cruising world magazineFor Mediterranean yachtsmen, the Straights of Bonifacio, separating Corsica from Sardinia, are notorious for their regular appearance in Navtex gale warnings. Winds from the west – especially a Mistral – funnel through the ten-mile gap creating awesome seas. Add to this the profusion of tortured reefs scattered around, and it’s hardly surprising that the seabed is strewn with wrecks. Fortunately for us the strong winds of previous days had subsided, and although it was still fresh, the extensive fetch of the western Mediterranean still carried a significant swell.

cruising world magazineIt was an exhilarating crossing. Chris, our son, refused to surrender the helm as we surged towards Italian waters on a close reach. It was bright and clear, and the spray flung from our bows across the sparkling blue water, conditions that make the area so popular for regattas. But once across the shipping lanes, amid the rocks of La Maddalena archipelago, pilotage suddenly became a serious matter. The pink rock formations and the numerous intertwined islands, provide secluded anchorages with aquamarine shallows ideal for snorkelling, but even with a large scale chart, the reefs are still difficult to identify. We anchored for lunch in a bay recommended by Rod Heikell’s Italian Pilot, but it was only when we found the passage blocked on trying to leave, that we realised we were actually somewhere else and heading directly for Passo Secca di Morto: “Deadman’s Reef”.

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The archipelago, which gives its name to the local sea area, has been militarily significant since Napoleonic times. Nelson kept his fleet here in 1803 while waiting for the French to leave Toulon. He recommended to the Admiralty that they annexe Sardinia instead of Malta, but he didn’t live to push it through. In recognition of the island’s independence, he never set foot ashore for the entire year he was based here. On Maddalena itself there is a large US naval base and it was odd to hear the American accents amid the Italian chatter on channel 16.

Following Rod Heikell’s intricate route through the rocks, we found a wonderfully deserted anchorage on Isola Caprera, but as we settled down to watch the sunset we heard a shout. In the fading light we just managed to make out a teenager rowing towards us in a small dory. We could see that he was exhausted, and since he was wearing only swimming trunks, we insisted on giving him something warm and took him below where he explained that he was trying to get back to Maddalena, but his outboard had broken down. After he’d warmed up enough, I towed him behind our tender and headed carefully for the road bridge in the distance. It was dark by the time I’d dropped him off, and I had a scary run between the rocks back to our anchorage.

cruising world magazineThe glamorous Costa Smerelda is apparently what most people associate with Sardinia: a luxurious development along the “emerald coast”, and home to pop stars and the super-rich. Unfortunately, being irredeemably unfashionable, I had been only vaguely aware of it, but we got a taste of it when we put our nose briefly into Port Cervo. A swarm of smartly uniformed marina staff buzzed around us in their dories, but we told them we were only looking around.

cruising world magazineThe setting is magnificent, if overdeveloped. Much is made of the planning restraints which require all the architecture to blend into the landscape, but we weren’t prepared for the sheer density of development. Estates lined the coastal belt like wall-to-wall carpeting and I haven’t seen so many yachts since St Tropez – but what yachts! Imagine the most popular anchorage in the British Isles. Scale it up by a factor of ten, and you have the extraordinary Cala di Volpe: literally hundreds of boats anchoring a bay lined with multi-million pound properties. Most of the motor yachts were well over a hundred feet, and many more than two hundred – one would even have served as a cross-channel ferry, it had five decks.

cruising world magazineCosta Smerelda is serviced by the unprepossessing Olbia airport, but people pass through the town itself as fast as possible – as we did. We were there to meet my mother, due to arrive on a flight from Gatwick, and to search for a new impellor for the generator. Amazingly we managed to do both within a couple of hours. Since the rusty old concrete quay was desolate and the nearby yacht club didn’t welcome visitors, we decided to leave immediately.

cruising world magazineWhile Corsica slopes down from west to east, Sardinia’s east coast south of Olbia is the reverse, consisting of sheer cliffs plunging vertically into the sea, with just five ports offering secure refuge. With my mother now safely on board, we decided to retrace our steps and head for the west coast. Sardinia is highly unusual in the Mediterranean since it has little tradition of fishing, and before the development of Porto Cervo in the early 60s, there were virtually no facilities for boats or visitors. Although facilities for visiting yachts are growing, apart from the Costa Smerelda, the island’s distance from the mainland keeps it relatively unpopulated, and away from the main tourist routes.

cruising world magazineOnce around the island’s north-east corner, opposite Maddalena, we found an almost deserted anchorage in the Golfo di Arzachena, a quiet creek immediately to the west of Cabo Ferro. After putting into the little village of Canningone at its head and filling up with water and wine, we anchored across the bay. The swell of the past few weeks had finally subsided, and we spent a peaceful night with an unusual backdrop of adjacent fields. My mother was entranced.

cruising world magazineOne of the high spots of cruising is discovery. The pilot books are, of course, invaluable, not only in pointing out any dangers, but in providing information to help get the best from a coast. They can, however, take the edge off the surprise of a first visit. With time in hand, we motor-sailed slowly close inshore, putting into each little bay and nosing around before moving on to the next. We were intending to spend the night at Santa Teresa di Gallura, but when we finally reached it, it was far too crowded, so we went back to a small bay we had explored, which didn’t appear in our pilot. We anchored close to the deserted beach and were entirely alone, until half a dozen young people arrived in Hobie catamarans. There was barely enough wind for them to move, but they turned down our offer of a tow and ghosted slowly towards the beach where they set up camp for the night. It must have been unique, we heard nothing; no stereos, no guitars, no singing; nothing but a warm silence and the occasional crackle and hiss from their campfire.

cruising world magazineIt was now time for Chris’ girlfriend Lucy, to leave us. Never having been on a boat before, she had suffered from the swell of the first few days but had coped well. We devised a complicated bus itinerary for her to reach Alghero airport, starting from Castelsardo, further along the north coast, and a place highly recommended by the guidebooks. We reached there in early evening, after a stop-over anchored among the rocks of Isola Rossa, but although there appeared to be plenty of room, we were directed instead to the public quay by the ormeggiatori – every port has someone who is responsible for allocating berths to visiting boats. Italy has a wonderfully egalitarian attitude to its harbours. The majority of the water frontage is leased out to private operators and clubs, who install pontoons and services which can be used by visiting boats for a suitable fee. But part of the harbour is always kept as a public facility with no charge. Rarely, however, were they equipped as this was with water and electricity, and not for the first time we wondered why people preferred to pay for what they could have for nothing. Boats continued to arrive during the evening until the private berths were full – just as they told us, and we learnt later that Italians normally book ahead by VHF or phone, a lesson we usefully applied later. Castelsardo is an ancient fortified town built on top of the hilltop overlooking the sheltered bay. It’s famous for its baskets, which are woven by hand by the local women. The sight of them sitting in rows down the narrow cobbled streets is the staple of the local postcard shops. It was, however, a very long and tiring walk up from the public port and my mother wisely decided not to attempt it.

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Having seen Lucy onto the bus for the airport, we headed the next day to round Isla Asinara, off Sardinia’s north-western promontory. It was unclear from the pilot book whether we would be able to get through the inshore Fornelli passage, but as we approached the wind suddenly veered and freshened, making it unwise to attempt such a narrow and shallow channel. Instead we diverted into Stintinto, a village just to the south, and were delighted to find a huge harbour with plenty of space to anchor, although it took us quite a time before we could get the anchor to hold properly. We were not the only people to be caught out, and soon the harbour was full, although not all of them troubled to check their holding. The sight of boats being blown on top of each other provided entertainment for the rest of the evening. Stintinto is a charming place with two separate creeks running deep into the town. One had two small boatyards building traditional dhow-rigged fishing boats, which they now use mainly for local racing. The place was full of colour and was comfortable and unpretentious.

cruising world magazineThe next day the wind had eased sufficiently for us to attempt the Passage. Two sets of intersecting leading marks marked the “deep” water, but since this never gave us more than three metres and often less, it would have been hair raising had it not been such a perfect place to run aground. In traditional Italian style, although anchoring was forbidden in the approaches to the passage, this was universally ignored and dozens of boats were spending the day here. The shallow bottom varied from bright white sand, to dark seaweed-covered rock and the effect in the hard sunlight was a stunning rainbow of colours from deep emerald green to the clearest of turquoise. Fleets of dinghies racing were circling the bay off the private Ancora Yacht Club, and it was all the most cheerful sight, marred only by the gruesome history of Asinara Island itself (it’s home to a rare breed of albino donkeys) which has been variously a quarantine hospital and penal colony. Its promontory is known as Excommunication Point.

cruising world magazineOnce through the passage we headed south past the sheer limestone cliffs of Sardinia’s north-west coast, which is threaded with miles of natural tunnels. The unimaginatively named Neptune’s Grotto is one of the