The British Channel and France (Part II) – Sailing from Ireland to the Mediterranean

Stuck alone in Falmouth for a week felt like holidays. Got to watch a gig at the marina pub with all the ladies dressed as pinups, would go for a run in the mornings and spend lazy days afloat while looking for crew online and preparing for the crossing. Also paid a visit to the legendary Chain Locker Pub for a Guinness and enjoyed the good weather.

Plenty rested, I was in the best mental and physical form of my life. Don’t click if you don’t want to see me shirtless. Constant work on the boat and a heavy anchor with no windlass helps keeping you fit.

Anyway, I was ready for the crossing and I had found crew!

Next Stop: Aber Wrac’h (France – Bretagne)

Mikhail (Russia) and Padraig (Ireland), two lads from the Irish Parachute Club where I used to jump, responded to the call and flew from Dublin to Falmouth specially for the 100nm crossing of the English Channel to Aber Wrac’h in France. These legends:

After a mandatory quick stop to eat some famous Cornish Pasties and Donuts (currently an Irish obsession) we headed out to sea.

The crossing was long, tiring and cold. We left at about 4pm from Falmouth to arrive on the next day before midday in France. The first 5 hours were great. Sailing wing on wing downwind followed by the largest pod of dolphins of the trip. The spirits were high! But then the sea starts to get into ones head (and stomach) and a crew was disabled. The next 3 hours must have been quite uncomfortable for one of the lads (I’ll give him anonymity by not telling which one haha). Throwing up and feeling very sea sick. The idea of sailing back wasn’t much of an option for the wind being dead on our transom. On top of that, he seemed very confident stating that he was fine and he could handle that. Remember folks, these guys jump out of airplanes for fun on a weekly basis in northern weather. They can handle shit! He laid down asleep for the next hours while myself and the other crew would take turns steering on a very cold night loaded on coffee. It was 1 am when he raised out from his seasickness trip, fresh as it never happened! Took over the night’s watch and gave us needed time to rest and warm a bit.

The English channel is the busiest shipping area in the world. One of my main concerns at the time was to be mindful of the TSS (Traffic Separation Scheme) which is a sort of traffic lane that you are meant to cross on a 90 degree angle at constant speed. Just like crossing a street. Since my boat was equipped with an AIS transceiver, I was way more confident and safe knowing that I could see the big ships and they could see me on the chart plotter. No radio calls were needed and the ships would just slightly adjust their courses to avoid a collision with my boat.

Take a look at the live map of the channel and how busy it is:

You can also check Neverland’s live position here by the way!

Land Ahoy!

The sun came up and so the land! We finished our crossing, hailed the marina on the radio and got us a berth. Quick shower and a stop at the Cafe du Port for a croissant and cafe au lait (Padraig ordered with his best accent). Mikhail also found a random commie shirt on the rack of clothes for sale and bough it as souvenir. It was funny to see the guys feeling “trippy” back on land. “Why is everything moving?” they would ask haha. Some people get affected by this and everything seems to be moving despite being perfectly still on solid ground. Disembarkation sickness…

After breakfast we found ourselves on a mission to hail a very expensive taxi in a hurry to Brest where the guys would catch a train to Rennes and then fly back to Dublin. Kudos to Padraig for calling the taxi contact we got in french! Oui!

Already in Brest, we found a Moroccan restaurant near the train station, the only place open that would still serve us food (more on French and Spanish working hours later), then the guys hopped on the train off to Rennes. Big hug, au revoir and back to the Marina.

Padraig made this great video edit of the passage, can you spot the dolphins?

Thanks again lads! I still owe you guys a week of turquoise water cruising with cold beer in the Med. Next season!

Quick pause to talk about skydiving and why it changed my life…

Skydiving changed my life… for real. Once you jump from an airplane at 10 thousand feet or so with your own parachute and land it, life isn’t the same anymore. It’s like you’re seeing the matrix for the first time (nuuurd!). It’s like staring at death and not being scared (full disclosure, you are actually terrified when the door opens). Then the free fall kind of sinks in and gives you a sense of super powers. Dude, you are falling from the sky with a backpack!

But you just don’t go up there and jump. To get there you first pass by a ground school where you learn and understand everything that could possibly go wrong (almost everything) and how to deal with it, otherwise you die. No pressure.

Oversimplifying it, you have a thoroughly checked equipment. You jump on the right place at the right time on suitable weather. You wanna free fall having control of your body and aware of the altitude at all times. At the right altitude you open your main parachute (after ~50 seconds free fall). Too high and you may risk other people jumping with you free falling on your head. Too low and you may be giving away precious seconds to solve a problem with your equipment before hitting the ground. Once you attempt to deploy your main chute it should take you no more than 5 seconds to realise it is fully open and suitable for landing or not. 95% or more of the time, it just opens fine and you land it. The other 5% or less you are still falling either at high speed or at a slower speed. If it’s a slow fall, assess and solve it quickly otherwise disconnect and deploy the reserve. If it’s high speed, disconnect and deploy the reserve. Easy 🙂

You are certainly asking what if the reserve fails. Well, chances are that you may end up on a slow or high speed fall again, but now you have to solve it. There is no third chute.

Quite oversimplified, but there are way more safety precautions involved specially around the reserve parachute which it’s main function is to save your life. including a device that deploys it for you in case you “forget”. I encourage you to read about it 🙂 go for a Tandem jump even. It’s almost the same feeling.

What it has taught me?

  • Trust your equipment. Quality, maintenance and check it regularly.
  • Knowledge is your king. Learn about anything you can possibly need.
  • Give yourself margin. Because problems will happen and at the end of the day what you want is to be able to make good decisions, else you die. No pressure.
  • Always be cool and do what you got to do!

I can easily relate it to sailing and several other aspects in life.

Now back to France…

Next Stop: Île d’Ouessant (France – Bretagne)

Left the marina after a day or two sailing single handed (sailing wording meaning sailing alone) to the island of Ouessant. As I was approaching it I was intercepted by a coast guard ship who got really close to my boat and hailed me on the radio and made a few usual questions like where I was coming from, where going to, how many people aboard and nationality. It was a quick radio interview and then they just let me be. No need for boarding my boat.

After that I sailed into the bay of Lampaul, got myself a mooring buoy (which are completely free by the way) and spent a couple days enjoying the island. It was quite tiring to do all by myself. The dinghy routine, cooking, shopping, carrying bags and not forgetting been a tourist. Not complaining though, it’s all worthy. Also sent a postcard back home!

On the way out I passed closer to La Jumant. One of, if not THE most famous lighthouse in the world thanks to a set of pictures like this one:

Taken on 21st December 1989 by Jean Guichard from a helicopter during a storm. The lighthouse keeper Théodore Malgorn thought that the helicopter was his rescue at the time and went for the door. He then noticed the huge wave crashing and hurried back inside to safety.

Since 1991 La Jument is automated and no keeper lives in it anymore.

This was my shot of the lighthouse on an early morning leaving the island:

Next Stop: Brest (France – Bretagne)

Still single handed, I sailed to Brest. Near the channel entrance my AIS alert was going mental about a Dutch Navy Fleet that wouldn’t change their course for nothing and I had to give them way. Got into the bay of Brest and found a calm anchorage by Roscanvel where I dropped the anchor and called it a day. Fun fact, you can eventually hear the sound of donkeys braying hee-haw from the boat. Very unexpected.

Went to Brest city next day to check-in on the Schengen Area and clear customs at the Douane which happens to be located very close to the marina. Another Guinness at the Tara Inn Irish Pub and also picked up another crew: Marti (Spain).

Brest Telepherique

Marti made one of the biggest contributions of the trip when we were at the Glenan Islands. He knew a little bit of fishing, but better yet, he had a mate who actually knew a lot about fishing. We sent his buddy a picture of the fishing gear we had at the time and he replied back: “Use this and any of that at such speed” (basically troll a paravane + a spinner or small lure on the back at about 4 knots). POTATO! (translated brazilian portuguese expression that means it worked like a charm). We landed 5 fish that day. 3 mackerel and 2 needle fish. 50 days on the water and I have finally learned how to fish! We were so happy. Was definitely one of the highest moments of the trip.

How I fish…

I would use this setup (picture below) and catch mostly Mackerel from France until Gibraltar and then mostly Bonitos (a kind of small tuna) inside the Med until Italy. The vane usually has a few attaching points to adjust the angle of attack. Closer to the front (nose/tip) it gets less heavy and dives less. Closer to the back (the middle) and it gets very heavy on the line and dives all the way staying closer to the boat. If your vane is coming out of the water instead of sinking and staying under water, your lure is too heavy for your vane or you got a fish! Another tip: those 5-6 hook feather daisy chains are likely to land you 3 fish at once most times.

I took this picture below from a fishing shop wall in Spain. An even better detailed representation of trolling options (click to enlarge):

About the fish…

Mackerel is a very good fish. I would fry on butter and eat with lime. Then I learned how to make ceviche out of it and I never went back.
Needle fish is terrible. Put them back on the water.
Bonitos are as nice as mackerel and I would mostly eat them raw as sushi with soy sauce. Fish as fresh as it can possibly be.

I stepped up my game in 2020 and I bought this reel and a Back Bone Elite rod with rollers. If you wanna get more serious into fishing, or just want to learn more, this book is a must have aboard.

Left Brest and tried to sail to Île de Sein but the tides didn’t seem suitable to anchor so we diverted to Audierne anchoring outside by Sainte-Evette. Dinghy out, rowed to shore and walked to the city. Really nice little town with plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants. Only one problem though, you have to get used to the French business hours which close at midday or earlier and only reopens at 3 or 4 pm. Madness. Very common not to find a place to shop or eat in the middle of the day. With time I got used to that and would plan my basic shopping routines and tourism to their schedule. I confess it was quite frustrating in the beginning.

Audierne

Our next stop was the Glénan Islands, a paradisiac archipelago that is quite tricky to sail inside due to rocks and depths. Looks like a minefield on the charts. It was still May (Spring) so it was kind of deserted at the time and the weather cloudy and rainy unfortunately. Still we managed to have a beer at La Boucane. Next morning we left, but not before been charged 25€ for the mooring buoy north of île Saint-Nicolas. If only we had left a littler earlier… #beentheredonethat

Next Stop: Belle-Île-en-Mer (France – Bretagne)

The weather had finally started to warm up and look like proper summer time. We were really happy with that until it warmed way too much on the next days haha can’t win! So next we stopped at Le Palais. A really nice place and totally worth the visit, except for token based 6-minute showers that we had to queue for! It was very busy at the time, probably because of La Semaine du Golfe du Morbihan that was happening nearby. We were lucky to even grab a mooring buoy before another boat came up to raft to ours. We walked around the city, did some shopping, had some nice Moule Frites (Mussels with fries) at the L’Odyssée and bought 2 spider crabs for a fiver because the lady was closing the stall. Life couldn’t be better!

Next Stop: Pornic and Nantes (France – Pays de la Loire)

We left to Pornic on one of the hottest days of the trip. My thermometer was marking 27°C inside the boat! We improvised some shelter with towels and avoided that scorching sun at all costs.

We made it safely to Pornic marina, tied the boat, had a proper shower in days and went on a mission to find a bar to watch the Liverpool vs Tottenham Champions League finals. It was only after 8 bars that we finally found a place which had the game on. Got us a table and beer time! 2×0 for Liverpool.

Next day we went to Nantes where we got to meet some old French friends and go to a couple events the BPM (Barbecue Park Music) festival and Goûtez Electronique before saying goodbye to Marty who had to fly back home. Big drunk hug and thanks for it all man! We had a great time sailing in France.

Took my friends to sail to Noirmoutier where we spent an afternoon on the boat and they taught me how to drink Ricard mixed with water. That thing is very strong! Great time. Thanks guys!

Noirmoutier

Next day a new crew joined the trip, Kate (England) the mackerel ceviche lover. I’ve never seen someone so excited about every little thing that happens. As we say in Ireland: she was great craic! We started her trip with an easy sail back to Noirmoutier where we first moored on a very rolly anchorage. Later on we moved south a little bit where it was slightly more sheltered. I did a quick math of the tide and depth and anchored as protected as possible at about 2 meters in low water (my draft was 1.45m). There was still a little bit of roll from the swell where I was…. Now listen to this story and how other people’s decision may sometimes influence in yours!

An hour later, a boat bigger than mine (bigger boat, bigger draft, right?) passed by and anchored waaay into the bay were the sea was absolutely flat and calm, and where I certainly wished I could anchor, but was too shallow and I’d run aground in the low tide. I was like “What are these guys doing? It’s way too shallow there to spend the night. They will not only run aground, they will fall over to the side!”

The hours passed, it was getting dark and they stood there. I couldn’t take that out of my head. I had already a few beers on me at this point and still I did the math again for like 4 times, reviewed with Kate, and got the same result: it will be 2 meters at low water based on my current depth. Two things were in my mind at this point: “Fist: One of us is wrong! Second: I’d love to go a bit closer to shore for a nicer night of sleep.” My math couldn’t be wrong and even if it was, well I would most certainly not run aground. That boat’s decision consumed my mind. I said “Kate, let’s anchor again a bit further in…” Anchor up, moved in a little, read the depth again, quick math, seems alright, anchor down. Let the boat settle down to the wind. Went below, done the math again and this time the number was 1.5m at low water. Yep, 5cm difference from the bottom of my keel. And the other boat was still there in the same place further in.

My thoughts?! “What are you doing Arthur? Well is a little calmer here… 5cm in enough, is it not? But they are way more into the bay… They are definitely French sailors from around here. They know their stuff. The tidal range must be wrong… It’s fine… It’s gonna be alright… If I’m right, won’t be a big issue.”

That night, my keel touched the bottom at least two times. Gently, but noticeably enough to wake me up. Nothing serious but… My math was right… OF COURSE IT WAS! It’s one of the simplest maths in sailing. And I made a questionable decision because somebody else did too. At least they seemed to. I was angry with myself. Yet ‘proud’ somehow for not anchoring by their side completely ignoring the maths.

Next morning the tide was back up and the other boat was still there at the same spot floating… How come I certainly asked. But I could only speculate: a low draft twin keel design sitting nicely on the bottom? Maybe they left that spot at night and came back in the morning. Maybe there is a deep hole exactly where they are. Maybe they ran aground, listed sideways a little bit and came back up fine! I just don’t really know about them. But I knew about me…

Off to next port: Île d’Yeu (France – Pays de la Loire)

While in Noirmoutier we noticed that Storm Miguel was coming our way so we decided to rush to Île d’Yeu for shelter in Port-Joinville. It was a great decision and we had a great time in the island drinking wine and eating loads of seafood! But Biscay is well known for its rough seas and violent storms and this was certainly one of them claiming 3 lives from a rescue boat.

While we waited for the sea to calm down over the next couple days, we rented a bike and had a blast around the Island. We even saw an Alpaca (or Llama) and visited a Castle where a seagull didn’t like me at all and I’m sure it was trying to kill me. Dead serious.

Next Stop: Les Sables-d’Olonne (France – Pays de la Loire)

We headed after to Les Sables d’Olonne. Very famous place in the sailing world and the starting (and finishing) point of the Vendée Globe yacht race. Beautiful town to visit and nice to eat out.

Walked around, had a beer and a mandatory stop on a boulangerie to restock on baguette.

Not sure when the baguette photos craze started…

Next Stop: La Rochelle (France – Nouvelle-Aquitaine)

We left to La Rochelle taking the inside route between main land and Île de Ré passing under the bridge. The wind and the waves picked up really fast as a massive cloud was coming from the northwest. We managed to reef the sails completely and still make 7 knots only with the main up literally surfing waves downwind.

We made it safely to Port des Minimes, the biggest port in France and one of the biggest in Europe with spaces for almost 5 thousand boats! I’ve never seen so many boats in my life. Check the satellite view of that marina, is insane!

We spent the night in the visitor’s pontoon since the wind was still a bit strong to move in there. We were awaken next morning by a small racing dinghy attached to my starboard flag halyard after a bad tack. I had to climb up the hatch of my cabin, then on top of the boom and cut my own halyard to free them. French sailors lost a little bit of respect from me that day but they quickly regained it when I saw the iconic red hulled Joshua (Bernard Moitessier‘s boat) moored closed to mine.

La Rochelle was a good break from sailing. I got to sleep on a normal bed, was treated to French cousine and even went surfing in Île de Ré. Thank you Agathe!

Also it was Kate’s time to abandon ship back to London leaving me single handed again til Port Médoc. Bye Kate! See you soon =)

Out to Port Médoc through the Pertuis de Maumusson found myself on a very dodgy channel exit! Looking back it was a lucky mistake. The tide was near it’s lowest when I left the anchorage and the chart advice stated moving sandbanks and dangerous breakwater. The weather seemed fair but I couldn’t tell about the sea state since I was sheltered inside the channel. It was only possible to spot some foam being formed from distance and it seemed just a little bit. Sooner than I realised I was into the foam and the waves were a little bigger than I expected (almost a meter or so) and breaking on 2 meters depth or less! Couldn’t tell precisely for the waves been too close to each other and the depth sounder not able to display a consistent measurement. If I had ran aground there, those waves could have easily knocked the boat sideways and filled with water. Looking back I’d certainly wait for higher tide. I’m not proud at all but I got away with it, finished sailing to Port Médoc and anchored in front of the marina. Another one for my jar of luck.

Next stop: Ireland! Wait what?

So, as part of my agreement at the time with my company I had to fly back to Ireland to work and get things in order before an ISO27001 surveillance audit. While I was arranging things to keep the boat in the marina I found a last minute crew. Mr Luis Vega from Puerto Rico, youngest “old man” I’ve ever met. What a legend! We got along very well so I trusted him stay on the boat while I was gone for a little longer than a week.

Train to Bordeaux, flight to Dublin and straight to the pub for a Guinness. #priorities

If you are wondering where do I find crew: Facebook, Instagram (see footer of this page) and crewbay.com which I recommend over all other websites with the same purpose. It’s 100% free! If you have a boat and need crew or if you are crew and want to sail anywhere in the world, sign up and find a match! But for god’s sake READ THE ADVERTISEMENTS FULLY. They always state the dates and locations they are expecting crew and the cost arrangements. I really hope you find a match that meets your flexibility, but usually YOU adapt to the boat schedule, not the opposite. In my ad for example I was looking for crew to join a dream trip and help me operate the boat and share expenses. My only requirement was: you must be a friendly and sociable person with good communication. I was avoiding another crew-that-must-not-be-named at all costs (jump back to the first post of this series if you missed that part). I ended up having several different profiles aboard from 19 to 65 years old! They all worked perfectly and I’d be more than happy to have all of them back aboard. The whole experience was so amazing that I even miss these people as friends.

Now back to France London!

Finished my work duties in Ireland and visited Kate on her boat in the canals of London. She even let me drive 😀

Was good to be crew instead of captain for a while. Zero work and zero worries. Great day that ended quick. Time to say good bye again. Spoiler alert: she’ll be back!

Flew back to Neverland to find Mr Vega begging to sail out of that place haha. Port Médoc is a hell of a small town. Before flying to Ireland we went for a walk around and felt like cowboys walking a ghost town. Buildings and gardens were in shape and everything but not a single soul on the streets! There was one little bar open with a few local people watching TV and betting on dices where we managed to have a beer and eat a pack of crisps. Not a chance to get food served in that place.

I can imagine how boring it should have been for Mr Vega to stay there for so long. Luckily for him, Médoc wine has a name for itself on the Bordeaux Wine Route.

Next Stop: Arcachon (France – Nouvelle-Aquitaine)

We left early under thick fog on a long 15h passage. The sun came out later on and we could finally see the beach. A 200km stretch of sand known as Côte d’Argent (Silver Coast) that goes all the way south to Biarritz. It’s the longest stretch of sand in Europe and seems like an endless beach. We sailed south giving a good safe distance from land.

That day happened to be one of the best fishing days of the trip. We even had to stop fishing and put some mackerel back to the water for not having fridge space to store.

Mr Vega was a great cook by the way. Best mackerel marinade recipes full of spices, ginger, mixed peppers, onion and lime. That with rice and wine and I was a happy captain.

We got to the entrance of the channel to Arcachon but our timing wasn’t the best. It was a little late between tides and we were hailed over the radio and been advised about the entrance conditions (they could see us approaching on the AIS). They gave us new positions for the channel buoys since they had been updated recently and the charts were not correct. Also mentioned the timing wasn’t advisable but since the sea state was almost flat and our draft was only 1.45m they seemed favourable for us getting in. “You should be fine”. Still, their advice was to wait for the next high tide in daylight only (the buoys had no lights). That would mean waiting about 20 hours overnight sitting ‘adrift’ in front of the entrance with nowhere to anchor. I decided to go slowly and would turn back if the sea state and depths didn’t seem suitable. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again! We made in safe and sound with just a little bumpy swell and more than 4m depth under the keel. Happy days.

Once in Arcachon, we spent a few days between anchorages, stocked in baguette and wine, touriested a bit and off to Bayonne.

Fun fact: Arcachon’s flag is Black/White/Yellow and looks like a discoloured French flag.

Next Stop: Bayonne (France – Nouvelle-Aquitaine)

Another long day passage with the same view of that endless beach but now with zero fog all the way. Saw a few dolphins and maybe caught a fish or two, can’t remember really but that was it. 15h at sea and we arrived at the entrance of Bayonne.

The current at the entrance is quite strong on the ebb. I was doing less than 3 knots cranking on the engine up the river. Enough to get us safely to the marina of Brise-Lames in front of a noisy and dusty port where ships were loading some powdery stuff getting airborne with the wind all day.

Got up next morning to a scorching sunny day and hopped on a bus to Biarritz where the beach was packed. Beer time!

Back to the boat and to a new crew, Katy (Austria). The first person I’ve met who would take such ‘drastic’ action against climate change and avoid flying because of emissions. She took a train from Austria to France instead over the course of a few days visiting friends along the way.

Also friends we made at a bar in Biarritz came over for a day sail to Saint-Jean-de-Luz where we anchored by the Plage du Fort de Socoa. Great day afloat with good food, cold beer, wine, ukulele sessions and friendship. The last stop in France couldn’t have been better.

Next day we crossed the invisible line to Spain! Easy few hours passage that didn’t really feel like sailing to another country.

Next Stop: San Sebastian (Spain – Basque Country)

Last quick story before this post gets any longer…While anchored in Donostia-San Sebastian at Bahia de La Concha I was surprisingly hailed on the radio by the Spanish coast guard who asked:

“Neverland, what are your intentions?”

Then my subconscious pirate mind went like:

“Five hundred years and many moons ago your ancestors along with the Portuguese touched foot in my home land South America, enslaved and catechised our indigenous people and pillaged our riches. I’m here to take back what is ours! I’m here for LA VENGANZA!! Arrrrrrrrrrr…”

Of course I didn’t say that. We where just anchored for the day and left to the next port the day after. Still I wonder what could possibly happen if I really said such thing and they’d taken it seriously… Well… We will never know!

That’s it. Another part of this incredible trip. A part full of surprises and constant adaptation. Finding crew on the move proved feasible and extremely enjoyable.

Next? Falling in love with the Spanish easy going way of living, pinchos, caña (beer) and summer cruising vibes.

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