A couple of weeks ago I travelled to France and crewed for my friend’s dad sailing his yacht back to Plymouth, an adventure that involved the 100 nautical mile [185km] crossing of the English Channel from L’Aber Wrac'h in Brittany to Falmouth in Cornwall. This was my first offshore passage in a small boat, a fascinating insight into the adventures we’re going to have on the Turning Tides voyage.
To get to the boat in Brest I needed to take a ferry to France then a train to Brittany. Preparing my bag the night before I check the expiry date on my passport; 23 July 2018. It expired three weeks ago! The obscenities that follow are far too inappropriate to repeat in this civilised blog, but they start with the letters f, c, w and b repeated several times. With tight passport controls and modern scanners there’s no way I’m going to get through customs.
It would have been defeatist to give up so I head to the port in the morning with three strategies in mind; distraction, confusion and subterfuge. Distraction involves getting the customs officers talking about themselves so they don’t check my passport. Confusion involves throwing all sorts of paperwork and questions at them so they don’t check my passport. Subterfuge involves getting on the ferry through stealthy means so they don’t check my passport.
In the end I have to go through three passport checks and use all three strategies; one on each check. I won’t go into the precise details of how I got through in case I get into trouble – or need to implement the tactics again in the future – but I will say it was a fantastic adrenaline boost to start the day. Getting on boats is always exciting, but the feeling of steeping aboard after overcoming impossible odds was pure joy.
I join Ian and his wife Maggi aboard Nimrod in Brest and we set sail with the tide the following afternoon. My 2007 copy of the Reeds Almanac advises to stay close to shore through the entrance to avoid a ‘foul tide’, but as we’re going with the tidal currents we stick to the middle of the channel. What the Almanac should have said was stay away from the middle of the channel because of violent overfalls and steep, confused breaking waves caused by the tidal currents colliding into the swell. At least it gave me confidence in Nimrod’s seaworthiness.
To get around the tip of France you need to must navigate the challenging Chenal de Four. The secret, to my delight, is planning and preparation. You study the route, analyse the tides, weather and swell, create a passage plan then set sail and enjoy the ride, navigating from one buoy to another. This is where my time spent making the Buoys print comes in especially handy, quickly differentiating between isolated danger and safe water buoys and east and west cardinal markers. An east cardinal means stay to the east because there’s a hazard to the west. Confusing it with a west cardinal would be disastrous.
I was delighted to share with Ian and Maggi a little knowledge I picked up while researching for my buoys print; the black bands on cardinals represent the direction the two cones on top of the buoy face. On an east cardinal one cone faces up and the other faces down, so there are black bands at the top and bottom. With a west cardinal both cones face inwards so the black band is in the middle. This is invaluable knowledge as you can often spot the black bands long before the cones [which are much smaller], giving you more time to work out where you are.
As the afternoon draws on the swell picks up. Lines of long-period sets approach from our port beam [left hand side] and I imagine the fabulous surfing waves they’ll make when reaching shallow water. On our starboard beam [right hand side] a lighthouse stands tall on a rocky outcrop half a mile offshore. Every couple of minutes a wave breaks at its base in an explosion of white spray that reaches halfway up the tower. I notice the black and white bands on the side of the lighthouse facing the coast are still crisp, while on the seaward side the paintwork is faded and the bands seamlessly dissolve into each other. The difference is a striking reminder of the power of the ocean.
The wind drops and we motor-sail along the coast, Nimrod rocking uncomfortably in the disturbed sea. I start to feel queasy and imagine it won’t be long before seasickness kicks in. Luckily our destination L’Aber Wrac'h isn’t far away and to my relief we weave through a network of rugged rocks into the sheltered river. The water immediately flattens out, the roar of waves fades away and my seasickness disappears - replaced by a soaring of energy. Ian points out our shortcut into the Channel tomorrow; a ridiculously narrow strip of water bordered by serrated rocks. And we’ll be doing it at 4am in the pitch black.