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.

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