La Gomera

James & Amelia Gould
Mon 8 Oct 2007 20:09

071002 – 071008 La Gomera


The final act in my great birthday was a few drinks in one of the Marina front bars.  Our initial plan was to sail overnight to La Gomera, but the forecast was for unfavourable winds so we decided to wait until the following morning when the winds were forecast to shift to the North.  However, a few strong Irish coffees later and a gust of wind from the right direction prompted us to sail at midnight rather then the planned 0500 departure (seemed like a good idea at the time!…J).  We cast off and motored out into a clear night hoping for a great sail to La Gomera, 75 nautical miles to the west.  Our hopes were shattered by a flat calm sea with not a breath of wind.  We ended up motoring towards the southern tip of Tenerife for 6 hours, occasionally raising the sails to motor sail and squeeze out an extra half a knot of speed.  It was dull progress, but it meant we could sleep off the effects of the previous night’s consumption.  As day broke little puffs of wind started to appear, and James rigged our light wind sail.  As soon as he had finished he noticed some rough seas up ahead, and knowing that we were approaching a notorious Canary Island acceleration zone decided to put a reef in the Main just in case.  In the time it took him to get to the mast he decided 2 reefs were needed, and soon after we were down to 3 reefs and a scrap of Genoa.  We had reached the acceleration zone between Tenerife and La Gomera where the prevailing northeast wind is squeezed between the two mountainous islands and accelerated by up to 25%.  Unfortunately for us the forecast northeast wind never materialized, and we ended up beating into a strong north-westerly for 9 long hours, watching the initial faint spot of La Gomera grow slowly on the horizon.  It was agonising seeing our destination for so long yet being unable to reach it.  Eventually we closed the coast of the island and found some shelter from the wind.  We dropped the sails and motored into San Sebastian marina, pleased to have arrived at last.


The main reason for our long trek to La Gomera was to visit our friend Denny, who we met in Cadiz and arranged to meet in the Canary Islands.  It was great seeing him again, and we caught up on the last few months over a delicious meal at a restaurant overlooking the now calm sea (sods law!).  We’d arranged to go diving a couple of days later, giving us a day to recuperate from the rough journey over.  You can read all about our day diving and snorkelling from Denny’s (lovely…J) boat in James’ Bubble Blog Number 2.


After a month in the Canary Islands we were keen to get going south and wanted to be on our way as soon as possible after arriving in La Gomera. However, the weather gods were once again against us, and any form of wind had been obliterated by a big high pressure sitting over the Canary Islands.  It looked like we wouldn’t be able to sail until early the following week, so we started to make plans for the weekend to fill the time.


On Saturday Denny hired a car and we went for a drive around the island.  There wasn’t much to see on this small island (the second smallest in the Canaries) in terms of historical locations, museums or architecture (phew! J), but the scenery was amazing.  La Gomera is another volcanic island with a geography made up of impressive deep gorges, huge rock monoliths and the Garajonay National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising 20% of the island around its highest peak (1,500m).  We drove around the north side of the island, following the roads as they wound up and down each side of the gorges.  Every so often we would stop to admire the incredible view, with glimpses of some of the surrounding islands.  We drove through several small villages along the way admiring the skill required to farm and maintain the incredible terraces around the houses.  We stopped for coffee at a small village on the way, and James became friendly with a little stray dog.  He was quite cute, and took to James immediately, following him around the cafe.  When it was time to leave James begged to take him with us, but I refused (meany…J).  The dog followed us to the car, and then ran after the car as we drove away.  Even I started to feel sorry for it…


Gomeran Landscapes


The Little Doggy


By early afternoon we arrived at the National Park, and parked the car at the foot of one of the footpaths which led to the peak.  A 30 minute walk through dense shrub and small laurel leaf trees led to a circular platform at the highest peak, where we had incredible views across the whole island and of the islands beyond, just visible above the clouds.  It was worth the climb, and we chose a great day to go as the peak is normally shrouded in a thick mist (hence the extensive vegetation, unlike the rest of the island).  The National Park wasn’t as beautiful or lush as the one in Madeira, but we were told it contained over 400 species of fauna unique to the island and was an important conservation area.  All we spotted were flies and a few butterflies, but I am sure something more interesting was lurking in the undergrowth if we spared the time to look!



La Palma

El Hierro


We continued on round to the Western side of the island and descended into a steep green gorge called Valle Gran Rey.  At the sea end of the gorge was a little tourist town, catering mainly for German tourists.  It had a very relaxed atmosphere and was almost attractive, in stark contrast to the huge concrete hotel cities in the larger islands.


Valle Gran Rey


After closely monitoring the progress of the weather we decided to sail on Monday afternoon.  It looked like we would have some wind for the journey, and it would allow us the morning to prepare the boat and stock up with fresh produce.  Another consideration was that we expected the passage to Gambia to take 7 days, and we didn’t want to arrive on a weekend and risk being charged overtime by customs officials.  The wind built up overnight on Sunday, and the gusts became so violent in the harbour that we decided to take down our awning to avoid damaging it.  Monday morning dawned clear and very windy, and we started to have doubts about sailing into such a strong wind.  I set off to the supermarket while James checked the weather.  San Sebastian was deserted at 9 15a.m., and even by Spanish standards I expected things to be open by then.  As I arrived at the supermarket it was barred shut, and an old man at the door told me that it was a national holiday that day!  Everything would be shut until the following day.  I returned to the boat, and James and I discussed our options: We could still sail that afternoon as planned, but risk damaging the boat trying to manoeuvre in a small marina with such a strong cross wind and live on tinned food for a week; or we could wait 24 hours and hope the wind abated a little and leave with fresh food.  We decided to wait, and to go and watch the celebrations taking place.


Monday was the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of La Gomera, whose image was apparently washed up on the island’s shores at Puntallama.  There was a small chapel on the point where Mass was to be held, followed by a procession.  Using my basic Spanish I learnt from the lady at the bakery that we could get a bus to Puntallama from the main bus station.  The way she was gesturing we figured it wasn’t far, so we decided to go.  The bus wound its way around the cliffs north of San Sebastian, full of locals chattering away to each other.  We had no idea where we were going, or what we’d see when we got there.  The bus eventually stopped in a dusty car park in the middle of nowhere, and everyone got off.  There appeared to be a queue across the car park of people who had arrived on an earlier bus, so we joined it, still not having a clue what was going on.  The road ended at the car park, but a narrower tarmac road continued on around the cliff.  The sight of a small minibus trundling down the narrow road towards us made us realise that we were now changing buses – the big bus couldn’t make it up the narrow road, so they were using smaller vans to transport people to Puntallama.


After a short wait, “chatting” to a very sweet old lady who was a Gomeran native (Guanche – not Spanish or Canarian, she exclaimed!) we boarded a minivan and carried on around the island.  Around a particularly sharp hairpin bend the tarmac ended, and a gravel road started, bordered by a stone wall which had crumbled in many places.  The wind was very strong along the cliff face, and the bus was shaking in the gusts.  This didn’t seem to bother the driver, who was chattering away on the mobile phone in his hand, oblivious to the sheer drop to the sea 100m below.  Eventually the bus stopped at the top of a path and I prised my white knuckles away from the arm rest.  We followed everyone else down the path to a flat area at the bottom of the cliff, which was populated by ramshackle huts.  As we approached we saw signs of the fiesta in progress, with flags fluttering in the breeze and the sound of mass emanating from a small white chapel.



The Way Down


When mass was finished the procession started, and the Virgin was carried out of the chapel to the sound of Gomeran castanets, drumming and song.  There was a group of dancers out in front and a man carrying a huge bunch of fruit and bread as an offering.  The procession did a circuit of the settlement, stopping to bless and make offerings at various critical points.  Several priests were following the statue of the virgin, their long white robes presenting an antiquated contrast to the baseball caps and sunglasses they were wearing.  There was none of the dressing up and razzmatazz we have seen in similar processions in more touristy areas – there was no one in traditional dress, or someone selling souvenirs of the occasion.  Everyone was there to pray and celebrate, following the centuries old traditions.  It was interesting, if a little wind swept, and provided a worthy distraction from the agony of another lost day.


Virgin of Guadalupe Procession