Sacred Seas – Biscay to Ouessant

The Bay of Biscay is the nautical equivalent of a prostate check, you go for it only because you have to and the pleasure you get out of it is strictly proportional to the ordinariness of your personality. And there is only one strategy: get through as fast as you can choosing the path of minimal discomfort. Cadeau’s plan was such and I had in due anticipation found three victims to share the pain with me. But as Von Moltke used to say ‘few plans withstand the contact with the enemy‘ and the number of victims was reduced to one after the forfait of the female halves, one out of injury – probably self inflicted to avoid the Death Coast – and the other out of pure wisdom after a couple of days corking along the same Death Coast. So out we go, humble and prone, ready for Biscay. And lucky we were because, even if in the first 24 hours the swell was the size of cottages, wind never exceeded 15 knots, sun and moon have been in full swing and traffic was almost non existent.

The lack of female company did not deter us to keep a horizontal position, especially at night. Perhaps too much because we took a long time (hours?) to realize that the autopilot had stopped and Cadeau was sailing alone, indeed beautifully but alas not in the right direction – rather 30 degrees off. After 48 hours we should have seen land but lack of wind saw us 80 miles short, so we basically spent ages under power to get to the nearest coast, which happened to be the – to me unknown – island of Yeux, south of Nantes, not even in Brittany but in Vendee. And what a place is this to choose for a landing, considering that it’s so incredibly low and flat that by the time you say land-ho you are on it.

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And here we have the first taste of the French sailing style. While in Italy they grew this fastidious habit of kicking boats out when the berths are allotted, even if outside is blowing a full gale, here in France they squeeze vessels in until basically there is no more water, even if it’s flat calm out. And all happens quickly because the port can be accessed only from mid tide up. All very funny at night, of course, with impromptu-parties at any time. Less so in the morning when everybody has to move out basically by hand, considering the total lack of maneuvering space.

Yeux is not a bad landing place actually. The houses are picture perfect, the fishmonger is among the most famous in France – and rightly so – and the harbor is charming. Only it’s very, very crowded. There is also room for something I had never seen before: a chanting crew of Sailors-for-God, complete of priests and nuns, singing hymns in the cockpit while sipping sodas; more secular sailors like ourselves would have rather preferred a horde of drunken dutch of flexible morals.

The brochure of Brittany that everybody knows is basically a lonely light-keeper foolishly out of the ‘Four‘ lighthouse door while a westerly wave of sidereal size pounders the structure taking no prisoners. It is therefore with a certain humility that Cadeau set sails westbound towards the World capital of alpha sailors. Everybody around here is supposed to be called Loick, have a face like a horse saddle and say three words every decade. This is a place where shit in fluid form must be expected. It is therefore with a certain surprise that Cadeau logs the 400 hundred miles from Yeux to Calais mostly under power, with seas imperceptible, not a drop of rain , balmy temperatures and an average pressure so high one should compensate with the nose just popping out on deck. And between August and October. Nothing to complain of, surely, just asking how and when the bill will arrive.

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Cadeau ‘lands’ in Brittany anchoring in the Caribbean island of Houat on a bright Indian summer day. Alas not alone, as there are around 170 other sailing vessels anchored, but it’s a monday afternoon after all… White beaches, rolling meadows, whitewashed stone houses with romantic gables, fresh baguettes, bright lighthouses, blue waters and sails engaging as far as the horizon. This was not in the brochure, but we take it.

One of the main features of Brittany are rivers, which come plentiful and big. How come, you’d ask, in such a flat country? Well the answer is simple, its the same water that goes in and out at every tide. Take Etel for example. It’s a trickle  over the beach at low water, but the moon fills a whole inner system of rivers and bays only to empty it after 6 hours. This means fluids flooding in and ebbing out at a considerable speed over a bar of sand of tricky shape, which in consequence means that you have to radio a lady – very popular of course – who will tell you to turn right or left or to stay out altogether. The lady works for 5 days, and her daughter takes over for the remaining two. Sailors – generally males – ask about when is the daughter on watch, a behavior that I frankly find as poor seamanship but gives some hints on the damsel’s possible attractiveness.

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Concarneau is Cadeau’s next stop along the coast, a certainly pleasant fortified citadel justly popular among the tourist, but the ‘coup de coeur‘ is certainly for Ile de Sein, a ghostly collection of scattered rocks daring to challenge the wild seas off the Point du Raz.  French sailing magazines even publish manuals on the best strategy to reach Ile de Sein, taking into account vicious currents, evil waterfalls, dastardly visibility and tyrannical seas pushed by a fetch as long as the solar system (from the Brittany brochure). Needless to say we arrive in magical light, oily seas, no swell and diesel wind. Edouard Michelin, heir of the Bibendum dynasty, was less lucky and lost his life here in 2006, like many, many others.

Ile de Sein (literally Tit Island) is as vast as Delaware at low water, but shrinks to the size of Du Pont Ceo’s office at high water. The anchorage which is good for 12 hours is the size of a ping pong table and the holding is poor, so spending the night here means courting disaster. But well, it’s well worth it. Away with the cynicism, the irony, this island is pure magic. The morning awakens with a gentle breeze and Cadeau always miraculously in the same spot, an invitation to disembark and discover.

It’s September but it might well be a mid February wednesday. And yes, life is all a question of atmosphere.  ‘Fragmente de terre sur l’Ocean, Le miracle de la simple existence de cette langue de terre a la foie si fragile, mais si resistente‘. Not many natives keep fighting a life here and population dwindle from 1100 to 200 in 20 years. They left empty houses that tourism fails to fill, ghostly alleys where you’d dream a night inside, behind the strong windows, at the light of a candle, rather than staying outside. Sein is a refuge, an outpost in a desert, a haven against all odds. A place for houses and gables, for candles and fire, for lots of wine, for romantic painters and poets. A perfect place to escape.

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