Sailing to São Miguel and Santa Maria
In the beginning, there was no wind at all – the high island of São Jorge blocking it completely and forcing us to use the engine again to pass big families of dolphins and Cory's-shear-water birds. Before long we heard a familiar voice on the radio – our friends from the SY Milagro - who were heading back on an opposite course. Shortly, this was followed by a radio call from our German friends from the SV GV – allowing us to exchange the actual wind and weather situation at each other’s position. Thus, we knew for certain that after one hour, wind and waves would pick up. Indeed, the moment we left the lee position of the island, 25 knots of wind and 3m waves came down on us on a nice broad reaching course, permitting us to cut the waves with more than 6 knots of speed :-); unfortunately, not without Danielle’s habitual feeding of the fish for the first couples of hours.
Only one day later, we arrived on São Miguel – the biggest, most densely populated and very touristic island (16x64km / 150'000 population). The people were noticeably less friendly, the town very crowded and it was almost impossible to find an empty place in a restaurant – not a place to be for us. One day later, after a big shopping tour by bicycle and washing the dirty clothes, we cast off again, passed the huge traditional sailing boat in the entrance of the harbor and headed towards the full moon.
It felt a bit like coming home, when we entered the small marina of Vila do Porto on Santa Maria the next morning. We got a friendly greeting by the marina staff, Ricardo the chief of the shipyard and other familiar sailors. But there was not a lot of time for longer conversations. Ricardo had already organized everything for us to put our boat on land five days later, including the removal of the engine and take-down of the mast. So, we had a million things that needed doing and our “to-do lists” filled all the remaining days. Most of the time went into relieving the boat, sails, ropes, scrolls, covers, and so on from layers of salt and dirt – some of the ropes we had to wash more than ten times and the water still got dirty. And the other big chunk of work concerned the engine and mast. We had to loosen all cables, remove the 150 kg of batteries and 35L of cooling fluid; then there were the fresh water and black water tanks to be cleaned – and so on...
The only nice diversity was the festival of the local fishermen. Each year they decorate their boats and sail out on the sea in a big ceremony for a blessing by its patron. This is followed by a big party late into the night :-)
The time went by way too fast and we only just managed to get everything ready when the marina called us to come to the crane for the hauling of the boat. For the biggest crane of the Azores it was no effort to lift our 20 tons out of the water – but the masts and the backstay prevented a complete lifting. So, we had to go out of the berth, turn the boat and even loosen the backstay for the lifting. But everything went smoothly and an hour later the boat was already standing on its keel, secured by a couple of strong supports.
However, there was no time for a breather – the next day a mobile crane was announced to remove the masts and the engine. We also didn't manage to get a lot of sleep; we really missed the swaying motion of the boat and got kind of “landsick”. For the last preparation works, Ricardo came on board at 6 a.m. already, and we started to loosen the last screws and fix the slings for the crane. To our surprise everything was very well organized (much better than in Spain) and we needed only 1.5 hours of crane work to take the masts down and the engine out.
During our last week Ben celebrated his birthday. Danielle had organized a nice surprise – for a long time, he had wanted to go fishing with a harpoon. A very friendly, older local guy named Joao invited us on his day off to join him for hunting in the water. First, we went to his house to put together all the gear. When we arrived, the door was already standing open and he told us, that on this island you don't need keys – nobody locks his car or house...
After a short drive, we reached a small village on the northwest coast where we started to prepare all the equipment. After putting on the neoprene we had to make sure, that our buoyancy was positive above 3m, because most of the accidents (unconsciousness) occur during the ascent, shortly before reaching the surface. Wearing too much lead in this situation will pull you back to the ground... After this point was settled, Joao told us a lot of interesting behaviors of the fishes and how it would be possible to catch them with the harpoon.
Each one of us was equipped with a neoprene suit, lead belt, floating buoy, harpoon and a net for the fishes. Off we went for the outlaying reefs. In the beginning, the sight was very bad because of the sand and waves. But after half an hours’ swim, the water cleared and 15m below us we could recognize a rocky ground, caves and even some fish. Joao took some deep breaths, started his diving computer (he often forgets about the time and depth and must be warned by his clock when he reaches 30m or 4 minutes...) and swam in a couple of strong strokes to the ground. There he lay down on the bottom, looked around, went to a small cave, where a fish had darted off to. It was amazing, how calmly he followed it, and when the fish turned to look back, he shot it - at two meters of distance - right in the neck and the fish went limp.
Then it was our turn to give it a try. Alternating, we started to descend slowly, to equalize the pressure in the ears and concentrate on not using too much oxygen. But it's a long way up and down, and there was not a lot of time left to find bigger fishes. Fortunately to our salvation, some schools of trigger fish appeared – they are curios, don't swim that deep and are not very smart. Going down to only eight meters we were able to attract them with the shiny points of the spears. As soon the biggest one was in front of us, we had only to pull the trigger and the spear made the distance in a fraction of a second and killed the fish. After two hours, the bags were full of fish and it was time to head back to shore. Finally back on the beach, we were totally exhausted with hurting lungs – and Joao already lighting a cigarette...
Afterwards we cleaned the fish and prepared them for a BBQ in the evening. When there is a grill party, you never know how many people will come – everybody knows everyone and is passing on an invitation. But that's not a problem, because everybody brings something for the buffet and there was more than enough to eat and drink. The evening went on late into the night with meeting interesting local people and foreigners who got “stuck” on the island a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, the party continued the next day – forcing us to remain in bed and on the toilets – after all this time we are still not used to the local food and hygiene...
Meanwhile, we had been able to secure the “resident permit” of the Azores, which is very popular with sailors, allowing us to benefit from the discounts for the locals (ferry and flights half price / marina one third of the price). We thought it had to be some misunderstanding – usually, one must stay on the island for at least six months. But the woman at the counter of the city hall didn't speak one word of English and we had to explain everything with Google translator – as a result we got the papers the next day, for a fee of 2.80 Euros :-)
The last two days we were again busy with the last cleaning and planning for the works during the winter (measuring the rig, pipes, sea cooks, cables) – to be able to buy and prepare all the materials in Switzerland during the next three months. And during the last afternoon we remembered, that we still had no souvenirs. Asking an English/Finnish couple from a sailing boat who got “stuck” on the Azores ten years previously, for a good place to go shopping, they didn't hesitate and took us for a shopping tour all over the island in their car. They told us, that since they live here, they have a lot of time on their hands and on that it is custom on this island, that everybody helps each other. What a place to live...
To our great joy, a day before we had to fly back, our German friends from the SY Izar arrived in the marina – inviting us directly for dinner and tasty wine on their boat. It was a very nice diversion from all the work.
But now the moment had definitely arrived, it was time to say goodbye to all the nice people we had met and come to like, as well as to our faithful Happy Day, who is looking sad without her masts. But we will be back by Christmas – with a new shiny rig and good smelling paint – promise!
Early in the morning, when it was still dark, we drove with Ricardo's car to the airport (just leave the key in the car, he told us, no problem here). After checking-in, we had to walk over the airfield to a small propeller plane. But on the way there – what a lovely surprise – our friend Joao, who was working at the airport was awaiting us for a last hug – it's really hard to leave this wonderful place...
The flight to the main airport on São Miguel took us only 30 minutes. Waiting four hours there and two more hours in Lisbon it took us almost 18 hours from boat-door to house-door.