It is rare that this writer gets to farewell a national maritime icon, but it happened yesterday in the waters off Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, in Spain’s Canary Islands, 200 km off the shores of Africa.
With trumpets blaring, water cannons shooting columns of spray from tug boats and a cavalcade of lesser craft including yachts, sailing dinghies and kayaks, the Spanish Navy’s sail training ship, the Juan Sebastián Elcano, left town en route to Puerto Rico.
The four masted brigantine had been making a good will visit to Las Palmas to coincide with a maritime fair and exhibition organized by the city council. Hordes of Canarian school children and curious residents had been given the chance to pay a visit to the ship as it docked alongside the navy wharf in Las Palmas.
Juan Sebastian Elcano, “entre castillos”. Ferrol by Pablo Avanzini
The ship, built in 1926, and no stranger to the Atlantic, is now on passage once again across to the Caribbean. It will be joining sister tall ships from South American nations on a cruise from Puerto Rico to Colón in Panama to celebrate the original voyage of Juan Ponce de León, who made the same trip back in 1513.
The Juan Sebastián Elcano, captained by Alfonso Gómez Fernández de Córdoba, has a complement of 45 officers and 140 crew. It will be 100 days away from Spanish waters, visiting Miami and Rhode Island in the United States before returning to Europe via the Dutch city of Den Helder.
The ship is named after the first captain of any ship to complete a circumnavigation of the globe, retuning with the remnants of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition in 1522. Elcano has remained in relative obscurity outside his native Spain ever since his voyage, but an account of his exploits and that of the original Magellan voyage makes astounding reading.
Magellan lived at a time when Europe had already mapped out a route to the East Indies, but the route was largely controlled by Spain’s maritime rival, Portugal. Magellan was convinced that a route to the East Indies was possible via the Americas, at that time only just being colonised, thus allowing Spain to access the spice island treasure house without hindrance from Portugal.
Elcano was one of 242 men and five ships which left Spain in 1519 to endeavour to reach the Moluccas via South America. The voyage was understandably difficult and was dogged by storms, mutiny, hunger and disease. Elcano himself was part of the first mutiny in Patagonia, but was later pardoned. Magellan thought that the Moluccas would be found soon after penetrating the Magellan Strait at the bottom end of South America. It wasn’t until many months later, however, that the four remaining ships arrived in Guam, then the Philippines.
Elcano eventually came to lead the last remaining ship in the expedition, the Nao Victoria, after Magellan and other officers were killed during fighting amongst tribes in the Philippines. Elcano eventually arrived back after completing the first circumnavigation of the globe by any means – no mean feat.
He later died of starvation in another ill fated venture organised by Spanish King Carlos 1 to capture the East Indies for Spain as he and many other fellow sailors crossed the Pacific Ocean.
March 11, 2013 | Alison Williams
The annual transatlantic rally is set to get underway in less than two weeks from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. It is now the most popular method of crossing the Atlantic.
It is the largest trans ocean sailing event to take place globally. Every year the (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) ARC unites more than 200 yachts from across the world. The first destination is Rodney Bay in the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, a stunning location in the Lesser Antilles. The date set to depart Las Palmas coincides with the end of the northern hemisphere hurricane season when the 2700 nautical mile passage, even though tough, can depend on the uninterrupted reliability of the NE trade winds. The route takes between 14 and 21 days, depending on the size and speed of the yacht, which is often determined by the number of crew on board to keep the boat sailing at a constant speed night and day.
Atlantic Rally for Cruisers by Pablo Avanzini
This years rally is made up of more than 1300 participants and over 40 are children under the age of 16 years. It is not just the domain of the rich and famous or diehard yachties but it invites those that are adventurous and want to give the Atlantic a go.
It does not mean racing to Las Palmas for the starting gun on the 25th November but it is a friendly race for cruising yachts, which makes the Atlantic crossing far safer and much more enjoyable. The ARC has that special mix which successfully unites racers with cruisers, older people with the young, and provides a wide spectrum of entertainment for everyone. The ARC is favourably supported by the Tourist Authority of Gran Canaria and the Saint Lucia Board of Tourism along with involvement from the local yachting fraternity.
The participating yachts don’t just take off into the deep blue ocean but are inspected to make sure they are equipped with a range of safety equipment which includes a life raft, a VHF radio and a Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon (EPIRB). Many of the participants carry satellite phones to make daily contact with family and friends throughout the voyage.
Constant radio communication between the organisers and the yachts contribute to the overall safety of the participants. The great ranges of ages and offshore yachting experience means knowledge can be spread around the fleet and in the event of a breakdown or equipment failure, there is always someone at hand to offer advice and give support. With well over 200 yachts departing Las Palmas at the same time help will never be that far away.
Up to today, November 12, 130 yachts of the 200+ fleet have already tied their mooring lines up in Las Palmas marina. This gives them plenty of time to get to know who they will be sharing the vast Atlantic with.
November 13, 2012 | Alison Williams
The fact that the Slovenian crew members on the yacht “Ciao” could be rescued when their vessel hit a submerged object in the middle of the night in the middle of the Southern Indian Ocean was due to the combination of the tracking device which they carried on board as part of their equipment loaned to them by the organization which they belonged to as well as their High Frequency Radio.
The yacht was part of the regular round the yacht rally called the World ARC. The rally always has a few dramas and a sinking or two, but rarely do yacht crew members end up missing or die as a result of their mishaps because there is always somebody keeping a check of their whereabouts and ready to send out assistance if required.
ARC departure from Las Palmas, Canary Islands. November 2005
The safety measures come at a considerable cost. The World ARC yachts are few in number and are a minority of the two hundred odd participants who start out every November from the Canary Islands to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean. This year’s ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) sees the yachts leaving Las Palmas on Spain’s Gran Canaria on 25th November. All the yachts pay a considerable amount of money for the security of having an Iridium tracking device on board and regular communication with the rally control group by the compulsory HF radio they have to own. The crossing to the Caribbean only takes between 15 to 30 days, depending on the vagaries of the weather and the design and size of the yacht, but most participants think that the sum is worth paying.
The small number of yachts that carry on from St Lucia in the Windward islands to complete the full World ARC Rally are similarly happy to pay the extra payment for the rally support network.
The rally that Ciao was part of was the first in the series to pass South of South Africa directly into the Atlantic from the Indian Ocean. All previous rallies have been organised to take the easier route up via Sri Lanka and the Red Sea into the Mediterranean. The route was altered due to security concerns over piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Yemen and Somali coasts.
The change in route means that all yachts taking part in the rally have to undergo much longer ocean passages from Indonesia to Cocos Keeling, Mauritius and then South Africa.
Long ocean passages mean that there is always a chance for a “bump in the night” as yacht “Ciao” discovered.
In the case of “Ciao”, it struck an unknown object at around midnight about 40 nautical miles away from safe anchorage at the Australian Indian Ocean island dependency of Cocos Keeling. The yacht’s rudder was damaged in the collision and this led to significant amounts of sea water leaking aboard.
The yacht was luckily close to at least two other yachts also in the same rally and bound for Cocos Keeling. When the yacht finally started to sink the two crew members were able to clamber aboard one of these yachts and were taken to safe harbour. The Australian authorities, who are responsible for the ocean waters in the vicinity, were kept fully informed of what was happening by the rally control team as the yacht’s tracking device pinpointed their position and the SSB radio could be used to keep other yachts informed of what was happening.
October 4, 2012 | Alison Williams
The traditional Atlantic sailing rally (the ARC) from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands to Rodney Bay on the Caribbean Island of St Lucia, some 2800 nautical miles, has experienced near perfect sailing conditions as the first yachts arrive in Rodney Bay. Last year was dogged with unfavourable and light winds but this year the classic north east trades pushed the yachts in record times towards the finish line. December 2nd saw the arrival of the first yacht in the racing division. The twelve metre “Vaquita” ploughed its way across the Atlantic arriving in less than twelve days. The owner had engaged an experienced mixed gender crew to make the passage and it was completed five days earlier than in 2010.
ARC departure from Las Palmas, Canary Islands. November 2005
The crew reported that Vaquita attained speeds of 23 knots at times as she surfed down the backs of waves and she regularly marched along at speeds between 18 and 20 knots. The crew admitted that the fast speeds made living conditions down below somewhat uncomfortable as the sound of the water rushing by was at times phenomenal.
The ARC rally is not just the domain for racers and winners but the cruising division also includes at least twenty or more children under the age of sixteen who are not skippering, crewing or sailing solo but are part of family groups that make this transatlantic voyage every year, many of whom go on to complete a circumnavigation.
This years rally has attracted twenty one children from nine different nationalities. The ARC rally committee did not leave these children at limbo while in Las Palmas, but organized outings and social activities so that they could get to know each other. It seems they were all pretty smart at communicating with each other despite the language barriers.
The oldest sailor in the rally is 78 years old and is the owner of the Peruvian registered yacht “Nandina”. He is not only the oldest sailor but it is the first time there has been an entry from Peru. The 78 year old was so keen on taking part in the rally that he had Nandina shipped over the Atlantic especially for the event.
Meanwhile as at the time of writing this article the ARC rally events in St Lucia officially get under way commencing with a welcome beach cocktail party. Yachts are still arriving one by one into St. Lucia, even though the wind has died in the Caribbean for a while. Forty five yachts have officially crossed the finish line, with a further eight more expected to arrive today, and twenty one more have radioed to say they will arrive tomorrow. This is quite a contrast to last year’s ARC rally which was one of the slowest on record and only two boats made landfall in St. Lucia within sixteen days. The first was the motor yacht “Wind Horse”, which simply motored across the Atlantic in just over ten days. “Berenice”, a large Swan design, was the only sailing yacht last year to complete the passage in less than sixteen days.
December 8, 2011 | Alison Williams
It’s early days yet to cross the Atlantic as the hurricane season is in full swing in the Caribbean but yachts of all shapes and sizes are making the slow windward plod from their wintering spots in the Mediterranean over to Gibraltar to stock up, do any repairs and upgrade any equipment before commencing the first stage south westwards across to the Canary Islands, a distance offshore from the African coast some 800 miles. According to weather experts the best time to make this passage is in September and then there is the wait in the Canaries until November when the hurricane season in the Caribbean has blown itself out.
En route to the Canaries, some will make diversions to Madeira or ports on the Moroccan coast that breaks up the passage and gives them a chance to assess their equipment. Others will make the direct passage and spend time enjoying the marinas and anchorages that can be found amongst the collection of volcanic islands.
Once underway from Las Palmas on the island of Gran Canaria, a popular departure point, again some yachts will make a beeline for the Leeward Island group in the Caribbean with the expectation of picking up the reliable, favourable north east trade winds which will ensure a fast passage is accomplished. The island of St Lucia is 2700 nautical miles in a straight line and it can from 14 to 30 days to reach. There are ways of breaking up the long slog by going closer to the African coast and making a scheduled stopover at the Cape Verde Islands, where sailors are welcomed with open arms to this little visited archipelago.
ARC departure from Las Palmas, Canary Islands. November 2005
Many yachts that are not in an organized rally like the ARC make this diversion with the aim of arriving in the Caribbean a bit later so as to avoid frequent wind and rain squalls that are more in evidence in the early part of December. Of course, they get to visit a new island group as well. There are other options for the cruisers that do not intend to rush across the Atlantic and that is a visit to the Gambia and Senegal, which would open up a new culture for many but the sail westwards still means time is pressing as the season for safe sailing in the Caribbean is dominated by the long hurricane season which can start as early as April.
These days with the increasing number of yachts making the Atlantic passage many choose to join the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC).
Over 200 yachts from all over the globe will participate in this annual transatlantic rally, organised by the World Cruising Club. It departs at the normal spot on Gran Canaria in late November. It is designed to be a friendly race for cruising yachts and allows the Atlantic crossing to be both safer and more fun. In fact the ARC is the now a common way for cruising yachts to cross the Atlantic. The fastest mega yachts may only take about two weeks and the slower smaller yachts upwards of three weeks. One of the most useful points about joining an organised rally is that the organisers insist that all entrants are fully prepared, by offering workshops on safety and communications for those participants who have little or no offshore experience.
Throughout the rally there is a daily radio net scheduled so that yachts can keep in contact with the rally base and it ensures the safety of all participants. All boats’ positions are monitored by rally organisers using transponders attached to the masts. It’s not all serious stuff though as a series of entertainment events are organised at both ends of the rally as well.
August 2, 2011 | Alison Williams
Despite the current recession, the rally numbers for 2011 have some time ago reached their full quota of 200. The largest are the British flagged “Challenger Two” and “Challenger Three” that classify themselves as tall ships at 21.63 metres and are sponsored by Tall Ships Adventures. The smallest at 9.6 metres is the Norwegian flagged “Tur-bo.”
Tall ships of centuries past would without doubt have gladly taken on the array of labour saving electronics available to yachts and ships today. The shoreline observer of yachts seen sailing along the horizon might think that the skippers are oblivious to the electronic age and they are living a simple life on the ocean. This is a total misconception. Skippers and crews under sail or motor select what they want for their yachts and boats and there are very few today who do not take advantage of simple to operate onboard electronics.
Moreover, these marine electronics have been the saviour of the yachting fraternity as they help to eliminate human error. The depth sounder, for example, in olden days was simply a piece of twine twirled around a stick so that it could run out easily and then it was fastened to a small piece of lead heavy enough to defy a current. A piece of tar would have been stuck at the tip of the lead to identify the contents of the sea floor so that it could be assessed for holding quality before dropping anchor.
Additionally, a man would be aloft peering at the horizon for discoloured water that might mean a sandbank or reef was coming all too close. Today, small and large pleasure craft are fitted with electronic depth sounders and forward looking sonars. The former can detect contours on the seabed as well as depths; the latter can search for the underwater rock, sandbank or reef in advance. Such instruments would no doubt in time gone by have saved many a ship from severe groundings or becoming complete wrecks.
ARC departure from Las Palmas, Canary Islands. November 2005
However, there is a downside to the use of electronics. If the instrument was to breakdown a very bewildered sailor will be wracking his brain as to what to do. Turning to the lead line will be his or her only choice or maybe install two electronic depth sounders, one in reserve. The batteries used to store the electricity to power onboard instruments have to be well maintained to ensure a constant flow of electricity can get to the units.
The greatest boon to navigation was the release of GPS units onto the market back in the early 1990’s. Their introduction was serious business for the mushrooming yachting fraternity. No need to take bearings of difficult to identify landmarks, no need to spread the chart out on a large table to plot a progressive course. No need, on those long ocean passages, to get out the sextant at noon, take a sight from the sun, do some arithmetic and come out with an approximate position. This can all be done in a small hand sized electronic instrument that with a number of useful features installed, which with a chart loaded onto the memory, can tell the exact position of the boat, what speed it is going and what course it is following. The consequences of wholesale failure defeat the imagination. To allay one’s fears at least two battery operated handheld ones are normally kept in reserve.
To add to the comfort of living on a ship big or small is the autopilot. No ship’s captain would be without one. The course is set using the GPS, the co-ordinates of the destination or waypoint are inputed into the autopilot and the helmsperson just sits down and only gets up when a bleep is heard indicating the ship is off course. The alarms of other instruments might occasionally ring in the ears as well. The echo sounder rings shrilly, when the water gets too shallow, the radar and the A.I.S when a ship or object gets too close and the telephone, when a relative is trying to communicate.
These instruments are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to electronic clutter. The large chart table has been superceded by rows and rows of instrument panels – a chart plotter for one can come in a good TV size so it can be viewed from every corner of the saloon. The captain and his crew can watch the yacht slither and slide over the ocean waves in the comfort of a room almost as spacious as the living room in a house. The radar screen is busy clicking away as well showing up the image of rain clouds and ships as they close in on the boat. Even further from ocean reality is the satellite communications allowing onboard internet and telephone calls from the tops of ocean waves. Grandma will be cheerily chatting with her grand kids and saying “wish you were here.”
The items standard in an ordinary home, in an ordinary town in an ordinary country are appliances such as washing machines, microwaves and widescreen TV’s. They are all present in various shapes and forms on yachts as well. De salinators providing onboard showering and washing facilities are now common too. There are very few sailors left today who have not merged with the electronic age. In fact, the availability of these creature comforts has aided in bringing about a burgeoning yachting community. No longer is the toothbrush and a thimble of water passed on from captain to crew.
July 3, 2011 | Alison Williams