A pilgrimage to visit the shrine of the apostle Sant James is becoming more and more popular (walking the Camino de Santiago), but did you know that you can sail a pilgrimage route too?
It is perhaps quite fitting that you can sail a pilgrimage most of the way to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in north-western Spain, as that’s the same way St James’ martyred body would have been transported. There is some historical discussion about the whereabouts of his remains – whether his remains actually made it to shore – however what is agreed upon is that a pilgrimage to the shrine of the apostle is becoming more and more popular with every passing year. While you can do the route yourself using a Pilgrim’s Passport and stay at many marinas in MDL’s extended network (see below), Sail the Way, in its fifth iteration is looking to depart from La Rochelle on 5 July 2019.
Sail the Way is a flotilla-based pilgrimage which takes 16 days to travel the final marina Santiago de Compostel. There is one day of walking involved – in keeping with the spirit of the way the last ten km to get to the cathedral need to be done on foot. But, the route can be done in its entirety, or in stages, with participating marinas able to ‘stamp’ Pilgrim’s Passports to enable the holder to receive La Compostela – the official certificate of achievement.
As Fabienne St Pierre explains, a participant in 2018, the pilgrimage is undertaken by all sorts of people. “Some people were very religious, some were spirituals and others liked the adventure but were not religious at all – when you meet people who are doing it, their reasons are all totally different.” But they all enjoyed the challenge of sailing and for some of them, it was a real challenge. But no one has ever said that St James way was easy"
The cruising in company route is fairly straightforward from stunning marina to marina, and according to Fabienne’s husband Philippe Costantini who has been sailing since ‘before he was borne’ and whose great, great, grandfather taught Italian royalty to sail, it’s not overly challenging as long as you have the right level of experience.
“It’s not for a skipper who has no experience. And, it all depends where you start. The Bay of Biscay has a bad reputation and if you need to cross it, it might be more challenging than just sailing along the Spanish coast. Even that coast, with the swell from the Atlantic, the cliffs and the drafts coming down the mountains can create a choppy sea. Also, 80 miles in a day can be quite a long trip and because sailing boats don't sail at the same speed, you might end up alone and need to get into a new harbour on your own at the end.”
“We were the last ones into the marinas if there was no wind, because we have a small engine,” Fabienne says of their Costantini 30. “But when there was wind, we were the first over the line ready for the activities after sailing – such as food and tours and demonstrations – it’s a fantastic way of discovering the Spanish coast.!”
Fabienne and her family had a deeply personal reason for taking part.
“My sister died in April 2018, of a brain tumour,” Fabienne explains. “Claudette had an incredible soul full of adventure, we were going to trek in Nepal. But first we planned to walk the Camino de Santiago. We heard you’d meet lovely people, and we both loved walking. Unfortunately, she passed away. My husband saw an advert for Sail the Way, and asked me if I’d like to do the Camino by sea. I decided to bring her ashes with me, and spread them along the way.
“At the end of the sailing, you have to walk the last 10km. I took her ashes with me, looking for somewhere on the way to the Cathedral. We were in a big group. Claudette grew flowers for a living – I saw some Roses and put some of her ashes there. But not all of them because it wasn’t right.
“Early one morning, in the Bay of Biscay, during my watch on the way back, I saw a kind of little tornado. Then I saw another one and another one for a radius of mile and a half. It wasn’t tornadoes, there were about 20 whales. And I said to Claudette ‘there you go, this is what you deserve.’ I woke my husband and the children. We scattered Claudette’s ashes among the whales. It was fantastic.”
Very much a family affair, Fabienne and Philippe’s children (aged 12 and 14) crewed for the pilgrimage. “The children have no choice but once the trip was over they said they would do it again,” says Philippe. “They complained a little bit as they need the internet to talk to their friends – of course we don’t really have it onboard, so they are annoyed by that – they have no choice but to read or to play games.”
That said, many of the marinas on route have wifi. The flotilla stops in a marina every night and after three days cruising through what is (almost) guaranteed to be warm and calm weather, the pilgrims enjoys a day of relaxing in port. Activities are organised and include visits to historical places, fish markets, concerts and a wide variety of gastronomic delights such as cooking show and tasters.
Hondarribia is a firm favourite on the route. The marina was dredged into a wide-reaching beach and now it helps to maintain the existing beach by decreasing the movement of sand. There’s a promenade walk to the local town, and it’s only 20 minutes from San Sebastian – said to be one of the most beautiful cities in the Basque country and also the capital of Spanish cuisine. Other stunning marinas along the route include Gijon and A Coruña.
The cost of taking part of the flotilla is 500€ per boat plus 100€ per crew member, this includes berthing, activities, merchandising which Fabienne says is a brilliant price. “We spend two months every summer on our boat. Normally we’d anchor in a creek, but this is a great way to stay in lovely marinas and explore Spain.”
Further information on Sail the Way can be found here.
For those who wish to sail alone, the pilgrimage can be undertaken and verified with a Pilgrim’s Passport. The voyage between the ports of departure and arrival must be made by sailboat and must be a minimum of 100 nautical miles. The passport can be stamped in the following marinas (sixteen are in MDL’s extended network which stretches through France, Spain and into Italy - MDL members stay at no extra cost).
Participating marinas include: Port La Rochelle; Puerto de Hondarribia; Puerto de Donostia; Puerto de Orio; Puerto de Getaria; Puerto de Mutriku; Puerto de Bermeo; Puerto El Abra; RCMA – RSC; Puerto de Santurtzi; Real Club Náutico de Laredo; Marina de Santander; Marina Yates del Principado; Puerto de Cudillero; Marina Viveiro; Marina Coruña; Marina Muxía; Marina de Muros; Marina da Pobra; Marina Arousa and RCN Vigo.