Protect your eyes!

In May, Lily’s left eye and then her right eye appeared bloodshot. At first I put it down to the use of sunscreen. The strong summer sun means the girls and I were slapping on sun protection every time we go out walking, swimming or are doing outdoor chores. But when I thought about it, I realised that the redness in Lily’s eyes was not the same as that caused by sunscreen. For one, the sunscreen causes a general redness, like you get after swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool. Lily’s eyes had triangular redness starting at a point at her tear duct near her nose and fanning out to her iris. Lily, being at an age when she is conscious of her appearance, asked me frequently about this redness and when it would go away.

Her left eye gradually cleared of any redness, but then she developed it in her right eye. Then one day, seeing her in a different light, I noticed bumps on the edge of her iris, where the redness ended. There were two of these little bumps, and they looked liked blisters. She didn’t complain of any pain, but said her eyes often felt dry. I took her to the doctor the next day.

The doctor immediately diagnosed pterygium, also known as ‘surfer’s eye’.  The redness was the immediately recognisable first symptom of tissue growth on the surface of the eyeball. The bumps on the edge of the iris are lesions and the growth and lesions may continue to grow until they eventually cover the pupil, leading to blurred vision, astigmatism and corneal scarring. It can affect one or both eyes. Laser surgery and replacement of eye tissue with amniotic membrane are two treatments, although these treatments are only necessary if vision becomes affected.

The cause is simple – excessive exposure to sun, wind and sand. Well, living the lifestyle we do, on a boat, in countries at lower latitudes, spending lots of time on beaches, my children are prime candidates for such eye damage. The problem is most common among people who live closer to the equator and among men aged 20 to 40 (because they are the ones who spend more time out of doors).

Our mission now is to prevent Lily’s pterygium from getting worse. The doctor prescribed the use of artificial tears (eye drops) and the wearing of sunglasses and a sunhat when outside. After using the eye drops for a couple of days the redness had disappeared and the doctor advised using the eye drops whenever the redness recurs. Julian, down in Vila Real a couple of days later, bought both girls good quality polarising sunglasses that provide both UVA and UVB protection. Now we insist they both wear sunglasses and sunhats when out during the day. Although Lily was quite upset by it all at first, she has grown used to wearing her sunglasses now, especially because Dad bought her such cool ones!

I wanted to share this as a word of warning. No matter where you live, but particularly if you live in a part of the world that gets prolonged and strong sunlight, protect your eyes and the eyes of your loved ones. Lily’s eye damage is the latest in a line of northern Europeans living here on the river dealing with the consequences of sun damage. Pre-cancerous moles and melanomas seem to be on the rise these days amongst our friends.

Also, a word of warning about the type of sunglasses you buy. Dark lenses don’t necessarily mean sun protection. Make sure your glasses and your kids’ glasses provide UVA and UVB protection. Dark lenses dilate the pupil and allow more light in, and without ultraviolet protection this leads to even greater sun damage. And, if like me, you wear glasses for short sightedness, pay that extra £10 on your new prescription for the ultraviolet filter.

We will continue to enjoy living in such a sun-kissed part of the world, but from now on we will do so with greater care, not just for our skin, but for our eyes too.

 

Forty two

I get up early, do what few chores I can get away with, open the hatches wide and make sure all the boat curtains are closed. I pull the bimini up over the cockpit, providing some shade and funnelling what little wind there is down into the saloon. I set up the wind scoop on the foredeck, over the fore hatch, hoping to funnel a little more wind in. But with no breeze the wind scoop hangs limp. Finally, I place one of our big plastic laundry tubs on the cockpit floor, drag the hose from the pontoon tap, and fill the tub. I am now prepared. Prepared for what this day is promising to throw at us. Bring it on!

For days the temperatures have been rising. ‘It’s supposed to be 42 degrees tomorrow’ is the sentence on everyone’s lips. ‘Hotter still on Monday and Tuesday’, says Paul. Joe says, ‘I’ve known it to hit 55 here’. Fifty-five degrees centigrade? You could fry an egg on the bonnet of a car in that. You could fry a human pretty quickly too.

The last few days have been hellishly hot, but on the day when 42 is forecast I’m ready. The bimini and wind scoop manage to pull what little air there is into the boat, and remarkably, the boat feels cool…ish. Every time the girls or I start to feel overheated we immerse our feet or faces or arms in the tub of water in the cockpit and we keep permanently wet muslin squares tied around our necks. The girls lie down with slices of cucumber over their eyes. We keep ourselves psychologically cool too, with the polar episodes of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth. Watching emperor penguins shuffle to keep warm in an Antarctic blizzard cools us down.

The trick, I tell the girls, is to be as inactive as possible and keep hydrated. We work our way through three litres of water from the fridge, eat fruit and yogurt for lunch, read and watch DVDs. When four o’clock rolls round we perspire madly for twenty minutes as we prepare for the beach. We don swimsuits and sunscreen and slowly walk through the treacle-like heat to the beach. It’s the weekend, so the beach is crammed with visitors from Spain and Portugal all, like us, attempting to escape the heat. I dump the bag as close to the water as I can get it, because the sand is scorching underfoot.

And then….ahhhhhhhh….the very best part of the day. Immersing ourselves in the river. Instant relief from the heat, instant comfort. We stay on the beach until dark, always the last to leave. When that unimaginable 42 degrees or more comes again tomorrow, we’ll be ready for it once again.

Breathing treacle

I haven’t been blogging much lately. Not for lack of material, but for lack of time and energy. With Julian working eight to ten hours a day six days a week at a bar in Alcoutim and my English teaching and online editing jobs taking up fifteen to twenty hours a week, time has become a precious commodity. But I think I would still have time to blog after taking care of the children, doing the housework and shopping, if I wasn’t feeling so lethargic all the time. The reason for my sudden and uncharacteristic lethargy? It’s summer here in southern Iberia and the air is thick as treacle.

After a prolonged spring, summer has come with a bang. Temperatures are 35 to 40˚C every day, and I’m assured it can hit 45˚C in the village in July. All four of us sleep well apart these nights in an effort to keep cool, with all the hatches thrown wide open in an effort to cool Carina. Julian sleeps in the aft cabin, Katie in the fore cabin, and Lily and I sleep in the berths one either side of the saloon. The air cools slowly at night, making for a pleasant first couple of hours every morning. But after the less-than five minute walk to school with the girls just before 9am, I’m sporting an attractive sweaty upper lip and damp patches at my arm pits. Not to worry – all the other mums look the same!

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Not a cloud in the deep blue sky this morning

Each day I have only a few brief hours to get everything done. If I don’t do laundry, boat cleaning and tidying, shopping and any other chores before 11am, then it’s just too hot to do them. On mornings when I have a 9am English class those chores don’t get done at all.

A friend recently gave Katie a hand-me-down bicycle. She was so excited, but there was a problem. The rear tire had a puncture. For days she begged me to repair the puncture, and for days I couldn’t do it, simply because it was too hot a task to undertake in the hot sun. Finally, on Sunday morning, I got out of bed at 8.30 and, before the day grew too hot, I made the repairs. Helping her to learn to ride the bike in the heat is now my challenge!

By the time I collect the girls from school at 2pm, we are all red faced and exhausted, dragging our feet along the street, seeking what tiny patches of shade we can find between school and boat. Once we are back onboard, it’s a quick lunch and then siesta time.

Until recently, I had to enforce siesta, begging and cajoling the girls to lie down and relax for another few minutes, just a few more minutes. These days, they barely touch their lunch, as they are so overheated, and ask to be excused so they can start siesta. While I usually sleep for half an hour to an hour, and then spend an hour reading, the girls rarely sleep. Instead, they read or listen to a story CD or, occasionally, watch a movie. I lie in bed, the air around me thick as tar. Turning on the fan has little effect. It merely turns my conventional oven bedroom into a fan oven.

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This year’s birthday present – a wind scoop

For my birthday, Mammy bought me a wind scoop*; a nifty piece of simple engineering. It’s a shaped piece of sail cloth placed over a hatch on deck to scoop air into and through the boat. Low tech air conditioning. Unfortunately, due to the layout of our deck, our scoop isn’t quite working to its full effect. A stay forward of the fore cabin hatch and the mizzen mast forward of the aft cabin hatch get in the way of setting the scoop in the most optimum position. Still, we’re getting some draft through the boat at some point most days.

At around 5pm every evening we start to get moving again. It’s still unpleasantly hot, so on evenings when I’m not teaching English, or helping to build the set for this Saturday’s medieval play (Lily is knight number five!), the girls and I don our swim suits and head to the Praia Fluvial (river beach) in Alcoutim. I drop my bag under the nearest available sunshade and wade into the water, wallowing like a hippopotamus for the next three hours! Even at 8.30 or 9pm, as we make our way back home, the air is hot.

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The gap-toothed girls have found a novel way to cool down before going to bed every night!

Some evenings, when teaching or set building prevents us going across the river, the girls play on the smaller beach on the Sanlúcar side of the river. Aram, the dad and uncle of three of Lily’s classmates, owns a water adventure business located on the beach, so the three boys are to be found most evenings playing on the beach and my girls join them. If I don’t feel like going to the beach, I can keep an eye on Lily and Katie from Carina’s cockpit.

I have a love-hate relationship with the extreme heat. I love hours of swimming in the river three or four evenings a week. I love that I can indulge in my current endless craving for crisps, as I need to replenish salts. I love the fun the girls have playing with water on the pontoon. I love sitting out on deck late at night and finally feeling cooler air around me. I love a couple of cold glasses of fizzy vino verde at the end of the day. And I love that I can hang sopping wet laundry out to dry, not even bothering to squeeze any excess water out of it, and in an hour it will all be bone dry.

I dislike that I have to stop jobs half way through because I am too hot to carry on. I dislike feeling so tired every afternoon. I dislike the heat-induced grouchiness that descends on all of us. And I dislike having to constantly think about our skin getting burned in these extreme temperatures.

While many of our fellow Rio Guadiana yachties have already sailed down to Ilha da Culatra for the summer, we remain because of school and work. The girls finish school next week, and on July 4th, the three of us are flying north, for six weeks visiting family and friends in England and Ireland and one week by the seaside in Wales. We’re leaving Julian on the river to suffer the worst of the summer heat while he carries on working in the bar. While others might complain if the UK or Irish summer turns out to be rainy and windy, I don’t think the girls and I will mind. We know that in late August we’ll be returning to the hot hot hot Rio Guadiana.

*When I say ‘Mammy bought me a wind scoop’ what I really mean is that, like most birthdays and Christmases, she gave me the money to buy some (to her) bizarre sailing related item!

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.

Family time

How pleasant to unexpectedly spend time in the company of extended family. The Sunday before last we drove east and north along the coast, past Almería and the Cabo de Gata to Mojacar Playa. Past the Cabo de Gata the landscape changed and the bare orange hills of the Costa del Sol on Spain’s south coast gave way to more lush green hills on the southeast Costa Blanca. We drove only 90km, but the change effected by turning Spain’s southeast corner, so to speak, was dramatic.

We were told to look out for some catamaran dinghies, so we drove along the road adjacent to Mojacar beach until two sets of dinghy sails appeared, bobbing in the water close to shore. We parked the car on the rough sand.

There we met Julian’s uncle Ian, Ian’s wife Cordie, two of their five children, and Cordie’s parents, Frank and Lindy, who live along this stretch of coast. Ian, Cordie and the kids were spending the UK school half-term visiting Spain in an attempt to soak up some late winter sun.

DSCI0291I last saw Ian, Cordie, Frank and Lindy when they visited Almería shortly before Christmas, but Lily and Katie had the much more recent experience of playing with their cousins only a few weeks ago at the boy’s home in the UK Midlands. The girls were delighted to see the boys again (Joe, 15, and Ollie, nearly 8). The girls quickly changed into their swimsuits and for the rest of the afternoon the children played on the beach, chasing each other, building sandcastles, and eventually constructing an elaborate ‘relaxation suite’ – a hole dug in the sand, into which they poured water. Ollie was clearly the brains behind the project; Lily and Katie the cheap labour!!

DSCI0292As soon as we arrived on the beach, Ian went in for a swim. Despite insisting earlier in the day that he had no intention of swimming, Julian was not to be outdone by his uncle, and leaped in like he was Ian Thorpe. Barry, my father-in-law, was next in. While the three Scott men swam way out from shore, the children played in the foam, Frank sailed a dinghy with his friends, and Cordie and I lay on the beach, both agreeing that try as we might, relaxing isn’t really our thing!

When hunger inevitably caught up with us we shared two picnics of tortilla, chorizo, ham rolls, more ham rolls and a few more ham rolls! Occasionally a cloud rolled across the sun, rendering us temporarily cold, but when the sun inevitably reappeared we luxuriated like cats on hot concrete.

DSCI0285Late in the afternoon we retired to Frank and Lindy’s local pub, run by an English-man and frequented by the many Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh retiree expats who live around here. It was all a rather surreal experience, watching a Six Nations rugby match on a giant TV, the men drinking beers from the UK and Ireland, and those of us not interested in the rugby playing darts and pool.

Lily and Katie continued to enjoy playing with their cousins – especially Ollie, who is closer in age to them. When the clientele at the pub all got up en masse to move on to a local restaurant, and the barman said he was closing up because he was going to the restaurant too, we contemplated saying our goodbyes and driving back home to Aguadulce. But Lily started to cry, because she wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to Ollie. That, combined with the prospect of an all-you-can-eat meat feast swayed us, and we trundled down the road with all the others. Our party took up half the restaurant. The children sat together, feeling very grown up as they decided which meat courses to accept or reject.

The food was exceptional – I think I ate half a cow! But what made it all the more wonderful was that it was a meal shared with family, at the end of a glorious day spent together. Living the life we do, we don’t often have opportunities to spend time with our extended family. I grew up surrounded by a vast number of cousins, aunts and uncles. Because of our lifestyle choices, Lily and Katie don’t see their extended family so much. So to spend a hot Sunday afternoon and evening on the beach with their cousins, aunt and uncle, granddad and extended grandparents through marriage, was a wonderful and precious thing.

Moody weather

While Julian and the girls were away I spent my days in t-shirts and shorts, changing into something warmer each evening for going to work. Even during the storm force winds, it was pretty warm. Each morning as I went on my 4km walk along the seafront, I imagined how lovely it would be for my father-in-law, Barry, to bring his early morning Thermos cup of tea, and sit on a bench or walk along the beach, smoking his pipe and watching the spectacular sunrises over the sea in the direction of Cabo de Gata.

DSCI0057Julian, the girls and Barry were due to catch the Portsmouth to Santander ferry on Wednesday, February 4th. But a couple of days before, the ferry was postponed for 24 hours due to poor weather conditions. And just as well, as it turned out. Had they been on the Wednesday ferry they might have been among the 220 motorists who had to be rescued along the motorway from Santander towards Madrid, due to severe weather conditions and snowdrifts blocking the roads.

When they finally arrived in Santander on Thursday evening, the three-hour drive to their overnight accommodation turned into an almost six-hour drive, through driving snow and sleet. Julian and his dad had been worrying about snow in the UK, but had never imagined having to contend with far worse conditions in Spain.

By the time they reached Aguadulce on Saturday evening, it was freezing cold. Somehow, we avoided snowfall here, but snow fell all around. I haven’t experienced such biting cold aboard Carina since early spring 2013 in the UK. For days we have kept the weather boards in, as protection against those biting north-easterlies. Instead of strolling the promenade in the early morning, Barry, dressed in thermal underwear, flannel shirt, woolly jumper and winter coat, sits in his car for an early morning puff of his pipe.

The weather is also proving far from consistent. Following days of this piercingly cold wind, Wednesday was warm enough for shorts and t-shirts again. We basked in it, drinking in the warm sunshine. Lily and Katie even donned their wetsuits and took a dip in the sea. I hoped this might be the return of the good weather.

From Wednesday...

From Wednesday…

But the next day, Thursday, brought prolonged heavy rain and we were back to wrapping up warmly again.

...to Thursday

…to Thursday

Oh, I’m not complaining. I just want some warm sun to shine down on my father-in-law to compensate for his winters in the UK Midlands. We’ll get warm weather aplenty in the coming months. Back in the UK, he might not.

My top destinations

by Julian

It is the end of the year and since we started out in 2012 we have covered 3000 miles in Carina. I have already reviewed when things go wrong, so for balance I thought I would highlight some of the best places we have been to. I have chosen one destination in each country we have visited, though there are many other fabulous places in all five countries.

Tresco – Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, England

TrescoCollageWe moored on either side of Tresco. In New Grimsby Sound on passage to Ireland and in Old Grimsby Sound on the way back. I’ve heard people be a bit sniffy about Tresco because the south end of the island is so well tended. But in fact this is one of the most stunning things about it. It is an island of two extremely different halves. Of course the views everywhere are incredible. When the sun is out the beaches have the feel of a south pacific island. The moorings are a bit pricey but it is possible to anchor. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there. See the blog posts: Hungry sailors in Tresco and Falmouth to the Isles of Scilly.

Muros – Ria de Muros, Galicia, Spain

MurosCollageThe town is absolutely lovely with its old narrow streets overlooking a nice bay. The marina is pricey, but probably the best I have ever stayed in, with the office, lounge and laundry all set in an old converted cottage. It has a great family feel about it. If you love fish Muros is certainly a top destination too and we were there for the fabulous Virgin del Carmen fiesta with its waterborne parade. Despite the comments in the pilot guide about anchoring difficulties plenty of yachts anchored in the bay with no major issues. However, our best time was away from the town, when we anchored off a beach around the corner. I could walk into Muros and we could swim or row to the beach to play for the afternoon. We even collected delicious mussels at low water, whilst some locals were picking the razor clams. See the blog posts: Ria de Muros – a little bit of heaven, Fiesta de Virgin del Carmen and Beach Interlude.

Culatra – Algarve, Portugal

CultraCollagePeople just anchor here and stay for the whole summer and I can see why. What a fantastic place. Away from the traffic children can run around in relative safety, they cannot go far because it is a small island. Many people just seem to hang around barbequing fish that have been collected by the fleet of small, often single person boats. There is also the community of catamarans in the lagoon, some of which are permanent inhabitants. Ferries to Olhao and Faro mean that you can get everything you might need, but it is fun to just stay on the island and meet the people, including sailors from all over Europe. See the blog posts: Have you heard the one about the Inuit family, Old cats and Arviat on the Algarve.

L’Aber Wrac’h – Brittany, France

LaberwracCollageI just love the many faces of L’Aber Wrac’h. You can moor upriver at Paluden, away from the bustling marina of La Palue, or hang out and meet the many interesting sailors (and rowers), from all over the world, passing through on their adventures. There are beautiful walks in the woods, the hills and along the beaches, with their cockle picking opportunities. Nice towns you can walk to (or catch the bus), and of course the chance to sample the delicious food of Brittany. But probably the most spectacular thing is the entrance itself with impressive granite rocks and a giant imposing lighthouse in the backdrop (Possibly the tallest in the world). It is a great staging post for an adventure. See the blog post: Brittany.

Derrynane – County Kerry, Ireland

filename-derrynane-harbourDerrynane has a tight entrance, only to be attempted in good weather, but once in you are safe at anchor, in a beautiful cove. If the weather turns bad you’ll have to stay there and wait it out though. The sort of place where you can swim from the boat to the beach, explore all around the fantastic dunes and rocks, finding a variety of interesting places to play and chill out. It has a great pub too. What more do you want? See the blog post: Dolphins divers and Derrynane.

Conclusion

Well that’s it for now, except to say that I would feel bad without at least a mention of some other places which could have made this list.

Falmouth, Fowey, Penzance, The Yealm and Mevagissey – England.

Horseshoe Harbour – Sherkin Island, Glandore, Crookhaven and Lawrence Cove – Bere Island – Ireland.

Camaret sur Mer – France.

Porto – Portugal.

Ria de Viveiro, La Coruña, Rianxo, Bayona (all of Galicia really) – Spain.

Fish, palm trees and…work

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

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

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

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

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

Old cats

Lily and I took the ferry to Olhão to buy presents and party food for Katie’s birthday. On the ferry we befriended the Dutch crew of Mallemok – Patricia and Boris and their two sons, aged 7 and 10. Back on Ilha da Culatra we met Julian at the bar nearest the ferry and all enjoyed an evening together.

DSCI4586The next day we met again, this time on the beach. As well as sharing their delicious picnic and a bottle of wine with us, they showed us the shells they had collected earlier in the day. I had only seen shells like these in museum display cases before, and so the girls and I decided a shell-hunting expedition was in order.

We awoke early the next morning and took the dinghy to shore through the slowly lifting fog. Julian took the ferry to Olhão and the girls and I went hunting. It was less than an hour after low water, on a spring tide, and we passed old women, far out on the mud flats, bent double, foraging for clams.

Clam pickers at low tide

Clam pickers at low tide

Oh what shells we found! Huge spiral shells of sea snails, shells covered in sharp scary-looking thorns, shells as thick and hard as rocks, others delicate and translucent.

We followed the beach around, as our Dutch friends recommended, and soon we came upon a strange and bizarre live-aboard community. Twenty or thirty catamarans, of various shapes and sizes rested on the sand (it was shortly after low water). Some were without sails, some were without masts, and many looked as though they hadn’t been away from this little corner of the island in years.

DSCI4613But they were all inhabited. On the land, right by the high water mark, some owners had constructed lean-tos, with make-shift kitchens and living-rooms, made from scrap timber, tarpaulin, old garden furniture, and even a dilapidated looking brown velvet living room suite of furniture. There were shell gardens and washing lines and many of the boats had one or more pet dogs.

The lean-to home of one catamaran owner

The lean-to home of one catamaran owner

As we walked along I said good morning to the people going about their daily chores on their catamarans. They replied in accents from England, Germany, Holland and Spain, and the youngest person I spoke to was about 65 years old! Since then I’ve met some younger inhabitants with young children.

Later in the day I met a woman on the path to the beach. She was deeply tanned and carried an empty 10 litre water bottle that she refilled at the public tap. On a whim, I asked if she lived on one of the boats. In one of the most upper-class English accents I have ever heard, she confirmed that she did. She looked to be well over 70, and I found out from someone else later that she is 74, and lives alone on her boat with a lot of cats! She told me that many people live in the little lagoon year round. She herself is staying on this winter for the first time, having wintered in Vilamoura in previous years. She was quick to point out that she lived on the other side of the inlet from the boats with the lean-tos and shell gardens. ‘This is a nature reserve’, she said. ‘But those Germans always have to keep busy doing something’!

Clothes hanging out to dry

Clothes hanging out to dry

From the catamaran community, the girls and I walked through a cool salt-water stream which floods at high water. It was delightful and, as the fog returned, it grew blissfully cool. We found some more interesting shells in the stream and then spent the rest of the day on the beach. It was hot but foggy at first, with very poor visibility, which made for a slightly eerie swimming experience. After an hour, the fog lifted and we stayed in the water for most of the day, determined to keep cool. Katie delighted in ducking her head into the waves, and she even swam a few strokes independently for the first time! It was one of the most pleasant days I’ve had – and that’s saying something.

Enjoying the cool of the lagoon

Enjoying the cool of the lagoon

Arviat on the Algarve

DSCI4595This is more like it. This is my kind of place. We left Albufeira early in the morning to enter the channel that leads to Faro and Olhão at high water. Our plan was to anchor behind the barrier islands in the Rio Formosa. We had no idea what the place would be like, but the pilot book said that Olhão itself was far less tourist-orientated than other places along the Algarve. We anchored behind Ilha da Culatra, hoping to stay for a couple of days. We’ve been here for over a week and are loathe to leave!

The red Algarve cliffs end a few miles before Faro, replaced by an incredibly flat low-lying sandy coastline. Ilha da Culatra is one of a few barrier islands sheltering the sandbank littered waters on its northern shore from the breaking waves of the Atlantic. As soon as we entered the channel leading to the lee side of the islands, I exclaimed ‘It’s Arviat on the Algarve’, while Julian simultaneously said, ‘It’s the Mississippi’.

Even Arviat isn't this flat!

Even Arviat isn’t this flat!

The small village of Culatra lies only a couple of miles from two other villages, accessible across the sand at low water, but considered to be on separate islands. Ilha da Culatra is flat and mostly treeless, and from the sea it is a tiny thread of land separating the blue sea from the huge blue sky. It is the vastness of the sky, the flatness of the land, the lack of trees, and the profusion of small boats resting on the shore in front of the cluster of low houses that first reminded me so much of Arviat, my beloved ‘other home’ in the Canadian Arctic.

We anchored a short distance from the tiny village, and I couldn’t wait to get ashore.

Culatra's 'lively' town centre!

Culatra’s ‘lively’ town centre!

There are no cars; just a few small tractors to transport goods and people. The village is built on soft sand, with paved footpaths (with street names recalling local history and celebrated local fishermen) leading between houses, to the harbour, the shops, post office, library, the little school and the community hall. Very little grows here, but outside many of the small white-washed houses, in plots protected by fishing nets from the multitude of large and free-roaming island dogs, the villagers grow vegetables and fruits in the unforgiving sand. Brassicas are ubiquitous, and there’s the occasional sad-looking tomato plant. Lime trees are scattered around the village and we found a pomegranate tree growing outside one house (it’s safe from me…pomegranate is the one fruit I dislike). None of the plants or trees looked particularly fertile – indeed they looked like a lot of effort for very little return.

A typical vegetable patch

A typical vegetable patch

The island relies on fishing and tourism. Indeed, it was fishermen from the mainland who first settled the island in the 19th Century, attracted by its rich marine life, and eventually building homes and founding a community. These days the island men fish for sea bass and sea bream and cultivate mussels, and if the activity around the harbour is anything to go by, fishing is thriving. The island’s women gather clams from the beaches at low water, and we met clam-pickers carrying buckets and baskets and nets heavy with clams at each low tide. I was thrilled to see two octopuses hanging out to dry on the clothes line of one home!

DSCI4610

You thought I was joking, didn't you!

You thought I was joking, didn’t you!

The island also takes advantage of the many day-tripping tourists who arrive by ferry. There are a surprising number of cafes and bars, some of which appear to be people’s homes, converted for the long summer into hostelries. Service is simple and informal – uncapping a bottle of cold beer pulled from the fridge is the extent of it!

On 19th July 1987, the village en masse refused to participate in the national elections. They were protesting against the lack of assistance they received from the Portuguese government, feeling they were being forgotten and left behind. Their protest caught the government’s attention and since then the islanders have seen many improvements to their lives – the island got electricity in 1993, a health centre in 2006, water supply and sanitation in 2009, and a scheduled ferry service to Faro in 2010.

A typical 'street' in the village

A typical ‘street’ in the village

The island is a nature reserve, so no further development is allowed to take place. As a result, the newest houses look at least 30 or 40 years old, with only a few community buildings, such as the school, dating from more recently.

We arrived onshore late in the afternoon of our first day here. We quickly surveyed the village and then walked across the island to the expansive beach on the south side, where the Atlantic rolls in and crashes on the shore in waves just the perfect size for the children to play in. Since then, we have visited the beach every day, where the swimming is excellent!

Fun on the beach

Fun on the beach

In an effort to protect the delicate sand dunes and salt marshes from the constant train of visitors each day, a raised walk-way runs from the village to the beach.

Back in the village, Lily and Katie played with some local children at the playground, while Julian and I sat and drank a beer at a nearby bar. Large dogs roamed freely, in and out of the playground, ignoring the children, minding their own business.

I long to see the island in winter, when the tourists have departed. I suggested to Lily that she and Katie go to school here, and we could live in one of these tiny houses, pick clams and send Julian out bass fishing! My little fantasy!