Glossary of Nautical Terms – I apologise for presuming too much of my readers. Open a second window in your browser and you can look up terms as needed.
And if you call for a song of the sea,
We’ll heave the capstan round,
With a yeo heave ho, for the wind is free,
Her anchor’s a-trip and her helm’s a-lee,
Hurrah for the homeward bound!
No two times out on the sea are the same. Like we humans, the sea and the weather have their moods and humours. I am most stimulated by freshness in a lively wind but with a bright and clear sky. Leaden grey clouds and rain bring a sinister hue to the waves. The people of Brittany say about their country that the weather is fine every day, several times a day! I naively expected the Rade de Brest to be like a lake except with a tide! The chop can get vicious as the wind goes against the tidal current. This isn’t a Swallows and Amazons jaunt but real sailing, but it made me live my childhood dreams of sailing a small boat on the sea. There is the Goulot open to the Atlantic Ocean, but make no mistake. This is the sea.
I arrive at home extremely tired, but it is a good physical fatigue. I have a nasty gash in my left big toe from having disembarked with bare feet. The pieces of cockle shells are like razors! The week was one of discovery, going from hard slogs upwind to the gentle run before the wind up the river Aulne all the way through two locks to the town of Chateaulin. From Tinduff to Brest, and back, and several return trips east to west and vice versa, my little twelve-foot dinghy covered approximately sixty nautical miles, about the equivalent of a return crossing of the English Channel between Dover and Calais.
The weather was really quite nasty and I debated whether it would be prudent to go sailing at all. Finding that the wind was blowing at about twelve knots, I launched the boat at Le Tinduff from the slipway. I ran with the wind up the channel to Daoulas and bought a few bits and pieces from the grocery shop. I met up with a nice fellow repairing his yacht who was living the life of someone who had cut off from most social conventions to live in a caravan and his boat. I tend to collect marginal people! My immediate problem was getting out of a very narrow channel against the wind. No question of rowing! It was to be close-hauling on very short tacks or waste a day. I succeeded with only the ebb tide in my favour. The chop increased as I reached the open Rade. The wind began to freshen and was blowing at about 18-20 knots (force 5) and I had to shorten sail. I doused the jib and sailed with only the reefed main. I cleated the mainsheet and met the gusts by luffing up with the helm.
I turned eastwards and was able to reach an exhilarating speed. I blocked the helm and raised the jib. I was caught is several heavy squalls of rain, and I gladly offer free advertising for Guy Cotten for the quality and tightness of my “oilies” as the old fishermen used to called waterproof over-garments. I put into Moulin Mer which is the site of an old tidal mill and factory (now a derelict building) and an educational / adventure centre for children.
I moored the boat on a dry-out beach and anchored fore and aft. I slept aboard which was less uncomfortable than one might imagine.
I left Moulin Mer in the morning, but decided against a visit to Hôpital Camfrout on account of worse restrictions than Daoulas. I sailed to Le Tinduff and enjoyed a crêpe at the fishermen’s bar. I had a good think about what I would do. Would I dare try for Brest?
I sailed to the Point de l’Armorique and the Ile Ronde where the tidal currents are merciless on the spring tides. I was lucky to have a week with neap tides. Even so, the chop foamed with white tops. The wind was down to a small force 4 and made it possible to sail with an unreefed sail – to get the speed and momentum to force my way through the chop. Once past the old German moorings built for the Bismarck (and never used), I passed the Ile Ronde on the weather side. One has to keep well away from the Ile Longue where the French Navy has a submarine base and many secrets to keep! I sailed on to Brest and had a pleasant break at the Marina, something to eat and a look round the chandlery shops, where I found a very practical watertight box for my safety kit. I decided that I should return to east of the Ile Ronde to anticipate any problems in getting back to Le Tinduff for Friday morning. I entered the Baie d’Auberlac’h and set up my boom tent and bed with the boat anchored and afloat.
I left my mooring and found very little wind. There was a nasty rain squall, and I continued east towards Le Tinduff as a breeze came up from the south-west. At a careless moment, I ventured too close to the rocks and broke my centreboard pivot plate. As I was running with the little wind there was, I had no need of the centreboard and could continue back to Le Tinduff and make repairs. I was well prepared and had my toolbox in the van together with an assortment of stainless steel screws and bolts. I needed a kind of anvil to straighten the twisted centreboard pivot plate, and looked around. There was a steel frame used by fishermen to straighten their nets, and found that the steel girders had a good sharp right angle. I hit away with a hefty hammer. Bang! Bang! Bang! The plates were straightened to my satisfaction. I drilled six new holes for the screws with my hand drill (no electricity) and screwed the pivot plate back into place.
I tried for Hôpital Camfrout, a pretty village with a medieval fishermen’s chapel, and got about half way up the channel before deciding to turn back. Those are places for boats with engines! Time was marching on in the afternoon, and I returned to Le Tinduff. I left Sarum on a beach fore and aft mooring. I met with some of the guys going on the pre-Route du Sable passage up the first part of the Aulne. We had supper together at the crêperie, and I slept on land in my little tent.
I awoke at about 6.30 and found Sarum still afloat from the night’s flood tide. I rowed to the slipway mooring on the lee side, and went to take the tent down and get some breakfast. I cast off at about 10 am and sailed around the port, admiring a magnificent schooner in which a retired couple live. Tinduff is full of traditional fishing boats, now used to teach young people to sail or take tourists out for a trip round the Rade. Some of those boats accompanied us up the Aulne the following day. We were all ready about half an hour later and sailed south-east to the first meander of the Aulne. The area is overlooked by the Benedictine Abbey of Landévannec, one of those constructions from between the wars.
At this point I ran into trouble with water turbulence and an inabilty to sail upwind to keep up with the group. We were in contact by VHF, and I was up against the clock from the point of view of the flood tide. I was lucky that there was a fishing boat with a powerful engine. The two kind fellows towed me to the Naval ships’ cemetery (where decommissioned naval vessels go before being towed to places for scrapping). I then had an aft wind and could then run on my own. I thanked the two amateur fishermen and managed to catch up with a few regatta tricks with trimming the sails. We reached Rosnoën with the tide beginning to ebb. We made it just in time!
We all had pizza together at Le Faou and we had two very heavy rain squalls back to back. There was so much mud at Rosnoën that there was no question of putting up a tent. I slept in the back of my van. The humidity pervaded everything, even in my van. This is something a sailor lives with all the time.
This was the day of the official Route du Sable, named after the ships that took sand up the river for the farms. The weather was fair. We prepared our boats and had a drink and a hot dog offered by the local Mairie. We, some seventy boats, ran with the wind to the next meander. Then there was no wind and we rowed the rest of the way to Port Launay. I was in the second group to be taken to the non-tidal stretch of the Aulne by lock. I met up with a friend who was once in the Merchant Navy and who now works as a port traffic controller at Le Havre. We joined the flotilla for a meal in a special big tent and watched people playing traditional sea shanties on the accordion and traditional Brittany dances. My friend François invited me to his little house in the country just about 15 km away to sleep in better conditions and get a good wash. That was most welcome.
We left Port Launay in the morning and rowed to Chateaulin. It wasn’t even worth raising the sails. We went through the lock and I lowered my mast for the two low bridges. We all had a picnic lunch at the campsite and rowed back to Port Launay. There was a slight tail breeze, and I got a few freebies by raising the jib only. In the afternoon came the sad moment of going for our trailers and taking our boats out of the water. There was only to pack up and go home, tired but fulfilled by this week at sea.
I only got to say some Office a couple of times. The sea isn’t a place to pray, but to face what the sea throws at us. It is up to us to decide whether to go sailing or not. I was trained on the English Channel with its frank and honest swell and chop, and I ceased to be afraid of waves since my trip out in a force 6 on a catamaran with Christophe Falon. The movement becomes predictable. Sometimes you get a rogue wave that has to be faced and you get an instant shower! The sea is neutral, couldn’t care two hoots about human beings, and there is nothing “romantic”. You play the game, that of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, not as someone who is indefectible or infallible, but as humility against titanic force. A sailor has to obey: take the waves at the right angle and trim the sails to the wind. A sailor remains a plain and humble man before that benign force of our sea and weather.
In monasteries, retreatants walk about with rosaries and devotions, often with affectations. The sea makes us truly ourselves, stripped of pride or any need to prove ourselves to anyone. It is like a game of chess. The sea plays and we play back. So much is predictable and then something unexpected happens. The sea teaches us modesty, as an old seafaring priest said to me. There is no theological sophistry or untenable ideologies, just the reality of that force from the Universal Consciousness that is God. That is the teaching of the sea.
The return to land, society and sophistry is hard. We have to keep that same humility and plainness so that we do not again get drunk on the old wine of proving something to other people.