Tuesday, 3 September 2013

A Small Boat Voyage: St Malo to St Valerie en Caux

Le Gand Jardin Lighthouse St Malo
So, a good friend of mine Alain Hugues, secured a contract to deliver Toinoux a 33ft Moody sailing boat
from St Malo to St Valerie en Caux, a sea voyage of some 180 to 200 nautical miles. He recruited three others to act a crew, myself, Ken (both English) and Francis (French).

The original plan was to set off on Tuesday 27 September and enjoy a reasonably leisurely cruise arriving home by car sometime on Saturday 31st at the latest. Things never work out quite as they should do they?

Le Skipper
The Boatyard where Toinoux was laid up was closed for the owner’s annual holiday and was not due to open until the 27th so it was always unlikely that he would have nothing better to do on his first day back at work than to move several boats in order to get his launching tractor near our boat. In the end he agreed to try to get the boat in the water for us on Thursday 29th. We had a problem however, the tides were neaping and if he was unsuccessful in launching on the 29th, there would be insufficient water to launch at all until the following week.

We crossed our fingers, kept an eye on the shipping forecast and hoped for the best. A 14:00 hours on Thursday, we received news that the boat had been launched and so we threw 30 euros each into a communal fund and headed for the local supermarket to purchase supplies for the trip. At 15:30 the supplies were on board and we headed out down the Rance estuary towards the sea lock at St Malo and then out into the open sea. All thoughts of a leisurely cruise were now gone because the neap tides were also having their effect on our destination. We had a window of only one hour to enter our port of destination on Saturday. Earlier or later and there would be insufficient water at the entrance to St Valerie en Caux that day. So, with a 200 mile sea voyage ahead of us we had to be sure to reach St Valerie no later that 08:30 on Saturday morning.

We passed through the sea lock at 18:00 on Thursday and headed straight for sea. We sailed west of the Minquies rocks to gain a clear northward passage to Guernsey, where we could obtain the cheapest diesel fuel. From there, our route took us north eastwards through the Channel Islands archipelago leaving Sark, to the south and Alderney to the north, then approaching the French coast and running out into the English Channel via the notorious Alderney Race. From there could run north easterly until we were on the same latitude as St Valerie, and then easterly in clear water along the parallel past Cherbourg, Caen, Le Havre, to our destination.

We arrived at St Peter Port Guernsey on Friday morning round about 06:30 (UK Time) and enjoyed a full English breakfast (Bacon, Sausage, Egg, Beans, Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Toast and coffee) in a harbour-side café while waiting for the fuel berth to open.

By 08:30 (UK Time) we were leaving St Peter Port with 120 miles to go to our destination. We had to make
the trip in 24 hours to obtain the depth of water needed to enter St Valerie so regardless of wind or tide we had to maintain an average speed of 5 knots.

Sunrise among the Islands was spectacular but low cloud rain and fog soon obscured the view. The wind was light from the south west which made for easy, but slow sailing.

At lunchtime was entered the Alderney race, a sixteen mile wide stretch of water between the Island of Alderney and the French coast. The race is relatively shallow with an uneven rocky bed and it acts as a giant plughole as water fills the Gulf of St Malo or pours back into the English Channel each tide. There is a quiet period between tides but generally speaking, if there is a tide running in any direction, you can expect currents and rips of up to ten knots in places and the sea is lumpy and confused all the time. We were in a period of neaps so we didn’t expect conditions to be extreme and in any case we needed the kind of push that the race can offer. So we went straight through – pointing pretty much east and travelling pretty much north.

It was rough, but not rough enough to make two Frenchmen postpone their lunch. We ate cold meats for starters and enjoyed a hot chicken and potato stew with a good bottle of Bordeaux rouge in the cockpit making good progress towards our destination with the sea bubbling and boiling all around us.

By nightfall, we were well offshore, on schedule and free from most other shipping except the odd fishing boat and cross channel ferries entering or leaving the Normandy habours. The wind remained light however and frustratingly it veered and came from dead astern, the worst possible, direction of you want to improve your speed. 

Sure you can run the engine to gain an extra knot but that additional knot effectively reduces the power of
wind in your sail and so what you gain on the one hand you pretty much lose on the other. Given such a light wind, the sea was remarkably lively – fortunately we had a fifth crew member who came to be called George – a GPS Linked autopilot. It soon because obvious that George was a better helmsman than us and so he took over until we were ten minutes away from the harbour entrance.

We arrived at our destination about a half hour earlier than we needed to despite some anxious moments when the tide or wind seemed to conspire against us. St Valerie harbour is entered through a gap in the chalk cliffs. It isn’t a harbour I would wish to enter in heavy weather. The waves funnel and build through the long narrow entrance and once you are in the channel there is no room to turn. Once in the harbour, the town is pleasant enough but I guess that after about 40 hours of non-stop sailing (except for the brief stop in Guernsey) none of us were feeling energetic enough to take in all the sights. Coffee and baths, followed by beer food and sleep were the priorities.
Toinoux arrived St Valerie en Caux awaiting her new owners

Memorable moments? Yes several – the evening meal on the first night on our run up to Guernsey – cold meats and beer for starters, tuna salad as a main course, with a good red wine, a selection of cheeses and a Breton cake for desert followed by a strong expresso coffee. Where else but on a French boat would a crew member ask if you preferred salted or unsalted butter?

The sunsets on both nights were spectacular

A meteor shower as we cruised along the west coast of Jersey

The full English breakfast in Guernesy (just what the doctor ordered)

Sunrise among the Islands

Eating lunch in the notorious Alderney Race

Hundreds of Cormorants diving and feasting on a huge shoat of mackerel north of Cherbourg

An unexplained smell of fried potatoes while at least 30 miles from the nearest land with no other vessel in sight

A copper coloured Milky Way on the second night at sea –maybe there was a wisp of cloud colouring the sky – but if so it wasn’t thick enough to obscure stars. Either way, the Milky Way was spectacularly bright and copper coloured that evening.

A beer at the Local Café back home in Plouer Sur Rance with my three shipmates after the trip. Plouer is a town steeped in maritime history, fishing and seafaring, it’s good to think that we’re keeping up the tradition.

Finally a comment on the watch system we kept. Each night at sundown one crew member would keep watch for the first hour and a half. Then after that time a second crew member would join him for a second trick of one and a half hours. After three hours the first crew member would go below and a third crew member would join the remaining lookout for one and a half hours. The second lookout would retire after three hours in the cockpit and would be relieved by crew member number four. In effect each crew member spent three hours in the cockpit and for half of that time he would be responsible for the helm – he would then get three hours rest. The system worked well. Each lookout had ‘back up’ and support if required and could also rely on a crewmate to keep him supplied with coffee and snacks. The system also ensured that you had two different crew members with you during the course of your three hour watch so there was a variety of company and conversation.