The Way to France – Good Bye North Sea (We Will Not Miss You)!

The Way to France – Good Bye North Sea (We Will Not Miss You)!

The pretty fortress town of Willemstad was now behind us, as we were nearing our last opening bridge in the inland waters of Holland. We had gotten pretty good at this – once again our timing was perfect, the bridge opened and we just motored through without stopping. A few hours later we reached the last locks at Stellendam, and just like that, we were out in the North Sea again. The sun went down, and we could see the bright lights of Hoek van Holland’s large port behind us, to the north.

The wind was not favourable, of course, but we managed to sail between the coast line and the busy shipping lanes, without having to tack back and forth. The first night fell almost pleasant, with a clear sky and a friendly breeze. But the moods of the North Sea are not so easy-going in November – if ever – and in no time we could see thick clouds gathering, promptly followed by a brisk wind, adverse current, and choppy waves. On the 2nd of November, our logbook boasts a single observation: “I hate the North Sea”.

I don’t hate the North Sea, but I don’t really have anything nice to say about it either. If I had to live on its shores, I would be sure to find another hobby instead of sailing. I will remember the North Sea as harsh and grey, our progress slow and cumbersome, and the wind always a force or two more than forecast. I was dressed properly but felt cold during my night watches, and I couldn’t get any real sleep during my time off. With sleep deprivation come strange ideas and fears. After 48 hours I was exhausted, so we decided to take a break, and pulled in at Boulogne-sur-Mer. The break stretched to a whole week, while we waited for some heavy south-westerlies to pass. Battling against headwinds seemed pointless.

Before we reached Boulogne, just after crossing the border to France, we were boarded by the French Coast Guard. Three people came aboard, had a look inside and outside, and filled a pile of paperwork. We received a copy and were told to show it in case of further contact with the officials. This was the first time anyone had paid any attention to us during our whole journey, so imagine our surprise, when the very next morning in Boulogne marina we heard a knock on our hull, and another patrol wanted to talk to us. They settled for our piece of paper, passports and the boat’s registration. A couple of days later there was another knock, this time a group of Gerdarmerie, and now we were really starting to wonder about the officious law enforcement in France.

We found out the reason soon enough, as we heard the news about a French fishing vessel that was caught in Dover with 17 refugees onboard, trying to make it to England. Apparently refugees are a big problem in the area. The fishing boat had been stolen from Boulogne, a stone’s throw from where our boat was parked. We suddenly felt very warmly towards all the officials trying to do their work in the difficult circumstances.

Boulogne-sur-Mer. Click the thumbnails to see bigger pictures!

Boulogne-sur-Mer was not a very interesting place, but there was a great fish market and many good shops within biking distance. And there was a pretty little old part of town, surrounded by stone walls, up on top of a hill – complete with a medieval church and a small castle. As soon as the winds were more favourable, we continued our journey, and there wasn’t much left of it now. We had a south-easterly wind, giving us a nice beam reach, and during the day it was warm. Now we were no longer in the North Sea, this was officially the English Channel. Even the water was a different colour, much greener. There were still plenty of ships travelling east and west on their respective lanes, with enough room in the middle for us – in the company of fishing boats, but we could easily see their movements on the AIS and stay out of their way.

Cherbourg – we are in the land of Napoleon!

Some 30 hours later, after sunset, we arrived at the marina in Cherbourg. We stopped for a good night’s sleep and a fuel dock visit, but also to wait for the right tide to sail through the Alderney Race, between the island of Alderney and Cap de la Hague, the northwestern cape of Normandy. There the tidal currents often run at 6 or 7 knots, sometimes even faster, so it’s important to get the timing right. We left Cherbourg at high water in the afternoon, arriving at Alderney Race at slack tide, and after turning the corner towards the south we had the current with us for most of the way to the Bay of Saint-Brieuc. We made our speed record, averaging 5,8 knots. In the dead of night, with the wind gradually picking up, we sailed past the Channel Islands – Sark, Guernsey and Jersey – without catching a glimpse of any of them.

Binic, seaside walks…
… and shopping streets!

Winter is coming, and we, a pair of migrating birds, missed the Bay of Biscay for this year. As the nights started to get longer, the seas darker and the winds stronger, we felt like bears in search of a cosy winter nest. How nice it would be to crawl under a pile of blankets and forget about sailing for a while! We decided to hibernate in Brittany for a few months. The winters are chilly and the nights long even here, but it won’t be quite as cold and dark as we are used to. And there’s a lot to see – instead of sailing we are planning some budget travelling on trains, buses and naturally, our bicycles. We reached our “winter home”, a small town of Binic on the northern coast of Brittany, on the 20th of November.

Our winter base Binic – click the thumbnails to see bigger pictures!

Judging from the first few days, our winter base seems like a nice enough town. It’s very small, quiet during the week, but pretty lively during weekends. Binic has a tidal marina, with gates that open only once a day during the winter season, for a few hours at a time. Depending on the tides, the sea is either just behind the breakwater, or a mile’s walk along a vast, sandy plain. A few steps from our dock you’ll find a bakery, a fish shop, a supermarket, and a few bars and restaurants – just about everything you might need. Besides, they’re excellent places for airing out that school French that hasn’t been used for some decades, because few people seem to speak English here. A bus goes every hour to a large town called Saint-Brieuc, where there’s a railway station. The marina has all necessary amenities. Inside our boat it’s comfy and warm, with a fireplace in the saloon and an electrical heater in our bedroom. We’re still not sure whether there are other people living in the marina, but we have seen lights in a couple of other boats.

Our sailing adventure will continue in the spring. But this blog will not hibernate! I will write about everything we manage to see and do during our winter in Brittany. Restez à l’écoute!

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