Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Making amends

"Did you read the blog yet?" I asked Alex. For weeks, he's hardly opened a computer, which is something of a change from the months before we left home when he was rarely away from the screen. "Was I too negative?" I wanted to know. He thinks not. But I feel as though the past few posts have been depressingly bleak, that my pain thresh-hold has been exposed as low, and I am here to make amends, of a kind.

I want to show you how comfortable Enki is, for a start. This is a corner of the main saloon. We have a large, leafed table and each night we set it with mats and napkins, pepper grinder and a citronella candle (we're eating inside because the mozzies keep us in nightly terror).

Our aft cabin is luxurious by most cruising yacht standards, with a big bed, a chair and another bed, great storage, ample head room and natural light coming in from both sides, aft and overhead.  The bookshelf contains my trophy books, the set of Virginia Woolf diaries I've mentioned too often to be cool, and other books which, for better or for worse, I chose to bring with me, mostly to hang onto a sense of who I was, or may have been, or may still be.....who knows. I've always been a reader, and though there's no shortage of stuff on Kindle, it'll be a long time before you can buy e-books editions of Katherine Mansfield's letters to John Middleton Murry, or Freya Stark's travel writing.

Sure, there are some uncomfortable places to be on the boat, and Alex seems good at finding them all. This afternoon he's been in the aft lazarettes (lockers set into the stern deck), unpacking and re-packing. He's spent far too many cramped hours in the engine compartment, with Dave, trying to work out why our water pressure is on the blink. The latest twist in this gripping mystery focuses on the size of the accumulator (I won't bother to explain).

Dave re-wiring (again) the water pump
I've left the best to the end. This afternoon, as a coda to a day of small successes, we launched our new dinghy - which we have named Claudia, of course.

Dave overhauled our inherited 5hp outboard and it started without a murmur. As soon as we eased the dinghy out beyond the marina pontoons I felt my spirits lift. I was ridiculously excited, to be honest. It doesn't take much water for me to get excited, but I do like the water to be moving around me. We made a reconnaissance of the channel leading from Port Napoleon into the Gulf of Fos.  It's not wide, nor did it appear to be very deep. Mid-week fishermen were standing in water up to their knees disturbingly close to the channel markers. But it's what there is, so we'll have to be hawk-eyed when Enki finally makes her way out into the sea beyond.

Not everyone in Port Napoleon is having a horrible time
I did squeal yesterday. All those disappointments, coming one on top of the other, hurt. But it's going to be fun. We know that. We also know that, coming from where we do, we expect levels of service which don't exist in other places - many other places, actually. We'll have to modify our expectations further as we travel east, I am sure. There's a saying, isn't there? When in Rome....Yes, but Rome did burn, and while I shouldn't extrapolate too freely from our experiences in the south of France, we often feel as though we've washed up in a holiday world where what we've come to think of as economic and commercial reality is brushed off as unpleasant, and distasteful. Here, where there's always a line of boats waiting to be lifted into the water, perhaps people can be forgiven for thinking that there will never be an end to the long lunch. 

Sylvain wants me to like his davits - but they don't cut the mustard

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Beam me up

Photo taken by Markus from the top of Enki's mast
I wish I could say that this was Enki parked somewhere other than Port Napoleon, Pontoon E, but unfortunately not. We've had another setback. I'm calm now, but I haven't been calm. There have been tears. Our long-awaited davits, finally welded in place on Monday, don't work, and we won't be going anywhere until they do. As they stand, they can't lift the Zodiac dinghy. There's nothing wrong with the functioning of the davits - they're Simpson, a Rolls Royce brand, able to carry a load of 175 kg - but Sylvain, that charming rogue, has welded them onto the davit shoes at the wrong angle, so they're like splayed feet.

It wasn't immediately obvious. We were so dazzled by the stainless on our stern on Monday afternoon when he finally finished. "Tough," he pronounced, hanging his weight against each one. The next morning, as we looked at weather forecasts, and thought of bringing forward our departure, Alex went to hook up the dinghy and stood there, stunned. Sylvain and Matthew hadn't bothered to check what they were doing against the measurements of the Zodiac which has been sitting right beside the boat on the pontoon all the time. Dave and Alex have now done the maths. The davits need to be swivelled 12.5 degrees inwards to connect at the correct angle to the lifting straps of the inflatable. Trouble is, Silvain has welded the bolts into place. Oh la la. That's not actually what we're saying.

I still don't like the boating life. Or perhaps it's the south of France I don't like, or the offhand attitude of the marine industry to its customers. I can't decide which. But does it matter? Much further east, Syrian soldiers are murdering children in their beds.  All around us, the eurozone is making nasty splintering sounds. As I went to sleep last night, I tried to imagine myself into the head of Barack Obama as he and Michelle turned in. A bit strange, but I needed to get out of my own head. Which problem would they be trying to solve tonight? What's the next move with the treacherous Assad? How could they make any sense of European double-speak?

Our cruising time in the Schengen zone has been eaten away by the incompetence and shockingly blase work practices we've encountered in Port Napoleon. But so what? We've learned some hard lessons. We'll never again leave our boat in a yard when we want work done on her, and expect the work to be done when we return. We'll demand definite start and finish times from any workmen we employ in the future, or move on (if we can). We've been too trusting, including Alex, which is saying something.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Black and blue

Above me, on deck, the sails are going up.  All afternoon they have been walking on my cabin roof, turning our boat into a sailing vessel. Alex, Markus, Melinda, Dave. I listen but am apart, told to keep my body horizontal. Frozen peas are also involved.  If my ears don't deceive me, Silvain may have finished, or be close to finishing installing our davits. Halyards, outhauls, battens, furlers, sheets, electric winches - everything I been dying to get my hands on for weeks has been on offer today for the able-bodied to help set up. The weather is made to order - a light breeze, blue skies, the antithesis of last weekend's nastiness.  We've been talking of leaving by Tuesday. There's enough basic food and wine etc stowed aboard Enki to see us through to Croatia - a month from now, or thereabouts. Melinda and I have shopped and shopped these past three days. We returned the rental car to Arles last night.

I know that we are still on the pontoon, and no-one is thinking of going anywhere else tonight or even tomorrow. What I don't know is why I can't stay on my feet after so many years of living on them. Here I am, again nursing a painful injury after slipping on a (wet) non-slip surface wearing non-slip shoes. This time it's my left hand which is out of action. If I can be useful for anything in a week or two I'll consider myself lucky.

Roman arena in Arles

After many months, I finished reading The Illiad this afternoon. Those Greek gods sure played havoc in people's lives, as Homer wrote of them. I'm open to the thought that a capricious Olympian is taking me down a peg or two. Either that or...I don't want to think more. We are so close now. Melinda and Dave will be wondering what they have signed up for. Fortunately I took them to Arles on Thursday - mostly for pleasure, with just a small diversion for boat business.  I'm so fond of that town, and they understood why by the end of the day.

Parfumerie, not chandlery

Sea blue shutters - I want them!

Monday, 21 May 2012

One step at a time

How about some good news for a change? Here's Enki with her mast in, boom attached too. She's a yacht!

The riggers haven't yet finished tightening everything up. They worked all Saturday in the southerly gale which came in about 30 minutes after the rig was stepped.  And yes, Murphy stuck his foot in again - the turnbuckle at the bottom of the backstay couldn't be attached because the threads on both ends were identical (instead of opposing). Marcus claims his English isn't good (it is), but I read him loud and clear  - "oh, for fuck's sake" - when this little gem turned up. Nothing that a piece of rope can't fix, temporarily.

The rig went in on Saturday because we got lucky on Friday. There's a classy rigging outfit called Navtec on the outskirts of Cannes. Cannes is a super-yacht mecca, and in such a crowd, Enki's vital statistics don't raise an eyebrow. Not only did Navtec have a swaging machine which could handle our 14 mm stainless stell rigging, but on a Friday between a public holiday and the weekend, someone there agreed to operate the machine. Oh la la. What's a 240 km drive in such circumstances? We squeezed the heavy coiled stays into our tiny car's boot, and hurtled east. 

We managed only a sideways glimpse of the big toys on the Cannes waterfront. Their celebrity owners were in town for the film festival  but for us the main feature was the spectacle of Navtec's man Alexandre efficiently measuring out, cutting and swaging our pesky shrouds. A thing of beauty. Funny how your dreams shrink to fit the size of your ambitions. Our ambition is to leave Port Napoleon on a yacht.

Yacht stranded on Plage Napoleon

Sylvain at work on the davit supports
Yesterday the low intensified over us. At Plage Napoleon, an achingly barren stretch of grey sand at the end of our road, a yacht under sail had been blown onto the lee shore by weather much grimmer and uglier than any I'd imagined seeing in the Med. The driving rain and wind eventually chased away Silvain, our friendly man at the stern, who is making solid progress in attaching the davits to hold our dinghy. 

I don't believe I've mentioned the dinghy yet. Like Enki, she (as yet un-named) is over-sized. That wasn't our intention. Alex and I are well aware of our physical limitations. But for very French reasons - i.e. we took what we could get our hands on at the time - we've bought a 3.1 meter Zodiac RIB. It's flash. Hard bottom, a locker - but man, is it heavy. 87 kg. No way we can lift that without mechanical aids. Without Sylvain, we're floundering. 

Talking about floundering, there was small incident on Friday as we were leaving the boat, revved for Cannes. I fell in the water, fully clothed (obviously). There are no pictures, and the memories of those present will fade, as will the brutal bruise which has spread around my left thigh. My ego will recover too. Perhaps I'll learn - again - that you don't walk frontwards down steps on a boat (in this case, on the stern) with both hands full. Ouch, and ouch again.

I wouldn't want to be messing up my footwork at a glitzy Cote d'Azur resort like Port Frejus. We stopped by Frejus on the way back from Cannes, and unanimously agreed that nothing would drag us into such a claustrophic, artificial harbour. That was before we saw a yacht driven ashore by a vicious southerly gale though.

Port Frejus

Thursday, 17 May 2012

When you forget how to laugh

I'm not sure how I'll remember these weeks at Port Napoleon, or if I'll want to remember them. I think not. It's a month today since we left Sydney, and last night I told Alex I didn't know if I was cut out for the boating life. I love sailing, I love living on a boat, I said, but everything's coming back to me now. The boating life is more about keeping your boat afloat than it is about enjoying being afloat. It's about waiting around in marinas for weeks that turn into months while your stomach is eaten out with anxiety and frustration, and your spirits curdled by fist-banging impotence. It demands a different kind of temperament from mine. I was fragile last night. I almost lost it.

Alex at work on Enki's freshwater pump
I could blame the malicious wind for my ill-temper, but in this part of the Mediterranean, called the Golfe de Lion, gales are as commonplace as floods in Queensland and fires in Victoria. Or I could blame the month of May. We were going yet into another long weekend (today is a public holiday, so Friday is "the bridge" and then, of course, the weekend...). Or I could blame the tradies. We hadn't seen anyone all week. No progress on the davits, the engine and generator service, the deck cleats. And still no mast, though the news from Marcus was that the replacement rigging had arrived.

Market morning in Port Saint Louis du Rhone
Or I could blame the boat herself - for being a boat. After the light relief of the market in Port Saint Louis yesterday morning, Alex and Dave went flat out - literally - for the best part of eight hours replacing the pump which supplies us with fresh water.  It had burned out overnight. At the same time, they continued their battle with the watermaker, which as it turns out, needs a part which is unavailable in the boatyard. Those jobs weren't even on the list when the day began.

But really, is there something else at work here?

This morning, we were all up early,  primed to have Enki around at the dock by 10 am. The wind had dropped, and though it was cold enough (I'm wearing three layers today), the sky was blue. We had water coming out of the taps again, and the prospect of a mast. We even allowed ourselves to believe that Matthew would show up to make a start on the engine and the deck cleats. Breakfast in the cockpit was much happier than dinner the night before.

At 9 am, Markus rang to ask Alex to come and look at the mast.  The call felt ominous, and yes, when Alex returned, the news was bad. Enki wouldn't be getting her mast in today. The stays, which last week were too short, were now too long. Embarrassing for the rigger, but for us, mortifying. France is more or less closed until Monday.  Enki has 14 mm stainless steel stays. There is no-one in Port Saint Louis with a machine which is big enough to effect the change needed to shorten them (I write this in a convoluted way because I'm wobbly on the technical term - to swage. Can I use it properly? I'm unsure). There's a chance that someone in a big marina in Cannes may be able to help between now and Monday. If so, we'll drive the offending stays there ourselves.

Matthew and Alex fixing the deck cleats
We will leave Port Napoleon before June arrives. I tell myself this. Alex tells himself this. These trials which are so large in our minds now are insignificant in the scheme of things. We know this. But we are human. Our responses cannot be moderated as easily as we'd like. We lose it, even the coolest of us. Perhaps one day we'll be able to laugh when someone mentions Port Napoleon. Or perhaps will we choose to forget this wasteland at the mouth of the Rhone.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Mistral madness

"It's dusty, all dusty here," my table companion says. I know. This wind, this wicked mistral, is insane.  My computer will hate me, but I need signal. There's none on the boat. There are seven of us sitting at the row of tables outside the shut-up Josephine cafe, staring at our screens, shivering, each willing more wifi to come our way.

Down on the pontoon, it's a crazy house, the lighter boats dancing around in their pens, masts tipped like crooked pencils, halyards angrily knocking against masts. I haven't seen Scurvy today. She's ship's kitten on the Canadian boat alongside us. D.W. Crow is a sturdy little North Atlantic vessel, also de-masted, but in this instance by her owners' choice. Bob, Martha and Scurvy are heading up the canals, bound for the Black Sea.

We are four now on Enki. We picked up David and Melinda Gunn from Avignon on Friday.

They're friends we met in a marina on the Queensland coast towards the end of our first season cruising. They've parked their lovely wooden yacht Sassoon in a marina in Malaysia, and are going to sail with us in the Med for as long as it works. At the moment, it's working just fine, though you'd hardly call this sailing. Today, Dave and Alex fixed the life raft to the deck (as always, Murphy made an appearance), and Dave seems to have fixed the leak in the fresh water system.  Bravo!

Melinda is custom-manufacturing a mosquito net to cover the companionway. Before the mistral came, we wondered if we'd get out of here alive - the invasion of gigantic mosquitoes at dusk has been terrifying since the weather has turned warm. Melinda has made a similar net for Sassoon. She says she likes to sew. I'm not complaining.

My role, as ever, is somewhat undefined, since my practical skills really don't amount to much outside the galley. I tell myself that my on-line RYA yachtmaster course is bound to bear fruit one day, but every problem involving tidal calculations in secondary ports sends me straight back to the agony of sixth form mathematics.

My brain hurts after two or three hours wrangling with charts, almanac and Portland plotter, but then I look up at Melinda in the cockpit with her nifty needle, and hear Dave and Alex hitting a submerged aluminium brace through the teak with the electric drill, and I stay put.

I am by nature a swot. I will make a place for myself here at the nav station, if it kills me..

PS to my beautiful children, and my own mother - thanks so much for your messages today. Guess who forgot to factor Mother's Day into her calculations? Never too late to catch the celebratory tide....

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Step in, step out

Peter, the crane driver, and Alex...before the mast went in
A couple of days ago I put a bottle of Pommery in the fridge. Believe it or not, we haven't drunk a drop of champagne since we arrived in France three weeks ago.  Last night was to have been the night. Enki would look like a yacht again.  Yesterday was the day she was booked to have her mast stepped. As it turned out, it wasn't a night for champagne. Let me explain.  

There was too much wind yesterday for Alex to feel easy in his skin about driving Enki for only the second time in the tight confines of the marina. He worried about angles and fenders and lines all day until the moment came, and there was nothing for it but to fire up the ignition and get the boat around there. Step one: he had to manoeuvre her alongside the concrete dock, right underneath the crane. Step two: when the job was done (it'd take no more than half an hour to tighten everything up, Markus said), he had to bring her back into the berth, in reverse, and now with the extra windage of her heavy rig to take into account.   He did a fine job, both going in and coming back in.

It was the unexpected happenings at the dock which kept the cork in the neck of the Pommery.

Enki's mast is massive. It took me the best part of two days to scour the grime off it with a Scotchbrite pad, and then rub a fine layer of protective paraffin oil into the cleaned-up aluminium. Here it is being lifted off the dock by the crane, driven by an exceptionally affable Belgian named Peter.

The mast had come out late last year because we had ordered new standing rigging - that's the stainless steel wires which support the mast.  As well, we had asked Markus to put the inner forestay on a furler, an arrangement which we had on Kukka and which we like very much.

Marcus has a reputation in the yard for being a meticulous guy. In fact, Alex decided to replace the rig here in France rather than in Turkey at the end of the year after he'd seen Markus's workshop. He was bowled over by how tidy it was, and how well organised. In all his dealings with us thus far, Marcus has been faultless. But yesterday, he admitted, he took a short-cut, and paid for it dearly.

It was exciting to watch the mast first being raised and then lowered to hover just above the deck.

I found myself envying the skills of men who work with such sureness and confidence around heavy objects and machines. They shout, they move their arms, leap from boat to dock, they laugh and point.....and the machines, which can swiftly crush and maim if mishandled,  do their bidding.

Stepping a mast is an everyday event in a boatyard, but the wonder of it is enough to make a man on his bike stop, and stare for many minutes in admiration.

A couple of Swedish riggers whom Markus had roped in to help, and his German mate Michael, tightened up the forestays. We were in business. Or so we thought.

The mast was dropped into place on the deck, the boat visibly sank in the water, and the riggers unwrapped the shrouds. We were watching from the dock, and sensed some confusion, something about the shroud being short. In the cabin of his crane, Peter waited, his face unconvinced by what he was seeing. Then with a bit of muscle, and help from the agile Swede who clambered to the first set of spreaders, the shrouds on the starboard side were screwed into place. The boat shuddered down into the water again. 

Then body language of the guys above tells the story of what happened on the port side. There was no way they could make it work. There was not enough length in the shrouds. There hadn't been on the starboard side either. The rig was horribly strained. And so they pulled it down.  Markus held himself together, but he was furious. "Well, it's either my mistake or theirs," he told us. "I'm sorry, but I need this even less than you do."

Half an hour later, he called us over to where the mast had been wheeled, and with a kind of grim satisfaction showed us that his measurements were correct. The new rigging, when laid against the old, fell considerably short on the side shrouds. The fault lay with the manufacturer, Sparcraft, which had mixed up two digits.  His order read 5530 mm. The shrouds he'd received measured 5350 mm. But he wasn't completely off the hook, he said. He'd run out of time that day to measure every piece of the new rigging against his order. He had two lengths to go, but Peter was waiting with the crane, and he was doing him a favour by working a public holiday. The two shrouds he didn't measure were the two which were short.

So, we still have some champagne to open.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Breakfast on the pontoon

This is what we see from Enki's stern deck. Still a marina, but not bad, eh? My expectations have been modified after a couple of weeks at Port Napoleon, but I rate our new view of the travel lift as a considerable improvement on our old view of the rump of the sprawling port of Fos-Marseilles. I tried to get a white Camargue horse in the foreground, but hey, who's pretending it's anything but agricultural out there. 

Last night was our first night sleeping aboard Enki. We got the mattresses out of the upholstery loft and into the aft cabin by mid-afternoon. First we moved enough clothing to fit out a small Pacific nation (why did I do it? why didn't I leave it all at home?) into her forgiving lockers. There were a few hiccups last night, but our bed was comfortable and,  as of this afternoon, Alex fixed the toilets, and we have hot water. 

Yesterday morning, feeling flighty, we drove out of the boatyard and beyond Port Saint Louis for the first time in two weeks. As we crossed the marshy land between the Rhone and Fos, I suddenly saw them - the flamingos. It was my first time.  I'm sorry we couldn't get better shot, but there are few places to stop on that road.  I promise you, even in this flat mid-morning light they were worth pulling over for, such delicate creatures with a naughty flash of deep pink of the underside of their wings. 

I had tracked down the perfect kayak (my choice is a Hobie Lanai kayak, weighing 17 kg) at Martigues. Martigues styles itself as a little Venice. It has watery light and a few canals, a couple of them linked by quaint old bridges, but other than that you're scratching to find much else the two towns have in common. 

After we'd clinched the kayak deal at Marcon Yachting, which is under the very un-Venetian bridge above, we did a bit of telecommunications, buying top-ups for the phone and iPad at an SFR shop because the SFR website says non to foreign credit cards. Then we wandered the lanes. A treat! 

Today the French are voting for a new president and it's quiet in the boatyard, not because of the election but because it's Sunday, and on Tuesday, which is May 8, the anniversary of the German surrender to the Allies in 1945, there's another public holiday. The following week, the public holiday falls on Thursday. Even the French despair of getting any work done in May. Everyone is too relaxed, says Silvain, who doesn't have a leg to stand on in the "too relaxed" department, having spent eight months making two stainless shoes for our davits. Oh, I say, and why would that be?  It's the holiday season, he says, as if it were the most obvious thing in the universe that in the Mediterranean the summer season has already begun. Ah, that's it.  

Thursday, 3 May 2012

She floats

She's in the water. She doesn't have a mast, but that's ok. We know where it is. She doesn't have quite a few other basic things, in fact, but she's floating. That feels good, very good. 

Here at Port Napoleon, power and sail boats are lifted in and out of the water as a matter of daily routine. The travel lift is the star attraction, its towering blue frame drawing the eye like a ferris wheel. You take a ticket for the ride and wait your turn. When you hand over your 18 tonne baby to the travel lift guys - who are not unlike carnival men  -  you engage your head, and try to ignore  the agitation of your heart.  Other people's boats strung up in the travel lift are just passing curiosities, but yours is....well, she's different.

When we were last in this place with Enki 11 months ago, we were prospective buyers, and Christophe was the nervous owner standing at the base of the travel life. Since then however, we've invested an awful lot in getting her back in the water, and today was the moment of truth. Alex is a cool customer but I knew he was jittery when he rather wretchedly admitted that he'd run out of cigarettes (I did it, I made the mercy dash into town to buy the horrible fags....greater love etc).

When it came time for her to be moved towards the travel lift, Alex was nowhere to be seen. He'd gone to confirm which pen we were going to put her into.  I untied the ladder - that bloody ladder - and set her free to move. The man in his machine pushed her towards the water like a boy pushing a toy on a table. '

Once she was hoisted in the straps, the anti-foul guy came back with his paint and brush and patched up the bottom of her keel, which she'd been resting on during those 11 months, and the bare spots where she'd been held by the arms of the cradle.

Then they dropped her in. I missed the action. The crane operator Peter sent me off to the capitainerie. Apparently, as a rule, you must pay your bill before your boat goes in the water - I guess in case you sail away and they can't find you again. In our case, we have no mast, so there's no place we're going unless it's up a French canal (though Enki has too long a keel for canal-cruising, sadly). When I came back, she was floating. Hurrah!

Her engine kicked over on the first turn. There were some problems manoeuvring her. The folding prop, as it turns out, crabs to starboard in reverse (all propellers favour one or other side, and I won't continue with that imagery) and our previous two boats crabbed to port. That threw Alex - I think it must be a bit like reversing in a left-hand drive car (which I can't do very well yet).  Luckily he had Matthew, who has a reputation as Port Napoleon's demon helmsman, on board with him - I missed the boat, of course. She's in her pen now, and inconceivably given the state of the interior, we'll be moving aboard her on Saturday morning, for a long time.

There are a lot of loose ends still to tie up. The davits need to be fixed to the boat, the new bowthruster and windlass wired up, the engine serviced, the HF antenna attached to the backstay... I could go on, but Marcus was installing two bookshelves when I left the boat an hour or so ago., and that made me happy. That's Markus the rigger, who originally trained as a cabinetmaker. Books make a big difference to a boat's interior.

We carried a lot of books on Kukka, but on this voyage we have defected to Kindle, for obvious reasons. I did however bring my hardcover set of Virginia Woolf's diaries with me. There are some books you don't like to sail halfway around the world could, but why would you want to (to bastardise a quote from our very good friend Mike about his fabulous wife Alisa)?