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Approaching Ushant in fog, May 2018

Once described as ‘a tubby little ship’ by her first owner, ‘Robinetta’ has certainly sailed more nautical miles around the coasts of the UK than many other small yachts of her age. In this extract from her log, Alison describes a worrying approach to Ushant during a summer cruise and some information about the Phare de Nividic

By the time we had finished lunch we were less than 10 miles from Ushant, but could see nothing of it. The fog had closed in totally, things began to go wrong. The engine stopped. Since we now had a flat calm and were clear of the shipping lanes we had time to work out what had happened. First check, diesel. Both fuel tanks were half full. Out came Nigel Calder’s book on diesel engines, and his diagnostics told us we might have an air bubble in the fuel lines. It took us an hour to bleed the fuel lines since we had never done it before, but once we had the engine started. Hurrah! Once under way I went below to log the incident, and saw steam coming out of the engine compartment. The exhaust pipe had come off the anti-syphon box, giving the engine a hot shower. So the engine had to go off again while Julian did up the hose clips to re-fix it. 

Ushant got no closer while we fixed these problems. In fact it got further away, as a tidal stream began to push us back north at 2 knots, then 3, then 4. Even once the engine went back on we were barely station keeping, creeping forward at under 1 knot and having to be very careful where we aimed. A heading of exactly 210°T kept us going in the right direction. Any deviation from that had us going backwards, or pointing at the dangerous rocks of the invisible Ushant coast line rather than the west end of the island where we needed to be. The flat calm ended and a west-south-westerly wind came in which helped us, but best course to windward took us too far south, so I had to keep luffing the main to keep us on course. We tried tacking, but that just took ‘Robinetta’ backwards with the tide. Sailing as well as possible with the engine on saw us doing first 1, then 1½ knots in the right direction. Then the speed began to go up as the tide lost its grip.

As the speed rose so did the sea state. Ushant finally appeared through the fog when we were about 2 miles off and we had a nice motor sail for about 15 minutes, swooping up and down the waves making 4 knots. Then we were doing 5 and I turned the engine off. The speed dropped back to 3 knots but the waves seemed to be getting bigger. Julian and I just wanted to be in harbour by this point, so we put the engine back on and as our speed increased to 6 knots the wave crests shortened and developed triangular points. The tide that had been fighting us was now helping us recover the ground, but the wind had come in from the opposite direction and now we had wind over tide. These rapidly became some of the worst overfalls we’ve been out in and we had some pretty bad ones off the Isle of Man and off Holyhead. There is absolutely nothing on the chart to indicate that they might be there.

‘Robinetta’ excelled herself. We got one big lump of sea swirling into the cockpit, and a couple of splashes over the side, but she rode out the rough sea perfectly. At six knots we were no longer crawling towards harbour; it felt as though we were racing as we passed the Phare de Nividic’s strange pylons, then the lighthouse itself, and it was time to turn Robinetta’s stern on to the waves. The rollers were still obvious, but the triangular points were 10 cm rather than 100cm, so the waves were less chaotic in the mouth of the bay. We centred the main sail as we turned to avoid a potential gybe, then surfed past the Phare de Nividic into Lampaul Bay on staysail, jib, and engine. This lighthouse made a big impression on us both, and we went to have a look from the shore the next day as well as read up about it.

Phare de Nividic
The decision to build the Phare de Nividic at the entrance to Lampoul bay was taken in 1910, with construction started in 1912. Violent currents around the numerous reefs made the site inaccessible and progress was slow. The light did not begin operation until 1931, initially lit by oil, but it was always intended to be a modern installation, remotely operated and powered by electricity, and despite opposition from enviromentalists worried about destruction of the shore line, by 1936 the electric installation was complete. Electricity was carried out to the tower on pylons built on the reefs, and these also carried a telephone line and cables for a cable car that was used for maintainance. The system worked well for four years, until the commander of the German occupation force decided that all lighthouses should be extinguished, and routine mainainance ceased. The steel cables quickly corroded, and by the end of the war the system was un-usable. The pylons still stand, marking the line of the reef leading out to the light-house itself, and in daylight provide a stark warning not to try cutting the corner into Lampaul Bay from the north.

Alison Cable
Find out more on the log of Robinetta