An Easy Sail to Portugal and the Caribbean
2017 – 2018
Part 1, July 2017 to November 2017
The start of this year’s cruise was hardly auspicious; Fiona began at the bottom, or, more literally, on the bottom. She was launched at Weeks Yachtyard late on a Monday afternoon, a quick check of the bilge seemed normal and we all went home. On Tuesday morning she was resting on the bottom of the travel lift slip with water inside the boat about a foot above the engine.
The engine lies beneath twelve inches of water, not a happy sight (simulated).
A panic call from the yard when they started work got me rushing down, Kevin had already got pumps in the boat but they would do no good until the leak was stopped. I splashed my way forward with water up to my thighs. I could feel quite a strong current coming from the head, it didn’t take long to find a severe leak from a hose on the starboard side and I shut the through-hull valve. Now the pumps would be effective and by lunchtime Fiona was floating again. They maneuvered the lifting straps back under the boat and by mid-afternoon she was back on the cradle where she had been the day before, considerably the worse for wear. I never put my finger on why the hose detached, it was one-inch diameter manifold that fed water to the head and wash-down pump. I had done no work in the forward head plumbing the previous winter.
Water in the main cabin after Fiona sank on launching.
It is crucial after a drowning in salt water to thoroughly wash down everything in fresh water before the sea water has a chance to dry. Fortunately my son Colin was staying with me, the two of us rushed through the boat emptying lockers and washing the interior with a hose. The deck was soon littered with gear from the interior drying in the hot sun.
Contents of the boat drying on deck. Fortunately the weather was dry.
The next priority was the diesel engine, we pumped out the sump and removed the starter, which was obviously ruined. This exposed the starter ring, Colin laboriously turned over the engine after adding new lube oil by prizing the teeth on the ring with a large screw driver. Eventually he completed six full revolutions. The 12 volt system had destroyed itself by comprehensive electrolytic action, starting with four heavy duty batteries. These we replaced and I bought many feet of thick marine style wire and large swage type terminals so that I could start to rebuild the backbone of the 12 volt distribution system.
Heavy duty terminals destroyed by electrolysis
In the meanwhile I hired three teenagers, sons of a friend of my daughter, to thoroughly wash down the insides of lockers and the cabin furniture with detergent, all were covered with a nasty scum of dirt and grease. All the electrical accessories; starter, alternators, shaft generator, etc were dispatched by the yard to an auto electric expert, some items were replaced and some rebuilt. After a few days Fiona was refloated when the errant hose was replaced. To my relief the engine fired up nicely after a new starter was installed and the lube oil was recycled again. We turned our attention to the transmission, the fluid was replaced several times and then it was put into gear. After a few trials we found the fluid was draining into the pan under the engine, clearly a leaking seal. There was no alternative but to lift the engine and transmission out of the boat and have the transmission overhauled by an expert.
The crew from Weeks’ Yard remove the engine.
By this time Colin had returned home and I had been joined by my new crew, Neil. Instead of cruising the Atlantic he found himself working in a hot, dirty engine room, at least, temporarily. The yard gang removed the engine using the travel lift once we had disconnected assorted wires, pipes, hoses and control cables, a task that took a couple of days. We also disassembled the steering system as this had to be removed with the cockpit sole to gain access to the engine. After Pat, the yard mechanic, had unbolted the Borg Warner transmission it took three people to lift the heavy unit into my car for a ride to the expert’s shop. He estimated repairs would take ten days. This gave us the chance to clean and paint the engine and engine room space, mostly carried out by my helpful neighbor, John. A technician visited the boat to clear up a problem with the refrigerator left by immersion. Neil also took the time to spend a couple of days sightseeing in New York City. I kept in touch with the transmission repair, ultimately it was decided that the work would take too long and I bought a rebuilt unit of the same type. The technician had no firm reason to account for the seal failure which could be traced to the entry of sea water; it was never operated until the fluid had been changed several times.
Neil celebrates completion of the engine paint job.
After the engine was re-installed and all the numerous connections made I asked the third crew member, Tim, to join us and we made a two hour trial run on the bay, all seemed to go well and we left two days later, August 11, for a delayed start to the 2017/2018 cruise.
Eric, Tim and Neil , the crew for the first part of the cruise.
We were about five weeks later than the original schedule and I decided to head directly for the Azores rather than a stop in Canada as first planned. The hurricane season was advancing and it was prudent to get into the eastern Atlantic as soon as possible. Bob accompanied us down the river and into the bay aboard Fireplace.
As usual I planned a stop in Block Island. En route the engine badly over heated in the vicinity of the Robert Moses bridge. We anchored and found the intake was pugged by sea grass. Outside Fire Island Inlet we found a good sea breeze and we were able to sail until abeam of Shinnecock, where the wind died. We powered the rest of the way to Block, arriving exactly twenty-four hours after we left Patchogue. It was very crowded, we stayed two nights using a town mooring at first and then moving to a CCA mooring. We made the traditional walk to the Southeast Light and had supper at Ballards. The second day Tim rented a bike and toured the island. After refueling we left for the Azores on Monday, August 14.
The trip to Flore took 16 ½ days; rather lengthy compared to previous crossings. We had fine winds for the first week, a mixture of reaching and running but when we were about 600 nautical miles from the destination we encountered a slow moving high-pressure cell that tracked our course. For days the sea was calm, the anemometer needle resolutely refused to lift off the peg and we made good about fifty miles a day, much of that due to the Gulf Stream current, I’m sure. Tim learnt how to shoot a sight using the sun. When we came to remove the old sextant from its box we found it had been inundated by the post launch flood, the half mirror was destroyed. After thinking about this problem for a day I realized that we had a roll of aluminum foil on board, which is quite shiny on one side. A little work with some scissors and we had a new mirror, although it only worked for the sun; the reflectivity was too poor to see stars. Tim got quite proficient at plotting sights as we whiled away the calm days. Neil strummed his guitar in the cockpit. At last the high moved ahead of us and we waltzed to Flores with a nice starboard reach, ironically, we furled the jib for the last half day to slow us down for an early morning arrival.
The marina at Flores was relatively quiet compared to previous visits; four cruising boats tied up. Shortly after we docked a local sailor, Orlando, stopped by to welcome us. He had been tracking Fiona’s progress on Facebook. He offered to run me over to gas station in his pick-up so that I could refill the two jerry jugs we carried. An offer gratefully accepted as it was a steep climb up the hill leading to the port. On the way across the Atlantic I had rhapsodized to the crew about the convenient pizzeria near the marina called Beira Mar. It was a watering hole for years to visiting yachties. Unfortunately it had closed. We were told the owner had bought a new bar just next to the marina, a jazzy chrome and plastic building called Bar Trancadcor but it was closed too. We eventually had several meals at a restaurant about a mile hike up the hill. There was a small grocery store behind the restaurant which we needed anyway. On the second day we took the mandatory taxi tour of the island, the mountain peaks were covered by cloud and the spectacular hedgerows of hydrangeas had faded, but it was very enjoyable , nevertheless. At a coffee shop stop-over another couple recognized the Fiona name on my cap and said we had met years before when we were both tied up at Piriapolis, Uruguay. I remembered them, what an amazing coincidence. We had lunch at a fish restaurant in the old capital, Santa Cruz. The harbor, which nearly terminated Fiona’s sailing career, had been improved slightly by adding a barrier of large boulders at the northern end. The next day was rainy, Neil and I did some boat maintenance and Tim hiked up to the top of a mountain. After three nights at Flores we left at lunch-time for an overnight to Horta, on Faial island.
The wind cooperated, we experienced mild, reaching sailing until we were abeam of the western end of Faial, when we started the engine. Although the marina was quite full they managed to find us a slip. Many boats were rafted to the wall of the breakwater, which has been my fate in the past, it is better than nothing but there is no power or water available. There had been a few changes since my last visit in 2013; for example a magnetic card was required to access the dock. The wi-fi extended to the slip area, but to get reliable internet I had to retire to the bar, which was fine; a bottle of Sagres beer cost one euro, about $1.20. Neil and Tim loved the old downtown area with the traditional Portuguese buildings. They also appreciated the modern marina facilities with warm showers and laundry machines after the somewhat Spartan marina at Flores. I touched up the painted ‘Fiona’ sign on the breakwater wall. I added the date, 2017, to the list of visits, making six altogether, starting in 1986.
Fiona’s updated sign on the dock wall, Horta.
I also found a sign painted by the Cruising Club of America, the club had a cruise in the Azores earlier in the year.
Painting at Horta left by the CCA cruise.
One day we took a taxi tour to the Caldeira, the remnant of the crater of a massive volcano.
The Caldeira, Faial Island.
From there we drove to the lighthouse at Capelhino , it had been inundated in a volcanic eruption in 1958. On previous tours only the top half of the lighthouse was visible, poking out of the ash left after the eruption. Now it has been dug out and a visitor center built nearby. The troops made a ferry ride to Pico and Tim managed to climb to the top of the brooding volcano. A technician came to fix the radar which died somewhere on the Atlantic, but he was unsuccessful. After some food shopping at Contiente and book swapping at Mid Atlantic Yacht Services we were ready to push on to the east. About this time hurricane ‘Irma’ was ravaging the Caribbean and heading for southern Florida. The destruction at St. Martin was tragic; the home of my old friend Kay has been destroyed. St. Martin was always a stopover during Fiona’s visits to the Caribbean, clearly the impact on the latter half of the 2017/18 cruise will be significant.
We motor-sailed against a light head wind from Horta to Velas, the sleepy capital of St. Jorge island, it took five hours. The office at the marina was shut up tight but we managed to get cards to operate the gate and toilets from a cleaning lady, that is all we needed. On a previous visit years ago we anchored at Velas under a steep cliff, inhabited by thousands of screaming shearwaters. Since then the government has built a small marina under the cliff and the birds had gone. A bar near the dock provided wi-fi and beer. Perhaps because we were there over a weekend we discovered the restaurants were very busy in the evening with every table full of locals, tourism was not dominant. After a couple of nights we were able to find the marina manager, pay our bill, swap a few books and move on to Angra de Heroisma on Terceira. The 55 nm leg was accomplished overnight over a calm sea using the engine at low rpm. We arrived at sunrise and tied up at the marina, which was quite familiar to me from other trips to the Azores.
We tied up next to a cruiser from Connecticut sailing a Tartan 36. Its skipper, Tim, gave us the low-down on the marina, which seemed little changed. There were, perhaps, a half dozen cruising boats at the marina. Later an English sailor, Linda, organized a cruising get-together on the dock just before sunset, about a dozen transient sailors exchanged stories and chugged the local wine. Walking in the narrow, medieval streets could be scary, although barely the width of a car, drivers came barreling through at high speed, forcing oneself to press against the rough wall. One day I climbed to the top of Mont Brasil, which overlooks the harbor. It is a few hundred feet high and was fortified in the early days of the Portuguese colonization. It is still a fort, as I passed the stone gate a bunch of disconsolate-looking squaddies were changing the guard. In WWII the British installed antiaircraft guns on the summit, I assume they were intended to protect an airfield built at the eastern side of Terceira, although I do not know who was expected to attack, Portugal was neutral during the war with a bias towards the Allies, perhaps the Vichy French in Morocco could bomb the island but it was a long way to fly for the aircraft of the day.
WWII anti-aircraft guns on Terceira island
One day with some help from Neil and Tim I re-wired the 12-volt connection to the refrigerator, it still wasn’t happy about its immersion in salt water. Tim went off on hiking tours and Neil rented a moped. On the evening of our last day we chanced upon a mad car rally; souped-up cars roared along the narrow streets, which had been partitioned off. The noise they made on the cobbled passageways was tremendous. The next day I paid the modest dockage and we left at lunch time for St. Miguel island, which I had never visited before.
We had a great sail to St. Miguel with Victor steering all the way. The marina office was closed when we arrived, it took a couple of days for us to get a permanent slip right near the Esplanade called Infanta D. Henriques. We were right in the down-town area, small medieval alleys were mixed with modern streets. Cars did their best in an environment that was never intended for them. We ate in sidewalk cafes. I toured the old fort, which is now a museum although the army still has soldiers there. I found an art gallery, the paintings were contemporary modern, not my style, but the prices were modest. Far more fun was a quaint museum in a convent then had been closed in 1895 (Museu Carlos Machado). The walls still had the elaborate, Baroque niches with statues of saints, the floors had dozens of glass cases containing stuffed birds, fishes, animals and countless displays of insects and butterflies. All were labelled with faded handwriting in Latin that looked a century old. A unique place. As usual, Tim hiked and Neil rented a motorbike. One day the three of us rented a Fiat and toured the island. Our first treasure was a roadside sign that proclaimed ‘Hydroelectrique Museum’. We drove down a steep lane to a two-story building in a valley. In 1911 an entrepreneur had installed a water turbine and 50 kW three phase generator. It was all there – meters, regulators and valves, just as it was a hundred years ago.
Electrical Panel at circa 1900s Hydroelectric plant.
In a massive cauldeira, several miles in diameter, we stopped at Lagoa Furnas. Near the lake, boiling water and mud bubbled up. Enterprising local restaurants cooked meals in the hot soil for tourists who wanted something unique. The ground was warm underfoot and the smell of sulfur pervaded the air. On the way home, we toured a small establishment that cultivated tea and prepared it for packaging. Chinese experts had been imported in the 19th century to show them how to do it. We stopped in several villages to sample the local coffee, which is very strong and served in tiny cups.
Our last island in the Azores was St. Maria. This was the first Azorean island to be discovered by the Portuguese, about 1430. It was settled about 1440 but development lagged because much larger islands, St. Miguel and Terceira, were soon discovered lying to the northwest. We tied up at the main town, Vila do Porto, at a modern marina with excellent facilities. The town is built on an escarpment that overlooks the harbor. providing a very good defensive position against the numerous raiders that plagued the island for centuries.
The ramparts at Santa Maria island.
I marched up the steep road to the town every day. Sailors from Connecticut that we first met in Angra, Tim and Bill, aboard North Star, were already tied up when we arrived. A charming British couple, Linda and Jon, were living on their Sparkman and Stevens yacht just two slips away. Quite a social Happy Hour developed, lubricated by our Mount Gay. Tim hiked the length of the island, Neil found a motorbike to rent. I did some boat maintenance. I was surprised by the apparent affluence of the islanders; new-looking cars thronged the town and the restaurants were well patronized. Apart from a little farming and fishing I couldn’t figure out where the money came from. After three days we left for Madeira, nearly five hundred nautical miles to the southeast.
The forecast called for a good wind for the first day, followed by the inevitable high, with little wind. It turned out to be an accurate prediction. Just as the wind died away Victor the Vane, who had been steering admirably, became erratic due to a large bolt working loose and falling into the sea. We started the engine but then George, our electronic autopilot, also became moody and refused to engage. We hand steered all night and the following day tried to fix the problem. Ultimately we were successful and George steered the boat to Funchal.
I had been there before but it was after night fall when we arrived and I was confused by the recent addition of a new marina. Somehow, we managed to find ourselves a slip for the night but in the morning we had to move to the old harbor, with which I was more familiar. Tim soon discovered the many hiking trails and Neil enjoyed the Madeiran cuisine. As usual I made the island van tour with Neil, it is a spectacular island. One beneficial result of being in the EU was that I was able to buy a metric bolt to repair Victor without difficulty. The chandlery was just north of the harbor, it was in a building that survived the demolition of the old waterfront to make way for the modern esplanade. The wooden beams in the ceiling looked like they were installed when Nelson’s ships were anchored in the harbor. Incidentally Madeira was very popular with the pre-steam Royal Navy, thanks to the climate, the wine, fresh food and, no doubt, the Portuguese ladies. George’s failure was due to a ticking time bomb caused by the launch sinking back in June; a splice in a cable from the rudder position sensor slowly corroded and ultimately became open-circuit. Some sweaty work In the engine room fixed that. The day after we arrived I went to a classical music concert in the old theater. The hall was modelled on La Scalla in Milan; four tiers of boxes arrange in a horse-shoe around the auditorium. The first part consisted of a Chopin concerto played by a brilliant young woman, Vanessa Mosell. After the interval the thirty piece orchestra played Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’, conducted by a rising star; Maxime Tortelier. As an encore they bashed out ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ which brought the audience to their feet. We became friendly with several other cruising boats including Nicky and Reg on Blue Velvet of Sark. They were both retired RAF pilots, Nicky was the first female military pilot I had ever met. I enjoyed several museums, especially the Museum of Electricity, which traced the development of the power system on Madeira.
We powered in light winds to our last island before sailing to the mainland; Porto Santos, which lies about forty miles to the northeast of Madeira. I had sailed there once before, in 2011, at that time the marina was very quiet. Now many more local boats have squeezed the room for visitors and we were not able to tie up at a pontoon. Instead we picked up a mooring in the harbor, this meant that for the first time on this cruise we had to rig the inflatable dinghy so we could get to shore. When we came to launch the dinghy using the staysail halyard to drop it over the side, the sheave in the block on the mast broke into pieces and the wire fractured several strands due to the sharp bend. It took us a full morning to replace that lot. The marina is located about a mile from the small (and only) town of Vila Baleira. I made the trek into town every day for a little sightseeing and shopping. Tim took his hammock and hiked all over the island, Neil toured it by renting moped. Christopher Columbus married a local girl and had a house in the town before he sailed to the New World. Credulous tourists can visit his alleged house, although I suspect it is a more modern structure put up somewhere in the right vicinity over an ancient root cellar.
The supposed house of Christopher Columbus, Porto Santos island, Azores
It was time to get to the Algarve, normally a beat against the prevailing trades. But an approaching low gave the promise of fair winds, at least for some of the leg.
A fair wind was a little late arriving but when it did we had a great reach with 10 to 12 knot wind on the starboard. We were in the SE quadrant of the remnant of hurricane ‘Ophelia’ which was lurking several hundred miles to the northwest. After it passed the wind died completely and we powered to the coast. About midnight on the night before we arrived we crossed the sea-lane to the Straits of Gibraltar. We had to avoid four ships, the last being a huge cruise liner which passed a mile ahead in a blaze of lights. Later we met about a dozen ships on the lane heading away from the Mediterranean and we had to jog from our course to avoid a collision with one ship. The blaze of lights on the coast was on view long before sunrise. We entered the HUGE marina at Vilamoura about 10:30 local time and before lunch we were tied up snugly in a slip just yards away from a boulevard full of restaurants, shops and tourists.
The marina is a very popular tourist destination, especially with Brits. The numerous restaurants on the boulevard around the basin feature a lot of British culinary delicacies, such as beans and sausage breakfast, curry and fish and chips. There are gaming galleries and dozens of shops. The whole place is engineered to separate the tourist from their Euros, although providing good value, I think. One day I took a 45-minute bus ride to Faro, an old seaport lying to the east. The ancient center still has the old wall in pretty good condition. Long ago Vilamoura was a site for many human settlements, starting with bronze age man. The Romans lived here for several centuries, not far from the marina is a very interesting excavation of a port area. The foundations of the villa used by the local big-wig included an interior heated pool, the main room was tiled with mosaics, as were some bedrooms, although they were quite small, about a hundred square feet.
Excavated Roman ruins at Villamaura, Portugal.
The site also displays many public facilities such as bathing pool and sauna. After the Romans came the Moors, but the port declined as the lagoon which was connected originally to the sea silted up. Now the small bay containing the marina is all that is left. Every morning we tackled a few boat maintenance jobs before splitting up for the day, Tim tirelessly hiked to nearby towns. I made second visit to Faro, which is the capital of the Algarve, and popped into a unique church; Senhora do Carmo. The church is Baroque, built in 1713, what is unique is an adjacent chapel made entirely of human bones!
Wall in the Chapel of Bones, Faro, Portugal
Apparently local townsfolk were given the option of being interred that way on sacred ground. Must have been a popular choice as thousands of bones, including skulls, were used to make the structure. Back at the marina I had a pleasant surprise when Frank and Barbara Fitzgibbon stopped by. They had a boat at the marina and discovered Fiona was also visiting. I first met Frank and Barbara during the 1995/97 circumnavigation.
Barbara, Eric and Frank at Villamaura, Portugal.
We had a great easterly wind for a downwind sail to Portimao when we left.
The marina was close to a famous beach; Praia da Rocha. Besides the great white sand it has many sea caves, tunneled into the cliffs by wave action over the millennia. Several times I made the tedious walk along the bank of the Arade River to the old part of Portimao. In years past the banks were covered in sardine factories, which were the major employer in the area. One of them has been converted into a museum, the most interesting exhibit is an old movie depicting life as a worker in the 1940s. The majority of workers were women who beheaded, deboned and gutted the fish. The iconic tins were made by men who operated dangerous-looking machines to cut and press tin plate. The machinery was powered by steam engines, unfortunately no relics survive although several boiler-room stacks are present on the shore, all crowned nowadays by stork’s nests. Freshness was essential, when the trawlers came to port, a steam whistle summoned the workers, at any time of the day or night. Child-care facilities were provided for mothers. On the way into town lay a large, ruined building surrounded by a high wall, as I passed during my walk I puzzled what it used to be. At the museum I discovered it was a 16th century convent. Neil rented a moped for three days and roamed the countryside. At Albufeira he knocked an item off his bucket list; he watched a bullfight! When he got back we powered the seven miles in windless conditions to Lagos, our last port on the Algarve.
Lagos turned out to be a very pleasant stopover, the marina was excellent, apart from the limited wifi coverage. The town was not over-run with tourists, at least while we were there. Tim and Neil made a couple of bus rides, I took a ride in a local dinghy to inspect the sea-caves. Quite a swell was running, the helmsman was very skillful, he took us through narrow entryways into caves that were illuminated by holes in the roof. There were numerous restaurants to choose from, including a good Indian place.
Talented street buskers at Lagos, Portugal.
We left rather reluctantly after five days when a well-placed low promised fair wind to round Cape St. Vincent and head up the Atlantic coast.
We arrived at Sines with a stiff southerly wind blowing, if we had known the weather that was coming we should have kept going and made it to Cascais, fifty miles to the north. As it was we remained stuck in Sines for nine days as a stationary high pressure system brought stiff northerly winds, at times even a severe weather alert for northeasterly gale force winds and 3 meter seas. We weren’t in any rush, so we just sat it out tucked up in the Sines Recreational Marina. Sines is an old fishing port dating back to Roman times; the town is built on top of cliffs about 200 hundred feet above the docks. The road to the old town winds past the defending fort. I made the climb to the shops, restaurants and pastelerias many times, no doubt with great benefit for my old heart. They are very proud that Vasco da Gama was born in Sines, he was the first European navigator to round the Cape of Good Hope and open trade with India in 1498.
Statue of Vasco da Gama, with friend.
As usual Tim roamed the countryside on foot, Neil caught a bus to Lisbon for a few days. Finally, we got a weather window and made the leg to Cascais, sailing about halfway and motor-sailing the rest. We arrived at the marina just about sunset and by the time we had refueled and tied up in a slip it was dark. As I had local knowledge I guided Tim and Neil to a food court at a mall for a quick meal. As I thought they would, Neil and Tim loved the twisty streets of the old town. After a day or two Neil moved into a hotel and prepared to undertake a tour of some European capitals. Tim and I took the train to Lisbon and did some general boat maintenance. The evenings were chilly but by lunch time the temperature was about 70°F. I arranged to get the Aries to a good machinist and on a second visit to Lisbon I took the sextant to an old-fashioned ship’s chandlery founded in 1860 to get the mirrors replaced. Nearby was a museum devoted to communication, really the history of the Portuguese Post Office. There were excellent exhibitions of undersea cable laying, telephones and radio. I really enjoyed it but my day was spoilt returning to the train station; I had ten minutes to catch the next train to Cascais and was stepping out briskly along the sidewalk. On my right was a busy street separated from the sidewalk by large, vertical metal poles. Suddenly I found myself sprawled on the ground; two of the poles had been placed horizontally and I had tripped over them. Presumably the poles had been rotated to allow a vehicle access to buildings on my left, but they had never been returned vertical. My hip was very sore, but I limped to the station and just made the train. Sitting down took the weight off my hip joint, but it took a few days for the pain to subside.
Every day I wandered into town to do a little shopping, usually for food, and ate lunch and sometimes supper at one of the dozens of restaurants. The weather was benign with a day-time temps near 70°F. After a week the Aries was returned, the machinist had done a good job. I had noticed the VHF antenna had disappeared from the masthead, I spent a couple of days trying to track down an auto parts place and ultimately I was able to get a replacement car antenna, which would do the job. The machinist made an adaptor to match the metric thread on the antenna to the American on the masthead fitting but actually mounting the antenna turned into comedy of errors with potentially serious consequences. My normal way to each the masthead when I needed tools up there was to be wound up in a bosun’s chair using the main halyard. Neil had been the halyard grinder for the cruise, but he was long gone. I briefed Tim on the techniques of operating the reel winch, but obviously not well enough, and started the ascent. Halfway to the spreader the chair made few jerky motions and came to a stop. ‘What’s the matter?’ I shouted to Tim. ‘Dunno,’ he replied, ‘seems to be stuck.’ ‘Wind me down,’ I suggested ‘and we will start over’. But Tim could not move the winch handle, up or down. I was suspended fifteen feet above the deck apparently permanently, despite efforts by Tim to free the wire rope on the winch with a screwdriver or pliers. This is where the great virtue of having ratlines pays off; I was able to swing to the outboard side of the starboard shrouds, which are equipped with ratlines, unfasten the shackle linking the chair to the halyard and climb down the ratlines, “wearing” the bosun’s chair, so to speak. To free the jam I had to unbolt the winch barrel from the mast and carefully ease the wire with a sturdy screwdriver so as not to break a strand. Fixing the VHF antenna was put off to another day, or another crew.
The next day we took the bus to Sintra, a traditional outing when we are tied up at Cascais. We took the scenic route there, via Cabo de Roca, and the direct route back as it was almost dark when I left Sintra. After the Sintra Royal palace and lunch we took the circular bus to the Moorish Castle , built around 500 to 800 AD when the Arabs occupied this part of Iberia. The battlements follow the ridge of the surrounding mountains, they must have taken millions of man-hours to construct, but the stones are roughly hewn. Standing on top of the keep, the highest point, I felt very uneasy near the edge of the platform facing a 50 foot drop with no wall. Also It was very windy, my sense of balance has gone to hell and I beat a hasty retreat. Next stop was the Palace de Pena, a long walk up a steep road but I made it without a major heart attack. At this point Tim and I split, he had more to see and I made my way to the bus station. The next day I took the train to Lisbon to pick up the sextant which had been repaired by a nautical equipment company founded in 1860. With new mirrors the image was brilliant and better than before the unintended immersion. There was plenty to see and on my last weekend on the boat for a while; visit by a Russian square-rigger, replica of a 1703 frigate, dozens of yacht clubs, from as far away as Madeira, congregated here for a weekend of dinghy racing and two flea markets set up shop in public squares and parks.
Russian Square-Rigger at Cascais, Portugal, replica of 1703 frigate.
We got up very early on Sunday and Tim high-tailed to the airport by summoning an Uber car. We heard from Neil, who was also flying home, he had visited several Spanish cities and Tangiers in Morocco. I flew to New York a few days later.
Part 2, January 2018 to May 2018
A couple of days after I arrived back in Cascais the new crew showed up, Tom and Andy. Tom has made two Atlantic crossings aboard Fiona and Andy sailed from Scotland to Baltic and on through the Kiel Canal on the 2015/2016 cruise. Tom is a professional artist, he brought along a collection of supplies including canvasses and an easel. While we were at Cascais he completed a charming painting of the harbor with a street sweeper in the foreground, a local character. We spent a little over a week working on a variety of repairs and improvements to the boat; a new cable from the radome to the chart plotter brought the radar back to life, moving the heater thermostat to the main cabin greatly improved heater performance. When we refilled the water tanks we found that sadly two 50-gallon stainless steel tanks had developed leaks. Stainless steel tends to crack over the long term, rather tedious repairs will be needed next summer. To avoid the potential catastrophe of a leak in the third tank I bought two polyethylene jerry jugs to store emergency water on deck. On two occasions we trekked to the ‘Jumbo’ supermarket and stocked the boat with vital supplies such as beer and food. We returned to the marina with piles of goodies via ‘Uber’, a first for me and very impressive. A couple I had first met in 1995 on the round the world cruise, Carol and John, contacted me to say they had moved to Portugal, they were able to travel to Cascais in time for our departure and helped untie the lines. A high-pressure system had moved in giving strong northerly winds for several days, a great incentive to leave at once for Madeira.
Within an hour of leaving we had to tie a reef in gale force winds gusting up to 45 knots. But the boat held together, and we sailed through the night as the wind and seas slowly dropped. The wind direction was almost dead astern, the wind speed rarely dropped below 25 knots. We crashed through the four-foot swell, but the spray was blown away from the boat, which made for dry sailing. During the day we gybed several times to maintain a heading corresponding to the rhumb line course to our first waypoint off the island of Porto Santo, about 40 miles east of Madeira. On the second night the stars shone brilliantly in a clear sky. A waxing moon made the sea look like burnished silver, memorable sailing three hundred miles northeast of Madeira. The next day we rigged the whisker pole on the port side. The idea was to run wing and wing, which would be more efficient than tacking downwind as we had been doing. But the gusty wind caused the jib to flog and threatened its destruction, so we furled it almost right away. The wind continued strong for rest of the leg. In fact, we made the complete transit from Cascais to Funchal mostly under a reefed storm mainsail, and we rarely ventured to set the jib. The last night, under a hundred miles from the destination, we passed through a front. The wind almost died for a few hours and we experienced rain, lightning and a shift in wind from northeast to northwest. All this under a brilliant full moon that illuminated the storm-tossed waves as the clouds briefly parted. Then the wind came roaring back with full gale strength. Within minutes the wind peaked at 40 knots, the boat made an unintentional gybe and all three of us were kept busy sorting things out. We made landfall on the small island of Cima with its welcoming light and thundered down the coast towards Funchal with a shrieking wind on the starboard. At the end Andy had to hand steer as the turbulent seas made conditions too taxing for George, the autopilot. Fortunately the wind dropped as we headed for the harbor under the lee of a large cape, the only complication was that the mainsail was jammed by a reefing line wrapping round the light on the spreader, a violent tug got it free. We tied up at the old stone jetty thankful to be on solid land.
We had a fair amount of minor maintenance to deal with which kept us busy in the mornings. The afternoons were free for touring the picturesque city of Fuchal, with its numerous museums, coffee shops and parks. My old friend, Louise, veteran crew member, flew in the day after we arrived, she planned to escape the New York weather for a week. We went to the Botanical Gardens to hunt down the headquarters of the National Parks, it was hidden in a decaying, echoing building, all we wanted was a permit to sail to the Selvagens Islands, but the key official was absent for the day. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the Victorian-era museum and later the exotic trees and plants of the Gardens. The ride back to town was a hair-raising trip through narrow, winding streets and alleys of the old town in a bus, which would have been a hit at Disney World. One day three of us made an island tour, Tom elected to stay on the boat working on his masterpiece painting; ‘FIONA in a Storm off Madeira’.
Painting by Tom Lohre, ‘Fiona in a Storm.’
The highlight of the tour was a chance encounter with the local carnival in the town of Santana, on the north coast. It was a scene of bustling activity, with bands, decorated floats and stalls mostly selling meat kebobs. Funchal is a very musical city, we went to a string orchestra concert with pieces by Bach, Mozart and Handel, One evening we went to a recital in the ‘English Church’ presented by a brilliant young Russian couple, who are married to each other ; Andrei and Olga Ladeichikova. As it turned out the Carnival in Santana was just one of many that gripped Madeira, it was the equivalent of Mardi Gras. By the weekend they would all converge on Funchal. Louise had a return flight to New York booked for Thursday but on Wednesday the weather turned nasty; very strong winds developed, curiously, the sky remained clear with brilliant sunshine. Winds of 60 knots were reported in the harbor, the departure of a cruise ship was delayed and the sea was covered with white caps. We remained snug in the protected inner harbor. However, the operations of the Portuguese airline, TAP, were completely disrupted. When Louise and I arrived at the airport on Thursday there were frustratingly long lines and the departure board was full of ‘Delayed’ and ‘Cancelled’. Eventually after a long day we returned to the boat and it was Saturday before she could finally get away. At least she got an extra day in Funchal, we were able to see the gathering of the gaily decorated parades and brass bands.
As soon as Louise was winging her way home we cleared with local police and set sail for the Selvagem Islands, for which we had a visitor’s permit. The forecast was for 20 knot winds from the northeast, but when we poked our nose well beyond the breakwater we found gusty winds to 30 knots. We set the storm mainsail with a reef tied in and had a wonderful sail with Victor the Vane in control. The leg of about 160 nm was completed in a couple of hours over a full day; we contacted the warden by radio and told we could use a mooring in the small cove. We were secured by noon, after lunch and a nap we started to assemble the inflatable dinghy. When we attempted to start the outboard engine, we found it was frozen solid, a common occurrence after it had not been used for a few months. A little work with a chain wrench soon solved that problem. It was too late to go ashore by then, after supper we enjoyed a night’s sleep disturbed only by the swell and Fiona’s hull sometimes bumping on the mooring buoy. In the morning we chugged over to a concrete ramp built between large rocks in a tiny bay. The warden and two policemen helped up us drag the dinghy up the ramp and we climbed up a few steps to their dwelling. The police filled out a form with details from our passports and the boat documentation. We were free to explore the lonely island of Selvagem Grande. The guide book mentions the enormous flocks of migratory birds that visit the island and the vast number of rabbits that lived on the interior plateau. Tom set up his easel and prepared to paint the vista from the veranda of the warden’s house. Andy and I started the ascent of the steep cliff behind the house. The trail zigzagged up the forty-five-degree cliff for about three hundred feet vertical climb. I found it rough going; in recent years my sense of balance has deteriorated; balancing on rough stones with a sheer drop on one side made me very uncomfortable. Andy is an experienced climber and bounded up the path like a mountain goat, delayed only by waiting for me. After about a half-hour we reached the top, a path marked by small stones led across the interior to a cairn at the north end of the island.
Eric at the summit of Salvagen Grande island.
The view was desolate, there were no trees and the ground was littered by lichen-covered stones. A few black lizards skittered about but there were no birds or rabbits. We marched across to the cairn, snapped the obligatory photos and made our way back to the cliff. After a VERY careful descent we returned to the warden’s place. He told us it was too early for the birds and the rabbits had been eliminated years ago as they were an invasive species. The police gave us a bottle of beer, it was very welcome. Tom had made good progress with his painting, so we left him to it and dinghied back to the boat for lunch and a nap. Later we picked up Tom, put the dinghy away and after a quiet night set sail for the Canary Islands, about 150 nm to the south.
The sail to La Gomera took a few hours longer than a day. The conditions were perfect, Andy remarked that this is what he left Scotland for. The wind dropped during the night, but we kept sailing, when the sun rose the wind came back. As we approached our destination the great bulk of el Teide on Tenerife, rising to over 9,000 feet, caused a wind shadow and we powered to San Sebastian for a couple of hours. The marina was pretty full, but they found a slip for us. Unfortunately, when we had raised sail earlier a line in the point reefing grommet caught on something and the strain produced a tear in the mainsail about eighteen inches long. This would have to be repaired before we sailed again. But good luck intervened; at the marina I ran into an old acquaintance from previous visits, Owen, and he arranged a repair at a sailmaker on Tenerife. I didn’t have the trusty Read sewing machine on the boat, and the cloth seemed too thick for easy hand-sewing.
The next day we wandered over to the largest supermarket in town and laid in all the liquids we need for the Atlantic crossing; beer, milk and juice. This was repeated the following day for all the non-perishable food items such as canned veggies, spaghetti, etc. Shopping here can be tricky, shops and services all shut down for siesta between 1 pm and 4 pm. Perhaps it’s the weather; 80°F on deck as I sit in the cabin writing this. The days passed pleasantly, on Saturday the sail was returned after a quite inexpensive repair. Most days Tom paints in the cabin or on deck if it is not too windy. The subject of his latest painting is a shot of Fiona on a stormy, moon-lit night. Sunday we filled the water tanks, did the laundry and prepared for a sail to el Hierro Island on Monday.
We were able to get away by 9 am, we powered down the coast and set sail to a brisk northerly wind after an hour. It was the first time we had used the full main on this cruise, the reef lines needed some work to get rigged properly. Victor the vane could not deal with weather helm produced by the full mainsail and eventually we tied in the second reef. After some deliberation we decided to head for Puerto de Estanca at the northeast side of the island. Rumor had it that a new marina had been built. As we approached the island I was astonished to see several sailboats behind us, all heading for the same destination. This is a bit like seeing several Rolls Royces parked in the lot of a Thrift Store. Fortunately, there was room for everyone in the new marina; we had stumbled by chance on a rally by eleven German sailboats that were cruising the Canaries sponsored by an organization called ‘European Insurance Services’. The planners of the marina never counted on that; there was only one toilet in the men’s room. During Happy Hour a young lady from Poland, Margo, appeared on the pontoon looking for a ride to the Caribbean. Although we could not offer that, we gave her a rum cocktail, some spaghetti and she wound up wrapped in a spare blanket sleeping in the cockpit. She said it was better than the cave she was living in. In the morning we caught an infrequent bus to Valverde, the capital. Located a few miles from the coast it is a steep climb to its almost 2,000 feet altitude. The guide book says the street plan is almost unaltered since Columbus visited on his second voyage, although we found the town without much charm and caught the next bus, three hours later, back to the port. That evening, listening to some music in the cockpit, it suddenly stopped; consternation. The problem was failure of the 12 volt power to the player. The wiring behind the unit was nearly forty years old and in the morning I decided to replace it. We did not have enough spare wire on the boat to stretch the twenty feet or so back to the engine room. A glance at my watch showed that we were just in time to catch the same bus to Valverde that we had caught the day before. Andy and I left, leaving Tom to drill holes in a bulkhead in preparation for the new installation. We were fortunate that in town we stumbled across a hardware store almost immediately that had just the wire we needed, and we caught a taxi back to the port. By then it was time for lunch, which we ate at the snack bar of the splendid reception hall of the new ferry terminal. The architecture was impressive and testimony to the deep pockets of the EU, I suspect. We left for the Cape Verde Islands about 2 pm, with the stereo playing loudly. Unfortunately, a disturbance to the northwest drove away the wind and we powered all night, not a good start to a leg that was over eight hundred miles long.
Things soon changed; a strong wind developed on the nose and for nearly two days we beat to windward against winds that sometimes reached over 40 knots. Progress was slow and a prolonged beat is not the nicest point of sailing, motion of the boat makes moving about below fatiguing. On Friday morning Tom commented that the steering felt funny, he was right; the wire rope steering cables were slack. I quickly emptied the locker over the quadrant, the wires were so slack that occasionally they slipped out of the quadrant grooves. How they got so slack remained a puzzle, but it seemed important to tighten them as Tom wrestled with the wheel in the heavy weather. It is not easy to turn the nuts on the threaded rods that adjust the cable tension under sail, but Andy and I struggled to get a turn at a time as the quadrant swung from side to side. It became clear that we were not winning, the cable was not getting tighter, something was bending. It didn’t take much time to locate the real problem; a fixture carrying two large bronze sheaves which led the wire rope from the pedestal above the engine room to underneath the aft cabin sole was moving. It was attached to a thick plywood transverse bulkhead. The bulkhead had begun to delaminate, apparently due to fatigue, which robbed the wood of its strength. All morning we struggled in the heaving boat to rig additional support for the fixture. Our temporary fix worked but when we got to Mindelo a permanent solution would have to be found.
Temporary repairs to the engine room bulkhead.
On rather prolonged reflection I decided that the deterioration of the plywood was not caused by dampness – the wood appeared quite dry and was close to the engine, which kept the area hot. I think it was a sign of age, over the years repeated microscopic flexing caused the glue to let go, once the plywood is not monolithic it loses strength. Rather like the fact that humans nowadays are dying of diseases that were uncommon a hundred years ago; we are living longer.
The weather continued to be grungy; mostly southwest wind or thereabouts, we tacked to take advantage of every change in the slant. Wind speed was constantly varying, we reefed and unreefed as necessary. On Sunday a lengthy period of violent wind, and heavy rain signaled the passage of a front. We got a wind with a northerly component that enabled us to head west and diminish the push to the east we had made for much of the trip. That night the wind veered and we enjoyed good sailing on the rhumbline, we were about 400 nm from Mindelo. Later the wind petered out and we started the engine before breakfast, but we did not have enough fuel to power to the destination. The wind continued to blow from the southwest, roughly our rhumbline to the destination. We used the engine sparingly when it seemed the waves would not slow us down too much, but our progress was disappointing, especially under sail. One night we made good a distance to our destination of only 10 nautical miles, but in compensation we sailed under a brilliant full moon. As February turned into March we still had over a hundred miles to go. We emptied the two Jerry jugs we carried into the port fuel tank, that gave us a total of about 15 gallons, enough for perhaps 50 miles on a calm sea, with a margin of a couple of gallons to use in sight of the port. The weather was extremely pleasant; sunny with a temperature reaching close to 80°F at lunch time. We enjoyed our happy hour snacks and cocktails in the cockpit. Ironically, I sailed the same leg, Canaries to Mindelo single-handed in 2013 in about 6 days, but this time the leg took 9 1/2 days. Clearly, we had been very unlucky with the wind this time. We arrived at the marina at Mindelo on St. Vincent island with a gallon or two of diesel sloshing in the tanks – the fuel gauge is not accurate to that margin, particularly if the boat is rolling.
We stayed six days at the marina in Mindelo, which seemed little changed since my last visit. Neither Tom nor Andy had ever been to this part of the world before, so it was all exciting for them. In the mornings we carried out some essential tasks, leaving the afternoon free for sightseeing or just napping. The most important job we completed was the reinforcement of the bulkhead carrying the sheaves for the steering system. The marina dockmaster, Steve, was very helpful in finding parts for us. Tom started a large painting of Fiona being hit by a whale, an incident that actually occurred off the south coast of St. Vincent many years ago
Tom painting in the main cabin.
Most days we had a sandwich and a beer or two for lunch at the floating snack bar at the marina. There was always a lively crowd of yachties from mostly European countries, but the peak boating season was over by the time we arrived. In the twenty-six years since I first sailed to the Cape Verde Islands they have clearly got more affluent; we had a choice of several pleasant restaurants for our supper and there were many more automobiles on the streets.
Once we were clear of the wind shadow of St. Antao, which lies to the west of Mindelo, we experienced good Trade Wind sailing for day; steady ENE winds in the 15 to 20 range. We reefed the mainsail to keep the boat balanced and engaged Victor the Vane, who steered almost unattended apart from the odd ‘click’ of the course adjustment lines. Andy encountered the first flying fishes he had ever seen, are they flocks or shoals he wanted to know ?
Andy meets his first flying fish.
Tom suspended actual painting of his masterpiece and built a small wooden scale model of Fiona to help him understand the interplay of shadows and moonlight. My friend Lew, editor of my sailing videos, had sent me the raw video footage I had made of the first part of the 2017-28 cruise, with a time code appended. I spent many watches listing the ‘good’ parts to that we can put together a finished version of the video when the cruise is over. Without much effort on the part of the crew Happy Hour followed Happy Hour and we were knocking off an average of 140 nm a day. We passed the half-way point to St,Lucia a week after leaving. Unfortunately, the wind speed then began to drop and our average sank. Not only that, the wind veered so that the rhumbline course became a dead run, not a good point of sailing for Victor the Vane. Small maintenance tasks were dealt with; chafe of Victor’s line, an electrical problem with the refrigerator, etc. The Southern Cross was visible low on the port side after midnight. We celebrated the Equinox with the start of spring as the sun’ declination moved into the northern hemisphere. Tom started taking sights to brush up his celestial navigation skills. We made it to within 100 nm 0f St.Lucia without using the engine for propulsion, although we ran it for an hour every day to keep the freezer cold, but then the wind conked out and we put the old Perkins in gear. On our last night at sea the waxing moon made a silvery sea as we slowly chugged over it, keeping a sharp lookout for coastal traffic. Since leaving the Cape Verdes we had not seen a single ship, but we expected more sea traffic near the islands. We only saw one ship on the coast; a four-masted schooner carrying tourists.
We checked into Rodney Bay marina, which seemed little changed from my visit in 2012. Each morning we did a little maintenance and I was able to get the wheel cover repaired at the resident sailmaker’s loft. ‘Suds’, the local laundry took care of the dirty clothes we had accumulated on the passage. One day Andy and I took a taxi to Castries, the capital. Two large cruise ships were tied up in the harbor and the local markets were thronged with tourists. We put the inflatable dinghy in the water and tested it by sailing over to Pigeon Island. This was fortified by the British in the 1780s to keep an eye on French naval activity in Martinique, 25 miles away.
Rodney Bay viewed from the fort on Pigeon Island, St. Lucia, West Indies.
A causeway was built to connect the island with the mainland in 1970 and now it is a very popular spot for afternoon sunbathing and swimming. I suddenly realized the Easter weekend was coming up and if were had to deal with French Customs and Immigration in Martinique we had to leave earlier than planned before these offices closed. I decided on an overnight sail. Before we left two young crew off an America boat, Sarrisa and Andrew, stopped by and an informal musical party developed as Andrew brought his violin and Sarrisa strummed on Tom’s guitar. But we left at mid-might anyway for a windless sail to St,Pierre. When we got there, we found the appropriate offices were closed for a five-day weekend, so we could have taken our time.
I have visited St,Pierre several times. Starting in 1969 when Edith, Colin and I stopped by on Iona during the 1968-69 cruise. The town was completely devastated in a volcanic eruption in 1902 and on our first visit there it lay in ruins. Now it is coming back to life with shops and a produce market. Unfortunately, there is also heavy traffic, which I found very noisy. We visited the fascinating museum devoted to the 1902 eruption but in the afternoon a northerly swell worked into the bay making the dinghy dock untenable. Tom swam ashore anyway! We left at mid-night for an overnight sail to Iles de Saintes, a small group pf islands lying south of Guadeloupe.
This turned out to be a wonderful sail, a full moon turned the sea to silver and a beam wind drove us most of the way. Only in the lee of Dominica did we have to resort to the engine. We picked up a mooring about 9 am at the port of Terre de Haut. It is very popular with day-trippers from the Guadeloupe to the north and a constant stream of ferries kept the narrow streets thronged with tourists. When we went for supper to a pizzeria it was so crowded we were told an order would take a least an hour and so we went back to the boat for French cassoulet, from a can! The next morning before it got really hot Andy and I marched up the steep climb to the old Fort Napoleon overlooking the village. It has a great museum depicting life in the French army in the 18th century and a detailed display of the important naval battle fought in 1782 when a British fleet under Admiral Rodney defeated the French fleet near the Saintes.
We again overnighted to Antigua, only the great bulk of Guadeloupe robbed us of wind for a few hours. We entered English Harbour and finally dropped anchor in Freeman Bay, just to the seaward of the main dock. Clearing in took all morning, now the process is computerized and takes much longer than in the old days when an official filled out and stamped a form. Andy and I toured the museum at the dockyard, it used to have a great collection of Nelson memorabilia but it has all gone. Admiral Nelson was commander of English Harbour when it was the largest Royal Navy installation in the West Indies, he married Mrs. Nisbet there. In the evening we all had dinner ashore at a small restaurant which was the rendezvous for the weekly jam session of some local musicians. Tom brought his guitar and joined in the fun. In the morning we moved the boat to Falmouth Bay, after topping up the fuel tanks we tied up bow-to at Catmaran Marina. Next to us was a Swedish cruising boat owned by a doctor, Carl, and his wife Helmi. They had left Sweden the previous May for their first major cruise since Carl’s retirement. They spent an interesting happy hour with us, I was able to give Carl some advice on his return Atlantic crossing to the Azores, planned for late May. Just a couple of hundred yards away, across the main road to English Harbour was a small greasy spoon that served inexpensive but edible meals. We ate there every night, on our last night, a Saturday, a local DJ had set up a bank of speakers that produced audio to a painful level, even though we picked a table as far from him as we could.
The leg to Nevis was a great eleven hour down wind run, wing and wing. We picked up a mooring a mile north of Charlestown and dinghied over to the port in the morning to get customs and immigration clearance. The dinghy dock was in bad shape; we were now entering the region devastated by hurricane Irma in 2017.
The dinghy dock at Nevis, hastily repaired after hurricane Irma.
After dealing with the bureaucracy we joined an old friend, Desmond Fosbery , whom I first met during the cruise through the Caribbean in 2012. He is a retired surgeon who has written three novels since he put down his scalpel. We had a pleasant coffee together but unfortunately he had to leave us for a previous appointment on St. Kitts and departed to catch the ferry. The town is dominated by the volcano Mount Liamuiga, nearly 4000 ft, but the locals call it Nevis Peak. After some food shopping we toured the Alexander Hamilton Museum. He was born on Nevis but spent much of his childhood in St. Croix. I remember when Edith and I visited Charlestown in 1969 we were shown a rusty iron bed that was claimed to be the very bed he was born in. Now it has disappeared and the museum reflects a much more scholarly view of his life with emphasis on his contribution to the writing of the American Constitution. We dinghied ashore early in the morning, refilled the dinghy gas tank at a service station, got customs clearance and left for St Martin with a brisk easterly wind.
At first we thought we might anchor at Statia for the night but sailing with just the yankee jib we made tremendous time and passed the anchorage by 3 pm. It was another 30 plus miles to St. Martin, but we pushed on, after rounding Basse Terre Point and heading west into Marigot Bay the last few miles were a fight against a strong east wind. It was a great relief to feel the trusty CQR anchor bite firmly into the bottom, it had been a glorious sail from Nevis.
I have visited St. Martin many times over the years, my old friend Kay lives there with her daughter Victoria and son-in-law Pascal. They have a lovely apartment in a building overlooking the bay and it was with some trepidation that I pushed open the hatch and looked to the south in the morning to see if her place had escaped the ravages of hurricane ‘Irma’ the previous summer. The building was still there but the roof was in sad shape.
Kay’s apartment block ‘Le Pirate’ after a visit by hurricane Irma. St. Martin.
The large hotel next door, the Beach Plaza, was severely damaged. We managed to contact the Fort Louis Marina on VHF and they found room for us to tie up for a few days. It looked like the place had been wrecked by the hurricane, shattered slips and a few hulks were scattered everywhere. None of the usual services such as laundry, showers and internet were working reliably. The office building had been flooded up to the second floor and administrative functions had moved to a building across the street. In town many store and restaurants were shuttered, the sea had broken down the wall round the cemetery and vaults had been broken open. Fallen lamp-posts and tree stumps made the sidewalk hazardous. We carried out maintenance chores and to get some spare parts took the inflatable dinghy into Simpson Lagoon to a large ship’s chandlery. Here devastation was on every hand; sunken boats, masts sticking drunkenly out of the water and abandoned buildings on the shore.
Wrecks litter Simpson Lagoon, St. Marten.
One night we had dinner with Kay and her family at a restaurant near the marina which seemed in decent shape, except for slow service. They regaled us with horrifying stories of the night the hurricane struck. Victoria had managed to rent a car and took us on a tour around the French part to see the damage and let me replenish Fiona’s rum stores. The next day we took the bus to Philipsburg, on the Dutch side. Despite a cruise ship moored on the dock the streets were deserted. Normally the main drag is thronged with tourists, but they have abandoned St. Marten until the hurricane damage is repaired, which will take a long time, I suspect.
Our next stop was the British Virgin Islands, we overnighted with a 15 knot following wind across the Anageda Passage. We made our usual stop at Virgin Gorda to clear in with Customs and Immigration. The normally-crowded marina was almost deserted, the yard which lay on the path to the customs building was full of shattered boats, many covered with barnacles which showed they had spent months underwater before being salvaged. At the marina a row of shops and offices were deserted, the interiors completely gutted and full of twisted pipes and beams.
The interior of shops at Virgin Gorda marina.
Somehow a restaurant had been brought back into service, we had a cup of coffee with some banana bread. The waitress was from Brazil, surprisingly. From Virgin Gorda we made the short sail to Trellis Bay on Beef Island, a cruising ground that was very familiar to Edith and myself when we sailed the Virgins in the ‘60s. This made the devastation there even more heart-rendering. The south shore was literally a wall-to-wall row of wrecks.
Wrecks lined up on the shore of Trellis Bay, British Virgin Islands.
All the small bars and restaurants had been damaged but re-building was progressing. We ate dinner ashore at one that was functioning again. The next we sailed west through the Sir Francis Drake Passage along the shore of Tortola to Soper’s Hole at West End. We had hoped to squeeze in a ferry ride to St. Johns in the US Virgin Islands, but it turned out that the ferry had moved operations from West End to Road Harbour, so we abandoned that idea. Almost nothing remained intact at Soper’s Hole. Even the grocery store was closed. We managed to get a pizza for supper at the only restaurant, even paying was a problem, the Virgins use US dollars as the local currency, but no banks or ATMs were working. In the morning we made a wet dinghy ride to the only functioning grocery store in the area, about two miles to windward. Then we sailed Fiona to Great Harbor, Jost van Dyke, our last stop before leaving for Bermuda.
Jost van Dyke has always been a bit special for me. Edith and I first visited as charter guests aboard Maverick in 1962. The island then was almost deserted, a few black families lived on it, many of the men worked elsewhere. There were no wide roads and no vehicles, stony footpaths wound over the hills. The women wore sturdy, hob-nailed, army boots. We had spent New Years’ Eve anchored in Great Harbour. Lionel Chinnery rowed out in a small wooden boat and played his guitar for us. We tried to teach him ‘Yellow Bird’. It all seemed very romantic. Since then I have visited many times with Iona and Fiona. ‘Foxy’ started his bar in 1968 and it has since become a de rigeur stopover for the many bare-boat charters that cruise the BVI. When we arrived, the harbor was fairly empty, but it filled up with charterers during the day, the majority sailing catamarans. Foxys was functioning and seemed to have suffered little structural damage, although many palm trees had disappeared or were leaning drunkenly. Clearly it had been flooded, for years guests stapled boat cards or other souvenirs to the wooden roof beams, these looked like they had been rather soggy at some time.
Eric at Foxy’s Bar, Jost van Dyke, BVI.
The rest of the village had been heavily damaged, the concrete government building was almost all that had been left standing on the road along the beach. The four walls of the church remained upright without a roof.
All that remains of the church on Jost van Dyke, BVI.
A priority was to get some bread for the trip north. I bought the one remaining loaf at the bakery and ordered three more for the next day, when we planned to depart. We ate supper at Foxys on both nights of our stay accompanied by the clamor of many mildly inebriated yachties enjoying themselves. In the morning we picked up the loaves and began to prepare the boat for the 850 nm leg to Bermuda. Too late, I discovered we had been given small loaves.
Bringing the British Virgins back to normality will take years, hopefully insurance payouts will cover much of the damage to private boats and buildings, the British Government will have to help to restore the infrastructure. Besides the financial factor I wonder where the skilled help will come from – for example, the utility service posts that stood on the concrete pontoons at the marina in Virgin Gorda had all been wiped out as boats were driven over the pontoons by surging water. Tangles of wires and pipes lay everywhere, re-building will take experienced artisans and skill.
An hour after leaving our mooring we rounded the west end of the island and laid a course for Bermuda in the GPS. Then a vicious squall descended upon us – in minutes the wind speed climbed to 40 knots, the jib was flogging violently and we were drenched with cold rain. It took us a few minutes to sort things out, but within an hour we were sailing again in the familiar 15 knot Trade Winds with blue sky and fleecy clouds over head. This great wind stayed with us for three days as Fiona reeled off the miles at an average of over 6 knots with Victor the Vane in command on a starboard beam reach. Near 27°N we finally ran out of the Trades and we powered for half a day until we picked up head winds from a high-pressure cell lying southeast of our destination. The wind slowly veered and we romped to Bermuda on a starboard reach. While we were still several hundred miles from land a small bird appeared perched on a life ring, a variety of swallow. As night approached it made swooping circuits round the boat and seemed determined to spend the night in the main cabin by flying through the companionway. We kept chasing it out as these wandering birds are not uncommon and usually die in a quiet corner. This one eventually sneaked into the aft cabin and we did not discover it until the morning when it flew away. I hope it survived although the nearest land, the Bahamas, was a long way for it to fly. Early on the morning we arrived at Bermuda the weather turned grungy; the wind dropped to nothing and we were soaked in a drenching rain. George, the electronic autopilot, had died the day before due to an internal electrical problem and I had to hand steer in the rain as it was my turn at watch. After about forty-five minutes a slight wind developed, and I decided we could sail if we shook out the reef in the mainsail which had been there most of the trip. Sailing meant that Victor could steer, no doubt that influenced me, but it was a mistake. As soon as Tom and Andy had shaken out the reef the wind came back with a roar, of course. At the same time it veered, which put our desired course dead down wind. Victor had difficulty coping with the weather helm caused by the full main. To balance the boat we rigged the whisker pole to starboard and set a reefed jib wing and wing, all in all, a very busy watch. We tied up at the customs dock in St. George’s at 12:30 pm, exactly 6 days after we left Jost van Dyke. This is a record for Fiona, in 2016 the leg took 10 days and a week was the average time for a Bermuda to Caribbean trip. At least the bread held out.
After clearing customs, we were able to tie up alongside on Ordnance Island, a great spot that put us right in the center of St. George’s.
Fiona tied up at Ordnance Island, St, George’s, Bermuda.
The next day Tom and Andy explored the town, this was their first visit to Bermuda and so everything appeared novel. The following day I introduced them to the wonderful public bus system, we trundled along in the pink and blue buses on the scenic coastal road to the capital, Hamilton. The next day Tom’s wife, Irene, and brother Chuck flew in and the family retired to a B&B. My old friend and crew, Lew also showed up. During the next week we took care of a few maintenance items and toured the many attractions. We spent a half day at the old naval dockyard, now the port for the massive cruise ships that visit Bermuda.
Old cannons are aimed at a massive cruise ship, the Dockyard, Bermuda.
In Hamilton I was particularly impressed by the underwater museum, which had been revamped since my last visit there. Bernie Oatley came to the dock every day, now in his nineties he has been greeting boats to Bermuda for as long as I can remember. I was pleased that I was able to make the walk to Gates Fort and ramble along the coast past the spot where the Sea Venture crashed on the reef in 1609, and on to lovely Tobacco Bay. I have been making the same walk since 1968, it is a personal measure of how fit I am keeping. I think both the crew and our guests thoroughly enjoyed their stay in Bermuda.
The forecast looked fine for our departure to Long Island. The usual front lay to the north between us and our destination. We made great time for the first day and made good 145 nm noon to noon. The second night the wind petered out and we lay becalmed in a choppy sea that eschewed using the engine to make some progress. Then a small low tracked along the front and we experienced very variable winds with heavy rain. Slowly we worked our way northwestward, the seawater temperature crept up into the high eighties as we neared the Gulf Stream. The wind faded but the sea surface was so disturbed that we made little progress using the engine. A small bird hitched a ride and then later a peregrine falcon sank its talons into the whisker pole before flying away.
A Peregrine Falcon hitches a ride on the way to Long Island.
At last the water temperature began a precipitous drop, signaling that we had passed the north wall of the stream. Then to my surprise the water temperature began to climb again and our speed over the ground jumped up. We had encountered a warm eddy, a tendril of warm water that had broken away from the main core of the current. The last 100 nm was completed under power averaging 6.3 knots so that we would make Fire Island Inlet exactly at high tide. Suddenly about 50 nm from the inlet the old Perkins stopped dead. Very unusual. I thought ‘there goes our transit at the right time’ but the stoppage was apparently caused by an air lock in the fuel system and a sweaty half hour in the engine room got the engine running sweetly again. We got to the inlet precisely as planned and tied up just as darkness descended at 8:30 pm, local time, at Weeks Yacht Yard. It was the end of my 2017/2018 cruise and the completion of my 27th Atlantic crossing. What next?