Rowing the English Channel from Mont Saint-Michel
Just before 20:00hrs on 3 July 2012 three English rowers slipped away from the foot of Mont Saint-Michel abbey in Normandy on a voyage into the unknown or almost unknown, since it's unlikely anyone has tried crossing the English Channel in this way since the 12th century.
Originally, they intended to row the 300 km non-stop from the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel to its daughter priory of St Michael's Mount in Cornwall. Instead, the wind, tides and strong currents remorselessly pushed the rowers eastwards towards the Norman abbey's other daughter priory in England Otterton Priory in Devon.
As hoped, the experiences of our C21st rowers experienced should lead to a far better understanding of navigation in the Middle Ages and the problems faced by mediaeval invaders and traders on either side of the English Channel.
By Christopher Long
The leader of the 2012 Mont2Mount challenge was Mike Noel-Smith who was accompanied by his two sons, Harry and Will.
Mike Noel-Smith was a British Army infantry officer for 18 years. For three years from 1992 he was operations manager of Challenger World (outdoor management training) before becoming director of training at Insights Ltd under Will Carling (then England Rugby Captain). He then designed and developed an assessment and leadership centre in the UAE. A Fellow of the Institute of Leadership Management he is also a keen ski mountaineer and rock climber. He has led expeditions over much of the Alps, the volcanoes in Mexico, the mountains of Africa and the jungles of Central America. In 2003, with Rob Abernethy, he rowed 2,000 miles into the Indian Ocean before being seriously injured and at the mercy of gales for four days following tropical storms. This lead to a dramatic night rescue by an Australian warship.
Harry Noel-Smith, 19, is studying Sports Science at Swansea University. He has already trekked up to 5,400 m. in the Andes, done an 8,000 ft skydive and captained his school team in the arduous 55-mile and 45-mile Ten Tors competition over Dartmoor. He is a Level 1 RFU rugby coach, having played for Doha, Monmouth, Exmouth and Swansea University. His main outdoor activity is wild water surfing and can often be found on the Gower coast.
Will Noel-Smith, Will Noel-Smith, 25, is an Exercise Science Graduate from Exeter University, currently working for a local Organic Drinks company whilst developing online projects. As an NLP practitioner, Will also offers personal training at conventional and holistic levels and has helped a handful of elite athletes to date, including a GB sailor, an International women's rugby player and a county golfer. His sporting accolades include captaining Monmouth Boys’ School rugby 1st XV and 1st VII teams, representing the England Rugby Presidents XV in 2004, and representing the New Zealand Sports Academy in Rotorua, New Zealand in 2005. He was also a fitness ambassador for a leading UK Sports Nutrition company in 2008-2009.
The team was originally intended to consist of four rowers. But, at the last minute, Rob Abernethy once a rowing partner of Mike Noel-Smith when the pair rowed across the India Ocean was unable to take part.
This photograph of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy was taken by David Iliff from the Barrage on the river Couesnon which was originally intended to be the launch point for the rowers in 2012. Engineering works on the Coesnon plus the weight of the craft led Mike Noel-Smith to choose the foot of Mont-Saint-Michel as the launch site.
Historians planned to watch the problems faced by the M2M crew very carefully because crossings such as this were often made by monks in mediæval times when the priories on St Michael's Mount (Cornwall) and at Otterton (Devon) belonged to the monks of Mont Saint-Michel. Unlike our rowers, however, these monks would have relied mainly on sail and would almost certainly have stopped off at one or other of their coastal priories on the Channel Islands.
The sea passages from Cornwall and Devon to the coasts of Brittany and Normandy were also among the most important in Europe from the Bronze Age onwards (ca 2500-800 BC). Cornwall was almost the only source of the tin necessary for making bronze and pewter, thus attracting traders from throughout the known world who exported Cornish tin across the Channel in small ships.
Otterton Priory was the most important of Mont Saint-Michel's properties in England, holding important parishes, churhces, manors, mills, fishing rights and harbours along the estuary of the river Otter. Otterton was 'suppressed' as an 'alien priory' in 1414 and the church tower is now all that remains of the original buildings following the dissolutions of 1539 under Henry Vlll.
The monks of Mont Saint-Michel also owned the island of St Michael's Mount, below, which is about the same height and size as Mont Saint-Michel but which is crowned by its 12th Century church and original priory buildings, which later became first a fortress and then the home of the St Aubyn family. Nowadays the family share their good fortune with thousands of National Trust visitors each year.
In October 2010 James St Aubyn of St Michael's Mount asked the author, who lives in Normandy, to come up with proposals and helpful contacts in Normandy for an attempt to cross the Channel in a Cornish 'pilot gig'. The gig team would have consisted of six rowers and a cox led by Rob Abernethy, Colin Campbell and Gary ???. In May 2012, a month before the team was due to set off, the pilot gig bid was dropped for reasons that were never made clear.
The rowing and support team will be based with Stéphane at the gîte at the Centre Equestre, Beauvoir, between Pontorson and Mont-Saint-Michel.
The boat, its crew and its equipment all comply with best navigational practice and safety considerations. The row will take place in compliance with the requirements of the Préfecture Maritime (Cherbourg) and thanks to the cooperation of Coastguard services and port & harbour authorities in Britain (e.g. Falmouth). Permission sought for a "CC1 alert to all vessels" in the sector.
The rowers are most grateful to RNAS Culdrose for meteorological help and advice.
The M2M launch will take place, courtesy of François-Xavier de Beaulaincourt and Romain Desguée, from the Barrage at the mouth of the river Couesnon, beside Mont-Saint-Michel itself.
The likely time of departure is 2 July 2012 at about 18h:00, though this may change subject to weather conditions. If necessary, a delayed launch would be possible on 3, 4 or 5 July (between 18h:00 and 20h:00).
Sea kayaks led by Ian Wood will guide the M2M rowers through the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel.
The rowers will rendez-vous with their escort yachts, skippered by Jean-Marie d'Aigremont & Michel Rostand, south-west of the Îles Chaussey (yacht crews: Henri Beaujour-Bourget, Paul de la Pintière, Comte Bruno de Felcourt, Jean Miginiac and Christian Fleury.)
A French doctor, Frédéric Chapon, will be available on one of the escort yachts.
Press relations for the event will be led by David Nicolas-Méry who, as a historian, will be studying what the M2M event can teach us about the navigational challenge in mediaeval times.
Co-ordination of the project in Normandy is organised by Christopher Long and in Cornwall by Rob Abernethy.
We are most grateful to the Directeur du Syndicat Mixte de la Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel; the Conducteur d'Opération Barrage et Hydraulique; the Base de Pleine-Aire, Couesnon Rive Gauche, Pontorson; Sea-Kayak Mont-Saint-Michel; the Préfecture Maritime (Cherbourg); and the Centre Équestre, Beauvoir.
The diary of events below records the French end of the planning exercise organised for and around recce visits by members of the rowing teams. The rowers and their sponsors are very grateful to all their friends and supporters in Normandy who are essential to project's success.
In early July 2012 four experienced rowers will set off from the mouth of the Couesnon river, at the foot of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, to begin a non-stop row across 185 miles of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
Their self-sufficient, purpose-built ocean-going rowing boat Fire Ant will contain all their needs for the next couple of days and will be equipped with survival and communications kit supplied by their major sponsor, Shelter Box.
In addition to Rob Abernethy and Mike Noel-Smith, who have already rowed across much of the Indian Ocean together, the team also includes Mike's two sons, Will and Harry, both of whom are sports instructors.
To begin with, the rowers will be led across the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel by a flotilla of sea-kayaks.
The next stage will take them to the south-western approaches to the Îles Chaussey the southernmost of the Channel Islands where they will rendez-vous with two escort yachts which will accompany them across the English Channel.
After rowing for at least thirty-six hours non-stop they intend to end their epic trip in their home harbour at St Michael's Mount in Cornwall.
More than two or three thousand years ago this voyage was frequently made by traders seeking Cornish tin for markets throughout Western Europe.
A thousand years ago, in the 11th Century, the same passage was well-known to monks from Mont-Saint-Michel who sailed back and forth between their Norman abbey and their Cornish priory perched on the summit of St Michael's Mount.
The monks, however, almost certainly broke their journey in one of the Channel Islands such as Guernsey where they owned other priories and useful harbours for just this purpose.
It was these monks who first inspired James St Aubyn, Christopher Long and David Nicolas-Méry to re-establish, in 2007, old Anglo-Norman links between the 'Mont' and the 'Mount'.
By 2010 a plan had emerged which originally involved a team of eight rowers from the Mount's Bay Pilot Gig Club rowing across the Channel in a 'pilot gig'.
But after about 18 months of detailed research and planning on both sides of the Channel, it became clear that before a single team of young rowers made a non-stop 'gig' attempt, it would be wise to mount a trial run in a purpose-built ocean-going boat with a highly experienced crew.
This, it is hoped, will lead to a 'pilot gig' team making a crossing in their own faster but relatively more fragile craft in the next couple of years.
Above: 'Fire Ant' is a purpose-built ocean rowing craft which will be rowed from Mont to Mount by a four-man team in July 2012. She is 8.90 metres long, with a beam of 1.65 metres and a draught of 2.00 metres. Unladen she weighs 160kg. Fire Ant generates her own electricity from solar panels (e.g. for radio communications) and has her own desalination kit to produce drinking water. She is built of glass fibre epoxy resin incorporating inbuilt Herex foam sandwich and carbon fibre struts. The charity Shelter Box which drops boxes of survival kit into disaster zones around the world will be providing much of her essential kit, including: sat-phones, radios, rations and lifejackets. Hopefully the rowers will also have their own video-cameras on board to provide live coverage of their record-breaking row.
Above: The crew took delivery of their boat in early May 2012 and began sea trials. "She's very fast!" said Mike Noel-Smith.
The aim of the record breaking non-stop 185 mile row from Mont-Saint-Michel to St Michael's Mount is to raise money for chosen charities. Rob & Mike have chosen to support Shelter Box as their title charity for the event. Shelter Box started as a small charity in Helston, Cornwall, where it provided multipurpose survival kits in distinctive green boxes which were distributed to families in disaster areas. Since its launch in 2000 Shelter Box has now grown to provide aid on a world-wide scale to victims of natural disasters. In July 2012 it will be providing much of the survival aid needed by the four M2M rowers.
In France, planning for the gig challenge began in October 2010 and in May 2011 James St Aubyn (owner of St Michael's Mount), Rob Abernethy (the Mount's chief executive) and Colin Campbell (the gig club's technical/navigation adviser) spent two days on a recce in Normandy, based at Le Bosquet, Pont-Farcy. They explored the following suggestions by CAL:
In November 2011, Five members of the Mount's Bay Pilot Gig Club [Rob Abernethy (project leader), Colin Campbell (captain, navigation, safety), Gary Rich (logistics), Sam Gilman and Logan Anderton] came to Normandy for more detailed planning and to meet a number of people willing to help and provide facilities. The group chose to cycle to Normandy as a team-building exercise and in doing so achieved a notable and record-breaking 'first'. The following, posted by Charlotte, appeared on the Mount's Bay Pilot Gig web site:
On Friday 18th November at 9am, 5 intrepid cyclists Sam Gilman, Logan Anderton, Gary Rich, Rob Abernethy and Colin Campbell (photo attached) departed St.Michael's Mount in Marazion, bound for Le Mont St. Michel en France.
They arrived at 10pm Saturday night, after covering a total distance of 270 miles and 18.5 hours in the saddle. This was broken down as follows:
St Michael's Mount to Le Mont St. Michel 237 miles in 16.5 hours (80 miles to Plymouth in 5.5 hours, then 157 miles from Roscoff to Le Mont St Michel in 11 hours). Then Le Mont St Michel to St Malo 33 miles in 2 hours.
This was a great achievement for the club and strengthens relations with our French counterparts in anticipation of the Mont to Mount row scheduled for next year. Needless to say there are a few raw backsides!
On 15-01-2012 Gary Rich wrote to CAL to confirm the good news that Mounts Bay Pilot Gig Club had decided to go ahead with the cross-Channel rowing challenge and that preparations in France could now proceed as hoped. Gary has stepped down as club Captain in order to concentrate fully on planning, preparation and team selection. In Normandy the first important step will be to obtain approval from the Préfet Maritime [a French navy admiral based at Cherbourg]. Two periods in 2012 have been selected as 'windows of opportunity' offering favourable time/tide/current conditions: 31-05-2012 to 08-06-2012 and 30-06-2012 to 07-07-2012.
On 21-01-2012 Colin Campbell announced the following plan:
- June 2nd
18:2517:25 hrs (HW 11.47m)
- June 3rd 19:14 hrs (HW 12.09m)
- June 4th 20:01 hrs (HW 12.50m)
- June 5th 20:46 hrs (HW 12.64m)
- June 6th 21:31 hrs (HW 12.51m)
- July 2nd 19:00 hrs (HW 11.56m)
- July 3rd 19:49 hrs (HW 12.08m)
- July 4th 20:35 hrs (HW 12.40m)
- July 5th 21:18 hrs (HW 12.47m)
On 03-02-2012 Gary Rich published his revised Mont-Saint-Michel to St Michael's Mount Safety Plan.
On 21-02-2012 CAL at last had a response from the Préfecture Maritime in Cherbourg. Benjamin Potié of the Préfecture's Action de l'État en Mer would be handling the authorisation procedure for the cross-Channel bid.
On 29-02-2012 Six members of the rowing team cycled from Mount's Bay to the gîte at the Centre Équestre at Beauvoir (via Plymouth-St Malo ferry) for a final planning visit in Normandy. Rob Abernethy (project leader), Colin Campbell (captain), Gary Rich (logistics), Becks Campbell, Logan Anderton and Neil Harvey presented the rowing project to a meeting attended by Jean-Marie d'Aigremont (captain of yacht escorts), Henri Bourget-Beaujour (yacht skipper), François-Xavier de Beaulaincourt (Syndicat Mixte Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel), Romain Desguée (Conducteur d'Opération Barrage et Hydrolique), Christopher Long (co-ordinator in France), David Nicolas-Méry (historian), Gaetan Le Guevel (base de Pontorson), Aurore Maignan (regatta planning) and Stéphane (gîte manager). The team's French doctor for the crossing, Frédéric Chapon, arrived later to meet the team. [Sea kayak instructor Ian Wood was unable to attend].
Rob Abernethy said that a suitable safety boat had now been sourced. He also announced that the British charity Shelterbox, based at Helston in Cornwall (see also Shelterbox France), was to be a participant inand a beneficiary ofthe rowing project.
Jean-Marie d'Aigremont discussed with the team the role of the yacht(s) and how to react to any last minute departure postponements.
Romain Desguée offered help and updates on the state of the Couesnon Barrage and its estuary nearer to the start date.
CAL said the préfecture would expect safety/medical provision to incorporate bilingual ability on the boats. A demonstration Shelterbox would greatly help the media story in France, as would photographs of the crew, their training sessions and the construction of a gig. Very flexible ferry bookings required to get the trailer and support team back from Normandy to greet the rowers in Cornwall (cooperation of Brittany Ferries is needed).
Gaetan Le Guevel and Aurore Maignan said that the 'regatta', involving canoes and kayaks on the Couesnon river, accompanied by cyclists and riders on the towpath, would take place on 2 June 2012, regardless of the start date/time of the row, although everyone hopes the two will take place on the same day.
A evening visit to the nearby former priory of Ardevon, led by David Nicolas-Méry, was followed by a supper for the team at the gîte, prepared by Sarah Long.
On 01-03-2012 James St Aubyn (of St Michael's Mount) and David Elliot (president of Mount's Bay Pilot Gig Club) arrived to stay with CAL & SRL, joining the cyclist/rowers for lunch at Genets following a visit to Brion Priory kindly led by David Nicolas-Méry and the priory's owner Luan Cronin. Sarah Long's supper party at Le Bosquet that evening enabled Jean-Marie & Marie d'Aigremont and François-Xavier & Florence de Beaulaincourt to meet the Gig Club's president (David Elliot) and patron (James St Aubyn).
Jean-Marie d'Aigremont announced that two yachts would now be available to accompany the rowers on either a June or a July crossing.
An official 'Mont2Mount' web site went on-line on 01-03-2012.
On 02-03-2012 CAL informed the Préfecture Maritime (Benjamin Potié) of the latest developments. The organisers are advised to send the préfet a formal invitation to the 'start' event, along with a one-page summary of the project's aims and objectives.
On 08-03-2012 John Diksin (president of Shelterbox France) and Richard Evans (Shelterbox's representative in St Lô) made contact with CAL, ready to prepare for a publicity and find-raising campaign in Normandy. Meanwhile Benjamin Potié sent through a Préfecture Maritime application form which should lead to official approval for the project in France and David Nicolas-Méry said that a third yacht may be willing to join the convoy.
On 15-03-2012 Jean-Marie d'Aigremont announced provisional details of the official escort yachts whose skippers all know the M2M passage well:
By mid-March it was clear that the lack of a safety boat and other 'health & safety' issues were causing concern among the leadership of the Mount's Bay Pilot Gig Club. It was consequently decided to postpone the MBPGC project until another year. Instead, Rob Abernethy and Mike Noel-Smith agreed to lead a four-man team in a sea-going boat, setting off in the July slot (second 'window' of tidal opportunity) and calling on the help of the sea kayaks and yachts as originally planned. However, the nature of their boat and all of its equipment would mean that a separate motorised safety boat would not be needed. It was generally agreed that this would greatly increase the likelihood that the gig rowers could make a fresh bid in 2013 or 2014.
On 12-04-2012 Rob Abernethy and Mike Noel-Smith announced that they had found a suitable ocean-going rowing boat named Fire Ant and planning was now well advanced in terms of training, kit, etc. Yacht skippers and the organisers of the Couesnon regatta were informed that the bid would take place in early July and not, as previously hoped, in June. Sponsors included Shelter Box, St Aubyn Estates and Sharps Brewery. Mike Noel-Smith would be making a final two-day recce visit in Normandy on 29 April and the boat would then, hopefully, be brought over to Granville for two or three training days in the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel in late June. The row would take place as close to July 1st as possible, launching from the Coueson Barrage at the foot of the Mont.
On 13-04-2012 It was announced by Gaetan Le Guevel, to the great regret of all concerned, that the Base de Plein air du Couesnon would be unable to develop its plans for a regatta on the Couesnon river to coincide with, and celebrate, the rowing bid. The planned regatta had been designed around the original 'gig' event on 2 June 2012 and could not now be postponed to the revised rowing date of early July. All those concerned in the rowing event owe a huge debt of gratitude to Gaetan for his generous support over the previous year. Very kindly he made clear that he offers his continuing support to Rob Abernethy and Fire Ant's team.
On 29-04-2011 Mike Noel-Smith made a two-day recce visit to Normandy staying in Pont-Farcy. He examined launching possibilities on the Couesnon river; met sea-kayak instructor Ian Wood; had meetings with yacht skipper Jean-Marie d'Aigremont and historian David Nicolas-Méry; and made arrangements to berth the boat at Granville for two days training in June. Detailed planning in the UK was now able to take off.
By 08-05-2012 the crew had taken delivery of their boat and begun sea trials in addition to a regime of increasingly tough personal training and fitness programmes. Meanwhile, in St Lô, Christopher Long was interviewed on radio TendanceOuest by Audrey Dreillard and Thibault Deslandes about the origins of the row, the links between the 'Mont' and the 'Mount' and what the crew will be facing when they set off in early July. This interview also appeared in the print and online editions of La Manche Libre.
© (2011) Christopher A. Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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