Friday 28th July 2019

The wind is screeching through the masts that surround us in the marina so loudly that it’s difficult to think straight but the gales sweeping across South West England are not the only thing causing us to feel disorientated, we are home and have the challenge of a whole new life to organise.

We left Horta in calm seas and yet again the engine was on, more confident of our fuel range after all the motoring up from the Caribbean, we pushed quite hard, the easterly winds that are battering us now had shown up on the forecast and we were keen to arrive before they set in. Thursday, finally, we picked up some winds and quickly things became a bit livelier. After a fantastic day sailing, inevitably the waves increased in height and a nasty beam swell developed, rocking us back and forth. This was much more how we had imagined the the North Atlantic and although uncomfortable we were eating up the miles. Each day the temperatures continued to drop and this, in combination with a few showers, drove us into wet weather gear. On night watch everyone was now bundled into as many layers as was practical, boots were dug out from where they had sat for four years and rather musty woolly hats and gloves bought out for an airing.

Gradually putting on more clothes

The wild life, however, didn’t seem to be put off by these cooler temperatures and despite the rougher seas we spotted a couple of what we think were fin whales a hundred or so metres off to starboard and numerous pods of dolphins came to say hello, but the highlight was a group of Orcas. Easily identified by their black and white colourings we were delighted when a few swam closer and closer, ducking and diving right next to the boat just like the dolphins had.

Killer whales swam right next to the boat, this one seems to have a rather big chunk out of his fin.

Such sights brought into focus our feelings of sadness that our adventure was nearly over, that the wonders we have been treated to over the past four years were near an end, but as we struggled to get some sleep in the choppy conditions a still bed grew more and more desirable.

Emotions continued to be mixed, Monday morning the log clicked over to 40,000nm, the total number of miles we have sailed on Raya and we felt a certain pride in our achievement. As we sailed nearer and nearer to home, the SW of England appeared on the chart plotter for the first time since May 2015 and excitement began to build.

UK coast on the chart plotter for the first time in four years

Early Tuesday morning, our last day at sea, I came up on watch to find not just sunshine and calm seas but a very excited Rick, a hazy outline of the Lizard, the most Southerly point of the UK was visible on the horizon. We were surrounded by a mass of small fishing boats, so while I steered us through the traffic, Rick and Tony strung flags from our bows to the stern. It is a privilege of circumnavigators to arrive in port dressed in flags and Plymouth is a Navy port and flag signals are important, we were delighted when two Royal Navy boats acknowledged us by sounding their horns.

The temperatures had been increasing over the last day or so to warm us, on the dock were a dozen friendly faces to welcome us and in their bags plenty of bottles to celebrate with, a perfect home coming.

Raya arrives back in the UK

Volcanoes and Street Art

Wednesday 19th June 2019

Here we go again, weather window antics, we plan to leave Tuesday, no Wednesday, no Tuesday, no Wednesday. I think we have settled on Wednesday but maybe that will be Tuesday afternoon or perhaps next week.

In the end we left rather quickly Tuesday lunchtime and before I had managed to upload this post, there are photos but I will have to attach them when we reach the UK. Reach the UK, how strange that sounds.

Horta the main port and capital of Faial in the Azores is a pretty town full of often crumbling but decorative terraced buildings. Churches white, with black detailing stand out in the sunshine and flowers greet you on every spare piece of ground.

Church of Nossa Senhora das Angustias, in Horta

The Marina was friendly and being Europe the formalities straight forward. It was choc-a-bloc with transatlantic boats that continually arrived, stretching the facilities to the limit, for most of the stay we were rafted three deep.

The first few days were warm and sunny as we rushed about getting the normal mundane tasks completed. The laundry, run on a confusing part service, part do it yourself regime, was dictated over by a woman with Hitler pretensions and with so many boats continually arriving with weeks worth of dirty washing, it was a slow and painful process.

The supermarket however was well stocked and although everything was totally in Portuguese and it took us a bit of time to find what we needed, we, for the first time in a while, enjoyed delicious lunches of fresh fruit and tasty local cheese.

With the weather forecast looking unsettled for the weekend, Friday morning we took a taxi tour of the island. As we left the town of Horta and climbed into the hills, the smell of freshly mown grass assaulted our senses, with the lower temperatures, cows grazing in buttercup filled meadows and familiar bird song we could almost have been in Devon.

However, like most of the oceanic islands we have visited, the Azores were born from past volcanic activity. As we continued to drive higher we entered the cloud base that cloaks the highest peak here, as the mist swirled and thinned we caught glimpses of fantastic views of the island and the huge picturesque volcanic peak on the island across the channel, Pico.

We were headed to near the top of the Caldera do Faial, where a tunnel has been created through the rock side to a viewing platform to see the interior of the still perfectly circular cone. At 2km wide and 400m deep a unique ecosystem has sprung up in its base, with plants and birds not found anywhere else flourishing in their own tiny world.

Caldera do Faial

During the eruptions that created this volcano, pumice stone was flung out onto the island and this has made the soil here very fertile but acidic. Crowding every hedge row and many gardens are hydrangea plants, the acidic soil turns the normally pink flowers a bright blue and Faial has become famous for this magnificent summer display.

In stark contrast to the lush growth of most of the island is the barren headland on the NW coast, created by an eruption that took place less than 60 years ago, it resembles a moonscape. A huge slab of rock juts out to sea backed by rocks of solidified lava and slopes of sweeping black sand.

Volcanic landscape at Capelinhos

We were glad to have taken the time to explore because the weekend turned out to be quite stressful. We were tied up to the harbour wall, right in the corner, where the wash back from the swell, with the weight of two boats hanging off us, had us straining and jolting uncomfortably on our cleats, the creaking and groaning of the lines keeping us awake. Hours were spent tightening this rope, then tightening another, then loosening everything again as the tide dropped.

Finally Monday afternoon things quietened down and the showers cleared, time to get creative. As in a lot of ports and anchorages where ocean sailors gather, people like to leave their mark. Often it is in the form of national or yacht club flags, that adorn the insides of local bars and cafes or, as in the Percy Islands off the Australian East Coast where crews carve plaques that are nailed to the large A frame shelter on the beach. In the Azores the tradition is street art, every inch of the walls and paving of Horta marina are covered by paintings left by previous visitors.

We were keen to join in the fun and Rick had in his head planned a complex design to include the names of everyone who had helped us by joining us for an ocean passage. Unfortunately the combination of the busy first few days followed by the wet weather, had thwarted our attempts to put paint to concrete. Eventually, Monday, as an evening sun appeared we picked our spot and painted the background. This was nearly as far as we got, with a change in the forecast later in the week, making a quick departure looked advantageous. The original complex design had to be ditched and I and Tony were still painting Rick’s much simplified effort, as he refuelled Raya just an hour before we left.

As Rick and Tony prepare the boat for departure I’m still busy painting

It is our first night out and we are motoring again in very light winds, the full moon shines brightly, the only star visible in the light sky is Jupiter twinkling to our south. In the log Rick described the sea state as, motoring through melted chocolate, it’s glossy dark surface heaving gently beneath our keel.

Wind is promised in a few days time, Plymouth and reality beckon.


Ocean High

Monday 10th June 2019

We have finally arrived in Horta in the Azores, after a couple of weeks of very little wind, it has been a slow but comfortable crossing. I, particularly, get range anxiety when we have to do such a lot of motoring but this time even Rick, not confident of the fuel gauge, was measuring the inexorable draining of the fuel tank with the dip stick on a very regular basis. In the end about 50nm out from the marina we picked up some wind and sailed the whole of the last day, approaching the island reefed and doing 8kts, with at least 150 litres of fuel left in the tank.

‘Got here beer’ in Horta

Our crossing from the Caribbean might have been the slowest of our ocean passages but stuck in the middle of the Azores high pressure system, it also became the calmest. And calm seas don’t just mean more sleep and a much more comfortable life onboard, it also means our fellow ocean goers are easier to see.

On Wednesday I spotted what I first thought was rubbish, it looked a bit like the end of a child’s clear pencil case decorated with a pink rim. Then I saw another and another. We looked more closely and realised they were a type of jelly fish, a jelly fish with what appeared to be a three dimensional semi circular sail. Enquiries back home to those who have access to Google revealed them to be in the Portuguese Man-o-War family. We learnt that each creature was in fact not a single organism but a colony of much smaller ones, all working together to create a viable unit. And what was also incredible, was that five days and nearly a thousand miles on, they were still passing us by in a steady stream. The whole ocean is full of them.

A clump of a dozen sailing jelly fish

A rarer sight was a pod of whales. In a rougher sea we probably wouldn’t have spotted the telltale blow in the distance, but any thing that breaks the surface in these calm conditions is obvious. Too far away to identify conclusively, their small size suggests they were probably pilot whales. And just when we were beginning to give up on dolphins over the last few days of the passage we saw three or four large pods, They were Atlantic spotted dolphins and they gave us a spectacular show leaping from the water and dancing in our bow waves.

A pod of dolphins charging in to swim at our bows

The journey has also been big on the pure grandure of the open ocean, the only ripple to be seen was our wake as we motored over a glassy, inky blue, undulating sea, that stretched out to a huge horizon. We have been treated to dramatic dark orange sunrises and sunsets and one night the ocean was so smooth, I sat mesmerised by a whole sky full of stars reflected in its surface. As always we gaze in wonder and reflect on how honoured we are to witness such things.

Sun rising over a silky sea

While we enjoyed all this we were slowly travelling northward and we were noticing many changes. The temperatures of the sea and the air dropped daily forcing us into more and thicker clothing. The Southern cross that has for so long been our focus in the night sky, a few days ago disappeared below the horizon and after years of pretty much 12 hours of darkness each night, the shorter nights are taking a bit of getting use to. With the sun setting later and later each day, despite our routine changing of the clocks as we travelled through different time zones, we had eventually to push our night watch system back an hour because we were struggling to get to sleep. Even the duration of dawn and dusk is changing, the sudden onset and disappearance of darkness of the tropics is being replaced with the hour long fading and brightening of light of higher latitudes.

We hope to have about a week to enjoy the Azores, we suspect the passage back to the UK may not be so tranquil, so we must be patient and wait for a good weather window.