Unusual weather

While my mother sent me photos of increasing amounts of snow in her garden, and told me about Ireland coming to a standstill, here in southern Iberia we experienced some extreme weather of our own.

It all started on Tuesday of two weeks ago, to coincide precisely with the start of the children’s five-day weekend. We were forecast heavy rain and high winds for ten days. And did we get it! The same weather system that was causing extreme warm weather in the Arctic, and extreme cold and heavy snowfall in northern Europe, was coming to us as westerly winds bringing rain in off the Atlantic.

The rivers and streams, dry for far too long for the lack of rain, were soon running with vigour. The river bed, where for almost two years we have enjoyed picnics and barbecues on the river bed, was not turned into a fast-flowing river. There were waterfalls and cataracts down previously bone dry fields, and the streets of Sanlúcar were turned into torrents of run-off.

But the rain wasn’t a problem. With virtually no rain since last April, the land has been crying out for moisture and sheep farmers have had to make harsh decisions about the lives of their animals, as the cost of feed over such a prolonged period becomes impossible to meet. No, the rain was a godsend and, after two weeks, the land is verdant and lush.

The problem was the wind. I had planned to move Carina off the Sanlúcar pontoon on the 28th of February and onto a mooring a few hundred metres downriver. But on that morning, those of us who were due to leave were advised to not go anywhere, as conditions were too nasty. I had spent the night before wide awake, as Carina was tossed and dashed against the pontoon, the noise of straining lines coming between me and sleep. With Julian away for a couple of months, the girls have been sharing my bed, and twice that night I snuck out past them, got dressed and went out in the howling wind and driving rain to check the mooring lines, check both dinghies were secure and protected by fenders, and to make sure there was nothing lying about on deck that might fly away. The next day all we could do was look out at the dire conditions.

The next morning, the 1st of March, we went by car to Ayamonte, because the girls both needed new shoes. Down at the river mouth, Ayamonte lacked the protection that Sanlúcar enjoyed, and we struggled to walk back to the car, which was parked close to the marina. The boats in the marina were being tossed around like toys as waves crashed violently over each wooden pontoon. I was glad Carina was twenty-two miles upriver.

When we returned to Sanlúcar at lunchtime the wind had whipped up into a frenzy. The west wind, an unusual wind direction for these parts, pushed the boats hard against the pontoon. When the gusts came, which they did frequently, the seven yachts on the pontoon were pushed precariously on their sides, so their decks almost touched the pontoon. The pontoon itself bucked and swayed and the gangway from the land down onto the pontoon eventually broke, the rope holding it in place shredding under the strain, and calling for a hasty repair job by Tony, our neighbour on Holy Mackerel.

I put extra mooring lines on Carina, but worried about the neighbouring unoccupied boat – if her lines didn’t hold, she might bash into Carina. I was grateful for Tony, who patrolled the pontoon, checking lines, moving dinghies and canoes that were at risk of being squished by the yachts and pontoon they were sandwiched between. Curious, I turned on our electronics, so I could keep an eye on the wind speed. I read one gust of 35mph, and Katie read one of 40mph. I believed her, because when she called ‘40’ down to me, Carina felt like she was being flattened.

I had to take Carina off the pontoon. I had paid for 25 nights, and this was now night 26 and someone else was waiting to take our space. There was no chance of me getting onto the mooring in these conditions and, besides, the mooring itself had become fouled by someone else’s anchor due to the strong wind. When a brief lull in the wind and rain descended as darkness was falling that evening, I made a dash off the pontoon and across to an empty space on the Alcoutim side of the river.

A bunch of people helped me across the river. Lily and Katie did their bit. Linda from Holy Mackerel and Ray from Tinto crewed for me, Tony followed in his dinghy to nudge Carina into the tight space if needed, and Hazel and Katie from Ros Ailither waited on the Alcoutim pontoon to take the lines. Light was fading fast as we crossed the river and, after the stress of the weather, the sudden dash across the river, and the tight space I had to squeeze into in front of two rafted boats, I was a bit of wreck. I temporarily broke my ongoing alcohol-free New Year’s Resolution and invited all my great helpers up to the bar for a beer and had a couple myself!

I hoped, in a day or two, to go on the mooring. But the wind and rain continued apace, with no sign of let-up and the mooring remained fouled with no-one willing (understandably) to untangle it for me in those conditions. On Sunday there were tornados along the coast, causing damage along the Algarve and Huelva coasts. And still the rain and wind continued. Collecting the girls from school and then returning across the river to get to my English lessons was fraught with anxiety, as the wind gusted and the rain reduced my visibility.

We’ve had a slight reprieve since then. My mooring was eventually untangled. It took six people three hours to sort it out, and I finally moved on. The mooring hasn’t all be plain sailing either, but I think it’s sorted out now. We’ve had some bad days since then, with more wind and rain. And there’s more bad weather due later on this afternoon. I’m looking forward to the day when I can sit in my cockpit again. I feel I deserve it!!!


At the helm

After two and a half weeks on a fore and aft mooring in the absence of Julian, I moved Carina on to the Sanlúcar pontoon. I woke on the first day of the last week of the school term feeling tired. Tired of trying to maximise every trip ashore by loading the dinghy up with rubbish and recycling bags and empty 5-litre water bottles to be refilled. Tired of returning to Carina having forgotten to refill the water bottles to top up our onboard supply. Tired of having to think of our battery usage and the limits of our solar panel to power cabin lights and recharge the laptop and smart phone. Tired of the time it took all three of us to get to shore – helping the girls into and out of their life jackets; adding a few extra minutes to wipe early morning condensation from the dinghy seat and to pump out any excess water that had accumulated overnight to soak our feet. Tired of worrying whether the outboard would start and tired of having to pump air into the dinghy on an almost daily basis. Sorry to say, I’m not hard core enough. Or I would be hard core enough if I didn’t have two kids to look after and writing jobs to do besides.

Besides all that, it was the last week that Lily’s and Katie’s other live aboard friends would be on the river and both boats happened to be berthed on the Sanlúcar pontoon. I wanted the girls to be able to make the most of their last week with their friends and being on the pontoon meant they could run around together, play on each other’s boats and have the freedom to roam the village. And it meant I could enjoy a few glasses of wine with my friends before they left, without worrying about having to get my two kids back home by dinghy! So, at €7 per night, I chose the pontoon.

I had never manoeuvred Carina on my own before. Julian and I have made sure that we swap roles aboard and I have brought Carina alongside pontoons many times before, but always with the reassurance that Julian was there, ready to give advice and instructions to help me along. I wasn’t about to do it on my own this time either. I asked Paul, one of our live aboard friends, if he would come aboard Carina and crew for me. He was only too happy to assist.

As luck would have it, the tide turned at the same time as the girls started school on Monday morning, and about an hour later Paul came aboard. I had already set all the lines and fenders and I instructed Paul how I wanted to come off the fore and aft mooring. I took the helm and Paul untied the mooring lines. I turned Carina around and slowly motored two hundred yards down river, turned again to face into the ebb tide and gradually brought her alongside. Paul said little, but just having him sitting beside me in the cockpit gave me the confidence to bring her along smoothly. Paul’s wife Emma was standing on the pontoon waiting to take the lines. Paul never moved from his seat in the cockpit, but quietly instilled confidence in me to bring Carina gently alongside so that Emma could effortlessly take the bowline from the guardrail. They helped me set the lines and then I was comfortably on the pontoon.

Ah blessed mains electricity, blessed electric water pump, blessed hot water on demand! Usually I am very happy living without these things, but it had been over a month since we’d last been on a pontoon and over two weeks of that I had been acting single parent to the girls.

Our final week without Julian turned into two weeks, as French air traffic controllers went on strike and on the morning he was due to fly back his flight from Birmingham to Faro was cancelled. As it was Easter week, there were no flights to be had for an entire week, causing him to miss the girls’ Easter holidays from school and Lily’s seventh birthday. In the end, we were without Julian for four and a half weeks. But the time flew by, as we were busy with school, friends, village Carnival, Lily’s birthday party and the birthdays of two of the girls’ school friends.

I think next time I might just have to confidence to come alongside on my own!

Anchor Trouble

by Julian

About a week ago, after swinging merrily at anchor for four nights, Martina returned to Carina in the dinghy with Lily and Katie to find the steps at the back of the boat higher than usual and difficult for the girls to reach. She called to me and I came outside to take a look. I quickly saw that the front of the boat was lower in the water than the back. It was approaching high water and the anchor chain was vertical, pulling the front down with a great strain. I couldn’t budge the chain because it had locked itself tight on the cleat. I called to Martina for a hammer and bashed the chain off the cleat, letting out a bit of slack. “Get the engine on” I shouted. We tried to free the chain by pulling it vertically with the winch and then in various directions under motor but Carina just bucked and dived under the pressure and the chain went nowhere. The chain was pinned to the river bed in 10 m water at a point around 20 m from the anchor (The anchor being the point the chain should be pinned at). With darkness approaching and the boat too close to the shore to be comfortable letting more chain out, I said “We’re going on the pontoon in Alcoutim. I’ll buoy the anchor.” I fixed a couple of floats onto the chain and chucked the whole lot overboard. This left our main anchor and 50 m of good new chain in the river as we motored onto the pontoon and settled down to a cold beer from the Riverside Bar to settle our nerves.



We had left our anchor and chain somewhere out there, in the distance!

After some thought we decided to take Carina out the next morning at low water while the girls were at school to try to free the anchor chain. At first we tried a vertical pull on the windlass but the chain was still stuck fast at exactly the same point. We then cleated the very end of the chain to Carina and set off in various directions giving a near horizontal pull under full engine power. We got nowhere. It was stuck fast. Disheartened and with a couple of bloody knuckles we returned to the pontoon. At least we had tried.

It was time for Plan B. As it happened Plan B was alongside the pontoon in the shape of a 50 tonne wooden ship called Pax Nostrum. With her engine and large geared winches she could pull harder than anything on the river. Paul and Hilary, on Pax, had only just returned from England and were happy to help but they wouldn’t be ready to leave the pontoon for another week. A new Plan B arrived in the shape of Mike from the US yacht Pelagic. He had scuba gear and said I could use it. I visited his boat and tentatively suggested we give it a go, whilst drinking a lovely cup of coffee (he roasts the beans himself). I was a little afraid he would just lend me the kit because I haven’t scuba dived in four years and the cold fast flowing river water is full of silt with zero visibility and who knows what on the bottom! Mike kindly said he would dive as his wetsuit would not fit me. We agreed to do it the next day. I breathed a sigh of relief and prepared to go and support him.

The next day came and Mike was not feeling great. He had picked up a cold and thought he might have trouble clearing his ears. However, the day after he was feeling better and off we went with purpose in our two little inflatable dinghies, Mike wearing his wetsuit and me in shorts and a T-shirt. We picked up the buoy and pulled the chain up until it was vertical, then let off a metre or two of slack so he might try and unhook it from whatever it was caught on. After sorting out his gear, over the side and down he went leaving me to wait and see. I watched his bubbles breaking the surface. After about 5 minutes he surfaced, and I looked at him with anticipation. “I just can’t clear my ears” he said

“Will you be able to try again?”

“Yes, just give me a few minutes,” Mike replied. I was anxious, it looked like Pax Nostrum might be the only chance. If that failed we were looking at the loss of 400 euros worth of kit and the hassle of replacing it before we could anchor again. Mike tried again but to no avail, he was unable to equalise the pressure in his ears, which is very uncomfortable, so he got back into the dinghy. “I could give it a try” I said half-heartedly.

“Sure, if you want to” was not the reply I necessarily wanted or expected, but next thing I know I’m taking off my T-shirt and putting on his tank and buoyancy jacket. His wetsuit, hood and boots wouldn’t fit me so I strapped his fins on tight without the boots, checked the air and plunged over the side of the dinghy.

Hell! The cold water was a shock. Hardly freezing but it took my breath away, it is mid February after all. I held onto the dinghy gasping for half a minute until my breathing calmed and became regular again. I wonder if some of it was down to nerves or even my less than optimum physical condition! “Let’s give this a go then.” What can I lose? If I just go down and hate it I’ll surface again and go back dejected, I thought. Here goes! I started descending along the chain. Visibility was zero after about two metres and I was in complete darkness so I closed my eyes. Shutting off my useless vision helped me to concentrate on the feel of the chain and on my sense of direction, including in the vertical. Another little way down and I had a bit of a head freeze, but only a little and this passed relatively quickly.

I touched the bottom. The river bed was nice and soft here, sandy mud. I felt with my hands, the chain was wrapped around something, it felt like a tree branch, about 6 inches diameter and sticking out of the river bed at an angle for about two feet. I unwind the chain, nice and easy and pull in the slack, great; I follow it a bit more; it is completely wrapped around another smaller stump. Same process free it, get it away, next branch. The chain disappears under the mud, I dig it out and wind it off the branch, this process repeated six or seven times until I find myself working along free chain. I am elated when my fingers touch the unmistakable metal of the anchor. Then I begin to pull the chain toward the anchor, piling it up near me, hoping with every pull that it will not snag again, until finally I feel the chain rise up through the water, it is free!

Slowly and surely I rise up along the chain. I am feeling fabulous. I am not cold, not tired, not nervous but relaxed and euphoric. I have that lovely feeling I remember from dives long ago, of lying on my back in Bristol University swimming pool watching the bubbles rise above me on a Wednesday evening over 20 years ago. Then I break the surface. “We can pull it up,” I say with what must be a bit of a grin on my face. We have our anchor back. Mike hauls with all his might and I help a little using the buoyancy of the jacket to take the strain.

(Martina has pointed out to me that many people think anchors work by their weight alone and might wonder how we could get one into a dinghy without it sinking. But the anchor and 50 m of chain together weigh a little over 100 kg. The anchor keeps our 12 tonne yacht in place by holding on to something on the bed and a long chain puts more horizontal pull on the anchor rather than lifting it up.)


I have picked up a few diving cards along the way, but I used to think my training was better than the qualifications I picked up. I’ve been diving since my early 20s, and have dived in such diverse waters as the Red Sea, the Moray Firth and the Lizard Peninsula. I don’t want anyone to think I jumped in not knowing what I was doing and somehow it worked. Scuba diving in awkward conditions is not something to take lightly.


Later that day I walk into Rogerio’s Riverside Bar with a feeling probably felt to a greater extent by people who have recently become a world champion, only to find everyone’s back turned as they watch the rugby on TV. Never mind. I felt so good I relished the prospect of telling them individually over the next couple of days. Maybe I would also try to lose a darts match or two so I didn’t come across as too insufferable!


The anchor safely back on Carina. It not only gives us freedom to leave the pontoon and moorings but it is a very important safety device. If all else fails and you are drifting into danger, drop the anchor!

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!

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.