Silver Linings

It’s a long one again. You ready?

On our second night in Carril we ventured over to Villagarcia de Arosa for Noite das Meigas, the night of the witches, braving a perilous moonlit row around the lines and lines of bent and twisted re-bar sticks that mark the fishing areas off the beach. Strolling in, it wasn’t long before we heard sounds of gathered people and folk music and came upon our first witches in garish wigs and black capes. Soon stations of costumed servers appeared from street to street, each accompanied by a sound system playing traditional songs and a wicker hut spire. Women handed omelettes, empanadas and other treats to queues of grateful punters, while the men stirred great ceramic cauldrons, pouring spirits and sugar in to big blue flames to join floating apple rinds and spice.

It took us a while, but we realised that the witches were giving the food away for free, and that for one euro you could buy a small ceramic cup which would be filled by any warlock whose flames had burned out enough booze. The delicious warm spirit, like a mulled Christmas drink without the fruitiness, was still alcoholic enough to require gentle sipping as you wandered from station to station to sample new music and nibbles. New-age and wiccan fayre was sold at one stall on the main street, cartoonish halloween tat at the next – no one idea of witchcraft seemed to be standard. In the plaza, troupes of Galician dancers and musicians performed on a lit stage: skirts billowing with backward-stepped twirls, pipes droning in unbroken loops, and all the performers grinning so much that the love of their crafts became infectious. We were merry when we eventually wobbled back to Gwen, still clutching tumblers of sticky potion.

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I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you…

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Witch pops

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Arousa’s plaza

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Young witch bagpipers learn from the old masters

The next morning it was time to go. In the rias, a sail between anchorages every day or two keeps your body well aired and your time well spread between towns. The sailing was pleasant so we carried on all the way to Combarro, the most touristy town we encountered in Galicia, famous for the granaries that stand on stone stilts along the waters edge. Here, witchcraft is a permanent part of the merchandisable culture, not a once-a-year event. After some expensive beers and a wander round thin, crowded winding streets we returned to the stage in the main plaza for the evening’s entertainment. Once again we were fooled by the impressive backing band. Once again we were in for ghastly europop, this time in the form of a four piece samba boy band. Though their gyrating moves were not mirrored by an audience in which older pairs danced gentle steps, they still managed to find three teenage girls to take part in an extended ass shaking competition. Time to go, we figured, and rowed home to the sound of the Macarena.

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When we get there, it’s low tide. I get off at the steps while Rich pushes the dinghy ashore through the mud. It’s pretty funny and there are a few of us watching by the end.

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Because of this, Fanny’s bottom still looks like this.

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Viney dinner spot

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It’s them again

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Combarro

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Granary granary granary

With the wind still in our favour we sailed off to Baiona, where we decided to have an extended rest before the long slog to southern Portugal. I finished off my design work and put together a couple of good looking CVs for us to email off to boatyards, schools and offices from the internet cafe ashore. In the mornings we explored the castle, town and hillside. In the afternoons for siesta I sunbathed on the beach or on deck. In the evenings we found cheap tapas, met or caught up with other cruisers, and talked about oiling the rigging and other boat jobs that we never seem to get around to. The pleasure of staying in one place long enough to know our way around and have a favourite shop (who can resist a Chinese market called “Bazaar Wang”?) was edged with a strangeness of stasis – the saloon got messy, and we got bored. One morning we got a phonecall and Rich was offered a job in Majorca. Suddenly we had a destination for the winter, and our plans to spend the weekend at the Illas Ceis went out of the window. By the evening we’d shopped, tidied, refuelled and watered and were motoring out to sea to sail a long passage past Portugal, in no wind. We turned the motor off for dinner, and left it off.

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Our first night was clear and starlit, with the sails flapping back and forth noisily while the breeze refused to grow. On my watch, my mind did not find its usual hypnotised calm. It busied itself imagining huge musical numbers with full chorus, a great bassline and a joyous horn section, over the top of which I wrote terrible rock musical numbers that rhymed “Orion” with “a saucepan to fry on”. Orion, played by 80s Paul Nicholas, watched down over me as I raised my arms to conduct the sky, but this euphoric flight of fancy was not to last and was eventually drowned out. I woke Rich early from his slumber to help me restrict the violent slamming of the sails, gaff and boom in the tiny wind.

The next morning the fog came, and, but for a few odd hours of partial clarity here and there, it filled the next two and a half days. In the thick grey, the distinctions between directions and between sky and sea faded to a damp blur. We got the radar reflector up and prepared for the worst. For all the head-aching effort it takes to blow the thing, and for all its impressive volume, our fog horn still sounded like a kid’s party toy. Eventually we restricted its use to “if you see something” or “when you have something to announce”. PARP Richard has put on some trousers. PARP I need the toilet.

Watches became scarier and required more and more concentration. When there was wind, the speed of our motion into the unknown was frightening. When there was none, the accompanying reduction of steering ability made an encounter with any other craft a terrifying prospect. The horizon, or what hung in its place, had to be scoured at all times – if another yacht should appear in the grey we would need to react immediately. We also kept a regular watch of the AIS and put plenty of space between us and shipping and fishing vessels. Tension was high and we snapped at each other more than usual, occasionally descending in to serious grumps. We spent a lot of our off-watch time sleeping, exhausted from the extra effort the fog required, or watching movies to distract ourselves from the indiscernible reality above decks.

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I took a photo of this because it was the only thing I saw all day

By night it was rarely any better. On my first foggy night shift I was already bricking it when the wind changed direction and strengthened as I was hand steering to a compass bearing. Though we had a preventer on so we couldn’t gybe accidentally (gybing accidentally is on my top five terror list, as it could potentially destroy our rig and boat in a strong wind) it was enough to blow the main sail back and up towards me, and I steered quickly to correct it, muttering fearful incantations of “fuck off, fuck off, fuck off”. When Rich started his next watch I told him about it, and found his seeming lack of interest typical, but upsetting. I went to bed imagining the voice I wanted to hear, and told that about it instead.

“…and then I turned the boat and it was okay”

“it sounds like that was really scary”

“it was, it was!”

“and it sounds like you handled it really well”

“yes, thank you, yes, yes, I did”

“and you’re alright now, aren’t you?”

“no, now I’m lying in bed crying my eyes out like a twat”

“like who, Trish?”

“like… like Ellen McArthur?”

“that’s right, Trish, like Ellen Fucking McArthur. Cry, then cry some more. Then get some sleep.”

Night, however, provided the spectacles of the trip, most clearly on the third night in my second watch. Within the fuzzy blackness, phosphorescence drew faint edges on the waves closest to the boat, which got gradually brighter. Then the light extended, the wake and bow wave shimmering with ever bolder glows. A dolphin swam towards the boat, coated like a sparkling ghost, a fainter cloud billowing in its wake. Then another appeared, and another. I could see the misty shoals that they were chasing turn and twist, sometimes with individual fish shooting one way and another as darting lights. I could watch a glowing dolphin speed beneath one side the boat and shuffle to the other in time to watch it emerge. I stood up on the coach roof, my harness keeping me attached to the boat, and watched from on high as the sea all around me turned into a theatre of shimmering movement. At one point I saw a line of light up ahead which grew to a shape bigger than Gwen, facing towards her from beneath the surface as she passed. Was it a whale? Or a huge static shoal of fish? I started crying again.

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Our compass light mark 4 – a bike torch Rich has rigged up to an LED

On the fourth day we tried to stay positive, but failed. We mused that perhaps there is no such thing as Portugal. Rich hadn’t seen it on the occasion he had sailed down this way on a boat delivery, and we hadn’t seen it and were supposedly only 30 miles off shore, half way down its western coast. Perhaps they couldn’t be bothered to write this bit of the Matrix. Perhaps it’s just a set of giant smoke machines. When it did finally appear it was just as strange – has that huge bit of land been there all along? We tried to suppress little arguments but they bubbled up time and again until one was too much for Rich and sent him into a spin, and soon the entirety of our relationship was under question. As the light began to dwindle I asked if we could go to Sines and stay there the night. We were tired of being scared, and tired of each other, and another night in the fog that would inevitably return would be too much for me. He conceded.

The sun had set and the wind dropped when we went to gybe. We were performing our usual functions – Rich was up front and had taken off the preventer, and I was preparing to gently turn us to the other side of the wind – when something strange happened. The wind changed and started pushing the sail as though I had already turned, and no matter how much I steered us back, it would hardly change in relation to the boat. “Go East” Rich called, but I had already gone past east. The wind was turning faster than I could. “The wind’s doing something weird and I’m scared” I shouted to Rich, unable to contain the wavering in my voice. For the next ten minutes we attempted to sail the boat in any direction we could, but the wind continued to twist us around, with me desperately trying to follow it. We tried to heave to, but even that was violent and uncertain in this inconsistent breeze. At last we put on the engine and motored for three long hours towards land, our minds exhausted and our love strained, with as few words as possible. We navigated by sea lights and a huge gas works’ flame, and anchored in the fishing end of Sines’ harbour by exchanging terse commands before collapsing into separate berths at three in the morning.

Yesterday morning we woke to the smell of hot seagull shit, with a thousand of the little squawkers floating in the sun-cooked water around us, waiting for the fishing boats. We chatted, shared and understood a little better, hugged long and hard and napped deeply before heading ashore. Sines is a beautiful town despite its horrific appearance from sea. Cobbled streets are lined with cobbled pavements that link underlit shops and bars. Artistic graffiti adorns buildings, shops sell interesting and useful stuff and there is no siesta so it’s all open. There is a huge four storey lift that links the beach to the town, and that doesn’t work, so instead you wander up or down one of many zig zag paths, hitting musical instruments and leaping on trampolines in the public spaces between, perfect for the couple who desperately need to play. By the evening everything seemed a lot better, and it seemed a scary spat may have forged us closer in the end. A relief was spreading over us as we cosied up for a nice dull evening watching a favourite film (“Galaxy Quest” is brilliant).

Today we’ve met some lively old lads with boats and refuelled our bodies with hard bread and blessed inactivity. We’re in a bar that plays good funk and serves pear cider. We feel good again, and we’re glad we didn’t throw each other overboard or completely skip Portugal. We’re very glad that it exists, after all.

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Molluscs and pooches

In chest-high waders or loose shorts and t-shirts, men and women wallowed out to their waists, their tanned skin wearing the growing morning sun. In their hands each carried a long vertical stick which protruded from the surface, widening underneath to a digging and sifting mechanism, and a bucket. For a few hours they rocked back and forth hard against their sticks, rhythmically, like grinding disco podium dancers, turning over the sandy sea bed and prising up the sh­ellfish who sought safety there. At lunchtime they returned to the shore to weigh their winnings.

From our boat, a little further out from Muros’ beach, we wondered that there’s any sea life left after the armies of diggers, fishers, divers and pot-droppers have had their way. But in Galicia their work seems never ending and the restaurants are always stacked. The most visibly sustainable seafood gatherers are those who manage the wide “viveros” that float between most anchorages in the rias. From each beam in each great wooden or plastic lattice, long branching ropes are draped down to the sea bed, laden with mussels who have latched on and expanded like heavy fruit. When they’re fully grown it takes a crane to lift the ropes out.

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Entering the Arosa Ria

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Vivero, complete with cormorants and gulls

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The best cafe in Caraminal. I like the tiles, Rich likes the weird mushroom.

We steer our way between viveros if we can, or change our passages to avoid them completely when the wind is low or in front of us. We sail off the anchor (always a joy) and carry on for a day or half a day, choosing our next destination by referring to an out of date pilot guide, a more recent but brief cruisers’ guide that Rich downloaded, and the recommendations of those we’ve met along the way. Sometimes we’re unlucky – our last anchorage off the charming town of A Pobra do Caraminal (where Rich climbed a massive hill with a fold up bike strapped to his back, and I ate a lot of biscuits while pushing through my design work) was within hearing range of the monstrous creaking whirr of a shipyard. Then a strong wind came and made it choppy and even noisier, so we used it the next morning to escape.

Planning only means so much. On yesterday’s trip we simply decided we’d had enough of sailing for the day and avoided the tight vivero slalom towards our original destination by plonking ourselves near an island that looked interesting. The anchor went down, the sails got tied up, and I had a much needed bucket shower that included an even more needed saucepan underwear wash. In no time we’d rowed to Interesting Island (Isla Cortegada) and were walking beneath huge pines in open bracken and brush one moment and into the cover of dense laurels another, spotting lizards and eating apples and chatting quietly so as not to scare the many birds we could hear but struggled to see.

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Shade and greenery: the two greatest luxuries of land

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Drying on deck. The answer to the question on the bottom left is, according to the film posters we’ve seen, “CASAFANTASMAS!”

In the afternoon we read, grazed and rested on Gwen. Andrew, who we met in Camarinas and bump into from time to time, motored past with a plastic bag offered in his outstretched arm, full of vegetables from his Portugese girlfriend’s garden, and we hooked it on board gratefully. Andrew’s a gem who tells me off for using the wrong boat words and digresses into tales of history and legend. Of the many sailing folk Rich gets chatting to I find those like him, with a good yarn and a wicked smile, the most fun. Rich, on the other hand, can talk for hours to anybody providing boats are the subject.

Last night we went ashore in Carril, found internet, and forayed miserably in to the world of work and duty. Coir for the composting toilet was laboriously ordered to a post office in Bayona, where we must soon sail to retrieve it. Clients were contacted and changes to documents promised. Our conversation turned to sorting out our CVs and portfolios – the rigmarole that hints that the glory days of sailing, sunbathing and exploration are almost up. We have enough money to survive until the end of October, but we don’t want to leave it to the last minute to find our next income, so the job hunt begins at our next stop. We left the cafe before midnight and strolled down a wide and busy promenade to dance to a rock covers group that were blasting out in a children’s playpark. Enough with the sensible.

Tonight we’ll be walking a little further, to Villagarcia de Arosa, because it’s “Noite das Meigas”. This has something to do with witches, and that’s about all I can tell you. We’ve narrowly missed a fiesta in almost every place we’ve stopped so we’re going to seize this opportunity to celebrate, whatever it may be for. No doubt there will be fireworks, as Spain seems obsessed with the things and sets them off day and night. The picture on the poster featured a dog on a broomstick, perhaps something to do with the insanely yappy doglets attached to almost everybody on the promenade. Perhaps we’ll boil them in a cauldron. Or perhaps they’ll devour their human overlords. I’ll post a picture or two when we’ve found out.

Hot

The sun isn’t just beating down, it is searing relentlessly into our skin and boiling our sweaty brains. Rich has fastened the wind scoop, a curve of fabric that funnels cold air through the boat, on to the forehatch. This has earned the dark cavern below a noticeable hint of freshness. He then cut a diamond piece of our cheap sail-cover tarp and fashioned a shade over the boom to give the cockpit a small oasis of cool. He’s supposed to be napping there but he’s never been very good at stopping. He’s in the aft cabin, on my phone, Googling how to catch razor clams.

We’re anchored in Muros, the prettiest town we’ve visited in Spain so far, and though it’s siesta time I’m below decks cursing this computer. Two very welcome bits of graphics work have come in, but my first attempt at this logo was rejected and now it turns out that reference files haven’t downloaded, which means another trip ashore with the laptop tonight to get it right. I am imagining payment not in pounds or euros but in paella. We haven’t had any paella yet. This logo is four nights of paella. Persevere.

We’ve been in Galicia for a fortnight now, gradually making our way from Cedeira, where we first landed, to this fishing town on the west coast. The culture here is gloriously different from what we know, and we’ve had plenty of opportunity to marvel that:

  • You are given a small piece of tapas – omelette, pastry or crisps – every time you go for a coffee or beer
  • A beer (the omnipresent Galicia Estrella) is a third of the price of one in France, so we can go out for one most evenings.
  • There is no butter, and fruit squash does not exist.
  • Nobody, even in the cities, does anything in the afternoons except go to the beach. The shops are shut. The day starts early, stops at lunchtime, starts again at about 9pm, and goes on all night.
  • Because of this there are children’s events at midnight and the pubs sell ice creams for them as well as booze for their adults.

The huge pine-filled bumps and cliffs continue to roll down the coastline, topped with wind farms and edged out to the sea with scraggy fingers of rock. In towns and villages alike, white buildings with teracotta roofs that glow orange in the sun are scattered over verdant hillsides, below which yellow beaches are raked overnight to be pristine for the afternoon’s crowds. The most faded and delapidated houses are always the prettiest, and in some gardens strange stone granaries stand high on pillars like doghouses for a pet you don’t ever want to come out.

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Cruising by the dribbling monster man rock at the entrance to Camarinas

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Gwen in Camarinas

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My scribbled impression of Corme from the beach opposite

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Beach life in a bay near A Coruna

We stock up on bread, eggs, tomatoes, onions and biscuits between day sailing trips and hope they will keep us full enough. Every fishing town has its own specialities, and every sea front has enough cafe bars to make popping out for a quick drink an exercise in containing food envy. When we can afford a tapas treat we are not disappointed: here in Muros the speciality is chiperones, which is the best squid I have ever tasted drenched in oil, peppers and onion.

A couple of low-wind motorsails tested Rich’s patience, as did my attempts at tact when suggesting turning on the dreaded engine. It’s quite frustrating to be so close to the famous blasts of Finisterre in a silent sea, while redundant outstretched arms of windmills ashore remind you of the field of crosses in Life of Brian (or, you know, the Bible). Any problems we’ve had have usually been caused by overtiredness. I grumbled into a huge strop when we left Cedeira to go tacking painfully up the river towards Ferrol, so much so that Rich and I ended up touring San Felipe’s beautiful castle separately, at the same time. A week later he had his own tantrum day, best shown in our log book entry for 5pm:

(Richard’s handwriting) 1.5 knots. FUCKING WIND!! WHERE ARE YOU??
(My handwriting) Richard needs sleep

These have been mercifully brief blips in a fortnight of fun. Near A Coruna we took our sleeping bags and a paraffin stove for a wander and ended up sleeping in a cave on a cliff face, struggling to stay awake long enough to watch the perseid meteor shower draw swift dashes of light in the sky. In Camarinas we sailed our dinghies up a fine river that revealed itself with the tide, and we watched our first otter fishing from the beach at its mouth. In Corme we picked mussels from the beach rocks and cooked them up in the watered down carton wine we’ve come to rely upon (70c a litre – what can you do?). In A Coruna we changed our focus to a full day in the city and found ourselves in a comics convention, a terrible public concert and, on our next sail, a tall ships parade. We’ve tried to balance out work time with afternoons on beaches and sailing time with gentle evenings beneath the stars.

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The view near our one night cave hotel

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Dolphins in the bay at Corme

Dinghy sailing towards a river near Camarinas

A roadside camping stove dinner at the other end

That’s all of A Coruna. I got a bit snap happy that day.

The sailing is good when the wind is up, so by the time we got around Finisterre we were overjoyed to welcome back the weather for which it is best known. The “Costa de Morta” has individual graveyards set aside for the people of different nations who perished against its rocks in the days before GPS. Flying downwind puts the pair of us in a good mood, and I start wondering at the strange physics of sailing – not just at the propulsion of our 16 tonne beast but also at the smaller effects on her – the vibration of the fishing reel on the back of the pushpit, the blowing back of sails waiting for the next downwind gust, the judders and noises that emerge from the battles between tide, wind, shape, wave and weight. I often say to Rich that driving a boat must be easy if I can do it – I can’t drive a car. He then reminds me that roads don’t move.

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Passing Finisterre

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Goose-winged downwind, with the aid of an oar on a pole

Our Spanish has improved slightly, and I can now rely on more than reciting the intro from “Pretty Fly (for a white guy)” when trying to remember numbers. The Chard has insisted that I learn to say “I like rowing” after some fishermen in Cedeira shouted at us from the slipway, telling him off for letting me (a woman, of all things) row him back to Gwen. If it happens again I can’t decide whether to deliver it with a cartoon girlish giggle or in my best Tom Waits growl, and how many fingers to stick up against my oars. Most people seem nice, and if you can’t speak the same language then you can usually figure everything out with gesturing. “Two beers please”, “can I have the bill please”, “how do you say that?” and “how much is this?” have become almost natural, although I miss the ease with which I could converse in France.

It is a big big sea on a small world. Every sailor we meet, Northern, Welsh, Portugese or Bulgarian, has heard of or spent some time in Millbrook. One cruiser, who was very kind with advice and hand drawn charts for a Portugese approach, had even hung out on our boat when she was first made. We continue to be blessed with sunshine, and we can’t complain. And that’s probably not very interesting, so I’ll leave you there and get back to making us some paella.

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If you think this cockpit sun shade is good…

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…you should see what Rich has just rigged himself up. “I’m fishing” he insists.