Sailing the French Mediterranean coast is to experience one of the world’s greatest and oldest cruising grounds, writes Kevin Green.

Travelling the Mediterranean, or the Middle Sea as the early Arabic traders named this nearly land-locked waterway, is a voyage through the very beginnings of western civilisation, a fact among the many others that induced me to live on its shores for nearly eight years and return regularly since then.


Its weather changes can be severe due to famous winds that include the north/northwesterly Mistral and Tramontana, the westerly Poiniente, the easterly Levante and the southerly desert blasts of the Sirocco – to name only a few.

These systems can generate short, steep seas when angry winter time gales blow but, in the summer when thousands of yachts arrive from Europe and beyond they are generally serene, as they were during September when I double-handed a new catamaran along the length of the French Mediterranean coast.

The guidebooks, like Rod Heikell’s excellent Mediterranean Cruising Guide, tell us that the French Med is about 2000km long (1100nm), beginning from near the major city of Nice in the east and running west to just beyond the last large town of Perpignan near the Spanish border.

During my 30 years of visiting and sailing along it, including jumping the coastal trains as an impoverished backpacker and working on yachts, its harbours and bays have fascinated me – both their natural features and the glamour of areas like the Cote d’Azur for which the region is world famous.

Coast off Marseilles.

Sailing out of the Vieux Port in Nice is a good way to begin a voyage along this rock-strewn and beach-encrusted coastline. A true international city that once was Italian – until Napoleon marched in on his way to defeat by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. The English then descended upon its grandeur and created the seven kilometre-long Promenade des Anglais.

A favourite climb of mine above the city, is to the Grand Corniche limestone slopes that plunge down into nearby Monte Carlo. The route is part of the historic Aurial Way, a vast Roman road between Italy and Spain that takes the coastal route through southern France. If you hesitate on the Corniche and look north the foothills of the Alps can be seen, while gazing west allows the mariner to plan a voyage to the far reaches of France.


And so it was as we motored the new Bali 5.4 catamaran past the old port of Cannes towards the nearby Lérins Islands. These islands have a sheltered but rocky channel, the Plateau du Milieu – one of my favourite anchorages.

One island, Sainte Honorat, is home to an order of monks based in the Lérins Abbey who are also wine makers, fermenting Chardonnay (Saint Césaire) and Viognier (Saint Cyprien) grapes, as well as sturdy reds like their Pinot Noir (Saint Salonius).

Canet et Rousson.

Across the narrow channel is another island, Sainte Marguerite, with its Fort Royal where the Man in the Iron Mask was incarcerated and written about by Alexander Dumas.

September winds are generally mild so in the light breeze I sat comfortably at the wheel on the Bali’s flybridge with the gennaker and mainsail pulling. A gennaker is an essential for Med sailing unless the droning of diesels is your thing. The Bali’s cutter rig with small self-tacking jib for those sudden blows typical of the region is ideal – something to bear in mind if you’re considering an ex-factory delivery, allowing a season here before heading to the southern hemisphere via the Atlantic and Panama.


Other notable features on this four-cabin 50-foot cat (built by the experienced Catana yard) is the large foredeck lounge and vast sheltered aft cockpit, making it an ideal boat for warm waters. Company representative Will and I were delivering her back to the yard near the Spanish border and dropping off two passengers during the 400-mile voyage.

Superyachts lined the bay of Cannes and small craft headed to the snug inlets along this rocky coast with its dramatic backdrop of red sandstone peaks of the Massif des Maures Esterel. My views gradually changed to reveal long yellow beaches and pine forests running down from the hills at the ancient Roman town of Frejus.

Cannes Boat Show.

Here, I’d once motorcycled over the mountainous Aurial Way with the scent of pine and lavender thick in the cold air then alongside the town’s 2000-year-old aqueduct and fossicked in the ruins that the once mighty Roman Empire had built.

Beyond, the low-lying Bay of Saint Tropez was another favourite for its golden beaches and still quaint village feel around the busy fishing port, a place where I watched the supermaxi Magic Carpet rub hulls with humble trawlers. Back in the 1950s when Bridget Bardot came to star in the movie And God Created Woman this all began to change.

The 16th century citadel with its maritime museum is an interesting place for visiting sailors who can also enjoy the commanding vistas across the shallow bay that hosts the prestigious Les Voiles de Saint Tropez regatta in September. We’d sailed passed some likely participants, such as a J-class reproduction and I’d been aboard the 96-foot carbon supermaxi Seativs, newly launched from the Italian Southern Wind Yacht.


Glamour boats and beautiful people are de rigueur on the Cote d’Azur but more importantly for the cruising sailor is the fact that a marina is generally never more than an hour away. The coast beyond Saint Tropez is one of the most popular in the entire region and a favourite of mine so I aimed our bows to the Isles D’Hyres a group of islands just east of the major naval city of Toulon and dropped anchor in the sheltered bay of Isle d’Porquelles.


Toulon is the grandest harbour in all France. Along with Brest on the Atlantic coast, this ancient naval port is dotted with forts, arsenals and boatyards. The French built their first submarine here and also scuttled their fleet here in WWII, rather than let the invading Germans get it.

Protected by the natural breakwater of Saint-Mandrier-sur Mer peninsula (itself a lovely day jaunt from the town), Toulon is a rugged navy town with several marinas. It’s a place where the shops sell many kinds of penknives and some of the largest pairs of knuckledusters I’ve ever seen. It’s also home to the best maritime museum on this coast – it charts everything from the early seafarers to modern France’s nuclear-powered navy.

The town’s cobbled streets mix chic, haute couture emporiums with raunchy bars populated by young guys staring hard at you with buzz-cut hairdos. Like nearly all major Med towns the train goes through the city, so it’s an ideal crew change port and that’s why we called: to drop off our two guests.

Sailing out of Toulon in darkness, our AIS plotter screen was festooned with targets and as the sole on-watch crew I was apprehensive. The screen before me was full of dots – incoming fast African ferries, erratically moving targets that were fishing boats and then, of course, the unseen craft without AIS.

Callanques Harbour.

To take my mind off it, I thought of the town we were passing that produced my favourite rosé wine – Bandol. Mediterranean French supermarkets have dozens of shelves purely devoted to rosé, the great wine of this entire region, and Bandol is one of the best. It’s very pale, showing that most of the sugar has been fermented out and my first ice cold sip is one of the best moments of my day when on this coast, especially in one of the little bars in the old communist town of La Ciotat, west of Bandol.

Here as I enjoy my seafood plat du jour and watch a big match like PSG versus local rivals Marseilles, the boom of the shipyard reminds me that this remains a working town. Strolling around La Ciotat you find old drydocks and dilapidated sheds that hark back to the days when this yard launched some of the mightiest supertankers – before closing and partly recovering through a workers’ buyout.

In more recent times a new international workforce (and German companies Lurssen and Blohm & Voss) have turned it into a superyacht hub with lines of white boats awaiting antifouls or full refits. In town, the small working harbour gives good protection if you can secure a berth, but it’s not a place to dwell if the Mistral starts, as it often blows for three days at a time.

Here, an early morning jog has taken me to the Cap Canaille rocky promontory above the town which boasts France’s highest cliffs (394m) so gives vistas of the infamous Golfe Du Lion to the west and the cobalt-blue sea below.


Our crossing of the Golfe put us on the most exposed part of the coast and a place where the Mistral funnels strongly down through the Massif Cenral region and then the Calanques National Park, one of France’s greatest natural coastal regions.

The deep water makes anchoring challenging so lines are run ashore through rings but there’s practically no tide to worry about so you can safely glide into the many picturesque inlets that make this region very popular. Moor here for a day’s hike up the high limestone cliffs along the route that leads to the quaint town of Cassis, famous for its wine festival in May and Fêtes de la Mer in June.

When anchored below these cliffs, the sky to the west has a pronounced glow at night, indicating France’s second major city: Marseilles. Sailing in through its ancient harbour ramparts is a special moment for the cruising sailor, as you pass hundreds of moored yachts. Thankfully the major ferry port is further west.

The stone quays are home to some of the liveliest bars on the coast and the floating yacht club is a regular haunt of mine when in town. Here crews of the latest Fast 40s mix with Mini Transat solo skippers and a host of other sailing classes.

Stretch your legs during the steep climb to the Notre Dame cathedral for distant views along the coast where the dramatic mountains give way to miles of low-lying scrub and swamp – the Camargue wetlands. A place where I’ve watched gypsies trading horses and a region that has one of my favourite inland towns, Arles, where Van Gough settled to live beside the Roman amphitheatre before painting his famous sunflowers.

Much less dramatic for the cruising sailor, these flatlands have plenty of chandlery services to offer, especially at the largest yachting hub on the entire coast at La Grande Motte. I return here annually for Europe’s major multihull show in March.

This coast of popular holiday beaches surrounding the grand city of Montpellier is also the place for inland boaters – those who want to enter the mighty Rhone and just further west France’s oldest inland waterway, the Canal du Midi at Sète.

Sète flourished after the completion of the Canal Du Midi and became known as the Venice of the West because of its myriad waterways, so if you stride around the old port you’ll see boulangerie windows filled with special pies – the tielle sétoise (squid and tomato pie).

Sete Canal.

Sète is famously known for its Festival of Saint Louis – a waterborne jousting competition whereby the combatants stand on the pulpits of their respective vessels and rowers propel them into combat. A working fishing town, where large tuna boats speed past you as you sail towards it, Sète has room enough for visiting yachts and for the many cabin cruisers transiting the canals. Its lagoon – Étang de Thau – is a popular wintering anchorage for visitors.

Sailing beyond Sète we are nearing the land of the Catalan, the people and culture that exists on both sides of the border with Spain. Inland, the low-lying scrub rises to the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains and we know our voyage is ending as our catamaran glides into the small seaside resort of Canet-enRousson and its marina.