|'Enterprise' Classic Yacht
tHE cRUISING lIFE
The Northern coast of Spain is where the high central plain changes into dramatic mountain ranges with green alpine valleys reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, before falling to the sea with impressive cliffs.
This coast consists of four autonomous regions Galicia, Asturius, Cantabria and Euskadi (The Basque Country) three of which still have their own languages in everyday use. Many people along this coast only have Spanish as a second language. Although briefly occupied these regions were never subdued by the Romans or the Moors and were the last areas to be subdued by Franco. Only in 2017 was the final agreement for ETA (the Basque terrorist group) to lay down their arms concluded.
So this was to be our cruising ground for 2012, starting from Hondarribia. While preparing the boat to go back in the water we had to stay somewhere and, as usual, we thought that we would plunge into the atmosphere by finding a really rural Basque lodging, which we booked in advance. At first approach our hearts sank.
But when we went around to the front things improved!
With the boat finally back in the water and having gorged ourselves on the superb local pinchos we set off. The complete log of our outward leg can be seen by following this link to Google Earth, Hondarribia to La Corruna make sure that you have the ‘temporary places’ box ticked and the files within it ticked when it is open. Clicking on the yellow push pins will open log entries. However, if you do not wish to do that here is the picture.
We explored the the coast and poked our nose into Pasajes harbour but our first stop was San Sebastian, the 'Cannes of Spain', situated on a beautiful bay with fabulous scenery. The 'beautiful people' come here for the annual film festival. The town itself is picturesque with old streets and fabulous pinchos in the bars. The marina was very small and crowed so we were forced to moor in the bay and take the dinghy ashore but it was well worth the effort.
From the above map it is clear that the continental shelf comes relatively close to the coast with underwater canyons reaching like fingers even closer. As deep water currents push up onto the shelf swells are caused which add to the effects of distant Atlantic storm generated swells. These are only of consequence when sailing broadside to them, which causes excessive rolling, on shelving bottoms, which often occurs on the approach channel to a harbour, and when crossing a bar. When choosing our destinations these last two effects were often dominant.
The next three ports were Getaria, Motrico and Bermeo. Former fishing ports built for donkey traffic and untouched by mass tourism, they are having to re-invent themselves. Since we were there a marina has been built in Motrico as part of this process. We were intrigued by these small Basque towns.
Then it was on to Bilbao; well actually Getxo, as Bilbao is inland, up an industrialised river that is in the process of renewal. There is a huge harbour with one of the outer walls submerged at high tide; a real trap for a skipper who does not do his homework. In its industrial heyday Bilbao was very wealthy as witnessed by its grand boulevards and magnificent mansions built out of town around the harbour.
Bilbao's genius in it's re-invention was to host the Guggenheim Museum with its fantastical architecture which has triggered growth of the metro system, a cruise liner dock and other modern architecture. Now the city feels dynamic and vibrant; a must see.
We spent a week here and explored some of the back country. It was full of surprises. World class architecture in the most surprising places.
This coastline and countryside was such a feast for the senses that we rather got stuck in Getxo and were reluctant to move on. But there is a darker side to this exuberant Europeanism, for every week there is a newspaper article revealing some new aspect of the Franco era. At this time they are still excavating mass graves to identify victims. Franco killed and enslaved people in a frenzy of retribution for years after the Civil War and it all received very little coverage by the outside world because of the Second World War and subsequent Cold War, (when Franco provided air bases for the Americans). Because there was a a peaceful transition to a monarchy after his death there was no cathartic cleansing of state institutions. The re-established monarchy had to appease the Francoists and extreme right who still held many positions of power and although an amnesty was declared it excluded many Basques; hence the birth of ETA. The angst drags on.
The 26 April was the 75th Anniversary of the bombing of Guernica by the German Condor Legion and the newspapers published special editions. The German bombers appeared in the skies over Guernica in the late afternoon of April 26, 1937 and immediately transformed the sleepy Spanish market town into an everlasting symbol of the atrocity of war. Unbeknownst to the residents of Guernica, they had been slated by their attackers to become guinea pigs in an experiment designed to determine just what it would take to bomb a city into oblivion.
The town was nearby and we had to visit. Apart from the above mural there is little to see as the town has been rebuilt and Franco did not want anything to witness the event. However, there is an excellent and very moving museum which is well worth seeing.
The down-town marina in Santander has little or no space for visitors so we sailed on by to a marina that is located right next to the airport runway and rather a long way out of town. Santander is the capital of Catalonia and a large elegant town with developed beaches and promenades. Elegant, but it was a big city and it did speak to us. Once again we headed off to the mountains, the Picos de Europa, precipitous and dramatic.
Continuing West from Santander the mountain ranges approach ever closer to the coast producing a rugged coastline with numerous headlands, also the continental shelf with numerous canyons approaches close to the shore. So there is seldom a day without significant swells even if the weather is fine. Our first stop was San Vicente de la Barquera, one of many ports that requires an act of faith when entering for the first time with a swell.
The next stop was the port of Ribadesella and another 'interesting' entrance on a moderate swell. This time the 'escape' is invisible from the seaward side and the turn to port seems awfully close to the beach when you are not used to it.
The largest city of Asturius is Gijon our next port of call. A town with many charming buildings but extremely vibrant, there seemed to be street events taking place everywhere. The music and revelling went on until the early hours of the morning and since the marina in located right down-town we can testify to that. How people managed to get up and go to work in the morning was a mystery to us. We were here for two weeks as we found a very competent company to fix our auto helm. At the end of the previous season we had had trouble with it holding a course and shortly after leaving Hondarribia it had packed up altogether. Having to be at the helm constantly was a real drag. The wind vane steering works well on open sea passages but is not well adapted to coastal cruising so we determined to get it resolved and had a whole new auto-helm and navigation system added. We took the opportunity to install transmitting AIS. Once on the bridge of a ferry crossing the North Sea we were appalled to realise how difficult it is to see a yacht, even on a reasonable day. So now we rest easy knowing that we show up as a signal on every radar screen and chart plotter.
All along this coast we found that cider was as popular as beer and probably more powerful. It was always aerated by pouring from as high as possible and the skill of the bartenders was often impressive. A glass of cider and some slices of the dry Iberica ham was a very pleasant way to pass an hour.
On leaving Gijon we first had to round Cabo Penas with a nasty swell rolling us and knocking us back. Here we re-learned lessons that we had learned many times before; firstly that if you neglect a job or fail to do it correctly it will catch up with you and probably at the worst possible moment; and secondly a job that takes 5 minutes at the dockside can take an hour when you are trying to do it at sea. Just off the point we looked behind us and saw the dinghy floating away! We had only attached the painter (and obviously not well) instead of a second safety line. The struggle to retrieve and reattach the dinghy in that heavy swell with the boat rolling and pitching took half an hour and much discomfort reaching over the side with the boat hook.
Many of the old fishing villages deliberately build their prominent features like church spires, gable ended buildings and lighthouses so that they could serve as markers for leading lines.
We liked Ribadeo, the main town was a stiff climb but they had thoughtfully provided an elevator for lazy people. Several towns in Spain have installed outdoor escalators for steep main streets. This is the only country that we have ever seen this.
The last part of our outward trip was to prove the most challenging as this North West corner of Spain consists of jagged headlands and strong currents. The country behind these headlands is sparsely populated and the roads are not the best so it is not a coastline seen by many from the land side; or from the sea side for that matter since unless the weather is very good it is best to keep well offshore. We had one of those rare weather windows when the weather was perfect and so had the privilege of getting up close.
West of Cabo Ortegal are some of the highest cliffs in Europe down this coast known as the Altas Rias. Because we were in so close we could see the tiny sanctuary of San Andres de Teixido, but not the wild horses that roam these cliffs. This Saint had himself reincarnated as a lizard; a place of pilgrimage but the pilgrims never step on a lizard! There is a strange festival on 8th September each year which is on the weird side of strange. We continued down this coast and came to anchorage in the beautiful Ria de Cedeira.
But there is always a sting in the tail with sailing when everything seems to be going well! When we came to leave we found that our anchor was caught in old fishing tackle on the sea bed and we had not rigged a trip line. We had been told of such situations in many of these old fishing ports. After going back and forth and winching excessively we managed to collapse the anchor platform so had to finally cut the chain.
That was not to be the end of our challenges that day for immediately upon exiting the Ria we found ourselves in thick fog. Our new transmitting AIS and chart plotter stood us in good stead as we crept down the coast, the only danger is from small vessels that do not transmit. Luckily another yacht about half a kilometre away from us was following a parallel course so we could keep in touch by VHF. That yacht had a close encounter when it came across a fisherman sat in a rowing boat and not making any fog signals in the fog. Some people seem to have a death wish. The fog persisted until the entrance to A Coruna. With the fog we were unable to see the famous Roman lighthouse called the Tower of Hercules which dates from the first century AD, although greatly modernised since then.
There was so much to see and do that we hardly knew where to start. Not only were the ships on display but there was the city to explore and aerobatics over our heads every day.
But now there was a major decision point; did we carry on down the Portuguese coast to winter in the Mediterranean or return the way we had come? If we continued we would spend two years in the Mediterranean and then three years back to the Baltic. We had lived a year in the South of France so we were a little familiar with the sailing environment there and we were not enthusiastic about it. If we had been 5 years younger we would probably have gone on but we made the momentous decision to return the way we had come.
The complete log of our return journey can be seen by following this link to Google Earth, A Coruna to Hondarribia make sure that you have the ‘temporary places’ box ticked and the files within it ticked when it is open. Clicking on the yellow push pins will open log entries.
We determined to try some different ports on the way back but it was not just that that made it a very different journey.
We tried to continue next day but once out of the Ria conditions were bad and we were pitching and rolling badly. Besides only making 2 knots on full throttle we did not have the stomach for a 14 hour slog. So we returned and dropped anchor again. For 5 days we sat on the anchor while the wind howled and running the engine to charge the batteries from time to time. Just to compound matters the outboard would not start and the wind and distance were too great to try rowing; so the cook really used her ingenuity as supplies dwindled. The wind seemed to have dropped on 4 September so we thought that we would try again. The wind was less but the seas were not. We pushed on to Punta Candellaria but we had a strong wind on the nose and were really being tossed about and only making 2 knots. At that rate we would have taken another 5 hours just to reach Cabo Ortegal. So we turned back and flew in the opposite direction over that ground that we had fought so hard to gain. Once again we anchored with out tail between our legs, for what turned out to be another 3 days. Luckily another yacht took pity on us and ran us ashore in their dinghy (with an outboard) for supplies.
Later when we took the outboard in to be fixed we discovered that the people who had overhauled it in Hondarribia had put two-stoke fuel in the tank instead of gasoline!
Our next excitement was just the opposite, a still, overcast day with a Northerly 2 to 3 metre swell. Two hours out of Luarca the engine started choking and then finally died. We unfurled the foresail but there was hardly any wind. The first step was to change the high pressure filter but the engine only ran for two or three minutes then stopped. It appeared that the water pump belt was slipping and, after our experiences of the previous season, I jumped to the conclusion that the engine was overheating without the alarm going off; so I set about changing the pump belt which is a big job because it is located behind the generator belt. After achieving that with my head down in a rolling boat I felt thoroughly sick and the engine still did not go. The last thing left was to change the low pressure fuel filter, I had a spare but it was another upside down job and the breakers at the bottom of the cliffs seemed to be getting awfully close! We could not afford to waste more time on the gamble that the filter change would work, for if it did not we would be on the rocks. So we called for help on VHF 16; to our horror there was no response! Suddenly things took on a very different aspect. I found that I had the phone number of the Marina in Gijon and got the receptionist to call the rescue services. Immediately they responded on channel 16 and thanks to our transmitting AIS could immediately see our position. The lifeboat was dispatched from Luarca while we spent an anxious hour and a half watching the breakers get closer.
Once the tow line was secured the life boat took off at 10 knots without giving me time to get off the foredeck. These life boats don't seem to realise the power that they have compared to a yacht. In A Coruna we saw a yacht that had been towed and the tow had ripped out the front end of the fibreglass yacht. Once again we were thankful that we had a steel boat, tough as nails! It was a scary ride back to Luarca. Once docked in the inner harbour mechanics came aboard and changed the low pressure filter, blew out the lines and everything was fine. A good job that I did not try to do it myself as my spare filter was the wrong model!
We called in a few new ports on the way back and were enchanted by them all. Llanes, Elantxobe, Orio and St. Jean de Luz.
Finally St Jean de Luz, a French Basque town, before arriving at Hondarribia and the fantastic pinchos at El Gran Sol
For other Cruising blogs see the Archive links in the sidebar at the top of this page.
Other blogs of interest are The Retirement Dream and How to Live Your Dream
June and I (David Phillips) have sailed the European and UK coasts for 30 years, the last 14 in Enterprise. It has been a continual exploration , inspiration and growth of experience. We would not have missed a minute of it.
It is a symbiotic relationship, you look after her and she looks after you and takes you into a fascinating world that is otherwise inaccessible. Ill health finally forced us to sell her.
On 2 September 2017 she was sold. We hope that she will bring the same life changing experiences to the new owners as she brought to us.