I’m in France and I feel Inclined to give them stick. I can’t help it, it’s my heritage, my wry humour and not just mine. It’s territorial and natural for most Brits. And the French retaliate.
Divided narrowly by the English Channel, we’re a stones throw from one another, us Brits and the French; so we throw them. I remember the fishing wars on the news 5 or so years ago, the British fishing seasons began before the French, so the Brits, like born invaders, headed straight for the French coast and trawled their fish. The French kicked off of course, they fired flares at one another, and, quite literally, threw rocks. Ha!
It’s harmless isn’t it? Is it? If they deserve it? The French I mean. Lazy and stubborn. They take too long for lunch, they’ll leave you waiting at a bar for ten minutes to finish their chat. If they’re not protesting they’re rioting. The last three times I flew ‘over’ France, they closed their air space - we flew ‘around’. Why??
But, when I arrive in France, in a city anyway, I get the same feeling I do walking into an old theatre before a performance. I notice an anticipatory humm in the foyer. Musty odours give me deja vu of a history I never saw but sort of know. Broken fittings and stained porcelain in the bathrooms prove it’s flawed age but state it’s realness, it’s been around the block and served many wined bladders of the past. I notice the man hours in every marble carving holding its space with prestige, it straightens my spine, I feel above myself with false etiquette. I feel the energy of the crowd, all absorbing the same things I am, we’re expectant, we’ve come to have our senses lit! And France is like that, an old theatre. A strange mix of prestige and nonchalance. This here is an artistic, foody, marble mouthed quaint place. It has established its personality, it knows what it’s good at. It’s more flawed than it looks on TV but it’s rich with exactly the Frenchness you’d expect. Just try the bread, a pastry, an omelette. Oh, there’s passion in this.. so simple and so wonderfully refined. The French touch for food is unmatched, they just know things. If you want your senses lit come here with your eyes and belly open. And importantly, keep a sense of humour and expect to be ignored.
I’m in La Rochelle as I begin this journal. Picking up a Bristol Pilot Cutter, 41ft oak framed, pine planked, opepi decked, hemp roped, bronze barred piece of class. And every other boat in this Marina is just as class. When the French sail, they get involved, they own it and they become it. They inspire the world. The yachties here look like they were born in pleats of canvas. Skin, hair and clothes alike are healthily ragged. A family sits opposite me, knee to knee in a tight sheltered cockpit sharing croissants and fags for breakfast. Shorelines looped loosely and confidently round iron bollards on the harbour wall 8feet above. Castle towers mark the dock entrance behind. Musty, ragged, class, prestige. La Rochelle ‘Bassins’ are busy with sailory air and sailory ways and noises. Not a chav in site.
This journal entry is about opposites in harmony. It’s what I noticed here. This is the character of France and the French. It’s also the way of the yacht, and sailing; the juggle of pleasure and suffering, the constituents of fulfilment, the makings of a good story. A Mandorla a la Francais. A Mandorla of the sea.
Our Journey Begins
So I’ve landed from London and taken a cab to Nantes Train station where a train will take me to La Rochelle to join Jonathan Livingston, our old wooden Pilot Cutter from Bristol, waiting for us in Bassin a Flot. The skipper, Mark, and crew, Paul, are a day behind. I sailed with Mark delivering a race boat to Guernsey and returning another to the Solent in February, 3 years ago. (The only time I’ve ever been seasick). Mark is everybody’s favourite nomad. He lives where he is, a yacht, a van, a narrow boat. ‘I don’t even like central heating’ he says. He’s a man after my own heart and I’m looking forward to sailing with him again.
The cabby sounded Carribean through his French-English. I’m guessing. He had a funny lively energy. This is me taking a picture of the fare displayed in red digits on his rearview, that snapped between the digital flicker and missed. We laughed because it was just a picture of him instead, he said I could keep it as a souvenir, like a lucky charm - moments before he short changed me, or rather did that distracted cabby thing we’ve all seen when hauling my bag out the boot and smiling a goodbye, skipping the change bit all together. I reminded him. But all’s well, it was two opposites contending in one swift scene, unified in a chuckle, laughable irony, it was a Mandorla. It gave the lucky charm comment relativity.
50 feet away from where I stood on the road side with my bag, a canal laden with narrow boats and floating homes caught my attention. Little boats hip to hip draped in plants and flowers, and little lives enjoying their simplicity. So personal, so shared. So movable. So untaxed. So friendly looking. ‘So this is life for the Nantes locale’, I thought, ‘beautiful, I could do that’. I turned toward the station with my red Northface duffle bag hoiked on my right shoulder. A snot nosed vague eyed tramp approached me saying something in French, waaay into my personal space, I had to side step and snot dodge and said Bonjour! to prove I knew too little French to continue the interaction. Another one got 40 cents out of me a few minutes later, then I was shouted at by a huge Jamaican lady sitting on a wall throwing Coca Cola on the marble station floor (in French, so I wasn’t offended, which proves actually, words can’t hurt us). Fortunately she shouted at some other people too. ‘So this is life for the Nantes locale?’ I thought. I headed to platform 9 and boarded the train.
If this train went ‘choo choo’ and blew clouds it’d fit better on these tracks stitched through a country scene I can’t pull my eyes away from. I’m both in the train and out there, in peace and silence, in rattle and air con. Each minute I’m in a new frame. Frame, that describes it. One frame, one scene, one captured moment reeling onto the next through this square glass window. There’s a stillness here. It’s a setting sun from Apocalypse Now, from those scenes painting irony and contrast in the viewers emotions before violence ensues. This scene is grassy, dry. This scene is quaint, with houses. This one has trees casting long shadows, they look animated. The sun is low, the golden hour, the thick gold band that rings around the earth daily, passes across me now. In the next one there’s a hare, disturbed by something in the air and darting across a dry ploughed field, it looks like a dust devil. In the next I see two deer, weaving through hay bails. This is France. I love it, but I’m sick. I have Covid perhaps. It feels like it, though my tests were negative. I’ve taken codeine to ease the soreness of these mouth ulcers and a headache. The codiene is relaxing me. The scene is sooo relaxing. Choo choooo, I’m nodding off..
I arrive in La Rochelle. Beautiful. This place is busy too, very busy. It’s a tourist hotspot and with its castle walled harbour and basins brimming with wooden yacht classics it deserves the attention. This virus I carry has hollowed my stomach and eyes but this place is filling me out again. What energy. There’s boat life and its typical laissez-fare feel, street performers body popping and a hundred restaurants jammed with customers filling the cobbled hard. Music echoes across the water, the air is alive. And there’s Jonathon Livingstone, quiet and waiting. I find the spare key in the gas locker - the internationally popular secret hiding place - and board. ‘This’ I think, ‘is craftsmanship’. It has a ceramic butler sink set in oak top with a brass pump out handle. A cast iron wood burning stove and adjacent coal box. And smoooth wood. It’s poky, warm, old, it’s been thought through and loved. And she sails.. Bliss. Adventure. I’m at home already. DOOF! I launch my skull into the oak beam above the saloon table. The smell of metal fizzes in my sinuses. Shock pulses through my ear drums and spine. I’ve dented my brain I’m sure. I sit, breathe.. breathe.. through the nose out the mouth. My breath trembles a little. Pain.. and rage boils in my abdomen, I’ve been punched by the ceiling, how dare that beam! Fuck you beam! But it has to be so. It was a warning, adapt. Boat life begins. I go out and buy a smoothie from a stall. It’s all I can eat, my mouth is sore and aggravated, my throat is sore, my head sorer. I need the vitamins, I need to oust this virus before we sail.
1830 two days later and we’re off, reversing through the lock with a hundred tourists and 30 iPhones holding us accountable. Through the castle turrets and La Rochelle is behind us. Biscay in front. A challenge on our hands. A story to make. A place to get to. Company to get to know. A boat to tame. The English Channel to welcome us and a French Ensign to get rid of. We hoist sail. She sighs and leans in gratefully.
Out in to Biscay
Our canvas is stretched taught. The toffee brown gaff against the pastel blue/pink sky is rigid, strong, high. Zigzagged stitching in the cloth climbs isometrically from the boom to the top and every square inch catches air and lifts this wooden lug through the water. We ride on. Into the setting sun, into the night and into the strengthening wind, 15kts, 20kts, 25kt, but she’s a strong boat, she takes it. We tack in the early hours, I slide to leeward and only as I’m switching hands on the tiller do I see, in the dim morning sun that I’ve been sitting in the puke of the nightwatchman. Carrots smeared across the opepi deck and into the piled stay sail sheet. ‘I best slosh a bucket on that’ I think.
It’s a little punchy out here. It’s a lot of wind for us newbies, short handed and all. We tack again and head for an anchorage on Ile d’Yeu, a small island 5 miles across. We drop the hook in 10meters and a stiff offshore breeze. Paul and I discuss the kite surfer behind us, unable to launch and drifting off shore. Quarter mile, half a mile, one mile, we watch through the bino’s. A RIB returning to shore against the stiff offshore breeze carrying about 10 cold people wrapped in towels is alerted by our fog horn and international distress signal overhead wave. Paul tells them in French to go back out and check on the kite surfer. Every cold face is a picture, helpless looking, it makes me laugh. They’re so close to warmth, I find their disappointment hilarious. The kite surfer is fine apparently, there’s another boat heading out to collect him.
Raz de Sein is our aim the next day after refuelling. We sail well with one reef, a stay sail and small flying jib off the end of the 12 foot spa. She decorates Biscay, in her moment, she capriciously palms off the small waves. Don’t touch me. She balances on a hair line, Mark doesn’t touch the tiller for 20minutes. Then the chop builds and she clumsily pitches into the troughs overwhelmed, she’s not built to beat close hauled. But we make the tide at Raz de Sein anyway, and stop a night in Camaret. Paul uses his French to get us a pizza at the Irish bar at 2130. The other restaurants are “complet”. Pizza it is. We’re off by 0700 the next day.
A 19th Century Version of Fast
She’s slow, this old canvased clog. She takes work. We spend ourselves hoisting sail and coiling line. We sweat and rub our palms to a shine on the hemp ropes slipping our grips. Halyards and sheets are stiffened under body weight and effort. No winches and nothing’s bar tight, more a ‘gotcha’ tight, secure, looked after. Through the work I feel an affection for her. It’s a partnership. Together we struggle and together we achieve. We earn a mutual respect. It’s a romance, a mistress. Dangerous. A widow maker. Exciting. Loyal. She’s all things, that’s why men lose themselves to these beauties, these vessels of generational knowledge, these mission machines, always aligning with man’s innate urge - to explore. Onwards we plod in this old canvased clog.
‘We can thank you Brexit voters’ Paul says on the fuel pontoon in Roscoff. We’ve had to detour all the way here, 50miles from Channel du Four to officially exit France at the passport office in this port-of-entry. The office is shut till the next day. We’re captives! Bound to France. Paul speaks a little French but Mark and I are useless. Paul’s our front man at every bar. We prostitute out his limited French and get the gains. He refutes his fluency but we are none the wiser. ‘In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king’ he says, I laughed. Mark and I are utterly French blind.
Onwards we plod, and bob, wave after wave. The winds are light after Roscoff. They’re on the nose but the sea is flattish, the keel is deep and the boat heavy, she hollows out a V’d depression in the sea water. Down below we sit in it comfortably. The fuel gauge falls quicker than expected, we won’t make Brighton, our final destination. Two steps forward one step back, that’s this trip, but that’s sailing. The experienced sailor knows to embrace change because change brings good times too. At least half of sailing is hard times, earning the good. We consider Alderney until the wind heads us from the East, so Portland it is.
Ships are magnetic in the vastness of the sea. There’s an accumulation theory known in physics; leave particles free in an empty space and they’ll bunch together. Like matter in stars, stars in galaxies, cattle in a meadow and ships at sea, they come together. Collision courses are astoundingly common and so, warmingly, are friendly coincidences. Many a time in the Solent I’ve waved across to an old face I’ve not seen in years. No time for small talk, but ‘hello, long time, nice to see you, what are the chances, and goodbye till next time’ are all translatable in a look a nod and a wave. We know. On this occasion 20 miles along our bob out of captivity in Roscoff, a blue hulled 62ft explorer yacht on route from Norway to Mallorca ploughs up our rear and launches a Jamaican ginger cake onto our deck - it’s the skippers pal Justin, another delivery skipper in the circle who’d spotted our sails on the horizon knowing that Mark is delivering a conspicuous Pilot Cutter through the channel this week. From opposite climates and horizons we came together in flat blue nowhere and traded cake through the air, a sailors handshake and bloody good for morale.
Landfall in England
From Portland, through Lyme bay toward St Albans head, it’s majestic. Sunset on milky seas in the middle of a High, you know the type. I want to freeze this water into marble in a millisecond, and run my hand over its perfect surface. It’s perfect rolls and dips. I can’t describe it. Pastel blues and pinks and the spectrum in between mob it’s surface, and dance with each other like fluid fractals. It’s a sea of LSD. It’s a magic carpet, and Jonathan Livingstone is carried by it across Lyme bay. Mark, Paul and I are silent on deck for an hour.
We round St Catherine’s point with 3 knots of tide behind us over night. We’re on a beat again but 9 knots over the ground has us in good spirits. We’re flying. Selsey Bills in sight at sunrise. Then my mums house. Then Brighton pier. Then we’re in at last.
‘Do we have rubber gloves’ Paul says, considering putting his hands down the heads to give them a scrub, ‘Cor, a bit posh aren’t you?!’, Mark’s final nomad comment of the trip, it rounds off this juggle of opposites embodied in this trip perfectly.
Deconstruct sailing and you’ll find it built of metaphors. As metaphorical as the brilliant book itself, ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ the namer of the boat. Each applicable to life and all it throws at you. Each transferable to a decision you must make. The difference in my opinion? Consequences. In life there’s usually a lag, in sailing they’re immediate. I’m overwhelmed in life sometimes, I ignore it of course, and do something soothing like drink beer. Then at some point I sink under a thousands fines, or find myself adrift, lost, sad and frustrated. When overpowered by the wind at sea, what do you do? Act. There and then or pay for it. You work, you rally the troops, get wet and bruised, lose a line and scramble to regain it. You battle till it’s solved then onwards you continue.
Often the wind’s on the nose and the sea throws salt in your ear holes. Sometimes the wind is up the chuff and your hooning along, surfing, gargling on sun beams, woo! That’s every good story, every adventure, it’s every part of my life that was worth something. And this trip was worth something. It’s a headache in serenity, it’s puking on fine opepi decks, it’s a cheese toastie in cold hands on the helm, its a snot nosed tramp on arrival, it’s the unification of opposites, it’s something harmonious and what made sailing a Bristol Pilot Cutter back from France make an impression on me I’ll remember. Bon voyage (and up yours Frenchies!)
Jeff Leigh-Jones, our son - sailor and amateur philosopher.