Sailing the Atlantic, Cruising the Caribbean - Avalon of Arne

By Phaon Reid

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Fog and Breakers

Porto to Figueira da Foz

Map Porto to Fig da FozWe had greatly enjoyed our time in Porto and, for the first time on the voyage, we felt that we would have liked to stay for longer. On the other hand we had a fairly flexible schedule to keep to ( the only commitment being Barbados for Christmas), but realised that if we overstayed in Europe the schedule would become a great deal less flexible as time went on. Chris on Wild Rose (now single handed) was planning to leave with us. This would be the first time he had sailed her alone outside home waters, and the trip would just be a short hop down the coast to Figueira da Foz.

The last few mornings had been quite foggy in Porto. On the day we left, there was a fair bit of mist clinging to the river, but we could see downstream as far as the next bridge, so we decided set off and see what it was like. Well, as we motored down the river with the ebbing tide and current behind us, it wasn't too bad, so when we reached the "chicane" at the river entrance, we decided to go for it. The tide race seemed less pronounced than on the way in, probably because the water level was higher. Once out at sea, though, it was a different matter - the fog closed right in and visibility was very poor, varying between perhaps twenty and a hundred yards. Initially we headed straight out for a couple of miles to give ourselves a good clearance from the coast, keeping the two boats within sight of each other. Occasionally we heard foghorns, which sounded quite close, although it was impossible to judge bearing or distance. So we hooted back dutifully with our little aerosol horns.

I hate fog and, sailing from England and around the Channel Islands, I've seen quite a lot of it. Neither of the boats had radar. It had been on my original wish-list, but had eventually been crossed off. This was largely due to cost, but I had also thought that once outside European waters, visibility would always be good and we wouldn't need it. This, indeed, proved to be true; after this day we would never see fog again for the remainder of the trip. We have a radar reflector, of course, but I don't place a great deal of faith in them, or more particularly in the watchkeeping standards on other vessels. We also have a radar detector, which will bleep at you if a radar is being operated in the vicinity. What it doesn't tell you, of course, is whether anyone has SEEN you on the radar.

After heading out a safe distance, we turned to head south parallel with the invisible coast. There was no wind worth mentioning, but a very large, regular swell rolling in from the Atlantic. The fog banks rolled over us, and Wild Rose would disappear and re-appear like a ghost ship beside us. The fog cleared somewhat later in the day and we decided to put into Aveiro for the night. This was one of the occasions when our out-of-date pilot book "The Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal" caused us some problems. Aveiro is quite a confusing place, with the main inlet branching off into various canals and lagoons. Eventually, we found a lagoon where a number of boats were anchored and, religiously following the directions in the pilot book, motored in and promptly went aground on a falling tide - at a point where the chartlet indicated 5 metres of water. Obviously, the channel had moved. Wild Rose, with a keel as deep as ours, couldn't get in close enough to help. Eventually, we suffered the ignominious fate of being towed off by the customs launch, in full view of all the anchored yachts. Well, it happens to us all sometimes. We gratefully fed the customs officers with beer as they checked our papers. A new version of this pilot book has how been issued. If sailing down this coast, I would urge you to get the latest information. Things change fast!

The next day dawned misty again, and we set off down the coast towards Figueira da Foz. Once again, the wind was non-existant so we did the whole trip using the iron topsail. I don't know what happened to the Prtuguese trades that year - they were certainly nowhere near Portugal. While motoring through the fog, a small bird, evidently exhausted and disoriented, landed on board, then hopped down below where we fed it and made it an improvised nest. It flew off a little while later, apparently to visit Wild Rose. After a few hours, as we were approaching Figueira da Foz, the fog seemed to clear a bit, and we could catch the occasional glimpse of the low, featureless coastline. We could also hear, very clearly, the sound of the huge waves crashing ashore. Occasionally we would catch glimpses of local fishing boats.

We had to get in fairly close before we could pick out the harbour entrance and, as we got closer, the waves got steeper. There are two large breakwaters sticking out some way into the sea. Well inside them is a central mole; to the left of this is the entrance to the port. To the right are some rocks, and a beach. Wild Rose was heading in perhaps 100 yards ahead of us; ahead of him was a large steel trawler, maybe 80 feet long. As we got closer, we could see that some of the waves were breaking right across the harbour entrance. I turned to Sarah and said "I don't think I like this very much". We got out safety harnesses and clipped on, then closed up the main hatch. It was getting to be hard work keeping the stern on to the waves, while steering to port between waves so that we'd make the channel entrance and not the mole. By this time, turning back out to sea didn't seem like a good option. If one of those waves caught us broadside on.....

Suddenly, a wave started breaking just in front of Wild Rose. The trawler was caught like a toy and carried in broadside on for some way. Then, belching black diesel smoke, it managed to get back under control. This was seriously worrying. There was no turning back now. Looking astern, we waited for what looked like a relatively calm spell, then headed in under full throttle. Whichever guardian angel looks after foolish yachties must have been on duty that day; we made it. When we got into the marina (no anchoring or buoys in Figueira da Foz), we went to the office to complete the interminable Portuguese formalities. The harbour master seemed surprised to see us, and asked us how then entrance had been. We told him. He nodded sagely. In retrospect, after the trip, we both agreed that this had been the scariest point of the whole voyage.

We later learned that the daymarks were up, indicating that entry was unsafe. Of course, they had been quite invisible from the sea. Later, we walked down the breakwater and watched the sea. It had calmed a bit, as the tide had risen, but it still looked nasty. We also learned that they were going to be holding a surfing championship there in three days time. We thought it an excellent choice.

Figueira da Foz is a seaside resort, quite large, and quite a pleasant place really. It had the somnolent air of most such places outside the holiday season. We had to stay for three days before the daymarks came down to announce that it was safe to leave. It was the day of the surfing championship. Needless to say, the sea was as calm as a millpond.