The first leg of this year's summer cruising started at the beginning of June and has just ended, with Aremiti safely tied up in Nazare, while we go off sea-kayaking in the US.
At the start of June we arrived back in Viveiro, on the northern coast of Spain, to find Aremiti in excellent condition following her winter out of the water. A massive relief - we have never left her on her own for so long - but she didn't appear to bear us any resentment. Our first task was to prepare her for the water - a major hull-scraping and sanding job which took 3 days - a task of heroic proportions dispelling once and for all any idea that yachting is a glamorous occupation. Then a day's painting before the launch - carried out in pouring rain. Next followed a few days of preparations - routine maintenance cleaning, provisioning, sorting out charts and passage planning.
This has been something of a nostalgia trip for us as we have retraced our steps of 1999 and 2002. Most of this time has been spent cruising the rias of Galicia - great indentations in the rocky, rugged and mountainous coastline at the edge of north-western Spain, fully exposed to all the Atlantic can throw at it. The fishing industry holds sway here with every port dominated by its brightly painted fishing fleet, fish market, sheds and workshops. Fish farming is also big business with many viveros - large wooden rafts where mussels are grown on ropes hanging beneath. These, plus multitudinous lobster pots lurking in coastal waters, provide plenty of hazards to avoid.
We covered 127 uneventful miles during the first week's sailing, although light south-westerly winds meant that we used the engine more than we would have liked - not that it isn't very pleasing to report that it has been behaving impeccably. The weather during this phase tended to be damp and gloomy with hill tops shrouded in low swirling mists - more like Scotland than Spain - as Galicia seemed intent on proving its Celtic credentials. We visited two more of the northern rias - Barquero - tranquil and pretty, and Cedeira - nice down to earth little fishing port and town. Then on to the great port of La Coruna - skyline dominated by its iconic twin landmarks - the Torre de Hercules, the mighty Roman lighthouse (oldest functioning lighthouse in the world) and the stylish modern control tower. When we were in La Coruna back in 1999 there was a large international fleet of yachts at anchor and a very buzzy atmosphere with crews planning their Atlantic crossings or passages into the Mediterranean. Now the space is filled by a ridiculously enormous marina, more than half empty with a rather desolate atmosphere. The rest of La Coruna however was comfortingly as we remembered it - narrow streets of traditionally Galician glassed-in balconies, the seafront promenade and great Maria Pita Square. After a couple of days we moved on south westwards to the tiny harbour of Malpica, where we had not been before. Dominated by large fishing boats, it was challenging to find a space and we ended up tied up to a high stone wall bouncing around in the swell, with passers by strolling around the port area looking down on us with some curiosity. By chance we had arrived on the weekend of their fiesta - the place was buzzing and we were treated to the chaotic cacophony of funfair and pop concert blasting out until 5am. We left at 8am the following morning to the sound of rockets going off- in typical Galician style - huge bang but nothing to see. Our next destination - 33 miles on - was Muxia - a simple fishing port where we anchored behind the fishing fleet when we were last there. Now the harbour is dominated by a massive unfinished and empty marina - very sad. Perfect for berthing practice, but with a very desolate air. It appears that the ports of Galicia have enjoyed a mighty spending spree over the past few years with swanky new marinas popping up all over the place. Facilities for the fishermen have also been enormously and ostentatiously improved in many ports. However, money for the marinas now appears to have run out before they are all finished and in any case, it is hard to see the demand for them. We far prefer to anchor - and spent only 5 nights in marinas after leaving Viveiro.
So far so good, but the next stage proved slightly more eventful. The day we left Muxia, bound for Finisterra was a significant one anyway both because it would mark our turn south for the first time, and also because of its daunting reputation as the ‘Costa da Morte’. The weather was being particularly Celtic that day - no wind and very low visibility so that we could hardly see the dread coast at all. We were just remarking on what a shame this was in view of its reputation, when the engine which had been contentedly purring along stopped dead without any warning. Checking the back of the boat, we found we had caught an enormous polypropylene sack in the propeller. After some poking with a boat-hook from the ladder at the back of the boat, most of it drifted off but left one piece determinedly wrapped around the propeller. We got started again but couldn't achieve full power. Chris finally managed to dislodge it by diving on it once we were anchored off Finisterra
The little town of Finisterra holds special memories for us - we were there both in 1999 and 2002. Its main glory is its position, just behind the mighty Cape Finisterre, and its harbour which seems especially sparkling - full of very brightly painted boats. However the town itself was a bit of a dump - albeit that we thought it had potential. It has now realised that potential - tarted itself up - very swanky new glass fish market with sweeping blue roof - and become quite trendy, and especially popular with Santiago pilgrims. The sun came out soon after our arrival and we enjoyed a happy nostalgic visit ashore.
Our next port of call - another nostalgic stop - was Muros - a more sophisticated little town - very gracious with its colonnaded stone pavements and grey stone buildings. But sad to see yet another empty unfinished marina. We spent two days there - both of which turned out to be somewhat frazzled. On the first evening, as I was cooking the evening meal the gas alarm went off. I turned everything off and Chris went off to investigate, immediately discovering that the alarm sensor under the floor was under water - the boat was quietly filling up with water! Further investigations found nothing wrong until Chris found a dripping breather pipe which had slipped out of position. The bilge pump worked a treat so we quickly got rid of the water and the cause was easily fixed - but a bit nerve wracking all the same! On the following day the wind changed direction and strengthened and we felt we were anchored too close to the shore in rather shallow water. However, when trying to get the anchor up to re-anchor further out we found it had become snagged. So there we were - in a strengthening onshore wind, hooked up to some unknown object under water and unable to move. By an extraordinarily lucky chance, we spotted a small boat which just happened to be passing nearby, with 3 spear fishermen on board. We hailed them over and explained the predicament as best we could in Spanish. One of them went down to have a look. The anchor had got caught on a cable and, as we manoeuvred at his direction, the diver managed to free us. Once we were re-anchored safely and felt happy about leaving the boat, we went ashore. We encountered our saviour in the fish market where we had gone to watch the fish auction. He was in process of selling his catch and had time for a chat. It turned out that spear fishing is just his hobby - in real life he is a wind turbine engineer (there are about a million wind turbines on the coast in these parts). However, times are hard currently and his company have temporarily laid off the work-force, so his hobby has become a useful source of income.
We were lucky enough to arrive in Muros at fiesta time - the feast of San Xoan. There is also some (impenetrable to us) connection with witches (Galician tourist shops are full of witches) and the fiesta involved numerous bonfires - both in town and on the beaches - apparently to drive out the witches. We went to a nearby village which was holding a sardine feast. This was a lovely community event - the men barbecuing great trays of sardines which are eaten at long tables with a special bread and copious glasses of white wine which just seemed to keep on coming. The locals - though speaking only about as much English as we speak Spanish were warmly welcoming, trying to explain what it was all about.
The anchor snagging was the last of this trio of incidents. The weather then became much better, with generally favourable winds. Good to get rid of those witches! We moved on next into Ria Arosa - the largest of the rias, strewn with rocks and shallow water, not to mention viveros - all making for some challenging navigation. Having said that, as we were concentrating on our precise route into the ria between the mainland and some islands (rather than taking the long way round) we encountered a large fleet of local racing yachts who seemed to be making no concessions at all to the rocky environment!
Cambados was a new place for us - we thought we should give it a look, despite its very awkward location, not least because it is the home of the Galician wine Alborino. Having taken the boat into the harbour at high water, it was obvious that neither the passage into it nor the harbour itself would be deep enough for us at low water, so we anchored outside - feeling a bit exposed, but OK in the very calm weather. Would you believe - it turned out to be fiesta time here too! Corpus Christi this time. On going ashore we found teams of women and girls on their hands and knees decorating the roads in intricate designs with brightly dyed salt and flowers. We discovered that this was the route of the religious procession due to take place that evening. The town was a gem - charming and picturesque - but the fiesta quite a bonus. We went into town again that evening to find the whole population out in their Sunday best, promenading and admiring the decorations - which were then walked all over by the procession.
There must have been one witch left because at our next anchorage - off Isla Ons - we had to re-anchor in the middle of the night in wind which had suddenly strengthened and unexpectedly changed direction. Next morning we headed up Ria Pontevedra into very strong winds to the town of Combarro. This was another nostalgic return - the particularly scenic location inevitably marred by yet another new marina. However, this one was finished, its staff extremely helpful, had wonderful showers, and was actually rather a nice place to be for a couple of nights during a phase of particularly strong winds. Combarro is an old fishing village situated on and built of granite - exceptionally picturesque (and a bit touristy except at the start and end of the day). Lots of fishing activities going on - not just viveros, but also tiny boat-loads of men pulling on rakes with enormously long handles scooping up mussels, and - at low water - women on the beach right out at the waterline raking for cockles.
Next to the Islas Cies - a delightful slow sail back out of the ria in light winds which saw the first outing of the cruising chute. These islands are a very beautiful nature reserve - we anchored off a stunning white beach and, going ashore walked through pines and eucalyptus trees to the southern end of the main island. After a couple of days there in hot sunny weather, we motored the final 10 miles to Bayona - which marked the end of the rias phase of this leg. Bayona is a delightful town, buzzing with activity, dominated by a 16th century castle - great beaches and a charming medieval old quarter. Our previous visit there was somewhat more dramatic when we were gale bound for 10 days. This visit was very peaceful in almost non-existent wind. Whilst at anchor we noticed that one of the other yachts there was one which we had last encountered in 1999 in Barbados - for drinks on Christmas day! The new owners invited us aboard and we swapped experiences. They are currently bound for New Zealand, via South America.
The final week of this leg of our voyage saw a complete change of pace, as we made a series of longer passages down the Portuguese coast. The border between Spain and Portugal, just south of Bayona, is marked by a complete contrast in the coastline, with the rugged indentations and mountains of Galicia replaced by long straight beaches backed by dunes and pine forests. There is a dearth of ports - what few there are, are mostly at river entrances where sandbars build up, creating potentially dangerous conditions coupled with the considerable Atlantic swell. The pilot book gives dire warnings of yachts and even lives being lost in attempts to enter harbours in unsuitable conditions. However, our conditions were pretty perfect (not very often you hear a sailor saying that!) with perfect strength northerly winds. Our first leg was 66 miles from Bayona to Leixoes, which is the huge commercial port for Porto. There is a little corner of the port for yachts to anchor in from which to observe the activities of huge ships entering the port, requiring pilots and tugs. We went off for a relaxing stroll around Porto - marvelling as we had on our previous visit at the fantastically picturesque decaying old city. Then another 68 miles of excellent sailing to Figueira da Foz - just for an overnight stop. Finally we rocked and rolled our way the last 39 miles in 3 metre swell to the safe haven of Nazare. We surged into the harbour with waves crashing on each side of the entrance, relieved at the immediate transition to flat water. Aremiti is now tied up safely under the watchful eyes of the British couple who run the marina and we feel she will be safe there in our absence over the next month.