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Saba

The road bridge was drawn and the mighty mega yachts elbowed their way pass us in the queue as we all left the Simpson Bay Lagoon and departed for the ocean. Brown, Ella, Cadence and Jenna held a banner up to us by the bridge and we shouted goodbyes to them and a great Caribbean chapter of our lives. We didn’t actually get that far, just out of the lagoon before the never-ending ‘stowing’ ensued. Finally sails a-blazing we blasted over the waves for Saba, a shattered, variously queasy motley crew. We did not see many birds on the crossing, nor have we in general when moving between islands. The most notably absence, however, have been cetaceans – not a single whale or dolphin has been spotted since we arrived in the Caribbean. The contrast is dramatic when compared with the waters of: Wales, Scotland, West Ireland, the Bay of Biscay, the Spanish and Portuguese coastline and the Atlantic- pretty much everywhere we have been so far!

Saba was about as removed from the hustle and glitz of Sint Maarten as was possible; a towering, green, mountainous island rose from the sea to greet us. A helter-skelter of roads coiled up the sides of the extinct volcano and lead one to ‘The Bottom’, ‘Hells’ Gate’, ‘The Gap’, ‘Windwardside’ and other such self-explanatory place names. Apparently they have a triathlon in December, very tempting, but at present state of fitness I expect Dave and I would be crawling at the back- the hills were tortuous.

The houses were picturesque, quaint, perhaps kitsch, nestled on the side of the island with orange pan tiles or corrugated roofs, adding a timeless air to the island. Natalia, Megan and I began bird surveys recording the number of flying Red-billed Tropic Birds from the boat and at various locations around the island. Tropic Birds are stunning, so exotic to my British eyes, with their white steaming tails billowing behind them and squawking aerial flight. Better still, we found that the best time for observing them was a very civilized 3.30pm survey time slot… a sweet treat from my days of rising at 4.00am to clamber mole-eyed over a howling mountain top.

But perhaps the Queen of seabirds and also the crowned King of Saba as the national bird, was the Audubon’s Shearwater (locally known as the Wedrego). After checking out potential nesting habitat we returned late in the evening and played Shearwater duets to attract a reply from rival males. The cackling call echoed from the mega-blaster around the wooded hillside and then suddenly a response from the dark and a grey image flittered over our heads. For the next half an hour, various birds responded to us from the darkness and we able to confirm that the Wedrego was nesting and estimated how many there were.

As we wondered back up the hillside to the waiting taxi, land crabs waved their pincers at us in the glimmer of our torches, a miniature scorpion scuttled across the path and a huge black moth (the size of a small bat) flittered passed. We were enchanted with the Shearwater and its environment. Saba possessed much more of the wild Caribbean that we had been yearning for.

The next morning more Tropic Bird aerial counts ensued and nest searching, with all five of us scrambling up the crumbling slopes of the bay. Dave was first to smell a nest- the stench of guano is over-powering, but the sight of a ruby-red beak, velvet eyes and zebra-striped feathers peering menacingly out at us from a boulder had us all (as a friend of mine would say) melting. The scrawny chicks with their crown of pin feathers caused similar exclamations.

Over the next couple of days we scrambled around most of the perimeter of the island looking for breeding seabirds, paying particular attention to the prime Tropic Bird locations pointed out to us by the islanders. We also presented to a group of school children and to interested locals about the project. A couple we met at the presentation (Paul and Sue ) were very familiar with the Wedrego hearing it each night from their house. Thus one evening, amid Sabin Lemon Tart, fine chat and snuggled under a blanket, we listened to the call of the Wedrego echoing over the hillside.

Another highlight was the North Coast Trail. Contrary to our adventurous spirit we were obliged to take a guide due to a pack of feral dogs fabled to lurk in those wild Saban recesses. The guide, ‘Crocodile James’ was great and full of stories, fables and survival skills. He showed us crumbling ruins, leaves smelling of cinnamon that could be brewed and a charcoal pit that he and other islanders had built in an effort to re-establish island traditions. Our fellow walkers, however, were of an all together different breed! I had never imagined that putting one foot in front of another could be considered technical?! Apparently so!

During our stay we had changed anchorage to a sturdier buoy, but the wind continued to blow and the swell mounted. Lista rocked wildly from side to side. (Jenna, who had come to visit for the weekend, turned green as soon as she stepped aboard and remained above deck for her stay.) Dave added a further line to the huge buoy we were attached to in attempt to keep us secure. On the last day, he came to collect Megan, Jenna and I, leaving Emily to man the boat with instructions of what to do should the lines snap. He was concerned and hurried us onto the dinghy. Can you believe it, as the wee engine ‘putputted’ through the crashing waves, Lista broke free.

Luckily, Emily had emerged from below decks and we shouted instruction to her as Lista drifted further away from us. It was a horrid feeling watching our home- our friend, Lista, apparently deciding to depart of her own accord. As for poor Emily, she looked tiny at Lista’s helm, dwarfed by her 50ft length, but she managed to turn List around and we finally caught up with her and clung to her sides. It was a nasty initiation into the world of boats and the sea for Emily and another reminder to me of the wild forces we are dealing with.

The longer we inhabit this salty, aqueous environment, the more I fear, respect and love it. Man has conquered space, suppressed forest and valley, but still cannot tame the mountains or the sea. People and goods are transported along the world’s invisible sea lanes, but should the waves and winds transpire against them, their steel and might are pathetic against such monstrous forces. I think this is extremely humbling in a world where humans feel they have no bounds, systematically destroying and manipulating habitats and species whilst pumping noxious gases into the air and pollutants into the land and sea. It is amazing thinking of the world that lies often kilometres below Lista, packed with multi-coloured, generally fiendish-looking species, most of which man has no knowledge of.

During the Atlantic crossing, all the crew read ‘Voyage of a Madman’ by .. given to us by Clare (Emily and Megan are the latest addicts). An incredible read, it charts the first non-stop solo circumnavigation in 1968 (just after man had walked on the moon). It had all of us gripped, wolfing it down during the dark hours between shifts. After spending over six months on our floating island we were able to empathise with many of the sentiments experienced, but the over-riding feeling was of awe, of sailors who had ventured around the world completely alone, navigating by the stars and sun, living through some of the most hostile conditions on earth amid the roaring forties. Unable to communicate with home, there only option was to get close enough to the potentially fatal bulk of a ship and catapult a message aboard to let all at home know that they were safe.

As yachts cross the Atlantic in a seemingly endless caravan of smart, modern, boats, with GPS and ‘sat’ phones, the life of a sailor seems tamed, but should the ocean choose to awake, little has changed from when man first took to the sea in the great fight of ‘Sailor versus Neptune’. We have also been reading Steven Callahan’s, ‘Adrift’, another excellent read. It chronicles the author’s fateful journey on a life raft across the Atlantic after his boat sank into the deep. The reason I brought these books up is that they emphasise how insignificant man still is. We are ever respectful of our salty home and as we dive below Lista’s hulk we appreciate what a tiny speck we are in the blue ‘desert’ of the sea.

Start of our Caribbean adventures

Sint Maarten

We were not really ready for Sint Maarten… after thirty days at sea, with nothing but a Tropic Bird and a Minke whale to keep us company, our fragile sensibilities were smashed by six cruise ships, yellow hard hat bedaubed formations of ‘segway’ riders, shops…cars.. people.. noise……

We had arrived in Philipsburg the capital of jet-skiers, power boaters, party boaters, fried tourists, ‘Macki-dees’, not really what we had sailed over three thousand miles to discover. In fact, what we had stumbled across was a living geography case study of how mass tourism can ruin a country.

After weeks at sea (30 days) we fulfilled the quintessential sailors’ duties and headed for the nearest bar. All aboard the dinghy we rolled into Philipsburg and sitting by the sea devoured beers and rum. Dave and I managed to get hold of my Mum and sister and I crumpled into a blithering wreck on hearing their voices. Determined to celebrate in style Dave marched us back to the dinghy for full champagne salute aboard Lista. At the pontoon we met the crew from the Disney Cruise ship, an odd bunch- but then I’m not sure the four Brits who greeted them were exactly savory. Dan overcome with it all, stripped off and dived into the sea!

Aboard Lista more diving into an azure sea ensued, after which we were greeted by a rather odd view of Dave standing (a.k. Jesus) on water! Hmm… had we really consumed that many beers? Apparently not, it seemed that a huge solid plastic pipe had risen out of the water and provided the perfect perch for captain. (The pipe was used to move sand from the bay to seed the beech and rose to the surface during operation hours) Unfortunately, no one warned us of this on arrival in Philipsburg and at 6am the following morning we awoke to the monstrous pipe knocking against Lista’s hull.

In the evening we ventured back into town for more celebrations and discussion of our momentous voyage. We talked long into the night about what we had learned and experienced together. We chatted to a local who remembered ‘winkies’ (fire flies) in the bay, when there was only a sand track along the beachfront. That was only thirty years ago, long enough for Sint Maarten to have had a facelift: for trees to have been felled, lagoons to have been in-filled and polluted, beaches seeded and bay dynamics altered.

The ecosystem of Sint Maarten like other Lesser Antilles islands (and many islands in the world) did not evolve with mammals. Birds took the mammalian niches. When the first humans arrived over 7000 years ago they introduced mammals (goats, pigs, dogs etc) from the mainland that either preyed directly on seabirds or indirectly by altering the habitat that seabirds depended upon for nesting. The settlers also enjoyed the ready meal of seabirds, eggs and chicks. European colonists added to the volley of threats introducing rats and then mongooses. The mongoose like so many bio-control debacles repeated the world over proved to be a huge mistake. Mongooses preferred seabird eggs and chicks to the snakes and rats that they were intended to consume.

In recent years, the Sint Maarten islanders have abandoned the sea and the land for the new ‘catch’ of sweaty Westerns. Incredibly these newcomers do not appear to worry about frying by the side of a bulldozer or swimming in raw sewage pumped out by hotels. The worry is that should this fickle breed decide that Sint Maarten is too dangerous or passé, they will disappear leaving the island paralysed, unable to rekindle its original economy.

Ecology wise, things are desperate. Resident and migratory wading birds depend upon Sint Maarten’s saline lagoons for feeding and nesting. Unfortunately, these habitats have systematically been filled in for housing, roads and more recently a dump. Incredible! Contamination of water-bodies by raw sewage, toxins from rubbish, spills by yachts and powerboats have all added to the mix of pollutants.

A range of hills straddle the island, the forest that once cloaked them has been felled with only scrub and secondary woodland remaining. Non-native species such as acacia dominate the plant communities. Development is meant to be restricted to low levels, but laws and designations are not generally enforced and houses creep up the hillsides.

So that is the green doom. On the plus side, Sint Maarten is a melting pot of cultures. Brazilians, Venezuelans, Brits, Irish, French, Haitians, Americans, Australians, Swedes and Jamaicans queue in never ending traffic jams snaking along the island. (Great to fly passed on a bicycle down the outside lane!) The reason, Sint Maarten offers jobs- through tourism and development and the services they depend upon.

Charlie, Nathalie, Keenan and South African Guy

We remained in Philipsburg for a couple more days, in which Hol and Nick found themselves a ‘banana boat’ to voyage south to Dominica and Dan found a sailing team to race around the island with, for the classic boat festival. Thus ended our Lista Light odyssey with our three intrepid English companions. Although Dan did join us again after the races before disappearing for Dominica and who knows what crazy adventures…..?!

After leaving Philipsburg we sailed around the island to Simpson Bay and anchored Lista on the seaward side of the lagoon. Over the following days we cycled to and from the EPIC office, our bolt-hole of terra-firma normality as we ‘jenned’ up on the project. We also cycled c. 2miles to the neighbouring country- St Martin- lying on the Northern side of the tiny island. A department of France, Dave especially (as the Francophile who adores our Gaelic neighbours) and I found ourselves drawn to this less developed, slightly more natural and sophisticated side of the island. Incredibly, a couple of years ago, governance was such that police cars chasing criminals on the Dutch side of the island would grind to a halt at the French border and watch the criminals swagger off without having jurisdiction to pursue!

The office inmates

We met some great characters in Sint Martin on our biking-trailer escapades to collect supplies. Whilst hunting for a remote beach a woman (Katrine) bleated from her car whether we needed ‘aide´’. At first refusing, we soon found ourselves offered free kayaks to loan and the location of a beautiful beach. So off we cycled and eventually stumbled across the beach. Well, it wasn’t bad, but not quite the idyllic bolt hole we had envisaged. We picked our way to the very end of the white stretch of sand and buried ourselves under a tree in true anti-social British fashion.

Sorry – image not available (210bquit.jpg)

Our neighbours, however, did not have quite the same qualms. As Dave bandaged my leg (I had grated down a hill after catapulting off my bike on wet mud) they started to moan… Now before I go on, I had better fill you on the scene that greeted us on arrival to the beach. Families, children, couples all intermingled, some clothed others top or bottomless. A large gutted man stood above a clothed couple whom he chatted to, with his ‘old man’ dangling at their eye level. After much chat it appeared the he and his older, bit of stuff were our neighbours, as they wondered back to a beach chair a couple of metres from our noses. Before we could shake a leg, volumously girthed, drooping-assed guy was at it with his spelt lady a couple of metres from our face. Quite an apparition!

Back to Lista, after finally choosing a marina that would allow us to do the work on her, the job of pulling Lista out of her watery home onto the dry dock was to begin. This is a nasty procedure for Lista, captain and the ‘trouble and strife’. As soon as she is released from the salty arms of the seas onto dry land, the drying hands of the clock start to tick and her planks contract. The old gal is also a weighty registered 35 tonnes exerting a huge strain on her planks.

The first obstacle was raising her out of the water in the travel lift, ensuring that even pressure was maintained throughout her hull. This achieved, a full undercarriage power spray was inflicted on the old lady’s modesty. The main targets were the Goose Barnacles, her floating garden acquired crossing the Atlantic. The problem with such fascinating passengers is that they reduce her efficiency through the water and should we have to use the engine (heaven forbid) fuel consumption increases. We also needed to clear the way for the work needed on her undersides.

Thus, still dangling but newly washed, the next task was finding somewhere in the yard big enough to hold her beamy girth. (It appeared her colossal size had been underestimated, even with her 15ft bowsprit pulled in for fear of daggering rivals). Finally a site was found and ‘chocks’- wooden and metal chain supports were gathered to mount her upon. The nesting of our precious girl was the final heart wrenching procedure and we winced as her bulk creaked into her resting place.

'Heman' to the rescue

The next two weeks were filled with stripping Lista’s hull and filling holes. This involved Dave throwing away all the power tools and used a one inch scraper! It also contained much heartache trying to acquire the most environmentally sound anti-foul, a contradiction in terms. Boat owners apply toxic paint (anti-foul, often copper based) to ward off the ‘sea-garden’ that I described formally that winkle away at paint and boat. If it were only the worry of barnacles we would probably not cover Lista with the stuff, but there is another nemesis, Teredo Worm or Teredo navalis. Dave became intimately versed in the mechanics of this little critter, in fact, should you have any queries on said worm (actually a bi-valve) please do report into Prof. D.L.Lowrie. Teredo lurks in tropical waters and enters wooden structure (although it has been found as far afield as Germany which quashes any Tropical claims). The larvae (c.1cm across) then mow their way through the boat as if creating a new A1 motorway. Unfortunately, the adult is the size of a pin prick so if it does enter a boat, it cannot be detected. Such an attack would be the death nail to Lista and any survey work in the Caribbean.

That was not the end of the Teredo story/lecture. During excavations Dave incredulously discovered that the very feared critters had in the past tunneled into Lista’s rudder and sacrificial keel. The tunnels were large and conclusive. The only consolation was that they were contained within the said areas and had not spread into the hull of the boat. This unwelcome discovery did, however, influence our anti-foul choice.

We at last procured some paint that was perhaps a little less offensive amongst a seriously toxic bunch and after the week of stripping and sanding we (primarily poor Dave) began slathering the various coats on. Now this was not the last curtain call for the anti-foul, our mission is about the environment and hopefully contributing to its conservation. So Dave came up with a plan to trial some alternative concoctions for future work and to inform other yachties. Thus a sacrificial piece of wood was attached with various paint treatments: ‘topside’ boat enamel, primer and chilli paint. We shall wait and see how many passengers will hop aboard….

In the meantime Bobby’s Marina became home. We scaled a ladder each night to Lista’s lofty fortress and listened to Lance and Yvonne’s screeches for the pack of dogs that they had rescued from the streets. To all appearances, Lance was a steely South African, but he soon revealed the kindest spirit embracing people and animals alike. (He awoke each day at 4am and drove the streets gathering restaurant left-overs for his celebrity ‘muts’) Then there was the wonderful wonderer, Mason and his South African mates, Craig and Greg. Greg built his wooden boat completely from scratch amid protestations of his lunacy. A sculptor by trade, he whittled a floating castle with hand tools, that has withstood hurricanes and from which he sailed to the Caribbean with his wife from Cape Town.

One night Dave, Mason and I hopped into the dinghy and with a wind-up torch to guide us wove our way across the lagoon to see Greg’s boat. She was the perfect floating home with a veranda like helm lit by the glowing cigarette lights of the two hunched figures. We sat and supped coffee and biscuits and chatted about the boat, birds, South Africa, sculpting, alcoholism, films, but mainly the environment and how we could make a difference and influence others to care. It was completely inspiring. Dave and I were among kindred soles ageing from Craig in his late thirties, to Mason in his forties and Greg in his fifties.

Then there was Charlie (South African), Nathalie (Venezuelan) and son Keenan who we chatted to during the day and who injected in us inspiration for Uruguay’s equitable culture, rich soil and deep rivers- endearing features to any sailor. Also Lofty the Swede and a guy from Hull who volleyed funny stories at us- one about his aversion to molasses after falling into a pit of it (understandable) and so many other friendly folk. Then there was Natalia and Adam (Brown), Cadence, Ella, Rueben and Jenna and life at the office amongst the Banana Quits, Green-fronted Hummingbirds and Iguanas who transformed a ‘cold’ island viewed from a solitary anchorage into a warm oasis.

Finally, after two hard weeks of graft with Dave turning various shades of ‘paint’, Lista was ready for re-submersing and the start of the Lesser Antilles Seabird Breeding Atlas Project launched. With one Irish, two Americans and two Brits, Environmental Protection In the Caribbean (EPIC) crew began its journey. (That was: Emily, ‘the Irish’ or ‘Hurricane Emily’ as Dave has christened her! My friend from home who miraculously appeared one day, Megan our Ecologist Intern and chief kayaker from Seattle, Natalia Collier, President of EPIC who conceived the Project and was accompanying us until Saba and team Land-Lowrie).

The Canaries and beyond

After days of frenzied stowing we left Morocco and ploughed into a gurgling, pitching sea. As we looked back to El Jadida, one man sat in a rubber ring fishing. An apt farewell to a marvellous country full of bizarre odours and sights.

In familiar Lista style, a good, green, percentage of us attempted to live the following days in a completely lateral state.

The team (minus Nick behind camera)

The winds blew and we surged away from Africa to the Canaries, with a good measure of infuriating, sail flapping nothing. Then, finally, the volcanoes of Graciosa in the early morning.

Graciosa was a world apart from the familiar Canary experience, I’m afriad. The white stilletos and see-through chiffon slip had to be packed away for another day.

It did have volcanoes, birds, tiny sheltered coves where a metropolitan group of spotty, stripey fish hanged out,grazing sea weed like a herd of Wielderbeast.

So a bit of bird watching began. Hoopoes, great grey black shrikes, huge flocks of linnets and loads of pippits. My book had exhausted it’s Eruopean range, so many a warbler evaded an official naming ceremony.

'jalabed' bird watching

The sanderlings had been a familiar site during our travels.

As had maintaining the old gal. More nips and tucks were in order…

A few more sunsets.

A run on top of the world.

December arrived and a wee snatchet of festivities was required. Starting with an Advent calendar. This developed into the windows of delights, with each of us promising all kinds of treats and small eats behind them.

Next came the stock take. Calclutaling the mammoth ammounts of supplies needed for sustaining five firsty ferrets. (Sorry couldn’t resist bringing the wee , hairy nippers, Humperdink and Pimpernickle, into the preceedings. When it comes to consuming, rather killing, they reigned supreme).

We met a fine pair of Italians, Pucci and Anna. Together they had voyaged from the Meditteranean in what looked like two shoes. Yup, each slept and lived in their respective ‘kayak’ bound together in the shape of a catamaran. The point of the reference, was that they sought us out for bird identification. Last year they had seen this mighty bird on rounding the bend to Graciosa. A white-tailed tropic bird., which is just the bird we shall be surveying in the Caribbean.

We set sail for Grand Canaria, our final staging and stocking post before the Atlanic crosing. Furious repairs, painting and buying proceeded. As well as some rather dodgy gas manoeuvres and a Chinese laundry.

Dave had a new lover. His wind turbine box, lovingly fashioned by his own gnarled hands.

Anne and Dirk our Canadian- Dutch compadres who we had met in Morocco ended up on the next pontoon from us in Las Palmas, made for the Atlantic after a flurry of ‘canning’. Canning is a respected and long established art whereby just about anything can be preserved……..

oh, forgot to mention the chickens!! As seen in precious log we departed Morocco with a bit of livestock – the intention had been to mange’ on the way, old school preservation, but sadly the combination of rough sea and land-legs meant they made it to see Graciosa before they, well, departed this life. Some lessons from the experience:

Livestock update:
We bought chickens for the crossing from Morocco to canaries – Chickens were a great success only in the sense that we maintain some semblance of life in them for 4 straight days at sea in some heavy sea. And they ate well (i mean they tasted nice, see point two below). It the following areas they were not a success at all:

1. poop. Incredible quantities of slurry. I had forewarning of poo in our former landloving days when our bantems took our caravan to be their own. But it was piled up in concise and petit stacks, crusty and easily flicked over the threshold. Not so with our new friends. Nor would they keep it to themselves, jets of watery mute were sliced across the deck on their occasional promenades….
2. consumption. They would not. They rejected most meals out right, and others were flicked at with disdain before sitting upon the food bowl then eachother. They took slightly to some cous cous but not in our gaze, they were only found to have eaten in retrospect.
3. Smell. In accordance with the points above it should be easily deduced that there was a certain funky air to our livestock. I fear this may have been partially exaggerated by our own tender stomachs on a nauseously productive crossing, but the last thing a delicate nose needs is to be horizontal in the “sick bay” nigh on 9 inches from the anus of a decidedly diarrhoeal fowl.
4. sexy chicks. These were not. Should we get a fox or a moose. I was conflicted between religion and Darwinism – should one love all creatures all the same, even if some are downright leparitic, or should we discourage the production of ugly chickens by selecting only the most handsome? Or would that in itself extend the life and therefore the ability to procreate and spread genes of the ugly chicken left behind . . . hmm. anyway, it was that I selected one reasonably handsome fellow, and failed miserably with the next who, it turned out, had a pulsating and bulging bottom – it appeared to have had an anal prolapse. We got rid of him rapidly. We needed another, poultry are flock animals after all. The next chick was carefully selected amongst trillions in the Maroc market only to have his head whipped off and to be trussed up before we could find the French for “alive. Please”. So he was replaced with another ill looking chicken not of our choosing in order that a rapid exit could be beaten.
5. Q-Flag, Quarantine/Regulations. Although it doesn’t say anywhere on the paperwork for entering the Canaries Islands that our two chickens from Africa are not permitted I would believe nor is it encourage. As it happens ours made no bid for freedom, to rape and plunder their infections into the local population of rare birds, but i suppose they could have. Dinner before docking seems to be the most appropriate course of action.
Lessons have been learned but we are not sufficiently dissuaded from trying to maintain a fresh Christmas lunch!

Permaculture Update:
Bought two planters to start the onboard garden – and the spouting beans are positively rearing to go. The potatoes have even started!

….FINALLY, leading on nicely from poultry – it’s 20 December 2008 and we are squeezed into the boat madly stashing onions, oranges and the new herb green house… Today we leave Las Palmas and head for the open seas in Christoper Columbus’ wake. So HAPPY CHRISTMAS!!

Baleeira (Portugal) and Morocco

Eventually, several anchorages later, the Lista Light charabanc arrived in Baleeira. There was nothing particularly picturesque about Baleeira, it was a working fishing port with a fairly non-descript set of buildings radiating from the port selling tourist tat or very little on the shelves at all. The Chinese stall was the exception with every kind of gadget, gizmo, statue, plastic flower, glue gun, Samurai sword and oven glove that you could ever desire.

Nick and Dave by fishing boat

But we stayed. And as the days ticked passed Baleeira’s lack of pretension and rawness became part of its attraction. There were very few tourists and as we meandered the streets for daily needs we gradually gained a hint of life in a small fishing town in Portugal. Wooden boats were mended in the port yards and large fishing boats landed hauls of seafood each day. Workers mended the colourful mounds of nets, polystyrene floats and cages of bait that straddled the ground.

Yellow legged gull

One day hunting for water, marooned in our English speaking world, Dave and I watched a young guy in head-to-toe wet suit saunter off the edge of the dock. When he finally surfaced we caught his attention. He told us of his daily business, spear fishing for perhaps 15 euro per eel. He had to snorkel as it was against EU legislation to fish with a tank.

The pier

We had not luck with the water, so headed off for the next mission to procure some putty. Dave was adamant that the boat yard would have some, so ensued half an hour’s spluttered negotiations, with the ship builder trying to work out what on the earth David was after. The small, handlebar moustached man was very suspicious of my input, so I observed the shenanigans from afar, with Dave wildly gesticulating or drawing dodgy sketches on a scrap of paper. After much sniffing of the small pot of putty that Dave had brought along and excursions out of the workshop to point and nod at Lista Light the two old sea dogs appeared happy with negotiations. David brandished two small bags of dust that were apparently to be mixed with linseed and red lead and the boat builder was promised cervezzas. As we meandered back to Lista, the vision of the workshop, bristling its old solid implements, bore lustfully into Cap’n’s mind.

Sandwich tern

Our image of Baleeira was actually pretty myopic as it stretched much further inland and was framed by a honeycomb of Atlantic sea cliffs. Early one morning we picked our way along the cliffs armed with binoculars and telescope. A fecund world of birds and insects greeted us. Dragonflies flicked in a mist above the sparse vegetation, apparently having just emerged, being so prolific. A kestrel hovered hunting for small mammals in a patch of rank vegetation and crag martins dived bombed along the cliff tops plucking flies from the air at break neck speed. Crag martins are in the Hirundine class, being cousins of our familiar summer visitors the swallows and house martins. They are found throughout Spain and Portugal, much of Southern Europe and also parts of North Africa. They breed in rock cavities and caves in cliff faces.

Cliff tops

Meadow pipits and skylarks trilled above the cliff tops, as did the unfamiliar crested lark. Crowds of black redstarts were also chortling and bustling up and down the cliffs. A male gaped wide and yellow as he drummed out a rasping song, reminiscent of tracing paper being crumpled. Another launched an attack and they descended over the cliff in a ball of rage down to the turnstones who scuttled about on the rocky shoreline far below.

Amidst the birds and flitting dragonflies, fishermen perched precariously on cliff top edges. Armed with umbrellas and bait they sent metres of line down to the sea below. The importance of fishing was enormous: for the fishermen employed to man the boats far out at sea; to the men employed to sort the fish and equipment; to the buyers and the unemployed guys who could earn some money each day by a carefully dangled line.

A day of maintenance shattered the peace, as winchers were cast around the deck and their components oiled and lubed. Holly proved a natural at greasing the shafts. David plunged under the dark skirts of Lista with a tank borrowed from our neighbours (Lynne and Rick of MoonFleet, hailing from Topsham), the putty mixture and a tingle and Dan tended the throttle.

DL descending into the deep

By the evening Nick, Dave and Dan had the mainsail sweetly hung in place. The final phase was applying the extra beef and pork dripping lovingly to the mast to ease Lista’s weary hoops along it. Again Dan, Dave and Nick administered admirably, it was almost as if they had had prior experience of greasing shafts..

Dave and Nick perform admirably

Then the day of Clare’s departure beckoned. Clare Lee had been a member of the Lista team since just about its inception- we collected her near Falmouth in July. She had proved to be as tough as an old boot and as loyal as a pooch. She cooked the meanest omelettes and introduced garlic mayonnaise to the proceedings. She chuffed fags and sank coffee and tea like a top-weight boxer, yet she was of a mere Kylie Minogue stature. While the rest of the crew languished in nausea, Clare churned out meals or sat at the helm. She was happiest by the side of a purring engine, yet by the end of her voyage she was talking about switching sides and joining the sailing morons. She was also the most prodigious arguer, with a weighty opinion on most maters, thus together Dan and Clare stuck their fractious and tremendous relationship.

Halloween dawned and after a hearty stew and ginger chocolate concoction the dressing up began. Dave bagged a rather jaunty white potato net, which rendered his face amorphous and mean. Nick plunged into the paint bag and came back with blood spouting from his gaping neck wound. Hols turned Ninja in an all black number. Dan grabbed his old faithful (the dungarees that have been his companions since teenage years) and spattered blood all over then and him. I chose the witch’s moggy and hung a bell around my neck and stuck a rope to my ass. Lynne and Rick, who had joined us for the evening, soon had dark eyes and ghostly faces.

Dave, Lynne and Rick

Thus, the ghouls headed for poor Baleeira. It was an extraordinary sensation, a pile of fettered beings apparently planning over the sea in our dinghy with Lynne and Rick paddling in their dinghy by our sides. It felt as if we were in some afterlife, on the River Styx rowing for the great waiting room of life; the sort of place where ‘Beatle Juice’ would hang out.

We zigzagged to shore and headed for ‘Dromedary’ the one humped camel bar that we had been frequenting for Internet access. The temptation on offer was ‘The Price’ for the best fancy dress. Oh yes, we were sure we were well up in the stakes for that. Slight doubts were voiced as to whether anyone else might actually be in the pub. Undeterred, we burst through the door.

Our concerns were well founded, we were in a minority, with only the bar lady dressed in unnervingly orange overalls, the bar man in coils of loo roll and a few scattered Goths lurking in the side lines. Needless to say we had a laugh fueled by rum, vodka jellies and a jaunty disk jockey. Then to top it all, we seriously out-foxed the doubters in the room by winning, ‘The Price’. We were showered with prices- from particularly fine goggles, to a radio, natty bag, lighters and all manner of fine orange merchandise.

Next day Clare left and a void was left by Dan’s side.

The days chugged by with more mending, writing and provisioning. Then finally, we tried to leave. The idea was to quickly fill up with water and scarper. Unfortunately, finding it was not easy. The water man disappeared and the only place it could be found was in the fishermen’s loos. Thus Dan spent over two hours nestled amongst the urinals, ney holes in the floor, holding onto the hosepipe, with a giant turd sitting by his side. For this, all crewmembers are indebted.

Meanwhile a swarm of wings appeared in the sky. No less than griffon vultures! I counted seventy-three circling in the thermals, but then more joined them and amongst the crowd a lone stalk. We couldn’t believe our eyes; they hanged in the sky above Lista for over an hour and then funneled off in the direction of Africa. Griffon vultures Gyps fulvus are rare birds of prey, mainly resident in the Mediterranean mountains. Like many vultures they are declining in number, but there are still about ten thousand pairs within the region.

Asian vultures, however, are fairing far worse. Prior to 1997 they were the most abundant and widespread large raptors on the planet, with tens of millions cruising the Asian sky. They were the mighty, flying undertakers, performing a critical role of removing fallen livestock and animal debris: preventing disease, decay, smell, feral dogs, rabies, rats, polluted water courses…. They also formed a critical function in the Parsi /Zoroastrian communities by removing their dead from the ‘Towers of Silence’; traditionally these communities placed their departed on towers for vultures to carry to the next life.

Today these vultures are virtually extinct, hanging on by a meager thread reduced by over 99% since 1997. The cause, diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug used to cure cattle of rheumatic pains. When the vultures swoop down to consume offal and dead carcasses, the diclofenac kills them through secondary poisoning causing visceral gout and kidney failure, yet other scavengers appear not to have been affected. Now, without the vultures and without money to dispose of the carcasses, death hangs in the countryside. A cornerstone of the ecosystem has been removed.

This is a truly melancholy story. Man is once again altering ecosystems and suffering the consequences. Luckily, charities like the RSPB and Bird Life International have raised awareness of the plight of the vultures and have set up centres to rehabilitate the remaining vultures and breed new recruits. None of this will be successful, however, until the drug is removed from the food chain. Three countries have banned the drug from veterinary use, but many herdsmen will still have the valuable product in their clutches. Another battle to fight to maintain our rich natural world for its own sake and also for ours- we ignore our inextricable link to the environment at our peril.

Sandwich tern

With the griffon vultures long disappeared we headed for open water and finally, after over two months, watched Europe recede into the distance. We settled into the usual rhythm of watches, feeding and book reading with bouts of nausea. Pretty basic. Then on November 5th wildlife arrived!

An incredible species this member of the Cephalopods, being equipped like all in the class with heightened senses of taste, touch, vision and smell, moving up and down the water column with the plankton. They are pursued by all manner of hunters, representing a key element of the food chain for tuna, dolphins, whales and man. Indeed they are a commercially important crop, being harvested for centuries, that we have found in markets throughout Spain, Portugal and soon Morocco.

The next interloper was Stan the starling. He appeared from nowhere, picked watery oat cake from my fingers and variously perched around the boat. At one point he even conducted a wee ditty. He was in his winter vestiary of spots and iridescence. Starlings are the cockneys of the bird world, nesting nicely in townhouse holes, sitting on overhead wires, mimicking the world going on under their beaks in a series of twangs, chirrups and buzzes. They also live happily in the countryside probing for leatherjackets in pastures and settling to nest in hollow tree trunks.

The unlikely news, however, is that starlings are declining. Ugh, you gasp, not another gloomy tale (I promise there are success stories) but starlings are like many traditionally farmland birds joining the ranks with those not fairing so well. During the winter you might think this is unfounded, as our British starlings are joined by hundreds of migrants escaping from the icy lands of Scandinavia. By the summer, however, the teams of jaunty starlings in our towns and countryside are much depleted. Another unlikely candidate is the house sparrow, once so plentiful they were classed as vermin and exterminated from the grain mills where they wreaked havoc. Today, the familiar chatterer has plummeted in many areas of the country. Causes are not yet agreed, but fingers are pointed at a number of culprits including: unleaded petrol fumes, tidiness and D.I.Y plaguing the nation and filling the nesting holes of many birds, lack of food- no spills of grain due to bureaucracy and over efficient machinery etc.

Stan kept us company for some time. That is until a better offer turned up and into her speckled wings he leapt and together they flew into the distance.

The other onboard wildlife

Next arrived a chiffchaff, such a tiny darting bird, desperately trying to find food aboard Lista before bustling off. She was followed by a skylark, which sang a note or two but could not quite land. Then, Nick spotted a turtle! Unfortunately, it was too far away to get a proper look at. I thought it could potentially be a leatherback turtle, the world’s largest turtle. They wonder for miles in the open sea with a record distance for a tagged individual of 4200 miles! They are unusual among reptiles in being able to maintain a body temperature warmer than their surroundings due partly to a thick layer of insulating fat beneath their skin. This has allowed them to wonder as far north as Iceland and would be a definite contender for sighting off the British Isles.

Then Morocco loomed closer. A small fishing boat appeared by Lista’s flanks making smoking gestures, but soon disheartedly retreated. Our first sniff of Africa filled our nostrils. Holly and I were getting baked spuds, Nick and Dave were getting a far more pungent human poo cocktail. Who knows what Jilly Goulden would have been registering, wafting summer washing over a smoking sweet potato fire? The mind boggles

The green and red or red and white wooden fishing boats grew more numerous. They had extremely high bows giving them the look of turtles, with their noses in the air as they moved through the water. A larger broad-bellied fishing boat appeared at our stern with a screaming gaggle of gulls and we chased it to the port in the hope that it might lead us a safe course.

A skyline of minarets and soft, white buildings greeted us in the form of El Jadida. The high rise flats of Spain and Portugal were conspicuously absent. We putted into the harbour and were beckoned to the wall where a very official, gold buttoned and polished man guided us as to how exactly our lines should be tethered. He later instructed us that coffee and chocolate would be acceptable for his efforts.

We had not since Dingle really found a proper resting place for Lista, where she could feel at home amongst similar wide-hipped ladies. Here in El Jadida we had it. Little egrets perched on lines of wooden fishing boats and the larger, Lista sized boats, slumped under a cargo of boxes, nets, hanging washing, fish and a crew of around about twenty strong. Crowds flocked to the quayside as fish were landed, yelling for particular catches. The boats regularly departed and returned during the day, producing diverse catches of: shark, swordfish, sardines, conger eels and tens of varieties to which I had no idea of name. The copious amounts hauled in seemed incredible. How long have the Moroccans fished on such a scale? How long can the waters along their coastline sustain such bounty? These are all questions that need to be researched and kept popping up as we meandered around the city through the smoke from charcoaled fish or passed the wagons of sardines, the heaps of sprats on the pavement side and the stalls chocker with every conceivable variety of sea food.

We tasted sardines on the first night in a school canteen type building. Banish any thoughts of tomato sauce and cans, these were incredible, crispy salty manifestations. I informed Mum of the dish and she baulked with childhood memories of the nasty meal. She did, however, also recall that during the 1970s along the Durban coastline of South Africa there were incredible sardine runs, where the water filled with writhing masses of the fish and women filled their bloomers with the bounty. Similar bonanzas were reported at the same time in Cornwall, indeed the Cornish fishing industry was founded on the small sprat.

So, we had arrived in Aaaafrica, David’s and my first footfall in North Africa and it’s marvellous! We are all in agreement. Dan had never been to Africa and has been soaking up the scene, perusing the souks and supping glasses of coffee as his beloved DMs are shone. Amid the racks of lamb hanging on butcher’s hooks, the lines of goats’ heads and seated chickens he found a stool to perch upon and therein was preened and plucked as the barber removed his pirate’s beard. The barber was keen to deliver a full sweep and leave Dan shining and baby faced. Dan was not. He had worked long and hard to push out a fine handle bar moustache (plus wee goatee twizzle) and was not losing it. Indeed he has higher goals, to join the elite moustachio club that meet and consider the bristly hair below one’s nose.

Before the shave and shine

Hols and Nick have been to Morocco, but arriving by boat into this riot of colours, perfumes and sights had also knocked them for six. Hols began nosing out the history of El Jadida and soon had armfuls of facts as well as finding the crypt, the ancient walled Portuguese port city and the hammams. We were informed that Morocco’s main exports were almonds, wax, wool and phosphates. Indeed, Jorf-Lasfar to the South of El Jadida is Africa’s largest port.

Nick went on a quest for a barber and unlike Dan went for the ‘baby-faced’ look, with cutthroat razor being applied twice and a complimentary head massage to knock. Next step was to ransack the many cloth stalls in search of slinky boxer shorts. Mission accomplished he returned to Lista Light with a clutch of nifty ‘Man’ pants, ranging from orange to green. The plan was to drape himself in various gin palace poses around the boat portraying the various appeal of each pair, before bundling them off to his brothers for Christmas presents.

Market

The nugget of this particular little gem was no doubt indebted to the Frenchies we were greeted by in Cascais, Portugal. As we slipped into the anchorage, the said French men popped up from below decks like a pair of hunting weasels. With Hols and I safely sighted they began their courtship display. Strutting their stuff like two peacocks, they pushed up, pressed down and generally rippled their lean muscles in their wee red Y-fronts. I had not been ‘treated’ to such a display since entering La Caruna. There, a boat of five mature Finish men in tight little black thongs generally squared up in matcho poses around the deck as they motored pass, ‘I am single, are you married, will you come with us..’. they boomed. I squawked back various taunts, before the Old Sea Dog appeared from the engine room with an axe, ‘My property’!

Scary?!

Ehem, back to Morocco and back to those ‘hammams’ that Holly and Nick had uncovered. They were baths and images of full Turkish splendor filled our heads. We had not seen soap for a while and generally contributed to the heady smell wafting the streets. So eventually we succumbed to cleanliness. Nick and Hol plunged first into the unknown after a run down the beach. Hol experience the mandatory confusion and gentle diddling that appears to surround most of our interactions. She was shown how to use the facilities and then pretty rapidly frog-marched out. Nick’s experience was similarly rapid, with the added piquancy of the buano definitely giving him the feeling that he wanted him OUT.

Old Town, Near the Hammam

Buoyed and pre-warned by Hols and Nick the rest of us trotted off to our respective hammams, Dave and Dan to the men’s, me to the women’s. Large, multiple garmented women greeted me and I was directed to leave my bag in a particular slot and given a large bucket and bowl. I stripped down to my bikini but was swiftly instructed to remove my top. Thus, I trotted off to the next tiled room and found a sea of buckets and women squatting on the floor in their pants, applying water. I seized a bucket, but was instantly rebuked by the main woman. I smiled and tried to appease her. There was some kind of system and I had flouted it. After some time my bucket was filled and I was motioned to sit and so I did on the floor with my warm water and scrubbed and rubbed.

What a sight. Billowing boobs, tummies and bottoms draped the place. The washing ritual continued for an eternity, with woman preening and scrubbing one another like a bunch of chimpanzees. The Queen Pin sat on a tiny plastic stool, commanding the buckets and prize scoop and occasionally sloshed some water over her ample rolls. Then satisfied that all were settled she began the drawn out task of combing and washing her waste long black locks.

Cattle egrets amid building works

Fore-warned, I had full wash kit and pumice stone and began the unfamiliar task of a lengthy hose down. Two girls clocked me, started chatting and offered to scrub my back. They ignored my protestations to rub theirs and so I joined the chimpanzee clan and it was lovely. Unfortunately, during the muddle of my trying to muster my fading French (now that I am trying to learn Spanish any vestiges of French have collapsed under a ricochet of ‘aquis and verdads….’)to tell them about home and such like, the girl scrubbed far too hard, successfully sanding layers of skin off the stupid old goat.

Thus, apart from the dermis eradication, my experience of the hammam was pretty good, if not quite up to the Turkish bath ideal I had conjured. Unfortunately, Dave and Dan’s version was wholly bad. They arrived in the baths and the same King Ape that had made Nick’s Western presence unwelcome became annoyed. It started with a dispute over the price. They thought they had agreed a sum and headed for a soak. On finishing, the price had changed and things started to unravel as the hostility rose. Money was hurled, the man accused Dan and Dave of stealing and then locked them in the baths. The other gentlemen bathers generally appeared to be on Dave and Dan’s side, but the dispute could not be resolved, until Dave became impatient (seems odd?) and prized open the door and in the fracas left with a door handle in his hand and much screaming! Once again the difference between cultures, but most of all the uselessness of not understanding another people’s language was apparent. Dave and Dan were sure they were innocent and he was sure that he was. It left a nasty feeling in the mouth for all, but Dave not being exactly the best contender for merging into a dark, squat, mustachioed Moroccan crowd has had to give the hammam area a wide birth for fear of being accosted by a wild old man!

Is it him??

The other significant difference in Morocco, not witnessed by any of the crew in other developing countries, nor particularly Muslim countries, were the wizards lurking in doorways, sitting on carts, supping mint teas in bars and wondering down the streets amid honking cars and boys dressed in jeans. It was altogether unnerving, as if we had stepped into the pages of ‘Harry Potter’. The garment in question was the ‘Jalaba’ worn by both men and women. Coming in various colours from terracotta, to pajama stripped and azure it allows the wearer to retreat from the sun or attention (if desired) and provides super rapid dressing. Perfect! Dan paved the way and soon snapped up a jade number. Dave and I rapidly followed pursuit and now will merge seamlessly into the Moroccan crowd? Hmm!

Hmmmm..

Wondering down the alleyways, stumbling across front rooms full of seamstresses and boys playing football, the coolness of the narrow, high streets soon became clear and the design prowess of past civilization was displayed. Faded pastel coloured buildings and huge old wooden doors enticed the eye. Every turn had something more to intrigue. Pigeons were absent, replaced by the jaunty cattle egrets rummaging through rubbish or the yellow-footed little egrets roosting in an olive tree.

The souks were the most intriguing of all, rammed full of every conceivable enterprise: from bike shops, to plumbers, to carpenters and wood turners, super stone knife sharpeners were powered by a bicycle wheel, tree stumps were amassed, mattresses and stuffing burst our of stalls, doughnuts piled high sizzling and piles of pungent herbs and spices towered amid dates and figs. Donkeys and ponies stood under weighty cargos, old men sat in self-propelled wagons and cars whizzed passed. Humanity in every form weaved its way through the streets. The engine definitely did not rule, barter, chat, fights and screams did. We felt miraculously safe and unaccosted (women wondered the streets late into the night) in this cinematic extravaganza- simultaneously watching and being watched.

On the fateful night of November 10 2008, when Dave’s working life has finally passed into a dusty archive, we cajoled one another to head into the streets for a run. On reaching the sea we fell into a trot and soon had a group of children screaming along at our side. We quickened our steps and flew through the orange gloom into a seedy part of town. Eyes watched us around every corner, pavements descended into bogs, motorbikes dived out of side alleys and figures emerged from the loom. We sprinted through the haze, two characters in a computer game, dodging lorries, hurdling pavements and pot holes, a prickling feeling that we had stumbled into one of the less salubrious districts of town.

We rounded to the old town and stretched by a donkey munching on straw with his old wagon at his side. Every now and then as one walks the streets you are struck by a wall of human ammonia, blasting acrid fumes into your nostrils. This might be followed by the melliferous fragrance of a camel or pony’s dung, but then the sulphureous retching smell of rotten fish and human faeces knocks all other olfactory cocktails aside.

The pumpit and homemade tagine

We have found a sumptuous ‘snacket’ from the street vendors. Christened the ‘pumpit’ this oversized crumpet-crossed with a pancake is a revelation doused in Nutella. The other favourite from the past was a bag of biscuits pulled out of the bilge from Espana. These are the finger shaped biscuits your granny uses in trifles, but on the Spanish packet go by the rather racy name of ‘boudoir fingers’, a perfect soak.

The next event in our daily Moroccon boat life was the arrival of the diesel fuel lorry. Our batteries are ‘mysteriously’ losing power. (Captain will not thank me for the usage of the term,‘mysterious’, as there is apparently no place for mystique in machines, they are logical, functional, follow set routines, spit out numbers, brrrrr. Fills me with terror. I have explained that Mum brought us Land girls up on pure logic; the TV should receive a hearty whack when it is not functioning properly and the computer has a complex mind of its own). Any road the up shop of the malfunctioning batteries, is that the blighters are losing power and the lack of wind and solar input is hampering our energy supplies so we have needed to generate with diesel. Cue, the Moroccon fuel to use as our safety backstop for our long voyage across the ocean.

Hole in the wall

With purchases from the market to cook tagines and salads, the discovery of a bakery with a hole in the ground spitting out steaming hot bread from its fiery stomach, we had stumbled across heaven in El Jadida.

We soon grew tired of ‘heaven’… Well, city life to be exacting. So Dave and I found our trusty mules (the bikes) under the tubes and jury rigging in the engine room and set off for the mountains. Our bikes were hurled ontop of the bus (for a small price of course) and we were bundled onto the jolting block (seats had expired) at the back. The bus hurtled off, hooting for further occupants. They arrived in crowds along with vendors selling us nuggart, 3-whole-egg sandwiches and wailing godly folk trying to mark our unworthy foreheads or sell us the latest copy of a psalm or other. Eventually we arrived into Marrakech. It was stunning, with a huge medina enclosed by ancient sandstone walls and views to the mountains. That night we had a close encounter with a goat….

Two backsides, not dissimilar

By the next day we were out of there and off on our wheels for the mountains! We passed camels (lined up for the tourists) but more importantly BIRDS! Everywehre! Including my old friend ‘Cyril’ or cirl bunting Emberiza cirlus pecking for food amid a flock of chaffinches and house sparrows. Cyril was back, but rather than in an orchard, or in a wee barley field as he is accustomed to frequent in Devon, he was down the local olive grove. Other cirl buntings were rattling calls out in the eucalyptus trees, but there was no spotting them and at this painfully slow bird watching rate we weren’t going to reach the mountains…so off we peddaled…

Eventually, after one tagine later and multiple great grey shrikes later, the loom of the Atlas mountains grew close.

Our valley resting place.

That night we slept (shivered) on a patchwork of terrace under apple trees and piffled some tiny red apples for supper. Blackbirds, wrens and great tits called. It had the feeling of home, but in addition to apple trees, there were almonds and walnut trees.

Not this view, but we liked it....

In the morning, starving, we clambered up the valley sides with our bikes on our backs. Villagers peered at the unusual vision appearing over the precipice. We wove through a maze of cob buildings (earth, straw and stones hewn from the lense of rock from where they sprang) followed by a pack of giggling children. Chickens pecked in the earth, eyes watched from doorways, marigolds flowered from roof tops and girls returned from the hills with bundles of juniper and water. There was no sign of a shop so we asked if we could have some ‘pan’. Before we new it we were whisked into a cool, red earthy house and gazing over the valley with bowls of olive oil, honey, butter and bread, washed down with mint tea. We chatted about birds- brandishing the bird book at the smiling faces, then finally departed.

Following stoney tracks, passed grinning one-toothed shepherds, we wound our way into the mountains and found the snow. Below us were ‘red’ hills and plains as far as the eye could see.. and the odd stripey ground squirrel for could measure…

With a bit of luxury on November 17 (our half year wedding anniversary!) we returned to Lista and boat life……although somewhat altered. We have some new crew members. I’m not sure whether they have their sea legs, or sure at all about their sailing abilities..

New arrival

But we shall soon find out. All that is sure, is that they stank and were covered in shit….. so soon a hair dressing stint was need

Hairdressing begins....

So with Anne and Derk or is it Moitessier and Knox Johnson or nugget and drumstick (whatever) we sailed into the sun set…….sun rise… Well sometime tomorrow we finally will GO! (with this unusual view to remember North Africa by…)

Atlantic Portugal

If pictures and text weren’t enough (too much I hear you say??) we have also created a wee video of each leg to give a flavour of our travails. Its not that wee actually, infact its rather big at 8MB but in this broadband world that should be possible for some – so set 4 minutes aside and play it with the sound on, at least then you’ll get a nice bit of music to accompany you on the way . . . .

 

11th October

Our arrival into Portugal was marked, I’m afraid, by a Superbouy tethered to the sewerage outfall by Leixios! It’s amazing how smell free the sea becomes, and how in comparison the stench of humanity harasses the nostril on approach to land.

We hadn’t really anticipated coming to Porto (Leixios is the port serving the ancient town of Porto) but after a night sail we always look forward to harbours, especially ones with free showers! Because oh of course, the humanity on board can stench a little too…..

For a bit of stuff on Lista Lights (nee Glimt) former life go to the history section on the menubar but one thing that was clear from the start in our selection of craft was that maintenance would be part of our daily lives with her to keep the old girl afloat. I say selection, it was fairly impulsive, Lista Light is the ONLY boat we actually looked at which saved us rather a few trips to old boatyards. Anyway, at 73years old a bit of botox and a nip and tuck would never go amiss, and this would be our chosen spot. For a boat like Lista I don’t really think of us ever owning her, she is too regal for that, but we are her current custodians and we must keep her right. Working on her raw frame and every plank is how we will get to understand her, respect her and hopefully earn her good favour to return us with a fair passage. And Dan needed a good night’s sleep so we decided to sort the squeaking main mast and boom with a complete overhaul back to bare wood and a new covering in Varnol – a product made from mainly pine resins and gum turps rather than the usual Varnishes on the market.

The first step which involved around 8 mandays divided by 4 loyal crew was to strip her back to see what the underlying wood was like, and then sand the hell out of it until a smooth sheen radiated from the wood….

This is hard work trust me. Not many folk would decide to tackle the spars in a rolly anchorage so what we needed was guts, determination, unfathomable reserves of perseverance, balls of steel (any man who has gripped the mast with his thighs aloft in the bosuns chair for 4 days whilst gently having his block and tackle rammed onto the spars will sympathise . . . women too, I fancy….) oh, and the odd sustenance break . . .

To get 4 people onto the mast at different heights to maximise productivity was a challenge, and eggs must be broken to make omelettes as they say…. We had a 20ft piece of driftwood lashed diagonally to the front, the gaff serves as perfectly manoeuvrable scaffolding, and then the bosun’s chair.

carnage

Our Totem pole was receiving some proper love! And Kath was exorcising the demons of vertigo, and I believe even came to love living up in the chair!! Or so I tell myself.

totem

For the first two days the work proceeded well into the night with Dan and Clare working beautifully like a well oiled tandem of sanders, varnol and the ever familiar chitterchatter of some on running squabble between themselves! These amiable falling outs have become our backdrop as Clare and Dan have spent more waking hours together than you could imagine . . . it’s part of the tapestry of our Atlantic Portugal trip, and is as familiar and natural as Lista’s creaks and groans itself. There is a wonderful friendship and old married couple in one, and now it is infused into every inch of the very mast which will sail us south….

nightshift

When it all became too much, and the inner thigh was in no state to climb the mast for the umpteenth time Kat and I grabbed the bikes and headed off into Porto via the coast. It was fantastic to be off the boat for a while and we were visiting a new place for both of us. On the ride in I spotted a heron, then another, and then another, by the time Kat and I had finished up counting there were over 50 herons sitting, waiting, fighting, squabbling, flapping and skulking about, an incredible sight to see our very own Grey Herons in such numbers here too. I half expected to look up and see a cheviot sheep nibbling the verge, or a Devon Red cow chewing her cud so familiar and “English” I see these creatures as being.

And then they appeared along the roof tops too, most un-English behaviour!

not quite right!

Porto itself is a city set apart by its contours, hammering the bikes around the folds, ceramic coated building, avenues, back alleys and promenades was great fun, but didn’t help us to blend in – there are not many bikes in this city! Internet and Sharon Fruit later we returned at full pace from the height of Porto clattering down the shiny cobbles to the river. Our very brief sojourn had taken us away about 5 miles, one city, a trillion cobbles and contours away, but further still for us in that we were allowed to forget the mast for a few glorious, groin relieving hours!

Oh, thought we should share this lovely sculpture, I think it’s a giant lobster pot but felt a bit like an alien landing. If we become rich I want one….

There can be no talk of Porto and Leixios without mentioning Hannes, Jonathon and of course Milo. Hannes was the captain of a small and low boat heading to wherever the winds would carry them. To call them water gypsies doesn’t do justice, nor translate well. But their craft carried murals, more decktop frippery than even us, more green tea/chai/etc etc than I have ever seen. And everything was for trade by Hannes! Some coconut for some black tea, some nutmeg for some varnish, I didn’t ask what we would get for Kath (eeek, sorry Carole)! But the highlight of their ship was the ships cat, Milo the dog…. This is Milo…

before

Before he was overcome by the relative stability of Lista, something deep in his neocortex snapped into action, and upon being on this “dry land” he succumbed to his urge to relieve his most basic canine compulsion to verily soil the deck with not only pooh but a good dash of urine as well. Oh and some vomit for good measure, though that was Clare’s fault for feeding him something nasty.
This is Milo looking happy after his work….

after

Anyway – back to the final job of more varnolling and a bit of fish spotting for aloft . . .

Clare caught a couple of the grey Mullet above, and spent several hours trying to kill the buggers – they have a skull reinforced with titanium, and scales to rival an armadillo. And the prize is a moderate amount of flesh fuelled almost entirely by human defecation. They were returned to the natural lifecycle the next day.

16th October

We departed Leixios with the main mast out of action and the forecast looking a little light, reduced sail and low wind not exactly being Lista Lights best suite! After sticking about 40 miles out to sea through an absolute pea soup fog we were then dropped altogether by the wind and left to spin around on the current and generally flop. Flop. Flop. Slop. Flop. The next three days were not noteworthy, making only 60 miles a day!

19th October

We arrived into Lisbon – straight into Doca Alcantara. Landfalls are inevitably marked by incident (or is it just that relatively it seems so . . ?!) and this was no different. It was a significant day for us as Nick and Holly, our pre-arranged crew whom we last saw as we set off from the Exe some months ago, joined with Holly’s mum and sister. It was a great lunch sharing stories and trying to start our new normality for the coming days, we were all full of excitement, and the sun beating down on us added to the feeling that this was a new chapter. To make things even better a really dear Portuguese colleague of mine from my previous work days with Accenture arrived with his wife, on his way to the airport for work on Monday morning.
Dan and Clare zipped off to de-grease in the showers and Portugal’s most violent and stroppy ferry company chose that moment to appear in a few hundred tonnes of aggressive steel requesting his berth that we had inadvertently stolen, back. Oh dear. After much broken English on Ch.16 it appears the Mexican standoff had only one loser, and that the Portuguese Navy (him) wasn’t it. Sadly, defeated, the British Navy (us) limped off to receive instruction from the Port authority that we must anchor stern-to in a match box. Without a bow line as it had rotten away. To non sailors let me please explain this is akin to parking a double decker bus in the bike stand of Paddington station, on Platform X, without spilling your coffee, or scratching the Claude Butler racing bike next to you. Oh, let’s add for authenticity that the bus driver has “P” plates and you are getting the picture. Anyway the resulting celebration involved a monumental pishup, vague memories of dancers and too much rum are being banished from my memory, as well as being chased out of the women’s showers at 3am by a cross Portuguese official. Very odd and inexplicable.

Anyway – we too were cross about the previous day’s miscommunication and buoyed and brave with the remnants of last night’s rum we decided we had better face up to the situation and to do the honourable thing. So we ran away without paying. The following days were all slightly blurry, but we picked up our valuable cargo of Nick and Holly, visited Lisboa in the howling rain on our pedlos, and generally waited for some very stiff winds to blow through.

Lisbon is beautiful with her intricate cobbled streets and traditional architecture mounted aside the 25 Abril bridge, and inside of a large bordering park, I think it’s my favourite city.

And we found a new chart!!! Our previous tea towel for the UK, and globe for the Atlantic was supplement by this pavement to conduct our more detailed pilotage. I’m sure the insurance people will be happy with that.

On our arrival to Cascais we were greeted by 6 Cornish Crabbers, like the herons above noted this was a scene much more reminiscent of home and our suspicions were confirmed when a couple of plucky brits skipped past the steel and plastic neighbours to give us a “tally-ho”! God knows how these folk got here but they pulled tentatively on the home heart strings, half expecting a Devon Cream Tea to arrive.

Provisioning in Cascais was hilarious and involved about 90kg of provisions being loaded onto two bikes and the trusty trailer, topped with a bucket on my head much to the amusement of the locals.

23 October

We left Cascais on an early morning, weaving our way through the other vessels that had sought refuge from the stiff winds and spent a few days with us worrying about their anchors too. It’s what sailor’s do it seems. This square rigger was one of the collection

Nick and Holly have taken naturally to the sailing and it was perfect weather to pop up all the sails we could, without the main mast in full commission yet, so we left under two headsails, the mizzen and the newly named GOLLYWOBBLER!!! This sits between the masts and is strictly a quadrilateral sail flown high in light airs but we can embellish the definition somewhat for our sailing pleasure!!

Having Holly and Nick on board gave me a chance to dust down the induction process generally starting with Kat’s recycling regime (hail, hail!!), a whistle stop tour of the heads (bogs to non-sailors), and an introduction to what I most reverently term the

5 Pillars of Classic boat sailing.

1. Tom Cunliffe “Hand Reef and Steer” For those of us with limited to zero experience of things non Bermudan this is a must, frank and forgiving…. And he is also responsible for our introduction to the term Gollywobbler!
2. Hervey Garrett Smith-The Marlinspike Sailor. Old school rope work with no hold barred->
‘…”By his ropes ye shall know the measure of the seaman” Frayed ropes ends are a curse and an abomination, but no more so than improperly made whippings for they indicate either ignorance or indifference. Ignorance is excusable and oft temporary, but indifference generally becomes a bad habit!’
3. Brion Toss “The Rigging Handbook” for full tutorage on rigging materials and methods which will keep us propelled in the right direction hour after hour, and of course a bit more….
“What with years-long voyages that used to b the rule in the olden days, sailors would find themselves with a lot of time on their hands, and lines in them”. He introduces us to the art of what he terms “semi-useful frippery”!!
4. Jimmy Cornell “World Cruising Guide” tells one where the snakes and ladders of world routes are. Generally ignore all comment on social aspects of lands discovered but pay attention to which routes work best when. If, that is, we haven’t buggered it up with climate change altering salinity, currents, and associated seasonal airstreams……
5. ‘Bud’McKintosh “How to Build a Wooden Boat” On rare occasions it is best left to authors to speak of themselves . . . . . “I am opinionated, lazy, plodding, timid about trying anything new, and I have built about 500 deadweight tonnes of sailing yachts – largely with my own hands”. What a man. Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown was famously reputed to be able to kill a man with his bare hands (could Gordon?), but build 500 tonnes of boat? Only bud can do that.

With this primer we rounded cape espechal and Clare celebrated in the time honoured way . . .

Now, if you are a parent of Clare or relative or friend or have had any run ins with this gem before then please look away now, or have your worst fears about her slightly insane nature fully compounded. Clare and I had had some long running ‘climbing the masts’ challenges (without security lines of course) for the last few weeks. I thought I had pulled the top trump with a mizzen gaff walk on the approach to Lisbon. I didn’t reckon on Clare. The picture of waves pounding the blow hole rounding cape Espechal give the reader an understanding of the sea state, not the worst but nor was it flat. Undeterred Clare picked her moment for a mast walk. She rounded up to the hounds (good 25ft) in no time at all but soon the motion of the boat had her swinging, laughing might I add, round and round like a rag doll. On the third revolution all our hearts sunk as she slipped and picked up pace rapidly obeying gravity at a hell of a rate – raced passed the spear like boat hook resting in the ratlines, and landed at deck level in the last ratline. Fear and sickness gripped us all as we rushed to her. Clare said “I’m alright, I’m alright” as she would. And then we stuck her on the deck to assess the damage. Our on board nurse, Dan, is an incredible facility. All vital signs looked good but one truly painfully bruised leg remained. Only her low weight and some good fortune saved us, well her. Competition closed for now – Clare wins.

We rested that night near a magical little nature reserve near Forte de arrabitta, with its 5 crypts, beautiful waters, and nunnery. I mean convent. The next day was spent pulling up pots to see their slightly unimpressed inhabitants, running up the hills to see the totally impressive but unimpressed convent (we were sent away despite being parched, not very Godly. Nick and Hol fared no better) and snorkelling in the clear waters. Dan looks like a pro – we idolised him as our new sea god, monster from the deep…..

25 October

We hauled anchor in the afternoon for a night sail with the intention of making Cabe Sao Vicente the next day. Twas be the day where one tat created by the salt water in Arrabitta was a tat too many. Bloody things. I cannot imagine how women deal with this on a daily basis but quite frankly it’s ridiculous. And painful. But then they are built to have babies and I am not (thought the cold water was trying to prove otherwise (mangina pic not included). So we had a little clipping session…

BEFORE

DURING

AFTER

I should like to draw attention to the “dutch ratter” I managed to keep. But only for about 20 minutes before it appeared I may have to get divorced over the matter. Nevermind. Another year of growth lies ahead.

The evening was a slow one but certainly pleasant. We stared long at the sun dropping over the skyline in search of the green flash pirate’s talk of . . . .

We played on the deck and in the galley. Cooking in large quantities has presented us with, well, large meals obviously. And also large amounts of leftovers. The creativity involved in fabricating a meal at sea is far outweighed by that required to make sensible use of these leftovers, quick to perish once out of their cans. I had to take this chance to share the secret of Dan’s special sauce…… an absolute stunner, especially if ones brother has kindly filled the bilge with 2kg cans of Tomato Puree!!

Dan’s Special Red Sauce

300g Tomato Puree
Lots of Oil
Dessertspoon dark brown sugar
Dessertspoon Worchester sauce
3 Dessertspoons whole grain mustard
Shot of Dark Soy Sauce
Good crack of pepper
Salt

Some other stuff is wholly permissible and encouraged. Try adding warms spices such nutmeg or cinnamon. Serve with cous cous, warm bread (we are beholden to kath’s wizardry for this), salad or as a pesto style sauce. Dan hasn’t divulged the rest so it remains an Antell family secret to get it as good as we did on the high seas off Portugal . . .

After a slow day we had to make a beeline for Arrifana, a surf break in the cliffs 15 miles to the north of our intended headland. We were tired and needed refuge. What we were delivered was a cove wrapped in devils’ teeth rocks, and despite decent cover from the North the Westerly swell rolled in and a slip in most directions would have been a very bad thing. Kath and I agreed an anchor watch was called for so people were scheduled through the night. Dan fished (looks a bit like Leaving Las Vegas . . ?), Clare recovered, drank coffee and smoked, and laughed, Nic and Holly read and chatted, Kat did squats and press-ups on the foredeck. I felt tired but easy. It was just another day on the lovely Lista Light. Lista swung merrily on her hook but didn’t slip too much

A new day and a new challenge. We had pictorial evidence of the spinnaker named Brutus, in action under the guidance of the previous owners. We had not roused him ourselves until today. So we sought about thinking through how to fly the big man but on a boat with a bowsprit. Slightly confuddled we managed to bang him up and a few chafed lines later we worked out that both the topmast forestay and bowsprit halyard needed shifted if we weren’t going to macerate more lines.

On big confession at this stage. Now Brutus did a good job but can you see his colourings? Something nostalgic about him? Brutus looks too akin to a 80’s hip weaving ski suite to have such a heroic title. We have renamed him Bruno, I hope folk don’t mind. Sorry.

We hoiked the old fella down before rounding the cape – the sea and wind both picking up predictably around the headland. This was a significant day in any yachts trip south – it said so in our pilot book so it must be true. Admittedly though it was a relief to make this point, our last stop before a new continent. It felt significant.

Holly took the pleasure of guiding us round as we made the hurried sail changes

The anchorage behind the Cape was truly stunning, and with an increasing Northerly wind we reckoned on tucking in under the fort on the cliff top, slightly hoping it wouldn’t topple.

So we got really close, too close.

We rested in the anchorage “Enseada de Belixe” and got on with daily life. With the new crew members new systems were devised for sharing the more mundane elements of running the ship. Two new concepts:

The first, MUM Day, means that each person is given a day to be Mum, buys all the food, makes all the food, wash up all the foody plates and generally tidy up, and look after sick crew. Mum is never sick herself you see. No complaining, just incredible energy and fortitude required, a la Ms Beeton. The rest of the days are totally free – good eh?! It’s worked well and everyone has really got into being mum.

The second concept is Misery Monday. Generally the calendar conspires to make mumday misery Monday too. Misery Monday involves nominated crew member seeing to the heads in a fundamental way, restowing stores, and scrubbing the decks.

Nick combines the two beautifully here in a Misery Mumday double header..

He rested well that night. Unfortunately the wind really picked up and by about 1am the night watch (Dan Clare) mildly intoxicated reported that we were swinging violently in the squalls and with only a very jagged cliff for company. I chose to not believe them. For about one minute- until my wishful thinking was banished by a cracking tug from the bow, then donned full wet weather gear with the others to deal with our predicament.

We had snagged both the stern anchor and bow anchor. Ug. We managed to power over both repeatedly but in the strict confines of our tight cove it didn’t seem to work. Just at the point of giving up first the stern line freed up, and then a few more thrusts forward towards the cliff it was followed by the bow as she reared forwards. We about turned into a filthy wind with spray being lifted from the totally protected water right over our heads – must have been gusting 45kts as we ran at 4.5kts then 5.0kts on bare poles alone! Kat plugged in the waypoints, the others kept a rapidly sobering eye out for ships rounding Cape Sao Vicente, and I plunged her into another souper as the water filled my willies to the ankles in minutes! The report from the chart table came up that we should not be within 2 miles of the cliffs. I looked not across to them, but sort of more up … oh well, we managed to get some good coverage from them into the bay so I think the pilotage notes may need amended for this bit. We dropped the hook into sand and got a solid tug as she halted the drift backwards. And we slept another halfsleep.

(Log Change, Kath back at the helm . . . . )

A Caruna (Spain) to Oporto (Portugal)

We say goodbye to Carole, Lucy, the Land Traills and the various animals and board the ferry bound for Santander. Dan joins us with his violin and we finally reach Lista and Clare in A Coruna on September 30.

Lands, Lowries &Traills

After a couple of days of repair and jobbing, with Clare and Dan madly flying around the city with a trailer behind their bikes on a quest for gas, we leave. We have grown to know La Coruna fairly well, Dave and I have run to the famous lighthouse, Torres de Hercules a couple of times, woven our way through the miniature Stonehenge and passed the sea horn. Clare and Dan have meandered the streets and plazas. Dan is chatting in Spanish and Clare has met Germans, American Spaniards and finally a Danish trio whom she sailed to Portugal with.

Clare & Dave, La Coruna

We leave Coruna on Northerly winds, keen to sail passed Cabo Finisterre before the winds move to the south. After more than a month on land my stomach does its familiar lurch as we crash into the waves and I quickly view lunch again, mashed up in a bucket. Dan is hardier than me, but does manage to bring up super, which he describes as not too bad a sensation with soft pasta puke, followed by a rather tasty caramel gold bar mush.

Back on the ocean

I writhe incompetent in bed. It’s a different world below deck. Luckily, once I am flat on my back nausea generally passes, but the creaks and groans are amplified in surround sound. As we swing from side to side, glasses and bottle smash, food frees itself from lockers and books hurtle to the ground. Canvas and wood shriek in unison and I try and work out where each noise is coming from. The sink gurgles its background symphony and light flickers through the windows. At one point I think I can crawl up on deck and then notice that sea and sky are swishing in a helter-skelter passed the port holes and change my mind. I eat a nectarine but later throw that up, sleep descends.

The galley

Clare has a stomach of lead. Even on the roughest of seas she has not experienced a pang of sea sickness. Un-phased she plunges into the galley to cook supper while the oven and sink rock by her head. Steadying the pans with her elbow and the chopping board with stomach she concocts omelettes to die for.

Clare with her stomach of lead

By the morning I feel fine and sit up on deck with Dan. He plays haunting tunes on his violin or plucks melodies on the guitar. I chant Spanish verbs and gaze out to sea. Suddenly a dolphin jumps from the waves. I scream and before we know it, lines of dolphins are surfing through the waves and weaving in our wake. A huge school of what appears to be up to one hundred common dolphins follow us. I watch seven sail on a wave by our side and then dart under Lista. They keep coming and swim with us for some time, before disappearing into the waves. I can’t imagine how you count dolphins? There must be a method, I shall look into it and report back.

Common dolphins

An uncharacteristic dark bird glides above us. On investigation it appears to be a pomarine skua Stercorarius pomarinus , with a spoon shaped tail (a feature of the adult summer plumage). It breeds on Arctic tundra passing Western Europe on migration to wintering areas in West Africa. I Just about the entire sail from La Coruna has been favourable with decent Northerly winds allowing Lista to bowl along at an average of 5 knots, but as we see the outline of land, Ria de Vigo, the wind drops and for a couple of hours we hardly move at 1-2 knots.

More dolphins

I read, ‘Colour’ by Victoria Finlay. It belongs to a very special friend of mine, who similarly adores and coverts good literature. I was due to return it to her some months ago as I have been reading it probably since May, disgraceful. Things have got between me and the pages, however: a wedding, leaving work, preparing for the trip, a new life, new language and learning how exactly to sail and exist in our new swimming snail shell. But every time I dive back into the pages, I am transported into an exotic journey on the quest for sacred colours that have shaped and dashed empires. It is intriguing in content, fact, history, landscape and place. I am hooked and want to read it all over again already. I will of course now have to contrive a plan to return it to its rightful owner. There are several options; post it, send a replacement copy or lure the said, enigmatic individual to the book…. Meanwhile I shall cherish the pages of the paintbox until its return.

The fiddler

The Islas Ci’es rise up before us. They are grey craggy topped islands swathed in forests with white sandy beaches and a green lagoon. We anchor between Islas del Norte and Islas del Faro. We contemplate paddling to shore, but fatigue takes over and we all slink to bed.

Islas Cies

Saturday 4 October

Dan dives into the sea and swims after Clare rowing to the islands. The whole area is a Nature Park, with the three main islands also designated as bird sanctuaries. They are exceptionally unspoilt with only one white concrete bar block on the bay. Ferries glide over from the metropolis of Vego on the mainland to the East and dump day trippers off to walk the islands and sit sipping ‘los cafe’ cortado’ (jet black thimbles of coffee that you could prop your spoon up in).

Fishing boat with Vego in the distance

By early evening (6.30ish) it’s getting cold but we’re determined to swim to the island and jump in to the icy water. The water is dark green and cloudy. It feels fantastic to be sluicing (um, crawling) through the water. I love swimming in the open, it makes me want to do triathlons. I think of our mate Leano and his mad swimming dashes in Cornwall at New Year or the multi races he’s been competing in, I could get hooked. I imagine I’m in ‘the Beech’ as we swim to our desert island. Interestingly, this is the one environment that our fearless skipper does not feel so comfortable in. Images of sharks streaking up from the deep or fins swishing passed unsettle the old kipper.

The beach

We pull ourselves on to the beach and then run through the golden sand. A thousand gull’s feet splatter the sand, an appropriate image for our mission. Four fluffy waders streak passed. The island is designated for its colonies of lesser black backed gulls, herring gulls and shags. We decide to return early tomorrow and check out the inhabitants properly.

Gulls' feet

At night Vego glows, a galaxy of yellow twinkling lights above the rias in the distance. I chuck water overboard and weak phosphorescence scatters over the surface of the sea.

The weasle appears from his engine house hole

It’s just before 8am, it’s still dark and we’re rowing to the island. A melba sun is rising over the horizon. We set the telescope by the lagoon and watch four common sandpipers it> Actitis hypoleucos darting by the lake, preening and bobbing their tales. There are several vegetation communities on the island including: the sand and marram grass, saline lagoon, conifer and eucalyptus scrub, thickets of pseudo-acacia and gorse-bramble- grass scrub higher up the slopes.

Sign to prohibit disturbance of the nature reserve

As we walk along the path a pair of blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla click, accompanied by wrens, robins and blackbirds. In the lagoon shoals of flat fish swim passed, some are huge. They have the look of an angle fish to me, but then I am useless at fish i.d. A cloud of dark fry swim passed. The lagoon provides the perfect sheltered nursery for these juvenile fish, away from the mighty predators in the ocean.

A female black redstart flickers close to our feet. This bird is redolent to my work as a consultant ecologist. At least five dawns spring to mind one Summer in London. I was on a mission on a derelict, post industrial site near the banks of a culverted river to seek out this timid bird. Phoenicurus phoenicurus is generally found on scrubby, boulder strewn slopes or cliffs on the continent. In Britain, however, it has developed an association with abandoned sites in cities, replacing buildings for cliffs to nest in and garden escapees for scrub in which to find its prey. After the 11WW, bombing created a surplus of such sites and the black redstarts moved in, giving rise to its vernacular name, ‘the bomb site bird’.

Sandpipers by the lagoon

My mission was to establish whether the wee black and red bird (similar in shape and size to a robin) was present on the site as they are a ‘Schedule 1’ protected species in England. I did not find hide nor hair of the bird, but I did find a surprisingly intricate and eclectic ecosystem reminiscent in diversity of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Indeed, charities such as Plantlife and Buglife have been eulogising about the merits of such unruly urban outcasts. The general public are generally, however, uneasy about such informal sites, bound up with their associations of urban decay, rubbish, dereliction and social deprivation. People when surveyed will usually prefer the tidiness of well-kempt lawns and neat flower beds to the sprawl of an ‘urban common’.

Old thinka, Park HQ

What they are missing, however, is the profusion of evening night shade, Michaelmas daisy, weld and woad and then amidst the exotic the real rarities, the orchids and the gentians. Rare beetles scuttle amongst the rubble, hover flies and bumble bees sip nectar from the buddleia and trap door spiders ensnare victims amongst discarded crisp packets. Under a sheet of corrugated iron a slow worm slumbers, while on top a common lizard darts after a fly. Grass snakes warm in a heap of rubble and compost. A weasel raises his whiskered head like a submarine snorkel above the precipice before finally darting under a bramble bush and off on a hunting escapade.

Pine & Eucalyptus cover

Amongst the rubbish and the poppies children hide and dart in a playground of their own making. This territory is far superior to the restrictions of the adult playgrounds, dreamt up on a drawing board in an office and parked into place, gleaming. Landscape architects such as the late Oliver Gilbert recognised the importance of these spontaneous areas for wildlife and people alike. He noticed associations between assemblages of vegetation and urban areas in the UK based on cultural history. Whether it was the fig trees growing along the River Don in Sheffield in response to the warmer water pumped out of cooling industrial plants or the fields of giant hog weed carried to the port of Hull.

Lista from the sand

These areas also boost targets, allowing bureaucrats to tick boxes based on the percentage of brown field land converted to housing, which we are told the UK is in desperate shortage of. The general public applaud when another untidy scrubby area is tarmacked, concreted over and smartened up, perhaps their house prises will rise? What they fail to see is that another plot of irreplaceable habitat has been lost in a country that is becoming increasingly bereft and sterile, where even the ‘countryside’ is missing members of the dawn chorus and where we increasingly need to travel to a nature reserve to catch a glimpse of a butterfly or flower that was once common place in the fields of our grandparent’s childhood . This is why charities such as Plant Life and Bug Life scream at politicians when they threaten to smother the Thames floodplain in concrete or want to build another airport for us to speed up our lives even further, as if that makes us any happier?

Birding

Back to the black redstart! On the scrubby cliffs she is joined by a pair of stonechats. These click and flick their tails and scurry into the air catching insects before alighting back onto their favourite perches. This behaviour makes these birds readily visible and always surprises the viewer in the exotic appearance of the male, with his black head and orange breast when viewed on a bracken frond on a Welsh mountain or Dartmoor tor. A flock of fat wood pigeons perch on the pine trees and then a charm of fifteen ‘finch’ like birds settle on the ground. On closer inspection we find serins! These yellow, streaky, bulbous little finches peck the seeds of canary grasses and other seeds within the turf.

David

Finally, walking along the beach to the dingy we spot four scurrying waders. After painful deliberation we identify them as three Kentish plovers and one slightly larger juvenile ringed plover. The precision of their features are immaculate through the scope.

Gulls

(Log Change – Dave takes the helm . . . . )

As we had anchored in the bay for a couple of days we had seen a smattering of yachts come and more go leaving us alone in the bay, and the end of season close down in the one cafe on the islands. This all had the mark of an end of year migration for which we had missed the starting gun. This part of the trip, and in fact the journey all the way from Isle of Eigg, Scotland, has involved some light pressure to head south as far as the Canaries before inclement weather blows through. Today marked some stiffer wind from the south and we needed to do something about our position in the harbour despite the holding being good. We headed into the wind for a mile or so to find shelter on a lee shore. And then it gusted hard, and our dingy performed a beautiful flip depositing pump, oars and water bottles into the windy channel – AAAARGH, manover drill was immediately actioned. Mass panic followed by an hour of endless circling, Dan thrashing wildly with the sharp end of the boat hook and Clare hanging monkey like to retrieve our lost “men”. Had they been real homo sapiens I fear the injuries they would have sustained from their rescue would have far outweighed the effects of a slow and cold submersion death…. Back to the drawing board on MOB.

For me the evening was to mark both the high point and low point of the trip to date. Three days of drilling, wiring and cable laying using a complex array of the “Molly Hogan” hand splices and snap shackles left the Wind Generator installation complete – and the gusts of up to 35mph made perfect conditions to test the beast! The “energy centre” as it has been branded is an important part of the trip and its completion proved by some basic electrical tests was a triumph! We hoisted the critter up high above the forepeak, allowed him to hit the wind, spin furiously and rushed eagerly to check out the ammeters gauging his performance – 2amps, 2.5, 1.5 . . . .3.0 . . .. 3.5!!!! Wooohoooo! Elation followed by booze, lots of booze, some domestic upset over boozing arrangements followed by a wee drink, and then, at 3am, bang. No more whiz, no more amptastic power, just a very loud clatter and the discovery that the “Molly Hogan” splice doesn’t work very well for a straight splice holding the generator aloft. Smashed blades, replacements didn’t fit. No more wind power until spares could be sent from the UK. Dark days indeed.

abroken blade and a broken heart!!

We needed a change of scenery and headed for nearby Vigo (Bigo in Spanish, odd) and made for the marina.

The marina staff saw us coming and anxiously headed us off towards the town quay where ships of our nature may feel more at home, damn it, I was looking forward to another tight pirouette to lance a few plastic boats before settling in to a nice tight spot with the grubbiest fenders we can find (its amazing how brown those tidy white Spanish chinos become as local sports boats see us idling in astern!). Non-the-less, our new home as it become for three days was welcoming, within an inch of Wifi access, abundant with interesting purple starfish and public. Extremely public.

little Lista Light

We became the new boy on the bloc, 24 hour surveillance from every passerby, every cruise ship passenger around! Kat and I provided the daytime entertainment with a 3-hour washing extravaganza on deck, and meals and sail folding inspected inscrutably by the older passersby, and with Dan and Clare providing the nocturnal slot with their exhaustive sampling of local ciders, ports, and rums, and the matinee with their tramp like crumpled bodies littering the decks as they have given up sleeping in the cabins for a more al fresco arrangement.

For the obvious pleasure his passengers in particular were drawing from our show I decided that the cruise ship captain of the P&O Cruise “Ventura” should have us aboard. He had been passing us by repeatedly in Galicia and I felt a walk of his bridge – to see Lista Light from his viewpoint, would be fair. I made contact on Ch.16 and was greeted by a very plucky brit, sadly security would prevent us from sharing high tea, but he wished us fair sailing and crackled out. Oh well.

Vigo was a pretty town, gave us the possibility to buy more obscure items like seeds for the “garden” we are planning to grow, some oddities for the boat and our new chart which we will be using for navigation from here on in . . .

our new chartplotter!!

It also afforded Kath and me the chance to eat out – something I have foregone recently in our new budget world! Given I spent the last 3 years working away on business eating out 4 times a week navigating ones own kitchen three times a day was a bit of a novelty, and it was wearing thinner than our compressed foam mattress. Whereas eating out can so often be a letdown if you are at all creative and playful in your own kitchen (god, this sounds like a lesson from some poxy guide book, ug) here it was stunning. We managed to get into a wee restaurant off a side street with what turned out to be a gastronomic menu, mature senioritas serving exquisite local seafood (clams, razorfish, white fish…) and elderly gents exchanging hearty handshakes to each new table which arrived. We looked conspicuously Germanic blondly and toweringly squidged into our little table but it was incredible to watch the show unfold and we could leave stuffed and enlightened.

dont be silly, we didnt eat that!

A condition of departure was that the gas must be refilled – Dan and Clare had merrily exhausted options in Coruna cycling for miles smoking cigarettes towing the partially empty gas cylinder in the trailer as locals recoiled in horror, but to no avail (for more see

Greening the Ship

). Somehow though they persuaded a local Vigo garage to top up our cylinders and so our final criteria for leaving was met. At 6am we posted our marina fees through the letter box and thrust Lista into full steam ahead, and then a nasty sound and no movement – flaming stern line had wrapped the prop! 30 minutes of machete to the prop shaft freed us up and confirmed we were much happier at anchor!!!

The voyage to Portugal was eventful in the sheer volume of cetaceans – Rissos Dolphin, Common Dolphins, and a possible fin whale sighting! The majesty of these beasts is hard to explain so I won’t. Common Dolphins throughout the night was a great experience as they shook the phosphorescence into streaks of luminescent glow like torpedoes. It was incredible to see the presence of so many dolphins so close to a very busy and cooperative Spanish fishing fleet trawling the ocean by their side. The consequences seem inevitable….

net fulls

and more net fulls

The day gentle and sunny so at last we got up a full wardrobe of sails, main, main topsail, mizzen, mizzen topsail (eventually!), staysail, jib and flying jib topsail. She looked so stunning we had to post Kath out on surfboard to take photos as we eased our way down the Iberian coast making the most of light winds. The tow generator was also doing its bit as we converted all the air we could into lateral power and electrical power.

Kath drew the short straw!!

a view the skipper never wants to see...!

Portugal loomed at sunrise – and so our Spanish siesta draws to a close… And time only for one last photo of some weird people overcome by emotion . . . .

Bay of Biscay

Clare and Dave

Apart from a lack of wind, the days slip pass, reading, watching and spotting birds. The Blasket Island cliffs passing us by are spectacular formations of rock with billowing clouds snaking around them. Abandoned cottages prick the hills sides, often with modern buildings perched by the side of them. The hillsides show remnants of former enclosure systems through gradations in the colour of the vegetation and crumbled walls. Gannets full the sky in a feeding frenzy skewing a fish ball beneath them. We receive warnings via the ‘Burnyeataafon’ that storms are imminent and retreat to Dingle.

The Blasket islands

We sail into the fishing harbour and see Dan our new crew member waving from the wall. We moor amidst a jumble of living and wrecked fishing boats to which Lista easily merges into. We peer into the fishing boats: camping stoves, cigarettes, coffee, crisp packets and a few magazines are strewn around the galley. Paint peels from the walls, water sloshes on the floor and anchor winches rust. It’s a bleak, Spartan existence, I don’t envy their lives on the high seas; cold, wet, nauseous, constant motion, pulling in nets of fish, plunging freezing hands into the mass of flapping bodies to sort them.. and this is only in my imagination, I expect the reality is far worse.

Dingle fishing harbour

We jump through nets and scramble along metal decks, over the line of boats that we are moored against and finally climb onto the pier. It’s 9.00pm and we’re walking through what feels like a film set. A huge Spanish trawler dwarfs the pier and a crumbling building. Dark faces peer and leer at us as we skulk passed. My skin crawls, it feels as if they haven’t seem female flesh in months. A reporter holds a microphone under a fisherman’s nose, it feels as if we’ve stumbled across a seedy underworld.

Lista at home among the fishing boats

In the morning we are given a net of crab crawls. We snaffle them with fresh bread, salad and lashings of Mary Rose sauce dribbling over our chins and hands. Delicious! We remain in Dingle for a couple of days sitting out the storm. Dave and I run up the nearest hill, we follow a track pock marked with horses’ hooves and flanked by sheep. A team of choughs rises from our feet, squawking. Rocks splatter the hillside like unruly teeth, but the ridge we can see from the base is a sequence of false horizons and we never really make it to the top. We can see the sea and the distant hills, our last view before the rain curtain sets in. So we plunge back down the slope, flying off the boulders and jumping through the air.

Crab crawl feast

All day, a group of Philippino fishermen mend nets on the pier in the pouring rain with plastic gloves on their hands, wearing yellow overalls. Dan and Clare explore Dingle and learn of the infamous Fungy, the apparently twenty-five year old bottle nosed dolphin who swims in the bay. We are slightly worried about what will happen if Fungy ‘carks it’, it seems the town’s tourist trade is based on the celebrity dolphin. We have doubts, with visions of locals dressing up as dolphins and swimming around the harbour to keep the folk lore alive.

Looking back to Dingle through the rain

I chat to a fisherman and he assures me that Fungy is real. He also tells a melancholy tale of the fishing port at Dingle. Less than thirty years ago he remembers over twenty, small, local fishing boats based in the harbour, a cornerstone industry of the town. Now the tale is very different, one of huge trawlers, dominated by foreigners, collapsed fishing stocks and limits on fish sizes. Fishermen are bitter and sour. My fisherman describes how he will have to pay over £20 000 to meet EU standards and keep his boat working, but he doesn’t have the funds.

Sunset on the ocean

What is the answer? The stark facts are that fish stocks have collapsed in many of the world’s oceans. Fishermen routinely throw back thousands of undersized dead fish into the sea each year that will never replenish stocks. The methods for harvesting fish have become increasingly mechanised, using radar and satellite imagery boats can target fish rapidly efficiently. There is little hope for fish stocks if man continues at this rate. North Sea cod stocks have collapsed, eels and salmon are at risk, just about any fish you can think of is threatened. It’s a liturgy of woes and the fishermen feel the brunt of it, but this tragedy of the commons cannot continue. If there are no fish, then there will be no fishermen. A hundred years ago no one would have believed that mankind would be able to decimate the plenty of the oceans, but then could they have believed that we could destroy great tracks of rainforest the size of Wales each day or plough up mile upon mile of pristine Russian steppe………?

Brooding sky

On this dark note we leave Dingle. The winds are still high, but we had to leave if we are to reach North Spain by the beginning of September. We forge out of the harbour and who should accompany us but Fungy himself!! The huge bulk of Fungy leaps from the waves at our side and rubs against Lista’s bow, our parting siren.

Late light over the canvas

The waves boil, the sky turns leaden and we lurch and nose-dive into the howling sea. Dan turns green and I shortly follow him, before long and a couple of ‘voms’ later we are out for the count. Dan has a particular miserable bout of sea sickness and is laid low for some time. I manage to creep out on deck the next day and grow accustomed to the pitching which gradually starts to ease. Dan emerges later and is soon back to his high spirited, puppyish ways.

Anne

As we plunge into the waves, the engine stops working. Now, we have resolved to use Lista’s engine as little as possible, preferably only as a safety mechanism. The problem is that we need to speed to Spain in order to reach our ferry home to Dave’s cousins wedding and my sister’s wedding. The other issue is the Bay of Biscay, when I ask Brian and Anne (who have circumnavigated the world) what their worst crossing was, without hesitation they say the Bay of Biscay.

Anne, Clare and Dan

The Bay of Biscay is legendry for its fiery oceans. This is on account of the huge Atlantic fetch coupled with the underwater topography which allows waves to grow before crashing onto the shallow shelf. The sooner we sail this hazardous stretch of water the safer and we decided that if that required some motoring then so be it. After this stretch, however, we are committed not to use it, only to be powered by the wind, even if we drift for days without a gust.

Clare & Dan

Back to the engine failure. At this particular moment safety is high on the agenda. The wind is pulling us towards a group of jagged island cliffs, the Bull, Cow and Calf at the base of Ireland. We cannot manoeuvre away from them and we have no mechanical back up. We fly as much canvas as possible and Dave plunges into the engine room to deal with the corpse. Clare pops out with an old drive belt in her hand asking for a spare! While Dave’s natural instinct is to sail Lista out of trouble, Clare the motor boat gal, heads straight for the engine room. She has sorted the problem and we realize (if we hadn’t before) that we have an ally on board!

DL setting sales

The weather improves, with a couple of days and nights of really strong winds, allowing us to maintain average speeds of 7 knots/hour. We slosh through the waves and take it in turns to keep watch for boats. I find the motion handicaps activity, as I am incapable of working below deck when we list from side to side and nausea sweeps over me.

Cap'n' checking his bird

We scan the waves for life. The normal suspects follow us, fulmars, gannets and then a Mediterranean shearwater and tiny storm petrels, like sparrows over the waves. Then one scorching day, as we pier over Lista’s bulwarks we spot jelly fish. These are not the normal jellyfish, of umbrella shapes with streaming tentacles. These are quite extraordinary singular cases of jelly attached to one another. It looks like a lady has dropped her bag of curlers over board and the rollers are spongy and linking together to form vast coils of rope. The weird, translucent, hoards of jellyfish drift passed us for miles. I still haven’t traced the origin of this phenomenon but will let you know if I find out.

Coils pf jellyfish

The next ghostly image is dead fish. Layer upon layer of small white fish drift passed us. There must be thousands on their backs. The only likely explanation appears to be by-catch, that the fish were jettisoned for not meeting the required market size. We shall continue to search for likely explanations.

Dead fish

Dave is sitting on deck thinking. The Bay of Biscay is famous for sightings of whales, particularly in late Summer when high pressure systems settle allowing calm conditions for finding whales. By late Summer water temperatures are also higher, allowing phytoplankton to flourish. These free-floating marine plants form the base of much of the marine ecosystem, fuelling directly or indirectly microscopic organisms and mighty whales. Phytoplankton is in abundant in the Bay of Biscay due to the sudden drop in gradient over the continental shelf. Cold ocean currents rich in nutrients are forced up from the ocean floor miles below to meet the shallow shelf, bringing with them a wealth of phytoplankton. This abundance attracts fish, crustaceans and squid, as well as cetaceans.

Grubs up

Dave is thinking about those whales and why we haven’t seen any and that wildlife watching is generally like this, when you look for something you don’t see it. One could become apathetic and lose interest, but that is the very mystery and intrigue in nature, if it presented itself on a plate to us, there would be no surprise.

Fin whales glide passed Lista

Then out pops a whale!! Can you believe it! He screams from the deck and we all scramble to catch a glimpse. Two huge grey forms undulate through the surf. We see their heads, backs, fins and giant jets of water flush into the sky. They are colossal, bigger than Lista’s 16 odd metre length. We are humbled and dwarfed by their bulk. All six of us clamber as high as we can to drink in the sight. I have never seen anything as spectacular in my life. They swim close to suss Lista’s bulk out, could she be a rival or a possible mate?! I want to dive in and clamber on their backs, but they soon recede into the distance until even their ‘blows’ are no longer visible.

Clambering up the shrouds

We crowd around the book to work out what species we have witnessed and finally conclude they were fin whales. Fin whales can grow up to 26m and typically feed on fish, prawns and squid. They are widely distributed around the world, moving to warmer latitudes in the winter to mate and calve. The Bay of Biscay is an important Summer feeding ground for the species, which is the most abundant baleen whale in the area.

Sailing under a pink sky

There are two types of whales, baleen and toothed whales. Baleen whales have plates of baleen or whalebone, which hang from the roof of their mouths. These vertical plates can grow up to 2m long in species such as the blue whale and are used to filter enormous quantities of crustacean and small fish. There are nearly seventy species of toothed whales, which include dolphins and porpoises.

Dan plucks at the guitar

As we near the North West of Spain the night brings tankers and ferries crashing upon us from all directions through the shipping lanes that we must cross. Their lights so simple to decipher in the book become a blur of colours as I try and decide which way they are heading. Then lightening streaks through the sky and for hour upon hour it feels as if we are floating on a battle field as the horizon and distant ships are lit up by forks of lightening.

Inside the galley

A pigeon circles our boat and attempts to land, but each time is thrown off course by Lista’s boom. Finally she settles and shattered she side steps to a crevice on top of the cabin. We feed her water and wheat, at least she is can rest her weary wings, even if she is still being battered by the storm. By the morning she is looking decidedly perky and we perch in the galley near food and water. She preens and gains a spring in her step, vociferously pooing all over the seat before waddling down to Dan’s bunk to coo in his ear. We decide she has had enough of luxury and bring her back to reality on deck where she hops around, avoiding Dave’s grappling hands.

Snatch 2 perched

Snatch 2’, as she is christened, after the last racing pigeon that flew into out-stretched arms before making a dash for freedom, remains with us for a full two days and a half. During that time another vagrant appears on a deck and really a far more beguiling passenger in the form of a tiny warbler. Well, that is the genus I think it must be, but I cannot locate it in the text book and can only presume that it is rare vagrant blown of course on the Easterly winds. I have footage of the passerine and hope to identify it soon, will help form a clutch of ‘twitchers’

Dave and Snatch 2

Our pretty warbler departed rapidly, luckily after a good refueling. Snatch the second, is less decorous and after guzzling his way through our rashons, leaving her calling card all over the decks and far out staying her welcome, flies off at the first sniff of land. ‘Sniff’ it certainly the word, after five days at sea, we smell land before seeing it. The stench of humanity wafts through our nostrils. I can sense how the character in Peter Suskind’s ‘Parfume’ feels as he avoids settlements and their wretched human odours at all costs. A mix of sewage and salt, followed by sky scrapers and concrete greets us.

Dan and Clare head off to surf

How ever the port might smell, I am still very pleased to see it. We anchor in A Coruna in the rain. Over the next couple of days, Dave and I hardly leave the Lista as we mend, tap and tidy. We do manage to cycle off to Sada to see if we can find accommodation for Lista during our absence. This involves cycling some 15 km away along dual carriageways and flyovers and then through suburbs. It seems the Spaniards do not commute on bikes, generally viewing the ‘bicicleta’ as a tool for leisure rather than business, consequently the roads are fairly hostile, but drivers generally give us a wide berth.

Anne & Brian 'treating' Lista

It’s great to leave the city and see orchards full of apples and peaches. This North Western corner of Spain is remarkably similar to England. It is verdant with familiar species such as brambles, stinging nettles and blackbirds, but then you are stopped in your tracks by a lizard or the sound of the cicadas and you realize it is anything but England.

Dave discovers rotten planks

The buildings are also very different, modern and bright with terracotta roofs. Occasionally, old buildings have been saved and are often accompanied by a small out house on stilts used for drying maize. We do not have time to explore further afield, hopefully one day…

A Coruna

Clare and Dan have meanwhile been walking in ever decreasing circles around La Coruna, relishing getting lost and arguing! They have sample a good few watering holes and Clare determined not to utter a word of the local lingo, is adamant that she can get by on her faithful hand signals, drawings and miming… Which of course she does and makes a good few friends along the way for good measure. Dan is mastering the fineries of ‘Cerveza’ speak and together they sample the local brews and fiery concoctions, intermingled with some light surfing.

Clare & Dan

On September 3, we leave Lista, Clare, Dan and La Coruna. Miraculously we completed the Bay of Biscay without trauma. Anne and Brian were able to catch their plane home after leaving us with a wealth of knowledge and charts and we should catch our ferry!

Dave and Kat

West Coast of Scotland

 

A common gull perches on the bowsprit

2August 2008

Our exit from Jura is far from speedy. Hour after hour we crawl past Jura’s headland, with Lista contemplating reversing; 2.4 knots…1 knot… We sit on the mill pond.

Katharine in the icy water

A common gull alights on Lista and idles on her bowsprit. Dave and I dive into the freezer, well that is Dave dives in and I dip finger after blue toe and ankle in. I squeak around the boat and sprawl shuddering on the deck. David brandishes a soap which slips through his fingers… oh well, he was never one for over cleanliness, the ‘African’ arm pit it is! Clare grins at the eejits shivering in the water and lights another roll-up.

On the rowing machine

After a while in need of action, I fling myself onto the rowing machine (which still requires a cunning scheme to attach it to our power supply) and lurch along the deck. Clare shins up a halyard and decides it will be her mission to climb it each day. Within seconds David, the classified orang-utan, has also sprung up Lista’s rigging and is dangling on high unhooking the radar rope. This is a useful trait in our captain along with his ability to dangle from the boom as it sways perilously into an angry sea. I, however, have mastered neither and dangle 2 feet above the deck in a wimpish attempt to pull my girt bulk upwards.

Spider Man, Dave

Eventually Carsaig, Mull , grows closer. Towering sea cliffs strike through the ruby sky. We let out the anchor and after the second attempt Lista holds fast

Red skies

As we sit and drink tea and coffee we itch, an attractive bunch. Clare announces that she will keep clear of landfall while the midge massif rules as unfortunately they appear to particularly relish Lee skin.

Unravelling the anchor chain

Next morning we pull the anchor up from her serpent’s nest. Coil upon clay clad coil of chain unfurls along the deck, like a line of terrier turds. The plan is to mark ten metre points along its length so we have more of an idea of just how much anchor chain is being dropped into the plonk. I have become aware during my short, but lengthening rendezvous with the world of sailing, that knowing how much anchor chain has been dropped is crucial to a successful night’s sleep.

Lista mored by Kerrera

6 August 2008

We sail on our way up the Firth of Lorn with the Grampian Mountains rising in the distance. We had planned to anchor in Oban, but the winds prevent a speedy arrival and we spot Kerrera. Low, undulating, green hills reminiscent of the North Island of New Zealand and a ‘Fimo’ model greets us. Sheep grazing the hills and a castle watch our arrival.

Sheep graze the hills

Clare refuses to go ashore until the infestation subsides, ‘There are sheep on shore with ticks and everything. This morning I awoke to a tick nestling on my neck. For TWO days it’s been feeding off my blood. They’ve probably created a family by now!’ She’s constructing the best weapon for her next drop on land.

Weirdos emerge from the bracken

We row ashore with the Kelly Kettle and a packet soup. A sea archway is full of old shoes and broken bottles. We need water and follow a stream along its meandering bog course. Meadow sweet, black knapweed and scabious prick the tussocks. A farmstead shelters in a fold of a hill. It looks the perfect site for a future home, although fertility for vegetables looks questionable. We climb up to the highest point we can see and gaze over the mountains. We give up on acquiring water and return to the dingy.

KL commands dingy!

We hadn’t quite anticipated the tide rising so much and find our boat bobbing by an island that had previously been attached to the sea. Very bright! Wading across, a shawl of fry scatter through my legs and long lengths of kelp part. We paddle back to Lista over sand and kelp fields, with crystal clear views to the sea floor.

Clare at the helm

Early next morning, Oban harbour wall draws near. Clare flies through the air in a ‘leap of death’ and claws at a step and we land. Tom and Sarah and the wennits (Adam, Jenny, Ellen and Ben) join us for the weekend. Our mountain of supplies grow. Particularly useful are vacuum packed cooked lamb chops and eggs.

Tom and the wennits at the helm

I think it’s about time that we pay homage to the humble egg (in a worryingly reminiscent Edwina Curry moment). What a perfect parcel: scrambled, fried, boiled, omelettes, cakes, pancakes…. So diverse, so tasty and organically packaged to last for months. It is misinformation that leads one to believe that eggs should be refrigerated (the egg compartments in a fridge are there to fox you). On the contrary, eggs should in fact be stored at an ambient temperature. Hardy sailors have told us of ploys to extend the life of an egg by sealing the pores in the shell with oil… but we shall continue munching through our mountainous supply until we start crowing (not long, I think).

Pidge, Sue and Garetti

Of course we had ideas of bringing a clutch of our broody bantams with us as the perfect giving travelling companions- feeding us with eggs and finally a roast.This never transpired, but will at some point no doubt.

Scrubbing potatoes

We settle for a couple of wet days amid the mussel farms of Loch Spelve. Adam catches mackerel which is finally fairly abundant around the Scottish islands. The children become pirates and run around and around Lista’s deck and then dive under tables and into bunks in hide and seek. David and I run into the hills and have clear views of Ben More (966m) one of the Scottish Munros and also one of the peaks on the Scottish Islands sailing and running race.

Munros of Skye (the Cuilins)

A Munro must measure at least 3000 ft high or approximately 914 m. ‘Bagging’ a Munro has become an obsession for some people with all 277 being bagged in increasingly short time periods. The ‘Munro’ originated from the early twentieth century gentleman, Sir Hugh Thomas Munro who published a list of qualifying mountains in the Journal of the Scottish Mountaineering Club in 1891.

Tom, Sarah, Adam, Jenny, Ellen and Ben

We trot down the slope through bracken and heather plucking the odd Bilberry. Crashing through bracken we reach a river. With all the recent rain, it is thundering through its canyon of rocks. Forgetting the Duke of Edinburgh and mountaineering diktat, we plunge into it, madly thrashing for the other bank. Completely exhilarated, we jump in again and kick furiously to prevent ourselves from bolting down the river like flotsam.

Elstone

Conifer plantations grow everywhere. We run through one that has been recently planted. It looks like a battle field, where past trees have been felled, with their root balls left jagged on the surface. Huge lines of ditches have been excavated to drain the site. It’s a typical sight of destruction. The plantations completely alter the ecology of an area, plunging it into acidity, changing its hydrology and once the dense canopy has matured shade all but the hardiest of vegetation out. The forest floors are bleak and baron. The canopy might support the odd raptor nest, a goshawk, buzzard, pine martin or red squirrel, but compared to native mixed woodland or the heathland that these plantations have decimated they are moribund.

We sail back to Dunstaffnage and meet a couple who are planning to sail to New Zealand. Their home is the last boat made of Kauri wood in New Zealand in the 1950s. The New Zealand Kauri Kauri australis is a huge native conifer only found in Northland and on the Coromandel Peninsula. Kauris grow to 30m and are believed to attain an age of about 2000 years. They are the fabled giants of New Zealand that tourists flock to see. Unfortunately, they were logged ruthlessly in the past for their valuable timber and dammar resin. Indeed, much of Northland is covered with their fossilized remains.

Washing line

We moor by a huge former Dutch ice breaker. Her bearded owner grabs our ropes and chats about his voyages and passes some newspapers our way. We have become pretty bereft of current affairs and this can only slip further from us as we sail further away.

DL&KL

Fiona, Ross and George arrive. Fiona far to fleetingly and before we know it, at sunlight next day she is running back along the coast to Oban. We sail passed Lismore and into Loch Aline for sunset, plucking mackerel and coley from the waves as we go. That night a line of lanterns drift into the sky, twinkling, one after the other.

Coley

Laterns above Loch Spelve

The Kelly Kettle

The next morning we continue up the Sound of Mull, finally reaching Tobermory. George sleeps inside Ross’ jumper giving him the appearance of an expectant Mother. George is familiar with ‘Ballermory’ from the children’s series and chatters about the characters before jumping onto the dingy with Ross for shore. The buildings are a hotchpotch of bright colours framing the bay. We anchor on the wooded shores.

Ross and his 'bump'

Sound of Mull

I have been to Tobermory before with my friend Tamsin and her father Simon. On that occasion we anchored Lola and rowed ashore for a ceilidh with phosphorescence whizzing from the awes like a thousand shimmering stars. Tam and I then walked across the island passed Highland cattle, bell flowers and pipers before lying on the cliffs above Iona under an azure sky with white sands beneath us. Amazingly, the Isle of Mull lived up to my memories and that night glitter shot out of the loo as I pumped it!

Tobermory

Phosphorescence is an incredible phenomenon which can coat your body in silver as you swim at night or create waves of glitter behind a boat as it moves through the darkness. It is produced by bioluminescent plankton, mostly dinoflagellates. These are tiny single-celled organisms that emit bright flashes of light when disturbed. It is thought that the lights are an anti-predator mechanism, to attract the predators (shrimps and fish) that will prey on the predators (planktonic copepods) attacking the dinoflagellates.

Katharine, Ross (George) & Dave

‘Sex and the City’ has landed at Tobermory. A lorry chugs around the Highlands and Islands ensuring that no one should be bereft of designer shoes and gossip. I missed my fix in Exeter and miss it again in Tobermory. Instead I run up a hill and into a woodland park, wending my way along a trail overlooking the sea and down to Lista.

George

Ross and George leave ‘Ballermory’ on the bus, George showing his ‘hurt’ on his middle finger to the passes by. Apparently, the bus drive back to the ferry is spectacular, winding along lanes looking out to sea and lochs in the sun.

George again

One morning a colossal cruise liner appears and obliterates Tobermorry. These are massive, floating hotels several stories high, an incredible feet of engineering, belching out yellow fumes. They look out of place amongst the wee fishing harbours and intimate inlets of the Scottish islands.

Dave varnishing

Clare, Tobermory

Finally we make our way past the point of Ardnamurchan and can see Rum and Eigg in the distance. We float on the water, sails flapping in the pathetic breeze, Eigg within easy reach, but no wind to carry us there. The oily smell of fish floats on the water and in the distance Dave sees a splash and what looks like part of a minke whale. Minke wales are the smallest baleen whale to be found in the British Isles) and every time I have visited the Inner Hebrides I have seen them.

Sunset over Lista & the mill pond

Another sunset floods the sea and Lista, but this really is stunning, blood red fading into softer hues, with the hazy blue shapes of mountains and islands in the distance. We limp into Muck and anchor.

Muck

15 August

Finally we reach our goal post, Eigg and with our bunting of flags flapping we see Tamsin, Simon, Nick and Tom waiting for us at the Pier. The days fly past. We circumnavigate Eigg, tacking and jibing, seeing the same white bothy for hours. Rum and Eigg’s Sgurr change shape from different angles. A wealth of sea birds fly passed, porpoises flicker out of the waves and then disappear and the fins of a basking shark appear.

Sorry – image not available (Clare & Tom pull in sheets)

Clare & Tom wining winch

Tom has become the first ‘mate’ aboard who Dave has had to ask to stop pulling at a sheet! This is a rare accolade, particularly with Lista’s creaking, heavy, armoury. That night ‘the Irish’ appear and moor by our side. They board Lista with fine malt whiskeys and tales of Ireland and Greenland. We are under their spell and sing sea Shantys with them into the wee hours. The next day they are leaving, wisdom guiding them away from drink soaked days, to the Outer Hebrides. It’s only very occasionally that one meets a kindred sole, we certainly have found one.

Nick on the Eigg circumnavigation

We run up to the Sgurr. For once the curtain of clouds has parted and we see for miles to the Outer Hebrides and over to the mainland mountains. Eigg was once known as ‘Eilean Nimban-More’, Gaelic for island of the big woman, which is apparent on mounting the mighty Sgurr which rises from the south of the island. An Sgurr forms the largest mass of columnar pitchstone lava in Britain. The northern plateau and southern moor are basalt, which have weathered into fertile soils. Cliffs around the northern point are sandstone. Here the famous ‘singing sands’ can be found where dry grains of quartz squeaks under foot

An Sgurr

The islanders, along with the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Highland Council own Eigg. There is primary school, shop, tea rooms and bar, with a community of over seventy people living on the 5000+ acre island. Cattle and sheep graze the pasture and silage is made on the crofts. One islander I spoke to grows a myriad of vegetables under poly tunnels for the shop.

Cleadale

When wondering the tracks and single road that spans the island from Galmisdale to Cleadale we notice that the birds (as on many islands) are fairly tame, that the silage fields are not of the familiar rye grass monoculture but contain a plethora of wildflowers, including yellow rattle and milkworts. A pair of golden eagles are reputed to hold territory on Eigg, but we only saw buzzards dining on worms. Previously, when visiting Eigg in the winter we encountered a ‘fall’ of woodcock; up to a hundred birds descended from the sky into the heather at dusk. I need to find an explanation for this.

The road across Eigg

The wedding is spectacular, with the most magical setting. Clare joins us with a wet skirt (and a handy chat up line) after a dunking when pulling the mooring lines in. She finds us in the morning on the other side of the pier, after her first row of shame!

Clare

Eigg, what a place to have grown up in. You can see how it would breed the wonder lust in the soles that haunt it. Staring out of the kitchen window to sea, wondering what lies beyond the horizon, hushed to sleep at night by the waves sounding like a distant train.

Sorry – image not available (Looking out to sea)

We watch Eigg and our friends recede and collect Anne and Brian from Muck. I make a double batch of savoury and sweet flapjack, not the greatest of achievements, remaining with us in various guises for days.

KL & DL

We sail passed Coll and Tiree, aiming for the west coast of Ireland. A boat sails towards us, we can’t understand why it’s sailing straight for us for goodness sake! Then we see whose aboard, they’re waving, the Irish, returning from the outer Hebrides! We mutually shout, ‘Fair winds’ and they turn and sail into the distance on their own journey.

The Irish

Lista, just before light fades for another night

Fishguard (Wales) to Isle of Jura (Scoland)

It’s 3.30 am and we pull Lista’s anchor from its Fishguard bed and leave Cardigan Bay to slosh up St George’s Channel and the Irish Sea. Contrary to the force 4-5 winds predicted, hardly a breath of wind tickles the sails.

KL and DL gaze into the distance!

Platoons of manx shearwaters, gulls, guillemots and occasional gannets drift passed. Then finally, razor bills, our first sighting since starting our voyage. They are auks, cousins of puffins and guillemots, with broad black bills with a white stripe.

If you were to journey back a hundred years to a peat fire, which you are huddled beside, under a turf roof on a Hebridean island. You might well have found yourself dining on a puffin, a shear water or other such marine bird. They were considered delicious by the local crofters and fisherman and would likely have been easy quarry as they were yanked from the entrance to their burrows as they returned at night to their broods. Sea bird eggs were also highly prized and collected from squawking colonies with the odd meaty squab. Other maritime countries have similar traditions including Norway and New Zealand where ‘mutton birds’ (shearwaters) can still be harvested in controlled numbers.

Puffins fly the waves, by KL

We slip into the night, preferring another night’s watch as the shipping forecast is favourable and the thought of mooring Lista in the dark is not. Clare and I rotate, ‘Three hours on, three hours off’, with David snatching the odd shut-eye on the engine house (like a slumbering dolphin with one eye open).

David on night watch

The ‘shipping forecast’ has taken on a whole new meaning. Previously, Radio 4’s familiar dulcet tones filling the airways had been reassuring, lyrical, but imperceptible. Now the shipping areas are real, the announcements received with gravitas. We hang on each word in case ‘force 8’ or ‘rough’ should make an appearance.

The sea starts to look a little rough

Dave radios the Hollyhead harbour master to inform him that we will not be arriving as previously reported. He replies that, ‘Force 8 and rough seas’, are indeed imminent. Taken off guard, we have no choice but to keep sailing and head for the Isle of Man. Huge ships emerge from the darkness and bare down on us, leaving glinting Merseyside behind for glinting Ireland. The night is wild. Winds howl in Lista’s sails and waves bash her sides. I brace myself against the helm, muscles strained, peering into the crashing darkness, desperate for daybreak to relieve the storm.

By the morning, the sea is a cauldron of frothing waves and certainly not receding. We snatch a glimpse of land before it disappears behind a pea soup of fog. Dave screams orders over the noise of the crashing waves to lower the mainsail and finally the staysail. I swallow back lumps of bile, grabbing madly at sails and then mooring lines, as Lista smashes through the waves. Finally, the break water of Douglas harbour appears out of the gloom and then suddenly calm.

Lista in Douglas Harbour

After some fraught manoeuvres by a platform that was drifting from its mooring by the harbour wall and being pierced in the bulwarks by the tug boat, we negotiated a calmer sight for Lista and squeezed under a bridge and into the main marina.

Shattered after the night’s ordeals, we slide ashore like a trio of dismembered ghosts. The land greets us in a turmoil of its own, rocking at our every footfall. I slink into an internet cafe in an attempt to work, but achieve zilch. Dave finds the chandlery, but with mouth ajar like a goldfish and eyes glazed over, is marched out, ‘Get some sleep and come back later.

So that’s where I find him, back aboard Lista. Miraculously, Clare is buzzing and steps off under the light of the moon in search of a local and her steak and chips fix.

On our brief walkabouts we find that he Isle of Man is in inhabited by a hotch-potch of incomers: the Scottish, Liverpudlian, Yorkshire and Geordie accents are scattered through its streets.

We take to the hills

The next day David and I head for the hills, darting along tracks and up to the cliffs. The wind claws at our hair and the cliffs tumble down to a pewter sea. As we dash through the gorse fields, two choughs alight, pinging words to one another. I haven’t seen one of these Cornish sentinels for at least a year.

Choughs share the corvid family tree, amongst the crows and jackdaws. They are distinctive in having a red, fine, curved beak when adults. They haunt cliffs and mountainous areas, clattering through the air with their mates, sometimes seemingly ‘playing’. Like many of the ‘black birds’ they are best recognized when on high by their sharp, ‘whizzing’ calls.

The thing about choughs is that they disappeared from Cornwall where they had been wide spread before the mid 1900s. A whole Cornish folklore had built up around them and they were even emblazoned on the Cornish flag. They were a symbol of Cornwall’s rugged and spectacular coastline.

The RSPB amongst others were concerned and started to manage the cliffs to ensure that there was available habitat for choughs to survive. Choughs require short turf, grazed by sheep or cattle where they can use their sharp beaks to prize out leather jackets and other invertebrates. Cow pats are particularly useful reservoirs for such fodder. Gradually, the correct grazing regime was created and then, miraculously, one day a wondering chough stopped by! The RSPB suggest that it could have been a French juvenile looking for new habitat to occupy. Since then, the population has increased thanks to specific management by farmers and the work of the RSPB.

Cattle, chough 'gardeners'

Clare and Katharine aboard

We leave the Isle of Man on calm seas and track North, gliding passed fishing villages and remote cliffs under a thousand stars. One morning, we miraculously tune into Radio 4 and the Farming programme heralds Dave’s brother, Ross, chatting about his work in Northumberland. He has been part of a project reintroducing salmon to the River Tyne and providing interpretation for the general public…. It is most extraodinary being transported home through the radio waves aboard the salty waves…

Sound of Isla

I awake to the Sound of Isla and land closely flanking Lista on either side. Perfect winds and a mighty tide swish Lista through the channel at 10.6 knots, her fastest yet. David basks in glory. A whisky refinery reminds us that we are near to the origin of some of Scotland’s finest, smoky malts.

Photographic evidence of Lista's feet!

A flaming sunset streaks across the sky and leaks pink, umber and fiery orange across a Jura sky. The colours recede and expand, morph and consolidate for what appears to be hours. David swears that if you stare at the sun religiously, with unblinking focus, in a completely clear sky, just as it tips over the horizon, a green flash ignites the sky. What does it mean? Did ancient mariners seeing the flash believe their impending doom was sealed? Or perhaps it marks the birth of an incredible being who will change the world……?

Sun set over Jura's islands

A huge, eighty strong flock of oystercatchers wheel above the beech turning from side to side, breaking up and then reforming.

Loch Tarbert

We pull back the hatches to an incredible view of verdant hills, Loch Tarbert lapping at Lista’s petticoats. The oystercatchers have awoken and are in full throttle darting around the beach and shrieking at one another. They are a ubiquitous bird along the UK’s coastlines, whether mud flat, beach or shingly inlet, they are likely to be disturbing the peace. They are part of the ‘waders’ clan with specialised beaks and fairly long legs, including, plovers, avocets and godwits.

Looking back to Listalight on Loch Tarbert

Oystercatchers as their name implies have a beak that is perfectly adapted to hammering and opening such prey as oysters, mussels and cockles. During the summer, you may also find them in upland areas where they will lay their mottled eggs on a scrape by a boulder strewn river.

What we think are boulders are in fact fat seals slumped over on an island enjoying the sun. Rock no.2, Shag Street, is hanged with shags and cormorants, pinning back their wings to dry and taking the odd peck at one another. A single great black backed gull sits like a turkey as their sentinel.

Lista Light

The seals are probably grey seals. We also have common seals in the UK, but contrary to what their name suggests, they are far from common. In the past seals were eaten and their hides and fur used for clothing, as they still are in hunter gatherer tribes in the Arctic. Seals have also suffered from distemper, but the likely most significant threat today is over fishing.

Wildlife of Jura by KL

We jump in the dingy and row to shore. The water is surprisingly opaque for a Scottish Loch. It appears that Jura’s hills are weeping peat which rolls into the streams and out into the salt water. A band of white sand layers against the bracken slopes that abut grey boulder fields, beyond these, the great ‘paps’of Jura loom, like conical volcanoes.

David and I scramble over the hills through streams of clouds, with occasional glimpses back down to Lista Light, alone in the Loch. A forlorn whistle rises from the hillside and we snatch a glimpse of a golden plover. Golden plovers are also waders, nesting in the uplands in bogs, moors and pastures. The male has a spectacular summer plumage with a gold, flecked back and jet black apron. He runs backwards and forward on a ledge calling and bobbing. We saw them last year on Skye and before that in the forest of Bowland. A line of five of the speckled waders fly pass.

Lista through the clouds

Meanwhile, Clare, who chose a lower path to explore the shore of the loch, is warding off the midge fraternity that have descended upon her in a cloud. Puffing roll-ups to keep them at bay she chooses the dingy back rather than contending with the marauders. This is her first run off with the fabled Scottish midge and it’s not a happy one.

Katharine at top Jura

Day two, Dave and I are determined to run up the hills before the mist descends. Clare is still suffering from yesterday’s midge onslaught and chooses the safety of the boat. She is eyeing the brilo pad, anything to stop the frenzied itching.

Dave limbers up for run!

We pick minute ticks from our exposed limbs after thrashing through the bracken. Deer tracks scrawl the hillside providing a myriad of route ways for us to ascend the Jura bean stalk.

We reach top after top, rounding a ridge to find the horizon straddled by red deer. Red deer are indigenous to Scotland and would have been found throughout the UK. Today, very few herds remain in England, Exmoor being one such exception. They are the biggest of our native mammals, forming large herds, in contrast to the diminutive roe deer which are generally solitary. Other species of deer have been introduced to the UK or have escaped from private collections, including: fallow deer, muntjack and Chinese water deer.

Previously, red deer would have been hunted by wolves. Unfortunately, wolves were exterminated in the UK mainly due to conflicts between farmers and their livestock. With no natural predators, red deer populations have burgeoned, with shooting and stalking providing limited local control. The consequence of unchecked increases in deer populations is overgrazing, often reducing deer territories to bracken, mat grass and purple moor grass. Shrubs and trees are nibbled before they have a chance to grow, limiting niches for other species to flourish.

We finally reach the top of a ridge, a myriad of turquoise lochs, lagoons and craggy hills unfold before our eyes.

As we pick our way down the slope to the sea cliffs, a peregrine falcon suddenly swoops up from under our feet. He gains height, then, pushing his wings beside him, forms into an arrow and hurtles over the cliffs, piercing the sky at break neck speeds.

Nearing the beach, we leap into a stream and stick our heads in the pounding waterfall. Cream foam forms at the mossy edges. We float like logs towards the sea, sliding over the algae covered rocks.

Washer woman

David is determined to find razor fish. He has heard how you are able to entice them from their haunts by salting the entrance to their borrows. The slight floor in the proceedings is that he is not entirely sure what their burrows look like!

I bob off to Lista in my holey wet suit. A seal nods at me, but startled by its own bravado, dives deep and disappears. Long fronds of kelp entangle my legs and my ‘white finger’ syndrome takes hold.

Clare has been learning chords on the guitar. We guzzle soup and watch Dabid stalking the strand line for razor shells.

DL 'mixing'!

We clear the decks ready for departure. Nothing has really changed, the seals still laze over one another on the rocks, King gull stands on high, the shags take it in turn to slip into the water and the oystercatchers shuffle across the beach. The only new arrival is a juvenile black guillemot, which I haven’t seen before.

Jura's cormorant colony