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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Rain revisited

In my last blog post I detailed my rainy day woes. It was written slightly tongue in cheek it must be said. My gripes about a few days of wet weather hide a deeper concern for the inhabitants of this part of Spain and Portugal. It’s not raining enough.

Everyone I met during that week of rain, while at first bemoaning the immediate and short-term inconvenience and discomfort brought about by these few days of heavy rain, was quick to point out how badly rain was needed. As live aboards, we have enjoyed a relatively rain free winter here on the Rio Guadiana. It rained for a couple of weeks in late October, but was dry again by the time we returned in early November. And there hasn’t been much rain since – the odd shower here and there; a few bad days after Christmas; the occasional drizzly day since.

The rain that fell last week was the first prolonged and consistent rain in a very long time. And even then it only barely penetrated the hard packed dried out soil. Unusually, the dam seven miles upstream from here has not had to release any water from the reservoir behind it this spring, and to look at the reservoir downstream that serves Vila Real, it’s easy to see why. A line runs all around the massive reservoir, the contrasting colours above and below marking the land above the water line and land that’s usually submerged below the water line. Each time I take the bus over the reservoir on my way to Vila Real, there is strikingly less water in the reservoir and more land is exposed. While this could be expected in late summer, it’s worth remembering that it’s only April.

Here in the hot sunny southwest of Europe, culture and economy rely on rain. Like everywhere in the world, we humans and our neighbour animals and plants need water. Without it, things quickly start to go wrong.

Here on the banks of the river farmers who make their livelihoods from olive, almond, orange and lemon trees, from vines and cork, and from rearing sheep and goats, are feeling the pinch of the lack of rain. Even those lucky enough to own land that runs right down to the riverbank suffer the cost of irrigating their land with river water and the added worry that the drier this estuarine river gets, the saltier it grows with each inundation of seawater on the flood tide (in wet years the volume of fresh water more effectively flushes out the seawater). For those with land away from the river, irrigation becomes a burden often too expensive to carry.

And in a region that relies so heavily on water intensive tourism (all those golf courses and hotels with swimming pools on the Algarve and Andalucian coasts) the financial cost of a drought is sorely felt, and everyone suffers from the need to keep those enterprises up and running.

I’m writing this on Earth Day (April 22nd) and I’m acutely aware of the geographical injustices of climate change. The small land owners here in southern Iberia are not responsible for the drought. They are not responsible for climate change. The long term land owners whose families have been on the land for generations and the newcomers seeking a simpler, back-to-basics way of life farm the land lightly, relying on manual labour rather than fossil-fuel intensive machinery, extensive cultivation rather than fossil-fuel reliant intensive farming, and a local chain of supply and demand rather than the larger carbon footprint of long distance markets. Yet, as with indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic and of low-lying Pacific islands, small scale local farmers all over the world bear the brunt of a changing climate of which they have had little or no part in making.

The short term effect of a week’s deluge has been an explosion of colour on the hillsides as wildflowers bloom; grass that a couple of weeks ago was at knee height now towers above my head; and vegetable patches are thriving. But now that the rain has gone again and hot dry weather has resumed I think of the families who have lived on the Guadiana for hundreds of years, people whose ancestors were Romans and Moors, families who have been on the land for so long it feels like forever. I think of the aquifers depleted of water, the land drying out year upon year and, like many millions of others around the world, people unjustly paying the price for a changing climate.

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.

Moody weather

While Julian and the girls were away I spent my days in t-shirts and shorts, changing into something warmer each evening for going to work. Even during the storm force winds, it was pretty warm. Each morning as I went on my 4km walk along the seafront, I imagined how lovely it would be for my father-in-law, Barry, to bring his early morning Thermos cup of tea, and sit on a bench or walk along the beach, smoking his pipe and watching the spectacular sunrises over the sea in the direction of Cabo de Gata.

DSCI0057Julian, the girls and Barry were due to catch the Portsmouth to Santander ferry on Wednesday, February 4th. But a couple of days before, the ferry was postponed for 24 hours due to poor weather conditions. And just as well, as it turned out. Had they been on the Wednesday ferry they might have been among the 220 motorists who had to be rescued along the motorway from Santander towards Madrid, due to severe weather conditions and snowdrifts blocking the roads.

When they finally arrived in Santander on Thursday evening, the three-hour drive to their overnight accommodation turned into an almost six-hour drive, through driving snow and sleet. Julian and his dad had been worrying about snow in the UK, but had never imagined having to contend with far worse conditions in Spain.

By the time they reached Aguadulce on Saturday evening, it was freezing cold. Somehow, we avoided snowfall here, but snow fell all around. I haven’t experienced such biting cold aboard Carina since early spring 2013 in the UK. For days we have kept the weather boards in, as protection against those biting north-easterlies. Instead of strolling the promenade in the early morning, Barry, dressed in thermal underwear, flannel shirt, woolly jumper and winter coat, sits in his car for an early morning puff of his pipe.

The weather is also proving far from consistent. Following days of this piercingly cold wind, Wednesday was warm enough for shorts and t-shirts again. We basked in it, drinking in the warm sunshine. Lily and Katie even donned their wetsuits and took a dip in the sea. I hoped this might be the return of the good weather.

From Wednesday...

From Wednesday…

But the next day, Thursday, brought prolonged heavy rain and we were back to wrapping up warmly again.

...to Thursday

…to Thursday

Oh, I’m not complaining. I just want some warm sun to shine down on my father-in-law to compensate for his winters in the UK Midlands. We’ll get warm weather aplenty in the coming months. Back in the UK, he might not.

Batten down the hatches

We had been expecting high winds for a few days. On Thursday afternoon, one of the mariñeros told me to prepare for a windy night ahead. But the predicted high winds failed to materialise. By lunch-time Friday the wind had started to howl, rattling through the rigging of the boats in the marina, causing Carina to strain and jolt uncomfortably on her mooring lines. On the high cliff road from Aguadulce to Almería I looked out across the sea. There were white caps as far as the eye could see out across the Mediterranean, and the huge swell rolled in, crashing with spectacular white foam against the orange cliffs beneath the road. Three hours later, when I came home from work, I was battered by the wind as I made my way to the boat.

All night long the wind grew stronger, furiously shrieking through the masts and rigging of the boats all around, fenders squeaking and moaning as boats rubbed together in the swell and wind that moved them in and out of synchronicity. The noise carried below deck by a loose rope slapping against the mast led me gingerly out on deck to try to locate the offending rope and secure it away from the mast. Three times I thought I had found the right rope. Three times I was wrong.

I checked the stern fenders were secure and made sure the mooring lines were secured around the cleats fore and aft. All night long Carina jolted and lurched, throwing me wide awake with a feeling like airplane turbulence. Each time I drifted off only to be suddenly thrown awake again. At some point in the night I became aware that the sound of the wind had changed. It had become more high pitched, more pure, and it felt as though Carina had been lifted up and was falling down and down.

I woke after an uncomfortable night and discovered that the weather station 10km down the coast at Roquetas de Mar had recorded wind speeds of 72km/hour (39 knots, F8) and one gust of 119km/hour (64 knots, F12).

I didn’t leave Carina all Saturday morning. The wind continued unabated and I stumbled around like a drunk as I tried to make breakfast and get dressed. On deck I checked for damage, but there was none, only a thick layer of brown grit covering every surface. By early afternoon the wind had died down and I ventured ashore – to take a shower, do the laundry and do some grocery shopping. I went for a walk along the seafront and surveyed the damage. Palm fronds littered the beach front and, in some cases, the entire tops of palms trees had fallen down. The sea was calmer than the previous evening, but still the big swell rolled in, and waves bigger than I’d seen before at Aguadulce crashed farther up the beach than I’d seen them come before.

After dark the wind rose again and, for a second night I listened to it howl and shriek around Carina, lifting and dropping her, pushing her this way and pulling her that. Another sleepless night for me as I worried about unidentified noises and listened to the ropes straining against the force of the wind on the boat, and the fenders rubbing against the boat to port.

By early Sunday morning all was calm and there was nothing for me to do but hose down the deck and the rigging and watch streams of brown grit pour down the sides of the boat into the sea.

Everlasting summer

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

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

Off I go to work...

Off to work I go…

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

I have to remind myself it's November

I have to remind myself it’s November

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

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

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

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

Cute little witches

Cute little witches

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

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

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