Monday, 16 November 2015


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 - 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.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

No, Seriously!

One of the occasional frustrations of long distance cruising occurs when you find that the exhaustive spares inventory you carry doesn't include that special piece of your boat that has decided to play up. So you either have to find the piece where you are or often get it sent from home. Hence we presently find ourselves trying to get hold of a small and relatively simple piece of gadgetry that senses the position of the rudder, and without which our usually trusty autopilot refuses to work.

I was startled to find that the first chandlery I went into in Spain actually had one in stock. This, it should be said, was after a fairly lengthy mime and garbled Spanitch session, as I'd left our resident translator back on board. The bad news was that they wanted over 300 Euros for it. Cue a hasty retreat and reference to Ebay, where we bought one for £70.

Ah, if only that were the end of the story.

The seller agreed to send it to Gijon marina, a little further along the coast in Asturias. Sadly he didn't think to include “Spain” on the end of the address so the next thing we discovered was when we looked at the tracking and found that it was already on a plane and winging its way to ….. Australia. Nice one Royal Mail!

Still, we managed to actually speak to someone in the Australian Postal Service a couple of days later who helpfully told us that it had been efficiently intercepted on arrival and been redirected....... to Austria...... no, seriously!

They later wrote and told us that this actually might or might not be the case, but they and we couldn't find out unless and until it surfaces on some other country's postal tracking system, either Spain, Austria or back to the UK.... or maybe someone in Melbourne has despaired and kicked it into a corner of the sorting office.

So if you see it, please drop us a line.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Mainly Spain

Golfe du Morbihan
Our brief time in Brittany came to a close at the end of July. We sat out some unsettled weather inside the Golfe du Morbihan where, despite there being a lot of boats, it didn't seem too crowded and the two main islands inside the gulf made for good exploring and walking.

When the weather settled we headed out on a sunny morning towards La Rochelle after being spat out of the entrance on a 9kn tide and having set our course down the coast, we changed our minds after a few hours and altered course for Bilbao about 250 miles due south. We had low moment when Ralph the autopilot started to play up, and toyed with the idea of going back to France (such is the horror of having to steer continuously) but decided against it and pressed on. Dropping off the continental shelf, which can sometimes throw up an uncomfortable sea, was painless and although not much sleep was had, the crossing was otherwise uneventful. The mountainous coast of Cantabria duly appeared, and then disappeared into looming thunder clouds. The wind did the usual random shifts and we ended up motoring the last few hours through intermittent lightning into the spectacularly industrial port of Bilbao.

These 2 or 3 night passages seem always to be the most taxing. They're not long enough to settle into a proper routine and the motion and noise is usually too different to allow sensible amounts of sleep. The additional factor this time is that Beatrice, who contrarily tends to get a full and sound night's sleep on passage, expects our full attention and willingness to entertain her all day. It is a concern that despite encouragement, she doesn't seem to want/be able to play on her own for any length of time and it's certainly one that we'll have to work on for the longer passages.

So at some point in the second day I had a serious mid passage sense-of-humour-failure. However, as ever, arrival at a new landfall does wonders for the spirit and we dropped anchor next to some Danes, sat out the rest of the showery day then headed into Bilbao.

The Guggenheim - Bilbao
One of the reasons for choosing Bilbao was the Guggenheim museum there and we walked around it with open mouths, fully satisfied that it was worth the trip. It truly is a wonderful piece of architecture/sculpture. We weren't that interested in seeing the contemporary art collection and so ultimately didn't go in but both later regretted not having seen how the inside of the extraordinary space was made to work. Hey ho, we'll just have to come back.

The weather decided not to co-operate and we ended up being stuck in Bilbao for a week or so. It did give us chance to take Beatrice to the doctor as she'd developed a worrying spottiness and in contrast to the ineffectual French doctor we'd previously seen, this one seemed to be actually competent. We also met Ronald and Annett (the first eastern German cruisers we've met) on their very sleek self built catamaran. Ronald is an electrical engineer and has the boat rigged so that he can control all the steering and motors via a remote control unit.

We finally escaped to Castro Urdiales, only 7 miles or so to the West and arrived just as the wind suddenly decided that it needed some exercise and from almost nothing started to blow a healthy 25kn (what you get for being on a hot mountainous coast). No sooner had we got the anchor down than small children in (and out of) kayaks started floating past, disappearing out of the harbour, being chased by one guy, himself in a kayak. Jan could have used it as an excellent case study in how not to run a kayak activity.... we threw the dinghy over the side, slung the outboard on and gathered up the children and wreckage.

Finally a bath - Gijon
Hopping along this coast that is new to us, we are coming to the conclusion that apart from the Guggenheim, the reason for coming here is the scenery rather than the towns, which are unexciting at best. The scenery by contrast is something special. Rugged cliffs, beautiful beaches and seriously large mountains as a backdrop; one or two still with pockets of snow.

Santander provided a safe stop to sit out a northwesterly blow. We headed upriver to find the most sheltered spot, rescuing our dinghy on the way after it decided to go airborne when the gusts reached 40kn, and anchored in the first of two potential spots. I was just headed out in the dinghy to have a look at the other one when I saw the Ryanair jet coming into land directly over it at what seemed to be just a shade above mast height. We decided on balance to stay where we were.

After a few more days of westerlies, we began to feel a bit frustrated and decided to do a long hop to Gijon. It was a slight disappointment to be passing possibly the most spectacular bit of coast on what turned out to be a murky day, but we made up for it by hiring a car from Gijon and doing a breathtaking grand tour of the Picos de Europa.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The dubious luxury of options

I always thought that setting off for a long trip the second time would be a lot easier, what with knowing so much more about what was involved practically. This has turned out to be at least only partially true.

Seal - River Exe 
On the one hand we are of course much more experienced, have a bigger, better equipped and more comfortable boat and almost inexplicably, considering how little work we've done in the intervening years, more funds in the bank. However on the flip side, there is somehow a lack of the absolute inevitability of our previous adventure. It was my dream and had the momentum of years of thought behind it. There was simply an unstoppable nature about it which over-rode any second thoughts or alternative options.

We have Beatrice now of course, who together with joy and love and wonder brings a layer of practical complication and emotional considerations, but the crew also brings her own helping of doubt and fear and plain old fashioned hormones into the equation.

We have been unsettled in one way or another for the last 10 years or so; never being in one place for more than about 18months. This does take its toll. The part of us that wants to settle somewhere increasingly fights with the part that wants to take advantage of Beatrice's early years to wander and adventure. Also for me there is the almost inevitable consequence of living a land bound existence that is Work.

Bread art
Conversely, Lucia feels slightly cheated out of being able to practice as an engineer and while living a life of leisure is undoubtedly pretty good for most of the time, the undeniable fact of it being an existence without much intrinsic value can begin to worm its way into wider considerations for the future.

Well, throw all that in a pot and simmer. What you get are some moments of serious reflection on whether we're doing the right thing. This can be an incendiary recipe when served with seasickness, lack of sleep and a pinch of fear, usually but not exclusively on the part of the crew.

The unlikely outcome of this is that I've probably been enjoying the trip so far rather less than Lucia as, in between outbursts, she's been fine, and I've been either racked with guilt at dragging her away afloat or braced for the next onslaught. There have been moments when I have been fairly convinced that we should head back at the end of the Summer and just do something else.

But then it passes...
On the way to the Channel Islands

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Can buying an anchor really be this complicated?

If you ever have an hour or two to burn, ask a cruising sailor about anchors. Understandably I suppose, when feeling confident about ones anchor can make for a good night's sleep and ultimately can dictate between being able to stay put in a blow or having to put to sea, but cruising folk do tend to have fairly strident views on what's what generally, and when it comes to anchoring this tendency seems to shift up a gear.

When we bought Sula, she had a CQR anchor. The CQR held an apparently unassailable position as the standard choice for most cruising boats for at least four decades. I've used them but have never set great store by them as almost without exception when I've dived to see how they were set, they've been laid on their side.

While there have been a few other types designed over the years, only in the last 10 years or so have a new generation of anchors been developed which independent testing has shown are markedly better. One of the better known of these is the Rocna.

Clearly no anchors are idiot proof, as a friend related to us recently. While lying to his (CQR) anchor in Falmouth, an apparently unattended yacht floated past him. He roused the sleeping owners with his foghorn, whereupon a woman appeared in the cockpit. "I think you're dragging", he quite reasonably told them, only to get the offended response "We can't possibly be, we have a Rocna!"

I happened on a suitably sized Rocna on ebay before we left and bought it at what was a bargain price (they are around £1100 new!). It was a bit of a gamble, as the bow roller on Sula is a bit unusual, and as it happened it wouldn't fit. Hey ho, it got stuffed in our garage and will no doubt be making a reappearance on ebay when we get back (unless someone wants to make me an offer) and we were left with the CQR.

The next choice was a Spade. I did make a cardboard model of one which seemed OK (and inevitably attracted a few smartass comments) but no-one in the UK actually holds them in stock at our size, and ordering one to try it would potentially involve quite a bit of cost if it also didn't fit. We discovered that they were distributed from Jersey so decided that the simplest thing would be to go there, so anchoring considerations dictated our first destination.

When a weather window came up that implied the alternative was a longish wait, we reluctantly passed up the opportunity to go to Falmouth for an overdue visit to the Parkyns in their new home, and instead headed out for St Helier.

Apart from crossing the end of the Channel shipping lane, it was a quiet and relaxed passage and we anchored in St Aubyn's Bay in hot sunshine.

Bluewater Supplies was 20metres from the pontoon where we tied up the next day. I walked in to find an attractive French girl sat behind a desk. She knew nothing about anchors and next to nothing about boats, but it was fairly easy to forgive her.

She had to phone her boss whom I then had to persuade (!) to let me unwrap an anchor to allow me to try it. After that, apart from nearly cracking my head open on a low stone door frame (was I not concentrating?) it was fairly easy and no VAT to boot!

So, we were at large in Jersey with a new anchor.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Hunting the Leak, or The Curse of the Aluminium Boat

I guess boats and leaks have been inseparable partners since the first person pushed off from the shore on their lash up of sticks and hairy mammoth hide, or whatever.

We've been on the trail of our leak for the last 9 months off and on, with all the frustration that this implies. Our leak however is not your usual drip when it rains or the regular pumping out that many of our classic boat friends curiously take for granted. No, our leak is altogether more serious.

Those of you who know about aluminium boats will know that they're great. Well, they're great as long as you don't drop any copper coins down the bilge, and as long as there isn't any stray electricity floating about.

For those of you who can't remember their school chemistry lessons, I'm not about to give you a revision session, but suffice to say that dissimilar metals blah blah, electrolytic action blah, galvanic corrosion blah, equals a potential hole in your precious aluminium boat in short order.

Most aluminium boats, Sula included, are fitted with an electrical leakage detector of some kind. This measures any current escaping from the boat's wiring system into the hull. Ours takes the form of a push button and two green lights (I can explain the circuit if anyone is interested). When you press the button, the two lights should stay on and equally bright. Any dimming of one and brightening of the other indicates a leak. We press the button several times a day, depending how twitchy we're feeling at any given time.
Anyway, during the latter part of last summer, we began to have discussions along the lines of “do you think that green is a little dimmer?” and “well if you look at it from this angle, or stare at it for a little while.....” etcetera, but that all stopped when we were just south of Copenhagen when one of the lights went out altogether. This was just as we were about to leave Sula to catch a flight back to Devon for a wedding. A hasty disconnection of the battery banks, while not solving the problem, at least prevented any damage while we were away.

On our return a few days later I isolated all kinds of equipment and at some point the problem spontaneously disappeared. I reconnected everything and still no leak. Hmmm. I decided that continuing to look for something which apparently wasn't actually there might not be a good use of time so we shelved it and carried on south towards the Kiel canal.... where it happened again. I started to investigate again but with more or less the same results. I can't tell you how unsettling it is to feel that your precious boat/home/survival capsule is slowly, or not so slowly dissolving beneath you.

So when it disappeared, we carried on. Although through this time, in between the decisive leaks, the slight dimming seemed to be getting a little more consistently worse. It continued to do so until we had transited Kiel, and sailed down the German Bight to Delfzijl, where we entered the Dutch canal system and the problem mysteriously disappeared. The crew asserted confidently that this was because we were now in fresh water rather than salt, which I gently pooh-poohed at the time but subsequently had to sheepishly admit was right, as it returned immediately that we left fresh water the following spring. But in the meantime we did have another full light out episode, which I finally traced to a fault in the anchor winch.

The residual problem remained stubbornly with us. I was unable to tackle it through the winter, as we were in fresh water the whole time, and when we crossed to the UK in the spring, we locked into the Exeter canal.... fresh water again. Only on sailing down to Plymouth could we see that the problem was really back and appeared to be getting worse still.

I called a marine engineer recommended by a friend who then came to have a look. This was really the stimulus I had needed, as I was so underwhelmed by his initial approach that I decided it was time to get out my multimeter, screw on my Mr Determined and Methodical head and seriously set to it.

Three days of work and many hours later, most of which was spent with my head in the electrics cupboard (a small awkward space behind the stove), and the culprit was located. The log, which measures how fast we're going, has a sea water temperature sensor built into it. This had corroded or burnt out and was providing an electrical pathway back to the hull.

After putting back together all the bits of Sula that we'd peeled apart in the hunt for the lost electrons, we felt that a weight had been lifted off us. We now press the button almost every time we walk past it, just for the sense of well-being that the steady even glow of both lights gives us each time.

As we are just on the point of departure to who knows what distant parts, we didn't feel that we could sensibly leave before sorting the problem conclusively. Now we have no more excuses not to really set off south.