There are many notable coastlines that France shares with the sea. There’s the glitzy French Riviera which conjure up images of Jackie 0 and other celebrities cavorting on their beautiful Mediterranean yachts. There are the beaches of Normandy, forever etched in our minds with the difficult memories of D – Day. Here too, the northern coast with the port of Dunkirk, and the weighty toll of evacuating Allied troops. For sailors, the area around La Rochelle is infamous for its mecca of sailors, and the start of globe-trotting races such as the Vendee Globe, and the upcoming The Race Around. But the Brittany coast where we will sail through next, is lesser known and a step further away from the itineraries of most tourists. Brittany, as you undoubtedly guessed from the name, has its roots in Britain. The people of Brittany, or Bretons, are considered part of the Celtic ethnic group, along with the Cornish and Welsh, and their native Breton language is still spoken by several thousand people in the area. Today, it is easy to miss these unique ethnic roots among the tourist shops selling the perennial clothing and accessories of Brittany easily identified with their vertical blue and white stripes. But Karen and I endeavored to drill deeper and understand this large peninsula of France far removed geographically from the cultural epicenter that is Paris.
Our first step in the Brittany tour took us from Sauzon harbor on Belle Isle to the outlying island of Groix some 19 miles to the northeast. Our quiet evening on a mooring ball gave way quickly to a brisk 15-20 knot breeze out of the southwest, and combined with flat seas produced wide grins from the crew as we slide across the sea at 8-9 knots. April is still a transitional month here for sailing and sunny skies soon turned to clouds and cold air along our route, but at least with our speeds it was not long before it was time to drop our anchor off the broad sand beach of Plate de Grands Sables. Anchoring off a beach is always pleasant to the eyes and the spirit, but some are better than others. A horseshoe shaped beach, curving around you like a protective barrier from the sea’s rougher elements like we had back in Ile de Houat is the making of a sailor’s dream. This beach had a pronounced convex shape, curving away from us as it followed the overall boundary of the island of Groix. Wind-induced waves are persistent buggers when it comes to islands. They will gradually wrap around the windward side of an island and still roll you when you anchor on the leeward side, confounding any attempts to gain protection. These waves crashed onto the bristling white sand beach with enough force to make any dinghy landing out of the question. Sometimes, on a boat and elsewhere, no action is the best action. We chose to enjoy watching the steady flow of sailboats up and down the coast from the comfort of our cockpit. The French are avid about getting out on the water in their boats, and never is there a wasted opportunity to actually sail one’s boat instead of motoring, as more and more white dots appeared on the distant horizon. One much larger dot appeared before us a lot quicker than the others. I found it on AIS, the ultra high tech racing trimaran Sodebo. At 32 meters long – about 3 times the length of Sea Rose – she was quickly out of view after raising all of her sails, rising up on her hydrofoils, and hitting speeds of 32 knots. What mankind has managed to create to harness the renewable energy of the wind is astounding. These sailing machines are designed to cross oceans. I can’t imagine the quantity of fossil fuel that would be required to move a powerboat at 30 knots across thousands of miles of open ocean, and here was a craft that could do it with the free fuel of the wind.
We carried on up the coast at our measly pace of 6 knots to the island group called Iles de Glenan and anchored off one of the larger islands named Penfret, the only one we could approach given the shallow depths everywhere else. As soon as we landed the dinghy on the shore (using the brand new dinghy wheels!), signage made us aware that due to a youth sailing school on the premises we were not allowed to wander freely around the island. Sure enough, a group of five small sailboats, with a nearly overcapacity number of students on board, came around the point hooting and hollering as they rocked their boats from gunwale to gunwale in the windless afternoon, trying to scull their way back to the dock. I wondered how many in their group would go on to sail the next generation of fast globetrotting boats. We trotted in the opposite direction to an old square castle, complete with moot, that was now in service as the island’s freshly painted lighthouse. From our elevated vantage point, we could see the wisps of the archipelago’s other islands. I learned later that Penfret was one of three sailing schools at Glenan, all founded by Philippe and Hélène Viannay who were part of the French Resistance during WWII. Together with a few other locations, their 800 instructors educate an impressive 14000 students every year. I think I was born in the wrong country!
We couldn’t garner a fair perspective on Brittany if we only visited its off-lying islands. So we set our course to sail across to the coastal town of Benodet, which sits on the appropriately named Odet river. We timed our arrival with the flood tide and together with the extremely well buoyed channel entrance, we found ourselves safely along side the dock at Benodet marina. A British woman came over from an adjacent boat to help us with our lines, and it struck me that we had not seen a foreign-flagged boat since we had landed in France. Her and her husband were part of a new wave of sailors we would start to run into, making their way south from the UK, many of which appeared to be making a glancing pass at the Brittany coast, as if they were fording a river and Brittany was just a handy stone in the middle to catch their stride.
The marina was kind enough to offer free two hour dockage for boats like us that needed to re-provision at the nearby Carrefour. And re-provision we did. Carrefour is a consistently large ‘hypermarket’ concept that combines a typical grocery store with a department store. At one point, you are weighing tomatoes, the next minute you are tempted by fleece jackets and engine oil! This is not good for the Karen and Tom marriage index. I found myself pondering the many different types of iPhone charging cables while Karen rolled by with a cart of meat products urgently needing to get to our boat freezer a critical 20 minute walk away. Going forward, we agreed on a logical new shopping strategy – buy the meats and perishables at the very end, and wedding bliss will be your prize!
We had read other boater’s accounts of traveling up the Odet river, and decided a little inland travel would be good for Sea Rose after her recent ocean pursuits. The overnight options were very limited though without anchoring in the middle of a river that was regularly used by tour and private boats. We found a small indentation just up from the marina formed by a small feeder river. We were encouraged when we found one other boat there, anchored further in beyond where we could go with the draft off Sea Rose. We circled to check for depths around our estimated swing radius and then dropped the anchor in the middle of the circle.
The smell and the feel of a river is such a contrast to the ocean. The water is flat and calm. The bird life seems to embrace the protected waters with a bit more vim and vigor, and the tranquil nature of knowing there is farmland a stone’s throw from your boat adds a bit of homeyness to your soul. With no wind nor waves, we promptly launched the paddle boards for a trip up the side river. The ebb current was starting to kick in, but some relief could be had by hugging close to the banks. Soon we found a broader cove with three sailboats on mooring balls. I couldn’t fathom how there had been enough depth for them to reach this spot. All the same, the river banks were a blaze in a bright purple flowers shaped like daffodils cascading down to the water. I picked a few stems to decorate the Sea Rose cockpit.
We had accounted for the tide during our depth checks, but as the water level dropped further on the ebb current, large sections of the side river were drying out where we had just earlier paddle boarded over. Soon, the banks around us were closing in. Mudflats and small boulders were popping out of the water and our relaxing evening soon turn into a worry-fest about whether we would soon touch bottom. I kept checking depths off our stern as a much broader mudflat appeared just a boat length away. The ripples on the water would slowly stop rippling, and then I realized I was staring at ripples of dark sand. I could see the track line on our chart plotter where we had motored around for depth and those areas were completely dried out now! And then, in what seemed like an instant, Sea Rose starting swinging around to point down river into the first hints of the flood tide. The drain plug at the end of the river had been stoppered and someone was now turning on the faucet – hallelujah!
In the morning, we raised a very sticky, muddy anchor and continued our African Queen style adventure up the Odet river. It was once again low tide, giving us the blessing of seeing all of the rocks along the shore, and a curse by forcing us to stick to the exact center of the river as it dog-legged sharply from left to right as the attention-deficit nature of most rivers seem to do.
Tour boats regularly ply these waters but with the early season, most of them were aground back at Benodet awaiting the start of the summer season. In addition to the peaceful nature of the river valley, there were several interesting architectural sites along the way, and we found two of them – the stately Manoir De Kerouzien appearing to be setup for the wedding venue of most bride’s dreams, as well as the grand Château De Kerambleiz, easily missed between a momentary break in the heavily wooded shore.
What was not easy to miss was the unfortunate outcome of a sailboat trying to dry out on a nearby stone quay. With such large tide swings, the French (and the British) are no strangers to letting their boats settle down on their keel at low tide. But you have to know the bottom conditions – a look before you leap scenario. On this quay, the rocky and uneven bottom sloped away from the shore, leaving no flat area on which the keel could stand up straight. While easy and tempting for bystanders like us to critique, all of us on the water are taking great risks every day and trying to make decisions with the clearest state of mind. But mistakes happen to all of us and despite one’s boating experience, bad stuff is simply unavoidable. To be a critic is to ignore the fallibility in all of us. Still, it is painful when your mistakes are so visible like this one.
We continued down the river as the first hints of an ebb current appeared and soon we were being flushed out the exit and back into open water. The rare opportunity to experience the land’s interior by boat was over and we set our sights on exciting new destinations along this wild and diverse coast of Brittany.
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