Les Trois Escargots

A growing family of snails.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Folle Pensee

A few years ago, when I wasn’t a godfather, I sailed from Falmouth to the Scilly Isles in a small boat called Ventus. She yawed, rolled and lurched unpredictably and I suffered sea sickness for all of the fourteen hour crossing and land sickness for the following three days. I kissed the Cornish tarmac on my return and swore never to sail again. So why is it that I find myself standing on a bobbing pontoon at La Trinité on the southern coast of Brittany about to board another sailing boat (albeit a slightly bigger one) with the bitterly ironic name of Folle Pensée (French for Mad Thought)? While the thought of remote islands, swimming in the open sea and freshly caught fish for dinner all appeal, the memory of sea sickness from that trip is indelibly etched on my mind and I think that I am here partly to find out if my sea sickness on the last trip was a one off (perhaps it was like a bad pint of beer?) and partly because I am too stubborn to admit that I don’t want to sail and show weakness.

We cast off late in the afternoon and head south across choppy seas in a howling wind. A baptism by the Beaufort scale. Our destination is the island of Houat, a small outcrop overrun in winter by rabbits and in summer by day-tripping tourists. We moor on a buoy outside the harbour and Folle Pensée, like a horse being broken, settles in for a night of vicious yanking against her bridle. I live and eat on deck, not daring to descend into the cabin, and still the feeling of Return To Work (RTW) sea sickness gently settles around me. RTW sea sickness is best described as that moment when you return to work after a couple of swift lunchtime pints, stretched to eternity. A rolling in your head, a fuzziness of vision, a paranoia that everyone knows you are suffering, a fixation with deep breathing and a fear that it will all collapse around you. It will take me several days to shake off RTW sea sickness sufficiently that I can enjoy the views, the food and the sailing experience, but for now all I worry about is not letting it reach my stomach. If it stays in my head, I will make it.

After a morning walk on Houat, Albane and I are waiting at the quay for her dad to arrive in the dinghy and take us back to the boat. As he rounds the breakwater, the wind sneaks under the floor of the dinghy and flips it upside down, throwing him into the water. He swims ashore and we haul him out with bleeding knees running free in the saltwater. He takes it in remarkably good humour and spends the next hour happily dismantling the outboard engine and rebuilding it. Eventually, we leave Houat and cross back to the Quiberon peninsula on the mainland for a calm night in a marina. Moored next to a boat of British, I feign ignorance of my mother tongue and let Albane speak to them. I am happy wearing my disguise of Frenchness and feel distant from my countrymen, but later I wonder if I have been deluding myself that I can escape from my nationality.

The weather stays grim with dark skies, scudding rain showers and rolling seas and, despite waterproofs, the dampness still gets to our skin and we sit, mostly immobile, in the cockpit as we head offshore to the island of Groix. Occasionally, we trail long lines and fish for mackerel and the catching, gutting and discussions as to how we will eat them break the maritime monotony. Groix marks the turning point for me as I move from simply surviving each day to enjoying the experience. We moor in the stone-walled harbour of St Tudy and, in the warm evening sun, Albane and I run for an hour along the island’s north coast before swimming in the cold, clear sea. I shiver for an hour afterwards, but I feel alive and our supper of langoustines and grilled mackerel tastes divine. Yet underneath it all, I can’t shake the feeling that the sea sickness is lulling me into a false sense of security. Is it making a brief retreat before it attacks on tomorrow’s crossing to the archipelago of Glenan? In this feeling lurks the reality for all those who suffer sea sickness – the fear of it is as bad as the illness. You always expect it to return and that knowledge infects you.

Howver, my fears are unfounded and we cover the twenty odd miles to the islands of Glenan under main sail and genoa, Folle Pensée angled acutely into the sea. We sail too fast to fish and, on distant horizons, I watch smudges of land – the mainland to the north, Glenan to the north-west, and south-east, off our stern, the receding coast of Groix. The heat of summer returns and, behind sunglasses and sun cream, I daydream of surfing in Australia with Morgan 6 years ago and in Galicia with dolphins in a distant life. A gannet wheels and I announce that “Je veux voir des dauphins”. Perhaps Neptune is listening and has some sympathy for the preceding days because, no sooner than the words are out of my mouth, Albane cries out and points to a disturbance in the sea a hundred metres off our starboard. A fin slices the surface followed by another and another. We count, as best we can, a family of fifteen dolphins cruising gently across our course. I feel euphoric as I always do when I see wild dolphins and my diary simply records the experience as “amazing!”.

Glenan is a mass of islands, outcrops of rock and treacherous reefs and we drop sails and motor on set bearings, lining up lighthouses and navigation markers, to reach a sheltered beach where we moor on a buoy in four metres of water. After a late lunch, we launch the canoe that we have carried lashed to the foredeck and we paddle around Ilê Saint Nicholas. We gaze down into the world beneath the canoe and it is like looking into a kitchen of algae - luminous green Chinese rice noodles, flat brown Indonesian noodles, trailing iodine transparent tagliatelle. I want to taste them, feel them and to take Alice’s pill so that I can lose myself among them. It is strange that something on such a small scale is as inspirational as a mountain landscape. In the evening, we eat paella and watch the sea pull down the shutters over its shop window as the sun sets.

We swim off the boat early the next morning and then hoist the spinnaker, a billowing blue and white sail cracking proudly at the bow of the boat. In eighteen knots of wind, we make speeds of up to nine and half knots, which for Folle Pensée is almost fictional, and cover the forty nautical miles to Belle-Ilê (buoy to buoy) in six hours. Belle-Ilê was captured by the English in 1752 and swapped with the French for Minorca in 1761. Given that Belle-Ilê measures just seventeen kilometres by ten kilometres, even Easyjet would struggle to make the island a viable destination for English tourists. In the evening, we drink cider on the quayside with small plates of bigorneau (periwinkles) and crevettes (shrimps). The bigorneau arrive with pins so that you can pick off the small cap over the entrance to their shells and dig them out. They taste like salt and I try to forget the ratio of their bodyweight that is made up by their reproductive organs. We eat soupe de poissons (fish soup) in the evening and toast the end of our exploration of the islands. Tomorrow we will be back on terra firma.


Blogger rcjc said...

Monsieur le Cooke- if you had written your client letters as well as this you'd have been running the business- sounds like you have mastered your sea sickness- hope Albane's dad is ok- no wonder he likes you as he is obviously an ex extreme sports nut either in spririt or reality- Love to Albane and look forward to the next instalment.
RCJC xxxx

1:31 PM  
Blogger Ysella Collis said...

deer god dad and god mum
this is gud nuse that ewe have got ova yor Ventus expearyance. lets hope they get a biga and beta model necs time and that ewe bofe will take me and my bossy sister to the sillies.
Pliz come and see me soon. I hav lernt to smyle.
lots of luv Zella

2:17 AM  
Blogger Alyson said...

Bet you never thought i'd master the IT to get onto your Blog. what's surprising is that Huw's client care letters were always so much briefer, which is funny when you think how much money he could have made BS if he'd made them this interesting and long. In a mean way I wish the sea-sickness had lasted the entire trip & then I wouldn't feel quite so jealous at manning the office on my own. You'll be pleased to know that Luke is doing his best to keep TL-Cook going until your return. Any photos on Blog or have I not discovered that bit yet? The signing on bit is tricky, I take back what I said at the beginning, you may never get this message

2:00 PM  
Blogger Solenn said...

Salut les escargots!!!

Je vous souhaite bonne route...N'oubliez pas de noter les bonnes adresses sur votre blog ca nous sera tres utile pour notre voyage...
Billet achete hier: envol le 3 fevrier prochain pour Cayenne et retour vers le 15 juillet...mais dans ma tete, j'y suis deja!!!

gros bisous a tous les 2, enjoy!!!

6:02 AM  
Blogger Gaby said...

Salut les escargots!!!

Heureuse que tout aille bien pour vous! Ca a l'air top!
Ici, la rentree s'est bien passee, je travaille tres peu et que pour 3 semaines!!! Et 4 semaines de conge mater avant l'arrivee du bibou! Je grossis, mais la forme.
Continuez a remplir votre blog et je continue a le lire..

Bisoux a tous 2 - La baleine a bosses - alias Gaby ...

8:43 AM  
Blogger JOHNBE said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:19 AM  
Blogger JOHNBE said...

I am delighted you are having so much fun....This IS the time to travel...tiny feets will soon affect the way you travel if not the envy...Have a great time and enjoy.All the best John...celui de la cuisine de tes parents Albane....

7:22 AM  

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