Sailing Across The English Channel

from 'The Journal of Alacazam', by Mary Swift...

Sunday 22 July 2001

We are both excited and apprehensive about sailing across the English Channel to Camaret-sur-Mer, a harbour in the Brittany region of France. We've done it plenty of times before, but not for a couple of years or so.

Dick says that if you can sail across the English Channel (La Manche, if you're French) you can sail anywhere.

Notorious as being one of the most heavily trafficked shipping lanes in the world, with a large tidal range and fast currents, you really do need to keep your wits about you.

The first part of sailing across the English Channel is fairly straight forward; the trick is arriving at the northern end of the Channel de Four at the start of the south going tide.

So how did we do? Hmmm...

Crossing the English Channel from
Falmouth to Camaret-sur-Mer

Sketch of passage across the English Channel, from Falmouth to CamaretAlmost due south

We had been sheltered in Falmouth and we did not really know what conditions to expect, bearing in mind the recent erratic weather forecasts.

The wind was southwesterly, on the nose about force 3 to 4 (occasionally 5 later during the night) but there was a big Atlantic swell, not warranted by the wind, obviously from previous gales.

We could only sail at 5 to 6 knots because the sea kept stopping us dead with a 'smack'.

As we would be able to stay on a starboard tack for most of the journey, the easier tack for cooking on our port-side cooker, I was considering preparing a chicken stir-fry for dinner. But the sea was very lumpy and I was being thrown off balance quite a bit, so I changed my mind and opened a tin of chickpea dhal and a tin of steak in gravy which I cooked in the oven together with jacket potatoes.

Serving up dinner proved quite difficult due to the sea state but we ate a very tasty meal at 2130 hours, which set us up a treat for the night watches. We watched together for a while, as there were a lot more fishing boats around than we had expected. The lights of the fishing boats and trawlers are difficult to suss out as they show very bright working lights as well as navigation lights.

Through the night, I managed to sleep for one hour and later for two hours, and Dick managed two stints of one hour each. Not a lot of sleep, but enough, with plenty of cups of tea and a shared bar of chocolate as sustenance to keep us going. It rained for a while but unluckily for Dick only during his watch. Not a very starry night but plenty of phosphorescence in the water. 0500 hours brings daylight and a very grey morning.

About 0800 hours the wind starts to die away and we slow to 4 knots and then less. 'Arry' (the Aries Windvane Self-Steering Gear) is misbehaving - not enough wind for him - so I helm for a while as Dick is sleeping. When he wakes, he realizes that we will have to motor if we are to catch the tide at the Chenal de Four. The tide is with us but we would need to travel at over 9 knots and motor for more than 4 hours. The alternative would be to carry on sailing slowly and catch the Chenal de Four 8 hours later. We make the decision to motor.

We have not seen any dolphins yet although we keep looking. I bet Dick spots one first, he usually does. In fairness though he is usually in the cockpit more than me. We see a number of other yachts sailing across the English Channel, travelling in the opposite direction, all motor sailing by the look of them. The sun is trying to shine and finally breaks through the cloud at 1115 hours.

Sketch map of northwest BrittanyTwo very tricky passages - the Chenal du Four and the Raz du Seine

We are nearing the Portsall Buoy and can see France and all the rocks. The sea is still very lumpy with a large Atlantic swell. We have not made good time; the tide has not taken us as fast as expected, motoring at just over 8 knots. In hindsight we should have just carried on sailing slowly as we cannot sail through the Chenal de Four against a spring tide. We reach back and forth at just one or two knots and it is quite pleasant for a while.

Dick catches two mackerel on the trolling line (we do not keep them) and we settle down to a leisurely lunch of smoked salmon and salad. I decide to get some rest but with no wind and a large heaving sea, this is difficult.

The sails are flapping and banging so Dick takes down the main. Alacazam is banging and rolling around and poor 'Arriett' (the electronic auto-helm) is barking away at ninety to the dozen trying to hold a steady course. I can stand it no longer and start the motor.

The tide is against us about 3 to 4 knots and we are a long way west of the Le Four Light. We seem to be too far out and both the GPS and I are getting very confused as we appear to be going nowhere. I am starting to become nervous, as I know the passage is narrow here and we are getting little sense from the GPS.

For a while I have been watching the direction of the yachts coming out of the Chenal de Four and I head Alacazam at full speed towards the Le Four Light turning right as we draw near to sail parallel with the land. This tactic (against all the rules) nonetheless, proves to be correct and the GPS soon has us back on course and in line with all the channel marker buoys. We motor slowly on and an hour later, with only a knot of tide against us, we pass easily through the Chenal, motoring on in windless conditions to arrive at Camaret sur Mer at 2030 hours.

moorings at camaret-sur-mer in the Baie de BrestThe marina at Camaret-sur-Mer in the Baie de Brest

It is busy and the pontoon is full, two and three yachts abreast so we easily pick up a mooring and stay on board for the evening.

While Dick is inflating the dinghy ready for the morning, I cook dinner, griddled chicken, Thai fragrant rice, steamed broccoli and mushrooms (really healthy).

We settle down to read for a while (I am belatedly studying my French books). We are both suddenly very tired and decide to get a good night's sleep but not before digging out the 'aftersun' cream for Dick as his face has taken on a red hue (burnt as usual) by the mixture of too much wind and sun.

Next: At Anchor and Ashore in Camaret-sur-Mer

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