Rather than providing a simple “family slide show”, my purpose here is to emphase a more human and spiritual dimension of my little outing in a small sailing boat. Perhaps I still suffer from Swallows and Amazons Syndrome and my childhood dreams of sailing boats and adventures. I also live out my moments of the 1960’s reaction from post-war conservative authoritarianism as many of my fellow greying “boomers” at the Route du Sable. There was even a boatload of kids in their forties and younger with the pirate theme and truly letting off steam. They gave me a tow up the river as the current turned unfavourably to join an unfavourable east wind. We couldn’t be late for the lock at Guilly-Glaz!
My week began in the Rance to the south of St Malo, launching at the electricity-generating dam to the north and all the way down to the lock north of Dinan in the south. I spent a total of two half-days, and decided that my real week would be spent in the Rade de Brest in the Finistère, the French corruption of the Latin term Finis Terrae, Land’s End like in Cornwall. There is an odd feeling to looking out to sea and knowing that the next land mass is America! Suddenly, our humanity is humbled before this immensity of the sea, both inviting and forbidding at the same time. My little dinghy is not up to the might of the Atlantic Ocean, and even sheltered waters like the Rade de Brest can be challenging.
Above all, I have to obey the eternal cycles of the tides and the fickle Brittany weather, where people say that the Brittany weather is fair every day, several times a day! I imagine the Irish have something similar to say in their Emerald Island. The tides leave a boat dried out for hours and give a night’s sleep undisturbed by any movement. They also provide favourable currents if we organise a trip well and have the right “app” on the mobile phone. My phone also provided constant weather information and a detailed GPS chart plotter to avoid nasty things like rocks. Long hours at the helm empty the mind of anxious thoughts and irrelevance. On returning to the place where I left my van and trailer (Trégarvan on the Aulne river), I fired up my computer (left in the van) and hotspot-connected it to my mobile phone to get the internet. The various blogs and sites of religious polemics left me totally cold and indifferent. I only read the postings concerned after my return home and similarly brushed them off.
Another lesson to be learned is minimalism, making do with very little. My mobile phone battery needed to be charged, and my two little charging batteries could only do so much. One gave off a very unpleasant smell and smoke when I tried charging it with my solar panel. I reacted quickly, and it still seems to work, though its battery is depleted. With good organisation, I kept an operational mobile phone for nearly a week. Another thing is food. I wanted some fresh things and cooked breakfasts – bacon and eggs.
The gas canisters I was using don’t last for long, and I went several days without a spare, eventually finding two of them in a shop. Pasta is a good fall-back and quite decent pre-cooked rice is worth getting for the galley. Here, the boat was moored to a very slippery launching ramp where I spent the whole day of Tuesday in Daoulas when there was no wind. I also had to economise the petrol for my outboard engine, and the dammed “sewing machine on the back” makes so much noise that any contemplative life is made impossible. Eventually, the water cooling impeller gave out and I had to stop using the engine except for short bursts whilst it was still cold. Everything has to be economised and thought out carefully. It is a good lesson.
For the night’s sleep, I have my two cockpit seats that move together in the centre of the boat, and then I use a light self-inflating mattress and a sleeping bag. With some careful use of a towel over the centreboard well, I had a full-length bed, which was a little hard on the hips towards the end of the night. After the first night, I generally slept from about 11pm to 6.30 in the morning. A tent made from garden tarpaulin material goes over the boom. In the boating fraternity, guys who sleep like this are called hard bastards!
It is important to be able to forego comfort, at least for me. I perhaps reflects the life of monks and hermits in the early Church, except that this was a week’s retreat for me and not my usual way of life. It is after all difficult to get showers and keep clean and groomed! Reading was possible as was saying Offices from the Breviary like during my day up the creek at Daoulas. I also had some shopping to do and some visiting.
I then sailed to Brest last Thursday in disappointing winds. I had to fire up the engine several times. I stayed the night at the Marina du Chateau in a part of the old naval establishment sold to private enterprise. The marina was not unpleasant and I felt some need for urban life.
My mooring fee included use of the shower block, which was beautifully clean and modern, like in a good camp site. The cafés and restaurants along the front of the marina were full of fashionable young people, and it was all very noisy. I had supper in the boat and slept for the night. Before going to Brest, I neglected to check the weather for the next day – a big mistake. The wind was freshening to about 12 knots in the morning, and would go up to 15 and gust in the twenties. The Route du Sable was in question if I stayed marooned in Brest. Stiff upper lip and some careful sailing got me there. I left port by about 8 in the morning whilst the wind was still reasonable for the exposed crossing from Brest to the Ile Ronde.
I sailed on a broad reach and surfed on the waves. No capsize! I was on my own for this one. On sailing along the north coast of the Rade, I found the wind almost in my face, so had to close-haul. The wind freshened as promised and the gusts were quite unpleasant as was the chop. I had to shorten sail and take in a reef. I left the jib up to keep some control over the boat’s trim. I just had to keep going. By evening, I sailed the entire length of the Rade non-stop, mind emptied of junk, determined and concentrated on keeping the boat from capsizing. I was successful.
My rest on that calm beach on the weather shore was most welcome. I was where I needed to be on Friday night, in the river Aulne at Trevargan. My van battery was flat because a light had been left on inside the vehicle. Fortunately, a kind retired man gave me the juice via my jump leads I needed to start the engine and go and get some shopping in Châteaulin. That also recharged the van battery. If I “recharged my batteries”, it was as literal as figurative!
On Saturday morning, the other boats arrived for the Route du Sable. Usually the west wind would push the boats up the river and respect the closing time of the Guilly-Glaz lock determined by the tide. It was an east wind. We could tack on a wide part of the river, with the current in our favour. Actually the current will push the boat into the wind and give more virtual wind speed – an old regatta trick. I left my engine in the van and managed with sail and oar alone like most of the other boats. Rowing into the wind is quite unpleasant!
The best we could hope for was that the wind would drop to allow us to row at a decent speed! My boat is on the right in this photo. The current turned, and it was time to be towed by a boat with an engine – the “pirates” and their roll-your-own cigarettes. After we were safely through the first lock, it was easier to make progress by rowing. I had my red jib up to catch the occasional breaths of winds from behind, saving two or three oar strokes. Here we set off from Port Launay to Châteaulin.
In the afternoon, we went back to Port Launay after a little reception at the camp site (where I was able to get another one of those heavenly showers and hair washes). Back to the grind with oars against the little puffs of unfavourable wind. The wind was in the wrong direction, but we enjoyed perfect sunny weather.
Then came the time to get the trailer and recover the boat from the water, get everything packed up for the long journey home to Normandy. As always, it was a tough week, and I am grateful still to be able to do it and keep something of the spirit one learns with the Boy Scouts and our Combined Cadet Force we had at school. Self-reliance is something that is vital for the Romantic and transcendentalist mind, as it was for the monks and aesthetes, as it was for Fr Charles de Foucauld in the Algerian desert. He had been a soldier and a true “hard bastard”. I come nowhere near that discipline of body and soul, but something like a twelve-foot boat and knowing what I want is a good second-best.