Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Officially in the Mediterranean - Finally!

It has been nearly two months since I left the US. And nearly three since we left Burlington.  It feels as if we have lived a year in those few months. Such is the case with traveling.  Life expands and slows down at the same time.

Mentally we have had this rushed, almost panicky feeling about getting into the Mediterranean, but physically and emotionally we have been letting go and slowing down.  This, combined with the hot, languid weather and boat repairs, has has kept us moving at a less than a vigorous pace.   But a few days ago we landed in Gibraltar and are now officially in Mediterranean waters.

Let me catch you up on the last few weeks: Lisbon - Sines - Lagos - Villamoura -- into Spain -- Ayamonte - Cadiz - Barbate - Gibraltar.

Portugal is wonderful, the people are friendly, the marinas are amazingly clean, modern and ecologically aware (water conservation, excellent recycling) and the food and wine are top notch.   The wine especially is so good and so cheap and so underrated.  Lisbon is a beautiful city which spreads from the water up into hills, sort of like San Francisco.  Some neighborhoods use funiculars to scale the steep inclines.  We just walked them, for hours.

Our first day there Mathias, Beth and I spent about 14 hours going up and down those winding streets.  We managed to see several of the expected tourist attractions as well as fitting in a wonderful meal in a quirky restaurant randomly picked by me mainly for the ambiance and decor, specifically the artsy-crafty buttons strung together to form colorful curtains.  There we enjoyed a delicious meal, one of the best of the trip thus far, and a really great bottle of Portuguese wine, one of the best wines of our lives thus far.

Amazing stone work at the Monument of Discoveries in Lisbon.  The Portuguese are very proud of their contributions to navigation and early colonization of the "new world".  

The monument, which looks out over the river to Lisbon.

A visit to the Maritime Museum, which was, of course, a must for Mathias and Beth. I enjoyed it, but not as much as some...

We ended up staying in Lisbon for a week, waiting for boat parts and getting repairs.  Before leaving I was insistent we see some Fado music. Fado is a genre of Portuguese traditional music which is dramatic and mournful. I love it.

This was the best singer we saw that evening. They brought out new singers every hour or so. And they got better and better as the night went on. We left at midnight and she was pretty great.

We didn't actually stay in Lisbon proper, but in the small, seaside town of Cascias, which is picturesque and worth a visit in its own right.  It is jam-packed with tourists in the summer, but also appeals to locals who flock from Lisbon, only a 20-minute train ride away, to go to the beaches.  On the train, we frequently saw teenagers and families dressed in barely more than bikinis and towels heading in and out of Cascias.  The Portuguese are certainly not shy about showing their flesh.  I saw many a grannie sporting a string bikini and men of all ages donning the salami sling, which would often bunch up under their big sun tanned bellies.  Mathias reported seeing a distinguished-looking older woman change her shirt on the train.

We left Cascais and Lisbon for Lagos. An even more touristy location, where literally the streets were cheek to jowl from 10am to 1pm, then empty for the siesta and then crammed again from 8pm till at least midnight.  Within a few days Mathias and I knew the city backwards and forwards and found our favorite places for coffee or lunch.

But the best thing about Lagos for me was finding an amazing yoga studio called The Lightroom.  This husband and wife team - Jenny and Igor - taught the best yoga, at least the kind that I really like.  It was here that we started to get into the habit of the afternoon siesta.

And here we had time to reorganize the boat, changing it from a ocean crossing boat into a cruising boat.
Despite all the tourists, Lagos was a nice old seaside town that isn't too built up, like much of the Spanish coast.

After Lagos we didn't see anything interesting until Cadiz.   On our way to Cadiz Mathias caught a fish, we think a small Mahi-Mahi.  I was amazed at how beautiful the fish was, bright iridescent greenish yellow, like a tropical bird.  But as soon as it died it immediately changed color to the silvery grey of most fish.  I know it was just a fish, and that fisherman see this all the time, but I was amazed to see life extinguish before my eyes an in such a dramatic and demonstrative way.  I kept thanking the beautiful fish for giving its life for our lunch (which was delicious, I sauteed the little beauty in garlic and butter).

You can sort of see the color in this photo

Mathias deployed his humane technique of spraying vodka in the gills to kill the fish, as opposed to clubbing it straight away.

Cadiz is a beautiful old city that has Roman ruins and can trace its roots back to the Phoenicians.  Like much of Andalusia, it has a strong Moorish influence in the architecture and food.  The Marina was a 40 minute walk to the city center so we tended to go into town and stay there until evening, passing the 2-4 hours of forced siesta either at a museum or an outdoor cafe with Internet.   I was missing the delicious Portuguese wine but I was happy to get good Spanish coffee in exchange.  Much as I tried, and those who know me know my relentless search for perfection, I could not get a decent cup of coffee in Portugal, but in Spain all you say is "cafe con leche" and you get a decent to excellent coffee every time.

  Mathias having just finished his third cafe con leche

Views from the top of the Cathedral in Cadiz

 Inside the Cathedral, one of the many amazing churches in Spain

Strangely, Cadiz was visited by mainly Spanish tourists, we barely saw or head anything but Spanish.  Most of the restaurants did not cater to tourists.  I translated as best as I could, reaching back to my high school Spanish classes, which were not great.  But I managed to get us around and if I wasn't quick enough Mathias would just start speaking in English, repeating himself until sometimes they would get it, possibly reaching back to their high school English.

Weather kept us in Cadiz for an extra three days so we decided at the last minute to rent a car and head to Seville for a few days, taking in the Andalusian countryside along the way.   I had visited Seville a few years ago, but really wanted Mathias to see this fabulous city.  We soon realized the reason everyone from Seville was in Cadiz, we thought it was warm on the coast, Seville is apparently the hottest place in Spain during the summer and the weekend we were there is was having a hot spell, temperatures reached 110 degrees!  We were running from the sun, and just walking a few blocks would leaving you dripping with sweat, but this did not in any way diminish the fun and awe of spending time in this wonderful city. We had a few great meals and visited the Cathedral and the Alcazar.  Mathias was blown away, especially by the Alcazar, which is a Royal Palace surrounded by elegant gardens.  Both the buildings and the gardens are a mixture of Moorish and Andalusian architecture and sensibilities.

Inside one of the rooms of the Alcazar

Detail of just one small section of one of the walls.

We found that the siesta times in Seville were even longer than in Cadiz, things closed down from 1pm and didn't open up until 6 or 7pm.  The afternoon heat is so intense that no one is outside, only the restaurants were open and many of the outdoor cafes used jets of cooled mist, which shot from the awnings and sort of cooled you down.

You can see here the streets are empty and if you look closely you can see the mist hanging over the tables.

On our way back to Cadiz we drove though some of the White Villages Route, which are a series of small white villages that dot the otherwise empty mountainous countryside.  Because it was the end of summer, it was mostly brown and dry, other than the miles and miles of olive trees and some cotton, but we saw fields of dry sunflowers that must be stunning when they are in bloom.
We stopped in one village, Arcos de la Frontera, which is said to be one of the prettiest in all of Andalusia and possibly all of Spain.

The village is perched on a mountain with views from every angle.

We had another great meal (I know all we do is eat it seems).  I read about this restaurant online that was inside of a cave on the side of a mountain -- how could I resist.  

We left Cadiz for Gibraltar the following day, with a one night stop in Barbate along the way.  I will let Mathias describe Gibraltar:

"The harbor is ugly. And the town is ugly. Some silly British enclave which has become nothing but a high-rise condominium development for Brits who think they want to experience the Mediterranean, but in fact only are in a hotter neighborhood of their own country with bad food, horrid manners, store-front exploitation of duty free laws, reckless Monto Carlo speedway racing between scooters and cars taking aim at pedestrians as if to score extra points, the worst marina complex of any we have seen in all of Portugal and Spain, and to add salt to the wound, prices that take your breath away as your wallet drains.

Oh well. Not every port can be paradise."

We can see the rock from our dock slip. If you click on the photo, you will see the top of a mosque that is built at the rock's crest.

but this is a more typical, uninspiring view...

Next the Balearics.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Intimidation and Simplicity of Confidence

In my first post of this blog, (Mathias here) I gave tribute to the people who have helped me cast off on this adventure.

There is one more person I had promised to talk about. But before I introduce him, let me back up and tell you how I came to meet him.

When I bought Dolphins, a Hans Christian 33, she had fallen into neglect for a few years because her previous owner, Luther Bridgman, had fallen prey to dementia.

Luke, as he was known, loved Dolphins (along with a series of other unique boats he owned.) And he loved life. I would have liked to have met him. Stories have it that he was full of ideas, optimism and an attitude of “Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead.”

While the Bridgman family was, at first, reluctant to sell her, the boat yard manager told the family: “If there ever was a person you will want to sell to, this is the guy.” (Thank you Scott.)

I bought Dolphins, but rumor persisted among some in the marina that I had finagled a dubious deal, taking advantage of a demented man.

For the first two summers of sailing Dolphins I kept finding peculiarities on Dolphins which I just couldn’t figure out. A few people said I should call the guy who maintained the boat for Luke. This guy knew everything about the boat, it was said. But someone else told me he had a lien on the boat. The last thing I needed was another complication in the boat deal, so I avoided making the call.

By the third summer, when the boat yard manager once again slipped me the unlisted phone number of this mystery man, I made the call. I introduced myself and said I could use some help on the boat. The voice on the other end didn’t agree to help, but said he would meet me for a walk-around the boat.

Enter: Gordon Lysle.

Gordon is a tall, slim, almost angular man with a matching long face. His posture is easy and relaxed. When he walks, it is with a forward lean reminiscent of a bird, perhaps a curlew.

He has spent a large part of his life messing about in boats, practically running the ferry company in Vermont and eventually owning the Charlotte Sailing Center marina for ten years. It was in that capacity that he became the personal caretaker of Dolphins.

Until his face breaks into a rare smile, Gordon presents as scrutinizing. And that is exactly how he presented that day we met at the boat.

We talked and walked about the boat. It was up on the hard and all pulled apart from the work I had been doing. Without the cushions, the backboards were showing and in one of them, there was a round access hole to a cubby which had been hack-sawed larger in an awkward way.

Gordon stopped in his tracks, extended his finger at arm’s length toward the defilement and asked in a dead tone: “Who did that to this boat?”

Let’s be clear: It was not a question. It was the accusation of a capital crime.

Despite a stuttering start, I was able to convince him of my innocence. But what had become immediately apparent was that I was not taking over ownership of Dolphins, but I merely had the honor to become her next steward.

Dolphins still belonged as much to Luke and to her caretaker Gordon as she did to me.

Somehow, during the hour that Gordon spent with me, I seemed to pass muster. This man, who I have come to learn, doesn’t suffer fools lightly, eventually said,

“Well, I only have a few clients left but I have a bit of time left to fit one more in.”

What followed have been three years of working with a man with whom I have developed just as much of a relationship with as I have with Dolphins.

With Gordon’s help we have renovated and restored Dolphins into the fully capable and comfortable cruising ship she is today.

Wait, let me explain what “his help” means: It means, he brings aboard a small, beige canvas tool bag about the size of a toaster. I call it his “Felix The Cat bag.” If you remember the old TV cartoon, you will remember that anything and everything came out of that small bag.

While I have five toolboxes and bags, Gordon, with his one, has done all the improvements to Dolphins. Once, while we were trying to enlarge a hole to feed a wire, I thought we finally reached the limits of his bag. We didn’t have a drill bit large enough.

“You don’t have one in your bags?” he asked. “Don’t make me go into my left pocket.”

He reached into his left pocket and pulled out a uni-bit.

Sort of like a nine-year-old boy. Never know what’s in his pockets.

So, by saying “with Gordon’s help” I mean that he brings his bag, I sit by and watch as he methodically plans, draws angles with pencils, tapes off areas, drills, fits, splices, meters electrical circuits, tinkers in the breaker panel, installs a heater chimney into my cabin roof, tubes new propane hoses, babies the engine, voila’s an SSB, presto’s a new radar and custom tower, routers a new helm station complete with new GPS, and lego’s together a windvane steering system.

In short, Gordon is one of those guys who knows everything. Well, everything that involves a tool. And I mean that.

To wit, here is a man who has:
Built his own barn, (post and beam)
Built his own summer camp on an island, (complete with windvane to power it)
Rides and maintains a Russian motorcycle, (with a sidecar of course)
Drives and maintains a 1970s Mercedes 240D in pristine condition, 
Built and flies his own experimental airplane, (A Zenith CH 701 for those in the know)
Deconstructed and recreated from scratch his 20-foot center-console AquaSport,
And this past winter, to stave off boredom, built a sailing/motor dory.

When his wife is not with him, then sitting next to him in the co-pilot’s seat of his plane, or the sidecar of his motorcycle, or squeezed next to him on a Sunfish, is his beautiful and exceedingly smart golden retriever.

Gordon’s omnipotence of mechanical know-how has been both educational and intimidating for me. Educational because I realize how simple it is to do things that I thought might be intimidating. And intimidating because I realize that things which I thought were so simple sometimes require specific knowledge.

“No, you can’t use a polybutane sealant for THAT.”

Hell, I don’t even know what Polly’s beauty pane is; I just thought the tube I was holding was a sealant.

And all the while, while we are working, he chits here and chats there. Never more than a few sentences at a time. Too little talk is boring. Too much is just idle mouthing.

And it has been mostly in these in-between times – in between me handing the wrench to him and him pretzeling himself into some impossible yogi position to reach a nut, that Gordon has helped me in ways that have less to do with all the stuff he has fixed and installed and improved on Dolphins. And more because of things that were said, and left unsaid, in between all of our chat fragments. Things that made me realize that I COULD indeed sail a boat across the Atlantic and through the seven seas.

And, more importantly, that I SHOULD.

And here I am now, doing it.

But not without his continued help. In every port, Gordon continues to play Houston to my Apollo 13 voyage.

Every time I tell him, “We’ve had a problem,” he is with me on the phone or emailing from his computer, walking me through the steps of dealing with failing electrical connections, overheating engines and clogging fuel filters.

Not always easy. One time, after hours of an exasperating session of tracking down some faulty wiring, over the phone, while I reported back to him every step I was doing, he said, “I feel like I working blind. With my hands behind my back. And boxing gloves on.”

So, here’s a thank you to Gordon:

Thank you.

I know I’ve said too much. Idle mouthing. Gonna have to learn which of Polly’s stain to abuse to seal my lips a bit tighter.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Sines and Lagos

We left Cascais (outside of Lisbon) last week and motorsailed to Sines. It was a cute old town in its day, complete with being surrounded by an old fort wall, but in the last decades has become a refinery town. It was the more sobering side of Portugal. And one evening was all the sobering we needed.

We headed out the next morning to Lagos, where we have spent the last week. On our way we rounded the tip of Portugal, Cape St. Vincent. It was a bit of grueling ride. Atlantic swells, high winds. And then to top it off, the motor started stuttering. Finally, with just a half hour to get into Largos, the engine overheated and … died.

We couldn't sail in because our sail still needed some replacement parts before I could set it in high winds. And secondly, well because the winds were blowing like hell. 30 knots or so. Even if I could have gotten the sail up, the harbor is a long narrow entrance, only to be managed with motor.

So, we were towed in.

I have since replaced the clogged fuel filters and added fuel conditioner and hope that solves our problems.

Tomorrow we leave for Vilamoura.

Largos is a very cute old town. Again surrounded by old fort walls. Narrow, cobblestoned streets. Gazillion restaurants. And it is the ex-pat community for the Brits. Everyone offers "British Breakfast." That, essentially, consists of dry white bread. And eggs. And deep fried, frozen potatoes. I think that's it. Meanwhile Jen and I have enjoyed the local sardines, fresh shrimp, octopus, squid, and several other variety of fish that are displayed fresh in front of the restaurants, then picked out by the waiter, brought back to the grill in the kitchen and served on your plate a while later. Mmmmm.

I called the Spot Tracking company and apparently our tracking device is dead and needs to be fixed under warranty. So I need to send it back to the States and it will probably be a few weeks before you all can track us again.