August 2022 – The North Coast of Spain

Having had a few days meeting up with friends in Armagnac and Cognac country (thank you François and Bérénice, and Neil and Linda for your fine hospitality), and having stocked up accordingly, I dropped my hire car off at Bordeaux airport and met my new crew, Neil and Clare. We returned to Port Médoc by travelling up the marvellous railway line which takes you up the left bank, past stations like Margaux and Pauillac, and got ready for a 24 hour overnight passage to the French – Spanish border.

I had originally planned to cut the corner of Biscay to Gijon, but a strong westerly airflow meant that we had to head pretty much due south, leaving the likes of Bayonne and Biarritz to port. We had a good passage, in brisk winds, close reaching all the way with a fine, moonlit night.

Clare enjoying the passage south. The new seats are getting much use
Heading south at sunset

With the Pyrenees appearing in the dawn mist, we arrived at Hondarribia, situated on a river which is shared with the French town Hendaye. I love France, but having spent a fair few weeks reacquainting myself with it, I opted to go to the Spanish side. It is also in the Basque semi-autonomous region, with the locals keen to express their sense of independence, and Basque flags flying everywhere.

The Basque flag…
…also flying on Spellbinder’s starboard spreaders, below the Spanish one, as a courtesy flag

Unlike French marinas, Spanish ones always insist on seeing your ship’s documents, insurance details and crew passports. Such formalities complete, we took a well-earned siesta, having just sailed through the night and being a little short of sleep. Adapting to Spanish cultural rhythm was easy – get up late, do something, enjoy a good lunch, have a siesta, do something else, then don’t think about going out until at least 9 or 10pm.

Heading into the old town, Hondarribia

We enjoyed a fabulous first evening, sitting on the main drag of the old town, watching the Spanish promenade up and down and enjoying tapas.

Next stop was San Sebastián. Everybody had told us to go there, and we weren’t disappointed. It’s a magnificent old town, with a big scallop-shaped beach rightly called La Concha and a large statue of Jesus overlooking everything from the top of a castle, perched on the hill above. It is also well known for its gastronomy, which we enjoyed hugely. We had to sit out a couple of days of bad weather here, but what a great place to do so. It was also festival time, which meant nightly fireworks and loud music, which went on late – until 7am, then restarting for breakfast. We didn’t sleep particularly well, but somehow it didn’t matter.

When sailing this challenging coast, best to keep this man on your side. He keeps an eye on San Sebastián
The wonderful La Concha beach
Preparing to taste the local slightly fizzy white wine, Txakoli. I’ve tasted better to be honest
Wonderful seafood in the underground market
…and charcuterie
Pulpo’, as recommended by my cousin Phoebe
Typical Basque fare

We strolled around the town, took in the cultural activities, visited museums and did some boat jobs and laundry while we waited for the weather to pass. We were squeezed into a tiny berth in a little harbour and felt very snug as it poured with rain, with near gale force winds.

San Sebastián harbour (above and below)
Spellbinder in the centre. We moved her around to be bow onto the weather before it arrived
Baroque church, San Sebastián
Nightly fireworks

Once the weather had passed over, we left San Sebastián rather reluctantly, having enjoyed it hugely. Heading out into some considerable swell, our next destination was Castro Urdiales, a beautiful town with a church and castle which overlooks the harbour. We arrived at the same time as a yacht race, and anchored in the harbour. A very efficient water taxi service took us to the yacht club, where we checked in and explored the town.

The harbour at Castro Urdiales, dominated by its castle and church
Close up of the church
View from the other direction

Castro Urdiales was a lovely stop – a vibrant town with a lively yacht club. We would probably have spent an extra day there, but given that we had lost a day decided to head on to Santander.

The coast of northern Spain is not that easy from a yachtsman’s perspective, as it is subject to northerly swell with many of the harbours of refuge having quite narrow entrances. There are also not that many anchorages. One exception is Santander, which is wide and straightforward, with a choice of anchorages which enable you to visit the city (the marina is some distance from it). We initially anchored off a beach, then headed further upriver to anchor off the city centre and its cathedral and to buy supplies.

Diving statues at Santander
Rocky cliffs off Santander at sunset

We headed back to the beach anchorage for an evening walk and a quiet evening. Our walk took us past a sea life park, with penguins, sea lions and seals held captive beside the sea – a slightly sorry and somewhat old-fashioned sight, to be honest.

Ribadesella, our next stop, was challenging. The coastline was changing though, and we were beginning to see the Picos De Europa, a small but beautiful chain of mountains which dominate the skyline. Ribadesella involved coming in between breakers and a beach to starboard, and a harbour wall to port. We negotiated it without difficulty, thankfully, and tied up in the marina to enjoy the views.

On the pontoon at Ribadesella, with the Picos behind
Ribadesella entrance from the beach

After a fruity swim amongst the breakers, we enjoyed the town and its buildings, and had a slightly indifferent meal out, with Neil and Clare somewhat regretting their copious bean stew, and me my voluminous veal steak, having tried to go with local recommendations. The following morning we had to wait for the tide to depart, and I had a plumbing job to fix (poor water pressure). While I changed the fresh water pump and filter, Neil and Clare enjoyed a walk which brought them some great views.

Ribadesella from above

The next morning we headed out and round to continue our journey west. We wanted to visit Ria de Villaviciosa, as it was well reported, and found a narrow entrance with considerable swell on one side, and rocks on the other. It was slightly unnerving but once in, we anchored in a deep pool and had lunch and watched the world go by. There was not much world going by.

Heading out of Ria de Villaviciosa. The entrance is quite narrow – between the rocks on the left and the breakers on the right

Gijon was our destination, a large port and town with a sizeable marina. We arrived quite late, but wandered into town and had a wonderful drink at the yacht club, which overlooks the town. It took a little while to get admitted but in the end our credentials were deemed sufficient and we were allowed in. It’s a great club, full of tradition and with excellent service. The main area outside is shaded by wonderful old tamarisk trees.

The slightly challenging ‘Eulogy to the Horizon’ monument at Gijon. Good daymark though…
Tamarisk canopy, Gijon Royal Yacht Club
Enjoying the Club. Felt quite at home…

After Gijon we left on our journey, aiming for Puerto Cudillero for lunch. It was another narrow entrance, which turns sharply to starboard, but by now the swell had attenuated and it posed no problems. There was a slightly odd buoy arrangement, which we never really worked out, but we attached ourselves for the purposes of lunch and enjoyed the sight of a vertiginous town tumbling down to the harbour. We wished we had more time to explore.

Coming into Puerto Cudillero

Ribadeo was our destination for the night – a wide river entrance, where you come in under a tall bridge and moor up in the marina. We arrived quite late again, but had time to stroll up the steep streets into the town for a drink. We enjoyed it, but felt perhaps that it was more a means to an end.

The winds were light the next day, and clouds and drizzle had arrived. This part of Spain is very green, and quite unlike the rest of the country. We could see why. We nudged into Viviero, a grand ria which is apparently quite impressive to enter, but we saw little of it in the mist. The pilot book and guides rather big it up – perhaps with reason – but as we anchored off the beach for lunch, and explored the entrance to the marina, we were less than impressed. I will need to go back another time.

Cedeira, on the other hand, we enjoyed. A big wide ria, it narrows then widens again, revealing a large anchorage and a pleasant town, which we enjoyed taking the dinghy into. We found a great bar, met some locals, and even came across another British yacht – the first since La Rochelle! Perhaps it was a bit late in the season; perhaps it’s a consequence of Brexit; perhaps it’s too challenging a coast to cruise.

Visiting Cedeira, with the anchorage behind
Enjoying a local bar
A fine sight while having a cooked breakfast

Our final leg was to A Coruna. After a bit of a lie-in, and a proper cooked breakfast (we needed to use up food) we departed into a light following wind, which was a bit tedious, but in a while we had a better angle on the wind, which had increased. We then had one of our best sails of this leg, with the added bonus of lots of dolphins accompanying us.

Clearing skies, and cloud rolling off the land – a typical sight on this coast
One of many dolphins which came to play

On arrival at A Coruna, we berthed with some difficulty in breezy conditions, and then prepared to leave Spellbinder, cleaning up a bit. We strolled locally and I chatted to a French sailor who had had both his rudders chewed off by orcas. This has become a real problem on this coast, only materialising over the last couple of years. Several dozen yachts have suffered damage, and one has been sunk. I hesitate to say that they were ‘attacked’, as it is thought (a view shared by the French sailor) that these are playful ‘interactions’, albeit with harmful consequences. There is debate and argument about precautionary and deterrent measures – they are a protected species – but the advice to lower sails and do nothing clearly doesn’t work. Spellbinder, if approached, will try and take a more proactive approach, while not harming the animals.

Rudder damage caused by orcas – and a French sailor’s cruising plans put on hold

Our last evening was an enjoyable one in a local restaurant. Thank you, Neil and Clare, for being such great sailing companions. It was a memorable cruise.

I plan to return to Spellbinder in September, for a trip towards Portugal. Orcas willing.

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