November 1999 : The Canaries to the Cape Verdes



November has been a relatively quiet month for us. Another 800 miles on our way and more good sailing. We are now in the Cape Verde Islands.

We arrived in Tenerife with a long list of jobs - including the hangover of jobs we hadn't managed to get done before leaving Bristol, plus a few new problems which had arisen over the past three months and been put off "until we reach the Canaries" - the last we will see of 'civilisation' for some time. We spent two and a half weeks in Santa Cruz altogether - longer than planned, but achieved most of what we needed to do. Chris sorted out repairs of varying degrees of severity to the GPS, aerogen, engine pump and mainsail. Most he did himself. We are coming to realise that calling in professional expertise all too often results in expensive disappointment, as no one knows the boat as intimately as Chris does. My girlie contribution included a major food re-stock, and making cushions for the cockpit - a luxury we thought we deserved given the amount of time we spend there. The most interesting part of that job was purchasing the materials - from a fantastic fabric shop with an entire 'carnival' department! We also made a start to re-caulking the deck - a major operation we now appreciate will take at least two weeks - some other time! Our departure was frustratingly delayed awaiting delivery of a new GPS antenna ordered from England, which apparently trundled round the Canaries' postal system for some time before reaching Santa Cruz Post Office. Such repairs and delayed deliveries of parts seem to be par for the course. The incidence of gear failure and breakage is high on yachts in constant use covering big miles, and we are constantly meeting fellow cruisers with very much worse problems and delays than we have so far experienced.

We enjoyed the cosmopolitan and sophisticated city of Santa Cruz - glad to get out of the yachting environment from time to time into a city not particularly focused on the sea. We were most grateful there for the tremendous support of Chris' friends Antonio and Maite Cubillo, who fed us copious meals, gave us shower and washing facilities, took us out and about and generally gave us an insight into Canarian life we certainly wouldn't otherwise have had - Antonio being president of the Canarian Independence Movement. We also got out of the city to see something of the rest of Tenerife, concentrating on the northern part of the island, away from the main tourist resorts, finding some grand and gracious old Spanish towns and villages. As in all these volcanic islands, the scenery is wildly dramatic with spectacularly steep peaks rising out of the sea and a lava strewn coastline. We were lucky to see El Teide - the highest peak - with a good dusting of snow after some rather autumnal weather had caught up with us.

Our time in the huge marina in Santa Cruz was relatively lonely. There must have been about 50 foreign yachts there all gearing up for the Atlantic crossing - either direct or via the Cape Verdes. With so many, it was rather impersonal and hard to make friends. Vagabond were up on the hard at another port a few miles north of Santa Cruz - we saw them a couple of times. We were very pleased to spot the arrival of Capitaine Alf, and then quite envious as they regaled us with tales of their exciting and exotic time in Morocco. There were several rallies assembling for the trans-Atlantic passage - not only the ARC, but the Bluewater Rally and one or two big French rallies. We were struck by the variety of crews and yachts preparing for the crossing, ranging from crews of 6-8 hearty men in 45-60ft boats to single-handers in tiny boats. During our time in Santa Cruz we had neighbours from several countries rafted up to us making their trans-Atlantic preparations. The best was a heavily crewed Italian crewed boat, which took on such a vast quantity of red wine that we could only stare open mouthed as it was all passed across our deck. Of course, they had to give us a jug! There are other two man crews, although many couples have taken on extra crew for the crossing - either for their own comfort or to meet insurance requirements. Whenever we feel a bit under-crewed ourselves, we think of the family yachts with young children on board - that must really be hard work.

With these preparations for the crossing going on all around us, and boats leaving all the time, we felt impatient at our own delay. Not that we would have wanted to be tied to the fixed departure dates of a rally - several of which left straight into very nasty forecasts rather earlier in the season than the optimum time. However, our package finally turned up, and with our new GPS antenna fixed, off we set, bound for the Cape Verde Islands 800 miles away - our longest leg so far, and the most exposed. It seemed unlikely we could rely on much support from the air/sea rescue services of Morocco, Mauritania or Senegal! It was therefore more than comforting to be part of the Sioui radio net. As increasing numbers of yachts started departing the Canaries, this net, primarily aimed at providing weather information, began to run a daily roll-call of yachts on passage. Starting with a call for any medical or other priority traffic, followed by weather information, each yacht would be called up in turn to give its location and conditions and other relevant information.

We left with a perfect forecast for steady north-east tradewinds, and on the whole, that was what we got. The wind direction was consistently in the north/northeast sector - more or less behind us, although varying considerably in strength. The first day was dominated by the local Tenerife coastal 'acceleration zone' which whizzed us off to a good start. Then followed two days of light winds during which we set up our two headsails poled out on each side very successfully. The wind built up to force 6 for the next couple of days, causing big seas behind us which though rather too exhilarating for comfort, did at least get us moving fast. Then it all started to die away again until the final day when we goose-winged ever slower until eventually we had to resort to the engine.

Despite a warning of locusts (!) on our Navtex, the only wildlife we encountered this leg was marine. Plenty of dolphins. Although a reasonably common sight, we never tire of them, endlessly fascinated by the way they are so attracted to the boat, showing off their speed skills zipping back and forth across the bow, and practising their synchronised leaps. I have wasted rolls of film taking pictures of patches of water where seconds before there were several dolphins in the air. We spotted some rather menacing looking fins off Tenerife, a couple of whales surfing in the heavier seas and often found small flying fish on the deck in the mornings. Although we sometimes trailed a line, we failed to catch anything to eat!

The passage took a relatively easy seven days - during which we passed into the tropics - on a disappointingly untropical looking grey day. We have by now more or less sorted our long passage routine. The nights are now long with darkness from 7pm to 7 am - although for this passage the darkness was alleviated by a lovely big moon. Starting with our 'happy hour' drink at 6pm watching the sunset, we then eat our evening meal together, before starting watches, alternating three hours on/three hours off. With short change-over times and when necessary making sail changes, this takes us through to 8 am and time for the Sioui net - our regular contact with the outside world. During the entire seven day passage we encountered a total of only five boats. We have taken to spending our time on watch in the saloon, popping up to the cockpit every ten or fifteen minutes to check the course, wind direction and for any vessels in sight. Having heard the sobering story of an ARC yacht dismasted in collision with a freighter, we take watches very seriously. During day time, we are both up and about, taking the odd nap when tired. Of course, all this would be a totally different and exhausting scenario were it not for our extra crew - the wonderful self-steering systems. Both the wind-vane when sailing, and autopilot when motoring, have consistently performed brilliantly in all sorts of weather.

We approached Sal, the most northerly of the Cape Verde Islands at dawn on the eighth day - a most rewarding landfall. By the time we could see the coast, which was unlit, it was quite close, revealing a barren landscape of low volcanic hills. Close by were some very ethnic looking fishing boats with crews hauling in their nets and waving. Escorts of flying fish flew through the air beside the boat welcoming us to our first non-European destination!