Waterwitch by Michael Fitzalan

Waterwitch was Michael Fitzalan’s second novel

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Cartagena presented its own problems. The equivalent of Portsmouth or Annapolis; the harbour was one part fishing town, one part military base. Cartagena possessed the finest the Spanish navy could muster. Taking an English registered vessel into the port was like sailing into Cadiz in the sixteenth century after the King of Spain’s beard had been singed.

We did it nonetheless.

A warm northwest wind blew us into the harbour at Cartagena. It felt like a lavanta coming off the desert. It was still dry, with just a hint of moisture picked up from the sea, a pinch of salt water.

The main thing was that it was strong and blew hard against our canvas which we pulled in and kept close, but still the wind blew and we eased off to enjoy its caress and to feel it blow the now-bloated canvas without remorse.Waterwitch

Underneath the bow broke through the calm water, sending spray spluttering left and right as it drove through, slicing through moving waves of fluid, flashing foam and transparent spume.

There was no stopping we now.

At seven knots and at the peak of her trim, she ploughed on relentlessly, even though the wind had made the waves grow larger.

She eased through each wave, rocking a little unsteadily, her bow nudging crest after crest as wave after wave wracked her hull.

Cartagena is a huge harbour at the end of a long thin bay.

Cartagena is a natural shelter from the elements. Cape de Palos is a solid rock buffer against weather from the northeast. It is far enough inland for storms from the south to peter out before they reached port.

In fact, that was the problem.

By the time we reached the main harbour our wind was gone. Our lovely strong wind that had rushed us to this point suddenly faded. A final gasp moved us past the rocks on either side that prevented any penetration by any wind.

Suddenly, we were luffing.

We still had momentum but the wind had fallen out of the sails. Both jib and main were limp, flapping wildly and uncontrollably and then they stopped and hung off their steel ropes, impotent sheets of canvas.

If you have been there then you know the sight. We saw the town on the starboard bow, a beautiful old Andalusian village that sprawls up a hill; on the outskirts, more modern houses reflected the growing population.

There were two reasons for this port’s expansion. The first was trade.

It has to be remembered that many old towns and cities have changed little since the last century, with the exception of Seville, Madrid and Barcelona. I am of course talking of change in size and shape and not in regard to technology.Waterwitch

Most traditional Spanish towns are nucleated settlements based around a castle, church, or port.

No prizes for guessing which category this town fell into. Linear settlement generally signifies a new departure or venture, for example, the towns of Torremolinos in the south and Benidorm in the east.

The old town

That way the old town remain within their boundaries to a great extent and expansion takes place in old villages, which grow into tourist towns.Waterwitch

It was surprising that this town had so few modern buildings that we could see from the sea. I expected Genoa to be traditional, not Cartagena, especially as it was the main port for the southeast coast, supplying Murcia, Lorca and possibly Granada.

This port predated even the Armada.

It was wonderful to behold the busy dock with its rows of freight ships either tied up or at anchor waiting for a berth. The sun just starting its descent to the west made the bay glimmer and bathed the beige and bright white buildings. We had no wind, but as the sun beamed down on us, our faces beamed too with satisfaction.

Our smiles were those of tired sailors, grateful to be back in shore, travellers glad to be close to their destination. We were happy and both of us loved this traditional part of Spain, what we referred to as the real Spain.

As young teenagers we had gone to the Alhambra in Granada; and that had taught us that there was another country behind the sea and sand if only one was prepared to look.

Here we had found another nugget, a splendid, bustling, working harbour.

We had become bored of the impersonal whitewashed marinas.

We wanted simple cafes, not piano bars; fluent Spanish, not broken English; we wanted tapas, not the savoury crepes on offer in Marbella.Waterwitch

Here we would practise our appalling Spanish; and order chicken as it was the only thing we knew on the menu.

Try again

More likely we would order a selection of tapas, ask the waiter what each dish was, repeat the name back to him, be corrected. Try again, be corrected and then on our third attempt be reminded that it was ‘muy bien’ when it was ‘calor’, but not so good when it was cold.

I licked my lips at the thought of squid in black ink and patatas bravas, Russian salad and fresh anchovy. On our trip we had tried every type of fish dish that we could. The sea provided both our harvest and our highway. It provided our bathroom too, but we tried not to think about this too much when we ate.

The thought of tobacco also stirred longings.

I could not wait to taste the black tobacco on my tongue, feel the smoke inside my lungs and smell the aroma through my nose. My lips longed to touch the white filter, my fingers twitched to strike the match that would light the end that would glow and burn, orange and grey. The satisfaction gained through producing a cylinder of ash was equal to the sense of achievement from a few hours’ work.

It was such easily obtained satisfaction, such instant gratification.

I had waited long enough for this pleasure, I had suffered my fag­free fast. I had deprived myself long enough.

With reasons to be cheerful: landing was within sight and it was only three thirty in the afternoon. We had entered one or two harbours at three thirty at night, Gibraltar for example, which was well-lit by arc lights on long poles up which helped. Waterwtich

On another occasion, in a tiny port, the only light we had was the mirrored reflection of a bar porch light. Our boathook had come in useful then, as had the hurricane lanterns that swung from our bow, our mast and above the cockpit.


The second reason to be gleeful was that this harbour was indeed one of the most beautiful places we had ever been, and exploring its winding back streets would be a treat.

The third reason to be cheerful was the food that would be on offer; no one can resist fish fresh from the sea. We had just overtaken three trawlers on our way in. Waterwtich

People who live by the sea catch lots of fish and are more discerning customers, which makes the restaurant and cafe owners more demanding and the fishmongers more competitive, wanting to supply only the best to their local customers.

Ports are the places for fish.

I mentioned that Cartagena had expanded because of its location. It is practically on the Greenwich Meridian and opposite the Algerian coast. I would say that Cartagena is the closest Spanish port to Morocco, great for trade. However, the second reason for Cartagena’s expansion was military.

Guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean at the southeastern point of Spain, Cartagena had become a military port at about the same time that the Phoenicians started trading here, a while back, in other words.

I mention this military connection not merely out of interest, but because It is important to understand the port’s strategic importance.Waterwtich

If you were in England you would consider this town the equivalent of Portsmouth; in Scotland, Lossiemouth; in America, Annapolis.

This was the major league, top-notch, top security naval installation in Spain.

It makes Gibraltar with its motor torpedo boats and minesweepers seem small fry in comparison.
I hope that I have made it clear that the Falklands conflict, although several thousand miles away, in a different time zone and in a different season in fact, managed to affect holiday makers here.

Protests by the Spanish government had taken up an awful lot of United Nations time and a large section of the Spanish newspapers. While Olaf talked about Princess Diana and other European royals, the government and the press were portraying the British as being bullying imperialists, which Spain as a republic had a duty to stand up to.Waterwtich

Royal Ensign

With our Royal Ensign fluttering off the back, there were few less friendly places we could be, except the Falklands themselves. Already our passports had saved us lengthy interrogations at docksides and searches that had left English yachts looking as if they had been vandalised.

All this was behind me. I knew we could blend into the local populace. We looked vaguely Scandinavian, with our sun-bleached brown hair and beards and once we announced we were Irish we were pretty much home and dry.Waterwtich

I described the bay as thin and long and that we saw the town from our starboard bow.

To the port and slightly obscured by our slack sails was a second harbour.Waterwitch

We could only see the entrance as the rest was tucked around behind a rock. At the entrance though we could see a jetty and tied to this jetty was a Spanish cruiser, larger than a frigate, but not as large as a destroyer. It was as if our keel was a magnet that was attracted to the steel hull of the ship.

At first I was calm, my brother was moving off towards this ship in order to find some wind and complete a neat tack that would bring us into the fishing harbour and a delightful supper, preceded by a few beers at different bars around the town. I would hold that thought.

The wind did not come, a breeze managed to stir our Ensign on the aft stantion; but the Spanish courtesy flag on the main mast remained stubbornly furled. Waterwitch

My brother had told me stories about sailors who had failed to fly the correct courtesy flag at the correct time. It was a sensitive issue. I was worried lest our hosts took umbrage at our lack of respect.
‘What’s happening?’ I asked nonchalantly.

I had stopped admiring the port that I thought we were heading for. It really looked like pointless to dream. It had been seen, but it had slipped past us now and there seemed nothing left to do but ignore its passing.

Both of realised we were heading towards the ship, an aggressive action if ever there was one. We were being pushed by the current.

‘There’s no wind. I can’t turn her,’ he replied.

‘You do realise that we’re heading for that ship,’ I subtly mentioned, sounding as casual as I could, assuming that he might have missed all two hundred tons of it, bristling with all manner of armaments.
‘That grey thing there?’ he responded. I could rely on him to be sarcastic.

‘What should I do?’ Waterwtich

‘I’m not sure. I think it is best to keep still and don’t move too quickly. I’ve just noticed they have started to train their deck guns on us.’

‘How many do they have?’ I asked.


A well respected author

Michael Fitzalan was born in Clapham, South London; where his mother had established a doctor’s surgery in a house which she filled with children.

With three sisters, two brothers and a library full of books; a love of literature was imbued in him from an early age.Waterwitch

Michael Fitzalan comes from Irish parents were doctors; and they settled on the West Side of Clapham Common and had six children in quick succession.

A story by Michael Fitzalan

Michael Fitzalan’s first novel gained cult status and here are some others: Waterwitch was a hit with those who have ever sailed; two brothers battle storms and Spanish support for the Malvinas in an attempt to meet up with their girlfriends in Ibiza. They have to get from The Algarve to Ibiza, all very straightforward until engine failure and storms threaten to sink all their plans. The Taint Gallery tells the story of a modern Romeo and Juliet; the story is set in Cheslea and Fulham, not Verona, nevertheless, it is a doomed relationship. The book was shunned by big publishers for its highly charged and graphic sexual content and the small publisher who produced the book folded, copies are rare. A reprint is planned for its twentieth anniversary next year; it is still as pertinent and shocking today as it was back in 1996. Switch is an amazing mixture of Franz Kafka realism yet it reads like a Raymond Chandler thriller. Joe Ederer falls for a French girl but he is recovering from being dumped by his English girlfriend. A fish out of water in London, he chases her home only to be rejected. He hooks up with a suffocating drug addict and that is when his nightmares begin. Major Bruton’s Safari is the story of innocents abroad; a family invited to celebrate the coronation of the Kabaka of Buganda become indoctrinated into the ways of Africa. With an acerbic observer on hand, the family experience the warmth and ways of Uganda that help them to understand themselves a little better. IPG – Innocent Proven Guilty is about a teacher, Philip Hayward whose brother sold their shared flat and ran off to America with the proceeds. Philip bumps into his brother’s ex-girlfriend and she tells him his brother is back. Racing to the address she gave him, he arrives to find his brother with a knife in his back. As he leaves, his shoes leave bloody footprints and the police come looking for him. Carom – Finn McHugh and his team take on a swindler and smuggler, Didier, who is depraved in so many ways. They know he is smuggling art and drugs; he must be stopped before others take him out. The Cubans, want him dead, Finn wants to break the smuggling ring. Who will win? Remember the Fifth November – Guy Fawkes was innocent, Catesby was a broken man who brought his children up in the Anglican faith, yet Robert Cecil arranged for them to be portrayed as terrible villains. With a spy service second to none and with moles everywhere how could someone hatch a plot like this and fail to be discovered? The answer, they could not. Read the truth! One – Bullying does not go on anymore in schools. I would not bet on it. Weep as you read the terrible story of a school bully and the misery he dispenses to all the boys. Then, cheer as one of his victims takes revenge. Take a trip to a prep school in a time when kids built tree houses, danced and swung on Tarzan ropes!

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