Home > NewsRelease > Pulling Together Across Blue Water for Tenerife
Pulling Together Across Blue Water for Tenerife
Ocean River Institute, Inc Ocean River Institute, Inc
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Cambridge, MA
Wednesday, August 23, 2023


The tall ship Tecla, a Dutch North Sea sailing herring dragger built in 1915, was bound for Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands. It was tied by three heavy hawser lines to the ferry quay in Ullapool, Northwest Scotland, a town of white-washed buildings packed together for the herring fishery. We were ready to sail the day before but needed to obtain one more official document, which often takes time. The health certificate is not very important to European nations but is required to land in Argentina, Chile, and other ports along the voyage that Tecla would take around the Americas.

The health inspector arrived from Inverness early in the afternoon and issued the certificate after inspecting every room. The Harbormaster in a bright yellow storm jacket called us “lucky bastards” to be sailing to the Canary Islands in September. Our female captain hugged him, climbed down the iron ladder, started up the big diesel engine, radioed for assistance with the docking lines, and waited by the big wooden steering wheel.

Two men in blue jumpsuits and high yellow rubber boots walked out the length of the pier and let go of the stern and bow lines. The captain throttled up the engine to pivot on the spring line away from the pier. The spring line was cast off, hauled into the boat, and fenders pulled in. We were on our way.

To set the four lower sails, we began with the largest sail, the main sail. Two hefty wooden spars embrace the tall wooden mast. The spar at the bottom of the sail is the boom and the spar on top that holds up and out the sail is called the gaft. Two rope lines (halyards) are pulled to raise the main sail. One halyard is attached to the throat of the gaft where it meets the mast. The other halyard is attached to the outer end of the spar, called the peak, because it will be the highest point of the sail.

Three or four people stood at the throat halyard on one side of the mast and three or four on the other side at the peak halyard to raise the main sail. Most haul the line down while one keeps the line running around the belaying pin, ready to belay and secure the immense strain the sail puts on the line. The captain watches the raising of the sail and directs us to keep the gaft level moving up the mast. Then to finish, the peak is raised until the sail is smooth.

The mizzen sail is smaller than the main sail. It is behind the main sail, making this tall ship a ketch, not a schooner, where the mizzen is before the mast. The mizzen has the same gaft rig and halyards as the main sail. The triangular sails in the front of the vessel are the staysail and jib. They are relatively easier to hoist being shanked onto metal stays with bronze clips. However, these sails have more complicated lines to handle with outhauls, downhauls, sheets, and others to help bring the sail from one side of the vessel to the other.

We slowly worked one sail at a time and eased a line under strain while it is still wrapped around the belaying pin.  Setting sail can only be done by people working in synchrony, mindful of where everyone is standing and where their fingers are placed. When making the line fast, the knot must be perfect to give maximum friction to the line and tied so that it can be swiftly undone. Lastly, the many lines are coiled and hung so they are off the deck.

We clear the loch and turn downwind with sails swung out for a broad reach into the Minch. We are encircled as if in a stadium with steeply sloping green isles and craggy shores. Mountains loom blue beyond. High on an island, silhouetted against the sky, stands a white-tailed eagle nearly four feet high. White-tailed eagles have been successfully reintroduced to Scotland.

We’re traveling south from the Hebrides, the northern terminus of the Atlantic Arc to Tenerife. This is where Herman Melville sailed in 1837. In his third book, Mardi and a Voyage Thither, the narrator is accompanied by a very capable Hibernian “aboriginal tar.” He comes from the Isle of Skye. Melville calls him “Skyeman.”

Far across the blue sparkling water, gannets flash bright white. These are large, white seabirds except for black wingtips with long pointy bills, tails, and straight wings. Gannets look like flying crosses. From on high, they plunge and dive straight into the water, working a school of fish. Suddenly, a minke whale surfaces and lunges horizontally into the feeding foray.

Offshore, beyond the realm of gulls, the only seabirds that take notice of us are fulmars. They are grey and white birds related to the albatross with a pair of tubes on their bill-like nostrils to secrete salt. Fulmars will fly obliquely and circle the ship. I welcome the company of another life. Their white faces with black eyes look serene. On outstretched wings, they bank steeply in turns, eyes staying level, wing tips nearly scoring the water. They seem to enjoy the riding of wind drafts off waves.

Leaving the Minch, the green grass-topped island of Mingulay with towering black basalt cliffs receded over the horizon. A brown chunky bird, a great skua, flew by in a straight-line appearing intent on a destination. We sailed off the continental shelf over waters more than 5,000 feet deep and out into the Atlantic 500 miles West of Ireland. Intrepid Tecla became a tiny speck of humanity in an immense unforgiving ocean.

I stood watch from 4 to 8, morning and night, or was it night and afternoon? We fell into a timeless rhythm of rising, standing watch, recharging, and doing it again. A South African and a Dutchman were on watch with me. On deck, it was pitch black. Stepping through the bulkhead doorway onto the deck, we felt our way around the cabin top to the back of the ship, where the binnacle holding the compass glowed. Figures were outlined in the soft light.

One of the members of the off-going watch would tell us the story of the watch. This included talking about the weather, the set of the sails, what compass courses were steered, what ships had been seen, and what ships were about. Any wildlife sightings were also shared. We thanked the off-going watch and wished them well.

The captain spent time in the galley cooking dinner in the late afternoon and the deckhand brought up vegetables that needed cutting and chopping during our watch. Those of us not steering chopped and peeled on cutting boards next to the steering box at the foot of the helmsman. It was very social. The captain and deckhand would take over the steering and send us below when dinner was ready. We filed in along two tables with couches against opposing walls. Rubber mats beneath the dishes kept all from sliding most of the time. Food was set in large dishes in the middle of each table and was either passed around or plates were passed towards the middle.

The midnight watch saw dolphins riding the ship’s bow wave with pale green bioluminescent light streaming like hair. We tossed a bucket into the sea and pulled up black water. Stirring the water with one’s hand, light flashes sparked in the bucket. There was a great amount of life here that was invisible.

We took turns watching the compass rose swing inside the binnacle and steering with hands on the spokes of the wheel night and day. Winds from the northwest were gusting up to 25 mph and the main and mizzen sails were shortened and reefed to present less surface area for the wind. Still, the ship sped along as fast as hull length and displacement, the hull speed, would permit.

Enormous waves measuring 8-16 ft. feet came from the Northwest from Newfoundland across the Atlantic. Some said twenty feet. There was much discussion on measuring wave heights on a rolling and rocking ship where it is impossible to tell what level is. I tried to sight the water level in a raised plastic bottle, but the water inside sloshed about more like a clothes washer than a level.

A wave loomed up behind us and threatened to tumble into the ship and the back of the ship rose. The front pitched downwards, and the ship sped up, surfing the wave to possibly 12 knots (14 mph), more often 10–11 knots. The front of the ship pitched upwards, slowing its speed on the backside of a frosted wind-blown wave. The process repeated to varying degrees as the ship rocking-horsed and cork-screwed over the sea. About a third of us were seasick during those seven days of really swell passage.

Sailing blue water is rewarding and fulfilling on many levels. I turned off my cell phone and stowed it away moments before the ship left the dock. With that act, the outside world ceased to exist. We entered the timeless ship world of watch rotation, four hours on and eight hours off. I quickly lost track of the day of the week and had no reason to care. We were completely focused on the sailing of the ship, the wind, the waves, the weather, and the welfare of each other.

After ten days of staying hundreds of miles off Europe’s and African shores, the ocean swells finally quieted and the rocking horse cork-screwing motion ceased.  Before the green hills with steep bluffs, we rounded the quay into the beautiful Spanish city of Santa Cruz on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. We had sailed 1,987 nautical miles (2,287 miles) with a complement of twelve individuals hailing from six nations. Melville’s fellowship of the foredeck was well met with “the nations and families, flocks and fields of the earth, one and all, brothers in essence?—?oh, be we brothers indeed!”

On Tenerife, Mount Teide looms 12,000-plus-feet tall behind ridges that spread and step down to the sea. Sea air rises over the land to cool and condense, forming clouds that shroud and curtain Spain’s highest peak. Tenerife has a great biological diversity of flora and fauna with humid microclimates on high and windy arid steep-sided xeriscapes by the shores. Over 800 species are unique in the world and roughly half of Spain’s endemic species are found on this Canary Island.

During the latter half of August 2023, pine and laurel forests, the primary habitat of the blue chaffinch, junipers, palms, and dragon trees, have been burning.  “This is probably the most complicated blaze we have had on the Canary Islands,” reports Tenerife’s president.

The climate has changed to create tinderbox conditions for Tenerife.  About a third of the island, 20,000 acres with a 40-mile perimeter, is on fire. Eleven towns have been evacuated as a precaution as the fire affects ten of those towns.  Some 250 firefighters, including Spanish army members, have contained the fire just twelve miles from Santa Cruz.

Beneath lowering smokey skies, like sailors using the power of the wind to go against it to windward, we must become savvy to the forces of climate change and use them to steer away from more calamities of drought, fire, deluge, hurricanes, and rising seas. We must also take measures, chart progress, adjust the course multiple times, and carry-on reducing carbon emissions and increasing carbon drawdown. We should do more to steer for Net Zero, where emissions will equal the carbon removed. From there, we’ll clear away future damages by drawing down more carbon than we emit.

Climate changes are happening because more greenhouse gases retain heat and let less escape from the planet.  Once, the solar energy entering our outer atmosphere was balanced by equal energy radiating away from Earth. The amount of solar energy coming in is now 342 Watts per square meter, and only 339 W/m2 is going out.  The incoming/outgoing balance has been upset by 3 W/m2 or 1% of radiation, so the planet warms with more energy going into the ocean to generate worsening weather events.

Carbon in the atmosphere is rising to 420 parts per million or 800 billion tons of carbon. We must reduce carbon in the atmosphere by 100 billion tons carbon to restore the atmosphere to 350 parts per million or 700 billion tons of carbon,

With 564 billion tons of carbon in the world’s biomass, growing more trees cannot increase biomass by 20%.  Fortunately, about a third of the carbohydrates manufactured by photosynthesis are put into the soil whenever plants grow. Grasses push about half of the liquid carbon to fungi and bacteria in the soil. Carbon in soils goes through a chemical process to become humus, black aggregating soil that holds carbon beneath turf for thousands of years. Though covering a small percentage of the Earth’s surface, the world’s soil holds 2800 billion tons of carbon, more than three times the carbon in the atmosphere.  The one hundred billion tons of carbon we need to take out of the atmosphere represents only a 4% increase in soil.

Plants grow more with more soil holding more moisture and control microclimates by releasing water vapor to evaporate and cool when it’s hot.  When it’s cold just before dawn, plants release water vapor to condense and warm with the morning dew. Vegetation uses solar energy and reradiates about 20% of the energy. In contrast, hard surfaces reradiate 60% of heat energy to warm the atmosphere. Plants also release bacteria that float in the air, where water vapor may cling.  A million wet bits become a mass heavy enough to fall as a raindrop. White cumulus clouds form. Once, cumulus clouds covered more than 50% of the planet, reflecting light. Now, there is less than 50%.  Two percent more cumulus cloud cover would also restore the planet’s heat balance.

The set of our sails is nature, photosynthesis, and local water cycles. The more hands hauling together in concert with one another, the greener the land, the more moisture-holding the soil, and the more photosynthesis and carbon drawdown there will be. Working in concert with nature, we alter course and carry on with stewardship, restoring ecosystems, water cycles, the health of the planet, and the quality of life for our communities.  Crossing troubled waters, we pull together for calmer, more verdant, humane distant shores.

The Ocean River Institute provides opportunities to make a difference and go the distance for savvy stewardship of a greener and bluer planet Earth.  www.oceanriver.org 

Pickup Short URL to Share
News Media Interview Contact
Name: Rob Moir
Title: Director
Group: Ocean River Institute
Dateline: Cambridge, MA United States
Direct Phone: 617-714-3563
Main Phone: 617 714-3563
Cell Phone: 978 621-6657
Jump To Ocean River Institute, Inc Jump To Ocean River Institute, Inc
Contact Click to Contact