A sure sign that you're a bit bored is the urge to learn a new hobby. When you decide that new hobby should be ocean sailing and you whisk the family away for a week of lessons on a live-aboard yacht, it's a telltale sign you're having a midlife crisis.
Having visited Brittany many times, I was already a fan, and I knew its coast offered some of the planet's most exciting sailing waters.
Brittany is home to many sailing schools, but most of the instruction is, naturally enough, in French. With a bit of research, I found a company offering Royal Yachting Association courses and certification in English from the beautiful port town of Camaret-sur-Mer.
Apart from a few sailing trips with my grandfather when I was a kid, I knew very little about sailing beforehand. My expertise was limited to knowing the loo is called the "head", your head and the boom don't want to meet and how to steer the tiller. In other words, I was a true beginner.
We were a bit concerned about the safety of our two girls – ages six and three – and their potential to disrupt our lessons with fussing. But our concerns were misplaced. After our first day of sailing we went ashore for dinner in Brest, and both children where begging to return to the boat within an hour. And they were kept safe throughout, whether they were in the cabin playing or clipped into the cockpit whilst on deck.
I assumed the week would include learning how to tie a few knots, how to work the sails and perhaps the identification of a few nautical flags. Looking back now, I'm amazed by how much I learned in such a short time.
The instruction started slowly, with safety talks, boat acquaintance and basic maintenance, moving on to knots. You know you're well on your way when you know the difference between a bowline and a round turn and two half hitches.
By the end of day one, the mystery of buoys was revealed. Those things I'd seen bobbing around in the water all my life suddenly had meaning. Red signals the port side (left for landlubbers) heading into harbour (opposite in North America), green the starboard side, and they all guide skippers safely around obstacles and shallow waters. On day two, when charting a course by plotting waypoints, I learned how to use the buoys to pinpoint segments of my voyage.
Within a few days, my husband and I were charting a course for the day's journey and skippering the boat. Sure, we had a lot of help in the form of our instructor, Richard Curtis, of Brittany Sailing, but we still enjoyed "being at the helm."
The Breton coast must be one of the few places in the world where, when you learn to identify various military vessels, you actually stand a good chance of seeing them. We studied our cards and books in order to identify minesweepers, fishing vessels, dive boats, etc., as well as the symbols these craft show for various situations, whether they're at anchor, towing or not under command. And one morning, through the haze, we identified a minesweeper ahead of us. Richard joked about having arranged the sighting just for us. Thanks to his lessons, we knew how far to stay away from it.
Later, we sailed past French naval Zodiacs in the midst of a rescue exercise, complete with a helicopter. That sighting alone made the whole trip a success in the children's eyes.
And when there were no other boats around to impress us, there was still the beauty of the Breton coastline, which is lined with natural and manmade sights, including beautiful peaks, fortresses, bridges and lighthouses.
For history buffs like my husband, it was a treat to sail past the French naval ship graveyard on the River Aulne, where we saw the well-decayed Colbert and a few other vessels anchored in retirement.
Sailing is certainly not just winds, waves and sightings. Much of the coursework focused on all that can go wrong. I tensed up during the man overboard exercises as I reflected on how important it was to get it right. After a few hours of practice, we were able to rescue our man overboard dummy named "Danny" from the water fairly well, but I still hope I never have to use the technique in real life.
By the end of the week, we could identify every buoy we passed, chart a course, save Danny in windy conditions, work the sails, identify other shipping vessels based on shape and symbols, furl in the genoa, heave to, lee-ho (warning given before turning the boat through the wind), move around other vessels in harbour and moor the boat.
It's hard to imagine a more exciting day out than sailing on a sunny, windy day off the coast of Brittany. A live-aboard weeklong course for learning how to sail involves a steep learning curve, but it is doable with the right teacher.
Richard was a confident and well-experienced instructor, as well as being good company – important when sharing a small space together. His nautical credentials stretch farther than a few leagues deep, from his days as a Royal Navy Skipper to his trans-Atlantic voyages, which means he has plenty of colourful stories, as well as valuable lessons.
I couldn't help but smile when I learned the nautical meaning of a "telltale" sign – the strings which blow out from the sails to indicate wind direction. To me the whole trip was a telltale sign that I needed to do something exciting with my life.
Learning to sail off the Breton coast was indeed a midlife crisis well spent, and now we all have a great new hobby to enjoy.