September 1st to 8th  2016 - Dinghy Cruise in the Charente Maritime


At the beginning of September 2016, Dinghy Cruising Association (DCA) member Miles D. organised the first DCA event to be held in France. This event was supported by nine DCA members, five of whom were also Hostellers Sailing Club (HSC) members, together with a number of Miles French sailing friends. This level of HSC participation made this cruise the principle sailing event for the HSC in 2016. 

The cruise took place on the Atlantic coast of France in the Charente Maritime region. We started at La Cayenne near the entrance of the river Seudre and the first two days were spent on that river. After that we sailed some 40 miles north to La Flotte on the northern side of Isle de Re before returning to La Cayenne.

Josephine and I arrived a couple of days before the start of the event so we launched our boat at La Cayenne and looked for somewhere to spend the night aboard.   It was immediately clear that oyster cultivation is the principle industry in this area, I understand that 40% of French oyster production is from around here. The road we had followed to the slipway had traversed a couple of miles of marshland that was completely taken over for oyster cultivation with a maze of artificial waterways linking up rectangular ponds where oysters are matured. Along one side of this road was a string of buildings connected with oyster cultivation and also restaurants selling the end product.   On the opposite side of the road was a tidal canal leading inland to the town of Marennes and we chose to moor at high water along the side of that canal. We prodded around with an oar to find a place where we thought we had a chance of drying out reasonably level. As it turned out we had picked about the best place available but even so we dried out at an uncomfortable angle and looking out of our boat tent at low tide we were alarmed to see that only a couple of feet from where our boat lay the mud dropped steeply down to the base of the channel where there was now just a trickle of water rushing out to the main river. So we had a somewhat uncomfortable night, but it could have been much worse.

The picture below gives an idea of what this canal looks like at low water. The flat bottomed boat to the lower right of this picture is one of the workboats used for tending the oyster beds - we have seen this style of work boat in various sizes working on oyster beds in Brittany as well as in the Charante Maritime. It is a welded aluminium craft with a flat bottom and a flat rectangular working deck. These craft are normally powered by quite large outboard motors - 150HP or even 250HP is not unusual and these motors are typically on frames that can be raised hydraulically to allow the craft to work in shallow water - draft unloaded is probably less than that of our dinghies. The craft will skim along fast when lightly loaded, maybe 20 knots or more, I imagine that there must be considerable fuel bills.  


The canal at La Cayenne at low water, River Seudre in the background, oyster restaurant at top right

The following morning brought brilliant sunshine and a warm breeze so the difficulties of the night were quickly forgotten as we sailed under the high road bridge that crosses the mouth of the Seudre and then headed north to the nearest point on the Ille d’Oleron. In doing so we had to weave our way through channels between extensive oyster beds that cover much of the sea area between the Ille d’Oleron and the mainland.  Landing briefly at a beach on Ille d’Oleron we treated ourselves to ice creams before heading back to La Cayenne on the flooding tide. Miles D had kindly invited those travelling from the UK to meet at his house that evening so we left our boat anchored off the bank of the Seudre,(not in the canal this time!) and drove inland for about an hour to find the hamlet deep in the countryside where Miles and his wife Lyn have been living for a number of years.

Arriving at Miles house we met Mark T. And Slade P. with the brand new 6m trimaran that they jointly own - an interesting new addition to the HSC fleet - see picture below. After a nice meal (Thank you Lyn!) we spent a comfortable night in Miles house then HSC members Gerald T. and Mark S. arrived in the morning with Gerald’s Drascombe dinghy.


Trimaran, 6.0m LOA, jointly owned by Slade P and Mark T.

Miles own boat for this event was his home built 15 foot strip planked and gaff rigged 'Water Rat' (or Rat d'Eau reading it from the other side of the boat), originally to plans for an open dinghy drawn by Woodbridge boat designer George Whisstock but recently much modified to include a cosy cabin and additional built in bouyancy - see picture below.


Miles rows Water Rat up the winding creek to Port Paradis

That afternoon we all drove from Miles house to La Cayenne where DCA President Roger Barnes and crew Mary were waiting for us having already launched Roger’s well known ‘Illur’ dinghy. Once all the boats were ready and our cars and boat trailers taken to a parking area which Miles had arranged in a boatyard at Marennes, we sailed with the flood tide up the Seudre. As we sailed gently along we were aware that we were being joined by a number of other small sailing boats together with a couple of fair sized traditional sailing fishing boats (second picture below) – it turned out that these were all freinds that Miles had invited along and that were to join us for a meal at a remote spot known as 'Port Paradis' this being some miles up a creek winding its way into the vast marshland of oyster cultivation. It was indeed a memorable meal, laid oiut on a long trestle table set up alongside the wooden cabin owned by Jean-Luc P. a friend of Miles who lent the cabin for the evening and then sailied with Miles in Water Rat for the rest of the cruise. It was another balmy evening and we watched the sun set as we reached the main course, then lanterns were lit as we reached the cake and coffee courses. We found that several of those present were members of the French Sail and Oar Association whome we already knew from the cruise we had in the Quiberon bay a couple of years previously – see this link


Meal at Port Paradis


Restored sailing fishing boats at Port Paradis

The Remontee de la Seudre is an annual event that I will refer to as a boat race, although it is something between a proper boat race and a waterborne parade. Miles had arranged our cruise so that we could take part in this race so we spent the morning sailing down to the start point at La Tremblade near the mouth of the Seudre on the opposite shore to La Cayenne. We found that La Tremblade had much in common with La Cayenne - miles of marshland used for oyster cultivation and numerous seafood restraurants plus a slipway and a landing stage used by the boats that tend the oyster beds. We sighned on for the race, buying a tee shirt and getting a number to pin to our sail, then we went for lunch at one of the many crowded restaurants.  After lunch a large and varied fleet gathered, canoes, sailing dinghies, windsurfers, traditional yachts and restored sailing fishing boats, plus a few strange but colourful vessels best described as rafts.


 Craft being made ready for the first start


One of the more fanciful entries - just look at that captain's outfit

There were two starts to the race, the first for canoes, sailboards and rafts and the second, half an hour later, for dinghies, yachts and traditional sailing work boats. We watched the first start from the shore and I noticed that a few of the canoes were taking this as a serious race and paddling furiously ahead of all the others, but for most of the participants this was just an opportunity for lunch in a restaurant followed by a fun afternoon afloat.

When our start came, although the wind was light, I decided to take a reef to help with manouvering safely among the close packed fleet. I know from our participations in Semaine du Golfe that you do need to take care to avoid collisions in this kind of situation. However, soon after we started Josephine became rather competitive and started manourvering to find clear air and work our way forward from the middle of the fleet, so out came the reef and we went into race mode, which is very rare on our boat. By the end of the race, a few miles upstream at L'Eguille, we found ourselves ahead of all the other dinghies apart from two or three that had been well over the line at the start. Although we missed the prize giving while mooring our boat and setting up our boat tent for the night, Miles attended the ceremony and received a fine hand crafted trophy presented to the UK participants acknowleging the effort they had made to travel to France and participate. The event was followed by  supper on tables set up on the quayside and also a breakfast at high water – 6-00am the following morning.  


Mark and Josephine with the fine trophy presented jointly to the English participants in Remontree de la Seudre 2016

The next day we had a long sail from L'Eguille to Boyardville on the eastern shore of Isle d’Oleron. We had to find our way through the channels between the oyster beds at around low water but we had the benefit of detailed navigation notes that Miles had provided for us, these listing the navigation marks that we should identify and the compass courses we should follow.  

Arriving at the marina at Boyardville we found that we had a special welcome – friends of Miles had arranged a little party for us in a meeting room within the harbour master's office building. Following that we were treated to a private tour of a historic sailing vessel, the Clapotis, built 1920. The original function of the Clapotis is unusual and I dont think you would guess it from the apperanceo of the vessel. The channels through the shallows around the Ile d'Oleron used to be marked by tall poles driven into the mud of the sea bed and the Clapotis was a work boat built for transporting and laying these poles. The poles were transported hanging from the rail of Clapotis. To lay the poles, a tube was first placed vertically on the seabed and a pump used to force water down the tube displacing the mud of the sea bed to form a hole into which the pole could be lowered. We were shown the picture below depicting a model of Clapotis dried out on the seabed with tackles from her mast being used to handle a massive pole, perhaps something like 50 feet in length. Given the racing yacht appearance of the vessel with its sleek lines and generous sail area this original function is quite a surprise. It would have looked a bit more work boat like without the cabin coachroof which is a relatively recent addition, originally there was a hatch to a cargo hold where this coachroof now stands.

The comprehensive notes that Miles provided in advance of this event included a description of both the Clapotis and the Pere Gabriel, one of the two fishing boats shown in the picture taken at Port Paradise as above.  Here is a link to Miles notes about these craft



The Clapotis, originally built to lay navigation marks


Some members of our party and friends of Miles gather round the Clapotis in the marina at Boyardville


Our fleet moored overnight on the visitors pontoon at Boyardville marina

From Boyardville the plan was to sail north to La Flotte on Ile de Re, however a couple of miles out from Boyardville Roger Barnes and his crew chose to head off to Ile d'Aix and then to La Rochelle. They intended to catch us up later on but didn't manage that so we never saw them again during the part of the event planned by Miles but we did briefly meet with them during the HSC extension to the cruise (the part of the cruise shown in yellow on the map above). So on arrival at La Flotte our fleet was reduced to four boats, (but six hulls if you include the trimaran as three).  La Flotte is a particularly picturesque harbour, had we not been following a tightly planned schedule we might have liked to linger longer there and perhaps explore a bit more of Ile d'Re by land, another time maybe.


Our boat and Gerald's Susy in the harbour at La Flotte - Miles on the right is holding his mobile 'phone so he has probably been trying to find out what has happened to Roger and crew!

The original plan had been to sail back from La Flotte to La Cayenne in one day but discussing this over supper in a restaurant overlooking the harbour at La Flotte we decided by mutual agreement to extend the cruise by a day to include a second stop at Boyardville, avoiding such a long sail back. Even so it was quite a long sail from La Flotte to Boyardville, the first part being a beat against a stiff easterly headwind as far as the huge bridge that connects Ile d'Re to the mainland, thereafter we had a reach in progressively lighter wind as the day went on.  Gerald and Mark S. found they were making slow progress against the tide after they passed the Ile d'Re bridge so they stopped off for a few hours on a sandy beach near the bridge waiting for the tide to turn. The other three boats pressed on against the tide but then chose to stop off for a swim on a nice beach on the west side of Ile d'Aix this being the lee side with the easterly winds we had that day. That evening we used up our spare provisions, both food and beverages, with a picnic supper held alongside our boats on the visitors pontoon at Boyardville marina.

The following day Miles with 'Water Rat' and Slade and Mark T. with their trimaran completed their cruise by returning to La Cayenne whereas HSC members John, Josephine, Gerald and Mark S., having a few more days to spare, carried on sailing following the yellow route on the sketch map above. We had a splendid fast reach sailing from Boyardville to Ile d'Aix, see picture below. Note that Gerald now has carbon fibre oars on his dinghy, he made good use of these when the wind fell light during this trip. I have tried them and I found them nice to use, being much lighter than the solid wood oars that we have on most of our dinghies. Josephine also took a rather shaky video clip during our sail to Ile d'Aix, I have posted it on U tube See Here.


Gerald's Drascombe dinghy 'Susy' sailing to Ile d'Aix

Ariving at Ile d'Aix the lady harbour master was not keen on us coming up to the quay near where the ferries land so we placed our boats on mooring bouys and she took us ashore in her motor launch, but later on she did allow us to stay overnight at the quay provided we left before the ferries arrived at 8:00am the following morning.  Soon after we had landed on the island we spotted Roger Barnes and crew sailing in and they also spent that night at the quay.

Ile d'aix is a fascinating little island to explore on foot, or you could hire a bicycle. It was very heavily fortified in Napoleonic times and it was also the place where Napoleon was briefly held before being deported by the British into excile on St Helena. There is a lot of history to this which I will not attempt to include here since an internet search will provide plenty of information. We did visit the Napoleon museum on the island and Mark S. and Gerald spent the night in the official campsite which is actually within the walls of the main fort at the south west corner of the island.


The entrance from the quay over a drawbridge into the fortified part of Ile d'Aix


A street in the former military camp on Ile d'Aix


Roger and Mary arrive at Ile d'Aix


The two lighthouse towers on ile d'Aix

The photo above shows that there are two lighthouse towers on Ile d'Aix. The right hand tower projects a rotating beam in the normal way, the second tower supports a red filter that interupts the beam over a small angle to create a narrow and well defined red sector - I understand that this is a unique arrangement. Since Gerald and Mark were camping near the lighthouses they were well able to observe the way the filter interupted the beam.


Approaching Fouras from the sea the castle is a prominent landmark

From Ile d'Aix we sailed and rowed in light airs to Fouras, mooring our boats on the drying pontoons at the south harbour of Fouras, just to the east of the impressive castle. We spent the rest of the day exploring Fouras and had a nice supper in a small restaurant. Fouras is a pleasant small seaside resort, with a fine swimming beach, tree lined promenade, some fine houses and an interesting museum in the tower of the castle.


A view from the top of the castle tower at Fouras

We visited the museum in the castle tower at Fouras - the above view from the tower is looking north with the Ile d'Aix on the horizon and the main swimming beach of Foras in the right hand foreground.


The small drying harbour at Fouras-Sud - our boats on pontoon at right 

From Fouras we continued up the estuary of the Charente, which gradually becomes a tidal river on approaching Rochefort. We stopped that evening on a pontoon which is right next to a proper campsite so we were able to make use of the facilities, including a swimming pool. The camp site provided Mark and Gerald with a proper place to pitch their tents whereas John and Josephine stayed on their boat overnight, as usual. Lyn and Miles drove over from their house that evening to join us for supper on our boats alongside the pontoon.


Transporter bridge at Rochefort, modern road bridge behind

The following day we decided to go to Rochefort then back to the pontoons by the campsite, all of us travelling in Gerald's Drascombe, leaving John and Josephine's boat on a swinging mooring near the campsite. We had the benefit of the flood tide going up to Rochefort and the ebb returning but even so it was a long day with much energetic rowing in those reaches of the river where we had only light headwinds. Approaching Rochefort naval dockyard we passed under a transporter bridge which is currently being restored to working condition, presumably for its historic interest and as a tourist attraction since there is a modern road brige upstream of it. Here is a question for any civil engineers that may be reading this - why does the transporter bridge need quite so many long stays with their massive ground anchors to each side of it - one might have thought the structure spanning at high level between the towers could carry compression load to prevent the towers collapsing inwards and the tension in the suspension cables above that structure could be counterbalanced by short stays to the overhanging ends of that high level structure?

Rochefort was an important naval port in Napoleonic times and a centre for the construction of the French sailing warships. We walked around the naval dockyard which is now a group of museums.


 The rope walk in the naval dockyard complex at Rochefort


An exhibit in the museum - a novel rope making machine

The rope walk at Rochefort - see above - is an immensely long and elegantly styled building - I would say that it is much more impressive than its counterpart in the Plymouth naval dockyard back home. The second picture above, shows a model of an unconventional rope making machine in the naval museum, the caption explained that this was a special design that could produce long ropes without needing a long rope walk. This puzzled us somewhat - the model shows two frames each carrying multiple spools of fibres which are twisted together to form a double layer rope, the twisting mechanism appearing to be on the moving carrage to the right. But surely for a rope to be stable in use there have to be some fibres twisted one way and some fibres twisted the other way and how is that achieved without rotating one of the frames bodily relative to the other frame (which I think is how modern rope making machines operate but is clearly not possible with this machine) -  Any answers?  The museum also featured many ship models that were actually constructed at or even before the original ships were built - the shipbuilders produced these models as a guide to construction or sometimes also as training aids for the crew.


The Hermione replica

We admired the full size replica of the French frigate Hemione, the original launched in 1779, the replica just a few years ago, unfortunately we ran out of time to go on board.


A very scary looking nautically themed adventure playground

We also watched people testing their heads for heights on this remarkable adventure playground, the concept being loosely based on the rigging of a three masted ship. Most of the participants were quite young but there didn't appear to be any reason that old folk such as ourselves should not have a go at it, so perhaps it was fortunate that we had the excuse that we needed to catch the tide to row back down the river! I would add that the whole thing was carefully supervised by adult instructors and everyone was wearing safety harnesses which was far from being the case on a real ship in old times.

Back at the camp site that evening we had a discussion as to how to get back to our start point at La Cayenne. Some of us did need to be home before the weekend so ideally we needed to make the whole passage the following day and, as Mark pointed out, that meant a 5:00am start if we were to avoid having to proceed against the strong flood in the Charente river. I was not keen on such an early start having been somewhat spoilt by spending much of the past summer dinghy sailing on the tideless Baltic sea, but in the event the plan did work out well. We managed to get up at about 4:00am to depart at 5:00am. We rowed gently down the river in pitch darkness and flat calm, taking care to dodge moored boats that seemed to be wizzing past as the ebb tide swept us along. By day break it was low water and we were off the end of the shoals at the mouth of the Charente, so well placed to take the flood southwards to La Cayenne. At that point the wind came in from the south and strengthened during the day giving us a good sail back to La Cayenne, albeit with some tacking. By tea time we had our boats back on road trailers ready to head home.

In summary this was an excellent event and we are most grateful to Miles for organising it so throughoughly.