Unusual weather

While my mother sent me photos of increasing amounts of snow in her garden, and told me about Ireland coming to a standstill, here in southern Iberia we experienced some extreme weather of our own.

It all started on Tuesday of two weeks ago, to coincide precisely with the start of the children’s five-day weekend. We were forecast heavy rain and high winds for ten days. And did we get it! The same weather system that was causing extreme warm weather in the Arctic, and extreme cold and heavy snowfall in northern Europe, was coming to us as westerly winds bringing rain in off the Atlantic.

The rivers and streams, dry for far too long for the lack of rain, were soon running with vigour. The river bed, where for almost two years we have enjoyed picnics and barbecues on the river bed, was not turned into a fast-flowing river. There were waterfalls and cataracts down previously bone dry fields, and the streets of Sanlúcar were turned into torrents of run-off.

But the rain wasn’t a problem. With virtually no rain since last April, the land has been crying out for moisture and sheep farmers have had to make harsh decisions about the lives of their animals, as the cost of feed over such a prolonged period becomes impossible to meet. No, the rain was a godsend and, after two weeks, the land is verdant and lush.

The problem was the wind. I had planned to move Carina off the Sanlúcar pontoon on the 28th of February and onto a mooring a few hundred metres downriver. But on that morning, those of us who were due to leave were advised to not go anywhere, as conditions were too nasty. I had spent the night before wide awake, as Carina was tossed and dashed against the pontoon, the noise of straining lines coming between me and sleep. With Julian away for a couple of months, the girls have been sharing my bed, and twice that night I snuck out past them, got dressed and went out in the howling wind and driving rain to check the mooring lines, check both dinghies were secure and protected by fenders, and to make sure there was nothing lying about on deck that might fly away. The next day all we could do was look out at the dire conditions.

The next morning, the 1st of March, we went by car to Ayamonte, because the girls both needed new shoes. Down at the river mouth, Ayamonte lacked the protection that Sanlúcar enjoyed, and we struggled to walk back to the car, which was parked close to the marina. The boats in the marina were being tossed around like toys as waves crashed violently over each wooden pontoon. I was glad Carina was twenty-two miles upriver.

When we returned to Sanlúcar at lunchtime the wind had whipped up into a frenzy. The west wind, an unusual wind direction for these parts, pushed the boats hard against the pontoon. When the gusts came, which they did frequently, the seven yachts on the pontoon were pushed precariously on their sides, so their decks almost touched the pontoon. The pontoon itself bucked and swayed and the gangway from the land down onto the pontoon eventually broke, the rope holding it in place shredding under the strain, and calling for a hasty repair job by Tony, our neighbour on Holy Mackerel.

I put extra mooring lines on Carina, but worried about the neighbouring unoccupied boat – if her lines didn’t hold, she might bash into Carina. I was grateful for Tony, who patrolled the pontoon, checking lines, moving dinghies and canoes that were at risk of being squished by the yachts and pontoon they were sandwiched between. Curious, I turned on our electronics, so I could keep an eye on the wind speed. I read one gust of 35mph, and Katie read one of 40mph. I believed her, because when she called ‘40’ down to me, Carina felt like she was being flattened.

I had to take Carina off the pontoon. I had paid for 25 nights, and this was now night 26 and someone else was waiting to take our space. There was no chance of me getting onto the mooring in these conditions and, besides, the mooring itself had become fouled by someone else’s anchor due to the strong wind. When a brief lull in the wind and rain descended as darkness was falling that evening, I made a dash off the pontoon and across to an empty space on the Alcoutim side of the river.

A bunch of people helped me across the river. Lily and Katie did their bit. Linda from Holy Mackerel and Ray from Tinto crewed for me, Tony followed in his dinghy to nudge Carina into the tight space if needed, and Hazel and Katie from Ros Ailither waited on the Alcoutim pontoon to take the lines. Light was fading fast as we crossed the river and, after the stress of the weather, the sudden dash across the river, and the tight space I had to squeeze into in front of two rafted boats, I was a bit of wreck. I temporarily broke my ongoing alcohol-free New Year’s Resolution and invited all my great helpers up to the bar for a beer and had a couple myself!

I hoped, in a day or two, to go on the mooring. But the wind and rain continued apace, with no sign of let-up and the mooring remained fouled with no-one willing (understandably) to untangle it for me in those conditions. On Sunday there were tornados along the coast, causing damage along the Algarve and Huelva coasts. And still the rain and wind continued. Collecting the girls from school and then returning across the river to get to my English lessons was fraught with anxiety, as the wind gusted and the rain reduced my visibility.

We’ve had a slight reprieve since then. My mooring was eventually untangled. It took six people three hours to sort it out, and I finally moved on. The mooring hasn’t all be plain sailing either, but I think it’s sorted out now. We’ve had some bad days since then, with more wind and rain. And there’s more bad weather due later on this afternoon. I’m looking forward to the day when I can sit in my cockpit again. I feel I deserve it!!!

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Carina upriver

Carina’s been moored upriver of Sanlúcar and Alcoutím since late June. Close to two and a half months now. She spent a few days back on the Alcoutím pontoon in mid-July but, for the most part, she’s been peacefully resting upriver, facing up or downriver as the tide dictates, hills and goats, quince and pomegranate trees for neighbours. She’s not alone. There are other boats moored here too – most unoccupied, but we have a few friends who come and go to their moorings anchorages close by.

I’ve spent more time aboard Carina than anyone else this summer. Lily and Katie were in the UK and Ireland for seven weeks and Julian, because of his job, spent more time in Alcoutím than aboard Carina. I went to Ireland for a couple of weeks, I house-sat for a week, and I sailed to Culatra aboard Sea Warrior. But between all those trips, I returned home to Carina. I’ve spent many days and nights aboard alone. Despite the summer heat – mid-40˚Cs some days – I got to grips with some much needed work. I repaired the floor in the forward heads, thoroughly cleaned Carina’s every nook and cranny, attempted (and mostly failed) to repair the dinghy, and attended to multiple little tasks – sewing, whipping sheets and lines, getting on top of an ant infestation!

Due to the heat, most of my work was carried out early in the morning or late at night. The middle of the day was reserved for sleeping, reading and curing my perspiration by swimming in the river. The joys of being away from the villages are multiple. The silence. The green-brown hills against the sharp blue sky. Birdsong. The night sky awash with stars. The freedom of nakedness!

Last week, with house-sitting done and the girls home from their travels abroad, we settled back into family life aboard Carina. At each low water we row the short distance to the nearest riverbank, to swim and skim stones off a rocky spit. The pleasure of immersing our overheated bodies in the warm river water is beyond words.

There’s entertainment to be had in watching fish leaping high out of the water (one day last week one narrowly avoided landing in the dinghy as we motored downriver), herons on the riverbank, egrets flying overhead at dusk.

I’m hoping to get my hands on another dinghy soon, so that once the girls are back at school Julian and I will have two tenders, allowing us to stay off the pontoon more often, so we can find solace and peace just around the bend in the river.

Windy March

The wind has finally died down. Its arrival coincided with Julian’s departure on the 26th of February. Before that, we’d had the occasional windy day, but on Friday the 26th it blew up a hooley and carried on blowing until last night. Two full weeks of a cold north wind. There have been mild half days, still calm mornings that lulled me into the false idea that the wind had finally abated. But by the afternoon on those days, it was blowing a Force 6, gusting to Force 7. Last Monday was the worst, and I had to get across the choppy river from Portugal to Spain in my little rubber dinghy. Someone invited me to join them for coffee, but I took one look at the river and thought to myself ‘I just want to get across now’. I didn’t want to have time to think about it. There were high Force 7 gusts that day, and by the time I made it across the river, I was soaked through and shaky. I picked the girls up from school and we returned to Carina, and stayed home for the rest of the day.

I was worried about Carina in that wind. Everyone assures me the fore and aft mooring we’re on is not going anywhere, but I’m paranoid about chafe on the mooring lines, and when the high winds coincided with a spring tide I was out of bed two or three times a night, checking the lines, making sure they looked healthy and secure. And I also worried about the yacht that’s recently been anchored close by and has no-one aboard. Were her anchor and chain strong enough to hold her in this wind, or would she come drifting our way.

Much to my relief, the forecast from today onwards is for light winds, no more than Force 3, and dropping down to Force 1 in the coming days.

Despite being temporary skipper while Julian’s away, I haven’t felt alone in these conditions. We have good friends on the river who have been looking out for me. When the outboard refused to start one day and I couldn’t row against the wind, Amy towed me home. When the wind was doing its worst, Paul helped me push the dinghy off the pontoon and kept an eye on the girls and me until we were safely back onboard Carina. Paul’s also kept his phone handy, in case I’ve needed him and I know he, and about five skippers are just a call away if I need help. The ferrymen who transport tourists across the river from Spain to Portugal have been looking out for me too, and they’re within shouting distance if I need assistance.

Now I will go home and hang out the washing, for the first time in two weeks without the fear that half of it will blow away into the river!

Early morning

Carina is in remarkably good condition following her five months moored on the river. She has a closed up smell and needs a good airing out. The cockpit and surrounding deck are covered in bird poo and there’s a little midden of fish bones on the aft deck where gulls have feasted. But the bilges are bone dry, the cabins are dry and inside she is clean and tidy, just as Julian left her five months ago.

We’re all in bed by 8.30 on our first night back, tired after our day of travelling. It feels good to climb into my own bed again. Although it’s been a hot afternoon, I anticipate a cold night and dress in pyjamas before going to bed. By midnight I’m sweltering in the heat and have to shed them again. Carina sways almost imperceptibly and, apart from a lone dog barking somewhere in the distance, all is utterly still.

I hear whimpering at 3am and go to the fore cabin to find Katie awake, unused to the complete darkness that surrounds her. I comfort her and she goes back to sleep, but two hours later I hear her again. Come into our bed, I tell her, and she snuggles against me for what remains of the night. At six Lily comes in and we are four in the bed (five, if you count Katie’s teddy). This is bliss.

DSCI0045Early morning, the river is shrouded in mist. I stand on the foredeck, mug of tea in my hand, revelling in the sensations of the river. There is a riot of sound, none of it human. Through the mist comes the morning chatter of ten thousand birds in the reeds and trees lining the riverbanks; goats and sheep bleat loudly, their bells clanging as they move across the hillside fields; dogs bark; ducks quack. Islands of reeds drift downriver on the current. An egret stands forlornly on one of these floating islands, like a world weary ferryman, until it suddenly straightens up and flies away, landing on another reed island farther upriver and floats past again like déjà vu. A little grey bird potters about on another island, pecking at its moving feast. I hear quacking in the moments before four ducks appear out of the mist, flying towards me, upright, their wings outstretched as they brake, skidding in to land in the water next to Carina, quacking incessantly, two duck couples.

After breakfast we slip our mooring line and slowly motor five miles upriver to where the river runs between Alcoutim in Portugal and Sanlúcar in Spain. The five miles of river is as rural, remote and bucolic as I remember it from April. Rain in recent weeks has turned the countryside green again after an arid summer. There is one noticeable change since we were last here. In recent weeks the authorities have placed port and starboard channel markers along the river all the way from the river mouth to Alcoutim. The red and green poles sticking out of the water every few hundred yards sadly make the river a little less wild. We’re told it’s been done to attract more cruise ships and boaters up the river.

We settle on the pontoon at Alcoutim for a few days, to refill our water tank, shop for groceries, give Carina and our dinghy a proper check over, and prepare to move out to anchor in the river. We’re planning to remain on the river for a while.

River Life

Life on the river moves at a different pace. We’re in the middle of the river, moored fore and aft, using our dinghy to get to shore. Our 60 gallon water tank can supply us with fresh water for three weeks if we are frugal. Our solar panel keeps the domestic batteries topped up to power our cabin lights, and recharge phones and laptop. We have enough cooking gas on board to last a couple of months. We’re self-contained for the time being. We don’t run the fridge when we are at anchor or mooring, as it requires too much energy. And so we adjust our lives so our demands on resources are less and we eat foods that require little or no refrigeration.

Rather than limiting our lives, these resource restrictions provide us with a greater appreciation of how little we actually need to get by each day. Every couple of days we buy fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products and combine these with our large stocks of rice, pasta, dried pulses and tinned foods. I bake bread every other day, and we forage for greens and shell fish on the sea shore. We eat very well. This evening I made an improvised risotto, from Japanese rice, fresh onions, garlic and green beans, fresh and dried mushrooms, and parmesan. I served it with foraged sea beet and rock samphire lightly cooked in butter, safflower and lime. It was delicious!

Lily and Julian searching for shellfish.

Lily and Julian searching for shellfish.

Each day, we’ve been eating breakfast and dinner on board, under the warm sun at our table in the cockpit, and taking a picnic lunch on our explorations during the day. We can’t afford to enjoy the fine foods and wines at the local restaurants and bistros that dot every town and village. Instead, we buy fresh local produce from boulangeries, charcouteries, and supermarkets, as well as the occasional bottle of cheap but tasty French wine.

For us, life on the river is about long walks, watching the herons on the riverbank, taking the dinghy to a beach at the river mouth, or to a nearby town to explore the town square and practice our French while we buy food and try to learn about the locality.

A walk in the woods

A walk in the woods

We are out of doors almost from the moment we wake up to when we go to bed. We are bathed in fresh air and sunshine, and we bathe in the river and the sea. Our needs are few, and we are more than satisfied with what we have.