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.

Advertisements

Gran Canaria to Banjul Part 2: Goodbye, Hello

16 November

Our eighth morning at sea announced itself with a noisy rumble. We rushed towards invisible land from which hot air hurtled towards us, sailing so close to the wind that Gwen leapt in the short swell. Senegal was a hairdryer and every splash that sprayed over me on our wet course evaporated within a minute. A sweet, warm scent like red wine was carried towards us from behind the Harmattan, the haze of Saharan dust that obscured the African mainland from sight.

Our patience with each other became strained, and we argued over nothing on a couple of occasions as the day drew on and the sea calmed. The Harmattan painted the edges of our sphere a grubby grey while the deck, the push pit and our eyes became gritty with salt and dirt. Insects drifted over to us, followed by a robin-like bird who pecked them away as she hopped around our deck, sheltered under the dinghy and visited us in the cockpit. Our first sight of Africa was not of its coast but a fisherman in a brightly painted pirogue with an outboard engine. He took Rich’s wave as an invitation, pottered over and asked for some food, so we offered him a pack of biscuits while I admired his boat with my best bad French.

The bird, who we named Oise (pronounced Waz, short for Oiseau as she must speak French this close to Senegal) grew in confidence and flitted comfortably around Gwen’s interior as well as the deck. Finally, as we ate dinner, she hopped into the tow staysail that we had scrunched into the locker at the head of our bed and stayed there for the night. The sun faded high above the Harmattan to a white disc that disappeared long before its light. I finally felt some sense of location, caught in a West African smell and warmth that I hadn’t wanted to leave when I visited Ghana nine years ago. I called Rich up to sniff it and went to take his place, snuggled up near Oise.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

How to nap in a cushion coffin/amuse yourself with a camera when not napping in a cushion coffin. Exhibit 1

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Exhibit 2. Spot the Chard.

gambia0229

Oise

gambia0202

The first sight of the morning sun (this is looking towards Senegal, which we never saw)

In the morning Rich opened his eyes and was amazed to find Oise perched on his shoulder. He let her out of the hatch and came to join me before going back down to make coffee and breakfast. The short swell was bashing in to us again, and as a huge wave smashed over I heard a cry from below “Bear away! Bear away!” – a tonne of water had breached the closed forehatch and drenched our bed. While the Chard tried to fix it I took us further and further off course, trying but failing to keep water from the deck. Through all of this Oise hopped about, sliding in soggy surges and hiding under the dinghies when the big waves came, keeping my spirits up with her comical bounce though I worried for her safety with every smash.

As we approached the river Gambia Rich showed me how he’d tacked the boat on his own while I was away earlier this year, using Geordi to handle the turn while he dealt with the runners, jib and staysail. On the next tack I tried it out for myself and was pleased with the ease and simplicity, but not with our tacking angle. We headed straight back where we’d come from, pushed by the current coming out of the river and let down by the wind that dwindled from something slight to nothing. It didn’t return all day.

Oise retreated to the saloon after her busy morning on deck and looked tired, squeezing her eyes as she returned to the comfort of her sail bed. I followed her up there, but then worried I was bothering her and retreated to the nav table. When Rich next came down he found her splashing in our sink, unable to get out. He scooped her out and put her on the table with me and we tried to feed her water, seeds and soggy biscuits. She would have none of it until we left her alone, and then only pecked at the water before hopping off to the back of the aft cabin, still straining to stay conscious. We were hopeful when she made it back on deck on her own, but she didn’t seem interested in eating insects any more and was moving slowly, without the curiosity she’d shown before. Whether it was the efforts of staying on deck in the morning’s violence, the stress of being around people or an exhaustion that had come with her and brought her to our boat, it seemed to be getting the best of her. She wouldn’t accept flies that Rich swatted dead and left for her, so he started injuring them instead and placing them in her path. This way he managed to get her to eat five or six before sunset without either of us going near her.

We were still drifting, directed by Rich’s optimistic steering, only a few miles from a Senegalese nature reserve that we couldn’t see by light or the speedily approaching darkness. Fish leapt with noisy splashes and insects invaded every inch of the deck as we decided to drop anchor for the night, with a plan to enter the Gambia by first light. Though I’d suggested it I admired Rich’s conviction not to start the engine – we’d sailed a thousand miles and were damn well going to sail the last few. Gwen took her first rest for ten days and we slept for the first time in the same bed, hot and frazzled, protected from a buzzing world of earwigs, flies, malarial mosquitoes and who knows what else by a thin net. Fortunately the mattress and sheets had dried out over the afternoon. Oise was nowhere to be seen.

The next morning we sailed in to The Gambia with paradiddling hearts and undisguisable grins. At last Banjul’s mosques and port buildings, working fishing canoes and busy beach markets, huge palms and stretching trees emerged from the Harmattan, fulfilling so many fantasies, inspirations and memories that had combined in our hopes for the place. We could finally see where we were going, and we were going there. A man on a harbour wall called out to us, directing us where to drop, and once we’d sailed on to the anchor Rich changed clothes immediately for something smart to go ashore in to sort out our visas, entry permit, customs and river permit. I had never seen him so nervous about meeting anyone (this was our first time entering a non-EU country on Gwen), and made sure he had everything he might need, including too much money. As I went to prepare the dinghy for the water I found tiny, cold Oise, with a look of sweet sleep on her face, curled inside the net that lives under it. I pretended not to cry as Rich took her body away, and saw him off with a kiss.

gambia0204

Pirogues, palms and a lot of smiles

gambia0205

Smart shirt, odd socks, steel pole, no iron

gambia0208

Watching the wrecks while I waited for Rich to return

We’d heard this area of Banjul wasn’t too secure so I stayed aboard, cleaning up for customs men who would never bother to visit while Rich got royally ripped off by everyone he met ashore. He got the paperwork we needed, but when he returned neither of us was feeling particularly cheerful and we bickered as we hoisted anchor, softening only as we motored up to the entrance of the mangrove streams that would take us to our first anchorage. Tourist boats carrying a few fishermen and their wives were paused by the entrance, waiting for the tide to give them the depth and current that would carry them through. Knowing our draft was deeper than theirs we followed suit and dropped the hook, waving and calling greetings to their drivers and staff. When they started moving so did we, and drove Gwen straight in to a sand bank, leaving us stuck still as they passed by us, calling promises that they’d see us soon.

The entrance to the mangroves sat lush and inviting, right ahead of us. First we tried to free Gwen with the engine, and failed. Then we hoisted the main to tip her over and reduce her draft, and tried the engine again, and failed. We didn’t even really know what direction we were supposed to be freeing ourselves in: the pilot guide said to stick to the very right hand side of the entrance, but the chart said that the deepest part was to our left. As we’d been towing Fanny from Rich’s trip ashore I took a quickly assembled lead line (a diving weight on a bit of spare rope) for a row around the area and found the deep bit right where the pilot guide said it’d be. I got back on board and Rich started to reverse Gwen but had forgotten he’d put the anchor down while I was paddling around. Chain started flying out, and I called to him to stop the engine, winching it back in with all my might until he came to finish it off. I took over on the tiller, reversed Gwen as hard as I could, then turned her hard towards the entrance with some forward thrust, and we were free.

But we were not cheerful. It had been quite a day, and we were hot and kind of sick of each other. We started to fight, then started to yell at each other about how we didn’t want to be fighting, then started to yell at each other about how we completely understood why each other was frustrated, which would have been very nice had we not been spitting it in growls. Meanwhile some of the most relaxing and peaceful scenery we’ve ever seen passed serenely by. Eventually we had to stop arguing to point out crabs that scuttled around the mud at the mangrove base and pigeons, curlews, eagles and pelicans. We swapped places so that each could sit on the foredeck and take it all in. We arrived at Oyster Creek and dropped the anchor and started a process of unwinding that is still underway.

gambia0211

The route to Oyster Creek, once we’d managed to join it

Our route in the GPS. The chart disagrees with our idea of land and water.

Popping below revealed that our digital charts didn’t have a clue what was going on.

gambia0206

Our new anchorage, which we share with the tour and fishing boats,

gambia0215

and the location of my first landfall in 11 days

We’ve spent two nights here at the mangrove lined creek, and its magic is working. Ashore up a mud beach there is a small community based around the Harbour Bar, a converted shipping container that was once busy with the cruising sailors it greeted for decades, though right now we’re the only ones. Lots of people have introduced themselves to us, some of whom remembered us from our time stuck in the mud, and all have been helpful and friendly, eager to spend time chatting with relaxed amusement. Today we hung out at the fishing base for lunch before joining Ebu, the tour boat operator we’d failed to follow in to the mangroves on our entrance, to look through the guest books of the bar. We wondered if we would see anyone we knew in their pages and sure enough, there was Nick Skeates, our friend and inspiration back home, writing on his visit 17 years ago with a photo of him playing his ukulele. Later as we walked back to a dinghy a man called Abraham told us some of the history of the place, including some of the visitors who have come through in his time. We told him we’d seen our friend Nick in the guest book. “Nick Skeates?” he grinned widely, and did a little dance. “You know Nick Skeates?” We laughed and chatted about what they’d both been up to since they met, and he reminisced with more smiles than a person really should be allowed.

From the low noisy bridge at the end of the creek you can get a shared taxi bus in to Banjul or nearby Serekunda, which is where we went yesterday to vittle and buy sim cards. We strolled around the busy town with purpose and curious glee. I got to treat Rich to some street food treats I remembered from Ghana – giant, thick ball-shaped doughnuts that keep you nicely filled and shaved oranges that you squeeze and stuck for refreshment. We haggled with fabric salesmen, laughed with fruit sellers and learned “thank you” in Mandinka before grabbing another taxi bus home, missing our bridge by not calling “stop” with enough force and having to walk a way back.

Gwen is hot. At night we have the bedroom hatch netted and ajar, and we’ve hung a mosquito net over the whole cockpit so that we can leave the main hatch open too, but even then it’s a sweaty job being inside until well after dark. Gwen is peaceful again after a strange trip that was so relaxed for over a week and so tense for a couple of days. And Gwen is amazing. What other form of transport keeps going unmotored for ten days straight? Our love and admiration for this boat is unending. It’s about time I went and got another good night’s sleep in the breezier end of her boiling body.

A few photos from this afternoon’s dinghy exploration of the nearby mangroves …

gambia0210

Inhabitant

gambia0218

Inhabitant spotter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These dangling roots and the mud beneath them are full of crabs that I failed to properly photograph

gambia0217

Baobab branches

gambia0209

Oysters on the mangrove roots

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Charm

Gran Canaria to Banjul Part 1: Notes from the Ocean

11 November

I’m not at my best first thing in the morning. Often, whether at anchor, in a marina or at sea, my first thought of the day will be the most negative. I half dream, already imagining the pirate attack, the collision, the storm, and carry the thought with me into consciousness, moping and lamenting to myself rather than worrying, chasing the coffee that will banish it. On Sunday my semisentient gripe was simple: there could be no possible way I should sail Gwen long distances in the Atlantic. The ocean is wide, wild and deep and she is just a little concrete shell adorned with a few spindly sticks and tatty rags. I saw her bashed about, miles from safety, teetering precariously on waves before plunging into them. I felt the roll that could shake her fittings loose, wrenching her delicate wooden spars with creaking, banging jolts. I felt the roll again, and again, and heard her staysail strain in a gust. I woke with one thought:

“I’m sailing in the bloody Atlantic, aren’t I”

I was (and still am). We had left Las Palmas the day before, picking up a little water and fuel from the marina before hoisting the sails in the busy harbour entrance. We had passed gargantuan drilling machinery as an orange and grey cloud enveloped the island, heralding the rise of an enormous yellow moon, and sailed along and away from Gran Canaria’s east side in gold and silver floodlit night.

A big boat holding two oil rigs, because apparently that’s a thing

Adios Spain, and thanks for all the tapas and public holidays

gambia0105

On the road again

We rode a largely steady wind for three or four days, seesawing gently on a frothy skin of rippling blue. Each day we performed a maneuver to tweak Gwen’s rig and compensate for small deviations in wind direction and speed, poling out the staysail to go closer downwind or adding or reducing sail. Whereas we’d normally have to stay alert for such adjustments, the wind’s predictability found us thinking in a much longer time frame: “maybe we’ll gybe on Tuesday”, not “maybe we’ll gybe in an hour”. There were no land, neighbours, cruisers or tankers to avoid, and Geordi took care of the rest of the steering.

This freedom from boat duties, along with a pleasant downwind course that doesn’t rock us beyond comfort, has given us more time and energy than we’re used to on a long passage. Snug in my cushion coffin arrangement, which has now become a permanent feature, we sleep deeply when off watch so we can enjoy the daylight hours and pour ourselves into cooking, fishing, playing and lounging. Our hefty stock of ripe and nearly ripe fresh goods keeps us in omelettes, snacks and salad. Rich, who usually finds cooking a frustrating chore, uses his new pressure cooker to rattle out delicious stews, soups and curries, fleshed out with the meat of small, unfortunate dorado fish.

Under Pressure

Gwen’s classic downwind pose, all canvas and no knickers

Found this poor sod on deck one morning

Pretty, though, eh?

My culinary efforts have been less impressive. One evening, as I turned to open the oven door, the vegetable bake I had lovingly crafted skidded down the galley surface on a sudden jolt of the boat. It mounted the fiddle that should have kept it in place and launched itself at the floor opposite. I screamed. It went everywhere. Helpfully, Rich wandered over to tell me how I could have avoided that happening. I scolded him and my ruined dinner until they both apologised and admitted to poor timing.

The fourth night was warmer and cloudier than those before, and before the beaming moon (which rises later and smaller each night) made its appearance I found myself surrounded by darkness. An underwater thunderstorm of phosphorescent lights began to pulse in Gwen’s wake, small bursts that exploded and dissolved away. Soon there were more either side of the boat. Dolphins danced among them, puffing their familiar exhalations as the rhythmic lights flashed like Michael Jackson’s pavement stones. I could hear them all too well. The wind was beginning to die.

The next morning I was woken early by a call from Rich. “Do you want to see a whale up close?” I popped my head and then my body out of the bedroom hatch to join him in gawping at the mass that Gwen slowly approached: the huge log-like upper edge of a sperm whale, rising and falling barely five metres away as it passed, grey and heavy in the citrus pink haze of sunrise. The back end was resting, the front of it was breathing through a large spurting hole and all of it, presumably, was sleeping soundly.

The cloud and the last of the wind were left behind with the whale. We spent the rest of the day becalmed in sunshine, using the redundant sails for shade, reading Treasure Island out loud and playing mankala with the wrong rules. It’s easier to spot wildlife on a flat calm sea, and we saw dolphins, turtles and a little shark as well as the dragonflies that seem to gather in a lack of wind out here. We also spotted the first of a few sailing yachts, though only on the AIS receiver. While we’ve traced 120 miles off the coast of Western Sahara for safety from pirates that may or may not exist, these others are taking the direct diagonal route from Lanzarote to the Cape Verdes on their way across the pond.

The waves receded. Looking over the side of the boat you could see tendrils of light emenating from your shadow, caught on the faintest of invisible ripples. When Gwen reached a complete standstill we took it in turns to jump off the bowsprit, swimming or rinsing off briefly in the surprisingly warm ocean before climbing out in case a shark had got a whiff of us.

Very very busy half-steering and reading

Becalmed is a beautiful place to visit

Testing out the “getting back on board” system…

…and then leaping in

The next days were cloudy and grey, monochrome prints of the ones before with only Gwen and her garish paint job not in Kansas any more. One morning I had made breakfast and coffee and gone for a nap when I was woken by an unusual clatter. The boat seemed to be moving faster, which made sense, but there were noises unrelated to speed – bashing, toppling and grunts of effort. I bounced down to the cockpit, which was awash with blood. “Is everything alright, dear?”. Rich proudly showed me the enormous bonito he’d caught and hauled on board, the cooking and consumption of which became our biggest project for the following 24 hours.

For the last couple of days we’ve never been more than five minutes from sight of a flying fish. Usually in flocks of three to ten, they emerge and soar gracefully just above the water for longer than you’d think possible, sometimes arching their bodies to skip off the top of a wave before sploshing hilariously back into the water. We watch them with an amused spare eye as we shower in salt water on the foredeck or read in the cockpit. We’re back to whistling merrily along with the wind behind us, full of the exhilaration of a large blue world, getting better at spotting wildlife as the distinction between sea and not sea grows more obvious.

Look at this smug git

gambia0107

Take-off and bounce poses

Our whole time in the Canaries we chatted giddily about getting to the Gambia. We could never have imagined that the journey there would be worth as much excitement. Tomorrow we’ll turn landward, but neither of us would mind a longer holiday out here in nowhere. Rich is strumming a Lady Gaga song I taught him on the ukulele, I’m shark spotting in the hot setting sun (I’ve just seen a whopper), Gwen’s bimbling at a peaceful three knots and we’re discussing the 12km of chain (3:1 minimum, to be safe) we’d need to drop anchor here and shun the land for a few days more. Sadly we only have 80m.

To be continued..

(In the meantime, here’s a wee gallery of less than perfect nature photography)

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

tim01

Top geyser

tim02

Journey to a post-apocalyptic world inhabited only by buses

tim06

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

tim07

Papagayo. Not bad.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A closer look at the rocks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and the beach nestled inside most of a volcanic crater.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

gran11

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

gran12

unless you have amazing sunglasses.

gran13

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.

gran16

Football stadium/park

gran17

Park/football stadium

gran19

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

gran20

Coo

gran21

Coo

gran22

Botanical gardens: hello green.

gran23

Crouching Tricia, hidden dragon.

gran24

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

gran25

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

gran26

Spiky green. 

gran27

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.

gran14

Seven Days Between Spain

It’s a long one. Do you need a drink? Have you had a wee? Okay then, let’s begin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Day 1

Wednesday
The river crackles beneath us as we wake a little groggy after an evening of beers that I rowed triumphantly to Gwen against tide and wind. We’ve moved her back up the river now, and my plan for the day is to row a little way down the Guadilquivir to Donana and try to get a lift on one of the ferries over to the town. We check the weather forecast, as we do every morning, and notice that our planned departure for the Canaries on Thursday is looking difficult. Rich doesn’t want to tell me his thinking because he knows that I had my heart set on some relaxing time alone exploring the town. He lets me work it out for myself, then grins when I say “well, it looks like the best time to leave is today”. I grin back. It’s happening.

We relax (and I write a blog post) for a few hours, then set to stowing our crap and preparing the sails. The tide is with us and the wind gently against us as we motor out of the river between widely spaced marker buoys. They are well maintained, each with its own light, AIS beacon and defensive seagull. I am relieved that the speed of our decision to depart means I haven’t had time to worry. I’m excited. Fishing boats pass us on their return to the river, the men smiling and waving in the sunshine. Goodbye again, mainland Spain.

At the end of the channel we hoist sails. Our journey starts close hauled, straining to the wind to the point of luffing, and we don’t make a particularly good course but we don’t mind because we’ve got a week of sailing to come. We can’t change our minds now, just take what we’re given, so 25 degrees off course at a decent speed will have to do. Then as evening draws in the wind buggers off.

The annoying thing about being almost becalmed is not just that you don’t make progress. That’s crap enough. It’s not even that you lose steering ability, which we do just as I’m entering a shipping channel in the dark, oh joy of joys. It’s the knocking about: the staysail sheets scraping whatever they touch, the main sail jolting the boom against the mast, back and forth with every tiny gust or shove of the miniscule waves, even with a preventer rope holding it out. I get a headache and scowl. When a little wind appears I can just about get Wedge to hold our course which means I can finally let go of the tiller to admire stars that shine like bullet holes piercing a black tin roof.


lan0201

Day 2

Thursday
On the sunrise watch I am giddy with emotion and lack of sleep. We are passing as close as we will to the entrance of the Gibraltar straits and I hear a warning on the VHF:

“Pan pan, pan pan, all ships, all ships, a small boat is reported at (location), 20 people on board”

You hear these every night in the entrance to the Mediterrenean. You can’t help but think of that small, cramped, unsafe boat. The waves are rising, but even here on the edge of an ocean the conditions are more favourable than back there in the straits where current and wind and huge tankers funnel through, sometimes against each other. What would it be like to be drifting in those violent seas in the dark, in a tiny boat with 19 other people? Where have they come from? How will they be treated once the spotter plane has gone and the authorities find them by boat? Do I want them to be found or not?

I pick up my camera and distract myself, grateful and ashamed in the tiny paradise of our cockpit. We are going more downwind now, at a good speed, and I admire how Gwen passes between the rolling waves. We balance to one side then the other in a motion that is irregular, gentler on the big waves than the short, sharp thudders. Inside the boat this motion feels multiplied – it is a challenge by day, and by night it is a painful, draining bore. I read my book, play some uke, photograph the double denim view and doodle in my sketchbook, pleasures that are small and easily stowed. By lunchtime we are further south than we have ever been.

Evening brings stronger winds. Even with two reefs in the main we are doing seven or eight knots, and don’t I know it, sliding on the cockpit seat and trying to brace myself against anything that’s bolted down. Looking out to sea is as hypnotic and calming as watching a camp fire, catching glassy peaks in the frothing tips of approaching waves that look otherwise solid. As Rich cooks the fish I caught in the afternoon (I am in charge of fishing on this trip for the first time, and I am nailing it: this is the third I’ve caught) I remember one of the great joys of high, noisy winds: singing your lungs out against them. I scream “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” to the sky and for those two minutes I am as happy as a human can be.

We decide to reduce sail again for the night, which involves Rich shuffling on to a foredeck that is tipping, soaring and crashing down with some force. I am not sent forward for jobs in these conditions because I am less experienced, and for once that’s a relief. He clips on, brings down the jib and sends the forestay back out bare. I am weirdly thrilled, like a spectator to a dangerous sport, as I watch his leaping sillhouette work against a red stripe of sunset while water splashes up on to the side decks. I wonder if it’s a good thing that I’m getting used to this shit. When it looks like he’s done and on his way back to safety I have a tiny joyful cry of relief.

On my first night watch a single, mountainous wave maliciously times itself to thunder down on the deck of the boat. It covers everything, including me. I am sat in the companionway, facing forward with my legs on the ladder beneath me, and am surprised not so much by the wetness as the weight of the water. I laugh and go inside where I have to change out of my soaking jeans in the dark, staggering around and bracing myself against cupboards and galley surfaces. I’m already wearing my waterproof coat but can’t find the rest of my wet weather gear by the weak night light that’s tinted red to preserve our night vision. I have been sailing commando, and the most unpleasant thing about the whole experience is having to sail the rest of the watch with my bare bottom inside Richard’s grim old salopettes.


lan03.jpg

Day 3

Friday
Somehow every time Rich goes for a nap a new tanker appears on the AIS on a collision course with Gwen. There’s plenty of time to make adjustments to avoid it, but it’s not fun having to concentrate and keep returning to the computer to check our relative paths. The waves are at their largest now, probably two or three metres, more regular and predictable since they organised themselves into long deep lines. You don’t really get a chance to admire their height – as soon as they’re near you you’re already climbing up them – but their evenness reduces the jerking that was everywhere yesterday. Overnight I dreamed that we were out here, in the undulating blue, and there was a woman in a pink swimsuit and pale bathing cap doing a front crawl across a wave with a podgy kid in an inflatable ring bobbing nearby. They were on holiday, 100 miles west of Casablanca.

If I am a supportive sister to Gwen then I am an abusive mother to Geordi LaForge the wind vane, flitting between almost tearful pride when he’s behaving to “what the fuck, Geordi? Keep a course you stupid twat” when I have to rush to adjust him. His disobediences aside, it is a lovely day. Rich and I have settled in to our alternating pattern of watches though we are surprised how tired we still are and how many nap breaks we need. The afternoons are the only time we both feel awake, and then it is great to hug, listen to a podcast together, chat shit or make plans – little things that keep our joys united.

We continue to speed on into the night, and my first watch is spent in silent admiration of the elements. On my second I’m back in tanker avoidance mode, struggling to get us back on course, dealing along the way with noisy clanks that must be tidied quiet and tugging gusts that must be compensated in the steering. Once they’re dealt with I feel tense, my head groaning in the cacophonous wind. I remember my friend Chappa saying “I bet you see amazing skies out there at night”, and I think to look up, and everything’s alright again. The milky way is a broad stroke of white mist around which playful constellations are splattered. Occasional bursts of phosphorescence in the waves reply to their cosmic call.

I have thought of my friends often on this passage. I have spent whole watches fantasising about seeing or collaborating with some of them again, and others resolving to visit those whose weddings or parties we missed while we were too busy or broke during Gwen’s renovation. I am busy in the middle of some such reverie when I notice that Gwen is making music. The whistle through the rigging is usually too high pitched to be pleasant, but right now there is a discernible phrase, the beginning of a melody over a low drone repeating in different rhythms. I run inside to note it down. If Gwen sings then I want to know her song.


lan04.jpg

Day 4

Saturday
A fun, chilly shower on the wobbly foredeck elevates a mood that was already splendid from having had a little real sleep. Most off-watch rests consist of some half sleep and some “maybe I slept” sleep (you have to concede that you probably did, because look at the time that’s passed) but now I’ve actually had a couple of hours of solid zzzz and that makes all the difference. I note how wonderfully Rich and I are working together, and how pleased we always are to see each other. We have now sailed more than three thousand miles together in total. I wonder whether the key to a happy relationship is being awake at different times.

That night, to prove me wrong, we have a short shouty argument between night shifts. Fortunately this causes Rich to storm off to bed instead of poling out the staysail, which we’d planned to do and which would have buggered up my chances of steering in the side wind that rises and falls on my watch. The sky is coated in cloud which is illuminated by the unseen moon, and I can see everything on deck for a change. It’s not terribly interesting, so I put on a podcast and watch the waves. Rich likes to spend most of his night watches inside, popping out every ten or fifteen minutes for a good look around. I go the other way, staying outside with the wind and water, briefly checking inside every now and then. I feel great out there.


lan0501.jpg

Day 5

Sunday
The wind is dropping but waves subside more slowly so we roll badly for most of the morning. With poor sleep and an argument hanging over us from last night we are pissy enough, and when Rich barks orders at me while putting up a bit more sail, seeming to dismiss my input, I bite back. We yell a bit then move to opposite ends of the boat. Our speed drops to one or two knots as the confused sails and clouded sky share our grumpy, deflated mood.

Wildlife comes to our rescue. I notice a dragonfly flit around the boat, pausing occasionally to rest on guard wires and ropes. Rich sees it too. It is green and yellow, but when we next spot it it’s bright red. We realise it is actually three different dragonflies making journeys around and across Gwen. We ask each other questions we can’t answer. How did they get here? Did we bring them with us? Have they hatched somewhere on board? Do dragonflies migrate? We are ninety miles from the nearest land. An hour later we stop counting at twenty dragonflies, all in greens, yellows and reds. They line up on the guard wires, wings fluttering in unison as the boat rises and drops, and cling to the foredeck and push pit. One unfortunate sod gets squished under our snubber rope. They seem less afraid of us than before and let us photograph them up close.

Then, hearing a quiet whooshing sound, we see the first of a pod of pilot whales following the boat. There are ten or more of them of different sizes coming to the surface quite regularly, showing a glimpse of their stubby heads only in the first break of the surface. They move sedately, their arcs like those of lazy dolphins in a slow motion replay, sometimes pausing for ten seconds in our view. Rich says they’re resting after fishing in the depths (we’re currently floating on 4km of water), and that they might be half asleep. We look at them for so long we don’t notice the dragonflies leave.

That evening I start reading Treasure Island to Rich while he sews us a quarantine flag from the fabric of a cheap and tacky yellow scarf we bought for this purpose. Neither of us has read it before despite its mythology being present all our lives: we’ve even watched three and a half seasons of Black Sails, and we live on the sea, so this needs to change. We have all our canvas up and only a little wind on this calm water, but things seem much better. Once Rich has gone to bed and the sun has set I listen to Gwen in the waveless water: the bow sploshing down, tinkles glancing her sides and the steady trickle behind me that says we’re actually moving. We’re doing four knots but you wouldn’t believe it if the computer didn’t say so.


lan0601.jpg

Day 6

Monday
The big wind is back and we reduce sail all day, wanting to slow down and reach Lanzarote in the safety of the morning, not the dark of the night. The big waves are back too, and they’re from directly behind us. It’s an awesome feeling to climb out of the companionway after writing in the log to find a wave as wide as you can see and much higher than both your head and the concealed horizon, with which you would normally be level, coming towards you. Somehow instead of crushing you beneath its weight it swoops beneath you, carries you a little and gives you a fantastic view of the next, which hurries forward in its place, before it is gone.

It feels good to be back in the huge, and I feel like I’ll miss it – the constant movement, the oxygen levels, the company of wind and wave and shearwaters. By nightfall we’re down to just one sail, the jib, and we’re still doing four knots, which in contrast to last night feel like seven. Having only one headsail up means you don’t have to worry about gybing accidentally, and you can do it deliberately very easily on your own, so I have little to worry about.

Inside, things are a little more difficult. We are going almost straight downwind and the boat is rolling like never before. The few loose possessions that hadn’t yet reached the floor are now making it their home. In bed in a roll like this your body slides no matter how you arrange yourself – usually helpful diagonal prostrations or sideways-on fetal poses make no difference to your ability to sleep. Sometimes your skin stays in place while your bones and organs bash about within it. Sometimes your whole head or torso gets jerked around. Maybe you headbutt a cupboard, but that only happens once. After two hours of noisy discontent on my first off-watch I go into the saloon, grab upholstery from the sofas and arrange it in the bed, leaving only a human shaped slot in the centre into which I squeeze myself. This cushioned coffin does me well for half an hour’s sleep, after which I pass it on to Rich as proudly as he passes me the brilliant near-full moon. “They’ve left the big lights on” he smiles. “I’ve made the bed amazing” I beam back. In my second rest of the night I sleep like a log right through.


lan07.jpg

Day 7

Tuesday
The huge yellow moon plays peek-a-boo behind the clouds over Lanzarote, then sinks below it. All that can be seen of the island is a silhouette of mountains and strips of street and navigational lights – they produce their own golden glow. Then the sun rises and everything becomes visible: wind farms, shipyards, great volcanic mountains, a city by the sea, our first land since Wednesday. We approach quickly but we are prepared having woken and drunk coffee in plenty of time to ready Gwen, her anchors and her engine. By ten in the morning we are anchored in a windy corner off Arreceife, drinking the beer we had promised ourselves on arrival, before going to bed.

We’ve sailed over 600 miles, saluted six sunsets, taken four showers, spent £0, eaten all the fruit, caught three fish and had two arguments. I’ve banged my head three times, cried twice (okay, okay, probably more) and made a spectacular biryani. Rich has shaved his head, read up on (and got us much more excited about) the Gambia, and sown a flag that it turns out we don’t need yet. We’ve had very little sleep, all of it in bursts of less than 2.5 hours. My brain has burped up “well, a rest is as good as a rest” and “the waves are really coming in waves now”. Gwen has been incredible, and her rig has withstood everything we and the wind could throw at it, a testament to Richard’s skill and knowledge. We’ve been ludicrously happy most of the time, and we’ve got somewhere. Not bloody bad.

SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Atlantic 2: The Return


Three calm nights and busy days passed in our berth in Almerimar. One morning we fixed the rubbed stitching on the seams of the mainsail, which we laid out on a tarp on the street. Now that we didn’t need it to cool off, the wind that had been absent while we’d painted and panted began hoofing down the harbour sides, trying to take the sail from us as we fed huge rotating rolls of it through the single tooth of Rich’s Singer sewing machine. Rich made a new plastic wedge for holding the tiller when Geordi can’t. I named it “Wedge” after Wedge Antilles. We bought new (second hand) bikes, exploded one tyre and stowed them under the bed. We wrote lists and ticked tasks off; vittled, tidied and laundered.

Our afternoon came and the sun nudged clouds aside as a breeze shook the telltails. After burning out with work we were finally preparing to leave the marina to return to the soothing sea. Our bodies were still twisted stiff from the heavy stuff before, but all we had to do was leave the marina and drop anchor just outside, put out the bowsprit and prepare the sails for the next day’s voyage. As we motored away we chatted and sang and waved to neighbours we’d hardly met beneath the higgledy rooftops of the commercial units that run round the three fingers of the town’s marina. We’d walked out the night before to check the spot where we hoped to drop the hook – it had seemed just about sheltered enough from the strong south easterly. But as Gwen rounded the corner by the marina office we saw that a catamaran had got there first. Not only that but tall waves, white capped and curvaceous, were thumping into it and growing in to the distance in every direction we looked. We emerged from the marina entrance into a whistling yachtsman’s gale.

Wind and wave hurtled in to Gwen’s side, bouncing her back and forth. We hadn’t prepared for this. I took the tiller as hair escaped its band to whip my eyes, and tried to find us another spot, but the catamaran dominated the only area that was anything like shelter. Without the bowsprit we couldn’t raise the gib, and the main would have been too much to handle, but we had to go somewhere, do something. Windsurfers darted past and capsized. I steered us in to the intensifying waves to reduce the roll while Rich clambered forward, tying down things we’d thought we could leave loose. He tied a reef in the staysail, the one sail we could use, and after what felt like hours he hoisted it. By the time he returned to me I was in pieces, trying not to cry but yelping with fear for him in each bash of the bigger waves. I turned Gwen downwind, switched off the engine and shook myself sane as we sailed west, bowspritless and battered.

Looking at the chart it was clear that there would be no shelter until we rounded the peninsula by Ensenada de los Berengueles, where we had intended to head the next day. It would be a noisy overnight sail before we’d see that familiar cliff face where we snorkeled and swam last year. When the wind finally calmed in the early hours of the morning it was still impossible to raise any more sail, so we shook out our reef and spent short night watches steering in all sorts of directions to keep some sort of pace. By lunchtime we had sailed 50 miles and were finally dropping the anchor to enjoy the rest that we had popped out for the night before.

We spent one night off the long tourist beach of Cala del Perro and four more round the corner beneath the pretty built-up cliff face of Ensenada de los Berengueles, where we snorkeled and swam as we’d hoped. For the first two days I stayed in a wetsuit as the water was teeming with the same small purple brown jellyfish we’d often seen in Illettas. I wondered if I was overreacting until a local kid in a kayak paddled up with his mates to show us the yellow jellyfish “la medusa” he’d caught, lifting it up with his hands for us to see. When I pointed to the Illettas jellies that were twisting and bobbing beneath his boat he squealed and paddled quickly away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Spot the fish

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The jellies we now call “Illettas”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And over here, bubbles from divers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rich found a cavern that could only be reached by going underwater, which gave me a great chance to try out my Brian Cox pose

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beneath the boat, a busy world

ens07

Ensenada de los Berengueles

The bright blue sea shook in a pleasant breeze that pacified the sun’s blaze. We got internet access (and, crucially, Game of Thrones) at the nearby marina’s bar and caught some live dance music and a spectacular fireworks display as part of some local fiesta. Still, I felt low. Rich had been in charge for the whole of our refit efforts in Almerimar and work had produced its usual mania and detachment in him, fueled by time constraints and high expectation, which were just starting to ease off. But I would continue to be under his direction for as long as we were sailing together. In moments above the surface of the water I considered what I really wanted from our trip, and how many more hairy encounters with the sea and the sky I could take.

After a beer one night I started talking to Rich about what it meant to be in my position, because I sometimes think he has no idea. Sailing away had always been his dream – I joined him in that, I benefit from that and I’m always there to collaborate and contribute, but I also have things I want to do that he doesn’t contribute to or benefit from, so I feel quite lonely in those pursuits when there’s only two of us around. Our lives are based around moving with his work, so I rarely find an interesting job opportunity or earn enough to fund my own projects. I told him that it’s really hard to be told what to do and critiqued on what you’re doing all the time, whether it’s when working on the boat or sailing, especially when it’s by someone you’re supposed to be in an equal relationship with, and that sailing the boat is so tiring that I rarely have the energy for other things I’d like to do. I paced myself, careful not to accuse, after all, I chose this life, and it’s wonderful. I told him, finally, that I don’t think I want to keep going after next year’s Caribbean run. I’m ready for something new, so within a year, I want time to find it. If that means selling Gwen (I had a cry at this point, as you can imagine) then maybe we’ll have to do that too, or find somewhere to keep her still for a year or two where I can find projects of my own. Rich agreed and smiled and joined in and probably mostly got what I was on about. We both needed another beer.

Once we’d relaxed enough and the wind was looking right we decided to move on. I hoisted the sails and the anchor while Rich steered (I’m getting good practice in with the ropes) and then collapsed in an exhausted heap beside him at the tiller. How the hell did he do all that for all of last year? A rough plan suggested that if we headed far enough south we could catch a good wind to be in Gibraltar early the next evening. That was a lovely idea. In the less logical world of reality we had another night of being becalmed or crawling at two knots – an apt farewell to the “all or nothing” Mediterranean – and approached the rock, Gwen’s first sight of Britain for a year, at sunset. To our delight we were flanked by several pods of dolphins who leapt from the fronts of waves that had formed over the day.

 

dolf01dolf02dolf03

Entering the straits was as chaotic as it had been the first time, and our speed that had crept from two to four knots over the day suddenly rocketed to seven as we joined the tidal stream. We made it round the rock in the black of night. Gwen pointed in one direction and traveled almost sideways in another that was similar but different. All the guides say you can’t anchor off Gibraltar so we had booked a place in one of its marinas, and once we’d dropped the sails in the strangely shifting wind and current I had to hold Gwen still(ish) and steady(ish) by motor, staying clear of dimly lit ferries and parked tankers, so Rich could go forward and retract our bowsprit to fit us into the berth. It’s not an easy job when we’re both on it, but alone in the howling and rolling it destroyed him, and there was much yelling from us both before it was done, at the boat, the wind and each other.

Once we were ready to go in I called VTS on our VHF radio: “do we have permission to proceed, over?” “proceed, out” and then the marina. There was no response. I tried again, checking that the radio was working properly over the roar of the wind and the grind of our engine. I tried the alternative channel given on their website. I tried the channel mentioned in the email I’d received with the booking confirmation. Nothing. Finally, a voice responded: “Gwendolyn, Queensway Quay marina is closed, and we are full, over” “We have reserved a place, and their website says 24/7, over”. After a short, pleasant enough conversation with the mystery voice we were advised to anchor outside another marina on the Spanish side of the border and wait until morning. We put our Spanish courtesy flag back up, and trundled on for another half an hour to La Linea.

When we woke we found ourselves in a fine location, well protected from the easterly wind, with a great viewpoint of the rock and the huge cloud that forms on and tumbles over it. We decided to stay anchored there and rowed off with our passports in hand to find the border, where the cloud announced the change of country more eloquently than any signage could by completely covering the sun.

Gibraltar has all of the overstated patriotic adornments you’d expect, but it’s also a lot more than the little Britain redneck town I’d been imagining after our time in Magalufs and Benidorms. It is swathed in marks of different eras and nationalities, from tunnels and bastions to Irish and American bars, Indian food shops and Spanish outdoor eateries. Though there is a ludicrous amount of building work going on in the outskirts its town centre is all cobbled narrow alleys, and on our first trip we didn’t stray far from there, bouncing between the array of duty free electronics shops that are no cheaper than any back home. On the next we went up the rock and saw the barbary apes, my favourite of whom was my first: a big lad sat upright on the steps as we got off the cable car. I had looked forward so much to seeing one it amazed me that he was there, so soon and so tame, regarding me with grumpy blankness before shifting his disdain to the passenger behind me. I put Gib on the list of possible places where we could possibly settle and possibly start possible projects.

gib03

Sunset heading towards Gib and the huge cloud that spills from it

gib02

Cable cars make you smile

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

See?

gib08

Gwen is just off to the right, behind the runway and the two moles

gib12

Peaking

gib10

The drop

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Primate solidarity. Unimpressed.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We found a Nissen hut built in a hollowed out chamber in the rock. I used to work in one, so I felt very at home.

gib01

More four legged friends

gib05

and six legged

gib04

and those who only stayed still for a second

Every morning we checked the weather to see if we could leave for our big trip, the biggest we’ll have done, to the Canaries. Every morning the weather said the same thing – you can leave in the next 24 hours or it’ll be at least a week. The weather would give us that one last chance to go, and we’d say “nah, we’re quite tired actually, think we’ll stay here for that week” until eventually it was getting beyond a joke. Rich has a job lined up in Lanzarote and though we’ve still got plenty of time to get there I began to see that tension, the workaholic in him, wanting to keep moving. We’d had a good rest, so we got vittled and got out.

By the morning we departed the weather report wasn’t looking quite so great for getting us to the Canaries, but we were ready to leave so we decided to at least get through the straits and explore somewhere else in Atlantic Spain. After nearly a year in the Med we sailed back in to a world where colossal waves and tidal streams exist, and got a good dose of them both by shooting downwind in 25 knots of wind to enter a river channel at Rio Guadalquivir, in which we are now anchored beside a nature reserve called Donana. Yesterday, on the muddy shore beside us, Rich saw a wild boar snuffling for crabs. Beneath us the crackle of fish is so loud that he frequently checks it’s not raining.

bon01

Rich rows while I play with the camera (we swapped later, honest)

Bonanza crab

One of Donana’s many crabs

bon03

Herons keep watch for us

bon04

Bird, beetle, lizard (we think)

bon05

Teeny tiny snail shells

bon06

Walking over to the National Park. Not much later we got kicked out. You’re not supposed to walk in.

Our last sail wasn’t stress free either, and I struggle sometimes with doubts about our journey. I had been so excited about sailing when we left the Balearics, but the fraught disappointments and scary surprises of our recent trips and the frailty of my sense of agency have left me enjoying it less and less. Is this just big ocean cold feet? I have been using this rest to shake myself sensible, but I still don’t know.

I imagine what will really put it in perspective is a good old week-long sail to the Canaries. The weather says we might as well try this afternoon. I’d better get stowing. I seem to be pretty excited, so that’s a good start.

SaveSave

Costa del Solitude

Written by Richard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

First cape of the trip

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A nice view and plenty of time to appreciate it

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

…and the first drops fall

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