Monday 25 August 2008

Phoning home

I arrived at Aigua-xellida as the shadows lengthened from the shore; a dog-legged bay with a rock-bound lagoon to the north and beyond, a tiny cove among steep rocks with calm, clear waters sheltered from all winds, as contrived as an illustration from a work of fantasy. Furling the sails amongst the anchored boats that rose and fell on the northerly swell in the outer bay someone hailed me to signal that he was taking photographs and behind him I noticed a girl on the bow yakking into a mobile. Ob’s hull shone in the mellow evening light but, rather tired of being photographed by all and sundry and often from motor boats that left me reeling in their wake, I waved and continued working.

When ready I rowed OB up to the far end of the cove, manoeuvred in tiny circles until I decided how best to moor, then threw the anchor off the stern and scrambled, like an ungainly amphibian, from the bow onto a slippery rock and so ashore, bashing my shins, where I passed a line through a ring set in the stone for this purpose. Then I slipped down the rock until I was up to my neck in the water, clawed myself aboard again and tightened the stern line. The rocky bottom was scarred with deep crevices and to ensure that the anchor held I donned mask and snorkel and dived to set it. The deliciously cool waters were clear as glass and fish darted around me as if drawn by Disney. I pulled up the anchor and dropped it into a deep crack with a sandy bottom then retightened the lines until OB was firm. I went for a long swim around the bay diving into the chasms, herding small shoals of fish before me. The last of the sunlight slanted into the cove penetrating the depths with golden rods.

When I got back to OB she sat in brooding shadow and a surprisingly stiff breeze chilled me as I dried. Before the light faded I went through the palaver of going ashore again to take a few photos, then messily regained the boat and dressed before opening a beer that I’d previously sunk on a line. I lay back on my cushion sipping beer, satisfied that that OB was securely moored and wondering what I might cook for dinner. Then I remembered that I ought to make my daily phone call home to report that all was well and to receive the weather forecast.

Naturally my partner worries when I’m away sailing and we had an arrangement by which, to save batteries, I would only switch the phone on once in the evening to make a call between 7 and 10 o’clock. My partner had warned me that if 10pm came and went and she hadn’t received a call she would alert the coastguard. Although I’d pleaded that she leave the coast guard in peace explaining that they wouldn’t mount a search until the morning so she might as well wait before phoning them, the threat had stood.

As I switched my phone on I noticed that it was 9.30pm. I saw that the battery was still full and waited for the phone to find reception, but the little lines stubbornly refused to grow in their usual place on the left hand side of the screen. I shook the phone and waited. Nothing. I switched it off and tried again. Still nothing. The seriousness of the situation began to dawn. In little over half an hour a horrible silence would settle in my home and the coastguard would be receiving a distraught call. I gracelessly sloshed ashore, there was no cover on the beach and none in the thick pines that crowded down to the water. I beat uphill through the thorny undergrowth but no cover appeared on the phone’s screen. Then I remembered the girl on the boat laughing into a mobile. I dashed down through the woods, across the beach, splashed out to OB, slithered aboard, untied the line from the shore, hoicked up the anchor leaving it in a messy pile in the stern and stood to the oars just before OB’s bows swung onto the rocks. I rowed hard out of the cove, the photographer’s boat was still anchored in the outer bay and the occupants looked bemused as I sped passed. OB’s cockpit was a mess. The beer had tipped into the bilges and cooking gear littered the floor. The strong, chill breeze blew off shore and the sea was bruised mauve. I stopped rowing and looked at the phone, still no cover. I rowed some more, now 300 metres offshore I tried again. At last a full stack of dashes on the screen. I made the call, was rather brusque, said sod the forecast. And rowed back to the cove against the nasty wind, it was 9.55.

Friday 22 August 2008

Motor boats

There was only one boat row sailing under the rocky cliffs of the Costa Brava and that was OB. 90% of all other boats were motor powered. Day trippers and cove hoppers with horse power enough, at the push of a lever, to go where they wanted when they wanted. A few days before, wrestling every mile from headwinds, I’d been envious, nay, downright ready to amputate OB’s elegant stern, rig a 20hp outboard on the aft bulkhead and power off to where ever caprice dictated.

But after four days at sea I was back, firmly rooting for the Mediterranean row sailors of which, experience has led me to suspect, I am the only one. And although we happily shared the waters with our motor powered cousins their come as you please, go as you please, drive-in-pointless-circles-kicking-up-awesome-wake attitude often hampered our forward progress. In more frequented areas motor boat wake became a bigger problem than the lack of wind or the mid-day sun. Often OB would be on her beam ends, one oar pointing to the sea bed the other to the pure blue sky, her masts grinding in their steps and her bows slamming into steep waves, as painful to bear as a sharp chisel glancing off a piece of oak into a soft thumb.

So when the wind came fair we were happy to miss the many other coves under our lee and head off shore, where the measured waves of a force three slapped and gurgled down OB’s hull in a familiar, predictable manner. The land became veiled in haze as we made the jump from el Cap de Begur to el Cap de Norfeu. But at the last minute I turned back in shore remembering that a yachtsman had once told me that there was a current setting north between Les Illes Medes and the mainland. I thought it would be worth catching and headed into the narrow strait, where traffic throbbed between l’Estartit and the islands as thick as rush hour on Barcelona’s Gran Via. Needless to say there was no current. No wind either. And I rowed through the topsy-turvy waters, at one point giving way to a large motor yacht whose skipper I could see jawing to a topless girl on the foredeck.

OB and I had been at sea for four days and I reckoned I must be looking pretty sweaty, tired and wan when an overloaded motor launch buzzed us and a suntanned wag shouted off the stern, ‘A castaway! Look a castaway!’

Out of the straits I hoisted the sails again and, much as Captain Kirk might say ‘beam me up Scotty’, urged OB to take me out to sea.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Aground on The Ant Islands

The scraping, rending crack was a nail to my heart. Running my boat aground, my beautiful Onawind Blue, my home, my shelter and safety was the most nefarious crime I could commit and I toppled off my seat with the impact. There was nowhere to hang the blame except upon myself. I tried to blame the mutinous ants still milling by the hundreds and drowning by the score. I tried blaming the divers, who, I had realised at the last minute might get hooked on my fishing line. I’d changed course to avoid them and so come upon the rocks. But the fault was mine; I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. I’d been careless and lazy and rather than take an offshore route round the rocky islands I had gone for the shortcut.

It was all due to the tyrannical taskmaster who’d had me milking every gust and manipulating every wind shift to our favour all day long as if we were racing. And when we’d slowed below two knots I had to sheet in the mizzen and row into the wind’s eye. It was non-stop cracking on in the mid-day sun, watching pretty coves creep by, beautiful swimming spots, with never a moment to pause and explore. Now I’d reckoned there was half an hour to be gained by slipping inside the islands and I’d run OB aground. Soon she’d be filling up with water, I’d be grabbing what I could, putting on my life jacket and swimming to shore. I thought of Moitessier flagellating himself after losing his boat Marie Therese and understood. How could I have let this happen?

OB lurched. Heeling unnaturally and turning to windward the grinding stopped and the sails flapped. I sprang up and raised the centreboard and OB floated free. I hove to and inspected the damage. Somewhere there’d be water bubbling in, the centreboard trunk couldn’t have withstood the impact, somewhere it would have been wrenched from the floor. But it wasn’t. Where it attached to the sole it was sound. The only evidence of the bump a crack on the forward end and that was it. The blow had been absorbed by the centreboard its self which now bore a large dent in its trailing edge. Good old OB! I thought suddenly beside myself with relief, taking care of me, as always, in my bumbling endeavour.

I rowed on. My muscles moved mechanically and my relaxed, relieved mind, left to play in the surreal regions on the frontiers of exhaustion and sunstroke, painted mermaids in our wake. What were those islands anyway? I hadn’t looked at the chart since breakfast, and then I remembered. They must be Les Illes Formigues, The Ant Islands, how fitting given my mutinous crew and what better place to persuade them to leave the boat. Surely that arid rock was where all ants should live. But when I looked down not one ant remained alive. Those that had not drowned had evidently taken a raft across to their homeland. I turned north, alone at last.

Sunday 17 August 2008

Ants and snails

Apart from the stowaway rat I had other crew aboard in the form of a large family of ants and a snail. The ants I suspected would simply drown as soon as there were a few centimetres of water in the bilges and the snail, who soon became known as Dominique, would probably go the same way if ever she got wet. But surprisingly after the first three days they were still alive.

We had arrived at la Platja de Canyelles on the Costa Brava, I’d hoped to get further but it had been another day of slogging into light winds and large waves. After 13 hours at sea and with 30 miles under our belt it was time to stop. Platja de Canyelles forms a bay about 300 metres across. At the southern end there is a very small port with room for about 60 boats. I hadn’t wanted to use any ports or marinas where I might be expected to pay but the Tramuntana was blowing in the Gulf of Lions and a large swell came rolling down from the north, surging up the steep beach of Canyelles in an alarming manner. The waves didn’t break, but every now and then the water level in the bay rose dramatically with a great frothing wall of water forming on the shore’s edge. Towels and toys were being sucked off the beach and dragged under, only to be spewed up again moments later. A group of bathers purposefully trod water waiting to be rushed up the beach and deposited high and dry. It looked like fun but I wasn’t about to try it in OB. What’s more there was an overturned boat right in the waves, still with a line to shore, and the working that it received when the surge came on brought an unpleasant looseness to my stomach.

The entrance to the port was narrow and tricky with large peaks forming and receding and a high cliff rising forbiddingly from where the waters champed at heaps of shattered rocks. I rowed in none too neatly on a bucking OB and drifted down a calm lane between fishing and pleasure boats until I came to a space just wide enough for our slim hull.

I’d just got her nose into the space and was stowing the oars when a man on a bicycle arrived, steaming, like a puffing billy, under a red cap. His body language, in large clear letters, proclaimed JOB’S WORTH. And I suppose mine must have said, FREELOADING WIERDO AND FORIEGNER TO BOOT, for without a pause and with urgent arm waving he told me in French, German and English that there was no room at the inn.

I thought of many a pithy reply in Catalan as well as sound arguments warranting a waiving of the rules but was too tired to lock horns with a cap-wearing, whistle-blowing simpleton. I rowed slowly out to sea again and reviewed the situation. Cala Bona, the nearest shelter to the north and my intended overnight stop, was 5 miles away bearing 60º, a mere hour on foot, 20 minutes on the job’s worth’s bicycle and much less by car. The wind blew lightly from the northeast.

To sail to windward OB needs a bit of grunt in the sails, in light winds she makes more leeway. The GPS gives me ETAs based on direction and speed. Under sail my destination lay 8 hours hence. Under oars, against the wind and swell I could average 1.5 knots putting Cala Bona, three and a half hours away. It was 7 pm, I’d been on the water for 13 hours, the sun would set in two hours, Cala Bona was unreachable.

To the south lay the town of Lloret de Mar, one of the beer-swilling capitals of Costa Brava tourism and beyond that the port of Blanes. But these last few miles had been hard earned, could I really cash them in when I couldn’t be sure of what I’d find to the south anyway? No, it looked like I was spending the night in Canyelles.

There were a few inflatable launches moored to buoys but they rose and fell and swung wildly on the surges. I ruled out anchoring or tying up to a buoy and looked at the beach, and then longingly to a bar beyond. The promise of a cold beer excited me to action. The north end of the beach was the most sheltered and as I rowed towards it more sand revealed its self. There was a quiet corner opening up before me and I studied it over my shoulder. There were rocks but the sea was much calmer, the beach was steep but if I could time my entry with a surge I might save myself some strife.

I took one last turn to check for rocks then rowed in, jumping out and hauling as the bow touched the sand. OB was very heavy with seven day’s gear aboard and the sand was very soft. People often offer help when they see me heaving at the water’s edge and now I looked at a group of people near by half expecting to hear a welcome, ‘need a hand mate?’ But a whiff of marijuana drifted over and they observed my struggles with a languid eye.

Eventually on land I went for that luxury of luxuries, that heavenly elixir of the tired and thirsty, that cool refreshing amber nectar, a cold beer—and was charged a fortune for it.

The night on shore was hot and sticky and the mosquitoes drank heartily from my wrists and ankles. Awake before dawn I immediately saw that Dominique had jumped ship, leaving a slimy au revoir on the side decks. The few remaining ants, however, had invited a whole colony aboard. A river of insects gushed up through the centreboard trunk and wound its way to the fore locker, which again I’d forgotten to close.

With a crew of thousands I pushed out to sea for a quick sail, in the off shore breeze that comes with first light, round to Cala Bona for breakfast.

Saturday 16 August 2008

The rat episode

It wouldn’t have surprised me if the rat had been a hallucination. I’d found myself to be an unpleasantly hard taskmaster and had driven my body to a state of exhaustion. The sailing that day had been hard, every sorely earned mile, clawed form the light headwind and contrary swell, jealously guarded so that no rest could be permitted for fear of losing even a few metres of ground.

I’d gone to sea the day before with an open mind about my destination, prepared to let conditions dictate and to be satisfied with just being on the sea. But the previous day’s excellent run up to Barcelona with a brisk quartering breeze had seen 41 miles gobbled up in 11 hours opening up the possibilities of achieving some real distance on this trip.

I’d scarcely dared admit that secretly I was thinking of France. An image of myself sitting under an Orangina umbrella sipping Pernod and smoking a Gauloise had grown large in my head and now the taskmaster was using it as a carrot to wave before me. And so I’d rowed on and on into the wind’s eye, under a punishing sun, making barely one knot, until, at three o’clock, I could hear the juices simmering round my brain and feel a cold, unhealthy nausea spreading from my stomach. I was cooked and at last the seaman ousted the taskmaster, took up the chart, pinpointed shelter under our lee, bore away under plain sail urging fresh water down my throat and within an hour had dropped the anchor, dived to check that it had dug in, rigged an awning, fed me lush peaches, made my bed and lain me down with instructions not to stir till the sky blushed in the west.

After a light but restorative sleep I cooked rice and onions in the cool evening and thought of the night before in the small fisherman’s harbour of the Marbella in Barcelona, where my friend Paco and I, having finished off a quality tin of confit du canard and a bottle of Rioja, had sat in a high state of grease extolling small boat living.

Pessimistic fishermen had warned me not to spend the night tied to the few tyres on the crumbling quay—the place was rife with vandals, drunks and rats, I’d be robbed or have rubbish thrown on me or someone would pee in the boat. They painted a sorry picture of Barcelona’s seafront at night and, as Paco weaved homeward, I acted on their advice moving out to a buoy then taking a line ashore as there wasn’t room to swing. I bedded down under the bright lights of the city, the rumble of traffic and the thumping music from a beach bar making a fitting lullaby.

And now I bedded down in Mataró, again with ranks of orange lights around me. I soon fell into a deep sleep softly rocked by a maternal OB, bobbing slowly round her anchor. The seaman raised his head every hour, got his bearings, checked the wind and the sky and that all was well. At one point, hearing a rhythmic squeaking, he was perplexed but eventually decided that it was the anchor rode rubbing the deadeye on the bow as OB gently tugged at her mooring.

In the quiet hour before dawn and from the depths of sleep I felt a silky caress on my forearm. The sort of caress that, in slumber, I might associate with a maiden clad only in moonbeams come to give succour to the weary mariner. Being the sort of person that, when feeling an insect crawling up the ankle, doesn’t immediately swat but rather, out of curiosity, has a peek and often gets bitten as a result, I slowly raised my lids to see a rat silhouetted against the lights of the city.

I was on my feet in a flash, the boat rocking wildly beneath me. The echo of an involuntary scream hung in the air and a few fishermen that had been dozing at their rods on the mole gazed over.

I’d been sleeping with my head at the stern and now I saw that the hatch to the fore locker was open. I’d seen the rat dash forward and hide behind the anchor bag. Before the stowaway could regain its shelter I sprang forward to shut the locker and the rodent darted to the stern and hid behind my life jacket.

And so the situation stood: I sat on the forward deck and Master Rat, for he was young, occupied the area behind the aft thwart. With the adrenaline subsiding I took stock. There was a dull throbbing from my heel and a glance showed that I’d torn it and was leaking blood into the bilges. I marshalled my thoughts, I needed a weapon, I took up an oar, it was too big for ejecting rats and I put it down and looked over at my small but curious audience on the mole. ‘Una rata.’ I explained. There was no reply but one man lit a cigarette and blew an unhelpful cloud of smoke towards me.

Calmer now, I bizarrely felt a tenderness for my brave young stowaway, who, starry eyed with tales of the Mediterranean, had hidden himself aboard in a bid to escape the tough city life. But no, I said to myself, forget it. This is no riverbank and that’s no plummy-toned water rat aboard simply for the pleasures of messing about in boats. It is a hard-nosed, seedy, harbour rat aboard for my victuals and a possible threat to my voyage and, puffing myself up I moved aft taking up each piece of kit as I came upon it and placing it behind me.

I knew that I had lost the greater part of my resolve along with the adrenaline during that long pause and with genuine apprehension I crossed the central thwart and continued aft. Soon only the life jacket remained, I paused again, I had to make a decisive move otherwise I could be chasing the rat round the boat all night. I whipped up the life jacket. No rat. I shook the life jacket overboard. Nothing fell. I rummaged forward. No rat, no rodent, no stowaway.

I stared across the water and, using all the imagination I could bring to bear, made out a diminutive wake heading towards the mole. But I could never be sure that the rat had really left, or, for want of solid proof, that he'd really been aboard. And for the rest of the voyage I half expected him to reappear.

It was only when I reached home and was clearing out the boat that I found definitive evidence of his short sojourn aboard OB in the form of a turd, planted with precision in the corner where the mast step meets the forward frame.

Thursday 14 August 2008

A journey north

It’s impossible to know where to start when there is so much to tell, more than I feel capable of writing about on this blog for the moment. So, very briefly…

Onawind Blue and I left our home beach at Creixell last Wednesday and over the next few days we worked our way up the coast, reaching Cèrbere in France on Monday evening. You can’t travel 300 kilometres over the sea in a little boat without a lot happening. We had our share of calms and light headwinds, we had long sessions of gut busting rowing under a blazing sun, we had contrary currents and large rolling swells; conditions so frustrating and tiring that I was ready to let mermaids lure me overboard into the cool waters. We had a rat stowaway in the forward locker for 24 hours and we ran aground off a small rocky island. We saw the Tramuntana wind and helped heave a 30 foot sailing boat off rocks after it’s anchor dragged in the cove where we sheltered from the fierce blow. We had some fantastic sailing with following winds, at one point so strong that I could only continue sailing by rigging the double-reefed mizzen sail on the main mast and then, with only 1.2 metres of sail cloth, we still sailed at 6 knots. I discovered the most idyllic coves, met fantastic, welcoming people, got drunk, ate some great food and let the sea in through every pore in my body so that now, on land at last, life seems impossibly dry.

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Tuesday 5 August 2008

Off we go again

The idea is to sail north. I have seven days and would like to cover as much of the coast beyond Barcelona as a week allows. Being August, the waters will be teaming with motor craft and the anchorages will be chocker, the winds will be light, probably too light except if the Tramuntana (the French mistral) blows in which case they’ll be far too strong. So I’ll be sailing with an open mind, ready to change plans to fit the conditions—those that put to sea in small row sailing boats have no other option. The important thing is to get going. Get on the water and sail, sail, sail.