September 1999 : La Coruna to Peniche



Herewith the September epistle which comes to you from Peniche in Portugal - about 50 miles north of Lisbon, and 1033 miles out of Bristol. This month, like August, has been dogged by difficult weather. The good news is that the engine - which has had a fair amount of use - has performed perfectly since Padstow.

We were in La Coruna for about a week - a combination of waiting out adverse weather, and an ambitious new jobs list - Chris' included not only the mundane maintenance tasks, but also a visit to the dentist and learning Spanish! Just as we felt ready to move on we were thwarted by a thick fog which descended over the Galician coast, following several days of strong adverse winds. However, we finally got away to spend an idyllic couple of weeks covering just under 200 miles cruising the Rias - a series of deep and rocky inlets indenting the Galician coast of northwest Spain, conveniently spaced at about 20 mile intervals. They range in size - the smallest contain just a couple of little fishing harbours, and the larger ones a few more and even some large towns. The region is mountainous, beautiful and generally quite untouched by tourism.

The first part of the route, known rather dauntingly as 'La Costa da Morte', is a mighty and savage looking coast with great craggy cliffs and enormously high lighthouses. However, in the windless conditions we experienced, it posed no threat at all - especially when the fog finally lifted for good after the first few days. The ports of Laxe, Camarinas and Muxia are tiny and basic with a weatherbeaten and remote feel to them - more Scottish than Spanish. Rounding Cape Finisterre to head south seemed quite a threshhold - a new coast, with tide times based on Lisbon - and Radio Four finally out of range. The little town of Finisterre was one of the highlights of the voyage. The town itself, tucked behind the great cape, had a special magical quality of light - a sort of undiscovered St. Ives. The harbour, protected by a truly mighty breakwater, contains the large and incredibly colourful fishing fleet all set out on moorings. By a lucky chance, we found we'd arrived at fiesta time. Various festivities included an astonishingly cacophonous outdoor live pop concert which vied with a quayside funfair until about 4am in total musical chaos. More traditionally - and slightly more peacefully - all the fishing boats were decked out with bunting and at the appointed time the following afternoon, marked by a 'fanfare' of firecrackers - of which the Galicians seem very fond - all noise and no display - processed out of the harbour past us, laden with a statue of the Virgin and what seemed like half the population, down towards the Cape - a fabulous sight.

After Finisterre, we called in at the much larger Rias of Muros, Arosa and Pontevedra - each with their selection of fishing harbours and different navigational hazards. Highlights were the village of Combarro - a world heritage site - traditional Galacian stone houses and horreos - little sheds on stilts for storing grain, and a visit by bus to the stunningly ornate pilgrim city of Santiago da Compostella. We ended up at the idyllic Islas de Cies - a nature reserve just outside Bayona. We might well have lingered there, but for a forecast of seriously nasty weather in the offing.

We arrived in Bayona just in time to take shelter from a series of severe gales which pounded us for five days - on and off. The first, lasting about 18 hours during which time the barometer dropped 15 millibars was the worst and most dramatic, with fearsome gusts sheering us around and heeling us hard over. Boats dragged their anchors all around us - but we remained firmly dug in - much to our relief - and a certain satisfaction. A couple of boats gave up and spent a whole night motoring around the bay. We remained 'trapped' in Bayona along with about 40 other yachts, for ten days in all, waiting for the seas and wind to calm down. Chris used the time getting to grips with fax forecasts having the boat resounding to the pinging of broadcast weather faxes coming in from various sources - like a war movie! There was also plenty of time for sightseeing, sampling paella, and shopping. Shopping in Spain is quite entertaining, offering delights such as Bimbo bread, Bonka coffee and, not that we need it, Obsequio aftershave!

As we get into the cruising life, we discover that far from being the intrepid adventurers we thought we were when we left Bristol, we are just one of a fleet of yachts proceeding southwards, some en route to the Mediterranean, others with much the same plans as ourselves. Roughly equal numbers of British and Dutch, lots of Scandinavians, French and Germans and a smattering of Australians and Americans. We are getting used to seeing familiar yachts arriving at anchorages, and have started making friends. Our social life is becoming quite active, with drinks and meals aboard other yachts - Tokomaru, Comodo, Gravitas and a delightful French family on Capitaine Alf! Few of the little ports in the Rias have marinas, so the typical scene is to find half a dozen yachts anchored behind the ubiquitous fishing fleet in each harbour. The Spanish fishing industry is extremely active. Quite what the fishermen feel about this invasion of foreign yachts is anyone's guess. While they always returned a wave cheerily enough, the way they speed past us causing temporary havoc in their wakes seems to indicate a certain 'attitude'! They work incredibly hard. We have watched them returning to port in the early evenings, unloading their catches and then heard and felt the wash of their departure again at around. 3.30 the next morning.

We eventually got away from Bayona to head south over the border into Portugal, stopping first at Viana do Compostelo - a lovely little medieval town. From there southwards to Leixoes, the huge alien and rather bleak commercial port outside Oporto. Oporto is quite fantastic and well worth a visit by any means, not just by yacht. Fabulously picturesque dilapidation on one side of the great River Douro, matched by the elegant opulence of the great Port Houses on the other bank. We took a tour round Taylors Port, and made good use of the opportunity to stock up. We arrived here in Peniche yesterday - a trip of 120 miles - our longest since Biscay, made in the most vile conditions we have yet experienced. Having left Leixoes with a very slight headwind and flat seas, we were extremely suddenly, after several peaceful hours, overtaken by a howling wind from behind us. It was a pitch black night and decidedly unnerving to be hurtling along without any visual clues whatsoever. After a few more hours, the strong winds died off, leaving an unspeakably rolling sea the like of which we would hope never to experience again. At the time quite terrifying - crashing violently from side to side in a constant wild motion - with hindsight it is comforting to know what punishment Perdika can take. Dawn revealed the true horror of the sea state - a raging confusion of monstrous waves on a scale quite out of proportion for the size of our boat, and we realised it had been better not to have been able to see it after all! I don't remember ever having been quite so glad to arrive into port - and a very friendly port it is too - full of fishing boats and fish restaurants - plus some old and some new cruising friends.

One 'new' set of friends are a very old New Zealand couple in an ancient but mighty steel yacht. They have been out cruising for 14 years! Today they left Peniche. I asked the wife where they were heading. She didn't know and wasn't much bothered - obviously 30 miles or 300, it was all the same to her! She asked her husband and the destination turned out to be Gibraltar - well over 400 miles away! Hard to imagine ever being quite that blasé!