THE HENLEY WHALERS - La Semaine du Golfe du Morbihan, France - 2013.

(Morbihan 2015 is here)

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2013 - Introduction - by Ben Le Vay

'Of all the boats, of all the bays in all the world, she has to crash into this one,' is what Rick nearly says in the classic movie Casablanca. This describes one of the odder coincidences of the Henley Whalers' highly successful trip to the Golfe du Morbihan this year.

This gulf, tucked away in the south of Brittany, is a story-book 'little sea', about six miles square, studded with 40 islands, some small and rocky, some miles long with villages on them. Off this central basin, with its several large lake-like spaces ideal for sailing sizeable fleets, reach long arms up to charming towns and villages with thriving fishing fleets and ancient quaysides. 'Little sea' is apparently exactly what Morbihan means in Breton, as our Welsh readers would already know from môr bychan. Little as compared with the great sea, the rolling Atlantic outside.

Into this Enid Blytonish layout comes, during La Semaine du Golfe festival, an amazing assemblage of over 1,000 boats from all over France, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere. They are so diverse in size and design that they range from two-man dinghies to three-masted square-riggers carrying 100 people, and the only thing they have in common is that they are powered by sail, and their crews love the challenge and comradeship of facing the elements together in a beautiful place.
So large is this fleet that the French cannot accommodate us all in any one port. We are divided into fleets of more easily handled numbers - the itinerary requiring them to cross over on sailing days keeping each port full each night. Particularly impressive is the organisation that the French throw into welcoming, feeding, ferrying out to moorings, etc - some 2,500 volunteers working hard, unpaid, with hundreds of ribs and Zodiac dinghies being pressed into service. The fact that some made a huge effort to dress up - as Johnny Depp-style pirates, men and women -  just added to the party atmosphere.

But - you knew there was a 'but' coming - nature throws two large spanners into the works of this demi-paradise.
One is the wind - we are off the Bay of Biscay, after all. There was buckets of it, with double reefs required on Molly and some days where the sailing plan required an excursion into the open sea outside was curtailed to shorter routes.
And the other - sailors will not need to be told this - is the tides. They are sensational, not only because this region includes the world's biggest tidal range, but because this whole 'little sea' funnels out through one outlet, a half-mile wide seaway past the picturesque town and harbour of Port Navalo.
To make things more complex, the channels within the Gulf funnel between rocky islands only a few hundred yards apart, producing currents that look like the wash coming out of the back of a Brittany ferry's props, and side currents and whirlpools that knock a boat sideways with shocking suddenness.
So although we had a wonderful week sailing - with the rain thoughtfully bracketing the sailing most days and none at all while we were out on the water - we did have one rather interesting day. Not so much a day of doom and disaster, more a day of debacle and discombobulation rather as in that classic book of waterborne buffoonery, The Art of Coarse Sailing.

(Continued later)

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Molly at Morbihan
Thanks to Jean Pierre Cave



Golfe Du Morbihan map
Map of Golfe du Morbihan


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Voyage - Sunday 5th - Monday 6th

MOLLY and crew took the overnight Brittany Ferry from Portsmouth, arriving in St Malo at 08.00.
We stopped off for breakfast in Hédé, a lovely little village about an hour’s drive from the port. We found a car park big enough for Molly in the grounds of the ruined castle, then shopped for croissants in the boulangerie, to consume along with coffee in the local bar, which seems to be normal practice! Back on the road, we arrived at the cottages in Vannes soon after midday where we were cordially greeted once again by the owner, M. Vatinet, and his beau-père who kindly allows us to park the trailer in his garden!.
Later in the afternoon we drove down to our home port of Lamor Baden, where we launched Molly. We had to join the queue for the slipway, along with the rest of our flotilla, where we came across Régine and François Florin, and Chris North & family, busy preparing their boats.
Then back to the cottages for a feast cooked up by Steve.



Tuesday 7th May

Destination Ile d’Arz for the famous fête champêtre, which is a rendez-vous for the whole fleet. It’s a chance to admire the hundreds of boats beached on the foreshore and to find familiar faces – Claus & Charlotte, Marget & Willem, Sylvia & Eric, Janke, Mike & Mila. We picnicked under the trees entertained by Breton dancing and accompanying music played on the traditional binious et bombardes (Breton bagpipes and oboe-type reed instruments)
Back in Lamor Baden we attended the first of many ….. Briefings! Molly was signed up for Flotille 3, but due to the large number of entries it was divided into two and we were assigned to Flotille 3bis (3b) along with many friends. The sailing programme was essentially the same for both sections, but not in the same order. What a headache for the organisers, but it worked! We also learned that there would be a briefing every morning and prize-giving every evening, and that we would be accompanied on the water by safety boats. What a lot of innovations!
To recover from the shock of the new we repaired to the local Oyster bar. They offer a good selection, so they had to be tried! Then on to the pizzeria in Port Blanc.

Fleet on the beach


Wednesday 8th May

This started out as a very chilly, grey day and due to the rain we all spent the morning keeping dry in the local café, waiting for the weather to improve.
After a second briefing (two in one day!) we finally set sail at around midday for Arradon, the end-of-day port, without going via Port Navalo, the original lunch destination.
A further innovation this year turned out to be the setting of various challenges, starting with a written quiz to be completed during the passage and handed in at Arradon, with prize-giving that evening. It had a nautical theme with some of the questions relating to the infamous tides and co-efficients of the Golfe du Morbihan (no, we didn’t win!). So far, so sensible.


Thursday 9th May

This was the big one. The morning challenge was given to us at the briefing: to take an egg, decorate it with a felt pen and then chuck it into a net being held out from the Committee boat as we arrived at the lunch port!  It turned out the real challenge was to actually get to the lunch port – Larmor Baden. Never mind passing close enough to the Committee boat, what about negotiating the tricky right turn at Ile Berder in 8-9 knots of south westerly winds? It was unnerving to see several small boats being swept onto the rocks of this island, so the plan was to make the turn a little further on. Unfortunately the strength of the swirlies at this junction of channels suddenly pushed us too far on and we were in danger of ending up on the rocks of Gavrinis, the next island on our right. So, along with several other boats, we took the escape route round the far side and made our way to Larmor Baden.
In the afternoon we had to set off in good time to catch the flood tide up the river Auray to reach the port of Saint-Goustan, our evening destination. On the way we were invited to stop at a particular moored vessel where we could claim plates of oysters and white wine to wash them down. If only! Suffice to say, I did not take any photos whilst we were sailing, and we were dismayed to see or hear about several boats capsize that afternoon.
Read Ben’s report for a full flavour of this eventful day!
Once we were moored we took the opportunity to recuperate with some well-earned onboard R&R before venturing ashore to enjoy this lovely ancient port. The quayside is lined with attractive buildings, including the half-timbered “Bar Franklin”, so named because Benjamin Franklin arrived here on 3 December 1776 at the beginning of the US War of Independence, to seek military aid from Louis XVI. Hope the weather was better that day!

The same day, by Ben Le Vay

It was the day we were supposed to sail from Arradon, a smart pontoon-festooned club on the north of the Gulf, up to St Goustan, a delightful stone-quayed ancient Breton town a long way up a river to the north. En route we were to call at Larmor Baden, a sizable village and modest fishing port with a good anchorage - where we had started the week from.
It was good and windy, as we found vigorously tacking down the broad waterways with the fleet to reach the narrow straits between rocky islands where we were supposed to turn north, to starboard. Note the word 'supposed'.

It must be admitted that other boats were coming a cropper at this difficult juncture of rushing tide, stiff but fluky winds swerving round the islands and seething, swirling eddies of considerable power. In fact this testing interaction of two troublesome elements was possibly not the place for a quiet morning cruise - boats were stuck on the rocks, and others were damaged at this junction. A clue as to what to expect was the sizeable French safety ribs and full sea-going lifeboats hovering nearby. Plus the hundreds of local people standing on the three rocky islands forming the junction, hoping for a grandstand view of sailors making complete twits of themselves. Ghouls, almost.
Well, with the benefit of hindsight, we possibly picked the wrong course by going down the middle of the channel approaching this nautical T-junction. Perhaps we should have hugged the rocky shore to starboard, and then we might have had some chance.
As it was we reached the main stream unscathed but were then swept by a mighty current towards the further shore. At that point the rocky hill obscured the wind and gave us less power to make headway. Seeing us heading for the wall of rock (although we wouldn't have been driven on to it), the French lifeboat and rib made things worse by zooming up and offering lines to tow us clear.
Of course they meant well and might have saved us from great danger, but most of Molly's crew felt we could have got out of this situation unaided. In fact, we did - by turning to port and going with the tide stream round the other side of the island into much quieter water. Not recommended for the whole fleet because it was too shallow - Molly touched bottom with the centre-plate a couple of times - and obstructed with fishing nets, but it got us quickly and easily to Larmor Baden. Disaster No 1 averted.

There a strange state pertained. A strong tide was whipping past one way, a strong wind the other. It was clearly going to be difficult to pick up our mooring in a controlled fashion. Problem 1: How to come up to face the wind,  or tide, and stop, with the other one pushing you furiously the contrary way? Problem 2: A Frenchman was on the mooring and was very angry at the idea that he should leave. It later became clear that he was having rigging problems, so perhaps his anxiety was understandable. Problem 3: The Skipper decided it would be wise to get the sail down quickly as other boats were whizzing past and it was a dangerous place to hang about.
So we got ready to catch the mainsail and someone let go the main halyard. Let go, without checking if it was really free to run. Result: the sail comes down halfway and a horrendous tangle of spaghetti fouls the cleat. Horrendous. That's probably not what they mean by the term "jam cleat".
So now the sail is half down in a strong and dangerous wind that could capsize us, the skipper is blind because the sail is flapping about, we are in a dangerous tidal race amid many, many moored boats and other boats are zipping back and forth almost out of control. Plus the tangle refuses the best efforts of the crew member to untangle it for a good four minutes, which feel like the longest four minutes since Roger Bannister. Disaster seems inevitable. 
But then a miracle happens. The force of the sail in its half down position is exactly balanced by the tide in the opposite direction. We are stable and stationary over the ground, despite the water rushing past at about 8 knots. The tangle is cleared and we make the mooring. Disaster No 2 averted!

After a lunch stop we headed off to St Goustan, noting a few cruisers run aground in the meantime, plus a fluky capsize right in front of us. As this large fleet of disparate medium and small sailing boats took off up this increasingly peaceful river estuary, we came to one of the more bizarre challenges set by the organisers - a sail-through oyster bar where free oysters and wine would be given out to everyone who called at a large barge midstream.
We tried to turn towards the docking place but the melee of boats made it impossible, the strong wind and tide making people's turns a bit out of control. At that point, as we started to retreat, a boat hurtled out of the dozens in view and bore down on us in a split second at full speed. There was a bit of a bang as it hit forward of the port shrouds, and then a twang or two as it disentangled via the forestay. Then we see who of all the boats possible it was – a friend of ours, a fellow Whaler in his new Bay Raider!
Still, the damage was light - a bit of split gunnel to be patched up in Henley - and he was duly apologetic - a massive box of premium chocolates was forthcoming at St Goustan with more gentlemanly grovelling. No one hurt, and no lasting damage. Disaster No 3 averted.

Quite an interesting day...

Ben Levay 2013

Eggstreem Art

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R&R at Auray

R&R at Auray


SM Auray

pw Auray

Saint Goustan

SM music video
Sm music video

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Friday 10th

Destination Port Navalo, but not via the planned lunch stop in Le Crouesty (just outside the Golfe), due to the strong winds. Instead: sail back down the Auray river with the tide as far as Loqmariaquer, find a mooring and await l’étale (slack water). We found a friendly boat to raft up to and whiled away the time having a picnic lunch, chatting to each other and on the mobile (Claus joined our crew that day due to earlier equipment failure to his own boat)!
Finally, la renverse (tide turning) at 13.00 and our flotilla got the go-ahead to make the crossing to Port Navalo, accompanied by lots of Zodiac safety boats. In all just over 2 hours sailing time, quite a contrast to the previous day which had been long and challenging.
Once ashore we made for the quayside to indulge in oysters and pancakes, washed down with white wine and cider. Lovely!
Then on to the Crew Tent for a welcome drink and another novel challenge: timed rope cutting – yes, really! The first round finds the people who can cut the rope with a large knife closest to one minute precisely. Then there are further rounds to find the fastest rope cutters using progressively smaller knives, until the finalists competed using what looked like butter knives! Sue narrowly lost the Women’s final and Phil (member of Chris North’s crew) won the Men’s final. What larks!


Rope-cutting video
sm rope-cutting video

Saturday 11th May - These 5 pictures courtesy of Kathy Mansfield


Saturday dawned fine and sunny, just what we wanted for the ‘Grande Parade’. We drove back to Port Navalo for the parade briefing: the tall ships leading the parade would depart for Vannes from the mouth of the Golfe at 16.00 and our flotilla would join in from Ile Berder. We spent the rest of the morning browsing the quayside stalls and entertainment, followed by a picnic in the sunshine outside the Crew Tent, where we were delighted to meet up again with Muriel Vaillant, from the yole Bougueness, who we got to know during Brest/Pors Beac’h 2012.
Finally, we set sail at 14.15 for Ile Berder and the mustering area for Flotille 3bis, where we all waited at anchor. At last we were regaled with the sight of the first of the grands voiliers and some of the other small-boat flotillas – our signal to join in the parade. It was wonderful to sail with the whole fleet, picking out familiar boats and faces, including Kathy Mansfield who was onboard with François Vivier, sailing one of his designs. At about 17.00 we reached our final slipway at Barrarac’h (next to Port Anna) and were busy for the next few hours hauling out and car shuffling. By now we were all getting cold and tired, so we passed on the outdoor crew dinner at Port Anna and found a welcoming restaurant in Séné, ‘Le Goah Ver’, where we feasted on galettes and moules washed down with some happy juice!

Port Anna

Port Anna

Exit - Sunday 12th May

We packed up our belongings and hosed down the trailer at beau-père’s before saying our goodbyes. We were on the road by 09.15 and made our separate ways to our ferries (Geoff to Caen and Steve to Le Havre), arriving back in Henley mid/late evening. Tired, but pleased that we had met the challenges of the notorious waters of Le Golfe du Morbihan!

Crew: Geoff, Madeleine, Ben, Bob, Paul, Steve, Sue and Tony.

Madeleine Probert 2014

Hameward Bound

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All of Madeleine's pics here
All of Steve's pics, click here

Morbihan 2011 here
Morbihan 2015 is here

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