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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.