We left Lagos, Portugal, on November 14 and made the Canary Islands on November 18.
We had considered leaving as early as November 11. We were keeping busy working on a broken Jabsco macerator pump, but the real reason for our delay was the wind.
The trip from Lagos to the Canaries is between 600 and 700 miles, depending upon which island you choose as a landfall. That would be somewhere between five and seven days, depending, again, on the wind. Around the 11th, the forecast called for no wind for the first day or two, and then a light wind that would build from behind, but be too weak to keep Leander’s sails filled in the ocean swell. We carry enough fuel for five or six days straight of motoring, but were nonetheless reluctant to use the motor for that long for several reasons. First, although our Westerbeke is relatively dependable, running it 24/7 for six straight days would be asking for trouble. Second, at $5/gallon/hour of engine use, we would rather keep that money in our tanks than not. And third, without a good wind to fill the sails, Leander would not have anything to grab onto among the swell, and would pitch quite a bit. So we thought to wait for more wind.
But we were also anxious about getting too much wind, or wind from the wrong direction. According to the pilot guides, we were supposed to have left Portugal for the Canaries before the end of October. After that time, supposedly, the seas can be rougher and the northerly winds that blow off of the Iberian Peninsula less reliable. But we’ve learned to take such broad pronouncements with a grain of salt. As a general matter, except for the dates circumscribing the various hurricane seasons throughout the world, there is really no bright-line “best before date” when it comes to weather windows. The dates can be good dividers, such that one can say that the likelihood of gales increases after date “x.” But there is not necessarily a corollary that you can always expect good weather if you leave before that magic date or that there are no weather windows to be found afterwards. Take the Bay of Biscay, for example. The pilot guides say that the two-day crossing should be made before September 15, because the “likelihood of gales increases after that date.” It was such that one insurer would give us coverage if we made the crossing before that date, but not if we left after that.
That did not make sense to us. Though it is certainly true that you’re more likely to find a gale in late September than in late August, gales certainly occur in August, and there are fine sailing days in late September and early October – in fact, all winter long. Just pay attention to the weather. But this can be overstated, too. One would not want to depart Greenland for Labrador in any time but summer, for example, as the trip takes long enough that you’ll pass through one low and the chances increase that the low will be a gale. But that is less of a concern for shorter passages or those, like this one, where the risk of a gale is less meaningful.
We studied the weather charts closely, seeing if we could find a time to leave when the winds were a little bit beefier, but trying too not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We did not want to risk the light and gossamer winds being replaced by a good blow from the wrong direction.
We had a couple of false starts, where we had packed and planned to leave, but then called it off. Were our minds playing tricks on us? Were we being too picky? We wondered aloud if our desire to delay was really caused by anxiety about pushing off in general — this would be our longest passage with the kids. s
But then the winds did improve. We would be sailing almost due south, heading south-southwest. The first couple of days would have us crossing the big expanse of water between the Iberian Peninsula and the African coast, with the Strait of Gibraltar to our east. The forecast called for a strong wind from the direction of the Strait to the east. On the weather chart, the wind pattern was shaped like a giant blow torch or candle flame, with its round base at the strait and its point reaching out into the Atlantic to the west. The winds were meant to be light around the Strait itself, stronger in the middle, and then tapered to a lighter point out to sea. Our track would take us through the top part of the “torch,” with winds forecast to increase to about 20, gusting 25, as we moved through the area. That seemed just right to start the trip. The winds were forecast to fade after the first 200 miles of our trip, but then begin to fill in again, light at first and then increasing, at about the 250 mile mark, and take us all the way to the Canaries.
We finally had the boat packed and ready to go for a late afternoon departure on Friday, November 13. But as we did a final read of the charts, we realized we’d be trying to cross a major traffic separation zone in the middle of the night. As these lanes funnel all of the shipping between northern Europe and Med into a small area, and would take three hours to cross, we figured it made better sense to leave the next morning, and cross in daylight.
And so, at 8:30 in the morning of November 14, we pushed off from the dock at Lagos. Once out to sea, we had good wind from the east right away, and set up sail on a broad reach. The engine was soon turned off.
The seas were not comfortable. There were two wave sets. First, a very slight, long-period swell from the northwest, rolling in from a far-away system in the Atlantic. Second, there was a much more violent set rushing in with the strong winds from the Strait. There was a good chop from that direction, but also a fast-moving and steep-set of swell that grew in size as we moved offshore. Leander pitched in its wake.
Having spent ten pleasant and landlubberly days in Lagos, we had lost our sea legs. With the sails set, we all took it easy that first day. There were no boat projects down below nor three-course meals attempted. The kids were OK, but not great. At the end of the day, Paul took over watch and Sima put the kids into their berths below. Our second days at sea are almost always better, a good night’s sleep allowing us to get acclimated to the motion of the sea. Our goal, then, was to get the kids sleeping, and go at it again the next day.
And we almost made it!
But, about twenty minutes after Sima and the kids had gone to their berths, the quiet was punctuated by first one, then a second, and then third anguished cry.
The first was Aylin. She was suddenly overcome with nausea, cried out, and threw up in her berth. The second cry was from Alexander. Lying next to Aylin, he had, unfortunately, been on the receiving end of a good amount of Aylin’s loss. The third cry was from Sima, who, already not feeling great herself, snapped on the light and saw what had happened. We had been so close!
We worked to clean up two kids and their surroundings, but Alexander lasted only another fifteen minutes before he, too, lost his cookies, probably caused by being Aylin’s drop-cloth several minutes earlier. It took us about a half hour to clean the kids up and get them back to their berths. They were soon asleep.
That night made for some tough sailing, as the wind was wildly erratic, blowing at 17 knots for a period, and then increasing to 30, only to reduce back down to the teens again a short time later, a cycle that went on for hours. It was difficult to get a consistent sail set, and the autopilot was having a difficult time keeping up with the erratic wind and bouncy seas, moving between a run and then accelerating to a beam reach as it tried to find its course. Perhaps it was user error, but it was difficult to solve the problem on that first night
The easterly wind began to fade at 5 a.m., as it was forecast to do. We turned on the engine, and motor sailed until early afternoon. By 1 p.m., the wind began to fill in from west, and Leander pressed on at about 6 knots with 9 knots of wind on the beam. The seas calmed a little bit too, and Day 2 was much easier on all of the crew. Aylin was still having trouble, however, and it turned out that her problem wasn’t seasickness, but rather what appeared to be a virus, as she was running a temperature. She got sick again on that morning of Day 2, and we watched her closely. The fever was only slight, however, and soon passed. By the middle of the day, Aylin and Alexander were both up and about and playing, and stayed that way for the rest of the trip.
The westerly wind that set in on Day Two was forecast to slowly veer towards the north and then east over the remaining several days of the trip, and it did just that. Day 2 into Day 3 was near-perfect sailing weather, with the wind right on, and then just aft of, the beam. By Day 3, the wind had veered to NNW and then North, and we set up the sails wing-and-wing, moving the main to one side and poling out the jib on the other.
We found it a challenge to keep both sails filled when sailing wing-and-wing in the rolling sea. Sometimes it worked best sailing by the lee , with the wind coming across the boat to fill in the poled-out jib. That would work just fine for several hours. At other times, however, with the wind seemingly in the same place, the sails would fall apart, with one or the other filling and collapsing, often with a loud “SNAP!” and accompanying “BANG!” of the boom or spinnaker pole. If we then switched, to bring the wind in from just the other side of aft of the beam, we could keep the sails both filled. I’ll be darned if I could figure out why a certain set was working sometimes and not others, but I imagine that it was dependent upon the strength of the wind and the movement of the sea, which would cause the wind to flow around the sails with just enough change to require that the boat be moved relative to the wind.
We reached the half-way point in the middle of Day 3, and continued to strip off clothing. We began to focus more closely on our landfall, as we had not yet made up our minds as to whether we would go to Lanzarote, one of the first islands on the route, or to push on to Gran Canaria, 120 miles further south. We had wanted to reach Gran Canaria, but were unsure what our fuel consumption would be like. By the end of Day 3, however, it was clear that we would not be using much fuel at all, and so we headed for Gran Canaria.
We caught sight of the island in the middle of the afternoon of Day 5, November 18. By this time, the wind had veered all the way to the east, and we were moving along at 7 and 8 knots in 25 knots of wind.
As we moved down the west side of the island, the wind died and the seas flattened. As sunset neared, we were motoring along in flat seas against the red rocks of Gran Canaria’s coast.
This is a busy time for the Canaries, as hundreds of sailboats converge on the islands to prepare for November and December Atlantic crossings, and some of the marinas had nonetheless not responded to our inquiries. We headed for our first choice of ports, Puerto de Mogan, on Gran Canaria’s west coast, even though they had not confirmed a space. But as we neared, we called on the radio, and they told us that there was a space for us. We were tied up by 8:30 p.m., a few hours after dark.
We are happy here — the climate is definitely not northern Europe! The days are 85 and consistently sunny, and the nights cool and pleasant. We’ve left the variables, and the barometer does not move much above or below 1022 mb each day. It hasn’t rained here in weeks.
The beach is a five minute walk from the boat. There are shops,restaurants, and good-sized supermarket, and the prices are favorable, especially when compared with those we left behind in the north. Musicians frequent the restaurants along the quay, and play softly in the background at the end of the day. (We find this so much more appealing than the ubiquitous steel guitars playing reggae and Jimmy Buffet in the beach pubs in the Caribbean, usually with the speakers turned loud enough to disquiet one’s sleep no matter how far away you anchored. And better, too, then the wake-the-dead, thump-thump-thump of the late-night dance halls of Panama, Jamaica, and Malaysia.) At dusk, the foot traffic on the quay dwindles to those few coming or going from dinner or out for an evening stroll, and we sleep to dead quiet. In the mornings, the throngs return, and we catch snippets of Spanish, English, Swedish, French, and German among the passerby. If we are out and about on deck, someone invariably calls to us. “Hey – did you sail here all the way from America?” Why yes, we did.