Matt Donald and partner Paige Grogan cruise the Portuguese coast to the most south-westerly point of mainland Europe
The end of the world… and how to sail there. One couple sails to south-west Portugal and the end of Europe
The anchorage was out of the wind and the swell and was just as beautiful as Paige and I had been led to believe. The blue waters were crystal clear with an abundance of marine life. And nestled on the southeastern coast of the largest island of the Arquipélago das Berlengas was the famous Fort of São João Baptista das Berlengas, with its irregular octagonal shape and brickwork giving off a red hue. This wild archipelago off Peniche was certainly one of the highlights as we made our way down the coast of Portugal.
Known to British mariners as the Burlings, the Berlengas have long been a favourite stopping-off place for seafarers. The fort was built in 1502 out of the remains of a monastery that had been there long before, but abandoned due to pirate attacks. Now, the fort stands watch over the bay.
We settled into a few days of exploring the fort, with its paved terraces and dramatic bridge that links it to Ilha da Berlenga. The caves surrounding the fort are amazing to navigate, and we managed to take the tender inside before donning mask, snorkel and fins to try and catch a glimpse of the marine life here.
It makes a good stopping-off point before heading to Lisbon, although make sure you have plenty of supplies as only a few people live on the island and there are no shops. The café at the fort does sell excellent cake and drinks though.
After a few days in Berlengas with provisions running low, it was time to depart and head to Cascais just north of Lisbon. We had come a fair way since leaving Scotland many months before on our Contest 41, Nova.
We loved sailing Spain’s Rías coastline, but it was good to be in Portuguese waters, even if, as we later discovered, berthing in marinas can be far from cheap and easy. Our first taste of this was at the Port of Leixões, where we decided to moor having been told it was cheaper and easier to access than the marina up the Duro river at Porto. Its location in an industrialised area to the north of the city wasn’t its only drawback; it was full when we arrived, partly because it claims to be the cheapest marina in Portugal (€25 a night for our 41ft yacht).
With no space in the marina, we had to anchor just outside in the waiting area before going ashore to clear in. Surprisingly, this was beyond the remit of staff at the marina office and we had to return the next morning, by which time a berth had been found.
The marina is crammed in the corner of Leixões harbour behind its own breakwater and the pontoons are small. There isn’t an awful lot of manoeuvring space but after a quick look around, I was happy to motor in. On mooring up, we were greeted by the sight of a lovely 60ft racing yacht covered from bow to stern in sponsorship for Taylor’s Port, enough of an inducement for us to pay the €3 return bus fare to explore Porto, with its cellars and wine houses dedicated to the sale of this fortified wine.
After a bit of admin and cleaning the next day, we pointed the bow towards Figueira da Foz. A pod of dolphins joined us for part of the passage, which was made at least two miles offshore to avoid the all-too-frequent lobster pots. The city of Figueria is a popular coastal resort due to its soft, white sand beaches.
We found the marina to be one of the best although, once again, we felt the cost of Nova’s 12.5m length. Portuguese marinas don’t charge on exact length but instead use a size bracket system, usually 10m12, and then 12.1m-15m. This is great if you have a boat of say 11.5m, but not so good if, like us, you find yourself just in the more expensive bracket.
We certainly felt this when we went to Cascais, the main stop for cruisers who want to visit Lisbon. Two nights costs us €90, the highest price we paid in Portugal; the marina, which is easier to get into than the one located in the capital, was well looked after though. We did manage to get some small boat jobs done before meeting up with our friend Guy for a tour of the town. He showed us the main sights including the beach where the pre-title sequence of the James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was filmed, and the distinct white and red 247-year-old Cabo Da Roca lighthouse, which has stood watch over the Atlantic for centuries. The day was rounded off with an exquisite traditional Portuguese dinner. The food included fresh sardines and chunks of beef steak: this meal was only equalled by the hot dog stand near the marina, said to have the best wieners in a bun in the whole of Portugal. The marina costs meant we couldn’t stay longer if we were to keep within our monthly budget, so we meandered down the coast to the inviting anchorage of Sesimbra, where we dropped the hook for a night under towering cliffs. The nearby secluded beach was in stark contrast to the busy sands of Cascais. In hindsight, it was a good job we had the chance to rest. Heading to the small village of Sines the next day, we had to contend with a thick sea mist, which left us relying on AIS and radar. After steering clear of the large ships sounding their horns, we
This wild and untamed archipelago is one of the highlights of Portugal
entered the anchorage safe and sound and as if by magic, the mist lifted and we enjoyed a lovely evening walk ashore with a stop at the local butcher’s shop to resupply.
It is hard to believe today but for centuries, sailors believed that the earth was flat and that ships could fall off the edge. Up until the 15th Century, the most south-western tip of Europe, Cabo de São Vicente and the sea beyond, was considered to be the point of no return. Dubbed World’s End, it was this once-terrifying body of water which we had to cross to continue our voyage south to Lagos in the Algarve, ahead of preparations to leave mainland Europe for Madeira.
Not unsurprisingly, we didn’t drop off the edge. The passage was straightforward, with spectacular rugged coastline and the stunning Cabo de São Vicente lighthouse.
After a stop over in Baleeira, we arrived in Lagos where the cost of the marina left us with something of a dilemma. We were hit with, wait for it, €55 per night. Walking back to Nova, my pockets were significantly lighter and plans for a leisurely provisioning were quickly fading. Someone was smiling down on us though, as a flip through the marina brochure revealed a regatta in two weeks’ time. The cost to enter was €110 which included four nights at the marina. This gave us two weeks to explore the Algarve before heading back for the regatta, and four days to complete our provisioning ahead of our passage to Madeira.
We thoroughly enjoyed sailing this spectacular coastline, with rugged scenery and plenty of wind to fill your sails
With our spot in the regatta confirmed, we spent the days getting to know this stretch of the Portuguese coastline before returning to Lagos to prepare Nova for racing. In reality, this meant making sure everything was tied down and then a trip to the bar, but for the serious racers, a lot more preparation was put in. Anchors and chain littered the pontoons, people were pumping out water from their boats to make them as light as possible, while here we were with a lobster pot still strapped to the stanchions!
The next day, we got up nice and early and headed off to get our regatta t-shirts and attend the race briefing. We met the only other bluewater yacht owner at the briefing. Roy, who owned a Hallbergrassy 43, was in his eighties but had more life in him than any 40 year old either of us have ever met! After the briefing, it was time to get racing, or in our case, viewing the race from the back at a leisurely pace.
For the first race, we managed to be at the back of the pack but clawed back a few spots, finishing fourth to last out of 30-odd boats. That didn’t come without cost though! During a gybe, we failed to get the mainsheet in fast enough which damaged the traveller, and so we dropped out of the second race, giving us time to repair Nova and take a much needed rest: racing with just two aboard was a lot harder than we expected. That was about to change though. We met up with Kev, a member of Roy’s crew, that night for a few drinks and were introduced to Tim, known as the Gentle Giant. At over 6ft tall and built like a rugby player, you could certainly understand the nickname. We were delighted when he agreed to join us the next day as part of Nova’s crew.
The second day of racing was a slog, with a route over 30 miles long. To make it even more interesting, we had wind gusting over 35 knots. Fortunately, with Tim’s help, we made it round the course at a reasonable pace but we were left with more damage after our jib sheet jammed, resulting in it having to be cut.
That was enough for us. We decided to retire rather than continue in the regatta, although my racing days were not over yet. The skipper of an X43 was looking for an extra crewmember, so I offered to help out for a day’s proper racing.
The end of the regatta marked the end of Nova’s racing career and the end of our Portuguese adventure. We both thoroughly enjoyed sailing this truly spectacular part of Europe’s coastline, with rugged scenery, rich history and plenty of wind to fill your sails. We can’t wait to return.
It’s hard not to be transfixed by Portugal’s stunning coastline
ABOVE: Cascais is popular for cruisers stopping off ahead of Lisbon RIGHT: The lighthouse at Cabo de S‹o Vicente
RIGHT: No fear of falling off the edge at World’s End
LEFT: Ilha da Berlenga has long been popular with seafarers