Good friends and family know I’m not an early riser by choice, although most of my life I’ve grudgingly risen to the clang of an alarm bell earlier than I’d like, to make it on time to school or work. Those harsh alarms really used to rub me up the wrong way before I got out of bed and I’d often start the day grumpy.
At 3.30am on Friday the 2nd of February 2018 however, I was woken gently by the friendly chirps of birds gradually getting louder, until I reached towards my phone and turned off the alarm. Yes it was early but no I wasn’t grumpy. Why? Well, you’ve got to love smart phones that give you a choice of sounds to wake up with – from fog horn to campfire crackling and everything in between – and the birdsong I have on my phone actually makes me smile when I hear it. And although tired because I’d been up late ironing clothes so I wouldn’t have to do that at 3.30am, I managed to get my act together quickly enough so that Baz and I were in the car and driving off to Gibraltar by 4am.
Besides, I was excited - and nervous. And I felt both of these emotions for the same reason: We were heading down to Gibraltar to learn to sail! The thought of returning to Javea in three weeks with RYA Day Skipper Certificates in our hands so that we could buy and sail our own yacht was exciting. But my intuition had a strong sense that while the certification was a distinct possibility, the three week learning curve from absolute sailing newbie via Competent Crew to Day Skipper (and including Diesel Engine Maintenance, Marine First Aid and VHF Radio Handling) was going to be an intensive and challenging ride. That is what was making butterflies dance in my guts – and had been for the past couple of weeks whenever I’d turned my thoughts in that direction.
If you’ve been reading my blogs though, you’ll have gathered by now that even though there have been a few times when I’d rather not rise to a challenge, I have managed to dig courage up from deep within my quaking body and surprised myself by triumphing!
So even though I knew deep down this sailing course would demand a lot of me, and was afraid to imagine what that might be, I hunkered down in the reclined passenger seat of our hire car and dozed while Barry drove us towards our destination, accompanied by his playlist of music. At some point in the journey, I became vaguely aware of the windscreen wipers backing the music with their rhythmic movement. A while later, I heard the indicator blinking and the car’s engine slow down as Baz drove the car off the motorway, probably heading for a petrol station.
I opened my eyes and saw the lights of petrol pumps, but also something else which surprised me. Falling from the darkness of the night sky were soft white streaks. It was snowing! I hadn’t expected that because Javea had been surprisingly mild for the time of year. Then I realised that we were travelling inland across the Sierra Nevada Mountains and they were high enough to bring snow! Pulling on my thin orange linen jacket and stepping out of the warmth of the car, I shivered at the chill of the early morning air. But I grabbed our little camera (Sony HDR-AS300) and filmed a short amount of footage before heading towards the toilets and then back to the cozy car.
A word on public toilets in Spain
Spanish servicios put UK public loos to shame. Every restroom I have stopped at in Spain – from airports, to restaurants, to little cafes, to large new franchise service stations, to small run down country petrol stations – has had a clean toilet. Even the lavatories with old scratched doors, where you have to put your toilet paper into a basket beside the loo so as not to block ancient plumbing, have been a delight to wee in. Clean toilets, clean basins, and sometimes fresh flowers. I am in constant delight at these discoveries. Perhaps I should do an Instagram series on them.
With my hands smelling like an exotic flower, one of the surprises of the hand soap from this little petrol station in the mountains, I eased my car seat to upright and got the camera ready for more interesting shots along the journey.
As the car sped along the Spanish roads the sky lightened and we began to make out an amazing array of differing landscapes as we cut inland across the Sierra Nevada Mountains passing Granada and on towards our destination.
High vast mountain scapes, houses cut into hillsides, pink budding fruit trees lining the road and dotting fields, clusters of tall ghostly leafless logging trees, viaducts and tunnels cutting through mountains, were some of the beauties of Spain we encountered until eventually, we descended to the coast where we caught our first glimpse of The Rock of Gibraltar. Rising to a height of 426 metres (1,398 ft) the Rock of Gibraltar consists of Jurassic limestone. It’s an impressive sight.
Parking in Gibraltar though, is at a premium, as the British Overseas Territory is a small 6.7 km2 (2.6 sq miles), with much of that space taken up by the Rock itself along with the airport and runway which is owned by the Ministry of Defence for use by RAF Gibraltar. We opted to leave our rental in a car park at La Linea de la Concepcion on the Spanish side of the border as we’d been advised that we would receive a discount on parking if we had the parking ticket stamped to prove we were living on a yacht as part of a sailing course. More on that in a following blog.
Lugging our heavy bags the from the car across the border (via an easy Customs and Immigration checkpoint) the 15 minute journey by foot felt more like a half hour hike, but we eventually arrived at the marina where we were due to meet Peter and Carrie Ormond of Rock Sailing Gibraltar. A nice lady who tried to sell us a dolphin boat tour told us she had just seen them having coffee at Bianca’s restaurant which was just behind us, so we hauled our bags into the restaurant and met our very welcoming hosts.
I ordered a coffee as I was gasping at that point, only to be told by Baz that we didn’t have any UK Pounds yet and he hadn’t transferred any onto our travel card. I was contemplating selling my new straw hat to some unsuspecting tourist rather than forgo the much needed caffeine, when Peter kindly shouted me the drink. Yes, these two lovely people were generous as well as welcoming, and as we found out over the next three weeks, also very knowledgeable with decades of sailing experience between them.
Shortly afterwards, Peter showed us to our home for the next 3 weeks: SV Rockefeller, a 36 foot Jeanneau Sun Odyssey. We would be staying there on our own for a couple of nights while we attended the first two RYA certified courses - VHF Radio Handling and Marine First Aid – and another crew member and our Skipper/Instructor would join us on Sunday afternoon, before beginning the five day Competent Crew course on the Monday morning.
SV Rockefeller - our home for three weeks
My first hurdle was getting onto the boat! It was moored bows-to the quay and the tide was slightly out, so there was a small step down off the safety of the harbour onto the small wooden semicircle at the pointy end of the boat (the pulpit), that acted as the step onto the yacht! Peter went on first and took my bag. I took a deep breath – no point failing at my first challenge or I wouldn’t have a place to sleep – and lurched forward, wildly grabbing for what I now know is the forestay which the head sail is rolled onto. I think my heart missed a beat, but my foot definitely didn’t miss that step. I’d heard what went into the marina water (think engine oil and raw sewage) and wasn’t going to fall into that! Plus I had my new straw hat to keep dry with its hand-stitched strap to keep it on in high winds! With less grace and sailor-savvy than I’d like to have shown, I stepped off the pulpit, stumbled onto the deck and swayed cautiously across the narrow side decks, clasping onto a strong twisted stainless steel sidestay to prevent myself from toppling overboard. I made it into the safe confines of the cockpit and promptly tried to paste a sophisticated carefree look on my face. Those who know me will probably laugh at that, because I can’t hide anything from my face.
Baz made it on board like a pro, of course.
Peter spent a while showing us down below and explained how to use the manual heads, which while in the marina were only to be used at night for peeing. Any other toilet call had to be made at the marina toilets which would entail hopping on and off the boat at the pointy end again. And with a 1m tide that rose and fell twice a day that could mean anything from a level crossing, to a steep step up or down onto the boat. I decided not to think about that right now, but did consider severely limiting my fluid intake for three weeks, wondering how far I could push that without damaging my kidneys.
There was snack food in the cupboards and cold meats, milk and orange juice in the fridge which Peter said to feel free to use as he would be adding to it once we started our Competent Crew Course. A short while after Peter left and we’d unpacked and made ourselves at home on the charming little boat, I plucked up the courage to follow Baz back onto terra firma, across a now level gap, so we could spend a couple of hours discovering Gibraltar’s Main Street and buy a few provisions and wine for the evening.
Gibraltar is an interesting place, in some ways more English than England, as they still have red double-decker buses and red Royal Mail post boxes, as well as iconic UK high street shops such as Marks & Spencer and Debenhams. But Gibraltar also has an exotic feel, as the locals speak Spanish as well as English and their own language, Llanito, which is mainly a blend of Andalusian Spanish and English. We took lots of photos and footage that afternoon, found a nearby supermarket which sold Spanish and English food and duty free alcohol.
We returned to Rockefeller with our goodies, navigated the gap (now a knee-crunching metre high) and had a simple but pleasant evening meal with a couple of glasses of good Spanish wine. Retiring to bed fairly early so we’d be bright and alert for our VHF Radio Handling course the next day, I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the bed was. I fell asleep to the gentle rock of the boat and the last things my tired eyes noticed through the hatch above me, was the furled head sail, lit by the soft glow of the nearby floating yacht-hotel the Sunborn.