Canary Islands

Otra Vida’s last visit to the Canaries was in October 2010, just before crossing to St Lucia with the ARC.  It was too short a visit: a memorable week in Graciosa, a few days in Lanzarote, and a couple of frantic weeks in Las Palmas preparing for the crossing and surviving the ARC pre-departure parties.  This time we were determined to spend longer and explore the islands more. 

Maret reflected in the Atlantic on New Year’s Day
Landfall at Graciosa was at dawn after a windless 100% motoring four day passage from Rabat – our first New Year at sea, when the VHF came alive with New Year greetings in all kinds of languages: Spanish and French of course, also Russian, English, German, Arabic (I think) and several other languages that we couldn’t recognize.  Maret added Estonian to that mixture.  On board we celebrated with slow-roasted lamb and a reduction sauce, cava, and the Spanish tradition of 12 grapes at midnight – a brilliant piece of Ivy Lee-style marketing to resolve a grape glut in the 1930s that stuck, and which has ensured that no-one in Spain takes photos of each other at New Year’s midnight, as everyone has pouched cheeks with 12 grapes stuffed inside.
Lanzarote from the Graciosa anchorage
This time our visit to Graciosa was tranquil.  The anchorage, which last time had about 30 boats, had just 3.  Last time Wendy, Szilvi and I ended up partying with Dani, the local kingpin, and Rufi, his trusty sidekick, seemingly every night, either ashore, on Otra Vida, or on Dani’s farm in the uplands.  This time they and their boat were not in evidence, giving our livers a pass on the serious workout that would have undoubtedly ensued.
La Graciosa
Following a drizzly week in Las Palmas getting our refrigerator fixed we headed south and started to learn about the very localised nature of high island weather.  Being finally in the trade wind belt the big picture was fairly consistent N-NE-E winds of 12-20kts. However the wind behaviour around the islands is more complex: a bit like water around a rock in a stream.  The water on the upstream side bunches up around the rock … this happens with clouds, so the NE sides of these islands are typically cloudy, and therefore somewhat cooler because of the reduced amount of sunlight.  On the downstream side of the rock there is a slack-water eddy, similarly on the SW side of the islands there are rarely clouds or wind, and it is sunnier and warmer.  On the sides of the rock, the water flows more quickly, logically, as the water bunched upstream of the rock has to go somewhere.  This happens with the wind around the islands too, with “acceleration zones” to the sides where the wind can be 10-20kts higher than the prevailing wind.
Gran Canaria
All this leads to interesting sailing conditions.  Going E or W from the south of an island there are dead calm conditions for the period you are in the wind-shadow of the island, and then suddenly within 500m you are in strong winds, quite often 30+kts.  In anchorages a few hundred meters can make a significant difference in the amount of cloud or the amount of wind you experience, and a 10 or 20 degree change in wind angle can turn an anchorage from comfortable to swelly and untenable.   Anchoring and sailing here is never routine, and I’m grateful we were able to stay long enough to learn about it.  It is knowledge that will be useful in the Cape Verdes and no doubt in island anchorages further afield.
Oops, time to get the sail repair kit out
The biggest effects come from the biggest mountains.  Mount Teide on Tenerife is the highest mountain in the Canaries, and in Spain.  There is a cable car that moves you to 300m below the summit in minutes, and which is, apparently, the #1 tourist attraction in Spain by visitor numbers, a claim I find surprising.  We chose a foot ascent instead, starting a few kilometres away from the cable car, hiking past Montana Blanca … pale yellow rather than white, and impressively stark with eroded hills and almost no vegetation.  After a couple of kilometres of easy walking along pista we started the real ascent up a mountain path.  Nothing difficult but considerably steeper.  3 hours later, passing through patches of snow, we arrived at the refuge, a pleasant enough place as refuges go, bizarrely offering wifi access, electricity and vending machines, but no meals or drinks service.
The following morning we were away by 6.30am, and tramping through frozen snow and ice with crampons we watched the beginnings of sunrise far away over Gran Canaria.  The sky slowly filled in with pink and tangerine as we continued along.  There is only one officially sanctioned path up Teide, from the cable car station, but serendipitously we lost the faint path leading there from the refuge in the half light and decided instead to follow another older path up the steep scree slopes to the summit.  This was nicely challenging, and as we later realised, a much more interesting choice.
On top of Teide, sulphur clouds wafting by
After scrambling the steep, loose last 50m to the summit ridge we were on top.  The summit is wafted in hot sulphury steam from fumaroles in the summit crater and along the ridge – this is a sleeping volcano, not a dead one.   The now fully risen sun cast a perfect shadow of the triangular peak of Teide onto clouds well below us.
Teide’s morning shadow
After half an hour on top, and feeling a little nauseous from the sulphur fumes, we descended the official route down to the cable car station, where all other official routes on the massif converge.  The route down is almost like a stairway, built from formidable stones and very well maintained, and designed for people in running shoes or even sandals to go up and down.   Our route up, officially illegal, was far more satisfying.
On arrival at the cable car station we were told that all routes (including the one we had descended from the summit) were closed because of snow!  The rangers would not let us take our chosen onward route to Pico Viejo, or any other route, even with our crampons and faced with the obvious fact that by being there we’d already done some much more challenging walking that morning.  They were apologetic, but said they were under strict instructions from their superiors.  We descended the cable car and walked across the valley bottom through a pretty desert landscape to the Parador, where we had a room booked for the evening.
Teide’s caldera
Teide, while still a real mountain and wild in its moonscape ruggedness, has been tamed into a safe, controlled tourist attraction, almost a theme park.  I do understand the desire to avoid accidents in a tourist attraction, but the mountains are a place of freedom, and something has been lost in the process of taming Teide.  I wonder if the core issue here is one of judgement: the rangers could clearly see we were able to handle ourselves in the fairly mild conditions on the mountains, but to let us take a path would have meant a personal judgement, and how to explain that judgement and the potential commercial disruption if one of us had an accident, say a broken ankle?   Ultimately the over-avoidance of risk results in the loss of passion, of pleasure, of adventure.  It’s a balance, of course, and there are plenty of other mountains in the world that are not tourist attractions where we can roam freely.  But still it is a little sad.
After a relaxed day by the pool at the Parador we hiked to the rim of the caldera and did a long, long descent almost to the coast.  The trail took us up into barren high desert, with patches of ice remaining in sheltered places, then through alpine pine forests, a high cloud forest with Spanish moss hanging from the trees, temperate forest, lush tropical shrubs almost like a planned botanical garden, a gorge with German rock climbers on the walls, and finally to a small village where we caught a bus back to the boat.  A lovely day.
Lazy navigation in the wind shadow of La Gomera
La Gomera is one of the smaller, less developed islands of the Canary group.  It’s a day sail from the bottom of Tenerife, and much of the island is uninhabited.  
Valle Gran Rey, on the western side, retains a contingent of aging hippies, mostly German.  Headbands, scarves, baggy pastel-coloured trousers and wire rimmed granny glasses seem de rigueur.  People use skateboards, scooters or highly personalised bikes to get around. On Sundays there is the hippie market near the bus station, selling handicrafts, hand-made jewellery, incense, muesli and hippie clothes.  There’s a gentleness to the place, a feeling of relaxation.  It reminds me of Aspen or Boulder in Colorado.
La Gomera
Sailing into Vueltas, the tiny port near Valle Gran Rey, and looking for a suitable anchorage through binoculars, I saw what appeared to be a person sitting on a stone beach underneath sheer cliffs.  It seemed impossible to get to the beach, so I guessed it was some washed up clothing on a rock.  Several days later Maret was exploring the area and came close to the beach.  She noticed there was a removable ladder, a pair of running shoes with pristine white socks, and … living in a cave … a well-groomed single guy!  So, single ladies, a prospect for you: a waterfront residence with a private beach and an eligible bachelor.  Maret has the details.
La Gomera
Vueltas anchorage, La Gomera
The island rises steeply up 1000m from sea level, then rounds out into a rather gentle and hilly interior plateau.  There have been several major wildfires on the island, wiping out huge areas of shrubs, and leaving charred but mostly living palm trees.  New shrubs have filled in the gaps from older fires, and the most recent, in 2012, has left blackened shrub skeletons against a carpet of pale green moss.  In the steep valleys there are old agricultural terraces in the most unlikely places, often with impossibly green grass.
Charred forest, Garajonay, La Gomera
Hiking in La Gomera was a real highlight.  The trails near the coast are spectacular, scaling seemingly impassable cliff bands through cleverly meandering paths.  From our anchorage it was a short walk to the meditation hotel on the naturist Playa de Argayal, and the path next to it leads up a ravine, entering into a lost world of terraces, cliffs, easy scrambling, finally arriving at a tiny isolated church-ette perched high up on the side of a valley.  Over two days we hiked to the summit of the island, Garajonay, where we had views across to Teide, piercing through the cloud layer and still showing traces of snow near its summit, and to the islands of El Hierro and La Palma, some 40+ miles distant and finely detailed in the ultra-clear air.  Our hike back to Valle Gran Rey was via yet another clever, precipitous, fairly straightforward path down apparently impassable cliff bands.   This is hiking of a very high quality indeed – “dream mountains of our Eden” to borrow a line from Jethro Tull.
Hiking in La Gomera
The Canary Islands are easy for us to spend time in.  It’s 2 ½ months since we arrived, and it would be easy to spend longer here.  We’ve visited just four of the eight islands, and there is still much to explore.  Another six months would be straightforward.  But it is time to get moving.
Liz Clark is a surfer who decided to become a cruiser.  Her wonderful blog, The Voyage of Swell, tells the story and contains much good writing describing her boat challenges, life thoughts and her particular cruising approach (surfing, sunsets and salads).  Unlike most yachties, Captain Lizzy actively seeks out places with great surfing … the rest of us try to avoid them, preferring calm anchorages.  For the New Year she wrote a piece outlining her philosophy of life.  It’s a good read, full of joie de vivre, perhaps edging on naïve at times, but so full of optimism and spirit that it is hard not to be inspired by it.  A sentiment she includes in it: “I say that comfortable is caustic”. 
Tenerife from Garajonay, La Gomera
Our trip since leaving Estonia has been entirely in our civilizational comfort zone.  Iberia is easy to enjoy; Morocco, while certainly different from Europe, is a place of great civilisation; and the Canaries are a variant of Iberia.  There is much to like in all these places, and I’m grateful we have been able to enjoy them, learn from them, and hopefully give something back to the great people we’ve met.
But the time has come to move on.  Perhaps the curse of the Flying Dutchman?  Or perhaps the wanderlust of the rootless cosmopolitan?  Whatever it is, we have spent too long in our comfort zone, and we’re ready to point the boat south.  The first stop is the Cape Verdes, islands which are most definitely not Europe anymore.


Arriving in Rabat in calm conditions

I’ve noticed that sometimes borders between cultures can induce a concentration of cultural characteristics, making differences more stark.  This is certainly the case in the area south of Maastricht, where the Dutch and French areas of Belgium come together.  The Flemish villages on the border are more stridently Dutch than in the Netherlands, and the French villages are almost like film sets in their Frenchness.

Bouregreg river between Rabat and Sale
In Rabat one sees this in the relatively few bars in this predominantly Muslim city.   The bars are markedly different to life outside – you walk through the door and enter into another world … rather like the magic realism bar in the Transglobal Underground song Stoyane/Male-Le.    Each bar is different, and each in their respective way has turned the dial up to 11, whether it be a shabby drinking hole that feels like it could get violent or a get-lost-in-here-and-never-leave softly lit womb of warmth.   El Trianon manages to pack three different bars into its two rooms, each with a different atmosphere.  The lighting is low, the TV plays movies silently, the music is great – really great – and the bar staff friendly and mostly female.  The clientele is male and Moroccan.  At the times I’ve visited in 2010 and this year we’ve been the only foreigners there, and the only women not working there have been those in our party.  It’s a bar that would be memorable in any city of the world.

The Medersa in Sale

Arriving there one night in November we sat at one of the bars and asked a few questions about drinks in my schoolboy French.  The bar server didn’t understand my shabby pronunciation, and the Moroccan gentleman sitting next to us tried to help.  After our drinks were served he continued the conversation:

“Vous etes Francais?”  (rather obviously not!)

“No, je suis anglais”

“Ah, then you speak English”

Searching for the spirit of William
Burroughs at Cafe Hafa, Tangier
His English was excellent – very proper, well enunciated, not English learned from a book.  We talked about our respective lives, travel, Morocco, sailing.  Aziz was a Moroccan diplomat who was in Budapest for several years, 2005 being the year he left and the year I arrived.  Reminiscences about Hungarian life, restaurants, places, people, politics.  We knew people in common.  He went on to India, then to Dublin, and is now back in Rabat sipping whisky at Le Trianon.

Desert music in the evening
The desire to enjoy, the pursuit of pleasure in these bars, brings to mind the words of the teenage protagonist in Vernon God Little, who, having participated in an evening of extraordinary debauchery in a Mexican roadside bar involving iguana impersonations, muses on how something in America seems to stop people really partying.  I think the same is often true of Europe too.  The falling-down-drunk tedium of Magaluf in the summer or Cancun at spring break doesn’t come close to the real thing.  The crazy bars of Rabat are a little closer.

Sand dunes near the Algerian border
We went exploring the desert close to the Algerian border during a visit from Annamaria.  We hiked sand dunes for sunset and sunrise, tried snowboarding down them (Annamaria, an excellent snowboarder, fared better than Maret and I), and saw amazing landscapes … reminiscent of the US desert southwest, but with different architecture, and very different clothing.  Most of the houses were build from adobe, and when these are not scrupulously maintained they slowly melt away.  In one town we saw a whole neighbourhood that looked biblical in age.  Our guide told us it was the old Jewish quarter, and that the residents had moved away “to build their country” in 1950s and 60s … just 50 years without maintenance and the houses already looked like ancient monuments.   I loved the gentle way he talked about the Jewish residents leaving “to build their country”, and commented on it, which led him to explain the Berber approach to religiosity – how the berber flag symbolises Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and how Berber villages had historically been viewed as safe places for people of all religions.  Would that it was this way everywhere.
The old Jewish quarter, abandoned in the 1950s

Annamaria snowboarding down to our camels
On the train to take Easyjet to the UK for my mother’s 80thbirthday celebrations, we’re sitting in a compartment with a middle aged Moroccan businessman, shoes off, quietly chanting religious devotions that he is reading from his tablet PC propped up on the table.  Although dressed in western clothes, the dark thumb-print mark on his forehead tells that he is a devout Muslim.   His gentle sing-song verses are interrupted from time to time by the aggressive chirping of his mobile phone, which he answers immediately, seamlessly switching from Allah to Mammon for as long as it takes, and then back.

Morocco is modernizing everywhere.  That is its right, of course, and it’s not a bad thing.  My impression is that the government is trying to pull off what Japan has achieved: to become a completely modern place, while not losing their own culture, as all too often modernising equates to westernising.  The results in Morocco are generally good, but there are exceptions.

Baggage transport from the taxi to our hotel
After the desert we went to the film studios of Ouarzazate, and then to the real life disaster movie called Marrakech.  Really, what has happened to this place?  Is this even Morocco?  I’ve been here a half dozen times and remain unimpressed.  It seems to me that the way to enjoy Marrakech is to stay in a lovely riad and to rarely leave it, something I did on one occasion.  The city itself has little to offer in architecture and ambience outside of the riads, and Djemma el Fna, the main square that I used to consider the reason for staying one night in town, has become such an unpleasant experience that I can’t say I want to return here again.  Even compared to 2010, the last time I was here, this has deteriorated into more of a circus.  Constant aggression from touts means you are simply unable to walk on the square now … and if you don’t respond to their aggressive interventions you get a stream of insults.  Maret was called racist more than once, I was called German (something I have no problem with, but their tone indicated it was meant as an insult).  Just so unpleasant.

High Atlas morning
Contrast this with our welcome after hiking in the Atlas mountains, arriving late at our small hotel where the owner, a mountain guide, had prepared a room for us with a wood fire to warm it up, and mint tea moments after arrival to fortify us.  We had a similar reception arriving in the high refuge on Toubkal.  Friendly smiles, caring people, almost overwhelming hospitality.

Toubkal summit – a bit chilly up there
In the Atlas mountains we had an interesting time pondering limits.  I am not much of a fan of limits, especially my own, and try to ignore them.  Goethe expressed this with an elegance of language that I lack:  “To be pleased with one’s limits is a wretched state”.   Our main hike was Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in the Atlas and in north Africa.  I’ve been up twice before, the first time on skis, the second in late summer, and was relaxed about the territory.  The snow levels were still fairly low, so no avalanche risk, and the forecast was for bluebird skies.  After hiking to the aforementioned refuge at 3200m we set off the following day for the summit, fairly quickly getting into cloud, wind and occasional snow.  By the time we reached the peak, 4167m, it was no longer picnic weather … an estimated 50kts of wind, stinging blowing snow, instant rime on our jackets, an air temperature of perhaps -5C and wind chill very much below that.  Not a place to hang around.

Half an hour off the summit – eyebrows still frozen
The limits question came up during our ascent.  Now, I might dislike limits, but in winter mountaineering you need to stay well within them … things can go from OK to serious to life threatening too quickly in the high mountains in winter, and you need reserves of energy to get out of difficult situations.  (Not wanting to overdramatize, though – after all this was a day hike up a 4000m peak, not a Himalayan expedition).   Whatever that percentage of reserve is (and in my mind it’s 25%) I certainly strayed a little into that territory … worrying for such a modest hike, and evidence of not enough running in the last year or two.  Maret went very much closer to 100% … concerning to me, and we disagreed about whether that was OK.  Ultimately everything was fine, we summited, started down, and although the inflatable santa remained packed and uninflated, 90 minutes later and 800m lower we were sitting in sunshine eating our picnic lunch.

Christmas in Rabat marina
Rabat is a lovely city, and the marina – in a new development of modernity and tradition cleverly combined – is a delight to be in.  The only real downside to the marina is getting in and out – there is a bar across the entrance to the Bouregreg river that is unpassable in more than 2m of swell for anyone not on a surfboard.  Because of the high latitude north Atlantic storms thousands of miles away, 2m or less swell is rather rare in winter months.  We therefore ended up in Rabat longer than expected (as was also the case in 2010).  The main problem with this was that we had agreed to meet some of Maret’s friends in Tenerife for New Year’s Eve – something we were unable to do.  Christmas in Rabat was quiet, as one would expect, although the Catholic cathedral in the center was well lit up, and there were a few shops selling Christmas decorations.  We had a traditional Christmas day : a pre-lunch pub visit, in this case the very swanky Club Nautique overlooking the river, then lunch on board of turkey, roast potatoes, gravy, etc, followed by a Christmas pudding brought back from the UK earlier in December with brandy sauce.   We were finally able to cross the river bar on 30th December for the 4 day passage to the Canaries, once again in almost zero wind, motoring.  Once in the Canaries we should, theoretically, be in the trade wind belt … let’s see.
The river bar on Christmas day – not a place for yachts


Spain to Morocco

It’s a short 160nm passage from Puerto de Santa Maria, Andalucía to Rabat, Morocco.  About 30 hours.  But it is something more, too : a transition from one great civilization to another, each of which has colonized the other for a period in the past.  

The sailing has been varied.  We started the day with light winds and our gennaker, just enough wind to move Otra Vida at about 4kts in bright sunshine.   The combination of bright sunshine and the gennaker is always a special feeling.
Approaching the Straits of Gibraltar, the wind strengthened as forecast, quickly reaching about 20kts.  The gennaker was down well before this, of course, and up went a triple reefed main and a single reefed genoa.   We were flying along.
The wind continued to build to rather more than forecast.  As darkness fell we were consistently seeing apparent winds of 25+kts from the aft port quarter, meaning true winds of 32+kts, with gusts to about 40kts.  Triple reefed foresail and main at this point. Not quite a gale, but getting close. 
Otra Vida handled it perfectly and (relatively) comfortably, with only half a dozen or so waves getting in the cockpit.  Our D400 wind generator was pumping out the amps, keeping the batteries close to fully changed.  Motion was acceptable, even kindly given the conditions.  Last year during our refit I moved most of our navigation instrumentation into the cockpit.  This has again proven a good move – far less running up and down the companionway steps while on watch.  A minor inconvenience: the waterproof LED strip that I used for cockpit lighting still has several LEDs glowing after their seawater shower from the waves.  Waterproof while dry is perhaps a better description.  Something to add to the To Do list.

Mid way through the night the wind started to drop, as forecast, and now we’re gently gliding along with 10kts of wind on a broad reach, about 35nm to go.  We’ll make it nicely for the lunchtime high tide to get across the Bouregreg river bar and into Rabat.

I’m putting some effort into studying weather at present. The wind we’ve had has been due to a squeezed high pressure system, so the skies have been clear and full of stars, and temperatures pleasant.  It is just after full moon, and the waves … galloping white horses earlier, gentle waves now … have been easy to see.  The moon has just set, orange as it got close to the horizon.  I’m sure that hazy colour has some meteorological significance, but don’t know what it is.
To our port side there’s a glow from a town distant on the coast, probably Kenitra, perhaps Rabat.   To our starboard side dozens of small fishing boats are working a mile or two further offshore than us, their lights forming a necklace to the horizon. The stars in the sky, the glow from an exotic land and the promise of interesting experiences to come, the gentle rocking of Otra Vida … all is good in this few square meters of the world tonight.


Algarve sailing
My love affair with Iberia has always been rooted in one region: Catalunya.  It was there I first learned to love Spain, then slowly realised that most people in Catalunya do not feel they are in Spain at all.  I progressed to love other areas of Spain : Aragon in particular, but also Andalucia (hard not to love it), Navarra, Valencia, Islas Baleares.  But even in the throes of delightful infidelities with other areas of Spain, my heart wandered back to Catalunya.  To Barcelona, that most magical of cities, and to the north of Catalunya: Emporda, Garrotxa, Cerdanya, Val D’Aran.  What places, what times, what memories.  Places with a vitality to them, a sheer joy of living, which I’d never come across before.  Barcelona, a metropolis that was exceptionally cosmopolitan and exceptionally local at the same time, respecting its past absolutely, and simultaneously turning that past on its head in ways that were exciting and radical.  And Cerdanya, having nothing really outstanding to recommend it : a flat plain surrounded by (objectively) modest mountains, a few towns that were (objectively) rather similar to many other Spanish towns.  And yet Cerdanya spun its magic, and I couldn’t wait to get back there.  I’m still not sure intellectually what the magic of Cerdanya is, but I know it experientially.
And now, 24 years after first visiting Catalunya and falling head over heels in love with north east Iberia, I am wondering if I missed a complementary jewel of the Iberian peninsula: the Atlantic coast.
To equate Spain and Portugal as variants of Iberia is both true and incorrect.  Yes, there is an Iberian aspect to both : life lived outside in cafes and bars and restaurants, a gregarious sociability, a deep belief in family, a conservatism, a joie de vivre.  And there is that grand contradiction: the conservatism (confirmed by the dominant presence of the Catholic church) that is offset by a tangible radicalism – remember that Spain elected anarchist and communist local governments in many places in the mid 1930s, which so upset the conservatives that they launched a coup to replace democratically elected officials and drove the country into the fractious and bloody Spanish Civil War.  Puigcerda, the rather non descript but intensely alive town in Cerdanya, was one of the many flash points, having elected an anarchist government (surely an oxymoron…).    Spanish anarchist thinking has spawned many hair-splitting “isms”, including the dada-esque anarcho-naturism (a political philosophy confined to warm days, and certain to be opposed by cloth manufacturers).  The richness of this radical tradition continues into the present day, sits strangely for me with the conservatism of Spain, and is an essential part of the magic of the Catalunya : the spirit of Durutti lives on.  (Digressing, a Manchester band from the Factory Records stable took inspiration from his exploits by naming themselves The Durutti Column.  I idly wonder if Vini Reilly, lead singer of the band and a collaborator of Morrissey, is thinking of the classic Smiths lyrics <In the days when you were hopelessly poor I just liked you more> seeing the overblown hype surrounding Morrissey’s autobiography).
There are plenty of differences between Spain and Portugal, though.  The language sounds very different, with Portuguese sounding somewhat Russian to my ears.  Portugal seems a bit more fashion conscious, a bit more glamorous.  There are plenty of beautiful women in both countries, but perhaps Portugal has the edge.  The influence of Portugal’s ex-colonies are much more evident than Spain’s.
Lisbon has been a revelation.  A little over four years ago, heading south to the Med, Wendy and I explored Lisbon for just one day – a Sunday lunch and an afternoon of walking around.  The bohemian bits of Lisbon we encountered felt very good indeed, so good that I wondered about coming back, and perhaps even living in Lisbon for a time.   I didn’t, sailing on to Sicily, Morocco and the Caribbean instead.  Wendy went to live on an organic farm in Andalucia and write a novel.
A friend from Budapest, Szilvia, decided 3 years ago that the next step in her wonderfully peripatetic and liberated life should be Lisbon.  Maret and I met up with Szilvia and Carlos, and had a re-introduction to a small sample of the pleasures of bohemian Lisbon.  First stop was a bar in a fishing tackle shop, Sol e Pesca, followed by a converted brothel (Pensao Amor) complete with fur-covered chairs, subdued lights, lots of velvet, low seating, and a double bed.  It was a taster of bohemian Lisbon, and it was lovely.
There’s more to Lisbon than bohemia, though.  Otra Vida was berthed in the Parque das Nacoes marina, part of the Expo 98 area of Lisbon.  The area is what would be called a new town in the UK – entirely planned, entirely postmodern – and it works brilliantly.  Places like Canary Wharf in London or Cuidad Olimpico in Barcelona don’t come close (and I won’t even mention the disaster that is the Forum/Diagonal Mar area of Barcelona).  In Parque de Nacoes every turn provides something new and interesting to look at –a curved sheet of water projected over a walkway, the Vasco de Gama tower in the shape of a spinnaker, a Japanese styled water garden, a promenade for evening paseos – interesting public spaces, places to meet and mingle, often with public sculptures – a white giraffe peering at itself in a mirror, a surfing wave by Anthony Gormley, a fountain made of rusted slabs and blocks that could well be by Serra.  The world-class aquarium, many of the offices, the shopping mall and the railway station are all inspiring examples of contemporary architecture.  The apartments, too, are built with considerable thought for human occupation – huge outdoor terraces, cleverly tiered so that apartments on different floors can still have terraces flooded with sunlight and with sea views, and so that viewed from the street they are architecturally interesting.   It’s a place for living well.
Parque de Nacoes
Paulo and Lino, two Portuguese colleagues from Vodafone, who I had last seen in Istanbul about five years ago, came onboard while we were in Lisbon.  A memorable lunch at a local restaurant followed, including Massada – something like a saffron bouillabaisse with pasta, exceptionally good – and enjoyable conversations about old times, new times, and putting the world to rights.  A lovely day.
During the same overly-rapid trip south to the Mediterranean four years ago we stopped on the Algarve coast for 1 night.  Rounding Cabo San Vicente at night in thick fog, Wendy had a scare when two boats came out of nowhere and passed very close to us.  She had been watching the radar and saw nothing concerning.  Turning the radar onto a higher range, we found the headland slowly circling around us.  Pondering this, I wondered if Dali had made an error when he declared Perpignan railway station the centre of the universe, but quickly realised it improbable that Dali could have been out by more than 1000km, and concluded that Otra Vida needed a new radar unit.
Later that morning, after the fog had lifted and we’d calmed down, we motored along the coast in zero wind, passing many resorts.  Not knowing anything of the coast we randomly anchored off a tourist beach, and after being moved on, ended up inside a river breakwater nearby.  We jumped in the dinghy and went upriver, coming to Ferragudo.  What a delight.  Grilled sardines on the quay, a beautifully quaint little village, pretty houses, a small square, and burned lips for me from trying unsuccessfully to match Wendy’s skills in flaming mouth shots.  Returning to the boat late in the evening we noticed a lot of phosphorescence in the water, with fish darting out of the way of the dinghy appearing as streaks of green light.  Back on Otra Vida we swam in this amazing fluorescent soup, every hand movement creating bursts of green sparkles, reminiscent of the old movie Fantastia.
Ferragudo is apparently the most photographed village in Portugal.  It’s rated as the “best” place on the Algarve to see real Portugal.  Lino and Paulo recommended it as a stop.  It’s rated highly.  And Wendy and I stumbled across it.  We could have stopped almost anywhere else on the Algarve coast and our experience would have been of a large holiday development.  We were lucky.
So this time, on a more leisurely trip, Maret and I anchored near Ferragudo.  It’s a lovely spot with several wide sandy beaches, slowly crumbling honey-gold cliffs, and the dark green shrubs so reminiscent of the Mediterranean.   The river also acts as the stopping point of the tsunami of crass holiday developments from the British/Dutch colonies west of it – the eastern side is the lovely village, somehow still managing to remain relatively unspoilt.
What is it about the northern European colonies in Iberia that feels so awful?  I sometimes wonder if I am applying a double standard – after all, I relish those parts of London that are unashamedly foreign.  Why do I feel that the Arabic colony around Edgware Road, the Bangladeshi colony around Tower Hamlets, and Chinatown are all positive, and yet the British colonies here are negative?  On reflection I think it’s to do both with what is being displaced, and what it is displaced with.  In London, as in Barcelona, foreign-dominated small areas provide diversity, and crucially are not bland or dumbed down.  And they don’t really change the overall nature of the place – these are large cosmopolitan cities.  Areas like Torremolinos or Benidorm on the other hand have all but eliminated any trace of Spain, and replaced it with a depressing predictability of sports and TV bars, irish pubs, kebab shops, burger outlets, chinese and indian restaurants, generic clothing, fake handbags and so on.  Try speaking Spanish or finding Spanish food in some of these areas … it’s an experience.  And it’s nothing to do with these being lower-end places – the same can be said about upscale generically-international resorts with golf, tennis, brunch, cocktail bars, designer brand shops, shrimp Caesar salad by the pool, minimalist-styled beach clubs, and so on.
But still, am I applying a double standard?  Is some of my dislike of Britain showing through a little too much?  Recalling the places we visited in Scotland earlier in the summer, I think I would feel the same way about a Chinatown or an Arabic area on Islay. Even if the areas were authentic and vibrant it would materially detract from the local culture, and the local culture is something worth celebrating.  I know this could easily be recast as an argument for cultural purity, or even as closet racism, but I’m a million miles from both of those.   And I’m certainly not advocating worshipping of a congealed past.  Somewhere there’s a balance though, and it seems to me that the decent British pubs I’ve known in Barcelona and Houston are positives, while the stuff infesting San Antonio (Ibiza, not Texas), La Duquesa and Praia da Rocha are not.  And that while the wonderful Bangladeshi food markets of Tower Hamlets are a positive, the same on Colonsay would not be.
Ilha da Culatra, an island in the Faro estuary, is lovely, and entirely uncosmopolitan.  More reminiscent of Mexico than Europe, the small village we anchored off has sand as its primary surface.  Small concrete slabs form walkways in the sand, there are no cars, and the houses are low and square roofed, mostly white with brightly coloured detailing.  The village continues to makes most of its living from fishing – the harbour is chock full of small fishing work boats, and each morning boats came near to us pulling up gillnets.  It supplements fishing with catering to visitors in the summer – there are about half a dozen restaurants/bars in the village, far more than would be necessary for the small population.  It is most definitely not developed or spoiled.
Culatra sunset
During the time we were anchored off the island, back in the UK the comedian Russell Brand was guest editor of the New Statesman, a respected political and current affairs magazine.  He wrote an essay promoting non-voting as a protest.  His basic reasoning was: the western model of today produces unacceptable results (environmental, wealth inequality, reduced opportunity); the political system within that model has been bought and twisted, and consequently offers only an illusion of choice; voting implies tacit acceptance of that political system; therefore do not vote.  Brand’s articulation of this is chaotic, but much more entertaining than my rather dry summary.  The right, naturally, had a predictable spasm of outrage, trotting out the old canards of “champagne socialist” and “corrupting our youth” (yeah yeah, whatever).
Anyway, it so happens that the people on this sandy island have some relevant experience of not voting.  Frustrated by the lack of progress on basic infrastructure on the island, they decided to organize themselves into a union.  After trying other tactics and getting nowhere, not one person on the island voted in a particular election.  This worked beautifully, and things got better for the residents of Culatra: reliable electricity, street lighting, harbour protection, and a new ferry terminal followed.  Maybe they are champagne socialists and have corrupted their youth.  We didn’t see any evidence of either, but we did see the streetlights.
A short dinghy ride from Culatra is Olhau, an important fishing town with a large fish market.  Courtesy of a restaurant in Ferragudo we discovered a fish new to us.  Called cantarilho in Portuguese, in English it is the blackbelly rosefish (according to Wikipedia).  Never heard of that one before.  It tastes somewhat of seafood, with a texture like a delicate form of monkfish (but much easier to prepare).  Given its deep-water habitat I doubt we’ll ever catch one (not that we’re great at catching fish in general anyway, although we got one tuna last week) so it’s been a pleasure trying this fish while it was available from a market.
We’ve now moved further south to the Cadiz area : home of sherry, one of the world’s great drinks.  It’s also a foodie area of Spain, bullfighting country, and a place of much sunshine.  I think it will be enjoyable.


  Swordfish with rice

  • Stock for the rice: garlic, chilli pepper, star anise, coriander stalks, lemongrass, fish stock.  Boil and strain.  The stock should be quite spicy.
  • Cook the rice in the stock and vegetable oil, then add chopped coriander leaves.
  • Trim swordfish steaks, soak in 4% brine for 30m.  Sweat garlic in olive oil, add chopped coriander leaves, and cook the swordfish gently in this.
  • Remove the swordfish and reduce the juices.  Avoid browning the garlic.  Pour over the swordfish.
  • Serve with lime segments.
 Dorada with vegetables
  • Bake a whole Dorada in a salt and egg white crust to a core temperature of 44C.  Remove crust and skin, remove fillets carefully, remove any bones and fat.
  • Cauliflower puree: cook the cauliflower, puree with cream, butter, a little mace, and white pepper.  Char a slice of cauliflower with olive oil and white pepper.
  • Turnips: boil, glaze.
  • Potatoes: make cylinders (apple corer), cook in vegetable oil twice. First time at 130C to cook through, then remove.  Heat oil to 190C and brown/crisp the potatoes.


Dolphins in the moonlight

We’re close to the corner north of Lisbon (Cabo Raso for those who like precision in these matters), it’s a very calm night with 3kts true wind, and we are – again – motoring.  We seem to be alternating between motoring in calms or light winds, or waiting out strong headwinds: Otra Vida is not a boat that sails well to weather.  Since leaving Vigo last week we’ve sailed for 2 hours and motored for about 45 hours.  This is not a pleasing ratio.  And it’s not that we’re in a rush.  The issue is that the wind remains like that for as far ahead as we can see with forecasts.
Today we’ve had plenty of dolphin company.  In this almost glassy calm with 2m swells rolling in from the Atlantic, moonlight on the water, and smoke from something burning on land in the air, the dolphins alongside are even more ethereal than usual.  When it was sunny earlier their lithe muscular bodies diving and rising and twisting in the perfectly clear blue-tinged deep water were something to behold.  Now there are unexpected sounds of waves and splashes next to the boat, a fin rising out of the water, a small explosion of foam and bubbles where they break the surface, glassy white and silver in the moonlight against a black mercury sea.
There are many lobster pots off this coast, so we’re on almost constant lookout for them.  There’s a rope cutter on the propeller which theoretically should cut through and stop rope from fouling the prop, but I have two concerns.  The first is that I am not convinced that the rope cutter will actually cut through all ropes … it seems to me it would struggle above say 15-20mm diameter, and it would depend on where and how the rope started wrapping around the propeller.  The second and more important consideration is that these lobster pots are someone else’s livelihood, and cutting through the rope means the loss of 10-20 pots on the end of the line, plus whatever seafood contents are in there.  So we keep a very regular watch and try to avoid them.  To my knowledge so far this year we’ve avoided them all.
We were in Porto for two days at the very swanky new marina in the river.  It used to be that your only real choice was to anchor or berth at Leixoes, outside the entrance to the river, as the river itself had no practical docking facilities other than for local boats serving the port (wine) tourist trade.  No more.  The marina is lovely, and the fresh bread they leave in your cockpit each morning is a nice touch.
I was last in Porto in 2009, heading south to the Mediterranean for the summer, with Wendy and Neil on board.  The marina didn’t exist then, so we stayed in Leixoes and travelled into town.  A memorable day was spent visiting Casa da Musica, a Rem Koolhaas designed spaceship that landed in Porto to provide a concert hall for the population.  Four years on it is still arresting, particularly inside, but I am struck by how much it has tired in such a short time.  I know defenders of traditional architecture claim “old style buildings mature, modernist ones just get old”, but that is an argument I’ve never really bought – it sounds too much like code for “don’t try new things, don’t push limits, and don’t progress”.  Even if Koolhaas’ brilliant building was only temporarily fresh, it was still worth it – for me and I am sure for many others the emotion it brought four years ago is still there.   And the contemporary fado concert we enjoyed there this time was not tired at all.
You can’t go to Porto without visiting a port house.  Maret wasn’t much of a fan of port before the visit, but developed a taste remarkably quickly.  Just like Laphroaig in Islay, or percebes in Galicia.  I remain cautiously optimistic that her enthusiasm for sherry will extend beyond Pedro Ximinez after a visit to Sanlucar de Barrameda.
Some of Maret’s friends from Estonia were coincidentally in Porto on a brand new and very beautiful catamaran, and we stopped by to say hello.  I’d met Raul once before, on a different catamaran in St Lucia a few days after Maret and I first met.   He’s been around the world since then, and is now heading across the Atlantic for a Caribbean season.   Jaan had last seen Otra Vida one cold morning in Saaremaa during the winter refit – quite different indeed to how she looks today.  He too has circumnavigated, and amongst other things sings about his experiences doing that and living a unique life on a tiny Estonian island.  A nice visit, and I still have major boat envy about their inside steering station!
A friend from Cordon Bleu, the ever-energetic Maria, is originally from Porto, so naturally I asked her for suggestions.   We’re still recovering from her recommendation to try the local classic the Francesinha, a warm sandwich of American proportions, consisting of thick bread, sliced meats, sausage, smoked pork, fried beef, melted cheese and a tomato, beer and chilli sauce, all washed down with a glass of beer.  It’s not for the timid, and you won’t need to eat again for the rest of the day.   It reminded me of a cross between a Monte Cristo and a Philly Cheese Steak.  Excellent stuff!
After this monumental cholesterol bomb lunch we walked around, slowly dragging our laden stomachs with us, hoping to burn off at least a few percent of the calories.  The Palacio de Cristal is a prominent Porto building used for exhibitions, and has extensive terraced gardens leading down towards the Douro River.  The views, as you would expect, are lovely.  The gardens themselves seem almost to have been designed for lovers’ trysts.  Lots of little spaces accessed by deliberately unnecessary detours, partially obscured from sight by the trees and shrubs, with views down to the river.  The sheer number of such romantic spots makes me think it did not happen by chance.  What a great city.
Leaving Porto we had 3kts of river current with us from the east, which collided outside the river mouth breakwater with W/NW swells from the Atlantic and 15kt wind from the south.  Add the reflected waves from the river protection, and a steeply shelving bottom.  Yes, it was like a washing machine.  Nothing dangerous with a working engine, but definitely uncomfortable.  2 miles out from the river we came across the telltale tidal race waves, where the current finally gave up.  After that things were back to normal.
Our next weather window looks to be Tuesday afternoon, although forecast accuracy 5 days out is quite variable.  If the forecast is accurate there is a risk we may actually sail.  I wonder if we’ll remember how to do that.
Time to go.  I can faintly see the 25 de Abril bridge in the distance, and I can hear the dolphins back for a late evening visit.


We’ve been in Vigo, the largest fishing port in Europe, berthed at the yacht club (Real Club Nautico de Vigo) to get our liferaft serviced by Viking Safety, who have a branch in the city. Vigo brings back good memories for us as the first mainland port we reached after crossing the Atlantic from the Caribbean in 2011.

Poached Cigalas, green asparagus, confit leek, kumato, lettuce

Both of us remember a small bar, La Mina, in the old town that served mussels as the only tapa. The place was small, traditional, and definitely not spoiled. So, after tying up Otra Vida, we walked a short distance into the old town and quickly came across it. At least, at first, I thought it was the place, until I saw a menu in the window with pictures and some English descriptions. Oh no … surely it can’t be … surely it hasn’t gone tourist …

Well, we poked our head into the bar, and it didn’t look touristy. Older people were playing cards at the tables. The décor matched the customers. There was a short handwritten menu on a board all in Spanish. Prices seemed local. We were the only foreigners there. Sigh of relief. So we sat at the bar and chatted with the proprietor and his wife. No mussels left – they had run out earlier in the day, as lunchtime had been busy. Ordered some food and local red wine, simple and intense with plenty of oak. Ah, that’s better, life is good again.

The food arrived. Meaty, highly flavoured chorizo al vinto tinto, slices of jamon iberico bellota, crusty springy bread, oreja de cerdo (coarsely chopped pigs ears, not to my taste, but Maret loved them as the flavour reminded her of sult, an Estonian winter dish). And the incongruous chorizo al infierno – I assumed with a hot spicy sauce, but actually the chorizo came on a skewer over a dish of burning alcohol. The quality of everything was excellent.

Yes, this was as every bit as good as three years earlier.

Percebes (goose barnacles) cooked in sea water. 

So, needing to do laundry, we asked about a local lavanderia. The proprietor and a customer gave us directions to one nearby. We finished our drinks and walked outside. The customer was now smoking a cigarette, and started to chat with us again, this time in limited English. He was a friend of the proprietor, and told us the story of the sign in the window. The proprietor was upset by the high prices of the tourist restaurants near the port, and decided he wanted to offer a better experience for visitors to his city. He expanded his range of food from just mussels to about ten items, and priced them at a very fair level. However, he noticed that when foreigners visited his bar they didn’t know what to order, so ordered cheese, and were uncomfortable about what price they would pay for what they were getting. So his friend offered to make an oil painting showing the items, descriptions of them in Spanish and English, and clear prices. That is the painting hanging in the window.

Now, I could brush off my old management consulting hat here, and describe how this is a classic case of brand extension, using price elasticity to optimise the yield curve, factoring in the variable cost of raw materials, volume discounts vs. expected shelf life, seasonal demand variations, and so on. But I think I would be profoundly wrong if I did so.

What makes some areas of Spain so special for me still is the form of individualism that this bar owner represents. His bar is not merely a commercial enterprise; rather it is a statement about who he is. It is the same concept as cocina del autor, the revolution in food that started in Spain in the 90s, where talented chefs created a very personal interpretation of local foods, adding twists from their experiences gained elsewhere. This was food that had something to say, food that was individualistic, food that gave something beyond mere nutrition. It was, most resolutely, not food designed to maximize profit. (Indeed, the poster-child restaurant of this era, El Bulli, was always reasonably priced for its level, and even after superstardom never made a profit from its restaurant operations – activities outside the restaurant subsidised it. Why? Ferran Adria, the now famous chef, and Juli Soler, his front of house partner, simply didn’t believe in extracting what they felt was excessive money from their customers).

Dusk at anchor, Islas Cies

And this little bar in Vigo somehow belongs to the same movement of individual expression as El Bulli. I would wager that neither did market research to find the most popular items, and certainly neither was going to start offering fried chicken with barbeque sauce or ham-and-pineapple pizza to pander to visitors.

The bar owner here decided he wanted to offer an experience – to share his love of Vigo, of local wine, of simple foods – and did this with heart and passion. Of course he wanted to make a living, but he was doing that anyway. This development was not driven by profit, but by the desire to express something, to give something.

I see it as an expression of authenticity, honesty, quality. Again one could become intellectual about this and drop in quotes from Heidegger, Sartre, Pirsig or any number of others. I fear this would again be missing the point. It’s about a way of living, of sharing pleasures, of expressing oneself, of trying to enhance quality of life. And that is enough.

I find it interesting that Galicia is often considered to be one of the “backward” areas of Spain in terms of economic development related to tourism. Certainly the small towns we anchored at prior to arriving in Vigo still had fishing as a mainstay of their local economy rather than tourism. Cedeira, Carino, Malpica, Corme. Lovely, every last one of them.

Chantrelles from our Sunday morning hike in the forested hills above Cedeira

Are the economies of these towns doing OK? Well, there were a few shuttered shops, but in general these towns seemed to be getting along just fine, and people seemed happy and cheery – none of the depression and despair that one comes across in some places.

It’s also particularly noticeable that traditional generosity has not been destroyed by profit maximization in difficult economic times.

We finally found the elusive cordero lechal (suckling lamb) at a carniceria in Malpica. The proprietor, sitting calmly watching a movie when we walked in, asked about us, and then told us his story while serving us – he claimed to be 73, looked in his 50s, and put it all down to lots of sport and exercise. As we were leaving the shop he called us back in to show us a few items of pottery on display made by his wife. Assuming he was trying to sell it, I pointed out we lived on a boat and pottery wasn’t very practical … at which point he picked up a small metal shoe and gave it to us … a gift from him to us.

And tapas still come with your drink, a gift, a little extra, an amuse bouche. In some places as simple as a thick slice of chorizo on bread or a chunk of delicious lightly fried fish, sometimes a little more, like a small plate of bean stew.

Finisterre, literally the end of the known world in Roman times, was our last anchorage before Vigo. Sadly it has plenty of something that we found missing in the other places we visited. No doubt Finisterre does a good job at extracting euros from the visitors, some of whom walk from Santiago de Compostela as an extension of the Camino route. But the soul of the town seems to have “developed” along with the economy. It’s an altogether more gloomy and unsatisfying place, pandering to the perceived (or perhaps real) wishes of visitors. There are still a few fishing boats. I imagine they are much photographed.

Yes, Galicia deserves its reputation as being “backward” in tourism. We liked that. The something that is missing in the parts of Galicia we saw before Finisterre is perhaps best described as “tourist crap”. I sincerely hope the Gallegos continue to choose to get along without it.

It will be quite some years before we’re in this area again, but we’ll be back. Oh, it’s so very good to be in Spain again.

Calamari with Potatoes
1.     Clean the calamari.
2.     Finely chop garlic, parsley (lots) and fresh red chili.  Infuse in warm olive oil for at least 30m.
3.     Peel and dice potatoes, cook in salted water.
4.     Heat up the garlic/parsley/chili/oil, and quickly fry the calamari.  Be very careful not to overcook the calamari.
5.     Mix the calamari and oil with the potatoes. 
6.     Season with salt and black pepper.  It is a bit of an art to get the salt right … you want the sauce and calamari to be just a little too salty without the potato.  The potato will then balance out the saltiness.

Saffron risotto with navajas (razor clams)

1.     Sweat finely chopped shallot, finely chopped leek and 1 bay leaf in butter.  
2.     Add short grain rice.
3.     Add 1 fish stock cube, saffron, white wine, white pepper, tarragon.
4.     Cook, adding more water as required, and stirring often.  Add some salt, but less than the point of tasting it.
5.     While the rice is cooking, rinse the navajas and pan fry in a little vegetable oil until the shells open.  Do not cook them through.  Chop into 1cm pieces.  Pour any released juices into the risotto.
6.     Finish the risotto with a little mascarpone or cream, and finely chopped parsley leaves.
7.     Add the navajas as the risotto is resting … they will cook through.   Add a little MSG and adjust salt to taste.

Biscay crossing

It felt like we had been in the British Isles forever.  In fact it was just 10 weeks.  The last 6 weeks had been lived a day or two at a time, trying to organize relatively modest boat repairs.  But it was holiday season and holidaymaker season, so things took time.  We seemed to always be a week from leaving.  One item would have a delay of a day or two, then another, then we found something extra that needed to be done, and it all added up.  The end result has been worth it.  I just wish we’d known in advance it was going to be 6 weeks – we could have spent more time visiting friends in the UK.

Saturday night:

We’re now on passage from Pwllheli to northern Spain, ideally Vigo.  I’m writing this close to Ouessant (France), in very calm seas, motoring with 4kts of wind.  We’re having a Biscay crossing that is the polar opposite of the “horror story” reputation Biscay has.  Since leaving Pwllheli we’ve had a mix of headwinds, fairwinds and calms going south along the Irish Sea, and anchored at Dale (near Milford Haven) for 36 hours to see out some stronger unfavourable winds.   Since then it’s been a straightforward trip around Land’s End and across the channel in fog, and now we’re heading as far east as we can to get the best angle on the ESE winds that are expected to start tomorrow morning and take us to the NW corner of Spain in about 2 days of hopefully lovely sailing.  The weather after that is less co-operative, so we still don’t know where we will make landfall.

We’ve both easily slotted back into the passage lifestyle – 4 hour watches, dolphins (so many of them on this passage), downloading GRIB files twice a day, lots of reading, cooking, and that indescribable peace, calm and contentment that comes on passage after a few days and once you know that the weather is going to be OK.  Cruisers say this happens on different days of the passage – most seem to say day 4, some day 3.  For us it seems to be day 3.  We’ve got probably another three days to go on this passage now, maybe 4, and I would be happy for it to be longer.

And then at the end of the passage there is that beautiful moment of landfall.  My friend Bob Crutchfield pointed me towards an interesting cruising blog, and in it the writers commented on how much they enjoyed landfalls after long ocean passages.  This is so true for me too.  On our 4 day passage across the North Sea in July we didn’t really get that magic of landfall – I think it was that the passage wasn’t long enough.  This time I hope it will be.  Certainly I can vividly remember past landfalls at St Lucia, Bermuda, Flores and Vigo after long passages as if they were yesterday – moments in time that I’ll never forget.  The first few hours ashore when you can still smell the land, so stark and rude after a long sea passage.  The first drink (we don’t drink alcohol on passage), usually a bottle of good Cava.  Seeing things you have seen before a hundred times and feeling like you are seeing them for the first time.  Everything is interesting, fresh, new … rather like a gentle acid trip without the LSD.
Sunday night:

The night watches are getting warmer as we head south.  Sailing in the UK at night it was full foul weather gear, thermal gloves, neck gaiter, several layers of fleece, a warm hat, and sometimes thermal sailing boots.  Now in mid Biscay it’s jeans, deck shoes, one fleece, a warm hat, and just the top of the foul weather gear to protect against the wind.  The air, although not yet describable as warm at night, is definitely more friendly against my face than it was just a few nights ago.

Webb Chiles rather famously said that 60% of the time on a sailboat you are comfortable, 20% uncomfortable and 20% miserable.  (He said that in the context of setting out in an 18 ft open boat to cross the Pacific, and considered it equal to his previous voyages in larger boats).  This passage has mostly fallen into the comfortable segment, with a little in the uncomfortable, and none at all in the miserable.    I sincerely doubt Webb Chiles is casual about his use of miserable (he might put his two weeks adrift on an inflatable dinghy after his 18ft boat almost sank after pitchpoling into the miserable category, for example), so I must conclude that we are doing a rather gentler form of ocean voyaging than him.  My estimate is 70%+ comfortable, 25% uncomfortable, and less than 5% miserable.  Even compared to those numbers this has been a particularly comfortable passage so far, and looks to continue to be.

Monday night:

What a passage this has been.  The last two days really have been perfect sailing – a beam reach in bright sunshine with the wind exactly in Otra Vida’s sweet spot of 12-18kts.  And it’s warmer.  Day watches are now just a t-shirt, and night watches need only a fleece and no outer jacket.  We’re in the south again!

We’re going to make landfall tomorrow morning, and have decided to head to Carino, just east of La Coruna.  The wind for the next week looks to be mostly from the south, and often strong enough to be uncomfortable or worse, so sailing south around Finisterre to Vigo will have to wait.  Our plan is to hang out for a time in the Rias Altas, which offer excellent protection from the south winds, and have a reputation for great beauty and great seafood.  Sounds like our sort of place.

Celtic Hospitality

Since we arrived in Inverness on Friday 12th July I’ve been struck by a very special thing going on in these parts: Celtic hospitality.  Nothing like the “dour Scots” of legend, rather we found smiley people who seemed genuinely happy to meet us and had time to talk.  And this wasn’t just an occasional person – it was the norm in the parts of Scotland we saw, and has continued into Northern Ireland and sometimes into Wales.  From lock keepers on the Caledonian canal to people met in the street or sitting at a bar, there was generosity of time and attention, and none of that slightly forced “tolerance of visitors” that one can often sense.

The feeling of a warm welcome that comes closest for me has been in Morocco, especially in the Berber villages of the Atlas mountains.  The Islamic-based tradition of hospitality is – for at least for this jaded ex-business traveller – almost overwhelming, and raises deeply-ingrained suspicions of where the catch is, where the request for a tip comes, or an overpriced sale of something, or some ‘special’ charge.  But there isn’t a catch in Morocco, just as there isn’t in Scotland or Northern Ireland or Wales.  It is real hospitality.  I believe in it, I try to practice it, but being on the receiving end makes me ever so slightly uncomfortable: how can I repay it?  Realistically it is unlikely I will meet most of these lovely people again, and if I did I doubt they would remember the interaction – it was just part of their everyday life.  And in a way that is exactly the point.  The obvious answer is to pass it on, to perpetuate the virtuous circle of hospitality.
The mid July outbreak of Mediterranean weather further coloured our experience of Scotland, with hot sunny days and blue skies adding to the implausibly green landscapes.   The hammock came out several times, although the water temperature made swimming a very occasional activity.  Water below 18C doesn’t normally meet my criteria for swimability.  Loch Ness, where I swam (briefly) on my birthday, was 13C.
Northern Ireland and Wales have been more typical in their weather.  We spent a week weather-bound in Carlingford Lough, the rather theoretical border between Northern Ireland and Ireland proper.  Pounds on one side of the lough, euros on the other, but Guinness, white pudding, Irish accents and friendly people on both.  The water was warmer there, 19C when swimming one evening, and the pubs on both sides were great.
Wendy joined us for a week in the Scottish islands.  We hiked a little, explored the local beers rather more, and talked a whole lot about everything and anything.  We went to Dublin to spend a typically riotous weekend with Theresa.  My family were vacationing in Abersoch, Wales, so we caught up and spent time together.  And Jeff, Klara and Mila visited us in Pwllheli – hiking, cooking, cigars, wonderful conversations, carrot cake, beaches, and Mila learning to climb the stairs on Otra Vida.   Lovely memories from all of these summer visits.
What we didn’t do much was sail.  The mainsail cover went on in the Moray Firth, and it came off again for a couple of hours in the approach to Carlingford Lough, and a little on the passage across the Irish Sea.  That’s it.  The rest of the time we’ve been living on a motorboat with a mast.  Reminds me of another aspect of Mediterranean weather – either no wind or too much, and always on the nose.
Now we’re in Pwllheli after a minor engine incident six weeks ago that snowballed into needing a new bow roller, anchor chain and anchor.  It’s taken a long time … but this is not a bad place at all to be waiting for repairs.  Snowdonia has been a revelation – how could I have grown up less than 100km from here and not known how beautiful and interesting the mountains are?  Looks like we’ll be on our away again in the next few days, heading south across Biscay.


Moules Marinieres.  Mussels collected from the beach in Carlingford Lough at low tide by Maret and Annamaria.  Cooked with white wine, butter, parsley, shallots and white pepper.