Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Longest Hour

Enjoying the Jardin de Cactus
Hot on the heels of Ben and Ash, my sister, Lucy, came out to visit us in Arrecife.  Lucy stayed aboard Firebird with us, which was the first time we have had a visitor for more than an overnight stay and it worked very well.  The forward cabin used to be a double berth, but we have converted it into a storage area for our clothes.  It was small anyway, and contains the heads, so was never a particularly great cabin.  Luckily, Firebird has a trick up her sleeve and the amazing table in the saloon can be lowered on its telescopic leg into a comfortable, generous double berth.  This is where Sis slept and the fun of having a sleepover every night outweighed any hassle of having to make the bed each day.  With three people below decks, you have to take it in turns to stand up, or else you spend all your time shuffling past each other, getting nothing useful done while performing some sort of badly choreographed dance for zombies.  Once you get the 'one person standing' rule sorted, though, it's perfectly comfortable.  Sis even went so far as to say that Firebird is spacious "as long as everyone is lying down".  We appreciated the sentiment, although you could probably say the same for a coffin.

Tapas at Casa Firebird (on Lucy's bed!)

Geography geek loving the volcanic rocks
We had a really fun week together and managed to squeeze in just the right amount of sightseeing without making the stay too hectic.  Thanks to Sis' fluent Spanish sweetening the lady in the tourist office, who didn't seem overly impressed with the usual calibre of tourist she deals with, we discovered that we could buy a ticket for entry to multiple attractions.  This made the already reasonable prices dangerously close to cheap.  I would recommend this approach to anyone doing a similar visit to Lanzarote.  The best part of having this combo ticket is that we essentially got free entrance into the Jardin de Cactus (Cactus Garden), which meant that we set that as our destination when we hired bicycles for the day.  We otherwise wouldn't have bothered going as it didn't sound that good on paper, but were very glad we got to see it.  The garden is really pretty, peaceful and interesting to look around.  It made the perfect place to recuperate in the shade with a coffee before turning homeward bound.

Surrounded by geology.  It doesn't get better than this

Exploring salt pans with Andrew and Juliet
An interesting twist to the week involved possibly meeting our first mitchyboyandgirl fans.  It turned out that Lucy's work colleagues, Andrew and Juliet, have an apartment on Lanzarote and were out here on holiday.  We met them one day for a picnic on the beach.  Once we had got the measure of each other in a well populated public place and could be fairly certain that neither party were crazed psychopaths, Andrew and Juliet invited us over for dinner, before which they took us on a tour of the surrounding area and showed us an interesting salt pan, which we weren't sure was still operational, but concluded that it probably was.

What happens when you put three teachers together in a room?  They do crosswords

Kate star gazing. She says she saw
Tinie Tempah and Bruce Willis
When I say that they are fans, don't imagine hysteric teenage girls fainting at Beetle concerts, instead, imaging someone casually saying in passing that they enjoyed reading the blog.  It's hard to say whether this was merely classic British politeness or not, but we're racking it up on the scoreboard anyway!  I don't like to assume that anyone other than our close friends and family is mildly interested in reading about our adventures, as that seems somewhat self-absorbed, but it certainly felt good to hear that the blog might be providing entertainment to a wider audience.  The hospitality that we were shown in Andrew and Juliet's lovely apartment was certainly fit for internationally renowned authors, even if we're not.

Kate and I spent a day more in Arrecife after Lucy flew home, which we used to prepare Firebird for setting to sea once more and on the morning of 24th April, we cast off and set sail for Gran Tarajal on Fuerteventura, some 60 NM south of Arrecife.  The forecast was for 20 kts NE, which we assumed meant slightly stronger, as it usually seems to be that way and it's safe to assume so in any case.  Once out there amongst it, we were in about 30 kts of wind and an uncomfortably close-spaced 2 to 3 meter swell from abaft.  Luckily we were heading with the wind and so the ride wasn't too bad.  With so much wind behind us, we certainly made good progress.  In fact, it was our fastest journey to date.  Kate said the technical term for the wind and sea state was "lively", which she said conveys the fact that it was a fast, slightly hairy passage, without admitting to any fear.  I'll go with that.

Kate in the Jardin de Cactus

Lunch cooked on our amazing BioLite (stick-burning stove)

One phenomenon we have come to rely on when sailing is that the final hour of the journey will be the longest hour of our lives and, amazingly, those sixty minutes actually last about four hours.  Whether it's the wind gods having a laugh, or an unamusing coincidence, what happens is that we will be doing, say, 6 kts with 6 NM to go, so one of us will say "Yay, only an hour to go".  Then, after some time has passed, we will get curious and check our speed and remaining distance again.  This time, whoever checks, will announce, with slightly less enthusiasm, that we are doing 5 kts, with 5 NM to go "Great, only an hour to go".  We both scratch our heads and wonder whether we imagined it already having been only an hour to go.  Next check, 4 kts, 4 NM, then 3 kts, 3 NM, by which point we're getting seriously fed up.  We should have been there three hours ago and yet, contrary to all the formulae we remember from A-Level mechanics, we're still an hour away from our destination.  On this journey, though, the last laugh was on the wind gods because as the now feeble blow died even further, the sails started to flap around pathetically and our speed dropped to 2 kts at 2 NM range, I pulled a shiny secret pendant from the lanyard about my neck.  Brandishing it towards the skies, letting rip a throaty, rumbling laugh of triumph, I inserted the magical pendant into its hallowed, snug-fitting receptacle, forged with unrivalled craftsmanship in the fires of Mordor, or possibly mass manufactured somewhere in China.  With the slightest twist of my wrist, the beast that sleeps beneath the floor was awoken and, miraculously, the never-ending final hour of the journey was reduced to a swift 20 minutes, courtesy of Rudolf Diesel.

Kate feeling lucky at Gran Tarajal

Monday, 14 April 2014

Sunny Days and Holidays

It strikes me as a little strange that neither Alex nor I have ever been to the Canary Islands before now. It has always seemed like quite an exotic holiday location to me and, in fact, before our journey here, I didn't even realise that it was in the EU, being part of Spain. However, now that we are here, we are realising just how popular the islands are as a holiday destination. This may be due, in part, to the multitude of cheap flights that exist between the Canaries and the UK, but it seems that it has long been a favourite holiday destination for Europeans seeking some winter warmth. Certainly, it is able to deliver well in this area, with very little rainfall and daily temperatures rarely dropping below 17 degrees Celsius, in the time that we've been here. The only downfall seems to be that it can be very windy, but this is nothing like the bitingly cold winds we are used to in our British winters and if you can find a sheltered spot, you are soon taking your outer layers off to cool down.

Alex's cousin, Julie, and her husband Chris came for dinner on Firebird

Our last few weeks on Lanzarote have been busy and enjoyable, with a good number of visitors flying in for us to meet up with. Some had planned to come here in order to visit us, whilst others just happened to be coming here anyway and the opportunity to catch up came as a welcome surprise. We are berthed in a new marina/construction site in Arrecife, which is the capital of Lanzarote, and a place that not many tourists stay in for long. The airport is on the outskirts of this small city, so most people arrive and then get transferred to one of the more touristy resorts either north or south of here. Costa Teguise is the resort just north of us, and south of us are Puerto Del Carmen and Playa Blanca. Luckily for us, the islands main bus station is a short walk from the marina, and from there we can catch buses to pretty much anywhere.

Traditional Canarian music is played around Arrecife on a Saturday

The buses are nice; fairly frequent and, for the most part, air conditioned. The most popular line is the number 3 bus, which runs from Puerto Del Carmen, through Arrecife and on to Costa Teguise. As a result, it gets very busy with tourists exploring up and down the coast, and we have had to wait for the second or third bus before now, due to them being completely full. Unfortunately for us, one of these occasions happened to be when we decided that, enough was enough, we simply had to do our quarterly clothes wash. Having only hand washed essential underwear and the odd t-shirt since dominating my parents' washing machine in Portugal back in November, we were completely overrun with dirty laundry. We had great plans of keeping on top of our washing after that humongous task but, quite frankly, at anchor in the freezing cold in December and January in Alvor, going outside for an hour or more to hand wash clothes was a task placed right at the bottom of our "to-do" list. And, of course, once you let these things build up, it seems like an insurmountable task that you never feel like tackling.

Unrelated to anything in this post, but our neighbour's dog Isis
is the most adorable little Beagle that we have ever met!

So, we found details of a self-service launderette in Puerto Del Carmen and set off with what turned out to be 35 Euros worth of washing, at 5 Euros a load. We finally managed to squeeze ourselves, our jam-packed rucksacks and four large 'bag-for-life' style carrier bags of clothes onto a number 3 bus with all the tourists, and headed off to Puerto Del Carmen. The journey was mostly ok, as we managed to ram the carrier bags into the luggage slots above people's heads, but leaving the crowded bus was awkward and clothes were spilling out of the open bags as we tried to retrieve them. Thankfully, I spotted that a pair of my jeans was still on the bus before the driver shut the door, so I managed to jump back on to fetch them before he drove off. As we watched the bus leave and gathered our belongings from the floor, Alex reflected that we probably looked like tourists ourselves, and people around us had probably been wondering why we had packed all of our holiday clothes in carrier bags rather than just bringing suitcases!

Spot the difference! We found this bar sign on Fuerteventura very amusing!

We decided to visit the nearby island of Fuerteventura for a couple of days, as there are ferries from the resort Playa Blanca on the south of Lanzarote. This was a fun trip, and we travelled on the bus down to a marina on the south of the island - Gran Tarajal. The trip could not be done in a day, due to the length of Fuerteventura, so we found a cheap self-catering apartment in a resort called Caleta de Fuste and stayed there for a night. It was really interesting to see the difference between Lanzarote and Fuerteventura; the latter feels a lot less developed, and most of the tourists we met there seemed to be German rather than English. The first thing we noticed about Fuerteventura was how colourful the buildings were - on Lanzarote, nearly all buildings are white with either blue or green doors and window frames, due to strict planning legislation passed as a result of campaigning by local artist César Manrique, back in the 1970s. On Fuerteventura, no such restrictions exist and the locals seem to delight in decorating their homes in a range of bright colours. Another difference is that the island is very sandy, with long sandy beaches running down the east coast. Sadly, along this coast there seems to be a large number of abandoned building sites - it seems that perhaps investors ran out of money and have not returned to finish what they started.

A calm night time view of El Charco de San Ginés, near the marina in
Arrecife. I've just discovered that 'charco' means puddle!

On our way back to Lanzarote, the sea was getting pretty rough and this made for an interesting 45 minute ferry journey. As ever, Alex and I were enjoying the thrill of being in amongst some large waves, whilst not having to worry about controlling the vessel ourselves - instead we could just sit back and enjoy the ride. Other passengers didn't really seem as enthralled. It all started off ok, with women letting out those excited/scared screams that they seem to do whenever we surfed down a particularly large wave. However, by about halfway, any sounds of excitement were long gone and, looking around, most heads were down on the table. Of course, the inevitable happened and one man was sick - that's all it takes before the sick bags start getting dealt out faster than a deck of cards in Caesar's Palace. The smell was pretty repulsive and we felt sorry for the ferry staff - I'm sure they much prefer serving refreshments on passage to dispensing and collecting sick bags! Nevertheless, they did a sterling job and eventually managed to mask the smells with strong cleaning fluids.

Ben looks happy to have arrived on Lanzarote!

Our first planned visitors were my brother, Ben, and his partner Ash. They booked to stay in the Arrecife Gran Hotel, which is easily the tallest building in Arrecife. It was originally built prior to the planning laws that restrict the height of buildings on Lanzarote, but has had a total refurb since catching fire in the early 1990s and so looks very modern. It's actually quite an attractive building, in my opinion, and makes for a useful landmark when out sailing along the coast. We thoroughly enjoyed having them staying nearby, as there were many tourist activities that we had fancied doing but decided that we should wait until we had visitors before indulging. We took a trip on the little tourist train that drives around Arrecife and, on another day, hired bicycles with which we cycled along the coast to Costa Teguise. It was so nice to be back on a bike - it made both Alex and I realise how much we miss riding our bikes, and has caused us to start reconsidering whether we could fit a couple of folding bikes on the boat.

The coastal route from Arrecife to Costa Teguise makes for an interesting cycle

We also took Ben and Ash out sailing on Firebird, picking a day when the forecast seemed best for our visitors, especially as they had no prior sailing experience. We planned to sail down the coast for a couple of miles, drop anchor near their hotel and have a leisurely lunch before heading back to the marina before dark. We let the lines slip and motored away from the pontoon shortly after midday and, as there was a good amount of wind, Alex decided to switch the engine off immediately and tack all the way up the narrow channel that leads out to sea. It was a bit of a baptism of fire for the boys, who did well to keep out of the way of the tiller as Alex called out "ready about, lee ho!" almost continuously and expertly manoeuvred us away from the harbour walls, lateral markers and other vessels. I would like to be able to claim that I was, at the same time, expertly sheeting the foresail back and forth but, in reality, we had the self tacking jib on and were very glad that we did.

At anchor in the sunshine, not far from the centre of Arrecife

Once out of the port entrance, we had a fast sail downwind to the anchorage, with the wind being slightly stronger than predicted. We made our way to the small harbour by the Arrecife Gran Hotel, as planned, dropped the anchor and enjoyed a delicious salad made with sprouted lentils. It was a lovely hot afternoon and we were in no hurry to leave; particularly myself and Alex, who both knew that beating back up to the marina in the lively winds would be quite an uncomfortable sail. Still, we said nothing and made the most of being so relaxed and peaceful at anchor... that was until the nearby sailing club started their Friday afternoon activities and Firebird found herself being used as a marker by the endless stream of youngsters spilling out in their Optimist dinghies. It was actually quite fun to watch them - I think Alex rather envied them being out in such nice conditions, as his Wednesday afternoon dinghy lessons were conducted in the London Docklands and were no doubt a good deal chillier than Lanzarote!

A view from the top of the Arrecife Gran Hotel

We eventually tidied up Firebird, lifted the anchor and sailed away from our lunch spot, heading into some slightly choppy seas. I think that Ben and Ash were alarmed at first, as Firebird was bouncing around quite a lot and we were heeled over due to being so close hauled, but they seemed to realise from our reactions that there was really nothing to worry about and so handled it very well. We made it back to the harbour entrance before anyone started to feel queasy and then had a nice gentle sail down the narrow channel back to the marina. Ben later commented that the waves had been quite big, and Alex and I almost laughed out loud at that notion. We explained that the waves had been pretty small and used a nearby lamp post as a reference to explain the sizes of some of the large waves we have seen. Of course, in many ways, smaller waves can be far worse as they are often close together and make for an uncomfortable ride, whereas huge waves are usually fairly well spaced and the boat rides up and down them a lot more easily.

Alex proves that the "box of doom" is, at last, empty! This large box has been
getting in the way since Brighton, having become a junk storage area.

After our fun-filled "holiday" with the boys, we spent last week doing the usual tasks of work on the boat,  development work and general chores. I've been making the most of the endless sunshine by getting out the yacht varnish and treating some of our woodwork to a few coats, whilst Alex has been working with wires and electronics, on both Firebird and a neighbouring yacht. We have now almost finished tidying and cleaning Firebird for our next visitor, Alex's sister, who will be staying on the boat with us! We are both very excited, as we have had guests stay with us before whilst berthed in London and it always feels like a sleepover due to the close proximity in which we all sleep. Lucy ran the London Marathon yesterday and after such a tough training schedule, let alone the run itself, she sure does deserve a good holiday. Of course, a welcome side effect is that we, too, will be having another "holiday"... and the forecast is, of course, sunny days ahead!