A week in the sun - Tour des Ports de la Manche 2017

That's us in front in the middle - a picture from Presse de la MancheArmelle and Philippe watching the prizegivingSomeone's not going to be first out of the marina...How it used to be - this boat offers a sailing experience of a very different kind.

One thing everyone says about the Tour des Ports is that it’s very tiring ; with the delivery each way, we’ve done nine days in a row of which six were racing, mostly in quite lively conditions. Every day up at 7 to queue for the loos and showers, then on the water outside whichever port for starts sometimes as early as 0830, then the excitement of the start and first beat to the laid mark and then possibly some spinnaker, but not for long – the unstable weather tended to provide plenty of opportunity for upwind legs.

The Tour des Ports also offers the chance to do things you never do when cruising, like heading upwind all afternoon against the tide from Granville to Carteret, or upwind in 20+ knots from Carteret to Guernsey, or (best moment) passing inside the rocks at Corbiere on the SW corner of Jersey, only 50m from the lighthouse. Every second counts, and to be on the podium you have to be prepared to cut every corner, shave every ‘caillou’ – one gets to see a lot of granite from quite close to during the week.

In St Helier I got to visit the Coastguard Centre with the RO to arrange for the departure next day in order not to hinder the ferry traffic; an impressive array of computer screens and a very professional officer on duty to assist with arrangements, though we had to make sure we were talking about the same time, given the hour difference between the parties in discussion!

A long beat up the coast after a slow spinnaker leg out of St Aubyn bay, then in the afternoon hugging the beach on the French coast where possible, brought us finally to Dielette, where the finish line remained elusive with a strong tide and a dying breeze ; this cost a rival the race when they went inside the exclusion zone at Flamanville to avoid the current and were protested. The trackers which we all carried showed their fault, and disqualification followed, nudging us up the results, so that the last day would be vital to see who made it to the podium.

A week on the rail passes both slowly and quickly, with English conversation hour at 1400-1500 daily, followed by a ration of ‘chocolat fleur de sel’, and the choice of cleat or toerail as the major decision following a tack, the occasional shower of salt water adding flavour to your midday sandwich, discussion of how we’re doing against other boats scattered across the water, and the increase in tension as the committee boat finally gets near enough to plan the last few tacks - and then another leg is completed.

Aeolus of course knew where we were going next and swopped the wind over in the night to give a beat every day - in spite of the generous libations poured every evening in every cockpit (sailors being naturally such godfearing souls). Libations proving finally sufficient, everyone was glad to have the distraction of a kite run in 20 knots on the final day from Cherbourg to Saint-Vaast on Friday. On board Gwalhir Venturi we peeled from the reaching to the big downwind kite (a first for me) just before the corner at Gatteville, gybed and reached down past Barfleur at 8 knots with everyone else, watching the broaches and occasional exploding kites while managing to remain in control till the drop before the turn into the bay just below Tatihou. The leg is a bit of a procession nevertheless, with only a rather crowded beat in the bay to try to gain time in, though with so many boats there was little clear air, and the finish line was inevitably crowded.

It was great to arrive knowing that was it, end of, no more racing, and the festivities of July 14 to follow, but the prizegiving before dinner was the focus of attention before the party could really begin. With some respectable seconds, fourths and a sixth at worst, we were second in class, which meant a moment of glory on the podium, and the satisfaction of feeling we’d done pretty well – though there is always the ‘if only..’ thought to deal with, which I suppose is where the learning lies.

Over a glass or two in the evening sunshine, analysis is gently transformed into agreeable memories of things done well, and the knowledge which all sailors must have, that sometimes the gods of the wind and sea are indifferent to one’s wish to win, but one drinks their health to show there is no ill will. Then there are the unforgettable fireworks to round off the week, and the chilly air at midnight to remind you that the summer is not going to last forever, even if at this moment you would really like it to - such has been the warmth both of the sun and of the friendship shared at sea and ashore during the week.

The Tour des Ports is all about seizing the moment, 'carping the diem' so to speak. The breeze fills in, the horizon beckons, the day is made for sailing - what else to do but cast off and immerse oneself in the adventure? To quote Molière:

Que sert-il d'attendre?
Quand on perd un jour,
On le perd sans retour.

A huge thank-you to Philippe and Armelle and their crew for their hospitality both at home and afloat and friendly tolerance of a half-deaf foreigner aboard Gwalhir Venturi for the week, and to the crew of Oirrior (pronounce it in French) for their ongoing friendship and ‘tisanes’. I look forward to resuming racing with everyone in September.

And tomorrow there’s only a Channel crossing left between me and my bed at home..

Steve Fraser

Submitted on 16th July 2017