Millie was somewhere out there in the English Channel, bobbing about in a sailboat. I scarcely slept a wink and awoke groggily, my first thought was to grab my phone and see if there was any word, but nothing. Walking into the kitchen, I opened my laptop. We were able to track the location of their boat via the AIS satellite tracking system. When we had gone to bed last night, she was still off the south coast of England having just passed the Isle of Wight. Now we saw she was about 40 miles west of the Channel Islands, obviously they were reverting to plan B and not stopping there, but heading straight down to Brittany.
Yesterday I had taken her to La Rochelle airport, despite having flown hundreds of times this was her first flight alone. In the car we discussed flying and boats, she’s 16 and was going to be spending 2 – 3 weeks sailing from the UK to France and then down the western coast back home to Rochefort on a 38′ boat with her godmother and a couple of their friends. Initially the plan was that she would have two or three days in the UK to get acquainted with the boat and boat rules, but as the British weather was awful and they had a brief weather window that night, they decided they had to take advantage of it. And so she literally landed, was met off the plane and taken to the boat, where everyone was running around in a last minute rush to get ready to leave. Within two hours she was in waterproofs and wellies, and heading back towards France, this time via the sea. She had said to me, “This is really going to test my metal: I hate flying, I hate vomiting and I’m scared of storms.”
I wasn’t worried for her safety, I knew she was in the most capable hands with three very accomplished sailors. I was worried that she was seasick, that it was rough, that she had spent a night feeling awful, green and hating every second of it. It was just a mother’s concern. Seeing just a mark that was her boat on the map, that was our daughter, out there amongst all the tankers and super yachts and varying other craft. It was enough to bring tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. Then we lost satellite tracking, and there was no new reported location all day. I had no idea where they were, and totally irrationally, I spent a day staring at the map willing for the location to change, pressing refresh again and again, wanting to know where they were, my nerves just a little bit frazzled. By 6pm the boat appeared again on the radar, they were a couple of hours from Brittany. An hour later my phone pinged, a message from Millie. She was having the time of her life, no seasickness, just loving it. Her first passage of the trip had been quite a baptism of fire, 26 hours of straight sailing across the English Channel.
After that first communication I relaxed. Millie was having the trip of a lifetime; this is her story.
It’s worth noting that, for some reason, I really hate flying. Not to mention that I’m an incredibly shy person and hate doing anything by myself. So, on the way across the channel in our tiny Flybe prop plane, it’s understandable that I was just a tad nervous. Sandy, my godmother, whom I couldn’t remember (having last seen her when I was three years old in Devon), married her husband Peter Bruce in 2011. Both are amazing sailors, and Peter has competed in just about every race there is! (And won most of them, too!) He’s also the author of several books about sailing, and was in the Royal Navy for many years.
So it wasn’t so much the sailing part that scared me. It was the spending-three-weeks-with-strangers part. In Southampton, I was met by Peter, and we drove the twenty minutes back to their house in Lymington. Somewhere in the New Forest, after sending only one text to my mother saying ‘In the car’, I lost signal on my phone and only got it again a day later. Goodness knows what she thought had happened!
Peter and I peeked into their house, but Sandy was out doing last-minute shopping for the trip, and so we went straight to their boat on the Lymington River. Owl, their boat, is a 38 foot Maxi 1100, Swedish built. I scrambled eagerly round the guard-rails and Peter gave me a short tour, giving me the two most important tasks to do before heading out to sea: check that the hatches were properly closed, and make sure that no cupboards or drawers were open. Well, I thought to myself, If that’s all I need to do then this’ll be easy! Peter and Sandy are laughing as they read this.
Onboard, I was introduced to Brad, one of Peter’s longtime friends, also an incredible sailor, who would be making the trip with us as far as Concarneau. I’m sure that their friends were all horrified when they learnt that a sixteen year-old girl would be joining them!
I met Sandy a short time later, and less than four hours after getting to England, I was saying goodbye to it again, as we cast off the lines and motored out into the Solent. As Owl beat her wave through the water, waves crashed over the bow, and I was only too happy to find out that my waterproof coat and trousers (oilies) held up to that first test.
A cry from below wakened me from my dreams of smooth, swift sailing down the coast. Of course, I hadn’t closed the forward hatch properly, and now seawater was pouring into the cabin where I was to sleep!
We ate supper on deck, and I fell asleep comfortably in the port bunk with a lee cloth to keep me from rolling out.
The next morning, in the middle of the English Channel, I woke up and went on deck to witness a kind of surreality. The first rays of dawn were creeping over the horizon, and a glassy swell was speckled with gold from the rising sun. The air was silent, and all around us were huge ships, gliding silently by. It’s one of those visions you never forget.
We spent the day sitting in the cockpit talking and watched the log tick down the miles to France. That afternoon, the sunny weather left and was replaced by strong winds and rain. I was slightly terrified, and spent several hours napping peacefully down below! When I woke up we were only a few miles from Lezardruie marina, and we motored peacefully past jagged rocks with brightly painted lighthouses on top of them. The landscape was completely different from the Charente-Maritime, and my eyes struggled to take in everything at once–the gaping rocks, water rushing over and against them, rolling green hills in the distance, and tiny white Brittany farmhouses with slate roofs perched on top of scraggly cliffs.
We ate supper that night on a calm mooring upriver. The next morning, we were there to witness the boats from a singlehanded cross-Channel race called Le Figaro coming in, and watched in laughter as the winner stood on his boat with a huge bottle of champagne!
Our next port of call was the town of Morlaix, miles up a tidal river. We spent the morning narrowly avoiding going aground and made it to the lock just in time. Morlaix was situated in a valley, filled with crowded houses and shops, and the entire town was dominated by the huge Roman-style aqueduct running from one hilltop to the other. It was certainly impressive, but the roads were dirty and most of the boats derelict and forgotten.
We sailed to Roscoff, where we spent one night waiting out bad weather, and then woke up at 4 a.m. to go further south to L’Aber Wrach. As we headed out of the Île de Batz channel under a velvety, starred sky, we met a large green swell hitting us nose-on, and the swell stayed for the rest of the day. That’s when I got another one of those ‘snapshot’ memories. I was sitting on deck, with Sandy, Brad, and Peter, and emerald-coloured waves rose all around us. A yellow coloured buoy floated past us, and we were close enough to see the seaweed dragging off it.
In L’Aber Wrach, we met two of Peter and Sandy’s friends, and then went to Brest for a day. We visited the Océanopolis aquarium, where we saw seals, penguins, dolphins, otters, stingrays, turtles, and every other type of sea creature imaginable!
From L’Aber Wrach we sailed to Bénodet, a long, foggy trip where cold grey water sat silently, rain drizzled down, and we spent most of the day becalmed with flapping sails. We went through the Raz de Sein channel, notorious for big waves and strong winds, in flat seas and a light breeze! The Point de Pennmarch, the cape separating north and southern Brittany, actually was a turning point ! The weather, having been dismal and grey for the past week, suddenly turned sunny and warm. I foolishly packed my oilies away thinking that I wouldn’t need them again.
We spent almost three days in Concarneau, where we also said goodbye to Brad. So far we’d visited quite a few towns and marinas, but Concarneau was the first place that I really loved. The port was surrounded by pretty houses with flower boxes in their windows, and the ancient stone walls were every photographer’s dream. La Ville Close, the old town sitting inside the fort on an island in the harbour, was filled with tiny shops and quaint restaurants tucked down miniature alleys and cobbled lanes.
From Concarneau we sailed to Belle-Île. Sandy and I spent the morning of that trip on deck with the huge, bright pink asymmetrical up, flying through gentle, deep blue waves. Belle-Île is a very small island, less than ten miles long, and from afar it looked as if someone had thrown a ball of crumpled rock into the sea and then neatly sliced the top off. Towering, broken cliffs sheltered sparkling green bays, and we glided into our anchorage for the night with smiles and light hearts. Peter and I blew up the dinghy and rowed ashore, then climbed a thorny, steep path to the top of the cliffs. One of my biggest regrets in life would have to be not having taken my camera with me! The wind whistled through the grasses and wildflowers, and the horizon stretched out before us, and unbroken line shaded only by clouds.
Belle-Île is neighboured by several smaller siblings, two of these being the tiny isles of Houat and Hoedic. They’re only miles apart, and both have small villages of whitewashed houses and campsites. We anchored off of Hoedic, and Sandy and I made the grave mistake of going swimming! The water was ‘refreshing’ at best, and while Sandy had a full-body wetsuit, I was left in a bikini and rash top, freezing and worrying about the many jellyfish we’d seen that day! Hoedic was equally as beautiful as its larger sibling, and ancient menhirs stood next to English forts.
After Hoedic we sailed to Nantes, spending the day at a slight angle with cloudy skies and mud-coloured water sluicing past the hull. Peter gallantly took up the task of standing and motoring the three hours upriver, past flat marshes and the occasional container ship.
I have to mention, though, that the Nantes river struck me as being a place the the time-space continuum seemed slightly off. We passed a fully-built French manor house sitting at an angle in the middle of the river, water lapping at the windows, and further up cruised by a tiny marina, where a sailboat was sitting six feet out of the water on top of a wall, drooping over the stones as if it had melted!
Nantes was particularly fascinating. On one side of the river, smart houses sat in neat rows, the tram line passing in front of them. On the other side of the river, an artsy district known as the Île was filled with sculptures, graffiti, lights, and floating restaurants! That was also the night of the Euro 2016 final, and long after the match was over we could hear hooting and cries from late-night revellers.
At the mouth of the Nantes river, we went to Pornichet, where we picked up two more of Sandy and Peter’s friends; David and Jacky. From there we went to the Île d’Yeu, another island (Honestly, I had no idea any of them existed before my voyage!), and spent the day bumping over rocky paths and coastal roads in a rented Mini-Moke style car. It had no seatbelt, no doors, and was bright red. It was also made for four people. We crammed five in.
On the island, we visited an 11th century fort still standing today, where it juts proudly out into the sea, unperturbed by stormy waters or invaders. We spent a very happy couple of hours traipsing through fern-filled valleys and scrambling up rocks to get to it, and I promptly filled my SD card with as many pictures as possible! From the fort, we went to a tiny port on the other side of the island, and ate moules frites overlooking a bay filled with bright fishing boats. After lunch, we wondered along the seawall and climbed the steps to the top of a rocky hill, testing our sense of danger by standing on rocks with twenty foot falls to treacherous waters below!
We spent one of our last days sailing to the Île de Ré, slipping back into familiar lands for myself. In the harbour there, everyone seemed to have had the same idea, and the marina was filled with boats tied up to each other in an effort by the harbourmaster to cram in as many fee-paying boats as possible. The skies were azure and sunny, and the town as bustling with tourists and a food market. We went shopping for a few food items and came back with bags of fresh baguettes and vegetables. Mama, dada, Hetty and Gigi drove out to meet us and we all had lunch on board, dining on fresh pink langoustines and gulping down cool glasses of Orangina. I took the girls on a trip around the marina in the tiny dinghy, only just puttering out of the way as the ferry rushed to dock. Daddy stood on the breakwater, a tiny figure with a camera, as we waved and motored past him, for the final leg of the journey home to Rochefort.
After a week of very gentle sailing in slightly scorching sun, it was a relief to have a strong breeze and a slightly cooler temperature, and Owl sped past other boats and sparkling waves, heeling over strongly and with a fresh 20 knots behind us! At one point, we recorded 9.6 knots as our speed, surfing down waves. We had a minor moment of panic when the dinghy, lashed to the stern, broke free and swung wildly around, but it was a fantastic last sail. I remember looking behind us and seeing the strangest waves. The water was a very light, muddy green colour, and the waves were short, packed together and rising like knives. The water looked like broken glass.
We spent the night on a mooring at Soubise (I proudly showed them around the small town!), and then motored to Rochefort and the lock there. Daddy came to meet us soon after we had docked, and with uncertain feet I stepped off Owl for the final time, my adventure behind me.
Of course, none of this story would exist if not for Peter and Sandy, and it would be impossible to ever thank them enough for agreeing to have me along. Somehow, they put up with me, and I learnt more than I ever thought was possible. The trip will stay in my mind forever.