Classic Boats get Together in France

Updated:
Original:
L’Hermione’s cannon sound off as she enters the harbor.

L’Hermione’s cannon sound off as she enters the harbor. Photo courtesy of Melanie Denniel

Photos courtesy of Simon Cohen; Alexis Courcoux; Jose Guijarro

Back in 1992, when I was working at a British sailing magazine, I volunteered for some tough duty—covering the first International Festival of Sail in Brest, France. Someone had to do it, and as a wooden-boat owner, I was the magazine’s de facto classic boat expert.

I was no stranger to boat shows, regattas and classic-boat festivals. I was not, however, prepared for what I found in this famous Breton port. The French navy’s docks in the Penfeld River were opened up to public use for the first time ever, and they were crammed with hundreds of traditional boats whose variety defied description.

They had come from all corners of the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, from all the Scandinavian countries, from Canada and the United States, from South America and Africa. There was a fleet of tall ships the equal of any I’d seen, countless wooden cruising boats that had been lovingly spiffed up for the occasion, and dozens of rebuilt, restored and recreated working craft from every region of the French and British coasts, and a few more besides. The historic Rade de Brest roadstead was alive with red, tan, cream and white sails sported by boats of all sizes, from tiny dinghies to majestic square-riggers, more than 2,000 boats all up—it’s safe to say the world had not seen its like.

Many voyagers had covered serious miles to get there. I met up with legendary author and SAIL contributor Don Street, who, together with one of his sons, had sailed a flimsy wooden Dragon raceboat from Ireland across the Irish Sea and the Western Approaches, both notoriously ill-tempered stretches of water fringed by unforgiving coastlines. The ensigns of other boats told similar stories: Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Welsh, Scottish and German colors snapped in the fresh breeze alongside the hundreds of tricolors.

Shoreside, the scene was just as amazing; I heard later that close to a million visitors had thronged the port and the town during the week. There were demonstrations of all sorts of seamanlike things, from traditional ropemaking to clinker-building boats. Troupes of musicians from all over Europe broke into song and dance wherever they found room. Long tables sagged under the weight of trays of langoustines and beer. The buzz of the crowd and the caterwauling of Breton and Irish bagpipes continued into the small hours, punctuated by firework displays and incredibly loud shots from an 18th century ship’s cannon gleefully deployed by a group of smoke-stained Napoleonic War recreators. The bars stayed open until—well, they just seemed to stay open.

In short, it was one hell of a party.

Since then, the festival has been held every four years, almost like an Olympics for classic boats. There are other big classic-boat events in Europe—the biennial event at Douarnenez, just around the corner from Brest, is justly popular—but none have the cachet of Brest.

This year’s maritime festival, the seventh, got under way on July 13. The star this time around was the lovingly built replica of L’Hermione, the frigate that carried the Marquis de Lafayette to America in 1780. As her crew swarmed aloft to furl her sails she glided majestically into the harbor, sounding a 21-gun salute to officially open the festival and unleash another week of partying, proving once again, if proof were needed, that no one loves boats, sailing and the culture of the sea as much as the French.

September 2016

Related

01b-LEAD-INSET-Kirby-IMG_0077

Eight Bells: Bruce Kirby, Creator of the Laser

With 2021 drawing to a close, Laser sailors find themselves reflecting on both their class’s 50th anniversary and the passing of the man who made it all possible: Canadian designer, sailor and sailing journalist, Bruce Kirby. Kirby, who died this past July at the age of 92, ...read more

2021ROLEXIC_DF_0061

Southern Yacht Club Wins Rolex NYYC Invitational Cup

Newport, R.I. -- The 7th Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup wrapped up on Saturday after five days of highly competitive racing in an international fleet that saw the Southern Yacht Club (SYC) of New Orleans best a fleet of 19 teams from Europe, Canada, Bermuda and ...read more

DUFOUR-530_NAVIGATION_009

Boat Review: Dufour 530

Dufour Yachts seems to have shifted its strategy with the introduction of the new 530. Previously, the French builder maintained two lines: Performance and Grand Large, with the latter targeted at the cruising crowd. With the Dufour 530, however, Dufour decided to combine the ...read more

210913-11HRT-SKIPPER-PORTRAITS-VC-122

11th Hour Christens Two IMOCAs, Hits a Snag

This week has been a big one for the American-founded, sustainability-centric ocean racing team 11th Hour Racing. In addition to christening their two new boats, the team also took them out for a quick test ride—against some of the most intense IMOCA 60 skippers in the world. ...read more

01-LEAD-DSCF3091

Clewless in the Pacific

Squalls are well known to sailors who cruise the middle Latitudes. Eventually, you become complacent to their bluster. But squalls vary in magnitude, and while crossing from Tahiti to Oahu, our 47ft Custom Stevens sloop paid the price for carrying too much canvass as we were ...read more

Nigel

SAIL’s Nigel Calder Talks Electrical Systems at Trawlerfest Baltimore

At the upcoming Trawlerfest Baltimore, set for Sept. 29-Oct. 3, SAIL magazine regular contributor Nigel Calder will give the low down on electrical systems as part of the show’s seminar series.  The talk will be Saturday, October 2 at 9am. Electrical systems are now the number ...read more

5ae5b8ce-3113-4236-927b-f795be4ae091

Bitter End Yacht Club Announces Reopening

Four years after being decimated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Bitter End Yacht Club is set to reopen for the Winter 2022 season. Hailed as one of the best anchorages in the Caribbean and built by sailors, for sailors, this island outpost in the BVI has been a favorite with ...read more

01-LEAD-'21.05.01_Jay-&-Mira

Cruising: Bluewater Pollywogs

Bluewater sailing is 25 percent actually sailing and 75 percent learning how to live on a boat at sea, in constant motion and with no chance to get off the roller coaster. I cannot over-emphasize how difficult normal daily functions become at sea, even on nice, calm days. ...read more