PYC Med Summer Cruise Week 8: From Menton and the Almost Circumnavigation of Corsica

Crew:   John (skipper) & Alice H, Sue, Andy B & Rob (guest)

The five of us departed Menton on June 21st at 1700 – having been given several extra hours by the marina staff – so speedily we were  like the proverbial cork from the bottle being reluctant to pay an extra night’s berthing fees. Safely harnessed and bearing in mind the dangers of night sailing across a busy ferry route we rolled along, feeling a little queasy until one crew member offered to make a pasta which helped keep the concentration up, but did nothing for the apparent wind. 
Luxury ginger biscuits kept the watching crew awake and the pasta disappeared by midnight.Few ships were spotted, but in the dawn light a large mammal appeared to take a passing interest in us; then, finding nothing but pasta, headed off for better grub. Later, our internet expert identified it as a Mediterranean  fin whale – on the endangered species list. Later in the trip dolphins accompanied us and a flying swordfish.


Soon Corsica came out of the morning mist and several miles out the distinctive smell of the maquis herbs wafted onto the boat – Napoleon commented on how he could recognise Corsica by this distinctive smell. Calvi was a dramatic fortress to sail by – almost like the bow of a ship overshadowing the harbour. We were soon moored up enjoying the warmth and vigour of  the port – mainly provided by English speakers from the cruise ship moored in the bay.

Going our own ways we all ended up finding the very inadequate – to say the least – ‘facilities’ via a market, the Grand Prix on TV  and an ice cream counter. This did not reduce the appetite for a Corsican style meal which was enhanced by the beautiful sunset. The steep walk down on cobbles eased the digestion as we headed for an early night tho not before interrupting the harbourside passagiata as we filled up the water tank in anticipation of an early start.

By 0700 next day we were heading off, engine on,croissants at the ready, for more photo opportunities down the West coast of Corsica. The long motor trip to Ajaccio was broken up by the unexpected delights of narrow passages – almost as hidden as the suggestions in the Pilot books. The Scandola national park covers a large area of the coast noted for bird life, particularly the sea eagles. Tourist boats heading that way led us to a passage thro the narrows where we had a bow watch for ‘rocks’ and then to what seemed a closed narrow cove with no exit. As Quartette gently nudged her way in over the sapphire water– light touch on the throttle was the command –  a narrow exit opened up, quite unseen as we had gone past from the other side. The pink granite rocks towered over us, almost within touching distance.

Heading on south further perusal of the pilot book gave us an option for a marina at Cargese – this would likely mean missing out on Ajaccio if we wanted to get back to Bastia in time, but it made for a better passage plan. We continued along the stunning coastline of pink granite rocks and layer upon layer of mountains like a stage set. By early afternoon we were bow to in a pleasant marina just as a huge blow came in, sending all the boats rocking.. Often in Corsica the towns are on a hilltop, so only one of us headed off in the blazing sun to see the sites. This was a town with  a Greek Orthodox church due to the worshippers having been offered asylum from Turkish persecution . History keeps repeating…. As did the indifferent showers!

Leaving the marina quietly next day we were shouted at by a local fisherman for not using the throttle enough – can sailors ever win? We anticipated another motor trip. but by late morning the wind had awoken so we sped along to Propriano on a broad reach which gave less sail-experienced crew a good opportunity for practice. A perfect course was achieved to the lunch spot where the onboard domestic goddess produced a beautiful lunch. We had stocked up whenever possible with cold meats, delicious local sheep’s and
goat’s cheeses and the domestic goddess could smell out a boulangerie many nautical miles away! 

Propriano was a rather soulless marina,in the new part of the town. By the time we had sorted ourselves out it was quite late so the few restaurants were very busy and considerably more expensive and pushy than those we had eaten in previously. We were unable to charm ourselves into a window seat!  The following day was our treat day – the entrance to Bonifacio – so no lingering in the bunks and breakfast was on the deck as we sailed away. Again Neptune tested our stomachs on a rolly sea until Aeolus took command. 

With sails up and a following wind we gybed towards our destination, counting the many Genoese watch towers on the way. Shortly before the entrance to the harbour the pink granite gave way to white limestone cliffs and the old town was hardly distinguishable from them. The entrance to Bonifacio is almost like the entrance to a Crusader castle with a dogs -leg turn hiding the view of the port until the last minute. Instead of noble chevaliers on their horses we were challenged by small, but extremely fast, tourist boats who obviously considered us a great inconvenience. (We felt rather smug knowing what seas and wind they were going into!) Such was their speed in the narrow harbour that, as we berthed, there was a clashing of rigging as the boat behind us was washed against the one it was mooring along side. Angry voices and long discussions ensued, but we were distracted by the elegance of the French women ‘sailors’ who provided a constant parade in various states of dress! 

Bonifaccio was also a port for the super super yachts – The Lady S commandeered the end of the harbour. A mere 68m long she is a little more expensive than Quartette costing $659,737 per week – not including victuals. Dream on! Apart from the harbour, Bonifacio town on the cliffs is fascinating with narrow windy streets of houses with the steepest of stairs – there must be few grand pianos in Bonifacio .Open to the cliffs is the site of barracks and an historic cemetery. And of course the usual run of restaurants of all shapes and prices. 

Iles Lavezzi - Cala di u Grecu
Iles Lavezzi – Cala di u Grecu

Leaving the fleshpots of Bonifacio next morning we ran into our first bad weather .As we reached the open water the thunder and lightening were close by so we headed north for a while to consider our options as we had planned a coffee stop in the beautiful Iles Lavezzi .

Gradually the storm moved away, drawing back the curtain of rain over Sardinia, which looked just as enticing as Corsica. The low lying islands appeared like sealions basking, but sadly the sun did not make an appearance. To suit the photographers we made three entrances into the narrow landing cove. 

Pilotage into it was rather haphazardly marked, so again eyes were peeled. The lack of sun did not show the islands at their best, supposedly with silver sand and Caribbean turquoise sea. Oh well, an excuse to return! 

As we left the wind began to build through the Straits of Bonifacio and a smart yacht began to catch us up on our starboard side – a race perhaps? Quartette picked up her skirts and was a brave contender reaching 9 knots at one point, but gave in gracefully as the other yacht heeled and broached away from us. We kept up a good pace until we anchored in Port de Rondinare for lunch. 

Again delicious food appeared as if by magic. Time slipped by, so it was after 1700 before we were closing in on Porto Vecchio, fighting our way in through the aggressive tour boats who took great delight in coming as close as possible and leaving a huge wake. Nobody replied to the request for a berth so as we came into the harbour we spotted a gap and were mooring up when the young berthing assistant appeared to say there were no spaces. Faces fell as there were few options but, on hearing our length, he found us a slot nearby, besides a French steel boat. To achieve this little slot required a skilful skipper to reverse up the channel to full audience participation – and he did it perfectly! 

Once again the facilities were inadequate and closed overnight, not even being open by 0730. The smallest crew member found a brief shower on Quartette was the easiest of options – somewhat more of a challenge for taller crew. And where would there be piped Verdi in the shower but on Quartette. Leaving the following morning was much easier  – pulling away bow first, no wind, no audience and no tour boats, just a super yacht. It was noticed that they were moored as closely together as we had been so, if yours was only a small super yacht, your porthole may look out onto the hull of a slightly bigger super yacht! 

We also noticed a large ferry which looked very moored up – our first reminder of French strikes. And thus began a long motoring day, but with the opportunity to catch up on sleep, reading, work and boat chores whilst the beautiful scenery passed by. In contrast to the activity of Porto Ferrario, our next marina in Port de Taverna was totally laid back. Waiting on the acceuil pontoon we had time to brew and drink tea before being shown to a berth. There seemed to be a lot of over-wintered yachts, so it was very quiet and being surrounded by woods the birdsong was noticeable. For once the facilities were excellent and open 24 hrs. 

As the marina is a distance from the town there were three restaurants on the harbourside to choose from. The techies were pleased too to have a decent wifi signal. So the last day had arrived and once again, after anticipating a long motor up the coast to Bastia, the wind came up and we had another pleasant downwind sail for several hours, Bastia with its ocre and terracotta buildings creeping slowly into view. The harbour entrance was difficult to spot from a distance, but the commercial harbour seemed ominously full of ferries. El Capitain was a hard man to locate, so we found a berth next to a huge Spanish yacht and noting the winches, Quartette’s winch wench paled until she saw the electric buttons! Snug against the harbour wall we wandered our separate ways to find out how the strike was affecting our travel plans  – unfortunately for one of us on the following day. 

Bastia has a large cafe and restaurant area around the harbour but our trusty scout found a pleasant restaurant up in the citadel with a beautiful view over the sea to Capria and Elba so, eating traditional local produce and drinking the local wines, we all agreed it had been a good and interesting trip. None of which would have been possible without Andy B’s impressive plans and of course the very competent crew! 

Sue Fowle 

Some passage notes for the benefit of the next crew.

·         Marina berths:  generally stern-to with two stern lines & “pendule” to bow cleat (picked up at pontoon);  when positioning boat and fenders, take care to allow for change in water level that moves the boat relative to the fixed pontoons.
Entries often quite tight, take care for strong wind catching the bow.
·         Marina toilet / shower facilities:  generally closed overnight (~19:30 to 08:30) because of vandalism.
Invariably tepid at best, with limited or no hanging space.
Tokens sometimes free, more often 2-2.50 Euros
·         WiFi:  typically “open” network with login, usually limited range and connectivity probably owing to limit on simultaneous users.
·         Navtex:  forecasts from France (WExx) or Rome (RExx)
·         Heads:  minimise fouling in marinas (and use bag for loo paper)
·         Garbage:  use bag behind companionway steps for recyclables – most marinas have separate containers for glass and cans / plastic containers
— Sue Fowle

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