October struggled on, dripping with sweat and coated in a film of blown-in Saharan dust. Our two week work stop in Arrecife had protracted to five and the pair of us were tense and tired, still shackled to a marina that seemed less of a luxury and more of a detention camp by the day. So, of course, when we were finally free to leave, the engine broke.
We call the engine “Sooty” because the exhaust hose beside it squeaks like Sooty’s friend Sweep when it’s working right (apologies to those deprived of a British 80s childhood – Sooty was a little, silent puppet bear, and I loved him). Stupid, shitty, bastard Sooty had lost all of the oil from his gearbox into the bilge. When refilled, it disappeared again within a day. Time for tense, tired, overworked Rich to return to the dark pit beneath the aft cabin, biting back his frustration and impatience to dismantle and diagnose. When he resurfaced, we had a corroded output flange as our new enemy.
Months ago, before leaving the Mediterranean, Rich and I had budgeted for the Canaries, the Gambia and the Atlantic crossing based on extremely optimistic (entirely fictitious) figures. We still don’t know quite what was miscalculated (by so much), but when we’d arrived in Lanzarote we’d realised we were screwed. Now we had worked for several weeks our finances had been replenished. We’d been able to afford the dyneema for our new stays and had enough in the kitty to get us as far as the Cape Verde islands, from which we’ll make the crossing to the Caribbean – crossings are free as there are no cafes, stationers or fishing equipment shops in the ocean. We had enough for our plan to go on. But we hadn’t made enough for a 250 Euro engine part replacement.
A metal workshop saved the day, machining down the corroded section of the offending item for less than 20 Euros. A replacement oil lip seal of a smaller size than the original completed the repair, and we bid goodbye to the kind and helpful marina gang with a last few relieved rounds of too many cheap beers.
The morning was bright and windless as we motored out of the marina. We dropped the hook near the entrance to put out the bowsprit together, but when a yelling policeman from the commercial wharf made us hoist the anchor the job fell to Rich alone. He heaved and jiggled the bowsprit in to place while I drove Gwen slowly around in circles, singing songs and cheering him on, waiting for freedom to begin. We bimbled out, sailing at under a knot for the next hour or so, before deciding that we really needed to get somewhere that day and give the revitalised engine a good workout.
We motored in to the rocky bay of Papagayo on the south of Lanzarote, dropped our anchor and our jaws, and, as soon as Gwen was settled, leapt into the clear water. At last, we were home in the blue. Beneath the boat what looked like an implausibly gigantic stingray was resting, and I called Rich over to help me decide if it was real. A little flutter of one edge of its body told us that it was. We ate dinner as the sun set beside misty shadow silhouettes of Fuerteventura, casting an orange light on the bay, and wondered if we were permitted to stop holding our breaths.
We lived between Papagayo and neighbouring Playa Blanca for a few more joyous days, stalking cuttlefish, parrot fish and a dark and beautiful eagle ray, stocking up on provisions and exploring rocky crevices and busy beaches. We took the volcano tour we’d promised ourselves as remittance for our hard work and discovered that the rest of Lanzarote is indeed as barren as the north. When we decided to leave (there’s The Gambia to get to, after all) the bay was still protected by the island, and as we departed I had plenty of time to practice all of the hoisting, unhooking, sail backing and problem solving involved in sailing from anchor while Rich steered.
We lumbered along the sheltered south coast with a slight land breeze ahead of us for four hours, reading and singing and growing a little tired of the pace. We could see the north easterly wind of our grib charts darkening the sea in the distance, and when the first gust came from the north we gybed. It disappeared, and we gybed again. Another gust, another gybe, lazier than the first, both of us gently loosening and tying runners and headsail sheets while trying not to get our hopes up. And back again. Finally the indecisive boom rested forcefully on the port side, our one knot surged to six and within a minute our course and pace were set for the night ahead. In the now blustery cockpit we didn’t mention the wind that had appeared, knowing that whoever did would be held responsible should it bugger off again.
The night was moonlit and the sea was smooth, populated by cruise ships deliberately dawdling to fill the hours between islands. I slept too well in my off-watches and suffered for my luck on my shifts, struggling to stay awake unless I kept my face in the wind. Sometimes a night watch is just a duty, and my second one that night reminded me of a job I had in my teens, manning a fire door in a theatre. To lean on the door was considered a bad thing, though I did it when I thought I could get away with it, watching the same damn am-dram production show after show, aching with the tedium, bored with the effort of carrying my own weight. I lasted a week. And twenty years later I spent half a night watch remembering it in detail.
The wind was dying as we approached Gran Canaria so we put the engine on early to enter the harbour at Las Palmas. The ARC dominates the marina at this time of the year so all other marina boats were anchored in the nearby bay, and we had to wind our way around them to find a spot, nestled between them at the greatest distance we could manage. We’re still in that spot. We stayed with Gwen until we were sure she was safe, rowed ashore for a revitalising pizza and came back to trick or treat a neighbouring boat, Jorge’s new ride, thanks to some cheap black lipstick from a bazaar. Bazaars will be one of the things we miss about Spain. They remind us of Trago Mills.
We both like the city. Rich has been here before and loves the lush hectares of botanical gardens on the outskirts, so when Thursday turned out to be a religious holiday (because in Spain you need at least one a fortnight) we abandoned our provisioning plans and went on a voyage of vegetative discovery by bus. As we had to change twice in each direction we were able to see the city beyond the concrete shopping precincts near the marina, including its dark stone cathedral and other old buildings and a park that used to be a football stadium. We found the gardens and descended in to their steep valley with the joy of two people who haven’t seen a lot of plants in the last month and a half.
We talked at length about whether we should visit Tenerife and La Gomera, or just leave from here for Africa. As always, the weather forecast made the decision for us. It’s looking good to go south this afternoon and unpleasantly blowy in the Canaries later in the week, so if I can finish writing this post and Rich can fix whatever’s wrong with the cooker we’ll depart today for the 1000 mile journey to The Gambia. Out here every new position is the furthest south we’ve ever been, and this will be our longest journey yet by far. We’ve stocked up on fresh goods and signed out at the port office, so there’s just water and fuel to grab from the marina on our way out. I’d be excited, but there’s a lot of tidying up to do first.
Ten years ago a young Richard, all lineless tan and greyless beard, visited his then girlfriend at her work placement in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. While she worked he would bother the frogs in the botanical gardens or sit on the beach off the city centre. He would look at the boats that were anchored there and tell himself “one day I’ll have a boat, and I’ll sail it here on my way to the Caribbean”. We’re anchored off that beach now, preparing to sail this afternoon for a destination neither of us could have imagined when we started this journey – a journey that I’ve been on for half as long as him, that he started on that beach.
See you in Gambia.