El Hierro (ESP) – Mindelo (CPV)

“Hold on, hold on…. Now!” Upon Ivar’s command Floris removes the last line to the pontoon. Ivar puts the engine in reverse and quickly manoeuvres Luci out of our berth before the next wind gust descends from the steep hills and pushes our boat sideways. He steers out of El Hierro’s marina of Puerto de la Estaca while Floris clears the lines and fenders from deck. This time, they don’t go to their usual spot on the stern, but below deck. We won’t need them for a while and it’s safer.

The departure from El Hierro feels different from any of our previous departures. For one, because we are leaving Europe. But perhaps also because we have read disturbing stories about Cape Verde, our next destination, such as people swimming to anchored boats to steel dinghies or worse, to attack the owners and rob everything of value. On the other hand, these incidents took place on islands that we don’t plan to visit. And there are also many stories of sailors who really enjoyed their stay on the islands. “When a robbery takes place on Dam Square, would you avoid going to Amsterdam altogether?” Ivar asks rhetorically. We will take extra care, but won’t skip this group of islands off the coast of West Africa. Located on route to South America, they have been an ideal stopover for ships for centuries.

Taken by the Trade Winds
A few miles south of El Hierro, the gusty wind caused by the island’s high mountains transforms into a constant north-easterly trade wind. We try to sail goose-winged, two jibs on beams to each side. As long as we sail with the wind, this works just fine. The 700 nm crossing to Cape Verde will be our longest leg so far. There will be no stopovers in-between, only the immeasurably deep Atlantic Ocean. The eternally blowing North Easterly trade winds will make it virtually impossible to go back, in case we would want or need to do that.

Herbie, our wind vane autopilot, loves the 20-knot trade winds. In a way it feels good that he broke down just before Tenerife, so we could order spare parts and fix it before we started our longer Atlantic crossings. Where would we be without him? He steers on wind power only, and doesn’t need any electricity. Going with the wind, our wind generator doesn’t get a lot of traction, so we have to rely on our solar panels for energy. Yet on some days it’s quite cloudy, so we soon ration our electricity use.

Sailing downwind isn’t as comfy as it may sound. Absent a force that pushes Luci to one side, large waves cause Luci to roll constantly from side to side. We stow away loose items to reduce each source of irritating noise. We the crew also need to adjust. It takes around a day for us to get used to Luci’s movements and have enough energy for reading and writing.

We’re all alone for almost a week. Only a pod of dolphins, flying fish, and a stranded pigeon provide some company. The trip is going so fast that on day five we have to roll away our genua to slow down. We want to arrive in daylight at our first African anchorage, so we’ll be able to see where it’s safe to anchor.

Sandy Sal
Around sunrise on day six, Floris is waking up to find Ivar searching the cabinet where we keep the courtesy flags. “Can we use the Portuguese one?” Ivar asks. “Eh, no. Cape Verde used to be Portuguese but became an independent African country in 1974,” Floris replies. “Their flag is blue, with white and red stripes and yellow stars. It should also be in there.” With the correct courtesy flag and the light of a new day, we’re ready to approach Sal. At first sight, it looks like an extension of the Sahara desert: flat, sandy and dry. When we enter the anchorage at Palmeira, the strong, dusty winds abate somewhat. We anchor behind the last of many boats and are happy that the anchor holds immediately.

During breakfast Floris points at a nearby boat. “It flies Dutch colours and the name is Pegasus. Is that…?” Ivar get the book The Green Miles from the book shelf to looks at pictures of the boat. “Yes, it must be the same boat!” We met the previous owners and authors of the book some years ago. They sailed around the world to raise awareness for ocean conservancy. When we paddle our way over, Pegasus’ new owners Caroline and Fred confirm our findings and welcome us on board. They have been here for some weeks and happily explain how to deal with immigration officials, where to get a local sim card and cash.

A few hours later tour the town of Palmeira on foot. Its coloured houses make for a friendly and laid-back atmosphere. Small shops and a few bars and restaurants line cobble-stone streets. The town is small and quiet, with the most activity centred around the port, where fishermen sell their day’s catch to women with large tubs. We visit the police and immigration official, who sends Floris to the library to make copies of the form we had to fill in. After we pay a 5-euro fee, we get our visas and are free to cruise the islands.

The next morning we paddle to the shore again and ask one of the kids to watch the kayak in our absence. As we head for the main road to catch a minivan, we pass various ladies who are sitting on the pavement selling fruit and vegetables from a simple cart. Just as we start to wonder where the bus stop is, a minivan finds us. For the equivalent of €1.50 we can ride all the way to Santa Maria, the tourist town at the other side of the island. There are no timetables; the minivans leave when all twelve seats are filled. It stops wherever you like along the route, and the driver is paid in cash at the destination. Easy and effective. Or as they like to say here: No stress!

Saving Sea Turtles on Sal
While Sal owes its name to the production of sea salt, today it’s predominantly a tourist destination. Its sandy beaches, warm and sunny climate, constant winds and natural reefs attracts sunbathers, surfers and divers. Many hotels and resorts have been built in the last few decades to cater for all the visitors. They have taken over beaches where sea turtles lay their eggs.

“We try to save sea turtles from the many threats they face,” Albert Taxonera explains. He is co-director of Project Biodiversity, an NGO focused on ecosystem restoration and the reason we visit this island. “Sea turtles play an important role in the marine ecosystem, but their numbers are declining rapidly.”

“The main threats are light pollution on beaches, plastic pollution and poaching.” We understand that digesting plastic and poaching are obvious threats, but light pollution on beaches? Communications manager Shannon Sutherland adds: “Sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand. They hatch at night, and the baby turtles instinctively head for the light. Normally that is the horizon where the sea is. Except when there are lights in the dunes, then they get lost and never reach the sea.” And what do you guys do about this, we wonder?

Albert continues: “During the sea turtle nesting season, we patrol the beaches and move endangered nests to one of our hatcheries. When the eggs hatch there, we bring the baby turtles to the sea. We also patrol against poaching, which is illegal. If necessary, we notify the police.” Shannon adds “We organize clean-ups and have several outreach programmes with schools, tour operators and resorts.” We are quite impressed by all this and are eager to learn more. “Unfortunately you guys are too early for the hatching season, but we’re happy to show you one of our hatcheries.” It’s like Albert can read our minds.

It doesn’t take long before we arrive at one of the hatcheries. We can’t believe our eyes: sunbathing tourists are surrounding an area fenced-off for the sea turtles nests. Absurd as it might look, we quickly realize that without Project Biodiversity this way of co-existence would not be possible. “We have space for 900 nests here, with an average egg count of 80. So we save around 70,000 baby sea turtles in this hatchery alone,” Albert continues. “And we have three hatcheries in total.” Such tangible results to help restore the marine ecosystem calls for a separate solutions item. See our video and read in more detail about the threats and solutions here.

Artificial reefs
A few days later we’re back in Santa Maria to witness and join an underwater clean-up. “We mostly organize beach clean-ups, but every now and then we also involve the diving community,” Shannon explains. “A lot of the plastic pollution sinks to the sea bottom and forms a direct threat to the sea turtles and other marine life.” We count some 20 divers, who collect a truckload of waste over the next hours. A beach restaurant supports the clean up by sponsoring an Italian lunch for the divers, which we are invited to join.

During lunch, we meet Nuno Marques da Silva. As Sal’s most experienced diving instructor, Nuno vividly remembers how rich and overwhelmingly productive the marine ecosystem was only 30 years ago. “Mainly due to overfishing, construction, pollution and pressure on natural reefs by diving tourists, marine life is now a fraction of what is used to be.” When Nuno takes us on a dive to an artificial pier and beach development project, it becomes clear what he means. Due to the changed currents, sand deposits have overtaken a natural reef. “This place used to be full of life, now it’s covered in sand.” he explains.

Nuno started to create artificial reefs by sinking ships, after removing all toxic materials from them. “In order to measure the results of the artificial reefs on marine life, I founded an NGO named Rebuilding Nature and started a cooperation with the University of Lisbon. The results were astounding: within a few weeks after sinking the ships, weeds and corals started to take over the wreck. All kinds of fish started to appear, attracted by the shelter the wrecks provide. They were followed by predatory fish, which feed on the others. A whole new ecosystem emerged. And with our research, we were able to show that it concerned additional marine life instead of a movement from a nearby spot.” Astounded by the results, we agree that Nuno’s initiative merits more details in a separate solutions item (see here).

Party in Palmeira
Back in Palmeira, Fred and Caroline convince us that the Sunday night barbeque and party is a local weekly highlight. The entire town parties and eats on the street and of course we don’t want to miss that. Our new friends from Project Biodiversity also join us. The “no stress” atmosphere, the good food, the music and the many dancing people make for a last night on Sal to remember.

When we return to our kayak late at night, no one is looking after it. The kids are probably asleep, but it’s nevertheless waiting for us. Our security concerns proved unnecessary; we only encountered friendly people during our stay on Sal. The next morning we say goodbye to Fred and Caroline and head out to sea again.

Palmeira street bbq
Palmeira street bbq

Anchoring in Mindelo
After an overnight sailing trip we reach Mindelo, the capital of the island of São Vicente. While we pass unlit shipwrecks, we’re glad to make the approach to this harbour at daylight. Our anchor drops next to some other sail yachts on a sandy bottom with good holding. That’s a good thing, as the winds are strong and gusty. Combined with lots of sun we produce more electricity than we can use ourselves. We make some extra fresh water to share with our neighbours Dan and Mel. From this friendly British / French couple we learn that the nearby marina is quite expensive, but good for dinghy landing. After a tough upwind kayak trip, we reach the designated dinghy pontoon in the marina. In town, we arrange the necessary formalities with the port police and discover the colourful town with many street markets. When we paddle back to Luci, our bagpacks are fully stocked up with bananas, papaya, mango and –since we didn’t catch any ourselves – fresh fish.

Recycling at Casa Tambor
The next day we meet Fleur and Ocke Molenaar. Together with three other Dutch families, they feature in the popular reality television show titled “Helemaal het Einde”. Together with the Beerens family they founded Casa Tambor. They built this resort outside Mindelo with locally available, recycled materials. We’re keen to learn more and it turns out that they are equally interested in our story.

When they visit us on board, the camera crew follows. We are filmed while we exchange ideas to make their resort even more sustainable. And when visit their resort to document their use of recycled building materials, the tv crew films us filming Fleur and Ocke. They show us the sea containers, pallets and former oil drums that they transformed into beautiful and functional homes, fences and furniture. We then help them put tiles made from plastic bottles on a wall. Fleur explains that the tiles are from the neighbouring island and that she and Ocke are new factory’s first customers. “I think we just found a new place to visit,” Floris winks to Ivar.

Plastic Tile Hike
Just like Sal, São Vicente also has a dry climate. Rain is scarce and fresh water is primarily produced by desalination plants. The neighbouring island of Santo Antão is different. Here, the mountains are high enough to “milk” moisture out of the clouds. This results in a natural fresh water supply that sustains lush forests, beautiful plants and fertile valleys for agriculture. We decide to make a daytrip to see the island and visit the recycled plastic tile factory. Since there seems to be no suitable harbour or anchorage for our boat on Santo Antão, we decide to take the ferry.

“It’s the former Oost-Vlieland that used to cross the Dutch Waddenzee!” Ivar exclaims when we board the ferry. The old name is still visible. It has found a second life here and it’s in reasonably good shape. An hour later we arrive at Santo Antão’s ferry port and jump on a minivan that brings us to the top of a mountain range. Our hike from there is truly spectacular. We’re all alone on the ancient hiking trails that cross steep mountains and provide spectacular views. After a few hours the trail descend sharply; we’re approaching a valley. Our muscles and knees are clearly no longer used to this type of outdoor challenges. They are getting painful. After more than five hours of hiking, and via a stunningly beautiful valley with lots of mango and banana trees, we finally reach Azulejos MT, the plastic tile factory. On the phone we speak to Dutch / Cape Verdian founder Maria Teresa Segredo, who explains the purpose. “I wanted to do something about the plastic pollution on the islands and in the sea, and thought of a product that can be made from plastic waste. PET plastic bottles are raw material for tiles, which we can make in different colours.” During a tour of the small factory we see the various production stages and learn that more than 10 plastic bottles are needed for the production of one tile. The factory is newly opened and recently made its first delivery: to Casa Tambor. We sincerely hope this product will be a success and help make Cape Verde cleaner. See our “sustainable solution” article and video about building with local and recycled articles here.

Goodbye Africa
The winds look fair, so we make preparations to move on. We check out at the port police and immigration on a Friday, just before they close for the weekend. A culinary evening at Casa Tambor serves as our farewell party from our newly found Dutch friends. The next morning we finish our preparations. We fill up on fuel at the marina and stock our galley with fresh fruit and vegetables.

When we pull up the anchor and set course towards Brazil, we start our longest trip by a large measure. More than 1,500 nautical miles of Atlantic Ocean separates us from our planned destination: the island of Fernando de Noronha. When we see the Cape Verdian islands disappear in the distance, we think about its sustainable initiatives and friendly people. Nowhere did we feel unsafe, and we witnessed no incidents. A truly positive taste of Africa.


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