Follow in the wake of Columbus's voyage with a yachting holiday in the Canaries
Saturday 24 October 2009
In that moment of impeded vision when the bow dipped into the Atlantic swell, spraying our boat with tepid seawater, I fleetingly wondered what it must have felt like for Christopher Columbus. Leaving behind the last sanctuary of dry land, his voyage of discovery departed from these very same waters more than 500 years ago.
The extent of planning and packing for such a journey into the unknown must have been mind-boggling. Behind him, La Gomera. In front, who knows what? Thankfully, my own preparation consisted of throwing together a holdall of shorts, deck shoes, T-shirts, plenty of reading material and a heavy dose of sun cream. Charts weren't plotted, weather patterns weren't consulted and a reluctant crew of dubious reputation weren't conscripted. At least, not by me. I did, however, go to the trouble of lifting up the phone to book my family and me a week aboard the luxury sailing yacht Octopus Eyes.
The Canaries remain the logical jumping-off point for boats crossing the Atlantic to the Caribbean. From November to January, the islands are full of yachts preparing for their Atlantic crossing, but relatively few spend time touring the archipelago – which is a surprise, considering its great climate, beautiful bays and modern marinas.
Although our one-week charter only focused on the western quartet, those with two weeks to spare could easily make the most of the brisk north-easterly trade winds and take in all seven of the islands. From Arrecife in Lanzarote, you'd track 33 nautical miles south to Puerto del Rosario in Fuerteventura, then cross a further 120 nautical miles to Puerto de Mogá*in the south of Gran Canaria. Still staying with the trade winds, a seven-hour journey due west would take you to Los Cristianos in Tenerife, from where it's only a three-hour crossing to the scenic greenery of La Gomera. From the island's capital, San Sebástian, a journey 47 nautical miles south-west will bring you to El Hierro, the smallest and least visited of the Canary Islands. Then, some 55 nautical miles north of Puerto de la Estaca lies the pocket-sized capital of Santa Cruz de La Palma. Just short of 100 nautical miles east and you're in the bustling Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The final leg of the journey would be an eight-hour dash back to Gran Canaria, this time to its capital, Las Palmas, in the north.
Our route between the western isles of Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro was not suitable for the absolute beginner – unless, of course, you put yourself in the capable hands of an experienced skipper. Ours was from ECC Yacht Charter in Tenerife, one of the companies in the archipelago that supplies landlubbers and salty-sea dogs alike with a vehicle with which to satisfy their maritime yearnings.
Once onboard, I'd like to say that, Columbus-style, I commanded my crew to splice the mainsail and swash the buckles, but I resisted the urge. My role was to soak up the winter sun, fill my lungs with salty sea breeze, enjoy the ride and ensure both junior members of the family stayed on the drier side of the rails.
This I did admirably, part in thanks to the favourable weather. At 28 degrees north, the Canary Islands are on the same level as the middle of Florida and just north of the Bahamas. With Africa and the Western Sahara only 70 miles to the east, it means there's a subtropical climate here.
Mooring in the small horseshoe bay of El Puertito with its secluded beach and one-bar village proved to be one of the highlights of our journey – and a taste of the real Tenerife, far removed from the glitz of the busy marinas. So too was our evening arrival into La Palma as the sun slid for cover behind the steep pine-forest backdrop of Caldera de Taburiente National Park. We joined in the nightly paseo, or evening stroll, mingling with Palmero families below ornate balconies on the seafront promenade, before devouring a whole sea bass crusted in salt within the creaky wooden confines of a Dickens-like tavern.
The marine sights were just as memorable. Sailing with a pod of pilot whales and toying with the dolphins that criss-crossed our path were magical moments that will be remembered for ever. With a near-perfect climate, beautiful bays and modern harbours, you'd have thought Columbus would have started a trend 500 years ago. Instead, the Canary Islands are a tranquil recreational sailing region for those intent on making their own journey of discovery.
Travel essentials: Sailing the seas
*ECC Yacht Charter (00 34 922 240 559; eccyacht.com ) has bases in Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Tenerife. Bareboat charters start from £1,350 per week. A skipper costs £135 per day. You can learn to sail with Canary Sail (01438 880890; canarysail.com ) based in La Gomera, or Club Sail (00 34 922 857 930; clubsail.com ) based in Tenerife.
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