The Atlantic coast of Europe runs from Ushant to Gibraltar, and, with the Atlantic Islands thrown in, is a vast area of cruising opportunities, says Lu Heikell.

Atlantic coast sailing in Europe allows sailors to explore islands, ports, anchorages, harbours and rivers.

This vast cruising ground will easily whet the appetite of cruisers yearning for adventure and exploration.

The Atlantic Coast of Europe offers plenty of choice. Credit: Maxine Heath

The Atlantic Coast of Europe offers plenty of choice. Credit: Maxine Heath

Atlantic Coast: France

The Brittany coast, familiar to many of us, is often included as part of a home waters summer cruise.

Douarnenez, Benodet, Lorient, Belle Île, and of course the fabulous Gulf of Morbihan all rest deeply in the folklore of northern European sailors.

In fair summer weather the strong tides and rocky shores pose thrilling navigational questions and give a boost to the confidence.

Europe's Atlantic Coast - Auray, Gulf of Morbihan

The pretty town of Auray on the Gulf of Morbihan. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Even ashore everything is steeped in the maritime world. And then there are the legendary fruits de mer.

Beyond Brittany the coast sweeps down into the Bay of Biscay.

For some of us this region is viewed as somewhere to pass through on route south, but the region can be considered a cruising area in its own right, or as a staging post to leave a boat for a Schengen break on a longer cruise.

Head for the Med along the Canal du Midi. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Head for the Med along the Canal du Midi. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Les Sables d’Olonne, the Île d’Oléron and Île de Ré, and La Rochelle read like a roll-call of French offshore sailing heartlands and Les Sables is a great place to be at the start of one of the many yacht races, including the second edition of the modern Golden Globe Race, which starts there in early September 2022.

To the south, the Gironde marks the place where those heading for the Med can branch off towards Bordeaux to head through the Canal Latéral à la Garonne and the Canal du Midi, if draught permits.

Atlantic coast: Spain

For those continuing south ‘around the outside’, most head across to A Coruña, that great maritime crossroads and the gateway to Galicia’s famous Rias.

The landscape softens as you head south, from the bold rocky crags around the northern shores of the Rias Altas, to softer tree-covered slopes and sandy beaches in the southern bays beyond Cabo Finisterre.

The lower section, the Rias Baixas, comprise (from north to south) Ria de Muros, Ria de Arosa, Ria de Pontevedra and Ria de Vigo.

Spain's Rias Baixas offer countess anchorages. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Spain’s Rias Baixas offer countess anchorages. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The deeply indented coastline is dotted with traditional fishing ports and cities that mix the medieval with the modern.

Lu Heikell is a leading pilot book author in the Mediterranean and has cruised there and back to the UK via the inland and offshore routes. Credit: Lu Heikell

Lu Heikell is a leading pilot book author in the Mediterranean and has cruised there and back to the UK via the inland and offshore routes. Credit: Lu Heikell

There are also a mesmerising number of anchorages, though not all offer shelter from the Atlantic swell.

There is more than enough here to take a long season to explore, and many base their boats here for years.

Charter yachts can also be found in Sanxenxo, Baiona and Vigo.

It also happens to be home to one of my favourite wines, Albarino.

Atlantic coast: Portugal

It is a short step from here down to the border with Portugal – don’t forget to turn your clocks back one hour!

In the summer the prevailing wind here is known as the Portuguese Trades, a northerly wind which combines with a south-going current to make heading south by far the easier option.

The wide mouth of the River Tagus allows the opportunity to sail right up into the heart of Portugal’s capital city.

Horta in the Azores plays host to the annual Sea Week regatta. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Horta in the Azores plays host to the annual Sea Week regatta. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

There are marina options close to the city centre, but we prefer the marina at Cascais, a pretty town at the northern entrance to the Tagus River, just a 30-minute train ride into Lisbon.

The south-west corner of the Iberian Peninsula is the usual place to jump off from towards the Atlantic islands.

It needn’t be just for those heading towards the Canary Islands and on towards the Caribbean though.

Continues below…

It is also possible to make a mini Atlantic circuit, taking a 500-mile leg to Madeira and the same again across to the Azores, and then a longer leg back to the European or UK coast.

The Azores are a group of volcanic islands about 1,000 miles off the Portuguese coast and enjoy a mild maritime climate.

Faial, on the island of Horta is best known as the traditional stop-off en route back from the Caribbean to Europe, but the warm welcome is extended to all visiting yachts.

Peter’s Café Sport has been the hub for sailors for over 100 years – they say that if you haven’t been to Peter’s Café, you haven’t visited the Azores!

Peter's Cafe is an essential Azores destination. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Peter’s Cafe is an essential Azores destination. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Cruising between the islands is made easy by a wide network of safe harbours and reasonably priced marinas.

With more than eight islands and plenty of options to leave the boat safely in the Azores, your mini Atlantic circuit can be extended over a season or longer.

What you need to know

Season

Typical European maritime climate. Summer June-August. Shoulder seasons can be mixed and heavily influenced by Atlantic weather systems.

The Brittany coast is much like southern UK, becoming generally warmer as you head south.

Cruising hubs

Lorient, La Rochelle, Vigo, Porto, Villamoura, Horta.

Publications for Atlantic coast sailing in Europe

General research using
The Cruising Almanac,
Cruising Association, (Imray, £37.50)

Buy The Cruising Almanac at Amazon UK

Buy The Cruising Almanac at Amazon US

Atlantic France, Nick Chavasse (RCCPF/Imray, £42.50)

Buy Atlantic France at Amazon UK

Buy Atlantic France at Amazon US

Atlantic Spain and Portugal,Henry Buchanan (RCCPF/Imray, £45)

Buy Atlantic Spain and Portugal at Amazon UK

Cruising Galicia Carlos Rojas and Robert Bailey, (Imray, £32.50)

Buy Cruising Galicia at Amazon UK

Buy Cruising Galicia at Amazon US

Airports

For France

Nantes, Bordeaux

For northern Spain and Portugal Bilbao, Santiago, Porto, Lisbon, Faro

For Atlantic Islands

Madeira, Faial, Terceira, Sao Miguel

Travel

There are good train services to major cities.


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