My Travel Book - Quelmer - Jean-Baptiste Charcot and the 'Pourquoi Pas ?' - A Ferryman named Jean Le Gal

Quelmer is a very small village. It is one of the “suburbs” of Saint-Malo, very close to the tidal power station in the Rance estuary.

It may be small but when if you happen to be in Saint-Malo, you should not miss visiting it.

Its ship graveyard is the only one of its kind in the area.

Very close to the ship graveyard, you’ll find Commandant Charcot’s house overlooking the Rance estuary where his ship, the “Pourquoi Pas ? IV” used to spend the months it was not roaming around the Poles.

And last but not least, you’ll have to take a walk down the nearby slipway while remembering the dreadful story of Jean Le Gal who used to steer the ferry across the estuary in 1790.

Quelmer is an amazing summary of Brittany’s history, from a very distant past to our time.

Let’s start with the ship graveyard.It is the only one of its kind in the area. Ancient sailing ships and fishing boats die on its shores because they are totally outdated and unfit for our modern times. But in the past, those boats were totally in business and some of them even sailed all over the oceans.

The graveyard is close to a small but very busy shipyard. Brittany is a seafaring nation. It always was even in very remote times and it still is. From round-the-world (yacht) races to coastal trawling and deep-sea fishing. A lot of Bretons still spend their life at sea. And Brittany is home to some of the most important shipyards in France.

Let’s not forget that Brittany is a peninsula with an impressive coastal length - 1.700 miles while it is only 125 miles wide from North to South.

Let’s walk to “La Passagère”, home to Commandant Jean-Baptiste Charcot, right above the shipyard.

The stately house overlooks part of the Rance estuary.  

Charcot who was born near Paris spent most of his life in Saint-Malo (Quelmer) whenever he was not exploring the Artic or the Antartica. He had all his ships built in Saint-Malo and in-between his famous voyages, he’d come back to Quelmer and have them repaired right below his home. 

The last one was called “Pourquoi Pas ? IV” (“Why Not? IV”). They met an untimely end together during a storm off the coast of Iceland in 1936 on their way back home from Greenland.

So many great seamen, explorers, discoverers of new worlds and privateers alike were born or lived in Saint-Malo and its surroundings throughout the centuries.

Jacques Cartier discovered and explored Newfoundland and what is now Quebec from 1534 to 1542.

Jacques Gouin de Beauchesne discovered the Falkland Islands in 1701 and was the first sailor to round Cape Horn from West to East, that very same year.

Many privateers like Duguay-Trouin and Surcouf spent their life harassing the British, Spanish and Dutch naval fleets at a time when the kings of France were trying to extend their positions in far-away lands.

Brittany, home to famous shipbuilders and sailors, possesses a much darker side though.

For centuries, it was home to smugglers. Nowadays, there is a hiking trail still called “The customs trail” that runs alongside the coast in Brittany. It is 1.000 miles long and was used by customs officers throughout the centuries (from 1791 until the beginning of the XXth century) to fight and curb smuggling.

Smuggling still continues in this day and age in Brittany. I have told one story about smuggling that happened right below our house.

In Quelmer, smuggling left a bloody trail.

People needed to cross the Rance at a time when there were no roads nor any bridge. Therefore there was a ferry which left from the slipway below “La Passagère”.

In 1790, the ferryman was a man named Jean Le Gal. The story goes that one night, he met two smugglers who were carrying a body-shaped bag. Nobody really knows what happened then except that the next morning, the ferryman was not at work.

People went looking for Jean Le Gal. In his house, they discovered a dreadful drama. Jean Le Gal, his wife, his children and their maidservant had been murdered in a very savage way. The hit men whoever they were had slit their throats.

The slipway in Quelmer was then given the appalling name of “L’égorgé”... (“The man whose throat was slit”) People even forgot Jean Le Gal’s real name when a local writer called him “Carré” in a novella about the crime.

Nowadays the place is extraordinarily calm and quiet with gorgeous shimmering reflections on a sunny day.

The river Rance is an extraordinary place to go to, from Dinan to the estuary and its tidal power station. You’ll find small villages and resorts on every meander. Most of them filled with historic buildings.

Quelmer does not boast outstanding buildings like Dinan, Saint-Malo or Saint-Suliac but for me, it is a real compendium of the history and the spirit of Brittany, from shipyards and sailors to explorers, adventurers and smugglers.

I love Brittany

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


Myrna said...

So interesting! I loved learning about explorers in Social Studies in school. So at least Jacques Cartier lives on in my memory! I did not know about some of these other men, though. Makes me want to do some reading...

Eric Torrie said...

Great photos! I love the old ships that are gradually decaying! I guess it's time for me to plan a trip! Very interesting story as well!