Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Reflections from Madeira

It will make sense later

View from lunch above Funchal where I nearly finished the below


We arrived in Porto Santo, Madeira's baby sister at on Wednesday 26th May, a passage of 4 days against the 5 days as estimated. 


Landfall, Porto Santo


From the town Pier looking towards the Marina


Although shorter than our crossing of Biscay from Plymouth to A Curona, it somehow seemed more of a true ocean passage. We had experienced similarly rough weather for periods of both passages, albeit not full gales. Tony's seasickness was worse at the beginning of this passage, resulting in us heaving too on our second day so we could both get some rest, and probably contributed to the feeling of truly being on an ocean journey. That's why Madeira rather than Curona or Lisbon seems the right place to reflect on the voyage and experience to date.

For the more voyaged, this is small beer but at the age of 58 it's been my first step into the world of the oceans and voyaging.

So what did I expect? What was it like? Have I enjoyed it? Do I want to do more? Etc, etc.

The strange thing about sailing is that I am always keen to be off but then before very long am looking forward to arriving. I'm actually writing these and the previous words some 70 miles before our arrival at Port Santo whilst off watch (1900 – 2200) and apart from, working the boat, resting, reading, sleeping, cooking, washing up and one proper wash, writing this is the first non essential activity I have undertaken whilst at sea. Despite the fact that Angus has more or less steered the boat continuously on this passage, we have both I think needed to rest "do our own thing" at sea rather than spend loads of time together chatting. We have both found that it takes a couple of days to adjust to the rhythm of a small sailing boat at sea. During the first 48 hours the persistent tiredness this causes means that we spend all our off-watch time desperately trying to sleep. During this period, whilst trying to sleep, I experienced continuous and persistent micro day dreams – a succession of often bizarre images would flash across my consciousness but I was still quite awake. It was only on night three that I experienced sleep properly and even then it took a long time coming. Three hours on three hours off with perhaps one hour of the three off hours asleep still leaves us needing to grab sleep during the day too. No doubt more time spent continuously at sea would improve the sleep rate but so far the activity I had anticipated – practising use of the sextant- just has not happened. The sextant has stayed in its box and my good intentions have come to nought thus far.

I've used up 1 hour of my off watch writing this and so am off in search of sleep, again!

"Enjoyment" becomes a hard word to define in this context. I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed the experience of being dog tired and on the Biscay crossing, cold to boot, for hours on end. However, the feeling of satisfaction after arriving at our long haul destinations of "A Coruna" and "Porto Santo" is one worth all the hard work (not of course nearly as hard as those who made these voyages before the age of the GPS) and one I want to repeat. 

One experience I had anticipated enjoying was star gazing mid ocean. However, with the possible exception of the Biscay crossing which, what with no self steering, the cold and the intense tiredness left me incapable of enjoying anything (and I don't therefore remember the sky at all), all our night sailing has been under a night skies dominated by the moon. It's just about full now so maybe when we get to the Azores we may have opportunities to witness the milky way.

The coastal sailing to Vigo and on to Leixoes was marred as an experience by continuing anxiety about the wind vane and the potential hassle of having to ditch it and get the Aries shipped over from home and then get it installed. Step by step though with advice from Chris and John over email we made the necessary adjustments and the big benefit of that experience is that I now understand how it works and therefore have a much better chance of fixing any future issues.

We thought we had Angus sorted by the time we got to Lisbon, but as it turns out the first 12 hours of the passage from Cascais (just outside Lisbon) to Porto Santo, proved us wrong. Necessity, is the mother of invention though, and we addressed the new problems and resolved them (although final proof was not established until the short passage from Ilhas Desertas to Funchal, when we were able to test the final modifications made at the Desertas).

Without doubt, the Ilhas Desertas were the highlight destination of the voyage to date. See the separate blog entry for details. 



Porto Santo, the smaller of the two main islands of the archipelago, was a sleepy quaint jewel, a lovely unspoilt place with a gorgeous beach to get away from it all. Again, see that blog page for more. 



Maderia, is wonderful, an island of flowers and mountains, 




but the Desertas were astonishing.

That word "experience", is I think the answer to the "why" question. It's for the experience of being as responsible for one's own fate as it's possible to be and for getting to one's destination harnessing only (for the most part anyway) the wind. Whilst at sea in a small boat there's no one (apart from one's crew if you have one), to help, dictate, order, advise, decide etc etc. It's just you and the blind forces of nature. Compared with those that serious voyagers have experienced, the forces we have experienced thus far have been fairly tame, but compared with those impacting an office desk in central London.....

The experience too of a magical place like the Ilhas Desertas was one to treasure.

The Desertas are the southernmost point of our planned voyage. From here in Funchal, where I am finishing these reflections, we're just north of the anchorage at the Desertas. From Funchal, we'll be heading north west for the Azores.

That means we're south of Gibraltar, Cadiz, Athens, Istanbul and Cyprus, to name but a few and we did it (nearly) all under sail. Many others have ventured much much further, much, much more alone, with much much less technology, but apart from my family this voyage has given me the greatest satisfaction to date.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.... My youngest, Vincent is taking his finals just now and has worked really hard and had some tough exams. He posted a photo of our chocolate Lab on WhatsApp just now for his mum. It made me realise that I miss them all a lot and am looking forward to seeing them again when I fly home for his and his brother's graduation. I'll be a very proud Dad then and may be able to convince my wife that despite my wanderlust, I miss her too.

So sailing makes me appreciate and enjoy life more. I find that it's when I deprive myself of experiences and people that normally occupy my life, that I enjoy and appreciate them even more. From the basic, like a couple of hours sleep, a cooked meal, a wash, a shower, a clean shirt, to the really important - family.

Another experience to savour when sailing is the comradeship of other sailors. It's something I've been looking forward too but so far we have only got know one other crew, Charles and Zoe of Valindra, during this voyage. It turned out they left the UK around the same time as us but are on a much bigger adventure around the world. We first bumped into each other in Leixoes and then again in Lisbon when we all went out to dinner. They are doing what I sometimes wish I had done at their age. They are now in Cadiz and plan to spend the next few months in the Med before heading west again. I wish them fair winds and hope they live the experience to the full.

I know of five other sailors on or about to commence/re-commence ocean voyages. Somewhat bizarrely, three of them I have never met.

Webb Chiles must be the most indomitable and experienced ocean voyager alive today. At 70+ he's on his sixth solo circumnavigation of the world (although he's currently got his feet up in Evanston, USA having a breather before he rejoins his super yacht, Gannet; all 24 feet of her that is. I stumbled across Webb on the Web (!) via his journal, Inthepresentsea.com. Webb is a writer of wonderful accounts of his life at sea and other topics too and a Poet to boot. His immense achievements have encouraged me greatly towards my much more modest ones, for which I thank him profoundly. We've never met but I hope we will.

I've never met Chris and Lorraine Merchant either. As I write this in a Tea Garden outside Funchal, Madeira they are struggling against calms and squalls in the mid Atlantic as they head for the Azores from St Kitts. They used to own Arctic Smoke and got in touch with me a couple of years ago via the blog. There's now a very real possibility that we'll meet in Horta in a few weeks time, an event to which I am looking forward to keenly.

I met Barry in Chatham Marina a few weeks before I left. He and John on board Swift depart Falmouth on Saturday 6th June with all the other competitors in the Azores and Back Race. They are raising funds for a cancer charity and I have promised to contribute. I very much hope I can hand over cash in person in the Azores. They and the rest of the fleet are heading for Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel.

Chris Gamble is a Kiwi still in exile in the UK, at present gale bound in Newtown Creek, IOW, but on his way back to the land of his birth under sail. Chris has done more than anyone else to help me get the boat ready for this voyage. One of his many talents is boat building, and he's put in weeks of work on Arctic Smoke to get her fit for the Ocean. We've known each other for 8 years now but will gradually be getting further and further apart on the globe. I very much hope I am able to visit him in NZ. I'll have a lot of persuading to do to get there under sail however!

And (almost) finally, at the age of 58, the most important thing for me about this voyage is that I'm “LIVING in the present” (and looking forward), I'm not relying on memories of days gone by and past achievements.

Looking ahead...
Weather permitting we leave Funchal on Thursday. We'll may stop off at one more port on Madeira overnight, then we head for the Azores!


a sailor is an artist whose medium is the wind
live passionately, even if it kills you, because something is going to kill you anyway”
Webb Chiles