Who needs autohelm?

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

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

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


Katie has it all under control

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


Lily on the helm

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

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


Bed hopping

The plan, when we first moved aboard Carina in May 2012, was for Julian and me to sleep in the aft cabin and Lily’s and Katie’s ‘bedroom’ would be the smaller fore cabin. That first summer Carina sagged under the weight of the unnecessary stuff I had brought aboard. There wasn’t room to stow it all, and much of it remained piled high in the fore cabin, where I had dumped it on the wet and windy night in early May when I moved our stuff from our flat in Dawlish to the marina in Torquay.

For the six months we lived aboard that year, the girls slept with me in the aft cabin and Julian slept on the port berth in the saloon. That arrangement had both advantages and disadvantages. Lily, at three years of age, still woke up multiple times each night. Now, for the first time, she slept soundly curled up beside me, giving me, for the first time in three years, nights of unbroken sleep. Julian slept well in the saloon, but we had to make up his bed every night and tidy it away every morning, which was cumbersome and time consuming. And, let’s face it, while it was nice to snuggle up at night between my two little girls, my man was a far too distant five metres away from me.

We spent the winter on land, in a house in Exeter, and moved aboard once again in May 2013. I had learned lessons from the first year, and moved far less stuff aboard. In advance of moving aboard I prepared the fore cabin for the girls, with pretty duvet covers, fun storage boxes for their books and toys, and they had decided which cuddly toys they wanted to have around. From our first night aboard Carina in 2013, the girls slept in the fore cabin. And that is how it was been ever since. Like all bedrooms of young children, theirs is frequently a mess and I do my share of nagging and cajoling and shouting at them to ‘Tidy your room’.

Their cabin is a small space and I have thought occasionally about different sleeping arrangements that would give them both more space. But I have not been in any hurry to separate them either. Each ‘You’re on my side of the bed’ and ‘She kicked me’ is balanced by sounds wafting through to the aft cabin of their quiet morning conversations, singing songs and playing together with their toys.

Such a small space, however, is no fun in the extreme heat of the southern Iberian summer. Last year, from mid-May onwards, I made up the starboard berth in the saloon each night and they took turns sleeping there – Lily in the fore cabin and Katie in the saloon one night, and the other way around the next night. But each hot night the bed had to be prepared and each hot morning it had to be tidied away, which was even less fun than when we had to do the same with Julian’s bed in 2012.

There was another option, and one Monday morning in mid-May this year, on a whim, I decided to go for it. It wasn’t going to be easy and in the end it took almost three days before everything was organised. But it has been worth it.

The quarter berth, a wide and spacious single berth along the passageway connecting the aft cabin with the saloon, has always been used as a storage space. It’s where I keep all the boxes of food, the laundry bag, fishing rods, computer bag and various bags of work tools. Everything else gets thrown there when I can’t be bothered to put it away properly. The passageway has less than 5’ of headroom, so Julian and I have to bend down to get to our cabin, and to get to any of the items stored along the quarter berth. What if I turned this into Lily’s room and reorganised the fore cabin so that part of it was for storage and the rest Katie’s room? It was worth a try.


Quarterberth from this……

Removing everything from the quarter berth meant finding new stowage spaces elsewhere, so virtually the entire boat had to be reorganised. Moving all the food out into the galley and saloon challenged my organisational skills, but I figured it out. I now no longer have to bend down at back-ache inducing angles multiple times a day to get the ingredients I need for all our meals. Everything is now at arm’s reach, and I have made life so much easier for myself! (Imagine, it only took me five years to figure this out!!)

I found things in the quarter berth that hadn’t been used in years (and would never be used). I found new homes for all that stuff or put it in the recycling bins. I reorganised the stowage spaces underneath the quarter berth and the saloon port berth, creating more space to stow sailing equipment that we don’t need while our lives revolve around two villages far up a river! By lunchtime that day I had cleared and cleaned the quarter berth, and transformed it into a cute bedroom for Lily, with all her books, toys and piggy bank on the shelf, a space to stow her clothes at the end of the bed, and her fairy lights strung from the ceiling.


…..to this!

Her little face lit up when she arrived home from school and she hugged me almost to death with gratitude! She spent the afternoon rearranging her shelves and toys and making the space even more her own.


Foreward cabin from this…..

Alas, the fore cabin was still a mess and it took some persuading to convince a disappointed Katie that, by bedtime, she too would have a ‘room’ of her own. All afternoon I worked on the fore cabin, rearranging tools, toys, books and even the bed itself. Katie now sleeps across the boat, with her head to starboard and feet to port, boxes of books forming one side of her bed. She too has her toys, clothes and books in easy reach. And she loves her new ‘room’. For me, the great advantage of Katie’s new set-up is that I can lie down beside her at night so we can read together.


…..to this!

Still the saloon was a mess, with all the left over stuff that needed to be stowed. That took two more days. And then it struck me. The girls could have their own ‘desk’. The navigation table is at the end of Lily’s berth. It’s the perfect place to do homework, art, projects and watch movies. So I rearranged the navigation table and have transformed it into a desk which, despite being at the bottom of Lily’s bed, she must share with her sister.

A change is as good as a holiday, they say. And this change seems to suit us all. The girls are cool during these hot nights, and each has her own space for afternoon siesta. After two weeks, they continue to be ‘house proud’ of their own rooms, keeping them neat and tidy. Lily can read her novels without being disturbed by Katie, who is still at the reading aloud stage. They curl up together to watch movies or to work at the chart table, leaving the saloon table free more often. My galley is organised more efficiently and everything is close to hand. The boat seems, overall, neater and better organised.

I still occasionally go to the quarter berth to grab a box of flour or bottle of cooking oil and it takes a second for me to figure out why they’re not longer there! I’m sure it won’t be long before we all forget that the quarter berth was ever anything other than Lily’s bedroom.

Home alone…again

Julian’s surgery appointment came rather suddenly and unexpectedly. When he went back to the UK in mid-January for a consultation with a specialist, he was put on a three-month waiting list for his operation. So we were both expecting a mid- to late-April date, with a few weeks advance notice. He had specifically not put himself on a short-notice or cancellation list, so he would have enough time to make the necessary plans to get back to the UK.

On Thursday morning he received a phone call. His surgery was scheduled for 7.30 on Saturday morning – less than 48 hours later. While this should have made us happy, the suddenness threw us all out of kilter. His first thought was that he would not be able to get from the Rio Guadiana, in southern Iberia, to Coventry, in the middle of England, in time for the appointment. And that would mean probably having to go to the end of the waiting list again. He’s been living with a nasty cough and blocked nose for years now and I’m almost as eager as he is that he have the operation as soon as possible.

The girls were already in school on Thursday morning when he got the call. We jumped into the dinghy to get ashore to Alcoutim. He needed internet access to see if a flight was available and affordable and if all the necessary travel connections could be made to get him to where he needed to be.

As it turned out, there was a flight for just a little more than he would have liked to pay, and all the connections were perfect, fitting together seamlessly. He could leave Carina at 7.30 the next morning and be at his Dad’s house in Coventry at 5.30 in the evening. There was no point in booking a return flight, as he had no idea how soon he would be allowed to fly, or if follow-up appointments would be necessary.

That was Julian sorted. Now we had to decide what the girls and I would do. For the past two weeks we’d been moored fore and aft, only 100 metres from the Sanlúcar pontoon. While I wouldn’t be comfortable on anchor on my own, now that I’ve grown more accustomed and comfortable with the dinghy, I was happy to stay on the mooring for the time being. There were no spaces currently available on the Sanlúcar pontoon anyway and, besides the Alcoutim pontoon being more expensive, if we went on the Portuguese, I’d still have to ferry the girls to and from school in the dinghy. So I opted to stay on the mooring buoy and if and when I decide to move onto a pontoon, there are plenty of people around who can help me with Carina’s lines. Don’t be fooled if I sound cool and blasé about this – the thought of moving Carina on my own fills me with anxiety, and when I do I will most definitely have one of my capable and very experienced sailor friends on board to help!

With Julian’s travel plans finalised, we returned to Carina so he could talk me through battery charging, running the engine, opening the sea cocks (ahem) and more besides. I promised him I would be careful, take things easy and not rush around at my usual manic pace.

When we picked the girls up from school they weren’t too happy about Daddy’s imminent departure, although Katie saw it as an opportunity to bring back her bow and arrow from Grandma’s when he returns!

Early the next morning he was gone. Rather annoyingly, his departure coincided with the arrival of northwest winds gusting to 35 knots, and occasional downpours of heavy rain. These conditions lasted for three days and came between me and my sleep, as I worried about frayed mooring lines and Carina’s proximity to the east bank of the river. Things were better in the daylight and the girls and I have been getting on fine. The high wind also brought me to the philosophical conclusion that if we can get by in those conditions, then everything else will be easy. Or easier.

Our friends on the river are wonderful, offering assistance and advice, inviting us over for dinner and offering to take the girls now and again to give me a break.

Julian’s had his operation now but, given its nature (his nose) and follow up appointments, he might not be back this side of Easter. I miss him, but looking after the three girls – Lily, Katie and Carina, is keeping me busy!

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.