Celebrating sailing ships: a successful new tradition in Brest – Meanderings through France
By Annick Dournes and Frédéric de Poligny
Every four years since 1992 Brest invites thousands sailing ships of all shapes and sizes thousands of sailors of all nationalities, hundreds of musicians and hundreds of thousands of enthused visitors to a seven days long big party. It is no coincidence that this exceptional event is such a success, being able to witness all these magnificent traditional boats sailing in the huge Brest bay never fails to impress.
Located at the extreme point of Brittany, Brest is the most westerly continental French harbour and ever since the beginning of its history it lives by the sea. In the ancient times Roman invaders built a fortress and a port there from where they controlled the whole Atlantic coast. In the Middle Ages Brest was one of Europe’s most important ports where almost all the ships going to and fro between Northern and Southern Europe had to stop. During the Hundred Years’ War, Brest was a strategic harbour and French and British armies constantly fought for it, alternately taking or losing it.
Later Cardinal de Richelieu, Louis XIII Machiavellian prime minister, had shipyards built in Brest in order to create an impressive military fleet. This purpose was achieved in the reign of Louis XIV when Brest’s castle was strongly fortified and the bay filled with heavily armed ships.
Today even if the town was massively destroyed by aerial allied bombings the castle still stands on its promontory overlooking the port and the Penfeld river mouth. It is now a Maritime Museum where you can see a collection of big wooden figureheads and model boats attesting to the savoir faire of the local shipyards.
This year from 13 to 19 July Brest will be the meeting point for boats lovers and for navies from all over the world: military vessels, training ships, yachts, racing boats, grand old ladies, four or three-mast schooners, brigs… will parade in front of the happy spectators. Through the years since 1992 the Brest Maritime Festival was also the opportunity to restore old ships or to build exact replicas of old famous boats. They have old-fashioned names such as la Belle Poule, the Beautiful Hen, l’Etoile, the Star, le Renard, the Fox, and are the proud of Brest inhabitants. Every day and all day long it’s a never-ending show: races follow regattas, parade follow manoeuvres around the treacherous reefs of the bay.
Of course you can be part of it and visitors can get on board these elegant ships. Everyday 90 minutes to 3 hours tours are organised to take you sailing along with the other ships: a unique way to discover how crews work and live unforgettable moments in the heart of this huge armada! The highlight of the festival will be the big parade from the Brest bay to the Douarnenez bay on July the 19th. Aboard one of the boat or from the seashore it’s a four-hour magnificent show. Booking is highly recommended as soon as possible at https://www.brest2016.fr/en
The festival guest star will undoubtedly be the Hermione. This now worldwide known frigate was originally the boat that took Lafayette, a 22 years old French gentleman, and his men to America in 1780 to come to fight alongside the American insurgents. The building of an exact replica began in 1997 thus recreating a part of French maritime heritage. It was finally completed and able to sail back to America last year and is now back to Rochefort, its port of registry. The 2016 Brest Festival will be a rare opportunity to see it sail. To learn more: http://www.hermione.com/en/the-hermione-project/the-history/
On the seafront and on the quays of the military port that are exceptionally open to the public on this very special occasion you will also be able to get on board the ships, visit them and talk to sailors from all over the world. Each invited nation has its own “village” on the seafront where visitors can get a glimpse of their specific know-how. Every day from 10 am till 1am you will be entertained by musicians playing all kinds of music and by street artists not to forget the daily night fireworks!
Onshore don’t forget to pay a visit to the Guip shipyard: Yann Mauffret and Paul Bonnel are two passionate shipwrights who restore old boats and are also able to re-build exact replicas such as the Recouvrance a 1817 schooner that symbolises the Brest Maritime Festival since 1992. They also build futuristic sailing wooden boats mixing old savoir-faire and advanced technology. More at http://uk.chantierduguip.com/
There are several ways to get to Brest from UK.
There are direct Flybe flights from Southampton or Birmingham to Brest Airport from May till September.
You can also take a Brittany Ferry boat from Plymouth to Roscoff and then a one hour drive will take you to Brest.
By train you have to take the Eurostar, change in Paris and take a TGV train to Brest.
For more information: https://www.brest2016.fr/en
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny and courtesy of Brest Tourism Board