The tides along the Brittany coast, especially as you get closer to Normandy, are some of the largest in the world. During a full moon at St Malo, for instance, the tide range can reach 15 meters, nearly 40 feet, or higher than a 3 story building. Not only does it require very careful planning when you are entering or leaving a harbor, or anchoring for the night, but that volume of water is flowing in and out twice a day, producing ocean currents that at their peak we could not motor or sail against. Anchoring is a real challenge. We normally set out a ‘scope’, or length of chain relative to the depth, of 4:1. In 10 meters of water, we would set out 40 meters of chain. But if the tide range adds another 10 meters of depth, we would have to put out a total of 80 meters of chain (which by the way we don’t have!), increasing our swing radius and risk of collision with other boats or the shoreline. It leads to all sorts of strange adaptations, including marinas with a lock, similar to a lock on a canal, that closes its gate to hold the high water in, and only opens for brief periods each side of high tide. Other marinas will have a large wall with a cutout to pass through, a ‘sill’, that holds back the water at low tide. You can only cross the sill at higher tides, and only after examining the height gauge on the wall or on a digital display. The inside of the marina is usually dredged to a depth to accommodate most boats, but you only leave when the tide comes in enough for you to pass safely back over the sill. If you push it and hit the sill with your keel, causing cracks in the wall leading to drainage of the pool, the damage from all the grounded boats inside would require a fast call to your lawyer to claim personal bankruptcy!
On the ocean current front, we had already started to notice larger tidal currents along the Brittany coastline since we left Belle Isle. With the jagged geography of Brittany’s peninsulas, one finds accelerated currents as the water gets squeezes as it rushes around these points into and out of the narrower English Channel. As we pulled away from the Odet River, we pointed Sea Rose’s bow towards the first of these ‘acceleration zones’, the Raz de Sein, or ‘The Race at Sein’ (a point of land in the area). The pilot book was rife with warnings to transit the Raz at slack water – the time of greatest calm while the current is changing direction – and to make sure that slack was followed by favorable current in your planned direction. We chose to aim for the small seaside town of Audierne first, just before the Raz, for our overnight in order to get the timing right the next day.
As a warm up, the coastline between Benodet and Audierne was scattered with rocky outcroppings like a site for newly trained mine layers. We stayed a healthy distance offshore. With a light breeze from behind and calm seas, the time had come for us to try out our new whisker pole. This is a long stout pole that projects out horizontally from the mast and is used to push a boat’s sails away from the center of the boat (mast area) to catch more air while sailing downwind. We had done a lot of downwind sailing last year, and the need for a whisker pole continued to poke at us; thus placing a new whisker pole on the top of the list for winter planning. A whisker pole can be a big liability for the person up on the foredeck that has to maneuver the beast into position without falling overboard. I couldn’t find the right pole style and lightweight design in European chandleries, so I spent considerable time sourcing one from the California company, ‘Forespar’, over the winter and arranging for shipping from a Texas retailer to our boatyard in Spain. No one could commit on how long it might take, given the Covid induced logjam of supply chains. But suddenly in late January, we were informed it was being put on a flight and would arrive in a week. Welcome news after being told it could take months on a ship. But what followed was at least another month of daily emails and early morning calls to Spain to get it released from customs and reminders to the new boatyard manager that their predecessor had agreed to accept the shipment and store it for our arrival in the Spring. All in all, it was a long, drawn-out experience that we had no interest in repeating. But the boatyard had come through in a pinch, and had our new whisker pole mounted beautifully on the mast, ready for our downwind enjoyment. This mild day was calling out to us to stop procrastinating and give the new gear a try. With nervous anticipation, I went up to the foredeck, and with the help of even more control lines on Sea Rose and Karen’s efforts back in the cockpit, we successfully deployed the pole on the Code 0 as we sailed gracefully wing and wing! It was a thing of beauty and to not hear the snap of an unsupported sail collapsing and re-filling was music to our ears.
Audierne has a long jetty coming out from the shore behind which were a large number of local boats on mooring buoys. Luckily, there was just enough space behind the outer end of the jetty for us to find a sense of calm from the ever present ocean swells. We dropped the anchor in clear water, accounting for the tidal range of about 4 meters in our scope calculations.
If there is a typical architecture to Brittany homes, it was starting to become clear during our walk ashore. They are a robust design, with the older buildings made of stone and the newer ones of stucco, but both have the standard twin chimneys, one at each end of the building, with the more modern buildings cutting corners with a faux chimney. Steeply pitched roofs with dormers on the upper floor finish out the look, ready to face the high winds of a winter storm while retaining the charm of a British countryside manor. I am speaking here of most Brittany buildings, but occasionally you will find an architect that runs off in a different direction trying to set a new precedent. Let’s be thankful not all new ideas take hold in the court of public opinion!
In the morning, we set our departure from Audierne at 9am in order to be at Raz de Sein at the 11am slack, followed by the start of a northbound current pushing us up towards Brest. Through some confusing settings on our tide and current app, and observing the behavior of other boats around us, we learned that slack was actually at 10am, but we motored around the point in relative calm nonetheless and set our heading for the harbor of Cameret-sur-Mer with a well protected marina shielding us from upcoming strong winds from the South. The natural choice in this region is the big city of Brest, but that would have entailed several more hours to make our way up the Penfeld river and back down, and often big cities are best visited by land not by small boat.
Still, the big city influence was apparent on the water as we watched several very large racing boats cut a path to windward with their all black high tech Kevlar sails. These are multi-million dollar boats, kept in top shape by high salaried shore services and chase boats, and their source of funding can be clearly seen by the logos emblazoned across their sails and hull. This type of big corporate sponsorship is the envy of the rest of the world, especially in the U.S., where it is an uphill battle to get companies to appreciate the visibility of large race campaigns.
It was a cloudy Sunday afternoon when we settled into our berth at the Port Vauban marina; most of the shops were closed, save for a few art galleries. Their works were interesting but it seems like most small galleries like this stay open for long hours hoping to find that one needle-in-a-haystack person who is interested in more than just curious browsing.
Several signs in town pointed to hikes a few kilometers away to a series of WWII ruins situated on a tall bluff overlooking the sea. We had chosen Cameret-sur-Mer for its wind protection but soon learned there was much to offer to the history-minded visitor.
As we ascended one of the trails and it leveled out on the top of the bluff, we came upon the remains of the French poet Saint-Pol-Roux’ residence. In the early 1900’s, his works drew strongly on symbolism and he is considered by many to be the precursor of modern poetry. After his passing in 1940, the manor was occupied by German forces and repeatedly bombed by the Allies during WWII, leaving a war ravaged skeleton behind today.
The poet’s attraction to this bluff was understandable. Before us stood sandy cliffs dotted with spring flowers leading one’s eyes down to the sea where long rows of breakers entertained surfers before the crashing of white water on the broad sandy beach.
The German occupation during WWII continued to be evident further out the bluff with huge gun batteries and bunkers built into the earth, surrounded by large craters that I had to assume were the result of bombing raids by Allied planes. On our return hike to town, we stumbled upon more German batteries. The scope of their occupation was shocking if it were not also a fact that where they had built these batteries was on top of a cannon emplacement from the 1800’s – one war machine on top of another.
And the war machinery continues to this day. Anchored in the bay of Camaret-sur-Mer during our stay was a bright white French Navy ship with enough satellite dishes on its deck to compete for the Hollywood film sequel of ‘Contact’. We understood it to be a mobile command and control ship. In addition, marina personnel informed us that nearby Brest is the home base for the French submarine fleet, and there are hydrophones throughout the harbor to listen to each passing sub in order to develop a unique identification signature. The father of a good college friend of mine worked on a similar project for the U.S. Navy off the coast of California. Rumor has it that American subs have tried to surreptitiously enter the Brest harbor, and even a few Russian subs. With the recent invasion of Ukraine putting a lot of tourists like us on edge, the marked increase in military presence here in France only served to heighten our feelings of global insecurity. It feels very different today when a military jet streaks across the sky above your head. Did a Russian jet just invade this air space, or was it simply an innocuous French training mission? At six knots, we weren’t going to outrun any machinery of war. Even the cannons from the 1800s could cause us some serious damage before we exited the harbor. We were left to accept this new reality, and the hopelessness of our own defenses, as we dropped our lines from the Camaret-sur-Mer marina and pushed further along the Brittany coast.
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