Summer cruise to the Morbihan

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Vannes Cathedral

This summer we took the boat to southern Brittany for 6 weeks, a 950 mile round trip that convinced us that it is worth much more exploration. For nearly three weeks of the cruise we kept the boat in the Gulf of Morbihan, the little inland sea full of islands that runs up to the city of Vannes.

The average air temperatures in the region are significantly higher than in the English Channel in summer, the food is excellent and the beaches beautiful. Though the Biscay coast (the Golfe de Gascogne on French charts) is exposed to Atlantic swells from south to west, there are some lovely sheltered cruising areas, including Quiberon Bay, canvassed as a sailing site for a coming French Olympics bid, and the almost entirely enclosed Gulf of Morbihan.

Because of commitments, it worked out easier for us to take the boat to Falmouth two-handed and leave it there for a couple of weeks. After leaving Cowes, we anchored for a night at Studland Bay, then beat to windward past Portland and across Lyme Bay in F 5-6, to rest in Torbay for a few hours before dawn. The marina was full of racing boats, so we perched awkwardly on the end of a pontoon from 3am and were thrown out unceremoniously when the staff arrived to inform us that visitors were not welcome, because they were hosting a Figaro single-handed race.

So we left, rounded Start Point at lunchtime and waited for the tide over the bar at Starehole Bay Bay outside Salcombe. The wreck of the four-masted sailing ship Pamir is under water by the cliffs in the background of the photo. Years ago the whole hull was visible from the cliffs, though I haven’t checked recently.

Anchored in Starehole Bay, Salcombe
Anchored in Starehole Bay, Salcombe

We dropped anchor again inside the estuary though – unlike previous visits – the harbourmaster did not try to charge us for using our own ground tackle. The next day we arrived in Falmouth, where we had booked a mooring at the very pleasant Mylor marina.

Falmouth - looking over the shoulder at a giant J-Class yacht, racing against its peers in the bay.
Falmouth –  a giant J-Class yacht in the distance, racing against its peers in the bay.

Jean-Jacques joined Peter and Tony when we returned by train to Falmouth two weeks later, setting off in light southwesterlies for the Chenal du Four, the famous passage between Finisterre and Ushant (or Ouessant on French charts). The reputation is rather fierce, but we arrived in daylight in pleasant weather and light winds and shot through on the tide for a night in Camaret, on the Crozon Peninsula, near Brest, leaving the still more ferocious Raz de Sein for the next leg. From Camaret, after a rest and two splendid meals – one in a restaurant and one on board with fish bought from a quayside shop –  we plugged the tide for three hours to arrive at the Raz as it turned southwards. The pilot books advise going through at slack water and we managed that exactly, before heading south east to Loctudy, our first port in southern Brittany.

Loctudy from Ile Tudy
Loctudy from Ile Tudy

Next day. we headed 10 miles east to Concarneau, taking the opportunity to try out our new cruising chute in the light winds. The marina is just under the walls of the old city, and the entrance is through a rocky but well marked channel (which did not stop an English yacht stranding itself on an apparent short cut just before we arrived). We found a good restaurant inside the walled city.

The entrance to the old walled city of Concarneau
The entrance to the old walled city of Concarneau

After restocking with food, we left for Port Tudy on the Ile de Groix, a few miles down the coast, where we were pleased with ourselves for squeezing into such a packed harbour, rafted on buoys – only to find that the harbour master was able to push as many boats again into the tiny spaces left. With the ferry turning in less than its own length a few yards behind, it was cosy, to say the least.

Port Tudy, Ile de Groix
Port Tudy, Ile de Groix. Busy, but this was taken after many of the boats had left.

It is a pretty island, with one large village and plenty of restaurants. We tried one tucked in an attic above a celtic-themed bar, advertising authentic local recipes, several of them based on tuna, a catch in which the local fishermen once specialised. It was all so pleasant that we spent two nights on the buoy, and hired cycles to tour the four mile long island.044

Well rested, we headed next for Port Haliguen, a big modern marina a long walk from a not very attractive holiday town; we wouldn’t recommend it again (though the fish we bought was excellent). The next day, we sailed for the Gulf of Morbihan, where we had booked a mooring for Spring Fever at the resort of Arradon.

The moorings at Arradon
The moorings at Arradon

There are several hundreds mooring buoys (corps morts) at Arradon which, curiously, is an anagram of Ardoran, where we wintered in Scotland in 2012-13.

Tony and Jean-Jacques stayed on, taking their families – holidaying in a house nearby – on short cruises. Peter went off to do other things and came back a fortnight later with Chris, Peter Two (as he had to be called to avoid confusion during manoeuvres) and Sue.

The first three nights were spent in the Gulf because weather turned wet and windy; two of the nights were in Vannes, reached up a well-marked channel, feasible with our near 2m draft only above half tide. A swing bridge opens every half hour. There is just enough water for us inside, kept in by a gate that closes a little after high tide. (All the detailed times for the year are found on the website of the Port of Vannes (click where it says ‘Telecharger’ to download the current PDF of bridge opening times).

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Vannes from the marina

The marina could not be better placed. It leads up almost to the gates of the old city, which has one of the most complete mediaeval walls in Europe, enticing covered fish and food markets, and well as a large number of restaurants and streets of delightfully mis-shapen timber-framed buildings.

When the weather improved, we pottered  back down through the Gulf to the big marina just outside the entrance, called Port Crouesty, where we rafted up as the harbourmaster indicated, but got caught in a dispute between him and the skipper of the large and shiny new yacht inside us, who claimed to have booked the space for his friend, due to arrive soon. The harbourmaster denied that the marina took bookings and told him to calm down and accept us. The atmosphere was so bristling with ill will that we moved anyway, earning the harbourmaster’s grateful thanks. (We’re not into national stereotypes – the last time we were thrown off a raft was by an abrasive English couple).

From Port Crouesty, we rounded the Quiberon Peninsula in a pleasant northwesterly, using our new chute for a few miles, before turning north-west and beating quite hard back up to the Ile de Groix, because the new crew liked our description of it.

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Heading for Loctudy

We got there to be told on the radio by the harbourmaster that the port was closed until midday the next day because it had been booked by a cruiser rally, so we headed 10 miles north to Port Louis, at the entrance to the estuary leading up to Lorient. Port Louis is an attractive old town, well worth a visit, with plenty of restaurants, and no need to raft up in the marina.

With the weather fine but the wind dropping, we motor sailed the next day to Concarneau, where we dined again in the old town and stocked the boat for the passage home. The final stop for the new crew was back at Loctudy, where they left by bus for Quimper to catch a train to Vannes to pick up the car, dropping Chris off at the airport at Rennes before heading home. Vannes proved to be an excellent sailing centre for travel from London, because Flybe serves Rennes airport from Southend, and there is an easy one hour TGV journey from Rennes to near the centre of Vannes.

Audierne - exposed to the south east, but with a northwesterly as plasic as a lake
Audierne – exposed to the south east, but with a northwesterly as placid as a lake

From Loctudy, Tony and Peter One started back for Cowes, picking up a buoy for the night behind the breakwater at Audierne, which is an excellent jumping off harbour for the Raz de Sein, near enough to time arrival accurately with the tides. We did not go up the estuary to the marina because it is tide restricted.

This time we decided to go straight through the Raz de Sein and the Chanel du Four without stopping at Camaret, so we set off in clear skies and a gentle southerly force 3, which was forecast to rise to four or five by the end of the day. As we reached the southern entrance to the Chenal du Four, we caught a French coastguard emergency broadcast of winds rising to southerly Force 7, but hardly believed it: the skies were still crystal clear. It was not until we were leaving the northern end of the channel that the wind rose to force five, then six, then seven, and the anemometer registered an apparent wind speed gusting up to 34 knots on a reach across to L’Aber Wrac’h, just into gale force under skies that were still clear blue. The fleet around us – the tidal gates persuade everyone to go through at roughly the same time – reefed right down and looked pretty ragged by the time it was beating up the channel to the marina, which was very crowded. Even with a fetch of only two miles from the land, the southerly whipped up a choppy sea.

We rafted right inside in a corner, about the last available slot, and didn’t exactly cover ourselves in glory getting out again next day in a cross wind and tide pushing us onto our neighbour. (Lessons have been learned!)

The shops at L’Aber Wrac’h are a kilometre and a half from the marina, so we contented ourselves with enormous crabs for €8.50 each and a bottle of cider at cafe in a shed by the harbour.

We discovered that the marina was closed from noon the next day for the arrival of a fleet of 120 racing yachts, so plans to rest there for a day were dropped,. Having extricated ourselves finally from the tight spot in the corner, we set off eastwards for Roscoff. It took a couple of hours to pass through the race fleet. (How they got them all into the marina is a mystery. When we were there, it seemed full with about 60 boats). We arrived in time to take the shallow and quite complicated passage inside the Ile de Batz, with book and tablet (which has a much larger screen than the plotter) at the ready in the cockpit.

The marina at Roscoff
The marina at Roscoff

Roscoff was pretty, once out of the marina near the ferry port and into the town, which is full of restaurants and tourists. The marina itself has had heavy recent investment, with EU support.

From Roscoff we set out overnight for Sark, in drizzly weather with a light south-westerly wind behind us and left-over Atlantic swells almost on our beam. They were from a storm the other side of Ireland a day or two before and were three to four metres high.

We first used a preventer and poled out the small genoa, because the cruising chute would have been a nightmare to control. In the first few hours, the passage between the reefs of Les Triagoz and Les Sept Iles was a reminder of the enormous dangers of the age of sail: there was a three to four knot tide setting across the channel towards Les Sept Iles, bad visibility, enormous breakers surged over the reefs, we were in the last stages of twilight, and there was lightning in the distance.The conditions made the four mile gap between the two seem small. What a daunting place to be without wind in a ship with no engine. The rolling slammed our sails so badly that we put the genoa away, started the engine, and motor sailed with the main sheeted hard amidships to steady us.The conditions did not improve until just before dawn when we met a fresher breeze from ahead and close reached gently all the way to Sark and the Greve de la Ville.

Greve de la Ville, Sark
Greve de la Ville, Sark
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On the way up from the beach – our dinghy on the right.

We were lucky enough to have been offered the use of a mooring buoy belonging to a Sark resident (and friend of Tony’s.) It was marked ‘private, do not use’ in very large letters, so with all the visitor buoys taken, there were glares from anchored boats, annoyed no doubt at our cheek. We didn’t have the opportunity to explain ourselves.

Next day, we left Sark late morning for the hundred miles back to Cowes. There was plenty of sun, good visibility, a westerly giving a reach all the way, and the spring tide with us through both the Alderney Race and the Needles and right up to our pontoon on the Medina. We were back in 14 hours, an average of 7 knots.

Because of time constraints and the 900 plus miles there and back, we had to miss an awful lot: the attractions of the Iles Glenans, Belle Ile and the other nearby islands, Benodet, the Belon River (with the best oysters in France), Auray, and numerous other possibilities. For another year, maybe.

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