My top destinations

by Julian

It is the end of the year and since we started out in 2012 we have covered 3000 miles in Carina. I have already reviewed when things go wrong, so for balance I thought I would highlight some of the best places we have been to. I have chosen one destination in each country we have visited, though there are many other fabulous places in all five countries.

Tresco – Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, England

TrescoCollageWe moored on either side of Tresco. In New Grimsby Sound on passage to Ireland and in Old Grimsby Sound on the way back. I’ve heard people be a bit sniffy about Tresco because the south end of the island is so well tended. But in fact this is one of the most stunning things about it. It is an island of two extremely different halves. Of course the views everywhere are incredible. When the sun is out the beaches have the feel of a south pacific island. The moorings are a bit pricey but it is possible to anchor. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there. See the blog posts: Hungry sailors in Tresco and Falmouth to the Isles of Scilly.

Muros – Ria de Muros, Galicia, Spain

MurosCollageThe town is absolutely lovely with its old narrow streets overlooking a nice bay. The marina is pricey, but probably the best I have ever stayed in, with the office, lounge and laundry all set in an old converted cottage. It has a great family feel about it. If you love fish Muros is certainly a top destination too and we were there for the fabulous Virgin del Carmen fiesta with its waterborne parade. Despite the comments in the pilot guide about anchoring difficulties plenty of yachts anchored in the bay with no major issues. However, our best time was away from the town, when we anchored off a beach around the corner. I could walk into Muros and we could swim or row to the beach to play for the afternoon. We even collected delicious mussels at low water, whilst some locals were picking the razor clams. See the blog posts: Ria de Muros – a little bit of heaven, Fiesta de Virgin del Carmen and Beach Interlude.

Culatra – Algarve, Portugal

CultraCollagePeople just anchor here and stay for the whole summer and I can see why. What a fantastic place. Away from the traffic children can run around in relative safety, they cannot go far because it is a small island. Many people just seem to hang around barbequing fish that have been collected by the fleet of small, often single person boats. There is also the community of catamarans in the lagoon, some of which are permanent inhabitants. Ferries to Olhao and Faro mean that you can get everything you might need, but it is fun to just stay on the island and meet the people, including sailors from all over Europe. See the blog posts: Have you heard the one about the Inuit family, Old cats and Arviat on the Algarve.

L’Aber Wrac’h – Brittany, France

LaberwracCollageI just love the many faces of L’Aber Wrac’h. You can moor upriver at Paluden, away from the bustling marina of La Palue, or hang out and meet the many interesting sailors (and rowers), from all over the world, passing through on their adventures. There are beautiful walks in the woods, the hills and along the beaches, with their cockle picking opportunities. Nice towns you can walk to (or catch the bus), and of course the chance to sample the delicious food of Brittany. But probably the most spectacular thing is the entrance itself with impressive granite rocks and a giant imposing lighthouse in the backdrop (Possibly the tallest in the world). It is a great staging post for an adventure. See the blog post: Brittany.

Derrynane – County Kerry, Ireland

filename-derrynane-harbourDerrynane has a tight entrance, only to be attempted in good weather, but once in you are safe at anchor, in a beautiful cove. If the weather turns bad you’ll have to stay there and wait it out though. The sort of place where you can swim from the boat to the beach, explore all around the fantastic dunes and rocks, finding a variety of interesting places to play and chill out. It has a great pub too. What more do you want? See the blog post: Dolphins divers and Derrynane.

Conclusion

Well that’s it for now, except to say that I would feel bad without at least a mention of some other places which could have made this list.

Falmouth, Fowey, Penzance, The Yealm and Mevagissey – England.

Horseshoe Harbour – Sherkin Island, Glandore, Crookhaven and Lawrence Cove – Bere Island – Ireland.

Camaret sur Mer – France.

Porto – Portugal.

Ria de Viveiro, La Coruña, Rianxo, Bayona (all of Galicia really) – Spain.

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3000 miles but not all plain sailing

by Julian

Over the last three years, we have sailed 3000 miles in Carina. Almost all of this has been just the four of us. It is the end of the year, so time for reflection and where better to start than with the things that went wrong.
JulianSailingWhen we set out, our open water sailing experience was about 1600 miles for me and 600 miles for Martina. But this is meaningless. Martina’s 600 miles were 50% as crew and 50% as a passenger. She had completed her RYA yachtmaster theory and her RYA dayskipper practical, but she wasn’t even close to sailing a boat independently. I had lots of experience sailing small boats inland, I had completed my RYA coastal skipper practical course but not attempted the exam, and I had skippered a yacht a couple of times but  always with someone more experienced on board. So we were bound to make some mistakes when we set out.

WHERE IT ALL WENT WRONG!

1. Don’t assume there isn’t a gas rig there

Our first major crossing to Ireland two years ago involved a black night with very thick fog. We were still many miles off the Irish coast when we started to hear a strange signal. What was it? I woke Martina and we both went up on deck. It wasn’t a ship. There was nothing marked on the paper chart and we were just about to check the electronic chart plotter when a voice came over the radio “This is the stand-off boat for the Head of Kinsale gas rig. Your present course will take you into a restricted area. Please alter course.” A quick zoom in on the chart plotter revealed that we were a mile away from the restricted area. We altered course and ten minutes later the thick fog lifted to reveal two giant gas rigs lit up like Christmas trees. In fact they reminded me of the flying saucer in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

2. My ‘Open Water 2 : Adrift’ moment

We had just put the sails on Carina for the first time and were out for our first ever sail when we anchored in a cove near Torquay. We were sitting happily in the cockpit when Lily decided to throw the winch handle overboard. I am a strong swimmer and have some experience as a diver. We were in a sheltered cove, near a beach and the water was about 5 metres deep. I reckoned I stood a chance of retrieving the winch handle, so I jumped in. The water was too murky to find it. I then realised that, unlike the charter yachts I’d been on previously, I couldn’t get back on board Carina! Of course at that time I hadn’t yet made my rope ladder and the dinghy was deflated and stowed on deck. After several attempts and great difficulty I eventually managed to pull myself on board with the help of a rope chucked over the side, but I know I looked pretty stupid.

3. Headlands on a lee shore

It took me two years of sailing Carina and three similar situations, for me to learn a valuable lesson about rounding headlands. If you are sailing close hauled, never assume the tack you are on will get you around a headland. First, the wind is blowing you onto shore. Second, no matter how insignificant the headland, there will often be a change in wind direction, usually strengthening as well, along with worsening sea conditions. Effectively sailing single handed in 2012, with Martina taking care of the kids (one reason why I probably hadn’t attempted to change tack), I was thankfully able to react before things got out of hand. Heart in mouth I usually don’t bother to tell anyone, I’m sure I’d only worry them. Now I know why my dad was never happy sailing like that!

4. Slipping the anchor

Twice this year we have slipped the anchor. The first time was near Truro, Cornwall, England. For various reasons, I didn’t have enough chain out. The wind got up and steadily built to a fierce onshore near gale. The bay shallowed gently and we were about to go aground. Martina tried to turn the engine on and the throttle didn’t work. We went aground. I quickly got into the dinghy and motored out to throw in an extra anchor upwind of Carina. The extra anchor held us and as the rising tide re-floated us I had time to look at the engine. Somehow the throttle cable had popped out of the new control lever we had only just had fitted by Dicky B Marine in Plymouth. This was only the second day of using it since it was fitted. Luckily it didn’t cost us our boat or our lives.

The second time was in Ria de Arousa, Spain. This time a less dangerous but equally strong offshore breeze got up, and the next thing I knew we were bumping up to a large buoy of one of the mussel rafts (the raft itself was thankfully on the beach). A little epoxy filler was needed and I pulled up the greenest stretch of anchor chain I have ever seen.

5. We’re not where we thought we were!

We had already successfully sailed through the Chenal du Four in Brittany once, so maybe I was a bit too casual on the return trip north last year. I completely misidentified a mark. We don’t have a chart plotter in the cockpit so it is necessary to pop down to the chart table to see the electronic chart. Thankfully things looked wrong enough that I did just that. We were out at sea but had I not altered course things could have been messy as rocks were not far from the surface. On another occasion I entered the Ria de Arousa through the wrong channel. Not that this wasn’t possible, given the relatively good conditions of the day, it was just not what I had planned. I could see the marks and they looked fine but the rocks looked awfully close together. I popped down and had a look at the plotter. We were fine but I was sure my passage plan of the morning didn’t look quite like this. It wasn’t until after the sail I realised what had happened.

6. When the wind blows

In 2013, my friend John joined us for a trip to France. He had been on boats before but had never done any sea sailing. Heading from Fowey to Roscoff the forecast gave west-southwest to southwesterly winds which would give us at least 50 degrees sailing off the wind. Force 4 to 5, occasional showers (some thundery) didn’t sound too bad. At 12 tonnes, Carina is a heavy boat for her 36ft, and she doesn’t have a large sail area. Nevertheless, given the crew and the night crossing, I put a reef in the mainsail and reefed in some of the headsail, reducing their area, and we travelled along a little slower than we could have done. Then I spotted the thunderstorm. I thought it would miss us but it didn’t. I should have reacted in precaution but I didn’t and the storm hit us relatively quickly. The next 30 minutes were accompanied by force 7 to 8 winds, with two gusts just tipping over to force 9. This was made even more spectacular by the continual lightning flashing all around, the earsplitting thunder and the violent horizontal hailstorm making it nearly impossible to see anything. Somehow we got through it without anything breaking (apart from the toilet seat). What a ride for a first time sailor! I can only say John proved himself to be a pretty tough cookie. He didn’t abandon us the moment we got to France and he proved very useful on the helm for someone with so little experience.

Conclusion

It’s not all plain sailing. However, incidents are getting fewer. I don’t sail close to lee shores unless I am coming into port and absolutely have to (generally the engine will be running even if still under sail). I check every inch of the passage on the most up to date detailed chart I possess and always work on the assumption that there is going to be something unexpected out there, I just don’t know about it yet. Starting out as relative amateurs we have sailed 3000 miles aboard Carina and, whilst neither of us are great sailors, we are getting a lot better. One thing for certain is that things do go wrong. We just have to work at reducing the risks and making sure we know how to deal with problems when they occur.

Crossing Biscay

We weighed up our options. We could spend the summer cruising around Brittany, and possibly even spend the winter far up a Breton river. Or we could cross the Bay of Biscay to northern Spain. For days we had north easterly winds, and the forecast was for more of the same, with fair weather and slight to moderate seas. We might not get sailing conditions like these again all summer.

biscayOn Tuesday we made the decision to cross Biscay. I shopped and prepared food for the journey, and Julian prepared the boat. At 11.30am on Wednesday morning we slipped from the pontoon at La Palue in Aber Wrac’h, northwest Brittany, for the long journey ahead. Ten minutes out from the port and we had all three sails out, following a course for 29 miles to Isle Ouessant, and then a south-western course which we stuck to for the next 300 miles.

For three days we sailed, the winds blowing us along at between five and six knots for much of the time. The hot sun shone down on us, but we were cooled by the north easterlies behind. On the evening of the first day we began our watch schedule. We planned four hour watches, but it didn’t work out that way. On the first night, I went to bed around 8pm, while Julian took the first watch at the helm. I slept poorly, and took over before my four hours were up. Julian slept equally badly, Carina’s rolling on the waves feeling much worse when lying down than when at the helm. He too took over before his four hours had passed and I was glad, as I was struggling to stay awake by that stage. We only managed three to four hours sleep per day, often catching our best sleep in the middle of the day. By the third day we were getting into a routine and sleeping much better.

On the first day out the girls were slightly queasy, but by the second day they were oblivious to the rolling motion, and happily played below deck, reading and drawing and doing things that Julian and I would have found impossible to do in those conditions. I had told them they needed to be self-sufficient, as Mummy and Daddy either needed to be at the helm or asleep for a lot of the time. We don’t have a wind vane, and given the wave and wind conditions, the helmsman had his/her hands on the wheel pretty much all the time. I had prepared a tin of snacks (healthy and otherwise) and a bag of fruit and told the girls that if they were hungry they should help themselves to food from that, rather than ask us. I feared they would gorge on the snacks in one go, but when we reached Spain there were still some left. They were left pretty much to their own devises for the trip, and they stood up to the challenge remarkably well – going to bed without help, playing well together (most of the time), and helping the helmsman out by fetching things or occasionally taking the wheel.

We ate well. I had made a large saucepan of basic tomato sauce which I divided into meal-sized portions. I had also soaked and cooked two varieties of beans. On the first evening, I added some beans to the sauce, flavoured it with chilli and we ate it with rice. On the second evening, I added chorizo to the sauce and we ate it with couscous. The third evening was a mix of sauce, beans and chorizo, with left-over couscous. Those evening meals were all warm and filling. We had three baguettes for the journey – one for each lunchtime, with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, Emmenthal and Camambert cheeses, cured sausages, eggs I had hard boiled in advance. Breakfast was the only tricky meal. As Julian and I were either catching up on sleep or at the helm when the girls wanted breakfast, I had to devise a way to feed them. In advance of them getting up I placed cereal and spoons in two mugs, and put two pain au chocolat beside them. The helmsman’s only job was to add milk to the cereal, and the girls had their breakfast ready in seconds.

It was a spectacular voyage. We had constant companions. On the first day, shortly after we passed Isle Ouessant, a pair of bottlenose dolphins came past. Not long after we saw the dorsal fins of what looked like two minke whales. And then the common dolphins joined us. Day and night they came, every hour or so, playing around the boat, riding our bow wave, leaping from the water, being magnificent. If Carina was moving fast through the water, the dolphins showed off their aerial acrobatics; if Carina moved slowly, the dolphins slowly swam along beside us, breathing slowly and loudly beside us. Below deck we could hear their constant squeaking, and I laughed out loud one evening as I stood in the galley preparing supper while looking out the window at the dolphins playing outside. Not a sight one often sees from one’s kitchen window! They were especially numerous at sunrise and sunset each day, and I recall one evening, as I stood alone at the helm, the other three asleep, the sun setting in the west, casting an orange glow over the boat, and dolphins leaping in the setting sun. It looked almost too perfect to be real.

On we went through Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. On Friday afternoon the weather changed, a front moved in, and the wind died. We were now making only two to three knots, but we didn’t mind. At this speed, we would reach our destination after dawn, rather than the less desirable middle of the night. As evening wore on, the girls and I were rained upon as we cheered on the dolphins. We listened to loud claps of thunder away to the east and were treated to a magnificent display of lightening. After the girls went to bed the electrical storm grew closer and when Julian appeared around midnight for his watch, we decided to turn on the engine. We were thirty miles from our destination, it was dark and we were tired, and we didn’t relish the prospect of having to reset sails if thundery squalls passed over us.

I slept then for two hours and when I awoke it was 2am. The electrical storm had passed over while I slept and now it was the darkest night I have ever seen. There was no wind, no stars in the sky, and I could see nothing beyond the end of the boat. I was relieved when, after twenty or so minutes at the helm, I saw the lights of a ship, as these gave me a sense of depth into the night. Four sets of lights in two hours (more vessels than we had seen during the rest of the journey) kept my mind focused and were a blessing in that blackness.

I was looking out for the light from two lighthouses, marking the entrance to Ria de Viveiro on the north west Spanish coast, and when they finally shone weakly through the cloudy night, I was thrilled. The end was in sight.

Except it wasn’t in sight for long. When the light to starboard disappeared I realised we were in fog. I called Julian. It was now 4.30am and we hoped that the first light would be in the sky at 5am. I stayed on helm and we both kept watch through the fog. I was dismayed when the light to port and then the moon also became shrouded in fog. We had no way of telling in the dark how dense the fog was, but it didn’t feel wet on our faces.

When the lights of the towns in Ria de Viveiro came into view we were ecstatic. The first grey light was appearing on the eastern horizon, and we could finally see that the fog wasn’t as bad as we’d thought. We slowly motored into the Ria, slowing down even more, to give the sky more time to grow light.

We reached the end of the Ria, and the end of our journey, at 6.50am on Saturday morning, when we dropped anchor 200 yards from a golden sandy Spanish beach. We were tired but exhilarated. At 7am Julian and I sat in the cockpit, sharing a bottle of wine, grinning at each other, delirious with tiredness but thrilled with what we had achieved.

Irish Abroad

Early on Monday morning, with the girls still sleeping, we motored down the river to La Palue to take on fuel and water, and to prepare for a longer passage, although we as yet hadn’t decided where. There was laundry to be done and showers to be had so, as soon as breakfast was over, I stepped onto the pontoon to go make use of the marina facilities. I immediately saw a boat arriving, flying an Irish flag.
‘Do ye want a hand with the ropes?’ I shouted, as I dropped the laundry and washing bags. It was then I realised I was being filmed by a cameraman standing in the bow, slightly in front of the man holding the bow line. I tied them on to a shout of ‘Good girl’, and off I went to have my shower.

IMG_20140617_144306Twenty minutes later as I returned to the boat, I looked out over the sea and, to my surprise, saw four men rowing a curragh into port, it too bearing an Irish flag. A curragh is a traditional Irish four-man row boat, made of wood covered in tarred canvas, and rowed using flat blade oars. The men from the Irish yacht were all standing on the pontoon, shouting directions to the rowers as to where best to land the curragh along the pontoon, while the cameraman and sound man recorded proceedings for RTE, the national Irish broadcaster.

For the next two days we got to know these men a little bit, and they got to know us. They had departed St. James Gate in Dublin in May, and were following the Camino de Santiago by curragh! Dublin, Ireland to Santiago de Compostella, Spain in the Naomh Gobnait. The voyage may take up to three summers to complete, but already this summer they have advanced farther than expected. An Seachrán is their support vessel, and everywhere they go the crew of both vessels bring traditional Irish music with them, and the hostelries of La Palue were treated to music and song as the crew waited for some fair weather and light winds to complete the next leg of their journey.

It was a real treat for us to meet them, and it reminded me of some other crazy places where I’ve met fellow Irish people. I’ve met the niece of my Nana’s parish priest in Japan, bumped into an old university friend in a pub on the Isle of Skye, hung out with an interesting Cork woman in Bangkok. The oddest such meeting was in 2003 in Arviat in the Canadian Arctic. One day someone told me that a couple of Irish men were staying at the B&B. So I wandered over to The Bayside and discovered that not only were they Irish, but they were from the same county as me – Kildare – and one of them was a postman who delivered the post to Mammy at her place of work. The two were brothers, and had travelled to Arviat to see the northern lights.

I knew at least one person in common with the crew of An Seachrán. I hail from a small island with a relatively small population, some of whom are crazy dreamers who do things like rowing to Spain, just because they can. It’s always fun to meet people from home. Who knows where we’ll next meet the Irish abroad!

Aber Wrac’h

Brittany is familiar and strange. Bilingual signposts, as well as place names, house names, and words in Breton remind me of home and of Scotland. I recognise certain words – ty, aber, and so on. Though spelled differently, I know their Gaelic counterparts. And only a short hop across the Channel from Cornwall, the landscape, the trees, and the rocks are reminiscent of the West Country. Culturally and geographically, we haven’t travelled far.

And yet we are, without doubt, in a different country. My schoolgirl French doesn’t get me far, but I’m picking up words and phrases every day – remembering those long forgotten, and learning new ones with the help of my trusty dictionary, and having to answer Lily’s constant question of ‘How do you say such-and-such in French?’.

DSCI3693It’s the little things that put a smile on my face. The commonplace architecture of houses and shops, the lilt of French women saying ‘Bonjour’ (I fear my ‘bonjour’ sounds gruff and masculine in comparison), the remarkable taste of coffee, the middle of the day closure of shops and businesses, an oyster shell midden outside a farmhouse.

DSCI3691We are moored up the Aber Wrac’h at the little port of Paluden. To call it a port is a generosity. A collection of mooring buoys – some for visitors (of which we appear to be the only ones) and others for local fishermen – lead to the small slipway and jetty. These bring the visitor onto a quiet country road, that leads to a somewhat larger road, that leads to the town of Lannilis.

I sat in the square in Lannilis late last week, drinking coffee and feeling incongruous in my shorts, t-shirt, trainers and baseball cap, amidst the elegant French women lunching at the tables around me. Still, the waitress was friendly and patient with my first hesitant attempts to speak her language.

Later, I sat in the cool of the church and was carried back to my first ever visit to France, twenty-four years ago when, as a sixteen-year old, I spent a few weeks working as an au pair for a family near Perigeaux. Being a good Catholic girl back then I insisted, much to the family’s amusement, on being driven to Mass in the nearest town every Sunday. The wicker-seated chairs in the church in Lannilis brought me back to that time, and I had to smile when I thought about that holier-than-thou sixteen-year old and wondered how appalled she’d be by her older self!

The colours are breath-taking. The blue of the sky, the green of the tree-lined river banks, the white-gold beaches and the azure sea. There is no half-heartedness in the colours of nature here. Everything demands to be looked at and held in awe. And the birds fill the summer air with their song. There are songs I recognise and others that stop me in my tracks for their strangeness to my ears.

The girls and I have been swimming in the deliciously warm waters at the beaches at La Palue. Swimming in the sea is one of my greatest summer pleasures, but it is a delightful change to slip into the water without a moment’s hesitation or a psychological preparation for the cold. A dip in the sea off the Irish or English coast requires mental resolve; here in Brittany the early summer sea is like a warm bath.

And after the swim? Well, there’s wine to drink, baguettes and cheese to eat, as we plan our next move. At the end of each day, suntanned and heady on fresh air, we find it hard to stay awake past sunset.

River Life

Life on the river moves at a different pace. We’re in the middle of the river, moored fore and aft, using our dinghy to get to shore. Our 60 gallon water tank can supply us with fresh water for three weeks if we are frugal. Our solar panel keeps the domestic batteries topped up to power our cabin lights, and recharge phones and laptop. We have enough cooking gas on board to last a couple of months. We’re self-contained for the time being. We don’t run the fridge when we are at anchor or mooring, as it requires too much energy. And so we adjust our lives so our demands on resources are less and we eat foods that require little or no refrigeration.

Rather than limiting our lives, these resource restrictions provide us with a greater appreciation of how little we actually need to get by each day. Every couple of days we buy fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products and combine these with our large stocks of rice, pasta, dried pulses and tinned foods. I bake bread every other day, and we forage for greens and shell fish on the sea shore. We eat very well. This evening I made an improvised risotto, from Japanese rice, fresh onions, garlic and green beans, fresh and dried mushrooms, and parmesan. I served it with foraged sea beet and rock samphire lightly cooked in butter, safflower and lime. It was delicious!

Lily and Julian searching for shellfish.

Lily and Julian searching for shellfish.

Each day, we’ve been eating breakfast and dinner on board, under the warm sun at our table in the cockpit, and taking a picnic lunch on our explorations during the day. We can’t afford to enjoy the fine foods and wines at the local restaurants and bistros that dot every town and village. Instead, we buy fresh local produce from boulangeries, charcouteries, and supermarkets, as well as the occasional bottle of cheap but tasty French wine.

For us, life on the river is about long walks, watching the herons on the riverbank, taking the dinghy to a beach at the river mouth, or to a nearby town to explore the town square and practice our French while we buy food and try to learn about the locality.

A walk in the woods

A walk in the woods

We are out of doors almost from the moment we wake up to when we go to bed. We are bathed in fresh air and sunshine, and we bathe in the river and the sea. Our needs are few, and we are more than satisfied with what we have.

Sunset and moonrise; moonset and sunrise

When we looked at the weather forecast on Wednesday we decided to go for it. We’d been hanging around the river between Falmouth and Truro for a week and there was no sign of the southerly winds abating. We’d had a lovely time – multiple visits to the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, two wonderful days in Truro, and a day exploring the parkland at Trelissick House. But we hadn’t set sail from Plymouth to wile away our summer in mid-Cornwall, no matter how beautiful it is.

Throughout Wednesday we made our preparations and at 5.16pm we slipped our lines and were on our way. I made supper while Julian helmed us out of the river towards open water, and with a dinner of spaghetti bolognaise inside us we were properly on our way.

It was a delightful, pleasant and uneventful crossing. Being almost mid-summer, Julian and the girls were fast asleep long before sunset, while I took the first watch. The almost full moon rose bright to the south-east, as the sun set towards the north-west. With the moon so bright, only the two or three brightest stars shone in the sky, as it never got truly dark.

Moon set

Moon set

We sailed for a while, but when the wind died completely we found ourselves bobbing around going nowhere, and we were forced to motor. Even then, the apparent wind read only two or three knots. I cruised along, feasting on Pringles and Jaffa Cakes and was much relieved to see Julian’s face appear in the companionway shortly after midnight.

I got three hours sleep and was up again at 3.15am and Julian returned to bed. A big mug of strong tea, a toasted buttered cinnamon and raisin bagel, and I was geared up for the next few hours.

In the three hours I had been asleep, the moon had slowly passed over to the south-west and the first glimmer of pinky-purple light was beginning to appear on the horizon to the north-east. Over the next couple of hours, the sky gradually got lighter, the moon set to the west and the sun rose gloriously at 5.13am.

The eastern sky just before sunrise

The eastern sky just before sunrise

As soon as the sun rose the seagulls returned, swooping low and gliding over the sea. When Julian awoke at 6.15am, I was more than ready for sleep. I crawled into bed and slept deeply until Lily woke me at 9.40am to tell me she could see France!!

And there it was, the shimmering white sands of northwest Brittany shining under the bright blue sky. Within an hour we were at the leading line for L’Aber Wrac’h, and gently motored up the river, past La Palue and as far up the river as Carina could go, to Paluden. There we picked up a mooring buoy and I promptly fell asleep in the cockpit, the sun warming me and my sunhat over my face for protection.

We’ve stayed up the river for the past two nights, and like it so much, we might stay a little longer. It is quiet and peaceful, the riverbank lush with foliage, and oyster beds exposed at low water. We’ve been basking in the sunshine, finding it hard to believe that we can be comfortably warm in shorts and t-shirts at all times of the day. We’ve gone exploring in the dinghy. Yesterday, Julian and the girls walked along a woodland path to La Palue for crepes with Nutella, and I walked to Lannili to explore. Today, we’ve taken the dinghy to La Palue. Julian and the girls are on the beach right now, and I’m going to join then in a few minutes. Life is sweet!!

The girls making their Father's Day cards and present yesterday evening.

The girls making their Father’s Day cards and present yesterday evening.

In love with the night

There was a time when I feared night sailing. That was before I had done it on my own. I had had a couple of short experiences of sailing in the dark, both times in the company of other, far more experienced, sailors. On my first Channel crossing, in 2005, with Julian, his dad and uncle, I remember reaching Cherbourg after dark, the lights on the harbour wall impossible to pick out from the street and traffic lights in the town behind, at least to my untrained eye.

When we bought Carina and dreamt of sailing long distances, always at the back of my mind was a nagging worry about the probability of having to helm on my own in the dark, while Julian slept. What did I fear? The dark itself, for the most part. That which I couldn’t see. The supernatural, alien lights in the sky…in other words, my own wild imagination.

But those worries never came to fruitition. The first time I helmed alone, in summer 2012, as we sailed from the Isles of Scilly to Ireland, I discovered I loved the dark, the solitude, the vastness of the starry sky. There at the helm, my family sleeping peacefully below, I at first tried to fill the dark with song. I sang song after song, not wanting to hear the silence, until Lily shouted up from the starboard saloon berth where she slept that night, telling me ‘Be quiet Mummy’. So I stopped and relaxed into the sounds of the night – the wind, the waves against Carina’s hull, the sails.

The things that frightened me were very much of this world. I lacked confidence in my ability to gauge the distances or courses of other vessels. The first few times we sailed at night, I called Julian from his slumber with annoying regularity, not trusting myself to make a decision to stay on course, or change course to avoid a collision.

This summer, something clicked. I don’t quite know what, but suddenly I found myself able to read the movement of other vessels by their lights and their movement relative to Carina. I’ve known how to do this in theory for years, but only this summer did I find the confidence to read these lights. And as a result, I experienced one of the most wonderful sails of my entire short sailing career, when we crossed from L’Aber W’rach to Falmouth in late August this year. Here’s an excerpt from my travel journal:

At 1am I took the helm and Julian went to sleep. I spent the next five hours alone on one of the most enjoyable sails of my life.

We were headed due north and at 1am the moon was due south, dead astern. At first it was behind a cloud, but when it came out, huge and bright and luminescent, it lit up the boat like a spot light. I turned suddenly, sure that a large commercial vessel had somehow managed to sneak up on me, so bright was the light. I could even read the unlit electronics display by its light. All night long, as the moon edged across the sky behind me, from south to south-west, it moved in and out of clouds, the occasional darkness of cloud cover giving way to sudden and brilliant light.

A meteor caught my eye, in the sky to the north-east. It streaked across the sky, falling down and down, and then exploded in a flash of white light, brighter and bigger and more magnificent than any shooting star I have ever seen.

There were other vessels, plenty of them. Lights white and red and green, moving along on either side of me and in front of me. West to east first, making passages into the English Channel, and later east to west.  It felt like a game, as I watched for the movement of lights along Carina’s guardrails. I was immensely pleased that Julian could finally sleep through my watch, undisturbed by my worried queries.

Carina raced along at 6.5 to 7.5 knots, barely leaning. At 4.30am, Julian popped his head up the companionway and asked how I was doing. I told him I was doing wonderfully and wanted to keep going until I saw the dawn. He went back to bed and still I enjoyed this magnificent sail, waiting for the first light to appear in the sky.

By 5.45am I had grown tired, and I had already seen the first light in the sky to the north-east. I called Julian and asked him to ready himself to take the helm at 6am. I crawled into bed beside Katie, and slept soundly until 8.30am. Not a long sleep, but a deep and satisfied one.

A storm

Our wonderful summer of sailing is now a dim and distant memory. Without my laptop and with only limited access to public computers in France, I was generally unable to keep my blog up to date during the summer. In the past week some followers have been in touch, wondering if my family and Carina are keeping well, and encouraging me to carry on writing. Oh, how I have longed to write. But time has conspired against me. I’ve taken on a new job in the Geography department at Exeter University and preparing for the start of term has been a akin to competing in back-to-back triathlons for three weeks. (Please don’t scoff, my triathlon friends!).

Ominous skies

Ominous skies

But here I am, delving into my travel journal to bring you new stories from our summer in France.

Lily and John

Lily and John

We departed Fowey, on the Cornish coast on the 2nd of August. Our destination was Roscoff, on the north coast of Brittany, and the weather forecast ‘promised’ force 3-4 winds, occasionally gusting to force 5. We spent the day preparing for our departure, our friend John fishing with the girls off the pontoon, while Julian and I got on with preparing food, running engine checks, and all the myriad little jobs that must be attended to before a long voyage. At 6pm we set out.

The water was a touch choppy as we exited Fowey, but we thought it would soon pass. I served up a potato gratin, and as we ate we began to hear thunder in the west and see flashes of lightning in the distance.

The girls were restless. They wanted to be below deck and then in the cockpit. They wanted to go to bed, and they wanted to stay up. Between serving up dinner and dealing with restless children, I began to feel seasick.

When the storm hit, the girls were in the saloon, and their behaviour changed completely. They sat calmly together, seeming to enjoy the crazy motion of the boat, and perhaps enjoying looking at the range of emotions passing across my face, as I sat in the cockpit.

The clouds grew darker to the west and the thunder grew louder, with intervals between thunder and lightning getting shorter and shorter. With Julian on the helm and John and I sitting in the cockpit, Carina was blasted by wind gusting sometimes to force 8, and sheets of rain pouring down on us. The rain turned to hail, hitting Julian in the face as he grimly tried to hold Carina.

John and I sat under the spray hood, but nonetheless got soaked. Carina was leaning hard to port, creating a pool of water that sloshed under John’s bottom and legs with each side-on wave we sailed over. I got wet from the sheer volumes of rain passing over the boat and from the waves that crashed over us. The waves pounded the boat, growing bigger as the storm passed over. The Cornish coast, moments earlier clearly visible behind us, had now disappeared into the mist and all around us was cloud and rain, thunder roaring like the gods driving tractors across the sky.

My heart pounded with fear, and the adrenelin of battling the storm put paid to my seasickness, and my nausea and headache vanished.

And then we were in the eye of the storm. The rain continued unabated, but the wind died to nothing and the sea was eerily calm. We knew it wouldn’t last. In no time we were into the other side of the storm, the waves crashing, the wind gusting, Julian akin to Ahab, rain pouring down his beard, a look of grim determination on his face. Only the girls seemed immune to it all, laughing and talking as though they enduring such conditions every day of the week.

But soon we could see the sky clearing to the west and as the wind and rain eased, the Cornish coast once again appeared behind us, and we watched the storm roll away to the east. And before long, it had passed over us, the bright skies to starboard in sharp contrast to the forbidding black to port.

Us three adults were cold and wet, and took turns going below to change into dry, warm clothes. But that was the end of the stormy weather. I saw one more flash of lightning at about 3am, when I was at the helm, but with the exception of hard leaning all the way to France, the rest of the twenty-two hour sail passed (generally) without incident.

John certainly received a sailing baptism of fire!

Brittany

DSCI0274 Our friend John joined us on Wednesday morning, and on Thursday we set sail for Fowey. With calm seas we had time to get in a spot of fishing on the seven hour sail, and caught eight mackerel for supper. Lily, Katie and I spent the next morning playing on the beach, and at 5pm we set sail for France. It was a memorable trip, which began with a huge thunder storm, and the winds kept us on our toes for the entire 22 hours of hard leaning to port. The girls were great, sleeping through the night and enjoying the storm.DSCI0314

We arrived in Roscoff tired but very happy with our accomplishment. We spent two nights in Roscoff, enjoying good food and wine, and catching up on lost sleep. We departed Roscoff yesterday for L’Aber Wrac’h farther to the west. It was a slow trip, battling wind and tide, and we didn’t reach our destination until after dark.DSCI0332

We’ve had a lovely day today, wandering along country lanes, swimming in the sea, and searching  for cockles at low tide. If my writing seems stilted then this French key board I am using is to blame. The is so much I wanted to write, but it has taken me half an hour to get this far, with half the letters in the wrong place for me. I’ll leave you with some photos….

DSCI0342Cockle pickers near Landera this afternoon.DSCI0344

 

 

 

 

 

Julian amidst the cockle pickers.DSCI0347

 

 

 

 

 

Julian and the girls searching for cockles.DSCI0351

 

 

 

Katie, Lily and Uncle Cockney having some thinking time on the beach.