It’s one o’clock in the morning. The night is hot and utterly, utterly black. Somewhere over there is an island, the Ilha do Sal, but I can’t see it. The pilot book warns that the charts are inaccurate and the navigation lights usually don’t work.
There’s no moon and no stars. It’s completely dark. In the gentle breeze there are no white caps on the sea to stand out against the black water. There’s not even the occasional glint from a ripple. Silent and invisible, the ocean heaves gently up and down as if breathing in deep sleep. Sailing slowly, I approach as close as I dare to where I think the island should be, every sense straining for some indication of its presence.
I regard this as my first really foreign landfall. I’ve been to Spain, Portugal, Madeira and the Canaries but although they’re different from England, they’re not that different. They’re European. This is Africa.
It’s taken me eight days to sail here, heading south from from the Canaries. Despite crossing into the tropics, to begin with I was dressed in sea boots, trousers, two T-shirts, a fleece and, when going outside, an oilskin jacket too. Later in the trip I was hot in just my skin. The wind was light or moderate for most of the time but for a day it roared out of the east at 30 knots, howling in the rigging and whipping the sea into a fury. I hove-to, setting the mainsail to turn the boat one way and the rudder to turn it the other, with the result that the boat stopped and drifted slowly downwind while I waited for the storm to blow itself out. Afterwards, the boat was caked in salt and a fine orange powder. Dry, easterly winds blow dust from the African interior several hundred miles out to sea, a phenomenon known as the harmattan. The dust remained in the air for days, reducing visibility to a couple of miles and making both dawns and sunsets drab, monochrome affairs.
It’s now two o’clock in the morning. This really is weird. Since arriving at its northwest tip an hour ago I’ve sailed five miles down the west coast of the island without seeing anything. There’s just a uniform, velvety blackness. I know the island’s there. I can see it on the radar screen. According to the chart it’s fifteen miles long, six miles wide and has both a small town and an airport, but peer as I may into the blackness I just can’t see anything, anything at all.
I heave-to to wait for dawn. The sound of water flowing passed the hull, ever-present so unnoticed till now, stops. There is only silence, blackness and heat. The ocean breathes slowly up and down. And over there, unseen, is an island.