The Power of Nature
“A huge wave caught the beam of the boat and filled up our whole cockpit. This wave ripped our sprayhood, which Luciano had made before we left and drenched us both."
We’re supposed to be on our way to Cape Verde by now, ready to lounge on a white sand beach and dance to live music in Mindelo town on the island of São Vicente; instead we are anchored off the south coast of Gran Canaria. We had been meaning to leave Lanzarote a week ago, but we’ve had a couple of delays to our departure. Such has been our sailing experience so far and we really shouldn’t be surprised that it has happened yet again.
We initially intended to leave Lanzarote last Sunday, but had noticed that Chocolate Cat had a little scab on his upper lip. We looked inside his mouth but couldn’t see anything. Then we noticed that he was scratching it after eating. On the morning we were due to leave, we decided we couldn’t leave on a week long sail without taking him to the vet. The next morning, which was a Monday, we called and called, but there was no answer. Finally we found out online that it was Constitution Day, which is a public holiday across the whole of Spain. So then we had to wait until Tuesday to take him to the vet. In the meantime the Cone of Shame had to make a return to stop him scratching his mouth. It turns out he has a mouth infection. The vet was unable to see if there was any more concerning cause, such as a tooth abscess or even a tumour until the infection is treated, bringing down the inflammation and making it less painful for him so the vet can have a proper look. She gave him an injection of antibiotic which will treat the infection over the next two weeks and a combined oral medicine of anti-inflammatories and painkiller, which we have to administer daily for a week. Then we have to take him to a vet again in 10 -14 days to see if there is anything else wrong. I searched online and saw that there was a five star rated vet in Mindelo, the town where we planned to go in Cape Verde, so we decided to proceed the next day.
We finally set off from Lanzarote on Wednesday. The winds were in our favour and we made good progress past Fuerteventura, south of Lanzarote with its distinctive volcanic cones. By nightfall we were passing the bright lights of Gran Canaria on our right hand side. We took our usual shifts during the night and all was going well. The next morning the waves were getting quite big and breaking rather than rolling. We double checked our weather forecasting app. The waves were definitely larger than they were supposed to be - three to four metres and they were supposed to get slightly bigger over the next day. The wind was increasing to the high 20 knots. This is perfectly manageable, especially downwind. However, Luciano was feeling uneasy about the size of the waves. My preference was to carry on as it was supposed to reduce on Saturday (it was now Thursday), although I was happy to turn back if he didn’t feel confident. He wasn’t sure if it was a gut feeling (like the one that made him check the steering cables the day before we left Madeira) or just fear. I could also see on the weather app that going back would be very challenging as the wind was much stronger around the south of Gran Canaria plus we would have to beat back against the wind and waves which is always harder than going downwind.
A few minutes later Luciano noticed that we had a small tear at the top of our headsail. This was something that although small, would definitely get much worse if the sail was left out and we still had another five to six days left to sail to Cape Verde. We do have a spare headsail and a storm jib as back ups, but as we were only twenty miles south of Gran Canaria, it seemed more sensible to go back and get our primary sail repaired. Plus changing the sail wouldn’t be easy in the big waves. Luciano’s gut had already been telling him we should go back. As we turned into the wind, the speed increased to over thirty knots. We had about four and a half hours to go. Going back against the waves was much much wetter than surfing away from them. The spray was constantly lashing us. Luciano was handsteering as the autopilot couldn’t work with those waves and he was absolutely drenched, with the water having entered inside all of his wet gear.
As time went on, he wouldn’t take a break, preferring to stay glued to the wheel and I was checking we were on course, handing him water, giving the cat his medicine etc. As we got closer, the wind speed grew to the mid thirties and stayed there constantly. A huge wave caught the beam of the boat and filled up our whole cockpit. This wave ripped our sprayhood, which Luciano had made before we left and drenched us both. Luckily the water drained out and didn’t enter through the gangway inside the boat. However, as I looked below I saw that pretty much every hatch and window on our boat leaks when large amounts of water are thrown at them with the force of powerful waves. There were drips of water underneath every one, in some cases, larger amounts of water. The motion of the boat meant there was cat food everywhere on the floor. But I had to stay in the cockpit to give moral support to a shivering Luciano. The winds continued to get stronger, constantly over 35 knots. We had gusts of up to 41 knots. I was begging the wind to drop, just to back below 30 where we felt comfortable. I kept telling myself that this was not a storm, the boat could handle it and it was only a couple of hours more to go. On the Beaufort Scale, 34-40 knots is a Force 8 or Gale with a probable wave height of 5.5 metres. We had only once been out in a boat with gusts of 35 knots, so this was the strongest wind we had ever experienced. We were just counting down the miles and hoping that the boat would last.
When we got close enough to get phone reception, I called the closest marina that we were heading for. As we had dreaded, the marina said they had no space. “It’s kind of an emergency,” I said. “Our sail ripped and the winds are really strong. We’ll go on the reception pontoon, anywhere.” “I’m sorry”, he said, “I have two boats on the fuel pontoon, boats everywhere, we are completely full, but you can try anchoring outside.” I relayed this to Luciano. We had a couple of options; one was to try another marina further away, but we were already on course for an early evening arrival at this close marina, we didn’t want to be out in these winds at night. Our second option was to hope that the mountainous landscape of Gran Canaria would shelter the anchorage sufficiently. We decided to keep going to the anchorage and if we felt it wasn’t safe enough, then to coastal sail round to the next marina in the shelter of the land. Luckily as we got closer, we saw lots of boats outside the marina. The wind dropped to the twenties and the sea calmed. It’s amazing what a difference the shadow of the land makes. It was still daylight and there was plenty of space to anchor. The number of other boats anchoring there was also reassuring.
We anchored safely and pegged out our wet clothes and other wet items from around the boat. Mainly we were glad to be back in security. We were OK, the cats were OK and the boat was mostly OK - still afloat at least. We collapsed into bed. The next day was Friday. We woke up and started ringing around companies to help us with our various issues - predominantly the sail and sprayhood repair, but we also have a few other things we would like to sort out. We knew the coming weekend would mean no one would be working. No one was getting back to us and we wondered how long it would take as everywhere is still so busy. We felt frustrated, this on top of our steering cables. It felt like every time we went out on the water, something went wrong. Were we completely stupid to be trying to cross the Atlantic? Our money that we had spent years saving was draining away rapidly. We had imagined Christmas at anchor in the Caribbean, but would we ever make it there?
We calmed down. The repairs needed were minor. We were safe. The sun was shining. The tradewinds would still be with us for a while. It felt like just one thing was going wrong after another, but then we thought we could be cycling to work in the dark and rain in London, coming back in the dark and worrying about heating our flat due to the gas crisis. Or worse. Every time we go out, including the day with the big waves, we hear on the radio the coast guard telling ships to watch out for a vessel adrift or underway from the coast of mainland Africa heading for the Canary islands. That day we experienced the strong winds, there were probably dozens of people stuffed into an eight metre boat, risking their lives to get to where there is work to be had and security. Delays are delays. We chose to leave our comfortable lives in pursuit of more adventure and to be more in touch with nature and the elements. Nature is powerful, can’t always be exactly predicted, even with all the improvements in weather forecasting technology and we really can’t complain about being delayed a few more days to do some minor repairs. In many ways we are still transitioning from the London mindset of rush rush rush and can’t waste time. But there is no objective rush, we’re on nature’s timetable now.
This week's Vlog.