Thursday 21 February 2008

Between the Stars

I’ve been meaning to upload this video for a while. It shows an afternoon’s sailing sometime in January with a decent force three blowing from the southwest. At least that’s how it starts, later I think the wind changed direction and, if I remember correctly, it ended up swinging to the northwest and becoming light. Meaning that although I’d sailed away from the coast very rapidly it took me an age to get back. The sun hit the horizon long before I arrived at the beach.

The music is ‘Between the Stars’ by Monica Oca. As occasionally happens when music is put to images there is a serendipitous coincidence of rhythms.

Wednesday 20 February 2008

Hopeless romantic fool

Out windsurfing again, on a long burn out to sea, with my ‘traditional’ board in18 knots of wind and a growing swell, I let my mind wander over the reasons why clattering over the water on a small piece of epoxy covered foam so captures me.

14 years ago, living in Barcelona, it was the most accessible route on to the water. Cheap compared with dinghy sailing, uncomplicated in terms of kit and versatile I invested all my spare time in scaling the learning curve as quickly as possible. Pottering back and forth, falling in, clambering back on, uphauling that sail, (I reckon you have to fall in a least 2000 times before you’re proficient) I was having a ball. And then I discovered speed and planing, bought new kit, learnt to carve gybe and started travelling to other sailing venues like Tarifa and the Canary Isles. As my skills increased I could sail in stronger winds, launch through surf, make my first tentative jumps.

My dream and goal was the forward loop but before I got there I began to tire of the constant effort required to sail a lot in an area without much wind. Shirking work or family engagements, letting friends down for the sake of a good forecast only to drive 100km to find a light breeze, flat seas and a handful of disappointed men in rubber standing on the beach kicking the sand. My pocket couldn’t take it, my rusting van couldn’t take it and frankly I couldn’t take the pressure of constantly having an agenda, an eye continually on the sea and the sky, heart pumping at the sight of a snapping flag. And how could I raise a family if I was forever shy of making arrangements that couldn’t be undone in a trice?

I let my kit deteriorate, kept only the high wind gear and sailed only when it was blowing its socks off outside my own front door. I stopped progressing, sailed less and less and only in my comfort zone.

At the height of my windsurfing passion I kept a surf diary and recorded that I sailed 72 times in one year. I doubt I manage more than 10 now. But I still enjoy it enormously and feel immensely privileged to have the skills that allow me to fly over the water at 20 knots in tune with my equipment and the conditions.

Coming to end of that long, long reach I fluffed the gybe and fell in, cold water seeped down the neck of my wetsuit but I was in no hurry to get back on the board. The opportunity that windsurfing gives me to experience the sea is what I hold most dear about the sport now. I love to observe how the wind rakes the water's surface, as I’m lifted by the relentless heave of the swell. How else would I get to see the sea in rough weather this close up? Two miles offshore, treading water with one arm slung across the board, it’s scary and it’s beautiful but I don’t hang around for long. A phobia of losing ground downwind gets me back on the board and blasting back to the beach.

I’ve had many of those moments over the years, I’ve been out in conditions that would have been considered extreme for boats, I’ve seen the surface of the water ripped to shreds in a force 8, sat helpless under three metre breaking waves, been trashed by the same many times and sometimes, when I’ve been out at sea treading water, one hand on the board the wind and spray whipping about me, I’ve dived under and swam down, experiencing the quiet, dark blue.

Saturday 16 February 2008

Traditional windsurfing

An area of high pressure over northern Europe combined with a low over the Azores saw the isobars crowding together from Corsica to Spain.

With 20 knots from the east and a building swell it was time to get out the windsurfing kit. But what kit?

I have put so little money into windsurfing over the past 5 years that my gear is now reduced to one average condition high wind and wave board, one waterlogged, no non-slip, higher volume board and four scruffy sails.

But a while ago a friend was throwing out old equipment and I took a board that he wanted to bin. I’d never used it until the other day. It is a custom board built on the Costa Brava in the late 80’s—20 years is seriously antique in the windsurfing world which is only 30 odd years old itself—and the design was, well, typical of the era. A wide, thick, high volume nose, minimal rocker, a forward placed mast track, a thin narrow tail and closely spaced footstraps. Underneath there were concaves and a long fin track. All laughably old fashioned.

But on the water the board was a bit of a revelation. Boards like these were considered difficult to sail and were responsible for tipping a lot of aspiring windsurfers off the learning curve and into more user-friendly sports.

It needed a lot of wind to get going—earning no points for early planning, but once it was up and running it fairly ripped along. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve got used to life in the slow lane at 3 knots with Onawind Blue but this board felt seriously fast. Reaching for a few minutes saw me a considerable distance off shore where I discovered another quality of this antique—its gybing ability. With very thin rails at the rear, the board digs in and flies round the corners. When I got the technique 100% dialled I planed right through the gybes with speed and ease.

There’s not much of a traditional windsurfing scene. Actually I think it’s non-existent but there’s a lot to be said for getting these dinosaurs out of the cupboard for some 80’s style blasting.

After three days of windsurfing the wind finally died leaving behind quite a tidy swell. I took the old board surfing and found that in the smaller waves it worked, up to a point, as a surf board. Again laughably unfashionable but at least I was in the water having fun.

Tuesday 12 February 2008


Making the most of the offshore wind to sail parallel to the coast I saw what I thought was a fishing boat that had run ashore. However, closer inspection revealed a 40 foot RIB with four 250hp Yamaha engines on the back.
I landed beside it and peered in. Blankets, discount outdoor-shop waterproofs, a damp cardboard box of high calorie, low quality food, a large box filled with litre containers of 2-stroke oil, some new but poor quality tools already rusting, a plastic bag filled with NGK sparkplugs in boxes of 10 and upwards of 15 four packs of AA alkaline batteries and two unused bilge pumps in a soggy box were scattered around the interior. Through an open hatch under the seat I could see several 12 volt batteries. The boat and engines looked brand new but the tubes had been punctured and one of the engines was hanging at a tortured angle off the back, damaged presumable sustained when the boat arrived at the beach.
This boat arrived on the night of the 31st of January and since then I’ve been attempting to piece together the story but, although there have been accounts in the papers and on the Internet, I still can’t satisfactorily explain how this boat found it’s way to this shore. Or why the Guardia Civil took three days to take it away.

Operation ‘Gringo’ had been afoot for sometime attempting to score a significant coup over organised gangs running drugs up from the north African coast to the shores of Tarragona.

The Guardia Civil received a tip-off and managed to intercept a lorry loaded with 3000 kilos of hashish leaving the vicinity of Salou. (15nm south of OB’s beach) Soon afterwards they discovered a boat in a small cove. But apparently a second boat drifted away from the beach and into the night. The Guardia Civil caught up with this boat and, finding it empty of drugs, drove it onto the shore—I don’t quite understand why they didn’t simply drive or tow it back to their home port a mile away. Another report in the paper said the boat had drifted to the beach, which I don’t understand either—an offshore wind blew all night.

However the boat arrived, it made an impressive sight. Given that the Guardia Civil had searched the boat before I arrived I found it strange that there were still items of value, like the brand new, boxed bilge pumps, the quantities of two stroke oil and the 12 volt Optima batteries onboard.

I find it hard to believe that even the most hard bitten drug runners would put to sea with no ground tackle or rode, no life jackets or other flotation devices, no flares, no navigation lights. But the boat as I saw it displayed a total absence of anything that might lead one to suppose there had been any sort of plan B, or indeed any provision for mishaps more serious than sparkplug failure.

These boats can travel at forty knots but all the same it’s a long journey up from the north African coast 320nm south of here. Eight hours at the very least, bumping over the sea in the dark with only poor quality waterproofs and blankets as protection from the weather. Not knowing what awaits on the approaching shore and with total dependence on the reliability of the craft…But then I suppose safety at sea isn’t high on their list of priorities.

Wednesday 6 February 2008


January was an excellent month for sailing, we had good winds and calm waters. And, as I had little work, I got a lot of sailing done, probably more than during any other month since we launched.

The GPS reveals that we’ve covered 81 nautical miles, hit a whopping max speed of 8.2 knots, albeit on a wave, and maintained a moving average of 2.7 knots, which neatly makes 30 hours moving time. I have to admit that I have been pushing for maximum speed on most occasions and sailing long stretches on favourable points of sail. Sailing in the relaxed pre-GPS era I doubt I would have logged these figures. I also doubt that I could maintain numbers like this when cruising.

The tranquil sea did show its more savage side for a few days this week bringing a six-foot swell from the south. With OB snug under her tarp I took the opportunity to check the entrances to both my local marina at Torredembarra and the new marina being built up the coast at Roda de Bara. Both have narrow entrances that face southwest and quite frankly I wouldn’t recommend either as a safe haven in a southerly swell. The two marinas have rocky shores near the entrance, which reflect the swell back out causing a crossed sea at the harbour mouth. The waves were not big enough to break across the entrance but they were close. Later I spoke to a live aboard at Torredembarra who reported that they’d had a rough day inside the marina.

So if by some remote chance you are reading this while planning a cruise in the western Med, don’t run for Torredembarra or Roda de Bara in a southerly. Stay at sea or go to the commercial port at Tarragona.