A Timeless Odyssey

Allures 45 (a thing of great practical beauty)

Western Med Blog 9 (Up the West Coast of Corsica)

We spent another 2 days in Bonifacio, the girls liked it for the buzz of the quayside with its motor yachts, restaurants and upmarket shops, as well as the pizzazz of the old city. I took them in the dinghy to the drive through cave outside the harbour entrance. Veronica and I went on a walk that started in the creek that we called the poor man’s parking. We stumbled upon an old road probably designed for horse and carts, meticulously paved with stone with a stonewall lining it. I suspect built by soldiers to provide a separate supply route to the Western bastions of the harbour entrance. We toiled up the hill through the dense vegetation tasting the salt from the sweat running freely down our faces. We eventually intersected the main road and circled back down into Bonifacio. The girls fetched us in the dinghy and we had breakfast on the quay front.

After 2 nights in the poorman’s palking at Bonifacio, we had a leisurely sail up to the Baie de Figari. Water was a requirement, so we took a marina berth. Initially we were shown to an extremely difficult berth that entailed doing a dogleg in reverse in a 20 knot cross wind. After 2 failed approaches I told the womenfolk (a first for us: female marinarios), that this was going to end in tears. Fortuitously a catamaran left the outer quay and we were able to take its place but only because of our variable draft. Reversing straight back into the wind with a long bow line to a buoy proved much easier. The shelter was complete and the deep inlet was plied by wind- and kite-surfers. It was on the approach to one of Corsica’s main airports, Figari, the one that the girls were leaving from in 2 days time. The airport was only 5km away but the taxi we found out cost €40, which seemed extreme. The amusement at this stop, mostly for the girls, was the activity of the Swedish on the boat next to us. It was a 57ft Hanse, which they had only taken delivery of 10 days before. Two guys and about 6 Swedish girls led to much speculation about who actually owned the boat and how. Two of the girls left for the airport and that provided a talking point for Tayo and Louise.

We considered staying in Figari until the girls left but decided to move on and anchor to save marina fees, so we headed for the Gulf de Murtoli. The wind got up to 30 knots and we were going down wind on reduced staysail only. The excitement for the day was when my home-made pasarelle, to which the SUP was attached, failed and the SUP and the pasarelle tried to join us in the cockpit! I guess we had never sailed in such strong down wind conditions and 25 knots of apparent wind over the stern caused the flip. So… much consternation as we managed to man-handle the SUP and the pasarelle onto the foredeck and strap them down while continuing to go downwind in 30 knots. On the way we saw many boats in the Golfe de Roccapina. It was not an intended stop but it looked like a great beach and good shelter for lunch, so we hung a right and decided to sling the hook there. The wind was strong and offshore and the water was crystal clear. We had lunch, swam, read and chilled. We could see that the wind was supposed to die for the night but suddenly, in the space of 10 minutes it did a 180deg switch without dying much. Many boats closer in than us found themselves metres from the beach and like us, decided to scurry at 17h30. We went next door to the Gulf de Murtoli, where a big headland sheltered weather from the north, by the time we got there however the weather prediction came true and we anchored and spent the night off a very pleasant beach in zero wind.

Propriano was the jumping off point for the girls, a fairly large town and ferry port that must have cheap buses to the airport. Busses there were but not at the right times, so it ended up in a €140 taxi ride for the girls, of which yours truly paid the lions share. The waterfront at Propriano has all the normal restaurants and bars. It was a lively place for a last supper with the girls. The next day we maxed out our marina stay doing a lot of long overdue washing. Generally at the moment we don’t make a lot of washing, I just recycle baggies, speedos and rash vests when we are on anchor but stuff gathers up from shore visits as it is impossible in the heat to wear a tee-shirt for longer than an hour without it getting soaked in sweat. Also, of course, crew change means bedding washing. At 17h00 we drove the boat out of the harbour, went all of about 1 NM and anchored off the beach, excellent holding and great for morning walks and beach bat sessions, although the cheap tennis ball split and we gave it over to a local dog.

We wanted to plan our day in Ajaccio, Corsica’s capital, so that we had a paid marina night on a night when the weather warranted paying for the protection of a marina. So we spent a night in the Cala d’Orzu on anchor and a night on a buoy in Asne Ste Barbe about 3NM across the bay to the south of the capital city. The former was a beautiful beach with 3 beach restaurants that were only accessible by 4x4 or boat. Veronica made a booking in one for dinner. The setting was exemplary and the meal of charcoal grilled fish was excellent but expensive. The story of the evening was that Veronica was so excited about the fact that the restaurant ran a taxi RIB service that as we landed on the beach she went arse over tit in the new summer dress she had bought in Formentera, deftly saved the handbag with the iPhone in it but ended up lying face-up in the shallows soaking wet. The boy racer RIB taxi driver was delighted to have another excuse for a “burn” to take her back to change.

In Anse Ste Barbe there was a 36ft Beneteau wrecked high on a rocky beach a testimony to the vicious granite rock field between the two beaches and/or winter storms of note. We SUP-ed and swam for exercise in the morning and I wandered into the hinterland to discover a rather quaint delicatessen with fresh organic vegetables, cheeses, wines of the region and specialist charcuterie. What did I buy? Fresh veg, anchovies, olives and beer of course.

After a change of heart and on a benign weather forecast in Ajaccio we were now determined to anchor and researched options through all sources including Captain’s Mate, the cruising association app, and the Ovital map app for iPad. As an aside the latter is worth a mention because it allows you to select map segments of any drawn shape and then download and keep an offline accessible satellite image. I downloaded the entire west coast of Corsica and it is very useful to use to get an idea of what the hinterland beyond the beach looks like. Highly recommended.

So in Ajaccio we nosed into everywhere looking for a place to cheekily sling the hook. There were places where people were anchoring but it was deep, full and in these harbour settings you never know what ancient discarded ground tackle awaits you on the bottom. So, we bit the bullet and went to the Vieux Port marina for €90. It was some of the tightest parking I have experienced in a while but luckily there was no wind. We wandered the old town and while I spent an inordinate amount of time fixing the pasarelle, Veronica did a big shop as the Spar delivered to the boat which is a real bonus! Although magnificent and buzzing with markets and street cafes the place had a seedy edge to it. A massive cruise liner came in silently at night and towered above us in the morning. In the 19th century Ajaccio was included with Nice, Cannes and Merton as one of the Riviera resorts to be seen at but as the books say it has long since fallen off the bus, although to be fair we only gave it a fleeting evaluation. Napoléon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio but left when he was 6 and apparently spurned the place thereafter. Nevertheless the town continues to “dine out” on the fact that it was his birthplace.

We left the capital late and made our way northwards toward Cargese a small marina below a town with Orthodox Greek influence. Some Greeks fleeing from the Turks in the late 17th century were given land by the Genoese, they planted vines and olives and prospered, to the extent that eventually the local Corsicans became jealous and burned the village to the ground. After the French took possession of Corsica in 1768 the Greeks were granted the land back and relations with the locals improved as the years passed. The weather was benign and we looked at anchoring outside the harbour entrance but after driving amongst some other anchored boats decided it was too tight. As we had approached we had noticed this scantly described (in the Pilot guide) anchorage in the bay next door. It was magnificent, uncrowded and overlooked by lush steep slopes. Crystal clear water and a nice white sandy bottom that the anchor so loves sealed the deal. We swam and had a braai. The Pilot guide said there was a 2-hour franchise in Cargese, meaning they allow you to tie up for 2 hours for free in the harbour. We had hoped to walk up to the town but an enquiry over the radio met with “No way José”, so that idea was abandoned.

From here northwards the coastline becomes ruggedly spectacular and part of the La Scandola Nature reserve. Red granite ruggedness, often barren of vegetation, towers steeply upwards from the sea. Gargoyle-like erosional remnants bear testimony to the ferociousness of the sea’s sculpting powers. No houses and incredible light in the late evening all combine to make this a place very worthy of a visit. Amongst this forbidding landscape there is one village, Port Girolata. A small piece of civilisation within the La Scandola nature reserve. The reserve was the first terrestrial and marine reserve to be established in France. It is home of many rare species including the last bald buzzards in Europe. The village nestles under the ruins of an old Genoese fort and there is nothing for miles but dramatic red granite cliffs and Corsican bush with a backdrop of 2000m high mountains. Girolata is a little community of alternative types that have an act together. They lay buoys, have a camping ground, some Gités, some totally rustic craft shops and some rather stunning restaurants. The people come flocking in boats in the evening, stay the night and pay €60 to get moored fore and aft to the laid buoys. It is a mooring methodology that allows them to pack them in but at the same time does nothing to distract from the character of the place. I suspect over the season this lucrative business keeps the few permanent inhabitants going through winter. We rather smugly anchored for nothing just 50m outside the laid moorings and paid €-zero. They are totally ok with that, so long as your anchor sets in sand and does not disturb the marine life. There are cows, chickens, donkeys in the few fields that surround the small village. Everything has to come by boat there is no road access. At the back of the village there is one of those French hiking trail signposts. It says "some place" 06:07. So it is a long walk. I just love the 7 minutes piece!

Perhaps Dorothy Carrington's description does it the most justice despite the passing of time since it was written "... a dozen or so Corsicans, without a road in a weird confusion of Biblical and Bohemian simplicity, gardening, hunting and selling food to passing fishermen, off-beat tourists, artists and gangsters cheating the law". If you are South African, it is a kind of Wuppertal by the sea, complete with the donkeys and the heat. It is intriguing and lovely.

It was with regret that we left Girolata and made the spectacular but risky inside Gargula passage. It has a least depth of 3m with a 2m rock on one side and is only about 2 boat lengths wide. No other yachts were taking the shortcut, here is to the advantages of a retractable keel. It was here that the granite formations, cliffs and natural gargoyles were at there most spectacular. The weather was calm but along with many other boats we were running for shelter in Calvi. Our 3rd mistral (French spelling), since we arrived on Sardinia and Corsica was bearing down.

On arrival in Calvi, the marina, nestled under the fit for “The Game of Thrones” Citadel, was pronounced full and in any case they wanted €120 per night. We took a buoy for €30/night. Unfortunately it was about a mile from the marina. They failed to collect after the 3rd night so paid €20/night in effect. There must have been 60 laid buoys in the bay and by the time we got there, there were about 5 left and soon thereafter none. The first night was calm but the next morning mistral mayhem began and lasted 2 days and 2 nights although at the end of the second night in the wee hours it started to back off. Most of the time it was 25 to 30knots but there were long spells over 30 and gusting 40 knots. It was so strong at times that the boat heeled over enough for bottles to fall over as it charged around the mooring line.

A Dutch flagged boat with 6 Italians on it took a buoy that was in seriously close quarters to us but luckily behind us. It was a racing boat, so I assumed they knew their stuff. Halfway through the first day they only had a single line on the buoy and it was from the starboard cleat through the buoy ring and to the port cleat. The boat was charging around the buoy so the line was sawing back and forth through the ring. The wind was strong and trying to communicate across the gap was difficult, things lost in translation and in the wind. In the afternoon I ventured to the chandlery in the dinghy. I had a life jacket and made sure I got upwind of the 3rd row of boats so that I had the option of rowing to grab a boat in the case of an engine failure. Before I set off on my very wet but successful trip I went over to the guys on the next door boat and managed to get through to them that they should put another line on. The bit about making it independent so that it did not saw through was not understood. While I was away they managed to flip their dinghy in the wind with the motor on. They did know a thing or two as after an hour they got the motor running again and avoided the mistake of pulling the start cord with the spark plug in, which, as water is for all intents and purposes incompressible, usually breaks the conrod. Remarkably that night they went into town in at least 30 knots of wind. It was a 1km dinghy ride. They came back at 4am in the howling wind drunk, 6 up in a tiny dinghy, no life jackets, next stop mainland France 120NM with an engine failure. The next morning Veronica noticed that one of their mooring lines had parted, snapping like a gunshot. Since the second line they had put on was also sawing away through the eye of the buoy we woke them with a foghorn. They were quite shocked to see the line had parted and put on more lines. A second line parted that afternoon, and they put on more lines still.

That afternoon the blow was at its worst. All around us biminis were shredding, dinghies were flipping behind boats and our buoy broke off our mooring line. Luckily it was an independent float and pickup for the line rather than integral to its integrity. At one stage a dinghy broke free and a guy on an upwind boat heroically (or not) went to fetch it as it scurried and flipped in the spume. He too went with no life jacket but at least with some people watching. For some strange reason he was joined by a second helper who soon became a second liability when his engine failed. They spent ages attempting a restart and eventually some people managed to get the attention of a larger RIB to go to their aid. They managed however to hobble back from about 1km downwind on their own with one dinghy towing 2 other lame ones. On the second day we were boat bound along with our other 60 mistral defying boat crews. Like they say often with little thought to the origin of the saying, it’s not all plain sailing.

Calvi is a lovely place and when the mistral passed we went up to the citadel, impenetrable in its day and now the headquarters for the French Foreign Legion Parachute battalion.

In the next week we plan to round the northernmost point of Corsica and start making our way down the coast of Italy. More about that in the next blog.