An email received last November containing an invitation from Ben Collins to 'Meet up with our fellow French Gaffers for some jollifications at their winter social and meal in St Malo' promised an appealing (or would it be appalling) way to meet up with OGA members. To add to the attraction Brittany Ferries would provide the boat, crew and ashore accommodation for a reasonable fee. So on 17 January 2014 a select group of Gaffers gathered at Portsmouth ferry port for the event. Well I eventually did. As a new member I had not actually met any OGA members before and the stereotypical gaffer image didn't map very well onto anyone present, until the arrival of people carrying beer kegs who became the OGA rallying point. Problem solved.
The Brittany Ferries vessel ‘Pont Aven’ is a modern, comfortable super ferry and once embarked and cabins located members met at the bar designated by Ben for further introductions and reunions. Most members then took advantage of the excellent restaurant to continue the socialising before retiring to their cabins for the night crossing, able to ignore the wet and windy conditions. Following an on-schedule arrival in St Malo at 08:15 local time we were met at the terminal by Yannie Cariguel, national president of the French OGA, then made our way on foot to the hotel inside the old town, looking for all the part like a group of refugees trailing along. With an early check-in there was a degree of room roulette with fortunate (deserving?) folk getting immediate access, then it was breakfast for those in need, a briefing from Ben and into the weekend’s busy schedule of activities.
Saturday morning was set aside for a visit to the boatyard of Chantier Naval Mayday Boat, who are specialists in boat restoration in addition to new boat construction. The tour, led by Bob Escoffier, commenced at their unique and impressive harbour office, then onto the boat sheds and yard area. The range of boats under build and repair proved fascinating, with construction methods ranging from traditional timber methods to large sheathed plywood builds. A dedication service was in hand at the time to mark the partial restoration of a local community owned historic boat, providing a further insight into the local association with traditional boats.
Saturday afternoon saw a deterioration in the weather with rain and a cold breeze, however, the enthusiasm, example and knowledge of our local OGA guide, Rolland Mazurie des Garennes, made the tour of the historic town, cathedral and walls an enlightening and interesting session. Rolland's knowledge of the local and related history was extensive, and first hand in respect of the occupation and liberation during the last war. The sun did eventually reappear at the end of the tour bringing with it some good photo opportunities out to sea from the walls.
After a brief respite the focal point of the weekend was upon us, the evening meal with the French OGA members. This commenced with a gathering at the local OGA headquarters, situated within the city walls. Following a few semi-formal ‘thank you’ words there was an exchange of choral tributes which must have resounded well beyond the walls, all assisted by plentiful sampling of our ale donations and their bar stock. I can say that my boat engine should run very well on their punch!
The evening meal was held at a nearby restaurant, with a traditional dish of pork and cabbage with trimmings, plentiful wine and a fruit tart dessert, sound gaffer fare. Needless to say the singing continued throughout the evening interspersed with frequent toasts. Apparently some stalwarts returned to the OGA HQ to round off the night, however, that is best recounted by others if they can remember it.
Sunday morning saw everyone present and able(?) for the last planned activity, a tour of the square-rigged frigate ‘Étoile du Roy’, formerly the ‘Grand Turk’. The tour was led by Jean Yvon Combot who via the translating skills of Ben and Sue took us through the sailing, crewing, commercial and regulatory aspects of the boat, plus some background on the original trading activities of that type of vessel. The local regulations require a minimum crew of seven, however, Jean stated that 17 was the minimum necessary for passage making. The need to meet modern commercial and regulatory regulations has resulted in an impressive engine room with two Kelvin diesel propulsion units and four generating sets, but not much room for victuals, so no long passages! I have learnt not to get the wind forward of the beam if I ever get a to sail a square-rigger.
From late morning on we were free to explore the area. With the fine weather most elected to take a walk to the Rance Estuary via the marina and bay, taking in the 1939-45 memorial (fort) and the 14th Century Solidor Tower. The tower is now the Cape Horner's International Museum and we were treated to preferential rates and a conducted tour by one of the guides, a local OGA member. A restaurant on the seafront provided a pleasant lunchtime interlude in the sun to break up the walk. Other members took the opportunity to photograph and sketch the local scenery and attractions. With the weekend in St Malo drawing to a close attention turned to rounding off the visit with a further social gathering. Those with a nose for such places had identified a couple of local ‘character’ bars to relax at (objective achieved) then it was on to a recommended local restaurant for an enjoyable meal, rounded off by the obligatory last night at the hotel bar.
Monday morning saw an orderly exit from the hotel and the refugee group making the trudge back to the ferry terminal in time for the 10:30 departure and a day crossing to Portsmouth. Another fine day and 20kts cruising speed made for a pleasant crossing, although as always it seemed to take a long time from seeing the Isle of Wight to reaching Portsmouth. Then it was time for goodbyes along with reminders of when and where future meets will be.
My over-riding memories of the weekend are of the OGA members I met from our various regions, their friendliness and humour (and propensity to sing), the hospitality of the French OGA members and St Malo itself. On all our behalves a big thank you to Ben for setting it up, have you got the next one in-hand?
Report: new OGA member Alan Hocking
Photo credit: Sarah Adie