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A Tribute to Sailing

A welcome sight after weeks of nothing but ocean scenery—the lighthouse of Cabo Sao Vincente.
It had been a gentle, nine-day passage across a soft blue ocean from the Azores heading for the Portuguese mainland. The sun had just risen a few hours earlier and as I manned the helm, Sheryl stood at the dodger with the binoculars. There was an early morning mist in the air and we could barely contain our excitement as we both scanned the hazy horizon, searching for the dark smudge that would confirm our landfall at Cape St. Vincent, on the southwest corner of Portugal.

The wind was light from the northwest and there was a big sloppy swell, but Two-Step, the Classic 37 sloop that Sheryl and I built together from a bare fiberglass hull 12 years ago, rode the waves comfortably under main and jib. We now had 35,000 miles under the keel and this landfall would mark our third transatlantic passage. Whoever spotted land first today would win big points.

"I wanted maximum speed and maneuverability as we crossed the shipping lanes."
This is part of a game Sheryl and I play on passages. Points are awarded to each for various navigational and passagemaking activities and tallied at the completion of the voyage. Prizes are given. To give you an idea, we award three points for every fish caught, two points for each dolphin spotted (these can really add up at sea), 10 points for whales, five points for every ship sighted, extra points if radio contact is made with a ship, but we argue about the points for this one since a female voice on the radio at sea generally gets a response so I claim that's an unfair advantage and that I should get more points. The shipping lanes around Cape St. Vincent are reputed for their heavy traffic, so I was hoping to rack up some nice bonus points right at the end of the voyage.


"Southbound ship on port bow," I shouted and gave my mate a Cheshire Cat grin. She looked up to mark the ship's position, gave me a smile, and then went back to the binoculars.

"I'm going for the big one," she said scanning the mist ahead. Landfall scored the biggest points.

Prince Henry the Navigator embodied a spirit of discovery that lingers on in modern-day cruisers.
The ship I'd spotted was soon followed by others and half an hour later the wind had dropped, so we furled the jib and fired up Two-Step's 28-hp Volvo Penta diesel engine, motor-sailing with the main up. I wanted maximum speed and maneuverability as we crossed the shipping lanes. There were now 12 ships in sight. It was a bit of a shock to be surrounded by these monsters after the quiet days we'd just spent alone, slowly sailing across the open sea. The two of us had grown accustomed to having the world to ourselves on this last leg of our passage from the Azores and this was quite an intrusion. Seven of the invaders marched northward in a neat row along the shrouded Portuguese coast, headed for the Bay of Biscay, Northern Europe, and the UK, while the other five ships bearing down on us in the southbound lane, rushed to round the still invisible cape and continue east toward the Strait of Gibraltar and the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea.

I checked the bearing on the closest ship, then swept my eyes across the misty horizon yet again. Nothing. We were only five miles off according to our dead reckoning and the handheld GPS, and we had seen the Cape St. Vincent light during the night. It's an impressive light as lights go. The most powerful light in Europe, it has a range of 60 miles, and when it came up during my watch it was like seeing an old friend.

The first time I'd navigated by this light was in 1990, a few weeks after Sheryl and I had completed our very first transatlantic passage. On that trip we'd made landfall in Lisbon, farther north up the coast, and spent time recovering from a stormy voyage in that exciting city. Later, we'd made a night passage down the coast to spend time in the Algarve, Portugal's golden south coast, planning our arrival at the Cape St. Vincent for dawn. It was a quiet, moonless night and the phosphorescence was so thick we carried a sparkling trail the whole way behind us. Dolphins played by the boat leaving light trails like fading comets in their path, and for most of the voyage the Cabo Sao Vincente light was in sight, blinking reassurance and welcome ahead. Magic.

"Land ho!"

I snapped out of my reflections at Sheryl's shout.

"Ha! Ha! I win!" she said triumphantly. "You're on dish duty for a week, Buddy!"

"Where?" I said, glancing first at the approaching ship to starboard, then scanning the horizon. "I don't see it. I'll bet you're just trying to trick me."

"Never," she said handing me the binoculars. "There. About two o'clock."

But I didn't need the binoculars. In the direction she pointed I saw a dark line, faint but distinct.

"That's great, Sher," I said giving her a hug. "Land ho! Welcome to Portugal. Now get ready for a big wake!"

The waters off this cape mark the end of the continent and have witnessed fierce battles throughout history.
The ship thundered by well to our stern, but it didn't take long for its large wake to catch us, and Two-Step went dancing across the rolling seas and safely out of the shipping lanes. The mist soon cleared in the heat of the rising sun and dead ahead were the towering cliffs of Cape St. Vincent. Perched on the point 246 feet above the ocean was the Cabo Sao Vincente lighthouse, a wedding-cake fortress marking the edge of a continent. Throughout history, this cape has held significance for many passing civilizations. In the Middle Ages it was thought to mark the end of the world. The Romans called it "Promontorium Sacrum" (Sacred Promontory). Its present name comes from the whimsical legend that the vessel containing the body of St. Vincent, who had suffered martyrdom in Valencia in the fourth century, ran aground at the cape. The ship, guarded by two ravens, remained here for centuries, so it is said, before continuing its way to Lisbon where it arrived in 1173. A number of important naval battles have taken place here as well, including the defeat of a Spanish fleet in 1797 by the British admirals Jervis and Nelson. Since the 15th century, Cabo Sao Vincente has been an important reference point for shipping, beginning with Prince Henry the Navigator's instigation of the great Portuguese explorations.

Now that we were out of the shipping lanes, we switched off the motor and rounded the cape under sail. The waves crashed against the formidable cliffs, and high above the water enthusiastic fishermen dangled 200-foot lines into the sea. Occasionally, we would see a flapping fish travel up through the air on a line as the captor attempted to keep his catch from banging into the cliff-side. "There's a form of flying fish I haven't seen before," I commented to Sheryl.

We now headed eastward along the coast toward the next headland, passing stretches of long, golden, sandy beaches beaten over the centuries by waves from the foot of the cliffs. Sun worshippers lay on the sand and children played in the water.

Ninety minutes from the Cape, we tucked in behind the Sagres peninsula, and dropped the hook off Praia da Mareia, a small, sandy beach surrounded by tall ochre, sandstone cliffs that reflected yellow, orange, rust, and purple in the sunshine. With the light northwesterly wind we would be fine for the night in the protection of the Sagres headland, and close to the beach we were out of the swell rounding the headland. But the anchorage is exposed to the south and southwest, so we planned to move on to the port of Lagos the next day where we could enjoy the luxuries of being tied to a dock at the lovely marina there and restock our supplies in town. Also, we had to go to an official port to report to customs.

We had cleared into Portugal in the Azores several weeks earlier but in Portugal you are required to clear in and out of every port. Technically, we shouldn't go ashore here at the anchorage but fellow cruisers assured us that since it wasn't an official port, there didn't seem to be a problem if we wanted to stretch our legs and touch solid ground again. Just behave ourselves and carry our papers and passports.

There were only five boats in the anchorage but room for 20 or more in good conditions. Most flew international flags and had come down the coast from Northern Europe and the UK. Two-Step was the only one that had arrived directly from a transatlantic passage.

The mammoth wind compass is all that remains of Prince Henry's school of navigation.
We beached the dinghy and headed up the cliff to the white fortress reflecting the hot September sunlight—the site of Prince Henry the Navigator's school of navigation, a catalyst for the extraordinary era of Portuguese exploration during the fifteenthth and sixteenth centuries. Knowing the importance of trade and maritime development, Prince Henry (1394-1460) gathered an elite group of highly qualified cartographers, astronomers, and geographers to develop new techniques and instruments for navigating the high seas. The original buildings of the school have disappeared as a result of time, and all that remains of this historic institution is the mammoth wind compass.

Having just crossed the ocean for the third time with reliable charts and modern navigational aids, we wanted to come here on this day to pay tribute and offer our thanks to the spirit of the men that set forth from this place. Through their courage and desire for knowledge, they have helped sailors throughout the centuries fulfill their dreams of freely sailing the world's oceans. We looked across the compass and out to the open sea in their memory, then returned to our floating home to celebrate our safe passage and prepare for our upcoming cruise of the Algarve coast.

Paul & Sheryl Shard is offline  
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