SPAIN AND PORTUGAL
 

We finally got away from Lagos on Wednesdy 14th July. Sadly Portugal lost the big game which was a real pity because we would have been in on the mother of all parties.

As planned we only hopped down the coast about ten miles to Portimaio, where we anchored behind the sea wall. The anchorage is very pretty with cliffs on the eastern side, the only downside being the wash from fishing boats - day and night. We don't mind that because time is money to them and they charge around at speed. However, ask Mike what he thinks about jetskis, big powerboats and the morons who drive them - but stand back when he tells you.

We stayed the next day and did absolutely nothing. Probably the first full day off since we set off.

On the 16th we headed down to the Olhau lagoons, near Faro. We had been receiving radio messages and emails from other Rally boats saying "you must get down here, you won't believe this place". Since we knew some of the boats were leaving Olhau soon, we set off on a steaming hot day with no wind - so it was out with the 'Italian light airs genoa' (the engine). We arrived hot and tired about an hour before dusk, so having negotiated some overfalls at the entrance, we didn't want to push our luck with some tricky pilotage to the lagoons and simply anchored off the village on Isla da Culatra.

Roy and Sue from Vindomar came over and filled us in on the place and the pilotage information we needed for the next morning. Then Adrian and Sue from Lalize popped over to give us more information and stayed for a drink. Quite a welcome - thank you all.

The following morning we crept carefully to the east and parked amongst the other boats, near the beach. There were 8 Rally boats there when we arrived although Moonshadow Star was preparing to leave for Gibraltar. I can only describe the place as a beautiful nothing. There is absolutely nothing there except a beautiful beach on the lagoon side, with wide sand dunes that you can walk over to reach the Atlantic side - where there is...nothing, just more miles and miles of the most wonderful beaches and dunes. There are a lot of birds there such as storks and terns and at night if the tide is out you can hear birds calling to each other on the mud flats. We believe the area has a fairly low level conservation order protecting it, which hopefully will keep the developers out. It would be a crying shame if they ever got near this place. The only thing to be aware of is the weed that gets into water filters if you are running the engine/generator/fridge/watermaker. Once aware though regular monitoring and clearance solves any problem.

We stayed two weeks, the first time. However, just because there is nothing there doesn't mean there is nothing to do and we hadn't really stocked the boat for two weeks in the wilds.

The other boats told us it was possible to take the dinghy (by various routes through the sand banks, subject to tide level) to the town of Olhau - two big market halls with meat/fish and fruit/vegetables; free Internet access for half an hour etc etc. A really great place.

They also said that with care you could take the yacht up to an unfinished marina (no fuel, water or electricity), which was FREE. They had also sussed out that there was a public water fountain right next to the marina, shove in a short length of hose and fill as many cans as you want. Plus diesel was easily available from a garage, near where we could leave a dinghy.

This was sounding good, so Jane went off on a scouting/shopping trip with Cedric and Janet from Trillium Wind, in their dinghy. We did the same thing a few days later, so Mike could take a look at the marina and the pilotage issues.

Over the course of the next few days the majority of other Rally boats went on their separate ways either further along the coast or on to the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, all was not quiet at the anchorage. Adrian and Sue on Lalize held a drinks party before everyone disappeared, good time had by all! Then it began to get hotter. And hotter. And hotter. On Saturday the 24th it was over 40 degrees C in the shade. And it still got hotter, peaking at 44.9 degrees C (112 degrees F and an Algarve all-time record) on the Sunday. We were very lucky in that we could go to the beach and get in the water, but we can now see why people die in such temperatures. The air off the land was like a hairdryer, making it difficult to breathe with virtually no humidity. And food wise, we could just about manage cold baked beans on bread!

The heat also brought on a couple of 'plagues'. One day the boat was covered in flies and Mike had a field day with the swatter. But on another day the rigging was covered in dragonflies. We counted around 40 of them, mainly yellow but also some red ones. Then the real trouble started. Forest fires, over a dozen of them at one point. The Portuguese had to bring in extra fire fighting planes from Spain, Italy and Greece, picking up water in our lagoon. We had ash dumped on us for three days, a pain but we just kept washing the boat. Our problems paled when we thought of the poor Portuguese, living under the smoke, homes destroyed...

During this period we took the yacht up to Olhau marina on the 28th and back to the anchorage on the 31st. Apart from restocking we also treated ourselves to a meal at a fish restaurant, to make up for the beans!

One thing we had been told was that it was possible to collect cockles on the beach at low tide, so we did (but you need to get the grit out, which we had problems with, so I'll return to this later). Mike had also spotted that people were using special squid lures, so he bought a couple in Olhau.

He was fishing early on August 1st when he caught an octopus (well, what do you expect with a squid lure?). It was a sizeable fellow about two feet long, which Mike prepared and we ate for lunch. According to Mike he was wrestling with it on the foredeck and it was a close run thing who came out on top "what with the tentacles wrapped round my neck". Yes, quite.

All good things must come to an end and we wanted to head towards Spain, so we left the lagoons with heavy hearts on Monday 2nd August. Next stop was Tavira, apparently a very pretty town that we really wanted to see. According to the pilot book it is possible to anchor to the west of some fixed moorings. Well you can anchor but with wind over tide the boat sheers around into either the shallows or the main buoyed channel, used by ferries and fishing boats. We didn't dare leave the boat and spent a very worrying night before getting out as soon as we could. Very disappointing.

One thing I haven't mentioned is that most anchorages and marinas are up rivers, which have shifting sand banks and cross currents at their mouths. This makes for some 'interesting' entrances and is definitely not for the faint hearted. The main thing is don't go in in heavy weather and try to do the entry at half flood, then if you do go aground you should be able to get off with the rising tide.

This affected us as we left Tavira early, heading to the Rio Guadiana between Spain and Portugal. We had a good 20 knots of wind and we were going too fast (somewhat unusual for us!) i.e. we would arrive before half flood. In the end we were sailing under a tiny patch of genoa still doing four knots. We just about got it right but the entrance was pretty fearsome, at one point we only had 0.9 metres beneath the keel, with the boat pointing 45 degrees off the direction we were actually travelling. Eventually the tide picked us up and we shot into the river at over seven knots.

Rather than going straight up the river we spent the rest of the day anchored just north of the Spanish town of Ayamonte, waiting for our heartbeats to go down. A dinghy from an American flagged yacht came over and said "Kelly's Eye, yes she is Kelly's Eye, we last saw your boat in Florida - how are Adrian and Barbara (the previous owners)?" It was Bud and Cathy from Invictus IV, who had last seen the boat in 1998 in the USA, what a small world. They are heading back over the Atlantic this year after 4 years in the Med.

The next day we headed up river into 30 knot headwinds. The scenery is small, dry hills creating the feeling of small gorges sometimes seemingly closed at each end. As the water gets less saline so the bamboo starts in thickets along the river banks. Apart from a couple of small villages on the Portuguese side there is no development until, 20 miles up river, you come to the villages of Alcoutim (Portugal) and Sanlucar de Guadiana (Spain). We anchored on the Spanish side.

We stayed four or five days and highlights included a visit by Peter and Angela from the yacht Calypso, who we first met in the Olhau lagoons and they also own a finca just south of Sanlucar. We had been a bit worried about water pollution because we kept seeing dead fish, but Peter explained that they are barbel whose roe is prized by the Portuguese. They remove the roe and throw the dead fish back in - apparently it is illegal.

We had also heard that there was a beach on the Portuguese side - 20 miles inland, this we had to see. What they have done is dammed a tributary to the Guadiana, brought in sand (shells and all) and built some small loos and bar and erected sun umbrellas along the shore line. The place even has an EU blue flag for water cleanliness! Quite extraordinary and highly enterprising with the bonus of spotting a kingfisher and blue dragonflies on the way back to the boat.

The whole visit was rather surreal because we could jump in the dinghy and go to a different country, with a different language, different food and a one hour time difference, in a matter of minutes.

On Sunday 8th we headed back down river into 30 knot headwinds again (unbelievable) with cloud and rain threatening. We then anchored just north of Ayamonte again because we wanted to get into the marina there, not least to wash everything in fresh water. This was when we began to discover the problems with Spanish marinas that were to plague us and cause us to change our plans. Basically the marinas won't take bookings and if you ask them if they have a berth available tomorrow, they say contact us tomorrow. It took us two days to get into Ayamonte, during which time we had the first bad weather with cloud and drizzle all day on the 9th.

Once into the marina, we discovered the next problem - they won't guarantee that you can stay in the berth for a set period; meaning you might have to change berth or indeed have to leave the marina. Since later on we wanted to hire a car and go inland for a number of days this was ominous.

We stayed in the marina for six days, partly to give ourselves time to plan where we went next, bearing in mind the marina problems, and partly "trapped" because we needed the right tide at the right time for a safe river exit, with time to make the next destination in daylight (too many unlit fishing buoys for night sailing inshore). However we made good use of the time, with some meals out; a visit to a small zoo with a fearsome tiger; I made a riding sail to hold the boat to windward when at anchor etc etc.

We wanted to get to Rota to put us within easy driving distance of Jerez but we were told the marina was always full. However Mazagon, about 40 miles east of us apparently usually did have berths and we decided to head there. We left Ayamonte early on the morning of the the 16th, and with an ebb tide and 25 knots of wind behind us we shot out the river. Unfortunately the wind died through the morning and we ended up motoring the last part of the journey.

Mazagon took us in with no problems but informed us that we might have to move berths. This was not good because we wanted to hire a car, so the following day I put them under pressure. They finally admitted that our berth was 'free' until early September(!) so we could stay until then, if we wanted. Quite what the problem with these marinas is we don't know. They are all linked to each other and they have fully computerised berthing systems. Maybe the fact they are all government owned says it all. Unfortunately as you head further down the Spanish coast there are few safe places to anchor off so that's why a marina berth was an issue.

Anyway, that gave us the go-ahead to hire a car. We drove up to Huelva, further up the river from Mazagon. Huelva was where Christopher Columbus set off from and they have a small museum plus full size replicas of his three ships. Our yacht with its satcomm kit, watermaker etc would seem like a spaceship to the boys who sailed those ships, they must have been seriously brave.

Then we went to El Rocio, at the northern end of the Coto Donana. It can best be described as a cowboy town. The streets are sand and it takes a while to realise there are no road signs (and, obviously, no road markings). Some people still ride about town on their beautiful horses and there are hitching rails outside most houses! Unfortunately it's a bit touristy (Spanish only) because there is a famous church there and people come to on pilgrimage pray to the Virgin of El Rocio.

There was also a lake alongside the church, with lots of water birds we didn't recognise and many pink flamingos. If you ever get a chance to see flamingos feed, watch their legs! Overall it is a great place, where presumably many of the residents work in the wetlands so there is an amazing juxtaposition of four wheel drives and horses.

However, the real reason for the car was to visit the Coto Donana, the famous Spanish wetlands and a huge conservation area. At this time of year we knew the wetlands would be drylands so we weren't quite sure what to expect. We certainly weren't disappointed.

We booked a tour that started at 8.30am, in an all-terrain four wheel drive Mercedes bus with guide, that took us 70 kilometers around the park. We started on the beach, then through the dunes, then the forest, then the margins where water is just below the surface, then on to the dry lake bed. Needless to say the flora and fauna change dramatically and the transition between each is fascinating.

Birds and animals we saw included: Lots of wild cattle and horses; wild boar; the rare Audouin's gull; both types of booted eagle; lots of Hoopoe's; red and fallow deer; a very rare black heron. The guide, who was outstanding, also pointed out what he called 'the eye of the marsh'. In the parched, cracked lake bed was a bubbling wet area about 8 feet in diameter - quicksand! There was also a small surprise at the end. Unique to southern Spain and Portugal is the azure winged magpie. We had heard there was a flock up the river Guadiana but we didn't see them. Then we sat down in the picnic area after the tour and there were dozens of them - similar size to a normal magpie but a beautiful pale brown and blue colouring.

We would love to go back in the early Spring when all the migrating birds are there, but this is a 'must visit' place at any time of year. Mike reckons it's one of the best things he's ever done.

Since we hadn't gone as far east as expected, (due to the marina issue and inability to contact places in Jerez we wanted to go to, August was not a good month to be trying all this!) we were now ahead of schedule in terms of getting back to Lagos to head down to the Canaries - so we had some time to 'kill'. There was only one thing to do - Olhau lagoons here we come! We set off early on the 26th and motorsailed upwind in light airs for 55 miles. We arrived near dusk again but this time went straight to the deserted anchorage.

I can't tell you much more about the place but we did crack the grit in cockles problem - hang them under the boat in a net bag for 24 hours. So it was cockles for lunch. We also discovered that at low tide on the Atlantic side you could collect clams. So Mike cooked clams and spaghetti for dinner - excellent.

The Canadian yacht Eidos came in and parked in front of us, total crew consisting of Barbara. We had drinks on each other's boats and she told us it was all change at the free marina in Olhau. Everyone had been told to leave because they wanted to do some work on the marina. It didn't really affect us because we took the dinghy over for supplies but there were some boats that were effectively living in the marina and it would have caused them some real problems (one lady was pregnant and being treated by the local hospital).

The temperature dropped to 24 degrees C and we had cloud and wind from a bad weather system west of Portugal - we weren't used to that! So we didn't do much pottering on the beach but mainly read books and fixed some small things on the boat. Our attraction to wildlife seems to continue, one morning we found a Preying Mantis up by the anchor chain. Quite where he'd come from we had no idea. We tried to feed it, limp lettuce was not a hit, nor were other insects we thought he might prefer (major wracking of memory to dredge up David Attenborough programmes) and unfortunately he expired after a few days.

I had booked a flight home on September 7th to see my mother and brother and pick up some things we needed at the Southampton Boat Show. So we headed back to Lagos on Saturday the 4th, with another motorsail upwind, albeit accompanied by dolphins.

I flew home as planned and Mike stayed on the boat preparing for the Canaries passage. One thing he discovered was a broken switch on a water pump but I also got him to do important things like clean the fridge! I arrived back with double the luggage I'd left with, which I don't think was much of a surprise to Mike. Since then we've cleaned the water tanks, aired bedding, sorted out our wooden plank - now a smart passaralle, mended the Log, and generally prepared for the next leg down to Graciosa and Lanzarote. The next site update will be done in the Canaries.