The Atlantic ocean - Lagos (Portugal) to Madeira 18th October 2003

Our 4 weeks in UK during September 2003 were full and enjoyable, catching up with as many friends and relatives as we could squeeze in, and buying bits for Intrepid that are difficult to get abroad. But gales occur with increasing frequency in the Atlantic during October and we had to get Intrepid from Lagos Portugal to the Canaries, about 580 miles. On our (very) early morning flight from Bristol, Easyjet accepted our 70 kgs of varied boat parts as ‘sports equipment’ again but security didn’t like us carrying an additional 10 kgs of folding propeller as hand luggage – they finally accepted it as carry on hold luggage. And to carry it all from Faro airport in Portugal to Lagos, we had found Luz cars who must be the only rental firm to specialise in renting cars one way, in this case Lagos/Faro or Faro/Lagos, (Euro40/day), as their clients coming and going from Faro balance each other out. How about something like that for Heathrow or Gatwick?

Intrepid was in the Sopramar boatyard in Lagos, Portugal, which is modern and employs Russians as well as Portugese to do the nasty work like sand blasting. Intrepid’s keel had been smoothed, her bottom painted with antifoul to prevent marine creatures growing there, engine and electrics checked over, new injectors for the engine, new dual wind or water powered generator fitted, bimini installed (sunshade over the cockpit which can remain in place even when we are sailing), new ropes for new sails and furling gear and …………. all the 1000’s of things that need to be done before a long ocean voyage.

The bill was high (but what we had budgeted for), and Intrepid was gingerly lowered back in to the water on my birthday 2nd October (dual celebrations). Jim Clarke joined us from Surrey for the leg to Madeira and we toured Lagos bars and restaurants in preparation, and checked up exactly where Madeira is ……….well we sort of knew…(450 miles south west of Lisbon in the Atlantic more or less opposite Casablanca on the African coast, since you ask). However….. in sailing, matters seldom run smooth. We discovered that the mechanic (normally very good) had not tightened everything up as it should be when changing the diesel injectors, and diesel had leaked into the engine compartment, then Jim discovered that the Indian restaurant we had been to had introduced some new and exotic spice that cleaned him out, and finally the weather forecast warned of an embryo hurricane starting between us and Madeira. So…we waited a day (wouldn’t you?), sorted out the diesel leak, and after getting a slightly better forecast and checking the webcam on Madeira (really useful this – you can see the size of the waves as they actually are) set off on Sunday 5th October. Our concern was not so much the weather en route but rather what to do if the only port in Madeira was full or impossible to get into. We would then be left outside in what were forecast to be 5.5 metre waves (18 feet). But the webcam indicated space, and Jim had recovered sufficiently (he is a tough guy).

The first 30 miles took us through the shipping lanes which separate the big ships entering and exiting the Med round Cape St Vincent which is the south western tip of Portugal. We used to be terrified of large ships when we first crossed the English channel, but now it’s a bit like crossing a road, not something to be done without looking carefully, but fine provided you are crossing at right angles to the traffic, and wait for the right space. I cooked dinner (a bland pasta and sauce) before darkness fell at 7.30pm, and we prepared Intrepid for her first night watch as the wind increased to 20-25 knots and the waves built up to 3-4 metres high.

Normally I am fine at sea, but on this occasion, whether a delayed effect of the curry or whatever, I was sick through most of my night watch (sorry to bring the subject up). I was helped (to keep my mind off it) by having a lot to do as the wind reduced, and swung round, necessitating much unfurling of sails and jibbing. However, after 12 hours the wind increased again, and as I write during the night watch of the 2nd night out, we have winds averaging 25 knots gusting to 35 knots, and large seas about 4 metres high. Intrepid is loving it, there is a large moon that lights up the whole sea and sky in a white/silvery sheen, dark clouds scud by, sometimes obliterating the moon, stars try to come out but are overshadowed by the moon, and Intrepid lifts up her stern as another large wave comes at us, then she powers her way down the front of the wave at 8+ knots under well reefed sails. Lunch for me today was warm water, dinner a slice of dry bread, but this cordon bleu cuisine is helping and I am feeling much better. Our new sails are setting nicely and the duogen generator in water mode is performing well, producing about 8 amps, which together with our 4 solar panels makes us almost self sufficient in power.

We are due to meet Maeve Hamilton-Hercod in Madeira, and I am afraid that with all this too-ing and fro-ing our estimated time of arrival varied continuously. I got the time right – 1600, but we couldn’t seem to firm up on the day – initially it was Thursday, then Wednesday, then finally as the wind eased, and we decided to divert to Porto Santo (which is a small island about 30 miles north of Madeira) back to Thursday. Brave Maeve flew off into this uncertainty and with her usual versatility managed to find temporary accommodation in Madeira when she arrived on Wednesday evening.

If Madeira is isolated, then Porto Santo is even more so – perhaps 2 miles by 1 mile, about 500 miles away from the nearest European city, it must take a particular type of person to enjoy living here. (Car rental costs Euro35/day plus Euro6 for fuel which is as much as it is possible to use in a day on Porto Santo). We had decided to divert here because we could get in before nightfall on Wednesday, whereas if we headed straight on to Funchal, capital of Madeira, we would have been entering at about 2am into a strange port, which we were given to understand is somewhat dirty and completely full (both subsequently confirmed). The harbour at Porto Santo is modern and secure, about Euros20/night. As we were moored against the high harbour wall (there are 3 pontoons but they were full), Nicky did not find it easy at low tide clambering up a rope ladder 10feet to get to the bar. However desperation prevailed and she made it. We completed the usual Portugese forms (the Spanish tend to largely ignore forms, the Portugese insist on them with surprising fervour), learnt from the marina authorities about a new marina on Madeira that had only opened in October 2002, and Jim cooked a great shepherds pie.

Next day (Thursday) Jim was again under the weather, (he blamed a strange sausage he had bought in Lagos), but we were honour bound to meet Maeve, and via text messages she was able to track our course south from Porto Santo to the east coast of Madeira, and watch as we rounded the lighthouse on the sheer rocky island on the east of Madeira, and came into the new Quinta do Lorde Marina. Many marinas are built as a focus for real estate investment, and Quinta is no exception – the main difference is that the marina has been built (32.44N; 16.42W; Euros25/night), whereas the houses and apartments remain a dream for the future. There are some facilities of the rather basic kind, which cause near apoplexia amongst visiting American yachtsmen who encounter low level arabic style ‘elephant footprint’ toilets for the first time. (‘Holy shit!’ was one unintentionally apposite comment I heard coming from the toilet).

Maeve had rented a car, and we were able to give Jim at least a one day overview of the island including some startlingly steep sea cliffs before he flew back to UK. Madeira is beautifully green, and is not called ‘island of wood’ for nothing. Particularly above 500 metres it is covered in trees. There are 3 peaks at some 1700 metres in an island 30 miles by 20 miles, most of which is almost vertical valleys plunging to the sea, with only a tenously level southern coast which includes the capital Funchal to promote development – the population is now about 250,000. But boy, have they used the available EU money – already there is a near motorway (mostly tunnels and viaducts) extending 15 miles from Funchal eastwards, and the airport has been extended eastwards on stilts over the bay. Every other vehicle seemed to be a cement mixing lorry, and no patch of level ground was too small to have an accommodation of some kind being built.

However when we ventured onto the original roads we could see the benefits – it takes 40 minutes to travel 10 miles in distance as we wound up valleys then round the top then down again to gain a few hudred metres. The early settlers found a naturally fertile island but with streams tumbling straight into the sea, so they engineered 1500kms of levadas – almost level irrigation channels that trap the streams and divert them along an almost imperceptible gradient down to the plantations that flourished on the levelish ground on the south coast. The actual work of course was done by convicts and slaves but they did a remarkably good job, and when Madeira was looking for a nice tourist income they found it to hand by diversifying the tracks beside the levadas into long distance footpaths – long, level and with stunning views. Wealthy Brits tired of British winters flocked here in 1900’s, and Reids Hotel was as well known as Raffles in Singapore. Nowadays many nationalities fly the 500 miles South West from Lisbon, (Canaries are another 200 miles due south) and to be honest, at times even in October the paths were more like a ramblers rally than a get away from it all destination, and there seem to be houses everywhere we look, but the quietly flowing levadas induce a sense of calm, and the views remained ……stunning. Our walking guide book shows 50 walks and there must be many more. Car rental is Euros 30-35/day, although it seems a little contra-environmental to drive for one hour to go on a 2 hour walk then drive an hour back. We should probably have used the plentiful buses………but the marina is not well served, although Funchal is.

Funchal has a population of some 120,000 and is the undisputed capital. Here are all the banks, businesses and restaurants, but not, to our disappointment, Madeira wine tasting centres, although perhaps we did not look hard enough. So we bought a dry madeira wine in the supermarket, and very nice it was too when we shared it with the crews of 2 neighbouring boats next evening – a bit like an Amontillado sherry.

Maeve and we enjoyed the levada walks (although some have an interestingly vertical descent on one side), and on Tuesday we went for a sail, escorted to our slight surprise by a warship of the Portugese navy. After the warship seemed determined to park his 1000 tonnes in our cockpit we established contact and he very politely explained that they were surveying the area and would we please move away due east….. which we did before he decided to practice his ‘shot across the bows’ routine as an encore.

Maeve flew back to UK on Tuesday – we had enjoyed her company, but she had things to do in Prague. We had promised Intrepid a new coat for the winter – in her case epoxy and varnish – so Wednesday we did what sailors always seem to be doing, scraping sanding and painting the teak toe rail and rubbing strip. During this, we were treated to the unlikely sight of a huge crane barge used to build part of the new marina ‘rowing’ itself to the quay by putting its huge grab into the water and moving it back, first on one side then the other. It won’t win Henley but it sure moved a lot of water.

Thursday, driving again, this time up yet another new road, alongside a valley formed by the Rio Ceccoridos, so deep it was almost a canyon, to find the road to be indeed so new that the opening ceremony was actually taking place that day! A large party of the contractors who built it was starting to form, just waiting for a local politician to come and open it, before starting on the Barbecue and wine laid out. We wandered through the merry throng, along the semi-opened path to a real eye-catching view from Boca dos Namorados down 2500 feet (it sounds more in feet) to the isolated Nuns Valley and the village of Curral das Freiras.

We drove back via the capital Funchal, which is really rather pleasant, laid out in typical portugese style, with lots of mosaic pavements using white and black tufa cobblestones in elaborate patterns, solid white and black churches, a well used cathedral, law courts etc. The new motorway runs east west high above Funchal on a huge viaduct, and must have made a big difference to the level of traffic in Funchal. The town centre is pedestrianised, and the shops had an undoubtedly prosperous air, displaying elegant skimpy dresses and lingerie, the temperature still averaging 22C, and lots of pleasant bars and restaurants.

The western end of Madeira is more gentle, a bit like a (warm) grouse moor, the more so as we encountered frequent hunting parties of round-looking Portugese with guns and dogs. We followed gently meandering levadas round precipitous bends (with usually a metal handrail) and through a 600 metre tunnel where I had to stoop, and our torch batteries seemed all too dim. Everything is green, ferns, mosses, waterfalls.

On Friday the corporate world came to visit the marina in the shape of a Channel 4 Cisco systems Eurpean Challenge – about 20 teams of 4 from Cisco clients including Barclays and the (British) Ministry of Defence, flown in from 10 EU countries for ‘team-building’ (nothing to do with buying Cisco systems – honest). The first task was in 2 person canoes – but there was only 1 paddle – the other paddle was on top of the hill. Did they make do with what they had, or did they invest in the time to go and get the 2nd paddle (perhaps symbolising Cisco systems)? IT managers sweated and lead by example, the event organisers clapped anyone that came round a bend, and Channel 4 filmed anything running or paddling. Madeiran weather held off (although the humidity stopped our planned varnishing). I hadn’t been prepared for this sudden re-encounter with the business world, and wondered whether I was missing the corporate team bonding. I eventually concluded that although there was a nice buzz to the bonhommie, (which I wouldn’t want to miss altogether) it all seemed a bit artificial, and I preferred doing my own challenges however imperfect, rather than ones set by someone else with a motive in mind. So we went for a walk round and through the various sweating competitors (who were doing a complicated treasure hunt in the afternoon, and whose team bonding appeared at times to be getting a little ragged), and went along the Sao Lourenco peninsular at the extreme eastern end of Madeira. This turned out to be a riot of brown, yellow and ochre cliffs, a bit like a squiggly van Gogh, with spectacular views and near vertical drops – a bit too vertical for Nicky so I ventured on alone for a bit along a path 5 metres wide with the sea 100 metres below on either side, and in front, greyish volcanic tubes rising vertically through horizontal layers of .brown and golden sedimentary rock. It was just too good to be true – and it was, the rain came and we splashed and squelched our way back, and prepared to leave the next day.

As I write, (Saturday 18th October 2003) we are sailing at a blissful 9 knots more or less due south to the Canaries about 280 miles away. We have a permit to visit the Salvagem islands which lie about half way between, but since they are only about ½ mile wide by ½ mile long, with lots of rocks they may be more of a potential shipwreck than a refuge or anchorage – that at least is what the 3 boats that went earlier have reported. Our new sails are setting brilliantly, the sun is out, some clouds and the wind about 18 knots from the south west. More dolphins have just come to say good bye and to get into the email again (they are dreadful show-offs). This is what sailing is all about.

We wish everyone well, and thanks for all your messages which we really appreciate.

Andy and Nicky Gibb, Intrepid of Dover, Atlantic Ocean, 50 miles south of Madeira.

Back to Log Index

Back to Home page