Things haven’t gone quite to plan this month…. Our plan for this summer’s cruising was somewhat more ambitious than usual. After ten years away from Bristol, Aremiti is going home! We had already brought the boat out of the Med at the end of last summer and she had been patiently waiting for us in Faro in the Algarve all winter. However, given our previous experience of slogging northwards against the wind up the coast of Portugal, we decided to make the return trip home via the Azores - a last exotic fling, and probably our last big sailing adventure before settling into a more sedate style of cruising as befits our age. The Azores is an iconic destination for ocean yachtsmen and we were keen to add this adventure to our experience and to explore these little known islands set so far out into the Atlantic. The plan was to depart from the southwest corner of mainland Portugal in early June, for the 800 mile passage to Santa Maria, the nearest of the islands, spend a few weeks cruising between the islands and then to return direct to the UK – 1200 miles – making landfall, we hoped, in the Scillies in August.
The ‘Azores High’ is the weather system dominating the northern Atlantic – a large semi-permanent centre of high pressure. This creates winds from the north nearer the mainland moving around to easterly and then southerly air flows - perfect conditions for our projected passage west from the mainland. This system drifts around with the seasons, but is generally established and stable during the months of June, July and August.
Keen to get away as early as possible in June, so as to give ourselves the maximum time cruising the islands, before setting off back to the UK well before Autumn gales set in, we spent ten days at the end of April preparing Aremiti for her two ocean passages. As well as all the usual preparations for a summer’s sailing, we had our life-raft serviced, genoa repaired, rigging checked. We applied a new coat of non-slip paint to the deck, checked out the short-wave which would enable us to receive weather forecasts and emails while far offshore, and obtained new flares. Most importantly we arranged for various friends to join us along the way – Trudy and Geoff (who sailed with us from Crete to Malta last year) for the leg from mainland Portugal to Santa Maria, Jean to cruise some of the islands with us, and Chris – who’d sailed with us from Sardinia to Andalucia with us last year – to join us for the long passage home. All set to go - we thought!
On arrival back on board at the start of June we were pleased to find that the forecast for our planned date of departure out into the Atlantic in about a week’s time was exactly what we wanted, with the Azores High perfectly in place. However, we were immediately beset by a number of unforeseen problems with the boat. One of the final departure jobs was to fill the freshwater tanks – whereupon we detected a dripping sound. Aremiti has four water tanks, and on investigation we found that one which we’d had repaired in Turkey three years earlier had started leaking again. The capacity of the leaking tank was 17 gallons, out of a total capacity of 91 gallons. We didn’t feel we had time to get the tank repaired again and so decided to cut it out of the system and ditch it altogether. This left us with a mere 74 gallons – 336 litres which seemed ample for each of the planned long passages. We now have a lovely new space to fill with supplies of bottled water and fresh vegetables – so a result - of sorts! Next the battery charger/inverter appeared to be playing up. Having been unable to locate any specific problem, we’re seeing this as an indicator problem. The third rather alarming discovery was a tear in the mainsail, which it was obviously imperative to get repaired. Trudy and Geoff were about to join us and remaining on the hard in the Faro boatyard was not an option, so we decided to head for Portimao where all yacht services are available. Underlying these boat issues, while we had basked in warm sunshine in April, now in early June, the weather had become unseasonal and very markedly chilly and damp.
We used the few days waiting for the sail repair to provision the boat and to explore the hinterland in a hire car. This included a fascinating day exploring the remote and iconic peninsulars of Sagres and Cape St Vincent which would soon be our last sight of land as we set out on our passage
Finally the repair to the sail was completed and we were able to depart from Portimao only a few days later than originally hoped. We decided on an intermediate stop before launching out into the Atlantic, and set sail for Sagres 25 miles west, to anchor for a final night on the mainland. Despite a forecast of 20 knots from the north we found ourselves battling into 30 knots gusting to 35- 40. It was a boisterous, uncomfortable and wet passage, which ended as the light was fading, passing through an area strewn with fish farms. It was good to get the anchor down off a sandy beach – albeit with the wind still howling. This mini-epic was a rude awakening, shaking us out of our marina complacency and providing a reality check. It also revealed a number of leaks around the boat. After a good night’s sleep we got things better stowed for the long trip and set off in good order.
Our forecast on departure showed northerly winds which should give us a good beam reach westwards. This was to be followed by a small low moving north-westwards half way through the passage, which we planned to skirt to the south of, and then use the southerlies we anticipated would follow. That was the plan - however it had become clear during the past week that the Azores High was not behaving as it should and we could not expect the fast and uneventful passage we had initially assumed of around 7 days.
We set off mid-morning in high spirits - invigorated by the sight of Cape St Vincent disappearing behind us in a blue sky. Ten miles out we started to cross the traffic separation zone, which keeps ships proceeding around that corner of Europe well apart from each other – five lanes in all over a 25 mile wide ‘motorway’. While this provided some interesting navigational issues and close encounters we were glad to reach the other side before dark.
The sailing was fast and furious and the wind had a westerly component we had not expected, pushing us to the south of our course. We hove-to to make the boat more comfortable for our evening meal together, before the start of night watches – Chris from 9-1, Trudy and Geoff from 1-5 and Julia 5-9. We were not too concerned about our course as this tallied with advice from a number of Azores afficianadoes we had spoken to that we should head south-westwards towards Madeira, where we would then pick up southerlies to waft us up to the Azores on the second half of the passage.
After 24 hours the forecast was showing large areas of calm ahead of us, before the low – which was certainly showing no signs of disappearing, and was now to be followed by westerlies. None of this was very good news. If we wanted to keep some momentum we would need to use the engine in the calms, but despite increasing our fuel capacity, we had only enough for about half the passage. We also didn’t relish the final couple of hundred miles bashing into adverse winds. We decided to monitor the situation and review in 24 hours. During that day the wind strength gradually decreased making the sailing more comfortable – though slower. In the early hours of the following morning we became completely becalmed.
Mid-morning we received the next forecast, and also a message from Chris back in the UK, who was monitoring forecasts on a larger scale and relaying these to us. Everything indicated a much worse scenario than the previous day’s predictions. The calm was set to last a couple of days, to be followed by the low which had now become far more extensive and impossible for us to skirt around. Another calm was to follow and then finally headwinds the rest of the way to the Azores. There was also indication of a second low following on the first. This picture was backed up by Chris’ message referring to Force 8 winds and 4-5 metre seas.
Added to this scenario was the discovery that the boat was quietly taking on water – obviously somewhat worrying! Chris systematically tracked this down to a seal on the exhaust water lock which he tightened, and this seemed to do the trick.
What to do? On the one hand it didn’t make sense for us to continue to plough into these conditions, on the other hand we absolutely didn’t want to give up on our dream of sailing to the Azores – not to mention letting down the visitors arranged for the summer. We could have accepted riding out the storm ahead, but the combination of calms – for which we didn’t have enough fuel, strong adverse winds and then a second low in the offing persuaded us with heavy hearts and much reluctance to turn back to mainland Portugal. We felt hugely supported in this decision by Chris back at home reinforcing our assessment, especially given that this wrecked his own plans to join us for the homeward passage later in the summer.
So, after two days and a couple of hundred miles out into the Atlantic, we changed course to head towards Lisbon – motoring in the flat calm, spending our time working out new plans for the summer. On the following day a useful wind piped up and we enjoyed an excellent sail, reaching the lanes of shipping feeding into a separation zone just north of Lisbon - unfortunately after dark – so more interesting encounters, before arriving to anchor off Cascais, just outside Lisbon at around 0900.
It had never occurred to us that this passage out to the Azores might be problematic. We were a little anxious about passage back to UK, when getting beaten up by the weather somewhere along the route seems par for the course, but we never thought we wouldn’t even get there. We’d like to thank all the friends involved in the change in plan for their support and understanding.
As we arrived on to a marina berth in Cascais, we found ourselves berthed alongside a British yacht which had been planning the same passage as us, but not even set off, given the forecast. They also knew of other boats which hadn’t set off and others who had but were forced back. Later research showed that our storm was caused, along with other unusual and intense weather patterns throughout the northern hemisphere, by anomalies in the distribution and intensity of jet streams – the Polar Jet Stream circulating much further south than usual in summer and the Arctic Jet Stream more chaotic and meandering. It was a very rare event – just our bad luck to be at the right place at the wrong time, though we could comfort ourselves with the thought that had we left on the date originally planned – a few days earlier - there might have been no avoiding this unusual meteorological event.
We continued on our way up the coast of mainland Portugal as far as the little port of Nazare – where we have left Aremiti safely tucked up - while we have magically arrived in the Azores after all – by air! More of this next time.
Julia, Chris and Aremiti