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Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter – Delivery Run

Updated: Mar 31

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??

Familiar France

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.