Topsail Tattler

Why are the French so good at Festivals?

by | Dec 11, 2019 | Archived News (Live), Skipper's Notes

I don’t think it’s just me that thinks so; ask anyone who’s been to Douarnenez or Paimpol and especially to Brest. There’s something incredibly vibrant about them all and it’s got to be more than just Breton flair and Breton Cidre. I’ve been musing about this for a while and have a few thoughts…

Running a successful event is a numbers game; if you can get enough people to come to an event then you can make money. Even land-locked towns manage it – just look at the popularity of farmers markets and food fairs. Add in a couple of entertainment tents, a goodly dose of street performers, a smattering of bars and of course a quay-side packed with wooden boats and Bob is your proverbial money-spinner.

The key I suspect is in an understanding that money gets made from the folks who want to come and see – not from those who might come to be seen – and traditional boats are a big draw. For every person who heads to sea in a traditional boat there are hundreds who love to look at them and will spend a reasonable amount of money to do so.

Yes the French love sailing in a way that we seem to have forgotten here in Blighty but I’m not convinced that this isn’t for a lack of opportunity as much as interest. Look at Weymouth during the Olympics and Plymouth during the Americas Cup visit, both venues packed to the gunnels with folks – they weren’t all sailors – they can’t have been. From personal experience I know that when the Pilot Cutter Fleet left Fowey this year the quayside was packed and that was 10am on a Friday morning.

So what’s stopping us? A big lesson that we can draw from our French friends is that mooring charges are the death-knell of a successful sailing event. In fact in France the big boats even get paid to come and be seen. For this they promise to have walking tours and sailing excursions and put on demonstrations of sailing crafts and skills. All things that most of us are pretty damned happy to do anyway as sailing is in our blood and we want to share our passion.

Even the smaller boats get something more than just a free berth. At the Entre Terre & Mer festival a few years back we were met every day by an enthusiastic group of volunteers handing out free food to the boat crews. When we visited Paimpol in the summer the entire fleet was treated to a sit down meal and a glass (or three or four) of wine – and with hundreds of boats there that was no mean feat. For me Douarnenez tops it all with their crew tent serving breakfast and pre-dinner amuse-bouche every day to anyone with a crew wrist-band.

For all this to work it’s important that the town and the harbour work together. In France the councils often still run the harbours and in any case the “County” or Departement have oversight over both. What’s good for the town is therefore good for the harbour and vice-versa. I suspect that they also understand that the Festival itself needs merely to break even for the Town and Harbour to benefit.

Here in the UK we seem strangled by harbour commissioners and town councils who can’t see how to work together to share in a successful event or are just too damn scared to try. They don’t see that the town itself makes money when a big festival comes to town. The restaurants and bars are full, the guest-houses are full, the car-parks are full and everyone is seeing the town as successful and vibrant instead of run down and shabby. I would probably have never thought to visit Paimpol – with its twisty drying entrance or Morlaix, stuck 4nm up a winding river channel marked randomly by wobbly bits of painted garden cane but thanks to their festivals I do and I love them.

And yes, there’s flair there too. No one who attended the closing show at Douarnenez back in 2012 with its mystical bobble-men, flying “seagulls” and a man playing a squeeze box hanging from a balloon is ever going to forget the experience. But we can put on a good show too. So come on you harbours of England (and Scotland, Wales etc.) Let us stop being so risk averse that we never even bloody well try.

Want to join us at one of these wonderful Bretton Festivals? 2020 sees the biggest of them all with the Brest International Maritime Festival and onwards to the longest running one in Douarnenez. Come and be part of the action aboard the Amelie Rose click here to send us a booking enquiry!


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