Portions of this article first appeared in Cruising World magazine.

Azores High

by James Baldwin

An eastbound trans-Atlantic fleet encounters gales, calms, and a mid-ocean medical evacuation.


Islander approaches Flores Island 24 days out of Bermuda

Eighteen days out of Bermuda we drift in calm waters near 40 degrees North 40 degrees West. Herb Hilgdenburg on the Southbound II weather net suggests we go further north where there may be a trace of wind or at least a favorable current. This area has come under the calming, or maddening, influence of an Azores High that seems to be covering half the North Atlantic.

I'm reminded of a conversation at the White Horse Pub just before we departed St. Georges, Bermuda. Asked what course he'll be taking to the Azores, a German on a forty-some foot yacht confidently states, "I will sail north to 40 degrees North to get zee westerly winds before turning east." Then with a touch of boastful superiority added, "But perhaps with your little 28-foot boat you do not like zee wind, eh?"

This last bout of calms came after a thrilling two day westerly gale that had us rushing down some awesome seas under a 90% furled jib. Occasionally a foamy breaking wave-top would drop harmlessly into the cockpit. If only our German sailor could have seen us enjoying the roller coaster ride towards 40 north.

Earlier, since leaving Bermuda on June 14, my wife Mei and I had sailed Islander, a 28-foot Taipan sloop lacking an inboard engine, through days of flat calms alternating with tantalizing but marginally helpful 2-3 knot zephyrs. With fanatic devotion to sail trim we somehow managed a steady if meager progress, except for one twenty-four hour period when we drifted backwards fourteen miles. Mei decorated the aft lifelines with strands of her long silky black hair to use as tell-tales. With one finger on the tiller I sat and stared at these dangling threads in a Buddha-like trance. Mei looked long into the glassy sea and whispered "moa cheen" (magic mirror).

We loved the solitude. But the weather nets and cruisers nets we joined on the SSB radio meant we were never absolutely alone. A group of yachts we spoke with daily on 8 MHz had left Bermuda for the Azores about a week after us. By motoring through the calms they all eventually overtook us. On the net we exchanged position and wind(less) reports, heard who saw whales or who was catching fish. We caught only Sargasso seaweed on the plastic squid lure we trailed. One by one the other motor-sailing yachts passed us as if we were standing still, which, after all, is exactly what we were doing much of the time.

Our net controllers were Amy and Bill McManus on their CSY 37 Sunset Dreamer from St. Petersburg, Florida. Other yachts on this net were Stormy Duchess, Moose, Shady Lady, Lucy, Abracadabra, Mariah, Penguin, Sabrina and Satori.

When we arrived in Flores Island, Azores after an unexpectedly long twenty-four day passage, we met all those folks we had previously known only as radio voices. That night we all gathered on the stony beach at Porto das Lajes for a potluck, or "lucky pot" as Mei calls it. Among the group warming themselves from the chilly spring air around a bonfire, we met people as varied as computer programmer, architect, accountant, Dutch commando marine, sales clerk, doctor, and nurse; people who found common ground through a shared ocean passage. On the overhanging cliffs above us came the crazed squealing of demented seabirds, locally called cagarras, who soared down on us with a hilarious loud burst of Yau-Yau-Yau-Wah!

Bill and Amy gave up their jobs to make a one year circuit of the North Atlantic with stops planned at Bermuda, Azores, Portugal, Canaries, and back through the West Indies to Florida. "This was our first long ocean passage," Bill said. "In Bermuda we met other boats heading for the Azores who wanted to keep in touch on a radio net. Underway we kept a chart showing the daily positions of each boat. Aside from that one gale where we blew out our mainsail, we had an easy passage. It was a great learning experience," Amy added.

As our fleet arrived in the Azores, a bizarre rescue and salvage operation was taking place several hundred miles behind us. On June 9th, Michael Freeman and his twenty-five year-old daughter, Virginia, left Queens, New York, bound for Ireland in their 1960 28-foot Pearson Triton, named Goose. Michael, a magazine graphic art designer had refit Goose in his spare time over the past six years and took the summer off for his first ocean crossing. In Bermuda, the Freeman's met 38-year-old Belgian artist Dominique Rogge. Dominique was still in port recovering from a salmonella infection when he recently fell, cracking a rib and bruising a kidney. Because of a lack of money, the hospital in Bermuda had turned the sailor away to convalesce alone on his boat.

Before buying his Albin 27, named Lady Ada, in Aruba three years ago, Dominique cruised from the Canary Islands to South America on a 43-foot motorsailor he had rebuilt from a half sunken wreck. He supported himself on his travels working as a painter, sculpter, and a mime doing street performances. In Brazil, he shocked and amused the locals by peddle-sailing across country on two bicycles welded side by side, propelled from town to town under a junk-rigged sail. "I traveled this way to promote ecology, bicycling and art," Dominique explained. He was now returning to the Canary Islands to visit his wife who had tired of such unconventional travels with her talented, yet misunderstood husband.

"Since Dominique had a weatherfax and vastly more sailing experience than us, we agreed to buddy boat on the next leg to the Azores," Mike said. Both boats got underway on June 23rd when Dominique declared he felt fit to sail. For six days they tacked northeast in light winds, keeping in sight of each other and chatting on VHF. On one calm evening Dominique leapt aboard Goose to share dinner. Looking at Lady Ada drifting alone was spooky enough then, but they couldn't foresee she would soon be abandoned altogether by her skipper.


Goose, a 28-foot Pearson Triton anchored at Flores Is.

On June 29 Dominique complained of severe stomach pains that worsened the next day. Goose's SSB radio was not functioning but Michael did manage to email his ex-wife via their Magellan Orbair satellite system, asking her to contact a doctor for medical advice. Unable to locate a doctor willing to advise an unseen patient, she was forwarded to the Coast Guard Rescue Control Center in Norfolk who, without any specific request from the sailors involved, put out an advisory for any ships in the area to come to Lady Ada's assistance.

The next day the sailors were surprised when the freighter Scanderborg approached and announced on VHF that they had come to pick up the sick sailor and take him to Gibraltar. Dominique told them he only wanted medical advice and at that point was unwilling to abandon his home. Virginia recalled, "We tried to cancel the unintended Mayday, but after Dad sat on the Magellan and broke it we were cut off."

Strong winds separated the boats on July 1st. When Goose relocated Lady Ada the next day they were soon joined by the Rio Frio, another ship attempting to pick up Dominique. Several hours later another ship, the Sealand Quality, loomed above them and discussed the chaotic situation by sat-phone with the coast guard. Fearing he may have appendicitis, they transferred a box of antibiotics to Lady Ada. A day of massive doses of Amoxycillin and a liquid diet had Dominique feeling slightly better as they continued sailing east.

On July 4th Dominique had relapsed with fever and stomach pain when the Cousteau Society's turbo-sail ship Alcyone passed by. The French crew convinced Dominique that his life was in danger. He only reluctantly agreed to come aboard when the skipper of Alcyone promised to tow Lady Ada to the Azores. Once Dominique was aboard however, the skipper decided towing would be too slow and suggested they scuttle her instead.

Although Michael would not leave his daughter to sail Dominique's boat to the Azores, he did offer to try and tow her behind Goose. "We realized it would be pure luck if the weather held calm enough to make it all the way in. I was willing to try anyway," Michael said.

Alkyne's skipper gave Dominique five minutes to gather his belongings, helped transfer 25 gallons of diesel to Goose, and then raced away at near 20 knots. Michael and Virginia were left in mid-ocean with an abandoned boat nearly the same size as their boat to tow some 700 miles and only enough fuel to motor less than 500 miles. The Freeman's began their seemingly impossible mission with Michael swimming over a 250-foot towline which he attached to the bow cleats of Lady Ada with a fifteen-foot long chain bridle. Then he pulled himself hand over hand along the towline and attached to the center a small canvass bag full of chain to absorb the shock loads. "We towed her for two days under spinnaker in light westerly winds. Then we motored the last five days through calms and light headwinds to Flores. She towed nicely at four and a half knots with our 17 HP motor. She was a perfect lady. And we were very lucky," Mike admitted.


Michael, Dominique and Virginia reunited at Flores Island

Meanwhile Alcyone had transferred Dominique to the Russian freighter Kapitan Korotaev who had a doctor's assistant aboard. "The Russians treated me wonderfully," Dominique said. "They consulted by phone with specialists in Russia and pumped me full of antibiotics, put in an IV to stop my dehydration, and looked after my every need."

On July 7 a Portuguese coast guard boat brought Dominique ashore and carried him to hospital in Horta where he spent the next five days undergoing tests. Although the tests were inconclusive, he did recover enough to go down to the yacht harbor and inquire about the fate of Lady Ada. Through messages passed on Sunset Dreamer's SSB net he was able to confirm that Mother Goose and Lady Ada had arrived safely in Flores. The next day the penniless but resourceful Dominique made and sold a wire sculpture to pay for his plane ticket to Flores. Reunited with his boat and the Freeman's, Dominique smiled broadly and said, "I am so happy. You guys saved my boat. I cannot express my gratitude."


Flowers and crater lakes in the interior of Flores

The longstanding fraternity of sailors at sea is well matched by the hospitality and goodwill of the Azorean people. On arrival at Poto das Lajes we found the clearance formalities as simple as filling out a single page arrival form with the policeman on the harbor quay. No clearance or port charges were made. The islanders were so keen to attract visitors that they offered a free laundry service. Just drop off your bags of dirty clothes and they are washed and dried and returned without charge the following day. At the city hall, Internet access is free.

With the Freeman's we toured the island for a few days and were overwhelmed by scenes of ancient stone houses, traditional working watermills, deep volcanic crater lakes, and countless thousands of multi-colored flowers blanketing the island's rolling pasturelands. Whatever fresh foods we couldn't find in the small supermarkets, the local farmers generously offered to us direct from their gardens while refusing payment. It's not surprising then that most of us stayed in Flores much longer than we'd expected and won't miss a chance to return one day.