You can now undertake sections of 'The Way' by boat while sampling the many delights of Galicia
If only I could freeze this moment in time. I’m sailing along the Costa da Morte in Galicia, following a section of the Camino de Santiago. Skipper Federico Fernández-Trapa Fontán – Fico to his friends – seems to fuel the 49-foot yacht with jokes and laughter, while his cousin Tai Gonzalez sings songs about the sea and the Way.
It’s the first live music I’ve heard since lockdown and it’s a perfect moment.
Afterwards we feast on percebes (goose barnacles), bites of the ocean gathered by hardy souls who rappel down cliffs to reach the rocky shores where they grow. Such is the danger involved that percebes are one of the most expensive seafoods in the world.
As a lover of Spain and the Camino, the moment I hear it’s possible to make the pilgrimage ”a vela” (sailing) I know it’s a trip I want to experience, even if I can’t tell my port from my starboard.
Fico is the man who has made it possible. In 2015, he founded Sail the Way, a rally which brings sailors from around Spain and Europe on a voyage along the coast of Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.
The event has two aims; to promote Galicia as a sailing destination and to spread the word that it is now possible to sail the Camino.
The easiest option for taking part is to have your own boat, but it is also possible to charter a boat via a number of companies in Galicia or Basque country.
A pro sailor and nautical event organiser, Fico has seen to it that pilgrims making the journey by boat can receive their Compostela, the official document which proves they have done the Camino.
Sailors must travel 100 nautical miles and walk the last section to Santiago de Compostela to get it, ticking a little boat symbol on their pilgrim’s passport to say they have sailed the Way.
This year the event focused on “mujeres y el mar” (women and the sea) and on encouraging more women to get into sailing.
Sailing champion Ángela Pumariega – who won gold for Spain at the 2012 Olympics in London – skippers one of the boats and it’s a privilege to spend a morning watching her in action, so much so that I pledge to take a basic sailing course back in Ireland.
I have joined the rally at Muxía, a fishing village beyond Finisterre where the sound of screeching gulls pierces the night air. This area was once thought to be the end of the world. Legends and shipwrecks are plentiful on this so-called Coast of Death.
Having previously walked this way, it’s a special pleasure to sail from Muxía, past the iconic Santuário da Virxe da Barca and around the cape of Finisterre.
The trip is taking me from Muxía to Muros, on to A Pobra do Caramiñal, Cabo de Cruz, then to Vilagarcía de Arousa and along the River Ulla to Pontecesures.
The plan is to walk the 25km stage from Padrón to Santiago de Compostela, ending the adventure with a night in the historic and spectacular Hostal dos Reis Católicos in a room overlooking the cathedral.
The parador has important links to the Camino. It was built by Spanish royals as a hospital for sick pilgrims and was effectively a town in itself with its own laws and water supply. To spend time exploring its spaces and learning about its intricate history is a must-do.
Post-lockdown life here is now largely normal, with restaurants and bars able to serve guests inside. A rule imposing the wearing of masks outside has just ended, while safety measures in hotels, shops and restaurants continue to be observed.
But first I must sail. As a novice, living on board takes a little bit of getting used to. In my mind, cliché has triumphed over reality and I have packed entirely unsuitable summer clothes which remain in the suitcase throughout. Fico reminds me that this is not the Balearics with G&Ts on the deck.
Sharing a six-berth boat with three tiny bathrooms, or “heads”, and four other people, I quickly learn to use the marina facilities and imagine the fun I would have with a group of girlfriends on a trip like this.
Sailing in Galicia’s Atlantic waters can be challenging. Day two of the journey from Muros to A Pobra proves this as Fico, Angela and their respective crews navigate four-metre waves and constant lashing rain. Conditions are so tough that novices (that’s me) are asked to stay on land for a few hours, for fear of vomiting episodes and, let’s face it, holy terror.
Time on land gives me the opportunity to explore Galicia’s history and culture. We stop off at Castro de Baroña, one of thousands of Celtic settlements that have been incredibly well-preserved. It’s remarkable to visit a place where our Celtic ancestors lived as far back as the year 1BC, surviving on the same delicious Galician seafood that we enjoy today. Galicia is also dotted with thousands of dolmens, including the Dolmen de Axeitos, which will be of interest to Irish visitors.
Anyone who thinks that sailing the Way isn’t really doing the Camino should think twice – sailing to Santiago de Compostela isn’t always the easy option.
In fact, while we mostly associate the Camino with walking, cycling or even horse-riding, the sea is hugely symbolic in the story of St James. Legend has it that the first Way took place by boat as disciples Theodore and Athanasius brought St James’ corpse by stone boat to Padrón.
For Irish pilgrims, there are many sea links: St Brendan is said to have made the voyage to Santiago de Compostela during his epic seven-year journey. In Medieval times, Irish pilgrims had no option but to sail to Santiago de Compostela – it was easier to get there by boat from Ireland than it was to travel there by land from Madrid.
More recently, between 2014 and 2016, the late poet Danny Sheehy and a small group of men (including Glen Hansard on one leg of the journey) sailed in a traditional currach from Ireland to Santiago de Compostela, a journey that is depicted in The Camino Voyage documentary.
As the wind howls and rain batters the boat on night two of my journey, these are the things I think about in my cosy little cabin before sleeping like a baby.
For less experienced sailors, the technical elements of sailing these waters are offset by calmer conditions in its many rias (described as little fingers of ocean that cut into the land), which are sheltered and have lots of small ports you can easily sail between.
As we sail into Ría de’Arousa, conditions are better. Galicia’s largest ria is home to the second largest mussel farming business in the world, with thousands of platforms dotting the water. We take a trip out to the little island of Cortegada, part of the Atlantic Islands of Galicia national park.
In ancient times, pilgrims stopped off on the island. Today, it’s better known for its laurel forest and Mariscadoras, women whose job it is to pick clams and cockles from the island’s sandy shores. Without realising, I have probably been eating their produce throughout the trip.
We have enjoyed exceptional seafood matched with Ribeiro, Albarino and Monterrei wines in every port along the way with stand-out meals at A’Xarda in Porto do Son, Tira do Cordel on Langosteira beach in Finisterre and Restaurante Rios in the fishing village of O Freixo, which offers us a memorable fine-dining experience for around €60 a head, including wines.
We feast on everything the sea has to offer – razor clams, cockles, mussels, clams, John Dory, bream, sardines, mackerel and percebes – usually caught hours earlier and brought fresh to our table from the port.
But the absolute best thing about sailing the Way with Fico and friends is the great people I meet (both on board and on the walking section from Padrón to Santiago), the sociable reunions at every port, the camaraderie and sheer fun of an event that I will return to – once I’ve taken those sailing lessons and discovered my sea legs.
A sole bagpiper played a lament on the lighthouse rock. What else would you expect at the end of the world? At his feet was a tapestry of Celtic nation flags… Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Manx, Cornish, Breton, and his native Galician.
Griffon vultures were circling above as we climbed steadily on day two of our Camino. The swooping birds didn't so much have their eyes on our meaty - dare I say, toned - calves. They were indulging in a playful flyover because they knew something we didn't.