In the Beginning...
20 December 2017
The River Jaundy runs south from the northern coast of Brittany, France, past stone houses, hay fields stacked high with round bales, shellfish aquaculture, a chateau with an exotic garden over rose granite cliffs, and broad, deep tidal flats that leave hundreds of gaft-rigged sailboats from another era with runabouts aground and askew in mud twice each day. It arrives in Treguier, where the River Guindy, once the sacred property of the bishops, slides off through thickets bordered by artichoke, cauliflower, and potato farms. Treguier is historically known as the birthplace of St Yves, the patron saint of lawyers and he is buried in the 14th century cathedral, as well as home to the philosopher skeptic Ernest Renan. When a statue of Renan together with the goddess Athena was unveiled in the plaza in 1903, riotous protests by the Catholic Church ensued. Yet, although much of Brittany was politically conservative through the 20th century, Treguier has been known as a socialist and communist area. It is here in a quiet town of timbered houses that we began our journey in March 2011 when Steve first flew from Hood River to visit the Boreal, and it is from here that we set sail on the RC Louise, a 44 foot Boreal aluminum cutter designed and built by a company whose motto translates roughly "Don't make mediocre dreams, they are the hardest to realize". It is west of the Normandy beaches, west of Mont St Micheal, and west of the area covered by the tour guide Rick Steeves. The boat is named after Steve's maternal grandparents, who give him his first boat, a Portuguese rowing dory, at age 6, and talked to him about sailing the world. Steve and I returned once in September 2012 for a short visit to Paris and a week in Treguier. Construction proceeded by emails with company owners Jean-Francois Delvoye, the designer, and Jean-Francois Eeman, the go-to business guy and sailor, heretofore known as JFD and JFE. Our able intermediary from Europe was sailor Colin Speedie, a consultant versed in both aluminum cruising boats and boat French. Although Steve rarely does anything before his morning coffee, over the 18 month construction period he developed the habit of opening his email first thing BC (before coffee), to see if there were any design questions or construction photos. Our boat is the 12th 44ft one built, and is neither custom or off the shelf, but rather a core design with a rapidly evolving vision driven by Boreal and shaped by its customers. She is the grandchild of boats that have lived with the extreme tides of Brittany for centuries; she has a 11000 pound keel box which draws one meter and a centerboard which drops down about 2 meters. She is a striking boat and we get constant oglers and questions at the dock; Steve never tires of talking about Boreal, but I have suggested a sign on the side which provides basic facts and a website might be useful at times. The French you must understand, are sailors of long distance. Steve says "God is the distance boat that travels far and fast, Boreal is the new God in town"; you think he loves this new boat??? It is true that every French person who walks by says "Le bateau, c'est magnifique". The factory is tucked away on the periphery of the town with other light industry in an "artisanal zone", well out of the visual way of the town which lives by its architectural history and tight city planning and where children walk to school . I sometimes sum Brittany up as "no visual pollution". It is so beautiful it often brings tears to my eyes. This time we arrived from Hood River on July 1, with launch scheduled for week 29. We rented a house in Plouguiel, a few kilometers away in an area with about 6 houses that has a name, Kermovan. This part of rural France strikes us as densely populated; the number is 220 people per square mile in this department, with a 2010 Brittany population of 4,475,295. The labyrinth of roads may be one lane wide and superbly maintained, but one comes every few minutes to another place with a name, although it may be not even known by those nearby. Our landlords, a retired general practitioner and electrician, live in the house half time but rent it out during the summer season. It felt immediately like we were living in a real home, and in our trusty rented Citroen we began the onerous task of shopping for the boat. My French was learned from 7th through 12th grade and a year of college, but had never been taken out and used before. Steve, non. Nada. While shopping in a foreign culture for five things is fun, shopping for 500 things which felt like 5000 turned out to be surprisingly difficult. Trying to figure out where what type of thing was sold, reading and understanding the labels (we got a great deal on a sack of "twice broke" rice which turned out to be a Thai deal kind of like rice in couscous shape), parsing marine specifications, sorting out metric sizes (quick how big a garbage bag do you need? Thank god I have delivered enough babies to be able to measure 10 cm quickly) and driving all over Brittany to slightly larger cities with complex driving roundabouts sucked our energy more than I expected. We did not have a list at the start, but just walked up and down every aisle to see what we needed. At every turn, the culture of things was just different enough that it took a lot of time to know what to buy, whether it was pillows, pans, spare parts, flour, clothes pins, a dinghy, soap, an anchor. We found foods that our personal comfort foods, like black beans, coconut milk, and Sriracha sauce at a tropical goods store a few towns away. The supermarket/household good stores which are ubiquitous on the edge of Brittany towns and cities are laced with a surprising level of low quality goods from China which would never make the cut at a US dollar store or Wallyland. Dish towels run deep green when wet and brushes die after three uses. This was such a contrast to the perfect beauty of white lace curtains et al. We were also armed with neolithic American credit cards which have no microchip, unlike the rest of the developed world, so every transaction had an edge to it; the only unfriendly French people we have met are the check out women who glare when the credit card does not work at first and requires special effort on everyone's part. But slowly we filled the living room in Plouguiel with stuff, readying for the day we would move aboard. This is a long paragraph because all this took a lot of time. In between, we took excursions in the immediate neighborhood, the Cotes-d'Armor, the northern department of Brittany. Drive randomly through back roads using both a map from the tourist office and the road map on the Ipad to figure out where one is, and get out at the coast and run for one to two hours along the old customs officers path. Go on a tour of an artichoke farm sponsored by the cooperative warehouse, and see the partially mechanical/partially hand farm equipment that helps make farming on relatively small acreage viable. Never miss the Wednesday night summer music in Treguier. Along with the revival of the Breton language in the 1960s and 1970s came a revival of folk music. The bagadou are bands with bagpipes, bombards, and drums inspired by Scottish bagpipes. At the fest-noz, people of all ages and styles dance in lines and circles and couples to both traditionally dressed bands and edgy bands with skinny guys in black. Hang out with an Australian country rock band at a convent converted into a community venue or at a three day festival of sea chants with a harbor full of ketches, dundees, lougres, goelettes, and other variety of old boats with red barked sails. Figure out which towns you favor for market day and just which person has the best green beans. Watch French school children on vacation learn to sail in dinghies with vibrant sails all lined up like ducks. They all spend at least a little time in sailing school, whether it sticks later or not, and millions of people watched the Vendee Globe Around the World single handed sailboat race on TV every night for 90 days or more, two hour coverage a night. Six hundred thousand people line up at the quay to cheer the last boat in on the southern Brittany coast. Read a bit each day on the list of ten famous French sailors who I should not sit down to dinner in this country without at least a passing knowledge; we were embarrassingly ignorant about the national passion, but once I could make casual references to Eric Tabarly I felt like my IQ went up 20 points. Go to a small town pardon, a yearly penitential ceremony with procession which dates back to the time of conversion by Celtic monks and happens only to the west of Guingamp in Brittany. Poke around a town's one day rummage sale/flea market called a vide grenier ("empty attic"). Ponder art of all kinds, in galleries and markets and public places. Let it sink in how much history has played its hand here, for centuries, and how that history drives everyday life, whether one is remodeling a house or deciding where to live in adulthood. French who have lived in the US say that what they most missed is the rooted sense of history, and that what they most loved was the relative rootless of the US culture. At times we toyed with going to some very famous places that really were not all that far away, such as Mont St. Michael, but we kept finding so many things to do in the very local area in the summer that we actually narrowed the radius we were willing to drive to do something over the month, practicing microtourism. And drinking Brittany cider. And Belgian beer. And eating out occasionally at the simple (read less expensive) end of the food chain... moules frites (tons of tiny steamed mussels with a big side of fries) and galettes (buckwheat pancakes filled with savory fillings) and buttery pastries (butter is the official Breizh food I think) and Italian thin crust pizzas named after movie gangsters like Tony Montana. And watching the sea, from the land. The Brittany coast is extraordinarily rocky, but what paces life is the very extreme tides and powerful currents. Vast areas of land completely disappear at high tide, enough that the same area is virtually unrecognizable at high tide. The tides are captured by dams to generate electricity and for hundreds of years were used to running grain mills. People who have to do with the sea live by the tide. It decides when you leave the harbor, when you come back to the harbor, when you are willing to carry heavy tools down steep ramps, what design boat you have, when you fish, where you walk. It sets the rhythm of the day. Men and women likely lie to each other about the tides. It has led to the building of harbors for boats with gates that open very briefly around high tide for craft to come and go, then close so that the boats inside all float above sea level while the tide goes out. Or to fixed sills at harbor entries which contain the water. It leads to problems when one miscalculates (this photo is not of our boat!). man crawled in darkness on his stomach in black spa-quality mud/clay supported by an oar to get aboard our dinghy to then get to our boat. The familiar concepts of high tide, low tide, tidal range, neaps, and springs do not do enough to express all this, so the Service Hydrographique et Oceanographique de la Marine calculates the coefficient, which is a number without units which characterizes the amplitude of the tide. The scale runs in whole numbers from 20 to 120. So you say, when anticipating an activity, "Well today is an 83, so maybe we should first do....." or "Today is only a 30 so we do not even need to worry about that". I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the sentence from Bloc Marine 2013, the quite technical almanac and cruising guide which has kept us alive, which reads "Le coefficient de la maree est, pour une pleine mar de Brest, le quotient du marnarge semi-diurne de la formule harmonique par la valor moyenne de cette quantite pour les marees de vive-eau d'equinoxe, admise egale a 6.10m". The part about the Harmonic Formula has, upon inquiry, sent the very well-educated young engineering intern at Boreal scurrying off to Wiki French to review sine and cosine. Beneath it all is an intense savvy about the ocean, an awareness of the toll it can take, and simple magnetic delight in its pleasures. The churches are filled with models of boats and collection boxes for the life saving services. The Bretons sail and go out fishing in astounding numbers, starting early in the morning and ending late at night. We have been welcomed warmly as visitors. The couple who rented us their home have cooked us meals and driven us one more time to the store and filmed the launch of the boat and posted it on YouTube and helped me buy IV fluids and suture from the pharmacy. The parents of a fellow Boreal owner shared their home and lives for four days when there was no wind. The family of the production manager welcomed us to their stone home for coconut chicken and amber home-brewed beer and cheese and crepes at their big wooden kitchen table to talk into the night under the warm eye of a mammoth gas stove. One gentleman invited us for cocktails at his home next to the Ploumanac'h light house because he himself had been welcomed in the US and wanted to compensate for the French being too standoffish. We found the Bretons very warm, but then many of them identify as Breton and not so much French. The owner of the bed and breakfast where we stayed last year had us and a Norwegian family also buying a Boreal for heated discussion about the history of the Francization of Brittany, how children in the 1950s were punished in school for speaking Breton, and the current status of the language over rounds of drinks. People just a little older than us repeatedly take our arm and thank us in a hushed voice for the US role in WWII. We have been loaned a car, offered a house for a few days, given a CD by a street singer, and plied with apples and homemade beer and berries. In particular, we spend days and days with other Boreal owners from France and Norway, brothers and sisters under the skin in the magical process of having a boat built by a young, passionate company that engages with its clients. We have tried to reciprocate. We have laughed a lot with people about our American habits of leaving the skin on things like potatoes and apples (as opposed to the French inclination to peel just about everything), been embarrassed by the lumpy cheese slices we cut and served at all the wrong time, and ultimately decided we are wine slobs. There is so much about the society we appreciate and just plain relish that we are actually surprised when we undergo negative cultural shock when most all of the French going on vacation at the same time in August. This resonates with their childhood strings, is savored as a group, and thus makes sense; it is also part of having a civilized amount of total vacation..... Except that it almost shuts down the country down; parts from distributors are not available, for instance, for a period of time. Almost, but not quite: the equivalent of Fedex dutifully makes the requisite number of attempts to deliver packages which must be signed for to obviously closed business and the vacant homes of people on vacation, then returns to sender. Yet we love that patriotism still means "we the common people" and liberte/egalite/fraternite. We love the sense of excruciating beauty in everyday life. The gut sensibility of "the critique", whether of the wealthy or commerce or art, makes for formidable creativity. And then there is the boat. When we last saw her ten months previously, she was an enormous and powerful aluminum thorax. Now she was painted topsides, wired and plumbed, and fitted out in the interior. She was blanketed in protective cardboard and plastic. A symphony of details proceeded each day. We met most every day with JFE about issues, but the work was so fast and furious that we left any visits aboard not directly linked to a question we needed to answer until 5 pm when it was possible to stay out of the way of the workers. JFD's design vision is to come up with simple solutions to problems that have plagued sailboats of this size and type. He is a hands on designer to the very end, aboard all the time driving home the details. The mast was rigged. The name RC Louise goes on. Finally launch day came on July 18. By 5:45am we were at the yard, and at 6am sharp she winds her way through town to the marina ramp. DSCN0825 By mid-afternoon the tide is right, she is floated, and the mast stepped.
She arrived at the dock. It all seemed dreamlike in spite of our two years of involvement in the nuts and bolts of the process. Then began the finishing work. We went on a test sail. It is extremely predictable that a new boat have dozens of little issues, and she did. But although many well-known boat builders pretty much leave their customers to deal with things on their own at that point, JFD and JFE stuck with us through some hard weeks of quality control, always responsive to our questions and concerns. We had said since the beginning that having a Boreal built was like a marriage, and it passed the test of commitment to build our boat in the very best way. Finally, we went out sailing. The Boreal 44 sails fast, smoothly, and steadily, but none the less is completely new to us, who have not sailed for four years since leaving our Mason 44 in New Zealand. It takes a lot of looking, figuring, understanding, and experimenting to even begin to have a sense of a new boat. It takes about a year to make a cruising boat your own. Brittany, however, presented some challenges which are more unexpected. Leaving the dock and arriving back at the dock in Treguier in particular, which is described as having violent currents by Bloc Marine 2013, was the hardest and we found ourselves quickly back at the marine store doubling the number of fenders we owned and increasing their diameter after putting some scratches on our brand new baby. Many harbors are packed with floating docks with lines of boats tightly strung together on lines of mooring balls, and even discerning where the channel is between the rows is hard, much less getting attached to one of the balls. We did a "dry out" a few times, which invokes going up into the shallows, pulling up the centerboard, setting stern and aft anchors, and letting the tide go out around the boat until it is dry and one climbs off the stern and walks. Sometimes the surrounding sea bed is nice firm sand, they say, but for us it has mostly been sucking black mud to muck through a long way to get to solid shore. The French for drying out translates "running aground", but that word is also used for failing school exams and alcoholics getting sober. This is what many small craft in Brittany do several times a day, but it still seems perplexingly unnatural, which may be related to why it is so commonly photographed and painted. Anchoring is often not an option in the harbors due to either crowding or regulations. Sometimes it has just been easiest to stay outside the harbor a bit unprotected in 15-20 knots of wind, drop the rockin' new Spade anchor and 40 meters of chain, and say to hell with the lee shore. Neither of us are hapless navigators, but we are often challenged by the confusing shapes of the land vs rocks vs uncovered at low tide on the charts and the most excellent plethora of buoys to mark all the hazards. In our struggles we have petty squabbles about whether it is easier with the chart plotter on north up or course up and some big squabbles about just exactly where we are. I wonder about the history of all the names of the navigational markers, most majestic, others funny (Big Pot of Butter, Little Pot of Butter). We go through the La Rance lock above St Malo, described as an orderly process by the book. At one point we were in the middle of seven boats rather than with one side of the RC Louise next to the lock wall, with lines to five of them, a boat next to us with a dead motor, and lots of yelling. There were 50 or 60 French citizens leaning over the top of the lock looking down on us all like Roman citizens at the feeding of the lions, quietly chuckling every time boats collide or thrown dock lines fail to make it to the next boat. Chaos only the universe or the French could manufacture. We have explored the local coast from Tregastel to St Malo, gone to dreamlike and carless Ile de Brehat, and sailed to the Channel Islands. In the last photo of Dinan, with the bridge, that is our dinghy tied up at the local boat club. Coming back from Guernsey, winds were 30 to 35 knots and seas were sometimes breaking. The RC Louise proved calm and comfortable, reassuring us that we have a true voyaging vessel. We have rounded the most northwestern point of Brittany, and are waiting for a weather window to cross the Bay of Biscay soon. As this finally gets posted, we are well down south in Spain. But that is for another day. More soon.