Dodging Orcas – and Visions of the Future
Written at anchor off Lanzarote, published in Mindelo in the Cape Verde Islands…
As I write, I can hear the sounds of Dietmar underwater, scrubbing Cesarina’s hull. These are reassuring sounds – the bubbles escaping from his dive regulator and the scritch-scratch of the green sponge which promises to remove all cooking residue from your pans and also does a cracking job with nascent beard growth on your yacht hull. All the time I can hear this, I know he is OK and doesn’t need me to haul his dive rig out of the water (one of the disadvantages of an older yacht is the lack of built-in steps, particularly at the stern – we have a quaint, perfectly serviceable and rather beautiful looking, stainless steel ladder that we lower into the water off the port side – so getting heavy things on and off the boat at anchor without scratching the hull is always an adventure). We are anchored off Papagayo Beach in southern Lanzarote, in an anchorage of dark turquoise water against a backdrop that looks like a distant moon in a Star Wars movie. There are no Wookies or Ewoks on the pale sand beach ¼ mile away though, just children screaming with delight at the waves crashing big and bright up the beach.
I haven’t written for a while. Very remiss of me, I know. Sorry. Let me see if I can catch you up quickly…
We last saw each other here in Nazaré, I think, while we were heading for Lisbon. We intended to sail to Cascais, where I had had a wonderful time back in 2014, but we read that they had a significant cockroach problem and so opted for Oeiras instead. Our first half an hour there did not augur well as there is a pool complex and a nightclub right next to the marina and they blast Europop from 11am until well into the early hours. I thought it might be an opportunity to relive some of my misspent clubbing youth but Dietmar, whose youth was spent headbanging to Motörhead, was less than impressed and even the promise of probably scantily-clad gyrating girls was not enough to lure him up there. Thankfully, the marina has an excellent ice cream van and as soon as the wind picked up we couldn’t hear anything on board, thank goodness.
Lisbon was beautiful. You might have been but you have almost certainly heard about it – a maze of beautiful streets, filled with history and character, interspersed with soaring churches and bars and incredible views of the city up its many hills. While we were there it was Dietmar’s birthday and because we have limited space on board, I booked him some memories instead – much easier to unpack and they take up no storage space on Cesarina. So we toured Lisbon on foot, led by a charming local man, then killed an hour with a quick tour by tuk tuk (where, in true comedy fashion, we misheard the price, gave a handsome tip afterwards, and then got a text to say that we had in fact, despite tip, underpaid for the hour. Not such a fabulous deal after all, but we had fun nonetheless). Due to her enthusiasm to show us everything (and make sure we got our money’s worth, although we didn’t realise this at the time), we were late for the next part of the adventure. It was a surprise for Dietmar and he was VERY surprised when we boarded a minibus with ***SURF ADVENTURES*** emblazoned down the side, already full of Italian girls looking like an advertisement campaign. Half an hour later and we were suited and booted and heading for the surf.
I was just as rubbish as I was the last time I took surfing lessons, twenty years ago, but Dietmar was very pleasantly surprised and even stood up a few times. You can always tell when Dietmar is having a good time because his eyes shine like the ocean. The combination of adrenaline rush, physicality and pretty girls was always going to be a hit 😀
On the following day, we had dinner in a Fado restaurant. The food was good, and the music was incredible. There’s something about the Portuguese ‘saudade’ – that wistful longing for the old ways, the traditions, the history, the voyages, the lost loves, that touches me every time. Women of every age, carrying the sadness of the world, emoting powerfully through song, underpinned by beautifully played classical guitar. If you’ve never been to a live Fado performance and you get the chance, please go. It’s a form of magic, transporting you into the memories and sadness of someone else’s soul. It’s paradoxically life-affirming.
But from the beautiful mysteries of the past, we were rudely jettisoned into the future a couple of days later. On our last day before leaving Oeiras, we sought somewhere to buy bananas before sailing further south. The nearest local markets were not as close by, according to Google, as the nearest Pingo Doce (a supermarket chain) and so we set off on foot to buy bananas, following the directions which took us onto the campus of the local business school. What happened next was like a gruesome look into the future.
To enter this branch of Pingo Doce, through an electronic turnstile, first you had to download an app. Then, once you’d entered all your details (and it was not just email and password), you got a QR which you needed to swipe to enter the supermarket. Having given permission to the app to access my camera, microphone and goodness knows what else, I could then use my own phone to scan each item that I put into my shopping basket. There were no human staff in sight. We got to the checkout – a self-checkout, obviously – having chosen to pay an old-fashioned way (ie, by card), and presented another QR code to the machine which then allowed me to pay (so long as I didn’t want to pay with that outdated currency – cash – none of that dirty historic nonsense around here), but flagged up an alarm that we should please wait to have our bags checked. A man, like Lurch from the Addams Family, appeared from behind a mirrored glass wall. I explained that we needed to have our bags checked. His monotone reply was “I have already checked.” He then berated us, like small and stupid children, for not having read the small print on the instruction panel inside the entrance which explains clearly (it didn’t) that only the person with the app is allowed in, and that Dietmar had to download the app too if he wanted to come in. Heh? What?
Eventually, with another QR code, we managed to leave the store. It may have been my imagination, but all the young people nearby looked suspiciously perfect. What was not my imagination was that, less than half an hour later, Dietmar got an advert sent to him, advertising jobs at Pingo Doce. Presumably, if you lurk around Pingo Doce without the app, you must be potless and in need of a job. What might be a coincidence is that my social media feed for the next couple of weeks was full of diet and nutrition advice for the first time ever. Bearing in mind that I rarely even search for recipes, don’t post photos of me in a bikini or talk about weight loss, I can only assume that the cookies in my basket in the real world translated to virtual ones. There were, after all, no bananas or indeed much fresh fruit to speak of, and we had ended up buying a load of nutritionally bankrupt crap. Coincidence? Maybe. Terrifying? For sure…
Anyway, the next day we set sail from Lisbon to Sines (pronounced See-Nesh), where we got pinned by the wind and the orcas for a week. If you haven’t heard about the orcas, the summary is this: sometime in 2020, some yachts near Gibraltar reported being ‘attacked’ by killer whales. This was followed by occasional reports, with increasing frequency, from the mouth of the Mediterranean all the way up to the Bay of Biscay. There is a population of killer whales (a misnomer as orcas are not in fact whales, they are cetaceans and effectively the most highly evolved of the dolphin family), around 50 of them, that migrate up and down the Portuguese and Spanish coast on the Atlantic side, following the tuna schools between Gibraltar and Biscay. One pod, then apparently two, have taken to biting the rudders of smaller boats, slamming into the boats so hard that they do damage to the steering gear or the propeller. In many cases, boats have had to be towed into the nearest marina for repairs. A few times, they were taking on water.
Interestingly, the authorities don’t seem to be taking any action apart from issuing instructions that, if the orcas hit your boat, you should turn everything off including the depth sounder and effectively become as ‘boring’ as possible. No one has died, but a lot of people have been very scared and there have been suggestions online that “action needs to be taken.” The lack of advice about what – if any – proactive action might be taken has lead to threads on social media advocating, at the one (pretty disgusting) extreme, emptying blackwater tanks (your toilet holding tank) onto them and at the other, discharging diesel or explosives into the water very near them. At the time of writing, there have been some reports of the orcas trying the same trick on fishing boats. I don’t think that that was a good idea… I dread to think what will happen next. I’m not sure that the future looks very rosy for this pod- animals never seem to come off that well when they go head to head with human stubbornness, stupidity or greed.
In any case, we knew that the orcas were nearby because we heard a call on Channel 16 from a boat that was only a couple of miles behind us that had orca company. So far they hadn’t inflicted any lasting damage, but the sailors didn’t sound like they were enjoying the experience of having 4 tonnes of animal thumping against their hull. We slunk quietly into Sines and waited for them to move north.
We tied up on the hammerhead of the first pontoon, flanked by boats that had obviously been wrecked by Covid abandonment, their shredded sails and filthy decks a testament to lock down and border closures and lord knows what other factors. Small fishing boats tuckered in and out past us, for we were (helpfully) right in their usual path. They sort of smiled and greeted me in response to my cheery grin and wave every time, but we strongly got the impression that our position was not well-chosen (the marina’s fault though, not ours) and that we weren’t entirely welcome. To be fair, if I was trying to get to work every day and some apparently rich w***er had parked what looked like a Bentley in the way, I’d have been a bit grumpy about it too.
Anyway, shortly after tying up, Dietmar spotted a classic, blue-hulled boat close by and said “No way…” – it was ‘Amazone’ – a beautifully maintained classic that Dietmar had met when he first set off with Katja in 2014. He had misremembered Antje’s name, and thought that Ingo was a different Ingo, and there was some confusion when I was first introduced! Nonetheless, sometimes you come across people on your travels with whom you make an instant connection, and this was the case here. Antje stole my heart by bringing fresh local oranges with her as a gift when we invited them to supper on the first evening, and secured the theft when she gave us a copy of their book – ‘14 Monate Sommer – Unter Segeln in die Karibik und zurück’ (14 months of Summer – Under Sail to the Caribbean and Back) and so we spent the week pretty much in each other’s pockets, accompanied quite quickly by another German boat – Lady Blue – (Gerti and Horst). I felt like the British ambassador at the German Embassy. We had an exceedingly pleasant time together.
Sines is another peculiar place on that Atlantic coastline, not connected by any mainline transport to anywhere of significance, so to get anywhere you would need a car which I didn’t manage to hire. With many derelict houses, a lot of graffiti, only a few cafés, bars and restaurants open, and few people out and about in the fierce daytime heat, we concluded that the nearby port and factory must be the local source of income because it certainly wasn’t tourism. The people were very friendly though, seemingly entertained by my terrible Portuguese. The only other thing of real note in Sines was a labyrinthine and enormous version of one of those wonderful shops where you can buy absolutely anything from fluffy g-strings to weedkiller and everything (mostly in plastic) inbetween. We were very restrained and only picked up a few little things, most important of which is a mains-chargeable mosquito-and-fly-zapping tennis racquet that delivers about 20,000 volts I think. I haven’t tested it on myself – or on Dietmar for that matter (!) – but it certainly dispatches unwanted flying guests into their next reincarnation pretty spectacularly…
After a few days of waiting for the right weather and waiting for the orcas to go hunting boats somewhere else, we stocked up at the local minimarket with a few things, battened down our hatches, and snuck out under sail towards Lanzarote, with Amazone leading the way.
I don’t remember ever being so nervous about setting sail. I used to be Chief Catastrophiser in my last job (that wasn’t my official title, but when you’re responsible for Health and Safety it may as well be) so it comes as second nature to spot all the possible disasters and try to mitigate them before setting off. Obviously I’m also naturally optimistic otherwise we would never put to sea at all! The damage that several tons of orca can do, even to a boat as big and heavy as Cesarina, is pretty substantial. I don’t think they would be able to bite off our enormous, heavy rudder, but if they hit the stock hard enough, we might sink…
Dietmar and I virtually whispered on board until we were more than 100 miles offshore. No engine, no generator, and we hand-steered all of it so that there were no sounds of any kind. It worked. We crept away into the sunset, bound for the sunny – and orca-free – Canary Islands.
It was a bumpy ride, but we made it. We tied up in Marina Lanzarote, flew back to northern Europe for a few weeks, came back and now we are on our way to Gran Canaria for the start of the ARC+ – the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. We obviously had a few other adventures in the meantime, including a tour of Lanzarote with the lovely Ingo and Antje on Amazone, painting adventures in Arrecife and some very entertaining time in the company of the fabulous Kim and Anne on SY Ilanda, but no time to tell all…
Coming up next: The beginning of the ARC+ 2021- LAS PALMAS TO GRENADA VIA THE CAPE VERDE ISLANDS
Stay safe everyone!
One thought on “Dodging Orcas – and Visions of the Future”
Wow Emma, never a dull moment, keep on living the dream, much love to you both, Chris xxx