Topsail Tattler

10 Things I LOVE about the Brest & Douarnenez Festival “Double-Bill”

by | Feb 21, 2020 | Archived News (Live)

As the behemoth that is the Brest Maritime Festival rolls around again, Amelie Rose’s Skipper Nic Beck spills the beans on the 10 things that drag them back to the Brest & Douarnenez Temps Fete “double-header” time after time…

1) The way that the Crew Bonds Together
At 18 days it’s the longest trip that we (ever) have on our schedule and we have in the past broken it up into two separate adventures. However, the feedback from guests and from our own reflections has indicated that it works much better when the crew are given time to really get to know each other.

Over the course of slightly over two weeks the crew begin to establish interwoven routines, working to each other’s strengths and forming into a tight knit unit capable of surmounting any challenges that are thrown their way. In the days that these boats plied their original trade all crews would have developed this bond, working together in a seamless dance of activity that requires little verbal communication as the they appear to acquire a telepathic understanding of what each needs to do next.

It’s a pleasure to watch and, in modern times, a rare experience for land-folks to be part of.

2) More adventurous sailing
It’s a shade over 90nm from Black Rock at the entrance to Falmouth Harbour to Libenter, the West Cardinal at the mouth of L’aber Wrac’h – one of our common landfalls on the Brittany coast. With a good wind on the beam Amelie Rose will eat those miles during the daylight hours available at these latitudes in middle of summer. More usually however, there is some night sailing to be had and in lighter breezes, the passage could take 30 hours or more.

The difference between a day sail, with the whole crew lolling around together, and a longer passage with crew split between on-watch and off-watch is hard to quantify. It’s marked though, and an experience that leaves a notch on the belt of every sailor. The boat drops into a different rhythm, punctuated by watch changes and mealtimes. Shoreside worries and concerns fade away and our world simultaneously expands and contracts – our territory delimited by the bulwarks of the boat but our view stretching to the un-broken horizon.

Contrast this to the rocky shores that we approach. Harbours lie at the head of twisting channels running through unyielding granite outcrops. The Chenal du Four has tides that run at up to 4kts, and requires the boat to slalom like a skier down it’s ten-mile length. Even anchoring off a low-slung island destination can be a test for the skipper – learning to trust that a charted but unseen reef will protect our little ship from waves rolling in to what is otherwise a lee-shore.

3) Shooting Les Tas de Pois
Passing through Les Tas de Pois has without a doubt been the highlight of our two previous visits to the Brest & Douarnenez Festival double bill. A series of granite lumps sticking out, Needles-like, from the Pointe de Pen Hir they must be circumvented, or, for maximum thrills, threaded on the way from Brest to Douarnenez as the fleet moves from one festival to the other.

Quite frankly it’s an arse-gripping experience for the skipper. Boats squeeze through, sometimes 4 or 5 abreast, with the outer craft occasionally deploying fenders to protect themselves from grazing the sheer granite outcrops. And beyond this crazy squeeze lies not safety, but a confused jumble of sightseeing craft who gather to watch the spectacle. But thread it we all do, and it’s always an amazing experience that none will ever forget.

4) Sailing with the fleet around Brest – by day and night
Some festivals (like Paimpol) can be somewhat static affairs, often due to tidal constraints, but both Brest and Douarnenez pride themselves on the purpose of their main attractions. Boats are designed to sail, either under canvas or steam and so, as far as the organisers are concerned, sail they jolly well shall.

Mostly the fleet heads out to the Rade de Brest and thrashes about in a wild cacophony of traditional rigs of all shapes and flavours. In watching, and being part of this, history comes alive in a way quite unlike any other. With 2000+ boats dashing hither and yon one feels utterly transported back to the age of sail.

But all of this ignores the poor folks left ashore – who have come (and paid) to see this magical sight. With this in mind the organisers press us crews into sailing through the harbour itself – in sight of the quays and pierheads which are packed with gawkers. We will often do a fly-by for fun, but will also do our duty and attend the more “organised” parades of sail.

The daytime versions are fairly simple affairs – and one or other will include Pilot or Working boats which we endeavour to join. But the night parades are where the real fun is at. Set to music we are asked to join a line of 30 or so other ships playing follow my leader through the harbour – dipping in and out of the various basins to ensure that everybody gets a glimpse. Powerful searchlights pick out the boats and we all cram on as much canvas as we dare – whilst keeping engines ready for evasive manoeuvres at all times.

This is all mad enough as it stands – but it’s not enough Breton crazy for our gracious hosts. Instead the course requires of us to spiral around and inwards, ever inwards until, as the music builds to a crescendo, suddenly the lights are doused and fireworks go off signalling the end of the performance.

What follows is an experience that is hilarious and nerve-wracking in pretty much equal measure. Thirty odd boats, ranging in size from family yachts to 3-masted trading schooners now blunder around in total darkness trying desperately to get their sails under control whilst being bombarded by fireworks set off a matter of yards away. You can’t see a thing apart from firework flashes, you can’t hear a thing apart from the thundering roar of ordinance. That the whole event is pulled off without incident every night of the festival is a testament to the skills of the sailors present, and perfectly sums up the chaos and brilliance of these Breton festivals. Bloody fabulous!

5) Baguette, Croissants and Pain aux Raisins in the mornings
Ok, so it’s a simple thing. Getting up early to go and get the daily supply of bread-based products. But in France it still IS a thing. Yesterdays bread is already too hard to chew and so fresh bread must be procured. And when it arrives, still warm from the oven, it is the perfect way to start the day. Brittany is also the only place in the world that seems to be capable of making a proper pain aux raisin (my personal favourite accompaniment to strong black coffee) and the smell of all of this together is guaranteed to rouse the crew from their slumber and set them in the right frame of mind for another day.

6) The festival vibe – especially as crew
It is a totally different experience to attend an event like this as a shore-side onlooker than it is to attend as part of a crew. Both festivals offer “crew-only” areas – with Douarnenez even extending to offering (limited quantities of) free wine and nibbles as the evening draws nigh. But it’s not just this. There is a feeling of oneness between the crews at both events, a camaraderie of being there together, sharing what it is that we do to an admiring crowd and I find it quite intoxicating.

Add to this a smattering of proper lunatics, dressed as pirates and staging sword-fights, or piloting miniature skiffs around the harbour whilst simultaneously playing the French horn and winding a barrel organ, and you have an “out there” vibe which sets me apart from time itself.

7) Seeing friends and the Trad boat “Family”
After 11 years making my living at sea, I’ve been lucky enough to become part of a giant family of like-minded folks. I know traditional seafarers from across the globe, but with ships to sail, and a world full of destinations to visit it’s rare that we find ourselves in the same port. Every four years Brest becomes a beacon to our kin however – and the chance to see so many friends together in one harbour is an opportunity to be treasured.

8) Looking around interesting boats
If traditional boats and rigs are your thing then there really isn’t any place else to be when the Brest & Douarnenez festivals are running. Everything from Dhows to IMOCA 60’s (it has a bowsprit ok?), 16th Century Warships to Estuary Dredgers, all there for the ogling. There are gaffers, luggers, spritsails and square-sails. There are coracles and dinghies, there are sloops and cutters, hell, there’re even steamships and tugboats. If it exists, it’s probably there. And the best bit? Most of it wants to welcome you aboard! Boarding other boats is thoroughly encouraged – either in an organised fashion (ok, so the queues usually put me off) or just with an off the cuff “what a beautiful boat – may I have a look aboard?”.

Turning up with a bottle of Breton Cidre usually helps the later approach I’ve found.

9) Music
Where to start? Both festivals have a multiplicity of venues hosting everything from shanties to shamanic drumming via rather a lot of celtic folk rock and the occasional band that I’ve actually heard of. Breton pipes are *everywhere* and it’s almost impossible to walk more than 100 yards in any direction without stumbling across some street performance or other. When one tires of wondering about it’s just as easy to select a harbourside café, order a beer and let the festival soundtrack come to you.

Personally, I love it. I love the ceaseless rolling maul of musical styles and influences; I love the brass bands who commandeer ferries to go chugging around the harbour pumping out jazz and big band classics. I love the Dutch bloke with his French horn and barrel organ. I love the shanties (though every time there seems to be one song or other that *everybody* covers and that can start to grate). It’s quite the assault on the ears sometimes but you absolutely KNOW that you’re alive for every minute that the festival is roaring at you.

10) The boats are the stars and the French Festival Folks don’t forget that.
More than anything else *THIS* is what I love about Brest & Douarnenez. The boats are the star attractions and are at the centre of everything that’s going on. This manifests in a number of ways: Firstly, the festival is free for the boats and boat crews – and not only that but we get berthing deals at harbours on the way there. Secondly, both festivals celebrate sailing – by actually getting us out there sailing. Third – the people who throng to these events (and believe me, they are packed events) really know what they are looking at. There is interest, real interest, in the rigs, in the boats and in the skills on show.

So, there we are. My ten top reasons for loving the glorious madness that is the Brest/Douarnenez Festival Double-Bill. I can’t wait, and I really hope to see you there…

(Skipper) Nic xx

If this has piqued your interest in coming along then get on over to our Brest & Douarnenez Festivals Page to see what places we still have available.


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