Nous Sommes En France
It’s been an exciting few days for the Gledas, we’ve been almost becalmed, we’ve been aground, we’ve bashed through steep breaking seas, we’ve seen 16knots on the GPS speedo and we’ve now spent two days bouncing around on a mooring in Force 6/7 winds, yes it’s fair to say that finally we’re properly sailing.
I’ll have to tell the story in reverse as my brain is only just beginning to process all the experiences we’ve been through so we’ll start with where we are now. It’s a little place called Sainte Evette which is right next door to the only slightly larger inland harbour of Audierne. We’re now in Southern Brittany and as we turned the bows East after clearing the Raz de Sein the character of the coastline changed dramatically. Gone were the outlying saw toothed rocks of the North, they’d been replaced with steep too grass topped cliffs and a much softer landscape.
We arrived here on Monday 8th June after the most exhilarating 55nm of sailing I’ve ever experienced. Gleda and her crew were tested as never before and I’m pleased to say that the careful planning and preparation that had gone before paid off in spades.
First the stats:
Passage Distance: 54.75nm
Passage Time: 8hr 18min
Average Speed: 6.58 knots
Max Speed: 16 knots
Our passage plan meant that in effect we had to box the compass so far as courses were concerned and with a F5/6 NE blowing I knew that for some of the time at least we’d be in for a bumpy ride. As is so often the case passage making means taking a bit of pain to benefit from a lot of gain and so it was here. Our route took us through the Chenal du Four inside the Isle of Ouessant, down past the entrance to the Rade de Brest, on through the narrow Raz de Sein and then a further 10 nm round the corner to Sainte Evette. Strict timings and sailing usually make poor bedfellows but on this leg there was no choice, either we got them right or we’d have to turn round and beat back to our departure point.
The reason for the strict timetable was simple. As the tide ebbs and flows huge amounts of water are squeezed through the narrow gaps between mainland France and the outlying islands, not only does this create tidal streams running at anything up to 11 knots but the shoaling seabed throws up eddies and overfalls that can build large confused and breaking seas. This can be the case even with wind and tide running together but put them against each other and your day could well be ruined. Our plan was to time our trip so as to ride this tidal conveyor belt SW with the NE wind pushing us from behind, we had a 5.5 hour window of fair tide to cover the 35 odd miles of potential danger and although I’d pre-planned some escape routes I really didn’t want to put them to the test.
Our first major waypoint lay abeam of Le Four lighthouse at the entrance to the Chenal de Four, we needed to be there by slack water at 10am so as to be in the optimum position for jumping on that conveyor South. We had some 15nm to cover from our mooring in L’Aber Benoit so we were up at the crack of dawn and by 7am we were motoring down river towards the entrance. I knew that we’d be in for a bit of a bashing as we made our way out, the wind was almost on the nose and as the pilot book had warned the NE direction was pushing bigger and bigger swells into the entrance, we had no choice but to take it though as we motored into them at 4 knots following a zig zag track from buoy to buoy through the narrow channel. Soon though we were able to turn to port in slightly clearer water and with the sails up and engines raised we really began to pick up speed. We covered the distance to Le Four in half the time I’d anticipated as ‘Gleda’ regularly hit double digit speeds, it was an adrenaline pumping downhill blast, it was a little too exciting at times, particularly for Gail and there were a few occasions when I too thought things might be getting a bit out of hand, Jake was loving it though as he switched between sail trimming and filming video. I just hung onto the wheel and tried to steer a steady course something I found increasingly hard as ‘Gleda’ started surfing down some of the swells.
As an aside we realised later that the steering drum behind the wheel was slipping on the shaft so that the rudders weren’t always doing what the wheel was asking them to do, I’ve now rectified this by drilling right through the drum and shaft and through bolting. Anyway back to the action, now and again we were passing over shallower areas of water that threw up some very confused seas and at times ‘Gleda’ would drop into a bit of a hole and then come up like a dog shaking itself after getting wet. Water came sluicing up over the foredecks and several times it was forced upwards between the aft side of the centre beam and the forward side of the engine boxes causing a sheet of water to push up the battery box lids like the opening sluices of a canal lock gate. This happened as Jake was sat alongside the pod on the port side filming on his little Go-Pro. We dropped into a trough, water lifted up the starboard side battery box lid, then the port side and immediately afterwards the forward beam slammed into a wave and sent a huge gopher over the entire deck. Gail and I were protected by the deckpod screen but Jake copped a face full, hilarity ensued.
The good news is that he captured the whole thing on video and sometime soon you’ll get to see for yourselves. It’s worth mentioning at this point that Jake is making a super high quality vid of our adventures while he’s aboard and if any of you have watched his other videos on www.barefootboatbums.com you’ll know that it’ll be a video well worth watching. If you haven’t already done so I urge you to go and check the site out. Once again it’s www.barefootboatbums.com
Sorry I keep getting sidetracked, anyway after the hilarity died down I put my sensible head on (yes I do have one) and realised that if we continued as we were then either something was going to break or the batteries were going to get drowned, it struck me that we really out to be slowing the boat down by reefing. A quick check of the navigation however showed us to be rapidly approaching our Le Four waypoint after which we could again turn to port and so bring the wind and waves more over the quarter, we’d arrived over an hour ahead of slack water despite sailing into a foul tide for an hour but with the flood easing I had no qualms about pushing on, within the hour the stream would turn and we’d be away.
In some respects the next 5 hours were a bit of an anti-climax, we hit all our waypoints early and on the button, we creamed along at near double digits most of the time and boy what a change it made to see the landmarks actually moving past at speed rather than staying in view for hour after hour. We did go through some areas of disturbed water but nothing compared to what had gone before but now and again the wind would gust up near to F7 and ‘Gleda’ would take off. At the end of the trip my GPS showed a maximum speed of 15.48 knots over the ground, Jakes little GPS plotter showed a maximum of 17.6 knots. I don’t know which is right but I’m not anticipating our floating home to be moving at those speeds again anytime soon!
In between the gusts there was pleanty of time to enjoy the spectacular sights of this part of the Brittany coast, the Isle of Ouessant is described in the pilot book as looking like a mighty ship hull down on the horizon and so it does, there are numerous massive stone lighthouses along the way, sat on dark forbidding rocks, looking closely at areas of seemingly clear water, points of rock could be seen sticking up with white foaming water swirling about their bases. If you’ve ever seen one of those large photo posters of a lighthouse being enveloped by huge waves the chances are it was taken on this part of the Brittany coast, I really can’t imagine being anywhere near the place when a Winter storm sweeps in.
Isle De Ouessant off to starboard
By 11.00am we were sliding past La Fourmi buoy which marked the exit of the Chanel de Four and the land dropped away to port as we started to cross the huge bay leading to the Rade de Brest. Some of you might have read my account of losing ‘Mor Gwas’ all those years ago and as I stared across the water towards Brest I couldn’t help wondering if she’s still there somewhere giving pleasure to some new owner or if she’s long since been broken up, the life-changing events of those days are still in my mind today as ‘Gleda’ is moored less than 15 miles from Le Gulivenec which is where the fishing boat L’Zephir bought me ashore after abandoning ship. So much has changed since then but the sea remains the same. Just abovethis keyboard, screwed to the aft bulkhead, sits the hand carved nameboard I unscrewed from Mor Gwas’s washboard in July 1984. I’ll never forget that lovely little boat, she looked after me to the end and leaving her was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Today though my sadness is eased by the thought that she made me the person who’s sitting here, the guy that built a boat and found a way back to the sea, the guy that’s doing it right this time.
Wow, sorry, that got a bit heavy there for a while but I needed to get that off my chest, where were we? Right, OK, next up was the Raz de Sein. Once again we were aiming for what seemed a ridiculously narrow gap passing just to starboard of the squat solid La Plate lighthouse, at less than a mile wide and not much more in length the Raz really is a squeeze point but one that simply couldn’t be avoided, it is in effect the gate to The South. Once again it was a little anticlimactic although the water could be seen bubbling and churning away not far from our bows. We were through within 30 minutes and once again turning to port to start beating against the same wind we’d already motored against, run and reached with. The gusts had picked up and with ‘Gleda’ pointing better that she’d ever done we were able to just lay our course straight to the approach waypoint just off Audierne.
La Place Lighthouses marking the Raz de Sein passage
By 3.30pm the engines were off and we were secured to a visitors mooring feeling very very satisfied with ourselves. We’d done it, we’d passed another big test and now La Coruna and Spain beckoned, a mere 330 miles SSW away with nothing in between except a lot of water.
To be honest our first impressions of Sainte Evette weren’t that good, the pilot book I’m using is 4 years old and it seems the place has gone downhill since it was written. We dinghed ashore that evening in anticipation of showers and something to eat but ended up with neither and only a cold beer in compensation. The NE wind has blown consistently at F5/6 since we arrived 48 hours ago and isn’t forecast to ease until tomorrow. Jake ventured ashore for an explore yesterday but Gail and I have stayed aboard, hopefully tomorrow we’ll be able to get ashore and sort out fuel, water and re-provisioning. I’m thinking we want to be heading South at the weekend.
The harbour at Sainte Evette, Gleda moored second from left
Jake checking out the water temperature (cold!)
Anyway I’m telling this story backwards aren’t I so let’s rewind the clock back to Thursday 4th June and our departure from Alderney. With 120 miles to run and a departure time of midday it was always going to be another overnighter but the forecast of E or W 4/5 should have meant a decent passage time, once again though the fickle winds combined with the dastardly tides to turn it into another marathon.
Passage Distance: 139.49nm
Passage Time: 28hrs
Average Speed: 4.67 knots
Max Speed: 10.4 knots
Our departure time was once again dictated by tides, once out of Braye Harbour we needed to turn SW and down through The Swinge which is the tidal race running down the West side of Alderney, with a tidal stream of 6/8 knots it’s another obstacle that can’t be fought by a sailboat, so with Jake and his kit aboard we dropped off the mooring after an early lunch and motored out past the breakwater. The first hours of the trip were fantastic, The Swinge was kind, the sun shone, the wind blew fair and as the silhouette of Alderney disappeared astern it was replaced with those of Guernsey, Sark and Herm off our port bow, those too soon faded though and once again we sailed along with a 360′ horizon. Jake and I had a play with Lewis the self steering and after a while we succeeded in getting him helming for nearly an hour as we ran downwind with the main and foresails goose-winged. Now and again though he’d lose the plot and we’d have to take control but it was an encouraging start.
During our stay at L’Aber Benoit we made some small modifications that should make a huge improvement but I’ll write a dedicated post on the subject once we’ve got him working properly. Anyway after a delicious evening meal of pre-cooked chilli Gail decided to retire below to her bunk whilst Jake and I stood 2 hour watches overnight. As darkness fell the wind fell with it and for the rest of the night we did the best we could with light and variable winds but progress was painfully slow and hard work. I was on watch at dawn as the lighthouse off Les Sept Isles morphed out of the distant milky horizon by which time the light wind was bang on the nose forcing me to tack back and forth across our rhumb line course. By the time Jake came on watch I was thoroughly pissed off not to say totally befuddled. With the distant lighthouse the only point of reference I’d pretty much sussed the direction of our two windward tacks but the plotter kept showing us going the other direction, back towards Alderney at 2 knots. I even went below to check the other plotter convinced there was something wrong with Jakes little Garmin we’d fitted in the pod. When the main plotter gave mne the same info I just couldn’t compute it until Jake sussed what was happening. Our eyes were telling us we were sailing along in one direction but the hidden reality was that we were actually moving in the opposite direction pushed by a strong foul tide. The GPS was of course telling the truth, we were going backwards. I’d been tacking back and forth for two hours and we were now 15 miles further away than when I’d started. I like to think I’d have solved the puzzle myself at some point but all credit to Jake how with the benefit of 2 hours sleep and a younger brain got there first.
Well we fought for a while longer but when Gail got up expecting to see L’Aber Benoit on the bows I had to admit that we were still a long long way off.
Ultimately we admitted defeat and dropped the engines on, we motored for 6 or 7 hours dead on our course and straight into the wind. I felt bad, I should have factored in the tide, I should have planned better, I should have had a plan ‘B’. At that point though there was only one thing to do and we did it, and, after a careful approach through the various navigational hazards of the L’Aber Benoit approach, we motored up the river and picked up a mooring just off Stellach quay in a peaceful wooded valley just after 5.00pm Friday. After something to eat we all slept the sleep of the dead until the following morning.
The pilot book warned that L’Aber Benoit was very very quiet, even listing the many facilities the place lacked. It was no surprise and just what we needed to recover from our long passage. I’d fueled the boat fully before leaving Alderney and although we’d knocked a big hole in it I figured we’d got plenty for the next leg South making any expeditions for supplies unnecessary. Out of the cool breeze the day was quite warm and so we just chilled out and relaxed, taking in our beautiful surroundings. Just after lunch as the Spring tide ebbed away fast we realised that a huge unmarked oyster farm was appearing out of the water not far astern of us. Although the pilot mentioned them there were no specific locations given and neither were they marked on the charts. I thanked the Universe that I’d decided we’d pick up a mooring rather than anchor because the spot I’d have chosen would have been right on top of them.
As the tide ebbed further however ‘Gleda’ started to list to starboard more and more and soon through the clear water we could see that the port keel was sitting nicely on top of some solid looking rocks. For the next few hours we pondered the logic of laying mooring trots over underwater rocks and how embarrasing the situation would have been had we been sailing a deep keeled monohull rather than a shallow draught catamaran. Knowing that the strong flood tide would soon be returning with the wind behind it, and in order for ‘Gleda’ not to be pushed further aground as she floated, I got a long warp flaked down in the dinghy and ran it out to another mooring buoy downstream from the starboard quarter. With this line pulled taut we were able to hold ‘Gleda’ in position as she re-floated and then warp her up to the more distant morring top avoid a repetition. So be warned, if you ever find yourself in L’Aber Benoit I’d suggest you go in at low water so you can see what’s what! Anyway no damage done and another lesson learned.
The following day we dinghed ashore for half and hour for a quick look round the quay, it was pretty but, as the book said, very very quiet. Apart from a couple of shouted greetings with passing dinghies we spoke to no one, no harbourmaster, no customs, nothing, there were no fees to pay and even here on visitors moorings in Sainte Evette we’ve not yet had any contact with officialdom nor have we had to pay anything. We’ve flown the French courtesy flag for nearly a week now but to all intents and purposes we’re not officially here. An interesting comparison to be made with arriving here by any other means of transport eh?
Anyway I’m thinking I’ve prattled on for far too long now and if you’re still reading then you have my respect and admiration. Many thanks once again for all the positive and supportive comments, they act as a great incentive for me to continue with my writing. I can already see a new post-build blogging pattern emerging as we move around from place to place with only sporadic internet connectivity, my posts will unavoidably be further apart but I’ll do my best to make sure they cover all that’s occurred since the last one. I said last time that the next one may well be from La Coruna, I was wrong of course, so for now I’ll just say thanks for reading and I’ll be back to you from somewhere whenever I can.