Back in the early noughties at Perth Central TAFE in Western Australia I spent a few years studying the Spanish language, with the outcome of a general understanding how to order food, greet people, how to buy a train ticket, plus a myriad of verb conjugations.

Over the past decade I’ve not had much opportunity to develop Spanish, as French seems to be more widely spoken, at least in the places we’ve visited. Words associated with sailing – such as describing the boat, docking in a marina, or locating the nearest customs officer – were not on the curriculum. It’s been many years since either of us have whispered any Spanish (BTW skipper did 1st year Spanish), and we are getting by pretty well. No hay problema!

To help us along the way, new words such as babor (port), estribord (starboard), manga (beam), eslora (length), and calado (draught), are now part of our daily lexicon.  The ability to call ahead on VHF09 to a Puerto Deportiva is gratifying when they understand what it is I’m calling about. Understanding their reply isn’t always easy but a simple ‘repita por favor’ usually helps. Claro!

So, off we go along the north coast of Spain in the…

Bay of Biscay

The common route for cruisers from the north heading to ‘the Med’ is to skip the coastal route of the Bay of Biscay in favour of reaching A Coruña located in Spain’s northwest. A quick passage helps to avoid the chance of getting slapped by any strong winds, and more importantly the large swells, rolling in from the Atlantic.  A crossing from Falmouth to A Coruña is usually a four-day passage. Our trip from Brest, France, to rounding the north-west of Spain has taken four weeks. A huge chunk out of our 90-day Schengen days for sure, but we’ve visited some really lovely towns and sailed along the rugged northern coastline for spectacular views.

The coast of the Bay of Biscay is undoubtedly tricky to navigate. Many of the harbours and ports have narrow and shallow entries, made more difficult when entering and exiting with strong wind and swell.

Departing La Rochelle late afternoon, we had a 180nn passage to arrive in the wee hours on a Sunday at the old town of…

San Sebastián, Basque Country

San Sebastián, or Donostia as it’s known in Basque, is a short hop from the border with France. This old town is located at the base of Mount Urgull and straddles the western end of the Pyrenees.  We arrived in the dark early on a Sunday morning and calling on VHF09, we were welcomed by a man in a small boat. Despite his lack of English, he understood my Spanish and showed us where we could dock the boat. Once tied up we had a snooze then sought out the Capitán to sort out our stay.

People from Basque Country speak Basque and Spanish.The friendly Capitán of the port spoke Basque as his first language and Spanish his second language; his English somewhere down the list.

The small Puerto Deportivo run by EKP has space for maybe ten yachts similar size to ours, but there were only three at any time during our stay. Generally, two nights is all that is allowed here, but we stayed three nights to wait out a westerly blow. EKP run many of the marinas along this coast and the cost to stay is generally the same – about 40 Euros for our boat per night.

At the time of our visit, face masks were mandatory in outdoor spaces, so we complied. Wearing a mask makes it harder to speak and listen to Spanish but we get by. Businesses were open with no sign of closure anywhere, although I sensed a reduction in tourist traffic. San Sebastián is famous for pintxos (pronounced ‘pinchos’) and tapas so we stopped at a couple of bars to indulge in the tradition of drinking and eating bar snacks. After a few days we travel the short distance to…

Getaria, Basque Country

From San Sebastian we motored 10nm to reach the small port of Getaria also in Basque. This small town is reknown for Spain’s best grilled fish ‘pescado a la parrilla’. We were encouraged by the Capitán of San Sebastián to visit and sample the fish. I was expecting some low-key beachside BBQ setup, but the only eating places near the port were restaurants. The restaurant at the port was our choice and we enjoyed fried calamari followed by a tasty dish of grilled Monkfish.

The challenge to sailing around the coast of the Bay of Biscay is to have good sailing wind. Wind either blows strong from the west, creating steep seas, or zero wind from behind. Or at least that’s what we experienced in June/July. Some days we motored to stay ahead and tuck into a port to allow a stronger westerly wind to blow over. Motor sailing 45nm west from Getaria, we anchored for one night at the port of Bilbao, a large industrial town. Although encouraged to visit the lauded Guggenheim gallery of Bilbao, and as much as I enjoy contemporary art, I’m happy to absorb the beauty of the rugged landscape and geography of the region – natural art. We stay one night then make our way to…

Gijón, Asturias

Our next stop after a 120nm passage from Bilbao was to the delightful town of Gijón in Asturias. With little to no wind or strong westerlies, we stayed at the Puerto Deportivo in Gijón for five nights, giving us time to explore the city, seek out a lavanderia (the marina washing machine wasn’t working) and enjoy the sunny days along the beach or take a ride along the foreshore.

At Gijón, the Spanish Police paid us a visit, merely to check our passports and make sure everything was in order, which it was. We were stamped into the Schengen zone in France so we had no problems with these friendly chaps. After speaking with British and other cruisers, there’s a lot of confusion around Schengen but all the information is available online plus there’s a variety of Facebook groups to share information.

Gijón is the largest city in the autonomous region of Asturias and the 15th largest city in Spain. The shops, leafy parks, wide beach, plus food aromas and fragrant perfumes, make this a great place to hang out for a few days. We also found a radio shop to buy a new portable floating VHF radio as ours had died. Next stop…


From Gijón we had a window of no westerly wind (therefore, no wind), and headed west. A Coruña was on the way, but after five days at Gijón, we decided to continue around the northwest coast and dodge getting stuck in another marina for days on end. Our overnight sail was moonless and dark, with just the coastal towns, fishing vessels and lighthouses guiding the way. News of recent Orca attacks in this region play on my mind, particularly so when a pod of dolphins leapt around the boat sometime during the nautical morning twilight. 

Around the coast to the south of A Coruña is the small town and port of Camariñas, some 180nm from Gijón. A persistent squeak from our steering needed attention so Camariñas was a good place to drop the anchor and give it some TLC. We also identified and sorted out a problem with our bilge pump which turned out to be a fuse.

Anchorage at Camarinas
Puerto de Camarinas

Once ashore, the friendly marina manager gave me a town map and guide to Camariñas. For those that have an interest in embroidery, Camariñas is the Capital of Bobbin Lace. This fact is soon evident as you enter the town and notice the many stores selling fine lace, with dedications to the art dotted throughout the small town. Here we stocked up on supplies at the supermercado, then headed to the marina bar for a relaxing drink overlooking the small fishing boats. Three nights at Camariñas is was time to ride the wind around Cabo Finisterre to the anchorage at…

Enseada de Sardiñero

Cabo Finisterre was named by the Romans as it was thought to be the end of the known world.

Enseada de Sardiñero was a delightful stop after a great 30nm sail from Camariñas. The 2.5m swell and 15-25kn winds gave us a good sail, although a little bumpy at times.

The anchorage was calm with only a hint of swell.

Resting below after a good sailing day, at 9pm we jumped up when a huge Spanish Customs boat (Aduanas) blasted their horn to rouse us and began to dock alongside. Two officers boarded and requested to see our passports and boat registration. The two chaps were friendly and even cracked a joke or two! They were surprised to see a couple of Australians as they had thought we were British (our Aussie flag is often mistaken for British). All in order, they left us with an official piece blue paper stating we’ve been ‘checked’ and which we can show to other officials if asked

With strong winds forecast for the coming days, the next day we motored to Corcubión and dropped anchor just east of the port mooring area. After walking around the town admiring the intricate seaside mosaics then into the nearby town of Cee for fresh supplies, we decided we wouldn’t stay the night, but would take advantage of light westerly winds to sail a little farther down the coast to anchor in the…

Ría de Muros

Even with light winds, we had a good 20nm sail to anchor at Ensenada de Bornalle. The Spanish Rías of Galicia have been our goal for some time so we will take some days to explore this region.

With our 90 days ticking along, we’re travelling at our typical relaxed pace, and will take whatever time we need to see this amazing part of the Atlantic coast. Now that we are out of the Bay of Biscay, winds should be more consistent and favourable.

Southern Spain is experiencing over 40degC and heatwave conditions but up here the weather is quite mild – somewhere between 18-25degC.With the water temperature not over 20degC, I’ll wait a little longer before I don my togs and jump in.

Hasta luego…

Sailing to Ensenada de Bornalle
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While we spend most of our time navigating the waters of the world, we must also navigate officialdom, languages, cultures, and unfamiliar streets. Nowadays with information at our fingertips, this is so much easier than thumbing through Lonely Planet travel books of years gone by.

Understanding local rules and protocols for sailing through a new country is important; cruising around the world made easier by the internationally recognised system of buoyage with their uniform lights and markers.

Winds blow west to east across the Atlantic Ocean from America to Europe. Large swells, combined with storms and gales, produce heavy seas making sailing in this region notoriously challenging. Good planning is essential and with weather forecasts only good for a day or two, we put in the effort to plan our departures, and more importantly our arrivals of each passage.

Strong winds and heavy seas heading towards the Bay of Biscay

Since leaving the UK, sunset is earlier as we are four degrees south, and there’s a time difference of +1 hour. With the longest day of the year now passed, daylight hours will begin to decrease too. In our state of jubilation of finally sailing from the UK, this fact had slipped our mind and we found ourselves squinting in the nautical twilight to navigate our way into an unfamiliar bay at midnight. However, the international standard for lights helps us navigate unknown waters. (While we welcome any night-time aid to help navigate alien waters, we generally don’t recommend arriving in strange places at night).

In France the tide ‘coefficient’ is commonly used to determine the size of the tide in relation to its mean. The range is typically between 20 and 120, and the higher the tidal coefficient, the larger the tidal range, or the difference in water height between high and low tide. With a mean value of 70, boaters can easily identify the state of the tide in relation to spring and neaps.

Co-efficients commonly referred to in France to determine tide

Waiting for an outgoing tide, we departed the Golfe de Moubihan at midday to sail 60nm to Ile de Yeu, once again arriving at near darkness. The entrance to the harbour is clearly marked and fortunately the visitors dock was available and the weather for entry was kind. Navigating the Bay of Biscay takes careful planning – tides, currents, shallow port entries and daylight hours must all be taken into consideration.

Approach to Joinville, Ile d’Yeu in daylight

From Ile d’Yeu, we sailed 50nm to reach the shallow waters to the north of Ile d’Re where we dropped anchor for the night. From here we could plan our entry into Port of La Rochelle, 12nm away. The approach to La Rochelle is very shallow – a dredged entry of only 0.8m (Blue Heeler has a 2m draft), so we must have at least a 2m tide to navigate to the wet basins of La Rochelle; even still, the locks on the Bassin des Yachts and Bassin des Chaltiers don’t open until two hours before high tide and close one hour after high tide. While we are used to calculating tidal movements, the coefficient is an added aid to assist with navigation. The day we planned to enter, the coefficient was around 85 and increasing over the coming days with the spring tide increasing the tides to over five metres.

The 14th century towers at the entrace to La Rochelle’s Vieux Port

Understanding local safety and security contacts is also very important when visiting other countries. While we don’t always fully understand the French sécurité (safety) announcements, we always listen to any ‘pan-pan’ or ‘mayday’ message that may come through and try to jot down the lat/longs in case we are nearby. VHF channel 16 is the first point of contact for any emergencies. Like the RNLI in the UK, monitoring and providing maritime assistance along the French coast is the Centres Régionaux Opérationnels de Surveillance et de Sauvetage (CROSS, “Regional Operational Centres for Monitoring and Rescue”).

As we approach La Rochelle, to starboard of the shallow approach channel is the Port de plaisance des Minimes – the largest marina in France with over 3,500 berths. The entire port area and marinas are managed centrally through the Port of La Rochelle. Through the old towers, the old port or ‘Vieux Port’ is busy with passenger and small boats, while the locked Bassin des Yachts and Bassin des Chaltiers are more suited to our vessel. With entry only available two hours before and one hour after high tide, we had to arrange a time with the lock-keeper to raise the passerelle (foot-bridge) so we could enter the basin.

The old port in its heyday

La Rochelle’s past as a significant Atlantic port stems back centuries. In 1152, La Rochelle fell under the control of the English and for a time, trade between the two Kingdoms flourished – life was good in La Rochelle. In the 13th century, a new port (now the old port) was constructed; the three towers built in the 14th century (There are three towers on the horizon at La Rochelle – the Tour Saint-Nicolas, Tour de la Chaîne and Tour de la Lanterne (lighthouse)). But as time went on, in the 1600s, the royal powers besieged the city to purge it of Huguenots. The city eventually surrendered and the Huguenots fled to other countries – the rest is history…

Today with reduced COVID restrictions, La Rochelle welcomes tourists and we take a stroll around the old town to enjoy the sites, smells and indulge in French-ness. In the Bassin des Chaltiers, docked nearby is the Maître CoQ, the winning boat of the ninth Vendée Globe around the world race skippered by Yannick Bestaven, a La Rochelle local. (Vendée is a department in the Pays de la Loire region of Western France).

Once we depart La Rochelle, we will make our way to the south of the Bay of Biscay and into Spain. French will be placed on the shelf for a little while, and I’ll drag out the Spanish phrase book to resuscitate any Spanish I learned so long ago.

Until then…

La Rochelle, France

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We made it! After months of damp and cold, and slow sailing around England’s south coast waiting for an opportunity to escape the UK and resume our travels, we crossed to France once we had the all-clear to travel.

Waiting patiently at Helford River, Cornwall

Using the antiquated mode of mailing, we slipped our C1331 ‘Leaving the UK’ form in the letterbox and departed Helford River towards the French port of Brest. In the saturating mizzle we sailed out of Helford River, only to be trailed by UK Border Force who politely quizzed us about our movements before steaming back to Falmouth. Strict entry regulations are in place for sailors into the UK so the Border Force are literally out in force. Additionally, the arrival of key G7 leaders and entourage in Cornwall brought a heavier presence of security around Falmouth and the wider region.

Navigating busy ship channel at night

Crossing the busy shipping lanes from the UK to France, was fine and at night the ships’ lights are clearly visible and they are also identifiable on AIS. Still not as daunting as crossing the Singapore straits, I reckon though. Fishing boats can be a problem as they tend to weave back and forth with little warning of their impending manoeuvre, and there’s always the situation where a vessel isn’t on AIS.

Our planned route across to France

To arrive at the head of the Chenal du Four where currents can run up to 6kn we slowed down to catch the south-flowing current at the right time.

Fortunately, UK phone carriers did not ex-communicate themselves from the EU during BREXIT and we can roam with our phones and data like before. Phoning ahead I arranged a berth at the Chateau Marina in Brest.

On June 9, France officially opened its doors to travellers from the UK. While we, as sailors, may have travelled earlier, we would have had to quarantine for seven days on arrival. It would have been a shame to have missed this region.

Having a full-vaccination certificate negated the need to have an expensive PCR test (around £150 each in the UK) and we were welcomed in to the Port of Brest and our passports now stamped into the Schengen zone. With blue skies and a temperature in Brest some 10 degrees warmer than Helford River, it really feels like we are in a new country!

Le Chateau Marina, Brest, France

Brest is a busy militarised port town so we stayed only long enough to clear in, buy some wine and cheese then we headed out and began our sail south.

Brest Naval Museum

The Brittany region of France is popular with sailors and the weather changed for the better with temperatures in the mid-20s. Scrouging around the lockers, I dragged out pairs of shorts, T-shirts, thongs (flip-flops) and dusted off my French language books.

The Bay of Biscay is notorious for variable and strong winds, high tides and swift currents, with many shallow entries to navigate to escape the weather. Heading south and making good use of northerly wind, we sailed 17nm offshore to go around the shallows at Pointe du Raz rather than fight against the strong currents through the Raz de Sein as the timing wasn’t good for a passage through. From Brest to Benodet took 14 hours and after a day of sunshine filling up our batteries through the new solar panels, we dropped the hook at Anse de Benodet at midnight, with just enough astronomical twilight to see the horizon. By 1am, it was pitch black.

Benodet to Port Louis

Our next stop 34nm south was the pleasant seaside town of Port Louis in the Lorient area. Here we stopped only one night before heading the Golfe de Moubihan a further 35nm south. Heavy skies, no wind and rain, we motor-sailed this leg to arrive late afternoon where we anchored to the south of Ile de Moines.

Spain is 250nm to the south and with the 90-day Schengen clock ticking, we will stay a little longer in France before making a run south.

Until then… tick-tock…

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Staying healthy while sailing the world is as important as keeping the boat in good condition. Over the past ten years, we’ve been fortunate to remain in good health, although battling the effects of a moderately sedentary lifestyle in this cold northern climate was a challenge. Every couple of years, prescription glasses and dentistry creep into the annual budget, but we’ve been careful not to break bones, lose fingers, poison ourselves with ciguatera, get sick from any one of a thousand types of maladies or suffer from too many careless on-board mishaps. Below: Skipper ripped off his thumbnail in Norway in 2018 – ouch!

The best medicine we’ve found over the past ten years is fresh sea-air, exercise and sunshine. Just the thought of sailing along, soaking up the sun’s vitamin D and swimming around in warm water makes me feel healthier. But there’s always a chance something could go wrong. We’ve recently renewed our travel insurance and although it doesn’t cover COVID, it will cover us for any unforeseen medical emergencies. That’s the drawback with any insurance; you have to have an accident or catastrophe to reap the benefits.

The good news is that we’ve had our second COVID jab and we’re ready to depart the UK. Countries in Europe are easing travel restrictions for those with full vaccinations so it should make travel a little safer and more straightforward. The NHS is encouraging people to self-test so we’ve grabbed a pack each of the free COVID self-tests to have on board.

Life as we knew it is slowly returning here in the UK and it seems that wearing masks and completing track and trace forms is becoming second nature. The vaccine rollout appears to be well-organised with over half the population of 68 million having had at least one vaccination. Last week we popped across to the Spice Island Inn in Old Portsmouth to catch up with friends from Southsea for a drink. It was great to be able to relax and enjoy a laugh. Oh, and ‘hugging’ is officially allowed in the UK!

While walking to Old Portsmouth, we watched the HMS Queen Elizabeth warship enter Portsmouth Harbour along with hundreds of others. The Royal Navy’s Flagship vessel, affectionately known as ‘Big Lizzie’, cost over £3 billion.

HMS Queen Elizabeth approaching Portsmouth Harbour, May 2021

Looking back on the past four years since Blue Heeler sailed across the North Atlantic to arrive at Baltimore on the south coast of Ireland, I’m so glad we decided to sail to this region and spend time north of 50 degrees latitude. We’ve met some great people, and experienced so much – we’ll take with us fond memories of traveling through the canals of the Netherlands; sailing in the sweet water of the Baltic visiting the cities of Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo, Riga, Talin; Christmas in Flensburg, Germany; across the cold North Sea to the windy northern isles of Shetland and Orkney; to the remote and unique isles of beautiful Scotland, plus the experience of sailing Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast. A train-trip through Germany, France, Austria, Czech Republic, Bratislava, Hungary, and Switzerland was an opportunity not to be missed – something we may not be able to do at present. All our travel around these northern European countries wouldn’t have been possible had BREXIT happened a couple of years earlier. Now we may only enter Schengen countries for 90 days for every 180 days, but at least we had a chance to enjoy the Freedom of Movement before the UK slammed this door shut. Below is our route over the past four years:

2017 to 2021

With that in mind, our plans are sketchy for the coming summer months and at this stage we plan to sail south – France, Spain and Portugal – into the Mediterranean. I’ve wanted to visit Spain since I learned Spanish back in 2004 – not sure how much I’ll remember though and I’m sure it’ll get mangled with the bit of French I’ve learned.

It’s a good feeling to know we will be on the move again. Soon.

Until next time…

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Since my last post, we’ve sailed very little. In fact, over the past year I’ve probably cycled or walked further than we’ve sailed. We’re biding time and staying busy as best we can until we leave; until then, there’s plenty of riding and walking on England’s south coast.

A walk around Brownsea Island takes around two hours. It is the birthplace of the Scouting and Guiding.

Dotted along the trails are interesting quotes and questions to spark childrens’ interest.

Slowly exploring the south coast of England, we discovered the currents in Poole Harbour are particularly fierce at spring tides. After relocating from the South Deep anchorage across to the west side of Brownsea Island we dropped anchor in the narrow waters. In the wee hours with an outgoing tide, Blue Heeler touched the bottom to rest a couple of hours before popping back on the flood tide. The strong current had swept us into the shallows, despite the 25+ knot north-east winds which we’d hoped would keep us in the deeper water.

Looking towards the calmer west side of Brownsea Island from the PHC moorings.

The west side of Brownsea Island is narrow and shallow with poor holding, and I don’t recommend it to any deep keel boats certainly during springs.  To the north of the island are the Poole Harbour Commission moorings – a better alternative for a good night’s sleep. None of the moorings have pickup lines which makes it difficult to grab. Plus, the mooring numbers were difficult to spot with up to 30kn of wind and tide splashing over the tops. An easy method to tie-up to a mooring without a pick-up line is to lasso the entire mooring with a long line, then tie off to the cleat, after which set lines properly through the swivel on the top of the mooring. This proven method was recommended to us and certainly works a treat. The days of strong easterly winds eventually eased allowing us to leave Poole and take advantage of the fast east-flowing current.

Sunrise, Poole Harbour

The approach to Lymington is clearly marked, but there are literally hundreds of boats here, so it pays to keep a good lookout particularly when the current is strong. The Wightlink ferries on the eastern bank leave for the Isle of Wight at regular intervals, so be sure to check the outgoing and incoming timetable before navigating the river.

Dog friendly High Street of Lymington

Lymington has a reputation for being slightly ‘posh’ and not generally a haven for the budget cruiser looking for an anchorage. However, at the northern end of the harbour, there are fore’n’aft, or ‘trot’ moorings for vessels no bigger than 12m, managed by Lymington Harbour. No bookings required and it’s first-in-best-dressed. The trot moorings are better value at £120 for one week (compared to £55 per night at the nearby marina). The trot moorings are close to the town quay where there’s secure showers and refuse facilities, plus supermarkets and self-service laundry in town a short walk away.

Trot Mooring – Lymington. Town Quay in background.

Tying up to a trot mooring can also be tricky. There’s a mooring ball fore and one aft with a line connecting the two. The knack is to use the boat-hook to grab that line and fix it over the forward and stern cleats. But with a beamy boat like Blue Heeler, I could only place the line on the centre cleat. I threw a lasso over the forward mooring, but it had to be threaded through the ring which I couldn’t reach. Skipper helped me fix the line and the Harbour Master came by to lend a hand for the stern line. Sorted!

Lymington Town Quay

The town of Lymington has a busy High Street with the typical shops for any seaside town. The Bank Holiday weekend attracted visitors from afar to visit the High Street Market or sit at the quay to eat fish’n’chips while black-headed seagulls squawk and flap about.

During our stay at Lymington, a strong sou’wester with a forecast of over 50 knots blew over us. I don’t think we experienced winds over 35kn, but it was strong enough and had Blue Heeler tugging on the lines and lurching in the gusts. Friends Brian & Chris from London came down to see us which was really lovely to see familiar faces after so long, even if we had to ‘air hug’ (apparently ‘hugging’ will be allowed after 17th May!). And thanks to Dave and Sydney from Southsea who popped by to drop off a new WiFi router and other gadgets for skipper.

Wild horse, New Forest

Lymington is located at the south of the New Forest National Park. This park was established by William the Conquerer almost one thousand years ago and today it’s a popular place for horse-riders, cyclists, campers and birdwatchers. Due to the relentless logging over the centuries there is plenty of open space to cater for the 5,000 or so ponies residing in New Forest. These ponies are managed by the New Forest Commoners and have right of way on all roads in the forest.

Getting the bike ashore

To the east is the interesting village of Beaulieu and surrounding estate. The Beaulieu River is privately owned and the history of Buckler’s Hard harbour traces back through the centuries. Nowadays boats can grab a mooring or stay at the marina.

With less than three weeks until our second COVID vaccine jab, positive news regarding relaxing of rules to enter EU member countries is filtering through official sites such as the Schengen Visa site. We’re hoping a full vaccination will not only give us longer protection from the severity of the virus, but also help us to cross international borders.

The many cycle and walking trails throughout New Forest, plus buses to towns such as Bournemouth and Southampton, Lymington is a good place to hang out, at least for a little while longer.

Until next time…

Walking trails around Lymington
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