By Andy Lund
Ed. note - This is the seventeenth installment of a multi-part series by Andy Lund on his ocean-crossing journey aboard Resolution, the Nordhavn 46 he took delivery of in February 2004.
June 5, 2006
After a delayed departure from England, we were delighted to again be underway. St Katharine's Dock in London was a great wintering-over port, even if we did get trapped behind the failed lock gate for a month. The Nordhavn Europe folks in Hamble Point, near Southampton, did a super job organizing all our spring maintenance. But we were tired of cold and rain. Mediterranean sun beckoned.
You may remember we talked last year of traversing European canals and rivers, up the
Rhine and down the Danube to the Black Sea. Well, the more research I did, the less practical that journey seemed. We'd calculated clearances on the French canals carefully, and knew the German canals had a lot more headroom. If we took the mast and the exhaust stack down, we'd theoretically clear French canal bridges by three or four inches. Having looked at some canals close up during our driving trip through France last fall, I became dubious. We corresponded with some Nordhavn owners who took their boat down the Danube over the summer of 2006. Their comments were "never again" and "we hazarded our boat". They also said it was mostly boring. The severe Danube floods this spring, which surely changed the already poorly marked and charted channels, and word of a pontoon bridge in Serbia which opened only once a week, settled our decision - skip the Danube and run round the Atlantic coast of Europe
down to Gibraltar.
After a short stop in Poole, just west of Southampton, to pick up a new outboard - our 8
hp Yamaha had died from bad Mexican gas - we were off 85 miles across the English Channel on a smooth overnight run for St Peter Port, in Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, arriving June 3rd.
These islands, dependencies of the British Crown, are just west of the Cherbourg peninsula of France. Self governing, not legally part of the UK or the European Union (EU), they thrive on their tax haven status, off-shore banking and tourism. Resolutely British, but not of Britain, Guernsey served us by restarting our EU tax clock. The EU will allow a non-EU boat - like "Resolution" - to stay in the EU for 18 months, then they insist on collecting VAT (value added tax - like sales tax) at a rate between 17% and 21%. OUCH! So I went to the Guernsey customs house on a Saturday morning, found a very pleasant and helpful customs officer, had my British EU temporary import tax papers stamped out of the EU and mailed them off to Her Majesty's Customs back in England. Voila! Another 18 months VAT free. Croatia – also not in the
EU - will again restart the clock for us.
St Peter Port, Guernsey, where we moored, is a pleasant but touristy town. It has a most
impressive castle guarding the entrance to the harbor. There are three boat basins behind sills – low walls you cross at higher tide levels - which keep the water in at low tide. We were too big for the basins, so we moored to a pontoon in the harbor, and got to shore on a small water taxi. The pontoon had fresh water, but no electricity.
Sadly, as we were a month behind schedule, we had to skip the many fascinating ports along
the Brittany coast of France. June 4th we headed out across the Bay of Biscay on our 460 mile
run to La Coruna, Spain. Draw a line from the NW tip of France to the NW tip of Spain and you get the idea. The Bay of Biscay has a nasty reputation, but it treated us kindly, with benign winds and seas, never exceeding 25 knots or five foot swells, mostly much less than that. La Coruna is a quiet commercial and fishing port with some fascinating urban architecture from its prosperous days as Spain's Atlantic gateway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the apartment buildings have elaborate glassed-in balconies to catch the winter sun in this cool, green and rainy corner of Spain.
Arriving La Coruna June 7th, we took a train an hour inland to Santiago de Compostella.
This quaint town has been a key pilgrimage destination for European Catholics over the centuries. High Mass was being celebrated at noon on a weekday in the ornate and elaborately decorated Cathedral, and the church was thronged with people. Santiago is almost a cliche, it is so "touristy" but nevertheless was worth the trip up into the hills. The old fishing harbor in La Coruna has been partially converted into a yacht basin, with good floating pontoons, so we had comfortable moorage right in the center of town. There was a good grocery within five blocks walk, and the newsstand with the Herald Tribune was just up the road.
By June 11th, we'd rounded Cape Finisterre, the NW corner of Spain, in fairly rough seas,
and run down the coast of Portugal to Cascais, a resort and fishing port about 20 miles west of Lisbon at the mouth of the Tagus River. Marina Cascais was a great spot to moor for five days while we toured Lisbon, a half-hour away by frequent and cheap trains, only ten minutes walk from the marina. One of the chandleries up on the quai side was even able to refill our American propane bottles, which we couldn't do in England. There were some good pubs and restaurants, and a newsstand on the quai as well. The marina had WiFi, but it didn't work very well - probably oversubscribed.
Lisbon, built up and down hills along the banks of the Tagus, is one of the world's great
cities. The Carthaginians traded there, the Romans built it up, the Moors ruled for four centuries,
the Spanish held control for a while, yet the blending of all these cultures is still uniquely Portuguese.
The Portuguese were the world's premier navigators and explorers in the 1400's and 1500's,
really opening up the trade routes around Africa to the Far East and across the Atlantic to South
America. They established a trading post in Nagasaki, Japan, and planted colonies in the East
Indies (the Moluccas and Timor), China (Macau), India (Goa), Africa (Mozambique, Angola, the Cape Verde Islands), and Brazil. The town of Belem, between Lisbon and Cascais, has a fascinating maritime museum housed in part of the superb and well preserved Jeronimos Monastery. The wealth of the Indies helped build the prosperity of Lisbon, although the 1763 earthquake did huge damage. The town was then rebuilt with broad avenues and vistas to the Tagus River. Portugal is still relatively poor, having suffered under a socialist dictatorship from the early 1930's through the mid 1970's, but joining the EU 20 years ago has helped. It has long been a staunch member of NATO, and was one of England's earliest allies, from the Napoleonic war period and earlier.
Mike spent some late evenings in Lisbon, enjoying its nightlife, and had the privilege of
meeting a young Portuguese fellow who took him home to meet his wife and two young children. That sort of entry into local society is rare and valuable. Portugal was caught up in World Cup
football (soccer to us Americans) fever, and Lisbon was bedecked in flags. At this writing they've made the World Cup semi finals, which does them proud. We could both read some Portuguese, what with Mike's weak Spanish and my passable French, but the pronunciation was something unto its own, so we were both almost hopeless communicators.
On our last full day in Cascais, we rented a car and drove up into the hills, to visit the royal summer resort town of Sintra. The palace was an elaborate and eclectic structure built on the
north side of the highest hill, below the Moorish castle, with a view out across the rolling green
countryside to the Atlantic ocean. Unfortunately the town, although pleasant looking, was mostly a crowded tourist trap, but the drive around the coastline from Cascais to Sintra was beautiful.
We headed south again on June 16th, overnight around Cape St Vincent to Lagos, on the
sunny, sandy Algarve coast of Portugal. Here we enjoyed the last of alongside berthing on floating pontoons - the finger docks we enjoy in the US Northwest. Med mooring is the technique of backing against a fixed - or sometimes floating - dock, and picking up dirty lines from a concrete anchor block to tie to the bow, or even putting out your own anchor to hold your bow. You fender both sides as you're jammed against the boats next to you - crowded, uncomfortable, and the norm throughout the Mediterranean Sea. Lagos is a pleasant little town with an old and historic center, surrounded by apartments and condos for the northern Europeans fleeing to the sun and sea.
The Straits of Gibraltar have a fearsome reputation for rough seas, as they serve as a
funnel for winds in and out of the Med. Opposing currents can stack up the waves. However, we barely even took any spray as we rounded Cape Trafalgar - of Nelson vs. the Spanish fame - and made our way into Gib the morning of 20 June, still three weeks behind our original schedule. We'd been making good use of the Navtex weather receiver I had installed at Hamble Point. Coastal stations with ranges of about 200 miles, broadcast text weather reports daily (or twice daily if you're lucky) in English, and with weather fax charts from either the Royal Navy in Northwood, England or the German weather service in Offenbach, plus the occasional internet weather check of the US Navy's "FNMOC.navy.mil" site, we have pretty good weather data. VHF weather broadcasts are sketchy, and usually only in the local language. So far since we left England we haven't had any unpleasant weather surprises.
My last visit to Gibraltar was 20 years ago, when it was still a very active British naval
base. The dockyards have gone commercial with the end of the cold war, so Gibraltar lives off of
tourists and shipping. Britain took Gibraltar from Spain in 1705, 250 years after the Spaniards pushed out the Moors, so it's been British longer than it was Spanish. I mention this because the
Spanish are still agitating for Gibraltar's "return", totally against the will of the 30,000 Gibraltarians. At one point in the 1980's they even shut the land border for a few years, trying to put pressure on the UK.
Queensway Marina was our first experience at Med mooring, and we did OK, with help from
the dockhands. The marina situation in Gib is a mess, with Sheppards closed for relocation -
its old site is being converted to condos - and Marina Bay with tired fixed concrete docks. Queensway has just about finished a major rebuilding program, even moving the entrance and rebuilding the breakwater which really improves the shelter and cuts down the surge. Reserving ahead is essential in season - late May through September, I'd imagine. Queensway cost about $30 a night, but water was expensive and metered. Sheppards' chandlery and repair yard are still in business. Their new yard and docks are supposed to go on the north side of the airport runway, once they resolve their differences with the Royal Air Force. But for the next year or so moorage will remain tight in Gib. Reserve ahead!
The town is thronged with day trippers on busses from Spain, shopping for cheaper booze,
cigarettes, jewelry and trinkets, since Gibraltar has no VAT, unlike Spain's 21% rate. For us, the
shopping was for fuel, at 37 pence a liter - Gib uses UK pounds. That worked out to about $2.65 a US gallon - cheapest since Balboa, Panama at $1.80 in January 2005. We found true duty free booze and cigarettes (for Mike) delivered to the boat at the Shell fuel dock by a company called Ships Bond Suppliers, phone ++350 77328 or email email@example.com. Winston lights were a dollar a pack (vs $10 in London), Bombay Sapphire was about $11 a liter and a case of Amstel beer was about $16. Cash only. There is also a good Morrison's supermarket, part of a UK chain, with British staples, cheeses, good produce, etc.
By now we were getting pretty tired of all the hard running, so when we left Gibraltar on
June 22nd, we made a day trip 30 miles up the Spanish coast to Marbella. Marina Bajadilla, just west of the center of town, was an OK moorage, but open to swell from the west. Just up the dock was a cluster of good, reasonably priced fish restaurants. The town is resolutely clean and modern - lined with concrete condos and apartments, and just a characterless seaside summer and winter resort pressed against the mountains of the south coast of Spain.
Two more nights at sea, still in very smooth conditions with following seas and a good
push from the current, found us in Ibiza, in the Balearic Islands of Spain, on June 26th. We arrived in the early morning, and had to anchor until noon when we finally found moorage at the Club Nautico, almost in the center of town. The other two more sheltered marinas were totally jammed, the standard story during high season. The constant ferrry traffic ignored the three knot harbor speed limit, so we battled heavy surge our whole stay at Club Nautico. Unfortunately we cracked a couple of slats on the swim platform when we were pushed into the fixed concrete pontoon behind us. Moorage cost almost $90 a night (72 euros). Repairs were done in Malta.
Ibiza is a lovely old and historic town, dominated by a large castle on the south side of
its very sheltering harbor. The old buildings are well preserved, and tastefully converted into
shops, restaurants and bars. It is also the most lively and hedonistic town we've seen to date in Europe, yet the tourists and revelers didn't seem to overwhelm the local character. We did some walking in the late afternoon, climbing up to the top of the castle for a great view of the harbor, and of the old Norman style cathedral crowning the castle hill. Mike met up with some young Americans on a neighboring boat the first night, so they did the town till early in the morning. The next night he met some local young people, and had an equally good time with them, till almost dawn. We crept out of Ibiza harbor at 0700 on June 28th, and Mike went to bed - by prior arrangement! Ibiza would be fun to come back to in the late winter when it's less crowded but the sun's still out.
370 miles across the western Mediterranean, again pushed by fair seas, light winds and a
following current, found us in Cagliari, Sardinia before noon on June 30th. This industrial and
commercial harbor is the largest city on Sardinia, the large Italian island half way between the Italian mainland and Spain.
It sits at the head of a large bay at the south end of Sardinia, and is built up pleasant
hills, again with a castle crowning the principal hill. Marina Sant Elmo is very sheltered - no surge – and has modern floating pontoons, again with Med mooring. Our first night (in June) cost 40 euros and the next two (July - high season) were 72. We walked the town, sat at a sidewalk cafe and watched France beat Brazil in a World Cup quarter finals match, and did some shopping. Cagliari is a good rest stop, but isn't really much of a tourist town. The taxis were expensive, and prone to overcharging.
On Monday July 3rd, fashionably late in the morning so we didn't arrive too early, we were off for Valetta, Malta, a 320 mile and two night trip. We ran along the southwest coast of Sicily, saving those ports, full of Greek and Roman ruins, for next year. Tunisia was 50 miles off to our starboard, again a place to visit next spring, especially for the ruins at Carthage. More favorable currents meant we throttled back the night before we arrived Malta. Calling Valetta port control on the radio ten miles out, we had clearance to proceed into Grand Harbor, on the east side of the Valetta peninsula. Most of the yacht moorage is in Marsamxett harbor, on the west side, but the recently opened Grand Harbor Marina, in Dockyard Creek, in the Vittoriosa area, had been recommended to us by John Harris, on a Nordhavn 46 called "WorldOdd@Sea".
After clearing customs in Grand Harbor, tied up to an ancient and rough stone pier in harbor surge - not pleasant - we were delighted to find actual finger pontoons in the Grand Harbor Marina in Dockyard Creek. The creek is a long, narrow strip of water off Grand Harbor between the Birgu and Senglea peninsulas. Many of the Auberges (lodges) where the Knights of Malta lived were on Birgu (also called Vittorioso), the first area the Knights fortified in the 15th and 16th centuries. The old cream colored stone buildings march up the hills on both sides, and are crowned with churches and fortifications. Malta withstood a great Turkish siege in 1565, and these fortifications were key to the defense.
Malta was ruled by the Knights of Malta until Napoleon expelled them in 1798, then by the
British from 1800 (after they ejected the French) until independence in 1964, although it was a
self-governing colony from the early 1920's. During World War II, Malta, which had become a major British naval base and dockyard over the previous 100 years, was heavily bombed by the Italians and Germans, but it never fell, and was a huge thorn in Field Marshall Rommel's side as he tried to conquer Egypt from Libya. The 1943 invasion of Sicily was mounted from Malta.
After some exploring we found a local bar to watch World Cup football matches, a little bakery,
a small grocery and a fruit & vegetable man named Phillip who came down to the docks every
morning in a truck. The area around the marina is not touristy, which makes it a very pleasant
spot. Up the hill we had a great dinner at a place called Cafe Boccacio, sitting outside sheltered against the walls of Poste de France, the castle of the French knights. Fort St Angelo, key to the defense during the Great Siege, is just at the end of the marina quai at the tip of Birgu, and served as British navy headquarters in Malta for many decades. The bus to Valetta - cost 20 Malta cents (about $0.60) - stopped two blocks away from the marina. Even though all the "yachtie" bars and clubs are over in the Sliema district, along Marsamxett harbor, we're very pleased with Grand Harbor Marina. It's also far better sheltered from the notorious northeasterly surge than Marsamxett. Moorage is 52 euros a night, plus water and electricity.
We met a local Maltese "organizer" called Karl Borg through our neighbors on the dock. He
dug up a carpenter to replace the broken teak slats on the swim platform, picked up new oil filters
from the Lugger (Alaska Diesel) rep on the the other side of town, found us chandlery items and
generally was a great help navigating this new town. The marina set up a fuel delivery, for 24 Maltese cents a liter, about $2.71 a US gallon. Monday 10 July we shifted to a stone quai in the marina for the fuel truck, and found the customs forms hadn't been completed. So there was an hour's delay while the paperwork was sorted out. We found our ship's stamp - round self-inking, saying "M/V Resolution" with our USCG document number and a profile of the boat in the center - which we'd had made at Office Depot at home, was in demand here, on all the forms. Order more fuel than you think you need, since the amount on the customs form is the maximum you can take. Then plan on leaving within 24 hours since it's duty free.
Malta is a very friendly and comfortable place. Grand Harbor Marina could be a good place
to winter over, but a long stay in the heat of summer is probably not a great idea.
Croatia is our next destination, with some stops along the bottom of Italy, to minimize
the overnight runs. We plan to leave Malta July 11th and should reach Dubrovnik, Croatia by July 17th.