I had the sailboat anchored in a bay in Tenerife, a quiet spot untouched by roads and buildings, nothing but wild cliffs and beaches and clear waters. I was in the company of two gorgeous young ladies clad in bikinis, casually doing lazy laps around the boat. We stayed for a night and then a second, because frankly conditions were perfect.
But then the wind picked up and the anchor started to drag during the night, not onto the rocks but out to sea thankfully. We were rocking and rolling in the swell, a bobbing light in the darkness. Not fun.
It had been two years since I first decided to sell all my things, put my life in a suitcase and wander the Earth. What I really wanted was a sailboat, but I didn’t have enough money, and even if I did, I wouldn’t know which one to buy. Sailboats come in an astounding variety of shapes and sizes, and then you have to factor in the condition and the maintenance. I didn’t want to buy the wrong boat and find myself in a pickle.
I had also decided to learn Spanish, a useful language for a globe trotter, while trying (and failing) to keep my nose clean in Barcelona. But winter was coming and I decided that I had been cold once too many times in my life. I got on a plane and flew to Las Palmas. I hatched a plan to hitch-hike a ride across the Atlantic to the Caribbean on one of the many boats leaving; it seemed like a good way to get some sailing experience. Except that the marina was awash with hopefuls like me, I couldn’t choke the idea of being someone’s volunteer galley-slave, and the longer I waited the more I was seduced by the charm of the Canary Islands.
The islands really took me by surprise. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect them to be clean and tidy and pretty with colourful painted houses and polite people. I didn’t expect to hear Cuban music everywhere and be treated with such kindness by all and sundry. I didn’t expect beautiful beaches, mountains, forests, deserts, it seems there is a bit of everything.
I forgot about sailing for a bit and spent a lot of time swimming in the sea, suntanning on the beach, meditating, and eating healthily. Not a bad way to pass the time. Then I met Kim the Norwegian through Couchsurfing. He is a hulk of a man, who makes comments like: “How hard can it be? Just put the sails up and go.” Quite. Kim fixes oil rigs in the North Sea, so I’m going to grant that he might be a tad tougher than your average Joe. Or me.
I agreed to help him sail his pretty little boat back to Norway, but then there were engine problems, and we couldn’t go anywhere, and Kim was out of time and had to fly home for the summer, and I ended up with the boat. I got the engine fixed, a long slow process. I didn’t see any reason to hurry back to Norway. After all, I had really only seen the main island of Gran Canaria, and I really wanted to do some island hopping. So I headed West.
I’m in a bit a grey zone with Kim, he’s not really sure what to do with the boat, whether to sell it or keep it, and although he’s happy for me to keep looking after it, especially as I am paying for the berthing, he is also quite worried that I might sink it. He sends me nervous messages every couple of days to know the state of affairs.
It’s night-time and the wind is blowing hard into the marina and the boat is tearing at its moorings and I can’t sleep from worry that the lines might snap or work loose or that the fenders might burst one after the other leaving the hull to saw itself open on the dock. The wind whistling through the forest of masts and the slapping rigging creates a terrifying noise. The boat rocks and sways, I feel neither safe nor comfortable. Restless nights put me in a bad mood.
I should point out this is all my own fault. I had worked hard to put myself in this situation. Considerable time and money had been spent learning the needed skills to safely navigate the high seas, although I had yet to be tested. As I sailed from the island of Gran Canaria to Tenerife, the anemometer kept rising, from 15 knots to 20, then onwards to 25, tripping the scales to 30, and I realized that I was really in the thick of it.
I donned my life jacket and my harness, clipped my leash to the lifelines and readied myself to go forward. A wave broke over the deck, sending water flying over the sprayhood. We were close-hauled and the boat was starting to heel over significantly. I had to reduce sail area, and quickly. It was the moment of truth. Bite the bullet and do it. As wave after wave swept over the bow, I was soaked from head to toe, grimly pulling the mainsail downwards, struggling with all my might to get the reefing pennant over the hook, then take up the slack and sheet in.
Definitely all my own fault. I spared a thought for the Gaunches, the original inhabitants of these islands, who came here from North Africa some thousands of years ago, no one quite knows how, perhaps with the help of the Phonecians. Tough motherfuckers they must have been to brave these winds in their fragile boats. The boat I am in is a bit stronger, with a fiberglass hull and an aluminium mast.
Marinas are alright, generally providing protection from the swell and hot showers, plus an electric hookup and a seeming unlimited supply of fresh water, all for about €10/night. I get to practice my French a lot in the marinas. It seems like half the sailors I meet are French, and half of those are from Brittany. What is it with the Bretons and their boats? I’m told the Bretons either sail or farm pigs, so I guess I’m better off with the sailors. Most sailors are older, wealthy and grumpy. They seem to complain all the time. I feel like checking into a hostel to hang out with some young people.
What is it with sailing anyway? It seems to be a Northern European obsession, with an honourable mention for Italy, although I have no idea why the Italians are in on the game. Harnessing the wind sounds like a great idea, until you realize that the wind always blows too hard and in the wrong direction, or not at all. The rig is a complicated thing, all spars and wires and ropes strung together in an intricate manner. Hoist and douse the sails, up they go, down they come. Sensible people would stick to motoring. Whatever the means of propulsion, when you head out the water on a boat you can’t really relax until safely berthed at the destination. I haven’t met a Canarian who sails. They might go out fishing in motorboats, but if they want to travel between the islands they use the fast-ferry or they fly. Now that’s sensible.
The Canary Islands are overrun with tourists, 15 million came here in the last year alone, so I guess to the locals I’m just another giri. I’ve been making steady progress in my command of Spanish, and although I wouldn’t consider myself fluent, I can at least hold a decent conversation. Learning foreign languages is an uphill battle: in order to improve you need to speak to locals, but few are have the patience to wait as you struggle to string your sentences together. I’m pretty lucky though, Mary Rose agreed to fly from Barcelona and be my live-in crew member and private Spanish teacher for a couple months. A pretty young lady in a bikini helping you conjugate your verbs: now we’re talking!
Living on a small sailboat can be a bit annoying at times. I keep hitting my head in the toilet and the passage to the forepeak, I never seem to be able to get used to the lack of head room. Pumping the toilet by hand is a pain. Pump, pump, pump. I pee overboard at night, but during the daytime I’m more discreet. Pumping the taps by foot is alright, unless you want to wash your feet. How I wish for a shower and a water heater on board! Enough food can be stored for about a week, but it is not always easy to see what food is available, you need to dig through the cupboards. The kitchen equipment is alright really, although I wish I had more space for chopping and preparing. I would like to have a toaster, but where would I stow it? The fridge is awkward to get into, especially as I have to lean right over into the corner to get in, and take the whole lid off and then the whole basket out. I find myself making extra certain that I have everything I need before I start cooking because I don’t want to open the fridge while using a frying pan. Dishes have to be washed and put away religiously otherwise the sinks very soon run out of capacity.
I do like the idea of minimalism, but this might be pushing the concept a tad too far. I look enviously at my neighbours on bigger boats. I haven’t even bought a sailboat yet and already I’m dreaming of a bigger one. When I give wings to my fantasy, I imagine a giant boat, 20 meters long, with cabins for 10 crew, a galley and a mess, two showers and four toilets, a workshop, a library and office, four dinghies, now we’re talking! I’d like to gather together a ramshackle gang of fellows, from various walks of life, jugglers and bakers and tattoo artists and ex-military types and throw them all in together and sail off into the sunset playing the banjo and drinking rum. It would be fantastic!
Oh to dream. But back to reality. I’d figured out that I was able to sail. But what is the point of travelling anyway? I was at a bit of a loss. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Perhaps it was there, somewhere over the horizon, the answer to a question that I couldn’t formulate. I’d come all the way here, from my home town of Johannesburg, through the air and across the high seas, to find myself on the little island of La Palma. We went to a village festival where the town square was alive and thronging and a man walked in dressed as the devil and firing fireworks in every direction. It was total madness, in the way only the Spanish can achieve. Ah, fuck it, let’s forget the why and just get drunk and a little singed and worry about tomorrow another day.