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)


Back To Life


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.


Four horsemen of the artpocalypse in the marina entrance

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.


For scale, I am five metres above the ray in this picture, the camera is eight.


Top geyser


Journey to a post-apocalyptic world inhabited only by buses


When the hell mouth opens, just build a little wall round it and carry on.


Papagayo. Not bad.



A closer look at the rocks


and the beach nestled inside most of a volcanic crater.


Some rocks. My caption writing is not on top form today.

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.


Sailing in to the sunset is all very well and good, but you can’t see anything


unless you have amazing sunglasses.


Gran Canaria glowing in the morning

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.


Football stadium/park


Park/football stadium


I spent most of the bus ride cooing at the colourful houses climbing the valley walls.






Botanical gardens: hello green.


Crouching Tricia, hidden dragon.


The Fountain of the Wise is dry. Welcome to 2017. 


I can’t tell you how much we were enjoying the green. Wet green.


Spiky green. 


Steep green.

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.