Delivery of a Nicholson 35 ‘Scarba’ from Plymouth to Crouesty, Gulf of Morbihan France.
Graham Bush, hugely experienced sailor, instructor, examiner, Ocean YM and more asked me to help him deliver a Nicholson 35 from Plymouth to the Gulf Of Morbihan on the west coast of France.
There were time restraints for both of us but at no point would there have been any doubt about abandoning the ship short of its destination if the weather had been against us. We had our flight booked home from Rennes on Friday 12th June. WE BOTH had to be home that day.
I had not sailed very far, or often, with Graham in the past. I had attended his very good Sea School. Graham had always been generous in giving me his time and advice, which was always golden.
We took the train from Ipswich early on Monday 8th June and arrived in Plymouth at about 1500. We persuaded our taxi to stop at a super market on route to Mayflower Marina and wait for us while we shopped. 10 minutes in Lidl and we had supplies.
At 1730 BST we were underway on leg one, destination L’Aber Wrac’h ETA mid afternoon the following day.
Maximum wind strengths by the following morning were forecast to be NE 6’s. Wind Guru, Met Office, Passage Weather, Meteo France and ‘weather mates’ (DB,JR ‘You’ll have a nice trip’ all now sacked) all confirmed a good trip.
Graham had planned that after a night in L’Aber Wrac’h, to time our arrival at the Chenal de Four for the first of the ebb flowing south down the Chenal late morning Wednesday and then on through the Raz de Sein. All carefully thought through.
It all looked fairly straight forward and there was actually a very light head wind as we motored out of Plymouth, full main set, leaving the Eddystone Lighthouse to starboard. The autohelm played up and then settled down after some rebooting. I was probably pressing the wrong buttons on the ancient thing!
Instruments were quite old but working. There was an excellent Simrad A150 AIS that I have on my boat. The standing rigging, running rigging, sails, engine were all recently new / replaced and were in good order. The vital bits of the boat were in very good condition. She was very tired below and needed some work. It’s a lovely boat to look at and very heavily built!
The sea was pretty smooth and the Nanni diesel was effortlessly taking us south and out across the Channel.
We had a hot meal and just prepared for a watchful night ahead. The wind slowly came round and we rigged a ‘preventer’ and Graham’s business like 1st reef on the main and motored on in to the growing darkness on a starboard tack. The visibility was excellent and this far north, apart from a couple of RN vessels, very little traffic. Graham mentioned experiencing the alarming sight of a periscope surfacing and then the rest of the submarine very very close to his Najad 33 in these waters! Not this time.
Around midnight with Graham having a brief rest I jibed on to port as the wind strengthened and came round NNE. The first ship had passed in front heading west and I had monitored a trawler for a short while that was now behind us.
Graham was back on deck and I put my head down. I woke an hour later the moment the motion of the boat changed as she started to sail. The noise of sheets being adjusted and the engine being switched off is always a little surreal when a sailing boat comes to life and becomes a living being. The associated noises of the working boat can be heard. Lovely! Graham had set the genoa and the wind strength was 4’s to 5’s from the NE. More and more white caps. We were happy with the ground speed and our ETA at L’Aber Wrac’h was getting earlier. Fabulous!
Graham had a brief lie down. Darkness was going to be short lived and it was already getting lighter in the east. Five west bound ships were ahead. I gave a fishing boat plenty of room and reset our course on the noisy autohelm that was working hard but very well.
I wasn’t feeling great! I rarely get ill in a boat although it’s more likely on a strange boat. The wind strengthened and Graham was back on deck. I went below and the moment I was horizontal I was up again and sick. I tried to lie down again with the same result. There was no option but to get back on deck and get working.
It was daylight and there was a sea running. The wind was mid 20’s gusting 30 + over the deck. We were still a good 40 miles from the French coast and Graham’s vast experience and immaculate yacht management was going to be demonstrated. He started to calculate all the options.
The wind increased to a fairly consistent 30 + over the deck and the sea was becoming quite violent. ‘Scarba’ had those ghastly plastic back rests on the guard rails. I was quite pleased to lean on one to vomit over the lee side. So that’s what their for! Then one blew off completely and disappeared west! The other three were thrown below as they were spinning wildly and about to hit one of us full on the … face.
We were getting thoroughly soaked. It had all arrived so quickly.
In the almanac L’Aber Wrac’h could be entered 24H with no mention of sea state. Graham studied the chart. With wind and wave height and no local knowledge Graham did not like the look of the entrance.
We were due late morning the following day on passage from L’Aber Wrac’h to time our entrance in to the Chenal de Four so Graham recalculated for a few hours time. If we were far too early it was a case of staying well out to sea and heaving too, being very miserable, but very much alive. What to do? I suggested a call to L’Aber Wrac’h as we were just picking up a signal on our phones. Just under 30 miles out Graham had a very inconclusive conversation which confirmed to him that, without local knowledge, we were not going in to L’Aber Wrac’h whatever it said in the almanac.
The Chenal de Four was going to work and I was at the mast, clipped on, and wrestling in another reef being thrown about and drenched. With the genoa furled we altered course to sail directly down wind. It was going to be hand steering all the way.
The Nicholson 35 is a wonderful heavy weather boat. My only critic would be practically no room behind the binnacle and a very low wheel. The top of the wheel was waist height. Also the wheel had no cover and therefore it was very wet gloves directly on to bare metal that required a very firm grip. I had steered a 58’ classic marconi yawl downwind in similar winds but larger seas for a long time. Hard though that was, this really was much harder and made the shoulders ache. I wanted Graham to monitor and navigate so probably did a bit more helming than the master mariner over the following hours. But working the boat was good for me and sickness has never stopped me functioning anyway. 4 metre waves and gusting 35+ over the deck required, at times, powerful corrections on the helm and plenty of concentration. No problem. The boat was happy at least!
It was going to be a long slog downwind to the start of the Chenal.
It had been a very interesting few hours. What had caused the wind strength?
‘Scarba’ eventually arrived in the Chenal and we could slowly start to head south. We unfurled a small handkerchief of jib. Hand steering was still very necessary and as we got in to lee of the land there seemed to be no moderation in the seas.
Graham had calculated our arrival at Pte Saint Mathieu so that we could get through the Raz too if we wanted to.
The seas were beginning to moderate a little. It was still very rough with no difference in wind strength. If anything it was stronger. There was no other boat in site and the worst was behind us. I think we had spotted just one yacht heading west just before the Chenal. There was another mast heading north. Now that was nuts!
‘Scarba’ was making such good progress we were happy to press on and not take long diversions off our delivery route.
I was starting to admire the incredible light houses and marks. Were they Napoleonic or earlier?
The sea was moderating in the lee of the land but certainly not the wind. The autohelm was back on and Graham periodically topped up the battery by running the engine.
It was early after noon as the Pointe du Raz approached and Graham settled on Audienne for the night. We finally had something to eat. Graham insisting I ate having plied me with water. I had been drinking.
We rounded Pointe du Raz and headed East motor sailing close hauled having put a 3rd reef in the main. The wind was still as strong and the boat was, if anything even wetter …..
I was keen to go in to the river at Audienne and see if we could reach the Marina. I telephoned and was told we would have to ‘couple’ (raft up). Graham quite rightly chose the correct option of a visitors mooring outside the river behind the wave break. As windy as it was the boat sat calmly and quietly head to wind. Nigh on 24 hours from leaving Plymouth we had finished the first leg. 160 miles. It had been more than interesting and very very hard work. We had perhaps had only an hours sleep since early Monday morning.
We were looking forward to a hot supper and some sleep. It was very cold on deck in the wind. A large catamaran came in and anchored quite close to us. Its stay sail was completely shredded and there it remained for the night shredding more in the wind as they could do nothing with it. It did not disturb us. They will not have got a lot of sleep.
Graham had spoken to his son Duncan, another Master Mariner. Winds were going to continue at the same strength and direction for another 24 hours! Bloody hell! If we had gone in to L’Aber Wrac’h another 24 hours of N Easterlies at that strength would have made the seas completely untenable up there and L’Aber Wrac’h is where the boat would have stayed. Instead, we had broken the back of the trip.
The following day we left Audienne at about 0900 BST. To start with we were making very good progress and felt we could take advantage and put in another huge day.
However, the wind started to veer until eventually we had to furl the genoa and start motor sailing in to fairly heavy seas, making very little progress. We were getting another miserable soaking. It was not difficult with a forecast of little wind the following day to make this leg as short as possible and with Graham’s original choice of Loctudy being uncomfortable in Easterlies he opted for the delightful L’Odet River and Benodet Marina. We had knocked another 30 miles off the trip.
From a distance on the pontoon I was able to admire the Nicholson 35 for the first time. She is a head turner and there were plenty of French sailors who wanted to talk about her. We were able to have a hot shower, a very good supper on land and a good nights sleep.
We left Benodet just before 0600 BST Thursday morning and motored out in to quite different conditions. There was just enough wind to set the full main and full genoa and motor sail and we took the direct off shore heading which took us south of Ile Groix. There were lots of fishing boats with high upright, fortress like bows. Some circling together. Graham made a fabulous bacon and egg brunch and the gas ran out half way through making the scrambled eggs. Plenty of new bottles though!
Visibility started to deteriorate a little as we approached Quiberon and more and more yachts started to appear.
Despite the visibility we started to appreciate not only the beauty of the Gulf of Morbihan but also the shelter of the off shore islands. A very popular cruising ground. A ferry passed in front of us on its way to Belle-Ile-en-Mer.
We rounded Quiberon in a mill pond and the rain started and continued steadily as we crossed Quiberon Bay.
We arrived Crouesty 1630 BST the final 60 miles completed. The owners took our lines.
It was strange we were not given time to sort ourselves out. Graham made them tea and then an eccentric suggestion that they, their 20 year old grandson and girl friend slept on board with us that night! It rained too, so quite how we were going to deal with all our wet gear and clobber, get packed surrounded by all their bags too I do not know! We stayed in a B&B. It would have been a night from hell after what we had done.
Had we enjoyed it? Absolutely not! I think the quiet and kind gentleman owner was aware of what the trip had been like … and had anxiously lived the trip with us.
As an afterthought we SHOULD have been left alone with the boat for the night so we could do a proper handover the following day with our bags packed.
It had been a huge headache for Graham. It cannot have been worth all the hassle and struggle to find help to do the trip and then have a sailing experience that he has put in his top ten and is in my top four of ‘interesting’. I only have 17 years and many miles at sea. Graham has over forty years and goodness knows how many miles? So for it to be in his top ten is quite something.
I have added Graham to my very small list of folk I would always be delighted to sail with if they will put up with me. It was fabulous to be with a great sailor when the going got tough. And very good company too.
I think you have covered everything in your description of our trip. I suppose you could just have mentioned that we did have 41 kts of wind across the deck and we were going downwind and that there were 4m cresting waves. Perhaps you have been a bit too generous about my part in it.
Graham Bush 14th June 2015