Monday, 22 September 2008
The last row
I woke under the gaze of a disgruntled RIB owner. Opening one eye I watched him dealing out his disapproving stare between my embryonic form in the sleeping bag, my stern line attached to his craft and a grubby trail of footprints that crossed his boat to mine.
I gave him my chirpiest ‘bonjour’ in a gravelly croak that spoke of too much Pernod and a late night, but receiving no more than a look of jowly distain, took the opportunity to pack up and leave.
The morning sun, not long above the horizon, grilled my back as I rowed out to Cap Cerbère over a flaccid sea. Once on open water, however, small waves converged with eager curiosity and OB rolled and reeled. I inserted the centreboard and hoisted the mainsail for stability but still the sea jostled underneath tipping us every which way, and the boom took drunken swings at my head. If I ever want to recreate that long row, over the short distance, round to Portbou I need only to sit in the hot sun, balanced on a large ball while a willing volunteer randomly hits me on the head with a rolling pin—I’m sure they’ll be queuing up.
At Portbou I threw the anchor off the stern and took a line to a ring on the beach. Ashore, parasols and postcard stands, in the dappled shade of plane trees, lined the streets, their colours as fresh and alive as impressionist paintings. I walked briefly among the bright umbrellas before my spongy legs slumped me into a metal chair and my mouth ordered coffee.
I spent the rest of the morning flitting, from one degree of Hunter S Thompson-esque weirdness to another. I went to sea in a public toilet, I crested waves on a stone bench, I had conversations with the late Catalan writer Josep Pla and told Salvador Dalí how I’d sailed through his paintings and what I’d done with his ants.
I tried to put a stop to the nonsense with lunch, at a restaurant terrace under a plane tree, but a reproduction of Picasso’s La Sardana, depicted on my place mat, came to life under my plate. It was only when I stood up and walked across town to the boat that I stepped back into the real world.
I hauled in the stern anchor and, the oars fitting comfortably into my hands, manoeuvred out of the bay. I raised the main and mizzen to a hint of wind but found it too light to sail by and rowed the three miles round to El Platja del Garbet, my final destination. The rowing was slow and though I’d learned to pre-empt the swinging boom it still caught me out, clipping me behind the ear with a playfulness that I found trying.
I anchored in the bay off the north end of Garbet beach, amongst RIBs and launches moored to buoys, and settled down to spend a relaxed afternoon with my book and some beers while I waited for my friend Pep to arrive with a trailer, but the weather had other plans. Gusts of Tramuntana, forerunners of a more consistent blow, came scurrying round the headland and rushing down through the pines. I looked up from the first page to gauge how OB would swing, she seemed fine but as a more sustained gust bore down I noticed we closed with the boat behind. The anchor was dragging on the stony bottom.
Further out in the bay larger yachts weighed their anchors looking for better holding ground. They weren’t having an easy time of it and nor was I. I dived to reset the anchor, wedging it into the ground with my hands and dropping larger stones on top but even so it wouldn’t grip. The stones were sharp and slippery and littered with sea urchins. I must have re-laid the anchor four or five times and every time I came up for air the wind sang with a fuller voice. This wasn’t the afternoon I’d envisaged and eventually, as people left the stony beach, I rowed in and pulled OB up onto the shingle.
Safe again thanks to my versatile boat I dried, dressed and warmed up. Nearby a dry riverbed disgorged dusty whirlwinds onto the beach. They came dancing down between barren banks, coating the boat with grime. Then one stole my inflatable cushion and whisked it into the water.
Damned if I was going to lose any gear I stripped off and ran naked into the sea. I swam hard after my cushion, which tiptoed across the ruffled water with the grace of a ballet dancer. The cushion moved fast and I would never have caught it had it not paused to rub noses with its larger cousin the inflatable dinghy.
I swam doggedly back to the shore against the wind. Doggedly indeed for, gripping the cushion between my teeth, I felt like a spaniel retrieving a duck for his master. Wading out of the water I primly used the cushion to cover my nudity, unwilling to give the few amused observers more ammunition for their evening anecdotes.
Finally dry but chilled, I made the bed and climbed into the sleeping bag to get warm. I took up my book, The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow by AJ Mackinnon, but it was absurd to be reading about someone else’s trip when I’d just completed mine. I was happy just to snuggle in the motionless OB watching the water, the wind herding flurries of eager young ripples out of the bay to play with the wild white horses at sea.