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A Student’s Sailing Journal

RYA Course Avec Garlic

Having booked on a RYA Day Skipper course with Brittany Sailing in France we decided to fly to Brest the day before to relax and be ready for the start of the week’s sailing on Sunday afternoon.

Sunday 1400 visitors pontoon, Moulin Blanc Marina

Richard Curtis, the RYA instructor, welcomed us aboard with a firm handshake and a tentatively expressed desire for a ‘Tilley’ hat as worn by my companion. Whether or not he meant it he was given a thorough introduction to the merits offered by this virtually indestructible hat, designed to fend off the discomfort of water, wind and sun – ideal for the seasoned sailor. A few cups of coffee later, with bags unpacked, we settled down in the welcoming interior of the Van De Stadt, 34 ft steel Burmudan Sloop, ‘Cornish Legend’ – Richard’s pride and joy which had taken him several years to lovingly fit out. Not long after, the full complement of crew, three males and one female were exchanging sailing stories while relaxing in the spacious cabin to enjoy dinner provided by the skipper’s absent wife, Sue. That evening we went through the safety procedures, how to reef the main sail and tie sailing knots.

Monday 1100 first day

A smooth sea and gentle wind meant we had to motor to Camaret past the lengthy coastline of Brest. Not ideal sailing weather today we practiced boat handling and man overboard under power. It was certainly a new experience using a rudder rather than the wheel on our own boat.

1245 anchoring, Port Naye

Anchored at Port Naye on a 15lb Bruce anchor with 20m of anchor chain and 10m nylon rope to watch seabirds as we ate lunch. Richard prepared Croque Monsieur, a French delicacy or Croque madame there was the unresolved question as of which had the egg. To us Brits, ham and melted cheese on toast with a fried egg on top. He managed, as the boat bobbed gently from side to side in a slightly wavy sea, to produce ten perfectly fried eggs.

1500 circuits and bumps, Camaret

On to Camaret to practice circuits and bumps or approaching and pulling away from a pontoon, and man over board – under sail this time. Richard recounted sailing stories which came thick and fast given his vast experience as a Naval Officer. We were given more insight to this relaxed and competent instructor who managed to improve our ability with subtle yet highly effective effort.

1830 passage planning to Morgat

The day’s training ended with a team of two working together to plan a passage for the ongoing trip from Camaret to Morgat. This involved checking for hazards on route, tides, and plotting course on the chart.

Tuesday 0900

After routine safety checks and a passage briefing from one of the trainee skippers we set sail. More man over board practice today, which took us by surprise as we were not expecting it. This fully tested each of our responses to the impending danger. With tide on our side, sea state slight and a gentle NE, force 3 we sailed past the rocky outcrop on the Camerat coastline to Morgat arriving at 1700hrs. We had anchored for cheese baguettes and soup just offshore, looking on to a white sandy beach with only one or two people in sight, before sailing around the Cap De La Chevre.

1800 Morgat. Passage planning to Douarnenez This time teaming up with a new partner, we planned a passage to Douarnenez and a possible night passage for our return journey to Camaret. We spent some time considering how to navigate through what appeared to be a rocky outcrop framing the Douarnenez harbour entrance. Going in on a neap tide, some hours after low water, gave us the confidence we needed.

Further exploration of French cuisine and a bottle of wine ended a good day’s sailing.

Wednesday 0730

Another bright sunlit morning. My system still operating on British time groaned into action knowing it was actually 0630 hrs. The skipper seemed pleased with my departure from Morgat, around the red buoy and on into the Baie to Douarnenez. We followed our passage plan and sailed towards the attractive shore line of Douranenez a few hours later guided in the final stages by the two church spires on the headland. We found it fascinating to check out the chart against a place once we reached it and here we were amazed at how distinctive the churches were on the approach to Douarnenez. Yes, the passage planning and charts worked. I enjoyed being skipper today which mainly consisted of keeping my hands in my pockets and reeling off instructions to the crew. It must have gone down relatively successfully as there were no mutineers.

1200 rowing in Douarnenez

We each took turns to row the dingy around the harbour so that Richard could vouch for our ability to manoeuvre it unaided.

Stepped ashore for lunch and visited the lovely street market to purchase olives, vegetables, a large French pastry and a skipper’s hat. The hat we planned to give Richard later if he correctly answered the questions on navigational markers from a pack of cards he had produced and tested us on part way across the bay. He looked slightly uncertain of our intentions but passed and was duly presented with the official Breton cap to signify his achievement and merit in our estimation.

1900 night passage to Camaret

We enjoyed an on the boat repast of pasta whilst considering the possibility of attempting a night sail back to Camaret. We finally agreed to the challenge mainly because of the confidence we had in Richard’s knowledge of the area and his ability to help us navigate through some difficult patches.

The night sailing was new for some of the crew and there was a dignified silence as the boat slid through the inky black sea in a force 5. We arrived at midnight feeling pleased with the fast and fairly smooth return passage. With whisky, a few beers and some bread and cheese we relaxed after the effort we had extended identifying the night navigation lights, cardinal markers, danger markers, isophase lights on the breakwater and occulting lights along the shoreline, and the five hour journey through force 4/5 NE wind. Sailing in daylight and sailing at night are dramatically different experiences.

On route I was pleased that Richard asked the helmsman to ‘heave to’. That is, stopping the boat by turning around against the wind, so that I could visit the ‘heads’ in relative comfort. It was good to know that the boat could ‘heave to’ that easily, especially for the times there was a need to sort things out even in difficult weather conditions.

Thursday 0930

Late risers after the night sailing we rushed to take advantage of the showers before they became fully occupied and faced the new experience of combined male/female facilities. Luckily, it was a male crew member who was confronted by a hairy man, completely starkers, and covered in soap suds standing, as he graphically described, with ‘his tackle hanging over the washbasin.’ Assuming a typically British pose he turned to face the mirror and asked no questions. Meanwhile, the naked man ran back and forth from the shower cubicle to the sink emptying and refilling his wash bag with water on route. Thinking he must be French our crew member kept quiet. He was taken aback when a man called out as he left ‘see you later, John.’ We heard this story several times that day so it must have had an impact. It certainly pays to make sure you have enough shower tokens before washing if only to prevent shocking other crew members!

A petit dejeuner of warm crusty French bread and pain au chocolat appeared again as if by magic. Richard had the uncanny ability to make things run smoothly, with no fuss and quiet effort on his part. He may have thought this went unnoticed but it was thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated.

1030 boat handling, Camaret

After breakfast we carried out more practical training on boat handling. The approach and pick up of a buoy and encountering a pontoon in harbour. And, for good measure, a quick method of retrieving someone who had fallen overboard which was a major concern for those of us who sail regularly with only two crew on board. The weather was on our side again today and the sun showed the clear turquoise waters of the bay to its best advantage. We even managed to forego sea sickness pills. We had taken them for the first three days as a precaution but the continuing good weather and easy sea had given us the confidence to leave the little pink comforters alone. I had even managed, just about, to cook pasta while the boat rocked gently in a slightly choppy sea. For me it is unusual that I can go below in those conditions without feeling more than a touch queasy, let alone cook getting my sea legs at last.

The morning after the night before earned us some shore leave and we sauntered around the artist’s quarter of Camaret and walked a short way along the coastal path to see the expanse of sea lapping the sheltered bay.

After lunch we did some more classroom work on navigation, plotting tidal variance when setting a course. Practice on knot tying helped us to get closer to understanding some essential knots and when you would use them. Further practical exercises in the bay meant that ‘ready to gibe’, ‘gibe’, ‘ready about’, ‘lee ho’ were rolling easily off the tongue. Going through the motions to set sails to run to course and to allow the boat to respond to the wind/sea conditions was slowly but surely making sense.

The evening meal ashore with the full complement of crew rounded off another good day, with the skipper sporting his new Breton cap.

Friday 0900

A leisurely breakfast sitting together in the cockpit. Our ability to tie a bowline and several other knots was tested followed by another practical exercise to ascertain our proficiency with navigation and tidal vectors.

We set off for Brest with a fair wind and a calm sea and took in the rocky headland for the last time. Sitting together drinking tea and munching chocolate biscuits we reflected on the week’s experience. By this time it must be apparent that sailing consists of eating, drinking followed by more eating and drinking. Two crew members decided that having achieved the ‘RYA Course avec garlic’ had left them feeling ‘blooming’, another was ‘putting down roots’ and one described him self as ‘floating’. We put this down to too much sun and sea air.

A quick calculation of the tidal height established a clear entry to the L’Elorn river under the Pont Albert-Louppe and Pont de L’Lroice bridges just outside Port du Moulin Blanc. We practiced picking up a buoy with the ‘lasso’ method. Especially Useful for the occasions when the crew have just let go of the boat hook!! We stopped for, yes, more food. Richard disappeared below to produce a mound of savory and sweet crepes one after the other – fourteen in total – is there no end to this man’s talents!

Then, hurrah … with the approval of our official instructor, we were presented with RYA Day Skipper certificates. Richard shook our hands and smiled approvingly.

The thought of coming ashore to return to our land lives felt strange after a week afloat. I imagined the gradual transition from yacht to harbour, to airport and then the return drive home. We had been on board ‘Cornish Legend’ for five days now and had shared each day eating, drinking, talking, laughing, and sleeping alongside each other. The experience had left us looking healthy, feeling fit and certainly more confident in our sailing.

1300 arrival, Moulin Blanc marina

We waved farewell to the diminished crew on arrival at the marina, leaving Richard and one crew member to continue for another week’s sailing. After a final cold beer at the harbourside café we took a taxi to the airport at Brest to catch the 1900 hrs return flight to Stanstead. This turned out to be another good flight, cruising at 24,000 ft in the blue sky above sunlit clouds. We landed only one hour later on English soil – amazing! It was easier to travel to Brest and back than it was to drive from Berkshire to London on the M4 and a lot less stressful. Buzz to Brest and back had certainly kept its promise.

What the crew thought …

‘The week’s training made the whole business of sailing much clearer, brought four people from quite different backgrounds to live together and work as crew, and, in doing so, doing it well. That was quite something to experience.’

‘Very much the unusual location, showing a part of France I probably wouldn’t have got to see – certain parts of France that have not been overrun by tourism.’

‘The sailing gave me a lot of confidence to go further afield. It gave me a self confidence in taking up a challenge further than I usually would have.’

‘I liked the night sailing – I would have said ‘no’, but having done it I’m pleased and would certainly do it again.’

‘I enjoyed meeting totally different people that I wouldn’t normally come across.’

‘It’s been fun.’

‘A step along a very long journey.’

‘An opportunity to learn some of the more enjoyable aspects of sailing, in a safe and controlled way, whilst finding out more about a rather special region of the French coast.’

‘RYA Course avec garlic and croissants.’

‘The memorable moments were in the experience of going through the narrows past the rocks by the coastguard station at night.’


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French address:
Richard & Sue Curtis, L’Ancrage, Kergalet, 29160 Lanveoc, Finistere, France.
U.K. Address:
Brittany Sailing, 12 Victoria Park, St Mathew’s Hill, Wadebridge, Cornwall, U.K
French Tel No. 0033 (0)298170131
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