Hurricane Robert, the bullfighting monodonticite

Sun 2 Oct 2005 16:21

2nd October 2005. From Terceira Island as we cruise about the Azores



Dear All,


Firstly, to lighten your spirits and enlighten you as to what we get up to (without you having to trawl your way through the endless pages of drivel that we write), you might want to see our latest batch of photos on the website at


So we arrived at Horta on Faial Island in the Azores without mishap, though with further nail-biting. The predictions showed hurricane Nate potentially tracking as far south as the Azores and at very high speed. Having detoured south to avoid Maria we were further from the islands than we would have been and now pulled out all the stops and headed direct to the safety of the marina at Horta. Our conversations with weather guru Herb over the SSB radio ceased, after Robert had managed to grab the microphone and create an intermittent break in the cable. Brother Alistair however provided an even better service and kept us fully informed with track data and advice by e-mail, which was unbelievably helpful. As it turned out, we outran Nate and the winds stayed below 25 knots while we were at sea. We were safely tied up in Horta and asleep in our bunks when it did finally pick up.


Still, it had been a rough passage overall. The first few days through the fog, the next few slogging hard on the wind in very rough weather and the last few heading off to waypoints in the middle on nowhere had knackered us out. We covered 1450 miles at over six knots on average, taking nine and a half days in all. A stretch ashore was just what we needed.


We spent a while in Horta tied up alongside the wall and investigated our precarious VAT position. We also spent time hunting the breakwater artwork for paintings by any boats we knew and found many familiar names, Sai See amongst them. We added our own magnificent “Kokiri” offering and left Horta, fully refreshed, for Pico.


We made the short hop across under engine and anchored in the small harbour at Madalena. There are few good anchorages on Pico (aptly named for its 2350m conical volcanic peak) so we treated ourselves and hired a car for a day. A friendly policeman set us off in the right direct and proved to be an excellent source of tourist information. We sped off towards the fascinating whaling museum in Lajes, which contains some of the last remnants of what used to be a massive industry here. The old whaleboats, light slender craft propelled only by oars and sails are still numerous in the local harbours, are now used only for inter-village racing. The Azoreans went after sperm whales mostly and one would imagine that despite the lack of technology they were still pretty effective at catching, killing and butchering them.


Taking the coast road around the island we found a lovely pair of new whaleboats in the boathouse in fishing village of Santa Cruz, along with a huge horde of silverware attesting to their racing successes. In the small village of Calhau, as the policeman had told us, they were having a party (why aren’t all the world’s policemen so helpful?). This was the village’s annual fiesta, with food, drink, music, dancing and of course bullfighting. Or ‘bullfighting-on-a-rope’ as it is termed here. This fantastic spectacle involves a number of angry bulls, having been kept in a box in the sun all day, being let out into the centre of the village one after another. With the bull attached to one end of a very long rope and four or five burly men holding on to one end, the men folk of the village (with something to prove) taunt the bull to distraction. Using red rags, blankets and umbrellas they chase it, get chased, and certainly on occasion get gored. Meanwhile the rest of the population look on gasping and cheering, perched on walls, trees or roofs or behind the white line which marks the end of the ropes reach.


For the first two bulls Katharine and I, with Robert in the baby-carrier rucksack on my back, stayed just on the safe side of the white line, surging with the crowd backward and forward as the bulls came our way. The excitement and fear was absolutely gripping. For the third bull we made ourselves safe with a group of people on the high sea-wall close to the middle of the square, our backs to the surf and massive basalt boulders with made up the beach. A friendly local lady was temporarily holding Robert in a cooey sort of way; the warning rocket went up, the bull was let out of its cage and immediately leapt clean up and onto the sea wall. Panic raged and as it tore towards our group the local lady jumped with Robert down into the village square (read bullring), followed by all the rest of us. We lunged for the limited shelter of barricade outside the public loos and tried to collect ourselves. Robert was returned, but none too happy among the wailing and screaming ladies. Fortunately the bull, which had run off toward the sea probably hoping for a refreshing dip, was dragged back into its cage and we were gradually able to recover. We watched the final bull from the top of the cliff which overhangs the village.


The following morning gave us a few more hours with the car, so we aimed for a newly opened set of caves. They were closed until the afternoon and peering through the windows at the line of miner’s helmets seemed to suggest that they didn’t have one in Robert's size, so we set off on a drive along the farm tracks around the volcano. On returning the car to the office we found it closed for lunch, which gave us another forty minutes, and one last sight to see. With a powerful little hire-car and a steep hill-climb up rally-like dirt tracks to the highest access up the mountain, it was too good an opportunity to miss. We made 1200m up and down and did get the car back on time.


We detoured back to Horta, to fill the tanks with water, and then sailed off to Sao Jorge. Crossing the deep channel which separates Sao Jorge from Pico in very light winds we spied two sperm whales resting at the surface. On closer inspection we found a tiny calf with them, probably less than six feet long. They entertained us for a while and then sounded. Sperm whales feed at the bottom, which was around 1000m down.


Sao Jorge is a pleasant looking island and we were slightly better protected from the swells in the harbour at Velas than we had been at Madalena. We walked to the top of an old volcanic caldera, cut in cross-section by erosion from the sea and with exceptionally dramatic cliffs showing the layers of cinders and lava. As we left for Graciosa the next day we took Kokiri into the open crater and the explored briefly in Twofella, passing under a rock arch and then hovering momentarily below the vertical cliffs. A good sail followed with the flanker set and we passed inshore of Ilheu de Baixo at the southeastern tip of Graciosa and dropped the anchor in the late afternoon off Vila da Praia.


Here we spent a day on board while it rained and we played with Robert. The next morning broke bight and sunny and we set off to explore Graciosa’s volcanic phenomena; the cavern that leads to the ‘centre of the earth’. It felt almost like it too. The tiny island of Graciosa boasts three mountain ranges of which the southernmost is a single volcano with a vast fertile crater, at the centre of which is a cave. We caught a taxi into the crater, which is accessed by a tunnel blasted through crater wall. The bowl seems have a microclimate of its own with thick sweet air giving it the feeling of a lush and verdant garden. But we wanted to walk around the crater before the treats of the cave. So we used sign language and smiles to persuade the taxi driver to drive us out of the crater again. The walk was perfect. Five kilometres around the rim gave us perfect views of the whole island, and we found a shaded spot for our picnic. We had been told, in faltering English, by the maritime policeman to watch out far a path leading to a tunnel into the crater. This turned out to be a dramatic lava tunnel leading through the crater rim to a shear cliff within, giving us a stunning location for a breastfeed!


Once back in the centre we headed down into the cave. It was a magnificent and vast domed-ceiling lair with a small lake at its base. There was a lonely looking rowing boat on the lake, which, for those of you who have read the latest Harry Potter, would have had a sinister significance. The cave was formed (as we understand it) by the molten lava lake draining away as the volcano expired. The entrance is through a narrow crevice from above and there has been a tower and spiral staircase built for access. Many things in the cave are remarkable, but none more so than the echo. Any noise could be heard over and over again for many seconds; to the extent that Peter’s fart was repeated and repeated for our lasting pleasure.



The cave itself is difficult to describe, but it did indeed give us a feeling that molten lava was not far away. The domed shape and the two small vents to the sunshine above gave a great sense of enclosure. It was truly remarkable.


From Graciosa we headed off for Terceira. On the way we discovered Robert’s first tooth!! Such proud parents. We are now in Angra do Heroismo in Terceira, preparing for our crossing to mainland Europe. The delights of this island will have to wait for the next Dear All as this has got too long for one missive, but we will write again soon.


Keep well all of you and keep smiling.


All our love,


Katharine, Peter and Robert the Brave!