Blogger's Digest: a Novel
Moored up in a marina near Porto in Northern Portugal, I bid farewell to Ian. Porto was an ideal place for him to depart, with an international airport so he could get home and new crew from the UK could easily join me, whenever they were available.
I felt much more confident and comfortable asking inexperienced friends to help me on this coast-hugging part of the journey, which aimed to get from Porto to Lisbon. Although the route would sail right past the biggest waves in Europe, at Nazaré, the swells were settling down during summer. I felt happy that I could safely get into and out of the rivers, lagoons and other natural harbours, which would provide safe anchorage overnight, or in the event of bad weather. There was no more need for night sailing and to have at least two competent skippers on board, taking turns at the helm.
Having reached a third country, passing France and Spain, was a huge psychological boost and it enthused my friends who had been following my progress. I had lots of promises from people that they would fly out over the summer to help at various points during the journey.
The offshore sailing across the Bay of Biscay had been every bit as unpleasant as I feared it would be, and so I was glad to be safely moored up in a marina, and able to go ashore whenever I wanted, by simply stepping off the pontoon. I decided to take the opportunity for some tourism, having never visited Porto before.
Solo travelling was something that never appealed to me; it was something I'd never done. As I'd not taken a gap year before or after university, and had then quickly found my way into a lucrative career, backpacking and hostelling had never been a financial necessity - I had always been able to afford to stay in nice hotels, wherever I went. Perhaps my life would have been enriched by those experiences, but I had plenty of communal living experience during my student days, staying in chalets when skiing, and of course when doing sailing trips with every berth filled, when living quarters were particularly cramped.
My Portuguese was somewhat hampered by my excellent French, OK Spanish and basic Italian. The pronunciation seemed so disimilar to the other Latin-based Northern European languages which I'd learned, that I was quite intimidated and more hesitant and afraid to attempt to communicate, than I usually was when abroad.
I wanted for Sian to join me for a pleasant city-break style holiday, but she was busy with end-of-academic-year activities at the university, and she wanted to leave on good terms, in the hope of getting her old job back in approximately one year's time. I also knew that there was vastly more of the journey to complete before the end of the summer, and I didn't want her to decide that life on board the yacht with me wasn't going to work out, before we even reached the warmer waters of Greece and Turkey, where I hoped we would happily spend the winter together.
Some substantially intimidating segments of the journey stood ahead of me: Menorca to Sardinia, Sardinia to Sicily, and finally Sicily to Corfu. Each of these segments would be in seas which were hardly tidal and lacked the gigantic waves and fierce storms of the Atlantic, but would require night sailing a long distance from shore. I didn't want to think about any of these future challenges, including the Gibraltar Straits, whose shipping lanes would be a nightmare to navigate. I wanted to forget all about the remaining trip ahead, for a while, and enjoy some time ashore.
At first, I contented myself with establishing a routine at the marina, where I would enjoy morning coffee in a local café, and some beers in the sunshine, reading a book to take my mind off everything and relax. I was attempting to get myself into a holidaymaker's tourist mindset, instead of that of a sailor, intent on reaching their final destination.
I often forgot to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. Mainstream education had funnelled me through a pre-destined path, via university and straight into a career, without a moment to catch my breath. Summer holidays had been stolen by internships, and group holidays - such as ski trips - with work colleagues had felt a little bit like an extension of my London life. I'd had my career break, of course, but that had been frantic, as I had attempted to build a small business from nothing. Here was a rare opportunity to enjoy the total freedom I had, with no job and career to worry about, no money to be earned - yet, it took me some time to ease my way into a life of leisure, as I was so unused to life without work: academic and career; financial goals etc.
I felt incredibly self-conscious in the evenings, alone. I didn't feel comfortable eating on my own in a restaurant or going to bars in the city centre - I was sure that I'd look like a sleazy old man; a sexual predator. I was sure that people would eye me with suspicion.
There was a bar in the marina where I felt among my own kind at least - yachtie types - and I stayed there until I was quite drunk from the strong Portuguese lager, whereupon I would return to my yacht to prepare and eat a simple meal. With Ian, we had been eating meals which could be prepared while under way, meaning whatever could be cooked in a single saucepan, which was held firmly to the gimballed stove. Having got into the bad habit of tipping ingredients from packets and tins into a pan, until a passable meal was ready to be eaten, I continued with this, washed down with lashings of red wine.
I was quite lonely, but I knew that an amazing summer stretched ahead of me, with the opportunity to see some fabulous ports, harbours, lagoons, coves, islands and a whole heap of wonderful things along the way. I knew that there would be no shortage of friends who wanted to join me along the way, to help me on my mammoth voyage to Corfu.
There were other British sailors in the marina, of course. My ears instinctively picking up the mother tongue, whenever I heard it spoken. I knew that there would be random crew - with varying degrees of experience - who frequented marinas during the pleasant months of the year, and happily took the opportunity for a change of scenery when it arose, happy to add sea miles to their log books, as well as the free bed & board. I was wary of taking my chances with strangers, however - I didn't mind dishing out orders to my friends, but I felt I wouldn't be comfortable with a stranger aboard.
On my third night spent alone at the marina bar, engrossed in my book, a young woman in her mid-twenties came and sat at my table.
"You're English aren't you? Hi, my name's Nicki" she said, offering a handshake. She beamed the happiest and most disarming smile I had ever encountered. "Come and join us for a drink" she said, nodding at a group of friends her age, who beckoned us over with great enthusiasm.
Nikki had dark hair but her tanned and heavily freckled complexion told me that she was a sailor. Her self-confidence and overwhelming friendliness led me to join her and her friends without hesitation. This was an uncharacteristic of me, as somebody normally quite reserved and quiet, and certainly not prone to any rash or sudden acts. For a moment, I noticed that Nikki was a very attractive young woman, and her demeanour could have been mistaken for somewhat flirtatious, but I decided to suppress that doubt and trust my instinct that this was a gesture of pure friendliness, given that my social isolation was quite conspicuous.
It emerged that the group Nikki was with were all her students, who had just completed a sailing course and were celebrating. Nikki was an RYA Yacht Master - a highly coveted qualification - which surprised me, as the Yacht Masters I had met had all been men in their 50s, and looked like typical salty sea dogs, with grey beards.
Had it not been for the high spirits of Nikki's group, and their enthusiastic warm welcome into their group, I think I would have quickly made my excuses and left. It was strange, but it felt a little bit like cheating because the attraction I felt towards Nikki was immediate and intense: here was the perfect partner to complete the voyage from Portugal to Greece, and indeed to sail anywhere in the world with. With a qualified Yacht Master on board, my fear and anxiety surrounding those difficult, stressful and dangerous legs of the passage, would be alleviated and I would be free to enjoy myself, with hardly any sense of responsibility.
At the end of a very boozy evening, I staggered back to my yacht on very unsteady feet. I was pleased with myself that I hadn't asked Nikki for any kind of contact details, or indeed proposed that I hire her as a professional skipper to accompany me for the remainder of my trip. Although I tried to convince myself that the motivation would purely be to reduce my stress levels and increase my enjoyment of the journey - in terms of appreciating the pleasant sailing which lay ahead - I knew that it would also be amazing to have such a beautiful young woman, who was a lot of fun to be around, in charge instead of me.
I hoped I wouldn't bump into her again, but part of me also hoped that I would. I felt very guilty about poor Sian, none the wiser about this chance encounter, back at home in Brighton.