Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Riding with lady luck

With the sun coming up and anxious about the day ahead I left Port Lligat on day six. A favourable SE wind blew as predicted, but what wasn’t quite so favourable was that the breeze was expected to reach force seven by midmorning. The blood-orange dawn revealed many other sails on the water and three yachts with beautiful expanses of pink curves coming up directly behind us. But why so many boats on the water? Were they all rushing up to France before the stronger wind arrived? Something told me they were.

As I bore away for the cape of Cap de Creus I questioned my decision to go to sea that day. And, what is more, on an empty stomach. But this was part of our routine, wake at half five or at six, drink a coffee while preparing the boat, set sail with the dawn to catch the off shore breeze and stop 10ish for breakfast.

If the approaching weather was so bad as to warrant this northerly exodus of large sailing boats could I afford to stop, anchor, cook and eat? Or should I follow their lead and crack on eating bread and fruit on the way? I couldn’t make a decision and fear of sailing out into the notorious waters north of the cape made me dither. I’d missed much of the coastline to arrive here, and I was unwilling to sail straight past the shores I so wanted to see. I decided to stop for breakfast and make a decision based on how the morning evolved.

The island of s’Encalladora lies just off the cape and the passage between this rock and the shore is navigable in good weather. I headed towards it with the three yachts close behind. The wind in the passage became fluky and a contrary current setting towards the cape made its presence felt. But OB zigzagged from gust to gust, avoided being backwinded by tacking early and generally demonstrated that she’d learned a lot about getting the most out of the wind. Once out of the strait the larger yachts loosened sheets for France while I headed for Cala Culip and breakfast.

Beating up the long inlet I became aware of eyes upon me. The breakfasting crews of several yachts at anchor were interested to see OB’s lithe form smartly tacking towards them. The northern shores of Cap de Creus are desolate and windswept. Unlike most other parts of Catalonia there are no chalets and apartments, the grey-brown slate stone slides into the sea in long diagonals and on the few places where the stunted maquis can find a footing it remains close to the ground out of the wind. Cap de Creus reminds me of north Wales.

My aim was to anchor in deep water on the eastern most elbow of the bay near a small beach where a naked couple were just walking down from their fisherman’s hut to test the water. The wind came briskly off the land and soon I was in a position to anchor. But at that moment the yacht to leeward hailed me, I didn’t throw the anchor and started to lose ground, oh well, I’d just drop down and see what he wanted. I gybed to come under his transom and as the boom came across it just clipped my sunglasses, which I’d been wearing on my head, and knocked them into the drink.

I am not superstitious but I took this as a bad omen. Sunglasses are an important part of my equipment—half a day of reflected glare and my head is throbbing. They are an item that I wear almost every day of the year, that I choose with care and that I am prepared to spend money on. I sat under the French yacht’s lee cursing myself while the owner rained praise upon us. I was too gutted to lap it up but when he warned me about the weather saying that he was staying put to avoid it, I felt a chill as if the wind too had been from north Wales.

I turned towards the sea again. Silly as it may be, I felt absurd beating back up to anchor when I’d just said au revoir to the Frenchman. I’d just stop at one of the next coves. At sea the wind had strengthened, I put a reef in and, a few minutes later, still being over-pressed, another one. Without my lucky glasses I wasn’t going to risk the crossing. I sailed straight past the coves of Portaló and Galladera and made for Cala Prona, where there was an old fisherman’s refuge, somewhere to build a fire and sit out a blow. The wind was coming stronger and the sky was thickening and my stomach was screaming for food as I turned the corner, stowed the sails and rowed into the little bay.

The cove gives good shelter from the SE and as I rowed past an anchored sailing yacht, with a couple of lines to the shore and a couple of kids who were being berated by the skipper for the heinous crime of bickering, I realised that it was pretty tight for anything much bigger than OB. All the same there were two motor yachts, also anchored with lines ashore and a few smaller craft. A motor launch was tied to the quay by the fisherman’s hut and there was an untidy bundle of people and sleeping bags on the small half moon of shingle. I made for the beach; the only part of the cove protected from all directions, dropped the anchor off the stern and hopped ashore with a line, which I tied to a molar of slate.

I immediately started cooking breakfast. The group on the beach looked across with barely contained curiosity and while I mopped my plate with bread one fellow stood up and came over. He introduced himself as Alex and explained that they were locals from Portbou. As we chatted we noticed that the wind was faltering, over France to the north the upper sky was livid above thick dark clouds. I climbed out of the boat and walked across the beach to better study the weather. The air between the clouds and sea was tinged with an unhealthy yellow as if stained with weak Pernod. ‘Un grop.’ Said my companion. The local word ‘grop’ refers to a particular type of summer storm. Sudden and violent and so localised that it doesn’t make the weather forecast a grop forms rapidly usually bringing strong wind, thunder, lightning and a spattering of rain.

I could see an army of approaching white caps marching over the metallic sea. The Catalan flag, which had been snapping stiffly over the hut, died on its staff. Then came a hollow pause, like that of an infant marshalling its grief after a fall, and then the Tramuntana hit with all the thunder of stampeding buffaloes. The wind brought thickly charged air and a kiss of salt spray and I looked north with eyes half-closed, leaning into the blow. Behind me OB was safe, although she tugged at her lines like a spooked nag. But out at sea I could make out yachts with their sheets loose and sails flapping, others already double reefed were scudding back to shelter under the lee of the cape. I thought about how OB and I might have coped if we’d been out there, with too much wind to sail and a slate-toothed shore under our lee…

As if in answer, my thoughts were interrupted by a nightmare clonking and grinding as the boat anchored at the cove’s entrance dragged onto the rocks, the crew’s palpable fear electrifying the cove.

No comments: