A non-stop passage from Falmouth to Formentera enabled Phil Johnson and Roxy Sears to make the most of the Med
Slipping our lines on a sunny day in the last week of June, we left Falmouth under blue skies and a gentle breeze, heading south towards warmer waters. We felt a mix of emotions: sadness to be leaving the gorgeous south coast of England we’d become so fond of, excitement at beginning a long bluewater passage, but also a little anxiety as, this time, the clock was ticking.
In three years of living full-time aboard our 1986 Cheoy Lee Pedrick 47, Sonder, we’ve explored many exotic cruising destinations, but never one as expansive as the Mediterranean that exists within a single immigration zone. A winter in the Caribbean, for example, can involve entering and exiting a dozen different territories.
But islands are small and you can generally extend your cruising permit. In the Med, however, most of the northern coastline and islands all fall inside a single immigration zone, which limits non-EU visitors to 90 days out of every 180.
The 90-day Schengen restriction presented a difficult choice from the outset. On one hand, we could ‘start the clock’ as close as the Brittany coast in France, then enjoy stopping in Galicia, Spain, and along the Portuguese coast as we sailed south. Alternatively, we could sail non-stop to our first planned destination inside the Med: the Balearic Islands.
Though a much longer distance to cover offshore, it would allow us to reach warmer waters more quickly and use all of our limited Schengen time to explore east. An exceptionally fair weather window made this decision easier and we set off from the Cornish coast for a 1,500-mile direct sail to Formentera in the Balearic Islands.
The many tales we’d heard of terrible conditions crossing the Bay of Biscay were fresh in our minds on that first 24 hours of our passage south. But the morning sun burned away the last remnants of the previous evening’s thick fog, the sea was calm, and the breeze lightened to just 12 knots from behind.
Sonder slowed to a crawl and we looked at each other in surprise, was it possible we’d stumbled into perfect spinnaker conditions in Biscay? Thirty minutes later, our blue asymmetric gently pulled Sonder along at 6.5 knots, which held for 200 miles before the wind died and we motored the final stretch to reach the Portuguese tradewinds.
Nearing the coast, the many lighthouses of the formidable Cape Finisterre cut through the night as a strong northerly quickly set in. Soon, we were on a starboard broad reach making a swift 7 knots. The trades continued to stiffen into the following day and by the second evening we were triple reefed in 30-plus knots of wind, surfing down big Atlantic rollers while also nudged by a persistent side swell from a distant storm.
These turbulent conditions persisted for almost two days before, with sweet relief, we finally gybed towards the southern tip of Portugal, Cabo De San Vicente.
Shortly after, we exited the tradewinds as abruptly as we’d entered them, and motored in a flat calm towards Gibraltar. Then, around 10 miles south of Barbate, conditions switched again as the easterly Levante sprang up and in a matter of minutes Sonder’s bow was bucking head-first into an oncoming chop. We briefly tried motor-sailing into the headwinds before acquiescing and tacking north towards a spot on the coast where we could anchor to wait for the headwinds to subside.
It was mid-afternoon, and we were taking turns napping in the sun in the cockpit. Suddenly the VHF radio crackled to life, “Mayday, Mayday!”
We realised we were in range of a rescue call between a small French yacht and the Spanish Gardia Costeria.
“We have lost the rudder, we have no steerage. Over.”
“We will send a rescue boat from Barbate. Are the whales still swimming around you?”
The captain of a 10m vessel was calling for rescue after a group of orcas had attacked and disabled the rudder. We plotted the coordinates that were relayed to the Spanish Coastguard and found that the yacht was only 2-3 miles from our current position, motoring east (just as we were) when the orcas attacked. Our stomachs dropped. We decided to immediately turn off the engine and tack upwind on the most direct path towards shallower waters, hoping this would give us the best chance to avoid attracting attention from the whales.
Although we didn’t know it then, this was the beginning of a plague of summer orca encounters. Within a week, multiple sailing yachts were requiring rescue in the Straits off Barbate each day due to rudder attacks. Some non-EU cruisers were forced to spend a portion of their 90 days of Schengen time rebuilding their rudder in a Spanish boatyard, only to have to venture back out into orca territory again.
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After an exceptionally rolly and sleepless few hours, we hoisted anchor and resumed motoring towards Gibraltar. After passing the imposing rock, which marked our official arrival in the Mediterranean, our final three days underway were spent either light wind spinnaker sailing or motoring in frustration due to inconsistent breezes coming off the Spanish coastline.
Finally, on day 11, we dropped anchor at sunset in 4m of crystal clear water off the Balearic island of Formentera, and dove off the bow within moments of the anchor being set. We’d finally arrived in the Schengen EU, and once checked in, the clock would officially be ticking.
We quickly discovered that the Balearic Islands are a perfect place to make landfall if you want to jump head-first into a Mediterranean summer. They are a hive of activity punctuated by powerboat wakes and DJ beats: enough to shake any sailor out of the quiet reverie of ocean passagemaking.
After a long day struggling to check in to the EU in Ibiza City with our non-existent Spanish, we gave up and employed the services of a superyacht agent. For a grand total of €85 it was well worth it! Our difficulty arose because most non-Schengen cruisers do not venture as far as the Balearics before first checking in the boat, and themselves.
Afterwards, we settled into a beautiful anchorage called Cala d’Hort on the south western coast of Ibiza which looks out to the jaw-dropping rock spire of Es Vedra. Every evening, as the sun sank, the cliffs atop the anchorage came alive as hundreds of people gathered, lining the edge for a chance to view the perfect sunset.
Somewhere above, a bohemian DJ set up turntables in the back of his VW Westfalia to entertain the crowd, and as the last light dipped below the horizon, there was thunderous applause. Sunset is its own religion in Ibiza.
Despite its reputation, there is much to see and do along the coasts of Ibiza and Formentera away from the clubs and bars. However, our Schengen days were precious and we couldn’t linger. The passage from Ibiza to the largest Balearic island, Mallorca, is about 50 miles. We departed early on an overcast morning with light southerly winds just forward of the beam.
A few uneventful hours into the crossing, we heard thunder approaching and the radar screen showed unforecasted squalls quickly moving in from the west, Ibiza’s silhouette behind us quickly obscured by a curtain of heavy rain.
Two things then happened in rapid succession. First, the wind slackened suddenly to a dead calm – an early indication of a drastic change in wind direction and possibly very strong gusts. We immediately furled the jib and triple reefed the mainsail.
Then, a waterspout formed about a mile to our south-west. As we watched, the waterspout became a defined vortex descending from the cloud ceiling to the sea’s surface where it produced a chaotic cloud of spray. It appeared to be moving in our direction.
To reduce windage we deflated our inflatable paddleboards and haphazardly threw them into the cabin below, just in case. Moments later the rain and wind started, a total deluge soaking us to the skin.
When at last the squall had passed, we relaxed and made sail again – this time close-hauled towards the north-western tip of Mallorca. The island’s impressive silhouette rose from the horizon above us, its steep peaks nearly a mile above the sea. Given our limited time and the size of Mallorca, we chose to sail only the rugged and less touristy northern coastline.
Port de Sóller’s entrance is a relatively narrow gap in the otherwise endless wall of cliffs that line the northern coast of Mallorca, and one of the few protected harbours.
Once inside, you find an inviting bay with beaches and an idyllic harbour town. The public pontoon managed by Ports IB has reasonable nightly rates even in summer, so we decided to tie up here to explore ashore. From Port de Sóller an antique wooden train climbs the steep mountain pass among olive and citrus groves before descending across the island to Palma – one of the highlights of our too-brief time in the Balearics.
We spent a few more days on the north coast, popping in and out of the cala’s that dot the coastline. Cala Calobra, which is accessible only by sea or hiking, features a deep, dry canyon that funnels down from the mountains until opening up to a distinctive pebble beach. We swam ashore from Sonder in the early morning to explore the cala’s beautiful natural formations before other visitors descended on the area.
Next, we set our sights on Sardinia, the second largest island of Italy, famous for its prolific white sand beaches and unbelievably clear water. Landing in Alghero, a quintessential old walled city, we even found a free town quay for visiting yachts.
Last days of summer
It was by now nearing the end of September, and we were keenly aware of the Shengen clock counting down: it was time to keep moving. We prioritised our list of ‘must see’ destinations, then considered the forecast to decide which were possible during our route planning. We planned to depart Alghero and head north towards the Tyrrhenian Sea, which is accessed by the gap between Sardinia and Corsica. The weather was a little unsettled, but the forecast suggested squalls would stay well south of our planned route.
As we rounded Capo Caccia Point to exit the bay of Alghero, the wind was light to moderate, but we were keenly aware of katabatic wind effects that can send extreme gusts accelerating down cliffs like this. We kept our mainsail reefed and jib partially furled, frequently scanning the clouds and water’s surface. A few hundred yards ahead of us another yacht with full sail gently sailed downwind in the eerie conditions.
Shortly after both yachts turned north together, we spotted a flurry on the water behind. An intense squall was speeding towards us. The water was visibly picked up and whipped off the surface – but in a bizarrely calm sea state without waves or chop. We tightly sheeted the deeply reefed mainsail and braced for the gust to hit us. The wind reading jumped from 15 knots to 40 and Sonder, a 22 ton vessel, lumberingly heeled under the sudden pressure.
The yacht just ahead with full sails, broached violently in the gust. Knocked down and spinning wildly, it turned up into the wind, out of control and on a direct collision course with Sonder. We hurried to turn on the engine and steer clear.
What just moments earlier had been gentle sailing, was now sporty downwind surfing. The VHF radio crackled to life with a Pan Pan call. At first we worried it was the broached yacht in need of help, but soon realised it was another yacht two miles upwind dismasted in the squall. Another reminder that the Med, even in summer, is not all gentle cruising. We were grateful to have been on our guard and reefed conservatively that day.
The following evening, we were snugly anchored in the lee of one of the many gorgeous Maddalena islands off the north coast of Sardinia. This national park is thronged with tourists during the peak season, but by early October we had many anchorages to ourselves. Grey boulders dot the landscape of shrubs and white sand surrounded by azure waters. One evening we found a curious wild boar roaming the beach in search of picnic scraps left behind. On sunny days we brought out a new favourite water toy, a wing foil board, to play in the light breezes in the nearby lagoons.
By mid-autumn we had just a few weeks left of our Schengen time and only vague ideas of where we would go when it ran out. Turkey, Montenegro, and Tunisia were a few of the options we’d discussed.
However, in a stroke of luck, we stumbled across an article about a new ‘digital nomad’ residency being offered by Malta. Our application was submitted online that same day. In the meantime, we still had one more stop we hoped to make, the Aeolian Islands of Italy.
It was with rare luck that, after a two-day passage in late October, we enjoyed sunny and calm weather at the exposed archipelago just north of Sicily. The Aeolians are a group of small, volcanic islands that rise dramatically straight out of the sea. The most famous, Stromboli, has a large and very active volcano. There are no protected anchorages on the island so an overnight visit must be timed perfectly to be comfortable.
We left the nearby island of Panarea on a windless day to motor the few miles to Stromboli where we hoped to anchor under the volcano in very settled conditions. On route, we stopped at an uninhabited island for lunch and a swim. On the chart something nearby was labelled, ‘thermal vents’, so we jumped in the water with a camera to freedive and investigate what this meant.
A few hundred yards from Sonder, we spotted the vents on the seafloor: tens of thousands of tiny, sulphurous gas bubbles escaping from the sea bed and rising quickly to the surface, churning the surface.
We ventured on towards Stromboli, watching in awe as the massive conical volcano spewed a steady cloud of smoke and gas into the air. We landed our dinghy on a black sand beach and hiked up a volcanic dirt path of endless switchbacks. After more than an hour of walking as the twilight faded, we came at last to a view point just below the summit of the volcano.
Several people were spread out along the path watching the caldera for signs of an eruption. We stood, necks craned, eyes trained on the black silhouette of the volcano against a moonlight landscape. After several eager minutes, cannon fire, red sparks and molten lava were flung up into the air. The sound wave hit our ears several seconds later.
In total, by the time the clock ran out, we’d spread our 90 Schengen days across the three western Mediterranean island areas of: Balearics, Sardinia, and Sicily. Within days of running out of time, our residency in Malta was approved. We secured a winter berth in Valletta for Sonder and made our way to our new ‘home’.
Our preference when cruising is to move at a more relaxed pace – especially as we both live and work aboard, always balancing running our business online with sightseeing. However, by adopting a faster pace, reaching the eastern Med before the clock runs out is achievable.
One thing is certain, though, and that’s the fact that it is not possible to experience all the incredible cruising and cultures the Mediterranean has to offer in only 90 days, or even in one season. So, we are returning to the eastern Med, plotting all the places we missed and hope to visit ‘on the way back’. If time allows.
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