Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Whale-come to Pico


A fine example of Portuguese street mosaic.

We are now in the old whaling town of Lajes, on the island of Pico.
Horta (though I anticiapte a storm of protest for saying it) didn't suit us particularly well. There wasn't much doing and the people around the marina weren't especially friendly. It seems to be the case, as suggested by a French sailor we spent some time with, that an excess of tourism has begun to spoil the place.
It is still a very elegant looking town though and Porto Pim, next door, is beautiful. After a couple of days feeling slightly under the weather, we made an excursion across the island to see the newest bit of it. A massive volcanic eruption in the late 1950s added a couple of square kilometres to Faial, though about 80% of the new landmass has since been lost to erosion by wind and waves. The event was the calamity of its time and led to mass emigration, some 15,000 or half of the island's population fleeing, mainly to North America.

Somehow the lighthouse survived. It now stands inland in
a sea of ash, with one storey buried.
The new part of Faial.
After half a century, a few hardy plant species have begun to colonise the sandy new soil but it is still referred to as a moonscape and makes an eerie sight tacked on to the end of an otherwise verdant island.

Our passage from Horta to Lajes was not a pleasant one. The forecast indicated moderate southerly winds, which would have suited us well. The day started grey and squally but we were keen to push on, so checked out and pulled out. We got clear of the harbour just in time to be in on a torrential downpour. I was clad in swimming costume, t-shirt and oilskin jacket, which made an effective combination for the conditions. The wind was southerly, but up to 25 knots, into which we beat for a sodden hour to get out of the channel. The intensity of the rain made breathing difficult at times but we were looking forward to bearing off to the east once south of the headland and thought we were better off sailing than sitting in the boat in harbour all day listening to the rain.

The rain eased off somewhat as we exited the channel and we bore of slightly to the south east, set the self-steering and prepared to enjoy the rest of the sail. That was when the fun began. The wind suddenly dropped from 20 knots to less than 10 and backed from south through east to north east - where we wanted to go - leaving us wallowing on a perfectly dreadful sea. I changed the headsail up to the genoa and we persevered with it for another hour or two but the wind was so light and the sea so heavy that we made little progress and the prospects of reaching Lajes before dark were receeding rapidly. We toyed with the idea of simply pushing on for Ponta Delgada and sailing on through the night and next day but the wind showed every sign of conking out completely so on went the engine and we motored for Lajes.

Immediately after taking this decision we were joined by several pods of dolphins, a total of 30 or so individuals, who played around the boat for a good half hour and cheered us up immensely (laid out on the bow and reaching over the side, I actually managed to touch one of their dorsal fins - very cool). There were several youngsters amongst them, which were particularly fun to see swimming right close and in sync with their mothers. We have often noticed, and heard similar tales from other yachties, that dolphins have a knack of appearing just when one has an important decision to make or when a crew is desperately in need of cheering up. As a scientist I don't see what there can be to this but as a sailor it's what I observe. The two sides sometimes have to agree to disagree.

Aside from the primo dolphin action, there was one good thing about this passage in that it finally provided the opportunity to test an important repair job. From the time we left England, we had been plagued by a small leak that only ever appeared when sailing hard on starboard tack, with plenty of water on deck. Under these conditions, a little pool of water would gather in the middle of the saloon. It wasn't a significant amount, but the effect on morale was disproportionately high. Down below is the inner sanctum - if you can't keep the sea out of it, you've got a problem. None of the lockers higher up were wet and the water didn't seem to be coming from either further forward or aft. This was a tough nut to crack. In Ponta Delgada, I checked all the deck fittings and found them sound. Finally, in Velas, I noticed a suspicious looking flaw in the paintwork, just outside the toe rail amidships. Closer inspection revealed a crack, clearly associated with an old repair. Perhaps the last hard Edinburgh winter opened it up as it had never troubled us before. A couple of days of trickling 'Captain Tolley's Creeping Crack Cure' into it seemed to seal it up and with filler and a coat of paint it looked good as new. Happily it proved, under rigorous testing, to be tight.

Lajes do Pico.
Lajes is an interesting spot. The harbour has been greatly improved in recent years by the addition of an outer breakwater and is now fairly secure inside. There is space for 3 or 4 visiting boats, but we're the only visitors here at present. Indeed, the harbour master is on holiday and it took both him and the GNR official a couple of days to come and see us, meaning that we had to clamber around the gate to get ashore and return to the boat. This is a real whale-watching hotspot (the board outside the harbour hotel reads "Whale-come ao Pico") and so, of course, used to be a major whale-hunting ground. The whaling museum in town is very interesting and it should be pointed out that we're not talking about ancient history here - the industry continued, using mainly traditional methods, until the early 1980s.
The men went out in small, open boats with a crew of 7, harpooned the whale by hand and likewise despatched it with hand lances. At the museum is shown a short documentary film of the process, made about 1970. Though the narrative style is dated the footage is excellent and preserves a bit of ancient modern history, now truly finished. The killing scene was grim but one had to admire the skill and prowess of the men who did it.

Traditional fishing boat in the harbour of Lajes.
These boatsheds used to house the whale boats.
The highlands of Pico.

3 comments:

Penny said...

Hi James & Sonja - yet another challenging sail for you. Really glad that the dolphins showed up at just the right time! How wonderful to have been able to touch one of their dorsal fins.....next you'll be swimming with dolphins! The fishing boat you have pictured really reminds us of how highly commercialised the industry is in other places and helps to demonstrate how we are depleting our fishing stock.

Take care both, safe journey & lots of love, Mum.

Marc said...

Congratulations on the successful repair! Boo, however, for the painful pun in the title. Boooooo. :-)

sailfettler said...

Hey man - it's not our fault! It's all down to a local hotelier. French, I believe.