Navigating

Arriving in Faial

24 days after we left Bermuda, we finally arrived in the Azores. Our first landfall was on a small island called Faial, in a port town called Horta. Horta is apparently the 4th busiest port in the world, and the way the boats were stacked alongside each other made it apparent! Horta is the first “Port of Entry” into the Azores, so you should make it your first stop in your crossing, as they have the full customs office to check into the island chain. 

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Aside from the paperwork and beauty of the volcanic islands, we had some special visitors as we made our way towards land: Dolphins.

We had gone such a long time without seeing them out in the ocean, only to find them in massive numbers around these islands. 

It was impressive, and a little nerve wracking, to become so close to land without turning on our depth sounder. The islands of the Azores are volcanic and therefore are just the tops of mountains in the middle of the ocean. The steep cliff sides continue into the water at that same rate, and a few hundred feet from shore will be hundreds of feet of water depth! All you need to do is stay away from the land mass and you will find yourself safely situated in water that is over 4,000 feet deep! 

Making landfall in the Azores truely was a wonderful experience, for it signified the fact that we had made it across the Atlantic Ocean. When we set out in October 2017 from the Chesapeake Bay, the Azores was our destination. Now, (after many detours which included the Bahamas and Bermuda) we arrived in the Azores in early August 2018. 

We made it across and we made it safely. While 24 days is considered a long passage time from Bermuda to the Azores, the winds in 2018 had been rather weird. Most yachts felt the need to motor almost the whole time and averaged around 20-24 days, where usually people plan the voyage to take between 15-18 days purely under sail. We suddenly felt really good about our time as we did not motor across the ocean, since we have an electric motor. 

It is important to know how to sail when you set out for bluewater cruising, as you might not always be able to rely on your mechanical propulsion source. Another yacht in the harbor, of similar size and vintage as us left Bermuda and soon had engine failure. His diesel was dead and apparently he couldn’t sail very well because it took him 40 days to make it across! If you have a sailboat, it would behoove you to know how to sail, as your motor is considered an auxiliary power source and not the primary (which are the sails).  

Sailing to the Azores was a huge goal in our voyage, and now that we are here, we are going to enjoy the wonders that these islands have to offer and tackle some much needed boat projects. 

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Atlantic Crossing Part 8

 
 

Herby gives you a crash course on how to read the clouds and use old school weather techniques to get you across an ocean safely and without relying on electronics.

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Bermuda

After spending a month in the Bahamas, I kind of formulated what Bermuda would look like before we got there. Boy, was I wrong!

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Bermuda is not in the tropics, it is actually located quite north and this is evidenced by the lack of palm trees lining the shores. The bays between the Bermuda Islands are lined with coniferous trees, the kinds you would find in the mountains of New England! 

Our stopover in Bermuda was short but impacting. The sights, sounds, and smells of land are humbling after being at sea for almost a month. You forget what insects sound like, or what dirt smells like! On the ocean, everything looks like a wave, but when you are in Bermuda, everything looks beautiful and unique. 

If you are sailing by Bermuda, it would certainly be worth a few days stopover. Checking in only costs $35 per person on the boat, and it is free to anchor in St. George's Harbor where the holding is more than adequate.

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Sunset Forecast

As the sun gets low to the horizon, it would be hoove you to take a good look at tonight’s weather. The sun will soon be gone and clouds will disappear into the dark night sky.  

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If you see towering columns of clouds, demonstrating the rapid uprise of warm moist air, you are being shown that the weather around you is unstable and you should prepare for squalls during the night. This is a great time to reef down to your storm sails while you still have light instead of waiting for it to hit in the dark of the night.  

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On the other hand, if you see few flat clouds, then you are being shown that there is little upwards movement in the air and can expect a peaceful night of sailing.  

We stopped downloading weather faxes and instead opted for the “local forecast” at sunset.  

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Atmospheric Pressure and Wind Speed

Weather routing relies on one key factor, the accuracy of the forecast. Forecasts have improved greatly, but they are not always perfect. This is why it is important that you learn how to interpret the weather maps yourself and furthermore, know how to apply this knowledge to the real world to choose a safe route that will avoid deleterious weather.

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These two maps are of the same region and the same time. They also show some important concepts that will play into your interpretation of the maps.

First, in the Northern Hemisphere, wind rotates clockwise around a high pressure system and anti-clockwise around a low pressure system. Second, the closer the pressure gradient (isobars) are to each other, the more powerful the winds will be. 

A simple way to think about it all is to imagine the earth as a sandbox where an evil kid is tormenting the landscape. The kid has two tools of destruction at his disposal: a vacuum and a fan. The vacuum pulls air up, and the fan pushes air down. He can't use both in the same place, so he is forced to use them next to each other. Air from the fan smashes down onto the sand while the vacuum draws air up from the sandy floor.  You are an unlucky ant who is trying to get across this epic sandbox of doom, all while avoiding the menacing child.

The fan is a high pressure system and the vacuum is low pressure, if you are close to either, the conditions are brutal, but if you keep a safe distance from either, you find that you can survive the torture. 

Just as the ant can see the fan and vacuum from the surface of the sandbox, you too can see the fan and vacuum from the surface of the sea, as they are told to you in the form of clouds. Reading clouds is a very valuable skill to have and one that will be discussed in much greater detail.

A barometer can let you know what your current air pressure is, which then would give you an idea about where you are in relation to the fan and vacuum and understanding how the pressures work will let you stay at a safe and comfortable distance from either centers. 

Knowing that winds blow clockwise around the center of a high pressure, if you are going downwind you can then easily tailor your position on the ocean for the most comfort by simply turning to starboard (towards the high pressure) for less wind or to port (towards the low pressure) for more wind. Riding the pressure gradients over the ocean will get you there safely and calmly without the need for fancy weather routing software. 

Now, why not use the fancy and expensive electronic gizmos that will tell you exactly where to go? Because they don't always work as well as touted.  

Routing software depends on an accurate forecast, and that is the weak point in this story. The software will tell you how to sail the best in the world they are presented with, the sad thing is this is rarely the same world you live in. By looking at the sky you can see what the weather is right where you are and looking at the barometer tells you what the atmospheric pressure is in your column of air.  

Weather forecasts are great for deciding when to go out to sea, but once you are out there, their utility quickly diminishes as they are no match for the accuracy of the visible sky around you. 

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