Captain's Log

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Wales to France

Putting into as many ports as we have in this remarkable voyage, so often going through locks just to get in, has made this crew exceptionally capable in so many acts of seamanship to do with ship-handling under power. A fine passage under sail comes as something of a reward for all the challenges of ship-handling in tight quarters. And passage making under sail brings its own lessons as well. The passage from Wales to France was just about perfect and an excellent, if subtle, exercise in getting around in a square-rigger along the coast of Europe, much as they did in the age of sail. This barque is of a scale very similar to average trading ships that served Europe and other smaller ports all around the world.

Fine Passage under Sail

We locked through out of the old trawler basin with a poignant send off from folks on the dock in Milford Haven. I think our visit here was a touching experience for many of the crew of this ship, perhaps giving some of a sense of being connected with something that came before, perhaps a feeling of connection with seafarers who sailed ahead of us in time. The ship, the skills, the hard work, the havens and the people we meet conjure a potpourri or create a fabric that feels pretty rare. In the old days a tug-boat would have hauled us to the harbours mouth. Today our fine built-in Danish diesel does the job.

As soon as the Picton Castle chugged past the last channel buoy out of Milford Haven we shut down the main engine, all hands loosed and set sail for France. First steering south for Land’s End, then across the western approaches to the English Channel, around Ushant (NW corner of France) and east into the Bay of Biscay and finally to anchor off Bell Isle, France in five days. The wind backed or veered to suit our sail trim, the wind followed us around. Dolphins danced often about the ship. We saw a whale or two. Ships work is, of course, never ending. Afternoon workshops were conducted by the mates in the Rules of the Road. These are the rules developed over the centuries for avoiding collisions at sea between ships. They also cover lights ships are expected to show at night and different buoyage systems. An excellent passage under sail, we only fired up to get to an anchorage, the last couple miles in the failing afternoon light.

At Bell Isle we had another 40 miles to go to get to Saint Nazaire. We had to catch the tide up the river and, once again, slack water at the lock to enter the basin at Saintt Nazaire. The weather was advertised to come on strong the next day and this it did. Early in the morning we upped anchor and set sail for the mouth of the Loire River which leads to Saint Nazaire and Nantes. We made good time under sail and even had to heave-to to let a big LNG ship head up river first. All shipping authorities around the world are very careful when handling LNG (liquid natural gas) ships. If you want to read about Armageddon, find a study of what an LNG ship accident would look like. Not pretty. None have happened yet. We then braced yards and sailed up channel towards Saint Nazaire passing down-bound ships and being overtaken by up-bound vessels. It was now overcast, spitting cold rain and blowing hard from astern. The channel is not so wide but at high tide there is plenty of water outside the buoys for a while. We were bound for Saint Nazaire to make a call because we had been told that that our ship had been here before, in March 1942 on the famous Raid on Saint Nazaire as a Royal Navy vessel fighting in war. We have been to many ports in Ireland, UK and Norway that figure into this ships history. This would be the last such port-ship connection for us and a very different one.

Locking In, Again

The Port Control wanted us at the lock-in at exactly at 1800 and to follow a small tanker in. As we got to the lock entrance a strong current was still running across the entrance but the helmsman did well and we snuck in just fine. We locked through to find ourselves in a large rectangular basin dominated by a massive and other-worldly looking complex of cement structures. These turned out to be submarine pens built for German U-Boats in the Second World War. They look no different than they would have looked in 1941 when they were built, I guess, apart from there being no U-Boats in them. Still here, must be hard to remove – we will come back to this. As we manoeuvred near the lock we were greeted by a sweet little gaff-sloop Babar and her captain whom we have met before on a voyage around the world – first in Tahiti, then Cape Town and St Helena.

Saint Nazaire, Brittany, France, down river from Nantes, is known for a number of things. German Navy sub-pens, the WWII Raid on St Nazaire to take out the dry-docks (in which the HMS Picton Castle played a supporting role), big ship building (SS Normandie, SS France (now Norway) and most recently Queen Mary II just launched) and, among other things, a strong Celtic heritage. Brittany was, apparently back in the early middle ages or before in what was called the Dark Ages, a sparsely populated part of Europe and was not even considered part of France. So a long time ago folks from ancient Britain sailed their little boats over across the Channel and set up house-keeping, hence the name ‘Brittany’. We are not supposed to call it “Dark Ages” anymore but I don’t know the new term. Anyway, lots of Celtic design, place names and a surprisingly pervasive interest in fairies. You see fairy stuff everywhere; whole shops devoted to fairies and elves – calendars, mugs, t-shirts, art books, prints and on and on.

A view of the City

This major ship-building town was bombed out so completely during the Second World War that it is pretty much a new city now (if you call 1950-60’s new), certainly architecturally it is new. Apart from the submarine pens, which are massive, in good nick and dominate the harbour here, and curiously unused. Of course what do you use old sub-pens for? And they are hard to demolish being built with demolition-avoidance in mind. Maybe the town is not so old anyway as it went through a period of massive growth and rebuilding in the mid 19th century; when the big transatlantic steam-ship trade built up, so did Saint Nazaire. Nothing really old here – some churches from the 1890’s – there is a small stone-age mini-Stonehenge type construct. Plenty of small pretty fishing boats, a 14 story cruise ship undergoing modifications, a few yachts and a good fisherman supply store.

Lovely France, Lovely French

Many of us are doing our best to have a French café au lait avec un croissant every morning at the café around the corner. My French would become useful if I spent some time here – I can hear the words clearly but can’t figure them out quite fast enough although I understand it more or less. I like it when I don’t have to fall back on English to muddle through a transaction. Rumours of French haughtiness are without foundation in our experience, quite to the contrary. The French folks we have met here have been universally friendly and gracious to us, not even blaming us, if American – Canadians are off the hook, for the state of the world – and helpful, always trying to speak a little English. The food is delightful. The supermarket across from the sub-pens has a deli section that is amazing with its cheeses and delicacies. Public transport is excellent (and cheap), cities clean, an air of contentment in the atmosphere. My sister, who spent plenty of time in France as a kid, once told me that clothes for children were superb in France (and tres cher) – still true, all the little kids are dressed in exquisite clothes that fit them perfectly, beautiful fitted wool coats – that will not fit them in about a week but never mind. Even the young male skateboarding hooligans are dressed with a little bit of class – not something seen about the malls of North America. France has been pretty sweet to us. Some crew took the train to Paris and Nantes on their free watch. It was lovely just walking around a French city. Chocolate shops and patisserie everywhere. Good people watching. People smoke a lot though.

A Ghost from the Past

The story of the raid to wreck the dry dock here at Saint Nazaire is sketched out separately from this log entry – WWII history lies heavily hereabouts. It can hardly be ignored with the massive U-boat pens looming over the harbour. Yet WWI had and has a big impact too. Saint Nazaire is where, starting in 1915, about 340,000 Canadian troops landed to fight for King and Empire. A couple years later in 1917 a couple hundred thousand Americans landed here too under General John Pershing who famously said “Lafayette, nous sommes ici”, or something like that. In the very well done local port museum they naturally have, showing in loop, old historic black and white film footage of troops and goings on from the times (in WWI Saint Nazaire was far from the front and not a combat area as it was in WWII). There are a few scenes with General Pershing and some other officers walking about and next to Pershing is an officer who looks just like my father’s father. Exactly like my grandfather… He was a major in the US Army who served in France in WWI and at some point was some sort of aid or staffer to Pershing. We have other family pictures of him from WWI with Pershing and the French Marchal Foch that look just like this scene so I am 90% certain I am seeing my grandfather in this video – maybe not, but I think so.

Pretty Days in France

We have been very well looked after by our local born and bred shipmate and squeeze-box player Jean-Claude. Jean-Claude sailed with us from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean to Cape Town in 2006. Many of the days have been nice and sunny and ship’s work has proceeded apace. Lots of sail-making, rigging jobs, painting, tarring and in the afternoons, small boat handling instruction and practice followed by fire drills and practice at putting on cold-water immersions suits.

Waiting out a Gale

It was blowing rain sideways with a front of gales moving in for a day or so. Then, after that it was supposed to be nasty for a while… Blowing Bay of Biscay. The very friendly harbour-master comes down to the quay – dripping wet, hair blown off and pasted across his face to get me to sign a soggy piece of paper acknowledging that there is a gale on and that I, as master, am well aware of it and will take all appropriate and due caution and stand extra watches, maybe look after our lines and so for and so on…he was too busy to have coffee…nice fella though. So we wait out some gales again before sailing onward and southward for Spain.

Ben aloft on the mizzen
Cathedral, Nantes, France
headed for the lock, departing Milford Haven
huge submarine pens built by the Germans in WWII
Hundreds of thousands of Canadians and Americans landed in St Nazaire during WWI
Jackie and Sarah cleaning our fresh-caught tuna
Nadja and Nicki get some photos of the ship under sail
poking our nose out into Milford Channel
stowing the mainsl on the way to St Nazaire

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