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.


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.


I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you…


Witch pops


Arousa’s plaza


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.


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.


Because of this, Fanny’s bottom still looks like this.


Viney dinner spot


It’s them again




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.


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.


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.


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.