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

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