Ocean Sailing – Azores to UK

‘Watch out!’ yelled Dan from the helm, two seconds later a gigantic wave crashed across the sidedeck and filled the cockpit, there was a loud crash and bang as it went accompanied by the hiss of my lifejacket going off, surprisingly my hair remained dry!

This was the largest wave we had ever ‘taken’ on board Velvet Lady in three years and clearly demonstrated the power of water.  As well as setting off my lifejacket, this wave managed to wash a lifering, over the side (which remained on board because it was attached to the danbuoy), wash the autopilot control box off its mount and fill the cockpit.  Down below the microwave moved 6 inches off its bracket, and the books on the bookshelves leapt over the bars that held them in place and crashed to the floor, no one was hurt.  It felt like being in the southern ocean all over again.

We were on passage from the Azores to UK, and this was one of the many memorable occasions on the trip.  We had set off from the Azores, a week earlier, and with a forecast for continuing gales from the north east had chosen to take an alternative route back home going south of the low.  Even heading south the wind managed to increase to gale force, with gusts of  force 10, and as it was now easing  it left behind a big sea.  We were glad we had opted for the easier route!

As the wind continued to decrease and we studied the weather maps, we realised that the wind was going to all but disappear for the second week leaving us a very long motor!

So much for the prevailing westerlies that are clearly shown on the routing charts.  Is this a result of the North Atlantic Oscillation.

Velvet Lady took it all in her stride, and as the wind eased to reasonable amount and the sun started shining we took advantage of a favourable wind shift and at last started heading north making 7 knots.

We quickly forgot about our first few days of windy weather, and settled down to sailing in the sunshine and passing our time reading and relaxing.  Before we left the Azores, Dan had downloaded an i-phone application to locate the stars, and during night watches we used it to identify the constellations.  We also found Mars and Saturn much more easily than studying the nautical tables!  Sunrises and sunsets were dramatic and many photos were taken.

As the wind continued to die, we headed for Spain and a diesel top up, with up to 12 sparrows perched under the sprayhood hitching a lift.  They were clearly lost in all this unusual wind as they kept looking at the chart plotter! Many of them spent more than one night in the comfort and warmth of our bookshelves!  We arrived in the Spanish Rias late afternoon to fill up with diesel and spend the night ashore.

Working out timescales for long trips is perhaps the most difficult thing to do.  Up until now, Velvet Lady has never been late back from a trip, and in the past 22 years I have always managed to complete trips on time.  This time however we had to face the fact that we were going to be 48 hours late, and some of our crew needed to go home from Spain..

As we came within phone range of the land, mobiles started beeping with messages, including one from Davids wife which said, ‘thought I’d better let you know, theres been a volcano erupt in Iceland and all flights to UK are cancelled’

Sorry Pam, we thought it was a wind up but after a quick google, we discovered it was in fact true. Our crew who needed to go home, contacted their companies, and were advised, stay on the yacht it will be the fastest way back!

We had a great night out in Sanxenxo, dinner followed by Spanish brandy.  After 10 days of being ‘dry’ the large Spanish measures soon went to our heads so it was early to bed.  Before we left in the morning we spoke to one of the guys working on Telefonica Blue (a Volvo 70) who said – we go out training in gales, we were out all last week, lucky for us they were not planning on going out this week.

93 hours after leaving Sanxenxo, we were motoring in fog up Plymouth Sound, early Sunday morning with no one around.  After a quick breakfast and tidy up, it was off to the station and trains home.

Although in the previous two years, we have completed this passage with a day to spare, we have decided that for 2011 we will be making the Azores to Plymouth a 14 night trip.  This trip and more for 2011 will be on line by the end of the week.

And finally – don’t forget to look in the June issue of Sailing Today, out on the shelves now, to read all about our trip from La Gomera to Madeira in March this year.

Ocean Passage – 600 miles on the log

Part of the  RYA requirement for a passage long enough to qualify towards a Yachtmaster Ocean certificate is that it should be 600nm by the log and a minimum of 96 hours at sea. As we gathered around the saloon table at the start of our last trip this was an important point to consider as we planned our passage from Madeira to the Azores.

The Azores are a group of volcanic islands situated approximately half way between Europe and America.  Although it is only 470nm from Madeira to Santa Maria, the closest island, it is a further 300nm to Flores and Corvo the westernmost islands.  Depending on the weather we would definitely be able to sail the 600nm by the log, but the question was – which island would we visit and when! As well as the RYA criteria to fulfill, we had to make sure we were in Ponta Delgada marina in San Miguel on 6th April to catch our flights!

Andy joined us this week full of beans and fresh from his ocean theory course, ready to practice with his sextant and take his sights.  Frances and Chris joined us to find out what long distance sailing was all about and would they take to it, and sadly, due to a last minute cancellation we were without our fourth guest, Charlie.

A quick look at the weather map showed Madeira right under a large area of high pressure, but also showed a low moving towards the Azores, how was that going to affect things.  We all agreed that deciding which island at this early stage would be too presumptive.  The best plan was to leave, set off towards the Azores (312T), sail for 96 hours, look at the log, look at the weather and decide where best to go then.  Full of the spirit of Adventure we all agreed this sounded good but we would spend the first day on a short sail to settle us all in to the routine on board.

Safety briefing complete, we left Quinta do Lorde marina late morning, waiting to take advantage of the afternoon sea breeze and enjoyed a fantastic sail to Funchal.  They are working really hard in the harbour here to clean up after the recent floods, and although the entrance was reported to have silted up there was still 3.5m at low water, plenty for us.

From Funchal we set off at noon, again waiting for a sea breeze, but as soon as we left the harbour instead of the forecast light winds we immediately found ourselves with a stiff westerly.  Hard on the wind on the starboard tack we sailed away from Madeira and away from the Azores, notching up 40 miles on the log before the wind shifted and we could head towards the Azores.  As the wind gradually shifted to a northeasterly force 4, Velvet Lady under full sail on a close reach was tearing down the dotted line on the chart plotter at 8 knots.  If this continued, we would have to do 700 miles just to stay at sea for 96 hours.

This is ocean sailing, and the thing to notice is how often the weather changes.  We continued at 8 knots for 48 hours, and then the wind gradually died away, and the speed dropped until we were ghosting along at 3 knots.  At just under 2 knots with the yankee wrapping itself around the forestay we gave up and motored hoping for the wind to pipe up again.  We continued through the centre of another high, mixing motoring with sailing until we made landfall on the eastern tip of  San Miguel.  As we approached the coastline the wind backed to the west again, to give us either a long beat along the coastline to Ponta Delgada, or a comfortable reach down to Santa Maria.  We had now done 100 hours at sea and 580 miles on the log.  Santa Maria at 40 miles away would crack the 600 mile barrier, so we freed sheets and headed south.  We arrived in Santa Maria at midnight – 108 hours and 622 miles from Madeira all on starboard tack.  We celebrated our arrival with a beer in the cockpit before heading off to bed.

During the trip Andy became extremely proficient with his sextant taking shots of the sun, moon, various stars and even Venus.  The saloon became a work station with sheets of paper everywhere, numerous graphs, plots and calculations as Andy worked out our position the traditional way.  The rest of us managed a bit more of a relaxing trip, sitting in the sunshine reading and completing crosswords (when not on watch of course).

Santa Maria is a beautiful island with a brand new marina.  The town of Vila do Porto is up a steep hill behind the marina, a lovely old town – so very real and Portuguese. Arriving on Easter Saturday, we visited the church which was beautifully decorated with white lilies.  We stayed in Santa Maria for Easter Sunday – or Chocolate Sunday as it became aptly named as we feasted on chocolate treats, some of us had given up chocolate for lent!

Easter Monday we sailed from Santa Maria to Ponta Delgada, a great broad reach on port tack in a SW6.  8 hours to complete the 56 mile crossing and then an extra one waiting for a ship to leave the harbour before we were allowed to enter!

A 4 hour day sail to Funchal, 108 hours sailing for our ocean crossing, 48 hours relaxing in the sunshine in Santa Maria, a few drinks and nibbles along the way, 8 hours sailing on the last day and a total of 700 miles in the log book, this is what cruising is all about!  Why not join us on a Blue Water Adventure later in the year.