Navigating the Bay of Biscay to La Rochelle

While we spend most of our time navigating the waters of the world, we must also navigate officialdom, languages, cultures, and unfamiliar streets. Nowadays with information at our fingertips, this is so much easier than thumbing through Lonely Planet travel books of years gone by.

Understanding local rules and protocols for sailing through a new country is important; cruising around the world made easier by the internationally recognised system of buoyage with their uniform lights and markers.

Winds blow west to east across the Atlantic Ocean from America to Europe. Large swells, combined with storms and gales, produce heavy seas making sailing in this region notoriously challenging. Good planning is essential and with weather forecasts only good for a day or two, we put in the effort to plan our departures, and more importantly our arrivals of each passage.

Strong winds and heavy seas heading towards the Bay of Biscay

Since leaving the UK, sunset is earlier as we are four degrees south, and there’s a time difference of +1 hour. With the longest day of the year now passed, daylight hours will begin to decrease too. In our state of jubilation of finally sailing from the UK, this fact had slipped our mind and we found ourselves squinting in the nautical twilight to navigate our way into an unfamiliar bay at midnight. However, the international standard for lights helps us navigate unknown waters. (While we welcome any night-time aid to help navigate alien waters, we generally don’t recommend arriving in strange places at night).

In France the tide ‘coefficient’ is commonly used to determine the size of the tide in relation to its mean. The range is typically between 20 and 120, and the higher the tidal coefficient, the larger the tidal range, or the difference in water height between high and low tide. With a mean value of 70, boaters can easily identify the state of the tide in relation to spring and neaps.

Co-efficients commonly referred to in France to determine tide

Waiting for an outgoing tide, we departed the Golfe de Moubihan at midday to sail 60nm to Ile de Yeu, once again arriving at near darkness. The entrance to the harbour is clearly marked and fortunately the visitors dock was available and the weather for entry was kind. Navigating the Bay of Biscay takes careful planning – tides, currents, shallow port entries and daylight hours must all be taken into consideration.

Approach to Joinville, Ile d’Yeu in daylight

From Ile d’Yeu, we sailed 50nm to reach the shallow waters to the north of Ile d’Re where we dropped anchor for the night. From here we could plan our entry into Port of La Rochelle, 12nm away. The approach to La Rochelle is very shallow – a dredged entry of only 0.8m (Blue Heeler has a 2m draft), so we must have at least a 2m tide to navigate to the wet basins of La Rochelle; even still, the locks on the Bassin des Yachts and Bassin des Chaltiers don’t open until two hours before high tide and close one hour after high tide. While we are used to calculating tidal movements, the coefficient is an added aid to assist with navigation. The day we planned to enter, the coefficient was around 85 and increasing over the coming days with the spring tide increasing the tides to over five metres.

The 14th century towers at the entrace to La Rochelle’s Vieux Port

Understanding local safety and security contacts is also very important when visiting other countries. While we don’t always fully understand the French sécurité (safety) announcements, we always listen to any ‘pan-pan’ or ‘mayday’ message that may come through and try to jot down the lat/longs in case we are nearby. VHF channel 16 is the first point of contact for any emergencies. Like the RNLI in the UK, monitoring and providing maritime assistance along the French coast is the Centres Régionaux Opérationnels de Surveillance et de Sauvetage (CROSS, “Regional Operational Centres for Monitoring and Rescue”).

As we approach La Rochelle, to starboard of the shallow approach channel is the Port de plaisance des Minimes – the largest marina in France with over 3,500 berths. The entire port area and marinas are managed centrally through the Port of La Rochelle. Through the old towers, the old port or ‘Vieux Port’ is busy with passenger and small boats, while the locked Bassin des Yachts and Bassin des Chaltiers are more suited to our vessel. With entry only available two hours before and one hour after high tide, we had to arrange a time with the lock-keeper to raise the passerelle (foot-bridge) so we could enter the basin.

The old port in its heyday

La Rochelle’s past as a significant Atlantic port stems back centuries. In 1152, La Rochelle fell under the control of the English and for a time, trade between the two Kingdoms flourished – life was good in La Rochelle. In the 13th century, a new port (now the old port) was constructed; the three towers built in the 14th century (There are three towers on the horizon at La Rochelle – the Tour Saint-Nicolas, Tour de la Chaîne and Tour de la Lanterne (lighthouse)). But as time went on, in the 1600s, the royal powers besieged the city to purge it of Huguenots. The city eventually surrendered and the Huguenots fled to other countries – the rest is history…

Today with reduced COVID restrictions, La Rochelle welcomes tourists and we take a stroll around the old town to enjoy the sites, smells and indulge in French-ness. In the Bassin des Chaltiers, docked nearby is the Maître CoQ, the winning boat of the ninth Vendée Globe around the world race skippered by Yannick Bestaven, a La Rochelle local. (Vendée is a department in the Pays de la Loire region of Western France).

Once we depart La Rochelle, we will make our way to the south of the Bay of Biscay and into Spain. French will be placed on the shelf for a little while, and I’ll drag out the Spanish phrase book to resuscitate any Spanish I learned so long ago.

Until then…

La Rochelle, France

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Sailing the world aboard Blue Heeler
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