Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Mad Dogs & Englishmen

I have previously mentioned how many stray dogs there are in this part of Portugal, which I first discovered while out on a run.  Since that troubling experience, whenever I'm on foot, I am keeping a keen eye out so I can spot the dogs in time to avoid them.  Occasionally, one slips through the net and I stray far enough into his territory to pique his interest.  The dog will then inevitably run up to me, barking.  Never having owned a dog, the problem I have is that I don't understand their behaviour, so I can't tell if a dog is approaching in a friendly manner, expecting to play games and have his tummy rubbed, or whether he's looking to sink his teeth into my flesh and maul me to death.  It seems sensible to always assume the worst of these two scenarios and, consequently, every time a dog approaches, I'm scared stiff.

Free oranges picked from a tree growing by a road we walked along

More often than not, the dogs do little more than spend some time barking and don't kill me.  I have to pretend to not be scared, though, because people always say that dogs can sense fear.  I don't know if you have ever tried not being scared while actually feeling terrified, but it's no mean feat and as I saunter down the street, whistling nonchalantly as I go, I usually end up feeling even more scared.  This is because, on top of being worried about getting attacked, I'm now also concerned that I'm either not doing a sufficiently good job of acting casual, or that I'm overdoing it and the dog will know that I could never possibly be this relaxed anywhere other than while being pampered in a five star spa and he will spot the ruse.  Thoughts about why a dog would attack me if I'm scared also cross my mind, for example, if it is so important to be unafraid of a creature, lest it immediately jump at your throat and end your days prematurely, surely this beast is the perfect candidate for a healthy dose of fear?

More free citrus fruit: A tangerine tree at a local train station

In any case, above is a description of my usual canine interactions.  However, on two occasions now, something most odd and unexpected has occurred.  While out walking, Kate and I have been come across dogs that have wholeheartedly adopted us without the slightest input on our parts.  In fact, I'm usually fully engaged in the 'no look, no touch, no eye contact' technique and offer absolutely no reason for these dogs to attach themselves to us.  The only thing I can think of that would prompt this behaviour is that my act of serene fearlessness is convincing enough that they pick up on my unearthly relaxed vibe and feel so completely uncompelled to attack me that they conclude that I must be their master.

Kate has already mentioned, in an earlier post, the first dog that adopted us.  She was a little cutie who simply joined us on our walk, running ahead to check the way, sniffing here and there and then reporting back to us.  After this had continued long enough for me to convinced myself that she wasn't a threat, I plucked up the courage to stroke her, albeit in tentative manner such as you might stroke an unexploded landmine, and the friendship blossomed.

Me rowing back to Firebird.  Notice the wreck moored against the pontoon (left)

The most recent adoption occurrence happened while walking back from a nearby town, Portimão, where we had gone to source spare parts for the boat.  We had stopped to check our map when this rather scrawny looking dog sniffed around our feet.  That was all it took.  From that point on, he obediently stuck by our side.  I didn't graduate to the stroking phase with this little guy because I never felt that safe around him.  He looked on edge, as though he was a drug addict itching for his next fix, always on a knife edge between managing to remain composed and freaking out.  The weird thing was that he seemed to think that we were at threat from passing cars.  It was nighttime and traffic was light.  Whenever he heard a car approaching, he would position himself between us and the car and crouch down into a defensive posture.  As the car drew near enough for it to 'threaten' us, he would attack in the most fearless manner.  It was lucky that traffic was light, because many of the car drivers got a right shock and swerved off course.

The conveniently-positioned wreck, as seen from the water.  If you moor your dinghy there at high water, you will have a surprise on your hands when you return at low water and find it impaled on the sunken fishing boat

We were scared that, while in his attack-mode-frenzy, he might accidentally turn on us.  I was in fits of uncontrollable laughter, partly out of nervousness and partly because what was happening was so bizarrely funny.  The height of my amusement came when our protector went for a cyclist.  The cyclist didn't see him coming at all, so the dog just suddenly materialised out of the shadows at the cyclist's feet in a tumult of barking and growling.  The cyclist jumped right out of his skin while I, and the cyclist's mate, further up the road who saw the whole thing unravel, clutched at our stomachs and tried not to collapse from laughing so hard.

The embarrassing thing was that this dog really looked like our dog.  When he wasn't busy attacking passing vehicles, he would trot obediently to heel.  Thus, it looked like we were responsible for this four legged terrorist and were irresponsibly failing to control his madness as chaos broke out on the road next to us.

Our misty anchorage this morning

As we approached the built up outskirts of Alvor, the dog started to get very agitated and didn't seem to want us to proceed into the town.  I suspect that he has maybe had bad experiences with cars and while being in towns, and therefore thought that we needed to be protected from both.  We didn't know what to do because, if we proceeded into Alvor, he got worked up into such a state, but we couldn't very well stand at the town's perimeter all night.  In the end, we ducked into the first shop we came to, a small supermarket, and spent absolutely ages picking up a few essentials in the hopes that he would have got bored and wandered back off into the night, which is what happened.  I felt bad that we couldn't say goodbye to him, or thank him for so valiantly protecting us from all of his perceived dangers, but I was very relieved that the problem was solved.

With what spare mental capacity remained while the rest of my brain was consumed by fear, I created a short, badly shot video of the anxious dog as we approached Alvor.  Watch it on YouTube.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Rocky Road to Paradise

"Paradise? But how can that be?", I hear you ask. The last thing you heard, we were in Portugal waiting for the weather to take us on to the Canaries, and you've seen no AIS activity to tell you otherwise. And what on earth do rocky roads have to do with sailing? Well, let me get you up to speed. The truth is that we are still in Portugal and, whilst we had hoped to be sunning ourselves in Isla Graciosa by now, we have no complaints whatsoever about being stuck on the Algarve. Not now that we have discovered the delights of Alvor.

The view from Firebird, whilst anchored in Alvor

Two weeks ago, after saying goodbye to my parents, we were due to leave Lagos Marina on the Saturday afternoon. Staying longer would have cost us around 15 Euros per night; money that we would rather spend elsewhere. Ideally, we would have headed straight out of the marina and south to the Canary Islands, but the forecast was looking unsettled. We would have been blessed with two days of ideal conditions, followed by a day or two of being becalmed and, finally, been heading into some rather unsavoury south-easterlies. We would rather, we decided, wait for a good spell of northerlies, which would be bound to turn up soon. So, we packed up and headed out of the marina to anchor back in Lagos Bay, which we had enjoyed immensely prior to our shore leave.

Flamingos, which we spotted on our walk along the river from Alvor

However, we hadn't even reached the harbour entrance before Firebird started bouncing around on some rather large waves. As we looked ahead to the seas beyond the entrance, we realised that we would be in for a bumpy night in the bay. Oh, what an understatement! We managed to drop anchor amongst some really huge waves, as the light faded to the west of us. Poor Alex was at the bow being thrown up and down at least a couple of metres, deploying the anchor whilst I struggled to keep Firebird under control for him. How on earth he managed to return to put up the anchor ball and light I don't know, but thankfully he did. We hadn't really prepared below decks for such a rocky ride, and so there was some amount of tidying to be done, whilst struggling not to fall over. By now, we were both feeling seasick and had to lie down on the bed, hoping for it to subside. It didn't.

This little kitten seemed so cute...
but, boy, did he hiss when I attempted to stroke him!

For the best part of the next two days we were bedridden, as the swell refused to relent and we both felt too ill to face returning to the marina. I managed to leave the bed on two or three occasions to cook us some food, but it was a lengthy process. Prepare food, back to bed. Start cooking, back to bed. Remove from stove, back to bed. Dish up and bring back to bed. Eat food. Wait. Either sigh with relief at not feeling sick or regret ever eating the food, which is now in danger of reappearing. Aside from that, we brought my small laptop into bed with us and watched an episode of George Clark's Amazing Spaces every now and then. As we started to feel a little better, we joked about our 'bed-cation', which was actually quite fun, as far as seasickness goes! Usually, being seasick goes hand in hand with just three hours sleep alone, before being rudely awakened for a three hour watch in undoubtedly rough conditions. To be able to be ill together and not need to do anything apart from stay in bed was actually a real luxury!

The waves crashing on to Alvor beach created this sand cliff all the way along!

We had been told about the anchorage at Alvor, which was meant to be very sheltered and a lovely little town, so we decided to head there early Wednesday morning. We were a little wary of entering the anchorage as there is around two miles of shallow channel that must be navigated, and our depth sounder hasn't worked for the past few months now. We entered cautiously on a rising tide, following a chart, our GPS position on Google maps and the pilot manual. Thankfully we made it to the anchorage without hitting any of the sand banks and we anchored in perfectly calm conditions, at the start of what was looking like a lovely sunny day. After tidying up Firebird, we had a look around the area and the yacht next to us seemed familiar. A Dutch registered vessel called Lily. Suddenly, I remembered that we had been anchored next to her at Cascais!

Lily leaving the anchorage, heading to Morocco

Lily's crew emerged on deck and we began chatting, before being invited over there for coffee. We introduced ourselves to Siv and Henry, and also to a British chap named Tim who had popped past in his nice yellow tender. We spent a good few hours aboard Lily, getting to know Siv and Henry, before all being invited over to Tim and his wife Fran's impressive wooden boat, Springtide, which Tim rebuilt himself over nine years after buying her as a complete shipwreck. What a wonderful start to our stay in Alvor, which has turned out to be a very sociable place.

A waterfront view of the moorings in Alvor, as the sun fades

Aside from the social aspects of being anchored here, we have discovered a good many benefits of this peaceful little haven. Firstly, it is incredibly sheltered and calm, meaning that for the first time we can row Trinity ashore rather than needing to use our outboard. Additionally, there are a couple of pontoons which we can tie up to when going ashore, meaning that we don't need to worry about landing on a beack and getting wet feet, at best, or completely soaked. Another benefit of the calm is that we have been able to get plenty of jobs done on the boat, which can often be difficult when in a rocky anchorage.

Alex looking rather pleased with himself for spotting this stranded jellyfish.
Neither of us were brave enough to carry him back to the water...

We have found ourselves with plenty of time to explore, and have enjoyed lengthy walks in the sunshine along the river heading inland and along the glorious beach. Alex found a little friend on one of our walks; an adorable dog who decided to accompany us for the entire walk, as if she belonged to us! She seemed to just enjoy being with us, especially when we stroked her and gave her lots of attention. She did not, however, seem too impressed with Alex's attempt to play fetch with her. I don't think anyone had ever taught her that it was fun to chase after a stick and bring it back to the thrower, so she just looked at Alex as if he had gone a little loopy when he tried.

Alex with his furry friend

The town of Alvor is, in itself, delightful, with music from an accordion emanating from the town square every lunchtime. There is a lovely farmer's market on the weekend from which we bought a load of fresh produce which was very cheap, and the locals are all very friendly and happy to help. We have met a number of individuals from boats moored here permanently, who have all been very interesting and keen to give us directions, advice... and even a tow to the pontoon to save Alex from rowing! We have found a number of great places to go for coffee or food, including a little bar called Panda which does a 'Prato do Dia' for only 7 Euros each! This included bread, olives, a drink, a main meal, a dessert and a coffee - incredible value and delicious food. Finally, we were told that the local sports centre was a good spot for a shower, and we made full use of the pool too by both swimming for well over an hour, which felt great.

We had fun creating a little pool by building a dam on the beach

So, as we look forward to next week and see the forecast is still abysmal, we aren't sighing too hard at the prospect of being "stuck" here a while longer. Sure, we are keen to get to the warmth of the Canaries, especially as we hope to see our friends on their yacht Moonshine in Isla Graciosa before they move on, but we aren't going to be taking any risks in order to get there. We are quite content in our little safe haven, listening to the crashing waves on the beach beyond the sand banks, feeling rather smug that we have found this little piece of paradise and have the time to just enjoy it.

One of many glorious sunsets, watched from the waterfront in Alvor

Monday, 25 November 2013

Shore Leave

Birthday boat trip
We have been off Firebird for the past two weeks, taking a nice holiday ashore with Kate's parents, staying in their apartment near Lagos, Portugal, while poor Firebird has been left to her own devices in the marina.  Firebird wasn't totally forgotten, however, as we took Mike on a surprise boat trip for his birthday.  We managed to get him onto the boat without letting on that we would be going out sailing for the day by saying that we had to pick something up that we had forgotten.  He was most excited when we then slipped the lines and motored out of the marina!

It was really nice to relax for a couple of weeks.  'Viewers at home' would be forgiven for thinking that we spend our days lazing around while on this trip.  In fact, we have hardly had any time to ourselves since we left as there is a huge list of equipment to be installed and improvements to be made.  When we do take time out from working through this list, we feel guilty about doing so, which means that even our time away from the chores never feels very relaxing.  Taking this break off Firebird meant that it was impossible for us to do boat work, so we could put all our effort into relaxing.

Lots of washing to do
One chore we did do, however, was clothes washing.  Lots and lots of it.  We hadn't done any since leaving Coruna, our first stop in Spain, which was quite some time ago.  When we're further south and the weather is consistently warmer, it won't be a problem to wash clothes on deck in buckets, but up to this point, with warm days being limited, when we have had one, we have done other things with it, such as showering.  I'm not sure how many loads we put through, but needless to say that we have now fully stress-tested the machine in Chris & Mike's apartment.

During our shore leave, we visited a castle, went to a pirate exhibition, ate more than we probably should have, spoiled ourselves in a spa and spent time with two of Kate's aunts and their families, Sher and Sue.

My only regret and mistake during these two weeks was to go for a run.  It turns out that in this area of Portugal, there are a lot of dogs.  There are stray dogs, badly trained pet dogs, guard dogs that are chained up, guard dogs that aren't chained up, guard dogs that appear to be fenced in, but actually have secret escape holes in the fence.  Basically, all types of dogs in all shapes and sizes.  All these dogs are bound together into a tight fraternity sharing one common activity that delights them above all else: Chasing runners and barking at them like crazy.  Now, I don't like unknown dogs at the best of times, but when they're running at you as though they're going to rip you limb from limb, miles away from the nearest medical attention while some of them look like they haven't had a good meal in months, it's safe to say that I positively cannot stand them.

My tactic for dealing with these attacking dogs, which seems to have worked seeing as I'm still intact, was to continue running, but slow right down so that I was virtually running on the spot.  My reasoning was that I didn't want to move quickly, lest I excite their predatory instinct, but neither did I want to stop and face them, in case they weren't after a good chase, but were just defending their territory, in which case I wanted to keep moving onward to give them the impression that their barking was a great success in making me clear off their land and they did not need to escalate matters and resort to biting to make me go away.  Whatever they were after, I will not be going back to conduct conclusive experimentation on the matter.

We're now back on Firebird, at anchor in Lagos, waiting for a weather window to cross to the Canary Islands.

Kate, aunt Sher, Paul, Richard & Hayley enjoying coffee at Lazy Jacks

A nice relaxing hot tub at the spa

A merman in the pool at the spa

Giants defending the entrance to the castle in Silves

Mike found a bottle that said 'Drink Me', so he did

The magic genie

Long John Silver being less than hospitable

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Boom Crack

We got our long-awaited weather window to leave Baiona, Spain.  The forecasters made all sorts of promises that they didn't end up keeping, but we're used to that by now, and the important thing was that it seemed unlikely that we would take a bashing from a storm.

In the late afternoon on Tuesday 29th October, we left our anchorage that had sheltered us so well from some truly horrendous weather and headed back out into the Atlantic swell, leaving the British yacht Moonshine all alone in a now rather spacious anchorage.  We hope to cross paths with Moonshine again as Warren and Faye are lovely, interesting people who have a similar outlook to us and they are also a bottomless pit of experience and advice.

We've been slowly gathering some experience of our own along the way.  Gone are the days of turning the engine on to leave an anchorage.  Things were going a little too well, however, as we smugly sailed away from anchor.  It didn't take long for the ocean to pull a few trump cards from up its sleeve to play against us.

Kate's big catch
As soon as we got outside the shelter of the harbour wall, the swell really picked up.  We had delayed our departure by a day due to the swell predictions and were glad we had given it some time to calm down.  Although not especially dangerous, the large waves did make our departure incredibly uncomfortable.  Along with the physical discomfort of being thrown around all over the place, the main problem that we have is that if the wind isn't very strong, as Firebird rolls over the top of a large wave, the mast moves away from the wind faster than the wind is blowing, so the sails momentarily empty.  As she reaches the end of the 'away' roll and starts coming back the other way, towards the wind, the sails fill with the force of the wind plus the apparent wind generated by rolling and the sails can bang full with a great deal of gusto.  This creates a lot of noise and is almost certainly not good for the sails or rigging, so we have to sail in undesirable directions to minimise the effect.

While trying to deal with our sails banging backwards and forwards, we were forced, like unwilling fat kids at summer camp, to play a game of British Bulldog against a large percentage of the Spanish fishing fleet that had decided to line up across the entire width of the bay we were leaving.  The light was failing for the evening and we were heading into the wind, which made our choice of direction limited.  On top of this, most of the small fishing boats seemed to consider nav lights to be optional extras, or maybe they think they're only for use at Christmas time.  Stupid fishing boats.  Thanks to Mr Craddock, my nautical studies teacher, who used to make us sail all sorts of zigzag courses through buoys when sailing dinghies down at the docks on Wednesday afternoons at school, we made it through the fisherman obstacle course and safely out to sea.

Well, 'safely' is used loosely here.  The gaps that the fishermen left were mainly in the areas behind which there were shallow patches, generating huge stretches of breaking waves, so next up was a gauntlet through these treacherous waters.  It was halfway through this lot that we found out what Boom Crack is.  Kate has seen a sailing book by this title, but wasn't sure what it was about.  I was about to find out, or at least come up with a convincing theory for the name.

Ainsley Mitchell at work
I was sitting at the helm, straining my eyes against the darkness, looking for telltale white patches of  the breakers.  This is usually one of the safer places to be on the boat, nicely out of the way and protected in the cockpit, but not today.  Out of nowhere BAM!  My head feels like I've just made the mistake of insulting Mike Tyson's mum to his face, but I can't understand why.  I can barely hold onto the tiller as I sway around the cockpit like an adolescent with a bellyful of Stella on a Friday night.  The next thing I know, Kate's next to me in an absolute flood of tears.  She thinks she's killed me, you see, but I still don't know what planet I'm on as I vaguely wonder what the nicely varnished piece of hardwood that I'm holding is for.

What happened is that Kate was trying to re-tension the topping lift, which is the line that runs from the top of the mast to the end of the boom, to prevent it from succumbing to the inevitability of gravity's pull in the absence of the mainsail being set.  She didn't realise that the main sheet was on really tightly, which was pulling the boom down, so as she uncleated the topping lift, it sprung out of her hand and the boom, along with the weight of the flaked mainsail on top of it, came crashing down, aimed with laser-guided precision for the top of my head.

Not long term damaged seems to have been happened to me, so nevertheless I think it no problem in the end.  As my dad would no doubt say, you never know, it might have knocked some sense into me.

The rest of the trip was the usual mixture of putting sails up, watching sails flap about in light winds, taking sails down, motoring, repeat.  So much for the three days of northerly winds that we were supposed to have.

Fish & chips.  Yummy

Kate did really well with her fishing and netted a bumper load of five huge mackerel, which we barbecued on our arrival at Cascais.  We even treated ourselves to home made chips.  It felt really good to have made it all the way to Portugal and the temperature continues to rise as we make our way south.

Our anchorage at Cascais, Portugal

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Rain in Spain

"The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." I haven't personally seen the musical "My Fair Lady" but have heard this little speech exercise many a time and found myself reciting it to Alex on our passage to Spain. Foolishly, I hoped there was some truth in the phrase and, whilst I have no idea where the Spanish plains are, I was sure that we would be nowhere near them and, thus, would be treated to days of endless warmth and sunshine. Sadly, this was not the case. It turns out that the rain in Spain falls all over the place in October, and certainly we were treated to very large quantities of the stuff whilst sailing around the Galician coast.

After staying in La Coruna for a few days we, along with most other yachts who had arrived at a similar time as us, set sail to round Cape Finisterre and head down the Atlantic coast to Portugal. We left at around midday on a Saturday, hoping to sail for a couple of days and make it down as far as Bayona. The forecast was slightly dubious, so we filled with diesel before setting off, in case the winds were too light to be of use to us. As it happens, this was the case to start with, and we found ourselves switching between sails and the engine frequently over the course of Saturday night. By Sunday morning, the winds were starting to pick up and we gladly raised our sails. Unfortunately, the wind was a south-westerly, meaning it was taking us a while to head down the coast. Our initial feelings of joy fast began to fade as the wind increased to become much stronger than forecast, and we decided to abort our attempt to round Cape Finisterre, which is known for having localised strong winds. We turned tail and headed back into Ria Camarinas, feeling very pleased with our decision as we dropped anchor in 30 knots of wind.

Camarinas harbour, with rain clouds looming in the background

Camarinas seemed like a lovely little place but, unfortunately, we were unable to explore it as much as we would have liked due to days of very strong wind and rain. We ventured ashore once to stock up on supplies and, having got thoroughly soaked on our return to Firebird by a downpour of rain, decided not to repeat the experience. We were keen to move on at the earliest opportunity as we were still north of Finisterre, but there seemed to be very few opportunities to do so. Whilst Alex so kindly attributes our mainly successful passage planning to my newfound obsession with weather forecasting, I must confess to having a little help from someone with far more experience than myself.

Back in England, whilst I was obsessing over when to cross Biscay and literally spending hours every day researching and reading forums, I made contact with a man called Alan, who was active on the World Cruising Club forum and had recently given advice to someone who had been asking about crossing Biscay in October. It turns out that Alan is an incredibly experienced yachtsman with a great deal of knowledge about not only the weather but also the route we are taking down to the Canaries. Ever since my initial email, we have been communicating regularly and Alex and I have been extremely grateful to be able to benefit from Alan's advice regarding both weather and routing information on our passages.

When it came to leaving Camarinas, I think we would still be there were it not for Alan, as the swell prediction on the day that he suggested we leave was around 3-4 metres. Personally, I would have stayed put and not risked heading out into such large seas, but the fact that Alan thought it would be ok gave us confidence in heading out into it, and it was forecast to lessen as the day went on. As we left the safety of the ria and headed out to sea, I questioned our decision - we were faced with the largest waves that either of us had ever seen! Initially, I was crapping myself every time one of these humongous walls of water headed towards us (so every ten seconds or so), especially as waves were breaking either side of us as we left the entrance to the bay, but soon enough we got used to the fact that we just rode up and over these monsters and it actually became quite exciting.

Fishing at sunset in Bayona. Unfortunately, I didn't catch anything.

Our passage from Camarinas to Bayona was a mixture of sailing and motoring, just for a change. As we were approaching the final leg of our journey, we heard a call for us on the VHF from our Dutch friends on Deinemeid. Alex responded, but the signal was rather poor and we managed to ascertain that they were somewhere near Vigo; not far from Bayona. We assumed that they had seen us on their AIS receiver, but later found out that they had just randomly put a call out for us in case we were in the area! We told them of our plans to head to Bayona, and hoped that we might see them again. Alex was off watch at that time and headed back to bed, whilst I was treated to a nice increase in the wind speed, meaning I was able to shut off the engine, hoist the sails and make great time for the last couple of hours of our passage. It felt really good to be sailing into Bayona rather than chugging in using the engine.

Our view of Bayona from our spot in the anchorage,
with yachts Spartan and Zahlia in the foreground

The anchorage in Bayona was fairly busy and, as we found a spot and dropped the anchor, we saw Deinemeid coming in to join us! It was great to see them again. We agreed to all head ashore together and, upon doing so, happened across Sven and Wicky; the Dutch guys that Alex mentioned in his previous post who were accompanied by whales during part of their Biscay crossing. We all went for drinks and then tapas together, which was really nice. At the end of the night, Sven and Wicky headed back to the marina which they stayed in for a night and we walked with Sanne and Marijn back to our tenders. We were just about to launch Trinity and head back to Firebird when disaster struck! As Alex climbed in, a sharp mussel shell caught the side of her and we heard a loud "woosh" as one half of her deflated in a matter of seconds. Thank goodness we were with Sanne and Marijn, who took us on board their tender and rowed us back to Firebird with a very sorry-looking Trinity in tow.

Alex is happy that the sun is shining,
on our last day in Bayona

We were keen to continue down the coast to Portugal at the earliest opportunity, but the forecast for the week ahead was for more rain and some very strong winds. Most other boats around us were also heading south, so we were all going to be staying put for a while. One afternoon we were approached by an English chap in a rowing boat, who introduced himself as Warren and invited us over to his boat, Moonshine, the following evening, for dinner with him and his wife Faye, along with a couple from another British boat - Zahlia. The following afternoon, we headed ashore in pretty lively winds to get some drinks to take over to dinner, and on our way back to Firebird we started to get concerned over the increasing strength of these gusts. As Alex struggled to prevent Trinity from flipping over, getting absolutely soaked in the process, I managed to stop laughing for long enough to help him bring her back on board and tie her down. Before you feel too sorry for Alex, please bear in mind that it is usually me who gets soaked whenever we go ashore, as I jump out into waves and pull us up onto the beach, and this never fails to set Alex off in fits of laughter.

A rainbow appears over Bayona,
as we experience even more Spanish rain!

Anyhow, with forty-five minutes to go before our dinner plans and wind speeds increasing rapidly, Alex called Moonshine on the VHF to apologise and tell them that we did not feel comfortable heading out into such strong winds. We felt really bad to be letting them down, but as the weather worsened and the other guests made the same decision, we were glad to have done so and dinner was rescheduled for the following evening. We all agreed to keep a listening watch on VHF channel 16 that night, in case any boat in the anchorage needed assistance, which was really nice as it made us feel a little safer in such bad conditions. The highest wind speed that we saw on our anemometer was 56 knots; Beaufort force 11, which is only a few knots before the top of the scale - force 12! We were so glad to have our oversized Delta anchor and fifty metres of chain out, which managed to hold us firm throughout the night. Thankfully, none of the boats in the anchorage dragged and we had plenty to chat about over dinner the following evening.

Alex soaking up the sunshine in front
of the impressive Parador, Bayona

In the days that followed, we got to know Warren and Faye better after inviting them over to Firebird, and discovered that we had a lot in common with them - in particular, the desire to be self-sustaining on our boats. Alex borrowed an interesting book from them called "Sailing the Farm," from which he has gleaned many useful ideas, including solar ovens, sprouting seeds and cooking in a thermos, to name a few. We introduced them to Sanne and Marijn, and pretty soon all of our Dutch and British friends were socialising together which was really great. Our days were spent doing work on the boat and our evenings spent with our neighbours - at last it was beginning to feel like this was really what cruising was about! Meeting like-minded people, making friends, sharing ideas and helping each other - a micro-community as fluid as the water we all lay in, open to change as soon as those within it saw fit to set sail for destinations anew.

Sven and Wicky wave off Deinemeid from their tender

As the weather began to improve and crews decided upon their departures, we said goodbyes and hoped that our paths would cross again in the months to come, as we all headed off in vaguely the same direction with differing routes and timescales. First we waved off Deinemeid and Zahlia, followed by Sven and Wicky on Spartan, before heading off ourselves and bidding Moonshine farewell. And, suddenly, I came to the realisation the the rain in Spain wasn't that bad after all. Without it and the winds that had accompanied it, we would have no doubt hurried on our way in search of warmer climes and, in doing so, missed the warmth that friendship brings.

The sun sets as we leave Bayona, heading for Portugal

Sunday, 27 October 2013

YouTube channel

Along the way, Alex has been getting out our video camera and shooting footage of some vaguely interesting events. Rain in Camaret, Dolphins in Biscay, Wind in Bayona... you get the picture. Now, for friends and family who haven't seen us for a while, these may be of interest. However, for those who have no desire to watch short clips of us on our travels, you may want to disregard this post.

We have managed to set up a very basic YouTube channel (quite a feat over slow WiFi and on a 7 inch tablet, I can tell you) to which we will be uploading aforementioned footage. There are currently three videos up there, with a fourth on the way. It is taking around seven hours per video clip though, so please bear with us; we may have difficulty uploading anything when we are in areas with even worse WiFi.

Anyhow, enough of the introduction - time to take a look for yourselves. The channel URL is www.youtube.com/mitchyboyandgirl - enjoy!

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Bay of Biscay

This post is a bit long, and very overdue.  We haven't had internet access for a while and have also been busy working on the boat.  If you don't fancy reading the novella below, the short of the long is that we crossed the Bay of Biscay, survived, and are now in Spain.  In fact, it has been so long since we left France that we're only a few miles from Portugal now.  For the full story, read on...

After weeks of waiting for a weather window to cross Biscay, we've finally done it.  Au revoir la France, hola España!

Kate has spent at least the last month learning all there is to know about the weather in this area.  She has been constantly studying pressure charts, learning about cloud formations and reading about what gives Biscay it's notorious reputation.  A seagull can't even sneeze in The Bay without it appearing on her radar.  Compared to Kate, the Met Office is nothing more than a bunch of balding men licking their fingers and holding them up to the breeze.

So, when Kate announced "we've got our window", there was nothing to do but haul up the anchor and set sail, safe in the knowledge that we would get to Spain with nothing but the fairest winds.  And we almost did.

We left in the darkness of the early hours on Saturday 5th October and unfortunately had to spend the whole day motoring, which we knew we would.  We decided that it would be better to spend a day motoring with no wind forecast, than to wait a day and risk getting too much wind.

The wind started to pick up on Sunday and we managed to sail for about half of the day, albeit rather frustrating in that it wasn't 12 hours of motoring followed by 12 hours of sailing.  It was more like 1 hour sailing, followed by 20 minutes bobbing about with the sails flapping in an infuriating manner as the wind died, hoping it would pick up again, then getting the foresail down, turning the engine on and motoring for an hour until the wind picked up, putting the foresail back up and the whole cycle started again.

Enjoying the calm before the storm
With such light winds, the sea was incredibly calm.  It reminded me of one of those big dogs who barks a lot and looks ferocious, but just rolls over for a belly rub as soon as you get near him.  After hearing nothing but horror stories about crossing The Bay, we were pleased to actually find ourselves sitting in the sun on some of the calmest sea we have ever seen.

What we discovered is that the Bay of Biscay is full of dolphins.  I didn't even realise that so many dolphins existed.  We could look out to the horizon in any direction and see dolphin after dolphin jumping out of the water.  Literally any direction!  Lots of them liked playing around the boat, which was fun to watch, but also slightly scary as they swam really close to our rudder and I was afraid they might hit it and cause damage.  Kate wondered if they liked being back there so they could put their faces in the propeller wash, in a similar way to how a dog sticks his head out of a car window.  They were swimming so close all round our bow that I could have touched one if I leant out, but I didn't in case I invoked some until-now-undiscovered "dolphin rage" and set the pod into attack mode against us.

Dolphin watching

Whether my dolphin fear was founded or not, we had it easy.  We met a couple of funny Dutch guys who, while also crossing Biscay, had two huge whales swim alongside their boat for two hours, one each side.  They needed to make a course change, but couldn't, because they were afraid of bumping into a whale and angering it.  They tried slowing down, to trick the whales and then turning behind them, which almost worked, but just as they thought they were free, the whales re-appeared next to them.  They tried revving the engine, to scare the whales away, but didn't want to overdo it for fear of sounding aggressive!  In the end, they just had to wait until the whales got bored and left them alone.  Who would have thought that these would be the worries of sailors crossing Biscay!

Nightmares of dolphin attacks aside, we had an enjoyable three days out at sea with Kate mostly spending her time singing "Oh my dear, we're off to sunny Spain.  La viva Espagne...and we're taking the Costa Brava plane.  La viiiivvvvaaaa Espagne".  Neither of us knows what this song is.

Once we had sighted Spanish land, so close to being home and dry, was when the problems started.  The wind was beginning to pick up as I went off watch for the evening, so we put a couple of reefs in the main and dropped to our small, self-tacking jib.  It was blowing hard, but nothing that we hadn't seen before, so I went below decks to get some rest before my next watch.

I woke up with the mattress on our bed sliding backwards and forwards as we heeled hard over one way and then the next.  This isn't something that usually happens and was clue number one that the weather had continued to deteriorate.  Clue number two was the absolute howling racket that the wind was making through our rigging.  I jumped out of bed and stuck my head out of the hatch, into the jaws of a raging tempest.  The shock of emerging from the warm, still, cabin into this ferocious onslaught of wind, waves and noise was so strong that it took a few seconds to take in.

It was obvious that we had too much sail up at this point, so I chucked my oilskins on over my pyjamas and got out on deck to help Kate bring down the mainsail.  Once this was done, the situation seemed under control again.  We were flying along under our jib alone and now the helm wasn't being overpowered every time the wind gusted, so I went back below decks to try and sleep before my watch started.

Sleep, however, was not on the cards.  Firebird was still rolling by about 35° in both directions and occasionally getting knocked to more like 45°, so I lay in bed for a little while before going out to start my watch early.  It was clear that Kate was not enjoying herself up in the cockpit so I wanted her to be able to get into bed, have some rest, and hopefully feel more secure, protected inside Firebird's cosy little cabin.  I could tell that she wasn't having fun, because when I looked out at her, she was clutching the tiller for dear life, even though it was lashed centrally and our Hydrovane was steering the boat, she was soaking wet, and her little face was full with the most genuine fear that I have ever seen in anyone.

Even though I obviously wasn't going to enjoy myself out there either, I just hated seeing Kate so terrified, so I told her that I wasn't worried, even though I was, and tried to sound convincing.

The seas had steepened by this time and it was blowing Force 8 (gale force). The worst part was that the swell was hitting us almost beam on, which is really not what you want, as the ship will be at her most vulnerable.  To make matters worse, some of the waves were just starting to break and when one of those beasts hits you, you sure know about it.  As I sat there, cowering in the cockpit before the wrath of the storm, I summed up my options and decided that, for the present, we should continue as we were.

We were sailing on a broad reach (wind to port, roughly 20° off the stern).  To put ourselves on a better angle respective to the waves would mean either turning close hauled, which would not have been a fun point of sail at all, plus we probably wouldn't have been able to maintain that heading under jib alone, so that option was out, or turning in the opposite direction and putting us on a beam reach.  This wouldn't have been so bad, but it would have sent us out to sea, away from our destination, Coruna, and towards Finisterre.  I really didn't want to do this because, for one thing, I was sure that we would be getting shelter from the swell soon if we maintained our heading, once we could get the north-west tip of Spain between us and the rest of The Bay, and for another, if we continued going, we would hit Cape Finisterre, itself renowned for ferocious weather, so I would probably be putting us into worse conditions still.

And so it was that I sat, buffeted by the wind, soaked by the spray, peering out into the darkness for any other ships unfortunate enough to be out there with us, hoping that there wasn't a deadly breaking wave stealthily surging towards us out of the darkness, about to knock Firebird down.

Sunrise over Spain, in sheltered waters
When Kate popped her head out three hours later, reporting for her watch, I let her go back to bed as she had already had a terrible time on her previous watch and I wasn't going to get much wetter.

A further two hours later and we finally got the shelter that I had been banking on.  The swell died down as though someone had turned off a switch.  The wind was just as strong, but that didn't matter so much as we weren't getting knocked all over the place any more.  I woke Kate and went down to get a bit of rest before our arrival at Coruna.

Coruna: A very welcome sight
By the time we did get to the marina at about 10am, just over four days after we had set out, it was as though the storm had never happened.  The sun was shining and we had to strip off our cold-weather sailing gear in favour of shorts, t-shirts and sun block.  Now that was more like it and is the whole reason for heading South, making the events of the previous night seem worthwhile.

This is why we crossed the Bay of Biscay.  Farewell, British weather!

As we were sitting in a cheap restaurant overlooking the marina, eating a delicious Spanish lunch, we were very pleased to see our new Dutch friends that we met at anchor at Camaret, Sanne and Marijn on Deinemeide, pull into the marina, having also made it safely across The Bay.

As for the balding men in the Met Office, I think they are safe in their jobs after all!

Photos from our dolphin watching:

Monday, 30 September 2013

Next time, we'll get the ferry

Our Hydrovane (minus wind vane), securely bolted in place
 We're in France!  We left Falmouth Marina as soon as we had finished installing our Hyrdovane.  For those that don't know, a Hydrovane is an absolutely wonderful piece of equipment that steers the boat using the power of the wind alone.  It keeps you on a course relative to the wind, rather than on a compass course.  It might not sound like this is a good idea, but when you're sailing, it's actually really useful as you don't have to adjust the sails every time the wind shifts a bit and on average you head in the right direction as the wind goes back and forth.

Although the installation boiled down to bolting a lump of metal onto the transom (back of the boat), it took absolutely ages to actually do, as everything had to be perfectly aligned, due to the huge forces that the device will be put under while steering the boat.  Plus, the hard wood that we used lived up to it's name i.e. it was hard.  Very hard.  Cutting, filing and sanding it to the exact shape required, by hand, took over two days alone!

Our nice anchorage at St Just, where we waited out strong winds

Once we no longer needed to be in a marina, to avoid additional mooring fees, we motored a few miles to a lovely little bay at St Just and dropped the anchor.  We carried on doing boat DIY while waiting for howling gales to pass.

As it turned out, we didn't quite wait for the strong winds to pass completely before we left to cross the Channel.  We could only leave at two times each day, as we needed to arrive at the Chenal du Four, in France, going with the tide.  There was only a small break in the weather followed by even worse weather, which would have kept us in the UK for at least another week.  As we were frustrated with how little progress we were making, having been in Falmouth for three weeks already, we decided to leave during the tail end of the high winds, allowing us to catch the tide in France and be over there before the Channel turned back into a maelstrom with renewed vengeance.

Once the storm was over, Kate filled in the log book retrospectively

So it was that we left Falmouth with stronger winds blowing than we would usually choose to go out in.  As soon as we left the shelter of the land, it was as though we had sailed into a tumble dryer, except that it was a 'tumble wetter' instead.  The wind was forecast to be Easterly, which wouldn't have been so bad, but it was actually South-Easterly, which meant that, as usual, we were close hauled.  While sailing west down the Channel, we would have loved a S-Easterly, but were always battling against S-Westerlies.  Typical.

The short of the long is that we were on an uncomfortable point of sail, heeled hard over, bumping up and down the biggest waves we've ever seen.  They might not have seemed like much to seasoned cruisers, but to us, on our first international journey, in little Firebird, it seemed like sky scrapers were rolling towards us.  The funny thing is that we got caught up in a yacht race as we left the river mouth.  We happened to cross the start line just as the start horn went off and for a short period, it seemed like we were doing OK.  I had visions of being presented a huge golden cup, showering champagne everywhere.

Firebird in France

It soon became evident that there was no way we were going to keep up with the racers, who had full sail set and went thundering off into the swell with their crews sitting dangling their legs overboard on the upwind side.  Although a request to Kate to leave the relative safety of the cockpit and sit facing the full fury of the watery onslaught might have helped improve our speed, I suspected that it would have more likely ended with me being dragged along behind the boat by my safety harness, so I thought better of it and retired Firebird from the race, setting our Hydrovane to point us due south.

Even through the rough and tumble of those first few hours, it felt great to be finally heading south.  What didn't feel great was eating, or, in fact, being alive at all.  We were both soon feeling as rough as the sea state and took it in turns to feed our sea sickness tablets overboard to the fish.  Fat lot of good those did us!

Hoisting the French courtesy flag
To make matters worse, as daylight faded, we got engulfed in fog.  Luckily, the wind had begun to die down by this point, but the waves were still large and neither Kate nor I felt like doing much, especially not dancing a tango with a French trawler whose engine I could hear chugging away through the gloom but who I couldn't see.  He tried calling us on the radio, but didn't say much and just ended up confusing the matter more.  In the end, as his engine noise grew ever louder, in something of a panic, I turned us round and headed on a reciprocal course for a while.  Retracing our hard-earned steps through the bumpy sea was the last thing I wanted to do, but that seemed preferable to turning Firebird into flotsam on the fishing vessel's bow.

The next daunting item on the menu was the shipping lanes.  Luckily, by the time we hit these, the fog had cleared a bit and the wind and sea had continued to calm down, so playing real-life Frogger went well and we didn't end up getting squashed by a super tanker.

I wonder where the blue part came from?
Also, has anyone seen my favourite blue t-shirt recently?
As we approached French waters, it was time to put up our courtesy flag.  We hadn't originally planned on going go France, so before leaving our anchorage in Falmouth, we had to quickly turn an old Italian courtesy flag we had into a French one.  Kate did a fantastic job and I don't think that even a sharp-eyed French official will spot that we are actually flying a tattered Italian flag, with the green stripe patched over with part of a t-shirt!

By the following morning, the wind had died away altogether and we had to turn the motor on.  By the afternoon, the sea was flat enough that we could think about eating for the first time.

We dropped anchor at Camaret, in the gloom of the late evening, about a day and a third after leaving Falmouth.  We are very glad to be here!

The only thing missing from this French scene is a beret.  Maybe some onions as well