Topsail Tattler

Brest & Douarnenez Festivals – A Guest’s Eye View

by | Jan 24, 2020 | Archived News (Live), Skipper's Notes

Ex-guest and all round good egg Nick Beetham wrote this lovely article for us recapping his time aboard the Amelie Rose on our adventure to the Brest and Douarnenez festivals back in 2016. He really captures all the elements that make this adventure such a bucket-list event and we hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed being there in the first place.

Brest and Douarnenez Festivals 2016 – Nick Beetham

Saturday July 9th 2016
I arrived at Falmouth to join the Amelie Rose to sail to Brittany to participate in the classic sail festivals at Brest and Douarnenez which only coincide every four years. I was really looking forward to the trip – 19 days aboard the beautiful Amelie Rose – and was excited and nervous in equal measure. What would the other people be like? Would we get along? Would they all be seasoned classic boat sailors (this trip was to be my first time sailing in years and my first experience of gaff rig)? I needn’t have worried. I arrived at Amelie Rose’s berth alongside the pontoon close to The Chain Locker in Falmouth Harbour and stepped aboard – I was the last to arrive. Everyone was huddled beneath the cockpit tent and I heard a voice say – “Here comes a pair of shoes we haven’t seen yet!” I made my way below the cockpit tent and said hello to everyone. The voice belonged to Nick Beck, Amelie Rose’s owner and skipper.

I bagged the top bunk, in the forepeak, on the port side and made short work of the cup of tea and biscuits on offer. There were nine of us all told: Nick, Rebecca (first mate), Julie (the world’s finest sea-going chef) and the rest of us were the punters (or “guest crew” as the euphemism has it). There were Pete and Gill originally from Manchester who’d met aboard Provident in Salcombe in the 1970s, married and moved to Fremantle, Australia; Steph, an Australian who worked with underprivileged children teaching them to sail in Drascombe Luggers; Geoff, from Lancashire who’d sailed aboard Amelie Rose before; Chuck from Southampton and me. We had dinner and drinks in The Chain Locker that night and, after all the necessary briefings, turned in ready for an early start the next day.

Sunday 10th July 2016
We slipped the mooring at 06:00, exited the harbour and set a course of 120 degrees for l’Aberwrach. There was a fresh breeze and a fairly large swell from the west and Jules asked Chuck and I to help bowse down the bowsprit so we clipped on and went forward. It was pretty wet up there and an exciting first taste of traditional sailing. Jules kept us all fed and happy with bacon rolls, endless cups of tea and pieces of dried ginger for those of us who were feeling the swell. With the wind more or less on the nose, Nick decided that l’Aberwrach was ambitious and that we’d bear away a little and head for Roscoff for our first night. We saw 8 knots on the log here and there and had an interesting moment in the afternoon as a strong gust hit us and Amelie stood on her ear. Nick appeared from below and, with admirable sang-froid, checked we were all in one piece and on we carried. We arrived at Roscoff at about 10:30pm, ate and turned in. We were happy, knackered and asleep in moments.

Monday 11th July 2016
We spent the day alongside in Roscoff, drying our gear after yesterday’s excitement and exploring the town and harbour. There were quite a few boats also headed for Brest. By now our respective levels of expertise in gaff rig sailing were becoming clear (this was my first time on a gaffer – and it showed) and our personalities began to emerge as we relaxed in each other’s company. I knew that we were all going to have a great time.

Tuesday 12th July 2016
We left harbour early morning, stemming the tide headed for l’Aberwrach. We arrived in the river mouth in the late afternoon in glorious summer weather, navigating the spectacular channel with the petit pot de beurre and other marks on show. After supper aboard with some Breton Cidre we turned in ready for the final leg to Brest the following day.

Wednesday 13th July 2016
We left for Brest. Up to this point, we’d had the engine on more or less all the time when under way. Once the tide turned our way, Nick switched it off and we had an amazing sail down the Chenal du Four, beam reaching with 8.1 knots consistently showing on the log and all of us, of course including Amelie, loving every second. Amelie walked past all the Bermuda-rigged plastic fantastics we came across. We saw the Isle of Ushant to starboard and entered the Raz and came into Brest harbour.

SO MANY beautiful boats! Boat soup! It was an incredible sight – boats that I’d seen in the pages of Classic Boat and similar were there in force: Thalia, Mascotte, Harbinger and Hardy to name a few. Many of Amelie’s siblings were there. Luke Powell was there with Agnes, and we saw Eve of St Mawes and Freya with their owners. We came alongside in Brest and rafted up next to converted trawler Ros Ailther and converted lifeboat Swn Y Mor. We met Lance and his son Miles who had between them sailed pilot cutter Merlin from Salcombe and a guy called Tristan single-handing his folkboat. A few of us went ashore for beers after dinner – Chuck and I returned and climbed below. Nick was apparently asleep in the cabin. “Chuck” I whispered, “the Skipper’s sparko!”. Nick opened one eye and drawled “No he’s not”.

Thursday 14th – Monday 18th July 2016
One of our number was an expert snorer – them’s the breaks – and I was up first and out of the boat to pick up kitty-funded pastries from the boulangerie on the quay. As I returned, there was the amazing sight – and sound – of a Dutch waterborne busker. He piloted his tiny electrically powered and psyechedelically decorated boat around the quay, whilst simultaneously playing the flugelhorn or singing his heart out to accompanying backing tracks. It was such a beautiful thing to see and hear: the sun was shining, we were in Brest, aboard Amelie and this (who knows, perhaps slightly eccentric) musician was doing his thing for us. I think some dust must have got into my eye around then…

After breakfast we slipped the mooring and motored off the quay for some sailing around the bay. We took turns at the various jobs: helming, sail trimming by hand (there’s only one winch aboard Amelie and that’s on the boom for reefing – raising and lowering the main is a two-to-four person job) and working together as a team to tack the boat smoothly and generally work her. Steph was obviously an experienced sailor and deftly helmed us through traffic. Chuck is no slouch either and took us on a “fly-by” through the harbour as we did another lap. I was on the helm as we headed back in and my journal reveals that “I slightly ballsed up a tack on the way back in so Nick cancelled it and brought us in smoothly alongside Merlin”.

I recognised a Francois Vivier designed Ilur dinghy as Avel Dro, belonging to Dinghy Cruising Association supremo and small-boat maestro Roger Barnes. There was plenty of live music to be had: a brass band with more than a touch of Klezmer were doing their version of “Seven Nation Army” as we came back in and many bars had live music – there was also a stage with a full schedule of excellent bands every night. Thursday night saw Bastille Day celebrated with a special treat meal ashore in the best restaurant we could find in the harbour which could seat us all, and a really spectacular firework display. Afterwards, Chuck, Steph, Jules and I sat in Amelie’s stern and chatted.

On Friday, we woke to the dreadful news of the terrorist attack in Nice that killed 86 and wounded nearly 500. Nick reefed Amelie’s ensign as a mark of respect.

We motored back out into the bay and set all five sails. That morning, Steph had been up the mast reeving the topsail halyard and the rest of us got busy lowering the topmast and hauling it back up again, and arranging the necessary lines on the bowsprit. Reaching with all five sails pulling is an experience to be savoured and never forgotten. A couple of Steph’s friends from Australia – experienced tall ship sailors – were in Brest and joined us for the day. That evening, there was the Parade of Sail and I’d heard announcements over the festival PA listing the names of the boats taking part in the various parts of the Parade. I heard the name of a boat I’d owned some years previously and ran to see if I could find her and see if the owner remembered me. I found her and the owner invited me aboard and we sailed her together through the harbour in the Parade. It was great to be temporarily reunited with my old boat and I really enjoyed the coincidence of bumping into her like that. I made it back to Amelie in time to set out for our own part of the Parade in darkness, by which time there was a lot of traffic with one or two near misses from some of the other boats.

The next day, Nick had some visitors – Chaloner Chute and his partner Minnie. Utterly delightful people who it was a real pleasure to spend the day with. Without exception everyone I met aboard Amelie, visitors, folk we bumped into ashore, were all great in fact. The whole event was such a amazing experience and we all enjoyed every minute.

Tuesday 19th – Wednesday 20th July 2016
We left harbour, towing the engineless Veracity, skippered by Holly, out of the harbour until we picked up some breeze and she let us go. There were too many boats to count as we headed for Douarnenez. This was a real high point of the whole trip. Sailing toward and through the Tas de Pois (the pile of peas) aboard Amelie in an enormous swarm of boats of all sizes and types was AMAZING but not without incident. We saw Roger Barnes doing brilliantly, coping with intermittently being in the lee of the rocks and of many of the boats towering above Avel Dro, and were closing fast on a couple in a small fast motor boat dead ahead who were dawdling, blissfully unaware of us as we caught them up with no room to change course.

Nick was on the point of having to start the engine and put on some reverse revs (which would have caused problems for those behind us) but when we were about 50 yards off, they finally heard our shouts and whistles and once they saw us hooked a magnificent high speed turn out of our way, each loudly and expertly swearing at the other for not keeping a proper look out. The wind filled in as we came around the Cap de Chevre and we belted down towards Douarnenez.

We arrived in our slot at the top of high tide and Steph caught the mooring buoy with the boathook as I leant way over the bow and threaded our mooring line through the loop, suspended by another of the crew holding on to my belt. That was to be Steph’s last night with us as she was scheduled to return to Australia and needed to catch a bus from Douarnenez to the airport the following morning. We ate and drank and sang shanties galore (and the newly-minted Brittany 2016 “ship’s song” – if you sail on Amelie, the words might still be in the book) [Yes they are indeed! – Ed].

Thursday 21st July 2016
Spent the morning ashore with Geoff, doing laundry and exploring Douarnenez. At lunchtime we went sailing in that day’s light winds – Amelie was invited to sail in the Reder Mor Challenge and we did well coming third (though we did brush one of the marks on the way round it – does it count…?) and working together as a team.

Back alongside, a few of us went ashore for a drink and chatted with skippers and sailors from other boats and shopped for provisions. On the way back to Amelie with a couple of bags of groceries, my right foot slipped off a cobblestone into a small pothole and I hurt my ankle pretty badly. As it turned out following an X-ray in the local hospital the next day, I’d broken it. I showed up late to Jules’s birthday dinner in town on crutches with my ankle in a cast. I wondered how sailing back to Falmouth would be.

We left Douarnenez the next morning, and two or three pods of dolphins paid us a visit en route to Camaret. It was time to head back to Falmouth and we left Camaret early the following day.

Sunday 24th July 2016
The weather had been fantastic since leaving Roscoff and had stayed fine for the whole trip. As we left Camaret I felt slightly down that a wonderful experience was coming to an end but also excited about crossing the channel back to Falmouth. The weather stayed fine for us and we had great sailing, enhanced by the frequent visits from dolphins, hitching a ride in the pressure wave at Amelie’s bow. I stayed on deck with my leg in its cast, wrapped in a bin liner to keep it dry.

Nick planned that we’d sail non-stop through the night and moor in the Helford River. The wind came up after dark and the weather deteriorated somewhat. It was an exciting passage back, Amelie creaming along through the sea, we taking it in turns to helm. Eventually we saw the loom of the Lizard lighthouse under the horizon and by daylight we were motoring up the Helford River to moor, have a breakfast and sleep. That evening we went for our final dinner to the pub a short dinghy ride from Amelie. Nick and Becky introduced us to “Dark and Stormies” – Rum and Ginger Beer – and we all had at least our share of those.

Monday 25th July 2016
It was time to head back to Falmouth, a short trip around the corner in fine drizzle, to pick up Amelie’s mooring and to say goodbye to Amelie. It had been a wonderful time – we’d been blessed with great sailing in company with a fleet of amazing boats and brilliant shipmates. Our round-trip itinerary had been Falmouth to Falmouth via Roscoff, l’Aberwrach, Brest, Douarnenez, Cameret and the Helford River. We’d covered 446 miles and our top speed had been 9.1 knots. We went ashore in the dinghy and said our goodbyes and I wondered whether any of us would meet again or sail aboard Amelie.

I can’t believe anyone would spend time aboard Amelie and regret it. If you’re even considering going aboard Amelie to the Brittany festivals in 2020, or on any trip, do it! Nick, Becky and Jules made us all SO welcome and we punters were all really happy to muck in and do our bit to ensure the smooth running of the ship. They were all incredibly patient – especially with me, a gaff-rig novice who hadn’t sailed for years – answering questions they must have heard thousands of times about the boat and the rig without rolling their eyes once. One evening, Nick, Chuck and I were chatting and Nick shared with us the story of how he came to commission Amelie’s build and to launch his business. As he spoke, quite movingly, about the first time her keel touched the water at Working Sail’s yard in Gweek, where she was built, it was obvious he truly loves Amelie – and it shows when he sails her, sharing her with strangers who come to experience the magic of being aboard her.

Nick is a keen shantyman and we had great fun singing at every opportunity at the tops of our voices. I particularly remember Jules leading us, singing Rolling King (Bound for South Australia) as we entered the Chenal du Four and evenings singing shanties alongside everywhere we stopped. Not knowing the words is no reason not to join in – Nick keeps a set of songsheets aboard with all the lyrics. It was a fabulous trip all round. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of helping Nick and Becky move Amelie from St Mawes to Beaulieu, where she lives, and sailed with Chuck on a couple of Colchester oyster smacks. Once I’d sold my boat those years ago, I promised myself I’d never again get directly involved with any boat-shaped-hole-in-the-water temptress that absorbed cash faster than I could chuck it in. Well as a result of that trip, I caved in and bought myself a small (19 feet on deck) gaff-rigged sloop which I keep on the river at Rye, in East Sussex and sail in local waters. I hope to sail her down-Channel to meet Amelie one of these days.

The Skipper says: “Thank you Nick for taking the time to write this lovely article – we love to share our world with others, and hearing how our little adventures inspire people to bring the sea and sailing into their lives never ceases to make us smile!”

2020 sees another alignment of the Brest & Douarnenez double-bill of fabulous french festivals and we can’t wait to go back for another slice of this oh so moreish cake. If it sounds like your sort of adventure then get on over to the AR20-11 Brest & Douarnenez Festivals page and send us your booking enquiry now – it could change your life!  


  1. Ian Treanor

    Brilliant article, well written and moving. I sampled Amelie Rose last October, milebuilder from Falmouth to Beaulieu. No sail experience but a lot of time inland on powered craft ( mainly canals and rivers) Nothing I imagined can do justice to the sheer thrill of sailing on a gaff rig like Amelie Rose. Like Nick , I was impressed by the crew and guest’s friendliness and warmth and they just made a magical experience even better.
    I’ve signed on again for this year , going to the Isles of Scilly in August….and I cant wait , the plus being I might be more useful second time round !

  2. Merv Huggett

    A great article Nick. Having done many trips on Amelie Rose I can vouch for every word you say about the magic of sailing on AR together with a passion that oozes out of Skipper Nick. Merv


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