Up the creek

We walked along the cracked pavement towards the beach, Lily and I whispering conspiratorially about Katie’s upcoming birthday and the dinner I planned to surprise Julian with when we got home. Katie and Julian were a few paces ahead, Katie turning around every so often to inform me of the dinner plans of her imaginary friends – apparently, they were flying in from Invisible Land to join us for dinner. As we got closer to the beach, Lily asked if we could stay and play for a while. But I said no. The beach was dirty, covered in bits of plastic and broken glass and the scrubland we were walking through was heavily littered. I didn’t like the feel of the place. ‘Sometime tomorrow we’ll go back to that little beach where we swam yesterday’, I promised. The previous day we’d taken the dinghy ashore and spent a few hours on a beach closer to the mouth of the Rio Guadiana. The beach we were now walking towards was close to the marina and industrial part of Ayamonte.

When we reached the beach, Julian and I dropped our backpacks and bag of groceries and told the girls to play (‘watch out for broken glass’) while we put the dinghy in the water. Three hours earlier we had motored the dinghy ashore onto this seemingly deserted grubby beach. Julian had taken the outboard motor off and carried it up to some scrubby bushes 25 metres away. We then carried the dinghy up and placed it on top of the outboard. The marina in Ayamonte doesn’t welcome dinghies, so if you want to go ashore from an anchorage, the only option from south of town is to pull up onto a beach.

The girls ran down the beach and we walked to the dinghy. Julian was the first to notice something was wrong. The dinghy was there alright, but the girls’ lifejackets were gone, as were the dinghy’s oars, row-locks, air pump, water pump and the big black rubber tub that we store things in to keep dry in our perpetually leaking dinghy. ‘And the outboard?’ I asked, dreading to see what might no longer be under the dinghy. Relief! The outboard at least was where we had left it. The thief probably hadn’t realised it was there.

We were crestfallen, our buoyant mood as we walked back from a couple of hours in Ayamonte completely gone. We told the girls and they couldn’t understand why someone would steal our stuff. Quite honestly, neither could we. Faded frayed children’s lifejackets, and foot pump on its last legs, a leaky water pump with the handle missing, and a rubber tub that cost €3 in the Chinese shop (but which I had retrieved from a skip earlier in the year). Only the old Zodiac oars and relatively new row-locks might be worth something. All together, the thief probably got away with second hand stuff with a value of about €20.

But for us, that old, worn stuff had far more than monetary value. Two life jackets that give us peace of mind when travelling by dinghy with Lily and Katie; an air pump that is used every single day to inflate the dinghy’s leaky chambers; a water pump to keep ahead of the constant leaks of water onto the dinghy floor; oars and row-locks for safety and peace of mind in the event that our outboard fails; and an old rubber tub to keep laptops, backpacks, shoes, food and everything else dry as we move between Carina and land. All that old stuff was priceless to us. For the sake of €20 worth of stuff we were now left with a big headache and the prospect of a big hole in our never-very-healthy bank account.

We returned to Carina despondent, all hunger vanished, and the desire to make a special meal now the last thing I wanted to do. Julian and I started to evaluate what had been stolen and to weigh up options for the days and weeks ahead. We had a spare water pump aboard Carina (a brand new one we had found once in a public shower block, in a bag marked ‘Free – take what you want’), so that wasn’t a problem. But without oars or the means to inflate the dinghy, we could not go ashore. There would be no trip to the beach for the girls the next day, and the rest of our week downriver at anchor now took on an entirely new complexion. The girls’ lifejackets would cost €40 to replace at the chandler in Vila Real. Our foot pump had been on its last legs and it would probably only been a matter of weeks before we needed to invest in a new one anyway.

We have been in need of a new dinghy for some time now, and our latest attempts at repairs a few weeks ago ended in failure. Perhaps the thief, marching away with our oars over his shoulder, had forced our hand. Maybe this was the push we needed to invest in that new dinghy.

We considered what to do over the next 24 to 48 hours. Out came the almanac and the pilot book. Should we head east out of the river to the marina at Isla Cristina, reported to have a good and relatively inexpensive chandlery, where were could potentially purchase a new dinghy (where the money would come from for the new dinghy was anyone’s guess). Or should we head back upriver and get on the pontoon in Sanlúcar from where we could investigate, plan and choose the most cost-effective and worthwhile course of action – a new dinghy, a second-hand one, or some other option.

After talking late into the night (over that dinner that eventually got made) and sleeping on the problem, the next morning we chose a different course of action. We weren’t going to let this ruin our little downriver holiday – the first time we’ve all been together for any period of time in over a year. So we motored a little upriver to a pontoon north of the bridge. The pontoon is free of charge, but has no facilities. Still, it would allow us to enjoy a few more days away without having to worry about how we would get ashore and would give us time to consider how best to reorganise our finances to cope with this sudden and unexpected expense.

Though I’m still feeling despondent and am concerned about money, by the time we went to bed that night we could chuckle at our dilemma, and over the last few days a clearer path to resolving this problem has become clear. While we’re now up shit creek without a paddle, some guy’s wandering the scrub out there with everything he needs to go boating …except a boat!

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Downriver

On the morning of New Year’s Day, while the rest of the river slept off the festivities of the night before, we lifted the anchor and motored downriver on the ebb tide. For twenty-two miles we chugged along, the farthest Carina had gone since we came upriver in mid-April 2015. We past Laranjeiras where Carina was moored for five months while we were back in the UK, past Guerreros de Rio and Foz de Odeleite, all small hamlets on the Portuguese side of the river. On the Spanish side, there are no settlements of any size between Sanlúcar and Ayamonte, save for the occasional remote farmhouse and a huge ugly golf resort a couple of miles north of Ayamonte.

For some unfathomable reason I’d decided to do some laundry before we departed, so we motored down the river like a tribe of laundry pirates – a large white bed sheet, the girls’ Christmas jumpers, and Lily’s party dress hanging from the clothes lines strung from the rigging. But who was about to see us?

We were expecting unsettled weather and we got it. The sun that had burned away the early morning mist warmed us as we set out, but a few miles downriver I had to hastily bring in the laundry as a dark cloud rushing up the river to meet us dropped its load of rain upon us. That put an end to drying the laundry.

The farther downriver we went the stronger the wind grew. By the time we had left the hills behind and reached the broader stretches of river than run between mud flats and flood plains, Carina was bouncing over choppy short waves as the south westerly wind battled against the south flowing ebb tide.

It was close to low water when we passed under the suspension bridge linking Spain and Portugal and we began to look for a place to anchor. The wind was strong now and the west bank of the river offered the best shelter from the prevailing conditions. To give our anchoring skills a good workout, Mother Nature threw a nasty squall at us just as we decided on an anchorage. Tempers were frayed as lashing rain and howling wind prevented effective communication between Julian on the foredeck with the anchor chain and me in the cockpit on the helm. But as the storm passed overhead, so too did the little storm that had erupted in the boat. A nice cup of tea and we were back on speaking terms again!

High winds didn’t make for the most pleasant anchorage. We were anchored in mud, well out of the ferry and fishing boat channels, so Carina was unlikely to come to much harm if the anchor dragged. But noisy wind, uncomfortable rocking and rain that fell in sheets for hours on end wasn’t how any of us planned to spend our first night of 2016.

Somewhere in the early morning the wind died, the rain stopped and when we awoke the next morning all was calm and peaceful at the mouth of the Guadiana. At 9am we lifted the anchor and motored into the marina in Ayamonte. In the large, half empty Junta de Andalucia marina we found ourselves beside our friends Joss and Pascale aboard Snark and two pontoons away from Pete and Pia aboard Hannah Brown – Alcoutim/Sanlúcar live-aboards on tour!

How strange to be in a marina again, in a Spanish town. It reminded Lily of somewhere else she had been, but she couldn’t remember quite where. This was the first time we had been in a marina since April and it was like many of those we had been to before. It could have been Muros or Mazagon, Torremolinos or Vila Garcia de Arousa. Long walks along pontoons inhabited by seagulls; palm trees planted around the margins; electric gates; bureaucratic staff. My first job was to pay for a night’s berth and have a shower! Bliss!

Soon we were off the boat exploring. Next time I’m there I’ll be giving the little free zoo a miss, with its sad tiger, grizzly bears, lions and baboons. Only the ostriches seem relatively content with their lot in life. Ayamonte town centre was a busy little place, still in the throes of Christmas, preparing for Twelfth Night and the arrival of Los Tres Reyes with their gifts for all the children. An incongruous ice skating rink in the square left much to be desired, but the Christmas trees made by local school children and on display on the steps of the church were wonderful (I took note of some craft ideas for next year!).

That first evening, January 2nd, there was a procession through town of the Compañeras de los Tres Reyes – a brass band playing lively Christmas music followed by three women dressed in ‘Oriental’ clothing, riding three of the most magnificent and well-kept mules I have ever seen. The girls and I ran through the pouring rain to catch up with the procession and later on, when it grew dark all four of us returned to the town centre again where a lively flamenco choir sang carols and we soaked up the atmosphere.

We intended to spend only one night in the marina, and a couple more on anchor. And we intended to divide our time between Ayamonte in Spain and Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal. But the wind and rain put paid to those plans and we spent three nights in Ayamonte marina. The marina proved a boon. The heavy rain had penetrated some of Carina’s leakier parts and the bedding on both fore and aft cabins got quite wet. So, while I ran loads of sheets, duvet covers and pillow cases through the marina’s inexpensive washing machine and tumble drier, we kept the electric fan heater running almost non-stop, drying out the cabins and making the boat comfortable again.

We also took advantage of our proximity to a supermarket to stock up on some food, but I have to say, having got used to shopping in Alcoutim’s and Sanlúcar’s tiny shops, I found the choice in a medium-sized supermarket rather daunting! Nice though to have soy sauce, noodles and a selection of crackers on board again.

On January 4th a text message from the parents of one of Lily’s friends asked if we would make it to their daughter’s birthday party the next day. We hoped the wind would die down enough for us to get back upriver on time for the party and for the Tres Reyes procession in Sanlúcar that night.

Low water the next morning was at 5.13am and we planned to leave at 8am to get upriver on the flood tide. There was little wind, but by 8am it was still pitch dark, so we waited twenty more minutes for some light to fill the sky, before we made our way out of the marina. Carina raced up the Guadiana, carried along on the tide. Somewhat annoyingly, the wind was now coming from the north, making for a cold few hours, despite the sun that gradually rose from behind the hills to warm our backs. By the time we reached Alcoutim I looked like a pirate of a different kind – woolly hat, neck warmer pulled up over my nose and only my eyes exposed as I stood at the helm. We made it to the party, and to the Twelfth Night festivities that night.

Moving upriver

Once we’ve settled onto our pontoon at Vila Real de Santo Antonio, tidied up and had breakfast, I pause for the first time. We are on the outside pontoon with nothing between us and the river. The river is still, but lively with terns, swooping and diving and shrilly chattering. Occasionally a fish leaps from the water, flying through the air for a split second, splashing back into the river, disturbing the peaceful surface with an expanding pattern of concentric ripples. Across the still river, only 500 metres away is Spain. A different country, a different culture, a different language, a different time zone. It’s surreal to be in one country and yet be so close to another. I’ve done it before, driving through Europe and on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. But the political lines that are not always so arbitrary never cease to amaze me.

Looking across to Spain from Portugal

Looking across to Spain from Portugal

We’ve had a tough night of sailing, so we don’t get up to much on our first day back in Portugal. Julian takes the girls out for a walk and a picnic while I catch up on some sleep and in the afternoon I return the favour, strolling with the girls through the pretty white-washed town of Vila Real, old men drinking coffee in the town square, groups of men and women, young and old, gathered in and outside bars watching a football match on TV.

The town square of Vila Real

The town square of Vila Real

We leave Vila Real at 8am the next morning to take advantage of the currents on the flood tide that will carry us up the river. Our destination is Alcoutim, a Portuguese village 22 miles up the river.

Beyond the small towns of Vila Real on the Portuguese side and Ayamonte on the Spanish side, we are quickly into countryside. The first thing I notice is the smell. A deep, fresh, rich, earthy smell of the river and its banks, that makes me want to inhale deeply, fill my lungs, get drunk on this heady air.

The banks on this stretch of the river are flat and muddy, with herons and egrets standing still on long legs or carefully high-stepping in the shallows, scanning the water for fish. The terns are ever present, reminding me, as they always do, of the Point out beyond Arviat.

Riverbank

Riverbank

Two miles upriver from Vila Real we pass under the suspension bridge. I’ve flown and driven across international borders before, but this the first time I’ve gone under one. Beyond the bridge the gently rolling farmland is dotted with the occasional olive, orange or almond grove, herds of sheep led by a clanging bellwether resting under the trees from the already hot sun.

Looking serious as I emerge from under the suspension bridge

Looking pensive as I emerge from under the suspension bridge

Abandoned dwellings are dotted on the slopes of the riverbank – tiny, white washed houses with windows and roofs missing or in various states of disrepair.

As we carry on up the river, rounding long curving bends, the landscape subtly changes. Gradually the muddy banks give way to lush green hills sloping down to the bamboos and tall reeds that flank the river. Even above the noise of our engine I can hear the birdsong and I look forward to reaching our destination so we can cut the motor and listen to this orchestra.

DSCI0372 - CopyIn places, where tributaries feed the river with silt, the Guadiana is no deeper than 3.5 metres, and we navigate carefully. We draw almost 1.9 metres, and we don’t want to touch the bottom. But for most of the trip up the river we have 9 metres or more and we comfortably chug along, slowly and with enough time to take it all in, take photos and spot birds on the river banks.

It takes us less than four hours to reach the twin villages of Alcoutim, on the Portuguese side of the river and Sanlucar on the Spanish side. Both are tiny and white washed, rising steeply from the banks of the river. There are plenty of boats at anchor here already, and we motor around, trying out a few different places until we find a place we like. We drop the anchor, turn off the engine, and sit in the cockpit taking in the sights and sounds of the place.

Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

The air is electric with birdsong, accompanied by a goat’s bell in the field closest to us. On each hour four church bells ring – two on each side of the river. Occasionally an outboard motor hums as a dinghy crosses the river between the two countries. In a field nearby, on the Spanish side, a farmer tends his orange trees.

It’s time to inflate the dinghy and get ashore!

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.