With the trip to Cape Verde, I literally broadened my horizons. I sailed beyond the southernmost end of Europe and arrived in a world that Darwin described as a „completely sterile land“. In between were 156 hours – not quite seven days, but seven nights – of sea, wind, dolphins and sometimes schools of flying fishes that shot over the crests of the waves like silver arrows (a few also landed on the deck of Blue Alligator. Individual stripped scales indicated how the fish struggled in vain to get back into the water. When I found them, they were hollow-eyed and dry and their wing-like fins were stuck to their narrow bodies). But first things first.
The forecast was for northwesterly winds, weak at first but increasing as time went on. But when Blue Alligator passed the southern tip of El Hierro, it was blowing from the west. From the west? That’s about as normal at this time of year (October) in this place (the Canary Islands) as snow in July in Switzerland. „Must be the island deflecting the wind,“ I thought. „It’ll be different once we’re far enough south,“ I continued to rue with confidence. But wind is wind. And so I took it as it came, set sail and turned off the engine.
I was on my way to the Cape Verde Islands. Almost 800 nautical miles lay ahead of me. I expected to be at sea for seven or eight days. But above all: I had crossed a border. More than a year ago, I had turned around from El Hierro, the south-westernmost of the Canary Islands, and gone back up to La Palma. Now I have left the southernmost point of Europe behind me.
Maybe that’s typical for me: I only expand my sailing horizons step by step. I set my sights on big destinations – the Cape Verde Islands, for example, or even the Caribbean (what hubris!). But it doesn’t work out the first time. But maybe the second time. It certainly helped me to be on a mission, so to speak, that would take me to Guinea-Bissau.
Memory of the pirogue
I wasn’t travelling alone either. Four other boats from the mission „Bijagós“ left El Hierro more or less at the same time. Sometimes I hear my Portuguese companions, the two Miguels, one from Ouf (the boat with the feijoada cook from the Selvagens), the other one from the boat Lés-a-Lés, talking on VHF. I also hear Radio Restinga, El Hierro’s radio station, for a good while. It regularly broadcasts warnings. A refugee boat with 200 people on board is on its way in the sea area southeast of El Hierro. 200 people! I imagine the pirogue I saw in the harbour with all the belongings left behind. 200 people on an open boat about 20 metres long. What an imagination!
However, I run a south-westerly course, away from the refugees on their boats, away from the African continent.
It is pleasant sailing and Blue Alligator, my Victoria 34, behaves like a well-trained horse, trotting along, leisurely but steadily. With her broad bow, she pushes aside the not-too-high waves and drags a bubbling wake behind her. The sea is a deep, dark blue, with only a few white crests crowning the waves. Above us, the sky stretches almost cloudless. During the day, I change my seat with the position of the sun to stay in the shade under the bimini, the narrow canopy over the helm.
Sunrises and sunsets
The sunset is breathtaking. As most sunsets to come will be too. And so are the sunrises, which fortunately don’t happen until eight in the morning, so I don’t sleep through them. I make it a habit to take one picture in the evening and one in the morning. This gradually creates a small album of pictures in bright red tones.
The moon is only a narrow crescent at first and makes the stars shine a thousand times. I think of the satellites that Elon Musk is launching into space and that I saw on Santa Maria moving across the night sky as a kind of string of pearls. How many of the points of light might actually be stars, how many satellites picking up and relaying signals? Television programs, geodata, spy images. Among other things, they also give me my position. For that, at least, I thank them.
The following day begins with no wind. The forecast meant something else. But you can’t escape the power of facts when sailing. Start the engine. Furl in the genoa. Chug, chug, chug.
In the end I will have been underway for 156 hours. 51 of them under engine.
At one point the wind actually came from the north-northeast, increasing to over 20 knots in between and forcing me into all kinds of sail settings. On the days when it was consistently below 10 knots (there were two of those), I unpacked the gennaker. This is a large, light sail that is good for sailing on courses where the wind comes in diagonally from behind.
The sail in the sausage
I have very, very rarely used the gennaker because it seemed too complicated and too dangerous to handle on my own. It is indeed packed in a long tube, so that you can initially pull up the sail as a kind of giant sausage. Once the sausage is set, you pull up the sock or tube with a line and the sail unfolds. In my case, as a bright red triangle with a white star pattern.
As a single-handed sailor, you are always one person too few for such manoeuvres, because on the one hand you have to set the sail, and on the other hand you have to steer in the back of the cockpit and operate the sheets. But I somehow got the sail up without it catapulting me overboard, and was back behind quickly enough to tame the banging lines.
With its red light-wind sail, Blue Alligator picked up quite a bit of speed. Only now the pressure was a bit too much for the wind steering system, so the electric autopilot had to take over.
Autopilot in agony
Blue Alligator has a so-called wheel pilot from Raymarine (one of the dominant manufacturers of marine electronics). As the name suggests, this sits as a wheel behind the actual steering wheel and turns it according to the course, sometimes to starboard, sometimes to port. A clever system, but unfortunately not entirely silent. One could also say: a little noisy. In fact, the autopilot squeals and creaks with every turn like a pig being led to the slaughter. Annoying. Should torture ever have to take place on board a yacht (what an absurd thought!), it would be enough to use a Raymarine wheel pilot. Nervous breakdowns and confessions would be guaranteed.
There was some relief when the wind picked up, I had to recover the gennaker and the wind pilot, that marvel of ingenuity and fiddling, took control of the boat again. His lines creak too, to be sure. But that is no comparison to the utterances of the electric pilot, who seems to be in constant agony.
Baby cat on the Azores
From home, on the fourth day of the trip, I receive the news that Katrin has rescued a kitten. She was maybe two months old, she wrote me in a short text message via Iridium (thanks to the satellites for that, too). It would be the ideal age to get her used to life on board. But I’m at sea, the Azores are far away and beaming hasn’t been invented yet.
However, I don’t feel particularly lonely at all, just displaying the normal conspicuousness of solo sailors. I talk to the Delefines who visit us from time to time and sometimes call the ship a sweetheart when I gently reprimand her for not doing what I would like her to do (usually it’s the wind pilot’s fault anyway, who reacts too slowly to a violent wind shift or a strong gust. But I don’t call him sweetheart). So nothing to worry about.
I also take Katrin’s admonition to eat regularly to heart. However, I cook rather listlessly, making it as simple as possible: potatoes with chorizo and zuchetti, all sautéed together in a pan. Or simply a Greek salad, but without olives. I do have olives on board. But I’m afraid the jar is hidden at the very bottom of the big storage box next to the sink. To dig it out, I would have to empty the whole chest. Too much trouble for a little extra enjoyment.
Blue Alligator dances on the waves
I much prefer to enjoy the view of the sea, which is constantly changing and sometimes brings in real wave crests that roll under Blue Alligator, lift her stern and then send her hurtling down into the valley, bow first. Victorias like Blue Alligator are not long keel boats, i.e. boats whose keel extends from bow to stern. The underwater hull has a not too deep, somewhat shortened keel, which merges into the rudder blade via a kind of indentation towards the stern. But she runs extremely true to course and is not easily pushed off course by the waves (unless the wind pilot directs her wrongly, which he only does in exceptional cases).
These characteristics let me sleep well. In the first few nights I still get up every hour to scan the horizon. You never know where refugee boats might stray to. The longer the journey, the longer I sleep, in the penultimate night almost continuously.
On the last night, however, I find almost no sleep. The wind goes crazy, sometimes freshening up to over 20 knots, only to drop back to under 10 knots a little later. The sea has piled up steep and short waves that seem to come from all directions. Blue Alligator dances up and down on them, but is not particularly impressed by them either. But I am constantly busy with the sails. I reef the mainsail and the genoa. That way we are prepared for the worst. It comes together with downpours, and because the wind comes in from behind, it also rains right into the ship. I could use the boards to close the companionway. But they would be in my way if I had to get into the cockpit quickly. Smarter sailors than I have made tarpaulins for such cases, which they hang in front of the companionway. Smarter sailors, that is.
„A sterile country“
But this night also passes and in the morning the wind dies down. The waves remain. Ahead, shadows appear on the horizon, slowly growing into islands. The Cape Verde Islands – or at least parts of them. Mindelo, my port of destination, lies in the west of the island of São Vicente in a sheltered bay. In front of it tower mountains in shades of grey and brown, bare, sandy, rugged. When Darwin visited Cape Verde in 1832, he described it as a „completely sterile country“. In fact, there is hardly any green to be seen. The silhouettes of the jagged mountain peaks, which will later stand out darkly against the reddish evening sky, are all the more dramatic for that.
I have arrived, literally expanded my horizons. I admit, I am a little proud.