When we left Marblehead eight years ago, we wrote our very first blog about the Yin and Yang of Sailing. It has become somewhat of a mantra that some parts of our trip can be quite sublime, while other aspects are less so. Here we are again.
We just completed two passages, one difficult, and one a literal breeze. The first was an overnight sail across the English Channel from Dartmouth, England, to L’Aberwrach, in Brittany, France, on September 24-25. Then, on September 26, we did a day-sail from L’Aberwrach, through he Chenal du Four, to Camaret, where we rest now.
About that first trip: As we waited at Dartmouth for good weather to cross the English Channel, we had in mind that the weather for the following week (Sept 28 to Oct 4) looked good to cross the Bay of Biscay, the 350-plus mile open-water stretch from France to Spain. That passage has been on our mind for quite a while, and will be our most challenging leg so far. The winds in the Bay can be contrary for weeks on end, and so if there were to be a favorable window, we wanted to take advantage of it. Thus, for this shorter leg across the English Channel, we wanted good weather, but were willing to settle if it were less than perfect.
The forecast called for westerly winds, 15 gusting to 20 knots for the first half of our 20-hour trip, fading to lighter winds later. We were bound for L’Aberwrach, about 110 miles away, if we sailed on a straight line. We planned on leaving at 2 p.m., to ensure that we didn’t arrive on the French coast before sunrise. The wind speed was supposed to drop at about 1 a.m., allowing for a comfortable second half of the trip. We would be sailing SSW, and so with a westerly wind, we hoped for winds not too far in front of the beam. We also had to take the strong currents into account, which would be pushing us sideways across our route, changing direction every six hours.
We left at 2 p.m., and quickly found that the winds were not the forecasted 15-20, but a steady 22, and gusting higher. And the direction was more WSW than W. That doesn’t seem like that big a difference, but it really was, as Leander was now forced to beat across the Channel, rather than being on a more comfortable beam reach.
Also, the sea state was pretty bad. As we were coming out of the Channel, we were being reintroduced to the larger ocean swell coming from the Atlantic, something we had not seen in a very long time. In the English Channel, without much fetch, the waves are relatively small, but of a shorter period — the famous Channel Chop. In the ocean, the waves are much larger, and the period is longer. We were betwixt and between the two, and so had both the local confused chop from the Channel as well as a larger swell beginning to surge in from the Atlantic. We were uncomfortable from the start, as Leander was bashing into confused seas.
It was immediately apparent, too, that we were not going to be able to point to L’Aberwrach, or even anything close, but instead could only go straight across the Chanel, about 50 miles further east along the coast, well short of L’Aberwrach. Also, on this straight line across the Channel, the distance to the other side was only 100 miles from our start in Dartmouth. Beating into such strong winds, with the current now behind us, we were also flying. We were doing 7-8 knots, a speed that we maintained past midnight. This meant that we were due to meet up with the rocky French coast well before daybreak. We’d be OK, as we could simply tack back in the other direction, but we were definitely not having fun.
On the positive side, the two shipping lanes that we crossed were effortless, as we were moving very quickly and the ships gave us a wide berth. We credit this to the fact that we have just installed a beefier radar reflector, perhaps giving the bigger ships an earlier and better opportunity to spot us.
And the winds did fade, just as predicted, at about 2 a.m. Yipppeee!!! During the next few hours, as the wind further reduced to 8 knots, we took down the jib, and turned on the engine. As the sky began to lighten, Sima came on watch, and with the boat under power and the headsail down, were able to point directly to L’Aberwrach, still some 50 miles away.
But by mid-morning, the winds died to nothing, while the seas did not. With nothing to hold Leander in the waves, she tossed, turned, and rolled in the left-over slop and increasing swell as she motored on. None of us felt very good, although a good breakfast got us over the sea-sickness hump. (Speak for yourself Paul! That’s precisely when poor Aylin surrendered to the sleepies, and Ari twice lost his breakfast into a Princeton cup, only finally able to keep it down on a third try, the stalwart!)
We made the final turn into L’Aberwrach at about noon, and watched a spectacular show as the ocean swell bashed against the rocks around the entry. It was nice to be done with this one.
We found a spot at the end of the dock inside the marina, and tied up.
Now, about the name of this place — “L’Aberwrach.” It doesn’t sound very French because it isn’t. It is Pictish, carried from that language into Gaelic. “Aber” means mouth, as in mouth of the river.
There are other places here in Brittany that bear the same prefix, nearby Aber Ildut being an example. There are more “Abers” up in Scotland, such as “Arbroath,” at the mouth of the Brothock Burn, where Leander stopped two years ago, and “Aberdeen,” at the mouth of River Dee. “Abers” appear in Wales too, and as “Inver,” in Ireland as well.
It is also interesting to note that the emphasis on the place-name has survived all these years. In other words, in English, we say “DART-mouth” and “FAL-mouth,” emphasizing the first syllable, even in the U.S. where we have long divorced he place-name with the focus on the English rivers Dart and Fal. But Arb-ROATH and Aber-DEEN have their accent on the second syllable, because the focus is on, again, the river names, not on the generic “mouth.”
It hits us, too, as we visit these Celtic outposts, that they are, well, outposts. The Celts got pushed to the once less-desirable corners of Europe — to Ireland, Scotland, Galicia, and Brittany, where the weather is wilder and the land not quite as uniformly arable. The Celts were the American Indians of Europe, though just as names like “Massachusetts,” “Connecticut,” and “Ohio” linger on in the U.S., so too have the Picts and Celts have left their calling cards here.
It felt good to have gotten ourselves to this outpost. We are better set up for the Bay of Biscay. And after the hard work, the rewards began.
We made some quick — and fast — friends in L’Aberwrach as well. As we were cleaning up Leander after the sail, two women stopped to say hello. Alienor and Clemence were quite pleasant, and after a half hour of conversation invited us to the local house of yet another friend for coffee. We couldn’t do it, as we were going to be departing the next day, were going out for dinner, and needed to plan and prepare after that. So instead they came back the next morning, with a bag of fresh croissants and pain-au-chocolate in hand. We shared a cup of coffee and then they helped get Leander ready for sea again.
The good times continued with our sail on Saturday, September 26. The trip through the Chanel du Four can be challenging, with extremely strong currents and rip tides that can set up if you try to go through in the wrong conditions. But we caught it just right, sailing with both favorable wind and current.
We left in the early afternoon for a 35-mile sail from L’Aberwrach to Camaret. The winds were strong again, blowing 15-20 knots, but they had backed to due east, and as we were now sailing west and then south, were first behind us and then on our beam. And by waiting a day at L’Aberwrach, rather than pushing on without having stopped there, we had given the ocean swell the opportunity to dissipate completely. Although there was still some chop, it licked gently at Leander’s stern rather than barking at its bow.
As we turned the corner to head due south down the French Coast, between the famous island of Ushant, to our west, and the Brittany coast, to the east, the current picked up and the winds filled our sails on a pleasant beam reach.
The sea state on this trip allowed the children to play and the adults to do boat tasks, which sure is better than gritting our teeth and counting down the hours.
The Brittany coast is renowned for its lighthouses, and a highlight was passing one of the more famous ones.
(When we took Leander on a close pass-by of the du Four light, we thought it was another nearby light, La Jument, arguably the subject of the most famous lighthouse photo ever taken. Jean Guichard’s photo shows the moment that lighthouse keeper Theodore Malgorne opened the door to signal to what he thought was an approaching rescue helicopter. Malgorne had no idea that the wave was hitting, and retreated back inside an instant later.)
There’s a short piece about these lighthouses here:
Now we rest at Camaret, at the top end of the Bay of Biscay. We’ll depart in the early morning tomorrow, September 29, for Galicia, in Spain.
Our anxiety level is up. For several reasons, the three-to-four-day trip across the infamous Bay of Biscay can be a challenge. First, we will be sailing cross-ways to the entire Atlantic Ocean, and so the swell can build up without interference. Second, the ocean floor raises from a depth of over 4,000 meters to just 150 meters in a distance of only 30 miles. So just like waves break on a beach because the shallowing water concentrates the energy of the swell, so too does this narrowing depth concentrate the power of that same swell, but to a much higher degree Third, the weather in this part of the Atlantic can change quickly, particularly after the start of autumn. Fourth, when bad weather does come, it comes from the SW, just the direction in which we are sailing. Fifth, because the trip will take several days, it’s not possible to predict with great accuracy the weather at the tail-end of the passage. Sixth, if the weather does deteriorate, there are not any safe harbors to run to in that part of France.
The weather forecast for the next several days does call for strong winds, averaging 20s with some gusting-to-30s thrown in. But it is to come from the E and ENE. Because we are sailing SSW, that should be just behind our beam. And because the winds will be from the same direction for several days, there will be some a swell running, but it should all be from the same direction, not on our nose, and not confused. That’s what we think will happen. Wish us luck and stay tuned!
1,143 miles traveled, 0 miles to Brest, France, and the jump off point for the Bay of Biscay, 350-400 miles to Spain, depending upon the landfall, and 3,625 to the Caribbean.