Get Away

Rich finished work and we began our last week in Mallorca with celebratory beers. My painting efforts stepped up: the toe rails turned yellow and Rich helped me finish the rubbing strakes’ orange. On Illetas’ little island, hanging from hammocks strung between trees that buzzed with huge crickets, we said goodbye to the gang of curious lizards that had recently become our friends. Their tiny mouths tickled our fingers as they nibbled them before climbing up our arms or robbing scraps from our food.

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During our time in Mallorca our pinecone hedgehog got so hot that he opened up and shed his seed.

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Adios Palmanova

We motored over to Palmanova for a last laundry and shop and were nearly ready: tiller tightened, bikes folded away, crap mostly stowed. All that remained was to fill up the water, and when that seemed impossible on Thursday morning because of some fat motor yacht clogging up the nearby marina’s pontoon we thought “sod it” and sailed away without. We only meant to sail for a couple of hours, as far as the south of Mallorca, to pop into a different marina for water and anchor somewhere new before our big trip. But we were sailing, and it felt so good.

“Shall we just carry on to Ibiza?” I asked Rich.
“I was just going to ask you the same thing” he replied.

About fifteen miles south of Mallorca the wind died. Ah yes, this was the other reason we were going to wait until tomorrow. We turned on the engine to get us that bit further south to where larger speeds were predicted, but after twenty minutes of making strange swooping noises, that also gave up the ghost.

“Have we definitely got enough deisel?” I called down to Rich, who was trying to revive the engine with swearwords. “Yes, of course” he replied. He’d already assured me of this several times in the preceding weeks. He didn’t sound happy, so I went back to pretending to sail.

Half an hour later, when he had finally run out of expletives, he called back up to me. “Yeah, we’ve run out of deisel”.

Gwen limped onwards into the afternoon. Though lack of fuel was annoying it was a relief that there was not some larger problem with our engine, and we were reminded that we don’t really need it. Didn’t we sail all the way from the Scillies to Concarneau without one? Hadn’t we done without motoring for almost all of our trip to the Med? By the time the wind returned we were happily reminding ourselves that getting becalmed and enjoying a rest is part of our sailing life.

That wasn’t the only thing that we had forgotten in nine long months in Mallorca. We hung over the guard wires and stared, mesmerised by the deep blue of the open sea, so intense compared to the turquoise bays to which we’d become accustomed. It is a blue I have sought out all my life, one that points more towards purple than green; the blue of cornflowers and my favourite painting in the Tate Modern. At sunset a huge mottled dolphin with a blunt round head joined us for sundowner drinks – “to Alex and Simon, to Gwen and Geordi, to you and me and the dolphin” – and then swam down deep and away from us.

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Our Spanish courtesy flag got some much needed repairs

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 Broken Britain. Our British ensign is due to be replaced next week

That evening I took the first night watch. The dark sky’s clouds cracked to expose a few stars and the sea scurried from left to right like a billion rats under dark grey silk. A steady wind helped Geordi hold our course, and kept me feeling fresh in a heat that outlived the light. I had been looking forward to another night sail, and finally, here it was. Later I woke Rich promptly half an hour before his watch was to start, adhering to a new “don’t be nice to each other” shift pattern that we’ve decided to implement this year – if you don’t let the other person lie in, the rota doesn’t turn into a sludgy “oh I don’t know” mess by morning. It seems to work well.

By 9am we’d crossed the passage between Ibiza and its neighbour Formentera and sailed on to the anchor in plenty of wind just outside the channel entrance to the latter’s harbour. We could see the fuel dock where we would get deisel and water and were dropping the oars and rollocks into Fanny the dinghy, who we’d just thrown in the water, when a marina boat approached. Inside it a short, solitary marinero was waxing his musketeer beard to gear himself up for some Grade A jobsworth power play.

“You see the buoys, you have to outside the buoys” he shouted across.
“We’re sorry, sir, we just want to stop for five minutes to get deisel”
“No, no no. You have to move out the channel”
“Yes, but please, we have no deisel, and we will only row quickly…”
“Oh, I report you.”
“No, sorry, we will move, we will move”

We lifted the anchor and managed to sail Gwen further in to the tight space between the next anchored yacht and a stone wall, with me steering and loosening the main while Rich backed the gib. Satisfied that we were now well outside of the buoys we dropped the anchor again.

He returned.

“You go outside the buoys”
“We are outside the buoys. Please sir, just for five minutes, we don’t have any deisel”

He began writing with dramatic strokes, squinting up to Gwen and back to his A4 pad.

“Okay, I report. What is your country?”
“England”
“England, and what is your boat name?”
“Okay… we will go.”
“You go. You go.”

It took another effortsome maneuver to winch up the anchor and navigate round the other assembled boats (who were presumably well outside of the buoys?), not helped by the shouts of our clearly delighted torturer. Finally, as we cleared the anchorage and headed in to the channel, he looked straight at me and yelled “Relaxing! Relaxing!”

I turned to Rich, fuming. “Relaxing?”

The wind was high and the sea was getting choppy, and the splashy effort of tacking in to it delighted us both so much we were too thrilled to stay angry. In truth we were rather proud of ourselves for our close quarters sailing skills. Once we got close enough to see exposed Ibiza town we changed our minds about anchoring there, and eventually stopped on the other side of the island beneath the airport. Rich went on an exhausting walk for a little water and fuel from a gas station four miles away while I tidied away the sail gear, and then we slept for fourteen hours beneath the booming engines of landing planes.

We left the next morning. This year I want to get good at every part of everything there is to do on the boat, so I decided to take Rich’s usual role of raising the anchor and foresails and backing the gib to sail us away. I worked up quite a sweat hauling on the windlass handle and halliards, and remained mostly naked for the next two days to cool off.

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Cherry ice cream smile, I suppose it’s very nice

Most people will tell you that sailing in the Med is a nightmare because it gives you either all the wind or no wind, but that afternoon and evening reminded me of my fondness for it. In those few days between all or nothing, up and down, there are spaces for passages full of simple joys. There’s no tide, so you don’t have to worry about struggling with wind against tide choppiness or calculating anchoring heights. And there’s no cold, so you relish the normally nippy breeze of an upwind passage and can do your night watches in light sleeves. And as I mentioned, the sea is very blue.

By the next morning I was less enamoured. Darkness finally retreated on my second night watch, and the rising sun illuminated the mainsail hanging bedraggled over the boom and around the gaff. It had been lowered at 1am to quieten the slapping and creaking that persisted without the wind’s power to hold it taut. The whole thing was sticking out on the starboard side of the boat, pinned in place by a preventer rope to the bow intended to stop it banging back and forth as we wobbled violently along. The staysail was poled out to port, inflating then swooning back in tiny puffs that within its white triangle were somehow still propelling us at one knot. At the tiller, I blinked in exhaustion. I had not slept a wink.

In my weary half-drunkedness I noticed that some of the passing bubbles on the surface of the water looked a bit weird, as though they’d collapsed to a central line but were still there like they were made of plastic. Later when I’d had a nap I pointed these occasional anomalies out to Rich. They appeared now to be clear circular discs with an upright clear vane in the centre, perhaps with a little purple or brown. Rich wondered if they were jellyfish, and by the time I came up on deck from my second nap of the day he was perched at the edge of the deck trying to catch one in a pot on a stick. I spotted them for him from the fordeck and soon we had one to gawp at up close.

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What have you got there, lad?

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We googled this later. It’s velella velella, possibly a relative of the portugese man of war, but they’re not 100% sure.

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Sunset, with the mainland in sight (somewhere over that way is Calpe)

A pod of pilot whales arched through the waves in twos and threes before sundown. I don’t remember much about that night’s watches, which must be a good sign, but it appears I did dash below decks at some point to scribble the following: I am a warrior queen atop her sea chariot, straddling a saddle, metal breastplate, colour flying in her hair, singing jazz warcries with descending basslines, chasing the moon.

A night watch will do that to you.

The next morning, yesterday, we arrived here at the Mar Menor. It is an inland sea, shallow enough to anchor anywhere, separated from the real sea by a thin “Manga” covered in apartment blocks that are lined up like bar charts. We spent the night in an unfinished marina at the entrance and today waited for the two-hourly bridge opening to enter the sea by a short canal. We finally have water and fuel from a marina at the entrance, and we are tired, but we are so happy. We have worked hard, but for the next few months, we are free.

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Aye, pod.

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The rusting structures that were once to be a marina, where we spent our first night by the mainland

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Entering the Mar Menor

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Not quite crystal blue. These 70s styled jellyfish are thriving in the polluted waters of the Mar Menor.

Hello adventure, it’s good to be back.

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Treading Water

I bid my goodbye to the primary school one sweat-salted Wednesday. The pupils had become tiny zombies, distracted and vacant in the afternoons when the sun burned brightest. In my last lessons I got to lead children in joyous song, satisfying Julie Andrews aspirations that had lingered in me since youth. I choked up as class after class nearly toppled me with hugs, and wondered how long it would be before the memory space I’d clogged with their names would be replaced with shopping lists and things I intend to google. The following week the kids would stop being taught after 1pm, and by now the school may well be closed.

Rich has found a few more weeks’ work, so we’re staying in Mallorca until July. It makes sense: we’re happy here, and with a bit more money we could be able to afford to cruise Gwen to the Caribbean. While he toils on other boats I sand and paint bits of ours, freelance online for pennies, vittle, sketch and snorkel. I have started sunbathing topless as we’re in Spain forgodsakes, but I still make an embarrassing half-attempt to cover my boobs whenever anyone rows over and talks to me. Favoured poses for this include “don’t mind me, I’m just putting my knees up” and “do you know what, I’ve just decided to turn over and do my back”. I do this and any outdoors work in the morning, as it is too hot to even walk on the deck in the afternoon.

We move Gwen every now and then between the rocky bay at Illettas and the hotel-strewn strips of Palmanova, seeking safety in a particular wind direction or weighing up the lack of amenities in the former with the lack of arseholes on jet skis in the latter. Sometimes I practice doing all the windlass and engine work myself, with Rich watching, so we both know I can handle Gwen on my own if she drags while he’s at work. It’s a proper workout including a weights session and the occasional 11m dash. The breezy trip across is always refreshing, and clear water shows us turquoise pathways between dark weed for anchoring.

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Between our regular anchorages is this bay, good for going ashore for shopping and playing “spot the difference” between nearly identical motorboats.

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We haven’t sailed anywhere for a month, so our deck is full of bikes, snorkel gear and spare rope

A couple of weeks ago we motored over to Palmanova to shop, eat and spend a few nights within convenient distance of the internet. It’s a half hour trip by engine, but longer when we head first out into open water to empty the composted contents of our toilet. This needs to be done at some point every week: the solids go to the sea, the paper goes to the fire for burning. Afterwards we found a place to anchor, ate a romantic anniversary dinner ashore (three days late) and came back to the boat to sleep.

Unfortunately we hadn’t had a fire since before we moved to Palma. We hadn’t needed one for warmth over winter, and we’d been using the toilet in the marina while we were there. “We really need to have a fire” we’d been saying for weeks, but our old cruising routines had not kicked in. By now the woodburner was so crammed with paper sandwich bags of loo roll there was nowhere else to put them, and when I went for a bedtime wee there was nowhere left to put the paper. So, in the hottest week we’ve had, on a breezeless night, we opened all the hatches and lit an overloaded fire that would have boiled us in winter Cornwall. We still haven’t properly rehydrated.

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I have an eye infection which doesn’t seem to like me snorkelling or wearing make-up, so I looked helluva attractive on our anniversary night out.

I grow fond of Palmanova despite the violent afternoon rolling that is beaten in to Gwen by the wakes of a hundred wakeboards, jet skis, waterskis and inflatables that speed by. I remember when we first got to Mallorca and I found it all so shocking – the Brits, the bacon, the baking frowns – but returning there I feel like an old hand. Of all the holidaymakers heaving around its hot smelly streets, I am one who knows where to get the cheapest coffee, a good wifi signal or a friendly chat with an old ex-pat. When we’re anchored there I enjoy the club singer karaoke lulling me to sleep. When we’re not, I enjoy its absence.

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A couple of shots of sunrise in Illettas…

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…this is when Rich get up for work, and it’s the only time it’s cool enough to go for me to go for a run.

In Illettas I snorkel every day by the island or mainland. Beneath the surface that glistens in patterned folds there is another world, and I am always happy there. Though this part of Mallorca seems to lack the colourful variety of other locations, there is always something by which to become entranced: a pathway between rocks or a crater full of curved white leaves, inhabited by bream, mullet and colourful striped fish, anemones that wave and sea cucumbers that lie like giant turds. Beneath the boat there are flat fish concealed in the seemingly featureless sand – you can only see them when you dive down, chasing a fish or picking up a piece of rubbish from the bed. We are litter pickers everywhere, and now own a variety of flip flops and balls for our troubles.

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Yum

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I thought this was a plant, but when I got a little closer it retreated into its hole in the sand

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I try not to piss off too many fish, but it can’t be helped

Of course, both of us are dying to get going. Even writing this feels like posting yet another placeholder: “the adventure starts again soon”. I’m also planning a quick trip back to the UK, where things sound pretty dire apart from a heatwave that everyone is moaning about (they will also moan when it’s gone). It’s not really in keeping with our environmentally friendly living to fly across for a jolly, but it’s also not bearable to miss the wordy hedonism of Port Eliot festival for another year or two.

We’re dying to get going, but we persist here. Rich persists because each extra day he works might mean crocodiles in the Gambia or turtles in the middle of the Atlantic. I persist because I promised I’d paint these toe rails before we left the UK and they’re still only half done.

In our spare time we go for dinghy sails, rows and picnics in the gentler evening sun. Last night I took Rich for a scramble on the far side of the island to show him a falcon’s nest I’d spotted, before picking some samphire as we drank a sunset beer on the beach. Things could be a whole lot worse.

Surrounded

Children play. Men splash and shout. Anchor chains grind up or clank clank clank down. Motorboats run their engines to power the bloody fridge or something. It’s the weekend and Illettas is noisy. I’m hiding for an hour or two inside.

We stay anchored here most of the time as it seems to be the safest holding in this area. Our neighbours change each day and get more numerous as the weeks go by. When the old lad in the traditional Mallorcan fishing boat isn’t here we are always the scruffiest boat, but we’re also usually the prettiest. The land is quiet and the water is clear. Fish feed on our washing up water and beach cleaners “Hola, buenas” with us when we row ourselves to shore.

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My sketchbook captures the ordeals of weekends spent in Illettas

At weekends pleasure craft from Palma funnel in to the bay and pick out tighter and tighter spots around us. The men stand at the wheel to steer between the boats, their women-folk relegated to crouching at the front over the electric anchor windlass, out of the way. I raise my eyebrows at Rich and mutter something about girl power under my breath. Further out, the monsters lurk, and we sometimes sit watching them from beneath our newly-sewn bimini (thanks Rich) with awed revulsion:

“That’s a proper baddy boat, that”
“Isn’t it just. Big dark windows. That guy out the back’s probably got an uzi.”
“It’s got two of those – not even jetskis – those pointy speedboats”
“I bet Jessica Alba’s tied up…”
“In the bilges…”
“in a bikini.”

When Gwen escapes for weekend jaunts we frolick in the seas like freed beasts, trying out our new gybing and tacking roles now that the running backstays are anyone’s game. We bask in the sun, which has recently stepped up from “hot” to “bonkers”, and sail close to the shore, pointing out caves in the pale yellow rock cliffs that undulate into the sea.

Life back at anchor didn’t start off this pleasantly. It was liberating to be back out among fish, birds and waves but unsettling to be wrenched from the ease and familiarity of Palma. I was still nursing some deep dark terrors from last years’ anchoring in Palmanova, and the idea of dragging was sparked again and again on windier nights, or days when we both had to leave Gwen to the elements. It took a couple of weeks and survival of a few windy patches to call time on my emotions’ game of pong.

But these days, I’m pleased to say, these days are really quite wonderful. We haul anchor and relocate sometimes if the weather’s due to be worrying from the south west, the only direction that shoots straight in here. We rock sometimes, and then I don’t sleep well, but then we stop, and I do. Work is an hour’s bus ride away with a big stupid three hour gap to fill around lunch, but I get lots of time to listen to podcasts and draw between shifts of shepherding hot children. Even Rich doesn’t seem to mind work now it’s due to come to an end.

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One of many bored Palma lunchtime park doodles – this one’s near the train station

In the evenings we go swimming, and I can now get myself back up on the boat without the ladder – I haul myself on to the bobstay and bowsprit, flopping back aboard like a soggy, panting trapeze artist. We sit on deck with dinner as the sun fades before crawling down to a movie in the saloon and the mozzie-netted bed.

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A regular neighbour

Work stops in the next week or two, but plans are as absent as ever. We want to head to the Gambia but we can’t yet afford the journey that that would entail for this winter. We might even leave Gwen and go to another continent for some work that was mooted months ago, but nobody’s telling us anything about that. In the short term we’re probably going to go and have a better look at Ibiza, get our sea legs back, and leave these noisy neighbours behind (we hope). In the even shorter term, we’re going to get off our computers, jump in to this overpopulated sea and scrub off the green beard Gwen’s grown around her midrift. T’ra.