The cold never bothered me anyway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Departures

When we returned to the Rio Guadiana in mid-November there were three other yachts here with cruising families aboard. Suddenly Lily and Katie found themselves inundated with playmates. One of the families moved on after about a week but the other two decided to stay on the river and, like us, send their children to the school in Sanlúcar.

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Lunch aboard Carina

So, Lily (6) and Katie (5) have become fast friends with Ana (5), Lola (7), Isla (3) and Ana’s older brother Porter (11). When all three boats are on the pontoon, the girls all play together on each other’s boats, on the pontoon and at Sanlúcar’s playgrounds. There have been sleepovers and movie nights, impromptu picnic lunches and an awful lot of giggling and screaming! They swap clothes and toys, and have picked up each other’s mannerisms and intonations.

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Movie afternoon aboard Carina, watching Matilda

But like all cruising families, the time inevitably comes to move on, and this week has been one of goodbyes. On Monday, Lola and Isla departed with their parents aboard Spirit of Mystery, to make their way north to Cornwall in southwest England. And on Wednesday Ana, Porter and their older brother Alexander departed with their parents aboard Pelagic to sail via Morocco and Cape Verde, across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and eventually north to their home in Oregon on the west coast of the United States.

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Katie, Isla, Lola, Lily, Ana – firm friends

It’s the first time for Lily and Katie to have such close and intense friendships and, given the nature of our lives here on the Rio Guadiana, all the children have had a great amount of freedom to explore and play without having adults watching over them all the time. The past few months have been wonderful for the girls.

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Sleepover

Lily and Katie have other friends in the village – a couple of other ex-pat friends who live permanently in Sanlúcar, as well as their Spanish classmates. Lily in particular has developed good friendships with her classmates. But life over the coming weeks and months will be quite different now that we are the only live aboard family on the river.

We will follow the travels of our friends with interest and, who knows, maybe our paths will cross again some day.

Windy March

The wind has finally died down. Its arrival coincided with Julian’s departure on the 26th of February. Before that, we’d had the occasional windy day, but on Friday the 26th it blew up a hooley and carried on blowing until last night. Two full weeks of a cold north wind. There have been mild half days, still calm mornings that lulled me into the false idea that the wind had finally abated. But by the afternoon on those days, it was blowing a Force 6, gusting to Force 7. Last Monday was the worst, and I had to get across the choppy river from Portugal to Spain in my little rubber dinghy. Someone invited me to join them for coffee, but I took one look at the river and thought to myself ‘I just want to get across now’. I didn’t want to have time to think about it. There were high Force 7 gusts that day, and by the time I made it across the river, I was soaked through and shaky. I picked the girls up from school and we returned to Carina, and stayed home for the rest of the day.

I was worried about Carina in that wind. Everyone assures me the fore and aft mooring we’re on is not going anywhere, but I’m paranoid about chafe on the mooring lines, and when the high winds coincided with a spring tide I was out of bed two or three times a night, checking the lines, making sure they looked healthy and secure. And I also worried about the yacht that’s recently been anchored close by and has no-one aboard. Were her anchor and chain strong enough to hold her in this wind, or would she come drifting our way.

Much to my relief, the forecast from today onwards is for light winds, no more than Force 3, and dropping down to Force 1 in the coming days.

Despite being temporary skipper while Julian’s away, I haven’t felt alone in these conditions. We have good friends on the river who have been looking out for me. When the outboard refused to start one day and I couldn’t row against the wind, Amy towed me home. When the wind was doing its worst, Paul helped me push the dinghy off the pontoon and kept an eye on the girls and me until we were safely back onboard Carina. Paul’s also kept his phone handy, in case I’ve needed him and I know he, and about five skippers are just a call away if I need help. The ferrymen who transport tourists across the river from Spain to Portugal have been looking out for me too, and they’re within shouting distance if I need assistance.

Now I will go home and hang out the washing, for the first time in two weeks without the fear that half of it will blow away into the river!

Cooler

Winter, after a fashion, has arrived in this southwest corner of Iberia. Each day the girls wear a little more for their morning dinghy ride to school. One day it was cardigans, the next jackets, the next scarves and finally hats and gloves. The dinghy’s outboard motor doesn’t like the cold, and takes its time sputtering into life, needing the choke for longer than usual.

The heater goes on these mornings, to take the chill from the boat and dry out the condensation glistening on every hatch and port hole. We’re up at seven, in the dark. My father’s old woolly jumper and thick socks on before I boil the kettle for the first cup of tea. The cold seeping through the floor makes my feet ache and I slip into my old blue Crocs, now wearing thin at the soles, but still going strong after nine years of year-round wear.

I look forward to washing the dishes once the kids have left for school as an excuse to plunge my hands into the warm water. On laundry days I postpone the dishes. I’m out on deck as soon as Julian and the girls leave, filling buckets with cold water, dropping clothes in to soak, stirring with a wooden spoon so I don’t get my hands wet. The days are short, so the washing has to be out on the line early if it’s to dry before the heat goes out of the day. That warming cup of tea after I’ve put the laundry in to soak is like balm to my chilled bones.

By 10am the sun is doing its job, warming the land, banishing the chill that has descended overnight. The girls arrive home at 2pm with scarves, hats, coats, cardigans shoved into their schoolbags. We eat lunch in the cockpit, luxuriating in the warm sun on our bare arms and upturned faces. Warm summer days in Ireland are often cooler than this.

We make the most of those hours after lunch to visit the beach or to walk along the hiking trails. The girls still don their swimsuits for a paddle in the Praia Fluvial. But even they balk at immersing themselves fully these days. I leave them to it. I prefer to sit on the beach in the warm sun.

By 5pm the sun is well on its way to its evening descent. What little warmth remains is quickly displaced by cold. It’s time to cook dinner, close up the boat, and warm up our beds with hot water bottles before snuggling down for the night. These evenings we read and, after the girls have gone to bed, Julian and I play the occasional game of Scrabble or Chess (I’m a beginner at the latter). Tea made with mint plucked from along the hiking trails or roadside verges warms me through the evening.

Tiredness and cold come together. It’s time for bed.

Shifting focus

Though the sun beats down and the temperatures still hit the mid to high 20s every day, there is a change in the air. The days grow a little shorter (though not as dramatically as we are used to at higher latitudes), it’s now cooler in the evenings, and when we wake each morning there is condensation on Carina’s hatches. Autumn is here and winter isn’t far behind.

I never shared our full sailing plans on my blog, in case they didn’t happen, or in case we decided to follow a completely different tack. But now that we have almost completed what we set out to achieve for the summer of 2014, I can tell you that our plan from the beginning was to sail from Plymouth to the Mediterranean. We are now 215 cruising miles from the Straits of Gibraltar, the entrance to the Mediterranean.

We still might not get there. Along the way we have considered other options. Spending the winter up the Vilaine River in Brittany was a possibility we toyed with. It had its advantages, but our desire to sail more was too strong. Even after crossing Biscay, we thought we might go back to the Vilaine. But the prospect of a cold wet French winter, not unlike the winter in the south-west of England, ruled Brittany out for us in the end.

The Galician Rias were tempting, but they are exposed to the Atlantic, which can turn angry in winter, and which drops a lot of rain on north-west Spain. As we sailed down the Portuguese coast, we considered the marinas at Albufeira and Vilamoura and were excited to see what they would be like. But we were disappointed by Albufeira, as the marina lacks a washing machine (and the nearest launderette is 2km away) and the cost of Wifi is extortionate. We found the marina and town itself soulless, and I couldn’t imagine being there for a week, let alone six months. We didn’t stop at Vilamoura, as an Internet search revealed that the winter rates at the marina are beyond our budget. We may sail to the Rio Guadiana, which marks the border between Portugal and Spain, and consider the possibilities of spending the winter there.

As August dissolved into September our focus shifted. We are no longer in cruising mode, and instead are looking at each destination as a potential winter base. We have had a couple of places in the Mediterranean in mind almost since the moment we left the UK, but anywhere between here and there could potentially be the place where we rest and regroup for the next six to nine months. Carina will soon be in need of more concerted maintenance. Her sails are in need of repair, her hull needs to be anti-fouled, and we have a long list of smaller jobs besides.

I have a winter of writing ahead, with a couple of projects I hope to complete and a great number of ideas swirling around my head that long to be committed to the page.

One or other of us may look for a temporary job, to refill the coffers, but whether we do or not depends on a variety of factors.

And then there is the planning ahead. Already we have begun to toss ideas around, dreaming of future sailing possibilities. Those plans are very much in the fantasy stage at the moment, but we both look forward to having the time over winter to research and plan, taking into consideration our finances, our sailing abilities and Carina’s capabilities.

I wouldn’t have been surprised, come August, to have found ourselves still in Devon or Cornwall. Despite our plans, things could have taken a different turn. All too often I’ve met sailors with big plans who are stuck for weeks or months at a time due to engine failure, broken masts, or a host of other unexpected problems. So to find ourselves in the Algarve, on Portugal’s southern coast, at the time of year when we had originally planned to be here, is remarkable and wonderful. We are delighted to have made it so far. Gibraltar and the Mediterranean lie ahead, if we choose to go that far.