’23

If you’ve been with us through this incredible year, then you know…fucking wow!

We started this calendar year with an unreliable dying diesel engine and more anecdotal evidence of climate change in Vero Beach, Florida, trying to get south to celebrate my (James’) mother’s life. One loop around our local star later, we are in the middle of the Atlantic flow enjoying our winter in the Azores.

We’re learning Portuguese on Dena’s phone, rocking the boat projects, not using the electric motor much but also not having to work on it, and house-sitting with the goat-lawnmower…

Azorean lawnmower
Goats are so freaking cool!

But how do you get to here from there?

If there is Vero Beach, and there was, you start with the New Year’s Day breakfast buffet to beat the band. For a couple of Jacksons (NDN killer), it was every damn thing I (Dena) associate with getting what I want for breakfast, right down to eggs Benedict and unlimited oysters on the half shell. The decadence couldn’t continue nonstop, but we’ve done a good job this year of eating inexpensive food aboard so that we can go all in when it really seems worth it.

We did grinding little hops down the ICW for a while because the usual winds weren’t happening for the offshore jumps we’d hoped to make. A broken bridge locked us north of West Palm Beach and we slowly watched our window of opportunity to visit the Bahamas narrow and close.

Instead, we finally got a hard dinghy, a good rowing vessel with a full sailing rig and put our energies into easing toward the Keys while fixing up that poor mistreated boat.

Fiberglassing an upside down boat
The gaping hole in the bow had kept the price waaaay down in our vicinity.

Tursiops took on Cetacea’s color scheme with pugnacious grace and fit on the bow like they’d been made for one another.

Tursiops, topsides and bottom painted
There’s a lower profile position for offshore travel but she looks great like this.

Projects and swimming, making water and tripping, we got down through the Keys to Key West, celebrated the incredible life of my wonderful mother…and then we went sailing!

The choices we’d started enjoying about when and whether to run the infernal combustion engine…meaning never if we could help it…put a new clarity on what was and wasn’t working on the Sovereign Nation named Cetacea. We got rid of the antiquated diesel tech.

Gone, gone, gone!
Out with the old…

And dedicated our lives to a better way!

Dena Hankins with her Electric Propulsion System
My (James’) favorite photo of 2023

We went electric…

Out with the old
…We did that as well!!!

We got rid of that stupid wheel steering system…

Pointing at Bermuda
Earther Author Dena Hankins, underway

And then we went sailing a whole lot farther!

A little asym action
With the shoot up in the Atlantic Flow

For thirteen days, three hours, and thirty minutes, we wove our way through the massive ships and the looming storm cells and the wildest of life…

Sailfish!
Swordfish follower

…to an island country at the very peak of the most notorious part of the the Atlantic section of the world’s ocean: Bermuda.

Entry by Sea
…by sea!

We sailed there in our electric boat through every kind of weather we could imagine and got a pretty good understanding of some previously unimaginable aspects as well. The world around us cared not at all but we were chuffed.

Lines from aft to mouth
Bermuda is fascinating and gorgeous, but we couldn’t stay too long.

The expense of Bermuda was draining but the Azorean-Bermudan High refused to stiffen up this year. We waited a few weeks, enjoying the grocery store hot food and walking around as much as felt safe (there aren’t many sidewalks outside of the main town streets), and then cast ourselves into a favorable 10-day forecast for what was almost certain to be at least a 20-day trip.

With the clouds
The seemingly endless sea

And oh boy, was that optimistic!

On day 26, I (James) spotted Pico from 75 nautical miles out. It was a moment of profound illusion. Standing in the companionway, looking at something that took about five minutes to resolve into a mountain in the middle of the ocean, I couldn’t think of any words at all. Twenty-six days of nothing but giant-multiverse-insignificance and then suddenly there was a volcano in the middle of the sea. It was like I didn’t have the words in my vocabulary to say it but… “Holy shit that’s Pico…Land HO MOTHERFUCKERS!”

Pico's clouds
No, really, that’s real!

Seventy-two hours of beating and then electric-motoring on glass after that first sighting of Pico, we set the hook in Horta Bay on the Island of Faial. Twenty-nine days after setting sail from the island country of Bermuda, we’d reached another island realm, the Autonomous Region of the Azores (Região Autónoma dos Açores), a Portuguese-affiliated archipelago of nine volcanic island and the home waters of some of my (Dena’s) ancestors.

First light after anchoring in the dark
Hook down, Horta!

We spent a fortnight exploring Horta and it was an awesome adventure. We scaled two massive calderas…

James with antennae and caldera
Monte de Guia

…and,

Dena's assent
Dena’s steps for the day

…And Monte de Queimado!

Cetacea from Burnt Mountain
…what better view?

In one of many odd turns of this year, we took damage in Horta though we didn’t break anything on our two ocean passages. I mean, the gear just worked. It’s not like we took no steps to keep things working…knotting a chafed Monitor line being the most necessary…but please. It’s a wonderful thing to arrive in a distant, foreign port and know that all you need to do is figure out how to get by in a place where you don’t speak the language. Because that’s honestly enough.

The definition of Cruising: Fixing your boat in all the exotic locations!
James cussed like a…well, you know…trying to get the clamps to settle right on the curved surfaces of the caprail after a mega-twat created havoc in the anchorage.

There’d been a suspicion in the ether aboard Cetacea that the querulous high pressure zone could mean uncertainty throughout the fall and were we ever right. The pilot books use hundreds of years of weather reports to make statements of likelihood. You’d think they were bookies, the way they play the odds into these pretty symbolic shapes called wind roses. As the global climate has adapted to the intensification of the Anthropocene Era, expectations have been wryly loosened and hopes have been sadly, sometimes tragically, dashed.

I (Dena) wanted to see the island my family came from but I also wanted to keep moving. Instead of facing the disappointing but not terrible prospect of an excellent weather window that encouraged us to leave the Azores without exploring other islands, we saw storms after storm bearing across the Atlantic flow at speeds greater than we plan to travel. We don’t run unless we’re being chased, and we don’t set ourselves up in front of storms we’ll need to run from. That’s basic for us.

We didn’t follow the two young women who’d lost their rudder getting to Horta from the Caribbean. They headed into a hard beat because they had to be in the UK for the beginning of their new term at uni. We went to Sao Jorge and spent a few excellent weeks exploring the beauty within easy walking of Velas.

S/VSN-E Cetacea hook down
Cetacea at home, at anchor off Velas, Sao Jorge

After our Islay sojourn, a hard southerly was forecasted and Velas was a scoop for those southerly wind-waves that we knew were forthcoming. We decided we needed to get to Praia di Vitoria on Terceria, a better-protected harbor with no anchoring fee, by far the best deal in the central group of the Azores. An 18 hour hop to Angra, a jazz festival, and a skip-jump to Praia put us basically where we are now at the end of 2023.

James accidentally at the jazz festival
…inadvertent jazz festival attendance.

Praia’s harbor is larger and more exposed than we’d understood from looking at the charts, guides and reviews. Perhaps we’d have been better prepared for the way the water chops up (intellectually, I mean, the boat was fine), if we’d known that this harbor…yes, inside the harbor…is a well-known surfing spot.

Rainbow over Praia da Vitoria
Terceira offers a thrilling abundance of rainbows

Maybe we might not have anchored here…I mean there…STOP!

…Oh, wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey?!

If Terceria weren’t so damn beautiful, if the victuals weren’t so fucking good, we might have lost heart when our dinghy was flipped over by storm-driven rough chop. We lost both oars and, though one showed up on the beach, there’s no living at anchor without a reliable way of getting ashore for provisions. Cetacea, meet Marina Praia di Vitoria.

Marina at Praia da Vitoria
This spot is supposed to be for checking in but, at this time of year, there aren’t a lot of people passing through.

Due to the kindness of strangers (the one who spread the word and the one who came through with a couple spare little plastic emergency oars), we haven’t been locked to this dock the whole time since. We’ve gone back to anchor when the weather settled a bit or when the south end of the harbor looked more attractive than the north end. The traveling-sized weather windows never materialized, though. So we stayed and met some folks!

The oncoming storm
Home is where we are!

In Velas, I (Dena) did something I’ve never done before. I sent out a press release about our voyage with the new electric motor to my ancestral home. By the time we settled into the idea of a Praia winter, we had fulfilled a Dena-heavy commission for the boating magazine Practical Boat Owner and been invited to do more technical writing. James has gotten the thrilled attention of Latitude 38, a publication we’ve been reading for more than twenty years, where they are grappling with the question of how to compensate their writers fairly but deeply want his voice and point of view to be published.

Us in it...
…That’s right I found my voice!

As the temps dropped this winter, there’s a comedy to Florida being colder than here in the Atlantic High. Florida’s only upside was the wildlife in bird, fish, and cetacean form, but Praia has given us an octopus neighbor, scatterings of starfish, massive numbers of seabream, salmonete of all sizes, and a natural aquarium every day on the way to the shore-head. Emptying the sink strainer overboard after a rice meal creates a feeding frenzy of fun and we revel in having another year of adventure ahead.

Happy new year to all of our friends and family!

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3 comments

  1. Happy New Year! Reading the last few entries was as thrilling as ever. I was up to date on your winter plans to stay around Terceria, the good-natured huge pain of working around those crucial dingy oars, and your righteous boom in publications. Still, I’m listening to you tell your tales as rapt as if I were sipping cocktails at anchor with you after a harrowing passage, enjoying the aliveness of your overlapping chatter in the awe and relief of your survival.
    In the days of the calendar your epic adventures are logical, each one the next step from all that led you to live in the ocean a quarter century ago. In the long view those single steps add up to an astonishing voyage. To an astonishing, charmed, hard earned, rare and lucky life.
    So grateful to be your witness. Fair seas in 2024!

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