After a month of coastal sailing in Sicily, we felt ready to cross the Ionian Sea to Greece. Ionian is the most popular cruising area in Greece, and full of charter sailors and flotillas during the summer months. September would be a much better time – less tourists, and still very warm.
The Straits of Messina was, according to our calculations, the forth place along our journey, where we had to carefully time our passage with the tides. The others were Alderney Race and Chenal du Four in France, and the Straits of Gibraltar. Messina is the only place in the Mediterranean that has significant tidal currents. The height difference is less than a foot, and it’s really surprising how it can cause such strong currents. In Brittany the tidal range was as much as 12 metres in places, so the currents were understandable. But perhaps the Mediterranean has a logic of its own, when it comes to tides, much as it seems to have its own logic with the winds and weather.
August in the Mediterranean is hot. It makes you understand immediately, why a thing called siesta was invented here. On the northern coast of Sicily there was no wind in August, which made the days even hotter, while we motored from one anchorage to another. But the good thing about no wind was, that we slept our nights in peace – the anchorages in Sicily are not protected. There was always some swell even on a calm night, but at least we didn’t have to worry about our anchor not holding in strong winds. The water is clean and clear, even in front of big cities, so you can always go for a swim to cool down.
As we approached the Sicilian coast on August the 10th, we chose – quite at random, as the sun would go down soon – to stop at the Trapani harbour. We knew nothing about the place, except that there was a free anchorage within the port. But the next morning’s googling revealed an ancient town by the name of Erice on top of a hill close by, and that definitely got us interested! The easiest way to get there would be by a cableway.
We sat under the scorching sun in the Almerimar Marina, waiting for the strong winds to calm down, so we could continue our journey east. In Almerimar there was no sign of any winds, so it felt funny to think there could be 30 knot winds blowing on the other side of the cape. When the forecast showed only 15 knots, gusting to 25, we left.
After leaving Porto, we had two alternatives in mind when trying to decide the next chapter of our journey – to continue south, and spend the winter in the Canary Islands, or to turn left at the corner of Portugal, and sail through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. We had to consider things like finding good anchorages and safe harbours, marina prices, living expenses, places of interest and variety, weather and weather forecasts, and so on. We very nearly had to toss a coin – both have plenty to offer, but both have their own limitations. Now that we’ve made the decision, we can rejoice or regret it every other day, so maybe it’s all in balance. And we can always change our minds later, as the winds surely blow both ways in their turn.
The beautiful Islas Cíes behind us, we crossed the border to Portugal at midnight. The wind was very light at the start of our journey, but there was a big swell. We had the wind with us, a very unusual occurrence indeed. During this year we’ve experienced at least some downwind sailing, but during the first 1700 nautical miles – to our winter base in Brittany – we only sailed downwind for 3 hours. This miracle happened along the inland waterways of Holland, on the lake Markermeer. Now the swell made our boat roll a lot, not very comfortable, but at least we were making good speed.
On the west coast of Galicia, there’s a large national park comprising of many islands and archipelagos, called Parque Nacional de las Islas Atlánticas. The largest of them, starting from the north, are the islands of Sálvora, Ons and Cíes, that provide shelter to the Rías Baixas from the Atlantic wind and swell. Some of the park’s islands can also be found deeper in the rías. To be able to visit any of the islands, you have to apply for a permit through a pretty straight forward online process (form to fill, instructions here). For anchoring, you need an additional anchoring permit – during the high season you can book up to three nights in advance. This is how they keep the number of tourists to a moderate level, so visitors can enjoy the experience in relative peace and quiet – a little bureaucracy is a very reasonable price to pay for a unique experience.
Ría de Arousa is the largest of Rías Baixas, on the western coast of Galicia. It’s surrounded from every side by high hills, and the shores are dotted with lovely sandy beaches, small towns and numerous harbours. In the middle of the ría there’s a large island called Illa de Arousa, with its pine forests and beaches. The most prominent feature on this ría is the incredible number of viveros, mussle and clam cultivation rafts. There are apparently about 3000 of them on this ría alone. All the little bays are full of them, and to get to the different harbours and anchorages you often have to go a long way around the large fields, unless you’re brave enough to weave your way through. It’s possible to do that, because they are anchored vertically downwards, but there are many of them! It’s not recommended to arrive for the first time at night – the biggest fields have light buoys in the corners but the rafts themselves are unlit.
The weather in the northwestern end of Spain continued warm and settled. We left Muxia and motored in the calm. Of course, we could have waited for the winds to appear for a day or two, but in these parts you can often have too much wind. It’s very changeable in the Finisterre area, so we didn’t think it a bad idea to take advantage of the calm.