The islands are of volcanic origin and were formed relatively recently (4 million years ago) and indeed the volcanoes are still active, as the Capelinhos peninsula in Faïal only emerged from the ocean fifty years ago! Located in the middle of the Atlantic, where the seas are 3,000 metres deep, these are massive peaks, which culminate at 2,352 metres on Pico. Located between 37° and 40° North and 25° and 31° West, they benefit from a mild, wet climate, which is not so very different from Brittany with average minimal temperatures of 8° and maximum temperatures around 25°. The best season to visit is therefore the summer, when the Azores high is well established.
Discovered by an Arab serving King Roger II of Sicily in 1154, the Azores were colonised by the Portuguese in the 15th Century, after they had been visited by the English, Dutch, Spanish, Belgians and French... essentially, as they were seen as a stopover point between America and Europe. Whale hunting quickly became an essential resource for the inhabitants, who acquired a reputation around the world with many later moving to California, Brazil, Bermuda and Nantucket, as Herman Melville explained in Moby Dick.
The greatest seafarers passed through Horta (island of Faïal), and it became a tradition for each boat to leave its mark in paint on the quayside. All the sailors had to drink a glass at Peter’s, in the famous bar opened in 1918, which is both a mailbox for sailors and a sort of museum of scrimshaw. Along with this friendly welcome from the locals, the islands boast a wealth of astonishing sights for visitors including their amazing floral displays, which are partly down to the climate and partly due to the fact that travellers brought plants there: araucaria from China, tulips from Virginia, Brazilian rosewood, Japanese camphor, and kapok and guinko trees. It is a genuine garden in the middle of the ocean, where pineapples, tobacco, vines, pomegranates and bananas grow in amongst azaleas and hydrangeas. Black sandy beaches, hot water springs and bubbling mud can be found alongside whitewashed houses made of black basalt, churches with their stone sculptures, creeks with high cliffs and small fishing ports.
Nine islands with extraordinary landscapes
Furthest east, Santa Maria was the first to be colonised and was used as an aircraft base in the 2nd World War. It is famous for its long beaches of fine sand and its many fossils buried in the sediment. The largest and most heavily populated island, Sao Miguel has towering cliffs and is entirely volcanic. With its many churches with their fine sculptures and blue mosaic work (azulejos), there are many hidden exotic gardens, where the waters of the Seven Cities that fuel the legend of Atlantis, feed two lakes, one green and one blue in the bottom of a huge crater.
The lilac island, Terceira, tells the story of the islands, their struggle for independence and the conquests. You can find many imperios here. These tiny bright-coloured chapels are said to be home to the food offered to the Holy Ghost, and it is here too you find the Biscoitos vineyard, where each vine is surrounded by a small wall of violet lava. Pico is the name of the 2,352-metre high volcano, which is still active and it is here that the old whaling ports of Lajes do Pico and Sao Roque are located. Sao Jorge is an island resembling a ridge rising out of the water, and measures 25 miles by just 4. Graciosa, the Island of Grace, is brightly coloured with its white windmills with red tops.
Faïal, the blue island, so called because it is covered in hydrangeas, has long been an attraction: Lindbergh and Slocum stopped here, along with the whaling ships. It is home to the weather centre and the telephone cable centre connecting Europe and America. Almost a thousand boats a year moor up in Horta, the main port on Faïal, which has a well-equipped marina, which is both sheltered and friendly. The local paper publishes the name of each boat that stops there, as the arrival of a boat in the Azores is always an event for the 240,000 Portuguese inhabitants, who live well off the beaten track and essentially have lived on farms since whaling ended.
Florès is one of the most beautiful botanical gardens with 850 plants and a yellow covering over all the paths. Finally, Corvo is the most remote of the islands, where just 500 people live in an autarky. The nine islands, which have avoided tremors and earthquakes, keep their traditions and religious festivals alive and, like all those that live by the sea, they remain very open to others.
A famous area of high pressure
The Azores High is present for most of the year stretching to the NE in summer and SW in winter, this system plays an important role in regulating the weather in the North Atlantic. The average pressure is relatively high varying from 1017 hPa in March to 1025 hPa in July. However North Atlantic lows affect the high, chiefly in winter when they pass north of the islands. Sometimes secondary lows form around the Azores causing long periods of nasty weather with strong NW’ly winds.
Usually the winds are moderate throughout the year with the western islands (Corvo, Florès) getting the most wind. Gales are rare and calms frequent in the summer. Thermal breezes develop in the summer. In the central islands, SW’ly winds prevail in winter and NE’ly breezes in summer.
Regulating the Atlantic
The Azores High regulates the weather systems in the North Atlantic affecting the movement of the low pressure areas coming from Newfoundland and moving towards Europe at between 5 and 35 knots. In winter, the high is usually centred 500 miles SW of the islands with lows affecting Britain and France, with the trade winds blowing along the coast of Portugal down to the Cape Verdes, then shifting easterly to the Caribbean islands.
In summer, the Azores High climbs back up towards Ireland, generating fine weather over Western Europe. The system is more volatile in the spring and autumn, with the high collapsing in on itself or combining with the Bermuda high. The route taken by the solo skippers in the Vendée Globe will depend on the position of this high.
Currents and tides
Visibility is good or even excellent in the summer, and with such high cliffs it is very easy to find your way around. The Pico volcano culminating at more than 2,300 metres can sometimes be seen more than 50 miles away in the early morning, but in the afternoon, clouds surround the peaks. There are some strong currents around the islands due to the effect of the Gulf Stream meeting the Canaries current and this can reach practically one knot off the islands.
The winds affect its strength and direction with lows reducing its impact in winter. There are two high tides a day with the tide coming from the Gulf of Guinea stretching north to the Azores. Tides are not very high however with just a metre near Flores, 1.20m near Horta and 1.40m near Punta Delgada. Tide times are more or less the same for all the islands with a maximum of ten minutes’ difference between the eastern islands and Florès.
Usually, boats returning from the round the world voyage leave the islands to their SE or sail close to Flores and Corvo, but in this eighth Vendée Globe, the unusual weather patterns in the North Atlantic should see the leaders passing through the islands close to Santa Maria as the Azores high has moved towards Spain with an unusual low over the Canaries. However, this configuration is likely to change for those following the leaders with a new series of lows sweeping in from Newfoundland…