Thursday May 30 Belle Isle…going nowhere (in a good way

Coffee in bed and then another snooze…we finally surface around 10 for some breakfast and then into town for the market. The sun is up and we also learn that there is a regatta in Golfe du Morbihan from Wednesday to Saturday and non-regatta boats are requested to find somewhere else. We decide to stay in Belle Isle for another couple of nights, by which time we hope that a lot of the regatta boats will have cleared out. Belle Isle seems more peaceful today.

The market is small but an absolute delight…seafood of course, some lovely veg and fruit and a cooked meat stall selling Belle Isle lamb (a delicacy here apparently), some pork knuckle and roast potatoes…Yee Tak and John can’t resist!

We sit and have a coffee and consider deep cultural questions…or at least, we are grateful that the French have not fallen completely under the spell of the big supermarkets and processed food. This little town supports a market every day, not like the farmers market in Dorchester only once a month. Bread is still being baked twice daily and people think nothing of doing a daily and maybe twice daily shop.

By the time we get back to Heydays we have a few more boats around us, but we are still hopeful for some peace and quiet.

Lunch is a feast from the market….fresh salad, a wonderful array of different tomatoes, smoked salmon, fish skewers in curry sauce, half a dozen oysters each, some prawns, a huge spider crab (luckily we bought a big crab pot years ago!) and of course the lamb, pork and roast potatoes…

By the time we get round to tackling the crab we have a full raft of boats strung out along side us…and yet they keep coming. The young men and women from the capitainerie (harbourmaster) are buzzing round, taking lines, directing people to slots and generally helping to avoid mishaps and mess with so many bits of rope hanging around. Good job we are not planning to leave anytime soon.

Tomorrow we plan to spend some time looking round the island, maybe some walking and a bus ride or two…after our crepes ashore tonight if we can get there.

Wednesday 29th May… Ile de Groix to Belle Isle

We plan to get to Belle Isle somewhere around 3pm which means a leisurely start with breakfast and showers even thought the day is grey and overcast.  The little harbour is busy as we take our leave  …

….and say a fond farewell to Steve. He has a slightly sore head ….which is definitely nothing to do with the red wine and G&T last night. He swears that we spiked his drink! We had a great time on Ile de Groix, the only regret for Yee Tak is that she didn’t get to see the Abalone farm!

We slip out into a steady 10kt of wind on a beam reach and soon Heydays is scudding across the light swell. The only thing to dampen our spirits is the fine drizzle which from time to time sends us scurrying below for the waterproofs, only to leave us hot and bothered again as the cloud passes and we have some more sun. We barely have to touch the sails, just a fiddle here and there and Heydays spends the next 4 hours at a steady 6 to 6.5 kts. This does not often happen when sailin g and we make the most of the glorious wind. As we close the island the wind builds and we have a steady 18kts with Heydays skimming along at over 7.5kts. All to soon thought we have to think about losing sail and making our final approach into the tiny harbour of La Palais which is the Island’s capital.

The pilots warn about the movement of boats in the harbour and a ferry dashes in before us just as a small freighter leaves.

We are met at the harbour entrance by a young woman in a rib who gives us instructions about mooring between a bow buoy and the harbour wall. We have the long line ready and she is so amazingly proficient at handling her boat and  the lines that we are soon moored securely and thinking about dinner. We watch a couple of other boats come in who clearly don’t have long enough lines and are simply not either prepared or aware of what needs to be done. We try not to be smug, as we will also make a hash of things in some other harbour before long…still….!

The Dutch guy on the boat next to us watches in frustration as a French boat scrapes along his side and nearly T-Bones the harbour wall. “That is why they keep losing to you” he shouts none to quietly to us as they struggle with bits of rope hastily tied together. Not exactly PC or designed to keep harmony among the remaining 27!

We blow up the tender and trundle ashore in search of some nosh. We quickly realise that the island is much busier and more touristy than Ile de Groix…we need to look around some more before we make a final decision about it, but at the moment its charms are more Skegness than Stromness.

Tuesday 28 May Ile de Groix

No alarms, no tides to catch….bliss. The only snag on the horizon is a problem with the water cooling on the engine. As we entered with King Cnut yesterday, we started to overheat and have traced the problem back to the sea-water part of the system. For anyone not remotely interested in any technical details, you can skip the next paragraph or so…

We first do the highly skilled tasks of checking the filter…clear; blowing down the inlet from the sea-cock…clear; and running the engine to see if we get a flow…we don’t. The next most obvious issue is the impellor, but had only changed it in the winter. The impellor looks OK and turns over with the engine. With the obvious stuff done it gets a bit more bothering…blockages up stream of the impellor in the bowels of the heat exchanger suggest some expensive bits to be bought…if we can get them.  Oddly though, when we put a hose into the inlet from the filter, everything works OK and we get good flow out of the exhaust. The conclusion must be some air being sucked in…leaky hoses….cracked filter? In the end the problem turns out to be a tiny perished O ring around the fixing wing nut. Problem solved and the flow would make an old man proud. The little harbour is busy but very pretty…

On the quay-side we meet an old Scottish guy called Steve (probably our age!) carrying his cat in a bag. He is on the contessa next but one and has sailed with his cat up from Portugal. He and his wife and cat have been down there for 6 months and now the time has come to sail back home. In the meantime, the rules on Easyjet have changed and apparently they will no longer take the cat. His wife had to go back to Scotland on her own and so he and his moggy sailed across Biscay together. He said that he was very frightened with some of the seas he met and was glad to be in harbour for a few days to recuperate.

We have a leisurely afternoon and after the showers pass we hire bikes (electric ones for Chris and John and a Tandem for James and Yee Tak) and have a brilliant cycle around the western part of the island…its not big!

The rain holds off and we convince ourselves that we have burned calories in excess of the entire alcohol consumption for the trip! Yeah right,

We do some supermarket shopping and return he bikes to get ready for some drinks on deck. We invite Steve and he brings a box of Cab Sauv…plus Susie his cat who has been with him since they left Scotland a year ago.

Steve has been a marine as well as a joiner/carpenter and lecturer…clearly a good bloke. We spend a brilliant evening glugging wine and swapping ever more wild stories of mountainous seas and heroic adventures. Sailing solo is not for everyone and it clearly takes its toll, but we have found a new friend in Steve and hope to stay in touch over the years….maybe we will get back to Scotland one day.

We dine late on fresh  spaghetti and an anchovy sauce and marvel at the people we have met along the way….and how lucky we are to be able to do this.

Monday 27th May 2019 Benodet to Ile de Groix

Saturday in Benodet was a lazy day for John and James while we wait for Yee Tak and Chris to join us. John spends most of the time wresting with some polyester rope for new gennoa sheets by attempting to splice in some eyes. The instructions are reminiscent of the good old days of Haynes manuals…”just ease the outer cover over until point A reaches point B…”. This roughly translates as “you will need the strength of Hercules to “ease” the outer cover and in the process will collect rope burns and be in need of some expensive therapy at the end.”

By the third attempt however (and a day later) we have some new gennoa sheets with neatly spliced eyes as well as some new mooring warps also with neat eyes. John is on a roll now and any odd bit of rope left lying around is in danger of having a useful eye spliced into it.

Yee Tak and Chris’s journey is straightforward with all connections working…a flight from Southampton to Rennes, a train to Quimper and a taxi to Benodet. By 9pm they are safely on board and glugging some wine. We spend Sunday having a very lazy lunch by the riverside and a snooze in the afternoon….life is tough.

We have decided to take things easy around this wonderful cruising ground and will head for Ile du Groix around 6 hours sail away. An early morning dash to the boulangerie for some spectacular pain aux raisin and some gooey pain aux armandes for breakfast, plus a quick supermarket trip and we are still away from the marina by 9.30.

We motor out of the river and within 20 minutes we are sailing goosewinged in around 10kt of wind with the motor off for once and peace all around!

The sail is glorious even if we could do with a bit more wind…we’re in no rush though and as we get to lunchtime, the island appears off the starboard bow. With the mainland on our port side, it is almost as if we are sailing across Christchurch bay to the IoW. We’ve got into a bit of a rut with lunch on board…crushed avocado on bread with ground pepper and a pinch of salt drizzled with extra virgin plus humous and some camembert, all on bread baked fresh this morning….not a bad rut though.

As the afternoon wears on the wind builds and soon we have 20kt over the stern and we are on a bit of a crazy few miles running down to Port Tudy. We pass a small boat sailing  and another yacht closes us motor sailing. We haul down the sails as we approach the harbour and the motor sailer  passes by close ahead as if they are trying to get into harbour ahead of us…grrr, how un-friendly and definitely un-seamanlike.

They pootle around to get a  berth while we are trying to hold steady in a fresh cross-wind in the harbour. With much shouting they dock and we pull in on the finger next to them. I jump down onto the pontoon with a line to receive a mouthful from a goriila in full sailing gear also on the pontoon fiddling with their lines. James resists the temptation to have a go but mutters about King Cnuts (or similar). We get our lines sorted very efficiently (even though we say so ourselves) and have time to help a french boat who get into a bit of a muddle next to us. Eventually with lots of fenders out and their lines sorted, we sit back in the cockpit sun with some G&T and nibbles. It turns out the gorillas (all the gear and no idea) are Brits…bet the French can’t wait for Brexit if that is how some of our compatriots behave…and are still trying to sort out what to do with their lines, as we in a very shallow (and slightly smug) way cheers very loudly!

We pay our dues with the harbour master who plays air guitar and informs us that the code for the showers is ACDC…great bloke. A snooze in the late afternoon sun and then we wander around the harbour…

end up at an Irish themed pub on the quay which is authentically French and does some great crab and a seafood platter. We look forward to spending some time on the island tomorrow.

Friday 24th May The ‘fearsome’ races…

Yesterday was a relaxing day spent pootling around on the boat and doing the minor repairs and alterations which always seem to crop up. We walked up to the supermarket in the next village twice…once as it was shut for lunch until 3 and then to buy the first of our french cheese and bread. We stopped by the old Napoleonic semaphore signalling station on the way and just generally enjoyed the sunshine. with some great views over the river.

The pilot books are full of warnings about two of the most impressive tidal races in Europe, the Chenal du Four and the Raz du Sein, both gateways we have to get through before the sunny warm and benign waters of southern Brittany and the Vendee. Howard has once again given us some good tips and it is perfectly possible to get through both on one tide…if we get the timings right. The weather is looking good (no hint of anything nasty to build up some seas), although the forecast is for some F5 occasionally 6 in Biscay later….we’ll make a decision about where to stop later.

By 6am, exactly 24 hours after we arrived, we are heading out of L’Aber Wrac’h into the dawn and plugging 2-3 hours of unfavourable tide, to arrive at the Chenal du Four just as the southerly ebb begins.

We have the company of a couple of other boats and once again we are motor sailing in light winds.

The event is (thankfully) an anti-climax with no sign of the standing waves or even overfalls. In the words of the harbourmaster at Wick before we crossed the Pentland Firth “Ye’ll not even get yer slippers wet”.

With the Chenal ‘done’, we head on for the Raz du Sein just the other side of Brest. This is reputedly nastier, but only around 200m of it. We are aiming to get there for the last of the ebb and before the flood starts to push us back to Brest.

What appears to be a French battle fleet is steaming fast towards us but the plucky Brits under sail maintain course and they completely ignore us…ha! Brexit schmexit!

We are joined by some other old sailing boats looking glorious under full sail …

…and soon we have around 9 kts of boat speed over the ground as we are spat out into what is now really the start of the bay of Biscay.

Our original plan had been to go into Audierne for the night, but with the two big tide gates done and only mild streams against us now, we decide to push on for Benodet, some 35 miles south (ish). There we can have a rest day and wait for Chris and Yee Tak to arrive via plane from Southampton to Rennes.


The wind build as promised and we have a glorious few hours of pure sailing in a F5 with a few gusts up to 7 even. This is the first time in nearly 300 miles that Heydays has had salt water over the decks…brilliant end to a memorable day.

Wednesday 22 and Thursday 23 May 2019 Guernsey to L’Aber Wrac’h….

We fill up with diesel and are of out by 11.30 French time having met up with one of John’s old uni friends for a coffee on board.  Some low lying mist gives Herm a low down halo and we settle in for what we think will be around 20 hours to L’Aber Wrac’h (how the Bretons love their apostrophes).

What wind there is comes as we expected from dead ahead and even a course change around the southern tip of Guernsey has zero effect on our ability to lose the engine and actually sail. There is so little sign of humanity, unlike crossing the channel and there are only a few fishing boats and pot buoys to provide evidence that the rest of humanity hasn’t simply disappeared…and an empty tango bottle drifting past!!

The sail/motor is really uneventful and we doze in turns after lunch in an approximation of proper watch-keeping. Yee Tak had pre-cooked a veggie version of a mince with chilli and beans etc and we add some tinned potatoes. A one pot meal with bags of flavour, made all the better by eating in the cockpit as the sun starts to sink. The high sirrus clouds warning of some change in the weather…but not just yet.

Tinned rice and some pineapple chunks…not exactly fine dining, but a brilliant way to set us up for the night. The tide turns foul around 8 and we resign ourselves to slow progress for the next six hours.

As darkness falls we actually do some proper watches and find that 2 on and 2 off suits us well through the night hours. We close the French coast around midnight but are still over 6 hours away from L’Aber Wrac’h. This coast is well lit with a startling array of lights and buoys and they are the only things to keep us company. A couple of fishing boats appear on the radar, but slip past largely unseen.

By 4 we realise that our progress is too fast and we really don’t fancy entering the rocky kingdom of L’Aber Wrac’h for the first time in darkness. We throttle back and just idle away for the next 2 hours letting the tide start to take us once more.

By 6 there is light in the sky to see by and we begin the journey through some very impressive rocks.

By 6.30 we are tied up, tucked up and snoozing until we are woken by the friendly harbourmaster at 9. Our longest single passage so far…and we didn’t even get our feet wet.

Tuesday 21st May 2019 Back in time…

The morning coffee is delayed due to weak gas flow…familiar problem guys? James sorts it temporarily through careful analysis of the situation….and then hitting the regulator hard with a spanner. This sorts it temporarily, but clearly we need to do something more permanent and elegant. We source some Camping Gaz complete with regulator and after a few (unrelated) electrical repairs we are good to go.

We set off in a gloriously sunny but fresh morning bound for Guernsey. Passage planning was slightly fraught as we are on French time, some of our tide apps are on GMT others on BST and we haven’t a clue what Guernsey does…..probably thinks it is still 1957!

The sail is wonderful, albeit with the help of the trusty Thorneycroft and soon the nuclear power plant at Cap de la Hague is passing by and we are swept into the fearsome Alderney Race. Even if we wanted to go back now, there is no way we could and we are swept past the Cap and on to Alderney in a headlong dash south west. We have the company of half a dozen other sailing boats for company and once things have calmed down we treat ourselves to lunch and a few light repairs and general fiddling.

Guernsey and Herm come up to meet us…

…..surrounded by some impressive rocks and generally nasty pointy bits. This is OK in the dark, as it is well lit, but we are glad for the sunny afternoon ride into St Peter Port.

The pilot books are clear about Guernsey being treated differently and for he first time in ages we hoist a yellow (I require customs clearance) flag….after Brexit we assume it will get rather more use!

Guernsey is part of the British isles but not the UK and is not in the EU. We have no idea without looking what the difference is between the British Isles and the UK. We soon find out as we are met by the harbour launch who gives us a landing form to fill in. This is more detailed than the landing cards we fill in when going to Hong Kong…grrrr. James is always enthralled by bureaucracy and fills it in virtually illegibly…ha, that’ll show them…another blow is struck for the rights of the individual…and grumpy old men.

We seem to be sharing the pontoon with 3 boats of French youths…quiet night then….but a trip to the co-op for some coffee and ice elicits more grumpiness as they don’t accept ‘English’ co-op cards. Exactly why are we defending them?? The ice sorts out a very nice couple of G&Ts on deck as the sun goes down, and we get into some serious passage planning for tomorrow which will be a long (20 hour plus) overnighter to L’Aber Wrac’h at the tip of Cape Finisterre.

Monday 20th May 2019 French Cruising in ….Heydays

Not quite rock and roll but as close as we get.

We’ve been talking for some time about exploring the North West of France even though it means following a fairly well sailed route with an almost literal groove in the sea.

We spent a goodly part of the winter getting some key jobs done on Heydays and are itching to get out from the confines of the Solent, beautiful as it is.

We took her into Keyhaven for a dry out to antifoul and also to have an electrician go up the mast…being winched up by hand loses its appeal eventually…

Keyhaven in early April was a delight and was also poignant for me as I used to sail here with my Dad…

We know the grass is always greener (or the sea bluer?)…but Heydays just needs to get some channel water rushing past her keels and to feel the gentle nudge of a French beach or marina. In the days running up to our leaving, we have the usual nagging thoughts about jobs left undone, what surprises lie in store and will our sea legs be as good as last season? Last minute shopping and cooking sees us stocked for a transatlantic trip, never mind just across the channel…and the wine stocks are checked twice…. or more.

Yee Tak and Chris find the call of granddaughters too much and will join us once John and I have got Heydays down to somewhere south of Brest. We spend Sunday night on board in preparation for an early start on Monday….first snag/old person’s oversight is that we forgot to replace one of the gas cylinders. This is such a basic error, but John wakes up Chris to try to find some more gas on a Sunday evening in Lymington. The garage is open but can’t sell John the gas as there is only one bloke on shift. However, John’s much mocked stock of stuff in his garage comes to the rescue as he has two very rusty (i.e. almost unidentifiable) Camping Gaz cylinders which we can exchange in Cherbourg. He is gleeful in pointing out the usefulness of his stash of useful stuff.

This is not the time or place to bore you with the gory differences between gas on the continent (almost always Camping Gaz) and our own dear Calor. Ne’er the twain shall meet in terms of connectors or be bought in each other’s countries. We resign ourselves to having to carry an extra load of some sort of gas…

3.30am comes around ridiculously soon and I’m sure that John has maliciously tampered with my phone. Climbing into waterproofs and thick jumpers to the sound of rain dripping on the deck is just my idea of an idyllic summer cruise! But oddly, we get into the rhythm of life on board as if we’ve never had a break and almost like a well oiled machine we prepare Heydays and finally release the last rope tying us to England (for now). Although it is raining, there is some light penetrating the blackness and we feel our way down the river and towards the open sea. Henry VIII’s Hurst Castle and the narrows slide past on the last of the spring ebb and as the tide turns at the needles we set a course due south for Cherbourg.

John and I first crossed the channel in around 91 or 92 and in those days it was a major (for us) undertaking, involving weeks of planning, checking charts and making tidal calculations. Often as not we did the crossing in fog, with some trepidation as to what might come looming out of the gloom when we got to the shipping lanes. Also back in those days when GPS was not as universal as now, we did our position on the basis of dead reckoning (assumptions about wind, tide and leeway) together with a deservedly much maligned system called VHF direction finding (RDF)….never good for more than about plus or minus 900 we found. Now, we are much more relaxed. With a boat averaging over 5kt the trip from Needles to Cherbourg is about 12 hours i.e. two tides which should more or less cancel each other out. We point Heydays due south and sit back in the drizzle. For the next 10 hours nothing much happens…a few boats pass some distance off, first the West going ships on our side then the East going ships nearer France.

We lunch on Pizza, but the gas is certainly not right. The pizza would probably have been hotter if we had just sat on it. Nearer Cherbourg the sun makes a valiant (but ultimately futile attempt to warm us up, but at least it lifts the spirits and soon we are slipping into the familiar outer Rade past the old forts which presumably were glowering at Henry’s efforts which we passed just 12 hours ago.

By 5 ish French time we are moored up and enjoying some late spring sun. We know Cherbourg well, but even so it strikes us how much it has changed over the years since we first came in John’s old boat Spinola. There used to be some grotty old toilets by the pontoons of the old ‘hole in the ground and squat’ French style. They are now replaced by a chic café, the marina is welcoming, friendly and has luxurious showers and toilets and the walk into town is delightful, through landscaped gardens and cycleways. It really is a town worthy of a longer stay, not just a grotty port to be used as a rapid stopover.

Our first Ricard of the trip together with some fishy morsels and a half carafe of a vin blanc, followed by rum back on board…we are truly back into Heydays living.