Wednesday 30 July 2008

Some fishing boats

The hard standing at the busy harbour in Ametlla de Mar was full of large wooden fishing boats, all receiving serious titivation. Most of these vessels were built locally in the seventies and eighties though the yards that built them are now mostly closed. There are various designs, the older boats having the plumb bows of the llaut and rounded, tubby sterns while later models have raked stems and more flare to keep out those steep Mediterranean waves, as well as squared transoms.

According to Senyor Grau a local retired fisherman the smaller boats have their days numbered. He puts that number at around 1,460, or four years. ‘Go ahead take photos while you can.’ He urges, ‘Soon there’ll only be plastic motor boats here.’

The boats belong to elderly fishermen who keep them moored for a nominal annual fee of 200 euros. Senyor Grau’s boat, called Grau, still makes enough money to pay for itself and he’ll continue to fish as long as he can. However, the danger isn’t the sparsity of fish but the local council who would like to oust the scruffy noisy fishing boats and charge 200 euros a week to the sleek owners of zippy motor craft.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Navigation and cruising gear

I have a chart of the northern part of the western Mediterranean but the scale (1:645 000) is impossibly small for the area I sail in. From Santa Pola, Alicante in the south to Montpellier, France in the north and east beyond Minorca it gives a comprehensive view for passage making from the Catalan coast to the Balearic islands. The chart boasts (in English translation) ‘water protected paper’ and features ‘harbour planes’ and ‘ampliated marine reserves’.

Striving to be a responsible sailor I felt that OB should have a chart aboard but apart from the issue of scale the chart cost me 24 euros and is far too expensive to get wet (despite its 'water protected paper'). Although I know the coast well—years exploring the windsurfing possibilities of the shore combined with the long term habit of stealing moments to visit new coves or bays—some sort of reference was necessary.

I took two 1:50 000 topographical maps that covered my route. Being maps of the land the sea was simply represented as a uniform blue. Spanish maps are notoriously bad but I figured that their inaccuracies wouldn’t extend to the physical geography of the coast. Using my chart and Google Earth I transposed all useful information (wrecks, lights and buoys) onto the road map. I used the map once or twice to remind myself of the usable coves I’d marked.

The GPS also contains all the information regarding hazards but I use it mainly as a speedometer, keeping it switched on to record the complete journey on the trip computer.

With good visibility, negligible tides and deep water local navigation doesn’t present many problems.

I installed a compass aboard knowing that on the return journey from the Delta I’d be steering a course of 046º. I also carried a hand-bearing compass as a back up which I stowed with the other safety gear; the flares, the signal mirror, the spare mobile phone, torch, gas bottle and batteries.

I set the boat tent up every night and it served to keep off the rain and the dew. Indirectly we still got wet though, as rain or dew trickled in off the decks. A permanent state of damp is an unavoidable feature of small boat cruising and, if you’ve been dreaming for as long as I have, it’s part of the fun. The problem I have with the tent is that it blots out the night sky. Lying in bed looking up at the stars is one of the treats of sleeping outside and although I will still carry a tent I think a bivy bag would better serve me.

Amongst the other gear still needed to make OB an efficient cruising machine is a solar charger for the phone, a waterproof handheld VHF and a navigation light. Recently row sailing after sunset, the sea suddenly becoming more populated as lights flashed on, I wore a head torch. On a trip after dark last year I hoisted the torch on the main yard, but as the light’s beam doesn’t cover 360º its worth is debatable. While it’s better than nothing it maybe more use on my head than on the yard as, were we to get dangerously close to another craft, I could shine it on the sails, or into the eyes of the approaching skipper.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Other small boats

As repeatedly mentioned in this blog Onawind Blue doesn’t have much company on the water. There are the fishing boats that rumble or chug, throwing up fine bow waves and carving impatient lines to harbour, the tankers plying predetermined grooves that scare us silly and the weekend smatterings of pleasure yachts, sail and power, from 50 footers down to jet skis. Then there are the class boats that train for a few hours on Saturdays, the Lasers, 420s, Hobie Cats, Patins and Optimists, though I can count them on my fingers and toes. But comparable boats are so sparse as to be non-existent.

It appears there was a time in Spain, probably about 20 years ago when there was a fleeting vogue for small GRP day boats, several people have told me they used to own one including my friend Vitalstatistix—though he now poses as the complete lubber. You can still see some of those small boats abandoned around harbours and beaches. I’m fascinated by the state of decay that many of them reach before they are cleared away—while staying at Port l’Estany on my recent trip there were at least three boats languishing under the water.

The Catalan coast seems to be divided into two halves as regards conservation and interest in maritime activities. In the part to the south of Barcelona, where OB and I sail, priority is given to the tourist industry and the shore is the province of bathers while boat ownership is regarded as a statement of wealth. Neither factors are conducive to healthy fleets of small boats and what’s left is a hotchpotch collection of patched up boats, many patiently gathering weed and waiting for attention and a few others, still prosaically used to sling the odd line of a weekend.

A home-made canoe built to an unknown design with the little-used plastic mesh/fibreglass mat construction.

A tired GRP boat rests its belly on the sea bed.

A small rowing boat illustrating what happens if you don’t sand down old coats of paint before applying fresh ones.

A chubby wooden tub with one stumpy oar.

Something interesting under tarp.

Monday 14 July 2008


I took enough food to last six days and emergency rations consisting of four dried pasta dishes, a tin of meatballs and some iso drinks. Though the pasta meals are unpalatable except in extremes, they are very light and the packaging is waterproof. I thought that six days worth of food would be too heavy but actually there wasn’t an enormous amount.

My larder contained: one fresh Catalan pork sausage long enough for three meals (here you can buy sausage by length, like rope.) 200 grams of bacon, six eggs, 400 grams of pasta, 400 grams of cooked brown rice, one rather dubious dried Catalan sausage, robust enough to take a soaking, a loaf of sliced brown bread, ten muesli bars, one bar of chocolate, four apples and four bananas. I also had a small bottle of olive oil, two onions, one head of garlic, dried chillies, tea, coffee and sugar as well as nuts, dried apricots and prunes. The heaviest items were six beers and two bottles of wine, though the wine I decanted into a litre and a half plastic bottle, and finally 15 litres of water in five-litre containers, which I could unload on landing to lighten the boat. Oh, and there’s always a bottle of whiskey onboard in case I have to entertain.

My family is vegetarian, which practically makes me one, so I usually have a latent carnivorous lust to satisfy, hence the quantity of meat. However, having consuming a yard of sausage in the first two days as well as bacon for breakfast I was again happy to go without flesh. I usually have a craving for spicy food too but, having learned from experience, I managed to avoid the typical, first night gut searing, krakatoan curry.

I took no salt. I love salt and keep a box of Maldon by the cooker, extravagant though it may be, but on a small boat for days at a stretch on a salty sea like the Med there is inevitably enough of the stuff encrusted under the decks, about one’s person or on one’s lips to make even a bar of chocolate a tolerably savoury snack. I didn’t need to resort to scraping salt crystals off the mast, where they built up nicely and was more than happy to season my victuals with garlic and chilli.

Outside the family dynamic I eat a lot less. On solitary excursions I know that two meals a day are sufficient. I wake to tea or coffee but am rarely hungry first thing, preferring to start the day and then have a meal around 10 or 11 o’clock. If hunger arrives before that I might eat fruit to tide me over. Then I can go on until the evening before having another meal. I took all this into account when buying my food and aimed to get by with a minimum.

I knew that I’d probably have the opportunity to restock or that I could call a friend and have them bring me supplies if I got the raving munchies and gnawed through my provisions in a couple of days. In the event, I bought some fresh prawns, six more beers and another bottle of wine. Pep left me a bag of fresh fruit and Irene gave me a packet of biscuits and a Mars bar. On the penultimate day I filled up two empty water containers from a garden hose.

I also supposed that I might eat out one evening and at Riumar I did ravenously wolf half a shared pizza though it hardly conformed to my idea of ‘a meal out’.

In practice my two meals a day were often just one, and sometimes the time between waking and eating a proper meal was excessively large. Though at times, in a lurching boat, it’s just not practical to eat there was always fruit to hand and this was often a godsend. Occasionally sharp set I was never so hungry as to be uncomfortable.

I brought back one unopened bottle of wine, four muesli bars, a quarter of a bar of chocolate, one egg, 200 grams of pasta, half Irene’s packet of biscuits, nuts, apricots and prunes and half a bottle of whiskey; as well as the four pasta meals, the can of meatballs and the iso drinks.

I kept my food in a motley assortment of plastic containers, which I hoped would be more or less water resistant. At all events I felt secure that if I was called upon to hold an impromptu Tupperware party then OB might distinguish herself.

Saturday 5 July 2008

The long, long row

I woke at first light, breakfasted hearty, made ready and slid OB into the limpopian waters. The forecast was for variable winds in the morning turning south and blowing 10 knots later. For now the breeze blew from the northeast, right on our nose. I row sailed into it making the most of the favourable river current but as the sea became bluer I had to row harder to maintain 3 knots and eventually the wind dropped to nothing.

I rowed and rowed until the delta sank below the horizon. The massive coast of Spain was 10 nautical miles west, shrouded in thick cloud and for a while I could see no land. It was just Onawind Blue and I rolling on a limp swell the only life on a deep blue disc. I’d rowed myself into a sweat and so deployed the sea anchor and jumped overboard for a swim. Previously I’ve felt a slight straining on some sort of primitive umbilical cord when I’ve sailed a few miles offshore but now I felt no such thing until I swam a few strokes away from OB. I was back at her side and hauling myself over the gunwale in a flash.

Some ripples appeared on the water ahead of us and, refreshed, I pulled hard to reach them. Ripples of a feeble wind they turned out to be but at least the sails filled, moving us gently while I rested. A distant squawking and a pink cloud of flamingos passed overhead, I watched them while the gust expired. Willing the cloud to lift from over the land and the southerly breeze to kick in I rowed and rowed through the oily lanes hoping to pick up the slightest waft.

In the early afternoon, with Cap Salou distant on the port bow, the wind filled in turning southerly and coming lightly but propelling us at 3 knots and promising more. I’d rowed 15 miles and was ready for my lunch. I tucked into hard-boiled eggs and the nub end of a Catalan sausage with the last of the bread and dried apricots. Too much wind had been one of my worries, a southerly like that of two days ago would have seen a large rolling swell this far off shore, and the Mestral, at this distance from the land, would have kicked up the sort of short, hollow, evil sea that used to open the seams of the old fishing boats, but no wind had also been a worry and I was heartily glad to be moving under easy sail.

The wind held for most of the afternoon but didn’t strengthen as I’d hoped. Cap Salou slid by and tankers came and went from Tarragona but we were lucky and far enough offshore not to be in their way. Lying back in the boat under the pure dome of Mediterranean sky, caressed by the languid breeze, I let my mind drift and body relax.

Ten miles from home the wind began to falter and I knew that I would have to row again. It was 6.30, and I decided to give myself until 7 before taking up the oars. I ate some of Irene’s biscuits and the Mars bar then started to row in the lowering sunlight, the action now so mechanical that, like walking, I was barely aware of doing it. Slowly I closed with the shore and slowly the sun edged towards the horizon. Soon it became a race, determined to reach home before sunset, I pulled harder grunting and sweating beneath OB’s sagging sails. I knocked 3 miles off the 10 and the next 2 seemed interminable but then there were only 5 and we ate into them eagerly.

Still a way off shore I could make out figures on the beach, evening strollers and sunbathers reluctant to leave, but one group with a little dog looked familiar. I stood and waved randomly and the group waved back. I pulled hard towards the shore and was soon gambolling about the beach with my children as the sun kissed the horizon.

Wednesday 2 July 2008

The perilous shore

I used to windsurf at Riumar beach when I practiced the sport more actively and we would often go to the Tamariu restaurant for coffees, beers and sandwiches after sailing. In winter the restaurant would only open on windy days, windsurfers being the sole customers.

Finishing my chores about the boat I left it locked, clean and trim and walked across the sands to the restaurant. I ordered a beer and soon fell into conversation with the people at the bar.

One of the things I’ve discovered about cruising a small boat is that, not only do you feel good about yourself—you quickly become lean, fit and healthy and the necessarily Spartan lifestyle fosters your sense of independence—but once on shore you are occasionally treated as a rare and esteemed guest. People are fascinated by your journey, eager to hear your story and to buy you drinks.

I vainly succumbed to this, falling in with an animated trio who gave me the nickname of ‘El Naufrago’ (the castaway) and invited me to go on with them for another beer. And then, before I knew it, I was in the back seat of a rocket-powered car at full pelt on an uneven, dark, tree-lined road, my finger nails digging in to the seat covers.

When cruising in a small open boat you spend so much time making provisions for the perils of the sea that you quite forget about the perils of the land. This short car journey was without doubt the most frightening part of my trip, and probably the most dangerous.

But the helter-skelter ride came to an end, I managed to extract my deeply buried finger nails from the upholstery, and soon we joined up with more revellers and settled into the night, Spanish style. I believe I did my wiggly dance at one point, but thankfully I didn’t sing. On and on the night flowed while I wondered if I’d ever get back to the boat, if I could find another driver, or if I’d be forced to make my own way home, wading through the mosquito infested rice fields.

Eventually I reached a dew soaked OB in the grey dawn light. There was no point putting up the boat tent, instead I donned my foul weather gear, inflated the mattress and crashed out across the thwarts.

I was vaguely aware of a tractor cleaning the beach as I slept and when I awoke at noon OB sat on a small untidy island in the middle of a neatly combed beach. Feeling foolish for wasting the day though the weather was grey and windless I decided that the sea was the only cure.

I rowed towards the mouth of the River Ebro, people of the night before had said that sailing or rowing boats never entered the river but I felt that this was due to the almost complete lack of small sailing craft in the area rather than their inability to overcome the flow. I asked about the existence of counter currents near the banks but nobody seemed to know, being accustomed to belting in and out in motorboats—try it and see I was advised.

I rowed on going over the night before and smiling at the memory of a powerful monoglot German who, exasperated at his inability to participate in the lively conversation, assumed the bear hug as his sole means of communication. Regularly doing the rounds, crushing the members of our party, until one girl, presumably inspired by his messages of universal love, took him on to the dance floor.

'The castaway'

The river mouth, though visible from the beach, was deceptively far away and as the waters turned a murky green I began to feel the current. A lot of rain has fallen in Spain since that fateful day in May when I opened a pot of varnish and the river, though not swollen, was flowing vigorously. I continued to pull noting the speed at which rafts of driftwood floated by.

In flat water and with no wind OB can make 3 knots under oars with relatively little effort but now, though making a fine wake, she was only doing one knot over the ground, and the moment I let up she slid off backwards. After an hour of getting nowhere the sun came out and a foul wind sprang up so I decided to quit. I brought OB to rest on a lovely strip of lonely sand right on the river mouth and spent the rest of the day reading and dozing in the meagre shade offered by her hull. Then in the cool evening I took some photos before the camera shut its shutter for good, then made myself a large pan of pasta in preparation for the morrow.

The last photo