Off The Track

The daily downloaded wind forecast may guide our journey, and this often works, but sometimes processing and deciding what to do with it is like reading tea leaves or runes – belief over science. Sometimes that belief is enough to have us packed up and raring to go into five hours of fuck all, sometimes it has us watching from ashore saying “that’s weird, that looks like a good wind. Shall we… well it’s a bit late now… another beer?”. In these day of low winds the moral of the story is to sail when you see the waves ripple and the tell tails flutter, and not mind where you end up or when.

The dolphins have disappeared since Gibraltar, and I miss them. Rain has become a thing of memory, and cold is something that happens only when you’ve snorkelled too long or stayed out late in damp clothes. Nerja provided a little of the latter on a nicely unexpected day of exploration. The day before I’d had a snoozy day to myself and explored more of the town while Rich went off to climb up something. I don’t have the same fascination with mountains that he does – they look very pretty from down here, if you ask me, so I’d expected to hear some fantastic stories and not feel like I’d missed very much. But when he’d returned, he’d been oddly coy about the day’s events. “It was really good, and I think you should come back there with me tomorrow. I’m not going to tell you anything, except you need to wear your trainers”.


The closest thing I get to a garden


They do good aqueducts in Nerja. Here’s one of the more elaborate ones.

The morning came and I was gently guided in what to wear and when to be ready. We dinghied ashore and walked towards the caves, then took a turning up a mountain pass that Rich hadn’t walked the day before “I’m trying out a new route, yesterday was a bit rocky”, enjoying the smells of wild rosemary and thyme, and nicking a bit for the galley. He divulged morsels of his previous journey, and we saw black tufty squirrels and steep, craggy peaks as described. After a few sweaty, umbrella-shaded hours on a wide cliff edge path we descended to the side of an aqueduct that followed two mountains’ curves, over a valley carved with stunning swirls of rock and the occasional cave, huge trees and grasses bursting from the unseen depths below. Here we ate our packed lunch and bathed our feet in the aqueduct’s narrow stream.

I deliberately allowed Rich’s vague answers to my questions to pass, particularly as there were choices to be made. We could either go the way Rich had the day before, straight down and walk back along the valley, or we could try to follow the narrow aqueduct wall further into the unknown before descending. Rich didn’t want to scare me, so he suggested the former. I smiled, knowing what we both really wanted, and made our decision. Soon we were teetering along the step’s-width ledge of the aqueduct, sometimes with the aid of the ricketiest of thin metal hand rails (that occasionally sloped away suggesting the comeuppance of previous pedestrians), sometimes with nothing between us and the 200ft drop but our sense of balance and ability to block out thoughts of rocky death. The path stopped just short of too much, just past exciting as hell. We stepped down the rocks and my earlier suspicions were confirmed – I could hear the water down the valley get even louder.


Aqueduct of doom. “Turn your brain off” Rich advises. I comply.


Massive bloody grasses. Human male showed here for scale.

The path was difficult to follow around the first bit of river we found. “You might as well get your feet wet – it’s like this all the way back” Rich warned me. But it wasn’t – it was a lot more. The first waterfall we found tumbled into a little chest-high pool, and Rich got my bikini top and our shorts out of his bag “you’re probably going to need these”. I gasped with gratitude and amazement – Rich is so bad at surprises that when I do get them, they’re extra surprising. We both got in, trainers and all, and after the initial shock of this freshwater power shower I tore down the river to find the next, and the next. We continued to come across short waterfalls dribbling between the river’s rocks as we clambered over them for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes they’d have a powerful jaccuzi-like bubble pool at the bottom, or a rock you could sit on to soak in the splash, and many were lined with a crust of mineral build-up that gave them the unreal feel of a movie set. We’d only seen a couple of people but we’d decided to stay clothed, which proved to be a good thing as over the next few hours we found more and more popular pools, rammed with Spanish walkers of all ages who had trudged up the path we were about to descend. Eventually the river narrowed between two mighty curving faces of rock and we got to admire the patterned corridor of the valley up close, our tired feet still stumbling through the ankle-high waters of the rocky riverbed. We dried, walked back to Nerja and ate at the first place we thought we could afford, and went to bed delighted and exhausted.


Surprise waterfall glee


One of many grand cliffs


The guide, paddling.


Planning an attack

We had one more day in Nerja to recover, and we’ve been flitting along the coast east of there ever since. Like our time in the rias, we stay a day or so, sail a day, see what happens. There hasn’t been much wind so we do between 5 and 20 miles at a time. When we drop anchor one or both of us leaps into the briney and snorkels round to see where it’s set. We eat, maybe go ashore, maybe spend too much on a hammock and decide we can’t go ashore for another couple of days because it’s too expensive. Though it’d be nice to stay and nice to spend we’re limited by both time and money – they expire together in late October so we have to get to Mallorca by then.


Snorkel heaven in Ensenada de los Berengueles


Weird thing underwater


Even weirder thing underwater…


This is getting ridiculous.

And I wish that was all I had to say about the last few days, but I’m afraid it isn’t. Even in paradise, this appartment-blasted mountainous coast of unending sun and clear fishy waters, you’re only as happy as your head. After Nerja mine got ill, though I couldn’t have told you how at first. One day we had an argument, but it ended, things were okay. On the next day a grumble from Rich hit me hard – a comment, a sound of disgust in his voice – I reacted and he bit back. Within the hour I started to feel scared of upsetting him. The next day I was scared of everything except the sailing. I held my tongue, cried when he was on deck and I was below or vice versa, started doing everything I could around the boat to ward off any more anger – don’t take pens from the nav table, he doesn’t like that, don’t leave water around the sink, wash up – he won’t be angry about that. I scolded and tried to coax myself, gripping tight to any faint feeling of power.


Calm on the surface and mental underneath

Over two days this melted glob of fearful feelings hardened. I checked and double checked things I could be doing wrong. I wrote notes to myself on how to respond to things, how to behave. I felt like giving up all the time but remained determined to persevere, shaking and screaming inside if necessary. Out loud I would suppress anything but for the simplest agreements and boat discussions. Rich seemed not to notice except to avoid me sometimes, which hurt all the more – did he not care that the happy girl had gone? But I knew he would be upset if I let anything out so I cowered in silence, broken by rare but precious distractions – a good book chapter, a solitary smile at the sea. I knew it was fake and flimsy – a coping mechanism like holding your breath under the surface and gasping for air when nobody’s watching – but it was the only programme I was running. Then, through writing it all down, I gradually started to wonder that maybe this wasn’t reality, that it probably started with the hormone pills that I started taking… when? After leaving Nerja. Ah. I stopped taking them yesterday, and though I can’t say the jitters are all gone I can see clearer now. I can see the angry ghosts from pasts I’ve projected on to my simple life with a grumpy gorgeous man who I know better than that, the kind who takes me on surprise waterfall rambles. I can see my anxiety in overload chewing at my self worth, and I can feel its jaws loosening. I can’t breathe a sigh of relief yet, but I’m enjoying our new spot a lot. And I won’t be taking those pills again.


Gwen in Ensenada de los Berengueles

Tonight’s spot’s off a nudist beach near La Rabita. I was so happy to see the naked folk on our arrival I insisted we both leap in to the water in the buff as a sign of good faith. Swimming in the nud around my burly home is another dream I didn’t know I had, come true. The water’s clear as anything but empty – it lacks the clicky clicky fish sound we’ve come to know in previous anchorages (what is it that makes the fish tick?). There’s no wind forecast for tomorrow, so we may explore the rocks, and apparently we’re due some big winds in the next few days – all in the wrong direction but who cares, it’s wind, and we have somewhere to go. That’s if the wind does like the grib file says it will, and that’s not for us to know. We’ll just watch the waves, go with whatever they tell us, and enjoy each other and the beautiful new in between.


How It Rolls

When I start writing this, I’ve not left the boat for four days. I’m wearing a bikini and a dressing gown indoors at six in the afternoon. I ache everywhere, particularly in my fingers, shoulders, legs… oh, I ache everywhere. The boat’s at anchor but it’s rolling back and forth, back and forth – I’m doing involuntary crunches. Can I not get some rest? Not unless I go ashore, and I’m not ready for that yet.

So the last you heard, we were in Sines. I wasn’t feeling too well, so we stayed there for a couple more days enjoying the richness of its artsy cobbledy centre: a photography exhibition in the town hall, a huge modern art gallery full of things that make you go “hmmm” and a thin, elegantly ramshackle bar that provided margaritas and internet access. In between there were visits to and from several of that odd brand of single-handing sailing man who crop up from anchorage to anchorage, telling tales of sailing and the women with whom they are in trouble. They all sailed away before we did, catching the good winds that hurtled towards the south outside Sines’ harbour wall.


The big lift, still not working

When we did leave, the wind was still strong. We sailed quickly down the rest of the west coast of Portugal and were in such huge waves by the time we reached the end that we decided to tack all the way round into the wind and back rather than gybing round the corner. After churning around in a washing machine with our huge boom refusing to bash over on its first go, we eventually hauled Gwen around and headed towards the south coast of Europe. We looked back, and saw that Geordi’s windvane had snapped in half, unable to withstand the changing blasts turning with our boat.

In that kind of a roll your direction is not always as apparent as you might think. You are moving forwards and yet the motion you feel most is the roll from left to right, up and down. You might be doing six knots, but there are 15 knots of wind blowing at your head, and who knows how much gravity playing with your guts. The birds and dolphins all seem to do it so easily, with such instinct and ease, and you’re there burning with the effort of it all. But it’s okay – you’re carving your way through it too. Your motion is in centuries of evolution, not millenia – your three white wings are lashed to your wooden arms. You are being tossed about on the border of all that ocean below you and all that sky above, and you know you’re moving forward somehow, and that feels good.

As we came round Cape St Vincent with its huge swirls of stone set in high square cliffs we passed the outlying rock, looking at first like a big stone cock and balls (no photo, sorry). We passed the most south westerly anchorage in Europe in favour of a more sheltered one at Belixe and spent the night there, waking up early for another day’s sail beneath cliffs that reflected deep red from a vibrant sunrise.


Breakfast, lunch and dinner on the journey south


The south west edge of Europe


Cliffs by morning

The wind and waves were gentler on the south coast, and by lunchtime they had almost disappeared. I had been feeling a bit slovenly since Bayona and was bemoaning my beer belly when it occurred to me that I could do something about it. I set off for a run, on the spot, on deck. By the time I was done half an hour later we had picked up two knots and I had run two miles. Dolphins came to visit, bigger than our usual Common friends and less inclined to play. Faro appeared in the distance, its white geometric faces looking like sandstone carvings until you got closer and realised that it was all tower blocks with planes emerging every few minutes – Easyjet’s gateway to the Algarve.


Rich found my exercise hugely amusing, and took a photo, and a video that is never to be shown

We entered the lagoon that sits in front of Faro and its smaller neighbour, Olhao, between two low islands. We had thought we might have to motor in, but we had made good time since my burst of athleticism and the wind was still good, so we sailed through the narrow entrance and along to our anchorage off the island of Culatra with more ease than we’d anticipated. There we slept long sleeps, found the cheapest lunch we could on the sand covered island and used a morning of surprising calm to get the rigging oiled and the first stages of my decoration of Geordi’s new wind vane underway.


Culatra from the lagoon entrance


The chard’s monkey toes always help when he climbs the mast


A town on Culatra

On our second day there we took Fanny over to visit Olhao. I rowed two miles on a high tide that just covered the expanse of reeds and grasses that make up the natural reserve in the centre of the lagoon (in Spain, we learned that “natural reserve” means “place where everyone fishes” – Portugal seems no different) and we anchored just off the promenade. The city was majestic and decayed, filled with ornate tiled buildings with complicated ironwork balconies and carved wooden doors. Its faded exteriors lined roads made up of recent but traditional cobbled patterns, and on the outskirts, in an extended wander that wore both of us out, we found huge areas of interesting graffiti. We ate at a place that must be in a French guide book, and got served slower than all our French neighbours, but we didn’t mind – the bad but friendly service gave us ample time to hide from the suffocating afternoon sun that was now robbed of its breeze.

By the journey back, the tide had fallen and the wind had risen. Rich rowed hard against the wind until the water became too shallow, and then got out and pulled Fanny for a while, with me still inside. I jumped out too, and he towed her off round the narrow streams of water while I walked across the muddy bank, watched by curlews and oyster catchers, picking up odd shells. At the end of the reserve there was still a mile or so to cross, and once we were both back in the dinghy it took all of Rich’s strength to haul us into the wind. Waves crashed in to us and water started to fill Fanny. I laughed. We both laughed. We were getting soaked.


Rich being windswept and heroic. “You’re like Joseph pulling Mary on the donkey” I tell him, before getting off the damn donkey and walking

We spotted an inflatable dinghy that didn’t seem to be anchored, and decided that it must have escaped from a larger boat who we might be able to contact via our VHF. Rich rowed over and jumped in it to start its outboard engine while I gripped on to its side with both arms, and soon we were hurtling back towards Gwen as a twosome, getting even more drenched than we had been before. Just before we reached home the dinghy’s owners motored towards us in their yacht and thanked us for rescuing it with twenty euros. We collapsed in to Gwen a pair of sleepy wrecks and decided that we probably wouldn’t go anywhere the next day.


Great T-shirt purchase from another Chinese bazaar

That was our plan. Our plan had also been to relax in the Gaudiana, the river between Portugal and Spain, for a few days, and then push on to a few days’ stay in Gibraltar. But the next morning, we undid all our plans. A good wind was pushing across the whole southern coast and through the Gibraltar straits for a couple of days, after which it would disappear into a multidirectional mess, so we decided to seize the opportunity and make progress towards our new home in the Med. Within a couple of hours we’d tidied up the boat and got ourselves ready for a two night trip, and left under sail to find huge waves and a strong wind outside the lagoon’s limits. After rolling violently with the sea hurtling into us from the side (if you’re tired of hearing about rolling, imagine how I feel) we turned more towards the east. My entry in the log book says “I know why Jack Sparrow walks like that.” Reefs were added and sails were taken down to ease the violence, and galloping downwind with the waves at our back felt better, more like running with the pack than trying to traverse a stampede. I started the night watch with only the gib sail up, steering with a repaired Geordi, whistling a tune. “No whistling” Rich shouted up from bed. Apparently you shouldn’t whistle on a boat. It wakes the wind, and we had plenty.

Overnight our neighbours in the water got strange and unidentifiable. I woke Rich to ask him to sit with me for five minutes because a huge ship with confusing lights wasn’t appearing on our AIS and was getting scarily close. He did, and we both gawped as we passed close to its stern and saw a military helicopter on its blue-lit landing pad, reeking of fuel and noisily awaiting lift off. As soon as we had passed, the ship sped off into the night.


When I woke from my second night watch, Rich was beaming. “Look out here” he called down. “Everything right of the mast is Africa. Everything to the left is Europe.” The mountainous shapes of two continents had risen before us, and over that day we had plenty of opportunity to admire them both. The wind turned with the land to guide us gently along with hardly an adjustment to our vane, and a strong tidal current swept beneath in our favour to give us hitherto unknown speeds. I looked longingly at Morocco from the other side of the channel. We passed Spain and its watersports destinations on our left, and then Britain in the form of Gibraltar’s bare angular island, and emerged into the Meditterenean. Overnight we passed our first hints of the Spanish Mediterranean coast – the terrifying tower block hotel complexes and tourist promenades of Marbella and Terromalinos were rendered as pretty lights against huge hilly moonlight sillhouettes. In the early morning the wind was up and my watch was as punishing as anything we’ve sailed so far, but it ended in a gorgeously easy slip towards the town we’d been hoping to reach (but not imagining we realistically could).


“Goodnight Europe” “Goodnight Africa”

And now we’re here. I’ve been ashore since I started writing this, and the Costa Del Sol is pretty much as you’d expect. Lots of restaurants and hotels, lots of Brits and Germans, lots of overdevelopment in pretty but sparse countryside. The beach is lovely but a little crowded, the town is pretty but parts are oddly familiar. The paella is excellent, particularly as it’s been paid for by the grateful wayward dinghy owners back in Portugal. Being in a tourist destination has its perks – I’ve found orange squash, which I’ve been craving since France but doesn’t seem to exist in most of Spain. And we’ve even forked out for a proper excursion to the prehistoric caves for which Nerja is famous, which are so spectacular I’d have to take a whole other blog post to describe them.


It’s funny to have taken our home to a tourist town. It’s good, but it’s really weird. For once we don’t know anything of what’s going on in the country we’re visiting. Where are the “real” people and businesses and trades? Or is this it? Droves of visitors line the beach in the day and the bars at night, and we are the only boat here, looking back in on it like it’s on the other side of a museum glass. It’ll take a bit of getting used to, I think, which should be helped by the long gorgeous sun drenched days, the clear water in which swimming is so pleasant and the dry picturesque mountains.

Also, we’ve stopped rolling for a bit, which is nice.