Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Playing tourists

Haha, Alex and Daria on the tour boat trip to the sea caves with Reiner

We were anchored in Portimao again. The last time we were sorry we had not availed of the tour boat trips to see the sea caves along this section of the Algarve. It's apparently one of the most extensive cave systems in Europe. We saw the way the tour boats went in and out of the caves as we had sailed along the coast. We knew it wasn't something we could do in our own dinghy. So we went ashore and signed up with a small boat operator, one that did not take a whole busload o f tourists at once. Okay, so we were in Portugal and our operator turned out to be a German from Berlin named Capt. Reiner, but he was married to a Portuguese woman, had a grown Portuguese son and had lived here for 27 years. And he was entertaining. I think we actually had the best experience. 

The caves are amazing. The boat passed through some, entering at one end and exiting at another. Some we entered and then exited in reverse. Some were huge, others tiny. Some had holes in the ceiling. Other were dark and eerie. Reiner had this habit of saying, "oops", every time the boat hit a wave or caught a surge, which was every couple of minutes. It was funny, but he did a good job maneuvering. Some of the other boatmen - there are several boats going in turn - got aggressive and that was a little disconcerting. When we got towards the other end towards Benagil, which we did not visit, boats coming from Albufeira and Faro started conflicting with those coming from Ferragudo, Portimao and Lagos and it got a little hairy. But the bigger boats couldn't go in as far as ours did. 

All along the coast were indications of slides that had taken place recently. In many places, the sandstone cliffs have eroded underneath the level of the land on top. Periodically, the land bridges collapse. Apparently, tourists taking selfies occasionally get swept over the edge. There are tiny private beaches everywhere that are reached from other beaches at low tide. At high tide they get cut off and the only way to survive is to climb up the cliffs. They have rickety ladders and ropes hanging from the tops of the cliffs to the beaches to help stranded tourists escape. 

In some places, stairs have been carved into the cliffs and people walk down to platforms where they sun themselves and dive into the sea. The steps look rather treacherous for getting out of the water. All very interesting. 

On the way back, Reiner spotted an octopus fisherman and went over to him. We watched as he pulled pots and emptied the octopi into holding containers. There weren't many coming up. One was too small and the fisherman threw him back into the water. The water turned black with ink as the lucky little octopus hit the water. Cool!

In Ferragudo, Reiner pointed out two vessels, a big trawler and a sailboat, that had been seized by the birder patrol. They had each been carrying tons of cocaine. Now they'll be sold at auction. No wonder the harbour police are so actively chasing down foreign flagged vessels. 

Overall it was a good experience and great fun. There were six of us on the boat. Two Australians and two Brits attending a wedding in Portugal. The life jackets were cumbersome but there's a €250 fine per person not wearing one for commercial boats. Overall it was a good €25 pp spent on a lovely 2 hours on the water investigating haunts where pirates may have stashed treasures centuries ago. Hmmmm. 

We may be departing for our trip north tomorrow. If you don't hear from us, we're underway. Cheers!

Change of plans

Sunrise in Culatra and it's already hot. 

So what are we doing back in Lagos instead of heading toward Gibralter? In Culatra, I dropped a bomb on Alex. I asked, “How would you feel if we forgot about the Med and sailed back home to Ireland? It’s hot, it’s crowded, and it’s expensive."

We’d be paying more than €3000 not to sail Aleria for the month of August. We don’t want to sail then because it’s too hot. Until the kids go back to school, all the marinas are jammed, so even getting a slip is problematic. And if you do manage to find one, it’s about €100 a night or more.

Neither one of us does well in heat and Alex had been suffering even more than I was. He kept saying how he missed having a sailboat in Ireland. I got the sense he wasn’t fully behind this adventure plan, and I was having my doubts too. So we agreed to sleep on it overnight, and we’d decide in the morning.

The gates at Faro

The morning started out hotter than before, with no dew at all now. Yet the water is too cold to just jump in. That was it. We were heading back home. Alex said he wanted to visit the Outer Hebrides, and I added the Faroes to the list. We were happy. We could always charter off season in the Med.

We got up early and motored back to Lagos where we booked into the marina. Very nice place and OCC Port Officer Ingrid arranged for us to have an easily accessible slip and warned us of silting in the entrance to the Ria. The storms in the winter had shifted the sands from the nearby beach to the mouth of the river and with our 8.5 foot draft, we’d have difficulty one hour either side of low tide. 

The marina in Lagos is a self-contained village.  It’s on the other side of the river and there’s a lifting bridge for access to the city centre which is very pleasant. We didn’t have nearly enough time there and we were quite busy and exhausted. We took on more than €400 of fuel, filled the water tanks, did three loads of laundry, and re-provisioned at the very nice Pingo Doce a short walk from our slip. But it was so hot, Alex took three cold showers while filling water and taking out garbage and the like. I wanted to jump into the pool but never had a chance.

We opted for dinner at the Italian restaurant in the marina village and it was very good and convenient. I had gnocchi alfredo with pancetta. Alex had spaghetti and meatballs. We slept well and checked out about 2 pm to motor the 6 NM to the anchorage at Portimao. There we’d wait out the next few days of strong northerlies and meet up with the Australian crew of Chat eau bleu who wanted to join the OCC and needed sponsors.  

Now we’re planning our trip back home. In the next couple of weeks, we can make it to Galicia at least ad leave the boat there, then come back and deliver it to Ireland afterwards. Or, the weather cooperates, we can sail straight through to Ireland. We'll just have to see. 

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Lovely Windswept Culatra

The Atlantic side beach of Culatra

We pulled up our anchor at 9 am yesterday morning and were underway by 9:30. Hecuba had left long before us – they were gone by 7:30 when we got up. We set our sails close to shore and opted to follow the coast so we could get a look at some of the places we hadn’t had a chance to explore, places like Carvoeiro, Benagil and Albufeira. It was a beautiful morning and we had a nice land breeze filling our sails on a port tack heading down the coast.

We noticed that the cat sailing a bit farther out had no wind and that the sailboat a few miles out was on starboard tack and heading in the same direction, probably on a sea breeze. We stayed close to shore to stay with our private wind.

It was an interesting coastline. We watched the cave tripping boats going in and out of caves cut out of the sandstone cliffs. It’s supposed to be one of the most extensive cave systems in Europe.  Small boats go out in the morning before the afternoon northerlies kick up, allowing them to take tourists into the caves, where sunlight filters through holes in the ceiling. We could see houses built over these enormous caves, not something I would like to contemplate.

It’s slightly more than 30 miles from Portimao to Olhao near Faro. John Duggan and crew Jeff had asked us for dinner aboard Hecuba the night before and told us about the anchorage at the barrier island of Culatra. That’s where we were heading as was Hecuba. We planned to meet up there the next day.

Unfortunately, Alex started to feel sick. He was dizzy, nauseous and everything hurt. All his joints were painful and he was cold when I was pretty comfortable. The same symptoms I had had when we went walking in Ferragudo, when he kept pushing me to do things and I kept saying that I couldn’t. It must be a bug that I picked up somewhere and so kindly shared. Alex slept a good deal of the way. At least now he knows I wasn’t just making things up.

We sailed beautifully, a gentle 4-6 knots, until slam – the sails jibed. We were suddenly on a starboard tack. Sea breeze. That stayed with us until a couple miles off when the wind went to sleep and the iron jenny came to life.

Topographically, the region was dramatically different than what we had seen until now. No more cliffs. Now we saw low lying sand patches and dunes, with low hills beyond. We watched the planes landing in Faro seemingly along the beach in a city in the sand.  Lots of small sailboats came out for a nice sail on a Friday afternoon. The sun was hot but the wind was cool.

It was 3 pm when we arrived at the entrance to Faro, dead low tide. We entered between the breakwaters and the two lighthouses.  The charts showed a depth of 7 feet across the channel at MLW. We anchored in a very pleasant anchorage just where the channel splits to go to Olhao or to Faro. The entire area is sand flats, intriguing. We tidied up as we waited for the tide, but today’s range was only 2.5 meters.

We lifted our anchor and tiptoed into the main anchorage at Culatra with a flaky depth sounder and my android running Navionics in my hand as I steered up the creek. Alex kept having to reset the sounder. But we never had less than 16 feet on the way in.

The anchorage was nearly as crowded as Block Island when we arrived but there was still plenty of room and we tucked neatly between two German boats. There were boats from all over the world anchored here, some it appeared had been here a while.  Hecuba was just a few boats away. We tried to hail them on the VHF but they were ashore, having beers at the new concession stand on the beach on the Atlantic side. We met them for dinner at Jacoba, the first fish restaurant you come to ‘in town’ as you come ashore.  Two carafes of wine, sardinhas and squid, and a lovely evening passed quickly.

Hecuba was off in the morning heading for the Guadiana River that separate Portugal from Spain, our next stop but not for a day or so. Alex was still feeling pretty awful so we rested all morning and had lunch aboard before doing shore leave. Several years back, they had built a small craft harbour on Culatra. It is chock full of small fishing boats in a cheerful state of disarray in the harbour. There is a section of pontoon left clear for dinghies, which was much appreciated.

The island itself is very interesting. There are about 3000 residents and no cars, but plenty of old tractors that plow through the deep sand. The island is essentially a wide sand spit. The village has block houses, some of which are very plain, others highly decorated with interesting or curious gardens. The people are very nice and welcoming. There are two shops, an ice cream store, a shop selling beach items, and a shop selling tourist gifts like T-shirts. There are several restaurants, essentially where someone poured a concrete patio in front of their house and put in soms plastic chairs and tables. The décor is plain but the fish is fresh and simply prepared.

There is a new board walk across the island to the Atlantic side which is one long beach with impossibly deep white sand and turquoise sea under vivid blue skies. The occasional boat slides along the horizon and gets swallowed into the harbour.

There are umbrellas and lounge chairs to rent on the beach and a toilet just at its entrance. Some enterprising islander has set up a little hut selling beer, water, soft drinks and snacks from a solar powered hut. There are lifeguards there now and people come by the ferry load on weekends, but it’s otherwise pretty empty along most of the stretch.

Where sand spits jut out into the ocean, people dig clams with their feet in the sand, pulling up tiny clams in small quantities which give them much pleasure. Pretty shells litter the beach, and we got all excited when we thought we’d found ambergris, but it was not. I jumped in for a short swim, which was refreshing. The water was very clear but still Atlantic cold. The silkiness of the water on my skin felt lovely.

We walked back along the board walk across the dunes as throngs approached heading the other way – day trippers probably just off a packed ferry from Faro. We admired the homes along the ‘main street’ and bought an ice cream. We wondered how bleak it must be during winter gales out here on a strip of sand. But apparently there are boaters, especially Brits, who hole up here in the sand flats for overwintering aboard. When it gets too bad, they take the ferry to Faro from where it's a short walk to the airport, and they fly home for a spell. 

But we’d reached the end of the road, Alex was still under the weather and it was time to go home. Aleria was welcoming in the harbour. The boats all lined up in the same direction paying homage to the wind presented an orderly face to the world of visitors who pointed and took pictures of their favourite ones. Aleria was in many of their photos, we know. She has that look of interesting seafaring tradition, a sexiness that new boats haven’t acquired. Our oasis, very comfortable with her sun awning up. 

The occasional jet passing overhead on final approach to Faro was not even a bother, except at night, when they had landing lights directed below and lighting a swath through the harbour. Not to worry, it made finding our boat super easy on the way home. 

Aleria in the anchorage off Culatra