A Passage to the Azores

What for?

During our travels we have met a number of people who have visited the Azores. Many of these are sailors from the US or Canada that have stopped there as a rite of passage on their way to Europe and the Mediterranean. In Lagos in 2004 there was a couple who habitually wintered in Lagos, and spent their summers in the Azores. Everyone you speak to raves about the islands, and of course Peter's Bar at Horta on Faial is a must.

Mo and I declared at the outset of our cruising that we had no fixed plans, and we didn't at the time. We naturally progressed to the Mediterranean, because that is what most people do. Other Brits go on 'Atlantic Circuits', some to South America, and the more ambitious take off around the world. One of us only probably harboured such ambitions, but common sense and my heart scare in 2005 reigned those in.

It seems sensible to get the boat nearer 'home' where the market is more active, as at some point she will need to be sold. Rather than hit our heads against the northerlies down the Portugese coast, and repeat those stops in reverse, we hatched the plan to visit the Azores. In theory we avoid the headwinds, and will we hope be able to take advantage of the prevailing south westerlies into the western approaches of the English Channel (or Brittany coastline). We will pass over the fact that it is a 2000 mile round trip, extending one third of the way across the North Atlantic, in order not to spoil our case!


Much of the preparatory work was done in Lagos, before we left. Mostly this was procuring stores, of various types, many vinous, and hiding them around the boat. Every time Mo cooks one of her favourite sauce toppings, she generates at least three times more than can be eaten, and these are split up into portions, and secreted in the freezer. They come in very handy on passage. We managed to get most of the Category A jobs on the jobs list done: those that were not complete were relegated to Category B.

We set off from Lagos, and sailed down the Portugese Algarve coast to El Rompido, just across the border into Spain. The main purpose of this was to enable us to remember what all the ropes are for, and how to sail again, after the long winter lay off. It meant that we could check that systems such as the generator and batteries were all fit, after effectively prolonged disuse, and it was as well that we did this, as you will see if you read the previous page. The other reason, and it remains to be seen whether it is successful, was to reset our 'circulation tax' clock for Portugal. When you are in Portugal for 6 months in a tax (calendar) year, it is necessary to pay this modest tax, based on your boat's engine size. The only problem is the hassle, requiring you to obtain a 'fiscal number' and to be able to convince them you have an address in Portugal!

The weather window?

We want to be in the Azores in time to see the Bull Run sometime, we think, in late June, so there was some pressure to find a weather window in which to depart. Grib files seem these days to be remarkably good, extending a forecast up to 8 days. We were leaving from Spain, so were expecting the trip to take us up to 10 days or so, so even if you find the ideal window, there is much uncertainty after the first few days.

Equally, a trip of a 1000 miles is not trivial. Fuga carries enough fuel in the tank to motor for about 50 hours, say 250 miles on a good, flat day. We can augment this with cans giving us around a quarter of this again. The bottom line is that when you set off, you need to harbour your vital fuel resources, and you have got to sail most of the way. You cannot rely on favourable winds to take you there. Having spoken to others who had done the trip, they spoke of calms surrounding the 'Azores High' that normally builds in summer, requiring extensive use of the engine.

This spring has been far from normal. After cloudless skies and sunshine in January and February, March and April brought rain, and cold northerly winds. There was some improvement, but no consistent pattern to the weather, as we watched the successive synoptic charts downloaded from the internet. In the event, we saw a few days giving us relatively strong northerlies, and we then expected to encounter a ridge of high pressure with lighter winds, reversing to south westerly. In the middle of this, we expected a frontal system with some rain on about day four. After that, there were predominantly westerly winds (bad), but on the southern fringe of a new low expected to form north west of the Azores. So hopefully we would see some wind, and be able to make progress even if slowly.We decided to leave on Monday 28th May.

Day 1: Monday 28th 123 miles run

Having missed the supermarket on Sunday afternoon, we were up early and raring to go. We had to wait for the shop to open, and then hit it with our individual lists. We were soon back at the marina. Mo stowed shopping while I went to check out and retrieve our access card deposit. Shortly afterwares we were under way, with Mo completing the stowing as we motored down the river on the ebbing tide. The margins across the bar at the entrance were distinctly tighter than when we entered, but we got out with some water to spare under the keel.

The winds were initially north westerly, F3. It was a gentle start, however, in sunshine. In the early afternoon the wind died away to F2, and backed W, then gradually started to build. Soon we had a reef in the main, and later rolls in the jib. We could not quite make the south westerly course that we had hoped would enable us to just clear the separation lanes off Cape St. Vincent, and were instead pushed further south. By midnight the wind had veered back to NW/NNW F5 and we were having a wild ride, touching 8 knots at times.

Day 2: Tuesday 29th 157 miles run

The very chilly wind remained in NNW and N, F5 or sometimes F4, throughout the day. By lunchtime conditions were more pleasant. We had by then passed through most of the shipping proceeding to and from the Gibralter Straits, and by night time we were distinctly on our own. Neither the SeaMe radar transponder nor AIS were reporting any targets. The wild ride continued, with wind increasing to F5/6 in the early morning. The toilet bowl would not clear, our log recording that spilt pee had found its way to the basket of tomatoes that Mo had retrieved from the bilges and left in the shower tray. It also records the fact that Mo actually saw a ship at 0400 hrs! We were worried that the jib sheet sheeve in the mast was seized: there was a lot of graunching noise coming down the mast and sheet. I don't think I had checked and oiled it as part of my rigging checks up the mast.

Day 3: Wednesday 30th 155 miles run

In the morning we crossed Jemmana's track on her way south to the Canaries in 1999. We were plotting our positions on a dirty old chart that Mike had used, and had been dunked in salt water. We skirted well south of the Gorringe bank, a sea mount with 'peaks' rising to within a few metres of the surface, so as to avoid any unpleasant sea conditions that they might produce. We encountered more shipping too. The wind remained F5/6, northerly or even NNE at times, so that we continued to make good progress.

It was around this point that we heard another noise that concerned us. The autohelm was taking some punishment in the heavy seas, and pounding that we were enduring, and began to make ominous clicking noises at the end of every push or pull at the helm. From time to time we tried hand steering to relieve it, but in the end we found we could lash the wheel and the boat would maintain a fair windward course without luffing up and falling away.

Day 4: Thursday 31st May 102 miles run

As expected, the wind began to ease as we began to traverse across the top of the ridge of high pressure, although for much of the trip the glass was pretty constant, 1016 at the start, rising slowly and remaining around 1018-1021. We now had a F4 that dropped away in the afternoon to F3.

This magnificent fish
managed to take off with the lure

The fishing rod came out, but as the evening approached and there had been no activity, I started to reel the line in. As I was doing this I had a strike, and managed to let the main fly and roll the jib with one hand to stop the boat, while looking after the rod with the other. Mo was resting down below, and came up to find out what the commotion was. The fish did not fight much, allowing itself to be brought alongside, but here our problems started. The gaff was at the bottom of the cockpit locker! We were holding him short, trying to keep the head out of the water, when he saw the gaff coming and at this point decided to make an effort. The line broke, and our man had acquired a valuable (13 euro) piece of piercing jewellery.

After this, the wind died away completely, and we decided to motor. After a couple of hours, the wind came back in from the SW, gradually building to F4, so that we could sail again. We at last had some 'fridge friendly' sailing on port tack. Upto that point we had had to heave to on the opposite tack whenever we needed to open the fridge while heeled!

Day 5: Friday 1st June 104 miles run

The wind continued in the SW, then slowly veered during the day through W to WNW. Successive cloud banks, presumably our expected front running late, came and went. They brought drizzle, some hard rain, and squalls (to F6) under the clouds. Overnight the winds eased.

Day 6: Saturday 2nd June 103 miles run

The wind returned into the south west, and fell light F3/4. We were able to make reasonable progress but increasingly we were north of the rhumb line. The log records 'more rain, confused seas'.

Day 7: Sunday 3rd June 105 miles run

The wind, blowing around F5 for much of the time, headed us overnight for a time, so we tacked south, back towards the rhumb line. We found we were not making much progress towards our objective, at least in part due to quite signifant currents that were running against us. Later the wind reverted to SW, so we returned to our northerly course. It was notable how the seas varied, at one time quite moderate, then at other times heaped, confused and difficult sailing.

Mo relaxing as we bowl alongDefinitely a little shaggy?

Day 8: Monday 4th June 122 miles run

The wind remained constant, around F5, in the SW, bringing scuds of rain under the clouds. We began to think the island of S. Miguel would be easier to reach than Santa Maria.

A third noise began to irritate us, one that has always been a problem when the hull is being stressed. It is caused by the heads wall moving slightly relative to the deck into which it was 'slotted' but not secured during build, resulting in a loud creaking noise. Fuga's previous owner had obviously found the problem; an attempt had been made to silence it with Sikaflex, unfortunately ineffectively. I began to think about possible cures.

Day 9: Tuesday 50 miles run

Quite suddenly in the morning the wind died, and then veered WNW, coming up eventually to F3. We now only had 48 miles to run, but needed to keep clear of the Banco das Formigas, that lies to the north east of Santa Maria. A lighter mood broke out on board, and we treated ourselves to a bacon sandwich. We reckoned that we might make it before nightfall if we motored. We attempted to do this, but were thwarted by a current and seas that knocked us back and prevented us from making the speed we needed. Eventually we decided it was going to be hard to make the marina before nightfall, and settled for a bay that the pilot said provided a settled weather anchorage on the NE facing coast of the island.

As we approached the island we managed to get a Vodafone connection, and downloaded mail. We sent an enquiry to the marina, and were confused by the response which seemed to imply that there was a rally taking up the available space in the marina.

We anchored in the pretty San Lourenco bay, with old stone-walled terracing with vinyards climbing up the hillside as far as the terrain allowed before the craggy volcanic rock took over. In turn the cliffs were topped by green. We did not go ashore, as we understand that the authorities in the Azores take their check ins and outs quite seriously.

Wednesday 6th June. 7 nm Baia de Areao

We had a reasonably peaceful night, and planned to spend a further day at anchor, to have a look at the mast sheave and autohelm. However, the wind shifted to the north and freshened, and seas began to enter the bay from around the corner. I reasoned that if the wind had shifted north, the south coast should be sheltered, so we decided to go for Vila Porto, the marina. Under the cliffs was obviously very confusing, as when we emerged beyond the lighthouse on the south east corner, we found a near gale with winds of 32 knots across the deck. We had hanked on the main, but not raised it, as we were relying on the jib to carry us around. The unruly main managed to debag itself, and tried to rise up the mast under wind power. Motoring 8 miles in those conditions did not seem to be a bundle of fun, so we turned around. I had read either in the pilot update or the pilot itself of a bay just north of the lighthouse, and decided to try that. It proved to be surprisingly sheltered and we anchored in around 8m of sand and rock, where we spent the night.

The lighthouse at Ponta do CasteloA waterfall tumbles to the sea
with coralled vinyards reaching up the hill
Our anchorage under the lighthouseLooking north from the anchorage

Thursday 7th June 14 nm. Porto do Vila, Santa Maria

The following morning we came to afer an uneventful night that had been accompanied by some graunching of chain on rock, but nothing excessive. It was a much more pleasant day, and a light breeze seemed to be coming from the north and east. We were however close in to high cliffs, directly under the lighthouse, so that we were probably not seeing a true wind at all, even as we left our anchorage and set off eastwards. We made sail, and emerged from behind the island to find a light F3 westerly wind. We were not in a hurry, and enjoyed the sail up the coast to enter the harbour. There we were surprised to be hailed by Anton and Girda, last seen at Alanya in Turkey!

Overlooking the harbour at Porto do Vila

Once berthed, we found the officials all most friendly and affable as we were first registered on the marina computer system then the police and customs as they filled in their forms with the same details! We have, it was explained, to pay our light dues at the Capitainery up the hill, but Thursday being a religious festival they were closed.

Later we walked up the hill, and just caught the end of a procession attended by church, brownies, and a large, quite melodious band. A church service had begun. We continued on up the hill, and on the way back called at Jorge's bar. We asked for a white wine and a large beer, but were given a bottle of Vinho Verde (slightly sparkling, a bit like Frascati) instead. Jorge was closing up at 2000 hrs, so we had to drink up and stagger down the hill back to Fuga.

Friday 8th June - Porto do Vila

We slept well. The Azores is one hour behind, and even so we woke at 0800, equivalent to our old 0900. It was moisty in the air, blowing from the south west, and fairly cold and cloudy. Although the cloud cleared at one point, it soon came over once more. We decided on a slow morning, and I spent some while on the computer, working on this as well as general 'nerding' as Mo likes to call it. After lunch we set off up the hill to pay our light dues. This took some time, and I emerged with a certificate some time later, just two euros the poorer. Meanwhile Mo had bought some tomatoes and other fresh veggie bits at the Spa supermarket. Mo organised laundry, and we decided we would eat on board. Boats from Euro ARC, returning across the Atlantic, are slowly arriving for the start of their next leg to Portugal on Sunday.

Saturday 9th June - Porto do Vila

We decided to do almost b'all. It was very damp in the morning. I went up the mast to check the jib sheet sheave that we thought was graunching,but could find nothing wrong with it. It seemed superior to our spare, so gave it some lubrication and left it alone. We did one or two other minor jobs, bending on a new red ensign and CA burgee, and I updated the web site.

During the afternoon a small band of drummers and dancers came down and performed on shore. This was part of the party including a BBQ arranged for the ARC people, due to set off on their first leg tomorrow. I settled up with the marina in the afternoon, and checked out for the following day.

Sunday 10th June - Punta Delgada, St. Miguel, 58 nm

I had set the alarm, and it went off one hour early, at 0530. I had forgotten to change the time zone on the phone. This meant we had a more relaxed and slow start, leaving the berth at 0700. Our first leg was to head west to clear the south coast of the island, so we hoisted the main and motored. When we were on course for St Miguel there was at first insufficient wind to sail, and we were forced once again to motor. After a short while, the wind came up. Mo retired to the cabin to rest, while I changed the line on our fishing rod: it was dull and cloudy and seemed as if it might be good for fishing. By the time I was organised with a new lure and trace, we were cracking along at 6 knots, and probably going too fast.

We gradually lost Santa Maria behind us. Ahead, a long low cloud showed where St. Miguel lay, which at first I thought was land. For a while the clouds above us cleared and we were able to sunbathe, but later in the day we donned oilies as a large black cloud built up to windward. As we approached land we could see that this was spinning off the high peak to the west of the island, but apart from some large drops of what appeared to be rain, it never came any nearer to us. By the time we reached Punta Delgada we had a reef in the main.

Check in in the old marina proved a bit confusing. A high concrete pier is apparently both the fuelling berth and reception pontoon. There had been no response from the marina, and apparently the office had closed for the day. We milled around, and then went onto an empty berth. Very soon a GNR man came down, and led us to his office where he checked us in against the computer records from Santa Maria. He directed us to a pontoon (variously the quai d'honneur, and reception berth) in the new marina with land access. When we got there there was no room on the pontoon, so we selected a berth within the new marina instead. Divine was nearby with Anton and Girda.