A Summer in France


Two months in Provence doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as a “Year in Provence”, but that’s how long we spent sailing the coast of that region. Having covered almost 1000nm in June, in July and August we slowed right down and travelled only 220nm. It was a time for relaxing and enjoying the unexpected hospitality of France to visiting sailors. We really hadn’t intended to be there so long and had fretted at the start of the summer about where we would be for the busy month of August. As it turned out, we spent most of it in France and yes, it was busy but nothing compared to Ionian busy.

We were lucky with the weather, just two thunderstorms troubled us and the mistral was fairly benign. The winds were generally light, but as the distances we travelled were under 20nm, we could easily fit a slow sail into the day.

We didn’t go into any marinas, however it was reassuring to know they were reasonably priced (approx €50 a night for Emerald) should the need arise. We found good anchorages wherever we wanted to go, although we were surprised by swell in a couple of them, which came from an unexpected direction.

Iles de Lerins

Our last blog had us anchored off Juan Les Pins, near Antibes, from where we made the short journey out to Iles de Lerins. The islands sit off of Cannes, two long, narrow lumps of land with a 0.5nm wide passage between them. In places the passage is shallow with large areas of sand and as to be expected, most boats want to anchor here. The rest is more weedy but there are good sized sand patches to be found. When we arrived, we dropped in weed away from the crowds and went off on in the dinghy on a hunt for sand. We moved the boat and bullseyed into a good sized spot.

An unusual sunset phenomenon

Over the next few days we explored each tree covered island. Isle St. Honorat has a small enclosed harbour in which to leave a dinghy to allow easy exploration of an active monastery as well as the ruins of a fortified one. The centre of the island is turned over to grapevines and the monks make wines for sale.

The current monastary as seen from the old monastery

Isle St. Marguerite is the bigger sister and arriving on it’s shore, the strong scent of pine and eucalyptus was refreshing to my nose. Paths and tracks cris-crossed the island, some lined by very magnificent trees. On the north side is a fort with a museum and a few houses, including a resident fire brigade. Very important to have when there are so many trees. The fort provided us a with a good viewing platform to watch the Cannes fireworks: over the summer a competition is held with teams from various countries setting the sky alight, backed by a musical theme.

It can be a little busy in the anchorage

A novelty of the islands is the pizza boat. A catamaran with a wood fired oven is stationed out here with RIBs instead of scooters out making deliveries. It was over priced but hey, we’ve now had pizza from the pizza boat.

Friends from our winter in Marina di Ragusa arrived and we enjoyed a catch up. The biggest storm we’d encountered this season also arrived, roiling black clouds filling the horizon accompanied by thunder and lightning. The worst of it missed us, although it did briefly interrupt a drinks party! The decks felt so much better underfoot after a good rinse from the rain.

The stormiest day of the summer (so far)

The islands made a good place to hang out. Even in an easterly blow up to F4 it wasn’t too uncomfortable. It was busy on and off but keeping away from the large sand patch kept us away from the crowds.

Theoule Sur Mer

Further west of the islands is the Massif de l’Esterel, a rust red, craggy mountain range over which we had watched some spectacular sunsets from the anchorage between Iles de Lerins.

A search of wikiloc.com showed me there were walks possible from the seaside town of Theoule Sur Mer, which has an anchorage on the west shore and another along it’s southern shore. However, we needed settled weather, certainly no winds from the east, so we waited out a week of easterlies at Iles de Lerins and a restocking trip back to Juan Les Pins before eventually being rewarded for our patience with the right weather.

We tried the southern anchorage, but depths dropped off steeply and with the presence of other boats and swimming buoys, if felt uncomfortable to us. So, we moved on to the next possibility, but even in the settled weather, the anchorage felt slightly dicey; despite there being no wind, a small current was sitting us stern to a lee shore. And it was an unfriendly looking, rocky shore. We gave the anchor an extra hard set and all seemed good. By afternoon, a southerly wind had arrived and we laid beam to the shore, a far more comfortable position to be in.

Far reaching views

The small harbour at Theoule was extremely welcoming when we asked if we could tie up our dinghy. A group of decorated gigs were setting out on a parade to sea but the hills were calling to me. There was a fair bit of up to start with, but the track was wide and curved it’s way up the hill to where the views were fantastic; we even could see Emerald way below us every so often, still safely where we left her.

Our next stop is around that corner

The next day we took another walk, this one to the 12m high statue of Notre Dame d’Afrique – a tribute to the link between France and Algeria and those who have fallen in war.

Notre Dame d’Afrique

Calanque d’Antheor

We moved on in the afternoon, just 6nm to the anchorage of Calanque d’Antheor. The only reason we came here was to see the train viaduct that crosses the head of the bay which is lit up at night. I’m a sucker for twinkly lights. The anchorage exceeded expectations having a large area of sand in which to anchor, stunning views of jagged red rocks and good snorkelling around the rocky edges. Shoals of 10cm long fish were basking in the warm, shallow waters. I hovered amongst them until my fingers turned wrinkly. The night time light show didn’t disappoint either, having not just static lights, but cycling colours. Pretty!

The rust red rocks reminded me of the Scandola National Park in Corsica, which we sailed through last year (watch the video here). I wonder if these areas were once joined together?

Well, I thought it was an interesting anchorage
The red rocks make for stunning coastal scenery

West Past St. Tropez to Baie de Briande

Easterly winds blew us slowly west the next day. We considered stopping off at Saint Tropez, but the east winds could have made the anchorage uncomfortable. As we sailed past, we were constantly knocked about by the kind of swell normally generated by a strong wind, except these waves were being created by the army of speedboats zooming about. I briefly turned into a crazy woman, shouting loudly at them to slow down, but of course none of them could hear me over the noise of their gas guzzling engines.

We’d experienced fast boats along the rest of the Cote d’Azur, but not in such numbers and frequency. We decided to keep on going and as we passed beyond the long, sandy beach of Pampelonne, the traffic greatly reduced. They could keep to St. Tropez if it kept them away from the rest of the area.

The anchorage of Baie de Briande is sheltered from easterly winds by the narrow finger of rock called Cap Taillat. On the other side is another anchorage, of course protected from west winds. There are large yellow buoys that limit speed to 5kts which keeps the jet skies away and the shore is fringed with soft, sandy beaches and another stretch of coastal path to be explored. The area sadly suffered from forest fires a few years ago, but nature is fighting back.

Looking towards Cap Taillat and the anchorage
This poor tree was roasted, whilst it’s neighbours are unscathed
From up on Cap Taillat, Baie de Briande to the left, Baie de Bon-Porte to the right

On our second day, unexpectedly strong west winds arrived in the late afternoon. Boats began to leave and soon we were one of the two last boats. We sat it out until the wind reached 30kts and decided to follow everyone else around the other side to Bon-Porte. It was a wild ride around the cape, until it’s bulk provided the shelter we were looking for. We’d been nervous about there being no space left because of the number of boats seeking shelter there, however our fears were unfounded with plenty of choice in sand and everyone sensible spaced. Bang on sunset, the wind died to zero. We had a peaceful night with no swell, bliss.

Fort du Bregançon

Another slow sail west. We noticed again how fewer powerboats there were out here and far more sailboats. Although we did have a strange encounter as a sailboat made a beeline for us, took photos, then tacked away. They did however wave as they did it!

We could wave to the President of France in his summer residence from the anchorage

Our destination was the bay beneath the Fort du Bregançon. We didn’t know it when we arrived, but it is the summer residence for the French President, and Monsieur Macron was paying a visit. Armed guards patrolled the site and a RIB kept boats from getting too close, but otherwise we wouldn’t have known they were there. The only annoyance was that part of the coastal trail was closed for security, but there was plenty of trail in the other direction for me to explore.

Fort de Bregancon, the summer residence of the French President

We were now into the time of the Perseid meteor shower and the area was light pollution free enough that we should have had some good spotting opportunities. If only it wasn’t for the pesky half moon, shining brightly and creating far too much light.

Iles de Porquerolles

This island off the coast of Hyeres is a mecca for boats in the summer. We were worried it would be crazy crowded and plagued with boats going far too fast in confined waters as several of the reviews we had read alluded to. But, do not believe everything you read (I know, ironic as you’re reading my blog). It did look busy as we arrived at the anchorage known locally as Notre Dame, on the charts as Baie de Alicastre, but we managed to find a space. The anchoring process was made more difficult by the random bobbing of boats in the absence of any wind; it’s always preferable for there to be a touch of wind when anchoring to see how everyone is lying. But we were in and with a comfortable amount of space around us.

Petanque in front of the village church

Off ashore for an explore – a wide, dirt path took me to the village, busy with visitors from the trip boats but with an authentic French vibe to the place. There was the large petanque pitch in front of a rustic church; there was the bakery selling French pastry delights. And bicycles everywhere with many hire shops for visitors to get out and enjoy the tracks and trails.

The south side of the island has some stunning anchorages – this is the Gorges Du Loup

With a strong westerly wind due overnight, we waited until it picked up in the afternoon and sailed across to La Capte, along the low lying isthmus of sand stretching south from Hyeres. We found a sandy area just outside the swim buoys. Overnight the wind got up to 20kts, so we were glad to have moved to a sheltered spot, but with the next day settled again, we motored back out to the island, this time anchoring to the east of the harbour breakwater. As with yesterday’s anchorage, it was busy but not over crowded and we found a spot in sand.

Ashore there is a small beach where people leave their dinghys; it seems to be a very trustworthy place as the majority were just pulled up on the shore. Another plus point for France! We had another walk; this time to a fort (of which there are several dotting the island) and a jolly sounding windmill called the Windmill of Happiness (le Moulin de Bonheur). There are so many trails it would be possible to do a different trail every day for perhaps a week or more.

In the evening as the crowds thinned with the last of the ferries returning to the mainland, we ate ice cream whilst watching several games of petanque being played. I really like this island.

Supplies are more expensive than on the mainland, I guess because of the need to ferry goods out. But croissants were still cheap. And as the interior of the island is planted with vineyards, there is a plentiful supply of wine.

La Capte – Hyeres

There was a mistral forecast to blow over the next few days with strong west winds, so we moved back to La Capte for the better protection. The holding was excellent as the wind blew on and off, reaching 30kts one afternoon. The kite surfers were out in force enjoying the conditions. The winds also brought along some cooler air and I certainly preferred the lower temperatures, still in the mid twenties but much more comfortable than the 30C days we’d had recently.

The anchorage at La Capte

At La Capte is a tiny marina, only suitable for shallow draught, small boats but with a place for tying up dinghys. On a less windy day, we caught a bus up to the town of Hyeres. It wasn’t as touristy as the other towns and cities we’d visited this year and had a pretty medieval quarter to stroll around. We followed a map from the tourist office that led us between the sites, including a castle and the home of the man who was involved with the finding of the statue of the Venus de Milo.

Medieval Hyeres
Cobbled lane
A fine view out to Porquerolles

On Friday mornings, there is a Provencal Market stretched out along one of the roads of La Capte. This was our first real market of the summer and it was great – plenty of good priced fruit and veg, household goods and French specialities of cheese, bread and saucisson – perfect for a picnic lunch.

A mountain of garlic at the Provencal market

Back to Porquerolles

Our slow progress through France meant we were able to meet up with our French friends in the Porquerolles, who we first met in 2015/16 in Marina Di Ragusa. This was a highlight of our summer, and the hugely anticipated reunion of the “Tres Gauches”, although there would only actually be two of them present. Gentle days were spent wandering the island, and evenings chatting over beer and nibbles. Colin and Stephane entertained both us and the anchorage and we sang along. It was so good to see them again and to make a new friend in Frederick.

Good times with friends
Blue sea, blue sky

Toulon

Toulon is a working city with a large naval base where huge military grey warships share the same harbour as yachts. We chose to anchor off of Le Mourillon beach, just outside the breakwater, although it took us some time to find a decent patch of sand to drop in that wasn’t too shallow. Just by the anchorage is the tiny Port St. Louis which has moorings for small boats. The staff were welcoming when we asked if we could leave the dinghy there.

The daily market along Cours Lafayette was a great place to wander and practise my French. There are many stalls with fresh fruit and veg, at the lowest prices we’d seen so far in France. Beyond the market, is a warren of streets and squares in the Old Town, with many fountains to look out for.

The fresh fruit and veg was plentiful and well priced. I also had a chance to practise my French
A boat built into the side of a house!

Unfortunately, the weather was a little unsettled and on our second day we were chased off by strong easterly winds. The anchor was holding, but the F6 winds were making things rolly on board and the shallow shore was uncomfortably close to Emerald’s stern. We had a long slog as we bashed in to the wind to round Cape Cepet followed by a great sail on to La Ciotat as we put the wind behind us. We wondered if the east winds would be a problem for La Ciotat, but they conveniently died away part way across the bay.

La Ciotat

Even with swim buoys extending from the beaches at La Ciotat, there is still a large area of sand to anchor in, with lots of space for all. It seemed that there were boats left there long term, so it must be a sheltered and safe spot to be. We were treated to the mesmerising pattern of gentle waves in blue, clear water over white sand.

Ashore are the twins of Belfast’s Samson and Goliath – the huge shipbuilding gantry cranes that speak of La Ciotat’s past. Ship building has a long history in the town and in the early 1970’s, over 5000 people were employed in the industry. However, work declined into the 80’s and the yards were only saved by the intervention of a small group of employees. Since then, fortunes have been turned around and the yards are now known as a place for the refit of megayachts. There were several in whilst we were there.

La Ciotat’s own Samson and Goliath
Harbour and old town La Ciotat

The south of the town is bordered by Cap d’Aigle, a rock formation moulded into weird and wonderful shapes by wind and water. Park du Mugel is a botanical garden next to the rocks and a short walk further on is the Calanque de Figuerolles with more bizarre rock formation to wonder at.

Calanque de Figuerolles and another strangely shaped rock

And if this wasn’t enough for a small town, it also has the honour of being the place where petanque was invented and has the oldest, still running movie theatre in the world.

Cassis

It was a short, but spectacular motor from La Ciotat to Cassis. The cliffs and rocks along the stretch of coast are very dramatic.

A stunning backdrop to the anchorage

Off Cassis town, the swim buoys are set so far out as to remove the ability to anchor in sensible depths, but just next door are two sandy bays with good depths. We chose the middle one to reduce the distance to dinghy in to the town. We found a place to tie up in the inner corner of the harbour and set off for a walk to the Calanque de Port-Miou, a long, narrow finger of water breaking through the rock. The calanque has been turned into a harbour, with pontoons lining each side to which boats Med moor. It was a popular place to walk out to, with many people in the canyon, widened during many years of limestone quarrying.

Back in the town, we found it a little over crowded as a cruise ship was in, so we had a quick walk around and headed back to Emerald, with a plan to continue to Calanque de Sormiou for the night.

Les Calanques – Calanque de Sormiou

There are places I read about during my research on where to go and anchor that occasionally reach mythical status. The Calanques were one of those places, getting under my skin for some reason and making we want to do all we could to visit there.

We’d been studying the forecasts even since leaving Iles Porquerolles, waiting for suitable winds to cross to Spain. It looked like our luck was in, with a period of settled weather that would allow is to visit the Calanques. After that, there was a small blow due out of the Golfe de Leon – a bit more wind than we wanted really, so as the days went by, we kept our fingers crossed it would ease off a touch.

But in the meantime, we had a whole day to explore the Calanque de Sormiou, one of the larger coves. We arrived the evening before, expecting other boats to be heading off to marinas for the night, but it turned out everyone thought the same, with more boats arriving in the hours before sunset than left. We chose a spot in 12m outside the main group of boats. We couldn’t see the bottom, but the holding felt ok. Not somewhere to be in a strong southerly, but good enough for the light winds we expected.

Sunset pink rocks

The sunset turned the white rocks peachy pink and we enjoyed the view with a cold drink to hand. Sometimes in this sailing life, there are disappointments when the weather doesn’t line up for you to visit a much lusted after destination. It can be very frustrating, certainly for me who views our lifestyle as a way to visit places rather than being in it for the sailing itself. So when the stars align, the moments are special.

A little bit of sailing and hiking paradise

The next day was a little overcast, a tiny bit disappointing for the views, but good for being less crazy hot for climbing hills. And the views were still breath taking; I said a lot of wows that day.

Port de S. Croix

Our next anchorage was just a staging post, trying to make a little more west for a better sailing angle to cross to Spain. We motored along the white cliffs of the Calanques National Park, we tried to sail but there wasn’t much wind about.

Leaving Calanque de Sormiou
Motor sailing along the Calanques
All sails set, but in the light wind we were only making 2.0kts SOG

Despite the swim buoys taking up half of the bay of Anse de St.Croix, there was still plenty of space in anchor in sand. Given the lack of wind, we were surprised by the level of swell in the anchorage, but by now we were running out of time to find another spot. Not ideal for a good night’s sleep before an overnight crossing, perhaps it was the ships coming in and out of busy Port St. Louis just to the west, whose swell occasionally rocked us awake.

The wind forecasts that we’d been following did ease off in strength, but then they also turned in the wrong direction for part of our planned over-nighter. See how the passage unfurled in the next blog.

Sailing Info

23rd July: Juan Les Pins to Iles de Lerins – 4nm
Anchored in 9m a sand patch in position 43 30.825’N 7 03.102’E
On Iles St. Honorat is a small boat harbour where a dinghy can be left.

30th July: Iles de Lerins to Juan Les Pins – 4nm
Anchored in 5m in position 43 33.33’N 7 07.071’E
Chased out of the anchorage on the 31st due to uncomfortable swell.

31st July: Juan Les Pins to Iles de Lerins – 4nm
Returned to the same sand patch between the two islands. Sat out 20kts of wind from the east. A little swell but not too uncomfortable.

3rd August: Iles de Lerins to Theoule Sur Mer – 5nm
Anchored in 11m in position 43 30.68’N 6 56.33’E between the two marinas.
The small marina at Theoule were welcoming to us when we asked to leave the dinghy there.
There are a few grocery shops, however we found the small Casino supermarket to have higher prices than previously experienced.

5th August: Theoule Sur Mer to Calanque d’Antheor
Anchored in 6m in position 43 26.201’N 6 53.658’E
Very good holding in sand. Try to get a spot close to the middle of the bay as rocks fringe the edges.

6th August: Calanque d’Antheor to Baie de Briande east – 24nm (11nm sailed)
Anchored in 8m in sand, in position 43 10.233’N 6 38.076’E off of the beach. The area close to Cap Taillat looked to be more weedy.
Great coastal trail ashore. Internet access was not great here.

8th August: Baie de Briande to Baie de Bon-Porte south
Anchored in 10m in sand in position 43 10.42’N 6 38.749’E
Good shelter from west wind and swell. There is a boat track to the beach where dinghys can be pulled up.

9th August: Baie de Bon-Porte to Ponte du Diable, Bregancon – 19nm (11nm sailed)
Anchored in 7m. Sand and weed. Position 43 05.838’N 6 19.292’E

10th August: Bregancon to Baie de Notre Dame, Iles de Porquerolles – 6nm
Anchored in 4m, mud and weed in position 43 00.877’N 6 13.91’E. We later found better sand further west.
Moved in the afternoon to LaCapte, anchored in sand in 6.5m in position 43 03.691’N 6 09.27’E

11th August: La Capte to Porquerolles – 5nm (4nm sailed)
Anchored off the harbour breakwater in sand in 5.5m 43 00 321’N 6 12.396’E
The pebbly beach by the breakwater was the place for leaving dinghys. Most were just pulled up on the beach, however there is a metal loop set into the rock closest to the town to lock or tie to if wanted.
The village has a large selection of restaurants. Many bike hire shops with a day’s hire starting at E16. There are some grocery stalls and two small supermarkets, however prices were higher than on the mainland.

12th August: Porquerolles to La Capte – 5nm
Anchored in sand in 5m 43.03.697’N 6 09.241’E
The small harbour is good for leaving the dinghy and on the main road that passes the town, a bus runs to Hyeres, approx. 20 minutes journey time.
La Capte has grocery shops and a small Casino, again higher prices here than in the larger supermarkets. The bus passes by a Casino Hypermarket on the outskirts of Hyeres. Hyeres – we noticed grocery prices were lower here than further east.

17th August: La Capte to Baie de Notre Dame, Iles de Porquerolles – 5nm
On this return visit, we anchored further to the west than previously and found good large sand patches. Anchored in 6.5m in position 43 00.813’N 6 13.766’E

19th August: Porquerolles to Toulon – 14nm (10nm sailed)
Anchored in 6m in a very small sand patch amongst weed. Position 43 06.123’N 5 56.034’E
The small harbour next to the anchorage can be used for leaving a dinghy.

21st August: Toulon to La Ciotat – 21nm (15nm Sailed)
Anchored in 6.5m in position 43 10.924’N 5 37.334’E
Left the dinghy in the small boat harbour of Capucins. The harbour is quite full, but we found space in two corners.

26th August: La Ciotat to Cassis – 6nm
Anchored in 7m in sand in position 43 12.479’N 5 32.586’E

26th August: Cassis to Calanque de Sormiou – 4nm
Anchored in 12m in position 43 12.461’N 5 25.500’E
The holding was OK, but we wouldn’t trust it in strong winds.
Ashore there is a restaurant, rubbish bins and some great walks, if a little strenuous.
Dinghy can be left in the small harbour.

28th August: Calanque de Sormiou to Port St. Croix – 21nm (9nm sailed)
Anchored in sand in 5.5m in position 43 19.828’N 5 03.971’E
There are swim buoys limiting part of the bay, but still plenty of space.
However, we found the anchorage to be troubled by swell, despite there being any noticeable wind.

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