Sunday, 29 November 2015

Change of Tack

Our last blog post may have caused some confusion, for which we apologise. In describing our maiden voyage in Seahorse, Alex was reflecting back on the trip which took place in the summer of 2014. We have not moved her from Lanzarote since, although we plan on doing so very soon.

Enjoying the sunshine at Marina Lanzarote, with our friends Andrew and Juliet

In my last post, I described our plan to move to a boatyard in Gran Canaria at the start of November. Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, our plan has changed and this is no longer the case. Seahorse is currently still on Lanzarote. When discussing our plans with another yachtie at the marina, we discovered that he had experienced problems with the yard on Gran Canaria, with respect to being allowed to work on his own boat (or not, as the case may be). Given the fact that we plan on doing most of the work ourselves, and had not been able to obtain explicit permission from the yard that we would be able to do this, we decided not to take the risk and cancelled our reservation.

We've also had some very wet weather, with large amounts of rainfall

Back to square one, we began looking for other suitable boatyards in the Canaries, which would definitely let us work on Seahorse ourselves. By happy coincidence, a day or so later, a yacht arrived on the pontoon opposite us with a familiar face aboard. It was Fran, a friend of Firebird's new owner on Tenerife, who was sailing on a yacht with two other friends around the islands. It was really nice to catch up with him, and meet his friends. Through chatting with them over the course of their stay, we learned that the yacht they were sailing on had spent time in the boatyard at Marina San Miguel on Tenerife, and the owner had found it to be a very good yard which allowed owners to live aboard and do the work themselves. We had enjoyed our stay in the marina itself whilst on Firebird (although, it is slightly isolated and at the bottom of a rather large hill) and so this became a viable option for us to consider.

Lanzarote's drainage didn't seem to be able to cope with all the water

Fran spoke to the marina manager on our behalf, and discovered that they would have room for us in the yard from the end of December. He also told us that he knew of another steel boat who had spent time in the yard, and would be able to recommend a very good welder if we should need one. We really started to feel positive about going to Tenerife, which has a wealth of chandleries and supplies in the capital Santa Cruz, and where we would have some local friends who may be able to help us in terms of valuable local knowledge. Our plan began to evolve into staying in Lanzarote until our mooring expired (7th December) and then setting sail for Tenerife.

Captain Cook managed to rustle us up a pumpkin pie... using just a frying pan!

Meanwhile, besides the planning, we have been making great progress on clearing excess weight off the boat. This may be hard to believe, but we actually hit the 300kg mark on our progress chart. It's amazing how all the small things begin to add up – even foreign language pages from instruction manuals have been expelled, and the grams soon amount to kilograms. Every little helps. Seahorse is now sitting a lot higher in the water, and feels much more buoyant. We celebrated our 300kg milestone with a breakfast at the Arrecife Gran Hotel (after which we probably brought a few extra kilos of body weight each back on to the boat, but never mind).

Alex enjoying unlimited buffet breakfast for only €12 each at the Arrecife Gran Hotel, having reached our 300kg milestone

As well as shifting weight, we have a good deal more space on board now, and can now sleep in the forward cabin at night – luxury! For a while, this meant being unable to sit in the saloon, with the benches being taken up by sails, but we soon cleared enough space in the aft cabin to accommodate these. Additionally, Alex installed our decent foot pump in the galley and we filled the water tank, meaning we now have running water! Progress indeed. She is slowly taking shape, and becoming a lot easier to live aboard. Of course, this will all change once we get her to the yard and start pulling her to pieces, but for the time being our quality of life has much improved.

We can now sleep in the forward cabin, having cleared
Seahorse's sail wardrobe out of it

So, December is fast approaching and we will soon be on our way again. Hopefully our next voyage will be less eventful than our maiden one, and perhaps we will even be able to raise our sails on this trip! We hope that we can coax our ageing engine into service for us just a few more times, to help us reach our destination, whereby we can retire it and eventually replace it with our new Beta engine. Exciting times, and a good deal of hard work ahead of us, which we are eager to begin. No doubt it will be the New Year before we can really start our refit in earnest, but just to have arrived at the boatyard where the work will be taking place will feel like a big step forward for us, and one that I very much look forward taking.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Maiden Voyage

Kate enjoying our maiden trip on Seahorse, with Fuerteventura in the background.
That smile, and the calm waters, wouldn't last.

"Alex, there's a flashing light"

My eyes snap open and in the darkness I'm thrust into that strange post-waking state of being fully alert, but completely confused as to where I am.  It takes a couple of seconds to shake the fog of confusion from my mind.  Ah yes, I'm on Seahorse, halfway between Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, motoring into the wind and swell.  The first trip of our new boat.  I fumble for my head torch and check my watch in the red glow of it's night-vision preserving mode.  02:30.  I shouldn't be back on watch for another thirty minutes.

"How far away is it?"
"No, not that kind of light, it's on the dashboard"

Anything out of the ordinary while offshore at night immediately grips me with a primal gut feeling of negative emotion and racing adrenaline.  On an as-yet strange boat that we know next to nothing about, the feeling is especially intense.

I slip out of my sleeping bag and poke my head out of the companionway to make an inspection.  The dash is a sparse affair.  There are a couple of gauges, a rusty key in the ignition with a green light next to it to tell you that the ignition is on, a faded yellow button that engages the starter motor, and a small orange light.  As Kate observed, this little orange light had started to slowly flash.  It's immediately obvious, despite the complete lack of markings, that this light is not flashing in celebration.  It's not telling us that we made a fine choice in the diesel we purchased and that the engine is running particularly well.  No, the engineer who decided to add this little light did so to tell us that something is wrong, but what?  My brain does a sub-conscious evaluation of the situation and lets me know the most probable issue.

"I think it must be the alternator.  Let's lift the hatch and have a look"

The engine is situated beneath the cockpit sole on Seahorse.  As Kate bent down to lift the floor panel, I was running through what we might find.  I was thinking that maybe the alternator belt had snapped or slipped off, or possibly a wire had vibrated loose.  What I definitely was not expecting, when Kate lifted the hatch off, was to be met in the face by an absolute torrent of water spraying out of the engine bay.

This trip wasn't going well.  We had only travelled about 40 miles in our new boat and now, in the middle of the night, she was sinking.

This was actually the second time we had to lift the engine cover in a hurry.  The first time was as we were leaving Gran Tarajal marina.  I had started the engine, checked I could engage forward and reverse gears, then Kate slipped the lines so we could leave our berth.  I reversed out, straightened her up using a bit of forward prop wash over the rudder and was now nicely aligned between the rows of boats, pointing towards the rocks at the edge of the marina with the open end of our channel behind us.  All I had to do was engage reverse again and motor straight back.  Nothing could be simpler, except that when I engaged the reverse gear, nothing happened.  RPMs increased as I applied more aft power, but it seemed that we were still in neutral.  I tried again and still nothing.  Now I was beginning to panic because we were being blown sideways, onto the row of boats opposite us.

We were in a right spot of bother.  We no longer had any lines ashore, there was no one there to take one if we wanted to throw one, and we were soon going to smash and scrape the bows and sterns of four or five boats.  The first thought that occurred to me was to jump in and swim back to our pontoon with a mooring line, so I could pull Seahorse away from danger.  The chances of succeeding in time seemed limited so I quickly dismissed the idea, ripped the cockpit floor up and in a last-ditch effort to save the day, stamped on the gear lever with my foot.

The engine is below the cockpit sole
It worked!  We slipped backwards down the channel, engaged forward gear again and motored happily onwards, right up until the point when I was getting a face full of the Atlantic Ocean, gushing out of our engine bay.

I sprung into action, attaching the bilge pump handle and getting to work.  It is generally known that nothing is faster at emptying water from a boat than a scared man with a bucket.  It turns out that a scared man and a manual bilge pump works pretty good as well.

Upon discovering a leak, the first priority, instead of pumping, should be to discover where the leak is coming from and trying to figure out a way to stop it.  I couldn't easily inspect the area, however,  because the engine was running and it would be dangerous to lean down there, especially as the boat was ploughing through quite a large swell by this time.  I didn't want to stop the engine, because with the low voltage warning that was flashing, we probably wouldn't be able to start it again, so I just had to hope that I could pump the water out faster than it was coming in.

It soon became apparent that I could, and the water wasn't actually gushing in as fast as it had seemed.  A relatively slow leak had filled the engine bay to the point where the alternator belt had become submerged.  This had the effect of spraying water at high speed upwards, heavily dousing the alternator and stopping it from working.

Once I had pumped the water below the level of the belt, the apparent gushing stopped and it wasn't too long before I had cleared all the water.  Still being dark and dangerous to properly inspect the engine bay, we closed the cover and kept pumping every twenty minutes or so, to keep the water level down.

All the excitement of thinking we were going to sink had nicely displaced my other worry: was I going to be able to moor successfully when we reached Marina Lanzarote, or would reverse gear fail me again?

Thankfully, we did manage OK when the time came, although we hung around outside the marina until 08:00, when staff would be on hand to take our lines should we need it.

Enjoying fried egg sandwiches.  At this point, we were still having great fun

Once we were safely tied up, a friendly Dutch man came over for a chat.  He had recognised the boat, but was wondering where the owner was, not realising that we had just bought Seahorse.  The story about our trouble with reverse gear came out and he told me that the previous owner had experienced a similar problem, and had said that he was going to Gran Tarajal (where we bought Seahorse from him) to get the issue fixed.  Well I guess that after we approached him about buying Seahorse, he decided that it wasn't his problem any more.  Nice of him to warn us about it before we set off!  What with that, and the leak in the engine bay, it's no wonder that he made his excuses at the last minute and hadn't wanted to accompany us on the voyage from Fuerteventura to Lanzarote, which he had agreed to up until the point he had taken our money and we had paid the outstanding marina fees for Seahorse.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Highs and Lows

One might assume, given the title, that this post will have something to do with meteorology. That would make perfect sense, given the fact that we are now back in the Canary Islands with our new boat Seahorse. Surely, we must now be planning our next passage and be considering the weather systems that might be at play? Well, not exactly, no. The highs and lows that I bring attention to here are those of everyday life - good old mood swings.

Seahorse, back in 2014, when we first fell in love with her

Alex is rather fortunate in that he doesn't really get extreme highs and lows in terms of moods like I do. Although, he does have a tendency to get hangry and is often grumpy when he's sleep-deprived, so I guess there are pros and cons. I, on the other hand, experience life as a continuous barrage of peaks and troughs. When things are good, I'm super excited and perhaps slightly hyperactive…. When they are not so good, I fret and worry, and can't seem to think of much else except the problem at hand. Luckily for me, life is usually filled with more highs than lows, and I don't tend to stay down in the lows for too long.

Enjoying a BBQ whilst on holiday on the Algarve

After selling Red Kite, we took a short break in Portugal for our anniversary and my birthday, before heading back out to Lanzarote. A long fifteen months since departing the island, we set foot back on Spanish soil and headed for the marina. The folding bicycles that we bought last summer in Portugal were unpacked at Arrecife Airport and, laden with luggage, we cycled off with a glorious sunset behind us and our exciting new challenges ahead of us. Passing through the streets of Arrecife on a Saturday evening, the town was buzzing with live music and street food stalls. Apart from the sore bum and aching back at the end of the ride, this was a definite high.

Getting our folding bikes ready at Arrecife airport

Once at the marina (which had been completed since we left and was now bustling with people in its bars and restaurants), we located Seahorse, and hopped aboard with our bags and bikes. By now, it was dark, so I wasn't really able to see what sort of condition she was in after being neglected for so long, but my initial assessment was that she didn't seem too bad. Tired and hungry, we headed off to one of our favourite cheap eateries on the edge of the Charco and indulged in a meat stew (estofado) and Canarian potatoes (papas arrugadas). When we got back to the boat, we could hear music pumping out of the bar near our pontoon. Hoping it wouldn't continue on too late, we headed to bed. Unfortunately, at around midnight it got even louder as the disco swung into action, and continued until 6am. A few moments of relative silence ensued… before shoals of fish arrived to eat their breakfast from our hull, with their persistent "tap, tap, tapping". Note to self: locate earplugs.

Enjoying a concert at Marina Lanzarote from Seahorse's cockpit,
in the evening rather than the early hours of the morning

As the new day dawned on us, so did the reality of the task ahead. Our new boat, Seahorse, is a fine steel ketch with about a metre more usable space than Firebird. She is slightly narrower, but has a wonderfully protected centre cockpit and a separate aft cabin. The aft cabin, at this point, was completely full of "stuff", as was the forward cabin. This rendered both berths unavailable and meant that we slept in the saloon; Alex on the starboard bunk and me on the floor. The saloon itself was also full of "stuff" - even more so by the time we had each brought a large rucksack aboard, as well as a shared holdall. Every available surface was cluttered, and we couldn't (and still can't) sit down until we had packed away the airbed and sleeping bags.

Sleeping arrangements in the main saloon on Seahorse

The trouble is, when we bought Seahorse, the previous owner left everything boat-related behind, and we brought everything we owned from Firebird. When you combine the two, you are left with something more akin to a cargo vessel than a cruising yacht. Additionally, the head (toilet) was inaccessible (and still is) due to a plastic dinghy and a couple of life rings that are wedged in front of the door. Add to that an empty water tank that really needs inspection and possibly cleaning before refilling, and you are left with a unique and slightly stressful experience - camping on a boat. Water from jerry cans, washing up in the cockpit and either a walk to the toilet block or a bucket in the middle of the night, when nature calls.

Seahorse in her current state, with aforementioned bucket on the pontoon

This alone wouldn't constitute a low. I've always been a fan of camping, and don't need much in the way of space or creature comforts. However, when combined with worries about the enormity of the task ahead of us and the external appearance of Seahorse in daylight, it didn't take long for me to start fretting. I probably should have realised that a steel boat, left unattended in the water for over a year would start to look a little worse for wear, but it was still a worry for me to see her like it. On deck, the rust that we knew was there already had worsened and lifted the teak deck even more, and the rust patches that we had hurriedly touched up before leaving her were, in many cases, just as bad as before we had done so. She was filthy, but we couldn't risk hosing her down properly, for fear of causing the rust to worsen and water to leak inside the forward cabin.

No wonder the fish enjoyed feasting themselves, with this hanging off the hull!

Below the waterline, there was a forest of epic proportions - I've never seen so much fouling on a boat. Luckily, this problem was easily solved, with Alex going in and attacking it with the boat hook. He managed to remove most of the long weeds, but of course the barnacles and urchins were not going to be displaced so easily - they would require the use of a jet wash, once she was out of the water. All in all, our boat was looking very sorry for herself indeed, and I was regretting our decision to stay working for so long in the UK. This was a low point, indeed.

Alex clearing weed from Seahorse's hull

I spent a day or two lost in my thoughts and worries, managing to console myself with the idea that we could always scuttle her (sink her on purpose) if we really had neglected her to a point beyond reasonable repair, cut our losses and buy another cheap boat. There are always options, and believe me I was desperately thinking of all of them, based on my imagined worst case scenarios. Luckily for me, it wasn't long before my thoughts took a more positive track, helped along by Alex, some internet research and conversations with other boat owners.

I'm surprised the boat hook didn't break, under the weight of all the weed

Almost opposite Seahorse on our pontoon, putting her firmly to shame, is the most wonderfully kept steel boat I have ever seen. Called Tanamera, with a very friendly and hard-working German owner, she could almost be a fibreglass boat, her steelwork is that good. Through conversations with her owner, who has owned her since 1988 and managed to keep her impeccable condition for all these years, I started to feel a lot better about Seahorse's future. He didn't seem too phased by Seahorse's outward appearance, and gave us lots of handy tips and food for thought with respect to fixing her up. In particular, his use of stainless steel for the pulpit, stanchions and cap rail really interested me.

Tanamera, a beautiful steel cutter

On top of this, I decided to purchase a book about steel boat renovation, written by a marine engineer, using a birthday Amazon voucher from my brother that I had yet to spend. This was an encouraging read, which I have yet to finish, but it was reassuring to educate myself more about steelwork in general, especially as the author has experience of replacing an entire deck due to rust, and covers the processes involved in the book. Hopefully our repairs wouldn't need to be quite so extreme, but I was starting to feel more prepared in the case that it might be.

It could be worse... imagine having to maintain a steel boat of that size!

Keen to get Seahorse out of the water and get started on repairs, we began making boat yard enquiries. We already had a place reserved in a boat yard in Gran Canaria from December, but decided that we didn't want to wait that long. Our preferred option was to use the boat yard at the marina we were in already, but we knew the prices to be steep. Still, we made enquiries as to the possibility of a discount for a long stay and/or pre-payment, and I also contacted the yard in Gran Canaria to ask whether we might be able to arrive there earlier than planned. Meanwhile, Alex was busy in discussions with Beta marine, from whom we had decided to purchase a new engine. It felt like things were moving in the right direction, and I was back on a high.

Gorgeous sunset over Marina Lanzarote

Sadly, rather predictably, Marina Lanzarote were unable to offer any sort of discount to stay in the boatyard and at over double the cost of a marina berth, we realised that we would be forced to move Seahorse to Gran Canaria. Whilst the prospect of sailing to a new location would usually be very exciting, I was apprehensive about making this journey, and began to worry about the rigging, the engine, the leaks on deck, and anything else that my troubled mind could find of concern. Frustratingly, this all coincided with our company's year end accounts needing attention, so I was spending hours going through spreadsheets and statements, and on phone calls with our accountant. I began to feel frustrated that progress wasn't being made on Seahorse, and irritated that I wasn't in a position to do so. Ah yes, back on another low.

How to antifoul your boat, if you don't want to pay extortionate yard fees

Finally, with accounts and admin under control, we got confirmation from Gran Canaria that we would be able to arrive there at the start of November. This was fantastic news, meaning that we would be out of the water a month sooner than planned, and able to start work on Seahorse’s repairs. We started preparing in earnest for the 90 mile passage from Lanzarote to Gran Canaria, by first clearing out any unwanted items and belongings. This would have the desired effect of lightening her and making her easier to sail, as well as giving us some much-needed room to move below decks - essential for a passage.

We get up super early to do our Freeletics exercises by the sea,
whilst it's still relatively cool (22°C) in the mornings

We have been working hard on this task over the past few days, and have cleared out 216kg of excess weight so far. Unbelievably, 16kg of this was clothes! Hopefully, the local charity for homeless people will be glad with such a hefty donation. We now have a lot more free space in the saloon and, consequently, daily living is getting easier. Hopefully, within the next few days, we can sort out the water tank and once again use the taps to access running water. Once we begin removing the sails from the forward cabin, we may even be able to sleep in the same bed again! Exciting times!

Alex, holding a large pile of clothes ready to go to the local charity

So, right now I am back on a high, and making the most of it. I know there are lows lurking ahead (probably a good few of them hiding under that teak deck) but, hey, that's life. The main thing is being able to focus on the positive, educate myself about the reality of the negatives and get to work on the task at hand. When the task ahead seems overwhelming, I mustn't spend time thinking about its enormity, but focus on one small step at a time, and we will soon be making progress in the right direction. Before you know it, we'll be setting sail in our beautifully refitted boat, and the only highs and lows of significance will, once again, be those in the weather forecast.

Alex cooking a roast in the cockpit

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Red Kite Has Left the Building

Having already used 'Firebird Flies the Nest' as the title of the post when we sold Firebird, it was hard to know what to call this one.  We need to stop selling boats!

Moored at Windsor on my birthday
We had planned to carry on working until the end of August, then sell Red Kite, leave London and get back to the Canaries.  We had already booked our flights for this, so when the IT project that we were both working on got unexpectedly cancelled, we were left with five weeks on our hands.  It didn't take us long to come up with, unsurprisingly, the idea of a boat trip!  Seeing as we already had a boat, it would have been rude not to.

This gave us the opportunity to get some use out of Red Kite and let her stretch her legs, rather than just using the poor old girl as a houseboat.

We left Brentford Dock Marina, where we have been keeping her and set off up the Thames, full of excitement and enthusiasm.  However, it soon felt like the trip had been cursed and instead of being a leisurely cruise up the calm waters of the Thames, turned into an advanced boat maintenance practical exam.

Craning poor Red Kite into the boatyard

The first thing that went wrong was that our sterndrive (a bit like an outboard motor) started leaking oil into the river.  We didn't want to be polluting the Thames with it and also, it was embarrassing to enter a lock and have a slick slowly spreading out from our transom.  Crucially, however, if left unchecked, the gearbox would have seized, resulting in a very expensive repair.  There was no way of topping the oil up until the boat came out of the water, and we didn't know how long we had until this fatal damage occurred.  We looked up the nearest boatyard that could service the sterndrive, which was luckily only a day away.

Kate operating a lock out of hours (when the lock keeper is off duty)

We slowly made our way to Chertsey Meads Marine the next day, obviously pretty nervous about the sterndrive seizing at any moment.  Little did we know that the emergency of the day was actually going to be the engine cooling system.

Kate picking blackberries
We arrived at Molesley Lock and noticed steam coming out of the engine bay vents.  Upon investigation, we discovered that the coolant had mostly boiled away and it was lucky that we had noticed when we did.  Fortunately, the lock was actually also broken, so we couldn't make progress anyway.  A diver was in the water trying to fix a problem with one of the lock gates, so no boats could pass through the lock in either direction.

We immediately set to work fixing our
Me eating the blackberries
problem, which should have been a simple matter of pulling out the old, broken impeller, which pumps the river water up into the cooling system, and replacing it with the spare that we always carry.  Of course, it wasn't this simple as the old one was seized in place and the new one wouldn't slot in properly.  After much fiddling, tweaking and scratching our heads, dismantling most of the pump system in the process, we managed to get it all sorted.  We had literally finished pouring in fresh antifreeze mix, to replace that which boiled away, when the lock gate was fixed and we were able to carry on up the river!

We made it to the boatyard before the sterndrive self destructed and were greeted by the most friendly and helpful staff, who managed to get Red Kite all fixed up for us in just a couple of days.  We had been worried that this was going to take a week or two out of our trip.

Black Magic Pie
While we waited for the work to be done, we walked around the local hedgerows, harvesting tub after tub of blackberries.  I invented a gluten, sugar, dairy free blackberry and apple pie, which we called a Black Magic Pie.  We had to bake it in a bowl, as we didn't have anything else suitable, but it all worked a treat.

Taking Red Kite upstream after she was fixed up, looking for somewhere to moor for the night, we encountered emergency number three.  We had peeked our nose into a possible mooring spot, but it was too shallow and I managed to gently hit the bottom while I was reversing out onto the river again.  I didn't think too much about it until a few minutes later when there was a bang and the boat started shaking violently.  My immediate thought was that I must have hit the propellor earlier, weakened it, and now a blade had fallen off, unbalancing the prop and shaking our fillings out.  This was the last thing we needed: another haul out and a new propellor.

We limped over to the bank, where we inspected the damage.  As it happened, the propellor was fine, apart from the fact that tangled around it was a curious mess of white and brown.  Eugh, we had been nappied!  It turns out that disposable nappies are very strong and quite heavy when saturated with water.  A few minutes of poking at it with the boat hook took care of this problem.  The worst bit was trying to get the thing into a bin bag without touching it.  Here was us thinking that the Thames no longer contained biohazardous waste!

By now, we had received our fair share of bad luck and were looking forward to a stretch of being able to relax and enjoy the scenery.  This was not the case.

Pumping the bilge with an improvised tube
Emergency number four found us the following day when we stopped for lunch.  I shut the engine down, went below decks to write in the log and heard a familiar whirring noise.  The water pump was running, but why was it running?  I hastily shut the pump off and started investigating.  It didn't take me long to find out what had happened.  A joint in the pressurised water system had come apart.  Noticing a drop in pressure, the pump assumed that someone was running a tap and dutifully set about pumping water from our huge freshwater tank through the system.  Unfortunately, the 'system' now consisted of simply an open-ended pipe, which was happily pouring water down into the bilge.  The whole tank had been emptied, which must have taken quite a while to do because I had only filled it the day before.

When I lifted a floor board, I discovered that Red Kite's bilge has the same capacity as her water tank.  It was completely full to the brim!  Any more water and we would have seen it seeping up between the boards!

This was a pretty annoying problem, especially as I was looking forward to lunch and most things getting between me and food will make me angry.  As we didn't have anything stored in the bilge, it wasn't a serious problem (apart form delaying lunch).  Repairing the broken pipe was simple, but then we needed to empty Red Kite's new bathtub.  Bailing by hand would have taken forever, so that was out.  First we tried re-routing the freshwater system so that the pump would draw from the bilge, rather than the tank.  After all, the pump had filled the bilge, so it should jolly well clean up the mess.  This didn't work, though, because the pump wasn't strong enough to lift the water up such a height.  After some searching, we found some spare piping and could extend the bilge pump from the engine bay to the main cabin, which allowed me to pump the water out by hand in about twenty minutes.

This was our final emergency, thankfully.  I think we passed the test!

The rest of the trip was just as we had imagined.  We really enjoyed the scenery along the Upper Thames and the clichéd slow pace of life associated with inland waterways cruising.

One of the beautiful, peaceful mooring spots that we found

We put Red Kite on eBay and got lots of interest.  We sold her to a couple of families who will share the ownership and we're sure that Red Kite will be well looked after and will enjoy her new life.  We were just glad that all our emergencies happened at the beginning of the trip, so that nothing happened on any test rides and we could sell her with a clean conscience.

Showing two of the new owners the ropes

Now we're back out in the Canaries, on our new boat, which replaced Firebird about 16 months ago.  Details of the new boat will follow in the next post.

One of the many, many swans that can be found at Windsor

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Plastic Free June

It's been a long while since my last post.  Seeing as this blog is about our great adventure, and we haven't been very adventurous lately, there hasn't been much to write about!  Luckily, our life as landlubbers should be drawing to a close in the next few of months and we can get back out there.

I wanted to write about plastic waste because my eyes have been opened to a huge problem that most people, including myself until recently, have no idea about.

Collecting plastic litter along the canal on our commute to work

I stumbled across this issue when we were on holiday in Portugal.  While searching for a local restaurant to visit, I found an article about how Arrifana restaurant is saving 5000-6000 single use plastic cups a year.  This was a post on a blog called My Plastic Free Life and after reading Beth's story of why she does her best to remove all plastic from her life, I decided that I wanted to do the same.

Home made packed lunch to avoid
SUP in an aircraft meal
Kate has previously written about how we want to reduce the mountain of waste that we leave behind us as we go about our modern lives, so we were already on the right track.  The problem with plastic is that it lasts pretty much forever.  According to the Marine Conservation Society, up to 20 million tons of the stuff finds its way into our oceans each year.  It can get smashed into smaller and smaller pieces, but it doesn't ever disappear.  Wildlife confuses the plastic with food and ends up eating it, or getting caught up in it.  Once an animal's stomach is full of plastic, there's no space for real food and the animal dies.

Loose leaf spinach has plastic tags
attached to each bunch
Plastic is literally everywhere these days.  It's an amazing material.  It's durable, easy to form, comes in any colour you want, is light, strong and cheap.  These are all great attributes, but why on earth do we use this material for disposable products and packaging?  It's designed to last forever, yet most of the plastic in our lives is intended to be used just once and then thrown away.

By total coincidence, at about the same time as discovering My Plastic Free Life, my mum emailed me about the Marine Conservation Society's Plastic Challenge 2015, as she thought it's the kind of thing that would interest me and it certainly did.  The challenge was to give up single use plastic (SUP) for the month of June.  It turns out that this is incredibly hard.  It also turns out that when you're looking, it's unbelievable how few products are sold without any plastic packaging.

We like to buy a lot of vegetables and we found that this was impossible in our local supermarket while avoiding SUP.  At first glance, it seems like there are some things that aren't packaged in plastic, but when you look closer, this isn't the case.  Loose items are often on plastic trays, or the whole lot comes in a large plastic bag.  A lot of the fruit and veg also either has plastic stickers on them, or small plastic tags.

None of this fruit is free from single use plastic
We ended up doing quite well with our challenge.  For most of the month, we had less than a handful of small pieces of plastic.  These mainly came from avoidable 'accidents', for example not thinking about the fact that a drink in a restaurant might come with a straw and failing to make sure they wouldn't give us one.  We learnt as we went along, so most of these mistakes were only made once.  I won't go into details of how we reduced our plastic consumption in general, as there is already lots of information about this online (here, here and here for starters).  We did, however, come a cropper when we went camping for a weekend!

We failed to prepare properly and ended up having to hit the supermarket for our food on the way to the campsite.  Even trying to buy as little plastic as possible, the following photo shows how much we finished up with after the weekend.  In a way, it was quite useful to see the volume of plastic waste that we used to generate without even thinking about it.  I bet we would ordinarily have created at least twice as much SUP waste as this.

Our SUP waste from one camping weekend
Towards the end of the challenge, my sister helpfully pointed out that there was also a Plastic Free July challenge.  We decided to renew our efforts and carry on for another month!  Now well into August, we're still trying to keep our SUP use as low as possible.  Having finished the challenges, however, we are buying small amounts of plastic again, but we think hard before doing so and have started writing to companies to let them know whether we're happy or unhappy with their packaging.  If manufacturers and retailers don't realise that we have changed our buying habits, our efforts are unlikely to make much difference.  Once enough people start caring, however, and the suppliers realise that this is the case, then we can hopefully see some real progress in reducing the amount of SUP making its way into the oceans.

After a single weekend, the campsite bin was literally
overflowing with plastic waste

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Déjà Vu

It's surprising how quickly life rushes past when you are in the "work, eat, sleep, repeat" cycle. Evenings become the blur between each work day, and promises of plentiful blog updates fade into distant memories. Weekends are planned weeks, if not months, in advance and we find ourselves dreamily focusing on what comes next, wishing the working week by so that we can finally get some leisure time. Whilst sailing on Firebird, we found the exact opposite; hours were plentiful, days were lengthy and varied – we lived very much in the moment, thinking only so far ahead as where our next destination might be. Of course, we were still very busy with our unending to-do list and certainly felt at times like we could do with more downtime, but the pace of life and our involvement in it was somehow very different. I would be lying if I said I didn't miss that.

A crisp winter's day on the Thames

The grass is always greener though, is it not? I have vivid memories of cold, wet and lonely watches in less than favourable conditions, when I would think to myself how nice it would be to be sat at my desk, chatting to my friends with a mug of hot coffee. And, I have to say, that is one of the great things about the opportunity we have had to return to work in London for a while. No, not the coffee, but the social aspects of being around those that we have grown so fond of over the years. The opportunity to catch up with our family and friends with ease and face-to-face, rather than through phone conversations, lengthy emails and Facebook stalking. The ability to really feel a part of our social circles again, rather than sailing around the outside of them, peering in and wondering how everybody really is doing.

A cormorant displays the iconic "wing drying" pose for the camera

I do make a conscious effort to remind myself that I must make the most of this time back in London, and appreciate everything that I know I'll miss once we have returned to our new boat in the Canaries. I think that being on Red Kite really helps with that – somehow being around the water just reminds me to slow down and enjoy life. Perhaps it's down to the fact that when we step into our boat, we feel detached from the hustle and bustle of city life, at home in our little bubble and at one with the nature around us. The ducks going about their somewhat noisy business, the swans and geese that come to greet us as soon as they spot us boarding (hoping for food, no doubt) and the gentle lapping of water against the hull as we move around onboard. I find myself wondering whether I'll ever be able to settle on land again…

The view through Red Kite's windscreen. Not a bad one!

Our first month on Red Kite was spent back at Shepperton Marina – the first marina that we ever stayed at, on Firebird. It brought back many fond memories, and we were grateful for the opportunity to catch up with some friends that we had made there, over two years ago. We would have happily stayed in Shepperton, were it not for the fact that the marina is a little over ten miles from work and winter was fast approaching. After retrieving our push bikes from under my parents' house in Somerset, we both cycled to and from work most days, and very much enjoyed it. However, the weather was getting colder and neither of us relished the thought of cycling in freezing conditions, so we made arrangements to move Red Kite to a spot much closer to work.

Captain Mitchell at the helm in some nice, warm sailing gear

After a month at Shepperton, we prepared Red Kite for the passage (read "checked the oil level and started the engine") before setting off, just after midday on a Saturday. The weather was pleasant and we motored steadily towards our first lock of the day; Sunbury. It is a self-service lock, meaning there is no lock keeper on duty to operate the gates and sluices for those passing through, and there were no other boats in the lock. Alex brought Red Kite alongside the waiting pontoon, where I hopped off and secured her lines before heading over to the lock. I went about the procedure of ensuring the bottom gates and sluices were closed, before opening the sluices on the top lock gate, to bring the water level with the upstream Thames. Whilst doing this, I noticed some rowing boats heading downstream towards the lock.

Richmond Lock, opened in 1894 by the Duke and Duchess of York

When it came to opening the top gate, I'm ashamed to admit that I was struggling to push the gate open. This was probably due to the water not being quite level, but only two of the six inlet sluices were functioning and I was getting impatient with the slow progress. Thankfully, a couple of chaps had turned up by this point and one came to help me open the gate. It soon became apparent that they were with the four rowing boats that were by now hovering near the lock gate. As the gate opened, I caught sight of Alex slipping the lines and making way toward the lock. However, to my disbelief, all four rowing boats entered the lock ahead of him, completely disregarding the fact that he had been waiting patiently since long before they had made an appearance.

Heading down the Thames on Red Kite

Now, perhaps we just don't understand the etiquette of the inland waterways, but all our previous experiences have taught us two rules; 1) there is definite first-come, first-in queueing system that is ordinarily adhered to at locks and 2) small craft like rowing boats generally allow motor vessels to enter first and secure their lines, before coming into the lock with them. In my humble opinion, the second rule is common sense in terms of safety, especially when you consider the varying levels of boat handling on display by fellow boaters. However, these young rowers were seemingly oblivious to any notion of good manners or safety, as they charged in ahead of Red Kite and left her very little room to enter. From the lock gate, I attempted to signal to Alex that he should return to the visitor's pontoon, as I doubted his ability to fit Red Kite into the lock without mowing down at least one of the row boats. Unsurprisingly, given our lack of planning in defining any kind of hand signal protocols, he didn't understand me and continued moving slowly and steadily toward the lock.

A nice, hot cuppa helps warm the cockles whilst underway!

By now, there were some more support staff from the rowing club near the downstream lock gate, and I was shocked to hear one particularly brash woman yelling, "Shut him out, Bill! Shut the gate!" Charming. We arrive first, do most of the work in opening the lock and now she wants to prevent us from locking in! Thankfully, I was by now concentrating on guiding Alex in safely and taking his lines to prevent any collisions, rather than being tempted to give her a piece of my mind. In the way that only Alex can, he expertly manoeuvered Red Kite into the lock, ignoring all the helpful advice being shouted at him to "put it in reverse, you need to reverse!" We secured the lines, and enquired with the rearmost set of young rowers as to which rowing club they were from. We fully intended to write a letter to of complaint to Walton Rowing Club about their members' behaviour in the lock but, of course, the moment passed and the intention faded with it.

Teams of rowers head around the red bollard, to begin their race

Whilst in the lock, another (much friendlier) lady approached us, and said that she thought that the river downstream was closed, between 13:00 and 16:00, for a rowing race. By now, the time was just gone 12:40, so we would have no chance of making it to the next lock before the closure. We had checked the river condition before setting off from Shepperton, but hadn't seen anything about the river closure on the Environment Agency website. A quick check of the website confirmed that the river was indeed closed, and so we motored out of the lock and moored alongside the downstream visitor's pontoon. After a spot of lunch, we made the most of the good weather by peeling Red Kite's old name off her bow and transom, whilst watching teams of rowers circling the nearby bollard as they began their race back down the Thames. We wondered whether it would appear a little suspect, two hooded "youths" on a boat, removing its identity, and a passing comment from a pair of young rowers who wondered whether we might be stealing the boat confirmed that, yes, it did.

Looking astern from Red Kite, to watch the sun set

The river reopened a little before 16:00, so we carried on our merry way. By now, there was no chance of us reaching our destination by the end of the day, so we decided that we would spend the night in Teddington, as we had with Firebird when making the same journey after our honeymoon. As dusk approached and a beautiful sun set behind us, we enjoyed being on the river as night began to fall. Hampton Court Palace was lit up beautifully and passing through Kingston soon after, we admired the bridge with it's blue hue that reflected so perfectly in the still water. We arrived at Teddington and paid for our night's stay, before heading to a nearby pub for dinner.

Kingston Bridge lit up at night, creating some wonderful reflections

Sunday morning, we awoke bright and early to a misty day, and locked out into the tidal Thames just before high tide. This meant that we were able to pass through the open sluice gates at Richmond, which remain open two hours either side of high tide. We were also able to make the most of the ebbing tide to reach our destination in good time, without needing to overwork the engine. As a sailor, it's not often that the tide seems to be in your favour, making it extra satisfying on those occasions when it is. We realised how strong the tidal flow was as we prepared to moor up alongside the visitor's pontoon in Brentford. After passing the pontoon, Alex turned Red Kite to port, through 180 degrees to head back upstream, and really had to increase the revs to make headway against the current. It's at these times where we find ourselves praying silently "please don't let the engine fail" and, thankfully, it didn't.

Red Kite in her new home - surrounded by icy pontoons

So, now here we are, settled a mere twenty minutes walk from work in a lovely spot near the Thames. As I type this with two fan heaters blowing and a dehumidifier humming away, it again brings back memories of being in London during winter on Firebird. Crisp winter mornings, icy pontoons, talk of how this will be our last cold winter in the UK; it makes me smile to think that we really never know how life is going to turn out. All we can really do is set our plans in motion and go along for the ride. The one thing I realise now more than ever is that it's not always about reaching our destination, but enjoying the journey we make to get there. And given how much I've enjoyed everything up until this point, I'm perfectly happy to be experiencing this feeling of déjà vu.