Dateline: L’Aber Wra’ch
Middle of the Night
Yes. It is 0030hrs, the smell of fresh-ground coffee fills the cabin, and I am wide awake, washed and dressed (in fresh clothes). Mozart’s Romeo and Juliet is playing on the Bluetooth speaker – and so, the day begins.
Maybe this takes a bit of explaining.
My body clock is fucked.
I’m sorry, but there is no other way of putting it. I left Les Sables d’Olonne on Friday after a week in which I managed to get one interview with the local paper and handed out several hundred leaflets, accompanying each with a little French sentence. I became rather proficient with this by the end.
According to Google Translate, it said: “May I give you one of these? It’s about the French translation of my book.” Once I had that taped, I added: “To get started, it’s half-price!”
This was a big success. People smiled and thanked me – but that may be because I was saying something else entirely. Who knows?
Then, on Friday morning, the Windy App changed its mind from flat calm to westerly 10-15 knots – and I was conscious of two children about to graduate back in England. Sometimes you have to take advantage of the weather – even if you’re paid for the marina berth until Saturday.
That’s one of the nice things about France, isn’t it? “Bien sûr” to a refund – you didn’t get that in a British marina last time I tried it.
So, with a big bag of petit pois dans la gousse from the market and all the water bottles filled up (yes, a new tank is another reason for getting back), I set off up the Biscay coast.
Twelve hours later, I had managed precisely 23 miles and was looking at a night of rolling about in 3kts of wind and sleeping for 20 minutes at a time because, apparently it was a perfect night for fishing – and fishing boats have right of way. French fishing boats the more so (it was outside Les Sables d’Olonne that Alex Thomson, fast asleep and waiting for the tide in the entrance, was rammed by a fishing boat and effectively knocked out of the 2008 Vendée Globe).
On the other hand, I could just about afford the fuel to motor three miles to a bay on the east of Île de Yeu. Anchored at one in the morning, I slept late, pottered about on the Internet (I’m now £25 over my international roaming allowance) and left when the breeze returned at midday – which was what was supposed to happen in the first place.
But it did mean I was 26 miles closer to the Golfe de Morbihan – a wonderful inland sea and nature reserve and, incidentally, home to the grave of the great singlehander Bernard Moitessier. I had never visited either. It was halfway to the English Channel. The westerlies were due to hold for a few days yet. I could afford one stop…
The thing about the Morbihan is that the tides between its many islands run at upwards of six knots. It is not a place to be mucking about in the dark. On the other hand, there was a little bay only 13 miles away on the island of Hoëdic where I could anchor and get another good night’s sleep.
Well, that’s what I could have done if I hadn’t spent the day making painfully slow progress the 43 miles from the last place.
To while away the time, I did some more research on my cunning plan to slip in between the rocks to the south and discovered that all the beacons were unlit, and the Navionics App insisted: “Approach from the North”.
Instead, I spent the night wafting very, very slowly the 13 miles across to the Morbihan, arriving with the dawn and a rising tide. By lunchtime, I would have paid my respects at the graveside and be sitting down to a celebration Plateau des Fruits de Mer.
I had promised myself this on the sale of the first copy of Le vieil homme hisse la voile. Amazon assured me someone had indeed bought one (apart from the six I had ordered myself as review copies). I was reduced to sending out three of them on spec – which is a bit like posting them directly into the recycling bin.
On closer inspection, it turned out the mystery purchaser was in the UK, not Les Sables at all. But since both my sisters insisted (with apologies) that it wasn’t them, I convinced myself a celebration was still in order – particularly with the extra €32 from the marina refund in my pocket.
Except that didn’t quite work out because the 13 miles to the Morbihan took so long that I still hadn’t made it when the Windy App changed its mind again and announced that if I didn’t get out of Biscay by Wednesday, I would be trapped by a strong north-westerly airflow that would sit there well into graduation season.
Which was how I came to spend another much-interrupted night – and you can’t do that indefinitely. Your subconscious gets so used to alarms that eventually, it just ignores them. You end up not waking up at all. The secret is to vary the alarm setting – have the occasional decent kip for 45 minutes or so.
I set a course to the southwest of the Île de Groix – at least I might get some peace and quiet out there.
The blasted fishermen were there as well.
Also, there was a time when you could rely on a trawler to go in a straight line for a bit. Now they link their fish finders to their autopilots. They’re all over the place. At one point, I was setting the alarms for 10 minutes – which, basically, meant spending all my time getting in and out of bed.
Would you believe I still woke up to find one of them on a collision course at what the AIS measured at 863 feet? You’ve never seen anyone roll up a super-zero and gybe so fast…
By the time we reached the Raz de Seine, I was seriously spooked. It’s a long time since I’ve made this notoriously tricky passage (39 years, I worked it out). Also, I sold all the Brittany pilot books at car boot sales in the early 90s. All I’ve got aboard now is the 2021 Reeds – and the Internet, of course.
Reeds offered this on the Raz: “In moderate to strong winds, it must be taken at slack water. In strong wind-against-tide which raises steep breaking seas and overfalls, the channel must not be used.”
All well and good, but when was slack water? Navionics put it 0330 – or 0430 when I noticed the little exclamation mark and “Guernsey time” (why?)
Reeds insisted I should wait for High Water Brest +5½hrs – which would be not until 0530. Then there was the Yachting Monthly site: they seemed to suggest +6½hrs.
Everyone agreed that the window for this “nastiest of Europe’s tidal races” was half an hour at most (some put it at 15 minutes). It would have helped if the My Tide Times app agreed with Tide-Forecast.com (which itself was adrift from Tidetime.org by four whole minutes).
And which of them was on GMT+1 and which +2?
You never got this sort of thing before they invented the mobile signal.
Once I entered the Raz, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at all. I might get a few catnaps crossing the Iroise, but you have to maintain 5½ knots if you’re going to catch the tide up the Chenal du Four. Even with three sails up, that meant motor-sailing all the way and nobody can sleep with my engine insulation.
By the time I made it into L’Aber Vrac’h, I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going to tie up, get off the boat, march straight into the Restaurant Le Vioben and order the biggest Plateau des Fruits de Mer they had on the menu. I’d been reading reviews all the way along the north coast: a German guest was very complimentary about his six-course meal.
I might leave my own review for the Vioben. For a start, their website says they are open from 10am to 10pm but there were some very doubtful faces when I walked in at 2.30. Then they wanted me to order dessert before I’d even speared my first bulot.
Actually, I never did get to spear a bulot. There weren’t any on my plateau. At least half the bigorneauxwere empty as well.
And the final insult that will make it a one-star review was that sitting on the top of it all was an araignée. I kid you not – a spider crab. Now that’s cheap.
I said so.
The waiter said crabes were rare. No, they’re not. They’re just more expensive – the sort of thing, in fact, that you might expect for a meal costing €76 – and what was with the wet-wipe in a plastic sachet that was completely impossible to open once your fingers were covered in mayonnaise and bits of seafood? How about a finger bowl with a bit of lemon floating in it?
Worse than that, I hadn’t consulted Google Translate before getting started on all of this, so I may have come across not only as rude but ignorant as well. Moreover, it had nothing to do with the beer before lunch or the bottle of Muscadet…
I can only claim lack of sleep.
I don’t remember getting back to the boat – just waking up at half-past midnight
If you’re still with me after what is apparently 1,662 words, that’s because it’s now four in the morning, and in the middle of everything else, I’ve been trying to find out why Facebook is refusing me permission to comment.
Maybe they know something.