Saturday, 27 July 2013

Flying the Union Jack

We made it to the Channel Islands this week !  This is our first foreign country visited with Spray, and we had great fun hoisting the British courtesy flag as we sailed into Guernsey harbour.

Hoisting the UK courtesy flag on Spray for our first foreign waters sail.

Toasting our entry into English waters.  Yes, it was chilly out there...
We are grateful to our friends on Alize who led us through the daunting waters of northern Brittany, where we would have feared to tread alone.  Most of the ports in this area have swing gates or sills that prevent entry except for a few hours around high tide.  At present, the tidal coefficient is a whopping 109 out of 120, which means 6 knot currents and 11 meter tides in many places.  But the weather has been exceptionally mild (sunny and warm) with only light winds, so it has been less frightening than it could have been.  While light winds and strong currents are not the best combination of elements for sailing, at least we can now say we have thoroughly tested the motor, with one passage totalling 11 mind-numbing hours.

This is what a +30 foot tidal range looks like.  Me (5' 4") standing at the bottom of the dock at low tide, and the same dock (now perfectly horizontal) at high tide.  (The sign in French warns not to bring animals ashore because of rabies.)

Our first stop in the Channel Islands was Guernsey.  Sailing into the beautiful harbor at sunset was a thrill.

Sailing into the port of Guernsey.

The sill holding 2 meters of water in Guernsey harbor to keep the boats afloat.  The sill is just apparent in the water as the tide goes out. 

Both Jersey and Guernsey are known for something that can be smelled several miles offshore. No, not duty-free. Cows !  Napolean said he could smell his native Corsica from miles away at sea, where the Mediterranean sun would roast the thyme, rosemary, sage, and lavendar of the island hills.  While cow manure doesn't have the same poetry, it was a homey, welcoming smell for this hillbillly girl.  Shortly after we arrived, the churchbells rang out for an hour.  I thought this was rather over-the-top for a welcome, but I had been warned the Channel Islands were quite chic.  We later discovered that the bells were, in fact, to celebrate the birth of little Prince George.  (As an aside, most of the Guernsey natives I spoke with were hoping for a girl...).  

Spray in Guernsey harbor.  Looks like someone put her in the drier on high heat and shrank her in comparison with the other boats in the harbor !
But beyond duty free and cows, Guernsey and Jersey seem to do their best to have nothing else in common.  There is a rivalry between the islands that is quite silly to outsiders, but which they take rather seriously.  They even go so far as to have seperate money printed (although it seems to be all perfectly interchangeable).  Guernsey is more of a boutique town with beautiful little streets and shops in a preserved old-town setting.  But once you've roamed through the 3-4 streets of the center several times, there's really not much else around, and even in summer, things shut down at 5:30 sharp.  Jersey, on the other had, was bombed during the war and lost much of its original charm.  As you pull into the harbor, you wonder why you bothered to pick your way through the rather tricky and confusing channel.  It's simply butt ugly.  But pushing a little bit past the port, you stumble into a bustling market area and modern city that's pulsing with energy unlike anything in quaint little Guernsey.

But one thing Guernsey has that Jersey doesn't seem to have (at least haven't found it yet) is Red Diesel.  Because the diesel is duty-free, they are obliged to put a red dye in it that allows the customs officials of other countries to know if their citizens have been sampling the local tax-free gas.  The rumors around the port were that foreign boats were not allowed to fill up, and that customs officials had been known to sample the gas from your tank to see if it was red or not.  Another sailor said that it was okay as long as you kept your receipt to prove that you had bought the gas on Guernsey.  This really made no sense to me so I chatted up the gas pump guy to know if we were officially allowed to fill up or not.  He told me that the only countries that had a problem with this were the Netherlands and Belgium, but that there hadn't been any sanctions against sailboats for years.  If you are only filling up your own tank, there's no problem.  There's no other diesel on the island, so you have no choice.  But what you are not allowed to do is to fill up containers or jerry cans to take back home as a souvenir.  They have signs all over the gas dock saying "no cans beyond this point."  After our marathon 11 hour motor to Guernsey, we took full advantage of a half-price Red Diesel fill-up in Guernsey.

Jersey suffers a bad reputation from sailors (at least those sailors preferring Guernsey) since it is closer to the French coast and thus more accessible and crowded.  We were warned by the Guernsey sailors that the port of Jersey would be packed with rental boats, which is to say, inexperienced skippers who will ding your boat as they attempt to manoeuver their over-sized, over-powered floating camping cars.  But when we arrived, we had several berths to choose from and we were not rafted up 3 deep as we were in Guernsey (it was an absolute zoo, but all in good fun).  So far, the port facilities have been superior to those in Guernsey (although, admittedly, with not as lovely surroundings) and we will be staying for a few days.

As Oscar Wilde said, "If I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter."  Since free time in ports with good internet connection is scarse, I'll stop blathering on and simply post some photos...

Spray, spraying, with Alize in the lead.  (Just to say we did do SOME sailing.)

The rugged northern coast of Guernsey at low tide.

A well-deserved Guinness mustache.

Laundry day in the swank Guernsey marina facilities.

Jersey marina.  Not the prettiest marina in the world, but it has the classiest showers I've ever seen.  (Sorry Guernsey)

Jersey food markets.  We're not going hungry...

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Fjords and Rivers

This week has been a new experience in sailing in and around the Breton fjords (Abers) and the rivers that cut into the northern Breton coast.  The area is stunning, both in terms of beauty and capacity to stun... thousands of rocks just below the surface that play hide and seek with 30 foot tides and currents more powerful than our little 18 hp motor.

The Breton Fjord of Aber Wrac'h
Aber Wrac'h is the largest of the Breton fjords.  It's a paradise for small craft of all sorts (paddle boards, wind surfers, small catamarans) and, once nestled comfortably in the port after dodging the rocks, it's not so bad for us, either. 

Although Aber Wrac'h is a regular point of passage for sailboats in this area, I never expected to bump into my former post-doctoral research advisor from Paris in the marina showers !  We hadn't seen each other for over 4 years and almost didn't recognize each other.

Hood and Merlivat, 2013 (referenced like our scientific papers written together.)
The next stop was Roscoff.  With the recent weeks of exceptionally warm weather (yea !), the north wind brings fog.  Visibility was reduced to less than 200m.  I know this because the pass between the Ile de Batz and Roscoff is marked with many large channel buoys to help guide boats through this narrow passage and we barely saw any of them until we were right upon them.  When we entered the channel, visibility was good but a fog bank rolled in with startling rapidity and we were navigating virtually with MaxSea and the GPS plotter.  I was scanning the horizon with binoculars trying to see 15 meter channel markers that were 200 meters in front of us.  None of us had ever visited the new marina in Roscoff and even after tying up to the dock, we still hadn't seen it.  But the fog cleared later and we took a walk out to the coast to see the passage we hadn't seen while sailing through it.  This is, I hope, an experience not to be repeated.

Following friends through fog and rocks...

The passage between Batz Island and Roscoff seen at low tide.
The next stop was the bay of Morlaix and navigating down the river to the medieval town.  The river navigation was a bit harrowing as well, since the whole river area dries at low tide.  With 7 meters of tide, we had only 2 meters of clearance in some areas. 

Scenes from Morlaix Bay

Scenes from Morlaix Bay.

Motor-sailing in the river to Morlaix.

The town was charming and the local supermarket is managed by a retired merchant mariner who delivers groceries free of charge to boats in the marina.  We took full advantage of this kind service and loaded up for a few days.

The port is behind a loch that keeps the water levels constant.  On leaving Morlaix, we were following our large friend (Moody 38) through the river and noticed that he was stopped dead in the water with his motor churning up lots of water.  We slammed into reverse ourselves (although in retrospect we should have continued full throttle and gone around him).  He had been stuck in the mud but thanks to his 50 hp he managed to get out.  We were not so lucky.  Our little 18 hp motor coughed and putt-putted its best, but we were stuck.  We tried all the regular tricks...rocking the boat back and forth, etc., with no success.  Another boat (smaller than us) tried to help us and gave up, fearing that they would get stuck too.  Our friends went to a larger area further down the river, turned around, and came back to pull us out.  Quite a morning.  We lost about 40 minutes doing all this, which put is in a tight situation for reaching our next destination of Trebeurden before the tide got too low, so we decided to tuck back into Roscoff, where, as I have formerly noted, they have excellent internet connections.

Going through the Morlaix lochs.

Morlaix lochs.

Every day it's the same old thing:  learn, learn, learn.  Most recent lessons:  1.  It's important to have 2 computers on board, just in case.  And we don't.  Our computer had a little temper tantrum yesterday and left us a bit blind.  Our GPS tracer can be called on in a pinch, but it's much less precise and doesn't provide information about tides and currents.  Of course I can calculate all that by hand, but it takes much longer.  2.  As with many things in life, it's easier to get into something than out of it.  On several occassions we thought about ducking into a river port, but they are oriented in such a way that it would have been very difficult to get out the next day with winds and currents in the nose.

Today the winds are Beaufort 5-6 with gusts and possible thunderstorms later, so we're hanging out in Roscoff doing odd jobs on the boat, cleaning, and preparing for a big hop tomorrow to Guernesey in the Channel Islands.  It will be a very long day - we plan to leave at sunrise around 6:30 and hope to arrive before 9 pm.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Postcard from Land's End

With temps in the 80s (27 C), winds Beaufort 3-4, and "insignificant swell" we decided to really head north this time, around the French Land's End point (Finisterre) up to the Channel Islands, and possibly to Cornwall and the Scilly Islands if time and weather permit.  We are sailing with another boat (Moody 38) and taking advantage of having an experienced skipper lead us up and around some of the most complicated sailing areas of Europe.

This is also a good thing in that it's pushing us to do longer passages than we normally do if left to our own devices.  Our first day was 60 nautical miles from the Morbihan Gulf to Concarneau, where we met up with our friends.  We managed this in just under 10 hours, averaging more than 6 knots, thanks to our poled-out Genoa.

Poled-out Genoa... worked like a charm !

After a day of repairing (or rather, replacing) the wind speed indicator and recuperating with some beach time and a big ice cream, our 2nd leg of the cruise was 65 miles from Concarneau to Camaret around the Raz de Sein.  The guide book calls this 12 mile passage through a plateau of rocks "delicate", with violent currents of up to 6 knots that can kick up dangerous swells in wind-over-current conditions.  Fortunately we had quite calm conditions and it went smoothly.  We kept with tradition and drank a small shot of rum as we lined up the two light houses, the Vielle and La Plate.

The "rum" line: lining up the Vielle and the Plate lighthouses to enter into the Iroise sea.

Patrick, however, refused to participate in protest of the fact that we had to use a bit of motor to round the point (directly into the wind, of course) and to keep up with our friends who have the advantage of a 50 hp motor to push their 12.5 tonnes of boat.

Today we are nestled in the little Breton fjord of Aber Wrac'h, a beautiful estuarty with free internet.  I even managed a skype home to Florida.

New wind speed indicator from the top of the mast overlooking Concarneau.

Spray as seen from the top of the mast at 13.4 meters.
Lessons learned:  1)  for longer destination-type voyages, it's important to leave earlier than you think you need to.  To make it through some of these "delicate" passages, you have to arrive at the right time.  You can always slow down but you can't always speed up.  (Especially if you have a whimpy little 18 hp motor with a folding 2 blade propellor pushing a 34 foot boat.)  2) Sometimes going against a weak current is preferable to wind-over-current conditions.  It takes some experience to know how much wind-over-current is acceptable in certain passages.  We are very thankful to be following experienced friends !

Following a more experienced skipper:  highly recommended for the first time around northern Brittany !
Some scenes from the road:

Rugged coastline of northern Brittany.

Arriving at Camaret.

Bastille Day fireworks over the port.

Four channel lighthouse.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Week 3: Family Sailing

This week, Patrick’s daughter decided to take a break from her job as a nurse in a psychiatric clinic to babysit her crazy father on Spray.  It was her first time sailing and despite the initial anxiety when we informed her there was no hot water or shower on board, she had a great time.  She experienced cold rain, hot sun, the thrill of gliding over the water on an ever-so-slightly heeled-over boat, short-tacking through narrow channels, long smooth passages across the bay, and a wee bit of seasickness.

An enthusiastic beginning !

...that rapidly gave way to sea sickness.

Biking on Ile aux Moines

Hiking on Hoedic and Houat islands

Island colors
Even some water time ! (water temp: a bracing 16 C / 61 F)

And a bit of sailing between the islands.

For the weekend, we were joined by Solene's cousin and friend.  We've never had 5 people on the boat !

Summer sailing essentials:  the solar shower and the bimini (sun shade for cockpit).

As for Patrick and myself, this week has reminded us why we wanted a boat in the first place.  After a devastating winter and more than our share of problems with the boat, we’re finally enjoying it all.  Now when Patrick talks about selling the boat, it's not in the context of a nervous break-down but with the idea of buying a bigger one.  He even made some offhand comment earlier today about selling the house and moving on board permanently.  I suggested we wait to see how the summer goes…

It was a long week, but a fun one.

We’re home for 48 hours and a crew change before heading off to…we don’t know yet.  Our plans are to spend the summer sailing with another boat (Alizé, a Moody 38) and we haven’t yet decided if we’re heading to northern Brittany-the Channel Islands-England-The Scilly Islands or down the French coast to northern Spain.  We were all eager to head to Spain but since the weather has been excellent for the last week, we haven’t ruled out heading north.  Stay tuned !