In the 1400s Prince Henry the Navigator tasked brave sailors to explore the near and not so near seas. This started the Portuguese Age of Discovery, and extended from 1415 to 1542.
In 1418, two of these Portuguese captains, Zarco and Teixeira, were driven off course by a violent storm. Their solid wooden boat creaked with all his might, groaning under the huge swells. Their sails were torn in tatters under the howling wind. The desperate crew prayed to God Almighty for divine deliverance and He listened. He dropped them off safely on an island seemingly consisting of a sand bar and a mountain. Zarco and Teixeira were that relieved they called the island ‘Porto Santo’ or sacred harbor.
The next expedition claimed the island on behalf of the Portuguese Crown and settlers started colonizing the place. At some stage those new settlers observed ‘a heavy black cloud suspended to the southwest.’ An investigation revealed it to be a larger island they later called Madeira. But we will keep that for the next blog.
After our fast ride from Portugal, we arrived in the peaceful Porto Santo bay at dusk. The island boasts the longest beach on Portuguese territory, has a mountain as a backdrop and is surrounded by smaller mountainous islands. Especially the beach looked very appealing. Ideal for the relaxation time we needed, 4 days of beach and exploring.
The number of people on the beach was very limited. Most only arrived after 16h and pitched their umbrellas in the area close to the marina’s breakwater. Some came in on the small ferry that goes between Madeira and Porto Santo, and most of them return the same day. There was also some kind of holiday camp that had a playground in the marina and was let out on the beach once a day. The rest of the 7 km was empty. The kids had all the space they needed to play.
We spent the first two nights on anchor in the bay. There was an anchoring fee to be settled in the marina office, in exchange for use of the ablutions (yippee, showers!!). The marina staff was very friendly, and being able to communicate with them in Portuguese was surely helpful. They even opened up the washing room and let us do laundry free of charge.
They also informed us we can anchor in the harbor, for the same price. As the wind was picking up that sounded like a good idea.
However, the minute we let down our anchor a French yachtie rowed towards us in his dinghy in great haste. He came to warn us that the harbor was full of anchors, cement blocks and other obstacles that can trap you. His anchor got stuck one year ago and since he cannot dive 5 meters and has not been able to solicit any help he has been the harbor’s resident hermit. We had great difficulties understanding what he really wanted to say, lacking the more technical French vocabulary, as well as twisting our minds to the very specific speaking style of this myth loving philosopher. His surprise was big when Arthur asked if he should dive in and have a look at the French anchor. Out came the fins and mask, kids and Thilo in the kayak supporting communications between the diver and the Frenchman in his dinghy. His surprise was even bigger when after 15minutes of diving up and down and disentangling the anchor chain from 3 cement blocks, other anchors and so on, Arthur surfaced and told him to lift anchor. He was jumping up and down with excitement, and his shouts could be heard on the other side of the island: ‘I’m free! I’m free!!!’
Our first stroll into town revealed that Christopher Columbus had a house on the island and lived there for several years. This house was turned into a mini museum of the Great Age of Discoveries. There were maps and explanations of who went where, which areas were claimed and colonized. Having covered our first Atlantic stretch of 451 nautical miles (over 800 km) in a rough sea, and imaging how these guys used to do this on wooden boats, with a handful of crew, the bare minimum of navigation tools, without proper maps, can only instill a deep sense of respect. It must have been exhilarating to be tasked by your ruler to boldly go where none of your countrymen were before, but at the same time scary and nauseating. What if the scientists were wrong and the earth is flat? What if there really are dragons where the maps say they will be? What about the black creatures that live in trees and eat men? There must have been so many stories and legends. Not to have any idea when you will see land and if you can find anything to eat, not knowing if and when you would return, must have been daunting. Each trip could be your last… But clearly it was worth it. Or as Edward O. Wilson says: “There is no feeling more pleasant, no drug more addictive, than setting foot on virgin soil.”
The museum also documented dragon blood, a specific type of tree that can be found on the Madeiran islands and provided a much wanted clothes dye, especially sought after for Flemish tapestry. To sustain the flourishing cloth and tapestry market in the heydays of the United Netherlands, high value dyes had to be sourced from Madeira, the Indies, … Merchants would follow the trade winds and all sorts of mishaps could happen. So one could easily wait a year or more if one of the precious colors had been used a bit too abundantly. That is unimaginable in our age where we pop in a shop and buy anything we want, or order it online, and each destination is just a flight away.
Being a settler was definitely not easy. Not only did you have to start completely from scratch, finding water and decent farming land. You also had to deal with invaders. For instance, in 1617 1 200 Porto Santons were captured by barbary corsairs from North Africa and carted off. These corsairs roamed the European waters and enslaved Europeans from ships and coastal communities throughout the Mediterranean region.
Apart from the Columbus house, Porto Santo has a quaint town center, with narrow tiled streets. Arthur got himself a spearfishing license for the Madeira islands in the municipal office which allows him to fish and spearfish in Madeiran waters.
The next day we wanted to snorkel and dive around the nature reserve of Ilheu do Biaxho. These uninhabited islands impress by their likeness to sleeping dragons. Unfortunately the wind was too strong and the sea bottom too rocky. Anchoring was not possible that day, so we had to go back to port after our fill of sightseeing.
Back in the port Arthur taught the boys how to ride the dinghy: starting and stopping the engine, shifting the gears, docking it in the marina, coming alongside Exodus and tying her on the stern. They practiced driving around the buoys in the harbor and docking.
Meantime we finished the template of our logo. On the marina wall there were hundreds of logos and names of boats that passed, going back to the eighties and nineties. Some were painted on with freehand, others made a whole painting of their boat or some sea life and put their names and ages on it. We opted to make a template and spray it on.
To finish our 4 great days we had a braai on board. We even found some boerewors in the Pingo Doce, locally produced by a resident South African.
The next morning we set sail for Machico, Madeira. We only had 32 nm to cover and decided to put out our line. Our first strike made our reel whirr super-fast. Most likely a tuna. But since the lure consisted of a fake calamari hiding a single hook (instead of a tri hook) the tuna managed to pull herself loose. We did not let this kill morale and tried again. Just when we were coming around the bend we met the famed wind accelerator effect between the islands first hand. One minute the wind blows a mild 17 knots and all of the sudden you see the wind meter go up like a Porches speedometer blasting 30 knots. This sudden increase in speed seems the most opportune time to catch fish. While all hands are busy getting control over the boat by reducing sail area, you have a strike. Your reel goes crazy and a crew member is tasked to get the fighting fish on board. We caught a beautiful dorado, who struggled for dear life, and whose colors faded the minute life went out of him. Madeira loomed huge and green in front of us.