Christmas at anchor

It was a bit of a risk. Would Santa find us at anchor on a lonely stretch of river, a couple of miles north of Sanlúcar? The girls had had three days off school during the first week of December, giving us a rare and decadent five-day weekend. I had wanted to get away from the villages for some quiet time at home aboard Carina. We found this spot upriver and, although we only stayed for two nights, it was enough to convince me I wanted to come back again for Christmas.

During those couple of days we’d met no-one, had no Internet access and not enough battery power on my old laptop to even watch a movie. We went ashore and walked the riverside trails, or stayed home and read, did jigsaw puzzles, drew pictures and coloured in. The girls had school tests the following week – Lily in Maths and French, Katie in English – so Julian spent much of his time devising ingenious and fun revision exercises. I cooked all the foods I haven’t cooked in the months since Julian’s become full-time boat husband.

The peace and silence on that stretch of river was balm to my body and soul, as I sat on deck leisurely reading a book by day or engrossed in the star-filled December sky by night. As we set off down river and back to the routine of school and work, I said to Julian, ‘I want to do this again for Christmas’.

I live an excessively sociable life. It’s the way I like it. These days I teach English five days a week, mostly to loud raucous fun-loving primary school children. I am involved in a lot of school and parent association activities, and I have many lovely friends in both villages with whom I love spending time. My online life is busy too. I have two academic editing jobs, and when I’m not working, I like keeping in touch with far-flung family and friends, observing and participating in the political world I follow through Twitter and, with increasing guilt, pondering how little time I devote to my blog. I live an intensely sociable life, because that’s what I like and that’s who I am.

But now and again a holiday from all that sociability is required to remember who I am and to recharge my batteries. The lead-up to Christmas was action packed. There were parties and carol services, school events, and gatherings throughout December with friends who celebrate different Christmas and winter traditions. And I can rarely say no to an invitation to join a friend in a bar for a coffee or a drink. So, there were impromptu glasses of wine and port, cups of hot chocolate spiked with brandy, plates of grilled chorizo, oysters and prawns. A few days before Christmas, with all my teaching and editing done, I cleaned Carina to within an inch of her life, so we could invite passing friends aboard for wine and beer, tea and hot chocolate, and Julian’s home-made tiffin.

Three different people invited us to spend Christmas Eve with them, and we considered a tour of Sanlúcar, going from house to house to sample the traditional prawns and chorizo, while we shared my Christmas pudding and Julian’s tiffin. The plan, therefore, was to leave the pontoon early on Christmas morning and return to that quiet spot upriver. After a heady build-up to Christmas, Christmas Day onwards would be quiet family time.

But the bug that’s been doing the rounds of the school finally caught up with Lily and Katie. They both woke up on Christmas Eve with headaches, stomach aches and high temperatures. It didn’t stop Julian or me from socialising a bit (separately) throughout the day, but we knew that, given the girls’ illnesses, we wouldn’t be sharing prawns and Christmas pudding with anyone that night.

So we decided to head upriver early. With only an hour of sunlight left in the sky, we slipped the pontoon on Christmas Eve, Lily and Katie feeling sorry for themselves in their respective beds. We motored upriver, Julian and I singing Fairytale of New York at the top of our lungs and calling out to friends on boats and landing stages as we went past.

Before long, we were back on that lovely lonely stretch of river, the place all to ourselves except for a heron on one riverbank and a herd of sheep on the other. We were expecting rain, so we prepared Carina for a wet night ahead and snuggled down inside, Christmas candles scenting the air. Before leaving Sanlúcar, Julian had downloaded Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and, as I made dinner, and then did a jigsaw with the girls and prepared a plate of food for Santa and his reindeer, Julian read to us.

The girls were still unwell at bedtime, so I administered paracetemol, and took over the reading from Julian as lightning lit up the sky and thunder rumbled. Rain fell long and hard into the night and I hoped Santa and his reindeer wouldn’t give up the search for us up the river.

The girls didn’t sleep particularly well and I was out of bed a few times ministering to their needs. But, somehow, in the middle of it all, Santa came and, when we awoke on Christmas morning, the plate was empty and the table and Christmas stockings laden with presents. The girls were both still unwell and, although they mustered the energy to open their presents, they soon returned to bed, and spent Christmas Day between their beds and wrapped up in blankets in the saloon. I read the concluding two chapters of A Christmas Carol while Julian prepared dinner. It was an overcast but mild day, and sitting in the cockpit on that peaceful stretch of river was perhaps the best Christmas present (but please don’t tell the girls. They think the three Planet of the Apes movies and box of Milk Tray they asked Santa to bring me were the best presents. They come pretty close!).

With the girls unwell, there was no chance of us going ashore for a walk, so we focused our attention on enjoying good food, good wine and each other’s company, and trying to make the girls feel comfortable and cozy. After a delicious dinner and while the Christmas pudding was boiling in the pot, I took to the dinghy and rowed downriver for half an hour, the Rio Guadiana equivalent of my post-Christmas dinner walk from Ballygibbon to Carrick graveyard when I’m back home.

For the next few days we did much the same. The girls remained under the weather, sleeping lots and eating little. They found it difficult to even muster up interest in their presents or in the mountain of chocolate we had onboard. Rather than the walking and picnics I had imagined, we indulged in quieter pastimes – reading, drawing, writing. Julian and I even became engrossed in studying Spanish. With a new battery in my laptop we could watch some movies. Outside, the wind howled for much of the time, tossing Carina about on the stormy river. When the girls and weather conditions allowed, Julian and I took turns to go out alone – walking along the smugglers path on the Portuguese side of the river or rowing up or down river.

It wasn’t quite the Christmas I had imagined. But then Christmas rarely is. It did, however, have all the elements that make for the best Christmases – being with the people you love most in the world, enjoying good food, relaxing. It was traditional in its own way, and maybe we have created some new traditions this year. And, although the girls weren’t in top form, they certainly made the most of having lots of time to snuggle with Mummy and Daddy.

Belatedly, Happy Christmas everyone xxxxx



April blues, May joys

April blues, May joys

April was an emotionally difficult month for me and Julian, as we tried to figure out what we wanted to do and what we could afford to do. The girls have been getting on so well at school and their Spanish has been improving in leaps and bounds, we were loathe to pull them out of school after only seven or eight months. Another year of Spanish immersion would do wonders for their (and our) language skills.

While Julian at times finds life on the river a little too quiet, I love it. I’m suffering from the Guadiana Gloop – that strange condition that afflicts visitors to the river who intend to leave after a couple of days or weeks, but twenty years later find themselves still here!

Our big problem, of course, is money. Julian hasn’t worked since the end of October and, despite my best efforts, the last time I earned any money from writing was in mid-October. (A few articles have been accepted for publication, but I won’t get paid until they’re actually published). Since then we’ve been eating into our dwindling savings and, although life on the river is incredibly inexpensive, we certainly can’t live on air.

So we faced an uncertain future. It looked increasingly like we couldn’t afford to stay another year and we were strongly considering taking the girls out of school at the start of May, and sailing back to the UK where we were confident at least one of us could get a job that would allow us to accumulate enough savings to finance sailing farther afield in a few years time. We even discussed the possibility of selling Carina.

And while neither of us is against setting that particular plan in motion, we both had misgivings about doing it right now. I’m not ready to leave the Guadiana just yet, and Julian’s not ready to take the girls out of school and their Spanish immersion.

Throughout April we both felt the stress of the decision we would soon have to make. I decided to look for work teaching English, and if I hadn’t found a job by the end of April, we would set sail for the UK in mid-May.

There aren’t many jobs in these tiny villages, so I started researching and contacting language schools in towns and cities up to an hour away. I also made posters in Spanish and Portuguese, advertising my services as an English teacher, and posted them in public places in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim. And I applied for an online academic editing job.

For a couple of weeks nothing much happened. On a rainy Tuesday morning I had a job interview at an English academy in a town 30 minutes away. I won’t know the outcome of that interview until July.

Then the enquiries about English classes started trickling in. I had nowhere to hold my classes, so I went to see the mayor and he generously gave me use of a small room in one of Sanlúcar’s public buildings. Right now I have six classes a week, teaching both adults and children. While the majority of my students pay me the old-fashioned way, in money, one student pays me in vegetables and fruit grown on her land, and fresh eggs from her hens!

Then I landed the online editing job and got my first assignment. Time will tell how regular this job is, but I’m hopeful and I enjoy doing work that puts my academic skills to use.

For three days Julian worked on another yacht, repairing the electrics and installing a fridge. He was paid handsomely for his work and that made us both feel very positive.

A few days later he arrived home to announce he’d been offered a job at a bar/restaurant in Alcoutim. He hadn’t even been looking for a job, but on a whim casually asked the bar owner if he was looking for staff. Two days after asking that question he started his first shift and he’s now working full-time from now until October!

What a relief. I feel 20kg lighter! From the blues of indecision and uncertainty in April, we have started May feeling the joy of knowing we are now earning enough money to stay here on the river for another school year.

I was never worried about earning money. I knew that if we had to we could return to the UK and find jobs. It was that period of not knowing whether we would stay on the Guadiana that got me down. I was sad at the prospect of going before I felt ready to leave.

And all of a sudden things have fallen into place. Julian has a temporary full-time job and I have two part-time jobs that I can fit around the children; I have my writing – some of which I know will earn me money in the coming months; and I am awaiting the outcome of that job interview.

We can now make plans for more than a week or two in advance; we can plan our summer and autumn. The girls can look forward to another year in school in Sanlúcar and we can all return to enjoying life without the stress and worries of how our short-term future will pan out.

One year on the Río Guadiana

Next week marks a year since we sailed Carina into the Río Guadiana. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we turned north from the Atlantic coast of southern Spain and into the river, but it wasn’t this. Live aboards we met on Ilha da Culatra in the autumn of 2014 sang the praises of the river and told us we had to check it out. We sailed past on our way into the Mediterranean, but sailing west back out of the Med seven months later, we thought we’d better go see what all the fuss was about.

I had heard of the strong floods that visit the river from time to time, and I knew there were two marinas not far from the river mouth – Ayamonte in Spain and Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal. And I knew the river was navigable some way up. Beyond that I knew nothing. I had seen no photographs or charts, read no pilot books or websites, and had only vague recollections of conversations in the bar in Ilha da Culatra months before.

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Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

In my imagination I saw a smaller river, darkened by overhanging trees. I suppose because the flooding was upmost in my mind, I saw pewter skies overhead, pregnant with rain. I imagined a river running through a rainforest, not a river in drought-prone southern Iberia.

So much for my imagination. I remember the most surprising thing upon first entering the river was its width and the flatness of the surrounding land. We spent our first night in the marina in Vila Real de Santa Antonio, on the outside pontoon, with a clear view across almost a kilometre of river to Ayamonte in Spain. We arrived just after dawn on a cloudless day. Vila Real, with its predominantly white architecture and paving, was bright and fresh. I looked across the fast flowing river to the vast expanses of sand dunes and beaches south of Ayamonte and laughed at how wildly off target my imagination had been.

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Looking across to Spain from Portugal

Our plan was to motor twenty-two miles upriver to some place that had pontoons and good anchoring. Beyond that, I knew nothing. Once again I had no idea what to expect. We departed Vila Real on the flood tide and motored for four hours through a riparian landscape that grew narrower and more hilly the farther north we went. I was agog at each new splendid and surprising sight – herds of sheep and goats on the hillsides, white washed cottages and large haciendas, orange and lemon groves, herons and egrets, cormorants and swallows, fish throwing themselves bodily out of the water.

We passed a couple of small settlements and clusters of yachts on moorings, and then twenty-two miles up we rounded a bend in the river and ahead were the splendid whitewashed villages of Alcoutim and Sanlúcar, facing each other across 200 metres of river, the latter overlooked by a massive white fortification on a nearby hill. As we slowed, a man (who we later discovered to be Ted) came up in his dinghy and advised us on a good place to anchor. We anchored south of the villages, turned off the motor and I was thrilled by the sounds I heard – sheep bleating and the heavy bells around their necks ringing, a donkey braying, and woven through it all, birdsong. Could we have found ourselves in a more delightful place?


Sanlucar (foreground) and Alcoutim (background)

We didn’t intend to stay very long. As I recall, we had a vague plan to make our way back to Galicia. Yet the Guadiana sucked us in. After a couple of weeks we decided to register the girls in school for the start of the next school year, thus committing ourselves to the river for the medium term at least. The unexpected five months back in the UK did nothing to dim our enthusiasm for the river and we returned in November keen to fully immerse ourselves in river life again.

And here we are. Carina has not left the river in a year, the girls are in school, and we find ourselves part of three communities. We are inevitably part of the ex-pat community of yachties and small-holders, people from diverse backgrounds who have been here for days or months or decades. One of the unexpected side effects of the girls going to school is that we have become part of the community in Sanlúcar, as outsiders of course, but nonetheless welcomed and accepted by the other families in the village, as we take the girls to birthday parties, and participate in school and community activities. And in Alcoutim we have come to know a small number of local people.


That first nerve-racking morning of school now seems so long ago!

We continue to delight in walking the many paths up and down the river or east and west away from the river. We enjoy the changes that come with each season. All four of us continue to improve our Spanish language abilities, to learn more about local history, culture and politics, and to find ways to contribute to community life.

And now it is coming close to decision time. Do we stay or do we go? Our conversations on this topic are long and frequent. We have reasons to stay and reasons to go. I guess you’ll have to watch this space and see what conclusion we reach in the next month or so!

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!

Weekend away

After their first two weeks of school, the girls have a three day weekend. Enough of this bustling cross-border metropolis (total population 800), we want some quiet time. On Friday afternoon we restock Carina with fresh food, on Saturday morning we do a load of laundry and refill the water tank, and on Saturday afternoon when the tide turns we pootle five miles upriver.


Sheep on the river bank

The moored and anchored boats thin out a mile or so upriver from Sanlúcar and Alcoutim. There are about six houses on the five-mile stretch of river and a small hamlet with an impressive ancient-looking mineral works. We round bend after bend in the river, at one bend steep cliffs on one bank and water-edge reed beds on the other, and on the next bend the scene reversed.


A rare photo of yours truly

We anchor a couple of hundred metres north of where the Rio Vasçao enters the Rio Guadiana on the western, Portuguese, side of the river. Julian lays out the anchor and I cut the engine, taking bearings from a tall tree on the Portuguese bank, a tall tree on the Spanish bank, and a scrubby bush on a hill in Spain. The almost complete absence of human-made sounds fills our ears.

Birds sing in the trees and brush lining the riverbank and an occasional fish leaps from the water, a glint of silver catching the eye as it arches in the sunlight, and a splash as it returns to the water. From somewhere in these echoy hills I hear the hammering of a woodpecker, rapid, like a ruler sprung on a classroom desk.

We hear no cars, no engines, no airplanes, no human voices other than our own. There is the occasional echo of gunshot through the hills. This is hunting country. Wild boar, deer, rabbits and hares are all hunted here for food.


Beware the river witches

For what’s left of the afternoon the girls and I make Advent calendars. We make a good start, but they will require a couple more days work to be complete, just in time for the start of Advent on Tuesday.

By 7pm it is almost completely dark. It is a clear moonless night, perfect for stargazing. We dress in warm clothes and turn off all Carina’s lights. Lily lies down on the port side of the cockpit, wrapped in a blanket with a cushion under her head. I lie to starboard, with Katie lying on top of me as my blanket. As the darkness deepens more and more stars reveal themselves, the Milky Way flowing richly across the sky. A shooting star catches my eye, and then another which we all, except Lily, see. As if on cue, the tide turns and Carina swings slowly around on her anchor chain, giving us a panoramic view of the entire night sky.


The mist burning off

The next morning dawns cold and misty, and the sun behind a nearby hill is not yet warming up our patch of river. The tide has turned twice again and the anchor chain is badly snagged on a huge raft of canes. This is one of the more unpleasant and hazardous aspects of life on the river. We’ve become snagged before on massive tree trunks and on rafts of canes and we’ve had friends who’ve had to cut their anchor chain to escape the clutches of a huge tree trunk floating on the river.


Carina encased

Julian tries to free the anchor but to no avail. He gets in the dinghy and sets about removing the reeds by hand, using a boat hook. I stand on deck, holding the dinghy painter (rope) and walk back and forth, pulling the dinghy astern and forward as Julian instructs, as he drags reeds back behind Carina to where they are free to carry on their journey downriver. It’s two hours of back breaking work – Julian with his hands in the cold dirty water, getting cuts from sharp pieces of reed; I hauling the dinghy back and forth on command. The girls play wonderfully together – which they seem to do when they sense that there’s something really important going on, such as the time we found ourselves in an electrical storm in the middle of the English Channel, or when we ran aground near Falmouth and the engine failed.


Like unmaking a giant bird’s nest

Finally the anchor is free of the dreaded canes and we take a breather. But it’s such a beautiful day we want to go exploring. Julian makes and packs a lunch and we climb into the dinghy and make for the Rio Vasçao. Julian rows up this splendid little river, with its steep rocky banks and we search hard for the terrapins that live here. Alas today is not our day to see them. But I am thrilled by a kingfisher flying from one side of the river to the other, iridescent wings flashing like sapphires in the sun.


In search of turtles

It’s almost low tide and Julian rows until the river turns to rocks. We paddle in the shallow water for a while, but the rocks are muddy and we fail to find anywhere to sit to eat lunch, so we climb back aboard the dinghy and eat lunch as we slowly drift back down the river.


Splish splash

Back on the Guadiana, Julian rows across to the Spanish side of the river, trying to find a place to land so we can go for a walk. But it is a very low spring tide and the banks are muddy. We find a place that has potential, so we return to Carina for a couple of hours while the flood tide sets in, and hope to go ashore later.


Carina on the Guadiana

The girls and I carry on with the Advent calendars and when we tire of that we get in the dinghy again and return to shore. The tide has now risen sufficiently to allow us to get ashore. But only just. We slither and slide up a muddy bank, all four of us getting utterly mud-covered in the process. I try not to think about how we’re going to get back down that muddy slope when we want to return to the dinghy. We are on the Via Guadiana, a walking trail all along the river, which we frequently walk along its stretch near Sanlúcar.


Hatching plans on deck

It is beautiful here. Lush trees, including olives and figs, growing beside the steep grey rocks. The path winds up and down along the riverbank, into glades of grass and out along steep banks. There are sheep droppings all along the route and we guess a farmer must herd his sheep along here to get them from one pasture to another. The girls run on ahead, delighting in their energy and their wildness. They disappear from view, around a bend in the trail, one of them always returning to report what they’ve found up ahead.

After half an hour of the girls running and Julian and I walking at a fast pace, we decide to turn around and head back home. Getting back down the slope to the dinghy is as difficult as we suspected and we get even more mud splattered and turn the dinghy into a mud bath. But it’s worth the fun we’ve had ashore.

While Julian cooks dinner I remove the thick caked mud from four pairs of shoes, and I soak our clothes, hoping some of the mud will come off! From climbing aboard, Carina’s stern is mud covered too, and I clean as much as I can. As for the dinghy, I can’t even face it. I decide to leave it until we are back on a pontoon in the next few days.



On Monday morning a mist hangs over the river and the moon is high in the sky to the west. Twelve Iberian magpies fly over my head, from east to west, their long tails making their wings look precariously short. All is utterly still. I stand on the fore deck, cup of coffee in hand, and soak up the peacefulness of this place.


Morning moon

Next weekend, the girls have four days off school. We’re going to come up this way again.

Border crossing

‘So, let me get this straight’, says Julian. ‘My mission for this morning is to go to Portugal and find Joe?’
We laugh at how absurd my request sounds. We are walking down the steep hill from the huge fortification of Castillo de Santo Antonio. We are in Spain, and I want us to go to Portugal to find a man called Joe before we return to Spain to pick the kids up from school. Real Mr and Mrs Smith stuff.
‘Where would I even begin?’ Julian asks in jest.


Sanlucar, Spain (foreground) and Alcoutim, Portugal (background)

A little over 200 metres across the river lies Portugal. I’ve written before about the joys and tribulations of living on an international boundary, living with two time zones, two languages, two cultures. I still get confused when I cross the border (which I do almost daily), mixing up my ‘Bom dia’s and my ‘Buenos dias’s. Life on the border keeps you on your toes.

On Friday morning, after Julian drops the girls off at school, we walk up the steep hill to Castillo de Santo Antonio, one of the most impressive of the fortifications that dot the river on both sides. For the Romans and the Moors the river was not a boundary but a lively flowing highway of trade and conquest. Since the 13th Century onwards, Castilla (Spain) and Portugal have been staring warily across the river at each other, each building more immense and impenetrable fortifications to keep the other out. In these less militaristic times in Europe, when both countries share an almost Europe-wide currency, when open European borders and the Schengen Agreement have all but negated national boundaries, the national ideal of Spain and Portugal as separate entities persists. For their governments at least.

But what does the boundary mean to the people who live along it? Despite different languages the people here share an agrarian history and culture based on olives, vines and sheep. Today the border villages face similar uncertain futures due to population decline and the pull of bigger cities. Love has flourished across the river for centuries and there are mixed families on both sides, melding and blending Spanishness and Portugueseness. Movement across the river is constant, not only for the many visitors who come here (including those thrill-seekers who zip-wire from Spain to Portugal!), but for the local people too. The river is no boundary, but a highway of communication and trade, linking people with cultures and beliefs more similar than different.

As I write this, in a Spanish bar, the very Joe I was looking for, a Portuguese man, has just walked in. Julian and I went looking for him this morning. When we came down from the mountain we motored across in our dinghy to Portugal. We didn’t find Joe but found someone who could give us his phone number. I called him, had a chat with him. He asked me where I would be in the afternoon.
‘I’ll be over in Spain’, I told him.
‘Ok’, he said. ‘I’ll pop over later. See you then’.
Just like that. I’ll pop over later. Across the ancient international boundary.

A new chapter

Sunday evening. I take the girls for a shower while Julian makes dinner. Make sure they’re scrubbed and spotless. After dinner I check there are pencils, erasers, rulers and colouring pencils in their pencil cases and I place them inside two Peppa Pig backpacks along with a copybook each. In the morning I’ll add a sandwich and an apple to each bag. Finally, I lay out their clothes for the morning. We all need an early night before the big day ahead.

A new chapter of our lives has begun. Lily and Katie have started school in the tiny village school in Sanlúcar on the Spanish side of the river. When we came up the Rio Guadiana in April we met Rafa and Pilar and their three boys. The family had sailed from Majorca in February, were now living on the river, and the boys were attending school in Sanlúcar. What they told us about the school sparked our curiosity and soon we were talking to other live-aboard families whose children had attended or were currently attending the school.


Monday morning, heading off for the first day of school

One day the girls and I visited the school, took a look around, met some of the teachers and I expressed an interest in enrolling them at the start of the new school year, in September. The principal was most welcoming and open to the idea, despite the girls (and our) inability to speak Spanish.

Julian and I thought long and hard about enrolling the girls in formal education. I always imagined that as we sailed we might avail of opportunities to immerse the girls in local languages and cultures by sending them to small rural or village schools for six months or a year. The school I have always imagined enrolling them in is the school in The snail and the whale, which those of you who are fans of Julia Donaldson will be familiar with.

The school in Sanlúcar comes pretty close. Serving a village of 400 people with a decidedly aging population, the school is tiny, with less than ten children per class. We saw this as a wonderful opportunity for Lily and Katie to learn Spanish, become immersed in southern Spanish culture, and for all of us to get to know this lovely little village and its inhabitants better.

During our months back in the UK we all studied Spanish in preparation for this new adventure. I had understood little of what the principal said to me on our couple of visits to the school in May and another teacher who spoke some English had to be called over to translate. I didn’t want that to be the case when we finally returned to the school in autumn.

With a date for my operation not until October 1st, I emailed the principal (helped by Google Translate) to explain the situation and, given the circumstances, he was happy for the girls to start school in mid-November.

Lily has generally been very excited about the prospect of going to school, but Katie hasn’t been too sure (‘I want to be a home schooled kid’, she told me repeatedly). On our return to the Rio Guadiana we visited the school. The girls met their teachers – Martina and Cristina. Lily smiled and Katie scowled. I was delighted that I could understand most of the instructions the two teachers gave me in preparation for the first day.


Julian rows the girls over to Spain for their first day of school

A few days later it was Monday morning. We happened to be on the Portuguese side of the river, so I waved them off as Julian rowed them across the international border for their first day of school! I was on tenterhooks all day, expecting a call from Cristina to say that Katie was inconsolable or had run away. But no such call came. In the afternoon when I picked them up they were both beaming from ear to ear. It had been a good day for Katie to start school. Louisa, one of her classmates, turned five, and they had a birthday party in class, complete with a Frozen cake and strawberry milk.

The school is indeed tiny. Katie is in kindergarten with six other children in her class. Lily is in a class of Year 1 and Year 2 combined. Lily is in Year 1 with six other children and there are two children in Year 2. Nine children in the entire class! The school day is short, from 9am to 2pm. (This was one reason we chose to send them to school in Spain rather than Portugal. The Portuguese school day is longer. Our other reason was that internationally, Spanish is the more widely spoken of the two languages).

So far they seem to love it. Lily appears to enjoy most of her lessons, with the exception of maths, because she’s doing maths she already knows how to do. Her teacher, Martina, says her handwriting is terrible and she needs to work on it, so she’s busy practicing the loopy, flowery writing style particular to southern Europe. On Wednesday, at music lesson, Katie learned about a piano player in funny clothes with white hair, curly bits around his ears and a ponytail with a ribbon. I’m guessing Mozart. Julian’s going for Elton John!

After only a week of school, Julian and I are astounded at how much Spanish peppers their language. They don’t know much, but they are mimicking the sounds of the language and liberally using whatever snippets of Spanish they know. We grin at each other across the table as we listen to them. (It took me a while to figure out that Lily’s ‘Qué fresa’ was actually ‘Qué pasa’. I set her straight!) Julian and I are having our language skills pushed to the limit too, as we work our way through the multiple sheets of paper we’ve been given with instructions for what they need to bring to school each day, the specific pencils, notebooks and folders we need to buy, release forms for using their photos on the school website, and so on, and by hanging around with the other parents before and after school each day. My vocabulary has taken a huge leap forward this week!

And it seems we’ve started a trend. Our English friends aboard Spirit of Mystery have decided to enrol their daughters in the school and on Tuesday we were surprised to see the cruising family from Oregon back again. Having told them about our plans to send our kids to school they decided to postpone their return across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and back to Oregon and instead return to the Rio Guadiana. They have enrolled their three children to start school in Sanlúcar in January. All of this is wonderful news for the school which struggles to remain open in this village with an aging population where most of the young people have moved to Seville and other larger towns to seek work and life away from farming the land.

So we have thrown ourselves into a winter of routine, which feels strange at the moment. 7am alarm, making snacks to take to school, breakfast eaten and clothes on by 8.30, 8.40 into the dinghy to go to school. After school we go to the beach or go walking in the hills for an hour or two, making the most of daylight and the hot sunshine, before returning home for dinner.

The girls are certainly enjoying their new adventure and Julian and I are getting used to it too.


Does anyone know the collective noun for children? A squirm? A squeal? A clatter? A crash? A riot? An exertion? I need a collective noun right now, because there are children everywhere. We motored upriver on Wednesday morning from Laranjeiras to Alcoutim and the place was wriggling with sailing kids.

The girls and I went to the chestnut and wine festival that night and met a family from Oregon: Mike and his wife, with Kenna, Porter and Alexander, aged 6, 10 and 13. A game of hide and seek immediately ensued between my girls and their youngest two, and before we parted company we arranged a date for a walk to the ruined castle on the hill the next morning. The four again had fun hiding and playing tag and ‘What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?’ All too soon we had to return to the river and we bid farewell, as they set sail for Cadiz later in the afternoon.


Lily and Katie playing with their friends aboard Ros Alither

But in their wake came two more families. Hazel and Dave, who used to live aboard and run the Topsham to Turf Locks ferry near Exeter, now live aboard Ros Alither, their beautiful Killybegs trawler with their children, Katie 8 and Reuben 5. We met them when they came ashore by dinghy and a few hours later they moved from their anchorage onto the pontoon behind Carina. On the pontoon over in Sanlúcar are Paul and Emma, an English couple with two New Zealand-born daughters, Lola 6 and Isla 3, living aboard Spirit of Mystery.

Our six children have been having a riotous time together, at the beach, on the pontoon, at the outdoor gym at the top of the slipway, and on each others’ boats. We parents have been drinking tea and coffee together, sharing our home schooling and sailing experiences, and taking turns looking after each other’s children, freeing each other up for Internet time, laundry, boat maintenance.


Lily swinging from the rigging of Ros Alither

Lily and Katie, of course, are in their element, having all these children so close in age to play with. Aboard the other boats they have been knitting, playing Lego, making dens, climbing the rigging, and having very serious conversations about their favourite characters in Frozen, Tangled and other movies. We’ve invited Lola and Isla over for a movie and popcorn evening later this week, as they haven’t seen Tangled.

It amazes me how quickly children become the best of friends. As adults, we are more cautious, gradually feeling the waters to get a sense of the new people we meet. I’m always conscious of things such as politics, religion, health, and things like that, and tread gently until I know more about the new people I meet. Not so kids. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and throw themselves headlong into newfound friendships. They don’t worry about offending anyone or about people not liking them. They just want to play and have fun.

Early morning

Carina is in remarkably good condition following her five months moored on the river. She has a closed up smell and needs a good airing out. The cockpit and surrounding deck are covered in bird poo and there’s a little midden of fish bones on the aft deck where gulls have feasted. But the bilges are bone dry, the cabins are dry and inside she is clean and tidy, just as Julian left her five months ago.

We’re all in bed by 8.30 on our first night back, tired after our day of travelling. It feels good to climb into my own bed again. Although it’s been a hot afternoon, I anticipate a cold night and dress in pyjamas before going to bed. By midnight I’m sweltering in the heat and have to shed them again. Carina sways almost imperceptibly and, apart from a lone dog barking somewhere in the distance, all is utterly still.

I hear whimpering at 3am and go to the fore cabin to find Katie awake, unused to the complete darkness that surrounds her. I comfort her and she goes back to sleep, but two hours later I hear her again. Come into our bed, I tell her, and she snuggles against me for what remains of the night. At six Lily comes in and we are four in the bed (five, if you count Katie’s teddy). This is bliss.

DSCI0045Early morning, the river is shrouded in mist. I stand on the foredeck, mug of tea in my hand, revelling in the sensations of the river. There is a riot of sound, none of it human. Through the mist comes the morning chatter of ten thousand birds in the reeds and trees lining the riverbanks; goats and sheep bleat loudly, their bells clanging as they move across the hillside fields; dogs bark; ducks quack. Islands of reeds drift downriver on the current. An egret stands forlornly on one of these floating islands, like a world weary ferryman, until it suddenly straightens up and flies away, landing on another reed island farther upriver and floats past again like déjà vu. A little grey bird potters about on another island, pecking at its moving feast. I hear quacking in the moments before four ducks appear out of the mist, flying towards me, upright, their wings outstretched as they brake, skidding in to land in the water next to Carina, quacking incessantly, two duck couples.

After breakfast we slip our mooring line and slowly motor five miles upriver to where the river runs between Alcoutim in Portugal and Sanlúcar in Spain. The five miles of river is as rural, remote and bucolic as I remember it from April. Rain in recent weeks has turned the countryside green again after an arid summer. There is one noticeable change since we were last here. In recent weeks the authorities have placed port and starboard channel markers along the river all the way from the river mouth to Alcoutim. The red and green poles sticking out of the water every few hundred yards sadly make the river a little less wild. We’re told it’s been done to attract more cruise ships and boaters up the river.

We settle on the pontoon at Alcoutim for a few days, to refill our water tank, shop for groceries, give Carina and our dinghy a proper check over, and prepare to move out to anchor in the river. We’re planning to remain on the river for a while.

The moment before

It was the stillness of the river that struck me. I stood on the pontoon at Laranjeiras, alone, Julian and the girls already aboard Carina, 100 metres away. I stood waiting for my ride across in the tiny rubber dinghy of Scott, the man who’s been looking after Carina while we’ve been away. The tide turned as he rowed Julian across the water, Carina and the other boats lazily swinging around on their moorings until they faced upriver, into the out-going current. Scott returned alone with Lily’s and Katie’s life jackets and rowed the girls home. Alone for the first time at the end of a journey that started twelve hours earlier in windy wintry Coventry, I deeply inhaled the moment. The birdsong, the cloudless sky, the warm sun on my face. The river calm, but the current quick. The dull clanging of a bellwether on a hillside field, the occasional car along the remote country road that runs alongside the river. I stretched my arms high over my head, pulled myself up to my full height, stretched my body, inhaled deeply. I absorbed the moment. Soon I would be aboard Carina, airing the bedding, unpacking, making tea and getting settled in the couple of brief hours before darkness fell. But this was the before moment. Before I took the final steps home, before I joined my family in the middle of the river. Before I saw and heard Lily’s and Katie’s reactions to being home. Before Julian and I examined how Carina had fared in our absence. This was a moment of perfect bliss. A moment of possibility and a deep quiet joy that here on the river I was almost home. Scott rowed to shore, I lowered myself into his dinghy and we set out across the river.