Sunday 27th May, 2001
Brest, France
Writers : Martin Burley / Odetta de la Vega

At daybreak the fog lifted imperceptibly to become a blanket of stratocumulus and revealed the Raz de Sein. Passing between the islands and mainland we exited the Bay of Biscay; thankfully, an easy passage. At the start of this gray day we sallied forth in search of the idyllic lighthouse, to capture an image required for the STARSHIP Millennium Voyage book currently in production. Transiting the Chanel du Four and Passage du Fromveur, we fought against the might of the English Channel or, as we are in France, La Manche. At one point STARSHIP was reduced to a mere 3 knots, the sea heaping up into short and steep waves, pitching the vessel like a cork in a bath tub. However, on turning this vessel to ride with the tide behind us, we topped at 15.3 knots, usually at full speed we attain a mere 10 knots!

The notorious Brittany coastline is littered with wrecks from hundreds of years ago until recent times, and who could forget the Amoco Cadiz, which spilled forth its black cargo of 69 million gallons of crude Arabian oil after loosing steering in heavy swells and drifting onto these rocky shoals in 1978. The oil spill tainted more than 100 miles of coastline renown its charming tourist beaches and vigorous fishing activities, rich grounds that were the source of one third of France’s seafood. Thankfully the coast of northern France has recovered from the dousing and again produces some of the finest ‘fruits de mer’ in Europe and is once more a favourite destination for British and French holidaymakers. Because of the coastlines hazardous nature, mainly due to the big tidal range (the greatest in Europe) and it’s craggy fašade, the underlying dangers, hidden and menacing at high water and treacherous at low water, there are a plethora of lighthouses dotting the coast to forewarn seafarers. Some of these lighthouses serve a purely functional role, concrete or breeze-block topped with a lantern, while others are astounding feats of architecture and determination. The manpower and effort required to erect some of these older structures is truly staggering.


Le Conquet.

Unfortunately the overcast morning does not offer the best photographic opportunity and our lighthouse tour is not rewarded with a perfect shot. We proceed on into the Rade (estuary) de Brest to collect Michael with thoughts of returning to some of the lighthouse locations in the late afternoon to take advantage of better lighting conditions. Brest’s position as the best naval harbour in France has been both a boon and a burden. Now the home of the French Atlantic Fleet, it was heavily bombed by the Allies in 1944 to hamper the occupying German flotilla. The reconstruction of the port left it grim and lacking it’s former glory. Several naval establishments are situated on the shores of the Rade, and the areas around some of them are marked on the charts as restricted or prohibited, we notice gun emplacements located on the northern shores.


St Mathieu.

Michael arrived and minutes later departed with James in tow to reconnoiter the the lighthouse by car, but James can tell you about that :

After being in the humming depths of STARSHIP for an ocean passage, the sublime silence of countryside takes one by surprise. It was quite a relief. Michael and I drove through quaint stone villages with steeply pitched roofs and intimate gardens. The road seemed to be an afterthought and wound between the houses sometimes forking in indecision. We arrived at Pointe de St-Mathieu, a rocky coast, striated with deep incisions, through which the waves crashed. Grass and wildflowers covered the crest of the rocks and overlooking it all was an massive lighthouse standing adjacent to a ruined church. Gothic arches oddly complimented the tall structure. The sea sloshed around the rocks and gulls cried overhead, Michael's shutter clicked over atop the tripod. Between 2030 and 2330 he fired off more than 160 exposures, the last taken in the darkness approaching midnight. The far reaching sweep of the lighthouse cast a beam over our heads and flashed off houses in the distance, protecting unseen sailors and lulling residents to sleep that have become accustomed to the rhythmic touch of Sant Mathieu.

Bonne nuit

Martin, Odetta and James