Monday 24 March 2008

Cape Salou

The following, or previous, five entries have been posted in reverse order so that they can be read straight through. It's quite long so make yourself a cup of coffee first or open a beer, or pour a glass of wine, or better still a whiskey or rum.

Cape Salou 1. The recce

Tarragona was the capital of the Roman Empire for a time and evidence of Roman civilisation in these parts abounds. From viaducts and amphitheatres to pieces of broken amphora that anyone with a mask and snorkel can pick off the seabed. The Romans were careful in their choice of places to settle choosing areas with clement weather and good ports. Tarragona with its rolling coastal landscape of pines, cypress and olives leading down to gently shelving beaches and a plentiful sea appealed.

The coastal landscape has changed somewhat in the last 2000 years. Motorways and railways have cut great swathes through the hills, bridges and buildings and countless cranes clutter the land. There are two large refineries on the outskirts of Tarragona that graffiti dirty grey smears across the sky from flame tipped pencils. A pipeline pumps oil based products onto tankers that arrive from all over the Med and further afield. South of these two tangles of tubes and smoke and orange flame lies the centre of the province’s tourist industry, the town of Salou. An old fishing village it now has 120 high-rise hotels and many cheaply built apartment blocks. In the summer discount flights ship daily hordes of pale, work-weary northern Europeans in to nearby Reus airport and buses ferry them to Salou only to ferry them back again two weeks later, lobster pink and hungover. It’s bargain beer and sex tourism and the punters come flocking.

Tarragona, then as now, has two weather systems, a gentle one that affects the north and an unpredictably malicious one dominated by the Mestral wind to the south. The point that separates the two is Cape Salou, a headland that sticks a hotel-encrusted lump of rock a couple of kilometres into the sea.

The Cape is 15 nautical miles southwest of Onawind Blue’s beach and the fact that it marks a weather boundary has an irresistible pull on this small boat sailor. A trip down there would be like having a tentative look over a cliff edge.

There are several coves on the south side of the headland and looking at Google Earth I was able to establish which might serve for an overnight stay. To verify my choices I drove over one morning and rambled round the rocks in unsuitable footwear.

It was just as well. The sheltered Cala Font was dominated by a 300 bedroom hotel. How everybody fits on a 70 metre beach I don’t know. And Cala Penya-Tallada was too narrow and rocky.

With a thirst for beer and blister on my toe I came across Cala Cranc (Crab Cove) and saw that it was near perfect being protected from the north-west (the Mestral’s quadrant) by a long rocky outcrop and sheltered from the east by a high cliff. There were a few buildings among the pines but nothing too ghastly and with my eyes half shut I could almost imagine it as it might have been just 40 years ago before the onslaught of modern tourism.

I headed home making mental lists of everything I might need for a night at Crab Cove.

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Sunday 23 March 2008

Cape Salou 2. OB and the tankers

The weather forecast was not perfect; the weather pages were hedging their bets predicting everything. I had a little over 24 hours to get ready for my trip to Crab Cove and a lot to do. Most of this involved kit choices. Putting safety first I organised everything I considered absolutely necessary. The anchor, the boat-length of chain plus twenty metres of rode, the drogue with 30 metres of line, the life jacket and whistle, the signal mirror, the flares, spare lines, spare batteries for the GPS and navigation light, torch, spare lighters, spare mobile phone, safety knife, bailers, thermal blanket, sailing clothes, gloves, hats, compass, watch, chart and emergency food and water. I would have liked a hand held VHF too, maybe next time.

I may appear somewhat exaggerated in my choice of gear, I was, after all, merely going for a jaunt down the coast. But I think that while it’s impossible to prepare for every eventuality the prudent sailor should set his own limit on what he considers a safe minimum. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with less and I wanted to leave as little as possible to luck.

Then I added the camping gear. Mattress, sleeping bag, boat tent, dry clothes and cooking kit. Then came food and drink, lunch, dinner, breakfast and lunch plus fruit and muesli bars for snacks.

The result was a very heavy boat. The only items I could reasonably have left behind were the beer and wine. But I couldn’t do that for the sake of civilised living.

I didn’t sleep well, too excited to go deeper than a light REM. After a large breakfast I said my good byes and wheeled OB down to the water.

Unhygenix, who regular readers may remember from the building days (he loved my bench), was down by the sea having an illicit smoke. He came over for a chat and when I told him where I was going he asked if I wouldn’t be better off with an engine rather than those two thin ‘levers’. I explained that I felt the oars and the sails were sufficient. Then pointing to my fenders he said that at least I was taking oxygen with me.

None of us can claim never to have committed a lubberly error and with patience I detailed the fenders’ uses but then, before the conversation became too surreal, I pushed out into the small waves and light wind, which had turned foul while I’d been talking.

Unhygenix looked on as I sailed away. I saw him flick his cigarette away and turn for home. Then I trimmed the boat to pinch and started to row-sail. I slogged a mile offshore before turning south, I continued rowing for an hour reckoning it would be a long, long day if the weather didn’t change and then it did. The wind died completely. I sat wallowing while I drank some water and ate an apple. I had a scuttlebutt of sorts—a 5 litre container of water lashed to the after end of the centreboard trunk. I’d drilled a hole in the lid and inserted a long plastic tube. This worked like a sort of Camelbak drinking system allowing me to take plenty of short sips rather than opening and closing hatches and rummaging for bottles, I just had to be careful not to siphon all my valuable drinking water into the bilges.

I started rowing again. Soon a fair breeze roused itself from the south-east and I breathed relief as we properly got under way in the right direction. I passed Torredembarra and Altafulla, then Tamarit cove where I spent a night at the end of September. It had seemed so far away and now I was charging past at three knots well on the way to Waikiki beach, which had been out of reach back then. Before I got there however, the wind strengthened and turned more southerly again. I sheeted in and beat out to sea. The wind continued to rise steadying at the bottom end of a force four. This is generally the territory in which I feel more comfortable with a reef but now I unshipped the oars and secured them lengthways to the thwarts. I found that by wedging my legs under the lashed oars and hanging a couple of buttocks over the gunnel I could effectively maintain trim without having to shorten sail and OB sailed comfortably on heaving the occasional hunk of sparkling wave over her shoulder and into my face, playful girl that she is.

I’d securely tied the mizzen sheet to a loop of webbing on my life jacket, knowing that if I fell overboard I’d sheet in the mizzen and the boat would shoot up to windward. Although I didn’t write about it, I tried this technique during the summer purposely falling overboard to check that it worked.

Something else I haven’t mentioned is the line steering set up. Lines now run back to blocks on the rudder yoke allowing me to steer from anywhere on the boat. When all’s balanced I can secure the line using clam cleats and leave OB to sail herself while I trim, bail or lounge.

But for now it was trim, trim, trim. After tacking I found that the waves were growing and that we were sailing broadside to them. We had a couple of close calls, as two foot breaking waves hit a boat with a four foot beam side on, before I got wise to the necessary technique. Keeping an eye to windward I turned OB sharply to weather whenever a breaking wave threatened. A rapid pull on the steering line brought us back on course before we stalled.

Now we were among the tankers waiting off Tarragona port. Luckily they were all stationary and we tacked between their great hulks. The chart cites a dangerous wreck in the vicinity of the harbour and I wondered if it was one of these ships down there rusting in the deep.

We were nearing the cape and the wind was changing again turning westerly and becoming fair. But the seas were becoming more difficult. Whether due to currents coming round the headland or because of the shifting winds I didn’t know.

Waves came from all directions and peaks formed and foamed around us. The sea was as spiky as the top of a lemon meringue pie and OB didn’t take kindly to it. She slammed and pounded and occasionally jarred to a halt. A few times she nosedived off a peak and while I can’t claim to have shipped a green sea I did get a long look down into green waters as OB’s bows plunged. We took two waves in succession over the front and began to ride low due to the weight of water in the cockpit. I bailed energetically easing the sheets to slow us.

The wind died again and I took up the oars. We’d been sailing for seven hours and suddenly our destination seemed further away than ever. I’d sailed closer to the favourable wind than necessary hoping to be able to run round the cape but that point of sail had taken us further offshore. Now a two-mile row through difficult seas seemed more than I could manage and I looked for alternatives.

Tarragona’s large fishing fleet were returning and due to haste or disregard they restrained from changing course to avoid me until the last minute. On one occasion, lacking the iron nerves necessary to play chicken with steel boats, it was me that took avoiding action, untidily sailing a clumsy circle I indeed resembled a panicked bird. Large, unfriendly wakes added a new dimension to the rough water. We were a very small rowboat in an uncomfortable sea. I was tired and cold from the many hours spent wet in the wind.

But the alternative, a beach on the north of the cape was ugly and seemed a cop out and once I’d started rowing I found new strength.

All these mornings out pulling long strokes in all kinds of weather paid off now. It appeared that I had learnt to row. Without thinking about it I pulled hard when I could and let up as we rose on the waves so as not to slam. I adjusted the strokes instinctively and could let my mind wander. I have built up the required muscles and rowing has become as natural as walking and is even more pleasurable for it.

I rowed for an hour and little by little the cape drew near. A quarter of a mile off the lighthouse an easterly began to blow, no doubt part of the weather system that was bringing clouds crowding to the north. I stowed the oars and we sailed out of the rough water and round the cape, Crab Cove opening up welcomingly before us.

There were a few tourists milling on the cliff tops and many took the opportunity to photograph Onawind Blue as, now in the lee of the headland, she coasted into the cove.

Saturday 22 March 2008

Cape Salou 3. Pork and clams

We’d sailed 22 nautical miles in eight hours and I pulled the laden Onawind Blue up the beach and bailed the water from her bilges. Seas breaking over the bows had seeped in through the mast positions. There was a deal of water in the fore locker but most of my gear was in plastic bags and unaffected. The cooking kit was drenched though and I found that I was already one lighter down before I’d even needed it. I tidied the boat’s interior and when all was shipshape opened a beer and thought about food. I'd been snacking all day on fruit and muesli bars because the butter and cheese sandwiches I’d made in the morning had got wet and become inedible.

Now I was tired and hungry but I had a treat in store—pork and clam stew which I’d decided to make to a recipe from my close friend Mark at La Grande Bouffe Catering in Ibiza.

I browned bacon and pork sausage then set them aside while I sweated onion and garlic. Then I put the meat back in the pan with white wine and reduced then added the clams and a bit more wine and cooked on a high heat, finishing off with a liberal dose of parsley. The result was a little piece of heaven enjoyed perched on the side deck of my brave little boat.

After this treat I continued to indulge myself, nibbling chocolate and sipping wine until it was too cold to continue outside. I set up the boat tent, mattress and sleeping bag and carefully de-sanded myself before climbing in. Snug as the proverbial bug I was asleep by 9 o’clock.

At midnight I was wide-awake. Wind and rain lashed at the tent and large drips quickly permeated my sleeping bag.

I’d once stored the old tent in a barn where rats had purloined some of the apex for their own bedding. Now as I tried to stem the ingress of water with plastic bags I heartily cursed those rats. I managed to divert the flow so that it dripped into the bilges but I was already wet and uncomfortable. The wind was strong from the east and through the hole in the roof I could see thick cloud chugging westward. I cursed the weather forecasters along with the rats.

It is very early in the year to embark on this sort of caper. The night was long and cold but sometime in the early hours I dropped off only to dream that the beach was crowded with excited surfers and huge swells were bashing in.

Eventually the rain stopped and the wind eased and, after a long while, the skies lightened. I made sweet black coffee and worried about the day ahead. That easterly had been unexpected and now, peering from under the boat tent, I could discern a wind line out at sea and knew that it was the Mestral.

I called home for a weather check. Variable to south-east force two to three—the same as yesterday. I decided to get going.

But first breakfast—bacon, eggs and bread, more sweet coffee and the dregs of the wine.

Then I looked out at the steely grey sea and saw that it was baring sharp white teeth.

Friday 21 March 2008

Cape Salou 4. How high’s the water Ma?

When the boat was ready I climbed back into my wet sailing clothes and, rolling OB on the fenders, manoeuvred her down to the water’s edge. The sea within the cove was calm though waves were washing in. But there was wind out beyond; I’d been looking at it through the binoculars. In the course of my windsurfing career I’ve spent many hours studying the surface of the sea and judging by it’s wrinkled surface I reckoned there to be a strong force four.

I pushed OB into the water, hopped over the stern and began to row. The waves were deceptively powerful and as I tried to straighten the boat we got a drenching from a wave over the port bow. I pulled hard through the shallow water to get beyond the waves and then we were in the wind and evil chop.

The mizzen set up an alarmed, shrill flapping and the main sail yawed drunkenly with the hull. The boom whipped across taking my hat off and the boat heeled to the rail. I inserted the daggerboard to gain some stability and continued rowing. It was imperative to get far enough offshore before heaving-to and readying the boat for sailing. If anything went wrong and took time to sort out at least we would weather the point hove-to.

There is always this transition period where the fenders have to be stowed and secured under the thwarts and the oars lashed so as they won’t be lost in the event of a capsize. But for the moment I was getting nowhere rowing into the wind. In the end I sheeted in the mizzen and with a tiller line in one hand and an oar in the other I row-sailed far enough upwind to be able to heave-to under the mizzen in safety.

I tied everything down and put a huge reef in the main. This was the strongest wind OB had ever been in. 20 knots at least. I was glad of that large breakfast as the adrenaline pumping through my veins ate through my blood sugar levels.

Hove-to we were travelling backwards at two knots. I took a large gulp—now I had to back the main and turn the bows off the wind so that we could run round the cape. There would be a nasty moment when we would be broadside on to the vicious short chop.

I went for it and OB came round smartly flying down sea as soon as the wind caught the sails. At first she yawed wildly and was heavy on the helm but I clambered forward and raised the daggerboard, then she loosened up and sped away semi-planing. Despite the tension I found a whoop bursting from my throat. The GPS later revealed a new top speed of 9.2 knots.

After 10 minutes of the most exciting sailing I’ve had so far we were in the lee of the cape and wondering what all the fuss had been about. Not far to the south a 35 footer under fully reefed main and genoa charged by. I was in half a mind to go back out for more but prudence won the day and we sailed on double reefed, the tail end of a gust seeking us out every now and then.

I sailed round to the beach that had been yesterday’s alternative and gave it a perusal; not very attractive but definitely sheltered and worth bearing in mind, then headed off in the direction of Tarragona harbour. The wind eased and I shook out the reefs. The breeze faded further and further and as we reached the harbour mouth it died. There are many places I wouldn’t mind being becalmed but the entrance to a busy commercial port isn’t one of them and I shipped the oars sharpish and got rowing as a freighter was steaming up from the docks.

The sun finally elbowed its way through the thin cloud and after an hour rowing among the tankers a breeze sprang up from the south-east. Suddenly everything was right with the world. With a fair wind polishing that beautiful Mediterranean light I opened a beer and blazed for home at four knots.

I close reached out to sea so as to give myself a clear, broad reach home after rounding the point at Torredembarra port. But every now and again a large sea passed under us and my mood clouded. I called home to be told that large waves were rolling in. Even from a distance I could see them crashing against the marina wall.

I was 200 metres off our home beach and could see that there were three to four lines of breaking waves. They weren’t gently spilling waves either but plunging ones with huge sections closing out in a thunderous roar.

I called home to see if a video camera could be organised—if I was going to do it then at least the moment should be caught on film.

I would have to row-sail very fast to make it to the beach in the lulls between the sets. I had just turned our bows towards the shore when something like a train rolled underneath us. My blood drained into the bilges and I sheeted in and got the hell out before the next one came through.

I couldn’t land here but there was a beach up the coast sheltered by a new marina that I knew would be calm—I’ve been checking it in all weathers for the past year. I sailed on another mile and a half and brought OB gently on to the sand. Under the eyes of Easter holidaymakers in their smart clothes and with children and dogs I rolled OB to the top end of the beach and, using the anchor chain, padlocked her to a post. My partner pulled up in the car and we loaded all the boat gear into the boot.

The land felt solid and unyielding and I was oppressed by the idea of leaving OB with all these insufferable lubbers about. I climbed behind the wheel and pointed the bonnet homewards unable to drive at more than 20kph.

Thursday 20 March 2008

Cape Salou 5. Home

Up early I checked the sea state and, seeing that the waves had significantly diminished, loaded the oars, anchor, life jacket etc. into the car and drove round to the small beach where OB had spent a lonely night.

I found her safe under her tarp, unlocked the padlock and quickly prepared her for the row home. I was pleased that I still had the tail end of my adventure left to live and savoured every long stroke.

The breeze, that had been light and offshore, turned southerly and strengthened. Yet again I was rowing against wind and sea. But the sun shone, light danced over the water and life was good. I pulled the mile and half home and judging my moment carefully rowed on to the sand without mishap.

We were home without harm to either boat or sailor. We had sailed 46.5 nautical miles (168 miles so far this year), spent 16 hours moving at an average of 3 knots and hit a top speed of 9.2kts. Onawind Blue had behaved impeccably proving her worthiness as a small cruiser and earning my highest regard.

The wind strengthened during the day and half the regatta boats that left Torredembarra that morning to race down the coast to the town of Cambrils retired when they met a force 7 Mestral at cape Salou. OB had poked her nose round the cape and nipped back in the nick of time.

Monday 17 March 2008

Grilled mushrooms

I’ve finally bitten the bullet and ordered a suit of sails. Of course it hasn’t been as simple as picking up the phone and demanding a pizza. Nothing ever is, not even ordering a pizza.

I took my drawings and measurements to El Señor Parilla (literally Mr Grill) in Barcelona who came recommended by a boat builder I met at the Barcelona boat show. El Señor Parilla works out of a cramped shop in what used to be the city’s industrial area most of which was pulled down and rebuilt for the ’92 Olympic Games. The sail loft is in one of the few remaining old streets.

When they come to make the motion picture ‘The Light Trow Story’ I’ll recommend Richard Griffiths to play the part of El Señor Parilla. Good humoured and knowledgeable but an indifferent listener with a poor memory, I don’t know how many times we had to go over the measurements.

Anyway, after one initial meeting, three extra ones for luck, and two weeks of phone calls we’ve agreed on the dimensions, the numbers of reef points, the grade of cloth and the manner of stitching. The sails will be ready in early April.

I’m going for standing lugs rather than the sprit lugs that Gavin drew mainly because I’ve got used to my orange standing lug and also because I find the sail easy to handle and I like the shape, especially when cut with a high peak. The main will be a scaled up version of my present sail and the mizzen will be cut with a proportionally longer luff. This is because I had to set a limit on the mizzen boom length, any longer than 1.20 metres and there would be so much boom overhang that the sheet would need a bumpkin. At 1.20 I can still bring the mizzen sheet to a block on the transom. A bumpkin features in the original drawings but I decided against it for practical reasons—when beaching I need to lift the boat by the stern. A bumpkin robust enough to withstand the manhandling the boat receives would add weight and spoil the sweep of sheer at the transom. I worried that the shorter boom length might bring the overall centre of effort too far forward but careful scale drawings revealed that it falls where Gavin intended.
* * *
I went to see Mr Mushroom to order wood for the new masts. It was a pleasure to see him after so long. He flattered me by asking for a photo of OB and me to go on the wall along with all his mushroom pictures.

Thursday 13 March 2008

Breakfast in boat

I have organised all the cooking gear that I reckon necessary for cruising. With an eye on weight I’ve selected a small frying pan and cooking pot. A gas burner, a small wooden plate, a sharp knife, a fork, spoon, tin-opener, corkscrew, a small metal bowl and cup make up the rest of the kit. Everything except the frying pan fits inside the pot and the package adds about two and a half kilos to the boat.
Also with an eye on weight, but this time my own, I took to running—until my knee started complaining. So now, with the double motivation of vanity and fitness, I’m rowing a few miles in the early morning. It’s more time consuming than running but a thousand times more enjoyable. The weather hasn’t been particularly good over the past week, I’ve been launching into waves most days, the rowing has been challenging and cooking would have been more so, but this morning brought calm seas and clear skies.
The bottle of wine I seized as an afterthought on my way out of the kitchen at six am rightly suspecting that after exercise and hearty fare I’d find myself in a celebratory mood. In Spain it’s not uncommon to see workmen drinking beer or wine with their breakfast and finishing off with a carajillo—an espresso laced with brandy, whisky, rum or anis. This aspect of Spanish culture probably goes some way to explaining the build quality of houses here. But I’m no one to talk of build quality.

I rowed three miles then anchored in 20 metres a mile offshore. The sun was breaking through thin clouds and the local fishing fleet chugged across the horizon as bacon sizzled in the pan.

The privileges of boat ownership!

Thursday 6 March 2008

Enough wind for you, sir?

When they updated my favourite weather page I was surprised to see that the wind scale only went up to force 8. Maybe it’s climate change, I thought, no more big winds in the Med.

Well no, emphatically no.

The large white patch north of Menorca is where the gale goes off the scale.

I knew the wind was coming but it found me on the water all the same. Rowing home along the coast after a dawn jaunt. In the first few gusts OB heeled over even though she carried no sails or masts, but I could continue rowing. After a short time I had to turn head to wind in the gusts and pull hard just to remain stationary while I waited for the lulls. Then, when I felt the wind ease, I’d get back on course and row flat out until the next strong blow. It made for a long row home but the wind was offshore and we were close to the beach so there was no chop to speak of.

In the scant moments I had to look around I could see clouds of dust and polythene bags billowing off the shore. Spain has more determined distributors of litter than it has collectors. Every ditch and gully harbours its own hoard of rubbish, so it’s not surprising that when it blows hard a lot of that jetsam ends up in the sea. Soon we’ll have our own version of the North Pacific Gyre.

I’d lashed the oars to their pins in such a way that I couldn’t lose them. Such a loss would have been fatal in the conditions and would have see me drifting out to sea in the direction of Mallorca where I could have expected to find force 11 winds, 5 metre waves and, were I in a condition to witness it, a deal of trash.

Patins Catalans start to get blown about.