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Embraced in Brittany

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.

Paul struggling to take a selfie in a very small dinghy. Celia, however, succeeding
Gael sculling home after dropping us off

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.

Puerto Candelaria on De Gallant
I can’t find any videos taken in Paimpol but this gives a flavour

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.

Salt cod and sea shanties

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).

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The crew of Le Grand Léjon in Brixham in a brief moment when they weren’t singing

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.

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Thomas, Paul and Celia racing with Berry Head in the background. Many thanks to Kate for the photo

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.

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.  

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Binic outer harbour at low tide

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.

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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!

Ghosts in Guernsey

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.

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Escape shaft 75 feet deep in the German underground military hospital and ammunition store

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.

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.

 

Wild racing and great music in Douarnenez

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.

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La Canalaise storming along. Imagine several dozen working boats of every size charging head on at each other; that was our race

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.

 

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.

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Thomas de Pourquery in full flight

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.

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Celia helming through the Chenal de la Malouine; La Malouine is the rock over her starboard shoulder. It means ‘the woman from St Malo’; an old local grudge?

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.

 

Some more photos of the trip:

 

 

Celebrating Robin Knox-Johnston

Here’s Sir Robin Knox-Johnston sitting on Suhaili, the original boat in which he made history 50 years ago by becoming the first person to sail alone, non-stop around the world, winning the first Golden Globe race; next to him is Bill Rowntree, who photographed the start and end of the trip for the Sunday Mirror and created some of the most memorable images in sailing.

Sir Robin brought Suhaili to Plymouth for a rally organised by the southwest section of the Cruising Association to celebrate the anniversary. Several of us then followed him to Falmouth, his original departure point, for a three-day jamboree and a chance to see skippers and boats competing in a re-run of the Golden Globe.

Sir Robin is ordinary and extraordinary. He talked to anyone who came up for a chat, spent the afternoon in the pub watching the rugby and nearly got into a fight with a Scotsman who took his seat, and hung his washing over the boom like any of the rest of us. But he had the courage, determination and seamanship to sail alone in an age without GPS, satellite phones or downloadable weather charts; and to keep going when his gear failed and all the other Golden Globe competitors dropped out or went mad; two committed suicide and one sailed a second time round the world rather than come home.

It was a privilege to join a small band of perhaps two hundred passionate sailors for the events in Falmouth: a press conference in the Chain Locker pub to introduce the skippers in the Golden Globe 2018 race, sailing small family-priced, long-keeled cruisers and navigating with sextant and paper charts as Robin did 50 years ago; a book signing by Sir Robin; and a talk about the original and the new race by speakers including Bill Rowntree, who showed some of his famous photographs and told the story behind them.

Falmouth made little of what was a historic event, though. Plymouth grabbed the right to host the start of the race but then couldn’t find sponsors and lost it to Les Sables d’Olonne in France. There was little publicity in the town and no events to pull in lots of spectators. The mayor of Les Sables d’Olonnes said he expected 100,000 people to watch the start on 1st July; surely Falmouth would have wanted a crowd like that?

Many thanks to John and Martin for crewing Guiding Star to Falmouth; and special thanks to Martin’s friend Rich for lending us his pickup truck so we could retrieve the dinghy outboard from servicing in Penryn.

Feeling our way in the Brixham Regatta

The Brixham Heritage Regatta turned into an unexpected challenge of navigation and nerves. 

We made a good start across the line in very light wind and mist and willed our way north across Torbay to the first buoy. The one other boat in our Lugger class, Le Grand Lejon from Brittany, weighs nearly twice as much as Guiding Star and fell steadily behind.

However, that was about the end of the race. After we rounded the buoy, boats headed off on different tacks for a long beat south to the windward buoy near Berry Head, but the mist quickly thickened into fog and soon we couldn’t see any of the other 30 boats in the fleet; not even the three 80-foot Brixham trawlers, which are hard to miss. Visibility dropped to 50 metres.

We pressed on for half an hour, navigating by GPS and staring into the fog to keep watch. We heard on the radio first one, then two, boats withdraw from the race. The wind freshened and for a moment we hit 5 knots. But then the Regatta committee abandoned the race entirely and called all boats back.

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Thanks to Sarah’s friend Peter Hunt for this shot of Guiding Star drifting in the mist before the start

Many thanks indeed to Matt for running our radio comms, Mark for helping to navigate, Paul for knowing every inch of Torbay and Brixham Harbour, and Emma and Sarah for calm helming.

I have no idea how the Regatta Committee worked out the results, but we were delighted to win the beautiful Toni Knights Lugger half-model for the first lugger. We were also surprised and happy to be awarded the Noss Marina Shield for Friday’s passage race from Dartmouth to Brixham, even though we were the only boat taking part and had to motor almost all the way because there was no wind. But we did turn up!

Full results are on the Brixham Heritage Regatta website.

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Sarah, Emma and Paul with the Toni Knights Lugger half-model trophy. It’s a model of his own boat, IRIS. Sadly Toni wasn’t able to take part in the Regatta this year

Next morning, the sun shone from a cloudless sky.

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Rafted against the beautiful Breton lugger Le Grand Lejon

More photos below of the Regatta and our passages up from Plymouth and back again. Many thanks to everyone for their photos.

I’m only sorry there are no photos of the epic bacon, egg and fried bread sandwiches made by Jon on the passage up from Plymouth to Dartmouth and Brixham. It was a pity there wasn’t much wind for sailing, Jon, but it was wonderful to have you on board.

About Guiding Star

Guiding Star is a Looe lugger built in 1907 by James Angear for the Soady family and converted into a yacht in the 1930s at Uphams yard in Brixham.

She’s a traditional wooden boat with great character and very steady at sea. She has a gaff mainsail and a lug mizzen; there are no winches but the rig is easy for a small crew to handle because none of the sails is very big. There’s a comfortable saloon with a paraffin lamp, a roomy galley, and five berths.

From 1960-1989 Guiding Star was owned by Brigadier John (“Jack”) Glennie, who sailed her all around Europe. She was then substantially rebuilt in the early 1990s by Barry Jobson and Jackie Gillespie, who sailed her to the Caribbean and back and took part in many classic regattas. Her current owners are Paul and Sue Eedle.

Length overall with bowsprit out 15.8 metres 52 feet

Length overall with bowsprit and outrigger out 22 metres 72 feet

Length with spars shipped 13.1 metres 43 feet

Length on deck 11.8 metres 39 feet

Length at waterline 11.5 metres 37 feet 9 inches

Draft 1.95 metres 6 feet 5 inches

Beam 3.26 metres 10 feet 8 inches

Displacement approx 16 tonnes

The best of 2017

Looe Luggers Regatta 2017

Guiding Star came second! Weather kept several regular boats away and stopped us racing on the first day, but we managed two races on the second day.

Crew from left to right: Candice, Theo, Alan, Paul, Alan

Many thanks to the Looe Sailing Club for the video on YouTube, and for their wonderful welcome to all the crews during the weekend. Watch Guiding Star at 8 minutes 27 seconds into the film.

 

Winter work

When I bought Guiding Star, the surveyor suggested replacing the keel bolts. Once we hauled the boat out in Bristol in December 2016, it was clear he was right. Martin from RB Boatbuilding lifted out five tons of lead to get at the bolts.

That was just the start of the winter work.