Pulling around the southern tip of Monte da Guia on the island of Faial in the Azores, it was hard to comprehend that we had just completed the most difficult part of our transatlantic crossing. Having left Jensen Beach, Florida, almost a month before, we had stopped in Bermuda for a couple of weeks before untying the lines 8-1/2 days prior and pointing the bows ever east toward the Azores. For so many years we had worked to get to that moment of arrival, pushing through boat construction, fear, and inexperience, and now the relief and sense of accomplishment on completing the goal was surreal.
Who would have thought that the bucket list of future dreams my husband and I had written back in university (the one that included “#6: Live on a boat and cross the ocean”) would become a reality almost 20 years later and would involve a 65-foot fiberglass power catamaran shell we found in a farmer’s field in New Zealand and our two teenagers, Lauren and Stefan? Now, with smiles and high fives all around, I was glad I had opted to make the voyage.
Still, there had been days during the past two years when the reality had been less than romantic. After shipping the catamaran we later called Chrysalis to South Florida, we subsequently sold everything and the four of us moved from Cambridge, Ontario, to Florida in order to complete the remaining construction. Although the superstructure was new, it was empty; all interior work had yet to be completed: plumbing, electrical, engines, and woodwork. Having built several homes, we were familiar with basic construction, but soon learned that the nuances of boatbuilding—quirky corners, weight distribution, accommodating the salt-water environment—could be daunting. Every system had to be custom designed and installed by us. The labor had been exhausting and had taken longer than we had anticipated, but we had managed to save a fair bit of money.
Confirmed landlubbers with no boating experience other than canoeing in northern Ontario and a week on a Carnival cruise ship, we nonetheless moved aboard and began the steep nautical learning curve. Acclimating to life in tight quarters, learning to operate our systems, docking, and anchoring required teamwork and patience, something we quickly learned out of necessity. To gain experience, we cruised the eastern seaboard of the United States, Canada, and the Bahamas for two years before beginning our transatlantic passage. Our goal was to spend two years in the Mediterranean, homeschooling the children and letting the places we visited further inspire our educational experience.
FAIAL, THE BLUE ISLAND
The weather on our crossing from Bermuda had been gloriously benign. For a woman with considerable fear issues, I had been grateful for the long, slow moving 3-foot rollers that passed us by every seven seconds, reminding us that we were actually in the Atlantic, not on a lake in North America. As the town of Horta came into view with its white buildings meandering up the green hillside, I recalled that poet Raul Brandao had named Faial Ilha Azul, or, Blue Island, in reference to the masses of blue hydrangeas that bloom in spring and early summer. From a fair distance offshore, we had smelled their sweet fragrance and had interpreted it as a welcoming gesture. As we entered the harbor, we felt the relief of a thousand offshore passagemakers and this emotion intensified as we tied up alongside a large Swiss sailboat at the reception quay to wait for the customs office to open.
The marina in Horta has been conveniently designed so that immigration, maritime police, and customs are all in the same building adjacent to the marina office. The staff spoke very good English and it took little time before the four of us had stamps in our passports and a berth assigned to us. From our slip we had a lovely, clear view of the island of Pico and the majestic Ponta do Pico rising over 1 mile above sea level. The marina boasts 300 berths, each with power and water, and for the duration of our two-and-a-half week stay every one of them was full, many boats rafting together, creating conviviality among crewmates along the docks. At the time we checked in, we were the only private, foreign-flagged power vessel in a fleet of sailboats, a role we proudly held for almost a week, until a larger power yacht arrived from England. Having made short work of the formalities, we were anxious to stretch our sea legs and began exploring Horta in search of breakfast.
Lying 1,800nm east of Bermuda and about 750nm west of Portugal, the nine Azorean islands make up an autonomous region of Portugal. The island’s strategic location between Europe and North America has long made them a favored and appreciated waypoint for boats traveling across the Atlantic. Officially discovered by the Portuguese in the early half of the 15th century, Faial, formed close to a million years ago by volcanic eruptions, is small, roughly 13 by 8 miles with a current population of about 20,000. The town of Horta, with its protected harbor, quickly burgeoned with boats stopping to both trade and take on provisions. Its beauty and access drew such famous sailors as Sir Walter Raleigh and Captain James Cook, who stopped here in 1775 to check his navigational instruments before setting sail for the South Seas. Today, with hundreds of yachts visiting yearly and the ease of travel between the islands and the mainland, people are beginning to discover these pristine islands. Tourism is becoming the new growth industry in Faial.
Finding sustenance in the form of flaky pastries and cappuccinos along the waterside Avenida de Abril, the four of us made our way back into the marina to explore. Although tired from our long journey, we couldn’t help but be captivated by the various flags attached to yachts from around the world. The camaraderie between crews who shared the experience of many days at sea made the atmosphere in the marina friendly and festive. Within the space of an hour we had met several other boaters and arranged to meet for drinks later in the evening. Our daughter Lauren, age 17, and son Stefan, age 13, were fascinated by paintings on the concrete walls, a transatlantic rite of passage we had read about. All along the walls surrounding the marina, foreign yacht crews had left their mark in vibrant color with particular details surrounding their journey: name of the yacht and home country, year of passage, names of the crew. Many had been painstakingly composed so as to seem almost works of art. The four of us determined to stop off at Mays (Mid Atlantic Yacht Services), a boating supply store, and pick up some paint in order to leave our own mark.
Although small, Horta is well supplied. Anticipating the needs of visiting yachts, there are several marine stores (including Mays) as well as electrical, metal, hull, and mechanical shops easily accessible from the marina. There is also a 25-ton lift and repair shops for whom the marina office will supply names and numbers. Nearby, crews can re-provision at several municipal food markets featuring locally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as meat and cheese. The larger and more commercial Hipermercado Modelo, about a 20-minute walk from the marina, has everything you can imagine and more. We spent several afternoons simply wandering its aisles intoxicated by foreign products that were new to us: sausages, cheeses, pastries, wine, fofas (sweets), and piri piri (hot pepper) sauce. It was fortunate that Horta had several good restaurants, including the infamous Peter’s Café Sport, at which to explore the cuisine of the region. We found local food off the menus to be simply prepared, but always delicious.
Having been cruising full time for two years with our teenagers, we knew it wouldn’t be long before they were rested and ready to explore the island. Traveling by rental car, we circumnavigated the island driving through lush, green countryside bordered everywhere by blooming, fragrant hydrangeas, before passing by the stark, western landscape of Capelinhos, site of the 1957 volcanic eruption that lasted off and on for 13 months, destroying 300 homes and spawning several earthquakes. Continuing through small, immaculate white villages often clustered around stately black and white churches, we finally turned inland, making our way up through the Reserva Natural da Caldeira do Faial. Located in the center of the island, the road to the caldeira is steep, narrow, and winding with no guardrail, and offered stunning views around almost every corner. Situated more than 3,000 feet high, the caldeira is a vast crater, about a mile in diameter, the final reminder of a now-extinct volcano from which the island originated. On the walking path around the crater, we looked down steep walls to see ferns, junipers, cedars, and neon green grass suggesting an almost otherworldly beauty. From that vantage point, we marveled at the views of Pico and Sao Jorge before turning to look west, taking in the vast ocean whose breadth we had so recently traversed. On the car ride back to the marina, we hit a pothole and got a flat tire, which turned into an impromptu homeschool lesson in how to change a tire.
There are several local sites to see in Horta including the Castelo de Santa Cruz, a castle built in 1567 to defend the harbor, the Museum of Horta, the Museum of Sacred Arts, and even Peter’s Café Sport has a “Scrimshaw Museum” worth taking a peek at. Just inland, a visit to the botanic gardens at Flamengos is a must for anyone interested in the endemic and indigenous plants of the archipelago. Many cruisers we met along the docks had taken the daily ferry service to the island of Pico in order to climb the peak, a hike we were assured was well worth the strenuous climb. Unfortunately for us, the weather turned rainy, cool, and breezy toward the end of our stay and we were advised by the ferry operator that the weather could get quite nasty up at the top of Pico and that it would be best to come back to the Azores another time and try. “Easy for you to say,” I told him. “It took us 8-1/2 days to get here by boat!”
“Madam,” he said shaking his head at us crazy people, “it is much easier if you come by plane and land at the airport here on the island.”
“Sir,” I continued grinning and shaking his hand, “truer words have never been spoken.”
We learned later that for those wanting to leave their yacht in Horta for an extended period, TAP Air Portugal has two or three direct flights a week between Lisbon and Horta and two or three from Newark, New Jersey, connecting in Lisbon. In addition, SATA Air Azores operates flights between the islands as well as flights between Boston that connect directly with Ponta Delgada. If you are traveling locally, a less expensive alternative is to take the inter-island ferry service offered by Transmacor. There are regularly scheduled ferries between most of the islands although service between Flores and Corvo are rare.
SAO MIGUEL, THE GREEN ISLAND
After painting our own picture on the walls of Horta, once again we headed for open water and pointed the bows of Chrysalis toward Sao Miguel and the harbor at Ponta Delgada roughly 150nm to the southeast. We cruised under clear skies and calm seas. While passing Pico, we slowed to 7 knots so we could take in the beauty of the island, traveling less than a mile offshore, and were accompanied by several pods of some of the largest dolphins we had seen. We pulled into the marina the following morning and tied up at the reception quay as instructed. There was some concern about our beam, 24 feet, expressed from the officer that met us, as the marina was full. Before leaving Horta, we had phoned the marina and were assured that despite the fact that they were busy, they would fit us in. We waited at reception all morning, giving us a chance to catch up on some homeschooling, and watched as a few sailboats were rearranged, before we were finally assigned a berth.
Sao Miguel is known as Ilha Verde or, the Green Island, due to its rich, productive volcanic soil. It is the largest island in the Azores, inhabited since 1444, and today is the most populated. Ponta Delgada became its primary capital in 1546. Compared to Horta it seemed a bustling metropolis, yet our initial exploration revealed that it retained much of its charm. Although there were numerous museums, historical sites, and hiking trails, all of which we eventually made use of, our teenagers were in the mood for some more age-appropriate entertainment.
When you are cruising long term as a family, it is important to make sure everyone is getting the most out of the experience. While driving through the countryside one day, we happened upon a large go-cart track and pulled over on the spot. The carts were much faster than those we were familiar with back home, the course full of hills and curves, and unlike North America bound by insurance companies, there were no rules. Throughout the month we were docked in Ponta Delgada, we made several appearances at this track. We also managed to find a local paintball company and promptly made friends with the owner who spoke some English. He took a liking to us and the four of us spent a few days teaming up with local teenage boys with whom hand gestures were the only means of communication. While sneaking through Azorean ruins and bush, trying to peg both family and foe with paintballs, I considered that go-carting and paintballing hadn’t entered my mind when I was dreaming about cruising through Europe, but sometimes the reality turns out to be better than the dream.
The second week we were in Ponta Delgada, we decided to invite some of the crew from neighboring vessels to a potluck celebrating our mutually successful crossings. Intending an intimate get-together with 6–8 people in lawn chairs on the dock next to Chrysalis, we started out by inviting the folks off of 3 or 4 nearby boats. But word of our shindig leaked out. Days before the party, while walking around the marina, a stranger I had never met before would saunter by me and say in an accent, “Looking forward to your party Friday night!” By the third time this happened I started reminding people that it was potluck and be sure to bring a dish to share. Not many knew the meaning of “potluck.” One lady from Brussels said in broken English, “Oh, I’m not sure I know how to make a pot of luck, do you have the recipe?”
By the night of the party, we had managed to finagle two long tables from the marina office over which I draped two blue bed sheets for tablecloths. By 7:30 p.m. close to 40 people materialized, each bearing a traditional dish from their homeland including breads, salads, main dishes, desserts, and wine. I have often fantasized about the hereafter and seeing people from all over the world milling around next to tables piled high with delicious international foods would be pretty close to my choice for an eternal nirvana. And this just proves that more than geography, passagemaking is a journey of the heart.