2022 - The year we escape the UK
After two years of COVID disruption and frustration, we sail the the South West coast of the UK, cross Biscay, make passage down the Atlantic Portuguese coast, and cruise the Algarve. An unplanned ARC+ Atlantic crossing with friends completes a full-on season.
May: Shake-down cruise - Fowey & the Helford River
With Arkyla re-floated in April, and moved to her new temporary home in Plymouth's Mayflower Marina, we were now only weeks away from the start of our COVID-delayed run to the sun. Before we could head south across Biscay however we needed to ensure all systems were go so, with only limited time available between family commitments, we decided on a week's May cruise west to visit our old favourite Fowey and then the Helford River to shakeout any gremlins.
There was little, if any, wind as we made our way west under hazy, nondescript grey skies; this was a day to test the engine rather than the rig. Rounding Rame Head, the chart plotter was dominated by an amorphous mass of targets ahead of us; zooming in we could see that they were all heading our way. It appeared that we were about to gate crash the return leg of the 'Plymouth-to-Fowey and Back' race and that some race boat dodging was going to be necessary. As it turned out, few boats were actually travelling faster than the tide, so weaving our way between the competitors was not too stressful a task.
Our timing for Fowey was perfect; with the race fleet having left earlier in the day, there was no shortage of visitor buoys to pick up, and no requirement for rafting as can be the case in the busier summer months. Safely secured and our dues paid to the harbour master, we relaxed in the cockpit with the real treat of the day still ahead of us. As the sun dipped below the hills that the houses of Fowey sit on, the sky turned a deep orange with a sundowner that any Pacific island would be proud of; even the UK can deliver a sunset at times!
The following morning we awoke to another amazing display of light, this time in the form of the early fog burning off the hills down the length of the river. As the veil of mist lifted, so the the river and its traffic slowly came to life. This may have been a shake-down cruise, but it was also a week to relax; for many years, we've wanted to visit the biospheres of the Eden Project and Fowey is an ideal place to take a relatively inexpensive taxi to the attraction which is only 7 miles from the town. The Harbourmaster had already advised us the night before to make an early visit; these were wise words as not only did we miss the crowds that began to build later in the morning, but we were also able to secure a taxi back to town before all the cabs were assigned to the afternoon school run.
My first experience of 'yachting' was, as a teenager in 1981, aboard a 26ft Westerly Centaur; my dad had convinced my mother that chartering a boat out of Falmouth would somehow be a good idea for our summer holiday (given his only real sailing experience was limited to our 14ft GP14 dinghy). How my parents remained married after that break I'm not sure but, despite the daily string of boat disasters that trip, I at least was not put off sailing for life. We mostly cruised the Helford River that week, and it has long been my wish to return in Arkyla.
Entering the river mouth we decided to pick up a buoy rather than drop the hook in the outer anchorage to get us a little bit closer to the dinghy landing docks. Our visitor mooring was not the easiest to pick up as the grab handle seemed specifically designed not to fit a standard boathook however, with our floating neighbour the retired Padstowe lifeboat 'The James & Catherine Macfarlane', we felt assured that should Arkyla spring a leak in the night at least help would not be too far away!
The next morning we chose to exercise ourselves with a circular walk from Helford village. We left the dinghy at the private jetty to the north of the village, close to the ferry point, for which there is an honesty box. We could have tied to the free-to-use drying sailing club pontoon closer in, but we calculated that this would probably have left us stranded at the time we wanted to return back to Arkyla. We stocked up with snacks in the village shop before heading out on our route that would take us out to the point and back. We left the picture postcard perfect village and headed out along wooded paths, festooned with bluebells and smelling of wild garlic, toward the small hamlet of Carne. From here we followed the South West Coast path along Gillan Creek pausing to look at the traditional boats, dried out in the mud on their long keels, held steady with the help of their legs. Eventually the path led us right out to the point where we stopped to catch our breath and watch the yachts making their way in and out of the Helford River and, a little further to the north, the approaches to Falmouth. Working our way back along the coast path we took time to wander along a couple of wonderful little beaches before heading back to our start point. Along this final stretch we spotted, between the trees, Arkyla hanging to her visitor buoy; from here it was just a short walk to Shipwright's Arms for a well earned beer.
All too soon it seemed, it was time to slip our mooring and sail the 42 nm back to Mayflower Marina. We motored out of the river mouth and pointed ourselves in the direction of Plymouth. We now had a gentle breeze directly from our stern, so decided now was the ideal time to test our downwind rig of twin genoas (permanently hoisted on the outer furler). Holding the windward genoa out with the pole, and stabilising the leeward sail with a snatch block mounted along the boom, the rig is a little cumbersome to set and not really an option to use for short trips especially when shorthanded. On pulling out the sails, they both instantly filled and pulled us along beautifully in the light airs. I felt so confident in the stability of the rig that I launched the drone to get some shots of Arkyla wing-on-wing.
Five miles off Rame Head the wind had noticeably strengthened and moved further into the south. We de-rigged the pole, furled the genoas, reset the 'reaching' lines, then pulled the sails back out both to starboard, one lying atop the other. With the mainsail also unfurled we were back to a traditional rig. The wind continued to strengthen so I attempted to reef the headsails; the furling line would not move an inch! I went forward to discover that the lower furling gear had somehow rotated in so doing wrapping the line tight around the deck fitting. Whilst I tried to manhandle the furling drum to unwind the snag, the boat accidentally gybed. Still waiting delivery of our recently ordered Scott Boomlock gybe-preventer, the force of the boom, whilst not catastrophic, was enough to knock out the feed from the wind transducer atop the mast.
The remainder of the passage into Plymouth Sound and back to Mayflower Marina thankfully went without any further incident. Once back in our berth, I hauled Jenny up the mast to retrieve the wind transducer for testing; unfortunately her fingers weren't strong enough to unscrew the fitting, so down she came and up I went using the TopMast Climber.
The transducer, it turned out, was fine so it was a call to the Allspars team in Queen Anne Battery to see if they could replace the WINDEX mast cable and check out the Furlex that had wrapped its line. I can't speak too highly of the Allspars team; despite full books, they managed to find time to fit our cable and repair the mounting block on the furler in time before our scheduled departure for Biscay with the ARC Portugal rally.
So, although we ended up with a couple of unplanned bills, the shake-down cruise had done its job; we had identified and fixed a couple of issues that would have been a whole lot more serious had they not failed until mid-Biscay. All in all a rewarding trip!
June: Crossing the Bay 0f Biscay - Plymouth to Bayona
It all came right down to the wire, but finally the boat was ocean ready to tackle Biscay and all that its offshore route could throw at us. Fearful of potential bug-related engine failure from a perfect storm of pre-COVID fuel, water content in fresh diesel following UK and EU changes to biofuel regulations, and an expectation of big confused seas churning her 360 litre tank, Arkyla now had a new dual Racor-type primary fuel filter system to complement the Diesel Dipper polishing system installed last season. Last-minute work to fix the genoa furler and replace the wind transducer cable in the mast were also completed with just days to spare before the ARC Portugal rally start on 4 June.
Recruiting two 80's era university rugby friends, and another retired RAF colleague, my crew for the crossing was strong and full of experience if not particularly pretty! Over the course of the prep-week, the character traits of each of my piratey band began to emerge; offshore racer Rich was eying up the opposition, charmer Mark was eying up the totty, and long-time gin palace owner Mike was eying up the cake, chocolate and rum rations!
We slipped lines for the final time from our Mayflower Marina berth in near calm conditions, unfurled the mainsail, and motored toward the rally start off Mountbatten breakwater. As the 19-strong ARC fleet jockeyed for position on the line the wind began to fill and, on the virtual 'VHF cannon', we powered out of Plymouth Sound on a close reach toward the Eddystone Light.
When I say toward the Eddystone, I mean directly toward the Eddystone... collision course in fact! We could only watch in jealousy as the higher-pointing Falcon passed west of the light whilst we had to bear away and dip off the wind to the east of the rocks.
Once south of the light, it was clear that the fleet was split in its thinking for tackling the Ushant TSS; as we watched some of the early leaders bear away to take the inside route, we stuck to our original plan to make further westing and go outside. Timing drove my decision as, with a crew still learning the boat, I did not want to either cross the shipping lanes nor run a possible gamut of shipping pots during our first set of night watches. Coming on deck at 0200hrs, the helm was handed to me just as we had made the turn south past the TSS. The wind had dropped and moved into the north, and we were no longer making the steady 7 knots we had enjoyed earlier; AIS showed that we were well placed in the outside group of rally yachts, but the 'insiders' were now out of VHF range to measure their progress. Toward the end of the dark hours, the autopilot alarmed with a 'low power' warning. This surprised me given the size of Arkyla's (brand new) domestic battery bank, but I thought that a night of full electronics use was maybe an 'ask too far'. We started the engine to charge the bank, but were panicked when the Axiom MFD's also alarmed and a check of the Victron monitor showed we were charging at 15-18 volts and rapidly cooking our kit! I shut down the engine; there was no immediate concern as, with some power rationing (namely the autopilot), Arkyla's solar and wind systems would keep us going, but thoughts turned to how we would fare if, unable to motor, the forecast calms materialised at the back end of the passage.
Sun-up was at 0430 hrs for our first Biscay dawn. The wind had continued to drop as had our speed. With the wind directly from Arkyla's stern, I set the twin genoas wing-on-wing as this rig had proven so effective in our shake-down cruise. Alas the combination of light airs and a following sea that persistently kicked our stern meant that the sails struggled to stay filled with the tops collapsing each time the boat rolled. Not only did this induce further roll, but the sails would regularly batter the radar doing no good to either the Vectran cloth or the Raymarine electronics! We persevered during the day tweaking settings but progress was painfully slow. In hindsight, I should have tried furling some cloth to see if this would have tamed the sails, but instead we decided to change tactic, set the mainsail, and play the wind angles broad reaching.
We zig-zagged our way south and, as the sun began to set at 2030 hrs, an incredibly bright, orange super moon rose in the sky; it was mesmerising! As the winds remained light, I ignored the old adage to reef down for the night, and we pressed on toward the continental shelf with full mainsail and genoa. By midnight however the wind, still in the north, had steadily built and, as we neared the shelf where depths plummet from 200 to 4000 metres over a mere 20 NM, the sea had also built considerably. Arkyla was now surfing and it was obvious that any further increase in wind or waves life would become uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. I had a watch partner, Mike, but given his unfamiliarity with sail boats and the now threatening conditions, I called the off-watch crew on deck to help; despite the interruption to their slumber, all agreed this was the right skipper's decision. The rest of the night passed without incident, and we made good progress toward our aim point of Finisterre.
By now, boat and crew had set into a good rhythm and the wind angles were such that we could hold a broad reach whilst also heading in the right direction! Skirting the western edge of the shipping lane there were now frequent sightings of traffic. With a plan to round Cape Finisterre mid-way between TSS and land (to hopefully avoid lobster pots, 'stealth' fishing vessels, and areas of accelerated wind), we would need to cross the flow of traffic. As the sun set for the second time on this passage, the wind picked up and we were back to making 7+ knots; in the early hours, with wind in our sails, we decided that the time was right to push our track to the east of the lanes. Visibility under the bright moon was excellent, so we didn't have any great need of the radar. The AIS was used extensively however to interrogate any closing vessels of concern.
On two occasions we were unsure if we had been seen by the coaster traffic and we called each up on the VHF to confirm both situation and intent. The first vessel confirmed that they had seen us and had altered course accordingly (though this was not readily evident from the AIS data). The second vessel did not answer the radio and maintained its collision course; we suspected that no one was on listening watch, so gybed (to some colourful sailor language) to safely go behind the vessel.
By Wednesday morning, the start of our 4th day at sea, we were safely across the shipping lanes and, although the wind was dropping, Arkyla was still moving along nicely. By mid-afternoon the Galician land mass could clearly be seen as could a strange procession of three weather fronts lining up behind us to the north. One by one the fronts passed overhead bringing with them instant increases in wind from near calm to over 25 knots; expecting squalls we had reefed down though we were still taken aback by the change in wind direction that went through a full 180 degrees and back again - none of us had experienced anything like it before.
Once the fronts had overtaken us we were left becalmed. Having already taken time to dig out the alternator and regulator manuals and take spanners to the battery compartment, we could find no obvious reason for our mid-Biscay charging issues. Tentatively we started the engine and were relieved to have a steady 14.2 volts flowing through the system. Engaging gear, within minutes we had a pod of dolphin playing off our bow wave. This was our first wildlife sighting all passage and we had all but given up the hope of any encounters; they stayed with us for a good half an hour. Our spirits had no time to sink when they eventually left us as, almost immediately after, a pod of eight pilot whales surfaced along each side of the hull. This was a more fleeting encounter and, unfortunately over before I could capture them on camera.
As darkness fell, I left the night watch to navigate us through the gap between Finisterre and the TSS with instructions to make judicious use of the radar in case of any unlit fishing vessels randomly weaving their way off the coast. I returned on deck at 0200 hrs to relieve a rather cold, and very soggy, Rich and Mark who had spent the last six hours in alternating periods of thick fog and torrential rain. Myself and Mike settled in the cockpit to continue our motor south along the coast in near calm conditions. As we worked our way along the coast, several times we saw erratic and flashing lights; we assumed these to be fishing vessels or markers on their nets, but it was impossible to gain any perception of depth to know how close they were. In the pre-dawn light, my eyes started playing tricks on me; on the waves I could see fields of poppies, and in the distance, over the hills of the coast, ethereal forests of vines. It was the strangest feeling; I knew they weren't there, yet I could clearly see these things - I was glad that sun-up was not long away.
When dawn finally broke, we were treated to an incredible display of golden light over the hills to the east. We also had a breath of wind start to fill despite the forecast we had been passed the evening before for a windless end to our passage all the way to Bayona. No sooner had we pulled out full sail and cut the engine, there was a marked increase in the wind which was now coming directly from the south and on our nose. Something didn't feel right, so we reefed down the main, furled the genoa, and set the smaller self-tacking jib. How glad we were of this intuition; within minutes the wind was blowing 35+ knots true. It was not the wind however that drew most concern, but the accompanying waves; these had almost instantly built to 2.5-3m with steep sides and very short period.
Whilst I battled the elements at the helm, down below Mark had his own war with the stove as he fried up eggs, bacon, and sausages for breakfast rolls. How he managed this I'm not sure as the boat pounded into the short, steep waves - I'm convinced that at the end-of-season cabin deep clean we will find at least one sausage embedded in a hidden corner of the galley! Relieved of my watch, and refuelled with breakfast, I retired to my cabin for some much needed sleep. By the time I awoke, the weather had blown through and we were comfortably motoring the last few miles to our destination of Bayona. Safely berthed in our slip of the very welcoming Monte Real Yacht Club of Baionia, it was time to crack open the champagne to mark our crossing of Biscay. It was here, over the next few days, where I would say goodbye to my intrepid Biscay crew. Jenny was soon to fly in for the next stage of the trip south... the Atlantic Portuguese coast.
Some lessons learned:
No matter how prepared the boat, expect things to break. Carry spares, be familiar with the manuals, and think laterally.
Don't rely on the weather forecast - it's only a guess helped with science!
Always have a plan, but don't be afraid to deviate from it if situations dictate.
Look after your crew and they will look after you.
June-July: Atlantic Portuguese Coast - Bayona to Lagos
Over the next couple of days Mike, Rich and Mark all signed-off the boat to catch their flights home. I owe the team a great vote of thanks (and even bigger debt of beer) for their incredible efforts to return Arkyla's interior from a student digs reminiscent of an early episode of 'The Young Ones' back to her normal state of comfort and cleanliness before Jenny's arrival.
Bayona is a wonderful place, and we were glad to have a few days to explore the town and its surroundings. The marina is well sheltered and the yacht club, lying in the shadow of the town's castle, has good facilities including a grand, but friendly, bar/restaurant. The club excels in bringing boating to all with a sailing school dedicated to those with disabilities; it was wonderful to see the smiles and obvious joy that the trips in their fleet of adapted keel boats brought to these sailors. The town itself is a great place to explore, especially the back streets filled with tapas bars that come alive at night, and provisioning is excellent with both supermarkets and local grocery stores within an easy walk of the marina. Bayona is well placed to visit other Galician places of interest. We took a trip to the renowned UNESCO town of Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims, easily identified by the shell motifs that they carry, come from far and wide to this sacred centre. Even a devout atheist as myself cannot fail to be impressed by the dedication of the believers, and it is well worth having a guide to tell the history and point out the many stories carved in the stones such as the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, and the scarlet mistress holding her beheaded lover's crown!
We also took the opportunity to head out toward the hills north of the River Minho and the Spanish/Portuguese border. Before looking down on the border estuary from on high (the river is too shallow for safe navigation by most cruising yachts), we stopped to view the remarkable remains of the Castro de Santa Tegra excavation, a site dating between 100BC-100AD. Following a hike amongst the water mills of Molinos de Folon, we finished the excursion with a delicious lunch in the traditional hillside restaurant Casa da Pintora.
Bayona to Povoa de Vazim. Things did not start well for our 75 NM passage south from Spain into Portuguese waters; on starting the engine we again had a charging output exceeding 15 volts. Having already lost a day to strong southerly winds, we were reluctant to split from the rally fleet, so made to push anyhow and nurse the engine if the problem persisted. It was quite literally a windless start, and we watched a little dejected as the fleet charged out of the bay on full revs as we dawdled along at 2000 rpm. Within an hour however, the wind had begun to fill and we were not too far from the bulk of the fleet when we pulled out the genoa and began sailing.
We worked our way back amongst the rally boats and had a cracking downwind sail. Apart from the first hour or so when leaving Plymouth Sound, this was the first time that we had been close quarters with many of the rally fleet and it was good to see the various down-wind set ups from twin headsails, wing-on-wing, cruising chutes and one Parasailor all being deployed.
Povoa is a well protected harbour, though a degree of care is needed once within the breakwaters to avoid the well-marked shallow when manoeuvring to the pontoons. As with most Atlantic coast Portuguese harbours, the entrance can be dangerous when large swells are running so it is important to establish that it is safe to enter especially if there are any effects from winter Atlantic storms. The town is dominated by the modern apartments, hotels and attractions built to cater for the summer sun worshippers to the long golden beaches north of the port and, for us, lacks an authentic Portuguese feel. There are however good transport connections to Porto and, as we were not planning to sail into the Rio Douro, took advantage of theses to visit Portugal's second city.
Porto is simply stunning; full of history, tradition, sights, sounds and, of course, home to the all the port cellars that produce and distribute the national drink. With only limited time, we took an electric Tuk-Tuk tour to see the main attractions; we wished that we had had more time to explore as we felt that we only scratched the surface of what this fascinating and beautiful city has to offer - several days here would be time well spent.
Povoa to Figuera da Foz. It was another lengthy day sail south of 75 nautical miles to our next stop, Figuera de Foz. Along this relatively featureless stretch of coastline, the 50m contour line can extend beyond 10 nm offshore; this means that, unless making a large detour, fishing pots are a constant menace and there is a need for a constant lookout to avoid snagging a keel or prop. With the shallow waters also came a significant swell and it was not uncommon to lose sight of other rally boats beneath the crests of waves. Once round the breakwater, and in the shelter of the river, care is still needed in entering the marina on the north bank as a significant current can set across the entrance. Confidence was also needed in decisive boat handling as the fairway to the visitor pontoon was little wider than Arkyla's 13.8m length; with a stiff cross wind, we were glad of some help to catch our lines and help guide us in with only inches to spare between pontoon and the other berthed yacht on our port side.
With the ablutions block a lengthy 'stride' away, we showered onboard before heading to the marina restaurant for a delicious meal of barbecued sardines. Unfortunately, as the night drew to a close, Jenny began to feel unwell so we retired back to the boat; not wanting to spread any germs amongst the fleet, we kept ourselves to ourselves and spent the next day resting onboard.
Figuera da Foz to Nazaré. With Jenny still feeling unwell, I was glad that the next leg was a relatively short hop of only 35 nm; I was also glad that the persistent 15-20 knot northerly winds had calmed for the small window needed to extricate ourselves from our ever-so tight berth! The route down to Nazaré was another stretch characterised by a mostly featureless coast and a maze of fishing pots - many very poorly marked.
There is a unique topographical feature of an undersea canyon that extends into the Nazaré bay; in winter storms this can funnel water and create monster waves - some of the biggest recorded anywhere in the world - to produce the huge breaks that surfers flock to off Praia do Norte. The approach to the harbour should be carefully planned at any time of the year however and, even with only moderate winds, the entrance can be intimidating with sizeable waves crashing against the mole and along the town beach. Once inside however the swell, if not the wind, is all but calmed. There is a well stocked chandlery within the marina complex, and here we managed to buy a 32-amp shore-power adapter; this is a useful purchase as a number of Portugueses marinas require this connector.
Wandering north along the seafront, you will find the funicular that takes you to the higher parts of the town sited on the cliff top. Here you can look down on the beach and the harbour before taking the road, lined with numerous drink and snack vans, down to Forte de Sāo Miguel Aranjo; it is here where spectators gather to watch the big wave surfers risk life and limb to ride the giant swells.
Nazaré to Oeiras. Leaving Nazaré early morning for another lengthy 70 nm day passage was, again, a windless affair. We rounded Peniche headland, inside of the off-lying Baixinhas island group, still under motor with hope that the forecast Force 3-4 would soon fill in. We tried a couple of times to pull out sail but, with the wind directly astern, there just wasn't enough to give us any drive and so we continued under the iron mainsail. Not until we were 10 nm off our destination did we get enough wind to turn off the engine and goose-wing all canvas. The pilot guide warns that the headlands along this coast can be the cause of wind acceleration zones; sure enough, as we were approaching Cabo Raso and our turn to port toward Lisbon, we heard from boats ahead of us over the VHF that winds had increased to over 35 knots off the headland. We took heed and shortened sail and, in the event, were very glad that we did so. Conditions went from benign to steady Force 8 in an instant as we made our turn east; under a couple of handkerchiefs we were still making 10 knots - a lot for a heavy girl like Arkyla!
Oeiras. We arrived into Oeiras under a stiff breeze and moored up in the well-protected marina. With our proximity to Lisbon, there was a notable change in the extent and quality of services and restaurants. Unfortunately Jenny was still feeling under the weather; taking another COVID test, this time the result showed positive so, although we had already been keeping ourselves to ourselves the last couple of days to limit any potential spread of cold germs, we now formally isolated from the rally group. We did however take time offboard to make our mark on the harbour wall, even winning the rally award for best painting. It is a shame that we did not get to fully enjoy Oeiras as it seemed a buoyant 'happening' place for the Lisbon crowd.
Oeiras to Sines. We were looking forward to this leg; it was relatively short (50 nm) and the wind was forecast to be a perfect beam reach of 10-15 kts. Indeed, we had the perfect start off the line; under blue skies we rounded the committee boat as the gun fired, and powered away for a rare moment in front of the whole fleet! Even though the bigger, and lighter, boats soon overtook us, we revelled in the close-quarter 'racing' and were further delighted to again be visited by a pod of dolphin as we surged along under full sail.
These ideal conditions were not to last however; within the hour the wind had moved into the south east and the fleet was now beating against the dying breeze in its attempt to clear Cabo Espichel. With skies turning a gloomy grey, and the wind decreasing further, we made the decision to haul in the genoa and continue under motor. Before leaving Oeiras, we had heard that a yacht had been attacked, and its rudder disabled, by an orca the previous day close offshore to Sines; there had consequently been a slight 'air of trepidation' amongst the fleet before we set off on this leg with many boats sharing their intended orca mitigation plans. Whilst we were half way across the Bay of Setubal, we heard frantic radio calls from the yachts bringing up the rear... "Vio Mio, large black fin seen off your stern", then "Katy, please repeat your position and state your situation". Vio Mio turned the throttle all the way up to 11 and sped toward nearby boats in the hope of achieving a level of safety in numbers. Katy, the smallest and slowest yacht in the rally, could do little more than pray to Neptune to call off his rudder collectors! In the event, neither boat was physically 'interacted' with, but it was a sobering experience for all to know that the orca danger zone had now moved north from the Straits of Gibraltar and was establishing itself in the exact area of our route.
There was little else of note for the remainder of this passage completed under motor. Rounding the breakwater to Sines there was quite an 'industrial' feel with a large commercial harbour and a number of large vessels at anchor in the bay. Once inside the inner harbour area however, most of this is hidden from view and the charming town with its splendid beach becomes the focus when berthed in the marina. For those that don't need the services of the marina, there is the option to anchor in the very well protected area of the inner harbour close to the beach. Still isolating ourselves, we didn't really get a chance to fully explore the town but, in stretching our legs, very much liked the little that we did see of the place.
Sines to Lagos. And just like that, it was time to set off on the final leg of the rally. It was another lengthy run of 80+ nm to Lagos so an early dawn start was necessary. The morning was completely windless and we looked back at the stream of yachts motoring out in the gloom across a ripple-free sea; the conditions and the realisation that soon this part of our adventure, and cruising in company, would be over gave a slight sense of melancholy.
Eventually the sun came out, though the light winds persisted so that only a few of the lighter boats felt they had enough drive to swap motor for sail. It was not until we were a few miles off our last cape, Cabo São Vicente, however that we were able to stable the 75 horses of Arkyla's mighty Yanmar. Turning east, we slowly drifted in close proximity to our friends aboard Free Spirit and Blonde Moment, with Castle Island not far behind. Passing our last turn point off the Sagres peninsula, we felt the breeze freshen and soon we were flying along the home straight. The wind continued to build, reaching a steady 25+ knots, so we tucked in a couple of reefs and relished the ride. What a way to finish the rally; a perfect broad reach, shooting along at 7-8 knots, and in company with those we had shared so many fun experiences with over the past month. Sails down, we entered the breakwater, passed under the lifting bridge, and settled onto the new events pontoon of Marina de Lagos.
So that was it; the end to our first rally. No longer COVID-infectious we were able to join the festivities of the final crew dinner where we all swapped stories and contact details. It seemed strange that the boats we had grown so accustomed to sailing with would soon be moving on with their independent adventures; some into the Med, some across the pond, but also a few, like us, deciding to spend the remainder of the summer, and then to over-winter, in the Algarve. It had been a fun, yet challenging, run south to the sun. COVID running rampant through much of the fleet, combined with some fickle winds, had made this a demanding set of day passages in many ways more tiring than the passage across Biscay. For us on Arkyla, the real adventure starts here...
Some lessons learned:
Engineering support is limited down the Atlantic Portuguese coast; carry spares and be prepared to nurse issues until reaching Lagos where there are excellent facilities and a well-stocked chandlery.
Take heed of the pilot guides, especially entry to harbours in bad weather and presence of wind acceleration zones off headlands.
Have orca plans in place; in particular, think how you would steer if your rudder is disabled far from help.
Always maintain a watch; fishing pots are an eternal menace down the whole coast.
August-September: The Algarve - Lagos to Guadiana River
Lagos. Having spent the last month sailing in company, it felt a little odd slipping our lines and heading out of our berth in Marina de Lagos alone; strange too, we thought, to have that reaction given that we have only ever cruised as a singleton in the past. Still, here we were pushing the bow out into the promised land of sunshine, warm seas, and perfect anchorages ... though not all of these would turn out to be quite as we had originally envisaged! We were fairly late in getting away, so we did not set our sights on going too far that first day; through the swing bridge, along the breakwater, and into the Baia de Lagos anchorage - a grand distance of 1.5 nm to be exact! However, having spent our entire passage down from the UK overnighting in marinas, we were longing to be back on the hook again which is where we both feel happiest.
Even only a mile from our berth as the crow flies, life couldn't be more different now we were anchored just off the breakwater in the bay. Gone was the noise of the bars that surround the marinas, to be replaced by the gentle slapping of waves against the hull as Arkyla lightly danced around her chain. We sat relaxed in the cockpit and watched other yachts drop hook, day trip boats head out to the explore the grottos off Ponte de Piedade (just a mile away), and Olympians of tomorrow race their Optimist dinghies, sometimes using us as a windward mark. The one thing we could have done without, perhaps, was the high-adrenalin Jet Boat screaming past every hour or so!
The caves around the Ponte de Piedade are a great place to visit in the tender as they are only a short ride from the anchorage; you get an even better experience if you make the effort to go early before the onslaught of tourist boats, kayakers and paddle boarders that crowd the area from late morning onwards. With a little care dodging rocks, it is possible to secure your own private beach to relax, snorkel, or paddle around hunting the tiny crabs that inhabit the rocky shoreline.
Alvor. Just a short (3 nm) hop along the bay is Alvor. Given the high spring tide, and our lack of local knowledge, we chose to anchor in the entrance behind the breakwaters rather than pushing all the way up to the town where the pilot guide warns of limited space and shallows. Even in the anchorage at the entrance you need to be careful of where to drop the hook and how much scope to pay out as the mud flats could catch you unawares. Alvor is a mecca for kite surfers so, seeing so many of them speeding and leaping through the anchorage, we should not have been surprised that the wind maintained a healthy 15-20+ knots from mid-afternoon until well into the night. This wind with its associated chop, and a healthy spring current, deterred us from launching the paddle boards. Instead, we made the decision the next morning to up anchor and keep heading east along the coast.
Ponta João de Arens. The beauty of the Algarve coast is that if you become tired of one spot, it's never very far to travel to another anchorage or marina. Our original plan was to push to Portimão, anchoring for lunch en route behind Ponta João de Arens just another 3 nm east along the coast. Arriving here mid-morning, the anchorage was relatively empty, so we dropped the hook and settled back to have a lazy time in the cockpit. This is a beautiful spot and, despite the pilot guide advising that this was 'probably only a day anchorage', we decided it was well enough protected from the forecast W-NW winds so chose to stay here overnight. From mid-day onwards, a steady stream of day-trip boats arrived and the anchorage soon filled up. The calm of the morning was replaced with the buzz of the coming and going of vessels of all sizes, kayakers paddling along the entrances to the grotto caves, party boats filled with partying people, and the occasional jet ski or towed inflatable zooming close by. By 1700 however, almost at the flick of a switch, the day boats began to leave and, soon enough, there were just a few yachts left at anchor for the night. Throughout the afternoon the wind had picked up to between 15-20 knots, but the holding was good and the cliffs gave us excellent shelter from both wind and swell; we slept soundly!
Waking the next morning, the scene could not be more different from that of the previous afternoon; just four boats at anchor with their chains dropping vertically to the sea bed, a dead calm with not a ripple on the water, and the most beautiful light painting the orange cliffs that had been protecting us all night. After flying the drone to capture Arkyla in this postcard setting, I tracked the Maritime Police launch enter the anchorage which then directed two boats to re-anchor so they did not in fringe the line off the beach marked by two large special marker buoys; this seemed a bit of a pointless exercise as, once the day trip boats returned a few hours later, this 'safe swimmer' area was consistently violated. Oh well, at least we know the authorities at least try to keep this coast safe for all to enjoy.
Pre-breakfast is the ideal time to paddle board and swim amongst the grotto caves as it is calm and beats the influx of the day trippers. It is quite a magical place to explore with many small beaches accessible only from the water. We hauled our boards out on one such private strip of sand and took the plunge. Tropical these waters are not! Even wearing neoprene tops, the chill of the water was enough to take the breath away. I'm not sure why we had in our minds that this easternmost part of the Atlantic ocean would be bath-tub warm, but the lesson was learned that Algarve waters are neither Caribbean nor Mediterranean... let's just say that my intent to regularly dive the boat to check the set of the anchor and to scrape slime off Arkyla's CopperCoated-bottom did not happen at any time during this trip. Maybe I've just turned into a bit of a woos in my old age?
Nut-shrinking cold water aside, we loved this spot and, over the course of our cruise, stopped overnight here a number of times. Even when the wind pipes up (a regular pattern throughout this trip; dead calm mornings followed by windy afternoons and evenings with 15-25 knots of breeze), it is still enjoyable to just settle back and watch the life aquatic. Here, as well as the tsunami of day trip boats, we watched a beautiful Polish-flagged ketch, expertly sailed single-handed, enter the cove and drop its hook next to us, and marvelled at the wonderful colours of a traditional boat, laden with tourists for a sunset cruise, lit up against a glorious dusk sky as it motored back to its base.
Portimão & Ferraguda. Under any normal circumstances, we'd consider a passage of 2 nm as somewhat 'whimping out'. However, given we had already sailed in excess of 1000 nm so far this season, we held no shame in executing another bunny hop to the Rio Arade. The entrance to the river is protected by a pair of breakwaters inside of which is the main anchorage off Ferraguda's Praia Grande. We chose to head up river a little to test the anchorage just off Ferraguda's town centre. However, we soon found this small area to be very tight on space and we did not take to the view off the commercial dock on the opposite, Portimão-side, bank; we thus double tracked and motored back south to settle a short distance back from the eastern mole. This is a busy place, but there is no shortage of space and we had pride of place close to the historic tallship 'Te Vega' also anchored just off the breakwater.
A problem we found all along the Algarve coast was finding a safe place to land the dinghy for excursions ashore. We had been warned through the local 'Lagos Navigators' Facebook community group that leaving the boat tied to the Ferraguda town quay, as advised in the pilot guide, can lead to altercations with the local fishing fleet, so we instead left the tender hauled up on the small beach opposite the quay. We later found out that this is also ill advised as boats and/or motors have a tendency to vanish from this spot if left unattended; we were lucky with no harm coming to the boat, though I did take the precaution to securely wrap the engine to the dinghy with steel cable and padlocks. It is possible to drive a dinghy ashore between the designated landing zones on Praia Grande; we took advantage of this and dragged the tender above the high water line close to the life guard tower where we were assured it would be safe whilst they were on duty until 1900 (summer season hours). From the south end of the beach, there is a (fairly well hidden) path that climbs, then skirts, the cliff edge taking you toward the mole and giving access to the lighthouse and cliffs overlooking the coast; this is a great walk with some fantastic views. It was close to the lighthouse that we saw the most bizarre thing; a couple of old men, on a day out with their wives, fishing; what's so odd about that you ask? Well, they were casting their lines over a 60' cliff edge... length of fishing line aside, I'm not sure how they intended to land any fish they might hook, and actually thought that any decent sized catch might itself win the battle to pull the anglers over the edge! If wanting to explore old town Portimão (our advice is to skip the concrete condo seafront) then you can leave your dinghy close to the marina fuel pontoon... but at a cost - a few of €20 for 4 hours is payable in the reception building just up the pontoon ramp! At least an Uber into town only costs €3-4. We later heard rumour that it is possible to leave a tender at the Club Naval de Portimão, close to the old town, at a much more reasonable pric, but were unable to confirm this. Those needing to visit the Sopromar chandlery can leave a dinghy on the small pontoon beneath the yacht lift-in crane (not to be confused with the larger commercial lift close by) at the boatyard on the Ferraguda side of the river, though some dexterity is needed to get up and down the steep ladder!
Although the Ferragudo anchorage is generally well protected, some swell can creep in if there is a south westerly blow. Similarly, fast moving fishing and tourist traffic can also kick up quite a wash that can rock your boat and we noted one boat that had rigged a sea anchor off its boom to dampen the impacts of this swell. The predominant evening north westerly can also carry with it the noise from the lively clubs on the Portimão beach front. This can all be forgiven however for the prime position you are granted to watch the sun go down behind the town, and we were witness to some truly spectacular sunsets during our stay.
This story to be completed... please come back soon.
Nov-Dec: An Atlantic crossing on SV Falcon - Gran Canaria to Granada via the Cape Verdes
This story coming soon...