Lisbon (PRT) – Rio Guadiana (PRT)
“Oh that awful smell… shall we sail on?” Ivar points to port. Tall chimneys with burning gas flares line the coast. We are a few miles from Sines, our envisaged stop for the night, but the fumes of Portugal’s fossil fuel industry cast doubts over our choice. “It should be fine in the bay,” says Floris. “The chimneys and easterly wind will make sure the pollution descends over the sea, not the town.” He’s right. When we drop the anchor near the Sines marina an hour later, we don’t smell anything out of the ordinary. It concludes a great day of sailing. In the early morning we had left Lisbon with clear skies and an easterly wind that never left us, allowing us to make good progress on our way south.
The next day we wake up with a view of the old town. It looks quite charming and we are tempted to explore it. Yet our desire to make use of the favourable winds is stronger, so we continue our journey south and Sines gets the questionable honour of becoming the first destination we don’t actually visit. The rest of the day proves that we made the right decision. The wind moves Luci at a constant speed while keeping her on an almost even keel. It allows us to prepare lunch, read, do the dishes and enjoy the sunshine. A few more hours and we’ll be anchored in time for dinner, we predict.
However, it all changes when we round the most south-westerly cape of Portugal – Cabo de São Vicente – at sunset. The wind increases with 10 knots to around 25 knots, which is not uncommon around capes, so we had reefed our sails ahead of time. Now we find ourselves sailing close to the wind while the waves get a lot higher. Darkness falls and the anchorage near Sagres we had in mind for the night would be exposed to both the westerly ocean swell and the easterly wind and waves. Ivar sighs “we won’t get a lot of sleep there, so we might as well continue”. We head for Lagos, the closest port around 15 nm upwind. Just as we are close to completing our first leg on starboard and prepare to tack, the wind shifts 50 degrees and we find Lagos upwind again. Our hope that we would reach Lagos with just one tack evaporates. When we finally tack and sail an hour or so towards the coast again, we find ourselves only a few miles from the cape we passed hours ago. How frustrating! Add fatigue and you’ll get the general mood on board. Still, we just have to live with it. Barely able to stay awake, we finally reach Lagos at around 5 am. We moor at the empty visitor’s pontoon and sleep like babies.
Living the Lagos Life
When we wake up a few hours later, the bright sun and warm temperatures make up for the exhausting trip. After checking-in at the marina, we head for the showers. Another positive surprise: the showers are the best and cleanest we’ve had in a long time. They soon make us forget about the previous night – what a welcome to the Algarve!
The marina is very well sheltered and gives an attractive low-season discount. That explains why the marina is quite busy. Quite a change – since leaving Bergen in Norway we have rarely seen other sailors. So this is where all the boats were hiding! We learn that at least a hundred liveaboards spend the winter here. Among them our friends Jan and Baukjen, who are here for their 10th winter. They soon give us useful tips about Lagos and the Algarve and explain that the marina harbours a sort of community of mostly British, French and Dutch sailors. We would soon witness its manifestation.
“The Portuguese lessons start today at 2pm in the bar of the marina hotel.” A British female voice updates the floating community via VHF. As the new kids on the block, we’re curious to listen in. “Yoga is today at 4pm in the bar of the marina hotel. Correction: yoga is in the spa of the marina hotel.” “If anyone has any questions or remarks, now is the time”. Another British female voice takes over. “Due to illness, there won’t be any yoga today unfortunately”. What a pity.
A few hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve, our friend Margreet arrives with fresh “oliebollen” from home and French champagne. The laptop speakers emit the final tunes of the Top2000, a countdown of the most popular songs on Dutch radio. When Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody fades, we open the champagne – an hour early given the time difference with Portugal, but we can’t resist. Not much later we watch the fireworks on the boulevard with Jan and Baukjen. It is a colourful and spectacular show, quite a difference from the often messy and dangerous displays in the Netherlands.
Creative with Cork
From Lagos we explore the sustainable qualities of cork. Portugal produces the majority of global supply, and the Algarve is one of the main growing areas. Margreet treats us on a rental car and volunteers to drive. It doesn’t take long before we spot bright red tree stems with white numbers painted on them. No doubt, cork oak trees! Some are scattered around the landscape, others in plantation style settings. The numbers indicate the year of the last harvest. In nine years after their bark has been removed, the trees regrow their bark and may be harvested again. In the process they create a natural material while absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere.
During our visit of the cork factory later that day, we learn the ins and outs of the different types of wine and champagne stoppers. But we also learn about the many other applications that the creative Portuguese have found for this versatile material. For more info on this sustainable solution, see our article and video here.
Adventurers in Alvor
After seven days in Lagos waiting for favourable winds our attractive weekly rate in the marina comes to an end. Since there is still very little wind forecast for the next few days, we head for the nearby anchorage at Alvor. Just as we were told, both the most recent digital map as well as the green buoy are inaccurate and don’t reflect the latest position of the moving sandbanks. As we approach cautiously, two hours before high tide, the depth metre suddenly drops and we feel an abrupt bump. We are grounded. The incoming tide soon raises the boat over the sand bank and without much additional trouble we make it to the anchorage by dusk.
Only the next morning we realize how many boats are gathered here, and judging by the shabby looks of some them, they have been here for a while. We kayak Margreet to shore to arrange a taxi to take her to the train station. One just arrives and out gets a Dutchman with some 30 bags of groceries. As we wave goodbye to Margreet, we meet him and help with his groceries. Together with another Dutchman we paddle all the groceries to his trimaran. We enjoy a coffee and listen to the stories of these seasoned sailors. The younger of the two is eager to leave Alvor, but doesn’t know yet whether to cruise the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. The older adventurer made his first ocean crossing in 1961, sailed the world for 24 years and is retiring here. Both are sailing on a budget and are moored to moorings they made themselves. Other long-stay boats of different nationalities surround them. A unique and colourful floating community, that hopefully won’t be too much affected by the town’s €4 million dredging plans that are rumoured to go ahead.
Visitor in Vilamoura
After a few days of exploring Alvor’s natural beauty and stocking up on our supplies at the local supermarket, we head out to sea again. Our friend Annemiek is arriving tonight and we decide to sail to Vilamoura, which is easy to reach from Faro airport. The northerly wind that was forecast proves somewhat hesitant, so we pull out the gennaker, our light weather sail. The huge red-white-blue sail fills the sky and increases our speed by 2 knots. Definitely worth the effort of dusting it off. Yet our inexperience with this sail becomes painfully clear when we get ready to motor towards Vilamoura. We overlook that the gennaker sheet is in the water when we start the engine. A loud noise and strong pull on the line mercilessly remind us of this sloppiness. Floris is quick to put the engine in neutral, and we’re able to pull out one end of the torn sheet. The other end is stuck, but when we reverse the propeller we pull out that part as well. Phew, that saves a diving exercise at see. Too bad the sheet is in half, but luckily both the sail and the engine seem fine.
Vilamoura sticks out on the coast like as white concrete jungle. Large hotels and apartment buildings surround the marina entrance. We check in at the efficient reception and are directed to a free berth at the “P” pontoon. Just as we approach our berth and Ivar reverses the propeller to stop the boat, the engine refuses to accelerate. Unable to stop, and with the pontoon approaching, Floris is able to slow Luci down with a rope. Luckily there are no other boats there and we get away with only a small scratch on the bow. The propeller clearly isn’t clean yet! Ivar gets into his swimming gear and bravely jumps into the cold water. He dives towards the propeller and pulls out a piece of gennaker sheet. It matches both ends of the other pieces. A good lesson to double check these the next time, if there is a next time…
Ivar’s parents arrived in Vilamoura on a sailing journey with “Eendracht” almost 40 years ago, and encountered a small fishing village. As we walk around the enormous marina we see that those days are long gone. The place is completely overhauled with no traces of fishermen left. The many hotels, bars, restaurants and shops are mostly closed this time of year. At least we can enjoy the luxurious marina facilities at discounted rates. Annemiek arrives in the evening just as we’re making dinner. An experienced sailor, she makes herself at home in no-time. We catch up, but don’t make it too late since we have an early start the next morning.
A daytrip away from Vilamoura lies the highly recommended island of Culatra. To get to its anchorage, we need to enter the Faro estuary. This sizeable, shallow basin is surrounded by sand dunes and only accessible through a narrow entrance. This means we are on strong current alert. We aim to enter before high tide. We leave on time, but the wind is not as strong as predicted, so we only just make it. We find a spot not far from a small settlement and fishing harbour, surrounded by wetlands and sand dunes.
The next day there is very little wind, so we decide to explore Culatra island. The fishing community proves to be impressively large for the low-lying, quite barren island. As we hike along its beautiful ocean-facing beach, we can’t help but pick plastic waste. There’s too much to carry, and take as much as we can back to the village. We fantasize how a community clean-up day would make this island even more beautiful.
Annemiek treats us to lunch at a small restaurant on the island. We learn that the written lunch menu is obsolete, they only serve what they still have. Luckily there are three freshly caught fish left in the cooler. The barbeque is lit just for us. The grilled fish taste delicious, seafood Portuguese style at its best.
Bye Bye at the Border
The next day Sacha, another friend from Ivar’s days as sailing instructor, joins us. With a fair northerly breeze, we head for the Rio Guadiana. This river forms the natural border between Portugal and Spain, and is a day trip away. As the wind increases, we reef the sails and continue to go much faster than we expected. With a strong incoming tide we enter the river, and find that the current is also running right through the marina of Vila Real de Santo Antonio. We’re just able to moor without scratches, thanks to the help of the harbour master. After check-in we enjoy the showers and relax in the cockpit. In the evening we make our way through the “Manhattan grid” style street pattern and pick up Sacha from the local train station.
Annemiek and Sacha get used to the Portuguese weather quite quickly, aided by an extended breakfast and coffee outside. We spend the weekend hiking and enjoying the beach, the pine tree forest and the charming town of Castro Marin with its Saturday market. Under a clear blue sky, we pick as many oranges as we can carry from trees along the road. In the evening Sacha prepares a delicious meal with ingredients from the market. What a treat.
After we wave farewell to our friends on Monday, we use the slack tide to leave the marina safely and anchor at the other side of the Rio Guadiana. We’re back in Spain now, and despite the short trip we lost an hour due to the time difference.