Festival at Gravelines in Northern France is build up to major event at Oostend next week

This year’s annual classic boat festival at the historic port of Gravelines in northern France – L’Escale à Gravelines – will be held this weekend (17-18 May), writes PBO reader Alan Campbell.

This takes place the week before the major event at Oostend (Oostende voor Anker), which is an easy day’s sail further along the Flandres coast.

All classic yachts, motor yachts and working boats are welcome at the event and for entry forms & further information write to: Les Vieux Greéments des Bancs de Flandre, Port de Plaisance, Quai Ouest, Bassin Vauban, 59820 Gravelines, France.

Free berthing
Those attending the Gravelines can avail themselves of a week’s free mooring before the event and up to a further week afterwards (which can be particularly useful for those sailing on to Oostende). Entrants to L’Escale are invited to an evening banquet as guests of the town of Gravelines, and the tents of the bars, traditional food and chandlery items complete the atmosphere of this particularly friendly event.

Historic beauty
It is a particularly pleasant spot in which to spend a few days, as well as an historic one. It was at the Battle of Gravelines, fought out among the sandbanks of this part of the coast, that Drake and Lord Howard attacked the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Fortified by the famous military architect Vauban in the 17th century, the town is a beautifully preserved gem of provincial France within its massive, moated walls. There are frequent bus services to Calais, Dunkirk and other towns in the region, and train services to and from the small railway station.

Shops in the town include two excellent bakers and in the town Square, the traditional bar-café with its pavement tables in the sun. The Vauban citadel on the opposite side of the Square is now an excellent museum and a Lidl store on the quayside is handy for groceries and drinks, with a wines and spirits store for those wishing to take advantage of the lower French prices and “stock up”, on the opposite side of the harbour basin.

Facilities at the Port de Plaisance are new and excellent, with impeccably clean showers and toilets, very pleasant and english-speaking staff, together with a popular bar-restaurant where the food is both very good and reasonably priced. (the ‘Cap Compass’ is a popular lunchtime venue for local business people throughout the year).

Gravelines seems to have a dedicated following among british sailors, its friendliness and historic tranquillity being addictive to those who enjoy places off the main track. The tidal entry puts off many, who go into nearby Calais or Dunkirk instead. Actually, either of these ports is a good jumping off point from which to make an easy passage into Gravelines on the tide (being respectively 10 and 12 NM distant), and in rough weather go into Dunkirk anyway as it is dangerous to attempt to enter Gravelines in such conditions. Tides also sweep strongly across the canal entrance at times of maximum flow, when an approach from up-tide is very adviseable. The channel entrance is difficult to pick out on the approach until within a mile or so of it, so a suitable GPS waypoint is reassuring.

Entry is via a kilometre long entrance canal, navigable by yachts from about 2½ hours before high tide until 2½ hours after. Other than a small sandbank to the western side of the canal just inside its entrance (yachts keep to the deeper water to the other side), the canal offers no hazards and leads to the well sheltered Bassin Vauban, where at low water boats lie on very deep and very soft mud, other than at the outer pontoon berths where they stay afloat.

Allow 20 minutes to negotiate the canal, if moving at 5 knots, and in good weather boats may anchor in 5 metres or so, with good holding on sand, off the pier heads to await the tide. The canal has been recently dredged and last year I entered at 3 hours before high water and found 2 metres depth up the middle of the channel. It rapidly increases as the tide rises.

A swing bridge opens to allow vessels access to the harbour basin at 2½ hrs before HW. If arriving earlier tie up to the lifeboat pontoon to port in front of the bridge to await its opening, or to the lifeboat itself. The current from an overflow sluice is very strong just there so care is needed.

Canal entrance
The Bassin Vauban is also an entrance to the French canals (via an inner lock) and yachts can have their masts craned out here to enter the network. There is a friendly and competent chandlery on the quayside, with good engineering and lift-out facilities.