Sailing Portuguese waters

Or how to stay safe and happy

Heard too many tough stories and warnings about the Portuguese west-coast and getting a bit nervous about sailing along this coast? Don’t, but you’ve got to treat it with respect!
There’s a few simple rules that will help you to get it right, and once you understand the “why” it all becomes pretty clear and logical.
Alright, let’s give you the rules first:
1 – For each of your wx-forecasts have a decent look at the weather-systems on the whole North Atlantic Ocean. Yes, the whole North Atlantic Ocean, because that’s where your waves come from.
2 – Do your homework and have the tide-timetables ready to look at any time.
3 – Never attempt to approach any port in a southerly with more than 2.5 meters of swell, unless it’s Leixoes or Nazare.
4 – If it should pick up more than you expected once you’re out there, don’t even think about getting in somewhere unless you’re heading for Leixoes or Nazare! Head out to sea and, for comfort, also away from the continental shelf.
5 – If in doubt, or not 100 % certain, don’t hesitate to ask! There’s day- and night-signals of course, but it’s not a shame and everybody will be more than happy about a check on VHF channel 16.
Another point I shouldn’t need to mention: never ever try to be the Hero because your Crew feels tired or just wishes to spend a cozy night in port. This here is not the playground for niceties. Safety comes first!
Five Rules, and they’re not that difficult to remember.
Now, let me explain the “why”:
To start with, the low-pressure-systems travel across the North Atlantic Ocean from west to east. Whichever kind of waves they produce will hit the Iberian west-coast, and they can be pretty high. You might have a forecast with only 3 or so knots of wind, lovely sunshine but, at the same time, 6 meters or something of swell. So it would be pretty clever to check the wave-height too to make sure the port you’re heading to can be approached.
Most ports are built inside a river exiting into the North Atlantic Ocean (Nazaré and Leixoes being the exceptions). It made building them so much easier and offers a lot of protection against the Atlantic swell once inside.
The predominant wind is the well known Portuguese Norder. To make it possible to enter whenever he’s up, they only had to build a breakwater on one side – the northern side.
Three things can cause a bit of a havoc with this setup: sandbars, currents and southerly winds.
Nearly every river has a sandbar in the entrance. Depending on wind- and sea-conditions there can be breaking waves over the bar, especially at low water.
The current in the rivers varies. After a lot of rainfall inland (like during the winter months in 2012, 2013 and 2014 for example) the current in the rivers can reach 7 knots or more, easily. Have this kind of water rushing out of the river against a southerly with a bit of swell and you’ll find standing waves (opposing waves combine) at the entrance, no joking! Needless to say but I’ll mention it just for completeness: around high water will always be the best time to enter, provided the conditions are alright.
Over the years I’ve noticed something that concerns rule 4 and the continental shelf, and you’ll probably notice as well when you prepare your passage as far as weather is concerned: sometimes you can adjust the amount of wind you want with moving a bit closer to the coast or a bit away from it. Even 1 single Mile to the west or east can make a big difference. Check it out, you’ll be surprised!
Beware of one more thing: from the beach you’ll always have a lovely time watching the breaking waves. Coming from the sea you can only see the back of the waves, but hardly ever the foam or the breaking top. And once you can see that, it’s normally too late. Trouble is, when you’re out there on the ocean for some hours you get used to the height of the waves and don’t really take notice of them any more. It might make you feel safe to enter. Be clever and ask on VHF channel 16 instead of trying to just do it!
While still in port, there is something that might help you to get a rough idea about the situation. The Portuguese Autoridade Maritima Nacional has a website informing about the state of the entrances for all Portuguese Ports. You can find it under this link: Estado das Barras
You’re right, it is in Portuguese which might not be one of your languages, but it’s not difficult. Red flag means the entrance is closed, yellow means the entrance is conditioned (move the cursor over the flag to get more infos) and with green it’s open (Edit: a Translate-Button has been added, unfortunately it tries to translate the names of the places too, don’t get confused!). And yes, this changes constantly with the state of the sea, the tides and the weather. And yes, you can’t check it out at sea. But still, it can give you an indication. And, when a port you want to head to is already closed although in your opinion the bad weather is still to come, go for plan B!
If you keep this in mind, there shouldn’t be any problems for you to sail along this coast. And believe me: it’s worth it! I’m sure you’ll love to find out yourself!
Always fair winds and a safe passage!
Edit 01 oct 2018, a note on Pilot-Books:
While the Reeds Nautical Almanac might have been your No. 1 choice in British waters, it is not appropriate to be used as your single means of navigation elsewhere. One example: the extension of the breakwater in Figueira da Foz by 250 m seawards had still not found it’s way into the latest edition of the Reeds Nautical Almanac 4 years after its completion, although it got properly published at the time. Unfortunately this caused several near-accidents at night. This, although it is claimed the Reeds Nautical Almanac is updated every year.
There is good Pilot-Books on the market. One of the most popular certainly is “Atlantic Spain and Portugal”, published by RCC Pilotage Foundation, available via them directly, Imray, and many others. Every year in spring a new supplement is published with all the updates since the last edition, which have been sent in by sailors or got published elsewhere. The supplement can be downloaded for free. The book is available in English, French and a Spanish version.
I know these pilot-books come with a price. But if you only stay two nights in a nice and safe anchorage the money saved in Marina-fees pays for the book, and lots lots more!

Edit 2020: We have moved. You can find this same article (and possible future updates) as well as our stories about the sea and traveling on my personal website


  • Pete Croft

    Interesting article, but damn hard to read blue text on a blue background, on anything other than a nice monitor in a dimly lit office.

    1. Dody

      Thanks! I totally agree with you, but I’m struggling with this WordPress-Theme and haven’t managed to change it yet. Will try again tomorrow, promised!

  • André Branco

    Cool blog mate!!

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    Hi! This is kind of off topic but I need some advice from an established blog. Is it difficult to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast. I’m thinking about making my own but I’m not sure where to start. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Cheers

    1. Dody

      Hi, I don’t think I’m the right person to answer your question. Whatever you see here is happening mainly by try & error and affords a lot of patience from my side. On top of all that I’ve got to pay a small fee every year for the name of my website, and I’ve got to pay something for the “hosting” or the “server”, which is where all the files for this website are stored for you guys to find them. I’ve seen some blogs (from liveaboard sailors) with a popup saying it would be free of charge and “start your own blog now”. No idea if this is true, if there are any drawbacks or whatever. Hope this helps, cheers!

  • Dody

    Thanks to all of you! I’m still struggling along to set it all up again after moving to a different server and trying to get a feeling for the different theme I’ve decided to use. So, it might take a bit till all is back up and working. Fingers x-ed it’ll be soon :-D!

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