Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands – When visiting this capital city, you would never guess you were on an island in the Atlantic Ocean.  Las Palmas is a metropolis – population 400,000 - and once you leave the marina area, you will find yourself strolling down tree-lined boulevards and perhaps getting stuck in a traffic jam.  The “island mentality” does not seem to exist here – especially when visiting the posh Spanish super department store “El Corte Inglés” that sells everything from a leg of ham to automobile parts.  It almost feels like New York City!

Anchored here since last Thursday we have been very happy to meet up with some friends we’ve met along the way – friends who are participating in the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) and have come here for the big departure to cross the Atlantic Ocean.  The ARC was started about 15 years ago by an avid sailor named Jimmy Cornell with about 15-20 boats interested in making the trip en masse.  He has travelled around the world a few times, has written some books and decided to create a rally for people to cross the Atlantic all together.  One has to pay to participate, and in return has a transmitter that is constantly giving your position back to the organizers while you cross, radio nets and weather information, an inspector that comes on your boat to see what you might be missing and make sure all the boats are in proper working order.  All boats in the ARC must have a specified list of things onboard to participate, such as a certain type of life vests with harnesses, certain type of life raft, certain type of flares, etc.  Most of all, the ARC gives its participants the peace of mind that someone is looking out for them.  Jimmy Cornell sold off this organization many years ago and now the ARC has as many as 300 participants!

The launch of all the boats was an impressive site to witness.  Music playing, the community out en force as all the boats in the harbor were waiting to take on the Atlantic and reach their final destination of St. Lucia in the Caribbean.  Many of the crew were very professional, all in the same clothing: a “tight ship,” so to speak.  Others were dressed in costumes.  There were sailboats large and small and everyone was in a good mood; everyone except the local businesses, that is, who had enjoyed a large influx of business for the last few weeks leading up to the departure and now hear only crickets.

Those of us not participating in the ARC and anchored out in the harbor decided to have our own celebration on the beach later in the evening.  There are some who feel the ARC can be a little competitive about how big one’s boat is, or how much one has spent on electronics and the latest gadgets, etc.  So, some have named the rest of us the SNARC (= So Not the ARC).  Very funny!  We personally feel though the ARC is a great opportunity for those who may not have a lot of experience to feel more comfortable knowing that someone has their back if they get into any trouble.

The rest of the time here in Las Palmas we have been provisioning, getting our vaccinations and anti-malaria medications, and getting the boat up to snuff before departing to Senegal the day after Thanksgiving.

Prior to Las Palmas we spent about a week on the island of Tenerife with our dear friends Dani and Pablo who flew in from Ireland.  Poor guys had to wait longer than expected for us to get there since we had done an overnight sail the night before to be in Tenerife before their 10:30am arrival.  With no wind all night, we ended up arriving instead at 5pm!  Dani and Pablo were worried since they had been waiting all day and there was no real way to get a hold of us.  They finally saw us only because they were coming back to the marina with the idea to ask for where there was a decent hotel to stay in the area.

Although the weather was not as warm as expected, we still managed to get into the water, spend some time on the beach, sail, eat, drink and be merry.  A funny moment was when we dinghy-ed onto the beach where we did not realize some good waves were crashing down on the shore.   There was silence as we rode the crest and then tumbled down onto the sand and all the nude sunbathers looked on as we lay like beached whales cracking up. 

Tenerife, despite what images this name might conjure up in your head, in our humble opinion, was not the picture of island perfection.  Instead, the parts we visited were miles and miles of condos.  Many of these developments are left unconstructed, so all you see are cement skeletons of buildings.  The restaurants were mainly British.  Not so many “tapas y cañas” (tapas and beer)… lots of pints fish n’ chips.

We did rent a car one day to visit the “El Teidei,” the tallest mountain in the Spanish territories, at 3700 meters (about 10,000 feet).  It was raining and freezing up top and we were not at all prepared for the weather.  There is a tram that takes one to the very peak, but it was actually closed since it was cloudy with zero visibility.

Despite their attempts to return to the cold temps of Dublin all tanned, Dani and Pablo had to accept the fact that the weather was not on their side.  But it still was a good time had by all and we are extremely grateful to have had them visit us.  We are grateful to have such close friends and hope to see them again real soon.

This coming Thursday is Thanksgiving and the sailors have organized a potluck dinner to celebrate.  It will be a good celebration and good-bye to Las Palmas.  We hope everyone has a good Thanksgiving!  It is a good time to count all our blessings.

NEXT STOP:  Dakar, Senegal; leaving this Friday. Estimated passage time: 6-7 days.

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FOUNTAINE PAJOT ATHENA 38 CATAMARAN FOR SALE – After our wonderful experience, BEGONIA is ready for its next sailing family – with or without children!  Please contact for more information.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Drama from Al-Maghreb to Las Islas Canarias

Tenerife, Canary Islands – What would this sailing adventure be like without drama?  Morocco was all about drama in the fact that the landscape, culture, people, language, way of life, etc. was all so foreign to us.  However, we didn’t realize until later that leaving Morocco would also be filled with drama.

Now, I could certainly tell you the simple version that we left the port with some pretty big waves, met some local fishermen and got a little seasick, but that would be boring.  I am convinced you would prefer to hear the version with DRAMA….
We had been kind of “stuck” in the marina in Rabat for two straight weeks as we awaited a good “weather window” but mostly because the marina authorities kept closing the port.  This meant, no boats could come in and no boats could go out.  At first we thought this might be a ploy for the marina to generate more revenue, but the real reason was the wave height and conditions coming in and out of the marina.  As I may have mentioned in the previous blog, the marina was located at the end of a river that feeds into the ocean with no protection.  When there are large waves at the mouth of the river, there is no way for boats to come in or out safely without either crashing into rocks or crashing into the bottom.  We had to see this for ourselves and took a walk toward the ocean one day only to see waves about 20 feet high just crashing relentlessly into the cliffs, etc.  This of course was a hey-day for the surfers who were out en masse, much to the dismay of all of us sailors stuck back at the marina.

Catamarans having shorter depth than mono-hulls do not have to worry as much about water depths so on a day when the waves calmed down a bit, all the cats in the harbor rallied together to convince the authorities to let us leave.  We even had to make a statement on video camera stating that we are leaving by our own free will and will not require help from the marina and that the authorities are not responsible for any damages, etc.  We did all the exit papers and had the requisite dog onboard looking for illegal substances and we were ready to go.  Thus five catamarans –four of them French plus us - left together on the same date for the 3-4 day sail, all of us bound for the island of Graciosa, the furthest northeast of the Canaries.

I should rewind just to mention that I normally put on the anti-nausea patch the night before we are to leave so the scopolamine gets into the system with enough time.  However, since there was so much uncertainty about what ay and time exactly we would leave Rabat, there was no time really for pre-preparation.   There is also the issue that these patches are expensive and difficult to find outside the US so I am very careful not to be wasteful and did not want to put one on if we were not in fact leaving.  This of course has an impact on what will happen later…

So, back to leaving the marina… we were the second boat in the pack of five, so we were able to watch the boat in front of us leaving the river first.  That boat was lead out by the marina authorities in a powerboat.  It did not seem bad at first, until we saw a huge wave (about 15 feet) come upon them… they went up, up, up and then just disappeared DOWN, only their mast to be seen.  Once we saw this I was wondering if we should turn back, but the captain assured me there were only “one or two bad waves” as we were exiting the river and then things would be fine. The fear is of course that the boat would not make it above the crest of the wave, and the wave will crash on top of our boat.  When the boat is climbing the wave, it sure feels you might not make it… but Begonia did!  But not without us holding our breath through the three waves we climbed and went surfing down.

Once out into the ocean we felt invigorated and ready for the sail.  However, the Atlantic is famous for a funny “roll” where the waves hit from side to side instead of front/back.  This rolling motion is what makes many people seasick and almost right off the bat poor little Benjie and I started turning a little green.  We felt this motion all down the coast of Portugal as well, and I gather we will feel it again after leaving the Canaries to the west coast of Africa.

About an hour into the sail, I heard Sebastian jump up and shout an expletive as he realized we went right over fishing net.  He has good reflexes and was able to shut off the motor just in time, but still the net was caught in the sail drive underneath boat.  This net had been strewn right across our path and went for a good 100 feet.  The Captain quickly asked for a knife and started to get ready to jump in the water as I noticed there was a motorboat coming very speedily in our direction.  The other four cats realized we were having trouble and kept calling on the radio.  In broken French I tried to explain what was going on but was not sure they understood.  I had been calmed to know the fishermen were on their way to help only to be surprised when they started yelling at us in Arabic and almost ramming their 15-foot wooden motorboat into Begonia.  Obviously cutting their rope is not good for their business, but truthfully there was no marker for us to have seen their net:  no buoys, no lights, no flags, nothing.  They were very angry – irate, perhaps?  Yelling, gesticulating and ramming.  Sebas went crazy yelling back as we both were trying to push their boat away from ours before they did irreparable damage. 

At some point everyone calmed down, the fishermen kept their distance and Sebas jumped into the water with a mask.  Important note:  when jumping into the water with the boat at sea, always, always use a harness because the boat is still moving, even without the motor running, and one could easily get left behind.  We learned this the hard way as Sebas struggled to get back on.  Good thing he’s a strong swimmer!  As soon as he was onboard, Sebastian put the motors full throttle and we took off as the fishermen continued yelling.

It was a very tense situation and as we took off, I sat down and tears automatically started coming.  Then I looked up and saw Sebas getting the bear mace ready (one of our friends from Evanston, David, an avid hunter, gave us a canister of mace to ward off bears to use for protection, just in case we were in an emergency situation).  Sebastian is usually quite calm in difficult situations so when I saw him do this, I became very nervous.  “What are you doing???”  Then he answered, “They’re coming after us!” Oh my goodness!!!  Of course, everything is running through my head and the fact of the matter is, in the US we are so brainwashed when it comes to this part of the world that I was imagining the very worst.  Very luckily, the fishermen gave up on us and decided it was more productive to try to fix their net than come after us, although some sailors claim the fishermen purposely create conflict out on the water to force people to give them money, etc.  We were very lucky nothing else happened.

Poor Sebastian was wet, freezing cold and salty after jumping into the water and just wanted 10 minutes to run down and take a hot shower.  Of course, as soon as I stood up to take the helm, the nausea set in and I was done for.  I couldn’t even sit up. Shortly afterward poor Benjie came out into the cockpit and got sick too.  He and I spent the entire night laying down in the cockpit passing the bucket back and forth to each other.  Sebastian had to do the night watch all by himself - all salty and cold!  The sea sickness is an inner-ear problem but fear also plays an important role and I think all the variables contributed in this case!

Benjie was still sick on the second day and that’s when you wonder if you’re doing the right thing as a parent.  Making your child suffer.  I mean, this trip was our decision, not his.  We were very thankful when he became his active self again later that evening.  Sofia was as cool as a cucumber and watched movies all day long!  Needless to say, we did not do any homeschooling during this trip.

The entire first night was extremely stressful as we were trying to avoid the nets in the dark (no moonlight even).  After a while our pack decided to sail in a line so the first one could lead the way and we could follow a clear path.  However this became stressful too when one of the French cats behind us was so close it almost ran into us.  AND we kept getting approached by different fishermen’s boats.  In half Arabic half French we did not know if they were trying to help steer us around their nets and lead us in the right direction or if they were mad or asking for money or what?  The only thing they did say in English though was, “Cigarettes?  Whiskey?”   I thought Morocco was a Muslim country and they were not allowed to drink?!

The rest of the trip was uneventful, just uncomfortable with the rolling and I was able to help out a bit more with the watches.  It took us three and a half days and three full nights and we arrived to the anchorage in Graciosa at about 3 in the morning in the pitch black.  Using all our senses and a good flashlight we realized we were the second of our five boat pack to have arrived.  We finally anchored and had a good night’s rest.

The Canary Islands are a set of 9 islands located 50 miles off the coast of southern Morocco and are part of Spain.  This is a customary stop for sailors in the Atlantic and as mentioned in the previous blog, the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) meets here in November for all boats to leave together on the 21st to cross the Atlantic.  The islands are very arid and volcanic and the highest mountain in all of Spain is here on the island of Tenerife.  Spanish is spoken with a very different accent here than on mainland Spain.  It almost sounds as if they are Venezuelan!

When we woke up in Graciosa we were pleasantly surprised to see a beach and volcano staring down at us and our first order of business was to get off Begonia and climb to the top.  It was nice to get off, feel the sand through our toes and take it easy while waiting for the others in our pack to arrive.  The day after, the anchorage was flooded with all the other boats (mono-hulls) who had left Rabat a day after us.  After comparing notes and sharing stories, we came to find out that most everyone had a very similar passage to ours… problems with the nets, Arabic yelling fishermen, rolling waves and sea sickness.  One French boat had the entire family sick (two parents and three kids).  They claimed to want to head back to France and cancel the rest of their trip.  A Norwegian boat that also got all tangled (worse than us) and chased down by fishermen harassing them (worse than us).  So, after all, we did not have it that bad.

Graciosa has a cute little town, but it is really primitive, like the pictures you see from the Algarve, or Andalusia from the 40’s and 50’s.  White washed houses, colorful fishing boats, streets covered in sand, outside cafes, etc.  But no ATM and no real market and we were in desperate need of cash and fresh food…. So we planned on heading down to Arrecife.  However, we left sooner than we thought since the wind picked up and all the boats were rocking back and forth.  So much for a good night’s rest:  as soon as daybreak hit we were lifting anchor and so was everyone else in the area.  Mass exodus of sailboats.

Arrecife is a town in Lanzarote that has a municipal/free anchorage that butts up to the town, which is bigger than Graciosa. It is very cute save for the homeless junkie type characters wandering the streets.  This does not keep the tourists away (mostly Brits) but it is a shame and quite surprising that this type of “urban” problem can be found even on a small Atlantic island.

More drama in Arrecife when one day I was down below with the kids cleaning up and Sebastian had just taken off in the dinghy to get the alternators tested.  He was concerned we might have a problem and took the motors apart to take out the alternators.  Of course, Murphy’s Law… I looked out the window and thought “Boy we’re getting a little close to that other catamaran…” when I heard a man’s voice outside yelling, “Hey, you’re dragging!” (“Dragging” means the anchor is no longer holding and the boat is drifting/floating in the water).  Once he said that it seemed that all of a sudden Begonia started really moving since the wind picked up and we were on the loose!  I was running to bow and stern, to port and starboard tying on fenders so our boat wouldn’t not scratch so much as it bumped into things.  Luckily others in the anchorage there quickly realized we needed more help and soon I had four men: two onboard with me and two in their dinghies pushing and pulling and guiding Begonia so it would not ram into the wall.  Unfortunately without the use of our motors, it was more difficult than it should have been.  Our anchor cannot be lifted without the motor being on, and of course you cannot control the boat without the motor, so the fact that Sebas had just taken everything apart make it an extra challenge.  But after about 20 minutes, we had the boat tied up safely to the wall.  Imagine the Captain’s surprise to come back on the dinghy and realize Begonia had moved! 

I was so grateful to all who helped that we went around passing out bottle of wine to each of them.  This type of help is common among sailors and the idea is to always “pay it forward.”  So that same day as Sebas and Benjie were taking a dinghy ride, they came across a French mono-hull with those onboard gesticulating madly at Sebas for help.  Their boat had gone too far into shallow waters and had grounded, so Sebas took a halyard and with the dinghy motor pulled and pulled the boat until he got them unstuck.  They also were very grateful.  Later on in the week, Sebas helped yet another boat who was coming into the anchorage with a broken motor.  So, MacGyver used our dinghy again to help push them into the anchorage.  Always pay it forward!

The next place we visited was another city in Lanzarote called Playa Blanca.  Same sailing crowd, different location.  However, we did finally meet up with a boat called Imagine.  This is a boat from Chicago – a couple with three kids – that has been sailing for three years.  They were sailing west through the Med while our friends in Tinfish were sailing east.  Those two boats met and Tinfish introduced us by email since Imagine would be catching up with us soon.  We tried on a couple of occasions to meet up with them in Spain and Morocco but we were always on different schedules.  We finally met them in Playa Blanca… only to realize that they are friends of friends in Chicago and we had met them about 10 years ago!!!  We even had been to their home and had gone out to dinner with them.  Jane was even in my same book club for a while!  What a small world!!!

All in all… even with drama, we are still have the time of our lives and enjoying meeting new friends.

NEXT STOP:  Tenerife, Canary Islands to pick up Dani and Pablo who are flying in from Ireland.
Contemplating becoming a surfer when I grow older...

Chopping off of the hair:  Phase I

Benj reunites with his buddy....

Love those arabic designs...

Having some typical mint tea in Rabat the day before leaving...

Five cats lined up and going through immigration prior to take-off...

Not feeling so great.... it is best not to even move...

Sofia reading to her bro hoping to make him feel better..

At least the sunset was beautiful...

View of volcano on Graciosa Island in the Canaries, the day after arriving...
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FOUNTAINE PAJOT ATHENA 38 CATAMARAN FOR SALE – After our wonderful experience, BEGONIA is ready for its next sailing family – with or without children!  Please contact for more information.