Friday, 4 July 2014

The Still Wild North Coast

A friend told us we had to visit the north coast of Spain while it was still “wild”, by which he meant undeveloped for recreational sailing.  Ports that can accommodate sailboats of 10 meters or more are few and far between.  All other harbors are small estuaries or fishing ports that are home to small recreational fishing vessels or large commercial boats, and sailboats have to be “creative” about finding a place to moor.

Before leaving home, I thought all of that sounded romantic.  After only 2 weeks, I can tell you that the honeymoon is definitely over.  The first problem is that we’re working our way west, against the dominant winds and swell (almost never less than 1.5 meters in this part of the world).  We knew it would be a slog, but spending 10 pain-in-the-ass hours to cover what should be only a 30 mile hop is causing us to question our motivation for heading west.  What is it we wanted to see again?  Is it really worth it?  Are we having fun yet?  The second problem is that even once you make it to one of these little villages, it’s not at all certain that you’ll be able to find an adequate place to moor if you have a draft of 1.8 meters or more.  A helpful local said, “You know, you really need a lifting keel here.” 

Our French coastal pilot guide book is of little help, since it was written by someone sailing in a small boat with a draft of less than 1.5 meters and tells us that we have numerous places to anchor.  Since it was written, it’s clear that the port management has changed and boats that were at anchor in a mooring zone are now on buoys, meaning that a visiting boat can’t anchor anywhere near them because there isn’t enough room for the boat to swing with the current and winds without hitting the boats on mooring buoys.

San Vincente with the Picos de Europa in the background.
San Vicente de la Barquera was one of these wild surprises.  The guide pointed out numerous options:  tying up along the stone quay when the professional fishing boats are out, mooring in the channel, or mooring in a small channel that branches off the main channel that can only be entered or left at high tide.   When we arrived, there was only one other sailboat in the whole estuary, a Bavaria 37.  We dropped our anchor next to him, re-positioning ourselves 3 times in the 3 knot current to try to find the best compromise between water depth and distance away from the other boats on mooring buoys that wouldn’t swing like us.  The owner of the Bavaria showed up and suggested we try the secondary channel where he assured us there was a small deep zone that would retain at least 2 meters of water at low tide.  With our navigational software zoomed to its maximum and hand-signals from the Bavaria owner, we held our breath and tip-toed into the pool area, where we dropped the anchor another 3 times trying to find the center of the pool where we wouldn’t run aground if the wind or current changed directions.  

Nestled in the sand in San Vincente de la Barquera
As it was, we did run aground, but only gently and in a few centimeters of sand.  We were told that no one was allowed to tie up to the fishing quay anymore.  There was a small port area with floating docks, but they were completely filled with small recreational fishing vessels.  The Bavaria owner told us we could tie up to the outside dock (where the refueling station was) but that we would be chased away at 8 o’clock the next morning.  It’s still a mystery to us as to who, exactly, would chase us away, since there was no port office and no port workers as far as we could tell.   We asked at the tourism office as well as local boaters about this and they told us that there was a telephone number to call if you wanted to speak to someone about the port.  So we stayed in our little pool of water, anxiously looking at the depth sounder every low tide. 

Notre Dame de Los Angeles
But the biggest disappointment was the lack of weather information.  We didn’t hear a single weather forecast on the vhf the whole time we were in San Vincente.  The port, such as it is, didn’t have weather information posted around the docks, either.  We went to a bar with wireless internet and looked up the weather forecast the night before we planned to leave.  We checked 2 sites, typically more-or-less trustworthy, and both said the conditions were good for the next day.  Stay tuned to find out just how wrong, and dangerous, that was.