Mistral & Mini-Tsunami in Southern France

For the trip from Cadaques across the Golfe du Lion my father had joined as crew. This made me very happy, because on the one hand it had already been two years since we sailed together last time, then around Brittany. And on the other hand, I’m glad to have someone who can help me keep watch during longer passages. So we can take turns in two-hour shifts during watchkeeping and I do not have to set an alarm every 20 minutes to check if all is well.

Welcome to Cadaqués, dad!

After quite strong southerly winds that prevailed during the week, rather weak winds from varying directions were forecast for the weekend, after which the mistral was to set in on Monday evening. Mistral is the name of the wind that blows down the Rhone Valley from the north. It brings cold air from northern Europe into the Mediterranean and is notorious because it can occur very suddenly and often reaches gale force in the Golfe du Lion.

This is what a typical Mistral looks like

To make sure that we would have a calm crossing, I had compared 5 different weather models. Four of them predicted absolute calm in the night to Sunday from about midnight, and one just under 3 Beaufort from the north. So, rather too little wind, but of course still better than too much. On Saturday, there should still be a good southerly wind until the evening, and then on Sunday morning 4 Beaufort from the north.

So off we went! On Saturday morning we set sail with course WNW.

Perfect sailing on Saturday afternoon
Around sunset the wind died down and we cranked up the engine

After very light winds during the first half of the night, a small breeze from the north came up around midnight. Perfect, we thought. Maybe the model with the three Beaufort from the north was right! After I having set the main I just wanted to hoist the genoa, but the wind quickly increased more and more. This got a little scary and I dropped the main again to see how things would develop.

To make a long story short: We were completely surprised by an unannounced Mistral. None of the five weather models had predicted anything like this, and yet it had freshened from 0 to a constant 7 Beaufort in less than ten minutes.

The corresponding wave was not long in coming and so the night became very restless. To make matters worse, I got caught by seasickness. A steep 2-3 meter wave from the side got ahora rolling quite a bit. Fortunately, my dad doesn’t mind the rocking at all, so I was very glad to have him on board. Thanks dad!

Apparently we were not the only ones surprised by the weather. Twenty miles southwest of us, a yacht was sending Pan Pan with rudder damage. Too far away for us to have been able to help. Fortunately, the French Coast Guard then took over and organized a sea rescue cruiser to tow her away.

Fortunately, in the morning hours the wind died down a little and we could even set the genoa again in addition to the double reefed main.

The morning after. The mistral has subsided but it still blew quite a bit. With double reefed main we continued towards France.
Bienvenue en France!

In the early afternoon we reached the French coast. However, we decided not to sail to Marseille, but to head a little further east to Port Miou, a natural harbor in one of the calanques near Cassis. There you can either moor further inside on jetties or at the entrance (but still 360 degrees protected) on buoys with shore line. We opted for the latter and looked forward to a quiet night.

At a buoy with land lines in the crystal clear water of the calanque

At night, however, we experienced quite a surprise. I woke up to very unusual noises and a strange movement in the ship. Startled, I jumped out of my bunk and found that there was a strong current of at least two knots across the beam, so that the shore line was stretched to bursting. Logs and larger branches drifted past the boat into the calanque. After a few seconds the current suddenly stopped and then started in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, in the meantime my dinghy had drifted onto the then slack shore lines. It was whirled into the air by the sudden renewed tension and landed upside down in the water, with the outboard motor underwater.

Luckily I was able to turn the dinghy around quickly and amazingly the little Tohatsu two-stroke survived the short submersion without a problem. But what the hell was the cause of this current? Its direction changed twice more within the next minute, but this time much less strongly.

While my father speculated on the underground freshwater springs that flow into the calanque, I guessed that it was a mini tsunami. I was probably right, because the harbormaster told us that the water level in the back part of the calanque had abruptly risen by more than half a meter and had torn several cleats out of pontoons and boats. Something like this had apparently never happened before and his only explanation was an undersea landslide that must have triggered a mini tsunami. Pretty crazy and I am very glad that the whole thing turned out smoothly. Just minimal more current from the broadside probably would have ripped out ahora’s stern cleats. And I’m also glad that the dinghy outboard didn’t take any permanent damage.

Fortunately, we didn’t let the mistral or the tsunami spoil our mood and enjoyed the French way of life like God in France for the next two days, exploring Cassis and the neighboring Calanques.

French food is siimply the best!

To get to the neighboring bay, we took the dinghy ashore, where we came across a hiking trail that led across the headland directly to the next bay, the Calanque du Port Pin. The landscape there was simply gorgeous. But we were a little surprised that we were the only people on this dream beach in the middle of August.

All the better, we thought. Time for a cool down Robinson style. When we still met no one after half an hour on the beach, the whole thing started to seem a bit strange to us. A brief search on the Internet then brought clarity: The national park was closed to visitors because of fire danger from the mistral!

Of course, we had not noticed that, since we had not come to the park on the official way, but with the dinghy. But ignorance does not protect from punishment, so we decided to head back to the boat, before we would be caught by a park ranger. Too bad actually, because such a Calanque all to ourself at the beginning of August is not something you experience every day…

Robinson feeling in the Calanque. That was before we found out that the national park was closed…
Everywhere on the shore of the Calanques thousands of crickets sing their song

We liked the Calanques a lot, but of course there is much more to discover in the south of France. And so we sailed on to La Ciotat. There we stayed two nights in the harbor and took the bus to Marseille, where I had an appointment for my Corona vaccination. I was very happy that I could get vaccinated so easily in France even as a foreigner. With a vaccination certificate, traveling within Europe is now much easier.

Impressive rocks on the way to La Ciotat

After the time in La Ciotat we enjoyed anchor life for a few days and explored the island of Porquerolles, which is off the coast and offers a few excellent anchorages. I will report in detail about this and the other islands in the next blog post.

Pure relaxation at anchor
My dad climbs on board. I would be very happy to be this fit at the age of 80…
Evening colors on Porquerolles

After ten days on board together, it was time to say goodbye. In the port of Toulon, my father disembarked and started his journey home. I am very happy to have a father who is still so active at the age of 80. I’m already looking forward to the next trip with you, dad!

All is well


Bye dad! Thanks for joining me and see you next time!

As a little “bonus”, here is a little guest post from my dad about our trip:

From Gerona airport I took the bus via Figueras to Cadaqués. The last kilometers the bus hurried in breakneck speed on the serpentines through the mountains. In Cadaqués Jan picked me up at the bus station. After a warm welcome, he dragged me, despite my tiredness, up the hill to the church, from whose forecourt one has a magnificent view of the city and the harbor. Already the way there filled me with great joy, because I immediately felt the extraordinarily intense Mediterranean atmosphere of this city. A few decades earlier I had spent summer vacations here, but the memory of it had faded. So I felt the intense flair and beauty all over again.

A sight like in a picture book! The whitewashed houses, alleys paved with blue basalt and the bay with its boats. No marina full of plastic, almost only open wooden boats on buoys or at anchor, belonging to fishermen or well-heeled residents. In the middle of it Jan's boat. There we went with the dinghy to deposit my narrow luggage. Then we went to a restaurant for a small dinner. Since I had been sitting all day, I needed some exercise. So we marched over a small hill to the next bay, Port Lligat, to the residence of Salvatore Dali. I had seen him walking in his garden at that time. Afterwards we visited two small bars, whose staff Jan wanted to say goodbye to. Jan, who is very communicative, had already made many acquaintances in just a few days.

The next morning: short swim, then breakfast in the harbor café. There we met a French couple that Jan also already knew. People with house in Cadaqués and nobly restored fishing boat. At our exit from the bay they accompanied us a little bit. Jan has already described the following trip. The sailing feeling of happiness set in and slowly the city became smaller behind us. I was surprised how many hours it takes until there is no more land in sight, at least in a mountainous landscape. I am an inland sailor and my own sailing experience consists of cruising on dinghies and dinghy cruisers on lakes and coastal waters. Through sailing trips with Jan, of which this was my fifth, I have come to know and appreciate the appeal of sailing on seas. 

The Golfe du Lion, which we wanted to cross from Spain to France, has nothing to do with the city of Lyon. It is the bay of the lion. It can be dangerous. The night was tough, but again a new experience. Sleeping during the free watch was almost impossible. At best, one could doze. With weather jacket and life jacket including the heavy pick hooks on my belly, lying down was only possible on my back and because of the rolling motion of the boat I had to wedge myself in the bunk with pillows. Jan preferred the bare floor in the middle of the boat when lying down. I had sailed at night only once before, on the Breton coast, where only Jan's very good hearing allowed us to notice a fishing boat on a near-collision course. Due to the many lights in the background on shore, the position lights of the cutter were not visible. AIS (Automatic Identification System) had not been switched on. On this night in the Golfe du Lion there was hardly such a danger. No ship far and wide! No land far and wide! Only whistling wind, rolling sea and the starry sky above. Especially impressive for me: Only water all around and the sun is setting across to port. Long night trip. Then all around still only water and at starboard bow the sun emerges from the sea.

The next period of our sailing trip until my departure was relaxed Mediterranean vacation at its best. With our ship we strolled from bay to bay and from port to port. Sun, swimming, small hikes, good French cuisine in restaurants. We ate a lot of fish. I had resolved to try as many different kinds as possible and came up with the number seven. Both in blue bays and in harbors, shipboard life was fun. I saw some familiar places on the coast again and got to know some others new. Old and new knowledge: You can have a great vacation there, especially on a boat, even in high season. But this does not apply to the island of Porquerolles in front of the city of Hyéres, although this isle is a place of longing for many French people. In the very successful film „Welcome to the Sticks", the protagonist, as a postal worker, desperately wants to be transferred there, which he only succeeds in doing at the end of the film, after he has had to spend some time in the north near the Belgian border on punitive transfer. Jan later visited the neighboring islands, which are much more interesting.

It was again a very nice sailing trip. I am glad that Jan taught me how to sail yachts on the sea. He is a very good prudent sailor. Here is an example of his life and work on board: I had never anchored with Jan before, so I was curious to see how he does it. First he looks for a suitable place with the help of the sailing software on the tablet and by his own sighting. He then routinely drops the anchor with the long, heavy chain. Then, by driving backwards, he makes sure that the ground harness digs in. Then, astonishingly, he jumps into the water with diving goggles to check whether the anchor is well buried. Well, of course, that only works in the Mediterranean and Co.

In Toulon I disembarked and took the train to Nice. I stayed one night, looked at the city, which impressed me very much, and flew home. 

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