Basque Country to Galicia: my first travel in a sailing boat

January 1, 1970

by Leire Ruiz

Who has never dreamt of sailing a boat? I grew up with Salgari and Stevenson and, yes, I am a romantic, I can admit it because I did my penance.

How to get into a boat for free

Everything started a year ago, when, during one of my intensive procrastination sessions, I stumbled into the Find a Crew website. In a nutshell, this website finds a crew for boats in need, and finds boats for sailors looking for a job. But the best part is that the crew doesn’t need to be a real crew and the captains apparently don’t need to be real skippers, so everybody are free to contact, haggle, and fill the gaps to each other without asking too many questions. So, without hesitation nor a moment of reflection, I signed up, filled my profile and offered myself and my partner as crew members with no experience but happy to help doing anything in exchange of a place in some boat. That was then, and I forgot about it. Until, a few months ago, a captain got in touch with me and offered us a trip from Basque Country to the Canary Islands in exchange of work and our share of food and fuel.

ruta Bilbo-Lanzarote

Estimated route from Basque Country to Canary Islands, by Sea Route Finder.

Know your boat

We threw ourselves into this project, helping with all the pre-trip maintenance jobs. And, on a sunny and absolutely windless day, the captain, his listless nephew, my friend and I casted off and left port. Engines on, sails harmlessly flapping, the dolphins kept us company while the captain and his nephew slept the whole day.


Two dolphins swim by our boat.

Blissful ignorance

There is no bliss like sailing a boat on your own, completely unaware that the boat you are sailing has no radar, that cargo ships you see in the horizon are ten times faster and fifteen times longer than your boat, and that you should have a radio on, but you haven’t because the noise doesn’t let your captain sleep. The sun set in a horizontal explosion of light and color, we turned the deck lights on and it was time for the night watch.


Our first sunset at sea.

Even from our nonexistent experience, spending the night watch on the deck alone, fifty miles offshore, seemed dangerous. Therefore, we asked for life vests. Don’t worry about that, the captain had said. We’ll have a look at them after we part, he had said. He gave us our only hope of survival in case of falling into the water, and he had removed their automatic inflatable systems. Just in case. Because these things cost 20$ and they are too expensive. So, by turns, we harnessed ourselves to the mast and hoped for the best while giant cargo ships came past our little boat and the shadows of the dolphins splashed in the moonlight.

Avoid blissful ignorance when necessary

The sun rose as we got into our first stop, the beautiful bay of Santander. We were supposed to pick up a set of extra sails for the boat there, so we just anchored the boat in a free zone, courtesy of the nautical club. Getting to the land couldn’t be as easy, because our dinghy had a hole, its engine had no fuel, and we only had one oar. But we made it, and, eventually, we also got the extra sails, and then, when we were getting ready to leave Santander, we lost the anchor. The funny part came when the crew of the nautical club told us, falling apart with laughter, that it was the third anchor lost by our captain at that exact same location. Plus an additional stern ladder last year. He is famous here, they said. Keep your eyes open.

As soon as we left the bay, with no anchor –anchors are expensive, we don’t need any new one, oh my goodness- with both captain and nephew resting their eyes in horizontal position, we made our own inspection of the technical and safety conditions of the boat: no functional life vests and no anchor, we already knew that. But the freshwater pump didn’t work before our departure, and now the saltwater pump wasn’t working either, and that meant no toilet for us. The alternating current engine couldn’t stay on for longer than five minutes, so that meant no kitchen. How were we expected to cook the endless rice and spaghetti boxes during our month-long travel through the sea? The official radio station didn’t work. We managed to get it on, but it was impossible to connect it to the GPS, and we couldn’t send GPS signals, so, in case of an emergency, we wouldn’t be able to send any emergency signal. The self-inflatable raft wasn’t self-inflatable anymore: the captain, in order to avoid any accidental inflation that could be caused by a wave, had destroyed the automatic system and tied the raft to the deck with thick straps, with a kitchen knife tied next to it, its blade dull from the salt and water. The injection engine was apparently broken. We were sailing with the engines off because we couldn’t inject any more fuel to the main engine. Our cabin’s windows weren’t sealed and our little bed was soaked. The extra sails were laid on it, because nobody should be looking for comfort at a sailing boat.


Starboard deck.


The Cantabrian shore.

Always look for a better spot

And, still, we enjoyed that sailing day as if it was the last day of our lives. We tightened the sails until we got that boat flying, and when the deck started getting waves and waves from a side, so inclined we had it, we didn’t know the only reason why we couldn’t loosen them was because the captain had changed the knots because the noise of the ropes was getting on his nerves. That night, the biggest sail got loose. The knot was terrible, and the strain too much. We were lucky it hit nobody. In the morning, we stopped at a harbor in Galicia, and we left, exhausted and full of sadness. I couldn’t believe we had lost all of our joy and thrill in just four days. I couldn’t accept it. So I turned left, saw a beautiful, luxury catamaran, jumped in and offered our services to the captain aboard. Join me in two days at A Coruña, he said. We need you to take this boat to Mallorca in five days. So we went, and another travel began. But that’s another story…


Estimated route from A Coruña to Palma de Mallorca, by Sea Route Finder.

Leire Ruiz

By Leire Ruiz

Scientist, photographer and adventure traveler. There is nothing like a weird trip that ends well to get an adventure, and there is nothing like being relatively poor to have lots of weird trips. Time and age have given me perspective to appreciate all those experiences, and it is time to help other people get their own.


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