10 Things to Get Through Winter

At this time of year, with the winter solstice just past, and New Year not too far ahead, I usually find myself in a reflective mood, thinking about all the things that have happened through the year, and what might be to come in the year ahead.

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Getting outside in winter has huge benefits for physical and mental health, but can be a real challenge.

I find this time of year quite challenging; living with depression sometimes I’m so lacking in energy and motivation through these months that just getting out of bed feels like swimming through treacle. I’m no fan of the resolutions that January brings, usually involving the denial of alcohol, caffeine and sugar; things that make the dark winter months that bit more enjoyable.

In my opinion, such extreme measures and deprivation are unlikely to do any favours in the long term. I think a more workable way to make lifestyle changes, and to manage the challenges of winter, is to introduce small, enjoyable, things that upgrade my everyday, and contribute to success without excluding anything.

So this a list of 10 small things I’m aiming to do through winter, to keep my body and mind fresh and focused, and work towards a healthy, happy, year ahead.

  • Drink more water (but ditch single-use plastic bottles). Hydration is important, but the health of the planet is even more vital. Investing in a reusable water bottle saved me money in the long run, and cut my plastic footprint from the start. It takes a bit more organisation, but so many places now give refills that it’s easy on the go. I have a Kleen Kanteen insulated bottle that keeps water chilled for hours, or lets me take a warm drink out for a winter hike.
  • Pick an audiobook or podcast. I love listening to the radio as I do things; driving, cooking, writing, and so on. But rather than listening passively to whatever plays, I’ve decided to be more pro-active in my choices. Plus, having tales of travel and adventure read aloud to me in the bath is the height of luxury. Try some of my favourites and see if you agree.
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A flask of hot blueberry drink and the best snacks for a long winter walk
  • Set aside a weekly life admin hour. Rather than letting stuff build up, which can pile on anxiety, designating a regular session for sorting paperwork, paying bills, and all the other dull stuff helps me manage stresses. I write down ideas and reminders through the week on a running to do list to make sure that I don’t miss anything important. It’s part of my strategy to turn down the volume on noise.
  • Get outside every day. Getting out in the fresh air and sunlight is vital for my mental health, especially in winter, event though the weather isn’t always as welcoming as I’d hope for. Good wind and waterproof outdoor gear makes it so much easier, so it’s worth spending on quality items that make the difference between getting out and about or moping under a duvet. These are my cold weather essentials for heading out.
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    Quick cook dinners for winter evenings, or a warm lunch outdoors on a cold
  • Learn three 15 minute recipes. Arriving home from work in the dark, after a long day, I know that I need to eat a meal within half an hour or I’ll be scoffing snacks all evening. It’s too easy to throw a plastic pot of something into the microwave, so my aim is to master three quick recipes and try to always have the ingredients at hand. My current favourites are gnocchi with pancetta, mushrooms and parmesan, spicy pepper and halloumi wraps, and a soy chili chicken rice bowl topped with a fried egg.
  • Plan regular digital admin dates. I rely on my laptop, phone and camera for work, blogging, and other projects, and it’s too easy to have hundreds of notes, photos and documents filling up the memory on my devices. So I’ve started a monthly habit to download, delete, file and back-up my files. It does sound incredibly tedious, but it’s also the chance to chill on the sofa for a few hours, listen to music or a podcast, perhaps with a glass or two of something.
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I set aside a regular hour or two on a Sunday morning or a weekday evening to organise various to do lists, download and back up files.
  • Master a mini-workout with three exercises to do anywhere. My fitness routine, well, just isn’t routine. With travelling, sailing, and unpredictable work hours, I can find it hard to fit in the gym or swim sessions and fitness classes that I know help my physical and mental health. So with three simple exercises I can do anywhere (squats, lunges and tricep dips), I have a basic workout to build on wherever I am.
  • Schedule some diary dates with friends. It can be too easy to put off catching-up with a coffee or glass of wine when the weather and darkness make heading home to hibernate such a nice idea. By making a loose arrangement to meet friends weekly at parkrun or yoga class, or for a monthly pub quiz or craft session draws us together without the extra effort of planning an event and rounding up the troops.
  • Take on a course to learn new skills, expand my knowledge, or revive an old passion. Over the past few years I’ve done an introduction to yoga, a printmaking class, and taken an adult improvers swimming course. I’ve also used online study to improve my Norwegian language skills and to spark an interest in maritime archaeology, using the Future Learn platform. In winter is seems to be a bit easier to allocate an evening a week to a new activity, which has the benefit of extending my social circle (virtually and in real life), and keeping my brain active.
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The TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland on foot, will be my biggest adventure in the spring of 2019.
  • Map travels for the New Year. Recently my travels have been quite spontaneous, taking advantage of the opportunities that cropped up through the year. But with a switch to a full-time freelance status I need to do some serious planning to balance income generating activity with income depleting activity. Plus, I love the process of planning out travels and fixing some dates and destinations for the year ahead.
Do you have any tips for making winter work for you?
How do you intend to relax and recharge yourself for the New Year?
Leave a message in the comments below to let me know.
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My Cold Weather Essentials

first_foot_at_compton_smallAs a wildlife ranger I’d spend the vast majority of my working time outside, all year-round, whatever the weather. As autumn heads into winter, there’s a few additional things I rely on to make it easier to get out and do my job, and to make the most of adventures on beautifully crisp winter days.

A buff

I have several of these stretchy fabric tubes, and they’re some of the most useful things I own. For keeping my ears warm when it’s just not quite a hat day; stopping cold wind creeping down my neck; covering my face as I watch birds through my binoculars on a frosty morning; making sure my windswept hair under stays under control; or just wiping damp camera or phone lenses.

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Warming up from the inside with a Thermos food flask

A food flask

After a long day outside in low temperatures, there’s nothing better than a hot, home-cooked meal. Well, perhaps something warm to eat to keep you going during the day, or as you sit out to watch the winter sun go down. I have a wide-mouthed Thermos food flask, which comes with a folding spoon and a large lid. Perfect for soup, stew or a curry.

A portable battery pack

It seems like the cold drains the life from my phone at a ridiculous rate. It’s part of my lone working policy to have a working phone to check-in through the day, and I’d never want to be caught out at the end of the day without a way to call for help if I get into trouble. Plus, I use the camera all the time, and wouldn’t want to miss a beautiful sunset sky.

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A winter midlayer from Houdini Sportswear

Insulated Jacket

I love my Houdini Sportswear insulated jacket, with primaloft insulation. It’s a perfect mid-layer between my branded ranger polo shirt and outer two-part coat (softshell inner and waterproof outer) for early mornings and late evenings when temperatures drops, and tucks away in its own pocket to stuff in my bag while I don’t need it.

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Keeping warm with a Buff, Finisterre wrist warmers and Rab knit gloves

Merino wrist warmers and gloves

I need to keep my hands warm while I’m using my binoculars or telescope to watch birds, but also be able to do little fiddly jobs like fastening zips or adjusting focus on my camera easily. So I layer my Rab knit gloves over a pair of merino wrist warmers from Finisterre.  Both are fine enough that I could wear under my ski gloves if temperatures really drop, and the wrist warmers keep me warm and let me pick up shells and other strandline treasures from the beach without getting my gloves covered with sand.

Softshell trousers

In winter I upgrade my usual hiking trousers for a pair of softshell trousers, currently a pair of Craghoppers Kiwi Pro Stretch pants. The water resistant, windproof finish of the fabric makes a huge difference when you spend most of the day out on the coast, with the chance of drizzle, windblown sand, and low temperatures.

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What kit can’t you do without when the weather starts to turn wintry?
Share your tips in the comments below.

What I loved this autumn

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Making repairs to the mainsail on Blue Clipper  while alongside in Molde, Norway

Where I’ve been:

I’ve just returned to the UK after several weeks at sea on Blue Clipper, crossing from Norway to England, and on to Portugal, followed up by a few weeks of maintenance work based on the Algarve coast.

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Preparing to leave Ålesund, Norway, as dusk falls

Norway is my favourite country and I loved visiting new places on this trip, starting with Bodø, and crossing the Arctic circle as we headed south to Ålesund.  I also revisited familiar ground around Haugesund and Karmøy, when we ended up storm-bound in Skudeneshavn for a week longer than expected.

The voyage was amazing for wildlife encounters; migrating barnacle geese, eider ducks and other birds heading southwards, enormous sea eagles on every island, sharks cruising by on the surface, basking seals, pods of porpoises, dolphins, pilot whales.  Sparking bioluminescence mirroring the night’s stars.  And as we crossed the Bay of Biscay, a day or so north of Camariñas, two magnificent fin whales broke the surface on our starboard side.

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Fin whale blowing and surfacing in the Bay of Biscay. Picture courtesy of Mario Branco.

I’ve never really been one for sunshine holidays, so the Algarve has never really been on my travel radar until now.  I was really pleased to find that away from resorts (and in the shoulder season) there’s some really beautiful and wild parts of the coast, near Alvor and Sagres, estuaries and saltmarshes filled with birdlife, and even storks roosting on every tower in town.  And Portuguese food is pretty good too.

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Leaving the resorts behind to discover the wilder side of the Algarve coast
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There’s much more to the Algarve than golf courses and beach bars

Back in the UK I’ve been fortunate to get a couple of short trips in the time I’ve been back, with a couple of days in the Peak District near Leek, and a few more in Church Stretton to hike in the Shropshire Hills, brush up on my navigation skills, and appreciate the stunning autumn colours.

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Autumn in the English countryside

What I’ve done:

Since returning to Bedfordshire, I’ve joined the weekly parkrun at my nearby country park.  It’s been so long since I’ve been running, and I’m still getting over a knee injury, so I’m starting from the beginning again, but I really enjoy the sociability of the runs.

I’ve been developing an idea for a podcast, which I hope to launch next month.  So when I get a moment, it’s filled up with working: reading, researching, and writing.  Watch this space for more news.

I’ve also pulled out all my hiking gear, waterproof clothing, and sailing oilskins to give them all a proper deep clean, and coating with Nikwax waterproofing treatment ready for winter.  I hope the effort will pay off and keep me dry and warm through the months ahead.

My autumn love list:

Book: I’ve been remotely discovering the Scottish islands over the last couple of months, with several of the books I’ve read.  But When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire by John MacLeod has been the one that’s lingered longest in my mind.  An account of the tragic loss of the ship returning demobbed WWI soldiers and seamen home to the islands for Hogmanay, and the long shadow cast by the worst peacetime maritime loss in British waters.

Podcast: Dan Snow’s History Hit, which does exactly what is says on the tin.  Each is a short but deep dive into a specific event or idea from history.  With the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI in November, my recent interest has been mainly in the episodes covering that period.  Which brings me on to…

Film: They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary film by Peter Jackson that tells the story of WWI from the British point of view, using old film archives and recorded interviews.  The moment that the images on screen transition from black and white to colourised 3D footage is simply spine-tingling.

Clothing: Since returning from the Algarve to Bedfordshire, I’ve embraced the chill to get out and make the most of my favourite season.  That means warm woollen sweaters, including my favourite knit from Finnisterre, cosy socks, and a new pair of gloves from Rab.  I’ve also been able to dig out my flannel pyjamas for enjoying toasty evenings in.

Equipment: With the clock change last month and nights drawing in, I’ve found myself out in the dark often, and my Petzl Tikka+ headtorch has become one of the things I use most.  As a lightweight lamp, with a red light, it’s great for moving around a ship at night or going on evening runs, however I think I might look into upgrading to something more powerful for hiking in the dark, like one from LED Lenser.

I’ve also found my Thermos food flask, which is perfect for packing a warming lunch of soup, stew or pasta while I’m out and about.  It’s one of my cold weather essentials.

Treats: Autumn always means mince pies.  They’re usually available from around the time of my birthday in September, and I buy a selection from the different stores to work out which is my preferred mince pie for the season.  I’m still in the testing stage this year, as I’ve been scoffing pastéis de nata in Portugal until recently.

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Blogging in Blue Clipper’s saloon with good coffee and a few pastéis de nata

What’s next:

I’m planning on a much quieter few months over the winter, spending time back up in northeast Scotland visiting friends and family.  I’m hoping that there will be plenty of time to walk along the coast, and take a few trips into the mountains, around the projects I’ll be working on.

I’m also going to get stuck into the planning for my next big adventure, looking at maps, blog posts, and guides.  In May 2019, I’m going to be taking part in the TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland from west to east.  Participants choose their own start and finish points, and plan their route between the two.  This will be my second attempt at the TGO, so I’ve some unfinished business to deal with, plus it’s the 40th Anniversary of the challenge.

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures (and vague rambling ideas) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds.

 I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead.  Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

 

What to Pack for a Tall Ship Voyage

You’ve booked a once-in-a-lifetime voyage on a beautiful sailing ship, and started dreaming about life during the golden age of sail or even rounding the Horn in a force nine.  But as your date of departure cruises closer, what do you actually need to pack?

I’ve sailed on a few tall ships; short voyages around western Europe, island hopping in the Pacific, on long ocean crossing passages, and in the Tall Ships races, so from my experience, here are some recommendations to add to your packing list.

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Crossing the Arctic Circle under sail along the coast of Norway

How to pack

Space on a sailing ship is limited, so think carefully about what you bring, and how you bring it.  Forget stuffing things into a hard-shelled rolling suitcase, there’s usually nowhere to stow it onboard.  Instead, pack a collapsible holdall or duffle bag, which can be rolled up when not in use.  Waterproof bags aren’t usually necessary, but it might be worth investing in one if you sail on smaller vessels too.  I love my Helly Hansen 90L duffel bag.  It’s big enough for everything I need, plus things I pick up on the voyage, and being orange, I always find it on the luggage carousel at the airport.

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At 90L capacity this bag was big enough to pack everything I needed for six months of sailing voyages, hiking trips, and travelling without going home.

Packing cubes or small lightweight drybags help keep things organised inside your main bag.  I have a variety of sizes and colours; it’s not the most coordinated look, but I can easily grab what I need.

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Compression drybags aren’t usually essential on most larger vessels, but will help keep gear organised in small cabins and shared spaces.

What you might need

Each ship is different, and it’s important to keep in touch with the organisation after booking to get the best understanding of the set-up on board.  They should all be able to provide you with a kit list to help you prepare.

Some ships provide hammocks for sleeping while others have bunks; most will provide you with the bedding you’ll need, although some smaller boats may ask you to bring a sleeping bag.  Most training ships will also have sets of foul weather gear and waterproof boots for you to borrow for your time on board.

All the safety gear essential for your voyage will be provided by the ship.

My essentials

There’s several things that I always take on my sailing adventures, but things to keep me warm, dry, and comfortable are the first to go in my bag.

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Keeping warm and dry should be your priority for clothing; most sailing organisations will have some foul weather gear you can borrow for your voyage.
  • Foul weather gear.  I have a Helly Hansen sailing  jacket and salopettes.  Fisherman-style oilskins are great for keeping you dry, but lack the insulation of sailing gear, so you’ll need additional warm layers underneath.
  • Waterproof boots.  Dry, warm feet make life better, without question.  Most ships also insist on closed-toe shoes on deck, and sturdy soles are better for climbing in the rigging, so I usually pack a pair of trail shoes too.
  • Windproof jacket.  It’s always a bit cooler at sea, and a lightweight windproof jacket will make watches more comfortable when there’s not quite the need for full foul weather gear.
  • Hat, scarf, and gloves. Night watches get chilly, especially when you’re not moving around much.  A hat and scarf or buff keep out the cold, and are easy to take off again when the sun comes up.  I don’t like wearing sailing gloves to handle ropes, but warm gloves make steering more comfortable when its windy.
  • Sunglasses and sunblock.  Sunlight still passes through cloud cover, and it gets reflected back off the water, so you get a much higher exposure than usual.  I use factor 30 sunblock minimum, more usually factor 50 (I’m very pale and Scottish), and wear sunglasses most of the time.  I also take a stick that I can slip in my pocket to reapply regularly to my lips, nose and ears while I work on deck.  Use a cord to secure your glasses, especially if you’re keen to climb in the rigging.
  • Towel.  For shore leave on a deserted island or drying off after a mind-blowing swim hundreds of miles from land.  It’s best to leave the fluffy towels at home and find one that’s quick drying and/or lightweight, like my hammam towel.
  • Headtorch.  An important item for moving around the ship on night watches.  One with a red light is recommended to preserve night vision.
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Think about the things you’ll need onboard to live around the clock, and how you’ll deal with the local climate and different weather conditions.

The comforts

There’s also a few additional things that can make life on board more comfortable.

  • Refillable water bottle.  The combination of sunlight, wind and salt air is really dehydrating.  While at sea you get an idea of the scale of the plastic problem in the world’s oceans, so taking a refillable bottle is just a small step you can make to help.
  • Sleep mask and earplugs.  Sleep is so important, especially if you’re waking up for the midnight to 4am watch.  I find that silicon earplugs are more effective than synthetic, blocking out more of the surrounding sound, and a buff does a great job doubling as an eye mask.
  • Power bank.  Not all ships have a 24-hour power supply for charging devices, so a power bank will provide the juice needed to keep your phone, camera, kindle, e-cigarette and so on from running out just when you need them most.  An international adapter is essential if the ship’s home port is in a different zone to where you purchased your electronics.
  • Something to read.  A kindle, tablet, or a real book; something to get lost in between the busy periods on board.  A book has the added benefit that you can swap it with others in the crew once you finish.  Try one of these suggestions.
  • A journal.  I always keep a travel journal, and it’s a wonderful way to record and reflect on your experiences.  Write, sketch, and note information from the ships’ log to add to your own memories of the voyage.
  • Travel insurance.  Look for one that specifically covers tall ship or offshore sailing.
  • A knife.  Sailors should always carry a knife (according to a colleague, a sailor without a knife is just a spectator).  Just be sure to leave it out of your hand luggage if you have to take a flight to meet your ship.
  • Things you enjoy. Knitting needles and yarn, a sketchbook, twine for practicing knots, playing cards, binoculars and a wildlife guide.  Something to do in your downtime.
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As a keen birdwatcher, my binoculars and favourite wildlife guides are always in my pack.

Toiletries

For many voyages it’s not a problem to pick things up locally in ports on the way, letting you cut down to just a few essentials in your backpack.  On longer passages you may be at sea for a considerable length of time between ports, with little chance to pick up things you might forget, so products need careful consideration.

All but the smallest of ships have showers on board, however the availability of water may be limited on longer voyages by the size of water tanks or the capacity of the water maker.  I pack a reusable cleansing cloth and bar soap with my usual toiletries to keep fresh, rather than single-use wipes that result in more waste.

Although washing water can be restricted seawater is abundant, and I love to swim, so a leave-in conditioner spray keeps my hair manageable between washes, protecting it from the salt and sun.

When it comes to sanitary items, it’s important to think carefully about the products you bring.  Waste management is an important matter onboard a ship, and nothing should be flushed in the toilets (sanitary waste really should not be flushed at home either).  If you use applicator tampons, then they should have non-plastic applicators, which are easier to dispose of, and don’t contribute to plastic waste generated every day.

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My packing list includes shorts, long trousers, t-shirts, bikinis, thermal tights, long-sleeved tops, knitwear, warm socks and a softshell jacket.

Clothing

Comfort moving around the ship is your main priority, so take things you feel good in.  It’s always more exposed out at sea, so ensure you pack long-sleeved shirts or sweaters and long trousers, even if you’re heading for a sunshine destination to meet the ship.

Take a set of thermal tights and a long-sleeved top for blue water passages and colder climes.  Even in the height of summer it can be chilly around the British and Irish Isles.

Flip flops or sliders are great for below decks, going back and forth between showers and bunks, chilling out in the saloon or bar, and shore visits to the beach.  I usually live in my flip flops, but many ships discourage open shoes and bare feet on deck.

If you’re going to be working on the ship, helping out with the repairs and maintenance that keep the vessel going, be sure to pack clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.  There’s always a good chance that a job might involve paint, rust treatment, tar or grease.  Some ships may also ask you to bring your own safety footwear for this kind of work.

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Blue and/or striped clothing and nautical motifs aren’t essential, but sometimes you just can’t help it.
This is what I can’t do without, but is there anything you think I’ve missed?
What do you consider essential for a sailing trip?
Let me know in the comments below.

Why you should try birdwatching.

BirdwatchingHello. My name is Vicky, and I am a birdwatcher.

I have many and varied interests (well, don’t we all?), but one thing that makes my heart go a-flutter more than most is grabbing my binoculars and keeping tabs on the local birdlife. It started as out a necessity, a university research project mapping the food web of an intertidal mudflat. Just work out who eats what…, and my interest grew slowly from that.

I’ve watched spear-sharp gannets dive for fish on the Scottish coast as I sailed by. I’ve hiked into a kauri forest in New Zealand at night searching for kiwis shuffling through the undergrowth. I spotted an improbably balanced toucan in a kapok tree as I set up a bivvy in the Belizean jungle. And every autumn I watch out for skeins of brent geese, like squadrons of aircraft, returning from the Arctic to my local coast.
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What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?

David Attenborough

Birdwatching brings all kinds of small pleasures; spotting something new and exciting, or something friendly and familiar; being outdoors and feeling the wind and weather around you; becoming attuned to the surroundings and focusing on observation. For me, it beats any kind of meditation or mindfulness practice.
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Five tips for beginner birders

  • Begin at the beginning. Start by noticing what’s going on in your garden or local park. You can even put some feeders out to encourage birds close to where you can see them. Observe things like size, colour, behaviour; think about how you’d describe them and start to put some names to the regular visitors. The RSPB Bird Identifier is great to help get you started.
  • Get some gear. Basic birdwatching doesn’t need much; just looking and listening can often be enough to get you started. A field guide will help with identification, as will a notebook to jot down or sketch what you’ve seen. Good walking boots and warm, waterproof clothing will make your life more comfortable out in the field. Investing in pair of binoculars is the next step. Beginner level binoculars can be picked up for between £50 and £100, and decent pairs are often available second hand. Look for a good balance of magnification, field of view, and weight; I’d recommend going for 8×42, like my Opticron pair.
  • Find a birding buddy. One thing I found that helped most to build my confidence was to ask other birders to show me what they were looking at, and share any tips they had that would help me remember the bird for next time. Most birders are friendly and love to share their passion with others, so say hello next time you visit a hide. Twitter is also a great way to find people; follow your local nature reserves, and you’ll soon pick up other birders that will help build your skills.
  • Get to know your local patch. Find a nearby area that looks likely, such as your garden, a nature reserve, a stretch of coast, or any green space, and visit it often. You’ll soon start to see patterns and changes in the birds you see, and their behaviours, as the seasons change around you.
  • Swot up on species. Most nature reserves and hides have a sightings board or book with the birds that have been spotted recently. Match up the list with the pictures in your guide so you know what you’re looking for. You’ll also find online lists that tell you what to expect in your area, and any recent sightings of interest. There may also be a local ornithology group that you can join.

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The best books and guides for budding birdwatchers

  • How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, by Simon Barnes. A bad birdwatcher is a good thing. This book is a brilliant introduction into why watching birds is about tapping into your joy in the natural world.
  • The Collins Bird Guide, by Lars Svensson and Killian Mullarney. The most comprehensive and current book covering British and European birds, and worth investing in if you’re keen to improve your ID skills.
  • RSPB Bird Identifier. A feature on the RSPB website which suggests what you might have seen by answering a few questions, e.g. Where did you see it? What colour was it? What was it doing? and so on.
  • Identifying Birds by Behaviour, by Dominic Couzens. This book will supplement your field guide, and gives an interesting background into bird behaviour.
  • Birds Britannica, by Mark Coker and Richard Mabey. A rich study of the cultural and social connections between birds and people through history, filled with fabulous pictures.

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There are also a number of apps you can download to help with identification and recording species while you’re out and about.

Do you like to spend time birdwatching?
What’s been the most interesting bird you’ve seen on your travels?
Let me know in the comments below.

What I’ve loved this spring

Hi there vagabonds!

Spring has been a transitional time for me over the past few years.  My seasonal ranger contract on the Isle of Wight ends, as the overwintering birds I work on start their migration journey to the high Arctic, and I find something new to keep me occupied through the following months.

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I’ve hatched out of my winter shell, ready to head to sea for the spring!

 

Where I’ve been:

After packing up my life on the Isle of Wight, and dropping things into storage, I flew out to Bilbao in northern Spain.  I’d been selected to join the crew of the sail training tall ship Atyla as a watchleader, spending a couple of months on board as we sailed around Europe.

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Maman, by Louise Bourgeois, outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

 

The first couple of weeks were dedicated to finishing winter maintenance, fitting and testing equipment that had been in storage, and provisioning for our upcoming voyages.  We also completed extensive training, familiarisation with systems on board, and how to lead sailing evolutions with trainees, and also in teamwork and leading personal development activities.

 

 

Atyla runs coaching for trainees, so alongside working together to sail a ship, they tackle sessions on critical thinking, international collaboration, and environmental responsibility.  Despite my initial reticence about taking part*, the coaching sessions were excellent, and it was awesome to witness the transformative effects on our trainees.

 

*I don’t have emotions.

As well as exploring Bilbao, our voyages took up across the Bay of Biscay (twice), around Brittany, through the channel to Belgium, then around the British and Irish Isles.  We attended several maritime festivals, in Ostend and Calais, and a tall ships regatta from Liverpool to Dublin and Bordeaux.  The final event was the Fête le Vin in Bordeaux, which ended with one of the most spectacular fireworks displays I’ve ever seen.

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Watching a linesman transfer demonstration at the Escale à Calais maritime festival

 

Sailing alongside other tall ships is awesome.  On shore, you’re too far from the action, or the ships are tied up alongside and has a very different feel, and on board you’re just too close to everything, and perspective is limited.  We spent a windless couple of days in the Irish Sea, drifting back and forwards by other vessels, then absolutely rocketed from Waterford, Ireland, across the Celtic Sea and into Biscay, towards Bordeaux.

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Racing head-to-head with Morgenster on the way to Bordeaux; Atyla takes the line, and first place overall, with 14 seconds to spare.
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And the view in the other direction. Photo courtesy of Rafa Otero.

What I’ve done:

Spring is the start of beach cleaning season, as winter storms have washed extra material up on the coast and people become more willing to spend a couple of hours outdoors picking up litter.  With a couple of friends I organised a few small events on the Isle of Wight, filled several sacks with waste, met some brilliant people, and even discovered a new part of the island.

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Every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans.  Plastic bottles and balloons floating in the water were a disappointingly common sight on my sailing voyages this spring.

At the end of March I undertook a Day Skipper practical course, spending a week sailing around in the Solent in the pouring rain on a 36′ sailing yacht.  I think we had only one dry day, where we spent several hours beating closehauled towards Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, getting nowhere beyond Newtown.  But I passed the course, and am now the proud owner of an International Certificate of Competence, the basic level of qualification to charter my own yacht.

Before departing for Spain, I headed to Bristol for a training weekend with the team from Explorers Connect for an expedition leadership course.  The sessions covered the theory of planning and organising an expedition, safety management and risk assessment, provisioning and sourcing equipment.  It’s certainly given me plenty to think about for the rest of the year.

And finally, at the end of this season, I had an interview for a very exciting job to work in a place I’ve always wanted to visit.  And to match the nature of the job, a very exciting interview process, involving several team building challenges, scenarios and exercises.  Ultimately, I wasn’t successful this time, but I left with fantastic feedback from the team, and feel inspired to apply for the same job again in the future.  Fingers crossed that next time it will be mine.  Until then, I might just keep on messing about on boats.

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Common dolphins were our near-constant companions through the Irish Sea and Celtic Sea.  I also spotted minke whales, bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins and so many seabirds.

My Spring Love List

What I read: We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen. An epic saga centred on the Danish port of Marstal, spanning several generations, two world wars, and circumnavigating the globe. I’ve had the book for ages, and been recommended it by so many people, so finally finding the time to read it has been so satisfying.

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What I listened to: Black Hands, a true-crime podcast from New Zealand that delves into the murder of several members of a Dunedin family, and the subsequent trial that rocked the city of Dunedin. Like Serial, but a bit more fush and chups.

Film: A Plastic Ocean. A challenging but essential watch, highlighting the threats to the health of the ocean posed by microplastics.  In this year alone every person on the planet will consume 136 kg of single-use plastic. How can a disposable product be made from an indestructible material?

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Olivia, ship’s dog on Atyla, loves to collect plastic bottles on her walks, and helped turn walkies ashore into impromptu litter picks

Equipment: I’ve practically lived in my Helly Hansen sailing jacket and salopettes during my Day Skipper course, and to cross the Bay of Biscay.  They’ve been pretty indispensable in keeping me warm and dry through wet nightwatches on Atyla.

Treats:  Wine!  There’s been plenty of good red wine this season; after work with a plate of pintxos in Bilbao, celebrating with the rest of the crew in Liverpool and Dublin, and while watching the most amazing fireworks at the Fête le Vin in Bordeaux.  Though this Belgian waffle in Ostend was pretty awesome too.

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Sailing westwards into the setting sun at the end of a beautiful day at sea.

Thanks for following the voyages of These Vagabond Shoes. I hope some of the things I’ve worked on over the winter are making a difference on the blog, and you enjoy what you find here.

You can also keep up to date with my adventures (or meanderings and rambling thoughts as it’s mainly been recently) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Buena proa!
Let me know in the comments about what you’ve been up to this spring or your plans for the season ahead.  I’d love to hear from you.

Photo Journal: Qaqortoq Tundra Hike, Greenland

I’ve long had a fascination with the far north.  This short hike near Qaqortoq, in southern Greenland, is a classic introduction to a tundra environment yet not too remote and challenging given the location, and ideal for a solo hike.  A circular route of around 12km, there are plenty of diversions to take in the tops of surrounding hills for outstanding views to the iceberg-littered outer fjord and inland, through rocky spires to the distant ice sheet.

Qaqortoq_0_smallThe colourful wooden cabins of Qaqortoq cluster around the harbour on the edge of the fjord, spreading up the surrounding hills where bare rock slices through thin vegetation. Beyond the city (in Greenlandic terms this settlement of around 3000 is still a city, and the largest in the southern part of the country) a hiking trail marked with cairns leads around Tasersuaq, the lake providing the settlement’s fresh water supply.

The pronunciation of Qaqortoq has been something of a debate with the others in my group, but eventually we’re coached towards something like Ha-HOR-tok, with a throaty  H sound, like that in loch or Javier.

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We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. In these ways we begin, I think, to find a home, to sense how to fit a place.

Barry Lopez

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The trail skirts a dusty road along the western shore of the lake to start, before crossing a rocky rise where ravens circled over me, then scrambling back down into the edge of a heathery bog.  This isn’t true tundra, as the relatively mild oceanic climate of the region prevents the earth from freezing in winter, but similar enough; like the vast mountain moors of the Cairngorms I’m familiar with at home in the UK.

At first glance the tundra is scant patches of dry grass and stunted shrubs sprouting from the thin crust of soil held in hollows of the bare rock. Not quite enough to draw your eye down, away from the epic scale of the surrounding landscape. Sweeping scree slopes rising to high peaks, the oldest rocks in the world, overlooking the slate grey waters of the fjord and the shattered fragments of a dying iceberg.

tundra_1_smallThere is another beauty here, but you must look more closely at the land. Bright green sprigs of crowberry, hiding glossy black berries beneath needle-like leaves. Gnarled and twisted wood of slow-growing, stunted shrubs. Delicate saxifrage, fast flowering in the brief Arctic summer. Sleek silver-grey creeping willow catkins and branching reindeer lichens. Sphagnum moss, crisply dried without recent rain.

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I stop on the edge of the lake and spot a school of tiny fish in the shallows. Fooled by the warmth of the summer sunshine on my back, I kick off my shoes and trousers and wade into the water. I endure the fierce cold of the water until I reach knee deep, then give up, wading quickly ashore. Lying on my back in the moss, I listen to the crackling calls and rippling whistles reveal the locations of snow buntings, redpolls, and wheatears feasting on the insect life in the tundra around me.

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