North by North West

The Portuguese aim to make the English happy in Vilamoura. English beer, whelks and fish ‘n chips may all be had.  Fresh off our planes from Gatwick and Bristol, we settled our bags in the Irish Pub whilst Robin went in search of the pontoon key kindly left for us in the reception 2 km away. It was a hot day and ice cold beer prayed on his mind as he trudged across the sands and boatyards. Desperately he asked in reception whether they could ferry him back by boat, which they willingly did. On opening up Voltair however he found a kindly note, “Call up a water taxi to take you to Reception and save the 2 km walk!”. Aha! 

Sardines and Sangria soon replaced tiredness with a general feeling of well-being once Maggie, Helen and Dick had unpacked their luggage and found the supermercado. The marina is a parade ground. Strolling the wooden walkways were honeymoon brides in their exquisitely diaphanous day one outfits and awkward new husbands, elderly couples wondering what to eat and families wanting ice-cream. And it is all provided for from one sunrise to the next.

By contrast Culatra is a tiny island with no roads, but sweet smelling heather growing amidst the dunes. There we swam and walked and dined on fish stew and Vinho Verde. A good and true starting point for our long journey North by Northwest back to Povoa.


The first stop was Portimao where we anchored beneath the castle and swam ashore. The coast between there and Lagos is studded with cathedral sized caves, colourful pinnacle rocks and funny tourist boats. We had been able to drift along quite close, enjoying tea and cake with Rod Stewart singing,  “We are sailing” on the audio system. Dinner was taken in the beach restaurant as the moon rose above Voltair nodding to her anchor. In the morning we visited the church where we read the prophesy of Fatima. The world, she said, would come to a messy end unless the Pope consecrated Russia to the Sacred Heart of the Virgin Mary. There was much anxiety that this had yet to be done. But who was Fatima?  

Another 30 miles to west is Baleeira, a former whaling harbour and the last town before Cape St Vincent. It remains fairly industrial to this day. Anchoring just east of the moorings we dinghied ashore for a last meal on the Algarve. The next day we slipped around Sao Vincente just after dawn and met the overnighters from the North ghosting the other way in the light airs. Our plan had been to go to Sines, but such wind as there was permitted Cascais so we changed course to the west and settled in for an overnighter. A family of dolphins came to play and sing to us for awhile till, satisfied that we were on the right track, Mother gave us a wink and took her brood off for a bit of fishing. George steered most of the way, but an hour before our arrival, he went on strike and nothing since has persuaded him to return. The moon brilliantly lit the sea behind us, but  we could not pick up the lobster pots until we saw them slip past our quarters. We promised that if we passed more than two, we would cut the engine and do the last few miles under sail, but two was all we saw. We dropped our anchor in Cascais bay in the dead of the night – buoying it to ensure we did not get entangled in disused  mooring chains - and downed the traditional whiskies before going to the sleep of the Just. When the sun came up, we allowed Cascais to give us lunch ashore and then motored into the Marina, no more expensive than May, for a quiet night, refuelling, watering up, showers  and a home cooked dinner.    

 Peniche proved a problem. The southgoing current was strong, especially off the headlands and the north westerly wind, though brisk,  was just where it was least helpful. At one point we were making nearly 6 knots through the water but only reducing the distance to Peniche at the rate of 2.5 miles each hour. We tried furling the genoa and ploughing straight into the weather under motor and main. This enabled us to do some current dodging but it was still early the following morning when we dropped our hook in the shelter of the Easterly breakwater, took a few more  tots of whiskey and fell into our bunks for a few hours’ kip. We made no attempt to enter the harbour where there are only 6 spaces for visiting yachts and the pilot advises arriving early. Early, but not 1 am I guess. By 8 am we were up for a swim off the boat in ice-clear water as cold as a well-served lager. Well Helen was, which we all thought was admirable. By 10 am we were off again, battling wind and current towards the monk’s islands in sparkling sunshine. Tacking as we  reached them we were almost able to lay Nazare where a day’s touring in the hinterland was promised.

Dick drove us to nearby Alcobao – a stunning monastery with a kitchen oven capable of cooking two or three complete bulls simultaneously. Once there was a prince who fell in love and secretly married a noblewoman who did not fit his father’s dynastic plans. The king had her assassinated, but when the son came to power he had her remains removed to a beautiful sarcophagus in this monastery, where she rests to this day supported  on the heads of the three assassins. When he died, the new king had himself entombed in a matching grave so that the lovers were together  in death – if not in life.


At Batalha a monastery was built on the site of the decisive battle that secured Portugal’s independence from Spain. It is as stunning as Alcobaca, but famous for its extension, the ‘imperfect’ or unfinished chapel at the east end. To this day it has no roof.


Not far away was a site where in 1917, three children had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary. The site today is a pilgrimage destination for many Catholics built on the pattern of St Peter’s Rome. Here Helen and Maggie lit candles, Robin attended mass and Dick studied the scene from the perpective of a non-theistic Quaker. The name of one of the children was Fatima. But her secret revelations were only disclosed to the Pope, and only published recently – hence the anxiety in Portomao.

Nazare itself has a funicular railway up to the old town, which we used to find a delicious supper and a fine view of coast.

The journey from Nazare to Fiquera da Foz was so easy that we prepared (and drank) a jug of Pimms on the way. We had time to anchor off the seemingly endless beach and two of us swam ashore to explore the dunes, whilst Dick and Maggie read and relaxed. Fig d Foz is a key transit port and boats of many nationalities come and go at all stages of the day and night. Our first attempt to leave was influenced by how easy it had been to arrive and the promise of a useful WNW wind in the afternoon. But by 4 pm it was clear that the current was stronger than expected, the wind more northerly and the swell steeper. We were not going to arrive off the ‘potentially dangerous’ entrance of Aveiro until after dark and near low tide. So we turned and enjoyed the only down-wind sail of trip. They were pleased to see us back in Fig.

Leaving at dawn the following day, we cracked the problem and entered at HW in daylight and with time for a walk ashore to the ‘really dangerous’ beach where the breakers rolled in on the sand from 200 meters out. We had time to cook up a three course meal on board - baked mussels with a breadcrumb, oregano and spicy topping, fried Rogalo with garlic potatoes, carrots and spiach and a choice of many cheeses - goats, sheep and cow .

Another early departure was to take us on the last lap to Povoa de Varzim. As we left we met some tall ships coming in through the dawn mist in a scene that Turner alone would have had the palette to paint. They had been waiting off the coast for daylight and a favourable tide.

Our arrival in Povoa was just as inspiring. Aerial grenades were fired from the harbour wall in a salute that made the water tremble; flashes of light and sonic shocks rent the harbour - heavy bombs were interspersed with staccato bursts of rapid fire. Then, around midnight, after we had enjoyed a splendid dinner near the yacht club (including a langoustine paella) a sustained firework display painted the night sky in a cascade of vivid coloured starbursts, culminating in a massive column of brilliant white light that blinded the eyes. It was the start of the week-long festival of the Assumption. 

What a finale!

Robin, Maggie, Dick and Helen

Photos by Dick