On adventure upon the high seas, part 5

Sunday 30th September, Mar Cantábrico near A Coruna.
NE force 4, 1020 mbar.

The boat cuts through the quiet sea, as it has continuously for the last four nights. By 3am we’ve reached the Spanish coast at Cape Ortega, heading west on the last leg. To port lies the dark mass of Galician hills, black against a bright, moonlit sky, with lights picked along roads and great lighthouses semaphoring their unique messages out to those watching for them. Trawlermen rumble past along the coast, nets out in the waters. Ahead of us I can see the glow on the clouds from the lights of Ferrol – Franco’s birthplace – miles away, still hidden behind the headland. As our phone signal has reappeared on reaching inshore waters, I text Carmen, my friend from A Coruna who is celebrating her birthday back in London.
“I can see your house from here”, I say.

Light thickens as the clarity of night is discoloured by dawn, still hidden behind the mountains. We round the last cape at Covas, where the echoes of great gun emplacements lie quiet alongside the lighthouses. We pass within a few hundred yards of the rocks, close enough that I can see the white spray surging up the cliff.

The proximity alarm goes off as we pass the waypoint, our computerised chart plotting our route as we turn south towards A Coruna’s old town on the headland, and the harbour further into the bay. I wake up Michael, now that the journey involves decisions. And rocks.

Welcoming us is The Tower of Hercules, a Roman lighthouse built by the Romans around 1900 years ago to protect their Mediterranean fleets as they passed up the coast towards Brittany and the vital tin ports of southwest England. It is the oldest continually-operating lighthouse in the world. Renovated sympathetically in 1791, it still even retains – mocked up in the masonry cladding around the original tower – the impression of the sloped external ramp on which barrels of lamp oil were wheeled to the top. As we arrive at around 7am, the moon, my companion these last few nights, slips quietly towards the Atlantic for the last time.

Sailing up the marina there are plenty of ribs rushing around, all carrying youngsters, it seems. Perhaps there is some kind of sea school, or competition taking place. The Guardia Civil eye us a they pass by on a launch, and a couple of middle-age fishermen. Towering over the marina is the strange modernist Port Authority building, two stark white pillars that trap two glass-jewelled office platforms surveying the harbour from above. It looks very odd, but I warm to it.

Mooring up to the wooden jetties that criss-cross the marina, Michael and the others disembark for the harbourmaster’s office. Technically I have arrived in Spain, but can’t get off until the others have wandered around a bit and no one will notice a surprise fourth crewman. After a while they return, freshly clean and glowing from the showers. I take a key to the gates and wander past racing yachts, fifty-footers like Salamander, power boats, and a couple of pretty impressive motor cruisers – though not quite in the megayacht range.

In a blissfully scalding shower, I close my eyes and my vision swims and sways as my legs struggle to adjust to surroundings that for once are not moving underneath me.

On adventure upon the high seas, part 4

Saturday 29th September, Bay of Biscay.
NNE force 4, 1009 mbar.

The rocking and rolling of the boat, the incessant creaking of the cabin walls, and being occasionally flung across my bunk do not make for a restful night’s sleep. The watch rota is three hours on, six hours off, so when given the opportunity to sleep at night it’s foolish to turn it down – even if actual sleep is harder to come by.

Back on deck for 9am to relieve Martin. A third day of waking up to nothing but the ocean on all sides. The sun is up already, it’s bright and warm, and the northerly-blown swell still rolls us around on its back, but we’re losing speed. In an effort to pick up more wind without changing direction, we all get ready to do some actual sailing under Michael’s guidance. Turning into the wind, we reef the mainsail down to just a duvet-sized sheet, and unfurl the genoa to it’s maximum extent. With the wind from behind us we hope that without the mainsail literally taking the wind out of it we will be pulled along faster. We’re not. The huge acreage of sail empties and fills as the wind gusts one way or another, whipping to and fro with a loud crack. We put everything back as it was, ropes flying around capstans and through our hands. While it was all for nothing in the end, it feels good to be playing a part in rigging the ship and trimming the sails – reminding us that it’s not all autopilot in these days of GPS and electronic terrain-following charts.

The race is on to get Charlotte to the airport in A Coruna in time for her 3pm flight on Sunday. Midway through the Bay of Biscay with just under 24 hours to go we’re looking good for distance but poor on speed. There’s nothing for it but to use the engine.

The day creeps by, the sun sweeps across the bow, and the crew graze their way through the provisions. Without a great deal of sailing to do – no tacking, no making ropes or mending sails or swabbing decks – I feel an tinge of cabin fever, the four of us in a cockpit perhaps 10 feet square. I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s and eat cereal bars and sip whisky to pass the time.

I also make a discovery – I’ve forgotten my passport, which means I will be illegally immigrating into Spain – sounds like fun. It’s impossible for every port to rigorously check every boat, so all borders are porous to a degree. But Michael and Salamander are heading south for Lisbon, Morocco, the Canaries and then St Lucia, so it’s getting back home that presents a more pressing problem.

I cook a final curry – Indian and brown rather than Thai and green this time – and we settle in for the final night at sea. On watch at 3am, the night is once again clear and the moon is finally full and wears a halo behind each passing cloud. It’s certainly a humbling experience to be out at sea, in more than 4,000 metres of the North Atlantic, on a little boat tossed around by the wind and waves. There’s plenty of time and space to think, listen to the waves. Too much, even.