A rough sail to Ecuador

The normal route yachts usually take, if they are planning to cruise the Pacific and French Polynesia is to go straight from Panama to Galapagos Islands then the Marquises, the eastern most island groups. Landing on the Galapagos if problematic, rules and laws changing every day, and you don’t know what mood the local authorities are on the day of your arrival. To obtain cruising permit takes weeks of bureaucracy and lots of money. Beside, you more than likely run into the doldrums with no or little wind for days, drifting by the mercy of the local currents. I was still planning a short stop there, but decided to sail south, against the SW winds to Ecuador, then turn to west from there. Thus, I would break this long leg to half at least, and hopefully have good wind for the second part. The first 600 miles would be hard though, I knew.

As I had to sail SW my main concern was to make as much westing as possible so that later on I will be in a better position for the stronger wind. At the same time, sailing south was the shortest route, but I hardly had the problem of worrying between the two choices as many times one tack took me SE the other NW, neither one good for me. It was desperate.

The first evening, I was just enjoying a reasonable sail heading 230⁰M, putting myself in a good position after pushing the boat and the engine a little bit to round the northern tip of San José island, when I saw a big black cloud coming towards us. What is that going to do? I kept an eye on it as it was getting closer and closer, and before the night fell I finally gave in to the more cautious inner voice in my head and put in two reefs in the main. That was the first reefing that must have been followed by hundred more on this 11 days sail to come.

Dusk arrived, the big black cloud was getting closer, the wind dropped and the darkness grew around me, soon there was nothing to see, only small patches of fade light from the reflection of the mast head light and the compass illumination. I was sitting at the companion way in anticipation and was thinking if I was maybe too careful with the two reefs when a few stronger gusts hit the sail. Our speed increased, Comino heeled over, the wind-vane started to work. The gusts became more frequent and suddenly the gunwale was under the water, and I had to damp the mainsheet to depower the main sail. The wind kept increasing it was howling amongst the rigging like in a small gale. The boom was hitting the water while I was trying to furl the jib and was fighting with sheets and the furling line. By the time I found a good balance between the sails the waves grew big and the rain started. It was awful. We were beating into the big black moonless night, the storm was raging outside, and this was not how I imagined the Pacific Ocean cruise. I was disappointed. The storm lasted most of the night, when the wind decreased the rain got heavier and the air cooled down. Still, I had to go and let out some of the jib, then later on the main, to keep the boat moving. By 5 am the wind was completely gone, and I started up the engine. The sea was still disturbed and without forward motion the boat was rattled like a mouse in the mouth of the cat.

Soon the wind has come back and I was able to sail again. Close haul, tight on the wind in a SW direction. Good sailing conditions a F3 wind, moderate sea. It didn’t last long, the wind veered at first and I was tacking between 270⁰ and 130⁰ M, probably against some current and then dropped to nothing. I started the engine again, after I span around a few times losing steerage way, but only for a half an hour. Light breeze sprang up, and I sailed through the night without needing to touch the sails or the tiller.

The darkness of the nights was a bit of an unpleasant surprise. All the way through clouds covered the sky day and night. The new moon wouldn’t have given me much light, but still at least should have shown its face, the stars were hiding as well, and during the day I had no sunshine at all. After the first rough night everything was wet in the boat and there was no way to dry things out. Both of the bilge pumps worked hard, the sea found its way into the boat in the smallest holes. There are bad days when nothing seem to work. There is no wind and I drifted 5 miles back NE during the night, the fishing reel broke down, not that I would catch any fish with this slow speed, the bilge pump fell apart. When a nice breeze come the hopes are rising, then it is gone and desperation sets in. What if there will be no wind for two weeks here? What if the wind will be SW and I can go neither to Ecuador nor to the Galapagos? Then a westerly light wind starts to blow and after hours of contemplating I hoist the cruising chute and making a good southerly progress. It wasn’t used for long time and mould and mildew grew on it just like everywhere on the boat after the humid and warm Panamanian climate. I don’t trust the wind so nervously watching it for any sign of change, but so far so good. I am getting the gist of it though, laying in the pilot berth one eye on the chart plotter, looking at the COG, I can see it is gradually veering back to a southwest. Sometime during the night I pop out of the bed, drop the chute and pull up all the white sails. The wind vane is set just a few degrees off of close haul we are making 2-3kn of SOG with a SW heading through the night. The seas flat, the wind gentle, the boat is upright and happily sailing along, while I am listening the water churning on the outside of the hull. It was a beautiful sail; still the next 1200 hrs position report confirms a mere 48 Nm progress in the last 24 hours. It is still an improvement from the day before of 26 miles…

The wind and weather keep changing there is all kinds of variations. At some stage, I decide to get ready with the third reef on the main sail, which had no precedent since I left North Atlantic winter. It was not put in use eventually, but only because Comino was enjoying herself so much riding hard the waves and winds gunwale is submerged the bow thumping on every fall. Sometimes I tried the tiller but it was easy to hold, the sails were balanced, we did the best we could.

After a week sailing I cleared the imaginary border of Columbian waters and I was close to Ecuadorian shores. I felt a little bit safer now; I heard nothing good about the Pacific side of Columbia. Still, I was surprised and apprehensive when one morning, just finished my breakfast and ready with the coffee, I heard shouting and engine noise from the outside. There was a small open boat with three men on board, some with a covered face (with a balaclava-like piece of cloth, used by many people with outdoor activities around here). Add a huge outboard motor and plenty of spare fuel in the bow, colourful decoration on the hull and you can understand why I was thinking to put down my cup of coffee and pick up the machete instead. They were only fishermen, more than 50 miles offshore on that little boat and was warning me of their drifting net just under the surface. I changed course until I cleared then waved them off, and kept going S-SW.

Later on there was another, similar fishing boat, from Esmeralda, Ecuador, visiting me, with three young lads, and they were laughing and dancing when they saw me. They demanded that they can take photo of me and were generally very happy to see such a small vessel on their home water. They come too close, unfortunately, and ripped off another chunk of the rubbing strake on the same side of the Panamanian incident. They gave me a calamari from their catch, so I ignored the accident. I am corruptible, it tasted good.

After the beautiful day of the incident with the fishermen, the weather turned bad, and it stayed like that more or less for the rest of the trip. The wind picked up, and now blew consistently from the bow. Tacking, never a strong point with poor overloaded Comino and the old sails was frustrating. Sometimes, on both tacks I managed to head away from my destination, and the 24 hour runs never exceeded the 60 miles range. One dark night, after fighting all day the elements and desperation, resting dreamlessly in the bunk, I heard a scratching noise on the hull. I sharpened my hearing with disbelief, but it did not stop, and by the time I was on the deck with the torch, the boat has stopped and started to spin off the wind. I got tangled in an underwater fishing net. It was raining, the wind was strong, the darkness, like an impenetrable wall to every direction, and I was alone on the big merciless Pacific Ocean in a big mess. ‘No panic, no panic!’ I told to myself ‘What first?’ I dropped the main, and furled the jib, then lifted up the pendulum rudder of the wind vane before it gets damaged. ‘Luckily’, I had been in a similar situation, in one January on the Irish Sea, only with a lobster pot, so I had an idea what to expect. I grabbed the boat hook, and tried to push down the net deep enough to clear it from the rudder. It didn’t work; despite I am lying on the lazaret hatch and being in the water with half of my body to get as deep as possible. I didn’t want to damage the net, it is someone’s livelihood, but after many unsuccessful attempts I had to resort to the hack saw, and cut it off. There was still the problem of which way to get out of it. I imagined it to be a circle with a narrow entrance that I accidently found and now I will never be able to get out of it. In the dark, where you have no sense of direction it is no easy task to decide which way to try. I saw a bright light in the distance occasionally flash and even getting closer and I thought that would be the trawler belonging to the net, but coming close to it I realized it was a tiny calamari fishing boat and they may not even know about the net. When I run into the net a few more time and had to change direction suddenly to avoid it, I started panicking a little. I decided to ignore my bearing and just follow the net for a while as much as I could in the small light of the torch and in less than ten minutes I concluded that I cleared it one way or another and I am safe from it. I reset the vane, set the sails, changed my wet outfit and went back to rest.

I was getting nearer and nearer to shore and now I really had to tack back and fro if I wanted to clear Punta Ballena and later Cabo Passado. But the conditions did make it easy for me, and half of the time I felt I was sailing backwards when I had to tack away from land, but I could not do better than NW. Hours made days and I realised, the rough conditions became a norm and I resigned into a state where you accept that you can’t change the weather and the sea state, you have to work with what you have. In that mind set I crossed the equator and I celebrated it with a drink offered to Neptune.   As I predicted it didn’t help much, and I was back to counting back the miles and meters to my destination.

On the 27th June, Tuesday 0000 hours, I rounded the last protruding cape and I could at last bear away. I headed towards the entrance of River Chane and to the ‘waiting room’ where you suppose to wait for a pilot to direct you in amongst the shifting sandbanks. When I arrived there it was still dark and I had an hour or two before high water so, I dropped the anchor and went to sleep. I woke up in an hour later to the unbearable motion of the boat due to the swell coming in from the sea. It was daylight already but a very dull one. I tried to radio the port for a pilot on both Ch69 and Ch16 but got no reply. The swell was getting worse and I decided I had to leave before it turns dangerous. I started the engine, it run for about half minute then stopped for no reason.

I think that was the moment when I thought it was like a Fawlty Towers episode, when the character of John Cleese trying to stop a guest entering the room or the hall. It was just like a bigger force was trying to stop me the last five days to arrive to this place, and every time I felt it will be easy from here, a new hardship struck. However, I was determined. I restarted the engine, and connected the autopilot. The engine worked the autopilot didn’t. That was new, but nothing could surprise me anymore. Just by routine I flipped on the switch of the instruments and strangely, the depth sounder that was out of function for months was showing signs of life. I might just have fixed it on the way here when I was fiddling with it, that time thought to be unsuccessful. I checked it quickly with the lead I prepared earlier and accepted the result within measurement error. There were small fishing boats coming and going in and out of the river, so I pulled up the anchor, murmured a short praying, spiced up with some cursing and headed towards that seemed to be the channel. The movement of the boats coincided with the channel shown on my Garmin chart plotter (not the first time I am glad I had spent that lot of money on this digital chart) and it was reassuring. One of the smaller, open fishing boats slowed down to let me ahead of them, but I waved them in front of me. They seemed to understand at once that I wish to follow them, if they could show me the way in, and they did so, all the way to the deep basin of the river. With the dropping tide presenting extra danger, the breaking waves left and right, the sandbanks already showing themselves here and there, between the ill-functioning engine and the now not-working autopilot I cannot express the relief when I was through. Another mile motoring up the river and I saw the boatman of Puerto Amistad coming to greet me and show me to my anchorage.


Amador to Las Perlas Islands


After the goodbye circle around the anchorage and a few last words and waves, I pulled in to the marina and quickly filled up with fuel, the first time since Las Palmas in the Canaries. It gave me an easy calculation. I have done nearly 5000 Nm including the Panama Canal with 25 l of Diesel. Not bad, but coming out of the marina I faced calm condition and flat seas, so the engine was left pottering away until I crossed the anchoring ships and the main route of the ones that just exiting the Canal. Maybe the first time, it was a warm and pleasant night to stay and sleep outside in the cockpit, and to keep watch so I did. I wasn’t happy when suddenly raised from a few minutes nap there was a ship’s bright light blinding me way too close to comfort. It passed safely in front of us, but I sweared I would look into to get an AIS device. During the night I was trying sail when I thought some breeze sprang up but against the tide and with an overloaded boat in that light wind my SOG (speed over ground) rarely went up above 1.5 knots. When it fell under 0.7 I was in danger losing steerageway, and if there was no hope for any better it was back to motoring again. I had to keep moving.

After sailing through the hours of darkness a beautiful day greeted me at the vicinity of my first stop at the Las Perlas. I chose a spot to drop the anchor far away from everything and everyone After the busy anchorage of Amador, I just wanted some different experience with nature and nothing else around me. I got it, there was no other boat around me and in fact there was nothing else only a few islands with sandy beaches at low tide, trees on the top of them and a huge variety of birds. It was beautiful in the morning sunshine and I decided to row around with my dinghy that I have towed all the way to here. I picked the nearest tiny island and rowed over to have a look. It was even prettier from close than from far, the sandy beach washed by the cold water of the Pacific, perfectly round rocks rolled by the small breaking waves, the cliffs protecting the trees, the wildlife and the nests of the birds rising up in the middle. I saw another small island not too far away, and when I got bored with the old one I rowed the half mile distance over. It was an 8 shaped one, one of the loop is smaller than the other, and the two with the higher points connected by a sandy ridge only visible until half tide or so. Clean, unspoiled, fresh sand under my feet, the sea both sides, only the splashing of the waves, the sound of the wind and the occasional squawk of the seabirds disturbing the silence.

Feeling the effect of the long last night, I fell asleep on the beach my hand under my head, resting on a rock as a pillow. I woke up to the waves of the rising tide reaching my feet. I had been in a deep state of sleep and was dreaming something completely unrelated to my situation and suddenly I didn’t know where I was and jumped up to strange feeling of my feet in the water. It took a second or two to fully come to my senses, but, besides my hands feeling numb from the pressure, there was something else unsettling at the back of my mind, I couldn’t explain.  Where is my dinghy?

I hadn’t thought I would fall asleep and I left the dinghy a good two-three metre below me on the beach, and it was taken away by rising tide. I run up to the nearest highest point of the island to look around, my right hand hanging off my shoulder useless the other one is a bit better. I was looking around, but the grey coloured dinghy wasn’t a striking image standing out of the now dull, greyish surroundings.  I saw something that could have been it, somewhere between Comino and the first island I’d visited. I had no other chance just to swim for it. Forget the possibility of crocodiles and sharks, I jumped into the water and started to swim. Luckily, there was no wind and my hands were coming back alive, and half way trough I was sure it was indeed my dinghy. Sometime later I reached it and climbed in with a big relief. I paddled back to collect the stuff I had left on Island Nr2, then back to Comino for a well deserved dinner.

Unfortunately, the benign conditions didn’t last too long. Big swell entered the anchorage combined with strong wind, and I was unable to finish the jobs I had intended to. It was really unpleasant, and I was thinking of leaving or not, but gave it another day. The next morning was much better and I manage to work on the fuel filter again, as it still letting air somewhere into the fuel system, hence making the engine unreliable. That was it though, by the afternoon the swell and the strong wind were back, and I decided to leave in the morning. I should have left in the evening though, as I hardly had any sleep that night from the rolling and pitching and yawing of the boat.

The weather was similarly appalling in the morning, so it was an easy decision to pull up the anchor and motor out of this place, paradise turned to hell. At least the engine was working well, and I kept it running to make as much westerly as possible, and clear the islands safely. I even hooked a tuna in the first hours, so all was good again.


As I was working up to the week before I left Dublin, I didn’t have time to finish and replace everything on the boat the way I wanted. I thought I would do these on the go. One of these items was the anchor chain, which I wanted to change for a longer one. At the moment I had 10m chain and 30m warp on the 25lb plough anchor. It worked very well so far. However, circumstances have changed and the boat is my house, I have to reconsider what I need. I needed longer chain for better holding in any condition and any seabed. More chain is also better to avoid chafing on the warp if you connect any. I also needed longer scope; I wasn’t planning to anchor in deep water, but the anchor is the primary safety equipment on any boat, if you lose your engine and/or sails and drifting onto danger, the anchor should always be there to be deployed and save the situation. Te third reason why I was planning to buy a new length of chain is, that to do so, I would gain a spare set of anchor and chain if for some reason I would lose the main one. I already had the spare anchor, a 5kg Danforth, now it would be complete to be used.

I was recommended a good and cheap chandlery in the heart of Lisbon, not too far from where we anchored, but on the other side of the river. The next day after arrival I decided to lift anchor again, sail across to the other side to the marina at Alcantara and stay there for a few days. I could visit the chandlery, splice the anchor and rope if I can buy them, and also look around Lisbon city, where I have never been before. According to my log book, it only took us half hour to arrive to the swing bridge at the entrance of Doca de Alcantara. The pedestrian bridge opens every half hour to let the yachts in and out, and it was closed when I arrived. I stopped at the pontoon designated for waiting, and to my surprise I saw familiar faces. The crew from Max’s boat was walking towards me, Harry with his girl friend, and they quickly hitch hiked my boat to get into the marina. Max as sailing his boat single handed just behind us.  The gate opened, we left the pontoon and motored into the marina looking for a place where the two boats could stay close together. It wasn’t easy the marina was full of visiting and local yachts, but finally we found two alongside berths under the office window, between motor yachts, so big their decks was at the top of our masts. No need to say, the staff in the office wasn’t too happy with our positioning, but no other boats would fit in there anyway, so they left us with it.  They managed to withhold their laugh when we enquired about the price per night for our 6.7m LOA; it seemed ridiculously low-for them anyway.

I spent three days in the marina at Alcantara, I found the chandlery, and bought 25m chain and 50m rope, spliced them together and was happy enough with the result. I put markers on the chain and the rope as well, at every fathom, so I know the length of the scope I let out, and stored everything in the chain locker at the bow. I cleaned and dried the boat inside, as I always do when in a comfortable and reasonably steady position, and found a laundrette to wash my clothes. I decided to spend a bit of extra money on the dryer, as I am still not south enough to have real summer weather for the middle of October. Relying on the sun, it would take days to dry them out.

I found time to go for a run in one morning, when I couldn’t sleep and got up early. It was still dark at 6am, we are just a week before to change the clock for the winter time, I took the map of the locality and run into the unknown. I got lost, and run through dark, completely deserted parks, empty suburbs, unkempt house estates and eerie streets. By the time I found my way back towards the marina it started to brighten up and the first group of commuters were heading to work. Not in a hurry, though. I, like an observer dropped in a totally new environment, found the difference between Dublin (the last big city I saw) and Lisbon startling. Not one person was running with a branded paper cup of coffee in her/his hand (smart phone in the other), but everyone sat down at the tables on the street or inside one of the number of cafes, and finished the espresso in a dignified manner, often accompanied with a cake or a croissant.

I made it back to the boat at the end, if with a sore knee. The yachtees were still asleep; I had the shower all to myself.  After a healthy breakfast, I went to do the tourist bits, as I have never been in Lisbon before and was interested to look around. Now, that I am in the marina it is safer than if I have to leave Comino on anchor even for a day. The Maritime Museum was the main attraction and it was worth to go to. The long history of the Portuguese maritime affair exhibited through the centuries, wars, discoveries and fishing provides endless resource to display. Old navigation equipments, canons, ship models and even full size, retired vessels are on show. I couldn’t take everything in quickly enough, good I am not that interested in submarines, modern era destroyers and other killing machines, they were at the end of the exhibition and my brain was quite full of the history of sailing, by the time I got there.

The three days went fast and Friday arrived. I left our safe haven for the anchorage back in Cascais, and arrived at 2030 hours, after three and a half hour sailing. It was spring tide now, and I waited late to get the full benefit of the ebbing tide and the river flow. It helped me at some cases with an extra 2 knots. I even towed my dinghy behind me and still made it in good time.

Friends were waiting for me at the anchorage, just off the beaches of Cascais, and it felt a bit like arriving home. Martijn and Will got there before me and we soon gathered on the biggest, ergo the party-, boat, and shared our stories of the last days. At the end we all came from different location, Will was on an anchorage further upriver, at Seixal, Martijn stayed at the navy base painting his boat’s engine room and I brought the news from the marina, where I met with French Max, who told me they were going to hang around a bit more there. His girlfriend, Claire had a small accident during their last leg of sailing, when she fell and now had a sore (possibly fractured) rib case. Strong girl, she denied to go to a hospital, only complained if it was too rough at anchor. A couple of days later they followed as back to Cascais, happy and rested.

A full eight days of very, very frustrating waiting followed. Nobody wanted to believe what was on the weather forecast. The relentless SW wind kept blowing, because a low pressure system was sitting above the Atlantic without moving left or right. This was stopping all the yachts moving anywhere at all. The general direction the boats would move is south, or south west, but with the wind coming from there it is impossible, not saying anything about the high chance of the gales that can develop, and turn rather nasty. Nearly everyone has some kind of schedule, and now I had to start worry if I can maintain my timetable even with the weeks of built-in safety margin. My next destination was Madeira, where I was planning to meet with my sister, Erika, who already had her flight booked, and I didn’t want her to wait for me…

We couldn’t really do anything with the weather, which wasn’t just windy (from the wrong direction) but often cool and humid. The evening gathering around Martijn’s wood stove became a habit, and more and more cheap (but excellent) Portuguese wine were consumed. We made friends with a newly arrived Norwegian registered boat, with Philip and Sonia onboard, from Germany and Finland respectively.

The loud honk reported the low water mark every day at Cascais, and we kept busy to pass the time from one day to another. Will had friends from New Zealand, planning to sail from Lisbon to the Canaries and taking a flight from there back home, but the plan obviously fell apart. A couple of days waiting, and they gave up realising it would be too long before the sail. They packed up after a few days of land based activity, and left. When Max appeared again, another French sailing boat came to the anchorage. They knew each other, so the usual quiet evening on Martijn’s boat was a bit less quiet. This big, beautiful two mast vessel was skippered on typical French principal. Minimal engine use, fix-on-the-go, and no working toilet… The crew of eight, mixed of girls and boys, used the open-air aft of the boat for their bodily functions, either at sea or in a harbour. Just don’t tie your dinghy to the wrong place when you visit them!

We followed their progress on the AIS as they were very keen on leaving the next day, and reaching Faro on the south coast of Portugal. They made 20 miles in 24 hours, and eventually made it to a safe anchorage just before the storm hit. They were heading to Rabat, Morocco to participate at the Festina Lente, a combined maritime and artists’ festival.

After more than a week waiting, the Maritime Police went around the boats again. This time we had to leave the anchorage because there was a 5m swell forecasted and it was not safe to stay there. So we left the next day and sailed back to the other anchorage behind the bridge. Well known path was this now, but at least we had good wind and could sail all the way. When I rounded the most eastern point of Almada, where the ferries arrive to, there was a small number of people walking around or sitting on the outdoor benches, like you do on a Saturday. As I was really close to them I waved and smiled expecting the same back, like I am used to from Ireland. Not so. Those who were sitting, turned their heads away, the walkers turned their back to me and started to walk quickly to the opposite direction. I murmured a sorry under my overgrown moustache, and kept sailing on, wondering, if I have seen a local smiling since I am in Portugal? I don’t think so; they seem to take life very seriously. I dropped the anchor in half an hour, under sail, only that I got too close to the friendly Norwegian boat and had to re-anchor quickly.

Another few days of waiting and anxious studying of the wind forecast followed here. The weather was so bad, it was depressing. One time, when it was raining heavily, I decided to collect some rainwater and plugged in the cockpit drains. In minutes, I had so much rainwater, it was enough to bath, and cook for days. The other day, bored of sitting on the boat, went for a long walk. It became a really long walk, darkness fell and I didn’t know where I was. I aimed towards the shoreline reached it, and could see our boats across the bay, far away. The only problem was a big sign between me and there: Navy base, entry is strictly prohibited.  If I go back where I came from, it takes hours to get anywhere near, I had no choice. I ignored the sing and started ‘Mission Trespass’. I walked kilometres on the shore, beside canons pointing towards the sea, and enormous dry docks ready to accommodate the warships for maintenance, army buildings and equipments, before I arrived into the middle of the complex and saw the first car and humans. I disguised myself successfully; they would have passed me, if I don’t actually ask them for direction. This place was huge and I was going around at roundabouts and roads by now and it started to rain again quite heavily. Of course, they tried to look very offended and serious about the situation, I could be a spy, or a secret agent (a very lame one) as far as the story goes, but eventually they find a lieutenant with good English and I managed to explain myself. I seemed to escape court-martial and life in prison, they all laughed (finally, Portuguese who can laugh!) and even gave me a lift all the way back to my dinghy.

The next day the weather was pretty bad again, the lack of sunshine and humid conditions benefited only one creature of life: mould started to grow here and there on the boat. A bit more time to spend here and it will grow on my beard and hair as well, I felt. I wasn’t in a positive mood at all, and it didn’t help, when, in the evening I looked at my dinghy and saw, that one of the oars was missing. They are secured with a screw cup, but as both are right treaded, one of them gets tightened with every stroke I do, the other gets loosened. I didn’t realise this, and now I had to learn it the hard way. I did have the dinghy in the water now for three weeks, without checking the screws and it worked itself free. I took it as a sign, I had to leave. In the morning I am going ashore, if the weather is just a bit favourable, I’ll get provisions and depart straight away.

I rowed ashore with the single oar, early in the morning, lifted out the dinghy to a small slipway and took the oar with me, just in case. I didn’t want to use my hands on the way back, should someone take fancy of it. I was walking towards the grocery shop, the army guys had showed and recommended me earlier, when I happened to pass a small small-boat yard. It looked more like a building site with boats scattered around, and men working on them. I mean, one man was working on one boat, and ten others were watching him humming (dis)approvingly depending on their level of relation to the boat and/or person.  I opened the gate, and walked in. Nobody looked at me. I took the oar out of my rucksack and waved it around. This bore result. Heads slowly turn towards me, showing little interest. I asked them if they would have another one of this, but of course they had none. When I asked, if they knew where I could buy one the question was unanimous: Decathlon! I thanked, turned around and left. I took only a few steps when they started to shout after me in broken English: ‘Hey, oar boy! You walking?’ ‘Yes.’ I said. ‘Come!’ One man waved at me. He drove me all the way to this big shopping centre at the outskirt of the town, where you can buy everything from bread to gas boiler, and spear gun to bathroom tile. It was about 15 minutes drive, he saved me some walking. I said thanks and we shook hands. He didn’t smile (back to the old Portuguese custom) but I knew he was happy to help. I got my oar, took the bus back to town, did my shopping for the week and was at the boat by midday. I hastily deflated the dinghy put away the food and stuff I will not need immediately and arranged the boat for sailing. It was the 25th October 2016 and I was ready to cross half the Atlantic to Madeira.

Cascais and Lisbon

Cascais and Lisbon

Comino is registered under Dutch flag and this has a long story, of course. Apart from having been in Amsterdam a couple of time as a tourist, neither me nor the boat has nothing to do with the Netherlands. In Ireland, where I left from, the ISA (Irish Sailing Association) used to register cruising boats planning to visit foreign port. You need some kind of registration when you sail abroad, but many countries, like Ireland or the UK don’t require it for home waters. Unfortunately, just at the end of the year before I left the Irish government stopped the Association to continue with their registration, with the reason that they are not an official body. The government however, failed to start its own small boat registry system and now many boat owners are in a situation, like me, that they can’t officially register their boat in Ireland and carry the Irish flag. Bureaucracy problems were expected from the beginning and I realized this problem early enough to have time to sort it out, so I started to look for a solution. I tried in the UK, Sweden and eventually ended up registering in Holland. Now, of course Dutch sailors, seeing the flag flown from the stern, as required by more of the tradition than formalities, are coming to say hello to me in their language. I am sorry to disappoint them, but they all understand how it works. It is all mixed up with the boats, like in a travelling circus, all the nationalities of the world are represented here and all the flags flown, and often they don’t match up.
Martijn, from s/v Prinses Mia was one of those Dutch sailors who came to greet me after he arrived the next morning and dropped the anchor behind us. He paddled his yellow kayak around, called me out when he saw I was aboard and invited me, regardless of flags and country of origin, for the get-together he planned for the night. I accepted the invitation, the first of many to come. He pointed at his boat to which I should come, a big black steel sloop. 45 feet long as I later learned, with nice beamy lines, she looked like a place to accommodate a full party.
As Kevin’s boat, the nearest to me on the starboard side was gone and it looked like I might have dragged the anchor a wee bit and drifted closer to the boat on the other side, I made the effort, weighted the hook and repositioned the boat. Happy with the result, feeling safe and secure again, I went ashore to connect to the free Wi-Fi provided all around Cascais town, and to buy a bottle of wine to bring along with me for the night. By now I started to see, the long term cruisers’ infamous price consciousness isn’t just a myth, conversations frequently revolve around price and offers, or even better free stuff or ‘recycling’. Whatever is thrown away and is within the reach of this community is reconsidered, thought and talked through, if it could be used, reused, convert or transformed something new and useful. Free anchorage, free Wi-Fi, free washing facility included in the marina price, information about free anything is quickly passed on for the benefit of the fellow seafarer. Thrown away engines are dismantled for possible spare parts, discarded race sails are sewn to new size for the cruising boat, bits and ropes are being reused. Ropes and ropes, you can’t have enough of them even on the smallest boat. Thin and thick, three stranded nylon and modern dynema, in every colour and length, hundreds of meters are stored on every boat in various lockers. Still, if a new coil is offered for free, none of us would refuse it. With this in mind I happily picked up the cheapest bottle of wine I could find and I thought in myself, if it is something undrinkable I will just apologize and next time I would compensate it. It turned out quite a good, light, local red, and also the most expensive brought to the boat that night. I still have a lot to learn, I see…
I was the first to arrive, and got the tour of the boat after we went through the ‘where we come from, which way we are heading’ conversation and finished our cups of tea. The boat is more like a house inside; quite different from the tiny place I am used to on Comino. There is a kitchen (with tiled walls) instead of a galley; there are cabins instead of just bunks, a spacious living room with comfortable seats around a round table and a wood stove fabricated by the owner himself from a discarded gas cylinder. I do not mention the shower with the sauna, as you will not believe me. She is not a luxurious boat however, just simply a living space for someone who chose to live on the water and not in a house.
After the tour of the boat and a couple of stories, I was told about the other guests who are coming too. These few boats and their owners met before on different places coming from Ireland, England, France and now they have arrived to Cascais with a little time difference. Martin left from Ireland at about the same time as me His boat being bigger and so faster, should have arrived well before me, but he stopped on the way here and there, and that is where he met with the other ones. First after me to climb the more than two meter height of the stern of Prinses Mia was Max from France, who is sailing his yellow plywood 28 foot, home built boat with his girlfriend. The young couple is having a good time and although they have always something to fix on the old, more than 40 years old boat, they enjoy the adventure. Max kept us with words anyway, unusual from a French person he seemed to take pleasure in speaking in English and wasn’t afraid to express his opinion about anything, from the proper length of the anchor chain to the proper attitude towards one’s liberty in modern society.
Then Will appeared in the door at the end of the companionway, just after the stove has been lit, old paper charts used as a kindle. The new subject of conversation was given about outdated paper charts and the best way of electronic navigation. Max was teased, being called the rich man because he was using Navionics charts, and we compared the options and benefits of different methods of navigations. We all agreed, how much easier these days without having to store kilograms of chart, some of them being used only for a couple of days, and instead, have the whole world on a tiny SD card. With the heated debate calming down, Will told his story too, he left from Cowes, England, after preparing his boat for two years. The goal is the Canary Island, as for so many of us, then maybe back to England or across to the Caribbean, who knows. He has friends crewing for him sometimes, but manly sailed his boat singlehanded. Well equipped with every gadgets, from AIS to wind generator, and useful items like fridge and wood stove ha has a good go to anywhere 32 footer. Comino is still the smallest boat of all…
But then the other Max and Harry arrived. The two young lads, in their early twenties maybe, are sailing from England as well; they have a 22 feet homebuilt wooden boat which was bought for £500. Built in the ’60-s it needed a bit of maintenance and Max the owner was working hard on it during the summer before he left. Their destination is also the Canaries then maybe across the Atlantic; so far they went around the Brittany coast surfing, making friends, partying and all the rest. They don’t have a wind vane self steering on the boat, it would have been too expensive to invest in, so they are either at the helm all the time, or trying to balance the boat perfectly to sail herself, using the mainsheet-to-tiller and jib sheet-to-tiller self steering method. A good way to learn about sail setting in general and your boat, in depth! We couldn’t make up our mind which boat was smaller, theirs our mine, so we agreed in a drawn. Still, it is something else, to venture out on an old wooden boat this far. They told us; on a sunny, warm day the planks above the water line can shrink and let the sun shine through. The bilge pumps are always working, and there is always water in the bilge… Something you read about in the books telling stories of old times.
The news went around about the Maritime Police asking the boats to leave the anchorage before Monday midday (the next day) until the Friday afternoon, to give room for the Navy exercise, that was going to be held there. I saw the rib stopping by some boats earlier and was wondering what they were up to, but strangely they didn’t come to talk to me. Maybe I scared them away with my look, I don’t know, but at least, I knew now what they were up to. Different options, anchorages and marinas were discussed amongst the skippers, and the conclusion was to sail up to Lisbon up the River Tagus under the big bridge, then turn right to find the anchorage I was actually looking up months ago, beside the old navy base. I found this possible anchorage on various resources on the internet (web charts, Google Earth) but as always, I was sceptical how it would work in real life. It looked perfect for the conditions that were expected for the weekend, with offshore wind and protection from the swells. We agreed to sail up all together, as much as possible considering the speed difference between the yachts and take photos and videos of each other if we can. Hence, all happy, full of plans and feel-well factors we broke up the party, one by one we climbed down from the height of the push pit at the stern of the party boat to the platform one level down, then trying to keep the dignified look, fell into the dinghies, untied the bowlines from the rail and rowed back each to their own boat.
Of course, we all invited each other to have a look at our pride and joy, our home and source of pleasure, our way of transport and in many case our all and only possession. The next day, with little time left before we wanted to leave, there was only chance for a quick shopping for fresh food, then accepting visitors and repaying the quick visit. At the end three boats left at the same time, Martijn’s Prinses Mia, Max’s yellow Armagnac, and me with Comino. There was very little wind to begin with, so we motored for a while, the two smaller boats together taking pictures of each other, the big, black ship leaving us behind. Then I slowed down a little, I wanted to check out another anchorage on the way, thinking of waiting out the tide to turn to favour me. The place didn’t look very promising at all, being stuck between a marina breakwater from one side and rocks on the other, and exposed to the swell from the cargo ships and winds from most directions, so I abandoned the idea to stop there. Although upriver, but at half moon the neap ebbing tide wasn’t too strong against us anyway. The wind was picking up from behind, I hoisted the sails and with a bit of help from the engine, I caught up with the other two boats. Now goose winging, the full main on one side, the full jib on the other, sailing downwind in company, admiring the cityscape of Lisbon, with the mix of old and new buildings, we had one of the best time of our life. If there is more than one boat around however, it is a race, and Comino being the smallest and a heavily built yacht, we were left behind again until after the bridge, when we had to go around the corner and, turn right.
The enormous bridge, the Ponte 25 de Abril, connecting Almada with Lisbon is a two story suspension bridge, a famous landmark of the capital. Built in 1966 and a train platform added in 1999, it carries a huge amount of traffic back and forth. With a 70m clearance it is no danger for navigation, but the two-level traffic system creates an unbelievable rumbling noise deafening you when passing underneath. The concrete fundaments of the pylons have dolphins painted on them, a good example of how the Portuguese people must love pictures, graffiti and portrayal in general. I could see the evidence of this walking around in Lisbon later on, abandoned buildings, crumbling walls painted over with beautiful pictures, tiles used everywhere often depicting historic scenes from the past and current time as well.
The huge legs of the bridge disturbed the wind a little bit and the speed of the foul current went up to a knot at least, but we made it through eventually. We had to dodge the ferries as well, which were frequently coming and going between the two sides of the river, from Almada to Lisbon and back, meeting half way always. A good way to commute I would say. I hardened up the sails after the head land and turned east, then started the engine soon, to make it to the anchorage in the shelter of the mountains. We arrived, found our place and dropped the anchor. Sometime later the other small boat, Max’s Flying Cloud joined us, sailing to the anchorage and dropping the hook without using the engine, as it is written in the how-to-do-it books.
This place, on the south side of the river, between an old abandoned ship yard, which possibly belonged to the navy, and the current navy base wasn’t as popular as the Cascais spot. In fact only us were visiting yachts there this time, we shared this little bay only with the tiny fishing boats moored there permanently.