Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Out of Biscay

Quay flowers, Chateaulin

Chateaulin lived up to our first impression of friendliness. Quite a few people paused to chat with us on their way along the waterside and the nice lady at the Town Hall waived the very modest berthing fee because the key we were given for the toilets didn't work, though the one for the showers was fine. We were very pleased to find a Lidl just up the hill where we could stock up some essentials and a crepe stall at the market where we could chomp our favourite galette complete (cheese, ham and egg).

A very interesting and friendly chap, Didier, who had spoken to us a couple of times in passing, invited us to his flat for a glass of vino and a chat. He's Breton, a cabinet maker and sailor, 54 years of age and a widower of 3 years. Children grown and moved away. It was his name day, St. Didier's, and he was delighted to welcome us into his home. When we mentioned that we found the townspeople friendly, he demurred slightly, and it's a point worth making that the French seem to be generally quite reserved. Super polite, normally forthcoming with a smile and a greeting and a few words in passing, but then very slow to move on to the next stage of developing a friendship. So it happens that a decent, charming and skilled person like Didier, living in this over-populated world of ours, can be lonely. We were more than happy to spend some time with him and help him celebrate his name day.

Chateaulin also provided free wifi, and intensive examination of the GRIB files seemed to show a window for progress to the north opening up in about 3 day's time, but first some nastiness had to blow through, as usual. We decided to take the afternoon ebb down the river and spend another couple of nights at the super sheltered anchorage there, placing ourselves in a good position to catch the tide right for our sail out of the Rade de Brest and make the connexion into the Chenal de Four. All very intricate and interconnected.

Cute Aulne-side cottage
The run down the river wasn't nearly as relaxed an affair as the upbound journey had been. A fairly stiff northerly breeze was blowing and funnelling right up the river valley, around bends and all. We had the current on our side, but the wind blowing against it raised quite an impressive chop on the longer straights, having us ducking the flying spray blown aft from the bow and feeling the cold. The issue was not in doubt, however, and we made it down to the anchorage in good time.

Full moon, big tides
The next evening we were mildly surprised to see another British boat coming up the river. They went on by, but soon came back, clearly searching for a spot to drop the hook. It was near high water and the tiny nook we were tucked into was looking deceptively large, enticing them in for a look. I hailed them and explained that there simply wasn't space for two boats to squeeze in at low water, pointing out a couple of good alternative spots within about 200 metres. They were determined though, and eventually insinuated themselves right over at the northern horn of the wee bay. Of course, they later had to re-anchor twice as the water disappeared, evenually ending up out near mid-stream, but no matter.

We invited them aboard for refreshments and had a good chat before they headed ashore to try the restaurant (the one building visible nearby). Possibly it wasn't open, because they were soon spotted returning to their vessel. Unfortunately they were soon joined by a French Customs launch and we knew the chances were pretty slim that we wouldn't be next. The Customs lads spent a long time aboard our neighbours' boat and we wondered how thorough a going over we were going to get. We'd heard one or two horror stories about French Customs and, with the boat pretty well stuffed full of gear, a deep search could be a messy business.

In due course, the Customs RIB came alongside. Their craft was almost bigger than Fettler and three of the four burly chaps on board stepped down onto our deck, after receiving permission to do so. They were affable and seemed pleasantly surprised to be addressed in French - a good start. Passports and boat documents out of the way, they asked us about our trip. Seemingly we were flagged up on their computer as we had been in the Azores recently - a classic drug-smuggling route into Europe.

I could see the eldest of the team signalling to the boss with a shake of the head: He'd clearly decided we were clean. Boss wanted to be a bit more thorough though, so Senior went down below and had a chat with Sonja (half heartedly looking under a sail bag or two when prompted by the boss), while Boss himself peered into the cockpit lockers. It was all over within a quarter of an hour, with obvious goodwill on both sides. Senior was heard to say to Boss (in French), "They are what the English call 'cute'."

Early departure, former neighbours visible at the anchorage
We got going at first light the next morning and had a tremendous sail out of the Rade. The plan was to anchor in the Anse de Berthaume, more or less opposite Camaret, but the going was so good and the timing so spot on to catch the flood through the Chenal de Four, that we decided to continue.

Deep in the Rade
All was well rounding the corner at St Mathieu and tacking our way up into the Chenal, right on low water. As the tide started to turn in our favour, however, the sea state underwent a remarkable transformation. Suddenly there were large whitecaps all around and the going was becoming distinctly rough. We could have bashed on, but it wouldn't have been much fun and we knew the forecast for the following day would bring much more pleasant conditions. Besides, the fishing harbour of Le Conquet was only a mile and a half away, so we ran off downwind to reach it.

This was only half an hour after low water, but already there were 3-4 knots of current running against us, making a long haul of that mile and a half to Conquet. Once inside, everything was suddenly calm, sunny and warm. We worked our way in amongst the crowd of big fishing boats, looking for an unoccupied mooring, finally settling on one right back in the inside corner by the bottom of the slip. A shouted query to a crab fisherman sorting his catch on shore (aided by his wee boy, identically kitted out in yellow oilskin trousers and blue jersey) confirmed that we could stay where we were without putting anybody out. No charge either.

Full spectrum of fishing boats at Le Conquet
In the almanac the shelter at Conquet is described as being 'good, except in strong westerlies'. I would add that any westerly swell will work its way into the harbour around high water. We were quite comfortable in there, except for a couple of hours either side of high water, when things got rather rolly. Fortunately the timing worked out so that it was calm during the night.

It was a civilised noon start to catch the tide up through the Chenal, this time motoring into a very light northerly breeze (forecast westerly), giving us a mostly smooth passage to Aber Benoit. Even under those benign conditions, the spring tidal current produced some impressive effects with rips, races and eddies here and there along the way.

Rather rocky around the Four
Glad the current was going our way
Aber Benoit was made to sound very attractive in 'Secret Anchorages of Brittany', described as being the smaller, unspoilt, often overlooked neighbour to Aber Wrac'h, so of course we couldn't resist. Clearly things have changed since that book was published in 2005. Probably a thousand moorings have been laid, eliminating any space for anchoring. Some hundreds of holiday homes have also popped up on the banks, mostly shuttered up at this time of year, giving the place a very suburban air. Reed's (2011) mentioned free visitor moorings, now nowhere to be found. We grabbed an empty mooring (amongst many), which we were subsequently ousted from. There was incessant small boat traffic zooming past and throwing heavy wash during daylight hours, but we had a peaceful night.

Not as nice as it looks in this photo: Aber Benoit
In the morning, a girlie appeared on a launch who, though friendly, told us that if we wanted to stay on the mooring it would be €12/night. No facilities. That was the final straw. With bad weather on the way, we really didn't want to be stuck in there for anything up to a week, so we politely thanked her and declined, heading instead for Aber Wrac'h.

Aber Wrac'h
It was a boisterous 6-mile passage, during which we considered and rejected the possibility of pushing on for Morlaix. Rising seas, 3 knots of current running against us and a wicked looking cloud bank approaching from the northwest combined to put us off the idea. We were very pleasantly surprised to find just how nice it is inside Aber Wrac'h. It turns out that Wrac'h is actually the quieter, more unspoilt Aber.  We bypassed the marina and the expensive, exposed visitor moorings at the port in favour of the very sheltered, peaceful, fore-and-aft trots at Paluden. The everlasting strong northerlies and huge swell continue outside, so we might be here some time.

On the trot at Paluden 
We're getting back into the big tides: 7m

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