We are at last free from the dominant currents of the Straits of Gibraltar which had been trying to propel us back into the Mediterranean Sea at over five knots. We had been lucky; Elvire had been blasted out into the Atlantic with a force nine astern wind. The lights of Tangier on the Moroccan coast had flashed past, giving us our last views of land as we were driven between the two continents and onwards to our next port of call, over five hundred and eighty miles away.
With a sympathetic wind and current giving us the energy, all we had to do was to tune the sails to hold the power and miss the three sandbanks, situated in the middle of the ocean between the African continent and Porto Santo. The biggest of this group rises up from the ocean bed to eighteen metres below the water surface…we didn’t want a big swell.
The next morning, with the first rays of the sun beating on the deck, one of the reels started to give line. Ian twisted from the helm to see what was happening as I grabbed the rod and strapped into the belt, crying “fish”. I let it run, feeling the reel heating up. The resistance from the break was too light, so I applied more pressure and started to sense the weight on the end of the line. The fish ran repeatedly, ripping the line from the spool, tiring quicker each time as the power from the unseen hunter sapped its strength. For twenty minutes the game continued, the length of the runs shorter as I bought her to the surface, until at last I could see the dorsal fin and the lime green sides of a Mai-Mai. Ian gaffed the fish, bringing on board over thirty kilograms. Now we had food for the journey.
That afternoon, feeling like Christopher Columbus could have done when he made the same crossing in 1480, I sat down beneath the main mast, which towers fifteen metres above and let my mind drift. The relentless movement of Elvire’s hull gives this place a special type of magic. At times it’s a zone of peace when a calm sea is running. With the strengthening of the wind so does your resolve need fortifying to stay here, as Elvire redirects this natural power to push us onwards. The angle of her deck also increases with the physical acceleration, the tuning of the sails stopping the water leaping into our air driven world with only man made products holding us against the fury of nature.
Our first views of land in over five days bought twenty to thirty dolphins to the side of Elvire. We felt privileged as they spent over one hour enjoying the free ride below the water’s surface. Occasionally as a pair in perfect harmony they would jump out of the sea, their eyes watching, to see who was paying for the ride. I hope that the first explorers; Joao Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixeira, who where sent south by Henry the Navigator, had the same reception when they rounded the headland for the first time in 1418.
It was one of the most magical moments of the crossing for all of us. I spent over twenty minutes hanging over Elvire’s bow caressing the backs of the dolphins as they swam with us using our bow-wave as their transport across the "grand bleu".
Arriving in Porto Santo that afternoon we moored up amongst the armada, which was preparing to cross the Atlantic for their “warm winter” in the Caribbean.
The story of these present day navigators can be seen portrayed on the harbour walls in two dimensions, by hands more used to handling hemp ropes than a paintbrush. Their feelings of life at sea, the stories of their crossing now left to the winds and the eyes future navigators.
With Elvire safe and Ian asleep in his cabin, Didou and myself decided that our legs needed a stretch and set off above the town and into the hills. The summit of the extinct volcano of Pico du Facho was our objective.
The walk was easygoing as the island is only covered with light undergrowth and cactus after the first settlers sent by Prince Henry of Portugal, introduced their rabbits to the wild. These happy bunnies then proceeded to eat everything and breed at an astonishing rate so after two years, there was virtually no vegetation left on the island. Now our only danger as we made our way to the top was from the guns of the hunters who where still trying to exterminate this pest.
Reaching the top of the cinder cone we sat down and watched the swell lines tracking from the Northwest. Their direct path blocked by the first land in four thousand miles before being refracted onto the five-mile sand beach in front of Vila Baleria; the capital of this Portuguese island.
Looking over to the north we could see where the Dutch treasure ship; Slot ter Hooge had run aground in 1724, maybe if we had the time I’d be able to find a silver bar hidden among the lava flows to make up for my lost savings!
With the sun dropping over the horizon we made our way back to the harbour passing the windmills that in past times had been used to feed the islanders. Now dormant, their new work as a tourist attraction still fills the stomachs of the locals, only the chain of events of how the food arrives has changed over the centuries.