Les Gallagher is a passionate man. You just have to listen to him talking for a few minutes about some of his many activities, be it fishing, sailing, illustrating, working with wood or stone, participating in scientific research projects, running his bar or drawing up the plans for a marine interpretation centre in Horta to understand it. The vivid descriptions of places and events, the emotions etched in his face when he recalls his travels and adventures, engage the listener and also make him an excellent story teller. It is not an easy task doing him justice.
Out of his varied passions, one clearly stands out: the sheer and overwhelming emotion of being in connection with nature, especially in the marine environment. The shapes, colours and scenes that he describes with an artist’s eye, the privilege of seeing and being near its creatures, make the moments that remain perfectly engraved in his memory. It’s from this passion for nature that he derives the seemingly inexhaustible energy he devotes to his many projects. “It’s when you feel most alive!”, he tells me, with his blue eyes in the distance, recalling the vastness of the ocean.
His connection, no, his acute need to be in the great outdoors, came from his childhood in the Wirral Peninsula, close to the river Dee’s estuary, not far from Liverpool. At an early age he turned to the sea, sailing, fishing, rebuilding his first boat – against all odds and opinions – at the age of 15, working on other boats, painting and varnishing to get money for the materials and using the skills his grandfather had taught him.
It was at this time that he started dreaming about the open ocean. Liverpool is one of the major ports in Great Britain and, from his bedroom window, the young Les Gallagher would see the ships going down the Welsh coast towards the ocean. He felt drawn: “I have to go, go South.”
When he was 17, something put in motion the wheels of a big change in his life. While going to school, “early in a dark winter morning” he found at a newsagent a magazine about big game fishing that had on the cover a captain from the Azores with his crew mate – who he would later meet and work alongside – with three huge Marlin. He was fascinated with this picture. He went hungry that day, and spent his lunch money on the magazine, that he read over and over, completely enthralled by the stories, by the nature. He knew then that was his dream: coming to the Azores to fish the big fishes.
He worked to realize his dream: he wrote to the Azorean big game fishing company. They replied that if he could get here, they would have some work for him. So, he sold his beloved boat and his beloved Triumph Herald and two days after concluding his “A- level” pre university exame s he was at the train station with a rucksack and ready to embark on an inter-rail trip around Europe that would finish in Lisbon, with the firm determination of finding some way to get to the Azores. The little research he did before coming made the islands look even more appealing: the nature, the traditional way of life and the traditional boat building that was still going on here, but that was difficult to find in England. Coming to the Azores was an opportunity to see it live, “It was like travelling back in time!”, he says.
It was 1987 when he arrived. But the trip wasn’t easy. As soon as he arrived in Lisbon, to Santa Apolónia Station, down by the water-front, he went to look for a boat that went to the Azores, but there were none. Eventually he got a cabin onboard the “Funchalense”, a cargo ship that also took some passengers to Madeira. It wasn’t the Azores but he was one step closer, he thought, and, truth be told, he had no other option.
After staying in Funchal for a couple of days, first in less than comfortable accommodation, then doing maintenance on a sail-boat in exchange for a place to stay, he was finally able to get a ride on a Belgian sailboat owned by a geoligist making a study of the Atlantic Islands and who agreed to take him to Santa Maria Island. So at last Les was able to see the coast of one of the islands of the Azores that, surprisingly, reminded him of the shores of North Wales that he knew so well.
He didn’t get to stay for long in Santa Maria. There was a need to help a French woman, whose husband had been evacuated to the hospital in São Miguel and the opportunity for a ride in her two masted 46” ketch to Ponta Delgada – that was the destination he was aiming for – made him leave that same night. Still, he recalls the first time he got to walk through an Azorean town: “Climbing from the harbour into Vila do Porto that Sunday afternoon, I was so surprised to see in house after house, a boyfriend standing in front of the girlfriend’s window. I didn’t know what to think. This was like something from Victorian England!” Travelling back in time, indeed.
The French boat they took to São Miguel was in bad shape. The batteries were very low, but they couldn’t use the motor much, because one of the engine mounts was broken, making the whole thing vibrate like crazy. misfortunes come in pairs, so as soon as they got out of the lee of the island the wind picked up, and the main sail jammed in the mast. It was up to Les to go up the mast to free it, in night’s rough wind, with an inexperienced and stressed skipper at the helm. Trying to hang on with no safety harness, he ended up black and blue but with no major injuries. In twilight of early morning, they finally arrived in Ponta Delgada. He had made it and was finally here.
Les was alone on the boat that first morning, resting from the rough trip, when he heard a loud, imperative knock on the boat. A Portuguese customs officer was there in full uniform, demanding in Portuguese to see the paperwork and to know the name of the boat, that he couldn’t read because of the yacht’s position at the end the single pier inside Ponta Delgada’s harbour. Les went downstairs to read the name, written in French, that he didn’t speak nor understood, and said to the policeman: “Je ne sais pas”. This was unacceptable for the authority who insisted in a livid manner. Les thought that maybe his accent wasn’t good enough so, with a big smile, as friendly as he possibly could be, he repeated, yet again, with the most French accent he could muster: “Je ne sais pas”, making the policeman storm out of the boat, in a rage. Les was left wondering why the locals weren’t very friendly…
He still had to face another visit from the same customs officer but thankfully the owner of the boat solved the issues before he got arrested. It was only about two weeks later that Les was able, after some confusion, to understand the conundrum: the name of the French boat was, in fact, “Je ne sais pas”.
His first days in the Azores left him fascinated. Firstly with the clearest blue water he had ever seen, even inside the port at that time, but also with the boat building in the nearby boatyard, the smell of the wood and the oil based paints. In the commercial fishing área of the harbour he watched every day the boats came in, filled with fishermen from Rabo de Peixe village. The lifestyle of these people interested him, “it was a hard life” and their deep connection with nature was marked in their faces. He recalls perfectly seeing those big boatloads of people, many of then being very young, often children, bringing in loads of “chicharros” (mackerel) and all those rugged but very alive faces, covered in fish scales, making them “like shinning silver in the sunlight”. This was for him a new and fascinating universe.
In the meantime he had taken accommodation looking after a 40′ yacht in Ponta Delgada harbour and had started working for the sport fishing company he had seen in the magazine in England. He finally got to know the guy who was on the cover of the magazine that made him decide to come to the Azores.
Les Gallagher recalls the first day they went out to sea with the Captain Luis Lajes who he had seen on the magazine cover back in England. “It was an amazing experience, the size of the boats, the white water behind, the speed, the blueness and the clarity of the water”, he describes passionately. They caught a Blue Marlin of 912 pounds (413,6Kg). Les had never seen a fish bigger than 50 pounds. The memory of experiencing that huge, powerful and magnificent animal stayed “etched in stone in my mind forever. The clock stopped and the planet stopped spinning during those moments, when you get in touch with such nature at such close quarters.”
He had started working in the big game fishing business, but also was soon refitting the company’s boats. In the winter time, he went squid fishing, “another aspect of the ocean’s adventure, hand-lining at 200 meters of depth to get them, to be there in that natural environment with dolphins and sharks and also making a very nice profit.” He was surprised why the rest of the young people of the island weren’t all doing it as well. For this he restored and used an old fiberglass boat that had been layingto waste in a corner of the harbour. It was the hull of a flat bottomed Boston Whaler Boat that divers had found off the Populo’s Beach, near Ponta Delgada, that judging by the shells inside, had drifted in from somewhere in the tropics. Two years after arriving, in 1989, though he was loving all the new experiences of living and working in the Azores, he felt he should go back to attend University. However, a fresh job offer to re-fit and then Captain a boat on Faial Island made him postpone that idea for one more year. During that season, he was to become a successful and reputes big game captain. He couldn’t just turn his back on it all.
For the following winter another offer came about – to refit a boat in Florida and to fish in the Bahamas. “What was I going to do? It was a dream!”, he laughs. Next thing he was on the plane to North Palm Beach, “the Meca of craftsmanship and quality game-boat building”. He made good friends in the Florida, but realized he could never live there. He missed the Azores, and the beautiful blue water and long swell of the central Atlantic ocean breaking on the rugged basalt shores, “the smell of the land” the life-style and his friends. It wasn’t long before he was back.
(End of part 1)