There’s nothing I would love more than to tell you that my first sailing trip was a wonderful amazing adventure that was even more amazing than my most amazing fantasies. That it exceeded our dreams of sailing off into the sunset armed with sardines and generous rations of wanderlust.
I would rather tell you this, than the truth: my first sailing trip will most likely be my last.
YES TO YOGA, NO TO GRAVOL
Everyone I told that we were going SAILING!!! had helpful advice (bring gravol), questions (WHY?), doubts (are you sure you don’t want to start with a cruise?), concerns (in the OCEAN?) a bit of jealousy (I wish I could do that), or hesitant excitement (have fun, wear lifejackets, take pictures, wow, errr…bon voyage!)
I had never been on a sailboat, but I HAD been on some very large ferries. That, coupled with the fact that I was just so very excited to go SAILING!!! gave me all the obvious reassurances I needed that I certainly did not need to pack Gravol.
I would, however pack my yoga mat for daily sunrise morning practices on the hull of the sailboat. Or was it the mast?
Jeremy (my bf) had been showing me sailboats on YouTube ever since we met, promising that someday we would go sailing around the world for a year or five. I’m pretty much open to anything, so I stayed open to the possibility, and went on with my life until someday came.
In the meantime, we had to decide where to go for a few weeks in the more immediate future. Having eliminated most of our first choice destinations for traveling in January for reasons I can’t remember, we decided to go visit Jeremy’s friend Thibeault on his sailboat in the Canary Islands and test out sailing life for a few weeks.
There was no real pre-trip planning or preparation on our part, as usual. But there was a friend, a boat, and some islands in the Atlantic waiting for us. Ahoy!
Two weeks later, following a red-eye flight to Madrid, a missed alarm and a missed connecting flight, we landed in Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. Due to unforeseen winds Thibeault asked us to join him on the neighboring island, Gomera, from which we would set sail the following day. We hopped on a ferry, and off we went to meet our sailboat.
Here’s a bit of context about the Canary Islands: they’re technically (politically) part of Spain, but the archipelago is actually closer to Morocco than any part of Europe. It’s considered to be a bridge between four continents: Africa, North America, South America and Europe. The largest islands are (in this order): Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro, although there are many other lesser known and smaller islets.
But who cares, really? We were in such an excited frenzy to go SAILING!!! that all we saw of Tenerife was its majestic volcano (the third tallest in the world) and the receding port, both from a distance.
After an hour-long ferry crossing, we arrived in Gomera, where Thibeault was waiting for us on Moya, his adorable red sailboat. Thibeault used to fly big airplanes, until he didn’t. A few years ago he packed up his pilot life in Canada, returned to France, moved onto Moya, and has been sailing around the world ever since.
He had recently made his first solo Atlantic crossing (45 days!! Alone!!!), so I was assured that we were in good, dependable seafaring hands.
Thibeault had been in the Canaries for some time, and he was happy we were starting our adventure with La Gomera, his favourite of the 7 main islands.
Here’s a fun fact about La Gomera: Christopher Columbus was a fan. Before crossing the Atlantic in 1492 and discovering America, he stopped here to stock up on food and water. He intended to stay four days, but ended up staying a whole month, and left with sugarcane from the island, which would be the first to reach the Americas.
Mr. Columbus came back again in 1493, and AGAIN in 1498. Honestly, I can see why. This place has good vibes, good food, a good climate, and GREAT wrinkly potatoes, a typical dish of the Canaries. Highly addictive.
After stuffing ourselves with wrinkly carbs we explored La Gomera.
Once a volcano, and now a hiker’s paradise right out of Jurassic park, it’s the most lush of all the Canaries. Its mountains are covered by perpetually foggy rainforest jungles, while closer to sea-level the climate is sunny, warm and arid – a fascinating gamut of microclimates for such a tiny island.
The little towns are colorful, quaint, and very zen. Far removed from the mass-mall tourism of the neighbouring Gran Canaria, if you are into quiet, beautiful nature and small, sleepy seaside towns, La Gomera is where you want to be.
We didn’t have a chance to go hiking here because Jeremy was having a serious case of sailing FOMO and itching to embark on our sailing adventure. Pronto.
We said goodbye to all our new cat friends, climbed aboard Moya, and away we went, leaving Gomera and the potato port kitties behind. We were at last, officially, going SAILING!!!
LIFE AT SEA: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE VOMIT
The plan was to start with a short(ish) crossing of roughly two days in the Atlantic Ocean, sailing overnight from La Gomera to Gran Canaria. The winds were in our favour. For now.
Thibeault recited a quick list of rules, showed us some lifejackets and said some other things that went in one ear and out the other. I was busy processing the part about having to hand pump the toilet, and the passing mention that there was no shower on-board. Also something about an emergency pee bucket above deck.
In retrospect, I suppose I should have asked more questions and requested a written set of rules, instructions and diagrams (especially the one about the toilet procedure). There seemed to be a lot, and since I have an allergy to order, discipline and rules, my default way of processing instructions of any sort is to develop acute short term amnesia. Not the best reaction to surviving alone at sea.
So here’s what happened over the next 34 hours out in the open sea. Shortly after pushing off from land, I began to feel increasingly uneasy about heading to the middle of the ocean, with nothing solid around except wild sea creatures and a boat I did not know how to navigate. This reaction, and the speed at which it hit me, took me by total surprise. After all, no one had been more excited to go SAILING!!! than me.
I swallowed the growing lump of anxiety growing in my gut and tried to act as calm and sailor-like as my two seasoned seafaring companions seemed to be, and faked being “at ease”. And then I ate an apple.
The next 30-something hours are a big, nauseous blur. Somewhere between the apple, my anxiety, and the constant movement of the boat beneath me, I became more nauseous (and green) than I ever thought possible – the only thing that comes close is the feeling you get right when you start your first drop on a roller coaster and your stomach falls (right out through your toes). Except that you don’t see the reassuring bottom of the drop, or the ground beneath it. Or any kind of possible end to the nausea, except for getting off the boat. But that’s not an option. There is no land to run to. Anywhere. Nada.
So all you CAN do is crawl towards something you can hide in, try to stay horizontal, and hope you’ll wake up from this shifting topsy turvy hell-ride eventually. So that’s what I did, as I scurried below deck towards the nearest bed and hid under the covers.
But the boat had other plans. As the winds picked up, my hiding spot turned into a trampoline and my head became a tennis ball that made friends with the very low ceiling above it. Over, and over, and over.
As darkness fell and the boys took turns steering the boat (keeping watch for potential collisions and other possible dangers), and while sleep eluded me, my head and body continued hitting the ceiling. However, I did manage to find a somewhat comforting activity to do from my hiding spot: ankle watch.
As long as I could still see their ankles bobbing near the steering wheel, it meant that they hadn’t yet been thrown overboard, and therefore I didn’t have to think about how to survive, alone, on a sinking boat.
Insert an eternity in the middle of an ocean without time, sleep, and a possible concussion, and I became a philosopher. A full bladder and an endless stream of consciousness during a very long anxious night in the middle of the ocean gave me some interesting existential insights.
In a world where we are so used to being surrounded by boundaries, objects, people and time, to find yourself in a place where they all cease to exist is not only humbling, but it makes you question just about everything: who you are, what is real outside of our comfortable and habitual social constructs and calendars, and how much control you really have over anything, really. The endless expanse of sea and sky, with nothing in between, made me realize how comforted we are by boundaries.
Here are some other deep thoughts I remember:
1 – Putting myself in the middle of the ocean with absolutely zero survival-at-sea skills other than knowing how to swim, float and hope for the best, without having prepared or informed myself of how to use a sea radio to call for help or packed Gravol, was just plain stupid.
2 – I would never take flushing toilets, or showers, for granted again.
There were, however a few moments of magic on the boat: once, when I managed to crawl on deck to use the emergency bucket, we spotted a school of dolphins swimming around our boat, and the second time (emergency bucket again) when we saw an actual WHALE!!! (yup). That was awesome.
You know what else was awesome? Seeing land again.
As Gran Canaria rose with the sun in the distance of dawn, just as quickly as it started, my nausea subsided and the ball in my belly began to shrink. As I fantasized about a flushing toilet and a hot shower on stable ground, I was even able to appreciate the natural beauty of the moon-like shorelines passing us by as we made our way to land.
PADDLING TO CIVILIZATION
We found a place to set anchor near the port of Telde, and moored there for a few days while we explored the island of Gran Canaria.
To commute back and forth between the shore and Moya, we used Thibeault’s fun little rubber boat. Finally, something I could do at sea: paddle to the shower.
Most ports have bathrooms, cafés and wifi, so I got my much-needed dose of civilization. After a shower and some sleep life was good again, and we went exploring Gran Canaria on solid ground, on foot :)))
SURREALIST MOONSCAPES: GRAN CANARIA
Gran Canaria is an island of volcanic origin, the third largest of the Canaries, and was populated by North African tribes as ealy as 500 BC – the tribes referred to the island as “the land of the brave”, presumably because it is so varied and full of contrasts, it’s almost as if you’re in a constantly shifting dream where everything suddenly and fluidly shifts right below your feet and you find yourself in a new tableau before you can say “coffee”.
Because Gran Canaria is the result of millions of years of volcanic erupitons and tectonic shifts, it has endured changes in volume and weight, which have caused the island to rise above its previous sea levels during erosive periods and to sink during eruptive periods. Some “fossil beaches” can still be seen in the cliff faces of the more eroded northern coast.
In additon to its shizophrenic topology, Gran Canaria also has a bipolar climate.
Technically it’s considred to be desert-like (dry, hot and windy), but in reality it is composed of a rich variety of micro-climates, which makes it extra interesting to discover. We began by walking the South-East periphery of of the island, marvelling over its arid rocky beaches, cliffs, and vegetation straight out of a Dr, Seuss story setting.
We walked and walked along the arid shores, encountering strange plants, cool grass and rocky fossilized shores. Until we hit a tourist cesspool of strip malls, fast-food, and resorts that exceeded any level of mass shopping mall travel consumption I’ve ever witnessed, which was our cue to turn back and seek the quiet refuge of Moya the red sailboat.
MAN-GOAT & MOUNTAINSCAPES
Our inland exploration of Gran Canaria’s mountains, craters and hiking trails proved to be spectacular: the sheer variety of rock formations, dizzying heights, trails and views was worth the panting, sweating, and vertigineous hikes that got us there. The peaks and views were some of the most incredible I’ve ever seen.
They also awakened Jeremy’s inner mountain-goat, as he suddenly started climbing precipitous peaks and scaling cliffs like it was nobody’s business. All I could do was take pictures of his insanity and remind myself that if we survived Atlantic sailing, he would most certainly make it out of this in one piece.
Gran Canaria is lovingly called a “miniature continent” by visitors and locals, due to the varied climates and landscapes found here. We evenutally stumbled on another breathtaking micro-planet: dunes of white and amber sand, hiding and revealing the sea, naked German tourists, and puffy white clouds that summoned Salvador Dali’s surrealist dreamscapes.
COTTON-CANDY BEACH DREAMS: FUERTEVENTURA
After our explorations of Gran Canaria came to an end, we shifted course and made our way to Fuertaventura. The second largest of the Canaries after Tenerife, the island is surrounded by incessant winds (disaster for un-experienced sailors), flat landscapes which are a stark contrast to Gran Canaria and Tenerife, and pretty much zero vegetation.
Despite the risks to adventuring sailors, the island has been the target of many greedy pirate raids, and in more recent history, has become a beach seeker’s haven. Due to its year-round warm climate, long white-sand perfect beaches (there are 152 separate beaches along its seaboard!!!) and azure blue waters, it has become known as “the island of eternal spring”.
Our first stop was the sleepy, lovely, quiet beach town of Morro Jable, which was my personal favourite discovery of this trip, and the cherry on top of my ice-cream sailing sundae.
I mean, just LOOK: perfect weather, perfect skies, perfect blues, perfect mood, vibe, pace, and don’t even get me started on the ice-cream.
ICE-CREAM & CHILL
Ok, I’ll start anyways. We spent most of our time here peacefully eating some of the best ice-cream in the history of sugar, drinking perfect fluffy lattés, watching the sun sparkling on the sea, and admiring sailboats from afar. Now that’s MY kind of sailing.
This town is the perfect place to enjoy a quiet, slow-motion vacation, surrounded by laid back Dutch, German and Danish couples, whose idea of a night out on the town is to bird watch, lick icecream and enjoy a relaxed meal, while sometimes falling asleep at their table.
Bewarned: older German gentlemen tourists apparently love to tan and swim in the nude here, and it’s not uncommon to see sunburned deutch balls basking in the sunshine all along your leisurely beach strolls.
Despite the testicle fiesta, in sharp contrast to the noise and party vibe of Gran Canaria, this tranquil paradise surrounded by sublime beaches and delicious treats was just what we needed to unwind from sailboating.
HUNGRY ON MARS: COFETE
Remember how I mentioned that Gran Canaria was a bit bipolar? Fuertaventura inherited the same genes.
Just on the other side of the tip of the island (about one-hour a windy, winding bus-ride through deserted rocky landscapes), we found a place that was so different from our little sweet tranquil slice of Morro Jable heaven that it might as well be another planet: Cofete. Or, as I like to refer to it, MARS.
Our bus driver dropped us off with specific instructions for pickup later that day – if we missed the last bus, we would be sleeping on the beach. And maybe get eaten by hungry dogs, since there is nothing (literally no-thing) on, in or near Cofete Mars.
After we said goodbye to our driver we tried not to think about rationing our only food for the day (two tangerines), we started exploring the barren planet we had landed on.
We spent the day walking up and down its empty, windy shores and dipped our toes in water too dangerous to swim in. We amused ourselves by throwing our tangerines in the waves, watching the current inhale them, and hoping that they would come back to us by lunchtime.
There was something magestic, and at the same time unnerving in having this big, wild natural expanse to ourselves. Once again, the lack of any semblance of civilization made me realize how interdependent we all are, how reliant on, and spoiled by the ease and boundaries of our comfortable 21st century urban living.
Just as it had while while sailing in the big blue ocean, my mind began to wonder and wander. I found myself asking some existential questions here too: if our bus-driver didn’t return, how would we survive in this place with no people, food or coffeeshops? What would we eat, now that our oranges had been sacrificed to the sea? Is seawater drinkable?
And suddenly, a new sense of respect and gratitude for people more brave than I, hit me like a pair of sunburned deutch balls on the beach.
Hats off to all the seafaring explorers who sailed into the unknown, fueled by curiosity and a sense of inquisitive adventure. Respect for all the people who learned to adapt to changing landscapes, unforgiving nature, and to not only survive, but thrive in these environments.
It’s THEIR grit and courage that paved the way to our current comfortable times we live in – the ones that allow us to dabble in tentative quasi-adventures and expand our comfort zones, (but not too much past the point of unbearable).
Unlike them, WE have the option to make the return trip on large, reassuring ferries, and to leave the long-term, scary sailing to true sailors like Thibeault.
I never did pull out my yoga mat or practiced at sunrise on the mast or hull, and apparently I didn’t even learn the correct sailboat terminology. I did, however, learn a valuable lesson: it’s ok to admit that you’re not as adventurous as you would like to think you are.
It’s ok to try something new and not have it go (at all) as you envisioned it. It’s ok to venture out of your comfort zone on a sailboat and negotiate your way back on a ferry.
As long as you try new things, you will grow. And along the way, you may be highly uncomfortable, un-showered, nauseous and terrified, but you will learn more about yourself than you ever would watching sailboat videos on Youtube. Or at least, I did.
And for me, it turns out sailing the open seas is not my cup of comfort-zone tea, but sailing along the coastlines is a good compromise.
To see how this travel adventure inspired my designs, here are the links: