85. Gomera to Dakar

December 28, 2008
The ship rocks gently back and forth, back and forth, changing direction about every second-and-a-half.  The cabin is almost silent, with only an occasional gurgle of water past the hull.  These alone betray our slow speed.  At a greater speed the gurgle would be louder, more active and merry, and the roll would be greater.  On deck a mottled gray sky meets a slightly darker gray sea at the flat straight line of the horizon.  The surface of the sea is barely ruffled by the light breeze.  The ship lazes along under all sail to the royals.

We are now six days into a slow passage, having made good only about 450 miles in that time, and much of that was when we motored away from Gomera on the first day and in periods of seven hours yesterday and five today when we motored in the calm.  We still have about 500 miles to go, in what is turning into an interminable passage.  Word has it that last year Nadja made the passage from the Canaries to the Cape Verdes in something like three days–which seems a little exaggerated to me–in the Europa, a bark of similar size, and that Mike made the passage from the Canaries to Dakar in four days last year in the schooner Amistad, a smaller but faster ship.  Fifteen years ago I sailed from the Canaries to a point 150 miles west of the Cape Verdes in about a week in Don Stover’s little 34’ cutter Mouette, so all of the comparisons indicate that we are making an abnormally slow passage.  We are in the area that normally has the northeast trade winds, steady moderate winds with good weather, but we have yet to see them.  We have had light winds from the northwest, sometimes with calms, until today, when it has finally come in from the northeast, but very light with leaden skies.  Even the Christmas tree, which still sits forlornly and slightly disheveled in the middle of the hatch and is lighted at night, has changed its mood.  Instead of the cheerily twinkling of almost manically blinking lights, its lights now change color in a very slow and moody way, as if it were off its meds.

The Captain seems determined that this passage should be more like that of the old sailing ships.  Not only has he seemed reluctant to motor to make progress in the calms and covered the engine controls with canvass tied down, but he has also covered over the GPS screen, and shut off the chart plotter that displays an electronic chart with the position of our ship and any others in the area constantly updated in red.  Instead the mates have pulled out their sextants and are practicing their celestial navigation to hone their skills in preparation–apparently–for teaching a course in celestial navigation during the passage across the Atlantic.  We are also towing a taffrail log, a device with a long cord with a propeller-like spinner at the end that records on its dials from the number of revolutions the distance we have traveled.  Unfortunately, this log is inaccurate at low speeds, when friction often keeps it from spinning at all.  Today when he emerged to retrieve his lunch he saw that a slight breeze had come up and put the engine in neutral as he passed the controls and ordered sail to be set before he disappeared again. Of course I can only guess what might be in the mind of the Captain from his actions, and I see little of those.  After emerging from his liar for the Christmas festivities–which he generally observed from a distance–he has again retreated to his quarters and–as usual–is seen very little.

The calm weather was pleasant over Christmas, but I am growing more and more impatient to reach Dakar.  When I last talked to Barbara a winter storm was bearing down and she was in fear of losing power again and I want to know that she is all right, and how her time at a convention in Philadelphia and in New York went.  Beyond that, I miss her very much and I am growing increasingly impatient to reach Granada so I can go to Miami to see her, though that is two months away.  And after days of light winds–like everyone else aboard–I am getting a bit bored and restless.

December 29, 2008
The breeze has held through the last half of yesterday, last night, and so far today.  We have been sailing–I would guess–at around 4 knots, and making progress, which improves my mood.  The sky is still overcast, and I wonder what that may portend.

Yesterday was Sunday, which meant that we did no ship’s work and it was a fairly mellow and relaxing day, with people reading, working on personal projects, and playing music while not on watch.
Crew relaxing on the well deck.

December 31, 2008, 9 PM
We have had good sailing the past two days and at the moment are sliding along before a following wind at around 6 knots under hazy and cloudy skies with remarkably little seas.  We should be in Dakar tomorrow, or more likely, on the 2nd of January.  I am thinking of Barbara a lot, wondering how her convention in Philly went and about her upcoming New Years Eve in New York with Ben and Steve, wishing I could be there.

In the last few days we have seen dolphins, tuna, sea turtles, and the first flying fish of the voyage.  I must get some sleep so I can be up at midnight–in the middle of my usual sleep time–to see the New Year in.

January 1st, 2008
Last night we had our own impromptu New Years Eve party on board.  I was awakened around 11 PM to find that the party was starting.  Punch and cookies left over from Christmas were laid out with big bowls of popcorn and the 12 to 4 watch had made a very credible lighted ball of wire, wood, aluminum foil, shop lights and Christmas lights, to be lowered at midnight.  The women–as usual–outshone the
Erin and Deb all fancied up.          men in their finery, and for some reason at the start of the evening almost all of them were wearing wigs of outlandish fake hair.  I managed a fairly clean shirt and shorts, and most of the men didn’t do much better, though a few showed real style. Music                                          Nicki and Ryan.                    was playing–amplified through speakers from someone’s ipod–and everyone seemed in a festive mood.

At midnight, the ball was lit and lowered from the main yard, trailing its extension cords and accompanied by cheers.  Then there were handshakes and hugs all around as everyone wished everyone else a Happy New Year.  Champagne–or at least some sort of sparkling wine–was broken out, the music tempo increased, and there was dancing on the main hatch.

As usual, Gary was in the thick of the dancing.  Others chatted, drank, and smoked cigarettes or cigars.

I went to bed relatively early, at 1 AM since I knew that my wakeup call for watch would come at 3:30 AM, whether I had any sleep or not.  Even so, it took a while to get to sleep as the party continued, and after it was over when        Dancing on the hatch: Buddy, Nadja, Weronica, and Gary.
they came around to do a head count.

By 3:50AM I was on lookout, a usually easy task made more difficult by fighting sleep, a very dark night, thick haze, and an increasing amount of ship traffic as we approached Dakar.  I picked out ships sometimes by the glow of their lights in the haze and sometimes by seeing the lights directly.  I discovered one coming straight at us and went aft to report it, to find Weronica in the chart house calling them on the radio to ask them to give us a little more berth since we are under sail.  Fortunately, they did.

The middle of the watch was taken up by setting the t’gallants, mainsail, and spanker, and then I was on the helm steering for the last hour while the sun slowly came up and it got light around 7:30.

There is a palpable air of excitement on the ship as we approach Dakar.  As far as I know, no one has been here before, though a number of people have been in other black African countries, so no one knows exactly what to expect.  Right now the best guess is that we will arrive in the harbor at Dakar sometime in the mid to late afternoon.  Then we will see.

January 2, 2009
We arrived in Dakar late in the afternoon of January 1st and dropped anchor at 5:45.  From the water Dakar looks looks a large modern city.  At night we could hear the sound of drums and singing, and see fireworks.  I was on watch today, and will go ashore tomorrow.


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