Since leaving the European mainland I’ve visited the Madeira archipelago, the Canaries and the Cape Verdes.
Porto Santo, Madeira
The Madeira Archipelago is made up of several islands. Madeira itself is the biggest, two are uninhabited and kept as wildlife sanctuaries, and the fourth is Porto Santo, which I visited.
Measuring only 11km by 6km, Porto Santo is small. The harbour is large, though, and well built. Someone said NATO built it for strategic purposes but I don’t know if this is true. The marina, inside the harbour, is tiny. There’s essentially one pontoon of local fishing vessels and one for a couple of dozen visiting boats. The daily rate for staying in the marina is a bit high but the monthly rate is really low so many boats, having arrived with the intention of staying for a few days, actually stay a lot longer.
Because there are only a few boats but the ones there are stay a long time the crews get to know each other. With drinks on that boat yesterday, dinner on this one today, books loaned to the crew of this little sloop and borrowed from that big ketch, there’s a real community feel.
The island is hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic. Everyone who’s sailed there has thus earned their stripes so nobody bothers to wear them. I spoke to one couple regularly for four days before discovering from someone else that they’re on their third circumnavigation. Entirely absent is that denizen of European mainland marinas: the Marina Man. Endlessly polishing his already gleaming boat, Marina Man is rarely seen actually to sail anywhere but is nonetheless quick to advise on everything from how to survive a storm in the Southern Ocean to the best 21 inch colour chart plotter with real-time satellite image overlay. In Porto Santo marina sailing is not discussed very much at all. Mostly the conversations centre on the best place to buy fresh vegetables and whether the path up this hill or that is the most scenic.
Although I really liked life in Porto Santo marina, I did not find the island itself that inspiring. It really is a desert island, with little vegetation for most of the year. I did like the barren scenery but it does pall after a while. I’ve got some good photos but I’m posting this from offshore via a slow satellite link so I’ll have to add them later I’m afraid.
Tenerife, Canary Islands.
From Madeira I sailed to Tenerife in the Canaries. I went first to Santa Cruz to make use of the chandleries, riggers and hypermarkets to be found there. The touristy parts of Tenerife are all in the south so Santa Cruz, in the north, is a functional city. This I liked. The marina I didn’t. It’s large and soulless. Upon arrival, rather than being given a list of services they are happy to offer, each skipper is presented with a list of rules to be obeyed. Despite being expensive the facilities are barely second rate.
I found I was troubled by something else, too. Many people set out on their Atlantic crossing from here. Each day several would depart, often with family standing on the dock having flown-in to wave and cheer as the boat departs. Still anxious about my own future plans I found this unsettling, bringing to the fore as it did thoughts I had been successfully repressing.
As soon as I’d got what I needed from Santa Cruz I left and, after a couple of intermediary stops, came to rest again at El Medano. This I found much more to my liking. It’s famously windy which made life at anchor a bit wearing but this was more than compensated for by the fact that the wind also makes the place a mecca for kite- and wind-surfers and the village is devoted to surf bum life. With Moonrise anchored just off the beach, after a day swimming and reading I could row ashore, leave my dingy on the sand in among the surfboards, buy a drink in one of the many bars and watch the sun go down. Few people wear shoes, everyone’s caked in salt and I loved it.
La Gomera, Canary Islands
From Tenerife I sailed to La Gomera and liked it immediately. The small, pleasant, efficient marina is built into the old harbour so it’s right in the centre of the small town. Here there are no drunk, bare-chested oafs with beer glasses resting on their sunburned bellies. Rather, in the late evening the town’s streets are filled with the low murmur of conversation as diners, chairs pushed back and legs stretched out, linger over their after-dinner coffee in the warm night air.
Sal, Cape Verdes Archipelago
From La Gomera in the Canaries I sailed to Sal in the Cape Verde Islands. The guidebook is not terribly flattering about Sal and with good reason, but it’s one of only three ports of entry and to visit other islands it’s necessary to go to one of them first.
In the middle of nowhere with few natural resources, Cape Verde is poor. But taxes are collected fairly and they’re spent on education, health and infrastructure rather than presidential palaces and limousines. All children have the opportunity to complete their secondary education and literacy rates are very high. The police were polite and friendly when I checked in on arrival. Despite its poverty, Cape Verde is a beacon of hope among its West African neighbours.
By chance I arrived between Christmas and New Year. I’d been waiting outside the harbour all night so after going in to anchor at first light I immediately fell asleep. Awakening some hours later I looked around and discovered that despite being on a not very noteworthy desert island out in the Atlantic Ocean I actually knew more people there than I do in the English village I’ve lived in for the last sixteen years. There was a Dutch couple who were just in from an intrepid month in Senegal and Gambia, a German couple who are on their second circumnavigation, this time with their young son, and a French couple on their super-fast racing boat on their way to the Caribbean, all of whom I’d met previously on my travels. There were also several other boats I knew by sight.
Sao Nicolau, Cape Verdes
The island of Sao Nicolau is next to Sal. It’s great. I anchored off a small, friendly fishing village and stayed far longer than planned. The place is small enough that everyone knows everyone so everyone is pretty well behaved. While I was there an unattended yacht began to drag its anchor so a fishing boat skipper rounded up his crew and put to sea, proficiently rescued the yacht and, after re-anchoring it, returned once more to harbour themselves. That’s how communities are supposed to behave! The tone is pervasive. When the officer on duty could not find my boat’s papers the Police Chief was summoned even though he was on holiday. He appeared fifteen minutes later dressed in civies, found my papers, patiently showed the officer on duty where they had been filed and apologized to me because I’d had to wait. To top all of this, the scenery is lovely, with precipitate green hills falling straight into the sea.
Sao Vincente, Cape Verdes
Mindelo is the main town on Sao Vincente. It’s okay if you like that kind of thing but it’s not for me. It has that urban feel that’s the same the world over. People are more stressed, rude and aggressive than in the smaller places. They smile less.
Nonetheless I enjoyed my time there because of the social life. Every boat in Mindelo marina is there because it’s just about to sail across the Atlantic. There are big ones and small ones, luxurious ones and ascetic ones. There are lumbering heavyweights and super-fast, uncomfortable ones. Their skippers and crews are similarly diverse. But there is something they all share and while I struggle to put my finger on it I know I like it. I’ve met more people I truly respect, find to be good company or both in the last six months than I have in the last six years. Maybe sailing a long way changes you. Maybe it’s only a certain type of person that drops out of the rat-race for a while in order to sail across an ocean in a small boat and, being one, I like the others. Or maybe it’s both of those. Either way, I find I like the community of off-shore sailors.
As it can’t be spent or exchanged outside the country two sailors, as they were leaving for the Caribbean, gave me their left-over Cape Verdian money. My friends and I spent this unexpected windfall on drinks and pizzas in the marina bar. On the morning of my departure I selected a boat of happy-looking youngsters and gave them my left-over money, asking that when they came to leave they should do the same.
And so the time came for me to sail across the Atlantic.