The cold never bothered me anyway

The other side of the river wasn’t there this morning. We wondered, as we walked up to school just before 9am, if Portugal had drifted away in the night, and if so, was it by accident or design. I opted for design and guessed it was merrily floating across the Atlantic, making its way to Brazil for the winter.

Turned out it was there all along. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It was just shrouded in cold dense fog. Man alive, it’s cold here right now. Not Arctic cold or even Ireland cold, but cold nonetheless. This time last year we were still swimming in the river at the Praia Fluvial in Alcoutim. We weren’t long back from our sojourn in the UK, and we basked in balmy November sunshine.

We’re getting the sunshine alright, but I defy anyone to strip down to their swimwear and plunge into the river (my mad husband accepted…but that’s a blog post for another day). It started gradually a couple of weeks ago. The nights grew colder and we all needed an extra blanket on our beds. Then the coats came out for the walk to school in the morning. By the end of the school day, at 2pm, it was t-shirt weather, so the girls frequently forgot to bring their coats home. For the past few days they’ve been wearing their coats to and from school.

The day came when I took the electric heater out of storage, at first to warm the boat up for twenty minutes when we got up in the morning. Now it’s running in the evenings too, both to warm up the boat and in a bid to stave off the dreaded condensation that comes from four people breathing inside a closed up boat.

Two nights ago the hot water bottles came out, the blankets were no longer enough to keep us cosy in bed. And this morning I swapped our bag of summer hats for our winter bag of gloves, woolly hats, neck warmers and scarves.

I met someone earlier who commented, ‘You must be cold’. Not a chance. In my woolly hat, and three warm layers underneath my jacket, I was snug as a bug walking through town. Maybe my nose was cold, but not much else.

There’s something nice about snuggling in for winter. Cold nights under blankets, brisk crisp days, hot tea and butter melting on toast, hearty soups made from winter vegetables, roasted chestnuts straight from the oven, hot brandy with cloves. I’ve known colder winters, that’s for sure, and I know this one will be brief. I can either fight it or embrace it. I say embrace it.

Advertisements

3000 miles but not all plain sailing

by Julian

Over the last three years, we have sailed 3000 miles in Carina. Almost all of this has been just the four of us. It is the end of the year, so time for reflection and where better to start than with the things that went wrong.
JulianSailingWhen we set out, our open water sailing experience was about 1600 miles for me and 600 miles for Martina. But this is meaningless. Martina’s 600 miles were 50% as crew and 50% as a passenger. She had completed her RYA yachtmaster theory and her RYA dayskipper practical, but she wasn’t even close to sailing a boat independently. I had lots of experience sailing small boats inland, I had completed my RYA coastal skipper practical course but not attempted the exam, and I had skippered a yacht a couple of times but  always with someone more experienced on board. So we were bound to make some mistakes when we set out.

WHERE IT ALL WENT WRONG!

1. Don’t assume there isn’t a gas rig there

Our first major crossing to Ireland two years ago involved a black night with very thick fog. We were still many miles off the Irish coast when we started to hear a strange signal. What was it? I woke Martina and we both went up on deck. It wasn’t a ship. There was nothing marked on the paper chart and we were just about to check the electronic chart plotter when a voice came over the radio “This is the stand-off boat for the Head of Kinsale gas rig. Your present course will take you into a restricted area. Please alter course.” A quick zoom in on the chart plotter revealed that we were a mile away from the restricted area. We altered course and ten minutes later the thick fog lifted to reveal two giant gas rigs lit up like Christmas trees. In fact they reminded me of the flying saucer in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

2. My ‘Open Water 2 : Adrift’ moment

We had just put the sails on Carina for the first time and were out for our first ever sail when we anchored in a cove near Torquay. We were sitting happily in the cockpit when Lily decided to throw the winch handle overboard. I am a strong swimmer and have some experience as a diver. We were in a sheltered cove, near a beach and the water was about 5 metres deep. I reckoned I stood a chance of retrieving the winch handle, so I jumped in. The water was too murky to find it. I then realised that, unlike the charter yachts I’d been on previously, I couldn’t get back on board Carina! Of course at that time I hadn’t yet made my rope ladder and the dinghy was deflated and stowed on deck. After several attempts and great difficulty I eventually managed to pull myself on board with the help of a rope chucked over the side, but I know I looked pretty stupid.

3. Headlands on a lee shore

It took me two years of sailing Carina and three similar situations, for me to learn a valuable lesson about rounding headlands. If you are sailing close hauled, never assume the tack you are on will get you around a headland. First, the wind is blowing you onto shore. Second, no matter how insignificant the headland, there will often be a change in wind direction, usually strengthening as well, along with worsening sea conditions. Effectively sailing single handed in 2012, with Martina taking care of the kids (one reason why I probably hadn’t attempted to change tack), I was thankfully able to react before things got out of hand. Heart in mouth I usually don’t bother to tell anyone, I’m sure I’d only worry them. Now I know why my dad was never happy sailing like that!

4. Slipping the anchor

Twice this year we have slipped the anchor. The first time was near Truro, Cornwall, England. For various reasons, I didn’t have enough chain out. The wind got up and steadily built to a fierce onshore near gale. The bay shallowed gently and we were about to go aground. Martina tried to turn the engine on and the throttle didn’t work. We went aground. I quickly got into the dinghy and motored out to throw in an extra anchor upwind of Carina. The extra anchor held us and as the rising tide re-floated us I had time to look at the engine. Somehow the throttle cable had popped out of the new control lever we had only just had fitted by Dicky B Marine in Plymouth. This was only the second day of using it since it was fitted. Luckily it didn’t cost us our boat or our lives.

The second time was in Ria de Arousa, Spain. This time a less dangerous but equally strong offshore breeze got up, and the next thing I knew we were bumping up to a large buoy of one of the mussel rafts (the raft itself was thankfully on the beach). A little epoxy filler was needed and I pulled up the greenest stretch of anchor chain I have ever seen.

5. We’re not where we thought we were!

We had already successfully sailed through the Chenal du Four in Brittany once, so maybe I was a bit too casual on the return trip north last year. I completely misidentified a mark. We don’t have a chart plotter in the cockpit so it is necessary to pop down to the chart table to see the electronic chart. Thankfully things looked wrong enough that I did just that. We were out at sea but had I not altered course things could have been messy as rocks were not far from the surface. On another occasion I entered the Ria de Arousa through the wrong channel. Not that this wasn’t possible, given the relatively good conditions of the day, it was just not what I had planned. I could see the marks and they looked fine but the rocks looked awfully close together. I popped down and had a look at the plotter. We were fine but I was sure my passage plan of the morning didn’t look quite like this. It wasn’t until after the sail I realised what had happened.

6. When the wind blows

In 2013, my friend John joined us for a trip to France. He had been on boats before but had never done any sea sailing. Heading from Fowey to Roscoff the forecast gave west-southwest to southwesterly winds which would give us at least 50 degrees sailing off the wind. Force 4 to 5, occasional showers (some thundery) didn’t sound too bad. At 12 tonnes, Carina is a heavy boat for her 36ft, and she doesn’t have a large sail area. Nevertheless, given the crew and the night crossing, I put a reef in the mainsail and reefed in some of the headsail, reducing their area, and we travelled along a little slower than we could have done. Then I spotted the thunderstorm. I thought it would miss us but it didn’t. I should have reacted in precaution but I didn’t and the storm hit us relatively quickly. The next 30 minutes were accompanied by force 7 to 8 winds, with two gusts just tipping over to force 9. This was made even more spectacular by the continual lightning flashing all around, the earsplitting thunder and the violent horizontal hailstorm making it nearly impossible to see anything. Somehow we got through it without anything breaking (apart from the toilet seat). What a ride for a first time sailor! I can only say John proved himself to be a pretty tough cookie. He didn’t abandon us the moment we got to France and he proved very useful on the helm for someone with so little experience.

Conclusion

It’s not all plain sailing. However, incidents are getting fewer. I don’t sail close to lee shores unless I am coming into port and absolutely have to (generally the engine will be running even if still under sail). I check every inch of the passage on the most up to date detailed chart I possess and always work on the assumption that there is going to be something unexpected out there, I just don’t know about it yet. Starting out as relative amateurs we have sailed 3000 miles aboard Carina and, whilst neither of us are great sailors, we are getting a lot better. One thing for certain is that things do go wrong. We just have to work at reducing the risks and making sure we know how to deal with problems when they occur.

Racing to the Algarve

We slipped out of the marina at Doca de Alcântara in Lisbon, knowing that over the next few days we would cover a lot of ground, as we made our way to the Algarve. The coast between Lisbon and the south of Portugal is sparsely populated, with long stretches offering no harbour or protection to a passing vessel.

I made supper while Julian sailed us down the River Tagus, back to Cascais. We ‘spanked’ along (to unashamedly steal a phrase from Chris on Tallulah May) aided by the current, registering 10.1 knots at one point – I had no idea Carina could hit such speeds.

After a night at anchor in Cascais we turned south early in the morning while the girls still slept. Our 53-mile passage to Sines was uneventful. We motored for a few hours until we had enough wind to sail and then averaged 5 knots for the rest of the day. We weren’t sure what to expect of Sines. We knew it was a large cargo terminal with petro-chemical industries, and a woman I met in Lisbon referred to it as ‘the sad town’. Back in the early 1970s Sines had been a quiet fishing village, but was rapidly transformed by the building of the cargo terminal and industrial port. However, the pilot book assured us that once you got beyond the harbour wall, the heavy industry was out of sight.

Early morning Sines from the sea

Early morning Sines from the sea

We found both to be true. As we sailed into Sines we saw a line of cargo ships and oil tankers waiting to enter the port and we were hit by that smell of heavy industry recognisable to anyone who has ever visited Port Talbot in Wales. Stinky! Yet where we anchored was pleasant, with a pretty beach and a nice looking town. Passage making was our priority, so we didn’t leave Carina. We arrived in Sines at 7pm and departed at 7am on our next leg.

The next day began in the same uneventful way, motoring first until we had the wind to sail. I longed to see a whale and had even dreamed of one while I slept in Sines. But it wasn’t to be. Apart from a couple of dolphins and a sun fish between Cascais and Sines, we have seen precious little wildlife along the Portuguese coast.

Sines to the Enseada de Sagres, on the south coast, was 64 miles and we hoped to make it before dark. It was a hot day, but with a pleasant breeze. At 4pm, out of nowhere, a fog rolled in across the sea. It was a strange sensation. The sun still shone down hot and bright, but we had visibility of only about 50 metres when the fog was at its worst, and we still had a good wind to sail. Double watch, fog horn blowing, high alert! We would soon round the Cabo de Sao Vicente, the sharp south-western corner of Portugal.

We were blind, navigating by our chart plotter and making provision in case the chart plotter failed. Thankfully that didn’t happen. The pilot book told us we were more likely to hear Cabo de Sao Vicente before we saw it, as fog is such a common occurrence on this coast. We did indeed hear the fog horn long before we saw the cape. We were past the cape and had changed tack to the east when the fog lifted. And what a sight it was! The sheer cliffs of the south coast of Portugal, the Cabo de Sao Vicente a dramatic right angle marking the south-western corner of Europe.

Spectacular Cabo de Sao Vicente - Europe's southwest corner

Spectacular Cabo de Sao Vicente – Europe’s southwest corner

We were relieved when the fog lifted, but our relief was short-lived. Almost immediately the wind got up to Force 6, gusting to Force 8. We were also negotiating the sprinkling of lobster pot buoys and tunny nets and with some difficulty we pulled in the sails and motored the last mile around the impressive Ponta de Sagres into the Enseada de Sagres, our anchorage for the night. The little bay was surrounded by high red, flat-topped cliffs, and the beach looked inviting, but the wind was too strong and it was too late to go ashore. After the fog and the winds and our rounding of Portugal, we thought it was time to crack open the bottle of Rioja, a birthday present from my friend Stewart Barr back in April! It was worth the wait.

It was a windy night, the boat rocking and jolting and coming between me and my night’s sleep. But we only had a short distance to travel on the last day of our marathon passage from Lisbon. It was windy – Force 6 gusting to 7 – but we only put out the mizzen sail and a little genoa. After half an hour the wind died somewhat, giving us a delightful sail along the red Martian cliffs. The coast was desolate at first, but then the tourist resorts began to appear. After 15 miles we passed Lagos, the biggest tourist town along this coast and a couple of miles later we entered the beach-enclosed lagoon at Alvor. Four days, four anchorages, 150 miles, and here we are in an azure blue lagoon, surrounded by empty golden sandy beaches, and decent-sized towns a walk along the shore in either direction.

Horray, we’re in the Algarve, and here we plan to stay for the next five weeks!

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!

Hello February

February has arrived at last. Here in the UK, we’ve just been through the wettest January on record. My family has been lucky. Across the south and southwest of England homes and businesses have been destroyed by repeated flooding; and farmers, still recovering from the destruction caused by last winter’s flooding, now find their fields submerged once again. Many can’t afford the loses and are facing the loss of land and businesses that have been in their families for generations. Homes have been without electricity or running water for weeks, and the transport service is in disarray. People have lost their lives.

We have been unharmed by the flooding, and are truly grateful. All we have had to endure are endless dark days of rain, when the sun refuses to shine, when rooms are darkened by condensation-covered windows, and gloominess prevails. My walk to work is an exercise in dodging giant puddles and occasionally getting soaked with muddy water thrown up by inconsiderate drivers. I leave home every morning in the dark and I return home in the dark. And all day long, despite the huge windows in my office, I sit at my desk with the grey sky my backdrop. The world is dark and overcast and rain-sodden.

I felt as though I hit rock bottom at the end of last week when I was accosted by a nasty cold. I lost my voice and had to cancel my teaching. As well as not being able to talk, I couldn’t think. I went home and felt sorry for myself.

It seems others were the same. Many of the bloggers I follow have been ruminating on their colds and flus all week.

But I woke up on Saturday morning and it was February. Nasty January was behind us. Sure, there was more rain forecast and, as I write it’s lashing rain and the sky is leaden once again. But the days are growing longer and it will inevitably get warmer. It was bright when I left home at 7.30 this morning, and lately there’s been a glimmer of light still in the sky when I leave my office at 5.30 each evening. Though some symptoms of my cold persist, my voice is working again and the cottonwool has departed my brain.

May 31st is my last day at work and I am sprinting to the finish. I’ve set myself some tasks to complete – loose ends to tie up, unfinished writing projects to put to bed – before we sail off into the wild blue yonder, and I begin new projects. By the end of last week I felt bogged down and overwhelmed by the mountain I had created for myself.

But now I’m feeling optimistic again. After I put the girls to bed on Saturday night I did two hours of work, and on Sunday night I did the same. On Saturday I couldn’t sleep for the optimistic ideas spinning around in my head, as I hatched plans, plotted the practicalities of living aboard and educating the girls, made lists in my head that I committed to paper as soon as I work up on Sunday.

And despite the rain, we have had enough dry-weather windows of opportunity for Julian to work on the boat two weekends in a row. May 31st is getting ever closer and, as the days grow longer, warmer and, hopefully, drier, we will continue to prepare to cast off our lines.

PS. I seldom do the lottery – maybe once very three months. But I did it on Saturday and won £25. Now, that’s another reason to feel optimistic!

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.