Misty Eyed

We came to Cape Verde at a strange time of year. The rocky wastelands of the northern islands are peppered with the emergence of life. The weather is challenging but full of character –  in each anchorage the wind takes rolly rests between hammering in deafening gusts, and on each passage the harmattan haze obscures our view beyond the nearest rock or islet. The air feels warm but the light, noise and movement are comfortingly wintery. The indistinct contrasts of our surroundings echo the turmoil in our hearts.

We left Palmeira in Sal the morning after a night out on the town. We’d swayed to the music of the single net-barriered disco and scoffed street fare galore, from the kebabs on billowing barbecues to home-flavoured spirits sold from benches and tables. It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that within the short sail to the next bay down we both realised we had food poisoning. We spent a couple of days gurgling and moaning in the bouncing wash off a dull beach before getting fed up with waiting to be well and sailing away overnight. We drank a lot of water, then put chlorine tablets in the tanks in case it was Gambia’s water and not Sal’s hygiene standards that had got us.

The island of Sao Nicolau (so aptly named for our Christmas retreat) was another friendly sanctuary and soon became one of our favourite places of our whole adventure. In our first anchorage we swam ashore, taking advantage of a rare outbreak of clear sunshine to explore columns of basalt and an invitingly roll-downable dune. In our next, the town of Tarrafal, we jumped on the back of a 4×4 for a trip to the capital and a long, steep Christmas eve trek. On Christmas day we ate lunch ashore in the company of a street dog then watched bad movies on board while the wind funnelled down the valley and blew whistles through the rig.

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Not getting smashed into a rock was the fun challenge of landing…

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…after which we got a bit of a rest and some rocks to admire.

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Huffle Puffer

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Rich’s return to Gwen

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The open back of a 4×4, my new favourite form of transport

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Ribeira Brava

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Steep enough for you?

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This track might look pretty unoccupied, but one of the farms off it was blasting out Caribbean music that accompanied us for most of the way up.

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Where a motorbike overtook us going up

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Anchorage in Tarrafal

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The wall speaks the truth

The distracting excursions of Christmas were welcome. On board we had reality to face and we didn’t like it. A job offer for Rich in Japan had become more than speculative, and in Sal we had been forced to consider the future of our trip. If Rich took the job and flew to it when we got to the Caribbean, what was to become of Gwen for its two year duration? Realisation pierced us both like a skewer. If he goes we can’t afford a long stay in a marina or the repairs that will doubtless be needed after a long time without use. No matter how we try we can’t seem to come up with a plan that realistically involves us coming back to her and continuing on.

So (gulp) Gwendolyn is up for sale, and we’re heading to Antigua to say goodbye. I’ve put her about on social media, and I made an ad for this site today, so please share it if you know someone who might be interested in taking on our beautiful boat. I wasn’t sure what price to put – how do you value your favourite thing ever for someone else? How many dollars cover five years’ work and investment? How many cover five years’ love? She’s cost us plenty of money, but she’s given us a home, a purpose and an adventure – she owes us nothing.

A quick sale and a good owner for Gwen feel just as important as price. It’s daft to feel so attached to an object, but knowing that doesn’t stop it being so – somehow she deserves to be cherished and not abandoned and allowed to rot. Sitting here I am leaning on a table that Rich designed and made which is tied to the mast I’ve hugged for comfort in difficult times. I’m leaning on the first bit of tongue and groove I ever laid and sitting on a cushion Rich sewed when he was recovering from an operation. Nothing on her is without a memory, and everything about her seems even more wonderful than ever. She has always exceeded our hopes for her, and she has brought us so far.

It’s not easy knowing that our Atlantic crossing will probably be our last on board, and though we’re excited about what the future holds for us that joy struggles to break through the heartache of what we’re about to lose. Rich is burying himself in research about projects that might follow Japan and he is often distant, keeping his feelings in line by closing them off to himself and to me. Occasionally the stress becomes too much and he spills over. Me, I’m scared, particularly about the first few months after I leave Gwen when unlike Rich I will not have a job or a place to live to go to – I can’t join him in Japan until we know what his schedule will be and can sort out more than his work accommodation. I’m scared of what happens if Gwen doesn’t sell, and I’m scared of a world where I don’t leap from my door in the morning for a swim. Fortunately Rich and I are united in looking forward to the Atlantic crossing. There is something so present about sailing, when tiredness and practicality prevent you from doing anything but experiencing the moment you are in, that we are sure will be both healing for us and a fitting goodbye to our boat.

We had a good dose of this between Sao Nicolau and Sao Vincente, where we are now anchored. The journey took two day sails with a stop in another gusty island anchorage (Santa Luzia) in between. We sailed hard on the wind and, unlike on our turbulent journey from the Gambia which had similar conditions, we relished the tilt of the boat and the tug of the tiller. The dust that has darkened Gwen’s halliards and left an orange film on her deck got pasted up with the water of leaping waves, and we wore the filthy smudges of our journey on our clothes, hands and smiling faces.

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Upwind wonky

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Feeding frenzy between Santa Luzia and Sao Vincente

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Rich and I went on a 5 euro Christmas shopping spree for each other. Among other things he ended up with these dreadful gloves.

Now we’re in Mindelo, the largest city of Sao Vincente and by far the busiest and most cosmopolitan we’ve seen in Cape Verde. So far we’ve found a French outdoor theatre act, a well stocked fresh market and a bunch of great restaurants, and have gorged on home comforts like gin and tonic, pizza and chocolate biscuits. A big stage has been put up in the city centre and we’ve run in to Mattis and Mo and a couple of other folks from the Lanzarote gang so we’ll be in good company for the new year’s celebrations tonight. Project distraction is going well.

This year started in the Mediterranean and ends over 3,000 miles later in the Atlantic. There are only a couple more jobs to do and some water to replenish before we can make our way across the ocean, the journey we dreamed about when we first saw Gwen over five years ago. There might be tears right now, and there must be more to come, but there are no regrets. Happy 2018, and here’s to living dreams.

 

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Worse Things Happen at Sea

This blog post is brought to you by the number 6, the letter F, the colour of fear and the state of mortality. This is my third try at writing it: I started involuntarily weeping on my first attempt. Ready? Ugh…

We (oh alright, I, I) went aground twice as we left Oyster Creek, caught out by shallow bits of channel we hadn’t passed over before. It was annoying but not disastrous and we freed ourselves from each muddy trap eventually with much grumbling and little dignity. As we passed Banjul we drained our remaining mobile data, stocking up on podcasts to accompany the journey ahead, the duration of which was unsure. If Gwen couldn’t keep a good angle to the wind ahead of us then we might have to beat towards the Cape Verdes back and forth for days on end, or go past them and return, or miss them out of the Atlantic crossing completely. As it turned out, that wasn’t something we had to worry about. As it turned out, our worry could have been reserved for other things.

The air puffed lazily and inconsistently around us. We put our sails up but kept the motor running, cutting it when we’d emerged from the grey and swirly river mouth to tack a slow, meandering path into the open sea. When the wind caught us it did so all at once, from a knot to twenty in the blink of an eye as the sun set. Gwen leaned over and pushed on with purpose. Twenty or so small whiteish butterflies pursued her, occasionally landing to grip on to the main sheet, and when darkness fell completely a hundred more could be seen fluttering in the light around the tricolour at the top of the mast.

We were doing a good course at six knots but I was nervous on the tiller. We hadn’t sailed to windward for a long time and had rarely done so on overnight passages. Around us fishing pirogues were represented only by the occasional burst of torchlight or a faint multiclolour strobe in the distance, and I steered as far between them as I could. We were heeled over enough that the port saloon bunk became the preferable sleeping space. It was while Rich was resting there and I was cursing him, wishing we had another reef in to slow us down, that I saw an unlit net hurtling towards Gwen.

It happened quickly, before I could even think, let alone turn the boat. We ploughed in to the wide line of the net, piercing its straight seam of white floats and pushing it into a curve. I yelled for Rich and in an instant he was up and with me as Gwen began to slow and stop. The net had passed under the bulk of the hull, as it should, but had been caught in the little space between stern post and rudder and was now one with Gwen, heaving her back. A fishing pirogue was approaching us with angry shouts and flashes of torchlight. We were trapped.

The shouting got nearer and could clearly be heard (though not understood) even over their outboard engine and the smashing of wave and wind on our two craft. We struggled back and forth on the deck, torches in hand, as the sails and spars bashed around, flailing angrily as we lowered them to a position where we could start the engine and turn about (which we didn’t do yet – we didn’t want the net in our prop as well). The pirogue was like all of the fishing craft we’d seen in Oyster Creek, about 20ft long with a nearly straight keel that extended forwards past the pram bow like a battering ram. This daunting protrusion and then the sides of the boat bounced wildly towards Gwen and away. We called out apologies in English and French as they circled us, but they replied in a language we could not understand and sometimes, in English, told us over and again what had happened.

“You are in our net, you will break our net”

“We know, we are sorry. If you take your end that way maybe we can make it free”

There was no sign of understanding until we offered them money. We pushed at the net with our boat hook but could do nothing to free it far down in the crevice in which it was lodged. Finally their pirogue came close to Gwen again, and, still yelling, they showed us the frayed end of a rope they had clearly cut: with their co-operation we would now be able to get away. I went down and looked to see how much money we had – a hundred euros in the emergency pot. When offered they yelled that it was not enough, but it was all we had and they took it. They motored noisily away and we sat shell shocked in the darkness.

Around us the distant flashes persisted in every direction. We freaked out and calmed ourselves, yelled and whispered, squeezed our fearful stomachs in and forced our headaches to the background. We got the sails back up. We had to get out of this area. On the way in to The Gambia it had been easy, we had just steered around groups of lights and kept our distance. I had assumed that nets would be attached to the boats, not floating free, invisible. I clambered up to the foredeck with our torch and shone it forwards, peering into the blackness, alert with heightened tension, while Rich steered us on. Fortunately the wind had died off enough to slow us down, but unfortunately the torch was struggling for battery. I saw the next net when it was already too late.

“Net! There’s a net ahead right now!”
“Where?”
“Everywhere”

Once again the width of the net stretched off to left and right, impossible to escape. Rich turned the tiller sharply but we went over it nonetheless, slower than the first time but with the same result. Again, a pirogue came towards us at speed. Again, our stomachs and hearts screamed inside our bodies as we moved swiftly, practically, and took actions that came to no use. Gwen stopped quickly this time, and we called out to them that the net could be freed if they could pull it back off the way it had come on – off the front of Gwen. This pirogue had seven or eight people in it, a couple of whom looked like kids and two or three who yelled to us all at once, ignoring our suggestion.

The sea was choppy enough to make any contact dangerous. They drove their huge battering ram bow against and alongside Gwen again and again, grabbing hold of bits of her as they did and then releasing, returning to bash into her from another direction. At our side, the boathook that Rich was holding as he fended them off got crushed between the boats, and he leapt daringly down to grab the broken pieces that had fallen in to their bilge before jumping back on Gwen. Then the boat peeled off and returned, tearing in to our stern, and our rear end soared and crashed down on to their bow in the waves, smashing Geordi’s wind vane. One of their crew became very communicative, and I passed him our staysail pole to help him push the net free where we could not.

With the net now in their hands they had to manoeuvre themselves away ahead of us, and they bashed their way down our topsides until they were at Gwen’s bow. I was standing over them on the foredeck, calling to them to go further, but they seemed to be incapable of steering away. My consciousness left my poised and helpless body and hovered numb, watching in disbelief, as Gwen’s bowsprit reared up and smashed back down again and again on to their open boat, their crew ducking and moving out of the way with each hammering blow. Someone was going to die. I had no capacity for any thought but that.

Somehow it ended. They moved further away, got free with their net and even returned at a better distance to pass me back the staysail pole. They diseappeared with an instruction to “Go to Gambia” that we could not obey. Everyone survived, and we were still able to sail, although we had to hand steer overnight now that Geordi was dead. We motored away and got the sails back up, realising that trapped in this fishing net hell our only choice was to carry on. We came up with a new plan, to sail towards the larger commercial fishing boats on the horizon as we figured the pirogues wouldn’t go near them. We were right.

Tension fizzled, swelled and crashed over us like the unpredictable waves. When I lost the plot, wailing and refusing to leave the cockpit, Rich pulled rank for the first time ever and ordered me to go to bed. The next day he lost it, bursting in to screaming tears when he got soaked by a wave in the cockpit followed by another one inside in the aft cabin. We both felt seasick, probably more to do with the stress of the night before than the bounce of sailing hard to windward, and though I recovered quickly with some Stugeron the nausea continued to pummel Rich for the rest of the journey and meant that I took over almost all the galley duties. In the mornings we’d throw suicidal flying fish back to the sea from our deck. In the evenings we’d cling to the last joyous moments of light before the night plotted its unseen soakings. For three days we kept Gwen pointing at Sal, the northernmost and most windward island in which we could sign in to the Cape Verdes, and though our course against the wind was impressive for Gwen it was wet and bouncy and uncomfortable for us.

Not everything was awful. We had a spare vane for Geordi, and it worked, so we didn’t have to spend every moment at the tiller. Rich put up the sprayhood he had made in the summer and that spared the cockpit many a drenching. Gwen did her job brilliantly, as always. But almost everything was really fucking awful. Water managed to get in in places it had never breached before and though hatches were hastily screwed shut we couldn’t stop it sloshing down the anchor chain pipe and wetting the floor. Bodies ached with the exertions of our night of hell and we sustained tiny but annoyingly frequent bruises and bumps as we tottered about in our hurdling boat. Neither of us could talk to each other for long without it turning in to a tense “okay, fine” or a drawn out “how dare you”. We arrived in Sal’s dry, blustery Palmeira harbour broken, battered and ready to leave each other stranded ashore.

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Casualty 1: Boat Hook

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Casualty 2: Geordi La Forge

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Casualty 3: Another bloody sail repair to do

It might be that all this trauma is why Sal seems like absolutely the best place ever. It’s so gorgeously West African with its flamboyance, so delightfully Portuguese with its cobbled streets, so unforced, so kind, so freeing. You don’t have to cover up your hot skin to be respectful like we did in The Gambia, but your skin is not even too hot because there’s a constant breeze. Nobody speaks much English, but they speak about the same amount of French and their Portugese sounds pretty Spanish so you can usually try out a bit of each and get what you need. The customs and port police are so friendly you want to ask them out for a drink. In among the grey skeletons of concrete buildings are finished ones painted with the most fantastic combinations of garish colours – Gwendolyns of the land.

With each day the realisation of the horror of our trip has sunk in a little further and its effect on us has lessened. We quickly went from “I don’t know if I can stand you” to “I’m so glad you’re alive”, clinging to each other, tending to Gwen, sleeping and eating and watching Star Trek TNG for hours on end. In the main town of Espargos we feasted on the local dish of cachupa, failed to find a cinema where I could watch the new Star Wars and stocked up on mobile data (hello there). In Palmeira we found plenty of veg and forgotten treats like chocolate and doughnuts. And yesterday, out in the even more barren east of the island, we floated on a salt lake inside a volcanic crater, giggling and doggy paddling like the daft loved-up twats we needed to get back to being. Tonight we’re even going out as apparently Sunday is fun day.

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Palmeira. Joy! Joy! (Okay, the good bits are in the town, not the beach)

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Sod Barcelona, Espargos has the best buildings in the world

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Cachupa: a fishy corny beany fried godsend

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Entrance to the salinas

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Fondling salt

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Doggy paddle, because you can’t do anything else

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I think this is my favourite ever picture of Richard

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East end of the island. Pretty empty. Got a lift here from some lovely builders.

We have a couple of weeks left in Cape Verde before we go for the big one: the Atlantic crossing. Neither of us has been put off by our recent trip – we know that the steady winds will be beside and behind us rather than ahead and the fishermen will be far away. We’ve looked forward to this for months, years actually, but we don’t really know what’s going to happen once we get to the Caribbean. We’re not that fussed about sailing Gwen back to the UK even if we go back there ourselves, and we’d like to go on to the Pacific but we’re about to run out of money. We have other work offers and other dreams swishing around our heads and we we’ll probably have to leave Gwen for a while to go and pursue them, but we don’t know where or for how long.

We might even put Gwen up for sale if it looks like we’ll be away from her for too long as her wooden spars won’t last forever if she’s stagnant in the warmth and humidity – she needs to be loved, lived in and sailed. But I don’t have to think about that now because it would hurt too much. I’m going to concentrate on tidying up, going ashore and getting a beer.