Med – Elba Island, Italy

Elba Circumnavigation, September 2008

Peter Bisset

Elba is an Italian island about 20 miles off the mainland, famous as a prison island

and as a source of iron ore since Roman times. The flights to Pisa and then the train, bus

and ferry to Elba went smoothly; Italy still has a functioning public transport system,

cheap, efficient and on time. The weather was baking hot, the only worry,

had we packed enough suncream? Having arranged to meet Gaudenzio Coltelli of

the next morning we took an appartment for the night.

Next morning it was wet, cold and windy, our only worry, had we packed enough warm clothing! Gaudenzio was worried about us leaving, predicting bad seas, seeing that we had radios to make our Mayday cheered him up a bit. Ancient fishermen shook their heads and sucked their teeth as we cleared the breakwater at Marciana Marina and set off clockwise with the SW wind. Poor visibility, rumbling thunder, gusty winds and rain followed us as we crossed from headland to headland east along the north of the island, but flying fish a following sea and water at 24C countered the bad weather. We timed our crossing of the entrance into the bay of Portoferraio, not to coincide with the ferries running in and out.

The coast now ran north towards the NE tip of the island, as Gaudenzio had predicted, the wind swinging around the island created a bad sea with steep breaking waves and severe clapotis. The coast seemed to go on and on forever, headland after headland, and we made a tricky surf landing for lunch. An even trickier launch in which maps, pumps, in fact almost anything under the deck elastics was lost, followed by vigorous paddling out to sea, saw us off again.

The visibility had improved and the endless coast now resolved into just a few miles and then a long gap: most of what we had seen was in fact the Italian mainland. The hire boats had little rocker and a fine bow and stern, ideal for straightline paddling and very docile in this sort of sea. With no tidal flow the NE tip of the island had no worse seas than along the coast and the waves surfed us round into calm water out of the wind. Richard G had a bad wrist and a campsite was needed urgently. We found a place in an old quarry just S of Cavo/ St. Bernado, hard lying but within walking distance of the town for a well earnt beer. A wild and wet night.

Next morning the wind had swung round to the E giving us a choppy sea on this E facing side of the island. After stopping for morning coffee at Rio Marina, an old iron ore port busily redefining itself as a tourist destination, the wind dropped and the sea died away. The sun came out and it was warm again for late lunch at Porto Azzuro. This is very much THE marina, yachts the size of cross channel ferries, expensive shops and restaurants and, except for us, chic looking people. The next section of coast had attractive bays and no habitation with several promising campsites, but we were determined to make use of the light E wind to round the SE point of the island as more SW winds were forecast. Nearing the Cape a southerly swell picked up, rounded and green but very large for the short period. In our seas, swell of that size would be well spaced. This was a wild coast with few landing spots. We continued along the coast, now heading North. The swell was breaking in places near the islands and rolling along from behind us, but once past some islands it died away. Finding a campsite proved tricky the only possible place being on a sandy beach in front of beach restaurants at Morcone. Rain all night.

Next morning there was rain at first but it cleared before the refugee camp was entirely cleared away so we could dry out slightly. Once the sun came out it became quite warm, we luxuriated in the warmth. This S side of the island is more developed with beach resorts and long rocky headlands of pillow lava and limestone jutting out between them. The sun brought out some motor boats and yachts and gave us nice views of the mountainous interior. Our destination was Campo and we spent time looking for a campsite. We decided upon P.ta Bardella where an old concrete wharf (WW II?) filled with soil gave a reasonable site. Paddling into Campo to buy water and something to eat, the sun went in and cold rain fell flooding the town. It started to brighten up, but after a few minutes a violent squall from the N hit. The whole place was flooded and our restaurant partially wrecked and flooded as well. They were not expecting anything so ferocious. Two hours later it had passed and we paddled back to our campsite. Andy and Ingrid decided to camp on a sandy beach of Galenza, we camped on the point. Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells took exception to Andy and Ingrid and came out in his boat speeding about and eventually saw us as well, he came close, but the water was too shallow for him to come alongside. Strangely, he hurled abuse at us whilst looking the other way so maybe had some issues. He said he was off to fetch the police, but it was almost dark anyway. In the night the police did come by boat and told off Andy and Ingrid but let them stay, what else could they do? Wild camping is officially illegal but generally tolerated outside of the main tourist season.

Tuesday started dry and sunny so a chance to dry out and thaw out after the cold wet night. Paddling in good conditions along this rocky coast. We stopped at a nice beach at Palombala which would be a good campsite as well. Nice snorkelling. Food and tea. Then off again, but only as far as Cavoli where everyone landed in slight swell for ice creams. This is a popular coast with sunbathers in various states of undress and the sun was out. Nice rocky scenary as we went past P.ta di Fetavaia, finally landing at Le Tombe beach, composed of jasper shingle in every shade of green. We swam and ate and snorkeled, plenty of fish and very clear water. Putting up our tents as the afternoon started to fade. Ingrid had tidied up around the bin and was thanked by a local naturist. Nice soft camping on drifts of zostera leaves like hay on the shingle. Richard B and Russell went up to the road then all the way to Sechetto to find a food shop arriving back well after dark. Starry starry night, a small fire; perfect camping.

A leisurely start along a coast reminiscent of Dorset except for the mountainous interior with cliffs running down to a rocky shore punctuated by picturesque villages. Easy paddling. Early lunch at Chiessi a small town with a steep shingle beach, tricky landing in the swell, but warm so easy to get out of the boat on the water and then wade ashore with the boat. Notices enforced ‘walking slowly and talking softly’. Then on along to Patresi beach near the lighthouse at the NW point of the island, still some swell but easy landing on the S end of the beach. Ate, snorkelled, walked up to the lighthouse. Very very clear water. A lovely section of coast with cliffs and blue water led round to the N coast. S. Andrea was very attractive and busy, so different to the quiet and mainly empty W coast. We looked for somewhere to camp but didn’t find a good place so ended back at Marciana Marina and rented an apartment again, right on the sea front the second floor of a old building.

Elba is about 70Nm around and could easily be done in 4 days of good weather, the record is well under 12 hours! However, as we found, the Med. can be unreasonably rough in even moderate winds so a day of F4 could hold you up. Maybe it is the deep water close inshore or the lack of beaches to absorb the energy.

Thursday we went paddling with Gaudenzio in good weather, he can certainly keep up a good speed. The hire boats were reasonably fast but so lifeless, good for touring but not for messing about in. He informed us belatedly that it is illegal to kayak more than 1km offshore in Italian waters, so we were often breaking the law crossing between headlands.

Friday saw a return to totally lousy weather with strong rain and wind, we walked up to Marciana a lovely mediaeval mountain village and I would have liked to continue up Mte. Capanne, but it was absurdly wet, misty cloudy and windy with thunder and lightening so we walked back, soaked to the skin almost able to surf down the road.

The journey home went as smoothly as the journey out, thanks to Andy for all the organisation and Richard G our leader on the water.

Travel info

Friday 12 September Petersfield – Gatwick 48 miles


London Gatwick (South Terminal) to Pisa (Tuscany), Easyjet flight 5231; dep. 06:00, arr. 09:05

£37.99 per person (incl. taxes and charges, but not additional hold baggage)


from Pisa airport to Campiglia Marittima, thence Piombino 9.60€ (journey time c. 2 hours depending on stop-over at Campiglia)


Italy to Elba (Piombino – Portoferraio) 11€ each way (ferries hourly, journey time 1 hour)


from Portoferraio to Marciana Marina 17 km

Kayak hire

150 € a week Kayaks from