Gran Canaria to Banjul Part 1: Notes from the Ocean

11 November

I’m not at my best first thing in the morning. Often, whether at anchor, in a marina or at sea, my first thought of the day will be the most negative. I half dream, already imagining the pirate attack, the collision, the storm, and carry the thought with me into consciousness, moping and lamenting to myself rather than worrying, chasing the coffee that will banish it. On Sunday my semisentient gripe was simple: there could be no possible way I should sail Gwen long distances in the Atlantic. The ocean is wide, wild and deep and she is just a little concrete shell adorned with a few spindly sticks and tatty rags. I saw her bashed about, miles from safety, teetering precariously on waves before plunging into them. I felt the roll that could shake her fittings loose, wrenching her delicate wooden spars with creaking, banging jolts. I felt the roll again, and again, and heard her staysail strain in a gust. I woke with one thought:

“I’m sailing in the bloody Atlantic, aren’t I”

I was (and still am). We had left Las Palmas the day before, picking up a little water and fuel from the marina before hoisting the sails in the busy harbour entrance. We had passed gargantuan drilling machinery as an orange and grey cloud enveloped the island, heralding the rise of an enormous yellow moon, and sailed along and away from Gran Canaria’s east side in gold and silver floodlit night.

A big boat holding two oil rigs, because apparently that’s a thing

Adios Spain, and thanks for all the tapas and public holidays

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On the road again

We rode a largely steady wind for three or four days, seesawing gently on a frothy skin of rippling blue. Each day we performed a maneuver to tweak Gwen’s rig and compensate for small deviations in wind direction and speed, poling out the staysail to go closer downwind or adding or reducing sail. Whereas we’d normally have to stay alert for such adjustments, the wind’s predictability found us thinking in a much longer time frame: “maybe we’ll gybe on Tuesday”, not “maybe we’ll gybe in an hour”. There were no land, neighbours, cruisers or tankers to avoid, and Geordi took care of the rest of the steering.

This freedom from boat duties, along with a pleasant downwind course that doesn’t rock us beyond comfort, has given us more time and energy than we’re used to on a long passage. Snug in my cushion coffin arrangement, which has now become a permanent feature, we sleep deeply when off watch so we can enjoy the daylight hours and pour ourselves into cooking, fishing, playing and lounging. Our hefty stock of ripe and nearly ripe fresh goods keeps us in omelettes, snacks and salad. Rich, who usually finds cooking a frustrating chore, uses his new pressure cooker to rattle out delicious stews, soups and curries, fleshed out with the meat of small, unfortunate dorado fish.

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Gwen’s classic downwind pose, all canvas and no knickers

Found this poor sod on deck one morning

Pretty, though, eh?

My culinary efforts have been less impressive. One evening, as I turned to open the oven door, the vegetable bake I had lovingly crafted skidded down the galley surface on a sudden jolt of the boat. It mounted the fiddle that should have kept it in place and launched itself at the floor opposite. I screamed. It went everywhere. Helpfully, Rich wandered over to tell me how I could have avoided that happening. I scolded him and my ruined dinner until they both apologised and admitted to poor timing.

The fourth night was warmer and cloudier than those before, and before the beaming moon (which rises later and smaller each night) made its appearance I found myself surrounded by darkness. An underwater thunderstorm of phosphorescent lights began to pulse in Gwen’s wake, small bursts that exploded and dissolved away. Soon there were more either side of the boat. Dolphins danced among them, puffing their familiar exhalations as the rhythmic lights flashed like Michael Jackson’s pavement stones. I could hear them all too well. The wind was beginning to die.

The next morning I was woken early by a call from Rich. “Do you want to see a whale up close?” I popped my head and then my body out of the bedroom hatch to join him in gawping at the mass that Gwen slowly approached: the huge log-like upper edge of a sperm whale, rising and falling barely five metres away as it passed, grey and heavy in the citrus pink haze of sunrise. The back end was resting, the front of it was breathing through a large spurting hole and all of it, presumably, was sleeping soundly.

The cloud and the last of the wind were left behind with the whale. We spent the rest of the day becalmed in sunshine, using the redundant sails for shade, reading Treasure Island out loud and playing mankala with the wrong rules. It’s easier to spot wildlife on a flat calm sea, and we saw dolphins, turtles and a little shark as well as the dragonflies that seem to gather in a lack of wind out here. We also spotted the first of a few sailing yachts, though only on the AIS receiver. While we’ve traced 120 miles off the coast of Western Sahara for safety from pirates that may or may not exist, these others are taking the direct diagonal route from Lanzarote to the Cape Verdes on their way across the pond.

The waves receded. Looking over the side of the boat you could see tendrils of light emenating from your shadow, caught on the faintest of invisible ripples. When Gwen reached a complete standstill we took it in turns to jump off the bowsprit, swimming or rinsing off briefly in the surprisingly warm ocean before climbing out in case a shark had got a whiff of us.

Very very busy half-steering and reading

Becalmed is a beautiful place to visit

Testing out the “getting back on board” system…

…and then leaping in

The next days were cloudy and grey, monochrome prints of the ones before with only Gwen and her garish paint job not in Kansas any more. One morning I had made breakfast and coffee and gone for a nap when I was woken by an unusual clatter. The boat seemed to be moving faster, which made sense, but there were noises unrelated to speed – bashing, toppling and grunts of effort. I bounced down to the cockpit, which was awash with blood. “Is everything alright, dear?”. Rich proudly showed me the enormous bonito he’d caught and hauled on board, the cooking and consumption of which became our biggest project for the following 24 hours.

For the last couple of days we’ve never been more than five minutes from sight of a flying fish. Usually in flocks of three to ten, they emerge and soar gracefully just above the water for longer than you’d think possible, sometimes arching their bodies to skip off the top of a wave before sploshing hilariously back into the water. We watch them with an amused spare eye as we shower in salt water on the foredeck or read in the cockpit. We’re back to whistling merrily along with the wind behind us, full of the exhilaration of a large blue world, getting better at spotting wildlife as the distinction between sea and not sea grows more obvious.

Look at this smug git

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Take-off and bounce poses

Our whole time in the Canaries we chatted giddily about getting to the Gambia. We could never have imagined that the journey there would be worth as much excitement. Tomorrow we’ll turn landward, but neither of us would mind a longer holiday out here in nowhere. Rich is strumming a Lady Gaga song I taught him on the ukulele, I’m shark spotting in the hot setting sun (I’ve just seen a whopper), Gwen’s bimbling at a peaceful three knots and we’re discussing the 12km of chain (3:1 minimum, to be safe) we’d need to drop anchor here and shun the land for a few days more. Sadly we only have 80m.

To be continued..

(In the meantime, here’s a wee gallery of less than perfect nature photography)

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Back To Life

 

October struggled on, dripping with sweat and coated in a film of blown-in Saharan dust. Our two week work stop in Arrecife had protracted to five and the pair of us were tense and tired, still shackled to a marina that seemed less of a luxury and more of a detention camp by the day. So, of course, when we were finally free to leave, the engine broke.

We call the engine “Sooty” because the exhaust hose beside it squeaks like Sooty’s friend Sweep when it’s working right (apologies to those deprived of a British 80s childhood – Sooty was a little, silent puppet bear, and I loved him). Stupid, shitty, bastard Sooty had lost all of the oil from his gearbox into the bilge. When refilled, it disappeared again within a day. Time for tense, tired, overworked Rich to return to the dark pit beneath the aft cabin, biting back his frustration and impatience to dismantle and diagnose. When he resurfaced, we had a corroded output flange as our new enemy.

Months ago, before leaving the Mediterranean, Rich and I had budgeted for the Canaries, the Gambia and the Atlantic crossing based on extremely optimistic (entirely fictitious) figures. We still don’t know quite what was miscalculated (by so much), but when we’d arrived in Lanzarote we’d realised we were screwed. Now we had worked for several weeks our finances had been replenished. We’d been able to afford the dyneema for our new stays and had enough in the kitty to get us as far as the Cape Verde islands, from which we’ll make the crossing to the Caribbean – crossings are free as there are no cafes, stationers or fishing equipment shops in the ocean. We had enough for our plan to go on. But we hadn’t made enough for a 250 Euro engine part replacement.

A metal workshop saved the day, machining down the corroded section of the offending item for less than 20 Euros. A replacement oil lip seal of a smaller size than the original completed the repair, and we bid goodbye to the kind and helpful marina gang with a last few relieved rounds of too many cheap beers.

The morning was bright and windless as we motored out of the marina. We dropped the hook near the entrance to put out the bowsprit together, but when a yelling policeman from the commercial wharf made us hoist the anchor the job fell to Rich alone. He heaved and jiggled the bowsprit in to place while I drove Gwen slowly around in circles, singing songs and cheering him on, waiting for freedom to begin. We bimbled out, sailing at under a knot for the next hour or so, before deciding that we really needed to get somewhere that day and give the revitalised engine a good workout.

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Four horsemen of the artpocalypse in the marina entrance

We motored in to the rocky bay of Papagayo on the south of Lanzarote, dropped our anchor and our jaws, and, as soon as Gwen was settled, leapt into the clear water. At last, we were home in the blue. Beneath the boat what looked like an implausibly gigantic stingray was resting, and I called Rich over to help me decide if it was real. A little flutter of one edge of its body told us that it was. We ate dinner as the sun set beside misty shadow silhouettes of Fuerteventura, casting an orange light on the bay, and wondered if we were permitted to stop holding our breaths.

We lived between Papagayo and neighbouring Playa Blanca for a few more joyous days, stalking cuttlefish, parrot fish and a dark and beautiful eagle ray, stocking up on provisions and exploring rocky crevices and busy beaches. We took the volcano tour we’d promised ourselves as remittance for our hard work and discovered that the rest of Lanzarote is indeed as barren as the north. When we decided to leave (there’s The Gambia to get to, after all) the bay was still protected by the island, and as we departed I had plenty of time to practice all of the hoisting, unhooking, sail backing and problem solving involved in sailing from anchor while Rich steered.

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For scale, I am five metres above the ray in this picture, the camera is eight.

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Top geyser

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Journey to a post-apocalyptic world inhabited only by buses

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When the hell mouth opens, just build a little wall round it and carry on.

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Papagayo. Not bad.

 

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A closer look at the rocks

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and the beach nestled inside most of a volcanic crater.

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Some rocks. My caption writing is not on top form today.

We lumbered along the sheltered south coast with a slight land breeze ahead of us for four hours, reading and singing and growing a little tired of the pace. We could see the north easterly wind of our grib charts darkening the sea in the distance, and when the first gust came from the north we gybed. It disappeared, and we gybed again. Another gust, another gybe, lazier than the first, both of us gently loosening and tying runners and headsail sheets while trying not to get our hopes up. And back again. Finally the indecisive boom rested forcefully on the port side, our one knot surged to six and within a minute our course and pace were set for the night ahead. In the now blustery cockpit we didn’t mention the wind that had appeared, knowing that whoever did would be held responsible should it bugger off again.

The night was moonlit and the sea was smooth, populated by cruise ships deliberately dawdling to fill the hours between islands. I slept too well in my off-watches and suffered for my luck on my shifts, struggling to stay awake unless I kept my face in the wind. Sometimes a night watch is just a duty, and my second one that night reminded me of a job I had in my teens, manning a fire door in a theatre. To lean on the door was considered a bad thing, though I did it when I thought I could get away with it, watching the same damn am-dram production show after show, aching with the tedium, bored with the effort of carrying my own weight. I lasted a week. And twenty years later I spent half a night watch remembering it in detail.

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Sailing in to the sunset is all very well and good, but you can’t see anything

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unless you have amazing sunglasses.

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Gran Canaria glowing in the morning

The wind was dying as we approached Gran Canaria so we put the engine on early to enter the harbour at Las Palmas. The ARC dominates the marina at this time of the year so all other marina boats were anchored in the nearby bay, and we had to wind our way around them to find a spot, nestled between them at the greatest distance we could manage. We’re still in that spot. We stayed with Gwen until we were sure she was safe, rowed ashore for a revitalising pizza and came back to trick or treat a neighbouring boat, Jorge’s new ride, thanks to some cheap black lipstick from a bazaar. Bazaars will be one of the things we miss about Spain. They remind us of Trago Mills.

We both like the city. Rich has been here before and loves the lush hectares of botanical gardens on the outskirts, so when Thursday turned out to be a religious holiday (because in Spain you need at least one a fortnight) we abandoned our provisioning plans and went on a voyage of vegetative discovery by bus. As we had to change twice in each direction we were able to see the city beyond the concrete shopping precincts near the marina, including its dark stone cathedral and other old buildings and a park that used to be a football stadium. We found the gardens and descended in to their steep valley with the joy of two people who haven’t seen a lot of plants in the last month and a half.

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Football stadium/park

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Park/football stadium

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I spent most of the bus ride cooing at the colourful houses climbing the valley walls.

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Coo

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Coo

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Botanical gardens: hello green.

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Crouching Tricia, hidden dragon.

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The Fountain of the Wise is dry. Welcome to 2017. 

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I can’t tell you how much we were enjoying the green. Wet green.

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Spiky green. 

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Steep green.

We talked at length about whether we should visit Tenerife and La Gomera, or just leave from here for Africa. As always, the weather forecast made the decision for us. It’s looking good to go south this afternoon and unpleasantly blowy in the Canaries later in the week, so if I can finish writing this post and Rich can fix whatever’s wrong with the cooker we’ll depart today for the 1000 mile journey to The Gambia. Out here every new position is the furthest south we’ve ever been, and this will be our longest journey yet by far. We’ve stocked up on fresh goods and signed out at the port office, so there’s just water and fuel to grab from the marina on our way out. I’d be excited, but there’s a lot of tidying up to do first.

Ten years ago a young Richard, all lineless tan and greyless beard, visited his then girlfriend at her work placement in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. While she worked he would bother the frogs in the botanical gardens or sit on the beach off the city centre. He would look at the boats that were anchored there and tell himself “one day I’ll have a boat, and I’ll sail it here on my way to the Caribbean”. We’re anchored off that beach now, preparing to sail this afternoon for a destination neither of us could have imagined when we started this journey – a journey that I’ve been on for half as long as him, that he started on that beach.

See you in Gambia.

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Suspended Animation

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Evening all

No man is an island, except the Isle of Man. Most of the time there’s just me and Rich in the little world of Gwen, but since we’ve been on this particular island for what is now a month (Rich’s job has run over by quite a lot, so we’re still in the marina in Lanzarote) the bubble has stretched to include a host of other souls.

There’s Mike and Kate, who we run into everywhere. We met them in the Spanish rias, and again in Mallorca, and again in Gibraltar. They’re in this marina, as are Mattis and Mo, a couple called Adrian and Sam on their long keeled double ender, a solo sailor called Lewis who is waiting for repairs to his boat and a Mallorcan environmentalist called Jorge who arrived from Holland on one boat and will be leaving on another for Gambia, Brazil and New Zealand. We bump in to some or all of them every evening after work, when the marina’s Asian restaurant serves half priced beers between 5 and 6.30.

These fine friendly people share with us a wealth of sailing experiences, from in depth knowledge of particular hardware or cruising locations to strange and silly stories of the things that can happen on board. They provide expert sounding boards for our plans or problems with Gwen, and share anecdotes that console us that we’re not the only sods who encounter frustrating or gross situations, cry, grumble, can’t hear what each other is saying or drop their mobile phones in the sea. We laugh and drink and talk non stop, grabbing that last round at 6.29 before heading home to our dinners.

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A lunchtime doodle

It’s fantastic, but it’s dangerous for me. A couple of weeks ago the combination of increased social interactions and increased alcohol consumption, compounded by working from the dark belly of home and living with a partner who was starting to get impatient to move on, provided all the ingredients necessary to kick life into my dormant anxiety. Rich would be terse in his lunch break and I’d react with more upset than he expected, making him feel angry and me, guilty. When out for drinks I’d feel guilty for smoking at a table where nobody else did, or smelling bad after a day of work festering in the stuffy saloon at my computer. I’d feel guilty for talking too much, asking too few questions, saying the wrong thing, laughing in the wrong place. We’d get home from visiting other boats or bars and I’d shake and cry, exhausted from having smiled through the hyper aware state where reactions from anyone else are overanalysed and ground into personal shame. I’d make unconscious selections from a long list of other things I could fret about and get to work on them overnight. Rich gave me hugs and reminded me that it always ends. He’s never been wrong about that.

This lasted for over a week, during which my mum visited, providing me with glorious distraction and a bit of outdoors. She and I visited the pretty town of Teguise, and she joined us both at the Arrecife En Vivo festival (which has been running every Friday at stages around the town) until a bloody awful metal band drove us away. Later that evening, after Rich and I had had a little rest, we watched Asian Dub Foundation playing on the stage in the marina, booming heavy beats into our feet, and I danced all of that day’s worries out in a sweaty, bouncing abandon.

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Teguise. Possibly slightly inaccurate. Don’t remember the guy with the shrunken head.

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Best drumming troupe we’ve seen in a year in Spain. They rehearse near the marina so there’s often a beat to plod home by.

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Me with the festival’s Elvis(h) icon. Photo from arrecifeenvivo.com

The marina wifi continues to give opportunities to connect with friends and family, and with the news, which heaps awful upon more awful and leaves you fury fatigued at the Trumps and Weinsteins of this world and their apologists. I’ve done three week’s illustration work for a communicative, creative client in the US and look forward to working with her more in the future. A wealth of administration tasks from insurance to tax returns have been progressed, and no small amount of television and film has been streamed.

Gwen has had her own journey, tethered though she remains. Rich bandaged a few injuries on Fanny and Bob, and used the spare epoxy to fix a chip he’d noticed on deck. We talked through a way to fix a new forestay that will mean our bowsprit still has support even when we bring in the foresails, and Rich went up and looped it round our mast a few days ago. He’s also bought enough dyneema to make extra lower backstays to better support the mast when we have plenty of wind behind us. We’re hoping we will.

We went up the mast yesterday and gave her rigging a good oil. I went first, strapped on by the chest and bum, hoisting myself on the main halliard with a safety topsail line hauled by Rich. I approached the spreaders, cautiously squeezing myself and the jollop bucket on my hip through the various ropes that shoot out from the mast. At the highest point Rich tied both my line and the safety off below. The release from the burden of managing my own weight shed all my fears and allowed me to bounce joyfully from one side of the boat to the other. Over the next hour or so I worked my way down painting all the wires, relishing my duty, trying not to splash oily goo on the deck below while Rich moved tarpaulin around to protect it from the flourish of my brush strokes.

Our time spent moored here, and our time spent chatting with our fantastic neighbours, has given me time to reflect and project. Over the last five years of Gwen life I have basked in inspiration from Richard, watching him make all of this happen. He hasn’t done it alone (trust me, it’s plenty of work supporting and collaborating on this thing), but he has maintained a singular determination without which we would never have made it close to this far. It makes him damn annoying sometimes, but maybe you need to be determined and annoying to get anything done. I am mulling over and preparing my own ways to annoy with every spare moment, including trying to find an animation course, and trying out stop motion and Flash tutorials in the meantime.

In the short term, we are both looking forward to moving out of the marina. To be back in an anchorage, able to leap from the boat and explore the rocks and fishes again, is a dream that has been dangled further from us with every delay. I look forward to returning to antisocial seclusion, my only duties being to Gwen, Rich and myself, and my embarrassments viewed only by gulls and bream. I look forward to swimming off a little of the huge beer belly that’s grown over the last month (I didn’t realise quite how firm one would be – I can’t pull up my granny pants and I kick it when I cycle). And I look forward to the sweet rocking of the sea, lapping at our sides as we rest, and how I’ll curse it, and beg it to stop, and laugh.

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Before I go, I have to tell you about this egg mayonnaise and tuna sandwich. The icing is cheese and crab, the swirl is cream cheese with an olive, the outside is mayonnaise and lettuce and the bread is really soft so you have to eat it with a spoon. This sandwich is my favourite thing in Lanzarote. Well, it was. I ate it.

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Lanzaroutine

In Marina Lanzarote there is a shower with a head wider than yours. It releases a thick cascade of warm, uncontaminated water with such generosity that leaving it is an act of unhappy willpower. Outside a persistent wind dries your hair and soothes skin that has already begun to bake, while speakers along the promenade whisper mood music under the ever present hum of a thousand windswept masts. Clean white shops sell clean white clothes while workers wash windows, serve yachties and guide boats in to gaps between finger pontoons.

We’ve been here for four days, the first of which was spent in near silence as Rich and I reconnected with the information superhighway, lifting our heads occasionally to pose a “did you know… ” or a “have you seen… ” or perhaps a “don’t read the comments, you twat”. Normally we have to ration our internet usage more carefully than we do food and water, so its abundance led us to gorge. The tinny timbre of long bookmarked videos played through headphones could be heard beneath our giggles, gasps and grunts. Dinner was a sandwich.

These luxuries become as ordinary as they would be in any first world land life. Rich started work and I’ve done a bit of freelancing: more job hunting than job doing but enough to pay for a few drinks ashore. Rich reminded me today “We’re in the Canaries” and “I’ve just finished work for the morning and come home for lunch” and “that’s weird, isn’t it?” It’s weird because it’s normal, or what we think normal might be because we haven’t got a clue any more.

We spent last week anchored in the small harbour where we first arrived. To get in to Arrecife we would take an anchor in Fanny and drop it not far from the wall that skirts the sea front. We’d climb to town up grotty steps that frequently stank of the piss of the men who use the area for drinking, and tie Fanny’s painter to a loop at the top so we could get her back to row home. On our first trip ashore we saw an incredible giant slug flopping around in the water at the bottom of the steps. By the last, someone had left a huge turd there. People suck.

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A huge sea slug. Turd not photographed.

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A stall selling little recycled oil barrel boats which the kids race in summer.

Arrecife is plain and quiet, kept pretty by building regulations that have slipped up only once in the determent of towering eyesores. We strolled to a modern art museum in a little castle and, equally exciting, a bloody enormous hardware shop that stocked the replacement chain we have long hunted for Geordi. Beyond the town the land is unremittingly black. The peaks and plains are solid statues of the whorls and ripples of the lava that laid them, cracked into chasms and giant bricks along their meandering streams. Empty crop fields are raked with layers of tiny black stones, vines are nestled behind black rock blockades, towns are oases of white oblong houses and palm trees dotted in a barren black dessert. An occasional spattering of lichen or cacti or a reddened hillside are all the colour most of northern Lanzarote contains.

At Cueva de los Verdes, a bus ride away, we got to see the volcanic underworld up close. We treated ourselves to two tours, one of which was beneath the ground in 3,000 year old lava tunnels that had hardened on top while their molten contents continued to the sea. Above us white calcium that had trickled in with water had made fine crystalline patterns, while some walls of the tunnel shone red with oxidised iron. We paced gently through, trailing at the end of our touring party so that we could yabber as we experienced each crouch and turn and spectacle.

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Cave of the Greens. Could be done under trade descriptions.

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Underground adventure

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Difficult to photograph on account of the endless blackness

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At nearby Jameos del Agua we got to see loads of beautiful water…

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…none of which we were allowed to swim in. Not that we’re bitter.

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There was also a very informative volcano museum with 70s sci fi decor and operating systems.

Apart from these landfalls we snorkeled and slept and got stranded on board more than once by winds that we doubted our rowing could beat. At the end of the week Mattis and Mo joined us in the blustery anchorage on their contessa, Jingo. Mattis and Rich worked together in the UK and I met the pair when they brought Jingo to Millbrook, beginning work on her just as we were finishing ours on Gwen. They have sailed down from Portugal for the same job Rich is doing and are now berthed in this marina too.

So we have shore power and water, jobs and amenities, spare time and friends to enjoy it with. We have a life made for us for two weeks, a normal life outside of cruising, in which the boat has gone from primary concern to familiar comfort and exploring is put off until the job is done. We’re indulging in the novelties of schedule and duty, and we’re doing okay so far. Better than okay. Did I mention the showers?

Seven Days Between Spain

It’s a long one. Do you need a drink? Have you had a wee? Okay then, let’s begin.

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Day 1

Wednesday
The river crackles beneath us as we wake a little groggy after an evening of beers that I rowed triumphantly to Gwen against tide and wind. We’ve moved her back up the river now, and my plan for the day is to row a little way down the Guadilquivir to Donana and try to get a lift on one of the ferries over to the town. We check the weather forecast, as we do every morning, and notice that our planned departure for the Canaries on Thursday is looking difficult. Rich doesn’t want to tell me his thinking because he knows that I had my heart set on some relaxing time alone exploring the town. He lets me work it out for myself, then grins when I say “well, it looks like the best time to leave is today”. I grin back. It’s happening.

We relax (and I write a blog post) for a few hours, then set to stowing our crap and preparing the sails. The tide is with us and the wind gently against us as we motor out of the river between widely spaced marker buoys. They are well maintained, each with its own light, AIS beacon and defensive seagull. I am relieved that the speed of our decision to depart means I haven’t had time to worry. I’m excited. Fishing boats pass us on their return to the river, the men smiling and waving in the sunshine. Goodbye again, mainland Spain.

At the end of the channel we hoist sails. Our journey starts close hauled, straining to the wind to the point of luffing, and we don’t make a particularly good course but we don’t mind because we’ve got a week of sailing to come. We can’t change our minds now, just take what we’re given, so 25 degrees off course at a decent speed will have to do. Then as evening draws in the wind buggers off.

The annoying thing about being almost becalmed is not just that you don’t make progress. That’s crap enough. It’s not even that you lose steering ability, which we do just as I’m entering a shipping channel in the dark, oh joy of joys. It’s the knocking about: the staysail sheets scraping whatever they touch, the main sail jolting the boom against the mast, back and forth with every tiny gust or shove of the miniscule waves, even with a preventer rope holding it out. I get a headache and scowl. When a little wind appears I can just about get Wedge to hold our course which means I can finally let go of the tiller to admire stars that shine like bullet holes piercing a black tin roof.


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Day 2

Thursday
On the sunrise watch I am giddy with emotion and lack of sleep. We are passing as close as we will to the entrance of the Gibraltar straits and I hear a warning on the VHF:

“Pan pan, pan pan, all ships, all ships, a small boat is reported at (location), 20 people on board”

You hear these every night in the entrance to the Mediterrenean. You can’t help but think of that small, cramped, unsafe boat. The waves are rising, but even here on the edge of an ocean the conditions are more favourable than back there in the straits where current and wind and huge tankers funnel through, sometimes against each other. What would it be like to be drifting in those violent seas in the dark, in a tiny boat with 19 other people? Where have they come from? How will they be treated once the spotter plane has gone and the authorities find them by boat? Do I want them to be found or not?

I pick up my camera and distract myself, grateful and ashamed in the tiny paradise of our cockpit. We are going more downwind now, at a good speed, and I admire how Gwen passes between the rolling waves. We balance to one side then the other in a motion that is irregular, gentler on the big waves than the short, sharp thudders. Inside the boat this motion feels multiplied – it is a challenge by day, and by night it is a painful, draining bore. I read my book, play some uke, photograph the double denim view and doodle in my sketchbook, pleasures that are small and easily stowed. By lunchtime we are further south than we have ever been.

Evening brings stronger winds. Even with two reefs in the main we are doing seven or eight knots, and don’t I know it, sliding on the cockpit seat and trying to brace myself against anything that’s bolted down. Looking out to sea is as hypnotic and calming as watching a camp fire, catching glassy peaks in the frothing tips of approaching waves that look otherwise solid. As Rich cooks the fish I caught in the afternoon (I am in charge of fishing on this trip for the first time, and I am nailing it: this is the third I’ve caught) I remember one of the great joys of high, noisy winds: singing your lungs out against them. I scream “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” to the sky and for those two minutes I am as happy as a human can be.

We decide to reduce sail again for the night, which involves Rich shuffling on to a foredeck that is tipping, soaring and crashing down with some force. I am not sent forward for jobs in these conditions because I am less experienced, and for once that’s a relief. He clips on, brings down the jib and sends the forestay back out bare. I am weirdly thrilled, like a spectator to a dangerous sport, as I watch his leaping sillhouette work against a red stripe of sunset while water splashes up on to the side decks. I wonder if it’s a good thing that I’m getting used to this shit. When it looks like he’s done and on his way back to safety I have a tiny joyful cry of relief.

On my first night watch a single, mountainous wave maliciously times itself to thunder down on the deck of the boat. It covers everything, including me. I am sat in the companionway, facing forward with my legs on the ladder beneath me, and am surprised not so much by the wetness as the weight of the water. I laugh and go inside where I have to change out of my soaking jeans in the dark, staggering around and bracing myself against cupboards and galley surfaces. I’m already wearing my waterproof coat but can’t find the rest of my wet weather gear by the weak night light that’s tinted red to preserve our night vision. I have been sailing commando, and the most unpleasant thing about the whole experience is having to sail the rest of the watch with my bare bottom inside Richard’s grim old salopettes.


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Day 3

Friday
Somehow every time Rich goes for a nap a new tanker appears on the AIS on a collision course with Gwen. There’s plenty of time to make adjustments to avoid it, but it’s not fun having to concentrate and keep returning to the computer to check our relative paths. The waves are at their largest now, probably two or three metres, more regular and predictable since they organised themselves into long deep lines. You don’t really get a chance to admire their height – as soon as they’re near you you’re already climbing up them – but their evenness reduces the jerking that was everywhere yesterday. Overnight I dreamed that we were out here, in the undulating blue, and there was a woman in a pink swimsuit and pale bathing cap doing a front crawl across a wave with a podgy kid in an inflatable ring bobbing nearby. They were on holiday, 100 miles west of Casablanca.

If I am a supportive sister to Gwen then I am an abusive mother to Geordi LaForge the wind vane, flitting between almost tearful pride when he’s behaving to “what the fuck, Geordi? Keep a course you stupid twat” when I have to rush to adjust him. His disobediences aside, it is a lovely day. Rich and I have settled in to our alternating pattern of watches though we are surprised how tired we still are and how many nap breaks we need. The afternoons are the only time we both feel awake, and then it is great to hug, listen to a podcast together, chat shit or make plans – little things that keep our joys united.

We continue to speed on into the night, and my first watch is spent in silent admiration of the elements. On my second I’m back in tanker avoidance mode, struggling to get us back on course, dealing along the way with noisy clanks that must be tidied quiet and tugging gusts that must be compensated in the steering. Once they’re dealt with I feel tense, my head groaning in the cacophonous wind. I remember my friend Chappa saying “I bet you see amazing skies out there at night”, and I think to look up, and everything’s alright again. The milky way is a broad stroke of white mist around which playful constellations are splattered. Occasional bursts of phosphorescence in the waves reply to their cosmic call.

I have thought of my friends often on this passage. I have spent whole watches fantasising about seeing or collaborating with some of them again, and others resolving to visit those whose weddings or parties we missed while we were too busy or broke during Gwen’s renovation. I am busy in the middle of some such reverie when I notice that Gwen is making music. The whistle through the rigging is usually too high pitched to be pleasant, but right now there is a discernible phrase, the beginning of a melody over a low drone repeating in different rhythms. I run inside to note it down. If Gwen sings then I want to know her song.


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Day 4

Saturday
A fun, chilly shower on the wobbly foredeck elevates a mood that was already splendid from having had a little real sleep. Most off-watch rests consist of some half sleep and some “maybe I slept” sleep (you have to concede that you probably did, because look at the time that’s passed) but now I’ve actually had a couple of hours of solid zzzz and that makes all the difference. I note how wonderfully Rich and I are working together, and how pleased we always are to see each other. We have now sailed more than three thousand miles together in total. I wonder whether the key to a happy relationship is being awake at different times.

That night, to prove me wrong, we have a short shouty argument between night shifts. Fortunately this causes Rich to storm off to bed instead of poling out the staysail, which we’d planned to do and which would have buggered up my chances of steering in the side wind that rises and falls on my watch. The sky is coated in cloud which is illuminated by the unseen moon, and I can see everything on deck for a change. It’s not terribly interesting, so I put on a podcast and watch the waves. Rich likes to spend most of his night watches inside, popping out every ten or fifteen minutes for a good look around. I go the other way, staying outside with the wind and water, briefly checking inside every now and then. I feel great out there.


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Day 5

Sunday
The wind is dropping but waves subside more slowly so we roll badly for most of the morning. With poor sleep and an argument hanging over us from last night we are pissy enough, and when Rich barks orders at me while putting up a bit more sail, seeming to dismiss my input, I bite back. We yell a bit then move to opposite ends of the boat. Our speed drops to one or two knots as the confused sails and clouded sky share our grumpy, deflated mood.

Wildlife comes to our rescue. I notice a dragonfly flit around the boat, pausing occasionally to rest on guard wires and ropes. Rich sees it too. It is green and yellow, but when we next spot it it’s bright red. We realise it is actually three different dragonflies making journeys around and across Gwen. We ask each other questions we can’t answer. How did they get here? Did we bring them with us? Have they hatched somewhere on board? Do dragonflies migrate? We are ninety miles from the nearest land. An hour later we stop counting at twenty dragonflies, all in greens, yellows and reds. They line up on the guard wires, wings fluttering in unison as the boat rises and drops, and cling to the foredeck and push pit. One unfortunate sod gets squished under our snubber rope. They seem less afraid of us than before and let us photograph them up close.

Then, hearing a quiet whooshing sound, we see the first of a pod of pilot whales following the boat. There are ten or more of them of different sizes coming to the surface quite regularly, showing a glimpse of their stubby heads only in the first break of the surface. They move sedately, their arcs like those of lazy dolphins in a slow motion replay, sometimes pausing for ten seconds in our view. Rich says they’re resting after fishing in the depths (we’re currently floating on 4km of water), and that they might be half asleep. We look at them for so long we don’t notice the dragonflies leave.

That evening I start reading Treasure Island to Rich while he sews us a quarantine flag from the fabric of a cheap and tacky yellow scarf we bought for this purpose. Neither of us has read it before despite its mythology being present all our lives: we’ve even watched three and a half seasons of Black Sails, and we live on the sea, so this needs to change. We have all our canvas up and only a little wind on this calm water, but things seem much better. Once Rich has gone to bed and the sun has set I listen to Gwen in the waveless water: the bow sploshing down, tinkles glancing her sides and the steady trickle behind me that says we’re actually moving. We’re doing four knots but you wouldn’t believe it if the computer didn’t say so.


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Day 6

Monday
The big wind is back and we reduce sail all day, wanting to slow down and reach Lanzarote in the safety of the morning, not the dark of the night. The big waves are back too, and they’re from directly behind us. It’s an awesome feeling to climb out of the companionway after writing in the log to find a wave as wide as you can see and much higher than both your head and the concealed horizon, with which you would normally be level, coming towards you. Somehow instead of crushing you beneath its weight it swoops beneath you, carries you a little and gives you a fantastic view of the next, which hurries forward in its place, before it is gone.

It feels good to be back in the huge, and I feel like I’ll miss it – the constant movement, the oxygen levels, the company of wind and wave and shearwaters. By nightfall we’re down to just one sail, the jib, and we’re still doing four knots, which in contrast to last night feel like seven. Having only one headsail up means you don’t have to worry about gybing accidentally, and you can do it deliberately very easily on your own, so I have little to worry about.

Inside, things are a little more difficult. We are going almost straight downwind and the boat is rolling like never before. The few loose possessions that hadn’t yet reached the floor are now making it their home. In bed in a roll like this your body slides no matter how you arrange yourself – usually helpful diagonal prostrations or sideways-on fetal poses make no difference to your ability to sleep. Sometimes your skin stays in place while your bones and organs bash about within it. Sometimes your whole head or torso gets jerked around. Maybe you headbutt a cupboard, but that only happens once. After two hours of noisy discontent on my first off-watch I go into the saloon, grab upholstery from the sofas and arrange it in the bed, leaving only a human shaped slot in the centre into which I squeeze myself. This cushioned coffin does me well for half an hour’s sleep, after which I pass it on to Rich as proudly as he passes me the brilliant near-full moon. “They’ve left the big lights on” he smiles. “I’ve made the bed amazing” I beam back. In my second rest of the night I sleep like a log right through.


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Day 7

Tuesday
The huge yellow moon plays peek-a-boo behind the clouds over Lanzarote, then sinks below it. All that can be seen of the island is a silhouette of mountains and strips of street and navigational lights – they produce their own golden glow. Then the sun rises and everything becomes visible: wind farms, shipyards, great volcanic mountains, a city by the sea, our first land since Wednesday. We approach quickly but we are prepared having woken and drunk coffee in plenty of time to ready Gwen, her anchors and her engine. By ten in the morning we are anchored in a windy corner off Arreceife, drinking the beer we had promised ourselves on arrival, before going to bed.

We’ve sailed over 600 miles, saluted six sunsets, taken four showers, spent £0, eaten all the fruit, caught three fish and had two arguments. I’ve banged my head three times, cried twice (okay, okay, probably more) and made a spectacular biryani. Rich has shaved his head, read up on (and got us much more excited about) the Gambia, and sown a flag that it turns out we don’t need yet. We’ve had very little sleep, all of it in bursts of less than 2.5 hours. My brain has burped up “well, a rest is as good as a rest” and “the waves are really coming in waves now”. Gwen has been incredible, and her rig has withstood everything we and the wind could throw at it, a testament to Richard’s skill and knowledge. We’ve been ludicrously happy most of the time, and we’ve got somewhere. Not bloody bad.

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