Thursday, 1 November 2012

Getting a hammering: Cascais to Porto Santo

"The passage from Portugal to Madeira is usually a pleasant one"

                                                                                               - The Atlantic Crossing Guide

The passage from Cascais to Porto Santo, a small island north of Madeira, was to be our first real ocean voyage.  At around 550 nautical miles, I reckoned it would take us 5 or 6 days. It's not renowned as a challenging trip, but all the advice suggests it should be done before the end of October.  This had been at the back of my mind for weeks, and was one of the reasons why we'd rushed south through Portugal.

It was now Saturday the 13th October. The weather forecast I'd looked at the day before seemed quite reasonable for the trip. We got ready to go (ironically foregoing our hoped-for second trip to Lisbon - we got up too late!) and I checked the forecast again.  It looked more doubtful now.  The wind looked fairly light and variable for the first part of the passage, before filling in from the northeast, then going round to the west-northwest for a time and strengthening to force 6 and possibly 7 on Thursday (not so good; our course would be southwest, so there was the chance of being close on the wind).  But we should be nearly there on Thursday.  If our passage was slower and we still weren't in, then on Friday it was predicted to go round to the north and decrease to 6 and then 5 - which should be fine and give us a fast sail.  On Saturday a more serious depression was coming in, with winds of southwest 5-6 down towards Madeira, and much stronger further north; but we should be in by then.  Overall, I reckoned there was a good chance of a day or so of strong wind, but at a manageable strength.

Looking at it now, my reading of the forecast was patently too optimistic: I shouldn't have taken its absolute accuracy as read, and should have considered its implications more clearly, particularly as far as sea state was concerned.  Added to my misplaced optimism, there was the pressure of knowing it was a case of going now, or waiting at least a week, when we would be well into October and near the end of the accepted season for the passage.  On this point, at least, I was correct: if we hadn't gone for it when we did, we'd almost certainly still be waiting in Portugal now (as our friends on Guia IV are, after rudder problems prevented them from leaving just before we did).

You can see our track of the passage here.

We set out after lunch on the Saturday and were beating into a force 4 for a while before the wind started to die.  I put up our drifter for the first time (a large, lightweight genoa) in an attempt to keep Limbo moving, but by the evening it was almost completely calm.

We motored until 2 in the morning, clearing the shipping lanes in the meantime.  Overnight it increased enough to stop the engine, until we were doing 4 knots.  The wind was from the west, and we were closehauled.  Wilhelm, our Windpilot self steering, was working well (I should write about this brilliant piece of kit in more detail, as it's key to doing long passages with only two of us on board).

On Sunday the wind increased to 5 and then 6 from the west-southwest - entirely the wrong direction for progress. We were feeling a bit sick. It was grey with some heavy rain.  We had two reefs in the main and had reduced the genoa.  I gave up the battle with seasickness that evening: opening a tin of cassoulet, strong-smelling, and containing gristly bits of meat, was a real mistake.  Thankfully, the wind then went round to the northwest and eventually decreased to about force 4 around midnight.

Around this time we came quite close to a large fishing boat.  As we approached, it turned on all its floodlights, presumably to draw our attention to it, but this had the effect of making it impossible to see its navigation lights (and therefore the way it was heading), and impossible to judge our distance off .  I knew it had seen us, but as it became clear it was not going to alter course, we turned away.  It seemed to turn towards us, and again we altered course, but it still seemed to be getting closer.  Either it was going round in a circle which happened to coincide with our attempts to avoid it, or the helmsman was deliberately trying to intimidate us.  It certainly felt like the latter.  It's no fun gybing round in the dark, as it's very easy to get disorientated, and it was a relief when we were finally clear. It seemed ironic that a fishing boat was in our way hundreds of miles from land, but we were quite close to a sea mount which, I suppose, provides a good fishing ground.

It had been a trying night, but the morning was much better, although the wind had dropped to force 2.  There was nothing for it but to start the engine.  We motored all that day and through the night over a calm, moonless sea which sparkled with phosphorescence.  Limbo simply doesn't have the fuel capacity to do this for long, and we turned the engine off on Tuesday morning, leaving a few litres of diesel in reserve.  The sun came out and we saw a whale (unidentified) in the distance.  Even better, the wind was returning gradually, and we got the cruising chute out for the first time.  It only gave us 2.5 or 3 knots, closehauled, but it was sunny and calm.  We even did the washing up and I had a wash in the cockpit.  Things, it seemed, were looking up!   At lunchtime we had about 180 miles to go.

The wind filled in from the southwest, rising to around force 4 that evening. After a period heading north of west, we tacked south, but the closest we could do south southeast.  It's very frustrating not being able to go in the right direction.  The wind died, and I reefed.  Before long it came back, so I was up on deck again to get full sail up.  This was already becoming a tricky passage, with constantly changing conditions.

By lunchtime on Wednesday the wind was still from the west at force 5-6.  We were beating right into it, heading south.  For a while we tacked to avoid the Seine Sea Mount - an area where the seabed rises from several thousand metres deep to about 80 - which I reckoned was probably best avoided (although there's no mention of this as a danger in any pilot I've seen). This gave us a course of roughly north, which was ridiculous, so I decided we'd have to skirt the edge.  It was now pretty rough and uncomfortable.

The last log entry I made was at 1810 on Wednesday (this is not good practice).  It gives just our position and notes that there are 102 miles to go.  I obviously didn't have the inclination even to fill out the 'course' 'log' and 'weather' columns.  It was after dark that evening that things got bad.  I'd just got Natalie up for her watch when the wind rose, and it was clear that I wasn't going to get an off-watch.  There was no moon, so it was very dark, and we were heeled well over, fighting to make ground to the west.

A grey, threatening dawn with scudding clouds revealed high waves, some with breaking crests; not regular, low, normal ocean waves but steep hills of unpredictable moving water. My first thought was to turn away from the wind and take the waves on Limbo's quarter, to reduce any chance of us being caught broadside on.  We had two reefs in, which was too much sail, but the thought of going on deck to bring down the third was unpalatable. This meant that the boat was unbalanced, with heavy weather helm, making steering hard work. Limbo did well, riding over the seas, but it took great concentration to take the waves at the right angle, keeping her moving without heading to far downwind and risking a gybe or, on the other hand, turning to far into the waves and being carried sideways.  At this stage I thought it couldn't last; the squalls seemed to be abating.  But they didn't.  Limbo doesn't have wind instruments, but (after comparing notes with the crews of other boats which do) I think we had force 7 gusting  into force 8.  This doesn't sound too extreme, perhaps, but the sea state was becoming quite alarming. Sadly, I don't think the photos do it justice!

Later that day the sun came out, breaking through heavy, dark patches of cloud, and illuminating a breathtaking scene of deep blue water, piled up into a landscape of deep valleys and high plateaus, the boat rising up to what seemed like the crest of a wave only to be carried still further up to the real peak, before plunging downwards...very occasionally she would fall through a crest with a heavy slam which shook the whole boat (many modern designs would have done that with every wave), other times she'd be knocked sideways by a crest which would heel us over or slam into the hull, breaking over the cockpit.

At this stage I'd realised that we were either not going to get to Madeira at all, if we lost any more ground, or would have to turn into the waves and the wind.  This had been unthinkable until I tried it, and found that Limbo - and the self-steering - could cope.  It was at least slightly cheering to be heading in the right direction, even if we were only just making our course.  A sailing friend, Rob, had been very kindly sending us text forecasts via our Yellowbrick tracker, which was reassuring - not least because we knew someone was watching us.  He'd been alarmed by our very slow progress in the wrong direction at one point..

And so we headed into the weather, literally clinging on, and periodically being soaked by waves. One almost filled the cockpit, another came rushing down the side deck and broke one of the dodger's fastenings (these are the blue pieces of cloth that shield the cockpit).  Natalie was wedged into the forward corned of the cockpit under the sprayhood, I sat next to her with one arm round the winch holding onto her safety harness (we were permanently clipped onto the boat, as we always are when on watch at night).  I had the mainsheet ready to ease in the stronger gusts - we still had too much sail up.   Both washboards were in, to prevent any water going into the cabin.  Limbo was coping, and riding the seas well, but it was frightening.

That afternoon brought even more alarming squall clouds.  They were towering and heaped and emptied glowing white rain into the sea. We altered course to avoid a couple, but even coming close to them brought more wind.  Once Limbo was laid over until the sea was over the side-deck, not moving forward, until I eased the sails well off and she came upright again.  During all of these squalls we turned away from the wind, losing more ground.  I remember one cloud particularly; it thankfully missed us, but had a flat base, with a central column of white water; it was as if all the energy in the cloud was being forced down onto the sea.  A perfect semi-circle of rainbow appeared, but it didn't feel like a good omen.  The waves were still severe, and we weren't looking forward to having the same conditions in the dark.

The squalls didn't abate. We were almost getting used to them, in a weary kind of way. After dark we began to see the loom of the lights of Madeira and Porto Santo, a comforting sight. Every few minutes the whistling would begin again, Limbo would heel over, and we would hang on until the squall was over.  I'd finally got the third reef in during a slight lull that afternoon, which had made a lot of difference to our angle of heel.  The trouble was that our sail area was set for the gusts, so we weren't making a lot of speed in between the worst periods.  Progress was slow, down to 3 knots, but now it seemed that all we had to do was persevere.

We hadn't eaten properly for hours, and our clothes were wet with salt water breaking over us.  I was quite cold.  All we could manage was breadsticks dipped into peanut butter.  Hot drinks seemed out of the question, as did going below at all - I felt I needed to know what was happening on deck, and - to put it mildly - I didn't like the thought of being below and not seeing anything.   A couple of lockers I'd assume were secure had spilt their contents onto the cabin floor, and lots of gear stowed in the forecabin had come loose.  I was wondering what had been wrong with the idea of wintering in the Algarve..

Our course was taking us between Porto Santo and Madeira, and we had little fuel left, so I opted to sail almost to the west end of Porto Santo before taking north.  We were about 10 miles south of the island.  Because we had little sail up, we tacked almost through 180 degrees to head back the way we'd come.  This was beyond a joke..I started the engine, reckoning we were running out of options unless we wanted to sit out there for another day. It started to get light, and the squalls continued.  We were motoring almost directly into the waves, still quite big, but moderating as we drew close to the island.  I had been on deck for about 36 hours at this stage, and was beginning to hallucinate - a large cloud near us started to turn into a tower we got closer a huge cloud covering the island emptied its entire contents over it, and us, almost blinding us with hail (wearing glasses does not help).  We had felt for some hours as if we were being punished for some unknown misdeed..

At last the cloud passed, we were in the lee of the dramatically-shaped island, and the sun even came out.  I thought we might have just enough fuel to make it.  Then, a mile or so out, the engine stopped.  We got the genoa back out, having furled the sails for motoring, and tacked in towards the beach.  The wind was thankfully offshore, and suddenly quite gentle, but  - of course - from exactly where we wanted to sail.  The harbour police called us on the radio and told us the harbour was closed. What did that mean?  I established that it was shut for an exercise for, to our relief, just a couple of hours.  Eventually we got into position and dropped the anchor in clear water.  We had arrived.  It had taken us almost 6 days. We slept.

How bad were the conditions?  It wasn't so much the wind strength, which I'd estimate averaged 7 gusting 8 (and perhaps more in the worst gusts) but the sea state (and the fact our course took us into it) that made things so dramatic.

Without being swayed by the fact we were in quite a small boat, they were by some margin the worst conditions I'd ever been in.  They were nothing like any seas I've seen before.  The sea state forecast for our area was 'very rough' at the time.  There was a cross sea at perhaps 45 degrees to a large swell, and the heaping up of the waves was dramatic.  It's notoriously hard to estimate wave height, but from trough to crest was, I'm sure, about 5 metres at times.

A boat which arrived in Porto Santo shortly after us had its mainsheet track ripped out of the deck.
One of her Danish crew, with 35 years of experience at sea in the merchant navy, told us it was the first time he had ever been seasick.


  1. Good to read your story. Must have been some trip! But you made it. The weather is a little bit off normal pattern I think. We hope to hit the Canaries next week. The window seems to open up. Pretty much cruisers are waiting around the south off Portugal.

    Greets, Guia IV

  2. A and N Colchester2 November 2012 at 09:43

    Oh my word, Tim and Natalie. What a story! WELL DONE. Good old Limbo. I think we'll have to concoct a limerick to honour this feat............

    Lots of love

    Alan and Nicky Colchester