The Brittany Canals 2008

By Colin Oiller, Seal 28 Sealargo

We were all ready to leave Emsworth Quay. A group of friends were there to wave us off. We motored down harbour for a few hundred meters and the engine seized! Really seized. The main seal had blown and there was lots of oil in the bilges. I was a little disappointed to say the least as the top end had recently been serviced. A tow back to the quay the next morning for the engine to be condemned and a trip to Poole to collect a new Bukh 24 had Jackie saying "well, it’s only money!"

We set off again early in the morning of 26th June intending to sail to Cherbourg but West Pole had a forecast of SW 4 to 5 increasing 6 later so Cowes seemed a good idea. The next four nights were spent at the Folly before moving on to Yarmouth for a further two nights. Forecast was reasonable for the next day so set alarm for 4 am and ventured out through the Needles on a calm but overcast day. It was about this time that Jackie called up from below to inform me that we had no power to any of the instruments! To my relief I found that the main battery switch had been knocked off. Notice, no blame attached here, panic over.

The crossing to Cherbourg was uneventful as we motored most of the way. I did have a problem with the relatively new Autohelm 2000+ as it would not hold the boat on course, so it was tiller between my legs for fifteen hours.

Arrived safely in Cherbourg.

We got to know Cherbourg quite well after ten days of strong winds, and made friends with a couple and their son on a Nicholson 32. On or around day five the weather seemed to offer a window so we once again set the alarm for 0400 hrs. Got a forecast on the internet, still a bit iffy and as we are only two up decided to wait. Geoff in the Nich 32 decided to go so we said our farewells and returned to bed. Around 10am we were surprised to see Geoff come back into the berth beside us. They got as far as the Alderney race, met some rather nasty seas so decided to return to Cherbourg.

The sail to Guernsey was really good, arriving 7 hours after leaving Cherbourg. I was a bit apprehensive about the Little Russel as I had read the sailing books! But it was plain sailing. We had a red light on entering St Peter Port so waited. A small motor boat proceeded into the harbour and as he entered the harbour a cannon was fired from the castle. I thought this was a bit severe until I realised it was the Noon Day Gun! Put watch back to BST.

July 16th. Left Guernsey bound for Jersey with a fine light southerly breeze, allowing us to make good time. We were visited by dolphins prior to La Corbiere which is always a magical moment. Left La Corbiere lighthouse to port when we heard four long blasts and on looking behind saw a rather large warship approaching my stern fast. Where did that come from? Made a rapid course change to port, and watched as it passed rather closer than we would have liked. I think they get bored and played chase just for fun. It’s OK if you are the cat but not when you are the mouse!

Left St Helier on the 20th July bound for St Malo, the wind being a light southerly so not a lot of sailing. Left the Minquies to port, and the wind decided to swing into the North which made for an uncomfortable ride towards St Malo. The passage took 11 hours partly due to me letting the tide carry us too far West so that we were making land fall at Cap Frehel. Our new engine came into its own as we punched the tide towards St Malo. I have been into St Malo but usually on a Brittany Ferry but it is still a help in recognising the various marks. We were glad to get into the shelter after being rolled around in the confused sea.

We decided to stay in the St Servan marina and were met by the marina staff and escorted to a berth well inside the marina where they now have toilets on the pontoon, not exactly en-suite but close. We met up with Paul Watkins (a fellow Emsworth Slipper SC member) and gained an extra hand in Paul’s son Jono for a very pleasant trip through the barrage and into the Rance.

Arriving in the Rance we really felt we had achieved our goal and would not need to listen to a forecast for some time to come (apart from Jackie wanting to know the sunbathing forecast!) It really is a delightful place to sail, so quiet and peaceful. We made our way to Plouer sur Rance which was more expensive than Yarmouth, 30 Euros, and without the same facilities. But we had arranged to meet up with Paul to drop off the sails and life raft. We also met up with Dave Holmes (Super Seal Saluja 26/51) who was on his way down to Foleux and he insisted on coming to Dinan with us as this was the one bit of the canal he hadn’t travelled down. Sharon his wife phoned ahead to book the crane.

The following morning started in a haze, Jackie called it a hangover, most unfair. Left mast party at Dinan and Jackie and I started our trip into the Canals. We passed through 6 locks, Lehon, Tressaint, Boutron, La touch and Betineuc and arrived at Evron at 14-25 having left Dinan at 10-45. Locks on this stretch close at 12-15 for one hour, but there is always a holding pontoon prior to each lock. The lock keepers were all male on this stretch and Dave had promised me they were female! Oh well, it’s early yet. Evron is a quiet stop over with shops close by, facilities a bit basic but as we were to find out, most places on the canals are FREE, even the electricity. The weather was not brilliant in fact it rained! The following day started dull but by midday the sun came out and it was hot.

We stayed overnight in Tinteniac, where a good local Fete was going on so joined in the fun. Not much in Tinteniac. The village has a small restaurant cum bar but we did not venture into the village as it was a Sunday. We moved to Hede the next morning. This is a series of nine locks that take you to the summit of this stretch of the Canal. We stopped part way at La Madeleine, a large Basin with only two other boats for company. A good Museum explaining the history of the canal system allowed us to while away a very pleasant hour or two. It’s about a two mile walk into the village but it has a good Super U. Just after arriving back at the boat the heavens opened and it rained from 4pm till 8pm. The cockpit cover came into its own.

The next day needed patience, as we arrived at the first lock at 09 15hrs while the lock keeper arrived at 10 00hrs and no explanation. Climbed through seven locks in one and a half hours then moored at La Plaisier for lunch. Made our way to next lock for 13-30 but there was no sign of lock keeper. Eventually found her on her computer in a small shed! Arrived Lengager lock having travelled 10.5 Km in 5.5 hours. Overnight stay and walked into Montruel-sur-ille to replenish stocks.

The following morning we awoke to brilliant sunshine so spent a lazy day ambling along enjoying the wildlife, kingfishers and lots of herons. We made our way to St Gregoire, only to find the quay wall under repair. Le eclusier seemed keen to practice his English and advised us to pass through lock and moor on the waiting pontoon. St Gregiore is a good place to stop prior to travelling through Rennes. Others who have done the trip say that Rennes is not a good place to stop and although we passed straight through Rennes there are places with boats moored in the centre that looked OK to me. At the last lock out of Rennes I noticed a large complex and asked Le Eclusier what it was, but he didn’t know. It turned out to be the Rennes Football Stadium!

From Rennes you enter the river Villain, so it’s all downhill now. We arrived at the lock for Port Rean late afternoon and had to wait whilst a party of school children came through in canoes, some backwards, most entertaining. Port Rean is a delightful place with a very good restaurant near the bridge. It transpired that the owner has a daughter who owns a restaurant near the lock at Boel so we decided to move on the following day a few Km down stream to Boel and try her restaurant. Nice place to stop and enjoy some good moulles. One of the down sides of this part of the Canal is that the railway line follows the course of the river and so you are never far from a train! This part of the river has quite a few rocks but all are well buoyed. The fishermen are not and you need to keep a keen watch for them. We also found that our hooter came in useful to warn of our approach. They do tend to put out three or four rods and then retire to a tent or their cars!

Our next stop was at Messac as it appeared to have good facilities. It is used by one of the cruiser hire companies but is run by the local authority, and they do not work at weekends. So, although the facilities are there, you cannot use them at weekends as you need a code for the showers. However, the good point is that you cannot pay the mooring fee. On reflection it would have been better to have passed through the lock and stopped at Guipry as this is nearer the shops, as we discovered later when we passed through the lock on our way to Besle. This was a wet trip to Village of Besle. We moored up alongside the wall and spent a wet night under the cockpit cover. The local youths use a shelter near the quay for their evening entertainment and become noisier as the evening progresses. Oh well, you are only young once. We walked into the village the next morning only to find most places shut as it was a Monday. I thought Monday was a week day but when in France….. We never did get used to the vagaries of French opening hours.

We left Besle on route to Redon. On the approach to Redon the Navicart said that there is a "Grand vannage ou barrage insubmersible" and as we approached I could see no sign of it and began to wonder if it was submerged and if so how much depth did we have, I continued slowly to a point where I was sure we had passed over it, only to find out later that is no longer there. It was put there to control the flow on the river and now that the Barrage has been built at Arzal it is no longer needed. We found one or two mistakes in the Navicart!

Redon is a good stop over to stock up on supplies, and 16 Euros for the privilege. The marina is right in the centre of town and is worth having a wander around, particularly the old part which is very interesting.Fuel is available in the Port. We had a text from Dave and Sharon Holmes aboard Saluja suggesting we meet at Rieux about 6Km down stream. This we did and moored up alongside Saluja and enjoyed a good evening together, nice meal, perhaps a little too much wine? Ask Sharon.

Dave suggested we travel down to Foleux with them as he had arranged a mooring, and it would enable us to talk to the yard and book our lift out for later.. We arranged with Dave to meet his partner in the boat who just happened to be coming out at the end of August for a weeks sailing and bringing the van. We could put our gear in the van and catch the train home. I hadn’t really thought this bit through but I suppose we would have had to go back to the boat in our car and bring as much gear as possible home. We are very grateful to Dave and Jonty for this offer. We travelled back to our boat with Dave and Sharon and they stayed aboard and left for St Malo and the ferry early in the morning.

We decided to go South down the Nantes to Brest Canal. We entered the canal just up stream of Rieux and made our way to Guenrouet. This canal is really quiet and we were surprised if we saw another boat. It was at Guenrouet that I made a mistake that was to cost me our mast headlight! The wind was quite strong and the finger pontoons rather narrow. I was concerned at approaching downwind so decided to come round between the land and the pontoons in order to come into the wind, but I failed to look behind me and as I swung around into the berth, caught the mast on a tree and this removed my mast headlight and deposited it in the canal. We tied up and disappeared below to hide my embarrassment. The next morning dawned bright and sunny and we left the berth with no further mishaps. Had a very pleasant trip to Blain, although we did have to wait for the lock keeper to have lunch and on this stretch they have a two hour lunch. On arrival at Blain we found that moorings were a bit scarce. The first one we tried was too narrow and the second one only just wide enough which meant we had trouble fendering. Blain is really nice with free moorings that include the electricity. It’s a short walk into town with an Aldi supermarket. There is also a Super U further away but the problem is carrying the shopping (wine bottles are heavy!) Maybe one of those shopping trolleys with wheels would be worth investing in, although I think Jackie might worry about looking like a Bag Lady.

We had arranged to meet up with friends who were returning from the Ile de Re. Slept seven on board that night, bit of a squeeze but we are good friends. Friends left to catch the Ferry and two more arrived. Each August Blain has a three day Carnival, the first day of which is the market and the second a parade with lots of the surrounding villages bringing floats, very entertaining and funny. Then on the Sunday they have a night cycle race around the town followed by fireworks. Only the French would do something like this. We watched the fireworks from the cockpit with a glass of wine, or two.

Left Blain at lunchtime going south aiming for Glenat, and on arrival discovered that although the Navicarte listed showers and W/C, the showers didn’t work and the W/C was basic to say the least! There is also a new motorway just upstream of the mooring area, but it was too late to go anywhere else so we put up with it. We left here early the following morning to make a full days run to Norte St Erdre. You enter the river Erdre at Quiheix and hang a left. It was at this lock that I was asked for my ships registration documents, the only time in ten weeks.

The run up to Norte St Erdre is very attractive with many large houses with their own mooring docks cut into the bank. Norte St Erdre is a charming place and is the furthest navigable point at the top of the river. It has all the facilities you need including a good Super U within easy walking distance of the Port. Again the mooring was free for the first three days. Monday was a bank holiday so decided to pump up the dinghy and row up stream. In Jackie’s diary it says, "what a superb trip, we rowed for one and a half hours", no we didn’t, I did. But it was a good trip. I rowed as far as the ford and we then had our picnic and rowed back, this time with the stream.

Sorry to leave Norte St Erdre but I am sure we will be back.

Left after a lazy morning on the 15th August, made the lock at Quiheix late afternoon and decide to stop alongside the river bank for the night. Moored up Rick Stein style tied up to two trees, in peace and tranquillity. Well it was until a car and van came down the tow path on the opposite side. We then heard the guns and dogs, I do think that mobile phones should be banned for this sport as it does lessen the odds for the poor Wild Boar!

Early morning start in the rain, saw what can only be described as a Chinese junk, armchair on the stern and a settee on the bow, in fact we saw a number of caravans sitting on small barges with an outboard motor! Arrived back in Blain and decided to eat in the Auberge du Canal on the quayside, I can recommend this as a good traditional French restaurant. Spent a couple of days in Blain,and then continued on our way to Guenrouet.

We travelled part way in company with a small red boat with four people on board, and a tarpaulin over the cockpit to keep out the rain. They were French so their mooring lines consisted of one piece of thin line and two boat hooks. If you walk up the hill into Guenrouet you will find a couple of shops but not much else, although the Church is worth a visit as it has some wonderful stained glass windows.

Left Guenrouet at 09.30 en route to Redon. This part of the canal is really beautiful, more like a river as it starts quite wide and runs through farming land. As you get nearer the lock into the river at Bellions it narrows down and is rather shallow. We had 0.4m under our keel and we draw about 0.75m.

We made good time up this stretch and were able to pass through the last lock before they shut for lunch, arriving at Redon around 13.00 hrs.

The next day was a short trip downstream to Rieux. Moored up just in front of a Nicholson that turned out to be one of the original boats built, and she had won the Round Island race in her day. They are also on their way down to Foleux to lift out. We have arranged to be lifted out on the 26th August so after a pleasant couple of days in Rieux we made our way to our last port of call in Foleux and began packing things in bags as best we could. Met up with Mike and Ann Sullivan (fellow ESSC members) and were invited to visit them for dinner and a real bed. They have recently moved to France and seemed keen to show us their house. They drove us back to Foleux the following morning saying they would return in the morning to help us pack the things in the Van, (that’s another story) and take us to Redon to catch the train. What a couple of stars. I didn’t really want to come home but needs must and their help made it that much easier.

The Seal 28 is in my opinion an ideal affordable boat for cruising the canals, she will sleep seven at a push. We bought a fridge that sits in the wet locker and this was one of our better purchases. The Garmin 276c has the channel charts on it and also the European road maps and with the off road option on it will track your position in the canals. The Navicart booklet gave a lot of useful information although it does need updating.

My thanks go to the mast party Paul, Dave, Sharon, Jono and Jacques and to Mike and Ann Sullivan for their help and hospitality. Big thanks to Jonty for bringing the gear home, and my wife Jackie for putting up with me for twelve weeks.