Friday, 8 April 2016

Menorca


The gale wasn't as severe as forecast and didn't reach much over 30knots, so all was relaxed if occasionally a little noisy on board for the following couple of days. Hopefully this summer won't be a repeat of last year with respect to the number of blows that we've sat out. Hopefully being much further south and east this should be the case.

The fortifications around Mahon are simply extraordinary. Particularly around our anchorage which is in a backwater of the harbour next to La Mola, the fort built by us Brits in 1870 or so and later used during the Spanish civil war and WWII and finally as a prison which it was until quite recently. Apparently Franco was still executing undesirables there by firing squad up until 1972.

While Franco clearly has quite a bit to answer for, we are told that he hated Menorca with a passion, as it was the last part of Spain to fall during the civil war. The consequence of this is that it was starved of government funds and thus escaped much of the development that has occurred elsewhere in the Balearics. Fortunately by the time those restrictions were lifted, it's ecological value had been realised and prevented much subsequent indiscriminate development.

Hence there are great swathes of nature reserve to wander in and an extensive network of paths. We strolled around the deserted and slightly eerie fortifications of La Mola with Ricky and Donna from S/Y Patience and then escaped up the coast to Isla Colom which we had more or less to ourselves apart from several hundred nesting gulls.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Beautiful Baleares


I have to admit to being just a little grumpy about coming into the Med this Summer, knowing from experience that the winds are fickle and the sailing involves a good proportion of motoring. However I am forced to acknowledge that so far we've had some really good sailing. Maybe this is a factor of being on the go this early in the season, which while it involves a few cool days, does also have the advantage of being blissfully quiet in an area which is notoriously overcrowded with boats in the Summer.

When a decent weather window for the passage out to Ibiza from Moraira finally arrived, we had a great sail out and arrived to find our planned anchorage in the island of Espalmador north of Formentera completely empty, which it more or less remained for the next week as we roamed the beach and island. We indulged our beach combing fetish and managed to find 3 good snorkelling masks, a beach bucket for Beatrice, a pair of ear defenders a buoy for our tripline and a crab pot which was unfortunately a bit big to salvage..... and 5 Euros in change all found by Lucia in various locations on the sand. It has to be said that all this haul was amongst a lot of plastic garbage which we tried to round up over the days we were there.

Our preconceptions of Ibiza are of non stop clubbing and indiscriminate tourist development but as we cruised from Espalmador around the West and then North coasts we saw precious little evidence of either. San Antonio, where we had to stop for a South Westerly, was undistinguished but apart from that Ibiza seemed to be mostly unpopulated wooded hills. We joined forces with the crew of No Worries and worked our way along the spectacular coastline, stopping in a series of unspoilt inlets (calas, or calais as they became known). After seeing the No Worries crew swimming, I finally braced myself to go in to clean the hull which was fairly furry after a winter in Aguadulce. It took three sessions on consecutive days, with me crawling out borderline hypothermic on each occasion and taking a couple of hours to properly warm up, but the hull is now considerably more slippery which really makes a difference to our sailing speed.

We had hoped to explore Mallorca more than we ultimately did, but we we were beginning to feel the constraint of meeting Lucia's brother Gigi in Menorca. These kind of fixed dates are always more of a restriction than is at first apparent because you can't really risk leaving it too tight as the weather, particularly here at this time of year, is somewhat volatile and there is always the chance of ending up being forced to make passages in less than ideal conditions. So we left Mallorca and parted company with No Worries to cross to Menorca ahead of a forcast gale from the north.

However, in spite of the slight rush, and after yet another fine day's sailing from Porto Colom, we now find ourselves tucked up snugly in Mahon and feeling pleased to be this far east this early in the year and with a day in hand to prepare for two days of forecast 30-40 knots wind.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

2016 – Back on the road again


We quite like cats. As some will know we even used to have a ship's cat before we decided to drop him back in Devon. However, even we have our limits.

Aguadulce turned out to be a pretty good choice as a winter stop. We pitched up there in Early December after rejecting Almerimar as being sad and soul-less. It has to be said that there's not a lot to Aguadulce. Scenic it's not, but it does feel a little more like a real town than a purpose built holiday/retirement/golf complex which is what Almerimar clearly is. The staff in the marina office, principally Jessica, are super efficient and helpful and the facilities work and are clean. There isn't a huge number of live-aboards there, but our near neighbours on one side Derek and Juanita and on the other Pablo and Miriam were lovely.

Most of this coast is backed by mountains which are dry and brown and mostly devoid of vegetation apart from olives and scrub. The coastal strip however sports a lush crop of polytunnels. There must be hundreds of thousands of acres of them, growing everything from carrots and tomatoes to papaya, avocado and mango. In some places there's a sea of shining plastic as far as you can see, which isn't pretty but the upside of this we discovered in the Thursday market in Roquetas de Mar, a couple of Km down the coast from us, where the huge range of fruit and veg must be amongst the cheapest in Europe. Is there such a thing as vitamin C poisoning? If so we must be nearing the limit.

So the only real downside was the cats.

We never counted them, but at a guess there were around 40 in our little herd. I suppose even that wouldn't have been too bad except for the inevitable by product of cats..... most of which, despite my hosing them down whenever possible, they seemed to deposit in the planting strip just in front of us. The smell was powerful.

There was a seemingly endless stream of folks who would stroll down the quayside and strew catfood around for them, out of pity for the poor starving beasts, each presumably imagining they were the only ones doing so. Hence all the cats did was to lounge around waiting for the next food delivery and....make more cats.

Lucia commenced a campaign of terror against the feeders, to not feed them or, if they really had to, then at least not to do it near us. Predictably, it had little effect and culminated in the worst offender threatening her with his stick. Thankfully, shortly before our departure they started disappearing. Nothing to do with me, though I can't in all honesty say I wasn't tempted.

The winter weather in Almeria isn't dissimilar to Summer on the south coast of England, but with less rain, so it wouldn't have difficult to carry on cruising throughout. However we had been ready to stop for a rest when we did, after a longish season starting from our crossing from Holland in April. But after 3 months being stationary, including a month in Italy with family and ski-ing, it felt like time to start moving again.

So on 2rd March we said our goodbyes and headed out across the bay.

A series of (generally) picturesque rolly anchorages took us to Cartagena, where we explored for a few days waiting for weather and socialising. It had felt like we were the only ones out sailing but there were two already there from Gibraltar. The irrepressible Andrew and Steph on Carousel, and the lovely but apparently slightly accident prone ? And ?

We curiously also met Nick and Jen and their two boys from No Worries. I should really stop being surprised at the coincidences we come across.... as they seem to happen so regularly, but I just can't quite manage it. Before leaving Aguadulce, I had flown back to the UK for my daughter Lauren's wedding to Matt. At the wedding I had chatted to amongst others Simon, Matt's brother in law. It turns out that Simon is Nick's oldest friend and Godfather to one of the boys. Now, I still can't quite figure whether this type of coincidence is anything really very improbable... but what intrigues me more is that we happened upon the connection quite by chance after chatting for an hour or so. How many more of these kinds of connections are there but missed?

We motored most of the 25miles around the corner from Cartagena to Mar Menor, managing to dump about 200litres of fresh water from our recently topped up tanks into the bilge via the lazarette locker where a plumbing joint popped. Suffice to say we were not a happy crew when we arrived at dusk to find we had just missed the bridge opening and the unfinished marina outside looked nothing like expected... However we nosed our way into what was basically a huge sheet piling cofferdam and dropped the anchor. At least the following day was dry and calm, as we spent most of it hauling wet gear out of the lazarette and drying it off on deck.

Shelter for anchoring on this coast is a little sparse and we decided that the queen of Spanish package holiday towns, Benidorm was the best bet next as it has a little headland to tuck under. The skyline was visible from 15 miles away and was really quite spectacular as we approached at dusk. This was more than could be said for the shelter provided. The beach had all kinds of obstacles floating around for some distance off, and this severely limited the space to tuck in. Another bouncy night ensued.

Moraira, a further 20 miles up the coast was much more to our taste and we pumped up the dinghy for the first time this season and waited for a good weather window to cross to Ibiza.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Gibraltar


The straight of Gibraltar certainly has a sense of drama.  The impressively high mountains on both the European and African sides make for spectacular scenery but also make for a well known wind acceleration effect.  The wind almost always blows due east (Levanter) or due west (Poniente) and is often pretty stiff.  Tarifa, at the western entrance to the straight, is not the wind surf capital of Europe for nothing.

 It is the meeting of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean of course, as well as the almost meeting of the continents.  The flow of shipping in and out is constant and the water swirls and eddies Eastwards, replacing all the evaporation from the oversized bathtub that is the Mediterranean Sea.

Unusually, a Levanter had been blowing uninterrupted for several weeks, so it was at the first break in this that we headed out from Cadiz, where we'd sat out our fourth 40knot gale of the summer, and motored into the mouth of the Mediterranean with no wind whatsoever.

I feel bound to say that the town of Gibraltar is somewhat less impressive than its suroundings.  No offence to Gibraltarians but it really is an odd place.  We had anchored just over the border in the shabby and run down Spanish town of La Linea, so crossed the land border into the province which bizarrely involves crossing the airport runway.  Immediately on crossing, there is an immediate sense of slightly frenzied bustle and rush.  For me, the place also seems to be full of  the worst kind of graceless Britishness.  We bought lunch from a bakery which was overpriced and stodgy and eventually retreated gratefully to Sula.

On the positive side, this was a chance to meet up with friends Nick and Karen and their boys on Yacht Pilgrim.  Not seen since Baiona, it was great to catch up on their adventures.  

Kindness of Strangers


One of the aspects of how different our experience of Portugal has been this time around is the friendliness of the local fishermen. Now, professional fishermen are generally a fairly hard bitten bunch and it seems to me that they have every right to be a bit disdainful of us amateurs swanning about getting in their way. However, in Spain and Portugal while we have had the odd instance of grumpiness, the reverse of this attitude is commonplace.

Such it was when we returned to our dinghy in Olhao on the Algarve, to find the gate down to the pontoon locked. Fortunately, well - fairly fortunately, a local fisherman was returning to his boat after a clearly protracted liquid lunch. He saw we had no key, and indicated in slightly slurred mime that he had one in his dinghy.....which was also behind the locked gate.

No problem. He climbed around and wobbled down to his dinghy, sat down in it and promptly rolled smoothly back into the water. I climbed around the gate as well but he managed to haul himself out and started stripping off his dripping clothes.

We headed out at the same time as him and he kindly offered to tow us. An offer which we thought it prudent to politely decline in the circumstances, but he was still sober enough to guide us through the shallow passage between the mudflats safely back to Sula.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Double Feature – with intermission


We've been avoiding overnight passages quite successfully this season.  While they are quite enjoyable sometimes, with the occasional treats of phosphoresence, spectacular starry skies and meteorites, the novelty does wear off.  The one and two nighters are generally too short to settle into a good sleep pattern and we now of course have the extra crew who loves it...  sleeps exceptionally well and is up early waiting to be entertained by us bleary eyed adults....  bless her.

So at the moment, we find ourselves 5 miles off the coast of Morocco in the Alboran Sea. It wasn't really part of the plan to be here.  At least not at 4 in the morning.  We had crossed  to North Africa from Gibraltar a few days ago with the plan to avoid the bulk of the Costa Del Sol and to have a brief change of culture before we stop for a few months near Almeria.

All was going well.  We stopped in Smir, which in spite of the amusingly off-hand Moroccan girls in the harbour office who made sure not to let the distraction of paying customers get in the way of their texting, was clean and safe and tranquil.  The harbour area wasn't all that interesting for us apart from its setting at the foot of the beautiful Rif Mountains, but Beatrice was delighted to spend almost all our time there hanging around the Customs post, chatting with the officials and playing with Echo, their Alsatian puppy and trying unsuccessfully to stroke any of the numerous daggy stray cats.

We visited the city of Tetuan and were surprised by how relaxed it all felt and also by the fact that we appeared to be the only foreigners in the whole place.  So, encouraged by this pleasant and relaxed start we decided to press on to El Jebha.  We'd been assured by the police in Smir that it would all be fine but on arrival just before dusk we found the harbour stacked with fishing boats and the locals, including at least one armed official making it pretty clear that we weren't welcome.

In a mixture of sign language and broken Spanish, they seemed to suggest that we could anchor around the corner in a little cove, but the weather wasn't really right for the anchorage so we took a deep breath, switched on lights and pressed on.

Now, cruising along the North African coast at night does carry some concerns.  The Rif mountains are the centre of Morocco's kif (marijuana) growing industry and a significant proportion of it seems  to be shuttled across to Europe by boat.  This, combined with the migrant smuggling trade combine to make this piece of  water somewhat busier by night than we would have wished and was making the crew a little jumpy.

As usual, I took the first watch. So from 9pm through 'til midnight I sat out in the warm darkness. I didn't see many lights and whether this is because there were no boats or just that they weren't lit I guess we'll never know.  Anyway, I plugged the hard drive into the navigation computer, cranked up “Bladerunner- The Director's Cut” and settled in.

Come midnight, after a few interruptions, I was still watching.  We had hit an eddy in the normal East-going current that runs perpetually from the Atlantic into the Med, so our speed was down to below 4 knots.  When I finally called the relief watch for our switch over at 12.30 I sensed a certain grumpiness at the lack of progress, but I wasn't going to let that stop me crashing out.... until 1.30 when I was shaken awake to look at the boat (lights) that had apparently circled around behind us and was now shadowing us, matching our speed.  There was a slightly nervous half hour while we watched and waited, and wondered exactly what action to take if things went downhill.  Happily of course it turned out to be just a fishing boat doing the apparently random stuff that fishing boats often seem to do.

So, it's now 4am and I'm up again with another 3 hours 'til dawn.  It's looking like it's going to be a two film night.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Leixoes Revisited


Porto - statues in the park
The Atlantic coast of Portugal isn't the easiest of places to sail. While the wind usually blows in the right direction for those going south, most of the potential stopping points have shallow entrances and can be bit dicey when there is any swell. Because this coast has hardly any continental shelf, ocean swells reach the shore more easily than elsewhere. It's not for nothing that the place is a surfing hot-spot... hence most of the harbours are often out of reach for us.

One of the few that are relatively unaffected by swell is Leixoes.. pronounced Leshoins (or something similar). This is the main port for the city of Porto, some 5 miles up the adjacent river Douro and is one long day sail from Baiona in Spain.


Porto 
Porto - Train Station
We stopped here 9 years ago in one of those unfortunate conjugation of circumstances that left us swearing never to return. The weather had been a little strange then, with light following winds and a big swell. Not enough wind to sail, but just enough to hold our engine fumes in a cloud around us. In addition, the engine cooling system had developed a leak and on arriving we discovered it had been steadily filling the bilges with seawater. This left us feeling a tad grumpy as we anchored in the harbour outside the marina. We then discovered that they were in the process of dredging the harbour so there was a perpetual movement of the dredger around us, night and day. To make matters just a shade worse, when we visited the marina to enquire about engine parts, we found the staff there shifty, oily and as unhelpful as they could manage. We were so disgruntled that unusually for us we put to sea the following day into a near gale just to put distance between us and the place.

Porto - Central Market
So, as you can imagine we had mixed feelings about returning, but Leixoes is a convenient stopping point and we still hadn't seen Porto together. I had visited some 20 years previously but had no clear recollection of the city.

Inevitably, it could only have been better than last time. The port isn't the prettiest of places, but we anchored in the gathering dusk alongside a couple of other yachts, with our engine working fine and no sign of dredgers anywhere. We caught the bus to Porto the following morning, and on the way were greeted by the marina staff who were helpful and friendly, even though we weren't actually staying in the marina. Everyone seemed to be cheerful.

The city of Porto itself is extraordinary. It's scruffy in lots of places and generally quite run down, but has a spectacular setting in the steep river Douro valley and has a vibrancy and dynamism which is palpable together with a definite sense of style in spite of the decay. Clearly the last time that there was any significant wealth in the city was in the art deco period and so there are some fabulous examples scattered around.

The valley sides are riddled with steep and narrow flights of stairs intersected with shady alleys. Working our way down towards the river we realised we had bizarrely stumbled into an organised urban motocross race. Pairs of off road bikes were tearing up and down the flights of stairs in the heart of the historic city centre.

Making our way back to the station after and long and hugely enjoyable day meandering about soaking up the ambience (and two stroke fumes from the bikes), we found ourselves caught up in the middle of a substantial Portuguese Communist Party demonstration march. It was all pretty peaceful as it turned out, but quite noisy and lots of police.

We decided Porto deserved another day, so returned and had a more mellow time wandering about. Although there was a big marathon happening through the city and a book fair.

We headed out the following evening in settled weather for an overnighter to Peniche and had time during starry night watches to contemplate all the ways that leixoes/Porto had redeemed itself.