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Aisling I
The Mediterranean Meander Begins
Bonnie with a few notes from Rick
10/05/2007, Gibraltar to Almerimar

Although Gibraltar is just a short walk from Spain, it seemed a world away. After four months of traveling through Portugal and Spain, it actually felt peculiar to arrive in a town that is thoroughly English. The internet caf� was airing an episode of "Friends" on the TV, and our non-alcoholic beer was served warm, with ice. Apparently the British prefer real beer, so we decided to conform.

Nancy's flight landed in Seville at 2:30 in the afternoon, but from there she still faced a journey involving two bus rides, a walk across the border, and a taxi to the marina. By 8:30 p.m. I was getting anxious and decided to walk along the dock to search for her. Within a minute I spotted her, dragging an over-size duffel bag and staring around looking bemused and wide-eyed. I went dashing up the dock shouting her name and we had a noisy reunion that lasted until we realized we were standing in the middle of a dock-side restaurant and providing a great source of amusement for the clientele. Nancy's eyes got even wider when she saw our method of getting on and off the boat but we managed to hoist the duffle bag over the anchor without incident. We relaxed in the cockpit for a while trying out Rick's new sangria recipe, then went back up the dock for an Indian meal. Then we stayed up until 1 a.m., talking non-stop.

The next morning Nancy and I slept late, while Rick went trudging across town in the heat to get a "practique", the legal document that proves Aisling was out of the EU for VAT purposes. He was dripping in sweat but all smiles when he returned with the practique in hand. Eventually, we wandered over to Main Street to explore.

It seems that one duty-free port is much like another and if it hadn't been for the Bobbies, Elizabeth R mailboxes and British pubs on the corners, we might have thought we were in Philipsburg. After investigating a few camera shops and making a raid on Marks and Spencer's food section, we found a tiny tapas restaurant on a side street and tried some sardines in garlic oil, delicious little fish cakes and a little fish stew with herbs and saffron. Late in the afternoon we heard a military band strike up, and rushed down to the square just in time to see the "Ceremony of the Keys", commemorating the Great Siege of Gibraltar. Various onlookers informed us that this ceremony takes place every two months/twice a year/once a year- we're still not sure. In any case it was very impressive, very military and very British. There were private seats for all the dignitaries and we noticed, at the end that the Governor was driven off with much ceremony, in a chauffered Jaguar with 4 police escorts wearing suits and ties, on motorcycles. The next dignitary was escorted with 2 police motorcyclists in a smaller Rover and the Archbishop left next in a Hyundai, alone. ?

The next day, we set off for a tour of "The Rock". Our fellow passengers in the eight-seat minibus were all from the cruise ship "Princess"-an Israeli family currently living in South Africa (who were even more appalled by the Gibraltar prices than we were) and an older woman from Moscow who chatted to us cheerfully throughout the tour in spite of the fact that we could only understand about half of what she was saying. (This provided considerable insight into what the Spanish are experiencing when we try to ask them directions.) Our cab driver and "tour guide" threw out tidbits of information on Gibraltar's history along the way. (Did you know that the town of "La Linea" is named because this was "the line" the cannon balls could reach during the battles between the Spanish and British for control of Gibraltar?) We toured the St. Michael's caves, the Great Siege tunnels and the Moorish castle- and of course visited the macaques. Nancy posed with an ape on her shoulder; Rick and I declined. But some guys just won't take no for an answer and one decided to jump onto Rick's back anyway- yikes! Later, we took a tour of a section of the 70km of tunnels that were used by the Allies during World War II. Our tour guide "Smudge" (Smith) was full of fascinating information. Five thousand men and three hundred women lived and worked in these tunnels. The majority of the men were underground six days a week- on the seventh day they had a day off when they could go out onto the base, get some sunshine, play football and drink a few beers. Not much socializing with civilians though- there were few remaining on the Rock during that period, because most had been evacuated-probably to places far less safe than Gibraltar, which was not attacked during WWII.

Nancy was itching to get to Spain, and we were itching to get into the Med, so we decided to get going. First, we filled our tanks with fuel- diesel is only 57 pence ($1.14) per liter in Gibraltar compared to 1.01 Euros (about $1.50) in Spain. Then it was around the corner and into the Med- an exciting moment in our journey! The view of the Rock is much more spectacular from the Med side- we took photo after photo- Nancy with the Rock in the background, Rick and Bonnie with the Rock in the background, Rick and Nancy with the Rock in the background...

We had hoped to go to Estapona, but the marina didn't have room for us and we couldn't anchor because we needed to clear back into Spain. Our only choice was Sotogrande-an ultra-expensive marina in a swish resort that certainly did not satisfy Nancy's longing to get to Spain. Lots of restaurants on shore- but not a Spanish one in sight. We had dinner in an Italian restaurant- very good actually- and our Hungarian waiter was very charming. We would classify the Sotogrande stop as "unremarkable".

The next morning we were shocked to hear that our berth cost 70 Euros a night, so we cancelled our plans for a swim and decided to move on. We were able to anchor just off the beach in Estapona, with a view of Gibraltar off our port side and a view of the mountains on the bow. This is an exposed anchorage from the south and east but there is good holding in 15' in sand just off the beach, very near the center of town. The weather was calm and hot for the two days we were there. We put out a stern anchor to align ourselves with the incoming swell, which made the boat very comfortable. Estapona has been highly developed in the unfortunate Costa del Sol style, but the town has retained much of its original character, and there are very few tourists in September. The long sand beach was almost deserted, and the water was 23 degrees, so we finally had our swim in the Med.

Our next stop was Caleta Velez. The weather was unsettled, with a frontal passage expected that night, so we were relieved to get the last berth at the marina. It cost 23.40 Euros for the 19m berth. Unfortunately we were not the only occupants- several dozen seagulls were already in residence and the dock was a mess, coated white with guano. This is a working fishing harbour with lots of boats coming and going. It is quite a walk into town so we decided to eat on the boat and get to bed early in order to leave at 7:00am for Almerimar. We were still a bit apprehensive about Almerimar retaining a winter berth for us as there are no prior reservations permitted. It's first come first served. This after many emails to them explaining our concerns and need of a confirmation. Their last email said don't worry they will have a berth for us- this is the Spanish way, I guess.

The passage was 60 miles with no wind for the first few hours and a heavy swell that had been generated by the frontal passage the night before. The sea was littered with debris and was almost like an obstacle course in parts. This was the result of heavy rains in the mountains that had caused severe flooding in much of Andaluc�a. We arrived in Almerimar in Force 5-6 winds. This is a very shallow entrance with much silting and the west winds created a strong current at the mouth and inside the marina. Good news though-they did have a place for us for the winter and also a berth in the water for 2 weeks for 9.40 euros a night, as we explore Almerimar, Almeria and Granada with Nancy and await the arrival of Doug and Liz.

South Spain & Gibraltar 2007
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We Smell the Med
09/26/2007, Gibraltar

Thirty two degrees in the shade is the reading on our thermometer here in Gibraltar. It's HOT!!! We find ourselves seeking the shady side of the street when walking, even in early morning. We lie low during the main heat of the day, when it is even hotter.

It has been quite a week, especially from a historical perspective. We have stayed south of Huelva on the same river Columbus sailed down in his caravelles to find the new world. Then on to Rota in Cadiz Harbour, which has been occupied by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, the British and is now part of Spain. Rota is a beautiful old town with narrow alleys, Moorish and Iberian architecture and a long sandy beach that stretches for four kilometers. The marina was very close to the beach and the town, and we explored quite a bit by foot. One day, we saw some tents being set up in the square and decided to wander back in the evening to check it out. It was the 8th "Feria de la Tapa"- how perfect is that? For three days, restaurants from the area served their tapas specialties for 1.80 euro a plate (beer and wine, one euro a glass). It was yummy. As we are constantly starved for the company of English speakers, when we heard some English being spoken we gravitated to a crowd of about six guys. It turns out they all work for NASA and were in Rota to train ground crew at the base in case the space shuttle was forced to make an emergency landing. Most were physicians, although one did training on how to get in and out of space suits. He claimed his title was "Insertion Specialist"- he must have had a great business card! He also claimed to be the grandson of the actress who played June Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver. Yes, this was a night for tall tales, and we had a great time talking and discussing the world while munching down tapas and drinking beer. Rota is a place you could hang out in for a year or two, we think. But the clock said we had to get moving to Gibraltar.

From Rota, we sailed for Barbate. This route took us around Cape Trafalgar, where Napoleon's ambitions to conquer Britain were foiled by Lord Nelson. Nelson's fleet chased the French fleet across to the Caribbean and back to Cadiz, where Nelson finally fought the combined French and Spanish fleets. Nelson's famous flag signal was "England expects every man to do his duty." Although Nelson was killed n the battle, the British gave the French and Spanish a resounding defeat and Britain controlled the seas. This battle shaped history for the next 100 years. It was remarkable to sail through that area. It must have been very challenging for both fleets as there are lots of shallow spots nearby and any time you pass a cape there are unpredictable winds. I wonder if they had to deal with all those fish nets and traps? ?

Barbate was just a quick overnighter where we made our plans to sail around Tarifa and into the Strait of Gibraltar. It can be a tricky passage because of the currents and the Levanter. Well, we had all of it against us, winds from the east up to 25 knots and in spite of our careful study the tide was against us as well, except for the last hour. We were determined to get to Gibraltar so we powered through it for seven hours. The Strait, as you can imagine is very busy and we generally had 12 or more vessels on the AIS at a time. Fortunately there is a well controlled traffic zone and we were able to easily stay clear of the traffic. In spite of the banging and crashing going to windward it was great scenery. There were hundreds of power-generating windmills around Tarifa, high mountains on the Spanish side and the hazy mountains of Morocco beckoned in the south.

As we pulled into Gibraltar Harbour, it was packed with vessels of every description, many at anchor but others were on the move The high speed Cat ferry from Cueta barreled by us within 500 meters and warships were weaving through the mess. In the middle was little old us trying to hold on in all the wash. In the roll, it took us a while to hang the eight bumpers and prepare the lines for our first Med moor at Queensway Quay. It was hard to even see the entrance as there are moles running every which way and the entrance is 90 degrees to the shore but we found it and the Med moor was surprisingly easy in the end. It helps to have someone ashore to help grab the lines. Getting off the boat was another story. The eight-foot plank we had carried on deck all the way from Halifax would not work, so in the end we lowered our Spade anchor about two feet off the bow and were able to use it as a step to climb on and off the boat. It's not perfect but it works.

We have spent the usual day getting the boat cleaned and ready for Nancy's arrival tonight- she will be onboard for the exciting moment when we go around the corner into the Med.

There is definitely a difficult side to cruising so far away from home. Yesterday we had a call from Katherine, telling us that she has been diagnosed with pneumonia. Needless to say, we are very worried. Thankfully, Bonnie's mother has come to the rescue yet again and is flying to Toronto today to make sure she is looked after.

The Picture is from our Chart plotter of all the AIS targets in Gibraltar Harbour. The little red dot on the West side of Gibraltar is Aisling in the Marina.

We will fill you in on our Gibraltar travels later. All the best from Aisling I.

South Spain & Gibraltar 2007
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Weaving through Spanish Puertos
09/20/2007, Rota,Spain

Dazzling sunshine reflected off the water as we departed the Rio Guadiana for Mazagon (pronounced Math-a-gon) near Huelva. At the mouth of the river, dozens of sports fishermen in tiny motorboats managed multiple lines as they shielded themselves from the sun with brightly-coloured umbrellas. In light wind and with the tide at half flood, we watched the depth sounder readings drop from 25 feet to 11.5 feet as we passed the outer buoy. From there, we were quickly into 50 foot depths, but with no possibility of relaxing as our route became an obstacle course of the all-too-familiar buoys marking fishing nets. These buoys are difficult to see even on calm days, and it is nerve-wracking to know that a moment of inattention could result in a fouled propeller. We probably added an extra mile to our track as we wove our way through hundreds of tiny flags.

There is an anchorage in the lee of the Mazagon marina mole, but since we were in dire need of a laundry facility we passed it by. The marina was exactly as the Imray guide had described- large, uninteresting and a long way from the town. As usual, we were assigned a berth on a gated pontoon, which required a security card for access. This time, there is a new twist- they have no access cards available. When can we get one? Maybe tomorrow, maybe Monday, maybe later, they are not sure. He is so sorry, but there is nothing he can do. But senhor, the intercom on the gate is broken- how will we get to our boat? No problema, just come to the office when you want to get in, we will open the gate. Hmm, we will have to consult our phrasebook for the Spanish translation of "Please open the gate to pontoon G, but not too soon because it will take us five minutes to walk over there". Fortunately, Rick devises a method of climbing over the fence to the rocks below the ramp, so we will be fine unless we want to leave the boat when the tide is high. In spite of these minor annoyances, the sight of the single washer and dryer in the service building cheers me immensely. The marina also has a surprisingly large selection of marine supply stores, and a small bar/café where wireless internet is available.

In the laundry room, we met Marie, a friendly and beautiful woman from the south of France. She and her husband Christophe are staying in Mazagon for a year as they prepare their boat for a journey to Brazil, Patagonia and perhaps the Antarctic. She invited us to meet them and their friends in the café that afternoon, and we had a very enjoyable time sharing stories in a mixture of English and French. As we parted ways at the gate to Aisling's slip, Christophe was very amused by Rick's method of access. "You have to know the trick", he said, and deftly opened the door with one well-placed kick.

With our access problems solved, we considered lingering another day to enjoy the company of our new friends, but decided to sail to Chipiona as planned. As we sailed away, we recalled that Columbus had departed from Huelva for his voyage to the Americas, but the industrial surroundings and the sound of our motor (no wind, again) prevented us from imagining that we were standing on the deck of the Nina.

The Chipiona marina was also experiencing a shortage of access cards, but this proved to be irrelevant since all the security gates had been ingeniously rigged with plastic twine to remain permanently open. Most of the marina seemed to be populated by large motor cruisers, and the water around Aisling's berth was murky and filled with floating garbage. Since the Imray guide described Chipiona as a "pleasant holiday town", we set out to do some exploring. At 8 p.m., the streets were almost deserted, and most of the restaurants were shuttered. As the time approached 830 p.m., the town gradually came to life, and we wandered along the beachfront boardwalk sharing the view of the beautiful sunset with a thin crowd of Spanish tourists. Eventually, we settled at a table in front of a small bar where huge hanks of dried ham hung from hooks in the ceiling and wine was served from large barrels with spigots. We ordered a plate of boquerones, had the usual discussion about whether or not to eat the fishbones (I say eat them, Rick says no way) and then tried a plate of "carne variad". This turned out to be a large plate of roasted pork and grilled sausages instead of the cured ham Rick had hoped for. It was tasty, but the plate was so large that dinner was out of the question. In any case, our appetites disappeared when what appeared to be a large flying cockroach descended on Rick's shirt. Two of these creatures emerged from our sailcover when we prepared to leave Chipiona, and I am living in terror that there could be more. I have bought some traps, just in case.

Spain's tourist season begins to wane by mid-September, and the town of Chipiona remained quiet during our stay. During siesta (from 2.30 to 5.30 p.m.) the streets were eerily empty. Other than cafes, everything was "todo cerrado"- offices, businesses, even large grocery stores. This is a noticeable difference from Portugal, where lunches are a mere two hours and many businesses remain open throughout the day. The siesta could be a nice innovation for Canada- but then, would you really want to report back to work at 530 p.m. and stay until 830? The Spanish seem to be very nocturnal- dinner is eaten very late in the evening, and many offices and businesses don't open until 10 a.m. (Hey Mom, you'd love it here!)

From Chipiona, we moved on to Rota, in Cadiz harbour. It is a lovely place, and if we weren't so determined to make it into the Med this year I could cheerfully linger here for a month. We have decided to wait here for Nancy Lewis, who will arrive on the 26th and sail with us through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Med. I pray we will be blessed with fair winds on a day when the daylight tides are favourable.

We'll write more about Rota soon-till then, all the best from Aisling 1!

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South Spain & Gibraltar 2007
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Bonnie and Rick

We didn't understand what a big deal the Ayamonte fiesta was until we met the friendly taxi driver who drove us back to the marina after we dropped off the rental car. Without using a word of English (but with fluent body language accompanying his Spanish) he made us understand that every business in the city was closed for fiesta, that the bullfight would have six bulls and a famous matador, that a big procession would happen after the bullfight, and that there would be many beautiful women wearing mantillas, dresses and lots of make-up. Instead of taking us directly to the marina, he drove us through the town to point out the locations for the events -no extra cost for the detour.

It is hard to explain why Rick and I suddenly decided that attending a Spanish bullfight was an acceptable idea. Unlikely Portugal, they do kill the bulls in the ring here, and we had previously agreed that we weren't interested in seeing such a brutal spectacle. Perhaps it was the taxi driver's enthusiasm- and the fact that the bullfight seemed to be such an integral aspect of the fiesta. Or perhaps we were influenced by our Lonely Planet guide, which says that "to witness (a bullfight) is not necessarily to approve of it, but might give insight into the tradition and thinking..." In any event, without even consulting Christopher, we headed straight from the taxi to the arena, and bought three tickets for the 7 p.m. "corrida", on the sunny side of the arena. At 40 euros/ticket for the sunny side (versus 50 euros/ticket for the shady side) this was not an inexpensive venture.

As we walked toward the arena, a brass band in white military-type uniforms marched down the street ahead of us. By 6:45 we were settled onto the hard concrete seats of the Plaza de Toros, equipped with the complementary straw hats and fans that were handed out at the door. The arena was not full- perhaps the tide is beginning to turn against this "sport". (Apparently, Spanish public TV has recently decided not to broadcast the bullfights-a very controversial decision.)

Ayamonte is not a tourist destination, and the event we attended was probably quite typical of those staged in small towns around the country. Unlike our experience at the bullfight in Terceira, we had no one to explain the process to us, so it was difficult to follow the sequence of events. Two formally dressed men seated at the top of the arena appeared to be overseeing the fight. There were wooden screens placed strategically around the perimeter of the ring to provide places for the team to hide from the bull. A single horseman on a white horse entered the arena and the brass band began to play as the matadors, picadors and banderilleros paraded in. Then each bull was released into the ring, had its ferocity demonstrated by matadors using magenta and gold capes, and was systematically weakened by a series of wounds delivered by the picadors and banderilleros. At times, the anxiety of the picadors was palpable. Still, given the fact that it is one bull against a team of six men (who can duck behind the wooden screens when the bull charges) it is hardly what you would call a fair fight.

There were three matadors, one of whom looked considerably older than the others. Each matador fought two bulls. The performances of the younger two were admittedly impressive, but the older matador was obviously past his prime and was booed by the crowd. (He actually fell near the feet of the first bull, but the other matadors quickly came to his assistance and lured the bull away.) In the final stage of each fight, the matador performs a series of passes with a red cape, and kills the bull with a sword thrust. Presumably, certain of the matador's moves, such as turning his back to the bull, are intended to demonstrate bravery. The spectators waved white handkerchiefs and threw hats and fans into the ring when they were pleased with a matador's performance. When they were displeased, some empty water bottles were thrown. At the conclusion of the fight, the star matador, "El Capea", was carried around the arena on the shoulders of a spectator, having been awarded with the ears of two bulls. Ugh.

During the first "fight", all three of us were focusing on the bull and felt so disgusted that we considered leaving. As the evening progressed and successive bulls charged into the ring, we found ourselves focusing less on the bull and more on the bullfighters. Somehow, the spectacle of the ceremony and the skilled performance of the matadors seemed to distract us from the fate of the bull- it was a strange transition. The experience provided a lot of insight into Spanish culture and the nature of the controversy around bullfighting, but I would not want to attend another.

The rest of the evening was a lot more fun. We headed for a small caf� outside the town's "casino", (which is really a small tavern where elderly men play pool, cards and a domino-type game) and settled in to watch the crowd. We'd been told that the procession would start shortly after the bullfight, and by 11 p.m. we were getting worried that we had somehow missed it. I decided to approach the elderly couple at the next table and tried to ask them whether the procession was over. The wife, whose expert wielding of her large fan had been a source of great fascination to Rick, motioned that she was hard of hearing and pointed to the husband. The husband-doubtless as a result of my abysmal Spanish-thought that I was asking him which foods on the menu were good. We nodded enthusiastically during his long explanation of which items were "mucho bueno" and then decided we had no choice but to order some food. We followed his recommendations on the calamares and boquerones (sardines) and both were delicious. As the couple left, the husband told us that he owned a restaurant in Cadiz, and that it was much better than this one!

The street beside us gradually became deeply lined with spectators on both sides. Finally, at about 1130, the procession came past. It was amazing- hundreds of elaborately dressed Ayamonteans- women wearing classic high headdresses with mantillas, men in formal suits, military officers in uniform, altar boys carrying huge crosses and priests swinging incense balls. Just as a huge glittering float with a statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ came abreast of us, the procession stopped and fireworks started to go off overhead. It was one of those "I can't believe I'm here" moments.

We spent the next few days relaxing, cooking onboard and occasionally wandering out to explore the town. By watching where the local crowd gathered, we were able to find a much better tapas restaurant on the corner of one of the inner streets and had some wonderful clams and shrimp that rivaled the ones we had in Seville. We also took the ferry back over to Portugal to visit the small town of Villa Real de Santa Antonio and to book Christopher's train ticket to Lisbon. There was not much of interest in Villa Real and we were glad that we had chosen to pass by the marina there and pull into Ayamonte.

Last night was Christopher's last night and he chose to spend it on board cooking us a wonderful pasta with a made-from-scratch tomato/shrimp/sausage sauce. All other pretenders for the best-on-board meal have now been eliminated! It was fortunate that we had decided to eat on board, because a huge thunder and lightening storm began at about 9 o'clock and continued late into the night. We were happy to be tucked safely into the marina.

We left Christopher at the Villa Real train station shortly after noon today, and had one last galao before we boarded the ferry to leave Portugal for the last time- at least on this trip. We had now crossed the border between Portugal and Spain eleven times in just over a month. Small wonder we can never remember whether to say gracias or obrigado! On the ferry ride back, we noticed two sailboats at anchor in the river on the east side just inside the last green mark, opposite the Portuguese ferry dock. So, it appears you can anchor here, although the Imray guide does not mention it.

Things seem very lonely on board tonight. Christopher has just called to say he made it to Lisbon with no delays. He will be overnighting in a hotel in Lisbon and flying home in the morning. Hopefully no lost luggage on the return trip!

We have really enjoyed Ayamonte but it will soon be time to move on. From here, we'll be taking things at a slower pace on the way to Gibraltar. There are a few options- cruise up the river Guadiana (which might offer the bonus of killing some of the three months worth of growth on our hull), head directly to Magazon (where, I sincerely hope, a laundry facility awaits) or sail directly to Chipiona and up the Guadalquivir River to Seville. If we decide to return to Seville by boat, it appears we will face our first experience with med-mooring...and in a river current. It's a bit intimidating on a boat that has its own mind in reverse, a wind vane on the canoe stern and no proper pasarelle. We will keep you posted.

South Spain & Gibraltar 2007
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