France at last!

After three years of pandemic lockdowns and uncertainty over post-Brexit passport arrangements, we finally made it to France! We sailed Guiding Star to northern Brittany, to Binic’s friendly annual festival of boats, food and music celebrating the generations of French fishermen who spent six months a year catching cod in the freezing fog off Newfoundland.

We set sail from Plymouth after breakfast, reached straight across the Channel in a steady breeze and warm sunshine, and anchored off Binic at dawn next day to wait for the nine-metre high tide we needed to cross the sandy beach and enter the harbour.

Brexit has added some friction for British sailors: we used to just sail to and fro across the Channel and nobody bothered with passports or boat documents. This time, once we locked in on the afternoon high tide, we had an hour to hunt down the customs police headquarters before they closed. We borrowed a kind friend’s car, Google-mapped our way to a small industrial estate several miles away (thanks to Chris for continual reminders to drive on the right), and made it in time. An overworked customs officer stamped our passports, for me the first French stamp since I went on a school French exchange in 1971.

We should properly have sailed to St Brieuc, six miles down the coast, because non-EU boats should only make land in northern Brittany in one of three ‘ports of entry’ widely spaced along the coast. But the festival organisers persuaded the police to let us sail direct to Binic.

To stamp out of France after the weekend of fun, we should have gone back to the customs headquarters on Monday during office hours, so missing the dawn high tide to set sail. But in an ‘exceptional procedure’, two officers in plain clothes met us in a car park in Binic on Sunday afternoon and stamped our passports in the back of a white van. I hope in another couple of years, someone will have negotiated a pragmatic deal to allow sailors cross the Channel as easily as we used to and let the customs police to get on with catching smugglers.

Our passage back took nearly twice as long as the trip over, first motoring for 12 hours through a millpond sea, then beating into a fickle northwesterly blowing from exactly where we wanted to go. But we did hoist Guiding Star’s new topsail for the first time, and it set perfectly. We had last season’s new sail, the big genoa, up as well as 2020’s new main and staysail, so this was the first time we’d had all Guiding Star’s four new sails up at the same time.

I then left the sails up for too long when the wind freshened and let the genoa drag over the side when I thought it was safely tied up on deck, but we recovered well. We berthed in Plymouth after 36 hours at sea and just made it to the pub before the kitchen closed. Many thanks to Chris, John and Martin for a terrific trip.