This month has involved some serious sailing, which just got better and better - we really seem to be getting into our stride now. We have moved on a further 1050 miles and are now in Santa Cruz, Tennerife.
A new feature of our life are the short-wave radio networks - groups of yachts which 'meet' daily on the radio at a pre-arranged time to give their current locations, swap information and generally chat. The 'Arcnet' is for those participating in the 'Atlantic Rally for Cruisers' - a huge rally of yachts which leaves the Canaries for the Caribbean on 21 November. Although not part of this, we have discovered through the yachtie grapevine, the time and wavelength for their daily chat and found it very helpful, giving details of conditions in various locations and the actual, as opposed to forecast weather - often for places we plan to visit. Usually we just eavesdrop, but we have participated on occasion. The rally hasn't officially started yet and they are quite friendly - they call us non-ARC boats 'Narcs'! The Si/oui net run by a long-term American cruising couple on Another Horizon is open to anyone with trans-Atlantic plans. Rather more serious, it focusses strongly on weather information. We were fascinated to realise that Perdika was part of this net under her previous ownership, en route up the Red Sea three or four years ago. We also continue to make friends with other crews encountered along the way. Everyone has their own agenda, and it is sad to leave people we get on with especially well, but there is always the likelihood of meeting up again later along the way. It is typical now when we arrive anywhere, to find boats we know or have at least seen before, and to be waved goodbye by several yachts when we leave. There is tremendous camaraderie and co-operation amongst all the crews, particularly in the form of expertise and information sharing. We meet all sorts. For instance the rather untypical crew of an American yacht. The skipper is a retired turkey farmer who started sailing only two years ago. He crossed the Atlantic in the Spring, reaching Portugal via the Azores, when his original crew left. He then got his daughter and grand-daughter to join him. Neither have ever been sailing before. He is not one for forecasts. He told me on the morning we were both contemplating leaving that someone had told him "something about a low front or a high front - I don't know what they mean - if it rains it rains." !!
From Peniche, we sailed the 60 miles to Lisbon, right into the city up the River Tejo. It was a brilliant sail - unfortunately into a very strong adverse tide as we entered the river. Lisbon was difficult to take in - rather overwhelming after all the little villages and towns we were used to visiting, and needed far more time than we could spare to do it justice. I speak for myself here - Chris thought it was a great place. We spent three days in an enormous and impersonal marina sightseeing and doing various chores. By this time, we had left our good friends on Tokomaru and Comodo with whom we had been sailing down the coast of Portugal, and felt quite lonely. Capitaine Alf - the French family were there - the three children busily catching up on their schoolwork - by correspondence according to the set curriculum. They were planning to visit Essouaria in Morocco where they had friends. It sounded a fabulous place to visit and we were very nearly tempted along too. Our insurers were agreeable to a change in our original plan, but in the end after much agonising, we let the forecast decide. The winds for Madeira looked good, as against the likelihood of headwinds all the way to Morocco. After the sort of sailing we'd had up to then, there was really no choice. Maybe next time!
We launched ourselves off, out into the Atlantic, bound for Madeira 500 miles away, with a great deal less trepidation than we had felt before the Biscay crossing. We assumed that at these southern latitudes, we could forget the effect of Atlantic lows and rely on steady, predictable and favourable tradewinds. We set off early on the first day, the tidal current with us this time and swooshed out of the Tejo with 4.7 knots under us, into a calmish sea. We set off with a light wind behind us which later picked up so that we were humming along at 6 knots or so - just the sort of conditions we were supposed to have - at last! This continued all the next day and into the third. We were just congratulating ourselves on having reached the half way point, and making various predictions of an arrival time, when we found ourselves under an enormous thundercloud full of torrential rain and lightning strikes. At this point, the wind died completely. Rather than wallow around under the lightning like a sitting duck - definitely the highest target for hundreds of miles around - we decided to motor out from under it. However, although we soon got back into hot sunshine, we found no more wind for the rest of the voyage. The sea was absolutely glassy - it could not have been calmer. Somehow strange to find such stillness out in the middle of the ocean. It is at times like this, with the horizon stretching out to infinity, that you find yourself contemplating the great mysteries of the universe, the insignificance of our place in it, and so on and so forth .... However there were distractions. We were visited by several tiny warblers, presumably en route to Africa. We spotted a series of lone turtles flopping along to who knows where, and also a couple of pilot whales. At 34º 06.8'N 14º 44.5'W we went for a swim, in a depth of 4,000 metres - one at a time in case the wind got up suddenly! We arrived in Porto Santo on the morning of the fifth day.
Porto Santo is a tiny island about 20 miles north east of Madeira. We had chosen it as our initial destination because of its reputed yacht-friendly ambience and facilities - not to mention a harbour more tenable than the one in Madeira. The island is almost completely barren with a population of 5,000, living mainly in a very sparkly white little town dotted around with palm trees and oleanders. Clearing into Porto Santo was our most strenuous activity. Despite the fact that it is Portuguese territory, and we had already been in Portugal for a over two weeks, this exercise required visits to four separate offices with our papers dealing at each with virtually identical sets of enquiries! No doubt a foretaste of what is to come. We chilled out in Porto Santo for several lazy days - walking up in the mountains and socialising amongst the other cruisers. The ARC boats are beginning to converge on the Canaries and filling up harbours en route - but lots of 'independents' too. We were delighted to meet up again with Tokomaru, last seen in Leixoes. New friends are Simon and Sarah on Vagabond - they have very much the same plans as us - but are doing it in a 27 footer! We first noticed Vagabond in La Coruna - mainly because their deck was piled high with what looked like all their possessions - which is how we recognised them here!
After this delightful sojourn, we decided to brave the notoriously less secure anchorage of Funchal on Madeira, 40 miles away. We had one of the best sails of the trip so far, and found the harbour much less intimidating than we had expected. Madeira is a spectacularly steep and mountainous island. The anchorage in Funchal harbour is not well protected in all weathers, but that aside, it is absolutely beautiful, especially at night, with thousands of tiny lights shining down from the steep hillsides all around. Funchal is a city of mellow buildings and luxuriant foliage - the whole place a great botanical garden. We were fascinated to see poinsettias like the pot plants which come out at Christmas, but as enormous shrubs growing wild all over the place. The landscape of the interior of the island is stunning - more like an artist's fantasy magical landscape than anything real, with impossibly rugged peaks and gorges and incredible terracing. We spent an awestruck day touring the island, and have vowed to return one day to walk the 'levadas' - paths which run along the myriad of irrigation channel high up in the hills.
We were delayed in Funchal by the effects of a stupendous depression over Ireland, in combination with gales in the Portugal/Gibraltar area. It was so windy that for two days we didn't feel able to leave the boat. Indeed during one prolonged spell of Force 7 whipping through the harbour, a large French steel ketch whose crew (apart from the dog) were not on board, dragged its way through the whole harbour miraculously missing every boat it passed. It took four hardy souls from other yachts plus the rescue services to get aboard and tame the monster. All rather reminiscent of our time in Bayona last month - except that while on the one hand this time it was hot and sunny and somehow less forbidding, on the other hand was the knowledge that the anchorage could quickly become untenable. Being well out into the Atlantic there would be nowhere else to go - not a very relaxing thought. We finally left when the worst of the winds seemed to have passed. A forecast of force five/six with swell of six metres seemed rather daunting, but at least it was all in the right direction.
The Canaries, according to our pilot book, are not exactly an ideal cruising ground. There are few completely secure anchorages and the marinas, especially at this time of year are full to bursting. We decided to focus on just two of the half dozen islands, rather than try to cover the lot. Lanzarote first, then Tennerife. This leg turned out to be our most exhilarating so far although extremely boisterous. We broke our previous 24 hour record with a run of 156 miles. The whole trip of 270 miles was completed in 46 hours - quite an exhausting achievement. Well worth it though - our arrival in La Graciosa, a tiny island just off the northern tip of Lanzarote, was like reaching heaven. A radio call to a boat already there, resulted in a warm and welcoming reception from the friendly little batch of international yachts berthed in the harbour on a free pontoon - including one we had last met in Penzance! Mooring arrangements involved a line being taken from our stern to a ring on an underwater block behind us. We jokingly asked where the diver was - whereupon one of the children from a French boat immediately obliged! The island was idyllic - barren and volcanic with a village of bright white and blue flat roofed houses and fishing boats in the harbour. The whole place exuded utter tranquillity - we could have stayed there for a very long time. However, after a few days we had to tear ourselves away to set off down the coast of Lanzarote to rendezvous with some friends of a friend, who were to show us the sights. These two turned out to be fervent Canarian nationalists and enormously ebullient characters who gave us a most memorable day. Lanzarote, with its stark and dramatic volcanic landscape, and Cesar Manrique designed architecture - everything in white and blue, nothing higher than two stories - is fascinating and very beautiful in a minimalist sort of way. A 'designer' island - not remotely like its image at home.
Our latest leg from Lanzarote to Tennerife - just under 150 miles - after a painfully slow start down the east coast of Lanzarote - turned out to be another good fast trip with a steady north east trade wind, which we completed in 29 hours. It was somewhat disconcerting on our arrival in the marina, to be told it was full. However, we are now rafted up several deep on the wall with an impressive view across to the very cosmopolitan city of Santa Cruz and the steep mountain ridges beyond. Santa Cruz has the classiest e-mail café we have yet encountered. We plan to stay put here for about a fortnight, in order to catch up on some repairs and maintenance. It is very hard to believe we are actually here in the Canaries - off the coast of Africa - a place most people fly to - and have got here all by ourselves! Our pilot book tells us that the easiest way back to Europe from here - given prevailing winds and currents - is via the Caribbean. A scary thought - we're really committed now!