On Atyla to from Canary islands to Azores
My ocean trip on a Spanish tall ship Atyla started almost accidentally. I have learned about the ship at the partially canceled Tall Ship Races 2021 held in Tallinn. It was awesome to have many tall ships visiting our city during this time and Atyla caught my attention by being one of the first ones to arrive. The race itself was canceled because of corona-related restrictions in Mariehamn in the Aland islands, but the ships continued to Klaipeda and Szczecin after staying in Tallinn for a couple of weeks and sailing a regatta in the bay. I could even sail with my own MacGregor 26M boat among all the visiting ships to have a good view of them.
Atyla is a schooner built at the end of 1970-s by a private person to imitate Spanish ships of the 1800s. He wanted to sail around the World in the same way as Magellan did, but had a hard time getting the sponsorship for the trip. The ship ended up being looted in Morocco and stayed in Canary islands for some decades doing leisure trips around the islands, until a nephew of the owner, Rodrigo, decided to create a foundation and dedicate the ship to international sailing training.
The trips of 2021
Like many other tall ships, Atyla plans some voyages every year and looks for paying participants for different legs in addition to the permanent crew. This year they went from Spain to Tallinn and then back to Spain, Portugal, Canary islands, Azores then returning to Bilbao, the home port, where the ship also is displayed as part of the local maritime museum during the winter. When the trip started back from Tallinn, next trips through the Baltic Sea were already fully booked, but the sailings over the Atlantic ocean caught my attention the most: trip from Cadiz in Spain to Tenerife, along the coast of Morocco and the trip from Tenerife to the Azores seemed the most unusual and interesting.
Then the summer went by sailing with my own boat around the Northern coast of Estonia and South of Finland, so I almost forgot about the opportunity until the weather started turning colder in Estonia and I wanted to make some plans for the Autumn. I recalled the Atyla and checked it’s website – and I saw that the trip from Tenerife to Azores was already the following week! I rushed to check the flights and make arrangements at work and in no time I had everything booked to depart only in a few days. Visiting the Azores islands was also my long-time dream, but year after year I had to postpone the trip because of the remoteness of the archipelago. Now it seemed like the stars had aligned and I finally could do both: sail the ocean and visit the Azores in one go!
My dream to visit the Azores came after playing the “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis” quest video game in the 1990s, which included virtually visiting many interesting places, like Tikal in Guatemala and Angra do Heroismo on Terceira island. Finally I had the opportunity to take a photo of the place that I have seen in the game in my childhood.
The trip was planned to last about 10 days plus 2 days for buffer, covering 755 nautical miles or about 1500 km over the ocean. In case of good winds, there was a possibility of a short stop in Madeira island. Unfortunately, upon arrival to the ship, we learned that Madeira is out of the question as it would involve sailing with a somewhat sharp course into the wind that Atyla just cannot do. Atyla, being quite wide (7m) for its length (31m with the bowsprit), can only sail beam reach as the closest point of sail (having wind from the side), so we had to head directly to Ponta Delgada in Azores, skipping Madeira, that would otherwise require us to divert a bit more to the East. We had nice side winds to keep the compass course of 330-345 degrees to the Azores with a small course correction at the end to actually not miss the islands. But what was unexpected for most participants is how much rolling the side waves can cause to the ship. It started 5 minutes after leaving the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, instantly making 3 people on board sea-sick. They only started to recover on the 3rd day.
Life on board
The official language on board is “Easy English”, but some people find it easier to talk to each other in Spanish, so my previous attempts to learn to understand it were useful again. However, both the crew and the participants come from different countries, so as a nice bonus, you get to communicate with people of different ages, backgrounds, countries, reminding me of student exchange trips abroad that I used to do through the BEST organization.
There were 20 people on board this trip, including captain, first officer, engineer, cook, watch leaders, and us, participants aka trainees. 10 countries were represented: Spain (including Basque country and Catalonia), Estonia, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Denmark, Portugal, Italy, and the USA. Watch leaders and participants were organized into 3 groups with 2-4 hour shifts, with a change of leaders for each group roughly every 24h, so you got to have watches with different people, talking about all kinds of stuff, listening to downloaded music of each other, balancing in the waves, and trying to maintain the course at the helm. The advertised personal coach was missing this season, because he could not come from Uruguay due to COVID. I wonder how much of a difference he would have made, but it seemed that we had a pretty good team spirit and synergy on this trip even without having a couch around.
Day shifts were all great, with daylight, many dolphin visits, pilot whales, chatting, guitar playing, etc. These shifts usually included not just the people on the watch, but the others as well socializing and being ready to trim the sails or help with anything else. This was really fun, but most scary to me seemed the night shifts, in the darkness, from 8pm to 12am, then until 4am and finally, until 8am in the morning. However, they didn’t turn out that bad at all – they were quite enjoyable in their own right: fewer people, star-gazing with the Milky Way, planets and constellations. On darker nights, we could even see a trail of glowing plankton behind the boat, which was awesome. Then there were moon rises with beautiful moon trails over the Atlantic waves, and of course the anticipation of a sunrise closer to the end of the last watch with waves, clouds and the horizon arising slowly from the dark. But there were challenges as well, like sharp rain coming from the windward side, trying to keep a balance on your feet at the helm when the boat is shaking heavily from side to side, tiredness, and wind chill.
Sleeping between the watches wasn't too comfortable – I even found myself spending some time with the next watch, even during the night – because you often found yourself waking up literally in the air when another bigger wave hit the boat, or just rolling in a very small bed with almost no vertical space. Maybe it was more of a problem for tall people like me – I found it difficult to get into the 3-story bunk bed, and it felt quite claustrophobic inside, almost like sleeping in a coffin. And also because waves were constantly going over the deck, we had to keep the hatches closed, making it quite hot inside. For these reasons I, like a few other people, preferred spending my 3-4 hours of sleep in the common room on a sofa.
The always shaking red-illuminated compass will stay in my head for a long time, and also some shadows around, that you learn to recognize pretty well despite you seeing almost no details of who or what is there around you. Keeping the course on a larger ship with big side waves is actually not easy at all. The helm sometimes required quite a lot of turns to correct for these 5-10 degrees that the waves have kicked you off-course. As usual at sea, oversteering to another side was all too easy. During these times, the first officer would come and remind you that a 10 degree error in steering could result in a couple of additional days added to the journey. When the nights were less cloudy, I found it much easier to steer by the visible stars in front than by the compass alone.
Other duties on the watches included hourly position and engine checks. The latter was only done on first and last days, when we actually were using the engine to motorsail around Tenerife and when the wind had dropped near the Azores. Position checks included filling a log table with our position, speed, course, wind, atmospheric pressure, and also drawing the position on a nautical chart. I have never done this at sea before because usually you have a chart plotter, your phone as a backup, etc, but it is different in the middle of the ocean – working with paper charts both adds to the feeling of proper sailing and is a valuable backup in case you lose electricity or any of the devices and there is still a few days to reach the destination. Eric, the first officer, was also practicing his astro-navigation skills by measuring Sun and star angles with a sextant and calculating latitude and longitude without the GPS. This even more gave a proper old-school seafaring feeling, not very different from the experience that Columbus or Magellan had.
Of course, for safety, Atyla is also equipped with satellite connection, in order to send a distress signal or to receive weather reports a couple of times per day. During most of the trip we haven’t seen any other ships or planes – we were far from common routes, so sending a distress signal over VHF radio would probably not be heard by anybody. Only on the last day, still before seeing any land, we have seen 2 container ships in the distance, and the first plane trails in the sky. And on the second day, while still having a spotty VHF reception from the Canary islands, we managed to send a digital distress signal with the coast guard calling us by name on channel 16 afterwards: “Atyla, Atyla, Atyla”. We had to apologize that a falling radio transmitter had accidentally sent the signal, but it was good to know that somebody was listening and reacting promptly.
Overall, we had a pretty good wind most of the way, 20-30 knots, and the captain was monitoring forecasts and altering the course slightly more to the West, so we could still move with the wind and avoid a windless region to the North-East. With most sails reefed, we still could get 7-8 knots, until the top sail’s yard jumped out of the position and we had to remove it. This cost us about 1.5 knots of speed, but with the waves it was hard to fix it properly and we decided to proceed without. We still had the mainsail, foresail, and 2 jibs up. There was also a big storm approaching from the North, with about 50 knot winds, but finally it turned away from the Azores and went to the East, sparing us the trouble. Another interesting part of crossing such long distances in the ocean is that it is all too easy to completely miss the small islands even with a tiny error in the course. Visibility of land, especially with the clouds, can be very short, so I imagined how hard it was to discover the Azores in the past, and then also find them again.
Another minor inconvenience during the trip was that our water desalination device broke and couldn’t be fixed in time before the departure, so we needed to save fresh water. Basically it meant no showers and cleaning the dishes with salt water and then only using a bit of fresh one to rinse. The showers would be nice, but with my Maslow pyramid of the trip was more about sleeping and eating to have some energy, and having good times with the people. The cook on our trip, Christie from France, did a very good job of cooking in the constantly shaking conditions. She even poured some boiling water on her feet once, but fortunately, it didn’t result in any lasting damage. Somebody from the watch had to be on a galley duty for either breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The duty involved serving the food in equal parts carefully to avoid somebody else sleeping or on duty missing the food, and then washing the dishes. The food we ate was simple, but delicious (probably no food can be bad in the middle of the Atlantic) – it included pasta, fried fish, meat, couscous, rice with vegetables, salads, soups, and even ceviche (a Latin-American dish) that I made from a freshly caught young tuna.
Having many days and many people in the middle of the ocean cannot also go 100% smooth, so we also had 2 people requiring medical attention: one with his finger hit by a slamming door, and the other getting cold during the night and having kidney inflammation. So, the intermediate plan of visiting Horta on the Faial island, the famous marina where most ocean-crossing vessels stop, had to be abandoned in order to get to the hospital more quickly. Faial is in the middle group of the Azores, so visiting it would also involve sailing an additional 150 nm to the Eastern group, where Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel resides, which was our final destination. And there was also not enough wind to do this trip by sails alone. I would definitely go around the islands, even with no good wind, be it my boat, but the Atyla crew seemed not to want to motor much and having a few extra days of rest at the end of a long season was definitely needed for them. In the end, it seemed that medical troubles weren’t too dangerous, and we could enjoy more of Ponta Delgada and São Miguel all together, by renting cars and visiting restaurants, like the one that cooks food with the heat from the volcano in Furnas.
Then, we had to all part and go in different directions, with us taking some flights to still visit Faial, Terceira, and even climb Mount Pico, the highest point of the Azores and the whole of Portugal. It’s great we could still meet some of the crew on the way again, and the wine festival back in São Miguel was a great finale for the whole trip. The official Atyla t-shirts have “Challenge Accepted” written on the front side – that sums the experience pretty well, with the whole experience still being quite enjoyable when you think about it. Sailing a tall ship across the ocean is very different from sailing a boat in the Baltics, and is a great thing to try. I would gladly do a similar trip again, thanks to Atyla, it’s founders and the crew, and the great team we had!
See also my album on Azores islands themselves.