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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Gosport to Le Havre, France (6 June 2015)

In 2015 we are exploring new ground. After a number of years of heading west now we are intending to go east along the French and Belgian coasts and then inland into the Netherlands.
This year preparations for our summer cruise had taken much longer than usual. Not only had I decided (over the winter) that some new equipment was needed but also more routine maintenance than usual had been required. Whileaway is now 19 years young so I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised that upkeep is more demanding. But one consequence that we soon came to regret was that, for various reasons, shortage of time between completion of various jobs and setting off meant that we didn't have time for good shake down trips.
At 0600 (sunny but chilly) on Wednesday 20 May we said farewell to Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight and headed almost due South to St Vaast la Hougue on the north east coast of the Cotentin Penninsula. 
South of Isle of Wight and on our way.
The wind was forecast to be from the W but initially it was NNW (nor nor west) which made sailing difficult as the wind was almost directly behind us. So we used a little light engine in tandem with the sails until about 1300 when the engine went off as the wind strengthened to Force 5 and occasionally 6 but from the W. It was spring tides (higher and lower than the average tide) so we were swept first E and then back W as the tide direction changed. But by just before 2000 we were arriving near the entrance to Saint Vaast-la-Hougue an attractive small town on the east of the Cotentin peninsular (about 10m E of Cherbourg). We had covered approaching 90m in just under 14 hours. We anchored in the bay to wait for the tide to rise sufficiently for the harbour gates to open. We made good use of the time as we had a problem with furling the main sail it having managed to compact itself into a tight space at the head. Fortunately we could drop the sail and leave further investigation until the next morning.
By 2130, in the increasing dusk, we observed a couple of fishing boats steaming around the Grande Jetee so deduced that the lock gates were now open. (A weakness at St Vaast is that it is not possible to see the lock from the bay, nor are there lights on the jetty to indicate when the harbour is open).
Most of the next day was devoted to repairs! Firstly sorting out the main sail and then re-hoisting it. Next the delightful job of stripping down the pump for the heads (toilet) and removing obstructions from the impeller these being bits of plastic that had fallen into the tank when it was being modified during the winter for inland waterways use. Next repairing a leak on a hot water supply pipe. These tasks took most of the day but we did at least enjoy an excellent seafood dinner, St Vaast being renowned for local oysters and a big fishing fleet. On Friday we reacquainted ourselves with the town including the famous Messrs Gosselin provisions emporium, established over 125 years, still run by the family, and with a wide and excellent range of fresh and preserved food and drink.
Our next planned destination was Carentan about 20nm to the S. Carentan is a fascinating country town around which were fought many pivotal battles immediately following D Day on 6 June 1944. The town has had a port since before the 4th century but the access through a wide mouthed bay gradually silted. Around 1800 Bonaparte ordered the building of a canal to improve access and onward communications and although it and the town were heavily bombed around D Day it was repaired. The drawback is that it is a passage of about 8nm across a drying bay and into a river up to the lock and the canal. Both St Vaast and Carentan locks can be accessed from about 2 hours before to 2 hours after High Water. So in theory you might just be able to get from one to the other by leaving at HW-2. But that would mean that for the second two hours you would be going up a channel and then a river with an increasing current against you on the ebb and the risk of not getting to the lock in time and then being stranded!
Having thought about this I decided that we would leave St Vaast on Friday evening as soon as the lock opened at 2330 local time (LT). We then anchored (in the pitch black) in the bay outside and had a pleasant night at anchor. Just after 0900 LT the next morning we weighed anchor and then followed a gentle and enjoyable down wind sail to the estuary where we arrived at HW-2. We then carefully followed the winding channel (seeing a seal en route) and the river before entering the lock into the canal and on to the town.
Looking around the town in the afternoon it was easy to see how the locals still remember the events and significance of D Day with, in the run up to the anniversary many shop windows decorated by cartoons and with appropriate window displays.

Shop windows in Carentan decorated for D Day anniversary
Sunday was sunny and the bikes made their first appearance. We cycled about 20km each way to and from Utah Beach one of two landing areas allocated to the Americans on D Day. On the way we stumbled across a special event in a country park where families were picnicking and enjoying live music and other entertainments. As our journey took back roads we saw much of this low lying countryside plus various memorials to events related to D Day. The Utah Beach memorials were well presented and even the sole bar/restaurant had its claim as originally a German command base and then US Naval HQ masterminding landing of men and equipment for a couple of months after D Day.
On Monday morning our housing friends Ann and Steve, who have a home on the other side of the peninsula, came over for coffee on a pleasantly warm day.
The first lock opening was at 1400LT and we were accompanied by a boat that we had seen being maintained on the quay at Carentan, which is said to be the last working example of one of the landing craft used by US troops at Utah Beach. A very basic craft but beautifully restored.
Restored US landing craft in the lock 
We were heading for Grandcamp-Maisy only 12nm along the coast but with a much easier access then Carentan. We entered the harbour and tied up at a relatively empty visitors pontoon. A few other craft (on a rally) soon joined us. We noticed that substantial works to the harbour wall were in progress. What was then discovered was that there was no shore access from our pontoon! People tried ringing the Harbour Master (HM) but he was not available!
We were less concerned than others as we needed to leave at around 0530 LT the next morning so as to get out whilst there was sufficient water in the entrance.
This we did and, because we couldn't access our next destination until HW-2, we had a very leisurely motor down the coast in very light winds. En route we passed Omaha Beach and then Gold Beach. The latter is one of the British beaches and the one where the floating harbour was created (at Arronmanches). We had a close view of the remains of the 60 metre caissons that had been built in southern England and floated across after D Day. This enabled stores and men to be landed and "Port Winston" as it is called was, for a couple of months the busiest port in the world! Drifting close past it it still seems substantial. What the charts around this area of the coast also show are the numerous wrecks on the seabed, far too many to count.
We had plenty of time to get to our next port of call, Courseulles-sur-Mer and we arrived about 90 minutes before we could safely tackle the entrance so we dropped anchor and had lunch. As with nearly everywhere in the Baie de Seine, the port is cut off by sandy beaches and access through a lock and swing bridge is only available from about 2 hours before to 2 hours after HW. Once I judged that there was sufficient rise in the tide plus a small margin to enable us to cross the sand we weighed anchor and, with caution, began our approach. At the shallowest point we had a full 0.6m (about 2 feet) beneath the keel so no problem! Once into the channel between the quays leading to the harbour this increased to about 3.5m and we could see the traffic on the swing bridge being halted. At this stage Andrea called the lock keeper on the VHF to request a berth and we subsequently decided that he must have said to pick any berth on the hammerhead or end of a pontoon. Having passed through the lock depths reduced and just after passing the first vacant hammerhead heading for one a little further in we ran aground! Fortunately very gently into sand and silt. I applied revs astern and we slowly began to edge backwards and I got Whileaway alongside the first hammerhead. Incidentally the next morning we noticed that an engineer towing another boat to a different berth within the harbour also ran aground. Off to the Capitainerie to report in to discover that at this time of the year the office only opens 0900-1200! It was now about 1430.
Courseulles is a small unremarkable town except for one key event. It sits in the middle of Juno Beach which was mainly tackled by Canadian forces on D Day. So there are many memorials and a museum at the sea front. In addition a much improved promenade was created for the 70th anniversary. This has interesting historical and contemporary photographs about every 100 metres or so. It is clear that there is a strong affinity with the Canadians as photo's taken last year with headings such as "Les veterans - nos liberators" show. Indeed we read that one of the D Day troops settled in Courseulles in the 1960's and was subsequently made a Free Man of the Town. The events of that day and the ensuing couple of weeks are documented not only there but also in the adjoining villages along the coast which we cycled to.

Beautiful flower shop in Courseulles
We left on the afternoon tide the next day, as soon as we could get afloat from our berth! Our destination for the night, 12nm to the east was Ouistreham, where there is all weather and tide access but you do have to be locked into the canal. Opening times of the locks are published and we arrived shortly before the appointed time of 1830 and waited to enter the smaller boats lock. Just four of us in there and we were soon lifted and out the other side whereupon we immediately turned to port and tied up at the marina alongside a friendly and chatty Dutch couple.
Our plan was to go up the canal to Caen (about 9nm) so we were ready promptly the next morning, Thursday 28 May, as we needed to be at the first of three bridges at Bourneville by 1010. This is because, for leisure traffic, the bridges lift in sequence on three occasions each day, if not you have to pay! Of course the Bourneville bridge is more generally known now as Pegasus Bridge, a key target captured by men of the British 6th Airbourne Division who arrived in gliders on the night before D Day. The original bridge was replaced about 20 years ago by one in the same style. The old one is incorporated into the Pegasus Bridge Museum right next to the canal. As it happens the half a dozen yachts travelling up the canal were delayed slightly here as the bridge lift waited for a big grain freighter slowly following us up the canal to appear.

Through the new bridge at Bourneville
Caen marina is right in the centre of town so an excellent base from which to wander around an interesting City which is well worth visiting. Amongst the places we visited were the very old castle with its ramparts affording good views and a number of Churches including the one with the tomb of William the Conqueror and another with his wife. We also took the bus to the Memorial Museum on the edge of the city. This not only covers World War 2 but also the events from 1919 onwards leading up to it and then the cold war and other conflicts later. Well worth visiting.

Ancient gate to castle
We decided to leave Caen at the 1500LT Bridge opening on Saturday and to head down the canal and then, having waited about 90 minutes for the timed opening, to go through the lock at Ouistreham and then E to Dives. A pleasant evening with little wind so we motored arriving at Dives as required about an hour before high water. We are back to crossing the sand with sufficient height of tide and mooring in a harbour with a lock gate. Only two visitors boats were at Dives a modern marina with relatively new homes overlooking it. The Sunday was our wettest day of the trip but we got the bikes out and firstly cycled east to the genteel Victorian style resort of Cabourg. This is a planned town with a distinctive road patten. So much so that a plaque records that this town was used by the gliders heading towards Pegasus Bridge as a key mark from which to line up their landing. Then back to Dives itself and in the afternoon to Houlgate to the west. The town of Dives has its claim to fame as being the base from which William the Conqueror amassed his troops for the invasion of England. So the HM Office has a decorative tile frieze with a reproduction of parts of the Bayeux Tapestry and in the town centre you find Rue de Hastings! What you also find is a splendid medieval Market Hall and separately by the port a local fish market where we made a very cheap purchase for Dinner.

Capitainerie celebrating the fleet setting sail for Hastings!
A gale was forecast for Tuesday so we had to move on Monday or wait for Wednesday. We opted for the former and another short passage of 10nm in the morning, together with high water, got us to Port Deauville with its sister town Trouville. Elegant pleasure resorts for "people of eminence", certainly some very impressive and smart 19th and 20th Century buildings and a superb fish market, said to be the best in this part of France. And for those of eminence a couple of casinos! We enjoyed two days walking round the twin towns, including seeing the impressive art deco railway station.

Part of one of the excellent seafood stalls in Trouville
By Thursday morning the gale had subsided and so it was a 13nm motor into a F4 wind firstly north and then turning west and into the Chanel de Rouen south of Le Havre and which takes you to Honfleur (or all the way to Paris if you continue up the river). The timing was good again and we were able to go through the lock into the Avant-Port at Honfleur just before HW. Here you can either moor in the Avant-Port or the Vieux Bassin. The latter is right in the centre of the very busy town and is surrounded by restaurants. The former is next to some gardens about 100 metres away from the main square and much quieter so we opted for that.

Honfleur Vieux Bassin
We have visited Honfleur a few times before and it is one of our favourite French towns. It is really attractive and this time Andrea took us on a steep climb up the hill from which we could look back over the town and its surroundings. It was certainly busy (and warm) whilst we were there. One new development is that the town now receives at least one river cruise boat a day bringing 400+ people with them each time including (it seemed to us) quite a few Americans. These long river boats can only enter and leave at HW when the lock is open on "free flow" and they then manoeuvre in the Avant-Port doing a 360 degree turn before going astern through an open bridge into another Bassin. It looked like they had less than a metre clearance each side of the boat to get through the bridge!

Glad that I wasn't steering this one into a berth!
Our final leg on Friday lunchtime was about 13nm back down the Chanel de Rouen then across the bay, carefully avoiding the shipping and into Le Havre Yacht Harbour. We were actually leaving Whileaway in a large Bassin ("Port Vauban") on the other side of the town centre but we had to make all the arrangements at the Capitainerie in the Yacht Harbour. This is because to access Port Vauban you have to go through a lock and then a little further on a lifting bridge, both of which each open at fixed times usually twice a day. As we entered the Yacht Harbour the man we had been in touch with to arrange the reservation was in the dory at the entrance! Once we said Whileaway he said "ah oui" and escorted us to a waiting pontoon and then came into the office to deal with the paperwork and give us our instructions. Be at the lock by about 1910 was the requirement. This was a huge lock, obviously used for ships as well as smaller craft and there was just us and a little 8 metre sailing boat in it! Unfortunately it was low tide and so the rise in the lock was going to be about 6 metres. When the lock began to fill the water came in like a torrent and we struggled to hold the boat to the ugly cables tied to a slimy and mussel strewn wall! So we were very glad when the rush abated and we moved on to wait for the bridge to be lifted for us.
Our last day was spent cleaning and maintaining the boat before a final Dinner and on Sunday morning the Normandie Express back to Portsmouth.

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