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!