We’re In-Seine

Fraser’s unique take on our journey so far.

Fraser, taking time to relax and enjoy the peace and quiet of sailing along the French coast.

Once we arrived in France, we felt that we were nearly in the canals, but not quite yet. For starters we still had a tricky 14-hour passage to get us to Honfleur, which lies at the mouth of the Seine River. We set off on Friday at a very civilised 8am, then promptly stopped again and hovered for a while as we met a huge ferry that just happened to be leaving at the same time. Once this hazard was avoided, it was straightforward out of the vast Cherbourg harbour and past its impressive military fortifications. Tides had a reputation for being strong along this coast, at over 3 knots. We soon felt this as Barberry raced up to nearly 10 knots, in lovely calm seas, to be carried all the way around the rocky headlands. We watched weird disturbances in the water as the tidal currents gurgled around us. 

These fortifications mark the outer harbour at Cherbourg. They’ve clearly been bombed during WWII.

Tide being tide, it changed direction after a few hours, and we then made slow progress to Honfleur across the long bay that was historically famous for the Normandy landings. It felt strange to be sharing the same water as such major historic events. As we approached the Seine, we were surrounded by many large, anchored tankers, all waiting for their chance to dock at Le Havre. We watched their AIS signals carefully as any one of these sleeping giants could set off across our path at any moment. So glad we have AIS — it tells you when other ships are starting to move, and even gives you a warning if a collision is imminent! 

Magical skies as we motored into the Seine estuary. On the horizon are the sleeping giants, huge ships at anchor, but many had smoke coming from their funnels, suggesting they might set off at any moment in the same direction as us.

Darkness started to fall as we travelled up the wide Seine, and the tide changed once again in our favour to push us up the estuary. Except it pushed us rather faster than we would have liked. We tried to slow down by reducing engine revs, but the tide was too strong, and we continued at over 7 knots. The issue with slowing down too much in a tide is that if you cut the engine then you lose the ability to steer and just go wherever the tide decides — not really a good idea. The extra speed meant that we were actually going to arrive ahead of schedule, which meant the tide might be too low for us to enter the lock at Honfleur due to the adjacent sand banks, so we risked both running aground and being swept further upriver, past Honfleur. 

Perfect sailing conditions from Cherbourg to Honfleur.

Kerry tried the VHF radio and got through to the lock keeper. Even though her spoken French sounds convincing (to Fraser anyway) she does not always understand the French replies, so the instruction as to when to enter the lock were somewhat uncertain! Understanding English on a radio is bad enough, never mind French. 

This is what the channel into the lock at Honfleur looks like when the tide is out! No wonder Kerry was a bit nervous.

The lock slowly came into sight, but the entrance looked really narrow and it was hard to spot if the lock gates were open for us as we were now losing the light. Once we made the turn across the river current we were committed, and Kerry gunned the throttle to ensure we were not swept into the looming sandbanks (that were now too dark to see). The current swirled, and Barberry was thrown around as Kerry fought the wheel and ‘went for it’. 

Thank goodness the lock gates were open, and we reached the safe haven and tied up in the lock. 

Barberry, rafted up alongside a Dutch boat in Honfleur inner harbour as there wasn’t enough space to moor alongside the pontoon.

Our first lock in Barberry gradually raised us up to the higher water level in Honfleur Harbour, and once through we felt secure and relieved to be out of the currents and into an amazingly tranquil place. We moored alongside a welcoming Dutch couple on a slightly bigger yacht (most are!), as there were no spaces on the pontoon. We slept well that night.

Honfleur is filled with narrow ancient streets and buildings like this, the bell tower of St Catherine’s Church, built by ship builders in the 15th Century.

This next day, Saturday, we explored Honfleur, which was very pretty and some wonderful old buildings, more like something from a Disney fairytale than real life. We were not prepared for the large number of tourists that this seemed to attract. It sometimes felt like we could hear more American accents than French ones! We were drawn in by the busy market, or perhaps ‘taken in’. We bought some sandwich spread and a few dried tomatoes for 21 Euro, at which point Fraser quickly lost interest in the market. We think there might have been different pricing for tourists! 

More beautiful buildings in Honfleur.

The place was filled with restaurants and trinket shops everywhere, and we spend ages trying to find a normal shop that sold ordinary things, like baguettes, cooked meat and cheese (which were quickly becoming the essentials of our new travelling diet). 

Honfleur to Rouen (Dismasted)

Sunday was the big trip up the river to Rouen, and we had to make all 60 miles on one tide, the reason being is that there are no permissible stopping points on the way, owing to the strong tides. That might sound easy enough, but we would normally estimate around 12 hours for a trip of that length. At sea, tides normally go out for 6 hours then in for 6 hours, so you would think that we would get 6 hours of good tide, bringing us up the river, then 6 hours of bad tide, washing us back down again. In fact, this is not the case for the Seine, and, although Fraser does not really understand it himself, he will try to explain. 

It seems that on a river the tide can carry you up for well over 6 hours as you ‘ride the tide’ up and keep pace with it. Fraser thinks of it rather like riding a wave when surfing. If you catch it right then it carries you along, otherwise you slump off the back of it. We were going for the biggest wave ride of our lives! 

[Edit by Kerry: the reality is that the time of high tide gets later the further up the river you get, so you’re always chasing the high tide]

So we set off back into the Honfleur lock at around 0930 on Sunday, as recommended by the lock keeper. This was 2 hours after low water, so less risk of running aground as soon as we went out into the Seine. As we sat in the lowering waters of the lock, we looked out into the river and what did we see? Nothing, or rather FOG. Not good! 

Thick fog as we left the lock at Honfleur, wondering if we were truly insane!

A river, busy with giant tankers, in a narrow channel on flood tide. Again, we were grateful for our AIS so we could at least know if they were coming. It was still very tense as Kerry gunned it into the whiteness to be caught by the strong tide and go shooting upstream. We knew there was a huge suspension bridge to go under very soon, but even that we could not see until we were right underneath it. To our relief, the fog eventually cleared and we could see our way. We were making good speed, over 12 knots at times, which means 6 knots of boat speed, plus 6 knots of tide (if we had turned around, we would have stood still!). This welcome speed means we had ‘caught our wave’ just right and were surfing to Rouen. 

Our chart plotter shows us rocketing along in the strong tide on the Seine at 12.3kn. The red blotches are radar targets.

The speed slowly dropped off as we got closer to Rouen, some 60 miles upstream, but we still had a fair tide all the way. Don’t forget we always think of river current as going downstream, so this phenomenon is really hard to fathom, but we’re not complaining. We got to Rouen at around 5pm and we had actually expected to be there more like 10pm! 

Dreamily heading upriver.

It was actually a lovely trip up the river once the fog had cleared and we relaxed. Some industrial areas, but mainly beautiful countryside with trees (every variety), limestone cliffs, green hillsides and fancy riverfront houses. The river was wide so we could stay well clear of anything coming the other way — in fact we rarely saw another boat and we had the whole Seine to ourselves. Rouen itself was quite industrial, especially near the marina, where we stayed, but it had all the facilities, including the all-important showers, and also a food shop not too far away. 

Wonderful little villages on the way upstream, cliffs and grassy hills, and so many trees of every species imaginable. Birdsong accompanied us the whole way.

We looked for a nice restaurant, but only found a Wild West themed one offering such things as cheval steaks. Fraser also noticed that there were wagons outside it, but the horses for these wagons were strangely missing.

We opted not to eat the steak à cheval…

Now we had to become a river boat. That meant removing our 12m mast, as boats with masts do not fare well under low bridges! On Monday, we prepared everything for the mast lowering, for which we had booked a crane at the local boatyard for the following day. This meant taking off the sails and boom, detaching all the electrics and aerial connections to the mast and securing all the running rigging (ropes that pull the sails up). It was a fair bit of work.

Antoine, our very helpful crane driver, swarmed up the mast like a monkey.

Tuesday, of course, it rained and rained. Nevertheless, we took the boat around to the crane, half thinking they might be closed due to the rain, but no, they were open, and a lovely man called Antoine appeared to help. He introduced himself (speaking a little English, while Kerry spoke a little French) then shot up the mast and secured the crane. He got Fraser to do the hard work, detaching all the standing rigging (the wires that hold the mast up) while he operated the cane with a little remote control, hung around his neck. He was very efficient (as was Fraser, of course!) and it was all done in less than an hour.

Fraser, carrying the spars across to the yard via wheelbarrow in the driving rain.

We then had to take the boat back to the marina, still in the rain, and then trudge back to the crane on foot to pack the mast for travelling and also bring the boom, spinnaker pole, whisker pole (basically a lot of poles) as well as the sails. Point of observation: welly boots cause blisters. These were all to be later collected by a transport company called ‘Boatloads’ to eventually be taken to the south coast of France and be reunited with us (assuming we get there…).

Mast and spars on the wheeled trestles, all padded and ready to be collected for transport.

The Boatloads man said everything needed to be wrapped and padded. Of course, we did not bring materials for wrapping and padding our 12m mast — how would you fit that in our boat anyway? Being an ingenious couple, Kerry and Fraser discovered the local boatyard tip and rummaged around until we found some old bits of sponge and some rotten mattress covers, which served the purpose well and the mast was duly wrapped. We could have carried everything on the boat, but the sails took up the space of two large people and Barberry is not a spacious boat. Also, the mast could have been supported on deck, but it would have stuck out both at both ends and been a liability in the locks, never mind the damage it could have done to our heads, as we no doubt would have bumped them on it. So transport for us was the preferable option, despite the extra cost involved.

Definitely awkward, moving around the boat without the mast and rigging to grab hold of for support! Note mini-mast with the French flag and our VHF aerial.

The boat felt great without the mast, and we were ready to set off for the canals. Fraser made a mini-mast, placing it where the big mast had been, for such purposes as attaching the VHF/AIS aerial and the French courtesy flag. Unfortunately, Kerry was not quite used to not having a mast and leant towards where is used to be, losing her balance and nearly destroying the new mini mast. No damage done though, and she has hopefully learned now!

Heading under our first bridge without a mast. It felt really strange!

One thought on “We’re In-Seine

  1. I am truly impressed with this leg of the journey. Well done Kerry and Frazer. You are so inspiring… living in the moment. 👏👏👏👏👏

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