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  The vendors have been replaced by chic boutiques to rival Paris (many of the same boutiques, in fact, including the Mecca of high-brow, ready-to-wear clothing stores, The Galeries Lafayette.)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:

Monday, 16 September 2013

Time for an Upgrade: Spray is for sale !

The onset of fall and rainy day reveries have led us to several conclusions:  1)  We love the cruising life and want to expand our time and space horizons,  2)  Spray is not the right boat for such a live-aboard cruising lifestyle, and  3)  The clock is ticking and we aren’t getting any younger. 

You can see the announcement (in French) at:   

Five years ago when we were building our plans to stop working early and go sailing, the strategy was to buy a 27-32 foot boat and spend 1-2 years cruising locally to see if we really wanted to do more ambitious sailing.  We ended up buying a 34 foot boat and cruising further than we thought we would in our first year.  We thought Spray would be the right size to carry us all around Europe and the Med, but with approximately 2500 nautical miles sailed on her in this first year, we’ve decided she’s just not the right boat for us.  It’s not just about size; she’s also too light, fast and furious for the long tranquil cruising we want to do.  If we were to modify her to suit our needs, it would completely de-nature her original character.  She deserves owners who will use her full capabilities, not two old farts who reef her down when she wants to fly.

So what would an appropriate old-fart retirement-home cruising boat look like?  In general, it would look like the floating camping cars we’ve always made fun of:  heavy (>8 tons), long (40 feet minimum), with easy-to-handle sails (2 headsails on furlers, big winches, and maybe even the mainsail furled in the mast.)  It would also have a real “owner’s stateroom,” very important if we plan to live onboard 6-8 months out of the year, and a galley that allows you to stand up fully while cooking.  Hot water and a shower would not be luxuries, and the water tank would have capacity for more than a week of autonomy for 2 people.  Bonus points for a bow thruster and heavy ground tackle with lots of chain.  At the same time, we don’t want to abandon sailing performance, but the combination of comfort and performance is quite pricey.  We also really like the center cockpit boats that offer more protection and security, not to mention kick-ass aft cabins. 

So we’ve taken the plunge, put Spray up for sale, and started looking around for our next home-away-from-home.  We’ve already had several calls from interested potential new owners, and we’ve placed several calls to sellers of floating camping car boats ourselves.  We know that this will be a painful transition, since any boat we buy will need months of fixing-up and shaking down to get it into the shape we want.  I also fear that having another boat ready to go by late spring of next year may be too ambitious.  But simply knowing that we do, indeed, love the cruising life will make the work much easier than it was the first time around when we weren’t really sure what we were getting into.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

3rd night's free and other navigational traps

We’ve made it to the island of Oleron, the largest island of the French Atlantic coast, and we’re currently pinned down by a combination of weather, tides, currents, early nightfalls, and promotional offers (3rd night free) enticing sailors to stay in port longer than they otherwise would have if not pinned down by weather, tides, currents, etc.  Our neighbors in the marine include Brits, Dutch, and Belgians, all of whom also seem content like us to hang around for a few days more.   

Fall has fallen with high temps in the mid 60s (18 C) and our regular pattern of squalls every other day is beginning to set in. Our strategy in such situations is to take advantage of the weather windows in between squalls to head to a port where we would be happy to be pinned down for several days.  Oleron is, in a word, DEAD in the off-season, but with our bikes on board this time out, we’ve managed to take advantage of the extensive bike trail system.  With a farmer’s market every day in town and good internet, we’ve been happy as clams here.  Next up:  La Rochelle and Rochefort, both short hops from here that can be done by carefully juggling the tide needed to get out of Oleron, the tide needed to get into the other ports, the currents in between, and unstable weather.

Chassiron lighthouse.

The view from the top.

Happier going down than going up the 300 stairs of the lighthouse. 

Tasting the local wines in their earliest form.  This region is known for its sweet Pineau wines and cognac. 

Sampling the local white.
The landscape here is quite different from that of Yeu island 60 miles to the north, where we spent a delightful few days enjoying the last rays of summer snorkeling (wet suits needed) and biking.  We had anticipated that heading south would help us to prolong summer a bit longer, but that was, in retrospect, quite a silly notion since we only migrate at a rate of about 40 miles every 2 or 3 days. 

Yeu island's wild coast in the last days of summer.

Today is the first real rainy day that we’ve had since early July and we’re happily holed up on Spray, cleaning, reading, blogging, cooking, watching movies, and just plain old “layin round the shanty” type activities.  We’ve got 1 month to make it back home, and we’re just about at our furthest point south, so we’re got time to take it easy and enjoy the rain.
Posted on Saturday, September 14, 2013 | Categories:

Friday, 6 September 2013

Controlled !

Some sailors go their whole sailing careers without ever having their papers controlled or inspected by Customs officials.  It happened to us yesterday … AT SEA !

We were several miles offshore sailing south towards the shipping lanes of the Loire estuary when we saw what we took to be a fishing boat barreling down on us.  We stood up and stared at them, letting the fishermen know we didn’t appreciate their little game.  Luckily I held Patrick back from flipping them the bird as he was intent on doing.

As they pulled up closer, I saw a discreet “DF” on the side of the boat:  Douanes Francaises (French Customs).  They pulled right up behind us and noted the name on the boat and undoubtedly looked in the cockpit to see if we had the now-mandatory license number posted in the cockpit.  We had just glued on our plaque that morning.

The boat pulled up beside us and two men came out of the pilot house, one with a huge fender and another with a big fishing net.  I started preparing fenders for them to come aboard.  All of this happened at 5 knots with us entirely under sail and I kept waiting for a loud-speaker to boom out “pull over please” or the nautical equivalent.  They signaled that they weren’t coming aboard and simply wanted me to place the ship’s documents into the fishing net that one of the officers held out to me.  

Preparing to be "pulled over"

My documents are, I must say, SCRUPULOUSLY organized in a water-resistant folder that includes everything from our ships registration, navigation taxes paid, insurance, home port contract, radio station license, our radio permits, our coastal and high-seas permits, and the life raft and fire extinguisher inspection documents.   Patrick, for once, did not make fun of me for my organization of our official documents and my “respect for authority a-la-Anglo-Saxon”.  I put my folder in a plastic bag and handed it over to the officials.

As they inspected the documents, Patrick and I reviewed everything mentally to try to imagine what fault they might find.  After a few minutes, they came out and I asked meekly, “is everything okay?”  The officer, with a funny little smile, said everything was fine (which I also took to be a silent commentary on my obsessive-compulsive organizational prowess).   I also think they were amused that I was taking pictures of them !  (Not sure that’s really allowed, but they didn’t say anything.)  

A smug Patrick prepares to recuperate the ship's documents (in the big fishing net of the officer on the right.)

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

WD-40: A Eulogy

Everything we held to be true and precious about boat maintenance was shattered to smithereens this week when the rigging expert said, and I quote:  (well, he said it in French, so I translate and I quote):  “WD-40 has no business on a sailboat.” 

As the blood drained from my face and I began hyperventilating, he backed off a bit and accepted that WD-40 could be used on the motor, but nothing above deck.  Apparently, when exposed to sun and salt, WD-40 can become corrosive and gummy.  We now have a new product on board that we use liberally everywhere on deck.  It’s a high-performance dry lubricant, a mix of Teflon and Silicone. I’m sure I’ll learn to love it as much as WD-40…but it’s not going to be easy.  

The rigging expert was called on to inspect our rigging, which was changed in 2010 by the former owners just before their round-trip Trans-Atlantic cruise.  After our surprise gale a few weeks ago and a few odd noises that have since cropped up, we decided to have an inspection.  Everything was okay except (1)the lower shrouds, which the expert says were not changed with the rest of the stays and shrouds, and (2) the attachment of the genoa furler to the forestay.  Boats of Spray’s age have a fork-type attachment between the furler and the deck that limits lateral motion, but they are missing a fitting found on more modern boats that limits fore-aft motion.  The only option is to have that piece custom-made.  When asked if changing these things was urgent, or rather, if leaving them as they are would be dangerous, the expert simply replied, “It’s always fine until it breaks, and when it does, you’re looking at a de-masting at sea.  But up to that point, it should be fine.”  Hmmm.  Dark humor.  When pressed, he said it is fine for coastal sailing but if we intend to go into the Med next year, we should have the shrouds replaced.

One boat upgrade we undertook this week that worked marvels was changing our 21 year old portholes.  The plexiglas is crackled so that visibility is very limited.  We only changed the 4 smaller portholes in the main saloon, but what a difference !  The problem is that it now makes the others look even worse, but changing those is quite a different budget.    With some rigging upgrades coming our way in the next few weeks, we’ll wait on the esthetic stuff.

Portholes: before and after.

The new next to the old... quite a difference in visibility !
Along with the portholes, we changed our port home.  We traded our visitor status in the city port of Vannes (convenient but very expensive) for an annual contract in the river port of Arzal.  It’s further from home but they had a great offer on space in their “dry port”.  Instead of a boat slip, we have a place on land, 10 round-trip launches (pull out and launching), 20 days of slip space in the port, and multiple free nights in any of the partner ports in our area (and there are quite a few, including Vannes.)  We will pull Spray out of the water in November and probably won’t put her back in until March, so 10 round-trips in 12 months is more than we will use.  When we go sailing, it's usually for weeks or months at a time, so we don't anticipate frequent stops at home port.  It’s also nice to know that if you ever want or need to check something underneath, you’ve got free haul-out.   

Arzal is a beautiful port with full boating services all around: 2 ship chandlers, electricians, mechanics, sail makers, restaurants, convenient stores, and everything a boater needs in port.  The port is in fresh water (more or less) which is good for the motor, too.  The river is dammed by a large loch, and I thought having to go through the loch every time we came into port would be stressful, but I actually find it quite a lot of fun !  

...and if you miss the loch opening, you just pull up to the waiting dock and have a glass of wine, for example.

Spray crammed into her first Arzal loch passage.

The port office, Arzal.

The riverside docks of Arzal.

And now we’re enjoying beautiful weather, snorkeling, and ice cream along the Loire coastline, waiting for a bit of wind to show up to push us further south.  Not in a hurry !