50' Catamaran moored in Porquerolles

Sailing Côte d’Azur | Just Brilliant! | Roadtrip #25

Would YOU do it? Swap your trusty Defender for a Lagoon 40 catamaran? And spend a week sailing around the French south coast? Yeah, I thought so too…

Hear ye, hear ye! All you landlubbers! Get your kit and get on board! We’re going to Saint Tropez! And not by land…

Toulon

…as a city, is actually very nicely situated, nestled between dramatic steep mountains and the waters of the Med. It is also, actually, quite big with a large Naval dockyard adding to the sprawl and our destination that lay beyond that.

Which meant we needed to traverse quite a bit of urbanisation. This was a stark contrast to the recent weeks spent on rural, secluded campsites. But we had a boat to catch!

The pick-up point for the Lagoon 40 was Port Pin Rolland in the Baie du Lazaret. Dream Charters is the name of the charter company and we hoped it would be just that…

Simon already has a skippers license, however, accompanying us for the trip was Romain. Since a catamaran is apparently a little bit more of a challenge than a monohull he was, on behalf of the charter company, our skipper for the week.

We all managed to get our clobber onboard and, as the sun was starting to move towards the western horizon, we headed for our first anchorage which was an hour away off the coast of Toulon at Anse de Méjean.

Anse de Méjean

This was a great first taste of the Med diving off the rear of the boat and earning an ice-cold beer to go with dinner. The vibe on a boat is so much different from being in a hotel room or a restaurant. Even if you have a view looking onto that tropical beach, it’s just not the same.

There’s more freedom here. Being untethered by four walls or the confines of a dual carriageway. You go where – and when – you want and the pace is so much more chilled. The water also never stops. The boat is constantly rocking gently, turning with the breeze and shifting horizons. So it is, at once, a calm platform but also in constant motion.

While we were barely an hour out of port, and considering the late hour when we took the boat (after 4pm) we still managed to get a taste of what was to come during a calm evening – anchoring offshore.

Hints of the Carribean

The next morning, after a great night spent listening to the water lapping against the boat, we headed for Îles de Port Cros and anchored in the Baie de port Man, overlooking Île du Levant.

Straight off the bat, this was my favourite spot of the whole week. Surrounded by green forest right onto the water’s edge. No villages or towns except for a tiny, secluded cabin and small little jetty in the distance. Nothing more than that! This is what I imagine an undiscovered island in the Caribbean would look like…

Porquerolles

This seems to be the go-to destination from Toulon by boat, being not much more than a couple of hours sailing. And perhaps an hour if you take the super-fast ferry. The bay right next to the port entrance is pretty well sheltered despite looking very exposed indeed. And also not very deep at barely two metres – if you’re worried about the draft of your boat…

But the nearby port is a definite must to visit, with a lovely little village, although we never did quite make it up to the fort on the hill.

You will find quite a few boats anchored in the bay overlooking the beach and a sunny day brought out the blue in the water. A great place to hang out if you enjoy hanging out on the boat or taking the (very underpowered) tender to the port for a coffee and some people-watching.

1000 Metres

Saint Tropez was an important discussion and involved a bit of planning that could affect the rest of the week. It is about five hours from Porquerolles by boat, so Romain wanted to be sure we would all like to put in the amount of time under sail. Since Kinga’s parents had never been there it was swiftly decided to make it the next destination, no matter what the weather was trying to do.

The coast of southern France is actually quite green – when viewed from the water. Yes, there are developed areas with large swathes of housing dotted on the hillsides,but also long stretches of treelined coast down to the water’s edge. This was going along quite well but halfway to Saint Tropez bay, we were forced to stop.

Not because of a sudden search-and-seize by the coastguard, or an impromptu man-overboard manoeuvre… No – the depth showed 1000 metres beneath the keel!

Have you ever swum in a pool that is one kilometre deep? The colour is an impossibly deep blue, and unfathomable (pun intended), whether mentally or physically. And no, you can’t see the bottom. Not even close.

But, being in the open waters, with such an amount of water beneath you is a surprisingly weird sensation. Try it sometime, you’ll be surprised how memorable it is. I loved it for some (unfathomable) reason and felt rather small in this environment. Thank goodness there are no sharks about or it would have been each man for himself!

Saint Tropez

This one is a little bit difficult to explain. Vic and I have been here a couple of times, in various circumstances, and I feel that I have experienced both sides. On one side there is the chic, stylish ambience from aboard a superyacht. Parked in the harbour facing the Hotel Sube – where a glass of champagne was to be had in the bar upstairs.

Contrast this very roughly with the shuffle of the shoddily-dressed, wide-eyed tourist trying to act cool in the very-high-ticket, fashionable ambience that has a million-dollar boat as a backdrop.

I find myself not really succeeding in understanding just why this little port/harbour has achieved – and maintained- this level of, apparent, uber coolness. You either get it, or you don’t I suppose.

So, with all this in mind, it might suffice to say that I wasn’t really the first to raise my hand for another visit. But I was corralled into being the driver of the (underpowered) tender/dinghy to ferry people ashore. And then further into town to have a look around. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Saint Tropez. I think I just don’t understand it as a tourist destination.

After an exploration of the town limits, we decamped the catamaran to the nearby bay, anchoring across from what we believed to be Bridget Bardot’s house. It was a nice evening in calm waters. Poppy was brought to shore once again (to do her business) and a couple of serious games of bridge were had, accompanied by a bottle of whiskey…

Port Cros

The wind, and accompanying swell, had picked up the following morning, rocking the boat. And all of this while we were slumbering in the shade of Bridget’s house. So uncool!

This also meant we needed to head into the rising onshore swells towards Port Cros. This made for a bit of a bumpy ride and a crazy seesaw motion, some wayward hair along the way, with a small siesta or two…

We were heading back to our island. But this time to the ‘Port’ of Port Cros. That meant an anchorage within shouting distance of the port – and perhaps ten metres off the shore. We picked up a buoy, so were certain not to go anywhere. This was accompanied by a patrol dinghy from the harbour master to verify we had paid the mooring fees. And gladly.

You could not hope to get a better anchorage with nothing on the shoreline but wild, green foliage and open water looking onto the fairly deserted Île de Bagaud. We swam and chilled.

Then half of the crew went into ‘town’ for a rum or two and the other half argued over the points system in a game of bridge. The pasta was enjoyed by all and a cool evening was rounded off by a gentle rocking of the boat with the sound of the water off the shore.

Lavandou & Giens

Lavandou is about halfway between Toulon and Saint Tropez. This was on the recommendation from the skipper in his bid to give us a broad variety of experiences on this coastline. It is also easily reachable by boat within an hour or two from Port Cros. So let’s go and have a look…

Lavandou is a change in pace to our (semi) experienced boating. We anchored about one hundred metres offshore from a long and – what looked like a very – straight beach. Facing us was a line of hotels that would not look out of place in the nineteen seventies.

Yes, a big vibe was being given off! The beach had only a few people strolling, or sitting down. To watch us. It seemed like we had stepped back in time forty years at least.

We were the only boat in the bay. Which was rather nice! But there was a lot of bamboo floating about – remnants of a recent rough wind in the area.

And being of limited time of which to enjoy the coastline, and looking to make the most of it, we elected to move on. To me, it also felt a little strange to be anchored off a developed beach as compared to the ‘wildness’ we had been experiencing.

In a group meeting, it was decided to move a little further west towards the Giens peninsula and to a bay that I believe to be called Rade de la Badine. This was a couple of hours of sailing, and very much enjoyed by all.

Once there, it was the scene of some incredible sunsets and some last swims in the Med. It was a nice evening, knowing that tomorrow we would be heading back to port.

A rollercoaster in a tornado…

The next morning brought a reality check in the form of a quick cross-over to the port of Porquerolles to refuel. And a bit more action than we had anticipated…

The skipper had alluded to a strong weather front moving in, but we discounted it as being well within our capabilities (as novice sailors). Little did we know, and I’m sure he chuckled to himself…

We pulled into Port Porquerolles with zero ‘extra drag’ at all i.e. motor in, grab the Quai, fill up and reverse out. Not a minute was expended on waiting for another boat nor a wayward attendant. They must have seen us coming…

27 knots!

So, what, do I hear you say, does ’27 knots’ of wind actually feel like? In one sentence?

It is like being on a rollercoaster while being battered by a tornado. The horizon moves about four metres between the boat facing down into the 1000 metre depths to rising and facing into the sky in the space of a few seconds!

What about a roll to the left followed by a snap to the right. Porpoising into a two-metre high wave. The wind is trying to remove the rigging, the sails and anything untethered – including you. And the salt spray stings the eyes like a mofo!

The boat is constantly being pitched up and down and sideways. The wind is howling. You raise a sail to help the engines. Seawater cascades over the bow showering everything, including your eyes, which are burning from the saltwater.

You strain into the sunlight. And the wind. The glorious, incessant wind. Where is the horizon? Where is the landmass that is your salvation? How long do I need to clamp onto the boat?

Check out the video from about 9:55. It might sound a little dramatic. And it is a little dramatic. But it is also incredibly exhilarating! Even this small taste of the power of the seas and perhaps the oceans makes you feel pretty small and insignificant when you consider the bigger picture. You feel at once both in control and yet completely helpless.

We like to think we can control our surroundings, and to a certain extent we can, but there is an exhilaration to be found out there. Out there where you are not the one calling the shots. But you are the one dealing with the shots.

Back in Toulon

We made it back to the harbour of Toulon feeling quite accomplished having braved the seas. Conquered the adverse, and brutally, challenging environment. We have overcome!

And then abruptly feel rather small, in comparison, when one of the harbour ‘pilots’ grabs the wheel to effortlessly – and quite extravagantly – park the boat onto the pier, while a gang of ‘shipmates grab lines and secure the berth.

This action deflated my mood a little bit. Mostly because of the easy action and well-rehearsed manoeuvring. Would we ever be able to attain this level?

I did feel we had proven ourselves in having just spent a week onboard a surprisingly competent and comfortable catamaran. We had braved the heavy seas. Anchored in the bays. Swam in deep waters. Raised sails and steered the boat! Navigated the coastline (with the guidance of Romain, of course). I felt I knew the boat.

The best word to describe the whole experience is possibly the overused word – awesome! I loved the freedom, the chilled aspect of it. Of being in control and equally surrendering to the environment. And that there is no pressing appointment, no urgent requirement, just a sense of being in the space you’re at.

The immediacy of the water right there is captivating. You can jump in and have a swim at a moment’s notice then get on board and watch the sunset glinting off the horizon as the swell rocks the boat.

The boat gives comfort and security. Warmth and sustenance. And the ability to go wherever you like. And let’s not forget the view from the salon at dusk (or dawn) when the world is moving and ever-changing. And at your fingertips is a new horizon.

Awesome, awesome…

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