The whalers of Horta > Milanto Expedition

The whalers of Horta

The time we spent in the Caribbean passed quickly, perhaps because we weren’t in a hurry to leave. It sounds like a contradiction, but one of the things I have learned during this long journey is not to chase life, but to take the time so that your projects can take shape. After completing the world tour, we dedicated some time to the maintenance of Milanto before setting sail for the return trip to Italy.

Tommaso and Nicola joined us in Le Marin, the port where we landed in Martinique, embarking with us to experience their first oceanic experience. But first, we went together every day to discover Martinique. We went surfing in front of Tartare beach on the Trinity peninsula; we visited some of the best known agricultural rum distilleries – one of the major local economies; we ventured on trekking routes in the mountains in the interior and visited the most evocative bays along the coast.

We hitchhiked around the island. Here it was easy to ask for a ride and the inhabitants willingly stopped to share a stretch of the road with us on their way. It was normal to see people with their thumbs up returning from shopping or moving from one part of the island to the other. After struggling on a secondary road, all uphill to reach the top from which we descend towards the Plage de Cap Macrè, we got into the pickup of a carpenter who was working on a house nearby. Hubert talked to me about his work and said that he specialised in making furniture in the Louis XIV and XV style (!), but he also happened to work as a carpenter on boats. A mother with her son who were coming back from school took us another part of the way and smiled at us, wishing us a good walk.

And so between a ride by car and a stretch of road on foot, we reached the coast and took the path that led to a small chapel that I had noticed on the map, overlooking the ocean dedicated to the Vierge des Marins. It is my obsession to visit the places of devotion erected by those who go by sea. Over the years I have seen many in Italy dedicated to the Stella Maris, as well as in Corsica, on the French coast, and in Croatia. Each of these have a particular characteristic, but they all share the presence of marine objects placed as decoration in the rooms. This small chapel, built simply with local materials, had shells inserted between the stones of the external wall. Inside there were painted images of boats sailing in the storm and effigies of various saints. They looked like ex-votos placed to acknowledge a narrow escape or good luck offerings for the sailors and fishermen while they were working at sea. In the small apse a simple statue of the Virgin was surrounded by candles and vases containing flowers and palm leaves. The sound of the waves breaking on the rocks below reverberated between the walls of this small chapel under the Caribbean sun, a place that invited meditation and prayer.

We set sail from Martinique for the island of Antigua on a sunny morning. We passed close to the Diamond Rock, while katabatic gusts descended furiously from the hills heeling Milanto as she sailed upwind along the coast. During the night the open sea channels that separate Martinique from Dominica and Guadeloupe were quieter than usual: the sea was not very rough and the stars shone high in the clear sky. How wonderful it was to sail between these islands, I had forgotten how beautiful this sea was! We entered Falmouth Harbour on the morning of April 19th, and headed to one of the docks of the Yacht Club. I remembered the last time I was here eight years ago, always with Valerio on Milanto, before making my first Atlantic crossing, and now it seemed like a century had passed. Yet nothing had changed here, except the fact that in the bay, due to the pandemic, there were fewer boats at anchor than normal. This was also the case on land, where many restaurants and tourist shops were closed.

But Antigua is always the same – beautiful in the diffused light that distinguishes the colours of the sea and the green of the coastline. A light that is found only there, where the coral beaches are very white and the water is an almost dazzling turquoise shade. We stayed for about a week waiting for the right weather window to set sail. We rented a car to go around the island: we went to Shirley Heights, the ancient fortress overlooking English Harbour and the other coves on the southern coast; we took a dip on Long Bay beach and visited the other bays on the east coast; we reached Devil’s Bridge, a natural rock bridge overlooking the sea where the ocean waves break, raising splashes of water like the flames of hell; finally we went to the market in Saint John’s, the capital, and spent the afternoon walking among the locals.

In the evenings I often went for a run around Nelson’s Dockyard which was completely deserted; you could make a period costume film in the time of the great British admirals without having to change much of the surroundings. As has often happened to us in this year and a half of sailing around the world, here too it seemed as if you are living in a daydream. Wandering among the historic buildings of the ancient English naval base in the light of the sunset, I seemed to be transported back to the times of Horatio Nelson’s HMS Victory: still here in Antigua, stories upon stories are told, and not all of them edifying.

We set sail on the morning of April 26th, with a route to the Azores of 2,000 nautical miles which we planned to cover in about two weeks of sailing. During the first few days we sailed upwind keeping an average of 7 knots. Milanto cut the waves heeling to port and it took us two days to get used to the pitch of this uncomfortable angle.

Tommaso and I played and sang songs in the afternoon to pass the time as we sailed north to chase the westerly winds. Unfortunately, the high pressure stabilised in this part of the Atlantic and showed no sign of decreasing, indeed it seemed to be following our course. The result was that the wind began to decrease more and more and often forced us to proceed slowly or to have to turn on the engine. ‘We sail at a Japanese pace!’ said Valerio, meaning that we proceeded with the help of the onboard engine – a Japanese-made Yanmar. The sea was still infested with the sargassum that we encountered when we arrived in the Caribbean and therefore did not allow us to fish. We just had to try to take advantage of every gust. For an afternoon we flew Zorba, our lightest spinnaker that we only take out for light wind conditions. We proceeded at three knots until the wind dropped completely. Dead calm. The sea became a smooth table, an immense expanse of water like a mirror reflecting the vault of the blue sky. Then the surface began to ripple – to ‘write’, as they say – and the wind returned to inflate our sails. On May 6th, we finally proceeded at 6 knots, reaching.

One afternoon we were all below deck talking about this and that after having a coffee. Suddenly a strong blow under the hull shook us. Boom! And then immediately another. Boom! We immediately rushed out to find out what had happened and we saw the great black tail of a sinking whale moving away aft. We probably hit her with our keel while she was sleeping and waking up she hit us again with a swipe of her tail. It is known that some types of whales sleep just under the surface of the sea, continuing to move slowly and resting only with one half of their brains, while the other half remains alert to the surrounding dangers. Normally they perceive the noises of ship’s engines well in advance, but evidently they are not always able to hear the hull of an approaching sailboat. We immediately checked the bilge and I tied a small GoPro camera to the boat hook that I immersed in the water to check for any damage to the hull and rudder. Luckily we didn’t notice any damage, maybe we just bounced off it!

In the following days, we continued to sail, rising again in latitude. Every day the temperature dropped a little and we began to wear more and more warm clothing. By now the tropical climates we were used to were a memory and for the first time we felt the cold during the night watches. Nicola revealed himself to be an expert baker and surprised us by preparing fresh bread every three days: not only as a way to pass the time, but also to ration the crew’s food consumption for a crossing that was turning out to be longer than expected.

On May 13th, at dawn we arrived in Faial in the Azores archipelago. The island appeared covered by clouds and sea mists from the night. The volcano of Pico, the island opposite, rose above the low clouds. After 17 days of sailing we entered the port of Horta, dropping the anchor in the bay. The port authority came to pick us up a few hours later with a coast guard dinghy to escort us ashore where we took a covid test. Following the negative result, we were able to dock on the quay.

Faial is a small island where you can travel along the entire coastal road in just under two hours by car. The volcano in the centre is rarely seen because it is usually blanketed by clouds that hide any part of the island above 150 metres. Here it rains a lot throughout the year and the temperature is mitigated by the ocean. The vegetation is consequently luxuriant and very varied. Flowers grow wild everywhere and cows graze freely on the meadows. Faial’s milk is delicious, as are the cheeses and beef. Obviously there is a great fishing tradition: in the past Horta was a centre for whalers and today the memory of those times is preserved in the premises overlooking the harbour. The most famous of these is the legendary Peter Café Sport, a ‘must’ for any sailor who crosses the Atlantic.

Jose Azevedo, the owner, tells me the story of his grandfather who was the initiator of the business and guides me around the small museum set up on the first floor, where for three generations the family has been collecting ‘scrimshaws’, the sculptures and engravings that whalers used to do on the bones of cetaceans during periods of inactivity from work.

Porto Pim, on the other side of the hill, was the ancient natural port where the whalers dragged the captured sperm whales to extract the oil and process the meat in the Fabrica da Baleia, now converted into a museum showcasing the ancient whaling tradition of the island and also housing a research centre for marine biology and environmental protection.

On the pavements and on the walls of the promenade the boats that arrive here paint a picture to mark their Atlantic crossing. Milanto already had a pavement mural of the numerous return crossings it has made in the past years, there are 10! We decided to retouch it and create a new one in memory of our world tour. We bought paints and brushes, Tommaso sketched out the design and began painting. In the end, the result was a masterpiece!

Every day we check the weather trying to find the right window to set sail, calculating our arrival in Gibraltar to coincide with the current and the wind in our favour so that it will allow us to enter the strait. It is not easy because the forecasts change continuously, every day we decide to postpone our departure. It always happens like this, there are never certainties when planning an ocean crossing, but in the end we will decide to take to the sea again and we will leave this strip of land for another leap home.