The cold never bothered me anyway

The other side of the river wasn’t there this morning. We wondered, as we walked up to school just before 9am, if Portugal had drifted away in the night, and if so, was it by accident or design. I opted for design and guessed it was merrily floating across the Atlantic, making its way to Brazil for the winter.

Turned out it was there all along. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It was just shrouded in cold dense fog. Man alive, it’s cold here right now. Not Arctic cold or even Ireland cold, but cold nonetheless. This time last year we were still swimming in the river at the Praia Fluvial in Alcoutim. We weren’t long back from our sojourn in the UK, and we basked in balmy November sunshine.

We’re getting the sunshine alright, but I defy anyone to strip down to their swimwear and plunge into the river (my mad husband accepted…but that’s a blog post for another day). It started gradually a couple of weeks ago. The nights grew colder and we all needed an extra blanket on our beds. Then the coats came out for the walk to school in the morning. By the end of the school day, at 2pm, it was t-shirt weather, so the girls frequently forgot to bring their coats home. For the past few days they’ve been wearing their coats to and from school.

The day came when I took the electric heater out of storage, at first to warm the boat up for twenty minutes when we got up in the morning. Now it’s running in the evenings too, both to warm up the boat and in a bid to stave off the dreaded condensation that comes from four people breathing inside a closed up boat.

Two nights ago the hot water bottles came out, the blankets were no longer enough to keep us cosy in bed. And this morning I swapped our bag of summer hats for our winter bag of gloves, woolly hats, neck warmers and scarves.

I met someone earlier who commented, ‘You must be cold’. Not a chance. In my woolly hat, and three warm layers underneath my jacket, I was snug as a bug walking through town. Maybe my nose was cold, but not much else.

There’s something nice about snuggling in for winter. Cold nights under blankets, brisk crisp days, hot tea and butter melting on toast, hearty soups made from winter vegetables, roasted chestnuts straight from the oven, hot brandy with cloves. I’ve known colder winters, that’s for sure, and I know this one will be brief. I can either fight it or embrace it. I say embrace it.

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Rain

On Monday morning I did an overdue load of laundry at the launderette in Alcoutim. But with one thing and another I didn’t get home until 6pm. I hung it out on the guard rails and rigging anyway.

On Tuesday it rained. Heavily. All day. The laundry hung sodden around the rails and rigging. We came home from Sanlúcar with four sets of wet foul weather gear, four sets of wet rubber boots, four sets of wet clothes. We hung them where we could.

On Wednesday it rained. Lily had no dry socks or shoes. She wore a pair of Katie’s socks to school and a pair of shoes that are still a size too big. We donned half-dry foul weather gear and half-dry rubber boots to get ashore. When the sun came out in the evening the girls splashed in muddy puddles.

On Thursday the sun came out. I threw open the hatches over our beds. Julian and I went to Alcoutim. As we sat drinking coffee on a terrace overlooking the river we felt drops of rain. Julian downed his coffee and raced back home in the dinghy. Alas, too late. By the time he got to Carina our beds were soaked and the almost dry laundry was wet once again.

By Thursday evening all of Monday’s laundry was finally dry and our beds were mostly dry. We had clean clothes at last and our spirits were lifting.

Today the sun feels good.

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!

Keeping it all going

by Julian

Boat equipment goes wrong all the time, maintainance is a big part of sailing and living aboard. Think of a boat being your home, which includes electricity, plumbing, gas etc. It is also your transport so engines, sails and rigging need to be maintained. It is your security, so general seaworthiness, anchor, flares, radio comms, distress beacons, life jackets, liferaft and many more things besides. As Martina mentioned in a previous blog post several things went wrong just before I went back to England. The outboard motor on our dinghy stopped working, the main diesel engine overheating alarm went off and the foot pump started leaking badly, filling our bilges with water. These things and more needed sorting out before I returned to the UK so that Martina could have a dull uneventful week of peace without me.

First of all I attended to the leak in our fresh drinking water system. I took the foot pump out, water momentarily gushing all around me, and I shoved a couple of wooden bungs in the ends of the pipes, tightening hose clips onto them to stop the leak. This left Martina with only the electric pump, which we don’t like to use when on anchor, with only our 80 W solar panel to keep the systems going, but that was fine because Martina had no intention of being at anchor without me on board. We spotted an opportunity to go alongside the pontoon at Sanlucar a few days earlier than we needed and early in the morning we brought Carina into Spain, just in time to make the 5 minute walk to take the girls to school. Life was beginning to look easier for Martina stuck without me. On the pontoon she could do the shopping, take the girls to school and had limitless water and electricity with Carina plugged into the mains. This meant being able to use the computer and DVD player without limit, DVDs for the girls, a blender for smoothies and even a fast electric kettle, a working fridge and hot running water, pretty good hey!

The next job was the dinghy. I couldn’t leave Martina without the ability to get across the river, go to the Saturday market in Portugal, use the 3 Euro a go washing machine, which includes the powder, and go to the library where she can plug in the computer and use the internet all day long for her writing work. She might even decide to exchange books and look at the art gallery. I suspected the problem with the outboard to be dirt in the carburettor. We have a small, very simple and usually reliable outboard which I think is vital for an idiot like me, miles away from a petrol station or a professional mechanic. So I stripped down the carburettor, couldn’t see the problem but did a few of my magic blows on it and put it back together again, it worked a treat. The next mission was to teach Martina how to use it. “WHAT!” I hear you say, how could she live on the boat and not be able to use the outboard. Well it is a long story, she did use it a couple of times under supervision when we were cruising down here but we spent last winter in a marina and she hadn’t used it since. So I watched as she went off with the laundry, shouting things like “A little more choke!”, “No you’ve flooded it, try rowing straight back at the shore.” Anyway finally she seemed pretty happy and could handle the oars, so she had her complete freedom while the kids went to school.

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Our Zodiac inflatable dinghy with it’s 2 stroke Mariner 3.3 outboard.

I ordered spare rubber parts for our very good Whale Gusher Galley Mk III foot pump which hadn’t let us down or needed any maintenance in four years of very heavy use. We don’t know how long it was before we bought Carina since any work had been done on it. These parts would arrive at my dad’s house for me to bring back from the UK and I flew out from Seville to London for my appointment with the consultant. On my return I was first annoyed because Martina filled up the water system, but I waited a couple of days then emptied it and took the pump apart. Sure enough I found a small hole in one of the diaphragms. I replaced them both, saving the good one as an emergency replacement. Now I just had the engine to sort out.

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Behind the scenes on our Whale Gusher Galley Mk III footpump!!

The main engine of Carina was a little more confusing. The temperature alarm had gone off when on full pelt on our return from Ayamonte but now it was giving a faint alarm and a faint warning light after running the engine for 20 minutes or so. The system is cooled by a flow of raw water (sea or river) around an inner engine coolant water. Previously we had trouble with the flow of the raw water due to a seal not being good on the inlet filter but it was clear this was not the case, the filter itself was also clear. I remember going to sea with my cousin Martin and him replacing a degraded impellar (the rubber thing that pumps the raw water around the engine), that day the two of us sailed onto the mooring in the confined space between lines of boats and mud banks of Hayling island, near Chichester and we missed the tide that would get us to the pub. With this in mind I checked the impellar, it looked fine.

Various people came past and nodding sagely said “It will be the thermostat!” I ignored them and checked the raw water system some more, actually contacting the dealer to see what the flow should be, I then put a bucket by the exhaust and measured how much water came out in 20 second intervals, it appeared to be behaving fine. Finally I heeded the advice of my fellow sailors and took out the thermostat and put it in a pan of boiling water. It opened just fine, not that either then! I was getting pretty sure that it was just a faulty temperature sensor, but I didn’t have the confidence to risk the engine. However, the Germans had heard that I was looking for a thermometer and came on board with their engineering kit and took over for an hour or so. Rolf was an engineer and still does the odd professional job on boats at the coast. Along with Steffan, a keen amateur, they gave the engine a good testing. The verdict was that it isn’t overheating, I have a dodgy temperature sensor. I checked the price of a new one with the dealer, £49.95! Maybe I’ll take it out and blow on it before spending the money.

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Carina’s main inboard engine a Craftsman Marine 4.42. It is a 4 cylinder 42 hp diesel marinised engine based on a Mitsubishi engine.

Daddy’s home

Julian went back to the UK last week, leaving the girls and me for eight days. He had a medical appointment, hanging over from when we were back in the UK in the summer/autumn. In anticipation of his departure, we came alongside the pontoon in Sanlúcar, as the thought of living at anchor and ferrying the girls to school in our leaky dinghy every day didn’t appeal to me. He repaired what leaks he could in the dinghy and made sure we were well stocked with cooking gas, and at 7am on Monday morning he was off.

I’ve been alone aboard Carina for longer before (three weeks this time last year) and I’ve been alone with the girls on occasion (most of three days back in 2014), but never had the girls and I been on the boat for so long without Julian.

Well, it all worked like clockwork. There were no size 12 shoes to trip over when I stumbled out of bed to go to the loo in the middle of the night; no XXL t-shirts and jeans to fill up half the laundry bag; fewer dishes to wash and half the amount of food to prepare. (Such is life lived with a giant)

Each morning I washed the breakfast dishes, made the beds and tidied the saloon BEFORE I took the girls to school and then came home to a neat and tidy work space where I could sit down and write for as long as I wanted.

While the girls were at school I flitted across the river in the dinghy to do laundry and use the library; I went for long walks along the trails that run along the river; I wrote; I studied and practiced Spanish. There were no negotiations about who needs the dinghy, who should take the girls to and from school (although they don’t actually need anyone to), whose turn it is to cook/wash dishes/do the shopping, whose turn is it to use the laptop.

I decided to put a new routine in place. Instead of dinner at 7pm, we would have dinner when the girls got home from school and a light meal in the evening, like we did when I was a kid. Katie, who normally won’t eat her dinner, devoured it every day, because she was so hungry when she got home from school. She often asked for seconds. And because the evening meal was something she loved (soft boiled egg and soldiers, for example) she devoured that too.

After dinner each afternoon I insisted the girls have a 45 minute siesta, and they did. With no adults talking, they read or slept in their cabin. And after that they went off to play with their friends, or I went out for long walks with them.

On Friday night we had a pyjama party aboard. Three of Lily’s and Katie’s friends came – two other boat kids and a little girl who lives in a house up the river. Because of our lack of space aboard Carina, this would have been difficult to do with both Julian and me at home. They all slept in our big bed in the aft cabin and I slept in Lily’s and Katie’s bed in the fore cabin. Being the only adult, I was able to give the five girls my full attention and the whole thing ran smoothly. The girls had great fun, if little sleep, and I spent the rest of the weekend recovering.

And when I had problems to solve during the week, I solved them for myself, without automatically turning to Julian for his advice. I got the outboard motor working when it failed to start one morning; I made a temporary repair on one of the rowlocks when it broke. If Julian was here I would have just handed that sort of stuff over to him.

Sure, it all ran like clockwork. I was organised, I ran the show solo, things didn’t need to be discussed or negotiated or decided upon. All that stuff was easy and I had extra time on my hands.

But without Julian, it was boring as hell. All week I had things I desperately wanted to tell him, but he wasn’t around to hear them. I had questions to ask him, opinions to seek, funny occurrences to pass on. And come Monday evening, I was pacing the cockpit like a caged lion, waiting to see him appear on the Alcoutim pontoon and hitch a dinghy ride back home.

I thought ‘I won’t ever again curse his size 12 shoes’. And I meant it. That is, until I tripped over them when I stumbled out of bed in the dark on his first night back!

A new chapter

Sunday evening. I take the girls for a shower while Julian makes dinner. Make sure they’re scrubbed and spotless. After dinner I check there are pencils, erasers, rulers and colouring pencils in their pencil cases and I place them inside two Peppa Pig backpacks along with a copybook each. In the morning I’ll add a sandwich and an apple to each bag. Finally, I lay out their clothes for the morning. We all need an early night before the big day ahead.

A new chapter of our lives has begun. Lily and Katie have started school in the tiny village school in Sanlúcar on the Spanish side of the river. When we came up the Rio Guadiana in April we met Rafa and Pilar and their three boys. The family had sailed from Majorca in February, were now living on the river, and the boys were attending school in Sanlúcar. What they told us about the school sparked our curiosity and soon we were talking to other live-aboard families whose children had attended or were currently attending the school.

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Monday morning, heading off for the first day of school

One day the girls and I visited the school, took a look around, met some of the teachers and I expressed an interest in enrolling them at the start of the new school year, in September. The principal was most welcoming and open to the idea, despite the girls (and our) inability to speak Spanish.

Julian and I thought long and hard about enrolling the girls in formal education. I always imagined that as we sailed we might avail of opportunities to immerse the girls in local languages and cultures by sending them to small rural or village schools for six months or a year. The school I have always imagined enrolling them in is the school in The snail and the whale, which those of you who are fans of Julia Donaldson will be familiar with.

The school in Sanlúcar comes pretty close. Serving a village of 400 people with a decidedly aging population, the school is tiny, with less than ten children per class. We saw this as a wonderful opportunity for Lily and Katie to learn Spanish, become immersed in southern Spanish culture, and for all of us to get to know this lovely little village and its inhabitants better.

During our months back in the UK we all studied Spanish in preparation for this new adventure. I had understood little of what the principal said to me on our couple of visits to the school in May and another teacher who spoke some English had to be called over to translate. I didn’t want that to be the case when we finally returned to the school in autumn.

With a date for my operation not until October 1st, I emailed the principal (helped by Google Translate) to explain the situation and, given the circumstances, he was happy for the girls to start school in mid-November.

Lily has generally been very excited about the prospect of going to school, but Katie hasn’t been too sure (‘I want to be a home schooled kid’, she told me repeatedly). On our return to the Rio Guadiana we visited the school. The girls met their teachers – Martina and Cristina. Lily smiled and Katie scowled. I was delighted that I could understand most of the instructions the two teachers gave me in preparation for the first day.

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Julian rows the girls over to Spain for their first day of school

A few days later it was Monday morning. We happened to be on the Portuguese side of the river, so I waved them off as Julian rowed them across the international border for their first day of school! I was on tenterhooks all day, expecting a call from Cristina to say that Katie was inconsolable or had run away. But no such call came. In the afternoon when I picked them up they were both beaming from ear to ear. It had been a good day for Katie to start school. Louisa, one of her classmates, turned five, and they had a birthday party in class, complete with a Frozen cake and strawberry milk.

The school is indeed tiny. Katie is in kindergarten with six other children in her class. Lily is in a class of Year 1 and Year 2 combined. Lily is in Year 1 with six other children and there are two children in Year 2. Nine children in the entire class! The school day is short, from 9am to 2pm. (This was one reason we chose to send them to school in Spain rather than Portugal. The Portuguese school day is longer. Our other reason was that internationally, Spanish is the more widely spoken of the two languages).

So far they seem to love it. Lily appears to enjoy most of her lessons, with the exception of maths, because she’s doing maths she already knows how to do. Her teacher, Martina, says her handwriting is terrible and she needs to work on it, so she’s busy practicing the loopy, flowery writing style particular to southern Europe. On Wednesday, at music lesson, Katie learned about a piano player in funny clothes with white hair, curly bits around his ears and a ponytail with a ribbon. I’m guessing Mozart. Julian’s going for Elton John!

After only a week of school, Julian and I are astounded at how much Spanish peppers their language. They don’t know much, but they are mimicking the sounds of the language and liberally using whatever snippets of Spanish they know. We grin at each other across the table as we listen to them. (It took me a while to figure out that Lily’s ‘Qué fresa’ was actually ‘Qué pasa’. I set her straight!) Julian and I are having our language skills pushed to the limit too, as we work our way through the multiple sheets of paper we’ve been given with instructions for what they need to bring to school each day, the specific pencils, notebooks and folders we need to buy, release forms for using their photos on the school website, and so on, and by hanging around with the other parents before and after school each day. My vocabulary has taken a huge leap forward this week!

And it seems we’ve started a trend. Our English friends aboard Spirit of Mystery have decided to enrol their daughters in the school and on Tuesday we were surprised to see the cruising family from Oregon back again. Having told them about our plans to send our kids to school they decided to postpone their return across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and back to Oregon and instead return to the Rio Guadiana. They have enrolled their three children to start school in Sanlúcar in January. All of this is wonderful news for the school which struggles to remain open in this village with an aging population where most of the young people have moved to Seville and other larger towns to seek work and life away from farming the land.

So we have thrown ourselves into a winter of routine, which feels strange at the moment. 7am alarm, making snacks to take to school, breakfast eaten and clothes on by 8.30, 8.40 into the dinghy to go to school. After school we go to the beach or go walking in the hills for an hour or two, making the most of daylight and the hot sunshine, before returning home for dinner.

The girls are certainly enjoying their new adventure and Julian and I are getting used to it too.

Rugrats

Does anyone know the collective noun for children? A squirm? A squeal? A clatter? A crash? A riot? An exertion? I need a collective noun right now, because there are children everywhere. We motored upriver on Wednesday morning from Laranjeiras to Alcoutim and the place was wriggling with sailing kids.

The girls and I went to the chestnut and wine festival that night and met a family from Oregon: Mike and his wife, with Kenna, Porter and Alexander, aged 6, 10 and 13. A game of hide and seek immediately ensued between my girls and their youngest two, and before we parted company we arranged a date for a walk to the ruined castle on the hill the next morning. The four again had fun hiding and playing tag and ‘What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?’ All too soon we had to return to the river and we bid farewell, as they set sail for Cadiz later in the afternoon.

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Lily and Katie playing with their friends aboard Ros Alither

But in their wake came two more families. Hazel and Dave, who used to live aboard and run the Topsham to Turf Locks ferry near Exeter, now live aboard Ros Alither, their beautiful Killybegs trawler with their children, Katie 8 and Reuben 5. We met them when they came ashore by dinghy and a few hours later they moved from their anchorage onto the pontoon behind Carina. On the pontoon over in Sanlúcar are Paul and Emma, an English couple with two New Zealand-born daughters, Lola 6 and Isla 3, living aboard Spirit of Mystery.

Our six children have been having a riotous time together, at the beach, on the pontoon, at the outdoor gym at the top of the slipway, and on each others’ boats. We parents have been drinking tea and coffee together, sharing our home schooling and sailing experiences, and taking turns looking after each other’s children, freeing each other up for Internet time, laundry, boat maintenance.

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Lily swinging from the rigging of Ros Alither

Lily and Katie, of course, are in their element, having all these children so close in age to play with. Aboard the other boats they have been knitting, playing Lego, making dens, climbing the rigging, and having very serious conversations about their favourite characters in Frozen, Tangled and other movies. We’ve invited Lola and Isla over for a movie and popcorn evening later this week, as they haven’t seen Tangled.

It amazes me how quickly children become the best of friends. As adults, we are more cautious, gradually feeling the waters to get a sense of the new people we meet. I’m always conscious of things such as politics, religion, health, and things like that, and tread gently until I know more about the new people I meet. Not so kids. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and throw themselves headlong into newfound friendships. They don’t worry about offending anyone or about people not liking them. They just want to play and have fun.

The moment before

It was the stillness of the river that struck me. I stood on the pontoon at Laranjeiras, alone, Julian and the girls already aboard Carina, 100 metres away. I stood waiting for my ride across in the tiny rubber dinghy of Scott, the man who’s been looking after Carina while we’ve been away. The tide turned as he rowed Julian across the water, Carina and the other boats lazily swinging around on their moorings until they faced upriver, into the out-going current. Scott returned alone with Lily’s and Katie’s life jackets and rowed the girls home. Alone for the first time at the end of a journey that started twelve hours earlier in windy wintry Coventry, I deeply inhaled the moment. The birdsong, the cloudless sky, the warm sun on my face. The river calm, but the current quick. The dull clanging of a bellwether on a hillside field, the occasional car along the remote country road that runs alongside the river. I stretched my arms high over my head, pulled myself up to my full height, stretched my body, inhaled deeply. I absorbed the moment. Soon I would be aboard Carina, airing the bedding, unpacking, making tea and getting settled in the couple of brief hours before darkness fell. But this was the before moment. Before I took the final steps home, before I joined my family in the middle of the river. Before I saw and heard Lily’s and Katie’s reactions to being home. Before Julian and I examined how Carina had fared in our absence. This was a moment of perfect bliss. A moment of possibility and a deep quiet joy that here on the river I was almost home. Scott rowed to shore, I lowered myself into his dinghy and we set out across the river.

House or boat? Part 2

Last Thursday I took the girls to Stratford-upon-Avon for a day of performance workshops at Stratford Arts House. I got talking to a woman in her 70s who was there with her six-year old granddaughter. Her granddaughter lives in the Peak District and, with her younger brother, was visiting her grandparents in Stratford during school half-term.
‘Do you have other grandchildren?’ I asked her.
She told me her grandchildren are, to use her words, ‘scattered all over the place’. As well as the two in the Peak District she has three in Herefordshire and two in Watford.
I told her she should count herself lucky and explained that, because we live on a boat, Lily and Katie’s three grandparents have greater difficulty in pinning their only grandchildren down and generally don’t get to see them very often.

I thought about that conversation as I considered the emotional and relational aspects of our chosen lifestyle. I thought too about the relationships of my childhood and about how in the past five and a half months Lily and Katie have spent more time with their grandparents than ever before.

I grew up in the same house as one of my grandmothers and, from the day I started school until my final year at school, thirteen years later, I went to my other grandmother’s house for lunch every day. My aunt Cissie lived in our house too and my uncle Tom visited almost every day. I was raised as much by my grandmothers, Cissie, Tom, and my aunt Lily and uncle Jerry, as I was by my own parents. I moved between those adults knowing I was cared for and loved and that nothing bad would ever happen to me when I had all those people (and many more besides) as well as my wonderful parents looking out for me. It probably made life a bit easier for my parents too, knowing all those other trusted family members were helping to raise me too.

Julian and I have had a taste of that in these past five months. The girls adore their Grandma and Granddad and the feelings are mutual. How different a prolonged stay has been to the short weekend or weeklong visits they’ve enjoyed in the past. The girls and their grandparents have gotten to know each other better, developed routines around each other, have learned from each other, and have really enjoyed each other’s company. My parents-in-law have been there for Julian and me too, taking care of the girls and of us, making life a lot easier for us in the past five months than it would have been if we had attempted this temporary return to the UK without them.

So all of this is a slightly long-winded rumination on the impact our lifestyle has on our relationships with family and friends. I know that even if we lived in a house we might not live close to other family members, but at least we would be more sedentary, easier to pin down and easier to make plans around. In summer 2014, when Mammy was planning to visit us in October, we advised her to fly into Malaga. We didn’t know exactly where we were going to be by the date her visit rolled around, but we knew we would be somewhere within a two hour drive east or west of that airport. We’re fine with that level of fluidity in our lives, but we appreciate that it is more difficult and stressful for family members who like to know where they’re going when they plan an overseas trip! Not everyone is as fly by the seat of your pants as Julian and me!

Living on our boat, our relationships with our parents are maintained primarily through telephone calls, Skype, emails and text messages. The girls chat to their grandmothers on Skype regularly and their grandfather telephones a couple of times a week. But because of our remote and ever-moving lifestyle, I think our relationships with other family members suffer. We’re rarely at home (in either the UK or Ireland) for family get-togethers – weddings, birthday parties, funerals, annual events such as Christmas or, in my case, annual anniversary Masses for deceased family members. And so our lifestyle has caused the loosening of ties with extended family members that might be stronger if we were more sedentary. I know our family is always there, but I regret that Lily and Katie don’t have as strong relationships with their extended family as I did.

And then there’s the matter of friendship. Living on a boat, moving around all the time, we often develop short but intensive friendships, particularly with other sailors. Live-aboards with children seek each other out, and the children develop quick friendships. Julian and I have developed true friendships with some of the parents of those children, and have yet to meet a set of parents that we didn’t enjoy hanging out with for an afternoon or a few days. We’ve also been befriended by many people without children aboard their boats – older couples, single people, and so on – who have enriched our lives. In many cases we continue to keep sporadic touch by email and those emails usually end with hopes that we will one day meet up again.

But those short friendships are quite different to the long-term year-after-year, through thick and thin friendships one can develop when living a more sedentary life. When times are tough or when times are good it is the friends I’ve had since I was four or eight or seventeen or twenty-three or thirty-nine that I turn to, because they are the ones who know me best. I remain in touch with them by Skype, email, telephone and social media. Deep true friendship takes time and that is not something we have a lot of when we are all moving off in different directions in our boats.

Just like us adults, the girls also don’t have sufficient time to develop lasting friendships with other children or adults, and that is something that both Julian and I are very conscious of and sometimes concerned about.

But I also have to remind myself that everyone’s experience of growing up and of friendship is different. Mine, though it seems idyllic to me in hindsight, is only one model for family and childhood. Many children grow up far from their extended families; many families move house regularly. No doubt uprootedness can be traumatic. But so can rootedness, if your roots are in the wrong soil or stunted by the wrong conditions.

Aboard Carina we are the model nuclear family – two parents, two children. Our first relationships are with each other. We are, by necessity and by choice, each others’ best friends. But that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wish I had one of my other best friends around – the women who’ve know me for years – to let off some steam with, share a bottle of wine, have a good womanly chat.

Julian and I encourage the girls to keep in touch with their grandparents and, to a lesser extent, with extended family members (if you’ve got a family as big as mine you’ll understand!). We also encourage the girls to make friends along the way, no matter how short-lived those friendships are going to be. Because getting to know other human beings is surely one of the greatest joys of being a human being.

I ended the post earlier this week by saying I would choose boat over house. And after thinking about family relationships and friendship I say the same. Relationships have to be approached, negotiated and performed differently (says the anthropologist..haha) but no matter where we live, what seems important to me, as a parent, is nurturing in my children an openness to getting to know and understand other human beings, and sharing something of themselves, no matter how fleeting or enduring those encounters might be.

To My Friends by Primo Levi (my friend Michael Harkin sent me this poem in a letter in 1997)
Dear friends, and here I say friends
in the broadest sense of the word:
Wife, sister, associates, relatives,
Schoolmates of both sexes,
People seen only once
Or frequented all my life;
Provided that between us, for at least a moment,
A line has been stretched,
A well-defined bond.
I speak for you, companions of a crowded
Road, not without its difficulties,
And for you too, who have lost
Soul, courage, the desire to live;
Or no one, or someone, or perhaps only one person, or you
Who are reading me: remember the time
Before the wax hardened,
When everyone was like a seal.
Each of us bears the imprint
Of a friend met along the way;
In each the trace of each.
For good or evil
In wisdom or in folly
Everyone stamped by everyone.
Now that the time crowds in
And the undertakings are finished,
To all of you the humble wish
That autumn will be long and mild.

House or boat?

What do you miss about living in a house?
What’s it like living on a boat?
What’s the most surprising thing about living on a boat?
In the past couple of months I’ve been asked these and similar questions by newfound friends, by acquaintances, by people who’ve contacted me via this blog, and even by someone who interviewed me for a magazine article.

To my ears, these questions are all of a similar theme, and there are two distinct lines I follow when attempting to answer them. The easier approach is to think about the material realities of living on a boat; the more difficult is to think about the affect our lifestyle has on emotional and relational aspects of life. The two, of course, are bound together, but it’s easier to tease them apart and explore them separately. Today I want to write about the material realities of living on a boat and save the more difficult question of the emotional side of things for another day.

Although it’s only a little over three years since we first moved aboard Carina, and despite currently working on a memoir about our life aboard, I genuinely find it difficult to remember what I imagined life aboard would be like as we prepared for the transition. I remember thinking a lot about sailing – inclement weather, running repairs, capsizing, pirates; and I thought a lot about idyllic anchorages, warm turquoise seas, spectacular sunsets. I thought far less about mundane day-to-day life on a 36 foot boat with three other people. The reality is, however, that we sail very little relative to the amount of time we spend in situ, engaged in mundane day-to-day life. The few times I had sailed prior to buying Carina I had enjoyed the caravan-type living arrangements but I hadn’t given much consideration to living like that for months and years on end.

Lily, in princess garb, and Julian preparing lunch.

Lily, in princess garb, and Julian preparing lunch.

But reflecting on our life aboard now and having been living in a very comfortable house for the past five months I can honestly say there are very few things I miss about living in a house. The one thing I really do miss is a bath! I like nothing more than a long hot soak in a bath on a cold winter’s night, a strong cup of tea resting on the edge of the bath and a good novel in my hand (careful not to let it fall in!). So I’m enjoying the occasional soak now that I’m back in a house, knowing that once we’re back aboard Carina next week it could well be a long time before I have a bath again!

So here’s perhaps the most surprising thing about life on a boat. I don’t miss any of the things I might be expected to miss – all those mod cons that are supposed to make life easier. I don’t miss a fridge or a washing machine or a shower. I don’t miss unlimited water and energy at the touch of a button or turn of a switch. I certainly don’t miss owning a car or a television, a vacuum cleaner or an iron. And there are things I have never owned, so can’t possibly miss – microwave, dishwasher, freezer.

Julian in our tiny (and not very lofty) galley

Julian washing dishes in our tiny (and not very lofty) galley

We have a fridge aboard which we use when we are on a pontoon, plugged into mains electricity. The rest of the time, when we’re at anchor or mooring, we live fridge free, because it requires more power to run than our 80 watt solar panel can provide. When we had a car and a continuously working fridge, we would shop for fresh food once a week, stocking our fridge to bursting with a week’s worth of dairy and vegetables. I’ve recently realised how much not having a fridge has become normal for Julian and me by the way we both react to the similarly packed-to-bursting fridges and freezers of my parents-in-law. ‘Surely you didn’t need that much stuff’, we gasp in disbelief, used as we are now to buying fresh food little and often and forgetting that, until recently, we used to shop in the same way.

Life without a washing machine or tumble drier is no big deal. When we have access to a launderette we do one bag of laundry a week. When there is no launderette nearby, I hand-wash small amounts of washing two or three times a week. Aboard the boat we take a different approach to our clothing. We have a lot less of it for starters. We own fewer items of clothing and we don’t own anything that’s delicate or requires special treatment. And every item of clothing is put through a sight and smell test before it goes in the laundry bag. Just because a shirt or pair of trousers has been worn doesn’t mean it’s dirty. If it’s not stained or doesn’t smell then it gets worn again the next day. Just like we used to do years ago, prior to the advent of ultra-convenient washing machines and tumble driers.

We adjusted quickly to our limited supplies of water, energy and cooking fuel aboard. We have adapted everything from the way we wash our bodies and brush our teeth, to the way we cook pasta and rice, in order to maximise our water supply. Over the past couple of years energy has become less of an issue as Julian has replaced all the old bulbs with low-energy LED bulbs, our anchor light is now powered by its own mini-solar panel, and our laptop recharger is now far more energy efficient than the one we had before. Still, energy isn’t on tap and we have grown accustomed to acting in ways that are energy efficient – making the most of daylight hours to achieve tasks that require strong light, religiously switching off cabin lights, and making decisions about whether certain uses of energy are necessary.

We’ve gotten used to this way of life relatively easily, in part because when we decided to buy a boat one of our main motivations was to live a simpler, less consumption-led life. We were both driven by a certain environmental and social consciousness and so it feels good to live that simple frugal life that we wanted.

Alice in Wonderland has nothing on Julian emerging from our bedroom!

Alice in Wonderland has nothing on Julian emerging from our bedroom!

With mod-cons out of the way, the other glaringly obvious aspect of living on a boat is size. Let’s face it, Carina is not big. She’s 36 foot from bow to stern and 11 foot wide at her broadest. Headroom is slightly less than Julian’s six feet two inches. The girls are growing with alarming speed and before long I’m going to be the shortest person aboard. And, with the exception of those few boxes of stuff stored with Julian’s parents, everything we own is aboard the boat.

Sometimes the lack of space isn’t a problem; other times it drives me mad. When the boat is tidy, when the sun is shining, when everyone’s in a good mood, space is no issue. When the boat is messy, when all four of us are trying to do things in the saloon at the same time – one of us cooking, one repairing, kids dressing up and playing noisily (or worse – fighting) – it can get a bit wild and uncomfortable. But, for the past five months we’ve been living in a house that would engulf Carina’s living spaces ten times over and it’s just as annoying when the place is messy, the kids are running wild, two or three of us are trying to do things at the same time. So I think space is as much in the mind as in the physical space around us.

Who needs space to relax? Julian, under kids, with naked dolly; bra, shoes, pepper mill and who knows what else on the table in front. We are a messy bunch.

Who needs space to relax? Julian, under kids, with naked dolly; bra, shoes, pepper mill, mobile phone, play mobile people and who knows what else on the table in front. We are a messy bunch.

On a practical note, the lack of space aboard is most obvious when we sit down to family meals, which we do three times a day. The table takes up the entire saloon when fully extended; and the four of us can barely fit around the wobbly unstable table in the cockpit. To get around these tables requires advanced contortionist skills and if the make-shift worktop in the saloon is in place (which it usually is) then you can expect to be stabbed in the back by its sharp outer corner as you try to squeeze between it and the edge of the saloon table. Thankfully both saloon and cockpit tables are collapsible so they’re not a burden most of the time.

Because of the lack of space, stored items aren’t always easy or convenient to reach. Over the years we’ve learned by trial and error and have moved food and other items around, depending on how regularly things are used. But if I run out of peppercorns half way through making dinner, gaining access to the spare tub is rarely easy, or if the weather suddenly changes and I need to get my cold weather gear, I have to strip my bed in the aft cabin, remove the mattress and burrow like a badger to reach those rarely worn clothes.

The longer we live aboard Carina the more used we grow to her idiosyncratic living space and the more tricks we develop to make life easier. But living aboard has never been a trial. I have never once regretted the decision to move from a substantial house with a huge garden in the countryside to a tiny self-contained boat. What our lives lack in mod-cons and living space is more than made up for in an abundance of time together as a family, opportunities to travel where and when we want, and opportunities to learn and grow each and every day.