Do you pine for a bit more adventure than you’ve found in the Caribbean? If so, we present Cruising the Azores Islands. In reverse order of importance, here are the top ten ways cruising in the Azores differs from cruising in the Caribbean:
Two-thousand miles and 18 to 28 days at sea (plus or minus) depending on the route you take and weather. We left from Sint Maarten and arrived in Horta, Faial, after twenty-one easy days at sea. It proved to be well worth the trip.
Just as an Atlantic crossing didn’t deter us from visiting the Azores, the threat of crime didn’t stop us from thoroughly enjoying the Caribbean. However, in the Caribbean we chained the dinghy to dock and boat, locked ourselves below when we went to bed, avoided some areas after dark, and other islands entirely. None of that is required in the Azores. These are tiny islands, only two have more than 16000 residents and as one man told us, “There are so few people here that anyone who wants to can make a living.” Some work twelve hour days to make that living, many of the high-end stores have metal shutters at night, and we have been approached for a handout, so this isn’t Utopia; but we always felt absolutely safe, kept the companionway open so we could check our anchor easily, and delighted in wandering the streets on our own after an event that ended in the early hours of the morning.
On nights when we have turned in early, music from onshore has invaded our sound space. In the Caribbean, that music was generally the relentless rhythm of Soca music, amplified so that all within five miles could move to the beat (or toss in their bunks). On the docks in Horta, we enjoyed (or not) live music from Peter’s outside deck, usually Azoreans performing American and English Rock and Roll with various degrees of success. In Graciosa, we were delighted one evening to hear a local band—with horns, percussion, and woodwinds—playing Sousa marches, anthems, movie themes, and (absurdly) ‘New York, New York’.
7: The Buses
The tourist guidebook states, “A bus service is available on all the islands, allowing tours with comfort and of less cost.” In reality, except for Terceira and Sao Miguel, the two largest islands, the schedules don’t make it possible to easily get from one town to another and back in a day. There are taxis and rental cars, and cruisers on a budget will just have to make choices about which distant attractions are worth the expense.
Most of the sailors crossing from the west visit Faial and perhaps one other island before moving to mainland Europe or the Mediterranean. The Azores is a destination for Europeans, some of whom leave their boat for the winter, and return to cruise again. A few of the European sailors are English and most of the rest all speak English, but our flag was often the only American ensign in the harbor. We were usually the only boat at anchor, and there are no cruisers’ nets. We spent more time alone together than we had during three years in the Caribbean.
5: No trade winds
There seem to be no prevailing winds in the Azores, and if you sail in the Azores you will get skunked by the weather gods on at least one passage. I discussed this with Felipe, the Harbor Master in Angra, who told me not to rely on sites such as Passage Weather or Wind Guru, saying, “They look at the whole ocean and we are just a little speck. It is different here.” We would look at the big picture to see what was likely to affect the Azores and then check with www.IPMA.PT or AccuWeather for the local forecast. As one British sailor said in on-line discussion about sailing in the Azores, “I intend to assume nothing and take what comes.”
4: Safe Anchorages
The Azores have few natural harbors, so you can’t drop the hook for the night when the wind has died out or turned against you. In fact, the best cruising guide for the islands, Atlantic Islands by Anne Hammick, will often caution that a particular anchorage is ‘untenable’ when the wind comes from a certain quarter. Consequently, if you visit the Azores, you will spend more time in marinas than you did in the Caribbean. No anchoring is allowed in Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel, and in Horta on Faial it is only allowed when the docks are full. We anchored inVelas on Sao Jorge and Angra on Terceira, but in both cases we moved in to the local marina when the winds were from the south – and were happy to do so.
3: Inexpensive Marinas
All of the marinas are government owned and inexpensive, and all provide free electricity, water, and WIFI. The WIFI is better in some marinas than in others, but strong, free WIFI is available in all communities. The water is sweet and clean, and the electricity is 220 volt. Wise sailors from countries with 110v power will have a transformer because you will be on a dock more than you may expect or desire.
Visitors and tourists are welcomed and most fully enjoy the islands. Few cruise ships visit the Azores, which aren’t a winter destination, so the vast majority of tourists fall into one of three categories: sailors, people of Azorean heritage returning for the summer, and tourists seeking an active vacation on quiet islands. Here we can all hike, dive, snorkel, go horseback riding, whale watching, climb down into volcanic craters, and swim in natural rock pools. I commented to Jose, Harbor Master in Sao Jorge, that everyone we had met was nice – including all of the tourists. “That’s because they are all here to have fun and do something. They are here to meet with us and enjoy the islands as we do, not to be waited on.” In other words, the tourists in the Azores are more like cruisers than those we encounter in the Caribbean. Tourists are aided by tourism offices proffering accurate maps and guidebooks; multiple national parks with well-marked hiking trails; historic buildings and museums; and clean, unlocked, free bathrooms in every community, swimming area, and park.
1: The matchless allure of the Azores
The islands of the Caribbean are beautiful, but the Azores—with their sheer cliffs, volcanic craters, pastures bordered by stone walls or hedges of hydrangeas; and European towns of white homes with red-tiled roofs and pattered stone sidewalks—are beyond compare. Every island in the Azores offers sights and adventure such as you cannot find anywhere else on earth: the fajas – tiny towns built on landfall at the foot of enormous cliffs; the hydrangeas in July tumbling down the mountains or squared into hedges marking neat pastures; huge gilt-trimmed churches and tiny brightly painted chapels; the comedy and excitement of watching touradours a corda (bulls on a rope); hikes up tall peaks and down under the ground to view lakes and lava; traditional music and dance; bread, cheese, pastries and wine all unique to these islands; outstanding sailing, snorkeling, diving, whale-watching, swimming, kite-boarding and surfing; and warm, interesting, humorous residents who enjoy it all as much as we do.
Set sail for the Azores – just two thousand miles and a world away.
After cruising the Caribbean Barbara Hart and her husband sailed east across the Atlantic. Barbara has an active blog: www.HartsAtSea.com sharing what she’s learned about living aboard, cruising, and staying married.