PORTUGAL TO THE CANARIES
 

We intended to leave Lagos on September 22nd but the forecast for the next few days was for light and variable winds, so we waited two days. In fact we were getting conflicting weather information, so we decided to leave at midday on the 24th. Once out of the marina, which was very sheltered, we found 15 to 20 knot winds from the south west - bang on the nose. The choice was to keep bashing upwind or turn and reach over to Portimao. We chose the latter not least because it is an open anchorage and thus we could tell the inshore wind direction.

We stayed in Portimao for another two days waiting for northerly winds, our ocean forecasts were giving northerlies but we were seeing no wind at all. Eventually we decided that if the wind wouldn't come to us then we would go and find it. So we left at midday on Sunday 26th and motored south west for 30 miles where we picked up a gentle north easterly breeze. Then it died and we motored another 20 miles.

By the morning of the 27th we were just about sailing in 5 to 7 knots of wind and thus began two days of really slow passage making, averaging 40 to 50 miles per day - at one point we sailed 10 miles in 12 hours! At around 9.30am on the 27th I spotted our first whale. I called Mike up because it was coming directly at us, fast, on our port quarter. These things are big and whilst they are generally friendly, seeing one coming at you is a bit scary. Fortunately it blew a couple of times, dived under the boat and disappeared.

I saw another whale on the 28th and by the end of that day the wind died again and we motored another 10 miles just so we could show some progress on the chart! Fortunately the wind returned in the early hours of the 29th and we were back sailing again - indeed we held the wind for the rest of the passage and it was generally in the 10 to 15 knot range, occasionally increasing to 20 to 25 knots, always from the north east.

What we did have for much of the passage though were the most dreadful cross seas, with seas much bigger than the wind (we were getting) could kick up. This was partly due to the normal north westerly Atlantic swell (generated by the low pressure systems to the north) and we had a big easterly sea that we think was caused by a gale in the Gibralter Straits.

At this point it might be worth explaining what life is like on a cruising boat in such conditions - you have to hold on at all times. To put that into context, next time you get dressed or undressed try doing it with just one hand. Then consider what it is like if the floor is rolling 20 degrees to each side every 2 seconds. In fact that's not too bad in relation to what comes next. Every minute or so a double wave seems to come through that rolls the boat 30 degrees, twice each way in four seconds, and adds a pitching/yawing corkscrew-type motion. This is really violent and if you are not holding on and braced it will throw you across the boat. Now try cooking!

Basically everything takes at least twice as long to do as on land and some things become impossible, such as cooking or, even worse, sleeping. Although we sleep in a berth with a lee cloth one side and a board on the other, jammed in with pillows, the motion can be so violent that the mattress moves, you are still thrown about and sleep is impossible.

Thus we eat what we can when we can and by spreading our sleep periods over 24 hours we usually manage to get a reasonable amount of sleep. The watch system we found that worked for us is:
- 19.00 to 23.00. Mike on watch. Jane asleep.
- 23.00 to 03.00. Jane on watch. Mike asleep.
- 03.00 to 07.00. Mike on watch. Jane asleep.
- 07.00 to 11.00. Jane makes herself some breakfast and comes on watch. Mike asleep.
- 11.00 to 12.30. Both awake. Run the generator to charge batteries and cool fridge. Check the weather forecast. Breakfast for Mike.
- 12.30 to 14.00. Mike on watch. Jane asleep.
- 14.00 to 14.30. Both awake. Lunch.
- 14.30 to 17.00. Jane on watch. Mike asleep.
- 17.00 to 19.00. Both awake. Shower if possible. Dinner. Run generator again.
On the straight four hour watches there is generally a 15 to 30 minute changeover period, to make a cup of tea, brief the person coming on watch etc. Also, we check the weather again about 22.30, have to handle the navigation, sail changes etc, so a clear 4 hour break is unusual.

For the next few days not much happened. We went one 48 hour period when we didn't see another boat of any description, which really brings home just how big the oceans are. The only little bit of excitement was when Mike was on watch just before dawn on the 30th and saw something out of the corner of his eye. The next second there was a thump as a flying fish head butted 15 tons of steel, it hit the aft coach roof and ended up in the scuppers.

We did however have a salutory lesson in watchkeeping. We always have one of us on deck and we normally scan the horizon very carefully every few minutes. On one occasion though we needed to gybe the boat (turn the stern through the wind) which meant both of us were on deck because it is quite complex and involves:
- disengage the wind vane
- unlock the steering wheel and take over steering by hand
- remove the sail from the wind vane
- remove the wind vane remote control
- prepare the new genoa sheet
- take the preventer off the main sail
- centre the main sail
- take the preventer off the mizzen sail
- tighten the leeward mizzen runner
- centre the mizzen
- steer the boat through the wind
- take in the genoa sheet
- ease out the main
- set the main preventer
- ease off the leeward mizzen runner
- ease off the mizzen
- set the mizzen preventer
- fit the sail to the windvane
- fit the windvane remote control
- steer the boat until it is fully balanced on the new course
- engage the wind vane
- lock the steering wheel
Since I usually drive the boat Mike has to do most of that, moving slowly about the boat, making sure that his lifeline is clipped on at all times. And then we looked up. Half a mile directly in front of us was a huge container ship! We just hadn't seen it but it confirmed how quickly big ships appear, especially if there is some mist and the visibility is only a few miles. Needless to say our watchkeeping efforts doubled after that.

On Friday 1st October the wind really picked up and Mike dropped the mainsail. We still can't quite work out how it happened but the main halyard went from behind the mast, forward over the starboard spreader and round the radar reflector on the front of the mast. The only way to clear it was to go up the mast, which given the sea state at the time we deemed to be an unacceptable risk, plus we were sailing quite happily with the genoa and mizzen sails.

By early on the 2nd we were close enough to the Canaries to consider the time of landfall. It was highly likely that we would make landfall just after dark, another risk, which we decided was unacceptable. So we had to spend another night at sea and slowed the boat as much as we could. We couldn't slow her enough in 20 to 25 knots of wind, so initially we hove to, trying both the genoa and then mizzen but the drift rate was too high so we sailed back upwind away from the Canaries - seriously depressing! Courtesy of a waypoint that Mike forgot was 20 miles further away from the Canaries than he thought, when dawn broke there was no sign of the islands - much to his surprise!

As it transpired we didn't actually see the Canaries until were were about 7 miles out, due to mist. It struck us that the early explorers could have sailed close by the Canaries and never even have known they were there.

We finally reached the marina on Graciosa at 15.30 on the 2nd, a passage time for 525 miles of just over seven days - probably a record for the slowest passage from Portugal to the Canaries but we were happy and it's always better to have too little wind than too much.

The marina is very basic, no toilets or showers, no water, no fuel but it was free (the harbourmaster was away). We were helped to dock by Simon and Hilda from Calisto, plus several other people and it was immediately clear that this was a very special place indeed. Quite how special and why didn't become apparent until the next day because we were too tired to do anything beyond tidying up the boat, inside and out, having a hot shower on the boat and then some food. Then glorious sleep in a bed that didn't move. Just before we went to bed though, Adrian and Sue from Lalize came over, a very pleasant surprise because we hadn't seen them since Olhau and we weren't expecting them to be there.

We both woke in the morning seriously sore and barely able to move, all our muscles including the ones you don't know you have had seized up! It took a few hours to ease the muscles back to life and then we were fine. We basically had a day off, after a fine breakfast of coffee and croissants with Adrian and Sue, and discovered why Graciosa is a special place. The first reason is the island itself which is undeveloped and is basically four volcanoes surrounded by desert and scrub. All the roads over the island and in the two small settlements are sand.

The second reason is the yacht people. For the first time we were amongst serious cruising boats. Nobody goes to Graciosa unless they have come from far away and are going somewhere. Thus we had Aussies and Kiwis halfway round on circumnavigations. Americans and Canadians on the last leg of their circumnavigations. Boats of various nationalities who have spent time in the Med and are on the way to the Caribbean. Plus people like us just starting out. The boats were heading for the USA, the Cape Verde Islands and Brazil or the Caribbean. The range of knowledge, skill and seagoing experience was awesome and held by some of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet.

Over the next few days we basically pottered around, shopping in the settlement for food, talking to the other boats, walking in the island (after collecting a map from the local policeman!) and Mike went up the mast to clear the halyard. One thing that struck us was the large number of boats with small children aboard, who were having a great time between lessons aboard their boats. On Friday 6th we went to our first 'pot luck' evening, which is popular in the cruising world. Everybody cooks a plate of something and all the food is laid out for people to help themselves. I made a tortilla and a bread pudding for which I was asked for the recipe, so somebody liked it! It was a great evening and (obviously) a good way to meet more people.

We left Graciosa on Sunday 10th heading to Marina Rubicon on the southern end of Lanzarote. It was a day sail in nasty cross seas (again) and we were glad to arrive about 19.00. On the way down Lanzarote we saw another whale approaching, yet again on the port quarter. This one stopped with its head out of the water and seemed to be looking at us, then it turned behind us and started to follow us, still seeming to be looking at us. Eventually it just disappeared.

When we arrived at the marina Simon and Hilda from Calisto were there, plus we spotted Adrian and Sue from Lalize (always ahead of us, I think they go scouting places for us) and Tim and Pip from Keep on Smiling. The marina is fairly new and although they have been accepting boats for a couple of years, the buildings round it have been finished and are being occupied on an ongoing basis. It's been beautifully done, the facilities are excellent and it isn't particularly busy or full. From the breakwater you can look over to Fuerteventura and behind the marina the view is of volcanic hills. As with everywhere we go we checked out the local radio station choice as its always an interesting exercise! We'd been told about two English speaking stations called Power and Wave but couldn't tune them in well enough to listen. However we did find QFM transmitting from Fuerteventura - great fun, good music and it gave us the weather (OK not a marine forecast!). The links weren't smooth and even when they announced that the IRN News was next, it often wasn't, but the most surreal part was that every weekday at 10am they switched to a Radio Two feed, all of a sudden we had Ken Bruce and traffic reports about the A6!

We'd set aside some time to do things on the boat and also take the opportunity to play tourist for a while. The most immediate thing we had to do was fix the fridge which between Graciosa and Lanzarote had decided to stop working. Mike had a go with it but we eventually got an electrician in to solve the problem. He basically replicated much of what Mike had done and it started working! We teased him by saying he obviously had the required 'healing hands'! The time there was been spent painting a name on the dinghy and engine, recaulking some parts of the teak deck, changing the generator filters, and making a cover for the Sat C aerial, a new wheel cover and the first of the two new sail covers. We also hired a car for a few days and had a wonderful time touring round the island. The first stop was the Mountains of Fire, an area which saw continuous volcanic eruptions over a period of years. The landscape was like nothing we'd ever seen before. Lots of different types and shapes of lava, volcanic cones and volcanic ash. You can drive part way into the national park and then you are taken round the area in a coach with a commentary for an hour or so. The colours were amazing and kept changing and although we took a number of photos I suspect they won't do them justice. We also saw demonstrations of just how hot it is not far below the surface when the guides poured water down holes in the ground and in the restaurant they were cooking rabbit and chicken over a natural oven formed by a hole.

Then we went on to Haria which appears like a green oasis, as the village is surrounded by palm trees around the valley it is in, apparently one tree was planted at the birth of every girl and two for a boy! Also we went into the Jardin de Cactus where you can see a collection of these plants of every shape and size. Other treats were caves we could go into, one containing a pool where a species of crab lives that is albino and blind and others where we walked underground in the tunnels formed by volcanic explosions. Overall we had really interesting time there and the island is fascinating. The fields are black because they are covered in volcanic soil that can absorb the slightest moisture, even dew, which is necessary there. Vines have their own individual curved volcanic stone protection walls. All the houses are painted white and the doors and windows are green.

Overall Lanzarote is a most amazing island and Marina Rubicon a great base, so it was difficult to drag ourselves away. But move on we had to and we left on November 1st, for an overnight 95 mile sail to Las Palmas on Gran Canaria. We had good winds when we left and we reduced sail to make sure we didn't arrive before dawn. Needless to say the wind dropped away through the night and it took us four hours to sail the last ten miles - we weren't in a hurry and Mike couldn't be bothered to put the mainsail back up.

The trip was fairly uneventful other than the visibilty which was the clearest since we left the UK. The island was visible from some fifty miles out and at twenty seven miles we double-checked our position because it felt as though we were about to sail up on the beach!

We checked in at the Texaco fuel dock in the marina, gave them a 13kg gas cylinder to refill and we were then escorted to our berth by a dinghy that helped us reverse in, a quite excellent service. There were 80 odd ARC boats already parked, with the ARC office not due to open until Monday 8th. We used this quiet time to do some of the major jobs (go up the masts to check the rigging, change the engine oil and filter etc) and to get to know the area and where the main shops are, a major consideration since we have to provision the boat for at least four weeks. Las Palmas is the first city we have visited since we left the UK six months ago and the car noise and, particularly, the smell of car exhausts is quite overwhelming.

We were glad we used the quiet time because when the ARC office opened the days filled up quickly. We went to seminars on rigging, provisioning and handling emergencies at sea (we didn't learn much but they were good reminders) plus a workshop on two-handed sailing. The latter was a bit scary because it became obvious that some of the big boat sailors' general safety and watchkeeping practices verged on the dangerous (perhaps due to having the power capacity to run equipment to 'do' it for them?), plus some lady members of crew were incapable of even basic tasks such as navigation. Needless to say Mike stirred it up a bit but even the organisers were shocked. In addition to the seminars, we've had a safety check (no problems) and been to happy hour parties every night (we can't keep that up for too long..).

On Friday 12th we went on an all day tour to the mountains which included stops at two churches and the botanical gardens. One of the churches (John the Baptist) was interesting because it was made of black volcanic rock and resembled in miniature form the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (Mike's all-time favourite man-made structure). It all made sense when the guide said it was designed by one of Gaudi's students. Outside the church, much to my amazement, was a Poinsettia tree. Note tree, this thing was about ten feet high!

It was a good day but unfortunately it was in a four day period of cloud and rain so the views and the gardens weren't at their best - and it was so cold at the top of the mountains we could see our breath, a real novelty now. Also, in a town called Teror we saw a tree around thirty feet high with great big red flowers that resembled tulips. We asked the guide what it was and sure enough it was an African Tulip tree.

On the 14th the ARC opening parade was a really colourful event, with every participating country parading its flag which was then raised with due ceremony. After watching the dinghy race we were lucky enough to be invited aboard Il Moro di Venezia IV, an IOR maxi yacht that was used by Paul Cayard's crew for America's Cup training. Now owned by a charming Norwegian, Ari, it's very rare to get a chance to look round such boats.

The following day we went to the market to order the fruit and vegetables for the Atlantic crossing, then we went to a big Carrefour to buy all the food, drink, loo rolls etc etc we will need. We bought three meals a day for three people, plus snacks and drinks and all the other ancilliary items, for 28 days. You wouldn't believe how much food and drink that is!

At this point I'll have to sign off. We leave for the Caribbean on Sunday 21st November and we have much to do before we go. The crossing is likely to take us slightly over three weeks, so we'll try to update the site sometime after that. In the meantime you can follow our progress on the World Cruising Club site, just go to www.worldcruising.com and follow the links to the ARC section.