the journey


Laps around the Rock

November 10, 2010

Location: The Rock

In this day and age there are so many amazing atheletes pushing the edge of what is possible. You name the sport and you will find people that are succeeding at blowing away barriers and completing events that at times can seem pretty much impossible. I'm talking human-powered here. People using just their feet and hands to run, bike, climb, swim, row, and paddle through some of the longest and toughest events, up the steepest peaks, and across the most intense bodies of water.

Recently I read a book called, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. If you haven't read it yet, you should. It's about ultra-runners and specifically the Raramuri Indians of Mexico. The writing is great and the story is even better, and, if you're like me, you'll be inspired to go running.

An Ultra is classified as any race longer then a marathon, but most Ultra Runners consider a "true" ultra to be at least 50 miles in length. Many of the famous ones around the world now are 100 KM or even 100 miles or more. Some are on pavement thru cities and some are on trails up and over mountains, across deserts, or a mix of all terrains. Regardless of what's under your feet, none of these runs are a joke.

So, imagine our surprise in little Gibraltar town, to see that the IAU (International Association of UltraRunners) World and European Championship 100 KM (62.14 miles) race was to be held on The Rock and would run right beside our marina. This one is an all-road run, doing roughly 20 5-KM laps through town. Ouch. Even though watching a running race to me is not the most exciting event to be a spectator at, we figured with the caliber of runners here, plus the International teams of runners present, it would certainly be interesting to check out.

Teams were present from quite a few countries like Russia, Litvia, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Japan, Mexico, United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, and even a couple of local Gib runners were there. Sadly, however, no African teams and very few South American countries were seen on the course. Why not? We have no idea. But the runners who came, came in all shapes and sizes. Skinny, tall, short, big, muscular, lean, you name it...everyone was different.

A super strong performance by Shinji Nakadai of Japan, who finished at a time of 6:43:44 to win the event (yeah, that's right, under 7 hours to run 100 KM. Amazing!) ousted the supposed front-runner, Jonas Buud from Sweden, who came in second.

Of course, we rooted for the Yanks, and especially for Michael Wardian who led most of the race until collapsing on his last laps. He regained his feet and took off to re-take 3rd place and cross the finish at 06:49:18, just a little over 5 minutes from the winner. Super Impressive!

Ellie Greenwood of Britian took 1st in women with a time of 07:29:05, with the Italian, Monica Carlin, on her heels who crossed only a minute and a half later.

But I think what was most impressive to me was all the runners over 40, especially the ones in their 60's and 70's. Norbert Hoffman and Jakob Lang, both from Germany and both over 70 finished the race at 9:28:51 and 10:53:35, respectively. 70 years old and running 100 KM in under 12 hours...Extremely Inspiring!

So even though we are still living on a sailboat and not having much consistent oppportunity to be in running shape, it was great to live vicariously through the exertion, pain, and elation of these international athletes. Who knows, maybe after our sailing journey there will be an ultra event in the future with my name on it too. Wink Wink. :)

Running out of Gaz

November 8, 2010

Location: The Rock

It was dark now, and I quickly pulled the goods out of the locker and slipped each of them into large, pink, SE Asian plastic tote bag, zipped them shut, and the goods were hidden from the world. Stealthily, I slipped thru the locked marina gate carrying the large bags and popped them into the trunk of our, not so discreet, orange, Ford Ka rental car. We procured the car yesterday, across the border in La Linea, Spain, after a few hour ordeal trying to figure out where exactly we could even rent a car from and if it was possible to drive back and forth with it across the border. We worked it out, and at such a great deal, only 44 Euros for 24 hours, more then double what we paid in Barcelona.

The woman at the front desk was not happy, I think we interrupted her smoke break at 5 pm, and she certainly didn't like that we had no clue where the specific garage was that we had to pick up the car from. We played the game of "let's try to make the grumpy worker smile by killing them with kindness" and we actually got a little half-smile out of her by the time we left.

We managed to find the garage and car inside, put her in first, and the not-so-smooth Ford Ka lurched out into the evening light. We had to cross the border to get back to our boat, a good first test to see how thorough the border guards were. We passed the checkpoints flashing our passports and with waves from the Spanish Aduana and British customs agents, we we were through with hardly a glance. Nice.

The next morning with our "goods" in the trunk, high on Moka-pot brewed Illy coffee and Jasmine Tea, we were off on our mission. In under ten minutes we found ourselves in the border lanes again, this time heading out with often a more thorough inspection. A little nervous, but feeling solid, we switched our mindsets to optimism and held our breath. One by one the cars slowly slid past the border officials whom only have to motion for you to have to pull over, get out of the vehicle, and have the car searched. We tried to look invisible. The car in front of us got pulled. Good luck for us, we thought, they just wouldn't choose two in a row, now would they??...

We slowly rolled through, unscathed, let out a sigh of relief and entered the busy streets of La Linea, Spain. Our google map was good and we found our intended road and quickly exited town heading back NE into Andalucia and towards our destination, about 50 KM away.

We called our contact in Estepona and all was still on. It was a beautiful day, hot for November, with clear skies and only a slight breeze. We drove through some small resort towns filled with huge condo complexes lining the roads and beaches, but all was quiet and sparsely populated as the busy holiday season was still more then a month away. Within the hour we turned off down through the narrow roads and roundabouts of the beach resort town of Estepona, Spain. We found a parking spot close to our rendevouz point next to the marina and sat down at the ex-pat Sailors Cafe for a quick tea and coffee.

At the intended time I went over to check for our man. Of course I had no idea what he looked like or even what his name was, but...maybe he would just stand out. I returned with no luck and Nic called him on the phone. No answer. We walked back over together and there he was, standing out in his big black SUV. Possibly German, Dutch or Scandinavian, tall, with a manicured mustache, black jeans and a leather jacket, he moved with speed and efficiency. We shook hands and he looked in our bags. 25 Euros each, he said. We nodded, fair enough price for what we were getting. He slid the goods out of the bags and into the trunk of the black beast. I'll be back at 1 pm, he said.

We were stoked. The deal was on and even though we would be pressed for time getting everything back across the border, with a stop at the grocery store, and then the car back again into Spain, we felt positive we could pull it off.

We killed a couple of hours by walking around the sun-baked quiet beach boulevard, and poked our heads into a few shops. We spied a marine engine shop that was abierto and just so happened to have the exact Racor fuel filter we needed to get our Espar heater up and running on DK again. Another big score for the day.

At quarter after 1 pm, our man arrived, and shuttled the goods back to us, filled with the precious substance. We exchanged money and pleasantries, and we were off back towards the rock. We had a quick stop at the local Mercadona Spanish grocery store for some fresh fruit and veg and then headed back to La Linea, and the dreaded border.

Back in line to cross through the frontier, as the locals call it, we once again held our breaths and crossed our fingers. Without barely a glance, we were waved through and on our way across the huge airport runway towards the little UK colony of Gibraltar, our home-base for the past week. Phew! We made it.

We unloaded the goods and shuffled them back thru the security gate and back onto DK. Goal number 1, success.

But now I had to drive back across the border, hoping to beat the rush hour traffic bottleneck and get the Ka back to the garage before 5 p.m. or we'd be paying a ridiculous amount of Euros for another day. It was already 4:20.

I threaded my way through the busy streets of Gib, and made my way once again across the airport tarmac and into the lines of the border frontier. It was already busy, but not too bad like it would be in another hour. Stop and go for a half hour and I approached the guards at the customs station. I flashed my passport and my smile. The customs official kept his serious look and motioned with his finger for me to pull over. Out of the car, open the trunk, he said. I did what he asked, and popped the trunk. Empty?.., he said with a grin. Yep, empty, I responded, grinning to myself as I drove away to return the Ford Ka in the dark underground garage at exactly 5 p.m.

So, here's the real deal:

*The "goods" were 2 20lb. aluminum propane tanks, our cooking gas on DK. We were literally out of gas and nowhere in La Linea, Spain, or Gibraltar could we acquire Camping Gaz fittings for an alternate fuel source. Camping Gaz bottles ARE available in Gibraltar at the Ruta Gaz station if you have the Camping Gaz valves and regulators already.

*The reality is it is almost impossible in many parts of Europe to have your North American bottles, or many other countries, filled, the worst area being mainland Spain. Nowhere can you fill your bottles in Gibraltar.

*Our marina, Queensway Quay in Gibraltar, told us it was illegal for us to take cooking gas bottles in/out of the marina. Why? We have no idea, but obviously didn't want them to know we were doing that.

*Different people have told us it is OK to transport gas bottles across the border. Other people told us we couldn't do it. We really didn't want to find out. If caught we might have had to pay a fine or had our bottles taken away. Thankfully we made it thru both directions and didn't have to find out.

*If you are like us, coming to or from the Med, and have gas bottles that can't be filled easily in the EU, then "Dirk in Estepona, Spain" is your man. He also has Camping Gaz fittings.
He will fill all types of propane gas bottles from around the world and can be reached at either: 616-96-94-96 or 644-135-071
Now you just have to get to Estepona. Good luck.

A Spot of Tea

November 5, 2010

Location: The Rock

On our last day in the most western pocket of the Mediterranean Sea, we approached the rock. A towering piece of stone over 400 meters tall (1200+ feet), made up of layers of chalk and limestone, home to thousands of nesting sea birds and the only European monkeys, and laced with more concrete than many big cities with all of it's bunkers, tunnels, roads, buildings, and historical fortress infrastructure, the rock stands alone. And not only does the rock stand out within the surrounding landscape, but historically and culturally it is also very significant, being fought over for thousands of years, and currently still under British control, wrested from the Spanish in 1704.

For us mariners, the Rock of Gibraltar has always been a landmark of excitement as well as caution. For thousands of years ships have been sailing in and out of the Gibraltar Strait transiting from the blustery Atlantic Ocean to the salty innards of the landlocked Sea of the Mediterranean, or vice versa. At its narrowest, the strait is only 8 nautical miles across, but is so profound that it not only divides 2 major bodies of water, but also both the European and African continents. The Strait of Gibraltar is alive with intense currents, funneling winds, massive amounts of shipping traffic, thousands of seabirds, as well as transiting whales, dolphins, huge schools of tuna, and everything else that migrates to and from the Mediterranean Sea.

Approaching the Europa Point lighthouse, the most southerly point of the rock, we feel like we are cheating, arriving at a day with no wind and no crazy currents or seas. We don't complain, as we can easily visualize what it can be like out here when the winter gales blow against the spring tides and the massive waves roll in from the Atlantic Ocean wreaking havoc on the rock, it's boats, and it's people. We are happy to have this one be easy.

"Gib", as the locals call it, is definitely an interesting place. We are tied up at the Queensway Quay Marina, down in the heart of Gibraltar. Just like in Barcelona, we have been walking everywhere and have been loving the location of being tied up in a safe, but also super convenient location, to immerse ourselves in the intriguing world of Gib.

Even though there are plenty of Brits living here, this is a colony of the UK after all, there are also tons of Spanish people. Plus, like any border town, it seems the majority of people commute from "the other side" with packed roads complete with traffic jams and massive amounts of diesel emissions, entering Gib from La Linea, Spain, each morning and departing at the end of the day. It's an interesting mix of folks and one of the funny things that has been happening is trying to figure out what language to speak and to whom. Even many of the Spanish people that work here don't speak English, so sometimes you have to speak Spanish, Spain being a country in Europe that has very few people whom are bilingual, even in Gibraltar it seems. And then there are many Brits, just like so many ex-pat American's, that never seem to learn another language. It's never a big deal, just sometimes pretty comical trying to communicate.

So what HAVE you been doing for the past week, you may be asking...
Ahh, the life of a cruiser. Part tourist, part local, part nomad, we really belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Tied up at a dock for more then a few days isn't very common for us, but here we are again, just like in Barcelona, balancing our days with being good tourists, doing some boat projects, and just "being"...reading, watching some movies, poking around the internet, cooking a lot, and staying cozy in our little floating home and appreciating not having to rush anywhere right now. We are also still waiting for a package and at the same time waiting for the best weather window we can, as the storms in the northern Atlantic are starting to throw some punches south already.

Out and about we have been many times to explore, but definitely the most exciting tourist outing we have had was a great all-day walk up to the upper Rock, which is mostly a protected nature reserve. Instead of taking a guided tour-bus adventure, like most of the day-tourists and cruise boat tourists that come here, we opted to pack a lunch, fill the camelbak and walk.

We took off in the morning and hiked the roads up to the main entrance at the Jews Gate. Instead of continuing up the concrete road next to the buses, we took the seldom-traveled Mediterranean Steps route that heads out along the exposed rocky cliffs and switchbacks it's way through native plants and bush packed with nesting gulls, and eventually arrives at the top of the rock. The entrance gate keeper definitely made sure we knew it was "very steep, difficult, and long...taking 2-3 hours", he said. Perfect, we said. Mind you we are in really bad shape for us right now, and we took our time taking photos and lolly-gagging, and still we were on top within 45 minutes. A nice walk and definitely worth it if you want some exercise, some tranquility, and a much more interesting way to approach the upper Rock.

On top we dropped back into Michael's Cave, a massive labyrinth of caves filled with beautiful hanging stalagmites and stalagtites, and complete with an interior auditorium for special concerts. At one time in history it was rumored that the massive complex of deep tunnels would bring you to the other side of the world.

Hanging around the entrance, to most tourist's amusement, are the famous Gibraltar Barbary Apes, the only monkey species (actually they are tail-less macaques) endemic to mainland Europe. Of course, they are quite unafraid and pretty much a nuisance trying to steal any food the unaware tourist walks by with, one had an ice cream bar when we walked by. Supposedly there are over 200 of these guys living in the upper rock and they are fed by the government with healthy monkey food every day at their base-camp, the Barbary Ape Cave.

Off we went hiking across the rock and past the Ape Cave to where the Great Siege Tunnels and WWII tunnels are. A famous moment in Gib history...the Great Siege was the 14th siege that the Spanish launched attempting to retake Gibraltar from the Brits. The Brits dug in, literally, into their massive limestone cave network, where cannons protruded from small holes defensively protecting their superior position. Despite being "holed" up in the caves for 3 1/2 years with many facing starvation and disease and most of Gibraltar in ruins, the Brits prevailed and finally made peace with Spain by ceding West Florida, East Florida, and the island of Minorca to Spain, in return for keeping Gib in British hands.

And lastly, how can you not end a tourist day in a UK colony without a spot of tea and biscuits. Filled with screeching gulls and swirling clouds, we descended the hills of the upper rock and wound our way through the labyrinth of narrow streets and stairways, to re-enter the true town of Gib through the famous Landport Gate leading to Casemate's Square.

Once on busy main street, tourist shopping mania takes over. Every other store is selling duty-free electronics, cigarettes, and booze, and cafes and fish n' chips restaurants are packed from the daily cruise boat tourists who take over this town each day. Having walked up and down Main Street many times now, we have found a couple decent bookstores, a good coffee/tea shop, a decent bakery, and a good seamstress where Nicole has dropped off some clothes to get alterations on.

But this particular day, like proper Englishmen/women, we slip into Irish Town and settle into Sacarello's coffee and tea shop just in time for high tea.

And so that's really our best outing about being tourists in Gib. Overall, not a very adventure-filled stop for us, but an interesting and comfortable one nonetheless. We know though, soon enough, all will change and we will be off on our first passage in the Atlantic to the Canary Islands followed again by the long one....3000 miles at the end of November from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. By Xmas time we will have almost 3800 miles under our belts from Gibraltar. But right now, here we are, appreciating the rest, and enjoying our spots of tea.