Everyone has a different view of cruising.
For some people, the loom of the French coast is a mere obstacle, indicating that it is time to change direction and blast off into blue water and not even think about the land for weeks.
Not me. As I approach the coast, my nostrils are testing the breeze for hints of steak frites. Naturally I like to up anchor and head for the horizon, and I am by no means averse to making a hefty passage, or far from immune to the satisfaction of a good landfall. But after all the seafaring, I like to sail into a harbour, preferably out of the sunset.
Entering a harbour is a wonderful thing. There is the smell of the land, honey and spices and motherhood, with perhaps a hint of brimstone if you are passing the refineries at Milford Haven. Elsewhere you will get the Ali Baba effect, in which the apparently solid cliffs of the Crowlin Islands part, as if by magic, to admit you to the sheltered pool in their middle. And there is the Land of Oz effect, produced by sailing along the ironbound southern shore of Cardigan Bay, glimpsing through a slot in the shingle the candy colours of regency Aberaeron, and realising that within the hour there will be fine ice cream and a chance of a lobster.
There are ‘stately harbours’, of course. New Grimsby in the Isles of Scilly is the entry-level example, in which the sense of security is intensified by the granite drum of Cromwell’s Castle. Higher on the stateliness scale is quaintly fortified LaRochelle, once closed by a chain and now entirely unwelcoming to yachts, which are shunted to a vast and soulless marina round the corner. Somewhere near the top is the Grand Harbour of Valletta, whose ancient fortifications speak directly to the yachtsman’s inner Crusader.
The fortifications of these harbours give insights into the mindset of our swashbuckling ancestors. Allow yourself a pleasant shudder as you reflect that in their day, the batteries that now smile picturesquely above the restaurants on the quay would have been full of loaded guns, and the locals would have been interested not so much in the colour of your money as the colour of your insides.
Perhaps the best harbours of the lot are not harbours at all. There is a particular dip in the sand between the Dutch coast and the island of Vliel and, marked by a fistful of perches, where a boat can lie afloat in a pool of water as the tide bares the sands and clouds of marsh-birds rush overhead under the moon. There is a little bay just inside the mouth of Loch Hourn, on the mainland inside Skye, where the plunge of the anchor echoes from sheets of stone and the silence falls like a thick, bright blanket. And there is Arne in Poole Harbour, where you can picnic in an ancient corner, ignoring the twenty-first century howling in the dredged channels further east.
What all these harbours have in common is this. As you zigzag back from the pub or waddle boatwards from the taverna or close your book and turn out the cabin lamp, you will have the encouraging thought that you have worked out the tidal gates, got the forecast, and organised your passage plan. So you can wake up in the morning, catch the tide, and do it all over again.