Monday, June 19, 2017

June 2017: From the Azores to Gibraltar

Jura is First Departing Horta Harbor
The weather once again was quite pleasant, but also still quite cool with temps in the lower 60’s.  And the Commanders weather forecast for our planned route into the Mediterranean was also good enough. We had a lazy, peaceful morning while our agent, Duncan Sweet, processed our paperwork.  Just before 1100 Jura pulled up her anchor and headed out of the harbor, eventually turning north towards England and Scotland.  At approximately 1120 the remaining there boats – Angela, Moxie and Relish – also departed and headed towards Gibraltar, 1,128 nautical miles to the east.

Aboard Relish our new mate, Michel, got the immediate opportunity to familiarize himself with the pilot house and nav/comm equipment as he took the first shift at the helm.  Michel is a veteran seaman and Nordhavn owner himself – check out N50-26 Sea Turtle if you ever have the chance.
Leaving Horta in Our Wake

For the initial part of this leg we experienced flat sea condition as we threaded our way east between the islands of Sao Jorge and Pico.  We also had the fishing lines out once again, hoping that the numerous birds and dolphin pods we were seeing would be favorable indicators…but we did not get any hits.

Just before 1700 we passed the eastern end of Sao Jorge and were treated to the sight of three waterfalls spilling down the steep southern cliffs of the island.  That was followed shortly by the light house at its eastern most tip. Entering the open ocean waters between Sao Jorge and Sao Miguel (20 miles in the distance) we had a pushing current giving us between 8 and 9 knots SOG, along with gently rolling swells of no more than a few feet and an almost imperceptible wind chop on top.  It was a really nice ride under mostly sunny skies and we had the stabilizers dialed way back with a 15 knot speed setting.
Passing Pico in the Distance

By the time we reached Terceira – the next Azorean island about 65 NM east of Horta – it was 1930 local time, and the ideal weather continued.  Terceira is one of the larger islands of the archipelago, with a population of 56,000 and covering 153 square miles.  Here you will find the Azores' oldest city, Angra do Heroísmo, the historical capital of the island chain.  (Documentation varies, but the islands were first discovered in the 1300’s or 1400’s.) It is also the seat of the judicial system and the main base of the Azores Air Zone Command, where the USAF also keeps a remote detachment.  

In contrast, Faial only has about 15,000 residents, many for only six months of the year, and Horta’s population is just under 10,000 people. Throughout the nine islands of the Azores archipelago the key industries are agriculture, dairy farming, livestock, fishing, and tourism, with the latter being the most dominant. Regardless of which island you may choose to visit, the scenery is spectacular and their people are welcoming and friendly.  We’ll miss them.
Waterfalls on Sao Jorge

The remainder of this first day enroute to Gibraltar continued to be uneventful, with superb weather and sea conditions, with all boats reporting ops normal.

Dawn came early in this part of the world, with the glint of first light glowing dimly around 0500, highlighting only very scattered clouds low on the horizon.  Our three-ship formation was a nice tight V-shape with one mile spacing.  We had been tracking two non-AIS targets on radar for most of the early morning – one was Jura, holding steady at 9 miles directly off our bow, as she had not yet reached her northerly turn point.  The other was a slow moving blip bearing 118 that ARPA told us would cross our path and pass within a mile of us, so we kept a close eye on that one.  Eventually we got an AIS signal that identified it as S/V Wolf, and she continued on a northerly heading as we passed by her stern with ample clearance.

The sun peeked at us coming above the horizon around 0620 revealing a partly cloudy sky and seas still with a gentle following swell and light wind chop on top.  Ambient air temp was 63F and SST at 67F, with a 6-8 knot breeze out of the southwest.  We were still making good time with an average speed of 7.8K since we had departed Horta.
Leaving the Azores Behind

The seas picked up as the day progressed with growing swells, some occasionally in the 6-7 foot range, but once again at intervals that were quite tolerable.  That is, of course, unless you bring the boat to a stop and let them roll you while broadside-to.  Which is what happened at 1000 when Relish hooked up with a feisty blackfin tuna, and when Rick literally got rolled out of bed a few hours earlier than he had planned.

But it was worth it – Silvio slowed the boat and Chelle was on the rod.  She handed it over to our “other” Michel who reeled it in and then leadered it into the boat.  (He also cleaned the fish.) Voila, fresh tuna for supper tonight!  (Note to other anglers – this tuna swallowed a Rattle-Jet XL lure that was being skipped at the surface.)  This was going to be a good day.
Very Fresh Tuna for Dinner

We conducted our usual afternoon fleet briefing, reported fuel stats, coordinated our timing for the next two time zone changes, and confirmed that unlike Moxie, Relish did not crack any toilet seats while fighting its fish in the swells.  We had taken a slight detour to the north of our originally planned course to manage some coming weather patterns – mostly predicted wind and increasing swells that would likely come out of the north in a few days, by which time we could take a more southerly track to keep that stuff somewhat on our stern.  All that made our predicted arrival in Gibraltar at least a half day later than originally planned.

A short while later we had another hookup – again on the same (green) Rattle-Jet lure; this one took some line with it before Chelle got it tired enough to bring it to the boat.  As Michel grabbed the leader we were treated to a close up view of a beautiful juvenile blue marlin – approximately a 3-footer.  It then spit the hook and happily sprinted off into the swells.  It was close enough for us to call it a “catch and release” opportunity.

As Chelle was preparing the small tuna for an early dinner (around 1700, that’s really early for us), we hooked into more tuna – both lines got hit simultaneously, our first double header of the journey.  We lost one but boated the other….another nice blackfin….or what we call a “football” in the U.S. because of its shape and relatively small size.  (But one that still yields some very nice filets.)  We’re fairly certain this scenario was a first for us:  cooking the first fish while still reeling in the second one.  In the early evening the crew of Moxie also boated their first skipjack tuna.

N55 Moxie on Our Port Side
We ended this day knowing that we’d passed our northernmost point of the entire journey (well above the 38th parallel and not quite to the 39th) which meant that Relish was nearly 900 nautical miles north of its Nassau departure point, and that Angela and Moxie were over 700 nautical miles to the north of their Palm Beach jump off point.  More importantly, of course, was that we were also 3,000 miles east of Florida and nearing Spain – about 650 miles west of Lisbon.  And we still had a nice current and the wind at our backs.

We Went Considerably North of the Planned Route
Between Azores & Gibraltar 
The overnight helm shifts continued to be peaceful and uneventful, and some of the radio chatter that had frequently accented previous nights had tapered off – after nearly a month of voyaging conversational topics were thinning out, and perhaps some fatigue was setting in.  But we had a bright waning gibbous moon and a very comfortable sea state for the wee hours shift.

Aboard Relish we figured out this handy layman’s guide to sea conditions; we call this the “Forward Shower Stall Scale” or FSS Scale. Over on Moxie they would probably convert the following to various conditional states of the toilet seat in the forward head:

(1)   Mild & comfortable seas:  you can take a shower standing up in the forward head.
(2)   Moderate seas:  you can still shower standing up in the forward head but you bounce off the shower stall walls a few times.
(3)   Heavy seas:  you can shower in the forward head if you’re sitting down.
(4)   Very heavy seas:  you’re not taking a shower today, get used to the smell.

And as the sun rose just before 0630 we had started out at #1 on the FSS, with gentle 4 foot rollers pushing us from the northwest and a light wind chop on top from a light southwesterly breeze.  Air temp was 65F and the SST had warmed slightly to 68F.  Skies were partly cloudy, providing a bit of eye relief from that early morning brightness.
This Poor Squid Boated Himself...Instant Bait

Fishing lines aboard Relish and Moxie got deployed early – yesterday’s success with green Rattle-Jet lures trailing long (50 meters behind the boat) had our anglers’ hopes high.  Green feathered things seemed to be the winning ticket, so that’s what we rigged to start the day.  Relish also had some unexpected bait to use – a very unfortunate squid had landed on its teak table in the cockpit some time during the night. Just before noon the crew of Angela got the rare pleasure of seeing a pod of Orca killer whales playing in and around their bow – a spectacular sight.  Later in the day Relish did get a hookup with something that stayed down and fought hard, but spit the hook about 45 feet from the boat; we got a glimpse of blue as it neared the surface, so we guessed it was a bonito or tunny.

A Pod of Orcas Join Angela in Formation
The fleet’s noontime weather report was a mixed bag – relatively good for the next few days, but then about the time we planned to reach the Straits of Gibraltar later in the week it was looking pretty ugly.  The straights are known for nasty conditions when the inflow or outflow currents collide with strong winds from the opposite direction, and that’s exactly what the forecast was calling for.  For now we decided to take the weather router’s recommendation to continue on a mostly easterly heading rather than direct to Gibraltar – basically we were aimed directly at Lisbon.  By the time we reached the coast of Spain the strong north winds would be kicking in and we could then turn south towards Gibraltar to put them on our stern.

If the next forecast for the straits turns out to be as crappy as the current one then we would start looking at holing up at an intermediate location to wait out better conditions – Rota, Spain was a likely place for us to consider.

Silvio, Michel and Rick took a few hours in the afternoon aboard Relish to tend to some lurking maintenance items.  First up was the wing engine’s stuffing box, which we finally managed to adjust to get its running temps in an acceptable range.  That same engine had also developed a slight coolant leak whose point of origin was difficult to pin down, but after 30 minutes of running time it had completely disappeared, and coolant level was still normal; we’ll need to monitor that.  Then there was the 6KW genset which had developed an oil leak back in Horta; suspecting an overfill condition we pumped some oil out via the Reverso oil change pump and manifold, then ran an hour long test with good results.  So now we had some time to relax.

As sunset was nearing we were still 450 miles west of Lisbon, with 650 miles to reach Rota…and at least another day from there to reach Gibraltar.  Andre, taking a break aboard Angela, hooked up with a hard fighting fish that took some time and considerable effort to reel in – a 36 inch blackfin tuna.  That is a big blackfin!
View of Another Sunset from the Cockpit

Sitting in the cockpit with a warming sun on our faces – and seas at the lowest level of our FSS scale – was a great way to end another good day.

At 0400 the trip odometer on M/V Relish showed exactly 3,500 nautical miles traveled since departing Nassau on 16-May.  Angela and Moxie had clocked just over 3,300 miles since departing Palm Beach on 17-May.  For this final leg the fleet had steamed 496 nautical miles since departing Horta, at an average speed of 7.68 knots.  All three vessels were averaging a minimum of 1.3 NMPG (including generator burn) so fuel reserves were more than adequate.

As we progressed further east (our longitude was now squarely in the teens) we noted a gradual increase in both air and sea temps – by sunrise we had 67F with an SST of 69F.  Swells had built overnight to an occasional 9 footer, but intervals and direction remained quite comfortable, with WNW winds at 10-12 knots and a mostly overcast sky.

Bow Goes Up
By midday, however, it was mostly clear and sunny, and Moxie had hooked up with more fish as had Relish – a marlin and a tuna on both vessels.  There was no further fishing action until very late in the day when Relish landed another small blackfin just before sunset with Michel on the rod and reel.  The seas were starting to churn a bit more, initially about a #2 on the FSS scale, but that rapidly went to #3 as the winds clocked around to the north with increasing velocity.  We were getting anxious to see the next day’s updated weather forecast.
Bow Goes Down

By the early morning hours the seas were just plain messy.  The wind was out of the north at 25 knots with gusts to 30, giving us nasty short-interval wind waves of 3 to 5 feet on top of the larger swells.  That pegged the FSS scale, and the question instead became where one could sleep without getting levitated or tossed.  Answer: somewhere down low and aft of the pilot house.

Around 0500, aboard lead boat Angela, Bernie suggested – and everyone concurred – that we make a slight turn to the southeast to cut the next corner and put some of the wind and waves a tad more to our sterns.  That definitely helped but the ride still resembled boating in a washing machine, and the stabilizers (bless them) were getting a workout.  There would be no fishing today.

Sleeping in the Salon -- Sometimes a Necessity
As the sun rose to illuminate a partly cloudy sky and an ocean of whitecaps, we were 220 NM due west of Lisbon, Portugal.  We had been underway 90 hours since departing Horta in the Azores, and had averaged just over 7.5 knots to this point.  While ambient air temp still hovered in the mid 60’s we noticed SST had decreased to 67F with the north wind and frontal passage.

At noon we received a weather forecast update from Commanders via sat phone, and it was just as lousy as the last one.  It also appeared the winds would be clocking around to the east starting tomorrow and on Sunday, building further as we approached the Straits of Gibraltar.  So we decided to plow ahead on our ESE heading towards the coastline of Portugal at whatever pace we could comfortably maintain, hoping to eventually find some protection in the lee of the land.  After that we would update the forecast for the straits and decide whether we should wait for a window at one of the coastal marinas or just plow on through.

The afternoon brought more of a high overcast to complement the wind and rough seas; everybody spent the rest of the day just hanging on or napping in between the routine engine room checks and helm shifts.  And everyone slowly got used to the new noises and vibrations such a vessel can make when bouncing around in big seas.

Aboard Relish Rick passed the time building some new Maretron instrumentation screens (in the kneeling position), and somehow Chelle managed to find a braced position in the galley to cook up the fresh tuna we had caught the night before for another great supper.  Not an easy feat given the way we were pitching and rolling.
Building New Maretron Screens

As the sun headed towards the western horizon over a boiling ocean we had about 160 nautical miles and 21 hours to go on our ESE heading to reach the coast of Portugal….and hopefully some calmer waters.

In the wee hours of the morning the seas were still churning:  some furniture in Relish’s salon got rearranged courtesy of one big broadside roller.  But somewhat surprisingly the waters calmed as the early morning progressed; by dawn the wind was northerly but only at around 12-15 knots, and the swells shrunk to the 3-to-5 foot range.  Intervals remained tight with wind chop on top, but it was considerably better than just a few hours ago.

By sunrise we had an air temp of 66F and the SST was 67F with a gradually falling barometer but clearing skies.  We were hoping that the forecasted stronger winds out of the east might be further delayed as we continued heading towards the Portuguese coastline, which as of 0640 was now 90 nautical miles off the bow.  If that were true, and we got into the protected lee of the coast, we just might wet the fishing lines later today.  Or benefit from some better sleeping conditions.  By early afternoon our sea conditions were downright pleasant, so we turned further to the south nearer our original route, and started to close the distance between us and Gibraltar.

AIS Traffic Builds as Land Gets Near
We of course also noted an increase in radio chatter on VHF channel 16 as we got closer to civilization once again.  It was a good reminder that we needed to remain vigilant for traffic, as it would surely soon increase in volume, especially compared to what we had been experiencing in the middle of an ocean for the past week.  And by early afternoon our radar screens were getting cluttered with return blips and AIS symbols.

Land Ho -- We Found Portugal
Aboard Moxie they were also eyeing some sea floor features on the chart, one seamount in particular seemed worth a detour for some drive-by trolling, so that’s what we did.  Nobody netted any fish from that excursion, but it got us closer to the Portuguese coast.  And shortly thereafter everyone had cell phone service and plenty of spam email to sift through.  

By 2030 we had turned the corner around Cape St. Vincent (Cabo de São Vicente) and Sagres Point at the far southwestern corner of Portugal with its cliffs and lighthouse within easy view.  The issue now was what route to take into the Straits – direct and risk some headwind and head sea pounding, or continue hugging the coast.  Regardless, eventually we would have to bash our way through the rough seas within the Straits.  
Sunset -- Just Before 2200 Local Time

Knowing that was coming we decided to enjoy our last sunset on this journey with some quiet time in the cockpit while on relatively calm waters.

And then we decided to experiment.  Around midnight local time Angela and Moxie peeled off to the north to hug the coast a bit more, while Relish continued direct toward the Strait.  At daybreak we had lost AIS contact with each other but were still within radar and VHF radio range.  By midday it was clear that Angela and Moxie had the better ride and were making better time even with the added distance.  Relish had slowed to make the ride more tolerable in the head seas where initially she encountered square waves of 4 to 6 feet at quick intervals.  It was the proverbial “boating on a waffle iron” ride.

Land Ho -- We Found Portugal

By the time we neared the actual Strait of Gibraltar, however, none of that really mattered much.  While Relish was a few miles behind the other two boats, all three of us eventually got clobbered with 8-to-10 footers at wickedly close intervals as the 30K winds buffeted against the opposing current.  Hugging the northern coastline helped minimize that somewhat, but it wasn't until we turned the corner at Tarifa to head northeast towards Gibraltar itself that we escaped the big waves.  

About to Turn the Corner Out of the Straits & Towards GIB
At that point we only had 15 miles to go, and relatively flat water in spite of the still howling winds.  It was nearing 2100 and sunset, so we were hoping for calmer winds inside the marina.  And a couple hours later as we cruised into the large harbor at Gibraltar we got our wish -- winds had calmed, and both Angela and Moxie had just finished docking using the last two alongside ties available.  Silvio maneuvered Relish into the tight Med-mooring spot that remained, and by 2300 we were all secure at our intended destination on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Approaching The Rock at Dusk

We'll have at least one more blog entry to wrap this up....we'll try to summarize the stats on the journey itself, get some more shots of both our crews and Gibraltar, and put this whole thing into perspective.

But for right now we are going to clean up ourselves and our boats and go get some time on Terra Firma.

Moxie Moored at Gibraltar
Angela Moored at Gibraltar
Relish Med-Moored at Gibraltar


  1. One heck of a trip. Can't wait to see you'll and maybe will need 2 bottles of scotch to get the Rest of The Story. BTW, when do you expect to be back in FL?? LOL

  2. Hmmmm….2 bottles of good scotch might net some more ‘story telling’, some of it perhaps even true. ETA to FLA is mid-July.