Author Archives: Patrick

A pinch of pride

dead-flying-fishSeventeen days at sea is, to be honest, a little more pleasant to contemplate once safely ensconced in a beach side bar with a good meal and a few rum punches under your belt. To be even more honest, there were times over the past two weeks when both Leonie and I had cause to seriously question our sanity. Why exactly do we do these things? One view would be that the trip consisted of endless days of four hour watches spent gripping the tiller or wheel while spray flings across the cockpit and a progression of broken equipment proceeds to clatter, gurgle, clang, beep or persists in moody silence while you bang, tap, dismember or re-wire it in a vain attempt to produce a crackle of static.

grenada-flagExamples of various misadventures suffered during our voyage include: parted genoa sheet (the thing that holds the front sail on snapped resulting in an alarming fluttering and flapping from the front (kind of like a Nasgul flapping with the fury of the dark lord and trying to drag you to Mordor); an unpredictable starboard winch that decides at random whether to happily retrieve rope or to suddenly spin uncontrollably in the wrong direction while repeatedly bashing Patrick’s knuckles with the still attached winch handle; a broken bilge pump (the thing that is supposed to pump out the water that is not supposed to be in the bottom of the boat but still persists in flooding in despite your conviction that it should not be there); another broken genoa sheet (return of the demented Nasgul); the companion way fell off its hinges (the bit that lets you into the relative comfort of the yachts interior suddenly decided that all the waves coming over the boat should also get a chance of shelter); a broken genoa pole (the thing that holds the sail out to catch the wind breaks resulting in a third round of bloody Nasgul attack) .. well the list goes on to be honest …

hillsborough-street-2But then again there were moments where the sheer splendour of crossing an ocean washes away the hardship. There were some magic times on the passage that defy description. The days melt together and you mind roams on the long watches. You get a chance to contemplate the past, the present and the future in ways that you never seem to make space for in the real world. When you do raise your head from reverie you may be treated to a spectacular sunrise chasing you across the Atlantic, or a school of flying fish darting over the curled crests of the waves. Perhaps a low cloud will be racing you across the waves or a shooting star will blaze across the heavens pointing towards your destination. It seems that the highlights of the trip are condensed into instants of elation and exhilaration that more than make up for the intervening hours of blank effort to steer a straight course.

And now as I contemplate another rum punch there is another hillsborough-beachgrowing feeling that is threatening to swamp both the good and the bad reflections of the voyage – a feeling of pride. We two, poor sojourners and our dog have limped slowly across the face of the planet, chased the sunset and overtook her, swapped the cobalt blue ocean for the turquoise coral seas of the Caribbean and have learned a lot about ourselves in the process. We are also intimately acquainted with the bowel movements of our dog so perhaps we shouldn’t get carried away, but at the end of the day we are two very happy people with a pinch of pride that will stay with us for a long time (and a dog who is happy to be back on the beach).

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Repairs and relaxing in Mindelo

greedy-spiderWhile we have been cooling our heels in Mindelo we have at times been a little impatient to receive all the various items currently delayed in customs and tied up in the seemingly snail-paced progress of express courier delivery in this part of the world – but more often than not we have surrendered to the laid-back island sao-vicentelife-style. Jazz tunes whisper down the street and tumble onto the beach chased by the breeze from the trade winds, countless dogs amble down the cobbled streets or laze in the shade, and often we find ourselves lazing along with them with a good book and a glass of Strela beer.

mount-verdeNot that we have been completely lazy though! A few days ago the three of us took a long hike up to the highest point on St Vincent Island – Mont Verde. Standing at roughly 700m above sea level the mount is named for the unusually lush growth than clings to the steep slopes. The generally arid landscape of the island is here replaced by thickets of pine and casuarina punctuated by the spear-like leaves and towering floral spikes that cling to the highest heights. The green is sources from the light rains harnessed from the clouds that skim over the island and this rain was once an important agricultural boost to the otherwise impoverished island. leonie-and-greensThe evidence of long lost labourers are everywhere here with intricate networks of terraces lining the slopes and the crumbling remains of rock buildings facing out to the tremendous vista of the Atlantic Ocean. Though a few farmers still scrape a living sparrow-on-the-topfrom the soil, the slopes these days seem abandoned with the only sign of human activity being restricted to the military base that claims the summit. Meanwhile however, the ravens and falcons dip and soar in the breeze and sparrows and other small birds flit through the undergrowth and the ruins of the buildings.

The view from the top is stunning and as we gazed down to the cramped twisting streets of Mindelo we have to wonder why anyone would abandon the clean air and endless views of the mountain in favour of a cramped flat amidst the throngs. I know where I’d choose to live!

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Last night I got hit in the head by a flying fish ….

As I sit to write this entry the clutter and hustle of The Gambia has fallen in our wake. The rattle of donkey carts, the call to prayer resounding from the mosques and the constant shout of “toubab” (white person) from the street urchins has been replaced by the gentler cadence of a different nation. Here in Mindelo in the Cape Verde Islands the streets are redolent with the swing of salsa music emanating from the colonial buildings clustered of a pristine blue bay surrounded by hazy barren slopes. The cobbled streets are immaculately clean and the populace seems charged with an energy that seemed to be lost amidst the poverty and dirt of West Africa. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the time we spent in the Gambia – but then again the change of pace and scenery has been a balm to our souls.

Not that getting here was exactly easy though!

first landAfter throwing down the anchor in Lamin Lodge I guess we cast away our sea legs and thus getting prepared for the five-day passage to Cape Verde was a little stressful, especially considering the constant entropy involved in keeping a steel boat tied up in a tropical estuary. Preparation involved righting a plethora of small wrongs and when we finally pulled up the anchor (along with a few kilos of black mud that are still ingrained under my fingernails) we were a little nervous as the sea-swell started to roll under our hull once again.

not-happy-dogAnd it didn’t help that the gentle swell in the mouth of the estuary rapidly picked up to constant near gale conditions with an occasional gale force squall of rain! None-the-less Widdershins bravely took to the Atlantic Ocean and was soon sliding over the wind-whipped waves with a grace that was somewhat absent from the three intrepid explorers staggering around on deck! Leonie was a little green for the first day and Captain Sparrow was trying hard to develop a facial expression that conveyed disappointment, bewilderment and exasperation as she staggered around the heaving deck. As for me I was simply holding tightly to the helm as regular waves smashed over the cockpit and the occasional flying fish clattered on the deck or in one instance smacked solidly into the side of my head!

The passage was not without the expected contingent of equipment breaking after a long layover. In addition to small breakages, leaks and electric malfunctions, I was somewhat startled to see a red strobe light flashing down below decks in the early hours of one morning. After a few panicked calls to the sleeping Leonie about “what the ^”&*is that!” it became apparent that our EPIRB had decided on its own that near gale force winds was simply too much like hard work. In an effort to escape the situation it had decided to alert the world that we were in imminent danger and required immediate rescue! Whilst Leonie and I were a little wet and tired, we disagreed …. So after various curses, a consultation to the instruction manual (helpfully in Norwegian) we resolved the situation by disconnecting the battery of the EPIRB and trying to call Norway to cancel the distress signal – except that of course our satellite phone decided that this was a good time to break down. Well, all we could do was radioing through every half hour to inform the world that all was safe and well. We received absolutely no response from any ship as it happens, but as no SAR helicopters descended on us we figured all we could do was keep going.

mindeloIn fact it wasn’t until two days later when we sailed into port and checked our emails that we found out that the authorities were actually aware of the distress signal …. but as it was only active for a short while they figured it wasn’t too important. Hmmmm. Not sure whether to be relieved that we didn’t trigger a whole scale rescue effort or to be a little miffed that our alert signal was rather hairyignored. Actually it turns out that the Norwegian authorities had actually consulted our website and contacted my parents (who spent a few days in agony over our fate) but the available information wasn’t sufficient to launch an international rescue effort. I guess it was pretty lucky in the long run as otherwise we probably would have had to foot the rescue bill!

mindelo-streetAnyway our days are now filled with the beat of Latin music. The north east trade winds are stirring the flags on the waterfront and my grilled shrimp have just arrived in accompaniment with a cold beer.  Christmas promises to be a relaxed affair with the warm sun lulling us into a pleasant contemplation of the journey ahead of us. There’s still a lot to do before we tackle the Atlantic again, but for now it’s time to soak up some sun and enjoy a different pace of life for a few days. The hard work can wait until after Christmas!

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Worlds apart

While Leonie is sweating in the tropical heat of Africa I have winged my way to the other side of the world. In a mere three days I jetted back to the starting point for our big adventure of twelve months on the high seas and am now cruising past the jagged ice-capped coastline of Svalbard. It’s surreal to think that our yacht is moored in a tropical estuary surroundedby mangroves and cheeky monkeys while I cruise amidst icebergs, seals and polar bears in the arctic island of Svalbard on a 100m meter ship!
I’m up in the arctic for 2 months earning some cash as a naturalist on an expedition cruise ship and sharing yarns about our travels in the Arctic with passengers from all over the world. Meanwhile Leonie is getting stuck into some serious science writing research articles on the epigenetics of small alpine flowers. We are worlds apart both physically and in our day to day life at the moment but we are both dreaming of the next eighteen months that lie before us.
ChimpWe have huge challenges ahead in the management of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project on the Gambia river but it is a challenge that fills us both with a sense of excitement, adventure and privilege. Here we have a chance to do some really meaningful work that has the potential to do some real good – both for the wildlife of the region and for the local people. Exciting times ahead!

Meanwhile it seems like we have both stepped into a surreal holding pattern with day to day tasks that are a far cry from the last 12 months of drifting free on the wide ocean. It certainly helps us to put our lives in perspective. It’s great here in the Arctic but I can’t wait to step aboard Widdershins and get into the swing of our new life with the chimps!

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Converging worlds and diverging ways

The past couple of months have seemed a little like a parallel world, or indeed it has seems like we have flitted through a number of such isolated realms. From the cosmopolitan beaches of Las Palmas with languid white tourists idling on the beach to the dusty dessert of Dakhla where we trod through thick dust midst the locals kneeling in prayer on the cracked pavement. Here in Senegal we have slipped between the laid back enclave of ex-pats at the yacht club on Hann beach into the dense jungle of the Hann zoological Park where the rich locals promenade in designer western clothes, and then into crumbling resort hotels made for the droves of tourist that never quite made it (last night we literally dined in the lion’s jaws). Then again into the bustling metropolis where the touts and vendors accost you at every corner with such violence that you end up jumping into the first cab that comes along clutching your back pocket to protect your wallet!

disembarkingSince I lost my bank cards in Morocco I have also been living in a strangely cashless society where a loan from Leonie marks my entire fortune. Luckily a few pounds in your pocket and a smile gets you a long way in Western Africa, but my empty in-the-parkpockets has driven one fact home: our collective kitty is running very low! Thus the real world has come crashing in to disturb us at odd moments as we wander amidst the throngs and dine on ambiguous meat sandwiches at the roadside stalls ….

And as our expenses begin to run away on us we have begun to consider more mainstream approaches to managing our finances … well mainstream may be a little too far. After a few days of weighing up the pros and cons I have decided to accept another season working as a tourist guide/naturalist showing people the spectacular wildlife of the Arctic. This has a couple of big benefits (including some much needed cash) including the chance of getting back into the icy elements that have ruled my life for the past decade, and also a respite from the relentless tropical heat of West Africa!

Meanwhile the plan is to leave Leonie stranded in the yacht in The Gambia. Yes … I hear the cat calls and boos and the cries of “you insensitive lout”. But then again Leonie has her own adventure ahead …

leonie-lionWe have arranged to leave the yacht at an isolated anchorage near an abandoned tourist venture dubbed “Lamin Lodge”. After talking to various local yachties we have discovered that this little piece of paradise is surrounded by wilderness and is the home of a small community of wandering yachties that all look after each other. Granted water has to be ordered via donkey cart from the local well but all in all it seems a very idyllic place to spend a couple of months. It will also give Leonie a chance to catch up on some of the science work that I dragged her from when we set sail. So come June we will both be stepping a little more into the real world, though I guess we are certainly keeping up our present spirit of adventure.

But for now … we have resupplied the ship and repaired various broken bits of equipment and are prepared to set sail. Next stop .. The Gambia.

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R&R: repair and recuperation

senegalese-kidsThe hot sun of the tropics has been roasting our skin into a slightly alarming shade of brown since we arrived in Senegal. Meanwhile the same sun has been taking its toll on our equipment. In the last passage we had a rather heavy casualty rate! Not only did we have a torn mizzen sail, but out tiller arm (the bit you steer with) broke, the pole that we use to hold out our genoa sail snapped, our mainsail broke loose, one of the cupboards caved in after I collapsed rather too enthusiastically after a long watch, and our fridge has turned into a heady soup of rotten meat juices thanks to some stray steaks from Morocco. On top of that, my computer took one too many falls and the wires connecting the screen to the computer were severed, rendering the computer useless.

soldering-computerThus our past few days have been spent in repair mode. Leonie has stitched and repaired the mizzen sail while I have tinkered with various bits of equipment and with the help of a borrowed soldering iron convinced them to work. However, while our own ingenuity is enough to solve most problems, in some instances you have to turn to the locals for help.

new-tillerIn this instance we had a fantastic experience with Sow – a local carver camped in the empty shell of a building just down the road from where we are moored. We came to Sow bearing the battered remnants of our broken tiller arm and asked him (in broken French) if he could knock together a replacement. Two days later we were holding a beautifully carved piece of African hardwood embellished with crocodiles, turtles and hippopotamus. Our tiller now stands in pride of place as the most fancy part of our aging yacht and we couldn’t be happier.

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Deep Blue

loggerhead-turtleWe have sailed many miles in the past ten months. We have surged blindly through fog-shrouded seas in the high arctic; dodged through ice-scattered water off Greenland; surfed upon white water off the coast of Iceland; wended our way through the dark secret waters off the Hebrides islands; and coasted through thick red seas off the Saharan coast of Africa. But the past few days of sailing has been the first time I really understood the term “blue water” sailing. As we left the coast of Africa behind and hit the deep clear waters of the Atlantic we have found that the sea is unlike any that has ever lain beneath our keel. The water here is a deep blue like no other colour I have ever seen. In me at least, it evokes a feeling of another world – as we glide over this silken sea with cyan skies above and the indigo Atlantic beneath I seem transported to a different time. Here it seems that the square top-sails of a clipper trader could poke above the horizon at any time, or a sighting of distant land could be an uncharted island. It is a timeless world where the bustle of modern life seems to fade into insignificance.

bottlenose-dolphinThe sea also teems with a life that has long been lost from the crowded African shores behind us. Loggerhead turtles commonly poke their nose through the water as we pass by, and teams of dolphin seen to jumping doplphinstay in relay to keep pace with us. First Atlantic spotted dolphins, then bottle nose dolphins, then striped dolphins and then short-beaked common dolphins. Amidst he playful mammals, an occasional flying fish clatters across the surface and bonito tuna team in shoals around the islands (occasionally providing a meal for passing sailors!). Above us ganets soar benito-bonitoand plunge and shearwaters glide gracefully in our wake. In this vast ocean we rarely seem alone.

The past few days found us exploring the waters around Lanzarote and Fuerto Ventura and Gran Canaria in the Canary lanzarote-ruinsIslands. Though this was never one of the places we dreamed of visiting we have discovered a marine life here that has seemed absent since we left the vibrant shores of the Arctic. Conversely, the land is barren and dry with a few hardy birds and lizards stirring torpidly in the sun. Scattered over the island are the ruins of the lost civilization that perished upon the arrival of the Spanish which clash violently with the condominiums and tourist orientated sprawl crowding the shoreline. It is a land of contrasts but definitely a land worth exploring.lizard

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Rocking boats, rocks, and goats

Barbary ground squirrelThis evening finds our boat rocking violently in the turbid red water stirred by a Saharan storm. The sky is occasionally lit by violent flashes of lightening followed by the crash of thunder. Bursts of stark light provide moments of illumination in the otherwise dim cabin of the yacht – the power is out so we are in energy conservation mode. Outside rain hammers on the deck and upon my shoulders as I scramble about the violently pitching deck attempting to tie loose ends of the thrashing lines that are showing wear from the constant pitching and rubbing. The southwest swell from the Atlantic is surging directly into the harbour here in Agadir and it looks like another sleepless night.

Agama agamaWe have been in Agadir for over a week with little option but to explore our surroundings. Despite the helpful assistance of Brunton who have shipped us a new propeller to replace the one bladed piece of ballast currently attached to our boat, we are still waiting for delivery following a series of inexplicable delays in shipping. Seriously, DHL is a shipping company that despite a high profile around the globe seems incapable of delivering anything approaching the promised “express” service. After a week of delays and misinformation we are still no closer to knowing when our important package will arrive! I’ll keep you updated on the full scope of our propeller woes in a later blog (hopefully with the new prop in hand!), and divert my ranting to perhaps more interesting commentary on the fascinating land we find our-selves in.

Laughing doveThe storm raging outside is rather the exception than the rule, and since our arrival here we have been enjoying beautiful sunshine and sandy beaches. A few days ago we also got the chance to hire a car and explore the surrounding countryside. As we climbed into the rocky hills overlooking the Atlantic Ocean we quickly discovered a stunning landscape that appears barren from a distance but reveals a surprising vitality once you take a stroll.

Argan trees with gnarled trunks and wicked thorns provide patches of dusty green to punctuate the red rocky landscape. The trees are a-twitter with small caught Barbary ground squirrelbirds occasionally flashing into the air to pluck an insect on the wing, and the birds in turn are watched by the hawks circling above the rocky crags of the summits. The mountains are composed of layers of tortured sandstone folded into twisted shapes that spill their load of fossilised marine life into the tumbles of boulders on their slopes. Among the fossils, live beetles and scorpion scamper and lizards laze in the sun. Ground squirrels bounce around the rubble before plunging into their burrows upon the sight of our camera aimed in their direction.

Actually I can’t blame the squirrels for being wary. On our travels we found one child proudly displaying a thrashing squirrel on the end of a rope he was holding up in triumph. Though we were unable to communicate with him (he spoke only Arabic) he was delighted to pose with his catch. Perhaps he was going to keep it as a pet, but I fear that the poor little thing was going to end up in the pot. Later on when we descended into a verdant green strip of land lining a sheltered gorge we also found children perched on the side of the Pied Wagtaildusty trickle of water fishing for eels.  Humans seem alien in this landscape and it is easy to fall into the habit of wishing people would just leave dessert life alone – after all life is difficult enough here without having to dodge the clutches of curious children. But then you look around and find that human habitation is built into the very architecture of this land. Rock buildings blend into the walls of the river valley, and upon a second look it is clear that the tiered slopes are actually moulded by the hand of man. The goats scampering on the slopes are guided by people living a life very similar to that of their forefathers. The people of Morocco have lived in these lands for thousands of years and the only aliens around here are a couple of suntanned tourists with a dusty dog in tow.

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Play on la playa

It has been a solid four days at sea with a stiff northerly wind blowing us south. The blustery weather from has delivered us quickly from the water-logged coast of wales to an entirely different land. Here the sun is shining on the palm trees lining the aviendas of northern Spain, and golden beaches are crowded with surfers and strollers catching the fading warmth of the lost summer. After only 90 hours at sea it seems we have been delivered to a new world – gone are the cozy pubs, tasty pies and familiar accents of the United Kingdom. Here the streets are filled with the musical chatter of Spanish and the caféterias are crowded with people well into the early hours of morning dining on an array of strange cuisine. Most prominently featured are the urchins which are seasonal delicacy of the moment. I’m all for new foods but I must admit … the prospect of tucking into a hot steak and kidney pie is a little more appealing than digging into the entrails of spiky sea urchins in search of the prized gonads. Not bad is you close your eyes though

Looks like we’ll be spending a few days in the picturesque town of Gijón while we get in new supplies, fix a few broken pieces of equipment and stock up on vitamin D. Also we need to track down a vet to provide our smallest crew member with an inoculation against rabies which is required before we can move beyond the EU. While it may take a few days to tick all the boxes, the slower pace of Spain and the warmer weather here seems suited to a little recuperation …time for a siesta!

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Knocking on wood

Having arrived in Europe we thought we were finally able to relax … Unfortunately no such luck! The past week has seen the placid shores of Wales savaged by a series of storms and wind gusts that have left the land in devastation with entire suburbs flooded in the north. While we have been fairly snug here in Milford Haven in South Wales we have continually had our hopes of palm trees and tropical waters dashed by the gales pushing into the Celtic Sea from the Atlantic.

Yet finally it looks like respite is in sight. The forecast for the next few days promises solid northerly breezes, which, as it happens, is exactly what we have been hoping for. So time to finish taping on the keyboard, start knocking on wood … and head South. Next time we tie up we hope to be in Gijon, Spain.

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