Swell

On the first day we wake early and take Gwen to the harbour in Belle Ile to stock up on water and buy a little fuel – not that it’s needed, just so that we’re customers of the port. Rich isn’t confident about turning us around in the busy harbour and reversing up the channel so he hasn’t slept well, but it all goes fine despite having to move away and tie up to a dive boat to allow a more important boat in right at the key moment. We motor out of Port de Palais and anchor in a nearby bay to get ready for the big trip by baking and snoozing.

There’s a knock on the side of the boat and I stick my head out. French Customs. Four of them in a RIB, pulled up to Gwen: good cop, bad cop, sensible looking and the one who doesn’t talk. We communicate mostly in French with some English thrown in for the really hard bits, with me answering their questions and we two foreigners laughing nervously throughout. Good cop and bad cop come on board and take a look around. Good cop thinks the boat is really pretty. Bad cop wants to know what we do for a living. We have nothing to declare, and I overhear them discussing that we don’t have any money. They leave, satisfied that we’re not a threat, and we breathe a sigh of relief that they haven’t checked for out of date flares or taken offense at the raggedy home made French courtesy flag whose colours have started to fade to Italian.

We leave Belle Ile around 2pm when the wind starts fluttering along the bay, and enjoy passing its eastern side which is dotted with beaches and rocks. The wind continues to increase as the afternoon proceeds and by dinnertime we’re heading straight into it, bouncing about between rainclouds. This is my first experience of the Atlantic swell, which is an accumulation of waves that become towering and steady as they head into Europe. Its leisurely pace masks its dramatic height – you are on the mountain top, then you roll down in to the valley, then you ascend again. However, the huge wind we are eventually fighting our way into jitters its gentle roll, coating the longer waves in angry, smaller ones. We debate hoving to and putting in a reef, but eventually it recedes a little and though it’s not comfortable I’m no longer too scared to take on my night shift alone.

Two dolphins leap clear of the giant waves to wish us goodnight, and Rich heads down to a turbulent sleep. I am left to my first three hours, which I make four as he really needs more rest, and to my first sunset of the journey. Each evening the horizon’s colours gradiate beneath the upturned blue bowl of the sky. Towards the sun, flaming orange singes curls around the edges of any once-white clouds, now shaded grey. On the opposite side pink melts to purple and turquoise. Any direction you look could be the backdrop to fantasy novel or 80s album cover art.

Over the morning of the second day the voices on the VHF radio change from French to Spanish and the wind calms, and by the time I wake from my second sleep we’re down from 6 knots to 2 or 3. We’ve hardly seen a soul for 24 hours when our electronic chart shows a horde of fishing vessels up ahead along the fifty miles that will take us from 200m to 4,500m depth. As we get closer their AIS transponders on our map make Gwen look like the victim of a swarming zombie attack, but in reality they are quite far apart and moving reasonably fast so we pass between them easily, watching them work. It is difficult to imagine how sea life here survives with this many nets swooping and scooping.

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Let’s go to the Winchester, have a pint and wait for this to blow over.

It’s a sunny day, and we’re dressed in light clothes, getting on with odd jobs and taking advantage of the calm waters to play music, learn Spanish from our CD and cook up proper meals. In the afternoon we watch a load of videos that friends from back home made for us for our departure. The tiredness and stress of the previous day has disappeared and we’re laughing, worrying flocks of resting birds, having a sundowner, not going fast but not becalmed either.

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Missed opportunity to recreate the “Rio” music video. Next time.

That night I’m on the 10-1 shift and the first fine sliver of the moon sets speedily before me with the light. Night watches can be quite boring once you’re used to them. The person who’s on watch has little else to do but occasionally check the chart, write in the log book every two hours and marvel at the stars. You arm yourself with time-killing roasted sunflower seeds to suck, crack and remove from their casings, scattering their shells in Gwen’s wake. You can’t get on with a project with this little light, and you’re so tired you can barely come up with new thoughts (although I sometimes try to write songs in my head) so your brain frees itself from its normal duties, making you vaguely philosophical, occasionally euphoric and simultaneously peeved that you’re still awake.

Then it’s the other poor sod’s turn to take the helm. This person has just been woken up after far too little sleep and would rather be alone. They’re polite (or are at least trying to be) but quiet, getting their bearings and hoping you don’t go on too much about all the things you’ve been thinking for the last three hours. But you just have to spaff out all sorts of excited nonsense about the shooting stars you’ve seen and the fishing boat you’re about to pass, and the incumbant watcher endures it and doesn’t tell you to please just sod off. You make them a coffee and go to bed. In three hours time the tables turn and it’s you wishing your bouncy loved one away from behind a forced smile.

Day three. Aerial long distance shot, moving in on a distant blue boat flying three white sails shooting comfortably across an empty blue sea in bright sunshine. As we close in, we see that there is a completely naked woman of 37 (although a drunk French man told her last week she looked ten years younger) propped most of the way out of the aft hatch, a rolled-up cigarette held aloft in one hand and a pint of squash in the other. She is facing the sun and the camera, leaning back and forwards with the waves and singing along to David Bowie with all the power her lungs will allow “Take a look at the law man, beating up the wrong guy…” It occurs to me for a moment that this could be the happy ending shot for the film of my life. Then I think about what’s ahead, and realise it might well be more like the opening scene.

Rich makes himself a cushion to tie on to the push pit. His back has been hurting during his night watches. When he’s finished the sawdust and sunflower seed shells he’s left behind give the cockpit the ambiance of a hamster cage, but being on the helm is instantly a more pleasant experience now you can lean back on something soft. I take a daytime snooze, and have a typically unsettled rest. You don’t get real sleep or real dreams in these little pauses. In the roll and tumble of the saloon, jammed in as best you can be, your mind instead gets stuck in the meandering thoughts that usually precede sleep and warp as consciousness gives way. At one point I’m thinking quite lucidly about our journey and the things we’ll need to do ashore when I realise that we’re actually sailing a boat and I’ve been thinking of it as flying an aeroplane for a good ten minutes. While I’m trying to sleep Rich sees our first whale – a loud plume of watery breath and a bit of grey – but by the time I’m called up it is gone.

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Obligatory photo of some sea, in case you’d forgotten

In the evening and night the boat seesaws slowly on huge diagonal waves, splashing the starboard side deck dramatically into the wash on its side of the ride. We hove to and put a reef into the main sail, shortening it enough to make the night watches bouncy but bearable. The next morning, which is to be the last of this journey, I tell Rich about the state of near bliss I reached overnight, and the strength of night vision that seemed to reveal veins of light between the stars. Though they presumably give glimpses of more and more distant stars, from on deck it had appeared that there were fine white fabric fibres holding the universe in place.

This has been the best experience ever, and yet we can’t wait for it to be over. Unlike any other situation I know, these two things do not seem to cancel each other out. We chat about how you wouldn’t enjoy yourself if you were just plonked here for an hour. It would make the worst fairground simulator ride ever, bouncing from side to side with not a lot to see. There is something about the meaning, achievement and purpose of it all that is making us squeeze hands and smile like this. The journey holds new adventure right before you, and turns mere water and air into a sensory spectacular. While Rich is looking the other way I see the long black back and small curved fin of a pilot whale, and am awed and relieved – I have my own whale now.

The wind picks up even more, and Rich asks me if the dark patch up ahead is land. I tell him no (idiot), that’s far too big. That’s a cloud. Land doesn’t look like that.

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Oh, hang on… maybe…

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…yeah, okay

It turns out that Spain looks like that. As we get closer the wind behind us, the waves and the countryside all go super sized. We scandalise our main (dropping the highest point of the gaff down towards the boom to reduce the sail size), which is a neat slowing-down trick that gaff rigs can do, and which avoids the need for another reef. We still speed along, but we’re down to a more palatable 6 or 7 knots from the 9 Gwen was hitting a moment ago. Spain looms, wearing fluffy clouds that pour over magnificent cliffs and smelling of warm pines. We turn, steer awkwardly upwind to Cedeira and drop the anchor among a few other sailboats in a high forested cove leading to an orange-roofed town. I didn’t know Spain would look like this.

It hits me that I know very little about Spain. Tomato throwing, Fast Show sketches, animal cruelty. Shit. Well, I guess it’s probably time to find out a bit more. We get Fanny off the deck and go ashore.

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Cedeira. A town where children’s events go on past midnight and they serve them ice cream in bars.

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Gwen, Rich, me, Fanny (around)

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Ria view

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Greenery’s always nice after a long trip in the blue

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This way to the next place

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Next blog post teaser: We move in to a cave with “Jason Bourne” scratched on the wall

Electric Ile

Our last view of the clear Glenan waters – our anchor chain and our reflection

I’m gradually shedding the shackles of expectation, the great enemy of the laid back lifestyle. On our sail from the Glenans to Belle Ile an unforseen south easterly wind meant that it was possible we would have to head inland instead, perhaps to Quiberon or the islands that we couldn’t pronounce but were calling “Hodor”. It was all fine, all possible, we’d decide when we got closer – plans can be made and remade in the blink of an eye and now I just don’t mind. Suddenly the wind disappeared completely and I suspected a change was afoot. Sure enough, a flap flap bang boom – yes, the wind now hurtled from the south west sending us straight to our original course. And like that, the plan spins back.

I enjoy sailing far more than I could ever have expected, and my familiarity with the workings of the boat has grown naturally and without deliberate effort from the tiller and main to the jib, running backstays and staysail. And yet for all this enjoyment arrival often holds the greatest delight. After the anchor goes down (conversely almost always the most stressful part of the journey) it is a race to tie up the sails, get the dinghies off and go exploring. This has never been more the case than in Belle Ile. From our anchorage we could see grand rows of buildings with faded pastel plaster facades rising from behind the harbour wall, and beside it one edge of a huge citadel topped with pale pink apartments. We got Fanny off the deck, braved the ferry route into the harbour and were pleased to find a huge cobbled slip where we could leave her while we took in Port de Palais. 

Well Belle

We usually have some time alone as soon as possible, but that first night ashore is for both of us and weaves our first impressions together. I cooed at the prettiness of the harbour and checked out upcoming events on posters in shop windows. Rich was entranced by the ferry unloading, the 80s Citroens and Renaults, the little boat in a gallery window made from a mussel shell and the pedal motorbikes. I waited ever less patiently as he ambled from shop window to shop window like a toddler in a supermarket, pointing at things and demanding audience. It’s great to take in his excitement, but we’d been sailing so I was looking forward to some calm and soon headed off to find a bar. The next day I had a few hours in my own pace and space. I saw an opera rehearsing in a portside garage and sat down to listen outside, photographed the decaying shutters of town houses, sketched the pretty shops along the quay and searched bookshops and market stalls, taking in this most gorgeous of towns without the running commentary. It’s always after this sort of rest that I can rejoin Rich for the big adventures. We like the same things, usually, it’s just that sometimes we like them differently.

I had found the Glenan Isles tiring. I am the learner, and I get sick of always being told what to do no matter how justified it is. My first snorkel in years, my first sail in Bob with my own rig – everything we had tried was fun and exhausting. Just before we left I had scrubbed half of Gwen’s bottom with a small sponge on a stick wearing an ill fitting snorkel and Rich’s fins, and nearly did myself in. Here in Belle Ile I could relax. Here there were things I can do without thinking and learning – have a walk, drink wine, take a bike ride. And finally, a few nights in, we did something I had been craving and went out late to hunt down live music. 

Our first drink was to the jumping gypsy beats of the open mic in the Matelot bar, after which we bimbled, happy on punch, towards another bar where I’d enjoyed a juice in over lunchtime. We couldn’t afford more booze so we joined the throngs of people perched outside on the shop doorways and listened to the incredible acoustic skiffle jazz group that were playing in the front garden. The slim double bass player, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, stared forward in concentration at one of the three guitarists, and carried on playing when the songs were done. He made such a landscape with his beat you could almost fill in the rest yourself. It was one in the morning and we were only just wearing our jumpers. We drained our hip flasks, swung gently and held hands, overjoyed with our new favourite place in France. 

I read online that slugs (yes we still have a boatslug problem) don’t like copper, so Rich tried winding some wire around the drawers

Test slug. Fail.

We have a tight budget which I manage, the details of which are too boring to go into in much depth. From the £200 we have to live on a week about a quarter goes to keeping Gwen in shape and often up to a quarter goes on things like phone bills and fuel that we spread out over the month. Because that only leaves £100ish for food, drink and fun we try to shop as cheaply as possible and don’t tend to go out a lot, particularly in places where the beer is as expensive as it is in Brittany. This night out was a real treat, and we resolved to find a way to afford more. The next day we cycled out to the big cheap supermarket (we didn’t know cheaper supermarkets existed in France having not found ourselves in one before!) and stocked up on three weeks worth of staples – rice, pasta, oil, tinned food, UHT milk etc. We cycled home to Gwen in the rain, triumphant and drenched, and ready for the long journey ahead. 

The next day we left Belle Ile, and France, for the big one – the crossing of Biscay.