Back in the 80’s when we were big into board and wave sailing, Hyeres in France, was synonymous with speed sailing on slalom boards. We have figured out why – Hyeres, just east of Toulon, is on the edge of the Golfe du Lion, known for the Mistral winds that blows down the Gulf.
According to the Mediterranean Pilot, “The Golfe du Lion is an area which merits much respect”. During our crossing, the Gulf of Lion lived up to its reputation with regard extreme winds. We set out from Marseille at noon, with our course set for a 120 nm passage to Baia des Cadaques on the western edge of the gulf, just across the Spanish border. The weather forecast was for a pleasant 15 knot wind for the next 24 hours.
About 10 nm out of Marseille, we caught up with a Canadian flagged Dufour 45, sailed by a couple who had problems controlling their boat, as it was screwing up to windward with every gust – clearly, the boat was over-canvassed, despite their reefed sails. We were going nicely with a fully reefed mainsail and half furled jib in 20 knots of wind on a beam reach, doing 7-8 knots SOG. As we passed them, they turned around and headed back to Marseille. In hindsight, we should have done the same.
The wind was building to 25 knots with gusts of 35 knots, which is OK in a moderate sea, but the waves had built to 2-3 metres and were breaking. We were down to the reefed mainsail and were hand steering at 8-10 knots SOG, as the autopilot refused to cooperate after the first two hours. We did one hour watches on the wheel for the next 16 hours, as steering the boat was exhausting after an hour. In all our years of sailing, the 1987 Beachcomber race from Mauritius to Durban on a Farr 38, was the only passage worse than this one, having back then been hit by the cyclone Domoina, south of Reunion.
At 6am we anchored in the dark in Baia des Cadaques in Spain, cold, wet and exhausted, saying “Never believe weather forecasts again!” – over a glass of brandy. Later in the afternoon, after a good sleep, shower and a shave, we hit the pretty town of Cadaques for a walk up to the church and to have dinner, with a bottle of Spanish red wine.
The following day we walked to the village of Port Lligat, to visit the house of Salvador Dali, where he had lived and worked for more than 50 years.
Our plan was to spend some time in Barcelona to visit some of our favourite buildings and see the Familia Sagrada church of Antonio Gaudi which had been completed since our last visit. On the way there, we stopped over in Cala Montgo, Sant Feliu and Arenys de Mare. Since entering Spain and hence, the northern Catalan province, we noticed the Catalonian flag flying everywhere and posters calling for Catalan autonomy.
The acting Spanish government then made the mistake to imprison nine Catalan leaders over their roles in the failed push for secession two years ago. A call went out to Catalonians to march in Barcelona in protest against the imprisonment of these leaders. The march that had preceded the unrest, had been peaceful. According to Barcelona police, about 525,000 people congregated in the city, many of them having marched there from around Catalonia.
The sh1t hit the fan when a radical movement of young Catalan separatists, Arran, called for a new demonstration “against repression” in central Barcelona on Saturday afternoon. So, we arrived in Arenys de Mare in the middle of five consecutive nights of violence in Barcelona. The right wing opponents of socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, were calling for the government to take a hard line on the latest eruption of the regional independence crisis.
Although Sánchez has taken a more conciliatory approach to the Catalan question than his predecessor, he has ruled out any referendum on Catalan independence and insisted any negotiations will have to respect the Spanish constitution. Spain is due to hold its fourth general election in as many years on 10 November. We decided to wait in Arenys Marina, about 20 nm from Barcelona, until the dust had settled, while we got a lot of maintenance done on the boat.
With Barcelona in lockdown, we decided to sail to the Balearic islands of Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza off the Spanish coast. But now, the weather turned against us, with a forecast of six consecutive days of very strong southerly winds blowing back at us from the islands for the 100 nm crossing. Our recent experience across the Gulf of Lion, made this a non-starter. Having spent two weeks on these islands a number of years ago, enjoying the sun and the marvellous products from their gin distilleries, we decided to give the islands a miss this time and rather sail down the Spanish coast to Gibraltar.
However, Arenys de Mar turned out to be our stopover for six days, because the weather deteriorated to the point where a massive storm hit us in the marina on the 21st October. We were glad to be in the marina because the entire Catalan coast got hammered by this storm all the way down to Barcelona and beyond. A walk to the supermarket the next day was a challenge through mud and water logged streets.
Our journey continued on the 24th October in relatively flat seas with stopovers in Vilanova, Cala Podrit and Peniscola, covering 150 nm in three days of sailing and motoring. Peniscola turned out to be an attractive town, situated on a small peninsula with a spacious harbour on the south side, where we could anchor. We decided to spend an extra day here, to explore and shop.
In the year 1233, Peniscola, which had been under the control of the Arabs since 718, was taken over by King James I. In 1294, during James II of Aragon’s reign, control was passed over to the Knights of the Order of the Temple. It was at this point when the Templars built their last great fortress here from 1294 to 1307. In 1411, Pope Benedict XIII made the castle his pontifical seat. It was fascinating to explore this well restored and maintained castle and surrounding old town with all this history.
When we anchored at Burriana on Monday the 28th October, we reached a milestone: we were anchored at Longitude 0 degree, (The Greenwich prime meridian line) where East meets West. When we sailed from Nimoa island in Papua New Guinea, we were at Longitude 153 degrees and have therefore, sailed 42.5% of the equatorial circumference of the world since. In practice, a bit further of course, due to our north and south track, as we sailed west.
There followed a few days of very little wind, so we had to motor sail and anchor in Ghandia and Calpe. Calpe has a good anchorage outside the harbour and is an attractive town in the shadow of a huge rocky promontory. Most of this section of the Costa Blanca coast has white sandy beaches with beautiful mountains as a backdrop.
Unfortunately, the building developments along this coast approaches mini Manhattans as witnessed in Benidorm, our next stop. The expat Brits and UK holiday makers seem to like it here as there are fish and chip shops and Indian curry restaurants on every block.
For every wind free day there follows a good windy day and we enjoyed two days of lovely sailing, first to Torrevieja and then to Cartagena. We are in the marina at Cartagena at the moment, waiting for a fierce westerly, gusting at 35 knots in the marina to blow out, before we continue to Gibraltar. Cartagena is a lovely town with old Roman remains of a theatre and a forum precinct, which we will explore tomorrow.
Cheers for now, our next post will be from Gibraltar.