Downtown Mindelo, Cape Verde Islands
Late November or early December is the ideal time to cross the Atlantic from East to West, with most cruising boats leaving Europe and the UK before it gets too cold and calling in at the Canary Islands to wait for the Trade Winds to kick in and the threat of hurricanes to diminish. November is also ARC Rally season and has been since Jimmy Cornell ran the first one in1986. The Marina Mindelo, on the island of San Vincente, plays host to the ARC Rally +, with 61 boats this year opting to include a stopover in the Cape Verdes as part of their transatlantic experience. The main fleet leaves Las Palmas two weeks later and theoretically boats of similar speed in both fleets will arrive around the same time in St Lucia, 2700 miles away in the Caribbean.
The preparations for the event were much in evidence as we left both Las Palmas and Mindelo. For my money, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to call in at Mindelo. Aside from being part of a smaller, more intimate fleet where you might actually get to know some of the other participants, Mindelo is well worth a visit. It is a town rich in history. The Portuguese and West African influences blend seamlessly into a unique culture. The people are warm and generous, if a little reluctant to engage with visitors who speak no Portuguese. Google Cesario Evora if you are not familiar with her music and you will hear the sounds of the islands from one of Cape Verde’s most famous citizens!
Enthusiastic sign language and a lot of laughter accompanies the efforts to communicate. A case in point was Jason’s animated attempts to learn the Charter Fishing Boat Captain’s secrets to catching the large Yellowfin tuna that was being cut up in his cockpit. We had not managed to catch anything other than smallish Dorado. He didn’t manage to pick up many tips but a few minutes after the discussion, one of the crew arrived with a massive chunk of tuna fillet on a plate for us!
They wouldn’t hear of any payment but accepted our return plate of sashimi with soy sauce and wasabi!
Why is it that leaving a place always takes so much longer than arriving somewhere? Somehow our plans to buy last minute fresh goods, top up the water and diesel and check out of Mindelo just seemed to take forever. In hindsight, I think we had all succumbed to the delicious state upon which ‘Island time’ is blamed! One starts to see the need to rush and to keep to a schedule as a much lower priority than say, coffee at a street cafe or a chat to a fellow yachtie about the merits of the different types of fishing lures!
But then, as always, reality sets in. In our case, the realization that it was very important to the owner of the boat that we reached Tortola in time for the boat to be on show at a Fall Charter Show. This is a show where boat owners or their crew go all out to impress the army of Charter Brokers with the various features that they believe will make their vessels irresistible to the Brokers’ clients. Our own particular challenge was that the Fontaine Pajot 44 that we were delivering was in no way prepared or equipped for the charter industry! Certain features could be added on after the show, like air conditioning, generators and kayaks and other water sports toys, but basics like linen, cutlery and crockery, coffee machines and icecream makers would not be possible to arrange in the short time available, assuming we made the deadline!
Here technology, dogged determination and teamwork saved the day! Kate received a budget from the owner through a very insistent Clearing Agent (essentially the person liaising between owner and Captain) and spent a total of probably three days purchasing all the necessary goods online from stores based in the USA while we were ashore with access to Internet. Thereafter, she had to follow up by email from mid ocean, pestering clerks to get goods shipped from the mainland to St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands so that they all arrived before we did! When it came time to get assertive with uncooperative clerks, she co-opted her mother, Val, who was in Trinidad refitting their own boat! The formula worked, and when we arrived in Tortola, there were 27 enormous boxes waiting for us stashed all over the owner’s other catamaran, a Fontaine Pajot 52.
Having extricated ourselves from Mindelo late on Thursday 22 October, we set off under full sail and two motors with a gentle following breeze. Clearing the southern end of Ihla da Santo Antao, we turned onto the heading that we would be on for the next fifteen days, 272°T. Being a little early in the season, we didn’t experience the expected Trade Winds for the next two days or so and were forced to keep our average speed up by engine power, usually just running a single motor.
When the Trades did arrive it was a wonderful feeling to switch off motors, lower the mainsail and unroll both the asymmetrical gennaker set on the bowsprit and the genoa. This was the most efficient rig for downwind sailing that we could come up with in the absence of a genuine spinnaker. We rigged up a snatch block on each mid ships mooring cleat and routed the appropriate genoa sheet through it in order to “pole” the smaller sail out sufficiently. This setup worked well and enabled us to maintain a 150-160 mile daily run quite easily.
After dark, we would usually roll up the gennaker as a precaution against the night time olympics that would be required when the Atlantic squalls passed over! The moon phase for most of our crossing was a waning moon leading into the New Moon phase giving us very dark nights where every large cloud looks like a dangerous squall, and some actually are!
Although the paths the squalls follow are not too easy to pick up unless one tracks them with radar, the effect that they have on the wind one experiences is quite predictable. If the squall passes to the north of a vessel, the wind veers from the north east to east and rises from the normal 15-18 knots to about 22-25 for maybe ten minutes and then backs to the north east again as the cloud passes. Usually there is a little rain, but not really enough to have a wash or collect off the sails.
If the squall passes to the south, or over the vessel, the wind veers rapidly to the south east and often increases to over 30 knots and is accompanied by much more rain for a longer period before backing to the north east again. This often gives one time for a good fresh water shower or indeed, just a refreshing rinse!
The further west we went, the greater the frequency of squalls and generally fresher the winds were. We were enjoying good daily runs and the fishing improved markedly.
In the last two days before arriving in the Virgin Islands, the weather was dark and overcast, squally and very hot and humid. Ideal conditions for the development of a tropical storm. I was downloading regular weather forecasts via my Iridium phone. This was done by sending an email request to a Saildocs automated mailbox and receiving a return email within seconds containing a very small (about 2kb) attachment with Grib files for the requested area. This file is then opened on my iPad using one of two apps for the purpose. I prefer the ease of use of the PocketGrib App. The forecasts all showed stronger wind and some heavy rain but no storm which was a relief. We did have an anxious moment though when I was completing my logbook entry at the end of my watch and reached for the digital barometer to find it was no longer in its place! I found it on the shelf below the front saloon window, a victim of spring cleaning, but what alarmed me was that the barometric pressure had dropped from 1012 to 1005 millibars in two hours! Surely this was an indicator of some serious weather on the way? Then I looked at the integrated thermometer on the instrument and saw it sitting on 47°C! It had heated up in the sun, behind the glass screen and had adjusted the pressure to compensate for the rise in temperature!
As fate would have it, our run into Tortola was timed such that we would arrive in the very early hours of the morning, or we could try and sail slower and wait for daylight. With the sea that was running and the 25-30 knot easterly pushing us, it was doubtful that we’d be able to slow down enough even under bare poles so we pushed on and made sure all our pilotage was prepared. Confidence in a country’s dedication to its navigation aids is completely misplaced! We felt sure that arriving in the British and US Virgin Islands, buoys would be where they are marked on charts and lighthouses would be functioning as expected, but it was not to be! As darkness fell, we sailed towards Sombrero Island, with an elevation of only a few meters. This is an island that would be almost invisible to approaching vessels until they were virtually on top of it, and it’s light was out of operation. 50 miles later, the light on the easternmost point of Virgin Gorda, Pajaro Point was similarly out of operation! But these are not big issues to any navigator using modern chartplotters and old fashioned caution. What was more scary was a phenomenon on our Garmin charts that I have not seen before and have not yet received an explanation for from the company. We were setting a course for Trunk Bay on Virgin Gorda where we would be having a photo shoot for a publicity brochure and film the next morning. Because of the rowdy sea, I opted for a longer but more conservative route around the north side of Virgin Gorda rather than transiting one of several passes at the southern end of the island where there was less room for error. Our route took us to the north of Necker Island and then south west between George and Great Dog islands and Virgin Gorda. I’m not a great fan of creating waypoints on a chartplotter’s screen, preferring to enter the coordinates taken off a paper chart (except for waypoints far offshore and away from any obstructions of course). I had entered our waypoints to give us a good clearance of Necker Island, in a sensible depth of water. When I viewed the waypoints on the chartplotters I couldn’t believe that I had made a half a mile error with each waypoint, but there it was, my course was going to take us right over Necker Island! UNTIL I reduced the zoom to 0.3 miles, and then the waypoints jumped to exactly where they were supposed to be!
At ANY OTHER ZOOM, the waypoints were out by almost half a mile! I shudder to think what would have happened if the visibility had been really bad and we had not checked, and double checked the electronic navigation system.
The morning was spent maneuvering yachts and cameramen around for the optimal shots between rain squalls and searing heat! When all was wrapped up, we transhipped 27 enormous boxes of equipment from the other catamaran and set off for Nanny Cay Marina, Tortola to find our mooring for the Charter Boat show.
The next two days passed in a blur as we rushed to get Svetlaya transformed into Dolphin Splash, her alter ego for the charter world and eventually, when all was achieved, she, and her crew, really looked the bit!