It had been a race against time to arrive in the safety of Horta Harbour before the strong northerly headwinds set in, so it was with a sense of relief that I sipped my anchor beer late on the evening of the 26th May. The passage from Antigua had only taken 20 days and 7 hours, faster than I had envisaged, and only 24hrs slower than Ben and Caroline on 42 foot ‘Balou’ which I was secretly chuffed about! The only downside had been lots of motoring but i’ll take that over uncomfortable days bashing to windward. Fathom doesn’t enjoy that point of sail and neither do I.
I struggled to sleep that first night as I had become accustomed to the routine of waking up at short intervals and the silent motion of the boat in the calm anchorage felt strange after so long rocking around in the Atlantic swell. Due to the COVID lockdown the Portuguese border was closed but the local Azorean authorities were allowing yachts to stop to take on provisions before sailing on to their home countries. The first task was to check in with the marina via the VHF, who were acting on behalf of the Port Captain. They asked me a series of questions such as last port, date of departure from last country, persons on board and were keen to know if I felt unwell or had a cough. Later, the maritime police pulled alongside with a form to complete and sign, basically a declaration that I wouldn’t stay longer than 48 hours and would remain on the boat at all times. The trouble was the weather forecast was terrible and I had no intention of going anywhere.
I didn’t waste any time in tackling the two main issues on board; the engine and the toilet. As I mentioned in my last post, I had been doing my business in a bucket for the previous couple of weeks, which is fine when alone at sea, but in a crowded anchorage not so for everyone else! I set about taking apart the toilet pump and disconnecting the discharge hose which as I knew from past experience is an unpleasant job in the confined cabin. After installing the service kit and checking the pipe was free of blockage I was dismayed to find it would still not pump out so there was only one thing left to do – jump into the cold harbour water with a screw driver! After diving down it was immediately clear that the Antigua toilet paper was to blame; despite being labeled as 2 ply it behaved more like 10 ply and had blocked the outlet thru hull. It turned out to be a refreshing dip and an easy fix. The engine starting issue was next up. I had assumed the 7 year old engine start battery was to blame but now the engine would not start with the house battery bank linked in. For a while I was preparing myself for an expensive starter motor fix or replacement but after investigating all the wiring connections again, I eventually discovered the crimp in the terminal from the engine start negative cable to the shunt was slightly loose. A tighten and wallah, the engine started first time. I love quick and cheap wins like that!
Horta is home to the ‘Peter Café Sport’ bar and restaurant which is one of the most famous yachting pubs anywhere in the world. It has played an important role in refreshing, sustaining and helping successive generations of cruisers passing through the Azores and during this lockdown was no exception. Duarte and Phillipe were a constant presence in the anchorage buzzing around in their yellow RIB wearing their masks and hazmat suits, delivering orders from the supermarket and even evening takeaway dinners from their restaurant. We would whatsapp them our orders in the morning and later that day would have our goods. Nothing was too much trouble for them including supplying a local SIM card for internet access and gas bottle refills. Deliveries of beer and local wine definitely helped with morale too. They began to refer to themselves as the ‘Atlantic Resistance Movement’! Being confined to our boats after a long ocean passage would be frustrating at the best of times but without the support and assistance of Café Sport, it would have been unbearable. A massive thanks to them.
My 48 hour stay in the anchorage soon expired and it became clear that the authorities would not force yachts to head out into bad weather. And bad weather there was with gale force northerly winds tearing through the anchorage and driving rain. In the summer months the pilot charts indicate that the winds should blow from the SW to W above the Azores High Pressure system, perfect for the sail home towards Europe. But this year there was high pressure unusually far north in the Atlantic creating north to north east winds. The anchorage soon began to get crowded as no one was leaving and more and more yachts were turning up from the Caribbean. I was delighted to see Miki and Karl on ‘Fai Tira’ arrive safely and then shortly after Greg on ‘ Nebula’. However, many yachts had been damaged in the strong headwinds, two French solo sailors were towed in dismasted, another two yachts with torn mainsails.
After a week at anchor rumours began to circulate that the border would remain closed until at least mid June. With no weather window in sight to leave the frustration levels began to grow as the crew of over 50 yachts were unable to go ashore. Thankfully life became increasingly social as the Port Captain allowed yachts to raft together. I spent most the time alongside Ben and Caz on ‘Balou’ and enjoyed many shared meals, beers, films and games of scrabble. From time to time our raft grew to include Fai Tira and UK boat Mirage with Paul and Sally on board. Greg on Nebula rafted with Tim and Gayle on ‘Wild Bird’ and Richard and Tracy on ‘Zephyr’ (who I had chatted to mid Atlantic). On a couple of occasions, we all managed to cram together for drinks on one boat (not Fathom!) and even initiated a jam session with Frankie and Chris from ‘Gitain’ joining too. Lots of fun and a great way to let off some steam after being couped up so long.
My first steps off Fathom since the 5th May, and after 2 weeks at anchor, were alongside the fuel dock where I topped Fathom up with diesel and water. I also took the opportunity to paint a quick mural on the wall, as is customary here, but it was rushed and Fathom was moving all over the place in the swell. I think I got more paint on the mooring line than the wall and I was not best pleased with my efforts. It was maddening to be so close to the shore yet restricted to a few metres of concrete pier for an hour before heading back to anchor. A security gate blocked the path to town and it was maddening to see the locals walking about and enjoying the bars and restaurants a few metres away. The lush green hills so close in the background baited me with the opportunity to hike and exercise.
On the 12th June the Maritime police finally announced that the border would be opening the following week and after a COVID test, yacht crews would be allowed ashore. After so long isolated on our boats it was crazy we needed a test at all but great to finally have some good news. On Monday the 15th the marina started to call a few yachts on the VHF and directed them to come ashore for a test. The trouble was boats that had been in the anchorage for over 3 weeks were not called and yachts that had only just turned up were. Queue frustration levels going up another notch and lots of calls to the authorities to try and discover how they were prioritising the tests. We never did find out for sure but think it had more to do with how long we wrote down we wanted to stay in the Azores on the form the police handed out when we arrived in the anchorage. Eventually, the following day, the 16th June, I was called for the COVID test with Ben and Caz and unsupringly the results came through negative the following morning. We were then invited to check in at the marina office and clear into the country with customs and immigration. After six weeks afloat I motored Fathom into the marina and at long last was free to walk and explore dry land again.