Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Danger of Priority Lanes

This post is intended to fill the gaping hole in the travel advice issued by the UK government to those citizens visiting Portugal:

People of Britain, avoid the priority lane in Portuguese supermarkets.
At all costs.

A recent change in law makes it compulsory for Portuguese supermarkets to designate one of their checkout lanes as priority.  Elderly, disabled, pregnant or people with young children can cruise straight to the front of this queue, ahead of any other shoppers, to be on their way with the minimum amount of inconvenience.

I didn't take a photo in Portugal, but it turns out they have these lanes in France as well

"Great", I hear you say.  "Well done Portugal for pushing forwards to help those less able".  Well just hold your horses there, sir or madam, because until you've tried it, you don't realise what a truly horrible system this is for those poor Brits who find themselves entangled within its sticky web.

In-arms, on a walk
Our involvement with this system comes from having baby Beth, who we take everywhere with us in our arms or, more usually, worn in a baby carrier.  We won't touch on the pros and cons of this approach, but it does mean that we don't have a buggy to get in the way and are just as mobile as ever when wearing her.

We didn't realise that the priority system existed to begin with, but inadvertently joined the priority queue, which can be used by anyone.  It's not like a 'basket only' queue, it's just that if a 'priority' person turns up, they get to join right at the front.

When we joined the priority queue, not knowing anything about the system, we joined the back of the queue as usual.  I was carrying Beth in my arms and she was squirming about a bit as she was getting tired and hungry.  Anyway, it was business as usual for us until a Portuguese gentleman came to join the queue with his two kids.  He told us that we could move to the front of the queue, except that we didn't initially understand what he was saying.  After a bit of gesticulating at the priority sign hanging from the ceiling and pointing at Beth, we understood what he meant.  He kept telling us that we must go to the front.  We were somewhat taken aback and, not being accustomed to queue jumping, told him that we were OK to wait and that he could go ahead, which is what he did with his youngsters in tow.

That experience was all a
Writing a blog post while Beth sleeps
bit awkward, so the next time we visited the supermarket, we made sure to join one of the normal, non-priority queues.  We didn't mind queuing, especially as Beth was in a carrier on my front this time, fast asleep, so with 4 free hands between us we considered ourselves less of a priority than even able bodied shoppers doing the weekly shop on their own.  Moreover, as upstanding British citizens abroad, we were acting as ambassadors to the Empire.  As such, we felt obliged to queue to the best of our ability at every opportunity offered, in an attempt to educate, by example, our European brothers and sisters on the finer points of queuing etiquette.  Despite what I'm sure are their best intentions, they just don't quite manage to always get it right.

The priority system wouldn't let us slip through the checkout process this easily, however.  The sharp-eyed, diligent cashier saw us join the back of his queue so he stopped serving the current customer and stood up so that he could call to us to leave his queue and go and use the priority lane.

This took us totally by surprise.  We thought we had got it all figured out this time so with only a short walk to the priority checkout in which to think, I panicked and, dumping my share of the shopping in Kate's arms, told her that I would just walk round the front with Beth and she could join the queue as a non-priority customer.

Playing crazy golf together.  She loved this

Having a cosy sleep on Mummy
For our next trip to the supermarket, we knew that we didn't have any choice but to embrace the priority system, if for no other reason than as a cultural experience.  When in Rome and all that.

This time, we were able to mentally prepare for the queue jump ahead of us and to look up what to say when we pushed in at the front like heathen barbarians, I mean, as the law stipulated that we should.

I've got to say that what happened next was one of the most cringe-worthy experiences of our lives.  We were loaded up with a ton of shopping this time.  Beth was again sleeping soundly in a carrier, not causing us any bother whatsoever, the supermarket was heaving with the after-work crowd with everyone busy and grumpy, just trying to get home after a hard day at work.  All checkout lanes had long queues.

Undeterred, as I had rehearsed in my head, we shoved our way confidently to the front, which wasn't easy as the lane was quite narrow, I uttered my memorised "Can we go in front because we have a baby" line in my best Portuguese and then we started to put items from our bulging basket onto the conveyor.

Going sailing, but missing it while sleeping
This is where we found the first logistical issue with the system.  Of course, by the time you get to the front of the checkout, the conveyor belt is already full of everyone else's shopping.  As we deposited our shopping down, the people who already had stuff on the belt had to start shuffling theirs backwards to make room as we shoved more and more on at the front.  Once we had emptied our over-sized basket (one of the deep ones with wheels and a long plastic handle, which can hold as much as a small trolley), I was then faced with the second logistical issue with the priority queue: I had to get my basket back to the stacking location at the start of the conveyor belt.  I imagine that had I have been a doddery senior citizen in true need of prioritisation, people might have offered to pass the basket back for me, but being the annoying-guy-that-just-delayed-everyone-from-going-home-after-work, who clearly didn't need any help shopping, everyone averted their gaze and I had to push back through the narrow queue to put it back myself.

Had this have been happening somewhere in the UK, I think this would have been the point when resigned annoyance would have given way to outright fury and the bravest amongst the crowd would have been forced to quietly tut in order to let me know how discontented everyone had become.  However, it seems that even this part of queueing etiquette hasn't made it all the way down to the south-west corner of Europe yet and so the waiting customers held their tongues and just looked on with steely gazes.  I felt that I should at least teach them the tut, seeing as I had given them ample reason to use it, but I didn't feel that I could tut myself as that might have delivered a confused message.  In my line of work, clarity is king, so I decided to forgo the self-tut and focus instead on pushing my way past the queue for the third time, to rejoin Kate at the front.

Once there, we just had to wait for the customer that was halfway through being served when we started this ordeal to pay and pack and then we could be on our way.

Facing forwards on a walk in London

Our queue jumping complete, I could start to relax a bit.  Looking around, I noticed that the man directly behind us was returning my friendly smile with a much more annoyed expression that the rest of the mildly annoyed people in the line.  A glance down at the conveyor belt helped me understand why.  He only had a couple of measly items that he needed to pay for and was now held up behind our mountain of food.  Had I not been such a novice at using the priority system, I would have noticed this when we turned up and pushed in behind him, but I feel that this is only partly my fault.  You can't just go ahead and legalise queue jumping, without supplying leaflets explaining how to do so courteously, without expecting people to get it wrong, so I think that the angry man should have directed his inner rage towards the Portuguese government instead of me.

This cautionary tale will hopefully help others out there to avoid, at all costs, the priority checkout lane in Portuguese supermarkets.  Use them at your peril.

Just because it's nearly Christmas, here is a Christmas baby

Sunday, 25 September 2016

How not to recover a dropped spanner

About a year ago, I dropped a spanner down a little gap in the engine bay that I couldn't fit my hands into.  Kate and I spent some time trying to find a solution to retrieve it, but in the end decided that the only way it could be done would be with a very small hand and a thin arm.  Around the same time, we had been thinking that life would be better if we had to do fewer night watches.  We looked at each other and a lightbulb came on between us.  What we needed was a very small crew member.

When we want something, it can usually be found by trawling eBay, Gumtree or Amazon.  No small crew members were to be found there, however, so we turned to researching on Google.  This is where we found our true answer: we needed a baby.

Kate and my 6 month photos.  Kate was clearly going to win this race
After ordering, I checked the estimated delivery date for the baby and discovered that it was atrociously far in the future (like, 9 months wtf?).  If it had have been coming from Amazon, I would have signed up for Prime membership to speed things up, but Kate explained that you can't do that with babies so I stuck it out because they don't make spanners like that anymore and I really wanted to get mine back.

Alien visitors slowed our work on Seahorse for the day 
After sailing from Lanzarote to the boatyard in Portugal, we were working on getting Seahorse ready to be our family home.  While we did that, Kate was also working on making the family.  Just before the point beyond which airlines won’t let pregnant women fly, we returned to the UK and moved onto a nice ketch in South Dock marina that Kate found for us to rent on Gumtree.  At this point, our pregnant friends at work were just about to take their maternity leave.  I had other plans for Kate, though, so she started her “maternity work”.  My old manager had need for Kate’s skills for a month and seeing as we were back in London anyway, it seemed silly not to take the opportunity.  During this time I didn’t rest on my laurels, I trained hard for my role as stay at home dad by, well, staying at home.

"You can't do that in your condition"
Kate ripping out the old galley on Seahorse.
She was active throughout pregnancy
Fast forward to now and we've had the baby, Beth, for three months and she's completely useless.  I showed her the spanner that she needs to retrieve and all she did was dribble down the hole, so it will probably go rusty now.  On top of this, she didn't come with an instruction manual.  I mean, not even a PDF one written in dodgy English.  I solved that problem through observation.  It turns out that Beth is just like me: if she gets hungry or tired, she gets grumpy.  Once I realised that, things weren’t so hard.  Considering how adorable she is, I don't mind that she's actually the worst crew member that I've ever seen.  Even though she’s more interested in sucking stuff than tying bowlines right now, I'm sure that one day I will have trained her enough to take a night watch.

The purpose of this blog post is twofold, the first being to introduce Beth to the Great Adventure.  Job done.  The second was to say how well the birth went.  That will probably sound arrogant, but it’s not intended to be.  Our plan was to have as natural a birth as possible and we had already started reading around this subject when we were lucky enough to meet one of the best midwives ever!  She’s called Nicole and you’ll know if you meet her from her accent which is hard to place.  English people think she sounds Australian and Australian people think she sounds English.  She was completely on our wavelength and helped guide us down the path to the birth that we wanted.

Kate listening to her hypnobirthing CD.  I had been exercising next to her
Amongst other things, Nicole recommended a film called Orgasmic Birth: The Best-Kept Secret.  One of the people in this film urged us to share our positive birth story.  This is to try and counter the negativity surrounding birth and to let people know that it doesn’t need to be as bad as you probably think it will be.  All you seem to hear when you’re pregnant (or are with your partner who is) are people’s horror stories of how terrible giving birth is.  Every birth I see on screen involves a woman screaming out in pain as though she’s having her leg amputated without anaesthesia.  This doesn’t reflect the whole truth and nothing like that happened while Kate was in labour.  I wonder if people are less inclined to share their positive stories for fear of belittling others’ experiences, or because it does kind of feel like boasting, but it isn’t, it’s just recognising that a different outcome is indeed possible and which, with the right preparation, can be yours too.

In for a checkup
There's a joke to be made here about stool samples
Kate started having tiny contractions around 13:00, which we kept between us - there didn’t seem any point getting people excited in case it was a false start.  We were out and about and on our way to my parents’ for lunch, where we ended up spending most of the afternoon.  We returned to the boat via the fish and chip shop and ate while watching something on the laptop.  After dinner, we went for a leisurely walk along the Thames.  By now the contractions had grown considerably in intensity and it was easier for Kate to manage them while standing.  We went back to the boat to get our labour bags which we had packed from lists from the NHS and elsewhere.  Whoever compiled those lists was something of a joker.  We ended up with three bags - one for me, one for Kate and one for the baby.  We could have easily made do with just one bag which would have made our lives after the birth much easier.  Actually, it would have made just my life easier because I was the muggins who had to carry all three bags like a packhorse.  Maybe this was my comeuppance for sending Kate off on her maternity work.  Who, for example, thought that I would need to take a book?  Does that person even know what labour is?  I diligently packed my Kindle with thoughts of lounging around in a comfy chair while we leisurely waited for the baby to come out.  Let’s just say that it didn’t happen like that and amongst other things, you do not need to take a book in your labour bag!

Time to turn that bump inside out
This was taken on our way out to get the taxi

We requested an Uber (taxi) just after midnight and had been assessed and put in the midwifery led suite by 01:00.  Just after 06:00, we got to meet our little girl.  Kate had done the whole thing using just her mind and her body.  She didn’t take any form of medication whatsoever.  She was exhausted and it was definitely not an easy thing to do, but neither was it that terrible.  Kate knew that she could do it and had trained herself to truly believe this.  Her body took care of the rest, including her pain management.  Because she was relaxed, confident, in the right environment and most importantly, not scared, all the right hormones could control the process as they are meant to do.

Fresh out of the oven.  Beth was actually born on the floor (on a mat) but we soon moved onto this comfy bed

I don’t deny that the fact that a man writing about how “easy” giving birth can be is ludicrous, but I do promise you that Kate has read, edited and given this post her full endorsement.  I was there with her throughout the experience and we have talked about it from each others’ points of views afterwards so although I didn’t actually push a watermelon through the eye of a needle myself, I’m not making things up.

This is where the magic happened.  The bed was folded up
until after the birth
We got delayed leaving hospital because there was a change of shift at 08:00 and our paperwork took ages to come through.  The papers we did get were muddled up but we didn’t realise this until we went to register Beth a few weeks later.  Luckily the registrar noticed that we were about to register someone else’s baby!  We didn’t mind staying in hospital while we waited, though, because we had our amazing new baby and we spent the time lounging on a nice big bed together enjoying being a family.

A very proud father
This tranquility didn't last and that towel
has never been the same since

I felt honoured during this time when Beth chose me as the canvas for her first work of art.  She covered me and an NHS towel in meconium (a baby’s first type of poo).  Man, that stuff is sticky!  It felt like I had been involved in an industrial accident at a treacle factory.  Trying to get it off both me and Beth was something of a struggle.  More unnecessary items came out of the labour bag in the form of olive oil and cotton wool, which is supposedly good for removing meconium.  It wasn’t.  After attempting a cleanup using those items, neither Beth nor I were any closer to being clean but now she was oiled up and as slippery as a wet bar of soap, which hindered further cleaning operations.  The only thing for it was to run her under the tap and make an even bigger mess of the NHS towel to rub it all off.  Luckily I didn't have to get either of our two towels dirty, which remained untouched in our bags thanks to that blasted packing list.

Pineapples don't
induce labour but fish
and chips does
By the time that was done and we had eaten a spot of hard-won breakfast, our paperwork was back and we were allowed to leave.  The problem with the breakfast was that when I enquired if we were going to get any food, it turned out that we had been forgotten from the breakfast round.  Unbelievably, the midwifery-led suite doesn’t get much use as most ladies elect to go on the ward to give birth, so the caterers weren’t used to checking in on that room.  The midwife cheerily told me to go to the kitchen myself and tell them what we would like.  So off I trotted, which involved leaving the midwifery-led suite, walking to the other side of the floor and going into the labour ward.  I strolled in and casually asked where the kitchen was.  It was at this point that I was subjected to an interrogation that the KGB would probably have felt was harsh.  The staff on the ward had mistaken me for a baby snatcher.  It took me a while to explain that stealing a baby would be a really bad idea for me because I already had my hands full with our own one and I didn’t want to have to deal with any more meconium than was necessary.

Wrapped up and ready to go
This was the departing shot as we left
the hospital
It was 10:45 by the time we could leave and we headed out to catch the train home.  For some reason, Kate had chosen that day to practise her John Wayne walk.  Although a bit slower than usual, she managed just fine.  She was clearly in discomfort, but she’s not one to make a fuss.  I didn’t mind the slower pace because I was struggling to carry the labour bags.  I took less stuff with me when I went to live in Canada for a year!  Once off the train, a short bus ride got us back to the marina where we could begin the rest of our lives.

My lovely ladies back home and resting up after their big night

I won’t go into details of how you can prepare for a swift, natural birth with a fast recovery because I imagine that everyone’s journey will be different, but I will list some of the resources that got us there at the end of this post.  I fully understand that in some situations, medical intervention is absolutely necessary and a life saver.  However, I firmly believe that in the current scheme of things, the vast majority of women are able to give birth without it.  Not only that, but the way labour is currently managed in hospitals actually makes the experience slower, more painful and stressful and is usually the reason that intervention is required in the first place.  Clearly, medical staff are doing the best they think they can and are giving their utmost to help women through childbirth.  The problem is in the way they have been trained to do so in Western society.  If we could change to a more natural method of birthing, which is in keeping with what our species has evolved to do over the last 65 million years or so, I think the NHS could save a stack of money and more importantly, women could look forward to experiencing the miracle that is birth rather than fearing it.

Our temporary home, Anna-Maria, in South Dock Marina
Those semaphone flags we're flying in the picture on the right read "Baby onboard"
You can take my opinion or leave it.  These are some of the resources, along with our own experience, that shaped it into what it is:
  • Bump: How To Make, Grow and Birth A Baby - Kate Evans
  • Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth - Ina May Gaskin
  • Childbirth and the Evolution of Homo Sapiens - Michel Odent
  • Orgasmic Birth ( We paid to rent this film from a link on that site - not sure if it's on Netfilx or anything
  • Natal Hypnotherapy CDs, by Maggie Howell (

Friday, 11 March 2016

Road Trip

With Seahorse settled in her new home on the Algarve, Alex and I started thinking about next steps in our plan to refit her. The top priority was our new engine which, since last November, had been sat in Beta Marine's factory in Gloucestershire, waiting for us to give them a delivery address. They must have been wondering why we were delaying them so much, changing our minds from Gran Canaria to Tenerife, and never giving them any concrete shipping instructions. I think our contact, Clive, was quite relieved to get a call from Alex in January telling him that we were now in Portugal and would be ready to take delivery of the engine imminently.

Seahorse, finally out of the water and ready to work on in Sopromar boatyard, Lagos

However, as you may have figured out by now, nothing is ever simple when it comes to our plans. As we considered the hundreds of pounds we would be spending out for shipping to Portugal, we began to question why we would pay someone else to do this for us, passing up the opportunity of a perfectly good road trip? I guess our lack of a suitable vehicle may have been one fairly valid reason but, unfazed, we set about the task of looking for a cheap estate car that would be up to the job. We figured it would be useful to have a vehicle in Portugal for a few months as a runabout and for collecting/transporting any supplies we might need, and then we could drive it back to the UK later in the year to resell. Assuming it would make it that far.

Getting excited during the last 30 seconds of an eBay auction!
We were outbid with only 5 seconds to go.

The search began in a number of places; the car auctions, eBay and Gumtree. In the past, I've had great success with the car auctions, having picked up countless bangers from the BCA (British Car Auctions) auction house in Bridgwater. As well as giving you access to lots of cars, it makes for a great day out and is one of the most exciting ways to buy a car - bidding on them really gets your adrenaline going!

BCA Enfield's auction rooms were fun, but not the place to pick up a bargain

So, off we headed to BCA Enfield, in search of a bargain. Sadly, this was not to be found. I was surprised by the large auction fees, which had definitely increased since I last visited the auctions. For example, buying a car of £50-99 would attract a standard buyer's fee of £61 (well over 50%) plus an additional fee of £26 regardless of the hammer price, just for updating the ownership on the V5C. This would mean that a winning bid of £50 would actually end up costing £137 for a private bidder. What a rip off!

Reginald - our new Rover 75 Tourer, cleaned and polished post-purchase

We had been keeping our eye on numerous vehicles on eBay and Gumtree, and knew that we could get much more for our money than we had been able to at the auction. So, upon leaving the centre in Enflield, we called a chap who had advertised his Rover 75 Tourer on Gumtree, and arranged to view it less than two hours later. We were aware of problems that Rovers can have with their cooling systems, so were very careful to check for signs of head gasket failure and ask pertinent questions about the cooling system. The seller told us that he had experienced problems with the heater blowing hot and cold, but he was obviously not mechanically minded and just needed to get rid of the car. We decided to take the risk, figuring it would be a lot easier working on a stationary car engine than a marine engine at sea, and in paying £275 for a 2002 car with only 66,000 miles on the clock and MOT until the end of May, we were getting quite a bargain.

Working on the cooling system in February would have been
far more enjoyable in a warm garage!

We christened our new car Reginald, and after experiencing the same hot/cold issues with the heaters, we spent some time flushing and bleeding the cooling system in the hopes of removing any possible airlocks, which seemed to fix the problem. Result! However, a new problem emerged, in that the engine was running too cold, at around 50°C rather than the expected 88°C. This is better than having an engine overheating, but would mean that the engine would be burning through way too much petrol and could result in damage to the engine over a long period of time. So, once again we got our overalls on and the tools out, in order to fit a new thermostat. We were horrified to find that the old thermostat has been rendered useless, through someone cutting out the wax mechanism which regulates water flow based on the temperature. After reassembling and refilling the cooling system, we were quite nervous that perhaps someone had done this to disguise an overheating issue (by never letting the engine get hot enough to overheat) but, thankfully, this was not the case and Reg is now running sweet as a nut.

Even to the untrained eye, this thermostat housing looks a right mess... on the right,
if you look carefully, you can see the thermostat is missing its crucial wax mechanism

With Reg freshly serviced and ready for the trip ahead, we drove up to Beta's factory in Quedgeley and parked up, ready to slide our engine in the boot. A couple of engineers opened the roller doors ready for access, and gave Reg a very suspicious look... both Alex and I read it as "there's no way the engine is going to fit in the back of that", and we began to doubt our previous certainty that there would be plenty of room for our cargo. Of course, they were absolutely right. Luckily for us, these Beta engineers put their heads together with ours, and less than an hour after our arrival it was in the back of the car. Making it fit had required knocking the feet off the pallet, lifting the engine and cutting grooves in the pallet for it to sit lower down in, disassembling parts of the engine and removing items such as the filler cap and dipstick and, finally, cutting some wood out of the back of the pallet in order for the boot to shut. I think the Beta guys were as glad to see us driving away as we were to be leaving!

Our new engine, in the entrance to the Beta factory. We wish we'd had time for a tour! 

The next stage in our journey was a Brittany overnight ferry, from Portsmouth to Bilbao. In preparation, we headed down to the south coast and caught up with some good friends down there beforehand. I had been keeping my eye on the weather, as a low pressure system was heading towards the UK and some fairly rough weather was forecast, which we were thinking might be quite exciting on the ferry. Sadly, Brittany's conclusion was that it wouldn't make for a comfortable Biscay crossing and, twenty-four hours before our planned departure, the ferry was cancelled. I called immediately to rebook, but the earliest they could fit us in was almost one week later, on a ferry to Santander. Thank goodness we weren't just going on holiday by ferry for a week or two! The delay was a slight inconvenience, as we had to return to my parents' house in Somerset and wait around until the following weekend, but we were glad of the opportunity to catch up with my family. Additionally, our new crossing was aboard a "cruise" ferry, which was a free upgrade from the "economie" ferry that we had originally booked, so we were rather excited about that.

After lots of hard work, the engine finally fitted into Reg's boot, thank goodness

A week later, we were sailing out of Portsmouth aboard the Cap Finestère, in some blustery winds and choppy seas. Most other passengers were huddled inside, keeping away from the harsh conditions, but Alex and I were out on deck until Portsmouth had disappeared from view. It is hard to explain, but we both find it exhilarating to be on a large vessel in conditions that would seem horrendous on a sailing yacht - it's great to have the opportunity to appreciate the strength and ferocity of the wind and waves, without being fearful or worried about the safety of yourself or the vessel. We had a great night's sleep in our outside cabin; again, the novelty of both sleeping a whole night at sea without having to keep watch is one that I'm not sure will ever wear off. We arrived in Santander at around 18:30 the following day, just as the sun was setting, and headed off to find our hotel and get our heads down for the night.

Wrapped up warm to watch the sights of Portsmouth disappear from out on deck

The next day, we filled up with cheap petrol, and explored a local cave, before heading south on the Spanish motorways. "La Cueva de Altamira", which was recommended by the manager of the hotel we stayed in, actually turned out to be a replica cave and museum, opened in 2002 in order to protect the original cave from damage being caused by the carbon dioxide generated from its many visitors. Whilst it was interesting to see such a large replica, and gaze up at some spectacular reproduction cave paintings, we found the experience to be lacking in comparison to how it would have felt to be in the real cave. There was no damp smell or cool atmosphere that you would usually expect in a cave, and it just didn't feel the same to be looking at a copy of the paintings, rather than the awe one might feel at being so close to a drawing that had been created by another human being around 20,000 years ago. Nevertheless, it was worth a visit, especially with entry being free on a Sunday.

Alex never tires of driving Reg - it's his first car!
Beautiful Spanish scenery in the background

We gave ourselves two days to drive from the north of Spain down to the Algarve, allowing for a stopover in a place called Plasencia around the halfway point. The Spanish roads and scenery were both superb - we enjoyed free, easy driving with views of snow-capped mountains and vast areas of open countryside, interspersed with medieval towns. Upon crossing the border into Portugal, we exited the motorway network in order to avoid the tolls, and found ourselves driving through picturesque towns and villages, similar to those that we'd been admiring from afar throughout Spain. This second part of the journey was undoubtedly slower and we were plagued by huge amounts of roadworks, but it was still enjoyable in its own way and we managed to arrive in Lagos just before dark. We headed straight to one of our favourite restaurants, Frango Dourado (Golden Chicken), and stuffed ourselves with a Portuguese steak each for dinner, to make up for having skipped lunch during the day.

Portuguese steak was a welcome dinner, after a long drive. Under all those potatoes,
there is actually a huge juicy steak sat in bubbling gravy, topped with an egg.

It was a great feeling to have made it all the way to Lagos in Reg, having completed our mission of bringing Seahorse her new engine. Having said that, we didn't feel like the task was actually complete until we had removed the engine from the car; a job that we didn't relish the thought of, given how difficult it was to get it in there. The following day, we drove to the boatyard and explained to the manager, Ricardo, that we had an engine in the boot of the car that would need extracting. With his usual efficiency, he arranged for someone to come along with a forklift to help us unload it and, in a matter of minutes, the pallet was out of the boot and stored safely in the boatyard. Now we could breathe a sigh of relief and get started on the real work... installing the new engine!

Saturday, 27 February 2016

A Grueling Journey

In our last blog entry, Kate mentioned that we were planning on taking Seahorse to a boatyard on Tenerife.  Well, we have since made the trip to a boatyard...but Seahorse is nowhere near Tenerife!

Waving goodbye as we leave Marina Lanzarote
Back in December, we were talking over our plan to go to Tenerife while sat at a cafĂ© in Marina Lanzarote, enjoying a couple of decaf coffees.  The next thing you knew, the new plan was to ditch Tenerife and sail North to Portugal instead.  We had initially discarded this idea when looking at where to refit Seahorse, due to the length of the voyage.  The more we considered it, the more we thought it was worth giving a go.  Having never sailed the old girl, and not knowing how well she has been maintained over the last decade, the thought of setting off on a 550 mile sail was daunting to say the least.  However, being in Portugal for the refit would, for several reasons, be much better for us.  After a thorough inspection, we concluded that she was up to the job.

Having not fully made up our minds, we decided to let fate decide our destination.  We were due to fly to the UK for a couple of weeks over Christmas.  I simply said that when we returned, if the winds were from the North, we would take the easier sail to Tenerife, if they were from the South, Portugal it would be.

When it came to it we had the best forecast we would ever be likely to get for heading North, in an area where sailing North is notoriously difficult.  Our last few days on Lanzarote were a whirl of final preparations, such as filling our jerry cans with diesel.  Although Marina Lanzarote proudly boasts the largest travel lift in Europe, some of the basic conveniences for the average yachtie are sadly still missing, such as a diesel pump.  We had to walk over a mile to the nearest road vehicle petrol station, which although not far, feels like a very long way when you're carrying 70 litres of diesel.  By the end of it, our forearms burnt like we had been involved in an industrial spillage accident at the Deep Heat factory.

"Jugueton", one of the friends we made on Lanzarote
We were busy right up until the last moment.  After calling Lanzarote our home, on and off, for about two years, slipping the lines was an emotional moment.  I was sad to be saying goodbye to the people and places we have got to know on the island, but was very excited to be moving on, heading to a boatyard where we can finally give Seahorse the attention she deserves and open the next chapter of the Great Adventure.

We have had some fairly uncomfortable experiences in our relatively short cruising lives.  The one that sticks in most people's minds is the trip from Portugal to the Canary Islands, where we got knocked down in an unforecast storm.  This trip was much, much worse!

Unfortunately for our readers, there was no spectacular moment of horror for me to recount.  What made this trip so awful was that it was physically exhausting and mentally distressing for such a long time.  The passage took us 16 days.  We always knew it was going to be a slow trip, because the wind is generally North-Easterly and on top of that Seahorse's hull was badly fouled, which has a disastrous effect on a yacht's speed.  We could make a top speed of 3 knots if we had favourable winds.  Ordinarily, we would have been able to more than double this.  Our average speed for the voyage worked out at 1.7 mph.  While I was sat in the cockpit on watch one evening, it occurred to me that a toddler could toddle between Arrecife and Lagos faster than we were sailing.  After that, I kept imagining giggling children tottering unsteadily past us.

Kate's favourite pass time - feeling sick
Poor Kate was struck down with really bad seasickness for most of the journey.  It's quite usual for us to get sick for the first few days of sailing, but we have always been able to handle it between us.  Kate's sickness was on a whole different level to this, though, which was an unexpected side effect of the fact that she's halfway through cooking our first baby.  In the early stages of her pregnancy she suffered with morning sickness, but was never actually sick.  She had been fine for quite some weeks before we set sail, so we thought that was the end of it.  Not so!  The pregnancy, combined with the motion of the boat, meant that she was doing a non-stop impression of 'that' scene from The Exorcist.  This left her feeling drained from being so ill and me exhausted from doing as much as I could so that she could rest.

The sun setting while Kate steers.  It's going to be another long night at the helm for us!
When on watch, and often when off watch, we very rarely had a chance to relax.  We had a wind vane self-steerer onboard, but it turned out to have been badly installed and so it was more or less useless.  We also had an electric autohelm, but the alternator didn't work and the solar panel didn't produce much juice, so we had to save our battery power for more crucial things like the radio, nav lights and engine starting.  This meant that unless we could balance the boat so she would sail herself, we had to hand steer.  We did manage this about half the time, but this still left us steering for the rest.  This was especially tiring without a proper ship's compass to steer by.  Just how the previous owners didn't think this was a necessary feature, I'm not sure.  Instead, we had to use our hand bearing compass - not an easy thing to do.

Our glow in the dark hand bearing compass.
Guaranteed to put you to sleep
Staying awake while steering on night watch was about as likely as Kate keeping her dinner down.  The problem was that you had to rest the compass on the bench in front of you.  As soon as I tilted my head down to check our course, my body would think "oh great, the head's going down, it must be time to rest our eyes" and I would instantly fall asleep.  I can't understand how I could fall unconscious in the blink of an eye, sat upright in the fresh night air, trying my hardest to stay awake, considering that when I was off watch, snuggled down in the comfort of my bunk, wanting to fall asleep, I would find it impossible to do so, worrying about all the things that might be about to break on the boat and how I could stop them from doing so.

When I wasn't steering or trying to sleep, I was fixing things.  Because Seahorse hadn't been put properly through her paces for so many years, one thing after the next needed my attention. The following is an example day, taken from the log book:
  • Discovered water in the engine bay, so spent time pumping to clear the water
  • Investigated where the water was coming from, which meant tearing up most of the aft cabin
  • Found that the exhaust pipe had rusted through and it was the cooling water that was leaking in through that hole
  • Fixed the leak using some 'boat saver' putty
  • Fixed the leak again because the putty wasn't actually that good at saving a boat (luckily I had some epoxy putty as an alternative)
  • Fixed the leak yet again because the boat saver putty failed in another location (luckily I had rags and gaffa tape, which, it turns out, along with a big hammer is all you need to fix almost anything)
  • Filled the diesel tank from a jerry can
  • Fixed the bow light which had broken such that it couldn't be turned off
  • Lowered the Spanish and Canarian courtesy flags
  • Tried, unsuccessfully, to get the alternator working
  • Checked the engine and fuel pump oil levels
  • Tried to get the wind vane self steerer working, which proved impossible without reinstalling it
  • Spent time trying to get the sails set up to chafe less
  • Boiled eggs, ready for snacks when the weather makes cooking tricky
  • Ate spaghetti from a tin
All that took about 6 hours, having only had an interrupted 3 hour's sleep the previous night.  This was a particularly busy day, but wasn't far off typical.

With no contact with the outside world, we were left trying to predict the weather by reading the clouds and swell that came our way.  Several times, a large container ship would pass close enough for us to be able to identify and I would call them on the VHF, to see if they could give us the forecast for the area.  One day when completely becalmed, I called a passing ship and was kindly told that "there are blue skies and it's quite a nice day".  Once I had managed to politely explain that I was more interested in a shipping forecast, rather than the information I could glean by stepping out into the cockpit, we received an accurate and pleasing forecast, but the first version did make us chuckle.  Maybe he heard a British accent and thought that I must simply be interested in discussing the weather as small talk!

Like ships passing in  A rare but welcome sight: a commercial ship close enough to identify and call for weather

Kate and I both felt that this trip was the worst experience of our lives so far (mourning aside).  So many things kept breaking that we couldn't help but worry about what would break next, hoping that it wouldn't be something that would stop us reaching Portugal.  Of course, running on so little sleep made every problem much worse.  When we were sailing into the wind, things were at their worst.  We had lots of leaks from on deck, under the teak where the steel has rusted.  When heeled and pounding into the seas, water would flood through these holes, soaking our possessions below decks and forcing me to mop up the bilges before going on watch and again upon getting off watch, so that Kate wouldn't have to do it as that kind of work would be tremendously worse for her with her seasickness.  It's hard to explain how awful it feels to be so intensely worried and exhausted, without  break, for such a long long.

New potatoes and pesto.  Try it!
Luckily, we had each other to help get us through.  Bad experiences usually bring us closer together and this trip was no exception.  "We're going to make it" became our mantra and we would say it over and over whenever one of us felt particularly low.  Then we would talk about "That Glorious Day", which was what we called the day when we would arrive.  We went over every detail of it time and again, imagining how amazing it was going to feel.

We continued to have problems right to the end.  We were crossing the large shipping lanes about 30 miles off the coast of Portugal when the wind began to die.  It wasn't long until we were in a dead calm.  Shipping lanes are no place for a small craft.  The scale of it probably isn't far off a matchbox car trying to cross a motorway.  For this reason, we immediately started the engine so that we could continue making progress.  I was nervous about how much diesel we had left because we needed to get out of the shipping lane, but still have enough remaining to get into the marina when we arrived, which is up a fairly long channel that is too narrow for sailing.

There's no fuel gauge on Seahorse, so I had been using a piece of wood as a dipstick to take the level of our tank.  I did this and recorded in the log that we could run the engine for about a further three hours before running dry.  Thirty minutes later, the engine stopped!  We initially thought it had broken down, as it had overheated and seized earlier in the trip.  It was hard to estimate how much fuel was in the tank, because it's a cylinder on it's side, rather than being square, which means the level doesn't drop at a constant rate.  In our estimates, though, we always erred on the side of caution, but we obviously didn't do so enough.  We think that the feed pipe must be quite high in the tank and maybe the rolling of the boat gave a false reading on the dip stick.  Either way, we were now well and truly stuck right in the middle of the shipping lane.  This was bad.  Really bad!

I tried making a radio call to any boats in the area that might be able to sell us fuel.  We thought it would be an easy way for a local fisherman to make some extra cash, but either no one heard us, they weren't interested, or they couldn't understand my bad Portuguese.

Celebrating 100 miles to go with a packet of 'emergency' biscuits

What did happen, though, is that after a brief spell, we got a radio call from MRCC Lisbon (Marine Rescue Coordination Centre - you can think of them as the coastguard).  They had heard my message and wanted to check that we were OK.  They took really good care of us, putting out a navigational warning that would be picked up by any shipping in the area, and individually calling any ship that was heading in our direction, to make sure that they had heard the warning and could see us.  They did this all through the night while we waited for the wind to pick up, which they had told us it was forecast to do.

It didn't.  As dawn broke, we decided that we couldn't wait any longer and MRCC Lisbon arranged for a marine breakdown service to bring us more diesel so that we could get out of danger.  It took quite a while to arrange, because we couldn't talk directly to "Diesel Man", as we referred to him.  Instead, we had to talk to MRCC Lisbon on the VHF, and they talked to Diesel Man on the phone.  Guess what happened shortly after we had finally got everything arranged and relayed our current position to Diesel Man?  Of course, the wind picked up!

We weren't sure that we would be able to get a new location to Diesel Man if we moved, seeing as he had already set off, so we had to sit there for a couple of hours, wasting the wind.

Diesel Man to the rescue!
It was a great sight to see Diesel Man, who actually turned out to be two men, come crashing through the swell, which had picked up considerably by this point.  They hung around nearby, eating sandwiches, to make sure that we could get going again while we filled the tank and bled the engine, which was nice of them.

With the engine back up and running, we decided to motor-sail out of the shipping lanes.  We had more than enough wind to sail, but we figured we may as well go as fast as possible, and didn't want to stop the engine again anyway, in case it didn't start again, seeing as it had given us so much trouble on this journey already.

Several hours later, when we had to turn into the wind to head for Lagos, we took the sails down and continued under motor alone...only to find that the clutch was broken and we didn't go anywhere.  I couldn't believe it!  We had been sailing so well, faster than any other time on the journey, that I hadn't noticed that the engine was in effect just running in neutral, wasting our precious diesel.

Just 10 miles from salvation and now we weren't even sure we could make it.  If I couldn't get the clutch fixed (about which I knew nothing), we would have had to turn round and sail to an anchorage, which would have been massively depressing, not to mention stressful as we have never anchored Seahorse.  To be forced do so for the first time, under sail, without the backup of an engine, was not top on my to-do list.

After an hour of working away in the filthy engine bay, which was completely covered in oil after the engine decided to spring a leak earlier in the journey, in the dark, trying not to drop spanners and sockets into the bilge where I wouldn't be able to find them amongst the oil and water lurking down there, fighting seasickness, my work was done.  With my stomach in my mouth, I fired up the engine and shoved it into gear.  Hallelujah, the prop shaft turned - I had fixed it!

A glorious sunrise to lift our spirits
Those remaining 10 miles took us over 5.5 hours!  Once we were in mobile phone signal range, we let our families know that we were still alive.  They had been quite worried about us, having been out of contact for over two weeks.  Kate's parents, who were staying nearby, drove to Lagos to wave us in.  They stood under a lighthouse that marked the headland we needed to reach before turning for Lagos marina.  We were so excited when we saw them flash a torch at us.  We gave them a flash of our strobe light in return, after which, they got to experience just how slow we were going.  After a bit more torch flashing, they realised that, although we weren't far away (about 3 miles at that point), they had better go for a cuppa while they waited for us.  Next time you take a toddler on a 3 mile walk, you'll know why!

Thankfully, there were no further breakdowns or incidents while we slowly chugged towards the marina.  Getting Seahorse tied up and stepping ashore was an indescribably joyous moment for us.  Kate's parents had very kindly brought "Dad's special bolognese" with them, which we ate below decks while regaling them with the trials and tribulations of our journey.  I thought their sagging eyelids were simply a sign that Kate was going on a bit, but my watch told me otherwise.  Feeling exhausted was normal for us, so we didn't realise that it was well into the early hours by then.  We bid farewell to Chris and Mike and went to sleep until the marina office opened for us to check in.  5 hour's sleep, at the same time as each other, without having to continually get up to fix or adjust something, was absolute luxury.

We made it!  Seahorse on the reception pontoon at Marina de Lagos, 16 days after leaving Lanzarote
Even though this journey was so tough and I hope I never have to do something similar, I did try to keep reminding myself that things weren't actually that bad.  We had plenty of food and water, we weren't having to madly bail to keep the boat afloat, or battling hypothermia, we had a working rudder, sails and engine (mostly!) etc.  Sometimes, though, the fear of what might be is worse than the reality.  Also, the trip wasn't all bad.  We saw some amazing skies while on night watch, with more shooting stars than we have previously seen.  We got visited several times by dolphins and briefly by whales and we enjoyed eating meals together in the cockpit when we were becalmed.  Furthermore, the trip was very useful at showing us what changes and improvements we need to make to Seahorse, to make future journeys enjoyable.  What was great as well is that we completely feel that Seahorse is the right boat for us.  Once she has been given the attention she deserves, she is going to make a wonderfully safe and comfortable home for us.

Dolphins showing us the way to Portugal.  They probably wondered why we were going so slowly!