Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A killer opening

"Is this a good omen?" Alex asked.

"I don't know. Omens are your thing," I said. Was a visit from a pair of killer whales on the first evening of our passage from Europe to the Americas propitious? The opposite didn't bear considering.

Alex heard them first. A snorting somewhere very close, behind the boat. Then a big black curved dorsal fin surfaced and beneath it, a big black body gliding along in our wake, perhaps two or three metres from the hull. A pilot whale, he said. Neither of us are very literate in marine biology. Then another one. Two fins and two big black bodies. When they lifted their huge weight out of the water, we saw the white markings. I've seen killer whales once before, in the surf line off Whangapoua beach on the Coromandel peninsula. I was sure they were killer whales. Alex had never seen killer whales before, but he was prepared to believe me.

We've been too close to a whale once before, a kid whale which was loitering in the middle of the busy yachting road heading towards Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays. He stopped us in our tracks, and gave us a huge fright. These whales were a lot smarter, but it took us a few minutes to relax with their proximity, watching them dive under the boat, cross the bow, glide alongside us...and then they were gone. We couldn't quite take in what we'd seen. The sun was going down behind Fueventura island, the Canary just south of Lanzarote. Our first night at sea, and a crescent moon was already high in the sky. The wind was gentle and the swell no more than a metre. This is how we began our Atlantic crossing.

Three nights have passed. The winds have been light, too light really, and we've inched our way down the African coast at a very sedate pace. A pod of dolphins came by on the second day, but other than that, marine traffic has been built of steel and travelling at about 11 knots towards ports with exotic African names, or conversely, going north, carrying the fuel which keeps Europe's cars on the road. We keep a close watch.

These early days are when you establish some routines for passage-making and having the boat on an even keel is a massive bonus. At 0900 UTC we tune into 8140 Mhz on our HF radio for the Tradewinds net, "hosted" by Ed and Sue on Angel Louise. They are much further south and west of us, and counting the miles until they reach Antigua. They're having trouble with a bilge switch. Tricky stuff, being down in the bilge in a catamaran in a heaving sea. We feel for them. They've got the wind we're waiting for, the trades, so they're moving quickly.

We know of other boats which will be leaving the Cape Verde islands (to the south of us)when the winds come in. Probably tomorrow or Thursday. They'll join the net too. At the moment, it's just Angel Louise, us and another boat which joined today. Really, it's crowded out here!

I have lentil and spinach soup on the stove, and bread on its second rise. Alex sleeps. We don't get enough sleep yet, but it takes a few days to break in the body, to get the watch patterns working. The nights have been cold, five layers of Icebreakers and wet weather gear cold. It'll be good to get down to the latitude where the butter melts. That's where marine lore tells you that you hang a left. Go west, in other words. We've got another two days of going south, most likely.

There's a catchphrase you hear on the radio scheds which says nothing and everything. "All's well on board". It contains a million variations on the theme of being at sea, but means fundamentally, we don't have any major problems, and we're more or less on course. All's well on Enki. The introductory chapter is to our liking but you wouldn't want to be without the suspense, would you?

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Thursday, 25 December 2014

Family Christmas

The only present we unwrapped this Christmas was from our electrician, with a card signed "from Marco and Julie". It was bottle-shaped, and very drinkable. At times like these you can come to think of a tradesman who is generous with his time, and saves your bacon with his superior skills and available wares, as a friend. Who's to say he isn't?

Marco figuring out what's what on Enki (and below)

The gifts which came unwrapped were the ones we loved though. Emails and phone calls from the heartland. I'd go so far as to say that the price we paid to be still in port on Christmas Day was not too high. To see Alex transfixed by the sight of his fair-haired grandson wedged into a high chair and downing mouthfuls of ricotta pancakes on Christmas morning in Sydney was to witness a man gobbling up love. We're only too aware of how short our rations are. "Next year," Alex said to Dave, "perhaps we'll be there with you".....to which Dave replied, "There are quite a few people who'd really like that." We know that too. We hear it in their voices.

This is our third Christmas away from our family. Three Christmases away is a lot.  Even when you are living the dream.

Breakfast on Christmas morning, and the maple syrup is good 
It's their local brew - a gift from Nova Scotians on the yacht Defiant

Waves breaking over the walkway by the anchorage (below)
For a few days the seas have been up and the sun has been blotted out by dust storms blowing in from Africa. You can manage those things when you're underway, but it's not pleasant to leave in such conditions. So we've been waiting. Marco installed a new course computer on Saturday, and on Tuesday we took the boat for a spin in the shelter of the cruise ship port to re-commission both autopilots. But there wasn't enough space to manoeuvre inside the port to "teach" the autopilot (the technical term for the procedure is auto-learn). The turbulent seas outside would have given the intelligent machine the wrong idea of what normal sea conditions are. You need a relatively calm sea to put your autopilot on the right track, so to speak.

Waves breaking over the walkway to the Castillo San Gabriel (below)

Marco will be with us again tomorrow morning - we could do the auto-learn ourselves, but he insists it is no problem for him to work on Boxing Day and we get the distinct impression he'd like to finish the job himself.  Boxing Day is not a public holiday in the Canaries. Here, Marco told us, the biggest celebration is not Christmas Day, but January 6, the Feast of the Three Kings. That's when people exchange gifts and everyone gathers with their families to eat up large. So what's Christmas Day about? He wasn't sure really. It's two years since he and his wife made a fresh start on Lanzarote (he says the level of corruption in Italy now is such that it's impossible to run an honest business). Some island customs were still strange to him, but his Canarian friends were teaching him.

One more time - tapas at a favourite of ours, La Bulla, on the Charco San Gines

The fruit and veges we're carrying on the boat are now over a week old, so we've decided to wait the extra day,  go to the Saturday produce market and then leave (again). It's a bit like pulling teeth, yes, but it's what this kind of travel demands.  Be prepared. The weather outlook, we're advised, will be much of a much-ness Friday or Saturday... improving. There will be no fanfare this time. You'll have to watch the departures board.

Friday, 19 December 2014

False start

We got out, and then we turned around. One hour from letting off the lines to tying up again. Such a shame.

Here are the positives: there's an experienced marine electrician in Arrecife, a portly Tuscan called Marco who speaks pretty good English. He can sell us a new "old" (i.e. older model) autopilot course computer exactly like ours. The one that doesn't work anymore.

The thing is, we got no warning. Both autopilots, the first (which is 9 years old) and the second (brand new, and unused) were doing what they are meant to do when we commissioned and tested them 10 days ago. But as soon as we turned on the autopilot yesterday, it displayed all the right things but we got no response. Dead. "You're on your own with this one," I said to Alex. He pulled out the instruction manual - the error message on the screen indicated excessive current draw, meaning a short circuit or motor drive jammed. He upended the aft berth and peered down, checked the wiring connections. There was no short in the external wiring and the drive was not jammed. He knew in his heart that this was too hard for him.

Do you need an autopilot? Bridget asked in an email today. She'd been tracking us on the AIS, seen us turn back and understandably was worried that something had happened to us or the boat. The answer is YES. We do need an autopilot. Hand-steering across 3000-odd miles is just something we're not prepared to contemplate, which is why Alex had a second autopilot installed. "We may never have to use it, " he told me. Many cruising sailors don't have this luxury - it's expensive - but they all dread the prospect of autopilot failure. Hand-steering a big boat in an ocean swell, even for a few hours at a time, is exhausting. For a middle-aged crew of two, a long ocean passage without an autopilot is unthinkable.

Never been so well prepared for a passage before - even had the passage berth ready!

Our previous boat, Kukka, had an electronic autopilot and a wind vane on the stern. That's another type of autopilot which doesn't rely on electronics. It is directed by the wind and a series of pulleys. Very nifty. We loved our Hydrovane, but you can't have davits (which allow you to winch the dinghy out of the water and carry it off the stern) and a wind vane. We opted for davits. So we have two electronic autopilots now. Or rather, we had.

We turned around because we have a long way to go, and it made no sense to start our Atlantic crossing with one dead autopilot. Marco came aboard yesterday afternoon, tested everything, praised Alex for his wiring job, took away the course computer (the electronic brain of the autopilot), and this morning gave us his verdict: "solidly dead". He could fix it, but what with Christmas and New Year just about to break over us, he estimated the spare parts would take a minimum of 10 working days to arrive from Holland.

Which means that Enki gets a Christmas present. A new course computer. Not something we'd counted on having to fork out for, but it helps me to remember what it was like running a car. Similar things happen. And the cost is always unexpected, and far too much, but you make a choice, don't you?

Marco will be back on the boat tomorrow, he says, and we hope we can make another start either tomorrow afternoon or Sunday morning. The weather forecast, of course, will be different. We are actively considering a stopover in the Cape Verde islands if we get down there and see either no wind, or wind from the wrong direction in the mid-Atlantic. The Azores high is being pushed about by a low pressure system which seems bent on ruining Christmas Day out there.

Peperonata to give us a kick along

I'm cooking up more vegetables for the freezer - as some kind of compensation, I get to go to the Saturday morning farmers' market tomorrow. The vegetables we bought from the supermarkets in town on Wednesday were not much chop. Here's hoping we leave with better quality veges and as good a weather forecast next time we cast off.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Leaving Lanzarote

It's come the time.

We should be out of here in a few minutes. The water tanks are filling (with desalinated Lanzaroate water), Alex is checking the oil. We're stamped out, and paid up.

Enki is looking trim. Dinghy deflated and stowed on the foredeck, kayak strapped acrossways, behind the mast. We have a string bag full of citrus fruit, bags of dirty potatoes, green tomatoes, garlic, onions, enough goat's milk yoghurt to get me through the New Year and far too much chocolate (Christmas is the excuse). Our last minute purchases were instant noodles, cigarettes, vermouth and Pommery champagne. That about sums it up.

The weather looks OK for the next five or six days, good enough to get us south to the Cape Verdes which is where normally you would hope to pick up the trade winds. We'll revise our situation then, with the help of our pro weather service Commanders' Weather. If necessary, we'll stop over at the Cape Verdes - they're meant to be very chilled out. We'll keep going if the weather is good though.

We're just the two of us, and that is enough to give my mum the wobbles. She's right. It is a risky venture. But we have done everything we can to prepare ourselves and the boat well. Stuff happens, of course. We'll deal with whatever happens as sanely and safely as possible. We'll hope it's nothing as bad as running out of coffee pods.

This little clinker-built British boat sailed onto the dock yesterday and lowered its sails in winds gusting 25 knots. Two young people aboard. Presumably they'd come from Gibraltar, but maybe Morocco. Either way, they'd been out in the ocean. The boat has no engine, no cockpit, a spinnaker pole the diameter of a broom handle, a tiny anchor tied off at the stern, a wooden oar as long as the boat strapped onto the deck (for sculling in light winds, one presumes), and a wooden tiller rigged up for self-steering. At a guess, the boat is 22 feet long. It's towing an inflatable of maybe a third its length. You just can't imagine how huge Enki looks compared to this boat, and how comfortable and well-equipped. Who knows where they're headed, but I can imagine how worried their mothers are! I would be too, but you can bet that no-one was able to stop them. Going to sea is something certain people just have to do.

We'll keep the blog coming as often as possible via HF radio. Text only till we get to our next port.

Happy Christmas from the skipper and crew of Enki II!

Friday, 12 December 2014

In splendid desolation

There are places you mark as a destination, and others where you end up for a while. They're not always weighted in the way you'd imagine.

We came into the port of Arrecife on Lanzarote on the first day of November not knowing how long we'd stay. Long enough to re-coup some strength, we thought, and then we'd move on down through the Canary Island chain. We expected to take delivery of our new sails in Las Palmas once the ARC had gone. But the ARC is half way to the Caribbean and we have yet to leave Lanzarote. If we don't watch it, we'll be disrupting the volcanic ash when we leave this island. We're putting down shallow roots here.

Lichen on lava fields - life on Lanzarote

Each planting in the ash is protected by a windbreak

What happened? A bit of everything really. The marina offered a discount for advance payment - minimum stay of 15 days. We took that. Then we cooked up a trip to London. No point in taking the boat somewhere else before then. All the marinas on Gran Canaria were still full, we'd heard. So we put down another 15 days payment. Then a gale swept through the Canaries and by the time the weather had cleared, we'd decided we would have our new sails sent to Marina Lanzarote.  Bringing stuff into the Canaries can be complicated. The islands used to be tax-free, but recently they've introduced a 7% Canaries tax. To import goods, you need a tax number - the marina gave us theirs (called a C.I.F.) to put on our packages. That would smooth their progress through customs, we were assured by several people.

Love the shape of that new genoa

Perhaps it did. The new sails were delivered today, a week after they were picked up from Hallberg Rassy in Sweden. I wonder where we'll be at the end of next week? Our upgraded insurance policy, which covers us for crossing the Atlantic, cruising in the Caribbean and a one-way transit through the Panama canal, kicks in from Monday. Our Lanzarote chapter is nearly over.

It's not as if we've spent the weeks just watching cactus grow (though we've done that too). The freezer, which I barely opened over the summer, is packed tight with plastic containers of pre-cooked meaty meals, the lockers likewise are full of foodstuffs which bore me rigid to think about, but are going to keep us alive when "fresh, local and seasonal" is a cruel and meaningless refrain. Enki has, as expected, received massive amounts of pampering - she's had her varnish touched up, her rig has been checked over and certified sound, her sat phone and SSB radio and associated moving parts all function as they should (what an effort that was), and she is sporting a few new trinkets, including fishing gear and and a smart gauge to more accurately measure the state of charge in the battery.

Everybody has a boat job
It's not been all work, because that makes for a dull crew. Our friends on Neptune II finally arrived in Arrecife a few days ago, after a boisterous passage down from Gibraltar. Boats are coming and going all the time. Some, like Marietta (pictured below), are showstoppers, the glamour girls of the ocean. There are quite a few old beautifies here waiting for the start of a classic yachts transatlantic race in January. Other boats catch our eye because of their pretty lines, or their port of origin. We're keeping an eye on the small boat from west Istanbul. That lone sailor been here longer than we have.

Marietta born 1915

There's lots of high tech under the low tech

Definitely low tech....and arrrgh the varnishing!!

These beautiful timber yachts need lots of TLC and arrrgh....varnish!!

It seemed at first as though the island might be good for only a day or so of sight-seeing. That was to grossly underestimate the magnetism of its landscapes. We found ourselves returning for a second session of car rental.

Mother Earth's new version of Lanzarote, circa 1730

Harvesting salt was once big business, now it's a boutique industry

Fine ash covers the cones

Volcanic blowhole

Earth's sulphurous skin

The coast near El Golfo, in the south of the island

Lanzarote has two things to sell - clear skies (it hardly ever rains on the island) and splendid desolation. The people who fly in from northern Europe generally come for the sunshine. They stay in "villas" strung out along the coast. They're all the same, those little white boxes, but after seeing what Spain has done to its coastline, you have to admire the restraint of the Lanzarote planning authorities. All development on the island is restricted to three storeys (or maybe four - not many anyway) - there's one high-rise hotel on the island which sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb, and there's a story about that which I'll come to it in a minute.

Beach development at Famara

Watching life go by in Haria

Palmy days in Yaiza

Traditional Lanzarote architecture

The port at Arrecife - with "that" hotel on the horizon

The tourists who arrive by ship - and there's generally at least one cruise ship in port every day, if not more, so the population experiences daily surges of two to eight thousand extra bodies - are taken to see the desolation. Lanzarote erupted twice in recent history - in the 1730s, and then about a century later. A quarter of the island is covered in lava and people often describe it as a moonscape. But who among us knows the moon? This is our earth, turned violently and furiously inside out, its raw seams burst, its guts spilled, vomited out in great jagged rivers, strewing rocks twisted into shapes like giant candy chews, dollops of mud caught and frozen in mid-spoonful, and vast sweeps of ash.

We've looked at volcanoes from all sides now...(and below)

Hanging rock - could be gut flora

Rock messed around like modelling clay

The earth still burns close to the surface at Timanfaya - twigs on the end of a pitchfork catch fire

Timanfaya is the demonic-sounding name of the national park on the south-western corner of the island. A devilish totem guards its periphery. The totem is the work of Cesar Manrique, a painter, sculptor and architect who stamped his signature all over Lanzarote and who in death has been accorded the status of a secular saint.

Manrique built Mirador del Rio into the rock at the northern tip of the island

Looking north to Graciosa from Mirador del Rio

I doubt that Manrique lived a saintly life. He knew how to party, judging from the fabulous house he built in 1970 just outside Arrecife. You can smell the lingering scent of the jet set there.

Manrique's house atop the lava........

.....and in the lava......

.....and underneath in the volcanic "bubbles"

The restaurant at Castillo San Jose, in Arrecife,  designed by Manrique - reservation essential

He was a local boy made good, who left to study art in Madrid in the 1940s, built a solid career - and presumably made some money - in the 50s and 60s, moved to New York and then, in the mid 1960s, when package tourism was getting a foothold in the Canaries, decided to move back to Lanzarote. He was obviously a persuasive man. He talked the planning authorities into keeping the profile of the island's buildings low (the hotel was built, apparently, when he was away from the island for a period), and he used the island as a stage for his architectural fantasies and ecological projects. Hence the cactus garden, for example. "Can't imagine anything more boring," said Alex, but he did as he was asked and drove north. He was entranced, as his photos show.

The cactus garden Manrique built...

Manrique-designed "cactus" pendant light in stairwell

Manrique died in a car crash on the island in 1992. Probably the roads weren't as good as they are now. We've criss-crossed the island several times, weaving between towns, villages, volcanoes and cultivated fields of... ash. It's incredible what they grow on this island! Asparagus, tomatoes, leeks, mangoes and nugget-sized potatoes. There is no natural source of water on the island - all drinking and irrigation water is desalinated. Apparently the ash has special properties and absorbs dew and retains humidity. Just think of it. Ash and seawater. It takes some guts for Canarians to even imagine a life, let alone make it out of those materials, a mere two centuries after the earth belched fire and destroyed all living things on the island.

Haria valley - and its fields of ash