Protect your eyes!

In May, Lily’s left eye and then her right eye appeared bloodshot. At first I put it down to the use of sunscreen. The strong summer sun means the girls and I were slapping on sun protection every time we go out walking, swimming or are doing outdoor chores. But when I thought about it, I realised that the redness in Lily’s eyes was not the same as that caused by sunscreen. For one, the sunscreen causes a general redness, like you get after swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool. Lily’s eyes had triangular redness starting at a point at her tear duct near her nose and fanning out to her iris. Lily, being at an age when she is conscious of her appearance, asked me frequently about this redness and when it would go away.

Her left eye gradually cleared of any redness, but then she developed it in her right eye. Then one day, seeing her in a different light, I noticed bumps on the edge of her iris, where the redness ended. There were two of these little bumps, and they looked liked blisters. She didn’t complain of any pain, but said her eyes often felt dry. I took her to the doctor the next day.

The doctor immediately diagnosed pterygium, also known as ‘surfer’s eye’.  The redness was the immediately recognisable first symptom of tissue growth on the surface of the eyeball. The bumps on the edge of the iris are lesions and the growth and lesions may continue to grow until they eventually cover the pupil, leading to blurred vision, astigmatism and corneal scarring. It can affect one or both eyes. Laser surgery and replacement of eye tissue with amniotic membrane are two treatments, although these treatments are only necessary if vision becomes affected.

The cause is simple – excessive exposure to sun, wind and sand. Well, living the lifestyle we do, on a boat, in countries at lower latitudes, spending lots of time on beaches, my children are prime candidates for such eye damage. The problem is most common among people who live closer to the equator and among men aged 20 to 40 (because they are the ones who spend more time out of doors).

Our mission now is to prevent Lily’s pterygium from getting worse. The doctor prescribed the use of artificial tears (eye drops) and the wearing of sunglasses and a sunhat when outside. After using the eye drops for a couple of days the redness had disappeared and the doctor advised using the eye drops whenever the redness recurs. Julian, down in Vila Real a couple of days later, bought both girls good quality polarising sunglasses that provide both UVA and UVB protection. Now we insist they both wear sunglasses and sunhats when out during the day. Although Lily was quite upset by it all at first, she has grown used to wearing her sunglasses now, especially because Dad bought her such cool ones!

I wanted to share this as a word of warning. No matter where you live, but particularly if you live in a part of the world that gets prolonged and strong sunlight, protect your eyes and the eyes of your loved ones. Lily’s eye damage is the latest in a line of northern Europeans living here on the river dealing with the consequences of sun damage. Pre-cancerous moles and melanomas seem to be on the rise these days amongst our friends.

Also, a word of warning about the type of sunglasses you buy. Dark lenses don’t necessarily mean sun protection. Make sure your glasses and your kids’ glasses provide UVA and UVB protection. Dark lenses dilate the pupil and allow more light in, and without ultraviolet protection this leads to even greater sun damage. And, if like me, you wear glasses for short sightedness, pay that extra £10 on your new prescription for the ultraviolet filter.

We will continue to enjoy living in such a sun-kissed part of the world, but from now on we will do so with greater care, not just for our skin, but for our eyes too.

 

Bed hopping

The plan, when we first moved aboard Carina in May 2012, was for Julian and me to sleep in the aft cabin and Lily’s and Katie’s ‘bedroom’ would be the smaller fore cabin. That first summer Carina sagged under the weight of the unnecessary stuff I had brought aboard. There wasn’t room to stow it all, and much of it remained piled high in the fore cabin, where I had dumped it on the wet and windy night in early May when I moved our stuff from our flat in Dawlish to the marina in Torquay.

For the six months we lived aboard that year, the girls slept with me in the aft cabin and Julian slept on the port berth in the saloon. That arrangement had both advantages and disadvantages. Lily, at three years of age, still woke up multiple times each night. Now, for the first time, she slept soundly curled up beside me, giving me, for the first time in three years, nights of unbroken sleep. Julian slept well in the saloon, but we had to make up his bed every night and tidy it away every morning, which was cumbersome and time consuming. And, let’s face it, while it was nice to snuggle up at night between my two little girls, my man was a far too distant five metres away from me.

We spent the winter on land, in a house in Exeter, and moved aboard once again in May 2013. I had learned lessons from the first year, and moved far less stuff aboard. In advance of moving aboard I prepared the fore cabin for the girls, with pretty duvet covers, fun storage boxes for their books and toys, and they had decided which cuddly toys they wanted to have around. From our first night aboard Carina in 2013, the girls slept in the fore cabin. And that is how it was been ever since. Like all bedrooms of young children, theirs is frequently a mess and I do my share of nagging and cajoling and shouting at them to ‘Tidy your room’.

Their cabin is a small space and I have thought occasionally about different sleeping arrangements that would give them both more space. But I have not been in any hurry to separate them either. Each ‘You’re on my side of the bed’ and ‘She kicked me’ is balanced by sounds wafting through to the aft cabin of their quiet morning conversations, singing songs and playing together with their toys.

Such a small space, however, is no fun in the extreme heat of the southern Iberian summer. Last year, from mid-May onwards, I made up the starboard berth in the saloon each night and they took turns sleeping there – Lily in the fore cabin and Katie in the saloon one night, and the other way around the next night. But each hot night the bed had to be prepared and each hot morning it had to be tidied away, which was even less fun than when we had to do the same with Julian’s bed in 2012.

There was another option, and one Monday morning in mid-May this year, on a whim, I decided to go for it. It wasn’t going to be easy and in the end it took almost three days before everything was organised. But it has been worth it.

The quarter berth, a wide and spacious single berth along the passageway connecting the aft cabin with the saloon, has always been used as a storage space. It’s where I keep all the boxes of food, the laundry bag, fishing rods, computer bag and various bags of work tools. Everything else gets thrown there when I can’t be bothered to put it away properly. The passageway has less than 5’ of headroom, so Julian and I have to bend down to get to our cabin, and to get to any of the items stored along the quarter berth. What if I turned this into Lily’s room and reorganised the fore cabin so that part of it was for storage and the rest Katie’s room? It was worth a try.

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Quarterberth from this……

Removing everything from the quarter berth meant finding new stowage spaces elsewhere, so virtually the entire boat had to be reorganised. Moving all the food out into the galley and saloon challenged my organisational skills, but I figured it out. I now no longer have to bend down at back-ache inducing angles multiple times a day to get the ingredients I need for all our meals. Everything is now at arm’s reach, and I have made life so much easier for myself! (Imagine, it only took me five years to figure this out!!)

I found things in the quarter berth that hadn’t been used in years (and would never be used). I found new homes for all that stuff or put it in the recycling bins. I reorganised the stowage spaces underneath the quarter berth and the saloon port berth, creating more space to stow sailing equipment that we don’t need while our lives revolve around two villages far up a river! By lunchtime that day I had cleared and cleaned the quarter berth, and transformed it into a cute bedroom for Lily, with all her books, toys and piggy bank on the shelf, a space to stow her clothes at the end of the bed, and her fairy lights strung from the ceiling.

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…..to this!

Her little face lit up when she arrived home from school and she hugged me almost to death with gratitude! She spent the afternoon rearranging her shelves and toys and making the space even more her own.

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Foreward cabin from this…..

Alas, the fore cabin was still a mess and it took some persuading to convince a disappointed Katie that, by bedtime, she too would have a ‘room’ of her own. All afternoon I worked on the fore cabin, rearranging tools, toys, books and even the bed itself. Katie now sleeps across the boat, with her head to starboard and feet to port, boxes of books forming one side of her bed. She too has her toys, clothes and books in easy reach. And she loves her new ‘room’. For me, the great advantage of Katie’s new set-up is that I can lie down beside her at night so we can read together.

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…..to this!

Still the saloon was a mess, with all the left over stuff that needed to be stowed. That took two more days. And then it struck me. The girls could have their own ‘desk’. The navigation table is at the end of Lily’s berth. It’s the perfect place to do homework, art, projects and watch movies. So I rearranged the navigation table and have transformed it into a desk which, despite being at the bottom of Lily’s bed, she must share with her sister.

A change is as good as a holiday, they say. And this change seems to suit us all. The girls are cool during these hot nights, and each has her own space for afternoon siesta. After two weeks, they continue to be ‘house proud’ of their own rooms, keeping them neat and tidy. Lily can read her novels without being disturbed by Katie, who is still at the reading aloud stage. They curl up together to watch movies or to work at the chart table, leaving the saloon table free more often. My galley is organised more efficiently and everything is close to hand. The boat seems, overall, neater and better organised.

I still occasionally go to the quarter berth to grab a box of flour or bottle of cooking oil and it takes a second for me to figure out why they’re not longer there! I’m sure it won’t be long before we all forget that the quarter berth was ever anything other than Lily’s bedroom.

A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

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.

Man trouble

So, there’s this guy. Blond hair, blue eyes. Very funny. Very cute. Lives on a boat. He’s from Oregon. He’s ten years old.

My girls, five and a quarter and six and three quarter years old, are besotted. They chase this poor kid around, write him love letters, write his name in chalk on the school playground. ‘Katie and P—-‘ surrounded by love hearts. Lily writes ‘P—- I love you. I want to kiss you’.
‘Play it cool’, I tell the girls. ‘Don’t go running after him, giving him love letters’.
‘I don’t want to play it cool’, Lily says.
Well, you’re succeeding there, I think to myself.

Lily and I are out walking one day. ‘All the girls in P—-‘s class have ponytails and have their ears pierced’.
Since when did you start noticing the older girls in school, I think to myself.
Since they became the competition.

If I hear his name once in the day I hear it a hundred times. P—- said this, P—- did that, P—- is sooo funny. They make up rhymes about him, sing songs about him, draw his picture and his name on every piece of paper they can find. They even have a rude nickname for him that is a play on his real name.

And you can’t blame them. He’s gorgeous and confident and cool and a genuinely lovely kid. When he zooms across the river in his dinghy, the wind in his blond hair, the girls run into our cockpit to catch a glimpse of him, the cruising kid’s equivalent of a boy with a fast car. Julian says ‘Some people try their whole lives and never manage to be that cool’.

P—‘s lapping up all the attention of course, but to give him his due, he’s gracious about it. He’s sweet with the girls (they are, after all, friends with his baby sister) and isn’t yet so embarrassed by their shenanigans that he’s avoiding them.

But his arrival on the river has given Julian and me a glimpse of the next ten years. And we’re not exactly relishing it!!

An educational perambulation

While we still had the hired car we’d used to get from Faro airport back to Carina, we decided to go for a hike a little farther downriver. We drove five miles back to Laranjeiras, parked the car, and we did an 8km circular walk up into the hills on the Portuguese side of the river. The 15th of November and it was already hot at 9am, the late autumn sun shining down from a cloudless blue sky. The walk took us up through the tiny village of Laranjeiras, along steep paths so narrow you could almost touch the old whitewashed houses on either side. On the outskirts of the village we passed an olive grove with tarpaulin spread beneath the trees, catching the falling olives. We were soon out of the village, the winding path taking us past scrubby bushes festooned with dew covered spider webs, higher and higher up through olive and almond groves, higher than the mist that still lingered over the river.

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The path wound down again, through the village of Guerreiros de Rio, where we stopped for coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and pastries, and then the even smaller hamlet of Alamo, where the path once again wound steeply uphill through the houses and into the hilly countryside beyond.

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The path was dusty and rocky, the olive, almond, fig and other trees gnarled and ancient-looking. There was a species of tree that befuddled us. It had acorns growing on it, but didn’t look like any oak tree we’d ever seen before. The leaves were small and shiny, more akin to holly than oak. This tree too was gnarly and twisted in trunk and branch. The one-page leaflet with the trail map soon set us straight. It is the cork oak. The first cork oaks we saw were small, but later we saw bigger, older trees, that had been harvested of their cork coats on the lower parts of their trunks. We thought of the importance of this tree to the economy of the region. How the cork from the oak tree seals the bottles of wine from the vines and the bottle of olive oil and jars of olives from the olive trees. These three trees all looking so old even when they are young are the lifeblood of the region’s culture.

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As we walked along we looked out for rabbits and hares, guessed at the names of trees, and discussed what we knew of the border history of this part of the Portuguese/Spanish border. At the highest point of our climb was a windmill which had been in operation up until the 1940s. We could still see the cog mechanism inside. That got us thinking about food and we got the girls thinking about grain, the uses we have for different grains and how important this windmill would have been to the people of the area when it was in operation.

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Katie wanted a ‘math’s challenge’, something she’d picked up from her Oregon friend Kenna when we’d been out walking a few days earlier. So we challenged her, giving her easy addition at first, and making it more complicated as the morning wore on. Lily didn’t want to be left out, so Julian threw maths problems at her and she surprised us with the speed at which she solved them in her head and with her ability to add and subtract fractions – something we didn’t know she could do.

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We practiced Spanish on each other as we walked along. Because Julian and I know slightly different things and remember slightly different vocabulary, we’re able to challenge each other with what we know. So a game ensued of saying what we knew, making us sentences, all four of us trying to figure out what the others were saying.

This wasn’t the first time that I’ve been struck by how much learning happens when we go walking. My family loves to walk and the stream of consciousness that is inspired by what we see in the world around us as we walk inspires us to do all sorts of learning. Maths is somehow much more fun when practiced in the fresh air than when sitting at the table with books and pencils. Spanish too. Geography, botany, agriculture, history, ecology, meteorology are all around us, and it’s impossible not to learn.

We returned home from our walk exercised in body and mind, hungry for lunch and hungry too for the things we’d discovered we didn’t know – such as Portugal’s area and population, it’s recent history, and a plethora of Spanish words that we decided we simply had to know.

Rugrats

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.

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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.

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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.

Preparing to go home

We waited and waited and when the date was confirmed we knew we couldn’t wait any longer. My surgery was scheduled for the 1st of October, Julian’s contract at Warwick Castle was scheduled to end on the 1st of November. What was the earliest date we could realistically return to Carina? We looked at flights and read the NHS guidelines about abdominal hysterectomy recovery times. And we decided to fly to Portugal on the 10th of November. Forty days after my operation. Twenty-one days from today. A little optimistic perhaps? Not quite six weeks from the date of my surgery.

I’ve been taking good care of myself. Not pushing my body too hard, following all the guidelines and advice I’ve been given by healthy professionals, resting when I need to, not lifting heavy objects, not tiring myself out. I’ve been doing the exercises advised by the physiotherapist who came to see me the day after my operation and I’ve been going for walks – a little farther and a little faster every day. I’m in less pain every day, feeling stronger and less tired every day, and generally feeling good. In the first few days after my surgery, returning to Carina on the 10th of November seemed foolhardy. Three weeks after my surgery, it feels about right.

On the 10th of November we will have been in the UK for five and a half months. We arrived at the start of summer and we are departing at the start of winter. And the slow and methodical process of planning what to bring back to Carina, what to leave behind, what to dump and what to give to charity, begins.

The girls and I flew from Faro to Luton on the 21st of May with two pieces of hand luggage. Four changes of clothes each, including what we wore on the flight, seemed enough. I had carefully chosen clothes that could be layered – a sleeveless summer dress that could be transformed with the addition of leggings and a shirt into a cold weather dress; long and short-sleeved t-shirts that could be layered. The girls and I have expanded our wardrobes over the summer – me with clothes bought from charity shops and the girls with gifts of clothing from their doting grandmothers. The girls have outgrown or worn through many of the clothes that came with us from Carina and so their new clothes are a natural replacement. Some of the clothes I brought from Carina are now threadbare and the only dignified place for them is the bin.

Those throw-outs aside, we still have more clothing now than when we first arrived. So I’m trying to get myself back into a live aboard mentality and look at these clothes with an eye to their practicality on the boat. It’s hard to do – I know from past experience. The clothes I wear every day when living on the boat are not the same as what I wear when living in a house. Those clothing decisions have a lot less to do with comfort and warmth than with the presence or absence of a washing machine and the amount of storage space we have. So I have to think of my hand-washing, launderette-using self and Carina’s already packed storage spaces when I make decisions about what to bring back to the boat.

We have also accumulated quite a number of new books over the past few months and it pains me to part with any of them, but especially with the children’s books. But I must make some tough choices and also remind myself that books aboard Carina, having not been opened in five and a half months, will contain all the thrills and excitement as if they were new. And I have to remember the stacks of unread books that await me when I return to Carina.

Returning to the UK has given us the opportunity to restock Carina with some much desired food stuffs, but most importanly, tea. Our ongoing search for teabags caused us no end of consternation last year. Tea in Spain and Portugal is, to our tastes, insipid, over-packaged and expensive. But how many packets of 240 Tetley teabags can we pack and what else do we sacrifice in order to maximise our supply of tea? Though our tastes have adapted to virtually all southern European cuisine, large quantities of strong tea is something we can’t bear to be without!

Knowing how much preparation I want to do for our return to Carina, and knowing how quickly I tire these days, I started the job last week. A little bit every day and gradually I’m getting there. So far, summer clothes that won’t fit the girls next summer have gone into a bag for the charity shop, along with clothes I bought from charity shops at the start of summer, but now no longer need. Books have been divided into piles – boat, storage, charity.

Little by little it’s all taking shape. And little by little I’m getting in shape too, excited by the prospect of returning home soon, intrigued to see what the Rio Guadiana is like at this time of year, and wondering where the next few months will take us.

Kick! Kick! Keep going!

A year ago, in the crystal clear waters of Enseada de San Francisco in Ria de Muros, Galicia, Lily swam for the first time. She lifted her legs from the sandy sea bed and splashed and kicked and stayed afloat for two seconds. ‘Just one more time’, she said, and tried again, all afternoon trying and trying again ‘Just one more time’, so that by the end of the afternoon she was swimming for four or five seconds at a time and covering five metres.

But, like everything children learn, her swimming didn’t progress in a smooth linear fashion. There were days when she didn’t want to swim. There were days when she grew frustrated by her attempts and simply couldn’t swim. There were days when she preferred to paddle around with the support of a rubber ring or foam noodle. And there were days when she swam beautifully, making clear progress, wanting to succeed, working hard to push herself to do better. She’s done it all herself. I never intervene or push her. I offer advice and (physical) support when it’s requested. When it comes to swimming, I’m more interested in instilling a love of swimming and playing in water. I hope they learn from the example I set. I sometimes exaggerate my own swimming movements, so they can see the mechanics. But when we are in the water it’s play time. And through play comes learning.

Since Lily’s first tentative but determined strokes in July last year, she can now swim a width of a pool. I don’t know when she figured that out. After watching dolphins one day last year in Ria de Arousa, both girls decided they wanted to swim like dolphins. Katie put her head underwater for the first time (something she now rejoices in) and Lily attempted to emulate the movement of a dolphin – arms by her sides, legs together, face down, moving her whole body through the water. Though she lacks the grace of a dolphin, she now has the confidence to put her head under and swim a short distance. Few things make my heart swell more than the sight of the two of them resurfacing, glistening in the sunshine, water cascading off their little golden bodies, and big grins on their faces.

So Lily’s swimming improved, in an unsystematic and semi-linear sort of way. In early May the girls and I were in the outdoor pool at the youth hostel in Alcoutim (where you can use the pool for free while your laundry is in the washing machine!). Katie had the foam noodle and insisted I provide no help as she slipped in from the side, swam a noodle-assisted width, climbed out and repeated. Lily gingerly climbed in, swimming the occasional width and playing while holding on to the side of the pool. I was on high alert as, at most shallow part of the pool, both girls were still well out of their depth.

After a while, a little boy came along. He was about Lily’s age, but a much stronger swimmer and he could dive properly. I watched Lily watch him. He dove, he leaped and splashed, throwing himself far out into the middle of the pool, disappearing below the surface, resurfacing and swimming to the side.

Lily’s tentative climbing in vanished almost immediately as she tried to copy the boy or outdo him – I’m not sure which. She leaped in, disappeared below the surface, reappeared, swam to the side, climbed out and repeated. Over and over she did this, clearly exulting in this new form of water play. And then she did something else she had never done before. She figured out how to swim on her back. Two new swimming skills in one morning. I was amazed and Lily was delighted.

Later that day and the next we went to the river beach at Alcoutim. With no poolside from which to jump in, Lily used me as a platform, standing on my thighs and leaping in as I crouched in the water. On the second day a boy of about twelve came along. Again, I watched Lily watch him. He dove down, head first, into the water, doing handstands on the sandy river bed. Lily tried and tried but lacked the forward thrust to propel herself downwards. She asked for my help and I assisted by positioning her legs upwards as she went down. It only took a few assisted dives for her to get the hang of it and to touch the river bed.

And what of Katie? Well, here’s the thing. With her usual aversion to any instruction from Julian or me, Katie’s been unwilling to take any friendly advice when it’s offered. She’ll kick her legs but refuses to move her arms. Julian brought the noodle to the beach one day and she discovered the movement potentials of simultaneously moving her arms and legs.

Then it happened. A day after Lily made those dramatic advances in her swimming skills, she decided she was going to teach Katie how to swim. She actually said it: ‘Kate, I’m going to teach you how to swim’. I wasn’t swimming on this particular day, but sitting under an umbrella on the beach, reading and writing. Katie readily agreed to the swimming lesson.

Lily began by holding Katie’s hands, instructing Katie to lift her legs and kick, while Lily walked backwards. ‘Kick, kick’, Lily instructed. ‘Don’t stop’. Both were taking their roles very seriously and there was none of the usual boisterous playfulness. When she thought Katie was ready to use her arms (a couple of minutes later), Lily showed her the proper way to hold her hands, fingers together, hands slightly scooped (Lily herself usually swims fingers splayed and hands flat!). She showed Katie the required arm movements and told Katie to try. ‘Keep going, good girl’, sounded familiar to my ears! The instruction carried on far longer than if Julian or I had attempted it. In a very short space of time Katie was swimming. I couldn’t believe it.

They both called for me to watch (of course I’d been watching over the top of my book all along) and when Katie swam five metres, she stood and gave me two thumbs up. Later, when they came out of the water to dry off, Lily said, ‘Kate, tomorrow I’ll teach you to swim on your back’, a skill Lily herself had discovered 24 hours earlier.

Julian missed out on these days of swimming, so I enjoyed watching his surprise when he next came swimming and discovered that both girls could now swim and Lily had mastered diving and swimming on her back.

Like virtually every aspect of their home educated lives, the girls learn far more through play than through formal instruction. They learn at their own pace and when they are ready. At 4 and 6 years old, I care far more about cultivating their enthusiasm and passion, whether that’s for swimming or the natural world or reading or maths. Learning from and with each other and from and with other children and adults through play and encounter is our path to lifelong passion and desire for learning.

‘Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood’ – Fred Rogers.

‘For a small child there is no division between playing and learning; between the things he or she does ‘just for fun’ and things that are ‘educational’. The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play’ – Penelope Leach.

River anchorage

I’ve written about life at anchor before but each time the experience is different because each anchorage is different. We’ve anchored in calm bays and behind islands, in deserted seas alongside empty golden beaches and amidst crowded moorings. This time we’re in the middle of a fast flowing river, with river banks on either side only 75 metres or less away. Even 22 miles from the sea, the Rio Guadiana is esturine and all day every day the river flows fast downstream on the ebb tide and fast upstream on the flood tide. Carina swings on her chain facing downriver or upriver, in line with the current.

Carina in the middle of the river

Carina in the middle of the river

Our days have some semblance of routine. I get up at 6.20 or 7.20 (I aim for the former, but often the reality is the latter) and write until the girls wake up. Or I leave at 8.30, take the dinghy to Alcoutim to spend a few hours writing and carrying out online research at the library. Some mornings Julian or I go ashore for an early morning walk, some mornings we all go ashore, for a picnic, to run errands or to play.

At some point most mornings either Julian or I do an hour of lessons with the girls – right now Lily’s working on addition with carrying, subtraction and multiplication and on report writing and Katie’s working on reading, recognising numbers in the teens and simple addition. Apart from that all other learning happens organically, in fits and starts, when inspiration knocks on the door. Many of our trips ashore focus on the world around us. Yesterday, for example, we talked about the life cycles of ants, bees and butterflies, we examined the capillary networks of a dead cactus, we examined the roots of a pine tree and talked about the differences between coniferous and deciduous trees.

Any laborious work needs to be accomplished before the day gets too hot. I do small amounts of laundry every three or four days – two small bucketsful of hand washing, and anything that doesn’t fit into those two buckets goes back into the laundry bag for the next laundry day. I use water from a large jerry can refilled whenever we go ashore. I wash and rinse, sitting on the foredeck, the buckets at my feet. In this hot weather, clothes dry on the guard rails in less than two hours and have to be brought in before they dry to boards or bleach in the sun.

This year, for the first time, we have started to use the solar shower that was on board when we bought Carina. This ingenious devise has transformed our lives at anchor. It is simple and highly effective. It is a rubber bag, black on one side, transparent on the other. It holds about 8 litres of water, and has a plastic tap and hose at one end, so when it is hung up on the boom, it works like a shower. We lay it on the foredeck, the black surface facing the sun, and after three hours we have piping hot water. We use this to wash dishes, to shower the girls in the cockpit twice a week (they LOVE their solar shower), and with all modesty and decorum long gone and not caring who might be strolling on deserted rural paths above the river banks, I too shower in the cockpit a couple of times a week. It’s bliss.

We spend most afternoons onboard, shaded from the scorching sun. We try to get the girls to relax, but it’s tough. We encourage them to play quietly with Lego or Play Mobile or jigsaws, or, at the moment, we’ve got a couple of sewing projects on the go – dresses for their dolls and a handbag. We all need to conserve our energy during the hottest part of the day. By 4.30 or 5 we are ready to go out again, and we board the dinghy for Alcoutim bound for the river beach. In mid-May Katie finally got the hang of swimming, and Lily has progressed in a few short weeks from the doggy paddling of last year to proper swimming, swimming on her back, underwater swimming, and diving down to touch the river bed. Julian and I are agog at how suddenly and quickly their swimming skills have developed with no input from us! (I noticed Lily’s improvements came from observing older boys in the water, and she copied them). After a couple of hours on the beach we might join other live aboards for a cold drink at the bar by the beach, returning home around 7.30 to make dinner.

At night, after we’ve eaten dinner in the cockpit, we watch the stars come out one by one, Lily and Katie each eager to spot the first star. By the time we are all ready for bed the sky is awash with stars, the sky clear and bright and unpolluted by artificial light. We’re all in bed by 11pm.

We live at anchor without a fridge, as we rely on one 80 watt solar panel for all our energy requirements. Life without a fridge is no burden. We simply shop for small amounts of fresh food more often at the small shops in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim (for Edenderry readers, think Tommy Lowry’s back in the 1970s!). We use UHT milk which, when once opened, even in the heat of summer, will last a day and a half. Butter melts quickly and we’ll probably soon give up on it and resort to olive oil to moisten our bread.

Each time we go ashore we top up our water supply – in small bottles, the large jerry can, and the solar shower. The longer we can eke out the water supply in our tank, the longer we can stay away from the pontoon. Inevitably, though, after about two weeks (we could probably last a bit longer) we spend two days and one night on the pontoon at Alcoutim, to refill our water tank. We have mains electricity when we are on the pontoon, so it’s an opportunity for the girls to watch some of their favourite DVDs and, if we’re on a stretch of the pontoon with good Wifi access, I might watch some TV shows late at night. And then we’re back on the hook, finding a different spot on the river each time.

It’s a slow and mellow way of life, lived to the rhythms of the river. We come on and off anchor and on and off the pontoon at slack water; we watch for the best times to set out on the river in the dinghy; and we keep an eye on what the wind and tide are doing to us – watching Carina’s distance to other anchored boats and to the river bank, and making sure our anchor chain doesn’t become entangled in the tree trunks and big branches that regularly float along on the current.

It’s not a bad way to experience the world.