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Postcards from a Caribbean Winter - Part 8: The Madeira Islands

by Rod Morris 24 Jun 13:56 UTC 11 May 2019
The Madeira Islands © Rod Morris

In the previous article in this series, Rod finished cruising the Azorean archipelago. In this eighth of nine articles Rod arrives in Madeira islands and shares his stories about these enchanted islands.

The arrival was dramatic. The evening sunlight was rapidly being occluded by an approaching squall that was overtaking us. The sunlit cliffs of Porto Santo Island created a forbidding back drop to the rolling swell, white caps and slowly increasing wind speed, as we raced ahead of the squall to our destination. The combination of a spectacular sunset, deteriorating weather and anticipation of landfall just made everything that much more exciting. As we rounded the sheer cliffs at the eastern end of Porto Santo Island, the seas gradually became calmer and we enjoyed the last few miles to Porto Santos harbour watching the warm orange glow of the sunset slowly being swept aside by the large squall that would soon envelope the Island. The first raindrops didn't reach us until we started to drop the anchor.

However, within the few minutes the well-rehearsed maneuvering and setting of the anchor bridle takes, we got drenched. No problem, Oh!, had completed the 500 NM passage in just over three days and we could dry off, enjoy a nice dinner and a calm night's sleep inside the well protected man-made harbour of Porto Santo. We would do the clearance procedures in the morning.

We had six days before our new crew would arrive in Funchal, the capital on the much larger main Island of Madeira, so we decided to spend 5 days relaxing and exploring Porto Santo. Porto Santo is starkly different to the Azores and the Island of Madeira. Like other very low islands we have seen on our Atlantic circuit, Porto Santo is too low to capture abundant rain or moisture from the clouds on a consistent basis. Therefore, it is essentially desert like. Much dryer than any other islands we had visited, it is pretty much sand and volcanic rock, with very sparse vegetation, mostly dry grasses and the odd cactus.

Evidence of the Island's past as an active shield volcano was everywhere and stood out clearly with the sparse vegetation. The dramatic scars of erosion, from fast running water along the hillsides, revealed the multicolored layers of volcanic soils and sands; yet the erosion from flowing water seemed so out of place for such a dry Island. It was clear Santos was not always dry. At times during storms, they must get some pretty intense but intermittent rainfall and subsequent runoff.

We were visiting Porto Santo at the end of the tourist season, so it was quiet and almost deserted. There are fewer than 5,000 permanent residents, but during the height of the summer it swells to over 25,000. As a result there were many boarded-up summer homes and seasonal beach bars, cafes and restaurants that were closed for the season. That suited us just fine. We spent our time getting some long awaited "to do's" done; some interior refinishing of wood trim; sewing new Sunbrella covers for the port side, inspecting and patching sails and cleaning up Oh!. We wanted to get as much done as we could before the arrival of Tim and Greg, who would sail to the Canary Islands with us. Our visit wasn't all work though; a good hike, some wonderful walks into town, a dinner with our friend Sergio (who is from the Canary Islands) and meeting new friends, Kikuyo and Hiroshi from Japan, gave us welcome breaks from the endless "to do list". It was fascinating listening as they explained how Japan created a phonetic set of 50 Japanese characters that allowed them to input their language, which has more than 20,000 characters, into computers. We visited for several hours while enjoying wine, cheese and crackers and swapping tales of our various sailing experiences and travels. They also shared some Japanese hazelnut and green tea Kit Kat's that were a big hit! Another shared cultural moment with a sweet ending - no pun intended. Cruising is such a fun way to meet and greet people from all over the world.

The dramatic arrival was just a sampling of the next two weeks in the Madeira Islands. We were still in Portugal, and the Madeiras have the same atmosphere as the Azores, only more upscale. There is a greater sense of prosperity in the Madeiras and along with that, the prices are higher than what we had found in the Azores. Also, the scale of public works is huge. Jaw dropping is a more appropriate description. The most dramatic of these are the road networks and airport. From the mid-1990s through 2005, there was a massive infrastructure investment from the European Community, and the Madeiras highway system was built. There are miles upon miles of twinned tunnels cutting through the mountainous terrain, connected by impressive bridges across the steep ravines. Coming from Canada, where this scale of construction over a small distance does not exist, the road network left us constantly in awe. The new highway system makes getting around quick and easy. Plus you can still get out onto the older roads to get a sense of how much more difficult this was only a short time ago. The old roads are equally impressive though and offer incredible vistas at a slower pace.

When we weren't in awe of the man made alterations to Madeira, we were in awe of nature's creations. Massive cliffs, offshore spires, deep ravines and towering waterfalls are just the obvious eye candy. Garnish that with flora that runs the full breadth of the spectrum from wind swept alpine summits or lush rain forests, to dry succulents on barren rocks and cliffs, then surround it with crystal clear waters...and Madeira was a visual treat to tour. When the sun is hidden by the clouds, the seas reflect the color of the skies above. For us, that was the grey of the cloud-filled skies, fringed with a light blue and white lace of foaming water, as the powerful Atlantic waves crashed against cliffs and onto the shores. During heavy rainfalls, the seas in the small bays would turn reddish brown from the sand and silt that poured into them from rivers. Then just as quickly as they turned muddy brown, they would return to sparkling blue clear waters when the sun returned and the sediment had settled.

Like the Azores, there are dozens of beautiful trails to hike and places to visit in the Madeira Islands. The only drawbacks are the very limited anchoring possibilities, and relatively expensive and crowded marinas. Due to the flow of transient yachts visiting Madeira enroute to the ARC, (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) it was difficult to find marinas with space for Oh!, and there are only two relatively exposed anchorages as alternatives. Before leaving Porto Santo, it would be wise to ensure there is space at the marinas on Madeira for your boat. Otherwise, a shift in weather that rules out the few anchorages could make finding shelter quite difficult.

The capital of Funchal is one of the most beautiful cities I have seen. The old city center is full of historic buildings that have been beautifully restored. The white and black, hand-laid mosaic stone streets, sculptures, botanical gardens, parks, cafes and a harbour front promenade, filled with gardens and art, were captivating and very pedestrian friendly. On our last night there, Greg and Tim discovered a restaurant and cafe district with dozens of theme restaurants. It was fascinating to explore the small pedestrian alleys filled with open air seating, music, and paintings decorating the walls and doorways.

The Rua De Santa Maria area was a smorgasbord of fine dining, attractive bars, bakeries and cafes at every turn; the kind of place and experience that just keeps drawing you deeper in, not wanting to stop until you have seen it all. A person could spend a summer just trying a different venue every evening and still not exhaust the kaleidoscope of offerings. I am not a fan of eating out - but I must admit this area fascinated me and even I thoroughly enjoyed the evening's dining out. If ever back in Funchal, I will definitely plan for a full day to just explore and enjoy the cafes and restaurants in the Rua De Santa Maria area. The Market in Funchal was also a highlight; filled with colourful flowers, fruit, spices, local produce and intriguing shops. The vendors offered us samples of their many varieties of passion fruit and other fruits we had never seen before. It was a learning and culinary treat, made even more memorable by the friendly vendors we encountered at every stall.

Our stay at Madeira was short, only seven days. However, it has left us wanting to see more of this beautiful Island and a firm desire to return. After our night out, the next morning we had to bid farewell to Funchal and Madeira Island. Tim and Greg had flights home from the Canary Island of Lanzarote, so we had to start moving.

First stop - Ilhas Desertas, a group of three elongated barren islands that are deserted, except for the Parc Reserve Wardens at Chão da Doca. Once again, we were given a graphic lesson in local geography and climate. Or, more simply put, height is everything when it comes to being an island. The Desertas Islands have steep cliffs and flat tops that receive almost no regular moisture. They are barren and rocky. The many stages of volcanism and erosion that formed these Islands has created stunning examples of what I call the "art of nature" that were prominently displayed along the cliff faces.

Colours of black, greys, browns, reds and the infrequent green highlights from the hardy foliage that managed to survive on these rocky shores and ledges, created giant murals that looked like works of art. Nature's sculptures and colours were even more spectacular in the warm glow of the setting sun. We only stayed for a single afternoon and night, but really enjoyed our stay. The park rangers welcomed us and introduced us to a visiting researcher from Lisbon. Monica, who spoke excellent English, was studying the Petrels that are native to the Island. We had many laughs, as she would translate our questions and quirky sense of humour to the park warden as we walked around the interpretive trail on the small Fajã on which their buildings were built. A Fajã is any flat, or somewhat flat area, that can be built on. In the Azores and Madeiras, it would be rare to find a Fajã that was not built on, due to the steep topography of these Islands. The Fajã at Chão da Doca was the result of a massive landslide where the steep cliff had given way at some point long ago. If not for that landslide, Ilhas Desertas would not have had any flat coastal area to land at, or the small bay it created.

Monica gave us a tour of the restricted area that visitors were allowed to explore and talked about the work she did, as well as the efforts being made to preserve the endangered species on and around the Island. There is a lot more to these "deserted islands" than meets the eye. In addition to the beautiful volcanic geology, there are several endemic species of Petrels, lizards, endangered Monk seals and even a tarantula that call these Islands their only home. We really enjoyed our time ashore, learning about the Islands while chatting with Monica about her research and Carlos about the daily life of the rangers on the Island. We talked about their two to three week shifts, as well as the flora and fauna they protect and study. The bay we anchored in was barely large enough for two boats and had a very exposed feeling to it. With towering cliffs to the east, a rocky shore to the north, rugged rocks and a reef to the west, it was open to the south and southwest. However, it offered surprisingly good protection from the NE winds that would accelerate down the steep coast of the Island and ocean swell that wrapped around the northern end. We felt safe in our little bay, tied to the park mooring, but it was a lively night with the wind singing in the rigging.

The next day we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, then noon departure for the 150 NM overnight sail to the Ilhas Selvagens (which translates to the "Savage Islands"). Our departure was timed so that we would arrive shortly after sunrise at these rugged and remote Islands. The small group of islets that make up the Selvagens have many rocks and submarine hazards and are not a place to arrive at in the dark. They would be the last of the Portuguese islands we would be visiting before entering Spain at the Canary Islands.

The Ilhas Selvagens, are composed of two small islands with the largest being just one square mile. Each is surrounded by several very small islets and many rocks. Once again, there is very limited anchorage available and there is only a small outpost housing the Park Wardens and Maritime Police presence on the Islands. A special permit is required to visit these Islands and must be obtained in Funchal prior to arriving at the Ilhas Selvagens. The entire area out to the 200 m depth contour is a Natural Reserve and we were excited to be visiting this rugged and remote area. It was a wonderful surprise on arrival, to radio the Island and find out they had a good mooring ball that we could tie to. The Selvagens Islands are well known for poor holding in rocky anchorages.

When we arrived there was just one other boat in the small bay that was rimmed in foaming sea water, as the swell wrapped around the Island from both sides. The winds that descend down the steep cliffs swirl and fan in the little bay and any more than 2 or 3 boats would be pretty tight. Despite 2 to 2.5 m waves crashing all around the Island, this little bay provided good protection from the strong NE winds and swell we had arrived in; but it would quite nasty and dangerous in anything else. Oh! did not have the rolling our neighbor had in his monohull, but we still felt the choppy sharp motion the refracted and cross cutting swell created. It would be another lively night, but we had an Island to explore and were eager to get going. With partially clouded skies reflecting grey seas, brisk winds, big waves breaking on the rocks and steep cliffs all around us, the bay had a very remote and isolated atmosphere to it, even more dramatic than the Ihas Desertas.

As with every island in the Azores and Madeiras, we had to check in. Once the formalities were completed we were once again offered a guided tour by the Vigilante da Natureza (Park Rangers) of Selvagem Grande. The guided hike took us up the steep cliffs to the plateau above, where long ago, French settlers had made a futile attempt to colonize the Island. All that remains are several miles of perfectly straight rock walls that divided up the plateau among the settlers. With essentially no natural water catchment areas and low relief, their dreams were dashed and the Island eventually passed into the hands of a single owner. Fascinated with the natural beauty and concerned about the flora and fauna, some of which are endemic to just the Selvagens, the owner worked with the Portuguese government to protect the Islands as a nature reserve and bird sanctuary that was established in the early 1970s. As we finished our tour, the skies were becoming broken overcast, with multiple squalls passing close by to the west. From the high cliffs, we were treated to stunning sights of the tiny rugged bay below and sun beams fanning through the clouds on the horizon. The Selvagens are truly a special place, beautiful, isolated and wild.

Our tour lasted several hours and we enjoyed the company of the ranger and the fellow Portuguese yachtsman who visits the island regularly from Funchal in his sloop. In yet another of those fortuitous encounters, he was a maintenance contractor for the highway tunnels built on Madeira Island. He was a fountain of information and we talked extensively about the changes the highway system had brought to the Island of Madeira. Life before the construction of the tunnels and high quality highways was very different for many of the towns and villages outside Funchal. To my surprise, these tunnels that are up to 3.2 km long were drilled, blasted and excavated; they were not built with a boring machine. It was fascinating to talk to him about the construction processes and hurdles that had to be overcome in building that impressive network of roads on Madeira Island.

After the hike we decided to stay and enjoy a "quiet" night on the mooring ball before departing for the Canary Islands in the morning. Apparently it was anything but quiet - windy, choppy and rolling was the description around the breakfast table the following morning - I guess I slept through that part. After a good night's sleep for the captain but not the crew, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. As soon as we finished our breakfast, a Scottish cutter we had met while in Funchal appeared around the point. Upon looking at our options and their's, we decided to leave our mooring early so they could take it. They were clearly pleased about our decision, which relieved them from having to anchor in a bay that is well known for fouled anchors. It would also give them a chance to get some rest after a lumpy passage from Ilhas Desertas, without worrying about possibly dragging their anchor in a small bay, surrounded by nasty rocks. There is no doubt our paths will cross again before they join the ARC for their Trans-Atlantic voyage in late November.

We were now cleared from the Portuguese Islands and on our way - next stop, The Canary Islands.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Bluewater Cruising Association.

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