July 12, 2014

Day 11: Horta to Calheta de Nesquim, Pico

Today was a big day. One of the other people Márcia Dutra had tried to hook me up with was Pedro Escobar, who is involved with the old-school whale boats, which are now raced with both oars and sails. He had not answered my email, so I let it go.

I have also been in touch with Luís Bicudo, a film maker who made a documentary about the old whalers. I haven't seen it and I haven't met him — I just stumbled upon him randomly while researching this project. But I sent him an email and he has been incredibly helpful and encouraging.

Luís sent me an email about Pedro as well, and offered to get in touch with him on my behalf. When I got home from dinner on Friday there was a message waiting: Meet Pedro at the harbor in front of Cafe Sport at 9 AM tomorrow and ride with them to the whale boat regatta on Pico. And so I did.

Luís had told me about this regatta earlier, so I had already been planning to go. I originally thought I'd just take the ferry from Horta to Madalena on Pico (about 30 minutes) and then rent a scooter and ride out to Calheta for the regatta. Easy. But this plan was much more exciting. Several canoas from Faial would be towed by a gas-engine launch (lancha) to Calheta, at the far west end of Pico, and I was being offered a ride in one of them with Pedro and his mates. 

Pedro is a big grinning bear of a guy, really sweet and funny as hell. He has the best laugh, which you hear often if you hang out with him. He lives in Cedros, so knows Angie and those folks too. Not knowing exactly what to expect, I wasn't adequately prepared for the adventure that lay ahead — shorts, sneakers, t-shirt, sweatshirt, sunscreen, and a day pack full of recording gear. Pedro eyed me with amusement and tossed me an old water-proof jacket. "You'll need this." He also offered me a waterproof bag for my gear. "How wet are we going to get?", I asked naively. "Wet," he laughed back. His mates looked at me like I was a hopeless idiot.

We waited around for quite a while; there was some debate about whether or not we would even go, because the weather wasn't too good and the seas were pretty rough. Finally the word came down: It was on. Pedro was all pumped; "Let's do this thing, people!" There were six boats being towed by the launch, which we had to paddle out to in the harbor and all get roped together. The launch was also carrying everyone's backpacks with dry clothes. I opted to put most of my gear in the pack on the launch and only take a small recorder and my camera; that way, if anything happened I'd still have a dry recorder and iPhone with camera on the launch. The trip typically takes about three hours, and everyone settled in for the long ride, using the sail for a blanket. The first 30 or 40 minutes were pretty uneventful, and I was able to take some photos and make recordings.

But the further out we got, the rougher the waves became. We got doused quite a bit, and the folks in the botes had to keep yelling at the launch pilot to go slower. My guess is that it took us four hours to make the trip. And I am happy to report that Dramamine actually worked. I am normally prone to seasickness, but was totally fine on this trip. The spray in my face kept me alert, and occasionally a big wave came splashing over the bow, totally soaking us. Fortunately the water was quite warm. My eyes stung from the saltwater (and sunscreen), but otherwise I totally enjoyed it. Somehow the recorder and camera came through unscathed.

Finally, we reached Calheta, which I had visited briefly when I was here three years ago. I think we were the last group of boats to arrive. There were already a bunch of boats on the ramp — maybe 20? — and it felt like they had been waiting for us to start the regatta. There was time for a quick break for a sandwich and a beer, and then all of the boats started putting in again. They paddled out through the narrow channel between the rocks, and the launches towed them into position. They put up their masts and unfurled their sails, and it was a lovely sight.

I hung around for a while and then decided to try to make the 6 PM ferry from Madalena to Horta. The buses don't run on Pico on Saturday, and there were no taxis in Calheta. My friends had all encouraged me to just hitch-hike. "It's easy," they said. "You'll be fine," they said. I managed to get a ride up the hill to the main road, and then a ride to the outskirts of Lajes. And there my luck ran out. I sat for a long time, being stared at with suspicion or amusement by a group of old guys who were hanging out in front of the local império (Espirito Santo chapel). Finally I went across the street and asked one of them if there were taxis to be found in Lajes, thinking it wasn't too far of a walk. One of them was very kind and went to his house to call me a taxi, which soon arrived and took me to Madalena. He probably gouged me (€25!), but it actually was a pretty long trip, about 30 minutes, and I was in no position to complain. I missed my ferry and had to wait for the one at 9 PM. While I waited I had an omelet with fries and salad at the tourist joint across from the ferry terminal, and was quite happy to do so.

I don't know how useful the recordings I made on the boat will be, due to wind and the drone of the launch in the background. But it was a fantastic, inspiring experience, and I owe a big fat OBRIGADO to Pedro and his mates for letting me tag along, and to Luís for the hook-up. This sort of thing is indicative of my experience here in the islands so far. People are happy to help, and things just seem to fall magically into place.