Sailors that stayed – Lesley Woodward

How many people do you know that have crossed the Pacific in a sail boat with a barely functioning engine? Faial resident Lesley Woodward is one of them.

Lesley – back then still just Lesley Dove – grew up in south west England: “West Country”, close to important and historical sailing harbours like Weymouth or Poole, and that would make a huge difference in her life, a big part of which she spent on the water.

Still, her first interests were more oriented towards the land than the sea. She took up horse riding as a hobby and actually worked with them for some time. It became a pleasure that would accompany her all of her life. Throughout the years, during her many travels, whenever opportunity arose, she would go riding and still, to this day, she keeps four well treated and dearly loved horses in the garden of her beautiful house in one of the rural villages of Faial. Lesley is a horse-person, of that there is no doubt.

But all that time at sea, the adventure, the struggles, dangers and hardships she had to face, have clearly made her the person she is today.

As I did with Sean Paton, I met her in a volunteer clean up in one of the river beds of the island, carrying huge heavy bags of collected plastic, with a determined energy that she transmitted to those around her. There’s a youthfulness about her that is clearly visible after just a few minutes of conversation, along with a sense of achievement she carries with her that makes her always play down obstacles and minimize difficulties.

The young Lesley Dove

Lesley started sailing Wayfarer dinghies at a youth centre in Weymouth when she was in her twenties and she applied all of her seemingly limitless energy and enthusiasm to it, so it comes as no surprise that she began working as a certified sailing instructor a few years later.

By this time she also started sailing keel boats, doing small trips to Cherbourg and to the Channel Islands. Lesley and her first husband bought a 24 foot sailing boat and would get away every chance they had. “We would go on to Cherbourg for the weekend and back and we always wanted to keep going. We never wanted to come back”, she recalls. Sailing gave her a sense of freedom, a glimpse of a totally different life style. She was tired of fitting it in at weekends and holidays. “If you’ve got a hobby that you love so much that you want to spend all of your time doing it, then just try to turn it into a career.”

So she did in 1991. She had done her Day Skipper and Coastal Skipper certificates and wanted to get some blue water sailing experience. So, with a 1000 pounds to her name, she quit her job and found a sail boat departing from Plymouth that was looking for crew to go… wherever! She jumped in a boat with a man she had never met before and a sailed towards a new life.

The trip was tough. The crossing of the Bay of Biscay is dangerous, especially so for the inexperienced sailor and it was only at this moment that Lesley found out that the skipper, Tony, had actually sailed fewer miles than she had. Sure enough they were embayed, forced ashore into the difficult entrance of Cap Ferret. Even though they waited for the right tide, with Lesley tied to the mast, trying to find a good passage, they were pushed sideways by the waves and could count themselves extremely lucky to arrive safely.

After that rough bit, they sailed to Lisbon and then to Madeira. There, she and two girlfriends met an Australian fellow, Scott, who was sailing solo on a little boat called “Storm Bay II”. So, the three girls told him: “We think you need crew… And we think you need three crew!” Consequently they all sailed down to the Canary Islands and the crossing to Antigua.

Scott was a much more experienced skipper than Tony. He hadn’t that much money so he had sold most of the instruments on board to finance the next part of the trip, keeping only a VHF radio, a trailing log, a sextant and a compass. That was it. So they crossed the Atlantic with very basic equipment. Slightly crazy, but this was for Lesley a chance to learn more.

They arrived in Antigua on a Sunday afternoon. And, anchor barely dropped, they jumped in the dinghy, went to the beach and hiked all the way up this baking hot hillside, to Shirley Heights – the most iconic view of the island – to watch the sun go down, hear the pan-band playing and make a celebratory toast to their voyage. Lesley tells me: “My first time in the Caribbean… It was magical. I was just like: pinch me. Is this real?” She was 34 years old and a new life was starting.

They stayed there for some time, but Lesley wouldn’t stop. She was hitching rides on boats to go on regattas across the Caribbean. One night, in a bar in Antigua, she met a couple of sailors who were leaving the next morning to deliver a boat to Australia and were actually looking for a female crew member. The Captain, John Baker, had been an officer in the Royal Navy: which Lesley thought was a good character reference. There was little time or room for doubt or hesitation. The next morning at 9 am she was down by the harbour with her bag packed for one of the greatest adventures of her life, onboard a Moody 42 Ketch.

First they set off to Venezuela, where they did some work on the boat, then through the Panama Canal and finally into the Pacific, down to the Galapagos. The permit to visit these islands is very hard to get, but they invoked the “right of innocent passage” because their starter motor for the engine wasn’t working. So they got to stay for ten days. Lesley was amazed at the beauty of the islands and she got to go diving and horse riding, her old hobby.

They never could fix the starter motor properly. Nevertheless, through the creative use of a screw driver, they were actually able to occasionally start the engine. One of the crew members had left in Panama and the other had a kind of a breakdown and ended up arrested in the Galapagos. So, it was down to just the two of them: Lesley and John Baker. He was understandably worried, but Lesley’s boldness overcame his concerns. “Well, we’re sailors, aren’t we? So we don’t need an engine. We’ll just go sailing!”, she told him. After all there were only 3000 miles of open ocean between them and Australia.

They had to hand steer it all across the great Pacific Ocean, usually in three hour watches, first to the Marquesas, then to Tahiti, Niue, Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea and then finally to the big island that was once called New Holland.

When they were just out of Bundaberg, on Australia’s west coast, their engine finally died completely. After covering almost the full length of the Pacific, they needed to be helped to cover the last 5 miles.

While she was ‘Down Under’, Lesley picked up on her horse riding, on the boat owner’s ranch, and also got to do a lot of volcano climbing. Lesley is drawn to volcanoes. “I always seem to end up in volcanic places”, she tells me. She remembers having climbed the volcano in Moorea, close to Tahiti, to find a pineapple plantation in its crater, “The smell was amazing…”, she recalls. This is yet another reason why she feels right at home in the Azores. “Off course when I got to Faial I had to go climb Pico. Just to chalk up another volcano!

She returned to England an experienced sailor with a lot of miles running the ship. She wasn’t interested in the stereotypical jobs for women on boats: stewardess or cook: so, with the knowledge she got from John Baker along their trip, she obtained her Yacht Master certificate in a time when very few women had it. She thought that if Tracy Edwards and some other women were out there “blazing the trail”, she certainly could do a bit of “warm water sailing.”

Sometime later, Lesley’s life changed again. She had met an English couple in Algarve, where she had found a job as a Captain, and decided to go sailing with them to the Caribbean. But fate got in the way. In the Canaries, while preparing the boat for the crossing, their starter motor failed. “I have a thing with starter motors, don’t I?”, she smiles. They were helped by a fishing boat and unceremoniously pushed alongside a 33 feet ferro cement sloop called “Quartet”, that belonged to an Englishman named Alan, her husband to this day. That’s how we met. We bumped into each other!”, she tells me laughing.

The amazing figurehead that distinguished Lesley and Alan’s boat

For a couple of years Lesley and Alan ran a bar in Gran Canaria, where they managed to refit Alan’s boat and leave again to cross the Atlantic. An interesting part of the refitting is the parrot’s figurehead (that can be seen in their painting in Horta’s Marina) they got as payment for an extensive bar bill from a local artist and t-shirt manufacturer known only as “T-shirt Tom”. It was a big, shiny colourful sculpture that left them open to less than gentle remarks about “the parrot with a boat up his bum…

That year, 1996, before finally crossing to the Caribbean, they came to visit some friends here in the Azores. It was a bit of a tough sail but they did it. They saw all of the islands except Flores and Corvo. They loved Faial but weren’t thinking about stopping just yet. Still, Lesley says “We both thought: yeah… This is nice. Let’s keep in the back of our minds.”

Lesley went on to do Captain’s work in the Caribbean for some years after that. During that time she had to face the sinking of a Jeanneau 42 she was delivering from Tortola (British Virgin Islands) to Antigua, that forced her and her friend, Sue Chisholm, to abandon ship, spending a terrible night on an inflatable dinghy off the coast of Nevis, with a lot of boats sailing close by but oblivious to their flares and MOB light. The next morning they were able to get safely, though exhausted, ashore. An experience she would never forget, but that showed all her training was there and kicked in automatically in an emergency. “The fear… you only feel it later”, she shares.

She kept on sailing for a while but this was a turning point for Lesley. Sailing slowly stopped being as enjoyable as it was before and she realized it is a “numbers game”, the more miles you do, the more you increase the chances of something going wrong. It was time to stop.

The Azores were still in the back of both Alan’s and Lesley’s minds so, in 2001, they moved to Faial and worked hard to rebuild a ruined old house they had bought the year before and opened a Bed & Breakfast, in rural Pedro Miguel village, very close to where they still live. They had been sailing for 10 years “with no fixed abode”. Buying a house and opening a business of their own was a big and somewhat scary change.

But the island welcomed them. Starting with their neighbours, that from the first day brought them traditional meat soup (and actually had to lend them spoons and bowls), to the small community of “estrangeiros”(foreigners), that back then were mostly sailors in love with the island, just like them.

As with many newcomers, they ended up attracting others and they saw, with some surprise, some of their guests from the B&B turning into permanent residents.

Today, Lesley has her horses, her house, her friends. The fears of being tied down are gone. “I feel very comfortable here now. It’s definitely become home”, she says.

Tiago Redondo

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