Carlton Douglas takes his 21ft Westerly Jouster for a fortnight’s cruise to Brittany and back, with stops in St Helier and Herm on the homeward leg
At 6.4m (21ft), our Westerly Jouster Oyster Catcher is smaller than the typical Channel-crossing yacht, but she sails well and is easy to handle. My plan was to take her for a two-week cruise to Brittany and the Channel Islands, staying slightly off the beaten track. A few weeks beforehand, I had decided upon the approximate routes I would take and the supplies I would need.
As departure day approached and the weather forecasts became more reliable, I developed a more accurate passage plan for the first day’s trip and plotted the predicted position for each hour on the chart. Oyster Catcher’s chart table has a plywood base with a matching perspex cover. The chart is sandwiched between the two, which are held together with bungee cord. I use a dry-marker pen to write on the perspex.
It looked likely that the first part of the trip would be dominated by light winds. Oyster Catcher has a 4hp 2-stroke outboard which typically consumes 1.25lt per hour: I wanted to ensure that I could motor across the Channel and not be too fuel-constrained the following day, so I took a total of 43lt split between several tanks – sufficient for 34 hours of running.
Needles to Sark
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when I passed the Needles and saw a wonderful deep red sunset over Poole. The visibility was so good that, for while, I could see the lights of Portland and Jobourg at the same time. I prefer travelling at night as it’s easier to see ship lights and understand their orientation: it also ensures I have plenty of daylight for the arrival pilotage. I arrived at a calm Alderney Race on a Saturday morning, popped into St Peter Port for fuel and headed for La Grande Grève on Sark’s peaceful west coast. I’d had to motor most of the way but the wind piped up when I left St Peter Port, so I had a cracking sail for the last hour. The anchorage is beautiful: grass-covered cliffs roll into the water, while the sound of seagulls reverberates from all sides.
The next morning I took advantage of the light easterly wind and started the 27-hour journey to L’Aber Wrac’h. The marina staff there gave me a berth near some local boats of a similar size to Oyster Catcher, saving me from bumping around the 34-footers from the UK. I had hoped to sail to Ushant, the most western point of France, but with an imminent end to the settled weather there was a risk that I might spend the night anchored near a lee shore, close to powerful tidal streams: not a good proposition for a solo sailor in a small boat. Instead I reluctantly travelled there by ferry via Brest and had a fantastic day exploring the island.
It was time to have a closer look at the Brittany coast, so I turned around and headed east. The good people of Roscoff have risen handsomely to the challenge of making the simple leading marks into the Canal d’Île de Batz – a large white rock and a white pyramid – into a cunning game of double-bluff. Not only had they hidden the bottom half of the pyramid behind a hedge, they had even erected three white vertical cylinders in a pyramid formation nearby, which fluoresce seductively when arriving with the sun behind you.
I wasn’t the only one to experience the Roscofites’ hospitality: a couple of days before, an unfortunate person hit a rock in the entrance to the marina. I guess he’d fallen for the old ‘obstructions across the southern entrance’ trick which was probably copied from Portland harbour. The challenges continued ashore. I marched off to hunt for fresh bread and veg, and arrived just in time to see two guys erecting a large sign outside the now very closed Casino supermarket – not to be mistaken with the now very open casino near the port. I walked into the town and finally struck gold. It’s a beautiful place oozing with Breton charm, and sports an excellent little general store where I learnt the French for ‘leek’.
The next morning I woke outside Perros-Guirec. The sea was flat calm, so my planned trip to Les Sept Îles was on. I raised the sails, drifted for 20 minutes then fired up the donkey and pounded towards the day’s target. An hour later I was there. No sooner had I dropped anchor than another boat steamed around the corner, bowman at the ready with the anchor winch. My heart sank: rather than a single-handed exploration of a desert island, it was going to be a raiding party. I had to act swiftly to claim my island. I smartly pumped up the dinghy, grabbed some supplies and started rowing ashore. They had the same plan: I saw their dinghy poking out from behind their boat, so I rowed faster and faster until, YES, I’d done it! I was the first to the island. I climbed ashore and did a victory dance.
I left the boat next to the slipway, made by long-gone natives, and climbed the path to the summit lighthouse. Notices warned that the place was under electronic surveillance so I carefully looked through the windows at the generator room and admired the workshop. Not only did this island have a lighthouse but it had a castle too, with guns! Birds, sandy beaches, rocks, smaller islands, a house, even a rather nice pair of his and her privies: what more could an explorer ask for? The green John Deere tractor and a concrete mixer were the icing on the cake. I was in heaven.
I found a beach, ate my sandwiches and closed my eyes. All I could hear were birds, the sea and… the occasional voice. Sacre bleu! A local yawl had anchored in the bay and was unloading crew onto the slipway. I decided to donate my island to the greater good. I picked up my dinghy and rowed, watched by 40 picnic-chomping pirates. I set sail just as a tourist boat disgorged another load of seafarers on the island with a loudhailer telling them to be back by ‘seize heures vingt-cinq’. I had left at the right time.
I planned to anchor up the Tréguier river but the sea was calm, and to avoid an early start I pushed on to the next jewel: Île de Bréhat. After a calm motor I arrived at 7.30pm, dropped anchor in some vicious currents off Port de la Cordière and broke out the Bordeaux I had bought at Roscoff. I was starting to understand Brittany.
A repetitive thud
As I was going to sleep the next night I heard a repetitive thud. This is fairly common on Oyster Catcher: there’s often something moving around that needs wedging or tying. This time was different, though: not only could I hear it, I could also feel it. I worked out that it was related to the keel: one end is supported inside a ballast stub by a large stainless steel pivot, while a rope attached to the other end enables it to be raised using a winch in the cockpit.
I awoke pretty quickly when I slid into the sea in my wetsuit the next morning. I admired Oyster Catcher’s bow from the surface before taking a breath and pulling on the rope running down to her keel. I ran my fingers around the joint between keel and stub: no problems there. I gave the keel’s bottom edge a shove, and it moved an inch or so. Apart from that, everything looked fine.
I had an excellent sail to Granville, passing close to the Îles Chausey. I wanted to visit them, but that keel was still knocking: I needed more confirmation that nothing was seriously wrong.
You can get a coffee pretty early in St Helier. A myriad of outlets serve early-morning takeaways to the office dwellers. St Helier aspires to do offices like London, but on a smaller scale. I enjoyed a hot latte from a little independent place while enjoying the sun rising over the marina.
I headed over to South Pier Marine at a sociable time and met Ed the gaffer. He said they couldn’t organise a lift as they were rather snowed under for four weeks, but I could dry the boat out on the gravel next to the quay.
The tide went out and I had a look at the raised keel. It was in good condition. I then excavated underneath the ballast stub to look at the joint between it and the keel. Using a mirror and torch I could see there was a larger gap one side of the keel (3mm as opposed to 1mm). It didn’t appear very significant, so I looked right up into the area occupied by the keel when down. There was some grit which I cleaned out, but nothing more. The bottom of the keel was level with the bottom of the stub, indicating that the keel was firmly held in place by the pivot. I was delighted: my concerns were unfounded. I visited Elizabeth Castle while the tide rose and departed the next morning.
Herm at last
I made it to Herm! Another island I’d always fancied visiting but had never got the chance. I anchored in Belvoir Bay, a secluded sandy cove on the east coast, landed ashore and bought an ice cream from the beach cafe. Herm certainly isn’t a desert island: it has camping, self-catering and a smart hotel. A ferry from Guernsey keeps it well stocked with visitors and supplies.
The voyage home
It was reassuring to be able to see four lighthouses going up the Alderney Race: Point Robert on Sark, Casquets, Cap de la Hague and Alderney. The latter is a little disappointing as they’ve reduced its range and replaced it with an LED, a white light that blinks crisply on and off. Cap de la Hague is an old-fashioned searchlight that majestically sweeps the surrounding area. You can see the beam swinging around long before you’re caught in
its mighty glare.
The eastbound shipping route passed by without incident. Sunrise brought the westbound route and a thick fog bank, with visibility reduced to about 100m. Oyster Catcher doesn’t have radar so I relied on her AIS receiver to tell me where the ships were. It was a little nerve-racking to place my faith in little dots on a screen, but I was able to call the bridge crew of a couple of ships to confirm they could see me on their radar. Both could see me at 5 miles and confirmed their intentions. It’s good to know that my radar reflector works so well.
The fog bank moved on as I left the shipping lane (strange that!) and I proceeded towards the Isle of Wight, following a meandering curve as the channel tide pushed me from side to side. In total I travelled 449 miles, which included 80 hours of motoring. It’s rather a lot for a sailing boat, but with little wind and limited time the only other option would have been to stay still.