Saturday, 22 August 2015

Rounding Finistere

Sailing around the western tip of Brittany requires passing through two of the strongest tidal passages in Europe; the Chenal du Four and the Raz de Sein.  It’s a tradition to drink a healthy dose of rhum entering or leaving the Raz de Sein.  After the miserable weather we’ve had the last 2 months in northern Brittany, the rhum was an especially welcomed celebration of being back in southern Brittany and heading south.

Rounding Finistere with friends... and rhum !
Just as we made it out of the Raz, the Hermione caught up with us.  This replica of the ship that Lafayette took to America in 1780 has just returned to France after re-creating Lafayette’s voyage.  The winds were light and the Hermione veered off under motor while we hugged the coast and sailed as best we could.  Since we were making less than 4 knots, we decided to fish.  Mackerel,what else?  (link)

Mareda losing the regata against the Hermione.  (They were cheating...)

More mackerel sushi on the way !

The voyage down the coast to Lorient was delightful: warmish weather (only ONE thin layer of polar fleece !) light winds and good friends. Things are looking up !

Another dolphin escort from Audierne to the Glenan Archipelago.

Light winds perfect for the gennaker.

Friday, 14 August 2015

A Day off and Dolphins

Many non-sailors believe that life on a sailboat is a floating vacation.  That may be true if you’re only going out for a week or so, but when you’re living aboard permanently for several months, there’s a lot of work to be done to keep your floating home afloat. 

The only good thing about early morning departures is an increased chance of having dolphins come play in your bow wake.
The first day in port typically involves basic boat maintenance and food shopping.  Once you’ve tied the boat up, the first thing to do is EAT.  After a 6 – 9 hour passage, you’ve probably skimped on at least one meal.  The inside of the boat is a wreck:  your sailing gear (boots, vests, life jackets, gloves, etc.) is thrown off where ever you can find space, and everything that wasn’t firmly secured before heading out (which is nearly everything since you weren’t expecting the rough conditions you had) has found its way onto the floor during all those tacks.  You push everything aside to create a space to sit and eat something fast and comforting: spaghetti, soup, leftovers. 

Now with a sigh, you divide and conquer: one person outside, one person inside.  Depending on the weather and sea conditions you just came through, you’ll probably need to hose down the boat to rinse off the salt.  Yes, sailboats are made to sail in salt water but all those metal fittings, anchor, chain, pulleys and hardware – even stainless steel (I scoff at the term) – need to be rinsed or they won’t last very long.  And while you’ve got the hose out, you may as well fill up the water tanks (and it takes awhile to load 330 liters with a garden hose).  To finish, you’ve got to secure all the halyards for the night so that they don’t clang against the mast when the wind kicks up at 2 a.m. 

You have to be going at least 5 knots or they aren't interested in you.

Now that the boat is in good shape, it’s time to think about personal hygiene.  You are salty, sticky, and you are beginning to smell like a cheese shop.  Off to the port office and public showers.  Yes, we have a shower on the boat and I do quite like using it except that you have to thoroughly wipe down and dry the whole bathroom compartment afterwards.  It seems like too much work after a long day, so you break down and go to the public showers, where you can be sure that the water will only be warm enough to avoid outright complaints but not warm enough to take away the chill you developed while sailing. 

So now the boat is clean and you are clean.  But you are getting hungry again and there’s nothing for dinner.  Off to the town to scavenge.  We usually find a bakery for bread and, if we’re lucky, a butcher shop and a small corner store for fruit and vegetables.  Sometimes we just get a take-out pizza.  If there’s a big grocery store within walking distance we’ll take our biggest backpacks and baskets and haul a big load back to store up for several days.

In the meantime, you’ve seen a little bit of the town and maybe a few little things that look interesting to explore.  Tomorrow.  It’s getting late and you’re tired and hungry.  Over dinner, you talk over the question:  “So, do we head out tomorrow or stay another day?”  A quick check of the weather and the currents tell you if it’s even possible, and then you have to ask yourselves if you WANT to leave so soon. 

These guys frolicked along with us for about 20 minutes before spotting a slow-moving fisherman with holes in his nets.

A day off (or two) is needed.  First of all, you haven’t visited the village / town at all, and isn’t that why you’re traveling in the first place? Secondly, it’s important to have a true down day from time to time, where you wake up in the morning with absolutely nothing urgent demanding your attention.  Those are few and far between, but oh so appreciated. Sometimes if the weather window is very narrow, your choices are either to leave the next day or to stay in port for days and days waiting for the next opportunity.

Today is one of those days.  See?  I’m posting photos and blogging !  I’ve skyped with my family.  The boat is clean, fully stocked with food and we’re just kicking back !  Very very necessary.  

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Summertime Blues

While the rest of France is under a heat wave, the north coast of Brittany seems to hover around 20 degrees and we haven’t had more than 3 consecutive days without rain.  Last week, the early morning temperature in the boat was 11 degrees C (that’s 52 F if you’re playing along in Fahrenheit).  I don’t care what anyone says, we put the heat on the next night. 

Gales every 48 hours (note the high-wind warning:  little sailboat being pushed over...)
The barometer says it all:  1004 hPa to 1020 hPa and back to 1004 hPa in 48 hours.  This is a gale coming through.  This hump is a permanent feature of the barometer since we get a gale every 3-4 days.  I have learned how to turn off the volume of the “high wind” alarm (charmingly visualized as a little sailboat being pushed over by wind).  Before I learned that little trick, I was up FIVE times during the night to acknowledge and shut down its wailing.

I also think I’ve become a bit jaded about sailing in places we’ve already visited.  There are some beautiful sights sailing around Brittany and the Islands but the fact that I’ve photographed the same cathedral / harbour / village / coastline only 2 years ago leaves me wondering what I could possibly say that would convey the enthusiasm it deserves and that I no longer feel.

Fort La Latte, a beautiful new anchorage for us.
We’ve also been thrashed about in a couple of near gales but we weren’t psychologically marked by them the way we were in the past and so I didn’t feel inspired to write about the events.  Perhaps it’s because we have a heavier, more stable boat that’s much higher in the water than Spray was, or maybe we’re just getting used to this kind of abuse. 

Balanced rock at the entrance of Tregastel, also a new mooring for us.

A beautiful anchorage in Tregastel in the middle of a jumble of rocks.

Tregastel Plage

Yesterday, we had 25 knots on the nose with apparent winds over 30 and choppy seas heading into the river port of Morlaix.  We sailed close-hauled with 2 reefs and the genoa rolled in halfway (e.g., not enough, in my opinion) until we got to the mouth of the river and had to wind our way through a very narrow channel.  The boat was absolutely caked in salt when we pulled in. A few days earlier, we had 3-4 meter swells with 20-25 knots of wind in the nose just north of Brehat island that prevented us from making the headway we had planned.  The delays led to a 2 knot current pushing us backwards so that we could only make about 2 knots of headway even with the motor helping, and we had to reroute to a river port (Treguier) that was close by.  That was 8 hours of sailing for only 20 miles of route.  I can WALK faster than that.
But the biggest blue spot of the summer has been health problems.  Patrick developed a little bump on his calf that grew rapidly and looked nasty.  He took advantage of a crew member with a car to go back home for a few days (mostly to pick up lots of things we forgot) and made an appointment with our family doctor.  The doctor sent him immediately to the dermatologist, who sent him immediately to a clinic to schedule surgery.  He had a carcinoma the size of a chick pea that was growing rapidly.  It’s not a melanoma or anything that spreads, but it needed to be cut out quickly while it was still just on the surface and not yet in the muscle.  A nice two-inch incision and 7 stitches later, we’re glad we didn’t wait any longer. 

The day after this discovery, my 100 ½ year old grandmother passed away.  This was no real surprise and it was, in fact, a relief.  I called her on her 95th birthday and told her how proud I was that she was still doing so well at her age.  She said, “Oh no, I’m not doing well at all !”  Alarmed, I asked her what was wrong.  “Well,” she said, “I don’t rightly know.  I just ain’t got no pep.”    At 98, with her joyful laugh and good humour, she said to me, “I don’t know why I can’t just die like other people.”  She had outlived everyone she ever knew.  Last year, she buried two sons. That was too much for her to handle and she went downhill very quickly after that. 

And since bad news always comes in 3s, my mother had some frightening blood pressure and cardiac complications after her knee-replacement surgery last week.  With modern technology like skype and mobile phones, time and distance never seem that big until a loved one is sick.  No amount of skyping can relieve the ache of being so far away and feeling so helpless and useless.  Patrick and I rerouted to a port where I could get a bus / train / plane to get home quickly if needed, but fortunately things stabilized.  Still, I would like to be with my family and the cool grey Breton drizzle makes me wonder what the hell I’m doing here.  

Monday, 3 August 2015

Hunting and Gathering

One of the pleasures of sailing is fishing.  I have to admit that we are not very good at it yet judging by the fact that we only ever catch mackerel and I don’t like mackerel. 

Our latest fishing expedition was in the Chausey Islands, the only islands in the Channel to remain French. 

Mareda in Chausey Sound (click on photo for larger image)

Winding our way through the Beauchamp pass at low tide.

Grande Ile, Chausey

We fish with a long trolling line towed behind the boat that has 6 hooks on it festooned with a combination of shiny and feathery things that drive mackerel wild.  A little diving board that looks like a cuttlefish bone makes the line plunge down beneath the surface a few meters as it is towed along.  When you catch something, the board comes up to the surface to indicate that there is something heavier than itself on the line (fish, seaweed, trash bag)  The boat speed needs to be under 4 knots and you need to be around coastal areas where mackerel like to hang out.

Then there’s the disturbing bit: what to do once you actually catch something. 

Jack with mack
The first time I fished in Brittany from a sailboat, we were 6 crew members and we caught 5 mackerel on a trolling line.  The skipper gave everyone but me (the only woman) a fish to kill, and each proceeded to apply his own technique.  The skipper swore by his method of banging the fish between the eyes with the winch handle.  Another whipped out his sailing knife and began sawing away, a bit surprised that the knife didn’t slip effortlessly through the poor beast’s skull.  With much tsk-tsk-tsking, another pulled out his knife and explained that the preferred method was to plunge the knife vertically down between the eyes, severing the brain stem, not unlike the coup-de-grace in a bullfight.  With one hand grasping the fish and the other carefully positioning the knife, he looked around helplessly for a third hand to actually do the plunging.  After several attempts to do it himself and with absolutely no help from the wriggling fish, he resorted to the sawing method of his predecessor.  The fourth crew member, apparently influenced by the skipper’s winch handle trick, simply banged the head of the fish directly on the winch, reasoning that any hard-angled edge should do the trick.  The last crew member took a more passive approach and decided it was best to just let the fish suffocate in a bucket of warm seawater.  The carnage in the cockpit was truly spectacular, and when the furore died down and calm returned, we surveyed the scene with a mix of disgust and pride.  The results: two dead (decapitated), two stunned-but-still-twitching, and one in its final death throes, gasping hopelessly for oxygen. 

A quick survey of the most humane way to kill a fish indicates that you must first stun the fish and then bleed it rapidly by cutting the gills or cut off its head.  Stunning alone does not kill the fish, and sawing off its head while it still has all its wits about it is frowned upon.  And if I were you, I’d watch my back when sailing with those passive-aggressive types who go in for slow suffocation.

Jack filets mack.  (You notice it's always Jack doing the icky bits ?)
My octogenarian friend Michel has a different method that appeals to me for a number of reasons.  It’s both barbaric and efficient, relatively bloodless, requires no tools, and if you beam your best southern belle peaches-and-cream smile while you do it, nobody’s gonna mess with you the whole rest of the cruise.  This is specific for mackerel but can probably be applied to any fish with a relatively small head.  In a bucket of water, you grab the fish with one hand and with the other, you place your index and middle fingers in the gills from below.  Placing your thumb on the fish’s head between the eyes, you simply push down with the thumb, pull up with the fingers in the gills, and using a quick wrist action, twist the fish’s head back, snapping its spine and severing the spinal column with one rapid snap.  You can hear it crack and death seems to be more-or-less immediate.  Bonus points if you can giggle and say “so cute!” while you do it.

So now you have a properly dead mackerel.  But you still don’t like mackerel, do you?  Here’s my marinade recipe for mackerel sushi that’ll make it all go down happily (quantities are approximate…):

3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sweet soy sauce (teriyaki)
1 tablespoon sesame seed oil
1-2 teaspoons of wasabi paste
1 clove finely chopped or crushed garlic
1-2 teaspoons of fresh finely chopped ginger
Serve with sticky rice.  YUM !  (can’t even taste the mackerel now !)
And if hunting and fishing don’t appeal to you, “gathering” is nice, too.  These fellows found their way onto our plates straight from the fishmonger.