Birds of Passage in La Gomera

It’s difficult to be bored in this harbour. Boats come and go, and there is a general air of preparation and expectation. Folk stagger by with can after can of diesel and water and rucksacks stuffed full of food. There is usually one or two crew up their masts busy repairing or checking and the inevitable gaggle of potential hitchhikers wandering the docks- a dicey gamble for both the hitchiker and the boat that takes them.

Some boats slip out quietly, but the other day one left to huge cheering and clapping. Apparently it was a singlehander who I had seen lugging the usual stores laboriously around despite a significant disability (I suspect cerebral palsy) and politely refusing all offers of help. I regret not having personally met him as he sounds quite a character. He claimed to be immune to seasickness because his extraordinary gait “made him used to rolling around”! I think he is sailing the Atlantic alone to prove to young kids with his condition that anything is possible for them if they want it badly enough. I hope Neptune rewards him with calm seas and favourable winds.

We met Will Sayer, a young patient of mine from Woolston fresh from winning the Singlehanded Transatlantic Race in his immaculate Sigma 33 Elmarleen. He sailed back from the States in July, did a quick convert from racer to cruiser and set out South again (this time with his girlfriend Tam) in October for his 3rd crossing this year. At the other end of the scale are Bengt and Ritva Bjorlin who have been sailing the seas for many a year and are members of a “select” swedish club VSSL (18 members only – “just like the swedish academy” – I love the subtle self deprecating humour of the swedes), – whose title translates as “We who stand on land” or “We who only sail a little”. Their philosophy is to do a long passage to somewhere new, then stay for months at a time to fully integrate with and explore their temporary adopted land. We were introduced to them by Bertil and Lena Molander, another lovely Swedish couple who were introduced to us by the two Chris’s, who we met first in Alderney – and so it goes on.

One large flock of annual Migrants who are gathering here are the 50 or so Transatlantic rowers. This lot are completely bonkers as they will be lucky to do more than 3 knots and even the fastest will take 40 days to get across. I get blisters on my hands and bottom after one days rowing so what shape they must be in afterwards I dread to think.

Even though we can only watch all these preparations (it is a month before we leave) we did add to the general entertainment the other day when Lynda cut my hair. Despite it being an endangered species these days – if you cut it on the boat it turns up in all sorts of unsavoury places for days on end, so we did it on the pontoon. More precisely I was sat on the pontoon and Lynda, needing to gain some altitude, was stood on a little concrete slip just above it. A large crowd gathered, initially to see if she would take bookings. The problem was that the pontoon (and my few remaining hairs )were moving with the swell, whilst the concrete slip and thus Lynda and her scissors, were attached to terra firma. The crowd stopped queueing for a haircut and began to place bets on how many ears I would end up with but the net result looks fine under a sun hat!


  1. Well on a dismal rainy spring day in Auckland, your missives are like a flood of sunshine. Racing news from here: After a moderately successful season last year our handicap is all shot to hell and we only managed to finish in the first half of the division for the first time last wednesday. A bit galling when some of the boats we race against do very well despite making very little effort whatsoever. One particular boat that does well wears a dodger, bimini, liferaft on top and an anchor on the bow. The crew never sit out because they might spill their gins – yet they still win on handicap, The rest of the fleet of nearly thirty boats are stripped out and going for it …I’m all for Jonty’s idea that if you don’t sail well you shouldn’t win and handicaps should not be manipulated to allow you to. We are all well and enjoying you saga. Do I understand from this that you plan to head off sometime around Christmas? No doubt, we will find out. Take care, John

  2. Sounds like you are having a great time. It’s interesting to read about so many places I have passed through briefly, seeing little more than the fuel dock and nearest bar. Makes me even more motivated to get back to sea properly, just at a more leasurely pace.
    Looking forward to the next instalment.
    All the best

  3. Ah John, the handicap question! Believe it or not I am reading The Mirror of the Sea by Joseph Conrad – and he agrees entirely with you and Jonty on this question. He professes to have little knowledge of fore and aft rig, but in an essay bewailing the loss of skills inherent with the switch from sail to steam, quotes an article in the Times on a similar dilution of skills in the yachting fleets brought about by poor handicapping. And all this more than a hundred years ago!
    With appropriate trepidation I am going to advance the opposite viewpoint to you 3 titans! Conrad describes the skills necessary to coax the most out of a square rigger as approaching art in their finest example, and it is chasing this mysterious state which should motivate us – and who gets the prize is just a whimsical attempt to define how close we can get to it. The fact that we (the yachties of the last 300 years) have been arguing the toss over handicapping all this time shows how impossible is the task. So, next time you sail a good race and the boat has sung sweetly under your hands for even a few minutes, reflect in the knowledge that you glimpsed this nirvana and your rival sipping his gin is not even aware of its existence. Pity the man!
    Today a boat called Sea Cloud berthed in the harbour (Google it if you are not as sad as me and know everything about it!). I rushed into the boat and woke Lynda , gabbling excitedly that there was a square rigger in the harbour with skysails on her mainmast. She didnt know what I was talking about! This possibly shows that my beliefs and enthusiasms are a bit extreme – But Conrad would have approved!

  4. Hi Nick – having the time to stop and explore has been a revelation. The problem is that after a short while it becomes very difficult to leave . La Gomera was the exception as , although it was possibly the nicest place we have yet been to , after 6 nights without break of socialisiing we had to go into rehab ( ie get sailing) to save our livers!

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