Summer Cruise 2002 - Portland to Southern Brittany
Account by John Perry
Red blobs are places we stayed at least one night
During late summer of 2002 we had an opportunity to take a longer than useual holiday and traveled by sailing dingy from the UK to Southern Brittany following the route shown in the map above.
We chose Portland as a start point as much as anything because the sailing centre there can offer long term parking for car and boat trailer at reasonable cost. It is also a bit nearer to the channel islands than most other south coast ports, although if the wind is from the SW then Salcombe in Devon is worth considering. The photo below shows our boat loaded up and just ready to set out from the sailing centre in Portland harbour. The big multistory buildings in the background are naval barracks. I was surprised to learn that they will probably be demolished soon, now that the naval base at Portland has closed no alternative use has been found for these modern buildings which appear to be in good condition.
The channel crossing from Portland to Alderney was not too bad, I think it was the 9th time I have sailed my boat across the channel and probably about the quickest crossing time. For most of the passage we were sailing at between 4 and 5 knots. We would have completed the trip in daylight hours had we been sensible and made an early start but due to various last minute jobs which should have been done earlier it was after midday when we actually got underway in Portland harbour, hence we arrived in Alderney feeling very tired in the early hours of the morning.
Arriving in the dark at Alderney we were keen to find a berth quickly so that we could snatch a few hours sleep before daybreak, hence we tied up to the pontoon you see in the foreground in the photo. It was a bit of a surprise to wake up with the sun shining and look out of the tent to find that we were moored to a buoy in the harbour! It turned out that the pontoon is only for boats up to 4m length. Since our boat is 4.5m the harbour master had untied our boat and towed it away while we were still asleep. Not that we minded too much, I expect if we had remained on the pontoon we would have been disturbed by yacht tenders coming and going.
After a day of rest in Alderney we sailed to Jersey, landing at Rozel bay, picture above. The pleasant drying harbour at Rozel bay was not shown on our chart but we spotted it as we sailed a few hundred yards off the east shore of Jersey. We went for an evening stroll and found a campsite with a shop selling Coleman camping gaz cylinders. As it happened this was a fortunate find since we had just discovered that our adaptor gadget which was supposed to convert French Gaz cylinders to the Coleman connection just did not work. I was aware that the French appear to have a boycott on any make of camping stove other than Gaz, so in the morning Josephine walked up through the woods to buy four Coleman cylinders. I thought that was a bit excessive but since we used nearly one a week they did only just last our trip out.
From Rozel Bay we sailed, drifted and rowed in hot sunshine around the huge breakwater shown above and across St Catherines Bay to Gorey. Gorey has a drying harbour dominated by the impressive castle Orgueil. The picture below shows how the castle looks from the sea.
The tide was low and although our boat draws only about a foot with the keel raised we could not enter Gorey harbour and had to stop on the clean golden sand just yards from the entrance. We worked out that it was about an hour before low water so that left us with two hours before we needed to get back to the boat, just time to visit the castle, perhaps even buy ice creams.
The left hand picture shows the view looking down onto the town from the castle, the right hand is within the castle showing how it is partly man made and partly formed from a natural rock outcrop.
We then locked through the barrage into the upper part of the estuary which is a reservoir for the tidal power station built into the barrage. Water levels above the barrage are dictated not only by the moon but also by the requirements of the power station. The estuary was so beautiful and it was such a lovely day that I felt in no hurry, with the consequence that we missed the opening time for the lock at Chateaulin at the upper end of the estuary. To pass the time while waiting for the next lock opening we wandered back down river then went for a walk in the quiet countryside. Our walk was longer than it should have been since by the time we were back at the lock we had missed the second and final opening that day. We rowed around wondering where there might be a nice level spot to dry out for the night then a seal came along and started playing with our oars. That was all very well but it did make it difficult to row. We quite often see seals when we sail from Paglesham in Essex but they are shy creatures and duck down out of sight under the water almost as soon as you look at them. This french seal seemed friendly and not at all shy, I wonder if he/she was a tame one. We had our inflateable tender towing astern and the seal started trying to jump into it. However it is such a lightweight tender that as the seal jumped up over the side the tender just bounced away which seemed to make the seal even more determined to keep on trying. Here is a picture of the seal about to make yet another futile attempt to jump over the side of our yellow and blue tender, it is not a very clear picture since it was now almost dark. Eventually I lifted the tender up onto our foredeck since we were about to go to bed and the seal was still splashing around making a bit of a mess with his muddy flippers.
We woke in the early hours to realise that something was wrong. The boat was tipped over at a steep angle, it felt as though it was in danger or rolling right over and tipping its contents, us included, into soft black mud. Despite care in placing our anchor I had got it wrong and we had swung out over the steep edge of the channel - I blame the seal entirely. We spent the rest of the night sitting in the uphill side of the boat and to add to our misery it was now raining hard. The water seemed to take a long time to return but when it did return it came with a rush then we gladly locked through into the non tidal river Rance. Just above the lock we met a French couple with a yacht and since they had no tender we gave them a lift ashore after they had put their boat on a mooring. In return they insisted on taking us to a cafe by the waterside, things were looking better now.
We sailed up to Dinon, a historic walled city well worth a look. The boats in the foreground above are all for sale by a local yacht brokerage which specialises in traditional wooden craft. The main moorings for visitors are on the opposite side of the river. The low arched bridge ahead of the boats is the limit of navigation for masted boats but was no barrier to us with our easily removed mast. We went under and found a secluded mooring place just a few hundred yards from the city centre which is up the steep hill to the right in the photograph.
We spent a second day looking at Dinon then entered the Rance Lille canal. From the beginning it had been part of our plan to take a look at the Brittany canal system but I was not at all sure that we would want to go all the way through the canals to Biscay, as we eventually did.
The photo below shows how we configured our boat as a canal cruiser, the spars stowed partly under the foredeck. We took our small outboard specifically for use in the canals. We also used it on two occasions at sea but in general I much prefer to sail or row so when we were becalmed at sea we first tried rowing for at least a couple of hours by which time the wind would normally re-appear or we would come in sight of a nice harbour and stop for the night. However I would not want to row through the French canals, the distances are just too much. This outboard is a British Seagull 40+ (signifies 40+ lbs force of thrust) purchased new when the boat was built about 25 years ago. It is reliable but noisy. It has a reputation for being a fuel guzzling engine for its size but even so we crossed Brittany on three gallons of petrol, plus some sailing on the Villain navigation. The distance is 247km so allowing for the sailing the fuel consumption is comparable to a small car, a modern 4 stroke outboard should be better. We had two fenders on the boat, you can see them tucked up on the side deck. This was about the minimum fendering you could manage with in the locks. A couple more fenders would be useful for locks but we tried to keep such equipment to a minimum. I have a theory that empty space is nearly always worth more than the things which tend to clutter it up, but Josephine does not seem to believe this.
I must say that the French canals that we traversed are an amazingly underused facility, all those massive locks, each operated by a paid lock keeper and yet hardly any boats. The canals are closed during the winter and I think some of the lock keepers are employed for just the summer, including many students. Others are permanent employees and presumably work on canal maintenance during the winter. Without exception the lock keepers were friendly and helpful. At the end of a day we asked one lock keeper how many boats they had locked through that day, the answer "you are the third, but in mid-August we might have six or eight in a day". On the Norfolk broads in August there are places where you might count that many boats in a minute!
There is no charge for use of the canals or for mooring on a short term basis. At intervals along the canal you come across purpose made picnic spots where boats can stop off, occasionally even with showers and power points to supply electricity to moored boats. We met an englishman who kept his boat permanently in Brittany (which is not uncommon) and mostly on the canal system. He was particularly attracted to the power points since he used plenty of electric appliances on his boat. He told us that it was the policy to provide boats with free electricity for the first two days stay at any place in order to encourage tourism. What happens after two days?, well he said, mostly no one seems to bother.
Right from the start at Dinon the canals offer attractive rural scenery. The picture above is just a typical view taken from the moving boat, I think somewhere near the summit level on the Rance-Lille canal, one could photograph any number of rural scenes of woodland and farmland. I don't think there are any particularly dull stretches along these canals and even where the canal passes through Rennes, a large city halfway across Brittany, it seems to enter and leave the city along green corridors.
The picture on the left is at Lehon, which was our first lunchtime stop after we left Dinon. Lehon is a pretty tourist attraction village, the view shows the 17th century cloisters within the Magloire priory. Nearby is a 12th century church with vaulted roof.
The right hand picture shows a fairly typical lock keepers cottage, I think this one was on the way down from the canal summit towards Rennes.
Altogether I think our route took us through 65 locks. This seemed an impossible number at the start, but after a few days we realised that we were making steady progress and it began to look feasible to take our boat right across Brittany. The greatest density of locks occurs on the first part of the route between Dinon and Rennes, after that the intervals between locks become progressively longer, making for quicker travel. The locks are all built to take 300 tonne barges but commercial cargo carrying on these canals ended during the 1960's. Some French canals are still in commercial use, I think these are the canals capable of taking much larger barges.
The lock keepers are in touch with each other by phone so they always know what boats are on the move and when each boat is likely to arrive at a particular lock. I expect this helps them to fit in the lock working with any other jobs they need to do. It also means that they can prepare the locks for each boat before it arrives, we invariably found the gates open on the side from which we were approaching.
The picture on the left shows part of a lock side garden on the flight of 11 locks leading to the canal summit near Hede. On the right is a view looking up part of this flight of locks. The lock keepers really put a lot of work into the floral decorations around the locks. This seems to be a feature of the Brittany canals and the Rance-Lille canal in particular, I think they even have annual prizes awarded for the best lock gardens. Groups of lockeepers cottages appear to have been built to identical plans, presumably under a single contract but many have been modified or extended and they are in varying states of modernisation. Many of the locks are also built to standard plans but there are the odd exceptions, for example a lock at Rennes which has a hydraulically operated gate which swings up from under the water. Most of the lock gates north of Rennes are manually operated by a rack and pinion mechanism driven from a handle which turns about a vertical axis. Some of the locks below Rennes are electrically operated and a few even have wireless remote control units.
We enjoyed seeing Rennes, it made a change from all the quiet countryside. We tied up at a deserted quayside, climbed up the bank of the canal then immediately we were in the busy city centre, close by the entrance to a tube station. One way to beat parking problems! Rennes is mostly a modern city but there is an interesting old quarter with ancient timber framed houses, see picture on left above.
The picture on the right shows our boat being towed into the city of Rennes behind a motor cruiser. The previous night we had been moored close by this cruiser alongside the town quay at Betton just north of Rennes. In the morning the elderly couple on board (yes I know we are getting to be another elderly couple) told us that they were in a hurry but they could give us a tow if we wanted. I suspected a slight ulterior motive in that they would have known that if we followed behind at a slower pace the lockeepers would hold them up at each lock so that both boats could be locked through together. Anyway we set off under tow at a rather frightening pace, the fastest my boat has ever travelled other than on a road trailer. I let out a very long tow rope so that if they stopped suddenly we would have a chance of missing the back of their boat. But as we approached the city they slowed down progressively, it turned out that they were running low on diesel fuel. At Rennes we said we would like to go for a walk in the city and they said that they would refuel then would have to press on without us. After we had taken a couple of hours walk we were surprised that we caught them up at the next lock. It turned out that they had been unable to find a diesel fueling point, had run out of diesel completely and were now using their small standby outboard motor. We could now motor quicker than they could so we went a little ahead and we locked through the locks together. After a while we noticed that they were no longer following so we turned round to see what might have happened. It turned out that they had got one of their ropes wrapped round their outboard propellor, were unable to free it since the motor was mounted such that they could not reach the propeller, then they drifted onto the bank where their superstructure was well entangled in a tree. The tables were now turned so to speak, we passed them a tow line, pulled them free of the tree then freed the rope from their propeller. They did talk to their friends at the next overnight stopping place to make sure we got a nice place to moor up that night!
Once south of Rennes we were on the river Villaine a river made navigable by building broad weirs and locks. Many of the locks on the Villain have a mill alongside to utilise the head of water dammed up by the adjacent weir. These mills, most if not all of which are now disused, are built of stone and often have a pointed wall at the upstream side, the picture on the left above is typical although the long window under the roof may not be original. I was surprised when one of the lock keepers explained that this mill building has no windows on the ground floor because the river can flood to ground floor level in winter. That was quite a surprise since when we were on the river in September it was placid with no current to notice, it was hard to imagine that it could ever be in flood, but that is how the river gained its name. I then realised that the pointed front end of the mill building must be designed to act like the prow of a ship. The picture on the right is another similar but larger mill with the water wheel visible near the corner of the building on the ground floor.
Locks had by now become a routine for us and it took us by surprise when a lock keeper who spoke good English (probably a language student on a holiday job) told us "this is your last lock before the tidal barrage at the sea - you can sail now". The river widens as it winds southwards and was now quite wide enough for sailing and so we put up the mast but we found that to keep up progress we still needed to motor along the tree lined stretches of the river and we had to drop our gunter yard for most of the bridges and drop the whole rig for the low bridge in the centre of Redon, picture below.
Redon is a canal cross roads, the R. Villain runs north to south through the town and the Nantes a Brest canal runs east to west. The lock on the right of the picture above is where the canal used to branch off to Nantes but this lock is now disused and the branch is made a bit further down the river. Redon has a dock where barges and seagoing ships would have exchanged cargoes but this dock is now converted into a yacht marina and about the last of the dockside ware houses were being demolished at the time of our visit. The marina at Redon is filled with seagoing boats there being no low fixed bridges between here and the sea.
The stretch of the Villain between Redon and the tidal barrage at Arzal is definitely sailing water and the scenery is attractive especially in the vicinity of Roche Bernard where the river runs between wooded banks and rocky outcrops. Roch Bernard itself is a pleasant old town overlooking the river from a high cliff, see photo below right showing the view down from the town. The picture below left shows river bridges just upstream of Roch Bernard. The old bridge behind was blown up by German troops at the end of their occupation of the area. As well as these two bridges there is also a splendid modern road bridge. The trimaran in the foreground is an unusual craft. The owner contacted me after seeing the picture on this webpage and he tells me that the main hull was originally a cooling tower from a Welsh hospital. This trimaran has twin Mercedes diesels and multiple redundancy in almost every system, including a spare TV. The boat is in good order and the owner/builder has plans for some long distance cruising.
We spent a night in the large modern marina at Arzal just upstream of the tidal barrage then in the morning locked through the barrage into the final stretch of the Villain estuary which leads out into the Bay of Biscay. Now we had to get used to tidal water again, the days spent on the canal and river had been easy, just tieing up anywhere and leaving the boat without needing to think about whether it might drift away or ground on rocks.
Turning west along the coast of southern Brittany our first overnight stop was at Kervoyal, picture above, our boat is the tiny one just off the nice sandy beach to the right of all the other moored boats.
Kervoyal was not marked as a harbour on our chart or in the pilot book, we just saw some boats moored in the shelter of a headland and decided to join them. It must indeed be a proper harbour, it even had a harbour master's office. There are probably four times as many harbours in Brittany than are mentioned in the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation pilot books which we carried aboard our boat. Pilot books are of course written for yachts on passage and to avoid misleading people they probably avoid mentioning harbours which are used mainly by local boats and do not have spare berths set aside for visiting yachts. However, there are few harbours which do not have space for a dinghy to stop overnight, even in the height of the summer season. So although pilot books are useful things to have, dinghy cruisers should be aware that there are many more useable harbours open to them than are listed in these books.
We sailed from Kervoyal along the coast and into the Gulf du Morbihan, an inland sea of about 50 square miles and containing about 60 islands together with uncountable numbers of cultivated oysters.
The first thing we noticed about the Gulf du Morbihan was the tidal streams, the tide in the western part of the Gulf is concentrated into 'jetstreams' with up to 8 knots of current at springs so you often see boats appearing to sail sideways. I was quite surprised at how sharp are the boundaries between fast flowing water and relatively slack water. As you sail into the tidal streams you feel your boat starting to spin as the bows are pushed sideways whilst the stern is yet in still water.
The tide was flooding as we entered the Gulf du Morbihan and we where whisked up to our first stop at Lochmariaquer where we went shopping for provisions. We then set off to find a quiet beach to spend the night, taking a look at some of the islands, the picture below is of the island Er Lannig where there is a megalithic stone circle which has become partly submerged as a result of a rise in sea level.
The flecks of white water in the picture are almost entirely due to the tidal stream, there was only a light breeze. Picture below shows some of the stones of the stone circle from closer to.
Later that evening we had a slight mishap, ramming our boat into a submerged iron pole which was something to do with the oyster fisheries. It was my fault since the hazard was marked. The way it happened was that I saw a nice looking beach with some largish yachts moored off it but between us and the beach was a long line of withies (at least that's what we call them in Essex) across the mouth of a bay, these painted green to warn you not to sail inshore. We sailed the whole length of the line of withies but found no obvious channel through to where the yachts were moored, maybe there was one but known only to locals. One of the yachts was obviously a deep draft vessel so I foolishly deduced that there must be water for us to sail between the withies and into the bay, but we crunched into something when we tried it. I then jumped out of the boat to push us off the obstruction and found that there were iron poles sticking up from the seabed and I cut my foot on some sharp piece of metal. Lesson - don't step off a boat with bare feet - it is always possible that there could be a broken bottle or discarded fish hook. My injury was hardly a serious one but even a tiny quantity of blood mixed with seawater in the bottom of a boat makes a mess and being rather squeamish I did not feel happy with the situation so I rested while Josephine sailed on and eventually we did find another sandy beach on which we anchored safely. At that stage we were not even aware that our boat was damaged but the next morning we saw the hole where one of the iron poles had punched through the hull skin under the bows.
The bottom of this boat contains buoyancy compartments filled with polyurethane foam buoyancy. The pole had embedded itself several inches into the foam but I was pleased to note that the foam had remained bonded to the hull skin so the litre or so of water which had entered the boat had been confined to a small cavity and the seaworthiness of the boat was not affected at all. Even so I felt it should be repaired as soon as possible.
As the tide fell we got the boat 'carreened' on the beach supported with rocks on one side - see picture above. We cut a piece of flexible plastic from a document wallet and tried to stick this over the hole with sticky tape. The tape would stick to the plastic but not to the boat. We then stuck the plastic down with some glue from the repair kit for our inflateble dinghy. With some windier weather forecast I thought it would be a good idea to move to a marina or a more sheltered harbour and not having read the pilot book properly I thought Port Navalo might be suitable. Port Navalo was just a mile round the corner from our beach but sailing there was a struggle against wind and a fierce tide. When we got there we found that there was no marina and the harbour was uncomfortable with a westerly wind blowing straight in, it was obvious that the beach we had just come from offered better shelter. So we sailed back there which again was a struggle because the tide had now turned and was yet again going the wrong way, that is how it is sometimes when you really muddle up your planning! Next day we found that our temporary patch had floated off the hull, the glue was not suitable. I realised I needed to make a much better job of it. Leaving the boat on the beach we walked past Navalo and on to Port Cruesty, which is where the proper marina actually is, at least Josephine walked, I hobbled because my foot was still sore. A chandlers shop by the marina provided a tube of Sikaflex and stainless steel screws and a grocers stall in the open air market provided plywood from a fruit packing case, not marine plywood but good enough for now. Josephine brought lots of fruit in gratitude. We then went to a supermarket and brought a fondue set and I modified one of the forks into an auger to make pilot holes for the screws. After two days we had the area of damage properly dried out and covered with a sound wooden patch and we also did a bit of sightseeing during that period.
With the boat repaired I thought it would be nice to explore the Gulf du Morbihan up towards the city of Vannes at the north eastern extremity. We set off in that direction but were baulked by a contrary tide racing through a gap between two islands. Although it was a breezy day the islands blocked the wind, the tide was far too strong to consider rowing and we never even thought about the engine stowed down in the bottom of the stern locker. We could have waited for the tide to turn but instead decided that Auray to the north west would be an interesting place to visit, and indeed so it was.
Auray is a busy and attractive market town built on a steep slope rising from the western side of the Auray river. Across the river bridge is St Goustan, a smaller town which has been a port from medieval times and has steep cobbled streets up from the quay sides. The picture above was taken from the ancient walls of Auray looking over to St Goustan. The big sailing boat is a genuine sailing fishing boat, you can wander on board but it is a bit disappointing that the insides have been gutted to make a large shop selling postcards and tourist souvenirs. There is a considerable current rushing out under those bridge arches for an hour or so towards the end of the ebb, for the first night of our three night stay we were on a mooring in the channel right in the worst of this current, we then moved to a pontoon a little down river. The picture below shows the view up river approaching Auray.
While at Auray we watched the end of a local half marathon running race, I might have been tempted to enter if had known about it earlier and also had not cut my foot. Running or jogging or whatever it is called has been a pastime of mine for at least 20 years but it is a pastime which, like sailing and especially dinghy sailing, is in decline in the UK. I was pleased to see that there are still plenty of people jogging in France. As well as this well supported half marathon we saw lots of people using the canal towpaths for jogging. We also saw a lot of cyclists on the towpaths, competitive cycling being a major sport in France. But based purely on our observation, by far the most popular sport in France must be angling.
Everywhere we went we found anglers, all along the canal towpaths, on every quayside and pier head, by day and by night. And every harbour is packed with small motor boats used almost exclusively for sea angling. The picture below is out of sequence to illustrate this point, it is a small harbour where we made a lunch stop in a cove along the rocky shore near Audierne, but you would find a similar selection of boats in most of the smaller harbours along the southern Brittany coast. A very popular style of boat is typified by the mass produced fibreglass sea angling boat on the right of this picture. These are probably quite expensive boats, anglers who cannot afford one make do by attaching an outboard motor to anything that floats. It could be a traditional wooden fishing boat, a plastic speed boat, a rubber dinghy or it could be a sailing boat with most of the sailing gear striped off, all are pressed into service in the great fish fight. Pretty well every boat we saw at sea was either heading out to fish, fishing, or coming home from fishing. The fishermen would stare at us with pity as if to say "whats wrong? what's happened to your rods?". Mind you it can seem a bit like that in England, when I have mentioned to colleagues at work or wherever that I have a boat I have become used to a response such as "that's interesting, what do you catch then?".
It is not that I am particularly anti-angling, I just wanted to counter the impression which you may gain from the yachting press that sailing is better supported in France than in England. It is true that France has lead the way in long distance offshore racing, especially single handed events and multihull events, but the number of people involved in this activity is small and the boats are concentrated in just a few harbours such as LaTrinite, a place we passed by but did not get to visit. From my observation, motor boats and sea angling are far more popular in France than is sailing, perhaps it is going that way in England too.
I must say there are a lot of sailing schools in France, often with splendid modern facilities. I think this is because sailing is part of the school curriculum and children are bussed to these sailing schools from far and wide. You see flocks of dinghies with children learning to sail, closely escorted by adults in RIBs. Typically Optimist dinghies are provided for the youngsters and often small catamarans for the older children. They tend to appear and disappear quite suddenly, perhaps because sailing has to fit into a tight school timetable. I wonder how many of these youngsters continue an interest in sailing once they no longer have to do it at school. Still, probably a good thing that we do not all go sailing, there would be no room left on the sea.
From Auray we sailed rapidly down tide, out of the Morbihan and across the Bay of Quiberon to Port Haliguen where there is a large modern marina on the eastern side of the Quiberon peninsular. Crossing the bay to Port Haliguen was the windiest sail we had during this trip, with a direct headwind sending spray flying the length of the boat, but it did get progressively calmer as we approached the lee of the Quiberon peninsular. Josephine would not let me go too close to the shore because there were a lot of yellow bouys presumably marking oyster beds. The mishap we had last time we sailed close to oyster beds was still fresh in our memory. Mind you I think these beds were in deep water and it probably would have been safe to sail over them.
The Bay of Quiberon is cruising area I would like to visit again. Appart from the Gulf du Morbihan there are some other interesting looking estuaries and also a chain of offshore islands including Houat, Hoedic and Belle Isle, all of which should be within dinghy sailing reach in fine weather.
The next morning was flat calm so we rowed without difficulty through the notorious tide race off the Quiberon peninsula then rowed on down the west side of the peninsula. After a some hours of rowing there was still no sign of a breeze. The only harbour which might have been within rowing distance was Etel, probably an interesting place but I had it in mind to get to Port Louis in the Lorient estuary so we unpacked and mounted the outboard motor, a task which takes about half an hour to do at sea since it is stowed buried at the bottom of the large stern locker. We motored for a few hours then at last the wind came so we completed the passage to Port Louis under sail, cooking supper as we went. That evening we walked around the old walled town at Port Louis, once the base of the French East India company and in the morning we visited the huge fort which stands in the Harbour just off the town, below is a view of part of the fort from the harbour.
From the walls of the fort there are views up the harbour towards the port of Lorient, see below. Across the water towards the left of the picture is a massive squat concrete structure which is the U-boat shelter built during the second world war, there is a similar one at Brest.
After spending the morning looking at the fort and the maritime museum housed within it we sailed on along the coast until the wind dyed at which point we rowed into Doelan, a small fishing harbour in a narrow estuary. That evening we took a walk along the coast path, the picture below is typical of the coastline in this area.
From Doelan we had a long and pleasant sail to Benodet, passing yet more harbours and estuaries which we would like the chance to explore one day, for example the R. Belon, Brigneau and Merrion, also the Illes de Glenan which we could see on the horizon as we sailed close along the shore. Benodet and Sainte marine are yachting and seaside resorts facing each other across the river Odet. Both have large marinas, we berthed at Sainte Marine marina but crossed over to the Benodet marina for the posher looking showers. The River Odet is an attractive river and is navigable up to the cathedral city of Quimper. We spent two days exploring up the river and back but did not get quite up to Quimper, partly because the wind was so fluky where the river winds through a narrow gorge between cliffs. The picture below, taken up the Odet river, shows how we get ashore when our sailing dinghy is anchored or moored in deep water.
From Benodet our next stop was Le Guilvinec, a serious commercial fishing port with big stern trawlers parked two or three abreast along hundreds of metres of quayside on the west side of the harbour. We were there at a weekend, presumably many of the boats would be at sea during the week. Immediately behind the quayside are a line of modern buildings housing the cold stores and offices of various fishery companies. On the east side of the harbour there are dry docks for fishing boat maintenance, see picture below. Although fishing is clearly the raison d'etre for Le Guilvinec there are some moorings for pleasure craft and a couple of small pleasure craft pontoons one of which we used for our boat. Nearby St Guenole on the other hand is purely for commercial fishing boats and bans pleasure craft from entering except in emergency.
From Guilvinec we sailed round the Point de Penmarc'h, the headland at the south west corner of Brittany, following the line of beacons and bouys which mark the outer extent of the numerous rocks. There were also various lighthouses in sight, including the huge octagonal tower of Eckmuhl. The sea was a bit choppy round the headland but then became progressively calmer as we sailed north to Audierne. Approaching Audierne we had an indication of the extent of residential development along parts of the Brittany coastline. Our chart, published not so long ago, showed a dot marked 'House', suggesting a single prominent house set in empty countryside. When we got there the coastline for many miles was dotted with newish houses, mostly slate roofed dormer bungalows with white painted walls. Talking to some of the locals we gained the impression that Brittany is in a state of house price boom comparable with that in the UK.
The picture below shows the harbour entrance at Audierne. I wondered why they built the iron work walkway. It provides a footpath across a small inlet but it would not be much further to walk round the shore side. Old photographs in the maritime museum suggested that it enabled a gang of men hauling on a line to pull a sailing ship from the outer breakwater up to the town quays and you can see that this could be possible, the small promontory with a red tower on it being a modern construction.
We berthed on one of the visitor's pontoons in the marina right by the town centre of Audierne and stayed there sightseeing for three days while waiting for a calm day to tackle the tide race at the Raz de Sein. On one of these days we rowed up the Goyen estuary to Pont Croix which turned out to be a most interesting small town. We went up on the early flood and returned as late as we dare on the ebb so we had to row because the sandy drying estuary was not deep enough to lower the keel.
Pont Croix is built on a hillside sloping down to the top end of the estuary. The picture above right is looking up one of the old cobbled streets, the house doorways seem a bit small. There are two fine churches in StCroix, the picture below left is the steeple of the older one, built about 1250. The other more recent church is associated with a now closed seminary, a college for would be priests. We particularly liked the museum in Pont Croix which is an old town house containing a collection of furniture and household items typical of a fairly well off household perhaps one or two hundred years ago. Some of the items were not quite as old as that though, for example some early electric hair curlers, they might well make your hair curl but probably would not get a CE mark today! The museum attendant was keen to show us around and explained that much of the furniture had very regionally distinct features, you could apparently identify the region of Brittany from the arrangement of doors and drawers in a traditional wardrobe. The photo above left shows the traditional local way to divide a kitchen dining room with a light wooden partition. The piece of furniture on the left contains a bed concealed behind a net curtain. Below right is the mantelpiece in the sitting room, one of those shiny balls was hung up each time a daughter was engaged to be married. The size of each ball indicates the worldly wealth of the potential husband.
The harbour master at Audiern was very friendly and helpful and warned us that if we continued north we would probably be seen by naval vessels exercising from Brest and we might be arrested if we were too far from the shore. I was vaguely aware that there is a French law that small boats must not sail more than a certain distance from the shore but we had not given it much thought until then. We decided to sail to Isle de Sein and I reckoned that we could do so without exceeding the limit assuming it is measured from both the island and the mainland. As we approached the Raz de Sein rowing and sailing on a fine calm day a small warship headed towards us then circled slowly round us and came to a stop a hundred metres or so off our beam. A group of officers appeared on the bridge wing and one shouted through a megaphone something in French which I think meant 'where are you going ?'. Josephine shouted back 'La' - pointing in the direction of the Isle de Sein which was where we were going although due to the ferocious tidal stream it certainly was not the way we were heading. The officers conferred with each other then without further communication they went back indoors and the ship moved away. A French yachtsman we met later on suggested that perhaps they were interested in possible illegal immigrants rather than our distance from the coast.
The Isle de Sein was a fascinating place, although I am not sure I would describe it as beautiful. It is flat and low lying and is dominated by a surprisingly large village, Men Brial, which covers a large part of the total area. Now it must survive mainly by tourism but in the past it was presumably a fishing community trading fish with the mainland. There is insufficient land area for any significant agriculture. There are quite a number of bars and eating places. The view above is looking towards the village from the harbour and below is from the other side of the village.
Below left is a typical street in Men Briel, the stone houses huddle together against the wind. It was at Men Briel that we lost an argument with a computerised shower cubical. The idea was that you feed some coins into a slot then the door to the shower unlocks and the shower operates automatically. Josephine was just about to go in when an elderly gentleman, we thought a local, passed by and said "watch out you don't shut that door, it will lock itself and you will be in there until the attendant comes round tomorrow morning - I should jam your bag in the door just to be safe". So we did that but the shower would not work. Then a lady came by and told us that of course the shower would not work, we had not shut the door. Josephine was naturally reluctant to close the door but when the lady actually offered to go in with her to prove it was safe we took her word for it. However the shower still would not work. Finally the door did lock itself, with both of us on the outside, then a moment later we heard the sound of running water inside as the shower started up!
We left the Isle de Sein in really thick fog, relying entirely on GPS to thread our way out through the surrounding rocks then the fog lifted slowly as we sailed on to Camaret, a nice harbour which we had previously stopped at the year that we visited the Douarnenez Festival of the Sea sailing in company with Roger and Helen Barnes in their tiny 'Tideway' sailing dinghy. The picture on the right above is the pretty church at Camaret, one of the first buildings you come to as you walk the half mile from the visitors moorings towards the town itself. I liked the big model fishing boats which hang in space over the nave inside the church. Note that the top of the steeple on the church is famously truncated by a canon ball fired from an English man o'war, a neat shot if that was really the target. To the right of the picture is a derelict wooden fishing boat, there are a number of these dumped along the foreshore, I can only assume that this is to enhance the picturesqueness of the harbour since it would not be difficult to break them up or burn them if they are no longer needed.
The picture below is some of the spectacular coastal scenery we passed as we sailed towards Camaret.
French harbours mostly make better provision for yachts on passage than do English harbours. Camaret is exceptional in that it has a complete marina reserved for visiting yachts, the local boats having their own marina closer in to the town. The picture below shows our boat with its blue tent cover in one of the visitor's berths. As you can see there are still plenty of free spaces. The dark green yacht across the pontoon from us was from Bristol and was also home made, quite an achievement considering it is about 45 foot LOA. We chatted to the owner/designer/builder and although we admired his splendid vessel we also noted that we had been able to explore many small harbours and rivers which he would be unable to enter with his deep keeled yacht.
Next stop was meant to be Brest but we just missed the tide through the Ghoulet de Brest and spent the night in a small bay. We stopped briefly in the centre of Brest to look at the old fortifications then continued to the Moulin Blanc marina. At that point I managed to get a sudden flu like illness so we stayed at the marina a few days. The facilities at the marina are excellent but the surrounding scenery is not wonderful, at least not by comparison with most of the rest of Brest harbour. After we had been kept awake most of one night by a noisy drink and drugs party on a large Swedish yacht in the adjacent berth we decided to move on. We had a windy sail up the river to Landerneau where we parked the boat at the quayside in the town centre, picture below.
We had now been away five weeks and I was thinking it was time to be getting home and looking for a new job. We had had an excellent late summer holiday but I felt that October was no time of year to be sailing an open boat along the Atlantic coast and back across the channel. Josephine was more open minded and quite happy to carry on until the weather actually forced us to stop. With hindsight she was right, although October is not usually a promising month for sailing this year it turned out to be sunnier and calmer than it had been in early summer so quite possibly we could have sailed home within a couple of weeks, or less if we had been prepared to make some long passages. Anyway, I left Josephine to look after the boat at Landerneau while I returned to Portland by train and ferry followed by a double trip by car ferry to bring the boat back to England. Given ideal weather it would be possible to sail back almost as quickly and considerably more cheaply.
Some concluding thoughts
I can recommend Brittany for a dinghy cruising holiday. Of course it is not necessary to sail your boat across the channel, there are car ferries to Roscoff or St Malo. If you don't want to do coastal cruising then there are numerous estuaries you could drive to and spend a day or two exploring by water. If you want to cruise for a week or so without going out to sea then consider Brest Harbour or the Gulf du Morbihan, both are wonderful cruising areas although parts of the Gulf of Morbihan do have rather strong tidal currents and quite a lot of the water is out of bounds due to oyster beds.
One aspect which added interest to this trip was the contrast between different kinds of boating, some sea passages were followed by a spell of inland waterways cruising followed by some coastal cruising along a very attractive coastline. Given a long enough holiday it would be tempting to try to make a complete circumnavigation of Brittany by sea, river and canal.
I was amazed at the number of high quality well maintained boat launching slipways there are in Brittany and virtually all of these can be used free of charge.
What is the most popular sailing area in the UK? - obviously it is the Solent. How many free public slipways are there giving access to the Solent at any state of the tide? Answer - just one that I know of and that is pretty muddy at low tide, in fact it is not even a slipway as such, just a firm stretch of foreshore. I won't say where this one 'slipway' is located because it is already over used! - on a fine summer weekend you probably will not find a car parking space in the vicinity. In fairness there are a couple of other reasonably adequate launching places on the Solent which although not free are affordable.
Now consider the situation in Brittany (I don't know much about the rest of France). Basically, pretty well anywhere a road leads down to the waterside you will find a slipway to launch your boat, in many harbours there is a choice of several slipways. If there is navigable water at all tide states then the chances are the slipway will also be usable at all tide states. In general there will be car parking available close to a slipway and if the slipway is in a proper harbour the chances are that there will be a stand pipe for filling a water carrier or for washing down a trailer and public toilets/showers are often available by contacting the harbour master. Some of the slipways are fairly recently built but many have obviously been there a hundred years or more being constructed from stone blocks. This suggests to me that French fishermen in times gone by made more use of slipways than did English ones, I wonder if small boats in France were more usually stored ashore when not in use and so needed to be frequently hauled out by horse or man power?