Setting Sail - Galicia to Lisboa
There was a moment from Porto to Lisbon when I questioned if we had made the right choice. It was our first night sail, and 5 hours in, my stomach started to feel queasy. I rarely get seasick. The waves were rolling up to 2 metres over 9 seconds. Not too bad (“small waves”, according to our sturdy skipper), but unrelenting with 20 hours to go. I’ll spare you the details except that I “lost” my dinner upwind. I thought, what if this was all a terrible idea? We’ve spent all this money, moved all our things into storage to move onto this boat with hardly any experience, and now I can’t even enjoy the ride?? Despite my nausea I pushed through and somehow still did the work, taking night shifts to keep watch, even as conditions escalated over the last few hours to winds of 40 knots and 4 metre waves. Then we arrived at the beautiful port of Cascais, and all my doubts (and nausea) went away. Since then I’ve not been seasick.
We sailed off from the port of Vigo, Spain on the 27th of April with our skipper, Florent. Our goal was to get to Gibraltar with him in 2 weeks and learn and practice as much as possible about passage making and navigation to new ports, night sailing, docking and anchoring in different conditions. After that, we’d be on our own. We covered approximately 650 nautical miles in 13 days. This post covers the trip up to the area around Lisboa.
We had always intended to spend our year sailing in the Mediterranean, but we fell in love with the Atlantic coast and we felt a little sad to rush through because we were on the clock with our skipper.
It’s unfortunately not that straightforward to go back (since the tradewinds tend to blow from the North the whole summer) but we would love to return someday and take our time. There were so many beautiful places that we stopped at so briefly, so many places with charm and character and incredible food.
Prior to leaving, there was quite some delay and preparation. We had taken a few months away from the boat to escape the winter (and reset my visa requirements). Our instructor Alain had found a good weather window to leave the Bay of Biscay in February and organized delivery to Vigo. On our return, we found more issues with the boat, including multiple leaks, which felt scary at first as new boat owners. Our brokers Miguel and Paulina from Va Catamaranes are incredibly responsive and helpful, although the customer service of Fountaine Pajot unfortunately has not impressed us thus far. Luckily, the issues were reasonably straightforward to resolve as we got to know our boat. While there, we took the opportunity to explore the area (known as Galicia
There was another easily fixed leak in our engine room that caused our bilge pump alarm to go off at 2am, and we had to bail out 10 litres of fresh water.
The Marina Davila Sport in Vigo is in an industrial area but not too far from town and the staff are really lovely.
Just a few hours sail away from Vigo is Baiona - the most charming Galician port, on the border of Spain and Portugal, surrounded by mountains and wine country. We loved it so much we immediately decided to stay an extra day, and regretted not wintering there. It was extra special because some really warm and welcoming people hosted us. They showed us around and even invited us to their home.
After Baiona, we did a 10 hour sail to Porto. The Douro river is most safely entered at high tide and in daylight, so we woke up at 5am to reach there by 3pm. Note that boats travel much slower than cars - a one hour drive by highway takes 10 hours by (our) boat on average! However, you get a different view…
My favourite meal was in a little fishing village called Afurada near the Douro Marina. Afurada seems to have more locals than tourists, unlike Porto. This was also where Tobi picked up his fishing gear with Florent’s expert advice.
The sail from Porto to Lisboa was the big trip where we sailed 26 hours with large swells and I “lost” my dinner overboard. Since then, other trips have felt like pieces of chocolate cake or like the Pastel de Natas (egg tarts) that you must try if you go to Portugal. I don’t have many pictures from that passage because, well, most of the time I felt like this.
Cascais is a beautiful, upscale seaside town just 30 minutes train ride away from Lisboa. The marina there is good and surprisingly expensive, twice what we paid for any marina on that coast. But it was a huge relief to be there.
We took the train to Lisboa for the day and LOVED it, for the vibe, culture, street art and food. A tuk-tuk tour turned out to be a great way to get acquainted with the city. My friend Lisa has the best recommendations for Lisboa and Cascais, so I won’t go into it. One pro tip if you don’t have much time to queue up is that the 2nd best Pastel de Natas in town are at the TimeOut market. No pics because they didn’t last long!
After Lisboa, we sailed 5 hours to Sesimbra, a popular beach resort. 5 hours now feels really short!
We learned so much in that first week.
The first rule of seasickness is: treat it like Fight Club. Don’t talk about it. When I told Tobi about my symptoms, he immediately got them too. Manage it quietly. Eat a banana or saltine crackers, drink Coca-Cola, avoid dairy. Lie down if you need to. Keep looking at the horizon. If you need to throw up over the side, go downwind. The feeling might actually pass.
We practiced night watches. We took 2 hour shifts, so each of us got 4 hours of rest. The main danger on night passage is other boats. Commercial boats have the right of way and might not even be paying attention, so little boats like us have to always keep a lookout. When it was cold, we monitored the radar from the nav station inside and going out for visual checks every 15 minutes. I also found it calming to sit outside in almost complete darkness under the stars.
We learned about strategies for handling big swells in our catamaran. The key is not to go too fast and surf the waves, because if you dip down into the trough of the wave, it will be at a minimum be very uncomfortable and you could even tip over. Reduce speed by reducing the size of the sail (called reefing) or take down the sails entirely. If you are still going too fast, simply trailing 2 long ropes behind the boat can take down the speed by 1-2 knots. Never let these waves hit the boat directly on the beam (side).
Wave period matters. 1 metre waves with a 3 second period will feel much more uncomfortable than 4 metre waves with a 30 second period. The Mediterranean doesn’t typically have as large swells as the Atlantic, but the wave period also tends to be shorter, giving a more choppy feeling.
Since then, we’ve prepped more snacks in case we are unfit to cook again. We can’t read or write on passage (yet), so we downloaded audiobooks and ukelele music sheets. I wish I had a pic of Flo with his legs up reading one of his books with the huge undulating waves of the Atlantic ocean outside; this image is burned into my memory.
Next up: Our trip continues to Gibraltar.