I’ve spent a notable time on the sea but don’t consider myself much of a seaman. Not in the nostalgic sense of the word – weathered old souls with salt-imbued rags who sit in old bars scratching their matted hair telling tales of their conquests and mishaps. Of course, I’ve had my share of adventures worth telling over a cold pint, but somehow I don’t feel I fit the mould. I sail a boat. I live on a boat. I raise my kids on a boat. I transit oceans by boat. But seasoned seaman? I don’t think so.
But for the first time I felt like I’d earned that right as I sat sipping a frothy pint in Peter’s Bar, with decade upon decade of captain’s hat (and the occasional captain’s bra) above my head. Peter’s Bar overlooks the main harbour in Horta on the island of Faial in the Azores and is as old as the volcano it is built on. It is currently run by its third generation of Azevedo who continues to supply transiting mariners with more than just ale: Peter’s Bar has been the main support for ships and people passing through, supplying provisions and parts, mail collection and delivery, medical supply and local gossip since 1918. It might’ve taken me ten years, 55,000 miles and a few dozen ocean crossings, but I finally got it — that feeling of what it is like to be an old saltwort worth her lick.
Of course, having just completed a two-month passage was a factor. I didn’t really feel the gravity of what that meant until we pulled into Horta at the conclusion of our 6,000 mile trip from South Africa to the Azores and people gave their congratulations as we sailed in. We shook hands ashore with people who already knew about us and were impressed by our recent time at sea. So, when I sauntered into Peter’s Bar and ordered a pint and sat down amongst the painted faces of patronage from generations past — Chichester, Montessier, Knox-Johnson — I felt that welling of pride. Yeah Shackleton, I gotcha bro.
After two weeks swaggering around the streets of Horta en simpatico with those cruising legends, it was time to refocus on the reason I spend all this time on a boat: To explore. For me the beauty of boats isn’t weather routing, reefing sails and clocking ocean miles. I like all that — particularly the ocean miles surrounded by the beautiful silence of that endless, endless sea. What I like most, above and beyond it all, is what lays at the other end. I like charting the destination and then rolling in and discovering the truth of a place beyond my expectation. Or often, my lack of expectation. Maybe my high school history told me more than just its geography, or perhaps the news has revealed some current catastrophe. But often a country means no more to me than a name on the map. Then I draw a line between where I am and where it lies. I point my boat in that direction and spend weeks watching my progress on the plotter as it gets closer and closer. And then one morning, bam, I am there on her shores — everything new and unknown and waiting to be discovered.
The Azores was like this for me. I’d heard of the Azores. Perhaps in the news. Perhaps in a lesson given by my 11th grade teacher. But I hadn’t learned about the Azores. I marched my kids around the streets and the countryside, to the popular sights and through the museums and they were as gobsmacked about its rich history at seven and nine as I was at forty-six: The sad plight of the Sperm Whale and Azorean involvement in the near decimation of the species, its longtime influence in maritime history and its significance as a trade hub between Europe and the Americas, its ever bubbling and exploding volcanoes. How did I miss all that fascinating history? How cool to be learning about all of it now.
Neither did I have any current knowledge of the Azores when I arrived, but everything I was hearing on getting there had me itching to explore. Volcanic craters, lava tubes, black lava pools, lava rock vineyards, the barren exterior, the lush interior, the bulls and the bull fights. Highlight after highlight — it was time to bring my modern-day explorer into action.
We focused our time in the seven islands that make up the Azores on four islands: Faial, Pico, Sao George and Terceria. Faial was a highlight for its volcanic formations. We anchored in the main harbour and took day trips throughout the island from there – the north was wet, lush and tropical with dense forest, high altitude lakes and fantastic views of the island. The south was dry and developed, with the capital Horta as the economic and social centre. Town was a twist of small winding streets that led from the town basin to the hills with a fantastic botanical garden at the top of it. The architecture had the look of a quintessential small European mountain village with uniform architecture and colour, however on close inspection was a mix of well-maintained homesteads and dilapidated ruins. Apparently, the most recent volcanic eruption in the 1950s sent most of the population to Canada and the United States; some of the population had returned over the years but many had chosen to stay, leaving their houses abandoned but still in family ownership. To the west lay the dramatic Capelinhos volcanic crater and a labyrinth of underground lava tubes. To the east lay black sand beaches and running all around the island was a succession of volcanic lava pools, stunning in appearance and unique in structure.
The neighbouring island Pico is a singular volcanic cone that juts out from the sea with cooled lava flow visible down its sides. There is a small harbour with a busy ferry terminal and swinging room for a yacht or two within. The island is know for its local wine production and tourists flock there to see its unique method of growing grapes — individual plants separated by a square fence made from intricately stacked lava rocks, protecting the hard earth from erosion and the plants from wind burn. We spent our day measuring 32,000 steps with the periodic pinch of grape and dip in the sea. Given two of our team have legs that measure just 75cm in length, the fact that we marched around a volcano in the heat all day is something to commend them for.
From Faial, we sailed for the long southern stretch of `Sao George’s dramatic coastline. Hunkering down in a tiny one-boat harbour, we enjoyed crystal clear waters, a small local village and a forested mountainside that came alive with the sound of birdlife at dawn and dusk. There was very little to do in the five-shop village and so we spent our days away from the business that had defined our experience in Horta and enjoyed the quiet quaintness of our little spot. We took a holiday from cruising and treated the boat as a pleasure craft rather than mobile home. We enjoyed slow mornings and midday swims, spent the afternoon amidst toys and tonic and ate our meals as picnics on deck. Life as a live-aboard cruiser can often be fraught with boat jobs and normal life requirements that leave little of the idyllic lifestyle. So, it was with great pleasure and enjoyment that we put all tasks on hold and just enjoyed the quiet, simple life.
Our last main anchorage was in Praia de Victoria off the southeast corner of Terceria, where yachts tend to wait a suitable weather window for mainland Europe. This became a social hub for us, reconnecting with several yachts we’d hung out with along the way and meeting several others. We rented a car and toured the island, wandering again down lava tubes below the earth and getting lost in the labyrinth of caverns of old extinguished volcanoes. The villagers throughout the island were clearly bull-centric, as each village had a bull ring and many private estates had bull rinks and stables. Due to Covid, the usual September bull fighting festivities had been cancelled but we were fortunate to be able to attend the only fight that was held for the year — while animal cruelty is usually something I like to avoid, cultural traditions are a privilege to observe as a foreigner. Sitting amidst the enthusiastic Azorian crowd, we watched bull after bull be taunted and tormented to the dance of the skilled matador and the beauty of his trained horse, and joined in with the jeering, cheering crowd.
In times of Covid, it was as foreign an experience to be sitting in tight confines with strangers. This time of year would usually see half of Europe flocking to Terceria to experience the daily bull fights, done village by village and fought on the streets and beaches amid amateur bull enthusiasts and intimated observer. But this year brought only one professional show, done to bring funds into the Catholic Church and appease the demands for this centuries-old tradition. While travel this year means minimised social engagements, reduced cultural events and restricted tourist sites, it also means fewer tourists, fewer lines and no need for reservations or bookings. It also allows a more natural, relaxed local atmosphere that is often thwarted by the influence of tourism. So, I count my blessings to have been able to travel around the Azores this year when tourism is running at a fraction of its normal rate. Our interactions were with locals and our outings were low-key and authentic, and our travel was free and happily rambling during a confined state for most of the globe.