The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Some hours in the life of 3000 miles at sea...

So, it's finally come to the point where we must down tools and actually wave goodbye to land for the next month. We look set to head off on Friday, traditionally unlucky for sailors, which is a good start. This 3,000 mile sea leg has always been a big part of our trip and as we look around the boat at fully stowed cupboards, uncharacteristically clean clothes and clear decks it is apparent that there is no turning back. There are some nerves but most of all we just can't wait to get our teeth sunk into it. Despite making consistent progress for the last 3 months we still have the bizarre sensation of being able to fly home by dinner time if we wanted (this has been even more noticeable in the Canaries where we worked out it would be much cheaper to fly home and deliver presents in person than post the 2 parcels destined for the Gee and the Tuppen Christmas trees). When we arrive in Trinidad, hopefully sometime in late January, we will have crossed an ocean powered only by nature, be far enough South to get the swimmers on in mid winter and have entered our 3rd continent. It's an exciting time.

With the fact that we are going to be out of contact for the next 3-5 weeks in mind, we thought it would be good to give you some idea of what we are going to be doing with our time. In a nutshell, both a lot and not a lot...

I would like to say the day starts at 8 in the morning, but the day never really starts or ends. Time ceases to fall into the standard day and night and you begin living the rolling cycle of watches. I suppose we need to take an example. It's 3am. Someone calls Hol from out of her half sleep and she bolts upright ready to head up into the night. She is crawling out of the bunk next to me and into her wet weather gear, hat and head torch. As she transmogrifies into a passable likeness of Ellen MacArthur, I luxuriate in the extra space and warmth of bed. With the water crashing around the hull and the boat pitching continually beneath you, sleep remains elusive. All too soon after just a few snatches of dreamfilled sleep, I then see the tip of Hol's nose illuminated beneath the halogen glow of her head torch. It's 5am and she is summoning me onto deck. I stumble out and we fumble like moles passing in too narrow tunnel as i squeeze past her into the cold. Hol crawls back into the warmed bed. The brief exchange of information tells me there have been a few squalls coming through but nothing serious and we are yet to land the tuna we've been discussing and salivating over since fresh meat ran out a week ago.

It's then up through the galley and onto deck. The wind whips through the rigging and instantly wakes you as your eyes struggle to shake off sleep and focus in the gloom. You clip on and make your way to the exposed helm and park yourself. Checking speed shows a good 6 knots and sails full. You then assess the sea and the sky (incidentally all there is to assess) to see what the next 2 hours has in store for you. A couple of patches of cloud off in the distance with the odd flash of lightning, but nothing that´s going to reach us soon. An uncovered moon giving off a surprisingly comforting amount of light, the odd planet shimmering above the horizon and waves crashing gently every now and again. Sometimes the 2 or 3 hours of watch pass quickly as shooting stars streak overhead, your mind is awash with some thought from earlier or, if the weather allows, you dip in and out of a book. Other times you keep looking to your wrist as the minutes creep round reluctantly and you can think of nothing but bed. The best watches are sunrises and sunsets. You begin to appreciate the subtle differences in mood and light between the two. The moment the sun dips at sunset night begins, but night doesn't end with such definition. From the wonderful moment you realise the thick black is being oh so slowly lightened and diluted the day has begun. You may still have an hour before the sun shows itself on the horizon, but from that moment all the optimism, warmth and excitement floods into you. The fact that you may head straight down to bed as the day stretches itself across the sky seems alien to begin with, but it soon becomes clear that you need to sleep when you can if you are to avoid exhaustion and retain the enjoyment of the crossing. You rouse the next person from sleep as they take the first of the daylight shifts.

It is most likely 6 to 8 hours until your next shift. After as much sleep as you feel like you make your way onto deck. Your time off watch in the day can be filled with a huge array of things, but often nothing. Depending on your mood you can choose to escape to the rolling fecundity of Hardy's Wessex or maybe plunge into the roaring gales of the southern ocean with grand accounts of bygone nautical exploits. However, with the rolling watches and the tiredness it brings reaching double figures in pages read is a challenge rarely met. Hol is looking forward to test her theory that she can simply sit on deck, stare into the waves and sky and think for an indefinite amount of time; the results of which I'm a little nervous about.

Fishing is always a possible diversion. It also remains continual and fruitless. Despite infinite discussions with all and sundry we have met along the way (as well as the purchase of some nu-rave squid lures), we have turned up nothing. The elusive ingredient of luck appears to be absent from the fine blend of speed, depth, lure and line. This doesn't stop us fingering the lines knowingly every now and then and looking into the middle distance. The only thing caught tends to be the eye of the last person who felt the line who is secretly hoping they won't have just missed pulling up a monster.

Being an old boat there are always things to be tinkered with. The fact that you are sailing constantly for 24 hours a day means you are aging the boat much faster than most boats ever experience. In one day the amount of wear and tear on lines and sails is about the same as you would get in a a month or so of use by a regular weekend sailor. This means a close eye has to be run over everything and running repairs are inevitable. The old nautical adage of “a place for everything, everything in it's place” rings true on board as the constant movement of the boat means if it isn't stowed, stacked or tied then it is sure to entwine itself around you just when something goes wrong.

Food inevitably remains a focus for the passing of the hours. We take it in turns to be mum for a day (no feminism here I'm afraid) making meals for as long as you can stomach it below and washing up in a salt water filled bucket on deck. Depending on where your watch falls that day you may be woken by the smell of hot porridge coated in golden syrup, fresh bread or pasta and soup wafting into your cabin calling you up to feed. Feeding is important to everyone on the boat and food tends to consume about 60% of our conversation. Consequently we try and eat one meal all together up on deck at least once a day. In between meals the deck is regularly crossed with snacks of dried fruit, nuts, biscuits, crackers, occasional chocolate, crisps and even cake if someone is feeling generous. Hunger is the enemy that can bring on sea sicknesses and so must be suppressed at all times. Washing it all down with ginger teas, fresh coffee and hot chocolates all conspires to mean the usual upside of getting thinner on passage is one benefit lost on Lista.

Maybe we will be a little bit wiser by the time we touch land in 2009. Maybe we will erase all good things learnt by a huge rum fuelled bender on arrival. Whatever happens we will have completed the biggest challenge of the trip so far and be a good chunk of the way round the world!
Wishing everyone a joy filled festive season and look forward to catching up on the other side of the pond. If you would like a less Gee and Tups sided account of our sailing adventures so far then check out Dave and Kat's online log at
P.S. This is joint blogging for those who think Nick is scared of the dark and Hol is growing a beard

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas photos for one and all

With only a few days before setting off for the big push across the Atlantic we come to the final and most important of the preparations... spending many torrid hours sat listening to 80´s classics like Total Eclipse of the Heart uploading photos.

The latest lots of Moroccan chicken love, seasickness and local nudity can all be found here.


There is a slideshow option as well if you want to see my straggly beard in all its high definition glory.
Big love

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Feral Man of La Graciosa

I would like to think that Hol and I are now in the swing of meeting some fairly odd people. However, this last week has raised the bar. We should have known that an island in the middle of the Atlantic with a population of only a few hundred might hold some unique people and we were not to be disappointed.

La Graciosa is only a few miles long, has 3 volcanoes, and excluding the small nudist colony at the top end, has one small town. This contains only a handful of houses, a few shops and bars and a tiny port with a daily ferry to Lanzarote. The only roads are sand and within a day it became clear that the gene pool was more paddling size than Olympic. The locals are identifiable from the few surfers, sailors and artists that stray this far up the island chain by their standard issue head-ware of the upside down flower pot straw hat. This is twinned with jelly shoes and usually a sprinkling of tight denim. This look is modeled by both the menfolk and their wives/sisters(?) and the absence of any work really going on makes you realise that these guys have no problem with doing things the way they want.

After the dry spell in Morocco we felt spending some quality time at the local bar would be a good place to get our bearings. From silver foxes (still in jelly shoes) to a token busty serving wench, the full cast of the island floats through to pass the time of day. The best night there was when a couple of French neighbours in the harbour heard Dan playing his fiddle on the back of the boat and came over with treble saxophone, accordion and a guitar wielding Argentinian. Unfortunately true to national stereotype we explained we were off to the pub, but suggested they come along for a 'Jam'. Now I should explain here that the thought of sitting with 4 bearded musicians in sandals and woven trousers tapping my foot along in an attempt to look like i'm down with the beats makes me shiver. I feared i would be exposed as a fraud as quickly as if I went to a 50 Cent concert in a linen suit and panama hat. However, I needn't have worried. When the music began, the whole of the island came out to watch. Like rabbits being tempted out of burrows the men folk came first before ringing their lady partners to come and listen. Soon we had half the town sat round clapping and drinking with us. It peaked when, egged on by the fact we drunk the bar out of Dorada beer, Dorada Especials and were running low on Tropicalo, a small man with a face like a weathered peanut whipped out his ukulele. He soon started bashing out the island classics with the others playing along with him. It was an amazing moment and even got one guy so excited he grabbed a guitar even though he couldn't play it and he just stood in with all the musicians waving it around. Returning to the boat at 5am we were invited by a separate group of mental Frenchman back to there boat for some food. With the beery breath of a horny Frenchman washing over us we began to feel like this may have been a loaded invitation. We politely explained we were going back to eat tepid baked beans and sliced white bread and this most British of gastronomic offerings seemed to make them back off somewhat.

But that night was nothing in comparison to some other gems of the isle. 'Madame Rosa's' internet cafe held a surprise when we found Madame Rosa was actually a large 'senor'. Then there is the local boy who rides around on a quad bike staring at us from around 5 yards away. But perhaps most of all we have been alternately scared and entertained by the feral man of La Graciosa.

A couple of days in, just a few minutes after the guy with his mouth hanging open had stopped watching us from his quad bike, we were confronted with someone altogether 'different'. It really shouldn't be alarming when a middle aged Spanish man with saggy boobs comes up to your table in an empty seaside bar. If he is only wearing a threadbare pair of shorts and a coral necklace, sure it might be a bit weird, but what the hey. If he proceeds to stare a you whilst panting and sniffing like a dog... OK, granted it's a little freaky. If then, whilst still holding your gaze with feverish canine attention, he proceeds to wipe out the inside of an ashtray with his hand, sniff it a few times and then with a grunt steal your recently finished pack of sour cream and onion Pringles... then and only then can you assume it is very, very odd. The whole episode only took about 30 seconds, but afterwards we were glad to add the 'Feral man of La Graciosa' to the growing cast of unusual characters we have encountered so far. Thinking we may have only caught a glimpse of this man who dwells in the interior of the island, we realised he just sits around for most of the day by the town beach in the middle of the old boats pretending to swim face down in the sand. It was becoming clear he is very much a known fixture of the town, but people just carry on around him. We thought this was great. We did slightly question it though when we walked past a couple of kids playing on the beach within a stones throw of feral man sat rocking on his bum with his old fella hanging out. It seems that the island has a self regulating way of dealing with things like this which is commendable... i think.

We head off tomorrow after working on the boat for the last week. We have a rough date of departing on the crossing of the 15th December which means Christmas and New Year at sea. We are in good stead though after Kat made an advent calendar for which we all contribute treats. This was going well with various sweets etc popping up, but took a turn for the worst when Dave opened today's to find a picture of a stick man involving himself with a sheep. As Dan was out last night with the horny French crew and has yet to return we are a little worried with his offering, but we're sure there is an explanation. At least i really hope there is.

Hope everyone is well in the run up to Christmas. Talk is increasingly turning to festive food on the boat and relying on our fishing skills for our 'turkey' means we are most likely to be snacking on an old mackerel head. Oh well, living the dream.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My first solo night watch

About a week ago I headed out from the safety and warmth of my cabin into the depths of the night to watch over our boat on my own. All I had to do was sit at the helm looking out for boats and making sure that the sails kept full of wind. Its pretty simple stuff. Nonetheless a pang of fear hung over me and suddenly heading out there felt very similar to edging towards the darkest depths of the back garden in the middle of the night when I was 7. However much you tell yourself its the same as that garden you played in during the daytime, there's no fighting against your imagination creating a different world. Suddenly the back shed is a den of goblins, those trees are alive and waiting to gobble you up, the grass is full of snakes, the bushes hiding giant human eating spiders and in those dark corners hidden away from the moonlight are witches waiting to use your blood for their potions.

Similarly, for those first few minutes(1) of lonely darkness at the helm, Lista became a perilous vessel, vulnerable to potential attack from all sides. Those creaks and groans of Lista´s beamy frame that we have come to love took on a whole new world. Before I knew it I had worked myself up into a frensy of childish fear. Whales were surely trying to mate with the boat from below, the tiny fish following us all day had now attracted the attention of sharks that were trying to eat their way through the propeller, a seaweed laden half man, half monster was going to climb up and pull us all down into his ocean kingdom at any moment, hidden rocks were waiting to ship wreck us everywhere and that tidal wave was definitely on its way. But despite your mind, once you've committed to doing it there's no going back. However strong the temptation to crawl back to safety is, turning around would be giving in to your inner wimp and who knows what would follow once that had happened.

I personally have a pretty large amount of wimp going on. Until about 4 years old I failed to leave the safety of clinging to my mothers legs wherever we went. At 8 years old I was still crying about being left at school. I am still secretly pretty scared whenever I am left alone in the dark. This little trip around the world is my way of fighting against my inner wimp. I have been trying to suppress it for years. I figure heading out into the wilderness of the ocean, foreign cities, tribal settlements, up mountains, across deserts, down rivers and the likes would help me rid of it for good. In fact I fear that by subjecting my wimpiness to all this bravery is merely bringing it to the surface over and over again. Never before have I been so aware of being a scaredy cat. At least once I have achieved all these 'daring' feats I can justifiably crawl into a little haven of safety for the rest of my life. Well... maybe. We'll see.

Since completing a 5 day, 400 mile, vomit ridden, wildlife full hop into the Atlantic we have been soaking up some sun on Isla Graciosa in The Canaries. The island has a population of 600 people, 500 straw hats, 300 land rovers, 20 nudists and 3 volcanoes. It is also apparently a hot spot for pilot whales, but sadly we have found nothing other than small fry. The quest for mega fauna continues.

(1) The joys of the wilderness of the ocean, where the phosphorescence below you is as bright as the stars above, soon kicks in and fear is replaced with peaceful contemplation.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An African interlude

Our first glimpse of Africa was a big orange haze hovering in an otherwise black horizon. It was 4am and we were flopping around in a dead calm sea waiting for daybreak before we hit the ignition and faced whatever Morocco had to throw at us. We still had another two and a half hours to wait before the sun blessed us with light. Suspense and anticipation was high. That fuzz of light in the distance was Africa and we had made it here with almost nothing but our own sweat and toil. For the last 4 days we had known nothing but our bubble of a wooden boat bobbing about in a big blue sea. In a few hours time we would be in a completely different world as our bubble collides with foreign lands. No frantic packing of bags, queues, flashing lights on boards, flight numbers, tickets, passport checks, announcements or conveyor belts in sight. We just rocked up in Africa, completely unannounced and unexpected. Drifting into somewhere by boat is the closest you can get to making the world a bigger place again. The simplicity and calmness of it feels ancient. As the sun crept up and we crawled closer and closer to land the more foreign we became. Each step towards to shore is a little bit further from your comfort zone and a little bit closer to an unknown world. First you see a nondescript coastline but bit by bit the detail comes through; a town, buildings, a port, crumbling walls, human smells, mosques, fishing boats, birds, the sound of engines running, fishermen shouting. After a long stint of seeing little other than different forms of blue the stimulation is overwhelming and your mind spins with what you are about to experience. With no sterile airport, transfers, motorways or tourists to buffer your entrance a feeling of vulnerability runs high and suddenly the world is huge.

As it happened our arrival in El Jadida was remarkably smooth. Given the number of fishing boats we have seen smashing into each other since, it might have been the smoothest mooring this port has ever seen. El Jadida port is closed from sea and so it wasn't until we were 20m from concrete that we had any idea where we were or what to expect. As we turned into the enclosed walls there was a space of little more than 10 minutes in which we all dropped jaw, gasped with awe at everything we saw, received numerous directions about where to go, doubted help from shore, trusted it, put some lines together, got some fenders out, attracted a 20 plus man crowd and secured ourselves to land.

And so we arrived in Africa, right bang in the heart of a Moroccan fishing port. Twenty four hours a day this port is an explosion of activity. The coming and going of everything from 90 to 10 foot wooden fishing boats never stops. They plough in or out of port, overflowing with more nets, crates, fish, fumes and men than seems possible, regardless of what other boats are moored up to them, in their way or who is about to get crushed. The local sailing and windsurfing club operates in the same (rather small) space and regardless of wind conditions. Often at midday we look onto a gaggle of kids or an overweight parent frantically try to jibe their lasers or windsurfs to avoid an oncoming fishing boat, seagull attack or anything else that might cause them to topple into the faeces and fish gut filled water. And that is all just on the water. The surrounding port is also home to the fish market, the dry docks, conspicuous looking warehouses, the local midget, a bonfire, most of the population when they don't have anything else to do, some confused egrets, a thousand or so cocky seagulls, an infestation of scrounging cats and a bunch of bored officials. Lista has been happily bobbing amongst it all for a week and so we have lived, breathed, smelt, ate and slept the life of El Jadida with little respite.

From the port we wondered into the town, thinking that we must have arrived in the hub and so perhaps there was little else to see. How wrong we were. The port is considerably organised compared to the torrent of activity onshore. The hecticness of this land smacks you in the face everywhere you turn. There is no time for structure or organisation here, everyones too busy buying, selling, mending, making, discussing or playing something. Why would you waste your time contemplating the most efficient way to do something when you could just get on with it? Everyone here goes about their business as they see best, without the input of consultants, instruction manuals or experts. Its how England would look if it was built solely on the back of suburban Sunday DIY experiments. The garden shed approach to life. Grow some stuff, load it up on a cart, take it into town, sprawl it in front of people and wait there until they buy it for a price that works for you and works for them. Make a hole in the town wall, heat it up, bake some bread in it and wait for people to buy it. Breed some animals, throw them in a van, bring them down to town, bring a slaughtering kit and some scales and wait for the demand to flood in. Catch some fish, bring them into port, wait for people to gather around your boat and barter for your goods or just eat them there and then. The same approach goes for everything; nuts, seeds, cakes, bread, meats, eggs, popcorn, tea, tins, fruit, veg, fish, cloth, wood, bikes, cooking appliances, adidas tracksuits, pants, socks, CDs, TVs, towels, books, toilet brushes, beds, sofas, coffee and the list could go on. Pretty much anything you could ever want will be piled up in front of you for your taking within a 100m sq of the middle of town. No space is spared for the convenience of the buyer. Each man is selling his stuff regardless of the man next door. Nothing is masked behind plastic, on shelves, through bar codes, queues, systems, calories or e numbers. Everything is presented and bought the only way its ever looked.

As we become more and more accustomed to shopping in this hodge podge of goods our systems at home seem increasingly ridiculous. Somewhere miles away someone breeds about a million chickens, somehow they get killed, someone builds a massive factory so the meat can be cut up and packaged, it travels some more miles to get to a massive store in the middle of nowhere, someone puts a load of information on a label that means something but no ones really sure what, someone in a big office somewhere dictates its price and then we pick it up, put it in a plastic bag and probably drive for a good 20 minutes to get it home. We must have gotten really bored at some point to spend the time thinking that one up.

This raw approach to life expands far beyond the overflowing limits of the market. A trip to the local Hamman presented washing in an entirely new light. It was initially traumatic, as I strutted in butt naked to be welcomed by a room full of women of all sizes scrubbing their bits and staring at me as if they had never seen something so pink before. However once eyes turned away and I found a corner to hide away in it was an incredible experience and I was rather envious of this cultural and social naked time. Everyone needs to wash so why not do it with all your friends and family in a tiled room filled with steam and buckets of hot water? And so the simplicity continues. If people want tea then they will sit on the floor and drink some tea, if kids want to play football on main roads the cars will have to avoid them, if you need to whizz your motorbike across a pavement at full speed then go for it or if you need to pray on the spot then whip out a rug and get on with it. Life is for the taking so what are we waiting for?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Nick and Hol's guide to sailing: Part 1

Sailing... turns out that can be quite tricky. When we signed up I must admit to a hint of overconfidence. I had won Stoke Gabriel sailing school topper racing trophy (when I was 9), and had spent 10 days on a mysteriously discounted tall ship sailing course in the Canaries. I did learn a lot on this course, but this was because the other 50 or so crew were inner city young offenders from Manchester. 'Watch keeping' skills took on a different meaning when things started going missing from people's bunks and people got kicked off the boat for beating the crap out of each other. Other than that and a day skipper course, I have to confess that it had been more a case of double G&Ts with a twist of sailing. Lista has been a very different experience. Tougher in some ways that I think Hol and I had expected.

We had learned all the practical elements of sailing from our Day Skipper courses this summer, but being in a crew of 5 on a passage is very different in the way you never... ever stop. Our last hop of only 3 nights down to El Jadida in Morocco was our first proper experience and we were just hit by how tiring it can be. You aren't tired from obvious physical exertion, but you are constantly out of your natural land based environment.

You don't sleep properly. You are on watch for 2-4 hours once or twice a night and then again during the day. This means you could be on from 9-12 at night and then up for the 6am sunrise shift. Add to this the way you would be helping out set sails and umpteen other things during the day means you don't get the luxury of the rhythm of night and day we are used to on land. On top of this your sleep is never that good when the boat is rolling through the best part of 50 degrees in the swell knocking my elbow into Hol's face every 4 seconds. With the masts and cleats creaking, slapping and groaning just above your head and the Atlantic washing past your nose separated by 4 or so inches of 80 year old wood sleep becomes brief and snatched where possible. You end up being in a daze the whole time and if you happen to be feeling seasick which all of us have been afflicted by, then you have to imagine doing it all with a steaming hangover. Perhaps the lowest point for me was being 'mum' which involves cooking and cleaning for the day. You rapidly learn that being below decks in a rough sea is akin to skydiving with a hanky instead of a parachute. Fine for about 30 seconds before you realise you are in serious trouble. Preparing canned bratwurst and onion gravy only to feel so rough as to not be able to eat it is just mean.

It also turns out it can be pretty scary. When Hol and I are on watch and everyone else is in bed we're entrusted with their lives for the next 4 hours and if you mess up then it's bad. One moment that really brought this home was coming across shipping lanes off Rabat at 3 in the morning and having ENORMOUS tankers steaming either side of you as you flap around without any wind. 3 lights are all you have to go on and distance becomes almost impossible to judge in the blackness. All you can be sure of is that 10,000 tons of 'abibos' trainers wrapped in Chinese steel wins vs. 18 tons of wood in mid Atlantic top trumps. Weather also becomes very real. When Hol and I were on our first watch and a lightning filled squall came across the wind suddenly doubled. We were sat there in the middle of the night in the pissing rain clipped on to deck with lightning flashing around us pondering what to do. You think the boat can handle it, but you would feel a bit embarrassed sat in the life raft with the rest of the crew staring at you after you just watched it all happen loosening only your bowels instead of any ropes. However, it would also be distinctly un-impressive to take all the sails down at the first hint of serious wind. As it was we rode it out with a little tweaking of sails and unclenched our buttocks about 40 minutes later.

That said, the upsides are incredible. Sailing with a strong breeze through a night sky with stars touching the horizon and phosphorescence swirling beneath. The sunsets and sunrises, the fresh air and also the wildlife. Already we've had dolphins visiting as well as birds hitching rides on the rigging. Turtle fly-bys (as well as some turtle head fly bys from the direct flush mechanism of the loos), and even some fin whales just before we came on board. Moments like this make you forget you can't move from the confines of the 14m length of the boat, you have uneaten your dinner and haven't washed or even changed pants for the best part of a week. It's a real mix, but the people make it all the better. The more we get to know Dave, Kat and Dan the more fun it becomes. Today I found out that Dan lived in a tent on a roof in Dalston for a year to avoid paying rent. I also learned how to make amazing fresh bread from Kat. We also found out that Dave has the patience of saint. He came on deck as we approached El Jadida when Hol were on watch. We were busy away from the wheel making fine and delicate changes to squeeze as much speed from Lista as we could, Dave said well done before politely pointing out that unfortunately we were pointing 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

However, we have now arrived in Morocco and for the first time it feels like we are far from home. Key indicators are 1. you can have a huge feast for 5 people with as much fresh calamari, sardines and conger eel as you could want for under a tenner. 2. There are stalls selling fluorescent orange pants with things like 'homo' or 'man sport' on them 3. You buy your chicken when it can still look you in the eye. It feels great to be here and in continent number 2.

For more info on the boat you can check out which is Dave and Kat's site with more pictures, info on the boat and log and stuff. It's a bonanza.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

One 1930s fishing boat, six wandering souls and lots of semi useful frippery

Let me introduce you to Lista Light. She's a 55ft broad old girl with 7 magnificent red and white sails when fully clothed. The toll of 73 years means she is slightly faded and crumbling in places but nothing that isn't carried gracefully through wisdom and sturdiness. Having finished her days ploughing the North Sea for fish, Lista has spent her retirement more leisurely rolling and creaking around the world. You get the impression all this exploring is old news to Lista. She's seen it all before. However she remains loyal to those that have taken her in over the years, carrying them as best as she can on their adventures of a lifetime. We are fortunate enough to have jumped on board for one such adventure. Lista is now our home and vessel until we hit the warmer waters of the Caribbean for a sun drenched Christmas.

It initially felt like a large leap onto Lista. After cycling and walking for 6 weeks, living solely by our own agenda and desires, the thought of living by someone else's was rather daunting. Not only were we giving over our control of where we go when, but we were also being plunged into living with people we had only ever met for a couple of hours before. And this is not just house share living, this is boat living where you breath, eat, discuss, debate, sweat, vomit, sleep and the rest on top of each other all day and night. We can't deny that as we trundled out of Lisbon center to find our new home, the excitement at getting out onto the seas was slightly muffled by an edge of apprehension. A feeling not helped by the two and half hours it took us to find Lista, who was waiting for us 'a few' miles down river. How hard can it be to find a boat in the dark just outside a major shipping city and its many marinas? Quite hard. Enthusiasm for the next leg of the trip waned as darkness fell and we went back and forth on various trains, buses and trams, trekked through industrial fishing ports. boat yards, over motorways, down deserted railways and scrub land and still there was no mast or anchor light in sight. Whilst starring hopelessly out at sea on the edge of a motorway at 10pm last Monday night it felt like maybe it wasn't meant to be. But thank god it was! By 11pm we were tucked up in our new bed and sleep renewed excitable anticipation about what the next couple of months held in store.
10 days in and any worries we had about getting on board have been shrugged off. We can't believe our luck at having found such a perfect way to hop across the Atlantic. Lista and all her inhabitants offer the sailing equivalent a small commune in a rustic crumbling old farm cottage in the middle of Devon. A thankful far cry from a shiny plastic super yacht speeding across to the Caribbean more with the spirit of necessity than exploration. Any fears about the insular nature of living on board have been dashed by the joy of its simplicity. No dealings with money, time or communications as days and nights are dictated purely by the weather and the sea. Nor is boredom a worry with shared cooking, cleaning, lots of eating, a bookcase big enough to keep us entertained and educated for a year on board, a band of musical instruments, arts and crafts, fresh fish in the sea to be caught, dolphins, sea birds, stars, sheets and sails to be mended, stowed, put up, taken down and endless knots to be learned. We are also soon to start some evening skill exchange courses and baking sessions to keep brains and bellies equally well challenged.
There is no doubt that Lista's cottage like, self sufficient and adventure loving character is helped along by her latest carers and crew. At the moment there are 6 of us on board, all pursuing our own mini adventures, running to some things and away from others, but either way all doing exactly what we want to be doing right now. Dave and Kat bought Lista in February to pursue their own dream of an eco friendly, bird surveying and sailing adventure over to the Caribbean and South America where they might stop for a while if they fancy. Not a moment of time or a watt energy is wasted by these two who have rigged Lista up with every renewable energy source possible, use the engine only if essential, jump into every physical challenge going and write, fix, tinker and paint away the evenings. And then there's the crew. Claire, the surfer-motorcross-motorboat Cornish chick has been on Lista since July and is soon heading off. We were rather dramatically introduced to her tough shell on our first day sail when she hauled herself up the shrouds only to lose balance at the top and fall 20 feet onto an unsuspecting starboard light. Anyone else might run for shore at nearly having their leg ripped off. Claire laughed and lit up a fag. Dan, the Dorset and Dalston residing, stylised mustache wearing nurse was the next to join the merry band of explorers. He has brought his own chilled out faff loving tendencies to the boat through violin recitals, numerous failed fishing exploits, knot experiments, hammock constructing, star navigating and general enthusiasm for anything that can be tinkered with. Nick and I are the latest editions but who knows who else might turn up and jump on board before we head across the Atlantic. In true communal spirit you get the impression Lista could pull new vagabonds into her clutches at any time.
Yesterday we sailed around Cabo Sao Vincente, the South Westerly tip of Portugal and Europe. Quite a moment as we looked up at the fort and lighthouse and then out towards the Atlantic, contemplating leaving our continent for big seas and more foreign lands. Before we head West though we are set to continue South for a gradual supplying and stocking of the boat. In three days time we will be in Morocco to pick up some spices and dried fruit, then to the The Canaries for volcano trekking and finally Cape Verde to pick up a hopefully prolifically egg producing chicken before sailing due West for 2100 miles to Trinidad.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Spiritual deserts in Northern Spain

The cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain is believed to be the final resting place of the apostle Saint James. After being beheaded by Herod in 42 AD for spending too much time with Jesus he was immediately martyred, and his followers brought his body back to western Spain from Jerusalem. The final leg of this route has now become the most popular Christian pilgrimage in the world. 74,000 people walk it on average a year and numbers have gone up ten fold since 1987 when the route and it's 1,800+ historical buildings was recognised as the first European Cultural Itinerary. We decided to try and use this route as part of our trip as it seemed a great way of seeing rural Spain and heading further west. We would be following a simple and well marked route that was made all the more intriguing having been trodden by hundreds of thousands of men and women in past centuries as they sought forgiveness, enlightenment or something along those lines.

The common route (Camino Frances) is 31 days or so of solid walking and around 800km long. We only had a week due to commitments with the boat, but we set off to equipped with our Practical and Mystical guide to the Camino braced for faith. What we found was a little different.
The most common start-point for the Camino Frances is in St Jean Pied de Port. Hol and I went to register as péregrinos and were not that surprised to find the mix of people in the pilgrim welcome office a touch eclectic. Registration involves getting a passport for the journey which allows you to take advantage of pilgrim hospitality along the way. At first we felt a little uneasy as the volunteer behind the desk described the criteria for acceptance. As a relatively assured atheist, signing a document saying the walk would be done as a Christian pilgrimage seemed wrong. In my head I justified it as a journey of potential discovery. If there was a God then this was the time for him to pipe up and get in touch with me. I would be all reflective and open to it for the walk and maybe it would change me.
This hope was dispelled pretty quickly when the day to day nature of the Camino kicked in. The pilgrim hostels avoid over-crowding of the very cheap accommodation (between €3 and €7 a night) by having a 10pm 'in bed, lights out, silence' rule and an 'everyone out by 8am the next morning' rule. In principle I agreed with this as a way of stripping away too many freeloaders and providing some kind of routine for prayer/reflection etc. However, the effect this had was just to spill everyone onto the path at almost exactly the same time each day. Instead of sweeping beautiful spaces and empty plains to free your mind, you find yourself with sandwiched in with the same group of people all day every day.
Our group involved a French female ex-body builder who often wore the remains of the breakfast margarine smeared across her face from hastening to beat the morning rush. Then there was the bald headed and side burned female monk, the silent y-front sporting Jesus look-a-like and a coke snorting, skateboarding Italian student. At dinner Peter the art therapist kept us informed of pay disputes in the German care community whilst various Dutch men scouted around for ladies, and there was the omnipresent trio of Gallic hikers who steamed up the hills tripping at your heels only to stop at the top blocking your path to down some 'rescue remedy' (brandy), remove 8 layers of clothing or adjust their suede cowboy hats. How different my memory of the Camino would have been had we walked just a day later or earlier. The 2nd day was the hardest because we weren't prepared for weaving in and out of this menagerie of fellow walkers. The previous day's incredible solitude over the mountain passes of the Pyrenees, afforded by a late start from our hotel, had vanished as we were swept along by the other pilgrims. Instead of being able to creep within 10m or so of magnificent Griffon vultures we were 10cm from the sweating ass crack of the person in front.

Whilst our fellow pilgrims did provide entertainment for the long days, we hatched a plan for later in the week which involved sitting in the town squares drinking coffees and strapping up blisters for a couple of hours after hostel kick out time. This way the masses were ahead of us and we could take in the land in its deserted form. It also meant we got to indulge in breakfast every day which was not too tricky since Spanish pastries are arguably equals to their French cousins. My favourite became known as the 'chocolate butt trumpet' (i'm not sure if this is the correct translation). It is basically a pain au chocolat in the shape of a horn with about two dairy milks worth of chocolate in the middle and then one end dipped in more chocolate. Amazing.
This shift in timing meant that after three days of nursing blisters, aches and claustrophobia we did begin to find a rhythm to the days. With clear tracks and acclimatising bodies we started to take in the land we were passing through.

The main thing that struck us was the speed with which it felt very Spanish after crossing the mountains. The classic dry and dusty colours of the plains quickly took over from the autumnal high mountain greens, and as the steepness fell the hills began to roll out for miles in front of us. It strikes you how open and deserted this part of Spain is. Sometimes the views we took in when turning into a valley or looking out from the top of a ridge could have been those of 1,000 years ago. Ruined old farm shacks, power cables faded in the haze and roman roads lined with citrus and olive trees stretching ut to a distant church spire. It is these extraordinary moments as you stop and soak it up with chorizo and cheese sandwich in hand that make the Camino special.
Maybe we should have expected something altogether more secular when we signed up. The latest figures show the number of practicing Catholics in Spain (one of the more devout countries in Europe) to be at just 20% and declining. The fact that the number of 'pilgrims' has shot up so much would seem to be at odds with this and would suggest that people are no longer doing the walk for religious reasons. But nonetheless others we spoke to also seemed disillusioned about the lack of spirituality along the route. The majority of people seem to do the walk to partake in something of another age. It represents a different speed and challenges their lives and priorities a little.
Hearing this from others began to make me understand a bit more why it is so popular. The history is the appeal for many when instead I had looked for space for contemplation. The numbers of people even in the quieter months such as October mean it rarely feels like a time for reflection. You are jostled and hustled in the hostels, you are wedged next to strangers at dinnertimes and the route is laid in front of you like tram tracks you can't stray from. I feel the mystical awakening promised in our 'guide' would be more easily achieved by carving out your own walking route somewhere in the world. But what the Camino has is history. Although we did only the first quarter of the route we felt glimpses of what the Camino really is and also what it once may have been. Something pulls you to the Camino and I can't deny that I don't want to finish it one day. The scenery is breathtaking at times and the fatigue of walking 7 hours a day means you begin to feel just a glimpse of what it must have been like for these people who walked with nothing but a gourd, cape and their belief a thousand years ago.

There was a strange sense of leaving unfinished business with everyone else having 24 days still to go, but it isn't something I envy them doing. In the middle ages the rich would pay their servants to walk the Camino for them in order to buy their way into heaven. I didn't see a single person pray in the week we walked yet all were happy to sleep in the hostels and take advantage of the Christian charity. I fear those claiming the resurgence in the Camino signals a spiritual awakening may be deceiving themselves, but it remains a spectacular route if you don't mind a couple of extra coffees and pastries in the morning.

Camino facts:
6-7 hours a day on the road
160km walked in total
Fuel: chorizo 3 meals a day with occasional pastries, chocolate and red wine on the side
Ailments: 5 blisters, 10 aching muscles and 90,000 bed bug bites
Drink of the stage: Draught vermouth

We are now in Lisbon with Hol's mum and sister awaiting the arrival of Lista light in a couple of hours. Wet weather gear and lifejackets are laid out for the next leg down to Morocco, Canaries, Cape Verde and CARRIBBEAN!!! We spent yesterday in Lisbon's Santa Maria hospital waiting 3 hours for Hol to be diagnosed with an allergic reaction to bed bugs. This is apparently not surprising as there is an infestation that is currently afflicting the Camino, which the Spanish government is trying to sort out. Funnily enough there was no warning on the route at all. Biblical plague probably not, but it could be enough to bring the Camino back to hardcore pilgrims if it is not controlled. Tiny hostels are one thing, but a guaranteed bed bug attack is in a different league. Hmmm, maybe a sign from God...?