Mike and Amy’s Atlantic Crossing, Part 2: From Santa Maria Island, Portugal, to the Straits of Gibraltar

Leaving Santa Maria Island, Azores, Portugal by Sailboat.

The following is journaling that I wrote on 8-22-2012 Weds. 14:22 Eastern Standard Time while we were sailing aboard our 34′ Peterson sailboat. I also later added a bit more descriptive commentary about the photos.

We left Santa Maria Island on (I think?) 8-14-2012. I cried when we left, much to Mike’s distress. It was hard to get back in the boat and leave the beautiful, safe marina at Vila Do Porto. Especially considering that, right as we were pulling out, it started to rain and get ugly out. There was swell in the 5-8 foot range and it wasn’t comfortable sailing, although we had steady winds in the 18-20 knot range. On the way out, I took a few photos of the other side of the island. It looked so peaceful. I wish we could have stayed another week or two.

Leaving Santa Maria Island, Azores, Portugal by Sailboat.

For the first few days, the sailing remained uncomfortable. Then it mellowed out and got easier. We even had a complete doldrum for awhile and Mike had to put the motor on to keep us moving. Today has been like that as well — the seas are not quite flat, but nearly so, and with the wind at only 3 knots we’ve had the motor on for awhile.

We have officially entered the straits of Gibraltar. It’s really hazy, and visibility is poor. I just took a few pictures of the Moroccan coastline, and got worried that later I’d look at them and wonder “what’s this?” and delete them because they don’t look like anything interesting.

So to be safe, I took a few more of Mike pointing at the coastline so we could remember what the pics are.


Earlier today I took some photos of our instruments showing us getting ready to head into the straits.

And here are a few more photos of the ship’s captain.

We can just barely, faintly see the coast of Spain on the other side.

14:37 Eastern Time:

Mike just told me that we’re about six nautical miles from Morocco. We can barely make out the coastline, with buildings and such, because it is so hazy — hard to believe we’re this close. The sun is on its way down and before long it will be dark.

If you look extra-closely at the right hand side of this photo, you can see the lights of Morocco.

There’s been quite a bit of boat traffic through the straits, although so far not as much as we expected. Right now we have, that I can see, 3 boats on the port side — all cargo ships — and another big boat on the starboard side. No, make that 4 boats on the port side — Mike just spotted a small power boat on the port side. There’s also a boat coming in behind us. I tried to take a photo showing some of the boat traffic we saw after we entered the straits, but at that point the sun was going down and the photo is not that great.

The following journaling was written on Sunday, 9-2-2012, 1:40 am Eastern time.

We had following seas going into and through the straits, and for a few days afterwards.

The Moroccan coast appeared much more intriguing at night than it did during daylight. It glittered and sparkled. Looking at all the lights, it was easier to imagine how much life and activity might have been found there; we would have loved to stop and explore.

On the Spanish side, it appeared mostly dark except for one distinctly concentrated area filled with lights; there were also small pockets of lights here and there, and some isolated lights that might have been boats, or not, it was hard to tell.

At that point, we were closer to the Moroccan coast — much closer than we meant to be. I did a night watch for awhile so Mike could sleep, and the autopilot got us off course a bit. I woke Mike up over something stupid — I don’t remember what at this point — but it turned out to be a good thing, because when he checked our position he realized we were way too close to Morocco — only about 3 nautical miles away.

One thing that unnerved me a bit: I could occasionally hear a motor that I couldn’t see a corresponding boat for. When that would happen, I’d wake Mike up [again, and again!] to help me look for the boat I was hearing. Needless to say, Mike didn’t get much sleep for awhile. There were a couple of times we never did actually see the boats we were hearing. It was scary, but we didn’t have any problems, and all was well.

The brightly lit portion of the Moroccan coast soon came to an end, and after that, the shore appeared unlit. It wasn’t long before I had to look backwards to see any light on the shore.

And then at some point it became difficult to see anything at all. The night was really cold; I covered Mike while he slept, and put on my Ice Rider (which is a heavy bib intended for snowmobiling.)

I don’t remember at exactly what point Mike took the wheel, but the following morning he was hearing loud foghorns from the Spanish coast. Dense fog had rolled in overnight and we couldn’t see anything; it was only possible to see 50 – 100 yards in any direction around the boat. That was really scary. We were glad that conditions only stayed that way for a few hours after sunrise; they didn’t persist.

What followed seemed like endless days of sailing between Spain and Algeria. (It took about 16 days total to reach our current point.) At some point, the going got pretty rough, and the swell got big. When it first got big, we still had following seas; the current was pushing us along, which was nice, although it was uncomfortable sailing.

One night I was doing a night watch and Mike was sleeping up on deck. I was hungry, so I got up to go below to get something to eat. As I turned around to descend through the hatch, I glimpsed a giant wave, much taller than the boat, looming behind us. “Watch out, honey!” I yelled at the same moment the wave crashed right over our stern. The entire cockpit, and everything in it, including Mike, got soaked. Mike was so mad. Talk about a rude awakening! He had just barely fallen asleep after being awake for two days straight.

Soon after that incident, we lost our following seas; then we were traveling against the current and beating into the wind. I’m not sure exactly at what point that happened but Mike thinks it was somewhat before we passed Mallorca.

We had been debating about whether or not to stop in Mallorca, but we decided to keep going. We burned through most of our fuel, between alternating doldrums and difficult sailing conditions. Our original plan had been to go from the Azores to Greece; then we decided to make an additional stop in Sicily. But we were low on fuel and conditions were not improving. We looked at our charts and decided to forget Sicily and stop sooner. We looked at several different stopping points, but some of them were too shallow for our boat. We chose Sardegna, because we thought we could get there, and because the area was deep enough for our boat, and because our electronic chart said there were repair services, fuel and other services available.

We hit windless doldrums and burned through even more fuel, but we knew we didn’t have enough fuel to make it all the way to Sardegna. At the same time, we were beating into the wind, and sailing against the current. It would have been time to put up a bigger main sail; but unfortunately our main sail had long ago been shredded (back in storms in the Atlantic) and we’d improvised by putting up the storm jib instead. The storm jib worked better than expected in big winds, but in those conditions it was useless as a main sail. We had no other main sail to fly, so we were stuck with it.

The bottom line was that it was just going to be an agonizingly slow trip in, with a lot of tacking, zigging and zagging, most of which took us in directions other than the one in which we wanted to go. To make any forward progress, we had to first sail at an angle that gained us no ground towards the island.

The plan was to save some of our fuel for the end, when we had to get around the island and get into the marina. Mike calculated how much he thought we should reserve, vs how much he was willing to burn trying to get through the doldrums.

We sailed as much as we could without turning the motor on. When the wind died to the point that we were moving backwards, Mike would put the motor on for just long enough to get us to the point where we could make forward progress again, however slow.

In the wee hours of the morning on 8-31-2012, I took over the helm to let Mike sleep. He had the motor on, but he told me we’d go for another 3 hours, 3 1/2 hours absolute maximum, before we had to kill the motor no matter what. He asked me to wake him up if either the wind changed in our favor, or in 3 hours, whichever came first.

The wind was blowing at around 8-10 knots when I took over. My heart sank as I watched it drop to 7 knots, then 6, then 5. The motor droned on. I looked for boats, but we seemed to be alone; I could only see a couple of blinking buoys and some scattered lights on the shore off in the distance. The wind dropped down to 4 knots, then 3. At the same time, we were going through some scary shallow areas. Our charts showed that we should’ve been in about 600 feet of water. Yet there were places where the depth sounder all of a sudden gave me a reading of 100 feet, then 40, then 39, 38, 37, all the way down successively one foot at a time. In a panic, I woke Mike up when it got as low as 20 feet and showed no signs of jumping back up. We got as low as 9 feet — which means that we only had about 3 feet of water under our keel — before Mike instructed me to change course.

Changing course in a situation like that is nerve-wracking, because you have no idea what’s down there and it could be even worse in the new direction you pick. We chose to go away from the island. For all we knew, the decision could have put us aground, but it didn’t. I was shaky as I watched the reading jump back up to 400 feet, then 600.

Mike went back down below. Every time I tried to put us back on course, it got scary shallow again. I decided to just stay off course for awhile. It was aggravating, having so little fuel and yet running the motor in the not-quite-right direction.

The wind dropped down to 2 knots, and it was erratic, bouncing all over the place. It couldn’t settle on a direction — it wrapped our little Italian courtesy flag around the line, then unwrapped it, then wrapped it again. The wind meter dropped down to 1 knot. The air was so still. It hovered between 1 and 3 knots, bouncing all around, coming from any which direction and sometimes no direction.

When 3 hours were up, it was obvious that we weren’t going to get anywhere if we killed the motor, so I almost didn’t even wake Mike. But, just to be on the safe side, I woke him and he came up to take a look.

“It’s much worse than it was 3 hours ago,” he said. I agreed. But I told him, “Just wait. I bet you that, in a few hours, we’ll have more wind than we want or need or know what to do with.” He looked at the sky, looked at our instruments, and agreed. There were some ominous clouds overhead, and between that and the wind conditions, it seemed obvious that all hell was about to break loose.

Mike went back down below. I put us back on course, keeping an eye on the depth and the wind and watching for boats. We were still in 500-600 feet of water, and the wind meter was steadily climbing — 3 knots, then 4, then 5, all the way up until we were getting consistent wind at about 8-10 knots. The wind had shifted and actually settled on a direction, and it was blowing from behind us. Those were conditions we could work with; I got excited. I called Mike up and we decided to kill the motor. He asked if I wanted him to take over, and I said “No, try to get some more sleep if you can. You’re going to need it.”

The wind blew at a pleasant 10-12 knots for awhile, and I was hoping it would hold. We were moving slowly, but at least we were moving in the right direction, and it seemed almost too good to be true.

It was.

The wind meter climbed up to 13, 14, 15 knots, then a little later to 14, 15, 16 knots, then to 15, 16, 17 knots. It kept climbing. When we hit 20, 21, 22 knots and it was still climbing, I yelled at Mike to get dressed and come up. I said, “Sorry to toss you to the dogs. I think it’s about to get ugly.” I helped him put on his PFD and clip in, and then retreated down to the starboard side berth, feeling anxious.

And then, yes, all hell did break loose.

On the bright side, it didn’t rain on us. On the other hand, it might as well have rained on us, because the seas and winds got so big that there was no staying dry. The ocean was hurling massive waves at us and they were breaking over the boat in all directions. The portals were taking a beating, and each time a wave pounded one of them I cringed and prayed that they wouldn’t shatter or break. I had it easy compared to Mike, topside, who was drenched with salt water.

When Mike yelled down to me something about how pretty the islands were, I peeked out the hatch to take a look. The sun was rising over the islands and it was utterly gorgeous. Sorry, y’all, no photos of this; there was too much salt water flying around for me to even consider getting out a camera.

An underwater camera might be a good purchase for us. Without one, photography and sailing aren’t the two most compatible pastimes. Not that I plan on doing much sailing for awhile after we reach our destination. I think maybe, possibly I’ll be content to be a landlubber again as soon as I get the chance.


Or maybe not.

When I’m sailing, I often feel as if I hate sailing.

When I’m not sailing, I miss sailing and I really just want to go sailing. Why is that?

Someone, I forget who, once told us that sailing is 95% boredom and 5% panic.

Not the way we do it. On days like that, it seems more like sailing is 95% panic and 5% boredom. Or something like that.

Down below, I couldn’t see our instruments and had no idea that our hero Mike was cowboying us through 36 knot winds. I did know this: It was big. It was bumpy. It was not boring. No, it was not even a little bit boring.

People, sometimes I’d settle for boring. You know what I mean?

Big winds do have a bright side. If they’re blowing in the direction you want to go, you can get where you’re going reasonably quickly in a sailboat. It might be a hair-raising trip, but at least you’ll make progress.

We even managed to save a little, not much, of the fuel we’d planned to use getting around the island. Yay for that!

When we got close to the island, we decided to put the motor on, take the sails down and motor in.

Taking the sails down should be a piece of cake. But, in the condition our sails are in right now, it isn’t. It’s a little scary. Remember, we were using our storm jib as our main sail at this point. It works, but it was not designed to be used that way. It’s not easy to get the storm jib up and down the track for the main sail even in light winds, let alone when it’s blowing at gale force. It often gets stuck in the track. And our headsail is supposed to just roll up into the roller furling, but the roller furling hasn’t been working correctly, so we’ve been raising and lowering the sail in the track as well – no easy task. It requires both of us working together as a team, communicating, which is not easy when we can’t hear each other over the noise made by the wind.

In normal wind conditions, I found that raising both sails in this configuration can take every ounce of energy I have, and then I need a nap afterwards. Lowering the sails is easier, but the big worry is that if we lower them too soon – like maybe if we find out we’re in the wrong place or they have no room for us in the marina, once we’ve dropped the sails it’s not easy getting ‘em back up again.

As it turned out, the storm jib had blown itself out of the track for the main sail. So it getting stuck in the track wasn’t an issue, but getting it down and keeping it on the boat and out of the water (and out of our wind generator) was an issue. The storm jib has a long cable attached to a line that gets in the way and gets all tangled around things if we aren’t careful to keep it secured. In winds like that, a loose cable or line could beat a sailor senseless, maybe strangle him, in addition to all the usual worries you have with them getting caught in the spreaders, tangled around the rudder, or whatever.

It took us a few tries to get the headsail down, because the boat wouldn’t stay turned into the wind long enough for us to make it happen in one shot. But we got it down and secured without incident.

The storm-jib-as-mainsail also came down without incident, although there were some scary moments when we came dangerously close to shredding it in the wind generator and then losing it off the boat all together as the wind whipped it around.

With the sails down, all of a sudden everything seemed to calm considerably. The boat had been heeled over at a crazy angle. Later Mike told me that at one point before I came up to help him with the sails, we’d even had a rail under momentarily. Yikes. We went from being heeled over with a rail almost underwater, to flat on the water, once we dropped the sails.

In our other boat, an old wooden sailboat, that wouldn’t have been a pleasant experience; she’s wobbly like a Weeble when you drop her main sail. Our current boat, the Peterson, however, is delightfully stable even with her sails down in big winds and seas.

Next Page: Sardegna, Italy ——————>