Sunday, 31 October 2010

Running the Trade Winds

The time had come to leave Portugal, and make the longest crossing yet, to the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Island archipelago.  At around 550 nautical miles, we estimated it would take us around 5 days to get to our destination.  We departed at about midday of the 20th October, after doing some last minute grocery shopping and refuelling, and motored out into flat seas, heading in a south westerly direction across the stretch of ocean that forms the Straits of Gibraltar in the east.  The forecast was for very little wind for the first 2 or 3 days, so we weren't expecting to do any fast sailing.

The night of the 20th merged into the morning of the 21st as we crossed the shipping lanes, where as always, we kept a sharp lookout for tankers and cargo ships to ensure that these behemoths didn't come up on us too quickly.  As day broke we decided to try and get the spinnaker up to take advantage of some very light winds behind us, but besides this the day continued on, uneventful and warm.  Another gorgeous setting sun behind some clouds, and our watch cycle began again.  The night brought with it unsettled weather with thunderstorms brewing in the distance, and still no wind.  We had to steer clear of some very active lightning clouds, and got drenched a few times by warm rain - welcome to tropical downpours at sea!

Daybreak of the 22nd arrived with continued intermittent downpours, but the air remained still. Based on our GRIB files, we were expecting some wind coming from the north east within the next 24 hours - the beginning of the trade winds that sweep down towards the Canary Islands, and then west across the open Atlantic.  Another day of calm and we should start to see some activity.

As the night of the 22nd progressed the wind indeed began to pick up, and by the morning of the 23rd we had a brisk 15 knots of wind coming up behind us from a north-easterly direction.  At last the trades!  With blue skies and a full mainsail, we were making a good 5 to 5.5 knots.  As the day wore on, the wind began to increase so that we were experiencing around 20 knots of wind, and the sea state began to pick up.  Through the night the wave height continued to build, and by daybreak of the 24th we were surfing down big rollers in 25 to 30 knot gusts.  At least we were making good speed!

As the wind was a consistent north-easterly, we were running on a south-westerly course, which, if we continued on, would take us west of Lanzarote instead of along the eastern side.  We needed to make a decision as to whether or not we would be able to gybe, and take a south easterly course to round the northern tip of the island, or to continue on to Gran Canaria or Tenerife.  The problem was the height of the waves and the wind gusts which were now approaching 35 knots - by gybing we could potentially put ourselves in a dangerous position by sailing beam-on to the waves, and risk a knockdown in big seas.  We needed to make a decision, as within a few hours we would be at the maximum angle where we could turn south-east and follow a line to the northern tip of Lanzarote.  We waited for around 2 hours to see if the sea state improved, which it did slightly, and so on skipper's orders we gybed and set our new course.

Surfing down a following sea
A challenging night in big seas and high winds (35 knots) meant a tired crew by the time day broke on the 25th, mainly due to the intense concentration required when helming in such conditions, but with Lanzarote in sight we were nearing our destination.  As we rounded the northern point, the headland sheltered the sea and suddenly we were in the calm, and able to make a cup of tea without being rolled from one side of the boat to the other!  We headed for Aricefe, but apon arrival found the harbour to be unsuitable for mooring, so we headed further down the coast to Puerto Calero.  As we entered the marina, we were greeted by my gorgeous wife who'd flown out to meet us - a brilliant welcome after weeks at sea.

As in life, in sailing we need to be prepared to change our plans, as sometimes the winds can be stronger than predicted, or blowing in the wrong direction.  And sometimes we need to make decisions that are a calculated risk.  Once made though, we need commitment and determination to see them through, and when our goal is reached, the taste of success is all the sweeter.


  1. Great update thanks for the insight... much love Dad n Val

  2. Excellent post, you make it all come alive in our imaginations!! Mom