March continued pretty much the same as February, with sanding and painting a regular activity. We were paid up in the marina until 1st April and didn't want to pay for any additional nights so it was full steam ahead to get the boat ready to set sail. The weather continued to be very kind to us and we spent a lot of time outside, even when not painting, which for me being used to long office hours was very much appreciated.
We rounded off the month by bringing/taking (where do we live??) Annie and Philippe (who so willingly and patiently looked after me with my broken leg) to Cornwall for a holiday and to leave our car behind. We had 5 fabulous days of sunshine and did the touristy things like eating fish and chips on a harbour wall, cream teas, drinking Cornish beer – you get the picture? On our return to Pornichet we had an “open boat” afternoon for friends we had made in the area to come and say goodbye. Annie and I bid a very tearful goodbye on the Saturday evening and Philippe came back to see us off on the Sunday morning, with a meteo forecast that was almost perfect.
Our first stop was Ile d’Yeu (37 miles), the pilot book says a very pretty island with stunning scenery along the south coast. We only used the engines for a few minutes at either end of the journey and dropped anchor below an ancient fort on the cliff side, which was rather picturesque:
With the meteo as it was we decided there was no time for sightseeing and took advantage of the northerly’s to push us on our way. Our second stop was the river at Auguillon (58 miles), it was dark by the time we arrived and we had to pick our way between the mussel beds until we were far enough up the river for a comfortable anchorage. This had been an uncomfortable passage and for the first time onboard Freya Frey I had been seasick. A good night’s sleep was brought to an slightly early end when a stream of local fishermen headed out to find the day’s catch.
The meteo was still forecasting Northerlies so we continued south to our next port of choice which was Rochefort (37 miles). This was a smoother passage which found us a berth for the night on the visitor’s pontoon, next to the “Corderie Royale” an amazing and well maintained building which seemed to go on forever. It was particularly picturesque after dark and I was pleased that my camera coped with the lighting:
We spent a very long time studying charts and discussing with local sailors/fishermen the options for heading south. We could either go round the outside of Ile D’Oleron adding around 15 miles to the journey, or go through the channel between the island and the mainland which the pilot books and charts strongly state that this should only be done in good weather and on the turn of high tide. The weather was settled, there was just a gentle breeze from the North so we decided the channel would be feasible.
On looking further at the charts we ran into the next conundrum - where to go next. Into the Gironde Estuary was looked a nice days sail away...but if we left the Oleron channel on the high tide at our hull speed it was the wrong state of tide to enter the Gironde. OK, so the forecast was good, we were well rested, how about we carry straight on to Arcachon....wrong state of tide again. Back to plan B, go round the north of Oleron..but every option we looked at had the same problem, it was always going to be the wrong time of tide, and/or impossible with the wind in the north to get in anywhere.
Another study of the meteo and we made the decision to head straight for Bayonne, which was enterable at most states of tide. We needed to go back down the Charente river on the ebb tide to opted for an overnight anchorage on Ile D’Aix, very close to Fort Boyard. The short distance from the mouth of the Charente across to the island was wind against tide and John had to work very hard using the twin engines to steer us across. Once in the lee of the land we headed for the shallows and took a drying mooring and settled down for the night.
It was an midday tide to start the journey so we had a relaxing morning checking every meteo report to ensure that we were making the best decision. All was looking good, the northerlies were forecast for several days, it was clear blue sky and sunshine and a calm sea state.
The passage started well, as we neared the road bridge that connects the island to the mainland we both stated having doubts as to its height. The chart didn’t have the height and John did his usual trick of comparing the height of the lampposts on the bridge to the gap below, and this confirmed there was plenty of height. As we approached the angle became deceptive and with John out on deck and me at the helm we crept underneath and breathed a sigh of relief as we passed through. On later checking a different chart we had about 10m to spare, but it certainly didn’t seem that way at the
The channel was well buoyed and only varied slightly from our charts. The final approach to the open sea was unsettling for me as we had breaking waves on both sides (complete with people surfing), but the buoyed channel through the deeper water had no surf and we safely entered the Atlantic waters once more. Sail up, time to head south, John bagged the first sleep and off we set. The next 24 hours passed pleasantly and on the second afternoon, we sat out on deck drinking a cup of tea and thinking this was the life.
Not long after the wind dropped to virtually nothing, no problem, engine on, motor ahead. By this time we were about half way down the sand dune that runs from Arcachon to Bayonne. Out of nowhere, the wind turned and very quickly built up to a southerly force 7. The seas became very short and steep and very uncomfortable. The dinner that I had enjoyed earlier soon fed the fishes and for an hour we battled on, hardly making any progress over the ground. We made the call that we had to turn back and so headed north, knowing that the next port was a long way off. It was demoralising to say the least and I continued to feel very ill. We struggled on through the night, making between 2 and 3 knots under bare poles (no sails, no engines) for 17 miles.
At dawn, the wind veered to the west and we decided to turn south again, and taking it in turns to sleep or helm we battled through not just mine but John’s worst passage on record. My spirits lifted a bit when the weather cleared enough to see the spectacular mountain range of the Pyrenees with snow capped peaks. Around 6pm, after 56 hours and 200 miles we finally entered the river at Bayonne. Finding a suitable anchorage proved impossible so we chose to find shelter in the marina, something we wouldn’t normally do but under the circumstances felt was well deserved. The capitainerie was closed but a few minutes after arriving the directeur appeared and welcomed us to Bayonne, gave us access codes to the facilities and free wifi and wished us a good night.
After 2 nights (11.5 euros per night) of rest we headed out once more, this time for a short 12 mile hop down to St Jean de Luz. After a slightly bumpy but expected exit from the river at Bayonne we reached glassy seas, and I captured a contented John at the helm.
We had an enjoyable afternoon sailing with views of more snow capped peaks behind Biarritz before we entered the scenic bay of St Jean de Luz, 5 miles north of the Spanish border. We anchored close to the fort at Socoa and took a gentle stroll around the harbour.
I had been on holiday in the region about 8 years earlier and we had climbed one of the local mountains, La Rhune, which is the back drop for the bay.
After a peaceful night at anchor, the weather didn’t last and a forecast westerly gale set in. We were sheltered by the land and fort but decided it would be prudent to stay on board in case of any problems. We spent the afternoon watching a video of “Singing in the Rain” with very frequent interruptions from special meteo broadcasts updating on the storm blowing through. By late afternoon the swell picked up, despite the short fetch from the west, and in the evening we sought shelter in the little marina at Ciboure-St Jean de Luz.
The Capitainerie was closed but the adjoining bar was open, a fishing club rather than sailing, where we were made very welcome and stayed for a drink. The barman declared the tab was on him, we were welcome to return the following lunchtime so we thanked him and headed back to the boat. After a morning stroll around Ciboure we returned to the bar, were introduced to the president and spent an enjoyable couple of hours discussing all things nautical. We were presented with a Basque courtesy flag (something which we had tried but failed to buy beforehand) and in exchange gave the club a St Piran flag. The tab was again on the house and we returned to the boat for a siesta.
Later in the afternoon we unfolded our bikes and cycled from one end of the bay to the other, it is a truly beautiful bay and port and we felt something like normal once more and the ground had stopped swaying.