Our First Year - Ambling South


In preparation for our departure we invested in several new toys for the boat at the January 2002 Boat Show, and completed all our refitting and annual maintenance in April and May.

We got in our test sail to try out the new sails, the electric windlass and the new self steering gear on the 31st of May, superb timing since this was the day our annual berthing contract with PlymouthYacht Haven ran out.

The new sails fell beautifully into the Packaway and, with the clean bottom, we sailed a good knot faster than usual and closer to the wind. The self-steering wasn't too good to begin with but in the instructions it says that it will adapt to the boat's characteristics once it has been used for a while, so we trust things will improve. The electric windlass pulls up the anchor like sucking up spaghetti and, surprise surprise, Mike now thinks I am competent to do the skilled bit at the helm when anchoring instead of the navvie bit on the windlass, my province before the dawn of electricity.

After weeks of rain and gales the forecast for Saturday 1 June was for easterlies F3 to 4, occasionally 5 with SUNSHINE!!!, ideal for a cross Channel passage.

We have always had difficulty deciding what to do about crossing the Channel. I don't like arriving on the other side in the dark so we either need to get up and go at 4am and try to do it all in daylight or make a guestimate of how fast we will go, and try to leave late enough to arrive in the light at the other end. In point of fact we are too lazy to get up at 4am and too impatient to wait around long enough in the morning to leave sufficiently late.

1st and 2nd June - Plymouth to L'Aberwrac'h.

As usual we planned to leave at 1300 hours and left instead at just after midday. We had a spanking wind all day and made about 7 knots for the first 12 hours or so. We tried out the new radar but were unimpressed because of the amount of sea clutter on the screen. Also, despite being linked to the compass, the motion of the boat causes any image on the screen to jump about so much you cannot tell where it is going until you are just about to hit whatever it is showing.

We each had a couple of catnaps in the evening - though Mike's got interrupted several times when shipping got a bit too close for comfort. Once darkness fell we both stayed awake to check bearings on the many ship's lights appearing on the horizon. Eventually the wind veered round to south east and we had to put the engine on to maintain our desired course and keep our speed. It was very rolly for a while and we were into the coastal shipping lanes by then which were very busy.

As we approached the French coast for L'Aberwrac'h we identified the light of the Ile Vierge lighthouse and used that for our heading. The moon rose about 3am and we welcomed the dawn which was just starting in the east around 4. Life should have been getting easier but then I suddenly noticed that the Ile Vierge light had disappeared. 'Perhaps they switch it off at dawn' Mike suggested, ever the optimist, and then the fog closed in around us.

The GPS also decided to choose this moment to go ape. I took over look out while Mike sorted it out, and in a few minutes we knew where we were again. We tried the radar again since the range of Mk 1 eyeball was less than ¼ mile. We were now in pretty calm water and nothing at all showed up on the screen which might have meant there was no traffic around or that the radar wasn't working - Mike's professional career in Radar Research does not give him confidence in these matters! After a tense half hour the fog lifted and we found the Libenter whistle buoy, our outer marker for L'Aberwrac'h, and made the turn into the river. By 8am we were tied up to a buoy and fell into bed for four hours.

3rd June - Camaret via the Chenal du Four

We rested for a day and then, on the 3rd June, we set off for the Chenal du Four, the inshore passage between Ile d'Ouessant (Ushant) and other smaller islands and the mainland. It poses no real problem as long as one works the tides properly and can be quite an interesting sail. Unfortunately it was not a good day weatherwise - good winds but rain and very poor visibility so we got through all right but without seeing anything of the land. We left L'Aberwrac'h at 1130am and were into Camaret at 1945.

Camaret is quite a pleasant small holiday town. It has plenty of waterfront bars, restaurants and hotels and not much else - including tourists at this time of year! Fishing boats in various stages of decay lie abandoned on the beach - signs of common market fisheries policy no doubt. There is an old church and moated fort on the point overlooking the marina. In June 1694, an Anglo/Dutch fleet moored in the bay and disembarked 1300 soldiers who were fought off by the King's men supported by the local militia. The assailants were killed or taken prisoner and the fleeing fleet was decimated by a tempest on the way back to England. Louis XIV cast a medal for the town in recognition of the townspeople having saved France from invasion by the English!!

We spent 3 nights in Camaret waiting for the weather to improve before moving on through the Raz de Sein to Audierne.

6th June - Raz de Sein to Audierne

Despite the somewhat frightening reputation of the Raz de Sein, which has been made famous by lots of photographs taken of enormous seas breaking over the lighthouse, we have passed through several times now with no problems. The potential problems arise from the fact that a large mass of water is being squeezed through a narrow channel less than 2 miles wide over an uneven rocky seabed with depths of some 25 metres compared to 45 metres further north. This gives rise to tides which can run at up to 6 knots and severe overfalls, but by choosing suitable weather and tide conditions it can also be a doddle and it was for us on Tuesday. Timing was critical since we planned to pass through the gap between Ile de Sein and the Pointe du Raz between 1hr before and 30 min before High Water Brest when the tide is slack. This passage is some 20 miles from Camaret which is 4 hours at our nominal minimum speed under power or 2¾ hours at our max sailing speed of just over 7 knots. Since you don't know until you are out there what wind you are really going to get as opposed to that which is forecast the only safe bet is to start at the earliest time and then hang about somewhere if you go too fast and this is exactly what happened. We had winds of Force 4 to 5 and were sailing close hauled at 6½ knots which put us on the approach to the Raz some ½ hour too early. We 'hove too' for a relaxing lunch about 4 miles out. We had seen the odd sail around on passage but it was gratifying to find that through the Raz we were in company with four others who had converged to pass through at the same time so Mike's sums must have been right. We were hooked up to a buoy in the outer harbour, St Evette, outside Audierne by 4pm. This has been our best day so far weatherwise with partial sunshine most of the day. We sat in the cockpit for the first time to admire the view - admittedly still in our thermals.

7th June - Audierne to Loctudy

We didn't go ashore at Audierne but left next morning at 8.30am, heading around the Pointe de Penmarc'h for Loctudy, another 30 mile trip. The weather had worsened and we were in for some more rain. The winds were also forecast to go round to the south which was not good news. We left Audierne under cloudy skies with a south-west wind already showing signs of backing. Half way across the bay to Penmarc'h we had to tack into heavy rain and visibility was lousy. I suggested motoring but it took Mike an hour of going in the wrong direction in the pouring rain against rough seas to see the sense of this. We took the genoa in and motor-sailed to our next waymark and on round the point. Whilst not having the severity of tide of the Raz, rounding Penmarc'h is still a somewhat forbidding experience. It is a bleak low lying headland with two large lighthouses and nasty outlying reefs which stretch seaward for about a mile. The extremities of these are marked by towers and buoys which can be difficult to spot. Passages like this really make one grateful for GPS. Once around the headland we were able to sail again though it was still raining and visibility was poor. This was just teeth gritting stuff waiting for it to end which it did as we sailed into Loctudy at 3pm and moored up in the marina. We had a welcome hot shower, ate on board and went to bed.

Saturday 8th June to Thursday 13th - Loctudy

Loctudy is almost as far south as we have been in previous years. It is a modern town but pleasantly landscaped and combines recreational sailing with an active fishing port. There are still dozens of small trawlers in the harbour. This means that one can wander down and buy fresh fish from the poissoneries right on the quay and this we did next day. We enjoyed Moules a la Pauline for lunch with fresh French bread and some sort of flat fish for dinner. (We don't yet know the names for some of the fish but just point and pay). The wine to go in the moules cost 75p and was perfectly drinkable,

We woke next day (Saturday 8th June) to rain bouncing off the roof. We spent the next few days sorting out Mike's dental fillings which had disintegrated on the French bread, enjoying the local shellfish, going for walks or bike rides in the dry patches and practicing guitar, painting or playing scrabble in the wet ones. We took a trip to Quimper which has some lovely old buildings and went round the local Manoire de Kerneval. There are dozens of recently built holiday homes in the area, mostly shuttered up at present. The local authority are building new toilets in all the car parks so they must be trying to build up the holiday trade - not much point unless they can organize some better weather. One wonders what the locals think of all the second homes here - if it was Wales one could expect to 'come home to a living fire'. In one dry patch we took the little ferry across the river from the marina to Ile Tudy. This is a long 'presqu'ile' - i.e. almost an island but not quite. It used to be a little fishing village but now has holiday homes for a mile and a half up its length and a super long sandy beach covered in shells and with signs saying it is very safe for children. One evening we ate at 'Le Relais de Lodonnec' - a little restaurant with lots of French ambience, delicious food and, sadly for the proprietor, only two other customers besides ourselves.

14th June - Loctudy to Benodet

On Friday the 14th June we decided to move over to Benodet, just five miles away. The main reason we had been hanging around was because Mike was due to go off on the next Tuesday to earn some 'funny money' (my description of his hard earned consultancy pay) and he had to fly to Paris from the local airport at Quimper. Benodet is a bit bigger than Loctudy and I felt there would be more for me to do there while on my own for three days. We were lucky to get a nice finger berth for the week rather than staying on the visitors' pontoon but we were told we would have to vacate it the day after Mike returned to make way for a festival of classic boats.

Though there were forecasts for 'eclairsies' (bright periods) these seldom arrived and the weather continued gloomy. Before Mike left we did a bit of exploring locally and took a vedette up the river Odet which locals describe as the 'plus belle riviere en France'. We liked some of the north Brittany ones better. The Odet is quite wide with wooded banks interspersed with gothic or pseudo -gothic chateaux. We tried to send e-mails in the evening via our gprs mobile phone and lap-top but discovered that Vodafone had barred our outgoing calls. We eventually got the Vodafone number we needed to ring from friends in England. Although an 0870 number, unfortunately it was not free from France. The telephone ate our phone card at great speed while Mike managed to make contact and Vodafone told us that we had agreed to a £45 per quarter maximum on calls when we took the phone on. We had no recollection of this but suppose it was a security measure. In the past we have made little use of our mobile, using it only as a means for others to contact us in emergencies. Using it for e-mails and internet weather forecasts we have obviously exceeded our limit in just over two weeks. Eventually we managed to get Vodafone to reconnect us.

We needed to go to Quimper airport to pick up Mike's tickets so caught the local bus. We discovered that the 6.30am plane Mike was due to catch tomorrow had not taken off today because of the fog. After collecting the tickets, Mike wanted to investigate the possibility of getting a French mobile phone as he thought this would be give us cheaper calls. Also it wouldn't cost us when other people phone us! It is exceedingly difficult to make sense of the various packages on offer when you go to get a mobile phone in England. In France, with our very limited French, and an assistant whose English was worse, it was impossible. In the end we gave up.

On Tuesday 18th Mike got a taxi to the airport at 5.30am. Luckily there was no fog. I lazed in bed reading until 10.00 and got up to - guess what? A clear blue sky and a Force 3 - 4 wind that that would have been perfect for going south. The sun continued to shine each day of Mike's absence. I spent the three days doing maintenance jobs on the boat, sunbathing and exploring the local shops of which there are a number. One day I took a vedette to the Iles de Glenan. These consist of several small, low lying, generally uninhabited, islands, lots of rocks, lighthouses and rock markers, aquamarine seas, sandy beaches, an Ecole de Voile and an Ecole de Plongee, two bars, a wind turbine for self sufficiency in electricity and hundreds of yachts and day trippers - not as magical as the brochures make out. I tried to get a cappuccino but was told they couldn't afford the electricity for the machine!

21 June - Benodet to Lorient

Mike returned safely on Thursday evening despite the French Air Traffic Control strike of the previous day and we set off on the Friday for Lorient on a fine reach all the way. Up the Blavet river there is a choice of several marinas. It took us three goes to find one with a free place - Kerneval. Even then we were way out on a scruffy pontoon with no water or electricity but lots of signs of visiting seagulls. The next morning we woke to fog and drizzle. Mike seemed to be losing his sense of humour. We had planned to go further south but changed our minds. We moved to a pleasanter pontoon with facilities - water and electricity. Mike had fitted a 230 volt distribution circuit last year so that when we are on a marina berth we can connect and use all the power we want without flattening our batteries. Since 230 volts and sea water don't really mix there are protection devices like an earth leakage trip and also a sensor to make sure that the neutral and live are the right way round - some marinas aren't all that careful. This sensor buzzes at you if things are wrong but has a changeover switch to reverse neutral and live if necessary. On this occasion the buzzer was having a field day and when he confidently threw the reversing switch - it continued to buzz. He got the meter out and found the marina had used a 2 phase circuit - 115v-0-115v. This gave us 3 options, live with the buzzer going all night, re-wire, or give up and un-plug. We did without electricity!! We went out for a meal in the evening and then joined the locals listening to an outdoor folk/pop concert. On the way back we espied two young boys swinging on a boat drying out on legs in the harbour. One eventually climbed on board and discovered to his joy that the forward hatch wasn't locked. He called his mate up to join him at which point we yelled at them. They got down reluctantly and then appeared to be sawing at the mooring rope with a penknife!! No doubt as soon as we disappeared they carried on enjoying themselves. Boys will be little buggers the world over it seems.

23rd June - Lorient to Belle Ile

On Sunday we woke to brilliant sunshine with the forecasters promising things like anticyclones and high pressure! We motored out of the Blavet river behind about 60 boats that had come down river from the main Lorient marina for a race. Unfortunately at that stage there was little wind but it picked up after a couple of hours and we sailed to Belle Ile and tied to a buoy off Sauzon. It was a bit rolly but we thought it was nothing to worry about. Then the wind got stronger and stronger and by nightfall was blowing Force 5/6 straight into the bay. We went to bed but didn't sleep as we were being bounced around too much. About three in the morning we heard engine noise and shouting outside. Mike went on deck to find it was a beautiful night with a full moon but there were short, sharp, 6 foot waves blown up by the wind pitching the boat up and down and some poor Frenchman, just coming in, was having great difficulty trying to pick up a buoy. We eventually dozed off at about 5am.

24th to 26th June - Sauzon to Port Haliguen and around Quiberon.

We had intended to stay another night and go ashore to explore Belle Ile but thought better of it after such a bad night. We set off, in sunshine again, for Port Haliguen on the east of the Quiberon peninsular. This was about the most satisfying sail we have had so far. Close hauled in a Force 4 north-easterly with a calmer sea now, we sailed ESE across to and through the 'Passage de la Teignouse' which lies between the southern end of the Quiberon peninsula and the rocky plateau 'chausee du beniguet' to the north-west of Ile Houat. From here we were able to tack and then carry on sailing NW along the eastern side to Port Haliguen, enjoying the scenery and interesting pilotage, buoy and rock hopping en route.

We had a blissfully quiet night in the Marina which is quite large but very pleasant with exceptionally good facilities for visitors. It is surrounded by a huge breakwaters on which dozens of people spend hours fishing. Lots of women fish here - many of them senior citizens. One drawback is that the breakwater is so long we had to get the bikes out to go for a shower.

The next day - Tues 25th - we went for a ride over to Quiberon town and round the coast. This area is really very beautiful. Called the 'cote sauvage' it is indented with superb rocky bays and beaches. Unfortunately swimming is 'interdite' because of the dangerous currents. It was a lovely day again. We sat in a café overlooking the sea drinking Leffe, Mike's favourite beer, enjoying the sun and watching the world go by. This is what it's all about! The next day we walked to Port Maria, the ferry port for Quiberon, and caught a ferry back across to Belle Ile where we walked along the cliff path from the main town of Le Palais towards Sauzon where we had moored our boat last Sunday. It was very pretty but very up hill and down dale and very hot. A kind French couple gave us a lift in their car for the last bit of the route. Sauzon looked much more interesting than on our last visit when we had only seen it from the sea, being a colourful village spread out along one side of the river.

Thursday 27th June - Port Haliguen to La Trinite

This was a short hop of only 12 miles but with wind on the nose all the way and a moderately rough sea. Under power we did less than 4 miles in first hour. Entry to La Trinite is via a buoyed channel and at the marina the visitors' berths are on the first pontoon behind the breakwater with a frightening lack of turning room but are very comfortable once in. As many of you will know, most French marinas are designed for 16 foot boats with midget crew. Consequently when you try to moor a 33ft boat you find that the pontoon barely reaches half the length of your boat. Next, the inexperienced leap off the boat as it comes alongside, in order to tie up. This is a big mistake. Even if you have the foresight to leave from the front half of the boat, thus leaping onto the pontoon rather than into the sea, since the pontoons are extremely narrow and are floated on minimal amounts of polystyrene foam, when you jump onto them, the force of your arrival causes them to sink and you get your feet wet. Worse though is that what buoyancy they have next causes them to rise again at a fair rate of knots which then propels the unwary upwards and off the pontoon into the water! If by chance you manage to stay on the pontoon you then look for something to tie your boat to. French pontoons seldom have horn cleats as in UK so there is no chance of a quick 'figure of eight'. Usually there is a hoop at the back end of the pontoon through which you must endeavor to thread a rope from a kneeling or prone position (since these are now the only positions which afford any stability against the knocking of your knees).

La Trinite is a big, sheltered marina but very expensive. Mike had paid for three nights before he realized it was £18 a night. In fact we later found that marina prices do go up steeply as you near the Morbihan and move into July. The showers and the laundry are once more a bike ride away. We tied up with the cockpit facing the large breakwater which meant it was a bit like being a zoo animal as people parade up and down it all day looking at the boats or sit fishing on it for hours. It is also a bit of a strange sensation as your boat goes up and down about 12 feet with the tide. At times you are down very low staring at a huge seaweedy wall with people peering down at you and a few hours later you are up high on the same level as the pedestrians and with a view down the river.

We whiled away some time watching other boats arrive. It is interesting to watch the French coming into a marina. They seem to follow certain rules.

a) everything must be done at high speed with reverse thrust only applied at the last minute or usually even later. (Have you seen the French parking cars in cities? - similar). b) nothing must be prepared beforehand - fenders are deployed after boats have crashed together, warps are uncoiled whilst four or more people are holding the boat in position on the pontoon (difficult bearing in mind the size of the pontoons). c) Warps are thrown at the shore handlers who then pull them in, only to find they have not been fixed to the boat.

But nobody seems to mind, it is all good natured and everyone mucks in!! It is all the more surprising since French children seem to be taught to sail from a very early age. Everywhere we went we saw children of very tender years - I swear on one occasion some of them couldn't have been more than 3 - being taught to sail. Also all power boat owners have to have training and pass some form of test.

In the evening we ate out quite expensively. Mike is keeping a record of our expenses and the average daily cost is steadily mounting while the stock market plunges in the other direction. Still we are saving on gas and electricity at home.

We spent two nights in La Trinite shopping in the local markets and exploring. We cycled round the local Standing Stone route - 'les alignements du menec' and 'les alignements de kermario'. There aren't any stones which compare with Stonehenge but they make up in quantity for what they lack in size. There are literally hundreds of these stones marching in lines about 20 feet apart following the contours of the land. Apparently they pre-date the Druids and no-one is sure what they represent. One story says that St someone turned an invading army (Roman?) to stone and that is what it looks like. Mike reckons it was a multi-track chariot race-course.

On Sat 29th June we biked to Auray which is at the top of the riviere d'auray in the Morbihan. We could have gone by boat when we get into the Golfe du Morbihan but there is a low bridge to go under and this involves careful tidal calculations to find out exactly when there will be sufficient water under the keel to stop us grounding but not so much that the mast hits the bridge. It seemed easier to go by bike.

There are lots of lovely old buildings in the town and much of it is cobbled which is hard on the bikes and even harder on the backside. Sadly, cars haven't been banned. Down by the old harbour all the houses have been renovated and there are dozens of cafes and bars all having bright awnings and tables and chairs outside with colourful umbrellas and there are lots of flowers everywhere. An old boat is moored at the quayside. The whole area struck us as a little over prettified. Still - it was a very pleasant atmosphere and we enjoyed a crepe for lunch before heading back on the bikes for sunbathing and supper.

Sunday 30th June to Wednesday 3rd July - Lorient to Crouesty and local sight-seeing.

Today's forecast was for rain in the afternoon but it never arrived. We motored the 12 miles to Crouesty which is just round the point from the entrance to the Morbihan. The winds had gone westerly and were supposed to be up to Force 6 by Tuesday. On Monday we set off to shop at about 10 o'clock and found a large market setting up on the quayside selling fruit, veg, cheese, fish, clothes etc. We bought some gorgeous cherries. Just as they had finished setting up the rain arrived and all their customers disappeared. They packed up after lunch about the same time that the rain did. On Tuesday there were winds of Force 6/7 forecast so we caught a bus to Vannes.

Vannes has a very old centre inside the city walls - XVth and XVIth Century. There are lots of cobbled streets and well restored buildings. The port is at the bottom of the town where the river ends in a long, narrow rectangular basin. The visitor's boats are rafted nose to tail and three deep on both sides, up towards the town. We watched in admiration as a Frenchman did a 10 point turn using his prop. walk and managed to turn his 49 foot boat in a space only about three foot wider. We decided to give Vannes a miss as a port of call.

The forecast for next day was 6/7 gusting 8!! It was very wet and windy that night but the rain cleared by morning. We got up about 10 am, did some shopping and then caught the bus to Sarzeau to visit a large chateau/castle, le chateau de Suscinio, which used to be a favourite home of the Dukes of Brittany and dates back to the XIVth century. It was apparently a virtual ruin in the XIXth C. The castle was used by local people as a quarry when it fell into disrepair. It has now been extensively and tastefully renovated and is very imposing, with several huge round towers, a moat, and a large collection of medieval floor tiles which were preserved when the roof fell on to them.

4th July - around the Morbihan.

On Thursday we set off into the Morbihan at about 11.30am. The Morbihan is an inland sea covering some 50 square miles with about 60 islands in it. It is fed by three rivers but access from the sea is via a narrow channel only some 700 metres wide through which the tide funnels at up to 8 knots. When the tides are running it is very much a case of going with the flow! Because there can be very fast tides in the Morbihan we had been making careful preparations for our visit by studying the chart with extra care and planning the route to make sure we would recognize all the buoys etc. to look out for as we are pushed along by the currents. We timed it to arrive on the last of the flood and it actually was neaps that day but despite that, there were a couple of places where the buoys seemed to be flying past and some places where there were whirlpools, but generally it was easy and the pre-planning paid off. We did a big circuit and I ticked off the islands as we past - Longue, Gavrinis, Berder and Jument, between Ile aux Moines and Ile d'Irus and Ile d'Arz , then south of Ile aux Moines back to Jument. We decided not to anchor anywhere overnight as F6 was forecast again for next day, so we allowed ourselves to be sluiced out again on the ebb tide. It's a beautiful area. The islands and anchorages are very pretty but we think if we wanted to sail round here regularly we would prefer to have a bilge keel yacht because there are lots of very shallow areas. Better weather would help as well - it was very cold once we had turned into wind for the return half of the journey despite the sunshine.

6th to 14th July - to the Vilaine and in La Roche Bernard

Saturday we set off for the Vilaine river and La Roche Bernard at 9.30am and were on a run most of the way making 5-6 knots. We were goose-winging with a preventer on the main to forestall any unplanned gybes. There is a very shallow bar on the way into the Vilaine and then a bit further up the river there is a barrage and lock. We waited briefly on a buoy while the lock disgorged the boats going down river and then we followed 'Tara B' into the lock. We wondered briefly why 'Tara B' had parked some 50 feet back from the exit to the lock and thought we might as well go in front to save space. We stopped just in time to avoid hitting the lifting road bridge (unlifted at the time)!! The locals all gather round the lock at opening times watching for disasters, which frequently occur as the water in the lock gets quite turbulent when the gates open and the salt and fresh waters mix. Above the lock the river is broad and deep with lots of pretty places to anchor. We ghosted part of the way up river on the genoa alone. We arrived at La Roche Bernard where there is a long pontoon for visitors who moor up to three deep at busy times. We spotted 'Katy Buoy', whose owners, Roger and Verity, we met two years ago when storm bound in Loctudy, so we moored alongside.

Later we went out to explore the town which is really the prettiest place we had been to so far. It is quite old, built on a steep hill with a Vieux Quartier with houses dating back to the XVth and XVIth centuries and lots more cobbled streets. There are masses of flowers, a Vieux Port, and some huge rocks, topped by a couple of old cannons, jutting out into the river which give the place its name. There are two fairly modern but very attractive bridges over the river above the marina and remnants of another suspension bridge built in the mid 1800's which apparently fell down a couple of times when it got too windy.

The marina at La Roche Bernard has about 30 per cent British boats whose owners have moved there to take advantage of the cheaper French marina charges. Consequently it is a very sociable place. The forecast for the next week was a bit depressing so we booked in for a week and spent it exploring and socializing. We can see the attraction to people who make this their permanent berth but think it must be very hard on the liver! We invited our French neighbours, who speak no English, back for pre-dinner drinks one evening. Joseph and Mike polished off most of a bottle of red wine, and then Jacqueline brought over a platter of fruits de mer and a bottle of white. Since neither she nor I drink much, the men had to finish this one too. We were introduced to bulots which are the marine equivalents of escargots. I ate a couple somewhat tentatively but Mike enjoyed them. Joseph's boat is wooden, strip planked, and varnished. It looks immaculate and he too built it himself - in his back garden - over a period of seven years exactly like us. He built it in Strasbourg and sailed it through the canals to the sea. Obviously there was lots to talk about but it was bit stressful struggling with our limited French. However it is surprising how much easier it became to understand what they are saying after talking to them for a while. We even managed to make the odd joke. The forecast for the next few days was bad, strong winds (Force 6 again) from the south-west. Joseph advised us not to try leaving until the weather improved since the onshore winds kick up a very bad sea over the bar - a bit like Salcombe back in UK.

By Sunday the weather had improved but as it was Bastille Day we decided to stay one more night and see how a French town celebrates. The celebrations started in the evening, about 50 yards away from our mooring, with moules frites served in a 'beer garden' and a folk type band and singers who sang some recognisable sea-shanties. We stayed up for the feu d'artifice (fireworks) around midnight which were set off from the deck of a vedette about 50 yards away on the river so we had an excellent view

15th July - La Roche Bernard to Piriac

We got up at 6.30am to catch the 8 o'clock lock on our way to Piriac. It was a brilliant sunny day with little wind. At the lock the gates were open with one boat already inside so we could have gone in as far as the road bridge. However, the lights were on red so like good little Brits we hung on to the chains on the side of the quay to wait for the lights to go green and watched the French carry on past us into the lock. By the time we decided to go in as well, another Brit had rafted alongside us so we were stuck and were almost last into the lock in the end. Lifting the road bridge, getting all the boats in (three abreast) and getting out the other end takes well over half an hour. We only had 12 miles to go but needed to get over the sill into Piriac within three hours of high water so we motored rather than sailed in the Force 2. In fact we discovered we could have sailed because there is more like three and a half hours either side of high tide when there is enough water to get in despite what the pilot book says. There is a long visitors pontoon at Piriac with lots of empty fingers but nearly all had ropes left on the cleats which we assumed meant people had gone out for the day and were coming back later. We found one near the entrance which was free. Because of the way the wind was blowing and the fact that our boat doesn't like turning anti-clockwise it was a bit difficult negotiating the turn but Mike managed it successfully on the second attempt and we were grateful for a couple of Brits standing by to take the ropes for us.

Piriac is a pretty little village. There are flowers everywhere and petunias cascade like waterfalls from the lampposts. Jacqueline and Josef, our French neighbours from Roche Bernard, were there as well and suggested we go for a bike ride together the next day so they could show us the area.

We set off early and had a look at La Turballe which has a lovely beach next door to it and is a busy working fishing port and holiday town with a yacht marina. We then cycled through the 'Marrais Sel' - salt marshes - and saw dozens of herons. The area is all divided off into rectangular ponds with a complicated system of irrigation running from one to the other. The salt water in the ponds is left to evaporate and leaves a residue of a grayish salt which is sold in large bags at the roadside for cooking. There is also a thin crust of white salt which is called the Fleur du Sel. Josephine said that the wives of the salt workers take this and sell it for their 'argent de poche'! She says it is very special and not for cooking but for sprinkling on salads. We were not sure how special salt could be but bought a small bag to try. We then went on to La Guerande which is another ancient walled town with all the buildings tastefully renovated - apart from one black and white type house, the woodwork of which had been painted bright blue. The town is full of art studios where the artists try to sell their paintings. We ate moules frites in the garden of a restaurant and then went on to another harbour - Croisic - and then back via Batz en mer and the salt marshes and home. We had covered some 20 miles and were tres fatigue but it was a good day out.

Thursday 18th July - Piriac to Pornic

Today we said goodbye to J & J and set off to Pornic. It was another lovely day and despite light winds we managed to sail at least half the way. We went through a swarm of enormous jellyfish, each about 15 inches across and we arrived in Pornic about 3.30pm. It was a really hot evening. Poor Mike was having a day off alcohol to rest his liver. Somehow watching the sun go down over a glass of fruit juice isn't quite the same.

Next day we wandered along a very pretty riverside walk to the town - past the castle of Gilles de Rais - reputedly Bluebeard, the wife murderer. The town was first built in the middle-ages but became a favourite holiday resort in the 19th century. It is built on a steep hill with lots of narrow cobbled streets and flights of steps leading up eventually to a very graceful church complete with flying buttresses and bright stained glass window and gargoyles. There is an old port right in the center of town. After supper we were attracted back to the town by an insistent drum beat. We found the town crowded with holiday makers sitting on the quay wall, eating ice-creams and candyfloss or following, like the pied piper's train, the group of percussion musicians with base drum, kettle drums, tambourines etc. taking their lead from a guy with a whistle who had them changing beat and rhythms as they progressed very slowly up the high street.

Sunday 21st July - Piriac to Port Joinville, Ile d'Yeu

On Sunday 21st we set off on the 35 mile journey to Port Joinville on Ile d'Yeu. We tried sailing but the wind was dead behind us and only Force 2 so the sails were banging about and we were doing 3 knots. We could have taken a longer course to put the wind on the quarter but I am very reluctant to 'mess about' when there are 35 miles to go so Mike was persuaded to put the engine on. The marina at Port Joinville is not very pretty, being backed by some oil storage drums and big sheds for the fish trade. However it is very safe and sheltered. You enter through a narrow gap in the harbour walls and then do a further U-turn into the marina. We did a quick exploration of the town which is another very active fishing port as well as being full of holiday makers. There are at least four huge shops hiring out bikes and there are literally hundreds of people on bicycles, lots of them with seats behind for little children, or pulling little carts with children in them.

The next three days were sunny and hot and we spent them touring Ile d'Yeu on our bikes. The island is about 9 miles by 3. Port Joinville is a very busy town with lots of traffic but as soon as you leave it you are into tiny country lanes with little other than holidaymakers on bicycles. The island is very flat, (hence the attraction of cycling), and the southern end has lots of wonderful golden beaches, some quite long but divided by rocky outcrops and backed by sand dunes and pine woods. Others are little more than clefts in between the cliffs. The sand is golden and fine. For once the houses are not grey with grey roofs but have a Spanish look about them - white cement rendering with red roofs and lots of brightly coloured shutters. The gardens are full of hollyhocks and hydrangeas in blue and pink and purple. We cycled up to St. Saveur which has an old church with a square tower for once instead of the usual pointed ones. Inside it had a beautiful arched ceiling and was very cool and dark with some lovely tall, very narrow, stained glass windows. We visited the harbour at La Meulle which is a narrow cleft in the cliffs with some huge rocks on both sides of the entrance. We then went on to the Vieux Chateau, a splendid ruin of a moated castle built in the XVth century which looms above the sea right on the shore. It is built of grey granite which merges into the rocky outcrop on which it is built. Apparently the English had a go at attacking it but failed to get in. We both had a swim in the bay next to it. The water was flat calm and very clear. 'Very refreshing' was how we described it.

Thurs 25th July - Ile d'Yeu to Bourgenay

Today the weather was dull with occasional drizzle - or crachins as we French speakers call it. The sea was calm, with little wind until after lunch. We sailed the last part of the journey at a gentle 4 - 5 knots. We rafted up on the visitors pontoon at Bourgenay to a Nautor's Swan whose skipper and wife had sailed to La Rochelle from Plymouth in 3 days and were now on the return part of their two week holiday, planning to stop occasionally on the way back home. We hope to be in La Rochelle tomorrow, some 7 weeks after leaving UK! Each to his own! Mind you, his wife didn't look very happy.

26th July - to La Rochelle

A gentle day with winds Force 2 to 3 and calm sea. The journey to La Rochelle takes you through some quite shallow waters and the approach is very shallow (0.3 metres in places) so we had to go slowly to wait for sufficient rise of tide before entering. Even so, we had to motor when our speed dropped below 3 knots. Nearing the entrance you sail under the most enormously long bridge - I counted 26 supporting pillars - which joins Ile de Re to the mainland. Despite the complicated description in the pilot books, the entrance to La Rochelle and 'Minimes' marina turned out to be quite straight forward with good landmarks easy to identify and clear leading marks for the final approach. These are two light beacons in line which take you straight up the dredged channel into the old port through a gap guarded by two ancient towers between which they strung a chain in days of yore to keep the invaders out. When we saw the channel later at low tide we realized how narrow it is - only about 30 metres in places. We turned off the channel into Minimes Marina which is absolutely enormous with some 3000 boats. It took us a while to sort out a pontoon berth where we could leave the boat for the next 5 weeks or so. It was pretty hot by now, and we were very tired after several long walks back and forward from the Capitanerie to the boat to try and sort things out. However, we do now have somewhere we can leave 'Sundancer' until September while we go back to UK to check we still have a home, sort out the garden, and leave France to the French over their peak holiday period.

La Rochelle is another splendid old walled town. The centre is full of bars, cafes and restaurants all with pavement tables of course. The place is full of history much of it centering on the rise and fall of Protestantism over the XVIth and XVIIth centuries. The Protestants had the upper hand in the XVIth being very prosperous because of their trading and having been given freedom of religion by the Edict of Nantes. They lost power to the Catholics in the XVIIth when Louis XIII revoked the Edict and tried to reunify France under Catholicism. Richelieu laid siege to the town and 4/5ths of the population died from disease and starvation during the siege or were massacred when the town eventually fell. Each of the three towers is worth a visit if you have a good head for heights. There are three islands around here, all of which are very flat and two of which are large - Ile de Re to north and west and Ile d'Oleron to south and west, both linked to the mainland by enormously long bridges, and Ile d'Aix which is small and tranquil according to the local guidebooks with only some 100 permanent inhabitants - increased in the day by thousands of trippers. We took a trip out to the latter on a vedette which sailed past Fort Boyard. This is a squat tower, built in the middle of the sea as a gun emplacement between 1804 and 1859, guarding the passage between the islands and mainland. It cost millions even in those days but was never used because technology outpaced it - typical of Defence Procurement even nowadays Mike says.

31st July to 1 September - Back in UK

On Wednesday 31st July we nervously left Sundancer on her berth and, keeping our fingers firmly crossed that she would still be there on our return, flew back to Stanstead airport from La Rochelle on Buzz. We returned on Monday 2nd September with a friend, Jackie, who is staying with us for a week.

3rd to 9th September - local sailing: Rochefort, Ile d'Aix, Ile d'Oleron.

The three of us spent the next week pottering around the area - a lot of lazing and not much sailing. On Tuesday we sailed over to Rochefort which is a pretty little town tucked away up the Charente river. The river winds through low-lying marshy fields with lots of reed beds. We passed under one of the few operating transporter bridges in the world. The bridge is tall and from it dangles a platform on which people sit and are transported from one bank to the other. It saves the problem of having to lift a pedestrian bridge to let the river traffic go underneath. The water gate into the marina at Rochefort only opens for a short while at high tide and at this point the river is only about half the width of the Severn at Worcester and the navigable channel itself is very narrow so there is little space to manoeuvre. We arrived about an hour early and waited on a pontoon. Just after we turned in, several huge merchant ships proceeded up river and we were glad we had arrived early enough to avoid them.

The marina at Rochefort is set right in the town surrounded by elegant old buildings somewhat in need of a coat of paint. It is right next door to the Corderie Royal - a rope works set up by Louis XV in 1666 to provide ropes for the French navy. It is 400 metres long and very palatial. The builders found it difficult to find bed rock for foundations going down 30 feet deep and still finding mud so the building was erected on a gigantic oak raft. Despite this some bits are leaning over and they had to add buttresses to stop the walls falling over. Unfortunately the Germans torched it at the end of the war so the present building is a replica, mostly used for offices but it also houses a good rope museum which we went round.

We also visited the ancient dry docks where a replica of the 'Hermione' - an 18th century vessel was being built. It is a huge wooden galleon and the plan is to sail it over to America when it is finished. So far the wooden skeleton has been completed with some of the outside timbering. Apparently Rochefort was a huge boat building centre in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Mike and I also went to Pierre Loti's house. The outside is a very ordinary terrace building, but inside it is amazing. He was an eccentric naval officer who returned from his travels with many souvenirs and a lot of money. He converted each room in his house to represent a different country or style - one is exotically Turkish, another Arabian, another medieval and yet another is a mosque. He is said to have bought the contents of a mosque damaged by fire and transported the lot back home.

In the marina we were adopted by a pretty little tortoiseshell cat - well fed and clean with a collar which read 'Ninite' Port du Plaisance, Rochefort. The first day it came and looked us over - the second it consented to be petted and the third night it spent sleeping on Jackie's bunk. When we left we had to put it ashore at the last minute with some food to distract it.

We left Rochefort on Thursday 5th and on the way out had to dice with several large ships which were also leaving on the tide but managed to avoid them without getting stuck on the mud. The pilot books warn of severe overfalls in the Charente estuary on the ebb tide. Since you can only get out of Rochefort at high tide you either have to anchor in the river to wait the next flood or go like hell to try and clear the mouth before the ebb gets strong. This we decided to do and motored flat out for 2 hours - it was still pretty rough by the time we cleared the river mouth. We picked up a buoy overnight by Ile d'Aix as it was too late to get into any of the tidal harbours. It was very rolly and the buoy was banging on the hull for a while. We thought we were in for a bad night but it settled down about 11pm and we slept well.

The next day we went on to St. Denis, Ile d'Oleron. I wanted to go to St. Martin on Ile de Re as recommended by friends but the pilot books say it is very crowded (due no doubt to its attractiveness) and Mike said he had had enough stress this summer parking in crowded places, so we never got to see it. St Denis is a pleasant marina but the town is nothing exceptional. The island has become a big holiday centre since the bridge at the south end was built linking it to the mainland. We lazed here until Sunday when Jackie caught the ferry back to La Rochelle to fly home.

We had planned to set off on the 45 mile trip to Royan next day but about 8 o'clock in the evening it started to rain and the pounding on the roof, the odd clap of thunder and the swaying of the boat kept us awake until about 6 next morning so we were too tired to go. In fact it would have been a splendid sail with a good wind and sunshine most of the day.

10th September - St Denis to Royan

Today was lovely and sunny but with very little wind so we motor sailed to Royan. - this seems to me typical of sailing - too much or too little wind and generally in the wrong direction - perhaps we should trade Sundancer in for a gin-palace. The pilot books all make entrance to Royan and the beginning of the Gironde river sound very alarming with 5 metre waves breaking over shallow banks during the ebb tide if you arrive under the wrong conditions. One couple we had met had in fact had a frightening experience and were loath to visit again. The wife confided that she thought her husband had got his sums wrong but wasn't admitting to it! Mike had worked out that we needed to arrive at Low Water + 1 hour - and as the wind was light and the sea moderate we managed it without any problems. Even so the entrance was sufficiently bouncy to show what it could be like. On route we saw three large turtles some 2 to 3 feet in length. One poked his head up and looked at us about 20 feet off the boat. Royan marina was easy to find and enter and there was plenty of space. It has the best showers we have seen to date - clean and roomy with separate dressing and shower cubicles and really powerful showers. Lovely. Prices for berths at the marina are also about half what they were around the Morbihan.

Royan is a very large holiday town with hundreds (literally) of hotels, cafes and shops. There is an attractive promenade and gardens round the edge of the port and the beach and we thought it quite a pleasant place. It all had to be rebuilt after the Brits bombed it flat in the final days of the war because a pocket of Germans were holding out here. (No wonder General de Gaule didn't like us much). We destroyed the cathedral among other things and a modern one was built to replace it. It is about the only attractive concrete building we have ever seen. It is tall and narrow with a strangely shaped tower which looks different depending on the angle from which you view it. The walls are a most unusual mixture of curves and angles. Inside is very cool and quiet - all unpainted concrete - with a very lofty ceiling and narrow stained glass windows in cool shades which reach up from floor to ceiling. There is a very bright and beautiful window over the altar which really stands out, and small diamond shaped windows round the lower walls. Sadly you can see on the outside that the reinforcement in the concrete is beginning to show through in places so I doubt if this cathedral will be standing in 500 years time.

Today has been a glorious sunny day with a gentle breeze. Tomorrow, the 12th, if all goes well we start on the difficult bit of the journey south. There is a long, featureless stretch of coastline from the Gironde to the north Spanish coast about 130 miles long with only one port of refuge in the middle - Arcachon. Even this isn't easy to get into or out of so we have decided to do the whole stretch in one go. The coast is also used as a firing range virtually all the way down from the shore to 45 miles off. The times and areas of firing vary from day to day but they don't fire at night or at weekends. We have been anticipating that we might have to go the long way round three sides of the rectangle but today we have had some helpful advice from an English speaking gentleman at the trials centre. They are firing off the coast for only one 20 mile patch but the airforce are dropping bombs all over the place from 12 miles off shore to 55 miles out. However if we can time it to go past the coastal area in the dark and don't stray out past the 12 mile limit we reckon we can go in a straight line down the coast which should take between 24 and 28 hours, not the 36 we were anticipating. At present the forecast looks really good except for a bit of early morning mist and our weather fax bears the reassuring message - no dangerous phenomena expected.

Thursday 12th September - Royan to Hendaye.

We set of from Royan for Hendaye at first light (7.30 am) as planned, taking the southerly passage to save time and making it through the shallows before the ebb started thus avoiding the severe overfalls which otherwise occur. We were sailing under clear skies which continued throughout the whole journey. Once the wind got up in early morning it was NE as forecast and we were able to sail on a broad reach - for the uninitiated this is a comfortable and fast point of sailing with the wind off to one side and behind you. Unfortunately after lunch it moved to the north - dead behind us, which meant we were constantly at risk of gybing and the mainsail was blanketing the genoa causing it to lose wind and flog. This, combined with a drop in wind to a force 3, reduced our speed. We debated putting up the spinnaker but as usual couldn't face the effort but Mike did spend about half an hour setting up the running pole and putting on a preventer which involves leaping about on the rolling foredeck with lots of extra bits of rope. This enabled us to sail 'goose-winged' with the main and genoa on opposite sides of the boat. This was very effective and we picked up to 6 knots and sailed merrily along until early evening. At one point close to Arcachon we were invaded by an enormous number of flies which settled all over the back of the boat. There are several large lakes just inshore in this area which must be their breeding ground. After a couple of hours they left us again, thankfully. Then the wind got up again and the sails were getting a bit unmanageable so Mike took down the pole and all his bits of rope and we reduced to the mainsail, double reefed, still doing 5.5 knots.

Mike should have put the preventer back on but didn't, and about 7.30 pm disaster occurred. A gust of wind crashed the boom over in a gybe, and the main sheet traveller, which controls the main sail via a connection to the boom, ran off the end of its track, presumably because an end stop was incorrectly set. In the process essential pieces of the traveller dropped into the sea. Mike, with considerable effort and adrenaline rush, managed to tie the now flapping boom down to pad eyes on the back of the boat, and, I turned into wind while he got the mainsail down. We were then forced to motor the rest of the way which annoyed Mike. By the way, we had heard nothing in the way of firing from the range all day, but a couple of Mysteres did fly low some way off.

We shared watches through the night. In fact, I prefer to be motoring when left on my own in the dark hours. We were travelling parallel to the shore, some 12 miles off and in very deep water, so pot buoys were unlikely and the electric self steering (Autohelm) was doing all the work. I could go down below and make a drink or plot the position if I wanted and didn't have to worry about adjusting sails. Keeping a look out for other boats was no problem as there were very few, and none at close quarters. My daughter Kate's tapes of 'A Passage to India' saw me through my share of the night watches quite happily. There was a newish moon from 8 until 12, casting a gleaming path across the sea towards us, the odd shooting star to glimpse, the Milky Way to enjoy, and it was pleasantly warm until the early hours.

The sun rose about 7.45 and about 10 o'clock we began to see the North coast of Spain emerging through the mist. And what a difference! After hours of sailing along parallel to a flat and featureless coast, suddenly the misty shapes of the Pyrenees began to emerge in front of us, the mountains of Northern Spain and the Basque country.

Hendaye is set in a valley in the corner of the Bay of Biscay where France and Spain join. The river Bidassoa divides the two countries, Hendaye being on the French side and Hondarribia on the Spanish. The red roofs of the towns sweep up the very green hills (we are told it rains heavily in the area in July and August) and behind them rise tall purple mountains. The scenery reminded us very much of Guadaloupe which we visited in April - but without the rain. The French marina is a very short way up the river, tucked away between man made walls topped with palm trees. We found ourselves a quiet berth on the visitors' pontoon and went to bed for an hour or two. The whole trip recorded 147 miles on the log and took us 28½ hours.

Sat 14th September au fin - Hendaye

We have ascertained that we can leave the boat here for the winter and have decided to leave it ashore as they have a storage area fenced off and it looks reasonably secure. We tried to replace the mainsheet traveller from a local chandler but failed. Our track is about 12 years old and no longer features in the catalogue. Mike has E-mailed the supplier (Lewmar) but it seems unlikely we shall be able to do any more sailing this season. Never mind - the weather is beautiful so we shall sunbathe and explore instead and take our time getting Sundancer ready to leave behind. We had our first visit this year from three very friendly French customs people today. I don't know why it takes three but it usually does. They filled in all their forms sitting in their shirt sleeves in the sunshine in our cockpit. Nice life! We had a good meal out in the evening and ambled back along the promenade in the warm silky darkness. Across the water the hill top church and fort of Hondarribia looked mysterious and enticing, with the lights of the town reflected in the river and the sounds of music and Spanish merry making wafting towards us.

Later in the week we went across river on the little ferry to the Spanish side to explore Hondarribia - only 7 minutes away. In the daylight the new town is a little run down, with a lot of smelly traffic, but set up on the hill is the old walled town with lots of four and five story houses dating back to the Renaissance and before. Very narrow cobbled streets crisscross the area, with tall balconied houses on both sides and roofs which almost meet in the middle. Surprisingly no attempt has been made to commercialise the area to the extent that we looked in vain for somewhere to have a coffee. A couple of the old buildings have been converted into Paradors, there were one or two tiny shops and a doctor and dentist, but the ancient buildings seem to be occupied almost exclusively by ordinary Spanish people - mainly also pretty ancient! There is a lot of renovation work going on (EEC funded?) so it will be interesting to know for how long the naturalness will be preserved.

We completed all our bookings for the Sundancer's lift out and the journey home. Sundancer comes out on Tuesday 24th and we shall go to Biarritz on Wednesday by train and spend the night there ready to catch the evening Ryanair flight home on Thursday 26th.

Mike and Pauline, "Sundancer" - Hendaye, September 2002.

Some final statistics for 2002:

Nights on board 85

Miles travelled 760

Time at sea (5knots average) 152 hours

Engine hours 85 (tut! tut!, more than half the total hours on engine!)

No of ports visited 21

Cruising costs:

We kept careful records of all expenditure and found that the total pretty well balanced against the savings made from not living and sailing at home. It will be interesting to see how future years compare.