Thursday, 27 June 2013

Wendy’s Diary 26 June 2013 – Up the creek without a paddle – well it felt like it anyway.

When planning our crossing of the corner of Biscay from Spain to France we chose the Gironde as our destination as we wanted to check out Mortagne as a possible winter berthing option. As per my last diary entry, we sailed into the Gironde on 12 June.  The estuary is the largest in Europe, and most of the time looking across the river it seemed like we were looking at the open sea as you couldn't see the other side. The other problem we soon found was that the wind changed direction regularly, making anchoring potentially unsafe and consequently something we were not keen on doing.

So we had our first 3 nights in Mortagne (no wifi on the boat, but free of charge on the boatyard pontoon), then a night in Royan at 27 euros (no wifi) and upstream again to Meschers at 17 euros per night (pants wifi on the boat), back to Mortagne on the town pontoon 16 euros per night (with wifi, albeit slow). We budget at 20 euros per day for all our expenditure during the summer, including groceries, fuel, and berthing (normally negligible as we normally anchor). So this was starting to knock a hole in our finances, particularly after we had several hundred pounds worth of damage repairs to the boat in May.    
On 19th June, a week after arriving in the river the weather forecast looked good continue our journey northwards, with a southeasterly 4-5 to push us along nicely. Mortagne is about 12 miles upstream from Royan and surprisingly the estuary carries on for a further 15 miles out to sea between shallow sandbars despite the fact that it appears to be virtually on the sea front if you look at it on a map. So out came the tidal streams book and we made plans to leave just after high water, allowing the outgoing tide to carry us out of the river and then have friendly currents north to Oleron. Final weather check on the free wifi and off we went.

Can you feel a “but” coming on yet?? The river estuary faces North west, so a southeast wind makes for a fairly uncomfortable passage, with short lumpy wind waves causing the boat to bounce around more than we like before we had even got as far as Royan (12 miles remember). As we rounded the bend in the river past Royan we heard the radio weather forecast, in French, and thought but were not sure that we maybe heard it said a force 7. We had only got an update 3 hours earlier so assumed we must have misheard. Another couple of hours later and the wind was howling, and the updated weather forecast this time we realised did indeed say force 7.     The Gironde has a current of 2 to 3 knots, so we were faced with a choice of turn back against the current – now about 8 miles back to Royan as the first place we could get into, or carry on heading north.

Decisions like this of course always come at a time when you head is least in the mood to make them, as there is so much going on around you – like are there any container ships about to bear down on you, just how bad is the wind (that hadn’t been mentioned in the forecast before we left). We carried on and I admitted that I was starting to feel scared, but John remained calm. Soon wave after wave started crashing down on the foredeck shooting water up over the windows and then the roof of the wheelhouse. Now I was really scared. Apart from the waves hitting the foredeck, I could also see big breaking waves up ahead and was worried these were in the channel.  I knew John had been in this boat in very bad conditions, but this was the worst I had ever seen. I couldn’t decide which was worse, watching the waves land and being able to predict which way and when the boat would jerk, or not looking and being thrown about more by every slam of the boat. I decided in the end that cowering in the doorway was my best option and I was obviously of no help to John with the navigation. A few more minutes and John made the call to turn back.

Against the current the boat continued to slam after we turned around and the speed dropped to less than 3 knots on average – it was 12 miles back to Royan at this stage. I remained in the doorway not looking where we were going and not helping John either. A particularly big wave slapping on the underbelly managed to click the mouse and change the screen so we no longer had a chart showing at the helm. I was instructed to rectify the situation, not just because I'm IT person on the boat but also there was no way John could leave the helm. I couldn't find the remote mouse (it was cowering under the table) and trying to use the touch pad when the boat was slamming everywhere was nothing short of impossible. I managed to coax the mouse out from under the table and persuade him to click on the right buttons to get the chart back on the helm (we have a small net-book with a solid state hard-drive strapped down in the salon and a repeater USB screen out in the wheelhouse).

Four and a half hours after turning round we finally limped into Royan at 10.45pm feeling very battered about. The relief of being back in a safe marina was immense and I took the luxury of sobbing my socks off for a while before tucking in for the night. The whole of the following day I felt shaken, but more than anything we were both trying to figure out what had gone so wrong. It wasn't just the force 7 winds, we have had those before. We found the local boat owners' association and had a chat with around half a dozen seasoned old sailors in there. Apparently the nature of the estuary means that you have to leave somewhere like Royan on an incoming tide and time your arrival at the narrow part of the estuary (where we had turned around) for high water slack. Also forget it if the swell is more than 2 meters out at sea (which it often is) and don’t do it in an easterly wind.

OK, our boat speed is normally around 5 knots, so to get to the right bit at slack high water we would be fighting a 3 knot current for 12 miles, leaving us a speed over the ground of 2 knots, so 6 hours then, without a favourable wind...ummmm that sounds good (not!). For the next few days I felt relieved when the weather was obviously too bad to try and leave again, as I wasn't quite ready to attempt it again. The reports were however consistently predicting no wind and swell of 1.5 meters on Tuesday 25th so I began psyching myself up for that and a departure date. We also spent the intervening days finding out about another marina and anchorage another 8 miles further downstream from Royan and so decided we needed to start from there to have any hope of sensibly making it to the dodgy part for high water slack. Google earth showed a lovely anchorage with a large catamaran just outside the marina, but asking around we found that there is never an up-to-date chart for the anchorage or marina channel as the sands are continually shifting. It is however buoyed in the summer.

We had a few days in Royan to explore and visited the must see cathedral that was built after the blitz of the Second World War. To our minds it was a bit of a concrete monstrosity, not a must see at all, and sadly the concrete was crumbling away in places and buckets around the floor collected rainwater that leaked through the gaps. The sea front is very touristy with many expensive bars and restaurants to rip off the tourists (many British ones), but there was at least a good market and a couple of supermarkets. With the next port being Island-based I wanted to provision from a mainland shop assuming it would be cheaper. I also baked a couple of cakes (electric oven – free electricity) and did loads of washing (dehumidifier running for anything that didn't dry) basically making the best use of being in a marina. We also had an evening of drinks and nibbles on a British couple‘s boat (I took home-made cheese straws) and lots of chats with a number of French yachties.

So on Monday afternoon, a couple of hours before high water (yep, against the current) we headed downstream to Bonne Anse – La Palmyre. We wanted to get there at high water hence the need to go against the current. It took us three hours to do just under 9 miles, and we missed the top of the tide, but thankfully found the buoyed channel and headed into the marina as the nice anchorage was questionable. We found the end of a finger pontoon and tied up for the night, our plan being to set the alarm for bright and early on Tuesday morning and providing the forecast no wind had arrived, we would set off an hour before high water.

We had a wander around the harbour area and again there were lots of expensive restaurants out to catch the tourists, although many of them did look nice. Having overspent our budget on marina bills, (Royan does do a 3rd night free – but not a 6th!) eating out was not something we could afford to do. At 6.45 the following morning (before the harbour office opened so unfortunately we were unable to pay) with very little wind and a dose of anxiety we headed out to the estuary once more.

The most eventful part of the exit from the Gironde was the autopilot playing up meaning we had to manually steer. I offered to do so as I thought it would take my mind off of things and realised just how out of practice I am at doing so, not that it was the best of conditions to start learning again. However we made it through to the exit without a single wave crashing on the deck, no sign of breaking waves on the shallows to the sides and were quietly pleased with the achievement. However we did still have a further 40 miles to go with very little in the way of shelter for the next 20 miles at least, so I didn't sigh with relief just yet. The wind remained gentle although on the nose, so no point in pulling out a sail. After a while I retired to the cabin to catch up on lost sleep, and enjoyed a couple of lazy hours slumber whilst John listened to his iPod at the helm. (Apologies for the lack of photos thus far, it was either bad weather or not the right time to be taking snaps!) 

Freya Frey tucked in the corner at La Flotte
Our route took us past the west coast of Ile D’Oleron then through between there and Ile de Re before turning north under the bridge and heading up to an anchorage on the north of Re, with the questionably-pronounced Ars en Re as our destination. The bridge that links the island to the mainland was about 10 hours into the day's journey and as we came through the bridge (with the current in our favour) we hit a wind on the nose of 25 knots that made the sea horribly choppy and virtually stopped us in our tracks. This wasn't scary, they weren’t very big waves but they were causing the boat to slam and things to fall off of shelves. We were struggling to make 2 knots of speed and I scoured the chart for places to hide from the wind – and decided La Flotte en Re was the most sensible option and plotted the route for John to follow on the screen. This last 8 miles of the trip took us three and a half hours, and we finally tied up to the visitor’s pontoon 13 hours after setting out that morning. Finally we could sigh with relief that we had escaped the Gironde and were safely tied up on the Island.   We had provisionally arranged to meet up with some more friends with a catamaran of the same mark as ours only bigger, called Wandering Star. They had made it to Ars against the same horrible wind we had encountered, and we agreed we would join them the following morning when the wind was forecast to be gentle again.
Sunset along the promenade at La Flotte

The evening sun lighting up the boats outside the harbour
After throwing together a quick pasta dinner we went for a quick walk around the town before sunset. The town is very pretty, obviously a tourist destination but an upmarket one and very nicely kept. Quaint little back streets, nicely whitewashed cottages and a lovely seafront promenade. Parking in the harbour car park is one euro for half an hour, and ice-creams are the most expensive we have seen yet. Anyway without spending a penny (or cent) and having watched a fabulous sunset we tucked in for the night. The harbour office was closed and had a sign saying it would open again at 2.30pm the next day. 

To catch a good tide we set off at dawn, 6am, thus sadly missing the harbourmaster, so not being able to pay again (dread to think how much if a car costs a euro for half an hour) and with a glorious sun rise and a following wind sailed the 8 miles along the north coast of Re to the anchorage at Ars, and had tied to the adjacent mooring buoy to Wandering Star before David or Sarah were even awake.

Once they were up and about we moved both catamarans to a more sheltered spot in the bay enjoyed tea and cake (homemade of course) on Freya Frey over a good natter. After two early starts we decided to spend the day aboard catching on jobs as well as sleep and are due to join them for drinks this evening to celebrate our second anniversary since leaving Millbrook, that sunny Sunday afternoon 2,405 miles ago! 

Celebrating 2 years afloat with Sarah, David and brother Antony aboard Wandering Star

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