A classic flattie skiff on the river Vilaine, Brittany


Here are a few shots taken from the water of what seemed to me to be a classic small working skiff built from what looks like solid timber we sighted on the river Vilaine in Brittany while on holiday a few weeks ago.

It’s crude, heavy, basic and all the rest, but its interest lies in the fact that in England, just across the Channel from Brittany, we don’t really have boats like this – to the extent we often think of them as being exclusively North American boats, thanks to the work of American language authors writing in English such as Howard Irving Chappelle.

But I’m pretty sure the American models, some elegant, light and nicely made and some heavy workhorses, some called just skiff or maybe sharpie skiff, flat iron skiff or flattie skiff or a range of other names, must have developed from European craft like this one.

PS – In answer to Doryman Mike Bogoger’s query in the comments below, here are two photos of the interior of a somewhat different boat local to the same area as the skiff above. These are used for tending mussel beds etc in the Vilaine estuary. I don’t know how closely these boats are related, but I think their construction is broadly similar.


François Vivier’s brilliant Pen-Hir small sailing cruiser

Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser

Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser

Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser

François Vivier’s sailing cruiser Pen-Hir

Many of François Vivier’s revered ply and epoxy boat designs draw somewhat on the traditional boats of the Breton coast. We had a priceless opportunity to appreciate how attractive and well worked out they really are this summer when we were invited over for lunch with him and his charming wife Veronique.

That meeting over a lovely lunch was a great pleasure for both Julie and I. François’ English is excellent and his conversation is marked by strong views and clear, well argued and original insights – they’re just as well made as his boat plans themselves.

Looking at his own coastal sailing cruiser Pen-Hir as built by his son’s boatyard, we were struck not only by attractive and well made the boat was, but also by how well everything is worked out.

For example I often joke about the ‘long things’ that make life difficult in most small boats – the boat hooks, the unused spars, the odd oar or sweep, and so on – but I was impressed to find that François hadn’t just found places for them on his boat, but had designed-in spaces for each one that meant they could be kept accessible but out of the way and secure.

The smart equipment was good too. I particularly liked the diesel cooker that doubled as a heater, and the electric outboard. It was only a shame that it was too windy to go sailing – and boy was it windy. We’d heard stories about how the French will sail in any sort of weather, but from our experience they aren’t true – at least not at Pornichet, for no-one else was out on the water that day either.

I was interested to learn that François has been involved in establishing a new French boat building school, and very much look forward to learning how it goes in the coming years.

More information about the Vivier Pen-Hir design and many more photos can be found here.

A boating adventure on the Brière

Brière Marais

Brière Brière Brière

Brière Brière Brière

Click on any of the images for a much larger photo

This is the Brière – an area of lakes and marshes a little inland from the France’s (or should I say Brittany’s) Atlantic seaboard.

Said to extend to 720 square kilometres, it’s a big area of marsh and water created by digging turf in much the same way as our own Norfolk Broads. However, it doesn’t have the long history of intensive exploitation by the holiday trade that is so apparent on the Broads – the big leisure activity here is wildfowling, and I guess that’s the purpose of the many hides.

The marshes are wild and empty – which makes them just lovely. (Click for a Google satellite image.) If you’ve ever wondered what the Broads would be like without the hire boats, the Brière is the best example I’ve yet thought of.

While there are no holiday cruisers, there small flat-bottomed canoes known as chalands that can be hired by the hour. They have almost no rocker and for seats they have thwarts high up in the boat, with the result is that they’re pretty tippy, and must be scary for holiday makers unused to canoes. They don’t paddle too well either – it’s no wonder that the locals use poles or outboards – but who cares? This is a fabulous place to be.

You don’t get any of the clear waymarking that the Broads has, and few clear waterways. The geezer who gives you your paddles also gives you his phone number because he half expects you to get lost, but that’s ok, for you will of course be rescued for a consideration.

He doesn’t explain how he’s going to find you in such an extensive labyrinth, however.

I gather the tradition is that the locals navigate by the churches, but our hirer gave me a satellite photo with suggested routes on it. I still became baffled after about half an hour and decided not to go too far: if you decide to spend a whole day on these empty marshes, I’d strongly suggest taking a smart phone with a GPS facility (and perhaps some spare batteries) so you can find your way using Google Maps.

You know you’re in a wild place when you see signs like the one above, which I found in an earth closet on an island in the marshes. As a freelance journalist, I naturally enjoyed the use of the word ‘commission’. And for our American friends, here’s a photo of a turkey that came to see me off…