Not At Home

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Flamingos on Calpe’s salt marshes

We didn’t rush out of Calpe. I knew this would probably be our last night sail this year, and I wanted to savour the evening’s impressions – the two-step grumble of the racheted chain falling in to the locker, the almost imperceptible motion of sailing off anchor, the helicopter whirr of the wind in the jib, the squishy splashy sounds of waves against us, the salty stick of sea air on sun tightened skin. We sped up gently as the staysail was hoisted, and glided down the bay past the beaches where we’d made landings for this and that. This place hadn’t been the most beautiful or interesting, but it had been incredibly happy, and we were prepared to miss it.

Our usual system for tacking involves Rich bringing in one running backstay and me steering with an outstretched leg while undoing the other behind me, then a swap of position as I release the head sail sheets and Rich tightens them in on my original side. We performed this while sunset orange flashed in the windows of beach hotels and stained the light rock of the penon, and I took some photos as we headed out into the Ibiza strait. As night fell the great rock dulled to grey, then black, and was left behind without us, and we thanked it and called goodbye with fearful glances to one another. I was scared of the stresses of finding work, Rich nervous about his new job, both of us intimidated by the notion of finding, approaching and affording a marina. We were full of hugs, touches and reassurances, with talk alternating between discussing what we needed to do when we got to Mallorca and consoling each other that we could manage it whatever.

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Last sunset over mainland Spain

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Cheerio Penon de Ifach. Love you.

Overnight the sea was less supportive. The waves didn’t look big but they were going in odd and different directions, and beating towards the wind had us hitting them at funny angles, jolting the boat and making both sleep and waking watches uncomfortable and effortsome. When we got to our anchorage in North Ibiza the next morning we were cranky and exhausted, and though Rich managed a snorkel I mostly watched movies, cooked and ate until I allowed myself to pass out. The beach looked busy, but the land looked green and lush and gave me hope for Mallorca.

The next morning we had anticipated a huge wind, but there was none in the unusually cloudy bay. Ah well, we’d tack out to sea. Ah, none here, we’d sail past the end of Ibiza that must be sheltering it. Ah, none here… We had halved our main sail area with two reefs the night before to cope with the onslaught, and though we filled most of the space with a topsail we were still doing only two knots. Then one. Then none.

Thunder rumbled over Ibiza. We decided to put the engine on if only to get further from the storm that seemed to be approaching. Within an hour or two the wind was finally up and we cut the engine to speed downwind towards Mallorca, whose mountains we could already see some 50 miles away, but the storm did not like being left behind. A downpour descended, our first rainy sail this side of Biscay, and we laughed a lot while both staying on deck like the idiots we are. I’m not sure about the psychology of it all but getting soaked does seem to put both of us in very good spirits. Then the wind got up, and by the evening we were removing the topsail and staysail to stay at 7 knots as we bashed our way into Mallorca’s south west approach to Palma. The rain had cleared, but darkness and high winds were our new challenges as we headed towards Magaluf and on to our anchorage for the night.

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Aw, it’s just like being back in England. Except warm.

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Pretty spatters and run-offs not captured very well here

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Mallorca looking less than inviting

The wind eased as we got closer in, the pair of us pointing and exclaiming at yet another bay of outrageous development and its sparkling lights. Just after Magaluf’s north end (lit by a gigantic pair of blue tips that it turns out are a bungee chair ride) we went to nip in to the south corner of Palmanova, the next bay, to stop for the rest of the night. Though we could make out most of the larger outlying obstacles we found ourselves bewildered by other craft whose lights were difficult to discern against all the lights ashore – a tall tower that seemed to be on land turned out on closer inspection to be a yacht’s well lit mast, and then a hotel on the far shore whose orange lights shone in line after line turned out to be a single super motor yacht, much closer than we’d realised. We had more neighbours than we’d had in all of northern Spain put together, and we wove our way between them cautiously by motor, a torch at the ready, before putting the anchor down and breathing sighs of relief.

Neighbours can be helpful things to have, and the next morning one of them dinghied over and told us that this bay can actually be anchored in all year round. Our brains whirred – could this be true? Could we live this far from Rich’s job in Palma? Would it work for us? What’s ashore here apart from hotels? Are we about to save a tonne of marina money? We decided to give it a try for a couple of weeks and see what happened. Gwen seemed happy for now, bobbing in the sunny bay with Fanny and Bob trailed out behind like ducklings. In a spirit of “checking out the new neighbourhood” I went ashore on my own for some shopping, and came back in a state of shock.

First impressions of Palmanova: It’s Magaluf. It’s Benidorm. It’s Daily Mails and Full Englishes. It’s theme pubs and inflatable toys. It’s cock shaped key rings and lapdance clubs. It’s stags and hens getting wasted and performing sex acts for bets. It’s “Prince William’s” menu del dia featuring real yorkshire puddings. Exposed white skin coated in raw burn or inch thick foundation, head-wide necks and muscle carved chests dribbled with football tattoos, gawping dead stares giving you “evils”. I looked for veg in all the self-styled “supermarkets” and found only crisps and booze. I went to buy a postcard and got chatted up by the checkout clerk. I went to get a beer and talked myself out of a panic attack. I rowed home in tears. This is my new home? What is there here for me?

That night I worried. Rain poured down and we leapt out of bed to shut hatches and protect items on deck. The next morning the sun shone, the sea beckoned and the world seemed a little better – this is not all there is. I went online to find out about Palma and was intrigued by what sounds like a brilliant city, and snorkelled round the boat to check on the anchor before the waterskiers and jetskiers got started for the day. Rich and I went ashore together and found areas beyond the busy sea front scariness, and popped in to an enormous Aldi where they have real fruit and vegetables. We found the bus stop, and saw that Palma is only a half hour ride away. We went to Magaluf and found a cool looking theme park among the pubs and hotels. In the evening we had a quick drink with Rich’s new boss, who seems like a really decent chap, and his adorable wee son. By evening we were back on Gwen and enthused, making plans to the sounds of battling crooners in distant sea front bars (“Delilah” overlapping with “I’m Still Standing”) and the first chants of karaoke that would go on until long after we fell asleep.

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Kathmandu Park in Magaluf has an upside down pub, a huge awesome climbing frame and a mini golf course with waterfalls…

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…and this crazy octopus. We must go round it before it shuts for winter.

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“You know how you always see people taking photos of each other in front of pointless things? Well, I’ve decided to take one” says the man I love.

We’re going to check out Palma tomorrow, and more of the island over our weekends. I’m still slightly bewildered that we’ve stopped cruising and yet I’m not back in the Shire, and I hope to get there for a visit over the winter. As much if not more than back home, I’m going to miss cruising. I’m going to miss waking up somewhere new and going to explore. I’m going to miss the work of sailing and the life of not working. I’ve learned so much – so many subtle peculiarities of sailing and of how Gwen, Geordi and Rich do it. I am so pleased to be here largely because I am so pleased with how we got here. We’ve logged 2,100 sailing miles since Millbrook. Four years after Gwen became ours she has done what we dreamed of doing with her, and the purpose of any hardship we endured for her back home has been revealed. I still feel like she owes me a bigger trip, another adventure, and we’re going to work towards that. But, for the next six months at least, we’ve got a new life to live, hopefully one that can include the odd weekend sail to remind us of Gwen’s brilliance, the glory of the sea and the joy of a silent secluded anchorage. We’ve got a lot to get used to and a lot to discover, and hopefully a lot more to enjoy.

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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.

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Quick quiz: What do you find at the top of this rock?

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.

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If there’s a bright centre to the universe, you’re on the planet it’s farthest from

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Grab all the spare canvas and tie it to something!

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.

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Another bloody gorgeous sunrise at sea

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In this photo you have two opportunities to admire the noble curve of Richard’s nose

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.

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Benidorm by night

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.

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Benidorm turns The Chard into Wilfred Brambell

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.

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Quiz answer: Cats!

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You can pay to have a go on a hoverboard here. For a minute or two, we wish we were rich.

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The big beach on the other side of the peninsula

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This week’s neighbours are probably baby garfish

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At least it’s not another aqueduct path

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Massive poser in new romper suit

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.

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Screenshot from Rich’s anchortopus video, which is too big to upload at the moment.

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.