Sailing with Roy

‘Do you have any sailing plans for this summer?’ I asked my friend Roy in early June.

‘I don’t think so’, he replied. ‘I enjoy sailing more when I’ve got someone onboard to share the experience with’.

We’ve known Roy for a couple of years now, another Rio Guadiana live aboard, on Sea Warrior, his Great Barrier 48.

I walked away from Roy that day and a couple of hours later a thought struck me. Would Roy go sailing if I went along? With Julian working five days a week, Carina hasn’t been out of the river in over two years, and I’ve been itching to go sailing for ages. The next time I met Roy, I put it to him. He thought it was a great idea. In mid-July the girls would be in Ireland with their Granny and if I could rearrange some commitments I had in Alcoutím, I would be free to go sailing for a week or so. A few days later everything was sorted out, and Roy and I agreed to set sail a couple of days after I returned from Ireland on July 18th. Roy agreed to provision Sea Warrior, and I would pay for my share of the food and drink once I got aboard.

On Thursday afternoon, July 20th, I climbed aboard Sea Warrior at her anchorage upriver of Alcoutím. After a cup of tea and a walk through the boat, we were ready to set sail.

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Rio The bridge linking Spain and Portugal across the Rio Guadiana

And sail we did. Before we had even reached Sanlúcar (which lies slightly upriver from its Portuguese neighbour Alcoutím) the mizzen was raised, the headsail unfurled, the engine cut and we enjoyed a delightful four-hour, 20-mile sail almost all the way to the mouth of the Guadiana. We were forced to motor only once, for the few minutes it took to round the S-bend upriver of Laranjeiras, when the wind came from the wrong direction and Sea Warrior was stopped in her tracks. Roy was keen to get sailing again before we passed Laranjeiras and Sea Warrior’s former owner, Scot. We achieved it, our shouts rousing Scot from his mid-afternoon siesta, as we sailed past and he none the wiser!

How different the river feels when sailed. With the engine running, the passage downriver is drowned in noise and one passes along rather than through the landscape. Without the engine roar we were immersed in a soundscape of birdsong, sheep bells, the wind in the sails and the sounds of the river itself. At times our attention was drawn to a fish leaping from the water; the first leap a mere flash of silver in the corner of the eye; the second a foot-long fish, moving at speed through the air, droplets of river water glistening in the sun. If we were lucky, we were treated to a third leap, but never a fourth, and had to wait patiently until another glint of silver caught the eye.

We pointed out egrets to each other, white cotton bolls on spindly legs patrolling the exposed muddy edge of the river.

For the first few miles we passed the boats, homesteads and fincas of friends and acquaintances and the farther we came downriver, the lower and sparser the hills until almost at the bridge that connects Spain and Portugal, where the riverbank gives way to a wide floodplain.

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We anchored upriver of the bridge, near a small tributary on the Portuguese side, where a herd of brown and cream coloured cows (presumably, one type for producing milk chocolate and the other for white chocolate!) grazed at the river’s edge.

The next day, with a strong wind in the wrong direction, we motored under the bridge, filled up with diesel and petrol at the fuel pontoon at Vila Real de Santo Antonio and crossed the river to anchor south of Ayamonte. It was a lazy day. I did a couple of hours work (one of the joys of my editing job is that I can do it wherever and whenever so long as I bring my computer and my brain with me), and spent the rest of the day reading and chatting with Roy.

We set our alarm clocks for 5am the next morning, with a 5.30 start in mind. But by the time we’d had a cup of tea, stowed everything out of harm’s way and battened down the hatches, it was 6am when Roy weighed anchor. What luck! Within minutes we had once again thrown the sails out, turned off the engine, and were making our way out of the Rio Guadiana and sailing west towards Ilha da Culatra with a Force 7 abaft the beam. For three hours we made good ground, with wind and tide in our favour. It was exhilarating to be sailing on the ocean again, although Roy’s idea of sailing – to set the autohelm and go to sleep – is somewhat different to sailing Carina, where we don’t even have a properly functioning autohelm! I teased Roy about his ‘Ghost helmsman’ for the rest of the trip.

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(I jest about Roy, of course! He’s very careful and I was on watch when I took this photo).

After three hours the wind died to nothing and there was nothing for it but to motor the rest of the way. Even so, we had a tremendously pleasant time. Not a cloud in the bright blue sky, the seawater almost peacock blue, and the white sandy Algarve beaches almost too bright to look at.

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The sea really was this blue!

We rounded the mole at Culatra at 1pm and were anchored amongst the boats of friends in time for lunch. Since September 2014, when we spent nine days at Culatra aboard Carina, I have longed to come back. My only regret this time was that Lily and Katie weren’t with me. When I phoned to tell them all about what I was getting up to in Culatra neither of them could remember it, so I emailed them photos of themselves there three years ago, to try to jog their memories.

Culatra is a remarkable sand barrier island. The small village is built on the sand, with concrete and wooden walkways as streets. There are no cars, and only a few tractors and golf buggies. Much of the Rio Guadiana live aboard community decamps to Culatra in the summer, where the temperatures are cooler than upriver. Roy and I got to catch up with many of our friends  – meeting them in the local bars, or visiting them on their boats.

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Culatra fishermen waiting for their skipper and a night at sea

Sea Warrior sat at anchor off Culatra for five nights, and we went ashore each day for walks along the long sandy beach, to swim in the Atlantic and to drink beer with friends. We visited Ray and Pat one day aboard Tinto, walking across the sand to the catamaran, but having to be chauffeured back ashore when the tide came in and the beach was now 100 metres away!

Back on Sea Warrior I got away with doing only two hours computer work each day, the rest of my time was devoted to reading and gazing at the beautiful seascape. I distinctly remember the last time I did so little – the spring of 2005 when I went on a week-long holiday to Lanzarote with my mother and sister. Those five days in Culatra recharged my batteries, leaving me keen and eager to throw myself headlong into some summer projects.

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…and, in a desperate bid to escape my incessant talking…..

At 8am Thursday morning we weighed anchored and motored away from our mill-pond still anchorage. Given the weather forecast, we fully expected to motor all the way back to the Guadiana, but about an hour in we decided to give sailing a go. After some adventure involving a stubborn halyard and a daredevil ascent of the main mast, Roy raised the mainsail and the mizzen and unfurled the headsail and upside down sail. Although there was no hope of us ever winning a race, we pleasantly made our way east at between 3.5 and 5 knots. The sea was flat with a surface like cellulite rather than glass! What bliss. Sea Warrior smoothly made her way through the water and about ten hours after leaving Culatra we were once again at the mouth of the Guadiana. How far would Sea Warrior’s sails take us, we wondered? Past Vila Real? Past Ayamonte? Under the bridge? In fact, she took us all the way to our anchorage, once again back by the tributary and the chocolate-flavoured cows.

We didn’t have the tide in our favour until the middle of the next afternoon, so after a lazy morning and leisurely lunch, we started out up the river. For three hours we pootled along under motor, the head sail giving us an extra half knot of speed. Before long, we were passing familiar stretches of riverbank, once again pointing out the boats and plots of land belonging to our friends. As we passed Casa Amarilla, Claire waved down to us from her balcony and, as we slowly motored past Sanlúcar seeking a space on the pontoon, I heard someone shouting ‘Hola Martina’. Though I couldn’t at first see where it was coming from, I recognised the unmistakable voice of Steve. By the time I spotted him on his balcony Lynne was out too, shouting her hellos at me. Though I was sorry to be at the end of our trip, I was happy to be coming home.

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One of the many delicious vegetarian meals Roy cooked for me.

Despite the Ghost helmsman, Roy proved an excellent skipper and an even better friend. I learned some new recipes from him, he restored my confidence in my own sailing abilities, and he inspired me to attempt some boat maintenance tasks aboard Carina. Alas, he broke my heart. We weren’t an hour back in Sanlúcar, enjoying a cold beer with friends, as I awaited the arrival of my hardworking husband, when Roy started hatching a plan to sail to Culatra again next week with another woman!! These fickle sailors!

Cold

Spring, the fiend, lulled us into the mistaken belief that the coldest days were behind us. After a week of the girls throwing their hot water bottles out of bed in the middle of the night followed by a few nights of not wanting them at all, I put them into storage, thinking I wouldn’t see them again for ten months. I kept mine out just in case, although I hadn’t used it in the last few weeks. I did, however, remove the wool blanket from my side of the bed and for a couple of weeks we woke most mornings to a dry boat, with no condensation dripping from the hatches and walls. It became easier to get out of bed, despite the dark. The mornings were warmer and I wasn’t huddling close to the kettle while it boiled the water for the day’s first cup of tea. Some days, by mid morning I was in sandals and short sleeves, gradually layering up again as the sun moved across the sky and the heat went out of the day. (When Carina’s on the east – Spanish – side of the river, as we are now, our mornings are colder, but our evenings warmer, as we get the benefit of the westward passage sun for longer).

Lambs and kid goats in the fields, blossoms on the almond trees, flowers in bloom, house martins returned from Africa busily feeding their chicks, bees a-buzzing. Ah spring, you tease. Suddenly, the north-westerly wind funnelled its way down the river valley, with blasts of cold air and gusts of 37 knots or more. Boats creaked and jolted and bounced on anchor chains and mooring lines. Hailstones fell and the girls ran into the cockpit to pick them up before they melted.

I got the hot water bottles and the blanket out again, the girls were back in fleecy pyjamas for bedtime, and we dressed in hats, scarves and gloves for the short dinghy trip to school. And then came the coldest morning of all, when we awoke and struggled to get out of bed, only to find Carina covered in a layer of frost, her spray hood and bimini hard and crisp, Julian’s trousers, left out overnight, frosted white and brittle to the touch. I dug out my merino wool thermal vest and longjohns, the girls went off to school dressed for an ascent of Everest. The north wind whipped down the river, laughing at how it fooled us.

In the afternoon a bee landed on my arm. It too had been fooled by the early spring. It was weak and tipsy and even the sugar solution I prepared failed to revive it. It staggered around and a gust of icy wind blew it away. It struggled and died and later I found one of its comrades on the foredeck, a victim of spring’s treachery.

Anchor Trouble

by Julian

About a week ago, after swinging merrily at anchor for four nights, Martina returned to Carina in the dinghy with Lily and Katie to find the steps at the back of the boat higher than usual and difficult for the girls to reach. She called to me and I came outside to take a look. I quickly saw that the front of the boat was lower in the water than the back. It was approaching high water and the anchor chain was vertical, pulling the front down with a great strain. I couldn’t budge the chain because it had locked itself tight on the cleat. I called to Martina for a hammer and bashed the chain off the cleat, letting out a bit of slack. “Get the engine on” I shouted. We tried to free the chain by pulling it vertically with the winch and then in various directions under motor but Carina just bucked and dived under the pressure and the chain went nowhere. The chain was pinned to the river bed in 10 m water at a point around 20 m from the anchor (The anchor being the point the chain should be pinned at). With darkness approaching and the boat too close to the shore to be comfortable letting more chain out, I said “We’re going on the pontoon in Alcoutim. I’ll buoy the anchor.” I fixed a couple of floats onto the chain and chucked the whole lot overboard. This left our main anchor and 50 m of good new chain in the river as we motored onto the pontoon and settled down to a cold beer from the Riverside Bar to settle our nerves.

 

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We had left our anchor and chain somewhere out there, in the distance!

After some thought we decided to take Carina out the next morning at low water while the girls were at school to try to free the anchor chain. At first we tried a vertical pull on the windlass but the chain was still stuck fast at exactly the same point. We then cleated the very end of the chain to Carina and set off in various directions giving a near horizontal pull under full engine power. We got nowhere. It was stuck fast. Disheartened and with a couple of bloody knuckles we returned to the pontoon. At least we had tried.

It was time for Plan B. As it happened Plan B was alongside the pontoon in the shape of a 50 tonne wooden ship called Pax Nostrum. With her engine and large geared winches she could pull harder than anything on the river. Paul and Hilary, on Pax, had only just returned from England and were happy to help but they wouldn’t be ready to leave the pontoon for another week. A new Plan B arrived in the shape of Mike from the US yacht Pelagic. He had scuba gear and said I could use it. I visited his boat and tentatively suggested we give it a go, whilst drinking a lovely cup of coffee (he roasts the beans himself). I was a little afraid he would just lend me the kit because I haven’t scuba dived in four years and the cold fast flowing river water is full of silt with zero visibility and who knows what on the bottom! Mike kindly said he would dive as his wetsuit would not fit me. We agreed to do it the next day. I breathed a sigh of relief and prepared to go and support him.

The next day came and Mike was not feeling great. He had picked up a cold and thought he might have trouble clearing his ears. However, the day after he was feeling better and off we went with purpose in our two little inflatable dinghies, Mike wearing his wetsuit and me in shorts and a T-shirt. We picked up the buoy and pulled the chain up until it was vertical, then let off a metre or two of slack so he might try and unhook it from whatever it was caught on. After sorting out his gear, over the side and down he went leaving me to wait and see. I watched his bubbles breaking the surface. After about 5 minutes he surfaced, and I looked at him with anticipation. “I just can’t clear my ears” he said

“Will you be able to try again?”

“Yes, just give me a few minutes,” Mike replied. I was anxious, it looked like Pax Nostrum might be the only chance. If that failed we were looking at the loss of 400 euros worth of kit and the hassle of replacing it before we could anchor again. Mike tried again but to no avail, he was unable to equalise the pressure in his ears, which is very uncomfortable, so he got back into the dinghy. “I could give it a try” I said half-heartedly.

“Sure, if you want to” was not the reply I necessarily wanted or expected, but next thing I know I’m taking off my T-shirt and putting on his tank and buoyancy jacket. His wetsuit, hood and boots wouldn’t fit me so I strapped his fins on tight without the boots, checked the air and plunged over the side of the dinghy.

Hell! The cold water was a shock. Hardly freezing but it took my breath away, it is mid February after all. I held onto the dinghy gasping for half a minute until my breathing calmed and became regular again. I wonder if some of it was down to nerves or even my less than optimum physical condition! “Let’s give this a go then.” What can I lose? If I just go down and hate it I’ll surface again and go back dejected, I thought. Here goes! I started descending along the chain. Visibility was zero after about two metres and I was in complete darkness so I closed my eyes. Shutting off my useless vision helped me to concentrate on the feel of the chain and on my sense of direction, including in the vertical. Another little way down and I had a bit of a head freeze, but only a little and this passed relatively quickly.

I touched the bottom. The river bed was nice and soft here, sandy mud. I felt with my hands, the chain was wrapped around something, it felt like a tree branch, about 6 inches diameter and sticking out of the river bed at an angle for about two feet. I unwind the chain, nice and easy and pull in the slack, great; I follow it a bit more; it is completely wrapped around another smaller stump. Same process free it, get it away, next branch. The chain disappears under the mud, I dig it out and wind it off the branch, this process repeated six or seven times until I find myself working along free chain. I am elated when my fingers touch the unmistakable metal of the anchor. Then I begin to pull the chain toward the anchor, piling it up near me, hoping with every pull that it will not snag again, until finally I feel the chain rise up through the water, it is free!

Slowly and surely I rise up along the chain. I am feeling fabulous. I am not cold, not tired, not nervous but relaxed and euphoric. I have that lovely feeling I remember from dives long ago, of lying on my back in Bristol University swimming pool watching the bubbles rise above me on a Wednesday evening over 20 years ago. Then I break the surface. “We can pull it up,” I say with what must be a bit of a grin on my face. We have our anchor back. Mike hauls with all his might and I help a little using the buoyancy of the jacket to take the strain.

(Martina has pointed out to me that many people think anchors work by their weight alone and might wonder how we could get one into a dinghy without it sinking. But the anchor and 50 m of chain together weigh a little over 100 kg. The anchor keeps our 12 tonne yacht in place by holding on to something on the bed and a long chain puts more horizontal pull on the anchor rather than lifting it up.)

qualifications

I have picked up a few diving cards along the way, but I used to think my training was better than the qualifications I picked up. I’ve been diving since my early 20s, and have dived in such diverse waters as the Red Sea, the Moray Firth and the Lizard Peninsula. I don’t want anyone to think I jumped in not knowing what I was doing and somehow it worked. Scuba diving in awkward conditions is not something to take lightly.

 

Later that day I walk into Rogerio’s Riverside Bar with a feeling probably felt to a greater extent by people who have recently become a world champion, only to find everyone’s back turned as they watch the rugby on TV. Never mind. I felt so good I relished the prospect of telling them individually over the next couple of days. Maybe I would also try to lose a darts match or two so I didn’t come across as too insufferable!

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The anchor safely back on Carina. It not only gives us freedom to leave the pontoon and moorings but it is a very important safety device. If all else fails and you are drifting into danger, drop the anchor!

All a little pear shaped

Sometimes it all goes pear-shaped. Like this past week. We were minutes away from anchoring at the end of our trip back upriver from Ayamonte when one of the engine alarms went off. At first it was a low whistle and I wasn’t quite sure if it was coming from Carina or from one of the other boats anchored nearby in the river. Julian was on the foredeck, getting ready to drop anchor. I put my ear to the ignition panel in the cockpit and sure enough, the alarm sound was emanating from there. Cupping my hand to block out the light shining on the bank of alarm lights confirmed it was the temperature alarm. The engine was overheating. The sound wasn’t too bad. Not the ear-piercing, heart stopping shrieking of the engine alarm that we had back in August 2013 when we limped into the marina in Brest, in Brittany, and were holed up for four days while Julian semi-solved the problem. I keep my ear to the alarm while Julian lays out the anchor chain.

We have a party to go to and then the Three Kings procession and then another party after that, so now is not the time to try to figure out what’s wrong with the engine. Then we sit at anchor for four nights and there are so many other things to do, the engine takes a back seat.

Friday is the first day of the new school term. Julian takes the girls to and from school in the dinghy. He goes to collect them at the end of the school day and I stay on board to get lunch ready. When I hear the dinghy coming back downriver I go to the stern to help them aboard. They don’t need my help to get aboard, but after a five hour separation I’m too impatient to see them to wait until they come those extra four metres into the saloon!

‘Where are your schoolbags?’ I ask, as Lily climbs aboard. In the excitement of meeting their long lost friends, they have left their schoolbags behind on the pontoon. Julian turns around and zips back upriver to get the bags. We’ve been doing a lot of zooming up and down river these past few days, what with all those parties. And we haven’t put petrol in the outboard for a few days. This latest, unplanned, trip back to Sanlúcar to collect the schoolbags takes more petrol than is currently in the fuel tank and Julian just makes it back to Carina on fumes. (This is no big deal as far as safety goes. He has oars and arms and is on an ebb tide on a calm day so rowing would be no problem). He climbs aboard for lunch and we think no more of the outboard.

We’re only a couple of days off spring tides now and with each ebb Carina is in shallower and shallower water. On Saturday morning we move her a few metres farther into the middle of the river. This manoeuvre takes only a few minutes, but Julian tells me to leave the engine running so he can begin to figure out what caused the alarm to sound when the engine was last running. He does some checks, and after twenty minutes the alarm sounds again.

Later Saturday morning Julian puts new petrol in the outboard so we can all go ashore for a walk and a picnic with some friends. The outboard sputters and splutters, judders and jiggles, and gets us to shore, but only just, with Julian playing around with the throttle and the choke likes he’s Quincy Jones at a music desk. Many hours later, when we return from our picnic, the outboard won’t start at all and I row the four of us home, greatly assisted by the ebb tide.

We’re only aboard five minutes and thinking about what we might have for supper when we hear the sound of a dinghy coming our way. It’s Phil from Naisso. Irlem has made feijoada, the national dish of his native Brazil and he’s been saying for weeks that the next time he makes it he’ll have us around for supper.

Erm, we’d love to come around, I tell Phil, but the outboard’s not working. The four of us will never get the 300 metres upriver to Naisso rowing against a spring tide in full ebb. I put a solution to Phil and he agrees to give it a try, but isn’t sure if his little outboard will be up to it. If the girls and I go with Phil in his dinghy, we can tow Julian behind in our dinghy, with Julian rowing to give what assistance he can to the labours of Phil’s outboard. We’ll still be on an ebb tide by the time we finish dinner and we can float back downriver to Carina.

The girls and I climb in with Phil and I hold the painter of our dinghy. We slowly make our way upriver against the ebb, Phil’s little outboard giving it all she’s got, Julian rowing behind. Our friends on other boats are much amused as they watch our progress. It all goes well, and we reach our destination, but I narrowly avoid falling in the river as I climb aboard Naisso. We have a thoroughly wonderful evening and a dinner so delicious that words fail me. And at 10pm, we drift downriver, Julian dipping an oar in now and again to correct our course towards Carina.

Sunday is to be our ‘day of rest’, when we don’t leave the boat. Julian plans to devote the day to investigating and hopefully solving the problems of both the outboard and inboard engines. He spends the morning working on the outboard, taking it apart, cleaning the filters and carburettor. His first test run with it fails and he has to strip it apart again, but by lunchtime the outboard is working like a dream. At least he won’t have to row against the ebb to get the girls to school in the morning. (If you think we’ve got an extraordinary amount of ebb tide, it’s because we do. Because of the fast flowing river, flood tides here are a little less than five hours in duration and ebbs a little more than seven).

He takes a break for lunch and then plans to launch into the bigger job, Carina’s engine. But when I open the cupboard under the sink where the pots and pans are stored, I discover the bottom of the cupboard is wet. This has happened before, and it’s always simply a loose water pipe to the galley taps. It just requires a little tightening and drying out of the cupboard. I remove all the pots and pans and Julian gets down on his hands and knees in the tight space between the galley and the companionway steps, to fix the problem.

But this time the problem isn’t the pipe. The pipe is as dry as a bone. There must be a leak somewhere else in the system. He removes the floor in front of the sink and cooker to reveal about 20 litres of water sloshing about. He sets about removing the water, a jug full at a time and then tries to figure out where all this water has come from. From its location and the dryness of our deep bilges we know that this water isn’t coming in from outside. We have an internal leak.

His exploration reveals the foot pump to be the source of the leak. You see, we get water into our taps by means of an electrical pump powered by our bank of domestic batteries or by means of a foot pump located near the floor under the cooker. When we are at anchor we use the foot pump, to reduce the energy drain on our batteries, and we only use the electric pump when we are on a pontoon and have mains electricity.

Cutting off the water supply to the foot pump requires some speedy movements to insert a wooden bung before the water spills everywhere. While Julian, like the Dutch boy and the dyke, keeps his finger in the pipe, I rummage around in a cupboard for an appropriately-sized bung. For some reason we are both in a good mood and we find it all pretty comical. Another day we might not have been so light hearted about it all!

With the pipe blocked, Julian takes the foot pump out and painstakingly takes it apart, inspects all the constituent bits, cleans them up and puts it all back together again. Most of the fiddly screws are back in place before he realises he has forgotten to reinsert the spring at the centre of the mechanism. So he has to undo the whole blooming thing and start all over again. He suspects that nothing he has done will have solved the problem and when he puts the pump back in place he is proven right. The pump is broken, perhaps not beyond repair, but to repair it will require the purchase of spare parts online. And the afternoon he has planned to devote to the engine has now been spent on the foot pump.

He spends Monday morning trying to solve the problem of the engine. He gets so far as figuring out that it’s got something to do with the flow of external water through the cooling system. But the exact nature of the problem or how to solve it remains a mystery. He then spends the afternoon online, ordering spare parts for the pump and trying to learn more about the engine cooling system.

At least the laptop is working now, allowing him to do this. A few days after Christmas the laptop died and it took a couple of hours of painstaking work on Julian’s part, taking it apart, cleaning all the bits, putting it back together, rebooting it, before eventually bringing it back to life again.

On Tuesday morning he returns to the engine again. He reads the owner’s manual cover to cover and thinks he may have found a solution to the problem. As I write he is on the bus going to Vila Real to purchase the necessary fluids and parts from the chandlery. We still have a leaking foot pump that can’t be used until the faulty parts arrive by post and are replaced, an engine cooling system that needs to be fixed, and one very frustrated skipper. It never rains but it pours.

Downriver

On the morning of New Year’s Day, while the rest of the river slept off the festivities of the night before, we lifted the anchor and motored downriver on the ebb tide. For twenty-two miles we chugged along, the farthest Carina had gone since we came upriver in mid-April 2015. We past Laranjeiras where Carina was moored for five months while we were back in the UK, past Guerreros de Rio and Foz de Odeleite, all small hamlets on the Portuguese side of the river. On the Spanish side, there are no settlements of any size between Sanlúcar and Ayamonte, save for the occasional remote farmhouse and a huge ugly golf resort a couple of miles north of Ayamonte.

For some unfathomable reason I’d decided to do some laundry before we departed, so we motored down the river like a tribe of laundry pirates – a large white bed sheet, the girls’ Christmas jumpers, and Lily’s party dress hanging from the clothes lines strung from the rigging. But who was about to see us?

We were expecting unsettled weather and we got it. The sun that had burned away the early morning mist warmed us as we set out, but a few miles downriver I had to hastily bring in the laundry as a dark cloud rushing up the river to meet us dropped its load of rain upon us. That put an end to drying the laundry.

The farther downriver we went the stronger the wind grew. By the time we had left the hills behind and reached the broader stretches of river than run between mud flats and flood plains, Carina was bouncing over choppy short waves as the south westerly wind battled against the south flowing ebb tide.

It was close to low water when we passed under the suspension bridge linking Spain and Portugal and we began to look for a place to anchor. The wind was strong now and the west bank of the river offered the best shelter from the prevailing conditions. To give our anchoring skills a good workout, Mother Nature threw a nasty squall at us just as we decided on an anchorage. Tempers were frayed as lashing rain and howling wind prevented effective communication between Julian on the foredeck with the anchor chain and me in the cockpit on the helm. But as the storm passed overhead, so too did the little storm that had erupted in the boat. A nice cup of tea and we were back on speaking terms again!

High winds didn’t make for the most pleasant anchorage. We were anchored in mud, well out of the ferry and fishing boat channels, so Carina was unlikely to come to much harm if the anchor dragged. But noisy wind, uncomfortable rocking and rain that fell in sheets for hours on end wasn’t how any of us planned to spend our first night of 2016.

Somewhere in the early morning the wind died, the rain stopped and when we awoke the next morning all was calm and peaceful at the mouth of the Guadiana. At 9am we lifted the anchor and motored into the marina in Ayamonte. In the large, half empty Junta de Andalucia marina we found ourselves beside our friends Joss and Pascale aboard Snark and two pontoons away from Pete and Pia aboard Hannah Brown – Alcoutim/Sanlúcar live-aboards on tour!

How strange to be in a marina again, in a Spanish town. It reminded Lily of somewhere else she had been, but she couldn’t remember quite where. This was the first time we had been in a marina since April and it was like many of those we had been to before. It could have been Muros or Mazagon, Torremolinos or Vila Garcia de Arousa. Long walks along pontoons inhabited by seagulls; palm trees planted around the margins; electric gates; bureaucratic staff. My first job was to pay for a night’s berth and have a shower! Bliss!

Soon we were off the boat exploring. Next time I’m there I’ll be giving the little free zoo a miss, with its sad tiger, grizzly bears, lions and baboons. Only the ostriches seem relatively content with their lot in life. Ayamonte town centre was a busy little place, still in the throes of Christmas, preparing for Twelfth Night and the arrival of Los Tres Reyes with their gifts for all the children. An incongruous ice skating rink in the square left much to be desired, but the Christmas trees made by local school children and on display on the steps of the church were wonderful (I took note of some craft ideas for next year!).

That first evening, January 2nd, there was a procession through town of the Compañeras de los Tres Reyes – a brass band playing lively Christmas music followed by three women dressed in ‘Oriental’ clothing, riding three of the most magnificent and well-kept mules I have ever seen. The girls and I ran through the pouring rain to catch up with the procession and later on, when it grew dark all four of us returned to the town centre again where a lively flamenco choir sang carols and we soaked up the atmosphere.

We intended to spend only one night in the marina, and a couple more on anchor. And we intended to divide our time between Ayamonte in Spain and Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal. But the wind and rain put paid to those plans and we spent three nights in Ayamonte marina. The marina proved a boon. The heavy rain had penetrated some of Carina’s leakier parts and the bedding on both fore and aft cabins got quite wet. So, while I ran loads of sheets, duvet covers and pillow cases through the marina’s inexpensive washing machine and tumble drier, we kept the electric fan heater running almost non-stop, drying out the cabins and making the boat comfortable again.

We also took advantage of our proximity to a supermarket to stock up on some food, but I have to say, having got used to shopping in Alcoutim’s and Sanlúcar’s tiny shops, I found the choice in a medium-sized supermarket rather daunting! Nice though to have soy sauce, noodles and a selection of crackers on board again.

On January 4th a text message from the parents of one of Lily’s friends asked if we would make it to their daughter’s birthday party the next day. We hoped the wind would die down enough for us to get back upriver on time for the party and for the Tres Reyes procession in Sanlúcar that night.

Low water the next morning was at 5.13am and we planned to leave at 8am to get upriver on the flood tide. There was little wind, but by 8am it was still pitch dark, so we waited twenty more minutes for some light to fill the sky, before we made our way out of the marina. Carina raced up the Guadiana, carried along on the tide. Somewhat annoyingly, the wind was now coming from the north, making for a cold few hours, despite the sun that gradually rose from behind the hills to warm our backs. By the time we reached Alcoutim I looked like a pirate of a different kind – woolly hat, neck warmer pulled up over my nose and only my eyes exposed as I stood at the helm. We made it to the party, and to the Twelfth Night festivities that night.

Weekend away

After their first two weeks of school, the girls have a three day weekend. Enough of this bustling cross-border metropolis (total population 800), we want some quiet time. On Friday afternoon we restock Carina with fresh food, on Saturday morning we do a load of laundry and refill the water tank, and on Saturday afternoon when the tide turns we pootle five miles upriver.

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Sheep on the river bank

The moored and anchored boats thin out a mile or so upriver from Sanlúcar and Alcoutim. There are about six houses on the five-mile stretch of river and a small hamlet with an impressive ancient-looking mineral works. We round bend after bend in the river, at one bend steep cliffs on one bank and water-edge reed beds on the other, and on the next bend the scene reversed.

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A rare photo of yours truly

We anchor a couple of hundred metres north of where the Rio Vasçao enters the Rio Guadiana on the western, Portuguese, side of the river. Julian lays out the anchor and I cut the engine, taking bearings from a tall tree on the Portuguese bank, a tall tree on the Spanish bank, and a scrubby bush on a hill in Spain. The almost complete absence of human-made sounds fills our ears.

Birds sing in the trees and brush lining the riverbank and an occasional fish leaps from the water, a glint of silver catching the eye as it arches in the sunlight, and a splash as it returns to the water. From somewhere in these echoy hills I hear the hammering of a woodpecker, rapid, like a ruler sprung on a classroom desk.

We hear no cars, no engines, no airplanes, no human voices other than our own. There is the occasional echo of gunshot through the hills. This is hunting country. Wild boar, deer, rabbits and hares are all hunted here for food.

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Beware the river witches

For what’s left of the afternoon the girls and I make Advent calendars. We make a good start, but they will require a couple more days work to be complete, just in time for the start of Advent on Tuesday.

By 7pm it is almost completely dark. It is a clear moonless night, perfect for stargazing. We dress in warm clothes and turn off all Carina’s lights. Lily lies down on the port side of the cockpit, wrapped in a blanket with a cushion under her head. I lie to starboard, with Katie lying on top of me as my blanket. As the darkness deepens more and more stars reveal themselves, the Milky Way flowing richly across the sky. A shooting star catches my eye, and then another which we all, except Lily, see. As if on cue, the tide turns and Carina swings slowly around on her anchor chain, giving us a panoramic view of the entire night sky.

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The mist burning off

The next morning dawns cold and misty, and the sun behind a nearby hill is not yet warming up our patch of river. The tide has turned twice again and the anchor chain is badly snagged on a huge raft of canes. This is one of the more unpleasant and hazardous aspects of life on the river. We’ve become snagged before on massive tree trunks and on rafts of canes and we’ve had friends who’ve had to cut their anchor chain to escape the clutches of a huge tree trunk floating on the river.

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Carina encased

Julian tries to free the anchor but to no avail. He gets in the dinghy and sets about removing the reeds by hand, using a boat hook. I stand on deck, holding the dinghy painter (rope) and walk back and forth, pulling the dinghy astern and forward as Julian instructs, as he drags reeds back behind Carina to where they are free to carry on their journey downriver. It’s two hours of back breaking work – Julian with his hands in the cold dirty water, getting cuts from sharp pieces of reed; I hauling the dinghy back and forth on command. The girls play wonderfully together – which they seem to do when they sense that there’s something really important going on, such as the time we found ourselves in an electrical storm in the middle of the English Channel, or when we ran aground near Falmouth and the engine failed.

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Like unmaking a giant bird’s nest

Finally the anchor is free of the dreaded canes and we take a breather. But it’s such a beautiful day we want to go exploring. Julian makes and packs a lunch and we climb into the dinghy and make for the Rio Vasçao. Julian rows up this splendid little river, with its steep rocky banks and we search hard for the terrapins that live here. Alas today is not our day to see them. But I am thrilled by a kingfisher flying from one side of the river to the other, iridescent wings flashing like sapphires in the sun.

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In search of turtles

It’s almost low tide and Julian rows until the river turns to rocks. We paddle in the shallow water for a while, but the rocks are muddy and we fail to find anywhere to sit to eat lunch, so we climb back aboard the dinghy and eat lunch as we slowly drift back down the river.

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Splish splash

Back on the Guadiana, Julian rows across to the Spanish side of the river, trying to find a place to land so we can go for a walk. But it is a very low spring tide and the banks are muddy. We find a place that has potential, so we return to Carina for a couple of hours while the flood tide sets in, and hope to go ashore later.

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Carina on the Guadiana

The girls and I carry on with the Advent calendars and when we tire of that we get in the dinghy again and return to shore. The tide has now risen sufficiently to allow us to get ashore. But only just. We slither and slide up a muddy bank, all four of us getting utterly mud-covered in the process. I try not to think about how we’re going to get back down that muddy slope when we want to return to the dinghy. We are on the Via Guadiana, a walking trail all along the river, which we frequently walk along its stretch near Sanlúcar.

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Hatching plans on deck

It is beautiful here. Lush trees, including olives and figs, growing beside the steep grey rocks. The path winds up and down along the riverbank, into glades of grass and out along steep banks. There are sheep droppings all along the route and we guess a farmer must herd his sheep along here to get them from one pasture to another. The girls run on ahead, delighting in their energy and their wildness. They disappear from view, around a bend in the trail, one of them always returning to report what they’ve found up ahead.

After half an hour of the girls running and Julian and I walking at a fast pace, we decide to turn around and head back home. Getting back down the slope to the dinghy is as difficult as we suspected and we get even more mud splattered and turn the dinghy into a mud bath. But it’s worth the fun we’ve had ashore.

While Julian cooks dinner I remove the thick caked mud from four pairs of shoes, and I soak our clothes, hoping some of the mud will come off! From climbing aboard, Carina’s stern is mud covered too, and I clean as much as I can. As for the dinghy, I can’t even face it. I decide to leave it until we are back on a pontoon in the next few days.

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North

On Monday morning a mist hangs over the river and the moon is high in the sky to the west. Twelve Iberian magpies fly over my head, from east to west, their long tails making their wings look precariously short. All is utterly still. I stand on the fore deck, cup of coffee in hand, and soak up the peacefulness of this place.

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Morning moon

Next weekend, the girls have four days off school. We’re going to come up this way again.

Cooler

Winter, after a fashion, has arrived in this southwest corner of Iberia. Each day the girls wear a little more for their morning dinghy ride to school. One day it was cardigans, the next jackets, the next scarves and finally hats and gloves. The dinghy’s outboard motor doesn’t like the cold, and takes its time sputtering into life, needing the choke for longer than usual.

The heater goes on these mornings, to take the chill from the boat and dry out the condensation glistening on every hatch and port hole. We’re up at seven, in the dark. My father’s old woolly jumper and thick socks on before I boil the kettle for the first cup of tea. The cold seeping through the floor makes my feet ache and I slip into my old blue Crocs, now wearing thin at the soles, but still going strong after nine years of year-round wear.

I look forward to washing the dishes once the kids have left for school as an excuse to plunge my hands into the warm water. On laundry days I postpone the dishes. I’m out on deck as soon as Julian and the girls leave, filling buckets with cold water, dropping clothes in to soak, stirring with a wooden spoon so I don’t get my hands wet. The days are short, so the washing has to be out on the line early if it’s to dry before the heat goes out of the day. That warming cup of tea after I’ve put the laundry in to soak is like balm to my chilled bones.

By 10am the sun is doing its job, warming the land, banishing the chill that has descended overnight. The girls arrive home at 2pm with scarves, hats, coats, cardigans shoved into their schoolbags. We eat lunch in the cockpit, luxuriating in the warm sun on our bare arms and upturned faces. Warm summer days in Ireland are often cooler than this.

We make the most of those hours after lunch to visit the beach or to walk along the hiking trails. The girls still don their swimsuits for a paddle in the Praia Fluvial. But even they balk at immersing themselves fully these days. I leave them to it. I prefer to sit on the beach in the warm sun.

By 5pm the sun is well on its way to its evening descent. What little warmth remains is quickly displaced by cold. It’s time to cook dinner, close up the boat, and warm up our beds with hot water bottles before snuggling down for the night. These evenings we read and, after the girls have gone to bed, Julian and I play the occasional game of Scrabble or Chess (I’m a beginner at the latter). Tea made with mint plucked from along the hiking trails or roadside verges warms me through the evening.

Tiredness and cold come together. It’s time for bed.

Green living

by Julian

Modern consumerism and its effects on the world’s oceans has been mentioned in recent blog posts by Martina (Leviathan and Behemoth and Picking through the plastic). A lot of energy is required to power our convenience filled lifestyles – energy mostly supplied by the increasingly more complicated and risky extraction of fossil fuels. The ever growing quantity of carbon in our atmosphere has been demonstrated, by scientific methods which show a characteristic isotope fingerprint, to be partly a result of the burning of fossil fuels. The related warming of the planet produces even more atmospheric carbon. It looks like we have tipped the balance and are warming the planet at a faster rate over the last half century than at any time in the past few millennia (this is shown by methods such as Arctic and Antarctic ice core studies). As a former geophysicist and glaciologist, who has worked with climate and ice core scientists, and published academic papers on the topic, I have some insight into this and am not glibly stating stuff presented in the mass media.

I have always been conscious of the need to save energy and resources but I have rarely acted on this with any serious effort. However, I have started thinking about how our current lifestyle onboard Carina has caused us to adapt in ways that seriously curtail our use of non-renewable energy and resources. Being at anchor and living on a tight budget forces us to do this.

Here are some of the ways we have minimised our non-renewable resource use:

We have an 80W solar panel. Summer in southern Europe provides plenty of sunlight, but our panel is not sufficient to run our fridge, charge our computer and run the domestic and navigation lighting. We have to be selective about our electricity use. The fridge was the first thing to go. We don’t need it. Instead, we buy small quantities of fresh food every day and use the fridge as a storage space.

As our light bulbs and fittings failed I started to replace them with LEDs. Now all our main domestic lighting uses LEDs and this has cut electricity for lighting to less than 20% of previous use without cutting down on light. In fact, in some cabins we now have better light than before. The latest technology in LEDs has fast created a whole array of options from harsh white light to softer light and bulbs are produced for all sorts of DC light fittings.

Last year Martina and I decided to trade in our four-stroke Yamaha outboard motor for a small two-stroke Mariner, partly because the Yamaha was becoming unreliable and partly because Martina could barely lift it, so getting it from Carina into the dinghy was a nightmare. An advantage of the trade in that I hadn’t considered is how little fuel a 2-stroke engine uses. Motoring twice or even three times a day between Carina and the shore, often against a strong current, and with four people aboard the dinghy, a 5-litre can of petrol lasts two weeks.

Next comes water use. At anchor we have to conserve water and we switch from electric water pump to foot pump, which minimises our consumption. It’s amazing how little water you actually need to brush your teeth, cook food or wash the dishes. Another revelation this year has been digging out the old solar shower. We can enjoy a good hot shower in the cockpit using very little water, heated directly from the sun. Sometimes the water gets too hot so we have to be careful! We also handwash our laundry, which is not too onerous if doing a little every couple of days and the clothes dry well in the spring/summer heat.

I have started to forage again. Unfortunately, we arrived on the river too late for the spinach and asparagus seasons, but I just caught the wild fennel and there is a lot of mint and rosemary planted around the towns. The grass near the beach at Sanlucar is overrun by mint and Martina says it makes great tea. I have collected oranges and lemons from the odd stray tree, neglected and not on anybody’s land. (A lot of land around the river is fenced off – people seem to like their oranges to rot on the ground rather than people being able to collect them). I am looking forward to the profusion of figs and plums ripening, and I hope the olives, almonds and grapes will follow.

Needless to say this is a mere drop in the ocean of the sort of  reduction in consumption that we all need to do. Even environmentally conscious people such as ourselves have only taken these steps because of our circumstances rather than out of a conscious drive.

But I am pleased by our efforts that benefit both the planet and our bank balance. Sailing (rather than motoring) nearly all the way here from the Mediteranean, even passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, against the normally prevailing current, pleased me a lot. I certainly felt good about not having an expensive fill up with diesel when we got here.

The important thing is that we don’t miss the conveniences, really we don’t! Life is simple and enjoyable. Life can be pretty good without a fridge, even in the summer heat. There’s a great river to swim in, great walks along the river bank, food for free, and healthy fresh air to breathe. I’d give up my fridge for that any day.

River anchorage

I’ve written about life at anchor before but each time the experience is different because each anchorage is different. We’ve anchored in calm bays and behind islands, in deserted seas alongside empty golden beaches and amidst crowded moorings. This time we’re in the middle of a fast flowing river, with river banks on either side only 75 metres or less away. Even 22 miles from the sea, the Rio Guadiana is esturine and all day every day the river flows fast downstream on the ebb tide and fast upstream on the flood tide. Carina swings on her chain facing downriver or upriver, in line with the current.

Carina in the middle of the river

Carina in the middle of the river

Our days have some semblance of routine. I get up at 6.20 or 7.20 (I aim for the former, but often the reality is the latter) and write until the girls wake up. Or I leave at 8.30, take the dinghy to Alcoutim to spend a few hours writing and carrying out online research at the library. Some mornings Julian or I go ashore for an early morning walk, some mornings we all go ashore, for a picnic, to run errands or to play.

At some point most mornings either Julian or I do an hour of lessons with the girls – right now Lily’s working on addition with carrying, subtraction and multiplication and on report writing and Katie’s working on reading, recognising numbers in the teens and simple addition. Apart from that all other learning happens organically, in fits and starts, when inspiration knocks on the door. Many of our trips ashore focus on the world around us. Yesterday, for example, we talked about the life cycles of ants, bees and butterflies, we examined the capillary networks of a dead cactus, we examined the roots of a pine tree and talked about the differences between coniferous and deciduous trees.

Any laborious work needs to be accomplished before the day gets too hot. I do small amounts of laundry every three or four days – two small bucketsful of hand washing, and anything that doesn’t fit into those two buckets goes back into the laundry bag for the next laundry day. I use water from a large jerry can refilled whenever we go ashore. I wash and rinse, sitting on the foredeck, the buckets at my feet. In this hot weather, clothes dry on the guard rails in less than two hours and have to be brought in before they dry to boards or bleach in the sun.

This year, for the first time, we have started to use the solar shower that was on board when we bought Carina. This ingenious devise has transformed our lives at anchor. It is simple and highly effective. It is a rubber bag, black on one side, transparent on the other. It holds about 8 litres of water, and has a plastic tap and hose at one end, so when it is hung up on the boom, it works like a shower. We lay it on the foredeck, the black surface facing the sun, and after three hours we have piping hot water. We use this to wash dishes, to shower the girls in the cockpit twice a week (they LOVE their solar shower), and with all modesty and decorum long gone and not caring who might be strolling on deserted rural paths above the river banks, I too shower in the cockpit a couple of times a week. It’s bliss.

We spend most afternoons onboard, shaded from the scorching sun. We try to get the girls to relax, but it’s tough. We encourage them to play quietly with Lego or Play Mobile or jigsaws, or, at the moment, we’ve got a couple of sewing projects on the go – dresses for their dolls and a handbag. We all need to conserve our energy during the hottest part of the day. By 4.30 or 5 we are ready to go out again, and we board the dinghy for Alcoutim bound for the river beach. In mid-May Katie finally got the hang of swimming, and Lily has progressed in a few short weeks from the doggy paddling of last year to proper swimming, swimming on her back, underwater swimming, and diving down to touch the river bed. Julian and I are agog at how suddenly and quickly their swimming skills have developed with no input from us! (I noticed Lily’s improvements came from observing older boys in the water, and she copied them). After a couple of hours on the beach we might join other live aboards for a cold drink at the bar by the beach, returning home around 7.30 to make dinner.

At night, after we’ve eaten dinner in the cockpit, we watch the stars come out one by one, Lily and Katie each eager to spot the first star. By the time we are all ready for bed the sky is awash with stars, the sky clear and bright and unpolluted by artificial light. We’re all in bed by 11pm.

We live at anchor without a fridge, as we rely on one 80 watt solar panel for all our energy requirements. Life without a fridge is no burden. We simply shop for small amounts of fresh food more often at the small shops in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim (for Edenderry readers, think Tommy Lowry’s back in the 1970s!). We use UHT milk which, when once opened, even in the heat of summer, will last a day and a half. Butter melts quickly and we’ll probably soon give up on it and resort to olive oil to moisten our bread.

Each time we go ashore we top up our water supply – in small bottles, the large jerry can, and the solar shower. The longer we can eke out the water supply in our tank, the longer we can stay away from the pontoon. Inevitably, though, after about two weeks (we could probably last a bit longer) we spend two days and one night on the pontoon at Alcoutim, to refill our water tank. We have mains electricity when we are on the pontoon, so it’s an opportunity for the girls to watch some of their favourite DVDs and, if we’re on a stretch of the pontoon with good Wifi access, I might watch some TV shows late at night. And then we’re back on the hook, finding a different spot on the river each time.

It’s a slow and mellow way of life, lived to the rhythms of the river. We come on and off anchor and on and off the pontoon at slack water; we watch for the best times to set out on the river in the dinghy; and we keep an eye on what the wind and tide are doing to us – watching Carina’s distance to other anchored boats and to the river bank, and making sure our anchor chain doesn’t become entangled in the tree trunks and big branches that regularly float along on the current.

It’s not a bad way to experience the world.

Breakfast picnic

I get up at 7am, make tea and start to pack. Four bowls, four spoons, four cups, cornflakes, fruit juice, milk, bananas, oranges. Lily wakes and asks if I’ve remembered our plans for this morning. I tell her I’m packed and ready to go. Julian and I are waiting for her and Katie to wake up and get dressed. Lily chooses her clothes and dresses and I gently wake Katie. ‘Breakfast picnic’ I whisper in her ear. She opens her eyes and slowly sits up. I dress her, knowing that if I leave her to do it herself we will still be on the boat half an hour from now.

Ten minutes later we are all in the dinghy, motoring through the still early morning river to the pontoon at Alcoutim. We walk back along the river until we are level with Carina, and climb the steep hill up to the old ruined castle built on a promontory overlooking Spain. Lily, Katie and I have been to the castle before and since that first exploration the girls have longed to show it to Dad.

IMG_20150514_112208The ruins are divided into forty or more tiny separate rooms, only low walls remaining. It’s the perfect place for playing any game involving knights and princesses and soldiers. The ground is flat and covered in tough grasses at the highest point with a view south over the river that is worth its weight in gold. A huge white washed Spanish fortress sits on a terraced hill across the river, with the village of Sanlucar at the foot of the hill and its old sail-driven windmills on a small hill beyond. The river disappears around a bend and gentle hills stretch to the horizon.

I pour juice into four cups and cornflakes into four bowls and even we world-weary adults are delighted by the novelty of a breakfast picnic. After breakfast, while Julian and I remain at the highest point of the ruin, relaxing, soaking up the view, enjoying the cooling breeze, the girls go exploring. Eventually the girls lure Julian away from the laptop, where he is writing a blog post, and into their game of hide and seek, and I am left alone at the top. Occasionally I hear a shout of ‘Found you’ or ‘Where are you?’ or someone calls me and waves up from their hiding place.

What a nice location for an office!

What a nice location for an office!

Despite the breeze on the hilltop we know that all too soon it will be too hot for the walk back to the village and to our dinghy, so we pack up, make our way down the hill, and find a sheltered spot to relax before an evening swim in the river.