Maiden Voyage – Portugal to Gibraltar

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Our first visitor came to stay this week.  We were delighted to welcome my great friend,  Paula Vickers, aboard.  Staying for one night only after a busy working week for Dial an Exchange in Portugal. Paula arrived on a sunny Friday afternoon and all too soon was jetting back to Blighty.  It was great to catch up.

Over the preceding few days we had spent all our time prepping the boat for sailing.  We checked the life jackets, took back the serviced life raft, fire extinguishers and the new EPIRB; refitting the VHF,  washed some of the lines to get the salt off, deep cleaned the deck and polished the chrome, translated labels from Dutch to English and hoisted the dinghy.  We also sorted the rope locker, marveling over the impressive collection of hose pipes and fittings, filled the tanks and stowed everything away safely, including Ian’s bike, which was shoe horned onto the bunk room.

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Saturday brought the arrival of ship mate David Heane who was to assist as crew in delivering the boat to Gibraltar, one hundred and eighty miles away.   Priorities, though, first we had to find somewhere to watch the rugby.  So, we grabbed a taxi into Monte Gordo and found a strange little sports bar where the rugby was in full swing and beer was on offer.

We were up bright and early on Sunday morning and the Marinera came to help us with the turning of the boat in the marina.  It was a beautiful morning with bright sunshine and flat calm which really helped us manoeuvre out of the restricted space.

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We gave our new friends Tristan and Sue of SY Minerva a wave as we passed by and headed off down the long channel of the Guardiana River and out into the Atlantic.

First stop, Mazagon Marina about 30 miles off.  We had very light winds initially but they built until we were able to deploy Genevieve the genaker, which quickly became Ian’s favourite sail.

This huge sail pulled us along at almost the speed of the wind.  We made much better progress.  We realised that since we were now in Spain protocol requires that one should change the courtesy flag on the starboard spreaders. We successfully removed the Portugese flag and attached the Spanish flag.  Somehow, the string to which it was attached had become jammed in the pulley and nothing was happening to lift the courtesy flag to the required height.  We added it to the list of jobs for the skipper to do the following morning.

Winds dropped so we chugged into the marina and were finally berthed by 2000hrs; a long day, but we all agreed it had gone very quickly.  We headed for beer and wifi and then quickly rustled up a spag bol and collapsed into bed.  Next day, we were up fairly early and the first job was to hoist Ian up the mast so he could fix the pulley.  IMG_2829He was trussed up tight in a harness and attached to  halyard.  We pulled him up to the first set of spreaders, winches creaking disconcertingly as he rose high above the deck.  Mission accomplished.  He fixed the problem and we were sorely tempted to leave him up there on the naughty step!

However, we decided to let him down so we could continue the trip to Chipiona.  We made good progress and were berthed early enough to grab a shower and head into town to replenish food stocks at the Allimentacione.

Moments after completing our provisioning duties, we walked down to the delightfully un-touristy town centre where we spotted a brightly lit bar on a street corner.  Serano ham legs were hanging from the ceiling like a collection of upturned, day-old, party balloons.  We suddenly noticed that we were all exceptionally thirsty, so we piled in and plonked down at the scrubbed Formica table and ordered beers.  We were presented with a menu by the friendly Spanish waiter and tried to match the overflowing and delicious looking tapas dishes on display with the names of the dishes on the menu.

IMG_2837Los Faroles turned out to be absolutely fantastic.  We were the vanguard of a run on the place and within ten minutes of us sitting down, the place was packed with Spanish families, couples and workers on the way home.  All chattering nineteen to the dozen and enjoying the tapas.  Fabulous evening, scrumptious food.

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New boat speed record

Next day, we set out to Puerto America at Cadiz.  The wind was strong today and we were tied up on the arrival pontoon by 1600hrs.  Absolutely shattered.

The port staff asked us to move to another berth just in case several 20 metre yachts might arrive and want to moor for the night.  So we had to un-tie  and go through the trauma of parking all over again.  My least favourite part of the day!

By this time, the wind had really got up and was 18 knots and gusting much more.  In a confined space this makes manoeuvring tricky, because big areas of the boat tend to act like a sail and make steerage challenging.  As we pulled up alongside the pontoon a particularly big gust began to push the boat away.  The breast line that was ready didn’t quite make it to the pontoon first time. Suddenly, the stern was being blown across and with no other boat in the pontoon there was nothing to cushion or stop our progress horizontally into the berthing bay.

With the bow being the only place to get ashore I was commanded to leap to the pontoon in order to assist David who was already there.  I prepared to make the leap from the pulpit, the highest point of the deck, calculating my trajectory so as to avoid the anchor and the bow spirit sticking out insolently in my way. It was at least four feet down to the pontoon far below.  As I rather nimbly, I thought, began my descent,  my left ankle kicked up hard against an errant spinnaker pole with enormous force.  Since the pole was firmly strapped on to the rail, it did not budge and my ankle received the most tremendous clonk. By this time I was airborne and cat-like somehow managed to land on the foot of my one dodgy, previously broken, ankle and judo roll to my feet.  Now, I was aware of a tremendous pain in my left ankle and realised that I now had two dodgy ankles to contend with!

Finally, we managed to sweat the boat I towards the pontoon and get her sorted.

After a medicinal snifter, whilst applying an ice pack fashioned from a frozen chicken fillet to my elevated limb, we all decided we needed a nap to get over the trauma of the berthing.

Awaking at 1930hrs we set off for Cadiz town, me limping on both sides, where it soon became apparent that something was happening.  There were people everywhere. We followed a group down a maze of streets off a huge square and came across a little bar on a street corner with a free outside table. We descended and abandoning any attempts to say more than ‘por favor’ and ‘gracias’ ordered a range of tapas by pointing at plates of food on other people’s tables.

It was delicious! Swordfish, anchovies, sardines, potatoes and sea bass.  All the while the crowds were building up along the street adjacent to us.

We heard drumming and a procession of people marched past us clad in white robes and hooded headgear, topped by an enormous point; like extended dunces hats with a KKK mask attached, swiftly followed by three crosses. Ahhh! Now we could see that it was an Easter Passion Procession.

The file of people continued to go past down the narrow street.  A huge and ornate wooden sarcophagus was carried by, then finally an elaborate silver one with a model of Mary Magdalene perched on the top. Everyone clapped and then almost immediately started to disburse as the heavens opened.

Luckily, we were kept dry by the huge umbrella above our table. We waited for the shower to abate and then headed back to the distant marina.

Next day we set off to Barbate.  The last, most Easterly port of call in the Atlantic.  We left after an engine check, hoping to complete the 37 mile trip in good time.

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There was very little wind, however, and quite a moderate swell, so we wallowed about making slow progress.  Eventually, we pulled up at the visitors pontoon at dusk.  The light drops very quickly here so by the time we had negotiated a berth via Google translate with the security guard, it was really quite dark.  The marina was well sheltered and so we smoothly slipped along side the finger pontoon, no heroics today, to park quietly there for a few hours.

In double quick time, we rustled up a supper of ham, cheese, salami  salad and potatoes; showered and set the course for the following day’s sail to Gibraltar.

We decided to leave at 0500hrs the following morning.

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(Poor David would be glad to get back to work next week, for a rest!)   The distance was at least forty miles on a straight course and was further complicated by tidal streams and currents with which we needed to coordinate as we squeezed through the Straits of Gibraltar. (Dire Straits?)

Not only that, there were the usual plethora of man made obstacles to avoid, such as; massive tuna nets laid over vast areas, military exercise zones, underwater cables suspended two metres below the surface. All of these are charted so routes can be planned accordingly, however, we would be sailing in the dark for that added extra challenge!   We would need to be able to identify all the different flashing, occluding and constant lights in our sight lines so we would know where we were in relation to the chart.  Also, in coastal waters, car headlamps can be a bit off-putting too!

In addition to that, there are the veritable mine fields lobster pot floats to keep an eye out for and skirt round.

During the week we had become accustomed to being alone on the wide open sea.  Sighting another sailing boat was unusual.  We spotted the odd ship in the distance and checked their identity on the AIS tracker.

So, as we approached Tarifa, the part of Europe closest to Africa, we were interested to see things becoming distinctly busier on the traffic front.  There is a traffic separation scheme, for large cargo vessels, operating in the Straits.  We saw it in action.  We checked the details on the AIS of one of the ships as she passed us by some two miles away.  345m long and 50m wide! Yes, that’s correct! 345m long! The circumference of her deck being almost a kilometre!  And then there’s us – 13m long.  Definitely don’t want to get in the way of one of those.

There are entire books written about transiting the Straits, with warnings about overfalls, currents and counter currents as the Atlantic squeezes into a narrow eight mile stretch of water.  For example, it is said that the wind blows at Isla Tarifa at 40 knots for 300 days of the year.  It is also said that, ‘If the wind is light at one end of the Straits it will be blowing hard at the other.’  This is exactly what we experienced as winds built during the course of the day.  Luckily for us it was one of the other 65 days on which we passed Isla Tarifa,  our half way point, and although we had planned to anchor in the lee of the island to eat lunch and have a nap we decided that with the fair wind we should just crack on.  By the time we reached the mouth of the Bay of Gibraltar the wind had reached 30 knots.

We tonked on with the wind behind us, gybing three or four times.  Exhausting work, winching in the main sheet each time on a powered up sail.  It was precarious to put the preventer on the boom each time we gybed but somehow we manage to do it all whilst cooking and eating  scrambled eggs on toast.  IMG_2842The skipper was on the helm so David had to feed him!

Suddenly, we saw The Rock of Gibraltar ahead.  Straits screen shotThere were vessels everywhere, travelling in every direction, at ridiculous speeds!  I was detailed to keep track of them all.  A large red vessel crossed in front of us and we skirted her stern.  A huge cargo ship surged past our starboard beam at twenty four knots.  Ships lay at anchor on both sides of the bay, either waiting to off load cargo at Algeciras or Gibraltar.  Fuel ships hugged up against other vessels to fill up their tanks.   We bravely sail in amongst these giants.  The wind is strong, the waves moderate and the current carries us along.  We make good progress even with two reefs in the sail and half the head sail in.

Before long, we spy the breakwater up ahead.  We head for the reception pontoon and two mariners are there to help. Wonderful.

We complete the copious paperwork for the fifth time this week and are allocated our berth.

We limber up for the gymnastics associated with parking our boat by rearranging the fenders and recoiling our lines.  We complete the calisthenics necessary to to kick our legs over the rail, mooring lines in hand, and perch, precariously on the rail.  The finger pontoon looms ever closer.  Notoriously thin and wobbly, they are not the greatest thing to try to jump on to.  Their minimal width does not allow an extra step to counter forward motion.  It must be a standing landing.  David jumps with the grace  and delicacy of a man half his size and age.  He makes it, with barely a wobble and hooks us on.  The wind pushes us away.  We utilise another cleat and manage to pull clear of the boat next door.  A bow line is attached and all are sweated in against the wind and current to sit us fairly close up against the pontoon.  No damage done, except to David’s finger which is scraped, bruised and bleeding all over the pontoon.

IMG_2917So happy to have survived the Straits (not so dire, after all), sailed 180 miles, and to have arrived in this spectacular spot, under the Rock, tucked into the marina of the appropriately named town of La Linea.

First week in Portugal

We arrived in Faro ridiculously early on Sunday 6th March and drove straight to Vila Real de Santo Antonio, which is a small town on the Portugese Spanish border, right on the river Guadiana.  Top job today was to complete the handover of Linea.

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We went straight to our lovely Air BnB apartment in town and got settled in there briefly. Then, we walked round the corner to the marina where we met up with Pim Blokland, from whom we had bought the boat.

After a quick coffee, we set off to the boat and soon Ian and Pim were talking boat technical details.  Having had such an early morning, I am not so sure how much of the important information that Pim had to relate actually went in but Ian was taking copious notes and hopefully that, together with a memory surge, will prove useful in time.

Helpfully, Pim met us the following day for our trip down to the boat yard.  The tide and currents here in the river are quite ferocious and so his help was very much appreciated.  The survey had thrown up an issue with the sail drive, which is the gear changer for the engine.  It was faulty, which meant that it wouldn’t change from forward to reverse without switching the engine off first!  Now,
normally that wouldn’t be too difficult to cope with, but, for an added challenge, the ignition switch had decided to work to rule and would only switch on, not off!  So, I was in charge of delving into the Volvo Penta engine housing to manually switch off, if need be.  My RYA diesel engine course was already proving to have been money well worth spending!

The marina staff assisted in our manoeuvres out of the tight space on the visitor’s pontoon.  We were spun around so that the bow was pointing in the right direction and off we went down the pontoon and sharp left out into the bumpy waters of the river.  I was suddenly and inexplicably at the helm.  Before long we arrived at the jetty of the boat yard some 500m down stream.

We were all in position.  Ian on the mooring lines fore and aft.
Me down by the engine, ready to switch off manually in case we needed to change gear.

Suddenly, I heard a shout and saw that Ian was dangling from the pulpit, clinging on with hands and feet, at the front of the boat having made an unsuccessful leap to the jetty.  I rushed forward as best I could; leaping over fenders, sheets and deck paraphernalia on my way to reach him.  He calmly asked me to take the mooring line from him so he could pull himself up.  He tried to swing up and out, over the pulpit but the overhang (or his strength to weigh ratio) was too great.  Conscious that he couldn’t hold on for much longer, I suggested that he simply slid in under the pulpit on to the deck to safety. I pulled his jeans legs, practically disrobing him in the process, but at least he was safe!  The lads from the yard raised an eyebrow but there was barely a flicker of concern or amusement or shock at his predicament.

Soon we were tied up, despite the currents and choppy waters conspiring to prevent us.

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Then a huge machine progressed towards the yacht.  An enormous sling machine that rolled into the water and scooped us up, raising us up so that we were swinging free and dangling, suspended metres from the ground.FWIP 1

 

 

 

 

 

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Dangling suspended above the water.

The whole contraption took us out of the water on to the hard and we were thoughtfully provided with a ladder to climb down.  It seemed precariously high without water around.

Although the boat was only moored for eight weeks or so, and was not  sailed or moved at all, it was astonishing how many barnacles had grown on the hull. The yard was to spray clean the underside of the hull and scrape all the barnacles off.

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A (slightly blurred) collection of barnacle animals.
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Barnacled bottom!
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Ian enjoying polishing his hull but not enjoying the price of the UV polish. It would have been cheaper to coat it all in Ambre Solaire!

We were to polish the top sides of the hull with special UV resistant polish

and clean and sort out below decks so that when our boxes (15 boxes) arrived, we would have actually found spaces for our stuff to go!

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The Forepeak Cabin – masses of storage under the double bunk.
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The starboard bunk cabin. Lots of stuff in here already.

 

After a very busy day, we headed back to the apartment and grabbed a bite to eat.  Both of us were nodding off by 8pm so gave up the battle and went straight to Bedlington!

Up and at ’em in the morning and back to the yard.  I continued my mission below decks and Ian headed off to the Volvo garage in Spain to be briefed about what the engine needs. Time flies.  The day is done.  We repeat the process the following day.

All day Thursday Ian carefully began the delicate process of refitting the propeller blades and shaft to the sail drive that had now been repaired and replaced.

Now, I have no clue about propellers, but I can safely say that whoever invented this piece of technology, was a serious genius.  The precision engineering is amazing.  Each individual propeller has an optimal angle at which to be fitted so that when it rotates it provides maximum propulsion.  Ian and I spent a couple of hours sitting under the hull trying to make sure that the props went back on the shaft at precisely the right angle.    Never having done this before it was a steep learning curve and there was always the faint shred of doubt that the prop would stay in situ once the engine was put on.  A significant conundrum is that, of course, we could not test either the sail drive or our careful replacement of the props until we were back in the water and needed both to be in full working order!

On Thursday evening we received a call from the delivery company who were about to deliver  our boxes of stuff to our rented apartment.  After a brief negotiation they agreed to drop off the consignment at the boat yard.  They drove the van straight to the boat and off-loaded the pallet.  All beautifully tessellated, stacked and cling-filmed by Mr Paul Brennen – Many thanks.

FWIP 13We had all of them up on deck and lowered into the forward hatch in ten minutes flat!  Fantastic!  This saved us so much work, walking up and down the lengthy pontoon in the marina from the apartment.   We were made up!

During the course of our five days in the boat yard we began to pay attention to the surroundings whilst having our morning coffee.  Over the road opposite was a lovely evergreen wooded area stretching down to the beach front and back towards town.  All along the street into town there is a mixture of buildings, some businesses in full swing, others derelict.

We noticed whole families of people living in semi-repaired lean-tos against the tall walls of the building next to us.  There were probably three or four families, with grandparents, children and babies all living in a small community.  They had a water supply from the fire hydrant.  Plastic sheeting flapped and flew  from their roof tops.  A Shetland pony tried to snuffle around in the scrub for some grass. They had a horse and cart, bicycle, three cars and a shopping trolley for a full range of transport options.FWIP 10

There was also a pack of dogs, I counted twelve, roamed around the encampment.  One dog was tied up to a post.  Whenever its owner went off out of sight it barked incessantly and loudly and rapidly for HOURS.  I couldn’t believe its stamina.  The poor dog must have been exhausted and stressed thinking that it had to bark until it’s master returned.

Nobody remaining in the encampment batted a eyelid, despite the shrill edge to the dog’s bark.  Our raised position on the tarmac in the yard amplified the sound and soon it was slicing through our heads and becoming unbearable.

We checked the times for the next high water and as soon as our propeller was fitted back on we were ready to make an exit.

Although our fire extinguishers had returned from being tested and serviced, our life raft , VHF radio and EPIRB were still to be returned.  Nervous times lay ahead since we had to test our new sail drive and propellor without any of the normal safety precautions being in place.  We both put on life jackets and luckily, had a hand held VHF radio from home.  With some trepidation we were lowered back into the water and from the jetty were able to briefly check that the engine was performing, the propeller blades remained in place and the sail drive, changed gear and didn’t leak.

I was dispatched below to check whether any water had entered the hull.

‘YES! I can see water!’ I yelled with a panicked shout up to Ian,over the noise of the engine.  The lowering was stopped and the engineer from the yard came aboard.  He concluded that there had already been water in the bilges that was disturbed by being at funny angles in the sling.  Nothing to be worried about!

So we continued to be lowered completely into the water, revving the engine forwards and back.

The lads released the lines and we were  on our own.  We were both anxious.  However, gradually calming down as we motored steadily up river towards the marina.  Ian asked if I’d like to take a turn up stream to the suspension bridge.  All I want is to get back to dry land!  We turned into the marina and the dock master was there to help us tie up.  I have all the mooring lines prepared for a nifty leap onto the pontoon from amid ships, but there is no need for those heroics on this occasion.

On Saturday we feel we deserve a day off so we head off to Seville.  There is an IKEA there and also a fair chance that we can find a bar to watch the England game in the Six Nations Rugby.  IKEA was incredibly busy.  We spent far more than we intended, on not very much and subsequently have found a fantastic shop in Vila Real selling all that we bought and more!

But Seville more than made up for the trauna of shopping.  It  is beautiful.  The weather was a glorious twenty nine degrees.  We came up out of our underground car park and there in front of us was an Irish pub showing the rugby.   We had loads of time for a proper stroll round the centre of the city before heading off to watch the match.FWIP 14

A great result and the perfect end to our first week.

Last Few Days in Thailand

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All too soon, our days in sunny Koh Tao with our darling daughter, were coming to an end.

 

 

We begaLFDIT 5n to measure time in terms of the number of remaining meals we could take at Tukta’s. (The most fantastic, authentic and reasonably priced Thai food on the island!)

 

 

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We had so many things to fit in to the last remaining days… Ian wanted to dive with Erin.   We had booked to help out at a beach clean up with the delightful Josh from Master Divers on Mae Haad. There was yoga-ing, shopping, tanning, reading, eating and games playing to do.

One day, we walked over to Haad Tian beach and half way up a vertical hill were thankfully offered a lift from a local fisherman to the beautiful resort hotel there.

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It was gorgeous; land to sand luxury!

Since we were complete interlopers, only getting through the security-guarded gates by virtue of being best pals with the local fisherman and restaurateur (Eagle View), we were banished to the tiny, narrow strip of sand under the gnarled roots and trunks of the mangrove trees along the edge of the beach.  In this way, we were not encouraged to set foot on the green and hallowed turf of the sun-lounging area round the infinity pool, darling.

However, we had an interesting hour of tide-dancing, desperately trying to avoid the waves as they crashed up the beach on the incoming prevailing wind. So, with our second set of exercise completed for the day, it was time to relax and read…bliss.

On our return to Chakok, we came across a great vantage point to watch the sunset at the bar ‘Natural High’.  It has a huge, open patio which offers amazing views  of Chalok and its environs.  From so high up and through the haze of spliff smoke,  man, all you can see is tree canopy below. It’s tricky to identify landmarks and makes it seem all the more ethereal and remote, hovering there on its unique peak.  We had a delicious dinner here and enjoyed some people watching before sand sliding down the hill. LFDIT 9

During our last few days we spent a happy couple of hours helping Erin source the items she needed to decorate and equip her home.  There are some great road side stalls and market places in Mae Haad and we spent time in them all.  LFDIT 6We spotted many bird cages en route complete with song birds that apparently Thai people take to bird singing competitions.  That takes X Factor to a whole new level.  The ‘Chick’ Factor perhaps?

We tried road side barbecued chicken for a snack on the walk back and for lunch I tested my paltry Thai at a food stall for Thai people (only Thai signs, no Englishified food, no English spoken),  where we were assured we wouldn’t like anything they had to offer.

Well, as much as I’d like to say I eat anything, my digestive system and taste buds are not quite ready for chicken offLFDIT 11al curry, and marrow spicy soup.  I had fish curry and it was delicious but highly ‘prik’, as the vocabulary is here. My mouth was on fire.  The centre of the table displayed a huge basket of vegetables and spices.  Raw long beans, Thai basil (hot) Thai basil (sweet) and a variety of egg plants in every size. Ian had freshly deep fried fish in little batter clouds. Toptastic.  However, I wasn’t brave enough to try meal worm and other delicacies offered at this road side stall.

We enjoyed our last lunch at Coconut Monkey in Mae Haad with Erin and Paul, also saying goodbye to Anne-Marie (our yoga teacher from Ocean Sound Yoga School).   During our wait for the boat there was just time for Erin to secure victory in the traditional Holiday Back-gammon Championships.

Then we were heading back, bumping through lumpy waters, on the bilious Lomprayah Catamaran,  to the mainland pier and then, by bus past the beautiful, unspoilt, deserted coastline beaches of Chomporn, to the town’s railway station.

We took LFDIT 3a stroll round town and came across this well loaded motorbike, a fascinating police box and one of many gorgeous spirit houses.
LFDIT 12 LFDIT 14After yet another other lovely roadside stall supper, we were back on the sleeper train which left Chomporn at 8.30pm so most passengers were already prone, tucked up in their little bunk beds behind twee, coral coloured curtains.  Our beds were already made up and, soon, we too, were happily ensconced.

Next, we arrived in Bangkok at 5.30am…. The best time to be taking a taxi ride since there is virtually no traffic.  We headed for Silom but somehow just struggled, in the Thai language department, to communicate sufficiently to find our friend Don’s apartment!  Our fault, of course.

We had a wonderful day in Bangkok, catching up with friends and then it was silly o’clock again and we were heading to the airport at 4am to catch our flight to Doha.

So sad to be leaving Erin and Paul and lovely Thailand but looking forward to the next phase.LFDIT 15

 

Trying to Free Dive

Whilst waiting for my morning coffee to arrive, I couldn’t help noticing an arresting photograph of a lithe, slim and elegant female who was gliding along, deep underwater, propelling herself with huge fins as long as her legs, without being encumbered by an air tank, regulator or tubes.

On further investigation, it turns out that such diving is called ‘Free diving’ and basically involves the participants being able to hold their breath under water in order to swim free from the restrictions that having a full tank of breathable air on one’s back would present.

So enamoured was I with the thought of floating free and peaceful in the water, that when I came across a dive school on the island that held free diving beginners courses…I thought I’d have a go.

Somewhere In the back of my mind I imagined that I too would look lithe, slim and elegant when attempting to dive down deep under the sea! free dive 2A rather ravishing Frenchman booked me on to the course and, after assurances that I was by no means the oldest ever to sign up, I agreed to return the next morning for instruction.

After a quick round of introductions to the other students, we were straight into the nitty gritty…trying to convert our bodies from land-locked, air-breathing entities into, the more towards the dolphin end of the mammal species spectrum.

With the minimum of explanation about what we would actually be subjecting ourselves to, we immediately started to learn how to breath effectively. Now, there you go, after fifty four years on this planet and, recent yoga sessions excepted, I have managed to breathe without thinking about it at all. It has come so naturally to me. I, it can honestly be claimed, am gifted at breathing. But for this, I am being asked to breathe in a totally different way.

The aim is to maximise the amount of oxygen that can be taken into the body. The coach explains how to compress the air through pursed lips as we breathe in so that first we fill the belly and then the lungs. Then, we equally slowly, exhale.

After whipping off his shirt, the rather ravishing Frenchman (RRFM) demonstrates the technique. He Perches on the edge of his seat to create the maximum space for the air to fill his torso. He closes his eyes in order to fully concentrate on the job in hand. Anyone watching would be forgiven for thinking that this was some kind of mediation conducted by follower of some a dodgy religious sect.
We watch open-mouthed.free dive 3

Now, it’s our turn. I am somewhat perturbed to be asked to remove my top so that RRFM (afore-mentioned) can watch my belly and lung technique! Well, I’ve heard some excuses to take a glimpse of my tummy and chest, but that really takes the biscuit.

Please bear in mind at this stage, that among my fellow free divers, is Courtney from the U. S of A. The alacrity with which she pulls off her top, and bottoms, to reveal a toned, tanned and bikini clad body was, frankly, embarrassing. The rest of the group complied without a qualm. Thank goodness I had had the foresight to wear my black swimming costume under my clothes.

We practise, and practise and before we know it we are ready to go out on the water to try out our new found skills.

We head out in a small tender to the main dive boat. I am encased in a shortie wet suit and a rather fetching pair of neoprene socks. Some of the group have elected to wear long sleeves and leggings, as well as balaclava style head gear. I am puzzled that they think it will be that cold. It’s 30 degrees in the shade!

Without any delay we put on weight belts, masks and fins, jump into the water and swim out to a series of life belt rings bobbing about on ropes attached to the stern of our dive boat.

I am with one other trainee. We have Silvie to coach us.

The first skill is a duck dive. What I would call a surface dive. We have a go. There is the added complication of contending with a snorkel and fins, now pulled on over my glamorous footwear, and trying to equalise the pressure in our ears as we descend.

Next, we have a go at pulling ourselves down a rope suspended from the life belts to the ocean floor, 12 metres below.free dive 4

We have to tip upside down and pull ourselves, in even stokes, down the rope, equalising our ears every time we pull.

I find that the remnants of a horrible cold in January are even more pronounced under water. I can’t equalise easily. I have serious squeaking in my ears as I come back up.

I am encouraged to try going down feet first in order to makes equalising easier.

As you descend the pressure of the water squeezes the air in the lungs and reduces its volume. The body’s reflex to breathe kicks in because it believes that the reduced size of the lungs is due to there being insufficient oxygen available.

In actual fact, there is, apparently, plenty of oxygen for the body to function well for a significant amount of time, as long as you can relax and persuade the brain that it doesn’t need to tell the body to breathe in!

All I can say is, that it is rather like trying to resist the urge to kick your leg up when someone whacks you under the knee cap. My reflex to breathe is very well developed. I discover that whilst I may know that I have sufficient oxygen, I don’t actually I believe it! I rush to the surface lungs bursting.

We continue to practise. Taking the obligatory cycles of belly and chest breaths before descending the rope as far as possible.

Soon, it is time to return. We head back to the shore ready for day two in the morning. However, it is as I am walking home that I realise that I have been burnt to a crisp. The powerful noon day sun has burnt my arms, face, scalp and knees. My skin is red and swollen. I have to make an ice pack to cool off my arms. Now I understand why some of the course members covered up so completely. Very wise.

On day two, a week later, I am with Camilla.

She is supremely reassuring, and, with her support, I am soon diving down to 15 metres. I feel much more confident than on my first day but still experience this overwhelming urge to breath in when I am about as deep as I can go, which is not the done thing. Camilla encourages me to relax and try to think about something else. AS if! She suggests that I descend, control the rising panic and then descend again! I try it and succeed, to some extent. I open my eyes momentarily to see a huge shoal of brightly coloured fish swim right by me, i am almost distracted from the bursting feeling in my lungs. The water is clear, even at that depth and I can see other course members diving down beside me. I feel like I have been under the water for ages, but it’s probably only 45 seconds. I panic all over again at the thought of where I am. Wondering if I have sufficient air to make it back to the surface. I do! Phew!

But, it’s not a comfortable feeling. I have to try so hard to stem the rising tide of fear and panic. As a strong swimmer, I have spent years trying to stay afloat and above the water. Despite assurances that we are built for swimming under the water; and explanations of how it is that we would definitely have sufficient oxygen to complete a dive for up to one minute at this stage in our training, I find that I still can’t persuade my body that it is a natural thing for it to be doing. It’s such a shame, because it looks amazing, doesn’t it?

free dive 5The lure of pearls, or shells, or fish would probably help. Certainly, diving down a rope in this ‘Constant weight’ discipline is seemingly pointless. The record, I am told, is 200m. That is the distance someone has descended on a rope. That is an awfully long way down should something go wrong.

I didn’t achieve my certification. I didn’t reach 20 metres, I didn’t complete the rescue of another diver. For the first time in my personal sporting history, I find that I am not equal to the challenge. I tried and it was interesting…but it’s just not natural, for me!