Thursday, 24 October 2013

First year reflections

As I was reflecting back on this best-of-times / worst-of-times first year of sailing, those great folks at the Monkey’s Fist came up with a new collection of posts on Advice for Freshmen Cruisers.  Here are some of our thoughts on the matter:

We get by with a little (lot of) help from our friends.  Join as many local sailing associations as possible.  You will need experienced friends for help and advice with boat repairs and maintenance, but also on how to survive your first year with a boat.  It’s been a great comfort to us to know that when we’re in port working on the boat that we can always find a friend somewhere in the marina also working on his boat or pick up the phone and call a buddy.
Watch out for burn-out.  It’s hard not to spend all your time working on or sailing on your boat.  You’ve just spent a bundle on it and you need to prove to yourself and your family that it was not pure folly.  But there is a fine line between working on your boat because you enjoy it and becoming a slave to the boat that demands constant attention.  Plan some down time, at least some short vacations or weekends that have nothing to do with the boat.  Don’t ignore things you used to love … running, biking, skiing, cultural stuff, etc.  And don’t forget about your non-sailing friends and family.  It’s necessary to think about something else from time to time.

The transition was steeper than we thought.  We thought the transition from being experienced crew to being boat owners and skippers would be a smooth one.  It was, instead, a step function much like a brick wall.  Having to make decisions out there all alone is daunting and dealing with break-downs at sea also spices things up in a new (mostly unpleasant) way.  The only way to cope with this is to know that it will be tougher than you think and to go easy on yourself.  Don’t get too ambitious too fast.  Take the time to get used to the boat and your reactions to her.

Fear and anxiety are just part of it.  We spent many months sailing in the protected confines of our bay because we were anxious about venturing out further.  I thought that the anxiety would slowly go away as experience built.  Talking with more experienced friends made me realize that no matter how comfortable I feel sailing in the bay, it is normal to wet one’s pants the first time outside the comfort zone.  Fear and anxiety can be useful features.  As the saying goes, there are old sailors and bold sailors, but not many old bold sailors.  We found that the best way over the hump is to buddy boat, travelling in a little flotilla with other boats.  You are still master aboard your own boat with all the decisions and maintenance that this implies, but you have a safety net around you for exploring areas new to you and for decision-making for navigation strategies.  This goes back to advice number 1: have friends.

We’re turtles, not hares.  We thought we were hares, or at least had an image of ourselves as performance-oriented purists, but now we know that our biggest pleasure is getting from point A to B with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of comfort.  We’re in this for the long haul, at least 6 months at a time and we sail in some pretty rough areas.  If we only had 1-2 months each summer to sail, we might still be motivated to push the boat more, but living on the boat for ½ the year means we can take our time and enjoy the ride.  And we’re kind of getting tired of having to explain that to others who would double our distance in the same amount of time.  It’s not a race.  Slow down and smell the algae, guys.

That detachable forestay and collection of headsails we thought we couldn’t live without are almost never used.  We’ve put up the smaller jib a few times when we knew that we would be short-tacking in stiff winds.  But in general, when the wind starts picking up, the idea of going below to dig out heavy, bulky sails from the forward cabin lockers and wrestling them up the companionway and to the bow in a pitching sea really seems quite silly when we can simply roll up the jib sheet to an appropriate size from the comfort of the cockpit.  We considered ourselves purists who would never tolerate a partially-rolled jib sheet, but now we know better.  And that goes double for the times when you’re trapped in a surprise gale and really could use a storm sail up front … flip a coin to see who’s going to rig it ?  Nope. 

Blog “reality checks”.  Some family members and friends who are not cruisers will imagine your sailing life as one long, laid-back, care-free, baba-cool existence, pushed by gentle breezes along turquoise waters from island to island where the biggest danger is sunburn or running out of little decorative umbrellas for your cocktails.  Sympathy, even for the really bad days, will be hard to come by, even if you sail in gales in the cold waters of the North Sea, as we do.  Blogging about the bad days helps to keep it real. (But you still won’t get much sympathy…)    

It ain't all fun and games out here...

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Homecoming Week

While it’s often true that “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, Patrick and I have discovered this week that “you don’t know what you’ve got till you get it back”.  Coming home has been a process of rediscovering comforts and conveniences that we didn’t have on the boat, but that we didn’t really miss until we got home and "remembered".  Here’s a short list:

Hot water.  This stuff is great for washing dishes and taking showers.  On the boat, we have to heat up a kettle of water for the dishes, but I never really minded since I can make a nice after-dinner herbal tea at the same time.  Showers deserve their own category.

Showers.  Public showers in the port offices come in many flavours, from chic (Jersey) to infected pits (Camaret).  Most are passably clean, but almost none have temperature controls, and having a really hot shower is simply out of the question.  They keep the temperature at a carefully-studied level just above that which provokes complaint. The other water-saving trick is to operate the showers with tokens (1 or 2 euros), giving you access to exactly 7 minutes of luke-warm water.  Showering barefoot is another joy we’ve rediscovered, since you never, ever put a naked foot down on the public shower stalls.  We love our crocs, but I’m tickled pink to shower barefoot again.

Standing fully upright while cooking.  We’d almost forgotten how fun that is.

Laundry.  Patrick is a bit of a laundry freak.  It’s one of his favourite sports and borders on obsessive-compulsive.  I thought life on the boat would be good for him since the extra effort  required would wean him off his habit gently.  Finding good public laundry services near a marina is not so easy, but we usually manage to find a well-placed laundrette every 3 weeks or so, and hand-washing easy-to-dry items is a weekly occurrence.  When we got home, Patrick went into high-gear, making up for an entire summer of missed laundry opportunities. Even I will admit it’s nice to have really clean (and DRY) clothes again.

Dry clothes and sheets.  For most of the summer, this wasn’t a problem since the humidity was relatively low.  But during our last week or so at sea, the temperatures started getting lower and the humidity / condensation on the boat higher.  It’s no fun to crawl into a clammy bed at night, or to put on a cold damp shirt in the morning.  I really need to put clothes in sealable plastic bags, but I didn’t think this would be an issue in the summer.

Our bed.  The mattress on the boat is reasonably comfortable and we had no complaints, but when we sank down into our super memory-foam mattress the first night, we could feel the muscles in our backs relaxing in ways they simply hadn’t in months.

The barbeque.  We barbeque year round on a small Weber gas grill and almost never cook meat or fish of any kind inside the house.  We will invest in a small gas grill for the boat. 

Letting our hair down.  When I knew we would be living on a boat for long stretches of time, I opted for longish hair that can be simply pulled back in a pony tail for sailing and otherwise ignored for months.  The downside is that I end up spending 90% of my waking hours with my hair pulled back, and 10% with it down but contorted from its imprisonment in a tight elastic, making me wonder if it just wouldn’t be better to cut it all off.  I even had an idea for a new blog based on short hair: bad haircuts around the world.  Having been home for a few days now and not spending 8-9 hours a day exposed to the elements, I’m enjoying having my long hair (especially as it’s become quite chilly here.)  Patrick, on the other hand, is now sporting a 3 day beard, whittled down just this morning from a 10 day scraggly mess by our local Turkish barber who used fire to burn out the hair in his ears !  Quite a performance !  We’ll see how easy (or difficult) it is to maintain at sea.  He certainly won’t miss shaving every day.

Colors other than blue and white.  I didn’t realize it was fall until we were in the car driving home through the countryside and was gobsmacked by all the fall colors.  At sea, our eyes became accustomed to a palette of blues and whites, sometimes punctuated by a little green or sand/rock muted earthtone colors.

Having said all this, we would both hop back in the boat in a heartbeat and are more than a little frustrated that “real life” has settled in and it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to get away for even a little local sail for at least 4 weeks.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Best for Last

Our migration north brought us once again to Yeu island, a paradise for biking along wild coastal trails and a great place for snorkelling, provided you don an appropriately thick wet suit.   

Bike trails on the south coast of Yeu island.
We decided to bike down to the center part of the wild south coast this time to visit an old castle erected in the early days of the Hundred Years' War (around 1350), and the famous Yeu perched rock, a massive boulder of granite posed on a cliff side that can be rocked back and forth with only a moderate amount of well-placed effort.  I almost didn’t take my camera since we had visited Yeu several times before and I had already gushed on and on about how lovely it was in previous posts.  The compromise I offer is to post more Yeu photos but refrain from re-gushing verbally…

Patrick rocking the perched rock.
We had only intended to stay for a 2-3 days, waiting for the wind to pick up at some point during this lovely summer-like high pressure system.  When we checked in at the port office, the clerk asked if we were in town for the big Tuna Fest, about which we were completely ignorant.  Other sailors told us we simply MUST stick around for it, and we watched the local excitement build as the little port area slowly became decorated with large cardboard tunas, multiple rows of picnic tables and strings of colored lightbulbs.  We did stay and … well, it was a bit disappointing, really.  There were thousands of people squeezed together on the picnic table benches that stretched out for hundreds of yards in multiple rows, listening to sea shanties sung by local groups.  This would have been appealing if the sound system had actually permitted you to hear any of the words being sung, but we appreciated the atmosphere anyway.  The Tuna Fest is, we later learned, a community barbeque for islanders to celebrate the fact that the tourists have gone home for the season.  Having arrived fashionably late, we only just managed to squeeze into the cheap seats at the end of the street, and spent a lovely evening with a young couple of lawyers from Paris.  So much for local color.  We ate our tuna steaks and potatoes (4 euros), had a glass of wine (“chateau cardboard” from the super market for 1 euro), and a piece of pie (2 euros).  We wandered around looking for some other great tuna fast happenings, but it seemed as though most people were just content to eat and listen to muffled music.  We were told that the party really gets moving after midnight but we felt a bit out of place and decided to leave the islanders to themselves.  (Hey wait a minute...maybe that's part of the trick:  bore the bejeezus out of the remaining tourists so they wander off early and then start the real party?  Hmmm... next year we'll be prepared !)

The next morning we pulled out of port at the crack of dawn (8:30 am here whilst we wait for the time change later this month.)  We decided to head directly to Belle Isle, a  50 mile hop, to skip some of the less exciting port stops we’d made on our way down.  Since there was very little wind, we motor-sailed for an ear-numbing 11 hours.  But the calm weather also allowed us to duck into a beautiful mooring on the east side of Belle Ile for the night (Port An Dro), which we had to ourselves.  The next morning, with summer temps still smiling down on us, we rowed the dingy out to the beach and went snorkelling along the rocks.  The weather forecast announced 24 hours more of extended summer and we timed our arrival in our new home port of Arzal a mere 6 hours before the rain and cold front hit; clearly the final period at the end of our summer sailing story.  

Beach cove near Port An Dro... great for (cold) snorkeling. 

Nothing says summer like light reading in a sunny cockpit.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Shell art at the Sands

Les Sables d’Olonne (the sands of Olonne) is a town best known as the start and finish of the solo round-the-world race, The Vendee Globe.  The racing beasts were not in port when we were there, but thanks to our trusty bikes that allow us to cover lots of ground, we found other attractions in Les Sables.  One of the most notable attractions is a small neighborhood in the old town called the Ile Penotte, where artist Dan Arnaud has created beautiful murals out of shells, beach glass, and other natural materials.  Here is a small sampling of his work.

An  afternoon of gawking at shells gave us an appetite…for shells.  The weather was spectacular for the start of October and we managed to squeeze in a few bike-and-beach days.  

Our own shell art...

But alas, the day we decided to head north for Ile d’Yeu, rain settled in to remind us that it really was October and time to think about heading home.  But slowly…

Yes, it really is October...

Posted on Thursday, October 03, 2013 | Categories: