The voyage of S/Y Spalax from Gibraltar to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

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20 Oct 2009 36 08 59 N 05 21 16 W

It’s six o’clock in the morning. The shower facilities of Gibraltar’s Ocean Village Marina are crawling with husky Australians and beer-bellied Germans.

“What’s the rush?” I enquire bleary-eyed.

“The Atlantic front’s coming, and we gotta get out of here and make it to Cadiz before the Atlantic front hits Gibraltar,” answers a stark-naked Aussie.

Outside, a stiff easterly is being funnelled through the Pillars of Hercules, promising ideal conditions for the first leg of the Atlantic crossing – Gibraltar to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. But things are gonna change all too soon.

Armel de Kerros, president of CNCE, the water sports club of European Union institutions in Brussels, is my able-bodied crew member on this leg of the Atlantic crossing. He’s flying in to Malaga and taking the bus to The Rock. On the road, connecting Gib with the rest of the European continent, the barrier is down. A 747 is landing at the Gibraltar airport and road traffic has to wait. The British enclave is so small that the road to Spain has to cross the airport’s runway.

There comes Armel, hauling his aristocratic body across the tarmac, smiling his infectious smile and squinting at the Mediterranean sun through his Bakelite-rimmed glasses. We have no time to lose. The welcome drink will have to wait. It’s 2.30 p.m. and the Spalax is already steaming out of the bay of Gibraltar towards the Spanish port of Tarifa. The plan is to motor along the Spanish coast as far as Tarifa, hoist the the main and genoa and cross the Straits of Gibraltar towards the Moroccan coast. As we reach Tarifa, the stiff easterly is kicking up choppy seas against a strong east-setting Atlantic current. The Spalax is twisting its way across choppy seas of the Atlantic towards Africa. It’s getting dark and the easterly is dying down. An unusual calm embraces the nightscape of the North Atlantic. Is it the calm before the raging storm? In any event, the Moroccan fishermen are out in force to take advantage of the calm Atlantic.


As darkness thickens, colorful lights pop up along the horizon. We’re doing only 4 knots with the genoa and the main unfurled. It’s my turn to take the helm. In the corner of my eye I catch sight of a string of whitish round objects, floating in the water on the starboard side about three meters from the boat. I instinctively swing the helm to port to keep the keel, propeller and rudder clear of Moroccan fishing nets. Whew, that was a close shave! Signaling lights are all around us. Which ones mark the end of the fishing nets and which ones are the signaling lights on the fishing boat? We have no idea. We furl the genoa and main to improve our maneuverability as we zigzag our way out of the fishing net labyrinth. Just before the early morning light we take a deep breath of relief: the fishing boats are behind us and our only challenge is the Atlantic Ocean. The wind picks up again, but not from the east. This time, it’s blowing from the northwest quadrant. We’re in for a blow.


21 Oct 2009 33 54 24 N 07 49 22 W

A forty-knot westerly is pushing us towards the Moroccan coast. That’s not where we want to go. Weather conditions are deteriorating rapidly. Towering waves are rolling from the west and our tiny boat is taking a beating as she tries to put some miles between us and the African coast. The noise of the boat’s hull slamming into mountains of water is unnerving. With the genoa down and a reefed main we are making little headway. Armel soon becomes seasick. I take over at the helm to fight the raging seas. With nightfall conditions don’t improve. Despite our efforts to get away from the African coast the lights of Rabat beyond the horizon are getting brighter by the hour.

Beating against the north-westerly is taking a toll on the boat and its crew. To make matters worse, every so often we’re hit by a squall and have to quickly trim our canvass according to sudden shifts in wind direction. We are getting too close to the coast. We desperately need some comfort zone. Tacking in these conditions with all our canvass up is no simple matter. I start the engine and finally manage to tack and gradually pull away from the African coast.

22 Oct 2009 33 20 12 N 08 36 32 W

The north-westerly simply refuses to let up. It’s peaking at 50 knots. Instead of making good headway towards the Canaries, Spalax is still zigzagging off the African coast. Frustration is setting in. I have not eaten or slept for two days and Armel is still feeling the effects of motion sickness. Every time we have to start the engine for the tacking maneuver, the fumes make Armel sick all over the Atlantic. We realize that we’ll never make it to the Canaries in time for our booked flights back to Brussels. Yes, cruising is also an exercise in patience, particularly in late October in the North Atlantic when wind conditions change with every front.

23 Oct 2009 31 48 32 N 10 57 49 W

At sunrise we are still being tossed about by confusing seas. The swell is coming from two different directions, making it difficult to steer the boat in a straight line. In a 23-knot north-westerly breeze we drop the main and leave only the genoa unfurled. In these conditions the auto pilot comes in handy as it does a better job of steering than a helmsman and gives us the all too needed time to recover.

On the fourth day out of Gibraltar the weather finally lightens up, the late October sun boosts our spirits, the north westerly veers to northerly and eases up to a manageable speed of 15 knots. We can finally change our heading to 260 degrees and make a bee-line for Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. After four days of fasting, Armel has his first meal of English cookies. Being French, he doesn’t appreciate my gesture of feeding him English cookies from Gibraltar, so he makes a pompous speech about the Queen of England and the French maritime tradition. His diatribe is of course in French, and I don’t care to translate it into English, as this is a family-oriented website. It’s time to try out the Genny, our watermelon-red asymmetrical gennaker, which was tailor-made for the Spalax by UK Sails. I attach the uphaul to the head of the sock and thread the two sheets through the blocks and around the winches. Then Armel hoists the Genny. It looks absolutely elegant in its red sock. Sitting on the prow, I pull the sock to the masthead and the Genny deploys beautifully, without a single snag in the northerly breeze. All of a sudden she comes swishing down and plopping into the Atlantic on the port side of the boat. We both scramble to pull the enormous piece of Dacron aboard, so it wouldn’t foul up the prop and the rudder.

“What the hell was that? What did you do?” I scream at Armel.

“I forgot to push the gennaker… what d’you call it … all the way down,” he answers sheepishly.

We repeat the hoisting and unfurling procedure, and this time it works like a charm. Armel pushes the uphaul sheet stopper all the way down and bangs on it with his fist just to make sure. Mushrooming in front of the forestay, the vermillion Genny makes for a spectacular sight against the Disney sky. We’re flying at 6 knots. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, here we come!

24 Oct 2009 29 28 04 N 13 43 33 W

The ocean is getting bluer and the sun warmer. The subtropics in late October are quite pleasant during the day but still rather nippy at night. The crew’s morale is improving rapidly. After five days of braving the elements, we finally fall into the routine of steering, cooking, eating and sleeping. Our asymmetrical gennaker, the Genny, is pulling us towards the destination at 4 knots. When the northerly is too weak we run the engine. During the storm we lost the two fishing lines we were trolling from the stern in the hope of catching some fresh seafood. Actually the two lines got so intertwined that there was a risk of fouling up the prop during our tacking maneuvers, so we had to jettison hook, line and sinker. At 3 am we sight the light pollution of Lanzarote. No time to make landfall there. We are steaming straight for the final destination.

25 Oct 2009 28 21 07 N 15 02 58 W

The Spalax has been motoring with the main up since early morning. The northerly is weakening by the hour and even the Genny refuses to unfurl properly. In early afternoon, La Graciosa, the stark, volcanic islet off the northernmost tip of Lanzarote, makes its appearance on the horizon. It provides a safe harbor for the weary mariner on his way from Europe to the Americas, but we must push on. Like the poet says, we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep, and miles to go before we sleep. Although we know we’ll never make the pre-booked flight back to Brussels, Armel and I are nevertheless itching for a nice hot shower and a well-deserved rest.

With nightfall the city lights of Las Palmas the Gran Canaria dead ahead give us the bearing for our destination. I power up my laptop and run Garmin’s Mapsource, hooked up to a palm-sized Etrex GPS. The wonders of modern navigation technology! Night navigation is child’s play: just follow the blinking red dot on the computer screen that tells you the position of your little boat in real time. La Isleta lighthouse at the northernmost tip of Gran Canaria comes into view at 8 pm. Our ETA in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is very early tomorrow morning.

26 Oct 2009 28 07 39 N 15 25 29 W

All night we’ve been cruising under canvas, aided by our Vovlo-Penta. As the lights of Las Palmas draw closer, we turn off the engine to enter the port with every stitch of our canvas unfurled, like “real sailors.” The little dot on the computer screen leads the boat to “Muelle deportivo” of the Las Palmas marina. What a curious feeling: the boat is no longer rocking and pitching. The exact time of our arrival on October the 26th, 2009, is one hundred hours and twenty-two minutes. At this time in the morning the arrivals dock of the Muelle deportivo is deserted. The two of us stumble onto the dock trying to keep our balance. The sense of accomplishment is overwhelming, but the welcoming committee is nowhere to be seen. Utterly exhausted, we stumble back onto the boat and collapse on our bunks.

It is 10 am. The bright Canarian sun teases me out of my restful sleep. Unsteadily, I make my way onto the pontoon and connect a garden hose to the shore water supply. The long cold al fresco shower is absolutely exhilarating. Armel looking at me incredulously picks up the camera and records the event for posterity. Next comes an even longer hot shower in the marina facilities. As I close my eyes in the shower cubicle, I nearly lose my balance and collapse on the floor. I prop my self up by bracing myself with my hands against the wavy ocean pattern of the shower walls. One week of ocean cruising has completely messed up my sense of equilibrium. It’ll take at least two weeks to get back to normal.

Still reeling from our adventure on the high seas, we make our way to a cybercafe to rebook our plane tickets back to Brussels, to the dreary, dingy atmosphere of European officialdom. But the blue-water adventure is far from over. The best is yet to come. Stay tuned for the next installment of the Spalax adventure: the 2009 edition of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers or ARC2009.

Lessons learned

How do you negotiate the Straits of Gibraltar from east to west? Forget the tides and currents. The east-setting Atlantic current is heavily influenced by the diurnal tidal currents. In addition, the current varies with the distance from the shore and is usually strongest in the centre of the Straits and weakest closer to the shore, where it may turn into a counter-current. All you need to do is wait patiently for a well-established easterly breeze to carry you out into the Atlantic, far away from the African and European coast. So here is the ideal situation: you motor out of Gibraltar early in the morning to have good visibility throughout your passage through the Straits. Since you have a nice easterly tail wind, you can hoist your main as soon as you leave Gibraltar’s Ocean Village Marina right next to the airport. But look out for three red signaling lights on your starboard side. If they are flashing, it means you have to wait for an aircraft to land or take off. You wouldn’t want a Boeing 747 foul up the forestay of your boat, would you. As soon as you are clear of the fleet of anchored cargo ships, head for Tarifa by motoring along the Spanish coast, making sure you stay relatively close to shore to avoid a strong current. Once you reach Tarifa, more accurately, the Isla de los Palomas, do not, I repeat, do not bear to port towards the Moroccan coast, but rather proceed due west past Tarifa for another 50 miles to give yourself plenty of elbow room. This strategy will not only give you peace of mind in case the wind shifts to a westerly in case of a North Atlantic front but will also allow you to avoid the Moroccan fishing fleet. You certainly don’t want your boat to suffer any imperial entanglements, particularly at night when it’s almost impossible to determine where the fishing net begins and where it ends.

So, once you reach 35 55 00 N – 06 15 00 W, you bear to port and assume a new 200-degree heading straight for the Canaries. If you catch a nice northerly, you may want to unfurl only the genoa for a no-stress, leisurely cruise to the Canaries. If you feel more adventurous, you’ll want to hoist the main as well, but don’t forget to run a preventer from the end of the boom to an improvised stern block and back to a winch or stopper in the cockpit.

And finally a word about sheet stoppers. If you have less experienced crew aboard, it is important to explain to them, that the lever of sheet stopper should be pressed all the way down in the fully open position to completely release the sheet. When securing the sheet, you should close the lever of the skeet stopper and bang down on it with a fist, to make doubly sure that it is completely closed.The crew of the Spalax will be embarking on an adventure of their lifetime and learning more sailing lessons on the second leg of the Transatlantic voyage from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to Rodney Bay, St Lucia, so don’t forget to read all about it in the next installment to be published soon.

Marjan Golobic

Brussels, April 2010