Sam Llewellyn experiences a bit of trouble in the South of France
We had a bit of trouble in the South of France this year. Lovely blue sky, gently ruffled sea, the hour of the aperitif approaching. When bang, in kicks the mistral, force eight, though with the lee rail under and a landslide of china in the galley there was not much time to count.
Le port est plein
Perfectly all right, said someone. We will take shelter in St Tropez marina. But as we approached the pier head, we discerned through clouds of warmish spray a dark-haired official waving us away. The harbour (he said in French) was full.
So out we went to anchor in the roadstead north of the harbour. But the waves were roughly the size and shape of shipping containers. Having dragged twice, we gave up and plugged queasily back for Cannes, arriving at a grimmish 5 a.m.
The mistake, as we analysed it, was having counted on taking shelter in a marina. Very tempting in a big wind, naturally. But in popular areas marinas can fill up at the first sign of a breeze. And they are not always great places to be, as anyone will tell you who has sat in certain Croatian harbours, watching boats clatter about like dodgem cars.
So nowadays we tend if possible to exchange the seductions of a marina for a quick, dirty passage to the local hurricane hole.
Where to go?
Potential refuges should of course be analysed with the greatest care. Lulworth Cove is a splendid horseshoe-shaped anchorage, charming in offshore breezes and during settled weather.
But the wind in those parts has a nasty habit of backing S or SW, at which point the bay begins to bear a spiritual resemblance to a lobster pot.
‘Apply to local boatmen for heavy anchors and cables,’ says my shockingly out-of-date copy of Captain John Coote RN’s English Channel Pilot. Perhaps so. But we updated to Tom Cunliffe’s Pilot ages ago, and we have always baled out for bulletproof Poole before we have to start signaling for anchors.
The west coast of Scotland is notably breezy, and notably short of marinas. But the place is a maze of islands, most with their hurricane hole.
It is possible to sit in perfect comfort in, say, Acairseid Mor on Rona, laughing heartily as rags of cloud hurtle overhead. So well-protected is this anchorage, that a kindly soul has painted a big white arrow on an off lying rock so there will be no mistaking the entrance.
Swallows and Amazon style
The advantage of such anchorages is that during the wind, rain and allied boredoms, the anchored boat will have plenty of seals to contemplate, accompanied on occasion by Highland cattle taking a refreshing bath; and of course that they are free.
The disadvantage of such anchorages is that TV reception may be poor, they tend to be lacking in shops, and fresh water may be hard to come by.
As far as food is concerned, the mackerel are in, and many clear-headed people will be eschewing frozen pizzas in favour of the iridescent fruits of the sea, and there is nothing wrong with a small competition to make something that resembles bread from flour and oatmeal and anything else hanging around in the food locker.
One of the advantages of a gale is that it throws you back on your own resources in proper Swallows-and-Amazons style.
In the hurricane hole
Which is not to say that marinas do not have their uses, gale or no gale. Water, and power, and fuel, and chandlery, and supplies, and a stroll down a pontoon to a shower are all fine things.
It is just that the grit of the pontoons and sodium lights in the rain are oddly reminiscent of a supermarket car park, and a belfry of gale-whipped halyards brings funerals to mind.
So next time it looks like blowing, excuse us. The man on St Tropez quay has done his work. We will be sitting in a hole in an island watching the sun light the flying clouds as it sinks over the hill.
As the mackerel sizzle and the guitars come out, we will reflect that at least we have left you a space in the marina. And we will entirely understand your point of view.
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