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Cruising West Brittany: Exploring France’s wild west coast

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Often overlooked for more popular cruising areas to the north and south, this section of coastline is one of France’s finest boating areas

Across to Morgat

On a still morning, the 10-mile passage to Morgat feels a bit like the Gulf of St Tropez. Rather than cut across directly, follow the coastline around, skirting the gleaming east coast beaches before curving west past a string of low headlands and small bays. The views are stunning, particularly towards the profile of one of Brittany’s highest hills, Menez-Hom. In northerly winds, there’s a lovely anchorage under the promontory of Île de L’Aber.

Morgat marina lies behind a breakwater in the north-west corner of the bay. The approaches are shallow and, though the channel is supposed to be dredged to 1.5m, I like to enter with a good two hours rise of tide. Make for the reception pontoon near the capitainerie, but afterwards you can usually arrange for a finger berth.

Morgat is a genteel resort with acres of white sandy beach, ideal for a young family. The marina is set nicely away from the seafront below a headland of pines. The pontoons have open views and it’s a short walk to the bistros on the promenade.

Morgat coast path

Halfway between the marina and Place d’Ys, a path climbs up from Quai Kador to join a track leading seawards behind the marina and then out onto a cliff path, which trends south from Pointe Morgat all the way down to Cap de la Chèvre.

This is one of the most spectacular coastal walks in Brittany, winding behind the bays and small coves that make such enchanting anchorages in quiet weather. The panorama across Douarnenez Bay is fabulous and you can look down on anchored yachts and the tourist launches that run close along this shore to visit the famous caves – Les Grottes Marines de Morgat.

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Lampaul Bay is on the south-west coast of Ushant

Islands off LIroise

To me, the incredible tangle of islands west of L’Iroise give an authentic flavour of local life around this far tip of Brittany. Île Molène has an amazing off-piste harbour on its north-east side, surprisingly easy to reach from L’Aberildut in the Chenal du Four.

The much larger community of Ushant has good visitors buoys on its south-west coast in Lampaul Bay, from where you can easily land and explore the village. For forays out to any of the islands, neap tides are best, when streams are moderate and low water depths more generous.

However, you need careful passage planning before venturing out to these Atlantic outposts, especially to Ushant. In fair weather the simplest L’Iroise island to reach is Île de Sein, a few miles seaward of the Raz de Sein tidal race.

Tides around LIroise

The main expanses of L’Iroise have quite weak tides and it’s only in restricted channels that currents are swift. The Chenal du Four has strong spring streams, although fast boats can push them if necessary. The narrow Goulet de Brest gets up to six knots, creating rough conditions with a wind over tide. The Toulinguet Passage west of Camaret has a bit of stream at its north end, but is otherwise docile.

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Canal archictecture doesn’t get any grander than the Guily-Glaz lock and viaduct

Île de Sein

The south side of L’Iroise is bounded by Île de Sein and 12 miles of reefs. The Raz is the only navigable gap and while passing crews may glance towards the low island and its tall lighthouse, most continue on their way. Yet in quiet weather near slack, Sein is quite easy to approach.

At high water slack head for the red tower marking the Chenal Oriental and follow the marks towards the harbour, at low slack I prefer the northern Chenal d’Ezaudi, which has a green outer buoy. The harbour is enclosed by rocks and two long breakwaters. Its outer part has some visitors’ moorings and depths at all tides. When you turn off the engines and gaze around, it seems incredible that a real community survives out here.

The cottages have very Breton pitched roofs and painted shutters, and there are cafés with bright umbrellas. Out on Sein’s Atlantic edge stands a solitary chapel. The main lighthouse sores 50m high and at dusk its powerful beams turn slowly above the island, flickering on cottage walls and nearby reefs. In settled weather you can stay overnight, a memorable experience.

Raz de Sein

Despite its reputation the Raz de Sein is actually pretty straightforward navigationally. From the north you pass about midway between Pointe du Van and the small rocky hump of Île Tévennec, with its distinctive stubby lighthouse. In hazy visibility, Tévennec can look like a ship caught in the swirling tidal cauldron of the Raz, yet in quiet weather it has a friendly profile which makes a useful signpost when you are aiming for the gap from a distance.

From opposite Tévennec it’s not far to the two distinctive light towers – La Vieille and La Plate. In quiet conditions I usually aim to pass about half a mile west of La Plate, which is a west cardinal, though you often see French yachts cutting closer.

If you miss slack water and the Raz is a bit boisterous, you might find easier conditions by curving further out – maybe up to a mile west of La Plate – before turning back south-east to avoid getting too close to the rocky shoals off Île de Sein. Having passed the two light-towers, you soon emerge into quieter water and most boats either press on south-east towards Pointe de Penmarc’h and the Bay of Bénodet, or turn east to follow the coast along to Audierne.

First published in the September 2019 edition of Motor Boat & Yachting.

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