Sunday, 6 November 2011

Farewell to Sao Miguel

A view from the interior of the Gruta do Carvao, a volcanic
cave under Ponta Delgada. Just think - liquid rock.
It was a real wrench to leave Sao Miguel so we weren't feeling great about putting to sea in the first place, but the season was moving on and when there was finally a forecast promising five days of wind from the right direction (even if some of it was a bit on the strong side) we decided to go for it. We left the marina just as a cruise ship was entering the harbour and we hoisted our sails in its lee. It turned out to be a rough passage, probably our most unpleasant sailing to date.

There were some beautiful moments, which it might be well to highlight first. Dolphin viewing never gets old and we had a couple of fine instances, both at night. The first was on the second night, the only calm one of the voyage and after the moon had set so it was possible to see the luminescent glow around the animals as they moved. The character of the luminescent plankton is different down here compared with more northern waters. Up there it produces a diffuse glow and a dolphin leaves a solid looking light trail behind it. Here, the light is brighter but in discrete spots, so the animal appears outlined in sparkles. That night a gentle breeze sprang up on our beam, the stars were out and the sea smooth - the best sailing of this trip so far.

The other occasion was during one of the wild nights, not sure which now, Wednesday or Thursday. We were lying down below and suddenly heard the dolphins chattering to each other as they came to play around the boat. We hurried up on deck and held on tight to the rigging as the boat romped on. It was brightly moonlit, so we couldn't see the animals under the water, but only glimpsed them as a black shadow when they jumped. The wild, moon illumined sea was already a fine sight but the added spice of spotting the racing dolphins made it something magnificent.

Now for the tough bits.
The first day we beat into a Force 5, heading south and making fast progress past Santa Maria. It was too uncomfortable to cook so we just had some home-made (at Joao's, to his special recipe) granola for tea. Fortunately we'd had a major meat feast at Marcia's parents, both for lunch the day before and dinner the evening before that. The next morning the wind gradually died, but we motored on, knowing that bad weather was on its way and we needed to make as much southing as we could to avoid the worst of it.

The worst moment on the passage came in the depths of Tuesday night. It was blowing a full gale, which we were running before. We were getting well slammed about, but basically things were ok. Not happy, not comfortable, but ok. Then, at about 0300, the darkest hour of the night, the front passed over. We were huddled down below, unable to sleep, just waiting it out. Jim heard the rain start drumming on the coach roof, thought 'Hello. This could be something.' and grabbed the handheld instrument readout to keep an eye on the wind speed. In an instant, it jumped from mid-30s to 48 knots! The vane couldn't handle it and the next instant the boat had been shoved round head to wind and the sails were thundering like Judgement Day.

Jim was on deck in about 5 seconds, grabbed the tiller and steered the boat off down wind to safety. I appeared shortly after to help as needed. The scene was apocalyptic. Pitch black, monstrous seas, torrential rain. For perhaps 15 minutes the wind kept up at force 10. Thankfully we had put the third reef in the main the evening before. As it was, we found later that the top slider on the main sail was sheared clean off. Probably if Jim had been a few seconds longer getting on deck that night, the whole lot of them would have gone and we'd have been without the main.

Near disaster.
The wind kept up at Force 7 and 6 for the next two days. We couldn't sit in the cockpit as it was regularly deluged by waves breaking against the boat. Cooking was difficult, sleeping was difficult and watch keeping was pretty much left to the AIS. We felt depressed, Jimmy Cornell telling us in 'World Cruising Routes' that the best time for this passage is between May and August not helping, and Jim read aloud a PJ Woodehouse story to keep our spirits up. We meditated on Doc of Orford's words to the effect that you only can only expect to enjoy a relatively small proportion of a trip like this and that there would be many times when fear, exhaustion and depression are the order of the day.

Next up, a fitting holding a block on the self-steering snapped. It was a great good fortune that this didn't happen until it was daylight and only blowing Force 6. Jim managed to re-engineer the way the control lines ran right there and then and it's now actually a better system. The port side dodger also ripped slightly with the force of water blasting against it.

The original setup.
The damage.
The solution.
There was nothing for it but to grin, bear it and wait it out. At least the passage was fast. On the day of the Force 10 incident we made good 155 NM - a new record for us. Every other day we made 120-130 NM. The waves took a long time to calm down. Only the last day were they down to a reasonable size. During the gale, they were towering behind us, breakers everywhere.

At the outset, we had planned to make for Madeira, 500 NM away or, if the going was good, to continue another 280 NM to the small island of Graciosa, just north of Lanzarote. In the event we did neither. After Tuesday night we decided we wanted to get south as fast as possible, back into season, and did not want to stop start in Madeira, where we'd only be stopping for a couple of days at most. The plan was still Graciosa in the Canaries at this point, but our course was straight for La Palma. When I plotted our position and saw that it was only 200 NM away, as opposed to 390 NM for Graciosa, I suggested going there and after some discussion we changed plans. You need to stay flexible in this game!

The last day conditions improved, but we left our existing sail combination (double-reefed main and No. 3 jib) as there was no chance of making Santa Cruz de La Palma before dark and we want to keep going slow to get there early in the morning and maybe heave to for a couple of hours and get some kip before entering the harbour. Another plan that didn't quite pan out.

At 5am, we were about 4 miles off Santa Cruz, hove to, about to get some sleep. There hadn't been any shipping at all since a small burst of activity just south of Santa Maria. Now superfast ferries and cruise ships were appearing from all directions at once. Our solar-powered Tacktick wind instrument took this moment to announce it was out of charge and wanting to shut down. Since it's networked with the GPS, which in turn feeds into the AIS on our radio, this was a problem. We managed to get out of the way of a couple of ferries, but then one cruise ship bore down on us from the northeast. We could see both its port and starboard steaming lights, indicating a direct approach. The AIS didn't display its name so we couldn't call it up easily, with plenty of shipping around. Because we only had the No.3 jib up, we didn't have enough oomph to get out of the way fast. We started the engine, but even that didn't help much in the swell that was still running. In the end, Jim called Santa Cruz Traffic Control and the ship must heard that since it altered its course almost immediately.

High on adrenaline, we entered the harbour at first light, just in front of another cruise ship, which had been told by traffic control to proceed but to "take care of the small sail boat". 

The view from our cockpit: La Palma Marina.
La Palma marina is surprisingly empty. A bad reputation for swell and surge apparently keeps most cruisers away, but so far so good and we already have oversize rubber shock absorbers from the Azores on most of our lines anyway. We enjoyed a shower in the deluxe facilities and then couldn't sleep after all the excitement so explored some of the scenic old town instead. A croissant, a couple of beers, a cortado and a plate of serrano ham later, we were already beginning to recover; two drams of homemade Azorean aguardente (big thanks to both Marco's uncle and Marcia's parents for this) and 12 hours' sleep did the rest. It is amazing how quickly the horrors of such a passage fade. Probably there wouldn't be many sailors in the world if it wasn't so.

Santa Cruz old town.
The main drag in Santa Cruz, O'Daly.
On an administrative note, we've changed the comment settings on the blog so that they have to be moderated before being published. That way, should anyone wish to send us a private message, it will only reach our eyes and not be published.

We're half way from Edinburgh to the equator!


Victoria Martin said...

My, what a journey! Glad to hear you're both safe and well and (perhaps/almost) ready for more! Vic x

Marc said...

Harrowing! The things you two do for a bit of warm weather in Autumn.

Ed said...

Oh my word, my knuckles were white holding onto my iPhone reading that!