Atlantic Island Voyage: South of Tenerife, 29 November 1998

29 November 1998

Position: 26d 3m North, 18d 33m West 120 miles south of Tenerife
Steering 210 degrees, for Ilha do Sal, Cape Verde archipelago

Wind is the NE trade, dead aft, 20-25 knots, occasional gusts to 30.
Barometer is rock solid and the weather is fine.
We are tearing off the 780 miles to Sal with a bone in our teeth: 
6-7 knots under double-reefed mainsail and poled-out genoa deeply

 Ashore on Gomera

Ashore on Gomera

After a furious last-minute round of negotiations with Pirahna Brothers Press, the threatened launch of the tactical thermonuclear device was called off and the missile rolled back into their garage. Their parting observation was, "we wouldn't throw away a good piece of equipment on this piece of #@&*!".We believe that was intended as an insult, but it appears that we once again have the freedom to write whatever pops into our waterlogged brains. Our apologies if you were among those many readers hoping for a direct hit.

The Canaries are among the islands now referred to as Macaronesia, very loosely translated as The Fortunate Isles. This group also includes the Azores, Madeira, and the Cape Verdes. While there is controversy about the exact sequence of their formation, there appears to be consensus that all these islands began with great volcanic events, in some cases combined with either uplifting or separating tectonic plates. The high islands, like Flores, Madeira Grande, and Gomera have been able to capture moisture from the clouds which form high on their upwind slopes, resulting in deep valleys where streams occasionally run. (Think Grand Canyon). The lower islands, like Porto Santo and Lanzarote, look more like the Sahara just over the horizon. The high, "wet" islands are suitable for farming, with some difficulty: terraces have to be made on the very steep hillsides by building stone walls and backfilling with dirt, and water has to be brought to the fields somehow. The levadas of Madeira are the highest evolution of this process. In Gomera, the more popular strategy is to impound water in reservoirs created by building dams in a stream bed to catch all of the occasional rainfall. The fields are clustered in valleys below each reservoir. During the 1930's and 40's, there was a sudden drop in the population of Gomera, from 30,000 to 20,000: the old-timers we talked to said it was partly due to men going off to fight Franco, but more because the climate became gradually drier, forcing many farmsteads to be abandoned.

We saw a number of very extensive ghost settlements and terraces which looked fairly recently inhabited, a depressing sight when one considers the heroic effort of carving out terraces in the hillside to begin with (not unlike what happened in New England in the 1800's as better land opened up out West and people got tired of growing rocks). In the case of Gomera, people emigrated to Venezuela and Tenerife or shifted into tourism-related work. Agriculture is far from abandoned, however. Where water can be gotten, there are banana groves, large vineyards, citrus groves, and lots of goats (we encountered one herd of nearly 200).

Although it is too steep and craggy for anything more than a small landing strip, tourism has also found Gomera, with crowds of Germans (and other pasty-faced white people like ourselves)arriving by ferry from Tenerife. For the active hiker/masochist, the island offers a dramatic, vertical landscape, with walking trails through either desert, mountains, or the lovely laurel forest which grows on the northern slopes of the island. This is a carefully guarded treasure, being one of only 2 remaining examples of this type of forest which used to cover the entire Mediterranean basin. Madeira Grande has the other.

The Canaries have had more in the way of human history than either the Azores or Madeira, both of which were unpopulated at the time of Portugese discovery. The original inhabitants are genetically African, blue-eyed Berbers from the west coast of Africa. This stone-age culture, known as the Guanches, were "discovered" and subdued (i.e., exterminated, mostly) by the conquistadores in the 1400's. On Gomera, some traces of that culture can still be found in the form of unique foods such as almagrote, a whistling language known as "silbo", and some folk music and dance that is primarily rhythmic and not very Spanish-sounding. One of the early visitors to the island was C. Columbus, who almost didn't make it to the Caribben because of his obsessive attachment to Beatriz de Bobadilla. Some speculate that he made 3 more voyages as a pretext for visiting Gomera again.

These islands for centuries marked the Western border of the known European world, giving rise to numerous legends. They have been variously called Atlantis, the Garden of the Hesperides, the Elysian Fields, the Fortunate Isles, and one of them was probably St. Brendan's Isle. (Gomerans make a pretty good argument that is was Gomera itself). It is imaginable that the Tir na Nogh of Irish legend, the enchanted place to the west, was one of these islands, perhaps in the Azores, which actually look a lot like parts of Ireland. We found some ancient maps while we were here, one of which gave Flores (westernmost Azores) as the prime meridian (now Greenwich), and the other Hierro (westernmost of the Canaries). In the pre-Columbian mindset, the end of the earth would not have been much further west. 

We ended up staying for 3 weeks in Gomera, which included a wonderful visit from Connie, who also brought along some much-needed supplies and equipment. Then on to Santa Cruz, Tenerife, for final resupply, topping off of propane, diesel and water tanks, and food supplies, before pushing on for the Cape Verdes, where all these things will be harder to find. This passage should take about a week, and our itinerary is still up in the air: we'll clear in at Sal, and we'd like to see the volcano on Fogo, but the rest we'll play by ear.