Fireworks at Sea - Golfe du Lion
04 July 2014 | Golfe du Lion France
The saying in the Med is “You motor from gale to gale”. The French Pilot Book describes the Golfe du Lion as follows: “The tramontane can arrive quickly and within an hour you may have gale force winds…You should waste no time in making for a safe harbor – the alternative may be running off to Spain.”
Other cruisers we have met last year said to stay near the coast to avoid the worst winds. One lost their rudder here, and another we met shipped their boat home to Florida after surviving a tramontone in the French Golfe du Lion.
So with this sort of information, we left Marseille in relative calm early in the morning on Thursday, July 3. We had planned a 47 nautical mile journey to Port Gardian but since conditions were good that day, we pushed on until 6:30 pm (remember the sun sets here around 9:30 pm!) to a small harbor called Palavas-les-Flots which we dubbed PLF rather than trying to pronounce it. The fuel dock was available and since the station was closed for the day, we side-tied for free, planning to leave early the next morning. We had dinner on board and Michael and Norma took a short walk into the tourist town around the harbor. Our first day in the Golfe was a good one!
Friday, July 4 – “Fireworks at Sea” – Day Two in the Golfe
Knowing the importance of the weather in the Golfe, we monitored the internet (this is the reason we always spend time and money getting set up for internet in every new country) The winds were predicted to be from a good direction, until late in the day when the wind would turn around, so we pulled away from the dock at PLF at 5:30 am, just at dawn.
The wind built much more quickly than predicted that morning, and we were sailing quickly toward our destination port of Gruissan, 48 nautical miles away. As is the case in the Med, the waves also built quickly and by 10 am, Dave was hand steering over 8 foot seas and we were going 7 – 8 knots with double reefs in the main and the jib. The waves crashed over the boat and even got Dave wet at the helm which is quite high off the water. Despite heavy foul weather gear, he was getting cold and wet while the rest of us stayed dry in the cabin and watched the building seas. Around noon, Linda gave Dave a break so he could warm up (is this July?) and the angle of the waves were a little easier because we had reached a turning point in our course.
The heavy favorable winds switched direction about 1:30 pm (5 hours earlier than predicted) and blew just as strongly with 30 knots from the opposite direction. With only one hour to reach port, we had to drop sails and motor into a very confused choppy seas with 30 knots “on the nose.”
As we approached the Gruissan harbor entrance, it was clear that the entrance was very narrow (about 120 feet wide per the chart), and by now, we had 10 foot breaking waves all along the beachfront and in the harbor entrance. With 30 knots of wind in front of us and 10 foot breaking waves behind us (left over from the strong morning winds coming the other direction!), the harbor entry was going to be challenging! We radioed the harbormaster office to be sure the entrance was still open and was safe to enter. A woman simply said, “When you come in, just tie up at the guest dock.” Easy for her to say sitting in a cozy office! We all donned lifejackets for safety.
Michael is an experienced surfer, so he helped Dave by calling the waves behind us, while Dave pushed the engines to maximum RPMs to get ahead of specific waves as the boat surfed into the narrow slot. God was watching over us because a set of 3 really big breaking waves hit us before the harbor entrance and the timing for smaller (relatively speaking!) waves was right. We avoided all the terrible things like broaching and capsizing and pitchpoling and we entered the calm waters behind the breakwater of the harbor. Michael said, “Well, that was the most frightening entrance to a harbor I have seen in my life.” Dave said, “Well, I have probably seen quite a few more harbors, and that was ALSO the most frightening harbor entrance of my life!”
The 30 knots winds continued until late that night, but we had a nice spot in this harbor along a string of restaurants in the middle of the harbor. Gruissan is built among salt flats and an ancient tower and old city was just a short walk away. We also found some good wine stores to reprovision and had a great dinner at one of the restaurants that night. Norma ordered mussels and was served a huge bowl about 2 quarts full.