Sam Fortescue cruises to Brittany

Wind, tide and mechanical woes mean compromise for Sam Fortescue on a cruise to Brittany.

In the week before we set sail, regular weather checks brought almost hourly reversals of triumph and despair. One moment was forecasting 36 hours of northwesterlies – perfect for the passage from Poole to l’Aber W’rach in north Brittany. The next minute windguru was predicting a southwesterly backing all around the compass. What was certain was the tides: some of the highest springs of the year.

Sometimes with a longer passage plan, it feels as if there are too many variables to factor in – there’s no line of best fit and whatever you come up with, it’s going to be a compromise. By Friday evening, as we pored over charts in the yacht club bar, it was fairly clear this was just such an occasion. We could either abandon plans to reach south Brittany over the next five days, and take our time to reach, say, Paimpol. Or we could sign up for a two or three day passage slowed by the strength of the tides mid-Channel, and possibly involving quite a lot of motor-sailing.

With the beaches and river anchorages of south Brittany beckoning, I opted for the latter course. We started well, close to dawn on the Saturday, beating SSW into a foul tide. In time, I said to myself, the tide would turn and we’d start to make real westing. I also wanted to make some southern progress before the forecast southerlies blew in.

It was one of those scintillating August days – not really baking, but warm and clear and sparkling. Progress was less pleasing, however. By 7pm we were just west of Alderney, fighting into the tide again. The Casquets were a little too close for comfort, and the lights of ships ploughing up and down the traffic separation scheme twinkled like the M3 on a Friday evening. With a sigh, we fired up the engine and motored due west towards clearer waters.

Our contemplation of a resplendent sunset was interrupted by the jarring shriek of an alarm. But what alarm? For some seconds, I looked wildly round the saloon and galley, trying to find the culprit. Then I spotted the warning light on the engine control panel. When we’d replaced the 30-year old Volvo 2003 engine the season before, it was the last I’d expected to hear of overheating alarms.

With the engine off and no wind, the lights of Alderney grew larger by the minute. I quickly found the problem – fine seaweed blocking the raw water intake thanks to rather too long on the mooring in Poole Harbour. But I didn’t want to refill the fresh water header tank until the engine had cooled off a bit. We were soon close enough to Braye to get mobile reception.

We sailed and motor-sailed through the night – now heading west, now southwest as the backing wind allowed. By dawn on Sunday we were west of Guernsey, but not so far west we couldn’t make out its silhouette on the horizon. A solitary garfish snagged itself on our trailing feathers, then an underweight mackerel, then a bigger one. Suddenly there was the makings of a lunch writhing in the bucket.

I’d promised the crew (my nephew and brother-in-law) a slap-up shellfish supper in l’Aber W’rach’s excellent l’Ecailler on the edge of the port. As the afternoon slipped by, swimming and motoring southwestwards, it became clear that we weren’t going to arrive much before midnight. The mental pictures of marine bounty piled high on platters of seaweed drained away, like the colour from the sky as the sun set.

When I came on watch at 2am, we were a tantalising 25 miles from our destination. The southerly was mustering its strength and the tide was turning up-Channel again. As we reefed down and the tide took hold, our effective tacking angle broadened out like divider legs, until we were just reaching up and down two miles off the Libenter buoy that marks the entrance to the rock-strewn estuary entrance.

With a heavy heart, and fearing further mechanical delinquency, I fired up the engine and we inched in to the mark. The final turn southeast brought us in through jagged reefs in the light of a drizzly dawn. We moored to the outside of a heaving pontoon and collapsed into a deep sleep.

Before half my crew jumped ship we had just time for the promised lunch and by the next morning, all memories of the slog were banished as we turned the bow south into the Chenal du Four. The wind followed us on the nose all the way round to Concarneau, but we did meet my tight five-day deadline. And as they say, the sun always shines in south Brittany.

Sam Fortescue, Editor Sailing Today