Welcome to Horta

Horta, Faial

It’s beautiful here! We arrived shortly after dawn on Monday, May 27 after a slow, patient sail along the south coast of Faial. Our friends Edwin on Frog’s Leap and Christian and Patricia on Josephine met us at the entry to the harbour in their dinghies, and helped us quickly get Innisfree anchored in the harbour. After some requisite photos and a quick change of clothes, we hitched a ride with our friends into the dock to check in with the marina and immigration.

Edwin had notified the marina earlier that we were on our way in with engine problems, and despite a harbour that was packed to the gills, the friendly and helpful marina staff found us a spot rafted to two other boats alongside the inner breakwater. After a quick stop with immigration we were back to the boat and hauling up the anchor. The engine exhaust patch we had made at sea held nicely as we motored around the corner and tied up, and then sank down into our seats with a big sigh of relief and smiles of joy. After the ups and downs of the passage, the light winds of the last few days, and the stress of whether the engine patch would hold up to get us into the harbour, we were safe and settled.

Horta occupies a special, almost mythical place in the minds of sailors. For centuries the Azores have been a natural stopping point on the voyage to Europe from the Americas. During his first return from the Americas, Christopher Columbus stopped in Santa Maria (one of the other Azores islands) in 1492 to take shelter from a storm. First settled in 1467, Horta, on the island of Faial, became the destination of choice for merchants trading in the Azores, whaling fleets, transatlantic telegraph cables, and the first transatlantic flights (using flying boats). For decades, with its large harbour and now expanded marina, Horta has been the primary stop for sailors when arriving from the Americas.

All around us the views are spectacular. Mt. Pico immediately to the east (on the island of Pico) dominates the view out of the harbour. The old stone buildings and beautifully-patterned cobblestone streets of Horta line the harbour, and lush green hills with old stone walls and terraced fields surround the town. With the cool spring air and the church bells sounding out the hours, there is no question: even though it’s 700 nm from the mainland, this is Europe.

The history of visiting sailors is visible everywhere you look around the harbour. One of the longstanding traditions is for sailors to paint a patch of the pier (or breakwater, or steps, or really anywhere there is a clear patch of concrete) with their names and the year they arrived. Local superstition states that failing to paint the wall means (quoting the local chandler) “you will return sooner than you expect, and not in good circumstances!”. You can spend hours walking the harbour reading the patches, recognizing names from superyachts to legendary racers, to boats from your home country, ocean researchers, or sailors simply made famous by YouTube. The more recent patches are clear, the older ones fading gradually away as they weather the seasons here.

Even though we were exhausted, we arrived early in the day and we couldn’t wait to get out and go for a walk to explore town. We also had a few immediate jobs to do. Within a couple of hours of arrival, we had the exhaust elbow off of the engine and into the hands of the local jack-of-all-trades boat repair guy (who conveniently operates out of a trailer parked at the marina). He promised to have it rewelded and back in our hands the next day. Perfect! Then we set out with Edwin for a walk – first finding lunch at a little cafe overlooking the small neighbouring historic harbour of Porto Pim (now a protected area). Then off we went for a walk through town in search of an ATM for euros and a Vodafone outlet for new sim cards.

Our final stop that evening was another Horta sailor’s tradition: Peter’s Cafe Sport. Started 105 years ago, since the 1950s Peter’s Cafe Sport has been a ritual destination for recreational sailors arriving in Horta. Peter’s has not only been a place to get a welcome beer or (famous) gin and tonic upon arrival, but also a place where sailors could seek assistance or a connection to a local resource – after a long transatlantic journey, many sailboats are just like Innisfree, arriving with a list of things needing to be fixed. Before the modern chandleries arrived here, Peter’s was always there to help. Walking into Peter’s is like walking into a nautical museum. The walls and ceilings are lined with burgees, flags, photos, and other memorabilia from decades past. All around you are other accomplished sailors, and the air is filled with stories being told of the adventures had en route to Horta.