The Long Way Back to Brazil (Part 2)

 

by James Baldwin

 

As we approached the south coast of Bermuda on a starless overcast night, a late spring cold front swept towards us with a fierce display of lightening, rain squalls and gusty southwest winds. I gazed hypnotically at the main squall line on the radar screen with the nervous single-minded attention of a navy sailor tracking incoming missiles. When the menacing black band reached the two-mile range, I snapped out of my trance, and like striking my colors in the traditional naval surrender, jumped on deck and pulled down all sail. Moments later a west wind shrieked and drummed in the rigging and pushed us clumsily before it at four knots. As the winds eased up I progressively added more sail, shaking out one reef at a time. Dawn came clear and cool and nearly calm as we passed through the narrow cut in the rocks guarding Bermudas St. Georges Harbour.

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Islander route map

In Bermuda during the first week of June we joined a community of nearly a hundred other eastbound cruising boats. The majority of sailors here were making their first trans-Atlantic voyage. Like novice mountaineers gathered at Everest base camp, there was an air of excitement, tension, and camaraderie among the fleet. Rumors, horror stories, and routing strategies were passed from boat to boat as indisputable facts.

The passage across the Gulf Stream to Bermuda is a good testing ground to discover weak links in boats and crew. Inevitably, each year some boats here cancel their Atlantic crossings and turn back for the states due mainly to inexperienced skippers becoming discouraged by equipment failures or disgruntled crew. Whenever we mentioned to our neighboring neophyte cruisers we were on a passage from Venezuela to Brazil, theyd look on us like we were hopelessly inept navigators and ask in astonished tones, What are you doing here? Even Herb, aka Southbound II the fleets volunteer weather forecasting guru, sounded skeptical when I checked in on his SSB net and announced we were waiting for a weather window to depart for the Cape Verde Islands en route to Brazil. Whats your planned route? Herb asked. I replied, perhaps too confidently, Well head northeast to 38 North, then turn due east with the westerly wind behind us, then turn southeast towards the Cape Verdes when about 400 miles west of the Azores.

Sounds like you've been reading the Pilot Charts, Herb said. At that point I was unsure if he was commending my good sense or possibly wondering at my naivet to think I could make a shortcut to the Portuguese Trades without first passing east of the Azores. In any case we both knew the Pilot Charts are merely statistics of average conditions and I was talking to him precisely to get weather routing specific to here and now. It was a good choice too, since my brilliant interpretation of the pilot charts was to be proved utterly wrong for this year.

My wife, Mei, adored Bermudas boutiques, pink beaches, and touristic comforts and could have stayed for months, but we needed to be on our way before any hurricanes threatened. Bermuda was also way too expensive to hang around a moment longer than necessary. We paid $50 US for one bag of groceries. How about $13 for a small bag of ice? No thank you. The Bermuda government felt that visiting sailors would quickly be bled dry of their cruising funds and might be tempted to find illegal employment to survive so they recently passed a law requiring yachties and other undesirables to depart within three weeks of arrival. With gasoline at five US dollars per gallon we'd be making the next passage without much assistance from our outboard auxiliary.

So we departed Bermuda despite Herbs warnings of continuing calms. Herb was right again, of course. It took us a week of what might be called purposeful drifting to go 350 miles. Herb started making reference to Islander's lack of progress as a warning to other yachts sitting impatiently in Bermuda to hang tight several more days for better winds. "You don't want to be drifting back and forth in calms like Islander."

What others didn't know was that having the right mindset made a satisfying challenge out of what they might feel was maddening frustration. With fanatic devotion to sail trim we somehow managed a steady if meager progress, except for one twenty-four hour period when we drifted backwards fourteen miles. Mei decorated the aft lifelines with strands of her long silky black hair to use as the most sensitive of light-air tell-tales. With one finger on the tiller I sat and stared at these dangling threads in a Buddha-like trance. Occasionally, a hair would lift and dance in a 2-3 knot zephyr. Mei looked long into the glassy sea and whispered moa cheen (magic mirror).

As the miles ever so slowly fell away, my work of coaxing the boat from one cats paw to another took on the perverse joy of a cat and mouse game. Fingertips on the tiller, we ghost along at one knot, silent as a shadow, leaving barely a ripple on the silky smooth waters. Speeds above one knot now seem thrilling and I watch approvingly as the windvane takes over, steering in a delicate balancing act of wind and sail. Islander becomes an extension of myself - I step lightly around deck so as not to upset the boat's balance. Even when asleep, I sense any unbalance and awake ready to take up my post as wind watchman. On each passage I learn again to simply pay attention, to stop listening to the noise of society and start listening to sea, sky and boat to the secret language of sailing. Turn on your motor and the spell is destroyed.

We loved the solitude. And yet society was never far away. The weather nets and cruisers nets we joined on the SSB radio meant we were never alone. A group of yachts we spoke with daily on 8 MHz had left Bermuda for the Azores about a week after us. By motoring through the calms they all eventually overtook us. To those uncomfortable with the sea, the shortest passage means the best passage. On the net we exchanged position and wind(less) reports, heard who saw whales or who was catching fish. We caught only Sargasso seaweed on this passage. One by one they passed us as if we were frozen in place.

Our net controllers were Amy and Bill McManus on their CSY 37 Sunset Dreamer from St. Petersburg, Florida. Other yachts on this net were Stormy Duchess, Moose, Shady Lady, Lucy, Abracadabra, Mariah, Penguin, Sabrina and Satori.

As these yachts motor-sailed past within our circle of visibility wed chat on VHF before they disappeared over the eastern horizon. We also sent frequent position reports by SSB radio to Islanders owner to let him know how the delivery was going. Although we had a Pactor radio email modem, we were unable to use it on this trip because we had chosen not to bring along our PC. Instead, we passed our position to the amateur radio Maritime Mobile Service Net, whose shoreside volunteers relayed our position to family and friends.

To ensure peak performance of the SSB on the weather net frequencies, we installed a 12MHz wire dipole antenna parallel to the backstay. For other frequencies Islander has an 80-foot long wire antenna running from the manual tuner below decks, up through the afterdeck to the masthead parallel to the backstay and back down near the shroud. The #10 AWG insulated copper wire runs parallel to, but not touching, the backstay and shrouds. By switching as needed from one antenna to another we got good performance on most frequencies.

Aside from the SSB and radar, which we run in power save mode, our electrical requirements are modest. All power is supplied by two 55-watt solar panels mounted on adjustable brackets on the stern railing that can be pointed into the sun for maximum efficiency. For a small boat cruising mostly in the sun-soaked tropics, the silent reliability of solar power sure beats listening to a wind charger or generator. Occasional use of power tools are easily handled by a 1,000 watt inverter powered by the solar panels feeding Islanders 440 AH battery bank.

We worked our way northeast until we began to feel those elusive westerly winds the Pilot Charts had promised. The trick was to ride the edge of the North Atlantic High; too far north and we risked gales; turn south too early and we'd be trapped in calms. In practice, neither can be avoided entirely. Eighteen days out of Bermuda we drift in calm waters near 40 degrees North 40 degrees West. Herb urges we go further north where there may be a trace of wind or at least a favorable current. This area has come under the calming, some might say maddening, influence of an Azores High that seems to be covering half the North Atlantic.

I'm reminded of a conversation at the White Horse Pub in St. Georges, Bermuda. Asked what course he'll be taking to the Azores, a German on a forty-some foot yacht confidently states, "I will sail north to 40 degrees to get zee westerly winds before turning east." Then with a nudge at me from his shoulder and a touch of boastful superiority added, "But perhaps with your little 28-foot boat you do not like zee wind, eh?"

This last bout of calms came after a thrilling two-day westerly gale that had us rushing down some awesome seas under a 90% furled jib. The windvane steered around the clock without complaint. Mei and I merely took turns poking our heads out the hatch like groundhogs scanning the horizon for signs of fair weather. Occasionally a foamy breaking wave crest dropped harmlessly into the cockpit. If only our German sailor could have seen us enjoying the roller coaster ride along 40 north. The only thing that dampened our spirits was the moldy dampness of salt spray mixed with condensation that pervaded everything inside the boat.

After the gale, light variable winds returned. Following Herbs suggestion that we stay north for steadier winds, we found ourselves passing near Flores Island in the Azores. It was an easy decision to pull into Flores. We had been at sea for twenty-four days. Our moldy clothes needed washing and our fresh food was finished, aside from a few limes, potatoes, and the mung beans we sprouted.

(Click images to enlarge)

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The approach to Flores Island, Azores

After countless landfalls, how wonderful it is that I am still awestruck at the spectacle of seeing a high volcanic island emerge from the sea. Sailing around the south coast to the anchorage at Porto das Lajes, we passed under high cliffs that threw back the sea in pulsing sheets of white foam. Above the cliffs lay terraced green pastures and scattered farmhouses. Higher up, the forested slopes were capped by a ring of cloud clinging fast to hidden peaks. Though my memories are packed with favorite islands, Flores gave the instant impression it would be near the top of my list.

TransAtlantic Weather Routing

Veteran mariners in the North Atlantic and Caribbean know to contact Herb Hilgenberg (Southbound II) on marine SSB frequency 12.359 MHz at 20:00 UTC (4pm ET) for excellent weather routing advice. Herb is a volunteer weather forecaster based in Toronto who has been providing free weather routing service for Atlantic sailors since 1987. Yacht log-ins start after 19:30 UTC. At 20:00 UTC Herb signs on and acknowledges vessels he has heard log-on and will ask them to stand by as he works boats by area.

If you have an SSB receiver you can listen to offshore voice forecasts from the National Weather Service. Their latest schedule is on their website.

Emergency Offshore Messaging

The Amateur Radio Maritime Mobile Service Net operates daily from 16:00 to 02:00 UTC (12pm to 10 pm ET) on 14.300 MHz. Licensed MM amateur radio operators can check in here and speak to volunteer operators in the US who will provide phone patches, one-way messages, or send brief email messages. In emergencies anyone can check in. For further information, log on to the nets website: www.mmsn.org.

Our unexpected stopover at Flores Island in the Azores meant that our trip to Brazil would take considerably longer than we'd planned. That was alright. Some undisturbed sleep and a chance to explore one of the loveliest islands in the Atlantic was just what we needed after twenty-four days sailing from Bermuda through the alternating calms and gales so typical of this region.

In Flores we shared the anchorage of Porto das Lajes with many of the cruising boats we had last seen in Bermuda. Lajes harbor is protected from prevailing summer westerly winds by a sizable new breakwater. We anchored near the cement quay at the head of the bay and set a second stern anchor to hold Islanders bow into the slight swell that often bends its way around the island and into the harbor. By day, hundreds or terns, locally called cagarras, nest silently in the high cliffs along the north shore of the anchorage. At night they swoop low over the waters, their hysterical cries mingling eerily with the mournful rattling of rounded black pebbles rolling in the final lift of swells rising to tumble on the shoreline.

Here we met some sailors we'd previously known only as voices on the radio. Our first night in port we all gathered on the stony beach at Porto das Lajes for a potluck, or "lucky pot" as Mei translated it. Among the group warming themselves around the driftwood fire, we met people with occupations as varied as computer programmer, architect, accountant, Dutch commando marine, sales clerk, doctor and nurse; diverse people who found common ground through a shared ocean passage. Bottles of local wine were passed around until the early hours while we were entertained by the crazed squealing of the demented cagarras, who soared down on us with a hilarious loud burst of Yau-Yau-Yau-Wah!

Bill and Amy of Sunset Dreamer told us they gave up their jobs to make a one year circuit of the North Atlantic with stops planned at Bermuda, Azores, Portugal, Canaries, and back through the West Indies to Florida. "This was our first long ocean passage," Bill said. "In Bermuda we met other boats heading for the Azores who wanted to keep in touch on a radio net. Underway we kept a chart showing the daily positions of each boat. Aside from that one gale where we blew out our mainsail, we had an easy passage. It was a great learning experience," Amy added.

Along the quayside is a combined tourist office and whaling museum. Unlike Bermuda, Flores is not yet a theme park for cruise ships, prices are reasonable, and cruising folk feel genuinely welcome. The casual check-in procedure was accomplished with little more than a handshake with a policeman sent to the quay to meet us. No visas asked for or port clearance charges to pay. No stamps to clutter your passport. Free to come and free to go - at least until the EU bureaucrats discover the oversight. There is free water on tap near the dinghy landing, free Internet access in the town's city hall, even a free quayside laundry service provided by local government. What then, you might wonder, keeps the gypsy sailor from parking here permanently? The cold rain and foggy gales of winter combined with the only reasonable anchorage being open to easterly winter storm winds pretty much scares off any late season stragglers.

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Hydrangeas and crater lakes on Flores Island 

The village of Lajes sits a heart-pounding fifteen minute slog uphill from the harbor. Two grocery stores carry an ample variety of imported Portuguese and local foods. Whatever fresh vegetables we couldn't locate in the shops, we got direct from the farmers we met on our inland travels, who often refused payment. We feasted on local cheese and round loaves of dense Portuguese bread washed down with wine costing as little as one US dollar a bottle. We toured the island on foot and by public bus and once by hired taxi that took us into the mountains to a picnic spot on a blanket of spongy moss next to a pair of deep crater lakes. Waterfalls draped themselves in misty bridal veils over the cliffs into the fertile valley of Fajazinha. We followed a stream past ancient tile-roofed cottages and pastures segmented by sturdy stonewalls smothered with red and white hydrangea flowers. The stream momentarily disappeared under a house where it powers a watermill used to grind corn into flour. The corn flour is mixed with wheat and the heavy loaves baked to perfection in wood-fired brick ovens.

As our little fleet arrived in the Azores, a bizarre rescue and salvage operation was taking place several hundred miles behind us. On June 9th, Michael Freeman and his twenty-five year-old daughter, Virginia, left Queens, New York, bound for Ireland in their 1960 28-foot Pearson Triton Goose. Michael, a magazine graphic art designer had refit Goose in his spare time over the past six years and took the summer off for his first ocean crossing. In Bermuda the Freeman's met thirty-nine year old Belgian artist Dominique Rogge. Dominique was still recovering from a salmonella infection when he recently fell, cracking a rib and bruising a kidney. Because of a lack of money, the hospital in Bermuda had turned the sailor away to convalesce alone on his boat.

Before buying his Albin 27, named Lady Ada, in Aruba three years ago, Dominique cruised from the Canary Islands to South America on a 43-foot motorsailor he had rebuilt from a half sunken wreck. He supported himself on his travels working as a painter, sculpter, and a mime doing street performances. In Brazil he startled and amused the locals by peddle-sailing across country on two bicycles welded side by side, propelled from town to town, when the wind was fair, under a junk-rigged sail. "I traveled this way to promote ecology, bicycling and art," Dominique explained. He was now returning to the Canary Islands to visit his wife who had tired of his unconventional travels.

"Since Dominique had a weatherfax and vastly more sailing experience than us, we agreed to buddy boat on the next leg to the Azores," Mike said. Both boats got underway on June 23rd when Dominique declared he felt fit to sail. For six days they tacked northeast in light winds, keeping in sight of each other and chatting on VHF. On one calm evening Dominique leapt aboard Goose to share dinner. Looking at Lady Ada drifting alone was spooky enough then, even though they couldn't foresee she would soon be abandoned altogether by her skipper.

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Triton yawl Goose in Flores

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Dominique and Freemans reunited

On June 29 Dominique complained of severe stomach pains that worsened the next day. Goose's SSB radio was not functioning, but Michael did manage to email his ex-wife via their Magellan Orbair satellite system, asking her to contact a doctor for medical advice. Unable to locate a doctor willing to advise an unseen patient, she was forwarded to the Coast Guard Rescue Control Center in Norfolk who, without any specific request from the sailors involved, put out an advisory for any ships in the area to come to Lady Ada's assistance.

The next day the sailors were surprised when the freighter Scanderborg approached and announced on VHF that they had come to pick up the sick sailor and take him to Gibraltar. Dominique told them he only wanted medical advice and at that point was unwilling to abandon his home. Virginia recalled, "We tried to cancel the unintended Mayday, but after Dad sat on the Magellan and broke it we were cut off."

Strong winds separated the boats on July 1st. When Goose relocated Lady Ada the next day they were soon joined by the Rio Frio, another ship attempting to pick up Dominique. Several hours later another ship, the Sealand Quality, loomed above them and discussed the chaotic situation by sat-phone with the coast guard. Fearing he may have appendicitis, they transferred a box of antibiotics to Lady Ada. A day of massive doses of Amoxycillin and a liquid diet had Dominique feeling slightly better as they continued sailing east.

On July 4th Dominique had relapsed with fever and stomach pain when the Cousteau Society's turbo-sail ship Alcyone passed by. The French crew convinced Dominique that his life was in danger. He only reluctantly agreed to come aboard when the skipper of Alcyone promised to tow Lady Ada to the Azores. Once Dominique was aboard however, the skipper decided towing would be too slow and suggested they scuttle her instead.

Although Michael would not leave his daughter to sail Dominique's boat to the Azores, he did offer to try and tow her behind Goose. "We realized it would be pure luck if the weather held calm enough to make it all the way in. I was willing to try anyway," Michael said.

Alcyone's skipper gave Dominique five minutes to gather his belongings, helped transfer 25 gallons of diesel to Goose, and then raced away at near twenty knots. Michael and Virginia were left in mid-ocean with an abandoned boat nearly the same size as their boat to tow some seven hundred miles and only enough fuel to motor less than five hundred miles. The Freeman's began their seemingly impossible mission with Michael swimming over a 250-foot towline which he attached to the bow cleats of Lady Ada with a fifteen-foot long chain bridle. Then he pulled himself along the towline and attached to the center a small canvass bag full of chain to absorb the shock loads. "We towed her for two days under spinnaker in light westerly winds. Then we motored the last five days through calms and light headwinds to Flores. She towed nicely at four and a half knots with our 17 HP motor. She was a perfect lady. And we were very lucky," Mike admitted.

Meanwhile Alcyone had transferred Dominique to the Russian freighter Kapitan Korotaev who had a doctor's assistant aboard. "The Russians treated me wonderfully," Dominique said. "They consulted by phone with specialists in Russia and pumped me full of antibiotics, put in an IV to stop my dehydration, and looked after my every need."

On July 7 a Portuguese coast guard boat brought Dominique ashore and carried him to hospital in Horta where he spent the next five days undergoing tests. Although the tests were inconclusive, he did recover enough to go down to the yacht harbor and inquire about the fate of Lady Ada. Through messages passed on Sunset Dreamer's SSB net he was able to confirm that Mother Goose and Lady Ada had arrived safely in Flores. The next day the penniless but resourceful Dominique made and sold a wire sculpture to pay for his plane ticket to Flores. Reunited with his boat and the Freeman's, Dominique smiled broadly and said, "I am so happy. You guys saved my boat. I cannot express my gratitude." Being together on Flores, we all felt this longstanding fraternity of sailors at sea which is well matched by the hospitality and goodwill of the Azorean people.