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This page describes general characteristics of the Mediterranean (weather, when to go, yacht support), then gives broad comparisons of the main cruising areas - West Med, Adriatic, East Med, The Levant and N Africa coasts.
In the warm and tide-less waters of the Mediterreanean pilotage is generally very easy. In many regions, the cruising season is as long as you want. Magnificent scenery, live volcanoes, well preserved relics of early civilisations, bustling cities full of character, easy access to fresh food, and a laid back approach to the pace of life are great attractions. Of course, afternoon heat doesn't encourage work in the more southern regions. Siesta intervenes from 14:00 to 17:00. A slower pace of life geared to agricultural economies also makes some visitors impatient. Away from tourist areas, English is not widely spoken. However, a lower cost of living is common.
It's best to think of the Mediterranean as having only two sorts of weather - settled, and unsettled - and four areas where predictable strong winds often occur.
Settled weather is nice, with sunny skies, maybe a bit of high cloud, and maybe periods of moderate visibility. Forecasts are reliable, and local variations due to diurnal effects or terrain are easily allowed for. Daily heating of the larger land masses creates some brisk afternoon sea breezes; these will usually veer to give winds along the coast as though there is a low over the land. When winds are stronger, expect very fierce gusts to blow down the lee of higher ground or around high headlands.
Unsettled weather is when there's significant heavy cloud around for a day or four. Area forecasts may then hide major variations, when some very sharp and violent wind shifts may occur, often associated with thunderstorms or fronts, including the occasional tornado. Quick access to a well sheltered harbour is important in unsettled conditions, as is the ability to reef a sailboat quickly.
Strong Wind Areas. Winds above F5 rarely last long in settled weather. Exceptions are
Tidal streams are only significant in the Gibraltar straits, in the Messina straits between Italy and Sicily, around the north of Evia in Greece, and in the narrows between Evia and the mainland (only navigable at slack water). Tidal range reaches a peak of 1m in the north Adriatic, and 1.8m in south Tunisia, but is hardly detectable elsewhere. Currents flow from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, reaching 4kts in the narrows.
Summer. Plus or minus two or three weeks, summer lasts from late May to mid October, with a couple of weeks shaved off each end along the more northern coastlines - France, Adriatic and N Greece. Settled weather is the summer norm, and unsettled weather the exception. For all except the peak months (Mid July to late August) peak day temperatures are usually comfortable, from 22C to 30C. In landlocked areas, peak season, a couple of periods lasting up to 4 days or so with air temperatures 38C or above should be expected - uncomfortably warm for some people. Sea temperatures only exceed 26C in enclosed waters, making such heat easier to tolerate when living aboard.
Between Summer and Winter. There's a transitional month at the end of season when the frequency of unsettled weather increases; and the same in spring as the settled weather takes over from winter. Water temperatures in spring drop to 18C in southern areas, 16C in more northern areas.
Winter. In winter (say, 1 Nov to late March), unsettled weather is common, with day temperatures around 10C to 18C. Frost is unlikely except in northenmost areas. Winters in the N Adriatic and Sea of Marmaris (where there can be snow) and N Aegean are chilly and wet. In unsettled weather, easy access to a well sheltered harbour is vital, since truly vicous winds sometimes blow. But periods of settled weather are reliably forecast, and provide fine cruising conditions, with peak day temperatures often exceeding 20C. There are no crowds, although berths may not always be easy to find as few boats are on the move. Some tourist areas really do go to sleep, and facilities, shops and restaurants in smaller places will be shut. The transition from bustling high season August to empty September can be astonishingly abrupt.
Peak Seasons. In these attractive conditions popular parts of the west Mediterranean and Adriatic become crowded and expensive, especially for the peak six weeks from mid July to the end of August. Marina prices in the West Med can put the Solent to shame - if you can find a berth. Throughout the Mediterranean, noise can be intrusive near popular tourist destinations. Discos can start around midnight and go on until dawn or later. Even away from the obvious areas, local feast days may blast fireworks and loud music from dusk to dawn. In the more popular cruising areas, fleets of charter boats, handled with varying levels of skill, add both entertainment and worry as they compete for berthing space and puzzle over rights of way.
Fitting out for Med advises on boat equipment and preparation, and mooring techniques peculiar to the Mediterranean.
When planning passages to and through the Mediterranean, an excellent on-line reference is the RCC web site, which gives distances between key ports, brief details about those ports and descriptions of the current pilot books they publish for each area.
There are four options for moving your boat between N Europe and the Mediterranean: shipping by land or sea; motoring through inland waterways; sailing around the Atlantic coasts; or employing a delivery crew.
Yacht support varies widely between regions, with the best facilities in Palma (Mallorca), Malta, S France, N Italy, the Adriatic, West Greece (around Preveza) around Athens, SW Turkey and Istanbul; in fact, anywhere where chartering is common. Away from these areas electronic equipment support is weak. Everywhere, diesel engineers and GRP/wood/metal fabricators are easily available. Value for money away from Spain, France and Italy is good, though the expertise is often agricultural (that's not an insult!) and English language limited. Wooden vessel skills are widely available and excellent value for money, especially in the eastern Mediterranean. Sailmakers? Patchy, you might say, away from the centres, but local awning manufacturers can often help out.
When approaching beaches used by many swimmers, look out for buoys marking swimming areas. If there are no buoys, the law in many countries (Spain, Italy and Greece as examples, and Portugal too, though it's not in the Med!) does not allow anchoring or manouevring under motor within 500m of swimming areas. Additionally, anchoring is not permitted in Posidonia (sea grass) reserves on grass, where buoys should be used instead. You may be asked to move if anyone reasonably complains, or if an authority believes there is any danger. Fines have been levied for persistent infringements.
Smart crowds decorate the sophisticated but crowded north coasts and islands of the west Mediterranean, where the cost of living (and mooring) is similar to UK. The rewards? Open air life, café culture, beautifully presented old towns, superb cuisine, fine wines, fine beaches. Yacht support is good, with many marinas, but some marina prices are very high. Yes, some unattractive developments have also evolved to serve mass tourism - but these are easily avoided. Approach swimming beaches with care, and keep outside buoyed swimming areas. Lacking any markings, manouevring under motor or anchoring closer than 500m where there are swimmers can be a (finable) offence. Mooring in Posidonia (sea grass) reserves is also tightly controlled.
The Adriatic should not be missed. The fine weather season is shorter by a month than other Med locations, and powerful bora winds sometimes interrupt sailing in the north. Italy, along the west and north shores, is strictly a coast of passage, with few anchorages, though day sailing along the coast from marina to marina (or port) is possible. Venice should not be missed. The 10nm Slovenia coast is still within the EU. Croatia is not, so be prepared for paperwork. Croatia's Istrian peninsula, a holiday playground, leads to the superb Dalmatian coast with its magnificently preserved old cities and ports and national parks. Sheltered by parallel rows of long islands, this is flat water cruising with hundreds of safe anchorages, some 50 marinas, lots of boats, rather mediocre food and cheaper living than Italy. En route to Greece lie Montenegro and Albania, both interesting visits, both outside the EU.
Greece, although within the EU and Schengen zone, uses a script un-intelligible to north Europeans. Luckily, English is widely spoken, and visitors made very welcome. Cruising is cheaper than in the Western Mediterranean, but uncertainty about regulations and how they are applied is normal. There are very few full service marinas, several part finished marinas, and hundreds of cheap or free quaysides. The unique charm of tying to one of these and becoming part of village life easily makes up for the lack of marinas. With thousands of miles of deeply indented coastlines and over sixty islands (ranging from the primitive to the height of sophistication) there's enormous variety. No passages need be longer than 70nm. The more sheltered Inland Ionian and Athens regions are crowded with yacht traffic in peak season. Even in these busy spots it's possible to escape the crowds. In more challenging areas there are relatively few yachts. So Greece remains one of the world’s great cruising areas, relatively undeveloped, one which would take years to explore thoroughly.
Turkey, outside the EU, is well organised and surprisingly green and fertile compared with Greece. Magnificent mountains back most of the highy indented coastline. Byzantine, Roman, Greek and even pre-Hellenic ruins are everywhere. Turkey has adapted to make its visitors comfortable; sophisticated marinas and world class hotels (with world class prices!) sit close to dirt roads, hamlets, and herds of goats. Everywhere, slender minarets call the faithful to prayer - a sharp wake-up at 0500. Unusually for a Muslim country, Latin script has beeen adopted. In quieter spots, food is good value, beautifully presented by courteous owners. With these attractions, major tourist destinations have been developed. Sections of the south west coast have been badly scarred with large quadrilaterals of dense, low rise house developments. For cruising, although there are large numbers of anchorages, it's no longer easy to find empty ones in the south west. But yacht tourism is well organised, support is excellent and good value, and the country is a good wintering choice.
Except for Tunisia, these are all coasts or ports of passage, rather than cruising grounds. Cyprus offers good wintering in an Anglicised culture. Travelling south then west along Levant and North Africa coasts brings a large change in culture. Expect un-intelligible script, and tight control of yacht movement. The reward is the chance to see some magnificent and little visited ruins from the earliest civilisations. Egypt and westwards the cost of living drops sharply, and you enter the Baksheesh land. Tunisia is a tourist and yacht friendly destination, with fine winter weather in the south - good for winter cruising or layup. Living conditions outside obvious tourist developments are fairly primitive. Morocco also accepts yacht visitors.
Revised Oct 2012.