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. 



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.


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!