So daunting was the coast of Ushant that it was years before Tom Cunliffe dared stop there. But what a reward there is...
‘Qui voit Ouessant boit son sang.’ In plain English, this old Breton sailors’ proverb reads: ‘He who sees Ushant sups his own blood.’ Many a seaman would be inclined to agree, certainly from the days of sail when Ushant represented the final obstacle to be weathered to beat clear of the Channel, or the last tide-swept headland to round before the cliffs of England came up in the morning.
‘From Ushant to Scilly is 35 leagues…’ The legends and the folklore go on. They certainly had their effect on my morale as a young skipper long before GPS made it all so easy. Ushant sits at the outer end of a string of islands, reefs and general grief extending seawards from Pointe de St Mathieu, grim guardian of the Goulet de Brest.
The passage inside this lot is the quickest way to Spain for any vessel venturing south-west from up-Channel, yet it was years before I dared poke my bowsprit into its waters. A glance at the chart suggests horrors in plenty and the ripping tide has to be just right.
It rarely was when I arrived; my pilotage was far from confident, so I always passed outside the island, safe under the loom of the mighty Creac’h light with its 30-mile luminous range and black-and-white striped 70m tower. The ships of all the world used to steam round it with me, and no TSS sorted them out in those days. We just had to keep from wandering under one another’s bows. One way and another, the place seemed downright hostile and I was glad to be away from it.
Years afterwards, I learned to navigate properly and began to take delight in running the Chenal du Four between the shoals of Ushant and the rocks of mainland Brittany. The associated small ports offer a good night’s sleep, some great street markets and the finest seafood in Europe.
The Chenal is a high road now with yachts of all nations sailing the summer seas in peace and friendship, heedless of the ghosts of Nelson’s frigates, prowling endlessly to and fro, watching the semaphores flash out their messages and sniffing into the mouth of the Rade de Brest to check how many of Napoleon’s ships had crossed their yards for the sea.
Far out in the offing, within extreme signal range, rode the Royal Navy’s blockading battle fleet, hoping always for an engagement, standing off and on across the wind as salt beef and water ran low. Many a time I have sailed down towards Camaret and South Brittany, gazing to seawards, dreaming of the sight of the topsails far out in the haze, but all I have seen is Ushant ten miles away, shimmering, rocky and forbidding on the horizon.
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It was only when I took over the Shell Channel Pilot in the early 1990s that I finally had to bite the bullet and visit Ushant. Every pilot book has to set its boundaries somewhere. The western end of my domain extended as far as the Isles of Scilly on the English side, so there seemed little justification for the French section pulling up stumps at L’Aberwrac’h, 10 miles short of the corner, as it then did. Ushant, representing the true end of the Channel, lay waiting and I had to go.
The problem was – and still is – to choose a day with settled conditions and not much in the way of swell. Otherwise, finding any shelter was going to be a challenge with no winners. The chart didn’t look encouraging and advice from a wide variety of stalwarts who had made the trip served to confirm this impression.
The island has two bays of sorts with the best wide open to the prevailing south-westerlies. When speaking of Rathlin Island off northern Ireland, that shrewd commentator WM Nixon observed that the harbour enjoys ‘a fine lee from the island of Bermuda’.
In the case of Ushant, the same applies to the main port of Lampaul, except that the nearest weather shore is the Azores a mere thousand miles away. In even moderate westerly weather, the place is only marginally tenable. With any swell running, it’s a non-starter.
On the east side of the island, a second bay rejoices in the name of ‘Le Stiff’. After the potential horrors of Lampaul, the Baie du Stiff appears superficially seductive, with the Ushant landmass between the sailor and the ocean. Reality is often different.
The bay is not deeply indented and the Atlantic swell, which never seems to give up, somehow finds a way in. It’s safe enough in gentle south-westerly weather when the smaller holes within the big bay can be attractive, especially at neap tides, but the yachtsman who likes a night without rolling is best advised to go elsewhere.
When I inherited the pilot book from the redoubtable submariner, Captain Johnnie Coote RN, the publisher changed to Imray and the format from the well-loved original ‘dumpy’ books to a more modern A4. We re-launched the work with a new ‘Edition One’. Intermittently, over the lives of four editions, I tried to reach Ushant and was consistently beaten by the weather.
Then, one memorable day just in time for Edition 5, I finally got lucky. High pressure was centred solidly over Ireland, so the southern part of the Channel was enjoying a gentle version of the northeast trades. There hadn’t been a whiff of west in the wind for a week and I was perfectly poised, moored in the river at L’Aberwrac’h.
Only two drawbacks stood in the way of leaving on the morning tide. The first was that a whopping big spring rise promised serious streams out there in bandit country. As to the second, I was lying to a plum berth and having a thoroughly good time.
The marina at La Palue at the seaward end of the ‘Aber’ isn’t much cop. It is often so crowded in season that the authorities have the brass neck to offer berths to visitors outside the wall, then charge full whack for the privilege of bouncing around all night if the wind goes north-westerly. It often does.
The moorings are fine in good weather, but until recently they were too close together. On nights when a gale blew in off the ocean and a spring ebb tore away against it, it was all the fun of the fair out there in the dark with unfendered strangers bashing in alongside. With yachts securely moored to buoys for which they had paid through the nose, this rather stuck in the throat.
A good lunch
On this occasion, even though very early in the year, my wife and I favoured pottering upriver in search of a quiet place to moor or drop the pick. As far up as one can go, just below the road bridge at Paluden, a small sailing club maintains one or two moorings available to visitors.
These give shore access and within living memory the old Relais des Abers, one of France’s finest victualling houses, opened its doors right on the waterfront. Tragically for the bon viveur, the venerable patron and his jolly wife retired, leaving the place to fade into legend.
All is not lost though. Right on the bridge is a restaurant offering as fine a lunch as a sailor could wish for, served on a patio that some might say is too upmarket for the likes of him. We’d grasped this opportunity and had dinner too. “The same again tomorrow” sounded as good as life was likely to get, but the wind was fair and that big tide was calling us on to Ushant. As the sun climbed clear of the roof of the Auberge du Pont, we slipped the buoy at the top of the flood, climbed onto the kindly easterly, and dropped down on the ebb.
It’s 32 miles from Paluden to Lampaul. Two hours drifting down the river would see us off Libenter, the big cardinal buoy at sea off the entrance. Out there, the tide turns an hour or so after local high water. A wild ride of 24 miles on the ever-increasing stream would then rocket us down to La Jument, the lonely grey tower standing sentinel over the shoals cluttering the southern entrance to Lampaul.
We passed La Palue and its marina just as the baker’s van rattled up with the croissants. Leaving the Petit Pot de Beurre beacon to starboard I eyeballed the boulder-strewn Passe de la Malouine for swell. If there was any, we’d see it breaking in there. Nothing. Like a lake, ruffled only by the breeze blowing along a tide just beginning to run our way.
Remote and mysterious
Visibility wasn’t the greatest as we set course to clear the Rocks of Portsall. Rounding the reef’s buoy on an easy broad reach the GPS indicated a ground speed of 8.5 knots. An hour later we were sailing at an improbable SOG across the seaward end of the Chenal de la Helle.
Whether this name originated in the old Breton language or was coined by some wag in the Royal Navy back in Good King George’s days we knew not, but passing it didn’t take long. With Ushant now in full view and getting larger by the minute, the sight of distant houses apparently built in the sea materialised in the haze on our port bow.
Binoculars revealed these to be the village on the Île Molène, a place so remote and ultimately mysterious it was earmarked for a visit some day.
Molène was soon eclipsed behind further islets and piles of rock as we barrelled into the Passage du Fromveur with the full force of the spring ebb lifting us along. With a boat speed of 5.5 on the log, the GPS was reading 14 knots and keeping the course was becoming difficult as the sea boiled and welled up all around us.
The Jument was coming closer by the second, and was clearly going sideways in spite of our efforts to keep its bearing steady. A radical course alteration did the trick. The boat made up the northing, the tide did the rest and in no time we were careering closehauled into calmer water and slacker streams in the lee of the rocks guarding the bay.
Besides a few unmarked bricks avoided by lining up the biggest one with the radar tower at Le Stiff on the far end of the island, the approach to Lampaul is easy. At the head of the bay we found a few moorings and, heaven be praised, a free one. We stayed overnight and it turned out to be free in the literal sense.
No harbourmaster’s runner came out to demand money with menaces, leaving us with extra cash to fritter away foolishly ashore, had the opportunity presented itself. We scrambled onto dry land up a concrete slipway to find a modest walled harbour tucked away in a corner. Sadly, this dries at half-tide so it’s only good for dinghies and a few tiny fishing boats. Its diminutive nature reflects the general fact that fishing from here must have been a non-starter before reliable inboard engines.
Instead of fishing, the locals opted for breeding sheep which, until recently they did with a will. Their lamb sausages smoked over turf fires were famous and a grand lunch of chops was readily to be had. No more, I fear. The population is declining and such specialties are dying out with the old folks.
Never mind, the village still oozes character. The streets are quaint and, as we strolled uphill, those enclosed gardens not yet abandoned to dereliction overflowed with spring flowers. A couple of cafés with outside tables were serving their wares to locals who eyed us with ambiguous glance, but they could not diminish the charm of the surroundings. This is rural Brittany for real.
After a late lunch running the gauntlet of the diners, we took a long evening walk out past the most powerful lighthouse in Western Europe and possibly the planet. We were left with a strong sense of atmosphere, reminding us of the sort of feeling engendered by the far west of Ireland.
Away beyond the sunset, the high seas roll and a flicker of distant cirrus was picking up the last of the light. On the cliffs of Ushant, you’re on the edge of the world. Back on board, the barometer took its first dip for a week. We’d be away on the morning tide.
First published in the June 2019 edition of Yachting World.