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Wednesday, May 18, 2011, in Portosin, Spain

Hi all. We made it across the Bay of Biscay, so our most challenging sailing for the season is probably behind us. Just to catch up and in the interest of length (I do go on sometimes), this note will only take you up to our arrival in Spain after the long sail. The story picks up from when we were still in Lymington. This coming Sunday, I’ll bring you up to date until the present.

At the end of our first week, our friend Vickie arrived. Vickie is a veteran of offshore cruising and of Hallberg-Rassy boats, and is simply darned fun to be around. We were lucky that her schedule coincided with ours, and we were determined to exploit her as much as we could.

Alas, our Monday departure was delayed because of uncooperative weather. So we decided to find something local to do, and what we found was the Solent Way.

The Solent is the name of the body of water between our marina and the Isle of Wight, and the Solent Way is a 60-mile footpath that winds around the Hampshire coast. Apparently, it’s part of the E9 European Coastal Path, an ambitious route that runs from Portugal to Estonia, a distance of 5000 kilometers (3125 miles.) I found this a little strange, as Britain isn’t actually connected by land to Portugal. As it turns out, part of this foot journey takes place on a ferry.

The Solent Way part takes you along the coast, but diverts inland constantly around tiny estuaries. The trail is beautifully groomed and generously marked. There’s a constant stream, at least this time of year, of birds: gulls, oystercatchers, swans, herons, and geese. People jogged the route, or walked their dogs, or watched the birds with binoculars, or set up tripods to capture the scene in photos. We simply walked to a town called Keyhaven, which overlooks a fort called Hurst Castle (not to be confused with Hearst Castle, the American shrine to excess created by William Randolph Hearst.) Hurst Castle is less a palace and more a fortification. It was originally constructed under Henry VIII, and was specially sited so that the enormous currents would thwart any enemy approaches by sea. Its claim to fame is that Charles I was imprisoned there in 1648 before his trial and execution in London. A local man told us that it didn’t take a long stay in the castle for Charles I to beg to be taken to London and killed. Anything to get out of the cold, wet fort.

We arrived at Keyhaven at about noon, a place with not much more than a pub in town. All we needed was a pub, though. We opted out of walking the five-mile path back to Lymington and got a taxi back instead.

Though the next day’s weather wasn’t right to head right to France, it was perfect for a day trip to Weymouth, which would give us a better angle for our trip across the English Channel. We enjoyed our stay in Weymouth last season, where we renewed acquaintances with a couple (Alan and Eleanor) we’d met while we were all sailing in the Mediterranean. We’d stayed in Weymouth about a week, because we made the decision there to pay the tax that Europeans all pay to own a boat in the European Union.

Up until now, we�������������d avoided the tax (called the VAT) because we aren’t EU citizens, and the rules allow us to visit countries in Europe tax-free as long as we leave every eighteen months. This isn’t hard for us to accomplish, because it’s always in our plans to see countries that don’t participate, such as Norway, Turkey, and Tunisia. On our first pass through the Mediterranean, EU avoidance was much easier, because Malta and Croatia hadn’t yet been admitted. So two things have complicated this process: some of the countries that had allowed us to leave the EU are no longer tax sanctuaries for us; and the taxing authorities are getting more aggressive in tracking down possible taxpayers.

When we did the cost-benefit analysis whether to pay the tax or keep managing the length of our visits, we realized that there were advantages to paying the tax, too boring to enumerate. Furthermore, if we were about to have a large financial transaction in Europe, having it take place in English wouldn’t be a bad thing. So when British Customs came after us in Weymouth in 2010, we arranged to pay the tax there. So in 2011, the day before we went back to Weymouth, British Customs boarded our boat in Lymington for a routine check of our paperwork. Aware of the subtext, because we’d been through this six months earlier, the first document we showed them about our boat was our stamped VAT-paid certificate. The Customs officer demurred, saying that maybe he didn’t need to check any more of our papers after all, and left. I think he looked crestfallen.

So we were on our way back to Weymouth, expecting winds too light to sail, but being surprised by a breeze that would do nicely. We’d left the dock very early. The voyage was interrupted briefly when we were chased off of our course by the Coast Guard, who wanted us to get out of the firing range. We complied with no reservations, and we still arrived in Weymouth before lunchtime.

Our friends Eleanor and Alan invited us to dinner at their house, which was a terrific opportunity to reconnect with them. Among the many pursuits that make them interesting, Alan has several fishing boats (which he built himself). A recent fine run of bass found their way onto our plates. Alan also enjoys diving, which resulted in the scallops we had for a first course. Though we probably won’t be back in Weymouth, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if we crossed paths with them again every year or two.

There was another very early morning start, and we were on our way across the English Channel to France. The seas were calm, to my delight and to the surprise of so many who have battled this strait, including Vickie, whose last Channel crossing was awful.

Because of currents, we needed to leave at a particular time and then, much later, arrive near the coast of France at about noon on the following day. No matter how little sail Art would expose, the boat would dart forward too fast. Art kept reefing the main and the jib until they looked less like grand sails and more like pennants on sticks. And the wind would pick up or improve its direction, and our speed would be too fast. So we spent much of the trip avoiding optimizing the rig. Yes, we were in opposite-land. I don’t even know what to call it. Maybe we were pessimizing our sails.

One opportunity to slow down arose when we were stopped as we entered French waters, by French Customs. We already knew for many years that French Customs personnel are pretty conscientious in their search for boats that violate the VAT requirements for foreign vessels. (For the record, we were always legal, and paid the VAT in England just to make our travel more convenient.) It was again a pleasure to disappoint the Customs authorities, and they sent us on our way. This VAT thing was already turning out to be worth it, if only for the schadenfreude.

In mid-afternoon, we arrived in Camaret-Sur-Mer, in Brittany. We docked in a small marina overlooked by a large fortification, the Tour Vauban, also called the Tour Doree (Golden Tower). This UNESCO World Heritage Site was built in 1669-1694. Next door, the Notre-Dame do Rocamadour Chapel was founded in 1527. As we walked by this unpretentious religious edifice, it was swarming with school-age kids who were not yet ready to go back to the waiting tour bus.

We’d be in France for two nights, according to our newest forecast, so it would just be a shame not to have dinner in town. We chose a restaurant based on two trusted sources, and were not disappointed. For a mid-sized price, we had a spectacular French three-course extravaganza, replete with local crab and fish, stunning presentations and sauces, and desserts that just made your taste buds sigh. Just an ordinary French formule meal.

During medieval times, Camaret-Sur-Mer was an important shipping center. This attracted the attention of pirates, who are not normally as adorable of Johnny Depp. So the locals called upon Pope Paul II for help, and he issued a papal bull in 1470 to excommunicate the pirates. Yeah, that’ll show them.

The nineteenth century brought the sardine industry, which flourished for about 100 years. Sardines were sold fresh and salted, and unsurprisingly, they became scarce in the waters by 1900. Starving fishermen found new prey, the langouste, which is sort of a large prawn or a small lobster. This sustained the industry until about 1990. These critters are gone now, too, and today’s shops and fishing boats are filled with crabs that resemble Dungeness crabs – enormous bodies and slim appendages. Whether anyone is preparing for their demise is anyone’s guess. No doubt the crabs themselves aren’t doing any planning.

In the meantime, another population grew, one with no risk of subsiding. In the late 1800s, painter Eugène Boudin visited on several occasions. One of his most famous works features Camaret with a stormy sky. Other artists and writers soon discovered the summer homes overlooking the sea and beaches, and an artist colony was born. Today, about two dozen galleries nest in the alleys behind the harbor street.

But the settlement of the region didn’t begin with commercial fishermen. It has been inhabited for at least 2500 years. Some 600 menhirs (standing stones) were found and reported in the 18th century. About a hundred of these stones remain. Art wasn’t surprised that this was the first sight I wanted to see.

The menhirs are unmarked, and apparently unprotected from further erosion. They just stand alongside the street, mostly ignored, a place for locals to walk with their dogs. There are varying interpretations about the placement and importance of stones like these. One possibility is that they had religious significance; another explanation is that they have astronomical properties.

Nearby are the ruins of a locally famous poet’s house. This place must have been grand in its day, the home of Saint Pol Roux le Magnifique (not his birth name, obviously; he just decided that this name was a better fit for the wonder that he was. Camaret-Sur-Mer is the place he settled, and he stayed there until a terrible World-War-II-related demise that is actually too sad to describe.

We dawdled away the day in town; lunch at a waterside café, a stroll by the galleries, all of which were closed, and a stop in the market for some groceries. This was our first hint that we’re nearing the low-key approach to commerce that is characteristic in southern Europe. Case in point: a grocery store called 8 to Eight (en français, that is.) So we’d found the French equivalent of a 7-11, and decided to visit after lunch.

Not so fast. The hours for the “8 to 8” are as follows: opening 8:30 AM, close for lunch at 12:30, open again in the afternoon at 2:30, and close for good at 7:30. There isn’t one time in that whole group that reaches to eight o’clock, morning or afternoon. Our first lesson is to slow down.

We got an early start the next morning, although for such a long voyage, we didn’t need to leave at first light. We needed to cross the Bay of Biscay and arrive in Spain 400 nautical miles later, a trip that would involve two nights and the better part of three days. Art selected a good forecast for us, and off we went.

The sail began with moderate winds behind us and a good pace. The seas were all over the place, and the constant swerving and heeling over made opening side cabinets impossible. I was cranky, although surprisingly not seasick.

Here’s the conventional sailing wisdom about long offshore trips. The first three days are hard, and then your body gets into a rhythm. My question is – why even try to do something if it’s going to take days before you tolerate it? I actually have the same philosophy about drinking Scotch.

All this lurching about threw Art off of the companionway ladder with a full tumbler of iced tea, which flew in every direction, spotting fabrics, carpet, and counters. It occurred to me that on a trip like this one, where things fly about at will, you should drink water, which is self-cleaning, or better yet, club soda, which would clean itself and anything that got there before it.

At some point during our first day’s sail, the water turned a turquoise color, which surprised us. It didn’t last for the whole trip. The first night’s sailing was easy; with the wind behind us, the sails weren’t obscuring the view of the horizon. Furthermore, the chart with AIS targets (other boats that announce who they are) demonstrated that we were in no danger of collisions. For that belt-and-suspenders safety, we also had a radar scan on an intermittent basis, to make sure that boats without AIS transmission weren’t close by. We were bumped with a floating 2x4 plank alongside the hull, which made us vigilant for the rest of the trip. In all, we saw about the equivalent of half a constructed small boat float by. We assured ourselves it was only lumber that had fallen off of a cargo vessel.

The next day was quite a nice sail, and especially welcome, as the Bay of Biscay has an awful and well-deserved reputation for discomfort. We had low seas and lots of sunshine all day. In the morning, I was pretty sure that I saw a whale, but I was the only one on deck at the time. Later that day, I saw another whale, only about twenty feet from the boat, a sighting corroborated by Vickie. Whale sightings are so glorious on film and so frustrating live. You see a spurt and maybe part of the animal’s back. It’s all gone in a moment. Where are those lovely creatures that breach (not too close, please) within view of all crew?

The dolphins were much more considerate. Dolphins like to play in the bow wave of the boat. They fly at us and then dive under the hull, or they seem to race each other across the front of the boat (which is a 30-ton animal moving at a fast pace.) How do they know that the boat isn’t going to eat them? Who is having more fun when they come by, them or us?

The night watches never let you get uninterrupted sleep, and you put some pressure on yourself to sleep when you’re not on watch, which doesn’t help relax you. Though the nights were very cool, we only wore two hats on watch, an insulated Arctic wear underthing and a woolen cap. On previous sails (when we hadn’t yet installed our fantastic cockpit cover) we’d wear three hats at a time. This two-hat mode was a big improvement.

We finished our dinner on the second night and the wind picked up behind us. The forecast had predicted this. Art rolled in the mainsail so that we could sail under jib alone during the night (without a lot of explanation, this is just a cautious way to sail downwind.) Thirty-to-thirty-five knot winds would be a really horrible trip for a boat that was sailing into it. Aside from some rolling about, we didn’t think that a downwind sail would be that bad. After all, this was the run-up to the third day of sailing, where I was supposed to be adjusted. Apparently, I wasn’t. So much for the wisdom of sailors.

After dinner, I began to feel a little off. I went down below and got into bed, and knew immediately that I wasn’t getting up again to stand my watches. Vickie and Art covered for me during the night and most of the morning. Finally, we got into flatter waters. Better yet, we arrived at our destination, and anchored at a town called Corcubion.

The one thing that was notably different was the weather. It was warm. Art took our layered two-hat combos, tossed them down below, and declared a one-hat zone. He didn’t say, “Burn these! but it was pretty clear that as long as we sailed from here on south, we wouldn’t need them again. My hat’s off to that.

Love, Karen (and Art)