Outboard thieves (Ladrones de motores fuerabordas)

by Julian

It finally happened. I suppose we had been riding our luck for a long time. Our Mariner 3.3 outboard motor was stolen. The tender (dinghy) was on the pontoon, tied onto the outside of a larger tender. The yachts on the outside of the pontoon were all occupied, which isn’t always the case. However, the motor was there Sunday night and not there Monday morning.

Sanlúcar de Guadiana is generally a safe place. Thefts from boats are extremely rare. It is a small village and there are eyes everywhere, making sure nobody is up to mischief. Except at around 04:00 Monday morning, and the thieves know this! They visit the pontoon once or twice a year, either by boat or by van and steal two or three outboards. This time they took two, one was ours. We are rarely on the pontoon overnight, so doubly bad luck. Our outboard was small and not chained on, which might have stopped them this time. However, previously the thieves have stolen large 60 HP outboards, cutting the chain and all the cables and generally making a real mess of the boat.

People who know more than anybody ought to, have even speculated that the thieves have a place near Villablanca and had been tipped off about the outboards. Whatever the truth, it is very frustrating. Given the multiple outboard thefts many of us would like to see something like a security camera. However, the mayor has already spoken to the police about this, and there are laws against installing CCTV in public places (the pontoon is not an enclosed marina, but an extension of the village).

Anyway, until we can sort out something permanent, Eric on the boat “Signora” has kindly lent us his outboard. It is basically a grass strimmer with a propeller. It is sold as an “air-cooled four stroke outboard”. There is very little that can go wrong with it and we have been told it is reliable, but it is a thorough nightmare to use, and Martina complains that motoring around on a grass strimmer cramps her style! Anyway when we get a replacement, we will be vigilant and keep it chained on. However, to be really secure we should chain the tender on as well, but I don’t like that idea because it can be a real pain to other pontoon users. It is a shame that seven years of not chaining our outboard has now come to an end.


Four stroke air cooled “Grass Cutter” outboard aboard our tender Freja.


Birthday parties and European unity

In the era of Brexit, a little family event last week felt like the spirit of European unity in microcosm. Lily turned nine and for some time we had been planning the party. A girls only pizza party at the Praia Fluvial in Alcoutim was decided on. Invitations were sent out, Rogerio, the proprietor, was advised of times and numbers and flavours of pizza, and I made birthday cake, jelly and chocolate cornflake cakes aboard Carina. There was also the matter of lifejackets, as I rounded up the required number to ferry guests from the Spanish to the Portuguese side of the Rio Guadiana. My friend Kate, with a larger and more stable dinghy than mine, played ferrywoman, and otherwise played a blinder, helping me out at the party.

With the guests, bright giggly chatty girls aged 6 to 11, safely across the river, we walked through Alcoutim and out to the beach on the Cadavais, a tributary of the Guadiana. Rogerio had set up the party on the beach side of the bar and, while the pizzas were baking in the oven, the girls went off to play on the beach.

There were three distinct groups of children, with Lily, Katie and their friends Hannah and (another) Katie, the link between the other two groups. I had asked these girls, in advance, to make an effort to get the other two groups of girls together. Not only had they never met before, they didn’t share a common language. In one group were Lily’s Spanish school friends and in the other were two home schooled live aboard French girls, one of whom Lily has known since her family was last up the Rio Guadiana over a year ago and other whom Lily has befriended in recent weeks.

I needn’t have worried about the distinct groups making friends. After some initial shyness, the girls all played together on the sand, paddling in the water, making sand castles and, by the end of the party, Spanish and British, French and Spanish, British and French walked back to the river holding hands.

When it came time to blow out the birthday candles, we sang Happy Birthday in Spanish, English and French. Given that Lily is half-British half-Irish, and that the party was held in Portugal, I suppose we should also have made an effort to sing it in Irish and Portuguese. But by then I, for one, had had enough of singing and was hankering after strawberry jelly and lemon birthday cake.

As they sat around the table – two British girls, two half-Brits half-Irish, two French and three Spanish, the babble around the table was in a mix of languages. Three of the four English speakers also speak fluent Spanish, and the fourth is making good progress. Apart from Katie, the English speakers also speak a tiny bit of French and my girls have a decent smattering of Portuguese. The two French girls speak a little English and Spanish and the three Spanish girls are always keen to try their English out on me, their Thursday evening English teacher. So we all spoke what we could, making ourselves understood in a mix of well-spoken and poorly-spoken languages, gestures and goodwill.

And when it was time to go home the troops rebelled and insisted we stay longer, so I had to send messages to parents to say their children wouldn’t be home just yet! I sat there with Kate, enjoying a gin and tonic, while the children ate at the party table or played down at the beach. At first I thought ‘What an international group we are’. And then I revised that thought. We’re not international, we’re European, with our multiple languages and multiple cultures. For our children, hearing different languages and being exposed to different cultures is the norm (Lily and Katie’s Dutch friend missed the party, as she had gone to visit her grandparents in Holland for the Semana Santa holidays). Despite their differences, that bunch of 8 girls share far more in common than not.

I asked myself, do we share anything in common beyond a common currency (for some of us) and open borders and urban myths about regulation-shaped bananas? (I jest of course. I am a proud European). Perhaps our little party wouldn’t have softened the resolve of Theresa May and Nigel Farage and their ilk. But it made me come over all warm and fuzzy – and I’m sure that wasn’t just because of the G&T!

Feliz Año Nuevo

I am a renowned New Year curmudgeon. Last night, just like most other New Years’ Eves, I shied away from the parties and the public ringings in of the New Year. I object to all that midnight hugging and kissing by people who I don’t want to be hugged or kissed by at any other time of the year. So I like to stay home, curled up warm and snug. Even the prospect of popping twelve grapes into my mouth at each gong of the midnight bell, while wearing red underwear outside the church in Sanlúcar, couldn’t entice me off the boat last night. (The red underwear leaves me with so many unanswered questions. I really must get to the bottom of it). Last night, I saw in the New Year with a good novel and a glass of red wine (Oops! There’s one of last year’s New Year Resolutions that fell by the wayside before the end of the first week of January 2016), Julian sleeping soundly in the aft cabin, the girls doing likewise in the fore cabin.

I’ve woken up on this New Year’s Day ready to face a new year, my resolutions firmly in place. I’ve been up three hours now and haven’t yet broken one of them. I’ve had time last night and this morning to reflect on all the good in my life at this very moment – my precious family, our quirky home, the beautiful place where we currently live, my health and my family’s health, our general well-being. Whatever I might resolve to change or improve or perfect (and there’s a lot), what I have right now requires no changing, improving or perfecting.

So, on this New Year’s Day I wish you all a peaceful, meaningful and reflective 2017. I wish you acceptance of what you have and who you are, acceptance of others, and acceptance that if we all have the power within us to make the world a better place.

Happy 2017, and hello to Jason Isaacs.

Limits of my tolerance

It feels like a bad dream. Eight years ago the world watched as the US elected a president who represented hope, dignity, respect, tolerance and optimism. Two days ago it elected as president a proven xenophobe, misogynist and environmental vandal. Trump’s victory matters to us all. America’s economic and cultural dominance affects us all, no matter where we live. Here, in my little corner of rural Spain and Portugal, everyone I spoke to yesterday, expressed the same feelings. Spanish, Portuguese, British, French, Dutch, Irish – all shook their heads in disbelief, all voiced their fears, all spoke of the likelihood of war and violence during this upcoming presidency. Everyone mentioned his attitude towards Mexicans, Muslims and women, his insincerity, and his disrespectful and bullying demeanour.

What depresses me most, in the same way that I was depressed by Brexit, is that Trump’s election represents an upwelling of intolerance, and suggests that tolerant are in the minority. I strive to be tolerant in everything. But right now I’m questioning the limits of my tolerance. Can I tolerate the intolerant? Can I accept the unaccepting? And if I can’t, what can I do? What should I do?

This article I read this morning is thought provoking.

At the airport

My 89-year old Aunt Josie gave Lily and Katie some spending money when we visited her in Ireland last week. At Dublin airport I took the girls into the newsagent WHSmith so they could spend some of their money on magazines to read on the flight back to Faro. While they browsed the children’s magazines I wandered over to the sport and lifestyle section, to browse the yachting magazines. I picked up the September edition of Yachting Monthly, flicking through the usual features on marine safety, cruising stories, boat repairs and advertisements for everything from life jackets to sea cocks. One of the cruising stories caught my eye and I flicked back to it. Whoa, hey, wait a minute…that’s…that’s…Katie…and Lily…and me and Julian and Carina. It was an article I had written a year ago for Yachting Monthly. I’d recently received a copy edit from the editor and had returned it with a few corrections and amendments. But I hadn’t heard any more from the editor and assumed it would be published in a few months.

It was quite a thrill to find myself in a magazine, at the busy WHSmith at Dublin airport. We’d left Julian at the shop entrance looking after the bags, so I carried the magazine close to the entrance to show him (being the ultimate cheapskate, there was no way I’d actually buy the magazine!). Loud enough for everyone to hear, Julian exclaimed, aka Basil Exposition, ‘Oh, wow, Yachting Monthly has published the article you wrote about sailing our yacht in Ireland’. Public exclamations of pride are Julian’s forte.

And while I should have been feeling proud of myself, I was instead thinking of all the other half-written, semi-formed or unwritten articles, essays and books on my laptop and in my head. I spent the three hour flight from Dublin to Faro making up my mind to work smarter, be more efficient and more productive; to mould more of my writing into publishable condition, so that next time I run through an airport shop to show an article to Julian, he’ll exclaim theatrically, so that everyone within earshot can hear, ‘What? Not another article published in a major magazine? That’s the fourth you’ve had published this month. After all that hard work, you’re finally making a living as a writer!’.

Anchor Trouble

by Julian

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



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

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

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

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

“Will you be able to try again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


On Tuesday of this week, Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for fiction. The Booker is one of literature’s most prestigious prizes. It comes with a cheque for £50,000 but, more importantly, recognition and a rush on book sales for the winning author.

Before Tuesday not many people had heard of Marlon James. I certainly hadn’t. On Wednesday morning he was all over the TV, newspapers, the Internet. I like to read novels that have won or been shortlisted for the Booker. In fact I’m reading one right now – Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, which was shortlisted in 1996. (The greatest Booker winner of them all is without doubt Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which won in 1985. I reread it a few months ago and it swept me away all over again).

So, here’s the thing about Marlon James, since last night lauded the world over by the literati and now gracing the windows of book shops across the English speaking world. His first novel was rejected by publishers 78 times. Seventy-eight times. Can you imagine? 78 times you send your novel, with its pitch and synopsis out into the world, hopeful that the publisher will think it’s as good as you think it is. And 78 times you get a rejection letter. Sorry, your book isn’t any good, it’s not what we’re looking for right now, it has potential but. 78 times to be told the novel you have sweated over, lost sleep over, gone insane over, is just not good enough.

What is remarkable about Marlon James is not that he has written a vast 700-page novel that Booker judges unanimously deemed the best book written in the English language this year (although that is remarkable in itself). What is remarkable is that Marlon James didn’t give up. Not after the first rejection or the second. Not after the tenth or the twentieth or the fiftieth when family, friends and his inner demons must surely have been telling him to move on, forget about it, do something else with his life. He carried on. He picked up his pen and started all over again. And then hope and self belief overcame self doubt long enough for him to send his next book out into the world.

I know what rejection feels like. It’s a punch in the stomach. I’ve had my fair share of rejection from publishers and newspaper and magazine editors over the past couple of years. For every article I’ve successfully published I’ve had five or six rejected (maybe more…I should probably count them up). I’ve sometimes ended up publishing in publications I didn’t want to be in, or publishing my stuff for free, because I reckoned the publicity and having something new to add to my writing portfolio was worth not getting paid. Not getting paid, however, does not put food on the table.

I received a rejection email in January for a book I had spent a long time writing. It was June before I could bring myself to read the rest of the email. Stupid me, because the comments were actually quite positive – telling me what I could do to improve, rather than what I had done wrong – although perhaps those five months of distance gave me the perspective to see the book through the publisher’s eyes.

Article rejection is easier. Articles are shorter and I don’t invest so much time and emotion into them. But the rejection is still soul destroying. So I try again. I pitch my idea elsewhere, I rewrite the article, I rewrite the pitch. I’ve often had four or five rejections for an article before I get an acceptance. In fact, I’ve got something (paid!) coming out in the next few days that has taken months and months of pitching and repitching, reminding editors of earlier emails, and on and on. Writing is the easy part. The blood, sweat and tears come in trying to get my writing out into the world.

I don’t think many people have the tenacity of Marlon James. To face 78 rejections and still believe in oneself takes some doing. Following his story over the past few days has filled me with hope and optimism on the one hand and despair and pessimism on the other. Optimistically, I think that if my writing is good enough it will get published if I can only persevere and keep believing in myself. Pessimistically, I think of how Marlon James could have packed it all in, and A Brief History of Seven Killings would never have been.

But I think we should all take heed of Marlon James. No matter what your passion or dream in life, if you are tenacious then some day you might just reap the reward you deserve. Despite the rejections, I can’t stop writing, because I love to write. And I keeping hopefully sending my writing to publishers because I believe in what I write and hope that others will believe in it too.

What do you think?

Hello all my lovely readers! I’m back and well on the road to recovery. Thank you to those of you who sent me ‘get well’ wishes. My podcasts and books got me through the few days in hospital and the staff at Warwick Hospital were out of this world. Such kind, friendly and caring staff. I returned home to my mother-in-law’s house on Sunday morning and I’ve been slowly but surely recuperating. I am astounded at how much I improve from one day to the next.

But here’s the thing. My mind is – for once – completely empty of blogging ideas. I’m desperate to write, but can’t think of anything to write about. So, I’m throwing myself open to you, readers. What would you like me to write about? Do you have any questions for me? Is there anything you wish I would write about, but never do? Is there anything you would like to know more about?

I look forward to your thoughts!

Holidays in England

by Julian

I am back in England for a two week holiday so that Lily and Katie can see their grandparents. As mentioned in a previous blog post, Granddad is due to come back with us on the ferry in a few days time.


“I’ve got this nice bit of slushy stuff for you Lily.”


The journey back to England was a bit of a pain. The bus into Almeria was late so we only just made the connection. The airport bus only goes every two hours, leaving us a 3 hour wait at the tiny airport. A 16 year old wannabe ‘computer game character designer’ had a half hour conversation with me on the way! Kids weren’t satisfied with the cereal bars I had packed so I bought a plastic packed triangular cheese sandwich for €4.50, it was stale, but they ate it whilst I looked on in hunger. In Aguadulce we can get a small beer, a glass of wine, a small hamburger, a handfull of chips, a small portion of paella and a piece of bread for less than that!

Then we were on the plane, on the runway. “We’ll be taking off soon kids!” I said, only for the pilot to taxi back to the stand, turn off the engine and start refuelling. “Sorry everyone the ground crew cannot count and we have a different number of people on the plane than in their records. You can be sure that Easy Jet will take this matter very seriously.” Then a woman decided she wasn’t going to fly anyway and got off creating a ‘security breach’. We then had to all get up row by row and identify our luggage to make sure the lady hadn’t left a bomb on board. The kids were going wild, until we finally took off 1 ½ hours late!

The highlights of the trip, apart from seeing the family, have included a trip to Hatton Country World with Grandma, where Katie managed to hold a guinea pig without dropping it (unlike last time). Also the snow, which they just loved playing out in, throwing it at each other, eating it and pretending to be characters from ‘Frozen’.


“Let it go, can’t hold it back anymore!”


Meanwhile I have been getting on with my Spanish, doing an average of an hour a day. I am determined to go back to Spain with better Spanish than when I left. I mentioned doing Mi Vida Loca in a previous blog post. I redid the entire course over Christmas time, with Lily joining in, and I beat my previous test score. Some people recommended duolingo to me and I have been doing that daily for over three weeks now. It is very different to any language learning I have done before, in that it builds the structure of the language from the start, not by just giving you useful phrases. I really don’t think “The dog sleeps on the monkey” would be useful in real life, but I am enjoying it and feel that I have the tools to construct my own sentences properly now. Lily has completed duolingo ‘basics 1’ on her own!

We keep in touch with Martina on Skpe and are looking forward to coming back to Carina with granddad in a few days. The Bay of Biscay in the winter, but in a much bigger boat this time! I am hoping to see a sparklingly clean boat on our return, so no pressure Martina :).