From the lush island of Madeira, we sailed Blue Heeler 270nm over two nights, to drop anchor at the rugged landscape at Lanzarote, one of seven islands that make up the Canary Islands. With 20-25kn on a beam reach for most of the trip, conditions were lively and rest didn’t come easy. We were glad to stop and catch up on sleep. With no Schengen time left, we decided we’ll navigate the islands as a ‘vessel in transit’, stopping only to anchor and sleep, and take in the scenery along the way.
The swell in the anchorage outside the marina at Lanzarote rocked the boat so that by the next evening, we headed into the sunset for an overnight sail to the south coast of Gran Canaria, bypassing the island of Fuerteventura.
This time of year at the Canary Islands, marinas are full with boats from Europe. The outer anchorages are churned up by jet skis and various other forms of tourist water activities such as parasailing, speed-boat thrills and odd-looking pedal boats with slides. The volcanic islands are steep with little protection; anchorages are typically exposed to the swell and can be quite uncomfortable with an onshore breeze. Literally hundreds of boats are en route to the Caribbean this season; either on their own like us, or part of an organised rally. The terrain is devoid of colour and from sea-level the hotels and apartments don’t improve the view.
Morocco and Western Sahara are only 50nm to the east of the Canaries – a ten-hour sail for a typical yacht. Scattered across these waters of north-west Africa, unseaworthy wooden vessels crammed with asylum seekers – men, women and infants – attempt the crossing, fighting currents, winds, ships, hunger and thirst. Each year, thousands of asylum seekers from Africa attempt the passage – hundreds die – as they seek a chance of a better life. During our transit, persistent distress PAN-PAN alerts blare from the VHF asking boats to keep a lookout for vessels with “indeterminate number of passengers” or similar distress messages. A small wooden raft floating by during our transit is a sobering reminder of how fortunate we are.
The weather forecast for our passage predicted a week of 15-20kn NE winds – typical for the west coast of Northern Africa. The wind shadow to the south of Tenerife took some time to break free from, but eventually we found enough wind to sail. Our destination: to reach Mindelo on the island of Sao Vicente in the Cape Verde islands in seven days.
Sailing an average of 130nm each day, doesn’t take into account the gybes and course corrections along the way. For the most part, the wind was from behind so we winged the sails for the downwind run, gybing as needed.
Three hourly watches to begin, but relaxed as we settled into the trip. Eating meals when we’re hungry, one meal a day plus snacks; and sailing for comfort, not speed, so the other can get some sleep. Prior to departure, iPads are filled with podcasts, movies, and documentaries, and everything is properly stowed. A niggling knocking, an annoying squeak or chink from a bottle every few seconds can drive a tired crew crazy, so lockers are padded with anything to avoid any maddening tap-tap-tapping in the wee hours.
While offshore we have only our IridiumGo to communicate with the outside world, other than our VHF and SSB that is. Each day we download a weather grib using both PredictWind and Weather4D, and update our progress on the GPS tracking. With so many yachts and catamarans in the Canaries, we didn’t see or hear another sailboat on our entire passage.
The moon didn’t join us on this passage. Only the twinkling stars, the sparkling bioluminescence and the on-board gadgets emit any light. The eastern horizon lightens from around 5am, extinguishing the starlight as the sun rises by 6am. Navigation lights are switched off, night-views on our charts and instruments are reverted back to daylight settings and we prepare for a new day. (FYI The new IOS 15 has a new feature called Smart Invert (Settings/Accessibility/Per-App Settings). This is particularly useful for apps that are too bright at night and have no ‘dark mode’, such as Navionics Boating app).
By the fourth day, we’d settled into a routine and even managed to feel rested. Sleep comes easier after three days, which also means it’s easier to stay awake longer. We extend watches to four hours or as we need. I even read a couple of books – a pleasant change from social media and the internet.
Day five – out came the fishing gear. Neither of us are fishing enthusiasts and prefer to have chips with our fish; anyway, we have some fishing gear on board and every couple of years we drag out our dwindling cache of lures and lines in an attempt to live off the bounty of the ocean. As luck would have it, five minutes after casting my only decent lure, a plastic crate floated by snagging the bloody lure and ripping it off! My second attempt attracted a large fish that came in so fast and also took off with the lure. Not quite discouraged, I fixed a lure I’d crafted this year from an old Colgate toothpaste tube. I even drew eyes with a Sharpie for effect. I still have that lure…
On the seventh day, after six nights at sea, our ETA was still on track for a lunchtime arrival. The wind became lighter – between 10-12kn – so we hoisted the spinny for the final 25nm to Mindelo; about five hours away. Both of us had had enough sleep so for the final few hours of the passage, we had our traditional end-of-passage feed of toast, bacon and eggs, ran the watermaker and filled the water tanks, while also indulging in a seawater scrub followed by a freshwater rinse in the warm sunshine – one of sailing life’s pleasures, particularly when the water and outside temperature is around 26degC.
A quick tidy up below; boat papers, crew lists, passports and proof of vaccination for arrival are set aside. The yellow Q flag is hoisted reminding me to buy a CV flag upon arrival in Mindelo. The port office and immigration is closed on weekends so we’d have to check in on Monday.
To the west, Tope de Coroa, a 1,979m peak of Ilha de Santo Antao the NW island of the archipelago, is shrouded in haze. To our east, Ilha de Sao Vicente is separated from Ilha de Santo Antao by Canal de Sao Vicente, a deep channel, about seven miles wide. Porto Grande is the principal port in the Cape Verdes and the city of Mindelo is on the eastern side of the harbour.
As we entered Porto Grande, the main port is to the north, the small marina ahead and to the east, and about thirty yachts of various nationalities and various states of dilapidation are anchored in sand east of a derelict vessel ‘Iron Bull’. To the south of the boats anchored is the hull of a wreck about 25m long. Three small black balls indicate its danger, but the wreck is fairly obvious. From the east coast to the main port, the vessel ‘Enamar’ transits between anchored boats and the wreck so anchor as far north as possible!
It wasn’t long after we anchored that a smiling face appeared offering bags of mint, lettuce, and a tuna of indeterminate freshness from his paddle-board. I returned a smile, and thanked him, but not today. All I needed was a good sleep.
Up early on Sunday morning (still used to getting up early for watch), I noticed a large ketch that had been towed in with engine failure the night before and anchored north of us had shifted. At 8am, and with no one else apparently awake, we were unable to rouse the crew of the vessel by VHF. Wayne dinghied across to alert them they were about to crash into a crew-less yacht anchored behind them and ahead of us. It took some banging on their hull to get them out of bed. The alarmed captain and crew came out in their jarmies, as the ketch began to bump into the smaller yacht. The captain, in his panic, decided to light a flare which immediately fizzled out in a puff of smoke. Wayne suggested calling a Pan-Pan might get a better response…
Meanwhile, from our bow I was watching the ketch drag towards us. If we didn’t move our boat soon, he’d be on top of our anchor then we’d be trapped. I waved Wayne back to Blue Heeler and we set about raising our anchor. Motoring forward, our bow just metres from the stern of the stricken ketch. We re-anchored nearby and the ketch was where we had been just minutes before. During this kerfuffle, others in dinghies came by to assist, including guys from the dive shop who managed to secure the vessel to the hulk of the Iron Bull and stop the ketch dragging.
Welcome to Mindelo!