While my voyage aboard Coral of Cowes was smooth sailing for two-thirds of the time, the other third had its challenges. By the time we were north of thirty degrees latitude, we were vulnerable to the typical weather systems in this part of the North Atlantic, and at this time of year, that meant serious storms that track west from North America and east to Europe.
For ages, mariners took advantage of these massive lows to speed their way back to Europe. This route was a leg of the Atlantic Slave Triangle that took place from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Gold, sugar, indigo, salt, and tobacco were carried back to England, Spain, Portugal, France and Holland from the islands. Then ships traveled south bringing guns, ammunition and other factory made goods to African kings. Finally slaves were transported from West African ports to the Caribbean completing the trade triangle.
Today, yachts the Caribbean to go east usually do this after May 1st to miss the summer hurricane systems that officially starts in June and avoid the early spring Atlantic storms. Coral, however, left a bit earlier on April 26th due to the fact that the captain had a lucrative charter scheduled June 1st on the Isle of Wight where the seaport town of Cowes is located. After a winter in the Caribbean, Coral of Cowes was finally going home.
Our voyage started with unusual, but highly advantageous winds. Trade winds usually blow from the Northeast in the spring, forcing boats to sail directly north to near Bermuda. At that latitude, wind directions change due to the forementioned North Atlantic storms. During our departure, winds blew from the unusual direction of South-Southwest. This allowed us to sail northeast for three days, the precise direction of Portugal’s Azore Islands. By then, our skipper Richard Oswald was concerned that we might encounter the Azore High, a large subtropical, semi-permanent high atmospheric pressure typically found south of the Azores. The high is known for little rain and variable light winds mixed with calm. We had limited diesel to motor through the immensity of the Azore High and with so much distance to go, the decision was made to sail north. We aimed to meet the tailwinds of our first Atlantic storm.
Our timing could not have been more perfect. By the time we reached the 30th parallel, seas were 15-20 feet in height, winds were blowing aft at 35 mph. This moderate gale pushed us east at great speeds. At one point, Coral was surfing down waves at 14.5 knots. The schooner was feeling her pedigree and clocked a 200 mile day.
The next storm we encountered was a different story. We had been tracking it since departure. The low formed off the New England coast and had now merged with another coming from Newfoundland. When we saw the two become one, we immediately changed our course due south to avoid the system. But the storm was too fast and we reduced sails to a minimum before it hit. The near Force Eight gale raged for twenty-four hours. Afterwards the crew repaired chaffed lines and ripped sails. We also began monitoring a third storm heading our way.
Captain Oswald believed that if we sailed fast, we might be about 20 miles from our Azores destination of Horta when the storm would hit. We could then sail in the weather shadow of the neighboring island of Pico and then sneak into port at Horta. The other alternative was to race due east and make for Madera, Spain or even Lisbon in an attempt to avoid the storm altogether. In the end, it was decided to make for Horta.
Two days later my mate Dexter and I were on the 2-5am shift about 50 miles south of our destination. Conditions were calm when we began, but it was the darkest night that I had seen at sea. We were occupied with a freighter on a collision course with us for about a half hour. It passed just off our bow perhaps 100 yards away. Dexter and I always seemed to attract massive freighters at night for some unexplained reason. By now the seas were rising and helming was a challenge. By 5am Richard and Paul came on deck to relieve us. The captain decided we needed to tack to the west to keep our course to Horta. By this time the wind was howling and the waves approached 20 feet high. The third storm of the Tempest Trifecta was now a gale. During the tack, there was an enormous Crack! Our bowsprit, the spar that thrusts forward had broken in half and was hanging over the side. An all hands on deck was called. I was assigned to steer Coral south away from the wind and waves. It took our crew an hour to lower the sails, get control of the boat and lash the broken bowsprit to the deck. During that time we had lost the distance we had sailed in the past six hours. No matter. Our first priority was to avoided the danger of a wave slamming the bowsprit into the hull and gashing a hole. We had done that and now decided our next move.
With limited sails and the diesel on, we tried to resume our course north to Horta. But we made little progress sailing into the wind . We heaved-to, a method of fixing the helm and sail positions so that the boat makes little forward progress. In doing so, we only made one-knot per hour to the east in a stable, controlled manner. We remained in this mode until the storm passed twenty-four hours later.
I was back on the helm at 6 am. There were fair winds and the sun shined. When I asked my mate what compass course he had been steering, he said “Just aim for that island.” It was my first land sighting in 16 days. Faial, the Azore island with our destination port of Horta, lay ahead. The waves were still high and I would loose site of the island and its neighbor, Pico, time and time again. I started singing an old Donavan song at the top of my lungs, First, there is a mountain. The there is no mountain. Then there is.
The Tempest Trifecta was over. By two in the afternoon we would be arriving in the comfort of Horta. The crew was all smiles. Oh, Juanita. Oh, Juanita. Oh, Juanita, I call your name…
For the song… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-oi9GtY1MU