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…
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.
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.