La Manche

Rich got the anchor chain ready to lift, wearing a familiar look of concern wrought by a week of engine stress. I hugged him. “It’s all going to be good. It really is.” He hugged me back and smiled. “Cool”. We left at sunset, bidding goodbye to our large anchorage by St Marys with three sails up and without thought of using that terrible motor. A fog appeared from behind St Agnes and as the light faded, the mist grew. We hoisted the radar reflector and raised our eyebrows to each other.

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Last sights of Scilly, before we couldn’t see.

Navigating the course south between St Marys and St Agnes, which we’ve done a couple of times before in daylight, was without its usual landmarks and transits. Though we could see the red marker buoys we needed to round, by the time we were south of them we could only see our position by two approaching blurred beacons and the GPS on our computer screen inside. I directed Rich, who was up the steps on the tiller, and popped up now and then to reassure him in his hour of confusion. A couple of times his course veered dramatically to the east, and when I called up to correct him he sounded queasy “I don’t know what happened there. It feels like vertigo, everything’s spinning but I can’t tell where”.

On deck it was like being in a dark snow globe full of mist. The unseen moon lit bright blurred edges where the horizon should be and only the nearest waves were visible. I had looked forward to being out of the sight of land, but had not imagined that we would achieve that within hearing range of the waves crashing against the rocks of St Agnes. When we’d cleared the Scillies I took the tiller and let Rich rest for an hour, steering us south and scanning the mist for any changes in light. The moon appeared briefly, then returned to the haze.

The wind picked up and during the night we made incredible time, topping seven knots for several hours and eventually shaking off the fog. I steered us around a couple of ships, and Rich another on his watch, but we were mostly alone until I spotted our first dolphin at sunrise. Dolphins were never far from us for the rest of our trip, and though they would only come and play with the boat for a minute or two they could be seen as frequently as sea birds in the middle distance at most times. Our downwind reach was speedy but choppy, and waves were regularly washing the deck by the time we slowed to four or five knots.

We hadn’t slept for particularly long at night, so we continued taking it in turns for naps as the morning progressed, which is always a strange experience at first. It’s all exciting outside – waves crashing and dolphins saying hello – but here in the warm centre of your home the noises and movements mimic those of a terrible catastrophe. The room jerks or rolls about, occasionally throwing poorly stored nicknacks onto the floor. Water gushes past the hull and drips and dribbles in the sink and water tanks. Above the banging and creaking sounds like some very important structure is about to collapse, and all around there are the gentle clinks and bangs of cup on cup, jar on jar, box on chair, drawer on drawer stopper, knife on board. And yet, this is all fine, and you sleep. When you’re up and about you can often go to take one step and find it turning in to a little run, and you have to prop yourself up against something if you need to use both your hands. No action is without extra effort, and no centre of gravity is immune from change. This is particularly fun when getting changed in and out of clothes and life jackets for going on deck or back inside. It doesn’t take long before all this is normal.

We hoisted the toe staysail to make the most of the diminishing wind just as sun began to break through the day’s cloud. Rich made us an early dinner and returned to the galley to bake our first loaf of bread for the trip, which we demolished within an hour of cooling down. By the evening we were passing the shipping channels over the north west of Brittany and had to make a few adjustments to our course to avoid giant cargo carriers and the like. Announcements on the VHF radio were in French and though I speak a little conversationally I could only understand the instructions of which channel to turn to for the weather report and then the odd word – a wind direction (but at what strength? for what time?) and the announcement that the report was over. We had not made plans for who would take which watch overnight, but it seemed easy to decide – if it was your turn and you felt like it, you went and slept. You gave a vague number of hours of how long you’d like (usually 3 at night, 1 or 2 during the day) and then woke when you woke and got back on the tiller so the other person could go make you a drink and have a sleep themselves, or make food, or tend to the sails, or fetch their banjo to serenade the dolphins.

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First sundowner in my friends’ wedding commemoration eggcups. “To Alex and Simon, to Gwen and Geordi, to you and me.”

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Red head torch masking taped to the compass. We’ms high tech. 
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Night sailing

By morning the wind was low, and you could hear the gentle snorting noises of dolphins breathing as they popped briefly out of the water and returned. We carried on heading south as our plan was to stay well away from the west of France and avoid all its tidal terrors. The ride was smoother, and we were able to do a few more things around the boat – read some books and play some music, untwist and retrieve our beleaguered radar reflector and replace it with our home made French courtesy flag, cook a huge curry type thing and catch up on a load of snoozes. Land could be seen in the distance as we bickered over a slight disagreement on the direction of our course (there was really very little difference of opinion, but there was nothing else to bicker about) and got over it quickly, both pretty pleased with ourselves for not turning it into an argument! We had known from the wind predictions that this day would be slower, but even with that in mind we progressed less than expected. And that night, somewhere near the south west of Brittany, the wind disappeared.

I steered toward the beautiful full rising moon in a silent sea, barely moving but determined that if we were going to, it should be in the right direction. The next was to be the third day of our trip – the one our wind predictions had suggested would contain long periods of no or next to no wind from a vague northerly or westerly direction, and the one for which we had no definite plan. We were rounding the Penmarch corner at a good distance from its tidal dramas, after which we would head east and then north east towards Concarneau, and if we weren’t getting anywhere we could try to find somewhere to put the anchor down on the way until the wind returned.

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Rich sees a gazillion fishing boats leave the shore as our course goes haywire very, very slowly.

Our log book gives our speed for 11pm that night to 1pm the next day as 0 – 0.5 knots. The sea was a millpond and by morning the sunshine was incredible, and we could see the forest and beach lined coast of France to our north. The same patch. For hours. Phone signal appeared but grib wind diagrams shed little light on when we could expect to move again. We weren’t going to touch that bloody engine, so we had to make the most of it, and we did. The log book also records several incidences of on-deck nudity, a banjo rehearsal, and some focaccia. The only upsets were running out of cigarettes, which turned out not to be too traumatic as I rationed out my last four over a 24 hour period, and toilet paper, which turned out not to be a problem as I found a secret stash in the galley. Rich got back on the baking and by the time the wind returned in the early afternoon we were both wearing light clothes and sun hats and looking forward to a delicious coconut slice.

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Clearly a terrible situation

The wind pushed us along the coast and got stronger, and we turned towards Concarneau with it dead behind us. Rich got in the toe staysail and pushed our regular staysail out with a pole partly constructed with one of our oars, which gave us great speed as we navigated the final approach between the coast and the Glennan Islands. Heading in to our unknown anchorage produced the usual tension and I gritted my teeth through our obligatory “are you going to make the decision or shall I” shouting match, which took two minutes before the usual decision of “sod it, let’s put the anchor down here” was reached. And then that was it. We were here. We looked at each other with impressed amusement.

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Rich reluctantly putting away his big staysail stick, of which he is very proud.

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Concarneau from our anchorage

A desire to go ashore gripped me. We got the sails away and hoisted the anchor ball and light, and I showered quickly while Rich tidied up the ropes on deck. As we lifted and turned Fanny to put her in the water a strange giddiness began to take hold and by the time we landed on French soil I was plastered in a dumb grin that didn’t leave for several hours. I was impressed that France instantly felt French – why, there were people cycling through the forest next to the beach, and there was a pair of beautiful exposed breasts ready to greet us as we landed on the sand. Rich pointed to the rock samphire at the start of our path with glee. Some things don’t change.

We started to walk towards Concarneau and I felt, finally, like we had actually left on our adventure. We had made it to “abroad”. Soon I would be required to speak “foreign”. I had enjoyed every part of our journey – the quick day, the middling day, the are-we-ever-going-to-move-again day. Neither of us had got seasick or crazy. We hadn’t had to use the motor that Rich will hopefully fix next week, and we’d made it, not quickly but who cares? After nearly four years of dreaming it was real, we were still in love and we were where we wanted to be.

Later, outside a little cafe in the touristy island castle at the centre of Concarneau’s port, we drank cider from teacups, ate crepes and relaxed. We’d walked the long way round the harbour, loving the feeling of using our legs, as we’d had no Euros to pay for the ferry that we would later take back to our side of the town. I’d found some trashy French romance novels discarded on a wall and grabbed one pour pratiquer la langue. I’d spoken French to some real French people to ask directions. It was still warm at 10pm and we were both tanned and beaming.

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Except at this exact moment, clearly.

Last night we slept for 12 hours. We woke up this morning and decided to get the folding bikes out so we can explore that forest over on the shore, and we will soon.

I’m stilly giddy as I write, even though it’s taking ages. Every place we go from now onwards will be this new. I like my life.

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One thought on “La Manche

  1. Lucy says:

    You paint an amazing picture with words Trish, so very happy for you both that all the years of hard work have finished ally paid off and you are living the dream.

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