France at last...

Wed 30 Aug 2006 23:31
Getting ready to leave St Peter Port
Two quick nights in Seaview, one wedding and the skipper was off again with another crew.  This time, flying with Sam Holland, Rob Devonshire and Richard Foster from Gatwick to Guernsey on FlyBe at 1950 on Sunday 20th August.  The plan was to make La Coruna by Saturday lunchtime - but once again, the weather wasn't playing ball.  The crew, on the other hand, was heading for a brilliant 4 days of bonding under the "pressure on pressure" setbacks that were thrown our way.
The trip out went smoothly enough and we got to bed in reasonable time considering the early start.  Breakfast in harbour, a quick trip ashore and we slipped out of QE2 marina on schedule at around 0600.  But the promised NW wind was not from the north west.  We settled down to a south westerly "on the nose" with confidence that it would swing round.  The Jersey forecast on VHF channel 25 soon put paid to that, predicting a SW against us until late afternoon and force 4-5 gusting 6.  As the wind came up we put in one reef and Free Spirit started to show that she was up for the ride, perhaps slightly more so than her crew!  It was bumpy enough to snap off the VHF ariel at the masthead and no-one was quite as bright in conversation as the night before....When the tide turned against us after lunch and we clocked nearly 30 knots of apparent wind over the deck, I tried to hide from the crew the gloomy predictions of the sophisticated nav system suggesting 48 hours more to run to our destination in France (L'Aber Wrach). I don't think any of us much fancied two more days of beating into that wind.  Thoughts of bearing away to Tregier crept into my head.  But then, we could see the cold front ahead of us and I decided to give it another couple of hours before making a final call.  The front passed over us with textbook symptoms.  The clouds lowered, the wind backed, the viz. closed in, then gave us sheet rain. After a little impatience from the crew we came out the other side as the temperature dropped, the visibility cleared and finally, after an hours delay, the wind eased and veered 40 degrees to put us on a single tack to L'Aber Wrach.  There was much relief all round. 
One hot dinner later (M&S lasagne with green beans) and the mood was positively cheerful.  The wind dropped in stages as darkness fell and we settled down to motorsail for the last 6-8 hours of the trip. Sam and Rob went below for a short nap at around 2200 and were not seen again until 1100 the next day!  Something to do with the state of their hang-overs on Sunday I believe but as Richard and I were never going to be able to sleep anyway, with the challenge of approaching that part of the North Brittany coast in the dark for the first time, we could see no advantage to spoiling their rest! 
And challenge it was - as the French authorities have sanctioned some pretty amazing light shows on shore that are designed to confuse the unwary mariner.  One set of directional aircraft lights on a 100 meter mast was quick flashing white so brightly that I swore it was a North Cardinal, not marked on the chart and  200 yards off our bow when it was still 20 miles away and on shore!  Another set of flashing fireworks turned out, the next day, to be marking each turbine of a new wind farm also miles away but very, very bright.  In the end, the plotter and GPS were accurate and invaluable, we identified the big (real) navigation lights that we expected to see and kept going.  We followed the leading lights into L'Aber Wrach precisely as advised in the pilot but still nearly had a heart attack when the "Petit Pot du Beurre" loomed out of the darkness only 30 yards off the bow.  This is a 10m diameter, 30m tall stone tower that just happens to sit, unlit, beside the channel that threads through the rocks to gain access to the river beyond!  All this whilst the rudder was making very strange noises and vibrations and the engine warning beeper was gently sounding an objection to the regular flooding of seawater it had received earlier in the day.  A very nervous skipper (me) and a very calming crew (Richard) could hardly have been more grateful to find, eventually, a spare visitor's mooring at 0400 after creeping around a pitch black harbout at under 1 knot for what seemed like an eternity and call it a day.  I, for one, slept soundly for the next 5 hours disturbed only momentarily by a very apologetic harbour master looking for mooring fees at 0800. 
We roused ourselves at around 1000 and did breakfast whilst planning the next day's trip to Camaret. Nigel Gibbons called to say that he had arrived in Brest as planned and then again a very short while later to announce his arrival in L'Aber Wrach itself.  We launched the tender and met him on the pontoon.  Showers at the yacht club, beers at the first bar we came to and suddenly the day set aside for running repairs to the VHF began to slide away from us.  Not for the last time, beer o'clock marked the beginning of another change of plans.  Nigel, understandably at 1500 UK time, needed lunch.  The rest of us had only just had breakfast. A compromise was reached - we had a massive and alcoholic lunch!  Chores on board after that seemed less compelling than before but we just about managed to avoid slipping from lunch into dinner without a break.  Once back on board, the small voice of reason returned and we decided to eat aboard to get ready for an early start in the morning.  The crew was up for it - but the skipper was not sure about tackling the Chanel du Four (a very tricky tidal race dotted with major rocks and hazards that leads around the inside of Ushant) in the predicted force 4-5 gusting 6, once again, on the nose.  With the VHF down (and Sat phone also apparently not working - i.e. skipper too pissed to make it work) I was doubtful about our chances of tackling Biscay and wondering if we should wait for better weather to tackle the next leg.  The decision was made trickier by the fact that a 0500 start the next morning was the latest we could leave it whilst still allowing us to set off from Camaret across Biscay on the next tide. Sam and Rob had pre-booked flights from Coruna on Saturday afternoon so Wednesday night was the drop dead departure time to cover the 325 miles in time. The debate ran for an hour before a decision was taken not to go at 0500.  The beers and gin came out as we drowned our disappointment at not being able to complete the trip as planned.
As Richard said, graciously, the following morning when I woke him at 0500 - the skipper's mind never rests.  Prior to going to sleep I had re-read the technical details on the VHF ariel, looked behind the scenes at the wiring and realised that the Sat phone is not connected to the masthead ariel on Free Spirit.  I tried the Sat phone again and established that it was working.  We could take on Biscay with the Sat phone and our spare handheld VHF.  The game had changed again.  As I tossed and turned in the early hours, I realised that we had to have one last go at remaining on track for Coruna.  The wind might not come up till later in the day, we had the tide with us through the Chanel du Four and surely we could take any amount of bashing through rough seas for a few hours?
At 0500, I woke up a groggy crew who all took the change of plan in good spirits considering the extra rations we had consumed the night before and we had a quick breakfast before slipping our moorings at 0630.  Everyone was anticipating a real pasting in the Chanel du Four....
The Oldies!
Once again, it was not to be as we had anticipated.  The Chanel du Four was on her best behaviour and we motored through in almost perfect conditions, getting more and more cocky about tackling Biscay with every waypoint passed.  As we entered Camaret, triumphant in our plans for Biscay at 1800 that very night, the weather forecast was emailed to my Blackberry. 
Those beers were always a mistake....
OK for the first 24 hours, then head winds, 30 knots and rough seas for the second half of the trip.  We were so nearly away but could not really go with a forecast like that.  I phoned the weather router, Simon Kealing, and asked him for his confidence level in the forecast (bearing in mind that he had also predicted the NW force 4 on the Monday). He was confident that it would blow and even more confident that the sea state would be rough.  Rough seas in Biscay have sunk supertankers and the headwind would have immediately put paid to the required landfall by Saturday lunchtime.  We, once again, changed our plans but this time flights were booked home for the next day and the mood shifted to one of serious end-of-term party.  When the young graduates heard of the decision to ditch fresh food supplies they insisted on an "eat off".  No-one allowed to the heads or off the boat until every scrap of food was eaten!  We began with the smoked salmon with vodka and things deteriorated from there.  The boat was treated to a tidy up (soon to be undone in the small hours of Thursday), the crew established the best restaurant in town and, in defiance of the eat off, Nigel and Richard generously agreed to treat the skipper and two improverished students to a meal ashore.  Camaret, watch out! 
Rob Devonshire (left) and Sam Holland (right)
Our return to the boat at 0200 was heralded by a short but rousing blast of the Rolling Stones -  many French yachtsmen were greeted on the pontoon.  I retired to my bunk as the "eat off" and, more spontaneously decreed, "drink off" swung into action.  Fish cakes, steak and kidney pie, several bottles of red, beers, gin etc. were all dutifully polished off as the crew steadily worked through the remaining provisions.  Very little was wasted in the end.  I am eternally grateful to have slept through the worst of it.
The following morning, a controlled state of carnage was cleared up and made good prior to our 1000 departure by taxi for Brest airport.  Beers were reluctantly consumed at the airport along with two rounds of croque monsieur each and some subdued banter. As Sam put it, the crew were headed for a glorious week of "no pressure on no pressure" and Free Spirit rested for another week between crews.  As I shuffled through Southampton airport for the 4th time in 3 weeks, I was pretty sure that I would need to manage the few remaining quiet periods in my sabbatical very carefully indeed.  My system cannot take many more 4 day jaunts like this one.
The Camaret Crew