There are those moments when travelling when a series of mishaps lead to something magical.
Today was one of those days.
We arrived in Lisbon triumphant after completing our first leg from Sagres – a 24 hour rolling sail through the day and night.
We started out close hauled, tacking around Cape St Vincent into the north westerly wind and Atlantic swell but as we made our way north the wind backed to a more relaxed beam reach, and later a downwind run towards the Portuguese capital.
Night sailing is a strange thing. As you stand there alone in the darkness, looking out upon darkness, swaying with the sea’s night time dance, you can find yourself venturing on a long dark journey of the soul. Your reverie is broken only by the dim lights of other vessels, usually many miles away, that at best can be ignored and at worst, require avoidance.
But it is also offers the ultimate sense of freedom. Just you, alone, keeping safe watch as your boat rushes over the waves, her sails catching with each fresh lifting breeze.
It is easy to get spooked. When strange and unexplained objects appear on radar but, despite straining your eyes in every direction skyward and seaward, nothing is visible.
When other vessels that you thought would safely pass you by several nautical miles suddenly change direction so your closest point of approach is reduced in seconds to 50 metres or so.
The key, to steal from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is: “DON’T PANIC”.
These same vessels will almost certainly continue their turn to pass you by several miles. And if they don’t, you simply alter course a little.
Darkness does weird things to the human brain. It conjures up sea monsters from the depths.
But darkness also brings unimaginable beauty – as N’Tiana cut her way through the midnight water, she was followed by waves of sparkling bioluminescence lighting the sea like thousands of stars with each new wave. We left a flow of sea fireworks in our wake.
And above us, before the cloud moved in, the real stars vied for attention with the sea’s organic glow.
Pete and I decided on three hour watches. Two hours would allow for hardly any sleep at all. Four hours standing in the darkness might drive a man to madness. Three hours seemed a happy compromise, though neither of us were under any illusion that we would get much sleep on our first night sail of the trip.
If you think being on deck is a worry, try going down below for a ‘rest’. Lying in the saloon of the boat, every lurch of the hull feels light a fairground ride, every crashing wave like rocks, every movement of the sails like a potential crash jibe. One thing you learn very quickly living on a boat, is that everything creaks and rattles and taps and squeaks and gurgles and sprays and splashes. You may as well try and get a good nights’ sleep in a washing machine. But experience has shown you get used to these noises and they become a comforting companion to your dreams rather than your waking nightmares.
After my 3am to 6am watch I handed over to Pete, happy to impart that we were nearing Lisbon. It was the greyest, wettest, dreariest of mornings imaginable.
Half an hour later I was roused by a shout; “Dolphins!”
I fumbled for my glasses and half asleep, stumbled up on deck. Not just one dolphin, not two, not three or even four. A whole pod of dolphins had chosen us as their morning plaything. They swam alongside us, under our bow, leapt out of the sea just yards from us for the pure joy of it, veered ahead of us and behind us. There were adults and babies, joyously streaking through the water and jumping over the waves. We’ve both seen a fair number of dolphins while sailing, usually one or two pop up and say hello, swim with you for a couple of minutes and disappear to continue their maritime meanderings. Never before have I had the thrill of so many dolphins – 50 or so at a guess – swimming with a boat for such a length of time.
Nothing can infuse the soul with pure happiness and wonder like these miraculous intelligent beasts.
Two hours later we arrived at the entrance to the Rio Tejo channel, where a steep choppy sea had been kicked up by the combination of wind, tide and river flow. We put the engine on and dropping all but the mainsail motored our way up the channel towards Lisbon.
Full of optimism and pride at safely completing the first leg of our voyage, expecting a heros’ welcome, we called the main marina authority, which runs four marinas in Lisbon, and confidently gave N’Tiana’s name and dimensions, only to be curtly told: “We have no space.”
“Nowhere? Not in any of the marinas?”
“Nowhere.” Came the response. “We suggest you try Cascais.”
Cascais is right on the mouth of the river and meant a U-turn and hour and a half of motoring directly into the choppy seas we had just escaped. As well as being a long journey from the city were keen to see.
Nope. We figured, ‘Lisbon has other marinas, we’ll try them’.
We called another. A woman at the other end took the details and said she’d call back. We waited with baited breath. Half an hour later my phone rang.
“No space,” she said. “Sorry. Try Doca de Alcantara.”
We had already tried this.
We tried the Port of Lisbon authorities on the VHF.
“Try the Doca de Alcantara.” Yep, heard that before. Although we tried Alcantara once again just to make sure. Still no space.
We gave in and phoned a marina back near the river’s coastal entrance at Oeiras. Beggars can’t be chosers and all that.
“No space, sorry. Lisbon is crazy!” The woman told me. “Good luck!”
Screw it, we thought, we can anchor somewhere, we’ve got the dinghy.
Looking at the charts, further up the River Tejo on the south side of the river was a small inlet leading to a town called Seixal that promised a small pontoon, mooring buoys and a small anchorage.
We continued motoring up, under the imposing 25 de Abril suspension bridge, dodging the giant shipping vessels, and headed up the Canal de Barreiro towards Seixal.
We had been motoring up the river for two and a half hours by the time we reached the town, were knackered and starving, so the stakes were high.
We radioed in and a friendly Portuguese voice at the other end said: “Hallo, I cannot fit you on the pontoon, but we have mooring buoy you can take then I bring you on land when you need.”
The same man, still speaking on the radio, raced down the pontoon to inspect N’Tiana as we bobbed about awaiting further instruction.
I don’t know if it was the slightly desperate look in our faces, or he just liked the boat, but he then changed his mind.
“Actually, I fit you on pontoon, alongside this catamaran, then later these people, they go,” he pointed to two sloops behind the cat. They leave at 5pm and you move your boat here.”
“Obrigado!” We chanted in relieved unison.
And both quickly proceeded to fall in love with Seixal. Despite gazing across the river at the great bustling city on the other bank, this pretty town with its tranquil waterfront retains the feel of a sleepy backwater. It could not be a more perfect place to have moored up.
After a delicious lunch of marinated pork loin and rice cooked on the boat, we passed out for about three hours. Re-emerging from the boat at around 6.30pm on a Sunday evening, our expectations were not high. An hour’s wander around the town quickly changed our view. There were several great local restaurants with grills giving off scents that could have lured us from several miles away.
We washed up in a brilliant little bar that was the stuff London hipsters dream of but can never achieve due to that fatal error of simply trying too hard. It was the happy result of a lifetime’s travelling and collecting but had all the pretention of a school canteen. It’s mad mixture of South American and ethnic memorabilia with chairs, tables and other necessary items clearly grabbed from wherever they could be found resulted in shabby chic taken to the shabbiest possible extreme. The walls were covered in the scribblings of a thousand very happy patrons. All this combined with the wonderful respectability of the late middle-aged Portuguese man behind the bar who took such delicate care over serving a better gin and tonic – juniper berries and all – than most overpriced gin bars have ever concocted, was a victorious combination.
We toasted our luck, drank our drinks and ambled our way back to the boat.
Tomorrow, we’ll explore Lisbon and all she has to offer, but quite frankly, I could happily just stay in Seixal for the next few days.
[This was written last night but I thought it best to check and post this morning when the effect of the gin and tonics had worn off!]