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In early June, the Santorini will steam into Lajes, a ragged settlement on the eastern shore of the tiny island of Flores. Lajes wins no prizes for beauty. It is a rough-and-ready port. For many yachtsmen who cross the Atlantic from the New World, the island of Flores is their first port of call in Europe. It is an island shaped by the collisions of continents, a place where tectonic plates nudge uneasily against each other.
A place apart: Flores
The volcanic landscapes of the Azores are eerily dramatic, and particularly so in Flores, the westernmost island in the group. It is a place for fierce storms and deep, green valleys. And the island is extremely isolated — at over 31 degrees west of Greenwich, Flores is the very end of Europe. This fragile community is halfway across the Atlantic (the easternmost point in Canada at Cape Spear is at 47 degrees west of Greenwich).
You have to love the sea to survive in Flores. A little museum in Lajes tells the story of the whaling industry that for so long underpinned the economy of the island. The whalers have gone, though those who sail on the Santorini are sometimes lucky enough to spot whales.
The Santorini is a workaday boat with an unexceptional history — and it nowadays sails to some of the most extraordinary outposts of Europe. Her arrival in Flores in early June each year marks the island’s reconnection with the wider world. For most of the year, Flores simply has no shipping link with the principal Azorean islands well away to the east.
Fifty years ago, this ship was known as the Chartres. She was built for the rail-ferry market on the English Channel, sailing for many years out of Dover. That was in pre-Channel Tunnel days, when entire trains bound from England to the Continent were shipped on ferries from Kent ports across to France. Later the Chartres moved to Newhaven on the Sussex coast, where she became a mainstay of the Sealink service to Dieppe.
A seasonal blessing
Nowadays, under her new name Santorini, the ship is owned by Hellenic Seaways and spends each winter working on ferry services in Greece. But each summer, she sails out to the Azores in the North Atlantic, there to provide a seasonal shipping service to some of the remotest islands in the archipelago.
For residents of Flores, the Santorini season is hugely reassuring. It is a very tangible reminder that this island — a place so very far from the Portuguese capital in Lisbon — has not been forgotten. For a few weeks, the ship will come and go. But distances in the Azores are huge. The journey on the Santorini from Flores to Santa Maria (at the eastern end of the archipelago) takes about 40 hours.