Rob Macriner reports on a destination many Australians have heard of, but few get to visit.
The Canary islands are an impressive archipelago located just 60nm off the coast of North Africa. These seven islands offer exceptional sailing with breath-taking scenery and charming marinas, yet they are often overlooked as a bareboat destination.
Famous for their wind acceleration zones, the islands are legally part of Spain and are blessed with strong north-east trade winds which make them a marvelous playground for sailors. The islands also have long, warm summers, moderately warm winters, and are not prone to hurricanes, which makes them a pleasant year-round cruising ground .
The beaches, history, climate, great golf, cheap restaurants and very affordable accommodation make the Canarys a major tourist destination, with over 12 million visitors per year. Tenerife, Grand Canary and Lanzarote are the more popular tourist attractions, with La Gomera, La Palma and Fuerteventura enabling a unique, exclusive viewing for sailors.
The main islands are extraordinarily developed with countless restaurants, numerous trendy bars, dramatic scenery - and all at bargain prices compared to most European destinations. They also have good roads and highways with lots and lots of hotels and condo’s.
The distances between islands are further than most bareboat locations (45nm between Tenerife and Grand Canary), therefore a two week charter would be a better choice than just seven days. One week is certainly doable, but you’ll need to either minimise your sailing plan to a couple of islands, or be prepared to sail greater distances.
It is possible to sail from one island to the next during daylight, depending on the islands, but you’ll need an early start. Most have a number of superb marinas, if you chose to limit your sailing plan to one or two of the main islands, however you’ll have to check in advance with the marinas because space is often limited.
Regardless of the distance between islands, an equalizer that often balances that dynamic is the superb winds. If mother nature is on your side, you can often make up time to compensate for distance. We averaged 9.5 knots VMG on a broad reach from Grand Canary to Tenerife with a 25-30 knot steady breeze. It was a great sail and we made good time despite the distance.
Seas generally are not a problem, although it is possible to encounter a funky mixed-chop in a few areas where the winds run in contrast to the current.
Another enjoyable option is to sail at night. Unlike many bareboat destinations, depending on your experience the charter companies will allow night sailing.
Night sailing in this area is very good (in moderate winds) because of the lack of light pollution (away from the tourist resorts) and the very clear skies. The skies are legendary, and they were the major reason La Palma on Grand Canary was chosen for one of the most important observatories in the world. With a moderate breeze, night sailing will exhibit a spectacular view of the stars and be a rewarding Atlantic sailing experience.
On the whole the Canary’s are characterized as advanced sailing because of the strong gusting winds and defined acceleration zones. Though the strong wind accelerations zones are challenging, they are also very manageable because they are distinctly visible and easily spotted in the distance.
These zones are noticeably prominent with a unique white water appearance or “white horses” that let you know it’s time to reef.
Although daunting, there is no need to shy away from these conditions, but you do need to be vigilant. In preparation you merely need to anticipate the locations of the accelerated zones, keep a watchful eye out for white water in the distance and, most importantly, reef early. Following these basic rules allows the experience to be controlled and thrilling as opposed to chaotic and hazardous.
Alternatively, if you chose to avoid the strong winds you can also find a number of protected wind zones, mostly on the south side of the islands, that are reasonably calm. Or you can merely limit your distance on very windy days. Some simply head out for an exciting sail when the winds are high, then return back to the same marina when they’ve had enough of the challenging conditions.
Obviously not every day has strong winds, but if you are looking for wind, this is a good place to find it.
Lots of sun
The Canary’s climate is generally very good and is sub-tropical, having sunshine virtually every day of the year. The average temperature is 25°C and seldom varies more than 5° on either side.
These islands are located in the North African region of the Atlantic Ocean and are home to the Gulf Stream which makes the water crystal clear, with water temperatures ranging from 19° to 23°C.
The Canarys are very bold islands that vividly rise from the ocean floor to create a breathtaking backdrop to the blue Atlantic sea. They are further complemented by their spectacular eclectic marinas, and wonderful beaches.
Tenerife is the largest island and has the third tallest volcano in the world towering above the ocean. This volcano is called Teide Peak and is 3,718-metres (12,198ft) high, which is also the highest point in all of Spain, and the highest point above sea level of any islands in the entire Atlantic.
The islands are also very rich in marine life, which is another excellent reason for sailing these waters. The Canarys are home to numerous types of whales and dolphins and you will frequently see them playing off the bow of your yacht.
If there was a downside to chartering in these waters it would be the limited space in the marinas and the cooler nights in the winter months. Although the days were comfortable and warm, we found at night you often needed a sweater. We also found some marinas were full and would not accept visiting yachts in December, which is normally their shoulder season.
Furthermore, during the months of October and November most marinas are even more congested, with yachts staging here in preparation for their blue water Atlantic crossing . The Canary islands are a bi-yearly stopover for yachts from the Mediterranean on their transatlantic voyages. Between 1500 and 2000 yachts will use these islands as a staging area before they journey across to the Caribbean, specifically in the month of late October to mid November. This also occurs on their return to the Mediterranean in the spring.
This staging characteristic has been part of the Canary Islands personality since the time of Christopher Columbus, mostly because of the tradewinds and their geographic location. The Romans used to call these islands the Enchanted Islands, which was a well-suited name at that time. To some degree that characterization is true - you can still find islolated unspoiled beaches in some of the outer islands, but the main islands could now be called the Congested Islands since their supply of berths has not kept up with the demand.
However if you plan out your journey with this in mind, pick the right time to travel, check with the charter company in advance and use www.noonsite.com to source details and contact information on the marinas, you’ll have no problem.
Anchorages are limited on Tenerife, La Gomera and Grand Canary, but the outer islands are rich with private beaches and good anchorages. Marina prices are reasonable, well developed, have numerous restaurants, good markets for provisioning and most are located in charismatic Spanish towns. Our 50ft sloop cost us 30 euro per night on average, including water and electricity.
Spain is making a conscious attempt to improve the number of marinas and berths, but as of December 2011 they were still limited for space.
On the upside, some of these marinas are spectacular. I’ve bareboated for 27 years in most of the major charter locations worldwide, and Puerto Mogan on Grand Canary Island is one of the more charming I’ve had the pleasure to sail into. It is a delightful little town with a magnificent atmosphere, lots of cheap restaurants and a pleasant sandy beach..
The bareboat charter business in the Canarys is limited because it’s still not that popular as a sailing vacation destination. There are plenty of private yachts that reside in these islands permanently, and there are a number of good sailing schools that use these waters as an excellent training ground. Generally the bareboat sailors are from Germany, the UK, France, Russia and a few other European countries.
There are a only few charter companies that service these islands and offer bareboats. We booked through a broker in the UK who hooked us up the EEC Yacht Charters (the largest charter company in the Canarys). Australian charterers can book locally through Mariner Boating - go to marinerboating.com.au.
How to get there
Another positive feature of the Canary islands is that they are easy and relatively inexpensive to get to. Regular flights out of London, Madrid and other major European Cities fly directly into Tenerife or Grand Canary. You can book with very cheap European Charters for as little as $50 US each way out of the UK or other European hubs. EasyJet, Air Berlin, Ryan Air, Transavia, Condor, Norwegian, Germanwings all offer very inexpensive flights.
The website www.euroflights.info/spain/ is a great resource to source Euro hubs to the Canarys. Iberia, British Airways, KLM, and other scheduled carriers all offer flights to the Canarys as well. To my knowledge there are no direct flights to the Canarys from North America, Australia, New Zealand, South or Central America or even from Africa, so you will have to fly through a European hub.
Every sailor almost certainly dreams of visiting some far-off place that satisfies the senses, is rich in history and captures the heart. The Canary Islands are a sailor’s paradise, and have been that way since the time of Christpher Columbus.
The islands are rich in history, have superb sailing conditions, offer clean beaches, great restaurants, and charming marinas at prices that are much more reasonable than other European sailing destinations.
Sailing the Canary Islands will fill your senses and warm your heart. They are a worthy destination to be added to your sailing vacation bucket list.