After a successful crossing of the Bay of Biscay, and reuniting Dan and Don with their spouses, Karen and I struck out on our own again with the comfort of knowing that one of our biggest technical hurdles of the summer was already over. With the spike in adrenaline from the crossing, it would not be hard for us to set out along the Brittany coast and start to gobble up miles towards our northbound goal. Such haste comes easy to both of us. But so too does the guilt of missing out on the here-and-now of local gunkholing. With so many sailboats out on the waters of the Bay of Quiberon, there had to be some nooks and crannies of historic and scenic significance eagerly waiting for two wide-eyed American tourists to visit.
We set our sights on an inner body of water named the Gulf of Morbihan. Boats were all around us and as far as we could see to the horizon. These French put the sailing legacy of New England to shame. They must be born with a tiller in their hand. And to be a French sailor here, there is clear peer pressure to sail your sailboat. Even a tinge of thought to reach for the engine start button could get you voted off the island, with a flick of a francophile finger. We settled down at a micro anchorage just inside the entrance to the Gulf, where currents ran very strong due to the large body of water flowing out a narrow exit, yet sailors of all craft where merrily tacking back and forth against the tremendous forces of nature, honing their sail trimming skills, while sailors in most any other corner of the world would be calling upon their diesel auxiliary. It was impressively educational.
Long streaks in the shallow seabed all around our anchorage made me concerned about the risk of rocky crevices taking ownership of our anchor, so I put out our fancy new anchor trip buoy. I had stolen the design from a Polish boat back in Malta last summer. It relied on a couple dive weights and a pulley to keep the anchor buoy right above your anchor, making it unnecessary to pre-select the line length for the depth of water. In the morning, my joy of ownership was tainted by the many tidal rotations Sea Rose made overnight, leaving me with a crazy tangled mess, complete with trip line, buoy and weights wrapped around the anchor chain like a high school cooking class’ attempt at a cannelloni. If my eagerness to use the diesel wasn’t enough to put me in poor standing with the French, our anchoring skills would be the clincher.
Conveniently, our destination for the day, Port Blanc, did not possess the space to swing on one’s own anchor, so we picked up a mooring ball for our two night stay, from which a dashing young lady on the marina’s inflatable took us both ashore to pay our dues to a trio of equally dashing young members of the up-and-coming French sailing community busily working behind the desk until they made enough money to buy their own boat.
Karen and I, on the other hand, ditched the boat for the day and followed a land-based pursuit on the Ile Aux Moines onboard a couple three speed bikes which made for easy cruising through the countryside. Biking down narrow rural lanes with tall hedgerows leading to clusters of tiny villages built of local stone, all the while smelling the sweet scent of spring flowers in the air, it was clear we had found a gem of the Brittany coastline. Ile Aux Moines (‘Island of the Monks’) is one of two significantly sized islands inside a gulf of many more. At every vista that we stopped at, one could see schools of sailboats and the distant clatter of young sailor chatter. It could be perfectly tolerable finding one’s way through the teenage years here. Meanwhile, for the adults, the locally harvested oysters were delectable!
In these early weeks of our sailing season, inevitably there are projects that get passed over for the attention of hitting a launch date. This was no truer this season, as we hurried to get in the water and cross the Bay of Biscay before the weather turned. A few years back, I settled on a process of throwing all of the boat project parts into a big to-do bag. Shunning my project manager 101 training which would dictate a priority assignment to each of these tasks, I instead have the joy, when a few free hours appear, of reaching into the grab bag to see what tickles my fancy. Hacksawing away on a few stainless steel tubes to make a new mount for the barbecue seemed like a good joy-vs-effort ratio. I ended up using part of the horseshoe buoy rack on the stern for the new mount, after having discarded the old buoy back in Sada, replacing it with a more effective inflatable man overboard kit. This also moved the barbecue further away from the canvas of the bimini, canvas that had come a little too close in the past to hungry leaping flames.
The second big island in the Gulf of Morbihan is the Ile D’Arz, and we planted our anchor (sans trip line buoy) in the large protected eastern bay of Penera-Nord. Ile D’Arz was the smaller sibling, the one that watches as big sister Ile Aux Moines gets all of the attention of the countryside biking crowd, but knows full well that she will be appreciated some day for her charm. And charm she had. I had read about an old tidal mill on the island that had been restored by volunteers. We dinghied ashore and took a delightful walk through the center of the single small village and out the other side to a large estuary. The single-story stone building that comprised the actual waterwheel and mill was placed in the middle of a long dyke that funneled seawater through a sluice from the enclosed estuary. It was a simple, understated structure, but remarkable for its engineering and the ability to harness power every day, rain or shine, wind or no wind. Most sources agree that this was built in the 13th century and it remained in use until 1910 – sounds like an advantageous ROI to me! It had recently been restored and was fascinating to imagine people for several hundred years bringing their grains here to be processed for cooking!
The days had been getting steadily warmer since we landed in France, and this day was no exception, as we ambled our way back into the village parched for liquid. Being Mother’s Day, I couldn’t just pop into a take-away store for a couple bottles of water. We instead sat down at one of the many outdoor cafes, all crowded with heat-weary travelers like ourselves, and a few weary four-legged friends. Karen and I had been struggling with our extremely limited French since we landed, and conversing with this outlying island’s cafe owner was no exception. My attempt to order two glasses of white wine somehow ended with us receiving two plat dejours, one with beef, the other with chicken. I could have pushed to correct the misunderstanding, but to have a plat dejour on a warm sunny day sitting outside at a little French cafe is something to behold. The plate of the day in France, unlike in other countries, is typically one of only a few offerings; they are priced fairly, and you generally won’t be disappointed. For us linguistics laggards, it gave us a main, a salad, and fries without having to dig through Google Translate. I was hoping Karen was keeping a Mother’s Day tally, as I think this one would go down as a check mark in the ‘he’s a keeper’ column.
We had struggled earlier to pull the dinghy up on shore high enough to get it above the high tide line, over sand and uneven stones. Back at the boat, I didn’t want to leave to chance what I pulled out of the project grab bag next — instead, I confidently reached for the recently purchased box of folding dinghy wheels. We had these on our previous dinghy that had served us well throughout the Caribbean and the Great Lakes. With tide swings of 3-4 meters, and much higher swings further north, it was time we took advantage of the invention of the wheel.
Our tour of the interior Gulf of Morbihan was coming to a close and it was time to find the ocean waters again. Fortunately, there was no wind whatsoever, allowing me to flip on the diesel guilt free for our exit against the current. As we twisted and turned to follow the deeper water past Ile Aux Moines, and we joined a precession of other sailboats under power, I was left to contemplate another difference these waters had from similar waters back home. Since we had arrived, we had not had one bug harass us as they do in New England at dusk and dawn. Even more joyful, not one jetski could be seen bugging our experience of this gem of nature. I have had a few days of fun on a jetski myself; but, boy, when you find a place like this that is surrounded by land from which to easily launch watercraft, yet is absent of the noise of jet-skis, it is a thing of beauty!
Once we found the exiting channel from the Gulf, we proudly raised our sails and fought a 3 knot contrary current. I hope the French sailors took note. We set a course for the island of Ile d’Houat with a large horseshoe-shaped beach on its eastern side reminiscent of the long beaches of southern Spain. We had been warned that the anchorage could be crowded with a 100 or more boats. But on this pre-season day blessed with full sunshine, we were one of only a dozen or so boats anchored off the shore. You probably guessed our next move. With aplomb we boarded the dinghy and ran her right up on the sand, pulling her further up with the slightest effort as the new wheels made me smile from ear to ear. This was a striking beach, made all the more special by being on an off lying island. What is it about an island that makes a beach, an ice cream, a chapel so memorable, more so than seeing or experiencing that same thing back on the mainland? I like to think it’s the extra effort required to get there, combined with the respect for others that worked hard to establish a settlement and build a chapel or a school or a bench overlooking the sea. I think too that an island is vulnerable, with water on all sides, and that vulnerability, like a newborn animal, draws us in for it could all be gone tomorrow.
Our last stop before starting our push north was back to Belle Isle. This time, we snuck into the micro harbor of Sauzon on the northwest corner to lay on a mooring ball. There is, around the entire perimeter of Belle Island, a fine walking path that affords new and varied vistas of the Bay of Quiberon. We collected our hiking implements and headed west along the coastal path, finding ourselves in the company of many other nature lovers, including several groups of older tourists hitting the trail with their daypacks and clicky-clack hiking sticks. Anyone with an aging parent would revel in this site of seniors embracing this fine spring day. Their tour leaders had the right idea. Every turn in the trail produced a stunning cliff overlook seemingly better than the previous. I stood for awhile mesmerized by the gentle flight of a gull drifting on the updrafts and then coming to perch on a rocky mount with a 360 degree view of the water. If I had to be re-incarnated as a seabird, I hoped I would be assigned this duty station.
Our hike ended at the Pointe des Poulanis lighthouse, the same light that guided us around the island with Dan and Don only a week previous. It was time for Karen and I to move on. There was much more to see along this coast of Brittany. We had the right craft and the right weather, and until we reached the point of land-bound seniors, it was time to make haste!
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