Up river

14 to 23 April 2022

Come the beginning of March everyone was itching to leave their winter berth and head off on their adventures and there followed a diary full of farewell walks, drinks and meals.

We watched with the envy of hindsight as winter friends slipped their lines and headed east into the Mediterranean. For the Brits, their onward passage was not going to be straightforward as they juggled the restrictions on time spent in the Schengen zone. We remain incredibly grateful to have spent so much time cruising the Med unfettered by the 90 day rule.

One by one we waved them off. First SV Intrepid Bear with an ambitious plan to head straight to Montenegro via a short stop in Gibraltar, next SV Womba with a plan to hop round the Spanish coast and across to Morocco and then SV Sancerre with a plan to hide out for a while in the border waters of the Rio Guardiana.

We too started to itch and decided once our new batteries were fitted we would finally brave the bridge and join them in the Guardiana to fulfil a promise to Ursula and Alex and meet their new arrival, Aria.

It turns out Pintail had been itching to leave too as she rocketed away from Portimao at 8 knots! At that speed we considered taking advantage of the wind and going all the way to the mouth of the river but only a few hours later we were becalmed and decided to stop for the night as planned at the anchorage at Culatra.

One of our first anchorages on our way into the Med, Culatra remains a firm favourite. Protected perfectly by the flat sand islands, it offers great shelter but a tricky entrance. We arrived at slack water, thereby avoiding the tidal races at the entrance and in the shallow waters outside the channel found ourselves a deep enough spot for the night. We had a quick explore over at the beach and vowed to return for a longer stay over the summer.

The sunset at Culatra was just as ethereal as we remembered from 2016 and although we felt like we were right in the harbour entrance the water was calm and quiet.

At first light we headed off again with more than a few butterflies in our stomach. Yachts had encountered orcas near the fish farms off Tavira. To get to the river we had no choice but to navigate passed them. As the sun rose we were more preoccupied by the many fishing pots but at mid morning, when I was on watch, my heart leapt into my mouth at the sight of a big black fin in the corner of my eye. Then two. I shouted to Stefan as they glided passed us in the opposite direction and we both held our breath. They definitely weren’t dolphins but could have been pilot whales. Not wanting to hang around to find out, as soon as we could we ducked closer inshore to shallower waters.

Our early morning exit from Culatra had been timed to arrive in the shallow mouth of the Rio Guardiana at half flood. We needed enough water to get across the sandbars at the entrance and the strong tide with us to be able to get up river. The last two days had really tested our rusty tidal navigation skills and reminded us that sailing with tides meant not traveling to our own timetable! To get under the road bridge to go further up the Guardiana we needed to go at low tide so we anchored off the Spanish town of Ayamonte for the night, remembering to replace our Portuguese courtesy flag for our very battered Spanish one.

After breakfast the next morning, and remembering to factor in the one hour time difference between Spain and Portugal, we were as ready as we would ever be to take on the bridge. Having been unable to find any definitive data on its height we had chosen to go under at the lowest Spring tide. The charts show the bridge as 18 metres high. Pintail’s mast is 20 metres. We knew others with taller masts who had made it through at low tide but as we inched closer and closer it seemed improbable. A friendly fisherman hung back behind us and told us that from his angle we had plenty of space so for the second time in two days we held our breath and hoped for the best.

You can probably hear the relief in my voice as we made it under safely!

Immediately passed the bridge we felt that we had entered another world, one filled with birdsong and a feeling of complete tranquility. For the next few hours we followed the channel markers that meandered from one side of the river to the other with barely another human in sight, no noise but the birds and Pintail’s engine. It took about four hours to reach anything approaching civilisation at the towns of Alcoutim on the Portuguese side and Sanlucar on the Spanish.

And where this furry friend was waiting for us! Even after a couple of weeks separation, his tail wagged wildly at the sight of his best friend, Stefan.

On an unseasonally hot Easter Sunday we went in search of those festivities. Easter is a bigger celebration in Spain than Christmas so we headed for Sanlucar, convinced we would find some kind of procession. The streets were deserted. We found the menfolk smoking outside the church, presumably waiting for their wives and children inside. With no hint of a pointy hooded parade, we gave up and crossed to the Portuguese side.

After a swim for Ralph to cool off, there we found families out having lunch in the cafes and so, a little disappointed at the lack of celebration, we joined them. It turned out that we had missed the main Portuguese event, Feira dos Doces d’Avó (the festival of Grandmother’s cakes), by a day and had been a week early for the Fiesta da Santisima de la Virgen de la Rabida on the Spanish!

With Easter over, so was the heatwave and there followed a week of weather that Ursula and Alex described as the worst they’d had since they arrived a year ago! With strong winds from the north we were confined to the boat for three days as we rode out wind against tide and seesawed from one side of the river to the other, from Spain to Portugal.

It left us wondering where the serenity had gone and whilst I had work to distract me, Stefan started to go a little stir crazy being confined to the boat. Pintail’s anchor gripped hard into the mud and by the end of the storm we were more concerned about how we might get it unstuck!

When the weather allowed we thoroughly enjoyed our reunion with the crew of SV Sancerre, eeking out some extra time together before we headed off in completely different directions. In Zoë I found an enthusiastic museum buddy and despite a very overcast day we visited the 14th century castle at Alcoutim, evidence that relations between Portugal and Spain were not always quite as friendly. It was actually in this castle that the countries signed a peace treaty ending war between them. There was evidence too of one time Arab rule in the area with a collection of Islamic board games.

The view from the castle walls down on Alcoutim and across to Sanlucar was gorgeous, even in the mild drizzle.

Higher still above Alcoutim was what was left of the castle which predates the one in town and all of us together this time took a hike up to reach it. We walked through beautiful Spring flowers

to the ruins of fortifications that had protected the border since the 8th century.

Certainly as a vantage point its views up and down the river couldn’t be beaten.

Back down in Alcoutim at the market, amongst other treats, we found a honey made by the bees up at the castle and bought ourselves a jar as a memory.

With Morocco having opened its borders to visiting yachts again and the weather looking good for a passage across to the Gulf of Cadiz, Zoë and Martyn started preparing to leave. We had another goodbye supper of Martyn’s wonderful fish pie and a game of Cluedo which they had found in a bookswap and assumed was in German. It all added to the mystery especially when we later discovered it was actually Dutch!!

And then the next morning, in slightly drizzly weather to match our mood, we waved fair winds to our lovely friends and wished them amazing adventures in the Med.

We were staying on in the river to spend some time with the newest member of our sailing family…

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