10:00 GMT

Journey to the End of the Rain

Ushant island, at the westernmost point of France, is a magical place marked by Celtic tales, rough terrain, the sheer might of the sea, stories of shipwrecks and their rescuers, mild, consistent weather, salt meadow lamb and iodine produced from seaweed. The north-west of the island has the world’s most powerful lighthouse, which marks the start line of the Jules Verne Trophy. Designed in 1863 by engineers Rousseau and Maîtrot de Varennes, the beam from Créac’h lighthouse is visible midway across the English Channel, signalling the way towards the Breton coastline.

What is this clod of granite and slate, which turns not away from Neptune? What is this island, which over millennia has done little else but to smooth the pebbles of her beaches, carve impassable rocks, shape her arid land, shroud her sheep and chickens in her mist, sink a few ships, and isolate her tiny population, cut off from from life on the mainland. Like a crab’s claw, she defends her 6 square miles against the whims of Aeolus, who seeks to scour the end of this Land’s End, or Finistère. From across the waters, Newfoundland sends her colossal waves, which crash into Ushant’s unflinching rostrum. 

Discovered by the Phoenicians, Ushant has enjoyed man’s company since the end of the Paleolithic Era. Pytheas the Greek named her Uxisama in the 4th century BC. Pliny called her Axantis in his writings, while Emperor Antoninus called her Uxantissena during his 2nd century travels. Medieval maps reveal other variants of her name: “Exsent”, “Usent” and “Uxent”. The Welsh introduced her to the English as Ushant, while the Bretons called her Eusa. Ushant is clearly an island with many different faces! 

The fallen one shall rise anew

Women gaze out, standing alone, their husbands departed for war, or conscripted onto French navy ships, or out fishing in the high seas, or alone in an Iroise Sea lighthouse. Buffeted by the strong Fromveur and Fromrust currents, fishermen haul in their nets and raise their lobster pots, plying their trade among sandbanks and other hazards on the surface, their faces weathered by the salt and spray of the ocean. The calloused hands of women scrape away at the fertile, waterlogged, saline soils, with not a tree in sight, save one in the rector’s garden. Dry stone walls surround the narrow fields of wheat, barley, oats, rye and potatoes, under the watchful eye of small mills slotted into the infinite maze of tiny footpaths. 

Despite lying just 20 km from the mainland, Ushant only truly escaped her isolation in 1880, when the Louise began to carry passengers, livestock, cargo and mail between Le Couquet and Lampaul, becoming the first steamboat to provide a service to the island. Until the 19th century, the French state ignored this island of storms. That all changed with the rise of intercontinental shipping during the reign of Napoleon III. Keen on boosting the economy and developing maritime activities, the emperor beefed up Brest’s arsenal, opened a trading port and built a railway from Paris. He also invested in Ushant, building port facilities, a new church, fortifications, and the monumental Creac’h lighthouse. 

These investments marked the end of the insular autarky. Before long, a programme was launched to build lighthouses at sea to bring an end to the shipwrecks that marred the coastline. Over many years, La Jument, Kéréon, and Nividic lighthouses were built in incredible conditions, on rocks with a vast tidal range. Ouessant’s motto was true: “The fallen one shall rise anew”.

He who sees Ushant sees his own blood

Around the island are some of the world’s most dangerous waters. Currents reach speeds of 7 knots, winds blow at more than 100 knots (180 km/h), and waves soar 15 m or more into the air. In the autumn of 2007, spray splashed over the 32 m high Ar Men lighthouse and onto the reefs of the infamous Chaussée de Sein. Exposed to the full brunt of the ocean, with water depths reaching 100 m just a few miles away from land, the Iroise Sea off Brittany demands respect and experience. The relief of the ocean floor creates unpredictable local conditions, including whirlpools, cross-currents in the passes and counter-currents behind the islets.   

© Thierry Martinez / Spindrift racing

Ushant enjoys a mild, temperate climate, with the smallest temperature range in the whole of France (9 C in January, 17.5 C in August), but every year there are more than 80 misty days (visibility below 4 km), of which 50 are foggy (visibility below 1 km). At the same time, however, there is less rainfall (684 mm a year) than on the mainland. The fiercest storms arrive in February, on the back of the Mervent. This strong south-westerly wind brings fine, warmish rain, dreary skies and drizzle. Next comes the violent, brutal, prolonged Kornog from the west, followed by the cold Gwalarn from the north, with gusts blowing below squally showers and hail, but rarely snow. 

Ushant offers a journey to the end of the end of the earth. On this drenched island, man’s silence is as long as the winter tempests, the ocean is omnipresent, the time is different (some islanders do not change their watches to summer time) and time itself has a different meaning. Each islander’s visage is testimony to the rough storms that batter Ushant, but also to the pleasant evenings, the charm of Celtic tales and legends, their love for the harsh land and savage sea, and the turbulent history of naval battles and far-flung voyages. As sailors approach this sentinel of the English Channel, they repeat the old adage: “He who sees Ushant sees his own blood”.

The light at the end of the Channel

Since time immemorial, seafarers’ only reference point was the land. Seldom did they allow the coastline to drop below the horizon. Every time they crossed an enclosed sea like the Mediterranean, traversed a strait like the English Channel, sailed between the pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar), or rode the ocean to Thule (Iceland) or Cape Bojador (Mauritania) in search of new trade routes, they also had to find their way back again. And so the first lighthouse – probably around a hundred metres tall – was built by Sostratus of Cnidus in the 3rd century BC, marking the entrance to the port of Alexandria. The light would have done little to illuminate the night sky, but the smoke would have been visible from tens of kilometres away during the day. Fuelled by wood and oil, the light and steam would have reached the horizon, forming a conspicuous seamark that would have mitigated the uncertainties of navigation at that time.

© Thierry Martinez / Spindrift racing

In France, the Romans built various lighthouses, first in Marseille, Fos and Fréjus, then, from the 5th century, on the north coast in Calais, Boulogne and Dieppe. Often, however, these signalling stations were not permanent and were ill-maintained. Rain, wind and fog would vastly reduce their visibility. The first stone lighthouse was built in Cordouan, near Bordeaux. Situated where the Gironde meets the Atlantic, it took 27 years to build, and was completed in 1611. In the Iroise Sea, the only lighthouse was the one maintained by the monks at the Abbaye Saint-Mathieu-de-Fine-Terre, initially fuelled by olive oil, then by fish oil.

Europe’s brightest

Backed by Vauban, a lighthouse was built on the south-east coast of Ushant in 1695. Unfortunately it was only lit between October 1st and March 31st each year, because every month it would consume forty barrels of coal, a cord and a half of wood, three hundred faggots (bundles of sticks) and three pounds of candle wax. There was no extensive network of lighthouses on the French coasts until the 19th century. A network was made possible thanks in particular to the invention of the Fresnel lens by Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788-1827), the decision to place the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in charge of France’s beacons (March 7th, 1806), and the creation of the Commission du Service des Phares in 1811 to service the lighthouses. An extensive construction programme was initiated, with no fewer than thirty new beacons lighting the Breton skies between 1835 and 1861! It was still a number of years before a programme was set up to set up lights at the entrances to ports and to build the Creac’h lighthouse and the first lighthouses at sea (La Vieille, Ar Men, Pierres Noires and Le Four). 

Work on a lighthouse in the north-west of Ushant began in 1859. It began operating in December 1863, was electrified in 1888, and was fitted with a flash light (which would flash for a few tenths of a second) in 1895, a xenon lamp in 1971, and four 2000 W metal halide lamps in 1995! Horizontal black and white stripes make the 55 m tall tower easy to spot. It culminates 72 m above sea level, making the 12 million candela lights visible more than 60 km away on a clear day! This means a ship in the middle of the English Channel can see two lighthouses – Créac’h and Lizard – that are more than 120 miles apart. It is these two lighthouses that mark the start/finish line for the Jules Verne Trophy. At the foot of the Creac’h lighthouse, the engine room of the former power station has been home to the Museum of Lighthouses and Beacons since 1988.

© Thierry Martinez / Spindrift racing

Créac’h lighthouse (Ushant)

Position: 48° 27’ 61” N 5° 07’ 65” W
Characteristic: 2 white flashes every 10 seconds
Operational since: December 19th, 1863
Designer: Mr de Carcaradec 
Engineers: Messrs. Maîtrot de Varennes and Rousseau
Architect: Mr. Tritschler
Height above ground: 54.85 metres
Elevation above sea level: 71.60 metres
Lens: 4 two-panel 2/9 lenses; focal length: 65 cm, on two levels, which makes it unique. High-power 2000 W metal halide lamps
Range: 32 nautical miles