Leaving Mallorca we were excited to be back out at sea again after almost a month spent in and around Palma getting the Princess sorted. It had been a productive time, not without setbacks but ultimately with some fantastic progress made. The prospect of a 200 nautical mile sea passage appealed; apart from anything else it offered the opportunity to relax and escape from the complications of boat job project management with email dialogues in multiple directions in quest of something called a “flexible coupling” (sounds like something Gweneth Paltrow might enjoy but is in fact a very important link between the stern and the gear box which we are on track to replace in Gibraltar before sailing south). Being on watch at sea can have a wonderful simplicity, especially on a passage with very little wind. Put on a podcast and scan the horizon and just don’t hit anything!
As often happens in the med, we would have precious little opportunity to sail and would have preferred the stiff winds with gusts of 30 knots which had been predicted but never materialised. On the other hand, in millpond still conditions at least the conditions were ideal for motoring and there was no swell or waves to punch into. The drive down south past Ibiza was picturesque, followed as we were for hours by lines of cumulus clouds in the perfectly blue skies, the whole trip utterly gentle and tranquil. I was lucky enough to see the big three (a pod of dolphins, a huge turtle and a swordfish). Although Simon missed the dolphins and turtle, we were lucky enough to see the swordfish leap out of the water just on our beam together in the early morning light as we neared the coast. Its blue and white colouring was incredibly bright and fresh.
Simon enjoyed a great downwind night sail on the last night, leaving me an extended sleep and telling me that we had surfed all night at 7 to 8 knots. The boat must have been beautifully balanced as I slumbered blissfully through the whole time!
Arriving at Cartagena we were impressed by the size of this natural harbour surrounded by five hills. I have a soft spot for harbours with an industrial life , maybe because of my black country roots, and all around Cartagena greets you with high hillsides adorned with cranes and bunkers. The town has always had an important mining industry for various minerals including silver and lead and has been the leading military port throughout the the centuries for the Mediterranean Spanish coast. Most recently It was the last town to fall to Franco with Valencia and the base of the Republican military operations, and as a consequence the town was heavily bombed by the Germans and so, like London, has a blitz history. There is a very moving museum of the Republican resistance during the civil war based in an old air raid shelter which was built into the side of one of the hills in the town and which sheltered over 5000 civilians during the war.
There are two marinas in Cartagena, the Club Royal de Regattas, a marina for locals and the Yacht Port of Cartagena which is more geared up to visitors. We stayed at the local club which was friendly with great access to the centre of town although the shower facilities were mysteriously locked at night with the strange message pinned to the door “For a shower call the sailor”. Our friend, Chris arrived the next day and went into Yacht Port, raved about the facilities and reportedly paid less. Still, at under 50 Euros for two nights, after Palma we had the impression to have found the bargain of the century!
This was our first time in mainland Spain and the town looked very different to anywhere else we had been in the med. The main road, although long and narrow as is the custom in southern towns to give shade from the sun , was lined with the sort of impressive, seven storey bourgeois town houses which reminded me of continental cities like Vienna. The city had obviously had a period of prosperity in the 19th and early 20th century and some impressive art nouveau facades can be found all along the busy shopping main street. Above all Cartagena makes the most of its ancient history with many state of the art museums with multiple video installations to showcase its extensive ancient ruins from the times of ancient Rome or even before, when it was a Carthaginian stronghold. Its most famous site, the impressively reconstructed Roman amphitheatre, was only uncovered and rebuilt in the ‘60s and ‘70s, having previously been buried under a poor fisherman’s district. There is also a Roman forum where you can walk along the Cardo Maximus (north/ south bound road) and turn onto the Decumanus (west/ east bound road) and see the ancient carriage tracks which are still visible along the way.
I learned about the Carthaginians (think Hannibal whose brother, Hasdrubal lost the city to the Roman general, Scipio). The town was a strategic stronghold for them “the best protected natural harbour in the Mediterranean” and vestiges of the enormous Punic walls can still be visited. Discovering these cities by boat gives you a direct line of connection to history. After all, we appreciated the same qualities to the harbour that made the city such an important military prize in the times of the Punic wars.
It was great to hook up with Chris here and to meet his latest crew recruit, also called Chris, a New Zealander who met his Spanish wife in China and is currently living with his family in Cape Verde. We shared tapas and boat anecdotes, swapping our tales of boat jobs as we had both just come back from important pit stops for essential repairs, Chris in Calpe and us in Palma.
We left together, the Princess heading for Aguadulce and the two Chrisses on route to Gibraltar. I will never forget the unnerving sight of Freecloud bearing down on us at night to follow us like a curious dolphin. It was a surreal sight as the crescent moon rose slowly behind his boat. I tried to figure out what on earth the curious hammock shaped light on Free Cloud’s stern could be! Proof if ever I needed it that on watch at night it is easy to be disorientated.