Friday, 27 April 2012

It Shouldn’t Happen To a Sailor (5)

Sailing, Mooring and Making a Big Splash At Plouer Sur Rance

It’s Friday evening and I have made a pact with myself. This weekend, hell or high water, I will consider all the options, wood, steel, GRP, gunter, gaff or lugger, sloop or ketch, fin keel or dagger board, inboard or outboard – AND I’ll compile a list of boats which seem to fit my criteria. Next week I’ll start a serious search for the ‘low cost cruiser’.

In the meantime, here is another true tale of misadventure – it really shouldn’t happen to a sailor!

The beautiful French port of St Malo, city of corsairs, lies at the seaward end of the estuary of the River Rance. For cruising folk visiting France, St Malo is the gateway to the beautiful Rance estuary, wide peaceful waters, set in a shallow picturesque valley of beautiful countryside and tiny granite settlements.

Towards the head of the estuary lies the village of Plouer Sur Rance with its tiny yacht harbour, created in the pool of a long-dormant tidal mill. The majority of berths in the marina are taken up by locals but to encourage tourists and to generate income for the local shops and restaurants, the village council reserves ten berths for visitors.

There are two things to know about Plouer Marina. Firstly, it has a wall to retain water within the basin at low tide. At high tide the wall is submerged. This presents no problem, it is well marked, but it does mean that at high tide there is a current of water running through the harbour over the wall. At low tide the wall ensures there is no real current at all.

Secondly, visitor boats are moored in pairs either side of very narrow floating finger pontoons which are perfectly fine most of the time when boats are moored alongside them. Take away the boats however, and stepping out on one of these narrow wobbly fingers is not dissimilar to tightrope walking. Stability comes not from the pontoon, but from the support provided to it by the buoyancy and stability of the boats tied alongside. Locals know this, visitors often discover the hard way.

The way Charles’ learned about the pontoon was particularly spectacular. He arrived aboard a friend’s motor cruisers at about six o’ clock one Friday evening, a time which the French often refer to as ‘The Blue Hour’, that particularly pleasant time after work on a Friday when you have the whole weekend before you; the time when you meet up with friends over a glass of Pernod or perhaps a Kir before heading for home.

At Plouer, ‘La Guitoon’, a waterside bar run by an old salt called Joe, is a particular favourite location. Most of the locals are boatmen, and from here you get a full view of the comings and goings within the harbour.

Charles and his skipper entered Plouer harbour at the top of the tide and were aware of the significant group of locals all of whom turned to see the English boat arrive.

            ‘The visitor berths are over there’, the skipper called to Charles. ‘Get up forward and be ready to jump off with the mooring line when I give the signal. We’ll show these guys how it should be done.’

Charles dutifully went forward and stood holding the pulpit with one hand and the rope in the other as the skipper casually turned the boat toward a gap in the pontoons. As he approached however, the boat speed increased due to the current of water passing across the submerged wall. The skipper reduced throttle but the vessel only seemed to accelerate. Finally, at the last minute, in a desperate attempt to avoid ploughing through the pontoons, he threw both engines into reverse. In so doing, he also threw Charles off the boat.

Fortunately for Charles, he managed to land upright on the pontoon. Unfortunately for Charles, the pontoon immediately sank under his weight and then resurfaced like a springboard - catapulting Charles headlong into the water.  

Of such incidents, legends are made. They’re still talking about this in Joes bar and Charles hasn’t returned. ‘Shame really, there’s a few guys who’d like to buy him a drink and shake his hand. You don’t get free entertainment like that every day.