The Azores are more than just a mid-ocean respite spot, they’re an appealing cruising destination in their own right. Kila Zamana explains all you need to know about sailing the Azores
“Run, young lady! You shouldn’t be there!” a voice screamed behind me. I didn’t understand; I had no idea why the crowd had gathered in one spot in between jagged streets at the hour of twilight. Suddenly two legions ran in opposite directions, as if escaping from an explosion. I instinctively followed. It was then that I spotted a giant black bull on a loose rope.
I climbed out of harm’s way onto a wall, feeling frankly more intimidated by the concerned looks of the men running with the bull than the bull itself, so distressed were they at seeing a woman tossed into the middle of the action.
This was ‘Tourada a Corda’, a tradition exclusive to the Azores, and particularly practised on Terceira. Bulls are set running down the street, held on a rope by two groups of five strong men each.
It’s an ancient tradition that dates back to the Spanish invasion, when the people of Angra do Heroismo scared the invaders away by setting angry bulls upon them. It’s not a spectacle widely shared with tourists, as the place and time for each bull run is passed by word of mouth between locals.
Most chose to stay safely behind improvised barricades watching the event with beer and bifana (Portuguese pork sandwiches).
There is one universal rule: the bull cannot be physically harmed (and nor should the men who run with it). Unlike Spanish bullfights, the bull is not killed after the event: rather, it is kept in the best possible physical shape and well rested for future runs.
The Tourada a Corda is an adrenaline-driven sport to test behavioural skills. Whether you consider it humane or not, it is one of the most ancient traditions of this historic island group and was a real introduction to the true Azores.
Sailing the Azores – Island exploration
Even as my partner, Paul, and I made safe landfall at Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island last summer, after logging some 1,100 miles from southern Portugal – mostly against westerly winds – we knew we wouldn’t be staying there long.
We wanted to explore further into the nine islands that make up the archipelago. Around 90% of visitors to the Azores stop at the main island of São Miguel, while Horta is more convenient for sailors seeking rest en route from the Caribbean or US. Much of the island group is largely unspoilt.
Paul had crossed the Atlantic many times before I met him, both the north and south, including co-skippering expedition yachts in Antarctica and taking part in three ARC rallies.
I spent years working with sled dogs in the Arctic wilderness and never imagined I’d become a sailor until I found myself sailing with Paul on his 15m expedition sloop Malaika from Gdansk, in the Baltic Sea, to Cowes on the Isle of Wight.
I fell in love with offshore sailing and we’ve since spent three summers cruising the Azores, and sailed the tricky Atlantic waters between the islands and Europe six times.
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No wonder generations of tired and thirsty sailors have fallen in love with the Azores
Solo sailor Paul Heiney describes battling gale force winds off the Azores
I was 150 miles south-west of the Azores, heading for home, and it was blowing up rough from ahead. I…
Arriving at the islands by sea is like voyaging into Middle Earth. After a long Atlantic passage, which can be rather monotonous, you make landfall on islands that are pulsating with vibrant life. Theirs is a completely different form of beauty, the woods seem full of mysteries, myths and folklore: it’s often believed the islands are the peaks of the mountains of a submerged Atlantis.
Cruising between the islands is a rewarding experience. Distances are small, the scenery is varied and each island has its own distinct personality. The pilot book Atlantic Islands by Anne Hammick was our best friend, along with routing and meteo application Squid.
Sailing between the islands’ high cliffs and mountains brings very unstable and unpredictable winds, together with fogs, showers and local currents. There are few reliable spots to drop anchor, and the area’s unpredictable weather means you cannot leave a boat at anchor unattended for longer stays. Marinas are, however, very friendly and well organised.
After leaving the capital on São Miguel we sailed the 100 miles north-west to the island of Terceira, home of the bull run. Leaving Malaika in Marina Angra do Heroismo we headed inland to Algar do Carvão, one of only two volcanoes on earth that can be explored inside by foot. This one is thick with lush vegetation and filled with the background sounds of dripping water as rain seeps down the ancient lava tube.
The verdant hues all across the Azores are an intense, oversaturated green. However, the ocean is a deep slate blue by daylight, the shoreline marked by dark volcanic sands.
Those who seek a paradise of pristine beaches under sunny skies will be disappointed. There can be endless days of foggy drizzle – not even rain, but a seeping damp that gets in everywhere. The weather is changeable but, where there’s rain and sun simultaneously, there are many rainbows.
Terceira has two marinas, though it’s often wiser to pick the southern Angra do Heroismo over beautiful Praia da Vittoria half way up the eastern coast. Strong and persistent easterlies have been common over the past few summers, leaving Praia exposed to swell and wind.
Sailing towards Terceira from Ponta Delgada, we were pushed off course by an incredibly strong north-westerly current.
Angra is a beautiful UNESCO-recognised town, but it’s not a perfect marina in anything except winds from the north quarter, as it is quite a tight entrance and approaching can be difficult due to the strong currents and swell inside the harbour.
Coping with swell
Swell is a significant factor of cruising the Azores. Because of their position in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where an ocean floor rises almost vertically from thousands of metres deep into high cliffs, waves are scattered from all directions after almost any wind.
This confused sea often lasts for several days, even in fair weather, after summer lows have passed north of the islands.
From Terceira we sailed to São Jorge, about 74 miles. I got up to take the watch at 0200 as we crossed the narrow 10-mile wide channel between the islands of Pico and São Jorge. I was greeted on deck by an incredible view of the Milky Way. Then, as soon as the stars began fading with the dawn, I heard the eerie squawking of thousands of Cory’s Shearwaters soaring over the sea’s surface under the shadow of Pico mountain.
A pack of dolphins appeared, then two fishing boats floated into view like ghosts out of nowhere, while the brightening dawn began transforming the colours of São Jorge from sinister blues to vibrant pinks and greens as the fields high atop the cliffs slowly revealed themselves.
Shortly after Paul took over the watch we heard the characteristic ‘big splash’ and I jumped out on deck with a camera: a sperm whale. Despite whale symbolism all over these islands, it isn’t common to spot whales in the Azores, especially by yacht. We’ve seen them only once during our three years of cruising here.
After the magical theatre of dawn, we approached Velas, on the southern coast of São Jorge, by daylight. Malaika was warmly welcomed by Jose, the harbour master in Velas’s small marina.
Despite its small size, Velas is quite easy to navigate, never getting busy and, in our experience, probably the best protected against swell. It’s inside the ‘faja’, a term for ravines that’s unique to São Jorge. The water here is crystal blue and there are more seabirds on the jetties than people, including plenty of fearless geese that march up and down the pontoons.
Jose gave us helpful tips on travelling around the serpent shaped island, which is just 33 miles long. You don’t come here for churches or architecture; this island has little to offer except time travel to the Jurassic era, with its oversized ferns and hobbit-like villages.
Fearless animals are more common encounters than people, so driving requires caution: the animals don’t run, but rather will look at you with confusion.
After hiking through the bird sanctuary of Sete Fontes, we realised we were really, really hungry. Nothing was open so late in the afternoon, so we drove in hunger and irritation until Paul spotted an old bar by the roadside, built into the edge of a rustic family house near the cliff.
As we went in I was imagining terrible fast food, and the owner, Jorge, apologised, saying: “We have only hamburgers, sir. Oh and don’t mind the loud farmers hanging out there.”
I didn’t want to stay but fortunately Paul insisted. I’d never have imagined this place would become one of our favourites in the entire Azores. Heck, it’s even worth crossing the ocean just to stop at Jorge’s bar, with its view of two islands.
First he brought a snack of ‘fava’ (marinated beans), locally made cheeses, sausages, sauces and bread. And finally burgers from his own pastures, the best I’ve ever tasted. Now we always take our crews to that bar to feel the authentic atmosphere of the Azores. Jorge knows when we’re coming, he sees our yellow hull from his window as we cross the channel between São Jorge and Pico, and always texts us: “I see you guys. Feel welcome to stop, I’ll prepare something special for the crew.”
We continued on from Velas to Horta on Faial, a short and enjoyable 20-mile passage with Faial’s many iconic whaleboats, which are now used for races, dotting the water ahead.
Approaching Faial you have to be cautious of eddies, waves come from all directions and the winds are constantly shifting in the shadow of Pico Mountain.
It is possible to stop on the south of Pico Island, but the coastline can make for unpleasant sailing with messy seas. The entrance to the marina in Lajes do Pico also requires care, as it is a narrow channel surrounded by rocky pinnacles and often exposed to strong current and swell.
The marina has only four berths that can accommodate 45ft yachts (call ahead to check for space). Though as cruisers we love to sail everywhere, it’s no sin to take the 30-minute ferry from Faial to Pico to visit the mountainous island.
As we approached the Horta entrance the whaleboat crews greeted us with smiles. They train every weekday afternoon to race each Saturday. Horta is always an interesting melting pot of transatlantic sailors. We were allocated a berth next to the famous Pen Duick VI, which Marie Tabarly and her crew are taking on a tour around the world and filming their ‘Elemen’terre’ project.
Together with Tabarly’s crew we greeted French ocean racer Mayeul Rifflet into harbour, as he brought his small trimaran in right before a bad storm after a single-handed Atlantic delivery from the Caribbean. Then we met Sven Yrvind, the 81-year-old sailor who made a landfall after 78 days of single-handed sailing his minuscule self-built boat. On other years we’ve bumped into the Delos crew: it’s a port full of original personalities.
The westernmost islands group, Flores and Corvo, are the most challenging. These islands are most exposed to passing storms, frequently enduring the worst winds and swell. The tiny harbour of Lajes das Flores is unprotected to easterly or south-easterly winds; they take no reservations, you can barely make contact with the port and the anchorage is known to be very rolly.
Theoretically, sailing to Lajes das Flores from Horta will usually involve banging against prevailing westerlies, but the Azores weather is highly unpredictable and we’ve also experienced long periods of strong easterlies, mixed with every other wind direction.
On our last attempt to reach Flores in 2019 there were near-constant easterlies, and after several dozen attempts at getting in touch with Lajes harbour we eventually found out that it was completely shut down due to terrible 3m easterly swells. Locals say the best time to try for Flores is in June.
That autumn, we made a quick change of plans and dropped our crew off in Ponta Delgada after two days tacking against easterlies. By then it was late September, the final call for a safe passage back to the European mainland.
We were nervous, and keeping a very keen eye on the forecasts; there was gale after storm, storm after gale. One night during an electrical storm lightning struck a boat two pontoons along from us, thankfully only partially damaging our wind instruments. It was starting to feel like the Azores didn’t want us to leave!
Eventually we found a safe window for at least six days and set off. As with every time we leave the Azores, I watched the islands fading into the clouds like a mirage. I always feel emotional watching it, which is a sign that it’s a place worth another visit.
In the end, we had an ideal beam reach in 20-25 knots, with a fair sea state for nearly the entire passage, and after eight days made safe landfall in Portimão.
During our passage Hurricane Lorenzo had passed through Azores with 15m waves ravaging the shores. The port of Flores was completely devastated. Azoreans are used to storms but this one was too much.
We weren’t destined for Flores that year but, as our friend Jose in Velas wisely once said, it is sometimes best to not visit all the places around the world, but to leave unexplored places in our imagination. It gives us a reason to dream. And we will be back.
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