Sunday, 29 June 2014

Bongo Turtles

Where can you buy coral for two fivers?  Tenerife (tenner reef, geddit?).  Comedy gold like this doesn't come easily.  This particular corker was the result of my night watches on our journey from Gran Tarajal, Fuerteventura to Marina San Miguel, Tenerife.

I have read a fair few books and blogs that others have written about their sailing journeys and the night watches that I read about sound much more romantic than mine ever are.  These other lucky sailors are usually wallowing in their cockpits wearing t-shirt and shorts.  They will mention that they threw their jumpers away months before and haven't needed them since.  Now, they enjoy balmy nights with cooling breezes blowing gently through their silky, tangle-free, moisturised hair.  Whilst they sprawl out in their cosy cockpits, slipping cool grapes fresh from the refrigerator into their mouths, they look up at cloudless skies, full to bursting point with millions upon millions of stars and contemplate profound topics such as the meaning of life, or whether there's someone out there, orbiting one of those countless other stars, staring  back at them.  No doubt, if there is, it will be a little green man kicking back in the comfortable cockpit of his levitating yacht, feeling equally smug about his situation.

Smiles as we approach Tenerife
My night watches, however, don't bear any resemblance to this idyllic bliss.  I'm usually tired, cold, huddled uncomfortably right up into the only corner of the cockpit that is marginally safe from the onslaught of chilling, salty spray blowing back over our deck and I don't have any time for cool grapes because I'm busy dodging shipping lanes, adjusting our course and pulling on soggy sheets to trim our sails.  Cowering under an overcast, ominous-looking sky, hoping that we're not about to make the acquaintance of an ugly, unforecast storm, I don't get to turn my mind to philosophically challenging subjects.  The best I can do is come up with bad jokes that barely make sense.

It's not really as unpleasant as I make out, I have simply misplaced my rose-tinted glasses so am making do with some grey-tinted ones I had lying around.  We are both actually enjoying the sailing.  We haven't felt badly seasick for quite some time, we have renewed confidence in Firebird and ourselves, now that we have mentally recovered from the rough passage we had on our way from Portugal, and it felt great to be on the move again.

The trip from Fuerteventura to Tenerife took us a couple of days.  The first day, making our way south-west along the coast of Fuerteventura, was particularly tiring because we had to deal with tricky conditions caused by the wind acceleration zones along that coast.  These are areas where the wind gets funnelled through valleys, or between islands, resulting in much higher localised wind speeds.  Outside of these zones, the wind was light, usually too much so, and quite confused, so we were constantly altering our point of sail and changing the foresail.  It's amazing watching an acceleration zone approach.  You can see exactly where it is, as though a line has been drawn in the water.  On one side of the line is calm water, on the other, white horses are getting whipped up by the strong wind.  As we crossed the line, the wind speed would increase by about 25 knots.  The opposite would happen at the other side of the zone - we would be heeled hard over, tearing along towards a flat sea and as soon as we crossed the line, Firebird would sit up straight, the noise of the wind disappeared and we would slowly drift away from the white horses.

Out for a sail with David and Pauline
Although the wind was blowing hard inside the acceleration zones, because the zones are quite small, resulting in a short fetch, the sea state doesn't get as rough as it would if those wind speeds were encountered in open water.  The combination of high wind speed and relatively small waves would make for an exciting ride, where much progress could be made in relative comfort, but because Firebird's mainsail can't be reefed as deeply as we would like (a high-priority item on the to-do list), we are over-canvased when the wind reaches speeds above 30 knots, so picking our way through the acceleration zones was too 'exciting' and quite tiring.

All this meant that by the end of the day, we had had enough and didn't fancy continuing through the night.  We found a spot to drop anchor at the very south-west tip of Fuerteventura.  We both needed a rest and it was great fun to spend a night at anchor in Firebird as we haven't done so since the beginning of January.  We enjoy the isolation and the feeling of self-sufficiency when away from marinas and it feels extra cosy to be tucked up in our little boat when just outside the hull is 'the sea', rather than pontoons.

After weighing anchor the following morning, we were almost immediately clear of Fuerteventura, heading out into the ocean towards Tenerife.  Unfortunately, Gran Canaria lay directly in our path, so we headed to the north of that island, to avoid the acceleration zones to its south.

Underwater selfie
I was staring idly at the water passing by us when all of a sudden I was looking at a turtle.  He was just cruising along on the surface and as we overtook him, he raised his flipper out of the water as though he was giving us a friendly wave.  A few minutes later we passed another one and I started hoping that we would sail through a big group of them.  My thinking was that it might sound like someone playing a tune on bongo drums as they bumped their shells against our hull.  Unfortunately, those were the last turtles we saw and I never found out if running over turtles sounds like bongos.

By nightfall we had made it to the northern edge of Gran Canaria, which turned out to be a very busy shipping area.  We had to keep a keen eye out for traffic heading into the large port of Las Palmas.  You wouldn't think it, but those huge container ships can really creep up on you if you're not constantly on the lookout, due to the high speeds they move at.  Although they should avoid us when we're under sail, and generally do so very well, it's best not to rely on them altering course on our account because I haven't heard many successful outcomes of the David and Goliath story when transposed onto a maritime context.

I was on watch as night turned to day again and I enjoyed taking in the sunrise.  The light first struck the tip of El Teide, the highest peak in Spain and the third highest volcano on a volcanic ocean island in the world.  Gradually the orange glow dripped down the snow-capped mountain, looking almost like the volcano was oozing lava, until the whole of Tenerife was basking in its glow.  Eventually, the sea's patiently awaited turn was up and as the waves started to sparkle, I could feel the warmth soaking into me and driving away the night time chill.

Sunrise lights up El Teide as we approach Tenerife
We were both excited to get to Tenerife because our reason for going there was to meet friends and family who were flying out to say hello.  First to arrive were the Westwoods.  Chris and Chrissie's wedding was the reason we made the trip to America back in 2011, where I ended up proposing to Kate.  On their journey to Tenerife they had the fun of flying with their daughter for the first time and, tantrums involving bleeding bite wounds aside, didn't find the experience too bad.  Aside: Chris later apologised for his outburst and promised to avoid the small cans of Stella on future flights.

It was great fun to spend time with Chris and Chrissie and their incredibly well behaved toddler.  As chance would have it, Chris' parents were also out visiting the island with an overlap in dates, so we got to see them as well.  I promised that I would tell everyone that Chris' hotel was wholly superior to anyone else's, having three pools, one of which was on the roof and another of which could be seen through its glass bottom from the reception area below.  Peeping Toms need not get too excited - the most frequent sight that could be glimpsed in this fashion was highly unflattering and unattractive.

Chrissie demonstrates the emergency actions to perform if your toddler fills her nappy while swimming
It turned out that Chris had been disappointed not to receive a mention in the blog after we had breakfast with them when we were back in the UK over Christmas.  To make amends, we can truly say, with no joke of a lie, that Chrissie cooked us the best full English that we could remember having for a very long time.  We often find it hard to know how much to write about other people; some are happy to feature in our updates, some, understandably, value their privacy and don't want their photos and movements made publicly available.

Strange rock formations and a view of El Teide's peak
Our next visitors were my uncle and aunt, David and Pauline.  They happened to be on holiday in Spain last year when they saw an update on the blog saying that we were also in Spain on Firebird.  Unfortunately, on that occasion we were too far apart to meet up, but this prompted them to think, and we agreed, that it would be fun if they planned a holiday to coincide with us arriving somewhere on Firebird.  Although we don't now see as much of our friends and family since leaving London last year, when we do see them, we get to spend much more quality time together and can really enjoy a week of each others' company, rather than the odd meal together, squeezed in between our other commitments, which is what would happen back when we were part of the rat race.

Home made 'banofio' cake at the El Teide base station
David and Pauline are no strangers to Tenerife and they were fantastic tour guides, showing us round the island in their rented car.  This was a luxury that we don't usually have as, most of the time, we only explore as far as our legs, or the odd bus, can take us from Firebird.  We couldn't believe how different the centre of Tenerife is from the areas by the coast.  As we drove up winding roads and reached the tree line, it felt like we had been teleported to a different place altogether.  I was reminded of summer trips to the Alps, full of pine forests and rich wildlife that has been completely missing from the other islands that we have visited.  Although the cable car running to the top of El Teide was closed due to high winds when we visited, the view from the base station alone was stunning and well worth the visit.

All in all, we had a fantastic couple of weeks on Tenerife and consider ourselves very lucky that our friends and family find the time to come out and visit us, because having them drop in along the way is like a sprinkling of spice over our journey.

An actual forest! We have barely seen any greenery since arriving at the Canaries so this was a welcome change
Even though we were already well on our way down from visiting El Teide, we're still way above the clouds