The South of France
17 September 2020
After a 3 month delay in the UK due to Covid, and another month spent motoring through the inland waterways of France, we finally made it to the Med. The last lock on the Rhone River spat us out into the man-made harbour of Port Saint Louis and back into the reality of boats everywhere. In the shadow of a large cruise ship we demonstrated our lack of familiarity with Med-Mooring. Despite the challenges from having lines that were too short and wind on the beam we eventually stern tied to the wall with no damage other than to our pride. Unfortunately, it was Sunday afternoon and the marina office was closed so we couldn't enjoy the showers we had promised ourselves, but we were so very excited to have the boat floating in saltwater again.
Port Saint Louis served as an excellent re-provision stop because both a good grocery store and a gas station were within sight and you could walk your groceries back to the boat with the shopping cart (funny what gets you excited when you are cruising). Primarily we were there because we still had the mast on the deck and there were several large full facility yards nearby. We were booked in for a Monday afternoon mast re-step, so we wasted little time getting started on putting the mast back together.
The next morning, we traveled down the channel to Navy Services (the yard booked to do the work). The yard provided all services, even had a small chandlery, but mooring options were severely limited. Eventually we squeezed ourselves up to the stone wall next to the crane. The heat was relentless. With no options to swim we kept cooling ourselves with short showers down below. The spreaders went back on followed by the stays. The timber mast supports and strapping was loosened and by 3 pm we were ready for the lift. The yard guys spoke very little English and their rapid-fire French only added to the confusion; however, they knew their business. We had worried that at 100 Euros for 30 minutes of crane time, followed by 50 Euros for each subsequent 15 minute block, would easily take us to a couple hundred Euros. Not so. After only 20 minutes Mel and I were racing to attach the backstays as the crane was being disconnected from the mast.
And so, we were a sailboat again and it felt good! We were also in the south of France - home of the superyachts for the rich and famous and every other type of boat for the rest. We headed east out of Port Saint Louis into a light headwind and rolled out the sails to test stay tension and sail set. Our destination was an island off Marseille. There is a certain mayhem to boat life in the South of France and whenever we approached a popular anchorage or cruising area the amount of boat traffic would increase substantially. By the time we approached that first anchorage the boat was pitching and rolling from boat wakes. There were monohulls, RIBs, big yachts, and catamarans - and when I say RIBs, I'm talking about a size range that includes bigger than our Moody 44. We selected a spot with a bit of room between boats to drop the hook. Turns out that in France a "bit of room" is an invitation to squeeze another boat or two in next to you. We just smiled and waved and started chain drinking bottles of French wines in the cockpit - as you do in France.
There was a lot of excitement on Swift that first evening. The water was crystal clear and warm. Pippa and Isla were in with masks exploring within five minutes. The landscape was a jumble of boulders and exposed rock outcroppings with patches of arid vegetation. There was a spectacular sunset. We stayed up late in the warm Mediterranean breeze watching for shooting stars. Despite having been on the boat for five months and having already had some amazing adventures, somehow it felt like we had finally transitioned to an offshore cruising boat - we were at anchor (for only the second time), we were self-sufficient, and we were in a warm tropical climate.
An unfortunate westerly swell chased us out of that picturesque anchorage after the first night and back into a marina - much to our chagrin. We especially weren't keen to spend 50 Euro for the privilege, but the kids made friends and stayed up late playing tag and socializing making the most of their French immersion schooling. The next morning, we left early to make the most of the forecasted westerly winds. The stretch of coast between Marseille and Toulon is renowned for its spectacular beauty and we slipped east past impressive cliffs and rocky islands. The water was an impressive deep blue and we saw tuna feeding on the surface. The winds increased steadily to 20+ knots and we flew downwind surrounded by other sailboats. We rounded the final point going eight and half knots despite the reefed sails. We furled in the sails and motored into the bay, stunned by the number of boats - impressive to us was that sailboats far outnumbered the power boats. We anchored in sand at six meters and we were immediately surrounded by jet skis and motorized surfboards - when did those become a thing and where did they come from?
The next morning the winds had abated and we motored 3 miles to Porkrolls* Island (I'm pretty sure that after a month and a half in France I've got the pronunciation spot on). We were early enough to select a nice spot to drop the anchor. Within 15 minutes our first neighbor arrived and anchored a few meters away. Our next neighbor was there 5 minutes later, and after motoring past us flat out a couple of times, they threw out their anchor just in front of us. Not sure if we were supposed to step into their cockpit for a visit but come on guys where was the social distancing? At least both boats, and many of the rest that anchored within swing distance, put their fenders out so if they were to bump into us there would be no harm done, right? And so, there we sat. A beautiful bay in one of the most popular cruising grounds in the South of France. Fancy boats all around us, the water was warm and clear, the wakes from the passing RIBs were nauseating, and everyone seemed to be having a great time.
The locals appeared to have embraced suntanning, a surprise to us from Canada. We were so obviously foreigners with our sunshirts, hats, and pasty white sunscreened faces. I was even a nice shade of pink after foolishly leaving my shirt off for a bit too long, although Mel had recently mentioned how much she was loving the French rosé so perhaps I was just trying to impress my wife. We were unpleasantly surprised when the woman on the boat next to us, who had been sun tanning on this coast since the 1970s, stripped down to the briefest of briefs and launched herself onto a doughnut inflatable tied to the back of her boat. The inflatable disappeared under her and she drifted spread eagled down our starboard side so we thought it was probably for the best if we all cuddled up together for lunch and faced out to port. Clothing optional seemed to be normal for both genders. A rather unfortunate snorkeling experience, when an older gentleman swam past having just freed willy, left us wondering if perhaps we were in the wrong bay. We had heard that there was a legislated nudist island in the area where the beach wasn't just "clothing optional" but rather clothing wasn't allowed. Of course, with the coronavirus rules in France I suppose we may have been able to use our masks for either the anonymity they offered or perhaps for alternative covering opportunities to sneak across the beach and get to town. However, having just provisioned we decide there was no need to discover for ourselves if we were on the right (or wrong) island and we stayed on the boat.
The southern Mediterranean coast of France was a pleasant surprise. We feared exorbitant marina fees and paying for anchorages. In reality there were lots of free anchorages and often they were stunning. We were there in mid-August and it was very busy; however, we could always find a good spot to anchor for the night. We only went to two marinas and both were 50 Euros for a 13 meter sailboat stern tied. Marina facilities were good and power and water were included. We did not go out for dinner, but restaurants and bars were accessible in many locations despite it being the summer of Covid 2020. People were friendly. Weather forecasting was good. Did I mention that the water was warm and clear? We could have spent longer but it was time to go and take some good winds further east to Sardinia - another story for another time.
*My wife has informed me that it is actually the Porquerolles Islands.
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