Part 5 ‘The last leg home’
I remember sending my brother a birthday card on the 3rd of October ’75 and thinking again how the autumn had come on so quickly. In the space of only 2 weeks or so, as we had made our way from the Med to the Bay of Biscay we had gone from balmy summer weather to cold short days with heavy forbidding clouds and rain.
Our decision to take the route through Brittany via the Villaine and Rance canal systems was wise, so far we had been lucky but I was only to aware of the difficulties of navigation pre GPS (and even pre RDF for us) in a small boat. When the weather is kind it can be okay, but as soon as thing start to deteriorate, in the unfamiliar tidal waters of North Biscay, it can become frightening and dangerous.
We motored up the Villaine and dropped the mast at the pretty town of La Roche St Bernard, these canals looked small and quaint after our experience of the big trunk route of the Lateral and Midi canals. The scenery was wonderful, and on a few occasions we would be motoring along a trail of mist as the moist air from the fields fell into the canal cut.
One unforeseen problem was that ‘les eclusiers’ (the lock keepers), take their annual holidays in October. Fortunately we had made it as far as the city of Rennes before we became trapped between two locks, so faced with the prospect of either spending ten days cooling our heels in the city or catching the train and ferry home for a ‘holiday’, we took the latter.
It felt so strange to be part of ‘normal’ society again, to be covering ground at more than walking pace, and being in crowds. We were so looking forward to seeing friends and family again, but I suspect that they soon tired of our adventure stories. My brother insisted on taking me for a ride on the back of his new Honda CB750, these bikes were the ultimate superbike back in those days, 5 miles down the rode we stopped at some traffic lights and I got off the machine, my knees were like rubber and told him I would walk home! Culture shock!
When the 10 days was up we returned to Rennes to resume our trip and found it was even colder, to be honest we had never really had any suitable gear, either for sailing or for sleeping, but during the warmer days it had not mattered. Now however we would freeze at night even in the canals and I was starting to worry what the passage from St Malo, at the end of the Rance Canal, back to England, would hold for us.
I think that as usual we just got lucky with the weather and after emerging through the big lock system adjoining the huge hydroelectric power station, we spent a night anchored off St Malo before heading north to Les Isles Chaussey. These islands are little more than a patch of rocks that appear and disappear as the tide, which can be more that 10 meters, comes and goes. There is a main island called Grand Chaussey with a few houses on it and little else, but the effect of the tide on this little archipelago is fantastic, the land simply comes and goes every six hours. Navigation entering from the south and leaving going north was entirely by following transit poles, believe me it is most certainly not a place to get lost in!
After Les Chausey Isles it was St Helier the main port in Jersey for a brief stop and then onwards to St Peter Port in Guernsey. These were nice easy steps of around 20 miles each day, and working the huge Channel Island tides nice easy distances to achieve in the Alacrity. We were really looking forward to being home. It now early November and it was cold on the boat. We were surprised how expensive it was to moor in St Peter Port, particularly after France where sailing is much more a sport for the people. Our funds were dwindling fast and all the tourists had gone home, Anne’s busking that had sustained us earlier in the year was now failing to fill the bread basket!
The first attempt we made to leave was at 22:00 on the 2nd November, however within an hour of so of departure we were becoming unsure of our position in the strong tides of the Little Russell Channel. After hitting some frightening overfalls we turned the boat around and with the outboard flat out returned to St Peter Port to re think our strategy. Plainly for us with our limited navigational facilities it was going to be much easier to extract ourselves from this dangerous area in daylight, so this we did.
In fact it turned out to be fairly uneventful crossing under grey skies but a gentle breeze on the beam, and as the light started to fade on November 5th 1975 we started to see the loom from the lighthouse on Portland Bill and, in those days, the light ship on the Shambles Bank
In the early hours of November 6th we motored up the river at Weymouth having been away for over 5 months. Hotfly had done everything and more than we had ever asked of her, and delivered us home somewhat weather beaten and considerably wiser as to the art of passage making in small boats!
I sold Hotfly soon after arriving home, to a man who became a firm friend and I still sail and drink with. He some times reminds me that when he questioned the headroom in the cabin, my reply was “Well I’ve just spent 5 months living on her, so I can’t see that you’ll have a problem on board for a weekend!”