Hot

The sun isn’t just beating down, it is searing relentlessly into our skin and boiling our sweaty brains. Rich has fastened the wind scoop, a curve of fabric that funnels cold air through the boat, on to the forehatch. This has earned the dark cavern below a noticeable hint of freshness. He then cut a diamond piece of our cheap sail-cover tarp and fashioned a shade over the boom to give the cockpit a small oasis of cool. He’s supposed to be napping there but he’s never been very good at stopping. He’s in the aft cabin, on my phone, Googling how to catch razor clams.

We’re anchored in Muros, the prettiest town we’ve visited in Spain so far, and though it’s siesta time I’m below decks cursing this computer. Two very welcome bits of graphics work have come in, but my first attempt at this logo was rejected and now it turns out that reference files haven’t downloaded, which means another trip ashore with the laptop tonight to get it right. I am imagining payment not in pounds or euros but in paella. We haven’t had any paella yet. This logo is four nights of paella. Persevere.

We’ve been in Galicia for a fortnight now, gradually making our way from Cedeira, where we first landed, to this fishing town on the west coast. The culture here is gloriously different from what we know, and we’ve had plenty of opportunity to marvel that:

  • You are given a small piece of tapas – omelette, pastry or crisps – every time you go for a coffee or beer
  • A beer (the omnipresent Galicia Estrella) is a third of the price of one in France, so we can go out for one most evenings.
  • There is no butter, and fruit squash does not exist.
  • Nobody, even in the cities, does anything in the afternoons except go to the beach. The shops are shut. The day starts early, stops at lunchtime, starts again at about 9pm, and goes on all night.
  • Because of this there are children’s events at midnight and the pubs sell ice creams for them as well as booze for their adults.

The huge pine-filled bumps and cliffs continue to roll down the coastline, topped with wind farms and edged out to the sea with scraggy fingers of rock. In towns and villages alike, white buildings with teracotta roofs that glow orange in the sun are scattered over verdant hillsides, below which yellow beaches are raked overnight to be pristine for the afternoon’s crowds. The most faded and delapidated houses are always the prettiest, and in some gardens strange stone granaries stand high on pillars like doghouses for a pet you don’t ever want to come out.

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Cruising by the dribbling monster man rock at the entrance to Camarinas

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Gwen in Camarinas

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My scribbled impression of Corme from the beach opposite

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Beach life in a bay near A Coruna

We stock up on bread, eggs, tomatoes, onions and biscuits between day sailing trips and hope they will keep us full enough. Every fishing town has its own specialities, and every sea front has enough cafe bars to make popping out for a quick drink an exercise in containing food envy. When we can afford a tapas treat we are not disappointed: here in Muros the speciality is chiperones, which is the best squid I have ever tasted drenched in oil, peppers and onion.

A couple of low-wind motorsails tested Rich’s patience, as did my attempts at tact when suggesting turning on the dreaded engine. It’s quite frustrating to be so close to the famous blasts of Finisterre in a silent sea, while redundant outstretched arms of windmills ashore remind you of the field of crosses in Life of Brian (or, you know, the Bible). Any problems we’ve had have usually been caused by overtiredness. I grumbled into a huge strop when we left Cedeira to go tacking painfully up the river towards Ferrol, so much so that Rich and I ended up touring San Felipe’s beautiful castle separately, at the same time. A week later he had his own tantrum day, best shown in our log book entry for 5pm:

(Richard’s handwriting) 1.5 knots. FUCKING WIND!! WHERE ARE YOU??
(My handwriting) Richard needs sleep

These have been mercifully brief blips in a fortnight of fun. Near A Coruna we took our sleeping bags and a paraffin stove for a wander and ended up sleeping in a cave on a cliff face, struggling to stay awake long enough to watch the perseid meteor shower draw swift dashes of light in the sky. In Camarinas we sailed our dinghies up a fine river that revealed itself with the tide, and we watched our first otter fishing from the beach at its mouth. In Corme we picked mussels from the beach rocks and cooked them up in the watered down carton wine we’ve come to rely upon (70c a litre – what can you do?). In A Coruna we changed our focus to a full day in the city and found ourselves in a comics convention, a terrible public concert and, on our next sail, a tall ships parade. We’ve tried to balance out work time with afternoons on beaches and sailing time with gentle evenings beneath the stars.

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The view near our one night cave hotel

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Dolphins in the bay at Corme

Dinghy sailing towards a river near Camarinas

A roadside camping stove dinner at the other end

That’s all of A Coruna. I got a bit snap happy that day.

The sailing is good when the wind is up, so by the time we got around Finisterre we were overjoyed to welcome back the weather for which it is best known. The “Costa de Morta” has individual graveyards set aside for the people of different nations who perished against its rocks in the days before GPS. Flying downwind puts the pair of us in a good mood, and I start wondering at the strange physics of sailing – not just at the propulsion of our 16 tonne beast but also at the smaller effects on her – the vibration of the fishing reel on the back of the pushpit, the blowing back of sails waiting for the next downwind gust, the judders and noises that emerge from the battles between tide, wind, shape, wave and weight. I often say to Rich that driving a boat must be easy if I can do it – I can’t drive a car. He then reminds me that roads don’t move.

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Passing Finisterre

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Goose-winged downwind, with the aid of an oar on a pole

Our Spanish has improved slightly, and I can now rely on more than reciting the intro from “Pretty Fly (for a white guy)” when trying to remember numbers. The Chard has insisted that I learn to say “I like rowing” after some fishermen in Cedeira shouted at us from the slipway, telling him off for letting me (a woman, of all things) row him back to Gwen. If it happens again I can’t decide whether to deliver it with a cartoon girlish giggle or in my best Tom Waits growl, and how many fingers to stick up against my oars. Most people seem nice, and if you can’t speak the same language then you can usually figure everything out with gesturing. “Two beers please”, “can I have the bill please”, “how do you say that?” and “how much is this?” have become almost natural, although I miss the ease with which I could converse in France.

It is a big big sea on a small world. Every sailor we meet, Northern, Welsh, Portugese or Bulgarian, has heard of or spent some time in Millbrook. One cruiser, who was very kind with advice and hand drawn charts for a Portugese approach, had even hung out on our boat when she was first made. We continue to be blessed with sunshine, and we can’t complain. And that’s probably not very interesting, so I’ll leave you there and get back to making us some paella.

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If you think this cockpit sun shade is good…

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…you should see what Rich has just rigged himself up. “I’m fishing” he insists.

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Swell

On the first day we wake early and take Gwen to the harbour in Belle Ile to stock up on water and buy a little fuel – not that it’s needed, just so that we’re customers of the port. Rich isn’t confident about turning us around in the busy harbour and reversing up the channel so he hasn’t slept well, but it all goes fine despite having to move away and tie up to a dive boat to allow a more important boat in right at the key moment. We motor out of Port de Palais and anchor in a nearby bay to get ready for the big trip by baking and snoozing.

There’s a knock on the side of the boat and I stick my head out. French Customs. Four of them in a RIB, pulled up to Gwen: good cop, bad cop, sensible looking and the one who doesn’t talk. We communicate mostly in French with some English thrown in for the really hard bits, with me answering their questions and we two foreigners laughing nervously throughout. Good cop and bad cop come on board and take a look around. Good cop thinks the boat is really pretty. Bad cop wants to know what we do for a living. We have nothing to declare, and I overhear them discussing that we don’t have any money. They leave, satisfied that we’re not a threat, and we breathe a sigh of relief that they haven’t checked for out of date flares or taken offense at the raggedy home made French courtesy flag whose colours have started to fade to Italian.

We leave Belle Ile around 2pm when the wind starts fluttering along the bay, and enjoy passing its eastern side which is dotted with beaches and rocks. The wind continues to increase as the afternoon proceeds and by dinnertime we’re heading straight into it, bouncing about between rainclouds. This is my first experience of the Atlantic swell, which is an accumulation of waves that become towering and steady as they head into Europe. Its leisurely pace masks its dramatic height – you are on the mountain top, then you roll down in to the valley, then you ascend again. However, the huge wind we are eventually fighting our way into jitters its gentle roll, coating the longer waves in angry, smaller ones. We debate hoving to and putting in a reef, but eventually it recedes a little and though it’s not comfortable I’m no longer too scared to take on my night shift alone.

Two dolphins leap clear of the giant waves to wish us goodnight, and Rich heads down to a turbulent sleep. I am left to my first three hours, which I make four as he really needs more rest, and to my first sunset of the journey. Each evening the horizon’s colours gradiate beneath the upturned blue bowl of the sky. Towards the sun, flaming orange singes curls around the edges of any once-white clouds, now shaded grey. On the opposite side pink melts to purple and turquoise. Any direction you look could be the backdrop to fantasy novel or 80s album cover art.

Over the morning of the second day the voices on the VHF radio change from French to Spanish and the wind calms, and by the time I wake from my second sleep we’re down from 6 knots to 2 or 3. We’ve hardly seen a soul for 24 hours when our electronic chart shows a horde of fishing vessels up ahead along the fifty miles that will take us from 200m to 4,500m depth. As we get closer their AIS transponders on our map make Gwen look like the victim of a swarming zombie attack, but in reality they are quite far apart and moving reasonably fast so we pass between them easily, watching them work. It is difficult to imagine how sea life here survives with this many nets swooping and scooping.

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Let’s go to the Winchester, have a pint and wait for this to blow over.

It’s a sunny day, and we’re dressed in light clothes, getting on with odd jobs and taking advantage of the calm waters to play music, learn Spanish from our CD and cook up proper meals. In the afternoon we watch a load of videos that friends from back home made for us for our departure. The tiredness and stress of the previous day has disappeared and we’re laughing, worrying flocks of resting birds, having a sundowner, not going fast but not becalmed either.

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Missed opportunity to recreate the “Rio” music video. Next time.

That night I’m on the 10-1 shift and the first fine sliver of the moon sets speedily before me with the light. Night watches can be quite boring once you’re used to them. The person who’s on watch has little else to do but occasionally check the chart, write in the log book every two hours and marvel at the stars. You arm yourself with time-killing roasted sunflower seeds to suck, crack and remove from their casings, scattering their shells in Gwen’s wake. You can’t get on with a project with this little light, and you’re so tired you can barely come up with new thoughts (although I sometimes try to write songs in my head) so your brain frees itself from its normal duties, making you vaguely philosophical, occasionally euphoric and simultaneously peeved that you’re still awake.

Then it’s the other poor sod’s turn to take the helm. This person has just been woken up after far too little sleep and would rather be alone. They’re polite (or are at least trying to be) but quiet, getting their bearings and hoping you don’t go on too much about all the things you’ve been thinking for the last three hours. But you just have to spaff out all sorts of excited nonsense about the shooting stars you’ve seen and the fishing boat you’re about to pass, and the incumbant watcher endures it and doesn’t tell you to please just sod off. You make them a coffee and go to bed. In three hours time the tables turn and it’s you wishing your bouncy loved one away from behind a forced smile.

Day three. Aerial long distance shot, moving in on a distant blue boat flying three white sails shooting comfortably across an empty blue sea in bright sunshine. As we close in, we see that there is a completely naked woman of 37 (although a drunk French man told her last week she looked ten years younger) propped most of the way out of the aft hatch, a rolled-up cigarette held aloft in one hand and a pint of squash in the other. She is facing the sun and the camera, leaning back and forwards with the waves and singing along to David Bowie with all the power her lungs will allow “Take a look at the law man, beating up the wrong guy…” It occurs to me for a moment that this could be the happy ending shot for the film of my life. Then I think about what’s ahead, and realise it might well be more like the opening scene.

Rich makes himself a cushion to tie on to the push pit. His back has been hurting during his night watches. When he’s finished the sawdust and sunflower seed shells he’s left behind give the cockpit the ambiance of a hamster cage, but being on the helm is instantly a more pleasant experience now you can lean back on something soft. I take a daytime snooze, and have a typically unsettled rest. You don’t get real sleep or real dreams in these little pauses. In the roll and tumble of the saloon, jammed in as best you can be, your mind instead gets stuck in the meandering thoughts that usually precede sleep and warp as consciousness gives way. At one point I’m thinking quite lucidly about our journey and the things we’ll need to do ashore when I realise that we’re actually sailing a boat and I’ve been thinking of it as flying an aeroplane for a good ten minutes. While I’m trying to sleep Rich sees our first whale – a loud plume of watery breath and a bit of grey – but by the time I’m called up it is gone.

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Obligatory photo of some sea, in case you’d forgotten

In the evening and night the boat seesaws slowly on huge diagonal waves, splashing the starboard side deck dramatically into the wash on its side of the ride. We hove to and put a reef into the main sail, shortening it enough to make the night watches bouncy but bearable. The next morning, which is to be the last of this journey, I tell Rich about the state of near bliss I reached overnight, and the strength of night vision that seemed to reveal veins of light between the stars. Though they presumably give glimpses of more and more distant stars, from on deck it had appeared that there were fine white fabric fibres holding the universe in place.

This has been the best experience ever, and yet we can’t wait for it to be over. Unlike any other situation I know, these two things do not seem to cancel each other out. We chat about how you wouldn’t enjoy yourself if you were just plonked here for an hour. It would make the worst fairground simulator ride ever, bouncing from side to side with not a lot to see. There is something about the meaning, achievement and purpose of it all that is making us squeeze hands and smile like this. The journey holds new adventure right before you, and turns mere water and air into a sensory spectacular. While Rich is looking the other way I see the long black back and small curved fin of a pilot whale, and am awed and relieved – I have my own whale now.

The wind picks up even more, and Rich asks me if the dark patch up ahead is land. I tell him no (idiot), that’s far too big. That’s a cloud. Land doesn’t look like that.

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Oh, hang on… maybe…

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…yeah, okay

It turns out that Spain looks like that. As we get closer the wind behind us, the waves and the countryside all go super sized. We scandalise our main (dropping the highest point of the gaff down towards the boom to reduce the sail size), which is a neat slowing-down trick that gaff rigs can do, and which avoids the need for another reef. We still speed along, but we’re down to a more palatable 6 or 7 knots from the 9 Gwen was hitting a moment ago. Spain looms, wearing fluffy clouds that pour over magnificent cliffs and smelling of warm pines. We turn, steer awkwardly upwind to Cedeira and drop the anchor among a few other sailboats in a high forested cove leading to an orange-roofed town. I didn’t know Spain would look like this.

It hits me that I know very little about Spain. Tomato throwing, Fast Show sketches, animal cruelty. Shit. Well, I guess it’s probably time to find out a bit more. We get Fanny off the deck and go ashore.

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Cedeira. A town where children’s events go on past midnight and they serve them ice cream in bars.

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Gwen, Rich, me, Fanny (around)

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Ria view

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Greenery’s always nice after a long trip in the blue

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This way to the next place

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Next blog post teaser: We move in to a cave with “Jason Bourne” scratched on the wall