Cape Verde Islands

James & Amelia Gould
Wed 28 Nov 2007 16:20
06 - 22 November 2007: Cape Verde Islands

We awoke early on our last day in The Gambia in order to catch the ebb tide out of the river for the last time. We started weighing the anchor as dawn broke but we found that it was stuck fast to something on the bottom. No amount of pulling, winching and manoeuvring under engine could get it out. In the end that was nothing else to do but to go down and see why the anchor was stuck. James donned his swimming costume and duck dived 6m down to our anchor. Turned out the chain had wrapped itself around an old grapnel anchor on the sea bed, which would explain why we didn't drag in the strong winds! Another duck dive by James freed the chain, and we were away!

It took us 3 days to sail from The Gambia to Sal in the Cape Verde Islands. On the first night at sea we were haunted by tens of pirogues fishing in the bay between Gambia and Dakar. Some came worryingly close and fearing piracy while struggling to make progress in light and variable winds we motored quickly North West until we were clear of Cap Vert and in the NE Trade Winds belt. (These pirogues had an interesting approach to lighting; each one had a different coloured very bright strobe, making the red, green and white ones look like buoys [none were expected but then again the ones we were expecting to see weren't there so anything was possible] and the one with the blue one that seemed to be following us could have been mistaken for some sort of patrol vessel, all very tedious.J)

The winds followed a daily cycle - light Force 3 in the early morning, then building throughout the forenoon to a Force 5-6 in the afternoon, then as the sun set easing off to Force 3 overnight. This meant that every watch was filled with endless sail changes in an effort to maintain progress. It was very tiring, but good exercise! During one of these sessions we noticed something strange on our mainsail. Closer inspection revealed a squid stuck fast to the sail about half way up, a long smear of black ink marking its landing path on our pristine white sail. We have no idea how it got there; as far as we knew, squids can't fly! (His death wasn't in vain, I used him as bait..J)

On our second day at sea the Drifter halyard (To non sailors - the bit of rope which holds the top of the sail up) parted and the sail fell unceremoniously onto the deck and water. We pulled the huge sail in, and re-hoisted it on a spinnaker halyard so that we could furl and stow it. We added a new halyard to our shopping list and jobs to do.

James tried his hand at fishing again but was unlucky at every attempt. He lost two lures to huge (monster!) fish that took a bite and then struggled hard against the line. In both cases the 49KG line eventually snapped, freeing the fish with the lure still in its mouth. This was probably a good thing, as we figured we couldn't land anything bigger than 49KG! James's entry in the log that day read:

"One shark stole my lure. My own stupid fault really, I even teased him onto the lure in a red haze of blood lust, but when I got him I realised he was a bit of a monster and there was no way I could land him so he broke the line. Doh."

James did eventually managed to catch a Mahi Mahi, and reel the fish in to the stern of the boat. But as James was preparing to clobber the fish to death it jumped off the hook and swam away, waving goodbye as it went (I'm sure it was laughing at me, if fish can laugh.J). I went below to open another tin of meatballs for dinner.

We made good progress, which meant we made landfall at Sal as the sun was setting rather than the following morning as we planned. We deliberated whether to enter the main port of Palmeira in the dark (the pilot book advised against it as the navigation lights in Cape Verde are rarely lit). We decided to give it a go, and bail out if things got difficult. We edged our way into the small bay, using the ambient light from the town to spot obstacles in the water. We naively expected the bay to be empty, but as we got closer we realised there were yachts anchored everywhere. The water was deeper than we'd like at the outer edge of the anchorage but when we tried to go further in the loud sound of surf breaking on the dark beach put us off. Eventually we found of spot and anchored for the night, deciding to move in daylight if required.

As soon as we anchored a small boat approached us and the man inside started chatting to us. Still wary from our visit to The Gambia we explained that we didn't need assistance, diesel or any other money-earning proposal he was offering. The man then asked for a beer. Stunned by the unusual request, we handed over a can, and he trundled off into the darkness, never to be seen again.

The only reason for our stop in Sal was to clear into Cape Verde (one of only 3 islands in the group where this is possible). We'd heard there was nothing much on the island, but we were keen to visit some of the other islands to the north before our final stop in Sao Vicente. James went ashore in the morning to find customs and immigration, expecting a long round trip to the airport as instructed in the pilot book. Things turned out to be much simpler as the police in Palmeira dealt with all the formalities quickly and efficiently, which meant James was onboard before I'd finished tidying the boat after the passage (poor planning on my part, should have let her finish! J).

We went ashore for a wander and a leg stretch in the afternoon and confirmed that there really was nothing there to detain us. So we decided to sail that evening for the overnight passage to Sao Nicolao. Yet again we saw none of the navigation lights supposedly marking the extremities of Sao Nicolao. When dawn broke we could only just make out the outline of the island 4 miles away through the dusty haze. We approached Tarrafal harbour mid morning, ready for a rest after our tiring journey from The Gambia. There was a large swell running as we drove into the bay and the bows ploughed into the waves, soaking me on the net while I was preparing the anchor. The swell did not reduce once we were inside the harbour and we watched three monohulls already at anchor swaying like a metronome as each wave passed. We tried to anchor, but the swell made things too uncomfortable. Coupled with lots of scum on the water making things even more unpleasant we decided to weigh anchor and continue West in search of a better resting stop.

We sailed past the magnificent small islands of Raso and Branco, which rose steeply out of the water. These were barren, uninhabited islands, with no suitable shelter from the strong winds. We eventually arrived at a large bay on the South side of the third of these uninhabited islands, Santa Luzia. The island provided good shelter from the swell, but the strong wind funnelled down its valleys creating little white crests on the bay's clear waters. We were too tired to sail on, so we decided to anchor and see how things turned out. The bay was deserted, so we had plenty of room to drag if the wind did become too much! Luckily within a few hours the wind died down, and we were able to enjoy a relaxing gin in the cockpit admiring our isolated surroundings. It was so calm and peaceful that we decided to stay the whole of the following day rather then sail on to the next island (and despite the 35kt gusts our trusty anchor held firm! J).

We had a great day at Santa Luzia, finally able to relax after the effort of visiting The Gambia and the sail over. We did some off jobs around the boat, tried our hand at "Drift Fishing" (letting a line out with a couple of water bottles tied on as floats. Didn't catch anything, but it was fun to try!), and went ashore for an explore.

This intended walk ashore turned into a real palaver. The bay had a long, steeply shelving beach, upon which large waves broke with alarming regularity. We headed for the beach in the dinghy, and waited just beyond the surf line for a suitable moment to land. When a calm appeared, James revved the engine and hurled us onto the beach before the breaking wave behind us had a chance to engulf us. As soon as the dinghy hit the beach we jumped out and pulled it clear of the receding water. We wandered along the beach, inhabited only by crabs and little birds, for about an hour. Everywhere there were signs of the island's volcanic past with black lava flows cascading down to the water line and huge boulders scattered around as reminders of explosive eruptions. The wind picked up again while we were ashore, and the roar of the surf on the beach alerted us that it was probably time to head back. Once back at the dinghy we watched the breaking waves, trying to decipher some sort of pattern and a lull in which we could make our escape. We decided to take our chances with the next "small" wave, and as the hillock of water approached we lifted the dinghy and ran headlong in to the water. We leapt into the boat, and as James tried to start the engine I watched the sea. Horrified, I noticed a big wave building and fast approaching. Before I had a chance to finish my warning to James the wave broke over us and we were surrounded by white foaming water and sent hurtling back towards the beach. Again, as soon as we felt land under the dinghy we jumped out and held on to the dinghy to stop it being sucked back into the sea. The dinghy was full of water but had miraculously remained afloat and upright in all the commotion. We drained the dinghy, checked the engine still worked after its dunking (it did!), laughed at our sodden state, then tried to come up with a plan B. There was no other way back to Rahula, so 10 minutes later, having refined our dinghy launching and engine starting technique, we lunged forward again before a wave broke over the beach. This time we managed to make our escape, and it was such a relief to be off the beach and back on Rahula. Never did being afloat seem so much safer than dry land!

We reluctantly left Santa Luzia and headed for Sao Vicente, our final stop before crossing the Atlantic. The main town of Mindelo was the first real civilisation we had visited in a month and we marvelled at the tarmac, pavements, and choice of cafes. We immediately liked the place, and decided to stay a couple of weeks to prepare for our Atlantic crossing.

There were lots of other boats at anchor in the bay, and we soon befriended the crew of a nice looking catamaran of about our size and we spent a pleasant evening in their company discussing routes, provisioning and other Blue Water cruisers essential conversation topics. After a long session with our new Austrian friends we headed back to Rahula in the dark. We had been out all afternoon, and probably had one too many beers, so we were finding it difficult to find the boat. Then suddenly there was a big splash right next to the dinghy, and a huge fish jumped clean out of the water and straight into our dinghy! It scared the living daylights out of both of us, and James swerved so hard with the shock he nearly capsized the dinghy! The fish was about 1m long, and flapped about in the dinghy as we deliberated whether to keep him for dinner. We decided not to eat it as we didn't see his type in the fish market, and we hadn't seen anyone fish in the harbour, so he was probably not very tasty! So he went back in the water and lived to see another day...

We approached one British boat with a blue ensign to see if the crew were fellow Navy people. The skipper turned out to be an Ex-Royal Engineer who James had been sailing with while he was in the Navy. Larrie had left the Army earlier this year as well, and was sailing on his own around the world. He had shaken off all vestiges of his military past, growing a thick beard and long wavy locks. Through him we befriended Eddie, a Dutch catamaran solo sailor, with vast experience sailing multihulls. He passed on much of his wisdom and it was fascinating talking to him about his summer holidays spent cruising the North Sea. Then to complete our social circle Larrie's ex-boss (and someone James had served with in Cyprus) turned up in his boat with two crew and we had a little military reunion in the yacht club bar. Small world! (Having a bit of a bender the night before we sailed was probably not the wisest of moves but in the best traditions of the service I suppose.J)

In between socialising we did some much needed maintenance on the boat. Some of the gelcoat on the bridge deck had cracked in the hot Gambian sun, so we had a few days grinding, filling and sanding. The job took longer than we expected, especially when we discovered that the first batch of gel coat didn't go off as the hardener we bought in Madeira had spoilt in the heat. A frantic search by James around the harbour yielded a water bottle full of more catalyst, and we carried on with the repairs.

We also replaced the Drifter halyard with a nearly new rope donated to us by Larrie in return for some charts we gave him. He acquired the rope from an Army racing yacht that was being thrown away after one season (despite there being nothing wrong with it!). God bless military stock keeping!

After 10 relaxing days in Mindelo we couldn't delay things any longer. After 8 months of taking things slowly to wait for the end of the hurricane season in the Atlantic the weather was finally right. Rahula was filled with as much water, diesel and food as she could carry and we set sail on a 2000 nautical mile journey across the Atlantic.