Thursday, 20 February 2014

Joie de Vivre

A month has passed since we first set foot on La Graciosa, and what a wonderful month it has been. After our less-than-enjoyable passage here, a few weeks to wind down and relax on a pretty much deserted island was just what the doctor ordered. We decided, upon arrival, that we would have a proper 'holiday' before starting any of the boat DIY or looking for online contracts, and that is exactly what we did. It may seem odd to some, the idea that we would need a holiday… after all, we haven't worked for over six months now… how much more of a holiday do we need?! But, whilst we haven't worked in the traditional sense, for the most part we have been busier than we ever were when we worked full time and, when we aren't busy, we are feeling guilty about the never ending to-do list that begs for our attention. So, our holiday began.

The captain made light work of this humongous chocolate pastry

The morning after our arrival, Warren and Faye invited us for coffee and pastries on the waterfront. Given our love of fresh coffee, and the alternative being to begin tidying up the destruction that had taken place inside Firebird on our passage, it was an easy invitation to accept. We whiled away a good few hours chatting and enjoying the sunshine – it felt so good to be safe on dry land and be wearing shorts and flip flops! We met a Swedish friend of Warren and Faye's who works as a tour guide on the island, and were all invited back to Moonshine for some lunch following a brief tour of the essential shops and amenities in the village. The next couple of days continued along this theme, with us barely spending any time on Firebird at all. Finally, we decided that we simply had to buckle down and get her ship shape, so that we could once again relax and feel at home on her.

Firebird remained in this state for a few days after our arrival

Exploring the Canary Islands is really great fun. As well as exploring our immediate surroundings, we decided to take the local ferry across to Lanzarote for the day, on a mission to find two things; 1) a local Spanish SIM card, to enable us to use the internet and 2) an English breakfast. Of course, with Mr Mitchell on board, the mission priorities were soon reversed, and we set to work hunting down a breakfast that had been recommended by Warren, in Puerto del Carmen. The ferry journey across to Lanzarote was rather rough, as the wind had been picking up a lot over the course of the week, and the return journey even more so. In fact, the following day, all ferries to and from Graciosa were cancelled, so we were fortunate to have been able to get back on what was the last ferry of the day. Whilst on the ferry, climbing up and surfing down some pretty huge waves, both Alex and I remarked on how glad we were to be on the ferry rather than in Firebird (watch a video of the return crossing). At €20 return per person for a 20-30 minute journey, the ferry is probably a contender with the Isle of Wight ferries for being the most expensive per mile travelled. However, we both felt that it was money well spent on that occasion. We returned safely to Graciosa with SIM card in hand, following a successful mission and pleasant introduction to our neighbouring island.

Waves are much better when enjoyed from the safety of a beach

Even though we were still on holiday, there were some chores that really had to be done, such as the tidying of Firebird. Additionally, we desperately needed to thoroughly clean the interior walls, which had started to grow mouldy due to the amount of time we had spent condensated over the past couple of winter months in Spain and Portugal. It wasn't something we were much looking forward to but, actually, pottering about on Firebird on a nice sunny day was really quite enjoyable and we decided that we would give ourselves time off in lieu for our efforts. Another task we wanted to get done was investigating our engine troubles, especially as Warren had kindly offered to help us determine the cause of our problems. Once again, we actually really enjoyed this ‘chore’ as both Alex and I love to tinker with engines anyhow, and it was great to be able to learn so much from having Warren there with us. Even though the problem turned out to be nothing to do with the engine or fuel system, we felt very smug at having completed half of the scheduled engine service, with just the oil change remaining before we can be on our way again.

An interesting local plant, with Playa de las Conchas in the background

As always, we have been meeting a lot of new people whilst in the Canaries, many of them through Warren and Faye and a surprising number of them being French! One evening around Moonshine, the prevailing language being spoken was French which was quite tiring for me, given my French is very much limited to the level at which most of us Brits can converse upon school leaving age. And, of course, nobody was asking my name, age, or directions to the local bakery, so I was pretty much stuffed! However, I actually surprised myself as the evening went on with how much I could understand… I just wasn't really able to contribute to the conversation. Thankfully, Alex's French was on top form, and by the end of the evening he was explaining the difference between AC and DC to another yacht owner, and arranging to take a look at some battery issues she was having – honestly, nothing can keep him away from his love of batteries!

We have nicknamed this mountain Coffee Cup Mountain, as the pattern
on it looks like the one a barista might make on your latte

We have really begun settling into life ashore on this rugged, yet beautiful, island. Following our rather awful trip to get here, I suddenly feel like we have a new lease of life. I guess describing our trip as a 'near death experience' is rather over dramatic but, honestly, at the time when we were out there in such unknown and frightening conditions, I did question whether we would arrive safely and it was the most afraid I have ever been. On the back of that, I feel compelled to make the most of every day that I have, and it’s so much fun. We have started learning Spanish by listening to CDs every morning as we make breakfast, as we intend on being in this archipelago for a good while and would love to be able to converse properly with the locals. Alex has also been playing his harmonica more, and is getting rather good! Most evenings we cook our dinner on our awesome little BioLite camp stove, using wood that we collect from around the island.

Alex managed to bake a banana cake, using a frying pan on the BioLite

We have signed up for a run on Lanzarote in March, with Alex doing a half marathon and me a quarter marathon (just over 10k), so have been running around the island in training for that, as well as working out at the local "gym" (children's play area). Even the cold showers don’t seem quite so bad any more – when I'm shivering and cringing with just my head under the water and the wind giving me goosebumps, I remind myself that I'd rather be here than back in the midst of an Atlantic storm. And, of course, once you force yourself to plunge your entire body under the spray by lathering it up in soap, it is actually quite invigorating.

Alex works his guns on the swings. The kids who turned up
later to play looked highly unimpressed with us!

Our holiday is over now, but we are a bit sluggish on our return to 'work'. February is reputed to be the worst month here, weather-wise, and so we haven’t attempted to do any boat DIY. Of course, when I say the weather is bad, it is nothing in comparison to the UK. Temperatures are still 15-18°C at all times, it just gets quite chilly when the wind is blowing and the clouds cover the sun on their way past, occasionally offloading some of their water content as they go. We are still very much free from condensation and able to wash clothes outside on sunny days, and Alex refuses to change from shorts and flip flops into jeans and trainers, despite my weakness at returning to them at the first breath of wind. We have been making the most of the colder days by getting our hands back into development and updating our online profiles, in preparation for finding some remote work in the new financial year. It has been really enjoyable to get our heads back into some technical work, on our own terms and for enjoyment and the hope of making a bit of money, rather than because it’s what we have to do, 9-5 every day just to make ends meet.

A selfie on the beach. We considered asking someone else to take the shot,
but most people around us were naked so we chickened out!

We have a great deal to look forward to, in both the short and long term. We have been invited to sail to Lanzarote on Moonshine with Warren and Faye, which is extremely exciting, as we can learn a lot from their experience and will enjoy sailing on a larger vessel. We have friends and family coming to visit us on the islands of Lanzarote and Tenerife, so we will be on the move in Firebird again which will be fun. We have also been reading about the other Canary Islands, such as La Gomera and La Palma, which sound fascinating and definitely worth a visit.

A view from the beach to the marina on Graciosa

Beyond this, we have no firm plans, and we are perfectly happy with that. It feels great to be so content where we are right now, making the most of what we have and enjoying our time together. Our dream was to break free from the rat race and set sail on our boat, heading for Greece but seeing the world on the way. Almost on a daily basis we remind each other that this is it – we are living the dream! We have learnt so much on our journey here, and will no doubt have many more experiences ahead of us, from which we will learn more still. The most important thing is that we are here, enjoying life and making the most of every opportunity that comes our way. 

A panoramic shot from the northern breakwater at Caleta de Sebo

Saturday, 8 February 2014

A Night (Not) To Remember

One final piri piri chicken before leaving
After nearly two months on the Algarve, waiting to cross to the Canary Islands, a usable weather window finally seemed to be opening up.  Each day we eagerly went back to the internet cafe to get the latest weather report, hoping that the forecast hadn't taken a turn for the worse.  It held true, so we filled our water tanks, stocked up on fresh stores from the local market, said our goodbyes to the friends we had made during our long stay in the lovely anchorage at Alvor and made Firebird ready to put to sea.

We had a 30 minute motor from the anchorage to get out to sea.  For some reason, as we made our way down the river, I was full of nerves and was apprehensive about our trip ahead.  I have never felt like this before when setting off on Firebird.  Maybe it was due to the fact that we had arrived at the anchorage in unpleasant conditions, leaving me with a bad memory of the water outside the river, or that we had been at anchor for so long, or that we had such a long journey ahead of us, but whatever the cause, I really didn't look forward to heading back out.  The fact that the sand banks in the river had shifted in the recent heavy swell rolling into the river mouth didn't help matters and we had to take things slowly, with Kate at the bow keeping a sharp eye out for shallows ahead.

The sea outside the breakwater was very calm, however, and once we had set the sails and pointed the self-steering towards Isla Graciosa, with the sun shining, I began to relax.  We were in for our longest trip to date, with the distance to cover being just over 530NM.

We made really good progress on the first and second days.  Slightly worryingly, though, the wind wasn't doing quite as forecast and we couldn't make our way far enough west.  We were still on course for Graciosa, but I had planned to get further out to sea because the wind charts showed some winds coming later in the week that would make it difficult for us to maintain our heading and which risked pushing us too far east.

Plenty of fresh fruit and veg, from the local market, to keep scurvy at bay
The following day, Wednesday, we got becalmed.  Although slightly frustrating, I didn't mind too much because it was actually a warm, sunny day, so I spent my time on watch relaxing in the sun, having a refreshing shower on deck, which was a first while underway, and watching several pods of whales that made their way lazily by, breathing loudly as they went (watch a video of the whales).

By the early hours of Thursday, the wind was back and we were on the move again with lifted spirits.  Apart from a large squall, the day passed uneventfully.  Unfortunately, that marked the end of the pleasant part of the journey.  The remainder of the voyage turned out to easily be the worst experience of either Kate or my lives.

The wind continued to blow stronger and stronger from Friday morning, the sky darkened into an oppressing mass of thick, tangled clouds and bit by bit, the swell increased.  Soon, we were fully reefed on the mainsail and, such was the look of the situation, we decided to hank on our storm jib.  We don't usually use this sail, which is made from very strong material and is barely bigger than an XL t-shirt, but going up to the foredeck to change the sail is not much fun at the best of times.  When it gets rough, it's downright horrid so we didn't want to have to go and do it again if the approaching weather did get as bad as it was looking.  To change a foresail, you see, you have to leave the safety and shelter of the cockpit and slowly make your way along the length of the boat, clinging on to whatever strongholds you can, trying not to get knocked off your feet as the boat rolls unpredictably beneath you, the wind tugs at your clothes, spray stings your eyes and your safety harness capitalises on every opportunity it can to tangle round your legs and trip you up.

Once you have made your way forward, you now have to scramble around on your hands and knees on the wet, slippery deck while the bow rises high over the crest of each wave before plummeting down into the trough behind.  With your weight all the way forward, the bow delights in being able to sink low enough to grab a nice scoop of water and throw it all over you.  As an added bonus, rising and falling this violently will soon make you feel seasick, so on top of everything else, you're now also trying to keep your lunch down.

When a sail is set, it is a graceful, elegant, docile creature, delighted to be out in the open air and happy to obey your every command.  When you start taking the sail down, however, it realises that it is going to get crumpled up and stuffed back into a smelly, damp, mildewy sail bag.  It then, quite understandably, starts to resist with all its might.  At the slightest loosening of the halyard, the sail turns into a writhing, hissing tangle of fabric and rope, resisting all attempts to grab hold of it and pull it down onto the foredeck, flicking just out of reach whenever you lunge for it, then countering your attack by whipping you in the face, striking with the speed and ferocity of an angered scorpion whenever you lower your guard.

Things starting to get lively.  It's blowing just over 30kts here.  No photos of the bad stuff later on because we were too busy changing into our brown-coloured trousers to avoid later embarrassment

We were as ready as we were going to get and now we just had to wait and see what was going to happen.  For several hours, we were flying along in 30 - 35 kts wind.  It was nice to be making such good progress, but worrying that we were at the upper limit of what we could comfortably handle with our current sail plan. As long as it didn't blow any harder, we would be just fine.  Guess what?  It blew harder.  We started to heel ever further and the anenomenter (wind meter) crept up to 40 kts.  Our mainsail's second reef was far too big for these conditions, so when Kate popped her head out of the hatch, prompted by the sudden increase in heel angle, I told her that it was time to drop the main.

Luckily, Kate was up on deck, we were both dressed in our wet weather gear and clipped on with our safety harnesses and ready to lower the main when the wind took another jump in speed.  In a breath, it was blowing 50+ kts (when I glanced at the anenometer, I saw 52).  The wind was howling around us and the noise it makes as it tears through the rigging at these speeds is truly frightening, hammering home just how much force the wind can deliver, as if you couldn't already tell by how hard it was to stand up and the punishment that poor Firebird was taking.  At this point we were heeled at about 70 degrees.  Before we had managed to release the main halyard, a large wave smashed into us, knocking Firebird completely flat in the water.  I was now standing on the side of the cockpit, where your back would usually rest if you were sitting down, with water covering my feet.  I looked down and thought how incredible it was that I was half a step away from a 4km drop to the ocean floor.  Worryingly, I could also see that a vent leading below decks was now submerged with water able to freely flow down it.  Kate, who had been at the foot of the mast about to release the main halyard, was now clinging to the mast as you might find a koala bear affixed to a eucalyptus tree, staring down into the ocean with her face a few inches above the water.

As terrifying as it was to be in this situation, the fright only lasted an instant and instead of being overrun by panic, we both felt immensely calm and found that we had total focus on the task at hand.  I felt almost like a puppet, aware of what I was doing, but not feeling as though I was driving myself to do it, as if someone else was pulling the strings.  Firebird was only laid flat in the water for a number of seconds, and as she started to right herself, we finished the job of lowering the mainsail.

Before the knockdown occurred, we had discussed our options and decided that pressing on was the best one.  With an additional 20kts of wind, this was no longer possible.  Without going into all the details, the overruling problem with the other choices was that, due to the unexpected wind direction up to this point in the voyage, we weren't far enough west and were now too close to the Moroccan coast for comfort.  This is a dangerous shore to approach in heavy weather and something that we would avoid at all costs, as we could be wrecked in huge breaking swell.  We weren't in any immediate danger, but we didn't know how long the storm would be blowing because we couldn't trust the weather forecast we had.  For now, though, the only thing for it was to bear off the wind and lose some of our sea room, hoping that the wind would die down or change direction before we got too far east.

I set the Hydrovane (self steering equipment) for the new heading and let Firebird turn onto her new course.  With our mainsail down, and heading with the wind, the ride became more comfortable.  I looked at the wind direction indicator and couldn't understand what I was seeing.  It said that we were still heading into the wind.  A look at the wind vane on top of the mast confirmed the true wind direction and revealed that the electronic sensor was missing - either blown away of washed off when we got knocked down.  I checked the compass to confirm our new heading and again couldn't understand the reading I saw.  Surely the compass wasn't broken as well?  A check of the GPS corroborated the compass' heading and we were now sailing on the best point of sail to ride out the storm and, incredibly, at that moment, the wind had veered by about 120 degrees so that our course on the new point of sail was still taking us directly towards the Canary Islands.

Kate is glad to be alive after the storm
Hugely relieved to be heading away form the Moroccan coast, there was nothing else to do than head below decks, close the hatch and hope for the best.  We spent the evening and all night in bed, trying to sleep, which was almost impossible with Firebird getting thrown about by large waves, hoping that nothing would break and trying to ignore the horrible sound of the sea punishing our hull.  We maintained a watch of sorts, but it was impossible to see anything out there because the waves were so big and even going over the top of one, the spray getting blown up reduced visibility to nearly nothing.  Even though we hadn't seen any other ships for days, it was still disconcerting to be sailing along so quickly without being able to see where we were going.  We were comforted by the fact that our AIS transponder would let any large ships know that we were there and we hoped that no other yachts were stuck out there with us.  To say that it was a long, scary night is something of an understatement.

The wind continued to blow hard for most of Saturday and when it did ease off, it backed and we had to get the mainsail up again to be able to maintain our course for the Canaries.  It was an unpleasant, squally evening and night and even though the weather wasn't half as bad as it had been the night before, we were both frightened whenever a squall blew through in case the weather took a turn for the worse again.  To top off the whole nightmare scenario, we were feeling seasick, partly because of how rough the seas were and partly because we were so worried the whole time.

I'm also glad to be alive, shortly before arriving
Through all this, however, we had the immense comfort of being able to talk to a very experienced good friend, Warren, on his boat with his wife, Faye, already safely moored ahead of us in the Canary Islands, using our SSB radio.  We talked twice a day and could give him our position report (in case the worst happened) ask his advice and generally be reassured by hearing a friendly voice crackling through the static of the airwaves.  The only thing that really kept us going once the storm had hit was that fact that Warren and Faye said they had visited the butchers and bought the most delicious, huge, pork steaks, which were in the fridge, ready to be tossed into a frying pan and served with all the trimmings as soon as we arrived.  We were eating very little and were not able to prepare any proper food due to it being so rough and because we felt sick.  After a week at sea, we were also looking forward to having showers and when we asked about this, Warren said not to worry, the facilities at the marina were open 24 hours.

Up with the Spanish courtesy flag once more.  Canary Islands in background
By Sunday, the weather had improved immensely and although there were squalls blowing through, bringing strong wind and rain, we could easily see them and prepare well before they were upon us.  Apart from that, we had favourable wind all the way up to the marina entrance on Graciosa.  You can imagine how excited we were when we could actually see the Canary Islands and watch them growing bigger by the hour as we approached.

As it turned out, we were incredibly lucky to be able to sail right up to the breakwater in light wind because just when we thought we were finally safe and could relax, as Kate dropped the mainsail and I put the engine into gear to take us into the marina, nothing happened.  The engine was running, but generating very little power.  I pushed the throttle further and further forward right up to full power but we were barely able to crawl forward against the gentle breeze and the whole boat was shaking in a most alarming manner, as though we were sailing a Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed borrowed from a sleezy 1970's American motel.  I'm sure that I would have been able to tow Firebird faster swimming than the motor was managing and we had a really hairy time getting through the breakwater, hoping that the engine held out long enough to avoid getting wrecked by the very rocks that we had come to seek shelter behind.  I sent Kate forward again to prepare the anchor for an emergency deployment in case we needed it and then we just sat tight while the fillings got shaken out of our teeth and Warren and Faye jumped up and down waving from ashore to welcome us, probably wondering why on earth we had decided to cover the last 50m at 0.5kts.

We managed to limp to our berth and I cannot express how much relief we felt as the warps were made fast and Firebird was finally safe, soaking up the Canarian sun on her deck.

Safely moored in the marina on Isla Graciosa

As for those showers we were promised, yes, they were open 24 hours, but what Warren hadn't had the heart to tell us while we were getting pasted out in the Atlantic was that they were freezing cold!  Never mind, getting cold and clean was preferable to remaining warm and pungent and the pork steaks more than made up for the icy dousing.  As we sat there eating the best meal we had tasted in a long while, in the company of such good people, we began to unwind and reflect on the ordeal we had been through to get here.

Being able to sail our home wherever we like, from country to country, is the greatest freedom we could ever hope to achieve.  Most of the time the sea is a beautiful place, full of wonderful, intriguing creatures and we are lucky to have the opportunity to experience it.  From time to time, though, this tranquil paradise turns into the most frightening place on Earth.  It's hard to believe that these are two faces of the same environment and when you're experiencing the one, it's almost impossible to believe that the other exists.

When making longer passages, it's inevitable that we will sometimes get unlucky with the weather.  What hit us this time, although terrifying, was by no means the worst the sea can do and we were thankfully able to survive with no damage to ship or crew.  Now that we have had a taste of the bad stuff, we have to decide whether all the pleasures that this life provides are worth the price that Poseidon can demand.  This experience will definitely be in our minds when we plan future passages and only time will tell how much influence it will have on our choices.  In the mean time, we're really enjoying being on Graciosa, with a renewed joie de vivre and strengthened respect for the oceans that we have chosen to travel.

Engine troubles?  Nope, it turned out to be fishermen troubles, with their blasted old nets tangled in our prop

If you recognise this rope, feel free come and get it back.  It comes with a complimentary piece of my mind