The decision to leave Madeira was dispatched over breakfast the following day while listening to the weather forecast on Elvire’s short wave radio. This was a worst-case scenario for us. If the storm did track our way (as the weathermen were indicating) and the low intensified the mooring out side the break wall of Funchal would be a dangerous location for Elvire as the prevailing winds would be due south, forcing us on to the harbour wall.
The only realistic option open to us, was to head out to sea in front of the storm and try to find a secure haven in the Canary Islands, over two hundred and eighty miles further south, just off the Atlantic coast of Morocco.
We were missing drinking water and fresh fruit for the crossing, so Didou and myself pushed off in the Zodiac and headed for the market, while Ian, started to organise Elvire and store away the newest editions to his growing cellar; a case of Madeira wine.
The Islands of the Desertas could be seen in the distance, first Ilheu Chao, then Deserta Grande before the southern Island of Bugio as we sailed south that afternoon trying to distance ourselves from their sharp volcanic coastlines. Our bearing of one hundred and seventy degrees took us within two miles of the coast, where the monk seal has made her home, at last at peace on the silent beaches of the biogenetic reserve. Here the only visitors are the two permanent guardians and visiting yacht crews who are lucky to record their passive lifestyle. I watched the islands passing by from Elvire`s deck, not the first to see the view, but one of the fortunate, who through the past six centuries, have used the Canary Current to head south.
The islands disappeared slowly into the distance as we moved onwards, the light Northeast wind not helping as we tried to distance ourselves from the land. The clear blue skies at the moment were giving no indication of the developments to our north; maybe we would be lucky. With a final flash the sun disappeared over the horizon and with the stars taking their places for our navigation, a feeling of calm came over us as we made ready for the night. That evening I took the first watch, pushing Elvire to her maximum, playing with the wind and sheeting in for more speed as the others tried to get some sleep in their cabins below.
At midnight the wind increased to force four and shifted to the Northwest, so I called Didou up, who was on the next watch to help set the sails. (If we had to move out of the cockpit or readjust the working sails at night there always had to be two of us on deck for the manoeuvre). When Elvire was back on the bearing again, I left him at the helm and dropped down to my cabin to sleep, while Didou clipped into the safety harness for the next four-hour watch.
woke up the next morning to find Ian at the helm, a look of concern on his face as he pointed up to the sky. The colour was a deep red (red sky in the morning shepherds warning!) as the sun appeared over the horizon, a layer of high altitude clouds were forming as they pushed upwards by the deepening depression that was now spreading her wings. Here was nature’s warning, given to us as the isobars started to close up, the high altitude wind increasing as it started to strangle the upper atmospheres turbulent air currents. At least the wind was still Northwest, showing us that the beast had not yet started to track south. Our uncertainty was the Selvagens Islands, which were now to our East; we had to clear these desolate volcanic outcrops before we could head for the safety of the Canary Islands fifty miles further Southeast. If we did not clear this dangerous zone our fate may be that of the French super tanker that still lies on an outer reef, her spine broken on the rocks.
By late afternoon, we had passed the Selvagens Islands; the lonely home to four human guardians and the White Faced Petrel, all of which were invisible to us, hidden to by a dense layer of cloud clinging to this barren landscape, which rises only fifty metres above sea level. The barometer had now fallen to 970 and the wind had started to gust up to force-eight, our timing was perfect, we now had the ideal wind for the Island of Fuerteventura only eighty-miles to the Southeast.
Throughout the night with reefed sails we navigated in front of the depression. Elvire was holding her own at seven knots as we dropped into the dark pits, created by the powerful swell; the waves covering our deck, the hull vibrating with the force of the aquatic bombardment which was trying to suck us in. None of us slept well as we slid diagonally across the front. The constant fear that the wind would swing to the south and drive us back onto the Selvagens Islands kept us semi-awake in our bunks, ready at any given moment to react to the changes that nature sought to deal out.
With dawn the next morning the wind started to die, dropping down to a playful force-five, thankfully the protective shadow of the Canary Islands had taken effect; we had been lucky. In front of us the island of Fuerteventura was bathed in sunshine, looking behind us, the black clouds of the front were being held back by the seven major islands making up the Insulae Canium (the island of the dogs). These islands were named in sixty AD when King Juba of Morocco sent an expedition seventy-miles to the west of his kingdom into the “New World”. Large dogs confronted these Berber explorers as they set foot on the islands for the first time and the name has stuck.
That afternoon we moored up outside the village of Corralejo on the leeward side of the island of Fuerteventura; a barren moonscape rising eight hundred metres out of the sea with a stunning coastline made up of white sand beaches and lava headlands.
Elvire was at last safe (for the moment); the harbour was protecting her from the storm’s swell that was sending ten-foot waves crashing up against the lava wall. Our concern now was the depth of the water below the mooring; no problems with the high tide, but if the wind changed to the south or Southeast on the low tide we would have problems escaping from the bay. Here the lack of water below our keel would make it difficult to recover our anchor if we had to leave in a hurry. We would have to stay vigilant.