On the Good Ship Provident: Brixham-Dartmouth-St Malo-Saint Quay Portrieux-Dartmouth-Brixham

20 Sep

By Stuart Elliott

Our next adventure, after seven days of tracking the Cornish coastline from the cliff tops, was to get up close and personal with the sea by joining a four person professional crew and six fellow shipmates on a six night voyage across the English Channel in the gaff rigged sailing trawler, Provident. This was Sharon’s second Brixham to Brittany on Provident as I had pulled out last time because of a health scare. By good fortune an experienced fellow sailor from that trip, Martin, was also on board.

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Several decades ago I worked in Calais and weekended in London. I used to whizz across the channel in 45 minutes on the hovercraft. On this trip we spent 30 hours crossing La Manche from Dartmouth to St Malo at 4-5 knots. I wouldn’t say it was idyllic, but the night time watches were certainly a unique experience and afforded the opportunity to get to know our fellow travellers.

The first leg took us from the fishing port, and somewhat down market holiday destination, of Brixham in Devon to charming Dartmouth, which manages to be both bucolic and maritime. Dartmouth is unsurprisingly on the mouth of the River Dart, which runs from a bog up on Dartmoor and winds its way to the sea via villages and country houses and centuries old inns. A revisit by land is scheduled for 2016.

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Our crew were terrific. There was the cook, Louise, always ready to distribute something warm and comforting at the end of a three hour watch. Then we had the unflappable Scot, Matt, our patient and dependable skipper. Next in the ranks was the ever considerate and knowledgeable first mate Craig, who was on a busman’s holiday from his usual job of skippering sail training boats for sea cadets. Lastly we had the affable and entertaining bosun Stan, a man who knows how to avoid laundry. All very competent and delightful young people.

Our fellow passengers all came from very different walks of life. There were southerners from Devon and Surrey, as well as Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen, but despite supporting different football and cricket teams they all seemed to understand each others’ accents and get on well.

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We set sail at 8 A.M on the Sunday morning from Dartmouth. As dusk fell we were close to the main shipping lanes, sometimes referred to as the maritime M25, and still only just half way across the channel. We took watches of three hours on and two hours off in teams of four paying passengers throughout the night while Matt, Craig and Stan staggered their watches. We were supposed to steer 160 degrees but I couldn’t read the compass in the dark so I steered by the light of the full moon and a solitary star. It was eerie yet beautiful. The constant monitoring of progress by the crewman in charge of our watch was reassuring as the occasional wave washed over the gunnals. There were stories and songs and indepth discussions; the topic of the moment being the referendum on Scottish independence.

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When I wasn’t on watch I dozed in my bunk oblivious to all the container ships slipping by with the drum of their massive engines carrying across the water. Dawn rose followed by the outline of the French coast. No doubt there was much celebration on deck but I had finally fallen asleep and awoke to the noise of burly French sea lock keepers directing us through the entrance to the very tidal St Malo harbour. There is so much tidal movement on the adjacent Durant River that they have a massive hydro dam plant; one of only 2-3 in the world.

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It was a beautiful morning. We spent it walking around the ramparts of the fortified sea walls and along the promenade in search of a restaurant with internet access. By the time we had finished a very lengthy lunch the tide had gone out. It was like someone had pulled the plug out of the bath as the edge of the sea was now some 500 meters down a very gently sloping sandy beach. There is so much sand people race around it at high speed on three or four wheeled carts pulled by the wind. The water was warm; warmer than I have ever known it in Australia, not because the English Channel is hot, but because the water at the water’s edge is so shallow it heats up in the midday sun.

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The following day was a disappointment. We were promised a fine day with swimming and lunch in a rocky cove west along the Brittany coast. Instead we got fog. Morning came and went without a break in the fog so we carefully motored to picturesque Saint Quay Portrieux for an overnight stop before our return overnight passage back to Dartmouth.

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Interesting trawling technique by Martin

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For the return passage I led a mutiny. The three hour watch and two hour sleep had to go. Happily the skipper concurred and allowed the very competent Louise to join the women on watch so we formed three teams of three with my team being the X-Men, a team we dubbed the Y Knots and Sharon, Louise and Karen’s the Z Force. Sadly the X-Men became somewhat depleted as one of our members couldn’t make it on deck without heaving over the side. The wind did reach force seven with a two metre sea so he had good cause. Despite sharon doing a 360 degree in mid-channel we arrived in Dartmouth 26 hours later, somewhat tired and in need of a shower and the preferred drink of Englishmen, warm draft ale.

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Author at the helm

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Z Force Selfie

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When Karen and Martin weren’t sailing the ship they were polishing her brass.

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Next morning the weather had changed and there was a strong wind against us all the way back to Brixham. Matt had an appointment in town so Nick subbed in as skipper.

Much fun was had trying to stand in front of the main mast as sea spray washed over the bows (we were supposed to be on watch for high speed boats approaching through the rain clouds – not that it ever actually rained on the whole trip).

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Finally we hove to in Brixham harbour at 10:30am and after a final delicacy from Louise we said farewell to our shipmates and headed off to catch the train to Gatwick bound for sailing Sardinian style.

Would I do it again? Probably not, but then the English Channel is a long way from Australia. Would I recommend it? Definitely yes, but be warned the mainsail and boom are bloody heavy and there are no winches to hoist the sails!

A great experience overall, many thanks to Matt and his crew, as well as Harry and the rest of the office staff at Team Trinity Sailing.

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The Provident sailors Sept 6-12, 2014
In no particular order: Colin, Tom, Steve, Martin, Stuart, Sharon, Louise, Craig, Karen, Chris, Stan, Matt,

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