September 2016 Spain and Portugal
After the anxiety that preceded crossing Biscay and the tough sailing the crossing itself entailed, the summer proceeded at a gentler pace as I meandered down the NW coast of Spain, in and out of the fjord-like rias, and then down the coast of Portugal. I was fortunate to meet Barry, an English chap doing much the same as me on a boat not dissimilar to mine and we sailed in company for many weeks. Avoiding marinas, we went from anchorage to anchorage and a pattern soon emerged: we’d arrive at somewhere new, anchor, put the dinghies in the water and go ashore to take a look around. Many villages we visited are too small or unremarkable to feature in the guidebooks so we just went to see what we’d find. After a few days of mooching about ashore and getting done one or two things from the perpetual to-do list aboard we’d raise our anchors and sail on to the next place. And so the summer passed, long lazy day after long lazy day.
Both Spain and Portugal are old countries. Like England, both were seafaring powers in the age of exploration and they too acquired and maintained vast overseas empires. Spain’s democratic system is young, though. The civil war ended in 1939 and was followed by 36 years of dictatorship by Franco. There’s only been full parliamentary democracy since 1978. It was here, too, that Eta, the Basque separatists, fought a long and bloody campaign for independence before disbanding in 2012.
Modern Spain’s economy did well, thanks to booming tourism, housing and construction, but was hit hard in the 2008-9 global economic crisis, and has undertaken painful austerity measures which have in turn given rise to waves of protest. More than 27% of Spaniards were unemployed at one point.
Like Spain, Portugal was a dictatorship for more than half of the twentieth century. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar only gave way in 1974 in a bloodless coup. In 2011 Portugal became the third EU country after Greece and Ireland to ask for assistance but the EU/IMF bailout was granted only on condition that severe austerity measures were imposed to reduce the public deficit.
But I saw no sign of the economic woes of either country. Maybe that’s because the places I visited aren’t representative. Everywhere I found the locals to be helpful, friendly and well behaved. I saw no loutishness all summer, indeed little or no poor behavior of any kind. I saw delightful places as well as some truly awful ones, but it’s interesting to see everything, the postcard-pretty tourist towns where real life is hidden behind a façade as well as the real places where people actually live. Bueu, for example, doesn’t get a particularly good write-up in the guides but it’s an honest little working town that has everything I needed including proper food shops, a hardware store and a well-sheltered anchorage. In the evenings, after the heat of the day, the town is filled with its inhabitants rather than sunburnt tourists. Grandparents coo over babies, teenagers test limits, courting couples edge closer. It’s a real place with real people and I liked it.
I shan’t describe everywhere I went or everything I did. It would be tedious to write and more so to read. Instead, here are a few snippets that together paint a picture of my summer.
There being no wind at all I motored up the ria to Combarro, arriving as planned at low tide. It’s shallow but there’s just enough water in which to anchor. The town is full of tourists but there’s a reason for that: there’s an area, down on the waterfront, which has been restored to how it was as a fishing village many years ago. Even the hoards of gawping tourists snapping selfies could not mask the fact that it was absolutely lovely.
I persuaded Barry that it would be a crime to eat burger and chips in an area reputed to have the best seafood in the world, found a seafood restaurant and ordered paella. Sadly, it was rubbish. The seafood had been frozen for so long it was just mush. I do better paella myself. Damn. Now I’ll have to put up with bloody burgers for ages.
The strobe still doesn’t work on Moonrise so I climbed the mast and made a concerted effort to fix it. It’s just a matter of getting some volts from one end of a wire to the other. But could I get the bloody thing to go? No, I could not. Bah!
After filling-up with fuel I went off to pay at the office nearby. On returning I found a pretty girl lolling all over Moonrise, being photographed by her boyfriend. She didn’t seem at all embarrassed when I arrived. She stood up, said “I like your boat”, and wandered off. Very odd. There are much bigger and shinier boats than Moonrise.
Back at anchor, as I’m cooking dinner, I could hear a band doing sound checks in the village square. By the time I’d eaten they were playing their hearts out so I went ashore to watch the show. A little boy, hanging on to his mother’s hand, had eyes like saucers. Bored by the concert, he clearly thought it was the coolest thing ever to arrive by boat, tie it to the tourist rail, climb up and join the crowd. The music was well played and though not to my taste it was good to hear a live band. The night was hot and the sky was filled with summer lighting, including forked lightning coming down to the ground on the hills all around the ria. Just as the band finished their last song the heavens opened and on the way back to the boat I got as soaked as I would have had I swum back. I guess the little boy wouldn’t think that was quite so cool. But then again, he might.
Ensenada de Barra
I anchored off a gorgeous beach on the north side of the Ria Vigo. Somewhat to my surprise, as it’s not in the guidebook, it’s a nudist beach. I was anchored far enough out that I could see figures but not much more which was probably fortunate but I could see that they were behaving very strangely. It wasn’t that they weren’t wearing clothes. That’s to be expected, given that they’re nudists. It was the walking. Up and down they went. For miles. Endlessly. I’ve anchored off lots of beaches and not seen this elsewhere. Normally people sit or lie in the sun. Or play games with their children. Or paddle (the water’s too cold for swimming). But there people walk purposefully, in twos and threes, from one end of the beach to the other. Back and forth they go, all day. It’s very strange. When two such groups meet and stop for a chat everyone stands with their hands on their hips. It’s as though, without pockets, they have nowhere else to put them. They don’t seem content for them to be on the ends of their arms. I wonder if, when they’re chatting in a group like that, they’re all carefully looking at each other’s faces.
Spanish customs paid me a visit in their awesome launch that looked like they’d borrowed it from the set of a Batman movie. It was big, dark, and its engines made a sort of low grumble. The officers declined to come aboard Moonrise when invited but just asked me to pass over my papers for examination. I was left to continue drinking my tea and await my sentence. As it turned out they simply gave my papers back and wished me a pleasant voyage. Like everyone here, they were polite and friendly.
There’s no wifi in the anchorage at Bayona, even with my super-duper wifi booster, so I headed ashore for a final check on the weather before leaving. The next leg was an inconvenient 55 miles long so it would need either a very early start or a very late one (and an overnight sail) to ensure arrival in daylight. On my way ashore I passed and hailed a fine old British sailing vessel called Gwen. Two hours later I was still sat on her deck, drinking coffee with Tricia and Richard, a young couple sailing on a shoestring. I was delighted to see them doing so, not just because they aren’t middle-aged and recently retired like so many cruisers but because there’s a romance to travelling hand-to-mouth like that. I take my hat off to them. I certainly wouldn’t have the nerve to set out with only two months’ money in the hope of somehow earning more along the way.
I did finally make it ashore but, once there and having checked assorted forecasts, I decided to stay put for another day. When eventually I did leave I was up at first light and underway before breakfast, which I ate later as I sailed. There was no sign of Barry, which was unusual as he’s normally up and away before me. I called him on the radio and he explained that he was unwell and would set off later. There was very little wind so I only just made it to Povoa de Vazim before last light.
The next morning there was not just no wind, it was deathly still. There was also the kind of thick fog that leaves everything dripping wet and seems to muffle all sound. Barry, having set out much later than planned, was still out there somewhere in the murk. Eventually he called me on the radio saying he had arrived outside the harbor but couldn’t see it. Taking my walkie talkie I went to look. Although he couldn’t see the grey concrete harbour walls in the grey fog, I could see his boat quite clearly so I stood on the dock overlooking the entrance and talked him in: “Turn to port 30 degrees. Okay, now keep straight. There’s a green buoy coming up. Leave it to starboard. Now turn right 90 degrees…” After 24 hours at sea, while unwell, with no autopilot, in thick fog, the poor chap was exhausted.
From Povoa de Vazim we sailed directly to Cascais. The winds were not strong so the locally generated waves were small but the big Atlantic swell came rolling in from some storm or other elsewhere. It was big enough to swallow the forty-foot mast of a sailboat with ease and made keeping a lookout for other boats a bit of a lottery. Unless you and they are both on top of a wave at the same time there’s a good chance you won’t see them.
Cascais, near Lisbon
While I was in Cascais a boat called Endeavour came by. She’s a 130-foot (40 m) J-class yacht built for the 1934 America’s Cup. There are now nine J Class yachts in existence, and all of them are expected to race in Bermuda in 2017. That will be an awesome sight.
After photographing Endeavour as she went by I looked her up on the internet and found that she’s for sale. For a cool €20 million you get one of the most famous sailing yachts there ever was. These shots of her interior are from the sales material.
My friend Dave flew down to visit for a few days. It was good to see him, and he brought with him a bag full of goodies including emergency supplies of baked beans, inexplicably unavailable in Spain or Portugal. Barry sailed on south to the Algarve and I prepared to sail to Madeira, out in the Atlantic.
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