Up the creek

We walked along the cracked pavement towards the beach, Lily and I whispering conspiratorially about Katie’s upcoming birthday and the dinner I planned to surprise Julian with when we got home. Katie and Julian were a few paces ahead, Katie turning around every so often to inform me of the dinner plans of her imaginary friends – apparently, they were flying in from Invisible Land to join us for dinner. As we got closer to the beach, Lily asked if we could stay and play for a while. But I said no. The beach was dirty, covered in bits of plastic and broken glass and the scrubland we were walking through was heavily littered. I didn’t like the feel of the place. ‘Sometime tomorrow we’ll go back to that little beach where we swam yesterday’, I promised. The previous day we’d taken the dinghy ashore and spent a few hours on a beach closer to the mouth of the Rio Guadiana. The beach we were now walking towards was close to the marina and industrial part of Ayamonte.

When we reached the beach, Julian and I dropped our backpacks and bag of groceries and told the girls to play (‘watch out for broken glass’) while we put the dinghy in the water. Three hours earlier we had motored the dinghy ashore onto this seemingly deserted grubby beach. Julian had taken the outboard motor off and carried it up to some scrubby bushes 25 metres away. We then carried the dinghy up and placed it on top of the outboard. The marina in Ayamonte doesn’t welcome dinghies, so if you want to go ashore from an anchorage, the only option from south of town is to pull up onto a beach.

The girls ran down the beach and we walked to the dinghy. Julian was the first to notice something was wrong. The dinghy was there alright, but the girls’ lifejackets were gone, as were the dinghy’s oars, row-locks, air pump, water pump and the big black rubber tub that we store things in to keep dry in our perpetually leaking dinghy. ‘And the outboard?’ I asked, dreading to see what might no longer be under the dinghy. Relief! The outboard at least was where we had left it. The thief probably hadn’t realised it was there.

We were crestfallen, our buoyant mood as we walked back from a couple of hours in Ayamonte completely gone. We told the girls and they couldn’t understand why someone would steal our stuff. Quite honestly, neither could we. Faded frayed children’s lifejackets, and foot pump on its last legs, a leaky water pump with the handle missing, and a rubber tub that cost €3 in the Chinese shop (but which I had retrieved from a skip earlier in the year). Only the old Zodiac oars and relatively new row-locks might be worth something. All together, the thief probably got away with second hand stuff with a value of about €20.

But for us, that old, worn stuff had far more than monetary value. Two life jackets that give us peace of mind when travelling by dinghy with Lily and Katie; an air pump that is used every single day to inflate the dinghy’s leaky chambers; a water pump to keep ahead of the constant leaks of water onto the dinghy floor; oars and row-locks for safety and peace of mind in the event that our outboard fails; and an old rubber tub to keep laptops, backpacks, shoes, food and everything else dry as we move between Carina and land. All that old stuff was priceless to us. For the sake of €20 worth of stuff we were now left with a big headache and the prospect of a big hole in our never-very-healthy bank account.

We returned to Carina despondent, all hunger vanished, and the desire to make a special meal now the last thing I wanted to do. Julian and I started to evaluate what had been stolen and to weigh up options for the days and weeks ahead. We had a spare water pump aboard Carina (a brand new one we had found once in a public shower block, in a bag marked ‘Free – take what you want’), so that wasn’t a problem. But without oars or the means to inflate the dinghy, we could not go ashore. There would be no trip to the beach for the girls the next day, and the rest of our week downriver at anchor now took on an entirely new complexion. The girls’ lifejackets would cost €40 to replace at the chandler in Vila Real. Our foot pump had been on its last legs and it would probably only been a matter of weeks before we needed to invest in a new one anyway.

We have been in need of a new dinghy for some time now, and our latest attempts at repairs a few weeks ago ended in failure. Perhaps the thief, marching away with our oars over his shoulder, had forced our hand. Maybe this was the push we needed to invest in that new dinghy.

We considered what to do over the next 24 to 48 hours. Out came the almanac and the pilot book. Should we head east out of the river to the marina at Isla Cristina, reported to have a good and relatively inexpensive chandlery, where were could potentially purchase a new dinghy (where the money would come from for the new dinghy was anyone’s guess). Or should we head back upriver and get on the pontoon in Sanlúcar from where we could investigate, plan and choose the most cost-effective and worthwhile course of action – a new dinghy, a second-hand one, or some other option.

After talking late into the night (over that dinner that eventually got made) and sleeping on the problem, the next morning we chose a different course of action. We weren’t going to let this ruin our little downriver holiday – the first time we’ve all been together for any period of time in over a year. So we motored a little upriver to a pontoon north of the bridge. The pontoon is free of charge, but has no facilities. Still, it would allow us to enjoy a few more days away without having to worry about how we would get ashore and would give us time to consider how best to reorganise our finances to cope with this sudden and unexpected expense.

Though I’m still feeling despondent and am concerned about money, by the time we went to bed that night we could chuckle at our dilemma, and over the last few days a clearer path to resolving this problem has become clear. While we’re now up shit creek without a paddle, some guy’s wandering the scrub out there with everything he needs to go boating …except a boat!

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Downriver

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.

Tuna town

The last time we were in Barbate I was in a bad mood. We’d just spent four overpriced nights stuck in the Andalucia-government owned marina in Mazagon due to poor weather conditions, followed by two nights in a similar government owned marina in Cadiz. These soulless, overpriced concrete hells were run with typical government bureaucracy and inflexibility, still charging summer prices even though they had reverted to winter service. They had no Wifi, the showers and toilets in Mazagon had limited opening hours, and there was no consideration given to the odd hours that sailors arrive and depart, dictated to by tides and weather conditions.

So when we arrived in Barbate to yet another government-run marina, I was already predisposed to dislike the place. Its first impressions didn’t help. It had the same rough un-finished concrete box buildings, and was situated far outside town. The Guardia Civil boat had taken up the reception pontoon but when we took up a temporary berth in the marina, the gate leading up to the reception was locked and Julian had to climb over it. We moved twice more around the half-empty marina before we were settled on a rickety tiny pontoon that the marina staff were happy for us to be on. The next morning when we tried to refuel before our passage through the Strait of Gibraltar, the fuel station was closed and, despite it being within office opening hours, we waited almost half an hour for someone to answer our repeated phone and VHF radio calls, and send someone around to fill our tank.

Our one evening in Barbate involved walking through a desolate industrial wasteland to find the nearest supermarket. We couldn’t get out of the place fast enough.

But what a difference seven and a half months makes! Friends in Aguadulce told us they really liked Barbate and, for us, it proved a convenient stopping off point between Spanish-owned Ceuta on the northern tip of Morocco and the Rio Guadiana on the Spain-Portugal border.

DSCI0334This time we arrived from the south, sailing past long long sandy beaches, low-lying Barbate and the countryside beyond looking exceptionally beautiful, all lush green fields and extensive pine forests. We only planned to stay one night, but a broken toilet and marina fees exactly half the price of what we were expecting convinced us to stay for two nights before attempting an overnight passage to the Rio Guadiana.

After the cold showers of Marina Smir, the luxury of a huge shower room with endless hot water won me over. The all-female marina staff were exceptionally friendly when Lily, Katie and I went to sign in (via the reception pontoon this time). (In general, I find female marina staff give us better berths and better service when I bring the girls to the office. Small children seem to melt hearts). While the girls and I showered I also did a load of laundry at the very inexpensive marina launderette. Luxury unbound!

DSCI0322The next morning the girls and I vacated the boat, leaving Julian to fix the broken toilet. I decided to put our friend’s high praise of Barbate to the test. It was a Friday morning and the industrial wasteland of the Saturday evening of seven months ago was now the thriving heart of the town’s tuna fishery. Fishermen worked in groups to spread out and repair huge tuna nets; the ice-making complex was whirring away; and the processing factories were bustling. The whole area was busy with people walking, driving fork-lifts, vans and lorries, work-men repainting the walls and railings, the fisherman’s cafe lively and loud with fisherman having their morning coffee. The shop attached to one of the processing factories sold an unimaginable range of tuna products, all beyond our price range.

DSCI0324The last time we had been here we immediately turned left for the supermarket when we came out of the marina area, where a dodgy-looking shack sold cigarettes and magazines and a lone bar looked like something out of the wild west. What we hadn’t realised at the time was if we had turned right the biggest, sandiest beach imaginable is RIGHT THERE, hidden from view by the marina wall. Wow! I’ve been on some nice beaches in my time, and this one is right up there with the best. Fine-grained golden sand that is hard-packed close to the water’s edge making it perfect for long walks and sand art!

DSCI0327We had an inexpensive second breakfast of coffee, juice and tostada made from delicious bread at a seaside cafe, where we wrote postcards. The waiter gave us directions to the post office and we set off through town. And what a revelation: a thriving bustling town with people walking about, small locally-owned shops selling just about anything one could want. As well as butchers, bakers and clothes shops, there were haberdashers, dress-makers, hardware shops, sweet shops. Although the marina doesn’t offer Wifi, there is free Wifi all over town, provided by the town council! I sat in Plaza Ajuntamiento – a leafy square in front of the stately if somewhat run down town hall – while the girls played at a playground that featured a proper climbing wall!

DSCI0333Everyone was friendly, both to us and to each other. I lost count of the number of times I saw people slapping friends on the back, shaking hands, kissing cheeks. Lily and Katie got their fair share of head rubbing and cheek pinching and being called ‘Guapa’ by abuelas and abuelos we passed on the street. They haven’t had that since we were in Galicia last year. A real sense of camaraderie and community pervaded.

At a delightful sweet shop the girls each picked out their ten favourite sweets and when we went to pay, the very friendly shop keeper gave them each a freshly made bag of popcorn! We bought a picnic lunch and headed down to the beach for the rest of the afternoon. It was too cold to swim, but perfect for running about, making huge sand drawings on the hard-packed sand, and playing in the sand dunes that have been created by the presence of that big marina wall!

On the way home we dropped into the Parque Natural La Breña y Marismas del Barbate visitor centre. This small facility provided a wealth of information about the geology and natural history of the region from Cabo de Trafalgar to the Strait of Gibraltar, as well as a history and anthropology of tuna fishing in the region, which dates back at least to the Phoenicians 3000 years ago. The displays were all interactive, and Lily and Katie were able to watch videos of their choosing, read simple but informative text, and see and ‘feel’ the whole region in small scale. I particularly enjoyed watching a video of tuna fishing, showing the fishermen using a centuries-old technique of first corralling the tuna with very complex nets and then corralling them with multiple boats. When the tuna are surrounded, some fishermen actually get into the net with the wildly thrashing fish – some tuna 1.5 metres or more in length – and toss the live tuna up into the boats of their waiting colleagues.

The people of Barbate must be the healthiest in Spain. People of all ages are constantly walking around the marina, throughout the fishery complex, dressed in walking and gym gear. Men and women, from 17 to 87, all out walking. And the streets of the town were full of people walking, carrying their groceries, going about their business. It’s like the town’s been hit by a fitness epidemic. I wondered if this health-kick combined with the group organisation necessitated by the form of fishing practiced have led to such a friendly and happy community of people. Now there’s a research project!

Lily, Katie and I spent nine hours out and about in Barbate and every minute of it was a joy. It just goes to show you shouldn’t judge a place on our first, and limited, impressions!

Get a job!

Recently, someone with our best interests at heart suggested that our lives would be easier if Julian and I had permanent jobs. These would provide us with financial security, give us something on which to focus our attention, and provide structure to our lives. We could still have a boat, save up our holidays and go sailing in the summer. This put me in a reflective mood and I asked this person for permission to use our conversation as a jumping off point for this blog post.

It’s true that in our current situation we lack financial security. But are we so different to many two-income families? My parents both worked, they were careful with money, and yet money was always a worry. Before we had children, Julian and I had a joint income of £64,000. But it never seemed to be enough. Back then, of course, we knew exactly how much money would appear in our bank account on a certain day each month. We knew the bills would get paid and we didn’t give much thought to how much money we spent on food and going out. These days we don’t know how much money (if any) we will earn in a given month. But I don’t think it has made our financial worries any greater. Rather, our financial worries are different. We no longer have the expense of running a car, paying rent or a mortgage, and paying electricity, telephone and water bills. We have other expenses, but they don’t even compare to our expenses when we lived on land.

These days we have to work hard to make our meagre financial resources stretch far. Some might think it burdensome to spend so much time comparing the prices on tins of tomatoes or weighing up the cost of a night spent at a marina versus the cost of motoring to an anchorage when there’s no wind by which to sail. But this is our work. These minute considerations allow us to live this incredible sailing life. If I wasn’t pondering tins of tomatoes I’d be giving essay-writing advice to a 19-year old undergrad. It’s just a different form of work.

Our way of life requires careful thought, planning and frugality and the replacement of time-saving devices and methods with manual and time-consuming labour. But without permanent full-time jobs, time is on our side and currently we undertake these boat maintenance and household chores in the warm January sun of the Costa del Sol, the beach a two-minute walk from Carina, a hulking orange mountain dominating the skyline behind us. We can leave when we wish and sail to wherever we choose, making anywhere our home. It feels like a pretty good life to me.

But having had this conversation about the benefits of permanent employment, I pondered the alternative to the life we currently live. Of course Julian and I could be in full-time permanent employment. There’s nothing to stop us. Academia is what I know and love and Julian has the research skills and experience to work in academia or in the private or public sectors. I certainly wouldn’t want a permanent job doing anything other than academic Human Geography/Anthropology. Why should I? It’s what I’m trained for. The academic life is a wonderful one, and I have to admit I miss all those intellectual conversations and debates that serve to fertilise the seeds of imagination. I miss my super-smart friends and colleagues, the opportunities for travel, the visits to the pub. I even miss my students some days!

But let’s imagine a scenario – based on my own experiences and on those of friends in academia. There is a side to academic life that makes the family life I desire almost impossible to achieve. Academic couples are frequently forced to live far from each other – in different cities, countries and even continents – as finding two jobs in the same university or city is often an unattainable dream. Julian and I lived apart when I lectured at Reading. In fact, all throughout my pregnancy with Lily, Julian lived in our home in Cambridge (where he worked) and I spent four nights a week in a flat in Reading (where I worked). My friends Tina and Ben have spent the past three years living apart in a foreign country and have only recently found university jobs in the same city in Tina’s native Canada. I have known couples who work in opposite ends of the UK, in different European countries and, in the most extreme example, a friend who worked in Fairbanks, Alaska, and lived there with her baby son, while her husband worked and lived in Vienna, Austria. Eventually, one of them had to give in and put their career on hold. In every university I have been associated with I have known couples who have been forced to live apart in order for both people to pursue their academic careers.

One of the reasons I quit my job at University of Reading after Lily was born was that we simply couldn’t figure out how to make it work. It’s a three and a half hour motorway journey between Cambridge and Reading. If we chose to live somewhere in between, Julian and I would both face up to four hours of commuting by car each day. House prices that close to London were way out of our reach and, if we factored in the cost of 12 hours of child care every day, one of our salaries would completely disappear in commuting and child care costs. Never mind how little time we would spend with each other or with our baby daughter. If you have ever been to Cambridge and Reading, you’ll understand why we chose Cambridge.

But let’s imagine that we were lucky enough to both find work in the same city. The academic workload is mindboggling. There are lectures to write and present, academic and pastoral tutorials, essays to grade, exams to mark, post-graduate students to supervise; departmental administrative duties; research grants to write and, if successful, to manage; journal articles, book chapters and books to write; editorial boards to sit on; external and internal examiner duties to fulfil; conferences to attend; research to plan and carry out; public or private sector consultation or collaboration; and much more besides. (I know as soon as I post this blog, I’ll think of ten more common tasks that I’ve forgotten to mention). I’ve rarely met an academic who doesn’t take their work on vacation. And, despite the misconceptions of non-academics, academics (in the UK) have only 30 days of paid leave a year, not the four months of freedom enjoyed by their students. Many academics don’t even take their 30 days. The long summer is a time to prepare for the next academic year, carry out research and write write write, because that old academic adage ‘publish or perish’ really holds true.

It is a privileged life, spending your days in a safe and comfortable environment, devoting your time to the research questions about which you are wildly passionate. And if I was single or had no children, I think I would throw myself heart and soul into it.

So, let’s take this scenario a little further. Julian and I have found incredible academic jobs in the same city and we are fully engrossed in what we do. In order to do our jobs to the best of our abilities and to progress up the promotional ladder, we would need to work long long hours, and so would need help with raising the kids. Pre-school, a large portion of our salaries would go on child care, and once the girls were in school (as early as possible, to reduce child care costs) they would still need after school care. We would see them briefly, morning and evening, all of us tired and frazzled.

Having the left-over financial resources to own a boat, keep it in good condition, and pay marina fees would be beyond us. Our dreams of a month or two at sea would remain just that and if we were lucky we might manage a week here or there.

But Julian and I chose other priorities. Home educating our children and exploring the world with them quickly became a priority for us. So for the past four years we have chosen a middle path. For three years I took temporary academic contracts that had set working hours. I worked professionally for those 35 hours every week, but I didn’t kill myself working every night and weekend as I used to do before. And this winter I’ve found a job teaching English 18 hours each week. It lacks the intellectual stimulation of university life, but it challenges me in other ways.

Despite not having full-time jobs, our lives have purpose and focus. Short, medium and long-term planning focus our thoughts, as we find innovative ways to make our finances stretch far, plan where we want to sail in a given week or month, and think about where we want to be in five or ten years time. We are focused on raising and educating the children – something that requires a lot of energy and innovation. And both Julian and I passionately pursue our own interests. While I have immediate and decade-long plans for my writing. Julian’s approach to planning is different, but this winter his obsession has been studying Spanish.

What we lack in financial security we more than make up for with the time and space to be innovative in our approach to living. And we have time to play, learn and grow together. No-one’s path through life runs smooth all the time, and each choice made means that other choices have to be cast aside. But at 40 and 41 years old, Julian and I have made our choices based on our past experiences, and based on what we know works for us as individuals and as a family.

Live an enthusiastic life, whatever path you choose.

The time being returns

In June we set sail from L’Aber Wrac’h in northwest Brittany. For three days we sailed south across the Bay of Biscay. The north wind sped us along, the sky was clear, and dolphins accompanied us day and night.

DSCI4802On the first day of our Biscay passage I started reading Ruth Ozeki’s novel A tale for the time being. It is a story about the ocean, about Zen Buddhism, and about the unexpected flotsam that finds its way into our lives and our hearts. In true Ozeki style, the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Ozeki and her husband are in the story, and half of the story is set on the small Pacific Northwest island where they live. The protagonist, Ruth, finds a battered Hello Kitty lunch box on the beach near her home. She brings the box home and opens it at her kitchen table. Inside she finds a diary, mildewed and water damaged, written by a teenage Japanese girl. The girl’s story unfolds as Ruth slowly translates the diary and begins to make sense of the other items in the lunchbox. The two stories are separated by the vast Pacific Ocean and by the time it has taken the lunchbox to drift from Japan to the US. Yet they are also bound together, as Ruth believes the story of the Japanese girl cannot reach a satisfactory conclusion without her careful reading of the diary.

By the time we reached Ria de Viveiro on the northwest coast of Spain, I was more than half way through the novel. I packed the book in my backpack for our first trip ashore from our anchorage. I hoped to read a few pages while the girls played on the huge empty beach where we landed the dinghy. Julian left us to explore the town and the girls and I had fun on the beach until the sky turned black. The thunder crashed loudly around us and spectacular lightning filled the sky. There was no shelter to be found on the beach and for twenty minutes we huddled miserably in the lee of a sand dune. By the time the sky cleared the girls and I were soaked to the skin, and we soggily slopped off to find Julian.

When we returned to Carina I discovered that the contents of my backpack, including A tale for the time being, had also suffered in the thunder storm. For the next couple of days I dried the contents of my purse, my notebook, pens and, of course, my book, in the cockpit. When it had dried, I gingerly read the last quarter of the book. It was waterlogged, the spine wilting under the now fluffy pages. In the Galician humidity, mould quickly took hold, and black spiral patterns spread across the pages that I carefully turned, willing the book to stay intact until I reached the end.

I finished the book and considered throwing it in the bin, due to its poor condition. But when we arrived at the marina in A Coruña I decided to leave the book in the marina lounge. One of the joys of being at marinas is browsing through the books left behind by other sailors and I like to donate my books when I’ve finished reading them. Amidst the novels in German, Swedish, Dutch, and so on, that one finds at these marina book swaps, there are always a selection of English books. And amidst the Danielle Steeles and the Harlan Corbins, I occasionally find a book or two to add to Carina’s library. Only yesterday, when I deposited my beloved copies of The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt) and Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), I was delighted to pick up Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. Oh, what delights.

But I digress. I deposited A tale for the time being, tatty, waterlogged, mouldy, at the marina lounge in A Coruña. It’s fragile state reminded me of the diary at the centre of the story. So you can imagine my surprise when, last week, I wandered into the marina office here in Aguadulce to find my very own copy of A tale for the time being sitting on top of the book swap pile! It was instantly recognisable – the mildewed, water stained and swollen pages. It’s dried out since I last saw it, and the pages are now brittle and yellowed. But it was unmistakably my book. A book about a diary that floats across an ocean had followed me in the hands of another sailor (or maybe more than one) all the way from the Atlantic coast of northwest Spain into the Mediterranean (over 850 nautical miles, passing the entire coast of Portugal, west Galicia and Andalucia)! Discovering that my own copy of the book had followed me here made some of the more surreal and improbable elements of the novel seem spookily more plausible!

The sailor who picked it up in A Coruña could have gone anywhere with it. A Coruña is a major stopping off point for yachts heading south to the Canaries and the Caribbean and it is a landfall for sailors sailing east across the Atlantic and making their way to northern Europe. Between A Coruña and Aguadulce there are probably fifty marinas, many of them far more substantial and along more significant passage-making routes than Aguadulce. So for the book to travel over 850 nautical miles to the out-of-the-way marina where we have chosen to spend the winter is remarkable. What a thrill I experienced on seeing the book again.

PS…I had a goldfinch experience a couple of days ago, but that’s a blog for another day!

The trials and tribulations of Puertos de Andalucia marinas!

Over the past four months we have stayed in our fair share of marinas, as we’ve travelled through the west of England, Brittany, Galicia and all of the Portuguese coast. Some marinas were expensive (Muros €35 per night for our 11 metre yacht), some extremely cheap (Camariñas €16 per night). Some had wonderful facilities (Muros), some more limited (Camariñas). In every marina we have been to, staff have been friendly and helpful. Staff at Peniche showed unexpected generosity; a member of staff at Doca de Alcantara, near Lisbon, generously loaned us his own electricity connector, when ours didn’t match the fitting; and at Albufeira staff listened when we complained that the services offered didn’t match those advertised in the 2014 nautical almanac, and they gave us a night for free. Though every marina is different, each with its own quirks and curiosities, they all cater to the particular needs of sailors. They understand that in order to catch the best winds or currents, tidal heights or tidal streams, we often arrive late or depart early. And though many have limited office hours, every marina we have been to makes provision for the strange hours kept by sailors.

Here’s what typically happens. As you arrive at the entrance to the marina you radio or telephone the marina office. Whether someone answers depends on how well staffed the marina is, and the time of day. If you get an answer, you are directed to a particular pontoon; if you don’t get an answer, you find a pontoon suitable to your size boat. If it is during office hours, a member of staff will meet you (and maybe help with ropes), and will ask you to bring your passports and the ships papers to the office in order to check in. Appreciating that a crew might just have crossed the Atlantic, or sailed overnight, or be tired or hungry, you are told to take your time and come to the office at your own convenience. Increasingly, as we have travelled south, we have encountered reception pontoons. Rather than contact the marina in advance, you come alongside the reception pontoon and await further instruction. The reception pontoons we encountered in Portugal had electricity and water, so an after-hours arrival still ensures the full comforts of the marina.

All well so far. Until we arrived in Andalucia, that is, where we have stayed in three Puerto de Andalucia marinas. These government-run marinas at Magazon, Puerto America in Cadiz, and Barbate, are expensive, soulless places, where sailors are treated like some great inconvenience. All three look the same, with identical grey concrete-box office buildings and shower blocks. To give them their due, they have laundry facilities, something we have found lacking in many marinas along the way. But that is where our praise of them ends.

Though they are still charging summer prices in late September (€27 per night for us), they have reverted to winter office hours. Though the marinas are half empty, the staff are inflexible, and the particular needs of sailors are not catered to. They answer neither the radio nor telephone when called during office hours, and each one follows the same inflexible procedures.

Upon arrival you are directed to a reception pontoon. These have neither water nor electricity. You must IMMEDIATELY present your passports and ships’ papers to a member of staff whose day you appear to have completely ruined by showing up at their otherwise empty marina. Drawing any information out of these people is like drawing blood from a stone. Rather than advising me of facilities, I had to ask ‘Where are the showers?’, ‘Do you have Wifi?’ (the answer is absolutely NO), ‘Where are the laundry facilities?’.

In Cadiz, the reception pontoon was 10 metres away from the pontoon to which we were directed once we had checked in. The staff member watched us come in starboard to on the reception pontoon, but now had us switch our fenders and ropes to come in port to, under his very exasperated and impatient eye, as he stood on the pontoon waiting to take our ropes. He could so easily have sent us to this pontoon in the first place (rather than the reception pontoon) or sent us two berths down so we could come on starboard to. In Barbate, we arrived to discover the police boat taking up the entire reception pontoon. We berthed at the nearest pontoon we could find, only to discover that access to the land from that pontoon was blocked. We then went to another pontoon, one that we thought would be suitable for us, but when Julian went up to the office with our papers, we were told to move to a different berth, about five spaces down, as the pontoon we had gone on was apparently for larger boats. The marina was, however, more than half empty.

At each one we had to pay a €15 deposit for each key card to enter the marina buildings and access the pontoons. This is not unusual. But at Cadiz we also had to pay a €50 deposit for an electricity connector cable as the marina only had large fittings, even for small boats like ours. A €50 deposit in order to access the electricity we are paying for and a €30 deposit for two key cards to access the facilities we are paying for. And these deposits can only be paid for in cash! So, for the whole time we’ve been in Andalucia, the marinas have been holding €30 or €80 of our money, while we’re left with a 2km walk into the nearest town we’ve just arrived to, in order to find a cash machine.

At Mazagon I had to beg to be allowed to have a shower at 7.30am, and was told that the showers didn’t open until 8am. We were leaving at 8am, and I wanted a shower. I begged and pleaded in my poor Spanish and finally was told I would be allowed to have a quick shower! It’s not like it was some strange hour of the day – 7.30am is a pretty normal time of day for people to shower, isn’t it?

Departing these miserable places is no less awful. With their limited winter opening hours, actually being able to pay for our stay and get our deposits back has been a trial. With offices closed between 4pm and 10am, in order to make an early morning start, we would have to settle up the evening before, thus leaving us without electricity or access to the facilities, but yet having to pay €27 per night for the privilege.

All in all, we have had miserable service from these marinas for the privilege of tying up to pieces of wood with more than half the spaces around us empty. We would anchor or go elsewhere if we could, but along this stretch of the Andalucian coast there are few other choices. We are glad to be leaving these marinas behind.