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Voyaging

The D-Day Coast

The D-Day Coast

Normandy’s coastline is a superb cruising ground in its own right, and its history goes back a lot further than 60 years.

By Alan Harper — June 2004

   
 More of this Feature

• Part 1: D-Day Coast
• Part 2: D-Day Coast
• D-Day Coast Photo Gallery


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Destined for all time to be linked with the historic events of June 6, 1944, France’s Normandy coast is often overlooked as a cruising destination. But if what you want from a cruise is pretty scenery, interesting ports of call, and good local cuisine, Normandy can deliver. If you like a smattering of local culture and a bite of history as well, Normandy has both in spades. Long before the German occupation in World War II—long before Germany had been created, in fact—Normandy was a powerful, independent state with great castles, bustling cities, and towering cathedrals. More recently it became an idyllic rural backwater of modern France, famed for its apples, cider, butter, and cheeses—a sort of French Vermont, but with more beaches and better food.

And then came D-Day, adding a new chapter to the pages of history laid out on the landscape—shattered concrete and rusting steel among the castles and cathedrals. While the beauty of the Norman coastline and the tranquility of its rural hinterland make it possible, at least momentarily, to forget the events of 60 years ago, there is no escaping them for long. Every town has its little museum, and the shoreline and landscape are dotted with monuments, memorials, and cemeteries. Such melancholy reminders can often obscure the fact that the French are reverent about D-Day—or J-Jour, as they call it—and remember the sacrifice made by the young Allied soldiers, particularly the Americans, with great humility and gratitude.

There are seven yachting harbors on the D-Day coast, stretched between St. Vaast, located ten miles north of Utah Beach, and Ouistreham, the ferry port on the Caen Canal, which marked the eastern edge of the landing zone. These waters may not command the fearful respect of those belonging to neighboring Brittany, with its 35-foot tides and jagged rocks, but they still expect you to pay attention. The spring-tide range is more than 20 feet, and with the shoreline being predominantly shallow, shelving, and sandy, you’ve got to hold your cruising guide the right way up if you don’t want to find yourself high and dry several miles offshore, instead of locking securely through into some snug overnight haven.

St. Vaast is perhaps the most famous yachting center on this stretch of coast, long popular with English cruising boats, many of which make the trip here solely for the superb Saturday market—cheeses, seafood, smoked meats, truffles, the best of rural France—and to stock up at the legendary Monsieur Gosselin’s, one street back from the Quai Vauban. In their own quiet way the French tend to regard their country as the center of world civilization, and in a shop like this you can see what they mean. The delicatessen stocks everything you can think of and a good many things you won’t recognize, but proprietors are used to the culinary ignorance of foreigners and are happy to explain. The finest wines are in the dark cellar at the back of the shop, but for the more price-conscious, Gosselin bottles his own. Although the English Channel in December is grey, cold, and often stormy, British yachts routinely make the 70-mile crossing to stock up for Christmas at Gosselin’s, or die of exposure in the attempt. It’s worth it.

Carentan and Isigny are both some way inland, up the shallow tidal channels of the rivers Douve and Vire—a little off the beaten track for a cruising yacht. Both towns saw fierce fighting in the days after the landings and considerable bombardment from Allied aircraft. As the American General Omar Bradley remarked surveying the damage, “The people of Isigny waited for more than four years to be liberated. And now, seeing the ruins of their country, they consider us responsible.” Today this pretty town displays no outward sign of the ordeal it went through.

The harbor of Grandcamp also has some yacht pontoons and offers an easy approach when the tide is right. The port lies between Utah and Omaha Beaches and was taken by American troops on June 9. Bradley set up his headquarters there.

Next page > Part 2: Port Winston is a truly astounding feat that took the labor of 45,000 men to build. > Page 1, 2, 3

This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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