In the summer of 2016, we decided to head to Europe. Our journey started in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and ended in Almerimar, Spain, 100 nm east of Gibraltar. We had been to the Bahamas once before, but decided we wanted to see more of the area so we crossed the Gulf Stream and checked in at Old Bahama Bay Marina on the island of Grand Bahama. The Gulf Stream is one of those strong currents that exist around the world, that you have to pay attention to, kind of like the Agullas Current running down the east coast of South Africa. There was not a lot of wind and we were making good time sailing northwards in the current. But once we tacked to try and get some easting in, we were just swept along northwards, and in order to make our landfall, we had to turn on the motor and head southeast of our target in order not to miss it. We knew that we needed $300 USD to check into the Bahamas, and assumed we would be able to get it at the marina. The last time we had checked into the Bahamas, they took credit cards. Wrong, they would not take a credit card and there were no ATM’s, so we had to take a taxi to the next town to get the cash. That was an expensive lesson about reading and remembering the details about checking into a country.
We enjoyed our week in the Bahamas, gunkholing around small, uncrowded anchorages, snorkeling and hunting for shells along deserted beaches. We had planned to stay longer, but a decent weather window presented itself, so we were off to Bermuda, leaving from a cut through the reef, north of one of the Abaco Islands.
We crossed right through the middle of the Bermuda Triangle and lived to tell about it! There were no unidentified flying objects, but we did get hit by some nasty winds. Our aging sails could not take the flogging that resulted from the large swell and swirling winds, produced by a couple of systems that passed by. One of the seams near the top of the main gave out, and about a meter of the top of the sail almost completely separated from bottom. The only thing holding the sail together was the bolt rope. Thank goodness it held as I tugged at it and the sail finally came down. The Genoa also needed repairs, so once the rain clouds had disappeared and the seas had calmed, both sails were on the deck being taped and sewn as we motored westward with the auto pilot keeping us on course. Twice during the repairs, we had to stop and secure the sails, put our equipment away and endure a lengthy thunder shower. The weather window was not as ideal as we had been led to believe!
Bermuda is a gorgeous spot, clean, tidy and very British. It is a low-lying series of coral islands connected by bridges with beautiful beaches, sparkling clean water, super weather and colourful fragrant flowers everywhere. Bermuda has a fascinating history: a Spanish navigator, Juan de Bermudez discovered it in 1505, but didn’t stop due to the weather. In 1609 Sir George Somers, a British lord whose ships, which were bound for the Carolina’s, were wrecked upon it’s shores and a colony was eventually begun. The British recognized it’s usefulness as a spot to repair their fleets during the American War of Independence. St. George’s Harbour is a wonderful natural harbour where you can anchor, free of charge. Convicts were also sent here in the 1700’s and lived on derelict war ships while they were forced to work on repairing still useable ships. There are tales of pirates, yellow fever and deprivations suffered by the soldiers stationed there; great stuff if you are a history buff.
We decided to replace our sails there and spent a month getting to know the Island. The sails were made in the Barbados and we inquired whether it was possible to have them shipped to the Azores where we could pick them up. We were informed that we would have to pay a 25% Value Added Tax on them if we chose to pick them up in the Azores, which is a member of the EU. The tax would be refunded once we left the EU. We did not want to attempt that bureaucratic nightmare, so decide to wait in Bermuda for the sails. It was hard to see boats leave to continue their Atlantic crossing when we were unable to. We had hoped to be in Turkey for the winter, so our time line was being severely pushed with the five-week delay.
A named storm passed about 150nm north of Bermuda while we waited. The hurricane season, which begins in June, was upon us, but historically Bermuda had never been hit early in the year. Winds up to 40 knots screamed across the Bay and the driving rain made boats just 30 meters away almost invisible.
We watched as an Amel 50 dragged anchor slowly past us in the middle of the night. We called on the radio and blew our horn at them, but they did not respond in any manner. Thank goodness their anchor finally caught and held them off the reef- infested lee shore. We have a 15 kilogram kellet and that, with 70 meters of chain, held us safe and secure in 8 meters of water.
We set off the day after we received our sails. It is 1,700 nautical miles to the Azores. The conventional wisdom says to head north-northeast to stay above the Azores high, and once you’ve reached 40 degrees north latitude, you can turn east. There was a system tracking northeast past us and to avoid it, we headed due east. We got caught in the edge of it and headed south- southeast to get away from the storm. A SSB net had been arranged with a group of boats that left just ahead of us, so we could get detailed weather reports about the conditions in front of us. Once this front had cleared, we heard that the others were experiencing the Azores high, with clear skies and very light winds. We skirted the edge of the high by heading almost due north and could make good time. Once we reached 41 degrees north latitude, we changed direction to the east-northeast and were caught in the high about 72 hours from our destination of Flores. We turned on the motor and motor sailed the rest of the way, sailing 2,175 miles to cover a 1,700 mile journey.
The Azores are a group of seven islands that belong to Portugal. They are located on the ridge where two tectonic plates meet and are quite mountainous, with volcanic craters all over the land mass. For the main part, the Islands are very rural and as they are well over 1,000 nm from anywhere, they have not been over-run with cruise ships filled with tourists. Europeans holiday here, taking in the stunning scenery and making good use of the numerous hiking trails. The sailing is excellent between and around the Islands, with lots of anchorages and decent, if sometimes crowded, marinas.
Flores, our first stop, is the most westerly point in Europe. It was great to see it about a year after seeing the most easterly point in North America, just outside of St. John’s Newfoundland. We anchored outside the marina, the winds were such that the outer wall offered good shelter. Portuguese is the main language on the Islands, but we found there was quite a bit of English spoken, especially among people working in the tourist industry. We took a tour of Flores, and its mountainous volcanic centre was worth seeing, as were the terraced fields on the hillsides, lined with rocks and blue hydrangea hedges, all quite stunning.
It was an overnight sail to the Island of Faial, where we opted to take a spot at the marina. Prices were quite reasonable and the access to shore was worth it. We left our sign on the harbour wall, as thousands of other sailors had done before us. The city of Horta was typically European, with narrow streets and three story buildings, with no spaces between, giving us the feeling that we were on a Jason Bourne movie set. The Portuguese “football” team won the European Championship and it was quite something to be in the bar with the rabid fans, while it was taking place. It was similar to Canada winning an Olympic hockey gold medal. We took a ferry over to the Island of Pico, and hiked up Pico one lovely day. It was a tough climb; the footing being tricky the higher you got on the volcanic rock, but being above the clouds on the highest peak in Portugal was well worth the pain.
Our final stop in the Azores was the Island of Sao Jorge. We checked that there was room at the marina before we left, as there are not very many spots to anchor. Hiking up into the hills from the harbour offered great views, and we found a wonderful spot for some lunch, tucked away in a small village. The community had made a super swimming spot by pouring some cement along the edges of a small, natural bay to give bathers a place to sit down and walk around without slipping on the jagged volcanic rocks. There were ladders built into the structure to allow great access to the water. It was very innovative; we had never seen anything quite like it.
Time was slipping away and if we wanted to make it to Turkey for the winter, we needed to make tracks. The reason we chose Turkey is because it is outside of the Schengen Agreement area. The Schengen Agreement limits the amount of time non-EU members are allowed to spend in the member countries. At the moment, Canadian are only allowed to be in the country 90 days out of 180. Three months is not a lot of time to sail from the Azores to Turkey. Our passage to Portugal was mostly hard on the wind. We did not think we were going to be able to make the southwest corner of Portugal, but as we got closer to land, the wind angle changed and we did not have to tack to make our landfall of Lagos, Portugal. We carefully crossed the tanker traffic lanes, the busiest we had seen since Singapore. We had a wonderful trip down the Algarve coast of Portugal and on in to Gibraltar. That will be the subject of another article. We used the RCC Pilotage Foundation cruising guide for the Atlantic Islands. It includes the Azores, Madeira Group, Canary Island and Cape Verdes, and it has a lot of very useful information; we would highly recommend it. Our blog has many other stories on it.