Friday 6 September 2013

Goodbye to Ella

It's not always easy having relations to stay but Onawind Blue's cousin Ella was the perfect guest. Pretty, undemanding and grateful of the fresh water clean out and other attention she received at The Invisible Workshop.

The time for her to leave came about all too soon and unfortunately I hadn't had the chance to take her out on my own. (Though the doctors would say that solo sailing is still beyond me.) I hadn't expected Jordi and Anna, the intrepid pair that were to sail the next leg, mainly because the wind was foul. It would be a slog for them even though the leg was short. They were keen to get going and we wheeled Ella to the beach, me inwardly cursing that I hadn't organised some crew so that I could sail with them in OB. I desperately wanted some photos of the two boats together on the briny.

We set up Ella and launched her with out mishap and I watched from the beach as she beat out to sea, tacked and set off up the coast. 'There goes a missed opportunity.' I thought as I sloped home, stopping beside OB to tidy her interior. While deciding how best to spend the afternoon without feeling sullen, my friend Alex cycled by on his way home for lunch. 'Going sailing?' He asked. I looked at him, he's only 24 and built of solid muscle.

'Fancy coming?'
I saw a sparkle in his eye.
'Quick, go and put your bike away. I'll see you back here in 10 minutes.'

Ella had a good half an hour start on us and from the beach I could no longer see her. Having seen that she's fairly good upwind I wondered if OB could catch up. Alex and I boarded and took a long beat out to sea. Hoping that familiarity with my boat would give us an advantage close-hauled I arranged Alex's 80 kilos to provide the best trim, milked every gust and never fell off the wind except to gain speed when slowed by waves slapping on the windward bow. With a racer's grimace across my gob I tacked and set off on the new course in earnest pursuit.

Although Alex and I maintained a continual yakety yak my mind was on the sailing, and on my boat. Could it be that I'd forgotten how well she sails? It wasn't long before I could see Ella's sail, she was just closing with the marina at Roda de Bara. She tacked and I judged that OB was two thirds of a mile downwind. After a few more tacks we were alongside her.

Sailing close-hauled it was clear that OB had more speed (as one would expect from a longer waterline and more sail area) and I spilled wind so that we could sail together and converse. Ella had a problem with the sail, it wasn't setting well, with wrinkles (girts, Michalak calls them) from the clew to the throat. I'd noticed this when sailing her myself though had hesitated to heave on more tension as the throat didn't seem to be sufficiently reinforced. I'd strengthen the throat in The Invisible Workshop but still those girts persisted.

The force 3 breeze fell to a low F2 and we began to wallow. I thought about what to do. We couldn't complete the whole trip because I wouldn't have the energy and I was worried that the wind would entirely fail. Of course I could strap Alex to the oars, but I knew it was time to be going, OB and Ella had sailed together. So I turned OB towards home.

After a short distance I spied a kayak and hailed it. Alongside it transpired that the kayaker was one of my blog readers and so I felt confident in asking him a favour. I passed him my camera and turned once again to pursue Ella. Unfortunately I didn't get my new friend's name but am very grateful for the photos he took of OB and Ella sailing together. (Moltes gracies company!)

Sailing towards home the chit-chat lulled and Alex and I fell into that blissful trance-like state that comes when sailing broad in a light wind under a hot sun. My mind turned to food, just a few days ago I'd emptied OB of rusting tins and made a small feast of the mackerel fillets a la diablesse, smoked cod liver and partridge in vinegar marinade. OB still hadn't been restocked with emergency rations. Alex was peckish too. To relieve our sun-baked brains we stopped for a swim. Alex is a skilled diver and spearfisherman and he immediately headed for the bottom in search of an octopus. I swam quietly round OB, washing grime off her sides with handfuls of seawater.

Alex returned empty handed and we sailed home. Heaving OB up the beach and onto her trailer Alex said, 'Did you really do all this on your own before?' 'Yes,' I replied, 'but I never used to be this hungry.' We smiled at each other, weakened and wan sailors. Alex sped off to his mum's cooking and I went home and gazed into the fridge.

Ha! Grilled skirt steak with fried potatoes and Dijon mustard!

Ella details

Sunday 1 September 2013

A day with the Ella Skiff

There's a great project underway here on the Catalan coast. It all started when a group of boating enthusiasts decided to build a boat together. They chose Gavin Atkin's Ella skiff for the obvious reasons of simple construction, free plans and good pedigree. The build took a year and the boat was launched on the Costa Brava at the beginning of the summer. After sea trails with a polytarp standing lugsail the boat was towed down to the south of Catalonia and the next stage of the project began. Whosoever, with boat-handling skills, was invited to sail the boat, in short legs, back up to the Costa Brava.

When Ella arrived just north of Tarragona I signed up to sail a leg, hoping to get the boat as far north as my home beach at Creixell. Being 10 kilos underweight and receiving potent treatment for a dastardly lymphoma I needed some crew and was flattered when my 16 year-old daughter, Yoeh volunteered. She doesn't have much sailing experience but I could rely on her ability to follow instructions, her common sense and excellent company. Now I needed both health and weather windows to overlap. Happily I didn't have to wait long.

The forecast showed 6 knots from a favourable quarter between 1400 and 1800 and I had woken with good levels of vim and vitality. But my main concern was that the wind would fail once we were at sea. The skiff is equipped with no auxiliary power beyond a pair of kiddy's paddles, which to me aren't really a viable means of traveling more than a few hundred metres, if that.

With the idea of hugging the coast like babes to a mother's breast Yoeh and I set up the boat on the beach. The skiff is equipped with the basics and well organised. One significant modification has been made to the design. With the idea that the boat might be left unattended on faraway beaches for untold days, openings have been made in the transom and interior bulkheads to allow the spars to be stored inside the boat. This would appear sound practice for the projected use of the Ella Skiff, though I'm always slightly wary of considerations that make life on land easier as they generally have some consequence at sea. In this case I worry that eventually the threads of the plastic lids that cover the holes will wear, leak and compromise the built-in buoyancy. Provision has been made for this however, and the manual that comes with the boat exhorts all users to line the threads with tubing before removing the spars and to exercise extreme care.

Ella is quite heavily built, revealing the builders' origins in lateen sail. In Catalan trad-boaty-speak mast is 'arbre'—literally 'tree', and the solid, sturdy pole up which I hoisted the sail could easily carry twice as much canvas. We rolled the boat to the water's edge on the fender that I'd brought for the purpose (and to serve as a seat once afloat) and waded out until we found enough depth to ship the rudder and daggerboard. We boarded, sheeted in, put the tiller to windward and away Ella flew.

The boat had caused some interest on the beach and I turned to wave to a small send-off party then re-trimed the sail to go broad and tootle along just 200 metres off the shore. 'Wow, she's fast.' said Yoeh, and yes, Ella was already well into her stride as we were still sorting out our seating arrangements. I sat on my fender inside the cockpit, wedging my torso into the after starboard corner with the tiller under my armpit and Yoeh sat on the windward side of the central thwart looking forward. Ella and her crew were comfortable all we could wish was that the wind hold.

The GPS registered a healthy 3 knots and after sailing a mile or so Yoeh cut up a baguette for sandwiches, complaining that I could have bought ready-sliced cheese. 'Pre-sliced, industrial packed cheese is not for those who go to sea in small home-built boats,' I retorted snobbishly, 'Now use the boat knife to cut that nice, sweaty wedge of Emmental.'

As the sandwiches went down the wind came up and white caps began to appear. The breeze settled at a solid 10 knots, causing us no great problem but raising our speed a knot. At this rate home was going to turn up far too early in the day and so we changed course to practice other points of sail.

The boat had already shown herself to be well balanced, with a light tiller and a touch of weather helm but I was impressed at how high she pointed to windward. She was wet though, with the moderate breeze and chop and would have liked a reef. I tacked carefully and she came round well. I repeated the maneouvre with less finesse and got caught in stays, I backed the sail, put the tiller to leeward and reversed on to course. Sailing dead down wind with the daggerboard raised Ella became unstable and ached to gybe but by lowering the board a tad and turning slightly to windward she regained posture.

Ella was not designed for these open sea conditions but like Onawind Blue she behaved well with the decent breeze and short sea and frankly I wouldn't have expected less.

I'd added a 2 kilo anchor to Ella's kit—I just don't feel happy going to sea without one—and thought about stopping for a swim but the bays under our lee looked too crowded and lumpy and so we pushed on past OB's old haunts, Waikiki beach, La Mora, Tamarit Castle. We let everything fly briefly as we peered down at jelly fish and then I passed the helm to Yoeh and settled myself up forward facing aft. Yoeh turned Ella off the breeze, trimming the main and we were galloping again. The wind had risen but on this point of sail Ella was still comfortable. I worried slightly for the straining polytarp but knew that the spars could handle a gale.

'There's a big lump of plastic up ahead.' Said Yoeh. After little more than an hour aboard she was sounding like a wooden boat owner. 'It's coming straight towards us.' 'Don't worry, hold your course.' I said, 'we have right of way.' But she was uncomfortable and started to head up. 'Hold your course!' I repeated.

'But it's going to hit us.' She said with a rising tone. I thought it might be time to look round and check out the situation. For a minute It did indeed appear we were on a collision course but then a gap widened. The boat made no hint of modifying its course and throbbed by to port with its fenders out, girls sunbathing on the foredeck and suntanned swankpots yakking on the fly bridge. I've always exercised extreme tolerance with this breed of water-user but now, for the sake of my daughter's education I let fly in full colour. Satisfied with my imaginative combinations of expletives I sat back to enjoy the wind in my mustache but was nearly knocked off my perch by the arrival of motorboat wake.

The wind remained firm and windsurfers skittered out from the beach at Torredembarra. Back at the helm I still felt no need to reef. The waves had grown and Ella hinted that she'd like to try surfing. I was happy to indulge her, bearing up ever so slightly at the base of the wave for maximum speed then turning stern to the swell, urging the crew to get her weight forward. As the skiff caught the wave we lent back and Ella zipped along with spray singing from her shoulders. (The GPS marked a max speed for the trip of 9.1 knots ) We whooped with joy and caught a few more waves before Creixell beach turned up. It was impossible to de-power the sail on this point of sail and we howled towards the shore, raising the daggerboard and rudder at the last minute and skidding a metre up the beach like jerks on a jet ski.

Monday 10 June 2013

All about octopus

This season's treat from Sam Llewellyn contains an article of mine about octopus. How to catch them--and what they do to evade you--how to dispatch them quickly and how to prepare them for the pot.

As I've said elsewhere on this blog the octopus is an extraordinary creature and one that I find endlessly fascinating. Initially the article started as a way for me to organise all the information that I'd accumulated about octopus, from observation, reference and fishermen. As I started to write I began to see that I could fit the whole octopus story into the tale of catching one.  So that's what you have, all the details of diving for octopus in this summer's MQ. 

Monday 3 June 2013

The Lugworm Chronicles

I have been enjoying the first of the Lugworm Chronicles—Lugworm on the Loose by Ken Duxbury. Lodestar books has published the trilogy that, despite popularity when first published in 1973, had gone out of print. And just as well, for Lugworm on the Loose is a classic that deserves resurrection and one that any small boat sailor or dreamer will enjoy. The books have beautiful, satin smooth hardback bindings, lovely paper and crisp print with pen and ink illustrations by Duxbury himself. 

Ken and his wife B (we never get to know her full name which has the effect of keeping this evidently tough and resourceful women somewhat in the background) trail their Drascombe Lugger out from under piles of tedious work and grey skies to sunbaked Greece. Aboard Lugworm they plot a winding route from Volos, avoiding the marauding Meltemi wind, to the Sporades and the Cyclades before taking the Corinthian Canal to the Ionian and finally to Corfu. Ken's writing depicts a peaceful Greece before the tourist boom wreaked havoc amongst the islands but you have to read between the lines to thoroughly grasp the sailing challenges they faced. Ken and B's britishness gives rise to some unintentional humour but is ultimately endearing. (They continually conform to Noel Coward's stereotype and, like mad dogs, set off for long walks in the blistering mid-day sun.) The book also contains some fascinating snippets concerning the local fishing practices. I particularly enjoyed an episode describing a technique for catching octopus.

Ken and B are in a bay near Korfos, in the Saronic Gulf just before entering the Gulf of Corinth. Wind bound they prepare for a day of sunbathing in the lee of an olive grove. Their peaceful morning is disturbed by a shepherd coming down the hill carrying a long pole with a bunch of sage leaves attached to one end. Ken watches as the shepherd, standing on a rock, sprinkles some drops of olive oil on the water and then submerges the leafy end of the pole and beings gently jigging it up and down. The shepherd, watches, waits and jigs to Ken's fascination until an eel-like form coils out from under a rock and then retreats. The shepherd, keeping the leaves undulating, moves the pole closer to the rocks as Ken peers down perceiving a feature that looks remarkably like a human eye set in a large brown blob. More tentacles appear and suddenly the sage is embraced by an octopus. The shepherd jerks the pole skyward and up comes a two-kilo octopus impaled on large barbs hidden in the bunch of leaves. Inserting a knife between its eyes the shepherd dispatches the creature and then disengages it from the hooks. He goes on to beat it on the rocks, Ken counts 75 times, before turning the head inside out and declaring 'Kalo'—it's good. Ken and B however, despite witnessing the Greeks enjoying octopus never quite overcome their mild revulsion.

I have never heard of this method before though it has some similarities with a Catalan practice in which a small rectangle of wood with weights on the underside and three large hooks on the top, baited with sardines or chicken is slung into the briny attached to a long line. The fisherman standing on the dock or in his boat slowly pulls in the line. Even in daylight an octopus can't resist the smell of a chicken carcass and will rapidly quit its cave to sink its beak into the meat. Nowadays beating the creature on the ground is not necessary (unless you're in a hurry to eat) as 24 to 48 hours in the freezer is enough to tenderise the flesh.

Sunday 2 June 2013

The Carlos Barral

When I first started planning cruises on the Catalan coast, rather than studying a pilot book, I looked to the Catalan nautical writers who, though writing sometime in the past, used language that I could readily absorb. Two writers stood out—Josep Pla and Carlos Barral. Both sailed extensively on this coast from the '40's to the '70's and as I lapped up their prose I began to feel an almost personal attachment to them. While Pla was paused, detailed, literary and enjoyable purely for his masterly use of the Catalan language, Barral described sailing and the coast with larger, more spontaneous brush strokes and his vivid colours reflected his passionate nautical spirit.

Pla died in 1981, his boat 'Mestral' long lost to scrap. Barral died in '89, and his boat 'Capitan Arguello' ended up in Tarragona's 'Museu del Port.' Barral was from Calafell, just round the next headland from OB's beach, and the dedicated souls of the association 'Pati Catala Calafell, Mar Mitic, Mar Ludic' have striven to return Barral's boat to its home beach in Calafell. But for all the negotiations Tarragona Museum hold tightly to the treasured Capitan Arguello. So the association studied the possibility of building a replica but that plan unsurprisingly was beyond their budget. They did the next best thing, found and restored a deteriorating llaut which, though of smaller dimensions, they painted in Capitan Arguello's distinctive black and orange colours and named La Carlos Barral.

 I went along for the launch ceremony and arrived in time to see the boat chugging out of the port, running parallel to the beach to the place on the sand where the ceremony was to be held. Conducted by Vicente Garcia-Delgado, author of the definitive book on the lateen sailing rig—Nuestra Vela Latina—and historical expert of Mediterranean sail the ceremony recreated the pagan rites that mariners hoped would appease the fates. With fitting pomp and deliberation Vicente burnt a potful of olive branches under the prow, dressed the stem head with a lamb's fleece and bade the 'patron' soak it with wine, then he doused the boat in sea water followed by coarse-grained salt. Finally, moving into christian territory, the boat builder responsible for the restoration nailed a gold coin to the mastfoot to pay St Peter for entry into heaven should the boat founder. Then a virgin climbed aboard with a cross to be placed inside the boat at the bows. With the fates and deities suitably catered for the La Carlos Barral could begin her career.

Dawrfed by the local dark-suited bigwigs attending the occasion was the pettite guest of honor Yvonne Barral, Carlos Barral's widow, accompanied by her children and grandchildren. While she waited for the local radio station to sort out its signal I introduced myself and explained the role her late husband had played in my personal sailing story. As occasionally happens when I talk about Onawind Blue ears pricked to the simple tale of a small boat on the sea, but now I was more than flattered that this elegant lady who had sailed many miles with her husband might be interested in my adventures. Emboldened I pulled my book from my rucksack and showed it to her. As she flicked approvingly through the pages I felt that quite unexpectedly I made a significant connection with part of Catalonia's literary and maritime heritage. 

Monday 13 May 2013

One of those days

It's not often a day comes along when, after a good, early breakfast, there is nothing left to do but ponder on what to have for lunch. Given a large supply of unusual fish my thoughts turn to methods of preparation. There's a colourful 'tord roquer' in the freezer, a corkwing wrasse, symphodus melops and it begs to be cooked 'a la sal'--baked in salt. There's not enough coarse salt in the cupboard however, and a trip in the car to the shops is anathema to the pleasant, languid mood of the morning.

It doesn't take much thought to arrive at the perfect conclusion: sail down the coast to next town where there's a supermarket near the beach. Strange as it seems to go to sea to buy salt I quickly prepare OB and launch into a flat sea and offshore breeze. I sail large parallel to the beach and lie back with my weight to windward as the inevitable gust powers OB to top speed. The town turns up way too early and I sail out to sea for a few turns on the stiffer wind. The Mestral when blowing moderately and early in the day usually foretells a noon calm and subsequent wind shift to the south west. So as the wind dies I stow the sails and row to the beach, rolling OB up the sand on a fender.

I dig out some flip flops and coins and cross the beach and the busy promenade, through an alley, across a square to the small supermarket where I buy salt, wine, bread and potatoes. I've earned a beer and so I sit down at an aluminium table on the terrace of a near-by bar. I'm half way though the beer when a familiar figure comes down the street. It's skipper MacGyver out to buy a roast chicken for Sunday lunch. He sits down and we order more beer. He's seen the boat on the beach and is tickled when I tell him I've come shopping. Another fisherman turns up, the shopping story is retold and more beers are ordered.

We could sit here all day but people have wives to get home to and MacGyver still hasn't bought his chicken. The wind has kicked in again, now from the southwest. MacGyver walks a way with me, confessing that although he's spent all his life on the sea, he's never been sailing. He refuses to tread on the sand and watches me prepare the boat from the promenade.

I launch OB, row out a short way, quickly lower the rudder and daggerboard before hoisting the sails. I back the main to turn the boat, the wind catches and we fly large, winging homeward. OB covers the two and half miles in half an hour and soon I'm in the kitchen burying the wrasse in coarse salt, I dig through the snowy layer until I uncover the eye, left bear this glassy orb will turn opaque when the fish is cooked through.

I parboil some potatoes then saute them in olive oil. But I'm having trouble judging if that eye has turned sufficiently pale and eventually err far on the side of caution. By the time I chip the fish out of it's salt crust it is overcooked and drier than I'd like. However, the spirit of the morning pervades and the inexpensive wine I've bought is surprisingly good. And as so often happens with food the enjoyment comes from the situation and the story that accompanies it. Overcooked, over-salty, bony corkwing wrasse never tasted so good.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Catalan Castaway

The book based on this blog is now available from Richard Wynne of Lodestar Books. Under the title Catalan Castaway, the selected writings focus on the seaborne adventures of Onawind Blue rather than her construction and include material that hasn't appeared here at the Invisible Workshop. The trip to Ibiza and OB's close shave with a fishing boat appear in full, illustrated with hand-drawn maps. Gavin Atkin has kindly written a glowing forward and supplied the plans for his design which are included as an appendix.

Richard Wynne has given the book a semi-coffee table format with an A5 layout and he has selected photos of OB and the sea to accompany the text. The book has been printed on A4 paper thus necessitating getting the whole lot chopped in half. When I last spoke to Dick he was just off to find a boatbuilder with a bandsaw to do the job. A more fitting way of finishing a book about a small homemade boat I can't imagine.

Not only have I had a lot of fun building and sailing OB but also writing about her. And to some extent when I became ill with cancer my solo experiences on the water helped me through. At least my memories of sparkling Mediterranean waters and a lively little hull were a place I could escape to during the gruelling days in hospital. I'm proud and pleased that my writing has been considered printable, and to see this part of my life neatly bound in book form gives me a good solid point to move on from.  

Thursday 11 April 2013

Another treat

The fishermen I know are generally traditional in their tastes. And why not, when you have plentiful fresh fish and fantastic raw ingredients like olive oil, tomatoes, peppers, garlic and almonds as well as simple, timeworn recipes. I can well imagine someone having tried any species of fish 'al romescu' being reluctant to try another style of preparation. Why bother when something is already sublime. The thing is that there are many sublime ways that really fresh fish can be prepared (although there are none that can redeem long-dead ones). Olive oil is fitting in that it smacks of vibrancy and light compared with the clogging heaviness of other fats but there are times when nothing can better butter.

So when a damaged, unsaleable sole (solea solea) comes up in the net it's time to break out the butter and the flour for a classic sole meurnière. In her book French Provincial Cooking Elizabeth David praises la Mère Brazier's fine Lyonais bistro for providing what 'I do truly believe to be the most delicious and deliciously cooked sole meurnière I have ever eaten.' and goes on to question what passes for the dish in London restaurants. So despite this being generally considered a simple dish there is some historic pressure to get it right. David also astutely lists the problems of preparing sole meurnière for a dinner party in the domestic kitchen highlighting the size of the fish as one of the drawbacks. Unfortunately this is no longer quite so applicable and most soles these days (at least in the Mediterranean) will fit comfortably into a large frying pan. However, her point about using clarified butter remains valid.

Clarified butter can withstand higher cooking temperatures without burning and is easy to make in small or large quantities. Having prepared the butter the next factor that needs to be exactly right is the quantity of flour. Meurnière means miller's wife, and I find that the image of a county maiden in clogs, beating flour from her apron helps avoid coating the fish too thickly. Season the flour before lightly dusting the sole.

Heat the clarified butter in a frying pan, add the sole and cook on both sides until golden. While the fish is frying make some noisette butter. Take some normal, unsalted butter and melt it in a small pan until light brown and nutty-smelling, remove the pan from the heat and place in cold water to arrest further cooking. Transfer the golden sole from the frying pan to a warm plate, immediately squeezing lemon juice over it. Season again then pour over the noisette butter.  

Thursday 28 March 2013

The beauties of bycatch

 Bycatch is one of the dirty words of sustainable fisheries. I'm fortunate not to have to witness much wastage in my small experience of commercial fishing. The fifteen souls and six boats that work from the nearby port bring in small catches and the unsaleable fish are taken by the fishermen, given to friends or sold. I earn a bag of fish big enough to last me a week for as much work as I feel like doing on Monday mornings. Being fascinated by fish in the sea and on the table as well as the world of fishermen, added to fact that I'll always drop everything to go on a boat of any sort, makes Monday mornings a holiday for me.
 The common torpedo (torpedo torpedo) is not a commercial species. It lives in shallow coastal waters over soft substrates and preys by night on small bony fish and crustaceans. It's downfall in terms of it becoming part of bycatch is its method of attack and defence.

The torpedo can deliver hefty electric shocks, up to 200 volts according to and the wikipedia. The shocks diminish in intensity as the animal dies and cease as it does. It is not practical to attempt to extract the torpedo from the net while it is evidently alive, and even when it appears dead it can often spark up again. And so it can never be returned to the water alive, unless it drops from the net as it comes over the roller and can be teased out through a scupper with the toe of a welly, or grabbed by the tail and flung. It appears to be the torpedo's back that shocks or the distinctive blue spots themselves, I've never touched one in such a way as to be shocked intentionally. Please excuse this lack of scientific fibre, I'm no Stephen Maturin.

Though they are widely thought to be uneatable, fishermen have always cooked them and I've found they make fine food. The difficulty, if there is one, is in preparing them for the pan as you have to peel off the tough skin—a task best performed on the dock, or outside at least. Many fishy jobs can cause havoc in the kitchen. 

Torpedo 'wings' with torpedo livers and sea snails.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

All for a bag-full of bycatch

In the chill dark, an hour before dawn on Monday morning, I creep out of the house and go fishing.

I meet the fishermen on the dock and, with sleepy greetings, we step down onto the damp deck. Skipper MacGyver and David pull their ragged yellow oilskins from the tiny wheelhouse. I've come dressed in the same blue yachty wear that I use on OB, only that now, after a winter of fishing, the clothes are black-stained with cuttlefish ink, ringed with complex tide lines of salt and fish slime. They also harbour a permanent damp and stink. What were once reasonable quality foul weather clothes are now simply foul clothes.

The boat grumbles to life, shivering under foot, Flash fm blares a loud techno beat, MacGyver and David light up. We push off from the dock and chug out of the small port to meet the sea and the dawn with a pleasurable sense of expectation—maybe today the net will have some prime fish and no tiresome weed.

'Garbi o llevant?' MacGyver asks me. He wants me to take a shot at divining the direction of the current, garbi-west, llevant-east. After strong westerly winds on Sunday and a swell from the southwest today I say 'garbi' with confidence. MacGyver grunts and says 'llevant', David declares himself neutral. A deep red ellipse of sun appears briefly between the horizon and a thick bank of cloud. In the dull light we slow as we pass close to a fishing buoy all three peering into the depths to see how it lies. 'Llevant!' exclaims David, 'That's why MacGyver's the skipper.' I say, 'And I'm just the crazy volunteer deckhand.'

The net is set parallel to the coast which runs east west, and so we rumble on to our first buoy to haul the net in the same direction as the current. David grabs the buoy and hoicks it over the bulwark before passing the line round the roller drums on the bow. I pull the lever that sets the hydraulic machinery in motion and David and I look down at the buoy's anchor twirling up from below. We stop the rollers, tidy the line and secure the anchor then, rollers on, we wait for a first sight of the net. Being loaded with weed it brings a torrent of swearing from MacGyver and David. The quantity of brown twiggy clumps that come aboard with the first twenty metres portend a vast amount of work back at the dock untangling the weed from the mesh.

We are hoping for sole and cuttlefish—top sellers at the moment, though you don't want too much or the price falls. David goes back to the wheelhouse and holds the boat bow to the net while MacGyver hauls from amidships and I stand near the bow taking the swell with flexing knees, pulling trailing weed from the net and shouting back the names of fish as they come over the roller, only to be corrected by MacGyver. There aren't many of them, the weed in the net alerts the fish to its presence and they swim over it. Grey mullet, pandora, steenbras, bream, an octopus eating a grey mullet, a cuttlefish spurting a jet of ink in a wide arc as it comes over the roller and weed, tons of the stuff.

The net is long, too long to mention and though the fish are few and far between the eventual catch, though considered poor, is not entirely ruinous. As soon as the net is aboard MacGyver turns the boat for home and David and I set to the task of extracting fish, flinging them into buckets. With the swell hitting side on and the occasional whiff of exhaust, along with the pong of my clothes a slight dizziness comes. I lift my head and look forward, getting a light dousing of spray and thin rain. The tiredness behind my eyes mixed with the light headedness and the yawning hunger makes me feel like I'm returning from a party or maybe I'm just waking from a dream.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Place of Battle

In the days when the population around the Mediterranean was too small to make an impact and there was no rampant Japanese market the Mediterranean Sea had vigorously healthy tuna stocks. The fish would enter the Straits of Gibraltar in late spring and fill larders from Andalucia to Sicily and beyond. On the coast of Catalonia tuna fishing was an activity in which whole communities would participate. Villages were often built slightly inland on raised ground but when the tuna came the population would decamp to the beach and set up shop for the duration.

The method of fishing was called 'Almadrava'* and the technique was as follows. At a chosen beach a net would be set diagonally with respect to the land, with one end fixed to the sand and the other rowed out to sea and anchored. The fast swimming fish, entering the net, would find themselves forced ever nearer the beach until they reached the inevitable cul-de-sac. Here the villagers would wade in with harpoons while others in boats would attack the fish from behind. The word 'Almadrava' comes from Arabic and means 'place of battle'. Almadrava fishing was nothing short of a massacre. The moment of thrashing silver fish, wild water, sunlight, bronzed limbs and gushing blood is vividly depicted in Salvador Dalí's 'la pesca del atún' (Tuna fishing) painted on the Costa Brava over the summers of 1966 and '67 and capturing on canvas one of the last seasons of almadrava fishing.

Almost all of this abundant harvest of tuna would be conserved in olive oil. Originally in glass jars and later in tins. The fish tripe, salted and dried, would sustain the population over the winter. Nowadays, while you can buy tuna flesh in tins very cheaply and indeed, it's not enormously expensive even fresh, the dried tripe, tasty though it is, commands a price far beyond its worth. But such is the madness of the world we have made for ourselves.

*In Southern Spain tuna is still fished with a method called 'almadraba' (note the b rather than v that distinguishes the Catalan). The Andulucian almadraba is set at sea, as opposed to from the beach, the nets forming a maze that leads the fish to a central area. Boats converge and a net floor is raised bringing the tuna to the surface where they are killed and hauled aboard. Again it is a place of battle.  

Monday 11 March 2013

A load of bull

 Local Catalan fisherman's food at its most traditional is tuna tripe. Salted and sun-dried in the style of salt cod it can been seen swinging in the breeze outside restaurants, as much to continue the drying as to advertise that fish tripe is on the menu. Like other foodstuffs once eaten only by fishermen tuna tripe, known as 'bull' in Catalan has become fashionable—at least in Catalonia—and now costs around 60 euros per kilo, if you can find it at the market.

The town of Torrdembarra considers itself the capital of 'bull' cusine and once a year holds a tasting day in which a pair of chefs cook various tapas which, for three euros per tapa (wine included), can be tried by the hungry public. For quite a few years I've queued up for my yearly dose of 'bull'.  

 This year the cooks involved were Oriol Castro of the Bulli foundation, Alex Segù from nearby restaurant Mulsum and, star of the show Iris Figuerola, fisherman's wife and renowned expert on all things 'bull' who demonstrated her 'bull al romesco', a stew made on a thick paste of almonds, dried peppers, garlic and fried bread, stock, tripe and potatoes.

 In go the spuds

Stomach or offal of any sort and of any animal tends to be an aquired taste and hard to err, stomach by the unconverted and 'bull' is no different. One woman I spoke to, who hasn't eaten it since she first tried it many years ago, said it tasted of urine. My opinion is a bit more generous. 'Bull' tastes vaguely of tuna with a more general and pervading fishy flavour underneath. What makes it more unusual, apart from its provenance, is its pleasantly spongy texture. But for me what heightens the pleasure of eating this offbeat foodstuff is its history. Knowing that this was the hard tack that sustained men on the sea makes all the difference. 

A foodstuff that hasn't yet become fashionable and which is usually discarded or kept back for personal consumption by the fishmonger is monkfish liver. As there is no demand for monkfish liver I can pick up this tasty and nourishing food for free, which means I can afford a few 'gambas' to go with it.

  1. Monkfish liver, prawns, fried garlic and Malden salt.

Monday 25 February 2013


 Octopuses have appeared a few times on this blog in a metaphorical role. But as well as playing the part of symbolic monster of the deep and representing fear on and off the water, they also feature in my kitchen.

 These eight armed cephalopod molluscs are fascinating creatures and over the next few months I hope to upload several posts about them. Before going into details though, I wanted to show these photos. That the octopus is a beautiful creature in the sense that all living beings are possessed with beauty goes with out doubt, however the octopus also harbours the kind of aesthetic harmony that in another context would merit a design award.
I caught this octopus over the summer (I never buy them) and, after six months in the freezer, cooked it up the other day. Preparing an octopus for the table is a three part process (again more on this at a later date) and these photos show stage two, the creature having been boiled in water for 90 minutes.  

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Winter waves

On the Mediterranean coast the wind has been winter's trade mark element, howling round the houses, wrenching tiles from roofs, sculpting the dunes, polishing the sky and combing  wave crests in to high bouffant quiffs. After years of observing the show, patterns emerge, familiar waves types particular, I suppose, to all shores with generally tideless waters, shallow sandy bottoms and limited fetch.

But what never ceases to fascinate is that for all the similarities no two waves are ever the same. Herein seems to lie the key to some profound reflection on life and the universe but due to feeble intellectual powers it remains forever just out of reach.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

The Beach Bar

The tale of storing Onawind Blue on land is lengthy and tiresome. Causing angst in various degrees she's lived in the communal garden, under a bridge, on some wasteland padlocked to a chain-link fence and in a passage way leading to the beach. Briefly she was an honorary member of the local sailing club. But her minor fame, uniqueness and stunning looks weren't sufficient to conserve her place on the sand and when a motion for her to pay up or move on was seconded she was hoisted onto her sorry trailer and trundled on the streets once more. 

However, the opportunity to build, open and run a beach bar at the same club arose. I dug out all those bits of driftwood and rope I'd been saving for years, built the bar, furnished and stocked it and then, needing an iconic centrepiece, rolled OB back in from the street, washed off the grime and set her up with spotlights inside illuminating the masts against the night skies.

And so while I poured beers, peeled potatoes, grilled fish, flipped pancakes and mixed G&Ts she spent the summer being decorative. Her hull remained dry for months but she was under my wing and at busy moments I would shoot her a glance and feel her calming presence.

It wouldn't be true to say that I built and ran a bar and worked myself to the bone all for my boat but for the sake of romance lets say that it is.