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At the brand-new but spare Port America’s Cup in Valencia, Spain, it was easy to spot the handful of cruisers among the crewed megayachts. Their universal flag of housekeeping-laundry-could be seen drying on lifelines.
Extraordinarily high prices kept most cruisers-and many more big-boat owners-away. With space for more than 600 boats, the marina had attracted only 294 by the opening weekend of last summer’s Cup. I spotted only six U.S. boats, and of those, my 35-foot Ranger, a 1970 Allied Seabreeze, was the smallest.
The tiniest boat that I could find along the dock was a nine-footer trailered from Switzerland by a marine-salvage dealer. He wasn’t being charged, apparently because his boat was smaller than the minimum length listed on the fee schedule. He tied up by the pumpout barge.
The smallest legitimate sailboat was the 18-foot Babanka, owned by Konstantin Startchev, a Bulgarian physical chemist. He’d trailered her to Barcelona and sailed the 150 miles from there, which took nearly 20 days. He and I were neighbors on the “small boat” dock.
Babanka, Bulgarian for “robust,” is a 1,000-pound centerboard sloop built in 1964 to a design by renowned French naval architect Jean Jacques Herbulot, famous for promoting sailing for Everyman. Simple and inexpensive, his boats were built by the thousands in the 1960s, planting the seeds for the now-famous French sailing industry.
Konstantin once worked on DNA sequencing in Switzerland for a company owned by Ernesto Bertarelli, the head of Alinghi, the current holder of the America’s Cup. Konstantin began sailing weekends on Lake Geneva to clear his head of computer code. What began as a couple of hours of sailing at day’s end stretched into weeklong excursions with his wife, Vera Seaveykova, a professor of environmental pollution at École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, the Swiss university that, coincidentally, helped Alinghi design its boats. One of Konstantin and Vera’s most exotic cruises involved sailing around Île des Embiez, a gunkholing paradise in the Mediterranean near Marseille, France.
The couple came to Valencia to wave the Swiss flag and exult in Alinghi’s victory. Their cruises, so very modest when compared with Alinghi’s multimillion-dollar quest, seemed nonetheless to produce smiles as broad as Mr. Bertarelli’s.
Down the dock was Heureka, the Hallberg-Rassy 31 of Chris Rossin and Roberto Cappi, sailors from Sainte-Maxime, France, who’ve spent four seasons cruising in the western Med.
Written with the precision expected of a particle-accelerator physicist, a position Roberto held at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland (commonly known as CERN) until his retirement, Heureka’s logbook contains important details of their voyages. There is, for example, this entry:
“Atica Pizzeria. Naples. These are descendants of the inventor of the marguerita pizza. Excellent pizza and not expensive. We went there six times.”
He’d pasted in the bill, which showed two marguerita pizzas costing 8.4 euros.
Roberto helped his boss, Carlo Rubbia, win the Nobel Prize for physics in 1984 for identifying the intermediate vector boson. In the pressure cooker of research, he bought Heureka for relief, often sleeping on the boat on Lake Geneva in the odd hours he wasn’t working.
Roberto can explain in several languages the secrets of subatomic particles, but what he really likes to talk about are gastronomic gems that he and Chris have found on their cruises around Spain, France, the Balearic Islands, Italy, and Malta.
Chris, who taught elementary school in New Caledonia and is the picture of a Vogue model when she steps ashore, showed me her secret to her put-together look: a small ironing board and a travel steam iron.
Through their extensive records, this couple, who met skiing in the Alps, have become extremely knowledgeable about the winds, ports, and history of the western Med. They usually stay in marinas to visit museums and historic sites-and to seek out those great restaurants. At home and in Italy they sail in regattas, with Chris at the tiller. But they warn newcomers to the Med that it’s not great for sailing.
“The only problem with the Med is the weather,” says Roberto. They estimate that they motorsail 75 percent of the time.
Still, they revel in finding places steeped in history: Agropoli, on the Italian mainland; Siracusa, on the east side of Sicily; and Isola di Ponza and Isola Ventotene, two islands in the Golfo di Gaeta. At Ventotene, ancient Romans built a sheltered harbor with little more than hammers.
“The harbor was made 2,000 years ago,” Roberto marvels. “When you sail in to it, it’s like stepping inside a cathedral. It’s one of the most exotic feelings in the Med, perhaps in the entire world. And there’s this little cafe with 1-euro beers that has a million-dollar view.”
The largest contingent of boats at Port America’s Cup was a fleet of more than 40 U.K.-made Oysters; the crews organized a regatta and reserved a block of slips. Their invitation was just the nudge that Colin and Maggie Richardson of Scotland needed to start their long-delayed Mediterranean cruise on Ocean Safari, their 35-foot Oyster Mariner built in 1981.
Luxuriating in the balmy, tideless tub of the “Orange Blossom Coast,” as the area surrounding Valencia is known, brought this droll comment from Colin: “It’s quite handy, isn’t it?” This from a sailor used to the 10-foot tidal dangers of their summer cruising grounds on the River Clyde and around the Hebrides.
Without previous yachting experience, this Aberdeen couple got keen on sailing in the Med in 1985. They took their two kids for a sailing holiday with Sunsail, which organized a flotilla around the Greek islands in the Ionian Sea.
“We were just totally hooked,” says Colin, a marine-electronics engineer for the oil industry. So were their children, who eventually joined the navy.
Within a couple of years, the charter company offered to let Colin and Maggie help deliver one of its boats back to Sivota at the end of the season.
Their grandest delivery was from Greece through the Red Sea to Seychelles, where Sunsail was establishing a new outpost. They became good friends with the boat’s captain, a New Zealander.
Ten years ago, they bought Ocean Safari, sailed it to France and home to Scotland, then used it mostly on weekends for jaunts with the grandkids and two dogs aboard. Then they got a call from the New Zealander. He was getting married, and he wanted to know if they would come to the wedding-in New Zealand. During a tipsy reception Down Under, someone proposed rendezvousing at the America’s Cup in Valencia.
Making their long passage by themselves, Colin and Maggie left Kilmore Quay, in Ireland, sailed five days to Spain, then to Gibraltar and Valencia, where they arrived in time to play host. They were one of the few European crews to root for the Kiwis.
As their vacations get longer, the Richardsons plan to explore the western Med and return to Greece, where they first gained the confidence to cruise. Then they plan to make Maggie’s big dream-of sailing a transatlantic to the Caribbean-a reality.
Jim Carrier, an author and journalist, lives in Madison, Wisconsin and sails the Med on his boat, Ranger. He reported on the 2007 America’s Cup in last month’s issue.