Monday, 31 August 2015

A lambency of gaff in looms


Why go to Cadaqués, I reasoned, one of the most beautiful Mediterranean towns: ex fishing village, a player in the surrealist movement, known for the astonishing quality of it's light; a technicolor clarity that contrasts exquisitely with the impenetrable black slate of the coast—sky, rock and sea all polished by the Tramontana wind. Why all this when I could go to a fag-end town renowned for mosquitos and an unenlightened attitude to bullfighting.

Solitude, in a word.

Cadaqués, at this time of year, is rife with bohemians, it's all white clothes and sandals and artistic noses held righteously aloft. And the water is the preserve of the those who think wealth brings entitlement across the board. Sant Carles de la Rapìta however, is just any old place—on the face of it. Actually it has some excellent restaurants and holds a claim to having played a significant role in Catalonia's maritime history. But I won't go into that here as I only went into town to buy ice for the cool box.

The locals may or may not be rednecks but there certainly aren't many sailors left among them. That's not to say there aren't a lot of boats. Whether they've seen you or not, don't expect anyone but yourself to change course. For self preservation alone it's worth assuming that nobody will adhere to any rules that you happen to know—take this as the principle rule for the coast in general. The port of Sant Carles is a hotbed of dodgy rope work—frayed ends and evil thumb knots abound. And the ramp is a dream for youtubers that post titles like, 'boat launch fails'. Out of charity I looked away and quietly got on with my own disastrous launch which left OB minus some bottom paint and my back out one degree to port.

I rowed out into the fray—a spritely force 3 over a short, steep chop and motor boats and jet skis fizzing about like mad wind-up toys. Anchored and hoisting the sails a boat hurtled by raising a low wall of wake that made me sit down fast. I gazed after them but none looked back so I assumed they weren't buzzing me to watch my boat wildly roll but were unaware of being boorish and uncivil. Most boats chose to stick close to the shore and, under full sail, I was soon in clearer water.

El Port dels Alfacs is a parallelogram-shaped body of salt water running more or less east west, Sant Carles being on the northwestern edge. The long spit of 'El Trabucador' protects the bay from the sea, swinging westward to form 'El Punta de la Banya'. I spent the afternoon tacking up to the northeastern corner where I got stuck in weed and mud. But here running aground is all part of the sailing and in a craft like OB, where you simply climb out of the boat into ankle deep water to lighten the hull and thus refloat, it is not a problem. A fixed-keel sailboat was in far deeper trouble than I and a motor boat was churning great gouts of mud skyward with no forward progress. In waters less thin I again lowered the rudder and sailed clean away from this treacherous corner.
La Punta de la Banya is a nature reserve and is all but inaccessible except in a shallow draft, flat-bottomed boat. Scrub and the odd tree were becoming silhouettes by the time I arrived and I cautiously approached a tiny beach, letting the boat skid sideways with no centreboard or rudder, making minor adjustments to the course, poling with an oar.

As the bow ground gently against the shell laden shore I was surprised to see a row of discarded umbrellas and walking sticks upright in the mud on the far side of some tall grasses. I hopped out of the boat to investigate and the umbrellas opened and took flight.
 A flamboyance of flamingos.




Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Grey Triggerfish (Balistes capriscus)


I like fish, I'm interested in them both underwater and on my plate. I have a reasonable knowledge based mainly on experience, shored up with solid facts from the wikipedia and fishbase.org. I'm always eager to learn about the sea and its inhabitants.

As with the birds I have the local fish identified, the ten common or garden species and the rarer ones. The ones that I know I might see but hardly ever encounter. And others, that although they turn up on the fishmonger's slab having journeyed from afar, are almost things of legend, like the dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus).

A new sea floor over which to snorkel brings the pleasure of anticipation. I have discovered just how painful is the poison of the weever fish (Trachinus draco) and how enduring the discomfort of the Pelagia noctiluca jelly fish sting. I've watched bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) hunting anchovies and have even been checked out by a pair that followed me for many metres, sniffing at my toes. I have caught octopus (Octopus vulgaris) and felt the pinch of their parrot-like beaks.

Recently, in Formentera, floating 10 metres or so above a barren bottom I saw an old rudder lying on the sand. A wrasse was hovering around one edge, often a sign that an octopus is in residence as the diminutive wrasse makes meals of pedators' scraps. I emptied and filled my lungs a few times then dived down, holding my nose and blowing every 2 or 3 metres to compensate the mounting pressure. I looked underneath the rudder, no octopus but another predator; a triggerfish, about 40cm long, bold and ugly.

I didn't hang about. I knew the triggerfish to be aggressive and I was running out of oxygen anyway. At the surface I hung in the water breathing. Suddenly I felt something grab my foot, I turned with a great flurry of limbs and saw the triggerfish clamped upon the knuckle of metatarsal behind my left little toe. And it didn't want to let go. I shook my foot hard and shoveled water at it, the fish backed off a bit. Then it came at me again. I kicked and pushed bubbles, my only defense. It had a particularly calculating stare and it looked at me coldly as it followed my messy backpedalling towards the boat from which I'd dived. After a while it desisted and I examined the two small holes on the top of my foot that were leaking blood into the water. It wasn't a serious wound. I climbed aboard wondering just why the fish had given me such an evil reception.

On the internet I confirmed that the triggerfish is indeed a cantankerous blighter, with a powerful jaw and sharp teeth but, more interestingly that it becomes defensive when protecting eggs. Even more interesting was the discovery that the fish's territory has the shape of an inverted cone, the apex at the bottom and the broadest part at the surface. So, if you encounter a triggerfish on the bottom and he doesn't look happy you should swim away horizontally. My mistake was to ascend and as I rose I further trespassed on his patch. On the surface above the nest I was bang in the centre of the fish's territory and as such a threat that needed to be dealt with.

I applaud the trigger's cojones and treasure my new fishy knowledge—I won't forget that icy stare—as well as the pin prick scars on my foot.




Friday, 17 July 2015

L'Ametlla. The morning after.



 It's not easy to get a lie-in when sleeping in a car, the heat, the mosquitos, the bright sunlight, the noises off—in this case seagulls and outboards, not as noisy as a Seagull outboard motors themselves, but nonetheless a racket.

I was moored by the crane ready for an early haul out but as it still wanted three hours until 9 o'clock I went for a row. Which turned into a sail. And then into a long row when the wind failed.

The wind returned just as I reached the harbour entrance so I hoisted the sails again and wafted in. The good thing about boating festivals is that rules are waived—normally you can't sail or row in ports, you have to use engine power. Being in the shadow of the seawall the wind was fluky but I slowly made my way to the inner harbour where the lateen fleet were still sleepily rafted to the quay. I sailed up and down for a while enjoying the short boards, tacking upwind and gybing down, sailing up to the raft as if I were going to tie on, then bearing away. All good sailing practice. Other boats took to the water and we made for the harbour mouth but the wind was dropping again and so I turned down my avenue and so to the crane.


And that was the end of the sailing fest. The boat on the trailer I walked into town for some late breakfast, examining the small fishing boats as I went. There was a time when, while refitting these boats, the old caulking was ripped out to be replaced with silicone gunk and that seemed like a step in a dubious direction. Now, however, there appears to be a fashion for layering up wooden hulls with fibreglass mat until any woody angles they may have are buried under curvaceous coats of gloop and paint. Not until the boat looks like a floating blancmange are the pudding makers satisfied. As the fleets get smaller these craft often come up for sail but I wouldn't like to be the one who returns one of these heavy meringues to a traditional wood finish.


Also new to me were the relatively recent additions to the tuna fishery. Remarkable skiffs, with bluff bows, great skids and 450hp engines. Imposing as they are the skids deliver no hydro dynamic advantage but rather their purpose is to keep the boat flat, so that the occupant doesn't tumble out of the back, as the boat is winched up the mother boat's stern ramp. At sea the powerful skiff's job is to tow the net, one end affixed to the main craft, in a great arc, encircling the school of tuna and so bringing the net back to the boat. The skids perform a secondary function in keeping the net clear of the rudder. It is an industrial purse seine fishery and the catch is usually fattened at sea in cages before market.

A fisheries inspector recently told me that tuna stocks were healthly again. If so great, but I must admit that the more I endeavour to understand about fishing the less I seem to know for certain.





Tuesday, 14 July 2015

L'Ametlla. The night



I hadn't made any sleeping arrangements so when I was asked, in the final stages of dinner, the simple reply was 'In the boat.'

It was late, gone midnight, and groups, reluctant to call it a day, stood smoking and drinking on the fish dock. It seemed wise to sort out my bed before the befuddlement became too generalised. But then it also became clear that with the bedding in the car and the boat on the other side of the port that I'd have to drive round and, given my degree of yaw, this would have been breaking the law. However, I could row the boat to the car.

Stepping carefully over the be-dewed decks of two other boats I settled into Onawind Blue, slipped her damp mooring lines and gave a gentle push. She glided noiselessly across the water, a drifting cursor on a flat, black, reflective screen. When she'd come to a natural halt I silently took up the oars and gave a pull, the water coiling like warm oil around the blades. And away, past the bright lights and babble on the fish dock, past the sleeping boats, past the avenue down which I should have turned to reach the car, past the mighty tuna fishing boats, past the green and red flashing lights that marked the port's entrance and past bedtime. Out onto the sea swanned Onawind blue. The moon, lacking a slither to its left side, rode over the remaining swell. I purposefully splashed an oar into its reflection to watch it deform and re-assemble.

What do you do out on the sea at one o'clock on a warm summer night? In my case I kept on rowing, out towards that place where the rim of a black disc met the rim of a black star-flecked dome. And then suddenly, like the tide rising in time-lapse, tiredness overtook me.

Back at the pontoon by the car I had to moor stern on which makes getting in an out of the boat treacherous—she rolls wildly as I step around the mizzen mast. Once I'd scratched my knees transferring my person from boat to quay I decided to scratch my plans to sleep aboard. Instead I slept in the car amongst clothes and kit, spare lines and life jackets, with my feet protruding out of the boot.

Monday, 13 July 2015

L'Ametlla. The evening.


Unsually for me I wasn't dehydrated after all those hours under the sun—there were three empty water bottles in the bottom of the boat—so I didn't feel the need to dash off for a beer as soon as I arrived. A swim and a shower were enough to refresh me. Ok, and a beer. Then I set off to the auditorium where we were to hear a talk by Anna Corbella.


IMOCA 60 sailing is at the other end of the spectrum from the wood and canvas pootling of the lateen fleet. However before I radically revised my sailing priorities about ten years ago this was exactly the type of sailing that I was interested in and aspired to when my pipe dreams set ablaze. I erroneously thought that southern ocean sailing was what separated the real sailors from the dabblers. Building and sailing the Light Trow has been a lesson in what is needed both in terms of sailor and craft to travel over the sea. And the achievement of judiciously using the wind to transport boat and crew in safety from A to B is what constitutes the art of seamanship.

Corbella's career has been a continual rising through the classes of competitive sailing, excelling in each: 420's, 470's, Mini 650, Figaro and finally IMOCA open 60's, though she's also had time to become a fully qualified vet. She sailed the 2010 Barcelona World Race with Dee Caffari, the first all female team, finishing 6th after 102 days  . Now she's recently competed in the third Edition of the Barcelona World race with fellow Catalan Gerard Marín aboard GAES Centros Auditivos completing the 23,000 miles in 91 days and arriving in third place.

Corbella, recovering from a knee injury sustained on the final leg of the race, spoke easily about the ins and outs of high speed sailing. Generally traveling at somewhere around 20 knots she likened the experience to speeding along in a high powered rib and showed videos of the boat's wake, unspooling like a runaway toilet roll. But she also pointed out that despite the high-end technology there are constant problems with gear and that the race is fundamentally a continual problem solving exercise combined with the challenge of ensuring maximum boat speed at all times. She spoke of her relationship (professional, not romantic) with team member Gerard Marín. Having known each other since childhood, competing and growing on the regatta circuit and selling second hand kit back and forth they are almost family, she said. It was evident that the level of trust in the competence of one another and their cultural similarity in confronting problems had a significant influence on the atmosphere aboard and the successful outcome of the race.  

Questions were invited when she'd finished and this led to a longish discussion about exactly how an Open 60 can possibly comply with Spain's strict and complex maritime regulations. Not surprisingly the boats break all the rules. Straining my grey matter I still couldn't come up with a question I felt worth asking (or that I couldn't google) but as the hall emptied I stay behind and waited my turn outside the little huddle that had gathered around her. Seeing my chance I stepped forward and gave her a copy of my book, based on this blog, Catalan Castaway. She flicked through it with exclamations and a stream of questions and then insisted that I sign it. 'With respect,' I wrote and left, glowing.

A fisherman tastes the fideua
Like all good days on the water it ended with a blowout. On the fish dock, in the lofty ceilinged shed where the catch is auctioned, with incongruous 'no food or drink' signs on the wall, a hundred or more people sat down to eat. The mayor was there, the organizers, local bigwigs, fishermen and those of us that had come to sail. First up was a fideua, short lengths of pasta, cooked in rich fish stock with a golden green glob of allioli in the middle. And then squid in ink. 'This is octopus,' declared my neighbour with the authority of grand piano dropped from a great height. In terms of free-falling musical instruments my authority might stretch to a harmonica so I meekly acquiesced, but by all that we hold dear, a poor man of the sea I'd be if I couldn't tell my squid from my octopus.






Friday, 10 July 2015

L'Ametlla. The afternoon.

The breezed had stiffen to a point where it actually cooled rather than just shifting heat around as it had during the morning. Much revived by coffee and on a wave of post prandial optimism I raised the sails thinking that I could sail off the quay and down the narrow avenue between moored craft without being backwinded or becoming fouled on stern lines. Due to a judicious and rapid raising of the centre board OB just weathered the final Beneteau, avoiding submerged lines—a favourable presence was looking out for me.

Again the flock of white sails drifted out of port as onlookers, surprised by the spectacle, waved. The breeze was still coming from the east and the return would be all upwind. Many boats fired up their engines and tighten their sheets to motor-sail home. I refused a tow—Onawind Blue behaves badly on a lead—and set off close hauled for the lighthouse on El Fangar. I remembered that OB makes better progress upwind if I take short tacks. On long boards the inevitable lapses of concentration combine to produce a loss of ground to windward.

With 12 knots of breeze OB sailed smartly at 4 knots. I tacked up to Cape Roig, from there I could cover the remaining 4 miles on one easy board. It was a beautiful sail. White caps rushed by and spray flew over OB's bow keeping me deliciously cool. Terns dived sharply into the water raising white plumes, miraclously taking flight almost from underwater with small fry glinting silver in their beaks. Everything felt right with the world, OB flowing over the sea and the sea, in its way, flowing through me.

L'Ametlla appeared as a cement wart on a rusty rock and pine green coast against a backdrop of misty mountains, underlined with broad brush strokes of Mediterranean blues. When enough sea has flowed in you start to see the world as if it were a watercolour.


The wind failed quite abrubtly, suddenly choked by the intense afternoon heat. I took up the oars and rowed the final half mile, tieing up alongside the other boats with my palms nicely burning. I stepped onto the quay and a round of applause went up from the other sailors as they honoured Onawind Blue and her fine abilities, she was, after all, the only boat to arrive without engine power.  

L'Ametlla. Photos


My good friend Joan Sol has sent me some fantastic photos of Onawind Blue as she sailed south to l'Ampolla on a light breeze with her mizzen staysail set and drawing. 








The centreboard is half raised as she's sailing broad. Many thanks to Joan for documenting the event so beautifully, you can see more of his photos here