Friday October 3, 2014
Last night we broke down and finally used the engine on and off through the night to finally get ourselves some speed and pointing capabilities. And partially to dodge the line of tankers that wanted to come just a little to close to us. I had a moment where I was handing the reigns of my shift over to Matt where two tankers were headed right at us, one on each side, but a little too close for comfort. Calling one man on VHF and getting no answers the first few times until I repeated it a few more times with a very stern ‘Please respond’ at the end, I politely asked if he could miss hitting us by subtracting a few more degrees from his current course since I already had a tanker on one side of me and the wind on my nose in another. I barley got a response and wasn’t even sure he heard me until I saw the course on his AIS falling a few degrees. I may have thanked him for his help a little too hastily since that number began to rise again, but by that time it was Matt’s problem and I was on my way to my bunk. A little course alteration on Matt’s part and throwing our deck lights on to make sure this guy knew exactly where we were, and all was good and we were in the clear within ten minutes.
When I woke up this morning, our tenth day at sea, Matt told me there would be a slight change in plans. The wind had never shifted north enough for us to be able to make the easting we needed to get to Porto Santo. But..we could get ourselves on the west side of Maderia Grande, and once there we would be sheltered by the winds and could motor smoothly into the harbor of Funchal. Whatever. If it meant I could fall asleep at anchor that night, I was in. Setting us on a course that was just far enough off the wind that we might actually be able to get there, he let me know that we needed to maintain a speed of 5 knots to get there before nightfall. If we couldn’t do it under sail power alone, the engine needed to be on and running high. Turning off our diesel hog, I was able to get in one enjoyable hour of sailing before we kept dipping into the mid 4’s and a panic ran through me that this had the potential of leaving us at sea another night and I rushed to turn it back on.
As we rose and fell through the building swell that was coming from our back quarter, I read up on Madeira and Funchal through our Imray guide, having skipped it the first time around because I never expected it to be a stop. I found a few fun little facts about the town, a nice black and white photo depicting the harbor and the homes sitting on hillside behind it, and a little blurb that Maderia’s west side, of which we would be passing by in a few hours, contained sheer cliff drops into the water, supposedly the second largest in the world. It also appeared as if this island contained volcanic peaks that almost rivaled that back in Pico, and should also be visible from the water at distances of 30-50 miles. Riding every crest I’d stare out into the distance, waiting for something to come out of the shadows, but it wasn’t until we were less than 15 miles off on this hazy day that I was able to make out an outline through the brume.
Over the next few hours I watched it become larger and clearer. Finally it came into view and I stood in awe at the massiveness of it. I had not been expecting anything so colossal. For a few minutes as I stood on the cockpit seats with my head over the dodger and letting the strong breeze blow through my hair I had a pod of dolphins pass by, jumping through the considerable waves that followed behind me. They were gone almost as soon as they had come, but I had other more important things on my mind. Land. We were finally within site. We were going to make it there if it killed me.
And that my friends, is when you speak too soon. Although the swell was mostly behind us, by this point it had grown to the predicted 12 feet that our weather report (my dad) had forecast. Up until that point winds were in the mid 20’s and although it wasn’t a calm ride, it was mostly comfortable. Then we came across something I’ve had little to no experience with. Just as we were rounding the western part of the island and I assumed this solid block of land would begin blocking us from the gusts, we hit a wind zone. A little thing I had read up on a bit for in the Canaries, but didn’t know I would come across here. In these wind zones, the wind will funnel itself around a portion of land and increase itself anywhere from 10-20 knots, almost instantly. I had just found myself in one of these areas and now my 25 knot winds were holding in the upper 30’s and sometimes gusting into the mid 40’s. I kept thinking they would go down in just a few minutes and hesitated to wake Matt to help put a reef in the main, the only sail we were running with at the time.
Just as I was contemplating ‘Do I , or do I not?’, one of the large waves from behind us caught us at a strange angle and began rounding us into the wind. Sometimes this will happen by 10° or so and the autopilot will work to fix itself in a matter of seconds, but this was closer to a 90° change, and we showed no signs of turning back the correct direction. Lunging toward the autopilot I quickly threw it on standby and yanked the wheel hard to starboard, slowly putting us back on course, but not before the next wave started to come and tried it’s best to keep us pointed into the wind. As we reached the crest I finally got some semblance of steering back and set us once more to where we were supposed to be. My heart was pounding, but we seemed to be ok. For the moment.
Just as my pulse was returning to a normal rate, it happened again. Once more I flew to the rear of the cockpit as fast as humanly possible, but with my harness and tether on I was only able to go so far. Staring at the stern as my hand once more cranked the wheel to port, I was not able to fight the force that was rounding us up. For one whole set we sat almost at a standstill with our beam into the waves and I was sure the next one to come would be the one to roll us over. Fighting the panic in my chest I moved myself behind the wheel to the best of my ability with my harness still clasped into a pad-eye by the companionway, letting the tether rub across the top of the wheel as I put all of my strength into keeping it hard over. What felt like an eternity later, although I’m sure it was mere seconds, the bow started following my directions and we were out of harms way. This time it didn’t even take me two seconds to yell down to Matt who was still comfortably sleeping in his bunk, that he needed to get his ass up so we could put a reef in.
Changing our course to almost directly downwind so the waves would not keep catching us on our side, we reefed the main and things instantly felt 1,000 x better. And knowing that we were no longer knocking on death’s door (I know I’m being much more dramatic about this than it actually was), we could finally enjoy the views in front of us. The dramatic cliff drops were just as good as the guide said they would be, and the only thing we could do was stand there with our mouths open as we watched them go by. From there on things just kept getting better. Just as suddenly as we had entered the wind zone we were now out of it and in the lee of the island. Winds became just a slight breeze on our cheeks as we could now feel the sun beat down on them as well.
Taking full advantage of the now gorgeous day, I put some music on to blast through the cockpit speakers and opened a beer while I continued to watch our views get better. It was like the universe was watching out for me and saying ‘Sorry about that earlier snafu, let me make it up to you with some of the most spectacular views I have to offer you.’ And oh yes, they were. As that weren’t enough, just a few miles further along the coast we were treated with a remarkable dolphin show. These things were really trying to show off for us. There wasn’t just your usual swimming next to the boat while sticking their head above the water every now and then to get a better look at us. For literally hours we watched as groups of these magnificent creatures did jumps, twists, and tail stands.
Then just as the sun was beginning it’s descent and radiating perfect orange beams onto the cliffs in front of us, we neared the harbor of Funchal. Calling in and getting in touch with the harbor master I found that just as our guide book promised, it was possible to anchor in this harbor. Finally. Not having dropped the hook since Bermuda I think all of us, the cat included, were looking forward to a little swinging room on the boat. Entering the inner harbor and finding the catamarans the harbor master had mentioned to us as the best place for us to be, we dropped the anchor just as the sky was growing dark.
Letting out all the necessary chain in this fairly deep port, we glanced around and realized how close we were to not only the chartered dolphin watching catamarans next to us, but the large cement breaker behind us. After 5 minutes of staring around we made the executive decision to get the anchor up and just go in the marina instead. Calling the harbor master once more to let him know that instead of anchoring, we’d now be coming in, and where was the reception area and what side should we have our fenders on. The only response I received was an infuriating “I’ll point you in the right direction when you get in here, but I can’t tell you what side you’ll be on, so just put fenders on both sides”. Well, not only do we not have enough fenders to go all the way around our boat, but it was literally now getting black out, so how the hell are we going to follow your directions if I can’t even see you?
Arguing with the man on VHF for more information, which he wouldn’t give, then arguing with Matt about the lack of information, and arguing on the VHF once more, we just decided to throw two fenders on each side and get ourselves in with any last little bit of daylight we had left. Once the anchor was weighed I quickly handed the wheel to Matt and ran up to the bow to watch for our harbor traffic controller. Fortunately I did spot him just as we rounded the corner into the marina and he yelled out “Follow me!” as he hopped on a little bike and began to race it around the inner breakwater. Matt was not a happy camper behind the wheel as I tried my best to shout not only directions back to him from the bow, but when to watch out for the mooring lines attached to the bows of all the boats docked here.
If we had to join the ranks of those before us in this marina that backed their boats into sample size spaces in the dark, I think we would have happily turned the boat around and heaved to a few miles off shore until the sun came up. I think the harbor master realized this and took pity on us, guiding us to a large open space of dock where he instructed us to side tie. The lines were still a mess since he ‘couldn’t tell us what side we’d be on’, and I did a slapdash job of getting them run through the chalks on our starboard side before handing them over. Our landing into this spot was not very graceful. Withing a few minutes though, we were securely tied up and the engine was off. The longest (perceived) passages of our lives was officially over