Friday 17 July 2015

L'Ametlla. The morning after.

 It's not easy to get a lie-in when sleeping in a car, the heat, the mosquitos, the bright sunlight, the noises off—in this case seagulls and outboards, not as noisy as a Seagull outboard motors themselves, but nonetheless a racket.

I was moored by the crane ready for an early haul out but as it still wanted three hours until 9 o'clock I went for a row. Which turned into a sail. And then into a long row when the wind failed.

The wind returned just as I reached the harbour entrance so I hoisted the sails again and wafted in. The good thing about boating festivals is that rules are waived—normally you can't sail or row in ports, you have to use engine power. Being in the shadow of the seawall the wind was fluky but I slowly made my way to the inner harbour where the lateen fleet were still sleepily rafted to the quay. I sailed up and down for a while enjoying the short boards, tacking upwind and gybing down, sailing up to the raft as if I were going to tie on, then bearing away. All good sailing practice. Other boats took to the water and we made for the harbour mouth but the wind was dropping again and so I turned down my avenue and so to the crane.

And that was the end of the sailing fest. The boat on the trailer I walked into town for some late breakfast, examining the small fishing boats as I went. There was a time when, while refitting these boats, the old caulking was ripped out to be replaced with silicone gunk and that seemed like a step in a dubious direction. Now, however, there appears to be a fashion for layering up wooden hulls with fibreglass mat until any woody angles they may have are buried under curvaceous coats of gloop and paint. Not until the boat looks like a floating blancmange are the pudding makers satisfied. As the fleets get smaller these craft often come up for sail but I wouldn't like to be the one who returns one of these heavy meringues to a traditional wood finish.

Also new to me were the relatively recent additions to the tuna fishery. Remarkable skiffs, with bluff bows, great skids and 450hp engines. Imposing as they are the skids deliver no hydro dynamic advantage but rather their purpose is to keep the boat flat, so that the occupant doesn't tumble out of the back, as the boat is winched up the mother boat's stern ramp. At sea the powerful skiff's job is to tow the net, one end affixed to the main craft, in a great arc, encircling the school of tuna and so bringing the net back to the boat. The skids perform a secondary function in keeping the net clear of the rudder. It is an industrial purse seine fishery and the catch is usually fattened at sea in cages before market.

A fisheries inspector recently told me that tuna stocks were healthly again. If so great, but I must admit that the more I endeavour to understand about fishing the less I seem to know for certain.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

L'Ametlla. The night

I hadn't made any sleeping arrangements so when I was asked, in the final stages of dinner, the simple reply was 'In the boat.'

It was late, gone midnight, and groups, reluctant to call it a day, stood smoking and drinking on the fish dock. It seemed wise to sort out my bed before the befuddlement became too generalised. But then it also became clear that with the bedding in the car and the boat on the other side of the port that I'd have to drive round and, given my degree of yaw, this would have been breaking the law. However, I could row the boat to the car.

Stepping carefully over the be-dewed decks of two other boats I settled into Onawind Blue, slipped her damp mooring lines and gave a gentle push. She glided noiselessly across the water, a drifting cursor on a flat, black, reflective screen. When she'd come to a natural halt I silently took up the oars and gave a pull, the water coiling like warm oil around the blades. And away, past the bright lights and babble on the fish dock, past the sleeping boats, past the avenue down which I should have turned to reach the car, past the mighty tuna fishing boats, past the green and red flashing lights that marked the port's entrance and past bedtime. Out onto the sea swanned Onawind blue. The moon, lacking a slither to its left side, rode over the remaining swell. I purposefully splashed an oar into its reflection to watch it deform and re-assemble.

What do you do out on the sea at one o'clock on a warm summer night? In my case I kept on rowing, out towards that place where the rim of a black disc met the rim of a black star-flecked dome. And then suddenly, like the tide rising in time-lapse, tiredness overtook me.

Back at the pontoon by the car I had to moor stern on which makes getting in an out of the boat treacherous—she rolls wildly as I step around the mizzen mast. Once I'd scratched my knees transferring my person from boat to quay I decided to scratch my plans to sleep aboard. Instead I slept in the car amongst clothes and kit, spare lines and life jackets, with my feet protruding out of the boot.

Monday 13 July 2015

L'Ametlla. The evening.

Unsually for me I wasn't dehydrated after all those hours under the sun—there were three empty water bottles in the bottom of the boat—so I didn't feel the need to dash off for a beer as soon as I arrived. A swim and a shower were enough to refresh me. Ok, and a beer. Then I set off to the auditorium where we were to hear a talk by Anna Corbella.

IMOCA 60 sailing is at the other end of the spectrum from the wood and canvas pootling of the lateen fleet. However before I radically revised my sailing priorities about ten years ago this was exactly the type of sailing that I was interested in and aspired to when my pipe dreams set ablaze. I erroneously thought that southern ocean sailing was what separated the real sailors from the dabblers. Building and sailing the Light Trow has been a lesson in what is needed both in terms of sailor and craft to travel over the sea. And the achievement of judiciously using the wind to transport boat and crew in safety from A to B is what constitutes the art of seamanship.

Corbella's career has been a continual rising through the classes of competitive sailing, excelling in each: 420's, 470's, Mini 650, Figaro and finally IMOCA open 60's, though she's also had time to become a fully qualified vet. She sailed the 2010 Barcelona World Race with Dee Caffari, the first all female team, finishing 6th after 102 days  . Now she's recently competed in the third Edition of the Barcelona World race with fellow Catalan Gerard Marín aboard GAES Centros Auditivos completing the 23,000 miles in 91 days and arriving in third place.

Corbella, recovering from a knee injury sustained on the final leg of the race, spoke easily about the ins and outs of high speed sailing. Generally traveling at somewhere around 20 knots she likened the experience to speeding along in a high powered rib and showed videos of the boat's wake, unspooling like a runaway toilet roll. But she also pointed out that despite the high-end technology there are constant problems with gear and that the race is fundamentally a continual problem solving exercise combined with the challenge of ensuring maximum boat speed at all times. She spoke of her relationship (professional, not romantic) with team member Gerard Marín. Having known each other since childhood, competing and growing on the regatta circuit and selling second hand kit back and forth they are almost family, she said. It was evident that the level of trust in the competence of one another and their cultural similarity in confronting problems had a significant influence on the atmosphere aboard and the successful outcome of the race.  

Questions were invited when she'd finished and this led to a longish discussion about exactly how an Open 60 can possibly comply with Spain's strict and complex maritime regulations. Not surprisingly the boats break all the rules. Straining my grey matter I still couldn't come up with a question I felt worth asking (or that I couldn't google) but as the hall emptied I stay behind and waited my turn outside the little huddle that had gathered around her. Seeing my chance I stepped forward and gave her a copy of my book, based on this blog, Catalan Castaway. She flicked through it with exclamations and a stream of questions and then insisted that I sign it. 'With respect,' I wrote and left, glowing.

A fisherman tastes the fideua
Like all good days on the water it ended with a blowout. On the fish dock, in the lofty ceilinged shed where the catch is auctioned, with incongruous 'no food or drink' signs on the wall, a hundred or more people sat down to eat. The mayor was there, the organizers, local bigwigs, fishermen and those of us that had come to sail. First up was a fideua, short lengths of pasta, cooked in rich fish stock with a golden green glob of allioli in the middle. And then squid in ink. 'This is octopus,' declared my neighbour with the authority of grand piano dropped from a great height. In terms of free-falling musical instruments my authority might stretch to a harmonica so I meekly acquiesced, but by all that we hold dear, a poor man of the sea I'd be if I couldn't tell my squid from my octopus.

Friday 10 July 2015

L'Ametlla. The afternoon.

The breezed had stiffen to a point where it actually cooled rather than just shifting heat around as it had during the morning. Much revived by coffee and on a wave of post prandial optimism I raised the sails thinking that I could sail off the quay and down the narrow avenue between moored craft without being backwinded or becoming fouled on stern lines. Due to a judicious and rapid raising of the centre board OB just weathered the final Beneteau, avoiding submerged lines—a favourable presence was looking out for me.

Again the flock of white sails drifted out of port as onlookers, surprised by the spectacle, waved. The breeze was still coming from the east and the return would be all upwind. Many boats fired up their engines and tighten their sheets to motor-sail home. I refused a tow—Onawind Blue behaves badly on a lead—and set off close hauled for the lighthouse on El Fangar. I remembered that OB makes better progress upwind if I take short tacks. On long boards the inevitable lapses of concentration combine to produce a loss of ground to windward.

With 12 knots of breeze OB sailed smartly at 4 knots. I tacked up to Cape Roig, from there I could cover the remaining 4 miles on one easy board. It was a beautiful sail. White caps rushed by and spray flew over OB's bow keeping me deliciously cool. Terns dived sharply into the water raising white plumes, miraclously taking flight almost from underwater with small fry glinting silver in their beaks. Everything felt right with the world, OB flowing over the sea and the sea, in its way, flowing through me.

L'Ametlla appeared as a cement wart on a rusty rock and pine green coast against a backdrop of misty mountains, underlined with broad brush strokes of Mediterranean blues. When enough sea has flowed in you start to see the world as if it were a watercolour.

The wind failed quite abrubtly, suddenly choked by the intense afternoon heat. I took up the oars and rowed the final half mile, tieing up alongside the other boats with my palms nicely burning. I stepped onto the quay and a round of applause went up from the other sailors as they honoured Onawind Blue and her fine abilities, she was, after all, the only boat to arrive without engine power.  

L'Ametlla. Photos

My good friend Joan Sol has sent me some fantastic photos of Onawind Blue as she sailed south to l'Ampolla on a light breeze with her mizzen staysail set and drawing. 

The centreboard is half raised as she's sailing broad. Many thanks to Joan for documenting the event so beautifully, you can see more of his photos here

Tuesday 7 July 2015

L'Ametlla de Mar. The morning.

I've been invited to the lateen sailing day at L'Ametlla de Mar every year for the past five and have always regarded my failure to attend as evidence of the insipid nature of my sailing credentials. What sailor with salt in their veins would let such an opportunity go by, five consecutive times.

But even so I still didn't get there in time for Friday evening's cooking contest in which boat crews were given half a kilo of fresh tuna, a gas ring and an iron pot. They were allowed to bring any other ingredients or tools they required and apparently the results were spectacular. However, after my recent experience on the stressful side of preparing food for a wedding I was glad not to be cooking. The weekend would be about enjoying food without having to make it. But as the early morn found me in a service station examining the wheels of the boat trailer I wondered if I'd even get breakfast.

Events were due to kick off with a skippers meeting at 10:30 but before that I had to get the boat to the harbour and on the water. But I was letting my English sense of urgency and punctuality get the better of me, causing unnecessary stress and worry. I chilled, established the trailer wasn't about to dissemble despite its juddering, arrived, readied the boat, had breakfast then got OB craned on to the water and rowed over to the town with plenty of time to spare before everybody else was gathered and collected. After a 'Hello' the meeting went like this: 'Right we've got to sail down to l'Ampolla before lunch or we won't get anything to eat. Then we've got to sail back in time to attend a conference with Anna Corbella before dinner. So, down to the boats, hoist sails and we'll regroup at the entrance to l'Ampolla harbour.'

The wind was light and from the east. Each boat gradually unfurled it's wings until, a little white flock, we glided out of l'Ametlla and on to the gentle heave of a subsiding sea overlaid with a sloppy chop rebounding with irritating unpredictability from the rocky shore. Sailing large, off the wind, I raised the centre board and adjusted OB in such a way that she trickled along at 2.5 to 3 knots. This was about 0.2 knots faster than the rest of the fleet and OB slowly advanced through the boats giving me a chance to receive unintelligible snippets of good will, or impending doom, from other sailors. One phrase that I did manage to catch and pass on to other boats was that we had to get a move on as otherwise the awaiting rice ('Rice' is the generic term for paella, itself a generic term.) would be irredeemably overcooked. This was a call to arms and while others started their engines I set the mizzen staysail athwartships to present more canvas to the breeze and so accelerated by half a knot. There was no conspicuous regrouping at the harbour entrance we all just bundled in, boats crazily zigzagging as they lowered sails, crowding up to the available pontoon space in a thoroughly disorganised yet nonetheless seamanlike manner. We all hurriedly disembarked a) to avoid the rice overcooking and b) to find some shade and hence arrest our own cooking.

Gravina III 
In the lavatories where people were dousing themselves under cold-water taps I overheard one crew say that next time they'd be drinking wine instead of beer as that way they wouldn't have to pee so much. So that was reason c) for the hurry. The rice turned out not to be a generic term for paella but rather a euphemism for food itself. To wit, an utterly predictable pasta salad, which I ate with undisguised disappointment, followed by two pieces of over-marinaded meat. As I examined it I heard someone down the table pronounce that it was chicken. I asked the fisherman who was serving—he didn't know what it was, then a neighbour on my other side declared that it was turkey. I decided to try it. It was obviously pork. For all that I consider myself a creature of the sea I can tell a pig from a turkey even when it's dead and on my plate.    

Friday 3 July 2015

With Zeewoelf to Ibiza

48 hours wasn't much notice but I was especially keen to make the journey as it coincided exactly with the dates of Onawind Blue's voyage to Ibiza in June 2009. I made some calls and packed a quick kit bag and was ready and waiting, with sun cream and sailor's knife, at the given time.

The boat, Zeewoelf, was forged in the North sea fishery. Tied up in a tidy marina on the Mediterranean shore she looked as conspicuous as an armored car in a prim city car park. Since retiring from fishing she'd been gutted and refitted and her rugged exterior belied the soft furnishing below. At 80ft and of hulking steel this couldn't have been a more different vessel from my small craft.

The boat had been across the Atlantic twice so nobody was in doubt that she could handle the weather on a 24 hour trip from Barcelona to Formentera. There were nine of us, the owner Jean Martial with whom I've sailed many times in Capitaine Ulysse, and a group of his friends. We embarked at midday but the wind, blowing 16 knots straight into the harbour mouth, kept us at the dock until sundown. I familiarised myself with her mooring lines and other gear and when the wind abated Jean Martial reversed her smartly off the quay, cranked the wheel over and engaged forward. There was no rush to tidy lines and gather in fenders as Martial likes to leave everything ready is case there's an immediate problem, necessitating a rapid to return to port. This is an old habit of his which has obviously proved its worth. We cleared the decks in the last of the daylight and those not interested in navigation went below.

Personally I found it almost impossible to leave the bridge. I needed to look at the sea, to watch for fishing buoys and the lights of other boats. And I couldn't deny that my eyes were especially tuned to seek out some madman like myself in a small sailing boat with nothing but a torch to shine on the sails, if the torch hadn't already recevieved a soaking.

Zeewoelf was set to auto pilot as soon as we cleared the port. Out of the traffic of Barcelona and I adjusted course to 194º, not with the wheel but with a little knob that clicked round degree by degree. Shortly I found myself alone. Jean Martial doesn't employ a watch system you simply stay up until you're tired and then go and wake someone else. I like this laissez-faire idea though in practice I find it hard to stop sailing and hard to rouse someone else from slumber. And so I stood staring at a screen, matching boats to their corresponding blobs and getting freaked out by the sheer wealth of stuff that was visible to the radar though out on deck everything was black. I had expected Zeewoelf to plough through anything but she was uncomfortable with the short frequency of the Mediterranean chop and every now and then beat the rise of her bilge on the water with a great clang that rang from stem to stern.

After a nap, in which the sea calmed, I was back in the wheelhouse before dawn, worried that I might miss something, particularly that loony in a small boat. But as dawn cracked open the day so the worries of the night flew back over the horizon. With the appearance of the passengers with jugs of orange juice and coffee the atmosphere returned to that of a chic hotel that just happened to be rolling over the sea.

Tagomago Island
The sun sailed across the sky as Zeewoelf stuck doggedly to her speed and course until in the evening the north east corner of Ibiza appeared through the haze. We skirted the island of Tagomago and headed for the narrow, and very busy, gap between Ibiza and Formentera. As night fell so the instruments failed. Having become used to navigating by screen we were suddenly back to using our more ingrained if rusty senses to guide the boat to a safe anchorage. After two uncertain hours we dropped the hook in what transpired to be the ideal spot.

Square rigger Stad in Ibiza port
I jumped ship in the morning and took the ferry to Ibiza where I became embroiled in the preparations for a wedding party with 120 guests in a luxury villa overlooking the same Tagomago. Such was the intensity of the work at hand that I missed the ferry back to Formentera and the return voyage on Zeewoelf. My only worry was that there was no one to look out for small sailing boats.