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Sail the Brittany Coast

Sailing France without the Mediterranean

There is more to sailing in France than cruising the Riviera. Enjoy a quite different part of the French coast by visiting Brittany, with its uncongested sailing waters and unspoiled offshore islands, its small towns and large cities that dot the mainland coast. A place where the locals are protective of their Celtic heritage, Brittany is historically and culturally distinct from the rest of France.

As a charter destination, this region can serve up conditions to challenge your sailing skills. There are parts to go sailing in complete confidence, and parts best suited to the more experienced sailor. It's all a question of doing the research and heeding the local advice. With that in mind, there's good reason to consider the south coast of Brittany for your next bareboat charter. You won't be disappointed.

The South Brittany Coast and all the Sailing on Offer

Facing the Bay of Biscay, the south Brittany coast offers the best European sailing season north of the Mediterranean. The winds that come off the Atlantic, along with tricky tidal conditions in some parts, suggest this is not a destination the novice charterer will normally choose. But as long as you know your boat handling and take heed of the local knowledge, Brittany is a great place to sail in season, with lots of on-shore attractions to seek out and enjoy. 

Gulf of Morbihan and out to Belle-île

From a base in the attractive town of La Trinité-sur-Mer, your charter can take you close offshore or into the nearby Golfe du Morbihan, depending on time, tides and inclination. The Gulf offers a multitude of picturesque places to drop anchor and explore. But it only takes a look at the chart to see there are challenges, not least the current that flows, particularly at the narrow entrance where it can reach nine knots.Listen to the advice you get from the local operators, time your journey to match the conditions, be aware of the tidal fall that can reach four meters or more, and it is all worthwhile. Many of the gulf islands are privately owned, but the two largest, île aux Moines and île d'Arz, are public. The lovely walled city of Vannes lies at the head of the gulf, accessible through a lock.

With all there is to see and do ashore here, and protected as this area is, the Gulf of Morbihan and adjacent Baie de Quiberon may meet all your crew's expectations in a Brittany sailing adventure. But for some enjoyable open-water sailing and the chance to see a lot more of this heavily-featured coast, a number of offshore islands provide convenient waypoints. Most popular are Belle-île and its smaller companions île de Houat and île Hoëdic, all a convenient half-day sail from base. Belle-île's main settlement is La Palais, complete with 18th century fort built by Vauban. The town is situated on the sheltered northern side of the island, and one of several suitable places to anchor or tie up overnight.

If time allows, take a look at the smaller islands as well, with their sandy beaches, walking trails, and some interesting Neolithic sites.

South to île d'Yeu and Beyond

The sailing grounds out of La Trinité-sur-Mer as far as Belle-île present about all you can cover on a one-week charter. If you are on a longer cruise and some open-water sailing is part of the plan, it is some 50 nautical miles on a south-easterly course to île d'Yeu. That's about halfway to the harbour of La Rochelle, if you really do have time and that most splendid maritime city and its islands are calling. île d'Yeu is a worthy destination in itself; it is a little different, after all you are not in Brittany any longer but off the coast of Pays de la Loire. Since the 19th century île d'Yeu has been a popular getaway for artists. It is still an important fishing base and there are marina facilities at Port Joinville.

The Finistère Coast and Offshore Islands

A more popular Brittany charter route is upwind and westwards, in fact as far west as you can go in France if you are keen. On a two-week charter you can sail as far as île le de Sein and the bays at the north-western tip of France. You'll have so much to see up there, but with some famously-tricky waters to navigate, especially around île de Sein. Depending on tides, the island is quite accessible, with shelter available in the small harbour on the northern side.

If your crew is likely to consider a journey that far northwest from La Trinité-sur-Mer a bit ambitious, there are a number of convenient island stopovers closer to home. It is a casual half-day sail from Belle-île to île de Groix, just off the coast opposite Lorient (45 minutes by ferry), where the massive German U-boat base survived constant Allied bombing and is a major visitor attraction today. Much of Groix is designated nature reserve, not least because of the rich array of minerals the island is famous for. Another claim to fame is what is said to be Europe's only convex beach. Not surprisingly given its form and the tides in these parts, the beach can be relied on to change shape season by season.

Any sailing expedition along Brittany's southern coast should also include the îles de Glenan, a convenient half-day sail westwards from île de Groix and a good spot from which to see a bit more of the mainland. Saint Nicolas is the main island, and there are several others to explore nearby. These islands can be crowded in mid-summer, when day-trippers take the ferry from Concarneau and other ports to enjoy the lovely beaches and a great variety of water sport activities.

Sailing Conditions around the South Coast of Brittany

The Brittany sailing season runs from May to October, when temperatures are mild and rainfall at its lowest levels. It seldom gets excessively hot in this region, with temperatures generally peaking in the 70's F (low 20's C). But there can be exceptional days of mid-summer heat.

The winds blow consistently from the west, often fresh in summer conditions and occasionally stronger. But for many, the tides are what make this region unusual to sail. Coupled with more than its share of underwater hazards (usually well-marked), the tidal flow makes this coast one to enjoy with caution, and only after a good briefing from the local experts. The flood tide can run at nine knots at the entrance to the Gulf of Morbihan, and up to six knots through the Raz de Sein.

But like sailing anywhere, with a solid plan that provides for tide times, wind strength and other weather factors, and recognising the capabilities aboard, this can be one of the best places for a sailing holiday. So consider the south coast of Brittany to further your charter yacht adventures.

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