Plans, panic and Portugal

By Martina and Julian

For just a moment we thought about sailing to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. The Belgian sailors on neighbouring pontoons at Barbate were preparing for the five-day passage and it sparked the idea in us. They told us the marina in Las Palmas is cheap, and we thought there must surely be work to be had in the tourist and hospitality sectors over summer, and we could overwinter there with relative ease. The only problem with Las Palmas marina is that it is booked solid from October to December by the organised flotillas that depart for the Caribbean at that time of year. But surely we could find a way around that by moving to a different island for a couple of months. There was a weather window opening up in 36 hours and we’d need to be ready to go. The possibilities swirled around in our heads.

And then the possibilities were followed by questions. Do we have charts for the Canaries? No. Does our insurance cover sailing in the Canaries? No. And in the remote marina in Barbate we had no internet access and it was a long walk into town to find free Wifi to carry out some research. No point thinking ‘there must be jobs in Las Palmas’. We needed to know for sure. Five days of sailing southwest out into the Atlantic along the northwest coast of Africa is a long way to go with no idea if there really are jobs. Such a voyage requires more than 36 hours of planning and preparation.

Besides, we had spent all winter in a marina, in a sizable town and we longed for a quiet anchorage, rural living, away from it all. Las Palmas, the biggest city on the islands, would be going directly towards it all. So we stuck to our original plan to set out the next day for an overnight passage to the Rio Guadiana, the river border between Spain and Portugal.

The Guadiana has to be entered at half-flood in order to clear the bar at its mouth. Figuring we would make an average speed of 4.5 knots, we foresaw a 21-hour passage, departing Barbate at noon to reach the Guadiana at 9am the next morning. Martina took the girls shopping for supplies for the overnight passage while Julian did his boat preparations and then he took them for a walk through the coastal pine forests while Martina did her prep.

Shortly before noon we slipped our lines and gently motored out of Barbate. Heading west, the wind was in our faces as we rounded Cabo Trafalgar. We got a good look at the double tombolas, and were surprised not to see any kites, given the profusion of kites and kite surfers we’d seen on previous land and sea visits to the Cabo. Lily was in the cockpit with us and we told her about the Battle of Trafalgar and Admiral Nelson and Julian filled us in on the details and reasons for his death. Perhaps morbidly, we imagined him dying in the exact spot we now passed over.

Once abreast of the Cabo we cut the motor, threw out the sails and headed northwest for the remainder of the passage. Well, mostly northwest. The previous day, in Barbate, Martina had watched an animated explanation of the workings of the huge tuna nets used along this coast, and now we came upon one right in our path. Julian tacked away southwest for fifteen minutes or so to get around it, giving us a chance to see it at close quarters, the entrance net and the various dead ends and enclosures that corral the tuna into the final net where they are corralled by the fishermen’s boats in a style of fishing known as almadraba.

Half an hour later, back on our northwest heading, we saw the dorsal fin of a female orca, as she swam in the direction of the tuna net, following those same red tuna that make the region such rich fishing grounds.

It was a lively sail with the wind occasionally reaching a steady 18 knots. We sailed 60˚ off-wind, making the strength of the wind feel greater than it was. All our sails were out and we leaned hard. The leaning, coupled with the one-metre swell from the southwest, made for an uncomfortable sail, particularly for anyone below decks and especially for anyone attempting to sleep. Even Lily and Katie, who usually sleep well when we sail, were disturbed by these conditions and slept fitfully.

The wind refused to die down overnight as winds often do, and rather than making an average top speed of 4.5 or 5 knots we spanked (thank you Chris on Tallulah May for gifting us this word) along at over 6 knots for most of the journey. If this kept up, we would reach the Guadiana way too early.

In late afternoon, Julian went below to try to catch some sleep. Cadiz lay ahead, the giant suspension bridge towering above the city. Seven months ago, the last time we saw the bridge, it was two separate pieces, not yet meeting in the middle. But now it was complete and a colossus. It seemed to take forever to get past Cadiz. Martina had been looking at Cadiz slowly changing perspective against Carina for over two hours and was level with the city when Julian took the helm at 7pm. For four more hours we sailed northwest at over 6 knots, and as day turned to night the two red lights on top of the bridge lit the sky. When Martina took over again at 11pm those lights could still been seen faintly in the distance, over twenty miles away.

Once darkness fell, Julian sailed with the bright lights to the north of Cadiz on one side and the bright lights of a line of merchant ships at anchor on the other.

Martina’s attempts at sleep failed as she shared the aft berth with Lily and Katie who, despite not being tired, had decided to go to bed, and played in bed for three hours with Martina occasionally yelling at them and kicking them out because they were coming between her and sleep. So Martina was not in the best of moods when she took the helm from 11pm to 2am. And because of the uncomfortable swell and the leaning of the boat, Julian only managed about ten minutes sleep during his down time. At 2am we swapped places, and Martina slept soundly for two and a half hours. At 5am we swapped places again.

Because of the speed we had maintained all night, we were still set to reach the mouth of the Guadiana two hours earlier than we wanted. When Martina took the helm at 5am the lights of Spain and Portugal were close and she could already see the leading lights into harbour entrances along the coast.

Julian had just fallen into his first deep sleep of the journey when Martina shouted him awake. ‘Why’s there a cardinal mark right here’ and a few seconds later ‘Shit, I’ve just nudged a large buoy with no light’. Martina was in a panic. ‘There’s a whole line of buoys’ she yelled and Julian leapt into the cockpit. He ran to the bow to look ahead and urgently shouted back ‘Turn right, turn right’. Martina turned left. We ploughed straight into a fishing net, briefly dragging a line of buoys. Luckily, we quickly lost the net and were past the danger. Looking back, we saw an array of bright yellow flashing lights, lit up like a Christmas tree. Martina claimed ‘Honestly, I didn’t see the lights. Well I did, but I thought they were lights on shore’.

Before going back to bed, Julian brought in the genoa and mizzen sails and told Martina to carry on for another hour or two and then tack away from shore. But we continued to make too much way. Martina was spooked because of the incident with the fishing net, had momentarily lost her confidence and no longer trusted her judgement. What if all the lights that she thought were on shore are actually only 100 metres away? And the depth gauge showed that we were losing depth at a rapid rate. 18 metres, 17.5, 17. If it kept dropping at this rate we’d be on land in ten minutes. She called Julian up again. We decided to tack away from shore now, sailing an hour or two into the darkness. But Julian was too tired to sail and wanted to get his head down for a little longer. The sailing was difficult on this heading, with local fishing boats bobbing around in the darkness, lobster pots to be slalomed through, and other nets like the one we’d just passed over. So we decided to bring in the mainsail and motor. For the next two hours we pottered around, doing 2 knots, not going anywhere, while we waited to enter the river and while Julian attempted to get more sleep.

At 8am we decided to go for it, and gingerly made our way towards the 500 metre wide river mouth. We began our entry into the river at exactly half-flood, carefully picking out the buoys marking the channel, whose helpful lights went out fifteen minutes earlier. But in early morning the trials of the night were left far behind us. We had a choice of Vila Real de Santo Antonio marina on the Portuguese side of the river or Ayamonte marina on the Spanish side. Keeping a close eye on the depth gauge, there seemed to be plenty of water and we entered the Guadiana comfortably, the swell subsiding as we passed behind the long breakwater at the mouth of the river. All of a sudden we were accompanied by the shrill cacophony of multitudes of terns diving for fish. The peaceful sandy and muddy riverbanks felt very different to anywhere we have been for a long time.

As we came alongside Vila Real de Santo Antonio we saw a space on the outside pontoon. Within minutes we were tied up, Martina was making breakfast and we were back in Portugal again.

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4 thoughts on “Plans, panic and Portugal

  1. It’s interesting to read a post from the perspective of both and neither of you at the same time! I’m glad you made it safely to your destination, I was gripped by the drama of the fishing net and the deceptive lights. I’d recommend visiting the Canaries at some point if you can, especially Gran Canaria which has the most incredible museum just off the port and lots of interesting museums and buildings in the old town. But it is a heck of a long way to go if you aren’t certain it’ll work out, I guess.

    • Hi May, We’ve been to Lanzarote on family holidays with our mums, and the last time we were there – April 2012 – we thought some day we’d like to sail there. Maybe next year!!

  2. Wow ! I’m feeling a bit terrified and queasy now 😩 What a terrifying few minutes you had amongst the buoys and fishing nets . I’m so glad you all reached port safely and it makes for a very exciting story but it’s frightening reading for your old aunt 😔 Great article . Stay safe 😘😘😘

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