A cold and frosty morning

I awoke at around 5am on Sunday morning and couldn’t get back to sleep for the cold. It wasn’t until Lily and Katie climbed into our bed shortly after 8am and I tightly packed them one either side of me, that I warmed up again. When Julian peered outside half an hour later he announced there was frost on the deck. The girls were wildly excited, thinking there was snow, and were mad to get out and play in it. Julian tried to break the news that it wasn’t snow, but Lily said, ‘Ice, frost, sleet – it’s all snow to me’, as she pulled on warm clothes to go play on the pontoon. Good Lord, it was bitter out there. 0˚C in the night and the sun rising behind Sanlúcar’s hills hadn’t yet hit our end of the pontoon.

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A frosty morning for the start of Tom’s big adventure

 

Our Scottish friend Tom came gingerly down the slippery pontoon in his rubber boots. After six years living on his boat here on the river, this morning he was ready to depart on the first leg of a voyage he hopes will ultimately take him to Brazil. ‘Give him some energy balls’, Julian said, as we pulled on sensible shoes to go help him cast off his lines. I passed him a bag of delicious date, oat and coconut balls to see him on his way. By the time he’d slipped the pontoon, his cup of tea was stone cold and he grumblingly threw it overboard. We waved him off, wondering if we’ll ever see him again.

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And he’s away!

The girls stomped through the frost on the pontoon, trying to mark it with their footprints. They dragged their fingers along the deck and scraped up tiny amounts of it. This is as close as they’re likely to get to snow this year.

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As close as they’re likely to get to snow and ice this year!

At 10.30, as I went to teach an English class at the bar by the beach, I suggested they go play on the beach, and see if they could find any traces of frost there. Despite the cold, the frost was rapidly melting now and the beach had nothing to show for it, so they joined me in the bar and ordered two hot chocolates.

The rest of this week is forecast to be just as cold at night and there are rumours uttered in hushed tones that ‘Thursday will be the worst’. Blankets, hot water bottles, hot chocolate and more energy balls at the ready then!

Departures

When we returned to the Rio Guadiana in mid-November there were three other yachts here with cruising families aboard. Suddenly Lily and Katie found themselves inundated with playmates. One of the families moved on after about a week but the other two decided to stay on the river and, like us, send their children to the school in Sanlúcar.

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Lunch aboard Carina

So, Lily (6) and Katie (5) have become fast friends with Ana (5), Lola (7), Isla (3) and Ana’s older brother Porter (11). When all three boats are on the pontoon, the girls all play together on each other’s boats, on the pontoon and at Sanlúcar’s playgrounds. There have been sleepovers and movie nights, impromptu picnic lunches and an awful lot of giggling and screaming! They swap clothes and toys, and have picked up each other’s mannerisms and intonations.

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Movie afternoon aboard Carina, watching Matilda

But like all cruising families, the time inevitably comes to move on, and this week has been one of goodbyes. On Monday, Lola and Isla departed with their parents aboard Spirit of Mystery, to make their way north to Cornwall in southwest England. And on Wednesday Ana, Porter and their older brother Alexander departed with their parents aboard Pelagic to sail via Morocco and Cape Verde, across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and eventually north to their home in Oregon on the west coast of the United States.

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Katie, Isla, Lola, Lily, Ana – firm friends

It’s the first time for Lily and Katie to have such close and intense friendships and, given the nature of our lives here on the Rio Guadiana, all the children have had a great amount of freedom to explore and play without having adults watching over them all the time. The past few months have been wonderful for the girls.

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Sleepover

Lily and Katie have other friends in the village – a couple of other ex-pat friends who live permanently in Sanlúcar, as well as their Spanish classmates. Lily in particular has developed good friendships with her classmates. But life over the coming weeks and months will be quite different now that we are the only live aboard family on the river.

We will follow the travels of our friends with interest and, who knows, maybe our paths will cross again some day.

Keeping it all going

by Julian

Boat equipment goes wrong all the time, maintainance is a big part of sailing and living aboard. Think of a boat being your home, which includes electricity, plumbing, gas etc. It is also your transport so engines, sails and rigging need to be maintained. It is your security, so general seaworthiness, anchor, flares, radio comms, distress beacons, life jackets, liferaft and many more things besides. As Martina mentioned in a previous blog post several things went wrong just before I went back to England. The outboard motor on our dinghy stopped working, the main diesel engine overheating alarm went off and the foot pump started leaking badly, filling our bilges with water. These things and more needed sorting out before I returned to the UK so that Martina could have a dull uneventful week of peace without me.

First of all I attended to the leak in our fresh drinking water system. I took the foot pump out, water momentarily gushing all around me, and I shoved a couple of wooden bungs in the ends of the pipes, tightening hose clips onto them to stop the leak. This left Martina with only the electric pump, which we don’t like to use when on anchor, with only our 80 W solar panel to keep the systems going, but that was fine because Martina had no intention of being at anchor without me on board. We spotted an opportunity to go alongside the pontoon at Sanlucar a few days earlier than we needed and early in the morning we brought Carina into Spain, just in time to make the 5 minute walk to take the girls to school. Life was beginning to look easier for Martina stuck without me. On the pontoon she could do the shopping, take the girls to school and had limitless water and electricity with Carina plugged into the mains. This meant being able to use the computer and DVD player without limit, DVDs for the girls, a blender for smoothies and even a fast electric kettle, a working fridge and hot running water, pretty good hey!

The next job was the dinghy. I couldn’t leave Martina without the ability to get across the river, go to the Saturday market in Portugal, use the 3 Euro a go washing machine, which includes the powder, and go to the library where she can plug in the computer and use the internet all day long for her writing work. She might even decide to exchange books and look at the art gallery. I suspected the problem with the outboard to be dirt in the carburettor. We have a small, very simple and usually reliable outboard which I think is vital for an idiot like me, miles away from a petrol station or a professional mechanic. So I stripped down the carburettor, couldn’t see the problem but did a few of my magic blows on it and put it back together again, it worked a treat. The next mission was to teach Martina how to use it. “WHAT!” I hear you say, how could she live on the boat and not be able to use the outboard. Well it is a long story, she did use it a couple of times under supervision when we were cruising down here but we spent last winter in a marina and she hadn’t used it since. So I watched as she went off with the laundry, shouting things like “A little more choke!”, “No you’ve flooded it, try rowing straight back at the shore.” Anyway finally she seemed pretty happy and could handle the oars, so she had her complete freedom while the kids went to school.

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Our Zodiac inflatable dinghy with it’s 2 stroke Mariner 3.3 outboard.

I ordered spare rubber parts for our very good Whale Gusher Galley Mk III foot pump which hadn’t let us down or needed any maintenance in four years of very heavy use. We don’t know how long it was before we bought Carina since any work had been done on it. These parts would arrive at my dad’s house for me to bring back from the UK and I flew out from Seville to London for my appointment with the consultant. On my return I was first annoyed because Martina filled up the water system, but I waited a couple of days then emptied it and took the pump apart. Sure enough I found a small hole in one of the diaphragms. I replaced them both, saving the good one as an emergency replacement. Now I just had the engine to sort out.

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Behind the scenes on our Whale Gusher Galley Mk III footpump!!

The main engine of Carina was a little more confusing. The temperature alarm had gone off when on full pelt on our return from Ayamonte but now it was giving a faint alarm and a faint warning light after running the engine for 20 minutes or so. The system is cooled by a flow of raw water (sea or river) around an inner engine coolant water. Previously we had trouble with the flow of the raw water due to a seal not being good on the inlet filter but it was clear this was not the case, the filter itself was also clear. I remember going to sea with my cousin Martin and him replacing a degraded impellar (the rubber thing that pumps the raw water around the engine), that day the two of us sailed onto the mooring in the confined space between lines of boats and mud banks of Hayling island, near Chichester and we missed the tide that would get us to the pub. With this in mind I checked the impellar, it looked fine.

Various people came past and nodding sagely said “It will be the thermostat!” I ignored them and checked the raw water system some more, actually contacting the dealer to see what the flow should be, I then put a bucket by the exhaust and measured how much water came out in 20 second intervals, it appeared to be behaving fine. Finally I heeded the advice of my fellow sailors and took out the thermostat and put it in a pan of boiling water. It opened just fine, not that either then! I was getting pretty sure that it was just a faulty temperature sensor, but I didn’t have the confidence to risk the engine. However, the Germans had heard that I was looking for a thermometer and came on board with their engineering kit and took over for an hour or so. Rolf was an engineer and still does the odd professional job on boats at the coast. Along with Steffan, a keen amateur, they gave the engine a good testing. The verdict was that it isn’t overheating, I have a dodgy temperature sensor. I checked the price of a new one with the dealer, £49.95! Maybe I’ll take it out and blow on it before spending the money.

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Carina’s main inboard engine a Craftsman Marine 4.42. It is a 4 cylinder 42 hp diesel marinised engine based on a Mitsubishi engine.

A new chapter

Sunday evening. I take the girls for a shower while Julian makes dinner. Make sure they’re scrubbed and spotless. After dinner I check there are pencils, erasers, rulers and colouring pencils in their pencil cases and I place them inside two Peppa Pig backpacks along with a copybook each. In the morning I’ll add a sandwich and an apple to each bag. Finally, I lay out their clothes for the morning. We all need an early night before the big day ahead.

A new chapter of our lives has begun. Lily and Katie have started school in the tiny village school in Sanlúcar on the Spanish side of the river. When we came up the Rio Guadiana in April we met Rafa and Pilar and their three boys. The family had sailed from Majorca in February, were now living on the river, and the boys were attending school in Sanlúcar. What they told us about the school sparked our curiosity and soon we were talking to other live-aboard families whose children had attended or were currently attending the school.

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Monday morning, heading off for the first day of school

One day the girls and I visited the school, took a look around, met some of the teachers and I expressed an interest in enrolling them at the start of the new school year, in September. The principal was most welcoming and open to the idea, despite the girls (and our) inability to speak Spanish.

Julian and I thought long and hard about enrolling the girls in formal education. I always imagined that as we sailed we might avail of opportunities to immerse the girls in local languages and cultures by sending them to small rural or village schools for six months or a year. The school I have always imagined enrolling them in is the school in The snail and the whale, which those of you who are fans of Julia Donaldson will be familiar with.

The school in Sanlúcar comes pretty close. Serving a village of 400 people with a decidedly aging population, the school is tiny, with less than ten children per class. We saw this as a wonderful opportunity for Lily and Katie to learn Spanish, become immersed in southern Spanish culture, and for all of us to get to know this lovely little village and its inhabitants better.

During our months back in the UK we all studied Spanish in preparation for this new adventure. I had understood little of what the principal said to me on our couple of visits to the school in May and another teacher who spoke some English had to be called over to translate. I didn’t want that to be the case when we finally returned to the school in autumn.

With a date for my operation not until October 1st, I emailed the principal (helped by Google Translate) to explain the situation and, given the circumstances, he was happy for the girls to start school in mid-November.

Lily has generally been very excited about the prospect of going to school, but Katie hasn’t been too sure (‘I want to be a home schooled kid’, she told me repeatedly). On our return to the Rio Guadiana we visited the school. The girls met their teachers – Martina and Cristina. Lily smiled and Katie scowled. I was delighted that I could understand most of the instructions the two teachers gave me in preparation for the first day.

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Julian rows the girls over to Spain for their first day of school

A few days later it was Monday morning. We happened to be on the Portuguese side of the river, so I waved them off as Julian rowed them across the international border for their first day of school! I was on tenterhooks all day, expecting a call from Cristina to say that Katie was inconsolable or had run away. But no such call came. In the afternoon when I picked them up they were both beaming from ear to ear. It had been a good day for Katie to start school. Louisa, one of her classmates, turned five, and they had a birthday party in class, complete with a Frozen cake and strawberry milk.

The school is indeed tiny. Katie is in kindergarten with six other children in her class. Lily is in a class of Year 1 and Year 2 combined. Lily is in Year 1 with six other children and there are two children in Year 2. Nine children in the entire class! The school day is short, from 9am to 2pm. (This was one reason we chose to send them to school in Spain rather than Portugal. The Portuguese school day is longer. Our other reason was that internationally, Spanish is the more widely spoken of the two languages).

So far they seem to love it. Lily appears to enjoy most of her lessons, with the exception of maths, because she’s doing maths she already knows how to do. Her teacher, Martina, says her handwriting is terrible and she needs to work on it, so she’s busy practicing the loopy, flowery writing style particular to southern Europe. On Wednesday, at music lesson, Katie learned about a piano player in funny clothes with white hair, curly bits around his ears and a ponytail with a ribbon. I’m guessing Mozart. Julian’s going for Elton John!

After only a week of school, Julian and I are astounded at how much Spanish peppers their language. They don’t know much, but they are mimicking the sounds of the language and liberally using whatever snippets of Spanish they know. We grin at each other across the table as we listen to them. (It took me a while to figure out that Lily’s ‘Qué fresa’ was actually ‘Qué pasa’. I set her straight!) Julian and I are having our language skills pushed to the limit too, as we work our way through the multiple sheets of paper we’ve been given with instructions for what they need to bring to school each day, the specific pencils, notebooks and folders we need to buy, release forms for using their photos on the school website, and so on, and by hanging around with the other parents before and after school each day. My vocabulary has taken a huge leap forward this week!

And it seems we’ve started a trend. Our English friends aboard Spirit of Mystery have decided to enrol their daughters in the school and on Tuesday we were surprised to see the cruising family from Oregon back again. Having told them about our plans to send our kids to school they decided to postpone their return across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and back to Oregon and instead return to the Rio Guadiana. They have enrolled their three children to start school in Sanlúcar in January. All of this is wonderful news for the school which struggles to remain open in this village with an aging population where most of the young people have moved to Seville and other larger towns to seek work and life away from farming the land.

So we have thrown ourselves into a winter of routine, which feels strange at the moment. 7am alarm, making snacks to take to school, breakfast eaten and clothes on by 8.30, 8.40 into the dinghy to go to school. After school we go to the beach or go walking in the hills for an hour or two, making the most of daylight and the hot sunshine, before returning home for dinner.

The girls are certainly enjoying their new adventure and Julian and I are getting used to it too.

Rugrats

Does anyone know the collective noun for children? A squirm? A squeal? A clatter? A crash? A riot? An exertion? I need a collective noun right now, because there are children everywhere. We motored upriver on Wednesday morning from Laranjeiras to Alcoutim and the place was wriggling with sailing kids.

The girls and I went to the chestnut and wine festival that night and met a family from Oregon: Mike and his wife, with Kenna, Porter and Alexander, aged 6, 10 and 13. A game of hide and seek immediately ensued between my girls and their youngest two, and before we parted company we arranged a date for a walk to the ruined castle on the hill the next morning. The four again had fun hiding and playing tag and ‘What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?’ All too soon we had to return to the river and we bid farewell, as they set sail for Cadiz later in the afternoon.

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Lily and Katie playing with their friends aboard Ros Alither

But in their wake came two more families. Hazel and Dave, who used to live aboard and run the Topsham to Turf Locks ferry near Exeter, now live aboard Ros Alither, their beautiful Killybegs trawler with their children, Katie 8 and Reuben 5. We met them when they came ashore by dinghy and a few hours later they moved from their anchorage onto the pontoon behind Carina. On the pontoon over in Sanlúcar are Paul and Emma, an English couple with two New Zealand-born daughters, Lola 6 and Isla 3, living aboard Spirit of Mystery.

Our six children have been having a riotous time together, at the beach, on the pontoon, at the outdoor gym at the top of the slipway, and on each others’ boats. We parents have been drinking tea and coffee together, sharing our home schooling and sailing experiences, and taking turns looking after each other’s children, freeing each other up for Internet time, laundry, boat maintenance.

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Lily swinging from the rigging of Ros Alither

Lily and Katie, of course, are in their element, having all these children so close in age to play with. Aboard the other boats they have been knitting, playing Lego, making dens, climbing the rigging, and having very serious conversations about their favourite characters in Frozen, Tangled and other movies. We’ve invited Lola and Isla over for a movie and popcorn evening later this week, as they haven’t seen Tangled.

It amazes me how quickly children become the best of friends. As adults, we are more cautious, gradually feeling the waters to get a sense of the new people we meet. I’m always conscious of things such as politics, religion, health, and things like that, and tread gently until I know more about the new people I meet. Not so kids. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and throw themselves headlong into newfound friendships. They don’t worry about offending anyone or about people not liking them. They just want to play and have fun.

Plans, panic and Portugal

By Martina and Julian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marbella to Marina Smir

As the high rise holiday apartment developments thin out west of Benalmádena, the coastal woodlands gradually increase so that, to the east of Marbella, the more expensive and up-market holiday developments are nestled amongst shady copses of dark-green leaved trees.

We stopped at Marbella simply to make the crossing to Morocco shorter. The passage from Benalmádena was a mere three hours and we arrived in Marbella in the early afternoon, in plenty of time to hit the beach and then to explore the town after supper.

We almost didn’t get a berth at the marina, arriving as we did at the start of a weekend regatta. But they squeezed us in for a whopping €28. I was tempted to say ‘no thanks’, rather than hand that much money over.

The beach was a stone’s throw from the marina and we quickly changed into our swimsuits and, for once, all four of us spent the afternoon on the beach. Much of the beach was taken up with rows of umbrella-shaded sun loungers. Like all resorts, daily rental of these sun loungers costs €4 or more and so, like all resorts we have been to, the sun loungers are mostly empty (although we’ve never been to these places in high season) while the holiday-makers lie on their towels on the beach. The narrow strip of beach between the sun loungers and the sea was, therefore, crowded with people not willing to pay for unnecessary sun loungers.

We were surprised at how few people were in the water. It was a hot afternoon, the beach was crowded, yet the water was mostly empty. Was there something wrong? We hesitantly dipped our toes in and soon Julian and I were out of our depth, swimming in the warm water, while the girls played chest deep in water on a soft sand-covered sea bed. I came in a little closer to shore and Lily repeatedly swam between me and the shore.

DSCI0155After dinner aboard Carina, Katie drew our attention to a group of girls dancing nearby wearing white flamenco dresses and waving handkerchiefs and we raced off the boat to find out what was going on. What luck! We had stumbled upon the opening ceremony of the Fifth Marbella International Folklore Festival. There were participants from a rather random selection of countries, all dressed in national costumes – Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Easter Island, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela and Scotland – as well as multiple Spanish groups.

After some long speeches by the event organisers and a parade of all the participants across the stage, the Easter Islanders kicked the festival off with two lively songs and dances. They were followed by Germany and Russia, both of whom faced technical glitches with the recorded music that accompanied their dances. By the time the lone Scottish bagpiper took the stage, the audience was busy eating the free tapas that were going around, and no-one paid him any attention. He looked uncannily like my friend Gavin, and when he walked past after his performance, Julian complemented him on his piping. We were more than a little surprised when he spoke in Spanish-accented English!

DSCI0157We wandered through Marbella, past a series of sculptures by Salvador Dali and into the old part of the town with its stone mosaic pavements, orange tree-lined squares and a phenomenal number of shoe shops. We ended the night in a small square, listening to a great live band performing songs from the 1960s and 70s. Lily danced with abandon and Katie complained that it was all too noisy!

DSCI0159Julian and I were up early next morning and underway before 8am, our engine shattering the stillness of the early morning Mediterranean. The mountains rose sharp and majestic behind Marbella and its neighbouring towns and a few fishing boats plied the waters in the distance. Our destination, Marina Smir in Morocco, lay 50 miles away, on the other side of one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. The west wind was forecast to increase through the day and, after a couple of hours of motoring, we cut the engine and sailed, albeit a few degrees off course.

DSCI0166By noon we were seeing commercial vessels travelling east to west towards the outbound traffic separation scheme in the Strait of Gibraltar. With so many large vessels heading in our general direction, extra vigilance was called for. But we made it through the shipping lanes – the northern lane heading west and the southern lane heading east – with little trouble, only needing to briefly alter course once.

The west wind whipped through the Strait and we sailed close hauled, leaning hard to port, making for a tiring and, at times, uncomfortable sail. The girls got frustrated when their Play Mobil camper van and assorted Play Mobile people and accessories refused to stay on the saloon table, even with the non-slip table mat in place, and kept sliding down on top of the girls where they sat.

We hoped the wind, which gusted at times to 24 knots, would subside once we reached the other side of the Strait, but the current and wind now pushed us thirty degrees off course and though we were averaging five knots over ground, we weren’t getting much closer to our destination. In the end, we took in the genoa and motored the final ten miles, battling against wind and current and spray breaking over the bow and cockpit hood, to Marina Smir on the eastern side of the Tanger Peninsula. The Rif Mountains rose rugged and multi-layered to the south, and the entire length of the peninsula was banded by a golden strip of sandy beach.

We had left Spain behind for the time being and were about to enter Morocco.

And we’re off!

The wind made the decision for us in the end. A week on and we were still to-ing and fro-ing between sailing east and sailing west. The other sailors we spoke to in Aguadulce didn’t help. ‘Go west to the Rio Guadiana’ one neighbour would tell us. ‘Go east to Corfu’ another would say. Everyone had their favourite places east or west; everyone had good reasons for going one way and not going the other. All this advice, all the research we’d carried out, and we were still none the wiser about which direction we should take.

But the time had come to leave. Carina was ready. More than ready. The jobs to make her seaworthy and comfortable were complete and Julian was now taking on those maybe-some-day-if-I-have-time tasks. Each day we stayed I got a bit more writing done, which was wonderful. But if most of my writing is about our sailing life, then it’s time we did some sailing. The indecision was making us a little more unhinged every day.

The ‘where should we go’ question was getting to us. On Thursday night I asked Julian, ‘What’s the probability we’ll sail west tomorrow?’
‘65%’ he replied.
‘And the probability of sailing east?’
‘5%’
‘And the probability we’ll sail east the following day?’
‘5 to 7%’
Right. Really helpful. What about that other 28 to 30%? Such is life, married to a scientist.
After yet another look at the weather forecast, we went to bed on Thursday night no closer to a decision.

We still didn’t know which direction to go on Friday morning, but we decided to go anyway. The east wind strongly suggested that we would sail west, but we might be able to tack southeast, around the Cabo de Gata to San Jose. So we got ready. We said our goodbyes to our good friends – Eric across the pontoon who has been a wonderful neighbour; Jessica at the marina office who has been so helpful and generous for the past six months; we tried phoning Ray to say goodbye; and Fi brought us round a tub of her home-made fudge for the trip.

Shortly before one o’clock, after filling up with diesel and handing over our marina keys, we were off. We motored out and once clear of the marina wall we headed roughly south west, quickly hoisting the reefed mainsail to see where the wind wanted us to go. The force 4-5 east-southeast wind and the short waves suggested that we could sail west quite comfortably but, while east around the Cabo de Gata was possible with a mixture of sail and motor, it would not be a pleasant sail. So as Julian pulled out a little over half the genoa, I set a course of 215˚ and we were on our way west, the decision made at last.

The three hour sail to Almerimar was pleasant, perfect conditions for a first sail in over six months. Aguadulce quickly disappeared into the haze, the mountains of Las Alpujarras ghostly behind, and soon we were passing Roquetas de Mar – the town itself, then the holiday resort, and then the kilometres and kilometres of greenhouses, growing Europe’s fruit and vegetables. Before long, Almerimar appeared in the distance on the coastal plain, and we were changing tack and heading in. Having been here last year in late September, arrival procedure at the marina was familiar to us, and we were soon at our berth for the night – next to an Irish pub!

The girls and I quickly jumped onto dry land, not bothering to tidy up after our sail. I took the girls to a playground they enjoyed when we were here last September, and we wandered home via the supermarket, the girls excitedly pointing out places they remembered from when we were last here.

So, we’re on our way. We have no ultimate destination. We will go where the wind takes us, and see what new adventures we can have along the way.

East or west?

East or west? West or east? We’re almost ready to set sail from Aguadulce and we don’t know which way to go. If we wanted to, we could be ready to leave tomorrow. But where do we go? It’s a dilemma we’ve had since arriving in Aguadulce at the start of last October and in the six months we’ve been here we haven’t reached a conclusion. Indeed, for most of the six months we’ve avoided thinking about it, only occasionally having a conversation on the topic. We started to get serious in February. And each day we think about it, and talk about, and do a lot of research to try to come to a decision about where we should go next.

Either direction has its advantages and disadvantages. In the short term, either direction would be great – we’re sure to have a good time farther into the Mediterranean, or in Morocco and southern Portugal. But when considering the medium term, are we better off going east or west? The long term is something we rarely talk about!

A week ago it was west – along the Spanish coast, south to Morocco, out through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic, to Tangiers, up to southern Portugal. A few days later it was east, to the Balearics, Sardinia, Corsica, to the southeast coast of France, west back to the Spanish border, and down to Valencia.

The former appeals because we have never been to Morocco before and there are some places we regretted missing in southern Portugal last year and other places we want to return to. The latter appeals because we feel as if we have only just tipped the proverbial iceberg of the Mediterranean (now there’s an oxymoron). It’s a big sea with a lot of places to explore. It would be a shame to turn back when we’ve got this far.

In the medium term we need to think about finding jobs next autumn and winter. There are lots of English teaching jobs all over Spain, so east could bring us to Valencia, west could bring us back up north to Galicia.

So what are the disadvantages?

There are potentially expenses from sailing east. Parts of Sardinia, Corsica and southern France are the playgrounds of the super rich in their super yachts, so we anticipate that the cost of living in these places will be restrictive.

We also have to consider the amount of time we spend in Spain. Staying more than 183 days in Spain in any one calendar year makes us liable for a 12% matriculation tax on the value of our boat. That could be a one-off tax of around 5000 euro – money we simply don’t have. While we’re nowhere near the 183 day limit, coming back into Spain later in the year could cause us problems.

Right now the wind is easterly, whispering to us ‘Go west, go west’. And what a time we would have. A month or more in Morocco and then the rest of the summer in Portugal, and then sailing either north to Galicia to return to one of the towns we enjoyed so much last summer, to find teaching jobs, or sailing back into the Mediterranean and finding work here again. But either way the matriculation is a concern.

Two days ago I emailed Mammy and Julian phoned his dad and we told them our definitie plan – we were going east. Yesterday morning we changed our minds and decided to go west! This morning we have no idea. It’s a privileged dilemma. Either way it’s going to be a memorable adventure and along the way we’ll figure out what to do next winter to earn some money.

The easterly wind is forecast to continue for the next ten days. We’ve decided that we’ll make a decision on Saturday morning and we’ll leave Aguadulce on Sunday morning. Or not. Who knows.

Reliving the past

Last night I completed the first draft of my book. It’s a nice feeling, but I know that the hard work lies ahead, as I set about re-writing, editing, and filling all those ‘xxx’ gaps that litter the text with meaningful facts and figures. The book is about our journey so far. I dislike the misuse and abuse of the word ‘journey’. But in our case, it really is a journey. Not some figurative ‘journey’ to personal growth and wisdom, but a literal journey from Cambridgeshire to the Mediterranean, via Devon, Cornwall, Ireland, France, Spain Portugal and Gibraltar.

In the past couple of weeks of frenetic writing I’ve delved into my diaries and blog posts to help recall the quickly-fading images of the places we visited in Spain and Portugal in 2014. Reading those accounts has left me with an intense sense of natsukashii, that Japanese feeling of nostalgia and longing brought on by memories of the past.

DSCI4213How I long to revisit some of those wonderful places we had the privilege to explore last year. As I read my accounts of As Piscinas I could see the glistening water on the smooth rocks again, feel the warm fresh water on my body as I swam in the river’s pools, hear the wind rustling through the trees that lined the banks of the river. The thought that we had spent two days at in this small piece of paradise but may never go there again brought on a strong sense of natsukashii.

DSCI4425Our two days exploring Porto will remain with me for a long time, but reading my accounts written at the time have brought back minute details that I had forgotten and which have reignited in my mind images of gentrified apartments amongst the port warehouses, an old woman’s underwear hanging out to dry between two trendy restaurants on the north bank of the Douro, and the narrow streets, each with its own unique and delightful idiosyncrasies. Porto is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited – it rates only slightly behind Rome in my estimation. And, unlike an obscure river up in the northwest of Spain, there’s a good likelihood I’ll visit Porto again some day.

DSCI4573Nine days anchored off Ilha da Culatra on the Algarve was not enough, which is why we are toying with the possibility of going back there again this summer. It reminded me of my other home, Arviat, on the west coast of Hudson Bay. The island is a sand bar, populated by a couple of hundred people. There are no roads, no vehicles apart from a couple of tractors and a few golf buggies. Reading my diaries led me to reminisce about the clam picking old women, the communal outdoor shower where we got to know other live-aboards while waiting our turn to wash or refill water bottles, the octopus hanging up to dry on a clothesline, and the friendships Lily and Katie made with local and sailing children.

It’s less than six months since we had these wonderful experiences, but already my memories are dimming. The intense sensual pleasures of these places – the swimming, the sun on our bodies, the foods we ate, the birdsong, the trees and the wind and the ocean – are fading. Reading my diaries and blog posts have brought them rushing back into my life again. I’m reading about things we did that I had completely forgotten about. Julian has a better memory for these things than I do. Maybe that’s why I need to write it all down.

This is not the first time that reading diaries or blog posts or research field notes have swept me away to another time or place. It is one of the great joys of writing that any time you desire, your senses can be reawakened, places, people and experiences can be brought back to life, and that bittersweet sense of natsukashii can envelop you.