Tuesday 24 February 2009

Mediterranean fish stew

According to the great Catalan writer Josep Pla (1897-1981) fish stew as cooked and eaten by fishermen is the most ancient of Mediterranean dishes. Regardless of the religion, the rulers or the nationality of the neighbouring shores fish stew has been a constant.

A simple dish with a long history that, marrying fish, onion, garlic, tomato and potato in the pot, produces sustaining, sumptuous yet delicate fare. (Though tomatoes and potatoes wouldn’t have featured until they arrived form South America in the 16th century) From this fundamental marriage the Provencal bouillabaisse was born and also the less elaborate suquet of Catalonia, a dish that has attained an almost legendary status (at least on its home shores) and one that usually carries a price tag to match. But, however much you pay, restaurant food can sometimes be over complicated, smothering authenticity under sophistication.

Cooking the dish aboard a small sailing boat at anchor in sheltered waters, using fresh ingredients and the traditional Catalan earthenware pot, la cassola, elevates the enjoyment to the power of ten even if the cook is mediocre.

Suquet a la Onawind Blue goes something like this: sauté monkfish in olive oil until beginning to brown,
generously sprinkle with finely chopped garlic and parsley, add a glug of rum and ignite, remove fish from pot and set aside. Add more olive oil and slowly sauté finely chopped onion for as long as possible adding a peeled, deseeded tomato and reducing until a thick paste remains. Return the fish to the pot together with a couple of thickly sliced potatoes. Add one part saltwater to three parts spring. Cover, bring to a fast boil then simmer until the potatoes are tender. Finely chop garlic, parsley, almonds and fried bread and stir this mix into the pot.

Sunday 22 February 2009

One more cup of coffee

Years on decaf have undermined my threshold for caffeinated coffee to a miserable degree. In a cold sweat after one cup, jittery after two and grinding my teeth like an amphetamine charged clubber after three, logic and perception are also affected. In an attempt to retrieve the morning and meet myself somewhere halfway towards normality I laid into the wine. This approach, I have learnt many times, is flawed; alcohol doesn’t lessen the effects of caffeine but merely heightens the overall high. This is why people drink revolting combinations such as red bull with vodka.

Then, the day already derailed, an engagement fell through and there was absolutely no excuse not to go sailing, except of course that by the time I got the boat to the beach my eyes were popping and my hair standing on end. Looking to windward, attempting to judge how best to rig the sails I seriously wondered if I would remember how to sail OB. But single reefed and zipping towards the horizon at five knots I found, with relief that I was in control and enjoying myself as ever. The wind continued to rise and even when it hit a solid 18 to 20 knots I continued with a single reef, albeit pinching slightly and spilling wind, amazed at how secure OB seemed and how detached I felt. I eventually put another reef in the main, struck the mizzen and flew off downwind.

But due to the caffeine and alcohol in my system I am unsure of my evaluation of the new, smaller rudder. On that last downwind leg it certainly felt less heavy than the previous one. But in the lighter winds earlier had I detected a lack of grip, a slightly more slippery stern and a more pronounced tendency to turn to weather? I don’t know, though sober logic would seem to support that behaviour.

The trick is obviously to try it over a longer period and, if those findings appear consistent, decide if it’s worth sacrificing some upwind speed and ability for downwind assurance in strong winds. In my limited experience cruising this area there has certainly been plenty of upwind sailing, but there has been even more rowing and several white-knuckle downwind rides when I would have seriously appreciated less rudder.

The new mast, which was also on trial, behaved impeccably stepped with slightly more aft rake. But arriving back at the shore I found that with adrenaline injected into the coffee and wine cocktail I was doubly wired and only a timely domestic crisis prevented me lopping 5cm off the bottom of mast to achieve a lower boom.

Sunday 15 February 2009


Built on a beach in the region of Murcia in 1924, the schooner Thöpaga transported goods up and down the Spanish Mediterranean coast. But like others of her breed she struggled to compete with engine-powered craft and eventually became obsolete. By the 60’s she was rotting alongside many other similar boats in the port of Ibiza. Most of these craft either sunk or were burnt but Thöpaga’s lines caught the eye of Gerard Delgado. The young man bought the hulk, restored it and put the resulting schooner to work.

He took her to the French Caribbean and here the boat transported all nature of goods between the islands. The main concern of the schooner’s owners, Delgado and his partner, Nicole Legler, over the next 35 years was keeping the boat alive. Receiving no funding for maintaining an historic vessel this required constant work. Thögapa represented France as Esperance 88, sailing to Australia to celebrate the bicentenary, and then continued doing charter work around Ibiza and Formentera.

In July 2008, after a refit that included replacing the keel, she left Ibiza to sail to Brest for the traditional boat festival. Having refuelled at Vigo on the Galician coast she set off across the Bay of Biscay. Nearing Brest, 65km west south west of la Pointe de Penmarc’h on the Breton coast Thöpaga sank, a mayday was issued and the crew were airlifted to safety. It is assumed that the boat hit a container.

The owners remained in Brittany where they hatched plans to study the possibilities of refloating Thöpaga. Working with a French and British team they located the wreck and sent down a robot sub to examine the boat’s condition. They found that the boat was in good condition but some damage had been incurred, most notably from a trawler net, which had broken the bowsprit and was still entangled in the rigging.

As the winter storms roll across the Atlantic Delgado and Legler know that Thöpaga, at 130 metres under the surface, is safe from the weather. The main dangers facing the boat are trawler nets, particularly those used by the Spanish. (The Spanish, it comes as no surprise, use the biggest nets.) While funds are gathered and a team is assembled the owners worry that their boat might be irreparably damaged where she lies. But they also know that if they ever do manage to refloat her she will no longer be their boat, the enterprise will have gone far beyond their means and they will be forced to sell her.

As Delgado says on a documentary recently shown on Catalan TV, “If we do it, we are doing it for the boat.” They will also be keeping a part of the Mediterranean’s sadly neglected maritime heritage alive.

Sunday 8 February 2009

All rigged up and no place to go

The varnish hardened on the mast, the new rudder and yoke mounted on the transom, the bumps and bruises on the hull repaired, the sails, sheets and halyards rigged; Onawind Blue sat in the garden, pleasing as ever to the eye.

Food and cooking equipment in the fore locker, the wine skin in the stern, anchor, drogues, spare line, bucket and bailer, fenders, oars, lifejacket and cushion, all the necessary items for a good day’s sail stashed and stowed away. But this rarely achieved state of optimum readiness and the resulting expectation and excitement coincided almost to the minute with an ugly shift in the weather and dark clouds wiped four days of benign weather from the sky bringing thick, heavy wind from the southwest. I stood on the beach and debated launching into the growing swell. It would be wet, it would be cold but what the hell, everything was ready and I had all day before me. I’d rowed but I hadn’t sailed for months. In five minutes I could be afloat.

I turned away from the sea, went home, put the kettle on.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Essential equipment

Here’s a new addition to my cruising kit. A wineskin as used by shepherds, goatherds and, I’m assuming, fishermen over the centuries, ever since wine was first produced. Quite the traditional drinking vessel they are made of thick goatskin and the seam is sealed with pine resin. To use you unscrew the top, lift the skin high applying light pressure and direct the resulting fine jet of wine into your mouth. There is certain knack in finding your mouth immediately and many a tourist, pouring wine over face and shirt, has been the cause of mirth. There’s an even greater knack, though, to halting the flow and as you wonder how you are going to stop without spraying the company you’ll find it’s also useful to be able to swallow with your mouth open, as it tends to fill up quite quickly. The trick to interrupting the flow is in a brisk flick of the wrist, though inevitably a few drops go astray there’s no shame in having a drip hanging from your chin. Some seasoned aficionados don’t actually direct the wine into their mouths at all but into their moustaches (men and women) the idea being that a bushy, nicotine impregnated bigote imparts flavour. I have heard of, but never seen, some directing the jet between the eyes so that two rivulets of wine run down either side of the nose, through the moustache, and so into the corners of the mouth.

But practices of dubious hygiene aside my wineskin will hopefully solve the problem of wine spoiling when cruising. Last summer I carried wine, decanted from bottles, in a plastic 2L water container and it became undrinkable before I could finish it. Opened wine lasts up to about four days before it becomes vinegary. With the wineskin I hope to squeeze out the air and keep the wine quaffable for longer. And while a gourd is hardly where you’d want to put the Pinot Noir it is a supremely fitting vessel for the rough and ready wine that I take cruising.

The instruction booklet says that during the first few days of use the wine should be changed regularly and (hic) the quantity of varnish on the terrace floor and the quality of finish on the new mast testify to the diligence with which I’ve followed those recommendations. Don’t shay I’m not a martyr to shmall coat bruising.