In the olive grove

Around a bend on the narrow track of the old smugglers route I came face-to-face with him. Huge and jet black, he was square-backed and sturdy. In amongst a grove of olive trees, he was at home and I was the interloper. My mind played tricks for a second that felt like eternity. His blackness was so complete I couldn’t make out what he was. A black bull? A cart horse? A burro? He stood stock still, regarding me, not giving an inch of his ground, or a clue to what he might do. The second passed and the landscape around him fell into its correct proportions, allowing me to see his height, his breadth, beneath the squat olive trees and to recognise him for what he unmistakably was: a wild boar.

I had seen evidence of boar throughout the morning: recently planted trees, in a garden where I joined the trail, dug around and uprooted; hoof prints on the muddy path following the previous day’s rain; a wide expansive field of mushrooms snuffled and dug, deep pits in the dark wet soil amidst half-eaten fungus.

We were twenty, thirty metres apart, no more. ‘Hello’ I said, as is my fashion when meeting a wild animal, whether bee or hedgehog, polar bear or duck. ‘How are you?’ He stared at me steadily. He was easily the same weight as me and likely at least twice as strong. I took a tentative step forward. He did the same. I took a second step. He did likewise. Unlike other parts of the trail where hillside rises sharply on one side and falls precipitously on the other, this was a more levelled out place, with the olive grove ahead and a less used path leading up and around the rocky hillside. ‘I’m going to go this way’, I told him. ‘I won’t bother you’. I took a step onto the path to my right, watching him out of the corner of my eye. I saw that he watched me too.

He came on, claiming the path as rightfully his own. I carefully made my way along the other path, sleeves and trousers snagged on thorny undergrowth, the path quickly losing definition. I turned around and watched him continue on his way, his back to me now, huge grey testicles the only part of him not jet black. I started to take my bag off my back, to take a photograph of him, but thought better of it. Enjoy this moment, I told myself. Enjoy the privilege of the encounter, enjoy the knowledge that this place belongs to him, enjoy the great wild stark beauty of him.

A second more, maybe two, and he was gone. I don’t know where. Maybe he watched me as I clumsily made my way back onto the main path, and carried on, now more aware, more alert, more watchful. Maybe he didn’t give me a second thought. Maybe how little I affected him was the inverse of how much he affected me.



At the Medieval fair a Spanish woman in her 60s came up to me. She was someone I had not seen before around the village. ‘You are the mother of the two little blond girls?’ she asked. ‘You live on a boat?’ Yes, I told her, that’s me. ‘We own the house on the corner’, she told me. ‘I see your daughters playing on the pontoon’. She said she’d been hoping to see me, because she wanted to invite the girls to use her swimming pool. She said her husband had emptied and cleaned the pool earlier in the day and tomorrow, when he refilled it, he would not fill it to the top, so it wouldn’t be too deep for the girls. I thanked her for her generous offer and said we would love to. But in the way of these things, I didn’t imagine it would actually happen. We parted ways by me telling her my name and she telling me her name is Marie Jose.

I thought no more about her offer until two days later when there was a knock on the side of the boat. It was Rosa, the harbour master, with the key to Marie Jose’s house in her hand. Before leaving their weekend/holiday home in Sanlúcar to return to their permanent home in Huelva, Marie Jose had given the key to Rosa, with instructions that my girls and their friends make use of the pool. I walked up to the house with Rosa; she showed me which key to use, where the outdoor furniture was stored and where to find the toilet and shower.

I was gobsmacked. These people, who don’t know me from Adam, an extranjero living like a vagrant on a boat, had given me the key to their beautiful home and the use of their lovely roof-top swimming pool with its views over the river.

What fun the girls had, playing with a friend in the pool while I drank wine and chatted with their friend’s mum. A week later, when I finally had an opportunity to thank Marie Jose and her husband, Pepe, they insisted we use the pool any time we want. Such kindness meant so much to us – going to the pool was like a little holiday away from home, only 100 metres up the hill from our boat.


Chris asked me to take what I wanted from this mouth watering selection

Marie Jose and Pepe are not the only ones whose generosity has touched me in recent weeks. I don’t remember the last time I bought vegetables. I wrote before about one of my English language students who pays me in vegetables and eggs instead of cold hard cash. Manoli’s potatoes, onions, lettuce, courgettes, cucumbers, green beans and eggs are enough to get us through about half the week. The other half of the week we are provided for by friends along the river, whose fecund plots are currently producing a glut of vegetables. The morning Chris came alongside in his little boat with buckets filled with green peppers, aubergines, courgettes, cherry tomatoes and plum tomatoes and cucumbers. He insisted I take my pick. Chris regularly brings us lots of food from his plot of land and over recent weeks we have been spoiled with courgettes from Sue and Robin, chard from Paul and Diana and eggs from Kate and Bob.

There is other generosity too – Felipe’s ebullient insistence on always treating me to food and beer when I meet him; Candido slipping money into Katie’s hand when by back was turned so she could buy sweets; Lily and Katie’s invitation to the birthday party of a three-year old girl they didn’t know, simply because all their other friends had been invited; the mayor giving me use of a room for my English classes; Joe and Fiona giving us the use of their mooring upriver; another Joe fixing our outboard motor.


Felipe invited the girls and I to join him and his family on a excursion upriver

We are outsiders in this village. We have no history here; we have no blood ties to anyone here. Yet, through small and not so small acts of kindness and generosity, we are made to feel welcome and part of the community, whether that’s the community of extranjero’s who live on boats and smallholdings along the river, or the community of Sanlúceños who, in embracing our children into village life, have, by extension, embraced me and Julian as well.

I have travelled a great deal in my life and have lived for extended periods of time in Japan, Nunavut, the UK and now Spain. I always feel uncomfortable when people say things such as ‘The Japanese are the most generous people in the world’ or ‘The Inuit are the most welcoming people in the world’ – or insert a nationality or culture of your choice. Because there are kind, welcoming, generous people everywhere. Everywhere I have travelled to and lived I have met people whose kindness, generosity and patience with me, a culturally and linguistically befuddled outsider, has been humbling. This little corner of Spain and Portugal is not different.

Orange grove

On the spur of the moment we walk north on the Spanish side of the river, along the old goat track now marked for walkers. It is a walk we have both done before, alone, together, with the children, walking just for walking’s sake or walking to visit friends who live upriver.

The path is uneven, at times laid down with rough stones, meandering up and down the hills that line the river, steep rock walls on one side, the land falling sharply away to the river on the other. It is a warm morning and soon I stop to remove my fleece top and tie it around my waist. We walk fast, stretching out our legs, our heart rates quickening, uphill climbs rendering us breathless, sweat on our brows and trickling down our backs. By the time we cross the dry creek we are thirsty from our exertions.

Up the other side of the creek we climb over the sheep fence to get back on the trail. The old whitewashed well stands in front of a grove of orange trees. The trees are heavy with fruit and the ground is littered with fallen oranges. The air is heady with the rich fragrance of the white orange blossoms.

I reach for the metal bucket sitting on top of the well and lower it by its thick rope into the water, watching it fall into the dark pool below. I pull the bucket up, half full of water. We cup our hands and slake our thirst on the delicious cool clear water. Water runs down our chins, wetting our t-shirts and wrists. We laugh at the satisfaction and joy we feel from this simple and timeless act.

Julian plucks an orange from the tree, rips it open and gives me half. Despite its small size and the number of pips inside, it is unbelievably sweet and juicy. We each pluck one more, two, three, gorging on the juicy flesh of these spectacular fruits. My chin is sticky, and my hands and wrists. I eat six oranges, one straight after the other, feeling wild and alive.

We wash our hands and faces in the water from the bucket, take another draught, and carry on walking, our connection to the land somehow stronger for its having fed us and quenched our thirst.


Julian and I are often quite conscious of our lack of sailing experience. Since buying Carina over four years ago we have met so many people with vastly more experience than us. People who have grown up aboard boats; people who have sailed the world three times over; people who have been professional sailors; people who have taught sailing. We have also met people who were less experienced than us when they started out. But for the most part, the other live aboard sailors we meet are more experienced than we are.

Recently we met Tom, an elderly man from Cullen in Scotland, who has been sailing since he was ‘a wee laddie’. Before he was 13 years old he picked shellfish, sold them and saved up his earnings to buy his first little boat and then sailed it out to sea to fish for mackerel so he could earn the money to buy an outboard motor. By the time he was 16 he was a cook aboard a North Sea fishing vessel. He was a professional sailor for years and now lives on his own boat. The sea is in his blood. He’s as cool and at home on the sea as most people are at their land-lubber kitchen tables. He talks like a sailor, using nautical language that I at times struggle to understand.

We told him how inexperienced we were. He quickly corrected us.
‘How did you get here?’ he asked. ‘Did you have the boat shipped down overland?’
No, we said, and told him the route we had taken from Plymouth to Falmouth, across the English Channel to Brittany, from there across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia, down the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula, into the Mediterranean, along Mediterranean Spain, across to Morocco, back out of the Mediterranean again, and up the Rio Guadiana to our current location.

‘When you crossed the English Channel you did more than 80% of the people in the marina you left behind in Plymouth’ he said. ‘When you crossed the Bay of Biscay you did more than 99% of them. So don’t tell me you’re inexperienced’.

It’s easy to feel inexperienced when you are always surrounded by people so much more experienced. And we still are novices. We haven’t crossed any oceans, we have no two week or six week ocean passages under our belts. We haven’t experienced any great violent storms. But we are also cautious sailors. Our pleasant and mostly uneventful crossing of the Bay of Biscay, one of the world’s great patches of rough ocean, was as much due to careful planning and weather watching, and going when the conditions were right, as it was to beginner’s luck. I have no yearning for near death experiences at sea, I have no desire to put my children in danger. So we sail carefully and cautiously – departing quickly and suddenly because conditions are right, or hanging around for days or weeks waiting for the right conditions.

I’m not saying we won’t or don’t experience danger or that our lives won’t be threatened by the conditions we find ourselves in. That’s life. But we are cautious enough not to put ourselves in the way of danger. When we one day make those big ocean crossings (as we hope to) we will plan carefully and go when the crew, the boat and the meteorological conditions are right.

Every time we put to sea, every time we anchor, or raise the sails, or face a storm, or come alongside a pontoon, or do the thousand other things we do, we gain a little more experience. We are not the greenhorns we were when we set sail for Ireland in the summer of 2012. But neither are we this Scottish sailor Tom or Paudi Kelly, or the Dutch guy I met in La Palue, or Ruth and Duncan, or Hazel and Dave or the others we know whose ease and comfort makes us blush at our own ineptitude. We don’t yet, and maybe never will, have their levels of experience.

But Tom made a point that was both enlightening and sobering. ‘You can no longer use inexperience as an excuse for the mistakes you make’, he said. We have sailed a long way from our home port, powered in part by bravado, hubris and optimism. But the sailing we have done comes with a heavy responsibility – to not get ourselves in trouble, to not have others endanger their lives to rescue us, because we’ve done something stupid or intemperate. Everyone has accidents, everyone runs into trouble from time to time, but when something goes wrong we cannot plead inexperience. Having come this far it is our responsibility to act on the experience we have and to use that knowledge and skill wisely in every new situation we face.

After that discussion about (in)experience, Tom presented us with a jar of peanut butter and a jar of his own home made mango chutney. Wise words and food – he’s won me over!

Julian and I go on a date

My friend Katie kindly offered to look after the girls one evening so Julian and I could go out. I imagined a little moonlit table in a plaza, tapas, a bottle of chilled local wine. We’d relax, make plans, enjoy each other’s company. I put on a light summer dress and Julian his best shirt. We walked hand-in-hand up the pontoon, looking forward to the evening ahead. As we walked through the marina gate, we met the middle-aged English couple from the neighbouring pontoon coming in.

They had been less than friendly towards us earlier, so I was surprised when they now decided to engage us in conversation. Earlier in the day, as I’d been hanging towels to dry on the guard rails, I overheard a conversation between them and the local Garda Civil that could have been mistaken for a Little Britain comedy sketch. The two policemen were visiting each yacht to check passports and boats’ papers.

At our neighbour’s boat, I heard one policeman, speaking Spanish-accented English, ask, ‘Your boat insurance papers, please’. The skipper, sitting on his deck replied, in heavily-English-accented Spanish, ‘No hablo Español’. The policeman repeated the question, the skipper repeated the answer. Then he called to his wife. ‘Your boat insurance papers, please’, the policeman said, once again in English, to Her Below Decks when she appeared in the cockpit. ‘He wants the boat insurance papers’, she told her husband. ‘Oh, the insurance papers’, said the skipper and he sent her back below to fetch them. I almost fell down the companionway in my eagerness to recount the incident to Julian and our guest, Katie.

And now, on our first evening out alone in months, this same couple had stopped us for a chat. Well, at least the skipper wanted to chat. Her Below Decks said next to nothing. He enquired as to our sailing plans…and then informed us that our choices were all wrong. We were choosing the wrong places at the wrong times. He informed us of the right places. He told us that they were sorely disappointed with this town. There was nothing going on, it had nothing of interest. I found this odd, considering they had arrived on the day of the town’s biggest festival, and we ourselves had enjoyed days of wonderful cafes, wonderful walks through the ancient town centre, a wonderful museum, wonderful beaches. Our only complaint was that it was too hot to go exploring the surrounding hills. And in every guide book we read, the town was noted as perhaps the most beautiful in the Rias. But we were WRONG. And the skipper told us why.

Still giving this couple the benefit of the doubt, we gave ourselves more rope to hang by when we informed them of our long-term dream of crossing the Atlantic and one day passing through the Panama Canal. Julian told them that we currently lack the finances to equip the boat with an autopilot or wind-vane steering system. The skipper was incredulous. How could we live in such primitive conditions? ‘You’ll pick up an auto steering system for less than £1000. If you don’t get it you’ll soon stop sailing altogether’. He went on to expertly inform us that our Wifi capabilities are rubbish (we know) and that we could get a decent system for ‘less than £1000’. ‘And you’re sailing with the sheets forward of the cockpit?’ he asked with a smirk. ‘You need to bring them back to the cockpit’, and then informed us how we should rig our sails for easier sailing. This was helpful advice, but given in such a condescending way that I wanted to punch him.

He then enquired about our fridge, and we made the fatal error of telling him that we live fridgeless when at anchor. He was beside himself with joy at the chance to tell us again what we were doing wrong. ‘You need a better array of solar panels. You’d get sorted for (you’ve guessed it) less than £1000. You need to change over to LED lighting’. He informed us that their saloon is lit by 19 LED lights. I imagined something akin to Las Vegas in there.

We have had nothing but positive experiences with Spanish officials – Garda Civil and customs officers – but the skipper told us we should be careful, he didn’t trust them. When we told him we’d cruised in Ireland a couple of years ago, he made some equally disparaging comments that started with ‘Well, knowing the Irish…’ That enamored me to him no end, I can tell you!

All those ‘less than one thousand pounds’ he was so eager for us to spend add up, and when, an hour later, Julian and I eventually escaped this know-it-all, we reflected on what we would do if we had £1000 to spare. A new dinghy maybe, so our feet don’t get wet every time we go the short distance to shore – a dinghy that’s more dinghy and less patches. New anchor chain maybe, to replace the rusty anchor chain we’ve currently got out. LED lights, refrigeration and high-tech communication system are way down our list of priorities.

Almost every day we meet sailors with years and years of experience who are generous with their advice, interesting to talk to, and who help us to develop our sailing skills and improve the way we do things. They give us advice about great places to visit and places to avoid. They are encouraging and inspiring. But this guy got our backs up so much with his know-it-all condescending attitude.

But when he told us he’d been cruising in Spain for the past fifteen years, I wondered how he’d managed to avoid learning enough Spanish even to understand a Spaniard speaking English! We eventually did find that little table in the moonlit plaza, with its tapas and chilled local wine. But I’m sure we did our date all wrong!


Arviat shoreline, October 2007

Arviat shoreline, October 2007

I remember an afternoon in Arviat, over a decade ago, talking with Joe Karetak about the sea. Joe has lived his life on the west coast of Hudson Bay, travelling across the open sea by boat in summer, and on the sea ice by snowmobile in winter and spring, hunting seals, beluga whales and polar bears, and fishing for arctic char. He knows a thing or two about the sea. Like all Inuit hunters, a great deal of Joe’s time at sea is spent watching and waiting – waiting for the tide to turn, waiting for migratory animals to arrive, waiting for a seal to surface – and weighing up alternatives. So many hours, days, years, lifetimes of waiting, quietly being attentive and watchful, preparing for sudden bursts of activity and action. The anthropologists Nuccio Mazzullo and Tim Ingold refer to this as ‘alert idleness’. As a result of all this watching and waiting, Inuit hunters possess a deep knowledge of the marine environment and its animals.

And something Joe said to me that day has stayed with me ever since. Being at sea is a ‘humbling experience’ he said. ‘The environment leads and you follow. The sea controls you’. Wise words. We need to accept our own humility in our engagements and interactions with the marine environment. The sea is awesome and powerful. We, by comparison, are puny, and no technology we have invented can match that power.

Arviaraarjuq at sunset, autumn 2006

Arviaraarjuq at sunset, autumn 2006

Life lived on the sea moves at a different pace. It can take a while to accept that. Each time we’ve move aboard Carina we’ve had to readjust to a slower pace, to moving with the rhythms of the sea, to staying put when necessary, to moving on when the time is right. It can be difficult at times to explain that we don’t know when we’ll reach our destination, and we don’t know how long we’ll stay there once we arrive. Wind direction and strength, tides, currents, swells, waves, storms, fog, hours of daylight – these are what guide us.

Sure, we can tweak our sails to gain an extra knot of speed, but a distance that took two hours to cover yesterday might take seven hours to cover today; and the calm seas of today might be whipped into a frenzy tomorrow. Who knows.

The trick is to let go, to accept that the sea is more powerful than we are, and to go with the flow. To wait it out when that’s what’s required, and to be ready to move on when the sea permits. And, like hunters in Arviat, to wait and watch, and in that waiting time to grow into ever deeper knowledge and understanding of the sea and of ourselves.

Paul Pemik's boat, near Tikiraarjuq, August 2006

Paul Pemik’s boat, near Tikiraarjuq, August 2006