Dry sailing from Brittany
Relocating the boat from usually cold, rainy England to a dry-sailing marina in Brittany was an inspired move, says Peter Chennell
Can a UK couple really enjoy their boat kept ashore in another country?
At the end of the cold, wet, and windy 2008 season, I turned to my wife and said: “That’s it, we’re either going to sell the boat or move it somewhere nicer.”
Our Hallberg-Rassy 34 Juniper was located in Plymouth, where we’d moved it after 20 years of sailing in and around Poole. I’d developed the opinion that, while Poole is a wonderful place to sail to, it is not such a good place for the weekender to sail from. We live quite near to Poole, but the 120-mile journey to Plymouth had been worth it for the accessibility and choice of overnight destinations, and indeed the totally different scenery.
On too many occasions, however, we would drive down on the Friday night, and have a miserable weekend, or simply give up and return on the Saturday.
Boating is an enjoyable pastime, but sometimes it pays to take an objective look at the way we do it, so I set about looking at the alternatives: n Moving the boat abroad If we did this would we be prepared to exchange going down to the boat every weekend without fail in the summer for a smaller number of longer periods aboard? And were we prepared to accept the travel, and of course the other financial considerations? n Selling the boat If we sold the boat then certainly we’d have a capital sum and the annual cost of our present boating could be spent chartering.
We dismissed the notion of selling the boat (the very idea!) and agreed that we’d give an overseas location a try. What we were looking for was cheaper, or similarly priced boating, and much better weather.
Search for a base
After some considerable research looking at the ease, frequency, duration, vulnerability, and cost of travel options, we
ended up in la Rochelle. There was a frequent direct flight from Southampton to la Rochelle during the summer and getting from the airport was cheap by taxi and just as easy, and a lot cheaper, by public transport.
The majority of 2009 was spent based there, and although we absolutely loved la Rochelle as a town we were less enchanted with the sailing: the area is flat, a bit featureless, and shallow – so much so that quite a few of the very attractive harbours in the area were unavailable to us at certain times in the tidal cycle. It was also very, very, hot indeed, and although we both enjoyed the weather it was simply too hot. We didn’t go to the boat during July and August because the French school holidays mean a very crowded, costly environment and the heat would have been unbearable for us.
So towards the end of the season we made the passage northwards, determining to leave the boat for the winter wherever we ended up, and have a fresh think. Just as well we did: only a few months later la Rochelle suffered the amazing storms that devastated its marinas.
For some years we’d been inexorably working our way up the ten-year waiting lists of all the marinas south of Brest, anticipating my retirement. And it was just as we were contemplating where to berth for the winter that an invitation to a new location in St Philibert, near la Trinité, arrived on our doormat.
Brittany alone reckons it is short of about 7,000 berths, and increasingly ‘dry sailing’ is being offered. For those who only visit their boats a few times a year, this seems like the universal panacea. The boat stays safely and securely in a cradle ashore all the time. When you want to go afloat you let the port know, and the boat is in the water waiting for you. You get a couple of free nights on the visitor pontoon, and at the end of the period afloat the boat is lifted out, and back into its cradle. Of course it is not much good if you use the boat every weekend, but the advantage is that it frees up afloat berths for those who do.
I was told that these dry-berths could be as much as a kilometre from the launch site, with cheaper land prices giving a more attractive offer.
Other advantages are fewer worries about electrolysis and possibly no need for antifouling as a short period of growth will come off with the pressure washer, always part of the lift-out.
There are said to be a few such places already in the Mediterranean, mostly for small power boats, as in the UK. They are rarer for keelboats, though several are planned. Closer to home, apart from St Philibert, there is another at Cordemais on the Loire, and one at la Roche Bernard on the Vilaine River.
We found ourselves in the Vilaine, a place I’d always wanted to visit, at the
‘Dry-sailing seems like the universal panacea’
end of the season and over-wintered there in the marina at Foleux. One operation, la Cale de Neptune, offered dry sailing using a crane to haul out and relaunch. However, across the river in Foleux, Multi-Nautique used a clever combination of tractor and hydraulically articulated trailer to launch and recover. One man did the whole operation in about 15 minutes.
The charming owners, who speak perfect English, had but one place left. We took it.
Best sailing decision
I can truthfully say this was one of our best sailing decisions ever. The weather in Brittany is mostly warm and sunny – a couple of times when the UK was being savaged by yet another low pressure system we experienced a few overcast and slightly blowy days, but the rest of the time it was perfect. When the high pressure establishes itself the afternoon breeze kicks in, providing glorious beam reaches in big gentle swells up and down the coastline, and calm, still, warm evenings.
We avoided July and August, but in the extended season of April to October experienced such an absence of crowding that we found it hard to believe. Imagine the Port du Crouesty, at the mouth of the Golfe du Morbihan, which has an entire 100-berth basin dedicated to visitors (this place is big), with only 20 boats in it. This in June.
The travelling was easy. While I was still working we took the overnight ferry to St Malo, and were on the boat, having done the victualling, by late morning. Our choice was either to stay there and ease ourselves into a boating frame of mind, or crack on to another port (a good selection within a few hours' sailing) and do our 'easing in' as the sun went down. The return had us leaving the boat mid-morning, and driving to Caen, with a hypermarket shop on the way. It required a degree of planning to ensure optimal use of my leave, maximum time in France, less time wasted travelling – hence the overnight ferry.
Once retired, our sailing changed subtly. We spent three weeks to a month on board, not hurrying anywhere. The Poole to Cherbourg ferry allowed us to be on board early evening, and we would gently settle in.
The Vilaine river is gorgeous. It is wide and deep with very little flow as it has been canalised, and you can anchor anywhere, most sensibly out of the middle, as there are a few boats, including a large dredger, that pass up and down. Apart from weekends the traffic is virtually non existent.
To get to sea you have to pass through the lock at Arzal, an hour downstream. Some people get quite nervous about it, as it is quite large, and there can be a bit of jostling at weekends. But for us it became routine, and we normally went through at a quiet time. There were occasions, at the time of a huge charity rally for people with special needs, where it was positively party-like. Boats were crammed in with lots of good humour.
Once at sea, there are choices north or south. There are large marinas with all sorts of facilities, and scores of anchorages. The Golfe du Morbihan, and Vannes at its head are a fabulous place to visit; southwards takes you past the mouth of the Loire; northwards to Lorient, Concarneau and Brest. And of course there are many islands, ranging from the heavily populated to the bare Glénans.
And we had such fun, there are quite a few British boats out there, and we met a lot of new friends. We also had fun being in France, and were invited to join in local community events.
What it cost
Financially we were pleased with the result. Our direct boating costs were some £3,500 cheaper than in the UK, and even when the real travel costs (ferry, food, and
mileage) are taken into consideration, our seasons were still about £1,000 less costly. A whole year’s dry sailing included five launches a year, the free visitor nights, electricity etc. In the UK you have to pay for winter storage on top of the annual berthing charge, and there are extras like cradle hire, lift in/out and electricity to add on top of the actual footprint. Costly.
Of course the Euro rate plays its part, and our costs varied by a few percent, depending on the relative strengths of the two currencies.
Another massive cost saving is an offer from the company that runs nearly all the marinas in the area, now called Compagnie des Ports du Morbihan. For a few hundred Euros, depending on the size of your boat, you can buy a subscription (they call it a ‘passeport’) to all the marinas in their ownership, and some associates, around 20 in total. For this you get two consecutive nights free wherever you go, and you only have to be away for a day to return and repeat the cycle! Alternatively if you have a mooring in one of their ports the deal extends to quite a few more ports.
We like to anchor when we can, but this offer is beguiling, and we found ourselves going from marina to marina, simply to avail ourselves of all the things marinas offer – showers, restaurants, markets, and all the things you don’t really need. And bars.
It is hard to compare like for like with UK boating, because we never recorded the expenses, so the price comparisons are as best I could estimate, but the savings far outweigh the disadvantages. We actually spent more time on board than we did in the UK, and the real cost per ‘boat-night’ was about 30% less.
I’m sure it could be cheaper still – visiting ports, even familiar ones, entails visits to bars and restaurants, and once retired we found ourselves eating more frequently on board. We were in ‘living on the boat’ mode, rather than ‘holiday’ mode.
Sell up or move elsewhere?
We had an outstanding period of sailing until we sold the boat two years ago. Naturally, summer heatwaves such as this one in 2018 can have amazing effects on sailors’ memories, but our move in 2009 was predicated by the weather we experienced in the UK, and I believe the weather could well change the nature of boating in the UK. My wife and I had come to expect, and accept, the two-week summer cruise ruined by rotten weather but, as climate change bites, slowly people are going to be saying ‘enough is enough’ and move away from sailing. Many will leave altogether, others will take up powerboating as it’s easier to abandon a cruise and scamper home if a depression is on the horizon.
Of course, I’ve been known to be wrong, but the relative sales of sailing and motor boats – the latter outpacing the former by something like 5 to 1 – seem to attest to this.
Yet this trend is not so pronounced in France, and certainly not in Brittany. And remember, my way isn’t the only way. We know many people who keep their boats much further afield, in Greece particularly. Some have even bought boats in Florida.
So if you’re thinking of selling your boat it may be worth a minute to ask yourself whether you’d be better off, and have more sailing fun, if you simply moved it.
‘We spent more time aboard and the cost was about 30% less’
A tractor and hydraulic trailer – a simple and effective launching system
the terminal building la rochelle Airport – there’s easy access to the marina, but palm trees say something about the hot weather. bELoW the big Vilaine river lock at Arzal
Party atmosphere at Arzal lock when a massive charity event was being held just upstream
A riverside community event in Foleux
Drifting down the Vilaine, just west of la Roche Bernard
Arzal lock runs all day and tends to be very friendly and helpful
Trailing and launching is a oneman operation that takes little more than 20 minutes
Peter Chennell’s Juniper under sail