Well there we were, in La Rochelle, a beautiful old walled city and guess what happened? They wanted to throw us out because of a big boat show that is held annually in September! We hadn’t seen any advertising about it on the way down the coast and other people were turning up and being turned away so we were lucky that we managed to get into the marina at Minimes for three nights. We were only a 10 minute cycle ride from the centre of town so it wasn’t too bad.
La Rochelle is a seaport and the capital of the Charente-Maritime départment, Poitou-Charentes region of France. The entrance to the old port is defended by two massive 14th century towers. The pentagonal Saint-Nicolas Tower, the larger of the two, is an imposing fortress with crenelated walls and a keep. Opposite it stands the Tower de la Chaîne, so named because at night a big chain was strung between it and Saint-Nicolas Tower to close the port. It developed in the 11th century and has been fought over and has changed hands many times but was finally captured by the French in 1372. The people of La Rochelle became largely Protestant at the time of the Reformation and because of its strategic importance, was put under siege by Cardinal Richelieu in 1627. He sealed the harbour approaches with a dyke and by the end of 1628 he had starved the city into submission. Out of the pre-siege population of 28,000, only 5000 survived.
The town now is a busy seaport and holiday resort and many of the 16th- and 17th-century houses, built over arcades, are decorated with gargoyles and strange allegorical figures.
We spent a day exploring the town and came across a novelty dog act in the street. We can’t remember seeing anything like it since we were nippers. It probably wouldn’t be allowed in our country, under health and safety or animal cruelty or something. The dogs all seemed happy and healthy and performed without undue coercion, and were appreciated by the large audience who gathered to watch.
We visited the two museums of des Modèles Réduits and des Automates. The first was of models of mainly ships and cars and trains and included a huge junk sailing boat in the foyer. The Museum of Automatons were mostly turn of the century, including life-size figures and one of a young lady who amazingly signed her name on a moving sheet of paper.
We had made some new friends at Ile d’Yeu and they caught up with us at La Rochelle. Glen and Maureen from yacht ‘Touché’ are travelling down the west coast as well. Glen has done a lot of sailing and Maureen is a newbie, a bit like Pat, and it was good to exchange views and experiences.
We left La Rochelle on 2nd September and set sail for Rochefort, 30 miles down the coast. We had time to kill as we had to leave on the tide from La Rochelle, and couldn’t enter the Charente river until the next high tide so decided to anchor for lunch at Ile d’Aix, just off the estuary. We passed Fort Boyard on the way. Many of you will have heard of it from the TV programme and it looks like a prison but since arriving at Rochefort, we learned that it was the outermost of many forts built to defend the Naval Shipyards at Rochefort.
Ile d’Aix is the smallest of the French islands we have visited, and is only 5 kilometres in circumference. It has two forts as defences for Rochefort, one of which, Fort Liédot, is camouflaged by being built almost underground. We unfortunately weren’t able to go inside the day we were there as it was being used by a working party. Even the village was surrounded by a moat.
Ile d’Aix’s greatest claim to fame is that Napoleon spent his last three days in France there before being sent into exile to Saint Helena. The governors house he stayed in is now a museum and contains many interesting artefacts.
It was while we were waiting on the jetty for the tide to rise enough to relaunch the dinghy when Pat spotted the sail on the horizon. “Isn’t that a junk sail I can see?” It was, and as she sailed closer (to have a look at us at anchor) we saw she was a REAL junk, not like us, a western hull with junk sails. She looked beautiful but we couldn’t even get aboard the dinghy to race out to them before they left. We watched them disappear towards the coast and hoped that they would be in Rochefort when we got there.
We finally got the dinghy in the water and by the time we raised anchor the junk had disappeared from view and we made our way towards the river entrance. The tide runs really fast here and we were doing 8 to 9 knots over the ground as we swept into the Charente. The 10 mile journey upriver only took just over an hour and as the lock gates only open for a short time, there were quite a few boats milling about at the entrance to the marina when we arrived. And guess what? The junk was there too. The following morning we called to see them on their mooring and found they were French, and that Rochefort is their home port. They had spent the summer in Spain and had just returned that day. If they had delayed their journey or we had been quicker on our meanderings we may never have met!
Michel has retired from the French navy and on his visits to the far east fell in love with the Chinese Junk and so spent 7 years building ‘Feng Zheng’ (fair winds) which has been finished for two years now (if ever a boat is ‘finished’ - El Lobo certainly isn’t!). She is truly beautiful and he and Anne invited us to look round. She is a copy of an ancient junk schooner and even has the forward leaning foremast like us. Her sails are tan too, with real bamboo battens (although Michel complains that it is only French bamboo, not Indonesian, and a few have broken). We invited them back to El Lobo and showed them around. We have so little room compared to their cavernous interior, but they were impressed by Mike’s handiwork and copied down quite a few ideas regarding the rigging and mast structure. They also took Mike to buy diesel in the car as there is none on the marina. Altogether a really nice couple and the first French people we have really met and become friends with. They have also introduced us to the Charentes local alcoholic drink - Pineau - a mixture of brandy and unfermented grape juice. Very nice too.
Some of you know that we have a brass plaque above Mike’s seat on the boat which reads ‘Old Fart’s Corner’. We bought it at a boat jumble and laughed because sometimes Mike is one! While Mike was showing Michel the sails and rigging on deck, Anne noticed the plaque and said, “Pat, what is this Old Fart”? Can you imagine trying to explain what an ‘old fart’ is to a Frenchwoman? Pat told her it was ‘slightly’ rude but basically meant ‘a grumpy old man’. “Ah, Michel, he is an old fart too!” The next day when they came back they even wrote it down and they are going to try and find another plaque. Bless them, we were tempted to give them ours but hopefully they will find one on the internet or somewhere!
Rochefort has a wonderful naval history and is a really nice town with broad streets and not too touristy. The Grande Arsenal d’Atlantique was constructed to build, repair and arm warships in the 1600’s, and in almost 300 years over 550 ships left the shipyards. It also doubled up as a depot where fleets were kept ready for battle. It was a kind of gigantic open-air assembly line with thousands of workers. There was also a tradition of experimentation and innovation. The ships capstan, terraced dry docks and the first submarine were all invented here.
The ‘Hermione’, a 12 pounder frigate was built here in 1779 and was used by the Marquis de la Fayette when he sailed to Boston later that year to help the Americans in their fight for independence. The ship building yards were long closed down when, in 1997, the decision was made to rebuild a full size replica using the same methods as used in the 18th Century. The ship is open for inspection daily and the project is due to be finished in the near future, when it is hoped she will sail once again to Boston. Mike was especially engrossed on our visit. Pat’s recollection is of the sweet smell of oak.
Next to the Hermione project is situated La Cordiere Royale, a rope factory of classical proportions, which was built in 1666. A dual ticket gives access to both sites and are well worth the visit.
We met some more new friends in Rochefort - our social life is becoming hectic - Simon and Jacque on their yacht ‘Augusta’ stayed overnight on their way to La Rochelle. We thought they didn’t know about the boat show but their boat was expected to be part of the show. It was a state of the art Southerly with everything computerised and ultra high tech - a bit of a difference to poor old Lobo.
There is one accident to report, luckily not too serious. Our flag halyard on the main mast had come loose and also the wind indicator on the top of the mast had been moved by the yard one day, so Pat did her usual job of going up on the main halyard. She was carrying a boat hook in her right hand to knock the Windex back into position and holding on to the spare halyard with her left when she inadvertently grasped the main by mistake and she could see her middle finger disappearing into the pulley block. She screamed to Mike to stop hauling and her finger, less part of the nail, popped back out of the block. She was able to finish the tasks aloft but it was a painful lesson learnt. Do not carry anything in your hand while being raised up the mast! Wait till you reach the top and then have the tool hauled up to you! The finger is OK now, although the nail may not survive. We shall see.
While in Rochefort we were blessed with the most settled period of weather of the whole summer. Days of warm sunshine with slight northerly breezes. We would have taken advantage of it to move south to northern Spain if we had not had to wait around to sort insurance out and receive a new C-Map cartridge from England covering Spain, Portugal and Madeira. We thought we already had that cartridge but realised we didn’t at the last minute. We have paper charts covering the area but the chart plotter has become Mike’s favourite ‘toy’ and now we wouldn’t like to be without it, especially entering harbours and river mouths in the dark or fog.
At last the day dawned when we were ready to cross the dreaded Biscay and we hoped the weather was going to stay OK for the three days it was going to take us to reach our intended destination in Spain, Gijón.
We have just bought yet another radio, a Target SSB receiver, and it is one of the best investments we have made. We can pick up weather fax transmissions from anywhere in the world without relying on marinas, the internet, TV, radio and all the other ways of getting weather information (not that we don’t take note of them as well). We can download synoptic charts and wind strength and direction charts for up to 5 days ahead. The weather looked fine for our crossing and we set out at 0700 on Friday 14th September.
After all our trepidation, the passage went smoothly, with good weather most of the way. We even had to motor sail part of the journey. The highlight of the trip was being escorted by a group of four dolphins for an hour or so. They usually dance in the bow wave of much faster boats than us but as there was no one else around they must have felt sorry for us and tarried a while to entertain us. We were also visited by a number of land birds maybe on migration. One, especially, stayed for a couple of hours and kept leaving the boat and returning with a moth. Where she found moths over a hundred miles offshore we couldn’t figure. Checking our bird book we think she was a spotted flycatcher but we’re no experts. There was also a group of four or five of what looked like pied wagtails.
We have found that we both do better having a decent sleep during the night so we split the night watches into two 6 hour shifts. Mike is naturally tired earlier than Pat so he turned in at 8pm and Pat stayed on watch until 2am when Mike took over until 8am the next morning. We have tried doing 2, 3 and 4 hour watches but find this system suits us both. A couple of extra hours sleep during the morning for Mike and the same for Pat during the afternoon gives us adequate rest without that ‘dead tired’ feeling.
We reached Gijón at 1820 on Sunday 16th. We had spent 59 hours at sea and travelled 262 miles. We couldn’t see very much when we arrived as we had met the fog that this coast is noted for. It was a good feeling to finally tie up Lobo in the marina.
Gijón is one of the three main industrial centres of Asturias region of Spain, but is also a seaside resort, having a large beach and promenades. The commercial port is one of the largest in Spain, and exports coal, iron and steel. The fishing fleet is also large. The city was a lot bigger than the places we have been to recently and the traffic took a bit of getting used to again. The old area, Cimadevilla, near the port, was almost totally destroyed during the Civil War in 1936, and has been rebuilt with many old and new houses standing together, looking as it must have done before the war. The promenade along the bay was very pleasant and we walked right to the end one afternoon. We passed the local football stadium and saw that on the badge of Sporting Gijón are red and white stripes! Howay the Lads. There wasn’t a match advertised or Pat might have gone one evening. She has been able to listen to the Century Radio commentary from Sunderland’s games on match days via the excellent web site at www.safc.premiumtv.co.uk when we are within wi-fi range. £34.99 per year well spent.
We would have liked to stay in Gijon longer as there are many ‘greenways’ for cycles and walking, also two municipal golf courses, but we had to get along to La Coruna by the end of the month to meet Margaret and John for their week’s holiday, also, our insurance stipulates that the boat must be out of Biscay by the end of September too. We left Gijón on the morning of 19th in bright sunshine at last and were immediately descended upon by a big navy blue Aduanas (Customs) boat. Mike thought they were going to ask us to heave-to so they could inspect us but there was no message over the VHF radio. They came right next to us and then we saw that half a dozen officers were taking photos of us. Whether they were official photographs for their records or just because we looked so pretty we couldn’t tell, but after a couple of minutes they gave a cheery wave and zoomed off.
We carried on along the Spanish coast which we could now see was very beautiful with mountains behind a plateau of green and verdant countryside and cliff top villages along the way. At 5 pm we arrived at Puerto de Cudillero, the capital of the county of the same name, little more than a fishing village, and anchored in the harbour. A trip ashore in Poco disclosed a beautiful village on a hill with tiny winding alleyways between houses teetering on the edges of terraces. We stayed overnight and explored the village and surroundings thoroughly the next day. It really is like a ‘Barga by the Sea’ and we thought it was lovely. A catastrophe happened as we got back to the boat the first night. Pat’s camera fell out of her bag and disappeared into the dock as she climbed aboard! Mike says she was drunk but she’d only had 3 small beers! It’s not the end of the world as we have another camera, but most of the photos of Gijon have been lost, together with the Aduanas boat off Gijon. See, Pat took their photo as they took ours! Anyway, the next morning Mike’s sunglasses followed the camera to the same fate, so he could hardly talk!
After another free night anchored in the harbour we left and sailed to Ria Ribadeo 50 miles along the coast. The northern coast of Spain is known as the Costa Verde, Green Coast, and is truly beautiful with tall cliffs interspersed with long inlets (Rias). The Ria Ribadeo marks the border between Asturias and Galicia, another region which has Celtic connections like Brittany.
Ribadeo is a small town with a very friendly Club Nautico which runs the small marina there. The washing machine was free, also internet access. Mike actually caught our first mullet there, impaling it with his spear gun. He also collected a lot of very large mussels, which were delicious as usual. The views from the marina were magnificent, with tree covered hillsides falling to the sea and small villages dotted around. They were not unlike pictures of Swiss villages you see in travel brochures. We explored the town and bought provisions as usual, and on the Sunday we took a bike ride along the coast to the fishing village of Rinlo and onwards to the popular beaches towards Foz. There are 5 beautiful beaches along this stretch of coastline, seen at their best at low tide, with great cathedral-like caves and rock formations. Unfortunately the tide was in when we were there, so we missed a treat.
The sail into Ribadeo was like a roller coaster ride, as we surfed along the Ria with the swell, and the journey back out on the Tuesday was the same in reverse. It was certainly interesting looking out to sea and seeing what appeared to be a wall of breaking waves in front of us. It was an optical illusion of course. There was a safe channel through the surf, and we negotiated our way through quite easily, if bumpily!
Our next stop in Galicia was Viveiro, 35 miles further on, and this was another small town almost 5 miles into the Ria de Viveiro. It again was set in beautiful scenery, and the Capitania was most pleasant and only charged us for one nights stay instead of two. Maybe because Pat went up to the office to pay instead of Mike!
Viveiro has an historic centre with narrow steep streets and the remains of a town wall. Fishing and canning are important industries, also cabinet making. We would have loved to have stayed and explored more of the area but time was pressing so we left on the 27th for La Coruna.
The distance from Viveiro to La Coruna is just over 60 miles and we would have done it in a day but the swell was very bad and there was no wind. The boat was rolling a lot and we had engine problems (more from Mike on that), so we decided to break the journey halfway and anchored in yet another Ria at Cedeira. We can’t say much about Cedeira as we didn’t go ashore, just anchored in the harbour. It is another fishing port and the boats in the harbour looked like sampans with their enclosed sides. The weather was much better the next day so we left at 1000 and reached La Coruna by 1615.
Hooray! Finally out of Biscay and getting ready to welcome Margaret and John for a few days before we set off round Cape Finisterre and on to the next stage of our journey. We both wish we’d had more time on the north coast of Spain. It is so unspoilt and beautiful. We intend to take our time and enjoy the Rias altas and Rias bajas next month, so keep watching.