Paul and Sally Weston turn their neglected Mitchell 31 Sea Angler into a canal motorboat to cruise the French coast and the canals
Transforming a Sea Angler into a canal motorboat for exploring the French coast and canals
Designed for taking parties of anglers out for fishing trips, Mitch, our Mitchell 31 MkII Sea Angler is in essence a very simple boat.
We’d bought Mitch in 1999, and spent many happy days taking our children, their friends, cousins and beach toys around Poole Harbour, occasionally venturing to the Solent.
The children grew up, and Mitch became a depressing sight in the garden.
In 2017, my wife Sally and I were thinking of buying a sailing boat, with the idea of an Atlantic circuit.
We looked at several yachts, but decided that we couldn’t buy another boat while Mitch was so shamefully neglected, with vegetation sprouting in the bilges.
We intended to clean her up ready for a quick sale.
Can we turn Mitch into a canal motorboat?
Years of ditch crawling in Mitch made the draught of the sailing boats we’d inspected seem excessive, and after two hours of surprisingly successful cleaning,
I had a sudden thought: “Mitch’s draught is pretty shallow, and we could probably get through the Canal du Midi.”
I’d never been canal boating, and didn’t know much about the Canal du Midi, except that it led to the Mediterranean and was too shallow for many fixed keel yachts.
We discussed our options. We could sell Mitch ‘as is’ for a small sum, buy a sailing boat, and in a few years set off on our Atlantic circuit.
This would be a leap in the dark, as we didn’t have much recent cruising or sailing experience.
Alternatively, it seemed that refitting Mitch was not impossible – we’d already bought a new engine, and perhaps we should make use of the boat we already had to set off that year.
Plans could be made to suit our limited annual leave allocation, and Mitch’s capabilities.
We decided to take advantage of Mitch’s shallow draught and go through the French canals to the Med, but we knew the revamp would require a lot of work and a fair sum of money.
Mitch was not designed for long-distance cruising – there was little accommodation, and no amenities, not even a water tank.
The small rudder was ineffective at low speed and when going astern.
Our cruising would be restricted to two weeks or so at a time. Could we find berths? Could we modify Mitch to live aboard?
We wrote a spreadsheet detailing the work required and cost, a pretty frightening list, but optimistic as it turned out.
Progress… and pain!
This was in May 2017, and three months of exhaustion followed. Working on your boat at home means there’s no travelling, and all your tools are to hand.
However, it is very easy to overwork, and we did so with gusto.
We removed all of the rotted wooden cockpit sole supports, and made a new structure, using pressure-treated timber.
We made new cockpit boards, fitted the Iveco N67 engine and ZF gearbox, water tanks, domestic water pumps, a cooker, calorifier, 70lt reserve fuel tank, black water system, Raymarine electronics and autopilot and even a cockpit shower.
There were setbacks.
Sally fell into the bilges when the cockpit boards were up, damaging her ankle, and I shorted a battery out with a screwdriver, burning my hand when I tried to retrieve it, and causing a merry fire in the wheelhouse.
In August 2017 the boat was almost finished, and a surveyor pronounced it satisfactory.
When the transport company came to assess the job, it was evident that the trees surrounding the boat and on the track to the house had grown significantly, and on the night before the crane was due, I undertook some radical tree surgery in a rented cherry picker.
Mitch’s launch at Portland was not an unqualified success.
When the boat floated, I waved to the travel lift driver, and pushed the engine control forward, whereupon the boat moved smartly backwards.
Demoralised, we arranged for Mitch to be lifted out again, and resumed work.
We replaced the (new) silencer with a lift version, and cut a hole for a new transom fitting well above the waterline.
Sally’s laminating skills were again in demand.
Our canal motorboat is launched at last
The second launch, in mid-August 2017 went smoothly, and we took Mitch for a trip round Portland harbour to work up the autopilot.
I was concerned because the engine would not go above 1,400rpm.
I had several theories, such as fuel flow, insufficient supercharge pressure, too much exhaust back-pressure, and overload, as the Iveco engine’s full speed was 2,800rpm, rather than the old Ford Sabre’s 2,600rpm.
I checked the fuel system, put pressure gauges on the inlet manifold and the exhaust, and drew propeller and engine curves, but I could see nothing wrong.
The last item was the cockpit cover – vital as we intended to live in the cockpit rather than the very small forecabin.
We arrived home late and exhausted on the eve of our departure.
The normal pressures of work and the lateness of the season meant we did not want to delay.
In mid-August 2017, after an hour’s sleep, we returned to Portland early and set off.
There was little wind, but a confused sea left by recent strong winds meant the boat’s motion was very lively as we headed towards Guernsey.
As the hours rolled by, I realised I’d made a serious misjudgement by not having had a rest day.
Sally had succumbed to seasickness and exhaustion before we’d cleared Portland Bill.
I was only kept going by the excitement of being at sea in Mitch. I was now worried that I’d not have the energy to deal with any emergency.
Luckily, the new Raymarine autopilot and chart plotter worked faultlessly, and the engine ran steadily at 1,200rpm, giving about 8 knots.
We passed through the shipping lanes, sighted the Casquets, then Alderney, and eventually Guernsey, and picked up a mooring off Beaucette Marina at 1500.
The mooring was a bit rolly, but Sally bounced back quickly.
We made dinner with our new cooker and slept soundly under our new cockpit cover.
Beaucette Marina is unique, a former granite quarry which was connected to the sea in the 1960s by the Royal Engineers, who used explosives to blast a channel in the rock.
Surprising progress in our canal motorboat
We awoke early, amazed that we had actually taken Mitch across the Channel and spent a night aboard, with everything we had worked on and installed functioning as we had hoped.
Our intended destination was Roscoff in western Brittany, and we’d planned the passage the night before.
This was to become our invariable practice.
We plot the intended course, and some alternatives, on paper charts before inputting anything into the chartplotter.
Admittedly, some of our charts are very out of date, often black and white fathom Admiralty editions inherited from my father, but I believe they give a useful overall view of the route.
Sally was rather improved as we set out through the Little Russel.
The Roches Douvres were in sight when the engine faltered, and then stopped.
We managed to deploy the Tohatsu outboard, and were pleased when it gave us about 3.5 knots, fast enough for the autopilot to work.
The closest port was Lezardrieux, and so we altered course towards it. The problem, of course, was water in the fuel.
I was not thinking straight, so it took me longer than it should have to realise this.
In the end we entered the Trieux estuary on the main engine, and went upriver to Lezardrieux marina.
We left the boat on a pontoon, and went by taxi to the ferry at Roscoff.
My employer arranged for a rental car at Plymouth, and we drove home, though I had to be up early for a site visit in Nottingham.
I have rarely felt so disorientated as I did that day. This turned out to be a common event – on the boat, we experience so much, we have ‘sensory overload’, and returning to the everyday world is rather unsettling.
We returned to Lezardrieux, an attractive town on the tidal Trieux river, by ferry and car a couple of weeks later, with the intention of taking the boat to Roscoff for winter layup.
We took the boat downriver and anchored near the mouth, ready for an early departure, but when we set out the next morning, we were still worried about water in the fuel tank and the engine’s inability to run at more than 1,400rpm.
We went back up the river to the town, and secured a winter place in the yard. In November 2017 we were back in Lezardrieux.
After more plotting of engine output against the propeller curve, I concluded that the fuel injector pump must have been incorrectly set.
I turned the engine carefully so that No1 piston was at top dead centre on the firing stroke, and removed the injector pump, disconnecting the starter motor and leaving the engine in that position.
We removed the propeller for refurbishment, and replaced the propshaft cutless bearing.
Removing the prop shaft nut was quite difficult, and we had to scout around the yard to find a piece of box section to increase the leverage on the spanner.
We pumped out the fuel tank and cleaned it thoroughly, a nasty job as it contained a great deal of emulsified fuel – I’d evidently missed a lot of water when I’d cleaned the tank while the boat was still in our garden.
That was the end of the first season of Mitch’s travels. We’d rescued her from dereliction and taken her cross-Channel.
Returning to northern Brittany the following year our goal was still the Mediterranean, but 400 miles of salt water lay between Mitch’s layup berth and the western terminus of the Garonne Canal at Castets en Dorthe.
We intended to use four weeks’ leave, in instalments, to explore Brittany before a winter lay-up on the Biscay coast.
We rejoined Mitch in Lezardrieux in early May 2018, with slight trepidation.
Although we believed we had removed all of the water from the fuel tank, the problem of Mitch’s engine refusing to run faster than 1,400rpm remained, and I hoped that my diagnosis of the problem – a wrongly calibrated fuel injector pump, would be correct.
We fitted the recalibrated injector pump, timing it in carefully.
To our joy, when we ran down the river after the boat was launched, the engine revved freely, pushing the boat along at 16 knots.
The first leg of the trip was inauspicious.
Setting off from an overnight anchorage near the end of the Trieux estuary into a fairly stiff north westerly, the contents of the forecabin shelves dismounted with a crash, and the rest of the journey was bumpy.
I was alone in the wheelhouse as we neared Roscoff, and as the prospect of a night in a marina seemed unappealing, I decided to find a secluded anchorage well up the channel to the inland port of Morlaix.
I was wondering at the poverty of the markings, and at how narrow and shallow the channel to this once important port was, when Sally came into the wheelhouse, glanced at the overly-zoomed in chartplotter, and pointed out that we were actually in the Penze river, several miles west of Morlaix.
It was a serendipitous mistake, as we found a quiet sheltered mooring, though the night in the cockpit tent was very cold.
Next day we left the boat in Roscoff marina, and went by taxi, bus and train to retrieve the car from Lezardrieux.
The train journey along the meandering Trieux river to Paimpol was a delight.
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In late May we returned to Roscoff, leaving the car in a car park behind the marina. Roscoff (Rosco in Breton) was a former base for smugglers, and later the ‘Onion Johnnies’ who rode bicycles around southern England, selling onions.
In the 1970s, Breton farmers lobbied the French government to build a deepwater port at Roscoff.
As no shipping company would run between Roscoff and Plymouth, the farmers started their own, and Brittany Ferries was born.
After another night in the Penze, we continued westward.
The Libenter reef near l’Aber Wrac’h gave us our first sight of Atlantic surf breaking on the unforgiving rocks of Brittany.
The Wrac’h is wooded and pleasant, and we made fast for the night to a fore and aft mooring, or corps mort.
The Chenal du Four was placid as Mitch ran through it with a favourable tide.
Ahead of our time for a slack water passage of the Raz de Sein, we idled across the Iroise, Trevennec soon emerging from the haze.
Although there was surf at the base of La Vielle, the Raz was in a benign mood.
The forbidding La Vielle was the site of a tragedy in the 1920s, when many lives were lost attempting to rescue two lighthouse keepers.
In the succeeding days, we made our way along the coast, taking advantage of Mitch’s shallow draught to find an excellent secluded anchorage well up the Odet river.
We visited the Îles Glenan on a grey morning, and were astonished when the sun emerged, revealing a vivid seascape of grey granite, white sand and bright blue sky.
A miserable night
At the huge La Foret-Fouesnant marina, where we intended to leave the boat while we returned home, we made the biggest mistake of our trip so far.
Buoyed by the splendid week’s adventure, we set to cleaning the ship and throwing away our remaining food in anticipation of a celebratory restaurant meal.
Such was our folly – it was Monday, and we were in Brittany. We toured the firmly closed eating places of the marina, and then, with sinking morale, in the town.
Dejected, we returned to the boat, and did our best with a tin of mushy peas and fried cakes made of flour and water.
After a cold and rather miserable night, we went by taxi to an ominously quiet Quimper station, where we were told that a strike meant that no TGV trains were running.
We caught a commuter bus to Brest, and then a local train and another bus to Roscoff and the ferry.
In late June we arrived back at the boat after a rapid air and train journey, followed by a long hunt for a taxi at Quimper station.
After a night at the now warmer but more crowded Glenans, we motored inside Île de Groix, an island once captured by the English, who failed to interest the French in paying a ransom.
Our destination, Etel, is protected by a shifting bar of evil repute and was formerly home to a fleet of sailing tunnymen, who were guided over the bar by a semaphore station which now advises mariners by VHF.
In bright sunshine we entered the estuary against a strong spring ebb tide, and proceeded as far as the bridge, enjoying the vivid contrast of clear blue water and yellow sand, before making fast to a pontoon outside of the marina.
Mitch’s crew sleeps in the cockpit tent, and in the early hours we certainly felt uninsulated from the outside world, when the youth of Etel took advantage of the low spring tide to clamber around the internal structure of the concrete marina wall to collect something that involved torches and loud conversations just a few inches from our berths.
After a brief stop at Île Houat we went through the Teignose passage, having an easier time of it than Hawke’s squadron which, in a rising gale in November 1759, chased the French fleet into Quiberon Bay, defeating it and scuppering French plans to invade England.
We entered the Morbihan, travelling through this delightful landlocked bay to the tidal Auray river, where we anchored in shallow water off the port of Bono.
The river, with its abandoned chateau, looked wonderful in the warm sunshine.
We’d booked a mooring at Foleux on the Vilaine – formerly a tidal estuary, which was turned into a huge boating lake by the construction of a barrage at Arzal, with constant water levels far inland.
This was our first passage through a lock, and it’s best to draw a veil over it, but the Vilaine is beautiful.
At the Capitainerie, Mitch was secured to a corps mort in the river. We took a slow train to La Rochelle, and flew home.
Our last trip of 2018 was a gentle cruise in the Morbihan and Vilaine.
The second transit of the Arzal lock was much easier than the first, our only difficulty was when we got the boat broadside onto the fast flowing ebb at Penerf, almost trapping Sally’s arm between the mooring rope and the boat.
We took the boat up the Vilaine to Redon, and met our son, Martin, at the station.
We rented an extraordinary gite owned by the head gardener of Nantes, full of large cacti and exotic plants, then enjoyed a ferry trip home from St Malo, coasting along the Cotentin Peninsular in beautiful weather.
In March 2019 we had a rather grim visit to the boatyard. We stayed in a two star hotel on a Redon retail park and it was cold and rainy as we undertook precautionary cleaning of the fuel tank.
The propeller had been damaged by a grounding in the Vilaine estuary, so we took it back to England for an overhaul.
When we returned to Foleux in April, Sally combatted the mould growth with the pressure washer.
Mitch was launched on 29 April and we anchored overnight near the mouth of the Vilaine before a rough 50-mile passage to Port Joinville on the Île d’Yeu.
I felt seasick, so to reduce travel time we increased speed from our usual eight knots to 13, and the boat became more comfortable.
The picturesque Île d’Yeu is a popular holiday destination, with development kept under control.
On rented bicycles we rode to the southern end of the island, realising we’d left Brittany behind and were now in the Vendée.
We bought ridiculously expensive (by 2019 standards) fuel and, after diagnosing an autopilot problem – I had inadvertently switched the hydraulic pump off – set out at a steady 12 knots on a trip so perfect I will always remember it.
South-east across a calm and blue Bay of Biscay, past Les Sables d’Olonne where huge racing yachts were practising, before sweeping into the Pertuis Breton, with the Île de Ré close on the starboard side, and the Ré Bridge increasing in size until we were under it, past a tanker discharging at La Pallice and across the Basque Roads, so redolent of naval history, to the Île d’Oleron and St Denis, notable for its many Merry Fishers.
As St Denis marina is tidal, we left early the next morning and picked up a mooring outside to await favourable tidal conditions for entering the Gironde.
I have a great respect for the Gironde entrance, as I was once in a 20,000 ton BP Tanker which had to wait offshore for two days for the weather to moderate before attempting the passage.
We went north round the Île d’Oleron, through Pertuis d’ Antioch, rather than the shallow Pertuis Maumasson at the southern end.
The 30-mile trip south was smooth, despite a significant swell.
The famous Cordouan lighthouse emerged from the haze, and we turned to port at the Grande Passe de l’Ouest fairway buoy.
In the channel, the swells steepened alarmingly, with the boat surfing down them, while I looked astern for breakers.
We had intended to stop at Royan, but Mitch was going so well we continued up the Gironde, past our first wine chateau, to the town of Paulliac.
The marina here is swept by the current of the Gironde, and we picked up a buoy until slack water, anxiously watching the manoeuvring of a river cruise ship coming alongside the quay.
Next morning we visited the Office de Tourisime, then enjoyed wine tasting at La Rose Paulliac and a wonderful walk through Chateau Rothschild vineyards.
We departed at 0700 on 2 May, with the water like liquid mud sluicing under the quay, and picked up a mooring to await the optimum tide up the Gironde.
We set off upstream at 1100, though the current unexpectedly headed us all day. Going through the city of Bordeaux by boat was a tremendous experience, even if the many arched Pont St Pierre gave us some anxious moments, with Mitch having to call on reserves of power to get up the standing wave under it.
The Garonne, with its fast, muddy flow and astonishing towns, villages and chateaux, was truly beautiful, and as we tied up to the waiting pontoon at Castets en Dorth, I felt that the past eight hours were the best I had ever spent on a boat.
Going ashore, we reconnoitred the lock. It was a peaceful spot, though our sleep was disturbed by otters sporting on the pontoon and jumping in the river.
In the morning, Mitch idled in the fairway, under a road bridge built by Eiffel, waiting for a green light to enter the lock.
We were about to leave the tides behind and enter fresh water for the first time.
We had enjoyed our adventures so far, and we couldn’t wait for more. It would be three years before Mitch returned to England.
- Make sure the fuel tank is clean
- Have plenty of spares aboard and a good selection of tools
- Make sure you are rested before setting out on long trips
Western France cruising tips
South Brittany and western France is an excellent cruising ground, but passage planning is important for first time visitors. Beware the tides!
- If your boat has shallow draught, exploit it
- Be careful of the Gironde entrance – don’t cut corners, avoid onshore winds and swell, and make sure the tide is flooding
- The marina at Paulliac is swept by current – moor outside and await slack water before entering. There is a crane on the quay, so it might be possible to unstep a mast. No fuel was available.
- We thought we had planned the tides in the Gironde and Garonne properly, but had a foul current from Paulliac to Castets. Mitch travelling at 8 knots through the water was able to make the passage in daylight. The current under the Pont de Pierre in Bordeaux was fierce.
- There are limited mooring opportunities on the Gironde and Garonne. We didn’t try, but anchoring close inshore might be possible
- Rail travel in France is excellent, but taxis are difficult to find
- Restaurants are often closed on Mondays
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