Sailing in the real world

Warning: Excessively long blog post ahead. Scan ahead for the pictures, if you prefer…

We just returned from a sailing trip to Menorca: Dulcinea and myself, as well as our friend and skipper Bravo, her cousin Alpha and another friend, Delta (names have been changed to safeguard the nautical theme of this post). Bravo, with whom I occasionally sail in Barcelona, had asked me to accompany her on her first real “crossing” as a Patrón de Yate, which is the qualification required to sail from Barcelona to Menorca (it allows boating at distances of up to 60 miles offshore). I, as “mere” Patrón de Embarcaciones de Recreo, am allowed to skipper boats at no more than 12nm from the coast. From Barcelona to Menorca is a little less than 120nm (220km), so you are never quite 60nm from Spanish shore.

Thursday was departure day. Dulcinea and I had packed our bags the night before and she went to work that day, while I took our gear to the port. There, Bravo and I dealt with last minute preparations and packing. Alpha and Bravo bought the rest of the food, plus 30 large bottles of water, and I bought a few minor missing items (e.g. a small folding table on which we could eat outside, in the cockpit).

Everything takes more time than you expect — planning and packing at home, then getting the boat ready: final weather, map and GPS checks, safety things and comfort things, food and all the rest. The plan was to leave as early as possible, but I suspected we’d not leave before 18h. Dulcinea arrived at the port directly from the office, around 15h30, and Delta showed up even later. Indeed, the five of us didn’t cast off from our slip at Barcelona’s Port Forum until about 18h30.

Thursday – Friday: Port Forum (Bcn) to Fornells: 120nm (23h)

Our first target — the crossing itself — took us southeast, to the port of Fornells, located in a pretty bay on Menorca’s north coast. Later, we planned to head for Mahón, where we had booked a mooring for the rest of our nights on the island. It was the start of August — high season for vacationing Europeans — so we paid a fortune to book a mooring in Mahón, in case we needed it…in fact, we ended up staying there only one night (while paying for four!). Everything, of course, was weather-dependent, and we ended up being lucky on this front. Another time, we might risk it without a booked mooring, relying on always being able to anchor somewhere, but as this was a “first” in many ways for us, we were being extra-careful.

We originally planned to leave Friday, but the weather window looked better for a Thursday night departure, and the boat turned out to be free a day early. We feared running into a tramuntana (the strong north wind funnelled by the Pyrenees, typical of the Costa Brava and Balearic Islands), and our plans would depend on watching the weather — seek shelter in the south when a north wind blows, and in the north when a south wind blows (and stay in Mahón if it were looking to be especially miserable).

I expected the crossing to Menorca to take about 24 hours. Because the wind was not strong enough for us to make 5 knots (or even 4) simply sailing, we motor-sailed most of the way. A boat like the one we were sailing (Beneteau Oceanis 31) has a 130 litre diesel tank, and its 21HP motor only uses 2 or 3 litres per hour of motor-cruising, so it can run for two days straight if necessary. With the light wind about 45 degrees off our bow, the sails increased our motoring speed by 0.5 to 1 knot (to about 6 knots).

At night, the three of us with experience (Bravo, Delta and I) took two-hour watches. I had the 4-6am shift, though I also sat up for part of my companions’ watches. I don’t sleep well while in vehicles, whether plane, boat or car, and this was no exception. I slept intermittently, perhaps from excitement, perhaps because it was too warm in our berth — you can’t open the hatches when sailing due to possible spray, and the need for the boat to remain watertight.

Our trip coincided with a new moon, and the sky was clear and spectacular. Meteors, satellites and the Milky Way were all to be seen. Even more amazing was the bioluminescence, which entranced me all night, helping to pass the time during my watch (’til the gradual arrival of sunrise). Some types of plankton (e.g. dinoflagellates), emit light when “scared” — in theory to attract larger predators to kill whatever smaller one is threatening them. In this case, our propeller wash and the splashes of our wake were the “danger” that triggered these sparks and pulsing, coordinated flashes of light. Other, bigger blobs glowing in the depths below our wake were surely bioluminescent jellyfish. Really an incredible experience — for me this made the trip worthwhile, and all within the first few hours! From time to time, a large boat was seen on the horizon — one ocean-cruiser passed relatively close during my watch — but mostly we were alone with the black sea and the black sky, both illuminated from within by glowing nebulae, galaxies and stars…

On Friday, we crossed the deepest point of our trip — 2300m of water under keel — and soon could see the vaguest outline of Menorca’s cliffs and mountains (if you can call it’s highest point, Monte Toro, a mountain, with its towering 358 metres). In the afternoon, only 10 or 15 miles from our objective, we hove-to for lunch and a deep-water swim. We then leisurely motor-sailed in to Fornells, radioed the marina for a slip and docked around 17h30 — 23 hours after departure from Barcelona. In the evening, a bit wobbly with “land-sickness,” we split up for a while — Dulcinea and I hiked up to the watchtower and dramatic rocks that overlook the town and bay, whereas the others chilled out with drinks at a terrace. Later, we regrouped for a celebratory dinner in a restaurant at the port.

Saturday: Fornells to Isla Colom (via Addaia): 14nm (4h)

Every day I watched the forecasts. Besides the marine weather forecasts from the Spanish weather service and port authority, I also downloaded GRIB data from the NOAA’s simulations and 8-day predictions. They proved quite helpful in knowing which days would involve changes in weather, and having a rough idea of what to expect down the line. It helps if you know how to interpret the data a bit. The forecast CAPE data showed that Saturday would be a bit unstable. Indeed, as we sailed out of Fornells — in tourist mode, towing our newly-inflated dinghy — and along the northeast coast of Menorca, we saw plenty of lightning strikes over land and out to sea, ahead of us, as well as dark clouds that formed and moved across the island to the south. We watched them carefully (and a bit nervously), and adjusted our speed to let them pass us by.

To kill some time, and for the fun of exploring an interesting port, we sailed in to Addaia. Bravo wanted to see it and to practice using the detailed port maps she’d bought, all of us keeping eyes open for its unexpectedly-placed red and green lateral buoys. Also, we kept a close eye on the depth sounding, since the long, windy bay eventually gets too shallow to navigate by yacht.


Later, we rounded Cabo (Cape) Favaritx with its lighthouse and headed down the east coast of Menorca. The weather had seemed to be improving, but now there were new dark clouds over the island, seemingly headed our way, and shortly I noticed two or three funnel clouds that eventually reached the ground…tornadoes and lightning are not the kinds of things one wants to see while floating on the ocean, so we headed for a sheltered bay to anchor and to sit out the rain that was just starting.

We anchored alongside numerous other boats (it is high season in the islands!) next to Isla Colom, in about 4m of water. As we prepared lunch, it stopped raining and we happily watched the weather “evolve” its way south, giving our area a pass. Things continued to improve and, after lunch, we snorkeled and enjoyed the water under a hot sun. As we snorkeled, Bravo pointed out a striped moray eel tucked in along the plants of the rocky shoreline, 3m down.

Inspecting our boat from below, I discovered the bane of boaters: a frayed rope coiled around the shaft of our propeller. I dived down repeatedly, gradually untying the knots, and succeeded in removing it. Luckily it had been sliced through by our prop (who knows when? perhaps even before we left Barcelona), but an ensnared cord is always a serious concern because if it seizes things up, it can wreck the motor.

What a change a few hours can bring — sunset featured a spectacular display, as the golden sun dropped out from behind a narrow band of cloud. We had planned to reach Mahón that day, but called ahead to the marina to tell them we were quite happy where we were, and not to expect us any time soon.

Sunday: Isla Colom to Cala Macarella (via Mahón): 35nm (7h)

After a morning spent snorkeling and enjoying Isla del Colom and the area (we happily encountered only one or two jellyfish, which make people around here nervous because their stings really do damage), we hauled anchor in the afternoon to drop Delta off in Mahón. He had friends to see on the island, and we would be hand the boat over to him for his own sailing adventures, but not until Wednesday morning.

So we went for a brief drop into Mahón (aka Maó, in Catalan), principal city of Menorca and one of the deepest natural harbours in the world. The harbour is 5km long and, at points, 900m wide. Much of the harbour is well over 20m deep. It’s a beautiful place to sail, with lots of room to manoeuvre.

For something different, on the way in, we turned right and detoured around Isla del Llatzaret, through a narrow channel on its north side before continuing to the main marina. (A lazaret was an isolation hospital, to quarantine people with infectious diseases.) We dropped Delta off at the port’s gas station (closed on Sundays after 14h, so we sighed heavily, and didn’t fill our tank), then headed for the south coast. It was already getting a bit late to make it to our target — beautiful Cala Macarella or Cala Turqueta at the western part of the south coast — but we charged on nonetheless. The main thing was to be safely anchored before dark, since anywhere would be unfamiliar territory for the remaining four of us. To make it more complicated, any decent cala was sure to be full of other boats by so late in the day!

We motor-sailed around Punta Prima (leaving Isla del Aire to our south) and along the south coast. We cranked along at six knots and did indeed make it to Cala Macarella, where we anchored before 21h. Our position was not ideal; far enough away from the rocky cliffs and an exposed rock, but a bit too close to the next boat, for our liking. All night we watched nervously as the strange winds moved each anchored boat in different ways.

Not long after midnight, as I “slept” below, I heard my voice being urgently called. Bravo got me up to inspect the situation. Our bow had just passed within a few metres of the neighbouring boat! Not good; not good. But it was too late to try to redo our anchoring in the moonless darkness, and besides, there was no better place available in this cove. So we had to keep a half-eye open all night, sleeping poorly (again/still) and tracking the strange shifts in position of the boats. No contact was ever made (we “unfashionably” had our fenders ready just in case), and with the morning light I dived down to inspect the seafloor situation.

It all made sense, now. I saw that our neighbour had anchored very poorly, with far too much chain out, most of it lying in a few piles on the sand. His actual anchor was more or less under our boat, but we had been deceived by the fact that the weight of his excess chain effectively “anchored” him in another spot. If there had been strong winds it would have been more clear. But this explained the strange, unpredictable motions we’d seen overnight.

Monday: Cala Macarella to Cala d’en Porter (via Cala Turqueta, Cala Coves): 19nm (6h)

After the semi-stressful night, the good news was that Cala Macarella was a beautiful spot to snorkel. Just after getting up, I plunged into the clear water and was surrounded by hundreds of fish. For me, these underwater explorations were the best part of our trip — that and the bioluminescence of our crossing.

After breakfast, we all took a trip to Cala Macarelleta, a cove tucked in just beside Macarella. The “girls” got in the dinghy, while I, wearing snorkel and flippers, towed them. Dulcinea and I had hiked here last year, and found it to be a spectacularly beautiful place. This time (August makes all the difference), we found it to be packed to the gills with people, and quite disgusting in the murkiness of its water…not to mention the smell. Probably thanks to vacationers “illegally” dumping their boats’ septic tanks while anchored. Ugh. We lasted only a quarter of an hour before deciding I would tow them all back to our boat.

We got the boat ready, then hauled anchor to check out nearby Cala Turqueta, another beautiful spot (again, it had been more beautiful outside of the summer “peak hours”). We did not stop there, instead heading east to make some progress back towards Mahón. We had to be back by Tuesday night, since our flights home left Wednesday morning. Also, the forecast for the following day was for strong E or SE wind and waves. If we started back today, it would make tomorrow’s “rough bit” a bit shorter.

We headed out for the deeper sea, where we could dump our own holding tank, and where the ladies washed their hair (but not in that sequence!). Then we spent a leisurely day sailing (ah, finally, the blissful silence of no motor!). We explored various calas, checked out several anchoring options, then settled on Cala d’en Porter. It has a dramatic lounge/club (Cova d’en Xoroi) carved into the side of its cliffs, and we knew that would be a great spot to watch the sunset. Nearby Cala Coves would have been a beautiful (and protected) place to spend the night, but was far too busy for us to jockey for anchorage there. We made several attempts back at Cala d’en Porter (also quite full), and when another boat departed, we grabbed her spot. We anchored beautifully in the sandy bottom with 3.5m depth, putting out almost 20m of chain (in case the wind and waves materialized), and I dived down to check it. Solid as a rock; our best anchoring yet!

Anchored in Cala d'en Porter

Later, we rowed our dinghy to the beach and hiked up the cliff for drinks and to watch the sunset. We didn’t make it to Xoroi in time, but went to another bar on the clifftop, overlooking the bay. (In the above photo, we are the boat at top, nearest the beach.) When we came back down, we had to row in the dark against some waves, but managed fine (all four of us straddling the dinghy, two paddling, our legs wet but our gear safe in dry sacks).

We ate a very late (midnight) dinner, and sleeping was uncomfortable, as the wind rotated us to receive the incoming waves abeam, and we all ended up a bit queasy from the rolling motion. Also, the warm wind brought a slight smell of sewage, which didn’t help things. This uncomfortable situation exacerbated Dulcinea’s anxiety at the prospect of the next day’s weather, and I tried to reassure her all would be fine. There would be wind and waves, yes, but if the prediction held, I knew it would be well within our own (and our boat’s) abilities.

Tuesday: Cala d’en Porter to Mahón: 17nm (5h)

The next morning brought a bit of drama. Dulcinea worked herself into quite an anxious state. If the waves were already “this big” here in the bay, how would they be outside? I tried to reassure her, but also (perhaps mistakenly) told her that if she really didn’t want to go with us, I could take her ashore, and from town she could get a taxi. By road it’s not far from Cala d’en Porter to Mahón, and we could meet up with her there. I didn’t relish the possibility of rowing our little dinghy in to the beach, with its breaking waves, so luckily she didn’t seriously consider this option.

Our skipper, Bravo, tried to reassure Dulcinea, but her approach seemed to have the opposite effect. In the end, however, Dulcinea decided there was nothing to do but to swallow hard and get on with it. We hauled anchor and headed out of the bay. As forecast, there was a good Xaloc wind blowing (also called a Sirocco, which is a SE wind from North Africa), around Beaufort force 5, mostly around 20+ knots, with some large waves. We motored against this, not going overly fast, instead riding the waves up and down to avoid slamming the boat. It was not as bad as we’d braced for, although there were certainly plenty of 3m waves to climb up and over. Not a lot of other boats were seen sailing, that day! It was a couple of hours until we rounded the cape (at Isla del Aire), and there our angle to the wind changed as we headed north, so we were able to shut the motor off for an hour or so and quickly sail to Mahón on a beam reach (wind off to one side).

In the harbour, we made a few manoeuvres (for example, a detour into a bay to greet our friend Delta, who was sitting with friends at a waterside café), then moored temporarily at a public dock, in order to retrieve our towed dinghy and lash it up on deck. This turned out to be a bit of a tense moment. A dinghy is heavier than it looks, and the boat was lurching around with the waves in the outer harbour area. There was some tension between myself and Bravo, as she helmed the boat somewhat tentatively while I tried to manage the rest of Operation Retrieve-Dinghy, up on deck. We got through it, though, and were soon moored in our slip at Port Mahón, some of us needing a bit of space and “me time,” but all glad to be there, safe and sound.

We spent the afternoon cleaning up the boat, packing our gear, having much-needed showers at the marina. In the evening, we went for a wander, looking at the super-expensive yachts and sailing vessels docked in the port. Then we had a “farewell dinner” with Delta and then…slept! For real, this time, I think my body forgot I was still on a boat.

In the end, we sailed about 205 nautical miles (380km), over six days. We spent one night at sea, two moored in ports, and three anchored in coves. There was no veteran charter captain to watch out for us: our fate was largely in our own hands, and we handled it fine. At the end of the trip, we were absolutely wiped out…it took several days to recover (I had a mild fever and intestinal thing, which I suspect may have been from ingesting some of that delightful August cala water — or just from lack of proper rest).

I don’t know when I’ve been more physically and mentally tired. A sailboat is a small space to share intimately with other folks, who you may or may not know that well (at the start, at least). So it wasn’t, maybe, a “vacation” in the traditional sense. My hands were shredded. Each finger seemed to have its own scar or exposed bit of flesh, and my palms were totally dry and peeling (in spite of regular applications of sunscreen and moisturizer). The hands hadn’t bothered me — better said, I had more important things to think about — during the trip, but on arriving home, my palms and the soles of my feet shed a few layers, lizard-like.

Vacation? Perhaps a bit too romantic a term; an adventure, yes; an experience, to be sure. Not to be repeated in the nearest of futures, I suspect…but perhaps, one day.

Postlude: This sometimes happens when I have intense experiences… For several days after this trip, I would awaken in the middle of the night in a semi-delirious panic, convinced I had to go up on deck to scan for other ships, or check that the anchor was holding, or to turn the engine on, since we were using too much electricity and thus draining the batteries. It was so strange and confusing, since at the same time, I was semi-aware of being in bed, in our bedroom. Luckily, things are back to normal now, and when I awaken in a sweat, at least I know I’m in bed, at home, on terra firma, in Barcelona.

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The bird that roared

We had an amazing experience this weekend. We were in Huesca (a province of Aragón), not far from Aínsa, and on Sunday we hiked up from a 6th-century monastery (el monasterio de San Victorián), the oldest in Spain, to the ruin of a hermitage (la ermita rupestre de la Espelunga).
La ermita rupestre de la Espelunga

When we were at this highest and most inaccessible point, on the edge of a steep rock face, I heard the sound of a jet fighter. Sounded a bit like a rocket, or tearing cloth…I really thought it was a distant military plane. I looked around, and finally saw something (much smaller than a jet) twirling and plummeting down the mountain. It was a bird! Dulcinea had heard it too, without identifying its source, so when she arrived, I insisted we wait there a moment, in case it happened again.

We waited a long time, but finally heard the sound, a softer version of the sound a high altitude jet makes as it rips open the sky. This time we saw one, two, then more — maybe five or six birds having a great time racing down from the mountain’s cliff edge, like base jumpers. While the first one I saw had been doing its “stoop” (hunting dive), these ones seemed to be playing. Their wings were only partially folded back, so they were really flying and steering, but still going so fast as to make that soft ripping sound. Incredible!

It turns out they were peregrine falcons — the fastest creatures on earth, which have been clocked at over 300km/h in their dives. They are apparently quite common in that area. An incredible thing to see, but even more to hear. I have never heard mention of the sound their rippling feathers make at high speed!

Incidentally, per body length, a peregrine falcon is faster than a fighter jet (it manages around 200 body lengths per second, compared to maybe 40 or 50 for a small supersonic jet, like the F-16 Falcon). The peregrine’s speed is comparable (per body length) to what the space shuttle is doing when it re-enters the atmosphere from space, at around Mach 25! But the real winner at the speed game is a hummingbird, which has been clocked at nearly 400 body lengths per second (though it’s “only” flying 90-odd km/h, it’s one small bird!). The fastest human would be somewhere around 6 body lengths per second (e.g. during an Olympic 100m race). I might be able to manage 2.5. A fast snail would be lucky if he (it?) could get anywhere near 0.5 body lengths per second.

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Pray for the zapatero

No, this blog post is not about the disastrous results for the PSOE (Partido Socialista de España) in Sunday’s municipal and regional elections, where they lost in a big way to the conservative Partido Popular. You might be mistaken for thinking so, because of course José Luís Zapatero is the name of the current (socialist) prime minister of Spain (who incidentally happens to vaguely look like Mr. Bean).

There are other zapateros, though, who have longer “terms in office” than our Mr. José Luís (who has announced he will not seek re-election in the federal election of 2012). You see, while a Zapatero can be a prime minister, a zapatero is also a cobbler; a shoe-maker. A week ago I went with my Dulcinea to drop off some shoes for repair with a local zapatero. We decided not to give more business to our “regular” cobbler, who is a very bitter and grumpy fellow indeed, and instead to try our luck with another. I’d seen another little hole-in-the-wall shoe shop nearby, so we decided to check it out.

In it, there was not just a zapatero, but also a zapatera — a husband-and-wife team working together in that tiny shop. Second, unlike our miserable regular, they were incredibly good-natured and funny. We had a hard time getting out of there, with all their wise-cracks; they just kept wanting to talk and talk.

While the man was fitting some cork pads into Dulcinea’s sandals, some other customers came to make their “entreaties.” We all crammed into the two or three square metres available for customers. The comedy didn’t really start, though, until a sweet little nun from a nearby convent showed up. She wanted to buy some brown shoe polish, and the zapatero put us on hold for a moment to serve her. After much discussion, she “sweetly” insisted that her superiora was very tight with money, and that she couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) pay the full amount (4.50 Euros, I believe it was) for a container. She insisted on paying less, in a firm but friendly, loving way (a way that brought back memories of my grandmother). The zapatero argued and joked with her, but conceded to a lower price. At this, she said maybe she’d take another container, so he ended up selling her two, at a loss — both for 6 or 7 Euros rather than 9.

The nun was happy enough (in a sweet, humble sort of way), reminded him he should pray more often, and that she would also pray for him. “You have to pray every day, ask God for what you need, and believe he will provide it. You really have to believe it. And, if you still don’t get it, you have to keep praying.”

Meanwhile, in his coarse but good-natured way, he joked that maybe God should know what he really needed, and that the nun’s prayers hadn’t seemed to do him much good thus far in his life. “It’s because you don’t really believe,” she repeated. To me, it all seemed fun and good-natured, and I assumed she was a regular and valued customer. We all had a smile on our faces when she finally left — including the nun herself, who asked him make out the receipt for the full, regular price…even as he tried to insist that these days his business’ books were very closely scrutinized. “You don’t want me to sin, do you?” he joked. But she got her receipt.

The most surprising part was that, as soon as the nun was out the door and we were alone with the zapatero couple, they started ranting on about how: “it’s no wonder the church has so much money,” and “they never want to pay for anything, they’ll put us out of business,” etc. The wife told us how she personally didn’t believe in “all that,” and basically what a pain it was for them to have to deal with these frequent requests for special treatment. I was sympathetic to what they were saying, yet found the change of attitude very surprising: what a contrast to hear so much negativity (though still in a semi-joking way), after so much joviality.

It makes you wonder what people say about you when you’re not around, if they can be so “genuinely” fun and friendly when you’re there, then so bluntly critical about you the instant you leave! Might this be some vestigial survival mechanism, left over from the days of the Franco dictatorship? When you live in a fascist (or any) dictatorship, you need to be very careful to whom you show your “true” face. Say the right things to the right people, and the real things to those you know and trust. Perhaps what was most surprising to me, was the power and respect that the Catholic Church still seems to wield here — in its own way — and even among non-believers.

Postlude: In a (somewhat) related note, I went back several days later to pick up another pair of Dulcinea’s shoes, which were being stretched on the horma (shoe tree). When the zapatero told me it would cost 3.50, I told him I was pretty sure Dulcinea had already paid this amount when we dropped them off. He shrugged, and said, “could be, although it’s strange, because here on the sticker I don’t have it marked as paid.” With a wave of his hand, he cheerfully let me go without paying a cent.

To my embarrassment, Dulcinea later told me that the money she’d paid was for the cork inserts, not the stretching. So, first thing the next morning, I went back sheepishly to pay him his 3.50. My new “friend” and I had a good laugh, as he told me that many people do the same trick, but — unlike me — never come back. He insisted that I come around behind the counter to show me dozens of “unpaid” stickers from other clients. All of which made me think that if he wanted his (financial) life to improve, maybe he shouldn’t try to “meet God halfway,” and be a bit more tough about payment! His only sin, though, seems to be that he’s too nice a guy. Well, that, and of course talking badly about people behind their backs… (-;

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Stop, drop and…help?

Last week, my sister and 10-month-old nephew were visiting, and I was acting as proud tour guide. On the last day of their visit, the weather looked iffy, so we decided to skip our stroll along the beach and instead head for Montjuïc, a large hill overlooking the port, decked out with beautiful gardens, Olympic sporting installations, a castle, art galleries, funiculars and gondolas. We metroed via Sagrada Familia (which some pyromaniac had torched the day before!) to Paral·lel, the end stop on the “lilac” metro line. Two female tourists walked just ahead of us along the platform. They were roughly our age (or “young,” as I like to say; that is to say 40-50 years old ;-). We were focused on our kid in the stroller, also looking ahead of us to locate the elevator, when suddenly one of the women just collapsed, as if her power cord had been unplugged…dropped like a rock to the platform.

I ran forward the few metres to where she lay, and the friend had also turned and was with her, trying to “awaken” her. A red-sweatered metro employee happened to be nearby, saw it happen, and was on the scene quickly. I held the woman’s head and body as we tried to check if she was breathing, had a pulse, etc. There was no sign of motion or anything in her face, she just lay there looking absolutely peaceful. That may sound nice, but given the context it was terrifying. Thankfully, she did seem to have a pulse, and we sent the metro guy off to call an ambulance. I turned out to be a relatively helpful person to have on the scene, since I spoke both French (the womens’ language) and Spanish (the metro staff’s language), and could “mediate,” although I found my French frustratingly elusive, getting all mixed up with Spanish in the stress of the moment. Still, it was clear the friend was very glad to have someone else there.

She kept stroking her unconscious friend and softly repeating (in French): “Come on, Ellie, don’t leave us now, come back to us, come back, don’t leave us now…” A noisy metro came and went. After a long while (as thoughts of strokes and heart attacks loomed large in my mind), her eyes started to flutter, like she was in REM sleep. Later, more metro staff arrived, helpfully scolding gawking bypassers (“Vamos, ¡no es un espectáculo!“) and basically giving us room as we waited for the ambulance staff to arrive. The red-sweatered man wrote down the woman’s passport info to pass along to the medics.

At one point I was handed a cordless phone, to speak with an ambulance dispatcher, in my role as the woman’s Spanish-speaking “partner.” I explained that I didn’t actually know her, was just there by chance. Then I passed along what little we knew, some comments from her friend, and relayed a few instructions back (mainly: don’t let her try to stand up). After being out for maybe five (long!) minutes, the woman gradually regained consciousness, and thankfully seemed to be able to speak, know who she was, etc., although in a groggy, dream-like state. She had been quietly sitting for quite a while by the time the ambulance folks arrived, which seemed like the proverbial forever, maybe 10 or 15 minutes after the call. My little nephew patiently slept through all this, and my sister was able to provide a wet-wipe towel for the woman’s bloody hand (she cut her hand on a ring when she collapsed). Anyhow, we stayed around until the real help arrived, then moved on to our day’s other activities, which thankfully were much less exciting.

It was a scary experience, and I felt a sense of serendipity that we were there and able to help, seemingly the right people in the right place at the right time. But also I felt somewhat inadequate, that somehow I should have done more, should have stayed longer (even though the friend thanked me and said it was okay for us to leave), should have been more quick-acting, more sure of what to do. Basically, it scared me, but at least I acted and did not freeze. It also made me think about similar events with friends and family — strokes, heart attacks and other collapsings. In the end, it seems the woman probably “just” fainted from some major recent family stress in her life, and was lucky not to hit the ground too badly and cause further trauma. But it was a good reminder of why it’s good to travel with someone who knows you, who can look out for your best interests. I would hate to think of something like this happening to a solo traveller in Asia, anywhere that communication with local people is almost impossible in the best of circumstances. Or even at home alone, when no one is there to see you fall, no one is there to cradle your head and coax you back to life. Very scary.

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Done, and done…

I finally finished the Barcelona World Race Game on April 11, in a very respectable eighth place overall. Not bad, considering I was in worse than 4,000th place (out of more than 40,000 competitors) one month in, in late January. I gradually clawed (or clewed? — sailing joke) my way up in the rankings, starting around South Africa. I made good time across the Indian Ocean, really zipped across the Pacific, then did extremely well in the northbound Atlantic stage. That’s what really helped me “jump the queue.”

Here’s a map of my route:
BWR race map

Overall, I took 101 days and a bit more than 8 hours to finish, sailing 27,947 nautical miles (almost 52,000km) around the world, giving me an average speed of about 11.5 knots (my maximum speed reached was 20.43 kts). Far too many sleep hours (and waking hours, for that matter) were “lost” on this adventure, which brought me no real gain — not the first-place prize of a trip around the world, nor any of the six stage prizes — but a major sense of satisfaction as well as some shame at having spent (a nice word for “wasted”) so much time on it…


  1. Barcelona – Gibraltar : 4 days 14:31:29
  2. Gibraltar – Cape of Good Hope : 30 days 7:03:34
  3. Cape of Good Hope – Cook Strait : 21 days 11:28:52
  4. Cook Strait – Cape Horn : 13 days 17:23:40
  5. Cape Horn – Gibraltar : 27 days 17:00:57
  6. Gibraltar – Barcelona : 3 days 11:45:45
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Ever so slightly re-enfranchised

Today, not long after moaning about how I can’t vote anywhere (Canada or Spain), I actually…voted! The city of Barcelona held a sort of non-binding, “testing the waters” referendum for (or against) Catalan independence. Amazingly, as a non-resident, I was allowed to vote (though I found out that in a “real” vote I wouldn’t be allowed to). Maybe I have a penchant for being in place to vote in independence referenda. I was in Montreal for the big one there, in 1995. Perhaps I should move to Scotland next? Or just stay in Catalunya, until 2014 or whenever they do the “real thing” (if ever). Maybe they’ll let me vote “for real” by then. It probably depends on whether the promoters think immigrants would generally be in favour or against.

At latest count this evening, a bit more than 21% of eligible voters voted. While this may sound low, the goal the organizers set themselves was 10% participation, so for them it was a huge success. I’ll be curious to see the results tomorrow, although I suppose it will be in favour of a Catalan state, since obviously independentistes tend to be the most motivated to get out and vote. That leads to the problem of legitimacy. Are those who didn’t vote casting an “implicit no?” What percentage of “yes” from the overall voting population is considered enough to make a result valid? (In Scotland’s 1979 referendum the magic number was 40%, and while there was relatively good turnout (>60%), and a small majority voted in favour of separation, overall it didn’t pass. Even if it had (or had Quebec’s 1995, or might an eventual Catalan one), what then? Would Westminster “let” Scotland go? Would Parliament Hill amicably wave “adieu” to Quebec? Would the Spanish Cortes say: quedamos en contacto, ¿vale? to Catalunya? If anyone knows, it sure isn’t me. I just do my little part, one way or another — when someone lets me.

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Barcelona Whirlwind Race

The past three months have gone by faster than I first thought they would. On December 31, 2010, at 13h local time, the Barcelona World Race began. It is a prestigious regatta, with 14 teams of two people racing 60 foot sailboats, non-stop, around the world. This is the second edition of the race; the inaugural edition took place three years ago. The leaders of the real regatta (Jean-Pierre Dick and Loïck Peyron on a boat named Virbac-Paprec 3) should cross the finish line back in Barcelona tomorrow (Monday) morning, after a bit less than 94 days at sea. French skipper Jean-Pierre Dick also won the previous edition of the race, albeit with a different partner and boat.

The race takes place in six stages:

  • Barcelona to Gibraltar (Mediterranean)
  • Gibraltar to Cape of Good Hope, South Africa (Atlantic)
  • Cape of Good Hope to Wellington, NZ (Indian Ocean, Tasman Sea)
  • Wellington to Cape Horn, Chile (Pacific)
  • Cape Horn to Gibraltar (Atlantic)
  • Gibraltar to Barcelona (Mediterranean)

The fun part is that this time around, they created a virtual regatta to run in parallel. The Game – Barcelona World Race is a browser-based online game, in which you sail your IMOCA Open 60 sailboat around the world, at the same time and with the same weather conditions (updated every six hours, using measured and predictive data from NOAA in GRIB format) as the real racers. At the start, around 10,000 people virtually departed Barcelona, but since then the numbers have swollen to over 45,000. I have done relatively well, mostly being in the top few hundred, quite often in the top 100 (and as high as 25th on two occasions and as low as 4,000th after some bad decisions on the way to South Africa). Currently I’m at position 47, and am passing the Canary Islands on my way to Gibraltar (hopefully in the next 5 days or less).

It’s a load of fun (if you’re into that kind of thing), but also has been quite a burden — only my stubbornness and competitiveness have kept me at it. To do well requires serious dedication: checking in at various times throughout the day; staying up until after midnight and then setting the alarm for 6am every morning to adjust sails for the weather update (not to mention noon and 6pm!); studying the forecasts and doing longer-term planning. But I can’t complain, since for this relatively small sacrifice I’ve gotten a taste of a real circumnavigation, without experiencing anything near as torturous (or dangerous).

In the real-life version of the race, you truly live on the edge of exhaustion (compared to my minor nuisance of having to fire up the laptop for 5 minutes after taking an early-morning pee). Day after day, you suffer the violent noise and power of the ocean. You surf through tropical storms (if you have no other choice) with gale force winds and are pounded by six or eight metre waves. Sometimes your boat (in the case of four competitors so far) breaks and you have to abandon the effort. If not, you continue racing through the dangerous southern oceans with the risk of iceberg collision, icy temperatures and powerful westerlies; between 40 and 50 degrees south (in the “Roaring Forties”) there’s little land to break the flow of wind as it races around the circumference of the planet. In the Atlantic, you try to plot your way through the doldrums, where you can float in sweltering heat with painfully little wind for days at a time (this occurs near the equator, in a region known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone).

Anyhow, it’s been (and continues to be) fun, but — though the real-world racers might smirk — I will be very proud to have completed it. And glad, very glad, when it’s over.

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Well, Canada’s off to the polls for a federal election on Monday, May 2. As a good (albeit non-resident) citizen, I thought I’d check out the party positions (on the off chance they’d changed, ha ha, since last time I checked…). I came across the Vote Compass, via CBC’s website. I was a little skeptical, but it’s actually a pretty cool piece of work, and seems to be based on some solid research. It got my stance pretty much right on, and made me think about where I really stand on some issues…ones I don’t normally think about, like “should Canada spend more or less on the military?” (To answer, first I had to look up how much Canada actually spends currently on the military — a bit more than Spain, it turns out, as a % of GDP).

All charged up with good intentions, next I went about finding out about voting “from afar”, and was disappointed and surprised to find out that I am not eligible to vote, even by mail! While I have been away for fewer than five years, I don’t have any imminent “intention to return”. In short, I do not qualify for a distance ballot.

So, that means I’m completely disenfranchised. Can’t vote in my own country, and can’t vote in my “adoptive” country of residence. Spain did recently change election rules to allow some non-citizen residents to vote (in certain elections, such as the municipal ones coming up in Barcelona), but Canadians are not among the nationals who are given that privilege.

Yours, truly,
Voteless in Barcelona.

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Primal diversions

Did you know that our current year, 2011, is a prime number, and is also the sum of 11 consecutive primes? (For those who might be interested, they are: 157, 163, 167, 173, 179, 181, 191, 193, 197, 199, 211.) 2011 is also the sum of three other consecutive primes: 661, 673, 677.

We’ll have to wait (only?) six more years until our next prime year in 2017…but that one won’t have this property. The following prime year, 2027, however, is the sum of a sequence of 15 consecutive primes. Even more impressive, it’s also the sum of 25 other consecutive primes… (And the winning numbers are? Glad you asked: 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97, 101, 103, 107, 109, 113, 127, 131, 137, 139.)

It turns out this “sum of consecutive primes” isn’t such a rare property for a number to have. In fact, in all the natural numbers from 1 to 2011, 810 of them can be expressed as at least one consecutive sum of multiple primes — that’s a smidgen (to use the technical term) more than 40%.

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Mathematical diversion

Update: If you are one of the rare few who enjoys this post, be sure to read the comments, where we go further…(than we should).

I was just playing about in Python today, and stumbled across this (surely known) mathematical oddity…

99 is a number (which happens to be 387,420,489 — though I don’t care about that right now) that contains 9 digits
9999 contains 198 digits (note that 1+8 == 9) (Aside: there are more than twice as many digits in this massive number as there are in the number of atoms in the universe, which is estimated to be somewhere in the ballpark of a “mere” 1080!)
999999 contains 2997 digits (note that 2+7 == 9)
Let’s follow the pattern and see if we can guess the number of digits in 99999999… Let me guess: 39996? That’s correct!
How about the next one? 9999999999 should have 499995 digits — also correct! (in Python: len(str(99999**99999)))

What will happen when the numbers wrap around when there are 10 nines in a row?…this may be a bit tricky…

To calculate further terms in this weird series, we’re better off doing it in a faster language. I’ll switch to Haskell and skip n of 6 (since I’m convinced I’ve got this “sussed”) and go straight to 7 nines in a row: length $ show $ 9999999^9999999 oops, that takes a whole whack of memory and time…just storing the resulting number as a string requires almost 70 megabytes… But, as expected, the answer we get is 69999993.

Well, I can’t manage to calculate anything bigger than that (in order to count its digits)…still, I’m amazed that my home computer can evaluate such a massive number (and relatively painlessly), when “not so long ago” I used to be impressed with a 32-bit integer, which lets you have numbers up to about 4 billion (you know, wow, a whopping 10 digits).

To keep going, let’s try to write a “formula” for the number of digits of these n nines to the power of n nines…

What about when n > 10? I can’t calculate such a big number on my poor swapping machine… Let’s try to guess, though. First, we’d be better off finding a handy way of calculating, not the number itself, but the length of the number. Can we do that? Here’s a first try, based on my observations:

def digits(n):
    assert(0 < n < 11)
    digs = [n-1] + [9 for _ in xrange(n-1)] + [10-n]
    return int("".join(map(str, digs)))

First let’s take a look at the ratios between adjacent pairs in the series.

198 / 9 == 22 remainder 0
2997 / 198 == 15 remainder 27
39996 / 2997 == 13 remainder 1035
499995 / 39996 == 12 remainder 20043
5999994 / 499995 == 12 remainder 54
69999993 / 5999994 == 11 remainder 4000059
799999992 / 69999993 == 11 remainder 30000069
8999999991 / 799999992 == 11 remainder 200000079
99999999990 / 8999999991 == 11 remainder 1000000089

Hmm, don’t like those fractions (although perhaps some mathematical genius can help me out here to define a general formula for the ratio of two of these numbers!).
It is neat that the digits in the remainders sum to 9 (or a multiple of 9). A ratio that does look more promising is the ratio of any of these with the length of the first element (9)…

198 / 9 == 22
2997 / 9 == 333
39996 / 9 == 4444
499995 / 9 == 55555
5999994 / 9 == 666666
69999993 / 9 == 7777777
799999992 / 9 == 88888888
8999999991 / 9 == 999999999
99999999990 / 9 == 11111111110

Yes, sir, I do like those ratios (no remainders/fractions!). For n, the number of digits is n repeats of n, times 9! (There are “n ns” — reminds me of Rumsfeld’s famous “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns”.) Can this help us guess how many digits there should be when n is, say, 11?

def repeat9(n):
    return int("".join(map(str,[9 for _ in xrange(n)])))

def dumprepeat9digs(i):
    for n in xrange(i):
        r9 = repeat9(n+1)
        print "{0}^{0} has {1} digits".format(r9,

Now we can deduce (or guess?) that first 15 numbers in the sequence are or should be:
(1) –> 99 has 9 digits
(2) –> 9999 has 198 digits
(3) –> 999999 has 2997 digits
(4) –> 99999999 has 39996 digits
(5) –> 9999999999 has 499995 digits
(6) –> 999999999999 has 5999994 digits
(7) –> 99999999999999 has 69999993 digits
(8) –> 9999999999999999 has 799999992 digits
(9) –> 999999999999999999 has 8999999991 digits
(10) –> 99999999999999999999 has 99999999990 digits
(11) –> 9999999999999999999999 has 1099999999989 digits
(12) –> 999999999999999999999999 has 11999999999988 digits
(13) –> 99999999999999999999999999 has 129999999999987 digits
(14) –> 9999999999999999999999999999 has 1399999999999986 digits
(15) –> 999999999999999999999999999999 has 14999999999999985 digits

Another way to “build” this number (which I’ve “solved” by experimenting and playing with it, not really mathematically proving it) is:

(n-1) prepended to (10n-n)

or, in code:

def digitsnines(n):
    return int("".join(map(str, [n-1] + [10**n - n])))

>>> digitsnines(12)

A total of n nines are “involved”, in each case. But the first and last parts are modified. The endpoint nines need to be split into a part at the beginning and a part at the end, which together total 9 (or 99, or 999, or …). The first digits should show (n-1), and the last digits should be the difference between the appropriate power of 10 and n. Or seen another way, in the case of n == 15, we start with 14, then string on 15 nines in a row. This new number then has 14 (n-1) subtracted from it. It’s quite remarkable, although I have no idea what it “means”. Probably nothing. Anyhow, a good workout for this old brain.

P.S. The trick I used to help me solve this, playing around and experimenting with the numbers:
xa*b == (xa)b In order to calculate the larger values, I relied on the length of a smaller number being multiplied to give the total length, the length function operating similar to a logarithm. For example, len(str(999**999)) == len(str(999**333))*3 == len(str(999**111))*9 == len(str(999))*999. This seems to work for these 9s numbers, but I can’t guarantee it will always work (UPDATE: yes, we can — see comments below this post).

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