Wednesday, November 25th, 2015
Written by Purser Bob
Azores – 18 November 2015
900 miles from Portugal and twice as far from Bermuda, the Azores are a classic stopping-off point for vessels making the transatlantic crossing between America or the Caribbean and Europe. A delightful mid-ocean service station, and they have been so for more than 500 years, since caravels built of wood with spritsails and whipstaffs sailed westward from Spain or Portugal off the edge of the charted world in search of new lands, rich fishing and untold fortune.
The Azores are still a welcome respite for sailors tired by the storms of the North Atlantic, crews can rest and re-supply here with the islands’ plentiful supply of clean fresh water tumbling down from the green mountain tops as dramatic waterfalls, and the lush pasture land dotted with fat cattle supplying the luxuries of abundant fresh milk and cheese.
They call the beautiful islands of the Azores the worst kept secret of the Atlantic, but the westerly most island of Flores might be the best kept secret of the Azores. Almost nobody stops there we were told – barely a hundred yachts in a year, and then all clustered together in the months of May and June, so as a square rigged sailing ship arriving in November, we were received with enthusiasm if a little surprise.
These days, most yachts stop at Ponta Delgarda or Horta, the biggest two towns on Sao Miguel and Faial island respectively where there are marinas, shops and facilities to make repairs, bunker fuel and re-provision. But we usually prefer the smaller islands, and we had heard that Flores was probably the most beautiful of the Azores, and so we asked and were granted permission to come alongside the wharf at the harbour at Larjes, no problem as long as we were gone before the regular supply ship’s arrival on Wednesday morning.
And what a stunning island! High volcanic peaks covered with every kind of vegetation from bamboo to big red hibiscus flowers, fragrant rosemary bushes, orange and green moss and blue rhododendrons all along the side of the steep but well maintained mountain roads. The views out over the ocean were stunning, and here and there tucked in a sheltered valley or along the waterfront were small stepped pastures of soft green grass and dry stone walls. Driving along the high road across the island we were above the cloud line, so looking down at the mist swirling in the volcanic caldera, now huge inland lakes, was like looking off the edge of the earth.
The harbour on Flores is in the south of the island, a strong new breakwater protecting the big concrete wharf where various visiting ships had painted their name and ship’s logo on the concrete sea wall. The steep road up to town curves around, as it rises to the beautiful Catholic church with its white and blue tiled facade and tree-lined cobbled courtyard looking out protectively over the clusters of the neat little houses with their terracotta roofs and tidy gardens, and beyond to the endless blue of sea and sky.
Over to the right past the yard with its small stack of shipping containers is a small yacht marina, and looking down over them both a delightful sailing club with full height windows where you can drink good coffee or a glass of beer while looking down at our barque drying her sails in the sunshine, and over the breakwater to the bright blue Atlantic with its whitecaps dancing on and on to the horizon.
Next to the sailing club is long, low stone building, now a store room for the small boats of the sailing club, but originally a boiling room for the small-scale whaling industry that flourished in these islands from about 1860 right through until the 1980s. Peeking in through the window you can see the original cast iron cauldron beneath its wide chimney breast where the blubber was boiled down to extract the valuable oil.
There was also an excellent whaling museum over in the island’s main town of Santa Cruz on the east side: an original Azorian whale boat under it’s enormous mainsail looks ready to sail right out of the museum and put to sea, while the steam powered pumps, row of enormous boiling pots and vast machines for drying and grinding the whale bone had the Industrial look of their time, like something out of Victorian England.
Apart from the scrimshaw carvings on whalebone and ivory for which the islands are still famous, the couple of dozen whales that were caught on each island supplied much of the annual wealth of this small, island nation – makes sense that this dangerous and bloody industry continued for so long when you think that a single whale carcass can provide as much meat, fat and oil as an entire herd of cattle. Whaling provided a strong link with the Americas too over the years, with Nantucket whale ships stopping in the Azores to augment their crews with islanders, as well as take on fresh water and provisions. Melville even had the PEQUOD call here before setting off in search of the White Whale.
Cod fishing the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and around Iceland provides an even older link between Europe, North America and the Azores: since as early as the sixteenth century Portuguese ships were making an annual transatlantic voyage to these famous fishing grounds, returning at the end of the summer with their hold stuffed with salted cod, and of course calling at these wonderful islands on the way.
I don’t know if it’s from this sense of history or their affinity with the sea, but the people of the Azores are certainly welcoming to sailors today, and many local people came down to the harbour to look at the ship and bring us fresh herbs and vegetables in exchange for tours of the ship. The author of two beautiful books about the history of long-distance fishing, whaling and scrimshaw art in the Azores, both called MAN AND THE SEA seemed quite taken with our little barque and left a copy of his books as a generous gift. But the most fun was probably the crowd of small children who visited from the school to look around – some were literally jumping up and down with excitement to come aboard our barque – and they all said they would like to sign aboard PICTON CASTLE to join us on the next leg of our voyage to Spain.