A DIFFERENT KIND OF CRUISING
THE HIDDEN TREASURE OF FRANCE'S GOLFE DU MORBIHAN
Nigel Calder ventures into the challenging and historic waters of France’s Golfe du Morbihan
Our Malo 48, Nada, is anchored for the night in placid water on the edge of a muddy drying shoal between two rocky islets in the Golfe du Morbihan, on the west coast of France. The tidal range here in southern Brittany is around 15ft. The gulf is large—more than 40 square miles in area—with a narrow entrance from the Bay of Quiberon, which itself leads to the Bay of Biscay. At peak flood and ebb, the tidal stream pours in and out of the gulf at 8 knots. Less than a hundred yards behind us, the ebb tide is throwing up 3ft standing waves. Boats exiting the bay are rushing by at speeds they never dreamt of, while an incoming passenger ferry, forced by its schedule to fight the tide, is bouncing up and down, creeping into the current. We are tightly positioned between swinging out into the maelstrom or going aground on the shoal at low tide.
We have been driven to seek anchorage in this somewhat marginal spot by the unbelievable number of boats and mooring buoys in the gulf, with almost every decent anchorage crammed full. I knew the French are seriously into their sailing, but had never imagined it on this scale! I am, in any case, under firm instructions from my wife, Terrie, to get us close to the island of Gavrinis to starboard, on which there is reported to be a Neolithic passage tomb dating from around 3,500 BC and containing, in the words of Wikipedia, “one of the major treasures of European megalithic art.”
Terrie is seriously into ancient rocks of any description. Southern Brittany is dotted with amazing patterns of standing stones and other artifacts. These ancient monuments are individually smaller than Stonehenge in England, but on a vastly grander scale, scattered over miles of countryside. The epicenter is at Carnac, on the mainland to the northwest of us, where the pre-Celtic people of Brittany erected more than 3,000 standing stones.
This is our third tricky anchorage driven by prehistory. A couple
of days earlier we had crept into an equally precarious anchoring spot in Quiberon Bay, to the west of the Morbihan, seeking shelter from the wind and swells in the lee of a rocky headland beyond which the bay was filled with moorings. We succeeded in tucking ourselves in with barely sufficient scope and swinging room at a spot charted at 2ft depth. Luckily, it was neap tides, which meant, according to my calculations, at low tide there would be almost 6ft of water, which is our draft, above the 2ft of chart datum, so we would still be afloat. We waited until low tide to make sure and then ran the dinghy ashore onto a wide sand beach and carried it up above the high tide line. Terrie took us on a hike toward Carnac in a blistering, energy-sapping heatwave, the result of a high pressure system that was parked over Western Europe, bringing with it light winds and record high temperatures.
We soon became lost in narrow, twisting lanes and ended up stumbling upon the tiny village of St. Columban, with a gorgeous cluster of ancient buildings around a lovely Gothic chapel, the walls painted with murals of galleons from the 15th century. The following day, while I did
odd chores around the boat, Terrie returned to St. Columban to paint the chapel, although she did not get to see her alignment of standing stones.
The next morning we timed our entry into the Golfe du Morbihan to arrive shortly after low tide, riding the already impressive stream into the bay and up into the mouth of the Auray River, which empties into the northwest corner of the gulf. The target: another field of megalithic standing stones and dolmen (prehistoric tombs) near Locmariaquer. The problem: extensive shallows stretching out from the shoreline with a relatively narrow deep-water channel rimmed with moored boats and rafts for raising oysters. There was no place to anchor without obstructing the channel. Luckily, we were using Navionics charts, which to date had proved to be remarkably accurate and detailed. The chart showed a narrow slot of water between a field of rafts and the shoreline shoals, terminating in an area surrounded by shoal water that, given the proximity to neaps, likely would have just enough depth and swinging room for us to anchor.
We crept up the edge of the rafts on the rising tide, not particularly concerned about running aground because there was no wave action and the tide would lift us off. In no time, we found sufficient space to anchor and dropped the hook. However, things were tight, and I was concerned about swinging into the oyster rafts when the tide turned, so I was reluctant to leave the boat. Terrie and our shipmate, Jake, however, headed ashore to explore. I was not comfortable overnighting here, so when they returned we picked our way back out of the anchorage and headed farther into the gulf.
The Golfe du Morbihan is sprinkled with over 60 islands, between
which are numerous shoals and rocky passages, with often narrow channels and strong tidal streams. The streams themselves take some getting used to. It’s not as if they all flow in the same direction—inbound on a rising tide and outbound on a falling tide. Instead, there are substantial rotating currents and eddies. It is, therefore, quite possible to find tidal streams running in opposite directions at several knots on either side of the same small bay, with no current at all between them. Then there are the various narrow passages between the islands with even stronger, accelerated currents. It is easy to get confused by the myriad islands, with little time to recover your bearings before getting swept into trouble. My strategy, therefore, had been to lay down a track on the chartplotter before going anywhere and stick to it closely.
Using this same strategy we now picked our way between shoals around the top of Ile Longue and through a narrow channel, looking for a place to anchor close to the island of Gavrinis. One edge of the channel is again rimmed with moorings; the other marks the edge of a drying shoal. There is no room for us. Fortunately, at the southern end of Ile Longue, between it and Gavrinis, just to the north of a buoy marking the edge of the main
channel into the Golfe du Morbihan, there looks to be adequate room for us to tuck into, between a spit extending from the shoal and Gavrinis. We circle cautiously, exploring and defining the edge of the shoal water, pull off the shoal just enough to not swing aground at low tide and set the hook. We take the dinghy ashore to explore the Neolithic ruins, but are rebuffed by a guardian who tells us we have to go back to the mainland and come over tomorrow on one of the hourly tour boats.
We may have been defeated on the hunt for prehistoric ruins, but
Terrie is by no means out of ideas. At the head of the Golfe du Morbihan, past a tide gate and swing bridge up a mile-long canal, reportedly passable with our 6ft draft an hour or two either side of high tide, lies the medieval walled city of Vannes. The following morning we pull up the anchor, rinse off the mud and motor slowly the few yards into the incoming tidal stream, where our boatspeed accelerates from just over 3 knots to better than 10 knots! We have an exhilarating ride into the interior of the gulf, but soon rapidly decelerate and find ourselves fighting a 2 knot countercurrent. A passenger ferry that has followed us in has headed to the opposite side of the bay and is still being swept along by the current. However, between us there is now shoal water that blocks us from joining it. Such is the nature of sailing in the Golfe du Morbihan!
Eventually, the tide reverses direction and accelerates to 5 knots, sluicing us through the slot between the mainland and Ile aux Moines, and sweeping us up the west side of Ile Irus. Here, shoal water extends well off the island while to the north is another large mooring field along the mainland shoreline, with a narrow channel that runs between the moored boats and the shoal. We need to pause for a while to give the tide time to rise in the canal to Vannes. There is also no place we could anchor overnight without either grounding well before low tide or swinging into the channel. However, we are still on a rising tide, so we motor slowly in and drop the hook for a leisurely lunch.
From Ile Irus we work our way around various islets and through the rocky channel at Port Anna, with the inbound tidal current now slowing as we approach high tide, around yet another substantial mooring field and into the canal to Vannes. This canal has a tide gate that traps sufficient water to maintain at least 6ft depths on the docks in Vannes, even at low water when much of the canal below the tide gate is almost dry. There is also a swing bridge close to the tide gate, which opens on demand after half tide on the rising tide,
and closes at half tide when it’s falling. We have timed our arrival perfectly to make it over the sill for the tide gate and through the bridge. We motor slowly up to the city with some apprehension, as our 48-footer is significantly larger than most of the cruising boats that make their way up here, and we can’t help wondering what we’ll do if there is no dock space and no room to turn around.
In fact, the docks at Vannes prove to be crowded with no possibility of tying up alongside, so we raft up outside a trawler yacht, which itself is rafted to a restored traditional workboat. On the other side of the canal the boats are also rafted two and three deep, narrowing the channel. I am concerned the harbor master will move us on and can see no other place to go. But in the end no one seems concerned.
What an extraordinary city we find this to be. The massive medieval defensive walls are substantially intact, enclosing narrow winding streets lined with half-timbered houses from the 15th and 16th centuries. At each floor level the houses jut out toward the street until at the third story they are almost touching overhead. Over the centuries the houses have bent and changed shape in wonderful ways. There are entire streets that look as if they are from a Disney set for a Hansel and Gretel movie. Although I grew up in Europe, I had no idea there were still places like this. Terrie has hit the jackpot!
We spend a couple of days pottering around the city. Terrie paints, while Jake and I just amble. On the second night the city is packed to bursting for a music festival, with bands in every public space and musicians in many of the restaurants. On the third day my brother joins us, and we depart at high tide, riding the stream back out to sea for a quiet passage across the Bay of Biscay to Spain. Vannes is high on the list of places to which we would like to sail again.
The Golfe du Morbihan came as a complete surprise to us. Prior to sailing there, we had never heard of it. Between the entrance from Quiberon Bay and Vannes we covered well under 20 miles (the most direct distance is only about 10 miles), but packed within this short distance we found a wealth of unique experiences on shore and afloat. Calm waters, dozens of islands, major tides, powerful currents, challenging navigation and tricky anchorages are interspersed with world-class prehistoric ruins ashore and a stunning movie-grade medieval walled city. We jammed a season’s worth of experiences in any other cruising ground into less than a week. s
The tides run strong here, at up to 7 knots and more (inset)
If you are into castles, Vannes will not disappoint
The beautiful Auray River feeds into the Golfe du Morbihan
They don’t make trim like this anymore
There was a festive mood in Vannes
The well-preserved medieval center of Vannes is a delight