Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Importance of Role Models

When Patrick and I think about setting off for a life of long-distance cruising, that little twinkle of excitement in our eyes rapidly clouds over as a profound lack of confidence sets in.  Neither of us comes from a sailing family and we took up sailing rather late in life.  I started going to sea when I was 18 but not on small sailboats and certainly not in a position of responsibility for the ship or crew.  Over the last 10 years, we have taken sailing courses, passed our coastal and offshore permits, and joined a sailing association that allowed us to log approximately 5000 nautical miles on more than 25 different boats (and more importantly, with more than 25 different skippers).  (For our sailing CV, see "The Crew") We bought our own boat and have skippered her more than 2000 nautical miles in the last 18 months.  But we still seem to be missing some essential ingredient that would allow us to boldly bound over the horizon. 

Recently, I was reading an article about how to get more young women interested in science and engineering careers, and the mantra highlighting the importance of mentoring was “you can’t be what you can’t see.”  I realized that we don’t have many role models in the sailing world that looked like us: a middle-aged couple with no sailing experience trying to cope with a strange new world of sailing and the cruising life. 

This week, a quick spin around the internet turned up new inspiration.

Over the past year, I followed the voyage of the amazing Jeanne Socrates, the 70-year-old British woman who completed a solo, non-stop, unassisted sail around the world this past July. 

Jeanne Socrates on Nereida.
It wasn't until the newspapers covered her story that I learned that Jeanne only started sailing at age 50 with her husband.  When he died, she decided to continue sailing alone and this successful solo circumnavigation was her THIRD attempt after some serious knock-downs.

A lesser-known inspiration is Elizabeth Tyler, who’s blog title says it all:  Sailing on - Single Handed:  A blog about untying knots, releasing lines, weighing anchor and getting under way again after having lost the captain in my life.”  

Elizabeth Tyler on Aquarella.

I have yet to wade through the entire archive of posts, but what I’ve read so far is a very candid and moving documentary of one woman learning to cope with the physical and psychological challenges of cruising.  Elizabeth is also an amazing artist and a visit to her art blog and site will astound you.  Remind yourself that you are looking at paintings, not photographs. 

Patrick has not let me ignore the fact that both of these “so-called” inspirational blogs are about women who have lost their husbands.  I tried to explain that the take-home lesson is that if single elderly women can do it, surely the two of us can manage, but this clearly isn't the inspiration he seeks.  We’ll keep looking for role models that we can both aspire to, but I feel better already.

It also has not escaped my attention that both women are cruising with confidence in Swedish boats ! (See recent musings on Swedish boats). 

Monday, 9 December 2013

The second time around: looking for our dreamboat

We’ve had our first visit by a perspective buyer this week, which makes me realize that it’s time to start thinking seriously about our next boat.  Having been through this before not so long ago, I know that this task is a labyrinth riddled with false starts and wrong turns.  It reminds me of Somerset Maugham’s famous quip about writing:  “There are three rules to good writing.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

But one must be brave and start somewhere and the conventional wisdom says one must start by defining the navigational program, which should help narrow down the boat choices.  Or not. 

The first problem is that our sailing dreams are of the “leasing with an option to buy” sort.  We’d like to sail around the world (trade winds route is good enough for me) but we’re just not courageous enough for that yet.  So the idea is to head down into the Med, gain some experience and confidence with multi-day passages and foreign waters, and if all goes well, buy the dream and head off over the horizon. 

This complicates boat choices, though.  A full-time live-aboard world cruiser is not the same as a fair-weather Mediterranean cruiser.  Should we aim for the low end of the spectrum and work our way up, or go straight for a world cruiser as the better long-term investment?  There are knowledgeable people out there who say that almost any boat rated for offshore cruising is capable of crossing oceans these days, and it is often said (because it’s true) that navigational programs are more limited by the crew than by the boat. 

I’m a firm believer that one shouldn’t make things harder than they have to be, no matter how fun it is, so let me be honest about my dilemma.  I WANT a new 40-foot Hallberg-Rassy or Najad but can’t afford them without selling the house (which I haven’t entirely ruled out.)  

Hallberg Rassy 40
See how clear things can be when you address the root cause?  Now the problem has been reduced to figuring out how to fall in love with a lesser boat. 

If you read our post about boat shopping the first time around, you will no doubt appreciate the maturing process that has taken place since that time.  Earlier, we decided that boat choices should be driven primarily by lust.  Now we know better.  Sort of.   

Because safety is a major concern of ours, I’ve spent the last week calculating capsize ratios for a handful of different boats and reading the available naval architecture blogs, which have now convinced me that the capsize ratios thus calculated are a lot of bunk.  Next, I started going blind staring at the stability index numbers (STIX, SSSN, and AVS) produced by the British Royal Yachting Association for hundreds of boats, and in the end, realized that any boat that meets the Category A criteria is, by definition, safe for offshore sailing.  In saying this, it’s important to know what Category A means:  Unlimited Ocean Cruising, adequate to withstand up to force 10 gale (55 knots, 102 km/hr, 63 MPH) with average waves of 7 meters height and eventual wave heights up to 14 meters.  After having pounded through a long afternoon of 4 meter seas with a force 8 gale last summer, I don’t want to get anywhere close to the maximum for the rating.  This is certainly not to say that all Category A boats are created equal but they all should be safe enough for what we intend to do.

The exercise has been a useful one, however, since I have now convinced myself that I am not going to be able to calculate my way out of a difficult choice.  Putting all our dreams and desires into the magic box and turning the handle has only produced sausage in my mind, not the miracle solution I was looking for.  Compromises must be made. Back to square one. 

What is it about Spray that makes her inappropriate for our future sailing program?  I’ve mentioned these before so I’ll only highlight:  too small to live aboard 6 months of the year comfortably, too physical, too low in the water, too light, too low on tankage.  But after a little reflection, I realized that it’s equally important to list the things we love about her to try not to lose those elements in this process.

  • Robust construction with quality materials.
  • Seaworthiness.
  • Lots of stowage space for her size.
  • Respectability.  Every time we pull into port, people come up to us and tell us what a great boat she is.  It’s become like a scene from the movie Groundhog Day.  “What kind of boat do you have?”  “A Dehler 34.”  “Oh, great boat.”  Same thing, every time.  Nice !
  • Small.  What the ?!  I know, I know - it’s crazy !  We’re selling her because we want to buy a BIGGER boat.  But I like the fact that we can pull into ports and not have to worry about finding a place to park her. I like that I can step down gently from her decks onto the dock and physically coax her svelte four tonnes into place without bow thrusters.  I like that people don’t see us as a bling-bling couple of retirees in a flashy plastic bimbo palace.

This makes one thing clear.  We need a boat that’s small on the outside and big on the inside.   

But wait …seriously now, maybe it means that we could be happy with a boat well under 40 feet if the layout is good, in which case, maybe we could afford an older, smaller version of the HRs or Najads?  To be continued…

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The pro has a go

After our boat hibernation routine last week, we decided to call in a professional to winterize the motor.  We took advantage of his presence to pester the heck out of him about other good practices for preparing the boat for winter.  Almost everything we did last week was good, but we missed a few tricks.

Yanmar 2GM20 motor
Yanmar 2GM20.  Not bad for 21 years, eh?
First of all, our young mechanic complemented us on our clean motor and bilge tray.  I liked him immediately.  While Patrick was laughing, I admitted that I regularly attacked the motor with an old toothbrush and WD-40 I keep the bilge tray spotless not because of any obsessive-compulsive disorder but because it’s very important to know if the motor is dripping from anywhere.

For the motor, all was well.  He changed all the filters, the alternator belt, and the water pump turbine, and filled the motor with anti-freeze for the winter.  He suggested closing the valve between the fuel line and the diesel tank and he put a thick wad of paper towel in the air-intake to cut down on air circulation inside the motor.  He cautioned us that we should write ourselves a BIG VISIBLE REMINDER to remove the wad and open the valve before trying to start the motor the next time.

I had drained the water tank and pumped as much water out of the toilet as possible.  He told us to simply pour some anti-freeze down the toilet, give it a few pumps to get the liquid up into the joint assembly and then leave it.  For the water tank, he said it was best to leave the faucet in the open/on position, open to air, so that any water in the tubes could drain down into the tank and/or move around rather than being blocked by vapour lock.

The big surprise (and embarrassment) came when we asked about the batteries.  We had a mechanic working on our motor last year and we asked if we needed to add distilled de-ionized water to our batteries from time to time.  He looked over the motor battery and said we had water-tight “no-maintenance” batteries that don’t need water. We looked at the two service batteries and couldn’t see any place where one would add water and so we declared that they, too, must be no maintenance. 

Wrong.  While the motor battery was indeed no maintenance, this was not the case with the service batteries.  This mechanic ripped off the sticker label on the top of the two service batteries to reveal water refill holes.  He opened one of them up and gave a whistle, instantly translatable in any language as “this doesn’t look too good”.  The water levels were quite low.  He said there was no harm done, but that they definitely needed a top-up.

We told him we planned to disconnect the batteries and leave them on the boat over the winter.  He informed us that, for a very modest fee (I think it ended up being about $25 total), he would take them off the boat and store them in the workshop and charge them once a month until we reinstalled them next spring.  They do this regularly as part of their winterizing service for customers whose boats are in the Arzal port lot.  This sounded great to us since we were already trying to figure out how often we should come back to the boat to recharge the batteries over the winter.

So now we can truly say that Spray is tucked in for the winter.  We’ve still got to take the sails in for some minor touch-ups but we’ll get on to that later this week and be ready to turn our attention to other endeavours… like shopping for a new boat ! 

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Winter Hibernation

Last week we began preparing Spray for 4 months of winter out of the water.  This will be the first winter since arriving in Brittany that we haven’t sailed, but after overdoing it last winter (see list of winter sailing posts), we decided to give the old girl a rest.  (I will leave you, dear reader, to decide if the old girl is me or Spray...).

The first thing we did was to take one last day-cruise on the river up to La Roche Bernard.  The weather wasn’t too cooperative (another sign that it’s time to put up for the winter) but we did manage to get the genoa out for a bit.

La Belle Italienne makes her debut on Spray with gentle downwind sailing (e.g. drifting) on the river.

We’ve helped friends winterize their boats over the years but this was the first time winterizing our own boat, and like everything else you do for the first time on your own boat, there was a lot of head-scratching about whether we did everything “right” or not.  In the end, it was easier than we thought to take everything apart, and we now have 4 months to worry about whether or not we know how to put all the pieces back together again. 

Here’s what we did:

Filled up the gas tank and added an anti-bacterial product to avoid algal / bacterial growth.

Emptied the water tank.

Charged the batteries.

Blocked and covered the wind vane.

Off-loaded the outboard motor.  Will take to mechanic for winterizing / tune-up.

Oiled the toilet pump assembly.  We just dumped a quarter of a litre of sunflower oil down the toilet and pumped a few strokes every 5 minutes or so to coat the insides.  When the boat was pulled out of the water we emptied the remaining water from the hoses and toilet.

Shut off cooking gas; off-loaded gas containers.

Set out a small chemical dehumidifier (want 2 more of these…).

Removed the life raft and stored inside boat.

We bought our house because we fell in love with the basement ... lots of storage space !

Off-loaded all food items, foul weather gear, boots, life vests, and remaining bits of clothing still on board.

Off-loaded all books, documents, and electronic devices not fixed to the boat.

Off-loaded emergency offshore kit (flares, etc) and grab-bag.

Off-loaded all tools (amazing how they can rust just from being in contact with marine air.)

Off-loaded bedding cushions, turned saloon cushions on end for maximum air circulation.

Off-loaded the life lines, rinsed with fresh water, dried, stored.

Off-loaded the dodger and side panels. Washed, dried, stored.

...and we also love our huge clothes lines in the backyard...

Removed the genoa; will take to sail makers for tidying up (loose stitching on the foot near the clew).

Removed the lazybag and mainsail; will take to sail makers for tidying up (straps holding 2 of the battens were nearly severed.) 

Striptease:  removing the dodgers, lazybag, genoa, mainsail, and all loose tackle.

Lowered the boom onto the deck.

Removed the spectra boom vang.

Removed the main sail traveller tackle.

Covered winches.

A naked Spray.

Had the boat pulled out of the water and placed on a sturdy cradle in the boat yard for a long winter’s nap.

The haul out.

Settled on her cradle for winter.

Rinsed boat with fresh water, rinsed the anchor and chain well; placed anchor in chain locker.

Greased propeller. 

Greased valves (water intake, toilet, sinks…).

Isolated batteries (removed all connections).  We will keep an eye on the charge over the winter.  We can plug into shore power in the boatyard to recharge batteries on occasion if needed.

Opened all cabinets, refrigerator compartment, storage areas and lifted up all the floor boards.

Insides ready for winter.

Emptied all the hoses (sinks, toilets).

Contacted mechanic to winterize the motor.  We know how to do most of this ourselves (rinse the engine with fresh water, change the filters, change the pump turbine, change the oil, change the zincs) but it may be a good idea to have some anti-freeze put in for the winter (we’ve never done that), and since we’re trying to sell the boat, it would be good to have a professional touch to be certain that things are in order.

And last but not least, put out the FOR SALE sign on the balcony.


That last one hurt more than the others combined but we tell ourselves it’s for a good cause  (e.g., buying a bigger boat for longer cruising).  

Addendum: April 2014:   One thing we did NOT do that we SHOULD HAVE DONE was to take better care of the seacocks and through-hulls.  We had a last-minute surprise with a sticky seacock just before launch that we should have taken care of from the beginning.  

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

High, if not Dry

With a week of gales pinning everyone down (including the Trans-Atlantic race Jacques Vabre) we're happy to have Spray high and dry (or at least high) in Arzal.

Spray on the hard after a quick high-pressure blast to clean off the slime.

Her bottom was clean although the anti-fouling has faded considerably, and the anode was quite worn, doing its job.  We were also happy to get at the speedo wheel to clean off some wormy gunk that kept it from spinning freely.  We're hoping to get in a little river cruising before the end of the month and then we'll have to face winterizing.  We didn't do this last year because we sailed all winter, or rather, island hopped in between squalls and gales.  While that was still better than staying at home, we decided not to repeat that adventure this year. Instead, we are going in seek of hot dry sunshine and hope to find some in the Sahara desert during a 1 month tour of Morocco.  That should prepare us for cool and blustery spring sailing when we return.  (Well, if it doesn't, nothing will...).

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Motion Sickness

We’ve been home for three weeks and I’m suffering from motion sickness.  No, not land sickness, the evil twin of sea sickness, which makes things spin for several days after getting back to land.  I’m suffering from a lack of motion, from static living.  I’ve become so accustomed to having new scenery and new experiences that staying at home feels like being buried alive.

We’ve planned a lot of non-boat travel for this winter, but we’ve got 2 months ahead with nothing more exciting than sneaking in a few long bike rides in between rain showers.  This inactivity has so poisoned my mind that I’ve even started to doubt that we’ll ever get back on the boat again, like a primitive savage incapable of understanding that a present condition can be temporary. 

Perhaps this fallow state is where seeds of other dreams are planted.  I hear voices whispering in my ear that sailing shouldn’t be a 6 month pastime but a fulltime lifestyle.  But it’s too soon, too fast, and the barriers too steep to entertain such wild ideas.  Isn’t it?  We’re at the edge of the map gazing over the horizon where “Here be Dragons” is marked on the chart in bold red letters.  No, no…have a glass of wine, curl up with a good book, use the downtime to plan future travels and ignore those meddlesome voices.  That’s the smart thing to do.  It's the only thing to do.  Isn’t it?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

First year reflections

As I was reflecting back on this best-of-times / worst-of-times first year of sailing, those great folks at the Monkey’s Fist came up with a new collection of posts on Advice for Freshmen Cruisers.  Here are some of our thoughts on the matter:

We get by with a little (lot of) help from our friends.  Join as many local sailing associations as possible.  You will need experienced friends for help and advice with boat repairs and maintenance, but also on how to survive your first year with a boat.  It’s been a great comfort to us to know that when we’re in port working on the boat that we can always find a friend somewhere in the marina also working on his boat or pick up the phone and call a buddy.
Watch out for burn-out.  It’s hard not to spend all your time working on or sailing on your boat.  You’ve just spent a bundle on it and you need to prove to yourself and your family that it was not pure folly.  But there is a fine line between working on your boat because you enjoy it and becoming a slave to the boat that demands constant attention.  Plan some down time, at least some short vacations or weekends that have nothing to do with the boat.  Don’t ignore things you used to love … running, biking, skiing, cultural stuff, etc.  And don’t forget about your non-sailing friends and family.  It’s necessary to think about something else from time to time.

The transition was steeper than we thought.  We thought the transition from being experienced crew to being boat owners and skippers would be a smooth one.  It was, instead, a step function much like a brick wall.  Having to make decisions out there all alone is daunting and dealing with break-downs at sea also spices things up in a new (mostly unpleasant) way.  The only way to cope with this is to know that it will be tougher than you think and to go easy on yourself.  Don’t get too ambitious too fast.  Take the time to get used to the boat and your reactions to her.

Fear and anxiety are just part of it.  We spent many months sailing in the protected confines of our bay because we were anxious about venturing out further.  I thought that the anxiety would slowly go away as experience built.  Talking with more experienced friends made me realize that no matter how comfortable I feel sailing in the bay, it is normal to wet one’s pants the first time outside the comfort zone.  Fear and anxiety can be useful features.  As the saying goes, there are old sailors and bold sailors, but not many old bold sailors.  We found that the best way over the hump is to buddy boat, travelling in a little flotilla with other boats.  You are still master aboard your own boat with all the decisions and maintenance that this implies, but you have a safety net around you for exploring areas new to you and for decision-making for navigation strategies.  This goes back to advice number 1: have friends.

We’re turtles, not hares.  We thought we were hares, or at least had an image of ourselves as performance-oriented purists, but now we know that our biggest pleasure is getting from point A to B with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of comfort.  We’re in this for the long haul, at least 6 months at a time and we sail in some pretty rough areas.  If we only had 1-2 months each summer to sail, we might still be motivated to push the boat more, but living on the boat for ½ the year means we can take our time and enjoy the ride.  And we’re kind of getting tired of having to explain that to others who would double our distance in the same amount of time.  It’s not a race.  Slow down and smell the algae, guys.

That detachable forestay and collection of headsails we thought we couldn’t live without are almost never used.  We’ve put up the smaller jib a few times when we knew that we would be short-tacking in stiff winds.  But in general, when the wind starts picking up, the idea of going below to dig out heavy, bulky sails from the forward cabin lockers and wrestling them up the companionway and to the bow in a pitching sea really seems quite silly when we can simply roll up the jib sheet to an appropriate size from the comfort of the cockpit.  We considered ourselves purists who would never tolerate a partially-rolled jib sheet, but now we know better.  And that goes double for the times when you’re trapped in a surprise gale and really could use a storm sail up front … flip a coin to see who’s going to rig it ?  Nope. 

Blog “reality checks”.  Some family members and friends who are not cruisers will imagine your sailing life as one long, laid-back, care-free, baba-cool existence, pushed by gentle breezes along turquoise waters from island to island where the biggest danger is sunburn or running out of little decorative umbrellas for your cocktails.  Sympathy, even for the really bad days, will be hard to come by, even if you sail in gales in the cold waters of the North Sea, as we do.  Blogging about the bad days helps to keep it real. (But you still won’t get much sympathy…)    

It ain't all fun and games out here...

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Homecoming Week

While it’s often true that “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, Patrick and I have discovered this week that “you don’t know what you’ve got till you get it back”.  Coming home has been a process of rediscovering comforts and conveniences that we didn’t have on the boat, but that we didn’t really miss until we got home and "remembered".  Here’s a short list:

Hot water.  This stuff is great for washing dishes and taking showers.  On the boat, we have to heat up a kettle of water for the dishes, but I never really minded since I can make a nice after-dinner herbal tea at the same time.  Showers deserve their own category.

Showers.  Public showers in the port offices come in many flavours, from chic (Jersey) to infected pits (Camaret).  Most are passably clean, but almost none have temperature controls, and having a really hot shower is simply out of the question.  They keep the temperature at a carefully-studied level just above that which provokes complaint. The other water-saving trick is to operate the showers with tokens (1 or 2 euros), giving you access to exactly 7 minutes of luke-warm water.  Showering barefoot is another joy we’ve rediscovered, since you never, ever put a naked foot down on the public shower stalls.  We love our crocs, but I’m tickled pink to shower barefoot again.

Standing fully upright while cooking.  We’d almost forgotten how fun that is.

Laundry.  Patrick is a bit of a laundry freak.  It’s one of his favourite sports and borders on obsessive-compulsive.  I thought life on the boat would be good for him since the extra effort  required would wean him off his habit gently.  Finding good public laundry services near a marina is not so easy, but we usually manage to find a well-placed laundrette every 3 weeks or so, and hand-washing easy-to-dry items is a weekly occurrence.  When we got home, Patrick went into high-gear, making up for an entire summer of missed laundry opportunities. Even I will admit it’s nice to have really clean (and DRY) clothes again.

Dry clothes and sheets.  For most of the summer, this wasn’t a problem since the humidity was relatively low.  But during our last week or so at sea, the temperatures started getting lower and the humidity / condensation on the boat higher.  It’s no fun to crawl into a clammy bed at night, or to put on a cold damp shirt in the morning.  I really need to put clothes in sealable plastic bags, but I didn’t think this would be an issue in the summer.

Our bed.  The mattress on the boat is reasonably comfortable and we had no complaints, but when we sank down into our super memory-foam mattress the first night, we could feel the muscles in our backs relaxing in ways they simply hadn’t in months.

The barbeque.  We barbeque year round on a small Weber gas grill and almost never cook meat or fish of any kind inside the house.  We will invest in a small gas grill for the boat. 

Letting our hair down.  When I knew we would be living on a boat for long stretches of time, I opted for longish hair that can be simply pulled back in a pony tail for sailing and otherwise ignored for months.  The downside is that I end up spending 90% of my waking hours with my hair pulled back, and 10% with it down but contorted from its imprisonment in a tight elastic, making me wonder if it just wouldn’t be better to cut it all off.  I even had an idea for a new blog based on short hair: bad haircuts around the world.  Having been home for a few days now and not spending 8-9 hours a day exposed to the elements, I’m enjoying having my long hair (especially as it’s become quite chilly here.)  Patrick, on the other hand, is now sporting a 3 day beard, whittled down just this morning from a 10 day scraggly mess by our local Turkish barber who used fire to burn out the hair in his ears !  Quite a performance !  We’ll see how easy (or difficult) it is to maintain at sea.  He certainly won’t miss shaving every day.

Colors other than blue and white.  I didn’t realize it was fall until we were in the car driving home through the countryside and was gobsmacked by all the fall colors.  At sea, our eyes became accustomed to a palette of blues and whites, sometimes punctuated by a little green or sand/rock muted earthtone colors.

Having said all this, we would both hop back in the boat in a heartbeat and are more than a little frustrated that “real life” has settled in and it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to get away for even a little local sail for at least 4 weeks.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Best for Last

Our migration north brought us once again to Yeu island, a paradise for biking along wild coastal trails and a great place for snorkelling, provided you don an appropriately thick wet suit.   

Bike trails on the south coast of Yeu island.
We decided to bike down to the center part of the wild south coast this time to visit an old castle erected in the early days of the Hundred Years' War (around 1350), and the famous Yeu perched rock, a massive boulder of granite posed on a cliff side that can be rocked back and forth with only a moderate amount of well-placed effort.  I almost didn’t take my camera since we had visited Yeu several times before and I had already gushed on and on about how lovely it was in previous posts.  The compromise I offer is to post more Yeu photos but refrain from re-gushing verbally…

Patrick rocking the perched rock.
We had only intended to stay for a 2-3 days, waiting for the wind to pick up at some point during this lovely summer-like high pressure system.  When we checked in at the port office, the clerk asked if we were in town for the big Tuna Fest, about which we were completely ignorant.  Other sailors told us we simply MUST stick around for it, and we watched the local excitement build as the little port area slowly became decorated with large cardboard tunas, multiple rows of picnic tables and strings of colored lightbulbs.  We did stay and … well, it was a bit disappointing, really.  There were thousands of people squeezed together on the picnic table benches that stretched out for hundreds of yards in multiple rows, listening to sea shanties sung by local groups.  This would have been appealing if the sound system had actually permitted you to hear any of the words being sung, but we appreciated the atmosphere anyway.  The Tuna Fest is, we later learned, a community barbeque for islanders to celebrate the fact that the tourists have gone home for the season.  Having arrived fashionably late, we only just managed to squeeze into the cheap seats at the end of the street, and spent a lovely evening with a young couple of lawyers from Paris.  So much for local color.  We ate our tuna steaks and potatoes (4 euros), had a glass of wine (“chateau cardboard” from the super market for 1 euro), and a piece of pie (2 euros).  We wandered around looking for some other great tuna fast happenings, but it seemed as though most people were just content to eat and listen to muffled music.  We were told that the party really gets moving after midnight but we felt a bit out of place and decided to leave the islanders to themselves.  (Hey wait a minute...maybe that's part of the trick:  bore the bejeezus out of the remaining tourists so they wander off early and then start the real party?  Hmmm... next year we'll be prepared !)

The next morning we pulled out of port at the crack of dawn (8:30 am here whilst we wait for the time change later this month.)  We decided to head directly to Belle Isle, a  50 mile hop, to skip some of the less exciting port stops we’d made on our way down.  Since there was very little wind, we motor-sailed for an ear-numbing 11 hours.  But the calm weather also allowed us to duck into a beautiful mooring on the east side of Belle Ile for the night (Port An Dro), which we had to ourselves.  The next morning, with summer temps still smiling down on us, we rowed the dingy out to the beach and went snorkelling along the rocks.  The weather forecast announced 24 hours more of extended summer and we timed our arrival in our new home port of Arzal a mere 6 hours before the rain and cold front hit; clearly the final period at the end of our summer sailing story.  

Beach cove near Port An Dro... great for (cold) snorkeling. 

Nothing says summer like light reading in a sunny cockpit.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Shell art at the Sands

Les Sables d’Olonne (the sands of Olonne) is a town best known as the start and finish of the solo round-the-world race, The Vendee Globe.  The racing beasts were not in port when we were there, but thanks to our trusty bikes that allow us to cover lots of ground, we found other attractions in Les Sables.  One of the most notable attractions is a small neighborhood in the old town called the Ile Penotte, where artist Dan Arnaud has created beautiful murals out of shells, beach glass, and other natural materials.  Here is a small sampling of his work.

An  afternoon of gawking at shells gave us an appetite…for shells.  The weather was spectacular for the start of October and we managed to squeeze in a few bike-and-beach days.  

Our own shell art...

But alas, the day we decided to head north for Ile d’Yeu, rain settled in to remind us that it really was October and time to think about heading home.  But slowly…

Yes, it really is October...

Posted on Thursday, October 03, 2013 | Categories:

Friday, 27 September 2013

Ah, La Rochelle !

The wind was weak and our 50 mile trek south had to be put on hold.  La Rochelle was only 10 miles north of the mouth of the Charente river, but it was officially closed to visitors in preparation for the Grand Pavois, the largest in-water boat show in Europe.  But we had heard via “dockside radio” (boatyard gossip) that they would grudgingly accept visitors for 1 night if you simply showed up and acted innocent.  As this approach was in complete harmony with Patrick’s life philosophy (e.g., it’s always easier to get forgiveness than permission) off we went.

The entrance to the old port of La Rochelle (at very low tide.)
We had visited La Rochelle by road once before, but it was just for a lunchtime stop on the way somewhere and we only visited the port area, which is, in itself, quite impressive.  This time, we took time to wander through the streets of the large old town area, and we fell head-over- heels in love.  The town is a labyrinth of old stone galleries and arcades, a reminder of its mercantile past where vendors would hawk their wares under the stone archways, protected from the sun and rain.  The vendors have been replaced by chic boutiques to rival Paris (many of the same boutiques, in fact, including the Mecca of high-brow, ready-to-wear clothing stores, The Galeries Lafayette.)   The old stone backdrop is highlighted with palm trees and maritime pines that add a certain Mediterranean ambiance.  

One of the many gates into the old town of La Rochelle.

Miles and miles of arcades and galleries.

Old town seen through the forest of masts in the port area.

Tears welled up when I saw this happy reminder of my parisian past...
Patrick’s eyes were all a-twinkle and his heart rate soared when we stumbled onto the farmer’s market.  When we first started sailing alone together, my biggest fear was getting into a rough situation where we wouldn’t be able to handle the boat.  Patrick’s biggest fear was that we wouldn’t eat well.  After almost 4 months at sea now, he has conquered his fears, and discoveries such as the market at La Rochelle have led him to utter the phrase, unthinkable a few months earlier, “We eat better on the boat than at home!”  

The La Rochelle market.

Cafes and shops around the market area.

The esplanade area of the market.

We settled in for lunch at a little bistro near the market and struck up a conversation with the owner, who happened to be Breton and had lived in Vannes for some time.  Patrick told him we were having fantasies of moving to La Rochelle but that it was probably too expensive.  The owner remarked that the housing prices between the old town of Vannes and La Rochelle were comparable, and the fantasy started taking root, if not in reality, then at least in possibility.  

The new port area (Les Minimes) is one of the largest pleasure-craft ports in France, with 3700 places for yachts of all sizes.  There are literally miles of ship chandlers and other boat-related services all around the port area.  It was so huge that I didn’t take a photo… boats and masts stretch out as far as the eye can see.  They are currently undertaking an expansion to include (I think they said) more than 1000 new places.  The port used to have a 15 year waiting list, but with this new expansion, all those on the waiting list will now be placed, and the new waiting list is only ½ that of Vannes.  We took the plunge and put our names on the waiting list with a 12 meter boat.  It doesn’t cost anything to dream! 

But alas, our one night came and went too fast, and with good winds and warm weather, we headed to Royan at the mouth of the Gironde river.  Royan is a nice, once-chic seaside retreat with a long beach and boardwalk that was accidentally bombed during the war, sparing only a few of the belle-époque houses along the waterfront.  After the war, the town was chosen as one of several to be handed over to a committee of architects and urban planners to build “the city of tomorrow”.  This was apparently a roaring success and the town today positively screams 1950s.  Two of the treasured landmarks from this period are the saddle-back cathedral and the market in the form of an overturned seashell.  After the old stones, palms and pines of La Rochelle, it was hard to get too excited by either.  But we appreciated the many miles of bike paths along the cliff-side drives and even swam in the muddy waters of the Gironde.  Time to start the trek north.

The saddle-back cathedral.
The Royan market of "tomorrow".

Inside the Royan market.

Great bike trails along the shore more than make up for the 1950s plastic chintz of the town.

Posted on Friday, September 27, 2013 | Categories:

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

River navigation: Up La Charente

Everyone told us that visiting the historical town of Rochefort was worth the 2.5 hour motor-sailing slog up the river.  Since we were supposed to have very light winds anyway (wrong again, Meteo France) and our rendez-vous with family for a weekend sail in Royan was cancelled, we had some time on our hands and were game for a little river adventure.

A 12 nautical mile river navigation from the mouth of the Charente river to Rochefort.

Rochefort was chosen by Louis 14th in 1665 to be the naval center of France, where battleships would be built, repaired, and outfitted.  The arsenal included facilities for ship-building, sail and cord making, iron works, and the world’s first naval medical school (which continued until the 1960s and still houses a creepy medical museum with “specimens” from the French penal colony that was established here).  It is also the port from which Lafayette sailed in 1780 to help the Americans in their revolution against the English.  A replica of his ship, the Hermione, is under construction with plans for a 2015 sail to America.

Arriving in the Rochefort loch and port with its restored 17th century buildings.

With beautifully restored buildings along the river, sailing into Rochefort is like arriving in a small riverside Versailles.  The old town area, while small, resembles a Parisian neighborhood, complete with palm trees.  And as is usually the case in the off season, the third night in port was free, so we took our time to bike around town and wander through its side streets.

The Royal Corderie (cord works), the longest building in the world when built.

The Hermione replica and the sail-making workshops.

One of the many gates into the arsenal area.

The more modern part of the town and HUGE farmers market.

The river cruise up to Rochefort was not without its charms and amusements, either.  The river is lined with fishing cabins, privately owned shacks on stilts that are the envy of every local. 

Fishing cabin at the mouth of the river.

Fishing cabins line the river near Rochefort.

Just before arriving in Rochefort, two bridges pass overhead, with a comfortable 32 meter clearance.  The center of the channel is marked on top of the bridge (red cylinder on the left, greed triangle on the right… yes, North American friends, it’s “backwards”.)

Channel markers posted on top of the bridge.

Now, you may ask, why put the channel markers way up there?  Because it’s easier for the CARGO TRAFFIC to see.  I had read that the Charente still had an active river commerce and traffic but we thought we would be safe on a Sunday.  Thus you can imagine our surprise (and explicatives) as we rounded a corner of this bucolic river scene and saw a cargo barreling down on us in a narrow part of the river channel.  My first high-pitched scream to Patrick was, quite naturally, “GET OVER !  GET OVER !”  Then after a mad dash down to look at the chart to see how much water was actually over there, I retracted. “NO !  Stay where you are !  DON’T get over !”  As he got closer we realized there was more room than we thought and we passed more or less comfortably.

Yikes ! Big neighbors on the river.

These big guys also have some alignments (transit markers) to help them find the middle of the channel.   For some reason, they’ve chosen the letters A and T to mark either side of the channel.  The game is to line up the two poles so that the A’s are on top of each other, which puts you in the deepest part of the channel.  Smaller boats like ours don’t really need this but it’s fun to play along anyway.

Alignments (or transits) to find the deepest part of the channel.

We had been dodging stand-up-paddleboarders since the mouth of the river.  We figured there was a rental site somewhere on the river and that this fad (a very peculiar one that I thoroughly fail to understand) was big on the river.  As we neared Rochefort, one young man was very (dangerously) close to us and Patrick jokingly asked if he wanted a tow.  With a big smile, he dashed behind Spray and used her as a wind break from the 15 knot headwind that had kicked up in the afternoon.  He stayed with us for about 10 minutes and had no problems doing 5 knots behind us.  He said he was participating in the Fort Boyard Challenge, a race from Fort Boyard in the bay to Rochefort, a 25 mile endurance race.  He said he would probably get in trouble for using our boat as a wind break, but we told him we would vouch for him and tell the race organizers that we were lost and asking for directions.

Drafting behind Spray after 25 miles of paddling.
We plan to leave Rochefort tomorrow night (loch opening and tidal constraints) and will head 1 hour down river to the port of Soubise for the evening, and then back out into the bay to parts unknown ! (to us…).
Posted on Tuesday, September 17, 2013 | Categories: