Brest and Douarnenez, 1996

The view ahead Photo: Royston Raymond

The Brest and Douarnenez Festivals take place every four years. In 2020, the Festival is postponed due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. OGA member, Royston Raymond reflects on his visit to Brest/Douarnenez in ‘Pleiades’, leaving Alderney 6 July 1996.

‘Pleiades’ a Tamarisk 29 gaff cutter with crew of three, left Alderney, 6 July 1996, on passage to l’Aberwrac’h. With fog and light breezes delaying progress, we crept into the Rade de Brest just over a week later, picking up one of the waiting buoys, so thoughtfully supplied by the festival’s organisers.

Sleeping aboard a small sailing boat is like a return to the womb. The ribbed interior and gentle motion in a liquid element reinforce an illusion of warm security and bring a deep slumber that no amount of eiderdown on land can bring. A most hideous din hurled me out of this pre-natal torpor into the cold light of dawn. My wife swears I underwent a form of yogic levitation and hit the deck-head three feet above my pillow. ‘Pleiades’ shook as though struck amidships by something very big. A second concussion reverberated through the hull. In a dim, half-awake daze it came to me that a French Navy frigate, moored 500 yards away, was saluting the 14th of July with 24 guns.

The next three days provided an unforgettable display of traditional sail. We had a grandstand view of a non-stop stream of smacks, topsail schooners, barquentines, Thames barges, Dutch botters, Mediterranean xebecs and huge full-rigged ships like the Ukrainian ‘Chersones’ paraded out into the Goulet to show their paces.

Ashore the quays were packed. Some million and a half sightseers poured into Brest over that weekend. I took almost an hour to push 300 yards to a baker’s on the front. It was barely possible to see the ships for people and the scores of sideshows and exhibitions. One was tantalized by snatches of folksong and shanties or glimpses of traditional crafts such as rope-making or caulking. The hypnotic whine of the Biniou (the Breton bagpipe) hovered over the inner harbour like a Celtic mist of sound, drawing spectators to witness the intricacies of Breton circle dances.

Take-away food crunched underfoot and overflow effluent from the ‘porta-bogs’ oozed across the cobbles, but the crowds appeared uniformly happy, good-tempered and considerate. The police presence was discrete, to the point of invisibility, despite a threat by recently redundant dock workers to spoil the occasion with demonstrations.

On the second day we ventured forth to do our bit towards providing a spectacle for the punters. For the crew this was no time for tourist gawping as constant alertness to the movement of a myriad of other participants was essential. In a brisk northerly breeze two Dutch barquentines thundered around a buoyed course, all sail set and manoeuvring with the abandon of a pair of racing dinghies. Scarcely were cameras focussed to take a shot of this superb display than we had to put about sharply to avoid a large ketch on starboard tack. Amid this melee of boats racing, showing off or just boating, rules of the road had to be backed up by courtesy and common sense, and it worked. I saw only one collision during the whole festival.

Wednesday 17 was the day of the race or, rather, parade of sail from Brest to Douarnenez. To organise 2,700 vessels into three classes and ensure they all started in order and on time was more a hope than a reality.

‘Pleiades’ arrived late at the starting line. A solid mass of sails filled the mouth of the Goulet. I expressed disappointment to my all-women crew at our poor start and asked them to check whether we had gone the right side of the buoy. ‘Why?’, ‘Because I don’t want spoil a chance of winning our class.’ They fell about with mocking laughter. Bloody feminism has a lot to answer for! Being a fully paid-up coward I was secretly relieved at having avoided the cut and thrust commonly indulged in by keen racing types on such occasions.

I need not have worried. With a fair wind, NE4, everyone was on a parallel course and we soon caught up with the body of the fleet to enjoy the varied scene. Coming up fast on our starboard quarter was the Norwegian three-masted barque ‘Statesrade Lemkuhle’, under our port bow was an 18 foot lugsail ‘yole’ sailed by an elderly Frenchman and his seven year old grand-daughter. As the fleet squeezed through the Toulinguet Passage the average distance between boats narrowed to ten yards, but no one seemed worried. By the Tas de Pois we were more spaced out and the bigger craft passed outside the rocks.

Once in the lee of Cap de Chevre the wind dropped right away. The occasional cats-paw kept some stubborn idiots trying to sail longer than others. The final straw came when a family in a power boat took a swim, babies and all, right under our bow. It seemed an odd thing to do in the path of a, supposedly, racing fleet. In order to avoid them the engine was started and, once started, we decided to press on to Port Rhu to catch the tide through the lock. A sensible decision as nearly half the participants had been allocated moorings, and queuing at the entrance became fraught when some larger vessels lost their patience and pushed through, causing minor damage to one small craft.

Douarnenez was less crowded than Brest offering better opportunities to enjoy the entertainments ashore. Having an al fresco ‘grillade’ on the quayside as the sun went down was a delight that rounded off a near-perfect day.

The French seem to manage these festivals of traditional sail with a charming mix of efficiency and insouciance. Organisation without regimentation seems to be the guiding rule. A multi-lingual reception committee provides for everyone’s needs and each boat is allotted a precise berth suited to its size and draft. You are left to get on with things as any sensible person can be expected to without blue-blazered fusspots coming out to boss you about and demand what clubs you belong to.

The atmosphere of civilized restraint and tolerance was rarely marred. An English skipper refused to be moored alongside an Irish boat. ‘We can do without silly sods like that!’, was the apt comment in the ‘Telegramme de Brest’ next day.

The magnificent ships and their presence in such numbers and varieties induced the illusion of a journey back in time and have provided this yachtsman with golden memories, well into his shorebound dotage.

Brest ’96 was the greatest concourse of traditional sail held until then. We may not see its like again. Although others are planned, the various maritime nations that took part will be mounting their own celebrations of the sea in imitation and government economies in the dockyards of Brest mean that their huge back-up facilities may no longer be available.

‘Well Patsy,’ I asked my wife, ‘Do you think I’ve done it justice?’ She paused, ‘Hm, it’s a bit flowery and Edwardian. Makes you sound like a . . . ’, tailing off quietly, so I responded, ‘ . . . like a boring old fart?’ ‘Yes’, she replied. ‘Bugger!’

first published in the OGA Newsletter, Gaffers Log, June 2014