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West Coast France
A PERSONAL VIEW OF THE PORTS AND HARBOURS I HAVE RECENTLY VISITED ON THIS COAST.
First I must start this page with a confession. Although I have sailed directly across Biscay 7 or 8 times, not going near the French Coast, I have port hopped only once going North and then once South whilst making deliveries between La Rochelle and the UK.
The 'list' runs from North to South
CHENAL DU FOUR:
Is one of those places which looks really challenging on the chart. In this day and age with the aid of powerful engines, GPS, Chart plotters it is a very straight forward passage. You do need to work the tides but plenty of boats enter an hour or two early or late and get through easily. A bit of wind over tide is not going to make it impassable.
Clearly it is not a place to be in a gale and in thick fog it could be difficult - in terms of not bumping into other boats. Provided you stick to the 'charted' routes you will find there is plenty of sea room and you will wonder what all the fuss was about.
There are several harbours and quite an expansive cruising ground after the Four. I have only ever been into Camaret which I think is possibly the best place for heading into coming from the Four or if heading south, you are two late to go onto the RAZ DU SEIN.
You come round the breakwater at the bottom of the picture and can either hang of buoys to the left and dingy ashore or park up in the little marina which has a diesel but no petrol. When the wind is up in the afternoon you do not want to enter into the inside berths area as there is not too much room to turn... The boats parked up in the middle of the picture near the village are nearly all local boats.
You walk to the village down the long breakwater then follow the road past some really interesting old fishing boat hulks, rotting on the shore, with the high tide filling their holds. The village is very used to yachties and has some really nice cafe' restaurants that are not too expensive. Heading either North for the Four or South for the Raz this is a good place to wait for the tide......
RAZ DE SEIN:
is a very serious place. On the chart it looks pretty straight forward and benign. I think it is anything but that and needs treating with the utmost respect. Wind over tide kicks up some pretty impressive broken water and it is best advised to avoid the areas on the chart where over-falls are shown. The first time I went though it heading north, in Eloise a 33ft Prout, there was about 6-8 knots of wind over tide and a couple of the breakers we took on the beam were 'startling'! We saw a couple of boats turning around to seek calmer water.
On the other hand heading south Louise and I were lucky with tides coming from Guernsey. We got to the Chenal du Four at dawn an hour or so before the tide turned fair, came out the bottom and carried straight on through the Raz with favourable wind and tide. Expecting to have an exciting time as it was full flood it was benign and mill pond like. Both times going through I found 'eyeball' navigation difficult and was really pleased to have GPS, Chart plotter.
Is to the Raz, what Camaret is to the Chenal du Four. In a snug little bay just a few miles south of the Raz it is the perfect place to wait for the right conditions before heading north or to find a safe haven if late in the day having cleared the Raz heading south.
You will almost certainly have to pick up one of the 50 or so mooring buoys laid by the port just behind the breakwater. You pick up a vacant buoy, make fast and sometime before sunset the harbour dory will come round for payment. Clearly if you want to go ashore you will have to use your dinghy. If the buoys are all occupied you can anchor off and still be pretty secure except perhaps in a strong easterly.
On the west coast of France many places require you to pick up a mooring buoy with a ring in the top. It is not easy in bigger boats to reach down and put a warp through this ring either from the bows or from alongside and the French often use one of these:
Basically you buy the 'hook' and fix the slide on your existing boat hook with a couple of Jubilee Clips.
Come up to the buoy and push the hook onto the ring. It fastens over the ring in the buoy and you then pull out the boathook.. It beats hell out of leaning over the side trying to get the rope though the hole. When you leave, you use the boat hook to 'snag' the rope ring on the back of the hook and pull it which causes the jaws to open and the gap in the hook to present itself to the ring on the buoy and to pull free......... Just pull it back on board.....
Sort of French version of Burnham on Crouch. The local yacht club runs the marina at Port de St Marine side and a little smaller St Marine side with its cafes, restaurants and not a lot else... it all looks charming and the little motorboat ferry runs across the river to Benodet where there are shops and a market. A delightful stopping place personally I think you would find it too small to 'winter' in.
It says about itself:- Bénodet is the microcosm of everything you think about Brittany, it has many contrasts from the bridge of Cornouaille that spans the river Odet, with the continual boating ballet being played out beneath its magnificent span, to the bay with its large sweeping beach and corniche. this makes Benodet seem like an animated postcard that is ever moving with the reflections on the water.
Louise and I were delivering Eloise from La Rochelle direct to the UK, when around midnight the wind came up to 18k on the nose so with the aid of Charts of the World we diverted into Benodet.... It was not that tricky except in the outer approaches to the river mouth.
is the place that has disappointed me most although lots of people rave about it. Both harbours require you pick up buoys and then use your dinghy to get ashore. At SAUZON, the most northerly of the two, there is no place to safely leave the dinghy - you end up climbing rusting metal ladders or similar and then have the problem of a several meter tidal range... Certainly the village is pretty enough, as is the inner harbour. There are some 20 odd mooring buoys laid in the summer just outside the harbour and then fore and aft buoys which raft several boats deep, just inside the harbour... Normally a fast dory comes out to meet you to help you moor up which is helpful. The main harbour of LE PALAIS has fore and aft in main harbour but all a bit rock and roll with the tourist ferries coming in and out.
Both ports and the anchorages around the island are very busy in mid summer when the French are on holiday! Frequently by 16.00 they are announcing on VHF 9 that the ports and moorings are full and no more boats will be admitted. Belle Ile is a very wealthy island. Millionaires row, as you can see as you sail pass the huge estates on the coast. The French president has his summer house there and most 'residents' helicopter in from the mainland.. I get the feeling that yachties, many of whom come in for a pleasant evening at a fine restaurant, are tolerated rather than encouraged.
LA TRINITE SUR MER:
Is one of my favourite places on the west coast and perhaps the first in my list that could be considered for 'wintering' in. I suppose it is the 'Hamble' of the area but the town is bigger with better facilities. It is a yachting - boating centre that has been around for ever with a history of sails and sailors. Many legendry French sailors come from this town and it is justly famous for it's contribution to ocean sailing.
You come up the river past the local moorings and little coves with charming houses on the waterfront, following the buoyed channel, to the excellent marina behind the big breakwater. A dory will come out and show you to a berth or you have the option of picking up one of the marina laid mooring buoys and using your dinghy to get ashore. This option is a matter of taste not finance as the 'berthing fee' is the same.
The small town has an excellent array of shops including one that seems to permanently discount sailing wet weather gear by 50%... I just really like the place.
Old Port is just lovely. Really historic and quaint and charming and behind it lays a bustling, busy town, probably the biggest in my list of ports so far. The marina is situated at the 'river' entrance on the left and has all the facilities plus some cafes and restaurants.
There is an excellent supermarket within walking distance or about 7€ in a taxi.
There is a pleasant walk from just behind the 'Capitainerie' along the river bank footpath to the old Chateau then into the Port area and the town. Really nice views that change with the tide as much of the area dries out. I didn't do it but I think you could probably dinghy. The only 'downside to it being a good wintering place is perhaps the marina itself which is a bit functional and the fact it is used by quite a lot of local fishing boats to berth in. Their departure or was it return at 05.00, under full power, certainly was a little disturbing but we were on an outside hammer head so they did steam past fairly close. It is slightly less expensive than most of the marinas on this coast.
NOIRMOUTIER / l'Herbaudiere
is just across the bay from Pornic. Well the harbour of l'Herbaudiere is and that's where you want to park up as Noirmutier itself is a drying river needing local knowledge.. You need to pay attention to the tidal height around the entrance to l'Herbaudiere as there are rocky outcrops, but once inside it is very safe and secure. Frankly it is not a very pretty port area - somewhat French 'kiss me quick' type place.. Having said that the marina has been fully upgraded to European standards and the 'free' bus service that runs down to the very beautiful, if somewhat touristy, Noirmoutier is well worth the ride. The bus takes you through some very pleasant French countryside to a delightful picturesque town on the tidal river. Well worth the visit.
ILE D'YEU & PORT JOINVILLE
Like all the islands on this coast Port Joinville is a very popular tourist destination for yachties and tourists from the mainland. In season it is really crowded - you can be rafted out by 8 or 9 boats but they are very well organised, helpful and the place is managed professionally. A dory will meet you at the entrance to the marina, where there are traffic lights beside the fuel dock. It will lead you to a berth and give you a push or tug if you need help in parking in some tiny berth! The marina, as you can see from the photo, is set inside a commercial harbour that has both fishing and ferry boats hurrying in and out. A short walk into the town and a myriad of cafe's, restaurants, takeaways etc. Several car hire and bicycle hire places as well. We hired a Jeep for half a day when we first visited. Out of season. It was really delightful to drive round the island looking at the 'quaint' holiday homes of the rich and famous. (hard to find anything much for less than a million!) I really like the place - a favourite
ST GILLES CROIX DE VIE
Is one of the places I like most in this area. Just across from Ile d'Yeu and again well managed and good place to visit. In fact I think it is possibly a wintering place, as the town is probably big enough to keep you entertained and has everything within walking distance. It is a hustling bustling little place with extensive pedestrian precincts with lots of local shops. The marina is large and well managed. Once again a dory will meet you and show you to a berth which will have all facilities. You might be rafted out one or two boats in high summer but they do have very extensive visitors moorings.
Here the Brotherhood of the Sardine (Confrérie de la Sardine) was founded in 1991. Headed by a grandmaster, it is devoted to the promotion of the seaside resort and the celebration of products from the sea, especially the sardine, which has become a speciality of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie. really good place to visit and spend a few days........Do not be put off by the river entrance up past the extensive fishing docks as soon after the river turns right you will see the marina ahead of you... It is right in the centre of town with excellent pontoon berths and facilities. You will be really pleased with 'Vendee WIFI 'which is available in most Vendee towns and marinas and may be paid for by credit card on line.
LES SABLES D'OLONNE
Is one of the prestige yachting centres hosting amongst other things the 'Vendee Globe' from the 1500 berth 'Port Olona marina'. Whilst there are some impressive shallows to pass if coming from either St Gilles or Joinville, the big breakwaters provide a safe entrance except in gale force onshore winds, leading to a vast marina with all facilities. For Olona you park up on the long pontoon with the fuel berth, on the left, just before the marina and go up to the office to be allocated a berth. All works pretty efficiently but sadly the marina is some distance from the town and a bit isolated. The shower facilities etc are fine but can be quite a hike from your berth. I have never managed to go in there but Port de Plaisance-Quai Garnier Sailing harbour is a new marina in the fishing harbour on the right some distance before Olona, as you go up between the breakwaters and that is right in the town and perhaps a better place to try first. Unless you can get into Quai Garnier I am not certain how good a place this would be to winter in because of Olona's relative isolation.
Is some 6 miles south of Sables d'Olonne and is a purpose built marina set in a bay beside a nature reserve. Once in the winding breakwater entrance you will see a long pontoon on your right terminating in the fuel dock. Normally you tie up or raft up on this pontoon then walk round to the office. There are a selection of cafe's, a couple of restaurants and a shop that also sells bread. There are some private flats and villas near to the 'parkland' areas. If you are being 'purist' and sailing between La Rochelle and Ile D'Yeu then it is a useful place to stop in overnight. Because of it's size Sables takes a lot of time and effort to 'park up' in whereas Bourgenay is an easy entrance and parking.
ST MARTIN en Re'
is to the La Rochelle area what Yarmouth IOW is to the Solent. An absolutely charming old harbour, set in a delightful little town on an historical and pretty island. Of course in high season it is very crowded and the yacht harbour is chock a block but out of season it is delightful and with so many cafe's and restaurants clustered around port area it is difficult to have a bad visit.
Entrance to the port is tidal and you are unlikely to find a place on the pontoon just inside the outer entrance so you will need to wait for HW and the lock gates. Normally, when the gates open, the first hour is occupied by craft that are leaving. You can 'hover' about in the entrance to the fishing harbour then head for the lock gates where the harbour master or one of his assistants in a dory will indicate which berth to head to. It's pretty tight in there.
Outside the harbour entrance are 3 waiting buoys and you can pick one up to wait for the tide or even spend the day/nigh on one and use the dinghy to go into the harbour. The holding is good in the area of the buoys so dropping the hook is also an alternative. Be aware of the reefs that stick out to the south and north of this anchorage... Given permission of the harbour master, it is a possible place to winter in.
There are several other little tidal ports and anchorages around the Ile de Re' and it is the sort of place that is worthy of wider exploration. Its connections with British military and maritime history are interesting as are the Napoleonic fortifications so reminiscent of the Solent.
Is up a tidal river and canal network that must be taken on the flood and takes you though locks and under a lifting bridge to a very pleasant little town called Marans. It has some very pleasant inexpensive little restaurants, pretty houses on the waterfront and some lovely canal side walks. If you are on a limited budget this could be a place to leave a boat or possibly winter although the facilities in the little marina are limited. On the downside transport without a car to 'places' is probably a problem and the centre of the town is bisected by the main road from La Rochelle leading to the Autorout
LA ROCHELLE - les Minimes
is the sailing centre or west coast France and probably one of the biggest marinas in Europe with some 3,000 berth. There is an extension of another 1,000 or so planned for 2010. It has facilities for everything from surf boards to super-yachts. Chandlery shops, 4 travel lifts a dozen or so 'yards' with the ability to repair or build boats, refrigeration and electronic repairs. Although a 'ferry' or bus ride away from La Rochelle itself, half a dozen or so UK boats 'winter' here every year.
The welcoming facilities in Les Minimes leave a lot to be desired. There is a visitors pontoon right in front of you as you enter and if there is space, park up there and one of the 'students' who work for the marina in the summer will take your particulars, then probably explain which are the visitors pontoons and tell you to find a space yourself. For the most part Les Minimes does not allocate berths like all the other marinas on the west coast, rather it leaves you to your own devices once you have paid. I sometimes think because they are the biggest, with a long waiting list stretching into years for berths, they do not have to bother to be particularly helpful or friendly.
The place has become so big it cares more for well being of the staff than the customers.
If you have a larger boat - say over 11 metres then you may winter in the Basin des Chalutiers on the right just before the entrance to the between the Richelieu towers to the Vieux Port. This is probably the nicest place to be as you step off the boat and you are almost in the middle of the town.
The Vieux Port entered between the towers has a couple of visitors pontoons and can accommodate boats up to 12 metres I think. Normally people do not 'winter' in this port but if there is space it is possible to go under the footbridge and through the lock gates, into the 'Basin a Flot. You will need to have spoken to Christian - the port captain of the Vieux Port/Basin a Flot/Chalutiers or to one of his assistants to be allocated a berth. For more information visit my 'home port' page here
has a couple of nice anchorages both of which have mooring buoys laid and the north-easterly one has good holding. The island is well worth a visit. Going ashore by dinghy needs some consideration of the tides etc. It has heavy Napoleonic fortifications, some of the best beaches in the area and it only takes an hour or so to walk around the island. In the village is a pretty church with an interesting crypt, a hotel and a couple of cafes. Apparently it has 189 inhabitants. It was Napoleon himself who gave directions to reinforce the fortifications. He ordered the construction of a house for the commander of the stronghold (today's "Musée Napoleon"), and the construction of Fort Liedot, In 1809, there was a naval battle off the island of Aix between the British Navy and the Atlantic Fleet of the French Navy. On the night of 11 April 1809 Captain Thomas Cochrane led a British fireship attack against a powerful squadron of French ships anchored in the Basque Roads. In the attack all but two of the French ships were driven ashore. The subsequent engagement lasted three days but failed to destroy the French fleet. Napoleon also spent his last days in France at Ile d'Aix, after the defeat at Waterloo, in an attempt to force a Royal Navy blockade to escape to the United States. Realizing the impossibility to accomplish this plan, he wrote a letter to the British regent. and finally surrendered to HMS Bellerophon, which took him to Plymouth before transferring him to Saint Helena. There are several companies who run boat trips from La Rochelle - Vieux Port to Ile d'Aix including Fort Boyard of television fame. Could be a good way to do the tourist trip.
Is up the Charente River and under the transporter bridge. One of the reasons for anchoring off Ile d'Aix is that the passage to Rochefort can only be undertaken on the flood tide in daylight hours and the lock gates into the marina/port are only open an hour or so either side of HW.. Some quite large 'coasters' travel up the river to the commercial docks just past the marina entrance which has a waiting pontoon. This is a possible wintering place or somewhere to leave the boat. There are always a quantity of live aboards in residence and the port is not far from town. It is less expensive than La Rochelle. It uses hired cranes to lift boats rather than a travel lift. I hauled and laid up my 36ft Moody and wintered her there in the locked yard and kept a Prout there for a winter. Very friendly place.
They are building a replica of a wooden warship 'Hermione' in the old docks and the King of France had the "Corderie Royale" (then the longest building in Europe) constructed to make cordage for French ships of war.
Rochefort is a notable example of 17th-century "ville nouvelle" or new town, which means its design and building resulted from a political decree. The reason for building Rochefort was to a large extent that royal power could hardly depend on rebellious Protestant La Rochelle, which Cardinal Richelieu had to besiege a few decades earlier. Well into the 20th century, Rochefort remained primarily a garrison town. The tourist industry, which had long existed due to the town's spa, gained emphasis in the 1990s although it is not a major tourist centre.
ILE D'OLERON -ST DENIS
Is towards the northern tip of the island. It is entered over a 'sill' so for many boats is only available around HW. There are 'waiting buoys' you can moor to whilst you wait for the tide. The marina is pleasant enough but for me the big problem was the walk to the small town which was not inconsiderable. Friends of mine kicked out of La Rochelle because of the 'Grande Pavois' (boat show in September when 'visiting' boats are not welcome in Les Minimes) had such a nice time in the place they stayed for six weeks!
Other friends used the harbour to shorten the trip down to Royan rather than leave from La Rochelle.
Is some 50 miles south of La Rochelle without any alternative port on the way except St Denis which only saves 3 hours. The approach up the Gironde estuary needs to be timed on the flood as otherwise you will be heading into some serious currents. This works out fine for leaving La Rochelle or St Denis around HW and some 40 miles later you are ready to ride the flood up to Royan. In my page about a cruise I made to Spain in 2009 you will find more info North Spain.
The marina, which is actually in the fishing harbour of Royan, is an excellent place to be, as is the town. Not always as picturesque as other places in the neighbourhood because it got shelled and bombed to bits at the end of WW2, it none the less is extensive and could be an excellent place to winter. The town is on the doorstep of the port and the important Bordeaux wine districts just across the river. I am surprised more boats do not winter here as it has so much to offer. Once inside the Gironde estuary there are some lovely little ports to visit and it is possible to take your boat up to Bordeaux itself.
Is on the other side of the Gironde estuary to Royan. There are a couple of 'bac' - ferries - who sail back and forth all year from Royan carrying cars and foot passengers. When they arrive in Port Block it is a good 10 minutes walk to Port Medoc Marina. In high summer there are queues of cars waiting to board the ferry and the next nearest place to cross is Blaye. Despite the impression of the photo there are always free berths in Port Medoc to rent or to buy. The problem for this marina is it's inaccessibility by road or other transport. There are cafe's etc in the 'complex' but you must have a car to available and the ferry services are not cheap.
BAYONNE is in fact some 5 or 6 kilometres from the marina but there is a regular bus service from just behind the marina. The local area has a few small restaurants and bars but the little local supermarket is a 15 minute walk. I think it is not a 'port of refuge' in anything of a blow... taking avoiding action to miss the marker buoys of the drift nets that are set by the local fishermen 3/4 of the way across the river... It is important to keep to Starboard leaving the white marker buoys of the drift nets to port. What happens is the fishing boats - small launches - lay nets with the outside end on a large white buoy across the river some 2-300 metres above the marina entrance. Having dropped the net close to the south edge of the river they back off as close as possible to the North side then 'drift' with the current. MORE INFO HERE
If you are thinking of cruising further south towards Spain please follow this link to an article about our 2009 cruise MORE INFO HERE
The cost of diesel in most marinas was over 1€ a litre in France and around 87c a litre in Spain
The following table of daily charges is the least expensive I found on my last trip.
Generally I was paying 2-4 € a night more!
If you want to know more about La Rochelle/Les Minimes facilities then Sailing info la Rochelle
If you are heading further south to Spain this could be of interest North Spain
For books and French canal charts please go to
At 03.00 on Sunday 28th February 2010, a deep low tracking up Biscay from Spain and Portugal veered off to the East and came ashore some miles north of La Rochelle causing devastating flooding to the Charante Maritime area and drowning some 50 plus people before moderating and heading off towards Belgium and the Netherlands