The Raz , literally : the race !
WABI’’’ real time : at anchor, Riviere de Pont L.Abbe. South Brittany. It’s a warm and sunny morning with a light breeze coming up the river from the south. I’m well enough away from the marina and moorings at Loctudy to be not disturbed by the Saturday morning activity on the water. Later I might take a motor further upriver and tomorrow probably head over to Benodet.
So I was thinking about the south Brittany conundrum….why it is that few British cruising sailors seem to bring their boats to this area. I trust that you all realise that I kind-of rather like the area : to me it feels like the first part of the world away from the UK that is summed-up in the sailors expression ‘going foreign’. As I said in earlier posts most of my sailing up until I came here was in the cold, grey and often bleak Irish Sea. I used to like North Wales where I learnt to sail, enjoyed going to up to Scotland once a year for the Tomatin race series and loved parts of southern Ireland. Parts of northern and western Brittany feel a lot like Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland and for sure there is a Celtic connection. In my limited cruising experience I have seen quite a few British boats in north Brittany but very few men as far afield as Morgat and then hardly any south and east of the Raz de Seine.
The Raz de seine is obviously a physical and I think, psychological barrier to sailors coming from the Uk and we don’t have anything quite like it in British waters. Some say that the Raz is ‘like’ Portland Bill but equally some sailors say that Portland Bill is the UK’s Cape Horn !. Well iv’e only been around the Horn 3 times and oddly only been around the inside passage of Portland Bill maybe half a dozen times…..most times I have avoided it simply by sailing offshore. I don’t know, can’t count, how many times I have been up and down the channel and not needed to go anywhere near the Bill but to cross the Southern ocean and go back up the Atlantic makes rounding the Horn a total necessity. Sorry but the comparisons just don’t work at all, no way, end of story. Nor is the Raz anything like the Bill because, like the Horn, there is no real choice or option but to pass through the Raz when going to to and from south Brittany. For sure, I know, it would be feasible to go out all the way around Ushant and pass to the west of the Chausee de Seine and I have done that on nearly every major ocean voyage but then we’ve being going directly south across the bay of Biscay.
A few days ago I ‘spoke with’ a cruising boat that I could see was flying a red ensign. That was in the port of Audierne in the narrow channel, they were coming out as I was going in. We didn’t have much time as we passed but I gave the traditional sailors hale and question….”where from” and they replied “Plymouth”. Well, that makes sense as its’ the West Country sailors that are probably more likely to get to western and southern Brittany and that just comes down to distance and sailing direction. From the 2 major sailing centres in the south-west : Plymouth and Falmouth it’s ‘only’ a hundred mile or so passage to either Roscoff or L.Aber-Wrach and that should be do-able in 24 hours to a modern cruising boat….just one night at sea. Although there are lots of yachts based between Plymouth and Falmouth, and let’s not forget Fowey, not many of them are long distance sailors much of the time. Most of the time their cruising ground seems to be encompassed by the Helford river to the west and Dartmouth/Exmouth to the east. In between those 2 points there are plenty of easy day passages and I have to say plenty of marinas : most cruising boats now seemingly sailing between marinas.
It’s going to be a greater problem for any boats based east of Portland Bill , Poole and the Soylent for example because then it’s a lot further to L.Aber-Wrach and the Chenal de Four and there’s a high possibility of it being a genuine upwind passage all the way. While the passage from Plymouth or Falmouth would be a steady reach in an average westerly (the wind not the make) and just about a one tack beat in a south-westerly it would be genuinely to windward all the way from Poole say. You can work out the actual sailing distance from Poole to L.Aber-Wrach easily but lets say it’s blowing from the south west which would be normal weather in the channel…then the sailing distance increases by a minimum of 50%….much more for many boats. Now, as a racing sailor we had to accept long channel beats, sailing in the Fastnet race being just one example. I don’t know of many cruising sailors who would put up with a long beat in the channel and I happen to think that many ‘modern’ cruising boats just aren’t set up for it and neither do their owners have the taste for it. Some I know are well set up for a long beat although it can be a miserable, cold, wet and seasick-making experience, many are not.
It’s purely my view that a lot of the last generation of cruising yachts and cruiser-racers derive from IOR race boats : similar hull shapes, similar keels and rigs except few are set up like IOR boats used to be….had to be. On ‘Robbery’ just as an example I think we had 5 headsails and it was very much my job to get them up and down at the right time when racing and yes, we did big headsail peels while going to windward….wet and dynamic up there on that narrow IOR foredeck. To sail well we usually had to do a sail evolution every 5 knot change in wind speed and of course to get any performance downwind we always flew spinnakers. Most modern cruising boats are weak upwind simply because of the limited useful range of a roller-furling Genoa….it’s a bit like having a No 2 Genoa only that will just about make a smaller sail although it will be nothing like as good as a tight and flat blade or a powerful light No 1. I would say, from observation, that many of today’s modern cruising sailors that being on a pitching foredeck is the last place they would want to be or even should be….it taking a fair amount of balance and agility to work safely up there. Most IOR foredeck/bowmen were, like me young and stupid once !, good skills to learn though. My foredeck experience stood me in very good stead up until I had Inanda and that bloody useless Wykeham-Martin gear. I ended up free-flying my jib off that narrow foredeck….worst designed one I’ve ever come across and trying to learn to manage sails on that 5 foot bowsprit !…..all exposed, no guard-rails, no toe-rail nothing.
With Inanda I certainly learnt a lot of respect for sailors of gaff rigged boats like her and a whole load of new sail handling skills but that’s another story for another day. Just to say for now that I played around with the question of which boat would have been better for this voyage so far. WABI’’’ was horribly uncomfortable in the reaching conditions of the Channel, Inanda would have been better on that part because of her weight, stability and much greater sailpower. She may have been as wet as hell without the total refit I planned. She would have been a terrible choice for a long beat in Channel conditions : I discovered that in the voyage I did with her last year. I think she would have been a quicker offwind boat with that big square mainsail. Beaching as I do with WABI’’’ wouldn’t have been possible without beaching legs ……both boats sail in about the same depth so I could have been accessing the same kind of rivers as I am now. Choices and decisions eh ?
Lets get back to the Raz problem for a while.
So, point one I am making is that to start with it’s a long way even to get as far as the Raz de Seine as it’s not just the Channel to deal with but also the whole of the Chenal de Four as well. I have discovered that the tidal timing for going through the Raz is tide-critical so in addition to the actual passage making it could easily be necessary to wait for the right tidal conditions. I find that in this kind of thing there are lots of ‘what-if’s’…..many cruising sailors only have so much holiday or leave time and can’t make an ideal passage when conditions are good : even though it would be a good idea to do so. Lets say ‘what if’ the crew have a long and unpleasant beat down channel , well that might call for a rest in L.Aber-Wrach so add another day/tidal cycle until the ebb is running down the Chenal de Four. It’s unlikely I think that many boats could transit the Chenal de Four and the Raz in one go so there might be another stop along the way : Camaret or Morgat for example. Most of that theoretical passage has relied on good to moderate conditions so far so ‘what if’ bad weather comes in as it has for me twice so far on my voyage. For me it’s simple, I don’t have a schedule and can afford to wait. One common feature of things that go wrong at sea is skippers who feel that they ‘have-to’ do something, say attempt the Raz in marginal conditions.
And then there’s the actual problem of the Raz de Seine itself. It isn’t the Bill, which can be avoided , nor is it the Horn, which can’t. If you like ‘it is what it is’ an actually difficult and potentially dangerous place although luckily the hazards and dangers shouldn’t last for very long : get the timing right and the approach right and the Raz will simply spit the boat out !
So, lets take a look at the Raz , especially for those readers who haven’t been there and, if you will with : what’s all the fuss about ?.
The Raz de Seine then is the narrow passage at the south-western tip of Brittany between the ridge of high land that narrows to a sharp headland at the Pointe du Raz and it’s continuation in 2 islands and a whole heap of rocks and reefs that surface just one and a half miles to the west. Unlike many headlands, I was thinking of Britain’s ‘Lands End’ as an example the headland doesn’t drop away into deep water but first runs out as a shallow reef/plateau : the ‘Platte’ and then drops to a relatively shallow underwater ridge before surfacing again as the Isle de Seine and the set of rocks and reefs that run miles out into the Atlantic as the ‘Chausee de Seine. The underwater ridge in the Raz channel itself comes up to about 20 metres on average and that’s from around 40 metres in the bay of Douarnenez to the Rez’s north-east and more than 50 to the north-west. There are also shallower patches such as the one just to the west of Pte du Van which is only 5 metres and that’s exactly where I had my worst time during this passage. To the west of the Raz is the isle de Seine and the smaller isle de Tevennec and then the long tail of rocks and reefs of the Chaussee de Seine. Out there is the famous ‘Ar-Men’ lighthouse : possibly the most difficult lighthouse ever built. If you want 10 minutes of youtube entertainment then go and enter a search term such as ‘Ar-men’ and ‘Storm’ to get the full flavour of Atlantic waves breaking over the 100 foot tower !.
La Vielle…photographer unknown.
So, firstly it’s a narrow and relatively shallow passage although it is well marked by lights. The major problem is the sheer volume of water that has to pass through the gap and over the underwater ridge. On the ebb a lot of the water in the bay of Douarnenez and the Chenal de Four has to run south through the Raz : in fact, doing further reading, it seems that water is pulled in from as far north as the English Channel as well. The opposite is true on the flood which is that a lot of water from the bay of Biscay and that corner of the Atlantic has to be pushed through the Raz. My Imray chart (C 37) has a tidal diamond for a point directly north-east of the Raz and not one for the actual channel itself. There, the maximum flow is given at just over 3 knots which is plenty……but guidebooks such as the one I have on board say that the tide in the Race itself can run at around 6 knots at springs either ebbing or flooding. Another feature of the tide is that doesn’t always seem to be a period of slack ‘easy tide’ but that the flow turns on like a switch.
The trick with the Raz seems to be threefold : plan the passage so that you are at the passage just as the tide turns in your favour, do that at neaps, and don’t do it when there’s likely to be a wind against tide situation.
I planned my passage from Morgat such that I should have been very close to the point of commitment just as the tide was due to start running south through the channel and it was exactly at a neap tide day. What I hadn’t planned for was that days of a north-west wind of around 10-16 knots of wind, but unstable and gusty, had kicked up a chop and that there would have been a very active wind against tide situation just as I was lining up for my run through the passage. In fact I had a very bad time, not in the Raz itself but for about half an hour when I was passing over or near to the shallow patch off the Pte du Van : marked as the ‘Basse du Nord-Ouest’. I was so busy at that moment, steering, trimming and just hanging onto the boat that I didn’t have any chance to look at the chart and see that where I was could be such a problem. Hint….give the Basse Jaune and the Basse du Nord-Ouest a wide berth in a fresh nor-westerly !. The last quarter-hour leading into the Raz and over the underwater ridge were hectic and wet, to say the least. There was a very lumpy and confused sea in there : short, steep and I think with an element of wave refraction off the headland to my south-east.
I deliberately passed quite close to the ‘La Platte’ light…it was difficult to tell because waves were breaking hard on it….but there wasn’t much obvious flow so if anything I had got the timing right and once over the pass I went almost immediately into a long fast downwind slide along the coast towards Audierne. On that section , if anything, the wind increased and went around to WSW giving me very near surfing conditions in WABI’’’’….well enough that Dolf couldn’t cope at all so that by the time I got in behind the breakwater at Audierne I’d been hand steering for over 7 hours continuously.
I would apologise for having failed to take any photographs in the approach and in the Raz itself….to be honest I was a bit task-loaded at the time plus I had a lot of water coming aboard and I don’t think my old Pentax DSLR would have survived that. We do have some photographs of the Raz and the Pointe du Raz from having been to the headland by foot. That day was just a nice, steady, fairly benign day there with sea-kayakers playing around the southern side of La Plate. Even then the tidal flow and ‘Race’ were obvious.
Ok, so that’s my own look at the Raz de Seine itself , there is a small sting in the tail for the cruising sailor and that is the next passage along the coast before getting to what is regarded as the first genuine area of south Brittany cruising. That passage is the one from Audierne and around the complex and austere looking pointe de Penmarch. From Audierne it’s around 13 miles to the first waypoint I set off the south western corner and then about the same again to get all the way round the rocks and shoals into Loctudy. There are at least 3 other ports between Audierne and Loctudy but 2 that I know of are really working fishing ports only and not welcoming to sailors. The last of the 3 : Lesconil, I did think of going into but the anchorage would have been exposed to the south-westerly swell and would , I think, have been another rocky-rally night at anchor so I pushed around to Loctudy where I knew I could get up the river there.
The Raz….take 2
WABI’’’ real time : about a month later . We are at anchor in the Anse de Dinan , just off the beach, on a very hot afternoon after passing back through the Raz de Seine at silly-o-clock this morning. To get the right tidal conditions ie slack water just about to start flooding north-east we had to be there at 0400 and that meant leaving our previous anchorage at around 0230.
Yesterday we had a hot and frustrating passage from Lesconil to the Anse de Cabestan, just to the west of Audierne and what should have been a better anchorage for the conditions we had. It’s gone very hot and sultry here with lightning out to sea last night and a hot but unstable thermal breeze from the north east. Both yesterday and today we had to motor hard to windward to get up into our respective anchorages and on both days had to get in the water for a dip. The boat is very hot inside today so for the first time this trip I have the cockpit tarp’ up and it’s doing a good job.
So today…most pilot books give the time to pass through the Raz de Seine as being about 5 1/2 hours after high water Brest or very nearabouts. Today was exactly a neap so that was the best we would be able to get for minimal tidal problems, our main problem today was a brisk wind from the north-east. That gave us a nice reach down to the Vielle and Platte lights but then made for a very short chop in the race itself. I didn’t even try to beat through but decided to mainly motor, using the reefed mizzen to keep WABI’’’ pointing in the right direction which was directly to windward. We were through the race before the sun came up and motoring hard over a short awkward chop for the next 6 hours. It was a much better rounding than I had the first time round, this time, but still gave us a hard day’s work then getting directly to windward….it’s been a really strange couple of weeks for wind here !. This time I did get a couple of photographs…..not the best but then I was trying to steer with one hip, hang onto the boat with one hand and photograph with the other.