Costa del Solitude

Written by Richard

Lying in bed feeling Gwen’s slow roll, listening to the soft pitter patter of crackle fish under my pillow, I know I should be asleep. We’re sailing for Gibraltar in the morning and it’s likely to be the next evening when we arrive. I really should sleep. I did however promise to produce a blog post, my first, before we leave the Med.

‘Hello, I’m Richard and I apologise for my five year absence’: a start offered up by my more experienced partner.

The fear of writing in public is not what’s keeping me awake but my brain is finding it a fine substitute for running over imagined futures. Where will we drop the sails and ship the bowsprit, will the sea be up outside the moles, will it be busy inside, will there be much tidal flow once inside the marina, how will the wind blow in Gibraltar’s lee? That’s the alternative right now. None of the answers are likely to cause much trouble, but we’re not marina folk and the mere thought puts me on edge. I prefer the distraction and Trish is asleep so maybe I’ll get a nice afternoon nap tomorrow?

So, I single handed Gwen for a week, something I never really considered I’d be able to do with a boat this heavy, but in reality that weight works in my favour. There are more sails and heavier gear but things happen slowly and slowly is good. Motoring away from the beach I’d left Trish on was a nice easy start. I had to motor to catch the 10am bridge opening, a nice easy excuse. Watching the town behind fade into the haze as the floating islands of La Manga settled in to their rightful places in front of me, I hoped Trish wouldn’t worry too much and that my night sailing ban wouldn’t hinder my plans. I wanted to reach Almerimar and get the dread tasks ashore underway. Enjoy my weeks holiday? Yes yes, but let’s make it a challenge.

The channel out of the Mar Menor is narrow but my timing was spot on. The computer agreed – drop the revs just slightly and the bridge would be open as we approached, no dallying outside the marina from which we, in frustration a week previously, had stolen a tank’s worth of water. I was sure the marina staff would be lying in wait. ‘Don’t look their way’ I thought. Yes, too paranoid to be a thief of even a few gallons of water. All of a sudden I was shooting along the channel towards a very shut bridge. This was when I realised that in a channel so small, with a body of water the size of the Mar behind it, even the Med’s measly 15cm tides can push a 1.5 knot stream. So I sat there, stemming the flow, facing back into the Mar right outside the marina offices, waiting for the minutes to tick by before the bridge would open. Thankfully nobody cared and I was too busy trying to balance water and air flows to worry. Twenty minutes passed before I was set free, with acres of water in all directions.

(This is what happens in confined places… I must stay distracted.)

The first day’s sail was arguably the best, fairly definitively so to be honest. A gentle westerly wind got me started south towards the Islas Hormigas accompanied by diving terns, a few other boats and, according to the A.I.S., a search and rescue plane that was making just 4 knots along side me. Hmmm. Perhaps one of my fellow sailors was using knock-off electronics. The way through the islands was gratefully easy. Being the slower boat I followed the leader with barely a glance at the chart. As we rounded the corner the wind piped up to a force 4 and Gwen picked up her quarter wave, determined not to be left behind. She was, of course, but not by all.

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First cape of the trip

Despite most advice I’ve ever read about sailing straight downwind Gwen seems to love it. Head 15 degrees either side and the tiller becomes a bit of work as the following waves slew her fat behind off to one side, but point the bows dead downwind and all is easy. Maybe things will be different in bigger seas? So far with the stays’l poled out one side and the main out to the shrouds the other the helm is light, the motion easy and life is good.

While we ploughed slowly along on the heading we needed the boats around wrestled with flogging jibs hiding in the lee of their much smaller mains or zigzagged back and forth, gybing down wind, sailing faster but further than us. It was nice to be in company and to feel the ease with which this heavy, ‘complicated’ boat could be managed. I was by this point, to the confusion of passing sailors, cross legged in front of the sewing machine beginning my other project for the week, a genuine Sunbrella spray hood. A bit fancy I know but fear not, the Sunbrella came in the form of used cushion covers.

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(Agh, mosquito, helicopter rather than stealth tho…)

The days that followed took on a bit of a routine: Hopeless forecast, no wind, get up at seven, ooh at the in predicted breeze, haul the anchor, set the sails, the breeze is gone, now its over there, hours pass, I’m dizzy. Breakfast, coffee, faffing with sails, with the rope that’s holding the tiller, sew, fish/eat/sew/sail and drop the hook again at eight or nine (no sailing at night), eat, sleep, repeat. Usually there were a few hours of decent progress dotted around, not always but usually.

Most days I would decide ‘tomorrow’s my day off’ (dead mosquito) and every morning I’d get up, ooh at the breeze and hoist sail. The engine seemed to be running hot, so instead of trying to motor a couple of miles to a bay for the night I took to dropping the hook where ever I was at dusk: a sheltered bay with children leaping off cliffs to the backdrop of an all night party, a grey beach beside a funfair with its high pitched screams to ease the mind into slumber, the peaceful middle of nowhere. There was no real wind so who cares where you are? Except when you’re off the tip of the Cabo De Gata: it’s deep and I’m not anchoring in 30 meters if I don’t have to. Two hours I sat drifting slowly towards that bay, watching boats come in and anchor while others left for a marina somewhere. My average speed of 0.9 knots was a record low, 0.9 knots for twelve hours though is not insignificant. I’d been treating us as engine-less, despite the engine being perfectly up to a couple of knots or a bit of maneuvering and I didn’t want to spoil my day’s efforts now.

There was only one way to save this – man power. I set up a bridle on Gwen’s bow, tied it to Fanny’s transom, jumped in her and set to the oars. I was doing it, slowly but I was pulling Gwen. All 17 tons of her! Then a motor boat came by, its wake pushing gwen 90 degrees off course to point directly cliffwards. Five minutes and a gallon of sweat later I gave up, jumped aboard, spun the engine over and put her back on course. In over half an hour I’d covered only one hundred metres! There must have been some adverse current. I demand a rematch! Some time.

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A nice view and plenty of time to appreciate it

We made it to Almerimar, as you know. It’s nice to achieve a goal. I’d sailed a hundred and eighty solo miles, been ashore for one hour, once, and spent less than a tenner. The calm before the refit storm.

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…and the first drops fall

Now that I think of Almerimar, I worried about that marina too, but then I berthed the boat alongside the office, again in our slip and finally at the travel hoist dock. All alone, all with no problems, because Gwen’s a big lass, slow and steady. In Gib there will be two of us to manage her. I shouldn’t really need distracting. I’d better go back to bed, we’re sailing in the morning.

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More Menor

Brilliant sunlight bounces from the sweat on Richard’s grinning face. He is as garish as our boat: orange t-shirt, blue legs, bright eyes contrasted against his deeply tanned skin and black and white beard. He is talking about which jobs he should or shouldn’t get on to next. I am watching his mouth move, thinking about hummus and astronauts while internally humming to the incidental music of my mind. It’s my day off, at last, and he just needs a sounding board. Yes, probably, okay, yep, you do that. Finally I tell him I’m off inside to write the blog, though I’m a bit stuck on where to start.

“You went to a festival and came back muntered, I did a bit of sailing, we’ve done some work on the boat. Write that.”

Oh sure, it’s that simple.

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Part 1: The Island Of Death

The Mar Menor was stinky and green. We explored it for nearly a week, hoisting as many sails as we could be bothered with to plod from anchorage to anchorage. We were never in more than 5.5m of depth, and never far from a floating fish carcas or a shoal of pulsating jellyfish. I braved a swim on our first day once the sealife and seadeath seemed to have blown off the forbidden shore of the Isla Del Baron beside which we had anchored, but regretted it when a snorkel revealed nothing but more green – thick and streaky like a grim broth. I leapt out, poured a bottle of water over myself and shuddered.

It was on the Mar’s smaller central island, Isla Perdiguera, that we got to really meet the deceased. Rowing ashore we were greeted by the sight and smell of the dead seagulls dotted around the sandy brush. Several barely built structures stood as monuments to an idea that someone once had that someone might want to spend time there. They don’t. It stinks. But the hillsides are riddled with tunnels that were once used as storage for the surrounding bombing practice areas, and these have been blasted out to remove their explosives and are therefore now irresistably explorable.

We clambered the rocky pathways between them in a draining heat, torch in hand, avoiding the rotting flesh and snagging shrubs as much as was possible, and came upon a strange circular man-made crater in the ground. It was as wide as the boat and very, very deep, and at the base spread a tomato plant laden with some of the plumpest, most succulent looking fruit you can imagine. Always the foragers, Rich and I looked eagerly from the plant to each other and back. We tracked round the edge, desperate to find a way we could get in and out of the hole, but there was none. Just as Rich’s eyes were glinting with what I feared might be a makeshift abseiling plan, I saw it.

“Shitting hell, is that what I think it is?”

“What’s that?”

“That enormous snake skin”

“Oh my god”

Like a boss level in a computer game it seemed that someone had placed the only bit of nourishment on this deathly island in a pit with its greatest baddy. We found a huge stick and lifted pieces of skin out to see if it really was that big. It was. We used the same stick to prod the tomato bush a few times to see if we could see the skin’s owner. We couldn’t. We lowered the skin back in to the hole as a warning to anyone else who might find it, and stomped away skittishly, keeping a closer eye on the bracken around our feet, to watch a huge colony of egrets on the other side of the island.

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Built a bit. Bombed a bit.

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Dug a bit. Blew up a bit.

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Don’t fancy your chances, mate

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How big is it? And how recently has it eaten?

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I can do without tomatoes

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Cheerio, Island of Death

Another sail later we spent a couple of lovely days off Playa Honda, a beach that seemed to be built up for far more tourists than it currently hosted. Pollution means that the Mar has lost all of its blue flag awards, and though the swimming area was enclosed by a net (now thick with green fur) to keep the jellies at bay it was evident that business had seen better days.

We caught a bus for a day out in Cartagena and tried to eat all the pizza in a city full of incredible architecture, influenced by centuries of visitors and conquerors. Many facades had no building behind them but lost little of their beauty by being propped up by scaffold like film sets. We saw a castle and an excavated Roman theatre, and toured museums that astounded us with the craft of ancient people. “Those Phonecians, wow” we said, and “it’s amazing how little sailing has changed”. We swayed to good live music and enjoyed each other’s jokes, aware that we were about to be apart for a while. Here’s a few photos:

Finally we sailed to the airport at the north end of the Mar, and I flew away.

Part 2: Port Eliot

England is cold. Gloriously, refreshingly cold. It has my mother, my father, my sister and her son. It has green rolling fields and bubbly cider and friends who don’t need to ask how you are because they know it from your posture. I enjoyed all of these things in my first couple of days, dashing from family member to family member, grabbing borrowed tents and stuff I’d had delivered to them along the way.

By the time I got to Port Eliot festival I’d almost lost the nervousness I’d had about leaving Rich to single hand Gwen for the first time. He was reporting back in a timely fashion, asking my opinion on whether to anchor up or push on, letting me know each night that he and Gwen were okay. I set up camp away from my wonderful but (oh my god) noisy friends and set about having fun. This was the treat trip I’d promised myself in Mallorca, and I only had a few days to enjoy it.

I saw talks by the author Rich and I were reading last year, the comedian whose face I’d had postered on my bedroom wall as a teen and a man who’d sailed a boat we knew as part of a TV show recreation of the Bounty mutiny. I took part in fashion drawing and stamp making workshops. I hooted at comedians and spent hours captivated in the poetry tent. I ate and drank and danced and danced and danced.

More than anything, I spent time with people I know from my village, and felt the warmth of their brilliant friendship through the mud and the rain. When I welled up at a slowed down “Modern Love” in a Bowie theatre piece I turned round and they were swaying with me. When I walked the walled garden they were dressed up as lions, entertaining passers-by as part of a new festival arts project. When I wondered if I’d see so-and-so, they usually appeared with a drink in hand to chat shit for half an hour. When I slowed down and thought about going to bed they kept me drinking and dancing and talking, waving arms dramatically, coated in UV paint and biodegradable glitter, and suddenly it was sunrise already and the four day festival had ended.

I collapsed on to Didds’ sofa and didn’t leave for a day. Buffy. Catfish. House. Friends. Quincy (he lives on a boat). Something her boyfriend likes about people who buy second hand tat. Something with Philip Schofield getting people to do challenges. I hadn’t seen this much telly for a long time. I let my mashed up brain be soothed by its banality. I had a hell of a journey ahead of me.

Part 3: Hull on Earth

My brain still wasn’t working. I got a lift to Bristol, a plane to the Mar Menor, a bus to Murcia, a bus to Almeria, a bus to a town near Almerimar, and a taxi with Rich to the boat. This all took about 20 hours, about half of which I slept through, and was horrible save for the Almeria bus which had air con and an original language video of The Martian. I was carrying all my stuff plus a couple of hundred quid’s worth of crap that we’d ordered to my dad’s (mostly hammocks, flags and grab bag gadgets). I’d been injected for Africa by the doctor before I’d left, I was aching in every danced out limb, and I was hot – so unbelievably hot. The calm, breezy Cornish way of life had been easy to adjust to (although someone did point out I was swaying a bit for the first couple of days), but it seems this doesn’t work the other way round.

While I had been off destroying myself Rich had sailed the boat out of the Mar and all the way round to Almerimar, and had her taken out of the water. She stood exposed on the dirt of a boatyard, her undersides revealing concrete where the paint had yielded to a good blasting. While I attempted to recover (difficult, when your skin is boiling away from your body), he got the mast lifted out and cut sections of its tennon off to reattach further round. The mast has twisted so much since we chopped it down from the forest that it was facing off to one side, putting pressure on the spreaders and causing our tricolour to suggest a misleading direction in the dark. This operation rotated the mast back to straight, and I daubed some hopeful jollop in its ever widening shakes before it was set back in place.

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For once, the idiot up the mast is not my boyfriend

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This one is

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He is quite bloody good at what he does, mind.

The next morning we woke early and began the process of sanding, stripping and grinding all the bits of Gwen that needed touching up. We worked in a breezeless heat that our newly acquired anemometer told us was 35 degrees in the shade, not that we could get in any, until three in the afternoon when I couldn’t take any more. We got an ice cream and had a siesta, and then we started again around six. We worked on until sunset and collapsed with a hastily concocted dinner on to a bed that was damp with our sweat. My brain had been shocked back into function and was as drained as my body.

A version of this work pattern continued for five days. We sanded the topsides and hull, ground the rust away from the push pit and repainted it, put waterbased epoxy, glass flake epoxy and tie coat on the dodgy patches of hull, put two coats of blue and new names on the topsides, replaced the anodes and put on a coat and a half of antifoul. The afternoon ice cream became an aspirational pillar, the motivator to keep going past lunchtime. We would shower before siesta and again before dinner, spending the rest of the day pouring with sweat. Oh, I’ve learned a lot about our sweat this week. Rich sweats fountains from his back right down through his shorts. I sweat from my face and chest, a dribble of salt water tumbling from my chin, making any face mask slippery. Though we longed to kiss or embrace after our week apart it was just too stuffy and disgusting, and we slept in the nude at an arms length.

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Pre-patched hull

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Post-re-scribbled bow

In short morning cycles I would get laundry and shopping done, and discovered that Almerimar is quite a pretty little town. The marina folk, particularly those in the office, have been incredibly friendly, and Chris who runs the boatyard chandlery and boat repair place has warmed to us enough that Rich has even been offered some work. He’s not going to take it, though, as another job has come up in Lanzarote, and that’s on our way. Though I’ve spent a large part of the last week feeling faint we have managed an incredible amount during Gwen’s week ashore and were rewarded this morning with watching her being plonked back in the water, dazzling and shiny in all her glory. Now she’s in the adjoining marina, where we still have a few jobs to do.

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Hanging around the docks, waited to get picked up

But it’s our day off, I tell myself and Rich. I sit in the saloon, where it is still bloody hot but, you know, on the water Gwen’s bottom is being cooled off, and I type because I have spare time to type. Some antifoul remains on my toes, boatyard dirt ironed on to my foot soles, a stripe of Gwen blue in my hair, but I am mostly clean and it feels amazing. I can hear the ratatat of the sewing machine and I think Rich has made a mast boot cover because he’s a workaholic. I’d better get up there and take him out for a deserved pint.

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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.