Category Archives: Southern Europe

Adios, Europe!

We’ll be leaving soon for another Atlantic crossing, destination Caribbean. We’ve been in Europe for not quite two and a half years.

It was a good change for us. We’d essentially been in the tropics (mostly Mexico) since 2009, and I had kept Star Path based in Vallarta since 2002. We were ready to do something different. While we do love Mexico, central and S. America, it does all sort of begin to feel the same after enough years. Our time on the E. coast was also mostly great, Portsmouth, VA being a notable exception. Newfoundland was also a real highlight.

In fact, we’ve decided that we’re going to base Rocket Science on the E. coast for a few more years-we really want to explore Newfoundland some more, and also have a trip to Greenland in our sights. So, it’s most likely that we’ll sail out of Rhode Island or Maine for a few summers before bringing the boat over to the W. coast. When we’re not doing that, the plan is to live somewhere N. of Seattle. I can report that Jenny has been enjoying shopping for houses. Me too, actually. Change is good.

Anyway, our view of Europe from a cruising perspective is mixed. We really liked our glimpse of Ireland and our winter in England a lot. We did end up in more marinas than we would have liked, but that’s ok. Being dockside does come with a lot of perks.

Our trip last summer from the UK to Gibraltar was also great, particularly the rias in NW Spain. That was really an unexpected treat. I wish we would have had more time to enjoy the place.

Portugal was just a short stop for us, with a brief visit to Cascais, and a couple of weeks in Portimao.

I’ve already reported on Gibraltar, nothing further needs to be said there.

Cruising in the Med? I’ll say it-we thought it sucked. Hot, crowded (10,000 boats at Mallorca alone, or something like that), expensive, and generally not very friendly either. Also, the old adage of there being too little or too much wind is pretty close to the mark. I think that if we’d gone further E, like to Greece or Croatia, it may have been a little better, but Sardinia was far enough for us. There’s a lot more that we’d both like to see in the region, but going by boat is a drag, at least during the high season. If we’d had the opportunity to cruise in May/June or September/October, I suspect we’d feel differently.

In retrospect, we should have spent another season in N. Europe, particularly Scotland and Norway. I’m sorry to have traded the Med for missing that. But, we’d been sailing in cold conditions for a couple of years, so some warmth was attractive.

I’m writing this from about 900 miles NW of Seattle. We’re bringing the Constellation down for her annual maintenance, then I’ll be jumping on a plane to get RS out of the water for some annual maintenance of her own. We’ll then spend Christmas in Germany, and shortly after shove off for the 2800 mile passage to the islands. It’ll be our longest trip together so far. Hopefully we can maintain a 200 mile/day average and knock it off in a couple of weeks.

Stay tuned.

Winter in Gibraltar

We spent last winter in Gibraltar. We knew little about the place, except that it was a big rock with some famous apes, and British.

Of course, we also knew that it was outside the EU, and outside of the Schengen zone, and both were needed to keep me and Rocket Science from getting sideways with the authorities. So, we had the good fortune to find a spot in one of the two marinas.

It’s important to understand a couple of key things about the place. First, being outside of the EU, it is an attractive place to folks looking to find some tax advantages in banking, properties, and such. Also, being a low-tax zone, it also attracts people for whom cheap booze and smokes are a major selling point. Turns out, the latter is a little more problematic in daily life.

We arrived in our slip, a little surprised that our neighbors took no interest in our arrival, nor did they offer to lend a hand, adjust their fenders (when med-mooring, all the boats are in contact with each other most of the time, so you need to mind that your fenders are actually doing something), or even really offer a friendly word after we got all tied up. No matter-we had by then become rather used to aloof Europeans. We didn’t mind.

However, it turns out these folks, we’ll call them Klaus and Kunnigunde, were firmly in the booze and smokes camp. The party raged until the wee hours, glasses clinking, raucous laughter, smoke billowing into our cabin. We said nothing, and hoped we just arrived on a special occasion.

The next night, we discovered this was our new normal. How awful. The marina has a ‘quiet after 2300’ policy (as does all of Gib, incidentally), but this mattered nothing to these folks and their buddies from down the dock. Finally, at 0130, Jenny respectfully asked if they could just please take it inside? 30 minutes later, after turning off the music, but still smoking, laughing, and yelling, she popped back out to ask a little more forcefully to please show some respect to the marina rules and us. This was met with some seriously furious anger, and a suggestion to put in ear plugs. Great. This was supposed to be our spot for 6 months, and the marina was completely full, so we couldn’t find another spot. What a nightmare.

Of course, Klaus and co. were pretty overtly hostile any time we saw them for quite a while after. They did tone it down, but it was never comfortable there. Fortunately, we weren’t there the whole time, and the cooler weather kept the outdoor partying to a minimum as the fall wore on, but it still sucked.

Of course, the terrible surge and damage to the boat did little to enamor us to the place as well. RS still bears some nasty scars from our winter in Gib.

Anyway, we made the best of our time there, taking every chance to hike up to the top of the rock. It was always a welcome reprieve to get around the back side of the rock, and away from the constant noise and bustle of the place. We were also happy to be able to get some proper British goods at the local supermarket, and we had a fine Indian restaurant nearby, and even some decent Thai and delivery pizza.

But, the place is really chaotic. The traffic’s a nightmare, with cars and especially scooters blasting around like mad. A bike ride was always a roll of the dice, one which Jenny had the misfortune to lose one one occasion. She got hit by one of the nutty drivers in a roundabout, pitching her off her bike and onto the pavement. There were only minor injuries to her, but she was definitely shaken up. Shortly after the accident, a cop rode up and asked if she needed to go to the hospital, and when it was determined that she didn’t, he rode off. No reports, no ticket for the driver. Just another cyclist run over, no biggie.

Ultimately, we didn’t make it the whole winter. Gib has a limit of 6 months before taxes are due. You just have to go to Spain with the boat for 5 minutes to reset the clock, so during my week home in March, we set about getting this done, booking a slip for a couple of nights just across the border in La Linea. We had a nice T-head, and a view of something other than concrete and the hulls of the boats on either side of us. We had already booked our stay in Gib, though, so we were planning to head back.

In the end, Jenny quietly let me know that the thought of going back to Gib was just too much to bear. So, with great relief, we stayed in La Linea, settling in to our new digs contentedly. For about 12 minutes.

On minute 13, Baxter saw a dog on the quay behind the boat, and let out a single bark. Immediately, a very hostile, tattooed Brit popped his head out, and said: “In all seriousness, am I going to have to listen to that shit all day? I come down here for quiet, and I don’t want to hear your damn dog barking!” He muttered some more pleasantries, and went down below.

For god’s sake, out of the frying pan and into the fire.

I decided to nip this one in the bud. I stood outside his boat, and told him rather loudly and sharply that he really ought to come out and introduce himself properly, and civilly. We did manage to become friendly-we assured him that we were responsible dog owners, and while little B would never be absolutely silent, we wouldn’t just let him run amok. He informed us that he was Ă¡ miserable bastard´and on those grounds he turned out to be pretty ok in the end.

In the end, it was a necessary stop, but not really the greatest experience for us. Compared to N. Europe, and our delightful winter in England the year prior, we did find the place a little bit of a disappointment. But, the beauty of cruising is that one can always toss the lines and sail off to greener pastures. For our part, we were pretty happy to leave the rock in our wake.


Rota and Gibraltar

It’s about 120 miles from Portimao to Rota, Spain-this is from memory, so forgive me if I’ve got the figure wrong.

Anyway, we had to leave Portimao before dawn in order to get into Rota before dark. So, we set the alarm for 3AM, and quietly left our berth once we’d been properly caffeinated. The trip over was nothing special-lots of fluky wind-0 to 30 knots at times. Odd, actually. We managed to make some good speed in the puffs, motored in the calms. I think that i set and doused the main 5 or 6 times, then the wind finally died and we motored until the last bit. This didn’t bother me, I was sick of messing endlessly with the sails, anyway.

About a mile from Rota, things increased to 25 knots or thereabouts, which would, of course, make the marina trickier. Oh well.

It turned out that the marina was only about 1/2 full, so we got a nice, open ‘t’ head to tie up to. Cake.

We were there early enough to enjoy a nice walk around with the mutt, and we realized very quickly that this was a really great town-prosperous, clean, friendly. Great! There’s a big joint US/Spanish naval base here, so I’m guessing that there’s a lot of income generated by the place. We saw lots of obvious US Navy people enjoying shore leave in town. The tourist season had ended, so things were pretty quiet, just our style. The waterside discos were shuttered, as were the bars, but the town itself was plenty lively for our taste. We liked it a lot.

After a couple of nights there, we ditched poor B (no dogs over 8kg on the ferry) at home for the day and hopped the ferry to Cadiz. This is generally considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, going all the way back to the Phoneticians. It’s been presided over by them, Moors, Romans, and during Spain’s voyages of conquest, it was a major port for those activities, too-and therefore a very rich city back then. The architecture shows it. We hit the major sites, involving lots of walking and a climb up a really tall bell tower for good measure. Well worthwhile.

Of course, we felt guilty about ditching the dog, so our visit was brief.

We spent one final day in Rota, waiting for a fair wind for the trip to Gibraltar, and then had a quick trip down there, passing Cape Trafalgar on the way. I liked being at the site of the battle that cemented Britain’s dominance over the seas for decades. Africa was also in view.

The straits of Gibraltar are interesting from a weather perspective. It basically either blows E or W, and it’s generally substantially stronger at the downwind end. Unsuspecting sailors have a long history of enjoying a fine spinnaker run at one end, only to find themselves dealing with a white-knuckled, out of control douse by the time they get to the other end.

For our part, we’d read up on it, so we didn’t get caught unawares. Of course, we were faced with this strong wind when making the marina approach. This was going to be our first med-mooring ever, and neither one of us was looking forward to tackling it in 30 knots! I called ahead to the marina guys, and they reported that the winds in the basin were just fine, so we made our way in the narrow little entrance, after dodging all kinds of commercial traffic (Fuel is duty free in Gib, so it would appear that every ship for 1000 miles is bunkering at anchor there-it’s loaded with ships), we made the tight turn into the marina.

I’m proud to report that our first med-mooring was flawless. It turns out that it’s not really bad at all. Boats are expected to lay against each other, so everyone sticks out lots of fenders. The general idea is to just get the boat in, lay on your neighbor, and then get sorted out. I’d had visions of it being far worse. It probably will be when we have to use our own anchor, but this place has lines anchored to the bottom ready to use. It’s really not much worse than a conventional dock, really. A little more hopping around handling lines, but it’s ok.

On the way down the dock to check in, we noticed that everyone had their stern lines doubled and tripled up, with motorcycle tires and big springs for absorbing shock. This was a bit ominous. I asked one of the neighbors, and we learned that during the right conditions, the marina was subject to a lot of surge. We missed that part in the brochure.

So, job 1 was to get a proper mooring setup rigged up. I went down to the chandlery and bought a bunch of 3/8″ chain, some 22mm 3 strand poly, shackles, and thimbles. I set about splicing up a bulletproof setup, and RS is now lashed to the dock with 6 lines, some to cleats, and a couple to the primary winches. Hopefully that’ll do the job…

Gibraltar’s an interesting place. They’re very proudly British there-Union Jacks are everywhere. The town itself is pleasant, but the population density is pretty high. The real gem of the place is the rock itself. There are a few really fantastic hikes to be done, and once one gets over the sense that the apes are intending to maul you, they’re really enjoyable hikes indeed. A bicycle circuit of the rock’s a fine thing to do as well. All in all, we’re happy there.

Next stop, Alaska!

Portugal

Our trip down the Portuguese coast was just a 2 stop affair. We had a deadline to get to Portimao to meet Jenny’s parents, and most of the coast consists of pretty shallow entrances not really fit for a 10′ draft.

So, we had a gorgeous spinnaker sail from Baiona to Cascais, just outside of Lisbon. We never did find out for sure how deep the marina was, so when we arrived and met an outbound Volvo Ocean Race boat, we knew we were all set. We tied up at the reception berth, got some fuel, and were directed to our berth for a couple of nights. The marina had a bit of a sterile, utilitarian feel (our view was of a huge concrete seawall), but it worked well enough for a rest.

The town itself was a pleasant place to spend some time, with lots of good restaurants and a big music festival going on. Unfortunately, it was sort of a euro-pop lineup-not my thing. But, anyway, it was a lively spot.

I also had the good fortune to find a dive shop and get a new tank. My old aluminum 80 was leaking at the valve, and I was honestly afraid that it was going to blow up and destroy the sail locker once I discovered it. So, I let all the pressure off and condemned it. But, I really don’t like sailing without a decent underwater air supply, in case we hook up on some gear or other debris and I have to go cut it off. So, this was a good development.

We sailed straight from there to Portimao, about an 18 hour ride for us. We left at the crack of dawn, and had an absolutely windless motoring trip down the coast. After we rounded Cabo S. Vincente, we did get a bit of a breeze, but that was just the last 20 miles or so. I didn’t even bother to set the main-we were going to be there after dark anyway, and honestly, I was just feeling lazy.

We made an easy night arrival, and scoped out what was supposed to be our berth. The finger piers were about 30′ long, and most of the boats there were in the mid-40′ range. I figured there must have been some mistake, so we tied up along the floating breakwater for a little snooze, figuring we’d get sent to a properly sized berth in the morning.

Well, it turns out that 30′ piers are used for boats to about 60′ in Portimao, so we secured the best we could (sort of like med mooring without bow lines) and set about exploring our new temporary home.

Portimao was nice enough. It’s easy to see why the Algarve is so popular with Northern Europeans for their summer break. There is sand, surf, sun, and bars in abundance, along with the tourist shops that cater to the visitors. There wasn’t all that much else on offer, it sort of felt like an old-world version of Cabo or Cancun. But, it’s very well sited for this, and the weather was gorgeous every single day we were there, and really hot-a big change from the coast further north.

Jenny and I were both uncomfortably warm for the first time since we left Charleston, some 14 months previously.

Anyway, Jenny’s mom and stepdad arrived the day after we did, and we spent the next two weeks being proper tourists, even making a day trip to Lisbon.

Next stop, Rota and Gibraltar…

Cruising Galicia

After our road trip, we spent a couple of days in La Coruna, and then headed out for some leisurely cruising down through the Spanish rias. This is a really beautiful part of the world, with nice anchorages and interesting towns to visit. As an added bonus, the distances between stops is really short, nothing’s more than a daysail away. Nice.

Our first stop after leaving La Coruna was the small town of Corme. It’s just got a small wharf for local fishing boats, so the yachts anchor up between the ‘viveros’ (aquaculture rafts) and the shore. It’s a pretty tight little spot, and our first crack at anchoring revealed that we were way too close to some abandoned cables which were invisible before the tide went out. So, we shifted a little bit away from that, and enjoyed a quiet night off the small waterfront. It was actually the first time that we’d been at anchor since we’d been in Newport on the way south from our first visit to Newfoundland! Everywhere we’ve been of late has been pretty much a dockside show. It was nice to get the hook back down and enjoy some proper peace and quiet.

After just one night, we carried on to Camarinas, an attractive town with a smallish, somewhat dumpy marina. The several anchorages were all gorgeous, though, so that was an easy choice for us. Anyway, we were still keen on getting back into anchored life. There was plenty of opportunity for dinghy exploring, a great beach for Baxter, perfect temperatures. About as good as it gets. We stuck around for a few days.

Next up was getting around Cabo Finisterre and the town of Muros. Another nice fishing village, with a busy marina full of cruisers. We got tied up in a tricky berth in high winds, after a bit of a crash landing thanks to the dock hand deciding that he needed to stop the boat with the spring line before it was in the slip.

By the way, to those of you reading this who may be newer to sailing- It’s REALLY common when you’re bringing a boat into a slip to have a well-intentioned helper take a line and then stop the boat while you’re not yet in the slip. Invariably, the bow or stern swings in hard, crashes into the dock, and they then look at you with a look of great surprise, as if to say ‘what did you do??’ Let the person driving the boat stop it with the engine, unless they ask you to do otherwise. End rant.

So, after getting over the trauma of our landing and a small paint chip, we settled in for a few days. Shortly after our arrival, an American boat arrived, and the next day, another one showed up. We’d not seen any US boats to speak of, with the exception of a couple of new ones which had been purchased in France and were awaiting delivery. It was apparently quite noteworthy, the marina staff told me they’d never had 3 yanks in there at the same time. Nice folks, too.

Next stop was Vigo. I wanted to take a look around the city, so we booked into the only marina that could take us, well to the west of town. The marina was nice enough, but it was in a location that was just awful. It was way out in an industrial area, and it was a 90 minute walk through a warehouse district with trash all over the streets and graffiti on most of the buildings to get to the outskirts of town. It wasn’t dangerous, but just really ugly.

Vigo was ok, but not really our cup of tea. We got out of there pretty quickly and headed to the small town of Baiona. Much better! And, we could anchor there too. On our way in to the anchorage, I was eyeballing the marina covetously, though. It looked really nice in there. I mentioned to Jenny that there was a nice, big T-head that we could tie up to, have power, easy dog walking, all the comforts. She rolled her eyes at me and my decadent tendencies (anchoring is free, marinas cost typically somewhere between 50 and 100 euros a night), and I realized that I was indeed being a bit of a profligate fool. So, we went off to the anchorage, and to both of our great surprise, the anchor windlass wouldn’t work! Off to the marina after all. I guess it was meant to be. It turns out that the little hand control for the windlass broke. It’s since been replaced, all good.

Baiona was great. It was the first place to learn of the success of Columbus’ trip in 1492. The ‘Nina’ (if I’m remembering right) arrived there.

Anyway, it’s a gorgeous place, full of history and great walking. We loved it. But, Jenny’s mom and stepdad’s arrival in southern Portugal was rapidly approaching, and we had to get out of there after just 2 days.

Next entry, Portugal.

To the Rias!

After a few rainy days in Plymouth, we stocked up on a few provisions and started making our way down toward the Spanish coast. We’d reserved a slip in La Coruna for a month, despite planning to keep RS there for only a couple of weeks. It turned out to be cheaper that way.

Anyway, the Bay of Biscay and the Western channel had been blowing pretty relentlessly SW’ly, so we took advantage of a decent wind shift to hop across to Brest and wait for a favorable wind to make the hop across to Spain.

Brest isn’t the most attractive place-the waterfront is basically military and shipping terminals, but there’s a decent enough marina stuck in the middle of it all. It served our purposes.

We also got a great introduction to the special breed that the Brittany sailors really are. Around the marina, there’s a sort of Hollywood walk of fame, complete with hand prints set into bronze plaques, commemorating all of the records set by the local boys and girls. It’s really a who’s who list of the highest level of distance racing.

We tied up behind a couple of Open 50’s and a superfast tri. The skipper of one of the 50’s stopped by to ask about Rocket Science. He really liked the boat and wanted to find out who designed her-he had just spent 158 days going around the world solo gathering water samples from the Antarctic convergence, and wanted something bigger and faster. The guy talked about the trip as if he’d just been out for a pleasant outing. Something special was clearly happening in this town…

Our second day in town, a gale came through, gusting up into the mid-40’s. The harbor entrance looked like a malestrom, rain was driving in sideways. Not really fit for man nor beast out there, as far as we were concerned. We hunkered down below, listing to the lines creaking with all the surge, the wind shreiking in the rig. Surely nobody would be out sailing on a day like this.

Strangely, I saw mast after mast passing by from my perch on the settee. A peek out the window revealed dozens of happy French crews heading out for a bit of fun. I could see them poking their bows out of the harbor, sheets of spray flying over the boats as they made their exits. I made a quick climb to the top of the breakwater, and found the sound to be fairly loaded with boats, deeply reefed and ripping along. Wow.

Anyway, we spent a week in Brest, waiting for the weather pattern to finally change so we could get across Biscay without any upwind suffering. Finally, we had a 24 hour NW’ly forecast, followed by calms, so we left as soon as the shift materialized, hoping to get across the better part of the bay before the engine was called on.

We did manage to put together a surprisingly rough (at least until we got out into deep water) 230 mile run for our first 24 hours, and then things dropped to nothing as predicted. We motored the remainder of the way, very slowly, thanks to a contrary current. We arrived at La Coruna at 0300, threading our way around a couple of very dense fishing fleets, a couple of freighters, and a bunch of other coastal traffic on our way in. We usually hold off until daylight when we go into a new port, but this one was pretty wide open, so it was safe enough to make a night entry.

We’ll have another update soon about our stay in Coruna, a great road trip, and our cruise down the rias. Great stuff all around.