Cruising the Canary Islands

2/1/2010

By Liz Tosoni

Where are all the canaries in the Canary Islands? Well, as it turns out, there never were canaries in the Canaries. The islands were named ‘Fortunate’ by early visitors from Europe, but later, Pliny the Elder (circa AD 60) reported that troops sent by King Juba II of Mauritania (now Morocco) in 60 BC discovered large dogs roaming the islands. They brought two of them back to the king and the name Insulae Canium- Latin for Islands of Dogs- persists today as Islas Canarias. During our month of cruising the islands of Graciosa, Lanzarote and Gran Canaria, we saw a few dogs and no canaries.

Like most cruisers arriving in the Canaries, our landfall was Playa Francesa, one of the northern islands of the seven main islands. Not only is it one of the best anchorages in the Canary Islands, it is also the closest island to points of departure from Morocco, Spain and Gibraltar.

Immediately upon entering the channel between Graciosa and the much larger Lanzarote Island, the nine to twelve foot Atlantic swell vanished. As we rounded the bottom of Graciosa, we dropped the hook in 30 feet of water, off a white sand beach backed by barren volcanic hills.

Across the channel, we could see high and severely rugged, barren mountains that were highly reminiscent of the Sierra Giganta of the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

The dry, desert-like air, cloudless sky, brilliant light conditions coupled with crystal clear waters constantly reminded us of the Sea of Cortez. We were surprised to learn that all the rock on Graciosa Island was volcanic in origin yet the ubiquitous white sand clearly was not. Where does it come from? As it turns out, all of the volcanic white sand arrived from Morocco, delivered by strong winds and carried high in the sky from hundreds of miles away.

One aspect of cruising Liz and I missed during our two years in the Med was the sundowner get togethers on the beach. Since most beach anchorages in Europe are covered by large hotels, hordes of sunbathers, luxury homes or all of the above, the beaches are not conducive to yachties congregating at the end of the day for ‘happy hour’. These get-togethers provide a great way to meet new friends, discuss destinations, trouble shoot boat problems, and generally network. Playa Francesa put us back in the groove. Every afternoon for our five day stay, we along with the 20 or so other cruisers, landed our dinghies ashore to enjoy the camaraderie of this little international community.

Since almost all crews were bound for the Caribbean or Brazil, we had a strong common interest that easily overcame the minor inconvenience of the crews speaking English, French, German, Italian, Polish or whatever. Passage strategies, menus, fishing techniques, radio schedules, downwind sail configurations, and watch keeping routines were just some of the topics discussed, which would have bored to death the non sailors that might have crashed our little soirees.

No doubt, the contrast of cultures from one country to the next is always interesting to experience and arriving in the Spanish islands of the Canaries after a month in Morocco was no exception. Throughout our travels in Morocco, we never saw men in short pants. It was ‘jalabas’ or long pants and for the most part, especially in rural Morocco, the girls and women were fully rugged up in traditional Muslim garb, the head scarf being the norm rather than the exception. Walk the beaches of Graciosa Island though and clothes were optional. On our first trip ashore, we landed our dinghy ten yards from a young family of four playing paddle ball, all in the buff. Sometimes it’s a funny world.

A weather forecast of strong northeast winds coupled with any number of days of big seas meant our anchorage could fast become a chaotic place, and dinghy rides a tad sporty. This, coupled with the associated big surf, and we were ready for town conveniences, so it was anchor up and an 18 mile sail to the capital of the island of Lanzarote, Arrecife. We expected others would be heading for this harbor anchorage where space would be limited, so we left before the crush and were lucky to drop the hook in the prime spot in the harbor. Sure enough, over the next few days, a parade of boats shoe-horned in to the little harbor as the wind rose to 30 plus knots and hovered there for a week.

As more and more boats arrived, overcrowding was a real concern. Newly arriving boats could not drop sufficient anchor chain for the conditions and still swing free of their already anchored neighbors. The camaraderie seen just days ago at the beach parties was sorely tested as anchors dragged, and as anchors were dropped over other boats’ anchors and ground tackle. For two days all crews hunkered down and nervously watched their boats for signs of dragging and the boats upwind of them.

Our situation was fortuitous because we were the boat furthest upwind and, while snorkeling around the boat, I found a huge concrete slab to which I tied a line, making a very ‘skookum’ mooring.

Day after day, the 14 boats in the anchorage were pummeled by winds which one day peaked at 38 knots. Fine brown volcanic sand from the barren hills of Lanzarote coated the boats.

So this is what happens when you put yourself between a big Azores high pressure system and a low pressure system over western Africa. You find yourself in a ‘squash zone’. Finally, the winds did abate and with a forecast for moderate north easterlies, we were off to Las Palmas, the administrative and commercial center of the Canary Islands, on the island of Gran Canaria, some 110 miles away.

Las Palmas was already action central. It was the starting point for the annual ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers). Every year, over 200 boats set off from here bound for St. Lucia in the Caribbean. This year, 218 boats registered for the migration. Not surprisingly, the marina was full.

It was a very mellow, sedate overnight sail which brought us into Las Palmas Harbor early in the morning.

In fact, local boats were asked to give up their marina berths and anchor out to accommodate this huge influx of boats. Exacerbating the crowding problem were the NARCs (non ARC boats like us who found Las Palmas to be a good jumping off point).

 

 

The net result was that Las Palmas Harbor, up until the day the ARC boats departed, was the most crowded harbor we’ve ever visited. Gratefully, the weather gods cooperated and there were no weather dramas while we were there.

 

There was, however, a drama of a different sort. It began the morning after a very heavy rainfall. Somehow, tons of bunker oil were displaced from a storage facility and found its way into the small yacht anchorage where more than 70 yachts lay at anchor, including Feel Free. This oil, with the consistency of thick tar, stuck to boat hulls and dinghies.

For over two days, the gunk floated among the anchored boats. Naturally, the swell that entered the harbor and the wake from the many vessels moving about the harbor set the boats rolling, so the mess was seen often two feet above waterlines.

Scores of crews readying their boats for upcoming Atlantic crossings had to shift gears and deal with the mess. Feel Free was not spared and for two days, Liz and I scrubbed the mother ship and dinghy with gasoline soaked rags.

Pity those with old, unwaxed gel coated hulls which presented a porous surface for the oil. They’ll be compounding those hulls for some time to come. The Port Control officials suggested all 70 boats claim for damages and eventually some compensation should be paid. We’ll keep you posted on that one.

By the time the mess was cleaned up the ARC boats had departed for St. Lucia freeing up berths in the marina. Although we prefer lying on the hook to staying in marinas, we made Las Palmas an exception. David and Gus, our two crew members, joined us here from Canada so being tied ashore meant the crew could come and go as they pleased without the use of the dinghy.

Since these days on the dock were to be our last days before setting off on our trans Atlantic trip, innumerable journeys were made to chandleries for those all important boat widgets and to grocery stores for provisions. Also, we couldn’t leave the Canaries without renting a car to see a bit of the rock and just generally be tourists, something much easier to do when your boat is secured to good ‘ole terra firma.

There is no doubt that Gran Canaria is a beautiful place with lovely people and interesting geography and we did enjoy our final five days there. There is however, an unfortunate reality in this cruising way of life. For lack of a better term, let’s call it ‘premature cerebral check-out’.

It sometimes strikes those who are on the verge of a long awaited voyage to a markedly different part of the world. The symptoms include: focusing on the future trip or destination at the expense of the here and now, and allocating more time on preparation for the upcoming voyage than seizing opportunities to enjoy the present.

Clearly, many of our fellow voyagers succumb to this condition. Almost without exception, cruisers in conversation were heard discussing landfalls, weather forecasts for the next two week period and routing strategies, rather than the exhibit at the Christopher Columbus Museum or the music festival in the park.

For most of us, those last five days before departure are spent somewhere en route. Well, we know we should try to live in the present but sometimes it’s tough. It is what it is: part anxiety, part anticipation, and it dulls one’s appreciation for what is at hand, a bad thing in some respects, but it is also a good thing. Shifting gears is a defense mechanism that helps you focus on checking and double checking things like rigging, sails, engine, and any chinks in the armor.

Hey, I almost forgot that webbing holding the top sail slide to the luff of the mainsail which will never survive a two and a half week sea voyage. I’d better go and tend to that right now!