Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Holiday hell: shut out and shut in!

Sue and Peter McCall of County Durham, England, are no strangers to the Algarve. They have been coming on holiday here for 28 years. On their latest visit, the third this year, they stayed for the whole of October in a rental villa near Carvoeiro. It was particularly memorable.
“Wednesday / Thursday was not good,” Sue said in an email to a friend back home. “It poured so much we had a power cut. Thank heavens I was already in bed and Peter was locking up for the night, ‘cos when I say it was pitch black, I mean pitch black. No street lights. Peter had to feel his way to the bedroom with the light from his iPad.”
Sue added: “We're back to normal now. It’s 20 degrees at the moment. Nice for sitting out in the day, but cold from 6pm on. To keep the place warm we have the radiators on all evening.”
Apart from the weather, it didn’t stay ‘normal’ for long.
“We had real shenanigans yesterday morning,” Sue told me.
Peter, the more technically minded of the two, put the situation into context. “We had rented a villa that had recently had new uPVC windows and shutters fitted all round. Coupled with some solid steel gates at the courtyard entrance, it was a bit like Alcatraz.
“We were told that just outside the gate there was a digital safe containing the gate keys. Then we were given the house keys plus a second gate key for general use. The new uPVC main door would close and lock on a gentle push. There was no handle on the outside of the door, a worrying combination, as we were to discover.”
 Sue takes up the story: “As we closed the main door and set off for the beach bar, Peter thought I had the door key. I thought HE had it.”
Peter adds a bit more detail: “‘No’, I murmured, ‘I don’t have the key.’  Three beats.... mouth starting to go dry…. she started to get that martyred look on her face that all women develop at an early age and use when things start to get tricky. I looked at the solid steel gates. Locked. I pushed on the main house door just in case. Locked too. Two choices: fall on the ground and start to hyperventilate, or call for help.”
According to Peter, this is what happened next:  “I said as sweetly as I could, despite gritted teeth, ‘ring the house management.’ Sue said, ‘I haven’t got the number.’
‘It’s not on your phone?’
‘No,’ she said in that careful voice you use when trapped with someone who might be about to become unpredictable.
‘It’s on a piece of paper in the house notes’ file they gave us,’ I said, trying to avoid a tic that was developing in my right eye.
‘I haven’t got the paper.’
‘Well where is it?’
I tailed off as her eyes shifted to the door of the house. It was still locked.”
Fortunately, Sue had the number of a couple of close friends who were holidaying nearby. They came over quickly. Peter shouted out the code and they got the spare key from the safe.
“Freedom!” thought Peter.
Well, no. It liberated them from the garden, but how were they going to get back into the house?
“Thankfully, I found a little scrap of paper in my handbag,” said Sue. “I’d torn it from a sheet in the house the previous day and scrawled the management number on it rather than sit with the huge house notes’ folder on my knee when I wanted to ring to ask them to get our maid to do some ironing. I'd turned the scrap of paper into a shopping list. Luckily, I hadn’t binned it. It was still in my bag!”
With a mixture of hope and trepidation, Sue rang the management number. Mercifully, it wasn’t pitch black, pouring with rain or cold.
“The young lady from the management company came after about 10 minutes. She had a key to the main door of the house. But we still couldn’t get in because our key was in the lock on the other side.”
The management lady then rang the maid, knowing that she (the maid) had a key to the kitchen yard and the kitchen door. The maid came over and was able to get into the yard. The trouble was she couldn’t open the kitchen door because, like the main door, it too had a key in the lock inside.
“We hadn’t put it there!” insisted Sue.
Anyway, to Peter and Sue’s amazement the maid straightened her key ring to make a wire lock-pick. She pushed it into the kitchen lock and wiggled it about to try to push the inside key out the other side.  
“It didn’t work, but she's wasted as a maid,” said Sue. “She had a lot more gumption than us. I suppose we can claim that we were so dumbstruck with the gravity of our situation - and a possible huge bill for a call out to a specialist locksmith - that our synapses by then had suffered a total shutdown.”
The resourceful maid fetched stepladders. She, Peter and the management lady started scaling fences, climbing walls and putting chairs up against windows to try and find a vulnerable spot. The new uPVC windows proved not to be of the highest quality. The management lady managed to force one open. This set off the burglar alarm. Happily, no one seemed to take any notice. 
“The maid managed to climb through the window and disable the alarm before the cavalry arrived,” said Sue.
“A trusting neighbourhood is a wonderful thing,” said Peter later while in contemplative mood. “As for the rest, we were profusely and lavishly apologetic.”
“To say we were relieved is the biggest understatement ever,”  Sue added. “ Sherpa McCall needed a very strong drink. And I needed a new pair of pants!”
Invigorated by their latest Algarve holiday, the McCalls have already booked accommodation for a five-week stay next spring. They will be near Carvoeiro for all of May and the first week of June – in a different villa.  

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Obama the favourite by far in Europe

It won’t make the slightest difference to the outcome of the US presidential election, but it is interesting to note that the overwhelming majority of people in Portugal seem to favour Barack Obama over Mitt Romney.
A straw poll conducted by United Press International found that 97% of Portuguese would like to see Obama voted back to the White House. Similar percentages were recorded in the Netherlands and Germany, and only slightly less in several other EU countries.
The poll, which surveyed 26,000 people in 30 countries outside the US, showed Israel as the only country where more than half the population would support Romney. The poll was conducted several weeks ago. The TV presidential debates don’t seem to have substantially changed opinions.
A BBC World Service opinion poll this week surveyed 21,797 people in 21 countries, but Portugal was not one of them. All four European countries included – France, the UK, Germany and Spain – showed Obama’s popularity far ahead of Romney’s.   
“Obama remains widely popular abroad, and there are signs that many leaders are unprepared for a Romney presidency,” said the Washington Post this week. “From the Scottish Highlands to the heel of Italy, it’s Obama country all the way.”
Romney’s great-great grandparents came from England and his father-in-law was Welsh. He spent two years in France as a Mormon missionary. But none of this endears Europeans to him - or him to Europe. He sees Europe as dysfunctional.
Conservative leaders in Europe seem to prefer the Democrat rather than the Republican candidate. Angela Merkel is thought to be pro-Obama even though her centre-right Christian Democratic Party traditionally supports the Republicans. While Obama has been supportive of bailouts, Romney has been harshly critical of the handling of the euro crisis and may try to reign in America’s contributions to the International Monetary Fund.
The third and last presidential debate focused on foreign policy, but Europe got only the briefest of mentions in passing. Obama said “Our alliances have never been stronger: in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, with Israel." That was it. Romney did not utter the word Europe at all. “Point taken: foreign politics plays no role in the American election,” said Le Monde.
The Guardian said: “Failure to mention Europe may be just the way the Europeans want it. After talking to French and European diplomats, Libération's Washington blog sensed they were OK with the fact that Europe had ‘disappeared from America's radar’, happy that Obama was not blaming the eurozone crisis as a source of US economic woe, and that Romney had stopped riffing on the dangers of ‘European socialism’.”
“Under a headline, “Debate reveals outdated US foreign policy,” an article in Der Spiegel  said “the two candidates appear stuck in the Bush worldview, and reveal a global power on the decline.”
Portugal’s Diário de Noticias today found something more interesting to report on than the presidential debate. It gave front-page prominence to a revelation from President Obama’s wife, Michelle, about her husband’s underwear – or lack of.  Asked on American television  if the president preferred boxers or briefs, Mrs Obama said: “none of the above.” 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Positive news about Portugal needed

Reuters marked the latest phase in the nation’s economic crisis with the headline, “Portugal faces suffocating 2013 budget.”  
The lead paragraph in an Associated Press report on the same day said that “Portugal's government is taking the bailed-out country deeper into austerity, announcing Monday sharp tax increases next year that risk worsening a recession and stoking public discontent.”
The South China Morning Post ran the story below an AP photograph of riot police guarding the parliament building in Lisbon near a fire set by protesters against the austerity measures.
A couple of days later the Economist commented: “Seldom have protesters, economists and politicians been so united in describing the plans: ‘brutal’, ‘a crime against the middle class’, a ‘fiscal atomic bomb’. Few agree with (Finance Minister) Mr Gaspar’s claim that ‘this is the only possible budget’ and that to question it is to risk being subjected to a ‘dictatorship of debt’ with Portugal condemned to depend on its official creditors indefinitely.”
As the story moved on, the Washington Post declared in a headline that “Bailed-out Portugal raises $2.4 bln in debt auction despite economic crisis.” Bloomberg Businessweek’s take on the same subject gave no hint of achievement: “Portugal raises less that maximum amount set at bill sale.”
A dispatch run by Canadian Press among others was about as good as it got this week: “The junior party in bailed-out Portugal’s coalition government has ended days of political tension by endorsing a plan for severe tax increases next year, ensuring the new austerity measures are approved in Parliament.”
An important side issue in this grim economic saga is that not only has it created great despondency in this country, but also made Portugal internationally synonymous with despair.
Time magazine recently ran an article by Bill Clinton entitled ‘The Case for Optimism.’ The former American president opened with the following observation. “Our world is more interdependent than ever. Borders have become more like nets than walls, and while this means that wealth, ideas, information and talent can move freely around the globe, so can the negative forces shaping our shared fates. The financial crisis that started in the U.S. and swept the globe was further proof that - for better and for worse - we can't escape one another.”
Optimism about Portugal has become hard to find, but there was a welcome respite amidst the reportage of economic gloom. “Portugal: small but mighty in the world of wine,” declared a headline in the Huffington Post, which claims more than a billion page views monthly on its worldwide news network.
We could do with more of that.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dumpling voyage postponed

Nick Cole’s dream of sailing off into the Atlantic on Dumpling is in limbo – at least for the time being.
He took extended leave from his work as a dentist in the UK to work solidly on Dumpling for the past six months. But it has proved to be just too big a challenge.
The niggling things that still need to be done are relatively small but there are too many of them and time has run out. To make things worse, deep depressions are developing over the Atlantic. Favourable northerly breezes between here and Madeira have changed into adverse southerly winds. Storms are brewing.
“When I took her for a test sail in perfect conditions, I felt no joy because I found so many things not working. I feel so physically and mentally drained that if I went now, it would not be with relish. I want to go with gusto.
“If I was 39 again, I would not hesitate to deal with the remaining problems as I sailed. But this time I don't want, for example, to find myself in the path of a fast moving fishing boat and no navigation lights due to a flat battery as happened before. No, I want Dumpling to be properly seaworthy.
 So Nick has put off his planned voyage until next spring. He is arranging to have the boat lifted out of the water to spend the winter tucked up on the dockside in the fishermen’s harbour at Portimão.
The postponement is obviously a big disappointment - but in no way is Nick abandoning his dream. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Dumpling’s departure delayed!

Today was supposed to have been the day, but, sure enough, Sod’s Law stepped in.
Mention of it at the end of our last report had nothing to do with premonition or tempting fate. The fact is, if something can go wrong, it will – especially on a delightfully unsophisticated sailing boat like Dumpling.
Nick Cole admits that over the long hot summer, with a tight budget and an October deadline, he cut a few corners in trying to refit his 10-tonne, 13-metre ketch.
“As time passed, I had to accelerate the work. I put things off in the process. After we got Dumpling back in the water, I made lots of little discoveries. I found too many things half finished.” 
And then there were one or two mishaps. The bowsprit got slightly biffed in a dodgy quayside manoeuvre. A paraffin lamp mysteriously smoked out the galley and head one night.
Even when Nick finally managed to get the rigging sorted, he still could not go for a trial sail because of a two-day delay in loading 140 sandbags of ballast.
Eventually they had to be lugged on board across the deck of a fishing boat moored between Dumpling and the quayside. While this was going on, maritime police officers dropped by to check that the contents of the 25 kilo bags really was sand.  
Meanwhile, Nick discovered an underwater plug was leaking where Dumpling’s propeller shaft would normally be – if she had an engine and a propeller, that is. The leak was “no big deal.” But then he found a more serious one in the bow.
“I was a bit morose for a few hours after that. You must be sure everything is okay before you set out. Unless the boat is right, you can’t go.”
He has now reluctantly concluded that not only will his departure be delayed, but he will have to curtail his plan to sail via Madeira and the Azores to the Hebrides off the west coast of mainland Scotland. For now, Madeira will probably be as far as he can go.
Despite these disappointing developments, Nick, his wife Sally and one of their twin sons visiting from England, David, manage to sit down on Dumpling’s deck occasionally and have a laugh. 
“Boats bring out the Laurel and Hardy in people,” says Nick.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Never a dull moment on Dumpling

Dumpling was placed in a quayside position exactly as a top harbour official directed, but no sooner was her bottom wet than another official came along and said she couldn’t stay there.
“Could she not just stay tonight? Nick Cole asked.
“No,” was the blunt reply.
The space allocated to Dumpling had suddenly been given to a fishing boat apparently in need of a power line for minor repairs.
The first indication of trouble was when another fishing boat tried to nab the space while Dumpling was still airborne over the quayside. You can see it trying to muscle in on the right in this photo.
A harbour official arrived as Nick and his crane driver were preparing to put Dumpling’s masts in position. The official insisted that as soon as the masts were in, she had to move.
So, late in the afternoon of what had been a spectacularly eventful day, Dumpling had to be hauled a short distance along the quay to sit alongside a bigger sailing vessel charmingly named Atlantic Rose.  
As Atlantic Rose occupied the inside position next to the quay, Nick would have to cross her deck every trip to and from Dumpling. Luckily, Atlantic Rose is owned by a friendly German couple who don’t mind. Still,  coming and going with heavy gear is not possible. Another plan had to be devised to later take on board three and a half tonnes of sand as ballast, plus a month’s food and water. For that, Dumpling will have to move again.
Today, there has been no activity on the fishing boat that successfully muscled in, or on the smaller fishing boat  in need of repairs. Together they are still occupying Dumpling’s original mooring.  A bit irritating.
Tickled, perhaps, by the sight of Dumpling twice in mid-air, Nick has spent time aloft himself. First time (pictured here) was when he was hoisted by crane to unsnarl a sling on the main mast. He has since been busy up there on the main and mizzen securing shrouds and stays, or “tuning the rig” as it’s more romantically called.
Nick is spending his second night on board after the relaunch. He’s starting to feel at home on Dumpling once again. He says he tends to wake up every time a rope creaks, but the good news is that the paraffin stove works well and the ‘head’ is flushing just fine.
The other good news is that the forecast for Sunday, the day Nick plans to leave, seems ideal: wind northwest force 4. That sort of weather should see him safely through to Madeira without problems.  
“So far, so good,” says Nick. 
      But of course you can't rule out Sod's Law!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dumpling – back where she belongs

A sailing boat looks odd propped up in the countryside amid gnarled olive trees and dry stone walls. What looks even odder is a sailing boat in mid-air. It all looked very odd indeed yesterday (Wednesday) morning -  nerve-rackingly so – as Dumpling was hoisted over telephone wires, before being lowered on to a truck to be transported back where she belongs – in the water.
“I could do with another day,” said Nick Cole, as he worked feverishly on essential last minute tasks before the huge crane and truck arrived.
He could have done with another two days, another week, another month. Fastidious improvements and fiddling can go on for ever, but time had run out.
Dumpling had been parked at Nick and Sally Cole’s rural retreat for years. She had been painstakingly refitted stem to stern, intensively so over the last six months. Now, with the red antifouling on her hull gleaming in the early morning sunlight, and the fresh white and blue paint on her masts and spars barely dry, it was time to go.
Suddenly, Dumpling’s weight was a worry. Apparently the crane could only manage a maximum of nine tonnes. Would Dumpling make the weight limit? Would she be able to leave at all? As the crane took the strain and started lifting, the weight registered as six tonnes, seven tonnes, eight, nine…. ten!
To great relief, the crane’s capabilities turned out to be more than adequate. After a careful loading operation that lasted all morning, the truck drove Dumpling on the scenic route through beautiful countryside to Silves, over the bridge and on past Lagoa, to the fishing harbour at Portimão.
It took most of the  afternoon to get Dumpling safely into the water.  It had all been rather tense, but it had all gone better than anyone could have expected.
Nick had confided at the start of the day that he was “excited but anxious.”  Now he was obviously knackered.
Sitting next to deep-sea trawlers and navy vessels, Dumpling looked small and vulnerable. And that’s when things went unexpectedly wrong….
We’ll talk about that later today.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Nick Cole - Daring to fulfill a dream

Nick Cole, an Anglo-Australian with strong Algarve connections, is about to reach a key moment in fulfilling a dream that has been brewing for six decades.
At an age when most professional men are looking forward to taking it easy, Nick has taken on a daunting physical and mental challenge. Having spent virtually every day for the past six months single-handedly refitting a sailing boat he built by himself in the 1980s, he is preparing to put her back in the water and set off alone from Portimão into the wide blue yonder.
His boat is called Dumpling.  Nick delights in her simplicity. Most sailing boats nowadays are high-tech, luxury items, but Dumpling has no engine, square sails and is equipped only with basic necessities. She's "green".
Nick's latest adventure is fostered by a seemingly insatiable wanderlust. Born in Melbourne, Australia, he went off with his parents to Singapore at the age of two. A year later, they took him to England where his father set up a dental practice in London’s Harley Street. After graduating from Cardiff Dental School, Nick started his first job - back in Melbourne. He was soon on his way again, to a string of far-flung locum appointments in Somerset, London (where he met his wife Sally), the far north of Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.
He took a break from dentistry, bought a 45-foot trading boat in Java, sailed her to Bali for a refit and later “pranged” her on Christmas Island.
After a short spell working in Charing Cross Hospital, the intrepid traveller followed in his father’s footsteps and bought a dental practice in Harley Street. That was in 1979. A busy decade followed. Sally gave birth to twin boys. Nick created Dumpling from a design he had found in a book in a Melbourne public library. He completed a master’s degree in advanced restorative dentistry before sailing Dumpling to the south of Portugal where he opened a dental practice in Lagoa in 1990.
Six years on, the twins, David and James, completed their secondary education at the Porches International School. The family returned to England so that the boys could go to university. Since then, Nick has worked as a dentist in various places, all close to the sea: in the port of Plymouth, on St Helena island in the South Atlantic, Totnes in south Devon,  the Isles of Scilly, the Shetland Islands, North Wales, Scarborough in North Yorkshire, and the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.
His passion for sailing was aroused as a child by the stories of English author and journalist Arthur Ransome. His childhood hero was Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail around the world single-handed. Nick greatly admires Slocum’s qualities: “He was skilled, brave, enduring, modest, kind, funny.”
So is Nick.
Having sailed dinghies and small boats from his school days, the design that took his fancy in the Melbourne library was an 11.6 metre ketch, gaff rigged and with square sails on the main mast.
After four years in the building, the voyage on Dumpling from England to Portugal in 1989 was most eventful.
Nick recalls with typical self-deprecation: “I got a bit beaten up in Biscay and felt like a hero when I dropped anchor just east of Sagres. But I felt like a berk shortly afterwards when I ran aground off Ferragudo.”
Worse was to come on a subsequent trip off Portugal’s south coast.  “I went out without checking the weather forecast and got clobbered. Lost my mast and had to sail back under jury rig. Tried to get into Portimão but missed. I anchored off Praia da Rocha but had to be rescued by a Portuguese naval patrol boat.”
Dumpling has been standing propped up on a grassy patch in the Cole’s rural home near Silves ever since.
Over the past four years, Nick has periodically taken time off from private practise in the UK to restore her, always on a tight budget.  Crucially, he has enjoyed the unrelenting understanding and endorsement of his wife and sons. Dumpling now has a fully repaired hull, new masts, better accommodation, a proper galley and a ‘head’ that works well.
It was on the remote island of St Helena that he came up with the idea of getting back to an old-fashioned unpowered sailing boat with a hold for transporting traditional cargoes. All rather arcane and looked down upon by those who spend most of their time anchored in expensive marinas, but Nick has incorporated most of his fundamental ideas.  Dumpling has no way of going anywhere without wind in her sails. Her navigation lights will be powered by a solar panel but all other lighting will come from paraffin lamps, candles or a head torch. While a small GPS will be on hand for emergencies, he will navigate by the sun and the stars - just like his hero Joshua Slocum.
Dumpling will be back in the water next week and departing - first stop Madeira – a few days later. Initially anyway, Nick does not plan to sail around the world like Slocum. But who knows?

* We will report on the  final preparations in our next blog and keep track of Dumpling’s progress thereafter.