Preparing for a journey to the Azores from England takes a lot of time and effort - particularly if one has a twenty year old boat. Although only 7 metres - 23 foot - long, Virgo Centurion has been to the Azores before, on the Azores and Back (AZAB) race in 1979, skippered by the designer of the class, Ron Lunney. Around 350 Virgo Voyagers in all were made by Newbridge boats.
The Virgo is sloop rigged, and both fin and bilge versions were made. Centurion is a fin keel, with a separate skeg and rudder. Roller reefing is fitted for the genoa. In addition, I carry a second working jib which also rolls - this is a flatter sail, designed more for upwind work, and I ordered a new one for the journey. I also ordered a new main. The fitting out was very expensive, as you will discover!
The most important item for such a journey was a wind vane steering gear. I nearly bought the Pacific Light from Hamburg, but in the end settled for the Plastimo Navik. I have mixed feelings about this, as you will see later.
The boat was also re rigged: the previous rigging was original. That was also expensive! The log had died some time before, so I fitted a NASA log: cheap but effective. I had bought a hand held GPS the summer before, but also bought a fixed Garmin which turned out to be invaluable. A new gas cooker. A lee cloth for the starboard berth. Then there are all the other details: extra water, extra diesel. An electric bilge pump that I didn't have time to fit before I left, but fitted in Horta and turned out to be extremely worthwhile.
I knew there were various deck leaks, and did my best with sealant before setting off, although the most important leak of all was not traced until quite late on. But the boat was back in the water in the middle of April, and I needed to go. My employers had kindly given me time off, and I had until the start of September.
Easter was a shake down of sorts in the Solent, and then on 14th April I left Portsmouth with a crew, to go first to Plymouth. The weather was not kind. On a wet day in Cowes the starter motor died, and whilst waiting for the repair, Bill and I went up to the Needles Battery, partly to look at the old rocket site at High Down. It snowed when we got there! Bill valiantly tried taking photographs in the freezing wind, but we soon gave up and went back down to Alum Bay. Then, with a new starter motor, Lymington, with a brisk northeasterly, then Weymouth.
The passage to Anvil Point was reasonable but lumpy in a force five, on genoa only. Then we hit the race at St Aldhelms and got soaked. The wind turned against us, and we had a very uncomfortable motor to Weymouth, with Bill standing valiantly at the helm. Weymouth to Dartmouth was much more pleasant, though it poured with rain for many hours after we arrived. A final motor sail round Start Point brought us to Plymouth, where I discovered my chart was way out of date. But we got to Queen Anne's Battery late that night, and the next morning Bill departed, no doubt with a sense of relief!
I was able to stay in Plymouth with my parents, doing more jobs on the boat - is there ever an end to it? - and waiting for a good forecast. In the end, I grew impatient, and set off, even though a gale was predicted for two days hence.
Initially I was close hauled with the new jib in light winds, then after about 24 hours the bad weather arrived. The main came down. Virgos will go to windward quite happily under jib alone. But in the night disaster struck. The Navik came disconnected, and the boat gybed, with a thunderous banging and shaking of the rigging. Asleep below, I thought at first the mast had come down. I managed to recover the boat, but hadn't learnt the trick of reconnecting the steering at night. (You have to lean over the rail at the back, torch in teeth, jiggling the connector and holding the tiller between your knees. I got quite accomplished at this.)
But I was then faced with hand steering in a pitch black night with the wind at around force seven and rising. I decided this was not on. Wind the jib away and lie ahull. But the jib refused to roll. Then another problem arose. The starboard sheet, the lazy sheet, managed to come adrift and shot off. In this wind, it then wrapped itself round the working sheet in the 'mating snakes' configuration. This was all too much. Only one thing left to do - take the sail down. This was the time for harness and jackstays.
It turned out to be easier than I had expected, despite the heaving of the boat in the seas that go with Force Seven winds. Always think through all the steps first before doing anything like this. Do things in the wrong sequence and you can be in trouble. So the halliard was freed, I checked it could run freely, then I climbed up to the bow to wrestle the sail down. Being relatively small, it wasn't too difficult, and I was able to lash it down. Once the sails were down, the wind now eased and it started pouring with rain. So, fishing boats or whatever, I went down back to my bunk.
In the morning it was calm and grey. I started sorting things out. The jib went back up without too much trouble. But the main halliard had managed to get itself in a wonderful tangle round the mast and the steaming light, and it was not going to be dislodged with any amount of shaking. So use the topping lift instead. Slowly the wind filled in, and I began moving again. But towards evening, it started rising again, and so the main came back down. The wind settled into a north or northeasterly which would last for the next few days, varying from about force five to force seven. I was overcanvassed on a reach with only the working jib up!
The swell, which is universal in the Atlantic, but then about 3 or 4 metres high, was no problem. The boat rose and fell to it in a manner that was imperceptible in the cabin. The waves individually were no problem either. The big problem was a breaking wave at the top of a swell. These could thump the boat with tremendous force. The next night I was below in the lee berth, and one of these hit the starboard side with such force that all the bits and pieces on the shelves on that side were catapulted across the boat on top of me as I lay sleeping. That time I thought I had lost the windows!
The boat was taking in water to some extent, so I had to pump every few hours. Even the sliding hatch at the companionway was not entirely waterproof: when the boat did its submarine impersonation to an extra large wave, water could be forced under the lip. The danger then was getting the bedding wet. Once things get wet - they stay wet. And it was getting very damp down there. But at least the boat was moving fast in the right direction.
Then disaster struck. The wooden quadrant of the Navik self steering gear broke during the night after. What now? I looked at the chart. Horta was still 800 miles away. Sadly, I decided I had to divert to La Coruna, on the northwest tip of Spain. And a friend had lent me the chart for there just before departure. "Might be some use," he said. It was.
The wind had eased, the weather improved, tho still with a good northwesterly swell, and so the electronic Tillerpilot was now able to cope. In another four days I was in Coruna. The yacht clubs there have what is in my experience a unique way of mooring. There are four main pontoons, with no fingers, and all the ropes necessary are on the pontoon. Finding the bow ropes is easy enough, but the stern lines are also on the pontoons, and have to be untied and taken to the back of the boat. They are attached to the sea bed further out. I was about to commit the sin of laying out an anchor at the stern when I was rescued by a passing Englishman. I had fun in the next four days explaining the system to other arrivals.
The yacht clubs are perhaps a kilometre from the town and shops, and the town and clubs do not cater very well for visitors, although the clubhouse does have a washing machine, but no drier. Repairs to the Navik I carried out myself, using a battery powered drill to drill holes for bolts to secure the wooden quadrant to the gear. I was left with a somewhat diminished quadrant, although the system was still serviceable.
As I left, I was caught in a fairly violent thunderstorm: it was one of the few times I have seen the water turn white with the wind and the rain. The thirty knot winds were taking me straight for the rocks, and I had to motor clear in zero visibility whilst the rain poured down. After the storm there was very little wind, and I made slow progress that night.
To clear the Finistierre shipping lanes - which are extremely busy - I headed WNW initially, and got through the lanes without too much problem late in the afternoon. The wind was getting up at this point, so the main came down, and I slept comfortably with just the jib, although waking from time to time. I realised there was quite a breeze, but it didn't worry me. A German yacht about fifty miles away, who left at the same time, and who I later caught up with in Ponta Delgada, had thirty plus knots of wind and had to heave to. But in the morning the wind had settled down, although there still quite a sea running.
The fourteen days it took to get to the Azores were, in retrospect, one of the highlights of the entire time. The wind settled to a light northeasterly - never more than about Force 3, and the Navik steered the boat well. There were some overcast days, and one time of fog, but otherwise the sea was calm and blue. For days I never saw another boat - and I never saw another yacht at all. I slept well, and spent the days either reading, or writing essays for a University course I was engaged on. Mid morning, half way there, I heard a distinctive sound, and went out on deck to see whales about 500 yards away. I was able to take photos as they came closer: they were travelling at the same speed as me - about three knots - on a slightly converging course. At their closest they were no more than a couple of boat lengths away, which I felt was getting a little too close!
As I drew closer to the Azores the wind was becoming lighter, and there were times I had to motor. I realised that Horta was still some way away, and looking at my charts and pilot books I then saw that the eastern section of the Azores was much closer, and that Ponta Delgada on SaoMiguel was the place to go.
All the books say that even on days of good visibility the Azores can be shrouded in haze, and this was certainly the case. Despite being quite close, I didn't see Sao Miguel at all during the day, but picked up the light of Punta Arena at dusk. It was also my fiftieth birthday, and I had been given a bottle of champagne before departure. Although I hadn't arrived, I felt the light plus my birthday justified opening the bottle.
I closed the land near midnight, and this was one section of the islands that I had neglected to get charts for, and so was quite wary. One point that struck me quite forcibly as I got within a few miles was the sudden smell of land that sailors talk about: here it was an aromatic smell of heather and herbs, quite unlike anything English; a rich smell to be savoured.
Progress round the south of island slowed as again the wind fell light, and I didn't want to arrive at Ponta Delgada in the dark. This wish was granted, as I had to motor the last few miles in the early morning sun, to tie up at the reception dock not long before noon. Then came my introduction to Portuguese bureaucracy.
At the marina office, I was provided with four copies of the forms I'd filled in. First a visit to the police in one office. Then Customs in another. Finally Immigration in a third. With three or four visiting yachts a day, these officials were not overworked. They went through the details slowly and carefully. Passport. Picked up and riffled through. A box to be filled in for the number. Look at the form carefully. Pick up the passport carefully. Look back at the form. Look at the number. Back to the form. Then slowly the number was filled in. A check back at the passport. Then at the form. Okay. Next item. And so on. This took time. But the officials hadn't much else to do.
However, the marina was modern, well equipped (except for a laundrette), and by English standards, extremely cheap. Both there and at Horta I was charged around 4 pounds a day for a 7 metre boat. Ponta Delgada itself is the capital of the Azores, and quite a bustling city, although not stretching back that far from the waterfront. The supermarkets will deliver to the marina, which is extremely welcome!
The scenery in all the islands is stunning. They are volcanic and mountainous, yet well watered and so are very green. Fields stretch far up the mountainsides. The houses are usually white with red tiles roofs, well spaced from each other outside the towns, and the whole effect extremely pleasing.
Having spent a week in Punta Del Garda, it was time to move on. The forecast at the marina office looked clear - so clear that I thought I would end up motoring most of the way. And, on that first night I did indeed have to motor. But around midday the next day the sky started to take on the ominous signs of an approaching low pressure system - signs with which I became very familiar that summer. The sky would become white and hazy towards the west, the sun would lose its identity as a disc and become a white smear through the milky haze. Between midday and 6p.m. the barometer had dropped 6mb, so I was aware that I was in for a blow.
The cloud passed through relatively rapidly, though, so that by midnight the sky was bright and clear with a well nigh full moon. The wind was perhaps Force 5 to 6, and I was sailing with double reefed main and with some rolls in the genoa. The self steering was working reasonably well. The bigger problem was that in those conditions I was making reasonable speed through the water but little or no ground to windward. Then at around 3 a.m, yet another problem arose. This time it was the gooseneck, which is a pintle that goes through a slider on the mast and is held by an M6 nut. With the new mainsail this nut had a habit of working itself loose and dropping off. It did so now.
Even in the bright moonlight I was unable to find the nut, and in frustration, decided to take the sails down, lie hove to, and sleep. The Virgo will sit happily with the helm to leeward and not drift too much. By midmorning the next day, the wind was beginning to moderate from the Force 7 it had peaked at, but the swells were high and steep. A little bit of jib helped, and then, with the wind easing further, I decided to try sailing. Frustration mounted though with yet further problems from the Navik: the jointed connector between the trim tab and the windvane had managed to come disconnected at both ends and had disappeared sometime during the night.
Starting the engine, and using the Tillerpilot, I began slowly motoring up the swells. I was beginning to make progress. Gradually the wind eased, and, later, the swell with it. After much searching through the bits box, I found a suitable nut for the gooseneck. Little by little the wind veered, and I was able to make a better course.
On the morning of the fourth day (four days to sail 150 miles!) Pico came into view through the haze, and as I got closer, I could make out the six thousand foot peak, which for once was clear of cloud. But heeled over on port tack, there was a lot of water coming in to the boat. Some of it was from the sink, and so I turned off the sea cocks (but if I was heeling that much, I should have reefed) but still I was having to pump often. This leak would plague me for some time.
Coming round the back of Pico, I popped my head up to see a Portuguese frigate a cable off: they inspected me, I waved, they waved back, then disappeared away. As the wind freshened I closed Horta. The harbour is similar to that of Punta Delgarda, with a curving breakwater enclosing the bay, and the marina in the right hand corner. Again, you tie up at Reception first, and then go through the business of dealing with the Marina people, the Immigration, and the Customs. Providing a monoglot Portuguese Customs officer wasn't terribly helpful.
The marina was chock a block: there is an extension planned for next year, and it will be much needed. Initially, I was rafted out as the third boat at the very end of a pontoon. Facilities are good, with water and electricity (there were some annoying people who would leave their hoses connected permanently). The showers were 200 escudos, but for that you also got a towel and a bar of soap! There was a laundrette, again which had to be paid for, but run efficiently enough by the marina staff.
Horta itself is not large, but its shopping area is quite well provided. From the chandlery point of view, Mid Atlantic Yacht Services are friendly and helpful, as well as supplying forecasts and the like (and a library of paperbacks). The supermarket in town is small, but there is a large one a couple of kilometres out of town. Both will deliver; the out of town one will also pick you up and take you back! Prior to my departure, I rang them, and a minibus came for me. I stocked up, and gave them a Visa card. No go. So they loaded me and my groceries into the minibus, drove me back to Horta, and stopped at a cash machine. I jumped out and got some money, and when we got the marina, was able to give the driver 15,000 escudos.
The town is attractive, with black volcanic stone, often whitewashed, and red tiled roofs. There are no concrete high rise buildings! The people are friendly and helpful, and given the strength of the UK pound, everything seemed very cheap. The marina fees were perhaps a third of English South Coast prices. The weather was generally good, although Horta tended to get orographic cloud produced by the hills behind the town. There was also a gale forecast, and the boat from the marina came round. Insisting we laid out anchors to windward. They wouldn't take no for an answer either: it wasn't us they were worried about, but their pontoons. In the event, it passed through relatively uneventfully: I've had worse in Lymington.
Whilst at Horta, I worked on the boat, trying to track down the leak up at the bow. I used a lot of sealant, and had some rubbing strake renewed. Confident at last the boat was ready for sea, I left after three weeks - although I could easily have stayed for much longer.
Heading northwest close hauled on port tack took me past the western end of Sao Jorge and then past Graciosa, passing it just after midnight, after which I felt I could relax again. There was sufficient wind with which to sail - the Azores High had not set in at all strongly, which is why the weather in the UK had been so bad that summer. But then, after days of good progress, I saw the signs of an advancing front. Moreover, it took its time arriving, which also implied it would take its time leaving.
The wind came up, and the visibility dropped as the weather deteriorated. I took down the main sail, leaving myself just the jib, yet making good progress downwind. Towards dark that day, I looked out of the cabin behind, and spotted a flashing yellow light some way behind. This was perplexing: flashing yellow lights aren't normally seen mid Atlantic. I was baffled. Looking round, there were other odd lights, but nothing significant. Then disaster: in the luminescence ahead I could see a solid unbroken line. This was obviously a drift net. By a fluke I managed to get over it, but then came across another. This time, inevitably, I snagged it. It was caught between the keel and the skeg of the prop.
There was no way it was going to come off either: the net had fist sized floats, which looked like polystyrene, to hold it up. I tried pushing it down and clear with the boat hook, but with little success. It was blowing perhaps 15 knots by now, and there was a sea running. I hoped that as the boat pitched, it might ride up clear, but that wasn't happening either.
I thought I had better try and get in touch with the fishing boat, which I though was a mile or two away. Calling on the radio had no success. All the lights - desk, steaming, the lot. No. I tried flashing the lights in an SOS. No. Then my "searchlight": a car headlight set. I shone it at the boat, and flashed it up and down. After perhaps half an hour, I got in touch with the fisherman, who was very French. I had to use my best schoolboy French, courtesy of the late Mr. Minette, who saw me through School Certificate French. That wasn't much help either.
Eventually, more by luck than anything else, I was swept off an hour or so later, and motored clear of the area with great circumspection. I could see other boats on the horizon! It wasn't until the early hours that I could afford to sleep.
The warm front eventually passed through without too much problem: it was what was behind the cold front that was to give me the problem. The wind moved round to north and to northeast, and stayed there. This was dead to windward. I was now close hauled on the port tack, realising that I wasn't going to make Falmouth. But I was still making some progress, albeit very slow. But inexorably the wind moved round until I was only just making due East. The strength of the wind was giving problems, too, as it meant that I had to reef. Virgos don't go well to windward. Reefed Virgos, in strong winds and heavy seas, go even less well. One night the wind was rising further until the boat was thumping every few minutes into a solid wave. And not just a thump, but a rig shaking, speed killing thump. There was effectively only one thing to do, as the wind rose to what might have been Force 6 or 7 and that was to take in all sail, and heave to. In this conditions the boat would make around a knot or so at an angle of about 120 to 140 degrees from the wind. But at least I could sleep.
The next morning I discovered what some of those waves had done: the navigation light fitting on the pulpit had had the bulb ripped out and the lead was dangling loose.
But now Falmouth was looking less and less likely, and the next alternative, Morgat, was a struggle. Slowly the wind went further round and the only course I was able to make was due east. Crossing the 45 degree parallel produced a moment of hope which died when it turned out to be about the furthest north that I was to achieve. Coruna was closest, but I had been there before. Eventually, after a lot of deliberation I settled for Gijon, on the northern coast of Spain.
I crossed the shipping lanes off Finiesterre one afternoon, with a brisk breeze and lumpy sea. But by now I had been able to bear off the wind slightly, so things were a little more comfortable. Gijon was still quite a way, though, but the weather began to improve and the wind drop. The night before my arrival the jib halliard parted, so the last few miles were under main only. Then I was able to come and tie up in Gijon in the afternoon.
I spent a week in Gijon and liked the town very much. It is reasonably modern and bustling in the right sort of way. The old harbour - deep water throughout - is now used entirely for pleasure boats, and the visitors pontoons are at the end, pleasantly secluded. I fell into conversation with the skipper of a neighbouring boat, from Santander, who spoke no English, nor I Spanish, so that we ended up talking French to each other. He offered to hoist me up the mast to replace the halliard, which was duly done. I also found and dealt with the leak in the anchor locker drain that had caused me so many problems on the way across.
After a week in Gijon, it was time to head north across Biscay. I was slightly too far away to pick up Radio 4 and the shipping forecasts, which meant I had to rely on local forecasts. The weather initially was kind, although it did blow up, with a wind that shifted every half hour, so I was perpetually checking the course. It was extremely lumpy for a time, too, with Biscay living up to its reputation. Then the wind died, and I motored under clear skies.
This was also the time I get closest to being run down: I popped my head out about 5 a.m., and there was a light on the port bow, difficult to make out in the dawn's half light. As it drew closer, I realised that it was a quite substantial tanker, and had we not both altered, we would almost certainly have collided.
The Raz du Sien was quite calm in the afternoon sunlight, and I went from there to Morgat - which is pleasant enough, but does not cater that well for visitors. Leaving Morgat, I travelled through Le Four to the north coast of Brittany. This was much harder work now than in the Atlantic, checking for other yachts, fishing boats, lobster pots, rocks, and other hazards, while continually doing tidal calculations. None of this in the Atlantic! It was also back to grey Channel waters after the deep blue of mid Atlantic. I arrived in Trebeurden in the early hours (not the easiest harbour in the dark) pursued by a fleet of racing Beneteaus (or should it be Beneteaux?).
After Trebeurden, St Peter Port, motor sailing in light winds, then Portsmouth, up the Alderney race with the ground speed at 12 knots and the log reading 4, and a motor across a calm glassy Channel, dodging the shipping, arriving in Portsmouth. The biggest problem about arriving back in the UK was trying to open the front door against 4 months of junk mail.