A Stone Boat
Updated: Oct 17, 2021
"This coastline is literally called the Costa da Morte, or Coast of Death, due to the number of shipwrecks."
Galicia is an autonomous region in the Northwest corner of Spain, with its own language, a cross between Spanish and Portuguese. Neither of us has visited before and we’ve really enjoyed spending time here, with its varied mix of carefully stewarded natural beauty, fascinating history and distinct culture.
We had been rather put off by the unseasonal southerly winds which made getting through this part of north west Spain a challenge, as the wind was always against us. Having managed to do one thing successfully, which was to anchor in the Ría de Camariñas, we decided to stay for a couple of days and wait out the strong winds before trying to get round Cape Finisterre on the northern tip of the western coast. Our anchorage was just outside the town of Muxía. Muxía is part of the sacred pilgrimage route from Santiago de Compostela. It is where the Virgin Mary appeared in her stone boat to St James in order to encourage him to keep on preaching. A walk out of the town along the coastline took us to see the remnants of the boat, now deconstructed into a selection of magic stones, including a large boulder cloven in two in the exact shape of a lightning bolt. The Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Boat, a stone church on the clifftop reminds the pilgrims of the sacred power imbuing the stones. For us, the more pertinent reminder of power was the menacing Cabo Vilán peeking beyond the lighthouse and across the wave smashed rocks and river entrance. Cabo Vilán, or ‘Cape Villain’ as the Irish guy christened it, was the set of rocks and lighthouse that had been by our side for several hours while trying to enter the Ría Camariñas against that incessant southerly wind the previous day. This coastline is literally called the Costa da Morte, or Coast of Death, due to the number of shipwrecks. It certainly had felt like the Virgin Mary had turned our boat to stone.
A day later we decided to motor out. The wind was still southerly, but it was predicted to be light. Our anchorage had become rolly with the swell and the weather was grizzly. It was time to leave. Burned by our previous tardy departures, we left at 5.50am. The entrance to Ría de Camariñas is strewn with rocks which come quite far out from the land. A large fishing boat had decided to leave the river entrance at the same time as us. Now that we were south of the UK and an hour ahead, that time in the morning was completely pitch black. You cannot even see the outlines of anything; all you can see are bright lights, but you can’t judge how far away things are. You just know that if the lights are flashing, it is probably something on land, warning flashes to mark rocky perils, shoals or the harbour entrance. If the lights are fixed, they probably belong to a boat, but you can’t tell how far away it is, unless it has an AIS transponder. Looking at the bright chartplotter screen completely eradicates any night vision, so you just see lights against a black background. It didn’t become daylight until 8.00am and by that time we were well out of the river entrance, having followed out the fishing boat. The noise of our engine soon attracted plenty of dynamic little dolphins who leapfrogged through the waves like mini rockets. They must have been disappointed to find that we didn’t have any fish though.
Our early start paid off and we were heading for a 3.00pm arrival in our next port of call in the Ría Muros. Worried by tales of anchors being trapped in stones in the sheltered anchorage off the harbour and the other anchorage being open to southerly winds, we decided we would go to a marina. Marina entries always make me nervous. This is where you are most likely to have an accident and cause some expensive damage. When we brought our boat back from Cardiff, we kept it on a mooring buoy, rather than in a marina to save money, so we’re not that well practised at the exit and entrance manoeuvres. Plus some past experience of unfamiliar marinas, had also made us wary. One such occasion really sticks in my memory. My friend and her husband had come down to spend her birthday weekend with us on the boat. She and her husband have two young boys. We were hoping to give her a special birthday treat and give them both a rest. She was keen to go out to a restaurant, so we decided to stay in a marina in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. All went well on the sail there. We had lovely weather that September day. We managed to avoid collisions with the container ships, the ferries and the multitude of sailing boats that plough up and down Southampton Water and the Solent. All was going swimmingly, until we entered the marina...
Now I want to digress, back to the Ría Muros. I was nervous about the entry to the marina. This was unfounded. We called them on the VHF radio and asked if they had a visitor berth available and where to go. “Just go to the first pontoon and we will meet you there and show you where to go.” This is unprecedented. Our experience in France and Spain so far is that they don’t assign specific berths, they give you a visitors’ area and you can take your pick. As we entered, not one, but two men appeared to show us where to go and to catch our lines to help us dock. This really takes the stress out of entering an unknown marina. We locked up the boat, took our passports and went to register. As we filled in the registration form, I could see the marina assistant’s brown eyes beaming behind the coronavirus mask. We got a discount for our second night’s stay. Then we were handed a present of a bottle of white wine, a Galician speciality. Surprised and delighted, we went upstairs to the restaurant for a drink, which had panoramic views of the wooded hills and white sand beaches of the Ria Muros. This is officially my best experience of a marina so far.
In England, if you visit a marina, you are not greeted by free bottles of wine, much less people to welcome you and help you tie up. Our experience of visiting marinas in England has been more like the experience we had in Cowes. You call them up on your ship’s VHF radio. You ask for a visitor’s berth. They tell you one is available. They tell you the number of it. They do not explain where it is. You press them and ask whereabouts in the marina it is. They tell you it is on the S pontoon. Right. You look on your chartplotter and thumb through the almanac. There are no clues. You call back and ask where in the marina the S pontoon is. They pause, as if assessing if someone so ignorant could possibly be in charge of a boat. Very, very, painfully slowly, they state ‘esss staaaands forrrrrrr souuutttthhhh.’ You realise the whole marina has heard this patronising exchange, as it is on the VHF radio and not a private phone call. You try to creep in unobtrusively. You find the south pontoon. The numbers for each berth are carefully hidden, so they are impossible to see unless you are already right in front of them. This is not helpful on a boat, as you need turning room. You finally see some numbers. However, it is ambiguous whether they belong to one side of the pontoon or the other. You are worried you might accidentally take someone else’s space. Another boat appears behind you, blocking your exit. You think you have found your berth, but are not sure and it will involve making the other boat reverse. The skipper of the other boat glares at you impatiently. You decide to head further into the marina. The other boat follows, closely. The other boat is skippered by an exact replica of authoritarian Brazilian President Jaír Bolsonaro. He bellows at you to “hurry up, why are you taking so long?” You proceed further into the marina. The wind is strong. You realise there is nowhere else to go and no turning room. Bolsonaro is hot on your heels. Suddenly you find yourself blown into a range of expensive boats and you cannot pry yourself off them against the wind. Your two friends who are onboard for a relaxing birthday weekend have to strain every muscle to try to stop your boat ripping up several other boats. You stand there helpless. There is a huge crowd watching from the waterside bar. Several marina staff have to help lever you off the other boats. This was Luciano’s first experience of visiting an English marina. We prefer the marina here on the Ría Muros with its free wine, working wifi, helpful staff and it is also half the price.
When we arrived, the Ría Muros was shrouded in mist, although we could see the yellow sand beaches dotting the river banks, usually in conjunction with a selection of nectarine and ochre coloured houses amongst the verdant wooded hills. The next day however, the sun shone strongly and we eagerly grabbed our folding bikes to set out for the cliffside Iron Age settlement of Castro de Baroña. The route was somewhat hilly and while we had both been used to commuting to central London by bike, we found ourselves puffing and sweating our way up the hills on the little folding bikes in the heat. From a distance, the circular stone remains of the houses out on the clifftop looked like an intricate crop circle. ‘Castro’ means castle, or fortress, and Baroña was certainly the latter. It looked superbly defensive from attack by the waves smashing on the rocks on the sea side and by thick stone walls and a moat on the narrow strip of land. However, marauding enemies would not have been the only thing they saw. These Iron Age Galicians certainly picked their site for beauty as well as defensive strategy. Every day they would have gazed at a gorgeous panorama of the blue sea, the yellow sand beach and the emerald pine forest. I’m sure they would have taken a break from defending their site to dash down, as we did, to lounge in the sand and swim in the crystal sea, on hot days such as this one.
After such a glorious day, we didn’t think we could top our time at Castro de Baroña, but we hadn’t visited the Cies Islands by that point. From the Ría Muros, we sailed first to Ons Island where we picked up a mooring buoy. We arrived early evening, but didn’t go onland. We just watched the huge queues of tourists on the jetty, with jeering young men mooning at the departing party ferries. The next morning, we set off on the short journey to the Cies Islands. The Cies Islands are part of an Atlantic national park. You have to get permission to navigate by boat and a separate anchoring permit. There is a ferry that goes from the mainland to one of the islands, but visitor numbers are restricted to preserve the delicate ecological balance of the islands, which are particularly important sites for sea birds. Due to the southerly wind, we anchored first at Illa de San Martiño, the tiny southernmost island, only accessible by private boat. There were maybe six other yachts anchored there. We met our new Irish sailing buddies there and tried to look for a path to go walking beyond the beach. Luciano valiantly making his way up vertical boulders and brambles in his flip flops. At last we decided it was not to be and we were losing sight of the amazing view below, so we clambered back down to the white sand beach, which we had all to ourselves, gazing out at the aquamarine water until we could not resist going in for a swim. The next day the Irish couple made their way to the Medieval city of Bayona, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the islands. The wind was changing direction, so we motored over to anchor in the sand bay that joined Illa de Monteagudo and Illa do Faro. Despite the fact these islands were accessible by public ferry, the limit on numbers and the range of white sand beaches, lagoon and walking paths meant it still felt quiet and peaceful. We were there midweek plus the only place to stay is a campsite. We walked up the path to the lighthouse and then further on to the bird watching hut, perched at a jaunty angle on the vertiginous clifftop. Looking down, you could watch the seabirds interacting territorially on the boulders, a very long way below. We felt we were in paradise and really relaxed, reading on the beach, swimming when it got too hot, marvelling that we had never heard of these beautiful islands before.
This was our last stop in Spain and what a high to finish on; we knew that as we sailed down the west Portuguese coast, these gentle rural rivers and islands were few and far between and while we were excited to explore Portugal’s urban cultural delights, we wanted to eke out the island paradise, just a little longer. However, the change of the wind direction from south to north was welcome news for sailing, so we finally dragged ourselves away.