Brilliant sunlight bounces from the sweat on Richard’s grinning face. He is as garish as our boat: orange t-shirt, blue legs, bright eyes contrasted against his deeply tanned skin and black and white beard. He is talking about which jobs he should or shouldn’t get on to next. I am watching his mouth move, thinking about hummus and astronauts while internally humming to the incidental music of my mind. It’s my day off, at last, and he just needs a sounding board. Yes, probably, okay, yep, you do that. Finally I tell him I’m off inside to write the blog, though I’m a bit stuck on where to start.
“You went to a festival and came back muntered, I did a bit of sailing, we’ve done some work on the boat. Write that.”
Oh sure, it’s that simple.
Part 1: The Island Of Death
The Mar Menor was stinky and green. We explored it for nearly a week, hoisting as many sails as we could be bothered with to plod from anchorage to anchorage. We were never in more than 5.5m of depth, and never far from a floating fish carcas or a shoal of pulsating jellyfish. I braved a swim on our first day once the sealife and seadeath seemed to have blown off the forbidden shore of the Isla Del Baron beside which we had anchored, but regretted it when a snorkel revealed nothing but more green – thick and streaky like a grim broth. I leapt out, poured a bottle of water over myself and shuddered.
It was on the Mar’s smaller central island, Isla Perdiguera, that we got to really meet the deceased. Rowing ashore we were greeted by the sight and smell of the dead seagulls dotted around the sandy brush. Several barely built structures stood as monuments to an idea that someone once had that someone might want to spend time there. They don’t. It stinks. But the hillsides are riddled with tunnels that were once used as storage for the surrounding bombing practice areas, and these have been blasted out to remove their explosives and are therefore now irresistably explorable.
We clambered the rocky pathways between them in a draining heat, torch in hand, avoiding the rotting flesh and snagging shrubs as much as was possible, and came upon a strange circular man-made crater in the ground. It was as wide as the boat and very, very deep, and at the base spread a tomato plant laden with some of the plumpest, most succulent looking fruit you can imagine. Always the foragers, Rich and I looked eagerly from the plant to each other and back. We tracked round the edge, desperate to find a way we could get in and out of the hole, but there was none. Just as Rich’s eyes were glinting with what I feared might be a makeshift abseiling plan, I saw it.
“Shitting hell, is that what I think it is?”
“That enormous snake skin”
“Oh my god”
Like a boss level in a computer game it seemed that someone had placed the only bit of nourishment on this deathly island in a pit with its greatest baddy. We found a huge stick and lifted pieces of skin out to see if it really was that big. It was. We used the same stick to prod the tomato bush a few times to see if we could see the skin’s owner. We couldn’t. We lowered the skin back in to the hole as a warning to anyone else who might find it, and stomped away skittishly, keeping a closer eye on the bracken around our feet, to watch a huge colony of egrets on the other side of the island.
Another sail later we spent a couple of lovely days off Playa Honda, a beach that seemed to be built up for far more tourists than it currently hosted. Pollution means that the Mar has lost all of its blue flag awards, and though the swimming area was enclosed by a net (now thick with green fur) to keep the jellies at bay it was evident that business had seen better days.
We caught a bus for a day out in Cartagena and tried to eat all the pizza in a city full of incredible architecture, influenced by centuries of visitors and conquerors. Many facades had no building behind them but lost little of their beauty by being propped up by scaffold like film sets. We saw a castle and an excavated Roman theatre, and toured museums that astounded us with the craft of ancient people. “Those Phonecians, wow” we said, and “it’s amazing how little sailing has changed”. We swayed to good live music and enjoyed each other’s jokes, aware that we were about to be apart for a while. Here’s a few photos:
Finally we sailed to the airport at the north end of the Mar, and I flew away.
Part 2: Port Eliot
England is cold. Gloriously, refreshingly cold. It has my mother, my father, my sister and her son. It has green rolling fields and bubbly cider and friends who don’t need to ask how you are because they know it from your posture. I enjoyed all of these things in my first couple of days, dashing from family member to family member, grabbing borrowed tents and stuff I’d had delivered to them along the way.
By the time I got to Port Eliot festival I’d almost lost the nervousness I’d had about leaving Rich to single hand Gwen for the first time. He was reporting back in a timely fashion, asking my opinion on whether to anchor up or push on, letting me know each night that he and Gwen were okay. I set up camp away from my wonderful but (oh my god) noisy friends and set about having fun. This was the treat trip I’d promised myself in Mallorca, and I only had a few days to enjoy it.
I saw talks by the author Rich and I were reading last year, the comedian whose face I’d had postered on my bedroom wall as a teen and a man who’d sailed a boat we knew as part of a TV show recreation of the Bounty mutiny. I took part in fashion drawing and stamp making workshops. I hooted at comedians and spent hours captivated in the poetry tent. I ate and drank and danced and danced and danced.
More than anything, I spent time with people I know from my village, and felt the warmth of their brilliant friendship through the mud and the rain. When I welled up at a slowed down “Modern Love” in a Bowie theatre piece I turned round and they were swaying with me. When I walked the walled garden they were dressed up as lions, entertaining passers-by as part of a new festival arts project. When I wondered if I’d see so-and-so, they usually appeared with a drink in hand to chat shit for half an hour. When I slowed down and thought about going to bed they kept me drinking and dancing and talking, waving arms dramatically, coated in UV paint and biodegradable glitter, and suddenly it was sunrise already and the four day festival had ended.
I collapsed on to Didds’ sofa and didn’t leave for a day. Buffy. Catfish. House. Friends. Quincy (he lives on a boat). Something her boyfriend likes about people who buy second hand tat. Something with Philip Schofield getting people to do challenges. I hadn’t seen this much telly for a long time. I let my mashed up brain be soothed by its banality. I had a hell of a journey ahead of me.
Part 3: Hull on Earth
My brain still wasn’t working. I got a lift to Bristol, a plane to the Mar Menor, a bus to Murcia, a bus to Almeria, a bus to a town near Almerimar, and a taxi with Rich to the boat. This all took about 20 hours, about half of which I slept through, and was horrible save for the Almeria bus which had air con and an original language video of The Martian. I was carrying all my stuff plus a couple of hundred quid’s worth of crap that we’d ordered to my dad’s (mostly hammocks, flags and grab bag gadgets). I’d been injected for Africa by the doctor before I’d left, I was aching in every danced out limb, and I was hot – so unbelievably hot. The calm, breezy Cornish way of life had been easy to adjust to (although someone did point out I was swaying a bit for the first couple of days), but it seems this doesn’t work the other way round.
While I had been off destroying myself Rich had sailed the boat out of the Mar and all the way round to Almerimar, and had her taken out of the water. She stood exposed on the dirt of a boatyard, her undersides revealing concrete where the paint had yielded to a good blasting. While I attempted to recover (difficult, when your skin is boiling away from your body), he got the mast lifted out and cut sections of its tennon off to reattach further round. The mast has twisted so much since we chopped it down from the forest that it was facing off to one side, putting pressure on the spreaders and causing our tricolour to suggest a misleading direction in the dark. This operation rotated the mast back to straight, and I daubed some hopeful jollop in its ever widening shakes before it was set back in place.
The next morning we woke early and began the process of sanding, stripping and grinding all the bits of Gwen that needed touching up. We worked in a breezeless heat that our newly acquired anemometer told us was 35 degrees in the shade, not that we could get in any, until three in the afternoon when I couldn’t take any more. We got an ice cream and had a siesta, and then we started again around six. We worked on until sunset and collapsed with a hastily concocted dinner on to a bed that was damp with our sweat. My brain had been shocked back into function and was as drained as my body.
A version of this work pattern continued for five days. We sanded the topsides and hull, ground the rust away from the push pit and repainted it, put waterbased epoxy, glass flake epoxy and tie coat on the dodgy patches of hull, put two coats of blue and new names on the topsides, replaced the anodes and put on a coat and a half of antifoul. The afternoon ice cream became an aspirational pillar, the motivator to keep going past lunchtime. We would shower before siesta and again before dinner, spending the rest of the day pouring with sweat. Oh, I’ve learned a lot about our sweat this week. Rich sweats fountains from his back right down through his shorts. I sweat from my face and chest, a dribble of salt water tumbling from my chin, making any face mask slippery. Though we longed to kiss or embrace after our week apart it was just too stuffy and disgusting, and we slept in the nude at an arms length.
In short morning cycles I would get laundry and shopping done, and discovered that Almerimar is quite a pretty little town. The marina folk, particularly those in the office, have been incredibly friendly, and Chris who runs the boatyard chandlery and boat repair place has warmed to us enough that Rich has even been offered some work. He’s not going to take it, though, as another job has come up in Lanzarote, and that’s on our way. Though I’ve spent a large part of the last week feeling faint we have managed an incredible amount during Gwen’s week ashore and were rewarded this morning with watching her being plonked back in the water, dazzling and shiny in all her glory. Now she’s in the adjoining marina, where we still have a few jobs to do.
But it’s our day off, I tell myself and Rich. I sit in the saloon, where it is still bloody hot but, you know, on the water Gwen’s bottom is being cooled off, and I type because I have spare time to type. Some antifoul remains on my toes, boatyard dirt ironed on to my foot soles, a stripe of Gwen blue in my hair, but I am mostly clean and it feels amazing. I can hear the ratatat of the sewing machine and I think Rich has made a mast boot cover because he’s a workaholic. I’d better get up there and take him out for a deserved pint.