Arriving aboard a luxurious 42′ yacht
is best way to appreciate ancient seaports
DESPITE or perhaps because of my demanding work schedule in 2002, with one half-time and one full-time job, come summer I predicted I would definitely need a break.
As far back as the year 2000 and periodically since, I had invited a couple of colleagues from my previous News-Press job (one of whom now worked as a reporter for the Pasadena Star-News) to go day sailing on Santa Monica Bay, and we even did a three-day trip to
Spotted among the rich and famous in Monaco, August 2000, with Elizabeth L. The skyline of Monaco is visible in this view from across the harbor.
Catalina in late 2001. They had loved every minute of it, and I enjoyed having Robert and Elizabeth aboard. They were an on-again, off-again couple, and at the time we got on famously.
I had a laundry list of the finest yachting destinations in the world to visit, having already sailed in the top two (the BVI and Great Barrier Reef) so number three was my next choice. With the addition of Robert’s younger brother Greg, who joined us from Minnesota, the four of us in January made our reservations for the French Rivera that August.
THREE OF US took the same overnight Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, arriving jet lagged and bleary eyed just in time for the connection to Nice. I’d heard about the over-water approach to the runway at Nice many years before from mom, who found it terrifying.
For a novice, it might have seemed as if the plane was going to plop into the ocean, but by then I had no qualms; the pilot would drown first, I reasoned.
We met up with Greg, and it was not a long cab ride to St. Raphael Harbor, where our Sunsail Oceanis 42 was awaiting.
The cabbie was our first experience with the recalcitrant French, who are unwilling to speak English to the point of being obnoxious; well, perhaps it’s us who’re obnoxious. It was not the last Frenchman, we were soon to discover.
“Je suis le bateu de reve” (“I am a dream boat”) was a gorgeous sight to behold. Beneteau is perhaps a household word in France, but one known and admired only amongst ‘yachtties’ elsewhere.
French yacht designers, as in many other fields of haute couture, are far ahead of their foreign peers when it comes to luxurious but practical accouterments. Walnut is the choice for interior panels, leather for upholstery, natural light for illumination. No expense is spared, neither in décor or structure. The hull is sleek and trim, elegant but seaworthy; the helm is responsive, the sail power mostly just right.
Public art is well endowed in Europe. This statue adorns the harborside in Monaco.
Instrumentation is state of the art. That’s why I keep going back to Beneteau.
Our 42-foot home for the week was a three-cabin affair; the skipper traditionally gets the bow cabin, the crew divides the aft two as they see fit. It was none of my business. Greg slept in the saloon, which converted to a quite comfortable berth after dinner.
The first night aboard we spent unconscious from our horrendous jet lag, after treating ourselves to the always delectable French food at a restaurant ashore.
Early the next day, we cast off and set a course northeast past Cannes – home of the most famous film festival on the planet – and on to our first port of call Antibes, and our introduction to why arriving by sea is by far the best way to experience the French Rivera (after you’ve successfully docked the yacht, that is.)
All the ancient ports of the Mediterranean owe their existence to their maritime access and trade; the heart of every city and town is situated around the port. If you arrive and live in the port, you are at the center of the action.
But, for a novice like me, getting to the dock was at first a definite challenge – quite different from what is required in the U.S. and Australia.
Probably because space has always been at a premium in these ports, all vessels are backed in at right angles to the quay, barely a couple of feet separating the sides of each. (In U.S., Caribbean and Australian ports I’ve sailed, boats usually dock facing the wharf – they are backed out – with a two-foot wide, wooden slipway separating each yacht.)
AS I DISCOVERED the first night of our trip, the European mooring requires nerves of steel, pinpoint accuracy and a ready retort if anything goes awry.
As it did in Antibes this glorious July evening. I had spent the last hours approaching the port trying in vain to raise the harbormaster on the VHF radio.
“Antibes, harbormaster, come in please,” I would say. Repeatedly the disembodied voice replied through the speaker: “S’il vous plait parlez francais!”
English is the maritime lingua franca (how ironic that term) that skippers globally use to communicate on the VHF, similar to airline pilots.
How dare he not reply in the accepted maritime language?
Inside the breakwater, I successfully pulled our dreamboat alongside the harbormaster’s dock and we got our mooring assignment, in reluctant English.
As we slowly approached, our collective jaws dropped as we saw the massive, opulent shining floating palaces that would be our neighbors.
Our Beneteau was no slouch, at least a quarter million dollars’ worth, but paled in comparison to what we saw around us … and throughout our Rivera cruise. Multi-million dollar pleasure craft were everywhere, many of them commercial size luxury liners, floating castles for the rich and famous (or infamous?)
Ever so gingerly, I dropped anchor in mid-channel, as the book instructed, and inched aft about as slowly as the engine would turn over without stalling. All three crew members were at the alert, fenders lowered, mooring ropes at the ready, but they too were inexperienced.
It was a delicate balancing act: the slower the motion, the less rudder control, but too fast and we’d hit the wooden beamed quay hard enough to ding our craft.
One factor in the equation I omitted completely from my calculus: the wind.
As we squeezed tightly between two behemoths towering above us, not ten feet from the shore, a tiny gust of wind pushed us ever so slightly off course, our stern gently nudging the shiny black hull to starboard. I left a nick the size of a dime.
The next minute, a loud babble of French erupted from the deck way above, as we jumped ashore and tied up the stern. I bowed deeply and begged for forgiveness, muttering under my breath that surely the insurance would cover it, but so would a magic marker.
WE HAD A FABULOUS evening ashore in the ancient but magnificently restored port of Antibes, our second pleasurable sampling of French cuisine, which is not overrated.
It seems that every eatery we dined at, no matter how lowly, had a superb chef. It was the flavoring, textures, sauces, even how the meat was cut, that was so different from our American grub. What a treat.
Leaving the dock was a cinch, of course.
Excited, we made great time heading past Nice and Villefranche towards the principality of Monaco, with Monte Carlo our next port of call, the one most eagerly anticipated.
The second night we moored without issue, perhaps because they’d heard our reputation and assigned us a mooring that was a wide berth from the closest neighbors; or maybe I just learned fast and got better at it.
What a thrill it was being in James Bond’s fictional hangout. Wasn’t this where he wooed Pussy Galore? Never mind, that was another movie.
The casino perched on the hillside above the downtown harbor was every bit as magnificent as the picture postcards. Grand, imposing, Beaux Arts.
We donned our finest apparel (jeans and T-shirts), hiked up the hill and lost a few dollars, a cheap price of admission to witness those who could clearly afford it, lose a smidgen of their millions.
The next day we explored the city on foot, and decided to stay an extra night because our tour could not be rushed.
We didn’t have a definite float plan, retaining flexibility, so we could linger another night, lose a few more sheckels and bask in the reflected glory of the jet set around us.
AN EARLY START put us on a southwest course for our only overnight stay offshore, anchored in a sheltered cove off the Ile Saint-Fereol, about 20 miles due south of Cannes. We barbecued aboard, enjoyed several bottles of French wine (even the cheap stuff is remarkably fine) and luxuriated in our elegant environment as if we indeed were, for another night, the rich and famous. Why not? This is what cruising in this style in these waters is really all about.
An easy day’s sail from our anchorage, St. Tropez – another celebrated playground of the rich and famous – was also eagerly anticipated.
Our arrival was slightly delayed, however, by our encounter with Lé Mistral, what we in Southern California call a Santa Ana. Lé Mistral is a strong northwest wind, blowing from the mountains of southern France, across the coast and out over the Mediterranean.
Gale force gusts would burst upon us without warning, dropping after a few minutes to perhaps a 20-knot steady wind, but forcing us to reef the sail and proceed slowly along the coast.
It was worth it; moored outside the harbor at St. Tropez, we took the dinghy ashore for an exquisite dinner harborside, but didn’t see any movie stars we recognized.
A short hop back to St. Raphael the next day brought us ashore, our legs a little wobbly as the ground seemed to sway under us, a sensation that lasted perhaps a day or two after a week at sea.
We took the TGV at more than 200 miles per hour for the mere five-hour trip to Paris, for a three-day sojourn, which, for me was an appetizer for what was about to come.
After the Louvre (now with its glass pyramid annex), Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, I was so eager for the next stop that I checked out of Hotel Pas de Calais on the Left Bank a day ahead of schedule, heading out of town from the Gare du Nord.