By John Sampson
17 June to 1 July 1995
Onboard: Paul Sharpstone (Skipper), Barrie Smith (1st Mate), Andrew Clark (2nd Mate), Sarah Doughty, John Sampson, Mary McDermott, Susanna Price, Polly Frazer
There’s nothing quite like giving the crew a good idea of where a cruise to France is going to go and what gorgeous little ports and harbours are to be visited. Our skipper had obviously done a lot of hard work preparing for this cruise to Brittany and planning where the crew might like to visit. Of course all the best-laid plans go wrong and this cruise turned out to be nothing like what was expected.
To be fair, we did get to Brittany – and indeed we called in at three of the eight ports on his list – as well as three that weren’t. In addition, our cruise was packed with excitement and at least one notable experience. We even got back to Brighton on the day that was scheduled, even if that was sometimes in doubt.
We got off to a good start; although it was not from Falmouth as originally intended, but from Queen Anne’s Battery Marina at Plymouth; another case of not quite making it. A good day and night sail, not quite in the desired direction owing to a strong south-westerly, which brought us to Roscoff, about 30 miles east of the intended L’Aber-Wrach. Not to worry. We moored to one of the visitor’s buoys south of the ferry terminal and, after recovering from our 24-hour crossing took the dinghy to an adjacent slip. Once clear of the terminal area a pleasant 20-minute walk got us to the old fishing port where there is a choice of places to eat. At low water we took a look over the sea wall to study the rock-strewn approaches, which would convince any yachtsman in his right mind not to go near the place!
We were already in the Baie de Morlaix and Morlaix itself, the ancient fishing port and base of France’s most famous pirate fleet of the eighteenth century was only 10 miles away. It was on our agenda, so what better time than to visit it now? It was 6 miles up the Morlaix River, tidal as far as the lock leading into a marina in the middle of town – and the pilot book said that it would be navigable.
Well, it might have been if we were not two days short of neaps. So, we edged up the Morlaix River with the tide behind us and, although Marabu did ground with a mile still to go, it gave the opportunity for a quick breakfast before she floated off.
We arrived in time for the first lock into Morlaix harbour. Tied up to an ancient quay wall just short of the tobacco factory we were only a short walk from the marina facilities and beyond that the town centre. Morlaix is dominated by a spectacular railway viaduct carrying the main Paris to Brest TGV line over the deep valley containing the old town with its steep cobbled streets lined with restaurants, bars and crèperies. A most attractive place, which we were sorry to be leaving next morning – or were we?
Out by about 11:00 hours on the first lock, one hour before high water. We set off down the centre of the river while the channel itself meandered towards the left bank – leaving, unknown to us, a monstrous bank of mud in the middle, on which Marabu ground to a halt. Nor would she move in spite of all our traditional antics of running and jumping up and down on the bow.
But all was not lost as a friendly matelot on a sand-dredger moored to the sand-discharging wharf on the left bank saw our predicament and, pointing to his foredeck windlass indicated that, if offered a rope, he would pull us off. And bless all French sailors, he did just that and with half an hour of top tide to spare we were free.
We asked him where the channel was and he said keep straight down the west side of the river. So we did, and in two minutes flat we were firmly aground again, not far from the bank and still off the old wharf – except that this bit had collapsed and spewed another mud bank out into the river.
Luckily, however, there was a bulldozer at work among the piles of sand and the driver bravely offered to pull us off. This time it was more difficult – ropes were fed out – ropes were joined together – ropes were dropped under a flat bottomed pontoon/barge which was in the way, to one of our crew waiting patiently on the bank. Finally, the bulldozer-driver’s wife appeared, not at all pleased with the proceedings nor the fact that her husband had failed to come home for lunch. Suffice to say that after that our aide was rapidly withdrawn from the scene of operations.
By now the tide had gone and Marabu would now be stuck in this position for at least 12 hours – and the omens for getting her off were not encouraging. Lines were rigged from the masthead to the quay to keep her upright and before long there was no problem about getting ashore – you could walk – and Marabu snugly settle into her berth with no more than a 15° list shoreward.
Bright ideas were called for, gradually a plot was hatched, and preparations made for a midnight rescue bid. It was a still, dark night – a bit spooky really – all Morlaix in bed, including the lock-keeper. Nethertheless, when the dinghy was afloat it was paddled across the now-wide river trailing behind it a thick snake of rope. Some would recognise it as the kedge warp – kept aboard in a secret compartment under the floorboards of the sail locker – a very long and very strong piece of rope. A distant hail from the dinghy informed us that the warp had been made fast to some decrepit sheet piling on the far bank, which might – just might – be strong enough to pull Marabu off.
The moment of truth had now arrived as all Marabu’s connections to shore were cast off therewith. With the engine full astern and the kedge warp on both main winches – she didn’t move. Then again – everything together – I think she moved. And again – yes she did – we are off – bless all kedge warps.
Everyone was so bucked at our success that it didn’t occur to anyone to ask Marabu where she would like to spend the next 12 hours for she was inevitably going to have to take the ground somewhere as the tide lowered. It was decided to put her alongside the pontoon/barge where the mud on the bottom must surely be suitable.
When Marabu realised that it was the intention to put her against such a vulgarly commercial and unprepossessing craft and that she was expected to lie snugly up against this thing for the rest of the night, she must have decided that at the first opportunity she would distance herself from it as far as she could.
This opportunity occurred at about 05:00, when her keel began to sink into the mud and she began to lean out into the river and slide forward down a mudbank to get as far away from the odious craft as possible. Apart from the watch ashore, which were tending the ropes as best they could, including the stays to the mast, we were enjoying a well-earned sleep when I awoke to find that I was sliding off my bunk. The skipper was still asleep, possibly dreaming about a grotesque lock-keeper tearing up his best-laid plans – 'Is everything alright?' he said, on being shaken. Well, you couldn’t really say 'yes' as Marabu gave another shudder and slid further down the bank. With commendable rapidity he realized she was determined to go and either the ropes or the mast would break. At that moment one rope parted and so the other was cut and the mooring lines eased as she continued to slide bow-first down toward the channel until coming to rest with an outward list of 50° and head down at 30 degrees. It was a spectacular orientation well within the sight of the lock-keeper and subsequent sightseers.
The lock-keeper was, however, very restrained and gave us a charming smile when he let us back into the basin some 6 hours later. We took the hint and decided to spend another 24 hours there and the Mate, with his surveyor’s hat on, led an evening expedition down the riverbank at low tide to map the vagaries of the channel for the first mile to aide us on our outward route. We left the next morning with no problems, and luck appeared to be one our side so we anchored for a peaceful night on the east side of Morlaix Bay.
There was now another difficulty, however, because during our stay at Morlaix, the anticyclone, which was to last for 3 months, anchored itself over the UK, providing strong north easterlies over northern France and to get back to Brighton we had to go north-east. However, not to be discouraged, and adopting the same principle that impels the horseman that has just been half-killed by being thrown from his horse to immediately mount another, we decided to proceed up the next river, the Jaudy, and go six miles up it to the old port of Tréguier.
So we did that – it even had a sand wharf just to make us feel at home and we only touched bottom once. No lock this time, but a good tidal marina with long pontoons stretching right out to the channel. We didn’t have much time in Tréguier but a quick run ashore in the morning revealed a really nice town albeit via a steep walk – well worth another visit – but we must catch the tide to take us out, mustn’t we!
Next day was a long haul to St Malo but with second half of the course being east-south-east, the strong northerly wind bowled us along well, under working jib and reefed main, until somebody spotted a horizontal mainsail split just above the boom and – you won’t believe this – the tricolour masthead light came adrift and blew away. We could get the main repaired in St Malo but the tricolour we would have to do without.
Our final approach was a long slog in the dark with the red beam of St Malo’s lighthouse being our guiding star for several hours before we moored to a buoy in the tidal basin to wait for the first lock at 04:30. An hour later we were berthed alongside the dock wall almost opposite Port St Louis in the hugely impressive city wall and enjoyed last night’s precooked dinner for breakfast.
We were ideally placed for exploration of the old town and on this, my first visit, I was enchanted by it. To anyone who has not been, St Malo is a ‘must’. Painstakingly rebuilt since the Second World War with its maze of narrow streets, its buildings vary from the dignified hotels and public offices at one end to the backstreet cafés and crowded apartment blocks at the other – all encircled by a continuous city wall with its magnificent views over the seaward approaches and the Rance estuary. Here we had to get the mainsail mended and get back to Brighton in four days time.
We didn’t get the sail back until after teatime the next day, so we had a third night in St Malo but I can’t think of a better place to be stranded in.
It was now Thursday morning and we only had two days to get back to Brighton in the teeth of the strong north-easterlies, now well established. Having made a tremendous effort to be up by 06:00 to catch the first lock we were frustrated by a tanker, which was given priority for the whole lock.
From then on, however, it was a good passage north to St Peter Port with time for a drink in a British waterfront pub, followed by a good nosh at the Steak House and a nightcap at the yacht club.
On Friday we duly caught the Alderney Race and made good time to Cherbourg. An hour’s fuel stop was all we say of it ad then off by 18:30 for the night express sail to Brighton. Sail? Well not much, but the old engine did a good job and by 14:30 we were home. It was a memorable cruise – I hope I may be allowed to join Marabu on another.