My Travel Book - Sailing and motor boating safely in Brittany

I once wrote a post about Brittany in which, among a lot of other things, I explained that Brittany is the French region that boasts the longest coastline (over 2.000 miles if you want to include the many Breton islands). It is a rather small peninsula surrounded by the English Channel in the north and by the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the south. It is measures from 120 miles wide up to 180 miles at its widest.

Therefore a huge part of its economy hinges on the sea: fishing, international maritime trade, shipyards and of course, pleasure sailing.

Every small village by the sea has developed very fruitful tourist activities from March till October and owns a harbor. Some of those harbors are merely made of mooring buoys. A few offer very safe deepwater wharves, meaning that you don’t need to worry about tides, going out or coming in.

 The favorite leisure activities include boating, of course - sailing and motor boats. On a summery day, you’ll see tens of boats all over the sea, from the coastline to the horizon.

Lovely. Yes, very lovely.

A lot of people are experienced sailors but there are quite a few landlubbers too (not all of them on motor boats). People who have no idea that the sea is not really a very safe environment and who end up getting caught in unforeseen problems that sometimes go tragically wrong.

Every year, people die in Brittany while they had been planning to spend a nice day at sea. Of course, many more die in traffic accidents, I know... But let’s not forget that I am talking about being at sea.

On this picture, you see two very important features of maritime safety in Brittany (and other coastal areas in France).

The first one, the building is called a “Sémaphore”... I hope that my explanation will be clear. The “Sémaphore” concept was created by Napoleon I in 1806. It is a military outpost, a watchtower over the sea. It was used to warn of any enemy activity with optical signals.

In most countries though, a “semaphore” is not a building but a visual signaling system.

The word itself according to Wiktionary was “borrowed in 1816 from French sémaphore, coined in French from Ancient Greek σῆμα (sêma, “sign”), and -φωρος (-phoros), from φέρω (férō, “to bear, carry”).”

In France, “Sémaphores” have a long story because their use changed throughout the ages.

Nowadays, this type of “Sémaphore” is a coastal surveillance outpost. From there lookouts offer help to coastal navigation. They also regulate sea and fishing traffic besides many other duties pertaining to surveillance.

There are eight “sémaphores” in Northern Brittany and many more all along the French coasts.

This one is located in Saint-Cast and works night and day.
One of its main activities, at least in the summer, is to watch over boats, monitoring the SAR (Search and Rescue). 

Almost all leisure boats have their VHF on board, whether it is built in or mobile. When you get aboard, you turn Channel 16 VHF on and then you are ready to get under way safely.

If something bad happens to you, you call Channel 16 VHF and help is on its way, no matter what. Day and night. Fair weather or raging storms.

Which brings me back to the picture.

The red boat below the Saint-Cast Sémaphore belongs to “The Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer” (SNSM)... a French voluntary organisation founded in 1967 by merging the Société Centrale de Sauvetage des Naufragés (founded in 1865) and the Hospitaliers Sauveteurs Bretons (1873). Its task is saving lives at sea around the French coast, including the overseas départments and territories.

In 2009 the SNSM was responsible for about half of all sea rescue operations and saved 5,400 lives in 2816 call-outs and assisted 2140 boats in distress." (Quote from Wikipedia.)

People on board are extremely well trained volunteers.

So now you know  a few things about “Sémaphores” and “SNMS” that are the backbone of sailors’ safety at sea. 
I mentioned several times that once you are at sea, there is a very strong bond between boats and any kind of contraption that can float on the water (kitesurf, windsurfing board, jet ski, small crafts and sailboats, etc.) and are not using VHF.
I remember a couple of times when we did need to be rescued with only one option - using our distress rockets (mandatory on boats, even small ones)... 
Both times, we did not need to use them only because boats not too far from us realized that we were in trouble and rushed to our rescue.
I still remember the day when our one and only motor started to emit very dark fumes. We did not have enough time to drop anchor and put the fire out.  We started to drift towards dangerous rocks.
Someone spotted us, came to our rescue and towed us back to the harbor. And then he left. “No sweat,” he said.
This is what mutual aid is all about at sea.
But what happens when you are far from the coast?
This is why we have a “sémaphore” (and VHF on board).
Whenever we go out to sea, Popeye switches the motors on, of course and then he turns the VHF on.
The VHF will stay on all the time (even when we are anchored somewhere). 
Because from time to time, you get messages from the “Sémaphore” that monitors your area. Actually not directly from the “Sémaphore” but from the SAR unit that’s in charge of your area - ours is called the CROSS Corsen. The Sémaphore relaying the call for help to the CROSS.
Then you get a general message from the CROSS to let you know what’s going on so that you check whether or not you are in the right area. 
If you are close to the incident, you are supposed to head there and do your best. Doing your best may involve to fish people out of the water and/or assess damages and ask the CROSS for medical help... which the SNSM will then provide from the nearest harbor. Either by inflatable boat or the big motor boat or by helicopter.
This summer, we heard the CROSS reporting a “Mayday Mayday Mayday” message close to the island of Bréhat, far from our area. Very scary.
Well, there was one call for help almost every day.

The one I remember best though could have been very tragic but we ended up laughing our heads off.

'Hobbie Cats'
The CROSS reported that a “hobbie cat” ( a small catamaran) had capsized not very far from us with three people going overboard. Boats in its vicinity were supposed to reroute to fish them out and then try to tow the catamaran to the nearest harbor.

A big motorboat made it before us and signaled all was clear. So we did not change course and we kept going to Chausey.
And then we listened to this most astounding dialog... even if all we could hear was the voice from the CROSS.
“Are you at the scene of the action?” (Don’t forget that those men are Army men so they use Army words!)
“How many people in the water?”
“Any casualty?” (You don’t feel like laughing at this point.)
“You fished two men out of the water? We were told there were three men on this boat.”
“Where is the third one?”
“I said: ‘Where is the third one?’”
“Have you found the third one?”
“Look around. We are sending an helicopter right away.”
“No third man?”
“Are the two men confirming that there is no third man?”
“Receiving you loud and clear. Two men. Canceling the helicopter.”
“Someone is already towing the ‘hobbie cat’? Great.” (Towing? It usually is quite easy to right a ‘hobbie cat’... almost as easy as capsizing it!)
“Now we need the name of your boat, ma’am.”
“The name of your boat, ma’am.” (Probably for the paperwork involved with the rescue...)
“The name of your boat. The name of your boat, ma’am.”
“You don’t know the name of your boat?”
(By then the guy’s voice was a little edgy.)

“The name of your boat, ma’am?”
“Where can you find the name of your boat? The name is written on your boat, ma’am.”
“Yes, sir, that is correct. We need to know the name of your boat.”
“Thank you, sir” (Distinct sigh of relief!)

We were laughing like mad.

But not as much as the day when we overheard this “conversation”.

“Good afternoon to you, sir.”
“Where are you?”
“At the gas station in the Saint-Cast harbor?”
“Ready to fill up your boat?”
“And you are waiting for the employee to come and fill her up?”
“Sir, there is no employee there. It is an automatic gas station. Use your debit card.”
“You’re welcome, sir.”
“Have a good day, sir.”

We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Just imagine. Being dumb enough to use Channel 16 VHF because you don’t understand how to fill up your boat... And those people were really dumb because they could have been heavily fined for calling wrongly Channel 16 VHF... But this was “tourist” season... Leniency season. (There is no leniency though when it is a matter of safety.)

On the other hand, those men who are on watch to make sure you are safe at sea, probably relish those few moments when their life does become filled with fun.

Channel 16 VHF is over present in our boat besides all the mandatory safety paraphernalia. 

“Ici, le CROSS Corsen...” and then you stop chatting or whatever you were doing and you listen. Because from time to time, it may be a matter of life and death which would be dreadful, wouldn' it?

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


Anonymous said...

Liked the descriptions and info about this part of the world. Recently came across another good travel read LOVES KERBSIDES AND GOODBYES http://davidmcnamara.com.au


Mammodouy's Stories said...

Thank you very much, Jane.
Comments do help!
I went and checked David McNamara's blog and loved it. Thanx.