The Mediterranean has a lot to offer sailors all year round, writes Elena Manighetti. Among the highlights are fascinating cultural attractions, crystal clear water, and delicious food
With plenty of airports located along the most common cruising routes and cheap flights within Europe, keeping a yacht in the Med is easy and convenient. But what do cruisers do once the typical sailing season comes to an end?
My husband, Ryan, and I have spent two years cruising the Med on our Tayana 37 and can share some of our advice on wintering options, shoulder season cruising tips, and more.
Mediterranean winters feature regular storms (one to three per month on average) and the weather varies a lot between countries. For example, mainland Spain is mild and sunny, while the Ionian Islands of Greece are wet and cold. The low season typically runs between October and April.
There are three options for full-time liveaboards in the winter: secure a six-month deal in a marina; haul the boat out; or keep sailing. Most cruisers leave their yacht in a protected berth or on the hard and fly home for the winter. For this reason, winter berths need to be booked far in advance. Yard spaces are generally available until the end of September.
Some cruisers spend the low season aboard in marinas, occasionally flying home. This is a pleasant and inexpensive way to see the winter through. Water and electricity are usually included in a winter deal and car rentals are as cheap as €5 per day at major airports.
British couple Nichola and Colin Wright have been cruising the Mediterranean on their Kelly Peterson 44 Emerald for six years. They’ve spent each winter living aboard in marinas, staying in Marina di Ragusa (Sicily), Agios Nikolaos (Crete), Roccella Ionica (Italy), and Cartagena (Spain).
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“We’ve really enjoyed our winter marina stays,” explains Nichola, “as they’ve given us time for land travel while not having to worry about the boat and weather.” The couple have got involved in social activities organised by the liveaboard communities, including barbecues, yoga lessons, celestial navigation classes, and more.
There are pockets of overwintering liveaboards all around the Med. Some of the most popular Mediterranean wintering spots include Valencia and Barcelona in mainland Spain – both excellent options with major airports nearby. Cartagena is also a delightful town with an active winter community. From here, you can head to the Balearic Islands, France, and Corsica.
In Sicily, Licata and Marina di Ragusa are favourites with cruisers returning every winter. Catania airport is two hours away. Come spring you can sail towards Greece and Turkey, or Sardinia and the Balearic Islands. Some 50 miles south of Sicily lies Malta. Valletta hosts a small liveaboard community. Berth prices are high, but the historic city is gorgeous and the airport is just around the corner.
In Tunisia, Monastir and Hammamet get fantastic reviews from those who’ve visited and offer good value boat work. Transport to the airport is cheap, although flights are more costly than from Europe. In the spring, you can set sail for Sicily, Sardinia, or Greece.
In Greece, Lefkas, Preveza, and Crete are good choices, although flight options are limited in low season. Athens is well connected but more expensive and cold. In the spring you can explore the Greek Islands, head to Turkey, or sail to Croatia.
In Turkey, Finike, Marmaris, and Bodrum are popular with liveaboards. After winter you can continue cruising Turkey or head west. Airports are two hours from the marinas; Bodrum has its own.
Boat maintenance can be carried out in most of the marinas mentioned and their associated yards. As a rule of thumb, Italy and Malta are more expensive both in terms of yard fees and labour. Good value yard deals are available in Monastir, Almerimar, Crotone (Italy), Kilada (Peloponnese), and Preveza.
For cruisers with itchy feet who opt to sail year-round, trips need to be planned to allow shelter in marinas from the worst storms. This is affordable in the low season, but locals and those who have secured a winter deal usually snap up the most protected pontoons. Not all harbours are sheltered from every direction, so make sure to research a marina before you commit to it for a storm.
Seeking dry and mild weather, winter sailors often head east towards Crete, Turkey, Cyprus, and Israel. Alternatively, heading just out of the Med to southern Portugal offers good weather and well-protected anchorages. A careful eye on the forecast, confidence in your boat and ground tackle, and cold weather gear (including a heater) are essential.
Dutch couple Marjolein and Hermen Doornenbal have sailed their Trintella 3A ketch in the Mediterranean for two years. They spent their first winter sailing from the Balearics to Tunisia and their second cruising in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, and Israel.
“We live on our boat, it’s our home, so we sail year-round,” says Marjolein. In winter they have to move anchorages often, due to changeable weather and frequent storms which, she admits, can be quite nerve wracking. Their advice? “Don’t do any passages longer than two days and keep a close eye on the forecast.”
Winter deals usually last six to eight months, so it’s important to pick the right marina if you’re planning to live aboard full-time. Key factors to consider when choosing include:
- Location: What is the area surrounding the marina like? Is there a big town nearby? Do the restaurants and bars close down for the winter? Could you drive your car from your home country?
- Proximity to an airport: If you need to fly home often, you’ll have to pick a marina close to a big airport and with good transport links. If you plan to travel only for Christmas, then access to the airport is less of an issue.
- Immigration rules: Can you live aboard in the country for more than three months? Can you apply for a temporary residence? Do you need to pay tax on your boat if you stay longer than three months?
- Boat repair facilities: Research each marina and their associated yard to find out what services are available.
- Community: Would you like to spend a lot of time with other liveaboards, getting involved in social events? Or would you prefer having a quiet winter in a sleepy marina with a few friendly neighbours?
- Weather and shelter: Check the historical weather records: what direction are the winter storms usually from? Does the harbour wall protect the marina from that direction? How wet and cold does it usually get?
- Price range: Enquire for winter deal quotes well in advance and compare them. What’s included in the price? Some deals come with free water and electricity. Marinas with bad fouling often offer a free lift and pressure wash in the spring.
- Car rental options: If you’d like to explore inland, the best deals on car hire are available at big airports via advanced online booking. You can usually rent the same vehicle for up to 29 consecutive days. Car rentals far from airports are typically more expensive.
Spring and autumn
The shoulder seasons tend to bring the fiercest winds across the Mediterranean. The weather is often unsettled, with strong winds followed by spells of light breezes and confused seas. Last spring we experienced multiple 40-60 knot storms in the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, and Sicily in April and May. Between August and November 2019, the Balearics were hit by several big storms that caused flooding and much damage.
That said, you can still sail safely in spring and autumn by staying within close range of marinas when the weather is unsettled. This option can take a lot of patience as you’ll spend time waiting out storms and weather windows to move are short. But if you persist you’re rewarded with empty anchorages, quiet towns, and cheap mooring fees.
As summer approaches, the Mediterranean starts to become crowded with local motorboats, charter fleets, and cruising yachts enjoying the hot, calm weather. Marina prices skyrocket and berths are hard to book, so it’s best to stick to the abundant free anchorages. The busiest months are July and August. Popular bays are so packed you’ll regularly hear skippers arguing with their neighbours about being too close.
Want to avoid the worst of the crowds? Head for less-travelled areas by the end of June. Avoid anchorages close to charter bases and famous hotspots like Shipwreck Beach on Zakynthos or Port de Soller on Mallorca.
Some quieter areas include mainland Spain and France, south Sardinia, Tunisia, the northern Aegean, the Peloponnese, and Turkey. Marina prices in these places tend to be cheaper, too.
If you don’t fancy paying exorbitant marina fees, stay clear of northern Sardinia, the Amalfi coast, Liguria, Malta, and Palma de Mallorca. For affordable berths in the Balearics, sign up to Ports IB – the local, state-run marina network. In Greece, while you need to pay a cruising tax (€33 per month up to 40ft), town quays are low-cost or free.
About the author
Elena Manighetti and her husband, Ryan, cruise full-time on their Tayana 37, Skua, and document their adventures on the YouTube channel Sailing Kittiwake.
First published in the March 2020 edition of Yachting World.