Unusual weather

While my mother sent me photos of increasing amounts of snow in her garden, and told me about Ireland coming to a standstill, here in southern Iberia we experienced some extreme weather of our own.

It all started on Tuesday of two weeks ago, to coincide precisely with the start of the children’s five-day weekend. We were forecast heavy rain and high winds for ten days. And did we get it! The same weather system that was causing extreme warm weather in the Arctic, and extreme cold and heavy snowfall in northern Europe, was coming to us as westerly winds bringing rain in off the Atlantic.

The rivers and streams, dry for far too long for the lack of rain, were soon running with vigour. The river bed, where for almost two years we have enjoyed picnics and barbecues on the river bed, was not turned into a fast-flowing river. There were waterfalls and cataracts down previously bone dry fields, and the streets of Sanlúcar were turned into torrents of run-off.

But the rain wasn’t a problem. With virtually no rain since last April, the land has been crying out for moisture and sheep farmers have had to make harsh decisions about the lives of their animals, as the cost of feed over such a prolonged period becomes impossible to meet. No, the rain was a godsend and, after two weeks, the land is verdant and lush.

The problem was the wind. I had planned to move Carina off the Sanlúcar pontoon on the 28th of February and onto a mooring a few hundred metres downriver. But on that morning, those of us who were due to leave were advised to not go anywhere, as conditions were too nasty. I had spent the night before wide awake, as Carina was tossed and dashed against the pontoon, the noise of straining lines coming between me and sleep. With Julian away for a couple of months, the girls have been sharing my bed, and twice that night I snuck out past them, got dressed and went out in the howling wind and driving rain to check the mooring lines, check both dinghies were secure and protected by fenders, and to make sure there was nothing lying about on deck that might fly away. The next day all we could do was look out at the dire conditions.

The next morning, the 1st of March, we went by car to Ayamonte, because the girls both needed new shoes. Down at the river mouth, Ayamonte lacked the protection that Sanlúcar enjoyed, and we struggled to walk back to the car, which was parked close to the marina. The boats in the marina were being tossed around like toys as waves crashed violently over each wooden pontoon. I was glad Carina was twenty-two miles upriver.

When we returned to Sanlúcar at lunchtime the wind had whipped up into a frenzy. The west wind, an unusual wind direction for these parts, pushed the boats hard against the pontoon. When the gusts came, which they did frequently, the seven yachts on the pontoon were pushed precariously on their sides, so their decks almost touched the pontoon. The pontoon itself bucked and swayed and the gangway from the land down onto the pontoon eventually broke, the rope holding it in place shredding under the strain, and calling for a hasty repair job by Tony, our neighbour on Holy Mackerel.

I put extra mooring lines on Carina, but worried about the neighbouring unoccupied boat – if her lines didn’t hold, she might bash into Carina. I was grateful for Tony, who patrolled the pontoon, checking lines, moving dinghies and canoes that were at risk of being squished by the yachts and pontoon they were sandwiched between. Curious, I turned on our electronics, so I could keep an eye on the wind speed. I read one gust of 35mph, and Katie read one of 40mph. I believed her, because when she called ‘40’ down to me, Carina felt like she was being flattened.

I had to take Carina off the pontoon. I had paid for 25 nights, and this was now night 26 and someone else was waiting to take our space. There was no chance of me getting onto the mooring in these conditions and, besides, the mooring itself had become fouled by someone else’s anchor due to the strong wind. When a brief lull in the wind and rain descended as darkness was falling that evening, I made a dash off the pontoon and across to an empty space on the Alcoutim side of the river.

A bunch of people helped me across the river. Lily and Katie did their bit. Linda from Holy Mackerel and Ray from Tinto crewed for me, Tony followed in his dinghy to nudge Carina into the tight space if needed, and Hazel and Katie from Ros Ailither waited on the Alcoutim pontoon to take the lines. Light was fading fast as we crossed the river and, after the stress of the weather, the sudden dash across the river, and the tight space I had to squeeze into in front of two rafted boats, I was a bit of wreck. I temporarily broke my ongoing alcohol-free New Year’s Resolution and invited all my great helpers up to the bar for a beer and had a couple myself!

I hoped, in a day or two, to go on the mooring. But the wind and rain continued apace, with no sign of let-up and the mooring remained fouled with no-one willing (understandably) to untangle it for me in those conditions. On Sunday there were tornados along the coast, causing damage along the Algarve and Huelva coasts. And still the rain and wind continued. Collecting the girls from school and then returning across the river to get to my English lessons was fraught with anxiety, as the wind gusted and the rain reduced my visibility.

We’ve had a slight reprieve since then. My mooring was eventually untangled. It took six people three hours to sort it out, and I finally moved on. The mooring hasn’t all be plain sailing either, but I think it’s sorted out now. We’ve had some bad days since then, with more wind and rain. And there’s more bad weather due later on this afternoon. I’m looking forward to the day when I can sit in my cockpit again. I feel I deserve it!!!


At the helm

After two and a half weeks on a fore and aft mooring in the absence of Julian, I moved Carina on to the Sanlúcar pontoon. I woke on the first day of the last week of the school term feeling tired. Tired of trying to maximise every trip ashore by loading the dinghy up with rubbish and recycling bags and empty 5-litre water bottles to be refilled. Tired of returning to Carina having forgotten to refill the water bottles to top up our onboard supply. Tired of having to think of our battery usage and the limits of our solar panel to power cabin lights and recharge the laptop and smart phone. Tired of the time it took all three of us to get to shore – helping the girls into and out of their life jackets; adding a few extra minutes to wipe early morning condensation from the dinghy seat and to pump out any excess water that had accumulated overnight to soak our feet. Tired of worrying whether the outboard would start and tired of having to pump air into the dinghy on an almost daily basis. Sorry to say, I’m not hard core enough. Or I would be hard core enough if I didn’t have two kids to look after and writing jobs to do besides.

Besides all that, it was the last week that Lily’s and Katie’s other live aboard friends would be on the river and both boats happened to be berthed on the Sanlúcar pontoon. I wanted the girls to be able to make the most of their last week with their friends and being on the pontoon meant they could run around together, play on each other’s boats and have the freedom to roam the village. And it meant I could enjoy a few glasses of wine with my friends before they left, without worrying about having to get my two kids back home by dinghy! So, at €7 per night, I chose the pontoon.

I had never manoeuvred Carina on my own before. Julian and I have made sure that we swap roles aboard and I have brought Carina alongside pontoons many times before, but always with the reassurance that Julian was there, ready to give advice and instructions to help me along. I wasn’t about to do it on my own this time either. I asked Paul, one of our live aboard friends, if he would come aboard Carina and crew for me. He was only too happy to assist.

As luck would have it, the tide turned at the same time as the girls started school on Monday morning, and about an hour later Paul came aboard. I had already set all the lines and fenders and I instructed Paul how I wanted to come off the fore and aft mooring. I took the helm and Paul untied the mooring lines. I turned Carina around and slowly motored two hundred yards down river, turned again to face into the ebb tide and gradually brought her alongside. Paul said little, but just having him sitting beside me in the cockpit gave me the confidence to bring her along smoothly. Paul’s wife Emma was standing on the pontoon waiting to take the lines. Paul never moved from his seat in the cockpit, but quietly instilled confidence in me to bring Carina gently alongside so that Emma could effortlessly take the bowline from the guardrail. They helped me set the lines and then I was comfortably on the pontoon.

Ah blessed mains electricity, blessed electric water pump, blessed hot water on demand! Usually I am very happy living without these things, but it had been over a month since we’d last been on a pontoon and over two weeks of that I had been acting single parent to the girls.

Our final week without Julian turned into two weeks, as French air traffic controllers went on strike and on the morning he was due to fly back his flight from Birmingham to Faro was cancelled. As it was Easter week, there were no flights to be had for an entire week, causing him to miss the girls’ Easter holidays from school and Lily’s seventh birthday. In the end, we were without Julian for four and a half weeks. But the time flew by, as we were busy with school, friends, village Carnival, Lily’s birthday party and the birthdays of two of the girls’ school friends.

I think next time I might just have to confidence to come alongside on my own!

Daddy’s home

Julian went back to the UK last week, leaving the girls and me for eight days. He had a medical appointment, hanging over from when we were back in the UK in the summer/autumn. In anticipation of his departure, we came alongside the pontoon in Sanlúcar, as the thought of living at anchor and ferrying the girls to school in our leaky dinghy every day didn’t appeal to me. He repaired what leaks he could in the dinghy and made sure we were well stocked with cooking gas, and at 7am on Monday morning he was off.

I’ve been alone aboard Carina for longer before (three weeks this time last year) and I’ve been alone with the girls on occasion (most of three days back in 2014), but never had the girls and I been on the boat for so long without Julian.

Well, it all worked like clockwork. There were no size 12 shoes to trip over when I stumbled out of bed to go to the loo in the middle of the night; no XXL t-shirts and jeans to fill up half the laundry bag; fewer dishes to wash and half the amount of food to prepare. (Such is life lived with a giant)

Each morning I washed the breakfast dishes, made the beds and tidied the saloon BEFORE I took the girls to school and then came home to a neat and tidy work space where I could sit down and write for as long as I wanted.

While the girls were at school I flitted across the river in the dinghy to do laundry and use the library; I went for long walks along the trails that run along the river; I wrote; I studied and practiced Spanish. There were no negotiations about who needs the dinghy, who should take the girls to and from school (although they don’t actually need anyone to), whose turn it is to cook/wash dishes/do the shopping, whose turn is it to use the laptop.

I decided to put a new routine in place. Instead of dinner at 7pm, we would have dinner when the girls got home from school and a light meal in the evening, like we did when I was a kid. Katie, who normally won’t eat her dinner, devoured it every day, because she was so hungry when she got home from school. She often asked for seconds. And because the evening meal was something she loved (soft boiled egg and soldiers, for example) she devoured that too.

After dinner each afternoon I insisted the girls have a 45 minute siesta, and they did. With no adults talking, they read or slept in their cabin. And after that they went off to play with their friends, or I went out for long walks with them.

On Friday night we had a pyjama party aboard. Three of Lily’s and Katie’s friends came – two other boat kids and a little girl who lives in a house up the river. Because of our lack of space aboard Carina, this would have been difficult to do with both Julian and me at home. They all slept in our big bed in the aft cabin and I slept in Lily’s and Katie’s bed in the fore cabin. Being the only adult, I was able to give the five girls my full attention and the whole thing ran smoothly. The girls had great fun, if little sleep, and I spent the rest of the weekend recovering.

And when I had problems to solve during the week, I solved them for myself, without automatically turning to Julian for his advice. I got the outboard motor working when it failed to start one morning; I made a temporary repair on one of the rowlocks when it broke. If Julian was here I would have just handed that sort of stuff over to him.

Sure, it all ran like clockwork. I was organised, I ran the show solo, things didn’t need to be discussed or negotiated or decided upon. All that stuff was easy and I had extra time on my hands.

But without Julian, it was boring as hell. All week I had things I desperately wanted to tell him, but he wasn’t around to hear them. I had questions to ask him, opinions to seek, funny occurrences to pass on. And come Monday evening, I was pacing the cockpit like a caged lion, waiting to see him appear on the Alcoutim pontoon and hitch a dinghy ride back home.

I thought ‘I won’t ever again curse his size 12 shoes’. And I meant it. That is, until I tripped over them when I stumbled out of bed in the dark on his first night back!

The trials and tribulations of Puertos de Andalucia marinas!

Over the past four months we have stayed in our fair share of marinas, as we’ve travelled through the west of England, Brittany, Galicia and all of the Portuguese coast. Some marinas were expensive (Muros €35 per night for our 11 metre yacht), some extremely cheap (Camariñas €16 per night). Some had wonderful facilities (Muros), some more limited (Camariñas). In every marina we have been to, staff have been friendly and helpful. Staff at Peniche showed unexpected generosity; a member of staff at Doca de Alcantara, near Lisbon, generously loaned us his own electricity connector, when ours didn’t match the fitting; and at Albufeira staff listened when we complained that the services offered didn’t match those advertised in the 2014 nautical almanac, and they gave us a night for free. Though every marina is different, each with its own quirks and curiosities, they all cater to the particular needs of sailors. They understand that in order to catch the best winds or currents, tidal heights or tidal streams, we often arrive late or depart early. And though many have limited office hours, every marina we have been to makes provision for the strange hours kept by sailors.

Here’s what typically happens. As you arrive at the entrance to the marina you radio or telephone the marina office. Whether someone answers depends on how well staffed the marina is, and the time of day. If you get an answer, you are directed to a particular pontoon; if you don’t get an answer, you find a pontoon suitable to your size boat. If it is during office hours, a member of staff will meet you (and maybe help with ropes), and will ask you to bring your passports and the ships papers to the office in order to check in. Appreciating that a crew might just have crossed the Atlantic, or sailed overnight, or be tired or hungry, you are told to take your time and come to the office at your own convenience. Increasingly, as we have travelled south, we have encountered reception pontoons. Rather than contact the marina in advance, you come alongside the reception pontoon and await further instruction. The reception pontoons we encountered in Portugal had electricity and water, so an after-hours arrival still ensures the full comforts of the marina.

All well so far. Until we arrived in Andalucia, that is, where we have stayed in three Puerto de Andalucia marinas. These government-run marinas at Magazon, Puerto America in Cadiz, and Barbate, are expensive, soulless places, where sailors are treated like some great inconvenience. All three look the same, with identical grey concrete-box office buildings and shower blocks. To give them their due, they have laundry facilities, something we have found lacking in many marinas along the way. But that is where our praise of them ends.

Though they are still charging summer prices in late September (€27 per night for us), they have reverted to winter office hours. Though the marinas are half empty, the staff are inflexible, and the particular needs of sailors are not catered to. They answer neither the radio nor telephone when called during office hours, and each one follows the same inflexible procedures.

Upon arrival you are directed to a reception pontoon. These have neither water nor electricity. You must IMMEDIATELY present your passports and ships’ papers to a member of staff whose day you appear to have completely ruined by showing up at their otherwise empty marina. Drawing any information out of these people is like drawing blood from a stone. Rather than advising me of facilities, I had to ask ‘Where are the showers?’, ‘Do you have Wifi?’ (the answer is absolutely NO), ‘Where are the laundry facilities?’.

In Cadiz, the reception pontoon was 10 metres away from the pontoon to which we were directed once we had checked in. The staff member watched us come in starboard to on the reception pontoon, but now had us switch our fenders and ropes to come in port to, under his very exasperated and impatient eye, as he stood on the pontoon waiting to take our ropes. He could so easily have sent us to this pontoon in the first place (rather than the reception pontoon) or sent us two berths down so we could come on starboard to. In Barbate, we arrived to discover the police boat taking up the entire reception pontoon. We berthed at the nearest pontoon we could find, only to discover that access to the land from that pontoon was blocked. We then went to another pontoon, one that we thought would be suitable for us, but when Julian went up to the office with our papers, we were told to move to a different berth, about five spaces down, as the pontoon we had gone on was apparently for larger boats. The marina was, however, more than half empty.

At each one we had to pay a €15 deposit for each key card to enter the marina buildings and access the pontoons. This is not unusual. But at Cadiz we also had to pay a €50 deposit for an electricity connector cable as the marina only had large fittings, even for small boats like ours. A €50 deposit in order to access the electricity we are paying for and a €30 deposit for two key cards to access the facilities we are paying for. And these deposits can only be paid for in cash! So, for the whole time we’ve been in Andalucia, the marinas have been holding €30 or €80 of our money, while we’re left with a 2km walk into the nearest town we’ve just arrived to, in order to find a cash machine.

At Mazagon I had to beg to be allowed to have a shower at 7.30am, and was told that the showers didn’t open until 8am. We were leaving at 8am, and I wanted a shower. I begged and pleaded in my poor Spanish and finally was told I would be allowed to have a quick shower! It’s not like it was some strange hour of the day – 7.30am is a pretty normal time of day for people to shower, isn’t it?

Departing these miserable places is no less awful. With their limited winter opening hours, actually being able to pay for our stay and get our deposits back has been a trial. With offices closed between 4pm and 10am, in order to make an early morning start, we would have to settle up the evening before, thus leaving us without electricity or access to the facilities, but yet having to pay €27 per night for the privilege.

All in all, we have had miserable service from these marinas for the privilege of tying up to pieces of wood with more than half the spaces around us empty. We would anchor or go elsewhere if we could, but along this stretch of the Andalucian coast there are few other choices. We are glad to be leaving these marinas behind.