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Torn topsail testifies to fury of Atlantic storm

Jan 1, 2003

On a recent visit to the town of Horta on Faial Island in the Azores, I got a reminder of how powerful an ocean storm can be and its effect on voyaging boats in harbor and at sea.

I had gone to the Azores for a fisheries conference, landing at Horta airport on March 26 in howling gale, if not storm-force winds coming crossways across the runway off the Atlantic Ocean. Huge rollers were pounding on the rocky shore of Faial as we came in for a landing. Moments before touching down, the pilot aborted the landing and lifted the jet sharply, went into a steep bank and circled around for another try.

The crosswinds buffeted the plane as we landed, but we safely touched down and the passengers burst into applause for the skipper. The fire crew was sitting in their truck at the terminal with the engine running when we arrived. I never found out if that was customary there.

When we got into Horta, I looked out over the water and was grateful I was ashore. Waves were sweeping up the waterfront seawall and breaking over the top. In the marina, the gales whipped up a concert of whining and whistling in the rigging of a handful of sailboats securely tied up there. More than 2,000 sailing vessels stopped in at Horta last year on their way across the Atlantic, mostly in the summer. On Wednesday, March 29, while on a hill on the island, I looked down and spotted the crew of the 162-foot brigantine Swan fan Makkum clinging to the top crosstree. As the brigantine steamed into the harbor, I could see its topsail was in tatters. The next day I photographed the crew taking down the ruined sail.


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