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Into the unknown...

or should it be 'dans l'inconnu ' since we are off to France in our next stage. Well it is not that unknown as this is one of the most dramatic, historic and cultural coasts of France. It's just that the Snark hasn't ventured here before.

Though sailing from Dover to Calais may seem a short hop , just 24 nautical miles, it is a big adventure in its own right. Firstly the excitement of crossing the busiest shipping lanes in the world, while avoiding the ferries that rush to and from on the same route. Then arriving in a French port as an alien on an overseas registered vessel. Passport control, ship registration and licencing checks, VAT and other tax questions, imported food and waste management issues, all to be done in a language which I haven't used for decades and Qiao has never learned.

We have been preparing. My schoolboy French was so bad they didn't even think I should enter the O level (GCSE) exam! My french teacher, cruelty nicknamed 'Charlie Pig' by his pupils, tried to beat it into me, literally, and it is surprising how much I can still remember. It's just that not much of it helps when you are dealing with maritime matter.; it's a whole new language.

Since Brexit, arriving in France with passengers adds another whole layer of complexity which we can really do without! So the cross channel trip will be a delivery trip only, with our next guests joining us in Calais, hot off the cross channel ferry and the joys of French customs control. On a historic note, Calais was the last bastion of the Anglo-French Plantagenet Empire, not falling until 1558. Most of its famously impenetrable fortifications have long gone as has almost all of the medieval city but its moat still surrounds the original heart of the city.

We now need the tides to push us back down the Channel. As always the headlands dictate the timings and on our first day it is Cap Gris Nez, Grey Nose, the closest point to England just 21 miles, that dictates our departure. Our next stop, Boulogne-sur-Mer is only 22 away and we will be leaving at around 14:00 to catch the start of the ebb, arriving in time for a good evening meal on board. On route we will pass Wissant from which the fleet of Julius Caesar set off to invade England, unsuccessfully on that occasion.

Boulogne is the port that Emperor Claudius used for his later successful Roman conquest of Britain and it has been a strategic link to England ever since. While it no longer boasts the regular ferry traffic it once had, it still has the atmosphere of an international port and is dripping with Anglo-French history from its citadel to its port. We won't be leaving until 13:00 at the earliest so there is plenty of time in the morning to explore, or just sit on the quay with a mid morning coffee and perhaps another croissant!

Our next day's sailing is still a little undefined. We are hoping to go to St. Valery sur Somme which is an estuary port some eight miles across drying sand banks. St Valery is where, after several abortive attempts to cross the Channel, William the Conqueror finally set out to invade England and claim the crown he believed was rightfully his from Harold. He landed in Pevensey next the the Eastbourne Marina we stopped at during stage 1. The channel is only open two hours either side of high tide and the ebb runs out at over five knots, a bit like our home port of Topsham on the Ex. So timing is everything. We should arrive at the bar buoy in time to take the remains of the flood across the shallows to the pretty little quayside arriving in the evening. However, and its a big however, if there is a strong onshore wind the waves at the bar can be dangerous and so we would have to sail on to the less exciting but easier to access fishing port of Le Treport.

Whichever port we end up in we will be leaving around 09:00 the following morning so there won't be much time for sightseeing. Our next stop is Dieppe, having sailed past the white cliffs of the Alabaster Coast that protects this part of France. Dieppe is the first big gap in the bulwarks and has a history of maritime conflict that goes with it. It has been the place of French pirates, Anglo-Dutch raids, colonial explorations, of tragic invasion attempts and is still a key port for cross channel travel. It retains all the charm of a seaside resort, frequented by many famous French artists and still a holiday destination for the urban French.

We should arrive mid afternoon and leave the next morning at 11:00 so there is plenty of time to discover what the town has to offer before we head off to our next port, Fecamp. Another archetypical Normandy town, full of half timber buildings, stone churches and abbeys and the inevitable cafes and bars serving a heady mix of Calvados and moule et frit. There are only a few hours to explore here before we need to set of south once more mid morning the following day.

As we sail SW the limestone sea cliffs will get higher and more indented, with sea arches and stacks colonised by numerous sea birds, before the land falls away and opens up into the mouth of the River Seine at Le Havre. Like all big estuaries, the Seine has its fair share of sand and mud banks, strong currents and coastal shipping, all of which present challenges as we head across to the pretty port of Honfleur on the south side of the river.

It is unlikely we will get into the picturesque Vieux Bassin, guarded by the famous medieval Lietenance and will be berthed amongst the Seine river cruise ships in the Bassin L'Est. From here it is only a short walk into the town, and the walk is well worth making. This is the most unspoilt of the ancient ports we will visit on this stage and full of wonderful photo opportunities and great quayside cafes. We will be arriving late and leaving early but we should still have a spare day in hand which we could spend in Honfleur or press on and spend it in our disembarkation port, Caen.

The passage from Honfleur to Caen is one of those for which the Irish directions would be ' I wouldn't start from here if I was you.' All the tidal considerations and the prevailing winds suggest you should really go the other way. We will be leaving Honfleur two hours before high water straight into the flooding tide which will remain against us all the way to Oiustreham, the entry port to the Caen Canal. The last lock into the canal is two and a half hours after high water which, with some juggling, gives us five hours to cover the 24 nm lock to lock. This should be possible with the liberal use of the iron sails but it will be tight!

We now enter the land of Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy as we head up the Caen Canal, through the famous Pegasus bridge, into the basin in the heart of the city. Here there are museums, Norman cathedrals, peace institutions, castles, memorials and war graves that tell the stories not only of the Normandy invasion that lead to the end of WW2 but also the history of the Normand themselves as it was here that William and his wife Matilda commissioned not just one but two great Romanesque abbeys, the Men's and the Women's. Add to this one of the largest Norman castles in Europe, a restored ancient quarter and the war museum, and there is lots to see here before catching the ferry back to Portsmouth from Ouistreham. The Snark will be berthed here for a week and we can extend your stay onboard for a couple of days if you want to explore the history of the area in more detail.

We will write about Operation Neptune and Overlord in our next blog which describes sailing along the famous D-Day beaches and more about William as we visit the Bayeux Tapestry.

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