Sailing Gibraltar - Madeira - Canary Islands

A collection of photos from on board Paloma, en route Gibraltar - Madeira
I had sailed from Sweden towards Southern Europe, and was ready for more adventure. I was going to crew on a new boat in Gibraltar, one of the largest sailing hubs around.

If you come to Gibraltar by air, you'll have to land on the airstrip - and cross it by foot after getting out. Of course, all travelers are stopped to wait if there are any airplanes landing or lifting off.

Gibraltar is a tiny tax paradise. There are more companies registered than actual residents in there. Everyone speaks English, which is a nice change from all the countries around where you have to do pictionary or charades in case you don't know Spanish, French or Italian. The word "gibberish" is actually originating in Gibraltar, because of the locals mixing Spanish and English words = thus speaking Gibberish which is incomprehensible for Englishmen.

In Gibraltar there are two marinas, both very high class, having everything Englishmen would wish for - like Texmex pubs, KFC, sports bars, neon lights and extensive design shopping. The very British old ladies walk around in the heat wearing lipstick, hats, handbags and dresses á la Queen of England. The school kids wear crisp British uniforms. And the police wear tall hats, which is completely mad, since the surroundings and the climate are as far from London as you can get. The sun is hot, the palms are green, the sea water is glittering and reflecting the bright neon signs of the marina, the architecture is Mediterranean and the huge Gibraltar rock is a home to legions of monkeys.

To the left: crossing the airstrip. To the right: the police in the tropical heat.
I was starting a new sailing leg as crew on a new sailing vessel, Paloma. It's a Lagoon 400, a modern and exclusive boat - an exhibition piece from 2009, including everything you can (and cannot) think of. Above all, it's a perfect example of how much the boat building technology and the technical progress have improved during the past two generations. Sailing a slightly rotting 27 ft boat from 1969 is very charming in a way; everything is manual and spartan, everything can be done with manpower, everything breaks all the time but you can easily fix it (if it sits tight but needs loosening, use 5-56; if it's loose but needs to sit tight, use duct tape). It's like living in a moldy tent in the middle of the sea.

On a Lagoon 400, it's more like living in a five-star hotel in the middle of the sea compared to that. Today's technologies allow for quiet and fuel-efficient motors, all kinds of navigation extras and electrical equipment, and so much integrated features that you will not miss your home at all. Of course it's harder to fix things that break, but the good side of it is that they don't break. So call it cheating or whatever, but reading off real-time current and drift-off direction and speed, having a spacious, well-ventilated cabin with a personal toilet and a hot water shower, and having freshly baked croissants for breakfast is something that I do enjoy very much after sailing over 2000 nM without even knowing it was possible. And the dinghy is a RIB...

On board, there are four cabins with double beds, three heads (that's what's toilets are called at sea) with hot-water showers, two large saloons, double diesel engines, a raised cockpit, a galley (kitchen at sea) and loads of stowage space. Everything is designed to be ergonomic but elegant.

The foresail is furling, mainsail has three reefs, and a gennaker complements the rig. There is a generator, two large solar panels, a diesel-fueled water-maker that gives 100 liters of water per hour, a holding tank for the toilets to use when in harbor. There is a fridge and freezer, an ice machine, a gas-fueled cooking stove with three units, a gas-fueled oven with lower and upper heater, a lot of appliances including washing, heating, air conditioning, and making anything from soda water to fresh bread.

The dashboard includes built-in navigation computer screens x 2, autopilot, GPS, AIS sender and receiver, satellite phone, radar, multiple VHF units, Internet antenna, stereo, electrical log and Windex as well as current and drift-off reader, and a flat screen TV. And a lot more extras that I even cannot recall. The boat is tastefully decorated and polished, and kept in mint condition.

The captain is a no-nonsense Norwegian in his best years, just like a captain should be - decisive and competent yet fair and warm-hearted, charmingly relaxed in his unbuttoned shirt and a perpetual cigar in his mouth. The Spanish first mate - his life partner and wife - is alert, elegant and strong, always with a sparkle in her eye, and has an endurance to really envy. And a grand cook, too! Both of them were living in Switzerland prior to sailing off, so the official language on board is French. Both are very agreeable, youthful people with big hearts, which is so rare in today's Western world.

The provisioning was done and the boat was ready to go. First out from Gibraltar, through the Strait, and then out to Madeira. The Rock of Gibraltar is supposed to be one of Hercules' pillars, so according to the Romans, we would probably fall off the edge of the world after only a few nautical miles. There was also another, more real danger: an Atlantic low approaching from the North. We counted on that it would most probably miss us, and that we would have plenty of time to reach our target before it hits. We were to find out that we were not entirely correct.

We set off to Madeira on Monday morning, maneuvered past a lot of cargo ships in the Strait of Gibraltar, and entered the ocean. The Atlantic was very calm. Barely any waves, light winds and a lot of sun. Unbelievable - it was almost too hot to sleep, and it's the middle of October! We even had to motor for some time due to the lack of wind.

We kept a good look out for whales - they are frequent in the Strait and outside. Prior to leaving, I got the possibility to hang out with Pauline and Philip from CIRCE, teaching me about cetaceans, both  wonderful people and helpful hosts! Pauline would be visiting me in Norway some 6 years later.

Thar she blows! A whale at the distance, near Madeira
Passing West of Africas cost and North of Canary islands, we approached Madeira. Because of the calm weather during the start, we had a lot of time to relax and enjoy life - have nice meals, solve sudoku, play guitar, do some creative writing, sew a guest flag or two, fish (we got a baby Mahi-Mahi that was 65 cm) and read books. The First Mate got a bit of sea-skickness, but it was kept under control by Scopoderm, and after consulting ApoEx (my pharmacy sponsor at that time) it showed that it's OK to have a moderate glass of wine while using it, which made the meals even more enjoyable. Good stuff!

The last day was a bit more shakey - on my watch at night, the wind grew from Force 2 (just a light breeze) to Force 5, then Force 6, and up to Force 7, all in less than an hour. We reefed the mainsail, and continued on, the speed being up to 9 knots. There were very heavy rain showers, and the visibility dropped considerably. There were very playful waves; we found a squid fish washed up on the deck. The barometer kept falling, and we arrived to Madeira just when the low was passing by the island. The sight of the land after a few days at sea is always wonderful, but with a rainbow appearing from the clouds it was an unbelievably beautiful sight.

Left: approaching Madeira, look at the rainbow! Center: the Quinta Do Lorde marina. Right: Madeira from the above.
4 days and 3 hours to cross 600+ nm, not bad. Sailing really makes you understand how big the world is. The nearest civilisation here is 500 km South. Or 600-700 km East. More than 1000 km to the Azores (NW), if you will go straight North then you will eventually reach Iceland (about 4000 km?), and all the way to the West there is ocean, ocean, ocean. It's like being at the end of the world.

Quita Do Lorde is a small harbour on the very Eastern South coast of the island. It's beautiful and very quiet. It's located a bit away from everything, so we rented a car to explore the island a bit more before the start of the RIDS (Rally Iles de Soleil) rally, where we were going to partake.

Madeira is a volcanic island with very dramatic landscape and lushy tropical vegetation. It's very beautiful, and the climate is very mild - it's like being indoors all the time, the temperature being around 24 degrees more or less day and night. The towns are like on a postcard - small, clean and cute. In Gibraltar, I walked over the airplane landing lane, but in Madeira, I passed under it - it's built on pillars like a bridge, the only possible solution on this rocky island.

It's hard to understand how isolated it is, when you're used to be traveling by plane, train or car. A few hundred km to the Canary islands - so what? That's just a few hours' drive. But when travelling by boat, it's a few days left for the mercy of the sea and weather, a few days of work on deck, fighting the waves, catching the wind, sleeping under the stars and carefully navigating. Of course it's easier in a good modern boat, but still the world gets so much larger when sailing.

So came the last night before heading off. The RIDS Rally start has been postponed, due to foul weather (the airport and the roads also had to be closed, and the capital city was partly evacuated according to what I've heard). The marina was unmanned that day, the bar/restaurant too. One could think it's because of the good-bye party, but it is in fact because of the rainstorm. All of the sailors did appreciate the extra day for trying to become human again after that celebration!

The dinner was fun, with the Madeira dancing and a lot of wine. The grilled sardines did not fall into my taste, they were grilled whole and ungutted and that's a bit too much fish taste when you've been living off the sea for almost half a year. The desert was fresh fruit and nuts, and I amused myself by sitting there and breaking walnut shells just in the palm of my hand. Sailing gives you strong hands.

It's always a treat to rub shoulders with long-distance sailors of all kinds! A couple who are on their 12th circumnavigation. A female skipper who's both beautiful and charming, sailing with her husband and kids. A crew of four French gentlemen with butterfly ties, inviting me for an official glass of Madeira the afternoon after. The list of characters never ends, and all of them are there to have som drinks with each other and tell all the stories! The choice of music got from bad to worse later at night just when everyone started dancing, so I took over the song list and DJed for the whole crowd.

There was a Swedish boat in the harbor, s/y Alva - a sailing college three-masted 150+ ft schooner. There were 30 or 40 (mor or less) young hands on board, and it was more like a youth hostel than a boat, the galley resembling a school restaurant... Very nice young people though, I got a tour around the ship and got a bit of perspective on sailing.

So finally, at 9 in the morning, we started off, boat fully dressed in flags. We sailed off to Canary Islands, more exactly Las Palmas at Gran Canaria, where my next boat is waiting. Paloma would be sailing further to Cap Verde, and then to South America. 

Myself, I would get the last of my stuff from the Vega (a harpoon, a guitar, a box of sparkling wine with which I was sponsored by KGB bar, and some more stuff), and join another boat for the Atlantic crossing. I also had a chance to do the Offshore Yachtmaster exam, if I had a few days over, and decided to do that - I already had the knowledge and experience, the only thing left was to write the test. I could do it in Stockholm or in any city in the world. Halloween approaching, I wanted to celebrate it too, before I would cast off and sail across the Puddle. 

After another few days at the Atlantic Ocean, I arrived at the tourist island number one, Grand Canaria. We've had head wind, side wind, and finally wind in our backs (that became gusty and strong so we averaged over 9 knots, sometimes over ten - I even remember reading 11,9 on the log. Finally, we took down the gennaker but the force of the wind was ripping hard at the stays so there were some bruises and rope burns. It's not a good idea to wait too long with reefing the sail set! Luckily we had Poncha on board, Madeiras special drink made of rum, honey and fruits (in my case, tangerines) which is used to cure all diseases possible and possible. And tastes quite nice too!

Upon arriving, we celebrated with a supper consisting of local specialties - a bottle of Lambrusco and some calamares in red sauce. I was sorry to leave Paloma, the couple Ivar and Asuncion are absolutely wonderful people, and you should be lucky if you meet such folks during your life time. I would miss them a lot.

Read about sailing from Canary Islands to Sint Maarten in the Carribean here

A few years after the sailing, I was reached by the sad news that Ivar Gjerpe, the captain of Paloma, has passed away at sea. He was a great man with a great heart, and he died while doing what he loved. Rest in peace.