Finally, an anchorage in the North Atlantic islands where we can live for free! It just happens to be next to one of the more perfect beaches in the world. This has been Vixen's home for the last week after sailing down to the Canaries from Madeira. You can just see her above the fisherman's basin outside the breakwater. In the distance is Santa Cruz, Tenerife.
Anyone who has read Patrick O’Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series of sea novels knows the importance of having a generous reserve of Madeira wine stashed in the captain's quarters. Vixen is now well stocked in this regard: After a fast and rough sail from the Azores we dropped down 500 miles to the island of Madeira and its satellite, Porto Santo where Madeira wine is readily available.
Sea captains have traditionally had a yen for Madeira because it keeps well in the warm agitated environment of a ship at sea. Apparently, it is possible today to buy drinkable bottles of Madeira which were produced before the American Revolution. Such endurance comes from a fortified alcohol level and a gentle heating of the wine before being bottled. The heat oxidizes the wine in a controlled environment and arrests any secondary fermentation in the bottle. This process – called estufagem – is essentially a mild form of pasteurization.
Historically, Americans have loved the stuff – partly because the original 13 colonies produced no wine of their own and also because Madeira kept well in the southern colonies which had no properly cool wine cellars. This is the wine that toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the inauguration of George Washington and the launching of the USS Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, markedly abstemious for a man of his time, had a weakness for a good Madeira.
Other than the wine, we have enjoyed the long sandy beach of Porto Santo and the warm dry weather here at 33º north. We have caught up to summer again after feeling the first chilly nights in the Azores. Madeira is just 300 miles off the coast of Morocco – definitely back in the tropics!
Before leaving for Madeira we spent about a week on the most southern Azorean island of Santa Maria. This little island is essentially a one village chunk of rock with a great harbor thanks to extensive man-made breakwaters. The village-- Vila do Porto – is the oldest in the Azores established in the 15th century. A lone Portuguese outpost in the Atlantic (50 miles downwind of São Miguel), Vila do Porto has been plagued by pirates throughout its existence.
The pattern seems to have been this: A pirate or privateer would be cruising the Atlantic hoping to take a fat treasure ship on its way home from the New World. If this plan didn't play out then a back-up plan was to sack Vila do Porto just to cover the costs of the expedition. The ravaging of Santa Maria happened about once a decade for centuries.
The most tragic part of the story, however, was not the burning of the town or the loss of the chapel's coffers but the capture of the citizens to be sold in the slave markets of Algeria. A plaque in Vila do Porto's town square states that in 1652 over 20,000 Europeans – including many Santa Marians – were kept as slaves in North Africa. It was such a problem that charities were organized in mainland Portugal to pay the ransom of the poorer citizens being held hostage.
Vila do Porto sits atop a cliff a couple of hundred feet above the ocean. There are no trees in the surrounding dry hills and the island has a windswept forlorn feeling. There is a small fort looking over the harbor providing a clear view of the Atlantic to the south. The homes of the village are well shuttered and walled in. Despite this advantageous position there are stories of pirates anchoring in the night, scaling the cliffs and raping and pillaging before the inhabitants had a chance to flee to the hills.
I can imagine the trepidation of the Santa Marians as a ship was spotted on the horizon – was it a much anticipated trading ship or pirate sizing up the town's defenses? At what point did the Santa Marians decide to leave their homes and run to the hills?
Fortunately, our visit to Santa Maria was free of any of such decisions. Vixen's plan now is to continue sailing south to the Canaries.
Bruce Halabisky is a wooden boat builder and sailor. He and Tiffany Loney are the owners of Vixen.