Ireland, England and to the Mediterranean
August 1985 to November 1986
After the long at and times arduous crossing of the North Atlantic we enjoyed our first real sleep for weeks. We woke to overcast skies, and then went ashore to deal with Customs clearance and the other officials.
The harbourmaster informed us rather sheepishly that we could not be officially cleared in because the Customs officers were on strike! He asked us to lower our yellow quarantine flag and said we were free to move around pending eventual clearance. We stayed ashore for some shopping and a walk round the pleasant little fishing village of Castletownbere. We bought some outstanding meat and got stuck into draft Guinness for the for time in its homeland. Norma got going with part one of an enormous stack of washing, despite difficulties drying it in the drizzly weather.
When speaking to my mother in Britain just before we left Bermuda, she asked when we would arrive in Ireland. Forecasting passage times is a very uncertain business - what if we had decided to divert to the Azores after all? - and can cause unnecessary alarm. I had told her, very tentatively, that our estimated time of arrival could be around the end of the month. When we finally made harbour, I called her from Castletownbere on the first of July. "I knew you would have just arrived and was expecting your call!", she lovingly but rather naively replied. If only all long passages were that predictable!
We took a two-hour minibus trip into Cork for money, mail and charts. The ride took us through the hills of County Cork, with more wild scenery and tiny villages where the farmers still take milk to their co-ops in churns on little carts drawn by donkeys. The next day we were formally cleared into Ireland by a rather apologetic Customs officer. We enjoyed the refreshing change, after months in the Bahamas and before that the United States, that we could buy superb fresh meat at a proper butcher’s.
We also needed fuel, and partially filled up before being asked to leave the fuel dock to give room for a fishing boat. We then motored out of the harbour with drying clothes flying from the rigging. We motored up Berehaven, the channel between Bear Island and the mainland. The shores on both sides were rocky, backed by small green fields, stone cottages, more rocky hillsides, all very quiet. We motored into Adrigole Harbour, a very beautiful and very well-protected bay but with submerged rocks all over to be avoided. Steep hills up behind us on the mainland were shrouded by the kind of misty rain they call "soft weather".
Before leaving the next day, Norma took the dinghy out for an explore and to collect mussels, rowing around the bay among the rocks, closely followed by several inquisitive seals nosing up to the little white boat.
We had a pleasant morning sail further up and to the head of Bantry Bay, to a large but also nearly land-locked bay, Glengarriff Harbour. This is another very beautiful haven, called locally the Madeira of Ireland because of its supposedly mild climate. A few other boats were anchored there, most of them French. I was suffering a cold by then, which triggered my asthma, so we stayed put for a while during a few days of welcome sunshine. The mussels that Norma picked there were delicious, tasty and fat, and we picked several off the rocks surrounding the many little coves around the bay and the small Illnacullen (Garnish) island. We walked up to and around the village of Glengarriff. The glorious scenery, backed by the steep, high hills, was scattered with tiny farms, oak trees, shady glades, streams, and masses of flowers including rhododendrons and fuchsias.
We spent a restful week in this lovely harbour and then motorsailed out and westwards out along Bantry Bay, back along the Bearhaven channel and to a little bay a little further to the west of Castletown. This was Dunboy Bay, and we anchored just off the remains of a beautiful but burnt-out mansion, Dunboy House. The next morning we walked among the ruins, with cows wandering through the still-standing walls. The massive grand hall had marble pillars separating galleries, there were large living rooms and servants' quarters.
At the end of the point on which the house stands lie the ruins of Irish rebel leader O'Sullivan Beare's Dunboy Castle and fort, which were destroyed by English cannon fire during the siege of Dunboy in 1602.
[We revisited this area by campervan during our tour of Ireland in 2016. The Puxley family had moved to Berehaven in 1730, and John Puxley took over the land where the house and castle now stand. John Puxley developed the wide-ranging Allihies copper mines further out and along the Beara peninsula. After his death his brother Henry took over the property and built the gothic mansion. In 1921 it was largely burnt down and the estate was auctioned off. On this 2016 visit we saw that the mansion had been largely reconstructed but was unoccupied and fenced off. Behind it was a line of new townhouses that were also unoccupied, and it looked like this was a developer's enterprise that had gone bad.]
The weather changed favourably, and in a strengthening north-west wind we grabbed the opportunity to sail south across the mouth of Bantry Bay and Dunmanus Bay, round Mizen Head (the south-west extremity of Ireland) into Long Island Bay, and down the long inlet of Crookhaven. The wind was whistling by the time we got there, and we anchored in the protection offered by little Granny Island on the north side of the inlet.
The next morning we took a substantial walk ashore to the little village and up to the top of a hill with a ruined Martello tower. The land was thick with fuchsias and other flowers, green fields with stone walls, linked by narrow winding roads. Healthy-looking livestock were to be seen everywhere. After a Guinness in the village pub with an English-American couple we made it back to the boat in driving, freezing rain. Norma still managed to do some washing in the afternoon!
Winds were funnelling down the inlet and a gale warning was posted, so we pressed on the following day to the wide expanse of Baltimore Harbour. On the way we could see the Fastnet rock and lighthouse on the horizon to our south.
We sought shelter from the strong westerly by anchoring across the bay from Baltimore, under some abbey ruins on the shore of Sherkin Island. We took a quick dinghy trip over to the small, neat village of Baltimore for some provisions and handicrafts for presents.
The wind eased overnight, to be followed by a miserably wet morning. However, the skies cleared in the afternoon, which allowed a walk up to the remains of the 15th century Franciscan abbey we could see from the boat. We walked the two-mile length of Sherkin Island with a friendly local lady and her daughter. The scenery was typically softly rugged, criss-crossed by old stone walls and dotted by ruined stone cottages. Sadly, throughout this part of Ireland there were signs everywhere of the rate at which people were leaving it – crumbling stone cottages amid meandering, collapsing walls were to be seen everywhere.
However, we learnt that many settlers were coming from overseas and doing up these cottages, and on our return walk we stopped to talk to an American couple, George Packard and Christina Lee, whose garden we were admiring. Not surprisingly, plants of all sorts grow easily in this climate, and the couple's herbaceous and vegetable gardens made Norma very envious! We were invited in for home-made wine, and asked to join them for lunch the next day. This turned out to be especially laid on by the Sherkin Hotel, and we were joined by Mrs "Tommy" Warren and her daughter Mary. After lunch we walked up to the Packard cottage for lots of talk about books (George is a writer), and then on to a neighbour's very nicely restored cottage for more wine and music played on an electronic keyboard.
We stayed with George and Christina for the night and then took them for a fast sail in a good, fair wind of about 20 miles along the coast, east to the inlet of Castle Haven. We anchored off Castletownshend village, which turned out to be a prosperous-looking place by south-west Ireland standards. It was originally settled by Anglo-Irish groups escaping from Catholic marauders, and presently being rehabilitated through the influx of prosperous Europeans looking for summer houses.
We met up again with the Warrens, among these settlers, in her exceptionally pleasant cottage. Tommy Warren was one of the original American woman aviator barnstormers. She showed us her flying licence, which she gained in 1930 and was signed by none other than Orville Wright!
[From an obituary in the Boston Globe, 2004: Margaret Thomas Warren was born in 1912, and was 73 when we met her. She fell in love with flying when she was eight years old and growing up in Texas. She took her first flying lesson at 14, had her full pilot's licence at 17 and became the youngest member of the Ninety-Nines, the group of women pilots founded by Amelia Earhart in 1929. She flew all kinds of small planes available at the time, from biplanes to a borrowed autogiro. She did stunt flying for airshows, delivered mail and took part in air races. Known as "Tommy," she and her husband Bayard moved in 1979 from the Boston area to live in Castletownshend, where she became a well-known patron of the arts. She returned to flying when she was 84, and flew a Cessna out of Cork. She died aged 92 in 2004. In her 1993 autobiography she wrote: "In those days I valued freedom and courage above all else. Then, flying represented a wish to transcend and overcome difficulties and, on the other hand, a longing to soar towards the celestial, to break the bonds of earth."]
All of us, including Tommy's husband Bayard ("Baydie"), went down to the village pub, Mary-Ann's bar, and its restaurant for dinner. This lasted until after midnight, but by this time we were getting used to the fact that in these regions, every meal - and every event - is late.
We were picked up the next morning by Mary Warren for a trip to the local centre, Skibbereen, for some stores and a walk around. It was a pleasant place, with a busy Catholic church, a quiet courthouse and a bishop's mansion. We hitch-hiked back, lastly given a lift by another older lady in a cottage, once a farmer with her late husband in Shropshire. Back at the boat we made friends with couples from a German and a South African boat, and we then went on for beers at Mary Ann's pub.
At 2:30 am we were awakened by a bang on the boat and the sound of voices. We jumped up on deck and scared off two young local men in a wooden skiff of a typical kind in these waters. We originally thought that they were going to climb on, but decided that they were going to try to steal our inflatable dinghy. (This was locked on to the yacht by a stainless steel cable, so this this was their second error, after hitting the boat and leaving a mark on the hull.) In the wet morning we took some washing ashore and to the Warrens' house and reported the night's event to the village garda. I commented that the blue colour of the mark left on our hull matched the rubbing strake on one of the skiffs on the beach. "Oh, that's the garda's boat!", they exclaimed. Stealing the local police boat was yet another of the boys' errors that night, and we were assured that the matter "would be taken care of".
Baydie and Tommy Warren took us for a a tour of the area. We saw Coppinger Court, another picturesque ruin of a fortified mansion, sitting in the base of a narrow, fertile valley - an archetypal Irish scene. We walked round a Druids' circle at Drombeg, with a lovely view to the sea. We had lunch at Glandore, where we again came across the American writer of sail cruising guides Don Street, who had given us much good advice in Bermuda about sailing to Ireland. (Not that we took all of his advice - we chose not to call in to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which we thought was too far north.) Back at their house we had hot baths, Norma washed the sheets, and we finally made our very fond farewells and thanks for their outstanding hospitality and friendship. Back at the boat we were interviewed by a lassie from one of the local papers.
We were very sorry to leave this great anchorage and our friends in Castle Haven, but on a foggy but otherwise favourable morning it was time to to pull out. We sailed round the Old Head of Kinsale with its mournful fog siren, and after an eight-hour passage with a fair wind, anchored opposite the yacht club in Kinsale Harbour. In the snake-like turns of the final approach to the town we passed between two prominent forts, the large Charles Fort to the east and the smaller James Fort on the west side. The inlet becomes the River Bandon, on which Kinsale lies.
The fog continued during the following morning. We took a walk round Kinsale, a historic fishing port and the biggest town we had visited by sea for a very long time. We found it a charming place, with lots of old stone buildings and neat and tidy streets. We took a guided walking tour in the afternoon, and visited a Norman church with the remains of an old monastery, and an excellent museum in the 16th century courthouse.
We took a walk out to the splendid and very well reconstructed Charles (after Charles II) Fort, at the entry to the harbour. Otherwise, in continuing wet and foggy weather, we got on with correspondence and other mundane tasks, and showered at the yacht club.
When the skies cleared for the nicest day for a long time we motorsailed round to the wide expanse of Cork Harbour. Shortly after turning in from the sea we turned left, to the west, and into the inlet of Crosshaven. There is a village there, it is the primary anchorage for yachts in Cork Harbour, and is the site of the Royal Cork Yacht Club and its marina.
The predecessor of the Royal Cork Yacht Club was the Water Club of the Harbour of Cork, established in 1720 by William O'Brien, 4th Earl of Inchiquin. The club's location and name changed several times before it received from King William IV the privilege of using the "royal" prefix and was finally established in Crosshaven. As we approached the village we were delighted to see the yacht Goose tied up at the Crosshaven Boatyard. Accordingly, we soon caught up with our good friends George and Teresa Coburn, who had shared with us our difficult long passage across the north Atlantic ocean. We rafted up alongside them.
With them we went up to the attractive Cronin's pub and then on to the RCYC for dinner. During our time in Ireland we had been received by all local sailors with the utmost courtesy and friendship. At the yacht club we came up against, for the first time, the tendency for snobbishness among the posh members of any European boat club with the appendage "royal". We had been assured that the facilities of the club would be open to us, as we were members of an equivalent club in our own countries (the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, in my case). But it would have to be admitted that our clothing, although among the better quality chosen from the limited wardrobe of each of our long-distance cruising yachts, might be regarded as scruffy compared to the well-tailored members of the RCYC. We were placed in a hidey-hole corner of the dining room until George insisted, in his assertive American accent, that we had just sailed across the Atlantic and merited a better position. Which they gave us. And the meal was quite good.
After dinner we repaired to the nearby and pretty simple "divers" pub for a few more beers and a chat with the local people and sailors. Norma and I soon went back to the boat and bed, while George and Teresa continued with the party. The next morning we heard the story of the evening. One of the Irishmen, full of beer, starting making disparaging remarks about "bloody Yanks". George, a retired senior officer in the US Special Forces with long combat experience, did not take kindly to that. Serious disputation led to the ejection of the Irishman. While we were talking about those events the pub proprietor came down to our boats offering abject apologies and any local assistance we required. Friendly relationships were resumed, with no hard feelings.
Goose was waiting for a new engine to be fitted, and we went to anchor in the river near the town wharf, between the boat yard and the RCYC. On the wharf Norma picked up a big skate that had been dumped there by a sport fisherman; later, we had George and Teresa over for dinner: skate pie! Early next morning we tied up to the wharf to dry the boat out at low tide, and we gave a hull a scrub and a coat of antifouling. When that was all over we motored up the river for half a mile and anchored in the peaceful surroundings of fields and trees.
We then sat about for a few days, taking walks when possible, waiting out a period of rotten weather. It was windy and wet most of the time in the anchorage, and gales were persistently forecast for all sea areas around Ireland and south-west England. The barometer dropped from 1012 to 989 MB, and television in the club was showing massive waves in the Irish Sea - our next challenge.
Having sat things out and dithered for six days we finally farewelled Goose and motored out of Crosshaven on 7 August in a sloppy swell and under thick but scattered clouds. Under sail, we had a good run all day, and sighted the lights of Lands End at 0300 the next morning - England at last! The wind was easing but the forecast was now for a serious gale ("Force 8, soon"), so we fired up the motor to help get us round Lands End and the Lizard Point as quickly as possible. By 1500 we were approaching the mouth of Falmouth Harbour, just seeing Pendennis Castle up to our left in the mist.
We came to anchor off the town, right next to Jacque and Madeleine, an impecunious French couple in a steel ketch, whom we had met in Fiji. We were very soon approached by a Customs boarding officer, who advised us that we would have to contact other officials ashore, among other matters to seek an extension of our six-month temporary import permit for the yacht.
We took an exploratory walk ashore to Falmouth, the biggest town since the USA, with big shops including chandleries. A very attractive place, we thought, in lovely surroundings. We organised to trade our two outboards, of 10 and 2 hp, for a new 4 hp Suzuki, which could be used for both our small hard dinghy and the larger inflatable.
After a couple of days the long-forecast wind came in with a vengeance, Beaufort scale Force 9 (strong gale, 40-47 knots, seas 7-10 metres) by 10:00 on 11 August, along with heavy rain. It was the early stage of the famous Fastnet yacht race. The VHF radio was full of drama all day, culminating in reports of the overturning of the maxi yacht Drum, owned by Simon le Bon of the band Duran Duran. The keel had sheared off (because of a design error) a couple of miles off Falmouth Harbour, and the boat became stabilised in the inverted position. Most of the crew managed to scramble on to the upturned hull, but six of them, including Le Bon, were trapped in an air pocket within the inverted yacht. They were all helped out by a diver from a helicopter rescue crew in the 771 RN Air Squadron.
About 100 yachts pulled out of the race, with 12 dismasted. They included Lion of New Zealand, with whose skipper Peter Blake we had chatted during the Atlantic crossing. They had ripped their kevlar mainsail. We visited Lion a little later and were shown over her by Peter Blake - a very impressive long-distance racing yacht.
After the gale eased we walked up to Pendennis castle, on the astern headland with a lovely view over the entrance. It has an interesting concentric structure and was built by Henry VIII with a view to countering the Pope's crusade against him. Many of the many other forts he built for the same reason have this rounded shape. We had a good lunch in the old Falmouth Hotel, where Simon Le Bon was surrounded by admirers. Another southerly gale came through overnight, after which we had another look round the town and took the dinghy and its new outboard up the Penryn River. Meanwhile, a catamaran speedboat attempting a record transatlantic passage fell foul of "our" gales and was sunk only 100 miles from the Scilly Isles.
Drum was carefully towed into the harbour upside down, after some modifications to her tall mast to allow for the shallow water, five metres and less. She was placed on a mooring close to us.
At last we had a gale-free morning forecast, albeit still wet, and - along with several other boats - set out for a gentle sail east to Plymouth Harbour, skipping our originally-intended visit to Fowey. Out to sea we could see the Eddystone Lighthouse, surrounded by menacing-looking rocks and an angry surf. We passed the immense Plymouth breakwater standing by itself about two miles out from the docks, rounded Drake's Island and anchored in Barn Pool under the harbour's rural western shore. We took the dinghy over to the Mayflower marina, on the town side of the harbour, but it seemed too far from the centre to be a useful place to stay. A closer marina in Mill Bay looked scruffy and unattractive. We decided to stay at anchor where we were.
We had more luck the next day, getting a good welcome from the Royal Western YC with the assurance of showers and other services we might want. From there we walked over Plymouth Hoe, with its inevitable statue of Sir Francis Drake, and on into the commercial centre and lunch at a pub. It's a relatively "new" city, of course, because it was smashed to pieces by the Luftwaffe and then rebuilt to new plans. Back at the boat, in drizzle and mist, we had a friendly visit and check of papers by a Customs launch.
It cleared a bit for an excellent walk up through Mount Edgcumbe, by which we were anchored. There were some beautiful formal gardens in various national styles, sweeping up over expansive grounds up to the country house and the folly, an imitation ruin (!) overlooking Plymouth Sound.
We were at anchor there for just a weekend, and then pulled out into continuing what I recorded in the log as "revolting weather". In quite a strong following wind we sailed down past Salcombe and round one of the south coast promontories, Start Point. We then turned north and up the coast to the River Dart. We sailed into the river through the narrow and gorgeous entry between facing castles and into Dartmouth Harbour. It was a fast little sail as the sun started peeping through, and by mid-day we were anchored opposite the town on the eastern, Kingswear, side of the harbour. The Dartmouth YC was nearby, and we became temporary members with access to their facilities including - importantly - their showers.
We took the dinghy across the River Dart to the lovely little town, with little houses in tiers rising up the cliff-like face of the town across the river from us. The beautiful 14th century church had an amazing wooden screen and some lovely brasses. We strolled along the cobbled waterfront, from which the Mayflower had sailed away west with the 102 members of puritan English families known as the Pilgrims to their "new Promised Land" in 1620. Their tough passage, in early winter, took 10 weeks.
Back aboard in time for the courteous harbour officer to relieve us of our harbour dues. An Australian and a Kiwi boat were anchored nearby, so we all got together to complain about what my log records as "class-ridden and generally inhospitable English yachtsmen"! In improving weather we walked along to Dartmouth Castle, on the western side of the entrance, and joined the English Heritage organisation, which would give us free entry to most of England's most historic places and structures. We got together with an English couple in a small yacht who were neither class-ridden nor unfriendly!
We took a longish dinghy trip further up the River Dart, about 15 kilometres. We visited Dittisham first, a typically pretty Cornish village with steep streets and nice views. We made it all the way up to Totnes, an old borough with a Norman castle and a sandstone church. In Totnes there is a memorial in honour of William John Wills, a native of the town who, with Robert Burke, was the first to cross Australia from south to north but who perished on the return trip.
We had a good lunch in the town. Another outing was a full-day bus ride on an Explorer ticket, a fascinating run through narrow roads around the coast - with a lovely view from the front of the upper deck - and brief visits to Plymouth and Torquay.
Dartmouth had been a good stay, just over a week, but despite continuing misty-drizzly weather we had to get going again. In fair but changeable winds we rounded the notorious Portland Bill with a favourable tide and turned north up to Weymouth Harbour. We aimed for Custom House Quay, where yachts were rafted up, and the harbourmaster directed us to tie up to a large (RAF) racing yacht, whose crew turned out to be a snooty and unfriendly mob. After an altercation with its skipper the next morning we moved ourselves to tie directly along the harbour wall (there was nowhere to anchor in the harbour). Two friendly British boats then rafted up outside us and two more outside them, which meant we ended up with the most favourable berth for shore access and the worst for people thumping across the deck - although, to be fair, most experienced sailors tiptoed quietly round the foredeck. A train ran slowly along the quay right next to us from time to time.
Ashore, we found an English seaside resort that was almost a caricature of its kind. There was a classic esplanade backed by scores of little boarding houses, a British beach of stones, poor ice cream, sugary Weymouth rock and racy postcards. Incredibly, the skies cleared to a blue, hot afternoon, so we saw lots of white handkerchiefs on heads!
We took a bus to Portland Bill and walked to the top, but it was shrouded by cloud. We visited Portland Castle, down on the spit connecting the promontory from the mainland. This was another typical Henry VIII defensive structure, tucked in by the grounds of the Naval Air Station.
Katie came down with Tony and Robert for lunch and took us over to the extraordinary Chesil Beach, a 12-mile stretch of smooth pebbles. We became friendly with a couple ashore, and were taken for a ride to Dorchester, Hardy country - some lovely old stone buildings and and excellent museum centred on Thomas Hardy and his life and works.
On our last night here, fast asleep, we heard a thump up forward. "Someone's come aboard", I whispered. I went back to the saloon, where I found an old drunk making himself comfortable on the starboard settee. "What the hell are you doing here?", I explained. "Well", he replied. "They threw me out of the pub!"
In the morning there was another gale warning, but for "later", and we thought - with the favourable tidal stream - that we would make the Solent in time. In a fair wind and tide we flew past the Needles into the western part of the Solent and turned up through sand banks into the Lymington River and up to the eponymous harbour. We knew from our harbour guide that the whole inlet would be packed by hundreds of yachts but with no room to anchor, and we tied up between visitors' buoys.
Soon enough the rain and a strong SW wind came in as forecast. So much of our time in the Channel was spent balancing forecasts with tidal heights and streams that if we had waited for really good conditions for every leg, we would never have got anywhere. Generally, we found sailing this coast pretty tiresome, and if we had continued to live in southern England we would probably not have become sailors. The generally poor visibility and the tides make passage-planning hard, one big problem being that unless you want to make a series of detours way offshore, the headlands have to be cut very close to get inside the tidal races. And these can be ferociously rough, even in good conditions. But because of poor visibility we couldn’t see many of these headlands until within a mile or two. And the timing is critical, because if the tide’s against you, you’re near stationary. To be fair, though, this was accepted to be a poor summer, even by UK standards.
Lymington is famous for its yachting facilities, and is a pretty little place where we needed to do some shopping. We were only there for a couple of nights, the second of which was cold; ground frost was reported in some southern counties! We motored out of the river back to the Solent, and then a short distance up the Hampshire coast to the Beaulieu River. The entrance is well up into the western half of the Solent, generally opposite Cowes on the Isle of Wight. The outer end of the river was hard to see, as it winds around wide sand banks that are not visible from outside, but it is well marked once you get close enough to see the marks. We motored up the river past hundreds of moorings with flat green fields and woodland each side, and reached Bucklers Hard, acknowledged to be the most beautiful anchorage in the Solent. It's easy to agree with that claim.
There's no room to anchor in the river, and we tied between two pilings with some difficulty, just as the tide was changing. We went ashore for a quick walk around the tiny, charming village and returned to the boat for a pleasant evening. The next day, Saturday, the large set of pilings rapidly filled up, this being a Saturday, including two large groups from sailing clubs who all knew each other. We soon found ourselves in the middle of a mass of yachts, with five rafted each side of us. Their crews shouted happily to each other and across us, but in the Solent yachtsman's way totally ignored us, with no recognition whatsoever, let alone a welcome. Several members of my English family, including my mother and sister - both last seen on a UK flying visit years before we left by sail - came down for a visit to the boat and a good lunch ashore. It was, fortunately, a blue and pleasant day.
The Bucklers Hard Maritime Museum, visited on the Sunday, was an excellent exposition of the substantial wooden ship-building industry that was established on the Hard in the 18th century. Several ships of the line were constructed here. Most of the terraced houses leading down the grassy way to the river have been beautifully remodelled to represent their original interiors. We took a dinghy trip further up the river to the pretty village of Beaulieu, featuring wood-framed houses covered with ivy along the riverfront. By the time we got back the mob had left the pilings, and we motored down the river to a vacant mooring in peace and quiet. "Back to cruising", as Norma said. It was a lovely evening - three days in a row!
We spent the next day aboard, and then motored back out to the Solent. In a drifting, peaceful sail during the day we passed several sombre, deserted old forts planted in the water and effectively marking the extreme edges of the main shipping channel. We got out of the way of a warship coming out of Portsmouth. At the eastern end of the Solent waters myriad marks helped us to avoid the shoals extending south from Hayling Island, and finally we entered Chichester Harbour. The entrance is shallow at low water and we required mid-tide for our draft, a timing issue as usual. The channels throughout the harbour looked challenging on the chart, but in practice the several markers made the way easier than we anticipated. We navigated two forks in the channels between the mud banks (invisible other than at low tide) and came to anchor near Itchenor. We were peacefully by ourselves, and the next day in continuing fine weather we took the dinghy up to Bosham, along a channel to the north. This was another delightfully pretty little place, but with very limited stores, so we took the bus into Chichester for food and a gas bottle exchange.
Over the next few days we had more visits, this time from Norma's parents and cousins, all residents of the area. We stayed the night ashore and visited some of the Selsey sights. Back aboard, the weather was reverted to cool, overcast and increasingly windy - this was causing some drama among local weekend sailors. The wind blew us off the narrow channel as the tide changed, and at low tide we were completely out of the water, lying with the keel deep in the mud. This was no great drama for us, and Norma went out in the glutinous mud collecting a meals-worth of cockles. Once floating again we kept off the mud bank by using the rudder to shear us off in the tidal stream.
We returned to Bosham for a closer look, including the world's prettiest sailing club and the Saxon church with links to Kings Harold and Canute. We then took the boat out and motored to near the end of the Emsworth Channel, anchoring at high tide in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. By this time we had been recognised by some locals as long-distance sailors, and we went ashore for an interview for a southern television station. We were filmed carrying a couple of sails to a local chandlery (we were selling them, as it happened, a lightweight spinnaker and old mainsail both surplus to needs), and then took the boat out followed by the TV crew in a hired a fishing boat, filming us out for a day sail - something we never did!
After the customary wait for clearing weather, during which we took a walk on Hayling Island and collected blackberries, we shot out of Chichester Harbour early one morning on a strong ebb tide. Because we had to make our destination before the next cold front, we motored in oily calm to Brighton Marina, and tied to the visitors' berth just after lunchtime. This was a huge marina, then the biggest in Europe, with over 1,850 berths. Its atmosphere was rather forbidding, with high while cliffs up on the land side and high grey concrete breakwaters on the other.
It was a longish walk into town, along the highest layer of the three-layer waterfront. Most of the the tourist facilities were quiet. With the sun peeping through in the afternoon, we spied one hardy soul sunbathing on the stony beach. We visited the Royal Pavilion, an amazing Regency extravaganza, with a Nash Indian-inspired exterior. e were busy during our short stay there, with its various conveniences allowing a good clean-up of the boat and dinghies, fuelled up, laundry ashore and showers on the marina. We took time to go round a 1944 destroyer, HNS Cavalier, identical to the Battle-class destroyer I spent a few cold days on in mid-winter as a school Naval cadet. We also walked out the length of the Palace Pier, in all its decaying glory. Very quiet, apart from a few punks and bad ice-cream stalls. The old part of Brighton was surprisingly attractive, with jewellers and boutique shops in narrow streets, and there was a good museum with an excellent Brighton collection. In Kemptown serious efforts were being made to reinvigorate the splendour of Nash's architecture.
After a couple of nights we were off again, and in the afternoon had a great sail round Beachy Head and Dungeness to Dover, arriving near midnight. We anchored in the main outer harbour, rolling in the swell, and first thing in the morning made our way through an opening bridge into the Wellington Dock and tied alongside an unoccupied motorboat. We took a great but quite difficult walk up to Dover Castle, with a history of the site going back to William the Conqueror. It was an immense complex of fortifications and dwellings, a solid keep, a Saxon church extraordinary mosaic decorations with the remains of a Roman lighthouse adjacent. Later, we visited the excavated remains of a Roman villa in the town. We helped a couple of blokes get their boat craned out of the water, and went with them to the accommodating and welcoming Royal Cinq Ports Yacht Club - a bit different from the Solent clubs.
We were escorted out of the docks by a Harbour Patrol launch, avoided the busy shipping as we left the harbour, and motored round South Foreland in sloppy tidal waters. Every movement in the Channel is influenced by the tide, and we would need the flood to enter and go up the Thames. We decided to stop and anchor just to the west of the ruined Margate pier, seemingly a long way out from the shore because of the considerable tidal range. After a rather rolly night we woke to thick fog, with visibility down to about 100 metres. Thames Coastguard was reporting visibility down to three metres!
In the early afternoon it seemed to clear a bit, and we motored out into the Gore Channel, along the coast between the extensive sandbanks of the Margate Hook and the Kent mainland. But after an hour it clamped down again, so we eased inshore and re-anchored once more in the apparent middle of nowhere. We were in as shallow waters as we dared, but had to blast a catamaran a warning as it barrelled down upon us out of the murk.
Dense fog early the next day too, but it cleared enough by mid-morning to get going. There was supposed to be an anchorage in the Yantlet Flats, generally opposite Southend on the southern side of the Thames Estuary, but it looked very open and uninviting, so we pressed on to Gravesend Reach, in the outer reaches of the Thames River. After slugging against the ebbing tide we anchored there in the late afternoon among moored tugs and powered barges. But it was a surprisingly calm night.
We took the dinghy ashore across the mud flats and walked up to Gravesend, very quiet, and called into the Gravesend Sailing Club. It was Sunday, and we got a great welcome from the members there as "real sailors". We thought they were true sailors, also. They wanted us to stay for the evening and give a talk to the members, but we had to get back to the boat while we could still get the dinghy over the mud, and tomorrow we were aiming to move early.
It was a little misty to start with when we left to go upriver, but it cleared to a nice day as we started to motor up the River Thames, quite an adventure. It was wide in these lower reaches, mud banks in front of some docks, many looking decayed, some being revitalised. We passed lots of barges, a few ships, and a few tourist launches.
The extraordinary Thames Tidal Barrier, on the approach to Greenwich, was a sight to see and a bit intimidating to pass through. It is retractable barrier system that was designed to prevent the floodplain of most of Greater London from being flooded by exceptionally high tides and storm surges moving up from the North Sea. It only became operational 1982, so in historical terms we were among the earliest yachts to pass through. We then wound our way round the curves of the river past the Greenwich Old Naval College and museum, the Isle of Dogs and Wapping, and finally came to see the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. They were to be our neighbours for six months, as we were to spend the winter in London at the adjacent St Katharine's Dock (or Yacht Haven, as it preferred to be called).
We milled around in the river for a while and topped up with fuel at a floating wharf, waiting for the tide to allow opening of the lock gates and our entry to the marina.
We were assigned to what we hoped would be a temporary berth, because it was on the shady north side of a big building and we would never see the sun in the winter. After checking in with the manager, we were given a much better position in the eastern basin of the complex where, we were to find, the handful of live-aboard yachts were placed. As it happens, when we were checking in - having pre-booked our six months - the manager asked, "you're not going to live aboard, are you?" "Er, we do anticipate spending some extended periods visiting London", we replied. That seemed to be an acceptable position.
Turned out that the local council was dead against people living aboard there, and thus avoiding paying the council rates. But we were sufficiently transient to avoid any real problem, and we were never hassled about it.
We walked up to Wapping to find some shops, and appreciated the extensive rehabilitation of the area and, of course, the entire docklands.
Our winter in St Katharine's Dock, London
St Katharine’s was a lovely spot, and very convenient for all that London had to offer.
A few other boats in this eastern basin were being lived aboard, mostly by Brits using their craft as temporary residences. We became particular friends with the owners of the cat with which we had entered the docks, Don and Gillian Pinn, and became life-long correspondents with them after we had gone our different ways.
There were a few working craft too. And right near us was a splendid barque-rigged auxiliary steamship, the Royal Research Ship Discovery. She was built for Antarctic research, and launched in 1901. She was the last traditional wooden three-masted ship to be built in the United Kingdom. Her first mission was the British National Antarctic Expedition, carrying Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their first, and highly successful, journey to the Antarctic, known as the Discovery Expedition.
At least until Christmas, a period of acceptable winter weather, we were good tourists, doing all the sights of London. Public transport, mostly by the Underground and occasionally by bus, was cheap, and the Tower Hill tube station was an easy walk from the dock.
We absolutely wallowed in music, for which London is one of the world’s greatest cities. We went to some kind of concert nearly every other day, and sometimes two a day, until it got too cold after Christmas. This was not as expensive as it sounds, as not only were seats at even the grander venues far less expensive than anywhere else we’d been, but also there are scores of churches, halls and the like - particularly in and around the City of London, near by us - which lay on regular concerts of top quality at very small cost, or free. And for plays, there were matinees and standbys which suited our relaxed time constraints.
Among many examples, our first major concert was of choral music by the early English composer Tallis, with a big choir (the Tallis Scholars), the program including the amazing Spem in Alium, a 40 part piece needing a score the size of a newspaper. We then went to a pair of masques, a peculiarly English form of entertainment, written and played originally for Charles I at huge expense at just the time when Cromwell was upsetting the natives with talk of regal extravagance. Having booked early we sat in the front row about where Charles would have sat, in the very building where the performances were put on for him, Banqueting House in Whitehall, with a ceiling painted by Rubens also in fulsome praise of his king. Charles even walked to his death on the scaffold through one of the windows near which we sat. In early December we attended the Messiah in St Paul's Cathedral; we were too late for seats, but were apologetically assigned a fantastic standing position by a column right at the front of the audience.
We also used our folding Peugeot bicycles extensively in London, for visits including Westminster Abbey, Churchill's War Rooms and many others. I also used the bike to make regular visits to the offices of the British Medical Association, in Tavistock Square. Through its Secretary General - with whom I had got friendly in my international road safety conference days - I was commissioned for some consultancy work, including researching and writing monographs on subjects as varied as the then-feared nuclear winter, alcohol use by young people, and alternative therapies.
In various forms of transport we toured much of the British Isles, as postcard-pretty as ever, even in winter. For a week, in the depths of winter, we went up to Scotland, to stay in the Highlands with the Scottish side of the family.
The weather, paradoxically, was glorious – clear blue skies and no wind, although freezing cold of course. Many of the lochs were frozen over. The ski fields were busy. We covered a huge mileage on the roads, particularly up and down the west coast, where I have not been since childhood.
During our time at St Katharine's we had lots of visits to the boat by friends and relations, including its designer, Professor Peter Joubert. Never one to waste words, he wrote in the visitors' book: "The yacht is in great condition". He was in fact very proud of our voyaging in a vessel of his design, and we were very glad we had commissioned and built such a great (and pretty) yacht. We caught up again with our lifetime friends David and Pat Amies, with whom we go back to our days as doctors in the RAF in the 'sixties.
We were also visited several times by two couples who had become among our best cruising friends, Clydie, John and son Ian Connolly (all the way back to Hawaii and in many places since, then buying a new British boat in the Solent), and George and Teresa Coburn, with whom we sailed across the North Atlantic and then wintering on the English south coast.
But 1985-1986 was clearly to be our only winter in the boat in northern Europe! It was the coldest February for 200 years, and we were iced in solid for several weeks. Ducks were walking on the ice round the boat, which we kept warm with borrowed electric heaters. It was reported that the winter was so cold that 70 per cent of Britain's beehives were wiped out.
The building adjacent to the berth where we were lying housed the premises of the Cruising Association, which was formed by British cruising sailors in 1908. It is famed for holding an outstanding collection of nautical literature in its library, including charts of the entire world. We had arranged access to the premises, their showers, their library and comfortable sitting room. One afternoon, while I was working on the boat, Norma came down from there and said, "come up quick". The CA did depend on donations of officially out-of-date charts to maintain its collection, and it appeared that a massive collection of charts had just been left there by a ship. They were not required by the CA, and we were welcome to any we chose. Thus, in a few hours of sorting, we obtained for free pretty well all the charts we would require for the rest of our voyaging, something that we'd been worrying about.
We were supposed to be out of St Katharine's by March 31 1986, but that day it was blowing 35-45 knots in the Channel, the temperature was about 5 degrees and near-freezing at night, and we were experiencing flurries of sleet. We arranged to stay for another couple of weeks, during which we finalised a lot of the boat jobs that had been ongoing over the winter, ticked off another few tourist visits, and went down to say farewell to Mum for a while.
But we had to get going, despite the TV weatherman telling us that we were experiencing "the most severe beginning to April since records began"! On the foul wet morning of Tuesday 15 April we locked out of the old docks into sleet driven by a Force 5-6 southerly. After four hours or so the motor started fluctuating and then stopped altogether. Under mainsail alone we sailed into the estuary of the River Medway between the Isle of Grain and Sheerness, where the Thames turns from a river into an estuary. We turned down Stangate Creek and anchored in Sharfleet Creek, surrounded by bleak marsh and mud flats. We were immediately attended by the river police, simply checking our status. I changed the fuel filter and bled the injectors, in the assumption that some blockage had become established during our long stay in the docks.
We waited for the depression to move through and sailed out through the Thames estuary and around North Foreland to Ramsgate Harbour. We tied up on a visitors' jetty just inside the southern breakwater and took a walk into what was a very attractive little town, with good shops and very friendly local people. We were almost immediately invited out for dinner the next evening! In very cool conditions with a Force 8 gale outside, we tied to the inner side of the breakwater wall, which gave us some protection. We stayed there for long enough to dry out and apply a coat of sticky copper-based antifouling paint. We then moved into the more sheltered inner harbour and in slightly improving conditions started airing and drying out the boat. Condensation had been a constant challenge all winter. We received more invitations from a succession of very friendly locals, and we had a great party on the boat with them and a few from other overseas cruising yachts in the harbour. We did find Ramsgate to be the most attractive place for the boat we visited on the entire south coast.
On May 1 we left rather reluctantly after a good time there, and motored off confidently, leading a German boat whose skipper was (rightly) worried about the many sandbanks along the Kentish coast. We assured him that we had good enough local charts to get us through with no problems. But when I switched to the new Navico automatic wheel pilot (replacing the old Shipmate model that had given some trouble in the Atlantic crossing) the boat suddenly made a U-turn! Sorted that problem out (its compass had been set 180 degrees out!) and pressed on south down the shallow Ramsgate Channel through the sandbanks to Deal, then round the Forelands and past the white cliffs of Dover. The engine was again speeding up, then stopping and needing a bleed. We decided to make an overnight stop at Brighton Marina instead of pressing on to the Solent and arriving in the dark with a dicky motor.
The problem sailing west down-Channel is that you can’t win. The prevailing wind is sou-west. So, if you do the ungentlemanly thing and beat to windward, you still have to have a favourable tide, otherwise you don’t get anywhere in these waters. This means that the tide is against the wind and the seas will be horrible. So, we spent a lot of time in various ports waiting for easterlies, which are very rare at that time of the year and, moreover, bring fog.
Completely consistent with the above observations, when we sailed out of Brighton the next day we had a fair wind from the east but the visibility was awful. We saw the marker off Selsey Bill just in time to avoid it, but passed the wrong side. While approaching the Solent and then aiming for Southampton Water we could not see any land or landmarks to navigate by. There is however a forest of buoys and channel markers in the Solent, all numbered or named and identifiable through the chart. This is the way we navigated our way, trying to keep to the edge of the shipping channels. At one time I reassured Norma, “at least we’re out of the shipping channel”, when out of the fog loomed an unexpected buoy which showed we’d just been swept right across the channel by the tidal stream. Sailing in the Solent in poor visibility was a challenge! With some relief we sailed up the River Hamble from Southampton Water and tied between visitors' pilings opposite the Port Hamble Marina, one of many.
We rented a Fiesta and did some local touring, including Portsmouth Harbour and the exhibition of the restoration of Henry VIII's Mary Rose warship, and to Winchester Cathedral. We then took the car over to Woking and to Selsey, said farewells to the parents. Making the most of the car we visited several chandleries and manufacturers, and obtained a lot of new parts and stuff for the boat. We fitted a new, stronger shaft for the Hydrovane self-steering, replacing the one we had bent mid-Atlantic. By coincidence we again came across Peter Blake. During the time we had spent in Britain he had sailed right around the world yet again, coming second in the Whitbread race.
Despite the weather, with gales, rain and the cold, this couple of weeks in the Hamble had been highly productive in terms of getting the boat - and us - ready for long-distance sea-going again. The next step was to take a single day sailing out of the Solent and along to Weymouth Harbour. As we approached, in the turbulent water inevitable anywhere near Portland Bill, the brand new and supposedly unbreakable Navico autopilot stripped its gears trying to keep course. Remembering the company's CEO assurance that this new equipment would take us round the world, I rang him in a fury and left the parts with a friendly chandlery to ship up to the factory for replacement.
We left Weymouth, and Britain, on June 2 1986, returning to foreign shores, in this case a day sail in light winds across the Channel to Cherbourg, France.
The Channel Islands and Brittany
The southwards crossing of the Channel was uneventful by Channel standards: generally overcast, some drizzle, light winds, cross-course tidal stream about two knots, visibility about three miles with foggy patches. Ships in their defined channels have right of way, and if yachts obstruct them they get told off by the Channel control centre. Crossing the shipping channels therefore feels a bit like walking across a motorway.
Cherbourg is an immense commercial harbour with an enormous and very expensive marina. The city was of course the major supply port for the D-Day invasion, once it was liberated. It is not a particularly attractive place, but it did have a nicely restored old part of town and it was great to feel “foreign” again. We revelled in the food shops. Norma is not the sort often to be overwhelmed by the choice of foodstuffs in a supermarket, but this did happen here, for the first time since Honolulu! We were getting rather punch-drunk about marina costs by this time, so only stayed long enough to stock up on marvellous French food and duty-free booze. We had a look around the town and the fort that overlooks it, with a museum and information about the Normandy landings.
From Cherbourg we sailed for the Channel Islands. We had not originally intended to visit these islands, being in a bit of a rush to get south. But we changed our minds, and they turned out to be attractive and interesting. However, they do offer substantial challenges for the yacht and the navigator.
The first island to visit was Alderney, off the north-west tip of the Normandy peninsula, and nearly due west of Cherbourg. To get there we had to cross the Race (Raz) of Alderney, notorious for its rips and rough seas driven by fast tidal streams and unpredictable headland winds. We had to tack directly to windward to get there, but it's not far, taking about four hours, and the trip was mostly not as rough as we had expected.
The Channel Islands are not part of the United Kingdom but do have self-governing status, recognising the Queen as Head of State in her capacity as Duke of Normandy. The liberal tax laws make them a tax haven for the British, and a lot of money floats around, reminiscent (as in other ways) of Bermuda.
We picked up a public mooring in the wide expanse of Alderney Harbour, which looked a lot better on the chart than in practice. [Note: the 35mm slide photos taken during this period of our voyaging we never saw again after sending them for processing. Considering our movements and the varying international mailing involved, it is fortunate that we only lost a few while we were away. For this account, we have chosen for illustration a few stock photos from Google images.]
The harbour was originally a large open bay, which was converted into a harbour by the Royal Navy in the 19th century for its ships. The bay was in the first stage protected by a massive, straight, kilometre-long, breakwater, which is still there. A second breakwater to complete the enclosure was never built, because the Napoleonic Wars came to an end, so the harbour is open to the Channel to the north-east. Even in calm weather the yacht was rolling uncomfortably in the swell, even though we were moored as near to the wall as possible.
We walked ashore in pleasant weather up to the island's centre and its main town, St Anne, and toured its interesting museum. We took a little train to the island's north-east corner. There are several Victorian fortresses all around the island. There are also many immense German fortifications, part of Germany's western defences. It's a very pretty island, with masses of wild flowers, green fields and contented cows.
Sure enough, within a few days the wind picked up to gale force, the boat rolling badly and with seas breaking over the forbidding harbour wall. As soon as possible we pulled out into foul weather but with less wind, and it was clearing by mid-day.
We sailed down to the island of Guernsey and picked up a mooring in the outer part of the harbour of St Peter Port. The inner marina was only accessible at high tide over a sill that was exposed when the tide went down. The harbour is a very popular destination for British sailors, and it was crammed. Visitors like us were faced by the Great European Raft-up, with lots of boats on each mooring. The tides, which govern every movement, don’t stick to working hours so boats were coming and going all night, with much banging, shouting and untangling of lines.
We had to stay for a few days because I needed to take a ferry trip back to England to check on my mother and to discuss her status with her doctor. Fortunately we were intending to spend quite some time in Europe before sailing off over the horizon back to Australia. After a few days getting her settled and her affairs in good order, it was relaxing to get back to the boat.
Guernsey was another pretty little island. St Peter Port had a good museum, and all around the place there were several forts and fortifications to be seen. The countryside was just like that of Alderney: flowers and greenery, narrow winding roads. Castle Cornet sits prominently on the southern harbour breakwater, with another museum describing its long history of wars and occupations. In the town there was a splendid market, with many stallholders dressed in period costumes. Incredibly cheaply we rented a Fiesta for the day and took it round all the island's shores and yet more forts and German blockhouses.
The islands were occupied by the Germans during WW2. We visited the quite extraordinary remains of and underground hospital, with miles (it seemed that way) of tunnels carved out of the granite by slave labour, once packed with beds, now cold, dank, and haunted by the ghosts of the injured. Wounded German soldiers were shipped there from the mainland, especially after the invasion.
After we had let a thunderstorm pass, we set sail again southwards towards the northern coast of Brittany. We had done a fair bit of planning for this leg of the trip, because of strong tidal streams and the shallow waters, rocks and islets to be avoided on the final approach. But we were optimistic that the pleasant weather in which we left St Peter Port would hold for the day, and the forecast was good. All the sailing guides warned against approaching the Brittany coast in conditions of poor visibility, and we took these warnings seriously.
But in vain. Sure enough, half way there the fog clamped down, it was flat calm, and the satellite navigator went into one of its blank periods (several hours between fixes - no GPS then). It would have been just as risky to go back. Frankly, I’ve never felt so lost and vulnerable. The cross-track component of the tidal stream was anything between four and six knots, trying to take us at least 20 degrees off our intended course. We were heading for a ferocious coast, armed with millions of black and spiky rocks, aiming for a marker buoy with a warning whistle that would indicate the path through the rocks. We had to stop the motor from time to time to try to hear the buoy's warning sound, which meant that we were being sent sideways when we stopped.
Just as I was deciding to anchor miles off the coast and wait for better visibility, Norma’s eagle eyes spotted a lighthouse and a north cardinal buoy about two miles east of where we hoped we were, showing that we'd been swept down by the tidal stream. We were just able to motor against the tide back to to the red channel-marker buoy we had been looking for, and found it silent; in the oily calm the buoy was not being moved enough to squish the bellows that produced the whistle. This buoy was the one that marked the entrance to the Treguier river and through the multitude of rocks on the approach.
With the rising tide and in clearing weather we then wound our way up the river to the enchanting Breton town of Treguier and tied up at the marina. The log records: "A worrying little passage at times!" But by then we were enjoying "blessed peace and quiet!", as I wrote at the time.
After lunch the following day we walked around the lovely little episcopal city, with a well-preserved centre and a beautiful Breton Gothic/romanesque cathedral. The stone walls held bowls of flowers, timber-framed houses lined narrow streets up the hillside. On market day we shopped for piles of marvellous provisions and lay in the sun after lunch.
After such a pleasant stop it was with some reluctance we pulled away after only a few days and returned down the river to the sea, where we found the red buoy merrily whistling away! We then had a very good sail dead downwind to the west, passing between the coast and the Sept-Iles collection of islets and rocks a couple of miles offshore. We had then to negotiate what I recorded as a "hairy and very rocky channel", past the Chateau du Taureau perched on a rock and into the wider but generally shallow Morlaix Bay at dead low tide. We decided to anchor in the bay and go up the river to Morlaix with the tide the next day. We were welcomed by a young Australian couple in a small British-built yacht nearby, which they were intending to sail back to Australia once they had nipped back to England to deliver a baby!
We motored up to Morlaix, arriving just in time to lock into the marina on the river at high tide. We squashed into a vacant place in the large, busy marina. We then received the usual Customs visit, friendly enough but the detailed "inspection" was most unusual. We had a walk around the town, an attractive place with some old houses, all overlooked by the high viaduct towering over the river. There was a nasty surprise for us on our return: Customs were requiring a hefty daily fee for a "navigation tax", the first we had ever heard of such a thing in France. It was being imposed, it seemed, on Australian, New Zealand and South African boats only. Anything to do with the Pacific nuclear testing dispute, we wondered? We argued that the yacht was British registered, and produced the old British Registry certificate (which had by then been officially replaced by Australian registration that was introduced after we had left). They were still being difficult, so we told the official we couldn’t afford France at that rate and were going to Spain – in practice, no-one else bothered us during the weeks we were in Brittany. No-one we spoke to later, including Australians, had any such problem outside Morlaix.
We were going to spend the night in the marina, but were warned that there was going to be very noisy pop concert close ashore that evening, so, just in time for the locking-out process, we left to motor down the river in the setting sun and back to the bay. We anchored at its north end, by the village of Carantec, and were joined by our Oz friends. The weather clamped down again, so we shared some meals and a pleasant walk ashore with them.
Once it cleared we motored out past the intimidating rocks, worried again about the fluctuating engine speed. We were able to sail for a while, but the wind died and in flat calm we had to motor along the coast to the west. The mass of rocks extended way out from the shore by a long way, but was well marked by warning buoys. Round one of these, in the late afternoon, we took a sharp turn to the south and entered the narrow but well-marked channel leading into the river and little settlement of l'Aberwrach.
After a misty start the next day was fine, and we walked up to the nearby village of Landeda. This was a friendly place with lots of neat houses old and new, and we did some routine shopping. Back on the river we watched work boats collecting piles of seaweed, a major industry in Brittany, and dredging with chain scoops for oysters in the muddy shallows. We spent six nights there, walking, taking dinghy trips up the river, shopping and getting ready for the major passage to come: crossing the Bay of Biscay to Spain.
By Monday July 7 all the weather forecasts for the Atlantic were favourable for the next few days, and in the early morning we motored out to sea along the long approach through the rocks and shallows. The engine had been playing up again, so I bled the fuel system once more. The conditions were miserable, grey skies, grey, cool, starting to rain. Typical! We were soon able to sail, in a squally north-west wind.
By then we were sailing round the north-west tip of Brittany and were approaching a major obstacle, the passage between the Isle of Ushant and a lighthouse on the collection of islets between island and the mainland. This is the Passage du Fromveur, about half a mile wide between the island and the reefs.
The name Fromveur comes from the Breton words froud, meaning current, and meur meaning great, as the passage can be swept by strong tidal streams, often running at 8 knots. We had timed the approach to avoid the worst of the tides, but it was still pretty intimidating. Further, the Isle of Ushant had interfered with the westerly wind, so we had to resort to the motor to assist - and, of course, it began to fluctuate and threaten to stop. So, in very rough water at the southern end of the pass, just managing to make progress under sail and at the narrowest part of the channel, I was down in the engine room bleeding the system again.
An old Breton proverb proposes: "He who sees Ushant sups his own blood." I could relate to that. After all this tide-ripped rock-hopping, it was a great relief navigationally finally to leave pretty Brittany and sail into the open sea of the Bay of Biscay. Five hours later we were sailing under blue skies in a fair wind from just north of west, going well.
Having cleared the pass we settled into a pleasant afternoon's sailing followed by a busy night, surrounded by dozens of fishing trawlers. By late that afternoon we had passed the half-way mark. The wind was building into a strong northerly, with the number 2 headsail poled out the opposite side to the mainsail. We made good speed overnight and that continued all day until with the evening the wind was up to Force 7 and gales were being forecast for Finisterre. Using the navigational lights we sailed on into the harbour at La Coruna, on the north-west coast of Spain, and anchored just after midnight after two and a half nights at sea, a fast but busy passage without any Biscay dramas.
La Coruna is a very pleasant port in north-west Spain, the region known as Galicia. Here we started “real” cruising again: we could anchor at last, and the area is indented by a series of lovely fjord-like “rias”, which are drowned river valleys.
We woke to a calm, clear, blue-skied morning. What a change! Only one simple form was to be signed for the port police ashore, then back to the boat to help some local boats with their anchoring. The harbour is very deep by yachting standards, and too many sailors are reluctant to release sufficient scope for their anchor. (French and Spanish are the worst!) This meant they were dragging all over the place, including into us, with everybody very cheerful!
The shopping was great in the town, with superb fish and produce markets with very helpful stallholders anxious to ensure that we understood the produce and the prices. (Norma, as it happens, speaks Spanish.) The old part of town houses some lovely 12th-14th century churches, some little houses in compact squares. We walked out to the Torre de Hercules, a lighthouse for hundreds of years, with brick facing over the original Roman stone.
The town is also famous for the glassy facades of many of the buildings, with bright reflections in the morning sun.
We took an outing from here: a comfortable bus ride to Santiago de Compostela by the autopista, through rolling green countryside, small farmhouses overlooking small fields, truly of the "old" Spain.
The city and its cathedral are, of course, world famous as the reputed burial site of the apostle St James the Great, and in 1985 had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. We started with the cathedral, the end of a route of pilgrimage since the 11th century, and used Michener's great book Iberia as a guide. Each of the four faces of the cathedral is beautiful, and each one is of a slightly different style, depending on the era it was built. The glorious Baroque western facade looks over the main plaza, the Praza do Obradoiro, and the other faces all have their own plaza.
We entered the cathedral during the latter part of a mass, and caught some Bach played on the remarkable organ, with some horizontal pipes. We were hugely fortunate also to catch the swinging of the Botafumeiro, an enormous censor full of burning charcoal and smoking incense. This is hung by rope from the sky-high dome of the transept and swung by a team of men until its dramatic arc reaches the very eaves of the cathedral.
After a good lunch we strolled through the superbly maintained old part of the city before returning to La Coruna again by bus. But this time the bus took the scenic route, through lots of pretty villages. Men with black berets were leading their donkeys with carts, red-roofed houses had outhouses for grain and cheese, cooled by the breeze through wooden slats.
The weather and the forecast were looking good, but we were stuck for a while, waiting for mail. My mother told us that she had posted two packages at least a fortnight ago, probably including a set or two of processed 35mm slides. But every time we went to the local Amex to check, nada. Meanwhile, we got on with some boat maintenance and enjoyed the social life. Many of the English-speaking crews we had come in contact with in the UK and Channel Islands, and others were joining the many who would be going on south. So it was regular drinks and meals on several different yachts, including ours.
We became particular friends with two very different couples in very different boats: ex-pilot Tom and Sylvia Thomas, in the Hillyard wooden double-ender Diphda, and an American couple, prosperous New York businessman Bill and Eileen Kederska in their luxurious 49ft Halberg-Rassey Aurora, which they had just had built in Sweden. We were to see a lot of all four, and sometimes with the six of us together, many times in coming months and maintained contact and correspondence for years.
We had to give up waiting eventually, and sailed out of the harbour and round the prominent Torre de Hercules. It was then a pleasant sail down to the first of the rias we would be visiting, Ria Camarinas.
"Ria" means, in Spanish, an estuary, a long inlet of water in a drowned valley. Because of the annual battering by the Atlantic ocean, as in Brittany, the coast here in Galicia is a mass of such rias, protected by steep headlands, islets and masses of rocky outposts.
We anchored just beyond the village of Camarinas, off a peaceful beach. At first sight the village appeared very run down, but with much construction work under way. It did turn out to be a simple fishing village, pleasant enough.
Still having trouble getting air into the fuel system, leading to irregular running of the engine, I decided to strip the whole system. What I found was that two critical O-rings in the main fuel filter had been frozen solid over the winter in St Katharine's, and were not sealing properly. This was allowing small bubbles to collect at the injector and block the fuel intake. I replaced the O-rings and sealed the system better, after which we had no more problems. I should have thought of this possibility sooner, but frozen O-rings is not a problem we had faced in Australia or the Pacific.
The next leg of our passage round the north-west corner of Spain took us past Cape Finisterre, where great white clouds were spilling over the headland, notorious for heavy seas and bad weather. Finisterre, the "end of the earth", was thought by the Romans to be the furthest western headland on the continent, but further south there are a couple more headlands reaching a few miles further out. We would soon be rounding both of them.
We were having a great sail under spinnaker while rounding the cape when we were photographed by a friend who gave us a print later. It's very hard to get such pictures when you're away at sea!
Our destination was the Ria de Muros y Noya, and we anchored just off the village of Muros. We were soon to be joined by Diphda and Aurora, leading to yet more socialising aboard and ashore.
Muros is a very attractive little town, which had been declared to be of Historic-Artistic Interest. It was backed by terraced fields along with a particularly attractive Romanesque church on the hillside.
In the old part of the town there were lots of arched alleyways over narrow, winding alleys. There were several small plazas throughout the old centre, one with an intriguing fountain topped by a sculpture of a cross-looking a lizard. There was a beautiful old market building nearby, quite busy when we visited.
Muros has a long history of fishing, but at the time of our visit it was primarily a massive mussel farm, with swarms of mussel rafts as far as could be seen. We went out in the dinghy to see how the cheerful fishermen handled the whole affair of harvesting the mussels and bringing them ashore.
After three peaceful nights in beautiful weather we continued down the coast, rounding the next major headland to the south and up into the Ria de Arousa and the little town of Puebla del Caraminal. We had only just anchored when the first thing we had to do was go and help the crew of a Dutch ferro-cement ketch which, in a typically incompetent show of anchoring, was in danger of dragging ashore or into other vessels. They had a too-small weird crescent-shaped French patent anchor on far too little chain.
Ashore, we found a prosperous village, with several factories in the business of processing mussels from scores of rafts in the bay. There was a confusing mass of lanes and streets. We filled some jerries with water from the village fountain. Basic stores were available in the week, but on Saturday there was a thriving market with a wide variety of fish - but many not much more than tiddlers. There were good vegetables, farmers' market style.
We then motored across to the other side of the ria and to San Julian, on the Isla de Arosa (aka Illa de Arousa). We anchored in a wide bay on the north side of the small island. The first thing we heard was a fusillade of typical Spanish fireworks, loud bangs, and it appeared that we had chanced upon a major local festival.
The bay was a mass of fishing boats, many of them colourfully dressed with flags. This, we learnt, was the last day of the Festa do Vrau, with today's saint being the patron saint of mariners.
An effigy of the saint lending a tender hand to a supplicating seaman was carred by a group of sailors, who walked in slow procession through the streets of the village. The procession was accompanied by a band of Galician bagpipes and drums. All participants were in local costume, a very colourful scene.
We went back ashore in the evening and enjoyed more local bagpipe music and, later, another Galleghan music ensemble. This was a fascinating day to have happened upon.
There were no tourists there, let alone any other "Ingles". Galicians tend to have a default frown on their face, and we were never sure quite how welcoming they were for our uninvited attendance at their festival.
After a great weekend here we sailed down and out of the ria and south to the Isles Cies, a mile or two off the mouth of the Ria de Vigo. This group of small islands appeared to be a local tourist attraction. We anchored off a popular long beach on the east side, facing the mainland. We had a walk ashore, seeing the immense and obviously populat camp site. We stayed for what turned out to be a peaceful night there, a bit of a surprise because the anchorage was wide open to the east and we felt a bit exposed - but a light land breeze kept us facing into the chop.
From there it was a short trip down to the big town of Puerto do Bayona, where several cruising yachts were anchored off the yacht club, including many friends. Inevitably, we immediately re-entered socialising mode. We had arrived a couple of days after my birthday, so we took ourselves out to dinner: a very good one, with a kind of ceviche followed by roast suckling pig with little peppers and chips. We had drinks with Tom and Sylvia at the yacht club on the way back to the boat.
Up the hill on the headland protecting the bay is an old castle that has been converted to a parador, a posh hotel. We took a walk up there, but were not much welcome! We took a bus into Vigo, the big city of the region, fixing new mail forwarding arrangements with the Amex office. We walked Vigo's old town, the waterfront, and up to a castle with a good view of the Ria de Vigo.
The weather changed for the worse for a couple of days, with more yachts dragging their anchors. Some never learn, and think it's normal. We wrote a lot of letters, enjoyed more socialising, and I attended Sylvia (on Diphda) to give some medical advice. Happily, she soon improved.
It was then time to get going south and cross the border into a new country, Portugal.
The passage leg was a short one, a drifting sail and some motoring, down from Bayona to the Port of Entry for Portugal, Viana do Costelo. This lies at the estuarine end of the River Lima/Limia at the foot of a steeply sloping hillside. Arriving in the evening, there was no indication as to where we might go, so we anchored off a slipway at what looked like and old pilot station. We soon got a call from an official shore indicating that we - and a Dutch boat anchored nearly - should move on up into a commercial dock, in which we tied up. This was a ship-sized dock, so we had to scramble a long way up a grimy ladder to report in to an office for immigration and other clearance procedures. We still had to go in and report to the Port Captain the next day.
There were only a few forms to complete, and a low fee to pay for a year's cruising permit. We walked into the old part of what was a gorgeous little town. We admired lots of splendid and beautiful buildings, typically ornate in Portuguese style, particularly around the main square, the Praca de Republica. The lovely church there displayed its exuberant architecture, gleaming white and the whole interior was lined with blue and white ceramic tiles, so typical of the country.
We took a funicular railway up the hillside to the top, from where we had a magnificent view of the estuary and the harbour. At the peak sat the Santuario de Santa Luzia, a basilica that had been built quite recently and was not as attractive as the old churches down in the town.
The whole town was a mass of street decorations for a forthcoming fiesta, and in the tourist office there were some song and dance presentations by way of promotion.
The town was lovely, but the dock was not a good place to stay because it was really too deep to climb the vertical ladders every time to go ashore. So, after a coup[le of nights we pulled out and had a good sail in a fair wind down to Porto de Leixoes.
We anchored inside the breakwater, which extended well out into the sea. This was a very busy port, with big ships coming and going at all hours, and was not really our destination. It was, instead, a place from which we could go and visit the famous city of Porto/Oporto.
We took a bus into what we were to regard as rather a shambolic place. )We seemed to use the word "shambolic" quite a lot in Portugal!) Tier upon tier of old terraced building ranged up the steep and cobbled little streets over which washing hung out and into which slops were chucked out from windows. We visited the massive Romanesque cathedral and the ornate church of St Francis, where gold paint was sadly peeling. We lunched on good peasant food, Tripas a la mode Porto (tripe and bean stew with not much tripe), with lots of good wine.
We crossed the river to the shabby Vila Nova de Gaia, where cellars ("lodges") prepare and age the port, and the old sailing skiffs that used to carry the port barrels along the Douro rive now lie tied up in a picturesque manner. We visted two of the port producers, both offering very generous tastings of their wines, both white and red. Back in the town we took a tour of the amazing Chamber of Commerce building, once the stock market, including its incredible Moorish banqueting Hall.
The buses went on strike during the day, so with a couple of yachty friends we took a taxi back to the port. Overnight the evening mist had turned to fog, so those of us aiming to move along had to stay put. This worked well, because over drinks in the local yacht club, along with several friends, we were joined by a Portuguese couple whom we had met with their yacht in Bayona, Guillerme and Elena Guimaraes. Along with Tom and Sylvia from Diphda, they invited us out for a tour.
The next day we were picked up by Guillerme and his family, and we all piled into a nine-seat Peugeot. We went first to the town of Guimaraes, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is celebrated as the birthplace of the nation, chosen in 1139 as his capital by Portugal's first king, Alfonso Henriques. The huge square keep of his "royal" fortified manor/castle, the Castelo de Guimaraes - very well restored and maintained - dominates the town. We visited the town's pousada, a very beautiful baroque ex-monastery, superbly converted.
We drove then to nearby Braga. This has a long history as a religious and commercial centre, and is still regarded as the ecclesiastical capital of Portugal. Up on the top of a forested hill stands Portugal's most spectacular religious sanctuary, the stairway and church of the Bom Jesus do Monte. The winding stairway is in various sections, with biblical, mythological and symbolic themes. The gardens all around were very pretty.
Returning to Leixoes it became misty again, with solid fog at sea, and over the next few days became showery and wet. But after a week we were off south again, for an overnight sail down to Cascais. It was a fine enough trip, with some pleasant sailing under high white overcast the first afternoon, followed by a clear night. However, in the middle of the night the wind left us an never re-appeared, so we motored the rest of the way. In the early hours of the morning we got - nearly literally - entangled with a vast mass of fishing boats with seine nets out - we were shepherded out by one of their longboats, flashing a light for us. On the final approaches to Cascais in the second afternoon we rounded Cabo da Roca, the actual western-most point of the Eurasian land mass.
We anchored in the open bay of the touristy little town of Cascais, which would be our base for visiting Lisbon. We walked round some of the rather splendid but delapidated mansions in the old part of town and viewd a fish auction that featured rather sad and very dead fish.
We took an excellent early train into the centre of the city of Lisbon. We walked up through the ancient "bairro" quarter and up to the opulentchurch of Sao Roque, with its magnificent baroque interior. Like most churches here the interiors are dark, and we were taken around by a friendly custodian. Switching lights on when needed, he showed us the gold and silver inlays, sheets of Portuguese marble, and timber from Brazil.
Further south on the coast of Portugal we anchored in the commercial port of Leixoes in order to visit Oporto and the port wine lodges. In Oporto, jumbled old dwellings spill down the steep hillside to the Douro River, where the port lodges are very generous with their “tastings”. In Leixoes we met a generous Portuguese family who took us and some other friends on a tour of the countryside of northern Portugal, where sleepy towns – once of great importance to the old kingdoms – now nestle in the hills among the vineyards.
In both Oporto and Lisbon it is possible to a boat up the respective rivers and tie up near the centre of town, but this is usually a dirty and noisy option, and for Lisbon we again preferred to anchor at the head of the river, this time at the quite pleasant fishing port of Cascais, on the touristy Estoril coast, and take the convenient public transport into the city. Along the way stands a huge monument to the amazing Portuguese explorer-navigators, the spacemen of their day, and one of the most beautiful monasteries we have ever seen, a classic of the Portuguese Renaissance. Lisbon itself is too shambolic, noisy and packed with traffic to be truly enjoyable – keeping the cars out of the maze-like centre would be an improvement.
Once around Cape St Vincent we headed east again, along the noticeably warmer Algarve coast along southern Portugal. There were some good anchorages and one huge and impersonal (and exceptionally officious) marina, Vilamoura. After that we were happy to get back to Spain, at the river town of Ayamonte, anchoring in the River Guadiana which defines the border and failing to find any official very interested in our presence. A little further along, we anchored in the River Huelva, out of which Columbus sailed in 1492. Having been to the Bahamas, where he ended that voyage, we felt that we were in the presence of the ghosts of seamen long gone.
As expected, the wind switched off along this coast, so we motored most of the way to Cadiz, where we moored at a friendly yacht club (with a swimming pool!) near the mouth of the Guadalete River, which runs through Jerez and the other sherry towns. Cadiz has been flattened by so many invaders that there’s no such thing as an “old” city, and what there is now is rather uninspiring. Just south of Cadiz is Cape Trafalgar, and we re-read the story of Nelson as we sailed slowly by, thinking of the remains of the men-o’-war beneath our keel and marvelling at the seamanship which allowed these combatants to fight and sail at the same time.
We arrived at Gibraltar at night, which we normally try to avoid. Indeed, we found the mixture of lights very confusing, confounded by several brightly-lit ships anchored off the port. Customs directed us to a berth at one of the marinas, but the next morning we moved out to the anchorage to the north of the runway. This is quite well protected and perfectly acceptable, although a fair run in the dinghy round to the marina and ashore. It’s one of those anchorages the officials and the marinas would love to stop you using, but don’t know how to. Gibraltar is a very impressive rock, indeed, but the town itself is a scruffy place. Norma reckoned the monkeys were more friendly than the locals. However, it is a good place to get yacht gear, albeit very far from being comparable to Fort Lauderdale, which is what the local yachting guide claims!
Beyond Gibraltar, and at last into the Mediterranean, some 30 miles up the Spanish coast we came to our berth for the 1986-87 northern winter. This was at the good marina near the pleasant town of Estepona, on the western fringe of the Costa del Sol and having thus not lost its character. Norma stayed on the boat until Christmas, while I flew to England to write a book for the BMA. By mid-February the whole equipe was together again, hoping to leave in March and reach as far as Venice on our way to southern Greece by the end of the 1987 season.
In the wake of Ulysses
We left Estepona on April Fool’s day 1987, about two months before the Old Med Hands start moving, and battled our way east to Ibiza via the various anchorages on the south Spanish mainland. The land was heating up by this time, but the water was still very cold, so the afternoon sea breezes were truly ferocious, kicking up the seething white water so typical of any real wind in the Mediterranean. The choppy seas were steep, too, our first exposure to this feature of the Med, which makes it near impossible to get to windward without a lot of very wet drama.
We sailed over to the Balearic Islands, and first to Ibiza, a pleasant town on a pretty island. The marinas were horrendously expensive but we anchored out for a few days in the harbour, expecting at any time to be told to move. From there we sailed on to Mallorca, and we spent a good while at Palma, which much to our surprise we liked a great deal – one place which has made the most of tourism, absorbing it without losing its character. Tourism has been of positive benefit, and the city fathers have used the foreign funds well. Thus, the old buildings are well restored, the streets are clean, and the people easy to deal with.
We stayed a couple of weeks in Palma, and with friends made several trips throughout the island. A highlight was Valdemossa, where Chopin and George Sands spent a winter in a monastery, a fact which is exploited for all it is worth by the locals. We had long been puzzled by pictures showing two different pianos supposedly used by Chopin there – we were highly amused to find out that one was a borrowed one he was forced to use for almost all the time, his own one having been held up in Spanish Customs! Nothing changes . . . . According to Sands’ book a rotten time was had by all, but they had a lovely view from their “cell”.
There is a good marina there, not cheap but good value by European standards and a lot safer than being tied up to the sea wall, where boats were being cast off by happy ex-disco revellers as a late-night prank. Throughout Spain (as we had found in Central America) Norma’s excellent Spanish made a huge difference, but we were soon to lose this advantage.
We spent a while at Andraix, an excellent anchorage at the west end of Mallorca, waiting out weather. This was associated with northerly winds, although here they are called Mistrals. Every wind has its own name in the Mediterranean, giving it supernatural overtones and wrapping it in folklore, but we preferred to rely on the basic physics of the weather – not that it makes forecasting any easier in these waters! By this time, we were sick of the constant cold wind, and headed south and east rather than visit Menorca, as planned. We were sorry about that, because it looked good in the cruising guides.
And so we sailed to Cagliari, at the southern end of Sardinia. There we faced the need for Italian paperwork including insurance. Third party insurance is mandatory in Italy – we are not insured at all, but secured the legal minimum requirements up the street at half the rate we were quoted in London.
From a tiny deserted harbour nearby we did a little walking into the foothills, and regretted that we could not do more exploring of the mountains of the south – wild and woolly would be a clichéd but apt description. The north end of Sardinia is meant to be lovely, but we were still chasing the sun and pressed on south-east to Sicily.
We couldn’t lay the north-west corner of Sicily, so diverted to the tiny island of Ustica, which some believe to have been the real “bag of winds” island of Ulysses. In the Odyssey it is described as hanging suspended in the air, and amazingly that’s just how it did look, looming rockily green out of a veil of sea mist. The harbour was minute, and the taciturn fishermen not all that keen on effete foreign yachts taking up space, so south we sailed on to Palermo.
Palermo was once the crossroads of western civilisation, but it is now a dreadful demonstration of what things could be like if that civilisation fails: streets seething with anarchic traffic and piled with rotting garbage, the city’s gorgeous baroque buildings in sad decay, black and peeling, wooden shutters drunkenly askew over blind blank windows.
The Sicilians fulfil every stereotype, even to the worship of the dead. We visited some extraordinary catacombs, where until quite recently – less than 100 years ago – people were deposited in underground galleries and propped upright fully dressed in their best clothes, their bodies having been desiccated by drying out on a sort of king-sized barbecue. Some of the more recent had been embalmed as well, and looked – well, not alive, but not really dead either, if you get my meaning. Children there were too, some in their own part of the catacombs, and some as part of whole family groups – mum, dad and the kids, all propped up there for ever, dressed for a day on the town. We spent time with the priest in charge, and were very interested to learn that he had been an Italian soldier in WW2 who was transported to a prison camp in Australia.
Through the Straits of Messina we were back into Odyssey mode, reading aloud about the terrors of Scylla and Charybdis as we warily skirted the vast and undoubtedly impressive whirlpools. Ashore, we were getting on fine with the country, but were getting tired of the cramped and dirty fishing harbours there is no way of avoiding. By the time we reached the heel of Italy we were noting that there was still time to turn back and head for the Caribbean that season! But we had never quit so far, and things did look up markedly in the Adriatic. For one thing, the weather got a lot warmer at last; and, for another, Yugoslavia turned out to offer really lovely cruising. We hadn’t seen decent anchorages for so long, and we had practically forgotten what it was like to swing peacefully to our own hook. There are hundreds of good places along the Yugoslav coast, many off completely deserted shores or very attractive and unspoilt little towns. But we had to move quickly north, hoping to reach Venice before the worst of the tourist rush.
Venice fulfilled all our expectations. We were there for three weeks, one at three different moorings, and the other two just wandering round the lagoon, where we found anchorages – still with the city on the skyline – which we would swear were among the most peaceful in Europe! Initially, we spent a night at the marina right across from St Mark’s Square, a dreamlike position, but it was being refurbished so we were kicked out the next morning. We then spent two nights at the public (free!) mooring piles nearby, right under the beautiful church of the Santa Maria della Salute, again with a staggering close view of the city, but the position is essentially untenable in the washes kicked up by the very heavy water traffic. So we moved down to a very quiet yacht club marina at the east end of the main island for a few days.
We took in all the sights, walked Venice from end to end and generally revelled in the place. We enjoyed plenty of music, of course, although in typically shambolic Italian fashion it was hard to find out what was happening in advance and make sensible plans. But we did hear Vivaldi played in Venice, though not in “his church” (as it is known for tourist purposes), the Pieta. And lots of other early music too, including a lovely concert of a capella music (at the Pieta) by a group from Cambridge University. From our various anchorages in the dreamy outer lagoon we visited the other inhabited islands, often taking the dinghy into the canals for shopping at canal-side shops. All in all, this visit was a wonderful experience, one that truly made the summer for us.
The Yugoslav coast we took a lot slower going down, and the anchorages were just as good – but this time very crowded, as the European holiday season was by that time at its peak. The standard of anchoring was as poor as we have ever seen, and in one Bora (a violent katabatic nor-easter which falls off the Yugoslav mountains) no less than five boats dragged on to us as we held firm. We had to slip our (and their) anchor lines to separate the mass of boats, but were able to recover our anchor and chain the next day. We were terribly edgy after that, standing on the foredeck glaring every time a new boat hovered anywhere near us.
Near the southern extremity of Yugoslavia, in the region of Montenegro, we sailed into a markedly more peaceful and extraordinarily beautiful inland sea, the Gulf of Kotor. It had been a military base and was only recently opened to yachts. We hired a car for a day and drove up into the mountains overlooking the gulf, and from which we could just see the border with the still-closed country of Albania.
Sailing south from Yugoslavia all vessels have to stand at least 20 miles off the Albanian coast because of the risk of mines, would you believe! (Shades of Nicaragua, which we had to hold well off in 1983, while the CIA were mining the harbours there). A young German couple we got friendly with, with not a lot of experience, were so worried about this they made an unexpected landfall on the coast of Italy!
Our own landfall, with rather better navigation, was Corfu. We were not very impressed. We found the town to be an interesting and sad contrast to Palma de Mallorca – equally popular with British tourists, but which had been allowed to fall into a seedy shadow of its former glory. However, the green (read, wet in winter) Ionian islands were pleasant, not essentially dissimilar to the Yugoslav coast, and with plenty of deserted anchorages. Things were getting a lot quieter by this time.
From the Ionian Sea to the Aegean we cruised the Gulf of Corinth, which has some charming spots – the villagers there still tread their own grapes by foot – and traversed the Corinth Canal. This cost us about three times as much as the Panama Canal, but is only three miles long. Yachts simply motor though in convoy, with no locks or assistance.
Once in the Saronic Gulf we started to look at potential wintering spots. Most were full by that time or too exposed, and we were getting pretty gloomy about prospects until we came to the harbour where we came to lie, Porto Heli. It is a largish bay, but landlocked, and without the surrounding high hills which make for such gusty conditions in much of the Med. The holding is superb, and there are moorings as well for those that want them. Several boats are left here during the winter, and many are lifted out by crane and stored ashore. A young German looks after the mooring/storage business, and there are one or two other English-speakers. There is little interaction with the local Greek people. As others warned us, we found them not easy to get on with – a gloomy race, we think, slow to smile, much concerned with “face”.
All visitors to Greece seem to fall either into the group who would, or those who wouldn’t, want to return. Among the first have been some of the world’s finest writers – Durrell, Miller, Byron – and it is perhaps the works of these famous Hellenophiles that have raised the expectations of newcomers to unrealistic levels. Our own expectations were never fulfilled, which I readily concede could be our “fault”. We found places that were pretty enough – but not the slices of paradise described by Miller. We came across some pleasant people – but not the paragons of outgoing friendliness and courtesy described by Durrell. We didn’t think much of the food, and the cheaper wines are among the worst in the Mediterranean basin.
It is possible that our perceptions have been shaded by the fact that we have been practically the whole time in the Peloponnese and the islands of the southern Aegean, with only the odd quick trip to the city of Athens. All these southern areas were originally populated by the warlike Dorians, whose chief descendants were the Spartans. Temperamentally totally different to the Athenian Greeks, the Spartans have of course spent much of Greek history at war with the northerners, and in Porto Heli we heard much disparaging comment about “those Athenians”.
Historically aloof, inhospitable and paranoid, the Spartans sound to have been a disciplined but unattractive people, and we thought we recognised many of these features in their 20th century descendants! In Porto Heli, mature women rarely appeared out of their houses, where they are visited by cruising trucks carrying fruit, vegetables and other produce. The harbour-side stroll, so much a feature of Mediterranean life, is a men-only affair. During one of the rare dinners ashore in the only taverna which stayed open all winter, I counted about 25 young Greek men – but only two young women. Boarding a bus, any mature Greek man would resolutely shoulder aside any foreigners or women who might have been waiting there before him. Durrell claims in his book on the Greek islands that the Greeks were the first civilisation to recognize the rights of women, which is a classic example of idealization; in fact, throughout history Greek women have been regarded as citizens only for the purpose of procreation. Greek aspirations, it seems to me, died with Alexander the Great, and the frowning countenances of the southerners reflect gloomy memories of glories long gone.
I was delighted to find that the word “laconic” is derived from the Spartans’ main district, Laconia! The strongest impression we gained from the locals in Porto Heli, where we were the only boat to be lived on all winter, was that they didn’t care whether we were there or not. Which is their prerogative, of course, and suited us well enough – all we wanted was peace and quiet, and that we got.
As we hunker down for the winter we review what we thought of sailing in the Mediterranean so far. Our experiences have been mixed. The actual sailing is mostly unrewarding; the old saw, there’s always too little wind or too much, is right. We’ve had some pleasant afternoon drifts, but nothing lasts for more than an hour or two. The flotilla charterers have their fun in the sea breeze, but their schedules wisely never take them far in a day. There is never a real swell, just a rotten little chop that kicks up in any breeze and hangs on through the next morning’s calm.
Ashore, with the starry exception of Venice and the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia and Greece, we have also had some disappointments. Part of the problem is probably that, rather surprising as it may seem, the people of the Mediterranean basin are not that keen on the sea. (Again, review Ulysses!) The main aim of fishermen in Greece and southern Italy is to make enough money to move ashore for good. Culturally, therefore, we missed the pleasures to be found inland, rather than along the coast, in these ancient empires.
The Aegean Sea
In the superb protection of land-locked Porto Heli we lay at anchor for the whole winter of 1987-88. While there, along with short trips to the UK, I wrote another book for the BMA, heartened by the news that the book of the previous winter (Living With Risk) had won a supposedly prestigious science book prize in Britain.
We left Porto Heli at the beginning of May 1988. We spent a few weeks moving through the Cyclades islands in the Aegean, and were surprised at how barren they were. It was hard for us to see why they have attracted such a devoted following over the years. Some of the harbours and anchorages are good, and there are some attractive little whitewashed villages in most of the foothills. But provisioning and water supplies are constant problems, and we never saw really pretty or dramatic scenery. Lots of rocks and thorns, though.
We found the island people easier to deal with than those on the mainland, but still unforthcoming unless pressed. Except on the tourist islands, the people tend to be either very young or old – the others are off making money in Athens, Germany, the USA or Australia.
The islands differed one from the other more than we had expected. Practically within sight of each other might be one island packed with young tourists and discos and another with nothing but a simple hamlet and no hotels at all. All the islands were bleak, barren and stony, extremely hard going to walk over, although we gave it a good shot on some. I could never describe them as beautiful in the normal sense, although some of the villages had charm, spilling their cubical white dwellings over craggy outcrops like sugar on a rock cake. The classic “touristy” picture is of snow-white (read, glaring in the sun) houses and churches, steep paved alleys, bunches of flowers, and windmills. These spectacular features are all there, but such views are pastiches that cut out the context, which is rugged, dry, and grey.
Our final island in the Cyclades was a big one, Kos, the birthplace of Hippocrates. We unfolded the bikes, fixed the inevitable puncture, and cycled up to the Asklepion, the place of healing, built by and for his disciples (long after his death). We also duly viewed the tree under which it is said that the great man taught, propped up now by a complex of stone struts, but it is about 800 years too young to have been there at the time. From there, cleared out by a surly Customs and Immigration official who made his disapproval very plain, we sailed to Turkey.
Turkey and Greece nearly came to war over seabed rights in the Aegean only last year (1987), the latest round in a series of disputes which – given changing names for the regions – has gone on for thousands of years. The premiers of Greece and Turkey met together very recently; urged for comment by an optimistic press, Ozal pointed out that anyone who hoped for much progress out of one meeting had little understanding of history. It is strange: here we are in south-west Turkey, Muslim (though a “secular” state) and with an Asian feel, yet the ruins we dutifully trot round are of Greek and Roman settlements, the whole Aegean coast having been “Greek” (although often under non-Greek rule) for nearly 3,000 years.
For example, for a while we were anchored in the harbour of what was in ancient times Knidos, one of the capital cities of the ancient world, and (with Kos) one of the two main centres for the healing arts. There is nothing here now but acres of ruins scattered over the rocky hillsides (plus a tiny restaurant and lots of visiting yachts and cruise boats in the windswept harbour), and there is an all-pervading sense of the passage of civilization after civilization, as the limited excavations have uncovered layer on layer of building upon building, temple upon temple.
The people of the area, however, are firmly “Turkish” (from Lydia and Anatolia, taken over by the Persians before Xerxes was surprisingly thumped by the Greeks). Any remaining Greeks were “exchanged” by Ataturk in the twenties, although there are a few ghost towns which the Turks never took over. It is a great relief to see women dressed brightly, rather than in the black which is so typically Mediterranean. They wear patterned blouses and dresses over coloured baggy pants, with white headscarves, and are out and about, working in the fields and with the animals. We have been a long way off the tourist beat – indeed, Turkey as a whole is only now discovering tourism as an industry. We have found the local people to be charming. They look you in the eye, head up, and always with a spoken greeting, very cheerful and outgoing.
We found some lovely areas for cruising, with many (though often terribly deep) good anchorages. Provisioning was, as in Yugoslavia the previous year, better than we had been led to believe, and water was no problem at all. In many bays it is possible to tie bow-to to a tree, and take water directly on to the boat via a hose connected to a pipe which runs constantly, fed from springs high in the hills. The wine was pretty awful, though.
The cost of living, on foreign currency, we found to be very low; it is the only country we have been to where Norma concedes that it is possible to eat out for no more than it would cost on board. And the food is excellent, a mixture of European and Asian (like Turkey as a whole).
The coastal towns we have visited have been small ones, not particularly attractive and no attempt has been made to make them so. The villages we have come across on our walks inland have been exceedingly simple places, but clean in comparison with the third world (if that comparison is fair). The countryside around most of this south-west coast is mostly tree-covered, mountainous, lush and green; being on a windward coast, it rains a lot in the winter, and water is no problem.
The main problem with Turkey is that now it is being discovered. Cruising boats are deserting Greek waters in hordes. There are hundreds of charter boats now sailing in Turkey, many in flotillas that are not too much of a threat because they are supervised by (mostly) competent leaders. However, there are also hundreds of chartered bareboats, which can be truly dangerous, because the anchoring conditions are often very tricky – deep, weedy, gusty winds and so on. On top of that, there are hundreds (again) of big local motorsailors, “gulets” (dubbed “goolies” by Norma), very attractive locally-built wooden boats, out for charter. There are over 300 operating out of Bodrum alone, and a much bigger fleet out of Marmaris.
Anchored in the enclosed harbour of Bodrum we rented a car and took it on an engrossing circuit of Anatolia and up to Istanbul, including every ancient pile of rock on the western seaboard. Because the entire west coast was at various times part of the Persian, Greek and Roman empires, there is a feast of fun and entertainment for amateur ruinologists. The most outstanding site is of course Ephesus, where there has been substantial reconstruction of the more important of the ruined buildings. The most famous one is the library, with its glorious facade; we got there early to beat the tourist rush, and had it to ourselves in the magic of the golden early morning sun, which it was built to catch. Although later in the day Ephesus was thronged with tourists, most of the other sites were very quiet, full of atmosphere and romance.
We did the virtually obligatory trip to the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. Around Anzac Cove and in the hills for half a mile or so around – as far as the doomed assault force got – there are memorials and countless gravestones. It is all very quiet, with typically a few Australians picking their way through the scrub to places with names like “Scotty’s Mount”, and the atmosphere is ghost-ridden. The most incredible thing to us was the manifest unsuitability of the landing area at Anzac Cove itself. The beach is narrow – just 5 or 10 metres across – backed by steep dunes, then there is a short stretch of scrubby plain before the foothills rise steeply to an escarpment. Up there, the Turkish machine-gunners had a superb field of fire, and the resulting slaughter was inevitable. We have never felt so moved by a memorial (the area is a park, now) or more angry at the pointlessness of it all.
And so on to Istanbul, with its seething traffic, noise, crowding, and manifest city ills. Again, we saw most of the recognized sights, including the Blue Mosque (big, but we have seen much more attractive mosques on a smaller scale) and the Saint Sophia basilica/mosque, now a museum. But for us easily the most memorable complex of buildings was Topkapi, the palace of the Ottoman sultans for hundreds of years, and now a collection of museums. They have beautifully restored part of the enormous labyrinth of the harem, centre of court intrigue, and in another part of the palace Norma was especially fascinated by the kitchen buildings. The pots they used were so enormous that she couldn’t even lift the lids of most of them. In the Treasury there is a display of some of the fabulous jewels of the Ottoman empire, said to rival the Crown Jewels in beauty and value. Well, I don’t know about that, but there were so many egg-sized diamonds and much solid gold to be seen that it was easy to become very ho-hum about yet another slab of magnificence. It is an important place in the world of Islam, and Norma received a dirty glare from some Moslem pilgrims when an irrepressible giggle escaped her on being confronted by a hair of the beard of the Prophet.
Like every other tourist we walked around the famous covered market, but in the central part we found the constant hassling from the stall-holders and shop-keepers very trying, especially those selling carpets. “Carpet touts” are pretty pushy all over Turkey (outside Istanbul, the Turks as a whole are not pushy at all), but in that city they are a real pain in the neck. The trouble is, when a pleasant-looking young man comes and offers help or information you have no idea whether he is being friendly or just trying to sell carpets, souvenirs, or in some cases restaurant meals. We found the best policy was to ignore their entreaties totally, but that’s a bit hard when they are standing in front of you and blocking your way! I lost my temper with a restaurant owner who wanted us to try his fish, wouldn’t take no for an answer and started cross-questioning us as to why we wouldn’t come in, and I shouted at him to leave us alone, not like me at all!
But off the tourist beat the locals were as nice as ever, and where the Turks do their trading in the outer reaches of the enormous market area we were not troubled at all. There is no room in the narrow alleys for even small carts, and most of the heavy wares are carried on the stooped-over backs of specialist porters, who use a sort of cradle strapped to their backs and carry incredible loads, way over 100 kilograms. Many of these men are quite old, with white beards, with a Semitic appearance; this has been a traditional occupation for these people for centuries. Heaven knows what it does to their spines in the long term, although one travel book we read said that no harm results. Personally I doubt it!
We drove on up to have a look at the Black Sea coast, which was surprisingly lovely: green, rolling hillsides, colourful fields, looking very much like the Sussex downs. Then south on to the inland route, climbing through attractive hills to plateau country, with miles and miles of wheat fields. It was harvest time, much of it being done in the traditional manner with scythes and winnowing by hand. Farming is, we observed, very labour-intensive in Turkey; it is not unusual to see one person looking after a single cow as it grazes, and common to see small herds of cows, sheep or goats being led around on strings. The people of the countryside are poor in the sense that they have no money, but they certainly have plenty to eat. Their houses are very simple, mostly wooden dwellings or a mixture of wood and mud brick.
We mostly stayed in small hotels and pensions, all very cheap by European standards, with cleanliness ranging from good to awful. We ate out constantly, on food which was never less than enjoyable and often excellent. Despite also eating from roadside vendor stalls (lunch, on one occasion, was lamb barbecued in strips of innards and cut up into half a loaf of fresh bread – lovely!), we never suffered from any stomach problems. Moslem traditions make for the very clean handling of food.
Turkey would probably justify a whole season on its own, and indeed we regretted not having more seriously considered spending the previous winter there. Fethiye, with its complex of bays, good anchorages and a spellbinding backdrop of cliffs and caves, is very popular in that regard. However, we had to leave after only eight weeks, which included the car trip and also hauling and bottom-painting the boat (in incredible heat) at a yard near Bodrum. We were conscious of a certain ennui – we had had more than enough of sailing in the Mediterranean sea and felt a strong pull west to distant shores, to decent sailing and decent anchorages, fishing, and all the other good maritime things. Also, July and August are no months to sail in the Aegean. The Meltemi, a steady N-NW wind, blows day in and day out at 20 to 35 knots, gusting violently through the anchorages and blowing red dust off the scorched hillsides.
We cleared out from Bodrum, with the usual visits to every conceivable local official, and sailed west, back across the southern Aegean. Faced by headwinds as we approached the southern tip of mainland Greece we called in to a deserted bay – Port Khaio – for a few days, but thereafter “sailed” (that is, motored about half the time) to Malta nonstop. Some of the restrictions on cruising around the Maltese islands have been relaxed, and because the group is such an obvious stopping place en route from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, many more yachts are calling.
We arrived off Valletta Harbour during the morning of July 27, 1988. Having been warned that it was a requirement to do so, we called Valletta Port Control on Channel 12 advising our approach; overseen by supreme bureaucrats, every movement by a yacht inside and in the vicinity of the harbour had to be so advised, although the number of vessels using the port is clearly a small fraction of what it was in the past.
The approach to the harbour, and the entrance, is exceedingly spectacular, because we were overlooked from all sides by forts of every shape and size. It is easily the most highly fortified place we have ever seen. The buildings are all in the same shade of stone, which adds to the impression that the whole of Valletta and the surrounding districts make up one big castle.
Valletta was an interesting city, but exceedingly crowded with tourists, all of whom, like us, looked as though they were suffering from the oppressive heat and would rather be at the beach! There are some lovely old buildings, most of them having had to be rebuilt after the war. But the island itself is just a giant rock pile. Further, it has been extensively quarried for its yellowish stone – “Malta” comes from the old word for honey, melita – and the climate and the absence of topsoil prevents anything of any significance growing. In mid-summer, it looks as though a blowtorch has been waved over it, and there is very little livestock to be seen. Even the goats would find little to eat! The crowding is incredible. Throughout the barren landscape are scattered countless quite large towns, looking from a distance a bit like bunches of bigger versions of the stones which are everywhere, and all marked by a prominent church. This is a very Catholic country, and the population is growing fast. As it is, we have no idea how the island supports itself.
For 16 years after independence Malta had a hard-left government more interested in contacts with nations such as Libya than with the west. A change in government has brought about a change in attitude towards tourists, including those arriving on yachts, and the foreign exchange they bring with them. Malta is a overpopulated island, and the tourist industry it is hoped will bring jobs to those who might hitherto have never been assured of work in Valletta’s enormous harbour and dockyard facilities.
As far as yachts are concerned, there is evidence of a change in attitude – no longer are their owners necessarily seen as capitalist warmongers – but the warming of approach had not filtered down to some of the many officials with whom relationships have to be established. Also, facilities for short-term cruising yachts leave a great deal to be desired.
The first problem was what to do when we arrived, made worse by the fact that it was a Sunday. All space adjacent to a prominent sign reading “Guest Berth” was full up, it turned out later with locally-owned boats permanently kept there. The harbour office is shut at the weekends, and even during the week we never heard the office respond to calls from arriving yachts for advice on where to go. We rafted alongside a Canadian boat at the east end of the dock, and when he left the next day, we moved in to his space.
Come Monday, and the berthing master – the only functionary able to allocate berths, and often away from his office on other duties – told us to stay put where we were.
It became clear the “Guest berth” sign meant nothing in practice: the entire wharf frontage (laughingly called a marina) on the south side of Manoel Island is used by short-term and long-term yachts alike, with the latter having to take the chance that the vacant space he pulls in to will not soon be claimed by its permanent or semipermanent user. Some yachts, accordingly, found themselves being reallocated new berths and having to move almost daily, although this fate did not befall us.
Having to move complicated the already rather painful situation in regard to water and electricity. Again, only one man had sufficient authority to make decisions on who was to be connected to what and when; only available in the mornings, many people found this employee of the municipal authorities a somewhat abrasive character.
The reasons for visiting Malta include seeing the extraordinary fortification of this rocky but strategic group of islands, replenishing stores, and getting things done to and for the yacht. The chandleries are generally well stocked, and the Manoel Island yacht yard able to carry out most repairs. We took an enjoyable ferry ride to the nearby island of Gozo, to see yet more honey-coloured ruins. But in the end, we were not sorry to move on.
From Malta we continued due west to Tunisia. This is a country which is usually missed out by circumnavigators, because for most people it is off the track for a one-way transit of the Mediterranean. East-west (or vice versa) passage-makers stick understandably to the popular shores of the countries of the northern Mediterranean, tracking (as we had done) through the Straits of Messina and the fishing harbours of Italy. This could explain why during our cruise of Tunisian waters, the overwhelming majority of boats hailed from Italian or French ports. We hardly saw any English speakers at all.
But the country is trying hard to attract yachts (and other tourists) to its shores. After several weeks there, our conclusion was that the country is well worth a visit, especially if your tastes run to exotica. But how much you’ll enjoy the actual cruising depends a lot on what you like to do. Among the well contented will be those who like marinas and Mediterranean-style fishing ports, and who are prepared (and prosperous enough) to leave the boat for extended travelling inland. Those who enjoy dropping anchor in peaceful and protected coves will need to find satisfaction elsewhere or in other ways.
We entered Tunisia at Monastir, about half way down the eastern coast of the country, where a set of little islands have been connected by a sea wall in order to enclose a brand new marina. The main obstacle on the approach, and one which is to be found at many places round this coast during the summer, is the tuna netting which extends miles off shore, marked by a large buoy but still hard to see against the setting sun.
Formalities were about par for the course in the eastern Mediterranean, with forms having to be completed for the port captain, port police, immigration authorities and Customs, but the officials were cheerfully friendly and keen to help. They had been worked off their black-soled boots that particular afternoon, as we arrived just after a gang of yachts which had raced from Palermo. All the formalities were conducted in offices or on the wharf, not aboard the boat.
Daily, we took the short walk up to the town of Monastir, past an impressive sandstone fortified monastery, or “ribat”. It is a popular place to make movies. Hard by the ribat is an ugly square box of a building, looking like an aircraft hanger: a peek inside revealed a full-scale mock-up of a Roman temple! The other buildings in the area may or may not be original – it is now very hard to say!
Provisioning in the town is adequate, and nowhere we shopped in the country did we fail to obtain adequate provisions. There is a market, very dependent on what’s growing and going in the countryside: not a lot, in mid-August, when we were there. But basics like potatoes, tomatoes (very ripe ones), onions and pumpkins were all abundant, along with some rather tired lettuce and local spinach. There was no pig meat to be had, of course, in this Moslem country, but chickens and their eggs are massively popular and low-priced, as is excellent goat meat, plus lamb and beef. Typically for the Med, all meat is very fresh, and can be tough unless the cook is familiar with its preparation.
Eating out, Tunisian food is spicy, with lots of chili. The staple is couscous, various stews with semolina, and the snacks freshly cooked by roadside vendors are generally excellent. On the tourist beat, however, the food is bland, even the so-called local dishes; at the more expensive restaurants, the cooking is based on French cuisine.
We had always planned to do some touring round this country, particularly of the south. We looked into hiring a car, but it would have been very expensive and we weren’t at all sure about hotels and the like, so for the first time in our lives we booked a bus tour, for two days away and one night in a hotel, meals and all included.
Among the main “sights” of the tour were the several Roman sites in Tunisia, and because of the lack of earthquakes many of them are in very good condition, having been more damaged in various wars than by natural forces. On the second day we saw a ruined city with an exceptional forum, which was the main square and meeting place, with three magnificent temples in superb condition (for ruins).
On the way the bus regularly stopped at the bigger towns, where we sampled the local delicacies from the roadside vendors. At various times we had: a doughnut filled with hardboiled egg and salad, with chili sauce; french bread stuffed with fish, potatoes and chili; and a thing called “brik a l’oeuf“, apparently unique (it’s in none of Norma’s many books) and absolutely delicious. It is a thin pancake, crisply deep fried, wrapped round a spicy salad and a whole egg which is broken into it and cooks inside – Norma had no idea how or why the egg doesn’t run out first, and had to try making her own later. Things like that were far more tasty than the bland stuff they turn on for bus tours (like ours) at the restaurants and hotels.
A major target on the first day of the trip was a village called Matmata, which like others in the sunbaked area is mostly comprised of underground dwellings which the people have dug out in the sandstone of the hills in order to get away from the summer heat and the winter cold. We had lunch in one such place, now converted into a hotel. We went in down a tunnel, which took us to a central pit, open to the sky. Off this large hole in the ground led more tunnels and cave-like rooms. From a distance, the landscape looks pitted with craters, which are the tops of these central excavations; a few years ago that’s all there was to be seen, but the seething tourist activity at Matmata, and the money this has brought, has led to the building of several above-ground houses, which sort of spoils the effect.
Also, like most “houses” in the south (and in the tradition of Islam), these are ugly, dumpy structures, like blockhouses which haven’t even been finished properly. Centuries ago, all these people lived in tents. Many, the Bedouins, still do – but those who have moved into more solid homes have made no effort to make them attractive in any way.
As intended, we did see a lot of desert! Probably the most impressive was an enormous, dry, salt lake, flat and brown as far as the horizon in all directions, almost like being at sea, except that mirages shimmered in the direction of the sun. Not even Bedouins or their camels could survive out there. On the edge of this expanse are two big collections of oases, attractive hordes of palm trees under the shade of which other plants are cultivated, such as potatoes, chilis, okra and so on. Water springs from underground, and in this arid country it is strange to hear its sound as it is channelled from place to place by a system of ditches and sluice gates.
Being on a bus trip, by definition we were on the tourist beat; but even so, as we walked (usually on our own, as the other passengers went on organised little excursions on camels and horsedrawn carriages) round the markets and back streets of the towns and villages we were able to get a bit of a feel for the way of life in the near-desert. The villagers live a basic existence, to say the least, in their simple houses – we could see very little furniture, and most people seemed to sleep outside on mats and blankets. The village houses are often grouped into little squares, presumably containing families, with a central courtyard and surrounded by a blank and forbidding wall.
The local people seemed friendly enough, and the children all waved and said “bonjour” (French is the second language here). But the older women are all heavily veiled, although this is no longer compulsory, and turn their heads away if you look at them. The guide insisted that in Tunisia huge steps have been taken towards female emancipation, but from my reading of the history of Islam, it will take more than a few government decrees to change attitudes ingrained over centuries. All in all, we were pleased we did this trip, as we could not have got near the Sahara at reasonable cost otherwise, but it will be some time before we take another bus tour! We got taken only to the more “touristy” places, got fed some pretty terrible meals, and had to put up with some heavy smokers in the bus.
From Monastir we sailed the few miles past Sousse, a huge commercial harbour, to Port El Kantoui, the first of the marinas built as one of a series of planned tourist developments. It has a long way to go before being finished, as we found when touching bottom about half-way into the basin, groping around looking for a berth in what had become a screaming afternoon sou-easter, which as it happen blows straight in the entrance. The El Kantaoui development, Tunisia’s answer to Spain’s Puerto Banus, is nicely done, with attractive buildings of a reasonable height, not overwhelming. It is, of course, entirely artificial: typical Tunisia, it is not! Surprisingly, we found it quieter than Monastir, perhaps because the comparatively up-market and established restaurants did not find it necessary to blare loud music from outside speakers in order to attract customers. There is no local town, and a ride into the port of Sousse is required to see anything of the real world or buy stores which include anything much in the way of fresh produce.
From El Kantaoui we sailed north to the port of Kelibia, which had been well spoken of by the few we had met who had been there: quiet and friendly, they said. Well, August is no time to be cruising anywhere in the Mediterranean, so it was probably not surprising that the wharf newly set aside for the use of yachts was crammed, with a crazy mixture of stern-to mooring, the great Med raft-up alongside, and long lines cobwebbed to an adjacent wharf. A typically European situation, we thought, but not one which made for peaceful days and nights.
There is a village with basics just up the way, and a bigger town a couple of miles further. The local people come to the port for the evening walkabout, whole families, and a row of stalls caters for their snack needs including our favourite, the brik a l’oeuf. A favourite game in Kelibia is moving the boats around, and when we found one morning that we would have to move because a ferry was coming, we decided at short notice to sail to Sidi Bou Said, in the Bay of Tunis, around Cape Bon.
Sidi Bou Said is the place to be seen in Tunisia, we were told. On the top of the hill behind the marina is an enchanting little Moorish village, all white with blue trim, now a centre for tourist-oriented crafts and a target for bus tours. Beyond this “old” part is a new town with the usual supply of stores and an idiosyncratic approach to the selling of liquor. Hard spirits and expensive wine can be obtained at any time, but ordinary wine and beer can only be bought from a tucked-away shop after four in the afternoon. We were conscious, not for the first time in the country, that ex-President Bourguiba’s efforts to ease the strictures of Islam have met with patchy acceptance over the years.
We did a day trip into the city of Tunis from here. It was a Sunday, which is a weekend holiday day, so despite this being a Moslem country most of the shops were shut. But that didn’t matter, we weren’t there for the shopping, and we had a much more relaxed wander through the market areas than usual because most of the stalls and little shops were closed up and we were free from the incessant hassling which normally accompanies a stroll through these areas. And we could see the decorated arches of the souks (the covered market areas), with pretty painted decorations – and masses of horrifically exposed electrical wiring! These people, like so many in the Third World, live dangerous lives by western standards!
The main target of this trip was the national museum of Tunisia, the Bardo, which is famous for its collection of mosaics from the many Roman ruins in the country. To get there we had first to find the bus station and establish which was the correct bus; having done this, we joined the vague mob of people waiting for the same bus. When it arrived, we were involved in the most extraordinarily vicious scramble to get on, during which I felt wriggling fingers exploring a pocket in which I had some money. I slapped that hand down, and as it turned out there was plenty of room on the bus anyway! We have since learnt that this unseemly scramble is normal. They can keep it.
The Bardo was well worth the visit. It is an old palace, with masses of Islamic decoration almost worthy of the Alhambra, and the Roman mosaics were staggering, among the most interesting being those that depicted all aspects of Roman life. The mosaics are exceptionally good in this country because wherever else the Romans settled they painted the walls of their houses; here, they used mosaics for all their decoration, walls and floors.
We left early one morning for what turned out to be a tough sail against the common north-west wind, not assisted by the current swirling around Cape Farina, finally reaching the harbour at Bizerta late that evening. We anchored in the spacious reaches of the outer harbour, despite the entreaties – and, within a few minutes, the apoplectic waving – of a fat man in an amateur admiral’s hat, standing at the end of the wharf of the Club Nautique. Having for so long looked forward to lying once more to our own anchor, we were glad to hear from a German boat already doing so that to stay where we were would be “no problem”.
Bizerta is a fine town for taking on provisions, the main reason we were there at all. All stores are available within an easy walk of the harbour beach, and the market, Norma found, was an exceptionally good one. The fish were of a size and quality we had not seen since the markets of Spain and Portugal, and the meat we bought there was among the best we had sampled in the Mediterranean. It was a bit of a shock to our sensitive souls, however, to have a chicken killed and plucked before our very eyes, especially as we had asked – wholly illogically – for one of the dead ones on the counter.
We had been intending to leave Tunisia from Bizerta, but a prolonged period of westerly winds set in which would have meant an awful passage – the Mediterranean Sea being what it is – to our next destination, Gibraltar. One day, it seemed that we had the change were waiting for; but once on our way, the weatherfax map showed a new set of fronts approaching, and so we called unexpectedly into the “last” port in Tunisia, Tabarka, only five miles or so from the border with Algeria.
During that day we had sailed along the north coast of Tunisia, which is very pretty indeed: green and wooded hills, with golden sandy beaches between bunches of rocky cliffs. All completely deserted, as far as we could see. The approach to Tabarka was attractive, too, with a Genoese fort set high on a little island which forms part of the protection for the harbour. We arrived to this unscheduled port late in the evening, and although tired and hungry we then had to go through the runaround with the officials, particularly bureaucratic here, perhaps because of the proximity to the border with Algeria. But, as usual, they were pleasant enough as individuals.
Tabarka is quite an isolated place, very “Tunisian”, which tends to mean block-like houses, rubbish strewn everywhere, and smells of all kinds. (Especially in the harbour, as it happened, into which the town sewer runs, although they were in the process of diverting it – to a nearby beach). Sure enough, the westerlies set in again, blowing red dust all over us, and Norma continued to battle with the problem of keeping the boat stocked with enough for a week or ten days at sea, with daily doubt as to when we would actually be going!
In these more isolated, non-touristy areas the Moslem faith is stronger, and I had my own battle getting some wine and beer, drinking which the faith officially forbids. These beverages are only sold from an unmarked hideaway in a back street, for just about an hour a day, and there was an indescribable scrum of the most scruffy and villainous-looking Arabs fighting to get service at the tiny counter before the booze ran out. Wine was pretty awful rosé, with no choice. The problem was to get my hands on any of it at all, and I used my elbows and feet to keep my place in what we would laughingly call a queue. The local men surreptitiously stuffed their purchases into zipper bags or under their other shopping, and I saw one fellow stick a whole lot of bottles of beer into the waistband of his trousers. I felt as if I was buying bootleg liquor during Prohibition!
The people in these northern regions are mostly Berbers, generally pale skinned, and in Tabarka the women were dressed in very colourful patterned clothes, often interwoven with gold and silver threads, and very few were wearing the white shrouds and veil which are so common further south. They also sell carved animals at the handicraft stalls at the market – elsewhere in the Moslem world any depiction of the human or animal form is strictly forbidden.
We left the shores of Tunisia, most interesting and mainly enjoyable as the country had been, conscious that the cruising offered was not the cruising we most enjoy. “Anchorages” are mostly good for lunch stops only, although there are some holes in the sandy and tidal southern part of the coastline where shoal-draft yachts could find all-round protection. The all-pervading presence of armed officialdom made us uneasy, and the paperwork required when entering each and every port was a pain. Those who, unlike us, enjoy being parked in crowded full-service marinas which could really be anywhere in the world, will have a much better time than we did.
Leaving the Mediterranean
The prevailing wind along the north coast of Africa is an easterly, driven by the Saharan low, and after the persistent frontal westerlies had finally ceased we had a good sail for the 700 miles or so to Gibraltar. The only problems were hordes of ships and, as we approached the Rock, lots of floating rubbish and then solid fog!
Gibraltar is still a good place to stock up, and we loaded basic provisions to keep us for the best part of a year, because many things are very expensive – or impossible to get – in the Caribbean. It has taken us many years to be able to face up to big purchases, but when long-distance cruising the principle must be that when things you’ll eventually need are available at reasonable cost now, then buy lots of them now!
Again we were held up for a long time by persistently bad weather, one of the secrets of successful and happy cruising being the willingness to wait for good conditions. As it happened, this willingness led us to call unexpectedly into another Arab port, Tangier, in Morocco. This was a much more pleasant and cleaner place than we had expected, with many ornate buildings from old French colonial days, some open squares in the “new” town, and a maze-like walled old town (the “medina”, with the “casbah”). Many of the men were dressed in a sort of robe, like a monk’s habit, with a peaked hood, and the women’s clothes were very colourful, with some lovely long dresses in glossy fabrics. Big straw hats were common, and the women in from the country for the market had red-and-white striped skirts and white shawls. The hassle factor was surprisingly low.
A second year of cruising in the Mediterranean has not changed our opinion that sailing here is not always enjoyable, and we are pleased to be heading for distant horizons again. European countries and their people can be enchanting. But if we return for more travelling here, it will be in a camper van. As I write in the middle of October, we are sitting out a series of cold fronts, but plan to move soon to the Canary Islands. From there, as soon as prudent (the north Atlantic hurricane season is generally regarded as being over by about mid-November) we sail for Antigua, then down the Antilles to Venezuela. This will be all new ground for us and it will feel good to be back in the tropics.