Monday 30 June 2008

No-name cove to Riumar

Maybe finishing OB’s birthday wine had something to do with it but I slept well and late, then, eager for the sea again, I immediately set to my daily tasks. A deal of time ashore involves stowing gear and rearranging lines, many of OB’s ropes having one function at sea and another on land, and this morning was no different. At last with everything shipshape and after a quantity of fruit for breakfast, to offset a wine-thick head, we launched into flat water and a whispering southerly–forecast to strengthen throughout the day. Barely making 2 knots we took several long beats down to l’Ampolla, quickly looking into the harbour mouth before gybing and heading east for El Port del Fangar.

A large flat expanse of water protected by a great, low sandy spit on the north of the Ebro delta,
el Fangar was a place I’d been longing to visit with OB, considering it exactly the sort of sheltered water for which the Light Trow had been designed. And so it proved. We spent a fantastic few hours cruising about on all points of sail, going wherever we pleased, weaving among the mussel beds in the growing wind. I discovered that OB can take a lot more breeze if the water is flat, though when powered up and sailing off the wind the tiller becomes very heavy indicating that I might still have too large a rudder. At one point we ran aground, Onawind Blue’s clearly defined shadow on the soft sandy bottom alerting me to the shallow depth just seconds before the centreboard touched and OB turned head to wind in a mighty flap. I raised the board clear, the sand had been cotton-soft and we’d sustained no damage. Soon I got wise to the changing bottom and we sped on, occasionally at 6 or 7 knots and sometimes skidding diagonally in thin water with the centreboard raised.

Sailing on flat water, note the duct tape boot on the mast.

Then I spotted what I’d been looking for, one of the traditional boats that used to ply these waters. I’m convinced these craft are similar to the Fleet Trow, which inspired Gavin’s Light Trow. I’ve only ever seen one close up and that after wading half an hour through mud and weed without a camera to discover the boat in an advanced stage of decay. I remembered a slender, though heavily built craft, about 16 feet long, with a plumb bow, a narrow, raked transom, some half decking and a flat bottom with minimal rocker.

This present example was in shallow water and to windward. Centreboard-less I sat hard on the stern hoping to dig the skeg in more deeply and gain some lateral resistance but then we ran into weed and slowed to a stop as the rudder became ensnared. I raised it and tried to row into clearer water but with the first pull the oar became impossibly tangled in long green locks of mermaid's hair.

There was nothing for it but to back the mainsail and let the wind push us round then glide away downwind, the old boat annoyingly out of reach. Of course the shallow draft boats of the delta were propelled with quants and as such weed would not have been a problem. But luckily some snapper had been here before me and taken this photo. I put a reef in the sails, we’d been sailing over-powered for a while, and sped off to round el Fangar lighthouse and so on to Riumar.

I stopped for a quick lunch in inch thick water and got going again on the increasing breeze. Soon dramatically over-pressed, I stopped to shorten sail, anxiously aware that even double reefed the conditions would be challenging. We were in flat water in the lee of low land—no more than desolate dunes, and the sand laden breeze came brisker than we’d ever seen. 25 knots at least.

Lunch with a windsurfer.

Sandy wind coming off the land under the Fangar light.

Our destination lay slightly upwind and I trimmed to pinch. At one point, after a particularly savage gust had pressed on us relentlessly until we luffed and sat with loosened sheets and the sails shrilly flapping, I considered striking the mainsail and rigging the mizzen on the fore mast. Had there been more of a sea running I would have taken this option but I saw that safe sailing lay in staying close to the land and beat in keeping as near to the wind as I could.

It was long sail down to Riumar and after a while I became more accustomed to the conditions. We weren’t going to capsize on this point of sail, though at times it felt like it, and I was learning that OB could go further onto her beam before getting into trouble. As my confidence grew I bore away in the lulls until we were sailing close hauled and touching five knots. But it was a wet, wet sail despite the flat water, the short chop boarding with ease over the windward bow.

And so the afternoon wore on, the breeze holding steady and OB and I lapping up the challenging sailing until at last in the evening we reached Riumar soaked and cold but thirsting for beer all the same having covered 35 nautical miles at an average of 4.5 knots, and the first couple of hours spent trickling along at 2 knots.

Drying out in the evening calm at Riumar

Thursday 26 June 2008

Mooring, prawns and the Mestral

After a quick two-hour run past a tourist hell, a stretch of untouched coast and a nuclear power station we anchored for breakfast and a doze in a small man-made bay on the north side of Port Calafat. Then onwards with the east wind behind us, exploring every twist of the shore, nosing into small coves, taking the measure of the pretty coast. Due to the size of the waves, I didn’t attempt a landing but pressed on to Port l’Estany just south of l’Ametlla de Mar.

Port l’Estany is a beautiful natural harbour suitable only for small boats. The waves and the wind made the narrow entrance look fairly tricky but we negotiated it without mishap and ghosted down the narrow inlet, the water so shallow in parts that the oars scraped. I eventually dropped the anchor off the stern then waded ashore and tied a line from the bows to a large rock. Then, unhappy with how she lay, I did it all again securing the boat bows to the wind. With everything squared away and OB locked I walked the mile into town.

I spoke to a fisherman in the modern port who confirmed that there would be a strong north-westerly Mestral wind the next day. Then weaved through the narrow streets looking for somewhere to drink a quiet beer.

On the way back to the boat I brought some fresh prawns for supper as my friend Pep was coming down for the night. Though in the event he arrived so late—and we, like a pair of uncoordinated apes, spent so much time in the dark and the rain erecting a tent on the shore and then, like Neanderthals in mud, groping for his flip-flop, which had been swallowed by the ooze—that we just drank beer and ate fruit.

I’d re-moored OB, fore and aft again but with the anchor off the bows, so that she would be head to Mestral if it arrived in the night. And arrive it did. The first prolonged gust waking me as surely as a trumpet blast in the ear, I leapt out of the tent to check the mooring lines. The moon was nearly full and ragged strips of cloud tore across the sky, the wind was raking the shallow water and OB, though moored fore and aft was swinging. The small amount of Mediterranean tide was noticeable here and now that it was out OB was banging her starboard side on a large stone. It was easier to remove the stone than change moorings again so I waded in, wiggled the stone loose then heaved it out of the way. I checked the lines and returned, damp-footed, to bed only to spend the night waking with every gust and springing to the tent entrance to check that she wasn’t dragging. In the end I got up again and, unable to find a large rock on which to tie another line, took a large bight around the tent. If OB dragged the tent would go with her and I would be woken.

We woke at 7—Pep had to be at work for 8—and hurried to strike camp. I rowed him over to his car leaving the anchor buoyed with my small white fender. It was a tricky row with large stones in the shallows and the Mestral blowing hard on the starboard bow. Then I rowed back, picked up our moorings but decided to move somewhere more secure. Once again tied up fore and aft, but this time in deeper water and tucked in to a reedy bank, I went back to sleep in the boat. I awoke refreshed two hours later and still a solid wind blew, sometimes howling past at up to 30 knots.

I cooked the prawns for breakfast with garlic and chilli, then, sailing being out of the question, went for a long walk down the coast to reconnoitre the coves and inlets. This was a worthwhile exercise and having visiting a few places that I’d marked on my map as possibles and found them unsuitable, tramped on until I discovered the perfect, private cove, so small and isolated that its name didn’t feature on the map. I chose my landing place and cleared away the stones from the beach and a couple from under water too.

The tight entrance to Port l’Estany with the Mestral pumping out.

Back at the boat by 3 I prepared her for sea, double reefing the sails and re-furling them for smooth hoisting. The Mestral was easing up and I reckoned that by keeping close in under the land I should stay out of the worst. There were no other boats out but this is common even on the most perfect sailing days. The wind pushed us fast down the narrow channel and as soon as we were out I hoisted the sails and stood in towards the land on a gust, we bore away as it eased and in this way made a passage south. Sooner than expected we passed the cove, it had seemed such a long walk but there it was flying by already. The sailing was good, though challenging at times and I decided to continue south to recce and make the most of being on the water.

We passed la punta de l’Aliga and were heading towards Cap Roig when a freight train of a gust ambushed us, screaming through the pines and howling across the water laying us right over and, like a taunting playground bully, whipping my hat away to leeward. OB luffed and settled and, after a while, so did I. But I was annoyed at losing my hat, with many sunny days forecast I would need it, and I determined to find it.

I located the distant hat, soggily bobbing towards the horizon. Then, unwilling to sail broad in the strong breeze, hove-to, tracking backwards at up to 2 knots until to leeward of the hat. I re-trimmed then sailed upwind towards it as another gust came on. Accelerating towards my hat I pinched at the last moment, hoicked it aboard and slung it in the bilges.

I sailed back up to our private cove, anchored and swam in idyllic solitude, pulled her ashore for a thorough clean and dry out and a meal of sausage with rice. Then finished the day sitting on a rock drinking wine and watching the stars rise up in the east.

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Onawind Blue’s birthday

A fitting day to leave but despite my best intentions I didn’t get going until 11am, the family waving from the beach as OB, under full sail, bore off south southwest beneath grey skies in a light, easterly breeze.

Blessed with a favourable wind we ran quickly down to Tarragona and then, as the wind increased—almost certainly due to the un-forecast deep, dark clouds grumbling on the western horizon, even more quickly.

To windward the gunmetal waters were flecked with white and I knew that I should stop and reef but instead I dithered, dreading turning OB broadside to the wind in order to heave-to. I got my weight to the back of the boat and concentrated on holding our course though OB seemed intent on luffing up. Our speed increased 4, 5, 6, 7 knots and still the wind rose, on a wave I saw the GPS mark 8 knots and made to reef. But then there was a lull and no gust followed. The wind was dying.

Looking around and taking stock I noticed that a distant tanker was bearing down on us. Only just hull up, I reckoned I had time to pass in front of it and began to row. But although I rowed hard I couldn’t bring the starboard side of the ship into view. The tanker was turning and OB was too close by far. We spun 180º and pointed back the way we had come.

While involved in these shenanigans a small white fender floated by and I hauled it aboard. I threw its few marine inhabitants back overboard and the fender was to prove a valuable addition to OB's kit over the following days.

I once more turned southwest, only to find another tanker pointing its frothing bows at us as well as two pilot boats foaming out of the harbour. Like an elderly pedestrian I hung back looking each way and making absolutely sure there was nothing as far as the horizon before rowing the mile across to Cap Salou.

I thought about stopping here, at Crab Cove where I’d stayed in March, but as the clouds dispersed I had hopes that the wind would return and rowed on. And then I rowed on, and on.

Maintaining a course that kept me in the shade of the main sail I continued southwest until I closed with the coast south of Cambrils at Montroig Playa—one of the places I had selected to camp, based on studies of the coast using Google Earth, but what Google Earth doesn’t tell you, or the chart for that matter, is how steep the beach is, or how rocky.

Staying close I scanned the shore for a suitable landing place; the beach, sandy with a line of pebbles just above the low water mark, was prohibitively steep. I looked for somewhere with a shallow gradient and few stones but judging by the disjointed lurching of bathers leaving the water, rocks and stones lurked under the surface too.

South and south and there was a stony spit. In my experience the sand around spits shelves gradually and this seemed to be the case as small waves were also breaking here. I rowed in small circles just behind them studying the water and the beach. Two rocks showed their tips as the waves sucked back, the shore was more shingle than sand but anchoring off with no protection didn’t appeal. Timing my moment I rowed in till the bows ground into the stones. The boat was extremely heavy with all my gear, another tea bag aboard and I wouldn’t have been able to shift it at all, but it was much easier to lift the bows onto my new small fender than hefting it onto the larger diameter ones.

I noticed a tourist playing with his children, casting glances in my direction. Eventually he detached himself from his family and came over with a big, rounded ‘Hi’
‘Hello.’ I returned.
‘You travelling down the coast then?’
‘Well, just as far as the delta.’
‘All on your own?’
‘Well yes, but the family’s at home.’
‘Oh that’s the life.’
His wife came over and he explained, ‘He’s travelling down the coast on his own, he’s left his family at home.’
‘Well don’t you go getting any ideas.’ She warned.

I got on with my dinner, nothing special but as this was the first anniversary of Onawind Blue’s launch, I roused out some wine. Darkness fell as I prepared the boat for the night and huge orange lights lit up the beach spotlighting OB there on the shore. I settled down to sleep in a light as bright as day. Then it started to rain. It rained on and off all night and above the rain the rending crash of growing waves on shingle. With the orange tinted, grey dawn sky came the east wind. Damp and uncomfortable I decided to get to sea as quickly as possible—better to be on the water than stuck on a stony tourist beach with the waves rolling in.

As I was making ready I noticed a woman approaching in her dressing gown. This was Irene, ‘I’ve been watching you from my camper van. I’m an early riser too, and when I saw you with your hood up I thought I’ll take him a mug of hot chocolate, so here’s your chocolate and here’s a packet of biscuits and a Mars bar to keep you going. My husband said, “Oh leave him alone, he’s probably totally self sufficient.” But I thought well that could be my son out there so here you are. I admire what you’re doing so much but I’ll let you get on. Oh if I was 30 years younger…’

Thank you again for your kindness Irene, your biscuits and Mars bar were just what I needed a few days later.

I rigged the sails with a single reef and pushed out. We had a difficult launch amongst rocks and steep waves but got away with nothing worse than a general dousing. We sailed off fast over a brooding, menacingly dark sea but the sky shone bright in the east and I trusted that no worse weather would come—at least there was none forecast.

Sunday 22 June 2008

Delta cruise

I have just returned from a trip to the Ebro delta. Exciting, challenging and ultimately successful, considering that OB and I have returned intact. My camera lost the number of its mess during the trip so I’m rather short of photos but I will post a full account over the next few days.

Here is a map showing my route by way of an introduction.

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Saturday 14 June 2008

Summer fun in OB

The bad weather that lead to the postponing of our trip blew through leaving the air clean and bright and we’ve been able to get on the water a few times during the week for picnics and swimming. This has been a good opportunity to confirm that no aspects of the boat’s readiness have been neglected. I think I can say that I’ve done all I can to make OB as seaworthy as possible, including taking her for a sail in another solid 20 knot blow.

Double reefed and with two up she performed very well once I’d found the correct trim and balance, even though the steep chop and underlying swell did their best to fill us with water and knock us off course. This sort of wind is fairly typical for the time of year and it is reassuring to get confirmation Of OB’s ability to handle it before we set off on a six-day trip.

We’ll be leaving on Sunday morning, hoping to reach Cap Salou, or further if the wind is favourable, by the first evening. Then we hope to make Calafat by the next evening and so have a couple of leisurely days exploring the bays and coves around l’Ametlla de Mar and then on to Riumar on the tip of the Ebro Delta and so homeward on the prevailing southerly and westerly winds.

Thursday 5 June 2008

Mr Mushroom’s photo

Some time ago Mr M requested a photo of OB and Mr Grill has also asked for a shot of the sails to put on the wall of his new loft. I’d like a really good image of my boat as well, so my good friend and shipmate Pep came round with his camera and I dumped him in a dinghy tied to a buoy while I sailed in slow circles around him.

The weather wasn’t perfect, I’d have liked more wind and sun but the results are quite good none the less.

If everything goes according to plan OB and I will be leaving early Sunday morning for a cruise down to the Ebro Delta 50 miles southwest. Expect a blow by blow account when I get back.

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Wednesday 4 June 2008

My flexing main yard

Sailing double reefed in 16 to 18 knots I thought that the flexing, lightly built main yard was an advantage because it allowed the leach to open in the gusts. Windsurfing masts do this; flex in the stronger puffs allowing the sail head to open and exhaust or spill the wind. An efficient windsurfing mast can make the difference between smooth sailing and uncomfortable, hanging-on-for-grim-death sailing.

However, the yard flexed just a tad too much and I think I was sailing so comfortably, and slowly, because the sail was spilling most of the wind.

Mr M sorted me out with a long strip of iroko which I’ve laminated to the to the top of the yard making it thicker and stiffer. Rigged on the lawn the sail already looks better.

The double reefed mainsail, I’ve found, sets better rig as a balanced lug otherwise the clew, and I suppose the centre of effort, become very high. Unreefed or single reefed I still set it as a standing lug.

We had a great sail and a steep scramble on the learning curve when the wind, finding us five miles west of home, suddenly changed and belted a force 5 out of the east. Arriving at the beach an hour and a half later soaked through and frayed about the edges, but with my faith more intact than ever, I had a chance to use the drogue to good effect as we came back in through the waves, saving us from a certain capsize.