Monday, July 31, 2006

Foodie Treats, 19th and 20th July

It was clear that the old batteries had to be replaced so once the harbour set had charged up the new ones we made our way into Milford Haven harbour. It is a small harbour entrance, as you can see but I was confident that we would make it because that huge bulk carrier had made it in there.

More detail you probably don't need: Being in a harbour would seem an ideal way of avoiding the buckets, but because we are moored on the fish dock it is a half mile walk to the marina lavatoires on the smart side of the harbour and, of course, half a mile back. So, we are, ahem, bucketing for later disposal for the most part, but going to the showers in the mornings is essential.

To add to the discomfort we bought a new set of batteries and had to remove the old ones. Bearing in mind that it takes two strong Welshmen to lift one battery, getting the old set up the vertical ladder from the engine room and out through the deckhouse was horrid. We are in the middle of a heat wave and there are no sea breezes in harbour to cool us. Getting the new ones on board was hard too, especially getting them down the vertical concrete wall of the fish dock which is about 15 feet without spilling the acid out of them. Other things we did during this time was a complete engine oil change and a gearbox oil change. This meant shifting vertically about 200 kg of oil in large plastic barrels. Thank goodness we had the showers in the marina. During this time though, without electricity we had no water for hand-washing on board and had to rely on travel wipes. One of the comforts we found was the launderette and with the washing line strung on the fore-deck we look like real trawler-trash.

The fish dock at Milford is part of the route of what is almost a passeigata. People bring sandwiches to come and watch us work on deck, lifting huge amounts of machinery in the mid-day sun. Young boys stop and ask if we are still using her for fishing and get a cuff around the ear. Friendly folk, in particular a Scottish fisherman Henry who belongs at Eyemouth and recognised Heroine as being an Eyemouth native herself. He is looking forward to seeing us there. There were many chaps with dogs who walked by several times a day, to see what progress we had make. Everyone was keen to talk about wooden fishing boats. We even had a visit from two dock policemen, who said it was nothing to worry about, just a routine visit. So they sat in our canvas directors chairs on the aft deck for an hour, drank tea and ate our chocolate chip biscuits and talked about property prices, how good the Poles are as workers and what we were planning to do with the boat. All very lovely.

I was woken in the morning by the pungent smell of Diesel and found Tim on the aft deck where we could see red Diesel flooding off the back of the huge trawler in front of us. Apparently whilst re-fueling the crew had switched the wrong lever over. Very soon, the dock officials turned up and began throwing what looked like A4 photocopier paper into the dock and asked us to join in, kindly supplying us with big packs of same. It was then that we found out that they were special absorbent mats, that cost about £90 per two dozen. As you can see from the pictures they were throwing them into the water with abandon.

The leaky trawler was replaced by Mercurious; a dirty but dashing 25m beam trawler and I took the advantage of their presence to see if they wanted to sell us some fish. I was hoping there might be scallops which are never fresh away from the boats instead they very kindly gave us a carrier bag full; two whiting, two dover sole (Lenny's favourite "black" sole) and two very handsome plaice. They would take no money from us. As Mercurious roared away out to sea again, the deck-hand who had given us the fish shouted to remind us to leave the plaice for a day as they need to "hang" for a bit.

That night we ate the whiting and the dover sole, fried quickly in almost no oil, on their own with a little salt and lemon. No wonder people say they don't like fish when the stuff you get in fish fingers, frozen fish, fish from even the best fish-mongers is so old it actually smells and tastes fishy. Our catch was sweet and meaty and savoury, with only the iodine tang of the sea as a reminder of where it came from. So, thank you, Mercurious and your crew for an educational and inspiring gastronomical experience.

Everyone should eat fish this fresh, it is a crime that restaurants charge real money for flesh that should have been thrown away a week ago. Thinking about it, the beam trawler is a bit different because it seems to goes out day by day but other deep water boats spend up to 10 days at sea. Even if a fish were caught on the last day, that's 24 hours before it lands. Then add a day for local sales, a day or two by refigerated lorry to reach the fish markets such as Billingsgate. Two or three days there until it gets into the restaurant or fishmongers fridge where it sits until we mugs come along and buy it, after it has been dead for at least a week, and it could be nearly three weeks.

Milford Haven itself really is a haven for good food - we had an excellent dinner at Charthouse, perfectly spiced fish cakes with very fresh crab (not advertised!) , would suit any palate, hot and sweet dipping sauce. Bass, fresh as a daisy (probably just off Mercurious) in chives and ginger, vegetables succulent, full of true earthy taste and each seasoned differently. Fabulous local cheese board, I only wish I could remember the names of the cheeses but it's a enjoyable task to look forward to for next time.

Coming to Milford was always anticipated as a small gourmet pilgrimage because Mr. Evans up in the town produces the best rib-steak we have ever eaten. This includes the skipper's own home-grown, organic Welsh Black, and it takes a good steak to win that kind of comparison. Mr. Evans shop is worth the journey and his bacon is excellent too. His house bangers are the best I've ever had, even better than the famous "Simply Sausages" in Smithfield market. I should say that they are lean, meaty and porky with fresh sage and other herbs and unusually not over-salty. "An excellent sausage".

I got talking to a couple outside Evans and they told me that the place to get ham in MF was up the hill at another butchers. This apparently is where all the Italian and Spanish trawlermen (and there are many, but let's get political later) get their ham. It was a bit of a schlep up the hill but the rewards were great. They sell top-notch parma ham and slice it there and then. When I asked how much it was he told me it was 6 pounds a pound, when I said I'd take a pound he asked me if I was sure. No, I'm not sure now, typing this I know I should have got two pounds.

Dale Bay - Tuesday and Wednesday 18th and 19th

It is equally true on sea as on land that if you have a back-up system you are never likely to need it, and if you don't, then you surely will. So, I suppose that now the harbour set generator does not work we should not have been surprised when Murphy's little sea-pixies croaked the alternator on the main engine within 24 hours as well. So, we woke up at Dale with flat batteries, no way of generating power. no way to start the main engine, or the harbour set and no way to raise the anchor; a dead ship.

Fortunately we had already ordered another alternator and just needed to pick it up in Milford Haven. So we launched the dinghy and set off up the main shipping channel, past all the huge oil jetties and into the harbour. The wind was strong so the sea was rough and choppy and although the boat is 3m long, sitting in the front feels like being bumped downstairs on your bum while someone throws buckets of sea water over you. Most of the waves are caused by the huge tankers charging up and down the channel and brutish work boats and patrol launches. I must say we were looked after well by the harbour police who came alongside our bouncing dinghy to see what sort of people would choose ordeal by washing machine. They were kind when they understood that we were coming in for spares and not just beer.

Despite the last year's work the boat is still dirty: a mixture of rust, diesel, hydraulic oil and 35 years worth of frying over every single surface that has made her a vile and sticky place in the heat and we were faced with the prospect of installing the new alternator in a totally dark and filthy engine room. We decided to fit the good alternator to the harbour set because it is a hand-start engine, a dirty, smelly and leaky machine, but lovable for its sheer utility and reliablity. Between us holding torches and trying to marry up bolts and holes the alternator was in place in a couple of hours but we could not be sure that it would work until we started it when we hoped the indicator lamp would go out. After some perspiration-drenched windings of the handle the generator leapt into noisy action - and the final test - the initial glow held, then faded and went out. Such happiness.

All we needed to do the next day was the same again, down to Milford Haven in the dinghy which I am beginning to hate and home again, jiggety-jig

Programme tonight on BBC 1 Monday 31st July

We will be dashing back from the boat to the B&B to get cleaned up so we can watch "Trawlermen" tonight.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Oxwich to Dale - Monday 17th July

The main engine would not start, so we fired up the Lister, the auxilliary generator, known as a "harbour set" but soon discovered that the new alternator we had installed back at Sharpness was a duffer. So, flat main batteries and no means of generating power. Fortunately with the sense hard won through experience, Skipper had bought a full spare set of new batteries at the very last minute, they were connected to the main battery using jump leads and the big Cat sauntered into life, leaving is the alternator problems for later in the day.

So, we were underway again, with the sun shining, the water a glassy film around us. The Severn has widened into the Bristol Channel and we feel that we are really at sea now, for the first time. I will leave all the glorious descriptions of a perfect summer's day on the water to greater writers than me, esp those what know the grammar, there is no point trying to paint a picture with words when Mr. Turner did it so brilliantly with paint.

Just to spoil the beauty of this scene - and for those of a tender disposition who do not enjoy the less lovely details of the quotidien please look away now. The sea bog has broken; as of day one in fact, not that it was ever great, it needed pumping full of water and then pumping out afterwards, but now there is nothing, just a bucket. At least there is a bucket each.

In the afternoon the mirror calm continued and with a light frothy mist on the horizon it felt like being in the Mediterranean. Skipper's No. 2 son (our temporary powder monkey) made the best of the weather to top up his tan and catch up on some reading; "Supernature" by Lyall Watson is being read by a new generation. Heroine surged through the water, leaving a beautiful white wake. About half way to Dale we had some visitors, about 15 black and silver-grey dolphins (we now know were "Common Dolphins") came to play in the bow-wave. Skipper's son and I both raced to the bow to lean over to watch them, and amazingly we saw them, one by one, turn to swim on their sides so they could see us looking at them. Seeing this kind of thing on television is one thing, but having some large wild animal meet you eye to eye feels like a priviledge. I was wondering how we might ingratiate ourselves with them and wished we had some spare fish, but what would be the point? They can get all the freshest fish they could want.

However, to offer a townie view, it is true that being at sea simplifies life to concerns about how dry one's bed is, food, water, and of course, the bucket. This has the effect of releasing the mind and mine has gone away on holiday, probably to a small, chic health resort in France.

Our next visitors were on a fast, black, and rather sinister patrol boat for the artillery range through which we had been making our way, who politely but firmly told us that the huge explosions we could hear were shells being fired into the area and would we go away.I hope they never hit any of the dolphins, but it could explain why there was no other sea traffic in the area..ahem.

In the evening at Dale, a lovely bay outside Milford Haven the day ended hot and flat calm. In about four dinghy journeys we took on board Skipper's other children, a soon-to-be son-in-law and his parents. Heroine's deckhouse roof is about ten feet off the water and is a great diving platform, somehow we managed to feed 9 people with steak sandwiches, and thank goodness Skipper's daughter's almost mother-in-law brought some huge and meltingly summery, home-made Pavlovas.

The serenity of the peacful anchorage at Dale is sometimes broken by speed boats towing ski-iers up and down, fortunately they stay far enough away not to create anything more than a temporary buzz and distant shrieks of delight. We are anchored in deep water away from the yachts, and because we are so big and dirty no one seems to want to anchor near us. Good. We have seen too many boats all moored up against one another in marinas, and one might as well be sitting in a tiny garden overlooked by all the neighbours.

The sea was like the Mediterranean sea can be, barely a crest but smooth shining curves. Our visitors left just before dusk and in the peace that followed the sea was like mercury, reflecting the sky and leaving a dark yacht in the distance almost suspended in nothing where the horizon disappeared.

Friday, July 28, 2006

We woke early and saw dawn in Oxwich bay, far too early for dog walkers and enough heat in the dawn sun to promise another hot day. After a bit of a lie-in, we launched the dinghy and we went to the beach, gentle rolling waves and warm water but slightly un-nerving to be zooming away from Heroine towards land. Oxwich Bay is worth going to see and it was such a perfect day I decided to swim back to the boat. This was a lovely long stretch but as I got towards Heroine the tide across the inner bay was a bit much, something like 5 miles per hour which my stately breaststroke could not counter, so I got a lift the last 50 yards from the dinghy. Oxwich Bay is beautiful in contrast to most people's opinion of South Wales and the Bristol Channel.

Steaming Uphill

Sunday 15th July 2006
The sun beat down on us as we cast off our lovely new mooring lines and motored into the Sharpness lock. The previous lot had been thick, dirty and stiff and impossible to throw. Heroine seemed to surge towards the sea inside the lock. As the water was let out, we descended into the cool and dank of the mud as a small crowd waited to watch the other boats go out. Sharpness had been a good place to stay, and we were sad to leave.

We waved good-bye to our friend Terry who is working on his slinky, vintage Tremlet fast-cruiser. Terry's hero is a man who wanted to climb Everest and to save the boredom of the lower slopes, planned to land a plane somewhere up near the top. He had saved his money and had got all the equipment together but at the last minute the Nepali government had refused him permission to take off. He ignored their direction and proceeded with the plan, and was never heard of again. I think the point of his heroism is not his failure (although the English seem to have a great tradition of that) but the fact that he kept going when everything seemed to be against him. Terry himself has bought another identical boat, and has perhaps therefore got himself a second Everest to climb.

Instead of a gentle period of slack water when it turns, like most other tidal areas, Sharpness is one of the most extreme tides and there is complete volte face of the millions of tons of water back towards the sea when the tide starts to go out. We were were let out of the lock an hour before high tide which meant that the water was still rushing up-river at about 8mph. Before we turned to face the tide, it hit us side-on, and the whole 90 tons of boat was swerved and rolled by the strength of the water.

Once we were back on course we sat, barely moving forward, fighting the incoming tide, and because we are trying to reduce the vibration from the damaged propelllor, we only made 1 mile in that first hour. This now rather dull spectacle soon lost its appeal for the well-wishers and when they realised that we were not actually stuck on a sandbank and had got tired arms from waving they went home before we were out of sight. Amongst the spectators was a lock official from Fort William (our target at the start of the Caledonian Canal) who apparently is expecting us). Small world.

After being tied up at Sharpness for a year, it was so exciting to be underway again, albeit at a slow rate, and one finds excuses to walk briskly up and down the deck smiling and shouting, perhaps checking fenders and coiled rope, an expression of energetic joy; freedom, adventure, sunshine and good company

As anyone who has read the Patrick O'Brian books, and indeed anyone who has spent the day at the beach, will know that there is nothing like the sea air to sharpen one's appetite. Breakfast had been cereals but for lunch we made the Herione "Banjo", a large roll filled with bacon, mushroom and a fried egg. The name is obvious if you imagine eating one and finding the yolk has run onto your shirt, now you will need to move the hand holding "Banjo" to one side and with the other, briskly strum chest area to remove the yellow goo. I learned this word from my little brother who until recently was in the army. I think he left because they had had enough of him spending the tax payers money inventing new words for savoury cooked snacks instead of killing foreigners.

As the water slides down the boat, looking over the gunwale I can see all the textures of the Severn: standing waves, whirlpools, frothing torrents round piers supporting the bridges. Despite this, how tranquil it was to be on our way to Oxwich, almost surfing now the tide had turned. The sunshine was blazing down, barely a breath of wind and our camp showers warming rapidly on the deck for a clean-up that could not come soon enough. What a contrast to the solid traffic on the bridges above, cars and lorries confined by the tarmac, and for us, the wide open sea leading to the seven oceans and the whole of the rest of the world.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Now that Heroine is not carrying 10 tons of ice and fish her huge hold is available as accommodation, and attractive it is too, in comparison to the tiny, coffin-like bunks that the crew would have used.

Sleeping in a hammock in the hold is a delight - the gentle movement of the boat sways the hammocks every so slightly, the swish of the waves is a restful soundtrack, the blankets are dry and snug and there is plenty of summer night air wafting softly through the hatches. That is, until it begins to rain at dawn, as it did last Sunday. Apart from losing a good night's sleep, the soaking bedding means no cosy siesta after a hard morning's work. We have now solved the problem by creating a tent, or rather marquee inside the hold using some taped together plastic sheeting.

I have been discussing provisioning with my mother who is a great home economist - running a nurturing household cost effectively as well as being a master of in-transport-vittles. Our usual diet was healthy, based on seasonal produce and little or no nonsense. In contrast, however, during the long car journeys, which seemed to go on for days, to family holidays in Devon, the boredom and fighting (there were six of us in a Beetle) were punctuated by handfuls of unusual and particulary luxurious food that were passed back to us in the rear, from between the front car seats. So, following her advice, it seems that a sea-voyage away from green-grocers and proper food shops is an opportunity to indulge in treats such as corned-beef hash, packet noodles, tinned rice pudding etc. Hoorah for the briney!

Our departure has been brought forward, we are now casting off the lines at 10 o'clock ("Ten-Dubs" apparently) on Saturday 15th July, bacon sandwiches and tea for all handkerchief wavers.

Photograph - Skipper Reading Property Pages in Hammock

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Still at Sharpness, for another two weeks

I am baking ship's biscuits and salting the horsemeat in preparation for our voyage to take Heroine back to where she was made, for a huge renovation. As the crow flies, it's not far, but from Sharpness Dock in Gloucestershire to Eyemouth in Scotland is about eight hundred miles by sea, whichever way you go. For a sea-novice like me, experience of long journeys on ferries even in rough seas is no help when navigating yourself through the whirlpools of Corryvrekan, the huge tidal movements of the Severn and at the same nursing along an ancient engine that has steamed the equivalent of going around the world 50 times since new.

The boat is a 35-year-old, 22 metre trawler, built for fishing in the Shetland Islands and so had to be made strong ; massive oak frames and inches-thick larch planking. Walking around down in the fish-hold feels like being inside the Victory, except we have loads more head room and fewer cannons. There is something very reassuring about the tree-thick oak curving around like a medieval barn, except upside down, but the holes in the deck and the wheel house that you can actually see through are disconcerting. All of this is through the eyes of the non-seafarer; I have had to put my faith in my co-owner's experience and abilities, without him this adventure would not happen. However, without me, his bacon sandwiches wouldn't happen.