Tall ship sailing in the western Canaries

Instead of lying on a beach, why not take a sail training course?


Thank goodness for mobile phones. Message out: Just landed at Tenerife. Will be at the harbour shortly. Answer: Running late, still at sea; will pick you up about 19.45.

So that’s great, no rush to get our bag, jump into taxi – only about 15 minutes up the coast – and then sit on the harbour wall in the dusk, sipping from our travelling provisions and waiting for first the sound, and then the sight, of the rib dinghy as it noses ashore to pick us up.

For adventure at the start of a holiday at sea, you can’t beat leaving the harbour lights behind and putting out in a small boat in darkness to creep under the side of a high-masted wooden ship, anchored in the mouth of the bay.

The welcome aboard was as warm and jolly as any Roger could wish for, and below was the cheerful main cabin, with delicious dinner smells coming from the galley.

We had left cold, wet Ireland in January to fly to the Canaries and spend six nights on the Bessie Ellen as paying crew on what is one of the confraternity of sail training ships. This designation covers a multitude, from large and very serious training vessels, to small, classic boats taking only a few aboard for each journey.

The Bessie Ellen is a 119ft two-masted Lugger, 1904-built, operating now as a hands-on holiday sailing ship, wintering in the Canaries and summering in Scotland – with various mixed voyages in between.

Our time aboard would take us to some of the quieter western Canaries; lots of sailing, good company, a little work, and dolphin and whale watching all part of the package.

Our days also included blue skies, temperatures of 21 degrees plus by day, cool by night, lovely sailing breezes, delicious food – and a wonderful skipper and crew who looked after us kindly and professionally and shared the boat and its workings generously.

The owner/skipper, Nikki Alford, blithely handed the wheel of her beloved Bessie Ellen to all comers, saying: “Over to you, you sail her now”, as the would-be captain tentatively took over and looked up in awe at the great array of sails for which they now had responsibility.

Other temporary crew had pause for thought when Alford asked: “Can you arrange a team and raise the mainsail” – as they looked at the variety of different combinations of ropes that might entail, from the dozens on each side of the deck.

But there was room, too, for the slower-moving sailor, curled up with a book and one eye on all the activity – and occasional forays forth to haul on a line or help with the pleasantly splashy deck-scrubbing. The crew’s attitude was: “You’re on holiday. Do as much or little as you enjoy.”

The western Canaries are widely scattered and on day one we sailed more than 70 miles, about 10 hours, to Tazacorte harbour on La Palma island.

Tazacorte has a modern marina behind a high, sheltering sea-break, at the foot of a gorge climbing back up to the arable plateau. The plateau itself is much-farmed and dotted with villages, behind which rise the great mountains and volcano.

The volcano on La Palma is famous as one of the places (Oahu in Hawaii being another) where many countries keep observatories on the summit above the clouds.

We chose to stay there a second day and most of the crew hired cars, drove to the summit and walked the rim before dropping down to the capital, Santa Cruz, for a short exploration, returning to the boat for dinner.

Another alternative, and my choice, was to take a long walk up the gorge and on to the plateau and loop back through the villages. I ended up at a roadside bar on the edge of the high land, looking out over the ocean and harbour below.

Here, a delicious toasted sandwich, beer and coffee came to the astonishing sum of €3.80. Apparently, eating out on the islands is very reasonable, but we didn’t have much experience of that as Bessie Ellen fed us royally for every meal, with picnics for expeditions ashore. Apart from the bar bill on board, we spent very little.

On day three, in a fine sailing breeze, we headed for La Gomera. After three hours the wind dropped – thankfully the only time it disappeared entirely – and we motored on. To La Gomera took about eight hours.

We arrived at dusk to anchor under the cliff beside Valle Gran Re and swim before dinner in the velvety sea. All that week, we enjoyed the loveliest sea swimming I have ever experienced.

The following day there was again a choice, based on people’s interests – to go out to sea for the day and basically play with the ship, or to go ashore to take a taxi through the gorge and up the steep sided island to the top (where there is a National Park forest), and then walk down another gorge to the seaside village of Santiago, where we would be picked up in the evening by Bessie Ellen after her sea games.

I chose the walk ashore and it was spectacularly beautiful, winding down the steep valley, sometimes on a cliff-like slope, but always on a secure stone path. The paths are based on old mule tracks but the surface has been stabilised – though it is still demanding as it’s so steep and the many steps are very uneven. It took several days for my leg muscles to return to normal. The terracing, where it is still cultivated, was immaculately prepared for planting and only waiting for the next rain.

There was time for a welcome swim and a beer before Bessie Ellen rounded the breakwater and we were ferried aboard in a heavy swell. Along the coast we anchored for the night under the shelter of a cliff – and here we saw a Canarian phenomenon. There were caves in the cliffs and people living in them – young and old, children too – an alternative sabbatical or a long-term choice made possible by the wonderful, and not extreme, weather. They seemed to be mostly northern Europeans and many of them naturists.

Our last day aboard was another long passage of about eight hours back to Tenerife. The wind blew about Force 6 all day and, with all sails up, Bessie Ellen must have been a magnificent sight for the whales and dolphins as she flew exuberantly through the water. They were a lovely sight for us too, more dolphins than whales on this trip.

Our last meal on board was memorable for delicious food, great company and much laughter, with even a song or two.

This holiday was a real adventure and an exhilarating break from the northern winter. The western Canaries have the perfect climate and beautiful islands far from the crowds of mass tourism.

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