A week end in Porquerolles on a catamaran
Paradise on Earth within sailing reach
Text: Frédéric Augendre
Some of the small pieces of heaven on earth are not necessarily hidden flying hours or sailing weeks away. On the European shores, there are still a few magical places, not to say secret, and Porquerolles is one of them. No need to brave the oceans or fit your boat in 1st category to get to this little piece of Provence in the middle of the sea. The island is situated half a sailing day away from St-Tropez, a few hours from Toulon, a few hundred yards from the Giens Peninsula, the harbour facing Hyères and Bormes les Mimosas. Even with the Mistral blowing, you can cross as the sea very seldom becomes nasty in the roads, and there is little more than brief, stronger side winds between the islands of Grand-Gibaud and Petit Langoustier.
Autumn is the ideal season, because in the heart of summer the place is very popular: if you are lucky enough you will be able to squeeze into the marina but more probably you’ll spend the night at anchor, which in fact is quite a good idea, since the island has a few wonderful moorings. Bordered with white sand, pine trees and heath, the waters off the Courtade beach are turquoise blue, a striking colour reminiscent of other latitudes, when you are still only a few hundred meters from the port.
The bays of Alicastre, Bon Renaud and Langoustier are other classic stopovers for good weather, to be avoided though when the Mistral blows, if you want a quiet night or dinner. There are, however, some seaward facing protected coves – “Cala du Loup”, or “Cala Brégançonnet”- which offer refuge at the foot of steep sea cliffs. As these coves can only accommodate a few boats, they are extremely quiet even in full season, provided you managed to find a mooring.
Traveling the back roads
Islands always have an elusive charm, and the change of scenery is even more obvious when cars are, if not non-existent, at least submitted to very strong restrictions. In Porquerolles, you will only come across a wine grower’s tractor, or the French Navy van coming down from the semaphore, the shuttle bus of some luxurious hotel picking up their clients at the port, or one of the small electric cars allowed in the village. Here the mountain bike is king, towing a kid’s trailer or a shopping cart, with the beach gear across the handlebars or on the luggage rack. First impressions are one of bustling port with an abundance of bike rental stores and the half-hourly sea shuttle which unloads the mass of visitors from Tour Fondue who flock to the island in summer. At first you question whether it was worth coming to Porquerolles only to be inundated in summer crowds.
But the 4-mile long island seems to be long enough, and above all wild enough, to absorb all the crowds. You must know how to take the back roads, accept to climb a bit to hike towards the Cap d’Armes and the lighthouse, or else towards the semaphore, the Gabians or the Mèdes. There aren’t many paved roads, but large sandy and rocky tracks to stroll on the hilly landscape, between vines and maritime pine trees forests. There are hundreds of hectares of vine, giving a nice Rosé de Provence as well as quite attractive red and white wines.
The advantage of sailing to the island instead of visiting as a regular tourist is to be able to enjoy the island at the best hours of the day, when the last shuttles have gone back to the continent. A golden light filters through the pines, drawing shadows on the paths, and, on Saturday nights, you may meet elegant hatted ladies or bridesmaids stumbling on the tracks with their high heels, on their way to a wedding. A priest, who came from Paris to marry a couple of friends, explained that theoretically, you must own a house or show particular ties with the island to get married here, but sometimes, loving sailing and having been on the island many times can be enough…
Regatta, a forbidden word?
In the pretty evening hours, the regulars play “pétanque” on the large esplanade (sloping and quite tricky, according to experts) in front of the small 19th Century church, while restaurants on the square serve local fish, (including crayfish as big as a forearm!) and the few tourists who are lucky enough to stay on the island stroll along to the art gallery just at the end of the village. And just a bit further, after the last houses and a few palm trees, is the wine-producing property where the Lagoon catamaran builder organized a meeting of his Mediterranean customers, one mid-June Friday. There are definitely worse ways to get to know each other than with a glass of wine and the sound of cicadas.
Twenty-one boats, from Lagoon 380 for the smaller ones to the 570 for the largest, were competing in a rally around the island organized by the shipyard. The word “regatta” was forbidden, there was no jury, no handicap rule, but nevertheless there was a start line and a Turkish Gulet as committee boat. After lunch on Saturday in the bay of Alicastre, the organizers gave the kick off for an anticlockwise tour around the island. Seeing how some were “ready for the fight”, it quickly appeared that the notion of “rally” was extensible…
It ended in a duel between a Lagoon 500 owned by the Lagoon dealer from la Grande Motte with a client, and a 570, who took the advantage in front of the wild coast, unfurling a gennaker that his rival didn’t have, but was finally overtaken in the calm winds between the islet of Petit Sarranier and the Cape of the Médes. The looser pleaded a dirty hull and too much weight onboard, caused mainly by his wine cargo. As many Lagoon owners do, this businessman went to the Bordeaux shipyard to collect his boat, and to sail her down the Gironde to the Ocean. The tide having temporarily delayed the boat in Pauillac, and as the crew was not going to stay idle, he went and bought good wines. It’s difficult to say whether the wine got better while sailing, but it certainly did not go off!
Some believed the winner had lightened his holds, others noticed that some competitors had cut short between the Gros and the Petit Sarranier, despite the instructions…of race. The regatta (or should I say, the rally), was as usual relived, not at the bar, but at the buffet, under the pine trees. The atmosphere was joyful and fun, because one cannot get angry when there are no stakes, no handicap rules. Nevertheless it was curious, and quite funny, to see how some “sailors” got caught in the game of competition, even when the competition actually took place on board cruising boats completely dedicated to comfort.
From all horizons
The mixing of styles was equally entertaining. There weren’t any ocean going sailors, such as the Lagoons sailing further horizons. It was more a nearby clientele, owners based on the Cote d’Azur, sailing between the French shores, Corsica and the Baleares. Some of them, the most experienced ones, have sailed as far as Tunisia, Greece or Turkey.
Different languages were spoken at the crews’ dinner tables: a South-African owner who chose to berth his catamaran in France, a Flemish insurer who came from Palma with one of his Lagoons: he owns three of them, one of which is presently for sale, then he has two Tofinou for afternoon fun; with a son racing on 470 at a high level, he explains he also needs fast boats to please his family. The eight-metre boat is at home in the Bouches-de-l’Escaut, the 12-metre one in the Baleares for their longer holidays.
Among the foreigners, an Englishman based in Aix-en-Provence, a test pilot for Eurocopter and the owner of a Lagoon 400, who came late to catamaran sailing after years of sailing on monohulls, “because it is comfortable to sail stress free on holiday when you have such a demanding job.” And since, his family “comes more willingly on board”. This charming man was really happy to share such a week end with other owners, especially since he says multihull enthusiasts are usually “a little left out”, looked at in a particular way by other sailors, and not always welcome in ports…where they do take considerable space.
Many customers come from motor boats, as does this wine grower who makes Rosé wine from the vineyards of Aix. A self-proclaimed fisherman, he one day felt he had nothing left to learn about motorboats, and rediscovered with sailing boats the pleasure of sailing and being on the water. Some prefer to embark a professional sailor when their boat is first handed over, before they get to learn by themselves. As did this former craftsman, a self-taught roofer and builder, and a self-taught sailor. Taking his boat from La Rochelle with the help of a skipper to cross the Bay of Biscay, he then found himself alone with his catamaran in the Basque country in Spain. Someone helped him find a crew on the spot, who sailed with him for a month round the Spanish Peninsula, and has since become a friend. Today our entrepreneur sails with his family, unassisted, and his son-in-law now owes him a week-end anywhere of his choice in the world, the price to pay for an unwise bet he made, so sure that he would never buy a sailing boat.
The dinner party went on heartily with conversations mixing sailing courses and experiences, until the tables were pushed aside and the band started playing louder. A crew member, reputedly as comfortable on a deck as on a dance floor, invited all the ladies to dance one after the other. There was also, in this fabulous ambiance, a lady falling lovingly in her husband’s arms. The couple was wearing the same polo shirt with the name of their boat embroidered on it: “toi et moi”. Their catamaran is quite distinctive, with painted Polynesian rowers on the hull, a fancy of the shipyard for the Paris boat show’s exhibition model. By chance their dealer sold them this model and for nothing in the world would they exchange it.
At the end of the evening, some of the participants bumped into Figaro sailors, who were celebrating the end of the Generali Solo, whose last leg was in Porquerolles that week end. Quite a few hangovers were felt the next morning, but anyway no one would sail that day, because of a strong Mistral. Had it been another place, the crews may have grumbled, but nobody complained because it was sunny Porquerolles, with lovely hikes to make, on foot or riding a bicycle while the catamarans pulled hard on their moorings