Bon voyage! A guide to boating in France
With a wide range of places to visit by boat, France is one of the most popular destinations to Borrow a Boat. Despite this, many UK-based sailors will discard la République when planning their sailing adventure. Whether it’s due to the long-standing rivalry between the two nations, or simply the fact that they’re so close to one another, the French coastline is often ignored by us Brits. And this certainly shouldn’t be the case. Whether you choose to partake in an adventurous battle against the elements in the Channel, or prefer a luxurious visit to the Cote d’Azur – France offers something for just about anyone. Speaking of the regions around the French coast, the main options for sailors are as follows:
- The French Riviera/Cote d’Azur – The Riviera can be found in the southeast of the country. This sun-drenched area of coastline covers ports such as Nice, Cannes or – while not actually a part of the country of France – Monaco
- The Gulf of Lion – Head to the west of the Riviera and you’ll be welcomed into this gulf. So named due to the historically dangerous conditions, the Gulf of Lion now simply offers a more challenging French-Mediterranean sailing experience than is found in the Riviera
- Corsica – This island is closer to Italy than it is France, making it a truly unique sailing experience. With its own distinctive culture and dramatic scenery almost never seen on mainland France
- Normandy & Brittany – Colder and harsher than the rest of the country’s coastline, this region of northern France isn’t for everyone. Steeped in history, from the Bayeux Tapestry to the Second World War, Normandy and Brittany are ideal for the more adventurous culture vultures out there
Sailing conditions in France
As a large country with substantial distance between its coastlines (Boulogne is almost 600 miles from Nice), the sailing conditions can differ drastically. From the choppy and blustery English Channel to the calm, warm waters of the Corsican Mediterranean; sailors should be aware of what to expect on a regional basis.
France’s Mediterranean coast – including Corsica – is often affected by the Marin. This is a fresh breeze that can get fairly strong in the afternoon. It’s not unusual to see the wind hit force 5, but it shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge to the experienced sailor.
Experienced Mediterranean sailors are likely to already be familiar with the Mistral. Blowing from the northwest, this wind affects sailors in every French sailing region, often all the way down to Italy. You’re more likely to encounter the Mistral in the winter, but it can seemingly come out of nowhere. This wind can hit up to force 9, so if the Mistral is coming, stay aware.
Along with the Mistral, Corsican sailors could also be greeted by the Libeccio. This wind blows from the southwest and, while it can reach force 7, is usually harmless. The best way to deal with the Libeccio is simply to harness it and enjoy the power behind this blustery wind.
Aside from the wind, the overall weather in France again varies based on region. Don’t be surprised to encounter quintessentially British weather on the northern coast. Wet weather and highs of 18ºC in the height of summer are the standard. Meanwhile, the southern coast is definitively Mediterranean. The mercury will hover in the high 20s for the entire summer season, with little rainfall and plenty of sunshine, it’s certainly a more luxurious place to spend your sailing holidays.
French Riviera/Cote d’Azur
Film festivals, fast cars and superyachts are the standard in the Riviera. This area of coastline has been the world famous playground of the rich and famous since the Victorian era, with the queen herself paying annual visits to Nice.
A visit by boat to the Cote d’Azur is perfect for the sailor looking to rub shoulders with the world’s elite in a truly luxurious setting. Boasting over 3,000 restaurants and 18 golf courses, you’re unlikely to ever be bored. A word of warning, during race season – usually at the tail end of May – prices in the region will explode. While the weather will be unbeatable at this time, unless you’re intending on watching the Monaco GP, we’d advise that you avoid the region altogether.
If you’re a boat-obsessive, don’t worry, you won’t even have to make land to enjoy the luxury of the French Riviera. Few things come close to the pleasure of relaxing on your yacht. Feeling the light rocking as it gently bobs atop the turquoise waves that lap at the golden sands of Saint-Tropez. Hosting 50% of the world’s superyachts every year, don’t be surprised to find your boat dwarfed by the likes of Roman Abramovich’s Eclipse, or Azzam, private yacht of Sheikh Khalifa of Abu Dhabi.
A visit to the French Riviera is truly an indulgence in the luxurious side of sailing. Haute cuisine and supercars abound in one of the world’s most beautiful coastlines. Fortunately, with Borrow a Boat the region is more accessible than ever. If you’d like to feel like an oligarch for a day, the French Riviera can’t be beaten.
Gulf of Lion
If you’re seeking definitively French culture and a Mediterranean climate away from the celebrity and extreme wealth of the Cote d’Azur, try the Gulf of Lion. Unrelated to the city of Lyon, the gulf is named due to the region’s sailing conditions that were historically considered to be as dangerous as a lion. Charming.
Modern sailing technology has, fortunately, made the gulf far safer for the average boater. Despite this, the region is not to be sneered at. Choppier seas and strong Mistral winds can make the Gulf of Lion a challenging location for the amateur sailor.
The main port in the region is Marseille. This coastal city allows sailors to experience a beautiful Mediterranean climate and culture while shedding some of the Hollywood-style celebrity culture prominent further to the east.
Marseille is an ancient city with a very defined culture. From historical sites and museums, to a booming local cuisine – try the famous bouillabaisse – Marseille is the cultural hub of France’s southern coast. Set sail from the city and visit the beautiful calanques – these rocky inlets are a must-see for visitors in the region, with the limestone cliffs nurturing a variety of unique ecosystems.
If you’d like to visit France but perhaps want to feel as though you were somewhere else, visit Corsica. The birthplace of Napoleon is closer to Italy than it is France and, with a reasonable coastline of 1,000km, is a popular choice for people looking to circumnavigate the island. If you do choose the circumnavigation route, plan an anti-clockwise trip lasting about two weeks. You’ll be able to go on inland excursions within that time frame, while the route will protect you from encountering too many strong winds.
The island itself is an enticing gem in the Med. Although similar in geography to the neighbouring Italian island of Sardinia, the island has managed to retain a clear Corsican identity. From a unique native language to ancient mountain villages, paying a visit to Corsica will open you to a variety of cultural facets distinct to the island.
A lot of sailors won’t be including northern France on their travel bucket list, but we think they’re missing out. Of course, the coastal region of Normandy is a far cry from the azure waters and Mediterranean sunshine of Cannes, but it has a certain je-ne-sais-quois that we love.
If you’re a culture-seeking sailor unafraid of cooler weather, Normandy is the place to be. From the D-Day landing sites at Ouistreham to the famous tapestry at Bayeux, there’s plenty to see if you’re touring the northern coast as a history lover. For cultural sightseers, a cruise along the Norman coast would be incomplete without a visit to the island commune of Mont Saint Michel.
With the UK sun quickly fading it’s best to begin planning your next voyage. Browse all of Borrow a Boat’s locations here.