The first Charlestown Harbour Classic Sail Festival proved that Cornwall can celebrate its maritime heritage with as much passion, energy and fun as Brittany. Festivals in harbours on the French side of the Channel attract tens of thousands of visitors and top musicians, pouring money into the local economy and exciting people about the history of fishing, trading and privateering which shaped their country. Now, the English coast at last has a chance to catch up and we were thrilled to take part on Guiding Star.
Crowds thronged the eighteenth-century harbour walls to watch fifteen boats from the 63-foot three-masted lugger Grayhound to the 26-foot open oyster dredger Alf Smythers parade through the narrow entrance and negotiate a sharp turn into the inner harbour. They packed the quayside, where movies and television series such as ‘Poldark’ have been filmed, to dance to local bands Flats and Sharps and Mad Dog Mcrea.
The food was superb. HarbourQ barbecued sardines, sweet potato and halloumi with home-made relishes and sauces, and Bristol chef Rachel Bull’s served fresh local mussels and chips and oysters from her Winkle Picker caravan.
Several boats, including Guiding Star, were open for visitors and Cathy, Thomas and I took turns to stay on board to show people around.
On Sunday, there was a spontaneous sculling competition with prizes of rum made by the skipper of Ibis, Elle, who runs the Fal River Distillery. I’ve never sculled before but I had a five-minute lesson from Spike, who restored the 65-foot Lowestoft drifter Gleaner after bringing her back from Germany in pieces in a shipping container, and is a serious sculler.
Cathy’s video shows Spike powering up the harbour to win the race with her friend Viv on lookout in the bow, and me and Viv’s partner Chris going nowhere. Viv later took over from me and through sheer determination drove us the last fifty metres up the harbour where there was still a swig of rum in the bottom of the bottle.
We were up at six on Monday morning for all the boats to leave the harbour before high tide, and broad reached home to Plymouth. The light breeze gave a chance to try a mizzen staysail for the first time; it added most of a knot so we barrelled along, but the wind freshened and the weather helm started to push us towards France so it had to come down again.
The Festival was the result of a huge effort by a large number of people so thank you to all of them and to the new owner of Charlestown Harbour, Rolf Munding. This was a breakthrough moment and I hope the Festival will grow and grow.
What a welcome we had in Brittany! At the crew dinner on our first night in Paimpol at the Festival du Chant de Marin, Celia and I met Michel and Claire, who hadn’t been able to bring their boat because the engine had broken down. Over paella and bottles of festival red wine, raising their voices against a tide of sea shanties, rugby anthems and bagpipes, they urged us to sail along the coast after the festival to visit them in Trégastel, on Brittany’s ‘rose granite coast’.
English people sometimes make invitations like that just to be polite but this was France and we realised Michel and Claire meant it, so we made Trégastel our goal after the festival.
From Paimpol, we sailed 20 miles out of the Bay of St Malo and round the coast to the Tréguier river, where we found other friends: the crew of Le Grand Léjon, who had spent a day exploring an island in the estuary. Skipper Etienne came to meet us in their dinghy, invited us to dinner and waited without a word while we failed three times to anchor securely on the east side of the river. When we finally anchored successfully behind Le Grand Léjon on the west side, he ferried us on board for a sumptuous meal of freshly caught bass and mackerel baked with carrots, fennel, onion and white wine, washed down with wine, ginger liqueur and Odile’s mother’s home-distilled fire water. We ate, drank and sang. That’s Tina, Gilles, Etienne and Odile in the photo at the top of the page.
The next day, we beat 30 miles to windward to Trégastel past the nature reserve of Les Sept îles. I insisted on putting the mizzen up to go faster, as a result of which we missed the narrow, rocky entrance to Trégastel and careered a mile and a half further down the coast before I managed to bring all the sails down and Celia turned the boat round.
On the way there, I realised later, we had passed the tiny island of Yvinec, home of the young Bréton sailor Guirec Soudée who spent five years sailing 45,000 miles around the world alone except for a chicken called Monique. At the time, Yvinec was just another stack of rocks we needed to tack to avoid but I found out how close we’d come after I bought Guirec’s irresistible children’s book, The Hen Who Sailed Around the World.
I was anxious about arriving late because Michel had texted during the afternoon to say that he and Claire had invited friends for drinks at 7.00pm to meet us. When he collected us from our mooring in a RIB driven by a volunteer from the local Sauveteurs en Mer and we splashed onto the beach, we discovered that one of the friends was the correspondent of the local newspaper, Le Trégor, and I spent half an hour struggling to tell the story of Guiding Star in French.
Celia and I were overwhelmed by Michel and Claire’s hospitality. We found ourselves in a room full of people, drinking crisp white wine and eating fishy delicacies on crackers and Claire’s delicious savoury cake. Trégastel is a beach resort and there are plenty of holiday homes along the granite boulders of the shoreline; but these were people who had grown up here, perhaps moved away for work but had kept their connections and retired here. At the end of the evening, Gaël generously sculled us back to Guiding Star in the deepening twilight. It was a wonderful evening.
Top music at the Paimpol festival: for me, the Colombian band Puerto Candelaria playing joyous, passionate tunes at one in the morning on a stage on the big schooner De Gallant.
After Paimpol and Trégastel, we sheltered from a storm moving up the Channel by sailing six miles up the Tréguier river to Tréguier itself, a small mediaeval cathedral city with the finest shellfish restaurant I’ve ever eat in, Poissonerie Moulinet.
We stayed a day longer than planned because of an engine alarm, but that meant we heard a concert by baroque chamber group Le Banquet Céleste with the sublime counter-tenor voice of Damien Guillon. Here’s a recording of them performing the Bach Psalm 51 after Pergolesi which made the climax of the concert.
After that, the least said about the crossing back to Plymouth, the better. The wind blew fresh from the northwest where we wanted to head, Celia had a rare bout of seasickness, and somehow when we weren’t looking a wave or a gust ripped off and snapped the port whisker-stay bracket. We had to take down the jib, reef the bowsprit and motor the last 60 miles.
The people of Looe know how to throw a party. Every two years, they host the Looe Lugger Regatta, welcoming two dozen old luggers including most of the handful of boats which were built in Looe in the glory days of Cornish fishing, such as Guiding Star, and still survive a hundred years on.
This year was even more special: thirty years since the tradition of the regatta was revived in 1989. Looe Sailing Club laid on two buffets the length of the fish market, and on Saturday night, crews and town folk danced to local ska band The Mighty Offbeats until the concrete floor was wet with beer.
The winds were light and fickle but enough for two races on Saturday and one on Sunday. In the first race, we tried our gennaker, a cross between a big jib and a spinnaker which Guiding Star inherited from another boat. It can’t cope close to the wind because it’s set flying, but with the wind on the beam and Celia helming, the boat hit six knots at times. By the second race, the wind was getting up so we swapped to our usual jib; I helmed and struggled to tack the boat because I forgot to ease the mizzen so we ended up near the back of the fleet.
On Sunday, the sun beat down on a glassy sea and we sat at anchor till early afternoon before Brian on the committee boat spotted signs of an incoming sea breeze. We did well on a couple of agonisingly slow downwind legs but were then caught by a bewildering 180-degree wind shift.
Guiding Star with our light wind gennaker
Glassy calm on the second day
The committee boat
The trophy; Paul Greenwood on the stage
We finished the regatta half way down the fleet but did win a trophy for sportsmanship. I hit a mark right in front of the committee boat (Brian’s trawler) in the third race and thought I should fess up rather than be disqualified, so radioed to ask what was the penalty.
There was a puzzled silence until someone said, “You get to go round another mark.” Naively, I persisted until the voice said firmly, “Well, we didn’t see anything.”
We pressed on, and I was very touched that evening to find that my honesty was worth a trophy. (Everyone had to hand their trophies back immediately because, well, one from two years ago went missing, but we have the photographs).
The driving force behind reviving the tradition of the Regatta has been Paul Greenwood, who went to sea aged sixteen in the early 1960s on one of the five wooden luggers then still fishing, I.R.I.S.. She used her three engines, not sails, but the conditions on board were as punishing as in the nineteenth century: a skipper and five crew hauling a mile and a half of nets over the rail by hand, sleeping crammed into a tiny, fetid cabin in the stern. Paul’s two books, Once Aboard a Cornish Lugger and More Tales from a Cornish Lugger are vivid, funny and sobering.
Richard had to leave us in Looe to go back to work on Monday morning but Celia, Thomas and I had a perfect, warm day’s sail back to Plymouth, during which we saw a grey seal with its head out of the water sunning itself.
The committee said on their Facebook page afterwards that they were “all getting on in age now and creak more than some of the boats in a gale” but “everyone has decided to go for one more in 2021”, which is great news.
Thank you to Paul, Mike (“make those lines bar tight and you’ll be all right!”), Brian, the wonderful cooks of the Looe Sailing Club and everyone else who gave the fleet an unforgettable event.
The amusement arcade may be the site of James Angear’s yard where Guiding Star was built in 1907
Celia during a perfect sunny sail back to Plymouth
Topsail setting well
Many thanks to Richard Lockhart for the photos of Guiding Star, and to Thomas for the photos of the fleet on the glassy Sunday.
This photo doesn’t do justice to the state of the old paraffin cooker by the time I finally despaired of it. Despite hours of effort and a lot of money on spare parts, the oven burner still leaked, one of the top burners heated feebly and the cracked cast-iron top was flaking with rust. The oven door wouldn’t seal even with a bent piece of wire to hold it closed.
Happily, there’s a small firm in the south of England which refurbishes Taylor’s stoves for much less than the eye-watering cost of a brand new one. Taylor’s Heaters and Cookers are engineering artists. When our replacement cooker came down the pontoon on a trolley, I couldn’t see the difference from a new one.
The old one was wheeled away in part-exchange and I was left with several plastic bags of pieces to install the replacement. I spent a peaceful day sawing and bending copper pipe and screwing up eight separate joints to connect the fuel tank to an on-off tap, a filter and the cooker itself. The swap gave me the chance to move the fuel tank lower in its locker so it sits at a better angle for pumping up the pressure.
Lots of compression joints
A paraffin stove is an entertainment to light, but I wouldn’t change it for a gas cooker because it’s safer. Gas explodes; paraffin needs to be persuaded to burn hot enough to boil a kettle. First, you pump air into the fuel tank to put the paraffin under pressure. Next, you fill a cup under the burner with meths and light it so that it heats the burner for three or four minutes. Finally, you turn the paraffin on: the oil sprays onto the underside of the hot burner and vaporises, and you light the vapour, which burns with a hot, blue flame.
If you try to light the burner too soon, the paraffin oozes out in liquid form and a sheet of yellow flame leaps up and smears soot across the galley ceiling. It looks alarming but it’s not very hot.
So, now we have a working cooker with an oven, a grill and two stove-top burners. It might be time to bake Guiding Star’s own bread.
If you too have a paraffin stove on its last legs, you can reach the experts on 07984 692766.
We started getting in tune early for June’s Festival of Salt Cod (La Morue en Fête) in Binic on the north coast of Brittany. The wonderful French lugger Le Grand Léjon joined the Brixham Heritage Regatta over the May bank holiday weekend and invited us on board to sing shanties and drink kir in the sunshine.
Le Grand Léjon is a replica of a nineteenth-century cargo lugger built to carry sand: below decks, she’s cavernous and although she’s only a couple of feet longer than Guiding Star, she displaces thirty tons. Etienne, in the green shirt below, is co-founder of a sea shanty group called Fortunes de Mer which has been working for fifteen years to collect and sing songs from ports all along the Channel coast. Many of the shanties are very funny, about clueless captains, drink-sozzled sailors and fishermen dreaming of hot, salty Paimpol beans (which do actually have an appellation d’origine protégée like Camembert and Stilton).
Rodolphe on accordion
Gilles on guitar
The racing in Brixham wasn’t our finest hour, since I mis-estimated how long it would take to reach the start line and arrived ten minutes late to see the two other boats in our class, Le Grand Léjon and I.R.I.S., already half-way across the bay. By the time we got back to the pontoon, the other crews were already breaking out the kir again.
Rafted against Golden Vanity and Le Grand Léjon
Beating on port tack
We changed crews on Monday. Sadly, Thomas had to pull out of the trip to Binic because of an infection, and Kate and Celia had to go back to work. Andy and John joined the boat.
Le Grand Léjon led us across the Channel on Tuesday morning, reaching in a cracking westerly breeze on a big swell which turned all our stomachs. We slipped the town pontoon in Brixham at dawn and anchored in the River Trieux seventeen hours later, an average of nearly six knots. Early on, Le Grand Léjon left us behind, using what Etienne later called “un petit appui de moteur” (a little help from the engine) but by late afternoon we caught them up.
I felt confident entering an unfamiliar rocky anchorage at night across a fierce tide because we were following the immensely experienced Etienne in his home waters. But just when we were about to drop the anchors, all the electrics on Le Grand Léjon failed and they had to navigate the last few hundred yards by torchlight. We were saved by Navionics on my iPhone.
Brixham to Brittany in 17 hours
Le Grand Léjon leaving the River Trieux anchorage
Binic, like many harbours in Brittany, is a mile from the sea at low tide. The gate to the harbour needs eight metres of tide to open so we had only half an hour for a dozen boats to funnel through the entrance and berth. Once inside, though, we had the perfect layout for a traditional boat festival: a long pontoon the length of the quayside, so that visitors could look down on the boats.
The outer harbour at high tide
Guiding Star on the pontoon
Storyboards for each boat
Crowds on the quay
Ship owner’s mansion
Newfoundland salt cod made fortunes
The two shores of the Channel celebrate parallel but separate histories of the sea. On the English side, people remember the Armada, Cornish smugglers, Nelson and the netting of massive shoals of pilchards and herring. On the French side, the heroes are the privateers of Saint Malo Bay who seized Spanish galleons and, later, English merchant ships, and the men who for nearly five hundred years crossed the North Atlantic to fish for cod in the fog and sub-zero cold of the Newfoundland Grand Banks.
The French call it La Grande Peche, the Great Fishery. Binic and ports along the Channel and Atlantic coasts of France lived from Newfoundland cod until the 1970s, when governments reacted to disastrous declines in fish stocks by declaring exclusive economic zones around their coasts. Britain nearly went to war with Iceland over cod; Canada shut the French out and an industry died.
The Newfoundland fishery took men away for six months of the year in brutal conditions. They crossed the Atlantic on big three-masted ships but the fishing was done by line from small boats called dories, carried stacked on deck. Two or three men would scull into the freezing fog to set lines. At the end of the day, they hauled the fish in and had to find their way back to the ship; sometimes, they never arrived. On board, the catch was gutted and salted by men and boys working long shifts, soaked in icy water and up to their elbows in fish guts and blood.
Even in the age of steel ships and diesel motors in the 1960s, the fishery was exhausting, dangerous work. At the Binic festival, retired fishermen in their seventies and eighties gave talks and a demonstration of gutting and salting. One man told how he’d fallen overboard and spent three quarters of an hour in the bitter water but had been rescued by two Portuguese fishermen. He wept when he said he’d been taken to Portugal two years ago to meet one of them who was still alive.
The Association du Grand Léjon, the non-profit group of about 120 people who maintain and sail the boat, organised the maritime side of the festival and treated us to a magnificent buffet of beignets de morue, fritters of salt cod with young nettles accompanied by potato and rutabaga mash, caremelised carrots and salad, with yet more kir before the meal and white wine during it. We sat at long tables in a community hall with shanty groups singing on a stage and everyone joining in long lines of Breton dancing after we’d eaten.
Fortunes de Mer sang Breton songs and then invited all the English crews onto the stage to join in The Leaving of Liverpool. If you have good eyesight, we’re in the bottom left of the postcard they made of the event.
On the spur of the moment, I bought a kilo of salt cod from the gutting demonstration and carried it home across the Channel and on the train to London, mostly unrefrigerated, and found a recipe for beignets de morue. They had a great taste, the texture chewier and the flavour more intense than fresh fish. Try the recipe!
Glorious sun but no wind for the return passage
The French navy’s L’Etoile du Roy on its way to Normandy 75th anniversary
Guiding Star is ready to go sailing again after several weeks of on-off winter work frustrated by gales, rain and hail. I’m very grateful to everyone who helped. Thomas devoted a week to sanding, filling and priming the topsides; Celia froze for a day at the bottom of the mast holding me at the top to work on the rigging; Jo slogged through the Plymouth rush hour traffic to bring the refurbished windlass from Millbrook; Andy primed and anti-fouled the hull; Cathy sanded and varnished locker doors; and Jen from our neighbouring boat, Midstream, broke off her own work to help to thread the throat halyard.
Guiding Star in the hoist at Plymouth Yacht Haven in pouring rain
The topsides needed work
Thomas prepared the topsides and bulwarks meticulously
The weather was terrible almost all the time I was in Plymouth and sunny and dry almost all the time I wasn’t. Here’s the view from the cockpit in early March:
At least that gave plenty of time for indoor jobs. For three years, the heads door has been flapping because the latch was broken. I finally found a firm, Croft Architectural Hardware, which was able to mend and refurbish a bronze latch from 1937, and screwed it back on. There’s not much privacy on a 39-foot boat but it’ll be good not to have to jam the door with a towel or hold it closed with your foot.
Even more importantly, for two years water from the aft bilge, which drains the cockpit, has been failing to seep through to the sump in the mid-bilge, where an automatic pump sucks it overboard. I hauled out twenty lead ballast ingots, each weighing twenty kilograms and covered in oily slime and mud, and re-stacked them to leave a path for the water to flow. I tied a length of chain to one of the aft floors with bungee so it can be pulled backwards and forwards through the channel to clear any debris that builds up; a great idea from Will Stirling.
Heads latch back in place
Mid bilge under the galley sole with ballast ingots removed
Between bouts of rain, I filled a handful of weak spots in the caulking with red lead putty and painted the seams with primer and the keel with red lead. When the weather eventually cleared, we finished the hull, topsides and primer on the bulwarks in five days of heavy work. Gloss on the bulwarks would have to wait.
Red lead on top of red lead putty along the join between the sacrificial strip and the keel
Ready to go back into the water
On the worst day of gales, I gave up work and took the ferry to Cornwall to spend the afternoon with Chris Rees discussing how to improve Guiding Star’s sail plan. Chris built Grayhound and Spirit of Mystery and converted Three Brothers, a Looe lugger very similar to Guiding Star, from a full lug rig to a “dandy” rig with a gaff main and a lug mizzen, just like Guiding Star. He had a host of suggestions to give the boat more speed in light wind.
The hot, nearly windless days of last summer which prompted the discussion seemed a long time ago when I rode the bus home along the cliffs west of Rame Head. At one point, the passengers had to get out of the bus to clear a chain link fence out of the road. I now know that a double-decker bus can stand a Force 8 straight on the beam.
I went to London for a week, and Cornwall basked in spring sunshine. I came back to finish the gloss painting and rig the boat for a first sail of the season, and a cold east wind brought this:
The plan for a shakedown sail had to be abandoned but I did paint gloss on the bulwarks, refit the windlass, put the rigging back on (with vital help from Celia and Jen) and bend on the sails.
The windlass looked like a work of art when Jo brought it back from Dave Webster at Deep Blue Engineering. The Simpson Lawrence 500 was installed, I’m fairly sure, when Guiding Star was converted from fishing 82 years ago, and by last summer the mechanism was slipping and jamming and had to be nursed to crank the anchor up. Dave stripped it, cleaned it, welded a broken foot back on and painted it. I bolted it back onto the deck and tied coloured ribbons onto the anchor chain every five metres so we don’t have to guess how much we’ve laid out.
The ribbons are the colours of snooker balls with the idea that it’s an easy order to remember, but it’s a long time since I played snooker on Saturday nights at university and I mix up yellow, green and brown. However, I’m fine on blue, pink and black which mark 25, 30 and 35 metres of chain so we’ll just have to anchor in at least six metres of sea (chain needed = 4 x depth of water).
Thomas and I made a start on the winter work. We took off most of the running rigging and I spent several days in one of the old RAF seaplane hangars at Plymouth Yacht Haven re-varnishing the spars. Working into the evening in the empty hangar as a northeast wind rattled the big sliding doors, it was eerie to think Lawrence of Arabia knew this space when he was reinventing himself as Aircraftman T.E. Shaw at RAF Mount Batten in the early 1930s.
I left Thomas alone with the angle grinder and he cut off the windlass, which we drove to Dave Webster of Deep Blue Engineering in Millbrook for refurbishment. It’s a manual windlass which you crank with a hand spike and frustrated us all year by working on the backward stroke but not on the forward so it took twice as long as it should to haul up the anchor. I emailed a photograph to Dave asking for advice and when he immediately recognised it as a Simpson Lawrence 250, I knew I’d contacted the right person. When we got to Millbrook, he had two others in a queue.
Dave outside his workshop
Queue of SL250s
Thomas wanted some advice on restoring the roller reefing on his own old wooden boat, so Dave suggested he ask a bearded chap in a woolly hat wandering through the boatyard carrying two supermarket bags. He turned out to be Nick Skeate, one of the world’s most famous gaff rig sailors. Forty years ago, he lost his boat on a reef in the Pacific so he designed and built a replacement in New Zealand and has since sailed her three and a half times round the world.
She’s Wylo II, a 32′ gaff cutter with a steel hull, wooden deck and a sail plan designed for long-distance, short-handed passages: two similar sized jibs so shortening sail means simply rolling one up rather than swapping a large jib for a small one, and an enormous topsail for light winds. Nick’s spending the winter in the mud at Millbrook rather than the sunshine further south because he has some repairs to make, so he showed us round.
Nick has sold the plans of Wylo II so there are now 50 versions of her afloat.
Guiding Star will come out of the water at the end of February for two weeks to renew the anti-fouling and paint the hull and bulwarks. The big job left over from last winter is to strip and re-varnish the coachroof, forehatch and tiller.
We sailed to Falmouth on the 11th and 12th to join a Jamboree of Sail to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Golden Globe, the first single-handed non-stop round the world race. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston led a Parade of Sail on Thursday 14th on Suhaili, the original boat in which he won the race. Read more…
The largest classic boating event in the UK. We came third in the luggers class after some exciting sailing in very light winds and a heatwave. The cover image on the gallery of images of the event is us! Read more…
For the first time, Southwest Gaffers held its annual race and rally in Plymouth, Guiding Star’s home port. There was racing on the Sound on Saturday 7th July and a sail in company up to Saltash on Sunday 8th for a pasty. Read more…
We didn’t plan to go to Guernsey. We wanted to visit the Isles of Scilly to explore wildlife and enjoy the Taste of Scilly food festival in what we hoped would be settled September sunshine.
Tropical Storm Helene put paid to that. By the day before we were due to set sail, the remains of this hurricane looked likely to miss Scilly but leave five metres of swell. So we decided to go in the other direction and hop among the Channel Islands.
A fresh southwesterly breeze gave us a fast crossing from Plymouth and at one point it looked as if we’d make St Peter Port in the early hours of the morning. However, the Coastguard warned that the Platte Fougere lighthouse marking the northern approach to St Peter Port wasn’t working reliably, and I thought we’d better turn south and come round the other side of the island.
The tide had other ideas. It swept us sideways so strongly that we couldn’t make any progress southwards at all. We spent two hours sailing back along exactly the track we had come. I calculated in the end that we might as well go back to the first plan and approach St Peter Port from the north. We’d used up so much time that we would now be arriving in daylight, so the unreliable lighthouse wouldn’t matter.
It took all morning even with the engine on to push against the tide that by then was sweeping up the Little Russell channel and reach St Peter Port. We berthed in an almost empty harbour: the sailing season seemed to have ended suddenly in the Channel Islands.
Maybe the weather forecast had something to do with it. We’d missed Tropical Storm Helene but two more named storms, Bronagh and Callum, were driving in from the Atlantic. Even sheltered in the crook of Brittany, we were in for strong winds. After a short discussion, we took the harbourmaster’s offer of four nights berthing for the price of three and decided to do any island-hopping on a ferry rather than sail ourselves. As it turned out, we had to wait two more nights for the aftermath of Storm Callum to die down and even then, had a rough and windy passage back to Plymouth.
There are worse places to be stuck than Guernsey, though. The island is beautiful and soaked in a unique history which most people in Britain hardly know. I’d never understood the odd legal status of the Channel Islands: they are the last remnant of William the Conqueror’s Duchy of Normandy, loyal to the Crown but never integrated into the United Kingdom and so never part of the European Union. In the 1970s, when the UK joined the EU and we started to eat Dutch tomatoes subsidised by the Common Agricultural Policy, the tomato industry which had been a mainstay of the Guernsey economy died in a decade. But Guernsey and Jersey were able to grow a financial services industry beyond the reach of UK and EU regulation.
Dark memories of the Second World War crop up all over Guernsey. The island is within sight of France and along with the other Channel Islands, was occupied by Nazi German troops within days of the fall of France in 1940. I was unsettled walking into the Tourist Information Office to see a large photograph of German soldiers in coal-scuttle helmets marching in front of Lloyds Bank.
Hitler saw great symbolic value in occupying what he saw, slightly inaccurately, as British territory. He imagined the British would do anything to get the islands back and poured in thousands of troops to defend them and thousands of workers, many of them slaves, to build concrete fortifications. The British government, though, was realistic. It saw no chance of recovering the islands without terrible loss of life and simply ignored them until after the Allies had retaken Normandy.
The German underground military hospital and ammunition store on Guernsey remains as concrete proof of Hitler’s futile obsession. Dug out of solid rock at the cost of many deaths among slave workers, the hospital and store were always damp, so ammunition had to be covered in tarpaulins. The 800-bed hospital was used for only a few weeks, when some of the German casualties from the Allied invasion of Normandy were brought here. When it became clear that the Allies were not going to attack the Channel Islands, the wounded men were brought back into the sunlight and treated in normal hospitals.
When the weather forecast kept us in Guernsey for an extra two days, I went in search of my own local history. My aunt Marie was very proud to come from Guernsey, although she was born in Essex just after the First World War and I’m not sure how much she ever lived on the island. I recently inherited a bible from her which belonged to her grandfather, and a happy morning in the Priaulx Library identified the farmhouse where he had lived in St Peters in the Wood. The oldest part of the building dates back to 1450 and the gable is pierced as a dovecote. The main farmhouse dates from the 1860s.
My aunt’s grandfather’s farmhouse
The 1450 part of the building is pierced as a dovecote
Beating into a northerly Force 6 gusting to Force 7 on the way back to Plymouth made for heavy work on the tiller. With two reefs in the main but both headsails up, Guiding Star didn’t balance. We do have a storm jib but I’ve never had it out of the bag and was hesitant to experiment now: a good lesson would have been to try it out on the pontoon on one of the days we were stuck in harbour.
We left by the northern entrance to the Little Russell and the last of the east-going tide pushed us dangerously close to the rocks north of the island of Herm. When the tide turned and we headed north, the leeway pushing us west was so great I thought we’d end up in Falmouth rather than Plymouth. The disturbed sea made us all feel sick and the cabin reeked of paraffin. It was only after we arrived in Plymouth that I realised the cabin lamp had been swinging and jerking so wildly that it had been oozing enough oil to make the cabin uninhabitable.
By next morning, though, we were sailing gently under a cloudless sky within sight of Start Point, spotting dolphins. Soon, we had to put the engine on to move at all across the glassy sea.
Still several miles from land, we saw what we thought was a small bird darting round the boat. It looked too small to be a seabird and had an odd, fluttering flight. We realised it was a bat, exhausted and looking for a perch. It tried to grab the leech of the mainsail and circled the mizzen where our red ensign had wrapped itself round the top of the mast in the wind. After several attempts, the bat clung onto the flag and crawled inside its folds. We knew how it felt.
The wind was too strong for island hopping but the sun shone brightly…
until the edge of Storm Callum arrived
Up to eight metres of tide in St Peter Port
German dive bombers attacked tomato lorries on the quay at St Peter Port
Four months into the Occupation, the paper had little it could say
Thomas and I took the ferry and walked round the island of Herm
I don’t have any photographs of our racing at the Douarnenez Temps Fete at the end of July because we were too busy avoiding collisions to take any. The organisers set a short course between just two buoys so several dozen heavy working boats charged up and down, bowsprit to bowsprit, for an hour; splendid for the holidaymakers on the stands overlooking the bay but wild on the water.
The stress was not helped by the pre-race briefing having been entirely in French and a lot of the skippers speaking only English, so not everybody was clear about the start line or the course. However, we survived unscathed and went for a splendid sail across the bay afterwards, followed by our best meal of the festival; steak tartare with aubergine slices fried in honey, and Lebanese soft cheese with tomatoes, strawberries and black wheat at Le Balto Ivre. A fruity but not sweet organic wine, too; Les Varennes from Les Roches Seches. I know photos of food are a trope but this was special.
Photos of food are a trope but this was special
Wine to track down again
The music at the festival was amazing, too. Unlike traditional regattas in Britain, which seem put on mainly for the enjoyment of the sailors taking part, the Douarnenez Temps Fete pulled in tens of thousands of people of all ages with music on two stages and food in restaurants and marquees along the harbourside as well as the forest of traditional boats. My favourites were Nøkken, a collaboration between Danish folk singers and a French band, and Thomas de Pourquery‘s ecstatic jazz.
There should have been a luggers’ race on the Saturday of the festival week; but on Friday evening, the sunny weather broke and a storm blew in from the Atlantic. We woke to wet sleeping bags and a crew briefing that racing had been cancelled.
Our passage across the Channel from Plymouth was straightforward with heatwave sunshine and a gentle breeze. Guiding Star’s new AIS system helped to identify commercial ships which might pass close; the only two which came anywhere near close altered course well away from us. Next morning, we hove to off the Ile de Vierge lighthouse to wait for the tide through the Chenal du Four, and watched dolphins feasting on a school of mackerel. We spent the night in Camaret to avoid arriving in Douarnenez in the middle of the night.
Our passage back was less easy because we had to broad reach all the way in an uncertain southwesterly wind, and although the weather was fine, the storm had left an Atlantic swell which made most of us seasick.
The most exciting half hour came as we sailed out of L’Aber-Wrac’h due north through the narrow Chenal de la Malouine, where the rocks either side of the channel look close enough to touch and the fast-flowing tide churned up the shallow water. Photos from an iPhone with a wide-angle lens can’t show the tension.
The Cruising Association website says of the western Channel crossing from west country ports to the tip of Brittany: “This adventure is for robust crews who know their collision regulations, have strong stomachs, can navigate in strong tidal streams and can pilot into rock encumbered harbours and calculate tidal heights correctly.” They got that right.
Thank you to Celia, Emma and Iga for being the perfect crew; competent, collaborative and calm! We had a wonderful two weeks.
Emma keeping hydrated
Some more photos of the trip:
Camaret, our first night in France
Iga and Celia
The first boats to arrive
Douarnenez is all about sardines
Ile Tristan, reachable at lowest low tide
Legendary King Gradlon and his daughter Dahut escaping the flood
Rose of Argyll
Inner port filling up
Dolphin with an itch
Luggers ahead of us
Luggers beside us
The heatwave broke with a storm
Iga and Emma on Ile Tristan
Paul with favourite plant
The Amorous Whelk restaurant clinging to the cliff
Emma with fresh juice for sleeping crew
Those rocks, that choppy sea
Sunnily back in Fowey
Happy to be home
Final moment of ‘you hold that while I jiggle this’