Africa in the Atlantic

A warm wind on the quarter, regular seas and clear starlit nights are the stuff of dreams — dreams that become reality when we reach the tropics and sail with the trade winds. Returning from the Old World to the New World, almost everyone sails from Madeira or the Canary Islands to the Windward Islands of the Caribbean. On this route, the Cape Verde Islands make an ideal place to pull over.

Many of us sail for the chance it offers to meet new people and visit exotic places. So it is surprising that only a handful of the hundreds of yachts making the trade-wind crossing every winter choose to stop at Cape Verde. The islands offer an almost unique opportunity to visit a developing African nation with a distinct culture, friendly people and useful facilities that is making a success of independence.

When I first sailed that way in 1982, people were full of stories about corruption, theft and an unwelcoming communist government. So, en route to Barbados, I decided to give the islands a miss and sighed wistfully as they passed by 100 miles to the east. Later on, I found that French voyagers did not have the inhibitions of the British and Americans and many had stopped off there and had nothing but good things to report. It was 25 years before I found myself once again sailing south from the Canary Islands, aboard Balæna, our 42-foot gaff cutter with my Swedish-born wife, Ulla.

Lucky meeting
“Sail on the port bow,” I called to Ulla. Just then the VHF came to life: “Balæna, this is Skylax.” Balæna and Skylax had departed from opposite sides of the Canary Islands group a day apart and had chatted daily on SSB radio. The passage went smoothly for both boats, fast sailing on a reach in the predominantly easterly winds. Even though we were sailing the same waters, at any one time we experienced quite different wind strengths. On the whole it seemed that Balæna, starting further west, had fresher breezes. Fishing was a favorite topic of conversation, we both lost lure after lure without ever managing to pull a fish aboard. The two boats were looking forward to having a stay in port together, but we weren’t racing or even making a conscious effort to coordinate our arrival.

And now, a few hours before our landfall at São Vicente, the two boats came together on the high seas. They are both designed by New Zealanders, but are from different ends of the design spectrum, yet Balæna with her long deep keel and tanbark gaff sails had caught up with Skylax with her winged fin keel and shining white sails. Rod kindly rolled in a little sail and allowed Balæna to come alongside for some mutual photography before we sailed side by side into the anchorage.

For six years we have worked with Rod and Lu Heikell on our guide to the sailing routes of the world, Ocean Passages and Landfalls. But this was the first time we had ever met whilst sailing. It had been Rod’s idea to meet in Mindelo, Cape Verde. It is one of the ports included in our guide so a stop was almost mandatory. But we were also drawn by a common love of Portuguese Fado music and these islands have their own brand of this soulful and haunting sound called Morna, best known in the outside world from the singing of Cesaria Evora.

The sun was sinking and the breeze blowing strongly from the land as we rounded up and let go the anchor. The holding was good in deep sand and when I dived the next day, the anchor had buried itself deeply. All around us were yachts of many nations and we quickly learned that there were many arrivals and departures every day. Further out in the bay there was a large collection of old ships and fishing boats that seem to have been left to sink at anchor or eventually break free and drift onto the beach. With the prevailing wind they did not pose any danger to the yacht anchorage.

Arid, sun-baked islands
Originally the islands supported some agriculture and Africans were brought there to work as slaves on sugar cane plantations. Over-exploitation, grazing by goats and deforestation turned all but the highest of the fourteen islands into a sandy wasteland. The sea has always been important to their economy and since the decline in agriculture, the sea has been the cornerstone to any prosperity the islands have enjoyed. Since the days of Columbus they have received a large number of visits from foreign ships. First as a strategic stepping-stone on the sailing route to the Americas, next as a coaling base for steamships and lately for their fishing grounds. Now yachtsmen are beginning to play their part in the economy of this little nation, which is otherwise heavily dependent upon foreign aid. We met yachts from all corners of the world: Norway, Japan, New Zealand and New England.

The scenery of São Vicente is strongly reminiscent of parts of Mexico. Rugged rocky mountains with a generous covering of red sand set off by a brilliant blue sea. The sparse to non-existent vegetation of lower islands is in sharp contrast to the rich marine life of the surrounding waters. Some islands, such as São Vicente’s neighbor, Santo Antão, are high enough to collect the clouds, receive rain and have a topping of forests and plantations.

A yacht-friendly stopover
We were a little nervous as we rowed ashore clutching passports, ships papers and the important clearance document that had been so difficult to obtain in Europe. Portuguese-speaking nations have a well-earned reputation for excessive bureaucracy. Cape Verde seems to have learned that unnecessary procedures, delays and corrupt officials will put off visitors. Clearing in and out was simple, quick and efficiently carried out with only a minimal charge for the use of harbor facilities. English and French are spoken by quite a few people, which makes all the procedures easier. The authorities have also worked hard to discourage crime, and with sensible precautions, made this a safe place to visit. We were soon cleared in and able to stroll around the town and inquire about Internet connections, watering holes, eating places and when we could hear Morna.

An enterprising, English-speaking local had opened a bar providing all these things strategically placed on the main street and called the Yacht Club. Yes, he assured us, he would have live music on Saturday and Sunday, starting early in the evening and not at midnight as was favored by most other places.

Gathering together the crews from several boats, we made our way up to the Yacht Club for a fresh tuna dinner just below the little stage. Morna is a homegrown musical style, clearly rooted deep in African rhythm and themes, but with a strong vein of Portuguese tradition and a fascinating mixture of voice, strings and drums. We were entranced by the skillful playing and soulful singing. The musicians in this little bar, performing for a mixture of yachties and locals, could hold their own on any stage in the world.

Even though the surrounding landscape is hot and dry there is a surprising amount of first class food to be found. Presumably the fruits and vegetables are grown in the highlands of neighboring islands and brought to market on busy ferries that ply back and forth. Fish is abundant and superb. The local spirits make fine drinks and good Portuguese wine is cheaply available. So we were able to eat out in style.

Apart from the importance of stocking up for the long crossing ahead, the main market is well worth a visit just for the pleasure of it. Floors and stalls are spotlessly clean and there seems to be a wide variety of produce on sale. It is a pleasure just to lean back and watch the activity. Colorful clothing is the rule and Cape Verdeans are handsome people as they go about their daily business. What the market could not supply, the small supermarkets did and, with a cheerful wave from new friends and old, Balæna left well stocked for her voyage to Brazil.

Andy O’Grady and Ulla Norlander live and voyage aboard their 42-foot gaff-rigged cutter, Balaena.

Routes to and from the Cape Verde Islands

A North Atlantic circuit: The trade winds of the north Atlantic must be the world’s busiest ocean highway for sailing vessels. A great way to spend a year is to sail from the U.S. to Europe in the early summer, possibly via Bermuda and the Azores, spend the summer on the Atlantic coastline or in the western Mediterranean and in the fall head south to the Atlantic Islands for a December crossing to the Caribbean and home again in spring. Many European yachts are doing the same thing. Charter and private yachts that have spent the summer in the Mediterranean are on their way to the West Indies as well. Then there are those who are out for a longer voyage and will be heading on to Panama and the Pacific or, like us, sailing south across the trade winds to Brazil. Of these many hundreds of yachts all but a few will take a route that passes close to Cabo Verde.

Europe to the West Indies: A typical passage would be from Santa Cruz de la Palma, in the Canary islands to Barbados, steering southwest from the Canaries until you have steady trade winds at around 20º N and then west to Barbados. This makes a passage of about 2,750 nautical miles. I made this trip in 1982 in my 26-foot sloop Skugga and it took 27 days, more modern boats take around 20 days. However, stopping in Mindelo on the island of São Vicente, adds only 100 miles, with a sail of 850 miles to Cabo Verde and 2,000 to Barbados. For most people this would mean the longest ocean passage was only 14 to 18 days. Prevailing winds are NE so the sail should be a run or broad reach.

Senegal option: Senegal is the mainland African country nearest to Cape Verde. Fortunately it is also one of the more stable nations of the continent and has earned a good reputation with visiting yachtsmen who enjoy navigating several of the long rivers leading into the great continent. (Gambia is a small nation that lies along one of these rivers and is almost encircled by Senegal). It is not uncommon to steer to Dakar from Cabo Verde, indeed this route is so well recognized that one of the transatlantic rallies sails this way. With the prevailing northeast wind this should be an easy reach. However, we discovered that the wind can blow from east for quite long periods. We had to sail on a reach all the way from the Canaries to Mindelo and after a stay of a week it was still only just north of east. We were not able to lay our course for Senegal and sadly had to change our plans and sail directly to Brazil. My opinion is that boats wanting to visit Senegal should sail directly there from the Canaries and then on to Cape Verdes. Then depart the Cape Verdes for points west.

Sailing to the South Atlantic: Cabo Verde is a great jumping off point for the sail to Brazil. Unlike the route to the West Indies this is not a direct passage. Once south of the equator, the trade winds blow from the southeast and the current is pushing west so that it is important to try and cross the ITCZ far enough to windward to be able to lay a course to the east coast of Brazil. For most boats means this crossing at around 25° W to 27º W. Steering south from Cape Verde, with the northeast trade it should be a simple run but can be a bit of a rolling reach if it is blowing from the east.

Some yachts destined for South Africa have stopped off here before continuing down the west African coast and rounding into the Gulf of Guinea (in summer there is a SW monsoon that favors them) before sailing hard on the wind across the SE trades until they pick up westerlies and can sail in to Cape Town.

Back to Europe: The islands lie not far from the north-bound route taken by boats heading back to Europe from the South Atlantic. It is simply a matter of close reaching across the trades to the Azores, from where most parts of Western Europe are accessible.

Andy O’Grady

By Ocean Navigator