Leviathan and the Behemoth

From Marina Smir we sailed north to Spanish-owned Ceuta on the northern tip of Morocco. We only had one evening but in between shopping and preparing for an early morning start, we had time to explore the immense fort built by the Spanish to keep the Moroccans out a couple of hundred years ago. With Lily and Katie still asleep, we got underway at 7am the next morning, slipping from the marina under cover of darkness, out through the outer harbour, to cross the Straits of Gibraltar, geographically, economically and ecologically one of the world’s most interesting stretches of water.

DSCI0279The Mediterranean is home to at least seven cetacean species. The greatest profusion of whales and dolphins is in the western Mediterranean, close to and in the Strait of Gibraltar. Bottlenose, common and striped dolphins and pilot, sperm, orca and fin whales all thrive here thanks to a unique set of oceanographic, geological and ecological circumstances. Here, the salty and diminishing Mediterranean Sea is replenished by the less salty Atlantic and this meeting of waters and the currents produced give rise to a rich ecosystem.

At least 30 known individual orcas live here year-round, feeding on the huge red tuna that also support the vibrant fishing economy on the Atlantic side of the Strait. There are also estimated to be 3000 fin whales here, the second largest of the whale species.

But the whales and dolphins are not alone. Here’s some data about what they share their home with:

– The Mediterranean is 0.8% of the global ocean surface, but it has 30% of the world’s shipping traffic.
– At any moment there are approximately 2000 merchant vessels greater than 100 tons in the Mediterranean.
– 200,000 of these behemoths cross the Mediterranean each year.

And in the western Mediterranean, the very conditions that make the region so attractive to whales and dolphins and the entire ecosystem that supports them, give rise to the greatest concentration of merchant vessels.

DSCI0311The Strait of Gibraltar is 14km (7.7 nautical miles) wide and in 2003 (the most recent data I could find), 61,000 merchant vessels of more than 100 tons transited the Strait. That’s 167 ships every day, or 7 ships every hour of every day. There are also regular ferries between Ceuta and Algeciras on the Mediterranean side and Tangier and Tarifa on the Atlantic side.

Crossing the Strait is like crossing a busy street. The Traffic Separation Scheme keeps east-bound vessels to a two-mile southern corridor and west-bound vessels to a two-mile northern corridor, with a half-mile separator zone in between.

The mind-boggling scale of the shipping through the Strait of Gibraltar is fuelled, in part, by our insatiable desire in Europe for outsourced consumables produced in China, India, Indonesia and elsewhere. The large box-like container vessels, carrying all that stuff we’re so addicted to buying, make their way through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean and out to the Strait, before turning north to the ports of northern Europe. Julian and I imagined the objects aboard these massive vessels – everything from clothes to computers, batteries to bicycles, Happy Meal toys to sex toys.

Who’d want to be a leviathan amidst these behemoths? 26% of dead whales found stranded on Mediterranean beaches show evidence of having been struck by vessels. And many dead whales never reach shore. The large and relatively slow-moving fin whales are particularly vulnerable as they are unable to turn quickly enough to avoid collision with fast-moving ships. A soft-fleshed living creature is always going to fare second best in a collision with a 100-ton hunk of metal.

Cetaceans, of course, communicate using highly sophisticated calls and songs, cheeps and squeaks. Their communication is drowned out by the immense water-amplified noise of all those ship engines. How do whales and dolphins continue to communicate in such conditions? There is scientific evidence that cetacean strandings sometimes result from confusion due to noise pollution, and there is other scientific evidence that some species have significantly altered the frequency of their vocalisations in order to be heard through the noise.

Spanish and Moroccan governments have taken steps to manage shipping through the Strait to minimise the impact on cetaceans. Starting in 2007, from April to August each year, when the whale population is at its greatest due to migrating species, there is a 13-knot speed limit in the Traffic Separation Scheme, in order to reduce the likelihood of fatal collisions.

Julian and I had forgotten about the seasonal speed limit (it doesn’t affect us, as Carina rarely makes more than 7.5 knots), and at first were confused by the slow progress of the vessels we encountered on the crossing. Were individual vessels going in front or behind us? Did we need to alter course? Once we remembered the speed limit, the crossing became easier and slightly less fraught with trepidation.

Despite the great populations of whales in the Strait, we sadly didn’t see even one. But two days later, as we sailed northwest from Barbate towards the Spanish-Portuguese border, I caught a glimpse of the unmistakable sleek black dorsal fin of a female orca. She was swimming towards the tuna nets, following a meal of red tuna. She appeared once again, a little farther astern and I was ecstatic to have my first ever, albeit brief, sighting of an orca. I hoped she would fare alright if her journey took her to the Strait of Gibraltar.

(Some of the information in this post comes from Vaes and Druon‘s 2013 report published by the European Commission)


Goodbye Atlantic. Hello Mediterranean

There was an air of anticipation on board Carina last Sunday morning as we prepared for our passage through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean. The previous day as we sailed from Cadiz to Barbate, the mountains of Morocco appeared on the horizon to the south. Africa!! We briefly toyed with abandoning our plan and setting a course for Tangiers. We imagined a few weeks in Morocco before getting back on course. But in the end we settled on our original plan. Morocco’s not going anywhere. Maybe we’ll pay a visit later in the year or next spring.

Our thrilling first glimpse of Morocco

Our thrilling first glimpse of Morocco, just visible on the horizon

We were delighted to meet our friends aboard Mallemok again. They arrived in Barbate a couple of hours after we did and next morning we set out together for the Straits and the Mediterranean, maintaining radio contact as we went.

Mallemok with one of the Pillars of Hercules, on the Moroccan coast, in the background

Mallemok against the backdrop of one of the Pillars of Hercules, on the Moroccan coast

It was a calm almost windless day with no possibility of sailing, so we motored along, watching our speed over ground outpace our log speed by one and a half knots, as the current through the Straits caught hold of Carina and sped us along.

Before long Mallemok called to tell us a pod of dolphins had just passed and were headed our way. It had been a long time since we’d last encountered dolphins and these were particularly active. They leaped and splashed, but paid little attention to us, merely passing us going in the opposite direction. It seemed the fishing was good, and a great number of seabirds were diving too.

The mountains on the Moroccan coast grew ever larger and I felt the thrill of seeing Europe and Africa together, in the same view. The wind picked up as we neared Tarifa. Wind speeds at Tarifa, where the Straits narrow to only eight miles, run at 30 knots for three hundred days of the year! We caught it on an only slightly less windy day, passing Tarifa on our northern side, with one of the Pillars of Hercules looming majestic to the south.

Europe and Africa, separated by only 8 miles

Europe and Africa, separated by only 8 miles

There was quite a lot of traffic through the Straits – container and cargo ships – but I had expected more. We were far from the shipping lanes, close to shore, and once we passed Tarifa and entered the Mediterranean the wind abated, as we expected it would.

It is strange to say, but once we were in the Mediterranean the colour of the sky changed. Suddenly, in every direction, the atmosphere close to the horizon was yellow – dust, we assume, from the Spanish Costas or the Sahara Desert or both.

With the current in our favour we sped along and within a couple of hours the Rock of Gibraltar came into sight, appearing more jagged and grey and strange the closer we got.

The Rock of Gibraltar, still over an hour away

The Rock of Gibraltar, still over an hour away

Traffic in Gibraltar Bay was heavy – fast ferries linking Tangiers to Algeciras in Spain, massive cargo ships, tug boats and pilots, and British naval vessels. We had to slowly pick our way through these, having to stop dead in the water at one point while a cargo ship passed in front of us and a speedy catamaran ferry from Morocco passed behind. At the same time a pod of playful dolphins decided to come and check us out!

As well as the excitement of reaching the Mediterranean, we were also feeling nervous about the passage. For me it was nervousness like the first time I drove a car in Dublin, or around the M25 in London, or the first time I night sailed. Passing through the Straits of Gibraltar we were nervous about the current, about the shipping, and about the traffic in Gibraltar Bay. We needn’t have worried about the first two, and the traffic in the Bay merely required vigilance and patience. But we had one final concern.

Since leaving the UK we’ve known at some point we would have to berth fore and aft, rather than alongside a finger pontoon, as we are used to. There have been marinas where we expected to have to do it, but upon arrival have discovered different berthing arrangements in place. But in Gibraltar we knew there was no escape.

Carina kicks to port when going astern, so reversing is difficult, and reversing into a tight space between two other boats was not something we relished having to do. But when our moment came, we did it. Or rather, Julian did it – I can’t reverse (car or boat) for toffee. Slowly he eased Carina into a space not a foot wider than she is, while I tied us on astern and we quickly picked up mooring lines to the front. Phew. Well, that’s that done and hopefully we’ll feel less nervous about doing it in the next place.

So here we are in the Mediterranean, a mere one hundred and eleven days since leaving Plymouth. We could have flown here in two and a half hours. But that wouldn’t have been half the fun.

As the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho wrote, ‘Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home’.

Three months later

It’s exactly three months since June 2nd, when we slipped from our berth at Plymouth Yacht Haven. In that time we have sailed over 1200 nautical miles (approximately 1320 statute miles, 2222 km). That may not seem like much. Some people I know commute almost that much each week. But we travel at an average speed of 4 nautical miles an hour, and we have spent long periods of time at anchor and in marinas, exploring as we go.

Since June 2nd we have sailed from southwest England to southwest Portugal, from Plymouth to our current anchorage in Alvor. We have seen dolphins and sunfish, gannets and terns and gulls. We have played on beautiful beaches and visited UNESCO world heritage sites. We have come to love foods we had never heard of before (pimientos de padron, paraguayos), and we have met some amazing people – both locals and fellow sailors. It has been a good three months.

Katie gets to grips with Portuguese farm animals!

Katie gets to grips with Portuguese farm animals!

It took me some weeks to get used to not going to work every day. I finished work on a Friday and we set sail on Monday, not giving any of us much time to adjust to living together 24/7. I was grouchy during the adjustment phase, missing the independence afforded by going to work every day, shutting myself in my office from 8am to 5.30pm, my own boss, completely in control of my working day. Despite leaving full-time paid employment, I continue to work and I have a few writing projects on the go, with deadlines to meet. At first I was frustrated by the constant interruptions – of trying to write and think and read amidst a maelstrom of chattering children and a talkative husband. Finding time for myself and my work was something of a battle. I can’t say that I have completely grown used to being with Julian and the girls all day every day, but I have adapted and adjusted, finding time most days to get my own work done. I think I’ve become more chilled out (although Julian might have something different to say!). I have (mostly) accepted that I work more slowly, and that things can get accomplished, but at a different pace.

We’re all had to adjust. Lily and Katie briefly went to school last year and so they have had to adjust to being each other’s main companion. At first they got on well, but when the honeymoon was over, they drove each other crazy. I think they’ve come out the other side of that now as they seem to generally enjoy each others’ company. Although there are occasional squabbles, they generally get a kick out of each other, playing imaginative games all day long.

Julian has had to get used to having all three of us around, but (on the surface at least) he has coped well with the change of pace and the amount of oestrogen he’s exposed to every day.

My little feminists have been chanting 'Votes for women, votes for women'!

My little feminists have been chanting ‘Votes for women, votes for women’!

We all find ways to have our own space. Julian likes to walk and explore on his own, and I like to immerse myself in a good book. Lily, like me, flits between reading fiction and non-fiction. Katie likes to quietly draw and play with her toys. One way or the other, we all manage to create spaces for ourselves aboard Carina.

But of course, the best thing about the past three months has been the time we have spent together. I have slowed down to the girls’ pace and, despite the great cathedrals, museums and historic sites we’ve visited and learned from, it is those playful days on the beach that I treasure most, when we have all the time in the world to talk and play.

Who can say where we will be three months from now. But if it is as good as these past three months then I have a lot to look forward too.

A strange kind of night sail

Up to now, my night sailing experience has been far from land in the open sea: between the Isles of Scilly and Ireland, the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay. A few days ago we decided to cover the 100 nautical miles between Leixoes and Nazaré in one go, departing at 7pm and sailing south through the night along the Portuguese coast.

It started out as normal, despite our rather ham-fisted departure from the marina. We ate the chilli I had cooked earlier and the girls took themselves off to bed around 9pm, at the same time as Julian lay down in the saloon port berth and I took the first watch.

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy night sailing. Despite having to battle fatigue, I love the solitude of being on the helm alone with my thoughts after dark, the moon or stars bright in the sky, phosphorescent plankton shimmering in the water. The Portuguese coast had other ideas.

As soon as I was on my own in the cockpit I became aware of a dull hum coming from the land. Over the next two to three hours this grew louder and more penetrating. It was a rock concert, although all that reached me, three miles off shore, were the percussion and bass. Now, I’ve been to some pretty loud rock concerts in my time, but is this how they sounded from a distance? It was horrible, like sitting in a train carriage and hearing the noise from someone’s tinny headphones. It filled my left ear and reverberated through my body and I was relieved when we were eventually on the other side of the Doppler effect, and the reverberations faded into the background. The audience certainly got value for money – the show went on and on.

To the west a long line of cargo ships anchored in a queue, I imagine awaiting their turn to enter Leixoes port to off-load. Now, before I go any further, I need to explain VHF Channel 16 to the non-seafaring amongst you. Most vessels, Carina included, are fitted with a VHF radio to facilitate communication. The radio is switched on at all times when at sea, and is tuned to Channel 16.

Channel 16 is the sacred channel. Its purpose is ‘Distress, Safety and Calling’. 16 can be used to briefly established contact with another vessel, but both then quickly switch to a mutually acceptable channel, leaving 16 clear for its main purpose – distress calls. The Maritime Guidance Notes (bear with me…I’m going somewhere with this) state:
‘The following should be avoided: (a) calling on Channel 16 for purposes other than distress, and very brief safety communications; (b) non-essential transmissions, e.g. needless and superfluous correspondence; (f) transmitting without correct identification; (g) use of offensive language’.

The point I’m laboriously making is Channel 16 must be used as little as possible, so that vessel in distress (man overboard, fire on board, holed by whales, etc etc) can use it to contact emergency rescue services.

So, back to that line of cargo ships awaiting entry to Leixoes port. Shortly after dark the air was filled with the noise of some awful pop song (a woman whining on about something, with Gangnam Style sampled through it) playing on Channel 16. It made me laugh and I had a little dance in the cockpit. There was radio silence for a few minutes, followed by an extended conversation between what I can only imagine were crew members of different cargo vessels. Of course they didn’t identify themselves, but the fact that the conversations were all in heavily-accented English suggests they weren’t local Portuguese fishermen!

The conversations, with a decidedly racist tone, carried on for over two hours. At one point someone even radioed ‘Coast guard, coast guard, help me’. I’m not sure which annoyed me more – the racism or the fact that these gobshites were endangering me and my family, and anyone else at sea that night, by hogging the emergency channel.

Sailing around on the south coast of England I have often heard the Coast Guard quickly cutting in on conversations between two yachties who have forgotten to switch from channel 16 and are discussing where they will rendezvous for dinner later. I waited and waited, expecting the Portuguese authorities to ask these guys to take their conversation elsewhere. It was over two hours before an older sounding man, in a jaded tone, asked them to keep Channel 16 clear.

Well, that was my four-hour watch, and at 1am Julian and I swapped places. He got radio silence, but I’m not sure he got a better deal. This part of the Portuguese coastline is littered with lobster pots, laid in 60 metres of water, tethered to buoys at the surface. Many of the buoys fly flags from one metre poles, but many of the flags have ripped or disintegrated, and so only a thin black pole sticks up out of the water to alert vessels of the presence of the pots. Lobster pots are a curse, because if you happen to pass over one, you can easily befoul the boat’s propeller, rendering the boat incapable of motoring, until the rope has been removed from around the prop by someone diving in to do it manually.

We slalomed through clusters of these all down the Portuguese coast. During the day they aren’t a problem, but none of them are lit and after I went to bed Julian ran through a few particularly thick patches which, in the dark, could only be seen when Carina was almost on top of them. To add to Julian’s woes, a pod of dolphins came alongside and he was distracted by their phosphorescence-covered bodies as they leaped and played around the boat. A couple of times, so distracted by the dolphins, he only narrowly missed some lobster buoys and it was sheer luck that our prop wasn’t befouled.

I got up at 5am, just in time for the fog! Early morning fogs are typical of this stretch of coast, so we weren’t surprised. But it meant that Julian couldn’t go to bed, as a look-out was needed – not for ships for once, but for lobster buoys. By 6am the fog had listed sufficiently that I could see a few hundred metres, so Julian could get some rest.

It wasn’t a bad night sail, so much as a different one to what we are used to. The sailing itself was pleasant, until we lost the wind in the middle of the night and had to motor. The stars filled the sky, the Milky Way ran over my head, and in the middle of the night the yellow half moon rose up from behind the land. But if I had to choose between the open ocean and listening to the bored crew of a cargo vessel while dodging lobster pots, I know which one I’d go for!

Learning something new every day

I’m writing an article for a home education magazine at the moment and as I was pondering it the other day, I started to think about the day-to-day education of the girls. So I thought back over the previous twenty-four hours and I realised two things. First, it was a pretty typical twenty-four hour period. Second, all four of us had learned new things during that time, without really trying to.

So here’s what we did in those twenty-four hours:

We dropped the anchor in quiet Cabo Cruz in Ria de Arousa just as the sun was setting. And as we did, we were delighted by the presence of five dolphins fishing in the shallow waters around the boat. I told the girls what I knew about dolphin fishing techniques and we watched them leap and splash to confuse the fish, corralling their prey into the shallows by the beach. Both girls already knew about how dolphins breathe and they shared that knowledge with me and Julian.

When the girls went to bed I read them a chapter of Mary Poppins. After I’d finished, Katie fell asleep, but Lily started to read a book about Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette. She had lots of questions, but I was too tired, so I suggested we read the book together at breakfast.

The next morning, while I made breakfast, Lily practiced mental maths with Julian. After breakfast, I read the Emmeline Pankhurst book aloud. As I read, Lily, Katie and I talked about fairness, justice, equality and feminism; and I explained about voting and government.

After Emmeline, the girls decided to have a ‘disco’. In their cabin they practiced their songs (a medley from The Sound of Music), then, using felt tips and paper, made tickets with the names of each dolly, teddy and parent invited to the disco. By then they had forgotten about the actual disco and moved on to other things.

Julian got our ‘Spanish for Beginners’ book out to learn about shopping grammar and vocabulary, and we all ended up practicing the new words and phrases, and tried to figure out some useful grammar together.

Lily helped me with the laundry – hand-washing in buckets on deck and hanging the wet laundry on the guard rails all around the boat. Katie set the table for lunch.

After lunch we rowed to shore in our dinghy and, like many of our afternoons in Galicia, played on a golden sandy beach. We all swam to our own abilities and then each did our own thing. Julian went for a walk to explore, as this was our first time in Cabo Cruz. I read my book about environmental governance. The girls found broken bricks, stones and driftwood and built a tower, learning that some structures work better than others. All three of us then played at being princesses in the sea, telling each other a fantastical and evolving story as we paddled in the shallows.

Later, Lily sat beside me on the sand because she wanted to write. In her little notebook she wrote about a movie we had recently watched on DVD, asking for help to spell the occasional word.

When Julian returned, he and the girls foraged for clams in the sea, and filled a small bucket with enough for supper. Katie went foraging along the beach on her own and found wild carrot. Both girls were very proud of their foraging prowess and knowledge of wild food.

We went for cold drinks to a bar that had Spanish news on. We rarely see TV, and there were some shocking images from Gaza and Ukraine, which led to a conversation about war and violence, which led back to The Sound of Music and the von Trapp family escaping over the mountains.

Back on the boat once more, as I made supper, the girls each coloured a page of their shared colouring book. And in the process, Katie learned (under instruction from Lily) how to write ‘W’ and ‘I’, to add to the ‘M’ and ‘L’ she learned a few days ago. In bed, Katie fell asleep while I read another chapter of ‘Mary Poppins’. Lily eventually fell asleep reading about the life and achievements of that great inventor of the Industrial Revolution, James Watt.

What an eclectic day of learning for all!

Crossing Biscay

We weighed up our options. We could spend the summer cruising around Brittany, and possibly even spend the winter far up a Breton river. Or we could cross the Bay of Biscay to northern Spain. For days we had north easterly winds, and the forecast was for more of the same, with fair weather and slight to moderate seas. We might not get sailing conditions like these again all summer.

biscayOn Tuesday we made the decision to cross Biscay. I shopped and prepared food for the journey, and Julian prepared the boat. At 11.30am on Wednesday morning we slipped from the pontoon at La Palue in Aber Wrac’h, northwest Brittany, for the long journey ahead. Ten minutes out from the port and we had all three sails out, following a course for 29 miles to Isle Ouessant, and then a south-western course which we stuck to for the next 300 miles.

For three days we sailed, the winds blowing us along at between five and six knots for much of the time. The hot sun shone down on us, but we were cooled by the north easterlies behind. On the evening of the first day we began our watch schedule. We planned four hour watches, but it didn’t work out that way. On the first night, I went to bed around 8pm, while Julian took the first watch at the helm. I slept poorly, and took over before my four hours were up. Julian slept equally badly, Carina’s rolling on the waves feeling much worse when lying down than when at the helm. He too took over before his four hours had passed and I was glad, as I was struggling to stay awake by that stage. We only managed three to four hours sleep per day, often catching our best sleep in the middle of the day. By the third day we were getting into a routine and sleeping much better.

On the first day out the girls were slightly queasy, but by the second day they were oblivious to the rolling motion, and happily played below deck, reading and drawing and doing things that Julian and I would have found impossible to do in those conditions. I had told them they needed to be self-sufficient, as Mummy and Daddy either needed to be at the helm or asleep for a lot of the time. We don’t have a wind vane, and given the wave and wind conditions, the helmsman had his/her hands on the wheel pretty much all the time. I had prepared a tin of snacks (healthy and otherwise) and a bag of fruit and told the girls that if they were hungry they should help themselves to food from that, rather than ask us. I feared they would gorge on the snacks in one go, but when we reached Spain there were still some left. They were left pretty much to their own devises for the trip, and they stood up to the challenge remarkably well – going to bed without help, playing well together (most of the time), and helping the helmsman out by fetching things or occasionally taking the wheel.

We ate well. I had made a large saucepan of basic tomato sauce which I divided into meal-sized portions. I had also soaked and cooked two varieties of beans. On the first evening, I added some beans to the sauce, flavoured it with chilli and we ate it with rice. On the second evening, I added chorizo to the sauce and we ate it with couscous. The third evening was a mix of sauce, beans and chorizo, with left-over couscous. Those evening meals were all warm and filling. We had three baguettes for the journey – one for each lunchtime, with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, Emmenthal and Camambert cheeses, cured sausages, eggs I had hard boiled in advance. Breakfast was the only tricky meal. As Julian and I were either catching up on sleep or at the helm when the girls wanted breakfast, I had to devise a way to feed them. In advance of them getting up I placed cereal and spoons in two mugs, and put two pain au chocolat beside them. The helmsman’s only job was to add milk to the cereal, and the girls had their breakfast ready in seconds.

It was a spectacular voyage. We had constant companions. On the first day, shortly after we passed Isle Ouessant, a pair of bottlenose dolphins came past. Not long after we saw the dorsal fins of what looked like two minke whales. And then the common dolphins joined us. Day and night they came, every hour or so, playing around the boat, riding our bow wave, leaping from the water, being magnificent. If Carina was moving fast through the water, the dolphins showed off their aerial acrobatics; if Carina moved slowly, the dolphins slowly swam along beside us, breathing slowly and loudly beside us. Below deck we could hear their constant squeaking, and I laughed out loud one evening as I stood in the galley preparing supper while looking out the window at the dolphins playing outside. Not a sight one often sees from one’s kitchen window! They were especially numerous at sunrise and sunset each day, and I recall one evening, as I stood alone at the helm, the other three asleep, the sun setting in the west, casting an orange glow over the boat, and dolphins leaping in the setting sun. It looked almost too perfect to be real.

On we went through Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. On Friday afternoon the weather changed, a front moved in, and the wind died. We were now making only two to three knots, but we didn’t mind. At this speed, we would reach our destination after dawn, rather than the less desirable middle of the night. As evening wore on, the girls and I were rained upon as we cheered on the dolphins. We listened to loud claps of thunder away to the east and were treated to a magnificent display of lightening. After the girls went to bed the electrical storm grew closer and when Julian appeared around midnight for his watch, we decided to turn on the engine. We were thirty miles from our destination, it was dark and we were tired, and we didn’t relish the prospect of having to reset sails if thundery squalls passed over us.

I slept then for two hours and when I awoke it was 2am. The electrical storm had passed over while I slept and now it was the darkest night I have ever seen. There was no wind, no stars in the sky, and I could see nothing beyond the end of the boat. I was relieved when, after twenty or so minutes at the helm, I saw the lights of a ship, as these gave me a sense of depth into the night. Four sets of lights in two hours (more vessels than we had seen during the rest of the journey) kept my mind focused and were a blessing in that blackness.

I was looking out for the light from two lighthouses, marking the entrance to Ria de Viveiro on the north west Spanish coast, and when they finally shone weakly through the cloudy night, I was thrilled. The end was in sight.

Except it wasn’t in sight for long. When the light to starboard disappeared I realised we were in fog. I called Julian. It was now 4.30am and we hoped that the first light would be in the sky at 5am. I stayed on helm and we both kept watch through the fog. I was dismayed when the light to port and then the moon also became shrouded in fog. We had no way of telling in the dark how dense the fog was, but it didn’t feel wet on our faces.

When the lights of the towns in Ria de Viveiro came into view we were ecstatic. The first grey light was appearing on the eastern horizon, and we could finally see that the fog wasn’t as bad as we’d thought. We slowly motored into the Ria, slowing down even more, to give the sky more time to grow light.

We reached the end of the Ria, and the end of our journey, at 6.50am on Saturday morning, when we dropped anchor 200 yards from a golden sandy Spanish beach. We were tired but exhilarated. At 7am Julian and I sat in the cockpit, sharing a bottle of wine, grinning at each other, delirious with tiredness but thrilled with what we had achieved.

Night sailing to the Isles of Scilly

We departed Crosshaven last Wednesday afternoon on course for the Isles of Scilly. This time the wind and sea were favourable and we had a pleasant 25 hour sail to Old Grimsby Sound on the north side of the Isles. For the first few hours the wind blew us along at a pleasant 5 knots, and we grazed on the food I’d prepared in the afternoon sunshine. The girls fell asleep around 7pm. Unlike on the passage over to Ireland seven weeks earlier, I didn’t try to put them to bed, but rather let them drift off when they were ready. They slept, Lily port and Katie starboard, in the saloon, so we could keep an eye on them through the night. Julian quickly followed them, and went below deck for a rest (though no sleep) that lasted three hours. I then had the sea all to myself for sunset and the start of the night. The sunset was glorious over the two Kinsale gas rigs away to the northwest, and I watched as the sky gradually changed colour and stars began to rise.

When I was a teenager, my family (good Irish Catholics that we were) went to Mass every Saturday night. My two strongest memories (apart from my sister and I week after week trying to stifle our laughter in church) were of picking up burgers or fish and chips from Joanna’s Golden Fries in Edenderry on the way home from Mass and, on winter nights of jumping out of the car when we arrived home and going out into the back garden, as far away from the light of the house as I could get, to watch the stars in the sky. And in Nunavut, in my late 20s, I loved wrapping up on winter nights in my cold weather gear, a mug of hot chocolate in my hands, to sit on my back step overlooking the inlet that leads onto Hudson Bay, and watch the night sky – green aurora borealis dancing across the sky, the stars twinkling behind.

These happy memories came flooding back to me as I helmed through the early night last Friday. At first I sang, every song I could think of, at the top of my voice. Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Lady Gaga; Christy Moore to Tom Waites; Carly Simon to Eta James. I covered them all. That was, until Lily shouted up at me to be quiet. So then I watched in silence, as the stars rose and set across the sky. It was amazing. I’ve been out on clearer, brighter nights, but I’ve rarely been out for so long or been so concentrated on the night sky. The Milky Way ran across the sky overhead, and I picked out the constellations that I know and wondered at the ones I didn’t know. I saw lights appear on the horizon, thinking at first that they were ships, only to realise they were stars rising to the east or setting to the west. It was a beautiful sight.

Julian arrived up at 11pm, but before I could rest, Katie woke up. She had been restless since going to sleep and when I lay down beside her I realised that the sound of water against the hull was potentially terrifying, so I took her with me to the aft cabin and she slept somewhat better. Much like Julian, I couldn’t sleep when my watch was over. Julian told me his mind raced, thinking about me, the inexperienced one, at the helm. I couldn’t sleep, because I worried that he would fall asleep during his watch. So every hour I popped up to check that he was alright. Still, I got three hours of rest, and at 2pm I returned to the helm. The amazing spectacle continued, and I marvelled at how the stars had migrated across the sky in the three hours I had been away. Not that I should marvel…it is precisely such movements that Micronesian sailors used to navigate their canoes from one tiny Pacific island to another for millennia. I watched a green planet rise away to the south east (if someone can tell me what it was, I’d appreciate it), followed by another planet some time later. And then, oh delight of delights, a strange light on the horizon that I puzzled over for minutes before it revealed itself to be the thinnest sliver of a waning moon, a fingernail crescent hanging in the sky.

The sky clouded over after that, and by the time Julian came up to relieve me there was little to be seen in the sky. But by then the noises beside the boat had started. The occasional unmistakable sounds of a mammal breathing – a dolphin? a whale? I didn’t know. There were splashes too, which made me think it must be dolphins.

This time I slept…and slept…and slept. For four hours. Lily was up before me. The sounds I had heard proved to be dolphins, who knows how many, possibly 50, who accompanied Julian for hours, entertaining him with a spectacular display of jumping and spinning and synchronised dancing that went on for hours and hours. When Lily joined him early in the morning they thrilled her too, and they were still with us when Katie and I finally made our appearance after 8am.

The remainder of the journey was pleasant, and we reached Old Grimsby Sound in mid-afternoon, tired but very pleased with our sail. We had achieved our goal for the summer – to sail from the UK to Ireland and back again. We enjoyed a few wonderful warm days on the beach in the Isles of Scilly and had a brush with minor celebrity…of which more later.

Schull to Long Island

Cottages on Long Island

Beach days have been few and far between this summer, so when they come we have to make the most of them. On Saturday morning, Julian and the girls had lots of beach fun on a tiny beach beside the harbour in Schull. On Sunday morning I discovered a wonderful farmer’s market where I stocked up on local produce – Gubbeen cheese, ham and bacon; fresh fish off the boat; and fruit and vegetables from a market gardener whose van was bursting at the seams with the best of the season. We’ve been eating like kings ever since!

My family and our boat

Due south of Schull Point is Long Island. On Sunday afternoon we made the short trip across to an anchorage on the north side of the island, and took the dinghy to shore to a deserted pebble beach (now that schools have re-opened for the autumn term, all beaches are deserted!). What a find. The smooth pebbles were comfortable underfoot and the beach was a treasure trove of natural and man-made detritus. The latter was somewhat depressing, and the girls are well versed regarding all the plastics that can kill their favourite sea creatures. There were lots of plastics to see on this beach. However, I was also curious as to why there were so many bras and knickers lying around – Julian said he’d leave me if I checked to see if any were my size (sometimes one can take beachcombing a little too far). The natural detritus was equally exciting. Like all children, mine love looking for and collecting shells, and this beach was covered with huge shells of all sorts of sea creature, including crabs and lobsters. We haven’t found shells this large on our travels before, and the girls used a giant crab shell to scoop up water to pour over themselves and their unsuspecting (and not very impressed) parents.

Yesterday morning dawned still and warm and after breakfast we had a slow but delightful sail in amongst the islands that lie between Long Island Bay and Roaringwater Bay, accompanied by the, now almost ever present, dolphins, cormorants, gannets and fulmars. A mist descended as we neared Sherkin Island, but we were soon in Baltimore, a much quieter and more peaceful place than it was on the bank holiday weekend! We returned here to fill up with water, re-fuel and wash the boat. While Julian got on with those chores, Lily, Katie and I walked to Lott’s Wife, the beacon at the entrance to the harbour, picking a large bag of blackberries along the way. Up at Lott’s Wife, we sat in the mist, surrounded by a herd of young heifers and bullocks. One brown and white bullock was particularly curious and Lily made friends with him. I was so pleased to see this – little Lily and a big bullock face to face having a chat with one another! There was a time, only a few months ago, when she was scared of even the tiniest dog.

Today is promising to be another fine day, so we’re making our way back around to the other side of Sherkin to go ashore on a sandy beach we spotted yesterday.



Dolphins, divers and Derrynane

The Cow, one of a series of bovine rocks at the mouth of Kenmare Bay

At some point during my mid-teens, my family started to holiday in Waterville, on the Ring of Kerry. We’d load up the car for the six hour drive from Edenderry, and for a week in August the four of us would, if the weather permitted, drive out to Derrynane for long days on the beach, and evenings back in Waterville where it took little convincing to get Daddy, otherwise tee-total and very pub-shy, to come with us into Mick O’Dwyer’s pub where he could look at all the Gaelic football memorabilia on the walls. One year, my friend, Niamh, and her boyfriend joined us, and we got up to all sorts of devilment – and I still have the photos to prove it. Our last family holiday to Waterville was in 2004, when Daddy had been diagnosed with cancer and had only a few more months left to live. My godmother, Catherine joined us that year, on what was a poignant and emotional holiday, as we all knew it was to be our last as a family.

These fond family memories is one reason why Derrynane is my favourite beach. Perhaps my fondest memory is of the time I was rescued by an over-zealous black Labrador. I didn’t ask to be rescued, or need to be rescued, but I suppose it speaks volumes for my swimming style that the Lab thought I did. There I was, having a leisurely swim in the calm sea when the Lab came splashing into the water from the beach, his owner shouting at me “He won’t hurt you. He’s just trying to rescue you”. And sure enough, he swam straight for me, gently took my wrist in his mouth, and led me back to shore. If I wasn’t in danger of drowning before my rescue, I sure was during its execution, as I lost control from laughing so much. The Lab deposited me on the beach, and returned to its owner with a look of “See…I rescued another one” on its face. The owner was profoundly apologetic, but I assured her I didn’t mind, and indeed had found it a rather pleasant experience.

All of this is by way of explaining why I was so eager to bring my husband and daughters to this wonderful beach. Down a single track road, that passes the home of one of our great nationalist leaders, Daniel O’Connell, the golden sandy beaches resting at the bottom of rugged grey mountains. At the western end of the beach, a series of small islands are accessible by foot across the golden sands at low tide. The largest of these, Abbey Island, contains the ruins of an old abbey, and even today the dead are carried across the sand at low tide for burial in the island’s graveyard. The water here is always calm, sheltered and warm, and ideal for swimming.

So we spent two days there, the four of us playing on the beach, swimming in the water, and enjoying soup and toasted sandwiches at the pub up the road.

The Cow and The Bull

Our sail to Derrynane took us past the islands the Cow, Bull, Calf and Heifer, near the entrance to the massive Kenmare Bay. From one side of the bay we couldn’t see our destination on the other side (it was a misty day). Kenmare Bay – and Bantry Bay which we visited a few days later – is rich in marine life. As we sailed along, on one of the most enjoyable sails so far, we watched masses of gannets dive bombing the sea for food, fulmers swooping low, and other birds I unfortunately couldn’t name. And where there are lots of seabirds feeding, other animals can’t be far behind. And sure enough, we were soon joined by a large pod of common dolphins, leaping out of the water around our boat, and riding on our bow wave. At one point I saw the fin of a shark in the water. Alas, I don’t know which species, but it looked like it was feeding. On our return journey back across Kenmare Bay a couple of days later, Julian saw a fin whale, but he didn’t reveal himself again.

The Calf

From Kenmare we returned to Bantry Bay and a few nights on a mooring buoy in Castletownbere. Lily had her stitches removed and we bought some locally produced sausages. From there we sailed up Bantry Bay with more gannets and dolphins keeping us entertained on the passage. We met my mother in Glengarriff for a couple of days. But Glengarriff deserves a post all of its own.