|'Enterprise' Classic Yacht|
tHE cRUISING lIFE
If the Cruise of 2004 was our sailing baptism of fire, then 2005 was to be our maintenance baptism of fire and a test of our resolve to stick it out. If we had not ‘burned our bridges’ we may not have. We knew that the maintenance would be a major job because that was the only ship we could afford, but we thought that we had tackled the worst of it in early 2004 when we first arrived to take possession. This was alluded to but passed over in my blog of that time.
November 8th 2004 found us tied up in the marina behind a lock gate at the head of the Morlaix River in Brittany, France at the end of our first season in Enterprise.
The original design of Enterprise used the hull as partial walls for the grey water tank and the fresh water tank. The top of these tanks consisted of steel plates fixed to flanges. The catch was that each plate was held down by bolts, 74 for the grey water tank and 68 for the fresh water tank; all rusted in place! The previous owner said that he had never opened them and judging from state of the bolts I could imagine that they had never been opened. We were not worried because we had power wire brushed the exterior of the whole hull and not found any signs of corrosion. However, it was on my mind that we should get those covers off and see what was going on inside; particularly because we were drinking water from one of them.
After a few days we decided that we should take advantage of the farmhouse, before the weather became too cold, to clean out the ship and tackle those tank lids. Those rusty bolts alone were going to be a two- or three-day job, and so it proved. Finally, the steel plates were lifted and we were appalled. The grey water tank was nearly full of a back sludge that had mushrooms growing in it! The freshwater tank was not bad but certainly not somewhere from which you would want to drink water. Our hearts sank at the prospect of cleaning them out so that the hull would be clean enough to take an epoxy coating.
That experience changed everything. We could not feel secure until we had inspected every square centimetre of the inside surface of the hull. The ship was now perched on dry land so we could not live on her and so faced a complete winter in the farmhouse while we gutted the ship; disassembling all the cabinet work to access the inside hull. So started 3 months of relentless work as all the woodwork was ferried to the farmhouse and sanded and varnished before returning while the inside of the hull was meticulously inspected, wire brushed and given two coats of an epoxy paint. The problem turned out to be confined to a narrow band inside the grey water tank where the surface of detergent-laden water had sat for years. Apparently, detergent is a mild acid so the duration of sitting, and the oxygen/water interface was enough to eat through. The damage was confined to 2 cm either side of the surface and the rest was fine.
We located, with difficulty, a welder in an adjoining village who simply cut the areas out and replaced them with new material. An unexpected advantage of a steel hull
Like renovating an old house, with every step the project grows. We decided that we should have the grey water tank removed and replaced with a rigid plastic one shaped to fit the hull. Furthermore, it should be re-plumbed with a diverter valve so that it could act as a black water tank capable of being emptied from a pumping station, i.e., no discharges whatsoever. This is a requirement for sailing in the Baltic and increasingly elsewhere.
There was no way we were going to drink water from that black hole of a freshwater tank so we would have to have twin stainless tanks made to fit the hull shape. Twin tanks so that we could track our use without running out and make sure that they were used in rotation. It was all growing in scope by the day for we also decided to take advantage of the stripped hull to apply sheets of insulation to stop the cabin getting too hot and too cold.
A side effect of all this work was that we built up a network of suppliers, tradesmen and interested onlookers that stood us in good stead to become engaged with the local culture. They told us about all sorts of local events, curiosities, and places to visit that we would never have found otherwise. Also, which villages served ‘ouvrier’ lunches and where the best boulangeries were; intimate recitals or lectures in obscure half ruined monasteries. A word of explanation about ouvrier, or ‘worker’, lunches is in order. The French countryside abounds with independent tradesmen running around in their little white vans and, for them, the 2-hour lunch is sacred. Certain cafes cater to this trade by offering a sort of gastronomic, communal meal at an incredibly cheap price. Everyone sits at benches at a shared table and each table is served a five-course meal, in communal bowls, with wine included. So, at noon the main village street fills up with white vans that seem to appear from nowhere and disappear again at 14:00. Perhaps that explains why deadlines never seem to mean a thing. Unfortunately, we were so overwhelmed by the boat work that we could not fully take advantage of most of it. We found that French, small-town tradesmen do good work but strictly in their own time frame. They will tell you what you want to hear with not the slightest intention of meeting those dates. Negotiations generally took place in the village bar over a pastis and that is perhaps why. Once you figured out the ‘rules of the game’ and relaxed, it was all rather fun.
The ship was lifted back into the water on 1 March 2005 and the mast erected, but we were not impressed with how it was done. All panic and hurry which resulted in the lower stays being installed the wrong way round! We gave up on waiting for them to come back and fix it, so I did it myself.
However, the work was far from over for there was still a huge ‘to-do’ list and the new tanks were not yet in. It would be another five months before we actually sailed away to start our 2005 cruise on 7th August. We moved back onto Enterprise on the 13th May, even though we were still working with fresh water from a bucket but at least, now we were living on the ‘job site’.
Our experiences of the previous season brought home to us some serious safety risks. Standing on a slippery deck in a rough sea to furl the mainsail was one, going up forwards in heavy weather to release a jammed line was another and also being tossed around in the cockpit while trying to steer. In spite of all the man-overboard drills that you are taught in sailing school it was obvious that, in the real world, you were most likely to go overboard in a heavy sea and then you were lost, especially at night.
It was not ‘rocket science’ to figure out that the best course of action was to never go overboard in the first place. Our strategy therefore was prevention. We had ‘lazy bag’ reefing installed so that we did not have to go on deck to drop the mainsail.
The next thing was non-slip paint on deck and coach roof. Then handholds strategically placed such that there was always one hand holding on to the ship. We rigged jack stays along the deck on both sides so that when going forwards you could clip on the safety harness and stay attached. Finally, we installed lights to flood the deck if somebody had to go forward at night, for there are always unforeseen emergencies. However, all this took time to organise and install.
On May 12th our new water tanks turned up, just a month late so we figured that we were doing well. After trial fitting them I coated them with Vaseline, sprayed foam into the hull space and pressed them into the foam before it set. They seem to be really rigid but removable. Then I hooked up the plumbing, flushed out the system and filled them up. Goodbye to the buckets!
We had previously committed to crew for our brother-in-law on his yacht for the last two weeks in June, so the 15th June saw us casting off from Roscoff just a few kilometres from Morlaix, in his yacht, to sail round to South Brittany to explore that coast and the off-shore islands before returning to Brest; but that is another story.
It is a well-known fact that the longer you stay in a port the harder it seems to leave. That’s how it seemed to us that year. There was always another job to do before we left. Finally, everything was ready and on 7th August at 9:20 we cast off for the lock opening to catch the falling tide in the Morlaix River. It was magical. Gliding down the winding pastoral river in a beautiful pristine ship at last.
At low tide tractors can drive out to do this work. At high tide it is too deep to work on them so there is no activity and, in fact, no sign that there is anything there at all. A sailor who is not paying attention to his charts, could sail right over them, or worse, get caught by them and settle down on them as the tide went out.
However, if you know where to anchor, it makes an ideal place to wait for the tide to come in and fill the Morlaix River. That is what we did at the end of last season when we arrived and had to wait until the next morning for the lock at Morlaix to open. I wrote about the experience in last season’s blog.
This time we sailed straight through and out the narrow entrance to the outer approaches, a veritable maze of rocks both visible and hidden just below the surface. Guarding this narrow entrance on a single rock is the Chateau du Taureau a fortress originally built in 1542 to protect Morlaix after a disastrous raid on the city by an English fleet. Although the channels are well marked today, they are braided and easy to confuse in mist and darkness.
In a future year we would do this passage in the dark and in the rain and that was scary. Now we were trying to catch the west flowing current down the coast, but because we could not exit Morlaix until nearly high tide, it was too late to catch it by the time we reached the outer reaches of the entrance. The strategy was therefore to turn west and anchor for the night in a deeper part of the passage between the mainland and the Île de Batz. This passage almost dries out at low tide, but not quite, so there is just enough water to get through and a few deeper areas to anchor.
When you switch from living on land to living on water everything changes. All that was of importance on land is no longer of any consequence and now life centers around the tides, the phase of the moon (that determines the size of the tides), the calendar (equinoctial gales) and the weather. Your world is always moving, hopefully a gentle rocking, and you are aware of every sound. The creaking of a rope, the lapping of water and many other tiny sounds. They become so familiar that you know exactly what is going on; when the wind rises and by how much; or when it changes in direction; a loose rope or something not quite right. It is very comforting, but it takes a while to acquire that knowledge, until then one worries at every new sound. What was not so comforting was to hear birds strutting over the deck and knowing that you would have to clean up the bird shit in the morning.
We found our anchorage pool and sat that night close to the island across from the Town of Roscoff and could see the lights of the sidewalk cafés, the calliope and people strolling. In short, a typical summer resort in full swing. The countryside behind Roscoff is ideally suited to growing onions and garlic so that in the post-war years it became the centre of the ‘Johnnie Onion’ trade.
As a young boy I can remember that each year there would appear on the residential streets of our town men on bicycles loaded down with strings of onions. They dressed the part with beret and stripped jersey and called out their wares as they cycled through the streets. We called them ‘Johnnie Onion Men’ and I now know that they came from Roscoff. Once the onions were all harvested and plaited into braids a shipload would sail to Southampton and these salesmen would fan out to all the surrounding towns until the boatload was sold. A colourful piece of history.
The next morning, we picked up the Westward current to travel down the coast to the Aberwrac’h River where we tied up at a mooring just off the village. This is a rocky coast of rugged, dangerous beauty. We passed over the site of a Canadian disaster that is little known. On the night of April 29, 1944, the Canadian destroyer HMCS Athabascan was laying mines off the town of Plouescat when it was torpedoed with the loss of 128 lives. It is an interesting footnote that 6 months earlier she had been one of the first ships damaged by the earliest form of guided missile developed by the Nazis. We stumbled across the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Plouescat when we were exploring the coast in the winter and would later come across the sites elsewhere, of little-known tragedies that had been kept secret at the time they occurred.
I am writing this blog years after the passage and realize how much our feelings about the sea and sailing changed over the years. Trying to put myself back in that headspace I see that we concentrated such a lot on the techniques of sailing and developing safe procedures until they became second nature. As for the sea, we saw ourselves as pitted against an adversary that we had to outwit. Four years on and it was totally different. We had gained an understanding of the sea that grew with every passing year. Gradually we grew to see it as a living, powerful entity that was totally indifferent to whether we were there or not; it was a matter of reading it and living with it. We no longer read it superficially but saw it as a three-dimensional thing with its hidden turbulence at depth with tidal currents flowing over cliffs and through canyons, welling up to cause over-falls, whirlpools and sudden fogs. A place that is calm at one state of wind and tide but can be dangerous at another. It was simply a matter of reading all the components and not being there when it was dangerous. We did not always get it right. By the time we had to leave the sea after 14 years on Enterprise, we had developed an almost spiritual communion with the sea.
This Southern coast of Brittany is less rugged than the Northern coast and the climate is different; dramatically so, almost Mediterranean in the summer. We were headed for The Morbihan, a sheltered area only connected to the sea through a narrow entrance and containing many islands as well as the city of Vannes.
If you have never had to navigate such a passage you may wonder where the challenge is since it is all laid out on a chart and there are a few marker buoys. Remember GPS was relatively new and electronic charts tied to auto-helms were still in the future for small vessels. Now place yourself at sea level looking at the horizon; it looks like an unbroken line of rocks! You must know where you are on the chart, pick a course and go for it towards the rocks, hoping that as you get closer the passage and marker buoys will appear before you get too close. Often the wind and tidal currents will be pushing
you on a course different from the one you chose so constant rechecking and adjustment is needed. Often something does not seem to fit but you convince yourself that it does, until you can’t fool yourself any longer and must do a hasty U-turn with your tail between the legs and try again. It is all a rather exhilarating challenge that we enjoy.
The arrival at the narrow entrance to The Morbihan must be timed for an hour or so each side of slack water for the tide rushes in and out fiercely and there is no sense fighting it. Inside this sheltered sailing area our priority was to find an anchorage for the night, normally not a difficult thing. However, we were at the peak of the season and there were yachts everywhere that we wanted to anchor. Now, when you anchor the ship swings about the anchor point as the tide changes so that in a 12-hour tidal cycle you will swing through 180 degrees. If you are next to another anchored yacht, you don’t have to be that whole distance apart since you will both swing in the same direction. However, it is not an exact science because different hull shapes react differently, so every sailor judges it a bit differently. Now in this case we were forced to anchor near another yacht whose owner thought that we were too close, although I did not. Finally, to pacify him we raised anchor and moved further away but I was not happy for we were right on the edge of the holding ground i.e., the area where the seabed is deemed suitable for an anchor to dig in. In those circumstances we always sleep badly and get up several times to check our position as the tide changes. All seemed well until we were getting up at first light with the current at its maximum when the anchor broke out and we were being carried away with the anchor dragging across the bottom! Quickly firing up the engine to hold the ship the problem becomes how to get the anchor chain up for it is pulling against the ship which is battling the current and the winch cannot pull against that force, at that angle. It was a matter of aligning the ship to the chain and then getting just enough acceleration to take the pressure off the chain so that it could be winched in. We would never have managed it if it had been dark, and I cursed myself for being so accommodating to the yacht next door. Another step in the learning process.
When we were safely moored in Vannes, we returned by public transport to pick up our car in Morlaix and then drove to Paris to pick up our son Timothy who was arriving from Canada. On the drive to Paris, we stopped by Giverney again but were disappointed. The age of mass tourism has arrived with buses lined up disgorging hordes of people. No longer can you wander in the gardens but must follow the designated circuit and shuffle along with the crowds. That did not however dampen our enthusiasm to show Enterprise off and put it through its paces in the next 10 days. First, we explored some islands in the Morbihan even though it was extremely busy, finally mooring off Aurey which is on one of the peripheral estuaries.
After a couple of days, we went up the Vilaine river to Roche Bernard, a town listed for its
outstanding beauty. To reach it you must go through a lock, but unbeknown to us, due to the drought, it was only operating once a day.
Then the weather changed to rain and stronger winds, of which the latter suited us just fine. The last port was Le Palais on Belle Île, one of the larger islands off this coast. It looked as if there was no room in the harbour with several yachts on every mooring buoy, but the harbour master came out with his dinghy and told us to point bow between two other yachts. He then rammed us in with his dinghy; they were not going to lose paying visitors! We spent a day there and rented bicycles for a trip around the island.
These islands in the Bay of Biscay, due to their isolation, all developed their own distinct cultures and have remained relatively unknown, and little visited until recent times. The bicycles were an ideal way to explore. Finally, back through the Teignouse Passage off the Quiberon Peninsular and back to Vannes; the visit was over. However, before we left Vannes, two weeks later, my brother-in-law, arrived to sail with us as far as Bordeaux. We soon learned that if you sail in interesting waters there is no shortage of crew!
We started our ‘island hopping’ journey to Bordeaux by sailing South, initially for the island of Noirmoutier. This felt like a new adventure however, because most pleasure sailors don’t venture very far South from here. Why is that you may ask? Well, this bay off the North Atlantic has a reputation, part mythology built up over the centuries and part based in fact.
Swells are large waves that do not break and if you are not in shallow water are usually of no concern. However, as they approach shallower water, headlands, and sandbanks, they can become very nasty indeed, even on a beautiful day with no wind. We were to discover this, but as we set forth on this 17th September 2005 our knowledge of the sea and how to read it had a long way to go. In the days of sailing ships, few navigational aids and no weather forecasts, ships returning from Africa, or the Americas feared being driven into this bay. So, it built up in their minds as an inferno of sea monsters and was so depicted on the early charts. This feeling still exists in the folk lore of sailing today.
Then it was on to the Île d'Yeu, a rocky outcrop with sandy beaches, far from the mainland so there is no danger from the bridge-builders here. Consequently, it has retained much of its charm and unique character of an isolated fishing community. |We dried out here, propped against the harbour wall, and were able to check out the bottom of the ship between tides. I was obviously still traumatised by the events of last winter.
Port Joinville is the harbour name, and a delightful place it is. Its only claim to fame is that Marshal Pétain, the hero of the First World War Battle of Verdun, who was tried and found guilty of treason after the Second World War was exiled and died here. Then a right-wing group of body-snatchers stole his body with the object of burying it at Verdun. However, they were caught before they could complete their plan and the body is back on the island.
Our next island was the Île de Ré, another low sandy one with a similar history in salt making. Once again it had been joined to the mainland by a long bridge and that has turned it into a mass tourist destination but luckily it too was not yet on the international tourism radar. However, this island was different because it controlled the approaches to France’s naval port of La Rochelle and the shipyards at Rochefort, so it was fortified. Louis XIV’s builder of fortifications, Vauban, built one of his signature star shaped battlements at Saint-Martin-de-Ré, complete with inner moat. It was in that moat that the marina was located, and you had to lock in from the sea. A more picturesque scene could not be imagined as we sat in the cockpit under the floodlight walls of the castle. The old medieval town was just humming with restaurants, bistros, and cafés
Leaving that idyllic anchorage, we sailed East and under the connecting bridge, turning South past LaRochelle. We were starting to worry about being late for our rendezvous in Bordeaux with another son who was flying from Canada to sail with us part of the way back. It seemed that everyone wanted to visit us that year.
So, we made the decision to sail past the next island and go directly for Royan in the mouth of the Gironde River. Now we made mistakes that nearly led to disaster.
This rather depressing atmosphere is not helped by the looming presence of the massive U-Boat pens that the Nazis built.
Ten bays that could each hold two U-boats with huge steel doors, built to resist the heaviest bombardment, which makes them very costly to remove. The City has tried to partially re-purpose them into art galleries but we found it only partially successful since the massive brutality of the structure is overwhelming. Two have been left the way they were with the original signage and added historical explanation. Fascinating and eerie at the same time.
Here my brother-in-law left us, and another son arrived from Canada.
Bordeaux is an ancient town and former capital of the Duchy of Aquitaine made famous by Eleanor of Aquitaine. A remarkable woman who shaped much of the history of Europe in the 82 years that she was upon the earth. We walked the town and saw the house where, it is claimed, that she lived for a while. The city had lots to see and, like so many places that we would visit in the following years, we promised ourselves that we would come back to it, but we never did. It was getting late in the season, and we were anxious to make our way back to Southern Brittany before getting caught by equinoctial gales in Southern Biscay, so we did not stay as long in Bordeaux as it merited.
On our way back North, we were not going to make the same mistake again of going through the Pertuis de Maumusson so took the outside passage up the West coast of the Île d’Oléron. We kept well offshore for we could see the swells rising up as they approached the shore and become, large breaking waves on the rocky shore; our recent memories were still too fresh for comfort. Finally, rounding the northernmost outlying rocks we turned East for the shelter of the port of Saint-Denis-d'Oléron, and made our next mistake.
At low tide the foreshore here is completely dried out but the port retains a minimum of 2 metres deep by means of a sill (a sort of wall) across the entrance. This is a common technique as an alternative to opening and closing a lock, but the disadvantage is that the access window is significantly reduced. To access the harbour, you must have enough depth of water to sail over the sill, say a depth of water outside the harbour of 4.2 metres whereas with a lock it could be opened when the water was close to 2 metres. Thus, in a tidal cycle of 12 Hours there may only be a window of 3 Hours for access.
I knew that we were very late for the access window but in my engineering way I did the calculations and decided that we could just make it. I had not appreciated that tide tables and times are only approximate and can be affected by pressure, wind, and storm surges. So, approaching the harbour we sailed right past the offshore waiting buoys and went for the entrance. About 100 metres off we touched bottom and were stuck, it was 21:30. There was nothing we could do as the tide went out and the ship slowly laid down on her side. My biggest concern was that we may lay on a sharp rock and the second was that battery acid may spill out; that is the reason that batteries are always placed in wooden boxes that act as sacrificial material to absorb the acid. We would have been the laughingstock of the village except that by the time we were high and dry it was midnight and nobody was around, thank goodness. By 03:15 we started lifting and by 07:30 we could start the engine and motor away to the offshore waiting buoy, tie up and catch up with our sleep. A lesson never forgotten.
We did not realize it at the time, but we were incredibly lucky. The ship has a broad enough keel that it will stand on its own and, if the seabed is soft mud that is deep enough, it will be reasonably stable but if it is hard sand it will be unstable and could suddenly fall either way. We knew enough to heel the ship as the tide went out so that it would lie down but we did not know the nature of the sea bed and just hoped that there would not be a sharp rock on which it would come to rest; there wasn't. Later we were to learn that the incoming tide can be dangerous depending on the configuration of the land and the weather conditions. The tide can come in like a series of standing waves that can swamp the cockpit and get into the hull through the dorade ventilators and vent pipes. Then, as the water gets deeper, waves develop that will lift the ship on the crests and drop it in the troughs, giving it a terrible pounding until the water gets deep enough for the ship to float in the troughs. This scenario is something that we had never seen discussed in sailing literature but were to experience, in other peoples' ships; thank goodness. On this occasion we got out unscathed and never put ourselves in that position again. Local keeled ships that want the option of drying out at low tide are fitted with telescopic legs hinged on both sides that can be lowered before the tide goes out. We had considered having some fitted but they are awkward for just occasional use and you need to know the sea bed onto which you are going to settle. We were always moving on so would never know that.
From there we sailed up the Charente River to the town of Rochefort. In the days of wooden sailing ships this was the main shipbuilding centre for the French Navy but has now become a museum piece with the buildings and docks preserved; a little-known gem located up a beautiful tidal river. Just before reaching the town, you pass under the famous transporter bridge, one of only six of this scale still operating in the world and a Historical Monument in France. In the coming years we would be fortunate enough to sail under three of them.
Shortly past the bridge the Corderie Building comes into view. This remarkable building is 375 metres long and was where all the ropes for the ships were manufactured. Today it is a maritime museum dedicated to rope making in all its manifestations. We would visit on the following day.
A little further and we locked into a nest of inner harbours where the marina was located. This was such a fascinating place that we stayed an extra day. Perhaps the most fascinating thing here was the grand project to build a replica of the Hermoine, a ship that was built at Rochefort and sailed to the United States in 1780 to participate in the American Civil War. The replica was to be built as close as possible to the original using the same materials and sailed to the United States. When we visited it was just over 7 years into the construction and they had completed the lower portion of the hull with its massive timbers. It would be another 9 years before it was completed.
We then traced out outward route back to Vannes but now the ports were almost deserted for we were in October. It was like a totally different, quieter world that we really enjoyed. Our son left us in Vannes, and we pottered along the South Brittany coast in worsening weather to dock the ship for the winter on the 31st of October in the little village of Locmiquélic in the estuary leading up to L’Orient. We then had time to reflect on the previous 12 months; the moments of despair that almost broke us and the moments of exhilaration that made us feel that it was worth it. But perhaps the most important thing was that we had changed, we had learned a great deal about ourselves and our resilience, about the sea and our relationship with it, and how we could no longer imagine living in any other way!
June and I (David Phillips) have sailed the European and UK coasts for 30 years, the last 14 in Enterprise. It has been a continual exploration , inspiration and growth of experience. We would not have missed a minute of it.
It is a symbiotic relationship, you look after her and she looks after you and takes you into a fascinating world that is otherwise inaccessible. Ill health finally forced us to sell her.
On 2 September 2017 she was sold. We hope that she will bring the same life changing experiences to the new owners as she brought to us.