Les Sables d’Olonne to La Rochelle.

This was the day that we had been anticipating for some time as La Rochelle was to be the jumping off point for our crossing across the corner of the Bay of Biscay to Spain. This proved to be another gentle sunny day with winds of no more than force 3 and even those disappeared when we entered the lee of the Ile de Re. However, the sails did give us a bit up a push for a while. The route took us under the Ile de Re Bridge, which looked enormous as we approached, but seemed to get smaller as we got closer. The optical illusion when looking up at it left us wondering if Synergy’s mast would clear it in spite of knowing that we had at least 15 metres clearance. We moored up in the Port des Minimes, a vast, very well run, but sterile marina. They even charged a Euro for 7 minutes hot water for a shower. Skinflints! We then slept like logs, anticipating a few days sightseeing. Sailing really is tiring!!

14 Jul 15

La Rochelle

We had thought long and hard about the Biscay crossing. Synergy’s insurance policy stated that we should have 3 crew on board to cross the Bay of Biscay, but I phoned the company for clarification as we were only crossing one corner, not the whole Bay. The company said that it would be ok for the two of us to go alone, but we had already asked if Bert Daniels would join us to make up the 3 persons. He now said that he would be available from 18 July, so we decided to take a few days sightseeing while we waited for him to arrive.

14 Jul 15 turned out to Bastille Day so we took a water taxi from the marina to the centre of La Rochelle so that we could witness the festivities. The boat took us through the impressive twin towers guarding the entrance to the old port. The water front was buzzing with people and a street market with a stage set for a rock concert near the Chain Tower which had once stretched chains across the harbour entrance to deter English privateers. Jac and I went for a walk around the Old Town and a fair proportion of the New Town as well, as my navigation skills let me down and I got us lost. However, we did see the impassive limestone-built La Rochelle railway station for which Jac will be eternally grateful. The bar that we stopped in to recover from our trudge around town turned out to be only a few hundred yards from where we had started so we made our way back to a restaurant near the old port and finished the day with that famous French dish, steak and chips, before taking the water taxi back to the marina. Sitting on the boat just before bed, we were treated to the Bastille Day firework display somewhere in the Old Town.

15 Jul 15

Having decided to wait at La Rochelle for Bert to join us, we took the opportunity to do some sightseeing and collect some bits that we needed for the boat. In a fit of enthusiasm we dug the bikes out of their stowages, unfolded them to much screaming and cursing and cycled into La Rochelle for more sightseeing and lunch. There was a certain amount of trepidation on Jac’s part as she had not ridden a bike for many years, apart from one occasion at Levington when she had had an unfortunate encounter with a hedge. However, we both got the hang of it although Jac’s saddle clamp would not stay locked and she kept sliding lower and lower until it looked like she was doing an impression of Peter Fonda in “Easy Rider” to much hilarity to those around. On the return from La Rochelle, we stopped at a chandlery to collect two 20 litre fuel cans and some comfort seats, moveable seats that could be used in the cockpit to ease the pounding on one’s derriere. We needed the fuel drums for the Biscay crossing; Synergy has a 130 litre fuel tank, but if we had to use the engine all the way to Santander then we would run out of fuel some way short of Spain. The extra 40 litres combined with the 10 litre reserve drum that we always carried would give us at least another 8 hours engine running time, more than enough to make the crossing on engine alone.

16 Jul 15

We decided to restock the boat for the Biscay crossing so we pedalled to the nearest Carrefour supermarket, about a mile and a half from the marina. Getting there was easy enough although it was a scorching day and we had chosen the warmest time of the day to make the journey. Mad dogs and Englishmen etc! The trip back was more eventful as we had collected the equivalent of the weekly shop for a large family so the luggage racks, our handle bars and back packs were loaded with canned food, groceries and the inevitable stocks of beer and wine. Despite these loads we seemed to make the return journey much faster than the outbound trip even though Jac was still doing her periodic Easy Rider impersonations.
In the late afternoon an old RAF friend, Chris Durbidge and his wife Maggie drove a vast distance from central France to join us and we all took the water taxi back into La Rochelle. Much credit must go to Maggie who has a terror of boats. Climbing aboard Synergy seemed to be as close to water as she wanted to get so the water taxi trip deserved the VC. We had a great meal at a little Pizza place near the port and then had to walk most of the way back as the marina water taxi had stopped and we could only get a lift for the short trip across the river.

17 Jul 15

Durbs and Maggie had stayed at a local hotel so after breakfast with them at a local café we said our goodbyes and filled the day with odd jobs around the boat. In the evening we bumped into Jim Finch who had been moored close to Synergy at Levington. He and a friend Bob had sailed his boat, “Goldfinch” in double quick time from Levington to La Rochelle where Jim intended to spend a month or so.

18 Jul 15

Bert Daniels arrived from the UK having flown to La Rochelle from Bristol. We put together a plan for the passage to Santander, had a meal then turned in for the night.

Jac’s bit

Rewind two and half years ago when I first met Chris! He had been sailing on and off since 1991 and one of his ambition’s was to buy a boat and sail to the Med. It sounded a great idea at the time – especially when you are sat in a pub and just getting to know each other. Pipe dreams at the time but now two and a half years later that dream has become a reality and we really are on our way down to the Med!

We had such fun choosing the boat! We trawled the internet and travelled all down the East coast of England then across the South coast. We even went to look at a boat in La Linea in Spain combining it with a holiday in Gibraltar (a place we both had fond memories of) and a visit to Jerez where Chris used to work. With Chris’s height (6 foot 5” tall) it was important that the boat had the headroom he needed. Apart from avoiding a constantly crooked neck it was important he didn’t add more scar tissue to his already war wounded head! (Although I did suggest we could invest in a tin helmet!) As Chris has mentioned, my requirements were slightly more frivolous – 2 steering wheels and a large table to accommodate my plans for entertaining friends and family! We then found Synergy – a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 39i which we both fell in love with. She had the headroom that Chris needed plus 2 steering wheels, my extendable table and mood lighting – an added bonus for my party plans!

Over the next 18 months, Chris worked tirelessly on the boat spending endless hours on preparing Synergy for our trip. I will leave the technical details to Chris but needless to say that by the time we were ready to go Chris had replaced, repaired or added everything that was needed to bring the boat up to the standard required to meet our comfort and safety needs for the long journey ahead.

My main concern was in my own ability as a crew for Chris. My sailing experience to date was as a dinghy sailor (and a somewhat nervous one at that!) So Chris arranged for a sailing instructor from the East Anglian Sea School to come on-board Synergy for a week at the end of which, both Steve (Chris’s son) and I ended up with our competent crew qualification. Before he left, Norman took me on one side and told me that Chris was an extremely competent sailor and that I should learn as much as possible from him. Reflecting on these words of wisdom I had every confidence in Chris as a skipper but did he have the same faith in me as a crew? If the tables were turned would I have faith in me? I think not! For someone who had just wobbled through a competent crew course and at the last hurdle forgotten how to tie a bowline – I think not. Chris must be a brave (or stupid!) man taking me on as crew which is probably why he announced that my Christmas present for 2014 was a Day Skipper course, again with the East Anglian Sea School, to take place early in 2015 when the tidal waters around England are at their most challenging; if I survived and gained my Day Skipper ticket I would then be better equipped to help him sail across the Bay of Biscay.

I found the Day Skipper course extremely challenging. Four days intense study in the classroom learning the theory of sailing a boat and the art of navigation followed by five days sailing, two days of which were in force 7 and 8 winds. I found the whole experience very tough. I do suffer from sea sickness so I dosed myself up on seasick tablets which although prevented me from being seasick did cause me difficulties in staying awake at the most inopportune times! The 3 guys I was on the boat with, Anton, Peter and Steve despite their merciless teasing about crossing the Bay of Biscay, were absolutely great and the support they gave me kept me going right through to the final day when I came out with my Day Skipper ticket!

So here we are now! The night before the dreaded Biscay Crossing!! Over the past few weeks my confidence has grown enormously – but still I must admit to a feeling of trepidation for the passage ahead!!

Author: chrisgowers

Retired pilot now sailing around the Mediterranean accompanied by my wife Jacquie.