Over the past 3 winters cruising the Caribbean we have written many times about the cruising lifestyle and our cruising experiences in the letters and updates to friends and guests we have had. However, until a person actually makes the commitment to go cruising, it is difficult to put in words the experiences and constant flow of unpredictable treasured memories that develop each day. The magical part is that it just keeps repeating and unfolding like the pages of a book you just can’t put down…except this isn’t fiction, it’s actually happening. This year instead of storing Oh!, our 40’ Leopard Catamaran at Beaufort, N.C. over the summer, we decided to do a mid-Atlantic Islands circuit. What an adventure that has been.
Our free day to explore the Island of Graciosa in the Açores was a good example of the magic of the cruising lifestyle. It was a day full of the type of experiences we like to share with our new friends and the guests that join us on Oh! to sample the cruising lifestyle: but first some background to the day…
The components that would make this day so special actually started coming together 10 days earlier, though none of it was planned, or even contemplated at the time. The first component occurred as we were arriving in Velos, on the Island of São Jorge, to meet my Aussie transatlantic friends, David and Mary. As we approached their catamaran, Adventurous, we had a chance introduction to a Norwegian couple who were sharing evening wine and cheese with them. It was a quick 30 second, “Hi, we are Diane and Rod.” They replied their names were “Mona and Arno.” They then dove off Adventurous and started swimming back to their beautiful wooden boat, Vilde, before it got dark.
The next day, after a full day exploring São Jorge and hiking with David and Mary, we rowed over to Vilde and had a brief chat with Mona and Arno. Vilde is their beautiful 40’ gaff rig wooden double-ender and we quickly learned they have done some very adventurous sailing. Over the past 20 years they have sailed around the Atlantic via the Açores and Canaries, Caribbean to the USA, Eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faro Islands, the Shetlands, Scotland, Ireland, Norway and the list goes on. I knew instantly I would really enjoy spending time with them. Hopefully our paths would cross again, but they were hauling up their anchor to do a night climb to the 2351m summit of the Island of Pico to enjoy the sunrise. We were staying put for 2 more days with David and Mary before heading to Faial. We were disappointed it was another quick greeting of some fascinating passing cruisers. Oh well.
On our last full day with David and Mary we took in the beauty of São Jorge with a scooter and hiking tour of the eastern part of the island that included a visit to the famous cheese factories, a beautiful ocean side hike and about 80 km’s of masquerading as “geriatric Hell’s Angels on scooters”. Our farewell to David and Mary would be one last hearty breakfast on Oh! before they departed at mid day for an overnight passage to the island of Terceira the following morning. They have a pretty packed schedule and needed to keep heading east to the Mediterranean. It would likely be our last time together for several years. It was a sad departure since we had become very good friends over the past 7 weeks.
I first met them in Bermuda, only hours before they set out across the Atlantic. It started with, ”Hi, I am Rod. Did you sail that catamaran all the way from Australia?”
There is a lot of background to the answer to that question, but we quickly became friends and, using our Iridium Go systems, enjoyed an impromptu race across the Atlantic while texting each other multiple times per day. We had many great LOL texts of our mutual adventures. We connected again on arrival in Lajes, on the island of Flores, where we spent six days hiking and enjoying that beautiful island as well as the island of Corvo before David and Mary sailed on to Horta. I caught up to them again on Pico, where David and I hiked to the summit (the highest point in Portugal), and then again on São Jorge, after Diane returned from Vancouver.
The second component of our incredible day on Grasciosa originated late in the afternoon after David and Mary’s departure from Velas, on São Jorge Island. We had been doing some paper work and dealing with stuff from home all afternoon and needed some exercise. So we decided to go for a hike around the waterfront to the local cinder cone and natural area in Velas. It was getting late so we didn’t have much time. As we rowed into the marina we passed a beautiful all wood, all varnished double-ended sail boat from Finland. It was like a work of art; absolutely perfect. It clearly made a lasting impression on us.
The walk through the small town of Velas was beautiful. Azorean’s love the sea and, wherever possible, they have created natural swimming pools among the rocky outcrops along the coast. These include change areas that are often just a hollow cut into the cliffs with a door, as well as an outdoor rinsing shower. We planned to enjoy a swim after our hike at one of the outcroppings. About halfway up the cinder cone, we said. “Hi!” to a man in bare feet coming down the sand and cinder gravel path. The friendly greeting encouraged him to stop and he told us we have to experience the silence of the collapsed crater. “Make sure you go down inside to experience the silence; don’t just go to the rim”. He was fit, about our age, and had a Scandinavian accent. I asked if he was from one of the boats and he replied he was on a wooden boat in the marina. That led to a brief conversation with “Jan”. We discussed his incredible boat and we received an invitation to come see it. The whole encounter was over in about 2-3 minutes and we were off to continue our walk. The views from the cinder cone rim were spectacular, with jaw dropping sights down sheer cliffs several hundred meters high, to the clear blue sea bathed in the warm glow of the evening sun. By the time we returned, had our swim and walked back to the marina, it was well after dark and too late to visit Jan.
The next day we caught up to Jan to see his boat. It is 74 years old and looks like it was built yesterday. It is a “work of art” and resounding testament to his boat building skills. It turns out Jan owns the oldest wooden boat yard in Finland and builds wooden boats for a living. He acquired this one from its original owners who had sailed it extensively and wanted it to go to someone who could properly care for it. Jan then spent 2 years refurbishing and repairing it. He changed the engine to an electric drive and fitted it with all new running tackle, standing rigging, canvas, new sails and much more. His old boat was not only “74 years new” it was also “green”. Jan had decided many years ago he was done with burning hydrocarbons. His only concession is his cooking stove and traditional lamp. Otherwise he cycles, walks, or sails everywhere. Our chat with this kind and fascinating man was brief and we parted hoping to see him again. The next morning when we rowed into the marina, Jan’s boat was gone. He had left before dawn.
Time in the Açores is an enigma. In one sense the islands have stood still in time, yet they are also racing to modernize. When you are visiting here, time seems to disappear way too fast. I had originally planned to spend three weeks exploring all nine islands of the Açores archipelago. I had already been here for 5 weeks and seen only 4 islands. It was time to move on and we headed back to Faial to paint our mural on its famous wall at Horta, to explore and to investigate regulations regarding running our cruising adventures here next season.
To our surprise we were greeted at the marina with big smiles and open arms by Mona and Arno. Later that same evening we had a brief chat with a Swiss couple who were enjoying an evening stroll along the quay. Lisa and Schön were planning to stay all winter in the Açores and had sailed extensively in the Madeira and Canary Islands. We invited them for breakfast the next morning to chat about the next islands in our cruising plans. The evening was spent at dinner with Mona and Arno at the Genuino restaurant for a “fado” (an evening of traditional songs and dinner accompanied by several singers, a guitar and mandolin). The restaurant is named after Genuino, the owner. He has sailed solo around the world twice taking the traditional routes around both of the southern capes. At the time in the early 1990’s, he was one of only 9 solo sailors to have rounded Cape Horn. His restaurant is filled with mementos of his trips and his book. It was a great evening. The surprise was to find out late in the evening that our Norwegian friends Arno and Mona were good friends with our breakfast guests for the next morning, Lisa and Schön.
The next five days flew by hiking, swimming, exploring the islands. Each evening we would enjoy wine and cheese with a growing list of fascinating international friends and got lots of great tips on the best places to visit. We also managed to get our mural done so that we would depart Horta with “good luck”.
The next island on our list was Graciosa. A short weather window opened up that would make it possible to anchor there for 2-4 days. There is a good harbour at Praia, but it is pretty small and full of local boats. There isn’t much room for a catamaran like Oh!, so we had to time our visit when the weather would be favourable to anchor outside the small harbour. Our new friends from Norway decided to join us, so Vilde and Oh! enjoyed a very comfortable downwind 40 nm run to Graciosa. But it wasn’t a race! As it turned out, 29 ton Vilde, with her large gaff rig main and code zero head sail, matched 8 ton Oh!’s 130% Genoa and furled main (above 120 degrees AWA Oh! sails best with just a Genoa) “knot for knot downwind”!
Our early Thursday evening arrival left time for a swim then wine and a light dinner with Mona and Arno to discuss plans. The weather forecast was for rain Friday, so it was decided Friday would be a boat day (working on fixing items on the “to do lists”). Saturday would be our free day and what a day it was!
Saturday started out with a quick swim and breakfast then off to find a taxi for an island tour. Our driver, Servo (Roy to us), was from Graciosa, but had spent 20 years in Canada and the USA, which is very common for Azoreans. His English was impeccable; this was Mona’s only requirement. It is wonderful to be able to use English as a common language, but also embarrassing at how mono-lingual I am. I try hard to use my limited French but often in an international mix of people, it is everyone else who defaults to English so Diane and I are not left out of any conversation. The cruising community is very gracious.
Roy started out driving us around to the typical tourist stops on our route, but after a short time we all quickly became friends and the typical tour became an extended welcoming to his island. Over the course of our day we visited viewpoints, cafes, the islands well known spa and healing center, and walked deep down into the Furna do Enxofre (a rare volcanic cavern and lake inside a ‘caldeira’).
We had a wonderful outdoor lunch at a park cafe and an impromptu wine tasting with a wine vendor. Graciosa, like all the Açores islands we had been to, was stunningly beautiful. Flowers, woods, meadows, volcanic cinder cones, dramatic cliffs and some of the clearest blue waters we have seen. The topography and foliage, dotted with traditional lava stone and white plaster buildings, pasture walls covered in flowers and restored red and white windmills, create beautiful vistas at every turn. We sampled traditional Queijadas da Graciosa (sweet tarts) with a Galão (coffee latte), freshly picked red grapes waiting to be crushed by foot before being pressed to extract the juice for wine, and wine from last years harvest of the same vineyard. We visited the historical museum and arrived back at Praia with plenty of time for an evening swim.
The day was fabulous. Great friends, wonderful experiences and surprise events all day long. But there’s more…
On arrival back at Praia harbour we met up again with Jan and his beautiful varnished wooden boat. We invited Jan, Mona and Arno to finish the day with wine and flat bread pizza on Oh! and they all enthusiastically agreed. After a swim and shower off the sugar scoop, I showed Diane the secret recipe for making flat bread pizza that David and Mary from Adventurous had shared with me. By the time the others arrived, we had five flat breads ready to go plus all the fixings. It quickly evolved into a custom, buil-your-own pizza and salad evening with Açores wine, beer and Diane’s fresh from the oven apple crumble with yogurt. Then, to our surprise, Jan announced he had brought a special instrument he wanted to play for us and he pulled out his hand drum. I had seen one before from a friend at our soaring club who also has one. They are amazing instruments. Jan quickly filled the aft cockpit of Oh! with a sound that is best described as a rhythmic blend of tubular bells, xylophone and gong that resonates right through you. Jan played while we were all mesmerized by the tones and beat he created. The air was warm and still, the moon was rising, the stars were out, the cockpit was filled with our new friends, great food, fine wine and unforgettable music. It all started with, “Hi, we are Diane and Rod”.