Yacht Fathom - Setting off from England in May 2016 on a single-handed voyage somewhere a bit warmer

Archive for July, 2020

Azores Part 3 – Terceira

The weather was rather miserable as I steered Fathom out to sea from Horta harbour on the 22nd June on the 82 mile passage to the island of Terceira. Ben and Caz on Balou left half an hour after me and as forecast, the conditions quickly improved as we enjoyed a fast downwind sail through the channel between the islands of Sao Jorge and Pico. We were hoping to spot some whales and dolphins on the way but they remained illusive. The wind shadow from Pico required a couple of hours of motoring and then it was 10 minute cat naps through the night and an easy downwind sail the rest of the way. As the sun rose on the approach to the harbour of Praia da Vitoria it was a satisfying moment for me as this had been my original destination after setting off from Plymouth in May 2016 as part of the Jester Azores Challenge. To pass between the two breakwaters and finally finish after 4 years and a slight 35,000 mile detour felt fantastic. Ewen Southby-Taylor, the organiser of the Jester events, has since confirmed I have completed the inaugural ‘Jester World Challenge’!

The marina at Praia is very reasonably priced at around 7 Euro a day including free electricity and water so I treated Fathom to a berth. Ben and Caz were on a timeline but keen to explore the island for a few days before heading off to Scotland so it was nice to join them. We hired a car and explored some of the sights Terceira has to offer including the natural bathing pools on the north of the island at Biscoitos, squeezed in between the volcanic rocks. The most stunning place was Algar do Carvao, one of very few places in the world you can go and walk down into a lava chimney and magma chamber. The chambers were created during two eruptions, 3200 and 2000 years ago. Over 80m down from the entrance is a clear water lake formed by rainwater and stalactites and stalagmites line the walls. An amazing place which the photos don’t do justice to. We also made a stop at Angra do Heroismo, the capital of the island and a UNESCO world heritage site with it’s colourful buildings and winding streets. It was very sleepy though without tourists so apart from the locals we had it all to ourselves, a far cry to normal times here in summer when the high energy festivals and bull run attract thousands of people.


I was sad to see Ben and Caz depart, they had been great company through the lockdown period but I look forward to seeing them again at a Fathom/Balou raft up on the south coast of England in August. With only one other visiting yacht in the marina at the time it was all quite sleepy at Praia but I got to know Matt, a Canadian crewing on a 50 footer, who had been here for 5 months all through lockdown and Pedro, a local dentist who has a boat moored on the same dock as Fathom. On a couple of occasions Pedro invited me over for dinner with his family and I enjoyed tasting the great local food and learning about life in the Azores. Matt is passionate about climate change and likes to interview different people he meets on his travels. You can read the interview he did with me here http://thefacesofclimatechange.com/thom-isle-of-wight-united-kindgom/With lots of time on my hands I decided to make amends for my rushed mural in Horta and paint a better one. I went all out and washed and wire brushed the wall before starting to try and make it stay attached a few years. The result looks much better and is in good company alongside the paintings of fellow Jester Challengers.


In early July, Chris and Frankie on Gitain and Richard and Tracy on Zephyr arrived from Sao Jorge. It was good to see them again and fun to go out exploring together over the following weeks. I even got the fold up bike out from the depths of the bow and am ashamed to say it was the first time it had seen the light of day since Cape Town. On a few occasions Matt would drive and a few of us would ride our bikes and then we would convene somewhere for a hike. Life continued to be very sociable with us all meeting up regularly at the local beach bar for an evening beer and I even resurrected the Fathom Ti-Punch bar for rum cocktails. One of the best things we did was go coasteering with local company ‘Rope Adventures’. The official definition of coasteering is the movement along the intertidal zone of a rocky coastline on foot or by swimming without the aid of boats, surfboards or other craft. We donned seriously thick wetsuits, boots, gloves and helmets and spend a lot of time jumping off cliffs. It was great fun and definitely pushed my fear level to the limit on a couple of occasions.


I type this now in the midst of final preparations before heading off to sea on the final leg of my voyage back home. The last weeks have rolled by quickly and although I had originally planned to set off for the UK around mid July the Atlantic weather has again had other ideas with calms and headwinds on the rhumb line home. In hindsight I’m glad I stayed in the Azores longer, the local weather has been sunny and warm and the islands have been a really relaxed place to spend time. With no positive cases, I know all us visiting sailors have felt lucky to have the freedom to explore so easily in these COVID times. It is with mixed emotions that after 4 years of voyaging, it is finally time to head home.

Posted on 20 Jul in: Azores

Azores Part 2 – Faial and Pico

The 17th June was a big day – ashore at last! What a great feeling to have the freedom to walk around for the first time in six weeks and give the sea legs a much needed workout. And how nice to finally be able to visit the legendary Peter Café Sport that evening for a beer with my isolation buddies Ben and Caz after spending so long staring at it from the water. We tried to keep it low key that first evening to avoid frustrating the others who were still waiting to get ashore! The following day the rest of our lockdown gang got the all clear from their COVID tests and we all celebrated our new found freedom by going for a long walk up to Monte da Guia and down to the beach at Porto Pim. In the evening a fun get together at Café Sport for drinks and dinner. The locally sourced beef steak by far the best I have ever tasted, over 1kg on the bone (shared with Ben). It felt surreal to be all together ashore and finally off our boats. The wait had been worth it.

It was now time to be a tourist and explore the island. Ben, Caz, Greg and I hired a car and spent a day exploring various sights around Faial including the half buried lighthouse of Ponta dos Capelinhos. It was the only structure in the nearby area to survive a year long eruption from 1957-58 and is now surrounded by new land created from the lava and ash that spewed out of the Capelinhos volcano, burying the first few floors. We also visited the 1,043m summit of Cabeco Gordo, the highest volcano on the island hoping to walk around the rim and look down into the 2km wide crater but unfortunately it was shrouded in cloud. Then a walk along the cliffs on the south of the island and a wrong detour into a field of aggitated cows. On the way back to Horta we stopped at a viewpoint and a random gust of wind blew my camera off a ledge and onto a rock as it took a self timer selfie of us. A big dent in the case and sadly it has bitten the dust. An expensive and super frustrating mistake. The following day we were invited by ‘Peter’ to a tour of the Cafe Sport Museum to view the schrimshaw artwork – a technique of engraving and carving artwork on whale bone and teeth. They were often carried out by fisherman passing time on the whaling ships and it was later a technique developed by local artists. The detail is extremely impressive and intricate and some are now worth considerable sums of money. It was also an opportunity for all of us to personally thank him and his team, especially Duarte and Phillipe, for all the help and support they gave us sailors during the lockdown.


Now to get fit.. what better way to get back into shape than climb up to the 2,351m summit of Mount Pico! On the 21st June I took the ferry across to the island of Pico with Ben and Caz and then after a short taxi ride we reached the start of the trail at 1,231m. I was expecting a tough time of it after reading blogs of people that had done it and struggled, more so as they hadn’t been stuck on a boat like us! We decided to go with a guide and were met by Nuno who provided us with walking poles. It ended up taking us 3 hours to reach the summit with several rest stops. We had chosen a good forecast and were rewarded with incredible views from the top across to Horta and the neighbouring island of Sao Jorge. Nuno told us that in normal times there is a queue to climb the volcano and numbers are capped at 160 people a day. In this COVID time we just about had the whole place to ourselves. As we ate lunch we received a whataspp from Greg saying he had just set sail for the UK. We could just make out the white sails of Nebula more than 2,000m below us and took pictures of him setting off, a very unusual photo opportunity. The descent down the volvano took 2.5 hours and was harder on the legs than going up but the poles really helped. Overall it went surprisingly well for us unfit sailors.

In the taxi back to town we were chatting with the driver and asked him for any recommendations of things to do for the afternoon as our return ferry to Faial wasn’t until late in the evening. It was a Sunday so most places were closed but he mentioned he grew his own grapes and produced his own wine. Would we like to stop by for some wine tasting? Yes please! It was a great local experience to be shown around his property and sample his different wines and port. We ended up buying a few bottles for our respective boat stores. Back in town we found a bar offering another wine tasting which we decided was an excellent use of our time before the ferry arrived to take us back to Faial. A brilliant day all round.


None of us was in a rush to set off for home so decided a change of scenery would be a good idea. Next up the island of Terceira.

Posted on 18 Jul in: Azores

Azores Part 1 – Horta Lockdown

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.

Posted on 13 Jul in: Azores

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