About a Weak Back

(Author’s Note: I started writing this post almost a month ago, soon after I had completed the transatlantic sail and shortly after Rhett had arrived in Portugal. However, sailing, sightseeing, and spotty internet connectivity conspired to keep me from finishing and publishing it. Bottom-line, excuse any odd timing references.)

“So, when did you get to Portugal?” one of my harbormates at the Oeiras Marina asked. I replied, “About a week back.” However, the theme of this post is not, about a week back. It’s about a weak back.

In looking back on my third and final big passage of the crossing—7 1/2 days from Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel, Azores to Cascais Harbor, mainland Portugal—it was a “tough sandwich.” While the beginning and the end of the passage was easy with beautiful weather, the stuff in the middle was an arduous chew.

Hazel and I started sailing midday on Thursday, June 30–a crystal clear day. The daylight hours were downwind and under spinnaker, as we sailed east and along the south coast of the island of Sao Miguel…ahhh, the idyllic beginning. I should have known that Poseidon was foreshadowing and wouldn’t give up his treasure that easily.

Leaving the town of Ponta Delgada in our stern wake in ideal weather. Note the distinctive, volcanic hills.
Spinnaker flying a half hour later (can’t all sailing be like this?).
Passing the island of Ilheu de Vila Franca and the town of Ponta da Sao Pedro to the left.
How could the Ponta Garca lighthouse not remind me of all the lighthouses that Rhett and I saw and toured last summer in New England?

Just as I was about to clear the island of Sao Miguel (around sunset on day one) the wind almost died. For a couple hours I made slow progress to the east and when we were several miles off the island, the wind died completely. We were bobbing around on a glassy ocean while slowly drifting backwards toward the island. When we were just two miles off the island, I told myself, OK, if this keeps up and we get one mile from the island, I’ll need to switch on “Ox” (the engine) and motor away from the island. I’m a bit of a purist but I’m not crazy.

Thankfully, in the middle of the night—and before we reached the one mile threshold—a north-northwest wind kicked in and we were sailing again. While it felt great to be moving, and moving in the right direction, I had an inkling “it” was coming. The ”it” being that the north wind that I so desperately needed at that point would veer to the north and northeast and blow hard. We’d be ”hard on the wind” (sailing upwind)—the opposite of fair winds and following seas.

What I didn’t know early-on is that we’d be doing that sailing for the next five days under leaden skies during the day and dark, moonless and starless skies at night. While no one incident was absolutely crazy on the passage, it was a test of endurance. I had to work hard to keep eating well, and sleeping whenever I could, to keep my energy up and wits about me.

Although this picture of Hazel was taken by a French boat on our sail from Horta to Ponta Delgada, it’s what we would have looked like when the wind was “down” on our sail to mainland Portugal.
Early in the passage, the 330 meter (1,80 foot) Nave Galactic bound for Rio and taking Hazel’s stern at a range of 2 nautical miles.
Enjoying a cup of tea in the cockpit with a pretty good swell running and ”Otto” the wind vane steering us (It was cold, I’ve got thermal underwear and a sweater on under my foulies).
Hazel’s saloon after many days on port tack (heeling to starboard). The yellow sail bag in the upper left is tied in place so it doesn’t roll downhill to leeward. Note the white ”lee cloth” set up on the starboard (leeward, downhill) setee where I could do my sleeping and keep an eye on the instruments (at the same time).
Cooking was a challenge. trying to brew some brew some coffee in my Bialetti Moka Express and fry up some migas with broccoli. Times are never too desperate for a good cup of coffee and some solid eats.

Finally, after five or six days of this sailing and as we were approaching the coast of Portugal, the weather broke. That was all the good news. The not so good news was that we were also approaching the ”traffic separation zone” for north and southbound freighters and tankers off the European coast.

Commercial ships, like commercial jets, are expensive to run. They just don’t sail around the ocean randomly but generally stick to well established shipping lanes. Those lanes constrict and congestion results near ports and when rounding coastal features. a quick look at Lisbon’s location on the Iberian Peninsula makes it obvious why the waters off Lisbon are a congestion point for north and southbound ships off the coast of Europe.

Lisbon’s position on the the Iberian Peninsula (Hazel’s and my rough track in blue).

Fortunately my electronic charts clearly showed the south and northbound traffic separation zones.

Zooming in from the previous image, the ”nose” of Portugal to the right and the pink arrow showing the lanes that the south and northbound commercial traffic should stick to.

As I approached the lanes, my AIS scope started lighting up with ships and I felt like I was in a real life game of Frogger with consequences for a “Game Over” mistake. At least I was entering the shipping lanes mid afternoon with lots of daylight and excellent visibility. The other exciting news is that shortly before I entered the shipping lanes, I had my ”Land Ho!” moment—the European mainland.

There it is! The coast of Portugal (at a range of 30 miles or so). Yes—if you’re wondering—I cried when I saw it.
Now, back to the task at hand: getting across the shipping lanes, first the southbound, then the northbound. The first southbound ship I encountered was the 182 meter (600 foot) Bahamian flagged Alhena bound from the Netherlands for Turkey.
Shortly thereafter the 185 meter Liberian flagged UT Viken took our bow.

After working around a couple more southbound ships, we finally had 5 miles or so of respite until we reached the northbound lanes (the ”respite” being the shaded pink areas above). The situation got a bit tighter in the northbound lanes.

The northbound and gargantuan 399 meter (1,310 foot) Maersk Monaco off our starboard bow. I slowed Hazel down a bit to give us a bit more room.
I breathed a sigh of relief to get the Monaco onto our port side. Note the coast of Portugal to the right.
Happy to see her stern! She’s a quarter mile, or 4 1/3rd football fields, long.
Late in the day, this LNG (liquified natural gas) tanker was my last close encounter.
Finally! Through the shipping lanes and treated to our only clear sunset of the passage.

After the sun set on that cloudless day we were finally closing on the coast. We’d have no choice but to enter the River Tagus (the river on which Lisbon is built) and anchor in the darkness.

Although the day had been clear and warm, as soon as the sun set the temperature dropped again and I was back in thermal underwear and foulies. A couple miles off the coast I started encountering small commercial and recreational fishing boats with sketchy lighting so those miles were sailed with radar on and a constant lookout, trying to discern the lights of the shore from the fishing boats.

The most amazing thing of the landfall was that when we were just a quarter of a mile off the shore and still bundled up against the cold, out of nowhere a warm and dry wind from the shore flooded over us. Not only was the heat welcomed, but the air smelled! And it didn’t smell like salt and the sea, it smelled like earth. It smelled like animals (terrestrial animals), and grass, and rocks—all mixed with the fragrance of cyprus trees, cyprus oil, and cyprus wood. The air around me got so warm and so aromatic so quickly that I didn’t go below deck but immediately stripped down to my underwear in the cockpit grabbed the handrails on the trailing edge of Hazel’s dodger and leaned forward into the darkness and inhaled as deeply as I could—like a dog with its head out the moving car window (I imagine I would have been quite a sight in the daylight).

An hour or so later (about 1:00 a.m.) I set the anchor in the Bahia de Cascais (the Bay of Cascais) and slept. The next morning I motored several miles up the River Tagus to the Oeiras Marina (roughly pronounced O’ Iris) and checked into the marina.

Hazel at the reception pontoon in the Oeiras Marina flying her yellow Q flag.

To wrap up the loose ends on this story and to get back to the post’s title (A Weak Back). My arrival timing was excellent as I arrived on Friday, July 8 and Rhett and dachshund Sunny flew into the Lisbon airport early the morning of Monday, July 11. I “came in hot” to the marina. “Hot” on the adrenaline of having completed the transatlantic sail and the excitement of seeing Rhett soon (and nervous about the prospect of asking her to marry me). I stayed that way for the intervening days, busying myself with cleaning Hazel from stem to stern, and getting her looking her best for Rhett’s arrival. Yes I slept well but I felt a bit bulletproof and never really exhaled.

At 4:30 a.m. on Monday morning, I took a taxi to the Lisbon airport to be sure I’d be there when Rhett exited the doors of the international terminal. Finally, they both appeared—Rhett and Sunny—looking great despite the redeye flight. After our hugs and hellos, I took Sunny outside to find a patch of grass while Rhett got herself a coffee. After Sunny did her business outside I went to pick her up to carry her across the busy airport road (keep in mind that Sunny is a miniature dachshund and weighs all of 12 pounds). As I knelt down to pick her up, I twisted ever so slightly and as I began to lift her, I heard a squishy “pop” from within my body—my lower back to be precise. With a wave of pain and pins and needles, I knew I had done it—I had knocked my back out. While it’s not a big deal and I do it a couple times a year, it would have been a problem had it happened in the middle of the Atlantic. Hunched over in pain, massaging my back with one hand and holding Sunny’s leash with the other with taxis, cars, motorbikes, and scooters whizzing by, I thought about how this could happen now, after all the heavy lifting, punishment, and abuse my body had taken during the passage. It gives out lifting a mere 12-pound dog. I smiled (or perhaps grimaced) through the pain, I had to see the positive—how good my body had been to me throughout the transatlantic sail and how it was now screaming that it needed to exhale, it needed a rest.

Fair winds and following seas.

Oh…wait. Did I leave something out of this post? Do we have some unfinished business?

Ahhhhh yes…just what was Rhett’s answer to my marriage proposal?

She said yes!

14 thoughts on “About a Weak Back

  1. What a story! You are one brave soul.
    So excited for you and Rhett! Sorry about the back but I’m sure she’ll take good care of you now.
    Sending love your way, Kathy

    1. Awesome my friend! so happy for you guys and can’t wait to catch up state side. Fair winds, you both are well deserving. Talk soon.

  2. Wow! What a great adventure! And congratulations on your engagement to Rhett! So happy for you both!

  3. What an exciting journey, Dan! I’m glad you made it to Portugal safely, I hope your back feels better, and I’m soon happy for you and Rhett! Congratulations 🎊 🤗💕

  4. This adventure gets more and more exciting… especially when enjoyed from the comfort of a living room in shorts and not “foulies”. Congratulations Dan and Rhett! We’re so excited for your engagement. That’s great news!

  5. Oh Dan, so thrilled to not only read of your sailing successes, but your new partnership as well. I imagine your heart swelling to 10 times it’s metaphorical size. Best wishes, my dear friend.

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