Saturday, 5 September 2015

Thin water

The morning came on gently and I watched it drowsily from my hammock. When at last I eased my limbs from their swaddling and established that my body was sound, I let my legs take me for a potter around the shore of my petite isle. The water was warm and the fine sand underfoot occasionally gave way to cooler black mud that sucked greedily at my feet. Empty clam shells abounded and I ran my hands through the mud to see if I could find any live ones that might want to join me for breakfast.

In an atavistic frame of mind I wondered at the possibilities of finding food and water here and dug deeper into the mud, but every shell that came up was long vacated. On land there was enough marsh samphire for legions of foodies. But rather than gather bundles and then go hunting for bird's eggs I returned to the boat where more conventional fodder awaited.

With the breezy assuredness of the fully satiated I knocked out the grounds of my coffee maker on an oar handle—as nonchalantly as I might have knocked the dottle from my pipe had I been doing this half a dozen years ago when smoking was still good for you—and languidly mulled over possible activities for the day. I settled on a plan: I'd follow the ins and outs of this north shore of La Punta de la Banya, enjoying the solitude and the wildlife and generally letting my mind range where it would.

Tidied and afloat I towed OB through the ankle-deep water to a point where I could board without grounding her. Like most boats, left to her own devices Onawind Blue turns side-on to the wind. With the centreboard and rudder out of the water she happily did 1 knot crabwise in 8 knots of breeze, and in so doing rapidly went back to the shore. I unshiped the mizzen staysail and hoisted it as a jib, l loosed the line that holds the rudder blade up so that it might keep some its surface in the water and lowered the tip of the centreboard. With this configuration I had some control over the course and rounding the end of the island I turned downwind and the water deepened to half a metre.

The shore, for all its lack of human presence, was littered with civilization's detritus; plastic bottles and bags, ropes, crates, cans, joists, beams and a forlorn overturned boat. The fluctuating depth meant I was constantly adjusting the centreboard and at times the weed grew so thick that I could hear it tickling OB's belly and she'd slow from 2 to 1 knot obviously enjoying the sensation. Here even the fish seemed to run aground, occasionally a series of splashes would mark a fish leaping, salmon style, off a sand bank. We passed egrets, stilts and herons. I watched the herons land, rather overawed by their grace. The egret, similar in form though smaller, would seem the more elegant bird being blazing white, but I noticed that it is more flappy and nervy when landing, handing the prize for poise to the heron. I eventually let OB ground on another small island and I set off footslogging through warm mud to see another group of birds, this lot were large and pink and balanced on one leg.

A stilt
Having taken my souvenir photo of flamingos I returned to the boat for lunch noticing that the wind had risen significantly out on the water. As I ate a sailboat luffed abruptly and tipped hard onto its side before rounding up with sails flogging. Other motor boats were making straight wakes for Sant Carles and everything indicated that sailing back in OB might be fast and wet. I munched on my lunch disinclined to dispell the mellowness of the morning with swift sailing. But I an idea occurred to me which, if it worked, would mean I could sail back with very little stress.

I double reefed the mizzen sail and hoisted it, I rolled the main tightly round its boom and yard and lashed the bundle to the side deck, then I hoisted the staysail again as a jib, lowered a tad of centre board and set off, across the wind towards Sant Carles. Even under this improvised set up of jib and mizzen, probably no more than two square metres of sail cloth, OB sailed at three knots. The chop stayed in its place, rather than coming rowdily aboard as it would have done under reefed main and mizzen. Sailing in this gentlemanly fashion I was able to hold on to the deep peace that had settled over me during the morning.

Until I reached the boat ramp.

If there was anyone around with a camera then my slapstick performance will certainly appear on youtube with time. Probably speeded up and set to the Benny Hill theme tune.

Thursday, 3 September 2015


Sleeping in Onawind blue has never been comfortable, though deep slumber has often been achieved through a combination of fatigue, food and drink. On this trip I was determined to get off the hard surfaces of thwarts and centreboard. I recently had a few cosy nights—on an 4 day, 800km tour of Catalonia on a 49cc moped—cocooned in a hammock in various copses and woodlands, happy to let the life of the forest floor go on below me while not actually having to lie on it myself.

The small beach upon which I had hauled OB was part of a diminutive island with a small lagoon in the middle surrounded by reeds and samphire. Its solitude and inaccessibility would have satisfied the most discerning hermit though the lights of Sant Carles were visible which, I suppose, would have irked the true loner.

I ran a taught line from mid point on the main mast down to the ring on the stem, then stayed the mizzen in a similar fashion and hung the hammock between the masts. I eased myself in and the spars took up the strain with no ominous creaking or bending. Satisfied that my bed was sorted I got on with my evening. Expecting clouds of mosquitos to arrive for cocktail hour I spray painted myself with some truly repellent repellent and sat down to a cold beer and a small plate of black olives while I waited for the pasta water to boil. The moon, full to bursting, rose while I was eating, the wind dropped away completely, the water stilled and the wildlife, disinclined to go to bed, kept up a commentary.

Leaving the housework for the morning I climbed into the hammock and luxuriated in its silk embrace. In no time I was fast asleep. Later, when the moon was much higher, I opened an eye. Just at the stern of the boat, perfectly still in the mirrored water was a heron standing tall. I watched as it took a few paces, paused and took a few more. Poised, elegant, bathed in silver light it focused the spectacular night into one crystalline image of beauty. Out on the lambent lake fish launched themselves skyward, reaching for the gleaming orb. There was enough light to read by and I dug out my book from under me to prove the point to myself. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” ...ermm... “He was lying on his hard, as it were armour-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed-quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely.” ...ermm... “his numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.” Erm, thank you Franz.

Snug in my cocoon sleep again washed over me as I wondered if I too might wake metamorphosed.  

Monday, 31 August 2015

A lambency of gaff in looms

Why go to Cadaqués, I reasoned, one of the most beautiful Mediterranean towns: ex fishing village, a player in the surrealist movement, known for the astonishing quality of it's light; a technicolor clarity that contrasts exquisitely with the impenetrable black slate of the coast—sky, rock and sea all polished by the Tramontana wind. Why all this when I could go to a fag-end town renowned for mosquitos and an unenlightened attitude to bullfighting.

Solitude, in a word.

Cadaqués, at this time of year, is rife with bohemians, it's all white clothes and sandals and artistic noses held righteously aloft. And the water is the preserve of the those who think wealth brings entitlement across the board. Sant Carles de la Rapìta however, is just any old place—on the face of it. Actually it has some excellent restaurants and holds a claim to having played a significant role in Catalonia's maritime history. But I won't go into that here as I only went into town to buy ice for the cool box.

The locals may or may not be rednecks but there certainly aren't many sailors left among them. That's not to say there aren't a lot of boats. Whether they've seen you or not, don't expect anyone but yourself to change course. For self preservation alone it's worth assuming that nobody will adhere to any rules that you happen to know—take this as the principle rule for the coast in general. The port of Sant Carles is a hotbed of dodgy rope work—frayed ends and evil thumb knots abound. And the ramp is a dream for youtubers that post titles like, 'boat launch fails'. Out of charity I looked away and quietly got on with my own disastrous launch which left OB minus some bottom paint and my back out one degree to port.

I rowed out into the fray—a spritely force 3 over a short, steep chop and motor boats and jet skis fizzing about like mad wind-up toys. Anchored and hoisting the sails a boat hurtled by raising a low wall of wake that made me sit down fast. I gazed after them but none looked back so I assumed they weren't buzzing me to watch my boat wildly roll but were unaware of being boorish and uncivil. Most boats chose to stick close to the shore and, under full sail, I was soon in clearer water.

El Port dels Alfacs is a parallelogram-shaped body of salt water running more or less east west, Sant Carles being on the northwestern edge. The long spit of 'El Trabucador' protects the bay from the sea, swinging westward to form 'El Punta de la Banya'. I spent the afternoon tacking up to the northeastern corner where I got stuck in weed and mud. But here running aground is all part of the sailing and in a craft like OB, where you simply climb out of the boat into ankle deep water to lighten the hull and thus refloat, it is not a problem. A fixed-keel sailboat was in far deeper trouble than I and a motor boat was churning great gouts of mud skyward with no forward progress. In waters less thin I again lowered the rudder and sailed clean away from this treacherous corner.
La Punta de la Banya is a nature reserve and is all but inaccessible except in a shallow draft, flat-bottomed boat. Scrub and the odd tree were becoming silhouettes by the time I arrived and I cautiously approached a tiny beach, letting the boat skid sideways with no centreboard or rudder, making minor adjustments to the course, poling with an oar.

As the bow ground gently against the shell laden shore I was surprised to see a row of discarded umbrellas and walking sticks upright in the mud on the far side of some tall grasses. I hopped out of the boat to investigate and the umbrellas opened and took flight.
 A flamboyance of flamingos.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Grey Triggerfish (Balistes capriscus)

I like fish, I'm interested in them both underwater and on my plate. I have a reasonable knowledge based mainly on experience, shored up with solid facts from the wikipedia and I'm always eager to learn about the sea and its inhabitants.

As with the birds I have the local fish identified, the ten common or garden species and the rarer ones. The ones that I know I might see but hardly ever encounter. And others, that although they turn up on the fishmonger's slab having journeyed from afar, are almost things of legend, like the dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus).

A new sea floor over which to snorkel brings the pleasure of anticipation. I have discovered just how painful is the poison of the weever fish (Trachinus draco) and how enduring the discomfort of the Pelagia noctiluca jelly fish sting. I've watched bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) hunting anchovies and have even been checked out by a pair that followed me for many metres, sniffing at my toes. I have caught octopus (Octopus vulgaris) and felt the pinch of their parrot-like beaks.

Recently, in Formentera, floating 10 metres or so above a barren bottom I saw an old rudder lying on the sand. A wrasse was hovering around one edge, often a sign that an octopus is in residence as the diminutive wrasse makes meals of pedators' scraps. I emptied and filled my lungs a few times then dived down, holding my nose and blowing every 2 or 3 metres to compensate the mounting pressure. I looked underneath the rudder, no octopus but another predator; a triggerfish, about 40cm long, bold and ugly.

I didn't hang about. I knew the triggerfish to be aggressive and I was running out of oxygen anyway. At the surface I hung in the water breathing. Suddenly I felt something grab my foot, I turned with a great flurry of limbs and saw the triggerfish clamped upon the knuckle of metatarsal behind my left little toe. And it didn't want to let go. I shook my foot hard and shoveled water at it, the fish backed off a bit. Then it came at me again. I kicked and pushed bubbles, my only defense. It had a particularly calculating stare and it looked at me coldly as it followed my messy backpedalling towards the boat from which I'd dived. After a while it desisted and I examined the two small holes on the top of my foot that were leaking blood into the water. It wasn't a serious wound. I climbed aboard wondering just why the fish had given me such an evil reception.

On the internet I confirmed that the triggerfish is indeed a cantankerous blighter, with a powerful jaw and sharp teeth but, more interestingly that it becomes defensive when protecting eggs. Even more interesting was the discovery that the fish's territory has the shape of an inverted cone, the apex at the bottom and the broadest part at the surface. So, if you encounter a triggerfish on the bottom and he doesn't look happy you should swim away horizontally. My mistake was to ascend and as I rose I further trespassed on his patch. On the surface above the nest I was bang in the centre of the fish's territory and as such a threat that needed to be dealt with.

I applaud the trigger's cojones and treasure my new fishy knowledge—I won't forget that icy stare—as well as the pin prick scars on my foot.

Friday, 17 July 2015

L'Ametlla. The morning after.

 It's not easy to get a lie-in when sleeping in a car, the heat, the mosquitos, the bright sunlight, the noises off—in this case seagulls and outboards, not as noisy as a Seagull outboard motors themselves, but nonetheless a racket.

I was moored by the crane ready for an early haul out but as it still wanted three hours until 9 o'clock I went for a row. Which turned into a sail. And then into a long row when the wind failed.

The wind returned just as I reached the harbour entrance so I hoisted the sails again and wafted in. The good thing about boating festivals is that rules are waived—normally you can't sail or row in ports, you have to use engine power. Being in the shadow of the seawall the wind was fluky but I slowly made my way to the inner harbour where the lateen fleet were still sleepily rafted to the quay. I sailed up and down for a while enjoying the short boards, tacking upwind and gybing down, sailing up to the raft as if I were going to tie on, then bearing away. All good sailing practice. Other boats took to the water and we made for the harbour mouth but the wind was dropping again and so I turned down my avenue and so to the crane.

And that was the end of the sailing fest. The boat on the trailer I walked into town for some late breakfast, examining the small fishing boats as I went. There was a time when, while refitting these boats, the old caulking was ripped out to be replaced with silicone gunk and that seemed like a step in a dubious direction. Now, however, there appears to be a fashion for layering up wooden hulls with fibreglass mat until any woody angles they may have are buried under curvaceous coats of gloop and paint. Not until the boat looks like a floating blancmange are the pudding makers satisfied. As the fleets get smaller these craft often come up for sail but I wouldn't like to be the one who returns one of these heavy meringues to a traditional wood finish.

Also new to me were the relatively recent additions to the tuna fishery. Remarkable skiffs, with bluff bows, great skids and 450hp engines. Imposing as they are the skids deliver no hydro dynamic advantage but rather their purpose is to keep the boat flat, so that the occupant doesn't tumble out of the back, as the boat is winched up the mother boat's stern ramp. At sea the powerful skiff's job is to tow the net, one end affixed to the main craft, in a great arc, encircling the school of tuna and so bringing the net back to the boat. The skids perform a secondary function in keeping the net clear of the rudder. It is an industrial purse seine fishery and the catch is usually fattened at sea in cages before market.

A fisheries inspector recently told me that tuna stocks were healthly again. If so great, but I must admit that the more I endeavour to understand about fishing the less I seem to know for certain.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

L'Ametlla. The night

I hadn't made any sleeping arrangements so when I was asked, in the final stages of dinner, the simple reply was 'In the boat.'

It was late, gone midnight, and groups, reluctant to call it a day, stood smoking and drinking on the fish dock. It seemed wise to sort out my bed before the befuddlement became too generalised. But then it also became clear that with the bedding in the car and the boat on the other side of the port that I'd have to drive round and, given my degree of yaw, this would have been breaking the law. However, I could row the boat to the car.

Stepping carefully over the be-dewed decks of two other boats I settled into Onawind Blue, slipped her damp mooring lines and gave a gentle push. She glided noiselessly across the water, a drifting cursor on a flat, black, reflective screen. When she'd come to a natural halt I silently took up the oars and gave a pull, the water coiling like warm oil around the blades. And away, past the bright lights and babble on the fish dock, past the sleeping boats, past the avenue down which I should have turned to reach the car, past the mighty tuna fishing boats, past the green and red flashing lights that marked the port's entrance and past bedtime. Out onto the sea swanned Onawind blue. The moon, lacking a slither to its left side, rode over the remaining swell. I purposefully splashed an oar into its reflection to watch it deform and re-assemble.

What do you do out on the sea at one o'clock on a warm summer night? In my case I kept on rowing, out towards that place where the rim of a black disc met the rim of a black star-flecked dome. And then suddenly, like the tide rising in time-lapse, tiredness overtook me.

Back at the pontoon by the car I had to moor stern on which makes getting in an out of the boat treacherous—she rolls wildly as I step around the mizzen mast. Once I'd scratched my knees transferring my person from boat to quay I decided to scratch my plans to sleep aboard. Instead I slept in the car amongst clothes and kit, spare lines and life jackets, with my feet protruding out of the boot.

Monday, 13 July 2015

L'Ametlla. The evening.

Unsually for me I wasn't dehydrated after all those hours under the sun—there were three empty water bottles in the bottom of the boat—so I didn't feel the need to dash off for a beer as soon as I arrived. A swim and a shower were enough to refresh me. Ok, and a beer. Then I set off to the auditorium where we were to hear a talk by Anna Corbella.

IMOCA 60 sailing is at the other end of the spectrum from the wood and canvas pootling of the lateen fleet. However before I radically revised my sailing priorities about ten years ago this was exactly the type of sailing that I was interested in and aspired to when my pipe dreams set ablaze. I erroneously thought that southern ocean sailing was what separated the real sailors from the dabblers. Building and sailing the Light Trow has been a lesson in what is needed both in terms of sailor and craft to travel over the sea. And the achievement of judiciously using the wind to transport boat and crew in safety from A to B is what constitutes the art of seamanship.

Corbella's career has been a continual rising through the classes of competitive sailing, excelling in each: 420's, 470's, Mini 650, Figaro and finally IMOCA open 60's, though she's also had time to become a fully qualified vet. She sailed the 2010 Barcelona World Race with Dee Caffari, the first all female team, finishing 6th after 102 days  . Now she's recently competed in the third Edition of the Barcelona World race with fellow Catalan Gerard Marín aboard GAES Centros Auditivos completing the 23,000 miles in 91 days and arriving in third place.

Corbella, recovering from a knee injury sustained on the final leg of the race, spoke easily about the ins and outs of high speed sailing. Generally traveling at somewhere around 20 knots she likened the experience to speeding along in a high powered rib and showed videos of the boat's wake, unspooling like a runaway toilet roll. But she also pointed out that despite the high-end technology there are constant problems with gear and that the race is fundamentally a continual problem solving exercise combined with the challenge of ensuring maximum boat speed at all times. She spoke of her relationship (professional, not romantic) with team member Gerard Marín. Having known each other since childhood, competing and growing on the regatta circuit and selling second hand kit back and forth they are almost family, she said. It was evident that the level of trust in the competence of one another and their cultural similarity in confronting problems had a significant influence on the atmosphere aboard and the successful outcome of the race.  

Questions were invited when she'd finished and this led to a longish discussion about exactly how an Open 60 can possibly comply with Spain's strict and complex maritime regulations. Not surprisingly the boats break all the rules. Straining my grey matter I still couldn't come up with a question I felt worth asking (or that I couldn't google) but as the hall emptied I stay behind and waited my turn outside the little huddle that had gathered around her. Seeing my chance I stepped forward and gave her a copy of my book, based on this blog, Catalan Castaway. She flicked through it with exclamations and a stream of questions and then insisted that I sign it. 'With respect,' I wrote and left, glowing.

A fisherman tastes the fideua
Like all good days on the water it ended with a blowout. On the fish dock, in the lofty ceilinged shed where the catch is auctioned, with incongruous 'no food or drink' signs on the wall, a hundred or more people sat down to eat. The mayor was there, the organizers, local bigwigs, fishermen and those of us that had come to sail. First up was a fideua, short lengths of pasta, cooked in rich fish stock with a golden green glob of allioli in the middle. And then squid in ink. 'This is octopus,' declared my neighbour with the authority of grand piano dropped from a great height. In terms of free-falling musical instruments my authority might stretch to a harmonica so I meekly acquiesced, but by all that we hold dear, a poor man of the sea I'd be if I couldn't tell my squid from my octopus.