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Did Glénans school spark French sailing passion?

Jan 1, 2003

Upon reading Sven Donaldson's article The mavericks' race (Issue 126 Nov./Dec. 2002), it occurred to me that some people may wonder why there is such enthusiasm for single-handed around-the-world races in France. I think it can be traced to a relatively unknown phenomenon that occurred in World War II. An underground resistance group in Brittany made a specialty of helping downed British pilots return to Britain. They used small sailing fishing boats (motorized fishing boats had been immobilized in their harbors by the occupying Germans) that went from small southern Britanny harbors to the Glénan archipelago, some 10 miles south of Concarneau. From there they would rendezvous at night with British submarines that would take the pilots back. The resistance group found that most of the British pilots knew how to sail, so that the resistance didn't need as large a permanent crew for the ferrying, whilst when they took French resistance men, they needed a full complement, as their fellow citizens didn't know how to sail. So, after World War II, these guys decided to start a sailing school to correct that imbalance.

Thus was born the world-famous Les Glénans sailing school on a sort of Outward Bound system with three watches: one sailing, one at sailing classes, and one doing the domestic chores and cooking. One of the members, Jean Jacques Herbulot, designed the Vaurien, a small dinghy, and later the Corsaire, a monocoque miniature plywood cruiser and later a build-it-yourself version in molded wood, the Cap Corse. No engines were allowed on the Glénan boats; everything was done by sail and oar, and knowing how to scull was a requirement to graduate.

They had some unusual techniques. Once, when anchored in the Aven River, I saw two Glénan boats approaching, obviously racing. The leading one tried to pass upstream of my boat, but had distinctly misjudged the ebb current in the river. I hailed them to warn them of the collision risk. The order came, "Prepare to fend off!" and to my intense surprise, six pairs of feet appeared under the jib and, like a centipede, walked the boat along mine.

The Glénan-designed boats were very seaworthy, but they had a drawback, due to the necessity of accommodating as many stagiaires as possible on a boat: a multitude of berths, which made for a very cramped environment. One of their 26-footers had four bunks underneath the cockpit. The French term for quarter berth is couchette cercueil (coffin berth). I bet it comes from the Glénan school.

John Somerhausen, a retired Belgian foreign service officer living in New York, has sailed his 29-foot Columbia 8.7 to Europe and back.