Witchfinder’s summer cruise 2005

[Written late summer 2005, but only just came to light again]

I can only take four weeks leave at one time in the summer but this year we wanted to Go Somewhere.  This would be our third summer sailing Witchfinder General, a Sigma 362 and our first boat.  Our first two summer cruises had seen us setting off from Suffolk and getting as far as Isle Of Wight along the English South Coast the first year; and Honfleur and the Cotentin peninsular along the French coast last year. Each of these trips had fitted into a fortnight and people kept telling us we had “done the hardest part”. Usually there are just the two of us, but this time we were joined by our son and his partner who have just taken up sailing but need experience to convince their insurer that they can be trusted to take their old (sorry, classic) wooden Nicholson out alone. So this year we decided to go further afield but where should we go? We thought we might get as far as Portugal, which would mean my extending my vacation to an unauthorised six or seven weeks, but would be happy with the Scillies or southern Brittany.

The plan was to leave the Tidemill as soon as our 1.5m draft would allow, at about midnight on Friday 8th July.  Last minute hold-ups, not least due to the time taken to stow the ton of food and charts needed for the unlikely event of us actually getting to Portugal, saw our departure time slip to mid-day on the Saturday 9th. We sailed over the bar at the Ferry on the start of the ebb into the usual, unpleasant, wind-over-tide-induced, short and choppy sea that all East Coast sailors will be familiar with.  This caused all the crew to be seasick before we reached Ramsgate, which put paid to the planned watch system.  We anchored off Ramsgate to see out the foul tide and to recover. In the morning we set off down the channel in sunshine and a light south-easterly.  Since the crew were still not keen on running watches we stopped to sleep each night, which fortunately more or less coincided with foul tide. Anchoring off Newhaven and Whitecliff IOW, we made Brixham in just four days and dropped the hook just as it was getting dark on Tuesday. The next morning we speculated £6 for a 4-hour stay at Brixham harbour and made good use of this for showers and laundry.

We were clear of Brixham by lunchtime Wednesday tacking south towards Start point in a southerly force 4 and wonderful weather.  Now was the time to decide where to go.  The forecast was high pressure for the next week.  The wind feather over Biscay on the HF fax weather map from Northwood showed 5kt east for days to come so we would not get to Portugal, and southern Brittany would be a slog under engine once we turned east.  However with little or no swell forecast and no real weather within 1000 miles this would be a once-in-a-blue-moon chance to get into Ushant  (or Île d’Ouessant as Jenny prefers), about 130 NM away, just west of south.

As soon as Start Point was behind us we ran in to the boys and their toys, in the form of the frigate HMS Campbeltown asking us to change course to avoid a “live missile firing”.  Anxious to cooperate, or at least avoid being shot at, I offered any course with no east and not much north in it but they wanted us to turn right about on to a reciprocal.  We declined, politely but firmly, and they dashed off to another part of the sea and in 20 minutes could be heard soliciting another yacht to change course. In the event the firing was a disappointment: more of a Champagne cork pop than a real firework.

We dropped the hook at the head of the rock-bound inlet on the west side of Ushant about 150m off the beach in about 5m. We had crossed from Brixham in about 24h, with the engine on for about 8h of that time, averaging 5.5kt.

Île d’Ouessant is a delightful spot with an outpost feel to it.    We arrived on July 14th, which is a wonderful day to arrive anywhere in France and Ushant is no exception. This set the tone for the 3 days we spent there and we were sad to leave.

Ushant ancorage. Witchfinder the boat just this side of the line, toward the far end

Ushant ancorage. Witchfinder the boat just this side of the line, toward the far end

le d’Ouessant is a rocky island at the western end of Brittany and is the westernmost point of France.  A line drawn between here and the Lizard traditionally marks the boundary between the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. It has a winter population of about 800, is about 5 miles across and has five lighthouses!  Although it is welcoming to yachts, with 20-some free mooring buoys, it is not visited that often because conditions have to be just right. This is definitely a settled weather anchorage and was traditionally feared by  sailing ships. The authoritative, and still regularly updated, Admiralty Ocean Passages of the World, in its description of sailing routes south out the the English Channel has the chilling phrase, “On no account should Ushant be sighted”

Although we arrived with only about half a meter of atlantic swell there were still breaking waves on the ring of jagged rocks that guard the entrance. This was very exciting for us East Coast sailors.
We crossed from Brixham on a failing southeasterly f2-3 wind that had been around for a few days.  The North Atlantic fax charts from Northwood HF showed settled high pressure for at least 72 hours and nothing that could be called weather within 800 miles so we felt safe staying a day or two.

Lampaul is at the head of a rocky inlet with several little sandy coves. Much of the south-west side of the inlet is taken up by a fish farm and the white buoys supporting the nets looked to the author just like mooring buoys.  A Dutch boat hailed us before it was too late: “it is not permitted to moor at the fish farm” and saved us further embarrassment!  All but a couple of buoys on the back (most seaward) row were taken. From this back row it would be quite a trek to anywhere in the dinghy. This was July 14th and a Thursday so we guessed, with settled weather, the local (i.e. Brest) boats would be making a long weekend of it.  Both Reeds and Cruising Association almanacs suggest anchoring either to seaward of the mooring buoys or in a rather unprepossessing rocky inlet to the north of the harbour so we decided to feel out the depths on the inside of the moorings and found a sandy bottom (visible in the clear water) in about 4m some 150m off the beach.  With a swell running I could see us being chased away from this spot by surfers, but with a swell running we would be long gone!   There are weeds and rocks around here but both are easy to see in the crystal clear Atlantic water.  From this anchorage we had a 3-minute dinghy ride to the beach or the steps on the back of the old ferry jetty for access to the village.  Keep a lookout for weed when using the dinghy at low water: our elderly Seagull is certainly no match for the bootlace species that flourishes over the rocks.

Lampaul has a good, though small, sandy beach; two or three good restaurants and bars; a couple of banks with complex alternate opening; a Spar and an 8 à Huit (take care: this is its name, not its opening hours). Both shops have cash dispensers. Lots of bike hire shops. A water tap can be found on the quay of the tiny harbour. The harbour not so much dries, as sometimes has a little water in it. It is completely fouled by chains, moorings and pointy stones.  Petrol and diesel from the garage at the top the hill: possible if the crew is fit.  In bars and shops try to get across by some means that you are from a boat, and not a day-tripper off the ferry and you will get a warmer reception and friendlier service. This is a maritime island community and even leisure sailors are still sailors. Of course, if you are here on July 14th there will be fireworks.

Guernsey was our next stop, 20 hours east, and it was very different story. The inner harbour was jammed with wall-to-wall boats. They were not so much rafted-up as tessellated into the space.  I suppose it seemed even more hectic to us since, apart from a few hours alongside in Brixham we had not been in a marina for over a week.  When we came to leave no fewer than six boats had to move to let us out: a tense manoeuvre that called for a 180º turn in a yacht-ringed space about 1.5m longer than our boat.  In complete contrast a couple of hours later we were anchored on the tranquil east coast of Herm waiting for the tide for Alderney, relieved to escape and reminding ourselves of why we prefer anchoring off.

The run up to Alderney was fun.  It was first time through the Alderney race for most of the crew and our plan called for us to “step off” the main race and pick up an eddy, which would take us around the top of Alderney and close into Bray Harbour.  Unlikely as this looked on the chart it certainly worked, even if it did call for some neat navigation with differences between heading and course of up to 40º at times.  Overnight in Alderney and a good sail back to Weymouth saw us into another rafting-up to-do.  Harbour masters simply saying “see what you can find” seems to lead to small boats on the inside; inside boats leaving early and a reluctance to lay out shore-lines.  We lost our crew and the good weather at Weymouth, and turned east for home.  This took us to Yarmouth, which is a model of how to run a harbour.  A friendly dory met us, discovered how long we expected to stay and showed us right to our berth then hung around long enough to offer to nudge us in.  The water taxi (needed because the alongside berths are an island) runs until after the pubs shut: what more need I say.  The rest of the return trip up the channel seemed harder than I remember in previous years.  We broke our journey at Shoreham.  I love the slightly run down, working-harbour aspect of Shoreham but Jenny is not so keen.  I forgot just how little water there can be just outside the lock and we ploughed a bit of a furrow on the way out and I got a (quite justified) “you are getting careless” talking-to from the admiral.

A couple of days in Ramsgate waiting for weather gave us the chance to take the train to Deal to visit Walmer Castle, which has fascinated us each time we have spotted it from the Downs. The good weather never came so we finally left Ramsgate in a drizzly, chilly westerly force 5, which at got us back so quickly we had to anchor in the Stour to wait for water over the bar.