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. 


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.


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.


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

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

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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.