Atlantic Island Voyage 1998: Madeira, 18 October

Captain's Log
18 October 1998
Funchal, Madeira

It has been 3 weeks since the last log entry, and it's time to write before there is so much to say that it becomes impossible. Our "brief stop" in Porto Santo, turned into 11 days. As anchorages go, it was almost ideal: perfectly protected, water clean enough to swim in, excellent inexpensive moorings, and a large and friendly community of other sailboats from all over the world. Here we finally joined the annual southward migration from Europe which occurs every fall. At one point, there were 30 other boats anchored, moored or tied to the dock in Porto Santo, a sort of United Nations flotilla, with crews from the four corners of the globe. In this case, however, the 4 corners would be Alaska, South Africa, Israel and perhaps Norway. We don't see many boats from places like Pakistan or Ethiopia. So far, in decreasing order, we have seen boats from England, France, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Denmark, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, South Africa (they all say "the NEW South Africa"), Italy, Ireland and Israel. And of course the USA. And conveniently for us, whenever groups of several nationalities get together to socialize, everyone speaks English. So while we are working on our Portugese, our German, French and Spanish are gathering dust. The Pax Romani is long gone, and in its place, the one-two combination of the Pax Britannica and Hollywood has moved into the vacuum. The Brits, of course, don't like to hear us say we speak "English". They like the quip that England and the US are "two nations divided by a common language" (Oscar Wilde?, Mark Twain?)

Porto Santo is most notable for its 3 miles of perfect sandy beach, almost completely undeveloped, although that won't last much longer. Until fairly recently, this small island was accessible only by small ferry from Madeira Grande, and scratched along on subsistence agriculture and fishing. Now there is a jet airport, a daily car ferry, and a fine harbor created by the building of a mammoth breakwater, while tourism has quickly eclipsed all other economic activity. So far, this has meant mostly visitors from Madeira Grande, which is cooler, wetter, and without any sandy beaches. But the wider world is discovering it as well, and hotels are starting to spring up. The EC has pumped money into development there as well, enlarging the harbor, and funding a huge desalination plant. My theory is that the EC is preparing the island for the day when drug-resistant Tuberculosis spills out of Russia, and thousands of people have to be isolated somewhere warm, dry and pleasant, sort of like the US Public Health Service did with Leprosy patients on Lanai. Naturally, no one will fess up to that. It is a volcanic island, but none of the peaks are very tall, so it doesn't catch rain in the way Madeira Grande does. There is enough moisture at the higher elevations to grow trees, which they are doing, but the rest is desert. One of our favorite walks was up Pico de Castelo, a perfectly symmetrical volcanic cone, the top of which has been terraced, with stone stairs for walking, and a huge arboretum with all sorts of native and exotic trees. The top is a beautiful herb garden, with 360 degree views of the whole island.

We did tear ourselves away from the very relaxing anchorage at Porto Santo just as we began to feel ourselves becoming invertebrates. The night before departure, all the crews got together for a barbecue in honor of Shifra’s 16th birthday. A brisk 8-hour run to Madeira woke us up a bit, and we arrived in the harbor at Funchal on the 11th of October, birthday of Cristobal Colon and Shifra Adler. The inside yacht harbor was completely full, as it always is this time of year, so we spent the night rolling wildly at anchor in the outer harbor. Next day the weather improved, about 20 boats which had been penned in by the strong easterly winds left, and we rafted up against the sea wall where we had stayed in 1995. The sign we painted on the wall then is still there. We started out on the outside of a raft-up of 6 boats, and have steadily worked our way closer to the wall as others have left. At the moment, our raft up includes a 38' British boat owned by a former GP who got disgusted with medicine and went into computer consulting, a 33' British boat owned by a semi-retired pilot who is sailing alone, a tiny French boat sailed by 2 lunatics, Ziggy and Bimbo. And taking up the outside is another American boat a little smaller than ours. Other good friends who have just left included STREET LEGAL, a British boat sailed by a couple of MBA dropouts, and ALVA, a burly little wooden boat from Norway, crewed by 3 completely inexperienced but delightful young men: "a computer expert, a mountaineer, and a philosopher (the owner)". Almost everyone is following a route similar to ours, but some are continuing on around the world, and others will come back to Europe in the spring.

Funchal is as delightful as we remembered it: a clean, beautiful city, which somehow manages to be both sophisticated and friendly. It reminds me a little of Victoria, or Seattle before all the skyscrapers went up. And this time we have gotten out to explore more of the island, which is spectacular. The main attraction is the system of Levadas, which are concrete and stone irrigation channels carrying water from springs in the mountains to fields on the dryer parts of the island. There are a total of 1400 miles of levadas, and all have trails alongside which make perfect hiking, since they are almost level. They also include tunnels of varying lengths, some as long as 2 miles, which provide an unusual hiking experience. Others are carved into the sides of cliffs (this was done by slaves hanging down in wicker baskets), which is also pretty exciting. And there are regular mountain trails which connect the levadas. As if that weren't enough, the place is green year-round, with lush forests and flowering plants of almost infinite variety.

It's the sort of place that could turn even the most craven techno-geek into an ardent botanist; even to the ignorant eye the vegetation is impressive. There are dense laurel forests, some of which flower in the fall, groves of huge pine, cedar and eucalyptus trees, and areas of painstakingly terraced farmland. Yesterday we walked along the cliffs on the north side of the island, in some places with a 1000-meter almost-vertical drop to the ocean. To give some idea of the terrain, the trails are rated on a scale which begins with "potential for vertigo" and "danger of vertigo", on up to "terribly vertiginous" and "horrendously vertiginous". Yesterday's walk was in the latter category. So we kept singing and didn't look down until we got to wider spots in the path. There are, of course, very sedate walks which are equally interesting in their own way, and all quite beautiful. Like the Maine Coast, one could easily spend months, or even a lifetime, exploring the place. We have decided to extend our stay to 2 weeks, to savor it a bit more.

I apologize for the excessive use of words like "beautiful", "lush” and "delightful" in this entry. Winter is coming on back home and a little restraint would be tactful. If I can, I'll tone it down a bit next time. Perhaps the Eastern Canaries will be better; Lanzarote was just described to me as "the ashtray of the North Atlantic".