Sunday 7 August 2011

Summer Cruise, Part 6. Suddenly it was Sunday afternoon

All reefed down and neat the breeze was still strong enough to make the gusts a challenge. The offshore wind raked at the dark surface of the water in a way calculated to dry the throat of the observer who sits in a small boat. Onawind Blue just wanted to turn bows to the wind. I’ve learnt though that rather than letting her luff it can be more rewarding to stay committed. Sheeted in and with a firm hand on the tiller line, OB accelerates and it’s just a question of keeping my weight in the right place.

At times we were going so fast I felt like we could outstrip that tractor. And then for a few seconds she planed. You can’t expect a boat with a petite transom and pronounced stern rocker to plane, you need a wide, flat surface for that, ‘a straight run aft’ as they say. For a few brief moments she rose out of the water onto her aftermost third and zipped along.

But fun as all this was I had other plans. On those long, mainly sleepless, hospital nights last year there was one thing I used to think about while attempting to tire my brain to sleep. It was this: If caught on a rocky, lee shore in a vast amount of wind—on the north side of Cap de Creus in a Tramontana, for example—how would I configure the boat and, thus configured, would she sail to windward? The conundrum usually had the effect of keeping me awake all night, wide-eyed, spooked and mentally wrestling my small boat off the rocks. Often it was relief to see the nurse coming noisily at dawn with her tray-load of needles.

The strategy I developed went as follows: Deploy sea anchor or anchor depending on depth, drop and furl mainsail and lash outboard of the starboard thole pins. Drop mizzen, adjust mainsheet attachment and hoist on main mast. Sheet in and get the hell out.

At sea on this particular morning there was a ‘safe’ offshore wind and more than enough of it to test not only the practicalities of making the change over but the critical windward question as well. In a ‘lee shore’ situation it would all have to be done pretty slickly so while I looked for an exposed, windy spot to anchor I had a quick mental rehearsal.

The operation seemed to take a while amid angry, flogging sailcloth and with the boat slewing, griping, tipping and tilting. But eventually I hoisted and set the mizzen sail on the main mast. Suddenly madness evaporated and it was a quiet Sunday afternoon. The wind still blew emphatically but gone was the racket and the white knuckles. The boat pottered calmly along.

Mizzen sail on the main mast and mainsail tied outboard of the thole pins

In the next gust I tried to point up. I found myself instinctively moving back towards the stern. I normally sail to windward from a position well forward. But of course, I thought, with nothing set on the rear mast it would be my upper torso that acted as a mizzen sail. We were sailing close-hauled and making ground upwind. Coming up to tack I unbuttoned my shirt and held it out behind me for more ‘sail area’ and round she came. I made tighter, faster turns than usual not wanting to risk getting caught in irons for a moment. When a lull came I had to bear away or stop but with plenty of wind she was tracking along fine. I kept hacking away at it and after a while we had sailed right up under the cliffs where there was barely any wind at all. And there I anchored and had a celebratory swim.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Summer Cruise, Part 5. The most important meal of the day

The sea, combed flat by the offshore wind, looked dark and cold. A double reefed main and mizzen day for sure, but even that would probably be too much for the gusts. I’d have to be on the water to know. I would have pushed out straight away were it not for one precaution. I hadn’t had any breakfast.

I wasn’t hungry but on a day like today breakfast might be the only meal I got. I’d leave food till last though, hoping that all the boat jobs would wake my appetite. By the time the main was reefed and furled and the mizzen shortened and set, I had a yawning cavern inside.

Setting up the stove I saw that a tractor was thundering up the beach towards me. He didn’t look like he was going to turn. ‘Oh come on...’ I thought, putting down the frying pan and standing up, ‘Don’t do this to me.’ The tractor swerved round OB’s bow, a large metal rake slewing behind. If the driver had taken one look in my direction he’d have noticed my disgruntled expression. He set off on another lap and I went back to my eggs.

5 minutes later he was hammering my way again, aiming dead amidships. I switched off the stove, flipped the eggs onto a piece of bread and stood up. The tractor swerved and stopped. The driver was red faced, ‘Get out of the way! Can’t you see I’m trying to clean the beach! Jesus! Let a man work!’

Dumbfounded I watched him roar off. Was I being forced to sea, by the cleaner? I wolfed some sandwich, watching the tractor burn down the back straight. He entered the turn and came round, hugging the bend, then, bows pointing my way, the driver’s foot hit the floor.

My gullet was rammed with eggs but I wasn’t going to play chicken with this maniac. I stuffed the rest of the sandwich between my teeth and a fender under OB’s bow. Then I took hold of the stern and, like a frightened penguin with an overloaded wheelbarrow, waddled to the water.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Summer Cruise, Part 4. And the dawn brought unicylists

Back at the beach the lifeguards were packing up their tanning oils. Using the oars I kept Onawind Blue to seaward of the breaking waves waiting for the channel to clear of people and for a pause in the wave train. The sea calmed a tad. I rowed round the swimmers and to the beach pulling quickly up onto the sand before the next set of waves arrived.

It is pleasant to arrive somewhere from the sea but my brief pleasure was soon followed by a sense of oppression. I felt like I’d just arrived at an informal party in outrageous fancy dress. A colony of sunbathers occupied the beach each with swimwear and a bright towel—there was no need to bring a boat with sails to the gathering, that was just plain showing off.

I looked around but no one seemed interested in this late arrival, for all his attention grabbing apparel. And even if they were, how can one possibly convey the subtle blends of exhilaration and angst that make cruising a small boat so sublime. Near me a group of French boys were having a sand battle. My French doesn’t quite stretch to ‘I’ll skin you alive if you get one grain of sand in this boat.’ But I can growl quite convincingly. And that was my job for the rest of the afternoon—to sit on the foredeck being bearish.

As the people left and the mosquitoes arrived I ended my vigil and slunk off to the beach bar for cold beer. I let the th-th-thumping music wash through me rather than have it b-b-boom against my eardrums and watched a young man strip down to his underwear for a photo. ‘Get your balls out.’ squealed the photographer. I turned away but caught an arm movement that suggested he complied with her wishes.

I set up OB’s tent with satisfaction. Made from a dismantled, one man, Decathlon 2second tent it was working well, though I’d yet to spend an entire night underneath it. As I sat and looked at the sea and made my own guesses for the forecast I doubted I’d get through the night without taking the tent down. It might have been wishful thinking but I reckoned the swell and cloud would disappear and that the Mestral would reassert itself.

At 4am I found myself smiling as I dismantled the wildly flapping tent. The sand, lit by the half moon, blew in cool swathes across the beach and into the sea. The Mestral had returned, polishing the sky to brilliant black.

I remade the bed in an attempt to stop the ingress of sand and when I laid my head down was aware that my pillow had blown away. I thought of it cartwheeling across the Mediterranean and cursed, I hate losing gear. I judged the wind by how much the sand stung my cheek where it protruded from the sleeping bag—force 5 to 6 without a doubt.

The wind seemed to strengthen with the dawn. I looked sleepily around. Coming towards the boat were a group of cyclists, unicyclists with piles of unruly dreadlocks, Italian unicyclists, ‘Yes, we're crazy.’ They said and did I have any bread to spare, they were hungry and had a hard day of cycling ahead of them if they were going to be in Barcelona for the weekend. I gave them an orange each and got back to the business of wondering how to tackle the conditions at sea.

Monday 1 August 2011

Summer Cruise, Part 3. Clouds shifted off inland.

No sooner had I struggled out of the small harbour entrance, rowing against the breeze than the guts fell out of the wind. The large, forbidding cloud unburdened itself of a few weighty drops of rain. And that, it seemed, was the end of the weather. Left to roll around on a grey and greasy swell Onawind Blue creaked and groaned. I rowed over to the main harbour mouth and positioned myself to watch Ametlla’s large fishing fleet return home.

Occasionally a boat would stop, presumably to finish sorting the catch, rocking around broadside on to the sea. I hoped I might pick up a few scraps but the seagulls were too quick. I’d lost my line and hooks the day before, probably snagging the bottom rather than a large fish.

But a wind came wrinkling the waves and without a thought I hoisted sail and followed it north. Where to? I wondered. Well I’d find out when I got there. Clouds shifted off inland, the sea turned blue again and white horses rolled up behind us.

From where I was sitting I could see that the coves and small bays that I passed were closed out to waves. I could hear the rumble of water drumming on distant rocks. I kept heading north knowing that at Sant Jordi d’Alfama there was a sheltered beach and a small marina.

Soon the distinctive castle of Saint George appeared on a headland but the bay on the other side didn’t look too promising. I anchored and stowed the sails then rowed down the buoyed channel to check out the beach. The navigation channel was chocker with children and parents playing in the waves. I stared hard at the lifeguards whose job it is to keep bathers out of channels but they were busy admiring their abs, so I rowed off to inspect the marina.

What was once a stunning natural inlet and haven for small boats fell prey some years ago to developers. The lush curves of the inlet have been brought into line with tons of concrete and where pines once tumbled down to the sea cement sits with grim rigidity. I rowed in, awed by the accumulative horsepower of all the outboard engines and the ugliness of motorboats.

The marina is well protected, I’ll give it that, and down at the bottom end the waters were as untroubled as the remotest backwater. On the quay a dockhand polished a stainless steel water and electricity pick up point.
‘Can I stay the night.’ I asked.
‘How much?’
‘What’s your overall length?’
‘Just under 5 metres—no need for water or electricity.’
‘30 euros.’
What could I say? The only words that occurred to me were the same ones that I’d hurled at the guy on the flybridge of the great white turd. I rowed back out to sea.