Friday, 6 September 2013

Goodbye to Ella



It's not always easy having relations to stay but Onawind Blue's cousin Ella was the perfect guest. Pretty, undemanding and grateful of the fresh water clean out and other attention she received at The Invisible Workshop.

The time for her to leave came about all too soon and unfortunately I hadn't had the chance to take her out on my own. (Though the doctors would say that solo sailing is still beyond me.) I hadn't expected Jordi and Anna, the intrepid pair that were to sail the next leg, mainly because the wind was foul. It would be a slog for them even though the leg was short. They were keen to get going and we wheeled Ella to the beach, me inwardly cursing that I hadn't organised some crew so that I could sail with them in OB. I desperately wanted some photos of the two boats together on the briny.

We set up Ella and launched her with out mishap and I watched from the beach as she beat out to sea, tacked and set off up the coast. 'There goes a missed opportunity.' I thought as I sloped home, stopping beside OB to tidy her interior. While deciding how best to spend the afternoon without feeling sullen, my friend Alex cycled by on his way home for lunch. 'Going sailing?' He asked. I looked at him, he's only 24 and built of solid muscle.

'Fancy coming?'
I saw a sparkle in his eye.
'Quick, go and put your bike away. I'll see you back here in 10 minutes.'

Ella had a good half an hour start on us and from the beach I could no longer see her. Having seen that she's fairly good upwind I wondered if OB could catch up. Alex and I boarded and took a long beat out to sea. Hoping that familiarity with my boat would give us an advantage close-hauled I arranged Alex's 80 kilos to provide the best trim, milked every gust and never fell off the wind except to gain speed when slowed by waves slapping on the windward bow. With a racer's grimace across my gob I tacked and set off on the new course in earnest pursuit.

Although Alex and I maintained a continual yakety yak my mind was on the sailing, and on my boat. Could it be that I'd forgotten how well she sails? It wasn't long before I could see Ella's sail, she was just closing with the marina at Roda de Bara. She tacked and I judged that OB was two thirds of a mile downwind. After a few more tacks we were alongside her.

Sailing close-hauled it was clear that OB had more speed (as one would expect from a longer waterline and more sail area) and I spilled wind so that we could sail together and converse. Ella had a problem with the sail, it wasn't setting well, with wrinkles (girts, Michalak calls them) from the clew to the throat. I'd noticed this when sailing her myself though had hesitated to heave on more tension as the throat didn't seem to be sufficiently reinforced. I'd strengthen the throat in The Invisible Workshop but still those girts persisted.


The force 3 breeze fell to a low F2 and we began to wallow. I thought about what to do. We couldn't complete the whole trip because I wouldn't have the energy and I was worried that the wind would entirely fail. Of course I could strap Alex to the oars, but I knew it was time to be going, OB and Ella had sailed together. So I turned OB towards home.

After a short distance I spied a kayak and hailed it. Alongside it transpired that the kayaker was one of my blog readers and so I felt confident in asking him a favour. I passed him my camera and turned once again to pursue Ella. Unfortunately I didn't get my new friend's name but am very grateful for the photos he took of OB and Ella sailing together. (Moltes gracies company!)


Sailing towards home the chit-chat lulled and Alex and I fell into that blissful trance-like state that comes when sailing broad in a light wind under a hot sun. My mind turned to food, just a few days ago I'd emptied OB of rusting tins and made a small feast of the mackerel fillets a la diablesse, smoked cod liver and partridge in vinegar marinade. OB still hadn't been restocked with emergency rations. Alex was peckish too. To relieve our sun-baked brains we stopped for a swim. Alex is a skilled diver and spearfisherman and he immediately headed for the bottom in search of an octopus. I swam quietly round OB, washing grime off her sides with handfuls of seawater.

Alex returned empty handed and we sailed home. Heaving OB up the beach and onto her trailer Alex said, 'Did you really do all this on your own before?' 'Yes,' I replied, 'but I never used to be this hungry.' We smiled at each other, weakened and wan sailors. Alex sped off to his mum's cooking and I went home and gazed into the fridge.

Ha! Grilled skirt steak with fried potatoes and Dijon mustard!




Ella details








Sunday, 1 September 2013

A day with the Ella Skiff



There's a great project underway here on the Catalan coast. It all started when a group of boating enthusiasts decided to build a boat together. They chose Gavin Atkin's Ella skiff for the obvious reasons of simple construction, free plans and good pedigree. The build took a year and the boat was launched on the Costa Brava at the beginning of the summer. After sea trails with a polytarp standing lugsail the boat was towed down to the south of Catalonia and the next stage of the project began. Whosoever, with boat-handling skills, was invited to sail the boat, in short legs, back up to the Costa Brava.

When Ella arrived just north of Tarragona I signed up to sail a leg, hoping to get the boat as far north as my home beach at Creixell. Being 10 kilos underweight and receiving potent treatment for a dastardly lymphoma I needed some crew and was flattered when my 16 year-old daughter, Yoeh volunteered. She doesn't have much sailing experience but I could rely on her ability to follow instructions, her common sense and excellent company. Now I needed both health and weather windows to overlap. Happily I didn't have to wait long.

The forecast showed 6 knots from a favourable quarter between 1400 and 1800 and I had woken with good levels of vim and vitality. But my main concern was that the wind would fail once we were at sea. The skiff is equipped with no auxiliary power beyond a pair of kiddy's paddles, which to me aren't really a viable means of traveling more than a few hundred metres, if that.

With the idea of hugging the coast like babes to a mother's breast Yoeh and I set up the boat on the beach. The skiff is equipped with the basics and well organised. One significant modification has been made to the design. With the idea that the boat might be left unattended on faraway beaches for untold days, openings have been made in the transom and interior bulkheads to allow the spars to be stored inside the boat. This would appear sound practice for the projected use of the Ella Skiff, though I'm always slightly wary of considerations that make life on land easier as they generally have some consequence at sea. In this case I worry that eventually the threads of the plastic lids that cover the holes will wear, leak and compromise the built-in buoyancy. Provision has been made for this however, and the manual that comes with the boat exhorts all users to line the threads with tubing before removing the spars and to exercise extreme care.


Ella is quite heavily built, revealing the builders' origins in lateen sail. In Catalan trad-boaty-speak mast is 'arbre'—literally 'tree', and the solid, sturdy pole up which I hoisted the sail could easily carry twice as much canvas. We rolled the boat to the water's edge on the fender that I'd brought for the purpose (and to serve as a seat once afloat) and waded out until we found enough depth to ship the rudder and daggerboard. We boarded, sheeted in, put the tiller to windward and away Ella flew.

The boat had caused some interest on the beach and I turned to wave to a small send-off party then re-trimed the sail to go broad and tootle along just 200 metres off the shore. 'Wow, she's fast.' said Yoeh, and yes, Ella was already well into her stride as we were still sorting out our seating arrangements. I sat on my fender inside the cockpit, wedging my torso into the after starboard corner with the tiller under my armpit and Yoeh sat on the windward side of the central thwart looking forward. Ella and her crew were comfortable all we could wish was that the wind hold.


The GPS registered a healthy 3 knots and after sailing a mile or so Yoeh cut up a baguette for sandwiches, complaining that I could have bought ready-sliced cheese. 'Pre-sliced, industrial packed cheese is not for those who go to sea in small home-built boats,' I retorted snobbishly, 'Now use the boat knife to cut that nice, sweaty wedge of Emmental.'

As the sandwiches went down the wind came up and white caps began to appear. The breeze settled at a solid 10 knots, causing us no great problem but raising our speed a knot. At this rate home was going to turn up far too early in the day and so we changed course to practice other points of sail.


The boat had already shown herself to be well balanced, with a light tiller and a touch of weather helm but I was impressed at how high she pointed to windward. She was wet though, with the moderate breeze and chop and would have liked a reef. I tacked carefully and she came round well. I repeated the maneouvre with less finesse and got caught in stays, I backed the sail, put the tiller to leeward and reversed on to course. Sailing dead down wind with the daggerboard raised Ella became unstable and ached to gybe but by lowering the board a tad and turning slightly to windward she regained posture.

Ella was not designed for these open sea conditions but like Onawind Blue she behaved well with the decent breeze and short sea and frankly I wouldn't have expected less.

I'd added a 2 kilo anchor to Ella's kit—I just don't feel happy going to sea without one—and thought about stopping for a swim but the bays under our lee looked too crowded and lumpy and so we pushed on past OB's old haunts, Waikiki beach, La Mora, Tamarit Castle. We let everything fly briefly as we peered down at jelly fish and then I passed the helm to Yoeh and settled myself up forward facing aft. Yoeh turned Ella off the breeze, trimming the main and we were galloping again. The wind had risen but on this point of sail Ella was still comfortable. I worried slightly for the straining polytarp but knew that the spars could handle a gale.

'There's a big lump of plastic up ahead.' Said Yoeh. After little more than an hour aboard she was sounding like a wooden boat owner. 'It's coming straight towards us.' 'Don't worry, hold your course.' I said, 'we have right of way.' But she was uncomfortable and started to head up. 'Hold your course!' I repeated.

'But it's going to hit us.' She said with a rising tone. I thought it might be time to look round and check out the situation. For a minute It did indeed appear we were on a collision course but then a gap widened. The boat made no hint of modifying its course and throbbed by to port with its fenders out, girls sunbathing on the foredeck and suntanned swankpots yakking on the fly bridge. I've always exercised extreme tolerance with this breed of water-user but now, for the sake of my daughter's education I let fly in full colour. Satisfied with my imaginative combinations of expletives I sat back to enjoy the wind in my mustache but was nearly knocked off my perch by the arrival of motorboat wake.


The wind remained firm and windsurfers skittered out from the beach at Torredembarra. Back at the helm I still felt no need to reef. The waves had grown and Ella hinted that she'd like to try surfing. I was happy to indulge her, bearing up ever so slightly at the base of the wave for maximum speed then turning stern to the swell, urging the crew to get her weight forward. As the skiff caught the wave we lent back and Ella zipped along with spray singing from her shoulders. (The GPS marked a max speed for the trip of 9.1 knots ) We whooped with joy and caught a few more waves before Creixell beach turned up. It was impossible to de-power the sail on this point of sail and we howled towards the shore, raising the daggerboard and rudder at the last minute and skidding a metre up the beach like jerks on a jet ski.

Monday, 10 June 2013

All about octopus

This season's treat from Sam Llewellyn contains an article of mine about octopus. How to catch them--and what they do to evade you--how to dispatch them quickly and how to prepare them for the pot.

As I've said elsewhere on this blog the octopus is an extraordinary creature and one that I find endlessly fascinating. Initially the article started as a way for me to organise all the information that I'd accumulated about octopus, from observation, reference and fishermen. As I started to write I began to see that I could fit the whole octopus story into the tale of catching one.  So that's what you have, all the details of diving for octopus in this summer's MQ. 

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Lugworm Chronicles


I have been enjoying the first of the Lugworm Chronicles—Lugworm on the Loose by Ken Duxbury. Lodestar books has published the trilogy that, despite popularity when first published in 1973, had gone out of print. And just as well, for Lugworm on the Loose is a classic that deserves resurrection and one that any small boat sailor or dreamer will enjoy. The books have beautiful, satin smooth hardback bindings, lovely paper and crisp print with pen and ink illustrations by Duxbury himself. 

Ken and his wife B (we never get to know her full name which has the effect of keeping this evidently tough and resourceful women somewhat in the background) trail their Drascombe Lugger out from under piles of tedious work and grey skies to sunbaked Greece. Aboard Lugworm they plot a winding route from Volos, avoiding the marauding Meltemi wind, to the Sporades and the Cyclades before taking the Corinthian Canal to the Ionian and finally to Corfu. Ken's writing depicts a peaceful Greece before the tourist boom wreaked havoc amongst the islands but you have to read between the lines to thoroughly grasp the sailing challenges they faced. Ken and B's britishness gives rise to some unintentional humour but is ultimately endearing. (They continually conform to Noel Coward's stereotype and, like mad dogs, set off for long walks in the blistering mid-day sun.) The book also contains some fascinating snippets concerning the local fishing practices. I particularly enjoyed an episode describing a technique for catching octopus.

Ken and B are in a bay near Korfos, in the Saronic Gulf just before entering the Gulf of Corinth. Wind bound they prepare for a day of sunbathing in the lee of an olive grove. Their peaceful morning is disturbed by a shepherd coming down the hill carrying a long pole with a bunch of sage leaves attached to one end. Ken watches as the shepherd, standing on a rock, sprinkles some drops of olive oil on the water and then submerges the leafy end of the pole and beings gently jigging it up and down. The shepherd, watches, waits and jigs to Ken's fascination until an eel-like form coils out from under a rock and then retreats. The shepherd, keeping the leaves undulating, moves the pole closer to the rocks as Ken peers down perceiving a feature that looks remarkably like a human eye set in a large brown blob. More tentacles appear and suddenly the sage is embraced by an octopus. The shepherd jerks the pole skyward and up comes a two-kilo octopus impaled on large barbs hidden in the bunch of leaves. Inserting a knife between its eyes the shepherd dispatches the creature and then disengages it from the hooks. He goes on to beat it on the rocks, Ken counts 75 times, before turning the head inside out and declaring 'Kalo'—it's good. Ken and B however, despite witnessing the Greeks enjoying octopus never quite overcome their mild revulsion.

I have never heard of this method before though it has some similarities with a Catalan practice in which a small rectangle of wood with weights on the underside and three large hooks on the top, baited with sardines or chicken is slung into the briny attached to a long line. The fisherman standing on the dock or in his boat slowly pulls in the line. Even in daylight an octopus can't resist the smell of a chicken carcass and will rapidly quit its cave to sink its beak into the meat. Nowadays beating the creature on the ground is not necessary (unless you're in a hurry to eat) as 24 to 48 hours in the freezer is enough to tenderise the flesh.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Carlos Barral


When I first started planning cruises on the Catalan coast, rather than studying a pilot book, I looked to the Catalan nautical writers who, though writing sometime in the past, used language that I could readily absorb. Two writers stood out—Josep Pla and Carlos Barral. Both sailed extensively on this coast from the '40's to the '70's and as I lapped up their prose I began to feel an almost personal attachment to them. While Pla was paused, detailed, literary and enjoyable purely for his masterly use of the Catalan language, Barral described sailing and the coast with larger, more spontaneous brush strokes and his vivid colours reflected his passionate nautical spirit.

Pla died in 1981, his boat 'Mestral' long lost to scrap. Barral died in '89, and his boat 'Capitan Arguello' ended up in Tarragona's 'Museu del Port.' Barral was from Calafell, just round the next headland from OB's beach, and the dedicated souls of the association 'Pati Catala Calafell, Mar Mitic, Mar Ludic' have striven to return Barral's boat to its home beach in Calafell. But for all the negotiations Tarragona Museum hold tightly to the treasured Capitan Arguello. So the association studied the possibility of building a replica but that plan unsurprisingly was beyond their budget. They did the next best thing, found and restored a deteriorating llaut which, though of smaller dimensions, they painted in Capitan Arguello's distinctive black and orange colours and named La Carlos Barral.



 I went along for the launch ceremony and arrived in time to see the boat chugging out of the port, running parallel to the beach to the place on the sand where the ceremony was to be held. Conducted by Vicente Garcia-Delgado, author of the definitive book on the lateen sailing rig—Nuestra Vela Latina—and historical expert of Mediterranean sail the ceremony recreated the pagan rites that mariners hoped would appease the fates. With fitting pomp and deliberation Vicente burnt a potful of olive branches under the prow, dressed the stem head with a lamb's fleece and bade the 'patron' soak it with wine, then he doused the boat in sea water followed by coarse-grained salt. Finally, moving into christian territory, the boat builder responsible for the restoration nailed a gold coin to the mastfoot to pay St Peter for entry into heaven should the boat founder. Then a virgin climbed aboard with a cross to be placed inside the boat at the bows. With the fates and deities suitably catered for the La Carlos Barral could begin her career.



Dawrfed by the local dark-suited bigwigs attending the occasion was the pettite guest of honor Yvonne Barral, Carlos Barral's widow, accompanied by her children and grandchildren. While she waited for the local radio station to sort out its signal I introduced myself and explained the role her late husband had played in my personal sailing story. As occasionally happens when I talk about Onawind Blue ears pricked to the simple tale of a small boat on the sea, but now I was more than flattered that this elegant lady who had sailed many miles with her husband might be interested in my adventures. Emboldened I pulled my book from my rucksack and showed it to her. As she flicked approvingly through the pages I felt that quite unexpectedly I made a significant connection with part of Catalonia's literary and maritime heritage. 

Monday, 13 May 2013

One of those days

It's not often a day comes along when, after a good, early breakfast, there is nothing left to do but ponder on what to have for lunch. Given a large supply of unusual fish my thoughts turn to methods of preparation. There's a colourful 'tord roquer' in the freezer, a corkwing wrasse, symphodus melops and it begs to be cooked 'a la sal'--baked in salt. There's not enough coarse salt in the cupboard however, and a trip in the car to the shops is anathema to the pleasant, languid mood of the morning.

It doesn't take much thought to arrive at the perfect conclusion: sail down the coast to next town where there's a supermarket near the beach. Strange as it seems to go to sea to buy salt I quickly prepare OB and launch into a flat sea and offshore breeze. I sail large parallel to the beach and lie back with my weight to windward as the inevitable gust powers OB to top speed. The town turns up way too early and I sail out to sea for a few turns on the stiffer wind. The Mestral when blowing moderately and early in the day usually foretells a noon calm and subsequent wind shift to the south west. So as the wind dies I stow the sails and row to the beach, rolling OB up the sand on a fender.

I dig out some flip flops and coins and cross the beach and the busy promenade, through an alley, across a square to the small supermarket where I buy salt, wine, bread and potatoes. I've earned a beer and so I sit down at an aluminium table on the terrace of a near-by bar. I'm half way though the beer when a familiar figure comes down the street. It's skipper MacGyver out to buy a roast chicken for Sunday lunch. He sits down and we order more beer. He's seen the boat on the beach and is tickled when I tell him I've come shopping. Another fisherman turns up, the shopping story is retold and more beers are ordered.

We could sit here all day but people have wives to get home to and MacGyver still hasn't bought his chicken. The wind has kicked in again, now from the southwest. MacGyver walks a way with me, confessing that although he's spent all his life on the sea, he's never been sailing. He refuses to tread on the sand and watches me prepare the boat from the promenade.

I launch OB, row out a short way, quickly lower the rudder and daggerboard before hoisting the sails. I back the main to turn the boat, the wind catches and we fly large, winging homeward. OB covers the two and half miles in half an hour and soon I'm in the kitchen burying the wrasse in coarse salt, I dig through the snowy layer until I uncover the eye, left bear this glassy orb will turn opaque when the fish is cooked through.


I parboil some potatoes then saute them in olive oil. But I'm having trouble judging if that eye has turned sufficiently pale and eventually err far on the side of caution. By the time I chip the fish out of it's salt crust it is overcooked and drier than I'd like. However, the spirit of the morning pervades and the inexpensive wine I've bought is surprisingly good. And as so often happens with food the enjoyment comes from the situation and the story that accompanies it. Overcooked, over-salty, bony corkwing wrasse never tasted so good.