Three months of sailing in Europe: where would you go? Janneke Kuysters plots dreamy 90-day itineraries from multi-country trips to island hopping
Whether you need to fit around work, school, or Schengen zone requirements, three months of sailing in Europe can make for a summer to remember. Exploring the many cruising areas in Europe within the 90-day Schengen limit requires some careful planning, but there are literally hundreds of scenarios to choose from.
Would your ideal cruising adventure see you head north to enjoy long days on the water where the sun never sleeps? Or does the warmth of the Mediterranean hold more appeal? We have six itineraries to show how it can be done for maximum cruising enjoyment with minimal paperwork.
If you decide to sail north from the UK, it pays to start from a port that gets you as close to your European destination as possible. This may involve sailing three or four days to the English east coast, but once you’re there you can maximise your 90 days from the best possible starting point on continental Europe.
Seven countries by day
Incredible though it might seem, with careful planning you can visit seven countries in 90 days while only sailing in relaxed day trips. This itinerary starts in Ramsgate, Kent, from where you cross to France via Calais. Follow the Belgium coast, enjoying all the Belgian culinary delights of moules-frites and more, until you get to Flushing in the Netherlands.
Here your track heads inland on the famous Staande Mast Route, which leads you diagonally through the Netherlands, where you pass some interesting cities like Gouda, Haarlem and Amsterdam. Try the delicious Dutch stroopwafels (syrup waffles) when you’re there. Then on to Germany, via the Wadden islands chain. In the north you can work your way to the entrance of the Nord Ostsee Kanal on the banks of the Elbe river.
After motoring 60 miles on the channel, you are in the Baltic and immediately spoilt for choice. You can go east to the northern German and Polish coasts with their very protected cruising areas, for instance near the island of Rügen. Beautiful cities like Germany’s Rostock or Polish Szczecin are within reach. Or you sail north to Denmark, to sail around in the stunning archipelagos and visit the modern city of Copenhagen. Another option is to head north-east to Sweden where Malmö and Gothenburg offer excellent facilities. The summer days are long, so it’s realistic to plan to cover up to 60 miles on a day sail – plenty of time to enjoy the region’s summer festivals.
To get back to the UK, you have two options: to sail north in the Kattegat to Hals, Denmark, where you enter the Limfjord. Along the west coast of Denmark you can work your way south to the Netherlands, Belgium and France for a final crossing back to Ramsgate.
The other option is to loop back to the Nord Ostsee Kanal (often known as the Kiel Canal). This offers the choice of some interesting cities to visit: Antwerp, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Malmö and Gothenburg. The prevailing winds are south-westerly, so make sure you have plenty of time to wait for a weather window on the last legs of this trip.
Total miles This itinerary is roughly 1,800 miles, with an average of 20 miles per day.
Beyond the polar circle
This itinerary is for hardy cruisers who don’t mind making longer trips in the long daylight hours of the north, as well as some overnight passages. The focus is on Norway, with ample time to explore its magnificent west coast. If starting from the UK East Coast, make your way north as far as convenient – perhaps to Peterhead – then cross directly to Bergen, enabled by the prevailing south-westerly winds.
After exploring Bergen’s spectacular historic city centre, you work your way north, visiting fjords and remote islands, until you reach the Lofoten archipelago.
The warm Gulf Stream makes the central Norwegian west coast, with its beautiful scenery, a very pleasant cruising area.
Once across the polar circle at 66°N the Lofoten Islands await: a spectacular cruising area with dramatic vistas from every angle. Try sampling fårikål, the national dish with mutton and cabbage.
Once you’ve enjoyed cruising there, head back south. Don’t forget to climb Preikestolen (Pulpit rock) when you reach Stavanger.
Keep following the south coast of Norway until you reach the Blindleia archipelago on the south-east coast, with its thousands of islands. The waters here are very calm: you can moor alongside a rock if there’s room enough – it is a very popular cruising area. You can sail from here all the way to Oslo.
Getting back to the UK can be done in many different ways. Given the prevailing winds it’s easiest to cross the Oslo Fjord and sail south along the west coast of Sweden, or through east Denmark, to Kiel in Germany. There you enter the Nord Ostsee Kanal, which brings you to the northern German coast. Then sail west via the Netherlands, back to the UK.
This itinerary has some good alternatives if you’re delayed due to the weather, and it’s easy to leave and sail back from many ports along this track, including Fjällbacka, Thyborøn, Mandal, Cuxhafen, the Dutch and German Wadden islands, and Den Helder.
Total miles This itinerary is roughly 2,200 miles, an average of 24 miles per day.
Long, lazy light
This scenario is for cruisers who’d love to keep all their options open and see how far they get on long midsummer days!
Your itinerary starts in Thyborøn on the west coast of Denmark. From there, sail through the Limfjord to Hals in the east. Then you can cross to Sweden or sail south through the Danish archipelagos to Copenhagen. If you fancy some skiing in summer, take time to visit Copen Hill in Copenhagen – an incredible urban ski slope built onto a roof.
Then on to the south coast of Sweden, where the quaint cobbled town of Ystad is a pleasant stopover port. You could make a slight detour and visit the large island of Bornholm, or a smaller speck in the Baltic, the Christiansø archipelago. From there, your route will be north-east along the Swedish coast. The skerries are incredibly beautiful and make for excellent cruising in sheltered waters with ample choices for harbours, marinas and anchorages to dip into.
It’s easy sailing to visit the historic city of Visby on Gotland, or nip inland to the huge Lake Mälaren. You could even cross to Finland and visit the Åland archipelago.
Again the best route back to the UK is via Kiel in Germany. From there, you can motor to Brunsbüttel at the mouth of the Elbe river. Depending on the weather, it’s a straight sail back to the UK, or take the Dutch Staande Mast Route (inland waterways) to the Dutch/Belgium border, before crossing the Channel.
Another option which is becoming increasingly popular is to leave the yacht on the east coast of Sweden during the winter. Nävekvarn has some good facilities to store the boat in a large boatshed; a growing international community makes this their base for cruising the Baltic.
Total miles This itinerary is about 1,650 miles, but with lots of options to stop and return earlier.
The distances between the UK and the Mediterranean – around 1,700 miles from the south coast of England to southern Spain – requires a different kind of planning and logistics for any non-EU cruisers. That’s because it isn’t feasible to sail down the Atlantic coast, into the Med, and back within the 90-day Schengen zone limit.
This means yacht owners will be looking for a place where they can leave their boat securely for a length of time, and with easy access to an international airport. Thankfully there are many places offering that, combined with idyllic cruising waters nearby.
If you want to spend lovely summers in the Med, you could sail directly to Spain non-stop, and start the Schengen clock when you arrive. But why would you? There’s so much to see on the way. If you can start early in the season you could begin exploring some of the stunning cruising areas of the south coast of the UK, then the Channel Islands and on to Brittany in France, where the Schengen clock will start ticking.
A relatively short hop across the Bay of Biscay takes you to A Coruña, an ideal place to begin your cruise of the sheltered waters of Galicia. Heading into the east of the bay, Santander, Bilbao or even La Rochelle are all interesting options, although less popular with cruisers as the prevailing south-westerlies mean you risk being caught on a lee shore waiting for a short weather window to continue west.
Galicia is rural and authentic Spain, unspoiled by tourism, and all the more interesting for it. The rias that cut deep into Galicia’s coast are stunning and offer excellent cruising options. Don’t miss the short train ride to Santiago de Compostela, where pilgrims culminate 500-mile treks at the massive cathedral. Another gem is Islas Cies, an almost tropical group of islands near Bayona in Galicia. They require a special permit to visit, but it’s worth the trouble of getting one.
You can spend a month on the Portuguese coast, enjoying the sights of Cascais, Lisbon and Porto. Then on to the Algarve, where you can leave the boat in Vilamoura, Portimão or Mazagón, or onwards along the Spanish costas until you reach Cartagena or Valencia, which both offer good facilities to store and maintain your yacht, as well as airports.
There is risk of an encounter with orcas along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts. Since 2020 hundreds of orca interactions have been reported, with many yachts suffering damage to rudders. The whales are now monitored closely, with up to date information available via the Orcinus app, Cruising Association and online to help skippers plan their passage and reduce the risk of an encounter.
Total miles The total distance from the Isle of Wight (with a few detours to explore) is 1,825 miles, an average of 21 miles per day.
Once your yacht has over-wintered in the Algarve or on the east coast of Spain, a vast cruising area opens up, where flying in for 90 days will give ample opportunities to explore some magnificent sights. It will involve some overnight sailing, but much of it can be done in day trips.
When you leave Cartagena or Valencia you can go straight to the Balearics: Ibiza, Mallorca and Menorca. These well-known islands offer secluded anchorages, stunning nature and bustling harbour towns with all the restaurants and bars you could ever want.
Head west from Menorca to Sardinia, a 200-mile passage where the winds can vary wildly in both direction and strength. While the breeze will often be light, to the point of being unsailable, when it blows, it blows hard – from north-westerly to southerly– so timing will be highly dependent on the forecast.
Here you cross the border into Italy to enjoy its dolce vita and excellent food. Sardinia is a large island with historic sites and many interesting places to explore, from the glitzy superyachts of Puerto Cervo to the pink granite islands of the Maddelena archipelago, a marine park.
Keep going west and you’ll sail to Sicily, where you can find safe harbours or anchorages and can explore the rich history on land. Then your course takes you north-west, to Rome and beyond. You can stay on the Italian coast, or cross to French Corsica for a totally different cultural experience. After that, there are incredible cities to visit by yacht: north to Genoa, west to Marseille or Barcelona. Each has good, but expensive, marinas. After exploring the glamorous French Riviera, turn south-west to return along the Spanish costas to Valencia or Cartagena.
Total miles The distance of this itinerary is roughly 2,150 miles, so 24 miles per day on average.
The Schengen shuffle
After your first year in the western part of the Med, you can join the ‘Schengen shuffle’ by dipping in and out of the EU zone in the Eastern Mediterranean, which also makes for some really interesting cruising options.
Your first challenge is to sail from the east coast of Spain to Preveza in Greece, which is about 1,320 miles, non-stop. With that behind you, turn north and explore the coasts of Albania and Montenegro (both non-Schengen) and Croatia (now in the Schengen zone). All are beautiful cruising areas, some busier than others. Services for cruising yachts are available, more in some areas than in others – Croatia is well developed for yachting visitors, Montenegro has worked hard to attract superyachts, while Albania is more off the beaten track.
Once you’ve had your fill of cruising in Croatia (with over 1,000 islands, the possibilities are almost endless), you can double back on your track and visit other destinations on the Greek coast. Or cross to Italy, on the western side of the Adriatic Sea, where it is tempting to sail all the way north to Venice.
As you head further south, there are many options for ending your season. You could keep cruising the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea and finish your 90 days there. Or continue on to Crete and Cyprus – both interesting destinations with lots of cultural heritage. There are many marina options to leave your boat for the winter, for instance on the islands of Corfu, Lefkada, Leros, Preveza, Kalamata or Piraeus. Some have good airports close by, others will require a ferry ride to a nearby island.
Alternatively you could finish your cruising season outside of the Schengen zone by sailing on to Marmaris, Turkey, then either leave your boat there and fly home to the UK or spend a winter on your boat. When autumn weather is benign, you could keep sailing for at least one or two months along the Turkish islands before you give the boat some rest in the winter.
Total miles: This itinerary is roughly 2,200 miles (not including the 1,300-mile crossing of the Med), an average of 24 miles per day.
Whether saving your Schengen days or simply seeking a beautiful cruising ground, adding the Channel Islands to your cruising itinerary is a great choice, writes Annabel Finding
Alderney is only an eight-hour hop from The Needles and provides an ultra relaxed atmosphere to get into the holiday mode without the ticking of the ‘Schengen clock’. Pick up a mooring in Braye Bay and take advantage of the harbour water taxi to come ashore. Checking in is a straightforward exercise completed by popping a form into a box at the top of the gangplank.
The tiny island of Alderney is delightfully maintained in an era where everybody has time to chat. Bike rides, scenic train trips, gannet watching and exploring forts are highlights, and there is a range of excellent eateries both in the town of St Anne’s and down in the harbour.
Guernsey is only a short sail away. Leave Braye two hours after high water and The Swinge should be kind to you as you catch the tide down to St Peter Port. Visitors are well catered for both in the marina and on summer jetties in the main pool of St Peter Port. You’ll find yourselves moored right in the centre of town, rubbing shoulders with Guernsey-clad sailors and the suited and booted banking brigade. Sea swimming is a big thing in the Channel Islands and in Guernsey you can enjoy a seawater pool at the free Havelet bathing pools, walking distance from the marina.
Sark and Herm are both worth a visit, whether by ferry from St Peter Port or under your own steam. Herm is known for its oysters and beaches, while Sark has a rich and varied history with impressive cliff walks – and correspondingly very deep anchorages, so take plenty of chain.
Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands and has an excellent recently extended marina at St Helier, while the Minquiers and Ecrehou Islands are amazing places worthy of exploration for the more adventurous – but check your tides carefully. From Jersey you can check out for France.
Cruising sailor Annabel Finding lives on Alderney and has recently updated a new edition of the RCC Pilotage Foundation cruising guide to the Channel Islands, Cherbourg Peninsula and North Brittany.
Price: £47.50, from imray.com
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