Readers share their experiences of a first Channel crossing with friends, teaching in-laws to sail in the BVI, and a happy boat swap
Brittany is a fabulous cruising destination, but there are lessons to learn along the way for Terysa Vanderloo and her crew.
Sitting in a pub in Dartmouth, the four of us excitedly discussed our imminent departure for France over beer and burgers.
Our friends Matt and Kaitlyn had traveled down from London for a week on board, but had little sailing experience. Nick and I tried not to show it, but we were slightly nervous about the passage across the English Channel. We assured Matt and Kaitlyn that if they were seasick or weren’t enjoying it, we would make landfall in Brest instead of Concarneau further south, as intended. The truth was that Nick and I weren’t certain that taking two novices on a 48-hour passage was a good idea, and quietly agreed that we might curtail the journey either way.
We set off, making the error of leaving in the late afternoon in order to get the night sail out of the way. We had failed to take into account, however, when we would cross the shipping lanes. Nick took the first watch, and then stayed up until 0500 at which point we finally left the shipping lanes behind us. The sea state had been uncomfortable and Matt and Kaitlyn had felt seasick, teaching Nick and me a second lesson: always give out antiseasickness tablets.
Eventually, as dawn broke the sea flattened, the wind dropped off and everyone except me went to bed for some much needed sleep. I had the pleasure of watching the beautiful sunrise instead.
That day was far more pleasant than the previous night. We motor-sailed across flat seas under a warm, blue sky and everyone was in far better spirits. We decided to continue for Concarneau in North Biscay, which meant that we were able to sail around the outside of the Chenal du Four and the Raz de Sein, making navigation considerably easier.
No-one was looking forward to another night sail, but the winds stayed light and the sky was unobstructed by cloud. Kaitlyn and I took the first watch together and, blankets over our legs and pillows behind our backs, settled down in the cockpit to quiet conversation and a magnificent view of the milky way in a massive arc above us. The boys relieved us at 0200 and a few hours later we arrived into Concarneau as the sun was rising.
‘The milky way stretched overhead in a massive arc’
We radioed the harbour but got no reply, so tied up on the visitors’ pontoon. Nick took care of the formalities as the rest of us cleaned up and sorted out the lines and fenders. We were all pretty shattered that day, but food is the ultimate motivator and the delectable cuisine of South Brittany beckoned. The old town was actually a fortified island in the middle of the harbour, connected to the promenade by a footbridge. We wandered the narrow cobbled streets and then settled down in a charming little restaurant to celebrate our successful passage in true French style: with wine, mussels and the internal organs of some unknown animal, which I enthusiastically munched on thinking it was ham. Nick didn’t enlighten me until we were licking our icecream cones on the way back to the boat later that evening.
We decided to stop for a night in Ile de Groix but were feeling so relaxed and lazy that we didn’t even bother going ashore. Instead, we anchored off a beautiful beach amongst dozens of other yachts and enjoyed an afternoon of reading, sleeping and beer drinking. The following day we continued south to Belle-Île.
We reached Sauzon, on the north-eastern tip of the island, by lunchtime. After a night on the buoy in the outer harbour we continued into the inner harbour and then up the drying creek. We lifted our keel, put out bow and stern anchors and dried out on the sandy bottom, giving Nick an opportunity to scrub the hull.
We also took advantage of the spectacular coastal hikes Belle-Île has to offer and rented bikes to explore inland. Belle-Île is aptly named: the views were breathtaking and the small waterside village of Sauzon is charming and full of bustle. When the boat was afloat we all jumped into the clear, frigid water and had an invigorating swim.
Our time with Matt and Kaitlyn was almost up and we had to get to La Rochelle for their flight home. After an overnight stop in Ile d’Yeu, we continued south. The weather remained fair and dolphins came to play, ducking and leaping inches from the bow. We had 15 knots from astern and so launched the Parasailor, which is easy to manage between just the two of us.
La Rochelle has a huge 3000-berth marina, Port des Minimes, about one mile from the town itself and perfect for some peace and quiet and to be next to the beach. As we entered the marina, the wind was blowing 20 knots, gusting 30, and just as Nick was steering into the berth the bow thruster cut out. We’re high-sided and have double rudders so have no propwash. The wind pushed our stern away from the pontoon and we slewed sideways, our bow line looped around a cleat but no other lines attached. Another lesson learned: hand your midships line to marina staff, no matter how much they point to the bow line!
With a sickening scrape we collided with the finger pontoon opposite and its unfendered steel edge dug into our hull. Nick was grimfaced, as Matt and Kaitlyn tried to fend off. I pulled our bow line back on board and Nick reversed out of the berth. Unwilling to attempt to turn around because we still didn’t have use of our bow thruster, we chose another free finger pontoon and tried again. This time we tied up without incident and Nick spent the following day repairing the hole, which had gone through the gelcoat to the fibreglass.
La Rochelle is possibly my favourite city in France. The market is one of the best in the region and has a wonderful, lively atmosphere. There’s a maze of pedestrianised lanes full of shops, bars and restaurants, where the food was the best we’d had in the whole week.
With supplies and crew on board, we were ready to set off
Kaitlyn and Nick, our novice crew, settled into life on board
Ile de Groix was beautiful, and we lazed on the boat all day
With a shallow draught we could go up the creek at Sauzon on Belle-Île to explore and swim
It’s a short walk along the shore from Les Minimes Marina into La Rochelle
Our lifting keel makes it easy to dry out in anchorages