I have just today returned from north Brittany where I have spent five whole days in the footsteps and wake of a fine French TV series on the terre-neuvas in the 1920’s, Entre Terre et Mer. The terre-neuvas were fishermen who sailed from the coasts of Europe to the Grand Banks off the Canadian coast from the sixteenth century to the early twentieth to bring back tons of salt cod. As the Grand Banks became overfished by modern factory ships, the time of the terre-neuvas came to an end with a ban imposed by the Canadian authorities. Saint-Malo and Fécamp were important ports for this kind of fishing. They went out there on a three-mast ship and the fish were caught on hooks tied to weighted traces from the ship’s dory boats. Sometimes, a boat would venture out too far from the ship in the fog and get lost. Many good men were tragically lost in this way. This type of boat is still used to this day for fishing and pleasure, and they can be sailed downwind or rowed upwind by two strong men. The terre-neuvas brought about the colonisation of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon and the port of Saint-Pierre became a place where sailors would find entertainment and their ships could be resupplied.
The French TV series is extremely moving and brings a deeply human element into the drama of a highly dangerous occupation. Seeing it re-awoke my childhood dreams of going to sea in the footsteps of my great-grandfather who sailed round the Cape Horn several times as he brought wool from Australia back to England. They were tough men, and their womenfolk anxiously prayed for their safe return. Never was the prayer for those in peril on the sea more apposite. The sea is a dangerous place, fickle and ready to catch the unwary. Even close to the coast, a sailor takes very careful precautions, to ensure his safety – particularly taking the proper equipment on board his boat and checking the tides, the currents and the weather. It is too late for me to do anything more than amateur sailing, and I hope one day to get something bigger than my dinghy, perhaps a Hurley 22 which is ballasted at about 40% of its total weight – a true ocean boat. If the sea is associated with Leviathan in the Old Testament, God is present there very perceptibly as in any remote place in nature.
The idea for my little holiday in the area of Saint-Malo came from the TV series on the terre-neuvas, where they lived when not at sea and where they sold their catch, and also from knowing that the Rance was a great place for sailing. There are two ways of having a sailing holiday – in a boat you can sleep on, a yacht for coastal or offshore sailing, or trailer-sailing. With the latter way of doing things, as my dinghy is so small, you make the long distances on land by road, and then launch the boat in the small areas in which you have decided to sail. Therefore, it was camping and trailer-sailing for me.
Sunday 18th August
The following photos are of my base camp:
Monday 19th August
See this fine video of a sailing on the Rance, and you will see many of the things I saw from my own boat.
At 7 minutes, 8 seconds, you see a white building on the opposite bank, which marks the spot of my camp-site. The owner also runs a bar and sells the most amazing Brittany beers including one that uncannily resembles Irish Guinness.
At last I was opposite Plouër sur Rance on the west bank of the Rance. I had simply to rig the boat and go. There was a fresh north-west wind, which would mean tacking and close-hauling all the way up. The Rance is smaller than I imagined, and it only took me a few hours to sail all the way to the hydroelectric dam between Saint-Malo and Saint-Suliac. This mouth of the Rance is divided into several anses or bays between the narrow parts. The first narrow part I had to negotiate was where two high bridges cross the Rance.
I tacked under the bridges being careful to keep as much wind as possible and avoid being blown into the lee bank, and at last arrived in an immense plane of water. The discovery was beginning for me. After another narrow-ish strait, I saw the village of Saint-Suliac on the east bank, off my starboard beam. I landed there to have something to eat from my picnic box and to visit this village so associated with the film and the real terre-neuvas of old.
One thing is obvious, is that those wives and children of seamen had the faith. It is all they had in their anxiety as they waited for the safe return of the ship with all its crew. To the right of the high altar, there is an altar of Our Lady, with a carved representation of men perishing in a stormy sea, and being pulled out of the waves by the Mother of God by a kind of silver staff. The image is most moving.
I returned to my boat and continued tacking to the north, passing two small rocky islands and put into a small port with a sailing club and some boat repair workshops. The mud at low tide was knee deep! Yuck! The sail back was most enjoyable, running before the wind and nothing to do apart from look at the world around me and the occasional classic rig boat. I arrived at the campsite almost at high tide.
I should add a note about tides in the Rance. They are artificial because of the hydroelectric dam built in the early 1960’s. Their system makes the tide of the Rance follow the sea tide by about two hours to get maximum power into the generator turbines. On the Rance, the tide remains high for a long time, and low for a long time, with the intermediates remaining very short. It seems very strange, like sailing under bridges!
Tuesday 20th August
High tide on the Rance was in the morning, but there was almost no wind. A bicycle only needs leg power!
I cycled into the local village to get some food and visit the church, a large nineteenth-century building, quite nicely restored. By about 11 am, I saw some fluttering leaves in the trees. There was very little wind, but some. It would get me over to Plouër-sur-Rance.
There’s not too much to it, a marina and a place to get your boat repaired. As the tide ebbed, I saw a forty-foot ketch up against the dock, already aground and the owner using every means possible to stop his vessel falling away from the dock wall. I suggested securing the mizzen mast to a mooring ring using the block tackle of his mainsheet. Great idea! This was a kindly young man in his thirties with his wife and two small children. He was in the Merchant Navy, an engineer and mechanic, and has taken a sabbatical year to sail his yacht as far as Brazil. Boats bring people together! I left him and his family to get their lunch, and I tucked into mine, some cold meat and vegetables I had cooked the evening before. I went to visit Plouër, but there was very little to it, mostly modern houses of well-to-do people, an eighteenth-century church and a few nice cottages. Better get back to the boat before the tide really gets low! The Merchant Navy fellow with the big yacht showed me around, and he proudly showed me the engine, a vintage Renault four-cylinder diesel engine of amazing reliability. His navigation and radar equipment were also his pride and joy.
I launched the boat and set off for deeper water, and the wind began to pick up. I returned to Saint-Suliac, especially to attend to some little point about my rigging that was annoying me. I then visited the other ports all the way back, and still the low tide was reducing the navigable channel. It was beginning to rise again. At the end of the day, I put in at the camp-site and ended the day a happy man.
Wednesday 21st August
I still had three days, and there was now the open sea to discover. This is where the terre-neuvas saw the last of their land for the several months of their perilous voyage to Canada. The great fortified city of Saint-Malo would remain in their minds.
For my tiny dinghy, I could not use the port or the yacht marina. I needed to go to the beach just south of the port at Saint-Servan. I was lucky to find a parking slot big enough for my van and the trailer.
This was certainly the most enjoyable outing, which would involve a crossing to the island of Cézembre. To get there, I had to cross the shipping channel, which is technically illegal in a dinghy, but I kept my VHF open on channel 9 to keep an ear open. The Harbour Master’s office only seemed to be interested in a yacht that needed to buy diesel fuel and find a berth. How stimulating! I crossed the channel quickly and then took advantage of the ebb tide to make a quick passage to Cézembre. It’s a strange place, associated with Saint Brendan, the patron saint of sailors, and a last bastion for the Germans in 1944. The Allies bombed the hell out of it, including the use of napalm, and obliterated every trace of life. To this day, the vegetation is very barren, and we are not allowed access to most of the island because of large numbers of unexploded bombs and shells.
This second photo is a view of Saint-Malo from Cézembre. I ought at this point to say that some of these photos are not mine. I could not take my non-waterproof camera on board the boat for fear of ruining it. So these smaller shots were “pinched” from Google Earth. Whilst I waited for the tide to turn for the return to Saint-Malo, I sailed around some of the other islands off the shore of Dinard, the town just across the mouth of the Rance from Saint-Malo. The return was just as enjoyable as the outward trip, in a broad reach off the north-east wind.
Going on local advice, I thought about the next day, and a sail to the island of Agot, more of a natural place untouched by man’s warlike follies. But, the tidal current is dangerous. I followed the wise man’s advice, and decided on a trip from Lancieux, further to the west. I would go by road and avoid the dangerous bit.
Thursday 22nd August
I sailed for Agot, an uninhabited island with some prehistoric remains. Those with our own boats can land on the beach, but there are no “mass tourist” boat services. I was able to rifle a couple of pounds of mussels and some clams, which gave me a delicious supper, cooked in a sauce made from shallots, onions and white wine. The shellfish went into my anchor bag. I then sailed across into the west bay with a careful eye on the time from the tide point of view. This was specially important over these days with the strong spring tides.
The seafood proved delicious as I brought my catch back to the camp-site and cooked it.
Friday 23rd August
The lovely beach to the north of Cancale was a difficult spot to find a parking slot for the van. I detached the trailer and found a little place for it, too small for a car, near the launching ramp. After doing the round a couple of times, I found a parking slot half way along the promenade. Most people were having their lunch in restaurants or picnicking, and that left me a little peace and quiet to rig the boat. Milling crowds of people on holiday are something quite unpleasant!
Once I left the beach with the beach trolley in a safe place, this would promise to be a fine outing. The wind was coming from the north-west and gave me a nice close reach. The tide was in my favour as I sailed to the point and tacked to the west. The cliffs were quite high, with a semaphore station and a good few people on the cliff edge to admire the view. The thought that came into my head was that if they noticed my boat, they would find it quite insignificant compared with the immensity of the sea.
This is one point with sailing. We are like the folk of old in the great cathedrals, dwarfed by the immensity of God and humbled to our true insignificant selves. I remember my regatta skipper of two years ago – The sea teaches us modesty. That or you get killed in very short order! Just stand on a cliff and look at the boats, and even the big yachts look very small.
I looked at my watch and considered my predicament should I be against the tide on the northern part of the point! I would be swept to the west and would be unable to get back to Cancale. I took the boat about and returned the way I came, passed the beach and headed to the two islands south of the beach. The sea was in one of those mysterious moods as I could see the great Mont Saint-Michel off my port beam many miles away. The Cotentin coast was also visible as was the island of Chausey, south-east from our “imperial” Channel Islands Jersey and Guernsey. The Channel Islands themselves were way over the horizon. I was about half a mile from the north Brittany coast.
I then approached the two isles in the above photos, the Isle of Rimains and another rock without any possibility of landing with a boat. The Isle of Rimains has a fort built on it, constructed in the seventeenth century on plans by Vauban to defend the pass of Cancale and the Bay of the Mont Saint-Michel against – always the same enemy! Yes, we the Brits! The castle is now privately owned.
This was the last sailing of the week, and I put in onto the beach at about the same time as a school of catamarans. I landed, went to get the launching trolley, and a couple of kind people helped me haul the boat up to my road trailer (still there!). By the time I got back to the camp-site, the wind was getting up and the signs of bad weather were there. Sure enough, it rained in the night.
Saturday 24th August
I began the day with Mass of St Bartholemew in union with Fr Jonathan Munn’s ordination being celebrated in Chatham, Kent. I deeply regretted being in the wrong place, but the Kingdom of God knows no geographical limits. I celebrated under the arbour attached to my tent, and the four shower curtains gave some protection from the rising wind. No question of lighting candles! I had to cover the host with the front part of the corporal lest it should get blown away in a gust.
It was the day to pack up and go. The very helpful man in the caravan just opposite my pitch turned out to be homeless with his wife stricken with multiple sclerosis and totally handicapped. They were waiting for council housing, and a friend of theirs lent them a caravan. One comes across misery everywhere in this fallen and sick world. From the beauty of nature to our sickness, decay and death! The two are part of the same world created by God and messed up by – call it what you will, original sin or the mysterious side of the Old Testament Yahweh in his moods of love and anger. I think these people were not believers, since they asked me nothing about religion, yet would have seen me celebrate Mass. I didn’t hide away! All I could do was to encourage this stricken humanity to keep love and hope, and never give up in the face of human hardness of heart.
Here are a couple of shots of the extreme low and high tides in the Rance. The second was taken on the Friday morning as the depression came in from the north-west.
I took the photo from inside my van as I drove past. The reflections of the windscreen mar the scene. The shrine is evidence of a great amount of piety and strong popular religion in Brittany, like in England before the Reformation. This is the Celtic spirit as its highest! They were, and still are tough people of the land and sea – entre terre et mer, or whatever they would say in their own Breton language.
I above all needed closeness to nature, and a little taste of this robust life with the elements. I was far from entertainment, advertising, selling, human business and dishonesty, noise, mass tourism and the many things that cause sickness in our souls and inner being. Far away from churches and religious folk, without the internet, blogs and trolls, it was a true spiritual retreat!