Offshore Sailor

Red rain from the east

Red rain from the east

Given that there lies nothing but the open wastes of the Atlantic Ocean, stretching some 3000 miles to Africa in the east, you would imagine that the 'trade' wind that finally makes it to the Caribbean arrives as fresh and unsullied as could possibly be imagined.

Right? Well not really.

One of the few downsides of being berthed in Lanzarote (as we were for the winter months of 2014/2015) is an aptly named phenomenon known as 'red rain'. Since the Canary Islands are notably short on rainfall, dust is often a problem. It settles on any approximately horizontal surface, Shindig's deck being one of them. So, under normal circumstances, you would think that the arrival of an occasional cloudburst would be a welcome event, sluicing away the dust without any effort from the crew.

Convenient, don't you think? Fat chance. Lanzarote is the easternmost island of the archipelago – lying a mere 80 miles from the African coast. A little beyond the coastline lies the western end of the Sahara Desert – a vastness about the size of the US and notable for its pinky-yellow sand. And very little is static where sand is concerned.  Ripped by heat-generated sandstorms, the landscape is constantly being re-sculpted. Particles are scooped up by the prevailing north-easterly wind and carried aloft as high as 10,000 feet or so.

So when it rains in Lanzarote many of those particles descend with it, tingeing the water a russet colour. Red rain, indeed.

Now this might be bad news for boat-proud crews, but it's a godsend for any land-bound recipients. Volcanic islands are not inherently fertile. Lava is a useless substitute for soil. Thankfully those sandy particles are by no means infertile. It's water the Sahara lacks not nutrients. The contribution the desert makes to those downwind is immense.

And not just in the Canaries. With the exception of Barbados, the islands of the Eastern Caribbean are all volcanic by nature. So when you climb the sumptuously wooded slopes of, say Dominica, Grenada or St Kitts, it's interesting to muse that all that greenery, soil and seeds, is there courtesy of wind-blown donations from Africa.

It has to be acknowledged that it entails a mighty journey – three-thousand-odd miles at up to an altitude of nearly two miles high. But how much sand is there riding in the wind? What do you think? A couple of buckets full – maybe an industrial skip or two – perhaps an ore-carrying ship's worth? Well I did a little research and I think the results will astonish you. Recent studies conducted in Barbados show that around 1.5 to 3.5 million tons per year of the stuff make it as far as their longitude (59°30'W) and beyond.

And the ship that heads this blog? Well, that's to show that not everything that wafts aloft is to be applauded. Being upwind the exhaust drifted down onto us and wasn't nice.


Andrew Simpson

Andrew is a writer, illustrator and editor - mainly in the field of recreational boating. In addition to several books he has been a monthly contributor to Britain's most popular boating magazine for over twenty years. Andrew and his wife Chele spend about six months of every year sailing. After some years in the Mediterranean, they are now in the Caribbean. If you enjoy his blogs please share them with your friends. Comments or questions are also welcomed.

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