What price a life?

My most recent adventure has been a bit of a long, drawn out affair, forcibly punctuated by high winds and many hours spent looking at weather forecasts.  This time, I’m going to break from my usual method of chronicling the trip on a daily basis and instead, I’m going to consider some of the more pertinent points.

The brief was to deliver a Beneteau Swift Trawler 50 from the factory where it was constructed, on the island of Noirmoutier in the Pays de la Loire region of western France to Southampton docks, where it was to be put on a ship bound for Turkey.  A simple three day trip, with the first leg planned to take us from Noirmoutier, up the Brittany coast to Brest.  Then from Brest, around the peninsular to Jersey and finally a quick hop across the Channel to the docks at Southampton. On the face of it nothing out of the ordinary, unless you consider that the Bay of Biscay is a notoriously hazardous stretch of water during the winter months.  As it happens, we encountered a period of continuously bad weather, the like of which I have never seen before.

Incidentally, it has been suggested to me that the long line of depressions, tracking across the Atlantic one after the other and totally disrupting our plans is due to the extraordinarily prolonged and fiercely cold spell of weather that is currently affecting North America.  It seems ‘Global Warming’ manifests itself as extremes of weather rather than the new found ability for those living in Newcastle upon Tyne, to start cultivating Olives and having terracotta tiled roofs on their white painted villas.

So, to the first point of interest on our adventure.  We arrived at the Beneteau factory on Noirmoutier just as it was getting dark.  To make life just a little more interesting, the heavens decided to open at the same time and we got thoroughly soaked as we made our way to where the boat was moored.  After going through the paperwork and getting used to the layout of the boat we made our way back to the hotel.  Then, naturally, we had to find somewhere to eat.  The port of Herbaudière is on the northern tip of Noirmoutier and at this time of year seemed totally uninhabited – hardly surprising as Christmas was only a few days away.  It soon became obvious that Herbaudière was shut!  In fact, the more I think about it, we were really lucky to find a hotel. Nevertheless, the pressing problem was where, in this one horse town, were we going to find food. 

Finally, we stumbled across a bar that was open.  I’m going to do something which I don’t normally do in my Blog and that is, make a recommendation – actually, two.  The bar we walked into is called ‘Le Mistral Gagnant’. It was quite busy and full of cheery banter, right up until we appeared and then a hush fell over the place.  We’ve all had this happen at some stage I’m certain but on this occasion a feeling of ‘Deliverance’ instantly came over both Lynn (Welsh name for a chatty bloke) and myself.  However, I quickly pulled out some of my school-boy French and as soon as the glasses of red wine turned up in front of us, the conversation started to come back to life.  In a mixture of French and English we started asking the lady behind the bar if she knew of anywhere we could get something to eat and were there any taxis available.  It soon became apparent that all the taxis on the island had chosen to take the weeks running up to Christmas off and the only restaurant still open was 5km away.  Lynn is not exactly what you’d call sprightly and a 5km walk was definitely out of the question…

I would like to take my hat off to the folk in that bar.  Within 10 minutes and after many calls to taxi answerphones, we had secured a lift from the restaurant owner to his restaurant, been given many words of advice about our impending trip from the fishermen at the bar and made a whole raft of new friends, who almost understood what I was saying in my best Franglais!  

Artur soon arrived to pick us up and after working out what we wanted from his menu whilst en route, we eventually found ourselves sat in his lovely restaurant, with a nice Bordeaux open in front of us.  If you are ever in Noirmoutier, make a point of going to visit Artur at ‘Le p’tit Noirmout’.  The steak was stunning, the wine exquisite, the dessert to die for and the lift back to the hotel a massive relief.  Best of all though, the gentleman that he was, he made us some food and gave us a bottle of wine to take on our trip the following day!!

Deliverance!  How utterly wrong can one be?

The only way I can properly describe the trip we made the next day is that it was rough!  So rough, that we gave up on any thoughts of getting to Brest and ducked into Concarneau instead.  The boat was too big to go into the marina, so we ended up on a pontoon in the fishing port and there the boat stayed all through Christmas as depression after depression tracked its way across the Atlantic and lashed Western Europe with an unprecedented series of storms.  At this juncture, I would like to say a few words about the assistance we received in Concarneau.  Sadly, for one reason or another, I never got the name of the man from the port office who bent over backwards to help us but I would like to say a big thank you to him.  Without his help we would have struggled to find a berth and we would have been fretting all the time we were back on Jersey, about the state of the boat during the storms that we had over Christmas. I would also like to extend my heart-felt thanks to Guirec Soudee, who was moored on the boat a few places down from us and thankfully spoke excellent English and without whom we would have struggled to get fuel and water for the next leg of our journey.  Guirec is intending to do a solo passage on his steel-hulled yacht. he starts of by going across the Atlantic and then heads up, as far north as he can go, into the regions where ice is a normal occurrence – brave man.  Apparently, you will be able to follow his exploits by searching on the internet for ‘Voyage d’Yvinec’.

Finally, a big enough gap in the weather appeared and we rushed back to Concarneau. Having brought the boat back to life, we set off for Jersey at 08:30 on the Wednesday morning. We had a bumpy ride going around the Brest peninsular and 100 nm later moored up in St. Helier harbour at around 20:30.  After a comfy night’s sleep in a real bed, we set off again the next afternoon at 15:00, getting into Southampton at 23:00 on Thursday night.  Then a short ride from Ocean Village marina to the docks the following morning meant that it wasn’t long before we walked away from the boat as it sat in its cradle waiting to be taken onto the ship for Turkey – three long, rough days at sea made this particular trip more of a trial than an adventure but we’d done it.

This brings me to the second point I’d like to consider.  What price a life?  We studied the weather long and hard before putting out to sea and we considered the risks to be acceptable.  Despite the fact that we were under some pressure to get the boat to the docks for a specific date, we had made the decision to leave the boat tied up over the Christmas period when the storms were at their worst.  Commercially, this was a hard decision to accept.  Booking a place on a ship and getting a boat to its destination on time are obviously important to shipping companies and their clients but there comes a point when you have to stand back and look at the bigger picture.  Losing the boat, not to mention possibly our lives, by putting out to sea in ‘stupid’ weather would not have been a sensible move.  If the boat had ended up arriving late, which incidentally now it won’t, it would still have been a far better result than the alternative.   During my time as Principal of Sealine Sea School, I told students time and time again, that this is a leisure pursuit and there is never a time when you can justify going out in rough conditions; if nothing else, it’s simply not much fun.  Now that I am working as a freelance skipper, I have to balance the risk of not putting out to sea because it’s a bit lumpy, against the need to get the boat somewhere at a specific time.  These days, the pressure of meeting a schedule means that I am more likely to go than not but nevertheless, there are times when just slowing down and taking twice as many hours to complete the journey isn’t going to prevent a catastrophe.

My advice to you, as a leisure boater, is still going to be: This is supposed to be fun, if it is forecast to be F4 or more and the wave heights are going to be more than a metre and building, go to the pub instead.  There is no room for machismo in boating – always think of the weakest member of your crew and base your decision to go on that person and not yourself.

The other thing worth remembering is, it is always going to be worse at sea than it is on your mooring.

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The weather was so bad and the sea so rough that I didn’t bother trying to take pictures this time.  I did snap a couple of shots of a pod of Dolphins that raced up to the boat at one point but they came out blurred so I deleted them.  I do have a couple of pictures I took as we motored round to the docks on the last morning of our trip, so I’ve posted them here.

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This has been another Captain Corbett’s Adventure.  If I’m not on Jersey teaching a private tuition Day Skipper theory or Yachtmaster theory course, then I’m either spending time with someone on their boat, giving them the confidence to take their boat out with their family and friends on board or I’m off somewhere exotic delivering a boat. Either way, I’ll write it up and put it on the Blog for you all to see, so keep popping back to see my most recent adventures.