Monday, 29 November 2010

A Greek Trip

Just back from a few days in Greece. Kevin was working most of the time but I was able to play tourist for a few days. The highlight was a walking tour organised by Athens Walking Tours. Three hours in the company of one of the most interesting and informative guides. Voula shared not only her enthusiam for Ancient Greece but also insights into Greek daily life today and more recent Greek history. I hadn't for example realised that Prince Otto of Germany was appointed King of Greece by Britain, Russia and Germany in 1833, the Greek's first king! When he was overthrown some thirty years later the Greeks offered their thone to a Dane and their family continued as the Royal Family of Greece until the 1970's.

In the evenings we ate in some great tavernas: "To Kafeneio" which had a wonderful log fire and is a bit off the beaten track, patronised by young Greeks rather than tourists, but still in Plaka. You may have seen this place in a Jamie Oliver tv programme on mezedes, but it is unspoiled by 15 minutes of fame. We ate there twice it was so good and got to taste their new wine which was wonderful! Our second find was a taverna simply named "Taberna" but known as "Dimitris and Grigoris" behind the Hotel Caravel. The menu had a selection of favourites and some more unusual dishes - a great lemony sauce on the stuffed vine leaves but the grilled peppers were mouth numbingly hot, lips and tongues were tingling for sometime afterwards.

And finally, in a basement bar "Bakaliarakia o Damigos" not far from Sytagmou Square specialising in cod as the name suggests, we devoured a lovely meat dish after a selection of freshly prepared mezedes. Their olives were very tasty too. Here the wine was served in aluminium jugs filled from huge barrels mounted above the diners heads and the staff were extremely friendly. Again no tourists, in fact we saw very few visitors anywhere, The weather was good, sunny but not too hot so I'd recommend Athens in November and if you want to locate these tavernas yourselves look them up on Trip Advisor.

More of our pictures of Athens in the Autumn here

Sunday, 21 November 2010


Tadpole at half tide yesterday... it's the ideal desert island - just us and the birds.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Cruising on a Small Boat

One Man and His Boat
It's the Eid holidays here so we are just back from three days on board on Shawa'al, more camping than cruising but fun none the less.

There are two Eid holiday periods, the first one Eid Al Fitr is at the end of Ramadan. This was back in September when we were in Texas and Kevin missed out on the days off so this time he took the whole week as holiday. Eid Al Adha marks the Hajj when Muslims celebrate God intervening to provide Abraham an alternative to sacrificing his son. Abraham's alternative sacrifice was a lamb and driving to the yacht club past the animal pens near the abbatoir we saw crowds of cars earlier in the week; 4x4s and pickups waiting to purchase their "lambs", most of them looked like the usual imported tatty sheep, more mutton than lamb. Traditionally each family eats one third, gives a third to friends, relatives or neighbours and a futher third to the poor and needy. This Eid also provides several days of public holidays mid week so most people add Sunday and Thursday to take the whole week off. It's a bit like Christmas in the UK with everyone in party mode and most businesses and many shops shut.

In preparation for our Eid holiday, on Monday Kevin with help from the two YC sailing instructors took Shawa'al's mast down so we could replace the windex. I washed out a huge amount of desert sand from it and the boom so everything runs so much better now, no struggling to heave up the main or pull down the jib halyard. I love small scale boating when it comes to tasks like this!

On Tuesday we sailed (or rather motored using the outboard and a whole can of fuel) the 30 miles or so south to the Hawar Islands where we tied up to the hotel pontoon. Enroute we'd worked out how to reset the GPS from "car mode" where it was searching for the nearest road back to nautical mode with bearings to waypoints. We also dug out the manual for the instruments and changed the damping on the depth so it wasn't constantly flicking from number to number though we still have to assume it was actually calculating the depth correctly for now. However the log wouldn't adjust to record a speed anywhere near the GPS SOG even allowing for the small amount of tidal stream. One for another day as going along at 2 knots when we patently aren't seems odd. 
Dom The Circumnavigator and Donald

Most of the main island of Hawar is a military base and there is little to see on foot so it's fairly pointless leaving the hotel grounds. A notice at the entrance informs you not to take cameras outside of the hotel grounds too. That evening the five of us from the three boats who had made the trip took advantage of the hotel's Eid BBQ buffet supper. At 15BD a head for a buffet style meal plus v v expensive beers it was not a cheap night out. The event was complete with a DJ and appearances from Micky Mouse, Donald Duck and Tom & Jerry.

On the plus side the hotel staff were very welcoming, sending their watersports manager down to see if we needed anything shortly after we arrived and didn't charge us for using their pontoon or the loos in reception! But they did charge Dom from Tradewind almost £1.80 per carrier bag of ice. It's Golden Tulip Hotel that in the brochures looks like a desert island paradise - not so certain I'd want more than a weekend there though, bit remote and very expensive.

Desert Island Rubbish
Cormorants Feeding on Mashtan Reef
From Hawar, D'Artgnan sailed home to Sitra whilst Shawa'al and Tradewind headed just 12nm or so north to Mashtan a tiny island/sand bar at the bottom of a V shaped reef. It was great to sail after the previous day's calm but disappointing that the island is a complete tip covered in rubbish left by other boaters - plastic bottles, plastic plates even a plastic table cloth plus old carpets, bits of wood and general picnic detritus. Kevin & I picked our way through it to snorkel inside the reef but didn't linger on the shore for long. The snorkling however was good. In water you could sit in, fish were swimming all round us through the eel grass. Later we cooked on board the rafted boats - one gas ring per boat so rice and chicken stew was easy! Dom has a cockpit table so we sat down to dinner on his boat.

Afterwards Dom got in the shallow water, picked up his anchor and dragged Tradewind across the reef  for about 30 metres or so to avoid any mast clashes in the night. You can't do that with the average 40 footer in the Solent! Then, shortly after the sun set (about 5pm!!) all three of us retired to bed as we'd brought nothing to do in the pitch dark! A few hours later a couple of motorboats arrived and played loud music until their generator stopped around 2am - unsocial to say the least. Woken by the sun streaming into the forepeak, at dawn we were up and away for the long beat north against the prevailing winds. Sailing small boats around the reefs in the warm sunshine is no great hardship though! Both boats arrived at the yacht club in time for a late lunch on Thursday afternoon.

After a lazy day, Friday night was latin music at the yacht club in celebration of the holiday weekend. A local band played a mix of latin and arabic tunes on the beach stage whilst club members, friends and relatives had supper, chatted and drank. A lovely evening with friends.

All in all a fun Eid holiday - we are both now totally acclimatised to sailing in shorts and t-shirts and life on the beach!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

A Unique Sailing Achievement

The Ritz-Carlton hotel has a very posh marina called the Royal Marina, the small basin is lined with neat green hedges and all but two of the boats are moderately sized gin-palaces. How do I know it's posh...well I wasn't allowed to park my Toyota Corolla inside yesterday but had to leave it on some adjacent waste land! I was there as the crew for one of the two sailing boats, "Tradewind" heading for another beach resort Hamila on the west coast of Bahrain. The adventure? Well an opportunity to sail under the Saudi Causeway doesn't happen very often.

Skipper Dominic and I set off around 11 once the food (cooked chicken, a couple of rounds of sandwiches and a bowl of carrot sticks) and water was stowed in the coolbox together with a supply of ice and some lemons. The wind was from the northwest and Tradewind's initial route was north to clear the land reclamation going n a few miles to the west of us just along from the Bahrain Fort. Huge machines were busy creating yet another island. We saw a tug pushing a barge that dwarfed heading across us towards Muharraq from the reclamation works and had a unique view of airplanes heading for Europe just after take off from the airport.This short adventure was for Dom part of a much larger one, a circumnavigation of mainland Bahrain over the Eid holiday. He had already spent the previous weekend sailing from the Yacht Club to Amwaj, then yesterday he and two crew had sailed to the Ritz-Carlton where berthing costs 100BD a night, thats around 180 pounds sterling! Fortunately the marina manager though Dom's unique epic voyage a good enough reason not to charge him!  

Saturday's passage was to take us round the reefs that the nearby reclamation was exploiting, out as far as a red and white pole 4 or 5 nm north of the mailnand but not as far north as the next reef. Then turn slightly south of west to another pole marking the western corner of the reef and from there aim for the island that houses the border posts in the "middle of the causeway" before shaping a course through the bridge. It was lovely sailing hard on the wind with a reef and the No 2 genoa to start with, heading north away from the land. Once near the first post we tacked bearing away to head more south. The wind freed us off, we shook out the reef and eventually changed head sails for Tradewind's huge genoa. The conditions matched the boat's name! We were bowling along enjoying ourselves at 4 knots or more over the ground (a handheld GPS was our only source of data!) until the wind seemed to drop and our speed slowed to a crawl.  A casual glance over the stern sometime later explained all - Tradewind had a fish pot attached to the rudder. It was soon removed and normal speed resumed. Chart and GPS in hand we picked off the various poles and the bridge started to appear in the haze.

Checking the GPS

Bahrain - Saudi Arabia Border crossing

Bridge Approaches


Causeway snaking away towards Bahrain
Passing under the bridge was not too difficult at all. It was close to low water and the usual boiling melee of sea squeezing through the narrow gap between the islands and reefs was relatively calm. We had enough wind to push us through at four or five knots despite the tide against us. Lots of pictures were taken as the setting sun made the bridge pillars glow.We drank a celebratory G&T or two.

The next challenge was rounding the island to the south of the bridge and finding our destination in the gathering gloom. We headed off to the south east almost dead downwind picking our way as close to the land as we dared so as to minimise the distance travelled, our destination was on the mainland a little to the north. We were aiming for the marina channel that had been cut through the coral from further south. Tradewind touched the bottom once or twice as we crossed the reef but with the keel and rudder right up we reached the point where according to chart and the GPS the channel turned a sharp right angle east towards the unlit marina enterance and promptly ran around, firmly!

A small motorised dory passed us heading out to sea. It's track was some twenty yards or so north of us. By now the sails were down and the outboard engine on. A quick reverse and we headed towards the path the dory appeared to have taken. Posts appeared in the gloom and the rest of the trip into the marina was without incident. Dominic called Lola, his wife and she with their lovely dog Jingo drove the short distance from their home to collect us both. In the dark the beach resort looked a pretty place surrounded by clipped shrubs. There was one other tiny sailing boat moored up opposite. The tiny marina had a mix of floating and fixed pontoons. Tradewind was loosely tied to a fixed one just under the security post, a little Philippino man came out in his vest and trousers to watch us tie up. No cleets just a couple of rusty rings and some soggy fenders on the rough wooden landing stage. The tidal range in Bahrain is small (less than 1 metre most of the time) but significant when the overall depth is shallow. We could, even in the dark, see the bottom where we were moored. Rudder and keel were left up.

It might have been only eight hours on the water but it felt like a BIG achievement. Dom and I can both now boast to have done something few others have done, sail under the Saudi Causeway!
Sunset, Saturday 12 November 2010

Monday, 1 November 2010

Regatta Time

Regatta Breakfast at BYC
Not much time to post over the last week or so as it was the BYC's Autumn regatta at the weekend and early on Thursday our first guests to stay with us here in Bahrain, Kevins parents, arrived.

I seem to have been standing in the wrong place when they were looking for a volunteer to organise the Autumn Regatta. For a variety of reasons not worth mentioning here, no one had done much to plan the regatta as I discovered when I returned from the USA in September. The Cruiser Fleet Captain then resigned and I, as the recently appointed Cruiser Fleet Race Officer, somehow found myself organising an event I'd never previously attended, in a club I've been a member of for only a few months. Anyway it went without a hitch although there could have been a tad more wind on Saturday and I'd recommend you don't try leaving it until Wednesday afternoon to order trophies for an event starting on Friday morning. Wednesday I was more than a little stressed but the lovely man in Castelsports is a hero working late to get me trophy printing proofs to approve that night.

With the help of one of the Bahraini members I was put in touch with both of the local English language papers and Bahrain Radio. The main paper GDN ran an ad and an advertorial piece (300 words written by your truely) on the Monday before and a small ad on the front page on the day before. On the first day we got 17 boats on the water, an assortment of IRC and Club Handicap yachts plus some Beach Multihulls (mostly Hobies), about 40 competing crew all told. The club's Sailing Instructors aided by the UK's Naval Attache ran the committee boat for all three races.

Kevin & I's river sailing skills were put to good use in the light winds. The two of us sailed her just like an overgrown Enterprise with a spinnaker, it was hard work and I have a full complement of boat bites on legs and arms to show for my efforts. Having worked out the results afterwards and run the daily prize giving (a bottle of wine for the class winners of each race) I was pleased that Shawa'al the smallest and potentially slowest boat in her class had managed to win three bottles of white wine for sweeping the board in Club Handicap!

When everyone had gone home after the Halloween themed party (DJ on the beach stage, haunted house in the conservatory), I headed home with my laptop and phone. I'd already recorded one radio interview for Bahrain Radio but there were the days results to despatch to the sports editors. I collapsed exhausted into bed pleased that everyone had had a great day, I was too tired to even open one of our prize bottles.

Day two, Saturday, dawned flat calm with little wind in the forecast. The Officer of the Day Ben and myself choose to go the optimistic route of believing the the forecast with the most wind (well you do don't you?). Ben's experience of the week's weather so far was that the wind would build during the morning. I was though a little puzzled by the white fluffy stuff appearing in blobs over head, haven't seen any of that for months here! Was the weather about to undergo a serious change? No it turned out successive days have been hot and sunny.

The AP went up just before the Skippers Briefing at 9am and hung like a wet rag along side the drooping RYA flag on the pole by the swimming pool. Briefing over Kevin, I and the recently arrived outlaw's sat in the club's conservatory eating a late breakfast and joy of joys, watching the ripples in the flag grow stronger. By 11 it became clear we'd have enough beeze to race today's planned triangular course (yesterday's were windward/leeward ones) and by 11:40 the IRC & Club Handicap boats had started and the multihulls were gently sailing up and down the line as they patiently waited for their starting signal.  Looking back I think I may have caused some sort of revolution running two five minute start sequences back to back but after all the races everyone seems to have cottoned on to what the flags mean and what order they go up in. Will they remember in six months time for the next regatta?

The first leg was painfully slow, and could hardly be called "racing". Kevin had messed up the start as a big windshift left us the wrong side of the outer distance mark but at last we were on course side and sailing. Three laps later we had been lapped by both the leading boats in our class, all of the IRC fleet and the multihulls but little Shawa'al was still ahead of the remaining four (larger) boats in her class. With one last lap to go Ben came over in the rib to inform us the time limit was imminent. We'd calculated we needed a finish to win the regatta so we stubbornly kept on going, the wind had risen just a little and the boat was making ground against the tide. If it held up we might be able to complete the short course in the last fifteen remaining minutes. Nope, approaching the last gybe mark we heard the horn, times up. Shortly afterwards racing was abandoned for the day, the glassy smooth water testament to the lack of beeze.

Once the boat was tidied up and the big genoa folded away I was back at my laptop calculating results. The IRC and multihull winners were clear but three boats in Club Handicap had 10 points. That meant Shawa'al with her three firsts on Friday was victorious even though we scored a DNF today. One of the large circular crystal plaques I'd rushed around getting done last week was coming home with us, a permanent reminder of all our efforts both on and off the water. Then it was time to shepherd sailors from around the beach bar into some sort of order to get photos taken by Bahrain Confidential magazine and the GDN photographer too.

Being Halloween a pumpkin carving challenge on the beach came next, with various teams competing to create the best looking hollowed out watermelon! Yes watermelon - huge green melons with succulent pink flesh are grown in Saudi and much cheaper than imported pumpkins. 

After all that mess and fun the prizegiving. Bottles of wine for Saturday's class winners then third, second and first place trophies for each of the three classes overall. Finally, Dom was awarded a "Conspicous Seamanship" prize for catching the gybe mark around his rudder on the penulitmate lap and having to dive over to free it! All the crews on the prize winning boats received "gold" medals to reward them for their part in their skipper's success too. And I must record my thanks to Joanne and Ben C for the lovely flowers, our apartment smells wonderful.

Then it was time to go home but not to rest...another hour or so's communing with the sports editors to ensure they'd got the overall results and an overview of the days sailing. I was pleased to see two good write ups on Sunday morning of the regatta and amused that neither journalist had been anywhere near the water all weekend!