Sunday, July 26, 2009

Harmony of Nations

It was 2200ish and we are sitting in the cockpit in Portosin having a last glass of wine with Jeroen and Luise. My intention was to head inside to finish my blog entry (honest!) when we heard jaunty accordion music coming from the Irish sailboat across the dock. The accordion was joined by a flute and we decided to open another bottle of wine to enjoy the music for 15 minutes longer. After approximately ½ hour we decided to move a little closer and went to stand with the four of us on the bow of our boat. As we moved nearer we heard a beautiful song coming from a Spanish boat next to the Irish one. That was all we needed to grab our bottle of wine and glasses and head over to see if we could join in. We were welcomed heartily but were required to sing a Dutch song before climbing aboard. In the meantime the Spanish couple had joined the Irish boat and there was a great discussion about personal histories and music going on in a mixture of English, French, Spanish supported by lots of hand and body gestures. For the rest of the evening and deep into the night we moved around the group of 10 people singing Irish, Galician, Canadian (Farewell to NS and Barrett’s Privateers for those in the know), Swedish and Dutch songs accompanied from time to time by the button accordion or the flute. The songs ranged from playful to saucy to heart wrenching and were delivered with a range of capabilities from professional to slightly off-key and it was an experience not to be missed.

Costa da Morte and Cabo Fisterra

The next two things that you encounter while sailing along the coast of Spain are rather intimidating in name and history – the Coast of Death (Costa da Morte) and Cabo Finisterre (end of the earth).

Costa da Morte is the name given to the long stretch of coast lying in the north-west of the Province of A Coruña and which runs between A Laracha and Muros. The Costa da Morte received its name both from the many ships wrecked upon it’s treacherous shores and the fact that it includes Cabo Fisterra which was believed to be the end of the world where everything sunk into the sea (Cabo Finisterre translates into the end of the earth). We stayed far from the coast as we travelled along but the rugged rocky cliffs and jagged rocks looming out of the water forced us to keep a close eye on our charts and GPS. It is an ominously beautiful stretch of coast but completely exposed to the swells and weather of the Atlantic Ocean and it is easy to see where the history and legends come from.

Tired from the party in Corme and in need of facilities we stopped in the Ria de Camarinas and spent the night at the village marina. The harbourmaster spoke no English but he was very friendly and loved the children. In the early evening he encouraged us to join him on the dock to show us a octopus that he had just caught. It had beautiful purple and red colours and had an amazing way of moving and sort of oozing along moving its tentacles with great precision. As we watched, it almost escaped through a very small crack in the dock (and it was a very large octopus). The harbourmaster immediately started roughly pulling at its tentacles and I quickly assured him that the children had seen enough and it was fine to let the poor octopus go free. He continued to pull hard on the tentacles and finally his experienced hands deftly turned its head inside out and pulled out both of its two brains. Not a pretty sight, made worse by our recently aquarium acquired knowledge that an octopus is as intelligent as a dog (you can even teach them to do tricks). He explained that he expected to get about 20 euros for the 2 kilos of meat. Pulpo a lo Gallego is a very common dish in the region and I must say we find it quite delicious.

We rounded Cabo Fisterra on July 19th. As soon as we rounded the cape, the huge seas and swells from the northern coast flattened and we enjoyed a lovely sail. It is an imposing cliff and a milestone for anyone cruising to the south of Europe. We dropped the anchor in the small harbour of Finisterre and hiked (and hitched) up to the top of Monte Facho to the Cabo Fisterra lighthouse. This is the final destination for many pilgrims on the Way of St. James (O camiño de Santiago) and many of the pilgrims come here after completing the voyage to the shrine of St. James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to burn their clothes or boots on the cliff. All in all a cape full of legend and history and as we gazed over the water from the top of the cliff we felt quite elated to be part of it even in our very small way.
The following day we moved on to Muros, a large but very nice harbour town with a gorgeous old town area, small narrow streets with stone staircases, beautiful old stone church and a old outdoor stone laundry house that is still in use for washing clothes.

On July 23rd, Seb and I celebrated our 4th wedding anniversary and were treated to a night of babysitting from Jeroen and Luise. This allowed us to have a wonderful meal hopping from terrace to terrace knowing that Emma and Macsen were in good hands. The last restaurant that we visited was situated just in front of a playground. We stumbled home to bed at 0100 and were amazed that the playground was still full of children of around Emma’s age. We have altered our schedules significantly and the children generally wake up at 0930, siesta from 1400-1600 and occasionally sometimes go to bed as late at 2300 but we have not yet integrated to this extent.

Día de la Virgen del Carmen

As we moved along the coast of Spain the weather was dreary and the sea swells made for very uncomfortable sailing. We did two very short 20 mile sails from A Coruna to Malpica and then the next day on to Corme. Elena, Mjolner and Pjotter were the only sailboats in the bay of Corme. The rest of the bay was filled with fishing boats flying festive flags for July 16th is the fiesta of the Virgen del Carmen. The Spanish festival Día de la Virgen del Carmen is a major celebration recognized throughout the coastal regions of the Iberian Peninsula. Virgen del Carmen, or the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel is the patroness and protector of all seamen. The main event of the day is a massive parade that features the statue of Virgen del Carmen, all the townsfolk, many dancers and bands. The huge procession passes from the church through the town and down to the sea. Upon reaching the sea they set sail in extravagantly adorned boats, accompanied by the blowing of horns from a flotilla of jábegas, or fishing boats. Leonie, Rosa and I took the dingy in to the quay to watch (Adam and Seb were babysitting). We tied up to the quay expecting to watch the departure and then leave but we were strongly encouraged by a very friendly group of locals to join them on their boat to participate in the festivities. This small group of boats made their way out of the harbour, each carrying wreaths and bouquets of flowers to throw into the sea as offerings in the memories of lost sailors. Once we were out in the harbour, the huge wreath from the main boat was slowly lowered overboard and then each boat threw flowers amongst great tootings and whooping from surrounding boats, anything but the somber occasion that we expected. After a very fast tour of the bay (showing off the powerful motor) they dropped us off on the dock with a promise to meet again for the festivities of the evening.

I offered to babysit for the evening knowing that my martyrdom would attract sympathy and babysitting points in the future. We invited Sofia to stay overnight with us to allow Luise and Jeroen to join the party (Jeroen’s brother Sander and his wife Eva were visiting). Sofia was thus Emma’s first ever overnight guest and they were both full of excitement. With fireworks booming and music and singing blasting from the shore, we barely managed to get the kids to bed before 2330! This was after several books and games and some great modeling of Seb and my snorkelling masks (see photos). All of the adults, (excepting myself) took full advantage of the Spanish fiesta and danced until dawn. Two enormous grandstands dominated the village square (approximate population 2700 people so it was a family affair) and from 2230 until 0530 the bands alternated, several scantily clad women (and a couple of men) crooning Spanish melodies and dancing with wildly swinging hips. A great time was had by all (and my time will come).

Tapas, Turtles, Gaitas and a Budding Marine Biologist

A Coruna is the most popular first stop for long distance cruisers from Northern Europe. The harbour is full (although less full than former years) of sailboats flying (amongst others) French, German, Norwegian, Danish, UK, Swedish and of course, Dutch flags. We exchanged stories with a couple of other boats and were invited for a coffee aboard the Dutch boat, the Victory. This is a lovely, large, spacious 47 foot one-off cutter and its owners Jan Bart Kolman and Monique Vonk welcomed us warmly. Emma and Macsen had a wonderful time playing with their winches and distributing cookie crumbs over their spotless deck while we had a friendly chat. Seb in particular, looks forward to bumping into them again to gain some tips from Jan Bart who has been a competitive fisherman.

A Coruna saw us sitting in the plaza, wandering through the old city, and gorging ourselves in the small bars and restaurants. The food of the area is fantastic and there is a huge market with succulent fruits and veggies, delicious bread, meats, and fish. Spanish people (at least the Galicians) love children, give treats, kiss and cuddle them, and even the young boys love to play with Macsen. We have met many more Galicians through our children than in any other way. Galicia also appeals to frugal Dutch amongst our crews - tapas comes for free when you order a beer and when you take your child to the market or shopping you don’t have to feed them dinner because they have received so much cake, bread, fruit etc. in free snackies.

On our second day in A Coruna, we had a rather surrealistic experience while sitting and eating shared tapas-ish dinner on the docks between out boats (Elena, Mjolner and a newcomer called the Zilvermeeuw). A very faint sound of bagpipes moved closer and closer - were our navigation skills so bad? Where we in Scotland? Finally we saw a small motor boat driving slowly past with about 5 people, 2 of whom were dancing around and playing bagpipes. We waved and clapped and they waved back. The boat then turned back to us and a chubby little man held out a bucket from which he fished a small turtle. He handed it over to us with a big smile and a wave and off they drove still swaying to the sound of the ‘doedelzak’ (I love the Dutch word for bagpipes). I have since learned that this is locally known as a gaitas galega and is a very popular traditional instrument in the region. The Galician bagpipes can be traced back to the middle ages (as far back as the 13th and 14th centuries), and are a staple instrument in all of the regions fiestas. And the turtle? He was greatly admired by the children until they began to poke and prod him a little too roughly at which time he was placed carefully in a big box with water, food and a hiding place to be taken back to the sea the following morning.

Our first rainy day in weeks warranted a visit to the aquarium and a trip up to the top of A Coruna to see the Torre de Hercules, a 1900 year old Roman lighthouse that is the oldest Roman lighthouse still in use. Macsen discovered a new side of himself in the aquarium. He loves to look at fish – we couldn’t tear him away. This is a great aquariam with enormous floor to ceiling tanks displaying examples of the local sealife. Macsen stood in front of the tanks with his arms and legs wide, waggling his head back and forth, pointing at the fish and giggling.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Golfo de Vizcaya

The Bay of Biscay or the Cantabrian Sea is legendary for monster waves and rough seas. The continental shelf protrudes out into the bay where depths plunge from 100m suddenly to 4000m and with the wrong wind direction and strength this leads to confused water and unpleasant conditions. Although I trusted our research and our chosen ‘weather window’ it is still a very intimidating passage, and our first longer than 24 hours. I didn’t sleep much on the night of July 6th feeling excitement and a little apprehension.

We pulled up our anchor and waved goodbye to Bryer and Tresco Islands at 1530 on July 7th as soon as the tide was high. Our main had two reefs as we anticipated a slightly rough beginning and taking a reef out is always much easier than putting one in. Strong SW winds from the previous days had shifted to give us a nice NW breeze but this shift resulted in some large waves as we sailed out into the bay. Although we expected rough weather, 12 hours of 3m waves and swells with winds of 20-25 knots still made for a very uncomfortable night, particularly as Seb and I were both getting our sea legs. At 2100 we put the thankfully still cheerful monkeys to bed (Macsen in the bow and Emma with us) and settled into our watch. The first night was spent huddled in the cockpit with a eye on the horizon with little ability or desire to do much else. Fortunately, the winds reduced to 15 knots by early morning on the 8th and the waves calmed and we sailed at a smooth 6,5 knots into a beautiful sunny day.

Our SSB radio is working and we were able to pick up weather information and chat to the Mjolner, Elena and also the Tangaroa, just now departing from the Netherlands. We set up a plan to chat at 0900, 1500, 2100 and 0300 each day, starting out on VHF and moving to SSB when we were out of range. The VHF radio has a radius of approximately 20-30 miles (the horizon from the top of the mast) but the SSB should have a global reach.

My watch on the second night began at 2000. At 2200, I rushed inside to Seb and Emma. “Emma, are you awake?””No, Mama, I’m sleeping.” A quick whisper of “The dolphins are here” and both Emma and Seb jumped out of bed in great excitement. We watched in awe as about 10 dolphins jumped around our bow and leapt through the air next to the boat, swimming around and around to do it again. Amazing. Emma had been watching Seb catch fish for the last few weeks and said very seriously “Mama, can we catch them and put them in a bucket? They are very small dolphins.” I managed to convince her that they wouldn’t fit and would probably not find that to their liking at all and she seemed to accept that and went back to laughing out loud as they leapt about beside the boat. Since then, we have been incredibly lucky and they seem to travel along with us. Sometimes groups of 3-4 and sometimes as many as 20. Sometimes they are calm and just swim along next to the boat and sometimes they frolic about, jump into the air and make faces at us. Absolutely incredible, we are walking around with grins from ear to ear. It is absolutely impossible to be grumpy when dolphins are around.

The wind almost disappeared on the 9th and we hoisted our spinnaker for the first time. Cruising along under the big bright blue and yellow balloon with the dolphins splashing around us…couldn’t be any better. Emma and Macsen were both thrilled with the sail and the dolphins, Macsen doing his now trademark excited ‘kijk’ squeak and pointing his thumb and finger. Mjolner was in the area and motored alongside to take some pictures. After a couple of hours we took it down, although we were happy that we were able to translate 5 knots of wind into 2,9 knots SOG we needed to turn the motor on if we wanted to arrive in La Coruna within a week.

The rest of the day was spent motoring in the sun, bathing in the cockpit, watching the dolphins and generally enjoying ourselves.
Land in zicht! Seb caught the first glimpse of a looming cliffs in the distance at about 0500 on Friday July 10th. It was a great feeling to sail into the bay. I expected to feel a great sense of accomplishment and relief but in the end it was just really nice to arrive, be in Spain and see the Elena and Mjolner crew again. Although we were very careful with the planning of our departure it remains a very intimidating passage and we are delighted that it was so pleasant and enjoyable.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Land in zicht!

It is now 04:49 and we can see lights on the coast of Spain. Still around 9 hours left before we actually get to La Coruna. We are enjoying our last miles sailing in the moonlight... (posted via SSB)

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Bald Men and Biscay!!!

After ten wonderful and relaxing days on the Isles of Scilly we have a weather window to cross the Bay of Biscay! Ten days spent exploring, fishing, hiking, biking, beach bbq-ing and having lots of good chats and laughs. Water tanks and diesel tanks are full, sails ready, warm meals have been cooked, everything stowed as securely as possible and the children have been chased around and around the playground to expend as much energy as possible before departure. Finally, the boys have all close cropped their hair to maximize the aerodynamics of the crossing. A few more hours to wait for high tide and then we expect to shoot with wind on our beam out into the bay of Biscay. The plan is to arrive in La Caruna, Spain on Saturday morning.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The 3rd Musketeer

The Mjølner arrived this morning!!! Jeroen called at 0730 this morning to say that they were a few hours away. With great excitement we got together with the Elena crew to put our Mjølner receiving plan into action: baked brownies, decorated our dinghies, cooled champagne and “reserved” a mooring buoy with balloons and a welcome poem. At 0830 we could talk to them over the marifone, which meant that they were closing in…it also meant that they could hear us scheming with the Elena crew. With great presence of mind I started speaking in code to Adam to suggest that we move to channel six. Unfortunately, I chose to speak in a rare form of Dutch/ English and it came out as “s-e-x” to which Adam dryly replied “we don’t have time for that now but enjoy yourselves.” Jeroen called on the VHF at 1130 to announce that they were sailing “between the rocks”, ie. entering the harbour. We leapt into our dinghies and sped out to meet them, Adam clutching a bottle of perfectly chilled champagne. It was a beautiful sight as they sailed closer, plunging through the sea swell, Mjølner really flaunting her stuff. We broke the spell with a few loud toots of the horn, the champagne cork flew and Leonie very deftly managed to hand both Jeroen and Luise a (relatively) full glass of champers. The rest of the day was spent pottering from beach to beach, eating and drinking and generally having a wonderful time. Emma and Mees are delighted that Sophia is finally here and we are all very happy to have our 3rd musketeer!

Scilly Islands , Fish and The Riddle of the Sands

Great sail from Falmouth 60 nautical miles to the Isles of Scilly with a slight wind from behind. It was slightly misty but we still had a good view of the Wolf Rock light house sticking out of the sea halfway to the islands. Adam and Mees came out in the dingy to guide us in for our first Scilly experience. We were also greeted by some very friendly seals. Anchored in Granilly bay at 1700, ate a quick and easy meal and headed for the beach on an ‘onbewoond’ island. The Isles of Scilly is a granite archipelago 35 miles west of Lands End, UK, in the middle of the ocean, officially designated as an’Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and known for being very hard to navigate. With modern charts, GPS chart plotters etc. it has become a lot easier and as long as you are careful , stick to the clear routes and carefully monitor the tides you should be OK. There is a real mystery and aura of difficulty about the Isles of Scilly that I believe has been carefully cultivated by those in the know. We will do our best to propagate this myth as well to ensure that the islands remain as lovely and untouched as they are today.

Breaking news of the week is that we have eaten our first self-caught fish! The Elena family spent yesterday afternoon pottering about in the dingy and hauling in fish after fish, one of which weighed a kilo! We had an absolutely divine Thai (fresh, fresh, fresh) fish curry for dinner – soooo yummy!

And the riddle of the sands? Last night we anchored in Saint Helen’s Pool, a well protected bay in the north of the Scillies. We carefully set the anchor alarm and double checked the height of the tides, agreeing that we should have enough water under our keel even if it went to the lowest tide (which it wouldn’t). At 0300 I woke up and gently nudged Seb “I think we are aground.” We both jumped out of bed and indeed, the boat was lying on a slight angle and we were clearly stuck in the mud. We checked the anchor and the depth on the charts, we had not drifted and the charts indicated good depth. Sand moves of course and we were just unlucky enough to have landed on top of a recently drifted sand bank under the water. It was an uncomfortable feeling as we stayed stuck for another hour and then felt ourselves slowly drifting clear. No real problem but something we would definitely like to avoid in the future.