There were three ships went sailing out, went sailing out, went sailing out,
There were three ships went sailing out on Christmas day in the evening.
It was almost four months ago that our aged sails fell apart and our engine parted company with the gear box. We still haven’t solved the first of these problems; the salvaged pieces of the roller furler were straightened and reassembled, and the old rotten sails were cobbled back together, but our efforts to invest in a brand new set of wings went awry. More on that subject another day. After we finally got the boat back into a state where she could put to sea the Ship’s Engineer then spent two full months re-designing and rebuilding the transmission system. And then, after a few other bits and bobs had been fixed, we were almost ready to leave the Canaries.
Christmas was looming and the anchorage, in Las Palmas, was emptying. Most folks like to spend the season of goodwill on the other side of the pond, in the Caribbean. We had set our hearts on spending it down in the Cape Verde islands – but, as I say, the repairs dragged on and it was not until the afternoon of the festival day that we were finally ready to make sail. As luck would have it, two of our friends had been delayed in a similar fashion, and thus it was that three little ships went sailing out, went sailing out… leaving the city just as the sun set behind the mountains.
The first of our companions was Paul Johnson aboard his beautiful gaff ketch, Cherub. Johnson was not only the builder but also the designer of his vessel – she is identical with the 42ft Venus yacht that he lost whilst cruising in the Pacific – and thus his devotion to the boat and his confidence in her abilities is profound.
The second competitor was a lovely Irishman called Shane, with a lovely yacht called Iolair. Iolair is only 37ft long, but she is sleek and slim, with deep keel, a trim counter and a curving bow. A classic yacht, indeed.
These two sailed circles around Molly while we rushed about, stowing the dinghies and preparing for sea.
“Will you fekkers please hurry up!” cried the Irishman, and Johnson eventually took himself off to wait outside where the tankers moor.
Eventually we, too, were ready to leave – or ready enough – and our three little ships bowled out of the harbour. A fine send off the other few yotties in the anchorage gave us, and a fine sight we must have made – but a strange one. Our boats were about as different as any three yachts could be. One heavy-duty cruising ketch; one Colin-Archer look-alike; and one racy little number. A bookie would have had a hard time deciding which of us would arrive first, unless he could forecast the weather.
If the wind were against us, Iolair would have the advantage, being the most weatherly, and Cherub would be left to leeward. (Gaffers don’t point – or, to put it in land-lubber speak, they don’t sail very well if you’re trying to get to the place where the wind is coming from.)
But if the wind were on the stern the gaffer, with its huge sail area, would be hard to beat. Unlike most Colin Archer types, Venus yachts are very light; indeed, Johnson built them expressly for the purpose of bowling downwind in a strong breeze.
Whatever the wind, Mollymawk seemed likely to come last because Molly was not built for speed but for heavy-weather safety; and because Molly has to hump around tons of junk, in the form of diving gear and engineering tools, etc, etc. Moreover, whereas Iolair only carries a couple of hundred litres of water, Mollymawk was carrying a tonne; and whereas Shane had only stocked up for four weeks, we were carrying enough non-perishable food to last five people and a dog for three or four months. Our only chance of beating Iolair was a full gale; and if we were to beat Cherub too it would have to be a gale on the nose. Clearly, we were not wishing or praying for that!
The three little ships struggled along in the lee of the island – now becalmed; now riding on a little squall sent down from the mountains. Darkness had fallen, and Cherub and Iolair were silhouettes against the multi-colured lights of the coastal strip, when who should rock up but the Aduanas (the Spanish customs authority). They shone a light on our transom, to check on the name, and then they called us up, asking, “Where are you bound?”
“We’re off to the Cape Verdes.”
“Ah! So you’re off at last! Well, we hope you enjoy yourselves. How are the kids? How is the dog?”
There can’t be many customs services as friendly and personal as the Canary Islands one.
There was only one rule to this race of ours: no motoring. But with the wind light and fickle, Johnson became impatient. Limping along close-hauled, we saw him suddenly hurtle past in the darkness, heading for the open sea. We switched on our radar and watched as he put himself five miles ahead.
“He’s disqualified! He’s a cheat! He’s a pirate!” cried Roxanne.
But half an hour later we picked up a healthy little headwind, and by day break we had overhauled the pirate again.
As the sun rose the wind fell away again, and we found ourselves beating into the lightest of airs. Cherub, sitting a mile to windward, with every sail set, made a beautiful picture – but of the little black sloop, Iolair, there was no trace. Was she still becalmed in the lee of the island? Surely not; the wind which reached us must have found her too, eventually. This faint breeze from the south would be much more useful to her than to either Molly or the gaffer, and if she was not already ahead of us she soon would be.
By evening time Cherub was a dot on the horizon astern of us – but the pirate captain was not to be so easily shaken off. Under cover of the night he again fired up his iron top’sl and came sneaking past. The rotter!
Nothing daunted, Mollymawk kept plodding along until, again, by daybreak, we had caught him up. Throughout the next day he gradually fell away to leeward – and when the sun rose the next morning it shone on an empty sea.
There was just Mollymawk, and nobody else.
The breeze had also fallen away altogether, and so we sat there and rocked to and fro on the swells.
“I wonder if Johnson is motoring again.”
“Maybe Iolair is motoring, too. I can’t see Shane sitting it out.”
But sit it out is what we Mollymawks did.
To be honest, we rather like calms. When there is wind of any kind then we work hard to get our yacht moving as fast as she jolly well can, but if there is not a breath of wind then there is nothing to be done. A calm is holiday time.
Not only that – not only do we get the chance to sit around drawing, or making fishing lures, or playing the squeeze box – calms are also Whale Watching Weather. When the boat is moving along and the sea is covered in little blue hillocks and white caps then the chances of our spotting a whale or a dolphin are slim; we only see them if they come to us. But when the ocean is flat then we can search the sea for at least half a mile all around.
Mind you, on this occasion we hardly needed to search. Our first Sighting was of a small school of spotted dolphins which came hurrying over the blue plain to make our acquaintance. Mollymawk was pretty much stationary, of course, and so she made a dull companion; today there could be now bow-riding. Regardless, the dolphins hung around, criss-crossing under our bow and swimming beside the stern.
I still haven’t worked out why the dolphins visit our yacht. Occasionally they turn on their sides and glance up at us, but it’s hard to see things through the surface of the sea – you can’t see anything at all through the surface unless it’s directly above you – and I still can’t decide whether they know we’re here. Perhaps they just think that our boat is some weird kind of whale.
At one stage half a dozen of our visitors lined up in a row, just ahead of the bow, and suddenly slapped their tails on the water in unison. Perhaps they were just playing – or perhaps they were trying to tell the whale something. Something like, “Get a move on, old fella; we want to surf on your bow wave.”
We later learnt that Shane, as he lazed along, was visited by a pod of orcas. A marvellous treat – but a slightly scary one. “My boat is black – like them – so I was afraid they might think it was another whale trespassing in their patch.” (Orcas have been known to sink yachts.)
The dolphins were wonderful, but later that same day we had an even better sighting. The mainsail had opened a seam (again…) and Nick and I were standing on top of the dinghy, on either side of the cloth, passing the needle to and fro, when we heard a tremendous, explosive gasp. I was so taken by surprise that I nearly fell backwards from my perch.
And to have been so loud it must have been a big whale and it must be very near.
Sure enough, just astern of the boat we saw a huge, shiny, black back surging purposefully towards us. In the next moment it turned away; it humped its back; a fin slipped past; and then it was gone.
I ran to get the video camera.
Another blow – a tall, thin cloud of steamy spray – and a long back. Then another, a little further away. There were at least two whales, and they were quite a bit bigger than Mollymawk. Indeed, we reckoned that they were about 70ft long or more. The fin was distinctive, as was the fact that the whales never once showed even a glimpse of their tail flukes. We identified them as fin whales (but if there are any experts out there who think differently, do please let us know).
On our fourth day out the wind finally went into the north and gradually rose to about force four – and the mainsail promptly split from luff to leech. Again.
If ever we had been in with a slim chance of winning this race, or of not disgracing ourselves too badly, that chance was now gone. Without the mainsail our speed dropped from five knots to three.
Fortunately, this time the mainsail tore along a seam, so that mending it was a relatively easy affair. Easy, but very time consuming. We got the sail below and set to work at once. It seemed to me that this was a two-man job, but when Caesar came on watch at 04.00 hours he found that he could manage alone – and so he sat and sewed; and he sewed, and he sewed, and he sewed – he sewed for 19 hours on the trot, breaking off only to eat his meals.
After Caesar had hand-sewn a zig-zag seam along both edges of the overlapping panels of cloth, using the old holes, Nick and I cobbled a patch over the torn leech tape, and 72 hours after it had torn the sail was ready to go back up.
After that, things got better. The wind rose to about force five and Mollymawk went rolling along with her sails spread out like wings. During the calm, Roxanne and I had made lures from our Christmas decorations and these now proved their value: a couple of small dorado joined us for lunch and supper.
In the afternoon a baby booby came and sat on our guard rail for a few minutes.
The distance from the Canaries to the Cape Verdes is only about 800 miles, so that when the tradewind is blowing the journey usually only takes about 7 days.
On the evening of the seventh day I said, “I reckon that Shane will be just arriving now. And Johnson, too, perhaps.”
But we, ourselves, were still far from our destination. That three day calm and our problem with the mainsail had set us back.
Then, as I scanned the horizon for shipping I sighted a white sail about three miles astern. Could it be…? No, of course it couldn’t; Iolair must definitely be ahead of us.
“Unless they’ve broken something too.”
By the following morning the sail was ahead of us – and it had turned into a red spinnaker.
“Shane has a spinnaker.”
“Yes – and it’s red.”
We followed that sail all day.
By the morning of the tenth day we had only 40 miles to run. At two in the afternoon Caesar sighted a pale grey cone – one of the pyramid-shaped mountains on Ilha Sal – and looking into the radar’s magic screen we found that the land was twenty miles away. Not bad going for this part of the world. When the harmattan is filling the air with the “bruma sec”, or dry fog, the visibility is sometimes less than two miles.
As we drew near to the island the wind rose and the seas grew bigger – and peering through the jumble of grey mounds I saw that sail again. The spinnaker was gone and the boat was rolling along wildly under genoa and main.
“That’s not Shane; Shane would never let his genoa crash around like that.”
And it wasn’t Shane. Sure enough, when we rounded the harbour wall, at Palmeira, the first thing we saw was Iolair lying snugly amidst a mixed fleet of cruising yachts and fishing boats. As we rounded up, her skipper came dashing across in his dinghy.
“Where the feck is Johnson?”
That was what we wanted to know, too; because Cherub was not in the harbour.
How could we have beaten the Venus? And come to that, how could we have beaten – or at any rate, kept up with, that Bavaria which was still setting its anchor?
“And he had a spinnaker, too!” we told ourselves, as we patted Molly on the head – or on the wheel.
But Iolair was the undoubted winner of the race, for she had arrived a full three days earlier. According to Shane, he never had a day’s calm; while we spent 3 days covering 90 miles, he did 90 miles on the first day!
It only goes to show what a range in wind strengths one can experience over a fairly small area.
But it also goes to show that Iolair is fast – although, as we later learnt, Shane did spend five hours, on that first day, motoring.
“So he’s disqualified too.”
Cherub turned up 10 hours after Mollymawk, in the wee small hours of the morning.
All being well, we hope to have the chance to sail as a threesome to the next isle in the Cape Verde chain – but in the meantime we are renewing our acquaintance with a village and a people who we first visited 16 years ago.
As we strolled into the port captain’s office, to clear in, the man behind the desk said, “Ah, I recognise you! Welcome back!”