Our journey down the Portuguese coast took us as far as Lagos; our next destination was Madeira. We could have sailed direct from the Lisbon area ( e.g. Cascais), and this route would take better advantage of the prevailing NW winds. But it would be a shame not to take in at least a taste of the Algarve before leaving Portugal!
Mon 17th July
After a couple of nights anchored off Lagos, we moved to the nearby Rio Alvor, a shallow sandy estuary with a harbour-like entrance. With the sandbanks uncovered, locals were camping out on them under colourful parasols. We had a swim around the boat and watched 2 other boats go aground – only to find ourselves in danger of drying out when the tide turned! We re-anchored in the darkness, and had a quiet night.
The forecast winds over the next week seemed favourable, so we weighed at about 08:30 am and set a course directly for Porto Santo (a small island just north of Madeira). From the headland off Lagos, this took us south of Cape St Vincent, and intersected the TSS (ship traffic separation scheme) nicely at 90 degrees. Off the cape the wind increased and we had a moderate sea with lumps on the beam, so soon took a 2nd reef in the main.
There were few ships, and the TSS crossing was without incident and completed in daylight. Offshore though, we came across several tankers and cargo vessels. Our AIS data was very helpful in showing the angles between our courses and the CPA (closest point of approach predicted between us). A CPA of over 5 miles = relief; a CPA of under 2 miles = watch and be ready to act. In one case during the night we had to turn and run back along our course to avoid collision. Some were passing from Northern Europe to the south Atlantic, others between the Gibraltar Strait and the West. It adds interest to get the AIS details of each ship, which includes the type of vessel and its destination as well as its dimensions and course details. Several tankers seemed to be “awaiting orders” and were just wandering round the Atlantic burning dirty old bunker fuel, this being cheaper than being in port. We saw a large private motor yacht “New Secret” bound for Gibraltar, a passenger ship for Las Palmas, a bulk cargo for Turkey and a tanker for Mexico, and many others. Not all ships advertise their presence on AIS, off the coast a large gunboat circled us suspiciously: it was a Portuguese man-of-war!
All through the first night there were people making silly noises, or singing, on VHF Channel 16. Apart from comments from a few pissed off navigators, it seems little is done to deter these idiots, who could be heard any night when near the coast. By the second night, thankfully they were out of VHF range.
AIS info on a small tanker going from Madeira to Sines, Portugal.
CPA is blank because our paths were not converging at this point.
For much of that first day we were sailing fast, if rather uncomfortably. Next day the wind dropped to around 15 knots, and later to 10 or so, with a little more west in it, so our speed slowed to 4 knots or less at times. The sea state improved as we cleared the influence of coastal winds, and for the first time we were out on the genuine blue water, a real treat to see the bright colour in the water under the sun (so unlike the green or grey seas we are used to!).
Blue sea in our wake
The second night by contrast was black as a hat, except for a scattering of stars whenever the clouds parted. We had a scare at one point when a low bright star appeared as a navigation light in our path! There was phosphorescence in our wake, and the air was warm, though the wind made it cool and the watch keeper still needed a coat. The nights are noticeably longer than at home, sunset at 9 pm and still dark at 5:30 am. On the 2nd night, the quarter moon and Venus rose side by side and ascended together at the end of Ambition II’s wake, and a shower of meteorites exploded in the western sky. That pre-dawn watch has its compensations!
Getting enough sleep was a problem. Both cabins sound like the drum of a washing machine when sailing fast in a moderate sea, and the boat’s motion made sleep difficult. J was able to sleep intermittently in the fore-cabin but R only slept when propped up in a corner of the saloon!
Away from the coast there were hardly any birds, though we did see our first storm petrel on the 2nd day. Occasional shearwater appeared again about 50 miles from our destination, and increased in number as we got nearer the island. Away from the Portuguese coast we saw no dolphins or other sea mammals, and R’s brief attempt at fishing proved fruitless. But on arrival at Porto Santo, two small squid were found glued to the deck, having evidently been washed on board and dried in the sun.
An unfortunate squid washed up on deck
In the early hours of day 3, as predicted in Monday’s GRIB file, the wind grew light and more westerly, so we had the engine on for much of the morning until it freshened again. A satellite message from JW confirmed the weather prediction for this day but suggested we would get NE wind later. Overnight we were able to sail at a reasonable speed, though the seas increased again, and as predicted the wind backed, and our speed slowed. With 65 NM to go, it was possible to get to Porto Santo that day, if not in daylight, so on went the engine to motor -sail the last leg.
As the Porto Santo island, and its surrounding rocky islets, materialised out of the haze ahead, it was like My First Desert Island – complete with pointy mountains (volcanoes in fact). It was another three hours before we made our final approach, turning into the bay and shelter from the northerly wind. Dusk had fallen by the time we motored in to anchor off the beach, between the harbour and the town lights.
My First Desert Island
We slept well, undisturbed by the slight swell and occasional graunch from the chain as the tide turned. R has been trying different methods for fitting a rope snubber (which adds some spring to the anchor chain and should keep it from rubbing on the bobstay). So far, the best arrangement has been two ropes, one from each foredeck side cleat, joined to a chain-hook. But the hook sometimes falls off the chain when slack, and this time the ropes were tied on with a rolling hitch (but one came undone). Further research needed on this one!
Reports on the marina at Porto Santo suggested a good deal, if not top-rate facilities, including very reasonable weekly or monthly rates. Maybe in the low season, but at this time of year, only daily rates are offered, and we were shocked to find it is €39/day for a vessel of our size (13.6M). So we’ll probably be back on the beach anchorage before long. However, we checked in and got out the bikes for a supermarket visit (Pingo Doce). The marina office handed out a map of the island, which turned out to be a detailed guide to its geology. Here you can see volcanic plugs with hexagonal structures (like the Giants Causeway in Ireland), pillow lavas formed under the sea as this sea-mountain was created, limestones bearing coral fossils, and many other wonders. Even the sand on the beach is unique, being a mix of eroded coral fossil and volcanic particles. There is much to see, here and in Madeira…