Gran Canaria to Banjul Part 1: Notes from the Ocean

11 November

I’m not at my best first thing in the morning. Often, whether at anchor, in a marina or at sea, my first thought of the day will be the most negative. I half dream, already imagining the pirate attack, the collision, the storm, and carry the thought with me into consciousness, moping and lamenting to myself rather than worrying, chasing the coffee that will banish it. On Sunday my semisentient gripe was simple: there could be no possible way I should sail Gwen long distances in the Atlantic. The ocean is wide, wild and deep and she is just a little concrete shell adorned with a few spindly sticks and tatty rags. I saw her bashed about, miles from safety, teetering precariously on waves before plunging into them. I felt the roll that could shake her fittings loose, wrenching her delicate wooden spars with creaking, banging jolts. I felt the roll again, and again, and heard her staysail strain in a gust. I woke with one thought:

“I’m sailing in the bloody Atlantic, aren’t I”

I was (and still am). We had left Las Palmas the day before, picking up a little water and fuel from the marina before hoisting the sails in the busy harbour entrance. We had passed gargantuan drilling machinery as an orange and grey cloud enveloped the island, heralding the rise of an enormous yellow moon, and sailed along and away from Gran Canaria’s east side in gold and silver floodlit night.

A big boat holding two oil rigs, because apparently that’s a thing

Adios Spain, and thanks for all the tapas and public holidays


On the road again

We rode a largely steady wind for three or four days, seesawing gently on a frothy skin of rippling blue. Each day we performed a maneuver to tweak Gwen’s rig and compensate for small deviations in wind direction and speed, poling out the staysail to go closer downwind or adding or reducing sail. Whereas we’d normally have to stay alert for such adjustments, the wind’s predictability found us thinking in a much longer time frame: “maybe we’ll gybe on Tuesday”, not “maybe we’ll gybe in an hour”. There were no land, neighbours, cruisers or tankers to avoid, and Geordi took care of the rest of the steering.

This freedom from boat duties, along with a pleasant downwind course that doesn’t rock us beyond comfort, has given us more time and energy than we’re used to on a long passage. Snug in my cushion coffin arrangement, which has now become a permanent feature, we sleep deeply when off watch so we can enjoy the daylight hours and pour ourselves into cooking, fishing, playing and lounging. Our hefty stock of ripe and nearly ripe fresh goods keeps us in omelettes, snacks and salad. Rich, who usually finds cooking a frustrating chore, uses his new pressure cooker to rattle out delicious stews, soups and curries, fleshed out with the meat of small, unfortunate dorado fish.

Under Pressure

Gwen’s classic downwind pose, all canvas and no knickers

Found this poor sod on deck one morning

Pretty, though, eh?

My culinary efforts have been less impressive. One evening, as I turned to open the oven door, the vegetable bake I had lovingly crafted skidded down the galley surface on a sudden jolt of the boat. It mounted the fiddle that should have kept it in place and launched itself at the floor opposite. I screamed. It went everywhere. Helpfully, Rich wandered over to tell me how I could have avoided that happening. I scolded him and my ruined dinner until they both apologised and admitted to poor timing.

The fourth night was warmer and cloudier than those before, and before the beaming moon (which rises later and smaller each night) made its appearance I found myself surrounded by darkness. An underwater thunderstorm of phosphorescent lights began to pulse in Gwen’s wake, small bursts that exploded and dissolved away. Soon there were more either side of the boat. Dolphins danced among them, puffing their familiar exhalations as the rhythmic lights flashed like Michael Jackson’s pavement stones. I could hear them all too well. The wind was beginning to die.

The next morning I was woken early by a call from Rich. “Do you want to see a whale up close?” I popped my head and then my body out of the bedroom hatch to join him in gawping at the mass that Gwen slowly approached: the huge log-like upper edge of a sperm whale, rising and falling barely five metres away as it passed, grey and heavy in the citrus pink haze of sunrise. The back end was resting, the front of it was breathing through a large spurting hole and all of it, presumably, was sleeping soundly.

The cloud and the last of the wind were left behind with the whale. We spent the rest of the day becalmed in sunshine, using the redundant sails for shade, reading Treasure Island out loud and playing mankala with the wrong rules. It’s easier to spot wildlife on a flat calm sea, and we saw dolphins, turtles and a little shark as well as the dragonflies that seem to gather in a lack of wind out here. We also spotted the first of a few sailing yachts, though only on the AIS receiver. While we’ve traced 120 miles off the coast of Western Sahara for safety from pirates that may or may not exist, these others are taking the direct diagonal route from Lanzarote to the Cape Verdes on their way across the pond.

The waves receded. Looking over the side of the boat you could see tendrils of light emenating from your shadow, caught on the faintest of invisible ripples. When Gwen reached a complete standstill we took it in turns to jump off the bowsprit, swimming or rinsing off briefly in the surprisingly warm ocean before climbing out in case a shark had got a whiff of us.

Very very busy half-steering and reading

Becalmed is a beautiful place to visit

Testing out the “getting back on board” system…

…and then leaping in

The next days were cloudy and grey, monochrome prints of the ones before with only Gwen and her garish paint job not in Kansas any more. One morning I had made breakfast and coffee and gone for a nap when I was woken by an unusual clatter. The boat seemed to be moving faster, which made sense, but there were noises unrelated to speed – bashing, toppling and grunts of effort. I bounced down to the cockpit, which was awash with blood. “Is everything alright, dear?”. Rich proudly showed me the enormous bonito he’d caught and hauled on board, the cooking and consumption of which became our biggest project for the following 24 hours.

For the last couple of days we’ve never been more than five minutes from sight of a flying fish. Usually in flocks of three to ten, they emerge and soar gracefully just above the water for longer than you’d think possible, sometimes arching their bodies to skip off the top of a wave before sploshing hilariously back into the water. We watch them with an amused spare eye as we shower in salt water on the foredeck or read in the cockpit. We’re back to whistling merrily along with the wind behind us, full of the exhilaration of a large blue world, getting better at spotting wildlife as the distinction between sea and not sea grows more obvious.

Look at this smug git


Take-off and bounce poses

Our whole time in the Canaries we chatted giddily about getting to the Gambia. We could never have imagined that the journey there would be worth as much excitement. Tomorrow we’ll turn landward, but neither of us would mind a longer holiday out here in nowhere. Rich is strumming a Lady Gaga song I taught him on the ukulele, I’m shark spotting in the hot setting sun (I’ve just seen a whopper), Gwen’s bimbling at a peaceful three knots and we’re discussing the 12km of chain (3:1 minimum, to be safe) we’d need to drop anchor here and shun the land for a few days more. Sadly we only have 80m.

To be continued..

(In the meantime, here’s a wee gallery of less than perfect nature photography)


2 thoughts on “Gran Canaria to Banjul Part 1: Notes from the Ocean

  1. Jesper, The Biveros Effect says:

    Just a little bit jealous at the moment 😛
    We visited The Gambia last year and it is an amazing country. I’m sure that you are in for a lot of surprises and don’t be afraid to explore. The country is so different compared to what we were used to, mostly in a positive way. 🙂

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