Reefing down for the summer

Sam Fortescue's thoughts turn to summer cruising grounds

It’s been a surprisingly summery start to the sailing year, at least here on the south coast. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, although the photos from readers of the magazine I edit, Sailing Today, suggest temperatures have already broken almost all records in the far northwest of Scotland.

Sadly, my Sadler 34 has only just gone back onto her mooring, so I haven’t reaped the sailing benefits of the fine weather (although it has helped the sealant under the new hatch to bed down very nicely). But the unseasonal glow has got me thinking about summer holidays instead. Last year we made an early sortie to the breathtaking coast around Ullapool, courtesy of a charter boat from Badachro. And, though it’s hard to find enough superlatives for this cruising ground, I’m plotting a dash south this year.

There’s something about the jagged, kelp-festooned reefs of north Brittany which appeal to my soul. With the help of Ken Endean’s excellent Channel Havens guide, I feel emboldened to poke into all sorts of unlikely anchorages. A few years back we had a whale of a time among the eastern reefs of the Ile de Brehat. It’s fascinating pilotage: you creep in halfway up a rising tide, nosing over masses of rock that were well proud of the water just a few hours beforehand, and anchor up in a broad body of water.

To one side are stacks that shrill to the cries of herring gulls; to the other, the wild promontories of the island itself. I checked and checked again my calculations to make sure that there was really enough water hereabouts, then we settled down to wait for the tide to fall. At low water, the landscape is unrecognisable. The broad anchorage has shrunk to a puddle barely 100 yards across, bordered on all sides by sooty-black granite and towers of rock crowned with nesting birds and hung all about with bladderwrack tower overhead.

Now the gulls really are furious – made more vulnerable by the retreating tide. They wheel and swoop and, as I learned, dive bomb incautious mariners who stray too close in the tender. In a blow, this would be no place to stay, but for a couple of quiet days, it makes a magical, lonely anchorage, and the terrestrial delights of Brehat, with its fish soups and cidre bouché, are ours to explore.

Further east, on the border between Brittany and Normandy, there’s another similar treat in the form of France’s only “Channel Island”. The Iles Chausey, which appear nothing more than a hundred scattered boulders at high water, are transformed into a dripping, moonscape at low water, the rocks just the tips of great crags which are all linked by vast expanses of glistening sand, usually covered by the tide. Boats sink in their shrinking pools of brine until just the masthead is visible from one pool to the next.

This is when the locals emerge with little rakes and buckets to dig up reluctant shellfish; creatures with weird and wonderful names in French, but generally described as ‘clams’ by us Anglosaxons. This “peche a pied” doesn’t really exist at home. But it is practically France’s national sport, with children trained from an early age to discern the difference between a praire (strong concentric marks on the shell) and palourde (shell marked with lines radiating from the hinge).

Now, if our charter last summer was anything to go by, Scottish seafood is the equal of anything in the world (although I am partial to a conch fritter). But though I’m eager to explore Scottish waters again, I won’t manage the 600-mile passage north from Poole this year. So I think I’ll have to content myself with scuttling across the Channel to visit our Gallic neighbours.

Sam Fortescue, Editor Sailing Today