Suspended Animation

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Evening all

No man is an island, except the Isle of Man. Most of the time there’s just me and Rich in the little world of Gwen, but since we’ve been on this particular island for what is now a month (Rich’s job has run over by quite a lot, so we’re still in the marina in Lanzarote) the bubble has stretched to include a host of other souls.

There’s Mike and Kate, who we run into everywhere. We met them in the Spanish rias, and again in Mallorca, and again in Gibraltar. They’re in this marina, as are Mattis and Mo, a couple called Adrian and Sam on their long keeled double ender, a solo sailor called Lewis who is waiting for repairs to his boat and a Mallorcan environmentalist called Jorge who arrived from Holland on one boat and will be leaving on another for Gambia, Brazil and New Zealand. We bump in to some or all of them every evening after work, when the marina’s Asian restaurant serves half priced beers between 5 and 6.30.

These fine friendly people share with us a wealth of sailing experiences, from in depth knowledge of particular hardware or cruising locations to strange and silly stories of the things that can happen on board. They provide expert sounding boards for our plans or problems with Gwen, and share anecdotes that console us that we’re not the only sods who encounter frustrating or gross situations, cry, grumble, can’t hear what each other is saying or drop their mobile phones in the sea. We laugh and drink and talk non stop, grabbing that last round at 6.29 before heading home to our dinners.

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A lunchtime doodle

It’s fantastic, but it’s dangerous for me. A couple of weeks ago the combination of increased social interactions and increased alcohol consumption, compounded by working from the dark belly of home and living with a partner who was starting to get impatient to move on, provided all the ingredients necessary to kick life into my dormant anxiety. Rich would be terse in his lunch break and I’d react with more upset than he expected, making him feel angry and me, guilty. When out for drinks I’d feel guilty for smoking at a table where nobody else did, or smelling bad after a day of work festering in the stuffy saloon at my computer. I’d feel guilty for talking too much, asking too few questions, saying the wrong thing, laughing in the wrong place. We’d get home from visiting other boats or bars and I’d shake and cry, exhausted from having smiled through the hyper aware state where reactions from anyone else are overanalysed and ground into personal shame. I’d make unconscious selections from a long list of other things I could fret about and get to work on them overnight. Rich gave me hugs and reminded me that it always ends. He’s never been wrong about that.

This lasted for over a week, during which my mum visited, providing me with glorious distraction and a bit of outdoors. She and I visited the pretty town of Teguise, and she joined us both at the Arrecife En Vivo festival (which has been running every Friday at stages around the town) until a bloody awful metal band drove us away. Later that evening, after Rich and I had had a little rest, we watched Asian Dub Foundation playing on the stage in the marina, booming heavy beats into our feet, and I danced all of that day’s worries out in a sweaty, bouncing abandon.

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Teguise. Possibly slightly inaccurate. Don’t remember the guy with the shrunken head.

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Best drumming troupe we’ve seen in a year in Spain. They rehearse near the marina so there’s often a beat to plod home by.

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Me with the festival’s Elvis(h) icon. Photo from arrecifeenvivo.com

The marina wifi continues to give opportunities to connect with friends and family, and with the news, which heaps awful upon more awful and leaves you fury fatigued at the Trumps and Weinsteins of this world and their apologists. I’ve done three week’s illustration work for a communicative, creative client in the US and look forward to working with her more in the future. A wealth of administration tasks from insurance to tax returns have been progressed, and no small amount of television and film has been streamed.

Gwen has had her own journey, tethered though she remains. Rich bandaged a few injuries on Fanny and Bob, and used the spare epoxy to fix a chip he’d noticed on deck. We talked through a way to fix a new forestay that will mean our bowsprit still has support even when we bring in the foresails, and Rich went up and looped it round our mast a few days ago. He’s also bought enough dyneema to make extra lower backstays to better support the mast when we have plenty of wind behind us. We’re hoping we will.

We went up the mast yesterday and gave her rigging a good oil. I went first, strapped on by the chest and bum, hoisting myself on the main halliard with a safety topsail line hauled by Rich. I approached the spreaders, cautiously squeezing myself and the jollop bucket on my hip through the various ropes that shoot out from the mast. At the highest point Rich tied both my line and the safety off below. The release from the burden of managing my own weight shed all my fears and allowed me to bounce joyfully from one side of the boat to the other. Over the next hour or so I worked my way down painting all the wires, relishing my duty, trying not to splash oily goo on the deck below while Rich moved tarpaulin around to protect it from the flourish of my brush strokes.

Our time spent moored here, and our time spent chatting with our fantastic neighbours, has given me time to reflect and project. Over the last five years of Gwen life I have basked in inspiration from Richard, watching him make all of this happen. He hasn’t done it alone (trust me, it’s plenty of work supporting and collaborating on this thing), but he has maintained a singular determination without which we would never have made it close to this far. It makes him damn annoying sometimes, but maybe you need to be determined and annoying to get anything done. I am mulling over and preparing my own ways to annoy with every spare moment, including trying to find an animation course, and trying out stop motion and Flash tutorials in the meantime.

In the short term, we are both looking forward to moving out of the marina. To be back in an anchorage, able to leap from the boat and explore the rocks and fishes again, is a dream that has been dangled further from us with every delay. I look forward to returning to antisocial seclusion, my only duties being to Gwen, Rich and myself, and my embarrassments viewed only by gulls and bream. I look forward to swimming off a little of the huge beer belly that’s grown over the last month (I didn’t realise quite how firm one would be – I can’t pull up my granny pants and I kick it when I cycle). And I look forward to the sweet rocking of the sea, lapping at our sides as we rest, and how I’ll curse it, and beg it to stop, and laugh.

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Before I go, I have to tell you about this egg mayonnaise and tuna sandwich. The icing is cheese and crab, the swirl is cream cheese with an olive, the outside is mayonnaise and lettuce and the bread is really soft so you have to eat it with a spoon. This sandwich is my favourite thing in Lanzarote. Well, it was. I ate it.

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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.

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Brilliant sunlight bounces from the sweat on Richard’s grinning face. He is as garish as our boat: orange t-shirt, blue legs, bright eyes contrasted against his deeply tanned skin and black and white beard. He is talking about which jobs he should or shouldn’t get on to next. I am watching his mouth move, thinking about hummus and astronauts while internally humming to the incidental music of my mind. It’s my day off, at last, and he just needs a sounding board. Yes, probably, okay, yep, you do that. Finally I tell him I’m off inside to write the blog, though I’m a bit stuck on where to start.

“You went to a festival and came back muntered, I did a bit of sailing, we’ve done some work on the boat. Write that.”

Oh sure, it’s that simple.

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Part 1: The Island Of Death

The Mar Menor was stinky and green. We explored it for nearly a week, hoisting as many sails as we could be bothered with to plod from anchorage to anchorage. We were never in more than 5.5m of depth, and never far from a floating fish carcas or a shoal of pulsating jellyfish. I braved a swim on our first day once the sealife and seadeath seemed to have blown off the forbidden shore of the Isla Del Baron beside which we had anchored, but regretted it when a snorkel revealed nothing but more green – thick and streaky like a grim broth. I leapt out, poured a bottle of water over myself and shuddered.

It was on the Mar’s smaller central island, Isla Perdiguera, that we got to really meet the deceased. Rowing ashore we were greeted by the sight and smell of the dead seagulls dotted around the sandy brush. Several barely built structures stood as monuments to an idea that someone once had that someone might want to spend time there. They don’t. It stinks. But the hillsides are riddled with tunnels that were once used as storage for the surrounding bombing practice areas, and these have been blasted out to remove their explosives and are therefore now irresistably explorable.

We clambered the rocky pathways between them in a draining heat, torch in hand, avoiding the rotting flesh and snagging shrubs as much as was possible, and came upon a strange circular man-made crater in the ground. It was as wide as the boat and very, very deep, and at the base spread a tomato plant laden with some of the plumpest, most succulent looking fruit you can imagine. Always the foragers, Rich and I looked eagerly from the plant to each other and back. We tracked round the edge, desperate to find a way we could get in and out of the hole, but there was none. Just as Rich’s eyes were glinting with what I feared might be a makeshift abseiling plan, I saw it.

“Shitting hell, is that what I think it is?”

“What’s that?”

“That enormous snake skin”

“Oh my god”

Like a boss level in a computer game it seemed that someone had placed the only bit of nourishment on this deathly island in a pit with its greatest baddy. We found a huge stick and lifted pieces of skin out to see if it really was that big. It was. We used the same stick to prod the tomato bush a few times to see if we could see the skin’s owner. We couldn’t. We lowered the skin back in to the hole as a warning to anyone else who might find it, and stomped away skittishly, keeping a closer eye on the bracken around our feet, to watch a huge colony of egrets on the other side of the island.

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Built a bit. Bombed a bit.

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Dug a bit. Blew up a bit.

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Don’t fancy your chances, mate

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How big is it? And how recently has it eaten?

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I can do without tomatoes

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Cheerio, Island of Death

Another sail later we spent a couple of lovely days off Playa Honda, a beach that seemed to be built up for far more tourists than it currently hosted. Pollution means that the Mar has lost all of its blue flag awards, and though the swimming area was enclosed by a net (now thick with green fur) to keep the jellies at bay it was evident that business had seen better days.

We caught a bus for a day out in Cartagena and tried to eat all the pizza in a city full of incredible architecture, influenced by centuries of visitors and conquerors. Many facades had no building behind them but lost little of their beauty by being propped up by scaffold like film sets. We saw a castle and an excavated Roman theatre, and toured museums that astounded us with the craft of ancient people. “Those Phonecians, wow” we said, and “it’s amazing how little sailing has changed”. We swayed to good live music and enjoyed each other’s jokes, aware that we were about to be apart for a while. Here’s a few photos:

Finally we sailed to the airport at the north end of the Mar, and I flew away.

Part 2: Port Eliot

England is cold. Gloriously, refreshingly cold. It has my mother, my father, my sister and her son. It has green rolling fields and bubbly cider and friends who don’t need to ask how you are because they know it from your posture. I enjoyed all of these things in my first couple of days, dashing from family member to family member, grabbing borrowed tents and stuff I’d had delivered to them along the way.

By the time I got to Port Eliot festival I’d almost lost the nervousness I’d had about leaving Rich to single hand Gwen for the first time. He was reporting back in a timely fashion, asking my opinion on whether to anchor up or push on, letting me know each night that he and Gwen were okay. I set up camp away from my wonderful but (oh my god) noisy friends and set about having fun. This was the treat trip I’d promised myself in Mallorca, and I only had a few days to enjoy it.

I saw talks by the author Rich and I were reading last year, the comedian whose face I’d had postered on my bedroom wall as a teen and a man who’d sailed a boat we knew as part of a TV show recreation of the Bounty mutiny. I took part in fashion drawing and stamp making workshops. I hooted at comedians and spent hours captivated in the poetry tent. I ate and drank and danced and danced and danced.

More than anything, I spent time with people I know from my village, and felt the warmth of their brilliant friendship through the mud and the rain. When I welled up at a slowed down “Modern Love” in a Bowie theatre piece I turned round and they were swaying with me. When I walked the walled garden they were dressed up as lions, entertaining passers-by as part of a new festival arts project. When I wondered if I’d see so-and-so, they usually appeared with a drink in hand to chat shit for half an hour. When I slowed down and thought about going to bed they kept me drinking and dancing and talking, waving arms dramatically, coated in UV paint and biodegradable glitter, and suddenly it was sunrise already and the four day festival had ended.

I collapsed on to Didds’ sofa and didn’t leave for a day. Buffy. Catfish. House. Friends. Quincy (he lives on a boat). Something her boyfriend likes about people who buy second hand tat. Something with Philip Schofield getting people to do challenges. I hadn’t seen this much telly for a long time. I let my mashed up brain be soothed by its banality. I had a hell of a journey ahead of me.

Part 3: Hull on Earth

My brain still wasn’t working. I got a lift to Bristol, a plane to the Mar Menor, a bus to Murcia, a bus to Almeria, a bus to a town near Almerimar, and a taxi with Rich to the boat. This all took about 20 hours, about half of which I slept through, and was horrible save for the Almeria bus which had air con and an original language video of The Martian. I was carrying all my stuff plus a couple of hundred quid’s worth of crap that we’d ordered to my dad’s (mostly hammocks, flags and grab bag gadgets). I’d been injected for Africa by the doctor before I’d left, I was aching in every danced out limb, and I was hot – so unbelievably hot. The calm, breezy Cornish way of life had been easy to adjust to (although someone did point out I was swaying a bit for the first couple of days), but it seems this doesn’t work the other way round.

While I had been off destroying myself Rich had sailed the boat out of the Mar and all the way round to Almerimar, and had her taken out of the water. She stood exposed on the dirt of a boatyard, her undersides revealing concrete where the paint had yielded to a good blasting. While I attempted to recover (difficult, when your skin is boiling away from your body), he got the mast lifted out and cut sections of its tennon off to reattach further round. The mast has twisted so much since we chopped it down from the forest that it was facing off to one side, putting pressure on the spreaders and causing our tricolour to suggest a misleading direction in the dark. This operation rotated the mast back to straight, and I daubed some hopeful jollop in its ever widening shakes before it was set back in place.

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For once, the idiot up the mast is not my boyfriend

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This one is

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He is quite bloody good at what he does, mind.

The next morning we woke early and began the process of sanding, stripping and grinding all the bits of Gwen that needed touching up. We worked in a breezeless heat that our newly acquired anemometer told us was 35 degrees in the shade, not that we could get in any, until three in the afternoon when I couldn’t take any more. We got an ice cream and had a siesta, and then we started again around six. We worked on until sunset and collapsed with a hastily concocted dinner on to a bed that was damp with our sweat. My brain had been shocked back into function and was as drained as my body.

A version of this work pattern continued for five days. We sanded the topsides and hull, ground the rust away from the push pit and repainted it, put waterbased epoxy, glass flake epoxy and tie coat on the dodgy patches of hull, put two coats of blue and new names on the topsides, replaced the anodes and put on a coat and a half of antifoul. The afternoon ice cream became an aspirational pillar, the motivator to keep going past lunchtime. We would shower before siesta and again before dinner, spending the rest of the day pouring with sweat. Oh, I’ve learned a lot about our sweat this week. Rich sweats fountains from his back right down through his shorts. I sweat from my face and chest, a dribble of salt water tumbling from my chin, making any face mask slippery. Though we longed to kiss or embrace after our week apart it was just too stuffy and disgusting, and we slept in the nude at an arms length.

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Pre-patched hull

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Post-re-scribbled bow

In short morning cycles I would get laundry and shopping done, and discovered that Almerimar is quite a pretty little town. The marina folk, particularly those in the office, have been incredibly friendly, and Chris who runs the boatyard chandlery and boat repair place has warmed to us enough that Rich has even been offered some work. He’s not going to take it, though, as another job has come up in Lanzarote, and that’s on our way. Though I’ve spent a large part of the last week feeling faint we have managed an incredible amount during Gwen’s week ashore and were rewarded this morning with watching her being plonked back in the water, dazzling and shiny in all her glory. Now she’s in the adjoining marina, where we still have a few jobs to do.

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Hanging around the docks, waited to get picked up

But it’s our day off, I tell myself and Rich. I sit in the saloon, where it is still bloody hot but, you know, on the water Gwen’s bottom is being cooled off, and I type because I have spare time to type. Some antifoul remains on my toes, boatyard dirt ironed on to my foot soles, a stripe of Gwen blue in my hair, but I am mostly clean and it feels amazing. I can hear the ratatat of the sewing machine and I think Rich has made a mast boot cover because he’s a workaholic. I’d better get up there and take him out for a deserved pint.

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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.

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.