Seventeen

It’s new year’s eve and the bells are ringing (for 6.45pm) at the church across the road from the marina. The adjoining catamaran left for a new years’ jolly, which afforded us more light than usual in the saloon this afternoon. Light by which to… well, slump in exhaustion mostly. Rich climbed a mountain yesterday while I hunched over a desk doing transcriptions – a thankless, attention consuming task that leaves your pocket almost as poor as your posture. This evening we are rooted to the sofa with our youtube videos and cheap lager cans – it’s new year, but not as we know it.

Palma is still gorgeous, though, of course, we are already restless. Something about having a permanent base still doesn’t sit right. It’s odd to think – I live in Spain. Spain, where people really are called Pedro and Paco and Juan. I’m much happier here in Palma than at anchor, and I’ve even found bits and pieces of odd freelance and teaching work, but we’re spending a lot more, moaning about obligations and fantasising about our next move already.

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Our incredible spot at La Lonja marina, in full view of the cathedral

I still get low. I’m still not doing what I think I should be doing. I don’t know what I should be doing. I don’t know even what I want to be doing. I go in little circles. I return to the world.

This world is nice and sunny, unless family and friends visit, then it just pisses down. At night it’s cold, but not yet cold enough that a sleeping bag and a jumper won’t cover it.

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Some unbearably smug Christmassing

This week was Rich’s first week off since we got here, so we borrowed a van from his work for the week. We took it up to Soller through an incredible mountain pass, then to the east of the island to wander its marshes and climb its mountains. I’m not sure I’ve ever climbed a mountain before, and I’m happy to report it’s not as awful as it sounds. We stayed overnight in the back of the van at the lighthouse on Cap Fomentera, on the north easterly peninsula, navigating its high winding road in darkness and waking to find ourselves over a beautiful morning-lit bay. Christmas was quiet, including a stroll, a roast, some phone calls and Rogue One.

Arbitrary though new year’s marker in time might be, it is accompanied by inevitable reflection. There are some experiences from this year that I never want to forget. Reaching France. Reaching Spain. The first dolphin spotted on the south coast of Cornwall. The glimpse of a whale in Biscay. Snorkelling to check on the anchor, swimming ashore to grab coffee and bread, cycling round with half an engine strapped to my back to hunt for an engineer. In the underwater world, octopuses becoming visible only through scrutiny of the textured rocks, changing colour on our approach.

I remind myself of the pleasures of sailing. There’s the self-steering working properly while you play ditties on your uke to the waves, the rare satisfaction of a nicely executed tack, the giggles of both unnecessarily manning the tiller to get drenched in a rainstorm. There’s the point in a night watch when you have the boat just to yourself, eyes adjusted to the starlight, and you hear the “ffff” exhalation of the dolphin who’s come to keep you company. There’s that moment after dropping anchor when you no longer have to sail, and you still yearn to explore. There’s a lot of sunshine and smiles, sloshing and tipping and gazing at the sea.

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There are other things I won’t forget about this year. Where I was when I heard in disbelief that we’d voted to leave the EU. The shock of the Trump vote. The shock of Bowie, Prince, Carrie and all the rest. And there are some things I won’t allow myself to forget, that I want to be forced to remember to avoid complacency about the world – Jo Cox, Syria, and  the lies of the press which warped and fuelled the year’s tragedies. Next year doesn’t look set to spare the suffering and oppression of people and the destruction of the planet. I want to fight and I feel ashamed that I don’t.

There is a little pride for me, though, in 2016. The hard work of Gwen, the years of it all being sawdust and lists and cold, paying off with a mighty voyage. That we got 2000 miles in the most environmentally friendly way we could, wind fuelled and solar powered.

Also, and first of all, that I wrote, directed and performed a daft musical show and that anybody bothered to watch it. If you really want to, I’ve finally edited it and put it up here:

We don’t know where we’ll end up next year, and that makes me smile. Happy new year, you, with love from Gwendolyn.

Down Time

Costa coffee, Palmanova. This is one of only a few establishments that are still open. Since the start of November the hotels are abandoned, the shops locked behind metal blinds, the restaurant staff returned to the corners of the globe from which they hail. Though the pines, palm trees and shrubs are ever green and the sand ever golden, autumn can be felt in the chilly sea and any breeze that catches you. Nonetheless, when the clouds aren’t stealing it, the low sun can still thrill your skin with warmth.

We’ve been anchored here for a month and a half now, save for a few nights’ stay in nearby bays that we’ve pootled to for shelter, and I’ve only just got a phone and internet again. Hello. Today I’m over from Gwen for repairs – recharging my recently fixed computer and my recently frazzled brain. This week we had yet another encounter with an angry southeasterly and, despite our fancy new Vulcan anchor, another drag in the weed-root clogged sand. Rich was with me this time (it was four in the morning) and by the time we’d organised a second anchor and laid out its chain on deck, Gwen was static again. The only damage was to our sleep-deprived energy levels.

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Palmanova on a calm day. Dinghying ashore is nice on these days.

Rich is getting on well with his job and has seemed happy here, if a little tired from the slog of having to work again. We have had some great weekend adventures, from our fun at the closing weekend of the Katmandu theme park and the cheesy thrills of a bonfire night party in Magaluf to an exhausting ride to a beautiful bay and the rare treat of a cinema and dinner night in Palma. My mum visited this week and it was a treat to explore and dine with her and her boyfriend in the city.

With the bikes now ashore we can get around Palmanova and discover shops and facilities with much more ease. Until recently I’d start my days with a swim (I still have the odd dip, but have to overcome an unpleasant initial shock of cold before my lungs will let me go anywhere) and we often end them with a beer, watching ducks and cormorants, jellyfish and baby fish on the row home. I’ve had excellent feedback from two job interviews, though sadly neither school had an opening for a teacher this late into the season. I’ve scrubbed some of Gwen’s bottom and I’ve got plans for all sorts of decorations.

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Everything here in Palmanova shut on the first week of November, but before that, we had entertainment aplenty. If you like that sort of thing.
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Last weekend of Katmandu. Rich was brilliant at this. I sucked, got injured and got scared.
I vow to return an conquer next year.

But something’s wrong. I love my own company, particularly if I can use it for creative pursuits, but after we arrived in Palmanova and Rich started work I started to sense an unusual ache of loneliness stalking me each day. I push through it and get things done, but it takes so long – there’s often as much travelling, swearing at technology and struggling with language as there is actual activity. Occasionally I visit Palma to seek work and sundries, gawping in its galleries and winding streets. It’s 45 minutes to get there after the row ashore, but only during the day as the buses don’t allow an evening out. Most of the time I’m at home – I prepare Rich’s packed lunches and evening meals, I wash up, I get stuff like phone contracts, laundry, job applications, shopping and social security numbers sorted – all the boring stuff. Did I sail 2000 miles to become a housewife? No offence to domestic gods and goddesses, but fuck no.

And then there are the high wind days when I am stuck babysitting Gwen, trying not to worry, hoping the anchor doesn’t drag and preparing myself in case it does. Weeks ago the wind would make this occasionally necessary but now winter is coming and I’ve had three days of it this week, and as many nights. The wind whistles through the recently stripped rigging and jolts the boat against it. I sit, stifled, in a constant motion that kills motivation. Fear blows in and out, and sadness sets in.

I am isolated on a little concrete island without friends or a sense of achievement for anything I do. My Spanish is improving but not enough to make proper conversation. My computer, even repaired, can only be used for a decent length of time when rowed ashore for power in an occasionally risky Bob. Rich comes up with ideas for things I could do to make things better, but they’re often just not possible, and they usually come across as things I should be doing better. I think it’s fair to say I hate living at anchor.

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This is where you get off the bus in Palma. Always brings an awed grin.
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Gaudiness gracious me

Two weeks ago, for the first time in months, I woke up not on the boat. I didn’t know what the wind was doing, I didn’t have fish in the front garden and I didn’t have the warm body of a sleeping man in my bed. I didn’t have to row anywhere, roll anyway, watch for any dangers or tie a single knot. My body smelled of shampoo and deodorant, not salt water and sweat.

The preceding weekend Rich had made a comment about the messiness of a galley in which I cook, clean and wash up every working day of the week, and I had felt hurt. When he went on to justify it by explaining at length how hard he works and how little I achieve in comparison, I agreed, and fell apart. In guilt and anger I was barely able to talk without crying, which made him defensively reiterate my shortcomings. So for a few days I shut up and got on with a lot of housework and, as soon as the wind was quiet enough to make abandonment a safe option for Gwen, I left for a couple of nights in a cheap and nasty hotel near Palma.

As I accessed precious internet from the sterile lobby bar people sat in lined-up corduroy armchairs in front of me, dozing beneath a telly with a news channel on. I couldn’t understand what was being said but I knew the story – Trump had been voted president of the USA. Nobody in the lobby was crying, so I guessed they already knew.

And yet, in that place with of school-dinner meals and bad evening disco entertainment, there was some hope for me. I was able to talk to friends back home and download new software and movies. I charged my unchargable camera, applied for the few English speaking jobs Palma has vacant and started the repairs that would eventually save my laptop. I dreamed and doodled and wandered and messed about and just did what the hell I liked. In that release from Gwen I got a load of ideas for things I could try. There were ways I could make a difference not only to our lives, but also to engage more with the wider world we seem to have left behind and challenge my own creative urges. I picked myself up again and got back on the boat.

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That hope gets kicked down again with each bad weather patch, with each failure that either Rich or I perceive, but it always returns. He isn’t wrong, when he says he works harder than me. He is driven and dedicated, and his focus is almost always on getting the boat and us to where we want to be. It’s his lifelong dream. But in the last week, with my lowness and the many challenges the deteriorating weather has brought, even he has been brought down and felt hopeless. As difficult as my own sadness is to cope with, to see him suffering has shocked me.

So I presented him with an option – an email I had received from one of many marinas that I’d asked to put us on their waiting list in the week before we arrived in Mallorca. This one finally had a spot free. I hadn’t thought he’d be up for it because money is the main thing we’re here for and marinas cost a lot of it. But as we talked it through, bringing up the pros and cons, I saw a glimmer of possibility return to his face.

The place is still available, offering safety for the boat, with facilities that can be accessed without risk to life and precious technology in a dinghy. And it’s in Palma! Gorgeous Palma which might have all sorts of possibilities for inspiration, socialising, working and creating. Palma, where things are still open. We’re going to move over there on Saturday. I can’t guarantee it will solve everything, but it’s got to be worth a try.

Don’t Crash Your Home

It was the morning of Rich’s third day of work. The wind was roaring in to the beach from the east and the boat had shimmied all night to its wet whistling tune. The day before, another murky one in Palmanova’s normally sunny bay, we’d talked about the need for a reliable second anchor – it would be our first priority once Rich got paid. By morning, we’d both decided that we weren’t going to wait for the paycheque. Sod this. Let’s get secure.

Rich went ashore in the early darkness, lowering himself into a leaping dinghy that was half full of rainwater and rowing like crazy to get to the beach in time to meet his lift. I had woken with him, and I popped my head outside every half an hour or so as daylight thought about breaking behind the sky’s grey film. He’d told me how to let more anchor chain out if I was worried, but we’d guessed that we’d most likely be alright now. The whole process had sounded difficult as it would involve untying the snubber rope that keeps the chain from yanking, but I’d got the gist. Watching the waves hurtling into the beach I knew I wouldn’t be popping to Palma today as intended. I’d stay with Gwen and keep her company through the turbulence. At least the wildness seemed to be steadying now – I could get on with a few things on board.

I had a quick nap and did a bit of housework, stowing what wouldn’t stay balanced along the way. I popped my head out of the hatch to check we were still in place. The boat that was beside us seemed a little further out to sea, but I know I can be a bit paranoid about this sort of thing so I turned on the nav computer to check that we were still within range of our anchor on the GPS.

We weren’t.

We had dragged in toward the shore, not by a lot, but enough to have me a little worried. I would probably have to take action. Then the boat icon moved further toward the land. And then further. Our trusty fisherman anchor was still dragging, and not slowly! I turned on the depth sounder and our safe 4m had shrunk to 3. From the deck I saw that the yellow swimming buoys that line the beach were getting close. I was on my own, and Rich was a half hour drive away at work. I let out a long, low wail. One of our worst nightmares was about to become real and the guy who knew what to do wasn’t there.

I turned on the engine battery and water flow, and released the tiller from its lashing. I sent Rich a quick text, “hey, we’re dragging…” apologising that I was about to call him. I turned the key in the aft cabin and revved the engine on deck, then drove Gwen slowly out of the swimming area into which she had now drifted. We’d been in two and a half metres, and Gwen has just under two metres of draft. I tried to call Rich but couldn’t get through. I had to keep driving Gwen into the whipping wind just to keep us from re-entering the shallow swimming area, and I couldn’t figure how I’d get to the front of the boat to deal with the anchor while doing this. I kept driving forward, hopefully towards wherever our anchor now was, and cried. Over the din of our engine and the sea I heard a dinghy engine and a voice with a strong Spanish accent “do you want some help?”

Juan, the neighbour that Rich had met on our first morning here, tied his inflatable dinghy to Gwen and got himself on board. I stuttered thanks, and said I couldn’t get to the anchor and steer at the same time. He wobbled down the concrete deck towards the anchor chain, but then wobbled back “I don’t know what to do”. Of course, the anchor was snubbed up, the windlass incomplete without its handle – there was no indication of how any of this worked. I asked him to take the tiller, and tried to think of a plan of action. I’d have to get the anchor up so we could get away. I’d only done this a couple of times, and then with supervision from Rich and no snubber on. Rich does the anchor, I steer us away – that’s how it’s supposed to work, but there was no time to think about that.

I grabbed the heavy rusty bar that is the windlass handle from its deck home among a pile of snorkelling gear and hose, and put it in the right hole. I pulled on it a few times and took in a bit of chain. Then I dangled myself over the front of the boat, towards the rushing waves, and was relieved to find that I could undo the huge knot on the thick snubber rope. I edged back under the guard wire and threw the rope to one side.

I opened the bedroom hatch and, to Juan’s confusion – “are you alright?”, disappeared below to open the locker that our chain falls into. I pushed myself off the mattress and back on deck, groaning little releases of tension with every push of my body, and went back to the windlass to ratchet in the chain. But the chain wouldn’t come. Pull after heavy pull hoiked it in a little, then returned a little to the water. Juan and I swapped places, me trying to coax Gwen forward though she didn’t seem to want to move, and Juan hauling huge lengths of chain by hand. We realised that the chain was caught around an escaped yellow buoy that we’d dragged from the swimming area, and I had to reverse and steer around that before we could get going or haul more chain. Then the chain got caught around a lower bobstay fitting, which took both of us peering over the sides of the bow to figure out. It was soon released with a slight change of direction.

Ashore Palmanova life went on oblivious to our plight. People walked along the murky beach front, ate at restaurants, ran around the hotels. A few metres out to sea the story was more dramatic. Along the bay a huge unmanned motor cruiser had also dragged and was threatening to destroy a small sailing yacht on its way to a hotel pontoon. The wind seemed to be dying a little, but it had already had its way with we sea folk.

On Gwen, we were finally moving in the right direction. When Juan called back that the anchor was up I drove us further out until our depth went over 4.5m. I called him back to the tiller, showing him as best I could how to put it in neutral (it always catches in reverse or forward – I’m used to it, but how was he to know?) and went to drop the anchor, bashing at the windlass clutch with its own removed handle to release lengths I couldn’t determine. I kept bashing and kicking more chain out until all the wet stuff was out and I could see the faded pink spray painted markings that I guessed meant “50m”. That’s over 10 to 1 chain length to depth. That’s as good as it’s going to get, I figured, then spent a couple of minutes trying to get the windlass to hold there, pulling chain in until I could get the “dog” on, and eventually tightening the clutch the right way. Righty tighty, lefty loosey – who knows where I remember that from, but it did the trick.

Back in the cockpit I thanked Juan for the hundredth time with a wide eyed fake grin, and offered him a coffee, but he had his own boat to get back to. “Are you… around.. this afternoon?” “Yes, I am on the boat all day” Oh thank heavens. I felt rude, rushing inside to text Rich and let him know that his boat was okay as Juan got in to his dinghy. I helped untangle its painter from those of our two dinghies and jabbered out more thanks as he left. And then I was alone again, on the boat that might drag, waiting for the wind to go.

When Rich got back to Palmanova that evening I was ashore and waiting for him. The GPS had showed that we were holding okay for now, and the wind had died down to a gentle flutter in the palm trees. We went for a drink – him a beer, me two beers and a long long whiskey, and I told him of the day’s events in a stream of excited blether, waiting for him to tell me what I could have done better.

“You did everything right. You saved the boat.”

Oh, okay. That hadn’t really occurred to me.

We would make moves to buy another anchor over the next day or two, as our CQR really isn’t up to being a reserve anchor in this sort of wind. We would go back to the boat and relax and have a weekend of fun. For now, all we had to do was buy a couple of boxes of beer and row over to a neighbours’ boat to offer them in thanks to someone without whom Gwen might not have made it back to safety. We found a warm reception, some pizza and a good evening’s chat. Everything’s been safe enough since then, and the new anchor, a fancy and very very expensive Rockna Vulcan (sorry, overdraft), should arrive on Friday.

There’s a lot more to tell you. Rich’s job is going well and leaves him still able to enjoy his evenings, and I had an interview yesterday with a language school. I’ve started running again, and I still swim most days although the water’s colder than off mainland Spain. We’ve visited Palma and it’s gorgeous. We’ve made plans to spend this weekend at our local theme park and eat one of these much-advertised full English breakfasts before the whole area closes down for November. That low level fear that keeps you alert to the wind forecasts and a myriad of other factors, that one that I thought we’d leave behind with the cruising if we spent winter at a marina, that’s not going. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We chose this life, and we like it, and there are going to be scary days. We need to be ready for them, and know that we can get through them. Even at rest, the adventure goes on.

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Palma. What is this Mallorcan obsession with upside down buildings?

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.

Off The Track

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

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

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The closest thing I get to a garden

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

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

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

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

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Massive bloody grasses. Human male showed here for scale.

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

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Surprise waterfall glee

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One of many grand cliffs

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The guide, paddling.

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Planning an attack

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

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Snorkel heaven in Ensenada de los Berengueles

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Weird thing underwater

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Even weirder thing underwater…

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This is getting ridiculous.

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

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Calm on the surface and mental underneath

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

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Gwen in Ensenada de los Berengueles

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