Push the boat out, compañeros,
push the boat out, whatever the sea.
Who says we cannot guide ourselves
through the boiling reefs, black as they are,
the enemy of us all makes sure of it!
Mariners, keep good watch always
for that last passage of blue water
we have heard of and long to reach
(no matter if we cannot, no matter!)
in our eighty-year-old timbers
leaky and patched as they are but sweet
well seasoned with the scent of woods
long perished, serviceable still
in unarrested pungency
of salt and blistering sunlight. Out,
push it all out into the unknown!
Unknown is best, it beckons best,
like distant ships in mist, or bells
clanging ruthless from stormy buoys
At Eighty Edwin Morgan
And so I found myself in the Azores, a place I never really thought about and certainly did not think I would ever go. I cheated a little and flew there after some time at home, the intention being to meet up with the boat and crew, spend a little time with the skipper before they would set off again and I would have some downtime to relax and heal a little.
I had overnighted in Lisbon on the way out, really convenient flights from Edinburgh and had booked a guesthouse within walking distance of the airport. I trundled my gold coloured trolley down the pavement, dressed smartly in my white linens and lime green jacket. I had decided to dress up for this wee trip, staying in an Airbnb near Ponta Delgada the main town on San Miguel the largest of the Azorean islands. I had also hired a car for the 5 days I would be there so the captain and I could explore a little. I felt quite pleased with myself and arrived at the guest house, big grin on my face and produced my booking document with a flair. The thin, grey coloured man stretched his neck like a tortoise from his extensive collar and peered at me from over his thin glasses.
“No check in until 2pm”
It was 11am.
“Ah, ok, well can I leave my bag and I’ll go for some lunch and return later? Is there somewhere nearby to eat?”
“Yes, leave bag”. He indicated a space behind the desk, without looking up. “Shops a long walk into town”
Ah well, ok, I wheeled the trolley in place and left, not relishing a “long walk into town”. Standing on the pavement of a busy main road and looked up and down the road with no sign of anything other than medical clinics. I wandered off downhill, a little hopelessly but soon found a pretty city park with mummies pushing prams and teenagers walking along with earphones in, screening out the sound of birds chattering in the trees and leaves rustling on their branches.
And there right inside the entrance to the park was a delightful bijou outdoor café, little mushroom stools and wooden tables, cool jazz music playing round the patio and a pretty Portuguese girl with long black dreadlocks and silver clips decorating her braids, wearing patchwork dungarees, smiling behind the counter.
I ordered a goat cheese salad and her own fresh lemonade and settled back to enjoy the next hour or two until I was allowed to check in.
It was like a scene from Fawlty Towers when I returned to the guest house. The same grey man looked up as soon as I arrived in the foyer, glanced at the clock which read 1400 on the dot and beamed at me:
“Ah Good afternoon Madam, would you like to check in now. I hope you found somewhere for lunch and you can sit in our garden if you like or use the pool. I will show you your room which I hope will be satisfactory?”
I looked at him not believing it was the same turtle man, I looked at the garden which bordered on to the duel carriageway and sported metal chairs and tables that were mostly rust, the pool that looked like a homemade job, raised on a platform and with most of the garden floating on top of it and politely declined the offer but yes I would like to see my room.
All was fine though it looked like a mansion from the days of the Czar, velvet brocade wallpaper, stair hand rails of ornate metal, silk flowers in large china vases and a chandelier that once had been clear glass but now yellow and dusty. My room was a box, decorated similarly but it had a terrace, overlooking the garden, great. It was fine for a quick overnight as my flight to the Azores was the next morning. I was a bit paranoid about getting up in time and although I set my phone alarm, I accepted the offer for a wake- up call too.
I was excited about flying to the Azores, over the Atlantic, the same ocean Stravaigin was sailing over, vast and blue. My phone alarm went off fine and I waited for the phone call alarm then there was banging on my door, I was a bit alarmed thinking there was some kind of problem until I heard the tortoise man, shouting,
“Time to get up!” Ah the alarm call, fair enough.
The flight out was fine and I even managed to grab a coffee and Pastel de Nata, my beloved custard tart, for the journey.
I sat looking out the window and reflected on the last week at home. Time spent sorting out some of Mum’s affairs, emptying her fridge, watering her house plants, cutting her grass with the same unreal feeling , like she was away on holiday, distant but not gone. Time spent with family, my youngest at home from University working at the local seafood shack to accrue, hopefully, some cash for the next academic year. A visit to the GP as I felt so run down and a virus was most likely the diagnosis. A visit to my work town to meet up with friends and colleagues and catch up on the college news, no different really to when I left but did leave me with a positive thought about my return and re-joining the bustle of education and learning. Time spent with the newly weds who came down to stay over and we visited the grave, it still did not feel like it was happening to me. And finally time spent with the skipper’s cousin and her family, a real tonic, much gossiping, catching up, Prosecco and warmth, before snuggling down in one of the wee girl’s relinquished beds amongst pink teddies, unicorns and paintings of ponies on the wall.
I realised we should be landing soon as we started our decent and the surface of the ocean got nearer, I still couldn’t see any land although I presumed there must be some down there! The sea got closer and closer and I actually sat up straight as it felt like the surface was a couple of feet below us when suddenly the ground appeared at the edge of a small cliff and our wheels touched it, screeched to a sideways halt like a hand brake turn and we were down! Think I prefer a boat.
And there he was, a tanned, lean captain sporting his shorts and suncap, beaming from ear to ear.
“Hello gorgeous!” he greeted me, nice to be back together again.
I collected our car and chauffeured him around this time, checking in at our little flat in a small coastal village, overlooking the sea, with a café underneath. Perfect.
We caught up with the news having been out of contact during his crossing, save the satellite texts once a day to check in on progress. It had been a great sail for them, strong winds, steady direction , good crew and banter. I was still glad I didnt go and so was J. It had allowed him to focus on the voyage and not worry about me and I really was not in strong form. The Slovakian Major had departed in the Azores, dubious as to whether it was a call of duty or the sea sickness he was unfortunately afflicted with. They had also rescued a French “Amel” stricken off the coast of San Miguel by a broken rudder and spent the last day towing the stressed couple back to port for repairs.
We headed out for dinner to a beach side bar and enjoyed the best fillet mignon I had had in a long time cooked on a hot stone slab, the Azores are famous for their cattle, both beef and diary, all cattle were grass fed and seemed to live an idyllic life. I felt ok about eating them.
It was a pretty idyllic place, a cross between Brazil and Cornwall, exotic and jungly along with neat hedges and green pasture. We enjoyed a breakfast of sweet golden pineapple, milky scones with creamy butter, Guava jam and Azorean tea grown in the many plantations here, then we headed off for a visit to the volcanic crater lakes and national parks. It was a lovely drive and we marvelled at the scenery, it really is a much overlooked place and so lush. The wanders round the bubbling pools of boiling mud remined us of Iceland earlier this year, the same geological origins but a lot warmer surroundings here! A visit also to the thermal pools in the river, very touristy though with dams creating artificial pools that groups of folks steeped in, parboiling themselves. We joined them for a while until we turned a sulphur yellow then headed for the village for the traditional meal of stew cooked in the fumaroles, followed by pineapple cream. It was a wonderful day and restful for J before heading out to sea the following day.
We used the car to stock up on fresh food for them then they sorted out a chaffed halyard, it seemed the spring installation of the radar was at fault, perhaps large bolts drilled in too far in the mast had caused it and was well spotted by Mike before the main sail would have collapsed down, not ideal when in the middle of the Atlantic! Stocked up, clean, fuelled up and down to three, they motored out the port and headed round the end of the island before pointing north for Ireland, where I hoped to meet up with them for the final voyage home. I watched them go, getting smaller as they edged towards the horizon, not sad or worried about them, but very proud.
Returning to my solo pad, I changed for the beach and took a picnic with me to a little sheltered cove to enjoy an afternoon of relaxing and sunbathing. I lay listening to the waves break on the shore sending occasional Valellas high and dry up on onto the beach accompanied this time by Portuguese Man-O-War. The children seemed to be well used to these stingers and relished finding sticks to pop their inflated bodies with, then twineing the blue tentacles round the stick and chasing each other with them. The more diligent parents scooped them up and put them in the bin so no one would get stung as the toxin is still live after the creature is dead. They were a beautiful colour, translucent pink and turquoise. A crowd of young teenagers appeared along from me, loud, full of energy and hormones. Shrieking girls in bikinis, boys relentlessly kicking a football, girls “accidentally” getting in the way and having to be removed by carrying them off, with more shrieks.
A group of young Azoreans spread their rush mats on the other side, deep tanned bodies decorated with picturesque tattoos and piercings, young women with long hair, one was sand coloured with dreadlocks, a sliver clip adorning each fuzzy strand, one with a headband holding her mane high on her head and the other raven black, long damp tendrils licking her shoulders and deep brown back. The aroma of cannabis floated over me and the musical lilt of their voices added their own playlist to the bohemian scene as they nestled into their respective men, muscled bodies toned by years of playing in the sea. Young lovers, what a place to be young and in love, what a place to be 56 and in love! The ocean stretched wide in front of me, green, pale green then grey then green, the skies darkened and the wind picked up, sending the tops of the breakers white and foamy, time to go before the weather changed too much. Folks picked up mats and towels shaking off the black volcanic sand and washed it off their feet at the beach showers before slipping on shoes and disappearing off the beach. There was a storm due, the reason Stravaigin had headed off to get ahead of it and use the edges to push her north. As I walked up the beach a kite surfer walked down, setting up his rig for an exhilarating ride on the waves, living the good life. It is always good weather for someone.
The next day was windy and cool so I explored the local area finding the Tea House along the road from my flat and went in the saloon type swing doors. It was a bit dark inside with a few elderly men at tables playing cards that looked up when I entered. A friendly faced woman behind the bar greeted me and promptly took me upstairs by means of a wooden ladder type starircase to a roof top garden, a beautiful little oasis with wooden gazebos and bursts of vibrant coloured beds of head high flowers and bushes.
She gave me a tea menu that was 6 pages long so I asked for a recommendation which she gave and then told me to stay up here to take my tea as it was nicer than down below and really women were not allowed in the male part. She told me the men talk about things women should not hear and sometime say bad words that would offend ladies.
I enjoyed my gentile, feminine time in the tea garden with Azorian tea and little bits of toast with pineapple jam while I wrote and browsed on my phone, wondering how the crew were fairing as I looked out at the large waves pounding on the rocks. All the energy built up travelling over the Atlantic and these lumps of volcanic rock the first thing to impeded their relentless march over the ocean.
I had never holidayed alone before, well not since a student and a week spent in Orkney (another healing time), so it felt odd but was quite therapeutic. Family called which was lovely to catch up on goings on at home and made me feel closer to home. It was strange being away still, still on our adventure but not on the boat. I suppose I was trying to grasp the dying vestiges of the trip, delaying coming back to reality but at the same tine keen to get back to family and a routine.
The evening was festive again with fireworks banging off constantly and the seemingly daily evening ritual of parading along the road with farm animals in carts or led by ropes, families hanging out the back of trucks singing and drinking, dancers with hoops of flags, music and a brass band. I watched them out my bedroom window but could not really work out what was happening, other than a celebration of Azorian life.
The following day was pleasant but my emotions were all over the place, I went from feeling strong and confident and making all sorts of mental plans, to feeling weak, tearful and vulnerable. I was ready to fly home and the next night found me back in my own bed, having done the whole journey from San Roque, Azores all the way to Argyll in a day. Stravaigin was surging her way northeast and it would take her 8 days to make landfall again. I wanted to be there to greet her.