USS Willow

In 1924 the US Lighthouse Service commissioned the construction of a Mississippi steam boat. Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works won the contract and began construction at a cost of $372,000. The boat was built in a shipyard downriver from St. Louis. She was 200 feet long and 64 feet wide, and drew 9 feet of water. When complete, she underwent trials on Lake Keokuk, Iowa. From there she proceeded to New Orleans. The boat was named the Willow and she joined the Lighthouse Service on 4 October 1927.

The Willow was assigned to the 15th Lighthouse District in Memphis and she aided navigation along the Mississippi between New Orleans and St. Louis, spending her winter months in New Orleans.

With her 9 foot draught, there many places along the river where the Willow simply could not go. The US Army Corps of Engineers tried to maintain a 9 foot channel in the Mississippi, but the Willow’s movements was restricted, and she was accompanied by a 38 foot support vessel that could get to the places Willow could not. Despite this, she was widely referred to as ‘the pride of the Lighthouse Service’. She was such a beautiful boat that some mistakenly took her to be a private yacht, rather than a working government boat.

In 1939 the Lighthouse Service merged with the Coast Guard and Willow was designated a Coast Guard cutter, carrying on the same role along the Mississippi between New Orleans and St. Louis throughout World War Two.

On 15 December 1944 Willow collided with USS LST-841 and both ships were badly damaged. The cost of repairs and continued maintenance were considered to be too high, so the Willow was decommissioned on 1 March 1945.

DSCI0133The first view we got of the USS Willow was over the protective sea wall was we motored west towards the entrance to the marina at Benalmádina on the Costa del Sol. After taking on fuel and paying our marina fees we slowly motored through the marina to our allocated berth, passing the Willow berthed on the outer edge of the marina. We were immediately struck by her New Orleans grandeur, her column-supported wooden decks reminding us of Showboat and Huckleberry Finn.

Benalmádina is a gaudy, high-rise blighted tourist resort with lurid statues of Neptune and sea nymphs adorning the marina complex and larger-than-life fibreglass polar bears and Yeti advertising bars and restaurants offering the usual holiday resort fare of burgers, pizzas and beer.

During our few days in Benalmádina, we walked around to the outer harbour to get a closer look at the Willow and we did a little online research to learn more about her. So how did this beautiful elegant steamboat end up here, in package-holiday central, with razor wire around her decks and looking sadly neglected?

DSCI0140After her decommissioning in 1945 her machinery was removed and she was turned overto the US Army Corps of Engineers who used her as a Quarters Boat. She served as a mess and berth for Corps of Engineers labourers, including German prisoners of war.

In 1962 she was sold to a Paducah, Kentucky businessman who planned to transform her into a floating restaurant and hotel, but this plan did not materialise. She remained unused and tied up at Paducah until 1965, when she was sold to the WS Young Construction Company and towed to New Orleans.

In September 1965, while berthed at LaPlace, Louisiana, Hurricane Betsy beached Willow high on the levee. There she was abandoned to the hands of vandals until she was rescued by the US Marshall in New Orleans. She was sold at auction to a relative of the owners of Young Construction who then sold her, yet again, in 1970, to Belezian Industries. They bought her as an investment and moved her to Florida, hoping to repair her and quickly sell her on. One prospective buyer planned to operate her as a lobster factory in British Honduras. After $18,000 worth of work repairing 45 feet of her bow, this deal fell through.

In 1972 she was sold to a British company, Themes International.

DSCI0122We have been unable to find out what happened to her for the seventeen years after 1972. But we pick up the story again in 1989.

In 1989 she was transported across the Atlantic on a semi-submersible to Southampton on the south coast of England. From there she was taken to Antwerp, Belgium, for refurbishment. While she was in Antwerp, Themes International went out of business, and she remained in Antwerp until 1995, when she was bought once again and transported back to Birkenhead in the UK.

DSCI0120From there, in 1996, she made the journey to her final – or latest – destination, Benalmádina in Mediterranean Spain. For two years she operated as a floating bar and restaurant under the name Mississippi Willow. Afternoon cruises were offered and she opened up as a restaurant each evening. It appears that she closed for business sometime around 1998 as the owners could not afford the rather considerable mooring costs of such a large vessel. Her lower decks are now surrounded by metal and razor wire, and she lies empty and abandoned on the outer wall of Benalmádina.

We were sad to see a vessel once in the service of safe navigation along one of the world’s great waterways now reduced to a has-been tourist attraction on the other side of the world. But perhaps her fate could have been worse. Her collision in 1944 could have sunk her. Had she not been auctioned on from the levee at LaPlace she could have finally succumbed to the ravages of nature and vandals. All along the way she has been abandoned due to poor management, bad investment, and owners going out of business. But yet she carries on. She’s still afloat. The razor wire protects her from vandals. Maybe someday someone will see the Willow‘s potential and help restore her to her former glory.

Wildlife bonanza

We set sail from Almerimar shortly before 9am on Sunday. We were forecast easterly winds, light at first but getting stronger through the day. The first half of the day was overcast and chilly, and the girls and I piled on the layers to keep warm.

Last year common dolphins were our regular companions as we sailed south from Plymouth to the Mediterranean. Common dolphins are small, dark grey on top, lighter grey underneath, with a distinctive curved dorsal fin. So I was thrilled on Sunday when some bottlenose dolphins came right up beside us and rode our bow wave. I gasped when I saw the first one, so much larger than their common dolphin cousins. Bottlenose dolphins can grow to 3.4 metres – a metre more than common dolphins. They are a lighter shade of grey and their dorsal fins are bigger and less curved at the back. The dolphins that swam close to us on Sunday had ragged dorsal fins, suggesting they’ve had come close encounters with boat propellers.

A couple of hours after the bottlenose dolphins had dropped by we were joined by a few common dolphins, who looked tiny and delicate in comparison.

We were just past Adra, Julian at the helm and the girls and I sitting in the cockpit with our heads stuck in our books.
‘Flamingos! Flamingos!’ Julian yelled excitedly. I looked up from my book, thinking he’d finally lost the plot. But there, between us and the shore, flying low to the water, was a flock of shockingly pink flamingos! We watched as they flew in the opposite direction to us, never more than a couple of metres above the surface of the water. Due to their bright plumage we kept track of them far into the distance.

About six miles out from Almuñecar, Julian drew our attention to something else in the water. Swimming so close to Carina that I could have touched it with a boat hook, was a reddish-brown sea turtle, about 30cm long. Later, after we had settled into Marina del Este, we did some online research and we’re pretty sure it was a juvenile loggerhead turtle. Loggerheads range in colour from green to reddish-brown, they are found throughout the Mediterranean, and they have nesting sites in the south and east of the Sea. I’ve seen sea turtles a couple of times when SCUBA diving, but this was the first time for all of us to see one while sailing. Many sailors write of sea turtles bumping up against their boats, and we were thrilled to see our very first turtle from Carina’s cockpit.

Our final visitor was a bumble bee that landed on our deck about four miles from shore. It rested for a while, exploring the deck, and then went on his way.

It was a memorable day, with so much incredible wildlife visiting us. It was also a reminder of the care we need to take of our fragile ecosystems. The BBC recently reported on new research that found that the Mediterranean is an accumulating zone of plastic debris. The research found 1000 tons of plastic floating on the surface of the Mediterranean. Many animals ingest plastics, mistaking them for food, leading to slow and painful death through starvation. However, 80% of the plastic in the Mediterranean is micro-plastic, less than 5mm in length. These potentially release carcinogenic and other chemicals into the gut.

On Sunday we came close to so many spectacular animals. They were a reminder of the staggering diversity and beauty of the world around us. They were also a reminder that their continued existence hinges on us humans taking care of the world around us and not treating our seas and our atmosphere as dumping grounds for our endless waste.

And we’re off!

The wind made the decision for us in the end. A week on and we were still to-ing and fro-ing between sailing east and sailing west. The other sailors we spoke to in Aguadulce didn’t help. ‘Go west to the Rio Guadiana’ one neighbour would tell us. ‘Go east to Corfu’ another would say. Everyone had their favourite places east or west; everyone had good reasons for going one way and not going the other. All this advice, all the research we’d carried out, and we were still none the wiser about which direction we should take.

But the time had come to leave. Carina was ready. More than ready. The jobs to make her seaworthy and comfortable were complete and Julian was now taking on those maybe-some-day-if-I-have-time tasks. Each day we stayed I got a bit more writing done, which was wonderful. But if most of my writing is about our sailing life, then it’s time we did some sailing. The indecision was making us a little more unhinged every day.

The ‘where should we go’ question was getting to us. On Thursday night I asked Julian, ‘What’s the probability we’ll sail west tomorrow?’
‘65%’ he replied.
‘And the probability of sailing east?’
‘And the probability we’ll sail east the following day?’
‘5 to 7%’
Right. Really helpful. What about that other 28 to 30%? Such is life, married to a scientist.
After yet another look at the weather forecast, we went to bed on Thursday night no closer to a decision.

We still didn’t know which direction to go on Friday morning, but we decided to go anyway. The east wind strongly suggested that we would sail west, but we might be able to tack southeast, around the Cabo de Gata to San Jose. So we got ready. We said our goodbyes to our good friends – Eric across the pontoon who has been a wonderful neighbour; Jessica at the marina office who has been so helpful and generous for the past six months; we tried phoning Ray to say goodbye; and Fi brought us round a tub of her home-made fudge for the trip.

Shortly before one o’clock, after filling up with diesel and handing over our marina keys, we were off. We motored out and once clear of the marina wall we headed roughly south west, quickly hoisting the reefed mainsail to see where the wind wanted us to go. The force 4-5 east-southeast wind and the short waves suggested that we could sail west quite comfortably but, while east around the Cabo de Gata was possible with a mixture of sail and motor, it would not be a pleasant sail. So as Julian pulled out a little over half the genoa, I set a course of 215˚ and we were on our way west, the decision made at last.

The three hour sail to Almerimar was pleasant, perfect conditions for a first sail in over six months. Aguadulce quickly disappeared into the haze, the mountains of Las Alpujarras ghostly behind, and soon we were passing Roquetas de Mar – the town itself, then the holiday resort, and then the kilometres and kilometres of greenhouses, growing Europe’s fruit and vegetables. Before long, Almerimar appeared in the distance on the coastal plain, and we were changing tack and heading in. Having been here last year in late September, arrival procedure at the marina was familiar to us, and we were soon at our berth for the night – next to an Irish pub!

The girls and I quickly jumped onto dry land, not bothering to tidy up after our sail. I took the girls to a playground they enjoyed when we were here last September, and we wandered home via the supermarket, the girls excitedly pointing out places they remembered from when we were last here.

So, we’re on our way. We have no ultimate destination. We will go where the wind takes us, and see what new adventures we can have along the way.

Cakes and clarinets

I’ve written before (here and here)about the generosity of many of the people we meet along the way. We encounter such kind and thoughtful people whose generosity at the very least puts a huge smile on our faces, but often as not helps us as we continue on our travels.

DSCI0016Once again Jesus, who owns the boat across from us on the pontoon, has returned from a fishing trip to Alboran and given us six fresh red sea bream. As I de-scaled and gutted them on the pontoon, the girls helped out and we had an impromptu lesson in fish biology, looking at and discussing gills, fins, eyes, liver, guts, heart, muscles and skeleton. The offal that Lily threw in the water was soon snapped up by seagulls and mullet and led us to a conversation about predators and scavengers. The fish tasted good, fried up in the pan and drizzled with lemon, and served with a green salad.

A few days later Jesus came around again with a platter of cakes for ‘las niñas’. The platter was a left-over from a confirmation party and we were delighted to have this unexpected treat of an assortment of cakes for after dinner.

Our neighbour Ray is 80 years old. He’s gradually emptying his boat as he prepares to sell it. Almost daily he comes by with items for us to keep if we have a use for them, or to get rid of if we wish. Most of what he gives us is of great use indeed.

He has given us paper charts of the Mediterranean and of the southwest coast of England, as well as an electronic chart of the whole of the Mediterranean. The electronic chart is fifteen years old and incompatible with our computer, but Julian is putting his computer skills to use to figure out a way to upload them. He has also given us a Mediterranean almanac. It’s a few years old, but still of use to us, and sailing magazine articles he’s cut out and kept over the years relating to places that we may sail to this year or next.

But that’s not all. He’s given us a clarinet! After a few attempts to get any sound out of it at all, Julian’s now played a few tunes and I hope it will be played regularly. Added to our recorders, tin whistle, tambourine, maracas, castanets and triangle we’re a band in the making!

Ray has also given us a DVD player/viewer. What a godsend! With only our laptop, there are so many lost opportunities for writing and carrying out research when the girls quietly sit and watch movies every few days. But now we have the DVD player, the girls can watch Frozen or Box Trolls of The Sound of Music while Julian or I write or do sailing-related research. Hurray!

Such generosity. Another person might not even think to find new homes for their old stuff, instead just dumping it in the nearest skip. But Ray’s thoughtfulness has expanded our navigation and cruising potential and he’s given us opportunities for learning and fun (the clarinet) and solved the conundrum of only having one laptop on board. Thank you Ray!

But such thoughtfulness doesn’t come only from our recently-found friends in the marina. The girls and I returned from Ireland to find two parcels that had come all the way from Japan. They were from my old friend Takako. Since I left Japan in 1998, Takako has regularly sent me gifts – quite often non-perishable Japanese food. When she and her daughter, Mayu, came to visit us in Devon in early 2012, they brought two suitcases. The smaller of the two contained their clothes and belongings. The larger, and much heavier, suitcase was filled to bursting with food, and for the duration of their stay Takako did much of the cooking – Japanese breakfasts, lunches and dinners for a week. She re-taught me cooking techniques she had first taught me in the mid-1990s and she left us with so much food that I was still occasionally cooking with those ingredients at the start of this year!

The larger of the two parcels to arrive in Aguadulce a few weeks ago contained an assortment of noodles – ramen, udon, soba; instant meals that will be perfect for a mid-sail lunch or warming overnight watch meal in the coming months. The smaller parcel contained four packets of origami paper. I’ve become quite obsessed with origami since we were given an instruction kit a few months ago. The paper from Japan is so much more beautiful than any origami paper I’ve found in Europe. It’s delicate and patterned and multi-coloured and in a couple of different sizes. It is another wonderful and thoughtful gift that will keep the girls and I busy on long passages and during long winter evenings later in the year.

We are grateful for the generosity of these old and new friends. Their thoughtfulness enriches our lives and reminds us that most people you meet in life are downright good and nice and kind.

Semana Santa

Here in southeast Spain Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, is a time of penance, prayer and processions. On Thursday we took the bus into Almeria to watch one of the processions, and it was memorable.

DSCI0067We found the perfect viewing spot amongst the seated enclosures set up all along the main shopping street and gazed in wonder at the spectacle as it went past.

These Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions have a history dating back to the 16th Century and the Spanish Counter Reformation. Local parishes, civil groups and other organisations have their own confradias, fraternities responsible for the care and maintenance of elaborate statues of Jesus and Mary, and preparing throughout the year for these Semana Santa processions. There are 23 of these confradias in Almeria, and throughout the week there are two, three or more processions each evening and night.

The Nazarenos, or penitants, are hidden behind masks and pointed hats, wearing long robes and capes, rosary beads, and some carrying crosiers, bibles and other Catholic symbols. Although to our eyes the costumes are disturbingly similar to Ku Klux Klan, their symbolism to these Spanish penitents is entirely unrelated. The tall pointed hats carry the same symbolism as church spires and cypress trees in cemetaries – carrying the penitents sins up to heaven. And the masks perform the same function as the enclosed darkness of the confessional, hiding the identity of the penitants and allowing for private penance behind the mask. At the procession we attended, the Nazarenos all wore black and white, but other groups in different processions wear purples, reds and other bright colours.

The Nazarenos walked slowly down the street in formation, followed by altar boys swinging thuribles of incense, that familiar smell of Catholic ritual filling the air. Behind the altar boys came the large statue of the suffering Christ, carried on the shoulders of more penitents, hidden underneath heavy velvet cloth. And behind them came the brass band, playing piercing and mournful music.

DSCI0074In the old days, only men were allowed to process in penance, but these days women participate too, and some of the leaders of the groups were clearly women, judging by their footwear and finger rings! Some penitants were accompanied by their children and I was amused at one point to see a mother and father, each with a child, stop, pull out baby drinking bottles from their swaths of robes, and give their children quick drinks!

DSCI0078After the Christ statue came the women, dressed in widows garb, with high mantillas on their heads, rosery beads wrapped around their hands. They in turn were followed by more altar boys swinging thuribles and then a statue of the suffering Virgin Mary, carried on the shoulders of more penitants draped in velvet, and another brass band.

DSCI0083Like the little boy with his dad, in an earlier photo, I was also particularly taken by a woman in her late 60s. Despite the penance and the seriousness of the occasion, she was wearing her sexiest shoes and was having a bit of lighthearted a giggle with the pointy-hatted man to her left!

DSCI0090On Good Friday, the girls and I attended another procession in Aguadulce. This was much more low key, without the elaborate dress, and was more akin to Good Friday services that I am used to in Ireland. After a prayer service in the church in Aguadulce, a large crucifix with the crucified Christ was carried from the church by about ten men. They were followed by fifty or so penitants, mostly old women and men, who proceeded around the streets of Aguadulce, praying, singing hymns and stopping every couple of hundred yards to do the Stations of the Cross and say the rosary.

The Blessed Virgin in Almeria

The Blessed Virgin in Almeria

We’ve returned to our pagan ways aboard Carina this morning. The Easter bunny came in the night and hid chocolate eggs and rabbits around Carina‘s deck and on the pontoon. The girls have been kept busy searching for the chocolate before it gets melted by the hot spring sun!!

Happy Easter everyone!

East or west?

East or west? West or east? We’re almost ready to set sail from Aguadulce and we don’t know which way to go. If we wanted to, we could be ready to leave tomorrow. But where do we go? It’s a dilemma we’ve had since arriving in Aguadulce at the start of last October and in the six months we’ve been here we haven’t reached a conclusion. Indeed, for most of the six months we’ve avoided thinking about it, only occasionally having a conversation on the topic. We started to get serious in February. And each day we think about it, and talk about, and do a lot of research to try to come to a decision about where we should go next.

Either direction has its advantages and disadvantages. In the short term, either direction would be great – we’re sure to have a good time farther into the Mediterranean, or in Morocco and southern Portugal. But when considering the medium term, are we better off going east or west? The long term is something we rarely talk about!

A week ago it was west – along the Spanish coast, south to Morocco, out through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic, to Tangiers, up to southern Portugal. A few days later it was east, to the Balearics, Sardinia, Corsica, to the southeast coast of France, west back to the Spanish border, and down to Valencia.

The former appeals because we have never been to Morocco before and there are some places we regretted missing in southern Portugal last year and other places we want to return to. The latter appeals because we feel as if we have only just tipped the proverbial iceberg of the Mediterranean (now there’s an oxymoron). It’s a big sea with a lot of places to explore. It would be a shame to turn back when we’ve got this far.

In the medium term we need to think about finding jobs next autumn and winter. There are lots of English teaching jobs all over Spain, so east could bring us to Valencia, west could bring us back up north to Galicia.

So what are the disadvantages?

There are potentially expenses from sailing east. Parts of Sardinia, Corsica and southern France are the playgrounds of the super rich in their super yachts, so we anticipate that the cost of living in these places will be restrictive.

We also have to consider the amount of time we spend in Spain. Staying more than 183 days in Spain in any one calendar year makes us liable for a 12% matriculation tax on the value of our boat. That could be a one-off tax of around 5000 euro – money we simply don’t have. While we’re nowhere near the 183 day limit, coming back into Spain later in the year could cause us problems.

Right now the wind is easterly, whispering to us ‘Go west, go west’. And what a time we would have. A month or more in Morocco and then the rest of the summer in Portugal, and then sailing either north to Galicia to return to one of the towns we enjoyed so much last summer, to find teaching jobs, or sailing back into the Mediterranean and finding work here again. But either way the matriculation is a concern.

Two days ago I emailed Mammy and Julian phoned his dad and we told them our definitie plan – we were going east. Yesterday morning we changed our minds and decided to go west! This morning we have no idea. It’s a privileged dilemma. Either way it’s going to be a memorable adventure and along the way we’ll figure out what to do next winter to earn some money.

The easterly wind is forecast to continue for the next ten days. We’ve decided that we’ll make a decision on Saturday morning and we’ll leave Aguadulce on Sunday morning. Or not. Who knows.

Fish tank

‘Come quick’, the girls call urgently and simultaneously from the foredeck. It’s 8.30am and Julian and I are making breakfast and planning where to go when we set sail from Aguadulce. Lily and Katie are playing with their dolls on the foredeck, so we assume there’s been a dolly accident.
‘What’s fallen in?’ Julian calls up in the jaded tones of one who has rescued more than the occasional toy from the marina water.
‘Come quick’, Lily calls again. They always do this, never specifying the reason for the urgency. I abandon the porridge in the saucepan and jump up the companionway.
‘Look, look’, they both squeal, pointing to the water.
‘Do I need the fishing net?’ I ask, one leg in and one leg out of the cockpit. ‘What’s fallen in?’
‘Nothing’, Lily says. ‘It’s some strange fish’.
And then I see what’s causing all the excitement – a school of barracuda swimming past Carina’s bow. Long, sleek, grey with silver stripes down their sides, some of the larger ones are a metre long. They effortlessly glide through the water, on the lookout for food, menacing and very cool at the same time. Julian and I encountered barracuda on our SCUBA diving honeymoon on the Red Sea nine years ago, but we didn’t see them in such large numbers. There must be a couple of hundred at least swimming past us now.

We all stand on the foredeck, mesmerised by these new fish, watching their progress until the last barracuda has swum out of sight. Fifteen minutes later Katie reports they are now swimming past in the opposite direction. We’ve been enjoying watching our new companions for the past twenty-four hours.

We live on a fish tank. The water in the marina is often crystal clear and turquoise. Here in our winter berth, when the sun shines from a cloudless blue sky (as it so often does) we can see right to the rocky sea floor, 4 metres below. The shoe of one of Katie’s dolls lies there, clear to see, next to a sweeping brush that was there before we arrived. And what fish there are to be seen.

All winter we have enjoyed the spectacle of big fat grey mullet writhing at the surface as people feed them stale bread on the other side of the marina. In amongst the mullet are schools of bream, and other fish whose names I don’t know – silver and grey, forked tailed and flat tailed, fast and slow. There are smaller fish too – some with tiger stripes, others with black spots like eyes close to their dorsal fins, and little black fish that dart about. Shoals of tiny young mullet hang around the boats, feeding from the algae growing on the mooring lines. On sunny days the abundance of fish around the boat is enough to make the heart soar.

A few days ago I came up on deck. The sun shone down on the rocky sea bed to starboard, and I saw something new in the water. Sea cucumbers. Ray*, our neighbour, was visiting for a cup of tea and, at first, we all gazed down on the long rubbery creatures, not sure if they were what we thought they were, or if it was some rubbish that had come to rest on the sea floor. But what strange rubbish! The long rubbery tubes looked too organic and a couple had the distinctive rubbery spikes characteristic of some sea cucumber species. Sea cucumbers are slow moving critters, so we went away and came back a few times, monitoring their progress in relation to distinctive rocks, until we determined they really were alive and moving. They were gone later, but have returned this morning, like slow moving cats, seeking out the sunny spots on the sea floor, away from the shadows cast by boats and pontoon.

What delights to behold simply by standing on the deck of Carina in the marina that’s been our home for the past six months. Besides the marine life we are also treated to the spectacle of little brown finches alighting on our mooring lines and on the pontoon, as well as a kingfisher that makes the marina its home. Lily was the first to spot the kingfisher some months ago, perched on the guard rail of the boat next to us. ‘Look, a kingfisher’, she called below deck to Julian and, of course, he had to see it to believe it. Since then we’ve been getting rare, fleeting but precious glimpses of this beautiful bird ever since – on mooring lines and guard rails all over the marina, his blue-green and orange plumage catching our eyes for the briefest of moments before he quickly vanishes.

Sometimes I have to remind myself to take the time to take in what’s going on around me. Slow down, pause for a moment, and enjoy the spectacular abundance of life in the waters around my home.

*Ray is human, not ray!

Fixing up Carina

by Julian

Whilst Martina and the girls were appearing on TV in Ireland, Carina came out of the water for a clean and antifoul.


Carina with a weedy hull, ready for cleaning

I’ve been catching up on all of the necessary maintenance jobs that I have been unable to do while looking after the children on a boat all winter. I still have some way to go but things are going well. Martina often asks me to list what I have yet to do. I have come to dislike making lists. I just like to say “lots of stuff” because I always forget to mention things. I think it must seem as though I am procrastinating over one or two small tasks. Also the thought of putting the whole ‘to-do’ list down in all its enormity scares me. I like to consider one or two priority items at a time. This way I don’t have a nervous breakdown at the shear scale of what I face, including the sailing plans for the year. It is much easier for me to list here some of the things I have already done in the last three weeks and to mention one or two jobs that I will have to do soon. Deep breath – Here it goes.

What I have done in the last few weeks
1. Replaced the 30 m of old rusty chain (plus extra rope) with 50 m of new.
2. Varnished the top of the cockpit table. Three coats.
3. Removed the saloon ceiling to investigate and repair leaks (this repair took two goes because the first one failed).


Saloon ceiling removed to fix leaks

4. Bought new lights, replaced broken galley strip light with a new 30 LED energy efficient light. I have also recently replaced the main saloon light bulb and our berth (bedroom) bulb with LEDs and replaced the broken heads (bathroom) light and quarter berth lights with new light fittings.
5. Took the toilet pump to pieces for a major service, replacing one of the fittings. I hate this job, not because of the dirt but because it is so awkward. What should be relatively simple generally takes the best part of two days and an awful lot of sweat and frustration. That is why I didn’t do it properly last year, and the toilet was becoming increasingly difficult to operate.
6. Checked engine functioning, filters etc. then drove Carina round to be lifted out of the water, where she was pressure washed down and the prop treated to clean it up. Carina was then placed on props for a week so I could do the next jobs on the hull.


Carina washed down

7. Scraped and sanded back loose antifoul, removing any remaining weed and barnacles on the hull.
8. Replaced the hull anode, buying new fittings (from three different shops!!) and checked the electrical connection to the prop.
9. Stripped back wet rudder base, dried and filled with epoxy filler.
10. Painted primer on any bare patches.
11. Painted two new coats of antifoul on the hull. Each took around 4 hours work for me (maybe I’m a bit slow).
12. Put epoxy filler on some small damages to the hull above the water line (most of these were in old repairs, from before we owned the boat, but they make it look like we keep hitting pontoons).
13. Serviced five of our ten seacocks (these are taps from the inside to the outside of the boat): took them apart, ground down to good brass, with grinding paste when necessary, cleaned them, lightly greased them and reassembled. Checked the other five.
14. Emptied the deep cockpit locker to check water heater/pump, recently unblocked cockpit drain pipe, engine compartment, gas locker and gas pipes for leaks.
15. Resealed around the base of the gas locker.


Gas locker with new sealant

16. Serviced one of the larger winches (It was very stiff)


Dirty winch


Clean winch

17. Made up a line and hook to stop snubbing of the anchor chain.
18. Put up the mizzen boom and recently repaired mizzen sail, the mainsail with bag and lazyjacks, sprayhood etc. and got the running rigging sorted ready to sail.

What I have yet to do
1. Service another four winches
2. Service the dinghy (I am half way through this already)
3. Fit new taste filter to kitchen cold tap
4. Work out what the hell we are going to do next

So there you have it. From my early experience of owning Carina, genuine ‘to-do’ lists stretched to around 100 items. I would tick things off and I actually did all of the things the surveyor deamed necessary, or important, in less than a year. However, the to-do list still stubbornly remained at around 100 items as new things were added as quickly as jobs were done. I dread to think what it would be at now but I have decided to stop making lists. I can usually do a few of the things in the time it would take to make the list anyway. I probably could have ticked one or two things off in the time it has taken to write this blog!

What becomes of home schoolers?

Waiting to catch the bus from Malaga Airport to Almería, I struck up a conversation with the man standing beside me at the bus stop. Half British-half German, he had just arrived on a flight from the UK where he was visiting his daughter, a stem cell biology PhD student at Oxford University. We talked about our reasons for travelling to Almería and this led to the man telling me about his family’s move first to Spain in the early 1990s and later to the Dominican Republic. For about four years his children attended school in Spain, but when the family moved to the Dominican Republic, the children still pre-teens, he and his wife took the decision to home educate. As a result, his children had no formal secondary school education, nor had they ever taken exams. And here was one of them about to complete a PhD in stem cell biology at Oxford! He told me about her path through university, from her acceptance for her primary degree at Sussex University based on a written application and a CV that demonstrated a depth of practical biology experience way beyond her tender years, to the particular difficulties she faced as a home schooler entering the formal education system for (practically) the first time, and how she ultimately excelled in her chosen field.

It was a timely encounter, coming only days after a great many people had expressed interest in Lily’s and Katie’s education. The TV and radio interviewers had asked me questions about home education, leading to interest amongst blog readers, and discussions with family and friends in Ireland. On a few occasions in the past couple of weeks I have been asked what will happen if the girls want to go to university or want careers that require university degrees. I’ve been asked if our plan is to never send them to school. And I’ve been asked how I know they are learning the ‘right’ things at home.

I suppose I’ve attempted to answer these questions in different ways in blog posts before, but it’s an ongoing conversation and, as the girls grow older, my consideration of these questions changes.

Talking to the man at Malaga Airport made me think of all the different ways that people are home educated and, just like more formal types of education, there are as many different career and life outcomes as there are people who have been home educated. His daughter’s experience reminded me of people – famous and not so famous – who have been home educated or unschooled for some or part of their childhoods, of the different forms their education took and of the careers they have forged since.

Feminist columnist, novelist, screenwriter, memoirist (need I go on?) Caitlin Moran was taken out of school aged 11 and home educated with her seven siblings; novelist Margaret Atwood didn’t start school until (by some accounts) age 11; US President Theodore Roosevelt was educated at home by his mother until a tutor was brought in to help prepare him for Harvard entrance exams; inventor Thomas Edison was home educated; so was US President Woodrow Wilson; so was model Sophie Dahl. When my knowledge of famous home schoolers dried up, Wikipedia provided an enlightening list.

I only know one adult home schooler personally (if there are more of you out there, set me straight). She is a friend who was home educated for five years in her pre-teens while she sailed around the world with her parents and brother. Her five years away from formal education probably influenced her decision to take a degree in marine biology. I met her when we were both studying for Anthropology PhDs. In the past few years we have met quite a few sailing families with children who are home educated as they explore the world with their parents aboard their floating homes.

Each encounter with home education is different, as the practice fits around each unique family situation. Some families take a formal approach, using state curricula or curricula of their own devising, working to a timetable each day. Others are at the opposite end of the spectrum, giving children complete freedom to follow their own interests. There are children who never go to school or university; there are those who attend school in their mid to late teens; there are those who dip in and out, attending school only to take specialist classes – chemistry, say, or music, where schools provide resources unavailable at home. (In Devon, where we lived prior to moving aboard Carina, children have the option of attending school part-time. We considered its usefulness for older children with regard to language classes, science laboratories, and so on. I wonder do many home schooling families avail of this option?)

My children are six and four years old. I don’t know if they will ever go to school. We don’t have a master plan. I don’t think most parents who send their children to school (apart from those horrid pushy ones) have a master plan. I certainly don’t think my parents knew when I was six years old that I would one day go to university. As home educators, all we can do is encourage a love of learning in our daughters, facilitate their interests, and provide them with the basic skills needed to go out and explore the world on their own.

Friends, family and blog readers have lots of questions about our decision to home educate. I like and encourage those questions because (a) they help Julian and me to think through and give voice to our decisions and (b) they lead to conversations with people who have not encountered this form of education before. But we don’t have all the answers. We don’t even know all the questions!

What we do know is that home educated children generally fare as well in life as formally educated children. Their social and educational experiences are different, but, as Eileen Kane, my first ever Anthropology teacher told us in my first ever Anthropology lecture back in 1990, difference is not deviance.

It’s always encouraging to hear how other home educated children have fared, how their home education has stood to them as they have moved into adulthood. And we encourage people to keep asking questions and keep the conversation going. But don’t be surprised if you question is answered with another question!


After my surreal media week some semblance of normality returned to our holiday in Ireland. I had a few opportunities to spend time in the company of some of my oldest friends. A big-girl sleep-over with two friends I’ve known since we were all four years old involved a lot of good food and even more good conversation.

What a dessert!

What a dessert!

And in last Saturday’s glorious sunshine three of my old (‘less of the old’ I hear them yell) university friends descended on Mammy’s house with an assortment of their children. We caught up while our kids got to know each other. There were a few family get-togethers, filled with tea and cake and ham sandwiches, and visits to other relatives and neighbours.

We celebrated a rip-roaring St. Patrick’s Day, the girls dressed (as one of my friends pointed out) like the Clancy Brothers! We went to Mass in Edenderry to hear and see Granny singing in the choir, and were also treated to the spectacle of Irish dancers dancing up the aisle of St. Mary’s Church.

Begosh and Begorrah..looking none too pleased!

Begosh and Begorrah..looking none too pleased!

Later, we attended the St. Patrick’s Day parade along JKL Street. The parade is a new addition to the Edenderry social calendar. It started only three or four years ago at the height of the recession, in an attempt to lift spirits and boost the economy, when the town and a lot of the people in it were feeling pretty miserable. It was great fun, with many local clubs, societies and businesses with colourful floats. There were marching bands and I was only disappointed to not see any more Irish dancers. One of the local shops gave out free giant green, white and gold lollipops and it took me a few minutes to figure out why the green and yellow around Katie’s mouth was tinged with red. IMG_20150317_141002

The little gluttonous imp tried to stuff too much of the lollipop into her mouth at once, and split her mouth on both sides. If only she was so eager to eat her dinner!

I awoke on Friday morning filled with anticipation for the eclipse. The previous two days had been bright and sunny, so I was disappointed when I opened the curtains to a sky filled with heavy grey clouds. Still, I sat out on the patio, cup of tea warming my hands, awaiting…something. It grew noticeably darker, but that was it. Or so I thought. I went inside to warm up. Half an hour later I ventured outside to bring in turf for the fire and the clouds had thinned to reveal the sun still a little less than half eclipsed by the moon. I yelled for Lily and Katie to come out. They weren’t quite as awestruck as I was!

On Sunday, Lily had a pre-birthday party (five days early), with two little cousins, and a large gathering of my family – Mammy and some of her sisters, my sister, our Nana and, as often at gatherings of my family, the obligatory solitary man, this time in the form of my sister’s boyfriend.

Happy cousins

Happy cousins

The children played, while the adults talked and ate, ate and talked. Mammy put her considerable musical talents to use to play the mouth organ for ‘Pass the Parcel’. ‘Jingle Bells’ in March…what a treat!

All too soon our three weeks in Ireland came to an end and it was time for us to return to Spain – to Julian and to Carina. Since Daddy died and, therefore, since the girls were born, I haven’t spent more than ten days in the house where I grew up. And usually our visits home are around Christmas or for funerals. Three weeks in the middle of March was a very different experience. Everyone else was going about their usual daily business each day and the visit home was devoid of the mania and expectation always attendant on Christmas. It was a much more laid back sort of visit.

Katie and Molly have become great friends

Katie and Molly have become great friends

Three weeks gave Lily and Katie opportunities to become comfortable in the house and the garden, and to spend more time with their great grandmother, Nana Kitty, and various other family members.

It was springtime, so the weather was good, the daffodils were in bloom, there were lambs in the fields – a very different place to the one we so often visit in the darkest days of winter. I have returned to Carina feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, my connections to home rekindled, and Mammy’s bookcase raided for reading material to keep me going for the next few months!