Just beyond Biscay lies a glorious coast rarely explored by British cruisers. After cruising there, Chris Beeson urges the valiant to be a pilgrim
A cruising guide to the Rías Baixas
Stepping off the plane at Santiago de Compostela’s shiny new airport, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived to spend a week sailing the Rías Baixas. Their proximity to the fearsome Bay of Biscay and the rather inhospitably-named Costa da Morte may have coloured my view that this might be a difficult place to sail: a ragged, merciless lee shore thrashed by the unfettered might of the raging Atlantic.
Swooping coastwards on the 45-minute car journey to the Real Club Náutico Portosín, the yacht club on the Ría de Muros e Noia where my ride awaited, my view began to change. Round each sweeping curve on the pristine motorway, another pleasingly verdant view presented itself. Speckling these rolling hills were vineyards, farmsteads, churches and little villages, with rivers and railways winding their way placidly through the landscape. The sun was out and a gentle breeze ruffled the treetops.
My skipper for the week was Peter Haden, an Irish hotelier of British extraction whose 36ft Westerly Seahawk Papageno has sailed these waters for many years, wintering on the hard at the Astilleros Lagos yard in Vigo. I asked him why and his answers were compelling. First is access. For South Coast sailors, this cruising ground is only slightly further away than Scotland with a bracing romp across Biscay thrown in. Once here, there are airports at A Coruña in the north and Vigo further south, as well as the four-year-old terminal at Compostela into which I had flown. The motorways were clearly new, and Peter said the trains were modern, comfortable, fast and punctual.
I arrived in Portosín to find a well-sheltered marina tucked in on the south-east side of the Ría, overlooked by a rather special club house with facilities that included, to my great surprise, a full workshop complete with lathe. The club is well known to many members of the CA, ICC, RCC and OCC who enjoy a 25 per cent discount on berthing fees. Yacht clubs throughout Spain, and in Galicia particularly, are social hubs as much as sailing ones, like country clubs on the coast. Many members don’t sail but will turn up to meet friends, play tennis, drink and dine, while their children learn to sail in the club’s lively dinghy fleet. Many have second homes here and this was evident as I wandered around the quiet, shuttered town, although that may have been something to do with the fact that I had arrived on Monday 25 July, which happened to be the Fiesta de Santiago Apóstol, or Feast of St James, which draws the faithful to Santiago de Compostela.
In the afternoon we booked a photographer and took Papageno out for a quick blast in 14-16 knots, gusting 20. Under full sail she shouldered aside the smooth waters, beam reaching at seven knots. Sailing the Rías was going to be fun. That evening, bathed in glorious setting sunlight, we dined quite spectacularly on countless excellent courses of Galician classics in the club’s third-floor restaurant with club president Jorge Arán, and Javier Ruiz, president of ASNAUGA. ASNAUGA, the Association of Nautical Clubs of Galicia is a collective of 23 yacht clubs with over 3,000 berths from Ribadeo on the north coast round to Canido in the Ría de Vigo on the west coast. If you’re cruising here, you’ll find ASNAUGA’s passport very handy, as it gets you a 15 per cent reduction on short stays in its clubs.
On Tuesday morning we cast off and had a cracking broad reach, just south of west, down the Ría to its Atlantic mouth. We passed between the lighthouse on the southern tip of Punta Queixal and the low-lying rocks rather grandly called Islotes de Neixon, before gybing south. Sailing past mile after mile of empty beach, we left Las Basonas rocks to starboard before gybing again off Punta Careixiñas and again to round Cabo Corrubedo with its handsome faro, or lighthouse. This is where things became interesting. We were about to tackle the Canal de Sagres.
Pilotage using ‘The Force’
From Imray’s pilot guide Cruising Galicia: ‘Canal de Sagres is a 250m-wide passage, in 7-10m depth, which is not recommended except on a calm day, using detailed charts and preferably with local knowledge.’ First, we were bowling along in 15-18 knots. Second, I had learned about Peter that he’s not really a ‘chart man’, detailed or otherwise, preferring instead to rely on spiritual pilotage. Peter was using ‘The Force’. He did at least have local knowledge. With the engine running, just in case, we sailed on at around 160° towards a morass of fearsome rocks and certain annihilation, keeping Corrubedo pretty much dead astern, until a particular rock was off the starboard beam. Then we came up to about 105°, and passed through a veritable valley of death that felt considerably narrower than 250m, heading slightly to port of a large but distant concrete pillar called Piedras del Sargo. This marks the exit from the three-mile long doomscape of razor-sharp rocks you can see and jagged reefs you can’t. It was terrifying but I emerged into the Ría Arousa with considerably enhanced respect for my spiritual pilot.
We stopped for lunch at Isla Sálvora, the largest island in one of the four protected archipelagos in the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park. You need to anchor off but, as we had friends in high places, we moored on a small pontoon inside the stone jetty, then set off across the island, surveyed by thousands of very confident gulls, to the lighthouse on Punta Besuqueiros.
This spectacular island was first inhabited in the 9th Century, since when it’s been sacked by the Saracens and served as a base for pirates raiding the mainland. More recently it witnessed the Galician Titanic. On 2 January 1921, the mail steamer Santa Isabel tore out her bottom on the Pegar shoals below Sálvora’s lighthouse. The keeper heard screams and raised the alarm. Despite terrible conditions, three young ladies set out in two boats and rescued 50 survivors. Despite their efforts, 213 souls were lost.
Sálvora’s last residents moved to the mainland in 1972, leaving a ruined village. In 2008 the archipelago was bought from its owner, the Marqués de Revilla, by the Galician government and became part of the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park. It’s a breeding site for seabirds, has its own wild horses and some remarkable fauna but, unless you have a guide, you can’t stray from the path that leads from the anchorage, off Praia do Castelo on the southeast corner, to the light on the island’s western side.
You need a permit from www.iatlanticas.es to visit this stunning anchorage. Gin-clear water and a pristine beach are overlooked by Revilla’s pazo or small country residence, converted from a fish salting factory built in 1770, and a tiny tavern that he turned into a chapel, the Capela de Santa Catalina. A stone mermaid overlooking the bay recalls the legend of the beautiful siren rescued by a Roman soldier who thought her a victim of shipwreck until he saw her scales. He descaled her, called her Mariña and they had a son called Mariño who went on to sire the blue-eyed Mariño dynasty.
After lunching aboard, we decided to leave Ría Arousa unexplored and set off for Portonovo, another ASNAUGA club just west of the fleshpots of Sanxenxo. It was another romping broad reach in a warm breeze, past San Vicente do Mar marina and the impossibly pretty La Lanzada beach, round Punta Cabicastro and into the Ría de Pontevedra. The northeasterlies can funnel a bit down the Rías but we managed to get the sails down before confronting its full power and motored into Club Náutico Portonovo.
The modern clubhouse is on a pier that cuts across a bay, with the marina moored to the south of the pier and the Galician fishermen’s traditional lonxas, essentially a market, built on sea defences to the south of that. The old town overlooks the club’s marina and its residents enjoy the fine sand beach in the north of the bay, as do visitors on moorings, but the wind can whip up something of a sandstorm.
ASNAUGA president Javier Ruiz once again hosted an excellent supper, the star of which had to be the zamburiñas en foie, scallops in foie gras. Afterwards I made quick tour or the town, finding plenty of lively bars and restaurants, took a large glass of pleasing rioja for the princely sum of €2.40 and retired content to my bunk.
The following morning we nipped over to Portonovo’s bustling market, every town has one, to pick up a kilo of fresh mussels for €10, which would be tonight’s supper on board. We cast off bound for Isla de Ons, an island running north-south that protects the Ría from the worst ravages of the Atlantic, and is also part of the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park. Out of the lee we found the wind was up a bit, around 20 knots, and in the north, but under full sail we ate up the five-mile passage in no time, doused sail and, rather than drop the hook in Praia de Melide and walk into town, we prepared to pick up one of the moorings just north of the stone jetty that emerges from the main village, Almacén. I was expecting a spot of bother with the bow pitching in the short chop kicked up by the wind but Peter is an expert boat handler and we picked up first time, and without drama.
Despite the rather lively conditions, we managed to get the outboard onto the tender, ourselves into it and set off for the beach. With the tender hauled clear of the water we spent a very pleasant hour walking up to the lighthouse that marked the island’s summit, and enjoyed views north as far as Cabo Fisterra, Finisterre to you and me.
After winding our way back down the west side of the island we returned to Almacén, specifically to Casa Checho – home, we were assured, to the best pulpo in Galicia. To start we had percebes, gooseneck barnacles harvested by hand from the rocks at great risk to the percebeiros (and eaten at some risk to your shirt), followed by pulpo a la gallega, octopus boiled in copper pots, chopped, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and paprika. It was sensational, and I can heartily recommend the Albariño, a traditionally Galician wine, that accompanied most meals.
At length we returned to the tender and carried it down to the water which had receded a fair distance, puttered back to Papageno and rolled our way nine miles south to Islas Cíes, breakwater for the Ría de Vigo and perhaps the most photogenic of all the National Park’s islands. It is actually three islands: the clearly separate Isla de San Martiño in the south, and Isla do Faro and Isla de Monteagudo in the north, joined by Praia de Rodas, a jaw-dropping arc of sand backed by a lagoon.
We rounded Punta Muxieiro, dropped the hook a little south-west of the isolated danger of Piedra Borrón and I decided to swim ashore. July it may have been, but get into the water and you are sharply reminded that this is the Atlantic. Once acclimatised, I swam ashore and waded through the fine sand to take a few photos. It’s a beautiful spot but that is a fact not lost on the locals, who turn up in their thousands on an endless fleet of ferries from the mainland. It is rightly a very popular destination.
The wind was somehow targeting the anchorage, despite its lee, so we headed three miles northeast, round Punta Robaleira to Ensenada Barra, where we found much better shelter. As we trundled up to the top of the bay, Peter noticed Oystercatcher, another Irish yacht owned by Brian and Anne Cronin and their son, also Brian. We were due to meet them for supper the following evening so pleasantries were exchanged and we settled down to our supper of mussels. Peter pointed out that Ensenada Barra is colloquially known as Bare-arse Bay, in tribute to the naturists who frequent it, but we were too far from the beach for that to affect our appetites. The setting sun cast an ever-longer shadow over the bay, and its steady advance swept away the bathers from left to right and we too took an early night.
The following day we were due to meet our photographer again for a shoot off Islas Cíes, particularly Isla de San Martiño. The strong winds of yesterday had blown themselves out however, so we had to make use of 8-10 knots in a gentle swell to get some sailing shots. With that done, and our photo RIB due back on her sailing club safety duties, the photographer joined us along with his friend, Manuel Capeans.
We were motoring up Ría de Vigo, into the fast-fading breeze when Manuel, who works in the MRCC that overlooks Portosín, said that his office, a touch over 30 miles north of us, had reported 30 knots, highlighting the variability of the wind and weather conditions between the Rías.
We motored past the handsome city of Vigo, up to the Puente de Rande bridge at the top of the Ría, passing mile after mile of bateas, floating platforms that support ropes on which mussels are farmed and harvested. Wherever fishing tackle is involved I’m minded to give it a wide berth but these bateas are secured to the seabed, their positions charted and unchanging, and there are no extraneous bits of string to foul a prop. It felt pretty weird motoring through the ten-metre gap between two bateas but that’s what we did, and without incident.
We motored back to Cangas, on the Ría’s northern shore, opposite Vigo, to Club Náutico de Rodeira, where Peter keeps Papageno while he’s in Ireland. After freshening up in yet another pristine shower block, we shared drinks and tapas on the club’s rooftop bar with club president Juan Carlos Rodríguez, an event that made the local paper, Faro de Vigo.
After that Peter led us through the charming backstreets of Cangas to Taperia O Pelao, a traditional Galician restaurant, where we enjoyed yet another sensational supper and passed a memorable evening with the Cronins.
The following morning we visited the market then caught the ferry across the river to Vigo, took a quick tour of the Real Club Náutico de Vigo’s clubhouse, a remarkable edifice designed to echo the style of the great ocean liners, before jumping on a train and heading for Santiago de Compostela.
I was left agog by the cathedral’s eye-popping interior, then roamed the beautiful old town, a UNESCO-listed world heritage centre, which always bustles with pilgrims from around the world. I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the sensational Paradores hotel, which forms one side of the Plaza Obradoiro, the main square. It was built in 1499 as a hospital to treat weary, often mortally ill, pilgrims but was soon converted into a hotel, reputed to be the world’s oldest. With my own pilgrimage over, I bade Peter farewell, took a taxi to the airport and flew home.
This pocket cruising ground has absolutely everything the cruising sailor could possibly want: reliable breeze, warm weather, good shelter in any wind, plenty of friendly clubs with amazing facilities, offshore islands within easy range, stunning anchorages, excellent value, fabulous food and wine, beautiful scenery, great transport links and incredible history. The only risk is that you won’t want to leave.
We recently ran an article about how, when and why to cross Biscay (YM, Oct 15). Assuming that most sailors were heading to the Med or to Gran Canaria, the advice was to make your first stop in Baiona, on the southern side of the mouth of Ría de Vigo. Having sailed these waters, I could not recommend that you pass by the Rías Baixas.
Unless the Azores High is misbehaving, summer brings a reliable 12-15 knots of breeze from the north and north-east. On the occasional calm day, when you can feel the 24-28°C, a sea breeze fills in by 1400.
It’s extremely good value too, not just mooring but the excellent food and drink in markets and restaurants. Tidal flow is usually less than a knot that tends to flow south, unless a strong southerly dictates otherwise, and the tidal range of 3-4m (10-13ft) is moderate. If any work needs doing, tradesmen are abundant, willing and able to service leisure craft as well as the legendary Galician fishing fleet that plies its trade worldwide.
The Association of Nautical Clubs of Galicia
The Association of Nautical Clubs of Galicia (ASNAUGA) is a collective of 23 yacht clubs with over 3,000 berths from Ribadeo on the north coast round to Canido in the Ría de Vigo on the west coast.
If you’re cruising these parts, you’ll find ASNAUGA’s passport very handy, as it gets you a 15 per cent reduction on short stays in any of its clubs. Ask on arrival at the office of any ASNAUGA club.
For more information visit: www.asnauga.com