Monday, 12 October 2015

Another fishy tale

The heavy shorebreak ground out a plodding hymn to monotony.

I walked along the beach my mind flicking restlessly over various topics—the political conversation that had dominated lunch and had taken the bite out of the paella, the sailing of the Shtandart from Tarragona and with it my childish pipe-dream of embarking (they were looking for crew to sail to Monaco); the fickle nature of creative satisfaction, it's value in life's equation and whether it can be substituted by hard cash; how the sunset, a lurid smear across the western sky, had briefly swept petty ponderings under the carpet, and how rapidly the same had returned with the sun below the horizon; and finally, I swear, what I might eat once home.

In the half light one wave, larger than the herd, crashed onto the sand sending a flood of spumy water up the beach, washing round my ankles and filling my turn ups. The dog nimbly bounced across the strand keeping to the dry. Water receded, sucking at my soles, leaving the beach glistening darkly. And suddenly on the black sand flickering stars appeared, flashing silver and flipping and flapping. I was surrounded by anchovies. My first thought was 'Dinner!' and I knelt to pick them up but then, having gathered a handful, I threw them back into the waves. The fish were frantic and I franticly returned them to the water. They back-flipped out of my hands and I crawled across the wet sand to pick them up again and return them to whence they came. The scene was biblical. Their eyes gazed unblinkingly and their mouths gasped airlessly and their firm little bodies glinted as they arched back into the waves. Eventually the remaining fish on the beach stopped moving and my thoughts turned back to dinner. I harvested the silver ingots and was forced to store them in my shirt pocket as they slid from my overloaded palm.

At home in the light their fresh brilliance continued to amaze. They hadn't been dead 15 minutes. I rinsed them, floured them, salt'n'peppered 'em and dunked them in hot olive oil where they bucked and twisted for a moment before turning crispy and golden. Parsley, lemon, a beer and I stood in the kitchen popping the anchovies into my mouth. At first their taste was all that I expected but then there was an unexpected, unpleasant crunch. Of course, those death throes at the water's edge, all that gasping, they'd filled themselves with sand.

photo courtesy of My Kitchen in Spain

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Thin water

The morning came on gently and I watched it drowsily from my hammock. When at last I eased my limbs from their swaddling and established that my body was sound, I let my legs take me for a potter around the shore of my petite isle. The water was warm and the fine sand underfoot occasionally gave way to cooler black mud that sucked greedily at my feet. Empty clam shells abounded and I ran my hands through the mud to see if I could find any live ones that might want to join me for breakfast.

In an atavistic frame of mind I wondered at the possibilities of finding food and water here and dug deeper into the mud, but every shell that came up was long vacated. On land there was enough marsh samphire for legions of foodies. But rather than gather bundles and then go hunting for bird's eggs I returned to the boat where more conventional fodder awaited.

With the breezy assuredness of the fully satiated I knocked out the grounds of my coffee maker on an oar handle—as nonchalantly as I might have knocked the dottle from my pipe had I been doing this half a dozen years ago when smoking was still good for you—and languidly mulled over possible activities for the day. I settled on a plan: I'd follow the ins and outs of this north shore of La Punta de la Banya, enjoying the solitude and the wildlife and generally letting my mind range where it would.

Tidied and afloat I towed OB through the ankle-deep water to a point where I could board without grounding her. Like most boats, left to her own devices Onawind Blue turns side-on to the wind. With the centreboard and rudder out of the water she happily did 1 knot crabwise in 8 knots of breeze, and in so doing rapidly went back to the shore. I unshiped the mizzen staysail and hoisted it as a jib, l loosed the line that holds the rudder blade up so that it might keep some its surface in the water and lowered the tip of the centreboard. With this configuration I had some control over the course and rounding the end of the island I turned downwind and the water deepened to half a metre.

The shore, for all its lack of human presence, was littered with civilization's detritus; plastic bottles and bags, ropes, crates, cans, joists, beams and a forlorn overturned boat. The fluctuating depth meant I was constantly adjusting the centreboard and at times the weed grew so thick that I could hear it tickling OB's belly and she'd slow from 2 to 1 knot obviously enjoying the sensation. Here even the fish seemed to run aground, occasionally a series of splashes would mark a fish leaping, salmon style, off a sand bank. We passed egrets, stilts and herons. I watched the herons land, rather overawed by their grace. The egret, similar in form though smaller, would seem the more elegant bird being blazing white, but I noticed that it is more flappy and nervy when landing, handing the prize for poise to the heron. I eventually let OB ground on another small island and I set off footslogging through warm mud to see another group of birds, this lot were large and pink and balanced on one leg.

A stilt
Having taken my souvenir photo of flamingos I returned to the boat for lunch noticing that the wind had risen significantly out on the water. As I ate a sailboat luffed abruptly and tipped hard onto its side before rounding up with sails flogging. Other motor boats were making straight wakes for Sant Carles and everything indicated that sailing back in OB might be fast and wet. I munched on my lunch disinclined to dispell the mellowness of the morning with swift sailing. But I an idea occurred to me which, if it worked, would mean I could sail back with very little stress.

I double reefed the mizzen sail and hoisted it, I rolled the main tightly round its boom and yard and lashed the bundle to the side deck, then I hoisted the staysail again as a jib, lowered a tad of centre board and set off, across the wind towards Sant Carles. Even under this improvised set up of jib and mizzen, probably no more than two square metres of sail cloth, OB sailed at three knots. The chop stayed in its place, rather than coming rowdily aboard as it would have done under reefed main and mizzen. Sailing in this gentlemanly fashion I was able to hold on to the deep peace that had settled over me during the morning.

Until I reached the boat ramp.

If there was anyone around with a camera then my slapstick performance will certainly appear on youtube with time. Probably speeded up and set to the Benny Hill theme tune.

Thursday, 3 September 2015


Sleeping in Onawind blue has never been comfortable, though deep slumber has often been achieved through a combination of fatigue, food and drink. On this trip I was determined to get off the hard surfaces of thwarts and centreboard. I recently had a few cosy nights—on an 4 day, 800km tour of Catalonia on a 49cc moped—cocooned in a hammock in various copses and woodlands, happy to let the life of the forest floor go on below me while not actually having to lie on it myself.

The small beach upon which I had hauled OB was part of a diminutive island with a small lagoon in the middle surrounded by reeds and samphire. Its solitude and inaccessibility would have satisfied the most discerning hermit though the lights of Sant Carles were visible which, I suppose, would have irked the true loner.

I ran a taught line from mid point on the main mast down to the ring on the stem, then stayed the mizzen in a similar fashion and hung the hammock between the masts. I eased myself in and the spars took up the strain with no ominous creaking or bending. Satisfied that my bed was sorted I got on with my evening. Expecting clouds of mosquitos to arrive for cocktail hour I spray painted myself with some truly repellent repellent and sat down to a cold beer and a small plate of black olives while I waited for the pasta water to boil. The moon, full to bursting, rose while I was eating, the wind dropped away completely, the water stilled and the wildlife, disinclined to go to bed, kept up a commentary.

Leaving the housework for the morning I climbed into the hammock and luxuriated in its silk embrace. In no time I was fast asleep. Later, when the moon was much higher, I opened an eye. Just at the stern of the boat, perfectly still in the mirrored water was a heron standing tall. I watched as it took a few paces, paused and took a few more. Poised, elegant, bathed in silver light it focused the spectacular night into one crystalline image of beauty. Out on the lambent lake fish launched themselves skyward, reaching for the gleaming orb. There was enough light to read by and I dug out my book from under me to prove the point to myself. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” ...ermm... “He was lying on his hard, as it were armour-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed-quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely.” ...ermm... “his numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.” Erm, thank you Franz.

Snug in my cocoon sleep again washed over me as I wondered if I too might wake metamorphosed.  

Monday, 31 August 2015

A lambency of gaff in looms

Why go to Cadaqués, I reasoned, one of the most beautiful Mediterranean towns: ex fishing village, a player in the surrealist movement, known for the astonishing quality of it's light; a technicolor clarity that contrasts exquisitely with the impenetrable black slate of the coast—sky, rock and sea all polished by the Tramontana wind. Why all this when I could go to a fag-end town renowned for mosquitos and an unenlightened attitude to bullfighting.

Solitude, in a word.

Cadaqués, at this time of year, is rife with bohemians, it's all white clothes and sandals and artistic noses held righteously aloft. And the water is the preserve of the those who think wealth brings entitlement across the board. Sant Carles de la Rapìta however, is just any old place—on the face of it. Actually it has some excellent restaurants and holds a claim to having played a significant role in Catalonia's maritime history. But I won't go into that here as I only went into town to buy ice for the cool box.

The locals may or may not be rednecks but there certainly aren't many sailors left among them. That's not to say there aren't a lot of boats. Whether they've seen you or not, don't expect anyone but yourself to change course. For self preservation alone it's worth assuming that nobody will adhere to any rules that you happen to know—take this as the principle rule for the coast in general. The port of Sant Carles is a hotbed of dodgy rope work—frayed ends and evil thumb knots abound. And the ramp is a dream for youtubers that post titles like, 'boat launch fails'. Out of charity I looked away and quietly got on with my own disastrous launch which left OB minus some bottom paint and my back out one degree to port.

I rowed out into the fray—a spritely force 3 over a short, steep chop and motor boats and jet skis fizzing about like mad wind-up toys. Anchored and hoisting the sails a boat hurtled by raising a low wall of wake that made me sit down fast. I gazed after them but none looked back so I assumed they weren't buzzing me to watch my boat wildly roll but were unaware of being boorish and uncivil. Most boats chose to stick close to the shore and, under full sail, I was soon in clearer water.

El Port dels Alfacs is a parallelogram-shaped body of salt water running more or less east west, Sant Carles being on the northwestern edge. The long spit of 'El Trabucador' protects the bay from the sea, swinging westward to form 'El Punta de la Banya'. I spent the afternoon tacking up to the northeastern corner where I got stuck in weed and mud. But here running aground is all part of the sailing and in a craft like OB, where you simply climb out of the boat into ankle deep water to lighten the hull and thus refloat, it is not a problem. A fixed-keel sailboat was in far deeper trouble than I and a motor boat was churning great gouts of mud skyward with no forward progress. In waters less thin I again lowered the rudder and sailed clean away from this treacherous corner.
La Punta de la Banya is a nature reserve and is all but inaccessible except in a shallow draft, flat-bottomed boat. Scrub and the odd tree were becoming silhouettes by the time I arrived and I cautiously approached a tiny beach, letting the boat skid sideways with no centreboard or rudder, making minor adjustments to the course, poling with an oar.

As the bow ground gently against the shell laden shore I was surprised to see a row of discarded umbrellas and walking sticks upright in the mud on the far side of some tall grasses. I hopped out of the boat to investigate and the umbrellas opened and took flight.
 A flamboyance of flamingos.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Grey Triggerfish (Balistes capriscus)

I like fish, I'm interested in them both underwater and on my plate. I have a reasonable knowledge based mainly on experience, shored up with solid facts from the wikipedia and I'm always eager to learn about the sea and its inhabitants.

As with the birds I have the local fish identified, the ten common or garden species and the rarer ones. The ones that I know I might see but hardly ever encounter. And others, that although they turn up on the fishmonger's slab having journeyed from afar, are almost things of legend, like the dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus).

A new sea floor over which to snorkel brings the pleasure of anticipation. I have discovered just how painful is the poison of the weever fish (Trachinus draco) and how enduring the discomfort of the Pelagia noctiluca jelly fish sting. I've watched bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) hunting anchovies and have even been checked out by a pair that followed me for many metres, sniffing at my toes. I have caught octopus (Octopus vulgaris) and felt the pinch of their parrot-like beaks.

Recently, in Formentera, floating 10 metres or so above a barren bottom I saw an old rudder lying on the sand. A wrasse was hovering around one edge, often a sign that an octopus is in residence as the diminutive wrasse makes meals of pedators' scraps. I emptied and filled my lungs a few times then dived down, holding my nose and blowing every 2 or 3 metres to compensate the mounting pressure. I looked underneath the rudder, no octopus but another predator; a triggerfish, about 40cm long, bold and ugly.

I didn't hang about. I knew the triggerfish to be aggressive and I was running out of oxygen anyway. At the surface I hung in the water breathing. Suddenly I felt something grab my foot, I turned with a great flurry of limbs and saw the triggerfish clamped upon the knuckle of metatarsal behind my left little toe. And it didn't want to let go. I shook my foot hard and shoveled water at it, the fish backed off a bit. Then it came at me again. I kicked and pushed bubbles, my only defense. It had a particularly calculating stare and it looked at me coldly as it followed my messy backpedalling towards the boat from which I'd dived. After a while it desisted and I examined the two small holes on the top of my foot that were leaking blood into the water. It wasn't a serious wound. I climbed aboard wondering just why the fish had given me such an evil reception.

On the internet I confirmed that the triggerfish is indeed a cantankerous blighter, with a powerful jaw and sharp teeth but, more interestingly that it becomes defensive when protecting eggs. Even more interesting was the discovery that the fish's territory has the shape of an inverted cone, the apex at the bottom and the broadest part at the surface. So, if you encounter a triggerfish on the bottom and he doesn't look happy you should swim away horizontally. My mistake was to ascend and as I rose I further trespassed on his patch. On the surface above the nest I was bang in the centre of the fish's territory and as such a threat that needed to be dealt with.

I applaud the trigger's cojones and treasure my new fishy knowledge—I won't forget that icy stare—as well as the pin prick scars on my foot.

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.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Back on the road

 It took a while, a hypersensitivity to dust slowing things down, but at last Onawind Blue was ready for the water. I'd photographed all her deck gear before she was stripped to ensure that I could replace everything just so. However, those photos had disappeared from my mobile phone and I had to rely on memory, the very thing that I had outsourced to the sodding jellybone.

the final coat of varnish
Happily, in this case, memory served, synapses snapped and crackled and connections were made. With plenty of silicone on each screw the deck gear was replaced, the sails then laced to their corresponding spars, the cockpit accoutrements and comforts stashed and the whole transported to the beach, clumsily heaved and shoved over the sand from which Onawind Blue elegantly and silently entered her element.

'It's like riding a bicycle, innit?' I said to myself as I set the sails. Somehow it was necessary to vocalise each action in order to dredge up the knowledge stored in muscles remarkably smaller than the ones in which the information was first stockpiled. But that's the good thing about muscle memory: size has nothing to do with the quantity of data stored.

'Haul on the halyard, that's it, that's it, now cleat it off. All good. Loosen the topping lift. Tighten the downhaul. Good. Now...loose off the mizzen sheet, back the main sail to starboard, rudder blade to starboard too, that's right, now she's reversing and coming on to starboard tack, let the main sail across to port and sheet in, rudder to port, sheet in the mizzen, and she's off...Oh do shut up.' Quite fed up with my banter OB flew away on 8 knots of breeze. I hadn't remembered just how wonderful the sensation of briskness was. After an hour practicing points of sail, laying and weighing the anchor, reefing the sails while lying to sea anchor, lowering and furling sails all to a running commentary I faced the more difficult task of getting the boat back onto the sand and up the beach.

I have my blocks and tackle and the only other thing I need is plenty of time. Time enough to take it slowly. Ground can be covered centimetre by centimetre with no risk of damaging boat or person, just as long as there's no hurry.

Two days later I put the boat on the road trailer, finishing as it got dark, and the next morning drove to a beach just north of Tarragona. Making the most of the breakfast quiet I unloaded OB onto the sand and rolled her, on fenders, to the water. Amazingly I still had time to spare before my friend Ricardo arrived and so I slipped off for a coffee and croissant with a sea view. Motor boats and jetskis whizzed white lines back and forth across the calm blue.

Ricardo arrived and we set up his Dudley Dix 'Argie' Red Wine with a recycled aluminium mast and new tanbark sails. We launched, each to his boat, as the wind arrived and set off towards the tankers waiting off Tarragona. I found that I had to spill wind so as not to get too far ahead. By tacking as slowly as possible I managed to get OB to fall back into step. The 'Argie' is a deep, wide boat. A flat bottom and two chines rising to the stem, with a square transom. Seaworthy, easy to sail and capable of carrying up to four people.

We sailed up and down for an hour admiring each other's rigs and then I set a mizzen staysail. This is the same sail that I once tried as a jib to little effect but as a staysail it becomes OB's secret weapon. She shot off pointing high, a turn of speed that surprised me. I've had the staysail strapped to the base of the mizzen mast for a long time but had never tried it, thinking it probably wouldn't do much more then make OB gripe. However what was already good performance is enhanced with another square metre of sail cloth. Sailing so effortlessly I began yearning for the horizon, for a well-stocked, self-sufficient OB, a vaguely formed plan and no time boundaries.

The staysail

We had a fairly concrete plan though and in the early afternoon headed back to the beach where we barbecue sardines and tuna steaks. Stealing admiring glances at our boats between mouthfuls we watched the wind peter out. With the calm came a sense of mild relief. Now I could go home content in the knowledge that I hadn't wasted any of the breeze.

swimming from Red Wine

sailing with Red Wine

spilling wind

Monday, 25 May 2015

Festival of the Sea

El Carlos Barral from Calafell
Onawind Blue wasn't quite ready for the traditional sail festival at Cambrils. This was a pity as there was to be a section devoted to home-built boats (there are now five amateur-built, ply and epoxy craft on this coast) but it was also a blessing as a force 6 blew hard and I would almost certainly have found myself in difficulties.

I arrived at nine, in time for the 'sardinada' the traditional maritime breakfast of barbecued sardines piled on toast rubbed with garlic and tomato, the whole drenched in fruity olive oil and washed down with copious amounts of red wine. Nothing sets you up for the day quite like it.

Having met many old friends during this repast and feeling much feted we meandered to various bars to drink all the coffee. The wind was playing havoc with awnings and clawing at the water but our conversation and laughter rang out across the harbour.

A procession formed, led by a giant prawn and followed by a band of pipers and drummers. Aha, thought I, now will we dance the Lobster Quadrille from Alice in Wonderland, it couldn't have been more fitting.

Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,
There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle—will you come and join the
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the

And so we followed the great crustacean, not down to the shingle but to the ancient watchtower built by fishermen to spot boats in trouble in these vicious winds. Many words were spoken and many more lost to the wind, a song was sung by a man with a chillingly clear voice and a quiet fell over the crowd as we revered those that had once sailed from these shores.

The programmed 'raising of sails' was ditched but we made our way down to the boats to prepare them for a post prandial sail, weather permitting. I spent the time with my friend Bosco who initiated the Ella skiff build having built a Weekender and, even more miraculously, navigated the Catalan bureaucracy and made the boat entirely legal. A feat by any standards. He has now designed and built the Nauus 480 A well convieved boat with a Welsfordesque stem, water ballast, a gunter rig and a six horse outboard in a tidy well and an overall appearance of seafriendliness and safety. Designing a boat for home construction is very new to this coast, almost unheard of in fact. But Bosco is dragging Catalonia into the 21st century with his new yard and bright ideas. The 480 can be bought at various stages of completion though the official design and construction team have to oversee the finished work. There are plans to take the design a step further and build a larger, cabined version. But I was in the way as Bosco and his colleague, Tony, hurried to prepare the boat for its inaugural launch. I wandered off with good intentions only to be roped into sampling a few jars of craft beer.

Nauus 480
Lunch: a massive fideua (short, slim lengths of pasta cooked in a rich fish stock until the broth is fully absorbed) served by a monoglot speaker of the language 'No'. Fork'? 'No', salt? 'No', allioli? 'No', etc. There was plenty of beer however, cooling on ice. We sequestered a two-wheeled fish cart as a table and sat on crates to gorge. Then it was back to the bars to finish any coffee supplies, and, at last, to the boats.


Torrevisca sails in front of the town
I embarked on the lateen rigged Farigola (thyme). A genuine 6, or so, metre gem, neglected in the traditional way. 'She's a bit dry.' said the owner as I admired the view through her seams, 'I think the pump still works though.' She began behaving in the manner of a boat intent on having a quiet siesta on the sea bed, water seeping up through the bottom boards and the ship's bucket floating merrily from port to starboard and back. Then the bilge pump suddenly burped enthusiastically to life, belching brown water over the side.

We set the sail. The lateen rig halyard has a 4:1 reduction, so while one crew pulled, the other (me) struggled with miles of unsupple, salt-dry cordage, I felt like Laocoön dealing with sea serpents. This unwieldy mass satisfactorily stowed on deck I was immediately called aft to clap on to what, in a gaff rig would be the throat halyard. Being too windy outside we were to sail within the harbour, necessarily tacking every 200 metres. There are two lines that run to the forward most part of the rig, they have to be loosened so that the front end of the yard can be passed over the prow as the bow crosses the eye of the wind. Then they have to be hauled taught again. Tacking so often the work was constant and I had no chance to adjust the waistband of my jeans. But luckily the gusts came down so hard, (at one point everybody having to throw their weight to windward) that we struck the sail, before I mooned to the onlookers on the dock or had to give excuses for my lack of stamina. We continued, in a more tranquil fashion, under power.

Sant Ramon
I was handed the helm as the skipper wished to take photos. He stood on the bow while I sat in the stern and watched the water slosh around my toes. This was very pleasurable as just before leaving the house that morning I'd removed my socks thinking that I would be taken for a land animal if I turned up in such lubberly attire. Socks, forsooth! As a consequence I had rows of blisters across my toes, but this soreness was soothed by the rhythmic rising and falling of cool salty water.

Sant Pau
We puttered sedately about the port at 2 knots occasionally pulling up to the quay to take on excitable teenagers who were given their first taste of a traditional sailing vessel. 'It's entirely normal.' I replied to anxious glances at the bilge water, jamming the waterborne bucket under the bench and nonchalantly lifting a foot to examine a pruny toe.

Farigola (photo: Nuri Mariné)
All great days on the water come to an end and with the sky paling to peach I said my goodbyes and hobbled over the gravel carrying my shoes, quite the jolly tar.