It was one of those hot Augusts which we remember from our childhood. We
had set out from Plymouth the previous afternoon to sail to Plougerneau on
the rocky coast of Brittany, and had planned the trip meticulously to
arrive in daylight. In our hurry, however, we had forgotten to make our
customary libation to Poseidon. This ancient god of the sea was to give us
a stern reminder to pay our respects.
The weather had been glorious. A calm sea for Becky’s first trip across
the channel. A lovely warm and gentle breeze. The other boats in the
flotilla were just a mile or so ahead, and we could hear them chatting on
the ship’s radio. The sunset had been breathtaking with layer upon layer
of clouds ranging from dark grey rimmed with rosy pink through indigo to
the wine-dark blue of the heavens as we passed the Eddystone lighthouse
warning ships with its powerful beam.
As we entered the shipping lanes, the wind dropped to the merest zephyr.
The other boats which were by now six or eight miles off, started their
engines. We started our outboard motor too, but our tiny boat did not have
room for the efficient diesel engines of our companions, and after a few
hours we were running low on petrol, so we turned the engine off and
silence returned. The other boats began to pull away from us, and as their
lights disappeared over the horizon, we were alone, back in the world of
three hundred years ago, when boats sailed at the mercy of the wind. We
did not worry, because we knew that Alain would be meeting us to guide us
through the treacherous rocks and reefs that litter the Brittany coast.
We took turns to keep watch, and to catnap in the shelter of the sprayhood,
hearts in our mouths as the lights of the container ships appeared over
the horizon, rushed silently across our path and then disappeared behind
us like strange and nameless creatures of the deep ocean, completely
oblivious to the twenty-one foot sailing boat which was crossing the
cannel the old way, using Zeus’s wind. We kept our spirits up with
steaming cocoa made with rich creamy Jersey milk which we had bought
direct from a Cornish dairy farmer just outside the tiny village of
Once the final glow of the sun had disappeared, the rest of the night
passed under a glowing dome of stars, such stars as can only be seen in
the great wildernesses of the world. We gazed up in silent wonder and for
the first time Becky grasped the wonder that is Polaris, the pole star.
Whereas all of the other stars swung round in the sky, this star hung
motionless in the very hub of the heavens, an everlasting lighthouse since
the time when men first ventured forth onto the sea.
Sunrise came and we tucked in to a feast of bacon and eggs with freshly
brewed Earl Grey tea. Seabirds passed overhead, and before long our
sailing jackets were stowed back in the hanging locker as we ghosted along
under our spinnaker, with the huge lightweight sail finding just enough
wind to fill, and pull us gently through the flat sea. We spent the day in
complete peace and tranquillity, which was marred only by my knowledge
that we were slipping further and further behind schedule, and that unless
the wind picked up fairly soon we would not make landfall before dark.
As the sun went down, we were still over twenty miles away from the coast,
and we were being carried west towards the Atlantic by the powerful
currents which sweep the coast of Brittany. With no wind and no engine,
our navigation lights and autopilot had drained our battery, and now we
really were sailing like the generations who had preceded us. No radio, no
electric lights, not even a light for the compass, just a clear sky above,
and faithful Polaris to steer us southwards. Unable to see our chart, or
to know our exact course, we were nearing one of the most treacherous
coastlines in the world. A few miles west of our intended landfall was the
notorious Chenal du Four, where the currents ran so fast that even with
our engine running we would be unceremoniously pushed backwards if we
tried to fight it. Not that we could do that anyway since all we had left
was about a pint of petrol, just enough to get us into the harbour and
then to the fuel barge when we got there. The wind freshened, and moved
into the West, much to my relief and Gypsy began to leave a gentle wake
behind her as she picked up speed.
At about three in the morning, Becky called out, “Look, another boat.” As
I strained my eyes in the moonlight, I saw her, an old French pilot
cutter. These boats were used to guide the big sailing ships into port in
the old days, but had long ago been replaced first by steam, and then the
diesel engine. However, their lines were so graceful that one small
company in Cornwall was doing very nicely building them again, using
modern materials. One or two of these beautiful boats were preserved in
various quiet backwaters, and this was surely what we saw before us for
there was no hint of modern rigging on this boat, and the slight flicker
in her lights showed that they were paraffin, not the modern electric
ones. She was a handsome vessel, obviously newly-restored, and we tingled
with delight at seeing such a beauty out at sea where she belonged. Our
delight was quickly replaced by anxiety as we realised that there was a
sea mist forming. The coast of Brittany is notorious for its summer mists,
and all the pilot books warn of how they can blot out the shoreline in a
matter of a few minutes.
As the cutter closed with us, we saw the helmsman on the heavy wooden
tiller. He waved slowly and signalled us to follow him. “It must be Alain”
I said, as I waved back. “Thank God for that. How the bloody hell did he
find us?” We followed behind him, and Becky remarked on how quiet his
engine was. I listened, and then looked more closely at his rig. This was
an old gaff rig, with sails that I didn’t even know the names of. Nobody
bothers with them these days because if the wind drops that much you just
start the engine. “The reason he’s so quiet is that he’s not using his
engine. He’s just using his sails so as to let us keep up with him,” I
said. “In fact, with sails like that he might not even have one.”
The darkness was easing now with the approach of dawn, but the mist seemed
to get thicker. Soon we could only see a few yards, but the cutter stayed
there just in front of us, with the shape of the helmsman dressed in his
dark jumper and his Breton cap looking back at us. We could see a faint
green glow in the water in the cutter’s wake like a trail of fairy dust,
caused by the phosphorescence of millions of tiny shrimps. Soon we heard a
doleful bell to one side, clanging in the mist. It was a buoy marking
something or other. Then from somewhere on the other side came a strange
sound like a deep-toned flute playing the same note over and over again
every few seconds. This was another buoy, marking the edge of a reef. The
sound of the buoy was as ominous as the thing we knew it marked.
“I hope he knows where he’s going,” said Becky, with a little tremor in
her voice. “I can’t see the stars now.”
The leader beckoned again. “He must have a GPS navigator,” I said. “He
seems sure of himself.”
We continued on behind our guide. Through the mist we could hear the
sounds of the buoys marking the rocks, rocks which lay in wait for unwary
mariners. Then we could hear hiss of the swells breaking on the reefs, as
if they were angry at being cheated of their prey. We began to see the
first signs of daylight as the mist greyed.
Finally the cutter eased sail and slowed. Out of the mist appeared an
orange buoy with an unmistakable steel ring on the top: a mooring buoy!
Our guardian smiled and pointed to the buoy, with an unmistakeable gesture
which could only mean that we should moor to it. I pointed and he nodded.
Becky went up onto the foredeck and readied the mooring line and I started
the engine using the last few drops of petrol saved for the purpose. The
line attached, I turned to shout a “Merci beaucoup” to the other boat, but
it was too late. There was just enough time to see the beautifully carved
plaque bearing the name Marie-Ange as she turned away. In next to no time
the beautiful gaff cutter was just a shadow in the mist, and within
seconds she was gone.
A couple of hours later we were awakened by a banging on the hull, and we
opened the hatch to be greeted by brilliant sunshine and the faces of our
friends. The sea mist had vanished like a ghost in the day.
“How in God’s name did you find your way in through all those rocks in the
fog?” Tony asked.
“It was Alain.” I said. “He came out and met us in his pilot cutter.”
“Alain doesn’t have a pilot cutter. This is his boat”
I looked. Alain was in his early twenties, with curly fair hair and
sparkling blue eyes that were made all the more noticeable by his tan. He
looked more like an Australian lifeguard than a Breton harbour master. His
boat was a fast dory with a huge outboard motor on the back.
“But the chap who guided us in was in a traditional pilot cutter. He must
have been sixty if he was a day.”
Alain shrugged his shoulders.
“You must know him, or at least his boat,” I said, a little irritated. “A
lovely traditional cutter. Masses of sails, no engine.”
“Everyone has a moteur here,” replied Alain. “The currents are so strong.
You cannot do without one. There have been no such boats here for many
“You must know her,” I insisted. “She is a beautiful gaffer. Newly
restored, and beautifully decorated with a lovely carved nameboard.”
“No, monsieur, you are mistaken,” said Alain. The last of the boats you
describe was my grandfather’s boat, and she was pulled up on the beach to
rot when he died twenty years ago. Look, she is over there on the sand!”
I looked where he was pointing, and saw there was a sad hulk on the beach.
Her lines were unmistakeable. She had been a fine little ship once, with
beautiful decoration and fine sails. But now her fine nameboard was
cracked and weathered, and we could only just make out the name...