Monday, 25 May 2015

Festival of the Sea

El Carlos Barral from Calafell
Onawind Blue wasn't quite ready for the traditional sail festival at Cambrils. This was a pity as there was to be a section devoted to home-built boats (there are now five amateur-built, ply and epoxy craft on this coast) but it was also a blessing as a force 6 blew hard and I would almost certainly have found myself in difficulties.

I arrived at nine, in time for the 'sardinada' the traditional maritime breakfast of barbecued sardines piled on toast rubbed with garlic and tomato, the whole drenched in fruity olive oil and washed down with copious amounts of red wine. Nothing sets you up for the day quite like it.

Having met many old friends during this repast and feeling much feted we meandered to various bars to drink all the coffee. The wind was playing havoc with awnings and clawing at the water but our conversation and laughter rang out across the harbour.

A procession formed, led by a giant prawn and followed by a band of pipers and drummers. Aha, thought I, now will we dance the Lobster Quadrille from Alice in Wonderland, it couldn't have been more fitting.

Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,
There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle—will you come and join the
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the

And so we followed the great crustacean, not down to the shingle but to the ancient watchtower built by fishermen to spot boats in trouble in these vicious winds. Many words were spoken and many more lost to the wind, a song was sung by a man with a chillingly clear voice and a quiet fell over the crowd as we revered those that had once sailed from these shores.

The programmed 'raising of sails' was ditched but we made our way down to the boats to prepare them for a post prandial sail, weather permitting. I spent the time with my friend Bosco who initiated the Ella skiff build having built a Weekender and, even more miraculously, navigated the Catalan bureaucracy and made the boat entirely legal. A feat by any standards. He has now designed and built the Nauus 480 A well convieved boat with a Welsfordesque stem, water ballast, a gunter rig and a six horse outboard in a tidy well and an overall appearance of seafriendliness and safety. Designing a boat for home construction is very new to this coast, almost unheard of in fact. But Bosco is dragging Catalonia into the 21st century with his new yard and bright ideas. The 480 can be bought at various stages of completion though the official design and construction team have to oversee the finished work. There are plans to take the design a step further and build a larger, cabined version. But I was in the way as Bosco and his colleague, Tony, hurried to prepare the boat for its inaugural launch. I wandered off with good intentions only to be roped into sampling a few jars of craft beer.

Nauus 480
Lunch: a massive fideua (short, slim lengths of pasta cooked in a rich fish stock until the broth is fully absorbed) served by a monoglot speaker of the language 'No'. Fork'? 'No', salt? 'No', allioli? 'No', etc. There was plenty of beer however, cooling on ice. We sequestered a two-wheeled fish cart as a table and sat on crates to gorge. Then it was back to the bars to finish any coffee supplies, and, at last, to the boats.


Torrevisca sails in front of the town
I embarked on the lateen rigged Farigola (thyme). A genuine 6, or so, metre gem, neglected in the traditional way. 'She's a bit dry.' said the owner as I admired the view through her seams, 'I think the pump still works though.' She began behaving in the manner of a boat intent on having a quiet siesta on the sea bed, water seeping up through the bottom boards and the ship's bucket floating merrily from port to starboard and back. Then the bilge pump suddenly burped enthusiastically to life, belching brown water over the side.

We set the sail. The lateen rig halyard has a 4:1 reduction, so while one crew pulled, the other (me) struggled with miles of unsupple, salt-dry cordage, I felt like Laocoön dealing with sea serpents. This unwieldy mass satisfactorily stowed on deck I was immediately called aft to clap on to what, in a gaff rig would be the throat halyard. Being too windy outside we were to sail within the harbour, necessarily tacking every 200 metres. There are two lines that run to the forward most part of the rig, they have to be loosened so that the front end of the yard can be passed over the prow as the bow crosses the eye of the wind. Then they have to be hauled taught again. Tacking so often the work was constant and I had no chance to adjust the waistband of my jeans. But luckily the gusts came down so hard, (at one point everybody having to throw their weight to windward) that we struck the sail, before I mooned to the onlookers on the dock or had to give excuses for my lack of stamina. We continued, in a more tranquil fashion, under power.

Sant Ramon
I was handed the helm as the skipper wished to take photos. He stood on the bow while I sat in the stern and watched the water slosh around my toes. This was very pleasurable as just before leaving the house that morning I'd removed my socks thinking that I would be taken for a land animal if I turned up in such lubberly attire. Socks, forsooth! As a consequence I had rows of blisters across my toes, but this soreness was soothed by the rhythmic rising and falling of cool salty water.

Sant Pau
We puttered sedately about the port at 2 knots occasionally pulling up to the quay to take on excitable teenagers who were given their first taste of a traditional sailing vessel. 'It's entirely normal.' I replied to anxious glances at the bilge water, jamming the waterborne bucket under the bench and nonchalantly lifting a foot to examine a pruny toe.

Farigola (photo: Nuri Mariné)
All great days on the water come to an end and with the sky paling to peach I said my goodbyes and hobbled over the gravel carrying my shoes, quite the jolly tar.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Boats and the sea, recently

After Onawind Blue's little solo adventure, off on the undertow and down the beach, I've slowly been scraping away at her paintwork. It's more than two years since she had any maintenance and her decks have bubbled and flaked. Structurally she's sound although she spent too long on a trailer supported by a pair of rollers, the pressure points have left cracks on her sole but the wood is unbroken.

It has been a long time since I went out on sea with my friend Macgiver the fisherman. But when I finally got down the harbour for a visit the news on everybody's lips was that the boat had sunk. Fortunately the boat was docked at the time, although it broke its mooring lines and went to the bottom. The refloating and repairs, especially to the engine, have been expensive. Macgiver wonders if he'll have the resources to get back on the water, especially as he's now run up on a tangle of red tape. Official engineers are demanding he complies with new regulations—or some such, quite frankly I haven't understood exactly what they're demanding but the upshot is that time is tramping on and Macgiver's not making any money, although he's chomping through savings.

But the sea is in a sad way. It shows in the industry. Nobody's catching much. Two other fishermen have retired after some 40 years at sea and that leaves just three boats in the port. This in a town that 100 years ago would launch 370 boats from the beach. Meanwhile supermarkets proliferate and their fish counters are groaning, daily. The labeling is unclear and although it's easy to spot farmed fish, (because they're all the same size and weight) the provenance of other species is less clear. Feeding myself on the fruits of the sea has never been thornier.

To another boat I returned a marker buoy, that had been washed up on the beach, and was rewarded with a few fish. The fishermen went home, the truck left for Tarragona with the catch. It was just passed noon.The harbour was lifeless. I scaled and cleaned my fish on the dock, throwing the guts into the water. No hungry small fry swam up to take them and no seagull swooped down to swipe them, the offal simply sank to the bottom.

On a brighter note, work on OB is coming along. Not at the pace I could wish exactly, taunted as I am by one perfect sailing day after another. Now, however, there is less to do than before as I've allowed myself a lowering of standards which means I don't have to strip the paint from all those difficult corners. Or indeed the outside of the hull as that will remain untouched this year. It's a facelift. Just the decks, the interior and the spars will get a clean up. I'll stick with a bright gunwale and masts for the moment as I still have a tin of varnish in the cupboard, but I can see this nod to my nautical vanity going overboard fairly soon. And that'll be a good thing.

Friday, 10 April 2015

This Thing of Darkness

Robert Fitzroy

I found the book of this title by Harry Thompson (2005) captivating. Until now I'd been familiar with the history of Fitzroy's voyages from many sources including Alan Moorehead's Darwin and the Beagle. This had given a clear account of the second voyage, with Darwin, and good pictorial evidence, but its text and characters remained somewhat dry and fixed in the past, as I suppose befits a serious work of non-fiction. Thompson's is a historical novel and the frontispiece reads, 'This novel is closely based upon real events that took place between 1828 and 1865.' A warning that he is affording himself some artistic license.

The result, however, has brought me closer to Darwin and Fitzroy than anything I have read. Thompson is a fine storyteller and weaves a page-turner of a yarn. It's not Patrick O'Brian but at times it comes pretty close, particularly through the dialogue and the naval routines. Anyone versed in O'Brian will find them gratifyingly familiar. Just as with Aubrey and Maturin, the brilliantly depicted relationship between Fitzroy and Darwin provides much of the pleasure. Their shared passions and unquenchable appetites for discovery are common ground for a deep affection, though the conclusions that each draws from the discoveries made during the Beagle's five year circumnavigation eventually decimate their friendship. But this is only part of the tragedy.

Fitzroy is the hero of Thompson's novel and he is painted as great man and a product of his age. Darwin's character could conceivably be extrapolated to the present, a passionate amateur naturalist on the brink of a cohesive theory. But Fitzroy, chivalrous to a fault, driven by high morals, unswerving Christian faith and duty to his king and country surely belongs to the 19th century. Though historically his values found their most horrendous expression in WWI.

Although Fitzroy is treated dreadfully by his country his intent is always to serve and when his orders contravene his faith he strives to maintain his Christian integrity, thus leading to disfavour with those in power. His is a crummy lot. Fitzroy was a manic depressive, though the condition was yet to be described and recognised, which must have made facing his dilemmas all the more difficult. It is no surprise that he ended his own life, that he survived until he was 59 is testament to his determination in the face of continual let down.

Many of the questions raised in the book feel contemporary. Darwin travels with the gauchos in Argentina. When he meets General Rosas—who is engaged in a genocidal war with the native indians—Darwin finds that despite the brutal reality of the war the General's discourse is convincing. Thompson based Rosas' arguments on speeches made by Tony Blair and G.W Bush to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Themes of western expansionism are just as valid today as they were in the 1830's.

Fitzroy actions helped to further understanding and knowledge of the world but he considered that what he and Darwin had set in motion brought civilization not only forward but beyond him, to a godless society where men questioned God's works without having witnessed their full might as he had around the Horn and in Tierra del Fuego.

Does the world improve through progress? Fitzroy asks. A question that we could well pose today. More people are better fed than ever before, we have hot water, flushing toilets, the Wikipedia, I myself have been successfully treated for a life threatening disease. But we also have extreme inequality, horrendous poverty and exploitation, slavery even. Technologically we advance but the human condition, the greed, the short-sightedness and the corrupt system that so distressed Fitzroy, exist just as they did 180 years ago.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Eggs Benjamin

Not a shipboard meal and a treat even on Fiddler's Green, eggs Benjamin is my version of eggs Benedict. The name change may smack of narcissism but honestly, in the world of food nomenclature can get you into hot water. Just to clarify the territory on which I'm about to tread, eggs Benedict feature a toasted English muffin topped with a thick slice of warm ham, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Eggs Florentine exchange the ham for spinach, and eggs Royale use smoked salmon in lieu of ham.

Eggs Benjamin takes a few local ingredients (there are no English muffins in these parts) and marries them with the classic combination of poached egg and hollandaise sauce. I'm helped in this recipe by two important aspects garnered from my sailing experience. The first is energy and enthusiasm, there's no point embarking on eggs Benjamin if you are fuddled and hungover—though if someone else makes it for you and serves it with a Bloody Mary you'll probably find that it's an excellent cure. Energy, enthusiasm and a clear head, the sort of organisational attitude that you need at a busy boat ramp, when you're launching the boat while you mentally tick off all the gear. You don't want to shove off from the shore and discover you've forgotten the centreboard as I once did.

The second concerns the hollandaise. This sauce scares off a few home cooks but all that's required, apart from the correct ingredients, is an air of mild confidence and authority. The same that you might assume when you take your boat right up to the quay or breakwater—onlookers expecting a nasty crash—before smartly tacking, because you know that your boat turns on a penny and are absolutely confident that you won't fluff the manoeuver.

Eggs Benjamin is, or are, (tricky grammar here) warm Catalan tomato bread, (pa amb tomaquet) smoked streaky bacon, spinach, poached egg and hollandaise sauce.

For want of sailing stories I will give the recipe. 

Take a ripe tomato and remove the root of the stalk with a conical cut then draw a sharp knife around the skin. Slice the tomato in half and place in a moderately hot frying pan skin sides down with a few drops of olive oil. Put a small pan of water over a flame, this is the same pan and water in which you will eventually poach the egg but first place a bowl on top of the pan containing 75 grams of unsalted butter. Let it melt.

Cut the bacon into small pieces and add to the frying pan with the tomato halves. Start the hollandaise by separating an egg and putting the yolk in a clean bowl with a couple of spoonfuls of cold water and a pinch of salt, combine with a whisk. (I forego the vinegar that is often used at this point as it brings the flavour too close to béarnaise for my taste.) Remove the melted butter from over the pan of water.

Add the spinach to the bacon with some salt and pepper, turn the tomatoes and cover with the plate that you will be using to serve the meal. Turn the heat right down. Put the bread in the toaster, while it toasts take a minute to assume an air of mild confidence. Put the toasted bread on the plate over the spinach to keep it warm.

Place the bowl containing the egg yolk over the pan of simmering water and continue to whisk. When the bowl is hot to the touch but before the yolk begins to cook add the melted butter little by little, whisking as you go. Keep going until the sauce starts to thicken, it should only be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, add a good squeeze of lemon juice, whisk vigorously and remove from the heat. Leave by the hob to keep warm.

Crack the other egg (as fresh possible and at room temperature) into a glass. Stir the simmering water with a wooden spoon to create a vortex and gently tip the egg into the centre. Ensure that the water doesn't come to a rapid boil.

While the egg poaches, remove the plate from over the frying pan, place the tomato halves on the toast and remove the skins—they should come away easily due to the cuts. Using a fork crush and spread the tomato on the toast, salt to taste. Place the bacon and spinach mixture on the toast (all the moisture will have evaporated, if not whack up the heat until it has). Now check your egg, it should have centred itself in the pan and cohered. Lift it gently with a slotted spoon or similar. Let your egg drain. Sloppy, wet eggs are the dearth of this sort of breakfast. Place the egg on the spinach and, with a generous hand, spoon hollandaise over the whole.

Best accompanied with hot, black coffee, the Bloody Mary can wait till cocktail hour, though mine's a Dry Martini.

NB. One egg yolk and 75 grams of butter will make enough hollandaise for two or three people. Put left over sauce in a glass, cover with cling film and store in the fridge. When you've used up the calories accrued at breakfast slowly reheat the hollandaise in a bain-marie and spoon it over a seared fillet of fish and some steamed asparagus. Now you can be sure you've had your ration of butter for day.  

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

O B's solo adventure

I'd been in bed for two days, my teeth chattering, under a sweaty bedsheet topped with a pile of heavy blankets. The wind had moaned incessantly round the eaves and whistled in the phone lines. The power had been out and the rain had come in evil horizontal flurries. The crash of waves had reached my bed night and day. I wouldn't usually let weather like this hammer down without closer observation. On day three I hauled myself out of bed and went to the beach, maybe another glut of driftwood had arrived, some interesting jetsam, ambergris!

On looking towards OB's snug berth between the dunes I could kid myself that I'd been in bed so long that my bearings were off or that the sand had piled up obscuring her from view. But as I neared a hole seemed to open up in me, corresponding in size almost exactly to the gap in the dunes where my boat wasn't.

Onawind Blue, gone? I couldn't comprehend.

Before clear thought returned my feet were taking me off at quite a pace along the beach downwind and downsea of the weather. Had she been stolen? The local boat club had suffered several robberies over the winter—even the Admiralty Pattern anchor had been ripped from its pedestal at the entrance, but why would anybody steal OB, no sailor surely, and what worth was she but to a sailor? I began to consider that she'd been taken by the sea. A fearful hypothesis, I knew well what would happen to her in the surf—she'd be rolled, filled, rolled and filled, sunk and dragged along the bottom by the strong current until she jammed on underwater rocks or came upon the sharp breakwater further down the beach. But mine had been the highest boat on the beach, how could she have gone when others stayed? Was she pushed?

All further conjecture was arrested by a shape, 500 metres away in the dunes. It was her, I was sure. But now I was crowded by fears that all I was seeing was the boat cover crowning a pile of matchwood.

Should I keep my head up as I neared and let the details reveal themselves to my myopic eyes, or stare at the sand and so receive the full impact. I looked down at the dog, still bouncing around my heels—he'd known something was afoot since we'd arrived at the beach—and boldly crossed the sand to the dunes.

The boat cover gave her a vaguely collapsed form but I could make out her fine unbroken line below. If she'd rolled she would certainly have lost the cover, why hadn't she gone into the sea, I wondered as I peeled back the heavy tarp to reveal a couple of wheelbarrow loads of sand. I dug about a bit. All the kit was intact and in place, she hadn't rolled or even tipped on her side. She'd had a sedate journey from one place in the dunes to another.

As I've learned, watching heavy weather over the years, waves push bigger boats with deeper draught up the beach into messy pile-ups while lighter, shallow draught boats float off on the backwash and go through an invariably fatal rinse cycle. Why had OB behaved like a heavy boat?

The evidence was under the sand. The drain plugs were open. She had virtually no buoyancy, a large amount of sea would have lifted her but water would have surged in through the drain plugs and she would have sunk back down again before she could travel too far on the backwash. The next gush of water would float her up the beach and again she'd ground out on the backwash. As she filled with sand she'd need bigger waves to lift her. Maybe she'd taken all of 24 hours to move those 500 metres, the big seas didn't last longer.

There was still some detective work to be done, how had she left her original place on the beach? Several people had commented how safely she was stored, at least 1.50 metres above mean sea level. She'd weathered several winter storms in exactly this spot. Storms that had denuded the beach and uprooted the shower installations. I was sure she was safe here. But the alternative? I've seen abandoned boats used as trampolines and trashed by children, even burnt on bonfires, but I still couldn't help thinking that it was far fetched to think that someone might come down to this deserted corner in a howling gale and give OB a shove.

Back at OB's spot the situation rapidly became clear. The wind, that had blown for two days before the rain arrived and the sea rose had excavated the sand from under OB's keel, lowering her considerably with respect to the water level. And there on the summit of the dune was a pile of seaweed. The wash from that one wave would have been higher than OB's entire freeboard, no wonder it sucked her from her den and filled the streets with spume.

I had a boat again. The mystery was cleared up. The lesson learned—tie the boat to something. Now all I had to do was retrieve her.

The long roll home.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Old saws and chestnuts

The tenon saw is a right handy tool when it's sharp, and fairly useless when dull. The ways of the world are such that it's easier, less time consuming and relatively cheaper, simply to purchase a new saw when the old one becomes blunt, than to learn how to sharpen the teeth and buy the necessary honing tools—at least that's what they tell me at the local hardware outlet.

It's not parsimony, though I live frugally, but a desire to keep the tools I already have that has lead me to embark on this restoration of The Invisible Workshop. And saw sharpening looks easy in the youtube video, though my saw became still duller after the first attempt. However, with practice and patience I might sometime achieve a solid work surface and sharp tools. Yes, we've heard it all before.

I look at these Swedes, from long before someone thought to flatpack furniture, and am struck with wonder.

I got the rebate plane working and made a lap joint out of some cruddy pallet pine.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

I saw a plane

Walking from the car to feed a parking meter I was lured by a siren song issuing from the gloom behind a half open door. I should have tied myself to the meter but I was already lost to the prospect of treasure and soon I was standing in a dark room piled high with promising pieces of interesting old tat. There was no one about and so I began to rummage. Passing over a dutch oven, a Tilly lamp and a varnished case of cutlery I found, under a table in a shadowy corner, a wooden box of assorted tools. A quick delve and my hand alighted on a rebate plane. I felt the heavy, smooth wood and the cold steel blade. Although I could barely see it I could make out glue marks on the back. Then, “As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared.”

'What's this glue?' I inquired.

'That'll be where the carpenter glued on a piece to act as a fence.' He said with confidence. It seemed a reasonable, if slight odd, explanation.

'How much?'

You're supposed to haggle in these situations but for non confrontational people like myself it's easier to assume that sellers have given their wares an honest evaluation and are not trying to extract an extra buck. I coughed at his price, handed over the cash and resolved to watch a few old episodes of Lovejoy.

The next day in the bright light of The Invisible Workshop I gave the plane a perusal and immediately realised that I'd been a sucker. A carpenter hadn't touched this plane for many years. The blade was wrongly set and it was immovable, as was the wedge. And what was all the white gunk? The working parts were welded in place with glue, and that explained the adhesive marks on the back. This plane had spent years as a decoration, probably glue to a restaurant wall, adding a rustic touch.

A few days later I was up country with a friend pollarding olive trees with my dependable bow saw when I was overcome with exhaustion and stumbled to the car for a rest. My friend tidied up our tools and drove me home. The fatigue developed into a condition that required hospitalisation and when I next found myself in the workshop I discovered my bow saw was absent. Doubtless rusting in the long grass under the olive tree where I'd let it fall.

Quick research revealed that the cost of a round trip to recover the saw would total more than a new saw. And the spondolicks I'd coughed up for that 'objet d'art' plane still hurt. I was punishing myself—You had a saw, you lost it. What do you expect? A new one?—Quite why I'm so harsh on myself I don't know... Maybe because I'm so lenient on my children...

Some time ago an astute business acquaintance of mine bought a cut price lot of 100 folding chairs from that Swedish furniture store. Nice ones in beech, stained black. The problem was that every time he sat down he ended up on the floor amid a pile of kindling. I've been using the kindling produced by him, and the members of the association he sold the chairs to, in my wood stove for years.

I'd been looking at traditional hand tools for some time and realised that with half a chair, a new saw blade (aquired for a piffling amount) and some string, I could make a bow saw.

I still had a heap of driftwood— brought to the beach by a winter storm—to cut, and found that my new saw was perfectly adequate for chomping through the uniformly bleached wood.