Seven years ago…

Today seems like an appropriate day to write this post. On this day seven years ago, Carina became ours. We had spent the summer searching for a suitable boat and had given up hope of finding our new home that year. In mid-September, we moved from Cambridge to Devon and, the night before we made the move, I found Carina online. Not only did she look great but, miraculously, she was only an hour from the Devon town we were moving to the next day. We made an appointment to see her that weekend and immediately fell in love with her. Things moved swiftly and, on that chilly morning of November the 2nd, we transferred the money from our bank account, drove down to Plymouth to sign the papers and Carina was ours.

What an amazing seven years it’s been. She’s been our mode of transportation to amazing places, our school, our office. But more than anything, she’s been our home. The posts in this blog tell the story of the places we’ve been, the things we’ve seen and the adventures we’ve had. Katie was a plump little one-and-a-half-year-old when we first moved aboard Carina, and now she’s a lanky eight-year-old who, as I write, is making me pancakes for breakfast. Carina is the only home that Katie can remember.

Three and a half years ago we found ourselves in the Rio Guadiana. We liked the place and thought we’d stay for a week or ten days. Those of you who read this blog regularly will know it didn’t quite turn out like that. We fell in love with the place and three and half years later we are still here and our love for the place has matured and deepened.

And so, this summer, we made a decision that has been brewing for some time. We decided to move ashore. A few reasons underlie our decision. The main reason is that Carina is now too small for us. Julian has felt uncomfortable aboard for some time. Given that he’s 6’2”, big and broad, there are no comfortable spaces for him as he squeezes around the saloon table, crouches down to get to our bed in the aft cabin, and sits on saloon sofas that are too small for him. The girls are growing too, and taking after their dad when it comes to height. Before long I’ll be looking up at all three of them.

As I’ve written in posts before, like many live aboard families, our financial situation is such that we’ve had to work our way to this lifestyle. For the first few years, I worked winters and we cruised summers. After a few months of living on the Rio Guadiana, when Lily and Katie had already been in school in Sanlúcar for four months, we had our first winter where we didn’t earn any money. So, when spring rolled around, we knew that if we wanted to stay longer we needed to make some money.

What started out as occasional work teaching English and doing academic editing, has grown and grown until it is now full-time work for me and almost half-time work for Julian. I now have three very satisfying jobs – as an English teacher, an academic editor and a researcher and marketer for an online company. The diversity of the jobs keeps me on my toes and, currently, there’s no risk I’ll get bored any time soon. Julian’s English teaching hours are also growing and he works now and again for an old local man who needs someone younger, more agile and with better eyesight to help him refurbish his boat.

My online work means that I need my own space to work – an office where I can work undisturbed and the space around to spread out my work materials – my notebooks, my calendars, my lists. My online and editing work often requires me to work early in the morning or late at night, so my live aboard options – taking myself ashore to the library or a bar – were becoming increasingly untenable, not to mention frustrating on those days when I arrived in Alcoutim to discover there was a public holiday and the library was closed, or when I sat in my favourite bar in Sanlúcar and spend the morning talking to all the people who dropped by my table to say hello. I’m pathologically social, so finding a way to separate work time from socialising time became critical.

House-sitting for our friends over the summer opened my eyes to something else, which was the thing that finally convinced me to move ashore. It wasn’t the space of living in a house that seduced me. It was the time. The speed at which I could do things in a house suddenly made me realise how much time living aboard Carina was taking. It wasn’t just the time taken to bring the girls to and from school by dinghy. That was lovely, the early morning river, the time to chat as we rowed home from school. There was all the other motoring or rowing up and down the river – to get to English lessons, to get to a place where I could do my online work, to get to the youth hostel to do laundry, to go shopping. Each trip ashore took time and planning, Julian and I coordinating laundry trips with collecting the girls from school; coordinating English teaching with the girls’ after school activities. But apart from the dinghy rides to and from the villages multiple times a day there was the time it took to do everything onboard Carina. Cooking, washing dishes, boiling the kettle, showering, getting dressed, tidying up. Everything takes so much more time aboard a small boat than in a house.

None of that mattered when we were cruising and had time on our hands. In fact, there was a great joy and freedom in that slowing down, which I now miss. But now we have children with busy social lives – after school activities and friends with whom they want to run around the village – and we are busy parents with a lot of working hours, each one of those minutes is precious. Living in a house during the summer I was shocked to discover how quickly I could do laundry, take a shower, get dressed, and how much time that opened up in my day. What a revelation. I realised I had lost the time to enjoy the boat, to sit out on deck reading a book, to take in the sunset while sipping a glass of wine. Life had become rush rush rush.

One way we could deal with that would be to give it all up. Take the girls out of school, give up the teaching, embrace the cruising life once more and set sail. But that wouldn’t solve the space problem and it would create a whole new problem. You see, some time over the past year or two, Sanlúcar became home. All too often in the past I have left places I love before I was ready to leave – Sue-machi in Japan and Arviat in Nunavut – and I don’t want to do the same to this place.

 

So, we made what was, for me and for the girls at least, the sad decision to leave our home and make a new home in the village. There have been tears. There was the day in late August when Lily, Katie and I went down to Carina for a couple of hours to do some packing, but completely failed. First Lily started to cry, and then all three of us were crying and hugging each other and the idea of packing up our home was too distressing. We just sat there feeling miserable and reminiscing about the good times we’d had on board. A couple of weeks later I cleared Carina out on my own, business-like and not allowing myself to get emotional.

 

We have moved into a lovely house, high up in the village, with a view over the roof of the church and the old windmills. We have two bedrooms, two (two!!) bathrooms, an office, a spacious living room, a kitchen with an open fire, and big back yard. We have lovely neighbours and Lily’s and Katie’s friends knock on the door every morning and they all walk to school together.

 

Meanwhile, Carina sits on a mooring a few hundred metres downriver. I haven’t been back to see her since we moved off. I want to visit her, but I’ve had back problems (brought on by the move) and have been unable to do so. As soon as my back improves I want to row down to visit her, maybe spend a night onboard, take time to appreciate her as she looked when we first bought her. Soon we will put her up for sale. Who knows, she might sell in days (as happened when we bought her) or she might take months or even years to sell. For as long as we have her here we can visit her, go for trips on her. But that’s not the same. We are no longer liveaboards. That phase of our lives is over and now we have moved on to something else. The girls have been confused by their mixed emotions – sadness at leaving Carina and excitement about moving into a house. I’ve tried to explain that that’s how things are, that mix of emotions is often how we experience change in our lives.

 

Maybe we’ll live aboard another boat someday but, for now, we have become landlubbers once again.

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Who needs autohelm?

I knew the day would come when sailing with children finally paid off. All those years of lifting kids onto and off pontoons, into and out of the dinghy, onto and off their too-high bed. All that neediness when Carina leaned hard or when we sailed in rough weather. All the near solo sailing when one or other of us (usually me) was engaged in full-time child-minding. Finally, payday has arrived.

Carina has temporarily escaped the clutches of the Guadiana Gloop, that elemental force of the Rio Guadiana that sucks sailors upriver and refuses to let go. With only one week of school holidays remaining, we decided to make our way down river. Our reasons were four-fold. 1. Katie is forever begging us to go sailing; 2. A change is as good as a holiday; 3. We wanted to avoid the noisy weekend music festival in Alcoutím; and 4. Carina is in need of repairs, and one way to find out what’s working and what’s not is to take her out for a run to test her under engine and under sail.

The girls were excited at the prospect of sailing and were both up and eager shortly after our 7.30am departure from the Alcoutím pontoon, where we briefly stopped to fill up the water tank.

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Katie has it all under control

We motored down to Ayamonte, retracing the journey I had so recently made with Roy aboard Sea Warrior. Julian and I helmed for about twenty minutes of the more than three hour passage. The rest of the time, Lily and Katie helmed, taking turns at the wheel. Julian and I had a relaxing passage, keeping an eye that the helmsgirls were not driving us towards a rocky shore, into shallows, or directly into oncoming vessels.

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Lily on the helm

I smiled to see them so relaxed and so keen, and laughed out loud when Katie, so cocksure at the helm, asked, ‘Mum, how come if kids are allowed to drive boats, they’re not allowed to drive cars?’ All I could say in reply was, ‘Keep your eyes on the river, Katie, you’re veering towards the riverbank’.

Between Lily’s expert cups of tea and pancake-making skills, and now two human autohelms, this parenting business is starting to pay off. If only I could get them to tidy up the incessant mess, my work here would be done.

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.