I'm not sure when Mike first proposed the idea but I seem to remember I was sitting in Spook IV's cockpit sipping a gin and tonic. It was a glorious September day and we were anchored just off Fort Belan in the Menai Strait. My boat, Neomys was bobbing gently at anchor 30 yards away and I was admiring her lines. "How do you fancy taking Spook to Greece next year?" "Do you mean sail her there?" I said taking a large gulp of my drink as I tried to make a swift calculation of the time and distance involved. "No, we could trail here there," announced Mike.
Spook IV is a clinker 25ft. Folkboat, larch on oak which Shaun and I had helped Mike to build between 1983 and 1986. Launched in 1986 in Porthmadog we had sailed her around the Irish Sea and trailed her to both Scotland and the Solent. She was also taken back to Shropshire each winter on the excellent four-wheel braked trailer which Mike had constructed, so towing was no stranger to us.
Well the idea sounded feasible at that stage and we returned to the serious business of our drinks and lunch.
During the early part of the winter we examined the proposal again and realised that perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to drive to Greece through the Balkans. Even the UN was having problems in Bosnia and we didn't fancy being shot at or worse. So the plans were changed. We would drive down to southern Italy, sail to Greece, leave the boat there and catch a ferry back to Brindisi. Then we could bring the Landrover and trailer home.
While I checked out the legal requirements for towing a 2.5-ton boat on the continent, Mike set about preparing Spook. It proved to be surprisingly difficult to reach a consensus on the law regarding trailers. The RYA were very helpful with a pamphlet (free to members), as were the RAC and Indespension who make trailers and suspension units but all of them diverged in detail. The problem is the harmonisation in the European Union (or rather lack of it) which as far as boat trailing is concerned has not been fully sorted out. Each country we were to drive through still has some of its own regulations. We did our best to conform but worked on the principle that, with the addition of the obligatory red warning triangle, what was legal for the UK should be acceptable on the continent.
Just after Christmas Mike and his wife Beryl went on a winter break to Minorca, and when they returned the plans changed again. They both liked the ambience of Minorca so much and had found a lovely small marina on the Northeast tip of the island at Addaia, where they could keep the boat, that they decided that this was the place for them. It also meant that the overland journey to Barcelona would be much shorter than the drive to southern Italy, while the sea crossing to Minorca was only about 100 nautical miles from mainland Spain.
By the spring Mike had painted Spook's hull and decks white for the Mediterranean sun. She had until then had dark blue topsides with a gold cove line and cream decks. She looked a different boat. He also had the Landrover engine completely rebuilt, fitted new tyres to vehicle and trailer and bought the necessary charts and pilots. By Whitsun 1998 we were ready to leave as planned. I was going along as co-driver and crew.
We left Mike's home on Whit Saturday evening, loaded to the gunwales. It's amazing just how much stuff one needs for a trip of this sort. The Landrover was also well packed with spare wheels for it and the trailer on the roof rack. It looked like a safari in search of Noah! We drove the six miles to the Shrewsbury by-pass and from there to Barcelona, apart from the Channel crossing, 1700 miles of dual carriageway and motorway stretched in front of us. The journey overnight to Dover was uneventful and very quiet - no jams on the M6 near Walsall or on the M25. We made such good time that we were able to catch the 0530 ferry to Calais. Apart from checking the tickets and our passports there were no other formalities and no one seemed to think it strange that we were embarking our own "lifeboat" onto the ferry. We had with us all the documents we could think of including the SSR and VAT paid status for Spook, our VHF and Yachtmaster certificates, insurance and driving licences. Ironically, when we came to raise the mast in Spain we discovered we had left the masthead VHF aerial behind! During the rest of the holiday no one wanted to see our papers except for looking at our passports in the marina near Barcelona and on our return to the UK. No doubt it might have been a different story if we had an accident or fell foul of the law.
We reached Calais on the Sunday morning and pressed on south for a few hours, before snatching a few hours sleep in the boat. We travelled at a steady 50mph and changed drivers every two hours. At this speed and with the height of the Landrover even the driver could enjoy the French countryside. The pull-ins on the French motorway system (les Aires) were a great boon. They are much closer together than UK service areas, overnight parking is free and they range from very attractive picnic spots to full services with excellent refreshments, washrooms and showers.
It was as we were about to leave one of the Aires just after a good lunch on the Monday, that we noticed a very large puddle spreading on the ground under the engine. Further investigation showed that it wasn't engine or gearbox oil, water or brake fluid yet smelled like automatic transmission fluid. Eventually we traced the problem to a fractured pipe on the power steering and spent the next two hours crawling under the vehicle in a futile attempt to effect a repair. Suddenly Mike had the bright idea of simply removing the drive belt to the power steering pump. He's very resourceful like that and takes great delight in fixing apparently insoluble problems. We were just south of Lyon at the time and decided to continue the trip minus the power steering. Happily motorways are fairly straight and we encountered no problems except the steering was very heavy when negotiating Barcelona's traffic later in the week - without the boat, I hasten to add.
We arrived at El Masnou marina on Tuesday morning. During the winter I had contacted a friend in Barcelona and she had researched a cheap marina for us. The facilities actually in the city were expensive, she informed us but El Masnou was eight miles north of Barcelona and much less costly. In fact we were craned into the water within half an hour of arriving for £25, all very efficient. The berthing cost just £3.50 per night but the bad news was that land all along the Costa Brava is at a premium so that secure car parking was to cost £8.00 a day!
We spent the rest of the day sorting out the boot and rigging and catching up on our sleep. On Wednesday we ventured into Barcelona to book Beryl on the ferry to Minorca which departs for Mahon every Thursday evening, and to do some sightseeing. Barcelona is a very beautiful city despite the traffic and it was a delight to stroll down the Ramblas and watch the street theatre. That evening we met our friends in a tapa bar and had a marvellous meal. The Spanish start their evenings late and we didn't gather together until 1030. It was in the small hours in a thunder storm that we drove back to the marina.
Thursday was to be departure day. We dropped Beryl off at the ferry terminal after lunch and prepared to leave the marina in Spook. You will remember no doubt that 1998 was not the best of summers. It wasn't that good early in the year in the Mediterranean either and we had endured spells of rain and high winds on the journey down. Now the weather was decidedly thundery but had cleared by Thursday evening.
We sailed at 1700 and straight into an easterly force 4 which soon increased to 5. This meant we would be beating to windward until it changed or abated. Now Mike had told me that sailing in the Med was wonderful - light winds, no need for heavy oilies or wellies. In fact he reckoned we would probably have to motor all the way to Minorca and with this in mind we had nearly 20 gallons of fuel on Spook for the outboard. I wasn't sure about his predictions and thankfully had brought lots of warm clothing and oilies. Apart from my wellies, which I had left behind, I had my full Irish Sea rig on and I was very glad of it. Folkboats are wet going to windward and with the short steep seas, as good as you get off Anglesey; my feet were soon soaked and were getting very cold. In fact as darkness fell they were actually warmer as the spray broke over them. We could have gone back to the marina I suppose, but with Beryl already on the ferry on her way to Mahon, we pressed on.
There were other problems apart from the spray and cold. Mike was seasick! I had launched my boat a month ago and already had my sea legs. He had been ashore since the previous Autumn and was now suffering. With no GPS we were relying on "steam navigation" - course steered and distance run. Unfortunately with the boat well heeled the log was often reading zero as it cleared the water and it was difficult to steer the course within ten degrees of the required course. As night fell I realised that the compass light wasn't working either. I solved that by using Mike's headtorch, bringing the boat on course and then picking a star ahead and following that. I repeated the process every fifteen minutes so that we were heading roughly in the right direction. The visibility was excellent that night and as the lights of the coast disappeared astern the stars were fantastic. It was easy to imagine the signs of the zodiac in the sky. Occasionally a shooting star would flare across the heavens or the lights of an aircraft would drift overhead.
I only saw four ships. One was the Mahon ferry to the Southwest of us carrying Beryl in warmth and comfort. I was left wondering why I was there in the cold with the spray breaking over me. The other three ships appeared almost at the same time, one of them altering course for us. As dawn broke Mike began to feel better though not hungry. I had already scoffed the sandwiches, which Beryl had made, and I now attacked a WI fruitcake, which she had bought in Oswestry market. I had been steering for ten hours and was glad of a rest and relieved that we could start a regular watch routine of two hours on, two hours off. Mike took the helm but the spray was still flying and he was getting very wet and cold in his lightweight jacket. So whoever was on watch used my oilies and that problem was solved.
As Friday wore on the weather improved and the wind began to moderate. Unfortunately it had also veered to the south-east and we had been gradually steering further and further towards the south. At that rate we might end up in Majorca instead. It had been impossible to do any chartwork overnight on my own so we now hove-to and did our best to work out our position bearing in mind the problems with the log and the course steered. We finally agreed on an EP with a diameter of ten miles, which put us about 30 miles north of the eastern, end of Majorca. Assuming this was correct it was time to tack and head in a more easterly direction towards Minorca.
About half an hour later we spotted another yacht heading north. We altered course to intercept so that we could ask for a position. As we closed on them we identified it as a French catamaran and realised that the entire crew were swimming around the yacht in the altogether. It caused some consternation especially amongst the ladies in the group as they hardly expected to be visited by a Brit boat so far offshore the moment they stripped off. At our request one of the crew climbed back on board and confirmed our position north of the eastern end of Majorca. We thanked them and left them to their swim. As night fell for the second time we started to pick up the lighthouses on both Majorca and Minorca and take an accurate fix. It was something of a relief to know that we hadn't sailed past the island and were heading for North Africa. By now the wind had almost entirely gone and so we motor-sailed along the north coast of Minorca heading for Fornels, which has a narrow but deep entrance and leading lights. I must confess that as we closed the harbour I was completely disorientated since the headland ahead and to port looked nearer than the shore to starboard. I suppose it was partly fatigue but luckily Mike had seen the entrance in daylight from the shore and confidently steered us in until we could pick up the leading lights. Just off the town the engine, which had been misfiring rather ominously for several hours, finally gave up on us and stopped. There was just enough wind to slowly ghost in and anchor at 0100 on Saturday, 30 hours and 130 miles after leaving El Masnou. After a hastily cooked meal we were soon sound asleep.
Next morning we motored over to the harbour. As in most of the Mediterranean mooring is bow or stern to the pontoons or harbour wall, but we found that in Minorca there was usually a line tied to the pontoon. By fishing this with the boathook and taking it aft outside the guardrails one arrived at a stout cable securely attached to the seabed, so there was no need for a stern anchor. While I tidied the boat Mike phoned the marina at Addaia and left a message on the answer phone for Beryl. It's only about six miles from Fornels and in warm sunshine and a brisk beam wind we were soon round the corner and trying to find the entrance to Addaia. We were almost past it before we correctly identified it and headed in. The buoyage is a bit contusing on first acquaintance with a port and starboard pair of buoys apparently the wrong way round, until one realises that there is a sharp dogleg first to port and then starboard to avoid a dangerous reef lurking a mere couple of feet below the surface. Happily we sorted this out before we piled ignominiously onto any rocks and motored gently around the corner into the marina. A Scottish couple, who used to sail in the Clyde and now had a beautiful large wooden motor yacht in pristine condition in the harbour, took our lines. Beryl was also waiting on the quay for us. The Addaia inlet runs north/south with an island almost completely blocking it. The channel to the north and west is about 20 metres wide and only just deep enough for an inflatable dinghy. The channel on the east side is deep though narrow with the marina lying behind the island completely protected from the open sea to the north. To the south the inlet continues for about another mile and is a deep natural anchorage for about half that distance. Beyond that it is very shallow and can only be explored by dinghy. Trees come right down to the water's edge and are very reminiscent of a Scottish Sea loch. Above the marina the hillside is tiered with expensive villas which definitely add to the ambience of the place. There were several British boats in the harbour, most belonging to retired folk. Everyone was extremely friendly and helpful and gave us much useful advice on places to sail to and visit. We were also invited aboard for dinner on more than one occasion.
We spent the next five days having a relaxing sailing holiday, anchoring in small sheltered bays and swimming. We also sailed round to the magnificent harbour of Mahon and took in the sights before returning to Addaia. All too soon it was time to close the boat down at the end of the week, take a taxi to Mahon and catch the ferry to Barcelona. From there we picked up the Landrover and drove north enjoying an overnight camping stop in France. About 100 miles short of Calais the only injector pipe that hadn't been replaced in the vehicle overhaul fractured! It was a Sunday so no chance of a replacement. Luckily we not only made it to the ferry on three cylinders but also reached a campsite just outside Dover. The following morning thanks to the RAC, who brought us a replacement from Canterbury, we were soon on our way back to Shropshire.
It had been a tremendous time, with never a dull moment. As Mike said, 'You couldn't book a package holiday like that, could you?"