Love Portugal

Everyone has always said of Portugal, “I love Portugal,” and I was sure I would too, just as I love all the places I travel. But I’ve just spent the last two months traveling across the country and along her shores and now I say “love” just like everyone else does, with emphasis: “I absolutely loooove Portugal!” 

Covid has a little to blame – and thank – for our extended time in the country. It was our original plan to sail down Europe’s western Atlantic coastline after visiting England by yacht. The thought of sailing Atea up the Hamble River had a nostalgic draw as it was John’s childhood stomping ground, but our two month lockdown in South Africa forced us to cross off that walk down memory lane. Our enjoyment of the Azores also ticked weeks off our calendar and so we also drew a line through France. Spain was seeing a spike in reported Covid cases and was starting to implement restrictions but Portugal had a long bout of low numbers and their doors were starting to open. Spain was crossed off our travel plan along with the UK and France, so we shifted the line on our chart to Portugal. An exciting destination, given everybody love’s Portugal.

We started in Porto, home of port and a fitting first port of call. We pulled into the marina in Lexios after a week at sea and enjoyed the facilities — cold beer, hot showers, electricity and a marine shop. The the marina was situated along a long beautiful beach with a large walking promenade and we spent our initial days in the cold surf and sipping sangria. After a short respite of rest and relaxation, my travel radar started blaring and it was time to get our hiking shoes on. We started locally, taking the bus into Porto’s historic centre and wandering tight winding alleys that lead to quaint street-side cafes. We visited old port houses and sampled ruby, tawny, pink, and white port and wandered through castles and cathedrals steeped in the history of the region. If there ever was a beautiful old town, Porto is it. It has charm and beauty, age and history, old immersed in the new, all in working order. The river that runs through the city is linked by four bridges, allowing easy access from town to suburb. The food is superb, the wine even better, and the people warm and friendly. Given the recent change in covid restrictions, locals were enjoying more freedom and tourists were resuming inbound flights. Masks were required on entrance into a building, but as soon as you found your seat you were free to take it off and there was no restriction to groups gathering outside; as such, the parks were full of silent lovers and friendly banter and we were free to roam the streets at all hours of night.  

While Porto was a highlight, we were in-country to explore and we wanted to experience inland as well as the coast. We rented a car to get further afield; as I signed the rental agreement I asked the woman what her favourite part of the country was and she favoured north — so we scrapped our plans and followed her suggestion to the regional park that borders Portugal and Spain, pulling off on small detours as we went. It was the right call. The north of Portugal is far less developed than the south and the collection of small towns are quaint, quiet and picturesque; curious faces followed us as we passed and my own face was as equally enchanted by the sight of the black-clad women, dressed head-to-foot in the traditional woollen clothing of the region. We pulled off to explore the remains of forts that were scattered around the countryside, open to wander freely and empty of a single other soul. It was amazing to be free to explore important historical sites left to blend into the natural surroundings. We pulled off at natural springs and jumped off rocks into the icy water with locals who where taking time off from the heat. 

We also explored the popular Douro Valley, home of the countries oldest and most renown port houses. The stretch of land along the river was a beautiful and lush, with scattered vineyards and quaint villages along its edges. The Douro Valley is well known and a popular destination, and under normal conditions advance bookings at the vineyards were required. Given the impact of Covid, however, we were fortunate to be able to explore in relaxed isolation areas that tend towards hordes of tourists. Without an agenda, we pulled into vineyards along the way and sample the regions liquid richness. Our bilges are now stored with a variety of very fine port, corked reminders of our time in this beautiful part of the world. 

The end of our stay in Porto marked the beginning of our social life in Portugal. Days before departure I learned that Sue, my previous boss at Noonsite, lived two hours away from us in Spain, and she offered to come meet us with her family; we met in person for the first time and the connection between all of us was immediate, turning a working relationship into a special friendship. We also bumped into an interesting American couple who were achieving a six-year low budget extended travel lifestyle, and we invited them to join us on a cruise down the coast. Rhonda and Ryan stayed for a week, entreated us to their amazing bartending skills and engaged us with stories of their vagabond experiences. We sailed together 150 miles from Porto to Cascais on the central west coast, introducing them to the magic of phosphorescence-encased dolphin at night that resembled glowing torpedoes that showered millions of miniature shooting stars when they broke the surface of the water.  

As we saw them off we welcomed Margot and her partner Rory. It had been fifteen years since our days working together as dive masters in Mozambique and as many years since we’d last seen each other; reconnecting with Margot was a last-minute opportunity to reunite and the fifteen years could have been fifteen weeks — time hadn’t altered the person or the bond. We also had the opportunity to visit them at their farm in Alentejo, where Braca got to shoot a gun, Ayla caught wild doves, I got lessons in home-made yoghurt, and we caught, killed, and butchered our meals straight off the farm. 

At the same time, we also met Fiona and Iain on SV Ruffian and bonded over an unexpected mini-cyclone that hit Lisbon with 50-knot winds. They became our travelling partners for the rest of our time in Portugal as we sailed, explored, ate, and drank our way in union down the Portuguese coast. Iain and I started a regular run club, a relief for my unexercised body and Fiona and I tried to commit ourselves to beach yoga with semi-success. They were far more organised and did their research in advance (as apposed to our lazy efforts), and thanks them we were entreated to a full schedule of events and maximised our time in every town we pulled into.

Eventually, we made it to Portimao on the southern Algarve coast where John and the kids flew out on a quick trip to the UK to visit family. I stayed behind to care for the boat and our two cats, thinking I would settle into a quiet week on my own. As Portugal was proving to be for us, however, it was a week of continuous social activity and varied daytime excursions as I explored nearby towns, cultural sites, and the famous Benjali caves. The Portimao Marina was full of friendly, sociable yachties and thanks in particular to a resident couple in the marina, Leah and Ricardo, it was quick to feel like home. I had to schedule in my down time just to grab a quiet moment onboard my empty boat. But it was as I chose it, and days turned into weeks as we filled our time in the busy hubhub on Portugals south coast. 

As it always is, time to move comes much sooner than desired. The beautiful summer season was starting to turn to autumn, and the weather would soon become unpredictable. As the Covid situation in the Caribbean was still unclear, may cruisers who intended on sailing west turned east towards the Mediterranean. I’d always expected that I would be drawn in myself, however our summer on the outskirts was enough for me to turn my back on this popular destination. As odd as it sounds, for I absolutely loved our time in Portugal, the experience was enough to curb my interest in cruising the Med. I’ve always been interested in travelling to places I’ve not been to before and to have as many different experiences as I can gather on my trips abroad. I’d always said I would enjoy a season in the Mediterranean as it would be a very different kind of cruising than we were used to, but after our time in Portugal I’m ready to move on. I know this will be refuted by others who have travelled through and highly rate it, but for me Europe isn’t the place for a cruising boat. I want to be in Europe, not alongside it. I can get the same experiences by car, train, bus, bike, camper van, tennis shoe as I can by boat, so I’ll save cruising for places I can’t get to otherwise. I will use Atea as a mode of transport to take me to places I cannot otherwise access: isolated islands, remote fishing communities, inaccessible reefs, and the big blue yonder. Europe will call me back one day with a rucksack on my back and a Eurorail pass in my pocket. For now I sail away from the marinas and the malls and the motorways and head for shores where I can set both my anchor and my feet in the sand and be a cruiser in the true sense of the word.

The Azores: Ey Ey Bro!

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.

Photos of the Azores by island: Faial / Pico / Sao George / Terceria

Covid Takes the World to Sea

For years the questions have come from friends and family when questioning us about extended ocean passages: How can you handle so many days confined to a small space? Don’t the kids go crazy when they can’t go outside to play? How do you and your husband handle being together 24-7 with no break? Thanks to Covid-19, everyone now has the answer. National lockdowns have given every citizen in every country across the globe a first hand experience of the intensity of this intimacy. 

Now that people have experience being locked indoors for weeks on end with their most beloved, it is understandable to all how we seek distance from those we are closest to. While we might imagine the bonding that comes with limitless time together and constant contact, in truth too much time starts to merge identities. Your other becomes your identical twin. Now that couples around the world have experienced that 24-7 partnership, outsiders can finally get a glimpse of the cruising couple: Tweedledum and Tweedledee. You spend so much time joined at the hip that you talk the same, walk the same, cough the same, curse the same, stay sane the same. Everything you do you same the same. Your days are so mutual that what one does is almost indistinguishable from the other. There are no evening meals where you share the days activity — you mimicked each step of that days activity. While a lockdown partnership may sound wonderful just ask a cruising couple and they’ll give you an honest answer, albeit the exact same one. 

Things get even more complicated if there are kids involved. Particularly school-age kids. It is one thing to cruise with an infant who gurgles and wiggles and only cries for milk. But take on a child who has learned demand and volume, and a confined space gets even more difficult to handle. I have several friends who now know what it is like to spend morning to night with kids who are cooped up at home with energy to burn. After sharing the experience of lockdown in close confines, they are no longer telling us how lucky we are to be traveling as a unit any longer. They have had a sample of the cruising experience and they are now more afraid of their kids than they are of Covid itself. I have no sympathy. Those parents have gardens with bicycles and trampolines and tree houses. And doors that lock. A cruising family has no escape. You wake with your child in your face and it remains there all day, begging to be fed and entertained and nurtured and cuddled and read to and played with and talked to. There are no neighbourhood houses to shoo them off to, classmates who invite them for an afternoon date, sports programs to entertain them or extended family to claim them. They are yours and yours alone — every minute of every hour of every day.   

Bring those children to the table for a session of homeschooling and the recipe for mental insanity is complete. Not only do children resent their parents filling the role of teacher, parents are rarely trained for it. You blunder over describing concepts you know but have little idea how you learned it, and you force your children to sit there while you try and figure it out. But the time you feel you’ve articulated your point, they are bored and distracted and you’ve lost the stage. If you have more than one child, they fight for the better pencil, the preferred seat, the newer booklet. As soon as you sit down they are immediately hungry or tired or busy. For years I’ve heard people praise my patience, my creativity, my dedication, my miracle-mom efforts. Not any more. Every parent with school-age children now understands exactly what homeschooling is like. Most parents I know who were asked to homeschool during a surge in Covid cases lasted a handful of days before the plaster on the walls started cracking from the screams of parent and child alike. Want to know what it is like to cruise with children? Reflect on school closures before you decide to take your kids out to sea. 

Now consider adding working parents into the scene. For many, this year has brought the office home. No more commuter traffic. No more burnt bread scoffed down as that first cup of coffee stains that newly laundered shirt. No more early-morning preening for a glossier version of you. Now that office and home are one people are praising the void of traffic jams, lack of early morning shuttle services and pyjama-clad conference calls. For the better part of ten years we’ve avoided what many call the “rat race,” skirting the traditional work environment for such at-home luxuries. Now governments across the globe are demanding that the majority of employees do the same. Working families have been required to find a place for home, school and office as everyone seeks to fulfil their roles in a shared space. 

For many, however, this includes multiple rooms in a multilayered house. In cruising terms a boat is not only home, school and office, it also serves as garage, service station, grocery store and storage facility. A cruiser will wake up and smell the job list before they smell the coffee. The work desk doubles as chart table, nav station, electronics and technology centre, and general dumping ground. With a miniature seat fixed to the wall and knees tucked up against a cramped belly, cruisers usually work jammed into the corner of a room that also serves as kitchen, dining table, lounge, bathroom and bedroom. They stare mindlessly at the computer screen as their partner bellows from the galley and the kids climb the walls of the saloon. To compound matters, they try to maintain focus while being surrounded by a long list of boat jobs that continue to pile up and, if neglected for too long, begins to tap relentlessly on the brain as a reminder of things left undone. You want to work in peace and quiet? Never envy the employed cruiser. One day in their shoes and you’ll be demanding the earlier version of your coffee-stained burnt toast life.

Regardless of degree, however, we all have our stresses and a number of friends who were on lockdown at home were starting to feel the pressure of proximity in close quarters. They needed to find an outlet or an escape route. A few would grab their keys, jump behind the wheel and hit the road. Confinement feels quite different when you are moving at high speed. Some quarantined themselves in “Zoom Only” rooms and would hunker down for a group chat with friends-turned-therapists. There were those who dedicated the lockdown period to self-care and spent a small fortune on stationary bicycles and home gyms, and others who dedicated their pets by default for an excuse to walk around the block. 

I had friends in each of these categories who repeatedly told me, “Ah, but you have the life! Simple. Carefree.” True, to a degree. But for those of you who think lockdown at home is similar to being confined on a boat, there are a few key differences of note. For the cruiser there is no “other space” to go to get a clear head — on a boat you have no escape and no detox outlet. There is no gym to help sweat out frustrations, no bestie to sit beside you while you rant, no dog to walk, no fast car to race, no bubblebath to soak in. Then there are the practicalities to deal with: The fridge on a boat is the size of a chilly bin and when the food runs out there is no car to zip down to the grocery store. In fact, often there is no grocery store. Tired? At home you can just excuse yourself to your nice comfy bed. On passage you tag team with your partner and set a watch schedule that allows a three-hour rest interval, often on a surface that is rolling about and repeatedly tossing you out of bed and onto the floor. You miss your friends and you can see they are online, but the bandwidth isn’t strong enough to hold a good connection. Want a dog? Buy a fish. Want a friend? Buy a book. Want a community? Go home. So, before you think that life onboard a boat is something to envy, just reflect on your lockdown experience before shopping for that boat. 

While there is nothing positive about a global pandemic and Covid is truly a savage beast, the national response to containment has given the world an insight into the experience of long-distance cruising. For my friends and family who have repeatedly asked through the years, “What is it like?” — they now know. They may not know it exactly, but they know it close enough. I have a feeling I will see a shift in commentary after 2020. Instead of the usual “I wish I could,” the standing line is going to be “there is no way I would!”

Winning the Jackpot

Winning the Jackpot

Having departed South Africa on blind faith, we look back at the last six months of travel knowing that we won the jackpot when we gambled in June. At that time, we sailed away from a strict winter lockdown in South Africa into an ocean with borders closed in every direction: Namibia, closed. Brazil, closed. The Caribbean, closed. Europe, closed.  We departed into the the Atlantic knowing we couldn’t return and aware that we wouldn’t be accepted anywhere we we heading. Our blind faith lay in the belief that Europe would open within the two months it would take us to sail the 6,000 miles from the southern Atlantic to the northern Atlantic. 

We rolled into the Azores at the end of July to a warm welcome. The chaos that resulted in the early Covid confusion had cleared into a smooth entry protocol: An email was sent to our Sat phone a week before our arrival welcoming us to the island and accepting orders for food delivery on arrival. The officials had prepared a free covid test with results given within 24-hours. We were free to travel around the archipelago unhindered. 

After spending two months under strict lockdown in South Africa and two months of total isolation at sea, being given the pass to travel freely through the archipelago was akin to winning the lottery ticket. The weather was warm, the water inviting, the islands Covid-free and we could wander around the streets freely. We slowly island-hopped our way around the country enjoying our new found freedom, we were finally doing what we’d set out to do four months earlier — cruise. 

After filling ourselves with the splendour of the volcanic isles and treating ourselves to a very relaxed atmosphere free of the usual bombardment of summer tourism, we decided to follow our what we could of our original plan of cruising the European Eastern Atlantic. We sailed across from Terceria to Porto and spent the next two months exploring Portugal from northern to southern tip. We struck it lucky again as Covid was under control and restrictions were lax: The bars and cafes were open, no reservations were required and the lines to get into the top sights were non-existent. Given the reduced tourism, we were free to experience the country void of the usual thong of summer holiday-makers and beer-binging beach-goers. Places that usually required bookings weeks in advance and would pack you in with another 200 visitors were on a walk-up basis and you shared with no one. We explored castles and cathedrals, drove inland through mountains, sipped port in the valleys and sailed around Europe’s westernmost tip down to the stunning cliffs and caves of the southern Algarve.

After the indecision and gamble of deciding to cruised in 2020, so far we have experienced hassle-free entry into Europe through the Azores and a wonderfully relaxed and comfortable cruising season; for us the decision has been the right one. As Spain and France experience their second wave of Covid infections and winter descends on Europe, we decided it was time for us to start moving on. We sailed for at the Canaries at the end of October and are currently enjoying the stark beauty of these volcanic isles. 

Looking towards 2021 we must decide if we are going to maintain our seats at the 2021 poker table. Do we fold and head home? Do we hold our cards and remain in place through uncertainty? Do we place our bet and head for the Caribbean, hoping we hold the winning hand? As a second wave of Covid strikes Europe and America and countries are looking again at closing borders, perhaps a trip up Africa’s deep Gambia river is a sensible detour. No one can guarantee the outcome and we can only hope that our luck holds as we sail forward into uncharted territory in this Covid-influenced world.