Semaine du Golfe Sailing Festival - 31 May to 4 June 2011

This was our third attendance at the biennial Semaine du Golfe sailing festival in southern Brittany - clearly we must like it. The general format and much of the program for this year's event was similar to previous events, so I will keep this account fairly short and focus on what was different this time round. If you are looking for a general idea of what these events are like you could see our account of the 2007 event.

We did have remarkably good weather this year, not a drop of rain and although there was a good breeze one afternoon it was never so windy as to curtail the sailing. The organisers had gone to a lot of trouble, and presumably expense, to provide large marquees to shelter us from the elements at each of our stopping points, but this year these were unnecessary.

Semaine du Golfe continues to grow in popularity and it was announced in the welcome speeches that some restriction on the number of entries may need to be introduced for future events. The HSC entered Flotilla 2, the sail and oar flotilla. I don't have the exact figures, but I think that Flotilla 2 alone included something approaching 300 boats. With most of the boats having several persons on board, that's a crowd. The official accommodation for Flotilla 2 was the campsite at Ile de Conleau. Josephine and myself lived on board our boat through the event so we did not visit the campsite, but I heard that it was at bursting point. I know that some participants who had registered for Flotilla 2 had to be moved to other flotillas to keep the numbers manageable. We will have to see what happens next time, maybe they will have to limit the numbers.  

It was also announced that there had been some reduction in funding for this year, although I don't think that had any significant effect on our enjoyment. They left out the Saturday evening fireworks and perhaps we had to buy a few more of our own drinks, but the free evening meal provided for Flotilla 2 on the Thursday evening was filling to say the least. I also had the impression that there were fewer police/rescue boats in attendance, but I could be mistaken about that and even on the windy Thursday afternoon the rescue boats seemed to be coping with the few capsizes or swampings that occurred.

morbihan map

Map of the Morbihan

As in 2009, the official launch site and start point for Flotilla 2 was at the city of Vannes, where the pontoons along the quaysides had been cleared of their normal occupants to make room for us. There is a broad slipway into non-tidal water, so no problems with getting afloat. As before, our first sail was to join the Tuesday afternoon mass picnic on the Ile d'Arz. As we did last time, Josephine and myself stayed on our boat at the Ile d'Arz on Tuesday night, rather than returning to Vannes. Once most of the other boats had departed, the island was peaceful and we anchored in a sheltered spot just to the east of where the big picnic had taken place. We found that we were in company with two other DCA members and their boats, so we spent the evening in the one small bar on the island. Staying over Tuesday night at the Ile d'Arz was a good plan since Wednesday is a free sailing day and starting from the Ile d'Arz, we were better placed to explore around the Morbihan than if we had returned to Vannes.

For our free sailing on Wednesday, we did a clockwise circuit round the Ile aux Moines, tying up to a jetty near Pointe de Nioul (all the places mentioned are on the map above) for lunch and a stroll ashore before returning to a pontooon mooring at Vannes.

DCA member Rolf R leaves Vannes to sail to Le Logono

DCA member Rolf R leaves Vannes to sail to Le Logono

HSC members Herman (steering) and Mark S on route to LeLogono in Herman's new boat

HSC members Herman (steering) and Mark S on route to LeLogono in Herman's new boat

Thursday was the first of the three days of organised sailing. This time we had a new Thursday route, sailing south from Vannes to Le Logeo for lunch, then eastwards to le Passage, which is north of St-Armel, for Thursday evening. This route took us into new territory and it was good to see something of the eastern part of the Morbihan, previous events having concentrated on the western parts. I would encourage the organisers to vary the sailing routes from year to year, to avoid the event becoming too much of a repetitive routine.

Boats of Flotilla 2 beached for lunch at Le Logeo

Part of Flotilla 2 beached for lunch at Le Logeo

The afternoon sail from LeLogeo to Le Passage was a beat against a freshening breeze and some crews chose to complete the mission by land. A small number of boats did need some assistance from rescue boats, my impression was that these were mainly low freeboard boats needing help with bailing out after being swamped by waves, although there may also have been one or two capsizes. HSC members Herman and Mark S were sailing in Herman's recently acquired yawl rigged Drascombe dinghy and Herman was pleased that his boat handled the conditions well. The general standard of sailing at this event is very good and one way or another we pretty well all made it to Le Passage which was fortunate since the organisers had gone to a lot of trouble to provide us with a free evening meal at the nearby village of St Armel. The stroll down the lanes from Le Passage to St Armel made a pleasant change from sailing and on arrival at St Armel we found that a tented seating area had been arranged as a quadrangle behind the village hall to accommodate the many hundreds of hungry sailors that were gathering. Caterers had a generous meal of roast pork and chips ready to serve from a row of large mobile ovens.      

St Goustan

Looking down on St Goustan from the walls of Auray - a classic picture postcard view. The quayside here was almost empty since Flotilla 2 was moored to dozens of bouys laid just to the right of the photo.

On Friday morning we departed Le Passage with a light following breeze that carried us to Lamor Baden for lunch. From then on the route and the shore side entertainments were very much as for 2007 and 2009, so I will avoid a detailed description. This time our Friday overnight stop was at St Goustan near Auray, as for 2007, rather than LeBono as in 2009. The HSC contingent enjoyed a meal at one of the quayside cafes at St Goustan. As before, Flotilla 2 gathered at Port Navalo for lunch on Saturday, ready to join the grand eastwards procession that involves all the flotillas on Saturday afternoon. As befor, not everyone was sure about the exact time that we were supposed to leave Port Navalo, but once we had left we soon found ourselves swept along by the fast flooding tide, together with hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of vessels of all shapes and sizes.

Final procession

A great variety of boats joined the procession east through the Morbihan on the Saturday afternoon. The choppy water is stirred up by tide rips and the wakes of boats rather than by the wind.

After the event, Herman and Mark S returned to the UK by the St Malo to Portmouth car ferry, whereas Josephine and myself had plans to cruise west from the Morbihan to join the Route du Sable sailing event that was to take place the weekend after next. As it worked out, we got a bit tired of beating against persistent westerly winds along the southern coast of Brittany, so once we had explored the estuaries of L'Aven and Le Belon we fetched our car from Vannes and then had a few days of car based camping before re-launching our boat into the Rade du Brest for the start of the Route du Sable. I have included an account of the Route du Sable here. An account of our sail along the southern coast of Brittany is included below.

Exploring the southern coast of Britany from Morbihan to Pont L'Aven and the Belon

Leaving Vannes on the Sunday morning, it was clear that the warm sunshine that had blessed the Semaine du Golfe had come to an end. We had a grey sky and a light breeze as the ebb tide whisked us along the now familiar route past Port Anna, Arradon, Port Blanc and Lamour Baden. We were surprised at how little evidence was left of the previous few days activities. There were now hardly any boats under way in the Morbihan. A few of the larger vessels were starting passages back to their home ports but the small traditional boats had vanished, their owners presumably travelling home or resting ready to be back at work tomorrow. The shore side infrastructure of Semaine du Golfe was also fast disappearing, most of the marquees were already down and being loaded onto lorries. 

Main square in the small village on Ile Houat

The main square in the small village on Ile Houat 

Our plan was to reach Ile Houat, which lies south of the entrance to the Morbihan. As we left the Morbihan, the light breeze was fading and it disappeared completely when we were about three miles out to sea, so we had to row the last six miles to Ile Houat. We chose to spend the night in the harbour but in such calm conditions we could well have anchored off one of the lovely sandy beaches at the eastern end of the Island. The young lady harbourmaster came out to welcome us and told us that we would have to take one of the visitors buoys in the harbour. She apologised that she didn't have a spare tender that she could lend us, so it was fortunate that we had our very small toy inflatable boat on board. The visitors buoys were a sort of double buoy, i.e. two buoys connected by a metal pole so that boats could lie each side of the pole. This arrangement held us securely and we were able to paddle our inflatable the few yards to a ladder on the harbour wall.  We had a meal ashore in a small cafe and wandered round the one small village that is a few hundred yards from the harbour. It's a pleasant little island, albeit heavily oriented to attracting tourists. There are frequent ferry landings, I think many of the visitors being attracted by a large aquarium on the island, although we did not get to visit that ourselves. There are no cars, just a few tractors and forklift trucks that are used to take goods to and from the ferry jetty.

The following day the wind was blowing from the west, not a good start for our planned westwards cruise. We set off close hauled and unsure of the best route past the chain of small islands and rocks that extend like a string of beads between Ille Houat and the end of the Quiberon peninsula. As we got nearer to Quiberon, the marina at Port Haliguen became the most obvious destination, but we had been there on a previous cruise so to make a change we decided to sail round the end of Quiberon to Port Maria on the western side. For this trip we were navigating entirely by means of a water-resistant smart phone loaded with the Navionics chart 'app', our first experience with this technology. The detailed chart and accurate positioning provided gave us the confidence to pick our way between the rocks that lie off the end of Quiberon peninsula rather than sailing further offshore. I would add that later in our trip we found that the touch screen interface of the smart phone is not ideal if you need to use it while it is being drenched by dollops of seawater. 

Port Maria is a sizeable man-made harbour, well protected by massive harbour walls. It is primarily the ferry terminal for the car ferries to Belle Ile, there is also a row of pontoons reserved for commercial fishing boats and there are moorings reserved for small local boats which are mostly small motor fishing boats. There are no pontoons for visiting yachts (or sailing dinghies) and the harbour wall looked forbiddingly high, so we allowed our boat to dry out on the sandy beach.  We then went for a wander round the town and I have to say that after the pretty little villages of the Morbihan and the fine city of Vannes, Quiberon was a slight disappointment, it certainly has lots of modern blocks of flats and hotels.

Our boat on the beach in Port Maria

Our boat on the beach in Port Maria, the commercial fishing boats and car ferry terminal behind (we are still displaying the self adhesive number issued at the Semaine du Golfe event) 

We sailed close hauled out of Port Maria with a pleasant light breeze and our large mainsail but we were aware that dark clouds were gathering to the west. An hour or so later the first squall hit us and we scrambled to drop all sail. A knot came undone and our jib halyard flew out to leeward, but with the boat rolling broadside on to the waves Josephine managed to retrieve it. After a miserable half an hour the wind moderated somewhat and we got up our small mainsail and jib to continue to windward. Our original intention had been to head direct from Port Maria to Ile Groix but while lying without sail we had lost both time and distance to windward. Etel was now reasonably close but I had read somewhere that it has a difficult entrance, so we decided to try beating on to Lorient, with the option of running back to Etel if we had to. We did make it to Lorient, completing the passage with a maximum speed reach into the estuary. We berthed in the modern marina at Kernevel and that evening we strolled along the sea front to Lamor Plage.

We discovered that the modest fee for our berth in Kernevel marina not only covered welcome showers and cloths washing facilities but also the unlimited use of bicycles. Since Thursday was forecast to be a windy day at sea, we booked a couple of bicycles and went to explore Lorient. I have to admit that this was the first time that either Josephine or myself had ridden a bicycle for many years and perhaps this busy foreign city was not a good place to re-learn. However, I did do a lot of cycling in the years prior to first acquiring a car, and they do say that cycling is something you never forget. It soon came back to me, but Josphine was a bit wobbly, at least to begin with. We headed into the modern city centre, following cycle lanes most of the way. We had a picnic in the central park area near the town hall then went on to the 'City of Sails' which is a huge modern museum set up to commemorate the exploits of Taberly and the other celebrated long distance yachtsmen and women that have followed in more recent years. Like many French museums, this museum is strong on modern architecture and hi-tech audio visual displays, but considering the size of the building there is less information and actual exhibits than one would find in most UK museums. Even so, it was an interesting place for us to wander around. One feature is a trimaran simulator, which is like a small cinema where you watch a video taken from a trimaran sailing at 30+ knots while the seats rock and shake following a motion which is supposed to replicate that on board the actual vessel. I can report that the ride felt appropriately uncomfortable but was rather different to any boat I have ever been aboard; indeed it was more akin to my memories of living in Saudi Arabia and needing to drive a jeep as fast as was tolerable across rough desert terain.

The 'City of Sails' museum at Lorient

The 'City of Sails' museum at Lorient. The high level walkway provides access to the pontoons in the foreground, these being used by some of the current fleet of French racing multihulls including the Groupama sailing team. So from these pontoons you can view (but not touch!) some of the fastest sailing boats in the world. 

After our cycle ride in Lorient, we headed inland up the River Blavet and found ourselves a convenient public pontoon to moor overnight at the village of Lanester. We carried on up the river on Friday morning with the intention of lunching at Hennebont, I had read that was a town worth a visit. We got into some pleasant stretches of river with steep wooded banks but then the tide turned against us and with the trees shielding the wind we decided to turn back to Lorient and the open sea. Leaving Lorient on the ebb, we close reached to Port Tudy on Ile Groix, a few miles south of Lorient. This proved to be another nice island, and somewhat larger than our last island at Ile Houat. Ile Groix has a network of small roads, a supermarket, a diminutive cinema and quite a few cars. It also has an attractive and well used coast path and we explored part of that later in the evening.

From Ile Groix we struggled west, close hauled and butting into the waves under small mainsail and jib. By mid afternoon we had covered the 20 miles to Port Manech at the entrance to L'Aven river. After a quick look ashore we broad reached up the river, anchoring for the night below a rather spooky looking chateau that overlooks the river. It was a rainy night, but fortunately our 30+ years old boat tent is still reasonably waterproof.

Unusual boat

An unusual sailing boat seen on a mooring at Pont L'Aven

In the morning, we continued to the head of navigation at Pont l'Aven. The last mile or so of the river up to the town is particularly attractive, winding between steep rocky and wooded banks. The artist Gauguin lived at Pont l'Aven and it has now become a place that people visit to buy paintings from contemporary artists. I think it would be no exaggeration to say that about half the premises in the central part of the town are art galleries, which makes it quite an unusual place, not to mention an extreme tourist trap. We tied alongside the quay wall and wandered around for a few hours, then dropped a little down river to anchor for the night. 

We had a wet and windy night, with the anchor warps snatching which kept us awake some of the time. In the morning I found that one of the two anchors that we had laid was stuck fast in the sea bed, I gave the warp a pretty good vertical pull but nothing happened. Ironically it was our folding grapnel anchor which has been criticised by at least one DCA member as being a useless design of anchor!  I thought that perhaps the anchor had snagged an old chain or the like, so I devised an elaborate scheme that involved Josephine taking one end of the anchor warp ashore and pulling it tight and close to horizontal while I rowed the boat to drag a loop of another warp along the tight warp and down over the shank of the stuck anchor so that the stuck anchor could be lifted from the fluke end. After a couple of attempts this worked and we recovered the anchor and cleaned all the mud from the boat. I am still not sure whether the anchor really was caught on an obstruction or whether the sticky mud of the river bed simply provided remarkably good anchor holding, in which case we could perhaps have more simply recovered the anchor by using our mainsheet tackle to haul harder on it.

Pont L'Aven

The river just above the head of navigation at Pont L'Aven

Concrete foot bridge at Pont L/Aven

This footbridge just above the head of navigation at Pont L'Aven looks to be made from tree trunks and branches but is actually 100% reinforced concrete 

We were now getting a bit behind schedule with our plan to sail all the way from the Semaine du Golfe event to the Route du Sable event and with the long range forecast being for continuing head winds there really did not seem much point in pursuing this rather arbitrary goal. We decided to take another look round the art galleries and cafes of Pont L'Aven and then explore the neighbouring R. Belon by boat before making a bus and train journey to collect our car from Vannes so that we could have a few days of car based camping prior to joining the Route du Sable. So, with the rain now eased and the sun appearing, we rowed back to the quayside at Pont L'Aven and spent a day ashore. The following day we sailed, initially in thick fog, to the River Belon which has an entrance from the the sea immediately adjacent to that of L'Aven.

Upper reaches of L'Aven estuary

Our boat dried out in the pretty upper reaches of the L'Aven estuary (near where we got our anchor stuck)

The Belon proved to be another very attractive estuary with mainly wooded shorelines.  It is perhaps a bit broader than L'Aven along much of its length and there are several branching creeks that can be explored towards high water.  We spent one night dried out at the scrubbing piles at Kergoulouet and we sailed right to the head of navigation where a low road bridge crosses the top of the estuary. From this point I walked a mile or so in search of supplies at the small town of Moelan-Sur-Mer, forgetting that it was Monday which is the day that all the shops close in many villages and small towns in France - not the first time I have forgotten that important fact!

Following on from the sailing described above, we stayed a few days on a campsite near Crozon, from which we did some walking along the lovely coast paths of the peninsula that extends out to Cap de la Chevre, then we joined the Route du Sable sailing event. I have an account of Route du Sable here .