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.

Cold

Spring, the fiend, lulled us into the mistaken belief that the coldest days were behind us. After a week of the girls throwing their hot water bottles out of bed in the middle of the night followed by a few nights of not wanting them at all, I put them into storage, thinking I wouldn’t see them again for ten months. I kept mine out just in case, although I hadn’t used it in the last few weeks. I did, however, remove the wool blanket from my side of the bed and for a couple of weeks we woke most mornings to a dry boat, with no condensation dripping from the hatches and walls. It became easier to get out of bed, despite the dark. The mornings were warmer and I wasn’t huddling close to the kettle while it boiled the water for the day’s first cup of tea. Some days, by mid morning I was in sandals and short sleeves, gradually layering up again as the sun moved across the sky and the heat went out of the day. (When Carina’s on the east – Spanish – side of the river, as we are now, our mornings are colder, but our evenings warmer, as we get the benefit of the westward passage sun for longer).

Lambs and kid goats in the fields, blossoms on the almond trees, flowers in bloom, house martins returned from Africa busily feeding their chicks, bees a-buzzing. Ah spring, you tease. Suddenly, the north-westerly wind funnelled its way down the river valley, with blasts of cold air and gusts of 37 knots or more. Boats creaked and jolted and bounced on anchor chains and mooring lines. Hailstones fell and the girls ran into the cockpit to pick them up before they melted.

I got the hot water bottles and the blanket out again, the girls were back in fleecy pyjamas for bedtime, and we dressed in hats, scarves and gloves for the short dinghy trip to school. And then came the coldest morning of all, when we awoke and struggled to get out of bed, only to find Carina covered in a layer of frost, her spray hood and bimini hard and crisp, Julian’s trousers, left out overnight, frosted white and brittle to the touch. I dug out my merino wool thermal vest and longjohns, the girls went off to school dressed for an ascent of Everest. The north wind whipped down the river, laughing at how it fooled us.

In the afternoon a bee landed on my arm. It too had been fooled by the early spring. It was weak and tipsy and even the sugar solution I prepared failed to revive it. It staggered around and a gust of icy wind blew it away. It struggled and died and later I found one of its comrades on the foredeck, a victim of spring’s treachery.

Cooler

Winter, after a fashion, has arrived in this southwest corner of Iberia. Each day the girls wear a little more for their morning dinghy ride to school. One day it was cardigans, the next jackets, the next scarves and finally hats and gloves. The dinghy’s outboard motor doesn’t like the cold, and takes its time sputtering into life, needing the choke for longer than usual.

The heater goes on these mornings, to take the chill from the boat and dry out the condensation glistening on every hatch and port hole. We’re up at seven, in the dark. My father’s old woolly jumper and thick socks on before I boil the kettle for the first cup of tea. The cold seeping through the floor makes my feet ache and I slip into my old blue Crocs, now wearing thin at the soles, but still going strong after nine years of year-round wear.

I look forward to washing the dishes once the kids have left for school as an excuse to plunge my hands into the warm water. On laundry days I postpone the dishes. I’m out on deck as soon as Julian and the girls leave, filling buckets with cold water, dropping clothes in to soak, stirring with a wooden spoon so I don’t get my hands wet. The days are short, so the washing has to be out on the line early if it’s to dry before the heat goes out of the day. That warming cup of tea after I’ve put the laundry in to soak is like balm to my chilled bones.

By 10am the sun is doing its job, warming the land, banishing the chill that has descended overnight. The girls arrive home at 2pm with scarves, hats, coats, cardigans shoved into their schoolbags. We eat lunch in the cockpit, luxuriating in the warm sun on our bare arms and upturned faces. Warm summer days in Ireland are often cooler than this.

We make the most of those hours after lunch to visit the beach or to walk along the hiking trails. The girls still don their swimsuits for a paddle in the Praia Fluvial. But even they balk at immersing themselves fully these days. I leave them to it. I prefer to sit on the beach in the warm sun.

By 5pm the sun is well on its way to its evening descent. What little warmth remains is quickly displaced by cold. It’s time to cook dinner, close up the boat, and warm up our beds with hot water bottles before snuggling down for the night. These evenings we read and, after the girls have gone to bed, Julian and I play the occasional game of Scrabble or Chess (I’m a beginner at the latter). Tea made with mint plucked from along the hiking trails or roadside verges warms me through the evening.

Tiredness and cold come together. It’s time for bed.

Frost, birdseed and bringing in the turf

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Little farmers

When we first came home to Ireland, all of two weeks ago, Lily and Katie weren’t terribly interested in playing in the garden. They were happy to go out when Granny or I were outside, but they had no desire to be there on their own. But then two things happened. First, we went down to Rosscarbery, in West Cork to visit my aunt and uncle, and the girls wanted to be in their garden all the time. Second, on our first morning back from Cork there was frost in Granny’s garden and the girls were desperate to get out to play in it. So, that morning, at 8am, out they went with rubber boots and jackets on over their pajamas, and they stayed out for the day. I haven’t wanted to come inside since!

Fun in the frost

Fun in the frost

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The wonders of ice

Their time is divided between playing imaginative games and helping out with the ‘fascinating’ chores of bringing in turf for the fire and feeding the birds. Granny’s dogs have an enclosed run with a little wooden shed attached. The dogs rarely use it and Granny stores her Christmas decorations in the shed. Entrance to the shed is via the pen. The girls have turned the shed into their shop, using recyclable cardboard boxes, plastic milk bottles and glass jars as their stock. I fear someone driving past will glance into the garden, see two children in the dog pen and think I’m keeping my kids in a cage!!

We discovered a deserted bird’s nest a few days ago and they have now decided to build their own nest, big enough for little girls to live in, using the windblown twigs and branches they find lying around the garden. Such behaviour should be encouraged – it results in Granny having a nice big pile of kindling for the fire!

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My wheelbarrow

There has been tree climbing and jumping; running and chasing; and attempts to engage the lazy old dogs in boisterous play. They have both taken charge of replenishing the bird feeders in the birch tree, noting when they are running low and messily refilling them.

But what brings me the most pleasure is seeing how much fun they are having with the turf. We burn turf and peat briquettes in the fires here and bringing in turf from the shed to the house is a daily activity that has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Just like my Daddy did with me, I wheel the girls around in the wheelbarrow as they squeal in delight, and they earnestly help me fill the wheelbarrow. We have even found my old wheelbarrow, which I was given as a present when I was three years old – in 1976. A bit rusty, it’s still going strong, and after they gave it a thorough cleaning a few days ago, it is now ‘their’ wheelbarrow and they are no longer interested in helping me fill my barrow. They run back and forth to the shed, three or four sods of turf at a time, sometimes wheeling the barrow into the house and delivering the turf right into the fire!

I am having so much fun seeing them play in ‘my’ garden, doing the things I loved to do as a child, and creating their own good memories of childhood.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!!

Finding our land legs

Here we are in Aguadulce and we are gradually getting to know our new surroundings. The marina lies at the base of a towering orange mountain, the moods of which change constantly throughout the day from the rising to the setting of the sun. Black thunder clouds and deep blue skies bring out an ever-evolving range of colours and textures, and the mountain is a different place every time I look at it. At night small bats sweep down from the crevices and fly across the marina.

Carina is moored aft to a wall in the marina. Below, the water is crystal clear, so we can see Charlie, our toy guinea pig, and one of our towels, lying on the sea bed (hopefully they will both be retrieved by the time this is written). The crystal clear waters of the marina are home to an array of fish – mullet, bream, bass, and many others whose names I don’t yet know – that dart about near the surface, and are regularly fed breadcrumbs by local children.

We have already met many of the other marina residents – long-term live-aboards or, like us, people in for only a few months. They are an international band of sea nomads, open and generous and very friendly.

It’s a two minute walk to the beach, where we take the girls swimming almost every afternoon, in the warm and gentle waters of the Mediterranean. Their swimming continues to improve. This past weekend Lily swam a width of a swimming pool, and I was oblivious to her achievement until she asked me what I thought of it! Silly Mummy, missing these moments in my daughter’s life, despite being right beside her in the pool! After our swim each day, the girls play on the beach playground, regularly meeting local children out from school.

While Aguadulce lacks the charm of the historic towns we visited in Galicia, it is very pleasant, with great food shops, a small market, a great library (with unbelievably brilliant opening hours), and a good bus connection east to Almeria and west to Roquestas de Mar (scene of the bull fight).

We are (sort of) settling into a routine. I love routine. Julian’s less of a fan. So we are coming to a compromise in the middle – less routine that I would opt for, more routine than Julian would opt for. I’m aiming to write for five hours a day, but if I do four, then I consider it a successful day. I work in the mornings or afternoons – whatever the day throws up. While I’m away writing, Julian takes the girls exploring, or they stay on board and work on their maths, reading and writing. But I know that this semi-routine we have this week could well change next week, as other possibilities and opportunities crop up.

Right now, I appreciate how very lucky I am to have this opportunity to work on my various writing projects. It’s a rare luxury and I’m making the most of it.

It’s hard to believe it is already October. The temperature still hits 25˚C or 27˚C every day, and at night we sleep with the hatches wide open, catching what little breeze we can. But as it gets ever so slightly cooler, Julian and I are beginning to have the energy to do jobs on the boat that the sultry heat of a few weeks ago prevented us from doing. Spring cleaning has started, and once sails and running rigging have come down and Carina is prepared for a sedentary few months, her repairs will begin.

I think it’s going to be a good, if very different, sort of winter.

Sweet Water

The other side of the Rock of Gibraltar

The other side of the Rock of Gibraltar

With our minds made up to look farther afield for a winter berth, we didn’t see any point in hanging around Gibraltar. Shortly after 10am on Thursday we motored out of Queensway Quay and set a course of 075˚, across the Costa del Sol to Almerimar. We considered hopping along the coast, taking four or more days to reach our destination, but decided instead to do it in one long sail.

The day was hot and there wasn’t a breath of wind. It was uncomfortable at the helm, but the bimini, while providing no relief from the humidity, did give protection from the sun. The day was uneventful. After a few hours the shipping lanes were far to the south and our only companions were pods of small but very energetic common dolphins that thrashed and splashed in a manner I have not seen elsewhere.

As light faded I took the first night watch. The Sierra Nevada stood majestically to the north and from dusk until dawn, without let-up, lightening streaked across the mountains. Long after Julian and Katie had fallen asleep, Lily sat with me in the cockpit, enthralled by the distant light show.

But those weren’t the only lights. It was a moonless night and the sky was clear. A billion stars twinkled in the sky, with some of the brightest (Orion’s Belt among them) reflected in the calm sea. It was spectacular, and made me vow, not for the first time in my life, to learn some astronomy. Three times during my watch shooting stars streaked across the sky, one of which I caught only by its reflection in the sea.

Dolphins swam alongside intermittently through the night, leaping and breathing loudly close to Carina, their path underwater streaked in phosphorescence. It was another enchanting night sail.

I slept for four hours and swapped places with Julian again at 4am, this time only to keep watch for two hours. The nights are now long and when Julian woke me at 7.30am to say we would be in Almerimar in half an hour, they sky was only just fully light.

Here the land slopes gently from the sea to the base of the mountains, which rise dramatically beyond. Those slopes are covered for tens of kilometres in the white plastic sheeting of the poly-tunnels where much of Europe’s fruit and vegetables are grown. They are not particularly pleasing to the eye, but without these, consumers in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere in northern Europe would not enjoy year-round cheap tomatoes, peppers and other Mediterranean-produced foods.

Almerimar is a pleasant resort town, much of it given over to hotels and resorts that cater to northern European golfing tourists. The marina was pleasant enough, with an active live-aboard community – though having to remember to bring toilet paper to the toilet block every time was quite annoying!

After a day of resting and exploring Almerimar we took the bus to Almeria, to meet my cousin and his wife, who moved here from Ireland earlier this year to teach English. The bus journey was long, expensive and unreliable and we couldn’t imagine doing it more than once a month.

We took advantage of my cousin’s car to check out Aguadulce, and town and marina only five miles from Almeria. We were impressed with what we saw. Returning home to Carina we worked out and compared the costs of spending winter in Almerimar and Aguadulce, factoring in bus prices, electricity costs, Internet, and so on, and figured that they worked out about the same. When Aguadulce marina confirmed by phone the next day that it had a six-month berth available, we took it. We motored out of Almerimar on Monday afternoon for the short fifteen mile hop to Aguadulce – the place that will be our home for the next six months.

Shifting focus

Though the sun beats down and the temperatures still hit the mid to high 20s every day, there is a change in the air. The days grow a little shorter (though not as dramatically as we are used to at higher latitudes), it’s now cooler in the evenings, and when we wake each morning there is condensation on Carina’s hatches. Autumn is here and winter isn’t far behind.

I never shared our full sailing plans on my blog, in case they didn’t happen, or in case we decided to follow a completely different tack. But now that we have almost completed what we set out to achieve for the summer of 2014, I can tell you that our plan from the beginning was to sail from Plymouth to the Mediterranean. We are now 215 cruising miles from the Straits of Gibraltar, the entrance to the Mediterranean.

We still might not get there. Along the way we have considered other options. Spending the winter up the Vilaine River in Brittany was a possibility we toyed with. It had its advantages, but our desire to sail more was too strong. Even after crossing Biscay, we thought we might go back to the Vilaine. But the prospect of a cold wet French winter, not unlike the winter in the south-west of England, ruled Brittany out for us in the end.

The Galician Rias were tempting, but they are exposed to the Atlantic, which can turn angry in winter, and which drops a lot of rain on north-west Spain. As we sailed down the Portuguese coast, we considered the marinas at Albufeira and Vilamoura and were excited to see what they would be like. But we were disappointed by Albufeira, as the marina lacks a washing machine (and the nearest launderette is 2km away) and the cost of Wifi is extortionate. We found the marina and town itself soulless, and I couldn’t imagine being there for a week, let alone six months. We didn’t stop at Vilamoura, as an Internet search revealed that the winter rates at the marina are beyond our budget. We may sail to the Rio Guadiana, which marks the border between Portugal and Spain, and consider the possibilities of spending the winter there.

As August dissolved into September our focus shifted. We are no longer in cruising mode, and instead are looking at each destination as a potential winter base. We have had a couple of places in the Mediterranean in mind almost since the moment we left the UK, but anywhere between here and there could potentially be the place where we rest and regroup for the next six to nine months. Carina will soon be in need of more concerted maintenance. Her sails are in need of repair, her hull needs to be anti-fouled, and we have a long list of smaller jobs besides.

I have a winter of writing ahead, with a couple of projects I hope to complete and a great number of ideas swirling around my head that long to be committed to the page.

One or other of us may look for a temporary job, to refill the coffers, but whether we do or not depends on a variety of factors.

And then there is the planning ahead. Already we have begun to toss ideas around, dreaming of future sailing possibilities. Those plans are very much in the fantasy stage at the moment, but we both look forward to having the time over winter to research and plan, taking into consideration our finances, our sailing abilities and Carina’s capabilities.

I wouldn’t have been surprised, come August, to have found ourselves still in Devon or Cornwall. Despite our plans, things could have taken a different turn. All too often I’ve met sailors with big plans who are stuck for weeks or months at a time due to engine failure, broken masts, or a host of other unexpected problems. So to find ourselves in the Algarve, on Portugal’s southern coast, at the time of year when we had originally planned to be here, is remarkable and wonderful. We are delighted to have made it so far. Gibraltar and the Mediterranean lie ahead, if we choose to go that far.