Guest Story: “Brest or Bust!” – Brest Festival 2012
I started working on commercial boats: fishing boats and tugboats, when I was 19. Looking to expand on my maritime career possibilities, I attended a wooden boatbuilding school in 1992 and from this school developed a passion for wooden boats in general and English Pilot Cutters in particular. I followed news of the remaining originals and the resurging interest in the type as new pilot cutters and pilot cutter inspired vessels were being built over the years. Unfortunately, sailing on an English Pilot Cutter is not something that is easily accomplished on the Best (West) coast of the US!
I had always wanted to sail one these famous vessels and experience the qualities that I had read about. Having experienced many a rough day at sea in a motor vessel, I was always curious as to what being in a sailing boat in heavy weather was like as a sailboat gets a steadying effect due to the wind in the sails. Getting to experience a pilot cutter in the famously rough waters of the English Channel was a bucket list experience with a low probability over ever occurring.
In 2008 a friend and I were talking about his French family heritage and he was sharing some history of this lovely old family estate in Landerneau, Brittany. When I discovered that Landerneau is a 15 minute train ride east of Brest AND that my friend knew about the festival, a plan started percolating. By the end of the conversation we had outlined a general plan for a future trip to attend the Boat Festival in Brest, possibly for the next one in 2012.
Well as luck would have it, in 2012, the stars aligned and we both ended up having the time AND the money for an adventure to attend the Brest Wooden boat festival. My girlfriend at the time, being an adventurous soul with an interest in sailing, joined our adventure. My old roomie and his girlfriend joined us and before you knew it we had a France tour amongst us with each one conducting their own adventure and uniting in Landerneau for the Brest boat festival.
After giving it some thought, I realized that instead of just attending the festival, I could actually be a part of the festival. My girlfriend and I would sail from England and meet with my friend in Brest. After the Brest part of the festival was over, we would stay with him at his family’s home in Landerneau for a couple of days before returning to the States. Excited with the new travel possibilities, I conducted some research, selected a pilot cutter that was chartering berths to the festival, bought airline tickets, and paid for two berths to the Brest Festival. Trip planning: Done and Dusted.
Some weeks passed and out of the blue, I received an email stating that my trip to Brest was being transferred to another vessel. Whaaaat? Oh, No! Apparently, the boat I originally booked the trip with had obtained a fully boat charter by another party. They assured me that I wasn’t to worry, my entire booking was shifted to another Pilot Cutter, the Amelie Rose. They assured us that the Amelie Rose’s Captain, Nick, would take good care of us. After checking out the boat specs, and engaging with Nick and Topsail adventures via email, I quickly realized that from a boat perspective it was a bit of an upgrade as the Amelie Rose was a larger vessel. I also had a suspicion that the boat might be named after one of my favorite quirky movies, Amelie. So it seemed that our transfer from one boat, to the Amelie Rose, was a fortuitous event with no real downsides: Ok, Amelie Rose it is!
Fast forward to the first week of July and we are arriving on a slightly overcast afternoon in Poole to meet up with the Captain and crew, and get squared away on Amelie, as we are to depart first thing in the morning. As luck would have it, the rest of the folks who had chartered berths to Brest and Douarnanez decided to do the Brest – Douarnanez – UK leg of the trip instead. It was just us and the crew, we had the whole boat just to ourselves. Perfect! This trip is really getting off to a good start.
I had been paying attention to the weather for the last couple of days and it didn’t look great. My weather radar was telling me that all of the optimism in the world wasn’t going to change what was going to come down the channel for the next couple of days. We would have to take it on the nose for a while if we wanted to get to Brest before the festival was over.
A steely morning greeted us with a bit of sun and a stiff breeze as we got out of Poole harbor and passed Old Harry. True to the forecast the wind and the waves got stronger and bigger the farther we got offshore. The clouds closed in and the rain came down. It was icing on the cake of the 5m seas that the Amelie was happily taking on the shoulders. As it turned out, it ended up being several long salt encrusted days of heavy weather sailing as Nick readjusted our course to the best advantage to get us across the channel and onto a better bit of wind. Experiencing the English Channel in crappy weather in a Pilot Cutter…box ticked!
Both the channel and the Amelie Rose lived up to their reputations: the Channel dished it out and the Amelie Rose took it in her stride, safely making time. Finally! We turned the corner to head southl’y down the Chenal du Four. The rain stopped, the sun came out and we got out of our miserably damp rain gear for the first time since we left Poole. It was one of those gorgeous days were the only thing missing was a angels choir. We had a fantastic afternoon of running before a stiff breeze that made up for the beating we took for three days. Looks like we’ll make Brest just before it gets dark. Sweet!
We arrived to the chaos of Brest Harbor at dusk, not knowing quite what we should do. A quick call on the radio and we were shuttled to our berth in the harbor. I was impressed at how smoothly our berthing arrangement was sorted. Apparently, the French can manage chaos. No sooner than we had secured the Amelie, the sky lit up with a massive fireworks display so spectacular that it felt like a bomb was going off. The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate with our arrival and the Bastille Day fireworks felt like they were just for us announcing our arrival to the Festival.
The festival was huge. Traditional boats filled the entire harbor with a few modern ships speckled here and there for a counterpoint. As a traditional boat enthusiast, I had never seen so many traditional boats in one location before. We spent the show, seeing as much as we could, taking a tour of Brest, and enjoying an occasional afternoon sail in the light wind that was zephyring around the harbor. Unfortunately, the Festival was over and it was time for everyone to shift to Douarnanez. Our time on the Amelie was theoretically over.
I don’t know how it eventually came about, but Nick told us that the sail to Douarnanez was a lovely sail and he was amenable to letting us stay onboard for the afternoon sail to Douarnanez. I wasn’t sure if he felt a bit guilty for the rough ride across the channel or whether he was just being a nice guy, but we jumped at the opportunity to get another afternoon of sailing under our belts before continuing on the remaining leg of our trip. Many years later and I’m still thankful for that opportunity for the leg between Brest and Douarnanez was the best leg of the trip.
The day started off grey and drizzly, it was looking like it was going to be a dreary day. However, we were surrounded by traditional sails with all many of craft around us. The whole skyline was filled in with different shapes and sizes of sail. People were lined up on the mountain ridges surrounding the harbor all the way out of the bay. There literally was everything from 3m dinghys to 50m ships making the sail to Douarnenez. If you ever were curious as to what a harbor or a busy port looked like in the day of sail, I imagine this would be the best spot to get an understanding of what that bygone day would look like. By noon, we had cleared the Goulet de Brest and the fleet split into two groups, those heading to northern destinations and those heading South to Douarnanez.
Then – seemingly all at once, the clouds lifted, the sun came out and were making our way to the highlight of the trip, Le Tas de Pois, and the NARROW channel between Pen Glas and Chelot. It was pretty spectacular. The remaining fleet was squirting through this narrow channel in one continuous stream of sail. Nick did his best to keep a straight face and pretend like there was nothing to pucker about as we picked our heading and squeezed through the funnel of boats with what felt like a meter to spare between us and the boats on either side. I couldn’t resist and shouted “Mind the Gap!” as we squirted our way through.
After we made our way safely through the channel, the wind died off a bit and it was time for an unofficial race on the last leg to Douarnanez. Canvas was piled on, some more than others, the mate broke out his tri corner and squeezebox and a nice downwind run into Douaranez was had by all.
We helped secure the Amelie into the tiny Douarnanez harbor, wondering how they were going to cram the rest of the boats in. It was time. Time for that bittersweet moment, it was time for others adventures onboard Amelie. We had other things to do, places to see, but yet wished we could have stayed longer because the time had been so nice.
Years later, I was looking the Topsail Tattler to get a bit of armchair sailing in and stumbled across their “10 years abaft the Mast” article. Apparently, our rough passage to Brest was a standout moment in 10 years of sailing on the Amelie Rose. I felt a sense of accomplishment, yet also felt that for the Amelie, it was just another day of the young girl doing what she was made to do.
The Skipper says: “Thank you John for taking the time to write and send your article – we love hearing how much our adventures mean to the people who come along.”
2020 sees another alignment of the Brest & Douarnenez double-bill of fabulous french festivals and we can’t wait to go back for our third visit. If it sounds like your sort of adventure too then get on over to the AR20-11 Brest & Douarnenez Festivals page and send us your booking enquiry now…
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