On the morning of New Year’s Day, while the rest of the river slept off the festivities of the night before, we lifted the anchor and motored downriver on the ebb tide. For twenty-two miles we chugged along, the farthest Carina had gone since we came upriver in mid-April 2015. We past Laranjeiras where Carina was moored for five months while we were back in the UK, past Guerreros de Rio and Foz de Odeleite, all small hamlets on the Portuguese side of the river. On the Spanish side, there are no settlements of any size between Sanlúcar and Ayamonte, save for the occasional remote farmhouse and a huge ugly golf resort a couple of miles north of Ayamonte.

For some unfathomable reason I’d decided to do some laundry before we departed, so we motored down the river like a tribe of laundry pirates – a large white bed sheet, the girls’ Christmas jumpers, and Lily’s party dress hanging from the clothes lines strung from the rigging. But who was about to see us?

We were expecting unsettled weather and we got it. The sun that had burned away the early morning mist warmed us as we set out, but a few miles downriver I had to hastily bring in the laundry as a dark cloud rushing up the river to meet us dropped its load of rain upon us. That put an end to drying the laundry.

The farther downriver we went the stronger the wind grew. By the time we had left the hills behind and reached the broader stretches of river than run between mud flats and flood plains, Carina was bouncing over choppy short waves as the south westerly wind battled against the south flowing ebb tide.

It was close to low water when we passed under the suspension bridge linking Spain and Portugal and we began to look for a place to anchor. The wind was strong now and the west bank of the river offered the best shelter from the prevailing conditions. To give our anchoring skills a good workout, Mother Nature threw a nasty squall at us just as we decided on an anchorage. Tempers were frayed as lashing rain and howling wind prevented effective communication between Julian on the foredeck with the anchor chain and me in the cockpit on the helm. But as the storm passed overhead, so too did the little storm that had erupted in the boat. A nice cup of tea and we were back on speaking terms again!

High winds didn’t make for the most pleasant anchorage. We were anchored in mud, well out of the ferry and fishing boat channels, so Carina was unlikely to come to much harm if the anchor dragged. But noisy wind, uncomfortable rocking and rain that fell in sheets for hours on end wasn’t how any of us planned to spend our first night of 2016.

Somewhere in the early morning the wind died, the rain stopped and when we awoke the next morning all was calm and peaceful at the mouth of the Guadiana. At 9am we lifted the anchor and motored into the marina in Ayamonte. In the large, half empty Junta de Andalucia marina we found ourselves beside our friends Joss and Pascale aboard Snark and two pontoons away from Pete and Pia aboard Hannah Brown – Alcoutim/Sanlúcar live-aboards on tour!

How strange to be in a marina again, in a Spanish town. It reminded Lily of somewhere else she had been, but she couldn’t remember quite where. This was the first time we had been in a marina since April and it was like many of those we had been to before. It could have been Muros or Mazagon, Torremolinos or Vila Garcia de Arousa. Long walks along pontoons inhabited by seagulls; palm trees planted around the margins; electric gates; bureaucratic staff. My first job was to pay for a night’s berth and have a shower! Bliss!

Soon we were off the boat exploring. Next time I’m there I’ll be giving the little free zoo a miss, with its sad tiger, grizzly bears, lions and baboons. Only the ostriches seem relatively content with their lot in life. Ayamonte town centre was a busy little place, still in the throes of Christmas, preparing for Twelfth Night and the arrival of Los Tres Reyes with their gifts for all the children. An incongruous ice skating rink in the square left much to be desired, but the Christmas trees made by local school children and on display on the steps of the church were wonderful (I took note of some craft ideas for next year!).

That first evening, January 2nd, there was a procession through town of the Compañeras de los Tres Reyes – a brass band playing lively Christmas music followed by three women dressed in ‘Oriental’ clothing, riding three of the most magnificent and well-kept mules I have ever seen. The girls and I ran through the pouring rain to catch up with the procession and later on, when it grew dark all four of us returned to the town centre again where a lively flamenco choir sang carols and we soaked up the atmosphere.

We intended to spend only one night in the marina, and a couple more on anchor. And we intended to divide our time between Ayamonte in Spain and Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal. But the wind and rain put paid to those plans and we spent three nights in Ayamonte marina. The marina proved a boon. The heavy rain had penetrated some of Carina’s leakier parts and the bedding on both fore and aft cabins got quite wet. So, while I ran loads of sheets, duvet covers and pillow cases through the marina’s inexpensive washing machine and tumble drier, we kept the electric fan heater running almost non-stop, drying out the cabins and making the boat comfortable again.

We also took advantage of our proximity to a supermarket to stock up on some food, but I have to say, having got used to shopping in Alcoutim’s and Sanlúcar’s tiny shops, I found the choice in a medium-sized supermarket rather daunting! Nice though to have soy sauce, noodles and a selection of crackers on board again.

On January 4th a text message from the parents of one of Lily’s friends asked if we would make it to their daughter’s birthday party the next day. We hoped the wind would die down enough for us to get back upriver on time for the party and for the Tres Reyes procession in Sanlúcar that night.

Low water the next morning was at 5.13am and we planned to leave at 8am to get upriver on the flood tide. There was little wind, but by 8am it was still pitch dark, so we waited twenty more minutes for some light to fill the sky, before we made our way out of the marina. Carina raced up the Guadiana, carried along on the tide. Somewhat annoyingly, the wind was now coming from the north, making for a cold few hours, despite the sun that gradually rose from behind the hills to warm our backs. By the time we reached Alcoutim I looked like a pirate of a different kind – woolly hat, neck warmer pulled up over my nose and only my eyes exposed as I stood at the helm. We made it to the party, and to the Twelfth Night festivities that night.


And we’re off!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cakes and clarinets

I’ve written before (here and here)about the generosity of many of the people we meet along the way. We encounter such kind and thoughtful people whose generosity at the very least puts a huge smile on our faces, but often as not helps us as we continue on our travels.

DSCI0016Once again Jesus, who owns the boat across from us on the pontoon, has returned from a fishing trip to Alboran and given us six fresh red sea bream. As I de-scaled and gutted them on the pontoon, the girls helped out and we had an impromptu lesson in fish biology, looking at and discussing gills, fins, eyes, liver, guts, heart, muscles and skeleton. The offal that Lily threw in the water was soon snapped up by seagulls and mullet and led us to a conversation about predators and scavengers. The fish tasted good, fried up in the pan and drizzled with lemon, and served with a green salad.

A few days later Jesus came around again with a platter of cakes for ‘las niñas’. The platter was a left-over from a confirmation party and we were delighted to have this unexpected treat of an assortment of cakes for after dinner.

Our neighbour Ray is 80 years old. He’s gradually emptying his boat as he prepares to sell it. Almost daily he comes by with items for us to keep if we have a use for them, or to get rid of if we wish. Most of what he gives us is of great use indeed.

He has given us paper charts of the Mediterranean and of the southwest coast of England, as well as an electronic chart of the whole of the Mediterranean. The electronic chart is fifteen years old and incompatible with our computer, but Julian is putting his computer skills to use to figure out a way to upload them. He has also given us a Mediterranean almanac. It’s a few years old, but still of use to us, and sailing magazine articles he’s cut out and kept over the years relating to places that we may sail to this year or next.

But that’s not all. He’s given us a clarinet! After a few attempts to get any sound out of it at all, Julian’s now played a few tunes and I hope it will be played regularly. Added to our recorders, tin whistle, tambourine, maracas, castanets and triangle we’re a band in the making!

Ray has also given us a DVD player/viewer. What a godsend! With only our laptop, there are so many lost opportunities for writing and carrying out research when the girls quietly sit and watch movies every few days. But now we have the DVD player, the girls can watch Frozen or Box Trolls of The Sound of Music while Julian or I write or do sailing-related research. Hurray!

Such generosity. Another person might not even think to find new homes for their old stuff, instead just dumping it in the nearest skip. But Ray’s thoughtfulness has expanded our navigation and cruising potential and he’s given us opportunities for learning and fun (the clarinet) and solved the conundrum of only having one laptop on board. Thank you Ray!

But such thoughtfulness doesn’t come only from our recently-found friends in the marina. The girls and I returned from Ireland to find two parcels that had come all the way from Japan. They were from my old friend Takako. Since I left Japan in 1998, Takako has regularly sent me gifts – quite often non-perishable Japanese food. When she and her daughter, Mayu, came to visit us in Devon in early 2012, they brought two suitcases. The smaller of the two contained their clothes and belongings. The larger, and much heavier, suitcase was filled to bursting with food, and for the duration of their stay Takako did much of the cooking – Japanese breakfasts, lunches and dinners for a week. She re-taught me cooking techniques she had first taught me in the mid-1990s and she left us with so much food that I was still occasionally cooking with those ingredients at the start of this year!

The larger of the two parcels to arrive in Aguadulce a few weeks ago contained an assortment of noodles – ramen, udon, soba; instant meals that will be perfect for a mid-sail lunch or warming overnight watch meal in the coming months. The smaller parcel contained four packets of origami paper. I’ve become quite obsessed with origami since we were given an instruction kit a few months ago. The paper from Japan is so much more beautiful than any origami paper I’ve found in Europe. It’s delicate and patterned and multi-coloured and in a couple of different sizes. It is another wonderful and thoughtful gift that will keep the girls and I busy on long passages and during long winter evenings later in the year.

We are grateful for the generosity of these old and new friends. Their thoughtfulness enriches our lives and reminds us that most people you meet in life are downright good and nice and kind.

Marina life

Puerto Deportivo Aguadulce is the third marina we’ve spent long enough at to say we have ‘lived’ here. It is our winter base this year. In early summer 2012 we lived for two months at Torquay Marina and between 2013 and 2014 we lived at Plymouth Yacht Haven for a total of five months. We’ve now been in Aguadulce for almost four months and will remain here for a little while longer.

2014-10-30 04.21.42As far as we are aware, we were the only live aboards at Torquay, and we stuck out like a sore thumb amidst the gleaming pleasure boats that never left the secure waters of the marina. These other boats were invariably only visited at weekends (if at all), when wine and champagne were quaffed for an afternoon, and then the boats were locked up again for another weekend. We felt incongruous with our laundry hanging out to dry, our bags of groceries lugged down the pontoon with complaining tired children in tow, and our frequent trips to the shower block. Though we think she is beautiful, many might not consider Carina the prettiest boat. She could have been the grandmother of the speedy sleek young boats that she berthed alongside and her scratched gel coating and weathered teak made her stand out in a not exactly positive way. We kept our heads down for those two months and tried to be as invisible as possible.

However, in Plymouth Yacht Haven and now Aguadulce, we have found marinas that are welcoming to and accommodating of live aboards and, therefore, there are live aboads aplenty. Like Plymouth, Aguadulce is home to a mix of people living this life. At my most recent count there are sixteen permanently occupied boats, although I’m sure there are more live aboards I haven’t yet met. Only the other day, at the shower block, I met a woman I had never seen before, and when I returned to Carina yesterday I found Julian chatting to a man on a bicycle that neither of us had met before. Both these people have been living in the marina this winter for as long as we have.

DSCI4756There are people living alone; there are many retired couples, ranging from their early 50s to their mid-70s; there’s one couple with their live aboard pooch; and there’s us. In addition, there are many more people who divide their time between the marina and their home country, and we’ve gotten to know some of those in their comings and goings. The live aboards here in Aguadulce are predominantly from the UK and Ireland, but there are others from Australia, France, Germany, Ghana, Holland and elsewhere. The crew of each boat has its own reasons for being here. There are some, like us, who are overwintering and preparing to voyage elsewhere when spring arrives. For those people, winter in a marina is a time for repair and maintenance, and for converting dreams into plans. Others live permanently in the marina, their cruising days behind them, and they treat their boats as floating apartments rather than sailing vessels.

There are many delightful aspects to marina life, the nicest being the sense of community that quickly develops. Live aboards look out for each other and for each others’ boats. We share advice, information, food, sailing books, novels, tools and equipment. Julian and the girls are going away soon, but I know that help is at hand if I need it from our kind and thoughtful neighbours. Though we all live on different size vessels and though our financial resources vary, we all live frugally and independently, and respect that frugality and independence in others.

In both Plymouth and Aguadulce we’ve also had the pleasure of getting to know the non-live aboard owners of other vessels in the marina (Hello Dee and Rex and Heather and Chris!!). Ray, an English man who has lived in a village in Las Alpujarras for nearly two decades is a frequent visitor to the pontoon, as he makes repairs to his boat. His generosity is limitless and every time he drives down from the mountains he brings us sailing books, Spanish language study books and, most recently, the re-mastered Pinocchio DVD. And, as I mentioned in a previous blog, Jesus, who berths his boat directly across the pontoon from ours, last week treated us to a bucketful of sea bream.

We know the mariñeros who work at the marina, patrolling on their scooters and ensuring the whole place runs smoothly. And we have gotten to know some of the staff of the cafes and bars around the edges of the marina. All of these different groups make up an altogether pleasant community.

We live much of our lives in the open, in public view. Breakfasts and lunches are sometimes eaten at the cockpit table in full view of anyone walking past mere metres away. All of Julian’s current deck maintenance is taking place on the pontoon in front of families out for a weekend stroll, the owners of neighbouring boats, and the marina staff. A couple of months ago, a woman stopped to take photographs of all the teddy bears hanging from the rigging. We can feel a bit like a zoo exhibit at times (homo sapiens maritimus), but we can’t complain. People are generally intrigued by the sight of two winged pink ballerinas gamboling about on the foredeck or hanging upside down in the rigging, and they smile, say hello and, occasionally, stop to chat. Lily and Katie have made friends with our neighbours, and chat to them with ease, rushing to tell them about a loose tooth (Lily) or a grazed elbow (Katie).

In a few months we will move on and, in all likelihood, we will never see any of these people again. Such is the cruising life. Friendships are made that respect the fierce privacy and independent spirit of cruisers. People help each other out, look out for each other and enjoy each others company, but respect the need for privacy when living in such a public and open-air way.

We all know that we will eventually move on and will meet other like-minded sailors at other marinas or anchorages farther down the line. We will develop new short-lived friendships that will endure in our memories of each place we have visited.

Someone took my lemons

You know the saying ‘When God gives you lemons, make lemonade’? Or, in my case, lemon curd. But what happens when those lemons are taken away again before you have a chance to do anything productive with them?

We faced such a dilemma this past week when plans we had in place since early August changed suddenly and unexpectedly. Nearly five months earlier we had been asked to house and dog sit for a week at New Year so, despite our general lack of short- or medium-term planning, this week had been set in stone. We eliminated all other possibilities and honed in on making ourselves available to do this favour. And now that we had that week set in stone, we decided to plan accordingly. The girls and I would be off the boat for the whole week, leaving Julian free to get on with a huge number of jobs on his to-do list – sanding, varnishing, spring cleaning the lazarette, repairing the sails, etc. He would visit us in the apartment and spend some nights with us, but most of his week would be devoted to the boat.

Carina in a state of undress

Carina in a state of undress

I, meanwhile, planned to take advantage of being in Almeria to do lots of fun things, which are otherwise too expensive when we have to factor in the price of bus journeys from and to Aguadulce. And, of course, the girls were wildly excited about the prospect of taking care of a dog for a week, and that experience would have been amazing for them. In addition to all this fun, I planned to complete the first draft of my book before we moved back aboard Carina. With a TV in the apartment, I planned to let the girls watch one movie each evening, giving me one and a half hours of writing time, and to continue writing for two or three hours each night after the girls had gone to bed. That would surely put the first draft of the book to bed too.

Twenty-four hours before we were due to move into the apartment, unexpectedly and for reasons unrelated to us, the plans changed and we found ourselves adrift. What were we to do? The maintenance and repair jobs would now be much more difficult to accomplish with us under Julian’s feet. And, as I’ve written before, the simple tasks of cooking, cleaning, and day-to-day life take so much more time on a boat, so the time for fun activities and writing were now drastically curtailed.

First we got annoyed. And then we got practical. Rather than viewing the changes to this long-planned-for week as ruinous, we reassessed our priorities and we set about achieving what we could. Instead of thinking of it as a week, we saw in front of us eleven days until I had to return to work. Julian’s boat jobs needed daylight and my writing could be done after dark. The varnishing of weather boards and the oiling of the boat’s external teak needed to be done at a certain time of day – after the early morning dew had lifted, but early enough so they would dry before the evening dew descended.

Weatherboards drying in the early morning sun

Weatherboards drying in the early morning sun

I took over all the household chores that are usually shared or done by Julian – cooking, cleaning, laundry, food shopping. When Julian attempted to clean the heads one day I shooed him away – no point him wasting time doing jobs that I can do. I involved the girls in all those activities, taking their maths and English books to the launderette, so they could work while we waited. Many of the chores had us off the boat for considerable lengths of time.

The girls and I went for long walks on the beach. As well as taking our balls and bats and new origami set (I love it!), I took my pen and notebook and, while the girls played at playgrounds or played games with other kids, I squeezed in what handwriting I could, ready to transcribe to the laptop once the girls were in bed.

When we were at home, we stayed as much out of Julian’s way as possible. He sanded, varnished and oiled. He removed sails. He cleaned the decks and the cockpit. Sometimes the girls helped, but when helping turned to hindering, I took them away again.

And Julian took them away from me, late in the afternoons when the light was fading and he could no longer work effectively. Sure, I had dinner to make, but I also managed to write.

I’m going back to work tomorrow and I have to admit that neither of us has achieved what we had hoped. I’m still roughly 15,000 words from the end of the book. And Julian has accomplished only about 20% of what he would have expected to if he had had the boat to himself. This week we’ve also had to contend with having no electricity for two days due to a fault on the pontoon, and a blocked toilet that Julian’s had to take apart.


But we could look at it another way. I’m 6,000 words closer to the end of the draft than I was before December 28th. Carina’s exterior woodwork is in better condition now than at any time since we have owned her. And we’ve had experiences that we wouldn’t have had if we had been in Almeria all week. Lily and Katie have met and played with lots of children at the local playgrounds all week. Katie and I spent a morning visiting Bill and Rosemary on a neighbouring boat. Jesus, on the boat across the pontoon from us, gave us a bucketful of freshly caught red sea bream. And yesterday morning, while out for my walk, I met Katie and Kalle, a young German couple living and travelling in a VW camper van, and they spent the afternoon aboard Carina with us.

Things don’t always work out the way you’ve planned. Unexpected changes can occur, leaving you feeling stranded. And we did feel stranded at first, when our five-months-in-the-making plan was turned on its head with no warning. But if there’s one thing that sailing teaches you, it’s that you can’t rely on plans. Weather systems and unexpected boat problems can alter the best laid plans. Friends we’ve made along the way this past year have had their sailing plans curtailed by, in one instance, a split wooden mast that needed to be replaced, and, in another, the need to install a new engine. But what can you do? Go with the flow, make the most of the opportunities you have and, if your lemons are taken away, you better have some recipes for a bucket-load of bream up your sleeve!

Sweet Water

The other side of the Rock of Gibraltar

The other side of the Rock of Gibraltar

With our minds made up to look farther afield for a winter berth, we didn’t see any point in hanging around Gibraltar. Shortly after 10am on Thursday we motored out of Queensway Quay and set a course of 075˚, across the Costa del Sol to Almerimar. We considered hopping along the coast, taking four or more days to reach our destination, but decided instead to do it in one long sail.

The day was hot and there wasn’t a breath of wind. It was uncomfortable at the helm, but the bimini, while providing no relief from the humidity, did give protection from the sun. The day was uneventful. After a few hours the shipping lanes were far to the south and our only companions were pods of small but very energetic common dolphins that thrashed and splashed in a manner I have not seen elsewhere.

As light faded I took the first night watch. The Sierra Nevada stood majestically to the north and from dusk until dawn, without let-up, lightening streaked across the mountains. Long after Julian and Katie had fallen asleep, Lily sat with me in the cockpit, enthralled by the distant light show.

But those weren’t the only lights. It was a moonless night and the sky was clear. A billion stars twinkled in the sky, with some of the brightest (Orion’s Belt among them) reflected in the calm sea. It was spectacular, and made me vow, not for the first time in my life, to learn some astronomy. Three times during my watch shooting stars streaked across the sky, one of which I caught only by its reflection in the sea.

Dolphins swam alongside intermittently through the night, leaping and breathing loudly close to Carina, their path underwater streaked in phosphorescence. It was another enchanting night sail.

I slept for four hours and swapped places with Julian again at 4am, this time only to keep watch for two hours. The nights are now long and when Julian woke me at 7.30am to say we would be in Almerimar in half an hour, they sky was only just fully light.

Here the land slopes gently from the sea to the base of the mountains, which rise dramatically beyond. Those slopes are covered for tens of kilometres in the white plastic sheeting of the poly-tunnels where much of Europe’s fruit and vegetables are grown. They are not particularly pleasing to the eye, but without these, consumers in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere in northern Europe would not enjoy year-round cheap tomatoes, peppers and other Mediterranean-produced foods.

Almerimar is a pleasant resort town, much of it given over to hotels and resorts that cater to northern European golfing tourists. The marina was pleasant enough, with an active live-aboard community – though having to remember to bring toilet paper to the toilet block every time was quite annoying!

After a day of resting and exploring Almerimar we took the bus to Almeria, to meet my cousin and his wife, who moved here from Ireland earlier this year to teach English. The bus journey was long, expensive and unreliable and we couldn’t imagine doing it more than once a month.

We took advantage of my cousin’s car to check out Aguadulce, and town and marina only five miles from Almeria. We were impressed with what we saw. Returning home to Carina we worked out and compared the costs of spending winter in Almerimar and Aguadulce, factoring in bus prices, electricity costs, Internet, and so on, and figured that they worked out about the same. When Aguadulce marina confirmed by phone the next day that it had a six-month berth available, we took it. We motored out of Almerimar on Monday afternoon for the short fifteen mile hop to Aguadulce – the place that will be our home for the next six months.