Running down the latitude

Modern sailors don’t do much latitude sailing. The ability to fix one’s position anywhere on the ocean using either modern sight-reduction methods or GPS allows today’s voyagers to take any route they wish. However, on a recent voyage from the Azores to Portugal we found ourselves following in the footsteps of centuries of mariners by running down our latitude along the 37 parallel.

Lady Luck, our Shannon 43 ketch, left Miami on May 20, bound for the Mediterranean. After stops in Bermuda and the Azores for provisioning and for crewmembers to fly home, there were only two of us left to sail on to Gibraltar and points east. We departed from Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel on June 28. The winds in the lee of the island were light and variable, but when we rounded the southernmost tip of the island, the wind freshened from the northeast at 20 to 25 knots. These were the best winds of the entire trip, and we were soon sailing with genoa, reefed main, and mizzen, close hauled on the port tack.

Our original plan was to go into Lisbon, which would have required a course to the northeast. Our departure point on São Miguel was 37° 44′ N. During the first two days, our best course was 90° magnetic, but more often it was 100° to 120°. This, combined with the south-setting Azores current, carried us to 37° 12′ N. With visions of the hot sands of Africa, we tightened the sails and made every effort to stay north of 37°.

One day out of Ponta Delgada, the bolt that held the windvane pendulum broke. It was then necessary to heave to, go over the stern, and jury-rig a repair. The repair worked, and we continued close hauled with winds of 20 to 25 knots. The cold, frequent rain squalls and the beat to windward combined to make for uncomfortable sailing conditions. Each four-hour watch required a change into warm clothing, foul weather gear, and a harness. Food preparation was difficult, and each of us became very tired.

Christopher Columbus was well acquainted with this 37th parallel route. On his return from his first voyage to the New World he had a difficult time in these waters. His ship was poorly ballasted and his crew was tired and hungry. Since it was midwinter, they must have been very cold. Columbus had planned to sail to Cape St. Vincent and then to his homeport, Palos, Spain. Instead, on the morning of February 26, 1493, he encountered strong southeast winds. The next day, he was forced to change course to the northeast and, after enduring a severe storm, made landfall at Lisbon.

Samuel Eliot Morrison, the noted naval historian, places the Admiral at 37° 5′ N, near 18° W, at the time he was forced to change course. On July 1 we spoke with a cargo ship during the evening, and it turned out that our position was almost exactly the same as Columbus’ estimated position when he changed course to Lisbon.

Aiming north of the Cape

Lady Luck, on the other hand, was not going to make Lisbon, and we were concerned that the Portuguese current would carry us south. At that point we decided to make for Lagos, on the south coast of Portugal and some 17 miles east of Cape St. Vincent. Our goal, then, was to stay north of 37° N and raise the coast north of the cape. This would ensure that we would cross the traffic separation zone off the cape at a right angle. Fortunately, the wind veered to the north, allowing us to ease sails and maintain a course of 85° magnetic, which allowed us to stay well north of 37°. Magnetic variation at the Azores is 14° W, and at Cape St. Vincent it is 8° W. Thus, a magnetic course of 90° would take a vessel north, almost to Lisbon. However, both the Azores current at the beginning of the voyage and the Portuguese current along the coast are south-setting. The effects of these currents, along with southerly drift from the prevailing northerly winds, would tend to offset the effect of magnetic variation, so that a magnetic due-east course would fetch the cape.

We checked our position with the GPS during each four-hour watch and thus had no difficulty maintaining our course. Navigation would have been just as simple with daily noon observations for latitude, or shots of Polaris at night to maintain a position just north of the 37th parallel. Unfortunately, the sky was cloudy and there were no opportunities for celestial observations. During a brief clearing of the sky at about 2230 on the evening of July 2, the tail of Scorpius was abeam on our starboard side. The tail was vertical, pointing the way to due south. Polaris was just aft of our beam to port and Arcturus was exactly over our stern. We had only fleeting glimpses of Vega, but this star rises at 38° and would have provided another marker. These stars, together with the direction of the ocean swells, would have provided perfect course markers to Cape St. Vincent, even if there were no other navigational guides.

At dusk on July 4 we were rolling along at seven to eight knots with the wind rising when a gigantic supertanker loomed up off our port bow. We were rapidly closing, and so we headed up and took in the main. We had stumbled into the outer, or southbound, zone of traffic separation. At that same time, we spotted the great light of Cape St. Vincent to the southeast. For the next two hours there were ships in all directions making their way around the cape, to and from Gibraltar and points north. We aimed for the coast to get inside the northbound lane and out of the way of ship traffic. With only the genoa, we were still sailing rapidly and soon reached 9° W, which placed us due north of the light. We were then in the clear, between the coast and the northbound traffic zone, and so turned south to clear the cape.

Awakened by the light

Neither of us had much rest during the previous day, so I lay down in the cockpit and dozed off. At 1230 on July 5, I awoke with a start to see the great light above Cape St. Vincent less than a half mile off our port beam. For a moment I thought it was another supertanker, but then realized that we had reached Europe. After rounding Sagres point, we again turned east and jogged along offshore. Fishing boats were about, but the most amazing sensation was the aroma of flowers and herbs, which wafted on the offshore breeze.

As daylight approached we saw high rocky cliffs, interspersed with sandy beaches, characteristic of the western Algarve coast. Point Piedade is a long, rocky peninsula with a light, which marks the entrance to Lagos. When this was abeam, we turned north and passed the rocky headland, which was filled with caves and grottoes, to see a long beach stretching away to the east.

The mouth of the Rio Bensafrim has been dredged and protected with sea walls. The channel leads to a fishing harbor, and then to a new marina which has room for 460 yachts.

We tied up at the floating reception pier and signed in at the marina with a minimum of difficulty. The pleasant, English-speaking clerk also took care of our passports and other paperwork. We then went under a pedestrian bridge to our berth, where a dockman was waiting to take our lines.

Marina Lagos is an extremely pleasant facility, with yachts from all over Europe. During our stay, only one other U.S.-flagged vessel arrived. Berths are on floating finger piers with fresh water and 220-volt electrical outlets. Showers, shops, restaurants, and tour agencies are within the marina complex. Across the footbridge is the lively, picturesque old town of Lagos with innumerable excellent restaurants, car rentals, a museum, and an old church.

The coves and beaches west of the town are easily accessible by foot or bicycle. Near the harbor mouth, there is a statue of Prince Henry the Navigator, who used Lagos as the homeport for his vessels, which found the sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hope.

Sagres, where Prince Henry had his school of navigation, is only a short bus ride away.The lighthouse and cliffs at Cape St. Vincent are worth a visit. Columbus swam ashore to Lagos after his ship was sunk by a French fleet in 1476. He then made his way to Lisbon. Further east, along the Spanish coast, one may visit Palos and Cadiz, which were starting points for the voyages of Columbus. The tomb of Columbus is in the cathedral in Seville, which is a short distance from the coast.

The train depot, only a few steps behind the Lagos marina, provides service to Lisbon, which is four hours away, or to Faro, where there is an international airport.

We stayed in Lagos for a month to explore Portugal. Particularly enjoyable was a trip to Lisbon for a visit to the maritime museum.

We would strongly recommend Lagos as a stopping point between the Azores and Gibraltar and as a base for a more extended stay. The Algarve coast of Portugal and the southern coast of Spain are rich in history, with excellent marinas and anchorages.

John G. Raffensperger, M.D., is a retired pediatric surgeon who lives in Chicago when he is not voyaging.

By Ocean Navigator