Reflections on Spain & Portugal, 10th November 2011
We thoroughly enjoyed Brittany and the other parts of France we cruised, but once we reached Spain, we really felt we'd 'gone foreign'. Perhaps it was because in France, we were only an hour or two in flying time from the UK, perhaps it was because France is more frequently cruised for weekends and holidays by other British sailors.
Aside from the feeling of being in less familiar territory, the most significant difference we've felt about our second season has been the actual sailing. The pilotage through the rock-strewn coast of Brittany with its extreme tides had been challenging and enjoyable, if ever so slightly nerve-wracking at times or frustrating when having to motor or motor sail to keep up our speed to meet tidal gates, pass over sills, etc. Our passages along the Northern coast of Spain and the Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal, although almost exclusively downwind sailing, have been much tougher due to the sea and swell. We were prepared for bigger Atlantic swells and seas, having read repeatedly of this prior to experiencing it but were surprised slightly by the high frequency of the swell - we had long low frequency swells on only two passages. The higher frequency swell we experienced made for a constant, uncomfortable and often quite rapid rolling motion. We've coped just fine, as has Pipit but were certainly glad to make the Algarve at the end of this season. Most of the other cruisers we've met have felt the same, not just those in lighter displacement boats like Pipit, but also many with bigger and heavier boats.
The exception to this more challenging sailing was the delightful interlude in the Spanish Rias. Many of our friends had never heard of these, but other cruisers we'd read of or spoken to had raved about them. They are every bit as diverse and beautiful as reported and well worth lingering in or even spending an entire season exploring. In fact, given the ease of flights to Vigo, it's surprising that more Brits don't keep their yachts there.
So, some observations and information for other sailors:
Marinas in Northern Spain and along the Atlantic coast and in the rias are enormously welcoming and the staff seem to want to ensure you enjoy their marina and their region of Spain. The marineros may or may not speak some English, but the office staff usually speak excellent English. The prices vary quite alarmingly and the facilities, as with marinas elsewhere, also vary, although generally, WiFi is free and the connections fair to good, showers are free and usually good to excellent (with a few exceptions), but self-service launderettes are almost non-existent. There are full-service launderettes in most towns and many marinas will arrange pick-up and delivery to these, but they are too expensive for a liveaboard budget. Of the marinas throughout Spain, La Coruna and Portosin were the only ones with proper launderettes on site. We found none in any town, but to be fair, most people have washing machines at home here just as they do in the UK, so the old-fashioned launderette isn't exactly a fool-proof business model you'd want to present on Dragon's Den!
Portuguese marinas do usually have launderettes, even if just a single set of washing machine and dryer.
Formalities & documentation
In both Spain and Portugal you need to provide boat documents at every marina (SSR and insurance usually) plus passports. You need to complete a registration form which varies from port to port, but has a common theme and similar questions. These forms look like they have been designed by someone who had an A4 piece of paper they wanted to fill up completely, so once you get past the obviously necessary details - boat name, length, breadth, draught, port of registry, last port of call, next port of call, details of skipper and crew etc - there are the perplexing 'fill up the A4 piece of paper' ones like make, model and serial number of radio, radar, colour of boat, number of masts, colour of underpants (ok, I made that one up, but it proves you are awake). As further proof that much of this information is useless and uninteresting, if you don't fill it in (who knows their radar serial number off the top of their head?) you point to it and shrug your shoulders when you give the form back (Andy now speaks fluent Spanish shrug) and the staff just smile, shrug back and shake their heads indicating it doesn't really matter. We discovered in some Portuguese ports, these extra questions are really just a yes/no field, i.e. they just want to know if you have a radio, radar, etc.
Don't let the fact that they misread the weather forecast back in 1588 fool you - the Spanish are keen sailors and handle their boats extremely well. They are also meticulous about keeping them clean - even if going out for a day sail (and then going out again the next day), they give their boats a wash down with fresh water every time they come back into a marina. The marineros assist visitors to their berths and also do the same for residents.
The fishing fleets in Spain are all very smart and have new or nearly new and highly impressive facilities for a large number of vessels of all types including the deep sea boats and in the rias, the huge number of shellfish bed service boats and the small shellfish drag boats. They all seem to have their own finger berth on new pontoons - sometimes the fishing port is at one end of a marina, but usually, they have their own separate port nearby. The Spanish, and particularly the Galicians, Asturians and Basques do eat many times more fish, shellfish and other seafood than is consumed in the UK which I suppose helps to sustain these huge fleets, but it would be nice to see the Cornish and other UK fishing fleets as well catered for in our ports and harbours and also as well supported by higher fish consumption.
The Portuguese fishing fleets are also well supported from the seafood consumption point of view, but have less impressive facilities (or rather more typical of those in places like the UK) but are often located where the entry and exit of the boats causes lots of wash to pleasure craft in the marinas. To be fair, many of the harbours are small and not as well sheltered as in places like the Spanish Rias, so they don't have the space to separate commercial and pleasure craft as much.
Customs & traditions
So, what of the famous and colourful Spanish fiestas? Somehow, we continually missed them - in many places we arrived the day after one had occurred and in others, one was happening the day after we were leaving. We did, however, repeatedly experience Spanish fireworks, or rather their version of fireworks. They just love them and set them off seemingly randomly at any time of the day. Yes, you read that correctly - they set them off during the day. This doesn't make a big difference to the visual effect though, as they aren't really the ooh, aah, fireworks as we know them. They're really just a small flash of white light, a puff of smoke and a very big bang. Letting them off as often as they do, visiting Spain isn't recommended to those of a nervous disposition. Or those with a heart condition. Or those with easily upset bowels...
Contrary to what we'd read about having to pay by cash in Portugal, we've found that marinas, shops and fuelling stations in Portugal all take payment by card. What we hadn't read anywhere, but nearly got caught out by several times, is that in Spain, when you pay by card at a shop or supermarket (even the really big ones) you must produce ID, either your passport or driver's license.
Would we recommend Spain & Portugal as a cruising ground, rather than just passage making? Absolutely, there is so much natural beauty, history and seafood to experience and enjoy, but be prepared for Atlantic seas and, if possible, allow plenty of time for the rias!