In May 1994, we cruised the Normandy coast just before the 50th D-Day Anniversary celebrations commenced in earnest. Having crossed the channel from Portsmouth, our first destination was the rarely visited town of Isigny-sur-Mer, tucked in at the Western end of the Normandy Coast. Despite my brother, Hedley and the other crew, Jem Vercoe insisting we were in the wrong channel, we ‘felt’ our way through the tortuous estuary and ‘dried out’, at an uncomfortable angle, just before the first bridge. The bottom was very ‘lumpy’ and comprised of scrap metal and old engine parts. No wonder it was rarely visited!
At low water we witnessed an old lady leave her cottage, cross to the quay and throw a carrier bag of rubbish into the trickle of a stream beyond us.
We did, however receive some very helpful advice on where to moor from a local SNSM (the equivalent of our RNLI) volunteer, Denis Robiolle who later, very kindly, brought us a bottle of Calvados as a gift. The following day he and his young son guided us through the swatchways to safe water in his dory. I gave his son an old red ensign which I thought a fitting and inspirational gift for a French lad!
We sailed on the tide East along the coast, past Omaha Beach to Port en Bessin where we were too late on the tide to ‘lock into’ the inner harbour. Being early in the season, the outer harbour was practically empty, but the weather was settled and there were a number of unoccupied lightweight dinghy moorings. Fearing that we might be too heavy for the moorings we picked up 4, one on each quarter and one on each bow and spent a quiet night on board.
Hedley being restless and anxious to stretch his legs took the ill-advised decision to ‘walk’ ashore through the cloying mud. We just watched and took the mick as he sunk into the mud only to find the disgusting ooze brought back on his boots and spread around the cockpit on his return.
It was during the passage to Port en Bessin that we learned of the death of Ayrton Senna – another one of those ‘where were you’ moments like Lady Diana and JFK.
We managed to slip out astern as soon as we floated on the tide using the transom hung rudder to ‘row’ our stern through the maze of dinghy moorings. With the wing keel withdrawn, the Parker 31 draws only 2 feet so we floated off relatively early on the tide. We continued East, past Gold Beach and entered the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches. The harbour caissons had been damaged and displaced but it was still an eerie and humbling place.
We chose not to anchor for lunch as the bottom must have been strewn with detritus judging by the number of lobster pot markers. Pressing on we made it past the bridge and into the basin in Corseilles. My abiding recollection of the town was of a shop with large, ostentatious trophies in the window surrounded by jars of what looked like a beige furry substance. The caption read ‘Le Meilleur Tripe du Monde’ – the best tripe in the World – no thank you ! It was here that we met the crew of a Sadler 34 ‘Country Dancer’ which was a corporate yacht on a lad’s sail with 5 on board. We determined that we were both heading for Ouistreham and then up the canal to Caen so (inevitably) we decided to race but agreed that we would not use spinnakers. Slipping behind off Juno Beach, we quickly raised our ‘kite’ to be followed almost instantly by the Sadler raising theirs – so much for our agreement!
Passing through the lock into the Caen Canal, we pushed on to moor at Pegasus Bridge and had (quite a few) drinks in the Café which was the first place to be liberated by the Allies, troops having been landed by gliders nearby.
The original Pegasus Bridge was languishing in a field, as it was being replaced by a much larger version to the same iconic design. Pressing on towards Caen we were thwarted by a closed bridge and had to put crew ashore to wake the operator who was having a (post prandial?) nap. Again, we had to wait for a bridge to enter the marina basin in Caen and then we sought out the excellent restaurant recommended by the Capitainerie.
Jem and I thoroughly enjoyed our meals, but something didn’t agree with Hedley and he spent the night noisily vomiting over the side, his violent retching ‘barks’ echoing around the surrounding buildings in the quiet night.
Parting company from the Sadler, we pressed on East intending to enter the Dives river. Having lost time in the Ouistreham lock, we found the ebb in full spate and chose not to risk it. Looking for an ‘all tide’ destination, we carried on East to moor and re-fuel in Le Havre before returning across the estuary to enter Honfleur through the tidal gate.
Our final destination on the Normandy Coast was to be Deauville/Trouville where we found ourselves alone as the only visiting yacht, maybe because of the industrial nature of our chosen location. It was here that I met up with some friends before setting off overnight back to Portsmouth. The only notable experience on the passage back was, having left Hedley on watch, I emerged for my stint to be told that he had changed direction to miss some lights but he wasn’t sure what they were. It turned out to be the moon – an easy mistake…