Whether it’s winter sun, ocean sailing or just a wild time, Madeira has a lot to offer. Chris Beeson reports
A cruising guide to Madeira
Looking for some warm, winter sailing spiced up by the freedom of the deep, blue Atlantic Ocean? So were we, and Madeira looked likely to deliver on all fronts. Finding a company that offers bareboat charter here takes some doing (written in 2010) so we were pleased to have help from Cátia Carvalho, operations director of Quinta do Lorde Marina and the UK Ocean Cruising Club’s representative in Madeira.
My crew Emma and I collected our charter yacht, a Bénéteau Océanis 323 named Paralelo 32 (www.paralelo32.pt), from the 264-berth Quinta do Lorde Marina nestling beneath a cliff on the south side of the Ponta de São Lourenço peninsula to the east of the island.
After victualling in a supermarket in nearby Machico, we cast off and headed south-west along the south coast. Once out of the lee of the land we goosewinged past Machico, home to a 15th century chapel, the oldest on the island, and one of Madeira’s two ‘blond’ beaches, then on past the international airport, an unmistakable landmark on stilts. The wind became flukey and disappeared completely off Ponta do Garajau, the island’s southerly tip, complete with a smaller version of the statue of Christ that overlooks Rio de Janeiro. Winds in the lee of this mountainous island are gusty and unreliable but shelter is never too far away.
A couple of miles west of the headland is Funchal, visible from the sea as a sprawled city clawing its way up the terraced slopes that rise from the Atlantic. The city’s harbour throngs with cargo and cruise ships. There is a 210-berth marina next to the oldest part of the city but it’s invariably packed with local boats. Visiting boats are either rafted against the inside of the breakwater or required to anchor inside the 10m contour outside the marina. Being close to the heart of such a beautiful, historic city has its benefits but the commercial activity and waterside restaurants and bars mean it’s noisy and not an especially relaxing place to spend the night. We visited later by car.
Motoring on, we passed Funchal to pick up one of three moorings off Fajã dos Padres, a small strip of agricultural land at the foot of Cabo Girão, Europe’s seventh highest sea cliff at 589m. South facing, sheltered by the rock face and easily accessible from the sea, there’s been farming here since the 15th century and the climate supports many tropical fruits. We snorkelled the crisp, clear water then headed back to the boat to catch the sunset.
In the low light the vast rusty cliff glowed red and so beguiling was the scene that by the time we had launched the dinghy and paddled over to the concrete quay, the restaurant had closed so it was supper on the yacht. Next day, we motored west through the lee of the island heading ESE towards Ilhas Desertas.
We paused briefly to nose into Câmara de Lobos, a picturesque fishing village four miles west of Funchal that lured Sir Winston Churchill and his easel back several times during his life. Rocky outcrops either side of the harbour entrance protect it in all but southerly winds and it would be a lovely spot to drop anchor were it not for the dozens of moored fishing vessels crowding the harbour. The quay is often used by fishermen unloading their catch, so we pressed on.
Just south of Ponta do Garajau we left the island’s lee and enjoyed a glorious fetch, broadening to a reach, in a warm Force 4 below a clear blue sky. This is what we came for! The 18-mile passage flew by and soon we arrived at Ilhas Desertas – literally, desert islands. You need a permit from the National Parks Department in Funchal to visit this marine nature reserve, and Cátia had kindly arranged ours for us. This archipelago of three islands is a breeding location for the monk seal, one of the world’s 10 most endangered species, and the Madeira petrel, also under threat of extinction. Fishing is banned inside the 100m depth contour line.
The islands’ only anchorage is in the lee of a rocky spit, awash at high tide, at Chão da Doca on the western side of the main island, Ilha Deserta Grande. A family was snorkelling around a large French catamaran lying to anchor but we picked up one of a couple of moorings. They belong to the island’s permanent warden and they’re used for emergencies but as we were only staying until the morning, we could stay put. Generally it’s billed as a fair weather anchorage only, although with the main island’s ridge rising over 400m above the anchorage, it develops its own microclimate – quite damp and gusty at times.
The snorkelling is spectacular with dozens of species of fearless fish, caves and arches. Emma, an experienced diver, said it was as good as anywhere in the world.
Next day we set off early for Porto Santo, 40 miles upwind, in an easterly Force 4-5. We were making 6 knots with a long day ahead, wondering whether to break the journey at Quinta do Lorde or nearby Baía de Abra, when the genoa halyard parted at the mast and decided the matter.
We fired up the engine and motorsailed towards the marina while Vitor, the rigger, rendezvoused exactly when he said he would and repaired the halyard. In the afternoon Cátia took us into Caniçal, an old whaling port a mile west of Quinta do Lorde, where we enjoyed some of the island’s culinary delights.
The biggest hits were lapas – limpets grilled in their shells, bodião – parrot fish, and the island’s signature fish dish, espada – the mean-looking, deep-dwelling black scabbard fish. Rounded off with pastel de nata – the celebrated custard tart, we returned to the marina replete.
The following morning we were determined to sail to Porto Santo, 32 miles upwind. The Force 4-5 was a decent sailing breeze but the long Atlantic swell refracting around Porto Santo was going to make for a long day. Under sail, it looked like a seven-hour passage and with my crew already feeling a touch queasy, we should have given it a miss. But Porto Santo had acquired mythical status in our minds so we opted to drop the jib and motorsail. Its volcanic topography, unmistakable from 20 miles out, lured us onwards. It wasn’t much fun but we slogged it out and were delighted to make it to the lee of the island.
Marina Porto Santo’s 165 berths are well sheltered from the north and there is a large breakwater. It’s generally the first port of call on the Atlantic circuit so you’ll see ocean-going craft of every size from everywhere.
Porto Santo, or Holy Port, is where Madeirans come by ferry to relax. This is largely because of the golden beach that stretches for six miles along its south coast but it’s also the only other inhabited island for nearly 300 miles.
There is a laid back, low-key feel to the island, and it’s most obvious in Vila Baleira, the main town for this island of 5,000 people. Officially it’s a city but strolling into the small cobbled square ringed with restaurants and cafes and overlooked by the town hall and 15th century church, you’d never guess. Columbus lived in Vila Baleira for a spell – he certainly got around, he lived in the Canaries and the Azores too – and his home is now a museum.
Our return trip to Madeira was a glorious sleigh ride, surging along on a broad reach at 7-8 knots. Five glorious hours later we were safely alongside in Quinta do Lorde Marina.
On our last day we rented a car to explore the island. The engineering skill that has gone into this island is quite remarkable. It is shot through with dozens of miles of tunnels and crisscrossed with bridges but we chose the old coastal road, a single lane highway that clings its way around the cliffs and coastline on the north side of the island revealing stunning vistas around every blind corner. The entire northern side of the island is a lee shore so the only sensible way to enjoy it is by road.
Progress slowed dramatically at Ponta Delgado, halfway along the northern coast, as parked cars and pedestrians thronged the carriageway. Stranded as they are in the Atlantic, Madeirans need no excuse for a party and we had stumbled across one of the biggest – the Festa do Senhor Bom Jesus. The town was decked out with thousands of paper flowers made by the locals and judging by the number of pilgrims, we would have had the night of our lives – had we been able to park within a couple of miles of the town.
We pressed on to Porto Moniz, on the island’s north-west corner, before turning inland and climbing up and up, above the clouds and onto Madeira’s mountainous spine, surrounded by spectacular views. We stopped in Serra de Agua for a poncha, a sustaining mix of honey, lemon and aguardente de cana – a white cane rum – before continuing on to the labyrinth that is Funchal. Lacking a GPS, we decided instead to keep heading downhill, we were bound to meet the coast at some stage.
When we arrived, we found Funchal’s cobbled Avenida Arriaga in the swing of the Madeira wine festival – a celebration marking the grape harvest and the huge variety of wines made on the island – that also showcases the island’s culture, traditions and folklore. It marked a suitably Madeiran end to our charter.
Beyond the clichés of blue rinse, fortified wine and moist sponge cake, there is a lot to recommend Madeira to the more adventurous yachtsman. For me, it offers the deep, dark indigo-blue waters of the Atlantic – for a sense of freedom afloat, not much comes close. Also, the climate is delightfully stable, varying from 18°C in late winter to 25°C in high summer, the reliable Force 3-4 winds from the north-east and the spectacular scenery inland. It varies remarkably depending on which side of the island you visit because the prevailing northeasterly Trade Winds regularly drench the northern side of the island, and it is spectacularly green. The south side is drier generally, and at its heart is the port of Funchal where there are some spectacular historical buildings.