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Marine Products Direct 2023 - Calypso LEADERBOARD

Roving Rear Commodore Report cruising from Ireland to the Canaries

by Thierry Courvoisier 29 Mar 2023 10:54 UTC
The astronomical site on the summit of La Palma island © Thierry Courvoisier

From traditional Irish weather to astronomical sightseeing, Gaia explores the variety on offer along the Atlantic coastline before setting off into the ocean herself.

We arrived in Killybegs, on the north-west coast of Ireland, in early June 2022. Alex and Daria Blackwell (PO Mayo), advised us that we should arrive there rather than in Westport where, despite what the name implies, there is no harbour and no Customs. It was a pleasant return to civilisation after the wilderness of Iceland. With pretty houses bathed in sunshine and a gentle breeze - little did we know that it would be the fairest day of all the time we spent in Ireland. Soon after we had tidied up, the weather deteriorated. A Swiss couple with a boat on the same pontoon, who owned a house nearby, took us under their wings as local guides. Professor Brian McBreen, an old friend and colleague from Dublin, also visited. He and I had shared the adventure of developing a gamma-ray telescope, which was launched in 2002 and which still provides insightful data on some of the most energetic events in the Universe.

On 14 June, we left for an anchorage a few miles south, protected from the southwesterly. We dinghied ashore where we saw a large Catholic establishment that reminded us of the continuing importance of the church in Irish society. Onwards we continued, past Donegal Bay, a shore of high reputation for breathtaking views. The coast and offshore rocks were but shades of grey on the grey of the sky and that of the sea as we passed. Several windy anchorages later, we rounded Achill Head expecting a rough passage. Expectations that were generously met: 30kt wind, high and abrupt seas, richly contrasted by our arrival at Mayo Sailing Club where we were warmly met by the Blackwells.

An Irish Cruising Club (ICC) dinner kicked off a rally southwards along the coast. This was a brilliant opportunity to pick the brains of OCC honorary member Jarlath Cunnane - whom we had met years before in the Azores - and other OCC and ICC members. We joined the rally for several days, taking advantage of knowledge of anchorages we would not have visited on our own and also on the history of the region. For many of us from continental Europe, Ireland and the UK are deemed close; this impression is dispelled when confronted with the suffering inflicted over the centuries upon the Irish people by their powerful neighbour.

Pouring rain and 40kt winds in the Inishbofin anchorage was moderately pleasant but when the forecast announced worse later, we hurried round another peninsula to reach Rossaveal just in time. The harbour is well protected, and as the literature mentioned 'there is a pub 30 minutes away', the walk in full foul-weather gear felt like a good investment, however; upon arrival there, we discovered it did not serve food. We resorted to a taxi to a dubious Chinese restaurant in the next village. Rossaveal is just a few miles from the Aran Islands and was a highlight in terms of landscape and history. A tabular rock at the summit of a high cliff seems to have been an important ritual site. It is easy to imagine enemies being thrown off the cliff to satisfy gods and powerful people.

We left the rally there, extremely grateful for the warmth of company (not so much of the weather), information and drinks. Thanks to the local knowledge of another participant, we went through Blasket Sound on the way to Dingle. The literature wrote that the passage is possible in good conditions and visibility. All was fine until we approached the sound when a 25kt rain-filled gust removed all visibility.

Crossing from Ireland to Pornic, just south of the Loire estuary, we gradually shed layers of pullovers to arrive to 30ºC, some contrast! We took a few days to sail to La Rochelle, arriving just before 14 July. Here, Gaia was taken out of the water and serviced at the Amel wharf while we visited family in Switzerland.

Back on board in August, we crossed the Bay of Biscay in winds of force 5 to 7, grateful to be on a solid boat. The welcome in La Coruña by Antón Pellejero (POR La Coruña) was a pleasure. Thanks to his hospitality, we enjoyed the Real Club Náutico de La Coruña, a rather upper-class establishment where the recent history of Spain is readily felt. It was an opportunity for many discussions, not only on politics and history but also on science, life and religion: one of the rich encounters that sailing life enables.

The summer of 2022 was marked by a number of so-called 'interactions' by orcas with sailing boats. Many of these encounters result in destroyed rudder blades and boats requiring a tow. We had a student on board in the frame of the Science with Gaia project who took it upon herself to synthetise the scarce available knowledge on this new phenomenon ( We were lucky not to be a victim: luck seems to be the right word, as there is no way to know when and where a pod of orcas might take interest.

This notwithstanding, sailing down the Galician coast is a windy pleasure. Sailing south is fine, but those attempting to sail north past Finisterre have a harder time. The Rias in northern Spain are a delight of small villages and anchorages: some lonely, some lively. In the southern end, shortly before the border with Portugal, one finds the two cities of Vigo and Baiona, the realm of Alberto Lagos (POR Ria de Vigo) who took over recently from his father who had held the office for many years. Alberto visited us with his two children just before heading off on holiday, showing that the port officer function may well become a multi-generational affair.

The contrast between the lively Spanish cities and the rather austere northern Portuguese city of Póvoa de Varzim, a small fishing city, is striking. Grill facilities occupy a large proportion of cobbled sidewalks. Fish and seafood are grilled in the evening in a number of restaurants, generating thick smoke and pungent smells. Elderly women are clad in black, religious references are seen on many of the houses. But the fish is fine and can be washed down with excellent white wine.

The Portuguese coast is largely devoid of harbours or protected anchorages. It is an endless beach broken only a few times by a river estuary in which a port is found, many of which are not accessible in all conditions. Winds from the west generate a sea that renders entering the rivers complicated. Porto is no exception, but in good conditions entering the Douro River and spending some time in the Douro marina is a treat. The city is interesting, lively and hospitable and a visit to one of the port wineries on the south side of the river is an invitation to some excellent drinking.

Further south, Nazaré is known all over the world for its 'wave', one of the world's best spots for surfing. Fortunately, the area was quiet when we visited. Further south, Cascais is a friendly, if somewhat expensive, marina and a wonderful place from which to visit Lisbon, only a short train ride away. Belém is worth a detour to see the monument to Henry the Navigator and other captains who sailed down the African coast and the Americas. When we arrive in a foreign region, we do so with a proper weather forecast, a GPS, and precise charts aboard boats that sail to the wind and we enter coves with the engine. These ancient sailors probed their way in unknown territory on ships we, or at least I, would be quite incapable of handling.

Continuing south, a stop in Porto Santo is an excellent option. A wonderful island a short distance off Madeira, less known, but as friendly. Christopher Columbus was celebrated the evening of our arrival in a simple procession reenacting his wedding to a local princess.

Continuing south, a stop in Porto Santo is an excellent option. A wonderful island a short distance off Madeira, less known, but as friendly. Christopher Columbus was celebrated the evening of our arrival in a simple procession reenacting his wedding to a local princess.

The cruise continued to Las Palmas where we arrived at the end of September, and on to Tenerife, where we visited the telescopes on Mount Teide with colleagues from the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands. As always astronomical observatories are located in pristine altitude environments. The view was wonderful and we were shown jewels of technology designed to observe - and hopefully understand - some of the most fascinating celestial objects.

We left Gaia for a month in Tenerife to chair the Wright Colloquium in Geneva and the associated light show. This year it was dedicated to the understanding of the four elements of our planet: fire, air, earth and, the odd one, life ( It was also the time to launch Gaia: Science et Voile (Éditions Slatkine), a book that brings together the story of our navigations and knowledge related to what we see in terms of flora, fauna, weather, astronomy, genetics, population and more.

Back on board, more time cruising the Canary Islands was wonderful if windy, especially the channels between the islands where mild conditions can generate gale-force winds, making sailing in the archipelago less easy than one would think. We visited the Roque de los Muchachos telescopes on La Palma, one of the major sites of European astronomical observations. We stopped in Pasito Blanco on the south coast of Gran Canaria, where we enjoyed the warm welcome of Agustin Martin (PO Las Palmas). His terrace is a privileged spot for wonderful OCC impromptu events.

The final leg on this continent took us a further 900NM south, to Mindelo, providing hikes that take their toll on muscles and knees in sometime arid conditions and sometime lush vegetation. This is where these lines are written just before we set off across the pond to Brazil.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Ocean Cruising Club.

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