South to the Canaries


Two days after our near-miss with the Veronica B we sighted land. With our usual gay enthusiasm we assumed that this meant that we would be spending the coming night at anchor, and so we behaved accordingly. We washed our salty hair, each in succession, in the cockpit, and I changed the sheets on the beds.
A little collared dove came aboard to join us – our first passenger on this trip – and the presence of this land-lubber reinforced the feeling of having arrived. By rights, of course, he should have been carrying an olive leaf, to prove the point.

The Passenger Pigeon (Collared Dove)
The Passenger Pigeon (Collared Dove)

Our landfall was on Isla Alegranza. The Spanish are apt to give their islets pretty-sounding names, such as Farallon or La Laja, which turn out have disappointingly prosaic meanings, such as Big Rock and The Sandbank. For such a flamboyant people to display such a distinct lack of imagination is odd. Thus, we were pleased to discover a place with a more inspired name: Alegranza is the “Happy Island”. It lies at the northern end of Lanzarote, in the north-eastern corner of the Canaries archipelago, and the ancient mariners, navigating without the aid even of a sextant, would certainly have been very, very happy to have found it.

Alegranza is actually just the tallest of three islets which off-lie Lanzarote. The second to come into view bears the name Roque del Este, or East Rock. Bearing in mind that it is about half a mile across and looks like a wind-carved castle, this appellation is euphemistic in the extreme. Bearing in mind that it lies six miles offshore, is relatively low, and completely unlit one would expect it to be named Fortress of the Sirens or (coming down to basics) Rock of a Hundred Wrecks.

Alegranza and the East Rock are both uninhabited and although they looked interesting our eyes were all fixed on the third islet, La Graciosa. This one is home to three hundred fishermen – or so our pilot book alleged. There is just one settlement – a tiny port on the southern shore of the island, between Graciosa and Lanzarote.
Our plan was to pass along the narrow channel between Graciosa and Lanzarote and anchor just outside the port – but perhaps we should have paid a little bit more attention to the naming of this third sea-girt speck. Graciosa can mean either graceful or funny, and at the time we assumed that the first sense was the one intended. Retrospectively, I think of La Graciosa as The Funny One – with funny tricks up its sleeve.

When Mollymawk is out on the open ocean she seems to gallop along; one never really appreciates just how slowly a sailing boat travels until one is within sight of land. As the sun rolled across the sky, La Graciosa crept nearer to us – but before we reached our destination the dazzling sunshine had resolved itself into a yellow orb, and the orb had fallen into a bank of cloud and dropped down over the horizon, stealing away the day. We were half a mile from the pass when darkness settled over everything.
So far as I was concerned, thoughts of spending the coming night at anchor were now obliterated; I expected the skipper to suggest that we stand off (sailing to and fro in deep water) until daybreak. To my surprise he opted, instead, to press on. He reckoned that with the aid of the radar, a decent chart, and a good set of navigational marks on the shore we ought to be able to approach the land in safety.

We entered the narrow strait. There was no moon and Graciosa was just a dim white line on our starboard side; a line of white waves breaking onto the shore. On our port side, Lanzarote towered over us; it seemed very much nearer than the islet but was actually three times further away.
The pass between two land masses is always a wind acceleration zone; the wind entered this particular pipe as a force three, but within seconds we were bowling along on a force six. The wind hurled us down the alley. The bird, smelling or seeing the land, spread its wings and flew off into the night. Poppy ran up and down the deck in excitement; she could sense it too.

If only we had the animals’ gift. How wonderful it must be to see in the dark. For the want of this ability we were now bowling along blindly at seven knots into the pitch blackness. The promised navigation marks appeared to be missing – and what was that dark smudge, ahead of us in the middle of the channel? There was nothing there on the chart, but the radar seemed to show an echo.
“Time to start the engine, Nick.”
I pressed the button and the beast in the bilge leapt to life – but the steady roar was accompanied by another noise: thud, thud, thud… It seemed very like the sound of a rope caught around the prop.
“Off! Off!” As he yelled the order, Nick threw the boat around. I pulled the cord to shut down the engine; the boys were already hardening the sails for the beat – and back we went; back the way we had come. Out of the blind alley, out of the trap; out into the open sea.

Thus the night that we had expected to spend safely tucked up in harbour was spent reaching to and fro in clear water. And all the while with a wary eye in the direction of that unlit castle rejoicing in the name of East Rock.

Dawn found us a couple of miles to windward of Graciosa – and a few more miles to leeward of the Rock. The day was grey, with rain threatening, and the wind had gone into the south.
Nick had taken a look at the engine and found that the strange thudding was simply the prop-shaft brake, which had not been completely disengaged. (The prop shaft brake stops the propeller from spinning while we sail, so saving wear and tear on the gear box and on our ears.)

We turned back towards La Graciosa, and towards the narrow pass.
“That anchorage won’t be any good now, ” I said.
“Not in this southerly, no. Not if the wind is piping through the strait the way it was last night.”
Nor would any of the ports on the south facing coast of Lanzarote be tenable. The Canary Islands are all set up to receive the prevailing north wind. In a southerly blow their harbours are all open to the sea.
“But we ought to be able to anchor in the lee of those cliffs on the other side of the channel,” Nick said, “And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the port.”
Tucked half way along the tiny channel, the little port on Graciosa’s southern shore ought to be safe in any wind, we reckoned. With a fetch of only half a mile (the distance from Lanzarote to Graciosa) it seemed clear that there could never be any dangerous waves to worry the place.

Ready now, as we imagined, for the wind’s acceleration, we dropped the main and entered the pass with just the mizzen and a small snatch of the genoa. Ahead of us the water was flat, but it was decorated with clouds of spray which were chasing each other across the channel.
“Williwaws!” I had hardly spoken the word when one of these little devils slammed into the side of the boat, sending her spinning to leeward.
Nick dropped the mizzen and started the motor.

The cliffs of Lanzarote towered above us, a sheer brown wall several thousand feet high. Its top was hidden in a snarl of grey cloud. I was motoring along just 200 yards from the foot of the cliff, and yet the waves were four feet high. Four foot waves, from a fetch of ony 200 yards! The williwaws screamed through the rigging, like ecstatic demons who have found their prey. The anemometer was reading 75 knots.

The port was now downwind of us and just a few hundred yards away, on the other side of a maelstrom. It looked tiny. There were waves crashing onto the enclosing wall. The entrance, too, seemed to be congested with the foam of breaking waves. Even with the aid of the binoculars it was difficult to see what was going on, but there seemed to be a reef in the vicinity. There was no reef shown on our chart.
“Supposing it isn’t deep enough for us?” I wondered aloud. The chartlet in our pilot book gave no depths.

We rounded up towards the cliffs. The idea of anchoring here now seemed utterly ludicrous – the imagined lee did not exist; instead, the water was beset by those vicious down-draughts – but what other option did we have? While I held the boat with her bows to the wind, Nick pulled himself along the deck and dropped the hook. I felt the anchor bite – and then, as he next demon threw itself upon us, Molly slid backwards across the channel dragging the hook after her.

The port, so near and so snug, looked oh, so very tempting. But how could we risk entering when we didn’t know the depth?
We called up the port on the radio, but nobody answered.
“It’s New Years Eve tomorrow. They’re all on holiday.”

The port was a potential death trap. A cosy bolt hole – but on a lee shore. If we approached it for a closer look and found ourselves running out of water we would have great difficulty, in this wind, of fighting our way clear again.

“Look at him!” cried Caesar, pointing towards the bay immediately adjacent to the port. There, in the approved anchorage, where we had formerly been planning to moor, lay a catamaran! Its bows were plunging in and out of the sea and it was tugging madly at its anchor chain.
“Well, he’s either a mad man or a complete tyro,” I suggested.
“Or both,” Nick agreed. “But the fact that he’s there, risking his boat and his life, and not tucked up safely inside the port, tends to suggest that there isn’t any room for visiting yachts.”

The anchor was still bouncing along on the seabed, now biting and holding the boat and then, as the williwaws struck us, letting go its grip. We recovered it and continued westward, surging along through the breaking seas. Perhaps we might be able to anchor further along, outside the venturi made by the narrow strait; perhaps the mountains on the north-western coast of Lanzarote would provide us with shelter?

Alas, when we emerged from the channel we found that the cliffs on this new stretch of coast were as unfriendly as the awesome wall which towered over the channel. The wind was still blowing at 40 or even 45 knots and to make matters worse, although the gale was blowing from the south the sea was still being swept by a big northerly swell. The two forces slammed into one another, throwing up steep waves and spreading white foam over the blue hillocks.

Now what? Well, now nothing. Now we had no choice but to plod on, stumbling across this furrowed landscape, until the wind went away or we reached safe haven. Neither event seemed imminent. The nearest safe port was about forty miles away, and the wind, even when we were clear of the land, continued to blow a gale. The day was wearing on. Clearly, we were not going to be spending this night at anchor either; our expectations had once again been crushed.

“This’ll put them off,” I thought to myself, as yet another wave broke over the boat and over Caesar, who was on the helm. I was beginning to feel that we were doomed, like the crew of the Flying Dutchman, to sail forever; always within sight of the land but never able to make port.
“This’ll put them off wanting to visit Tierra del Fuego” – but the thought had hardly formed when Xoë slid open the hatch and popped her head out, saying, “This is fun! I like gales!”

The night was spent tacking down the coast of Lanzarote – not in the lee, where the demons play, but seven miles out to sea. Still the squalls smote us.

The sun rose to find us arriving at the southern end of the island. As we approached the channel between Lanzarote and Fuerteventura the wind fell away – which was just as well. This channel is a notorious wind funnel – presumably it had been blowing a hooley here, too, a few hours earlier – but we were to be spared further misery. Indeed, in the aftermath of its vigorous activities the wind seemed to be completely exhausted, and there was scarcely enough left for us to carry our way.

At anchor once again - the skipper and one of his bosses
At anchor once again - the skipper and one of his bosses

An hour before sunset we finally drifted into Corralejo (on the northern shore of Fuerteventura) so bringing to a close a passage which ought to have taken a week but which actually took 12 days. It was New Year’s Eve and the Spanish were getting ready to fill the sky with fireworks, but we tumbled into our bunks and slept through the whole thing.

The following day we spoke to a local yotty who, when he heard of our aventures, said, “You came through the Graciosa Rio in a southerly gale! I didn’t think it was possible!”

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