Watering Holes: An Oasis in the Ocean

Of all the watering holes frequented by sailors, few approach the legendary status of Peter’s Café Sport in Horta, on the island of Faial in the Azores archipelago. Café Sport has given succour to legions of thirsty sailors for many decades.
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Of all the watering holes frequented by sailors, few approach the legendary status of Peter’s Café Sport in Horta, on the island of Faial in the Azores archipelago. Café Sport has given succour to legions of thirsty sailors for many decades. Few transatlantic voyagers break their journey in Horta without knocking back at least a couple of frosty pints in the company of their peers in this cozy cavern of a bar, its wood-panelled walls and ceiling bedecked with flags, burgees and mementoes left behind by generations of bluewater sailors.

I felt something of an imposter when I first walked through the doors—I had arrived in Faial not via sailboat but by plane, having made the journey from Boston not in weeks but in hours, en route to a week of bareboat chartering in the Azores. At least I was accompanied by SAIL’s cruising editor Charlie Doane, who had imbibed well, if perhaps not always wisely, at the Café Sport in the course of various transatlantics over the years.

As soon as we’d stowed our gear on our charter boat, Doane steered our course unerringly out of the marina and across the road to the hallowed portal. There we found a typical waterfront mix: white-haired tourist couples fresh off a cruise ship, local businessmen in for a lunchtime pick-me-up, and a tableful of weatherbeaten specimens whose complexions owed their rosiness to long days in brisk winds as much as to the mugs of Super Bock in their fists.

The latter at least were well aware of the Café Sport’s history, which was recounted to us by the present landlord, Jose Azevedo, grandson of the “Peter” who originally opened the bar nearly a century ago, after the Great War. Family legend has it that Jose’s great-grandfather rowed out to Spray to greet Joshua Slocum when the great man anchored in Horta in 1895, thus beginning an association with cruisers that’s as old as cruising itself.

Since then the list of legendary cruising and racing sailors who have passed through this bar is long indeed. Eric Hiscock and Bernard Moitessier perhaps sat at the same table Doane and I occupied that afternoon: Sir Francis Chichester no doubt downed a Scotch or three at the wooden bar; Eric Tabarly may have stoked up his pipe in that corner by the door. The walls and ceiling display the rich patina of decades of tobacco smoke though these days no one lights up in this establishment.

Over the years, dozens of guest books have been filled with the names of transient sailors and their boats, hundreds if not thousands of them. As a mere charter guest, I would no more have considered writing my own name in one of them than I would painting our boat’s name on the harbor wall outside. Those privileges should be reserved for those who have crossed an ocean under sail to get here, or at least a good part of one—it’s 1,900 miles from Bermuda to Horta, and another thousand miles to mainland Portugal.

As the evening progressed, Jose took us upstairs to show us the world-class scrimshaw collection begun by his grandfather. From unbelievably detailed depictions of Napoleonic warships scratched into bone by imprisoned sailors in the 18th century to scenes of Azorean whaling life etched into the teeth of sperm whales, this art form is as tied to the sea as Café Sport itself. I could have spent several hours here.

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Back in the bar, the noise level escalated in synch with the number of new arrivals shoving through the door: a group of youngsters from a German sail-training ketch, pecking at their phones amid shrieks of laughter; a French delivery crew, just off the boat going by their hard-worn foulies and five-day stubble, hammering the beers down one after another; a middle-aged couple quietly sipping Vinho Verde and checking out GRIB files on an iPad. It was a rich cross-section of ocean sailing life, and we were happy to be a part of it.

Late next morning, I was taking a pre-departure stroll along the dock when I saw a pretty Alberg 29 gybe around the breakwater and sail into the marina. It rounded up smartly and ghosted into its slip, sheets freed and sails shaking. The lone occupant leaped out with his docklines in an obviously practiced move. It was Jose Azevedo, proving, in case he needed to, that Peter’s Café Sport is indeed a bar for real sailors.

Photos by Graham Snook

Other Great Sailing Bars 

How does a bar become a real sailor’s bar? Obviously, it has to be on or very near the water; it should preferably be at some kind of a sailing crossroads, a place where sailors stop, start or break their journeys; and it must have that indefinable ambience that so many bars lack. (It’s no coincidence that very few sailing bars are festooned with TV screens.) It’s the latter that separates the genuine sailors’ watering holes from the many imposters.

It helps if the bar in question is somewhat off the beaten track, in which case the effort involved in merely getting to it helps increase its reputation. The best example of this is the Micalvi Yacht Club, in Puerto Williams, on the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel. The Micalvi is a derelict Chilean Navy ship that is now home to the local yacht club. Here, in the world’s southernmost sailor’s bar, the floor is tilted just enough to make you regret that last rum and coke, and you can leaf through guest books packed with some of the most famous names in sailing.
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Thankfully, a sailing bar doesn’t have to be in the middle of nowhere in order to be a fun place to have a drink and meet like-minded souls. In Marblehead, Massachusetts, Maddie’s Sail Loft (just plain Maddie’s to the locals) is packed with sailors during regattas and race weeks. None of the bars around Ego Alley in Annapolis really have what it takes, but the Boatyard, a ten-minute stroll away, certainly does; and of all the bars in the British Virgin Islands, the Soggy Dollar Bar and Foxy’s are still hard to beat.

In the interests of research, hard-working SAIL editors have patronized all of these well-known bars, but with so many sailing communities in the United States, there must be many more that deserve to be on the list of Great Sailing Bars. Write to us at sailmail@sailmagazine.com (write “sailing bars” in the subject line) and tell us about your favorite.

Photos by Peter Nielsen

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