kept a lookout and constantly checked the mooring lines, but thankfully, the water only gradually reverted to its usual level. We happenned to be entertaining landlubber friends on board that day, and they wondered what all the fuss was about.
We later heard about a young couple on their small boat, moored on a pontoon in Torrevieja, some 20 km south of us. When the water level dropped dramatically and they saw the quay high above them, they rushed below, thinking they were sinking. They started ripping up floorboards to find where the leak might be. Finding no water in the bilges, they decided that discretion was the better part…etc, and leapt onto the deck of the much bigger boat alongside them. It was only then that they realised that this boat, too, was very much lower in the water than usual, and the problem was not a leak in their boat at all, but rather one in the sea bed.

About three months later, we met a couple who had been much nearer to that earthquake than we were. They were on passage to Algeria, and unknowingly heading for the very epicentre. Because it was dark and the pilot book had strongly advised against a night entry, they decided to anchor some ten miles further East. As they approached the anchorage, both masts of their ketch started to shake violently, and the sea became huge, despite the lack of wind, convincing them that they had run aground on some uncharted rocks. When things quietened down, they anchored and had a safe but rather sleepless night. It was only later that they found out about the earthquake and how close to disaster they had come.

The world was to learn about ‘tsunami’ later, to its cost, but the reason that we were so worried that day was that we were already horribly aware of the dangers, having studied the subject when doing our RYA Ocean Yachtmasters’ Certificates.

We were lucky that although we experienced the sudden depletion of water, the small tsunami surge showed itself in the Balearics and not on the mainland coast of Spain. We are so accustomed in the UK to being able to predict exactly how fast the tides will be flowing and in exactly which direction at any given time (with allowances built in for weather conditions), that it can come as a complete shock when water behaves in a way which so unlike a tide.

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