Beyond Belief’s Cruise to Normandy

by Gerry Knight

As those A-level results were due on the 14 August we could not join the planned GXSA Normandy cruise so we decided to leave for France earlier and meet up with the (un)rally on the way home. Members will now be aware that this plan was thwarted but we did enjoy the very best of our summer weather before the remnants of hurricane “Bertha” spoiled the party.


1. Enjoying the sun in Cherbourg


The first leg on Tuesday 29 July was an easy sail from Chichester to Portsmouth to set us up for a channel crossing unconstrained by the tide. However, the weather was so glorious we enjoyed a two day sojourn wining and dining on the seafront at Portsmouth with the boat parked a short ferry ride away in Royal Clarence.


2. Escaping the fair in St. Vasst


Thursday 31 July saw a dawn start for the channel crossing and, once clear of Bembridge Ledge, we found a breeze and set sail for Cherbourg. After a long day of close hauled sailing, alternating with periods of motoring, we arrived early evening to a very full harbour but found a free berth, all the way down one of those scary dead end rat runs! After a couple of days exploring the restaurants in Cherbourg we made another early start to catch the flood tide for Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue. Leg three proved quite an exciting ride with the spring flood running at up to 4.0 knots and wind gusting F6. Even rounding the corner seven miles off, the sea was invading the cockpit.

St. Vaast was something of a disappointment as the fair was in town, spoiling the charm of the place. A continuous line of trucks and fairground rides defiled the quayside accompanied by heavily amplified fairground chatter (which sounds as bad in French as it does in English) till well after midnight. One consolation was finding a bottle of my favourite single malt in M.Gosselin’s famous emporium, along with a few other tasty treats, and the local boulangerie and patisserie contain other temptations.


3. Another dawn start


Another dawn start was required for leg four on Tuesday 05 August to escape before the harbour gate was closed for the day. The plan was to head for Ouistreham and an all tide berth but we ran out of wind in the afternoon and opted for Courseulles-sur-Mer instead, arriving just as the gate opened with no more than a few inches under the keel. Here the Canadians have funded a permanent museum in memoriam of their casualties on Juno Beach; the only D-day event that we encountered on our cruise. Having enjoyed two days at Courseulles with some good, but very expensive, dining experiences and walks on the beach, we set out for Honfleur. Leg five ended with a very lumpy run up the Seine estuary under power with the wind on the bows. We were keen to catch the first bridge lift of the afternoon into Vieux Bassin so as to improve our chances of finding a berth; but first we had to get through the sea lock. Here we endured one of the pitfalls of short-handed sailing in that having failed to secure to a floating bollard at the first attempt the water became too turbulent and we had to raft up on one of the massive tour boats that had come in behind us. Clinging on by our finger nails we suffered the quizzical gaze of several hundred pairs of eyes and the smirks of the French crew. However, no damage done and we did indeed catch the first bridge and made an unforgettable entrance into the Vieux Bassin located right in the centre of this stunning Norman town.


4. Handy for the boulangerie in Courseulles


One disadvantage of the glorious weather was that we were burning quite a lot of diesel and, as our tank only holds just over a hundred litres, I don’t feel comfortable on the other side when less than half full! But now we came up against “Eurobureaucracy”. Diesel aplenty in the outer harbour, but we’re not allowed to buy it! Fortunately a fellow Brit came prepared with a couple of jerry cans and a collapsible trolley and very kindly offered to let us use them (thank you Wishwell). So, picture the crew of Beyond Belief dragging a Heath-Robinson trolley with two leaky jerry cans along the cobbled streets of a picturesque Norman town, scattering tourists in our wake, seeking out the nearest garage. Then, returning to the Bassin, roping the cans over the harbour wall from the pavement restaurant above, dragging them out across a raft of three yachts and trying our best to pour the fuel, through an improvised funnel, without polluting the harbour. There you have it, a picture of “Eurobureaucracy”, and its consequences!

For leg six we planned to sail to Fecamp which port, so I have read, was a favourite destination for smugglers operating out of Chichester harbour in days past. Bracing ourselves for a repeat event in the sea lock, with the boat and warps thoroughly prepared, we were amused, and a little relieved, to find the lock on free flow. Our happiness was short lived however as the wind had reversed direction since our arrival and we were now forced to motor out of the Seine estuary with the wind against the spring ebb. Once we were in a position to turn northwards, clear of the Le Havre shipping lane, we hoisted the sails, only for the wind to die away forcing a return to diesel power. At least the sun was still shining. Whilst off Cap d’Antifer, and still in GPRS range, we downloaded the latest forecast which confirmed the possibility of becoming weather bound in Fecamp. Further, the transport connections from there to Wycombe appeared to be quite testing (and Ann had forgotten her passport!). Already mid-afternoon, fifteen miles out from Fecamp and sixty five miles from Brighton, and no wind, what should we do? Supporting our son was the priority from the start, so Brighton it was. After a seventeen hour passage we arrived in Brighton Marina at two on Sunday morning, in driving rain, scanning the pontoons with a searchlight looking for a vacant berth. At daybreak it was barely possible to stand up on the pontoon and the sea was crashing over the harbour wall. Further, a check of the fuel gauge showed that we would not have made it without the forty, blood stained, litres acquired in Honfleur.


5. On parade in Honfleur


So, we did meet up with Coldplay and Stuart et al, but in Brighton Marina rather than Le Havre. Not quite as planned but still, good company, convivial dining and plenty of alcohol. We waited a full three days for the weather to clear, the boat becoming encrusted in salt from the wind-blown spray. But there was, at least, a very good bus service into Brighton and a visit to the Lanes and lunch at “Harry Ramsden’s” were welcome distractions. On Wednesday morning, having ploughed a furrow to the fuel berth, our return passage to Chichester was abandoned to the silt, so we eventually escaped Brighton by train. Just in time, given our son’s A-level grades, but that is another story.