Bonjours

The Chard has been baking. Though we’ve veg and grains aplenty we ran out of bread, milk, eggs etc. a few days ago so he’s keeping us snacking with loaves and slices, and I’m keeping us from eating them all at once with gargantuan rice and pasta binges. Greetings, from behind a peanut butter flapjack. I’ll start with Concarneau.

Concarneau

The roaring sun spent several days playing hide and seek with the clouds. Our anchorage at Anse de Kersos was home to a daily frenzy of activity as sailing schools ferried boatloads of children out to fill single file lines of prepared dinghies. Some tots that looked as young as four were plopped in tiny tubs with barely more than a shirt on a stick to propel them downwind. After a short steered stretch a boat would scoop them up and motor them back upwind to steer back down again. Older kids came tearing past us in oppies and little catamarans, banging in to each other and calling out. In the lazy centre of all this activity, Rich and I spent Saturday doing absolutely nothing. On Sunday, over-rested, we unstowed our fold-up bikes into Fanny for their first foreign outing. We rode a good distance, but after a long passage and a day cooped up together we wanted to go different ways, at different paces, to see different things at almost every stage. That night, a mutual sentiment “I love you but I don’t want to spend my spare time tomorrow with you” was agreed with the help of cheap, tension-drowning wine.

Adorable couple photo

Before this promised solitude, however, we had work to do. On Monday morning we loaded up our two bikes (which don’t have names yet) with all of our dirty laundry for the last month. After ditching it in a mega-washer, and following a protracted mechanic hunt, we found the port’s “Meca Diesel” where I used broken French to describe the three jobs that needed doing. I referred to notes we’d made the night before – faire de plat, quatre goujons en acier trempé, un angle de quatre vingt dix degré and we both mimed various actions at the exhaust manifold, complete with massive exhaust pipe, that Rich had hauled there in his backpack. After some conversation between the man on the desk and the machinist I agreed to pick it up the following day, and we pedaled off to retrieve our wet laundry and further overload our child-sized bikes and knackered backs with a week’s worth of tasty French vittles.

About six years ago I cycled from Cornwall to Paris with a gang of friends from my village, so the experience of rocking up by bicyclette to a French supermarket to gaze with exhaustion at a plethora of slightly unfamiliar goods brought back strong memories. It was in just these sorts of supermarché car parks that our little troupe would joke, bitch and refuel for another day’s 70 mile journey. Thanks to this challenge I only know how to go around roundabouts the French way with any instinct, and I could remind Rich when he drifted on to the left, British, side of the road.

Gwen with the glad rags on

Among the tiny tots

At last I was free to roam. I cycled around for a bit, enjoying the feeling of air, shops, people, trees, houses and cars passing by. I spent a while dawdling in La Ville Close, the castle at the centre of the port which provided us with a cider on our first night, failing to stay awake long enough to catch an open-air play that evening. It is a magical and well preserved place for all its bustle. Past the portrait artists and hair braiders, in the little square by the entrance, a band called Micamac sing and play French, Breton and Irish folk songs in stunning harmony on a seemingly endless variety of cool traditional instruments. During daylight hours they seem to be permanently there, so you can understand their habit of stopping between each and every song to smoke and chat. Their repertoire is a reminder that the Breton people are Celts, and as with all the Celtic nations Brittany expresses this heritage most visibly through the medium of tourist tat, heavily dosed with flags, curvy typefaces, swirly patterns and poor puns. Inside the inner walls of La Ville Close this is available in abundance from the shops that line its crowded narrow main street, along with every confectionary imaginable and all the art, crepes and glacés you can only just bear to resist.

The entrance, from the ramparts

 

There’s another street parallel to this with nobody on it

 

Tintagel would be proud

I rested there again the next day during another solo shore mission. I had rowed Bob to the beach and cycled to the town, asked two dive shops whether they’d like to part exchange Rich’s wetsuit and hunted unsuccessfully for a crab pot to buy, and I was preparing to pick up the exhaust manifold when the Meca re-opened after a long lunch break. Though we’d overdone it on the week’s budget I allowed myself a small baked treat full of almonds and apple mush. Boulangeries are actually, literally, honestly everywhere in Concarneau and, along with well-perfumed French tourists, give it a brilliant smell (except in the fishing docks, which I’d also cycled through by mistake: a stinky gauntlet run through a thousand hungry seagulls).

I cycled back to the mechanic to check and pay a small fortune for the work they’d done: machining something flat, changing the direction of a pipe, providing new bolts for fixing it. I looked over their work and asked questions and pretty much understood the replies. I wasn’t sure whether the smirks of the men in the garage were due to my teeny tiny bicycle wheels, the huge bit of engine that was now filling and poking with a baguette out of my backpack, or the fact that I clearly spoke neither Engine nor French with any confidence, but it didn’t matter. I felt like a hardened steel superwoman as I cycled away, laden with machine, a conqueror of languages and roads.


The Glenans

That night, with the exhaust well modified, Rich fixed the engine. Properly, we think (for now)! On the phone his dad recommended he run it in with a big trip at full speed, so with reluctance we decided to motor instead of sail over here to Les Iles Glenan the next day. After two or three hours at sea which were just as tiring on the tiller as any sail, and ten times as noisy, we finally turned between short rocks and these low, slender beachy islands. The sky was so grey that you couldn’t see one cloud from another, and as we were coming in I saw a huge figure on one island that looked from a distance like a torso and head. “They’ve got a wicker man” I told Rich with glee “we’re doomed”. “It’s a marker, and it’s concrete” he assured me, but I remain hopeful nonetheless. We dropped our anchor in a sandy area, directed from below to a turquoise patch glowing among dark weeds.

This archipelago hosts a huge, famous sailing school, spread over several wee islands and based in forts and other old buildings dotted around them. New buildings are not allowed in most places, and everything (not a lot if you don’t count sea, sand, rocks, boats and seagulls) is solar and wind powered. Many of the beaches you can see from our anchorage are, at one point of the day or another, lined with mast after mast of sailing dinghies of all descriptions. They race around the bays all afternoon, sometimes waving to us from the high side of a tilted hobie cat as we sit on deck. They are mostly young adults, older than the kids in Anse de Kersos, on the next step towards joining the sailing superstars for which France is famous.

It’s stayed grey since we got here, so we’re sticking around for a sunny day tomorrow before we head to Belle Ile because you can tell it’ll be stunning. We’ve got a few jobs, bits of drawing and occasional sporadic dancing done while we wait for it to pass, and we’ve finally got both our dinghies sailing with their own rigs and taken them to explore a couple of the islands. The biggest, St Nicholas, is still tiny by any sort of standard and we walked around it quickly on well protected pathways over loose yellow sand, admiring sea plants we didn’t recognise and sailors doing their thang. Rich holidayed there when he was a kid and he likes being back. The place crawls with day tourists from Concarneau and Benodet and yet, refreshingly, doesn’t feel like it’s geared towards them, or us. It has a huge wind generator, a restaurant and a diving centre but there are no shops anywhere (hence why we have run out of half our larder). One resident came and asked me all about Bob because she’s looking for something similar for her kid, and a kind man in the dive centre leant me a snorkle pipe for the weekend. It seems crazy that folk live full time on this tiny space, but it appears they do. People probably think the same thing about us.

Everyone pretends to sunbathe on St Nicholas

Yeah, we could be outmaneuvered by a French 6 year old, but Bob and I get there in the end

We’ve started a “learn Spanish” CD. Here, the Chard turns to youtube for help rolling his Rs

Snorkelling from an islet that’s probably not actually called “bird poo island”

There’s a cool photo of a fish I want to share but it’s sapping my will to live. The phone people have caught up to me at last, so I can no longer use my phone to tether internet to my computer. Goodbye Youtube, it’s been beautiful. This means that blog posts will be transmitted either laboriously by phone like this (with a lot less photos) or as and when I can drag my laptop to some free wifi or a memory stick to an internet cafe. They’ll be a bit out of date and probably less frequent, all for the best I think as I do bang on a bit. So until you hear from me again, I’m hoping to explore not-really-named Wicker Man island tomorrow, and one way or another we plan to scrub Gwen’s bottom. Whether this will be on the sand on her legs or under water via snorkel we’re not yet sure. Other than that there’ll be more solo sailing in Bob, and I’ll try to whinnie slightly less during gybes because it’s really not becoming of a hardened steel superwoman, however good she’s feeling about her French.

Edit 03/08: Got internet in Belle Ile. Here’s that fish!

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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.