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This bold, mountainous, and green coast from France to Galicia (Ribadeo) is little visited by yachts, most of which rush straight to the Rias. It's an easy coastal cruise of about 240nm. The longest sail between two safe harbours is about 70nm. There is enough harbour variety and inland interest to keep you happy for a slow three-week potter from one end to the other. Well populated, the coast has big industrial ports, quiet villages, busy fishing ports, and attractive beach resorts. Some places are cut into clefts in the rock, some protected by massive sea walls, others are hidden in shallow estuaries behind sand bars. When the fishing fleet is in, it’s often necessary to tie alongside - and wake up as they leave port.
Climate. Moist air lifting up the mountainsides creates low cloud, and rather more rain than along the French coasts, with the low cloud often obscuring high set lighthouses. Temperatures are a degree or two warmer, say 6° or 7°C above south England. June, July and August see some periods of very light winds, and the occasional stronger winds are usually accurately forecast. A summer cruise using only day sailing is easy to achieve. A winter cruise, between November and April, will frequenty be halted when periods of heavy swell and strong winds close many harbours.
Hazards. Swell is a significant factor, often closing the small ports with sand bars at their entrances. Normal access to these in good conditions is during the couple of hours before high water; tidal range is around 3m at springs, 1.5m at neaps. In heavy swell keep clear of shoal areas; even those of 10m depth have breakers. . The coast is steep to, with no dangers more than 1nm off the shore. Buoys or beacon towers marking offshore hazards are not present, and not needed. Simple pilotage skills are adequate. A random hazard is large numbers of fishing floats, unmarked, often with coils of rope floating nearby.
This picture is of Zumaya bar (20nm west French border), with nearly 6m water. The ground swell was about 2.5m.
Yacht and Crew Support. Good value wintering, in and out of the water, is possible in many locations, but not many people speak English. The whole coast is served by narrow gauge railway, "FEVE", giving picturesque, easy, but slow connections for patient travellers to airports at Santander, Bilbao, and Santiago de Compostela in neighbouring Galicia.
People, Politics and Fun. The area has a history of independence, being cut off from the rest of Spain by mountain ranges. It is industrialised, the coast fairly densely populated, supporting a good standard of living. City dwellers dress noticeably well. All Spain has a morning and late night culture. Morning, until 1300, is for shopping and business. Afternoons are pretty quiet; most shops close. Things come to life again about 1700. Evening meals don’t start until 2200 or later and nightlife goes on until dawn. Mid July and August is fiesta time, when each village takes turns to explode air bombs, rain curtains of fireworks, and entertain all and sundry with highly amplified live bands, tomato throwing contests, in town bull-dodging contests or great feats of horsemanship.
Basque and Galician cuisine is acknowledged as Spain’s finest. Seek out some good restaurants. Especially, try out the tapas bars in a city.
Whales and Dolphins. Only a short distance off shore, depths crash to 3,000m. This is whale and dolphin country - the Spanish aren't the only fishermen round here! Photos on my brother's site will help you identify these amazing creatures.
If you rate uncrowded cruising highly, and you're happy mixing it with fishing fleets, raise our assessments a notch. The harbours marked in green can be entered in all conditions; they are not necessarily attractive. The eastern part of this coastline, in Euskadia and Cantabria, has many closely spaced harbours and is quite well populated, and Basque France (Bayonne, St Jean de Luz and Hendaye) is well worth a visit, if only to compare the amazingly different timetables of French (early to bed!) and Spanish (start eating at 22:00!) cultures.
Basque country, which includes the corner of France, speaks its own language (Euskadi — full of x’s and k’s and quite unintelligible). Terrorist activity, once associated with Basque separatism, is no longer a problem, but is still marked by graffiti in some ports. Many ports here are seriously devoted to the fishing industry.
Bayonne, 8/10. Yes, I know, it's France. But this splendid historic town, with its a maze of small streets off the R Adour is a "must visit". Port D'Anglet is a small marina nearer the sea on the R Adour. Cap Breton, a large nearby marina in a beach resort suitable for wintering, has entry limited by tides and onshore winds.
St Jean de Luz (7/10) is a most attractive small French town and a very busy fishing port with a small marina and some anchoring spots. Entry possible in most conditions.
Ria Bidasoa 5/10. The border between Spain and France. Gurutzandi is an easily approached Spanish fishing harbour outside the river entrance. The river can only be entered during the top half of the tide. There is an adequate marina at Hendaye (France, an average town, 3/10), and a good marina at Hondarribia (Spain) - also known as Fuentarribia. Several anchorages too. Spanish Fuentarribia (8/10) has a fine town centre with some lovely old buildings.
Puerto de Pasajes 2/10. A safe harbour, busy and commercial. Anchor near the small villages of San Juan or San Pedro outside moorings.
San Sebastián 9/10. An elegant city around a beautiful bay; a major tourist resort. Sadly, limited mooring space (2/10) especially in high season. Anchor where moorings permit (it may be a rolly spot!), or try for a yacht club mooring. If you find a suitable spot, visit the Casco Viejo (the old city). This comes to life in the late evening with (what are said to be) the best tapas bars in Spain.
Guetaría 5/10. An easily entered small fishing port with a marina suited to vessels <12m, small hard and lift. Some pleasant old streets, one of which runs through the church basement!
Zumaya 4/10. Small coast resort with good yacht facilities. Marina with boatyard suitable for layup ashore or alfoat. Sand bar at entrance; don't enter when there's a swell!
Puerto de Motrico 5/10. Fishing port with easy but narrow approach. Tie alongside when fleet is away.
Ondarroa 3/10. A very crowded small fishing harbour, easily entered.
Lequeitio 5/10. Very busy small fishing port and holiday resort, easily entered. A favourite if you can find space, which is difficult.
Elanchove 6/10. Easily entered small, quiet fishing harbour under a small town on a cliff with lovely views down into the harbour. The town is so small that the local bus has to turn around on a turntable! Moor between buoys or tie alongside.
Bermeo 5/10. Easily entered busy fishing port with a well‑protected harbour. The inner harbour stinks when there's no wind in high summer, but has colourful tall terraces of houses, some of which are only two metres wide. The more fragrant outer harbour usually has room to lie alongside, especially in July and August.
Bilbao 7/10. Safe to enter in all weathers. A huge commercial port with an airport, and ferries to UK. Good for crew changes. Three full service marinas. The Getxo Kaia marina, east side of the estuary, newand Santurtzi Marina, west side, usually have space and are moderately expensive. The friendly old 'Real Club Maritimo del Abra' is much cheaper, closer to the river mouth, but only occasionally can offer an empty berth for a few nights. Spacious anchorages are an alternative. Good beach; ferries and 2 - 3 flights a day to UK. See the grand old houses skirting the harbour. Bilbao town centre is some 10km inland; take a metro. Visit the Guggenheim museum. At Algorta (a short walk northwards from Getxo) the picturesque old fishing village with its restaurants and bars is worth an evening visit.
A certain Celtic heritage is claimed in these regions, which have a relationship with Spain similar to that between England and Wales — including the coal mines, steel works and rain. And the very picturesque and mountainous Picos Europas, tremendous walking country.
Castro Urdiales 7/10. Easily entered, picturesque and interesting old town. Two arcaded streets run parallel to the main harbour front, dense with cafés and restaurants, great for people watching. If there's a NW swell running, take a walk west along the cliffs to see some magnificent blow holes doing their thing. Anchor in outer harbour, tie alongside, or anchor and tie bows- or stern-to one of the strings of mooring buoys. Some swell in ENE winds.
Laredo. A marina which can be entered in all conditions, lies around the entrance to the small fishing port in Laredo town. Some 700 berths, mostly vacant in 2012. On the seaward side of the long sandy spit next:
Santona 5/10, a holiday beach and town between Castro Urdiales and Santander with quiet anchorages inside a long sand spit.
Santander 6/10. Safe to enter in all weathers. A pleasant city, large port and holiday resort with lots of sandy beaches, good for crew changes. One marina by airport, 5m from town centre. Another at Padreña, east bank (turn left round port side beach, head 170 down buoyed channel) regular ferries to town centre. Suitable for layup ashore or afloat. Anchorages with plenty of space. Ferries and flights to UK.
San Vicente de la Barquera 7/10. An attractive little estuary with a pleasant old fishing town, but awkward to find mooring space. Seek out 'First Bar' - it's south over the bridge, a short distance left down the road. Run by a very friendly family of five brothers. Great seafood in a fairly scruffy setting. Select your fish from one of the big tanks in the room. Estuary only accessible near HW. Rarely visited by yachts; mooring does call for some initiative - perhaps alongside a fishing boat on a buoy, sometimes quay space.
Llanes 7/10. A lively little town with some excellent restaurants and bars, obviously on the local's tourist circuit. Some grand old houses slowly decaying, but a recently developed harbour that is easy to enter.
Moving west from Llanes, harbours are spaced more widely apart.
Lastres 6/10. A tiny cliff side village with narrow alleys, a couple of stores, a couple of café-restaurants, a butcher and a baker. Tie alongside or anchor off.
Ribadesella Small fishing port on river. Sand bar closes entrance in swell, otherwise entrance restricted to 2 hours before high water. Moor alongside rough quay - you'll need a long chafing plank to bridge the piles. Lively bars and restaurants. Visit the stone age Tito Bustillo caves from here. Sadly, the famous Altamira caves are closed.
Gijon (8/10) has a very busy commercial harbour, two marinas. It is a popular base for re-stocking the boat, and exploring Picos Europa, a magnificent range of mountains. Hire a car for a day or three to explore an amazing diversity of scenery, steep gorges and walks.
Avilés. (7/10) Port which can be entered in any conditions. Signals control traffic at entrance. Surrounds; big industry (2/10), but excellent shelter. Old town is a gem (7/10) well worth a visit. Moor to secure pontoons on west side of the southern part of the harbour on outskirts of town, fairly expensive.
Cudillero 6/10. Tiny attractive old village and port. Very narrow entrance to large fishing harbour with mooring buoys for visitors. Enter on top half of tide if there’s any swell.
Luarca 7/10. Attractive and lively small town. Easily entered fishing port. Tie alongside inner harbour if there's room; more likely pick up mooring in outer harbour with long line to wall. Good seafood restaurants, try the one just by the inner harbour entrance.
Next stop; the Rias of Galicia, more windy, much better sheltered, more yacht oriented.
Reviewed July 2016