Home > Jims Column > 2012 > Amatasi at the traditional boat festivals of Brest and Douarnenez

Amatasi at the traditional boat festivals of Brest and Douarnenez

By James Wharram

A few weeks ago I/we, trailing our 27ft Amatasi, returned from the French Brest / Douarnenez Traditional Boat Festivals.

The huge Sea Festival in Brest, ‘Les Tonneres de Brest’, takes place every four years, Douarnenez’s ‘Temps Fête’, across the Bay is a bi-annual event. So every 4 years the two events are united at the end of the one week in Brest with a combined fleet of mainly traditional sailing craft, sailing the 24 Nm open sea voyage from Brest to Douarnenez, an incredible spectacle of hundreds of traditional boats sailing in a huge fleet round the impressive rocky islets off the headlands of Brittany.

Fleet of sailing boats
The fleet of traditional sailing boats
Photo of two square riggers at sea, taken from Amatasi
Square Riggers

Traditional sailing ships ranged from a Swedish replica of a 17th Century East India merchantman, other large square rigged sail training vessels, to brigs, one, two and three masted luggers, French, British and Cornish pilot boats, lateen rigged ships, plus innumerable smaller sailing and even rowing working craft.

Bulking out this fleet of working sail craft were large numbers of French yachts, modern French multihulls and even some fast racing multihulls,plus motorboats, press-boats and RIBs creating chaotic wave patterns. Just look at the photos to see what I mean.

Boats in Brest harbour
Some of the boats in Brest
Men playing bagpipes at the festival
Wandering bands of musicians

The weather during the Brest week of the festival began with cold driving rain squalls. We, the Wharram group, should not have been there as we applied too late (January 2012!), but as a result of articles mentioning my part in French sailing history in their leading magazine Voiles & Voiliers, Multicoques and specifically a 12 page article on my life’s work, published just before the start of the festival in Chasse Marrée, resulted in me being treated as an honorary French sailor and Amatasi being welcomed as a participant.

Due to our late participationwe were given the only available place left, in Zone 9 on a long floating pontoon, moored out in the inner harbour near the outer wall.This was the area of the small Classic cruising boats and amongst them was also the Tiki 28 ‘Leonardo’, built in Devoran by Andy Smith in the late 1980s. It was not a comfortable berth, open to the short chop driven in by the strong winds.

Nor was it easy to get to this pontoon (for crew or visitors); you had to hail a water taxi, manned by serious hard working volunteers, who braved the rain, the harbour swell and churned up waves of the many harbour craft, to get you there in their small open motor skiffs. You were wet before you got there, even if it did not rain.

Tiki 28 sailing
Tiki 28 'Leonardo', built in Devoran by Andy Smith in the late 1980s
Amatasi at anchor with tent on deck
Amatasi with new tent

Our crew Michael (Dutch) and Perky (Cornish, our new web editor), slept and lived on the bouncing deck of Amatasi in the new tent (with inflatable poles!). After several days of this they were sea drunk when stepping on terra firma.

We, Hanneke and I, slept some miles away in our tent at a friendly French farm campsite, found and booked for us by a very helpful Marie-Annick who worked at the Brittany tourist office.

What made our out of town location work, was our two Danish friends, Karin and Bo. They were leaders in the field of Danish Viking re-enactment and fairs. Bo had lost a leg (motorcycle accident, not carelessness) about 10 years ago. They had come to join us in Brittany and lived in their van that also housed Bo’s disabled scooter. (Bo and Karin helped us build the crossbeams for Amatasi the previous year and joined us in Beale Park Boatshow 2011.

Each day Bo drove us into Brest and as a disabled driver was waved through to special parking close to the festival ground. Down came the ramp, out came the scooter, I hung on to the back of it and was dragged in its wake through the densely packed crowd of visitors.

Rocky islets and sailing boats
Rocky islets off the headlands of Brittany
Crowds with boats in the background
The crowds in Douarnenez

Everywhere was music, large stages with full sound amplifiers, wandering bands of musicians, Cornish Choirs, Indonesian gamelan, Breton Pipers, etc. The French crowds were incredibly good natured and opened up with smiles to allow Bo on his scooter and I hanging on to the rear through the crowded bottlenecks.

As well as the music there were serious stands, the building of an Irish Currach, a Norwegian village including Viking ships and a replica of an ancient sewn boat, a Croation dug-out boat, ropemaking, stitch & glue boatbuilding workshop (run by Icarai our French agents), everything a lover of the sea and boats could dream of.

Interspersed were the many food stalls, selling Moules Frites, traditional Breton Crêpes washed down with traditional Breton cider and many other snacks and drinks. I gorged at the Boulangerie and cake shop.

Bo inspecting a dug out boat
A Croation dug-out boat
Norwegian sewn boat replica
A replica of an ancient Norwegian Sewn boat

On the final day of the Brest festival, soaking wet with driving rain, the boat banging on the pontoon jetty, Hanneke and I, in desperation decided to abandon our official dock position and cast off, and using our little 4 Hp outboard motor motored through the rain and wave chop across the harbour to find shelterin the back of one of the inner harbour docks where we had seen a space amongst a graceful Croatian Lateen rigged fishing boat, a Vietnamese Junk, a 150 year old Madagascar workboat, an Irish Classic yacht, a Wharram Melanesia outrigger canoe, a row of Brazilian Jangadas and a small fleet of Dutch fishing craft. Never mind that our label said ‘Zone 9’ we were moving into sheltered ‘Zone 5’.

We pushed our way into the crowded dock, to get an incredibly heart-warming welcome. We were amongst our own kind. The Irish welcome included well filled glasses of the finest matured Jameson whiskey, from sailors who remembered my Irish period of my life (1960s and 70s).

The moment we arrived the rain stopped and the sun came out. We re-erected the tent as we all four would be spending the night aboard ready for an early start the next morning for the sail to Douarnenez.

That night the Brest Festival ended in a blaze of fireworks artfully blended with blasting music. At the age of 84 I found myself dancing on the deck of the Vietnamese Junk, in the full ‘jump-up’ style of the West Indian period of my life (1950s).

James talking to the crew on a workboat
James talks to the crew of the 150 year-old Madagascar workboat
Vietnamese Junk boat with green sails
Zone 5, Vietnamese Junk
James talking to the crew of a boat on a pontoon
The Irish welcome included well filled glasses of the finest matured Jameson whiskey
Amatasi sailing
Amatasi

To sail to Douarnenez one first has to sail West, against the wind, out of the narrow approach channel to Brest (Goulet de Brest, a very graphic name!). Fortunately the timing of this fleet voyage was well chosen and the tide was setting out, it did however create some spectacular tidal wave peaks. These were made even worse by the high speed escorting RIBs and motorboats adding their bow waves to the confusion.

All the same Amatasi sailed to windward against a brisk breeze, keeping up with the traditional workboats tack for tack. Not bad for a light little Ethnic craft with less than 30cm (1ft) draft with no keels or boards.

At one point,close to the rocks, Amatasi almost stood on end, at another point the wooden locking bar on one of the Indonesian style side rudders snapped, nearly losing the rudder. A quick grab brought it on board and meantime we steered with just one rudder. This way we drove on until we reached smoother water where we could reattach the rudder, this time just with rope. This Indonesian system of attaching the rudders works.

Sailing to Dournenez with the fleet along the coast of Brittany

Soon after, the channel opened out and the wind came more in our favour. I could stand in my steering position and look around me. We were surrounded on all sides by this huge fleet of beautiful traditional boats. Never have I seen so many distinct sea craft in so small a sea area before. Freed off, Amatasi began to sail, picking up speed, catching up on the big gaffers and luggers, passing yacht cruisers of the same size.

Four years after the Lapita Voyage, four years of various complaints of an aging body, I was part of the boat, part of the sea, I WAS SAILING.

Boat models
Models in South Kensington Science Museum
Amatasi on the beach next to a Pahi
We had a lovely place to moor on the town beach where visitors could get close up and see Amatasi
Amatasi crew drinking cider
Enjoying the local cider in the Crew Centre

Arriving in Douarnenez was not an anti-climax, there were Wharram sailors and their boats waiting there. A representative of Chasse Marée, who had just published the major article on my life, met me on the quayside. We had a lovely place to moor on the town beach where visitors could get close up and see Amatasi.

The weather improved, the sun was out; sailing in the afternoons we tested Amatasi alongside many other boats of similar size. Amatasi proved a success.

Amatasi’s hull design was inspired by the Samoan bonito canoes, but also by the same model in the South Kensington Science Museum that inspired me for my original Tangaroa design back in 1953 (photo). In the 1960s, at the beginning of the ‘Multihull Revolution’, an early American catamaran designer wrote: “What have we to learn from a bunch of bare-arsed natives sailing dugout canoes tied together with bamboos.” How wrong he was!!

- James Wharram