Seven Days Between Spain

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

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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.

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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.

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Spot the fish

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The jellies we now call “Illettas”

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And over here, bubbles from divers

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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

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Beneath the boat, a busy world

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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.

 

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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.

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

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Cable cars make you smile

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See?

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

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Peaking

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The drop

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Primate solidarity. Unimpressed.

 

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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.

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More four legged friends

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and six legged

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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.

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

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One of Donana’s many crabs

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Herons keep watch for us

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Bird, beetle, lizard (we think)

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Teeny tiny snail shells

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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…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.

Get Away

Rich finished work and we began our last week in Mallorca with celebratory beers. My painting efforts stepped up: the toe rails turned yellow and Rich helped me finish the rubbing strakes’ orange. On Illetas’ little island, hanging from hammocks strung between trees that buzzed with huge crickets, we said goodbye to the gang of curious lizards that had recently become our friends. Their tiny mouths tickled our fingers as they nibbled them before climbing up our arms or robbing scraps from our food.

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During our time in Mallorca our pinecone hedgehog got so hot that he opened up and shed his seed.

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Adios Palmanova

We motored over to Palmanova for a last laundry and shop and were nearly ready: tiller tightened, bikes folded away, crap mostly stowed. All that remained was to fill up the water, and when that seemed impossible on Thursday morning because of some fat motor yacht clogging up the nearby marina’s pontoon we thought “sod it” and sailed away without. We only meant to sail for a couple of hours, as far as the south of Mallorca, to pop into a different marina for water and anchor somewhere new before our big trip. But we were sailing, and it felt so good.

“Shall we just carry on to Ibiza?” I asked Rich.
“I was just going to ask you the same thing” he replied.

About fifteen miles south of Mallorca the wind died. Ah yes, this was the other reason we were going to wait until tomorrow. We turned on the engine to get us that bit further south to where larger speeds were predicted, but after twenty minutes of making strange swooping noises, that also gave up the ghost.

“Have we definitely got enough deisel?” I called down to Rich, who was trying to revive the engine with swearwords. “Yes, of course” he replied. He’d already assured me of this several times in the preceding weeks. He didn’t sound happy, so I went back to pretending to sail.

Half an hour later, when he had finally run out of expletives, he called back up to me. “Yeah, we’ve run out of deisel”.

Gwen limped onwards into the afternoon. Though lack of fuel was annoying it was a relief that there was not some larger problem with our engine, and we were reminded that we don’t really need it. Didn’t we sail all the way from the Scillies to Concarneau without one? Hadn’t we done without motoring for almost all of our trip to the Med? By the time the wind returned we were happily reminding ourselves that getting becalmed and enjoying a rest is part of our sailing life.

That wasn’t the only thing that we had forgotten in nine long months in Mallorca. We hung over the guard wires and stared, mesmerised by the deep blue of the open sea, so intense compared to the turquoise bays to which we’d become accustomed. It is a blue I have sought out all my life, one that points more towards purple than green; the blue of cornflowers and my favourite painting in the Tate Modern. At sunset a huge mottled dolphin with a blunt round head joined us for sundowner drinks – “to Alex and Simon, to Gwen and Geordi, to you and me and the dolphin” – and then swam down deep and away from us.

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Our Spanish courtesy flag got some much needed repairs

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 Broken Britain. Our British ensign is due to be replaced next week

That evening I took the first night watch. The dark sky’s clouds cracked to expose a few stars and the sea scurried from left to right like a billion rats under dark grey silk. A steady wind helped Geordi hold our course, and kept me feeling fresh in a heat that outlived the light. I had been looking forward to another night sail, and finally, here it was. Later I woke Rich promptly half an hour before his watch was to start, adhering to a new “don’t be nice to each other” shift pattern that we’ve decided to implement this year – if you don’t let the other person lie in, the rota doesn’t turn into a sludgy “oh I don’t know” mess by morning. It seems to work well.

By 9am we’d crossed the passage between Ibiza and its neighbour Formentera and sailed on to the anchor in plenty of wind just outside the channel entrance to the latter’s harbour. We could see the fuel dock where we would get deisel and water and were dropping the oars and rollocks into Fanny the dinghy, who we’d just thrown in the water, when a marina boat approached. Inside it a short, solitary marinero was waxing his musketeer beard to gear himself up for some Grade A jobsworth power play.

“You see the buoys, you have to outside the buoys” he shouted across.
“We’re sorry, sir, we just want to stop for five minutes to get deisel”
“No, no no. You have to move out the channel”
“Yes, but please, we have no deisel, and we will only row quickly…”
“Oh, I report you.”
“No, sorry, we will move, we will move”

We lifted the anchor and managed to sail Gwen further in to the tight space between the next anchored yacht and a stone wall, with me steering and loosening the main while Rich backed the gib. Satisfied that we were now well outside of the buoys we dropped the anchor again.

He returned.

“You go outside the buoys”
“We are outside the buoys. Please sir, just for five minutes, we don’t have any deisel”

He began writing with dramatic strokes, squinting up to Gwen and back to his A4 pad.

“Okay, I report. What is your country?”
“England”
“England, and what is your boat name?”
“Okay… we will go.”
“You go. You go.”

It took another effortsome maneuver to winch up the anchor and navigate round the other assembled boats (who were presumably well outside of the buoys?), not helped by the shouts of our clearly delighted torturer. Finally, as we cleared the anchorage and headed in to the channel, he looked straight at me and yelled “Relaxing! Relaxing!”

I turned to Rich, fuming. “Relaxing?”

The wind was high and the sea was getting choppy, and the splashy effort of tacking in to it delighted us both so much we were too thrilled to stay angry. In truth we were rather proud of ourselves for our close quarters sailing skills. Once we got close enough to see exposed Ibiza town we changed our minds about anchoring there, and eventually stopped on the other side of the island beneath the airport. Rich went on an exhausting walk for a little water and fuel from a gas station four miles away while I tidied away the sail gear, and then we slept for fourteen hours beneath the booming engines of landing planes.

We left the next morning. This year I want to get good at every part of everything there is to do on the boat, so I decided to take Rich’s usual role of raising the anchor and foresails and backing the gib to sail us away. I worked up quite a sweat hauling on the windlass handle and halliards, and remained mostly naked for the next two days to cool off.

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Cherry ice cream smile, I suppose it’s very nice

Most people will tell you that sailing in the Med is a nightmare because it gives you either all the wind or no wind, but that afternoon and evening reminded me of my fondness for it. In those few days between all or nothing, up and down, there are spaces for passages full of simple joys. There’s no tide, so you don’t have to worry about struggling with wind against tide choppiness or calculating anchoring heights. And there’s no cold, so you relish the normally nippy breeze of an upwind passage and can do your night watches in light sleeves. And as I mentioned, the sea is very blue.

By the next morning I was less enamoured. Darkness finally retreated on my second night watch, and the rising sun illuminated the mainsail hanging bedraggled over the boom and around the gaff. It had been lowered at 1am to quieten the slapping and creaking that persisted without the wind’s power to hold it taut. The whole thing was sticking out on the starboard side of the boat, pinned in place by a preventer rope to the bow intended to stop it banging back and forth as we wobbled violently along. The staysail was poled out to port, inflating then swooning back in tiny puffs that within its white triangle were somehow still propelling us at one knot. At the tiller, I blinked in exhaustion. I had not slept a wink.

In my weary half-drunkedness I noticed that some of the passing bubbles on the surface of the water looked a bit weird, as though they’d collapsed to a central line but were still there like they were made of plastic. Later when I’d had a nap I pointed these occasional anomalies out to Rich. They appeared now to be clear circular discs with an upright clear vane in the centre, perhaps with a little purple or brown. Rich wondered if they were jellyfish, and by the time I came up on deck from my second nap of the day he was perched at the edge of the deck trying to catch one in a pot on a stick. I spotted them for him from the fordeck and soon we had one to gawp at up close.

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What have you got there, lad?

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We googled this later. It’s velella velella, possibly a relative of the portugese man of war, but they’re not 100% sure.

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Sunset, with the mainland in sight (somewhere over that way is Calpe)

A pod of pilot whales arched through the waves in twos and threes before sundown. I don’t remember much about that night’s watches, which must be a good sign, but it appears I did dash below decks at some point to scribble the following: I am a warrior queen atop her sea chariot, straddling a saddle, metal breastplate, colour flying in her hair, singing jazz warcries with descending basslines, chasing the moon.

A night watch will do that to you.

The next morning, yesterday, we arrived here at the Mar Menor. It is an inland sea, shallow enough to anchor anywhere, separated from the real sea by a thin “Manga” covered in apartment blocks that are lined up like bar charts. We spent the night in an unfinished marina at the entrance and today waited for the two-hourly bridge opening to enter the sea by a short canal. We finally have water and fuel from a marina at the entrance, and we are tired, but we are so happy. We have worked hard, but for the next few months, we are free.

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Aye, pod.

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The rusting structures that were once to be a marina, where we spent our first night by the mainland

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Entering the Mar Menor

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Not quite crystal blue. These 70s styled jellyfish are thriving in the polluted waters of the Mar Menor.

Hello adventure, it’s good to be back.

Not At Home

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Flamingos on Calpe’s salt marshes

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

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

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Last sunset over mainland Spain

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Cheerio Penon de Ifach. Love you.

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

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

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

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

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Pretty spatters and run-offs not captured very well here

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Mallorca looking less than inviting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Small waves swing us softly like a nursery rhyme mother. The view from a porthole flips from sea to coast to sky and back. The rig rumbles quietly above and a cup ticks against its shelf in the galley. I light the cooker – first with a slosh of meths, poured on and clicked alight, and when that’s gone out with the paraffin hob – pressurised liquid freshly heated into vapour. Water is foot-pumped into the kettle and that goes on, and I climb on deck in the cool of the morning, watching the world until I hear the whistle blow. We’re in Calpe, another tourist town but a rather spectacular one thanks to an enormous rock, the Penon de Ifach, whose shaft towers over the marina beside which we’re anchored and is shading me to the tune of a chorus of seagulls. Sadly, our stay here hasn’t all been this peaceful.

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Quick quiz: What do you find at the top of this rock?

Our intention had been to leave Almeria, head east around Cabo de Gata and then north for Cartagena. On our first day we tried to sidestep the wind that blew into the bay, but at greater and greater angles against it we found ourselves so far from any useful course that we anchored at dusk near a long, flat empty beach to try again on the next.

In the morning we motored around the strange bare rock formations that outline the Cabo. Clouds shielded us from the scalding sun and a low wind awoke to nudge us in the right direction. The engine went off and Rich turned his attention to increasing our sail area, proclaiming that if it’s canvas, it’ll help. He hoisted our misshapen topsail on spars made from windsurfer masts and hung our storm jib under the boom to trap any spare gust that thought it was getting away with it.

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If there’s a bright centre to the universe, you’re on the planet it’s farthest from

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Grab all the spare canvas and tie it to something!

Soon we were doing well. Too well. At this rate we would arrive in Cartagena at 2am, long before we had expected. As we were going to sail overnight anyway, why not make the most of it and head as far north as we could? Rich put this to me in the early evening and I grumbled – I wanted to see Cartagena. “Okay, then. I suppose. We DO need to make progress. Just so long as we’re not going to bloody Benidorm.” Rich showed me a photo of Calpe from a pilot guide and I was convinced.

At night, in some parts of coastal Europe, lonely perverts like to make themselves known over the emergency frequency on the VHF. Their transmissions feature monotonous swearing, or growled intentions of what is going to be stuck where, or just repeated odd phrases. They’re always in English, always dangerous in their misuse of the reserved emergency channel, and frequently entertaining. Anything can be entertaining on a night watch.

We took our watches on at our usual times, neither of us sleeping well as we’d gotten used to a different routine, taking it in turns to babysit Geordi as the wind wound down. When it returned with the morning sun we never quite regained the speed we’d had the day before, but we were happy – it’s difficult not to be on a downwind race as you occupy yourself with books, Spanish lessons, music and radio comedy in the sun. We were far off the coast and in good spirits, laughing off less comfortable reminders of longer term absence from land – the spots that grow on your arse from sitting down too long, the smells that emanate from your pits, the galley and the heads.

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Another bloody gorgeous sunrise at sea

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In this photo you have two opportunities to admire the noble curve of Richard’s nose

In the afternoon the wind started to die and we looked at the chart for places to spend the night. As we wouldn’t make it to Calpe and needed somewhere we could buy coffee (running out was bound to drive us mad in the morning) and easily motor in to once the light had gone, there was only one clear option. Bloody Benidorm. We entered the huge bay past its solo island in the black of midnight, our path illuminated by a million lights. Above the long coast that was glistening with skyscraper hotels and thick apartment blocks, the shadowy sillhouettes of yet more development could be made out. Rich refused to share my excitement about how fantastically awful our time there could be. We anchored and went to bed.

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Benidorm by night

We woke to a knock on deck. I heaved my tired body up the steps in pants and a vest to find a pair of lifeguards telling us to move our boat further from a swimming zone that we were clearly not in. We abided, lifting the anchor, hoisting the gib, blowing a few feet, dropping the anchor again. By day the grim squeeze of holiday accommodation looked even more forboding, but intrigued and still coffee-less we gathered our wits as best we could and got Fanny off deck to go and explore. 20 yards from the now well occupied sand, more power-mad lifeguards yelled to stop us from bringing the dinghy ashore. “Where do we go then?” They pointed far down the huge bay, towards a marina we weren’t going to bloody well pay for. Swearwords were whispered as we returned to Gwen, and in the end I went for another of my superwoman swimming sessions to retrieve precious caffeine to jumpstart our brains.

Benidorm’s sea front held some of the dubious creature comforts I’d imagined – blown up photos of Full English breakfasts and racks of Suns and Daily Mails – but it had a great atmosphere. Everywhere there were people, and everywhere the people looked happy. I wrote a postcard to my old workplace as that seemed to be the thing to do, and swam back to Gwen to relieve Rich of his high rise horror by motoring merrily away to somewhere more welcoming.

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Benidorm turns The Chard into Wilfred Brambell

We passed a stunning waterfall among the rocks and noticed the return of green to the landscape with delight. After several weeks in Tattooine, might a patch of Endor be in sight? We anchored near Calpe’s Ifach marina and entered a state of holiday bliss that was not to end for a few days. Not only was the rock as magnificent as the pilot book suggested, but the rampant but thankfully less Benidormy tourist area was as uncomplicatedly pleasant as Nerja’s. In the evening we found a cheap three course meal, a new romper suit for me and, joy of joys, a set of air hockey tables that only cost a Euro a go just off the promenade. I really, really love air hockey. In the daytimes we snorkelled and climbed the Penon, and I found a British broadsheet paper full of bad news whose cryptic kept me occupied for two day’s sunbathes while rich spotted Anchortopus – a huge cephalopod cuddling our anchor who I tried but failed to spot on my own sea explorations. Even going to the larger Calpe town to do laundry was like a big jolly, with beers in the sun watching stereotypically oikish construction workers and a happy half hour picking through the incredible canned goods and cakes of a Dutch supermarket. For two or three days life was like a second honeymoon, which is nice as we’ve never had a first, or got married.

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Quiz answer: Cats!

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You can pay to have a go on a hoverboard here. For a minute or two, we wish we were rich.

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The big beach on the other side of the peninsula

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This week’s neighbours are probably baby garfish

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At least it’s not another aqueduct path

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Massive poser in new romper suit

But then there was Thursday.

Most mornings we check the grib files to see what the wind has in store for us, but on Thursday we lay in, and by the time Rich had had a look and decided it might have been a good day to head for Ibiza, it was already looking too late to go. Ah well, we’d stay a while longer here. I was mid-phone conversation to a friend back in the Shire when the Chard interrupted – “shall we just go?” – and I agreed. We threw down the hung laundry, heaved the dinghies on board and tidied away everything loose, and we got the sail covers off and the main ready to hoist. The wind was rising and we decided to motor round the cape until it was in our favour to save time. I went to turn the engine key and heard the familiar grind of its awakening followed by… nothing. It kept turning over, but there was no spark, no explosion. Oh.

We tried again and again, and had the engine cover off to look, but it was useless. Rich called his dad, our helpline mechanic, and they went through a few possibilities, but repair was clearly going to have to wait for another day. The wind was getting quite worryingly strong and we realised we might not be okay staying in the anchorage, so we decided to sail out and find another anchorage even if we weren’t heading out towards the islands. But as I took the tiller and main and Rich heaved on the anchor lever the chain started to snatch on the windlass gypsy, banging repeatedly as it rose and dove in the waves. After one clank too many he turned to me and called through a stiff jaw “we’re going to break something. We’re not going anywhere”, and put more anchor chain out.

By four pm the boat was rearing up and down, the bowsprit smashing in to waves and dunking the jib. Our minds, bodies and contingency plans seemed to be exhausted, but we had to keep coming up with ways to make the boat safer. If our trusty fisherman anchor should drag or the anchor chain snap we had no way to protect ourselves from hurtling into the rocks beside the beach. We nearly got Fanny off to row out a second anchor, but realised that we’d probably put a hole through her trying to put the anchor in. We got our huge unused seized danforth anchor ready to throw overboard, and chucked a CQR anchor into the water with a fender attached. Rich got into his wetsuit and snorkel mask and swam with all his strength into the still growing wind and waves, pulling the fendered rope out and dragging the CQR in the direction of our first anchor, while I directed him from on deck and yelled alerts when jetskis or speedboats came near, doing a reasonably good job of not sounding as terrified as I was. He returned beaten but glad to have seen that the fisherman was holding, at least for now.

And then we waited. For four hours in our crap-crowded aft cabin we watched our position on the GPS like lobsters watching the hand descending into the restaurant tank, looking away only to jump outside and check our position in the real world. We held each other, listened to some radio, and even put a movie on another screen beside the chart plotter, anything to distract us from the horror on which we had to keep an eye. But we were both wired. My face bore a stiff hypnotic stare, stained with silent tears. Rich got up to poo frequently while I could barely get a wee out with all the tension. Time passed slowly, and then the wind eased, and then eased some more. We had dinner in the saloon, exchanging not-really-sure smiles while we watched the most mindless movie we could find (Deadpool, since you asked), and went to the dubious comfort of separate beds to prevent in-duvet collisions in the strongest anchorage roll we’ve had yet. The waves were still hurtling in after the wind had turned and died, and Gwen was now side-on to them.

A big lesson that we already knew but had somehow managed to forget had been learned. We’ve been so obsessed with getting to Mallorca that in watching the grib files neither of us had even thought that the supposed 15 knots (it was definitely more) blowing us straight into the beach might be a problem. We’d dismissed Thursday as a “not sailing day”, and then wondered whether it could be a “maybe sailing day”, and missed the obvious, clear sign that we needed to be out of the anchorage by then either way. We’re paying attention again now, you’ll probably be glad to know.

The engine, it turned out yesterday, had a small air leak in the fuel system which took Rich, his dad and me all afternoon to find. But when it was fixed (clever Chard) we were elated, and I felt instantly comfortable with whatever is to come all over again. We had a celebratory snorkel in the late afternoon, a first outing for the only slightly broken 2Euro snorkelling fins that Rich found for me in a rare charity shop sighting. I can now dive down much easier than before, and I finally got to see my first wild octopus, and to watch a second shifting around and over rocks with incredible shape and colour changing fluidity. I love octopusses even more than air hockey. Though they’re on offer in almost every restaurant in coastal Spain we refuse to eat them because we suspect they’re superior to humans.

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Screenshot from Rich’s anchortopus video, which is too big to upload at the moment.

We are nearly at the end of our cruising for this year. Soon we will have to go to Mallorca and work. We need to get Gwen established somewhere quickly in a marina, and I have to find a job pretty quickly if we’re to afford their apparently exorbitant fees. It’s all go, and a bit exciting, and a bit scary. But the wind looks low, safe and useless, for today and tomorrow. So it’s back to the holiday with me. The sun rises over the Penon and the bay looks calm and beautiful, and there are salt marshes full of flamingoes to explore.

Dorne Chorus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not as exotic as it sounds, is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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The entrance to Almeria features a huge railway bridge to nowhere

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

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

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The cathedral, originally built to be a mosque

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Sadly we didn’t get to go to Manchester Club

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

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Cave homes in the hillsides

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

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Rich in the Muslim end, from the Christian end

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The gardeny end

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

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

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The walled walk to the other, smaller castle

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It’s a broody one, this, isn’t it.

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