Tuesday 28 April 2009

A taste of the slipper

Estrop is the Catalan word for the length of line that holds the oar to the thole pin. It is one item of gear that the rowing club expects you to supply. They provide the boat and the oars, you provide the piece of string that joins the two together. I’d made my estrop quite carefully with three turns held together with a quintuple stopper knot and one half hitch. I’d got my gardening gloves, the same ones I use in OB when my hands get rowing red. And I’d put both items into a plastic carrier bag.

I arrived on the quay 10 minutes early. The rowing boats launch from the end of the fishing dock and from amongst a knot of fishermen inspecting a net I made out Carpet Slippers. Eventually he came over and started talking. I listened. At 72 he’s fairly old to still be competing but he generally comes along just to make up the numbers. He’s rowed all his life. He used to be a fisherman but, like many Catalan fishermen, he took the first opportunity he could to abandon the sea. ‘The sea’s a slave driver.’ He said. And took a job ashore at the Pirelli tyre factory. ‘When you’ve worked for years on the sea you learn to value a job that only demands a flat 8-hour day. You can make plans.’

We watched a fishing boat returning. ‘The skipper of that boat is one of the best rowers, but he doesn’t row anymore.’ The club’s story started to emerge. They’d won the Catalan league six years running. But now they were finding it hard to maintain the high standards they’d set. Most of the team doubted their ability to perform as well as they had in the past and a significant number were now of the opinion that it would be better not to compete at all than to compete and make fools of themselves. In previous years they’d trained three times a week, this year it was only two, and they’d started later in the season. This year the plan, though as yet unofficial, was to participate in the three annual friendlys, which ‘…are just an excuse for a big meal.’

Half an hour had gone by. ‘Nobody will turn up today.’ Said Carpet Slippers, ‘there’s football on the telly.’ He noticed my estrop and gloves. ‘Lets see that.’ he took the estrop for examination, turned it over in his hands, grunted and passed it back.

Friday 24 April 2009

There’s rowing and there’s rowing

I would sail and row more if I had a safe launching and landing spot. So, hoping to increase my time on the water, albeit in a different boat, and wanting to turn the fat around my waist into muscle on my shoulders I went to the local marina for a test run with the rowing team.

The Catalan open water rowing boat is a traditionally shaped llagut made of thick fibreglass with a slightly faster underwater profile than usually associated with this type of craft. Crewed by a cox and eight oarsmen with wide, spade-bladed oars affixed to nylon thole pins the boats develop quite a lot of power. But not a great deal of speed. Their relatively short waterlines and heavy build ensure that rowing is always uphill. Or at least that is how it seemed to me on my first outing.

On the quay I was glad to see that the atmosphere wasn’t too sporty. The crew carried their gear in plastic shopping bags and wore gardening gloves. One older man, with arms and neck as hard and sinewy as olive tree branches, arrived in his carpet slippers. I’d brought no gear at all and wondered if anyone might help me out. I stood watching as individuals produced their personal lengths of line to attach their oars to the pins. Nobody seemed interested that there was a newcomer on the dock.

It was Carpet Slippers who eventually lent me some line, but not before he’d given me a curt lecture about all the wusses that turned up to row and hobbled off afterwards, never to return. I replied that one shouldn’t expect too much from beginners, or treat them too harshly and he suggested that maybe I should join the women’s team. Then he produced a grubby piece of foam and placed it under his haunches. ‘You’ll burn your arse if you don’t have one of these.’ He said before spitting into the water.

I was allotted the starboard bow oar with a good view of Carpet Slippers’ walnut-skinned neck in front of me. I looked about the boat. It had no flotation chambers, no buoyancy bags, no bilge pumps, no bailers and no buoyancy aids. Now, (to borrow from A.A. Milne) nobody could call me a fussy man—but I do like a little bit of buoyancy to my boat.

We pushed away from the quay and the cox commanded us to row. Being used to rowing alone I had to concentrate hard to stay in time. On the couple of occasions that I managed to foul my oar on Carpet Slippers’ I received an ‘ALL TOGETHER!’ from the cox and a disgusted grunt from somewhere aft. We rowed out of the marina. A stiff easterly breeze blew and I was surprised when the cox turned the boat west and we set off downwind. If I’m out for a recreational row I never go downwind on the first leg. To row downwind I have to row upwind first. It’s the same when I’m sailing. It’s partly for safety—if anything goes wrong it’s easy to get home, but also because downwind is the treat, the pudding, and without having clawed upwind first I find it difficult to enjoy.

We heaved away downwind. The cox counted us into sprints but I hadn’t been informed of the training plan and only by focusing very hard on maintaining the space between my oar and that in front could I keep up. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that it was a beautiful evening with a littering of gilt-rimmed clouds in the west and a low, rosy light. The sea was getting all wine dark and Homeric and pearly spray flew by but there was not a moment for enjoyment. It was focus, focus, focus underpinned with worry about the distance we were rowing downwind and the struggle we’d surely have to row back.

We had rowed about two miles when the cox turned the boat to face the wind, which had climbed to the top end of a force 4. The wide oar blades caught the breeze and became unwieldy. We began to slog. I couldn’t believe that in these conditions nobody feathered their oars and felt that I might be getting above myself by feathering mine. But not feathering meant expending unnecessary energy on the return stroke. And I had no energy to waste, indeed I doubted I had enough to get back to the marina.

We rowed into the steep chop, the bow occasionally crashing down and spray coming aboard. Trying to regulate my breathing I noticed the amount of water sloshing about in the bottom of the boat. The cox crouched in the stern keeping out of the wind and urging us to row harder. I wondered if I could flick a packet of water at him without losing my stroke.

Keeping my more mutinous feelings at bay we eventually pulled into calmer waters in the lee of the marina and so to the dock. I wondered if there might be some sort of commentary on the outing or if we’d go for a drink but everyone went straight to their cars. I returned the length of line to Carpet Slippers secretly hoping he might say, ‘You didn’t do too badly kid.’ But he just took the line and went.

Now the question is: Should I go back for the next session? Reasons against returning: I can’t enjoy the sea in the way that I’m accustomed, the boat and its handling don’t conform to my ideas of safety, it costs 100 euros for a six month season, I’m not a natural team player and the atmosphere is downright unfriendly.

Reasons for returning: Good exercise and, that good old precursor of a fall, PRIDE. I was piqued by Carpet Slippers’ suggestion that I am a soft-arsed wuss. And I will eat my own carpet slippers (not his, which are rancid) if I’m not up to this.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Long live Aunt Aileen’s fruitcake

There’s no doubting the incredible feat of sailing 32-foot wooden ketch non-stop around world and Robin Knox-Johnston’s 313-day solo circumnavigation of 1968/69 marks a pinnacle of endurance and resourcefulness. From an armchair world it is nigh impossible to imagine how appallingly lonely and frightening that sort of sailing must have been.

In his book ‘A World of my Own’ something of Knox-Johnston’s remarkable character comes through. It is a rare breed of person that has the will to keep the emotions at bay in extreme situations. RKJ had (and probably still has) an ability to establish order and dominance over situations through the single-minded completion of tasks. This particular pragmatism, often found amongst great yachtsmen, combined with his fierce patriotism and conviction that a Briton should be the first to complete a solo non-stop circumnavigation led to his success.

My favourite part of the book comes as he passes Cape Horn. After a gruelling 146 days in the Southern Ocean (nearly twice as long as it took Michel Desjoyeaux to complete an entire circumnavigation in the last Vendee Globe), after gales, knockdowns and continual repairs Suhaili reached the Horn on Jan 17th 1969.

In the log Knox-Johnston wrote, ‘YIPPEE!!!’ and in his diary, “We’ve passed it!!! Spliced the mainbrace and broke out Aunt Aileen’s fruit cake. I carefully removed the foil wrapping and the aroma hit me. The flavour and the taste are even better than the smell. I’ve cut a reasonable slice as I’ll make it last a bit if I can. It has withstood over seven months in its tin magnificently. To add to my pleasure there is a piece of The Times in the tin so I have something new to read as well.”

What a powerful and poignant evocation of home Aunt Aileen’s fruit cake is when contrasted with 219 days at sea in solitude. I imagine the battered tin, worn down to bare metal from constant movement inside the lockers. (One tin even wore so thin as to leak, emptying its contents of potent disinfectant into the bilges.) And inside the tin the smell of old newspaper, a page of The Times with the odd grease stain from where the suet had leaked through the foil.

On the most feared body of water in the world RKJ takes a double tot of whisky and settles down to read The Times while tucking into Aunt Aileen’s fruit cake. This should be the cake to celebrate all sailing achievements. Does anybody have the recipe?

Friday 17 April 2009

Onawind Blue on the Costa Brava

Some great photos have landed in my inbox courtesy of Amiga Atlántica.

Above, on the decks of the Santa Eulalia, multilingual Spanish blogging trio, from left Joan Sol of El Mar es el Camí (Catalan), Amiga Atlántica of Una mirada a la Ría de Vigo (Castillian Spanish, with bits of of Galician thrown in) and me. And below some good pics of OB.

Thursday 16 April 2009

100 years of sailing on the Costa Brava

After three great days away with Onawind Blue taking part in the centenary celebrations of the term Costa Brava I’m knackered and happy and OB’s ego is pumped up like a balloon from all the compliments she’s received.

The festival, which took place in Sant Feliu de Guíxols and Palamos on the Costa Brava was open to all craft with traditional rigs. Although the turnout wasn’t amazing there was still a fair representation of Catalan maritime heritage on the sea, from a tiny lateen yawl the 'Neisha' and the fine-lined 'Xerina' to a replica sardine fishing boat the 'Sant Pau', to the three-masted ‘pailebot’ (schooner) Santa Eulalia. Other large boats were the Nordic jakt 'El Far de Barcelona' (ex Anne Dorthea) and the brig Sea Star. There were three standing lugsails on the water two on OB and one on ‘Nena’ a lovely Drascombe Scaffie and the only one in Spain.

The lateen rigged barca de mitjana 'Sant Isidre' (which featured in these pages back in November) also took part, which was just as well as the captain, cook and extended crew adopted Onawind Blue and looked after her skipper.

For me the best moments were the ones aboard 'Sant Isidre', with 14 people crowded round the table, humour, wine and high spirits ebbing and flowing amongst peals of deafening laughter. And then, of course, the sailing, though there wasn’t much, and the nights under the boat tent despite the persistent dripping, the wind and being jerked awake by OB tugging hard at her moorings. The worst moments came when being towed.

Also present were the authors of two of the most widely read Spanish nautical blogs. Joan Sol of El Mar es el Camí whose pages are an essential read for anyone hoping to garner a perspective on the maritime heritage of the western Mediterranean, and Amiga Atlantica who writes the excellent blog, Una mirada a la Ría de Vigo about the Galician coast (land of dornas and polbeiros). Both blogs have a translator widget and at present feature detailed accounts of the event.

I generally had too much to drink and too little sleep and went about in a permanent state of dampness that earned me the nickname ‘el cormorant’. But there’s nothing quite like being among like-minded people, OB and I were welcomed, applauded and treated with more warmth than I’ve experienced in 20 years of living here.

Sardine boat the Sant Pau

Old salts, event organiser Jordi Salvador (left) and Drascombe owner Javi.

Being towed is far worse than rowing into headwinds, OB squirmed and swerved about behind the 'Neisha' and the gaff ketch rigged 'Pepeta'

The pretty Xerina

Aboard Sant Isidre

OB tied up alongside Sant Isidre

Nordic jakt el Far de Barcelona

Santa Eulalia

And this link will take you to a slideshow of the official photographs.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

The boat that wouldn’t be photographed

I did see an interesting boat in Mallorca but it was 29 metres underground. Four rowing boats live on the subterranean Lake Martel, an unusual body of water 170 metres long by 30 wide in the Coves del Drac in Mallorca. The caves are nearly 2km long and are home to fantastic formations of stalagmites and stalactites. The French speleologist A T Martel explored the caves in 1896 (He’d explored Gaping Ghyll in Yorkshire the year before.) discovering another series of caves and giving his name to the lake.

The boats that ply lake Martel are curious in that they have developed for a specific use. The boats transport musicians. In the 20’s and 30’s the caves were developed for visitors and concerts on the water soon became a feature. The boats are rowed facing forward, the lake is narrow and if you’re not looking where you’re going I imagine it’s all too easy to bump into a stalagmite. The oarsman sits right on the stern to give the musicians room to play. With the gunwales illuminated the boats glide slowly across the water. It looks great even if the overall impression is a little kitsch.

Maddeningly no photographs are allowed. This is evidently to maintain the monopoly of stalagmite snap sales at the exit. I asked if I could photograph the boats but the guide told me, in four languages, that photography was not permitted. A German who was foolish enough to use a flash received a curt ticking-off.

The boats are about 14 feet long by six wide, with bluff bows and a high, raked stern. After the concert they ferry the spectators to the other side of the lake, each craft carrying 16 tourists, a considerable weigh for the small boats, but despite being over laden they seem quite safe on the preternaturally calm waters.

I tried to take some surreptitious photos of the vessels but the light was hopeless. On the way out I managed to get these clandestine pictures of the stalagmites and stalactites.

And here’s a very small one of the boats.

Saturday 4 April 2009

Sailing into the sublime

I thought that three days in Mallorca would yield material for a blog post. Given that the island is home to many of the boatyards that still build in wood and that various lateen rigged llaüts sail the waters. Yet I barely saw a boat, let alone an interesting one that I could photograph despite a 100km search of the coastline.

Back in my hotel room, however, I found a piece about the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) in Jonathan Raban’s excellent book ‘Passage to Juneau’ —the story of the author’s sailing journey from Seattle to the Alaskan capital. Raban is a master at seamlessly weaving apparently disparate subjects into his narrative. He links in the Shelley passage with the contention that descriptions of the Pacific Northwest that reached Europe through the explorers Cook, La Pérouse, Vancouver and the fur trade captains inspired the Romantic poets who, questing the sublime, were beginning to find the Lake District and the Alps overrun with tourists. In the landscape of the Pacific Northwest they found unblighted nature on such a scale as to ensure the intensity of experience necessary to encounter the sublime. The ‘ethereal cliffs’, ‘boiling torrents’, ‘crags’, ‘and black flood on whirlpool driven’ that abounded in the Northwest filtered into Shelley’s work.

But what arrested my attention was a description of Shelley’s boat. Sailing and mountaineering were products of the Romantic Era and Shelley had sailed, mainly on rivers, since his days at Eton. In 1822, at Lord Byron’s insistence Shelley moved to Lirici on the Gulf of Spezia in Italy with his family. Byron already had a boat, a schooner called Bolivar, large enough to mount canon, and Shelley ordered his own scaled down schooner from the same builder. From the information given by Raban—sleek, fast, minimal sheer, low freeboard and only 24 feet long—the boat sounds audacious and not dissimilar to Bolger’s light schooner. (But Raban suggests that 24 feet was more probably the waterline length.) Shelley wanted to call the schooner Ariel but Bryron, with characteristic force of ego, insisted it be named Don Juan. The boat was built for speed but Shelley, wanting more, added topsails and staysails. Then, having to compensate for the extra top-hamper, he loaded the bilges with 29 pigs of cast-iron ballast. William St Clair (biographer of Edward Trelawny, Shelley’s friend who oversaw the design and construction) described it as, ‘one of the most unseaworthy vessels ever constructed.’

It was a difficult summer for Shelley. Wife Mary had miscarried, her half sister Clair Clairmont had lost her young daughter Allegra. (Though thought to be by Byron Shelley had reason to suppose that he himself might be the father.) And, like many writers, Shelley was battling bouts of depression. But the boat was a wonderful escape and probably where he was happiest. Writing to a friend he said, ‘It is swift and beautiful.’ And ‘…we drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind under the summer moon until the earth appears another world….if the past and future could be obliterated, the present would content me so well that I could say with Faust to the passing moment, “Remain thou, thou art so beautiful.”’ He had taken books and wine aboard and begun his last important poem, ‘The Triumph of Life’.

On 1st July Shelley sailed south to Livorno (Leghorn) with two companions, Edward Williams and Charles Vivian. Having consorted with Byron and Leigh Hunt in Pisa he returned to Livorno on the 7th and, the wind being fair, set sail for Lerici. They were 20 miles south of their destination and ten miles offshore when storm clouds appeared.

July can be a stormy month in the Mediterranean. Great gathering purple-bottomed cumulonimbi can gatecrash the calmest summer afternoon. They tower over the sea, trading ranging volleys of lightning. Then the wind arrives in a sudden breath-taking barrage, closely followed by deafening thunder, strafing hail and steep waves. Stabs of lightning pierce the bruised sky and the surface of the sea rages in boiling turmoil. There is violence enough to provoke the required extreme emotion—the yawning chasm between love and death—that was the source of aesthetic experience at the heart of the Romantic Movement.

A fishing boat returning to harbour closed with the over-pressed Don Juan and the Italian captain offered to take the crew aboard. Shelley refused and the captain urged him to shorten sail. The Don Juan charged on. Given that Shelley was one of the great Romantic poets it is tempting to read a romantic death wish into his actions. However, it seems more likely that a reckless desire to see just how fast the Don Juan could go led him to spurn assistance. But Shelley had limited experience on the sea and was unaware of how dangerous the boat really was. The schooner foundered.

The bodies washed up at Viareggio days later. Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt and Trelawny burnt Shelley’s body on the beach.

I find the idea of the poet on the sea, caught between the pragmatism of good seamanship and a poetic desire to abandon himself to the elements, compelling. Don’t we all skirt the edges of that dilemma, to a greater or lesser degree, at times on the sea? It is not only fear in the face of danger that captivates but also the fear caused by experiencing the desire to let go.

But I’m out of my depth, in danger of foundering in philosophical waters and Shelley is helming the Don Juan. The sea is up, the following wind howling in the rigging, the canvas stretched to taut, urgent curves, the bow flinging packets of water back along the decks. The helm is heavy as the waves lift the stern, the boat wants to broach but shoots forward on the wave, foam crackling down its sides…