Thursday 18 June 2015

Calheta, Madeira, to Vilha do Porto, Santa Maria, the Azores

Not a very evocative photograph but that's Santa Maria just visible below the cloud and our first site of the Azores, the primary goal of the voyage. Until this morning the voyage had been characterised by sunny days and almost perfect sailing conditions with , for the most part, just enough wind to keep the boat sailing at 4+ knots on a beam/close reach.

The exception to this general state of affairs prior to our landfall was the first few hours during our escape from Madeira's acceleration zone. In addition soon after our landfall and for the next couple of hours a front must have crossed us because we had some rain and then the wind backed and freshened so that we were close to needing to reef. As the photo above suggests, it all felt very much like home waters for a while as if our journey north from Madeira had returned us to prevailing south westerly weather. After a couple of hours though, with the exception of the sun that remained hidden, normal service was resumed. Even the sun came out shortly after our arrival and the temperature returned to the mid 20s and this was the scene...

Our departure from Calheta was however quite lively and we did briefly consider postponing it after looking over the harbour wall and seeing the weather outside. However, I managed to convince myself and Tony that the boisterous conditions were probably only local and the result of the acceleration zone shifting with the wind, which until our departure had been from the NE but was now from the NW. Whilst not great, because that was the direction in which we needed to go, I also took heart from the forecast which indicated the wind would veer to the north during the next 12 hours and then round further to the NE which would  be perfect for us. 

I'm not sure if Tony was totally convinced, but then nor was I, but we were both sufficiently keen to wave good bye to Calheta to take the risk. The forecast for the next few days also showed the winds dying closer towards the Azores as the impact of the high pressure there made its presence felt. The slightly stronger winds were though predicted to be to the NE of the islands so our tactics were to try and stay to the east of the islands on our route up in order to take advantage of the those stronger winds should they materialise.

Outside it was even more blowy than I thought and even with the precautionary 2 reefs in the main it seemed we might be over canvassed. However, our intention was to get away from the coast and if our logic was correct, the acceleration zone and therefore we made do with half a genoa and sailed off on a beam reach at right angle to the coast at 5 knots.

By 1530 we had put more than 5 miles between us and the coast and the conditions had moderated sufficiently to hoist the main with the two reefs and to harden up towards the west. We put a tack in at 1800 once we had weathered the island and headed North East, sailing well at 5-6 k with Angus doing a fine job at the helm....

There's also a video clip of Angus in action on the video page.

And there are also clips of the boat sailing and of the scene below decks including an exclusive impromptu interview with the Mate.

By 2100 the wind had veered sufficiently to make the starboard tack a better option so we went back on to that steering about 270. We shook out the 2 reefs around this time too and continued making a good 5k to the west,  but by now it was calm enough to have the hatches open..

That night, Sunday, I saw the most intense, the brightest and the largest shooting star I had ever seen. It seemed to last for ever, but was probably just a few seconds but it lit up the night sky significantly. The night was the best so far for star gazing and I tried identifying some constellations. I've always been terrible at that but was able to pick out in addition to The Plough, Ursula Minor and Draco. .I searched in vain for Cygnus though. Of course it was there but I could just not put the pieces together. I resolved to try again the following nights, but alas they were all pretty cloudy.

On Monday, I finally got round to re-familiarising myself with the sextant and got it out of its box for the first time in a year or so. I did an Ocean Yacht Master course in 2011 and learnt how to use it but it's hardly been out of the box since then and with my memory I'll have to re-learn it all. For those not familiar with the art/science of celestial navigation there are two main aspects; taking sights of the sun/moon/stars using the sextant and using the results of these sights (in degrees) to calculate ones position on the planet using numerous tables, formulae and pro-formas. Taking the sights is a skill in itself that has to be learned and practised so that you can get a reliable result on a pitching and rolling deck at the split second it's required. An error of a fraction of a minute (a minute is 1/60th of a degree) means your position will be out by miles. Doing the calculations for those who have mastered the process is a matter of "simple mathematics" but for the uninitiated number blind dim-wits like me it's a black art. So I practised handling the sextant and taking sights and was satisfied that I could do a reasonable job in the calm conditions we were enjoying. That night I started the process of checking and adjusting the sextant to ensure it was set up correctly. Unfortunately I only succeeded in making matters worse and what with the cloudy nights we have had since, I've still not finished the painstaking job of re-adjusting my adjustments! On Tuesday I started re-learning the calculations and have now worked through perhaps 1/4 of the whole process! So I'll still have plenty to occupy myself during future passages! Of course these days with GPS and chart plotting technology there's no need to use a sextant, but it's something I feel I ought to be able to do, so I'll carry on trying.

We covered the straight line distance of 468 miles in half an hour less than four days giving an average speed of just under 5 knots. However we sailed at least 10 miles more than that and therefore maintained an average speed through the water of over 5 knots. We were exceptionally lucky with the winds and could quite easily have been becalmed for long periods given the dominance of high pressure over the Azores, Nevertheless we were both delighted with how well the boat went and even in the periods of light winds our speed seldom dropped to less than three knots and that's pretty good for a heavy displacement boat like Arctic Smoke.

We travelled across a very empty patch of ocean. Over the 4 days we saw one yacht going in the opposite direction and one going up to Horta (we guessed) and we saw one ship during the night and one other vessel last night - probably a fishing boat. We saw two dolphins briefly on the Monday and a larger group for longer yesterday evening. We saw no birds until yesterday evening.

We celebrated our landfall this morning by liberating Herman the Duck, a video of which can be found on the video page.

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