Another attempt

A year and a day ago I posted I am not superwoman, in which I stated, amongst other things, that I was giving up trying to study Spanish. I simply did not have enough hours in the day to do all the things I wanted to do and some things had to go. So I left Spanish study to Julian and Lily, while I got on with things that seemed more urgent to me. I was thinking about that blog post earlier today and only this minute have I realised that it is exactly a year since I wrote it.

For almost seven months I watched Julian progressing with his Spanish language ability. Following a taster course on the BBC language site Mi Vida Loca, he devoted himself to the learning website Duolingo whenever we had access to Wifi, and he practiced his newfound skills at every opportunity. Lily followed suit, first trying her hand at Mi Vida Loca and then getting her own Duolingo account. She and the Spanish kids she met at the playground on the beach in Aguadulce and elsewhere communicated in a mixture of pidgin-English and pidgin-Spanish and I could tell that her understanding was developing. I was disappointed in myself for not making an effort to learn Spanish, but I knew enough to shop and ask directions and to make basic polite conversation.

Then a strange thing happened. The girls and I flew back to the UK towards the end of May and I suddenly had this blinding urge to learn Spanish. And I wanted the girls to learn Spanish too. In the first few days we were back I searched the bookshops in Coventry and bought two textbooks suitable for children and a box of flashcards with 200 common Spanish words.

We played with the flashcards. I sent the girls on errands around their granddad’s house to find items on the flashcards and we tried to remember the Spanish names for things. We wrote the names of things on post-it notes and stuck them around the house – la puerta, la ventana, el escritorio, el ordenador, and so on.

One day at their grandma’s house, Lily asked if she could do some of the Mi Vida Loca programme on the computer. An hour later, when she’d tired of it, Katie took over, enjoying the interactive portions of the programme where she had to pay for a taxi, buy a glass of wine, etc.

In mid-June I decided to check out Duolingo. I’ve been hooked ever since, rarely missing more than a couple of days of study. Whenever the mood takes me I make time for ten minutes, half an hour, forty-five minutes of study – sitting up in bed with the laptop first thing in the morning or last thing at night, squeezing in ten minutes before dinner time, grabbing a few minutes on the Duolingo app on my phone.

I’m still way behind Julian, but I’m getting there. A couple of months ago I received an email from someone in Sanlúcar de Guadiana, written entirely in Spanish. I couldn’t believe that I understood the content of the entire email without having to resort to the dictionary or Google Translate.

These days Lily and Katie play on Mi Vida Loca; Lily practices Duolingo; Katie and I have fun with the flashcards; and we occasionally do pages of the textbooks and sing along to the songs on the accompanying CDs. Julian and I practice Spanish on each other and on the girls, often attempting simple conversations or testing our vocabulary while we eat meals or go out for walks.

Only eleven more sleeps until we fly back to Carina on the Rio Guadiana. I’m looking forward to testing out and improving my new language skills. I’ll probably never be able to seduce Benicio del Toro or Gael Garcia Bernal in their native language (or in my native language, come to think of it) or read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels in their original Spanish, but I will, hopefully, be able to have conversations with the lovely people of Sanlúcar that go beyond asking for a loaf of bread or a glass of beer!

I’m glad I changed my mind about trying to learn Spanish. It’s not only provided me with a new and growing skill, but my enthusiasm has rubbed off on the girls and Julian now has someone to practice with. The whole family has benefitted from my decision to take a leap into a new skill and we all know a lot more Spanish than we did at the start of the summer.

It just goes to show it’s ok to change your mind about something and it’s never too late to learn a new skill. Just ask my mother, who has recently resumed piano lessons after a 56-year break!

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Tuna town

The last time we were in Barbate I was in a bad mood. We’d just spent four overpriced nights stuck in the Andalucia-government owned marina in Mazagon due to poor weather conditions, followed by two nights in a similar government owned marina in Cadiz. These soulless, overpriced concrete hells were run with typical government bureaucracy and inflexibility, still charging summer prices even though they had reverted to winter service. They had no Wifi, the showers and toilets in Mazagon had limited opening hours, and there was no consideration given to the odd hours that sailors arrive and depart, dictated to by tides and weather conditions.

So when we arrived in Barbate to yet another government-run marina, I was already predisposed to dislike the place. Its first impressions didn’t help. It had the same rough un-finished concrete box buildings, and was situated far outside town. The Guardia Civil boat had taken up the reception pontoon but when we took up a temporary berth in the marina, the gate leading up to the reception was locked and Julian had to climb over it. We moved twice more around the half-empty marina before we were settled on a rickety tiny pontoon that the marina staff were happy for us to be on. The next morning when we tried to refuel before our passage through the Strait of Gibraltar, the fuel station was closed and, despite it being within office opening hours, we waited almost half an hour for someone to answer our repeated phone and VHF radio calls, and send someone around to fill our tank.

Our one evening in Barbate involved walking through a desolate industrial wasteland to find the nearest supermarket. We couldn’t get out of the place fast enough.

But what a difference seven and a half months makes! Friends in Aguadulce told us they really liked Barbate and, for us, it proved a convenient stopping off point between Spanish-owned Ceuta on the northern tip of Morocco and the Rio Guadiana on the Spain-Portugal border.

DSCI0334This time we arrived from the south, sailing past long long sandy beaches, low-lying Barbate and the countryside beyond looking exceptionally beautiful, all lush green fields and extensive pine forests. We only planned to stay one night, but a broken toilet and marina fees exactly half the price of what we were expecting convinced us to stay for two nights before attempting an overnight passage to the Rio Guadiana.

After the cold showers of Marina Smir, the luxury of a huge shower room with endless hot water won me over. The all-female marina staff were exceptionally friendly when Lily, Katie and I went to sign in (via the reception pontoon this time). (In general, I find female marina staff give us better berths and better service when I bring the girls to the office. Small children seem to melt hearts). While the girls and I showered I also did a load of laundry at the very inexpensive marina launderette. Luxury unbound!

DSCI0322The next morning the girls and I vacated the boat, leaving Julian to fix the broken toilet. I decided to put our friend’s high praise of Barbate to the test. It was a Friday morning and the industrial wasteland of the Saturday evening of seven months ago was now the thriving heart of the town’s tuna fishery. Fishermen worked in groups to spread out and repair huge tuna nets; the ice-making complex was whirring away; and the processing factories were bustling. The whole area was busy with people walking, driving fork-lifts, vans and lorries, work-men repainting the walls and railings, the fisherman’s cafe lively and loud with fisherman having their morning coffee. The shop attached to one of the processing factories sold an unimaginable range of tuna products, all beyond our price range.

DSCI0324The last time we had been here we immediately turned left for the supermarket when we came out of the marina area, where a dodgy-looking shack sold cigarettes and magazines and a lone bar looked like something out of the wild west. What we hadn’t realised at the time was if we had turned right the biggest, sandiest beach imaginable is RIGHT THERE, hidden from view by the marina wall. Wow! I’ve been on some nice beaches in my time, and this one is right up there with the best. Fine-grained golden sand that is hard-packed close to the water’s edge making it perfect for long walks and sand art!

DSCI0327We had an inexpensive second breakfast of coffee, juice and tostada made from delicious bread at a seaside cafe, where we wrote postcards. The waiter gave us directions to the post office and we set off through town. And what a revelation: a thriving bustling town with people walking about, small locally-owned shops selling just about anything one could want. As well as butchers, bakers and clothes shops, there were haberdashers, dress-makers, hardware shops, sweet shops. Although the marina doesn’t offer Wifi, there is free Wifi all over town, provided by the town council! I sat in Plaza Ajuntamiento – a leafy square in front of the stately if somewhat run down town hall – while the girls played at a playground that featured a proper climbing wall!

DSCI0333Everyone was friendly, both to us and to each other. I lost count of the number of times I saw people slapping friends on the back, shaking hands, kissing cheeks. Lily and Katie got their fair share of head rubbing and cheek pinching and being called ‘Guapa’ by abuelas and abuelos we passed on the street. They haven’t had that since we were in Galicia last year. A real sense of camaraderie and community pervaded.

At a delightful sweet shop the girls each picked out their ten favourite sweets and when we went to pay, the very friendly shop keeper gave them each a freshly made bag of popcorn! We bought a picnic lunch and headed down to the beach for the rest of the afternoon. It was too cold to swim, but perfect for running about, making huge sand drawings on the hard-packed sand, and playing in the sand dunes that have been created by the presence of that big marina wall!

On the way home we dropped into the Parque Natural La Breña y Marismas del Barbate visitor centre. This small facility provided a wealth of information about the geology and natural history of the region from Cabo de Trafalgar to the Strait of Gibraltar, as well as a history and anthropology of tuna fishing in the region, which dates back at least to the Phoenicians 3000 years ago. The displays were all interactive, and Lily and Katie were able to watch videos of their choosing, read simple but informative text, and see and ‘feel’ the whole region in small scale. I particularly enjoyed watching a video of tuna fishing, showing the fishermen using a centuries-old technique of first corralling the tuna with very complex nets and then corralling them with multiple boats. When the tuna are surrounded, some fishermen actually get into the net with the wildly thrashing fish – some tuna 1.5 metres or more in length – and toss the live tuna up into the boats of their waiting colleagues.

The people of Barbate must be the healthiest in Spain. People of all ages are constantly walking around the marina, throughout the fishery complex, dressed in walking and gym gear. Men and women, from 17 to 87, all out walking. And the streets of the town were full of people walking, carrying their groceries, going about their business. It’s like the town’s been hit by a fitness epidemic. I wondered if this health-kick combined with the group organisation necessitated by the form of fishing practiced have led to such a friendly and happy community of people. Now there’s a research project!

Lily, Katie and I spent nine hours out and about in Barbate and every minute of it was a joy. It just goes to show you shouldn’t judge a place on our first, and limited, impressions!

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.

Preparing to move on

With only six weeks until our planned departure from Aguadulce and the start of our 2015 cruising season, we have been taking advantage of my father-in-law’s car to get some much needed jobs underway.

Last week Julian took the sails and the spray hood to a sail maker in Almería for repairs. The sails have some small tears and rips – on the canvas and along the seams – that will turn into big rips if not dealt with soon. The spray hood shelters the cockpit from head wind and spray. I have never been able to sail with it in position, as the plastic windows are so weather beaten they have lost all transparency. Julian is tall enough to see over the top of the spray hood when at the helm but, being a short-ass, I have to helm with the elements in my face! When we removed the spray hood for storage before Christmas, one of the window panels cracked from old age. New transparent plastic should make for more pleasant motoring and sailing for all from now on.

Another day last week Julian drove to the chandler in Almerimar to stock up on items he will need when the boat comes out of the water in March. During that week he will thoroughly clean all those parts of Carina that sit below the water line – hull, keel, propeller and rudder. He bought five litres of anti-foul – enough for two coats of paint that will protect the underwater parts from sea-critters. He will also replace the old sacrificial anode with the new 2.5kg one he bought. Gradually, the anode dissolves away into the water, thus protecting the metal parts of the propeller and the engine from corrosion.

The next big purchase – both in terms of size and cost – is new anchor chain. We currently use half chain-half warp, and the chain is old and rusting. We want to move to 100% anchor chain and this week Julian plans to look at some chain for sale in Roquetas de Mar.

All of these jobs would be much more difficult and more expensive to carry out without having access to a car. Although we find living without a car in general very easy – we don’t even think about it – there are times such as now when having a car comes in handy! So, thank you to my father-in-law for letting us use his while he’s visiting.

And where do we plan to sail in six weeks’ time? Well, we’ve narrowed it down to east, west or south!!

Marina life

Puerto Deportivo Aguadulce is the third marina we’ve spent long enough at to say we have ‘lived’ here. It is our winter base this year. In early summer 2012 we lived for two months at Torquay Marina and between 2013 and 2014 we lived at Plymouth Yacht Haven for a total of five months. We’ve now been in Aguadulce for almost four months and will remain here for a little while longer.

2014-10-30 04.21.42As far as we are aware, we were the only live aboards at Torquay, and we stuck out like a sore thumb amidst the gleaming pleasure boats that never left the secure waters of the marina. These other boats were invariably only visited at weekends (if at all), when wine and champagne were quaffed for an afternoon, and then the boats were locked up again for another weekend. We felt incongruous with our laundry hanging out to dry, our bags of groceries lugged down the pontoon with complaining tired children in tow, and our frequent trips to the shower block. Though we think she is beautiful, many might not consider Carina the prettiest boat. She could have been the grandmother of the speedy sleek young boats that she berthed alongside and her scratched gel coating and weathered teak made her stand out in a not exactly positive way. We kept our heads down for those two months and tried to be as invisible as possible.

However, in Plymouth Yacht Haven and now Aguadulce, we have found marinas that are welcoming to and accommodating of live aboards and, therefore, there are live aboads aplenty. Like Plymouth, Aguadulce is home to a mix of people living this life. At my most recent count there are sixteen permanently occupied boats, although I’m sure there are more live aboards I haven’t yet met. Only the other day, at the shower block, I met a woman I had never seen before, and when I returned to Carina yesterday I found Julian chatting to a man on a bicycle that neither of us had met before. Both these people have been living in the marina this winter for as long as we have.

DSCI4756There are people living alone; there are many retired couples, ranging from their early 50s to their mid-70s; there’s one couple with their live aboard pooch; and there’s us. In addition, there are many more people who divide their time between the marina and their home country, and we’ve gotten to know some of those in their comings and goings. The live aboards here in Aguadulce are predominantly from the UK and Ireland, but there are others from Australia, France, Germany, Ghana, Holland and elsewhere. The crew of each boat has its own reasons for being here. There are some, like us, who are overwintering and preparing to voyage elsewhere when spring arrives. For those people, winter in a marina is a time for repair and maintenance, and for converting dreams into plans. Others live permanently in the marina, their cruising days behind them, and they treat their boats as floating apartments rather than sailing vessels.

There are many delightful aspects to marina life, the nicest being the sense of community that quickly develops. Live aboards look out for each other and for each others’ boats. We share advice, information, food, sailing books, novels, tools and equipment. Julian and the girls are going away soon, but I know that help is at hand if I need it from our kind and thoughtful neighbours. Though we all live on different size vessels and though our financial resources vary, we all live frugally and independently, and respect that frugality and independence in others.

In both Plymouth and Aguadulce we’ve also had the pleasure of getting to know the non-live aboard owners of other vessels in the marina (Hello Dee and Rex and Heather and Chris!!). Ray, an English man who has lived in a village in Las Alpujarras for nearly two decades is a frequent visitor to the pontoon, as he makes repairs to his boat. His generosity is limitless and every time he drives down from the mountains he brings us sailing books, Spanish language study books and, most recently, the re-mastered Pinocchio DVD. And, as I mentioned in a previous blog, Jesus, who berths his boat directly across the pontoon from ours, last week treated us to a bucketful of sea bream.

We know the mariñeros who work at the marina, patrolling on their scooters and ensuring the whole place runs smoothly. And we have gotten to know some of the staff of the cafes and bars around the edges of the marina. All of these different groups make up an altogether pleasant community.

We live much of our lives in the open, in public view. Breakfasts and lunches are sometimes eaten at the cockpit table in full view of anyone walking past mere metres away. All of Julian’s current deck maintenance is taking place on the pontoon in front of families out for a weekend stroll, the owners of neighbouring boats, and the marina staff. A couple of months ago, a woman stopped to take photographs of all the teddy bears hanging from the rigging. We can feel a bit like a zoo exhibit at times (homo sapiens maritimus), but we can’t complain. People are generally intrigued by the sight of two winged pink ballerinas gamboling about on the foredeck or hanging upside down in the rigging, and they smile, say hello and, occasionally, stop to chat. Lily and Katie have made friends with our neighbours, and chat to them with ease, rushing to tell them about a loose tooth (Lily) or a grazed elbow (Katie).

In a few months we will move on and, in all likelihood, we will never see any of these people again. Such is the cruising life. Friendships are made that respect the fierce privacy and independent spirit of cruisers. People help each other out, look out for each other and enjoy each others company, but respect the need for privacy when living in such a public and open-air way.

We all know that we will eventually move on and will meet other like-minded sailors at other marinas or anchorages farther down the line. We will develop new short-lived friendships that will endure in our memories of each place we have visited.

Someone took my lemons

You know the saying ‘When God gives you lemons, make lemonade’? Or, in my case, lemon curd. But what happens when those lemons are taken away again before you have a chance to do anything productive with them?

We faced such a dilemma this past week when plans we had in place since early August changed suddenly and unexpectedly. Nearly five months earlier we had been asked to house and dog sit for a week at New Year so, despite our general lack of short- or medium-term planning, this week had been set in stone. We eliminated all other possibilities and honed in on making ourselves available to do this favour. And now that we had that week set in stone, we decided to plan accordingly. The girls and I would be off the boat for the whole week, leaving Julian free to get on with a huge number of jobs on his to-do list – sanding, varnishing, spring cleaning the lazarette, repairing the sails, etc. He would visit us in the apartment and spend some nights with us, but most of his week would be devoted to the boat.

Carina in a state of undress

Carina in a state of undress

I, meanwhile, planned to take advantage of being in Almeria to do lots of fun things, which are otherwise too expensive when we have to factor in the price of bus journeys from and to Aguadulce. And, of course, the girls were wildly excited about the prospect of taking care of a dog for a week, and that experience would have been amazing for them. In addition to all this fun, I planned to complete the first draft of my book before we moved back aboard Carina. With a TV in the apartment, I planned to let the girls watch one movie each evening, giving me one and a half hours of writing time, and to continue writing for two or three hours each night after the girls had gone to bed. That would surely put the first draft of the book to bed too.

Twenty-four hours before we were due to move into the apartment, unexpectedly and for reasons unrelated to us, the plans changed and we found ourselves adrift. What were we to do? The maintenance and repair jobs would now be much more difficult to accomplish with us under Julian’s feet. And, as I’ve written before, the simple tasks of cooking, cleaning, and day-to-day life take so much more time on a boat, so the time for fun activities and writing were now drastically curtailed.

First we got annoyed. And then we got practical. Rather than viewing the changes to this long-planned-for week as ruinous, we reassessed our priorities and we set about achieving what we could. Instead of thinking of it as a week, we saw in front of us eleven days until I had to return to work. Julian’s boat jobs needed daylight and my writing could be done after dark. The varnishing of weather boards and the oiling of the boat’s external teak needed to be done at a certain time of day – after the early morning dew had lifted, but early enough so they would dry before the evening dew descended.

Weatherboards drying in the early morning sun

Weatherboards drying in the early morning sun

I took over all the household chores that are usually shared or done by Julian – cooking, cleaning, laundry, food shopping. When Julian attempted to clean the heads one day I shooed him away – no point him wasting time doing jobs that I can do. I involved the girls in all those activities, taking their maths and English books to the launderette, so they could work while we waited. Many of the chores had us off the boat for considerable lengths of time.

The girls and I went for long walks on the beach. As well as taking our balls and bats and new origami set (I love it!), I took my pen and notebook and, while the girls played at playgrounds or played games with other kids, I squeezed in what handwriting I could, ready to transcribe to the laptop once the girls were in bed.

When we were at home, we stayed as much out of Julian’s way as possible. He sanded, varnished and oiled. He removed sails. He cleaned the decks and the cockpit. Sometimes the girls helped, but when helping turned to hindering, I took them away again.

And Julian took them away from me, late in the afternoons when the light was fading and he could no longer work effectively. Sure, I had dinner to make, but I also managed to write.

I’m going back to work tomorrow and I have to admit that neither of us has achieved what we had hoped. I’m still roughly 15,000 words from the end of the book. And Julian has accomplished only about 20% of what he would have expected to if he had had the boat to himself. This week we’ve also had to contend with having no electricity for two days due to a fault on the pontoon, and a blocked toilet that Julian’s had to take apart.

DSCI0035

But we could look at it another way. I’m 6,000 words closer to the end of the draft than I was before December 28th. Carina’s exterior woodwork is in better condition now than at any time since we have owned her. And we’ve had experiences that we wouldn’t have had if we had been in Almeria all week. Lily and Katie have met and played with lots of children at the local playgrounds all week. Katie and I spent a morning visiting Bill and Rosemary on a neighbouring boat. Jesus, on the boat across the pontoon from us, gave us a bucketful of freshly caught red sea bream. And yesterday morning, while out for my walk, I met Katie and Kalle, a young German couple living and travelling in a VW camper van, and they spent the afternoon aboard Carina with us.

Things don’t always work out the way you’ve planned. Unexpected changes can occur, leaving you feeling stranded. And we did feel stranded at first, when our five-months-in-the-making plan was turned on its head with no warning. But if there’s one thing that sailing teaches you, it’s that you can’t rely on plans. Weather systems and unexpected boat problems can alter the best laid plans. Friends we’ve made along the way this past year have had their sailing plans curtailed by, in one instance, a split wooden mast that needed to be replaced, and, in another, the need to install a new engine. But what can you do? Go with the flow, make the most of the opportunities you have and, if your lemons are taken away, you better have some recipes for a bucket-load of bream up your sleeve!

Everlasting summer

It’s the 7th of November and I’m finding it hard to believe that here in Aguadulce the temperature is still mid-20°C every day. Though the mornings and evenings are cooler now, I’m still wearing short sleeves and sandals, and summer just goes on and on. I wasn’t completely convinced by our winter choice of Aguadulce when we first arrived, but now that we’ve settled in, it’s quite grown on me.

So here we are in early November and the sky every day is of the deepest blue, and the great hulking orange rocky hill that rises up behind the marina is like a cardboard cut-out from a Western movie set against the impossibly blue sky.

Off I go to work...

Off to work I go…

Hardly a day goes by without a visit to the beach, only a brief two-minute walk from Carina. We don our swimwear, walk to the beach and plunge into the warm Mediterranean water without hesitation. It’s invariably warm. The water is crystal clear and most days is as still as a mill pond and, as I swim, I see small fish swimming beneath me.

I have to remind myself it's November

I have to remind myself it’s November

At night we sleep under a flimsy sheet and until a couple of nights ago, we kept the cabin hatch wide open all night. Some locals have told me it’s unusually warm for the time of year, others have told me it’s perfectly normal. Irrespective of who to believe, I’m certainly enjoying this extended summer.

Our lives revolve around this little patch of beach beside the marina.

Our lives revolve around this little patch of beach beside the marina.

Hallowe’en this year was a long way from the Hallowe’ens of my childhood. Growing up in Ireland, we did the rounds of all the neighbouring houses, then went to town to visit my Nana’s neighbour’s too. I remember adults and children dressed in home-made Hallowe’en costumes, performing on doorsteps, for sweets and money. We sang, told jokes, played musical instruments, often in the rain or the cold October wind. Then we would return home and play messy Hallowe’en games in the kitchen.

Cute little witches

Cute little witches

This year, we attempted to recreate those Hallowe’ens of my childhood. All week, we crafted ghosts and spiders and other festive decorations to hang around the boat. The girls dressed in the costumes Grandma gave them last year. Before leaving Carina we practiced some songs, accompanied by Julian on the recorder. Then we went around to visit some other boats in the marina, and entertained our neighbours with songs and some rather bad jokes. Our neighbours weren’t expecting Hallowe’en visitors, but they found rewards for our efforts nonetheless. Afterwards, back home on Carina, I introduced the girls to the various crazy and messy games that were such a huge part of my childhood Hallowe’ens.

What was strange was that Julian and I undertook our Hallowe’en visiting dressed in shorts and t-shirts! I’m not expecting to celebrate Christmas similarly attired!

PS…my latest published article ‘Learning by doing: Lessons from my Inuit teachers’ can now be viewed here on this blog.

Blowing in the wind

By Julian

‘An Englishman, an Irishman and an American go to a football match.’ This may sound like the start of a bad joke but it happened on Saturday. Many things have occurred to us as a result of coming to Aguadulce. The chain of events that has put us here seems both random and fateful. There we were, sitting in L’Aber Wrac’h, northern France, making plans to investigate various French rivers where we might spend the winter, when I looked at the weather forecast and the tides that would carry us out of the channel to sea. It was as if some greater power was saying “Here it is. You have the perfect conditions to go to northwest Spain. Go across Biscay, do it now or you should forget it, the stars will not align for you in this way again.” Those conditions sped us to Galicia and, with all our inexperience, we rattled along. Even as we approached Spain and a thunderstorm raged around us a little patch of stars stayed above our heads and the sea was calm. The fog which followed lifted at dawn to let us into the sweet smelling Ria. The memory of that herbal smell off the land is stronger than both the sights and the sounds, as beautiful as they were.

Once we were across Biscay it became almost a certainty that we would try to get to the Algarve but, beyond that, our heads were filled with numerous options. Several places in Portugal, southern Spain, Gibraltar, Morocco and even further afield, east and west, were considered. Then another random, or fateful, occurrence: Martina’s cousin Sean and his wife Yvonne moved from Ireland to Almeria to teach English for a couple of years. This completely unconnected event changed everything. Aguadulce, near Almeria, was always going to be on our list of places we would consider, but so long was the list it was unlikely to be where we would end up; it needed an extra something to stand out. However, the chain of events and experiences seemed to suck us towards here as though we had crossed the event horizon of a black hole; someone had turned on a giant cosmic vacuum cleaner; the Death Star had us in its tractor beam and Chewbacca was growling hopelessly at the controls. Still, when we stepped from Carina in Aguadulce, instead of Darth Vader we found a friendly marina, a nice town and we were next door to a beach; perfect for swimming, with a lovely children’s playground.

The football match was Almeria versus Athletic Bilbao. I am the Englishman, Sean is the Irishman and Joe, Sean’s boss, is the American. It will not surprise many people that three blokes went to a football match but it sure as hell surprised me. I have spent 40 years on this Earth without managing to trouble the gates of a football stadium. I was a match-day virgin, a true 40 year old virgin. Thanks to Sean’s season tickets we sat behind the goal as a fast paced La Liga match unfolded. It was quite a first match to witness with Bilbao in the Champion’s League this season. To hold onto the analogy, it was like bypassing the girl next door and going straight for Penelope Cruz.

Another thing has happened that will no doubt amuse many of those who know me. I am a large hairy bloke, not the sort of person you would expect to find spending an hour on a Wednesday and Thursday morning sitting in an apartment with two young Spanish ladies, aged 26 and 28, discussing clothes and shopping, a copy of ‘Vanity Fair’ open on the table between us whilst we sip cold mineral water. However, that is exactly what I was doing last week. Thanks to Sean and Yvonne, Martina has fallen into a job teaching English, so she has passed these two eager students on to me. I am really enjoying the experience. Would this have happened given a prevailing southwesterly four months ago? We have been truly blown in on the wind.

Now for the most amazing thing: my dad has said that if the girls and I fly to England in January he will take the ferry and drive back to Aguadulce with us. Since meeting Martina over ten years ago dad has come to our wedding in Edinburgh and on a sailing trip to Cherbourg, France; but both those events were nine years ago. My brother persuades him to drive to Cornwall from time to time. If things work out and my dad leaves England to stay with us on the Costa del Sol that will truly be an unexpected highlight of this strange chain of events.

Finding our land legs

Here we are in Aguadulce and we are gradually getting to know our new surroundings. The marina lies at the base of a towering orange mountain, the moods of which change constantly throughout the day from the rising to the setting of the sun. Black thunder clouds and deep blue skies bring out an ever-evolving range of colours and textures, and the mountain is a different place every time I look at it. At night small bats sweep down from the crevices and fly across the marina.

Carina is moored aft to a wall in the marina. Below, the water is crystal clear, so we can see Charlie, our toy guinea pig, and one of our towels, lying on the sea bed (hopefully they will both be retrieved by the time this is written). The crystal clear waters of the marina are home to an array of fish – mullet, bream, bass, and many others whose names I don’t yet know – that dart about near the surface, and are regularly fed breadcrumbs by local children.

We have already met many of the other marina residents – long-term live-aboards or, like us, people in for only a few months. They are an international band of sea nomads, open and generous and very friendly.

It’s a two minute walk to the beach, where we take the girls swimming almost every afternoon, in the warm and gentle waters of the Mediterranean. Their swimming continues to improve. This past weekend Lily swam a width of a swimming pool, and I was oblivious to her achievement until she asked me what I thought of it! Silly Mummy, missing these moments in my daughter’s life, despite being right beside her in the pool! After our swim each day, the girls play on the beach playground, regularly meeting local children out from school.

While Aguadulce lacks the charm of the historic towns we visited in Galicia, it is very pleasant, with great food shops, a small market, a great library (with unbelievably brilliant opening hours), and a good bus connection east to Almeria and west to Roquestas de Mar (scene of the bull fight).

We are (sort of) settling into a routine. I love routine. Julian’s less of a fan. So we are coming to a compromise in the middle – less routine that I would opt for, more routine than Julian would opt for. I’m aiming to write for five hours a day, but if I do four, then I consider it a successful day. I work in the mornings or afternoons – whatever the day throws up. While I’m away writing, Julian takes the girls exploring, or they stay on board and work on their maths, reading and writing. But I know that this semi-routine we have this week could well change next week, as other possibilities and opportunities crop up.

Right now, I appreciate how very lucky I am to have this opportunity to work on my various writing projects. It’s a rare luxury and I’m making the most of it.

It’s hard to believe it is already October. The temperature still hits 25˚C or 27˚C every day, and at night we sleep with the hatches wide open, catching what little breeze we can. But as it gets ever so slightly cooler, Julian and I are beginning to have the energy to do jobs on the boat that the sultry heat of a few weeks ago prevented us from doing. Spring cleaning has started, and once sails and running rigging have come down and Carina is prepared for a sedentary few months, her repairs will begin.

I think it’s going to be a good, if very different, sort of winter.

Sweet Water

The other side of the Rock of Gibraltar

The other side of the Rock of Gibraltar

With our minds made up to look farther afield for a winter berth, we didn’t see any point in hanging around Gibraltar. Shortly after 10am on Thursday we motored out of Queensway Quay and set a course of 075˚, across the Costa del Sol to Almerimar. We considered hopping along the coast, taking four or more days to reach our destination, but decided instead to do it in one long sail.

The day was hot and there wasn’t a breath of wind. It was uncomfortable at the helm, but the bimini, while providing no relief from the humidity, did give protection from the sun. The day was uneventful. After a few hours the shipping lanes were far to the south and our only companions were pods of small but very energetic common dolphins that thrashed and splashed in a manner I have not seen elsewhere.

As light faded I took the first night watch. The Sierra Nevada stood majestically to the north and from dusk until dawn, without let-up, lightening streaked across the mountains. Long after Julian and Katie had fallen asleep, Lily sat with me in the cockpit, enthralled by the distant light show.

But those weren’t the only lights. It was a moonless night and the sky was clear. A billion stars twinkled in the sky, with some of the brightest (Orion’s Belt among them) reflected in the calm sea. It was spectacular, and made me vow, not for the first time in my life, to learn some astronomy. Three times during my watch shooting stars streaked across the sky, one of which I caught only by its reflection in the sea.

Dolphins swam alongside intermittently through the night, leaping and breathing loudly close to Carina, their path underwater streaked in phosphorescence. It was another enchanting night sail.

I slept for four hours and swapped places with Julian again at 4am, this time only to keep watch for two hours. The nights are now long and when Julian woke me at 7.30am to say we would be in Almerimar in half an hour, they sky was only just fully light.

Here the land slopes gently from the sea to the base of the mountains, which rise dramatically beyond. Those slopes are covered for tens of kilometres in the white plastic sheeting of the poly-tunnels where much of Europe’s fruit and vegetables are grown. They are not particularly pleasing to the eye, but without these, consumers in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere in northern Europe would not enjoy year-round cheap tomatoes, peppers and other Mediterranean-produced foods.

Almerimar is a pleasant resort town, much of it given over to hotels and resorts that cater to northern European golfing tourists. The marina was pleasant enough, with an active live-aboard community – though having to remember to bring toilet paper to the toilet block every time was quite annoying!

After a day of resting and exploring Almerimar we took the bus to Almeria, to meet my cousin and his wife, who moved here from Ireland earlier this year to teach English. The bus journey was long, expensive and unreliable and we couldn’t imagine doing it more than once a month.

We took advantage of my cousin’s car to check out Aguadulce, and town and marina only five miles from Almeria. We were impressed with what we saw. Returning home to Carina we worked out and compared the costs of spending winter in Almerimar and Aguadulce, factoring in bus prices, electricity costs, Internet, and so on, and figured that they worked out about the same. When Aguadulce marina confirmed by phone the next day that it had a six-month berth available, we took it. We motored out of Almerimar on Monday afternoon for the short fifteen mile hop to Aguadulce – the place that will be our home for the next six months.