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Leg 4: Canaries – Cape Verdes

Part 1: Passage from Canaries – Cape Verdes and Sal

Cape Verdes Cruising


Crossing the Atlantic east to west, a stop at the Cape Verde islands is not axiomatic and a great many cruisers – including the 250 or so who each year take part in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (the ‘ARC’) – give them a miss.

This despite the Cape Verdes being right in the middle of the trades, at just under 17°N, an advantage recognised by Columbus who commenced his third trans-Atlantic voyage from the Cape Verde island of São Tiago on 4th July 1498.

The typical ‘direct’ route from the Canaries to the Caribbean involves sailing SSW until the trade winds are found, turning onto a westerly course only a couple of hundred miles NW of the Cape Verdes. This gives an Atlantic crossing distance of a little over 2,800NM as opposed to sailing just under 1,000NM down to the Cape Verdes and then about 2,100NM across to the Caribbean.

For many Atlantic cruisers the aim is simply to get to the Caribbean as quickly as possible after leaving the Canaries. This is understandable since the Caribbean undoubtedly offers some of the best cruising in the world (for reasons I shall go into in Leg 6).  But it does leave the Cape Verdes rather overlooked as an interesting cruising ground in their own right. Even amongst those boats which do include the Cape Verdes on their itinerary, the majority only call in at Mindelo on São Vicente by way of a pit-stop without visiting any of the other islands.

Enforcing this traditional view we have Jimmy Cornell who, in his excellent and formidable World Cruising Routes, writes –


Most boats which break their Atlantic crossing [in the Cape Verdes] do so only to refill their tanks. Unless one is dangerously low on fuel, or determined to visit the islands, such a stop in the Cape Verdes makes little sense as less fuel will be needed to reach the Caribbean than will have been used up to get from the Canaries to the latitude of the Cape Verdes. Rather than burn up additional fuel to reach them, it is better to ration one’s consumption earlier and sail the most efficient course from the Canaries.


For those who do intend to stop at the Cape Verdes, Cornell gives a waypoint just north of São Vicente. Given that this is the most westerly of the islands (with the exception of São Antão, which is best visited by ferry from São Vicente due to lack of good anchorages) and that the time that cruising boats are most likely to be in the area is when the wind will be blowing a near constant F5/6 from the east, this waypoint is evidently based on the assumption that one would not want to explore any of the other islands.


In stark contrast, on the back of Imray-Iolaire chart E4, Cape Verde Islands, DM Street Jr writes –


Forget Christmas in the Caribbean [the central plank in the ARC’s itinerary], and crossing the Atlantic in late November/early December when the trades have not settled in and are unstable. Rather spend Christmas cruising the Cape Verdes and cross in December or early January when the ‘Christmas winds’ are well and truly settled…


If  a November southwester fills in it drives boats down to the Cape Verdes. This has happened in 2002, 2005 and 2009, so why not plan to cruise the Cape Verdes instead of a quick stop in Mindelo and continuing before the trades have really settled in?


In years gone by sailors stopped at Mindelo, São Vicente, to pick up water and try to top up supplies. They did not realise there is excellent cruising and excellent islands to explore.


Having spent quite a while on the resortified island of Lanzarotte, we were keen to experience something different. It will therefore be no surprise that, as if the foregoing were not enough, Street’s next couple of paragraphs really struck a chord with us –



If you are looking for well-equipped marinas, surrounded by the concrete jungle with dozens of good restaurants and tourists, good night life, good infrastructure to support yachting [for all of this, read ‘Canaries and parts of the Caribbean’], forget the Cape Verdes.


But if you are looking for quiet anchorages where you will be completely alone, no habitation at all, or a small fishing village, with a few little basic rum shops that usually can produce a cold beer and a place to meet locals rather than tourists, islands that are varied, the Cape Verdes are for you.


Street is not the only ally of the Cape Verdes: Anne Hammick devotes a considerable chunk of Atlantic Islands to them, including many photographs which capture nicely the local colour, the text providing so much of that essential pilotage and ashore information which draws a comforting line between the remote and the unknown.


Following advice from others who had done the circuit in years gone by, we had long intended to stop at the Cape Verdes. Reading DM Street Jnr and Anne Hammick, we determined, as Jimmy Cornell might have said, not only to stop but to explore. So it was that our first waypoint was set for about 120NM east of São Vicente, just north of Ilha do Sal.



Passage from Marina Rubicon, Lanzarote – Porto da Palmeira, Sal, Monday 28th November to Tuesday 6th December 2011

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We had decided on an afternoon departure from Marina Rubicon, night sailing along the coast of Fuerteventura, which lies below and extends west of Lanzarote. Drawing up the passage plan posed only one question that required some thought: to keep Fuerteventura to port or starboard?


The west coast is exposed to the prevailing northerlies, which explains why all of the island’s anchorages are on the east and south coasts. 

Clawing along a lee shore is never enjoyable, particularly an unlit one at night, but on the other hand Fuerteventura has a number of high volcanic cones and we did not want a repeat of the bizarre wind shifts and shadows which we had experienced along Lanzarote’s leeward shore on our way down to Arrecife and Rubicon.


The answer lay in the forecast: with the wind coming from the NE, the west coast should remain safe and in any case we would give it a wide berth.


A disaster-free departure from Rubicon, our last marina for the foreseeable future, presaged a straightforward and starry yet very dark night passage down through the Canaries. The compass light chose this night to blow so the next 3,000 or so miles of sailing involved holding a torch or lighter to the compass to check our course during the night.


By 0400 on 29th November we were comfortably west of the SW tip of Fuerteventura and able to set a course for our next waypoint, just north of Ilha do Sal in the Cape Verdes, some 825NM away.

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Passing the SW tip of Fuerteventura at 0830 on 29th November 2011.

By midday on 29th November the winds were a light NE F2/3. To deploy the cruising chute or not? Cue the following thought process: 

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Up went the chute in it’s snuffer, dangling like a massive blue sausage from masthead to deck. I pulled another line and the snuffer rode up to the top of the mast, the colourful cruising chute filling with the light breeze as it went.


Now we were making progress again.


Usually deployment of the chute heralds an increase in the wind strength, requiring it to be swiftly stowed again, but for once the wind remained light enough to keep the chute up all afternoon, obligingly strengthening to NE F4 as the light started to fade, perfect timing to switch over to full jib for the night.


During the early hours of 30th November the wind increased to NE F4/5, with a touch of F6 every now and then, giving a respectable speed over ground of 6kts, helped in part by the Canary Current which sets SW at 1-1.5kts. The moderate to rough seas stirred up a rolly motion with spray over the decks and the odd wave sploshing into Gulliver G’s rather exposed cockpit.


By the evening of 30th November things had calmed down considerably, with the wind still from the NE but now generally around F4. No ships had been sighted for a couple of days. Then, in the early hours of 1st December, Kate got 4 ships in one go on her watch!


The next and last ship to be sighted before the Cape Verdes was at 1340 on 1st December: a large LNG carrier, cruising at only 11 knots, allowing ample time for us to note that we appeared to be on a collision course.


One of the weirdest things about ocean sailing is that you can be in the middle of nowhere, not see another living soul for days on end (except for your own crew, whose vital signs should be checked every now and then), and then suddenly a ship appears. Despite the hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean available to it this ship will inevitably be aiming straight for you.


We radioed the ship up.


“I have you visual,” advised the deck officer, “but I’m not picking up your AIS.”

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We exchanged course and speed information with the LNG carrier, which was bound for Bonny Island in Nigeria, establishing that they would pass safely a few hundred yards in front of us, and got a weather forecast. More of the same for the next couple of days.


The calmer conditions leant themselves, at midday on 2nd December, to trying for a noon fix with the sextant. There remained quite a bit of rolling, which made bringing the sun down to the horizon a little challenging, so we gave up on the notion of a noon fix and instead did a sun-run-sun using a first sight which we had taken mid-morning (this will only make sense to those who know a bit about astro-navigation!). Still, we ended up with a fix which put us only 9 miles from our GPS position!


By this point we were just S of the Tropic of Cancer – or half-way to Sal. We cheerily noted in the log: “should arrive in Sal in 4-5 days.” This observation coincided with a sighting of a large turtle, probably a leatherback, swimming with its head held awkwardly high above the water.


Having optimistically estimated our arrival at Sal, the wind dwindled over the afternoon. By 1800 it was ENE F1/2 and the decision was made to start the engine. It had the usual trouble getting going, but then ran fine, allowing us to motor-sail until 0825 on Saturday 3rd December when the wind started picking up again; first to E F4/5, then backing a little during the afternoon to NE.


By the early hours of 4th December we had NE F6/7 with correspondingly rough seas. At least we were running before it, under jib alone, giving a speed over ground of around 6kts. As I noted in the log, “…wouldn’t want to be going the other way!”.


With lots of foam cresting the seas, the conditions remained ‘near gale’ for the next 24 hours. I kept a weary eye on the glass, concerned that we could end up with a full gale though nothing in the 10-day forecast before we had set out suggested that anything like that may be in the offing.


Barometric pressure remained steady and the conditions stable – though strong. At 1248 on 4th December I noted in the log “Could not do this without Aries, which is keeping stern to the waves and then allowing us to slide down them with waves 20-30° on port quarter before straightening.”


By mid afternoon, the wind having veered slightly to ENE, our speed over ground was averaging an impressive 6.5kts!


At 2342 I wrote: “I did think that wind and waves were moderating, but both are now picking up again. According to the wind roses on Chart 100 [the chart of the North Atlantic], F7 or above should only be experienced 5% of the time on this route in December – typical that we got the 5%!”


Whilst we were making good speed under the jib alone, the motion was not comfortable. Looking astern, the seas seemed to be coming at us from all around. In the port quarter we were getting the sizeable breaking waves generated by the strong winds from NE-ENE; to starboard we were receiving ample Atlantic swell. As the waves and swell continuously met the overall sea state was not only rough but confused. Gulliver G is a very sea-kindly boat, but in those conditions any vessel will be subject to uncomfortable motion – as will her occupants!


At 0448 on 5th December, wind NE F6/7, position 18°25’N 21°14.5’W, I wrote: “Really hope that the wind backs some more as need to go WEST! Very tired, everything aches – hard to sleep in these conditions.”


We were now only 145NM from WPT 3 to the west of Sal. I updated our passage plan to include some inshore pilotage, with a new waypoint, WPT 3A, off the top of Sal at 16°55’N 23°W, from where we would aim for a WPT at 16°45’N 23°02’W before heading for WPT 3, as sailing a direct course to WPT 3 (16°45’N 22°59’W) would have involved traversing the top of the island!


During the morning of the 5th December the wind started to drop, remaining from the NE but falling steadily from F6/7 down to F5 around midday and then F3/4 by mid-afternoon. I shall refer to a couple of detailed log entries from Monday 5th December –

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Flying Fish


Everyone we met who had ventured this way before us had told us about the flying fish. These bizarre creatures are, as the name suggests, fish with wings. The Encyclopædia Britannica gives a nifty little description of these aero-marine oddities. 

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The fish have landed...

Whilst the ability of these fish to take to the air may in many ways equate to an advanced survival strategy, they have failed to match the speed of human evolution and are unfortunately (for all concerned) prone to a hazard of an entirely different nature: the decks of boats.


As we neared the Cape Verdes the flying fish made their presence known with frequent crash-landings on Gulliver G’s low decks. Typically arriving just as we were tucking into dinner, the fish would make their presence known with a strong salty smell accompanied by the frenetic flapping of fins/wings on the decks.


The first few to unintentionally pay a visit I gingerly scooped back over board with a galley implement. Then I progressed to flinging them back over board by hand. Finally they were too common place to bother interrupting dinner for and I would peel them off the decks in the morning.


Kate hates fish.


Kate’s greatest fear was being hit by a flying fish.


“Knowing my luck,” she said on a number of occasions, “I’ll get hit by a flying fish.”


At 0847 on Tuesday 6th December 2011, with well under 30NM to go to WPT 3A, I was out for the count in my bunk enjoying the deepest sleep I’d had in days.


A loud crash and Kate’s screams cut through my slumber. With an agility which surprised me but was lost on Kate, I leapt clear of the lee cloth.


My immediate assumption was that something was seriously wrong with the boat, but it took only a split second to register that no new noises (other than the one-off crash and Kate’s continuing screams) had been added to Gulliver G’s creaks and groans, that water was not sloshing around my ankles, that the engine had not exploded and that we were still sailing along at the same angle of heel and, therefore, course.


So what on earth was the problem?


Kate stood in the galley, pale as a sheet and shaking like a leaf, pointing out of the companion-way.


“F-F-F-F-F-FISSSHHHHH,” she eventually managed.


Now I could smell it’s salty tang and hear it flapping around.


“Right,” I said, “so?”


Once Kate had calmed down enough to compose full sentences I learnt what had happened: she had been sitting in the companion-way, listening to her iPod as Gulliver G sailed ever south-westwards.


Kate had then decided to lean outside the sprayhood to check that all was clear. A second or two earlier, one may interpret, unbeknownst to Kate, a flying fish somewhere ahead of Gulliver G had set forth on its final fateful flight. A journey that would take it mid-air down the length of Gulliver G’s starboard deck, culminating in a head-on collision with the part of Kate’s chest exposed by the ‘V’ of her top.


According to the Encyclopædia Britannica these critters glide at 10mph. We were cruising at about 5.5kts, giving a head-on collision speed of around 18mph. Enough to kill a small child. Hence the fish blood and scales all over the place, though Kate’s main concern was the fact that she had actually come into contact with a smelly ‘orrible fish.


I felt a bit sorry for the fish, but Kate maintained that it was the fish which hit her and had other ideas about where my sympathies should lie.


Land Ahoy!!! Tuesday 6th December 2011


Following her ordeal with the flying fish, Kate was dutifully relieved of her watch. 

Not that I had to kick my heels for long. Barely 20 minutes later, at 0910, I entered in the log “LAND AHOY! And not far away, slowly getting clearer through the haze.”

The haze… As we approached the Cape Verdes the harmattan, a heavy reddish dust carried off the African mainland, principally from the Sahara desert, by the hot, dry, NE trades when they blow at 17kts or more (as was the case not only as we approached the Cape Verdes but for our entire time there), was very much in evidence. This dust coats everything on the windward aspect of the boat and can reduce visibility to under half a mile.

So it was that our first sight of Ilha do Sal was when we were barely three miles off her north coast!

My fears of arriving in the dark were cast aside we followed our ‘inshore pilotage plan’ (in inverted commas as there are no buoys or other obvious navigational aids, except for the land itself) around the top of Sal and down the west coast, sighting and exchanging greetings with a number of long low open fishing vessels as we closed Palmeira.

By ‘exchanging greetings’ I refer to that practice engaged in by people who take to the sea, whether for work or leisure, everywhere we have sailed: a raised hand, which serves both to acknowledge one another’s presence and as a mark of solidarity amongst seafarers.

At midday we eyeballed our way into Porto da Palmeira and were soon at anchor in an incredibly tight spot within the shelter of the harbour wall (it later transpired that all yachts had been moved into the inner harbour the day before to enable under-water work to be carried out on the small pipeline which cuts across Baia de Palmeira to an oiling mooring).

In under 8 days we had covered around 900NM. 

We had arrived!!!

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Rounding NW tip of Sal.

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At anchor, Palmeira, Sal. Gulliver G is in the centre of the picture; astern of us lies Innamorata, an Oyster 45 Ketch.

Sal – Tuesday 6th to Wednesday 14th December 2011


Porto da Palmeira is one of the archipelago’s three ports of entry, the other two being Mindelo (120NM to the west) and Santiago (way down south). Almost all yachts arriving in the Cape Verdes will do so from the north and those intending to cruise the archipelago will want to do so from east to west, making Porto da Palmeira the obvious first stop.


With this in mind, whilst the anchorage was tight due to the work on the pipeline the number of yachts was small. There was only one other flying the red ensign – Innamorata – the others a hotchpotch of French, Germans, Belgians, Dutch and Australians. No Scandinavians or north Americans though we do know of a couple of yachts from those regions which visited at other times.


In common with the other Cape Verde islands we went on to visit (bar Sao Vicente), Sal has no infrastructure to support yachting, but it is perfectly safe to leave your boat at anchor there whilst you go off exploring and there is a small quay where tenders can be left.


The Quay


The only problem on the quay was a couple of little brats who would try to take the dinghy painter and then expect some sort of payment! To my mind this amounts to extortion. Fortunately all other cruisers were of the same view.


A fellow sailor told us that one thing that 6 years of working for an NGO in west Africa had taught him was that handing out money to youngsters is about the worst thing you can do. If a teacher earns, say, $5 per day and a kid can make more than that by basically being a nuisance then clearly giving them money is a Bad Idea.


The children on the quay, who belonged to local fishermen, were very much in the minority and were perhaps victims of circumstance as they clearly had what in my school days would have been termed ‘special needs’. It might have been because of this that, as a local stall-holder explained, they were not in school.


Whenever we rowed to the quay and saw one of the youngsters there, we would groan inwardly as we knew exactly what would unfold: they would grab the painter and make a point of tying it off; I would then have to surreptitiously check the knot (they actually always did an OK job) whilst receiving chants of ‘money, money!’. From us would come the reply ‘no money,’ which would then be met at best by sullen stares or at worst a torrent of swear words.


If a Responsible Adult – one of the local fishermen – turned up, the children would be swiftly carted away.


For the vast majority of Cape Verdian children the islands provide one of the best education systems in the whole of west Africa, resulting in a literacy rate, according to Anne Hammick, of some 77% – higher than most neighbouring African countries and, judging by reports in the Evening Standard before we left the UK, not far behind London. Unlike the UK’s capital violent crime is almost unheard of throughout the Cape Verdes.


Irritating though the children on the quayside were, we came to see them as part of the fabric of life in Palmeira.




Ilha do Sal is a very dry island, so water is a precious commodity. Few houses have plumbing and most people in Palmeira collect water by hand from the fontana.


Along we went with our cans late one afternoon. The fontana was closed but a young lady in a house behind carefully filled our containers from a large barrel. When you are cruising without a water maker on board, you soon realise the value of water and we would have happily paid whatever price was asked.

But when we got out our wallet the young lady – surrounded by a number of friends and family, for in the Cape Verdes whatever is happening tends to become a focal point – laughed and waved our money away. She point blank refused to accept anything and everyone wished us a pleasant evening and enjoyable stay.


We were quite taken aback and even humbled – not many places in the UK would allow one to take on water without extracting the maximum fee possible and the availability of water in the UK is simply incomparable to that in Sal.


Baia da Mordeira


On our first evening in Palmeira, having checked in with customs and immigration, we decided that we must try and find some wi-fi so that we could email a couple, Clare and James, who had been on our Yachtmaster Ocean course back at the Cruising Association in London.

Clare and James, who run had mentioned that they had a house on Sal and would be there in December. They’d said that they had two washing machines, though whether they had seriously expected us to turn up with a massive pile of dirty laundry we were not sure…


To our amazement, Palmeira is covered by free wi-fi. Internet speed is not great – as I understand it, the whole of west Africa, including the Cape Verdes, is served by a 6,000 km fibre optic cable which was laid back in the seventies – but it works.


Walking around trying to find somewhere to sit down and log on, we chanced upon a tiny bar, Arminda’s. Who should be sitting outside, but Clare and James! They were engrossed in conversation with a German called Karl Heinz who settled in Palmeira 20 years earlier and whom we subsequently got to know fairly well.


Once they had got over the initial disbelief of seeing us in this remote spot, Clare and James invited us over to their villa on a fairly new development on the south east coast of Baia da Mordeira.


The next day, laden with laundry, we arrived at Clare and James’s. Anne Hammick describes the development as a ‘tourist resort’, but unlike many of the resorts which provide holiday homes to wealthy Americans and Europeans in the Caribbean and suspiciously resemble white enclaves, the Baia da Mordeira development is home to a fair number of Cape Verdeans as well as some Europeans.


Whilst the washing machines did their stuff we went snorkelling with Clare and James off the beach. This was the first time we had ever snorkelled and Kate, despite her abhorrence of fish, took to it like a duck to water – better than me (it took me a while to get used to having my face under water whilst breathing through a tube!). We spent a while examining the diverse sea life. It was only when we went back to the villa for a long lunch that James mentioned an experience a couple of weeks earlier.


“A friend anchored his yacht in the north east corner of the bay,” James explained. “I went for a swim. When I got back on board our friend went for a snorkel. Seconds later he was back on deck. I’ve never seen anyone climb a boarding ladder so fast in my life – he’d just seen three tiger sharks circling the boat!”

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Local colour, Palmeira.



Palmeira, the town which backs Porto da Palmeira, is really a large village. It has some colourfully painted buildings, with a few ruins mixed in, and a generally relaxed, laid-back feel. The main attraction for tourists on an outing from the island’s only real resort, Santa Maria on the south coast is the gutting and salting of fish next to the quay where we tied-up our tender. The days the tourists came up from Santa Maria the kids on the quay would mercifully harass them instead of us.

The village has very few shops, save for a small general store and a little bakery, the latter run by a lovely old woman from whom we bought bread a few times and who kept the friendly local dogs at bay as we Skyped parents in the main square.

Skype is still a novelty in Palmeira – as are computers – and a few passers by would generally gather to look over our shoulders as we caught up on news about our cat’s latest misdemeanours and the ailments of various relatives.



Saturday night was party night in Palmeira, a local affair as Palmeira was hardly a centre of tourism, but one to which us sailors were readily invited to join. A number of stalls were selling delicious kebabs served with a (very) hot sauce and there was beer and dancing aplenty.


We chatted with local fisherman and model boat-builder, Paolo, who we had met through Karl Heinz and were introduced to a number of other locals. I just wished that I could speak Crioulo!


Palmeira is kept reasonably clean and tidy, the streets are regularly swept, but as with most of the Cape Verdes the population is poor. This is not surprising as aside from fishing and the few small shops and bars, there is little in the way of commerce. It is hard to obtain the more than the most basic provisions. The lack of water means that mosquitos are not a problem.

Above all, Palmeira is a very friendly and local place. On our last day, we strolled past Arminda’s and Karl Heinz waved us over.

“Your swim stuff is still here,” he said.

It took us a moment to cotton on to the fact that Karl was referring to swimming cozzies and a couple of towels that we had forgotten at Clare and James’s and which we had given up any hope of getting back before we left Sal. It transpired that Clare and James had left our gear with Arminda a couple of days earlier and she had kindly held on to it behind her tiny bar.


This is the main town in Sal, much larger than Palmeira (though very small compared to our notion of a ‘town’ in the UK) with an attractively laid-out main square (like Palmeira, featuring free if erratic wi-fi). There are a number of ‘supermarkets’, though they are all small and lightly stocked, more akin to the old-fashioned corner shop in the UK. The main things we wanted were eggs, fresh fruit and veg and cheese.

Eggs are generally available in the Cape Verdes (take your own cartons!), fresh fruit and veg less so – and what there is expensive. With almost all produce being imported, ‘fresh’ is a relative term. Anne Hammick mentions that with as many Cape Verdeans living overseas as in the archipelago – about 420,000 in each case, the overseas contingent predominantly being in the US and Canada, winding up there from the days when it was common for Cape Verdeans to work on American and Canadian whalers – many of the islanders are heavily dependent on money wired back to them from relatives abroad. The truth of this was borne out by the prices: with limited earning potential within the islands it was hard to see how else many of the locals could have afforded to eat.

Cheese is hard to get hold of, although we did eventually find some processed stuff. My advice would be to stock up with a few months’ supply of cheese in the Canaries, or even Spain or the UK.


Before we leave Sal, I must say a few words about the harmattan.


Clare maintained that the year we visited the dust was the worst she had known it; so bad that she had to wear a mask when walking the dogs to try and mitigate her sinus headaches, which she said were a first for her.


I, too, had sinus trouble and a few times had to take sudafed and iboprufen to stave off the inevitable headache, which feels like a gremlin is trying to split your skull with a hatchet from the inside. Kate and James, on the other hand, seemed unaffected.


The dust is so fine that you cannot see individual particles of it in the air, but the evidence of it is everywhere in the form of a red coating on all of the rigging and a distinct haze. One evening, the dust over Porto da Palmeira was so thick that the lights along the breakwater cast murky pools in a manner reminiscent of the thick fog which occasionally envelopes central London courtesy of the Thames.


Nowhere in the Cape Verdes was the dust quite as bad as Sal, but it would remain in evidence throughout our stay in the archipelago. Apparently the harmattan was stronger than usual during our time there. It would certainly be very nice to see the Cape Verdes when the harmattan is not so bad!

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Palmeiran paintwork. Boavista, Sāo Nicolau and Sāo Vicente were next on our list.

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