Sunday, 9 September 2012

A short hop across Biscay

The world's oldest transporter bridge, Getxo near Bilbao
Still transporting, after all these years
Industrial Astillero turned out to be the highlight of the Santander estuary as far as we were concerned. It was a pleasant, friendly, working town, with a superbly sheltered anchorage and easy landing for the dinghy. The rest was either bland (Santander itself) or simply holiday/beach towns (Somo).

We left Astillero reluctantly to be near the exit for departure when the weather suited and passed one more rolly night at the Santander anchorage before tucking into a tight but well sheltered spot behind a giant sandy spit. We thought we might spend a few days there, but the tides were large and the spot was so tight we ended up briefly aground at low water. Not really a problem in itself, but we were very near a steep ledge and I was slightly concerned lest the rudder end up on the ledge on the next tide and be damaged.

So, it was snap decision time again and we had an excellent, really excellent, sail to Bilbao. We looked in at Castro Urdiales on the way, as folk had recommended it and it's meant to have an interesting Templar castle, but it was very lumpy outside and we could see the masts of the boats inside waving wildly around, so we pressed on. 40+ miles in 7 hours on a lunchtime departure is a good day!

Biscay turns out to be a real sunfish hotspot. We've seen them on pretty much every passage since Ribadeo and even spotted them leaping right out of the water. They don't look like a jumping sort of fish, so we don't understand how they manage it.

Guggenheim: nice building, pity about the entry price
Bilbao's Santander station
Bilbao is an obviously wealthy, rather grandly elegant city. We had a couple of days in town and took in some culture, eschewing the absurdly pricey Guggenheim in favour of the free (on Wednesdays) Fine Arts Museum, where there was an excellent Goya exhibition on.

The anchorage, indeed the harbour, of Bilbao is miles away from the city, but the superb metro system makes it very easy to get around. The suburbs surrounding the harbour are also quite wealthy (only place we've ever seen moving pedestrian walkways outside about town) and pleasant. They boast the world's oldest transporter bridge, which is the only way across the river for miles around and only €0.35 for pedestrians.

Bilbao, we decided, would be our last stop in Spain as the difficulty of getting a sailing breeze for Bordeaux only increases as the inside corner is reached and the distance to sail doesn't diminish further. It's challenging nevertheless, since westerly winds are generally accompanied by big seas that make the entrance to the Gironde impossible. Ideally, we wanted wind straight northerly, easterly or south of east but what prevails, and what we got, was northeasterly.

We made an evening departure, hoping for a two-night one-day passage, reaching the Gironde early on the second day. Contrary winds stretched the passage out to a full two days, but quite enjoyable.

It was lumpy for the first day, but the weather was fair and the nights warm and starry. It was good to be offshore again, for the first time since reaching Bayona 4 months ago. Quite a few sailors we've met in these parts have remarked on the absence of dolphins, but we've found that it's only the case in coastal waters. They, and not incidentally the fishing fleet, concentrate around the continental shelf.

An uncharacteristically quiescent Biscay
Still still at sunset
France ho! Landfall at Gironde. Not much land evident.
The wind abandoned us on the last day with about 30 NM still to go so we had to stop for a swim and then chugged along in the brilliant sunshine, coming to anchor in the Gironde a couple of hours after sunset. The plan then was to get up stupidly early the next day (today) to catch the tide up to Paulliac, halfway to Bordeaux, but when we did get up at 0530 it was to find everything draped in superthick, wet fog. We weren't really sorry to get back into bed and snooze a few hours longer.

When the fog finally lifted, there was only two hours remaining on the flood, so we shaped our course for the small port of Meschers, accessible to vessels up to 9 m at high water +/-2.5 hours.

The caves of Regulus, at Meschers
Shrimping huts
We're not far from Spain at all, geographically, but the character of the country, the people, the architecture is totally, strikingly different. Got to love that.

Mais oui! C'est la France, dahling!

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