The Birds and the Breeze

We motored down the Gambia, pursued as always by hungry mosquitos and tsetse flies and not, as we’d hoped, by the wind. We had more confidence in the depths and got closer to the shores than we had on our ascent. Slim green bee-eaters with orange wings dripped from bare branches and swooped around the boat. Ospreys watched from others, or soared, occasionally dropping to run a single claw on the water’s surface before returning to the trees. On the grasslands between and beyond the mangrove trees egrets, herons and ibises congregated, and now and then we’d see a whole tree covered in black storks with white heads or tiny brown finches. There was plenty to see and nothing to do, and we happily took our turns on the tiller, enjoying the light and movement of the day before the evening’s oppressive heat and mosquito nets enclosed us.

One morning, in the narrow creek where we’d anchored behind an island, there was the faintest breath of wind. Though it wasn’t enough to get us anywhere in particular, Rich decided to sail the boat. Meanwhile I rowed ahead in little Fanny to look for breakfast, enjoying the rare coolness on the air. As Gwen dawdled at under a knot with her barely ruffled wings outstretched, I nipped ahead between the mangrove shores, chasing bird calls and investigating bouncing branches that might be monkeys. A couple of miles later I came to a junction in the river and couldn’t explore much further without potentially losing Gwen, so I turned back, and on the way met a couple of boys in a fishing canoe. They were wearing woolly hats. We exchanged greetings in Mandinka. They didn’t speak English. They passed me the catfish they’d caught. I held it and gave it back with an encouraging smile and “abaracka” thanks (I didn’t want to buy it, and I was a bit confused). I started rowing, and they started paddling beside me, so I raced them for a while, laughing and not embarrassing myself too much as I lost, and was rewarded by them with the consolation prize of the remainder of a packet of biscuits they’d been eating. As Gwen sailed slowly up to us I called to Rich to chuck them a pack from our own dry store, and thus our weird cultural exchange was complete. Rich chucked me a rope, I got back on board, and we started the engine, eating biscuits for breakfast as we went.

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Woolly hats. WOOLLY bloody HATS.

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For reference, this is how sweaty, dehydrated and tired either of us looked after spending more than half an hour inside.

We’d stocked up a little in Wassu but there’d been a limited choice and we were now short on fresh veg. When we got to the ferry crossing we’d passed on the way upriver we spied a few sellers with carts, and I decided to go for another dinghy adventure in search of food. This time we anchored Gwen first, and Rich stayed on board as I rowed away. As I approached the ferry stop a couple of men called out to me

“Move your boat, the ferry is coming”

“It’s okay, I am nearly there” I called back.

“No, your big boat” and they pointed to Gwen, who was at least 150m away from any logical line between the ferry terminals on either side of the river. I rowed back a little and called out to Rich to move, and he hoisted the anchor and started the engine while the ferry started its journey from the opposite shore. It was so poorly powered that a tug boat was pushing it upstream towards and in front of Gwen, after which the tug released the ferry, leaving it to drift downstream whilst battling forwards across the river as best it could. By the time it made it to my side I was ashore and buying soft bananas and cooked eggs, forcing myself not to look as it slid noisily sideways in to the slipway near where I had tied Fanny to a rock.

I rowed back to Gwen, hurrying to get her moved before the ferry could make a return journey. Rich threw me a rope and I pulled myself in, clinging to Gwen’s side as she motored forward, but it was painful and difficult to keep a grip whilst keeping balance and moving. “I should be able to tow you with the rope” he called, so I let go of Gwen and stayed holding the line he’d thrown me. The dinghy jerked then tipped, and water started to pour over one side as I struggled to right it while gripping the rope. Rich yelled that I should move my weight to the front, but the only way I could do that was to throw my body off the centre seat and stretch it over the front one. I was lying on my back, one outstretched arm holding on to a rope and the other grasping the boat, getting soaked, when Rich realised it wasn’t working and slowed down the engine so I could tie Fanny on and get on board.

“That was ridiculous” he said, once I and my goods were safely in the cockpit.

“I know, right! The food nearly got wet.” I laughed.

“The dinghy nearly capsized” he replied.

“Oh”

The ferry did its strange dance across and we disappeared down the river.

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That bloody ferry, with some of the structure of the bridge that will replace it.

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Talking boatbuilding in a village a little further down the river

A couple of days later, having spent time in a tiny fishing village with excellent phone reception and a creek full of shy birds with funny necks, and having gained a whole lot of bites from tiny flies that seemed capable of penetrating mosquito nets, we arrived at Tendaba Lodge. It was the first tourist hostel we’d seen and its open high ceilinged restaurant, where we gratefully devoured a buffet breakfast and lunch, was full of old white people on birdwatching holidays. We hadn’t seen this many tubaubs in the whole of the last month, and we smiled at them with curiosity. They didn’t smile back. Each table was weighed down by an arsenal of binoculars, heavy cameras and huge zoom lenses that looked like rocket launchers, and the atmosphere felt serious, earnest and purposeful. When Rich finally plucked up the courage to ask if we could borrow a bird book from a Dutch lady she agreed with a lovely smile and he got to find out the names of most of the creatures we’ve seen since we’ve been here. A minute later, without being asked, her English friend’s book also appeared on our table, beside me. “You can bring this back to my room. I don’t know what we’re fucking doing this afternoon, sitting in a tiny hot room with five other people staring at a pond I think”. We laughed and decided maybe the birders weren’t so scary after all.

The staff of the lodge tried to sell us a river trip, but we were the wrong market – we’d had enough of the water. Even though it’s completely the wrong time of year to see anything in the long underbrush of the national park we decided that a safari trip to its grasslands and forests would be worth blowing a week’s budget on instead. Three of us rode in the open back of a 4×4 through dusty villages and countryside, standing or sitting on a couple of cushioned crates, calling hellos to the kids that called our names “tubaub, tubaub” until we reached the national park. Our companion and guide, Haruna, was a young conservationist with enthusiasm for every sound, smell and sight that he or we noticed. He got the driver to stop whenever a bird or primate came near and took us for various wanders by foot where we’d peer at footprints in the clay mud, pause gasping at the sounds of approaching (but invisible) baboons or point out colobus monkeys clamoring in treetops. For most of the trip we saw very little fauna at all, but the cool feeling of freedom in the air gushing past as we ducked beneath branches and the fresh smell of dry grasses and leaves were worth the price of the trip alone. We stayed with Haruna until after dark, sharing stories of travels and impressions of nature as he dismissed the driver and we walked the last leg. Fanny, messing about in our absence, had nearly been drowned under the jetty, but we rescued her just in time and she got us home.

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Hands free 4×4 surfers

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Our fellow road users were similarly conscious of health and safety

As Gwen pushed on towards Banjul the river got saltier and the big dark dolphins returned. Pelicans could be seen, improbably perching their great masses on the delicate branches of mangrove bushes, flying low paths between tree stump posts, or at their funniest drifting along in the current like fairground ride vessels. We had been having plenty of fun, but we needed a rest. The water had become more shallow so our attention to the pilot guide and depth sounder had to be greater. We pushed on for two long days by motor, suffering worse than we should in the heat with our itchy bitten legs, grumpy and oversensitive at the slightest criticism or grumble from the other. Wearied by moaning and dripping with sweat, we finally got close to Banjul.

After a night anchored outside the little bolon that leads to Lamin Lodge we navigated our way in, spotting the Lodge from well outside the maze of mangroves by the masts of a dozen yachts that are abandoned in the water around it. Edging up to it we were greeted by G-Boy, a thin rasta with a calming voice who joined us by paddleboard. He said he was the harbourmaster so we took his advice on where to anchor, and we stopped, and breathed, ready to spend five days relaxing more deeply and satisfyingly than I knew Richard even could.

The wooden lodge itself is on three levels and looks like a set from Hook. A bridge from the land or a jetty from the sea bring you to the entrance where a man called Bamba plays complex djembe beats and sings welcomes to guests all day. On the next floor is the bar, in the corner of which sits the wild looking but softly spoken old German guy who built the place after sailing to Gambia in the 80s, usually with a few guests or locals. Monkeys climb around the ramshackle structure, fighting over stolen scraps, making nervous advances at the customers and shrieking or hissing when brushed away. At the top is a seating area which is often full of day trippers with their guides, eating fish or chicken with rice and drinking JulBrew, the Gambian beer. Behind the lodge there is another bar for the locals where we spent a lot of time because of their cheap food, and then the village.

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Bangarang!

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Three cute mammals who might steal food from your plate

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Morning breezes would wake us with cool air, and in the evenings there were few enough mosquitoes to spend a bit of time outside in the cockpit. We went full tourist and stopped cooking for ourselves except for a little snack before bed. One of us would pick up bread and beans for breakfast while the other made coffee, and in the afternoons we’d watch crap television from our hard drive, make drawings, play cards, sing songs with our ukuleles, and watch the water and the monkeys from the Lodge’s bar. G-Boy helped us track down some deisel and water, and I had some amazing yellow trousers made for me by a tailor that Bamba introduced me to. Rich researched a bunch of sustainable farming information and boat ideas that we’ve been idly mumbling about for months. Mostly we did nothing. It was great.

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But we were going to have to leave some time. Our visas are going to run out on Monday, so yesterday we motored back to Oyster Creek and are now making preparations for our departure, which is as dependent on us working out how to sign out of the country as it is on the wind or tide. Our time in The Gambia has been filled with surprises and joys, kindnesses and beautiful sights, and yet we feel ready to go. We’re looking forward to sailing, washing in salt water and feeling the wind on our faces. In particular we look forward to swimming again once we’ve reached our destination, something we’ve never had the confidence to do for fear of bilharzia, crocodiles and sewage in the muddy waters of the Gambia. To do that, we’ll have to make it to a bay. There’s a chance, though very small, that we might not be able to sail close enough to the wind to make it to the Cape Verdes in any sensible time, so we’ve stocked up with enough water for the whole Atlantic crossing just in case! I’ll let you know how we get on from wherever we end up.

In the meantime, here’s a few last wildlife pictures from The Gambia:

And here’s a grainy phone photo of the best trousers in the world:

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Up t’Gambia

24 November

This morning we woke at the furthest point we’ll reach up the river Gambia. We drank a coffee, ate bread and eggs and started the engine to head back to Banjul. To write about our trip, particularly while it’s still underway, is quite a challenge – it feels as though every day has been some auspicious first, each event the highlight or lowpoint, each encounter somehow significant. I know I’ll forget to mention animals, birds, insects and people we’ve seen. I guess I’ll just start where I left you, at Oyster Creek, and try to piece it all together as I go.

We stayed there for a couple more days, allowing Rich to purchase some fantastic trousers, Abraham to get a new tube welded on to our anchor windlass handle and me to develop an addiction to the bread and beans that are sold from pots at the sides of streets for breakfast. We walked one morning down Old Cape Road, a long street with little to either side except beautiful marshes and birdlife until it opens up to a craft market. From there we were able to wander Bakau’s dirt roads and side streets to find the pool of friendly crocodiles at Kachikally, the botanical gardens where we got bitten to pieces by bugs as we relaxed on a bench and the vegetable market where we restocked our supplies for our impending trip up river. All over the area and nearby Serekunda graffiti expresses the excitement of Gambia’s recent liberation from dictatorship: “#Gambia Has Decided”

It was while we were admiring the pirogues of the fishing beach in Bakau that Rich and I fell foul of some absolute arseholes. We had politely shrugged off plenty of other tourist predators earlier in the day, but theirs was a more sophisticated scam involving several characters: a couple of smiling gents on the foreshore who wanted to show us round their fishing area followed by a younger man, supposedly of some standing in the community, who they (without our knowledge) had fed details about us, and a further supporting cast of women and children back in their domestic base. Once we had enjoyed a pleasant tour of the fishing processes we were persuaded to visit this base and, once surrounded there, to part with money for supposedly orphaned children, and then even to lend a little money for a minute for one host to go to a shop, after which a “fight” broke out between two of them and we were rushed to leave. Though the cost to our prides was much higher than that to our pockets (fortunately we did not have much money to give, otherwise they might have persuaded us to “donate” and “lend” more) we would continue to think on the occasion with a shudder over the next couple of days, exclaiming to each other after thoughtful silent pauses about the skill with which they had manipulated our fear of offence and desire to respect custom, our generosity, trust, naivite and vanity. We resolved not to let it dampen our desire to engage, and not to let it happen again.

Vulture, hornbill and friends on Old Cape Road

These smily bastards are fed frequently so apparently don’t want to eat you.

Monitor lizard among the crocs

Buttress. Well, that’s one term for me.

Mate, there’s a crocodile in your trough.

Bakau botanical gardens. Beautiful but painful on the ankles.

The beach of swindles

It was a relief to detach ourselves from the world of people as we began our journey up the Gambia the next morning. We had only intended to take Gwen as far as Lamin Lodge, the other anchorage noted in our twenty year old pilot guide, but spurred on by a favourable wind and tide we decided to start the larger journey a day or two early. We motored out of the mangrove creeks and sailed a long relaxed route across the river mouth until the wind came too much against us and the engine was started again. Over those first salty days, as we left the sea behind, various pods of bottle nosed dolphins came to investigate and swim alongside and around us. The dirty freshwater of the river rolled and bumped with salt water in swirling clouds of brown.

That afternoon we arrived at what our charts call James Island, now renamed Kunta Kinteh Island after the locally celebrated protagonist of the book, TV show and film “Roots”, and met one of its guardians who was seeing off the last tourist boat of the day. He sold us a ticket and told us some of the history of the place before disappearing, leaving us a small land and ruined castle of our own. It’s always shocking to be faced with a relic of slavery, and though the slave quarters themselves have long been lost to the river it felt a strange place to be having a romantic evening picnic. The shores were spattered with long thin spiral shells on sand and mangrove roots in mud, clinging to stumpy supporting walls that have been added to stop the whole island washing away.

River dolphins in the river, dolphining

Bowsprit selfie

You don’t get this in the Tamar

Crumbling castle on Kunta Kinteh

There were heaps of these, so I don’t feel too guilty about how many I ran away with

Jetty Setty

One well preserved cannon…

…and another that had been colonised by mangrove oysters.

Our home for the night

We would not sail again on our upstream journey – the wind tends to come down the river, if it comes at all. The next morning we began a pattern that has endured: rest or explore by dinghy when the tide is against us, press on when it’s with us in daylight. We motored, keeping the revs low to avoid overheating the engine in the warm water and staying central to keep our depth. The only other inhabitants of the wide river were dolphins and fishermen. Unlike those we’d seen at sea, river fishing canoes are usually dug out from a single trunk with boards attached for repairs, controlled with heart shaped paddles on long sticks or outboard motors, and the fishermen in them drop or gather long nets that we often have to steer to avoid. They almost always wave to us, and we’ve been lucky enough to buy fish for dinner from a couple of them along the way.

A snaking line of flamingos flew against a distant backdrop of the new mangroves, taller than those around Banjul, which would line most of the rest of our journey. We turned off to anchor half an hour’s potter up Mandori Bolon which, like all the creeks we have encountered, was fine to navigate once Gwen was past the scarily shallow entrance. Here stone curlews, hammerkop, huge eagles and vibrant kingfishers in a range of colour and size joined the pigeons, egrets, pelicans and herons that we were getting used to. As soon as we were happy with the boat’s turn in the current we jumped in Fanny to explore the stream that is their home. We’d neglected to take shoes and so were reluctant to go ashore in the sharp sticks of the mangrove base, but once we reached a field of muddy vegetation the temptation was too great and we waded in with a sucking, squishing stomp, examining footprints that were not our own with curiosity – otter? crocodile? We were about to head home when Rich saw a few dark shapes in the distance. He called me over to look through the binoculars “Mammals!” but it was hard to see: they raised their heads and shoulders like people but were on all fours, and then one ran across incredibly fast from left to right. “They’re baboons” he realised, and climbed a tree to see better while I watched them through the binoculars. We returned to Gwen elated.

River life

Stone curlew ogling us with it’s big weird eye

Kingfisher in the bolon

Baboons through binoculars

On the next day’s motor we got as far as Elephant Island (apparently there were elephants here a few hundred years ago), where we anchored overnight before visiting the village of Bambale on the mainland shore. It was a surprise to see the lush vibrant green of rice fields and earthy tracks of the village behind what seemed from the water to be a never ending world of mangrove. A kind young lad with only a little English walked with us through the village and taught us the few greetings in Mandinka that quickly became as essential to us as money and water. Until then we had only used the universal greeting of “Salam malekum”, but now we could ask after people’s families and spouses, reply to kindnesses from strangers and fulfill a cycle of friendliness and respect in new introductions. He drilled them in to us, questions and responses, as he took us to visit the local school, and came back with us afterwards to visit Gwen, whose solar panels and ukuleles impressed him greatly. Everywhere we go we exchange names with everyone we greet using the words he taught us, and my great regret is that I’ve forgotten his.

Bambale

Photos cannot do justice to the vivid green of this rice field

You find the kids in school, on the mud beach…

…or in a tree

We motored onward that afternoon and saw another yacht for the first time, reason enough to shout out a quick chat over the noise of the motor once we’d kicked it down to neutral. They were French, and they were heading to the school that we’d visited to play double bass to the children. We hadn’t brought a double bass and were a bit jealous. When the conversation stopped we powered on, still central in the river, far from each tantalising side where wildlife might hide. Rich had read somewhere that motoring up the Gambia can be boring at times and enjoyed loudly rebutting this dreadful inaccuracy – there was always something to see. “But it is a bit boring, isn’t it, I mean, it’s motoring and mangroves every day” I countered. He looked at me with genuine confusion and I shut up.

We anchored by another misnamed island “Sea Horse Island”, apparently so called because at some point the Portugese thought of hippos as horses of the sea. We prefer to spend the night out of sight of humanity, somewhere wild where the early evening and early morning fauna might be observed. Each night this means stopping and erecting the mosquito net by six and then preparing and eating dinner to the sound of a thousand birds as the day ends. Pigeons trill all day and there’s often a curlew scream or a distant toot, but at sunset the strangest calls join the mangrove chorus, with birds drilling, baying, yelping, chuckling and reversing their trucks. Some individual always has a repeating melody that gets stuck in your head. It’s never the same between locations. Monkeys sometimes join in, squawking and bitching and shaking the branches. Then as the light disappears these sounds fade and are replaced by the zithery vibrations of insects, bats and possibly frogs, their high pitched tones pulsating in overlapping morse code over the occasional splash of fish.

The next day, after all the joy of our trip so far, was inexplicably tense. Perhaps it had something to do with heat and dehydration or the fact we barely stopped motoring all day. We were pissy with each other and hyperemotional, and only had fun once we’d taken a quick break and explored some mangroves together. We caught sight of some red colobus monkeys, who looked and sounded as upset as we had been, and the large wet form of an otter as it scurried behind some roots. I also got to see my favourite bird so far, some sort of hornbill that looks like a miniature Zazu from the Lion King, whose up-down rollercoaster flight path includes soaring sections in which the wings are completely put away. They make flying look fun.

Just when you think you know what’s going on with the river three tubabs (white guys) drift past on stand up paddle boards.

They’re building a bridge at Yalitenda ferry crossing, which means that yachting like we have been doing may not be possible in a couple of years

This is what it’s replacing. The ferry doesn’t have much power and is quite scary/funny to watch.

Pied kingfisher. We see these everywhere and they’re incredible – they sometimes hover beautifully in mid air and are delightfully crap at hiding from boats.

Almost sunset from Sea Horse Island

By this point we had traveled well past the point of salinity where dolphins and pelicans live, but it was the next evening that we realised that the water around us was properly fresh. We’d been admiring the changing greenery lining the river, now including palms and large trees, and came around our last corner of the day to see the one and only hill we might be able to climb on our route, ready to glow red in the approaching sunset. We anchored as quickly as we could (dragging on our first attempt, of course, because we were in a rush) and threw up the mosquito nets before rowing ashore, exchanging greetings with every soul on and near the beach, and scrambling up. We were rewarded with breathtaking views of the world behind the high vegetation of the river shores and of irridescent birds in blues, greens and yellows. Just before dark we returned to Gwen for our usual sunset routine in which the one whose turn it is to cook cooks themselves as much as the food in our stifling galley while the lucky other stays outside where the heat is just about bearable (still sweating profusely, but with less of an urge to jump in the water with the crocodiles).

As we ate in the cockpit a high whine droned in to the boat from the land, getting louder and louder, squealing in with a batallion of mosquitos. As soon as one or two had hit the cockpit net there seemed to be a thousand. Soon we couldn’t stay in the breached outdoor space and retreated to the cooking pot that was indoors, but somehow mosquitos had infiltrated every cabin. We fought them off as best we could while trying to guess how they could have bypassed our defences, shoving plastic bags in to the anchor chain tube and taping up every vent, seal and space between inside and out. We spent an hour or two sweating, scratching our bites and drinking gin while leaping about with flip-flops and swatters, exterminating intruders, until we decided we’d done enough and erected the third line of defence, the bed net, climbed inside and finally found safety. Every night since has brought us a new, similar invasion but the masking tape and plastic bags seem to be holding out and they’re not getting in. The sound of them approaching each evening is more terrifying than that of any murderous mammal this country could produce. I’m looking forward to their numbers dropping back off at the salty end of the river.

Red hill of Kassang

“Oh what a pretty bit of river, I do hope it isn’t a hotbed of vicious insects”

Early yesterday morning we left the hill anchorage for Kuntaur (pffffft) where we indulged in the home comfort of some chips in a Dutch-owned restaurant overlooking our boat. We walked out of the village to see some mysterious 1,500 year old stone circles, and edged politely away from the guide after he linked them to symbolic theories that spanned navigation, astrology, numerology and language. His penny from 1960s Gambia was fascinating, but we could only take the New Age for so long and he was getting on to the illuminati when we finally made our escape. In the main-road town of Wassu we provisioned with the few veg for which we could communicate our desire to the women selling wares at the roadside, and met a man called Batch who drove us out of town for some diesel before taking us home. As I waited with him on the shore for Rich to return from the boat with his jerry can he told me that he’d spent time in Harlem in the 80s and worked as a cab driver in Detroit in the early 2000s. I’ve heard stories of adventure like this from a couple of men who look as part of the traditional village furniture as the red earth roads and the free range goats and chickens. It makes me think of my village back home – even in our little familiar heavens so many have wanderer’s hearts.

By the afternoon we’d had enough of the children who were banging on our boat, repeatedly asking our names and demanding presents we were not going to give them, and hoisted our anchor to slide past Baboon Islands, the national park where chimpanzees were relocated in the 60s and 70s. We had guidelines from Banjul telling us which routes around the islands were and were not allowed, and apart from the opening we were to travel mid channel at a great distance from the lush and secretive human-free habitats. We were not expecting to see much, particularly as the Harmattan seemed to have reappeared after a week’s absence. As we rounded the first and only island we were allowed to go behind, a ranger appeared beside us from nowhere in a dinghy and motioned for us to tie it on to Gwen. He told us what we already knew – that we could not go behind the other islands unless we were on an official tour boat, and that we could not approach them at any point. Unless… unless we wanted to take him with us, for a price, and he could point out some chimps, and then we would have to return to the centre of the channel. We leapt at this chance, and welcomed him on board.

What the ranger didn’t realise was that we were equally interested in seeing a hippo. It was a little while later that he casually pointed one out, quite close by (for a hippo) in the water off our port quarter. A whole head emerged from the water and splashed back in. We squealed and sighed, amazed. “You have not seen a hippo? There was one nearby when I met you” he smiled, and we raised eyebrows at each other. We needed to learn how to look for them, because obviously they were bloody everywhere.

Gwen traced the edge of the second island with all three of us staring in to the trees like shoppers at high street windows while Rich and I took it in turns to steer. The island, like much of the recent shoreline, had a great diversity of plant life including tall trees and palms whose lower fronds aged to grey, reminding me of Where The Wild Things Are. Finally we came to a few shore trees that were bowing and trembling with movement, rather like those in which we had previously spotted monkeys or large birds, and peering in we found whole families of chimpanzees eying us with stern curiosity or sleepy indifference from behind the leaves. After two such encounters our guide left us and we returned to the centre of the channel, from which we would spot a whole family of hippos once we’d got past the island. This time they were just a set of eyes, nostrils and ears, pointed towards us from their distant shallows.

Abandoned groundnut factories are a common sight on the river, which has seen much busier days

Every village we visit has astounding views from its little red roads. This one’s in Kuntaur

Wassu

Having a little bounce in a stone circle

Fly hunter

Fanny with her contemporaries at Kuntaur. I like the one with the school chairs in it.

Baboon Island inhabitants are, of course, not baboons.

Last night we anchored a little further on, and our dinner in the cockpit was accompanied by the gorgeous lowing of the hippopotomus. Hippos sound like the deepest voice you’ve ever heard laughing a slow chuckle. We couldn’t see them in the dark, but we heard them all around the boat, close by and continuing well after we’d gone inside to wash and gather around our tiny USB fan to read and play. It still feels joyously unbelievable that Gwen, a scruffy concrete boat from Millbrook, spent last night 150 miles up the Gambia surrounded by these shy and formidable pinky brown beasts.

Today we’ve spotted birds and baboons, distant hippos (now we have our eye in) and beach-prowling monkeys on and around the lush shores of the wide brown river on the first leg of a long return trip. Tonight we’re hot far beyond comfort and trapped in our boat by a legion of insects carrying a deadly disease, but there’s not a lot more happy we could be.

There are no hippo pictures because they’re either too far away, too briefly visible to find the camera, or just too amazing.

Back To Life

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Four horsemen of the artpocalypse in the marina entrance

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

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

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

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Top geyser

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Journey to a post-apocalyptic world inhabited only by buses

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

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Papagayo. Not bad.

 

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A closer look at the rocks

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and the beach nestled inside most of a volcanic crater.

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

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

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

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

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unless you have amazing sunglasses.

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Gran Canaria glowing in the morning

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

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

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Football stadium/park

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Park/football stadium

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

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Coo

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Coo

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Botanical gardens: hello green.

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Crouching Tricia, hidden dragon.

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

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

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Spiky green. 

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Steep green.

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

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

See you in Gambia.

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Not At Home

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Flamingos on Calpe’s salt marshes

We didn’t rush out of Calpe. I knew this would probably be our last night sail this year, and I wanted to savour the evening’s impressions – the two-step grumble of the racheted chain falling in to the locker, the almost imperceptible motion of sailing off anchor, the helicopter whirr of the wind in the jib, the squishy splashy sounds of waves against us, the salty stick of sea air on sun tightened skin. We sped up gently as the staysail was hoisted, and glided down the bay past the beaches where we’d made landings for this and that. This place hadn’t been the most beautiful or interesting, but it had been incredibly happy, and we were prepared to miss it.

Our usual system for tacking involves Rich bringing in one running backstay and me steering with an outstretched leg while undoing the other behind me, then a swap of position as I release the head sail sheets and Rich tightens them in on my original side. We performed this while sunset orange flashed in the windows of beach hotels and stained the light rock of the penon, and I took some photos as we headed out into the Ibiza strait. As night fell the great rock dulled to grey, then black, and was left behind without us, and we thanked it and called goodbye with fearful glances to one another. I was scared of the stresses of finding work, Rich nervous about his new job, both of us intimidated by the notion of finding, approaching and affording a marina. We were full of hugs, touches and reassurances, with talk alternating between discussing what we needed to do when we got to Mallorca and consoling each other that we could manage it whatever.

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Last sunset over mainland Spain

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Cheerio Penon de Ifach. Love you.

Overnight the sea was less supportive. The waves didn’t look big but they were going in odd and different directions, and beating towards the wind had us hitting them at funny angles, jolting the boat and making both sleep and waking watches uncomfortable and effortsome. When we got to our anchorage in North Ibiza the next morning we were cranky and exhausted, and though Rich managed a snorkel I mostly watched movies, cooked and ate until I allowed myself to pass out. The beach looked busy, but the land looked green and lush and gave me hope for Mallorca.

The next morning we had anticipated a huge wind, but there was none in the unusually cloudy bay. Ah well, we’d tack out to sea. Ah, none here, we’d sail past the end of Ibiza that must be sheltering it. Ah, none here… We had halved our main sail area with two reefs the night before to cope with the onslaught, and though we filled most of the space with a topsail we were still doing only two knots. Then one. Then none.

Thunder rumbled over Ibiza. We decided to put the engine on if only to get further from the storm that seemed to be approaching. Within an hour or two the wind was finally up and we cut the engine to speed downwind towards Mallorca, whose mountains we could already see some 50 miles away, but the storm did not like being left behind. A downpour descended, our first rainy sail this side of Biscay, and we laughed a lot while both staying on deck like the idiots we are. I’m not sure about the psychology of it all but getting soaked does seem to put both of us in very good spirits. Then the wind got up, and by the evening we were removing the topsail and staysail to stay at 7 knots as we bashed our way into Mallorca’s south west approach to Palma. The rain had cleared, but darkness and high winds were our new challenges as we headed towards Magaluf and on to our anchorage for the night.

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Aw, it’s just like being back in England. Except warm.

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Pretty spatters and run-offs not captured very well here

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Mallorca looking less than inviting

The wind eased as we got closer in, the pair of us pointing and exclaiming at yet another bay of outrageous development and its sparkling lights. Just after Magaluf’s north end (lit by a gigantic pair of blue tips that it turns out are a bungee chair ride) we went to nip in to the south corner of Palmanova, the next bay, to stop for the rest of the night. Though we could make out most of the larger outlying obstacles we found ourselves bewildered by other craft whose lights were difficult to discern against all the lights ashore – a tall tower that seemed to be on land turned out on closer inspection to be a yacht’s well lit mast, and then a hotel on the far shore whose orange lights shone in line after line turned out to be a single super motor yacht, much closer than we’d realised. We had more neighbours than we’d had in all of northern Spain put together, and we wove our way between them cautiously by motor, a torch at the ready, before putting the anchor down and breathing sighs of relief.

Neighbours can be helpful things to have, and the next morning one of them dinghied over and told us that this bay can actually be anchored in all year round. Our brains whirred – could this be true? Could we live this far from Rich’s job in Palma? Would it work for us? What’s ashore here apart from hotels? Are we about to save a tonne of marina money? We decided to give it a try for a couple of weeks and see what happened. Gwen seemed happy for now, bobbing in the sunny bay with Fanny and Bob trailed out behind like ducklings. In a spirit of “checking out the new neighbourhood” I went ashore on my own for some shopping, and came back in a state of shock.

First impressions of Palmanova: It’s Magaluf. It’s Benidorm. It’s Daily Mails and Full Englishes. It’s theme pubs and inflatable toys. It’s cock shaped key rings and lapdance clubs. It’s stags and hens getting wasted and performing sex acts for bets. It’s “Prince William’s” menu del dia featuring real yorkshire puddings. Exposed white skin coated in raw burn or inch thick foundation, head-wide necks and muscle carved chests dribbled with football tattoos, gawping dead stares giving you “evils”. I looked for veg in all the self-styled “supermarkets” and found only crisps and booze. I went to buy a postcard and got chatted up by the checkout clerk. I went to get a beer and talked myself out of a panic attack. I rowed home in tears. This is my new home? What is there here for me?

That night I worried. Rain poured down and we leapt out of bed to shut hatches and protect items on deck. The next morning the sun shone, the sea beckoned and the world seemed a little better – this is not all there is. I went online to find out about Palma and was intrigued by what sounds like a brilliant city, and snorkelled round the boat to check on the anchor before the waterskiers and jetskiers got started for the day. Rich and I went ashore together and found areas beyond the busy sea front scariness, and popped in to an enormous Aldi where they have real fruit and vegetables. We found the bus stop, and saw that Palma is only a half hour ride away. We went to Magaluf and found a cool looking theme park among the pubs and hotels. In the evening we had a quick drink with Rich’s new boss, who seems like a really decent chap, and his adorable wee son. By evening we were back on Gwen and enthused, making plans to the sounds of battling crooners in distant sea front bars (“Delilah” overlapping with “I’m Still Standing”) and the first chants of karaoke that would go on until long after we fell asleep.

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Kathmandu Park in Magaluf has an upside down pub, a huge awesome climbing frame and a mini golf course with waterfalls…

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…and this crazy octopus. We must go round it before it shuts for winter.

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“You know how you always see people taking photos of each other in front of pointless things? Well, I’ve decided to take one” says the man I love.

We’re going to check out Palma tomorrow, and more of the island over our weekends. I’m still slightly bewildered that we’ve stopped cruising and yet I’m not back in the Shire, and I hope to get there for a visit over the winter. As much if not more than back home, I’m going to miss cruising. I’m going to miss waking up somewhere new and going to explore. I’m going to miss the work of sailing and the life of not working. I’ve learned so much – so many subtle peculiarities of sailing and of how Gwen, Geordi and Rich do it. I am so pleased to be here largely because I am so pleased with how we got here. We’ve logged 2,100 sailing miles since Millbrook. Four years after Gwen became ours she has done what we dreamed of doing with her, and the purpose of any hardship we endured for her back home has been revealed. I still feel like she owes me a bigger trip, another adventure, and we’re going to work towards that. But, for the next six months at least, we’ve got a new life to live, hopefully one that can include the odd weekend sail to remind us of Gwen’s brilliance, the glory of the sea and the joy of a silent secluded anchorage. We’ve got a lot to get used to and a lot to discover, and hopefully a lot more to enjoy.

Dorne Chorus

The nudie anchorage stayed warm and clear. We spent two nights off the short grey beach beneath the tall grey rock face, peppered with bare browning couples, and though we never joined them ashore I was confident that my own undress on deck would not offend. When I did suit up it was in my wetsuit, exploring the nearby rocks with Rich, glad of a rest from sailing and a chance to do something fun together.

On the cloudy morning of our departure I realised I’d run out of Rizlas, and it was decided by he who doesn’t smoke that I should go ashore and get some.

“No, you’re alright”. I was happy to wait until our next anchorage.
“No, you really need to go and get some”. Forced smile.

It seems the notion of sailing with me in nicotine withdrawal is not appealing, and as Rich’s addiction to bread is equally strong I could grab a loaf or two at the same time. We pottered Gwen to the next beach, off the town of La Rabita, but with an opportune wind due any moment (ha!) and after two days of not using a dinghy, neither of us could be bothered to get one off the boat. I descended the swimming ladder in my bikini with a brief shudder, the dry bag we use for Rich’s tablet stuffed with money and a frock and slung around my shoulder, and swam over to the long empty beach. There, a merry chap popped over to greet me, and we conversed poorly in Spanish and arm waving until I couldn’t understand any more.

“Has your engine broken?”
“No”
“So why did you swim?”
“I want to buy bread”
“Ah, you go to that shop there by the Coca Cola sign”
“Thank you very much”
“Are you Australian?”

I got my dress on, did the shopping and then swam back to Gwen carrying a drybag full of papers and torn loaves, with a parcel of folded frock and breakfast strapped to my head. I felt extraordinarily proud, like a flat-chested brunette Ursula Andress carrying ham and cheese croissants instead of shells, and I bragged about it all morning as we motored away.

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Not as exotic as it sounds, is it?

Now the wind seems to always come from the east. Unfortunately, we’re heading east, and our topsail-less 16 tonne boat doesn’t point well to windward. In very low winds she doesn’t point anywhere bloody near windward, hence the first use of our motor in the Med and the ensuing afternoon of zigzagging that followed us getting sick of the noise and turning it off. By the time we got near somewhere, anywhere, to stay the night we were both sick of shooting miles away from our destination to return only slightly closer to it, and we were squeezing less than two knots out of the meagre breeze. We put the engine back on.

Running the engine has one redeeming feature. The Chard, who has a lifelong fear of singing, will deign to give it a go when masked by the growling, squeaking chunder of Perkins 4-107. The challenge is to find songs that we both know the words to, which as far as we know is limited to The Muppets’ Rainbow Connection and most of Pulp’s Different Class, but for me there is little more wonderful than seeing Rich set loose his voice to the sun kissed sky. In brief rare moments I can even hear him.

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Mountains, bridges, polytunnels and buildings, all in glorious brown and grey

We stayed a single, shoreless night off Almerimar, which is at the edge of a low curve of land that extends from the mountainous coast. Southern Spain looks how Mars will look once terraforming has just started to work and the property developers and tour companies take over. Like much of the Costas we’ve seen so far this area was baked, barren and dirt coloured, and featured even more wide, plastic covered polytunnels – so many that the area they inhabit can been seen as a huge white patch on a zoomed out Google Earth. As we sailed along more of it the next day we reminisced about the lush green of the north, and of back ‘ome.

We rounded the corner to find the wind turning generously. For a few glorious hours we were able to sail in a steady, strong wind that was just enough shy of ahead of us that the boat could keep to our envisioned course, and our moods became joyous. In England, a sail to windward means three jumpers, two pairs of trousers and some sturdy socks – here, we were still in our t-shirts as hair flew and songs were sung to the graciously miniature waves (by me, of course). We listened to podcasts that were gifted by a recent surge in internet access, learned some Spanish and chatted about all sorts, and had to shed sail quickly to slow down for our new anchorage at Almeria.

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The entrance to Almeria features a huge railway bridge to nowhere

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They’re very fond of fountains, but they aren’t all turned on

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This one had a cat resting in the middle (until I came over to take a photo)

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The cathedral, originally built to be a mosque

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Sadly we didn’t get to go to Manchester Club

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Can anyone explain what the shitting hell is going on here?

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Cave homes in the hillsides

We had a day of rest due to mild hangover and bad weather – including actual rain! – and got kicked out of that anchorage by the guarded but civil Guardia Civil, so now we’re a little further down the coast. Today we went ashore again. Almeria’s a big city with all the navigational challenges that suggests, and it’s not terribly well labelled. We’ve seen signs pointing to a photography gallery and later a house of butterflies, that when followed seemed to lead to a network of small restaurants and a Lidl, which is a bit frustrating in the formidable afternoon sizzle. One thing could be easily located – in the west of the city, where there is a strong Moroccan influence in buildings and restaurants, we visited the huge walled fortification of the Alcazaba. This megacastle was built by the Moors, expanded by the Christians, and (not that this is the most important thing to me or anything) is currently serving as the capital of Dorne in Game of Thrones. I’ll put some pictures here so I don’t have to describe it because I’m lazy.

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Rich in the Muslim end, from the Christian end

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The gardeny end

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Some of the excavations they didn’t turn in to gardens

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We’re in a castle! (It’s very educational)

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The walled walk to the other, smaller castle

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It’s a broody one, this, isn’t it.

And now we’re back on the boat, in the comfort of our own living room, listening to the cozy drone of recently downloaded Radio 4. Gwen is home, and she commands an intense love from both of us. I have never before heaped adoration on a house or, save for a few short love affairs with bicycles, a mode of transport, but this wide-hipped beast that has been our gaff(er) for the last few years is not just where I keep my stuff or move from a to b, she is the centre of my ever changing world. We might yell at Geordi, the cooker, the anchor, and curse the elements, but Gwen is spoken to only in the gentlest terms, even in times of stress “now come on, Gwen, wouldn’t you rather pack that in”. I hug bits of her sometimes, especially when I need to to stand up. Rich often talks about changing her to a junk, and though he’s almost selling me on the rig, I’m not sure that it’s practical for her. But I noticed the other day that if we ever talk about one day getting another boat, we do it ashore, out of her earshot. She’s lurching right now in a wavey windless anchorage, and I’m rocking into snooziness. I ask her to calm down. We’ve another windward wander tomorrow, and I’m about ready for some food.

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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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.