Wednesday 21 September 2011

A cruise through blues 4

Perched on a headland the Catalan flag, four red stripes on a yellow background, simply refused to flap. Southerlies were forecast from 10 am onwards. They were two hours late and I felt indignant. But as the flag’s lethargy infected my mood my irritation evaporated.

I lay back in OB, this was a good anchorage for a little boat, shallow, protected and with a little beach to visit and paths over the headland and up the cliffs. There was no view of the crowded little waterfront at Sa Tuna though the noise filtered round the cliffs.

The peace lifted like fog around noon with the arrival of a good part of the motorboat fleet. Craft crammed in, anchors splashed overboard. Shouts, screams and general loudness echoed from the rocks and I remained boat-bound and head down except to fend off when the entire crew of a nearby vessel leapt into the briny leaving me to watch how their boat slowly swung towards OB.

There are just 20 miles, if you take the direct route, from Sa Tuna to Cadaqués, but they are 20 miles of a special breed. It’s more like a crossing than a coastal passage as you’re up to 10 miles offshore at mid-point while you cross the Gulf of Roses. The feared Gulf I might say as when the Tramontana blows it can be very nasty indeed.

20 miles could take 6 hours or more depending on wind strength so when light southerlies arrived at 3 pm I knew it was too late to start. I thought about shifting a few miles up the coast to make for a shorter crossing but having climbed up to the flag and seen the open water I was put off. Too many motorboats.

As evening came and the crowds moved off I rowed round to SaTuna and parked on the pebble beach. A small crowd of children arrived and subjected me to an interrogation. As OB’s story unfolded they became more still more excited and inquisitive. ‘Have you seen dolphins?’ ‘Aren’t you scared of sharks?’ ‘How do you sleep?’ ‘How do you go to the lavatory?’ All the usual questions. By the time I got to a bar I found that the story had travelled ahead. ‘You’re the one who’s sailed to Ibiza in that little boat down on the beach, tell me, how the hell do you go to the lavatory on that thing?’

I decided to eat in a narrow street away from the sea front and as I tucked into a plate of grilled sardines the gang of children returned, now with an ipad. They wanted the address of this blog and the link to the Catalan documentary. It was interesting to talk to children who understood something of the sea, though 3 knots seemed impossibly slow to them accustomed as they were to engines.

In the darkness I rowed away to my anchorage, basking in the glow of OB’s minor fame and marvelling at the phosphorescence.

Monday 12 September 2011

A cruise through blues 3

Only after pulling the bows up onto the little beach at Aigua-xellida did I realise how tired I was. Before my limbs got too heavy I knew that I had to reconfigure the boat for eating and sleeping and then cook and hit the sack.

The cove was hidden in a deep shade of the gloomy sort that you don’t often see in the Mediterranean and much less in summer. I’d stopped here on my last cruise up the coast and I hadn’t remembered it as being so lugubrious. However, it was calm and sheltered and I could get a decent rest without worrying about the boat or being disturbed by fishing boat wake, swell, beach cleaners, revellers or other noises from the shore.

I cooked up a nice mess of onions, anchovies, potatoes and tomatoes and was just making myself comfortable prior to eating when the mosquitoes arrived.

While receiving chemotherapy my blood had been so foul tasting and of such poor quality that mosquitoes had turned their noses up at me. But now I found that I was back on the menu. Big time. With the damn things in my mouth and eyes I climbed into the sleeping bag, covered my head and thought about getting the snorkel out of the stern locker. Sleep eventually came.

The dawn brought fresh hordes and I packed up everything as quickly as possible and got the hell out. Not far offshore they gave up the chase. I stopped rowing and had a look at the chart.

The next good stopping place lay about an hour north I reckoned. I rowed easily over the glassy swell the masts swaying smoothly across the lightening sky but there must have been a southerly setting current for after an hour I was only half way.

After two hours at the oars I found myself thinking hard about breakfast. ‘I’ll have a couple o’ fried eggs.’ I sang to the sky, ‘...and six rashers of bacon, four slices of bread and a fried tomato oh yeah! And two, yeah I said twooo cups of teeeee.’ And so on until I was dribbling down my shirtfront.

I pulled gently round the rocks at Sa Tuna, a flag on the headland hung limp and damp with dew. The waters were morning-pale and absolutely transparent, the only noise was the splash of oars and the creak of rope on wood. Cala Jugadora tucked under steep cliffs had a good view of the flag and would make the perfect spot to wait for the forecast winds that would send me northwards.

I slung out the hook and set about making breakfast.

Monday 5 September 2011

A cruise through blues 2

My destination was Cadaqués and the XXIV Festival of Lateen Sail. It was only 35 miles away but with a firm wind on the nose it seemed to recede rather than approach. I’d lost masses of ground outside Palamos harbour sitting to the sea anchor while I double reefed the sails, stowed and lashed gear. All this should have been done on the beach of course, but as often happens when someone accompanies you down to the water, shakes your hand and says good-bye, you feel like your cue has arrived to exit stage left (rowing). I hopped in the boat, struck a heroic pose at the oars and before I knew it was blown out of sheltered waters and into the thick of it, drifting backwards over yesterday’s won ground.

A long day beating in stiff winds gave me a chance to reflect on OB’s windward performance and answer a question that’s puzzled me for a while. Why at times does she seem to perform so well and at others so poorly? It seems obvious now but the answer is sea state. OB heads up well in flat water. Even if there’s an underlying swell, if the wind is young and hasn’t yet ruffled the water, all’s well. It is chop that slows her, every breaking crest that slaps the bow knocking her off course.

There was plenty of wind blown chop on this afternoon and a northerly swell underneath. We must have sailed 20 odd miles but only made about 7 in the right direction. The wind died later on. I got an opportunity to bail and then I sat at the oars for an hour or so in order to reach a reasonable anchorage.

The rocky cliffs of the Costa Brava plunge steeply into the sea. Deep inlets and coves abound and the holidaying populace spend their days lounging on motorboats in the bays. At 7 o’clock they all head home. It’s rush hour. The sea from the cliffs to about 300 metres offshore becomes a motorway. It’s no place for a small boat under oars. The water gets so confused with wake rebounding from the rocks that forward progress becomes secondary to keeping the boat flat and dry. For every decent pull forwards you need at least four just to stay even keeled. As the throbbing craft thunder by and you change course to take the wake, first one way then the other, you can feel yourself beginning, under the fatigue of a day’s sailing, to unhinge.

It is madness.

But in this watery hell, almost more dangerous than others I’ve seen created by wind, I saw a splash and thought ‘dolphin’. I stared at the patch of water and a swordfish rose out, silhouetted against the sky. It jumped three times, a vision of grace, power and beauty. I wonder if anybody else on that crowded sea noticed it.

Thursday 1 September 2011

A cruise through blues 1

I hadn’t realised when I last made the trip in 2008, that a cruise on the Costa Brava is really just a lesson in understanding the colour blue. It’s there in shades beyond alice and azure, demin and dodger, electric and iceberg, colbalt and cornflower, sapphire and true.

All my travels in OB seem to acquire a certain emotional intensity and this one, for all that I only had to cover 40 miles, was no different. Maybe it’s a mixture of the apprehensions and exasperations of trying to make headway amidst calms, ill winds and hundreds of motor craft and the fact that the little seven day saga is staged in surroundings of utter beauty and blueness. Even if you spend all day fretting over lack of forward progress, bitterly cursing the waterhogs and every evening agonising over your anchoring, the blue sea filters in, it fills you. And when you’re brimming it’s liable to come flooding out of your eyes.

Only 40 miles but a challenging 40 they turned out to be.

I launched in Sant Feliu de Guíxols, bright sunshine on the quay and thick fog just beyond the harbour wall. I’d only just touched the water but already I was a frustrated mariner.

Itching to get to sea but weather bound I went for a long boozy lunch with the unlikely excuse that it might be the last good, hot food I’d get for a while. The thick gauze lifted late afternoon taking the wind with it and I had a long, meandering 6-mile row to Palamos where, in the dark, I anchored off the town and commercial harbour.

The droning of beach-cleaning tractors, the shouts of revellers and the swell from returning fishing boats kept me just on the wrong side of slumber and set a precedent for lack of sleep and a mild irritation with all those not involved in sailing a small boat northwards.

I rowed ashore for coffee with a friend and even before we’d finished a port official came with the intention of fining OB for illegal parking. My friend is one who takes these things very seriously indeed. And just as well, for small engineless boats have all but lost their rights to those of bathers amid legislation to keep swimmers from under jet-skis and motor boats. Once you become water borne in the freewheeling way that I do the land makes you feel very unwelcome. A vague sense of persecution is one that I usually take to sea.

The official appeased, the coffee finished I rowed away just as the wind finally made up its mind what to do for the day. It would polish the sky, herd white horses over the sea and pump 18 knots onto my bow.