Monday, 28 July 2014

From the Heart of the Coast of Death

This is what the small fishing town of Camarinas calls itself (“The Heart of the Coast of Death”).  The Camarinas estuary, considered by our guide book to be one of the most beautiful, is home to two ports and several nice anchorages, and it looks like we will have time to try them all before we get an appropriate weather window to leave.

Lighthouse and one of the largest European wind turbine fields at Cape Vilan on the Coast of Death.
While at anchor, I finally had a chance to get into the water and clean the hull at the waterline.  Despite air temperatures in the low 80s, slipping into the water was like plunging into a gin and tonic, even with a wet suit.  But we got to use one of our favorite boat toys: the solar shower, with fresh water heated to about 40 degrees C (100 F). 

Preparing to clean Spray's waterline in Camarinas

Solar shower at 40 C !  (100 F)
But the weather here changes rapidly and the next morning we were surrounded by heavy fog that didn’t lift until late in the afternoon, which only inspired us to spend another lazy day at anchor.  The next morning and the same foggy surroundings convinced us that is was time to visit the port and town of Camarinas. 

Fogged in.  It lasted all day and part of the next.

The marina in Camarinas.
It’s small and mostly without charm, but it does have some good restaurants and a grocery store nearby, as well as a direct bus to Santiago de Compostella (UNESCO World Heritage Site) which we will visit if we get stuck here for several more days (which looks likely:  weather report is for 20-35 knot winds from the north for the next 3 days.)

Fortunately there are some nice hiking and biking trails along the coastline, offering a break from boredom, a chance to burn off excess calories, and spectacular views.

A blessing of the fleet ceremony.  Fishing boats from the next port arrive in Camarinas, horns blasting, firecrackers overhead, take a turn in the port and throw wreaths of flowers into the water, and then head back out to sea.

We think these are drying / storage houses for potatoes, but aren't sure.  They're everywhere !

Great snorkeling area... if you don't mind 15 degree water (60 F).  I lasted 15 minutes with a wet suit.

Posted on Monday, July 28, 2014 | Categories:

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Coruna Crossroads

When you pull into the marina in La Coruna, it becomes immediately clear that you’ve arrived at a cruising crossroads.  No longer solely accompanied by boats from Spain, France or the UK, you tie up amongst a flotilla of boats from Sweden, Norway, Holland, Switzerland (yes, Switzerland), Germany, Belgium, and even Australia and the USA, most making their way south into the Med or to the Canaries in preparation for a fall Atlantic crossing. 

Marina Real Club Nautico, La Coruna

The "Glass City" architecture around the port.

Spainish Air Force team streaming the red and gold of Spain over the port control tower of Marina Coruna.
Many, like us, arrive here by hopping along the coast, working west and south around the rias.  Because the marinas are spread thin in this region and the weather is capricious, there is a sort of gregarious migration underway from port to port whenever the wind is right.  Over the last few weeks, we’ve made friends with several of our fellow drifters and these friendships have added a new and important dimension to our cruising.

A new friend sailing around Cape Ortegal.
Talking to experienced long-distance, live-aboard cruisers is worth any number of how-to books.  Sharing stories (the good and, more often, the bad) has allowed us to place our own experiences in a context we didn’t have before.  All these crazy things that have been happening to us (instrument failures, delayed departures, re-routing, unpredicted storms, fishing nets around the propeller, etc.) are just part of the cruising life; dramatic to us, banal to the seasoned cruiser.  In talking to others, we’ve been able to gain confidence about the things we did right and have some new ideas about things we might try the next time.  (Definitely getting a Jordan series drogue). 

We’ve been inspired by many of these new friends, some of whom have been live-aboard cruising for many years, others who have taken up long-distance cruising with much less experience than we have, some with boats less adapted to long-distance cruising than Spray.  One couple who has crossed the Atlantic and sailed all over Europe and the Mediterranean refers to themselves as cowardly “chicken” cruisers!   Almost everyone we have met has been very humble about their accomplishments and they just seem thrilled to be out here, taking it one day at a time, the good with the not-so-good.

As for us, we’ve come to a new crossroad ourselves.  A few weeks ago, after our surprise storm, we decided to stop long-distance sailing altogether.  We were convinced that we didn’t have what it takes, and our motivation was sinking fast.  Now Patrick says he couldn’t imagine a finer lifestyle than this (at least 6 months of the year anyway).  Of course I agree.  We truly fall into the “chicken cruisers” category with persistent doubt and stress, bumbling our way through each new experience.  But knowing that everyone else has gone through the same thing – and that they still get nervous from time to time - has been a big comfort.

Our biggest regret now is that we will have to turn around to start the trek home in a few days while our merry band of boaters continues to further horizons.  We’ll just have to make new East-bound friends.

Castel San Anton between the two major marinas of Coruna.

The Tower of Hercules, the world's oldest functioning lighthouse (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

A view from the top.

Lovely local beaches.

The fiesta of Vigen del Carmen.

Oh, and La Coruna is a great place to have a twisted ankle x-rayed...  (all's swell.)

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Rias Altas

We finally made it to our first "high ria", Ribadeo, a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve and a RAMSAR wetland, noted (according to the brochure translated from Spanish) for its unique slime habitat that attracts thousands of migratory birds every year.   More than a century ago, Ribadeo became an affluent town in the region where wealthy families settled after making their fortunes in Cuba.

The Moreno House, Ribadeo
Yesterday, we planned to leave for the next ria, Viviero, at the end of the outgoing tide.  As we pulled out of our slip, we got stuck on a sand/mud bar, which was curious since the port proudly states it has been dragged to 2 meters.  We pulled back into our slip to wait for another hour as the tide rose.  A second attempt with 30 centimeters of additional water under the keel, we tried again, and again got stuck in the mud.  This time, we decided to stay for another night since the tide was picking up and we didn’t want to have a strong current in the nose.  Patrick went to the office to check in again, and they gave us a free night to make up for our troubles.

But it’s a lovely place to be stuck.

Sailing into Ribadeo

Ribadeo Port

Slime habitats beloved of migratory birds

The Ribadeo Lighthouse

Lighthouse with little mauve flowers everywhere

Churros con chocolate !  A great way to spend an extra afternoon...

Posted on Thursday, July 17, 2014 | Categories:

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

There's a reason it's called WATCH !

I was, admittedly, watching my kindle when it happened, but I swear I was looking up with each new page.  With no wind and an oil-smooth sea, we were motoring and the pilot was steering.  Patrick was napping below and we were having a lovely day.

Leaving Santander.

BAM !  thump thump thump, followed by the screeching motor alarm, signaling its displeasure at being stopped with the key still in the ignition.  Patrick bounded up on deck and stopped the alarm and we both looked behind us, already knowing what had happened.

Behind us was a 30 meter trail of fishing net, snagged around our keel and (worse) the propeller.  With the boat hook, we pulled as much of the net on board as possible.  I put the swim ladder in the water and stripped down to my knickers, then eased waist deep into the water to see if I could simply pull the net free.  No go.  With the boat hook, I tried pushing it off of the rudder.  I leaned over as far as I could go and almost had it free.  BAFFFF ! then a long slow hiss.  Always conscious of safety, I was still wearing my life vest when I went down the ladder.  As I leaned over, the edge of my vest touched the water and the automatic inflation mechanism activated, puncturing the CO2 cartridge and blowing up the vest around my ears.  Okay, sometimes notions of safety need to be adapted to a particular situation.

I climbed back on board and stripped down properly this time, outfitted with a short wetsuit and snorkeling gear.  It was a sunny day, the water was warm (ish) and, with no swell, there was no reason not to take a look under the boat.  We tied a line to a fender and trailed that out behind the boat so that I would have something to grab on to if the boat started drifting.

The sight was beautiful and horrifying at the same time.  In 200 meters of water and with bright sunshine overhead, the water was a beautiful cobalt blue and visibility was excellent.  The vision, however, was disheartening.  The net was wrapped around the keel, the rudder, and firmly twisted around the propeller shaft.  With our best bad-ass knife strapped to my thigh, I first slid the net off the keel and the rudder.  That was the easy part.  I gave a few tugs on the line wrapped around the propeller shaft but it was so tightly wound that I couldn’t even budge it. 

Part of the 30 meters of fishing net we snagged.  

I cut away the rest of the net, leaving a 1 meter section of line on each side of the shaft and we hoisted the smelly mess on board to get it out of the way.  I dove down and tried to un-wrap the line wound around the shaft, but in the water, you have no leverage,  so my little girly tugs were getting us nowhere.  Cutting it away bit by bit would have taken forever and I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep free-diving repetitively for long without getting over-tired.  I needed some leverage, so I tried a new maneuver:  swim under, flip upside down, place one palm and then the other on the underside of the boat, grab the line between my legs and PULL!  One turn around the shaft popped free but there were still 3 turns firmly twisted.  I swam over to the other side of the boat (resting at the swim ladder in between each dive) and did the same trick.   The next twist popped free.  Three more round-trips and it was all clear.

The last messy smelly bits.
We pulled everything out of the water and tried to figure out what to do with it.  I wanted to keep it on board (trophy?) so that wouldn’t get caught around the next guy’s propeller but it was too big to stuff in the chain locker or store on board.  We tried calling the Coast Guard to signal where it was but they never responded.  (Hmmm...  glad we didn’t need them to come get us!).  So we tied the loose ends together so that at least the net wouldn’t drift in long filaments and I attached a few empty water bottles to keep it floating at the surface rather than drifting just below the water as it had been.  Of course, Patrick wasn’t buying into my theory and said that the net probably WAS floating at the surface and would have been visible if I hadn’t been too busy reading on my WATCH!  But since I redeemed myself by cleaning up my own mess, he decided not to harass me about it further.

So much for a relaxing sunny motor-sail to the next port.  For the next 6 hours, we kept a vigilant watch, popping our heads out of the cockpit like startled meer-cats, dodging every speck of flotsam and jetsam floating anywhere within our field of view, sure that it was another net.  I had been told that if we sailed long enough in these waters, we would eventually get something caught around the propeller but I thought we’d have a longer grace-period than we did. 

In any case, we’ll say it was a good experience and we got a good story out of it.  When Patrick retells the story now, he has me jumping naked off the side of the boat with the knife in my teeth, a much better version than the one that has me first easing into the water from the swim ladder with my life vest still on.  People around the docks have been coming up to me and shaking my hand, calling me “the diver.”  It’s funny and embarrassing but much less traumatizing than the storm.

We've been in Gijon for 5 days now, waiting for the weather to cooperate to continue our route west to the high rias. We aren't complaining, though.  Gijon is a good place to be stuck for a few days.


Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Storm, or Why You Should Love Your Barometer

We were preparing to leave San Vincente de la Barquera at the morning high tide, the only time we could get out of the little branch of the estuary we had settled in for the night.  We had checked two marine weather sites via internet the night before.  All was clear:  14 knots with gusts to 17.  The barometer, however, was screaming at us not to go.  “That’s funny, the barometer says we’ve lost 6 hPa in the last 6 hours and the little high-wind flag is showing,” I said to Patrick as if it were a passing curiosity.  But with 2 trusted internet sites telling us to go, I somehow decided the barometer must be mistaken or simply giving us some highly local advice. 

We headed west for Ribadesella under a milky sky and good winds.  All was smooth sailing until about 1:30 in the afternoon.  In the span of 45 minutes, the winds shifted 90 degrees, and stiffened steadily.  One reef, two reefs, three reefs followed in rapid succession.  The 3rd reef lasted less than 10 minutes.  As we pointed into the wind, both of us saw 50 knots on the anemometer but said nothing to the other about it.  The swell had mounted to 6-7 meters, dead ahead.  An uncontrolled jibe provoked by the swell sent the boom zinging to the other side, ripping the cleat for the 3rd reef off the boom.  The boom brake was on but at the lowest setting (since we weren’t expecting high winds…).  Time for bare poles.   I tried ever-so-briefly to put the boat into a hove-to position with the boat at about 50 degrees into the wind with the bar hard over.  I’m sure my technique was lacking, but this put us in a position of almost being rolled by the breaking swell.  Time to surf downwind and down-swell.

Once things were more-or-less stable, I dashed below to find out where “downwind” was taking us.  If there was any good luck in this situation, it was that the swell was pushing us back to Santander, the only deep water port in the area that we could enter in bad weather.  The bad news was that we had to keep things stable and moving forward for another 10 hours.   Patrick took the helm most of the time, and I was posted under the dodger, looking back and him and the mountainous swell coming at us, directing him so that we would stay in a good surfing position and not get rolled.  After 4 hours or so, things calmed down a bit… we were never so happy to see 30 knots and 4 meters of swell.

GPS trace of our losing battle against wind and swell.
We pulled into Santander marina after midnight, held each other, cried a little, and vowed never ever to go sailing again.  The boat could be sold in Santander and we could take the ferry home. 

The next morning, we met up with a solo British sailor who had left Santander a few days before us.  He had been caught in the same unpredicted storm and he, too, had been blown back to Santander.  His story was remarkably similar to ours: 1 reef, 2 reefs, 3 reefs, bare poles, surf.  We felt somehow comforted by this.  But it wasn’t unpredicted…we should have listened to our Barometer.

The rule of thumb (which I can never seem to remember) is that a change of pressure of more than 1 hPa / hour or 4 hPa / 3 hours will give you winds of between Beaufort 6 – 7.  More than this is very bad news.  We now monitor the barometer at least 6 hours before departure and every hour while at sea.

After 4 days in Santander, drying out, talking to others, talking to sailing friends back home, we decided not to give up just yet and keep pushing west to Gijon.  One friend emphasized the necessity of waiting for good weather along this coast, and told us he had waited for 4 weeks once before having a good weather window. 

We’re still a bit traumatized by it all, but some good lessons were learned.  Despite a few other mishaps (stay tuned…) we both agree that we do love the cruising life and it would be a shame to give up after a knock-down that caught better sailors than ourselves off-guard.

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Still Wild North Coast

A friend told us we had to visit the north coast of Spain while it was still “wild”, by which he meant undeveloped for recreational sailing.  Ports that can accommodate sailboats of 10 meters or more are few and far between.  All other harbors are small estuaries or fishing ports that are home to small recreational fishing vessels or large commercial boats, and sailboats have to be “creative” about finding a place to moor.

Before leaving home, I thought all of that sounded romantic.  After only 2 weeks, I can tell you that the honeymoon is definitely over.  The first problem is that we’re working our way west, against the dominant winds and swell (almost never less than 1.5 meters in this part of the world).  We knew it would be a slog, but spending 10 pain-in-the-ass hours to cover what should be only a 30 mile hop is causing us to question our motivation for heading west.  What is it we wanted to see again?  Is it really worth it?  Are we having fun yet?  The second problem is that even once you make it to one of these little villages, it’s not at all certain that you’ll be able to find an adequate place to moor if you have a draft of 1.8 meters or more.  A helpful local said, “You know, you really need a lifting keel here.” 

Our French coastal pilot guide book is of little help, since it was written by someone sailing in a small boat with a draft of less than 1.5 meters and tells us that we have numerous places to anchor.  Since it was written, it’s clear that the port management has changed and boats that were at anchor in a mooring zone are now on buoys, meaning that a visiting boat can’t anchor anywhere near them because there isn’t enough room for the boat to swing with the current and winds without hitting the boats on mooring buoys.

San Vincente with the Picos de Europa in the background.
San Vicente de la Barquera was one of these wild surprises.  The guide pointed out numerous options:  tying up along the stone quay when the professional fishing boats are out, mooring in the channel, or mooring in a small channel that branches off the main channel that can only be entered or left at high tide.   When we arrived, there was only one other sailboat in the whole estuary, a Bavaria 37.  We dropped our anchor next to him, re-positioning ourselves 3 times in the 3 knot current to try to find the best compromise between water depth and distance away from the other boats on mooring buoys that wouldn’t swing like us.  The owner of the Bavaria showed up and suggested we try the secondary channel where he assured us there was a small deep zone that would retain at least 2 meters of water at low tide.  With our navigational software zoomed to its maximum and hand-signals from the Bavaria owner, we held our breath and tip-toed into the pool area, where we dropped the anchor another 3 times trying to find the center of the pool where we wouldn’t run aground if the wind or current changed directions.  

Nestled in the sand in San Vincente de la Barquera
As it was, we did run aground, but only gently and in a few centimeters of sand.  We were told that no one was allowed to tie up to the fishing quay anymore.  There was a small port area with floating docks, but they were completely filled with small recreational fishing vessels.  The Bavaria owner told us we could tie up to the outside dock (where the refueling station was) but that we would be chased away at 8 o’clock the next morning.  It’s still a mystery to us as to who, exactly, would chase us away, since there was no port office and no port workers as far as we could tell.   We asked at the tourism office as well as local boaters about this and they told us that there was a telephone number to call if you wanted to speak to someone about the port.  So we stayed in our little pool of water, anxiously looking at the depth sounder every low tide. 

Notre Dame de Los Angeles
But the biggest disappointment was the lack of weather information.  We didn’t hear a single weather forecast on the vhf the whole time we were in San Vincente.  The port, such as it is, didn’t have weather information posted around the docks, either.  We went to a bar with wireless internet and looked up the weather forecast the night before we planned to leave.  We checked 2 sites, typically more-or-less trustworthy, and both said the conditions were good for the next day.  Stay tuned to find out just how wrong, and dangerous, that was.
Posted on Friday, July 04, 2014 | Categories: