Cruising to Brest: 2016

In 2016, a fleet of OGA members sailed in company from the East Coast, Netherlands and Solent to the Festival at Brest. Sadly, in 2020, the Festival will not take place due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

In this article, Solent OGA member Ben Collins muses on his adventure, just after the Brexit vote, as he crewed on the Heard 28 ‘Carlotta’ making passage to Brest from the Solent . . .

One thing you should know when you attempt to organise a fleet of Gaffers for a cruise ‘down Channel’ is that gaffers’ skippers have their own ways of doing things! The OGA is not a club, more a loose association of beautiful boats and eccentric sailors that don’t take too keenly to be organised! Full credit goes to them for getting their act together, linking up with the Dutch and French OGA (the Association of Vieux Greements de France) and setting sail for the World’s biggest sea festival of them all.

OGA skippers do, it has to be said, have a penchant for a good party. In the case of Brest quite a few free parties along the way too. It doesn’t take much for a French mayor and quayside cafe owners to see the commercial benefits of filling the village harbour with some old sea salts and their lovely boats. All that is needed to lure them in is free berthing, free wine and cheery mayoral reception, then charge a small entry fee to the local populace to access the pontoons and you have a lucrative instant festival! Everyone wins! 

But in 2016 getting the boats down Channel proved a challenge, the weather had been contrary for weeks, and the term OGA ‘fleet’ is perhaps a misnomer. Gaffer boats come in all shapes, sizes and ages. Some are true heritage boats: wood planked hulls, leaking decks, oiled masts and wheezing engines. Others are modern copies with GRP hulls, mod con fixtures inside, and engines made for tugs.  What unites them is the way they sail. The relaxed way of moving through the water, a way of handling the waves that no modern ‘plastic fantastic’ can quite emulate. High tension and speed is not of the essence.

A fleet of gaffers starting out together will take little time to scatter. The older hulls need TLC on the high seas and skippers will adopt a more traditional approach waiting for the wind and tide to be fair,  seeking out a course with long tacks, overnighting at sea, seeking shelter when the waves are up, quiet days tampering with the engine, oiling blocks and varnishing the combings. Others with limited holiday and new cut sails with which to push the clock a bit, sheet in tight with spray over the bowsprit, and first to the Moule Frites at the harbour restaurant. And then there is a third group with their sleek white hulls, sparkling varnish and pristine white sails, gentleman’s yachts which seem to slip effortlessly and gloriously, a cool trace line over the horizon ahead.

At first none of us could get going at all for contrary winds and steep waves from the west. Brest looked increasingly remote. For the Solent boats that had made it to Yarmouth, the Bugle seemed the best destination. Over our beers we watched the weather forecast and felt for those who coming from Holland and the East Coast held up in Ostend, Eastbourne, Brighton and the like. Inevitably we fretted. Both winds and the Brexit vote. Were the gods telling us not to go to France in 2016? Had decades of Anglo-French ‘entente cordiale’ come to an end? Would we be met by newly diligent French customs officers and gendarmes demanding paperwork and searching our holds for tariff evasion goods? Worse still, would the quayside parties be cancelled and Capitainerie staff chase us for wads of fast devaluing sterling!

We held our nerve. The winds dropped and the sun came out. A lumpy Channel presented itself but the fleet made hay. Some set sail for Cherbourg, others motor sailed for Alderney. ‘Carlotta’ thinking herself clever held the port tack westward to Weymouth to get a better slant for the following day. But then the weather went foggy and the wind went SSW. We chugged out past the Bill and crossed the shipping lanes to a blast of ghosting ship horns. At days end Alderney emerged grey and rocky in the mist. A welcome refuge but not a single fellow gaffer in sight!

A stiffwesterley greeted us next day and reefed down, staysail furled, we went through the Swinge on the slack of high tide. It was good sailing as we raced down to Guernsey, but where were the others? ‘Molly Oxford’, freed at last from Chichester, arrived astern having sailed through the night. Next morning our luck again seemed thin. The wind had dropped as we coaxed ‘Carlotta’ southward under topsail and gennaker. The Cote Rose appeared lit up in the setting sun as if a mirage in the haze ahead. We motored into Perros Guirec.

Onward to Roscoff for our rendezvous with the scattered fleet. The French OGA, our hosts, had their little fleet flying the tricolore. Some joshing over Brexit and offers to hide away all our whisky from the Securite.  A warm smile from the lady in the Capitainerie. It was good to be among friends. The weather seemed to be settling but not without a couple of blows. More British, Dutch and French boats poured into harbour as the following Brest fleet or ‘boule de neige’ gathered its boats. Aber-Wrach the next stop. A hearty reception awaited the growing armada, a bagpipe serenade played on the quay as we tied up. The party had begun!  By now the OGA fleet had grown to over 20 and counting. ‘Gwenilli’ came in from Falmouth, ‘Windbreker’ and ‘Eva Christiana’ from Holland, ‘Witch’ catching up and ‘Victoria’, from the East Coast. ‘La Recourverance’, Brest’s proud two masted geolette tied up alongside to greet the start of a steady stream of new arrivals.

The final leg to Brest was not without its sting. The strong SW winds returned and ahead the infamous Chenal du Four was in turmoil. The word from our French lookouts along the coast ahead was a clear ‘stay put’. We watched the local dinghy crews practise their capsizing in the safety of the Wrac’h river.

All aboard to catch the ebb next morning. Down the Chenal to meet the flood as it turns into the Rade de Brest in the late afternoon. The armada was on the move. A jungle of masts and rigging pushing off the quay. As the rocky coast bent south the sails came out as an impromptu race as the armada made its final passage. All around, set between the cliffs and rocky coves, was a myriad of sails, square and gaff, white and tan, tall and short, all billowing to the wind astern that funnelled us through the narrows. Towering square riggers imposed their presence as crews hung from yardarms furling their Royals and Top-Gallants.

Herding cats? The OGA fleet had made it! At least most of us had. And there was a bonus too. It seems we had picked up a few strays on the way. The OGA welcomes all! Where there is a challenging sail and a good party at the end, expect us to turn out to be there! Brest did us proud.

Ben Collins, Solent Area OGA