Friday, 26 April 2013

Gironde to Brittany

It was a busy week or so we had before the wrench of leaving our good friends in Mortagne. The fine weather was very welcome from a boat prep standpoint and the work was enjoyable, though the shadow of imminent departure after an enjoyable 8 months (!) hung over us the while.

The unexpected job: rebuilding the mainsheet cleat
Zoroette, the Chat, must have had a bit of a shock the next time she came along the pontoon to look for us...

The final sleepover
On the Sunday, we took Fettler out into the estuaire for a couple of hours, as a mini shake-down, just to see that all was well. The last night was spent outside the lock for easier departure and to gradually tear ourselves away a bit. The soft mud situation was very reminiscent of conditions in our home port of Granton. What we could see of the hull revealed surprisingly little fouling.

Granton-style berthing on the eve of departure
The next stage of easing ourselves back into sea-going mode was a very pleasant sail down the estuaire, where we anchored very near the same spot occupied on arrival last year. After a slightly rolly night there we hauled up the anchor and got under way at 0530 to catch the ebb out of the Gironde and out to sea.

The mouth of the Gironde can be perilous as it is rather shallow and very subject to the Atlantic swell rolling into Biscay. Any swell will break on the ebb tide and on the shoals (one aptly named 'la Mauvaise') to either side of the channel and so, even on a rather peaceful Biscay morning we found the conditions surprisingly violent on the way out. It wasn't until we were well clear of the entrance and in depths approaching 25m that conditions settled down to something more comfortable. Only a precautionary anti-seasickness pill swallowed the night before allowed us to keep our breakfast, I'm certain. That was when we discovered that the old Stowe tiller pilot had peacefully expired over the winter, meaning that all steering while under power now has to be done by hand.

There was precious little wind and the day was mainly motor sailing, but there was plenty of wildlife about. A distant sighting of dolphins hunting, the usual range of sea birds (gannets, guillemots, terns, etc.) and a close encounter with a basking shark. The top slider on the mainsail was found to be broken, but was easily replaced under way. There was no traffic once we left the Gironde behind. No big ships, no yachts. The land is low and soon lost to sight. It was like an offshore passage.

In the evening a surprise visitor arrived in the form of this tiny warbler (possibly a chiffchaff):

Flying visitor, rest in peace
He was obviously very tired and a long way offshore but we couldn't come up with anything that he would take to eat or drink. He was absolutely fearless and perched on our hands, shoulders and most everywhere else on the boat. We really hoped to be able to return him to land and he slept below in a corner by the companionway. To our sorrow, he died just before dawn and just before we reached harbour on the Ile d'Yeu. I suppose a bird that size has very limited reserves and he must have been right on the edge of survival when he spotted our vessel and came aboard. At least he spent his last hours warm and dry rather than just plunging into the sea as he otherwise certainly must have. I committed his still warm wee body to the deep just off the Ile d'Yeu.

Back a step. The very slight breeze we were motor sailing into started to veer at around 8 or 9 in the evening, heading us directly towards les Sables d'Olonne, a huge maritime centre and the starting place of the Vendee Globe race. The temptation was definitely there to pull in for the night and catch up on some sleep, though we wouldn't reach it until around midnight. Sonja in particular was pretty exhausted and was pushing hard for the stop, so I agreed and we took a good look at the pilotage for entry to the port.

The very tired Sonja went below to grab some rest when we were about an hour and a half from the entrance and was soon fast asleep. I looked at the bright lights ahead and the bright moon behind, thought about it, and put the helm down, heading back out to sea and towards the Ile d'Yeu. It was a beautiful night, clear and with a rising breeze that promised some good sailing ahead and a deep feeling of happiness settled over me. I knew Sonja was well out of it when she didn't even notice me raising the sails again.

An hour and a half later, at midnight, I noticed Sonja stirring down below and watched with a smile as she looked at the chart and tried to figure out what the heck was going on. Once she realised, she went straight back to bed and I let her sleep on another half hour. At that point I really needed some kip myself and roused the crew, who took over for an hour, which was enough to get me through the night while the needier member slept on and revived in time for the approach to Yeu.

We'd hoped to anchor off, but there was way too much swell working into the anchorage, so we decided to treat ourselves to a night in the harbour of Joinville. Having arrived at 0630, we really got our money's worth. The harbour is outrageously busy in the summer season, but this time of year there was plenty of space and it was less expensive too. We really enjoyed our stay.

Yeu in bloom
Le vieux chateau, Ile d'Yeu, inspiration for:
Kiltoch Castle, in Tintin and the Black Isle!
Dramatic south coast of the Ile d'Yeu
Port La Meule
Cleansing ales at Port La Meule
Nice library in St Sauveur
The other nice thing that happened in Port Joinville was that we encountered the first British cruising boat we've seen since Santander and got together with Robert and Hazel for a good chat and a couple of glasses of vino in the evening. Oddly enough, they'd had a chiffchaff on board the day before as well. Theirs had flown off while still at sea so it's not known whether that one made it.

The forecast was for strong northerly winds on Thursday night into Friday, forcing us to move on and get tucked in somewhere cheaper and well sheltered, so we took a tip from Robert and Hazel, who know the area well, being based here year round, and headed for La Turballe, 40 miles away on the Breton mainland. Next stop from here should be the Gulf of Morbihan, where we plan to spend some time exploring and where there are plenty of secure anchorages to wait out the unsettled weather.

On the beach at La Turballe
La Turballe in the evening sunshine

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