They said it would get easier

I’ve recently been reading old blog posts and diary entries and they’ve made me realise how much easier our lives have become since we first embarked on our live-aboard odyssey in 2012. I came across a diary entry recounting a meeting with a woman and her ten-year old son at Plymouth Yacht Haven. I remember feeling very frustrated and harried that day, as Lily and Katie pulled and tugged at me, and I tried to concentrate on an adult conversation while simultaneously making sure neither of the girls fell off the pontoon into the water. The other woman was a vision of calm and composure. ‘It gets easier’, she told me, and I longed to believe her. She too had sailed with her children since they were babies, but I couldn’t believe that this cool and relaxed woman had ever been tormented by toddlers on a boat, or that her ten-year old son – a delightful, polite and confident lad – had ever been a terror to his younger sister.

Lily was eager to learn the ropes at nine weeks...

Lily was eager to learn the ropes at nine weeks…

...but liked to take things easy too!

…but liked to take things easy too!

When I read that old diary entry from early summer 2012 the stranger was myself. The woman was right – things do get easier. Let’s face it, small children are hard work, having them in close succession more than doubles the work, and many of the difficulties faced by boating families are the same as those faced by landlubbers. When we first moved on board there was so much that Lily and Katie simply couldn’t do. They were both too small to climb into their bed and had to be lifted up and down every time. Katie was still in nappies, and Lily couldn’t lift the lid of the toilet, or wash her hands, or do any of the things that she had already mastered in a house. Getting on and off Carina required superior people-management skills, as two wobbly life-jacket wearing toddlers were precariously hoisted over the guard rail one at a time, to be either placed in the dinghy to get to shore, or slowly walked or carried up a long and unstable pontoon to get to land.

A sailing holiday on the west coast of Scotland when Lily was six months old.

A sailing holiday on the west coast of Scotland when Lily was six months old.

She had the best seat on board!

She had the best seat on board!

When we sailed they clung to me, only happy if one was sitting on either knee in the cockpit. As a result, the only opportunities I had to sail in 2012 were when both girls were asleep. Back then, Katie had a nasty habit of throwing up when she woke up from a sailing nap. I lost count of the number of projectile vomits I had to clean up while the boat leaned.

Katie enjoys a pre-vomit nap in summer 2012.

Katie enjoys a pre-vomit nap in summer 2012.

Some people reading this might think that we should have waited until the girls were older before we moved aboard. But I disagree. Things are easier now partly because Lily and Katie are growing older. They are not toddlers any more, but little girls, who are very capable and confident. But things have also grown easier because all four of us have grown accustomed to living aboard together. We have learned through trial and error what works and what doesn’t. We have let go of unnecessary rituals and live life simply.

Teddy's almost as big as Katie!

Teddy’s almost as big as Katie!

The paraphernalia of babyhood is gone, making Carina more spacious. The baby carriers, the nappies, the oversized baby life jackets, the toddler toothpaste and more besides are dim and distant memories. Simply by growing taller the girls are now able to climb into and out of bed, onto and off pontoons, into and out of our dinghy. They can reach taps and open cupboards, and they are confident as they move about Carina’s quirky spaces as she rocks and sways. A child raised in a house, or on a different boat might quickly bash a toe or bump a head, but Lily and Katie have the sensory awareness of their boat that means they rarely come a-cropper.

They have grown in independence too. No longer do they cling to me when we sail. In fact, Julian and I hardly see them, and they are generally disinterested in being in the cockpit when we sail (except when we see dolphins – then they come racing up the companionway). On sailing days, the entire boat below deck is their domain, where they draw, play with dolls or Lego or read books, completely immune to seasickness. I think they enjoy the freedom of having the boat all to themselves, as Julian and I stay above deck to ward off seasickness.

Lego

Lego

These days they balk at the thoughts of Julian or I choosing their clothes or dressing them, and I have learned to bite my tongue when I see some of the bizarre fashion combinations that emerge from their bedroom each morning. They brush their own hair and teeth, shower and wash their own hair, and if I could just get them to cut and clean their own fingernails then my life’s work would be done!

Of course, as they grow older, their powers of reasoning grow and they have more experiences to reflect on, making it easier for them to understand why they mustn’t run on the pontoon, or lean over the guard rail, or pester mum and dad when we’re executing a tricky boat manoeuvre. While we still keep a close eye on them, we trust them in ways that we couldn’t have only a year ago.

Rowing Daddy back to Carina.

Rowing Daddy back to Carina.

Like all siblings, they fall out on occasion. But they are each others’ best friend, wanting to be together far more often than they want time apart. Keeping each other entertained and occupied takes the burden off us to keep them entertained.

The woman in Plymouth was right. It does get easier. But perhaps I wouldn’t appreciate the funny, chatty, independent and, even sometimes, helpful, little girls who now inhabit Carina, if I hadn’t experienced live-aboard life with them as toddlers.

The live-aboard’s greatest enemy

On Saturday I was in the middle of a sweaty uncomfortable boat chore and needed a break. I made myself a coffee and sat down with the laptop to check emails and catch up on the few blogs I follow. I laughed out loud when I read http://artofhookie.org/2014/10/10/hibermating-season/, for it appeared that Alan, aboard Sookie, far away in the Pacific Northwest, was doing exactly the same as me! No matter if you live on your boat in the rainy northwest coast of North America or the arid northern Mediterranean coast of Spain, damp is your enemy.

Contorted into a tight corner to attack the mildew!

Contorted into a tight corner to attack the mildew!

Two years ago, when we sailed in Ireland in the wettest summer on record, we fought an ongoing battle with mould. Freshly laundered clothes turned stinky and mouldy within days of being put away. Since first moving aboard, we have kept t-shirts, shirts and other ‘foldables’ in damp-proof zip bags, with condensation attracting cedar balls inside. That system seems to work. But we can’t fit all of our clothes in those bags. So we hang dresses, trousers, jumpers and cardigans in our hanging lockers. It was those, along with our shoes, that suffered most in Ireland that summer. Since then I’ve become better at dealing with the mould issues, but there are still occasional surprises when one of us pulls out a piece of clothing that hasn’t been worn for a while, as Julian did this week with a pair of jeans.

It goes without saying that we live in a salty environment, and saltiness attracts moisture. Carina’s nooks and crannies turn black and mildewed, and it is a constant battle to keep them clean. Our ceilings and upper parts of the walls in our bedrooms and heads are covered in cream-coloured vinyl,  which takes on a black hue as the weeks go by. Our hanging lockers are painted fibreglass, and they too take on the swirls and blotches of mildew.

We take steps to avoid damp and the build up of condensation by regularly opening and airing lockers and, on these autumn evenings, closing the hatches before night falls so the evening dew stays out.

In late June I thoroughly cleaned the forecabin (Lily and Katie’s bedroom), so I was surprised when I tackled it again on Saturday to discover how mouldy it had become. After all, with the exception of Ilha de Culatra, the air has felt dry all summer, and Carina’s seating and bedding hasn’t felt damp, as it has done in previous years. The nine days we spent in Culatra were damp, damp, damp and, despite the excessive heat, clothing hung out to dry never fully dried. Once we left Culatra the boat dried out pretty quickly, but the mould continued to grow.

Carina gets mouldy despite these blue skies every day.

Carina gets mouldy despite these deep blue skies every day at her winter home.

So, on Saturday morning I tackled the girl’s bedroom. Rubber gloves, old toothbrush, warm sudsy water, disinfectant, and wet and dry cloths. It was a hot day and in the cramped confines of the fore cabin I was soon sweating profusely (or ‘glowing’…isn’t that what we ‘ladies’ do?). Everything had to be moved out of the cabin or over to one side, then scrub scrub scrub with the toothbrush. When the port side was dry, I replaced everything, and then started on starboard. I hate most household chores, but this was particularly draining.

Still, I got it done. The cabin looks clean and I’m happy the girls are sleeping in a mould-free bedroom again. A few days ago, Julian de-moulded the saloon and galley. That just leaves the aft cabin, quarter berth, both heads and all the hanging lockers. Roll on next Saturday when I can get the rubber gloves and toothbrush out again!

Fish, palm trees and…work

Rather unexpectedly, Julian and I have both found part-time jobs. Julian works a couple of mornings a week, and I work evenings. We had hoped we might find winter work, but never suspected it would happen so quickly or with so little effort on our part. It’s the sort of work we hoped to get, where our working hours are limited and our time with the girls isn’t compromised.

The new routine goes something like this: I spend my mornings with the girls. Reading, writing and maths practice for an hour after breakfast, followed by whatever educational opportunities crop up. For example, on Wednesday we took the washing to the Laundromat and went for juice/coffee and churros at a cafe around the corner while we waited. Lily asked if we could bring the drinking straws home so she could use them as flag poles. She wanted to make flags. So we had an impromptu geography and history lesson, as they made Irish and British flags and learned the symbolism of each flag’s colours and pattern. The evening before, the girls and Julian enjoyed an hour of looking at an atlas together, talking about where we had sailed from, the route we had taken, and much more besides.

Most days, either before or after lunch, the girls and I go to the beach for a quick swim. The water is crystal clear and, standing waist-deep (my waist) we are surrounded by multitudes of stripy and spotty fish. The girls and I are enthralled by these gorgeous creatures swimming so close to us and, one day, I took turns carrying Lily and Katie into water too deep for them to stand in, so they could observe the fish up close. Yesterday we found a dead sea cucumber, brown and spotty with rubbery appendages all over its body that looked like spikes. I scooped it up in a bucket for closer examination before Katie returned it to the sea.

Now I want two things – a Mediterranean fish recognition book and a book about palm trees and other trees that grow here. As with the beach, the marina is filled with a variety of beautiful fish. It’s like floating on top of an aquarium. I want to know the names of all those fish, and whether or how they are related to each other. The streets and beaches are lined with palm trees, about which I know nothing. I have quickly come to realise that there are as many different species as there are species of deciduous tree back home. Every day I look up at palm trees with different frond sizes and shapes, trees bearing all sorts of different shaped and coloured fruits, and trees with very different trunk patterns. Besides the palms, there are numerous evergreen trees, some with wispy delicate leaves, others with leaves bigger than my head. I want to know all about them. So, it’s time to get online and see if I can order some books.

On the mornings when Julian’s not working, he goes grocery shopping, or we all hang out together. Each day, in the late afternoon, I kiss everyone goodbye and head off to work for the evening, returning shortly after the girls have gone to bed. After a late dinner I try to get some writing done. I’m having to adjust to Spanish time – eating late and then working for a couple of hours before I go to bed. It’s taking some getting used to – I work best in the mornings and have never been very good at motivating myself after supper! But I’ll get used to it I’m sure.

The education question

‘Will you send your children to school for winter?’
‘You can follow the National Curriculum online’
‘There are books you can get to teach your children’
‘Don’t you worry they’ll fall behind?’
‘How do you know you’re teaching them properly?’
‘Are they getting a full education?’

DSCI3942It seems everywhere we go, we encounter people who have opinions about how we should educate our daughters. They are all well-meaning (I think); none of them have spent any time with Lily and Katie, and have only seen them in our company, or on the boat; and, invariably, they are more interested in the girls’ education than in the girls themselves.

People who currently home educate their children, or who home educated their now-adult children, never make these comments or ask these questions. With the current home-educators, we talk about our experiences and share ideas; and the ex-home educators tell us what wonderful experiences their children had when they were young. The people who make these comments either do not have children, or have children who were educated in the conventional school system.

We don’t follow a curriculum, state produced or of our own making; we don’t use any ‘how-to’ books; and we don’t worry that they’ll fall behind. We don’t measure our daughters’ progress by some arbitrary criteria of what a four or five year old ‘should’ know. And we don’t question whether we are teaching them ‘properly’.

And here’s why. In the UK children start school from the age of four. Most have already been in government-funded nursery programmes since the age of three. In Scandinavia, children start school at six or seven. Scandinavian children at seven learn what British children learn at four and five. Swiss children start school aged five, but have two years of ‘socialising and play’ before they are taught reading, writing, maths, etc. British children learn these almost from the start. The point I am making is that there is no one ‘proper’ model of state education. Scandinavian and Swiss adults are not somehow less educated or capable than I am because they were introduced to reading and writing at school two years later than I was.

When I think about my own education, I excelled at some subjects and ‘fell behind’ at others. On reflection, I suspect that some of that ‘falling behind’ was due to my own obstinacy and belief that I ‘couldn’t’ master Maths or Irish or Physics. School reports confirmed that I ‘couldn’t’ do Maths, and I built a barrier between myself and those subjects, closing my mind and refusing to learn them. So I ‘fell behind’. And while I regret my inability in certain subjects (and am eternally grateful to Julian for opening up the wonders of maths to me), I still, somehow, managed to (a) get a PhD, (b) make a living in multiple jobs, (c) pay my bills, budget, measure and weigh stuff, and (d) while travelling in Japan with my sister, converse about the people around us in Irish. I haven’t done too badly for myself, despite the ‘falling behind’ I did.

So, what does a full education look like? Despite national and school curricula, all children within institutional education do not learn the same things. I managed to get all the way through primary school without once being taught a musical instrument. Somehow, each year I ended up in a class with a teacher who didn’t teach the tin whistle or the recorder. Most of my friends, on the other hand, as we got shuffled around year after year, separated for one year and back together the next, managed to get at least one year of learning a musical instrument.

During my five years in secondary school I was lucky enough to have two wonderful Geography teachers, Mr. Byrne and Mr. Osborne, who fuelled my enthusiasm for the social sciences. Maybe I would have become a social scientist without those two inspirational teachers. My sister had a different Geography teacher, and she quickly soured to Geography. I recently talked to a friend whose 17-year old daughter had the same Geography teacher as my sister and her experience with that teacher has been the same. She went from enjoying Geography for the three years she was taught by Mr. Osborne, to hating it with this other teacher, and achieving a very poor grade in her Leaving Cert exam. The point I’m making is that despite curricula, schools are made up of individual teachers. There are good teachers and poor teachers; and teachers who bring their own interests (such as teaching music) into their teaching. All teachers teach differently.

We are not interested in comparing Lily and Katie to other five and four year olds. Why would we? Why would anyone compare their children to anyone else’s children? Whether five or ninety-five, we are all individuals, with our own interests and aptitudes. Children are not empty vessels into which a certain amount of knowledge should be poured by the age of five or ten or fifteen. Exams are designed to test how much poured in knowledge can be poured out again. So I don’t worry that Lily and Katie have received their quota of maths or reading or science appropriate to their age. Because what is age-appropriate in the UK or Ireland, is not the same as what is age-appropriate in Scandinavia or Japan or Canada.

What I have discovered is that Lily and Katie have very different learning styles. What works with Lily does not work with Katie. Their pace of learning is different, and their learning interests are different. There are things that Lily could do when she had just turned four, that Katie cannot do; and there are things that Katie can do that Lily, aged five and a half, still cannot do. So why worry about age-appropriateness. With very little ‘formal’ teaching (usually less than half an hour a day) they are learning the basics of reading, writing and maths at a tremendous pace.

So when I’m asked about curricula and falling behind and doing things properly, I nod and smile. It’s simpler than trying to explain what we do to people we will most likely never meet again.

Finding our land legs

Here we are in Aguadulce and we are gradually getting to know our new surroundings. The marina lies at the base of a towering orange mountain, the moods of which change constantly throughout the day from the rising to the setting of the sun. Black thunder clouds and deep blue skies bring out an ever-evolving range of colours and textures, and the mountain is a different place every time I look at it. At night small bats sweep down from the crevices and fly across the marina.

Carina is moored aft to a wall in the marina. Below, the water is crystal clear, so we can see Charlie, our toy guinea pig, and one of our towels, lying on the sea bed (hopefully they will both be retrieved by the time this is written). The crystal clear waters of the marina are home to an array of fish – mullet, bream, bass, and many others whose names I don’t yet know – that dart about near the surface, and are regularly fed breadcrumbs by local children.

We have already met many of the other marina residents – long-term live-aboards or, like us, people in for only a few months. They are an international band of sea nomads, open and generous and very friendly.

It’s a two minute walk to the beach, where we take the girls swimming almost every afternoon, in the warm and gentle waters of the Mediterranean. Their swimming continues to improve. This past weekend Lily swam a width of a swimming pool, and I was oblivious to her achievement until she asked me what I thought of it! Silly Mummy, missing these moments in my daughter’s life, despite being right beside her in the pool! After our swim each day, the girls play on the beach playground, regularly meeting local children out from school.

While Aguadulce lacks the charm of the historic towns we visited in Galicia, it is very pleasant, with great food shops, a small market, a great library (with unbelievably brilliant opening hours), and a good bus connection east to Almeria and west to Roquestas de Mar (scene of the bull fight).

We are (sort of) settling into a routine. I love routine. Julian’s less of a fan. So we are coming to a compromise in the middle – less routine that I would opt for, more routine than Julian would opt for. I’m aiming to write for five hours a day, but if I do four, then I consider it a successful day. I work in the mornings or afternoons – whatever the day throws up. While I’m away writing, Julian takes the girls exploring, or they stay on board and work on their maths, reading and writing. But I know that this semi-routine we have this week could well change next week, as other possibilities and opportunities crop up.

Right now, I appreciate how very lucky I am to have this opportunity to work on my various writing projects. It’s a rare luxury and I’m making the most of it.

It’s hard to believe it is already October. The temperature still hits 25˚C or 27˚C every day, and at night we sleep with the hatches wide open, catching what little breeze we can. But as it gets ever so slightly cooler, Julian and I are beginning to have the energy to do jobs on the boat that the sultry heat of a few weeks ago prevented us from doing. Spring cleaning has started, and once sails and running rigging have come down and Carina is prepared for a sedentary few months, her repairs will begin.

I think it’s going to be a good, if very different, sort of winter.

The Bullfight

by Julian

I like eating meat. I tried to follow a semi-vegetarian diet for a month once. I ate some eggs and fish, but no meat. By the end of the month I felt tired and drained. A day after eating a good steak I felt better again. I know this is very unscientific but suffice it to say, I eat meat for both my pleasure and my wellbeing. However, I was always dissatisfied with the fact that the meat often arrived in a packaged form. I felt that if I ate meat I should be comfortable with the raising, killing and butchering of an animal. No! More than that, as a fit, healthy man I should be able to do it all myself. Martina gave me the opportunity to test this when we went hunting caribou with her Inuit friend in Arctic Canada. The first day out I saw a caribou shot three times and still not die until the hunter stabbed it in the back of the head. As the first time I had witnessed the killing of a mammal I stood there stunned and unable to move to help as Martina assisted in moving the carcass to dry ground and butchering it. Not a good start. The next time we were out we spotted a mother caribou and its calf. I was offered the rifle; I thought ‘It’s now or never. If I can’t do this I should be a vegetarian for the rest of my life’. I had considered the situation; I could shoot well enough; I knew where to aim for; the caribou had lived a free life unlike most of the animals I had eaten, some of which had no doubt been kept in miserable conditions. I shot, the caribou jumped up twice and dropped dead. I felt comfortable not only to help Martina butcher it but to cut out its kidneys and along with some back meat from the calf I made a delicious steak and kidney pie. Some of this pie we brought round to Martina’s hunter friend who ate it all on the spot, out of courtesy I think.

Now here comes the big-big-big BUT! I am completely unsure, even hostile to the idea that an animal should be killed for entertainment, proof of bravery, or the pleasure of killing. Lines are blurred because in a world, or at least a part of a world, where we don’t need to eat animals to survive or prosper are we killing to satisfy our taste alone? Is there really a difference between the entertainment of our taste buds and our general amusement?

I have always been uneasy about bullfights; I watched one on television at my Uncle Ken’s once. Ken lives in Estepona and told me he had been uncertain to begin with but had become fascinated by the art of the bullfight. I didn’t respect Ken’s views, but I had a general respect for him. Fourteen years later I turn up in Andalucía on a boat with Martina, Lily and Katie. It is my job to take the girls out for a day of learning, entertainment and culture whilst Martina cleans the boat and works on her writing. So we take the bus to Roquetas de Mar. The señora at the tourist office in Aguadulce has highlighted two free museums, one at the bullring and another at the Castillo. We turn up at the bullring first, partly because this is the first stop on the bus and partly because there appears to be an international beer festival next door which may have various entertainments and soothing elixirs available. We walk into the information office where the señora speaks good English to find the “Museum is open ten o’clock until one in the afternoon on a Saturday but is closed today because of a bullfight.”

“Oh!” I say “Is the museum at the castle open?” This is on the other side of town and my heart has sunk at the thought of nothing to do for two hours until the beer festival starts.
“Yes” she replies.
“How much is the bullfight?” I ask out of genuine curiosity but absolutely no intention of paying to support something I have serious moral dilemmas about. “Oh nothing right now” she says “There are not enough people at this time so we have just opened the gates.”
“When is it?” I say, with a slight lump in my throat.
“Eleven-thirty.” This is fifteen minutes away. My feet are suddenly glued to the floor. My mouth goes dry. Here I am standing next to the open gates of a bullring, a fight begins in a few minutes and I don’t have to fund it. Martina is not here so I can’t say “Take the kids off, I am going to see what’s going on and come away the moment I feel ill at the spectacle.” What do I do? After a walk and a bus journey, Lily and Katie are expectant, so I say to them “Right, we are just going in to have a look at the bullring. The museum is closed.” Good start. “We may get a quick look at the bull and the matador.” Just out of curiosity and the sake of education.

We go in and get excellent seats in a little box. The girls are excited and interested in the theatre: the band, the crowd; the horsemen. I turn to them and, feeling about as uncomfortable as I have ever done, I say “We will just watch the bull come out. Now you know Daddy is not comfortable with this and would never pay money to support it. Please don’t look, close your eyes if you want to. We will leave as soon as you want to go.” I am on the edge of my seat. I consider my options for getting them out of here quickly if I need to. “You know they kill the bull.”, I say to them.
“Yes we know daddy.”
“The matador has a sword; he kills it with a sword.”
“Um.”
“You do know we don’t have to stay and see that, and we wouldn’t be here if we were paying for it.”
“Yes of course.” The girls are confident, they sit there transfixed, they really want to see this and I can’t think of a good reason to pull them away.

The arena is perfectly round. We sit half way up in a boxed off area with three short benches. Below us are several rings of plastic seats where we would be closer to the action but not have as good an overview. The theatre is more than half empty but most people are in a group to our right so there is a crowd-like atmosphere. The crowd ranges from old ladies to young men and schoolgirls. I even see a mother feeding her baby. Gee whiz, I imagine these same women knitting happily at the guillotine during the French revolution.

The ring is covered in neatly raked orange-reddish sand. Around this is a well-kept wooden wall with several gaps, each covered by a short barrier behind which the men can jump to get out of reach of the bull. Behind this wooden wall is a ring with a higher wooden wall between it and the crowd.

After some important looking men shake hands with some very young men and everyone takes their places we hear the band strike up outside the arena, at first distant, becoming louder and louder. As they pass into the tunnel the sound of the brass, drums and cymbals rises to a stirring crescendo. They emerge into the arena to applause and circle once, exiting the way they have entered. Later they take up position high in the stands with a few trumpeters over the bull’s gate to herald any significant event.

Two horsemen ride in side by side with extreme coordination and purpose. The girls find this exciting. Handsomely dressed in black with capes and hats with feathers, they are like two Zorros riding out for adventure. The horses are beautiful. They dance their horses sideways around the arena, facing the crowd and doffing their hats to more applause. After this the matador and all the performers walk into the ring, equally spaced out in formation. Most are dressed in reds, greens and gold with small black hats. The matador, a distinguished looking man, is resplendent in light grey with a wide brimmed hat, waistcoat and jacket. The golden men take their places around the edge of the arena and the bull’s gate is opened. Nothing happens. The man by the gate taps several times until eventually the bull emerges into the daylight of the ring. It is not the biggest bull I have ever seen but not one I would like to be near. He is brown with curly hair between a magnificent pair of horns. The men jump out one-by-one waving large pink capes to entice the bull to charge them. The bull eventually does with some astonishing acceleration so that the men have to hurriedly jump back behind their barriers. After a few passes some of them emerge into the middle of the ring, standing to the side as the bull passes beneath their capes. The bull is quite energetic at times, and able to turn back on these men quickly enough that it seems quite dangerous. As this occurs other men spread their capes and shout to entice the bull away, so that no individual gets in too much of a knot. The crowd cheers acts of bravery or foolishness. I assume that most of this action is to tire the bull so the matador can perform without having to jump behind the barriers, or be rescued. After a while a novice matador comes out with two brightly coloured barbed sticks. Without a cape he seems vulnerable and the men with the pink capes have to work to get the bull near to the man without it attacking him. Finally he throws the sticks into the bull, just piecing its skin so that they rest on its back. The bull is agitated by this.

Finally, the matador comes out. On his own with a sword and a small red cape he cuts a very striking figure. He entices the bull to run at him letting it under his cape to one side and then the other in what appears to be a well choreographed dance. He turns his back on the bull and strikes the most elegant pose with his back arched and his arms down. He toys with the bull waving his cape from side to side; the bull seemingly hypnotised, he places his hand on the bull’s head to great clapping from the crowd. Accompanied by atmospheric music he swaps swords and we all know the bull’s time will soon be up. The bull charges and the matador strikes it deep in the back with the sword. The bull slows, blood comes out of its mouth and its legs gave way. Another man bearing a dagger stabs the bull in the back of the head and it dies quickly, much as I have seen done with caribou in the Arctic. Horses come on to drag the bull away (Lily and Katie liked those horses), and the bull’s ear is cut by one of the horsemen from earlier and ceremoniously given to the matador. The fight is over, the crowd cheers, waving white handkerchiefs at the demise of the bull.

The nervous tension of watching a bullfight for the first time, added to the fact that my two tiny daughters are with me is very tiring. I cannot and will not even try to describe the draining emotions. However, the girls seem happy with everything, asking questions, pointing things out, and so we stay for another one. In the second fight the matador is younger. He seems less sure. He loses a shoe and ends up under the bull. Others jump in with their pink capes to quickly lure the bull away. Later the young matador’s cape is ripped away making him more vulnerable. Again others quickly ran to distract the bull. Early on he tries to turn his back on the bull, probably misjudging the energy the bull still has. The crowd scream to him and he reacts just in time. From the overall performance I assume he showed some great skills but at the end of the fight he puts his back to the side of the ring and breathes heavily for a while. I can only begin to imagine the effects adrenaline is having on him; it is certainly having a big effect on us as a crowd. I think this is all too much for Lily, who is easily frightened. She has moved closer to me, as has Katie. “I’m scared”, Lily says, “I want to go”.
“Okay.” I reply. I have had more than enough, and feel mentally exhausted by what we have witnessed. However, Katie, is upset. “I don’t want to go. I want to see the next one. I love bullfights.”
“Let’s just see the bull come out”, I say. “Then we have to go.” Katie is distraught. Previously Martina and I had been convinced that the midwife should have held Katie up at birth and said “Congratulations, it’s a vegetarian!” Whereas Lily happily munches on baby squid and has even eaten raw shrimp from our engine intake filter, Katie tends to say things like “Yuck! I don’t like meat” and “I only like the yellow fish!” (Meaning in batter)! Now all she wants is to tell Mummy how much she likes bullfights and can she go again.

So what about the morality of the whole thing, the cruelty to the animal? Well, when they got into the killing and the physical hurt to the bull I can only say they did it very quickly. I have seen animals hunted for food that have, to my eye, suffered far more than the quickly dispatched bull. To be honest we can get a bit too hung up on suffering and death and seem to prefer years of suffering and a painless last minute over a last minute of suffering and a great life. This is probably due to our often being disconnected from the realities of nature. So is it wrong that the bull was killed for the chance for some men to show off their art, their skill, their bravado, their tradition, to entertain the crowd? Is it right to kill because, frankly, I really like the taste of caribou? Try it, it’s delicious. I still don’t feel right about bullfights.

Yes I could kill the bull. I would stay as far away from it as possible and shoot it with the best weapon I had to hand. I would hang it to get the best flavour, butcher it and roast or barbeque it rare. Then devour it with some fine English mustard (The one with the drawing of a bull’s head on the jar) or some strong horseradish sauce. What I would not do is stand around waving a red cloth at the animal until it charged at me. But maybe that is just the way I get my satisfaction and actually nothing to do with imagined moral superiority. I hope the girls grow up to respect animals, and people, and that neither of them ever considers becoming a bullfighter. Although my biggest concern in that regard is their safety.

Sweet Water

The other side of the Rock of Gibraltar

The other side of the Rock of Gibraltar

With our minds made up to look farther afield for a winter berth, we didn’t see any point in hanging around Gibraltar. Shortly after 10am on Thursday we motored out of Queensway Quay and set a course of 075˚, across the Costa del Sol to Almerimar. We considered hopping along the coast, taking four or more days to reach our destination, but decided instead to do it in one long sail.

The day was hot and there wasn’t a breath of wind. It was uncomfortable at the helm, but the bimini, while providing no relief from the humidity, did give protection from the sun. The day was uneventful. After a few hours the shipping lanes were far to the south and our only companions were pods of small but very energetic common dolphins that thrashed and splashed in a manner I have not seen elsewhere.

As light faded I took the first night watch. The Sierra Nevada stood majestically to the north and from dusk until dawn, without let-up, lightening streaked across the mountains. Long after Julian and Katie had fallen asleep, Lily sat with me in the cockpit, enthralled by the distant light show.

But those weren’t the only lights. It was a moonless night and the sky was clear. A billion stars twinkled in the sky, with some of the brightest (Orion’s Belt among them) reflected in the calm sea. It was spectacular, and made me vow, not for the first time in my life, to learn some astronomy. Three times during my watch shooting stars streaked across the sky, one of which I caught only by its reflection in the sea.

Dolphins swam alongside intermittently through the night, leaping and breathing loudly close to Carina, their path underwater streaked in phosphorescence. It was another enchanting night sail.

I slept for four hours and swapped places with Julian again at 4am, this time only to keep watch for two hours. The nights are now long and when Julian woke me at 7.30am to say we would be in Almerimar in half an hour, they sky was only just fully light.

Here the land slopes gently from the sea to the base of the mountains, which rise dramatically beyond. Those slopes are covered for tens of kilometres in the white plastic sheeting of the poly-tunnels where much of Europe’s fruit and vegetables are grown. They are not particularly pleasing to the eye, but without these, consumers in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere in northern Europe would not enjoy year-round cheap tomatoes, peppers and other Mediterranean-produced foods.

Almerimar is a pleasant resort town, much of it given over to hotels and resorts that cater to northern European golfing tourists. The marina was pleasant enough, with an active live-aboard community – though having to remember to bring toilet paper to the toilet block every time was quite annoying!

After a day of resting and exploring Almerimar we took the bus to Almeria, to meet my cousin and his wife, who moved here from Ireland earlier this year to teach English. The bus journey was long, expensive and unreliable and we couldn’t imagine doing it more than once a month.

We took advantage of my cousin’s car to check out Aguadulce, and town and marina only five miles from Almeria. We were impressed with what we saw. Returning home to Carina we worked out and compared the costs of spending winter in Almerimar and Aguadulce, factoring in bus prices, electricity costs, Internet, and so on, and figured that they worked out about the same. When Aguadulce marina confirmed by phone the next day that it had a six-month berth available, we took it. We motored out of Almerimar on Monday afternoon for the short fifteen mile hop to Aguadulce – the place that will be our home for the next six months.

Considering Gibraltar

DSCI4715We decided to give Gibraltar at least a week. We wanted to find out if there were jobs to be had for winter and if there was space at a marina for six or more months. But more than that, we wanted to give ourselves time to get a flavour of the place, get a feel for it, find out if it is the sort of place we would like to live for half a year.

On Sunday evening we arrived in Queensway Quay marina. Our friends on Mallemok were denied access and told there was no space for a boat of her size. But there was a space right across the pontoon from us that was perfect for a 43 foot boat, and that space remained empty for our entire stay. Mallemok was also turned away from Ocean Village marina and eventually our weary friends stayed for three nights at the marina in La Linea, on the Spanish side of the border.

Queensway Quay - Carina's down there somewhere!

Queensway Quay – Carina’s down there somewhere!

The first thing to strike me was the size of Queensway Quay. Having long associated Gibraltar with yachting, I had expected big expansive marinas. But this was tiny and cramped. The marina is situated in a basin, surrounded by tall apartment buildings on all four sides, with only a very narrow channel to the sea. From our pontoon we walked through a row of expensive restaurants and bars and I felt decidedly grubby even in my best clothes compared to the exceedingly well-groomed clientele. Those of you who know me know that glamour is not my thing!!

Once out of the marina, we walked along streets with military names, recalling historic and current British military interests. The entire territory is a bizarre microcosm of distilled Englishness – more English than England, more English than British. It felt odd to us to have sailed all this way to end up in ‘England’ again – but an England without our family and friends, and an England that’s very noisy and overcrowded.

We shopped at Morrisons, thrilled to be able to buy our favourite brands of tea, cheese and butter. We bought pasta in bulk, stocked up on porridge, Robinson’s squash and other favourites that are difficult or impossible to buy in Spain.

The Main Street boasts Marks and Spencer, Next, Monsoon, and a few other British high street shops, but it is dominated by British pubs, souvenir shops, and liquor stores selling tax-free alcohol. The girls and I spent a few hours one day in the public library. It was incredibly old fashioned. I loved it! It reminded me of libraries when I was a child. The children’s section didn’t have the stacks of picture books and soft toys that I’ve grown used to in the past few years. Instead it has rows of Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl, and slightly simplified versions of books like Arabian Nights and Moby Dick. Even books published in the last decade were bound in such a way to look like they came straight from 1978. And this was a silent library – verbal exuberance was not tolerated. I miss libraries like that!

We visited Ocean Village marina with a view to staying there for winter. While it was bigger and less claustrophobic than Queensway Quay, it is situated within a hideous cathedral of consumerism – a purpose-built fake beach-front sort of place, filled with shops, bars, restaurants, and a leviathan floating hotel and casino that takes up about a quarter of the space in the marina. In this entire complex I couldn’t find anywhere where one might sit down or relax for free. To sit, you had to consume – in one of the many bars or cafes or restaurants. I couldn’t imagine spending a whole winter here with the girls. As it turned out, the manager of the marina wouldn’t know until November whether we could have a winter berth, and we didn’t relish the prospect of drifting around from marina to marina for the next six weeks on the off-chance that we might have a berth.

It seems there are plenty of jobs around. I visited a recruitment agency and was given some positive advice and guidance, and Julian wandered the streets looking at ‘Staff wanted’ signs in bars and restaurants, and in dolphin-watching and ‘seafari’ boat trip companies.

The crews of Carina and Mallemok hit it off!

The crews of Carina and Mallemok hit it off!

One morning our friends from Mallemok called to visit and together we all took a cable car to the top of the Rock to see the Barbary Macaques that live there. The children were delighted to spend time together. Sylte carried Katie on the back of his bike (to her great delight) and all four played together like old friends. The boys speak a little English, but what they lack in ability they more than make up for in confidence, and can make themselves understood very easily.

Katie travels in style

Katie travels in style

230 macaques live on the rock – Europe’s only ape population (ourselves excluded). We had a great time exploring the Rock. Julian had a close encounter with one macaque who stole someone’s bag. Julian decided to be the hero and rescue the bag, but the ape had other ideas. He hissed at Julian and bared his teeth, and Julian yelled at him and waved his arms, all in front of a growing and amused crowd. It was like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Finally an employee of the Rock came along and lured the ape away with food, and we did likewise with Julian!

Julian banished to the ape pit

Julian banished to the ape pit

The apes are notorious for stealing food, trying to open backpacks, and rushing to the sound of a rustling plastic bag. At one point an ape snuck up behind Julian and tried to open his backpack, while it was on Julian’s back! We thought we’d found a quiet, ape free corner to have a snack – as all the children were hungry and thirsty and nagging us for something to eat. But no sooner had we got the food out than an ape came along and tried to grab it, as I furiously tried to stuff everything back inside my bag, including a half-eaten chocolate muffin and a half-eaten nectarine, making for an interesting mess to clean out later! Finally, as we were about to leave, standing waiting for the cable car to take us down the mountain, the children were each given a sweet. Sylte and Mats gobbled theirs down quickly, but my girls were slow to take the wrappers off. An ape came along and took Lily’s sweet from her hand, unwrapped it, and ate it! His companion went for Katie’s, but I quickly grabbed it. Having no pockets, but wanting to hide it from the greedy ape, I quickly stuffed it down the back of my leggings!! Desperate times call for desperate measures. I didn’t tell Katie where it had been when I eventually gave it back to her!

Cheeky monkeys

Cheeky monkeys

In the end we only spent four days in Gibraltar. We’d seen enough. It is an incredibly interesting place (Julian and I had already visited eight years ago), with a fascinating history, a very interesting way of life where Britain and Spain rub shoulders, and where wild macaques wander the city! But we decided it wasn’t for us for the long term. I found it far too claustrophobic and noisy, and we both found it too weirdly English. The only other city I have found to be so claustrophobic and noisy is Hong Kong, which I visited for five days in 1996.

The Rock of Gibraltar from the other side!

The Rock of Gibraltar from the other side!

We could have found work, and some would say it is irresponsible and foolhardy to turn down the opportunity to earn some money and refill the coffers. But then, some people think this whole endeavour is irresponsible. We’ll figure out a way. It just won’t be in Gibraltar.

Goodbye Atlantic. Hello Mediterranean

There was an air of anticipation on board Carina last Sunday morning as we prepared for our passage through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean. The previous day as we sailed from Cadiz to Barbate, the mountains of Morocco appeared on the horizon to the south. Africa!! We briefly toyed with abandoning our plan and setting a course for Tangiers. We imagined a few weeks in Morocco before getting back on course. But in the end we settled on our original plan. Morocco’s not going anywhere. Maybe we’ll pay a visit later in the year or next spring.

Our thrilling first glimpse of Morocco

Our thrilling first glimpse of Morocco, just visible on the horizon

We were delighted to meet our friends aboard Mallemok again. They arrived in Barbate a couple of hours after we did and next morning we set out together for the Straits and the Mediterranean, maintaining radio contact as we went.

Mallemok with one of the Pillars of Hercules, on the Moroccan coast, in the background

Mallemok against the backdrop of one of the Pillars of Hercules, on the Moroccan coast

It was a calm almost windless day with no possibility of sailing, so we motored along, watching our speed over ground outpace our log speed by one and a half knots, as the current through the Straits caught hold of Carina and sped us along.

Before long Mallemok called to tell us a pod of dolphins had just passed and were headed our way. It had been a long time since we’d last encountered dolphins and these were particularly active. They leaped and splashed, but paid little attention to us, merely passing us going in the opposite direction. It seemed the fishing was good, and a great number of seabirds were diving too.

The mountains on the Moroccan coast grew ever larger and I felt the thrill of seeing Europe and Africa together, in the same view. The wind picked up as we neared Tarifa. Wind speeds at Tarifa, where the Straits narrow to only eight miles, run at 30 knots for three hundred days of the year! We caught it on an only slightly less windy day, passing Tarifa on our northern side, with one of the Pillars of Hercules looming majestic to the south.

Europe and Africa, separated by only 8 miles

Europe and Africa, separated by only 8 miles

There was quite a lot of traffic through the Straits – container and cargo ships – but I had expected more. We were far from the shipping lanes, close to shore, and once we passed Tarifa and entered the Mediterranean the wind abated, as we expected it would.

It is strange to say, but once we were in the Mediterranean the colour of the sky changed. Suddenly, in every direction, the atmosphere close to the horizon was yellow – dust, we assume, from the Spanish Costas or the Sahara Desert or both.

With the current in our favour we sped along and within a couple of hours the Rock of Gibraltar came into sight, appearing more jagged and grey and strange the closer we got.

The Rock of Gibraltar, still over an hour away

The Rock of Gibraltar, still over an hour away

Traffic in Gibraltar Bay was heavy – fast ferries linking Tangiers to Algeciras in Spain, massive cargo ships, tug boats and pilots, and British naval vessels. We had to slowly pick our way through these, having to stop dead in the water at one point while a cargo ship passed in front of us and a speedy catamaran ferry from Morocco passed behind. At the same time a pod of playful dolphins decided to come and check us out!

As well as the excitement of reaching the Mediterranean, we were also feeling nervous about the passage. For me it was nervousness like the first time I drove a car in Dublin, or around the M25 in London, or the first time I night sailed. Passing through the Straits of Gibraltar we were nervous about the current, about the shipping, and about the traffic in Gibraltar Bay. We needn’t have worried about the first two, and the traffic in the Bay merely required vigilance and patience. But we had one final concern.

Since leaving the UK we’ve known at some point we would have to berth fore and aft, rather than alongside a finger pontoon, as we are used to. There have been marinas where we expected to have to do it, but upon arrival have discovered different berthing arrangements in place. But in Gibraltar we knew there was no escape.

Carina kicks to port when going astern, so reversing is difficult, and reversing into a tight space between two other boats was not something we relished having to do. But when our moment came, we did it. Or rather, Julian did it – I can’t reverse (car or boat) for toffee. Slowly he eased Carina into a space not a foot wider than she is, while I tied us on astern and we quickly picked up mooring lines to the front. Phew. Well, that’s that done and hopefully we’ll feel less nervous about doing it in the next place.

So here we are in the Mediterranean, a mere one hundred and eleven days since leaving Plymouth. We could have flown here in two and a half hours. But that wouldn’t have been half the fun.

As the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho wrote, ‘Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home’.

The trials and tribulations of Puertos de Andalucia marinas!

Over the past four months we have stayed in our fair share of marinas, as we’ve travelled through the west of England, Brittany, Galicia and all of the Portuguese coast. Some marinas were expensive (Muros €35 per night for our 11 metre yacht), some extremely cheap (Camariñas €16 per night). Some had wonderful facilities (Muros), some more limited (Camariñas). In every marina we have been to, staff have been friendly and helpful. Staff at Peniche showed unexpected generosity; a member of staff at Doca de Alcantara, near Lisbon, generously loaned us his own electricity connector, when ours didn’t match the fitting; and at Albufeira staff listened when we complained that the services offered didn’t match those advertised in the 2014 nautical almanac, and they gave us a night for free. Though every marina is different, each with its own quirks and curiosities, they all cater to the particular needs of sailors. They understand that in order to catch the best winds or currents, tidal heights or tidal streams, we often arrive late or depart early. And though many have limited office hours, every marina we have been to makes provision for the strange hours kept by sailors.

Here’s what typically happens. As you arrive at the entrance to the marina you radio or telephone the marina office. Whether someone answers depends on how well staffed the marina is, and the time of day. If you get an answer, you are directed to a particular pontoon; if you don’t get an answer, you find a pontoon suitable to your size boat. If it is during office hours, a member of staff will meet you (and maybe help with ropes), and will ask you to bring your passports and the ships papers to the office in order to check in. Appreciating that a crew might just have crossed the Atlantic, or sailed overnight, or be tired or hungry, you are told to take your time and come to the office at your own convenience. Increasingly, as we have travelled south, we have encountered reception pontoons. Rather than contact the marina in advance, you come alongside the reception pontoon and await further instruction. The reception pontoons we encountered in Portugal had electricity and water, so an after-hours arrival still ensures the full comforts of the marina.

All well so far. Until we arrived in Andalucia, that is, where we have stayed in three Puerto de Andalucia marinas. These government-run marinas at Magazon, Puerto America in Cadiz, and Barbate, are expensive, soulless places, where sailors are treated like some great inconvenience. All three look the same, with identical grey concrete-box office buildings and shower blocks. To give them their due, they have laundry facilities, something we have found lacking in many marinas along the way. But that is where our praise of them ends.

Though they are still charging summer prices in late September (€27 per night for us), they have reverted to winter office hours. Though the marinas are half empty, the staff are inflexible, and the particular needs of sailors are not catered to. They answer neither the radio nor telephone when called during office hours, and each one follows the same inflexible procedures.

Upon arrival you are directed to a reception pontoon. These have neither water nor electricity. You must IMMEDIATELY present your passports and ships’ papers to a member of staff whose day you appear to have completely ruined by showing up at their otherwise empty marina. Drawing any information out of these people is like drawing blood from a stone. Rather than advising me of facilities, I had to ask ‘Where are the showers?’, ‘Do you have Wifi?’ (the answer is absolutely NO), ‘Where are the laundry facilities?’.

In Cadiz, the reception pontoon was 10 metres away from the pontoon to which we were directed once we had checked in. The staff member watched us come in starboard to on the reception pontoon, but now had us switch our fenders and ropes to come in port to, under his very exasperated and impatient eye, as he stood on the pontoon waiting to take our ropes. He could so easily have sent us to this pontoon in the first place (rather than the reception pontoon) or sent us two berths down so we could come on starboard to. In Barbate, we arrived to discover the police boat taking up the entire reception pontoon. We berthed at the nearest pontoon we could find, only to discover that access to the land from that pontoon was blocked. We then went to another pontoon, one that we thought would be suitable for us, but when Julian went up to the office with our papers, we were told to move to a different berth, about five spaces down, as the pontoon we had gone on was apparently for larger boats. The marina was, however, more than half empty.

At each one we had to pay a €15 deposit for each key card to enter the marina buildings and access the pontoons. This is not unusual. But at Cadiz we also had to pay a €50 deposit for an electricity connector cable as the marina only had large fittings, even for small boats like ours. A €50 deposit in order to access the electricity we are paying for and a €30 deposit for two key cards to access the facilities we are paying for. And these deposits can only be paid for in cash! So, for the whole time we’ve been in Andalucia, the marinas have been holding €30 or €80 of our money, while we’re left with a 2km walk into the nearest town we’ve just arrived to, in order to find a cash machine.

At Mazagon I had to beg to be allowed to have a shower at 7.30am, and was told that the showers didn’t open until 8am. We were leaving at 8am, and I wanted a shower. I begged and pleaded in my poor Spanish and finally was told I would be allowed to have a quick shower! It’s not like it was some strange hour of the day – 7.30am is a pretty normal time of day for people to shower, isn’t it?

Departing these miserable places is no less awful. With their limited winter opening hours, actually being able to pay for our stay and get our deposits back has been a trial. With offices closed between 4pm and 10am, in order to make an early morning start, we would have to settle up the evening before, thus leaving us without electricity or access to the facilities, but yet having to pay €27 per night for the privilege.

All in all, we have had miserable service from these marinas for the privilege of tying up to pieces of wood with more than half the spaces around us empty. We would anchor or go elsewhere if we could, but along this stretch of the Andalucian coast there are few other choices. We are glad to be leaving these marinas behind.