IN a friendly house near New York, a calm evening, so calm that I wonder if my extraordinary adventure of the last few months has indeed arrived.
Through the window, I see the Long Island Strait and the mast of my little Firecrest , a few hundred meters away, along the pier at Fort Totten.
It is not a dream. I crossed the Atlantic alone and I am now in the United States. Less than a month ago, in storms amidst huge waves, I had to fight every moment to defend my life from the elements.
I have there, on hand, my log book which I have faithfully kept, even in the worst weather. I turn the pages, where the sea water has not yet completely dried, and my eyes fall on this passage of my cruise:
“Aboard the Firecrest , on August 14, at sea in 34 degrees 45 minutes north latitude and 56 degrees 10 minutes west longitude, strong wants from the west. The boat was terribly rocked all night, and sea packets break there at every moment. At four in the morning, listening to the jib breaks and I have to make a splice. The bridge is completely submerged. Although all the exits are closed, everything is soaked inside. It is no small matter to prepare my lunch, and it took me two hours of acrobatic efforts before I managed to prepare a cup of tea and a few slices of grilled bacon, and that not without me repeatedly hit the head against the panels.
“At nine o’clock, the staysail tears. The boat is so shaken at this time and the wind is so strong that I cannot attempt to repair it. All my glasses and all my cups are in crumbs.
“At noon, a monstrous wave hits the deck and carries the panel from the hold to the sails. The waves are getting bigger, the sea is now huge and the wind is blowing furiously. It sells so hard that my sails cannot hold. A hole appears in my staysail and my mainsail tears along the middle seam, revealing a three meter slit. I have to bring my sails to save them. It is very difficult in such a wind, in such a sea, without exposing myself to falling overboard!
“On the wet and slippery deck, I can barely stand, and it takes me a good hour to accomplish my perilous task. I want to hoist the cape sail, but the wind is still increasing. It is now a real storm. No sail will withstand such weather. The vibration of the shrouds makes exactly the same note as a fast train. This means that the wind has acquired a speed of over sixty miles an hour.
It is or never the occasion to use my floating anchor, which is a large conical canvas bag whose opening is held open by an iron hoop. Attaching one end of a forty-fathom rope to the sea anchor and the other to the chain of my anchor, I throw the bag into the sea, connecting it to a small buoy as a float. The bag fills underwater, the rope stiffens and, very slowly, the bow of my boat turns against the wind.
“The Firecrest now rolls less slowly, although I am still very shaken by the sea. I have to put old fabrics on the hold in the sails to prevent water from entering. I am exhausted, but I still have a lot to do. I take my torn sails to my cabin and, closing all the exits behind me, I spend the evening and most of the night repairing them with a hinge and a needle.
“Now it’s raining in torrents. In the living room, the water is at floor level. And I realize, to my chagrin, that my pump is not working. It is raining harder and harder; I am soaked to the bone; there is no longer a single dry place on board, and I cannot prevent the rain from entering several places through the skylights and the hold in the sails. ”
I close my log book. This was just an ordinary day during the month of storms I had to endure around the middle of the trip.
But what a wonderful existence!
Although I have only landed for a few days, I already aspire to weigh anchor and resume the sea and sea life. And, I start to dream. How did I become a sailor? How did this taste of the sea come to me?
I spent most of my youth in Dinard, near the fishing port of Saint-Malo, the land of the famous corsairs, the glory of our navy, two hundred years ago. When my father did not take me with him on his yacht, I always managed to spend the day on a fisherman’s boat.
It is in Saint-Malo that the harsh Breton fishermen equip their boats for perilous journeys to the banks of Newfoundland, or to the fishy areas of Iceland.
Already my ambition was to own a small boat. One time my brother and I saved enough money to buy a boat that someone else owned before us.
I envied the lives of Breton fishermen and I shuddered at the account of their prowess of endurance and daring.
It was there, in Saint-Malo and Dinard, that I learned to love the sea, the waves and the stormy winds. My favorite books were adventure books. Many of them told of the gold hunt, the adventures of the Alaskan and Klondike miners. The word Et Dorado exerted a great charm on me. I sometimes thought, “When I am a man, I will discover El Dorado.”
As a child, Joseph Conrad once put his finger on a map of the unexplored part of Central Africa and said, “When I grow up, I will go there.” He realized his dream. He went there. Less happy than Conrad, I will never realize my childhood dream; I would rather suffer the fate of the hero of Edgar Allan Poe.
“ A gallant Knight — Had journeyed long — Singing a song. — In search of El Dorado — But he grew old — This Knight so bold.
“ As he found. — No spot of ground — That looked like El Dorado. ”
“A valiant knight — had traveled a long time — singing his song — in search of El Dorado. — But he became old — the brave knight! And he found – no trace of a country – that looked like El Dorado. ”
After my happy childhood years at Dinard, I was sent to Paris for my studies and I became an intern at Stanislas. It was there that I spent the most unhappy years of my life, trapped between high walls, dreaming of the great world, of freedom and adventure. But you had to study to become an engineer.
I entered aviation. After experiencing the exhilaration of space on my hunting device, through the clouds, I knew that I could never lead a sedentary existence in a city again. War brought me out of civilization. I no longer aspired to return.
A young American, a fellow flight attendant, once lent me a book by Jack London, the “Snark” Cruise . This book taught me that it was possible to travel the world on a relatively small boat. It was a revelation for me and I decided immediately that I would try the adventure, if I was happy enough to survive the war.
Later, I associated two comrades with my projects. The three of us had to put a boat on the way to the Pacific Islands.
But these two friends died bravely in the air!
It was then that I made the decision to go alone. Abandoning my career as an engineer, I looked for a year, in all French ports, for a boat which I could handle without help. Two and a half years ago, visiting my friend Ralph Stock, author of the “Dream-Ship” Cruise on his yacht , I discovered at anchor, in an English port, a small boat. It was the Firecrest .