The planned route (Click to enlarge)

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.