Costa del Solitude

Written by Richard

Lying in bed feeling Gwen’s slow roll, listening to the soft pitter patter of crackle fish under my pillow, I know I should be asleep. We’re sailing for Gibraltar in the morning and it’s likely to be the next evening when we arrive. I really should sleep. I did however promise to produce a blog post, my first, before we leave the Med.

‘Hello, I’m Richard and I apologise for my five year absence’: a start offered up by my more experienced partner.

The fear of writing in public is not what’s keeping me awake but my brain is finding it a fine substitute for running over imagined futures. Where will we drop the sails and ship the bowsprit, will the sea be up outside the moles, will it be busy inside, will there be much tidal flow once inside the marina, how will the wind blow in Gibraltar’s lee? That’s the alternative right now. None of the answers are likely to cause much trouble, but we’re not marina folk and the mere thought puts me on edge. I prefer the distraction and Trish is asleep so maybe I’ll get a nice afternoon nap tomorrow?

So, I single handed Gwen for a week, something I never really considered I’d be able to do with a boat this heavy, but in reality that weight works in my favour. There are more sails and heavier gear but things happen slowly and slowly is good. Motoring away from the beach I’d left Trish on was a nice easy start. I had to motor to catch the 10am bridge opening, a nice easy excuse. Watching the town behind fade into the haze as the floating islands of La Manga settled in to their rightful places in front of me, I hoped Trish wouldn’t worry too much and that my night sailing ban wouldn’t hinder my plans. I wanted to reach Almerimar and get the dread tasks ashore underway. Enjoy my weeks holiday? Yes yes, but let’s make it a challenge.

The channel out of the Mar Menor is narrow but my timing was spot on. The computer agreed – drop the revs just slightly and the bridge would be open as we approached, no dallying outside the marina from which we, in frustration a week previously, had stolen a tank’s worth of water. I was sure the marina staff would be lying in wait. ‘Don’t look their way’ I thought. Yes, too paranoid to be a thief of even a few gallons of water. All of a sudden I was shooting along the channel towards a very shut bridge. This was when I realised that in a channel so small, with a body of water the size of the Mar behind it, even the Med’s measly 15cm tides can push a 1.5 knot stream. So I sat there, stemming the flow, facing back into the Mar right outside the marina offices, waiting for the minutes to tick by before the bridge would open. Thankfully nobody cared and I was too busy trying to balance water and air flows to worry. Twenty minutes passed before I was set free, with acres of water in all directions.

(This is what happens in confined places… I must stay distracted.)

The first day’s sail was arguably the best, fairly definitively so to be honest. A gentle westerly wind got me started south towards the Islas Hormigas accompanied by diving terns, a few other boats and, according to the A.I.S., a search and rescue plane that was making just 4 knots along side me. Hmmm. Perhaps one of my fellow sailors was using knock-off electronics. The way through the islands was gratefully easy. Being the slower boat I followed the leader with barely a glance at the chart. As we rounded the corner the wind piped up to a force 4 and Gwen picked up her quarter wave, determined not to be left behind. She was, of course, but not by all.

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First cape of the trip

Despite most advice I’ve ever read about sailing straight downwind Gwen seems to love it. Head 15 degrees either side and the tiller becomes a bit of work as the following waves slew her fat behind off to one side, but point the bows dead downwind and all is easy. Maybe things will be different in bigger seas? So far with the stays’l poled out one side and the main out to the shrouds the other the helm is light, the motion easy and life is good.

While we ploughed slowly along on the heading we needed the boats around wrestled with flogging jibs hiding in the lee of their much smaller mains or zigzagged back and forth, gybing down wind, sailing faster but further than us. It was nice to be in company and to feel the ease with which this heavy, ‘complicated’ boat could be managed. I was by this point, to the confusion of passing sailors, cross legged in front of the sewing machine beginning my other project for the week, a genuine Sunbrella spray hood. A bit fancy I know but fear not, the Sunbrella came in the form of used cushion covers.

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(Agh, mosquito, helicopter rather than stealth tho…)

The days that followed took on a bit of a routine: Hopeless forecast, no wind, get up at seven, ooh at the in predicted breeze, haul the anchor, set the sails, the breeze is gone, now its over there, hours pass, I’m dizzy. Breakfast, coffee, faffing with sails, with the rope that’s holding the tiller, sew, fish/eat/sew/sail and drop the hook again at eight or nine (no sailing at night), eat, sleep, repeat. Usually there were a few hours of decent progress dotted around, not always but usually.

Most days I would decide ‘tomorrow’s my day off’ (dead mosquito) and every morning I’d get up, ooh at the breeze and hoist sail. The engine seemed to be running hot, so instead of trying to motor a couple of miles to a bay for the night I took to dropping the hook where ever I was at dusk: a sheltered bay with children leaping off cliffs to the backdrop of an all night party, a grey beach beside a funfair with its high pitched screams to ease the mind into slumber, the peaceful middle of nowhere. There was no real wind so who cares where you are? Except when you’re off the tip of the Cabo De Gata: it’s deep and I’m not anchoring in 30 meters if I don’t have to. Two hours I sat drifting slowly towards that bay, watching boats come in and anchor while others left for a marina somewhere. My average speed of 0.9 knots was a record low, 0.9 knots for twelve hours though is not insignificant. I’d been treating us as engine-less, despite the engine being perfectly up to a couple of knots or a bit of maneuvering and I didn’t want to spoil my day’s efforts now.

There was only one way to save this – man power. I set up a bridle on Gwen’s bow, tied it to Fanny’s transom, jumped in her and set to the oars. I was doing it, slowly but I was pulling Gwen. All 17 tons of her! Then a motor boat came by, its wake pushing gwen 90 degrees off course to point directly cliffwards. Five minutes and a gallon of sweat later I gave up, jumped aboard, spun the engine over and put her back on course. In over half an hour I’d covered only one hundred metres! There must have been some adverse current. I demand a rematch! Some time.

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A nice view and plenty of time to appreciate it

We made it to Almerimar, as you know. It’s nice to achieve a goal. I’d sailed a hundred and eighty solo miles, been ashore for one hour, once, and spent less than a tenner. The calm before the refit storm.

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…and the first drops fall

Now that I think of Almerimar, I worried about that marina too, but then I berthed the boat alongside the office, again in our slip and finally at the travel hoist dock. All alone, all with no problems, because Gwen’s a big lass, slow and steady. In Gib there will be two of us to manage her. I shouldn’t really need distracting. I’d better go back to bed, we’re sailing in the morning.

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More Menor

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.

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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?”

“What’s that?”

“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.

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Built a bit. Bombed a bit.

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Dug a bit. Blew up a bit.

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Don’t fancy your chances, mate

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How big is it? And how recently has it eaten?

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I can do without tomatoes

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Cheerio, Island of Death

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.

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For once, the idiot up the mast is not my boyfriend

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This one is

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He is quite bloody good at what he does, mind.

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.

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Pre-patched hull

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Post-re-scribbled bow

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.

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Hanging around the docks, waited to get picked up

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.

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Dorne Chorus

The nudie anchorage stayed warm and clear. We spent two nights off the short grey beach beneath the tall grey rock face, peppered with bare browning couples, and though we never joined them ashore I was confident that my own undress on deck would not offend. When I did suit up it was in my wetsuit, exploring the nearby rocks with Rich, glad of a rest from sailing and a chance to do something fun together.

On the cloudy morning of our departure I realised I’d run out of Rizlas, and it was decided by he who doesn’t smoke that I should go ashore and get some.

“No, you’re alright”. I was happy to wait until our next anchorage.
“No, you really need to go and get some”. Forced smile.

It seems the notion of sailing with me in nicotine withdrawal is not appealing, and as Rich’s addiction to bread is equally strong I could grab a loaf or two at the same time. We pottered Gwen to the next beach, off the town of La Rabita, but with an opportune wind due any moment (ha!) and after two days of not using a dinghy, neither of us could be bothered to get one off the boat. I descended the swimming ladder in my bikini with a brief shudder, the dry bag we use for Rich’s tablet stuffed with money and a frock and slung around my shoulder, and swam over to the long empty beach. There, a merry chap popped over to greet me, and we conversed poorly in Spanish and arm waving until I couldn’t understand any more.

“Has your engine broken?”
“No”
“So why did you swim?”
“I want to buy bread”
“Ah, you go to that shop there by the Coca Cola sign”
“Thank you very much”
“Are you Australian?”

I got my dress on, did the shopping and then swam back to Gwen carrying a drybag full of papers and torn loaves, with a parcel of folded frock and breakfast strapped to my head. I felt extraordinarily proud, like a flat-chested brunette Ursula Andress carrying ham and cheese croissants instead of shells, and I bragged about it all morning as we motored away.

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Not as exotic as it sounds, is it?

Now the wind seems to always come from the east. Unfortunately, we’re heading east, and our topsail-less 16 tonne boat doesn’t point well to windward. In very low winds she doesn’t point anywhere bloody near windward, hence the first use of our motor in the Med and the ensuing afternoon of zigzagging that followed us getting sick of the noise and turning it off. By the time we got near somewhere, anywhere, to stay the night we were both sick of shooting miles away from our destination to return only slightly closer to it, and we were squeezing less than two knots out of the meagre breeze. We put the engine back on.

Running the engine has one redeeming feature. The Chard, who has a lifelong fear of singing, will deign to give it a go when masked by the growling, squeaking chunder of Perkins 4-107. The challenge is to find songs that we both know the words to, which as far as we know is limited to The Muppets’ Rainbow Connection and most of Pulp’s Different Class, but for me there is little more wonderful than seeing Rich set loose his voice to the sun kissed sky. In brief rare moments I can even hear him.

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Mountains, bridges, polytunnels and buildings, all in glorious brown and grey

We stayed a single, shoreless night off Almerimar, which is at the edge of a low curve of land that extends from the mountainous coast. Southern Spain looks how Mars will look once terraforming has just started to work and the property developers and tour companies take over. Like much of the Costas we’ve seen so far this area was baked, barren and dirt coloured, and featured even more wide, plastic covered polytunnels – so many that the area they inhabit can been seen as a huge white patch on a zoomed out Google Earth. As we sailed along more of it the next day we reminisced about the lush green of the north, and of back ‘ome.

We rounded the corner to find the wind turning generously. For a few glorious hours we were able to sail in a steady, strong wind that was just enough shy of ahead of us that the boat could keep to our envisioned course, and our moods became joyous. In England, a sail to windward means three jumpers, two pairs of trousers and some sturdy socks – here, we were still in our t-shirts as hair flew and songs were sung to the graciously miniature waves (by me, of course). We listened to podcasts that were gifted by a recent surge in internet access, learned some Spanish and chatted about all sorts, and had to shed sail quickly to slow down for our new anchorage at Almeria.

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The entrance to Almeria features a huge railway bridge to nowhere

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They’re very fond of fountains, but they aren’t all turned on

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This one had a cat resting in the middle (until I came over to take a photo)

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The cathedral, originally built to be a mosque

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Sadly we didn’t get to go to Manchester Club

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Can anyone explain what the shitting hell is going on here?

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Cave homes in the hillsides

We had a day of rest due to mild hangover and bad weather – including actual rain! – and got kicked out of that anchorage by the guarded but civil Guardia Civil, so now we’re a little further down the coast. Today we went ashore again. Almeria’s a big city with all the navigational challenges that suggests, and it’s not terribly well labelled. We’ve seen signs pointing to a photography gallery and later a house of butterflies, that when followed seemed to lead to a network of small restaurants and a Lidl, which is a bit frustrating in the formidable afternoon sizzle. One thing could be easily located – in the west of the city, where there is a strong Moroccan influence in buildings and restaurants, we visited the huge walled fortification of the Alcazaba. This megacastle was built by the Moors, expanded by the Christians, and (not that this is the most important thing to me or anything) is currently serving as the capital of Dorne in Game of Thrones. I’ll put some pictures here so I don’t have to describe it because I’m lazy.

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Rich in the Muslim end, from the Christian end

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The gardeny end

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Some of the excavations they didn’t turn in to gardens

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We’re in a castle! (It’s very educational)

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The walled walk to the other, smaller castle

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It’s a broody one, this, isn’t it.

And now we’re back on the boat, in the comfort of our own living room, listening to the cozy drone of recently downloaded Radio 4. Gwen is home, and she commands an intense love from both of us. I have never before heaped adoration on a house or, save for a few short love affairs with bicycles, a mode of transport, but this wide-hipped beast that has been our gaff(er) for the last few years is not just where I keep my stuff or move from a to b, she is the centre of my ever changing world. We might yell at Geordi, the cooker, the anchor, and curse the elements, but Gwen is spoken to only in the gentlest terms, even in times of stress “now come on, Gwen, wouldn’t you rather pack that in”. I hug bits of her sometimes, especially when I need to to stand up. Rich often talks about changing her to a junk, and though he’s almost selling me on the rig, I’m not sure that it’s practical for her. But I noticed the other day that if we ever talk about one day getting another boat, we do it ashore, out of her earshot. She’s lurching right now in a wavey windless anchorage, and I’m rocking into snooziness. I ask her to calm down. We’ve another windward wander tomorrow, and I’m about ready for some food.