Thursday, April 29, 2010

Our own little worlds

What about sailing back to the Caribbean? I can’t remember if it was Dan or Richie who suggested it but it was an idea I’d almost completely written off. For the last year or two I’d been set on exploring Brazil and South America and was well positioned to do so from the Cape Verde’s. But…. I do love being spontaneous and missed my mate Jas, who was sitting on his boat in Antigua.

Before setting off I left with friends for a few weeks hiking and climbing in the mountains on Cape Verde’s largest island, Santo Antao - perhaps I was trying to convince myself I was thoroughly tired of stone and land and longed for the sea again?! Santo Antao was amazing, countless Riviera’s (valleys) making fantastic landscape, and packed with lush vegetation – a complete novelty for the Cape Verde’s. One didn’t have to venture too far from the islands only port to find few cars and roads, with many villages only accessible by foot or boat.

What was immediately obvious about the island was its total independence and self-sufficiency. The villages, farming techniques and infrastructure appeared to have changed very little over the centuries, with the need for meticulous care of water still remaining.
Most of people we met in the villages, although perhaps poor in possessions, had little need to earn or spend money in their lives - the few shops we found only carried the most basic and essential items. Everybody, even small children, had there role to play in keeping the village going.

One time in a village only accessible by boat or a 4 hour hike, it felt like we had all the village fisherman and children come out to greet us when we arrived on DB. They would not accept money or cigarettes in return for their gifts of fish, however nearly took my hand off when I bought out some chocolate (man imagine how far we’d go with icecream here?!)

It was truly cool to be able to see settlements living so self-sufficiently and totally unaffected by global issues and crisis, literally living in a world of their own…

On the day before departure I felt for the first time, perhaps anxious about the idea of crossing on my own and was worried I was being too laid back about the whole thing. The boat was getting tired and engine not working well, I hadn’t checked the weather in months and the only I had charts were on my computer which was also playing up. Also, despite having sailed over 11,000 sea miles on DB I’d never actually taken her out by myself.

Anyway it didn’t take too long for me to get my act together, and after re-hoisting the big genoa in over 30kts (a difficult job for even 2 people) I felt confident and excited about the trip ahead. Looking back I think it was much more a combination of leaving Cape Verde, saying goodbye to valued friends and the idea of 3 weeks alone than anything about the boat or preparation.

On 1st April at 6am I snuck out of the windy Mindelo harbour to begin the 2100mile voyage. Blowing at least 30knots from the NE it didn’t take long to get clear of the waters of the archipelago and into the open ocean, making a good first days run of 130miles. Over the next few days routine developed, and by the 4th day I was doing 24hr runs to 140 – 150miles.

Life on board was very simple. Aside from recording the log and playing with the sexton, time had absolutely no importance. Eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired (although the latter not strictly true, as inevitably the sails would flap or strange noises appear as soon as I closed my eyes!) The days were filled by sailing the boat and minor repairs, fishing, reading and learning Spanish. Like the residents Santo Antao, the typical problems of civilised man couldn’t have appeared more trivial with the elements being my only concern outside my 10m world.

My friends just chilling on the deck after a big night

I’d love drinking wine and watching the sunset from the bow (one advantage of sailing exactly west) and then when a little tipsy I could lie in the cockpit and star gaze for hours. Perhaps first signs of going crazy at sea, but I had a very powerful feeling of freedom. Wind was all that was needed to move and steer the boat, I was catching so much fish I hardly touched my provisions, and with 400ltrs of water aboard I could probably have carried onto New Zealand. Long and short of it i think i was thoroughly enjoying myself!

If you liked fish the food was good, and i even tried my hand at baking
Days all merged into one. I found out one day when the wind dropped off that even though I knew the problem, I hadn’t fixed the engine after all - so we were truly a sailboat. But as my solar panels seemed to keep the batteries full this didn’t worry me too much, and while the trip may take a little longer at least I’d have full tanks of diesel at the other end.

No engine, 1.4 knots of wind, 41.8deg C...!

Half way on my only paper chart

The sailing was tough on the last few days of the trip (I had to helm most of the last 48 hours) but I arrived for sunrise in Falmouth Harbour, Antigua 17 days after leaving Mindelo. Although packed with boats here for Classic Race Week, anchoring was straight forward and within an hour I’d found Jason’s boat and discovered he was in St Martin. Too tired to try to keep the surprise going to see him face to face, I took a photo of me on his boat drinking one of his beers.
I sent it to him in an email and said ‘Your boats a mess, nice job with the decks and good to see you fitted the windless ok. Thanks for the beer, although next time could you please leave it in the fridge?’ Less than an hour later the well surprised superyacht boson had booked flights and was on his way to Antigua for a 30hour catch-up, the usual way.
So looking back what was it like spending 3 weeks sailing alone… I really do think it is a wonderful and special thing to do. If anything I think it helps give perspective about what is and isn’t important in one’s life. While I missed things I didn’t think I would, my worries in the world literally could have been counted on my fingers.

With no news from outside, one may become simple but certainly doesn't dwell on much of the rubbish we find in the rat-race, newspapers and on the internet. It is the real and basic things that make and break your day if you live in a world of your own...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Less is more

Mindelo was a welcome port that catered perfectly for 4 boys after over a week at sea. The town is vibrant, people friendly, food good, sun hot and beer cold. Having heard mixed reports about the place we had little idea on what to expect, however were pleasantly surprised on all accounts.
One thing immediately obvious about Mindelo was how the place is geared to cater for cruising sail boats. This is largely due to a German cruiser who, about 10 years ago, saw the potential and built the only marina in Cabo Verde – The result being an almost complete monopoly channelling any sailboat related business through his enterprise. While it is easy to imagine what the local people think of this, the positive of the whole thing is that 90% of the cruisers in the CV’s are all in one harbour ;-)
Excited about what lay ahead we set out to explore the other 8 islands in the archipelago. On route to Sal (where Richie was to fly back to the UK) we stopped at Sao Nicolau, 60 odd miles from Mindelo. With smaller villages and far less development we enjoyed some great hikes, fishing and diving.
It was here that I had one of the best dives I can remember. In a sheltered uncharted bay, Rich and I were completely surrounded by thousands of fish as soon as we entered the water. On my first dive I found a school of kingfish, one of which later became dinner.
The other highlight of the island was a little village called Caracal. Easy to miss we only saw it as there was a handful of tree’s on an otherwise baron coastline. Anchoring just in front of the village I’m not sure if we looked like rock stars or aliens, but all the village children stopped what they were doing and came out to welcome us. It was a great afternoon, such warm and friendly people and they even opened the village bar for us.

We tried to imagine the equivalent scenario in the developed world. Four black guys who haven’t washed in a month come off a boat into a small school and start playing and taking photo’s of the kids – Somehow I don’t think our countries would be quiet as welcoming…
Carrying on with the trip we had a funny experience on route to Sal. We were motoring along just after dark when the engine suddenly stopped and at the same time we had a fish on the reel. It turned out we’d snagged a huge fishing net, a floating eco-system home to a dozen big dolphin fish.
Dan hauled a nice sized one into the boat and it was very tempting to jump in the water with the speargun to get another (however the thought of sharks and what Ludo and Neptune would say talked me out of the idea). After an hour we’d cut the net free and hauled it aboard to donate to the next local dinghy watchman.
'It's a big NET, right?'

Our arrival in Sal saw the departure of Dan and Richie (Dan at short notice having to cut his trip short for fishing commitments and rescuing his boat in Tunisia). We could tell immediately this would be a good place for our last few days with the boys. While easily the most touristy place in the CV’s, there is loads to do day and night. Santa Maria is best compared to Cabarate in the Dominican Republic with world class wind and kite surfing being the main attraction.
While sad to see the boys go Ludo and I wasted no time recruiting new crew.
'' C'est bon mon Capitain? Ca roule ma pou'le!''

Bring on Sach and Cinzia from France and Italy (friends of Ludo we’d met in Mindelo)
And fun loving Zuzana (representing Slovakia) who we kidnapped from a bon fire on the beach.The plan although very vague was to sail around the remaining islands and return to Mindelo in time for Carnival, one of the biggest festivals in the CV’s.
We enjoyed perfect white sand / turquoise waters in Boa Vista
And markets, culture and few tourists in the islands capital Praia on Santiago
Kevin's England hat now proudly warn in Praia
But the highlight was certainly climbing the archipelago’s largest and most active volcano, ‘Fogo’.
Pulling into Fogo’s only harbour we quickly made friends with a local boy who helped us get out to the volcano, about an hours drive from the boat. As it was late in the day we were invited to stay with a local family and climb to the 2800m peak the following morning.The whole experience was very humbling. Here we were treated to a lovely meal, homemade wine and cheese, rum and grog while listening to a local band playing in the packed general store, all by a family who had so little yet were willing to share everything with no hidden motive or agenda. It was one of those nights where you just wanted to enjoy the moment, impossible to capture with photo’s and even trying may have changed the vibe.
The following day we climbed Fogo, and as always with these things, the hard climb was soon forgotten when we enjoyed the breath taking views. Tiny loose stones and a steep slope made it tough on the way up, however fast and fun on the way down.

Calling William from the top of Fogo, fulfilling a promise from Pico (Azores)

Having left Sach and Chizia in Praia, we picked up a travelling Austrian student Johannas to join us for the 120mile sail to Mindelo and ….
The Mindelo Carnival
We were cheeky anchoring and got a spot in 2m of water right in the front of the bay. It was an incredible few days, the atmosphere absolutely fantastic with such a buzz around town. The festivals and parties started early and finished late, and as good as it was by the end of it I think we were all ready for some deserted beaches and fishing again.

We had a short stint sailing with Simon, a very well travelled Italian, before Ludo, Zuzana and I took our time doing the windward passage back to Sal, enjoying many beautiful uncharted anchorages along the way.
Ludo 'El Secondo' always playing while 'El Capitan' hard at work doing boat jobs
Now back in Santa Maria we’re having a great time doing water sports, socialising and very occasionally boat work. Ludo and I did think we were very clever sending Zuzana off to work so we could eat bread again and maintain our unemployment.
However the plan backfired a little when she quickly rounded up 7 holiday makers for a day sail, seeing us working again on what became the DB’s first charter trip (beats building substations though) ;-)
Having seen almost all the islands now I think its funny how people’s impressions on the place could be so different. We’d heard several stories in the Canaries about sailing the CV’s, mostly that it was unsafe and also that there was nothing to see. Even the cruising guides don’t sell it, often complaining about lack of facilities and safety, and perhaps recommending 1 day to see something we’d like a week. It appears the island group is seen as merely a launch pad for sailors crossing the Atlantic.
There is a tendency to think that because the Cape Verde’s are a developing country in West Africa it must be unsafe. The idea that because people have very little they will want to steal from the white man who appears to have everything may be true in some cases, but I have also been robbed in both London and Barcelona, supposedly places where we enjoy a high quality of life.
I don’t want to sound nieve as I’m sure the papers here have plenty to write about, but there are good and bad people in all corners of the world. I think perhaps it’s more peoples attitude to a place that defines their experience than the place itself. Here you go a long way with a little common sense, a smile and some friendly conversation.
I like the quote ‘You think you want more than you need, and until you have it all you won’t be free’. My experiences here I’ve found the people kind, friendly, sharing and almost always with good intentions. Here less is more, the locals know they live in paradise - Cabo Verde is muito fixe.