Atlantic 2: The Return


Three calm nights and busy days passed in our berth in Almerimar. One morning we fixed the rubbed stitching on the seams of the mainsail, which we laid out on a tarp on the street. Now that we didn’t need it to cool off, the wind that had been absent while we’d painted and panted began hoofing down the harbour sides, trying to take the sail from us as we fed huge rotating rolls of it through the single tooth of Rich’s Singer sewing machine. Rich made a new plastic wedge for holding the tiller when Geordi can’t. I named it “Wedge” after Wedge Antilles. We bought new (second hand) bikes, exploded one tyre and stowed them under the bed. We wrote lists and ticked tasks off; vittled, tidied and laundered.

Our afternoon came and the sun nudged clouds aside as a breeze shook the telltails. After burning out with work we were finally preparing to leave the marina to return to the soothing sea. Our bodies were still twisted stiff from the heavy stuff before, but all we had to do was leave the marina and drop anchor just outside, put out the bowsprit and prepare the sails for the next day’s voyage. As we motored away we chatted and sang and waved to neighbours we’d hardly met beneath the higgledy rooftops of the commercial units that run round the three fingers of the town’s marina. We’d walked out the night before to check the spot where we hoped to drop the hook – it had seemed just about sheltered enough from the strong south easterly. But as Gwen rounded the corner by the marina office we saw that a catamaran had got there first. Not only that but tall waves, white capped and curvaceous, were thumping into it and growing in to the distance in every direction we looked. We emerged from the marina entrance into a whistling yachtsman’s gale.

Wind and wave hurtled in to Gwen’s side, bouncing her back and forth. We hadn’t prepared for this. I took the tiller as hair escaped its band to whip my eyes, and tried to find us another spot, but the catamaran dominated the only area that was anything like shelter. Without the bowsprit we couldn’t raise the gib, and the main would have been too much to handle, but we had to go somewhere, do something. Windsurfers darted past and capsized. I steered us in to the intensifying waves to reduce the roll while Rich clambered forward, tying down things we’d thought we could leave loose. He tied a reef in the staysail, the one sail we could use, and after what felt like hours he hoisted it. By the time he returned to me I was in pieces, trying not to cry but yelping with fear for him in each bash of the bigger waves. I turned Gwen downwind, switched off the engine and shook myself sane as we sailed west, bowspritless and battered.

Looking at the chart it was clear that there would be no shelter until we rounded the peninsula by Ensenada de los Berengueles, where we had intended to head the next day. It would be a noisy overnight sail before we’d see that familiar cliff face where we snorkeled and swam last year. When the wind finally calmed in the early hours of the morning it was still impossible to raise any more sail, so we shook out our reef and spent short night watches steering in all sorts of directions to keep some sort of pace. By lunchtime we had sailed 50 miles and were finally dropping the anchor to enjoy the rest that we had popped out for the night before.

We spent one night off the long tourist beach of Cala del Perro and four more round the corner beneath the pretty built-up cliff face of Ensenada de los Berengueles, where we snorkeled and swam as we’d hoped. For the first two days I stayed in a wetsuit as the water was teeming with the same small purple brown jellyfish we’d often seen in Illettas. I wondered if I was overreacting until a local kid in a kayak paddled up with his mates to show us the yellow jellyfish “la medusa” he’d caught, lifting it up with his hands for us to see. When I pointed to the Illettas jellies that were twisting and bobbing beneath his boat he squealed and paddled quickly away.

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Spot the fish

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The jellies we now call “Illettas”

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And over here, bubbles from divers

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Rich found a cavern that could only be reached by going underwater, which gave me a great chance to try out my Brian Cox pose

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Beneath the boat, a busy world

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Ensenada de los Berengueles

The bright blue sea shook in a pleasant breeze that pacified the sun’s blaze. We got internet access (and, crucially, Game of Thrones) at the nearby marina’s bar and caught some live dance music and a spectacular fireworks display as part of some local fiesta. Still, I felt low. Rich had been in charge for the whole of our refit efforts in Almerimar and work had produced its usual mania and detachment in him, fueled by time constraints and high expectation, which were just starting to ease off. But I would continue to be under his direction for as long as we were sailing together. In moments above the surface of the water I considered what I really wanted from our trip, and how many more hairy encounters with the sea and the sky I could take.

After a beer one night I started talking to Rich about what it meant to be in my position, because I sometimes think he has no idea. Sailing away had always been his dream – I joined him in that, I benefit from that and I’m always there to collaborate and contribute, but I also have things I want to do that he doesn’t contribute to or benefit from, so I feel quite lonely in those pursuits when there’s only two of us around. Our lives are based around moving with his work, so I rarely find an interesting job opportunity or earn enough to fund my own projects. I told him that it’s really hard to be told what to do and critiqued on what you’re doing all the time, whether it’s when working on the boat or sailing, especially when it’s by someone you’re supposed to be in an equal relationship with, and that sailing the boat is so tiring that I rarely have the energy for other things I’d like to do. I paced myself, careful not to accuse, after all, I chose this life, and it’s wonderful. I told him, finally, that I don’t think I want to keep going after next year’s Caribbean run. I’m ready for something new, so within a year, I want time to find it. If that means selling Gwen (I had a cry at this point, as you can imagine) then maybe we’ll have to do that too, or find somewhere to keep her still for a year or two where I can find projects of my own. Rich agreed and smiled and joined in and probably mostly got what I was on about. We both needed another beer.

Once we’d relaxed enough and the wind was looking right we decided to move on. I hoisted the sails and the anchor while Rich steered (I’m getting good practice in with the ropes) and then collapsed in an exhausted heap beside him at the tiller. How the hell did he do all that for all of last year? A rough plan suggested that if we headed far enough south we could catch a good wind to be in Gibraltar early the next evening. That was a lovely idea. In the less logical world of reality we had another night of being becalmed or crawling at two knots – an apt farewell to the “all or nothing” Mediterranean – and approached the rock, Gwen’s first sight of Britain for a year, at sunset. To our delight we were flanked by several pods of dolphins who leapt from the fronts of waves that had formed over the day.

 

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Entering the straits was as chaotic as it had been the first time, and our speed that had crept from two to four knots over the day suddenly rocketed to seven as we joined the tidal stream. We made it round the rock in the black of night. Gwen pointed in one direction and traveled almost sideways in another that was similar but different. All the guides say you can’t anchor off Gibraltar so we had booked a place in one of its marinas, and once we’d dropped the sails in the strangely shifting wind and current I had to hold Gwen still(ish) and steady(ish) by motor, staying clear of dimly lit ferries and parked tankers, so Rich could go forward and retract our bowsprit to fit us into the berth. It’s not an easy job when we’re both on it, but alone in the howling and rolling it destroyed him, and there was much yelling from us both before it was done, at the boat, the wind and each other.

Once we were ready to go in I called VTS on our VHF radio: “do we have permission to proceed, over?” “proceed, out” and then the marina. There was no response. I tried again, checking that the radio was working properly over the roar of the wind and the grind of our engine. I tried the alternative channel given on their website. I tried the channel mentioned in the email I’d received with the booking confirmation. Nothing. Finally, a voice responded: “Gwendolyn, Queensway Quay marina is closed, and we are full, over” “We have reserved a place, and their website says 24/7, over”. After a short, pleasant enough conversation with the mystery voice we were advised to anchor outside another marina on the Spanish side of the border and wait until morning. We put our Spanish courtesy flag back up, and trundled on for another half an hour to La Linea.

When we woke we found ourselves in a fine location, well protected from the easterly wind, with a great viewpoint of the rock and the huge cloud that forms on and tumbles over it. We decided to stay anchored there and rowed off with our passports in hand to find the border, where the cloud announced the change of country more eloquently than any signage could by completely covering the sun.

Gibraltar has all of the overstated patriotic adornments you’d expect, but it’s also a lot more than the little Britain redneck town I’d been imagining after our time in Magalufs and Benidorms. It is swathed in marks of different eras and nationalities, from tunnels and bastions to Irish and American bars, Indian food shops and Spanish outdoor eateries. Though there is a ludicrous amount of building work going on in the outskirts its town centre is all cobbled narrow alleys, and on our first trip we didn’t stray far from there, bouncing between the array of duty free electronics shops that are no cheaper than any back home. On the next we went up the rock and saw the barbary apes, my favourite of whom was my first: a big lad sat upright on the steps as we got off the cable car. I had looked forward so much to seeing one it amazed me that he was there, so soon and so tame, regarding me with grumpy blankness before shifting his disdain to the passenger behind me. I put Gib on the list of possible places where we could possibly settle and possibly start possible projects.

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Sunset heading towards Gib and the huge cloud that spills from it

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Cable cars make you smile

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See?

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Gwen is just off to the right, behind the runway and the two moles

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Peaking

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The drop

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Primate solidarity. Unimpressed.

 

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We found a Nissen hut built in a hollowed out chamber in the rock. I used to work in one, so I felt very at home.

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More four legged friends

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and six legged

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and those who only stayed still for a second

Every morning we checked the weather to see if we could leave for our big trip, the biggest we’ll have done, to the Canaries. Every morning the weather said the same thing – you can leave in the next 24 hours or it’ll be at least a week. The weather would give us that one last chance to go, and we’d say “nah, we’re quite tired actually, think we’ll stay here for that week” until eventually it was getting beyond a joke. Rich has a job lined up in Lanzarote and though we’ve still got plenty of time to get there I began to see that tension, the workaholic in him, wanting to keep moving. We’d had a good rest, so we got vittled and got out.

By the morning we departed the weather report wasn’t looking quite so great for getting us to the Canaries, but we were ready to leave so we decided to at least get through the straits and explore somewhere else in Atlantic Spain. After nearly a year in the Med we sailed back in to a world where colossal waves and tidal streams exist, and got a good dose of them both by shooting downwind in 25 knots of wind to enter a river channel at Rio Guadalquivir, in which we are now anchored beside a nature reserve called Donana. Yesterday, on the muddy shore beside us, Rich saw a wild boar snuffling for crabs. Beneath us the crackle of fish is so loud that he frequently checks it’s not raining.

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Rich rows while I play with the camera (we swapped later, honest)

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One of Donana’s many crabs

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Herons keep watch for us

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Bird, beetle, lizard (we think)

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Teeny tiny snail shells

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Walking over to the National Park. Not much later we got kicked out. You’re not supposed to walk in.

Our last sail wasn’t stress free either, and I struggle sometimes with doubts about our journey. I had been so excited about sailing when we left the Balearics, but the fraught disappointments and scary surprises of our recent trips and the frailty of my sense of agency have left me enjoying it less and less. Is this just big ocean cold feet? I have been using this rest to shake myself sensible, but I still don’t know.

I imagine what will really put it in perspective is a good old week-long sail to the Canaries. The weather says we might as well try this afternoon. I’d better get stowing. I seem to be pretty excited, so that’s a good start.

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Off The Track

The daily downloaded wind forecast may guide our journey, and this often works, but sometimes processing and deciding what to do with it is like reading tea leaves or runes – belief over science. Sometimes that belief is enough to have us packed up and raring to go into five hours of fuck all, sometimes it has us watching from ashore saying “that’s weird, that looks like a good wind. Shall we… well it’s a bit late now… another beer?”. In these day of low winds the moral of the story is to sail when you see the waves ripple and the tell tails flutter, and not mind where you end up or when.

The dolphins have disappeared since Gibraltar, and I miss them. Rain has become a thing of memory, and cold is something that happens only when you’ve snorkelled too long or stayed out late in damp clothes. Nerja provided a little of the latter on a nicely unexpected day of exploration. The day before I’d had a snoozy day to myself and explored more of the town while Rich went off to climb up something. I don’t have the same fascination with mountains that he does – they look very pretty from down here, if you ask me, so I’d expected to hear some fantastic stories and not feel like I’d missed very much. But when he’d returned, he’d been oddly coy about the day’s events. “It was really good, and I think you should come back there with me tomorrow. I’m not going to tell you anything, except you need to wear your trainers”.

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The closest thing I get to a garden

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They do good aqueducts in Nerja. Here’s one of the more elaborate ones.

The morning came and I was gently guided in what to wear and when to be ready. We dinghied ashore and walked towards the caves, then took a turning up a mountain pass that Rich hadn’t walked the day before “I’m trying out a new route, yesterday was a bit rocky”, enjoying the smells of wild rosemary and thyme, and nicking a bit for the galley. He divulged morsels of his previous journey, and we saw black tufty squirrels and steep, craggy peaks as described. After a few sweaty, umbrella-shaded hours on a wide cliff edge path we descended to the side of an aqueduct that followed two mountains’ curves, over a valley carved with stunning swirls of rock and the occasional cave, huge trees and grasses bursting from the unseen depths below. Here we ate our packed lunch and bathed our feet in the aqueduct’s narrow stream.

I deliberately allowed Rich’s vague answers to my questions to pass, particularly as there were choices to be made. We could either go the way Rich had the day before, straight down and walk back along the valley, or we could try to follow the narrow aqueduct wall further into the unknown before descending. Rich didn’t want to scare me, so he suggested the former. I smiled, knowing what we both really wanted, and made our decision. Soon we were teetering along the step’s-width ledge of the aqueduct, sometimes with the aid of the ricketiest of thin metal hand rails (that occasionally sloped away suggesting the comeuppance of previous pedestrians), sometimes with nothing between us and the 200ft drop but our sense of balance and ability to block out thoughts of rocky death. The path stopped just short of too much, just past exciting as hell. We stepped down the rocks and my earlier suspicions were confirmed – I could hear the water down the valley get even louder.

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Aqueduct of doom. “Turn your brain off” Rich advises. I comply.

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Massive bloody grasses. Human male showed here for scale.

The path was difficult to follow around the first bit of river we found. “You might as well get your feet wet – it’s like this all the way back” Rich warned me. But it wasn’t – it was a lot more. The first waterfall we found tumbled into a little chest-high pool, and Rich got my bikini top and our shorts out of his bag “you’re probably going to need these”. I gasped with gratitude and amazement – Rich is so bad at surprises that when I do get them, they’re extra surprising. We both got in, trainers and all, and after the initial shock of this freshwater power shower I tore down the river to find the next, and the next. We continued to come across short waterfalls dribbling between the river’s rocks as we clambered over them for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes they’d have a powerful jaccuzi-like bubble pool at the bottom, or a rock you could sit on to soak in the splash, and many were lined with a crust of mineral build-up that gave them the unreal feel of a movie set. We’d only seen a couple of people but we’d decided to stay clothed, which proved to be a good thing as over the next few hours we found more and more popular pools, rammed with Spanish walkers of all ages who had trudged up the path we were about to descend. Eventually the river narrowed between two mighty curving faces of rock and we got to admire the patterned corridor of the valley up close, our tired feet still stumbling through the ankle-high waters of the rocky riverbed. We dried, walked back to Nerja and ate at the first place we thought we could afford, and went to bed delighted and exhausted.

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Surprise waterfall glee

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One of many grand cliffs

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The guide, paddling.

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Planning an attack

We had one more day in Nerja to recover, and we’ve been flitting along the coast east of there ever since. Like our time in the rias, we stay a day or so, sail a day, see what happens. There hasn’t been much wind so we do between 5 and 20 miles at a time. When we drop anchor one or both of us leaps into the briney and snorkels round to see where it’s set. We eat, maybe go ashore, maybe spend too much on a hammock and decide we can’t go ashore for another couple of days because it’s too expensive. Though it’d be nice to stay and nice to spend we’re limited by both time and money – they expire together in late October so we have to get to Mallorca by then.

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Snorkel heaven in Ensenada de los Berengueles

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Weird thing underwater

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Even weirder thing underwater…

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This is getting ridiculous.

And I wish that was all I had to say about the last few days, but I’m afraid it isn’t. Even in paradise, this appartment-blasted mountainous coast of unending sun and clear fishy waters, you’re only as happy as your head. After Nerja mine got ill, though I couldn’t have told you how at first. One day we had an argument, but it ended, things were okay. On the next day a grumble from Rich hit me hard – a comment, a sound of disgust in his voice – I reacted and he bit back. Within the hour I started to feel scared of upsetting him. The next day I was scared of everything except the sailing. I held my tongue, cried when he was on deck and I was below or vice versa, started doing everything I could around the boat to ward off any more anger – don’t take pens from the nav table, he doesn’t like that, don’t leave water around the sink, wash up – he won’t be angry about that. I scolded and tried to coax myself, gripping tight to any faint feeling of power.

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Calm on the surface and mental underneath

Over two days this melted glob of fearful feelings hardened. I checked and double checked things I could be doing wrong. I wrote notes to myself on how to respond to things, how to behave. I felt like giving up all the time but remained determined to persevere, shaking and screaming inside if necessary. Out loud I would suppress anything but for the simplest agreements and boat discussions. Rich seemed not to notice except to avoid me sometimes, which hurt all the more – did he not care that the happy girl had gone? But I knew he would be upset if I let anything out so I cowered in silence, broken by rare but precious distractions – a good book chapter, a solitary smile at the sea. I knew it was fake and flimsy – a coping mechanism like holding your breath under the surface and gasping for air when nobody’s watching – but it was the only programme I was running. Then, through writing it all down, I gradually started to wonder that maybe this wasn’t reality, that it probably started with the hormone pills that I started taking… when? After leaving Nerja. Ah. I stopped taking them yesterday, and though I can’t say the jitters are all gone I can see clearer now. I can see the angry ghosts from pasts I’ve projected on to my simple life with a grumpy gorgeous man who I know better than that, the kind who takes me on surprise waterfall rambles. I can see my anxiety in overload chewing at my self worth, and I can feel its jaws loosening. I can’t breathe a sigh of relief yet, but I’m enjoying our new spot a lot. And I won’t be taking those pills again.

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Gwen in Ensenada de los Berengueles

Tonight’s spot’s off a nudist beach near La Rabita. I was so happy to see the naked folk on our arrival I insisted we both leap in to the water in the buff as a sign of good faith. Swimming in the nud around my burly home is another dream I didn’t know I had, come true. The water’s clear as anything but empty – it lacks the clicky clicky fish sound we’ve come to know in previous anchorages (what is it that makes the fish tick?). There’s no wind forecast for tomorrow, so we may explore the rocks, and apparently we’re due some big winds in the next few days – all in the wrong direction but who cares, it’s wind, and we have somewhere to go. That’s if the wind does like the grib file says it will, and that’s not for us to know. We’ll just watch the waves, go with whatever they tell us, and enjoy each other and the beautiful new in between.