Cruising in Brittany

Audierne is not my favourite French port, although one has to say that the competition is pretty tough. But when you have just succeeded in going “round the corner” and tackled the notorious Raz de Sein, (which you must take at slack water) and finally made it to Southern Brittany, you are so pleased to come upon this little harbour, that it is hard to resist. Gill and I entered very gingerly, because there is precious little water here, and it is mostly in a narrow channel with very precise transits. On this occasion, it was made even more interesting by the presence of a large dredger anchored in the middle of the channel. Then you remember visiting yachts must raft up on the hammerheads. You also realise that you must turn round to put your bows into the rising tide. What you may have forgotten (like I did) is that there is a 5 knot current which catches you in the middle of your turn and sweeps you sideways towards the road bridge. We came alongside the pontoon rather fast. Fortunately, a few minutes with a soft cloth and rubbing compound was enough to remove all evidence of our arrival!

I only mention Audierne, because it was the starting point for one of those glorious days which one remembers for years. Days like that make it worth having a sailing boat, and which help to justify all the expense and work which they involve. You are lucky to get one a year, and for us this was it!

We were basically heading south down the west coast of France towards Les Sables d’Olonne and La Rochelle. We were in no real hurry as we planned to leave Ptarmigan over there for the winter, so we hoped to potter gently down, sailing when the wind was between 3 and 6, and staying ashore and living la vie Francaise when it wasn’t. This day we planned to sail about 30 miles to Loctudy and this requires some challenging navigation as you must round the Pointe de Penmarc’h. Last time we were here, Francis Joyon had just completed his record-breaking circumnavigation in Idec, and then, only two days later, crashed his boat into the rocky reefs around this point, and was lucky to survive; so we were on full alert.

The wind was a SW force 4, so pretty ideal; we started on a beam reach for the 15 miles to the massive black and white tower of Le Menhir. The sky was totally blue. Last time we did this trip, we were broad-reaching under a double-reefed main, and covered this stretch in just under 2 hours! Today was definitely rather gentler.

After about an hour of pleasant but uneventful sailing, we suddenly caught the sound of a little of gasp – the unmistakable sound of dolphins as their blow-holes open and close. We had about a dozen all around us. I am sure we’ve all seen dolphins at some stage, but they never fail to enthral. Then we started looking further out to sea and there seemed to be dolphins everywhere; I guess there could have been 40 or more; they stayed with us for twenty minutes and departed just as we arrived at the Pointe and prepared to alter course towards the East.

We had another treat in store. As we rounded the point and got our first glimpse east towards the Iles de Glenans, there appeared a solid line of sails, maybe 20 in all, heading straight for us and stretching well into the distance. My first thought was that we now had to pick our way round (or between) all these rocks and we had this whole string of boats on a collision course. Fortunately we were on starboard tack, but it was still a rather daunting sight. As the first yacht neared us, I picked up the binoculars and saw she was a fabulous classic wooden yawl; the second yacht was also a traditional design. The we remembered that the big Festival of the Sea, in Brest, was due to start in two days, and all these classic yachts were heading there. We also realised why they were all so closely packed: they all had to face the Raz de Sein, now about 25 miles away, and they all wanted to get there at exactly the same time – slack water. It was like a Parade of Sail laid on especially for our benefit, in perfect conditions. Of course most of them passed quite close to us, and one gave us rather a shock because we were both closing on the same Spinec south cardinal buoy from opposite directions and I waited for him to alter course. And waited. And when I could bear it no longer I bore away and watched her creaming past us – with not a single soul on board. No-one on deck; no-one on the tiller; and Ptarmigan and a large south cardinal buoy both within 50 meters of her!

It was frustrating to have all these wonderful craft passing so close, and wanting to admire them all, but knowing that our main task was to keep an eye on the course, and try and spot the next pair of buoys. In some cases, these were ridiculously small; indeed, it struck us as strange that a channel only 300 meters wide was marked by two small buoys, whereas the Raz de Sein, which is almost two miles wide, has a granite tower 33 meters high.

We soon eased gently into Loctudy, nicely in time for tea, and found Harvester and Snow Goose already moored up; we had all spent few days together stormbound in Camaret, meeting up for serious discussions by the meteo each morning and then sharing kirs and beers in the evenings; then again, in Audierne; tonight we knew would see them all again, but this time we would have better things to talk about!

Chris Godley

Sadler 34 – “Ptarmigan”