The Tramontane: a northern wind ideal for experienced sailors and windsurfers

The Tramontane: a northern wind ideal for experienced sailors and windsurfers

The Tramontane is a wind that can devastate your sails or fill them with pleasure, and can be encountered in various forms throughout the Mediterranean.

The Tramontane is a violent and powerful cold wind that has earned the dubious distinction of being both a nuisance and an environmentalist. For despite its destructive nature, it benefits marine lagoons by driving stagnant waters seaward, thus cleaning and oxygenating the bays. But how does the Tramontane, first recorded by Marco Polo in the 13th century, affect us while sailing the Mediterranean?

The Tramontane is a north wind without a distinct place to call home, or rather with countless homes. While we associate the Bora with Croatia, the Mistral with France and the Meltemi with Greece, the Tramontane can't seem to decide where it belongs, so strikes everywhere just in case. France, Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Greece all have one of their own and in many regions, it's virtually impossible to distinguish it from other winds.

How the Tramontane forms

The Tramontane is one of those winds where both the climate and the unique terrain play an equally important role in its formation. It occurs when an area of high pressure meets an area of low pressure — the winds of the two weather systems, rotating in opposite directions, meet to generate a powerful flow of air.

As cyclones (low-pressure system) and anticyclones (high-pressure system) can be large enough to span entire countries, the resultant meteorological conditions can easily extend over Europe's highest mountain ranges. As a result, the current begins to gather up masses of icy air in the Alps, pushing it southwards towards the Mediterranean.

Cold air is heavier, and the more it accumulates in one place, the greater the force which gravity pulls it down the mountainsides — reaching speeds of up to 200 kilometres an hour (although 100 km/h is more usual). This is where the terrain comes into play. The cold wind sweeps into the corridor between the Pyrenees and the French Massif Central, where it can accelerate to hurricane intensity. At least, this is the case for the Spanish Tramontana. The name Tramontane originally comes from the Latin transmontanus, meaning 'beyond/across the mountains', referring the Alps in the north of Italy.

Sailing and weather: read other articles on this topic

Regional varieties of the Tramontane wind in southern Europe

As we've already mentioned the Tramontane can be easily confused with the other winds that enter the Mediterranean from the European mainland, that are often born from identical conditions. The name and exact direction of the wind also vary from country to country. So, how exactly do these winds manifest in popular holiday destinations and what to look out for?

France — the Tramontane is confused with the Mistral

Because they cover roughly the same region, the Tramontane is often mistaken for the Mistral in France. Both winds accelerate in the corridor between the mountains and they even share a common mountain range — the French French Massif Central. Although the Mistral forms to the north of it and the Tramontane to the south, they are still close enough to cause confusion and either strike together or immediately after each other. One clear difference is that they differ in intensity and duration (the Mistral lasts up to a week and the Tramontane for a day).

If the Mistral reigns, experienced sailors can use it as a turbo boost to sail southward, as long as they keep an eye out for the Spanish Tramontane from the west. In more extreme conditions like these, it is worth considering a life jacket with more buoyancy. In France, the Tramontane mainly affects the Languedoc-Roussillon region, which is the closest to the border with Spain. Here, the most powerful Tramontane in France has been measured in the towns of Sète and Perpignan, at 110 knots.

Spain — the Tramontana predominantly affects Catalonia

Catalonia experiences regular visits from the Tramontana. It is through here that this fierce wind enters the sea, reaching as far as the windward regions of Mallorca and Menorca and can affect both autumn and spring sailing. According to the locals, the Tramontane colours the sky an intense blue and is thought to have a negative effect on the human psyche (this is also the local belief about other Mediterranean winds — especially the Jugo/Sirocco). Those not in their right mind are even said to be "touched by the tramontana" or tocat per la tramuntana (as Salvador Dali was often referred to).

Historical marker Nord Tramontana in Vatican City, Italy.

Italy — the Tramontana affects the mainland as well as the islands

During the winter months, the Ligurian Sea, the west coast of Italy and the north of Corsica are swept by the Tramontane (sometimes called garigliano) from the Alps and the Apennines. Potentially reaching speed of 70 km/h, this cool fresh wind is strongest before sunrise. On the other side of the peninsula, in Venice and Trieste, the situation is quite different. The cities, the nearby Slovenian coastline, and western Istria are affected by the Tramontane from the Slovenian Alps, which can drive it up to 200 km/h, a speed equal to a medium Mistral or Bora.

But the Tramontane also influences life on the small islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, such as Capri. Although the locals say that its "bark is worse than its bite" (because it creates waves that do not have much effect on sailing), if you get caught by it on Capri, we recommend heading to the south of the island. While the northern half of this Italian island is exposed to cold winds and poor weather when it strikes, the southern, leeward half remains warm and sunny. In fact, it is the cloudless sky and sunny weather that can distinguish the Tramontane from other winds.

Stormy weather on the beach

Croatia — the Tramontana is a precursor to the Bora

Croatians associate the Tramontane (tramontana) with a change in weather. Commonly due to high pressure, it occurs on sunny days without a single cloud in the sky. On the western coast of Istria, and the southern Adriatic, it easily turns into a Bora, or at least helps it get started, which means it may last several days rather than just one. However, in general, it is the west coast of Istria and southern Dalmatia that tend to have the weakest Bora winds. Just keep in mind that while the leeward sides of the islands facing away from the mainland are sufficiently protected from the Tramontane, this is not the case with the Bora. You can also tell the difference by the fact that the Tramontane is a steady and not gusty like the Bora.

Greece — the Tramountana is confused with the Meltemi

In Greece, the Tramountana is said to blow from the northern mainland into the Aegean Sea. It is a strong, dry and cold wind, caused by the collision of a high-pressure system over the Greek mainland with a depression over western Turkey. Confusingly, the same can be said of the famed Meltemi winds. No matter what, both winds are ideal for windsurfing, kiteboarding and sailing — although we only recommend sailing in conditions up to a maximum of 4 degrees on the Beaufort scale and for experienced crews, as both winds can make the relatively narrow Aegean Sea very choppy. As the coastline is rugged and there are numerous islands, you never know when you'll be hit by a gust of wind.

Windsurfing in the wind

YACHTING.COM TIP: Despite what people think, the Mediterranean can be a challenging place for sailors. And we're not just talking about the occasional scrape in a crowded marina. The more often we sail, the more we prefer to take out deposit insurance, which covers us both in the event of minor mishaps and when the wind batters our sails. For more information take a look at our article on the most common reasons for losing your deposit.

How to sail on the Tramontane

Less experienced skippers should definitely be aiming to survive their first Tramontane safely tied up to a dock in a marina. Although it is no match for the Bora or Sirocco/Jugo in strength, it can still catch you off guard and cause you trouble. This is especially a problem in the open sea, where, like the Mistral, it is usually powerful, creating waves over 5 metres high.

As it descends from the mountains, it brings unpleasantly icy air. This, in turn, drives the warmer coastal waters further from land, meaning that sea temperatures can drop to 18 degrees in summer and even 12 degrees in winter. In such cases, it's easy to forget you're actually on the Mediterranean and cases of hypothermia are not uncommon when sailors underestimate this. The right clothing will protect you from this, so check out our article on what yachting apparel to take for some ideas.

For experienced crews, however, the Tramontane offers spirited sailing in strong, steady winds without unpredictable gusts. Of course, crossings like this require plenty of experience, as well as having a backup plan, such as a wind-sheltered anchorage to seek refuge in an emergency. Prior knowledge of the local waters, land, and weather conditions is essential.

Sailboat at sea, blue water and white yacht in tropical ocean waters

Anchoring during the Tramontane

Just as the Tramontane can put wind in your sails when sailing offshore, it can make heading back to shore difficult or even impossible. It will tend to push you back out to open sea, especially in regions where the wind leaves its natural corridors and joins the sea, such as the Balearic Sea, the Ligurian Sea, the Gulf of Venice and Trieste, southern Dalmatia and the Aegean.

Given that the winds are predominantly from the north and north-west, prioritise potentially more sheltered ports in the south and south-west. Anchorages on the landward side, on the other hand, should be avoided. The wind might drive you too forcefully into bays and marinas. 

There are, however, exceptions. The town of Hvar and its surroundings, for example, should provide shelter due to their location. However, the Tramontane here generates enough swell (a series of waves at regular intervals that travel towards the coast at a fixed frequency and, by brushing against the seabed, rise up and begin breaking) to make port manoeuvres and sleep on the boat problematic. The harbours of Povlija and Sumartin on the north-eastern point of Brač, on the other hand, are reasonably well-protected from the Tramontane.

YACHTING.COM TIP: When choosing anchorages in Croatia, keep in mind that the Tramontane is often a sign that the Bora is coming. And while you may be safe from the Tramontane on the leeward sides of islands, the Bora will cross the entire island as if it wasn't there. For tips on safe anchorages, see our article on the Bora and check out the legendary pilot book "777 Harbours & Anchorages".

Monaco harbour in stormy weather

How to predict the Tramontane

Sunny and cloudless weather, caused by a high-pressure system, generally makes the Tramontane difficult to predict. In addition, it has a reputation as a wind that brings change. In Catalonia, where it gathers in a similar way to the neighbouring Mistral and takes on larger proportions, it can be predicted in advance and more accurately. However, it is different in other countries and even if you get indications that extremely bad conditions are imminent, you often can't tell if it's the Tramontane or the Bora, or Tramontane or Meltemi. Practically speaking, it doesn't really matter as, either way, you'll have to adjust your plans to the conditions.

So, whether it's the Tramontane or not, always keep a close eye on the weather forecast and check weather apps (the app has always proven most helpful for us). Isobaric maps of the area can tell you a lot but the most reliable forecasts is still the local weather forecasts on the radio, TV or over the radio. It also helps to see how other sailors are reacting to the weather — if everyone seems to be easing into the harbour, it may be time to follow the crowd. You can also learn how to predict the weather by reading the clouds.

Could the Tramontane threaten your sailing holiday?

As a cold wind descending the mountains, the Tramontane is at full force in the winter months, and occasionally in the fall and spring. During the peak sailing season, it is barely mentioned. However, thanks to climate change, in recent years we have seen weather in the Adriatic and the rest of the Mediterranean that we didn't think possible. As a result, more inexperienced crews may be tied up in port for a day at most, but experienced mariners will revel in sailing it.

The Tramontane can churn the open sea into waves several metres high. But they are not as short as those of the Mistral, making them impossible to manoeuvre in. It won't surprise you with treacherous wind gusts like the Bora but it's still important to have respect for it and never to overestimate your sailing skills.

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FAQ Tramontane: how this wind will affect your sailing