Summary of s/y Gyatso’s 2008 Cruising Season from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean: Portugal to Italy

Photo: Map of Gyatso's voyage from Portugal to Spain and Italy in 2008. Credit: Lisa Borre.
Map of s/y Gyatso’s 2008 voyage from Portugal to Atlantic Spain and Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean to the Balearic Islands and Sardinia and ending in Gaeta, Italy. Credit: Lisa Borre.

We reached the Italian mainland from Sardinia on Tuesday, 7 October, and a few weeks later, we managed to secure a berth for the winter at the marina “Base Nautica Flavio Gioia” in Gaeta, which is between Rome and Naples and also the site of a US naval base. We have a contract until next March, by which time we hope that the weather will be good enough to begin the 2009 cruising season.

Looking back over this cruising season, it began when we left Lagos, Portugal, on 9 March. From Lagos to Gaeta our route covered 1,462 nautical miles, with a three month “pause” while we were hauled-out, from mid-April to mid-July.

Photo: s/y Gyatso in Portimao, Portugal. Credit: Lisa Borre.
Gyatso in Portimao, Portugal. Credit: Lisa Borre.

We made two overnight sails—from Mahon, Menorca, Spain to Carloforte, Sardinia, Italy, and from Arbatax, Sardinia to Gaeta. Each of these was about 200 nm and took roughly 36 hours.

We also made 35 port-to-port sails lasting less than a day, averaging about 30 nm and about six hours of travel time. The shortest day-sail was only 6 nm (our first day), and the longest was 57 nm.

We anchored eight times and tied up at marinas 29 times. The longest that we were tied to a dock in a marina was 12 days, in Gibraltar, waiting for mail and a west wind. We would have liked to have anchored more often, but we found that most anchorages on the Spanish coast were either exposed to potential wind shifts or rolly in swells, or both.

Photo: Coastal Cruising in Mediterranean Spain. Credit: Lisa Borre.
Coastal Cruising in Mediterranean Spain

On the whole, the weather was great—sunny and warm, but not too hot—but the wind tended to be quite light, and we motored or motor-sailed most days. Sometimes this was by choice in order to avoid beating into wind or to safely round a cape with contrary currents and shifty winds. We had nine days with really fine sailing: five “one star”, two “two star”, and two “three star” days (our own scale, ranging from 1=good to 3=glorious) — no major mishaps, just the usual excitement of docking with a bow sprit and no bow thruster.

During July and August we found that the Mediterranean generally lived up to its reputation of being calm, but we also encountered a few places with big swells being carried from distant weather systems, and a couple of times these got really uncomfortable, especially when they came from two or more separate directions or were crosswise to the wind. We had only one bout of really unpleasant weather, in our crossing from the Balearic Island of Menorca to Sardinia, when we were caught in squalls in the midst of the big seas for which the west coast of Sardinia is notorious. Gyatso loved it, but we weren’t too pleased.

We saw enough marine life to keep us alert. David’s favorite sighting was when Gyatso spooked a sleeping swordfish, which jumped seven times in a straight line while putting as much distance as possible between itself and us. Lisa’s favorites were the dolphins that loved to play in Gyatso’s bow wave, especially in the currents around the big capes. One day in a flat calm we saw a big ocean sunfish with its dorsal fin flopping out of the water, and we often saw flying fish, including several serious contenders for flying distance records.

Photo: Large marina in Benalmadena, Spain. Credit: Lisa Borre.
Large marina in Benalmadena, Spain. Credit: Lisa Borre.

One of our strongest impressions from sailing in the Western Mediterranean is how few boats of any nationality are actually voyaging over reasonably long distances. We found a few “hotspots” of charter sailboats, particularly in the Balearic Islands, where sailors, generally on one-week charters, would move from one island to another. We also met a number of Europeans who spend a month or two cruising during the summer, but aside from these and the busy charter areas, we found ourselves nearly alone, even at the “height” of the season.

As in Annapolis and elsewhere in the USA, almost none of the many boats in marinas ever seem to leave the dock. Despite this and making no advance reservations, we never found a place that didn’t have space for us to tie-up for at least a night or for as long as we wanted, despite the reports that there are more boats in Spain than spaces in marinas. All harbors set aside some berths for visiting yachts, and as long as you arrive early enough and pay the going rate, they can usually find a space for a yacht under 12 meters long.

We met some really friendly people along the way and never had any bad experiences, but there was no way to escape the reality that we were tourists in a region that lives on tourism. As “yachties” virtually everyone we encountered in the marine and tourist industries in Spain saw us as people who should be charged as much as possible and given as little in the way of service as they could get away with. It’s probably pretty much the same for Europeans who visit Florida.

Photo: Ibiza, Balearic Islands, Spain. Credit: Lisa Borre.
Ibiza, Balearic Islands, Spain. Credit: Lisa Borre.

During the roughly five months that we were sailing, we saw only a handful of U.S.-flagged yachts, all headed west or based in a particular port, and we had meaningful interactions with the crews of only two of them. More recently, we have received emails from owners of two other American boats that are headed in the same general direction as us, who have experienced the same. We expected to see more and can’t quite explain why there were so few. There are probably several reasons, including the falling dollar, fear of terrorism, and awareness of generalized anti-US sentiment (actually, anti-Bush) throughout Europe. It is worth recalling that Jose Zapatero, the Spanish Prime Minister, is on McCain’s “will not talk to” list. Recently Zapatero gave an interview to the International Herald Tribune in which he said that after he pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq — as his first act in office — Bush phoned him and said “I want you to know how disappointed I am in you” and slammed the phone down.

All in all, our experiences cruising in the height of the tourist season left us both feeling somewhat isolated socially – something new in our cruising experience – so it is good that we get along so well. (While coastal cruising, it probably doesn’t help that we tend to travel alone and at a slower pace than most.) We did manage to meet-up with and spend time with several sailing friends in ports along the way: Else and Dries on Thetis in Almerimar, Peter and Annemarie on Onyx in Palma de Mallorca, and Stephen and Anne on Wandering Dragon in Gibraltar and Cagliari, Sardinia. We also met several new friends who we hope to cross paths with again in the future.

Our strongest impression of the Costa del Sol (especially) and the Costa Blanca in Spain was how grotesquely overdeveloped they are. Every foot of every beach is fronted by high-rise apartment blocks that cater mostly to British expats who use the cheap airlines, such as Easy Jet and RyanAir, to get away to Sunny Spain. Condo apartment units along the Costa del Sol were sold by the hundreds of thousands a year during the 70s, 80s and 90s, and there are now about a million of them for sale, which is one reason why the Spanish and British real estate markets are in almost as much trouble as the U.S. Having seen this coastline from the water, it is not hard to understand why it has attracted so many people. Rocky cliffs, beautiful beaches, crystal blue water and lots of sunshine make it ideal for summer vacation. From the beginning of July to the end of September, we experienced only a few drops of rain. (The Spanish weather forecasters actually have a phrase, cuatro gato, for “four drops of rain” in the forecast!)

Photo: Museum in Benalmadena, Spain. Credit: Lisa Borre.
One of the many museums we visited, this one in Benalmadena, Spain. Credit: Lisa Borre.

Our “Phoenicians” project got off to quite a good start. We visited Phoenician archaeology sites or museums with Phoenician collections at Cadiz, Gibraltar, Malaga, Almunecar (Sexi), Adra (Abdera), and Cartagena on the Spanish mainland; Sa Caleta and Ibiza, on Ibiza; and Sulcis and Nora on Sardinia. The general standard of the Spanish museums is pretty low as far as interpretive materials is concerned, and in most places the Phoenician settlements were so well chosen that they have been built on, again and again, starting with the Romans.

One of David’s favorite places was Cartagena, which was started by Hannibal’s uncle at the end of the First Punic War, in 243 or maybe 238 BC, because of its wonderful harbor. It was intended to serve as a base for Phoenician control of Spain, after the loss of Sicily and Sardinia to the Romans. Hasdrubal put up a huge wall across the isthmus which then connected Cartagena to the mainland, but the Roman general Scipio did an “end-run” around the wall and conquered the city in 208 BC, while Hannibal was in Italy. Most of the Phoenician wall was torn down long ago, but a piece of it was discovered a few years ago and a museum was built on top of it, with a modern architectural structure to illustrate how high and wide the walls originally were. It is quite an incredible sight.

One of Lisa’s favorite places was the Balearic Islands, especially Menorca which is a bit off the tourist track. We also liked Rota and nearby Cadiz, Sevilla and Jerez de la Frontera in Spain and Carloforte, Cagliari and Arbatax in southern Sardinia – all with friendly people, interesting history, delicious food and good local wine.

We continue to be amazed at the richness of experiences we have while traveling by sailboat in this part of the world and feel incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity. Details of our 2008 cruising season can be found in our 2008 Cruising Log.