Sailing with Roy

‘Do you have any sailing plans for this summer?’ I asked my friend Roy in early June.

‘I don’t think so’, he replied. ‘I enjoy sailing more when I’ve got someone onboard to share the experience with’.

We’ve known Roy for a couple of years now, another Rio Guadiana live aboard, on Sea Warrior, his Great Barrier 48.

I walked away from Roy that day and a couple of hours later a thought struck me. Would Roy go sailing if I went along? With Julian working five days a week, Carina hasn’t been out of the river in over two years, and I’ve been itching to go sailing for ages. The next time I met Roy, I put it to him. He thought it was a great idea. In mid-July the girls would be in Ireland with their Granny and if I could rearrange some commitments I had in Alcoutím, I would be free to go sailing for a week or so. A few days later everything was sorted out, and Roy and I agreed to set sail a couple of days after I returned from Ireland on July 18th. Roy agreed to provision Sea Warrior, and I would pay for my share of the food and drink once I got aboard.

On Thursday afternoon, July 20th, I climbed aboard Sea Warrior at her anchorage upriver of Alcoutím. After a cup of tea and a walk through the boat, we were ready to set sail.

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Rio The bridge linking Spain and Portugal across the Rio Guadiana

And sail we did. Before we had even reached Sanlúcar (which lies slightly upriver from its Portuguese neighbour Alcoutím) the mizzen was raised, the headsail unfurled, the engine cut and we enjoyed a delightful four-hour, 20-mile sail almost all the way to the mouth of the Guadiana. We were forced to motor only once, for the few minutes it took to round the S-bend upriver of Laranjeiras, when the wind came from the wrong direction and Sea Warrior was stopped in her tracks. Roy was keen to get sailing again before we passed Laranjeiras and Sea Warrior’s former owner, Scot. We achieved it, our shouts rousing Scot from his mid-afternoon siesta, as we sailed past and he none the wiser!

How different the river feels when sailed. With the engine running, the passage downriver is drowned in noise and one passes along rather than through the landscape. Without the engine roar we were immersed in a soundscape of birdsong, sheep bells, the wind in the sails and the sounds of the river itself. At times our attention was drawn to a fish leaping from the water; the first leap a mere flash of silver in the corner of the eye; the second a foot-long fish, moving at speed through the air, droplets of river water glistening in the sun. If we were lucky, we were treated to a third leap, but never a fourth, and had to wait patiently until another glint of silver caught the eye.

We pointed out egrets to each other, white cotton bolls on spindly legs patrolling the exposed muddy edge of the river.

For the first few miles we passed the boats, homesteads and fincas of friends and acquaintances and the farther we came downriver, the lower and sparser the hills until almost at the bridge that connects Spain and Portugal, where the riverbank gives way to a wide floodplain.

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We anchored upriver of the bridge, near a small tributary on the Portuguese side, where a herd of brown and cream coloured cows (presumably, one type for producing milk chocolate and the other for white chocolate!) grazed at the river’s edge.

The next day, with a strong wind in the wrong direction, we motored under the bridge, filled up with diesel and petrol at the fuel pontoon at Vila Real de Santo Antonio and crossed the river to anchor south of Ayamonte. It was a lazy day. I did a couple of hours work (one of the joys of my editing job is that I can do it wherever and whenever so long as I bring my computer and my brain with me), and spent the rest of the day reading and chatting with Roy.

We set our alarm clocks for 5am the next morning, with a 5.30 start in mind. But by the time we’d had a cup of tea, stowed everything out of harm’s way and battened down the hatches, it was 6am when Roy weighed anchor. What luck! Within minutes we had once again thrown the sails out, turned off the engine, and were making our way out of the Rio Guadiana and sailing west towards Ilha da Culatra with a Force 7 abaft the beam. For three hours we made good ground, with wind and tide in our favour. It was exhilarating to be sailing on the ocean again, although Roy’s idea of sailing – to set the autohelm and go to sleep – is somewhat different to sailing Carina, where we don’t even have a properly functioning autohelm! I teased Roy about his ‘Ghost helmsman’ for the rest of the trip.

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(I jest about Roy, of course! He’s very careful and I was on watch when I took this photo).

After three hours the wind died to nothing and there was nothing for it but to motor the rest of the way. Even so, we had a tremendously pleasant time. Not a cloud in the bright blue sky, the seawater almost peacock blue, and the white sandy Algarve beaches almost too bright to look at.

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The sea really was this blue!

We rounded the mole at Culatra at 1pm and were anchored amongst the boats of friends in time for lunch. Since September 2014, when we spent nine days at Culatra aboard Carina, I have longed to come back. My only regret this time was that Lily and Katie weren’t with me. When I phoned to tell them all about what I was getting up to in Culatra neither of them could remember it, so I emailed them photos of themselves there three years ago, to try to jog their memories.

Culatra is a remarkable sand barrier island. The small village is built on the sand, with concrete and wooden walkways as streets. There are no cars, and only a few tractors and golf buggies. Much of the Rio Guadiana live aboard community decamps to Culatra in the summer, where the temperatures are cooler than upriver. Roy and I got to catch up with many of our friends  – meeting them in the local bars, or visiting them on their boats.

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Culatra fishermen waiting for their skipper and a night at sea

Sea Warrior sat at anchor off Culatra for five nights, and we went ashore each day for walks along the long sandy beach, to swim in the Atlantic and to drink beer with friends. We visited Ray and Pat one day aboard Tinto, walking across the sand to the catamaran, but having to be chauffeured back ashore when the tide came in and the beach was now 100 metres away!

Back on Sea Warrior I got away with doing only two hours computer work each day, the rest of my time was devoted to reading and gazing at the beautiful seascape. I distinctly remember the last time I did so little – the spring of 2005 when I went on a week-long holiday to Lanzarote with my mother and sister. Those five days in Culatra recharged my batteries, leaving me keen and eager to throw myself headlong into some summer projects.

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…and, in a desperate bid to escape my incessant talking…..

At 8am Thursday morning we weighed anchored and motored away from our mill-pond still anchorage. Given the weather forecast, we fully expected to motor all the way back to the Guadiana, but about an hour in we decided to give sailing a go. After some adventure involving a stubborn halyard and a daredevil ascent of the main mast, Roy raised the mainsail and the mizzen and unfurled the headsail and upside down sail. Although there was no hope of us ever winning a race, we pleasantly made our way east at between 3.5 and 5 knots. The sea was flat with a surface like cellulite rather than glass! What bliss. Sea Warrior smoothly made her way through the water and about ten hours after leaving Culatra we were once again at the mouth of the Guadiana. How far would Sea Warrior’s sails take us, we wondered? Past Vila Real? Past Ayamonte? Under the bridge? In fact, she took us all the way to our anchorage, once again back by the tributary and the chocolate-flavoured cows.

We didn’t have the tide in our favour until the middle of the next afternoon, so after a lazy morning and leisurely lunch, we started out up the river. For three hours we pootled along under motor, the head sail giving us an extra half knot of speed. Before long, we were passing familiar stretches of riverbank, once again pointing out the boats and plots of land belonging to our friends. As we passed Casa Amarilla, Claire waved down to us from her balcony and, as we slowly motored past Sanlúcar seeking a space on the pontoon, I heard someone shouting ‘Hola Martina’. Though I couldn’t at first see where it was coming from, I recognised the unmistakable voice of Steve. By the time I spotted him on his balcony Lynne was out too, shouting her hellos at me. Though I was sorry to be at the end of our trip, I was happy to be coming home.

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One of the many delicious vegetarian meals Roy cooked for me.

Despite the Ghost helmsman, Roy proved an excellent skipper and an even better friend. I learned some new recipes from him, he restored my confidence in my own sailing abilities, and he inspired me to attempt some boat maintenance tasks aboard Carina. Alas, he broke my heart. We weren’t an hour back in Sanlúcar, enjoying a cold beer with friends, as I awaited the arrival of my hardworking husband, when Roy started hatching a plan to sail to Culatra again next week with another woman!! These fickle sailors!

Reflecting and resolving

Like many people, the end of the year is, for me, a time for reflecting on the year that has past and looking forward to the year to come. I’m a consummate list maker. Few things in life make me happier than drawing ‘job done’ lines through the items on my to-do lists. And the list par excellence is, of course, the list of New Year’s resolutions (I know, I know! ‘Get a bloody life, Martina’, I hear you scream, ‘You control freak!’). So, as 2015 drew to a close, I reflected on last year’s list to see where I had succeeded and where I had, ahem, not succeeded quite so much, and I started to think ahead to what I hope to achieve in 2016.

So there were the ‘take care of my body’ resolutions – quit drinking, quit processed sugar, exercise more; the ‘writing’ resolutions – finish my book, write ten blog posts per month, keep a daily journal; and the ‘be a better person’ resolutions – be more patient with the children, give Julian a break.

How did I do? I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol from December 28th 2014 to November 10th 2015. A bottle of locally produced red wine, left on our saloon table by the guy who was taking care of our boat while we were away, broke me. I’ve had a beer or wine most days since then. Why did I want to quit alcohol? Since I returned to drinking post-pregnancy and post-breastfeeding, I haven’t drunk very much. I certainly haven’t been drunk for over seven years. But I don’t need it, and I didn’t miss it while I was off it.

Quit processed sugar? Those of you who have been following my Christmas baking extravaganza will know how well I got on with that one! I think I had three weeks sugar free in January, and then my will broke. That stuff is too damn addictive.

I didn’t exercise more in 2015, but neither did I exercise less. Walking and swimming, but I wanted to do more.

I didn’t finish my book, but as I write, I’m looking at an end of February completion date and then the fun of trying to find a publisher begins. I published 103 blog posts, which averages a little under nine a month, and if my computer hadn’t died mid-way through December I would have posted a couple more. The daily journal had an entry most days, probably 320 out of 365. My morning ramblings helped keep me calm, focused and de-stressed.

As for being more patient with the girls and giving Julian a break, well, let’s just say I’m a work in progress. But I find when I’m happy with what I’m doing – writing what I want to write, achieving my own goals, I’m more patient with my nearest and dearest.

It was a year of ups and downs, of joys and sorrows, but a year that, upon reflection, I feel I grew (and not only because of the sugar addiction). In practical ways I knew more by the end of the year than I did at the start. I went from speaking almost no Spanish to some, I figured out ways to be more sustainable and frugal aboard Carina, and I learned to be a better writer. I like to think I became more patient and more slow to get my knickers in a twist (I use my cool reaction to the recent breakdown of our laptop as evidence of the new me).

So what are my hopes and resolutions for 2016? The list is long, naturally, and falls into different categories. The ‘take care of my body’ resolutions again include forsaking alcohol and exercise. I haven’t touched a drop since December 30th and I have dreams and plans for a lot of walking this year. I’m not talking short little jaunts. I want to don a backpack and walk for days on end (hint hint hint to a couple of friends who I know read this blog…you know who you are!). Reading a lot of walking and wilderness books last year has given me the bug.

There are the ‘writing’ resolutions of course. The book will be finished (and soon) and I have other short and long term projects to complete or set in motion. And I have a new daily writing project, the details of which I am keeping to myself for the moment, as I’m hoping it might evolve into something else.

And then there are the ‘learning something new’ resolutions. By the end of 2016 I want to have completed the Duolingo Spanish course; and, wait for it, I want to teach myself meteorology! I’m serious! I’ve wanted to for a long time, and this will be the year I do it! Besides, I want to improve my handling, sailing and boat maintenance skills, learning to do the things I currently leave to Julian.

There’s method to all this madness. These are not my hobbies to squeeze in around the rest of my life. This is my life. As I’ve discovered, learning Spanish makes life in Spain easier and far more interesting. Improving my boat skills and learning meteorology will make me a better sailor, make life aboard Carina safer for everyone, and take some of the burden from Julian.

Plus, those of you who know me well know that I don’t do sitting down and doing nothing very well. My sister once commented that coming to visit me was like going for a week to a ‘fat farm’. Go go go!! So, in the absence of a ‘proper job’ I have to do something to keep myself busy, active and out of harms way!

I’ll look back on this blog post in a year’s time and see how I got on with my 2016 New Year’s resolutions.

(In)experience

Julian and I are often quite conscious of our lack of sailing experience. Since buying Carina over four years ago we have met so many people with vastly more experience than us. People who have grown up aboard boats; people who have sailed the world three times over; people who have been professional sailors; people who have taught sailing. We have also met people who were less experienced than us when they started out. But for the most part, the other live aboard sailors we meet are more experienced than we are.

Recently we met Tom, an elderly man from Cullen in Scotland, who has been sailing since he was ‘a wee laddie’. Before he was 13 years old he picked shellfish, sold them and saved up his earnings to buy his first little boat and then sailed it out to sea to fish for mackerel so he could earn the money to buy an outboard motor. By the time he was 16 he was a cook aboard a North Sea fishing vessel. He was a professional sailor for years and now lives on his own boat. The sea is in his blood. He’s as cool and at home on the sea as most people are at their land-lubber kitchen tables. He talks like a sailor, using nautical language that I at times struggle to understand.

We told him how inexperienced we were. He quickly corrected us.
‘How did you get here?’ he asked. ‘Did you have the boat shipped down overland?’
No, we said, and told him the route we had taken from Plymouth to Falmouth, across the English Channel to Brittany, from there across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia, down the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula, into the Mediterranean, along Mediterranean Spain, across to Morocco, back out of the Mediterranean again, and up the Rio Guadiana to our current location.

‘When you crossed the English Channel you did more than 80% of the people in the marina you left behind in Plymouth’ he said. ‘When you crossed the Bay of Biscay you did more than 99% of them. So don’t tell me you’re inexperienced’.

It’s easy to feel inexperienced when you are always surrounded by people so much more experienced. And we still are novices. We haven’t crossed any oceans, we have no two week or six week ocean passages under our belts. We haven’t experienced any great violent storms. But we are also cautious sailors. Our pleasant and mostly uneventful crossing of the Bay of Biscay, one of the world’s great patches of rough ocean, was as much due to careful planning and weather watching, and going when the conditions were right, as it was to beginner’s luck. I have no yearning for near death experiences at sea, I have no desire to put my children in danger. So we sail carefully and cautiously – departing quickly and suddenly because conditions are right, or hanging around for days or weeks waiting for the right conditions.

I’m not saying we won’t or don’t experience danger or that our lives won’t be threatened by the conditions we find ourselves in. That’s life. But we are cautious enough not to put ourselves in the way of danger. When we one day make those big ocean crossings (as we hope to) we will plan carefully and go when the crew, the boat and the meteorological conditions are right.

Every time we put to sea, every time we anchor, or raise the sails, or face a storm, or come alongside a pontoon, or do the thousand other things we do, we gain a little more experience. We are not the greenhorns we were when we set sail for Ireland in the summer of 2012. But neither are we this Scottish sailor Tom or Paudi Kelly, or the Dutch guy I met in La Palue, or Ruth and Duncan, or Hazel and Dave or the others we know whose ease and comfort makes us blush at our own ineptitude. We don’t yet, and maybe never will, have their levels of experience.

But Tom made a point that was both enlightening and sobering. ‘You can no longer use inexperience as an excuse for the mistakes you make’, he said. We have sailed a long way from our home port, powered in part by bravado, hubris and optimism. But the sailing we have done comes with a heavy responsibility – to not get ourselves in trouble, to not have others endanger their lives to rescue us, because we’ve done something stupid or intemperate. Everyone has accidents, everyone runs into trouble from time to time, but when something goes wrong we cannot plead inexperience. Having come this far it is our responsibility to act on the experience we have and to use that knowledge and skill wisely in every new situation we face.

After that discussion about (in)experience, Tom presented us with a jar of peanut butter and a jar of his own home made mango chutney. Wise words and food – he’s won me over!

Green living

by Julian

Modern consumerism and its effects on the world’s oceans has been mentioned in recent blog posts by Martina (Leviathan and Behemoth and Picking through the plastic). A lot of energy is required to power our convenience filled lifestyles – energy mostly supplied by the increasingly more complicated and risky extraction of fossil fuels. The ever growing quantity of carbon in our atmosphere has been demonstrated, by scientific methods which show a characteristic isotope fingerprint, to be partly a result of the burning of fossil fuels. The related warming of the planet produces even more atmospheric carbon. It looks like we have tipped the balance and are warming the planet at a faster rate over the last half century than at any time in the past few millennia (this is shown by methods such as Arctic and Antarctic ice core studies). As a former geophysicist and glaciologist, who has worked with climate and ice core scientists, and published academic papers on the topic, I have some insight into this and am not glibly stating stuff presented in the mass media.

I have always been conscious of the need to save energy and resources but I have rarely acted on this with any serious effort. However, I have started thinking about how our current lifestyle onboard Carina has caused us to adapt in ways that seriously curtail our use of non-renewable energy and resources. Being at anchor and living on a tight budget forces us to do this.

Here are some of the ways we have minimised our non-renewable resource use:

We have an 80W solar panel. Summer in southern Europe provides plenty of sunlight, but our panel is not sufficient to run our fridge, charge our computer and run the domestic and navigation lighting. We have to be selective about our electricity use. The fridge was the first thing to go. We don’t need it. Instead, we buy small quantities of fresh food every day and use the fridge as a storage space.

As our light bulbs and fittings failed I started to replace them with LEDs. Now all our main domestic lighting uses LEDs and this has cut electricity for lighting to less than 20% of previous use without cutting down on light. In fact, in some cabins we now have better light than before. The latest technology in LEDs has fast created a whole array of options from harsh white light to softer light and bulbs are produced for all sorts of DC light fittings.

Last year Martina and I decided to trade in our four-stroke Yamaha outboard motor for a small two-stroke Mariner, partly because the Yamaha was becoming unreliable and partly because Martina could barely lift it, so getting it from Carina into the dinghy was a nightmare. An advantage of the trade in that I hadn’t considered is how little fuel a 2-stroke engine uses. Motoring twice or even three times a day between Carina and the shore, often against a strong current, and with four people aboard the dinghy, a 5-litre can of petrol lasts two weeks.

Next comes water use. At anchor we have to conserve water and we switch from electric water pump to foot pump, which minimises our consumption. It’s amazing how little water you actually need to brush your teeth, cook food or wash the dishes. Another revelation this year has been digging out the old solar shower. We can enjoy a good hot shower in the cockpit using very little water, heated directly from the sun. Sometimes the water gets too hot so we have to be careful! We also handwash our laundry, which is not too onerous if doing a little every couple of days and the clothes dry well in the spring/summer heat.

I have started to forage again. Unfortunately, we arrived on the river too late for the spinach and asparagus seasons, but I just caught the wild fennel and there is a lot of mint and rosemary planted around the towns. The grass near the beach at Sanlucar is overrun by mint and Martina says it makes great tea. I have collected oranges and lemons from the odd stray tree, neglected and not on anybody’s land. (A lot of land around the river is fenced off – people seem to like their oranges to rot on the ground rather than people being able to collect them). I am looking forward to the profusion of figs and plums ripening, and I hope the olives, almonds and grapes will follow.

Needless to say this is a mere drop in the ocean of the sort of  reduction in consumption that we all need to do. Even environmentally conscious people such as ourselves have only taken these steps because of our circumstances rather than out of a conscious drive.

But I am pleased by our efforts that benefit both the planet and our bank balance. Sailing (rather than motoring) nearly all the way here from the Mediteranean, even passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, against the normally prevailing current, pleased me a lot. I certainly felt good about not having an expensive fill up with diesel when we got here.

The important thing is that we don’t miss the conveniences, really we don’t! Life is simple and enjoyable. Life can be pretty good without a fridge, even in the summer heat. There’s a great river to swim in, great walks along the river bank, food for free, and healthy fresh air to breathe. I’d give up my fridge for that any day.

Plans, panic and Portugal

By Martina and Julian

For just a moment we thought about sailing to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. The Belgian sailors on neighbouring pontoons at Barbate were preparing for the five-day passage and it sparked the idea in us. They told us the marina in Las Palmas is cheap, and we thought there must surely be work to be had in the tourist and hospitality sectors over summer, and we could overwinter there with relative ease. The only problem with Las Palmas marina is that it is booked solid from October to December by the organised flotillas that depart for the Caribbean at that time of year. But surely we could find a way around that by moving to a different island for a couple of months. There was a weather window opening up in 36 hours and we’d need to be ready to go. The possibilities swirled around in our heads.

And then the possibilities were followed by questions. Do we have charts for the Canaries? No. Does our insurance cover sailing in the Canaries? No. And in the remote marina in Barbate we had no internet access and it was a long walk into town to find free Wifi to carry out some research. No point thinking ‘there must be jobs in Las Palmas’. We needed to know for sure. Five days of sailing southwest out into the Atlantic along the northwest coast of Africa is a long way to go with no idea if there really are jobs. Such a voyage requires more than 36 hours of planning and preparation.

Besides, we had spent all winter in a marina, in a sizable town and we longed for a quiet anchorage, rural living, away from it all. Las Palmas, the biggest city on the islands, would be going directly towards it all. So we stuck to our original plan to set out the next day for an overnight passage to the Rio Guadiana, the river border between Spain and Portugal.

The Guadiana has to be entered at half-flood in order to clear the bar at its mouth. Figuring we would make an average speed of 4.5 knots, we foresaw a 21-hour passage, departing Barbate at noon to reach the Guadiana at 9am the next morning. Martina took the girls shopping for supplies for the overnight passage while Julian did his boat preparations and then he took them for a walk through the coastal pine forests while Martina did her prep.

Shortly before noon we slipped our lines and gently motored out of Barbate. Heading west, the wind was in our faces as we rounded Cabo Trafalgar. We got a good look at the double tombolas, and were surprised not to see any kites, given the profusion of kites and kite surfers we’d seen on previous land and sea visits to the Cabo. Lily was in the cockpit with us and we told her about the Battle of Trafalgar and Admiral Nelson and Julian filled us in on the details and reasons for his death. Perhaps morbidly, we imagined him dying in the exact spot we now passed over.

Once abreast of the Cabo we cut the motor, threw out the sails and headed northwest for the remainder of the passage. Well, mostly northwest. The previous day, in Barbate, Martina had watched an animated explanation of the workings of the huge tuna nets used along this coast, and now we came upon one right in our path. Julian tacked away southwest for fifteen minutes or so to get around it, giving us a chance to see it at close quarters, the entrance net and the various dead ends and enclosures that corral the tuna into the final net where they are corralled by the fishermen’s boats in a style of fishing known as almadraba.

Half an hour later, back on our northwest heading, we saw the dorsal fin of a female orca, as she swam in the direction of the tuna net, following those same red tuna that make the region such rich fishing grounds.

It was a lively sail with the wind occasionally reaching a steady 18 knots. We sailed 60˚ off-wind, making the strength of the wind feel greater than it was. All our sails were out and we leaned hard. The leaning, coupled with the one-metre swell from the southwest, made for an uncomfortable sail, particularly for anyone below decks and especially for anyone attempting to sleep. Even Lily and Katie, who usually sleep well when we sail, were disturbed by these conditions and slept fitfully.

The wind refused to die down overnight as winds often do, and rather than making an average top speed of 4.5 or 5 knots we spanked (thank you Chris on Tallulah May for gifting us this word) along at over 6 knots for most of the journey. If this kept up, we would reach the Guadiana way too early.

In late afternoon, Julian went below to try to catch some sleep. Cadiz lay ahead, the giant suspension bridge towering above the city. Seven months ago, the last time we saw the bridge, it was two separate pieces, not yet meeting in the middle. But now it was complete and a colossus. It seemed to take forever to get past Cadiz. Martina had been looking at Cadiz slowly changing perspective against Carina for over two hours and was level with the city when Julian took the helm at 7pm. For four more hours we sailed northwest at over 6 knots, and as day turned to night the two red lights on top of the bridge lit the sky. When Martina took over again at 11pm those lights could still been seen faintly in the distance, over twenty miles away.

Once darkness fell, Julian sailed with the bright lights to the north of Cadiz on one side and the bright lights of a line of merchant ships at anchor on the other.

Martina’s attempts at sleep failed as she shared the aft berth with Lily and Katie who, despite not being tired, had decided to go to bed, and played in bed for three hours with Martina occasionally yelling at them and kicking them out because they were coming between her and sleep. So Martina was not in the best of moods when she took the helm from 11pm to 2am. And because of the uncomfortable swell and the leaning of the boat, Julian only managed about ten minutes sleep during his down time. At 2am we swapped places, and Martina slept soundly for two and a half hours. At 5am we swapped places again.

Because of the speed we had maintained all night, we were still set to reach the mouth of the Guadiana two hours earlier than we wanted. When Martina took the helm at 5am the lights of Spain and Portugal were close and she could already see the leading lights into harbour entrances along the coast.

Julian had just fallen into his first deep sleep of the journey when Martina shouted him awake. ‘Why’s there a cardinal mark right here’ and a few seconds later ‘Shit, I’ve just nudged a large buoy with no light’. Martina was in a panic. ‘There’s a whole line of buoys’ she yelled and Julian leapt into the cockpit. He ran to the bow to look ahead and urgently shouted back ‘Turn right, turn right’. Martina turned left. We ploughed straight into a fishing net, briefly dragging a line of buoys. Luckily, we quickly lost the net and were past the danger. Looking back, we saw an array of bright yellow flashing lights, lit up like a Christmas tree. Martina claimed ‘Honestly, I didn’t see the lights. Well I did, but I thought they were lights on shore’.

Before going back to bed, Julian brought in the genoa and mizzen sails and told Martina to carry on for another hour or two and then tack away from shore. But we continued to make too much way. Martina was spooked because of the incident with the fishing net, had momentarily lost her confidence and no longer trusted her judgement. What if all the lights that she thought were on shore are actually only 100 metres away? And the depth gauge showed that we were losing depth at a rapid rate. 18 metres, 17.5, 17. If it kept dropping at this rate we’d be on land in ten minutes. She called Julian up again. We decided to tack away from shore now, sailing an hour or two into the darkness. But Julian was too tired to sail and wanted to get his head down for a little longer. The sailing was difficult on this heading, with local fishing boats bobbing around in the darkness, lobster pots to be slalomed through, and other nets like the one we’d just passed over. So we decided to bring in the mainsail and motor. For the next two hours we pottered around, doing 2 knots, not going anywhere, while we waited to enter the river and while Julian attempted to get more sleep.

At 8am we decided to go for it, and gingerly made our way towards the 500 metre wide river mouth. We began our entry into the river at exactly half-flood, carefully picking out the buoys marking the channel, whose helpful lights went out fifteen minutes earlier. But in early morning the trials of the night were left far behind us. We had a choice of Vila Real de Santo Antonio marina on the Portuguese side of the river or Ayamonte marina on the Spanish side. Keeping a close eye on the depth gauge, there seemed to be plenty of water and we entered the Guadiana comfortably, the swell subsiding as we passed behind the long breakwater at the mouth of the river. All of a sudden we were accompanied by the shrill cacophony of multitudes of terns diving for fish. The peaceful sandy and muddy riverbanks felt very different to anywhere we have been for a long time.

As we came alongside Vila Real de Santo Antonio we saw a space on the outside pontoon. Within minutes we were tied up, Martina was making breakfast and we were back in Portugal again.

The scientist and the housewife

When someone asks what you do, how do you reply? What is your occupation? Does your occupation define you? Do others define you by your occupation?

When we arrived at Marina Smir in Morocco, Julian took our documents to the border police, located in the same building as the marina office. He was asked his occupation. After a moment’s hesitation, he replied ‘scientist’. He was then asked my occupation. Again, he hesitated and in the moment’s hesitation the policeman suggested ‘housewife’. Julian said yes. So, on official documentation, Julian Scott, scientist, and Martina Tyrrell, housewife, arrived in Morocco on April 18th.

So here’s the thing. Julian hasn’t worked as a scientist for the past four years. But he’s no less a scientist now than he was when he made a living from science. He thinks like a scientist, he works through problems in a scientific methodical way. His engagement with the world around him is partly informed by his training and experience as a scientist.

But am I a housewife? Apart from the obvious fact that I don’t live in a house (!), how close does that description come to who I am? By training, I am an anthropologist and over the years I have variously described my professional self as anthropologist, human geographer, social scientist, lecturer, academic. In the past year I’ve earned a living as an English teacher and a writer.

Behind all of those paid jobs is a way of engaging with the world that is heavily influenced by my anthropological background. I can’t switch my social scientist self off any more than Julian can switch his scientist self off.

I am a ‘boat-wife’ as much as Julian is a ‘boat-husband’. We are both responsible for running our home and for raising and educating our children. We’ve both been occupational wanderers throughout our adult lives, moving from one profession to another, never seeming to settle on any one thing. But all those career moves have been linked, directly or indirectly, to the scientist and anthropologist that are central to how we define ourselves. But I guess in that moment of hesitation Julian didn’t quite know how to define me in a way that would fit neatly onto an immigration document. (I’ll generously give him the benefit of the doubt!)

I remember going to NCT antenatal classes when I was pregnant with Lily. At the first session the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves, but not to mention our professions. She didn’t want anyone forming preconceived impressions based on the occupations of our classmates. Of course we all soon became great friends and hung out together after our eight babies were born. (Hello Ladies!!) But it was interesting in those first few weeks of getting to know one another to have to define ourselves in ways other than what we did to earn money. It probably did remove a lot of preconceptions.

But how would I have answered the question if I had taken our documents to the Moroccan border police? I probably would have hesitated. And then I’d have answered in the way I have filled in official forms for the past four years: Martina Tyrrell, anthropologist; Julian Scott, house-husband!

Marbella to Marina Smir

As the high rise holiday apartment developments thin out west of Benalmádena, the coastal woodlands gradually increase so that, to the east of Marbella, the more expensive and up-market holiday developments are nestled amongst shady copses of dark-green leaved trees.

We stopped at Marbella simply to make the crossing to Morocco shorter. The passage from Benalmádena was a mere three hours and we arrived in Marbella in the early afternoon, in plenty of time to hit the beach and then to explore the town after supper.

We almost didn’t get a berth at the marina, arriving as we did at the start of a weekend regatta. But they squeezed us in for a whopping €28. I was tempted to say ‘no thanks’, rather than hand that much money over.

The beach was a stone’s throw from the marina and we quickly changed into our swimsuits and, for once, all four of us spent the afternoon on the beach. Much of the beach was taken up with rows of umbrella-shaded sun loungers. Like all resorts, daily rental of these sun loungers costs €4 or more and so, like all resorts we have been to, the sun loungers are mostly empty (although we’ve never been to these places in high season) while the holiday-makers lie on their towels on the beach. The narrow strip of beach between the sun loungers and the sea was, therefore, crowded with people not willing to pay for unnecessary sun loungers.

We were surprised at how few people were in the water. It was a hot afternoon, the beach was crowded, yet the water was mostly empty. Was there something wrong? We hesitantly dipped our toes in and soon Julian and I were out of our depth, swimming in the warm water, while the girls played chest deep in water on a soft sand-covered sea bed. I came in a little closer to shore and Lily repeatedly swam between me and the shore.

DSCI0155After dinner aboard Carina, Katie drew our attention to a group of girls dancing nearby wearing white flamenco dresses and waving handkerchiefs and we raced off the boat to find out what was going on. What luck! We had stumbled upon the opening ceremony of the Fifth Marbella International Folklore Festival. There were participants from a rather random selection of countries, all dressed in national costumes – Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Easter Island, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela and Scotland – as well as multiple Spanish groups.

After some long speeches by the event organisers and a parade of all the participants across the stage, the Easter Islanders kicked the festival off with two lively songs and dances. They were followed by Germany and Russia, both of whom faced technical glitches with the recorded music that accompanied their dances. By the time the lone Scottish bagpiper took the stage, the audience was busy eating the free tapas that were going around, and no-one paid him any attention. He looked uncannily like my friend Gavin, and when he walked past after his performance, Julian complemented him on his piping. We were more than a little surprised when he spoke in Spanish-accented English!

DSCI0157We wandered through Marbella, past a series of sculptures by Salvador Dali and into the old part of the town with its stone mosaic pavements, orange tree-lined squares and a phenomenal number of shoe shops. We ended the night in a small square, listening to a great live band performing songs from the 1960s and 70s. Lily danced with abandon and Katie complained that it was all too noisy!

DSCI0159Julian and I were up early next morning and underway before 8am, our engine shattering the stillness of the early morning Mediterranean. The mountains rose sharp and majestic behind Marbella and its neighbouring towns and a few fishing boats plied the waters in the distance. Our destination, Marina Smir in Morocco, lay 50 miles away, on the other side of one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. The west wind was forecast to increase through the day and, after a couple of hours of motoring, we cut the engine and sailed, albeit a few degrees off course.

DSCI0166By noon we were seeing commercial vessels travelling east to west towards the outbound traffic separation scheme in the Strait of Gibraltar. With so many large vessels heading in our general direction, extra vigilance was called for. But we made it through the shipping lanes – the northern lane heading west and the southern lane heading east – with little trouble, only needing to briefly alter course once.

The west wind whipped through the Strait and we sailed close hauled, leaning hard to port, making for a tiring and, at times, uncomfortable sail. The girls got frustrated when their Play Mobil camper van and assorted Play Mobile people and accessories refused to stay on the saloon table, even with the non-slip table mat in place, and kept sliding down on top of the girls where they sat.

We hoped the wind, which gusted at times to 24 knots, would subside once we reached the other side of the Strait, but the current and wind now pushed us thirty degrees off course and though we were averaging five knots over ground, we weren’t getting much closer to our destination. In the end, we took in the genoa and motored the final ten miles, battling against wind and current and spray breaking over the bow and cockpit hood, to Marina Smir on the eastern side of the Tanger Peninsula. The Rif Mountains rose rugged and multi-layered to the south, and the entire length of the peninsula was banded by a golden strip of sandy beach.

We had left Spain behind for the time being and were about to enter Morocco.

And we’re off!

The wind made the decision for us in the end. A week on and we were still to-ing and fro-ing between sailing east and sailing west. The other sailors we spoke to in Aguadulce didn’t help. ‘Go west to the Rio Guadiana’ one neighbour would tell us. ‘Go east to Corfu’ another would say. Everyone had their favourite places east or west; everyone had good reasons for going one way and not going the other. All this advice, all the research we’d carried out, and we were still none the wiser about which direction we should take.

But the time had come to leave. Carina was ready. More than ready. The jobs to make her seaworthy and comfortable were complete and Julian was now taking on those maybe-some-day-if-I-have-time tasks. Each day we stayed I got a bit more writing done, which was wonderful. But if most of my writing is about our sailing life, then it’s time we did some sailing. The indecision was making us a little more unhinged every day.

The ‘where should we go’ question was getting to us. On Thursday night I asked Julian, ‘What’s the probability we’ll sail west tomorrow?’
‘65%’ he replied.
‘And the probability of sailing east?’
‘5%’
‘And the probability we’ll sail east the following day?’
‘5 to 7%’
Right. Really helpful. What about that other 28 to 30%? Such is life, married to a scientist.
After yet another look at the weather forecast, we went to bed on Thursday night no closer to a decision.

We still didn’t know which direction to go on Friday morning, but we decided to go anyway. The east wind strongly suggested that we would sail west, but we might be able to tack southeast, around the Cabo de Gata to San Jose. So we got ready. We said our goodbyes to our good friends – Eric across the pontoon who has been a wonderful neighbour; Jessica at the marina office who has been so helpful and generous for the past six months; we tried phoning Ray to say goodbye; and Fi brought us round a tub of her home-made fudge for the trip.

Shortly before one o’clock, after filling up with diesel and handing over our marina keys, we were off. We motored out and once clear of the marina wall we headed roughly south west, quickly hoisting the reefed mainsail to see where the wind wanted us to go. The force 4-5 east-southeast wind and the short waves suggested that we could sail west quite comfortably but, while east around the Cabo de Gata was possible with a mixture of sail and motor, it would not be a pleasant sail. So as Julian pulled out a little over half the genoa, I set a course of 215˚ and we were on our way west, the decision made at last.

The three hour sail to Almerimar was pleasant, perfect conditions for a first sail in over six months. Aguadulce quickly disappeared into the haze, the mountains of Las Alpujarras ghostly behind, and soon we were passing Roquetas de Mar – the town itself, then the holiday resort, and then the kilometres and kilometres of greenhouses, growing Europe’s fruit and vegetables. Before long, Almerimar appeared in the distance on the coastal plain, and we were changing tack and heading in. Having been here last year in late September, arrival procedure at the marina was familiar to us, and we were soon at our berth for the night – next to an Irish pub!

The girls and I quickly jumped onto dry land, not bothering to tidy up after our sail. I took the girls to a playground they enjoyed when we were here last September, and we wandered home via the supermarket, the girls excitedly pointing out places they remembered from when we were last here.

So, we’re on our way. We have no ultimate destination. We will go where the wind takes us, and see what new adventures we can have along the way.

East or west?

East or west? West or east? We’re almost ready to set sail from Aguadulce and we don’t know which way to go. If we wanted to, we could be ready to leave tomorrow. But where do we go? It’s a dilemma we’ve had since arriving in Aguadulce at the start of last October and in the six months we’ve been here we haven’t reached a conclusion. Indeed, for most of the six months we’ve avoided thinking about it, only occasionally having a conversation on the topic. We started to get serious in February. And each day we think about it, and talk about, and do a lot of research to try to come to a decision about where we should go next.

Either direction has its advantages and disadvantages. In the short term, either direction would be great – we’re sure to have a good time farther into the Mediterranean, or in Morocco and southern Portugal. But when considering the medium term, are we better off going east or west? The long term is something we rarely talk about!

A week ago it was west – along the Spanish coast, south to Morocco, out through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic, to Tangiers, up to southern Portugal. A few days later it was east, to the Balearics, Sardinia, Corsica, to the southeast coast of France, west back to the Spanish border, and down to Valencia.

The former appeals because we have never been to Morocco before and there are some places we regretted missing in southern Portugal last year and other places we want to return to. The latter appeals because we feel as if we have only just tipped the proverbial iceberg of the Mediterranean (now there’s an oxymoron). It’s a big sea with a lot of places to explore. It would be a shame to turn back when we’ve got this far.

In the medium term we need to think about finding jobs next autumn and winter. There are lots of English teaching jobs all over Spain, so east could bring us to Valencia, west could bring us back up north to Galicia.

So what are the disadvantages?

There are potentially expenses from sailing east. Parts of Sardinia, Corsica and southern France are the playgrounds of the super rich in their super yachts, so we anticipate that the cost of living in these places will be restrictive.

We also have to consider the amount of time we spend in Spain. Staying more than 183 days in Spain in any one calendar year makes us liable for a 12% matriculation tax on the value of our boat. That could be a one-off tax of around 5000 euro – money we simply don’t have. While we’re nowhere near the 183 day limit, coming back into Spain later in the year could cause us problems.

Right now the wind is easterly, whispering to us ‘Go west, go west’. And what a time we would have. A month or more in Morocco and then the rest of the summer in Portugal, and then sailing either north to Galicia to return to one of the towns we enjoyed so much last summer, to find teaching jobs, or sailing back into the Mediterranean and finding work here again. But either way the matriculation is a concern.

Two days ago I emailed Mammy and Julian phoned his dad and we told them our definitie plan – we were going east. Yesterday morning we changed our minds and decided to go west! This morning we have no idea. It’s a privileged dilemma. Either way it’s going to be a memorable adventure and along the way we’ll figure out what to do next winter to earn some money.

The easterly wind is forecast to continue for the next ten days. We’ve decided that we’ll make a decision on Saturday morning and we’ll leave Aguadulce on Sunday morning. Or not. Who knows.

Reliving the past

Last night I completed the first draft of my book. It’s a nice feeling, but I know that the hard work lies ahead, as I set about re-writing, editing, and filling all those ‘xxx’ gaps that litter the text with meaningful facts and figures. The book is about our journey so far. I dislike the misuse and abuse of the word ‘journey’. But in our case, it really is a journey. Not some figurative ‘journey’ to personal growth and wisdom, but a literal journey from Cambridgeshire to the Mediterranean, via Devon, Cornwall, Ireland, France, Spain Portugal and Gibraltar.

In the past couple of weeks of frenetic writing I’ve delved into my diaries and blog posts to help recall the quickly-fading images of the places we visited in Spain and Portugal in 2014. Reading those accounts has left me with an intense sense of natsukashii, that Japanese feeling of nostalgia and longing brought on by memories of the past.

DSCI4213How I long to revisit some of those wonderful places we had the privilege to explore last year. As I read my accounts of As Piscinas I could see the glistening water on the smooth rocks again, feel the warm fresh water on my body as I swam in the river’s pools, hear the wind rustling through the trees that lined the banks of the river. The thought that we had spent two days at in this small piece of paradise but may never go there again brought on a strong sense of natsukashii.

DSCI4425Our two days exploring Porto will remain with me for a long time, but reading my accounts written at the time have brought back minute details that I had forgotten and which have reignited in my mind images of gentrified apartments amongst the port warehouses, an old woman’s underwear hanging out to dry between two trendy restaurants on the north bank of the Douro, and the narrow streets, each with its own unique and delightful idiosyncrasies. Porto is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited – it rates only slightly behind Rome in my estimation. And, unlike an obscure river up in the northwest of Spain, there’s a good likelihood I’ll visit Porto again some day.

DSCI4573Nine days anchored off Ilha da Culatra on the Algarve was not enough, which is why we are toying with the possibility of going back there again this summer. It reminded me of my other home, Arviat, on the west coast of Hudson Bay. The island is a sand bar, populated by a couple of hundred people. There are no roads, no vehicles apart from a couple of tractors and a few golf buggies. Reading my diaries led me to reminisce about the clam picking old women, the communal outdoor shower where we got to know other live-aboards while waiting our turn to wash or refill water bottles, the octopus hanging up to dry on a clothesline, and the friendships Lily and Katie made with local and sailing children.

It’s less than six months since we had these wonderful experiences, but already my memories are dimming. The intense sensual pleasures of these places – the swimming, the sun on our bodies, the foods we ate, the birdsong, the trees and the wind and the ocean – are fading. Reading my diaries and blog posts have brought them rushing back into my life again. I’m reading about things we did that I had completely forgotten about. Julian has a better memory for these things than I do. Maybe that’s why I need to write it all down.

This is not the first time that reading diaries or blog posts or research field notes have swept me away to another time or place. It is one of the great joys of writing that any time you desire, your senses can be reawakened, places, people and experiences can be brought back to life, and that bittersweet sense of natsukashii can envelop you.