Tall-ship sailing in the Canary Islands

The Bessie Ellen under sail

The Bessie Ellen departed southern Tenerife at 6.30pm on Saturday amid the last glimmerings of daylight. The trade winds were favourable for an overnight passage to La Palma, so all hands were needed on deck to haul on the hemp to get sufficient sail aloft; the peak needed sweating, the throat needed hauling, hands were needed to work the halyards for all four foresails, and the boom-preventers needed to be well secured before we found ourselves in the tricky waters of the acceleration zones, where the Atlantic winds come funnelling through the gaps between islands.

I was rostered on the midnight to 4am watch, and when I came back on deck we were plum in the middle of one of those zones; Bessie was thumping her way through a white-flecked night, burying her head in 50 knot winds, spray flying across the pitch-pine planking. Directly behind us the austere, stately silhouette of Mount Teide, the tallest mountain in Spain, rose out of the water, exerting a malevolent magnetic pull on our foaming stern. And right above us, I could see the winking lights of late-night flights descending towards the airport at Tenerife South, with another load of fly-and-flop holiday makers in search of winter sun. It was hard to believe, as a bucketload of salt water whistled past my cheek, that only a matter of a few hours earlier I, too, had been up there in an air-conditioned fuselage.

This was, of course, the Canary Islands – but not the sort of Canarian experience that will be familiar to most holidaymakers, who come to these islands to catch a few rays. By contrast, our week on Bessie Ellen was to be one of hauling and making fast, of riding at anchor in empty moonlit bays, of admiring pilot whales beneath our bows, of walking around crater rims and of setting foot into communities where bananas, not tourists, were still the main crop. It was a journey that was to turn what has become a rather hackneyed holiday destination, back into an archipelago.

These days not many people leave Tenerife on a 98-tonne tall ship but there’s good historical precedent. In 1907, when Bessie Ellen was built, trading ketches were still in use in these parts. In fact, there’s a long history of British-Canary trade, dating from Shakespeare’s day, and Falstaff took great delight in his “cups of Canary”, a fortified wine that was one of the island’s biggest exports at the time.

By the end of the 19th century the wine had been replaced by bananas, and the British firm EW Fyffe had imported its first shipment. As the banana ships of Fyffes and Yeowards became established on the route, they started to carry with them the earliest tourists, many from the top end of society, seeking winter sun in the “Fortunate Isles” on the advice of their doctors, and initiating the third stage of Canarian trade.

There were no bananas in our hold that week but the ship was perpetuating the tradition of giving berth-space to the more enterprising end of society. The passenger list included a chemist, an aerospace engineer, a retired entrepreneur and an oilfield surveyor, and the ship had just said farewell to a couple of environmentalists, a surgeon and a tax consultant. Some were regular sailors; others had no experience at all, but everyone had plenty to contribute both on deck and around the dinner table.

That first overnight passage was an undeniably fast start, and Nikki Alford, Bessie Ellen’s owner and skipper, admitted the “acceleration zone” between Tenerife and La Gomera had been a bit rougher and tougher than she’d expected. But payback was being able to saunter along La Palma’s western coastline in calmer winds the following morning, admiring the banana plantations on the lower slopes, and learning from Bessie’s professional crew about lazy-jacks, whiskers and ratlines, the right way to coil a rope and when to stay clear of the “widow-makers”, the heavy block-and-tackles that can spring unpredictably across the foredeck.

Shadowed by fleets of dolphins, we eventually put into the fishing port-cum-leisure-harbour at Tazacorte, which described itself rather epically as the “last European marina”, a reminder that it was from La Palma, the most westernmost extremity of the known world, that Christopher Columbus sailed off into the unknown in 1492.

For us, we had discoveries to make closer at hand. Most of La Palma is effectively one half of a giant volcanic crater – the other half having long since fallen into the sea. Its steepness has long prevented it from joining the league of over-touristed Canaries, and while its lower slopes are encrusted with barnacle-like villages, its higher slopes are stitched with vineyards. Up beyond the pine-tree-line, its naked crater edge is so high, 2,426m, that it hosts Europe’s biggest collection of observatories.

Up here, the overnight condensation freezes solid on the scrub, creating ankle-level chandeliers of ice crystals. We walked the crater rim, with a cloud-filled caldera down one side, and observatories lining the edge, hooded and silent, like giant dormant fungi that are too sensitive to daylight to open their eyes. In this eerie world, the only sound was the tinkling of falling crystals as the sun started to melt the ice off the scrub.

After La Palma, our crossing to La Gomera was a more leisurely affair, or perhaps we were already more shipshape as a crew. On the helm, we learnt to feel how Bessie quivered and surged when the sails were set correctly; we learnt to be scathing about the handful of modern yachts (“wind- assisted yoghurt pots”), and we had some success with the fishing lines, hauling aboard an electric-blue tuna that was simply delicious when flash-fried with a little garlic and chilli.

Sunrise from the deck

For the next couple of days, dawdling along Gomera’s southern shore, we climbed the barrancos up to the island’s ancient moss-cloaked laurel forests, where we met columns of marching Germans on serious walking holidays. We dived into bioluminescence, dined on Thai curry and roast pork, climbed the rigging to spot pilot whales, and set our cameras to try to catch the mythical green flash that you sometimes see on shipboard sunsets.

But then our time was up, and we were on our last passage back, within range of package tourism, motor-sailing in limpid winds back into Teide’s shadow, and the zone that had given us such a fast start at the beginning.

For our last night on board we anchored in the bay of Los Cristianos, southern Tenerife’s most popular resort, for a paella dinner within sight of a familiar big yellow “M”. Lodged in this no-man’s-land between the old archipelago and the new, we could see camera flashes going off on the prom as holidaymakers took pictures of us silhouetted against the sunset.

We completed their picture but they had played no part in ours. They were on a sedentary holiday with all mod cons; we had been on an adventure with masts.


Andrew Eames was a guest of Classic Sailing. The Bessie Ellen is in Cornwall and the Scottish islands over the summer, then returns to the Canaries in November. A week in the Canaries costs from £680, including all meals, accommodation and equipment but excluding flights.

Monarch Airlines flies to Tenerife from six UK airports from £126 return

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