Small waves swing us softly like a nursery rhyme mother. The view from a porthole flips from sea to coast to sky and back. The rig rumbles quietly above and a cup ticks against its shelf in the galley. I light the cooker – first with a slosh of meths, poured on and clicked alight, and when that’s gone out with the paraffin hob – pressurised liquid freshly heated into vapour. Water is foot-pumped into the kettle and that goes on, and I climb on deck in the cool of the morning, watching the world until I hear the whistle blow. We’re in Calpe, another tourist town but a rather spectacular one thanks to an enormous rock, the Penon de Ifach, whose shaft towers over the marina beside which we’re anchored and is shading me to the tune of a chorus of seagulls. Sadly, our stay here hasn’t all been this peaceful.
Our intention had been to leave Almeria, head east around Cabo de Gata and then north for Cartagena. On our first day we tried to sidestep the wind that blew into the bay, but at greater and greater angles against it we found ourselves so far from any useful course that we anchored at dusk near a long, flat empty beach to try again on the next.
In the morning we motored around the strange bare rock formations that outline the Cabo. Clouds shielded us from the scalding sun and a low wind awoke to nudge us in the right direction. The engine went off and Rich turned his attention to increasing our sail area, proclaiming that if it’s canvas, it’ll help. He hoisted our misshapen topsail on spars made from windsurfer masts and hung our storm jib under the boom to trap any spare gust that thought it was getting away with it.
Soon we were doing well. Too well. At this rate we would arrive in Cartagena at 2am, long before we had expected. As we were going to sail overnight anyway, why not make the most of it and head as far north as we could? Rich put this to me in the early evening and I grumbled – I wanted to see Cartagena. “Okay, then. I suppose. We DO need to make progress. Just so long as we’re not going to bloody Benidorm.” Rich showed me a photo of Calpe from a pilot guide and I was convinced.
At night, in some parts of coastal Europe, lonely perverts like to make themselves known over the emergency frequency on the VHF. Their transmissions feature monotonous swearing, or growled intentions of what is going to be stuck where, or just repeated odd phrases. They’re always in English, always dangerous in their misuse of the reserved emergency channel, and frequently entertaining. Anything can be entertaining on a night watch.
We took our watches on at our usual times, neither of us sleeping well as we’d gotten used to a different routine, taking it in turns to babysit Geordi as the wind wound down. When it returned with the morning sun we never quite regained the speed we’d had the day before, but we were happy – it’s difficult not to be on a downwind race as you occupy yourself with books, Spanish lessons, music and radio comedy in the sun. We were far off the coast and in good spirits, laughing off less comfortable reminders of longer term absence from land – the spots that grow on your arse from sitting down too long, the smells that emanate from your pits, the galley and the heads.
In the afternoon the wind started to die and we looked at the chart for places to spend the night. As we wouldn’t make it to Calpe and needed somewhere we could buy coffee (running out was bound to drive us mad in the morning) and easily motor in to once the light had gone, there was only one clear option. Bloody Benidorm. We entered the huge bay past its solo island in the black of midnight, our path illuminated by a million lights. Above the long coast that was glistening with skyscraper hotels and thick apartment blocks, the shadowy sillhouettes of yet more development could be made out. Rich refused to share my excitement about how fantastically awful our time there could be. We anchored and went to bed.
We woke to a knock on deck. I heaved my tired body up the steps in pants and a vest to find a pair of lifeguards telling us to move our boat further from a swimming zone that we were clearly not in. We abided, lifting the anchor, hoisting the gib, blowing a few feet, dropping the anchor again. By day the grim squeeze of holiday accommodation looked even more forboding, but intrigued and still coffee-less we gathered our wits as best we could and got Fanny off deck to go and explore. 20 yards from the now well occupied sand, more power-mad lifeguards yelled to stop us from bringing the dinghy ashore. “Where do we go then?” They pointed far down the huge bay, towards a marina we weren’t going to bloody well pay for. Swearwords were whispered as we returned to Gwen, and in the end I went for another of my superwoman swimming sessions to retrieve precious caffeine to jumpstart our brains.
Benidorm’s sea front held some of the dubious creature comforts I’d imagined – blown up photos of Full English breakfasts and racks of Suns and Daily Mails – but it had a great atmosphere. Everywhere there were people, and everywhere the people looked happy. I wrote a postcard to my old workplace as that seemed to be the thing to do, and swam back to Gwen to relieve Rich of his high rise horror by motoring merrily away to somewhere more welcoming.
We passed a stunning waterfall among the rocks and noticed the return of green to the landscape with delight. After several weeks in Tattooine, might a patch of Endor be in sight? We anchored near Calpe’s Ifach marina and entered a state of holiday bliss that was not to end for a few days. Not only was the rock as magnificent as the pilot book suggested, but the rampant but thankfully less Benidormy tourist area was as uncomplicatedly pleasant as Nerja’s. In the evening we found a cheap three course meal, a new romper suit for me and, joy of joys, a set of air hockey tables that only cost a Euro a go just off the promenade. I really, really love air hockey. In the daytimes we snorkelled and climbed the Penon, and I found a British broadsheet paper full of bad news whose cryptic kept me occupied for two day’s sunbathes while rich spotted Anchortopus – a huge cephalopod cuddling our anchor who I tried but failed to spot on my own sea explorations. Even going to the larger Calpe town to do laundry was like a big jolly, with beers in the sun watching stereotypically oikish construction workers and a happy half hour picking through the incredible canned goods and cakes of a Dutch supermarket. For two or three days life was like a second honeymoon, which is nice as we’ve never had a first, or got married.
But then there was Thursday.
Most mornings we check the grib files to see what the wind has in store for us, but on Thursday we lay in, and by the time Rich had had a look and decided it might have been a good day to head for Ibiza, it was already looking too late to go. Ah well, we’d stay a while longer here. I was mid-phone conversation to a friend back in the Shire when the Chard interrupted – “shall we just go?” – and I agreed. We threw down the hung laundry, heaved the dinghies on board and tidied away everything loose, and we got the sail covers off and the main ready to hoist. The wind was rising and we decided to motor round the cape until it was in our favour to save time. I went to turn the engine key and heard the familiar grind of its awakening followed by… nothing. It kept turning over, but there was no spark, no explosion. Oh.
We tried again and again, and had the engine cover off to look, but it was useless. Rich called his dad, our helpline mechanic, and they went through a few possibilities, but repair was clearly going to have to wait for another day. The wind was getting quite worryingly strong and we realised we might not be okay staying in the anchorage, so we decided to sail out and find another anchorage even if we weren’t heading out towards the islands. But as I took the tiller and main and Rich heaved on the anchor lever the chain started to snatch on the windlass gypsy, banging repeatedly as it rose and dove in the waves. After one clank too many he turned to me and called through a stiff jaw “we’re going to break something. We’re not going anywhere”, and put more anchor chain out.
By four pm the boat was rearing up and down, the bowsprit smashing in to waves and dunking the jib. Our minds, bodies and contingency plans seemed to be exhausted, but we had to keep coming up with ways to make the boat safer. If our trusty fisherman anchor should drag or the anchor chain snap we had no way to protect ourselves from hurtling into the rocks beside the beach. We nearly got Fanny off to row out a second anchor, but realised that we’d probably put a hole through her trying to put the anchor in. We got our huge unused seized danforth anchor ready to throw overboard, and chucked a CQR anchor into the water with a fender attached. Rich got into his wetsuit and snorkel mask and swam with all his strength into the still growing wind and waves, pulling the fendered rope out and dragging the CQR in the direction of our first anchor, while I directed him from on deck and yelled alerts when jetskis or speedboats came near, doing a reasonably good job of not sounding as terrified as I was. He returned beaten but glad to have seen that the fisherman was holding, at least for now.
And then we waited. For four hours in our crap-crowded aft cabin we watched our position on the GPS like lobsters watching the hand descending into the restaurant tank, looking away only to jump outside and check our position in the real world. We held each other, listened to some radio, and even put a movie on another screen beside the chart plotter, anything to distract us from the horror on which we had to keep an eye. But we were both wired. My face bore a stiff hypnotic stare, stained with silent tears. Rich got up to poo frequently while I could barely get a wee out with all the tension. Time passed slowly, and then the wind eased, and then eased some more. We had dinner in the saloon, exchanging not-really-sure smiles while we watched the most mindless movie we could find (Deadpool, since you asked), and went to the dubious comfort of separate beds to prevent in-duvet collisions in the strongest anchorage roll we’ve had yet. The waves were still hurtling in after the wind had turned and died, and Gwen was now side-on to them.
A big lesson that we already knew but had somehow managed to forget had been learned. We’ve been so obsessed with getting to Mallorca that in watching the grib files neither of us had even thought that the supposed 15 knots (it was definitely more) blowing us straight into the beach might be a problem. We’d dismissed Thursday as a “not sailing day”, and then wondered whether it could be a “maybe sailing day”, and missed the obvious, clear sign that we needed to be out of the anchorage by then either way. We’re paying attention again now, you’ll probably be glad to know.
The engine, it turned out yesterday, had a small air leak in the fuel system which took Rich, his dad and me all afternoon to find. But when it was fixed (clever Chard) we were elated, and I felt instantly comfortable with whatever is to come all over again. We had a celebratory snorkel in the late afternoon, a first outing for the only slightly broken 2Euro snorkelling fins that Rich found for me in a rare charity shop sighting. I can now dive down much easier than before, and I finally got to see my first wild octopus, and to watch a second shifting around and over rocks with incredible shape and colour changing fluidity. I love octopusses even more than air hockey. Though they’re on offer in almost every restaurant in coastal Spain we refuse to eat them because we suspect they’re superior to humans.
We are nearly at the end of our cruising for this year. Soon we will have to go to Mallorca and work. We need to get Gwen established somewhere quickly in a marina, and I have to find a job pretty quickly if we’re to afford their apparently exorbitant fees. It’s all go, and a bit exciting, and a bit scary. But the wind looks low, safe and useless, for today and tomorrow. So it’s back to the holiday with me. The sun rises over the Penon and the bay looks calm and beautiful, and there are salt marshes full of flamingoes to explore.