Land Go!

Our passage notes on our 1,000 mile passage from the Canaries to Gambia

Day 1: John said it, and he’s right: We should have a phrase we say when we watch land slip down past the horizon. Every time we see land again after an ocean passage we greet it with an enthusiastic, “Land Ho!” Rightfully so, as it is uncommon to human nature to go without that beautiful green earth underfoot. So, when we get that first glimpse of a 360 degree view of nothing but blue we should have a universal sailors cry, perhaps something like, “Land Go!” That’s it – I like it. Land Go! There’s an enthusiasm for what lays ahead and a proper nod to the island or continent we leave behind. 

At 9:00am on 7/12/2020 we hauled up anchor and sailed out of Las Palmas, Canaries heading southwest with a distance of 1,000 miles ahead of us. For all of 2020 we’d planned on heading from South Africa to Western Europe to end the year in the Caribbean, expecting to sit under palm trees and be sipping rum when Santa pulled in. But over the past two weeks I caught wind of the possibility of Gambia, and my intrigue was captured. A big muddy river filled with crocodiles surrounded by pristine native jungle filled with birds with overhanding bush filled with monkeys — I’m in! So, with a little persuasion I convinced the crew we should head for a small detour before crossing the Atlantic. Only a thousand miles to the south, a 300 mile river to transit, then back out to that rum. 

Oh, and Land Go! At 13:00 we watched the tip of Teide slip out of sight, the tallest peak in Spain. Land Go feels right – for the land we leave behind, and also for the land that lay ahead.

Our first day at sea is always a quiet one of adjustment. Usually we’ve been running at full speed so the forced enclosure feels like a sanctuary of calm. The movement of the boat also takes some adjustment, as we finalise stowage by securing the odd repetitive knock of things left untucked. Homework is paused. The books come out. We nap. We read. We nap. We read. It is all the pace we should enjoy at anchor, but never seem to find time for. 

But to stir up some trouble, we’ve collected two stowaway elves in Las Palmas. Not as in mischievous elfin-like crew, but two small red and green cotton-stuffed elves that have been entertained the kids since they’ve come onboard. My daughter is a firm believer — these elves are eyes and ears for Santa, though they’ve yet to make the desired impact on bringing out sweet and diminishing sour. I can’t tell if my son, however, is truly gullible or if I’m the gullible one for thinking he’s falling for the magical creatures act. Either way, they are proving to be a lot of entertainment as they mysteriously appear in odd places and odd positions around the boat. I’m also not sure if the kids are having more fun, or the kid in the adults are. Either way, the “elf magic” is helping to keeping things light and entertaining onboard. 

Day 2: We are clipping along at six knots with a consistent 20 knot north-easterly wind, but the rolling seas are keeping things lively onboard. It isn’t comfortable per se, but at least the conditions are reliable and the weather forecast indicates we can expect wind all the way. The day onboard was rather dull as John and I devoured books and the kids got sucked into their tablet. We tend to keep a tight reign on digital time, but somehow today became defined by them. The quiet was good, but the battles that come from it are not – too much time zoned out turns our two angels into little monsters. So, I change the passcodes once again. 

To the rescue was their guardian angels, who come to visit on passage and deliver books under their pillow while they sleep. There’s a lot of magic onboard, usually that twinkles to life when we put out to sea. For those who wonder how we can keep sane while away from outside contact for so long, you obviously haven’t yet been introduced to our magical kingdom of fairies and angels. 

Night watches are still cold. We are at 24 degrees north but the wind is coming down from a wintery Europe. We look forward to the tropics where a blanket of warm wind makes the evenings comfortable. It lays just days ahead of us, and I look forward to sitting out under the stars when it comes. For now, a blanket of wool warms my body as I sit out in the cold wind. 

Day 3: We are now going s l o o o w w w. Two knots slow. In the night our genoa halyard chafed through and our sail was dumped into the sea bringing us to an abrupt stop. It is now lying crumpled up on deck and soiled with antifouling,  like an oversized wet nappie and just as useless. After a few hours of slow progress under jib alone we hoist the main  and gain some speed again. There are alternate halyards that we could use to re-hoist it, but getting it threaded up the foil is not something we want to try at sea. We will  see the rest of the way under jib and main; under-powered but at least moving at a reasonable 5 knot speed with good wind. It won’t break any records to the finish line, but let’s just hope we that’s the only thing we don’t break. 

Other than gear failure, all else remains calm for the day. I am months behind on organising photos, editing video clips and writing since my computer died on the long-distance haul across the Atlantic, and now that I’m digitised again with a new computer I’m catching up while on passage. I’m not sure what the pace of life on other boats is like, but for John and I we remain incredibly busy when we are cruising — boat maintenance, the general upkeep and homeschooling combined with maximising our time in a country and socialising — that our down time gets completely absorbed. I was amazed at how many people we met in the Canaries brought crew onboard for the passages, as well as how many people asked to be our crew… No thank you! Give away the only quiet time we get to enjoy onboard? You got to be kidding me! 

Day 4: We finally turned the corner of the western “Horn of Africa,” or just rounded her continental rump, depending on which way you look at it. The only significance being we worked so hard just four months ago to cross this point heading north from South Africa, and now we are retracting our steps south. if you’ve followed our route through the years, we do seem to run backward before moving forward. New Zealand – Tonga – Fiji – New Zealand in 2011 (and from New Zealand back up to Vanuatu in 2012, Fiji’s western neighbour). Australia north to south in 2012 and north again in 2013. Malaysia – Thailand – Malaysia in 2014. Chagos – Maldives – India – Maldives in 2015. Mozambique – Madagascar – Mozambique in 2018. Africa – Europe – Africa – Caribbean this 2020. When are we going to learn just to travel in a straight line?! 

It appears that our cat – the more inquisitive of the two – has turned into our first truly qualified fisherman onboard. I write this surrounded by the pungent aroma of fish and my cat running wild around the spot in which I just saved (or more likely, half-saved) a very large flying fish. Yesterday I was not the honourable saviour; I caught Ingwe with just a fish heed, all other parts devoured. I sat and watched him as he ate that head down, leaving behind nothing more than a tiny jaw full of miniature teeth. While I prefer fish in the ocean, at least our mog leaves no waste.

Day 5: The kids have been on good form, but seems the two of us picked up a minor stomach bug and have been worst for wear this trip. John and I are finally starting to round the corner, though I do confess John is rounding a little slower than I. Today I woke feeling back to normal, so it was board games with the kids in the morning followed by school and then catching up on some of the advent calendar activities I’d put together for the kids. Each day they cut a square out of their paper calendar and a message is revealed; little treats, small activities, the sort. I was cunning and put in a few self-serving items like the massage I got from Braca the other day and the cup of tea Ayla made me for breakfast. But on low speed, tasks like baking cooked, puppet theatre, and making Santa and elves were delayed. So today we crafted in the afternoon while devouring hot baked cookies, enjoyable for child and adult alike.

To add to the perspective comment earlier, our new House batteries that we bought in the Canaries to replace our old dying ones seem to have their shortcomings. Regardless that they are just off the shelf, they seem not to hold their charge. So, while we are sailing all the way (good), we have to listen to the thump thump thump of the engine for a few hours every day while the engine charges the batteries (very annoyingly bad). 

Three out of seven. My cats look at me in disgust every time I ply a fish from their mouth and toss it gasping and flapping back to sea. I get it — its their catch and I am depriving them of their glory. But if John, kids and I are going to abstain from fishing for “the cause,” then so too must they.

Day 6: We are now at 19 degrees north and truly in the tropics. I felt it the moment I woke up (correction, was waken – you never get the luxury of waking up naturally on passage) as I was sweating in the clothes that had been keeping me warm the past few days. I peeled off the layers and sighed my contentment; there is nothing like that moment when you have sailed clear of the colder weather. Unfortunately, with it went the wind and without our genoa, ten knots wind was giving us three knots through the water. 

Today was a social one for our little pack, energised by the change in weather and the decrease in roll inside the boat. We did artwork and crafts, schoolwork with unusual cooperation and played Monopoly for hours. I’ve been enjoying the time we get together on passage, so different than the more busier life we tend to have when in country, maximising experience and exploring the sites while trying to inject a modicum of routine. Routine? As if. When you know you only have a few weeks or months in a country, it is hard to let the days roll by without feeling the push to take in as much as possible. But on passage we have our roles, our timeframes, our routine and for a short period of time, the regularity of it is nice. 

Oh, but never expect this life doesn’t throw its curveballs! We were sailing along comfortably today when in the near-distance an orange float and black form floated past, just out of sight to catch the detail. All hands on deck as we whipped Atea about face, Braca hollering all the while, “I’m scared! I don’t want to see a skeleton!” The hint of death put an urgency in it, but alas, after our quick response to save the day it was only a torn orange lifejacket that we plucked from the sea. It was enough to cause pause and reflection, however, and bow in reverence to the sea.  

Moths. An acceptable replacement to flying fish. One hundred miles offshore and they were fluttering into the cabin, drawn in by the light. The cats have hit payday, and we applaud their acrobatic leaps and summersaults as they manically tried to soar to new heights to reap their reward. We don’t have the most agile cats, so the display was of particular hilarity as they bumbled around, falling off the companionway steps and landing on each other in an escalating fever to catch the moths.

Day 7: I concede. If my cats choose to be pescatarians, so be it. I’ve tried my best to help protect the continuous stream of fish that make they way onto our boat, but when they jump the six feet to clear our freeboard and then manage to get through the netting that surrounds our guardrails, then somehow bump up and additional two feet to get onto our topsides and then wiggle across the deck and flop through a six inch square hatch into the heads, then they have a death wish I won’t interfere with. For the first time, our male cat who usually gulfs down his food and then shoulder-badges into his sister for his share of her food, now takes a sideward glance at this bowl at mealtime and then saunters off indifferently. He has eyes on a bigger prize. 

Today’s Christmas calendar instruction was to perform a song and dance. After our midday game of never-ending Monopoly, we pulled out the ukuleles but failed to pull any talents out and brought the speakers out on deck perform every style of dance we dare not to ever perform in public. For the first time in days, there was an absence of flying fish on deck — seems we even managed to scare the fish away.

But what did fall on deck was a long, thin VHF antenna aerial. Seems Atea is in a slow, continual state of disintegration this trip. The irony is we spent an extra week in Las Palmas working on sorting out all our comms, bringing on an electronics expert to work on our long range radio and buying and reinstalling a new VHF. After years of crappy comms, we now loose the simplest component that brings us right back to where to started: Mute and uncommunicative.

Day 8: We are 70 miles east of Dakar and have turned in towards land and a direct line to our destination, the town of Banjul which now lies 130 miles in front of us. As if that weren’t excitement enough, soon after we were broadsided by a breaking wave that hit our hull at exactly the right angle and sent a wall of water upward and sideward, flooding our cockpit and aft cabin. The bed and carpeted floor were soaked and the kids came bolting out in fits of laughter as they stood drenched in salt water and holding up the dripping teddies they’d been playing with. For the kids, it was as if the boobie traps they’d been setting throughout the boat over the past few days had finally escalated into a grand finale, the ultimate practical joke being laid on both parents who were looking around the boat in mute astonishment. 

Day 9 : As we continue to close the coast during the night, various fishing boats and floats are seen – some are lit, some are not, and eventually we heave to until daylight so that the last 20 miles are in the light of a hazy African dawn. By midmorning we are anchor down off Banjul, and another 1,000 miles have passed under Atea’s keel.  The heat rises along with a cacophony of noise from trucks belching smoke and fishing vessels preparing their nets. As we listen to the cheerful hubbub of noises and bubbling voices, we realise that we have left calm controlled Europe behind and are about to dive once more into the chaos and reward of Africa.

To view photos of our trip, go to our Atea FB page.