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Stoneways Marine 2021 - LEADERBOARD

Cruising the Mediterranean Sea: Sardinia to France

by Hugh & Heather Bacon 1 Nov 2020 11:46 UTC
Tunis to Marseille and Port Napoleon © Hugh & Heather Bacon

In the last article from 'Memories of a Circumnavigation' Hugh and Heather cruised the Mediterranean Sea westbound from Turkey on the Asian continent to Tunisia on the African continent.

Enroute they passed through the Greek Dodecanese island group to Crete and continued to Malta before reaching Cap Monastir Marina in Tunisia. Following explorations ashore, they cruised up the Tunisian coast to Sidi Bou Said near Tunis and then continued to the Italian island of Sardinia where this episode begins.

We now continue with the passages of Argonauta I from the beginning of their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their 1997 outbound Caribbean track. Later they continued to Victoria, Canada bringing their odyssey to a close.

Circumnavigators make the decision to go either north or south of Africa. We had chosen to go north as there were more countries along that route. Tunisia had been our fourth African country to explore and we anticipated visiting this vast continent at least once again before crossing the Atlantic. Meantime, we had visited Turkey, Greece and Malta and looked forward to seeing parts of Italy, France and Spain before departing the Mediterranean for the Atlantic Ocean at the Strait of Gibraltar.

We were now in familiar territory. Heather and I had both spent time on the Italian island of Sardinia when we were associated with the Royal Canadian Air force back in the days when Canada maintained bases in Central Europe. Decimomannu, was a shared fighter weapons training facility for NATO forces. It is located ten Roman miles north of the city of Cagliari in the southern part of the island. It is still an Italian front-line NATO fighter training base. We had booked a marina stay in Cagliari to give us time to refresh old memories before we continued up the east coast of the island. Later we planned to carry on north to the French island of Corsica and then on to the mainland French Riviera. Finally, we would sail to the mouth of the Rhone River to leave Argonauta I for the winter in Southern France at Port Napoleon. The marina is near the small town of Port Saint Louis du Rhône close to an area of France known as the Camargue: wild horses, flamingos, salt flats, and rice paddies.

We had made our Sardinian landfall on August 5, 2004 at a bay on the south west coast anchoring at Port Malfatano before continuing to the city of Cagliari further to the east. Enroute we photographed an isolated cove at Chia, a beach which we had frequented some thirty years back. There was little change although the surrounding farmland had now been built up with tourist facilities.

With the European Union (EU), there were no longer customs formalities to contend with. Entering the EU from Tunisia and unsure what to do, we were advised not to chase the authorities as it would likely present more of a problem than not. So we slid on in! Marina del Sole in Cagliari was amazing. Check in was strictly verbal. No forms were signed and we paid cash upon departure. Staff were very helpful. We even got one of our North American pattern propane tanks filled, something that had not been possible in Tunisia. We rented a car from the marina to take a look at Decimomanu Air Base. We realized that terrorism concerns would make it impossible for random visitors to gain access. Still, we drove north, had a look over the fence then headed back to Cagliari for a beer on the Via Roma. The old Venetian City looked marvelous with many excellent restaurants and lots of good shopping.

Heather sent an email:

We liked Tunisia and were tempted to linger. But when we arrived in Sardinia there was that feeling of arriving "chez soi". From our arrival at Marina del Sole in Cagliari we felt comfortable. An Italian who spoke no English helped bring us in. A younger German couple called out to us because their boat is named Argonauta. We spent an evening with them chatting until 1 AM. An American kid saw us and brought his grandmother to talk to us. She led us to the supermarket before she left. A French woman befriended me and chattered enthusiastically. They invited us to visit them in southern France. After the anonymity of Sidi Bou Said, it was great to meet people. When I made enquiries about dry cleaners and a post office near the marina they drove me there! Then we explored Cagliari. (a la recherche...) I LOVE Italians; I'd like to be reincarnated as an Italian child. I would never have to grow up! They smile all the time. (Well, except on the roads, I guess) The supermarket was an ecstasy experience; I started squeaking at the choices of prosciutto (about ten) cheeses, wines, even cauliflower that we had not seen for a while. Of course the gelato is to die for: love straciatella! Do I sound fixated on food?

Hugh, wandering the tiny streets of his past, took me to a restaurant with atmosphere. Suddenly plate after plate of antipasto began to appear: no menu, no prices, just sit back and enjoy! When pasta is your primo piatti and you know you have four or five other courses to come, it is pretty hard to think skinny. Dipping our bread in olive oil may lower the cholesterol but up the kilos. Oh well!

We departed Cagliari August 12 and began a series of day transits up the east coast of Sardinia. The amount of Italian recreational boat traffic on the coast was staggering. There were many mega yachts with smart crew. Most though were motor yachts; sleek 40 foot plus twin prop beasts powered by diesel. Lesser vessels included large inflatables and snippy little 20 foot runabouts. One encountered a number of "Mr Toads" at the helm but, most of the operators seemed competent enough. That being said, Canadian MOT Safe Boating Standards did not apply: ten people in an inflatable and not a life jacket in sight! Typically, it was family onboard and with the late afternoon, the excitement started when they all decided to leave! Soon the anchorage was down to just a few and one could hear the howl of the diesels as the day boaters hurtled marina bound trailing rooster tails, fenders flying. Peace at last for the cruisers.

Our final anchorage on Sardinia was at prestigious Porto Cervo. The facility was created by Prince Karim Aga Khan and various other investors in the 60s as a fantasy village for visitors both ashore and afloat. We had visited it then and marveled at the gas station disguised as a villa, no sign of commerce or mediocrity! A private haven for multi-millionaires! Our stay turned out to be less than tranquil. One motor yacht dragged down on us, we helped a French cruiser detach lines from his prop and our sundowners were interrupted by fire on a neighboring boat. We called the port firefighters but before they arrived, the skipper had thrown burning cushions overboard as well as a burning fuel container. The fuel container drifted around the anchorage threatening other vessels, leaving us wondering when it might explode. Eventually it approached a private dock, causing intense owner consternation before firefighters arrived and saved the day.

In the high European summer, we noticed that the small yachting community was pretty much overshadowed by the hundreds of summer boaters flooding the Mediterranean anchorages. Our "pack" had dispersed, either continuing across the Atlantic or taking routes to Northern Europe. Instead of meeting long term cruisers like ourselves, usually retired and of a certain age, we now encountered Europeans on a long or short vacation; young, beautiful and wearing new clothes. Heather observed that it made one consider taking the lipstick out of the freezer!

With the weekly gale imminent, we moved to a less crowded and more sheltered anchorage just north of Sardinia on Isola Caprera. There we holed up for a couple of days.

With only a two day window before the next gale, we decided on a 116 NM overnighter to Calvi on the northwest coast of Corsica. Away by mid-morning, by noon we were across the often dangerous Strait of Bonifacio. We found Calvi a marvelous place! An early morning view of the Citadel was breathtaking! Given the forecast gale, we had intended to go into the marina. Confusion reigned at the entrance though so we gave up on that and picked up a mooring just off the harbour entrance. This proved to be a superb option, sheltered and inexpensive.

Force 8 wind from the west meant we were in the lee of the marina sea wall so it was no problem dinghying ashore to enjoy the town. As well as doing mundane things like laundry and topping up our wine supply, we strolled the tiny streets and climbed up to the top of the citadel. Incidentally, Calvi housed the headquarters of a French Foreign Legion parachute regiment so one saw many smartly uniformed young men on the streets. Now in French territory, we took the opportunity to check with customs about leaving the yacht in the country for a year. APas de probleme@! What about proof of entry? AYour first marina receipt in the EU is fine@! Ok, we were good to stay.

One of the major attractions of Corsica is the train trip to Ajaccio down the spine of the island. With the gale over, we left Argonauta I on the mooring and boarded the narrow gauge train to spend a night in the birth place of Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte. It is a four hour trip through maquis covered mountain wilderness. Maquis is the Corsican word for vegetation common to the island. The train was a relic from early days of diesel; the locals call it the AU Trinichellu@ which translates into "The Great Trembler"! Corsica had only recently emerged from the curse of family vendettas. It is said that in the early 1900s there were over 900 vendetta related murders per year. The vendetta is now a thing of the past but still, disputes sometimes culminate in a shootout. There was an assassination on the main street of Ajaccio the week before we arrived. Ajaccio has several monuments to Napoléon as well as churches and museums. There is a wonderful cheese market and at night, we found the city full of life with some great street entertainment.

Back in Calvi, we got under way for the French mainland and first landfall on the European continent. It was our last overnight sail; 95 NM to Villefranche on the French Riviera. We arrived mid-morning, September 2. The passage was in calm conditions but we did have one drama. Alternator number 2 came loose on the mounts and shook all its wires off. It was well on the way to self-destruction but a midnight lash up held it together for the rest of the season!

Villefranche is between Monaco and Nice. It was also the northern-most point for Argonauta I at 43 degrees 42.13 minutes north. Now up against the great European continent, the weather seemed less volatile. In fact the French weather people issue a different forecast for what is called the Littoral: within 3 miles of the coast, and another for the coast which is out to 15 miles. Villefranche was an absolute gem. The Rade or Roadstead was occupied by a range of vessels from Cruise ships further out to mega yachts and smaller sailing vessels closer in. We spent four perfect days enjoying the area including nearby Cap Ferrat.

Then we moved on to a somewhat rolly anchorage at Rade d=Agay before we reached St Tropez of '50s/ '60s fame: Brigit Bardot and all that! We anchored off the Port and dinghied in past multiple mega yachts. We had come to use descriptive words for megas: mini, medium and mega megas! Late afternoon on the promenade, crowds admired these yachts as their crews tied them up and sprayed them down. Meanwhile, owners and guests seen on the aft decks are seemingly oblivious to the admiring masses who might hope to catch a glimpse of a stellar personality. St Tropez had the character of a small village. There were many restaurants and high end shops. We found the town as charming as it had been when we stayed there in the sixties.

A couple of days in this environment though were enough. Now we began to feel we should get to the winter haven of Port Napoleon while our luck with the weather held. So we did two longish day trips, anchoring off Porquerolles near Toulon and then off the Island of Retonneau close to Marseille. As we passed Toulon our chart identified many sunken wrecks and we speculated whether they might be part of the French Naval Fleet scuttled during World War II. Toulon is still an important French Navy port.

There were a couple of things in the forecast which suggested caution, so early Saturday, September 13, we got under way and motored 22 NM to Port Napoleon. We negotiated the narrow, shallow passage to the marina and were tied up by 1130 hours. We celebrated the end of the voyage with a bottle of Italian prosecco, a gift from the dragging yacht crew we helped in Porto Cervo, and congratulated ourselves on having arrived. That night, a massive thunderstorm washed all the Sahara dust off our rigging. Unfortunately the same storm badly damaged a number of yachts in Marseille including the Louise Vuitton race contender from New Zealand.

Now we were some 1910 NM from Kemer, Turkey where we had commenced this season. Soon we were having repairs made to the alternator mount and doing things like an oil change, pickling the desalinator and arranging for the usual string of maintenance items. The following week we removed all sails and canvas to haul the yacht for a cradle in the boatyard. We flew back to Canada September 29, 2004

In the next article, spring 2005, we rejoin Argonauta I to resume our voyage. We sail to Spain and visit Barcelona and the Balearic Islands before returning to the European mainland. A southwest bound coastal cruise along the Spanish Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol takes us to Gibraltar from where we depart the European continent.

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