Semaine du Golfe - 14th to 19th May 2007

This year the Hostellers Sailing Club participated in the amazing Semaine du Golfe sailing festival held in the Morbihan in Southern Brittany. This was the first time we had been to such an event and also the furthest distance we have ever taken one of our club boats from its home port, albeit we covered most of the distance by road. This event is likely to happen again in 2009, although I don't think there is a definite promise of that at the time of writing. 

For those who have never been to a Semaine du Golfe event, I had better explain a bit about it. Despite the title - "Gulf Week" it is not a yacht racing event such as Cowes Week, or Burnham Week in the UK. Rather it is a gathering of approximately 800 boats for the purpose of making leisurely day sails in company with each other. I think the boats are all supposed to have at least some 'traditional' or 'classic' style to them, but that is all they have in common. There are even a few 'classic' power boats and some elegant rowing boats as well as the sailing boats.  We took one of our elderly club Wayfarer dinghies together with my home made boat on road trailers, crossing the channel by car ferry. The Wayfarer might now claim to be a classic racing dinghy, but my boat may have been stretching the definition. Both our boats looked a bit out of place among the hoards of clinker built and gaff/lug rigged boats but nobody seemed to mind that too much and I would say that if you are keen to enter this event but don't have an obviously traditional looking boat then you should not be immediately disuaded. Check what the organisers think, I have an idea that they will want to help anyone who is prepared to bring a boat across the channel, and if you had the time and patience to sail it all the way from the UK I guess that might help too.  I might add that allthough the HSC boats were not so traditional in appearance, they are 30+ years old whereas I know that some of the traditional looking boats were actually brand spanking new, having been launched at this festival for the first time. 

The 'Semaine' in the title is also a bit misleading to the uninitiated. Although Semaine means week, the organised activity of this event takes place mainly on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the event, and most of the boats only turn up for these three days. However, facilities such as campsites, slipways and car parks are available for the whole of the week for those who wish to use them. You can arrive at the start of the week and spend the first few days exploring this nice sailing area, but you will see relatively few other boats on the water until about the Wednesday when hundreds arrive in a rush. I had a vague plan that if the weather was good, Josephine and myself might spend the first few days sailing to one of the small islands which are about 10 miles out to sea from the entrance to the Gulf du Morbihan. We did not do this since the weather at the beginning of the week was wet and windy, but it might still be a good idea for another time.

You may be thinking that 800 boats is rather a lot, which it is, espeicially since there must average several of persons in each boat, plus many people who come to watch from the shoreside. To keep it manageable, the total number of boats is divided into several fleets. There is a fleet for sail and/oar propelled boats, a fleet for classic cabin yachts, one for traditional fishing boats and so on. Each fleet takes a different route during the three organised days, so most of the time you are unaware of the existance of boats outside your own fleet, although two or more fleets may share a common destination at the end of a day.  Both the HSC boats were entered in the 'Sail and Oar' fleet. This was about the largest fleet numerically, certainly well over 100 boats, so there was good potential for chaos when the fleet entered restricted waters such as the fairly narrow river up to Auray. But just imagine the chaos there could be if all 800 boats sailed together, espeicially since a few of those 800 boats were square rigged sailing ships.

morbihan map Map of the Morbihan

A bit about the Gulf du Morbihan itself. This is a large estuary, comparable in area to the Solent/Spithead in the UK. Unlike the Solent, there are many islands in this estuary, some large enough to have villages on them, others tiny. There is a maze of channels between the islands, so the total length of shoreline would be much greater than the Solent. The tide really races through some of these channels, if you are an East Coast sailor think of the entrance to the Ore on a spring tide, but more so. Shoreside it is pleasant rural countryside, slightly hilly, with small villages which now seem to be fashionable places to live.  There are two main towns in the area, Auray which is a pleasant market town, and Vannes which is a fair sized city. Both these places were ports of call for our sail and oar fleet.

There is no charge to enter this event. I cannot imagine anything of this kind being available for free in the UK.  For those that do not have facilities to sleep on board, which includes most of the sail and oar fleet, there is a campsite available where you can either set up your own tent or you can use a kind of ready errected pavillion made from heavy canvas on a steel frame work (see picture below). These pavillions are fitted out with a simple cooking area and a couple of double bedrooms with beds but not bed linen. There is a charge for booking these facilities, but it is quite reasonable.  Since the boats day sail in company from one destination to another during the final three days of the event you may wonder how you manage with camping at a fixed location. The answer is that buses are provided to carry you between the campsite and your boat morning and evening. One point about this is that most of the boats have to be left unattended on swinging moorings overnight. There are a lot more boats than moorings, so several boats share each mooring. This means that you need to bring plenty of fenders.


Home for Meander's crew

The crew of the HSC Wayfarer Meander comprised Herman T, Mark S, Mark T, Richard F. Josephine and myself sailed our own boat. I will skip over the first few days since the main event had not got underway at that stage and also the weather was so wet and windy that we choose to go exploring by car and on foot rather than by boat. It was at the free buffet supper for the sail and oar fleet on the Wednesday evening that we really became aware of the generosity of the organisation behind this event and that gathering also introduced us to some of the other participants including a number of boat crews from UK, most of these being members of the Dinghy Cruising Association.

Quayside Supper

Quayside Supper

On Thursday morning the crews of the sail and oar fleet gathered around a podium on the quayside at Lamour-Baden to hear an announcement that it was officially still too windy for sailing and that the start would be delayed untill midday when it had been arranged for the wind to moderate - someone had confidence in  weather forcasting. In the meantime we could listen to live folk music or carry on preparing and launching our boats. Sure enough, at midday the wind had eased and the sun was breaking through. Many of the boats were now afloat on the swinging moorings and launches started to ferry the crews out from the quay to the moored boats. Then we were away, although not all precisely at the same time. The fleet was soon spread out over about half a mile of water, but at least it was all moving slowly in a common direction, shepherded by policemen in outboard powered inflateable boats. I believe that there were about 70 of these small police boats assisting the event, each crewed by two blue suited policemen. The police were friendly and helpful, ferrying the sailors to and from the shore, keeping the leading boats on the right track and encouraging the stragglers to keep up. I dont think there were any serious mishaps but if there had been help would have been on hand. Our first stop was for a picnic near the entrance to the Gulf on the shore to the south of Locmariaquer. As we approached the shore we could see dozens of boats already moored among the shoreside rocks, it did not look like a particularly boat friendly shoreline. If you were concerned about the paintwork on your boat the best thing to do at this kind of landing place would be to anchor off the shore and wait for a launch to come and collect you. However, most of us devised ways to keep our boats off the rocks with mooring lines then we congregated around several marques which had been set up as wine/beer/seafood tents. We were joined by coach loads of people who were following the event from the land and we were entertained by folk dancing and live music, a pattern which was to be repeated at each of the stopping points. There was a general happiness in the air now that the adventure had started and the sun was shining on a sparkling blue sea.

Landing for picnic at Locmariaquer

Landing for picnic at Locmariaquer

We left the picnic site near Locmariaquer on the first of the flood to sail eastwards to our overnight stop at Port Blanc. On this leg we first became aware of the strength of the tidal streams, in some places places we were shielded from the wind by the islands and then the tidal eddies spun some of the boats round through 360 degrees. But the tide was flooding in the direction we were heading so it was all to the good. The picture below shows that the weather was now really nice. The HSC wayfarer is reefed down only to avoid too much upsetting the crews of more traditional boats!

On the way to Port Blanc

DCA President Roger Barnes on route to Port Blanc, HSC Wayfarer 'Meander' astern

The plan for Friday was to sail from Port Blanc to a lunch stop at Lamour Baden then all the way up the river to St Goustan and Auray, a good distance but we would be helped all the way by the tide.

On the way to Port Blanc

Leaving Port Blanc
Arriving at Auray

Arriving at Auray

Picture above shows the fleet on the last stretch up river to Auray, the launch in the foreground is one of many escorting police boats.

Fleet arriving at Auray

Fleet arriving at Auray

And here is the fleet arriving, crews tidying their sails away and being taken ashore. Picture by Mark S.

Cafe at Auray

Quayside Cafe at Auray
DCA at Auray

DCA boats at Auray

Unlike most of the French crews, some of the UK contingent chose to stay on board overnight and these two DCA boats attracted much attention by parking in a prime spot right by the town quay.

The plan for the last day was to sail from Auray to a lunch at Navalo then proceed in company with several other fleets right up to Vannes.

Boats in close company near Bono

Boats in close company near Bono

The river near Bono is relatively narrow and we needed do some fending off as the fleet became a highly varnished 'log-jam', drifting down tide in near calm. A couple of hours later we were in open water and the wind had strengthened, it became quite exciting sailing as we arrived en-masse at Navalo.

Yachts sailing into the Gulf

Yachts sailing through the entrance to the Gulf

While at Navalo we took a walk round the headland to watch the fleets of larger boats sailing in from the sea to join us in the grand procession up to Vannes. As you can see from the picture above, crowds had gathered on the far shore to watch from the land.

Narrows near Port Blanc

In the narrows near Port Blanc

On the way to Vannes we passed through the narrows near Port Blanc where the flood tide was churning up the water - some people referred to this as the 'toilet flush'. Some of the open boats with low freeboard had to do some quick bailing but since our boat is self draining we headed straight through the roughest patch to see what it was like. We did take quite a bit of water on board but it is satisfying to see how quickly it drains out again. The picture above shows a crew rowing through. This chop was due to the tide, it was not particularly windy at this point.

The boats arrived a bit earlier than expected at Vannes, which meant that we had to anchor for half an hour to wait for the lock to open to let us into the basin where all the smaller craft tied up alongside floating pontoons. The event now concluded quite quickly. There was a prize giving, at which prizes were awarded for achievements such as smallest boat, oldest particpant, youngest participant (won by one of the DCA contingent) etc. Roger Barnes, President of the Dinghy Cruising Association, grabbed a microphone and made a passionate speech in French and although I could not understand this it was obviously well received and loudly applauded. Bands played and crowds congregated in the cafes and marques along the quayside but later that evening and early in the morning most of the smaller boats were being loaded onto road trailers and heading for home.

Alongside at Vannes

Alongside at Vannes