Up the creek

We walked along the cracked pavement towards the beach, Lily and I whispering conspiratorially about Katie’s upcoming birthday and the dinner I planned to surprise Julian with when we got home. Katie and Julian were a few paces ahead, Katie turning around every so often to inform me of the dinner plans of her imaginary friends – apparently, they were flying in from Invisible Land to join us for dinner. As we got closer to the beach, Lily asked if we could stay and play for a while. But I said no. The beach was dirty, covered in bits of plastic and broken glass and the scrubland we were walking through was heavily littered. I didn’t like the feel of the place. ‘Sometime tomorrow we’ll go back to that little beach where we swam yesterday’, I promised. The previous day we’d taken the dinghy ashore and spent a few hours on a beach closer to the mouth of the Rio Guadiana. The beach we were now walking towards was close to the marina and industrial part of Ayamonte.

When we reached the beach, Julian and I dropped our backpacks and bag of groceries and told the girls to play (‘watch out for broken glass’) while we put the dinghy in the water. Three hours earlier we had motored the dinghy ashore onto this seemingly deserted grubby beach. Julian had taken the outboard motor off and carried it up to some scrubby bushes 25 metres away. We then carried the dinghy up and placed it on top of the outboard. The marina in Ayamonte doesn’t welcome dinghies, so if you want to go ashore from an anchorage, the only option from south of town is to pull up onto a beach.

The girls ran down the beach and we walked to the dinghy. Julian was the first to notice something was wrong. The dinghy was there alright, but the girls’ lifejackets were gone, as were the dinghy’s oars, row-locks, air pump, water pump and the big black rubber tub that we store things in to keep dry in our perpetually leaking dinghy. ‘And the outboard?’ I asked, dreading to see what might no longer be under the dinghy. Relief! The outboard at least was where we had left it. The thief probably hadn’t realised it was there.

We were crestfallen, our buoyant mood as we walked back from a couple of hours in Ayamonte completely gone. We told the girls and they couldn’t understand why someone would steal our stuff. Quite honestly, neither could we. Faded frayed children’s lifejackets, and foot pump on its last legs, a leaky water pump with the handle missing, and a rubber tub that cost €3 in the Chinese shop (but which I had retrieved from a skip earlier in the year). Only the old Zodiac oars and relatively new row-locks might be worth something. All together, the thief probably got away with second hand stuff with a value of about €20.

But for us, that old, worn stuff had far more than monetary value. Two life jackets that give us peace of mind when travelling by dinghy with Lily and Katie; an air pump that is used every single day to inflate the dinghy’s leaky chambers; a water pump to keep ahead of the constant leaks of water onto the dinghy floor; oars and row-locks for safety and peace of mind in the event that our outboard fails; and an old rubber tub to keep laptops, backpacks, shoes, food and everything else dry as we move between Carina and land. All that old stuff was priceless to us. For the sake of €20 worth of stuff we were now left with a big headache and the prospect of a big hole in our never-very-healthy bank account.

We returned to Carina despondent, all hunger vanished, and the desire to make a special meal now the last thing I wanted to do. Julian and I started to evaluate what had been stolen and to weigh up options for the days and weeks ahead. We had a spare water pump aboard Carina (a brand new one we had found once in a public shower block, in a bag marked ‘Free – take what you want’), so that wasn’t a problem. But without oars or the means to inflate the dinghy, we could not go ashore. There would be no trip to the beach for the girls the next day, and the rest of our week downriver at anchor now took on an entirely new complexion. The girls’ lifejackets would cost €40 to replace at the chandler in Vila Real. Our foot pump had been on its last legs and it would probably only been a matter of weeks before we needed to invest in a new one anyway.

We have been in need of a new dinghy for some time now, and our latest attempts at repairs a few weeks ago ended in failure. Perhaps the thief, marching away with our oars over his shoulder, had forced our hand. Maybe this was the push we needed to invest in that new dinghy.

We considered what to do over the next 24 to 48 hours. Out came the almanac and the pilot book. Should we head east out of the river to the marina at Isla Cristina, reported to have a good and relatively inexpensive chandlery, where were could potentially purchase a new dinghy (where the money would come from for the new dinghy was anyone’s guess). Or should we head back upriver and get on the pontoon in Sanlúcar from where we could investigate, plan and choose the most cost-effective and worthwhile course of action – a new dinghy, a second-hand one, or some other option.

After talking late into the night (over that dinner that eventually got made) and sleeping on the problem, the next morning we chose a different course of action. We weren’t going to let this ruin our little downriver holiday – the first time we’ve all been together for any period of time in over a year. So we motored a little upriver to a pontoon north of the bridge. The pontoon is free of charge, but has no facilities. Still, it would allow us to enjoy a few more days away without having to worry about how we would get ashore and would give us time to consider how best to reorganise our finances to cope with this sudden and unexpected expense.

Though I’m still feeling despondent and am concerned about money, by the time we went to bed that night we could chuckle at our dilemma, and over the last few days a clearer path to resolving this problem has become clear. While we’re now up shit creek without a paddle, some guy’s wandering the scrub out there with everything he needs to go boating …except a boat!

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Who needs autohelm?

I knew the day would come when sailing with children finally paid off. All those years of lifting kids onto and off pontoons, into and out of the dinghy, onto and off their too-high bed. All that neediness when Carina leaned hard or when we sailed in rough weather. All the near solo sailing when one or other of us (usually me) was engaged in full-time child-minding. Finally, payday has arrived.

Carina has temporarily escaped the clutches of the Guadiana Gloop, that elemental force of the Rio Guadiana that sucks sailors upriver and refuses to let go. With only one week of school holidays remaining, we decided to make our way down river. Our reasons were four-fold. 1. Katie is forever begging us to go sailing; 2. A change is as good as a holiday; 3. We wanted to avoid the noisy weekend music festival in Alcoutím; and 4. Carina is in need of repairs, and one way to find out what’s working and what’s not is to take her out for a run to test her under engine and under sail.

The girls were excited at the prospect of sailing and were both up and eager shortly after our 7.30am departure from the Alcoutím pontoon, where we briefly stopped to fill up the water tank.

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Katie has it all under control

We motored down to Ayamonte, retracing the journey I had so recently made with Roy aboard Sea Warrior. Julian and I helmed for about twenty minutes of the more than three hour passage. The rest of the time, Lily and Katie helmed, taking turns at the wheel. Julian and I had a relaxing passage, keeping an eye that the helmsgirls were not driving us towards a rocky shore, into shallows, or directly into oncoming vessels.

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Lily on the helm

I smiled to see them so relaxed and so keen, and laughed out loud when Katie, so cocksure at the helm, asked, ‘Mum, how come if kids are allowed to drive boats, they’re not allowed to drive cars?’ All I could say in reply was, ‘Keep your eyes on the river, Katie, you’re veering towards the riverbank’.

Between Lily’s expert cups of tea and pancake-making skills, and now two human autohelms, this parenting business is starting to pay off. If only I could get them to tidy up the incessant mess, my work here would be done.

Bountiful summer

It’s been a bountiful summer. Vines sagged under their bunches of grapes, fig trees were rich with their purple and green fruits, and sweet almond trees were bedecked with clusters of the furry green-brown outer shells of nuts.

For the first time I spent the summer in southern Iberia (with the exception of two weeks in Ireland in early July). In previous years I rued all the fresh summer foods I would miss, as I packed my bags for long summers away in northern Europe – the figs still hard and small on the copious fig trees, the grapes mere buds on the vines. We’d enjoyed an abundance of ripe plums before we’d flown north and the pomegranates were ripe on our return (alas, my least favourite fruit).

But this year I indulged (indeed, overindulged) in what the Rio Guadiana had to offer. Despite the parched earth, the unforgiving sun, and the river gradually growing saltier on each flood tide, there was an explosion of wild and cultivated foods to feast on.

At first, I gathered figs from wild trees, or from cultivated trees overhanging lanes and hiking trails, stretching up on my tip-toes to reach what hadn’t already been harvested by others. Purple figs or ripe green figs burst open to reveal their rich red pulpy interiors, the green ones all the more spectacular for the contrast between their outsides and insides. In two mouthfuls, three at most, I’d ingest each fig, savouring the deep sweetness, like sweet jam eaten straight from the pot. When I moved downriver to house-sit for some friends, their smallholding was enjoying an unusual abundance of figs, which I plucked and ate as I wandered the property, or plucked before breakfast to add to my muesli, or spread out to dry, so I will have a supply of dried figs for a few months to come. I even, as instructed by my friends, lopped off the lowest lying branches of the fig trees and fed them to the sheep. Those old ladies nearly galloped towards the prize, delighting in the figs as much as I did.

My friends also had sweet almond trees (not to be confused with bitter almonds – essential in making marzipan, but poisonous and disgusting if eaten raw and unprocessed). As with the figs, I plucked almonds from the trees for morning muesli and kept the nutcracker close by so I could indulge as the mood took me. A large bowl of almonds now sits in Carina’s cockpit which, apart from their delicious flavour, keeps us all busy with the nutcracker.

If you stand still for long enough around here, a vine will grow around you. They have crept up through and around fig trees, orange trees and eucalyptus trees. Reaching the large sweet green bunches often requires feats of gymnastic dexterity, and even now I look with longing and temptation at a certain glut of grapes that remain elusively out of reach, a sharp 50metre drop and certain injury separating me from them.

Vines, as well as producing one of Earth’s most delicious fruits, are an excellent source of shade, and many people along the river encourage vines across the pergolas that cover the outdoor balconies and patios where so much of life is lived here. A friend required assistance one Saturday. She manages a holiday let property and had only a short window between the departure of one group of holiday makers and the arrival of another. She asked if I would help change the bedding, clean the bathrooms and vacuum the floors. What she didn’t tell me was that the balcony pergola was sagging under the weight of a hundred bunches of grapes. As I worked, I plucked, my mouth almost continuously full of the sweetest of Mother Nature’s grapes. When my work was done, my friend insisted I take some home. I took six massive bunches, which weren’t even missed from the bonanza overhead. I refused to take more, as those I had were being crushed under their own weight. There were far too many for me, so I shared them with friends I met on boats on my way home. Julian and I still had more than knew what to do with. There have been other occasions this summer of sitting late at night on balconies or patios, decadently plucking grapes from overhead as I wind down with friends after a night out.

I have, for some time, been tempted to experiment with carobs. These long, vanilla-like pods also grow in abundance here, and have long been used as an alternative to chocolate. Carob is sweet and healthy, the Portuguese use the powder to make crepes and pastries, and bags of powder can be found in fresh food markets across southern Portugal. For the past two years we’ve been regularly feeding carob pods to Salsa, our horse friend. He devours them, and raises his left front hoof to let us know he wants more. He whinnies now when he sees any of the four of us come walking along the lane, knowing his carob fix is coming (Salsa is also partial to vine leaves and whole oranges, turns up his nose at fig leaves, but carob is clearly his favourite).

But when I went online to learn what I could do with carobs, I discovered the process of getting from pod to powder is all rather time consuming. So, we will continue to snack on them when we go walking, and continue to keep Salsa supplied.

Autumn is in the air, the nights are getting cooler (Katie’s back under a duvet at night, and Lily has an extra blanket) and the abundance of food continues. The pomegranates are ripe now (pleasing all aboard Carina apart from me), as are the quinces. In a few months time we will be once again preserving olives and enjoying fresh oranges and lemons, as this incredibly fertile part of the world keeps our taste buds happy with what it has to offer up.

Carina upriver

Carina’s been moored upriver of Sanlúcar and Alcoutím since late June. Close to two and a half months now. She spent a few days back on the Alcoutím pontoon in mid-July but, for the most part, she’s been peacefully resting upriver, facing up or downriver as the tide dictates, hills and goats, quince and pomegranate trees for neighbours. She’s not alone. There are other boats moored here too – most unoccupied, but we have a few friends who come and go to their moorings anchorages close by.

I’ve spent more time aboard Carina than anyone else this summer. Lily and Katie were in the UK and Ireland for seven weeks and Julian, because of his job, spent more time in Alcoutím than aboard Carina. I went to Ireland for a couple of weeks, I house-sat for a week, and I sailed to Culatra aboard Sea Warrior. But between all those trips, I returned home to Carina. I’ve spent many days and nights aboard alone. Despite the summer heat – mid-40˚Cs some days – I got to grips with some much needed work. I repaired the floor in the forward heads, thoroughly cleaned Carina’s every nook and cranny, attempted (and mostly failed) to repair the dinghy, and attended to multiple little tasks – sewing, whipping sheets and lines, getting on top of an ant infestation!

Due to the heat, most of my work was carried out early in the morning or late at night. The middle of the day was reserved for sleeping, reading and curing my perspiration by swimming in the river. The joys of being away from the villages are multiple. The silence. The green-brown hills against the sharp blue sky. Birdsong. The night sky awash with stars. The freedom of nakedness!

Last week, with house-sitting done and the girls home from their travels abroad, we settled back into family life aboard Carina. At each low water we row the short distance to the nearest riverbank, to swim and skim stones off a rocky spit. The pleasure of immersing our overheated bodies in the warm river water is beyond words.

There’s entertainment to be had in watching fish leaping high out of the water (one day last week one narrowly avoided landing in the dinghy as we motored downriver), herons on the riverbank, egrets flying overhead at dusk.

I’m hoping to get my hands on another dinghy soon, so that once the girls are back at school Julian and I will have two tenders, allowing us to stay off the pontoon more often, so we can find solace and peace just around the bend in the river.