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