It’s a stereotype that the French talk about food like the Brits talk about weather, but in this house it’s true.
This house revolves around food, and the labour required to produce it. Hugues stays out fishing for most of the week, dropping back into the harbor to unload the catch and leave whatever he can save for Dominique in the back of his van, for her to pick up. We work in the garden 4 hours each morning. Dominique cooks and preserves in the kitchen, emerging to weed and plant in the afternoon if the weather is good.
Memorable meals have involved home-bottled beef bourgignon, locally hunted roast wild boar, and roast chicken from the deep frozen stack of last years’ birds. Add to that various hauls from Hugue’s trawler: scallops, Dover sole, needlefish with their spooky green bones. Once a huge turbot, usually fetching 70 EUR wholesale, that was too damaged to sell but delicious enough to eat.
In the longer term, ethics aside, we may all be obliged to eat more locally as ‘just in time’ supply chains falter and fail. Climate, fuel prices and supply shocks could all cause supermarket shortages more serious than those we saw within days during the fuel strikes. Eating more locally will require more of us learning the skills of preserving food that previous generations abandoned in favour of relying on industry. Getting through the winter with your health intact is easier if you’ve got the bottled nutrients of jam, sauerkraut, tomato sauce, dried pulses and a cellarful of apples, carrots and potatoes. All the links in this post lead to useful resources for these techniques.
Dominique is well versed in these skills. Later in the season fresh veg will form a bigger part of the meals on the table, but right now we’re entering the ‘hungry gap’ and most of it is coming out of the bank of huge freezers or from jars. The various cupboards and pantries are full of mason jars containing pate from pork bought in bulk, onion jam from homegrown onions, pickles, bottled soup and apple compote. An entire cupboard in the B&B dining room is stacked with a rainbow of homemade jams- fig, blackberry, raspberry and rhubarb, apple jelly and strawberry and plum. If staples like bread, sugar and coffee suddenly became scarce you wouldn’t starve, and you could enjoy yourself for quite some time on what’s stored here.
“If I didn’t have the freezers or any electricity for the ovens, my cooking would be very different. Less desserts, less complicated meals because of the lack of fresh ingredients. Probably simpler food. I’d spend less time cooking because so much time would be spent preserving, drying, smoking and bottling. I have the capacity here to try it if I needed to.”
One morning Hugues arrived with an immense tray of fish. Dominique spent the next eight hours dealing with it, and her usual calm competence was getting frayed by the end.
“He brings me too much sometimes, he doesn’t think of how much work it is. You want to know about self-sufficiency? It’s like this, you work with what is there and use it as well as you can. Sometimes it means many hours in the kitchen so the fish is not wasted. Sometimes I just call people and give away what I cannot use.”
Treats like the wild boar are given by friends in the knowledge that Dominique is generous herself with any surplus they generate at Le Chateau.
“Often, you give a friend a bag of carrots and some eggs and it’s somebody else who gives you a cut of meat. This is how it works. You give, and you get back.”
This time, she found a use for all of it. The pollock was filleted and fried for lunch. The needlefish were made into a huge vat of soup, simmered for 2 hours then bottled in ten 2l mason jars and sterilised in a large pan that looked like a metal bin. The mackerel were boiled in white wine and vinegar with cloves, onions and carrots until the fishbones made a preservative jelly around them. The haddock were gutted and salted and put in the pantry until Hugues had time to smoke them.
Even outside this super-local way of life, I’ve noticed that in France, it’s very, very easy to eat food produced here. As the second largest agricultural nation in the world, with such a strong culinary tradition, that shouldn’t be surprising. But it’s a huge change from the UK, with its lack of diversity in climate and farming and tiny overpopulated landmass.
Long term, our plan is to use the proceeds of our house sale to buy some land, and start learning to feed ourselves. Even eating food grown long before we arrived, I’m struck by how good it feels to be so intimately aware of the footprint and the work involved in your food. I’m looking forward to that being part of my own life.
One memorable meal was Dominique’s homemade pork pate and onion jam, followed by potato omelette with foraged woodland mushrooms and new salad leaves from the polytunnel. Pudding was the world’s most appley apple tart, made with a buttery pastry and filled with orchard apples, laid on a base of homemade apple compote, and glazed with clear homemade apple jelly.
Feeling gratitude for the people around the table who caught, fed, planted, harvested and processed the food on your plate, and a small sliver of pride that later this year somebody will eat the beans I planted that day makes the meal taste better.
All the butter and cream doesn’t hurt either.
Dominique is an organic grower. There’s very little waste on the land- weeds and food leavings go to the compost pile, where they’re picked over by chickens before rotting down into plant food. Stale bread goes to the rabbit, with the vegetables that are too small to cook, and specific weeds they like are saved from the pile. The donkey gets the deformed carrots, the leafy tops and the gone-to-seed cabbages. You get the picture.
But when it comes to her own land she has little patience for ‘extremists’; her term for a range of permaculture, no-dig and hugelkultur obsessives who occasionally pass through. She uses crop rotation, manure and composting to keep the soil fertile, and creates lasagne beds to start a new crop on tough soil. She’s also very definite about weeding. It has to be done properly, and throughout the entire bed. None of this fashion for leaving the weeds in to maintain soil quality and biodiversity in the garden. The weeds are fine in the corners of the fields. If they raise their verdant heads in Dominique’s fruit and veg plot at planting time, or any time outside the dead of winter, they are toast.
Far from being an extremist myself, I’ve always been a bit of a Facebook farmer. Stridently advocating the urgency of everybody growing their own food, but never getting my own hands in the soil. I know several people like this. We generally share more links online than the smaller group who are outside getting dirty.
Sam’s had more experience of food growing. He’s established an orchard on his mum’s land and created a self-watering permaculture allotment, with mixed results. He’s even better versed in various organic theories, having done thorough internet research before settling on forest gardening with small grass fed animals & horticulture as his ideal strategy for our dream smallholding. He loves gadgets and contraptions, especially if they require minimal energy inputs and create virtuous circles of benefits for all the elements involved.
Sadly for him, his first task in Dominique’s garden was to dismantle a Hugelkultur bed a previous WWOOFer had installed.
“I was ill in bed, I didn’t know what he was doing. He dug up all my rhubarb and put it in that. What is the use of it?”
Sam was quite enamoured of the structure- a heaped pile of soil studded with concentric rings of slates heaped over a base of rotting wood.
“The wood releases nitrogen into the soil gradually, and the slates shelter the seedlings from the wind and keep them warm when it’s sunny. In theory”, he offered.
Dominique let out a very Gallic ‘Hah!’
“I like to garden with hard work, not theory.”
After a woeful hour deconstructing the bed and marveling at the lovely loamy soil, Sam discovered the errant WWOOFer had forgotten the vital element of manure over the wood base, which provides a shorter-term nitrogen supply while the wood rots. He felt the loss less keenly after that.
The spread of useful information is great, but as Rob Hopkins puts it far more eloquently, practice is what’s needed to really test the efficacy of any of these growing methods. Part of the philosophy of permaculture as I understand it is about responding very precisely to the specific demands of the piece of land you have to work with. This can only be done in 3D and over time.
I think sometimes the kaleidoscope of information about urban farming, edible windowboxes, the astounding fertility of forest gardens, lulls us into thinking we can start tomorrow. Or next week. Or, oh, now it’s winter and I’ve been sharing links on Facebook the whole growing season. Next year maybe? Nature’s bounty will still be there for me to stuff my face with. And in the meantime there’s always the shops.
But what if you don’t actually believe that the shops are eternal, or that they will always have what you want to eat at a price you can afford? There may be less time than you think. What if you find that the first year or three, you’re a crap gardener? Easier to suck it up, learn and move on if you’re not already scurvy from rocketing fruit and veg prices.
Dominique has worked that one piece of land since she was a tiny girl in her grandmother’s footsteps. 50-odd years is a research period I can respect. I do my weeding diligently.
My main worry was whether I was even going to like the work. Having decided working some land will be an important part of my future, will I find I really prefer editing video on a laptop and sharing links about guerrilla gardening to show off my awareness?
I loved it. My back and legs ached for the first three days, which after the winter of hiding out on Joker felt like a much needed massage. My mind roamed, dreamed, then snapped back to the present as a toad hopped past, as millipedes and worms undulated through the soil, as I waged sweaty war on an enormous dock root and finally yanked it like a stubborn tooth, dropping me on my ass.
I loved planting beans in the polytunnel, so shallowly that ‘they can hear the gardener walking away’.
I loved feeding the animals in the mornings, checking they all had what they needed, changing their water. Shutting them up in their beds at night against the predators.
I loved the way the give and take of life was so simply illustrated. Expending my effort, eating the food. Taking from the land, giving to the animals: Scattering seed in the mornings, then the weeds and compost for the chickens to pick over. The geese grazing their grass to a lawn fit for a golf course. Giving to the land, spreading compost and manure. Clearing a space for the artichokes and watching them stretch out, freed from choking weeds. Taking from the animals: collecting up to 17 eggs every day from the musty henhouse. Scooping fresh milk from the tank. Coming in famished from the work and eating buttery biscuits made from the eggs and the cream.
When it rained, gathering apples from last year’s pile in the yard and peeling and coring them for bottled compote.
I actually loved it so much, when I did switch my laptop on in the evenings, I was nonplussed. Why did I spend so much time on this? It’s not real. There are no nettles, no tiny red spiders randomly wandering around in here. What is it for?
It’s clearly a lot of work. Much more than the 4 hours we’re required to do here, if it was our place. But I think I could do it- if I get the chance.
I know very few people have the proceeds of a house sale with which to shop for land. There are still many options: allotments, community gardens, WWOOFing holidays, windowboxes, volunteering on local CSA farms, getting involved with Reclaim the Fields, finding and planting a neglected bit of green space in your area on the quiet. The more of us have practiced doing this stuff, the more bounteous we can make those abandoned shopping centres and cracked motorways when the time comes.
Facebook Farmers, unite! We have nothing to lose but our inexperience.
As we approached Grandcamp Maisy, the waves knocked us playfully from side to side and the wind belted in from starboard. As usual I was helming while Sam anxiously consulted chart plotter, horizon and depth sounder. My job is much more fun, and in the bright sun and steady blow it was like riding a spirited horse. I belted out songs at the top of my lungs as the shape of the town resolved from a huddled skyline into distinct buildings.
The entrance to the marina is a narrow walled corridor that needles out from the coast. To hit it I had to aim slightly to starboard as the wind was pushing us quite hard. There were a few observers watching from the harbour entrance, and as ever I felt rather wonderful and mystical arriving by sea, forging through the elements to safety.
I aimed the boat perfectly, and as we pootled into the sunlit marina I was able to guide us with nary an untoward bump into a berth on the visitors pontoon.
As we tied up and took a breath, we felt our luck had changed. The air was summery soft, and rippling nests of light spangled the boats. I fried up a breakfast as Sam booked us in.
He came back with a sack of freshly caught scallops and some warm bread, and we spread our hamstery bedding on the deck to air.
We called a nearby farm registered on the WWOOFing website. The owner, Dominique, was surprised we had made it to Grandcamp Maisy- she’d expected to collect us from Isigny. It turned out we were 20 minutes’ walk from her homestead. Having bought the scallops, we decided to stay on Joker for supper that night and head to ‘Le Chateau’ in the morning.
Stretching my limbs in the sun, utterly comfortable and feeling the pride of another successful crossing, I was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that the stone face of winter had finally cracked a smile. I had a happy little weep. After succulent scallops, we slept with the hatch open for the first time in months.
At 10am Dominique picked us up in her car with our bags and drove us up the hill. As the car swung into the courtyard we wriggled in our seats like kids, utterly delighted.
‘Le Chateau’ is an arrangement of 16th century grey stone buildings, named for the castle grounds they were once part of. The actual castle was burned down in 1879, when the owner’s husband lost it in a game of chance and couldn’t face telling her.
Dominique, now 62, grew up next door with her aunt, when her grandmother lived at Le Chateau. Dominique fetched water from the well and worked in the garden and with the animals from an early age. Her grandmother raised cows, kept horses for travel and farm work, and grew her own vegetables. When her husband went to war, she took the reins of the land in her own hands, and never handed them back. Dominique often quotes her saying ‘A l’homme, la force. A la femme, la ruse’.
After raising 7 children, Dominique now lives here with her youngest son Hugues, a 20 year old fisherman who works on his older brother’s trawler. Her daughter Julie and her three children live next door where Dominique grew up. One of the buildings is a B&B- Dominique’s chief cash income.
We were shown to our room by Felicity, a regular helper from the UK who’s been coming here every holiday for the past three years. She’s studying French at Durham University and has become fluent, partly thanks to her time here. She’s practically one of the family.
The room’s warm yellow walls and wooden floors glowed in the morning sun, streaming through white and green drapes. Set with intricately carved wooden furniture, including a wide bed heaped with white and yellow covers. A complicated golden clock stood on the mantelpiece flanked by fans. The en suite bathroom with its deep green tiles and stenciled daffodils on the walls was about the size of our living space on Joker.
Slightly overawed, we put our things away and came downstairs. Dominique sent us out to explore the garden and pick 30 sorrel leaves for lunch.
The garden, the garden! Our feet, accustomed to wobbly boat and pontoon or hard concrete, squidged exquisitely on the tufty grass. Bees bumbled round our heads. A constellation of birdsong scintillated in our ears. Fruit trees elegantly fingered the air, shy buds about to explode into blossom. We wandered into a field at one end and were approached from all sides by frolicking baby goats and a fuzzy, serene donkey.
Lunch was potatoes with boiled eggs from the henhouse and tangy cream and sorrel sauce. Pudding was a buttery raspberry clafouti.
“I make dessert for every meal”, said Dominique.
Are we dreaming?
We left St Vaast at round 9am on a morning suffused with hazy yellow sunlight. The light indecisive breeze made a mockery of the onslaught we’d endured in the preceding weeks, and failed to fill Joker’s sails. We motored on, over a pewter sea, as the clouds closed over our heads. The sun was just visible, reflected as scattered molten-silver stars winking in the grey undulations.
Our approach to the harbour was heralded by an island looming out of the mist on the port side, topped by an angular building. Isle St Marcouf, named for the hermit who lived there, was subsequently used as a temporary prison for criminals awaiting deportation to the New World. These days it’s a protected bird colony and property of the French Ministry of Defence. In the UK, too, there are plenty of MoD properties kept relatively wild by all those ‘keep out’ signs. It seems a shame we can’t resist destroying wilderness unless the men with guns put a fence round it, but it’s all I can think of to thank the MoD for in recent years. I only hope they’re not using the peace and quiet to dream up more imperialist resource wars, but what are the chances?
Our plan was to head for Grandcamp Maisy, a smaller and less touristy harbour near the D-Day beaches. Their lock gates closed at 1pm, and though it took longer than we expected to get within sight of it, we were there with an hour to spare. Sam was keen to avoid any risks, and the chart plotter showed shallows between us and the entrance. The tide was still falling and if we ran aground, we’d be stuck there for eight hours, possibly overbalancing in the mud.
I wanted to go for it, but I’m a lowly First Mate. Sam is the Skipper and must be obeyed, if only at sea. So at the edge of the shallows, we swung round to point at Isigny sur Mer. From the chart plotter it appeared that the tidal river running through it never sank below our required depth. We’d moor there for the night and head to Grandcamp in the morning,
It was a dreamy, unsettling journey to Isigny. Our chart showed us where it thought the shallows were, but evidently it was a movable feast. The angels (or municipal seafaring services) who think of these things had provided red and green buoys in a winding path through a wide expanse of water. They were set so that as you passed between them, the next pair were just visible on the horizon. Past the first pair, we crossed a clear line between blue wavelets and brown ripples where the river abandoned itself to the sea.
It was another mile of buoys before we reached the river mouth, and another mile of scrubby grass and a few isolated farmhouses before we saw a mooring place. We tied up triumphantly, and heated some stew to celebrate our first ever uneventful, disaster-free crossing.
As we ate, we mused that there wasn’t much of a tideline visible on the riverbank. We’d thought the tide had been falling for a while, but that now seemed unlikely.
It began to rain as we traipsed along a bouncing, rickety pontoon towards Isigny to find some internet. At the other end of the pontoon was a man with a dark ponytail and moustache, eating a sandwich aboard a dark red wooden yacht. We tried some halting French to do with ‘depth?’. He came to the rescue with his excellent English.
“Yes, the whole river disappears. Sloping mud on both sides. There is no escape.“
I’m a bit tired of relating tales of woe by now. Suffice it to say, our foolishness in miscalculating the tides did not go unnoticed or unbemoaned by us, nor was our three hour stint adjusting ropes and buoys and beaching legs in the rain particularly enjoyable. Nor was it the highlight of our lives attempting to sleep in a cabin tilted at a 45 degree angle. Sam took it rather harder than I did, as a personal affront to his skippering abilities. I quickly entered a zen-like state of acceptance, put the kettle on and practiced the ukulele in our crazily tilted cabin until blisters popped up on my fingertips.
We awoke around 8am, to the second rising tide of our brief and underwhelming stay in Isigny. Neither of us had slept well through the night’s rising and falling tides and the various angles and creakings they entailed. I’d had a particularly weird dream involving Tony Soprano, a small white dog, sacrificing the hair clippings of my childhood best friend to a vengeful river, and anxiously taking acid with my Dad at an extremely hedonistic festival staffed by disillusioned, infighting environmental activists who’d once hoped it would be a sustainable organic farm. I was still unpicking the threads of it as we chugged back along the sparse line of buoys towards Grandcamp Maisy.
The long, long winter had drained the fun from our mission. Even the absurdity of being cooped in the cabin was wearing thin.
Dmitry Orlov says that one useful skill for a future of fuel shortages is acclimatisation to the cold. From what I’ve read about recent changes to the jet stream, the UK and Northern Europe may be experiencing Orlov’s Russian winters more often in future. By the time we arrived in St Vaast I’d already begun this process. On days when the sun shone, I’d stroll to the showers in three layers of tops and an open hoody, past locals huddled in thick down jackets, hats and scarves. By mid-March, our rare visits to the local bar felt like entering a greenhouse. My face would flush bright pink and I’d sweat at the temples within five minutes of sitting down.
We may have been acclimatising but it was hard on the body. Normally healthy, I had successive waves of infections, colds and injuries. One day, three of my fingers and three of my toes swelled and turned red, and didn’t go down for two weeks. Luckily we hadn’t yet tried sawing my wedding ring off.
I had a breast lump scare, and visited the doctor, blood test clinic and chemist- clutching carefully scripted questions culled from Google translate. It turned out to be an infection and disappeared just in time for the sonogram. I was ushered out through a waiting room full of worried middle aged women, feeling silly and carrying copies of the scan pictures. I handed them to Sam: “Here’s some pictures of my boobs!”
He was a bit disappointed with the grainy B&W streaks but I liked to think it was a new perspective on a familiar view.
Initially charmed by St Vaast, we were, by now, very much over it. The familiarity of grey cobbles, festively battered trawlers and often-shut shops was breeding, if not contempt, then a bone-deep weariness. Finally we gave up on the weather conditions giving us a perfect day to dry out and fix the propeller. We booked a lift-out.
It was one of the coldest days yet. Our outboard struggled through the ceaseless gale to the other end of the marina, where the lifting crane loomed like an outsize Tonka toy. We passed under its immense wheeled legs and threw a rope up to the man who leapt from the corner cab. Two dripping blue slings scooped into the water and under the curved hull of our home. We clung to the rigging trying to breathe easy, as Sam, Joker and I rose into the air. Once level with the concrete yard, we hopped off and watched Joker trundled across the yard, lowered onto wooden blocks and metal brackets and trussed in place.
Borrowing a ladder to climb onboard and enter the weirdly still cabin, Sam and I got the parts together. We crawled underneath to replace the broken bits of the propeller. It was fixed within 2 hours, despite the ice particles flying into our faces. We wouldn’t be lifted back in for two days.
Those two days were probably our lowest point since realising we couldn’t live on Lexia. Without the sheltering dip of the marina, our stern was hoisted to face the sea, our door in the teeth of the wind. Chips of ice flew in every time we cracked the hatch to fire up the stove. Joker vibrated harshly on her brackets, and without power all the warmth ebbed out of the hull within an hour. The cold crept inward.
The first day we huddled inside. Laptops clicking, tea brewing, wrapped in sleeping bags. The second day our internet stopped. Orange sent us a chirpy text saying their tariffs had ‘evolved’. Our previous river of free data would now cost 12EUR for every 300 megabytes. I read and dozed, feeling floaty in the head. It was too cold to keep my hands out of the covers for long enough to make jewellery or sew.
Strangely, considering we’d just fixed the boat, we discussed returning home. The winter had sapped the life from us. Every week we’d thought it must end, and every week we’d been wrong. Even now the boat worked, the wind might not let us go. We had never been so much at the mercy of the elements in our lives. It felt like staring at a carved granite head the size of a mountain and willing it to smile at you. I started to understand how prayer and sacrifice could seem like a good idea.
But ultimately it was the sheer irrelevance of our discomfort that sunk in. We could scurry back to the UK, to my Mum’s house or a friend’s sofa and snuggle in the warm, because clearly this was too hard for our pampered little selves. Or we could just accept that it wasn’t going the way we had wanted, and wait to see what would happen next.
The next day we were lifted back in and wrestled Joker back onto Pontoon E. Bobbing merrily on the water, with the heater on, all seemed possible again. The next day, the wind slackened and the sun came out. We checked the weather. In a couple of days we’d be leaving St Vaast.
The wind in St Vaast is a living presence. Stepping out of Joker’s amber cocoon, it howls around your ears and batters your body, pushing back as you press forward. As you step from the open quayside into the grey village it slackens, only to rush back and wrap your head in discordant chimes as you turn a corner. It’s been battering St Vaast without respite for the past six weeks. When the claustrophobia of the cabin gets too much, I stamp around in it until my face is pink icecream and the wind feels like an invisible crowd squeezing the breath out of me, screaming me deaf.
Now that April is here and the Easter holidays are upon us, the cobbled streets are full of English people. I’ve been struggling with loneliness over the past few months, wishing for a human encounter beyond polite GCSE-level stammerings in shops and bars. But now, in a cafe packed to the gills with Brits, I’ve no desire to say hello. Their talk is of shopping, wines and cheese. Gadgets the kids want. One family is updating their Facebook pages on their smartphones and bickering in the comments. They’re on holiday. Increasingly, I’m not sure why I’m here.
As regular readers will know, our planned journey South towards the Med on the good ship Joker has been beset by mechanical failures. We’re currently stuck in St Vaast-la-Hougue in Normandy. We’ve been waiting for the tides, the daylight and the wind and cold to coalesce into conditions that will enable us to dry Joker out again and try to fix her propeller. The wind has shown no signs of slackening for weeks. We’ve decided to spend the few hundred to haul her out of the water and onto hard standing for the repairs.
Meanwhile we’ve been on walks along the seashore and into some of the surrounding farmland. We’ve foraged mussels, winkles and a few stray oysters washed loose from acres of beds. We’ve eaten bladderwrack seaweed and I’ve picked up shells, stones and bones to make into jewellery. But we’ve spent much of it sheltering from the elements in our small cabin.
Having internet access makes this less boring and enables us to keep in touch with friends and family, research places to visit when we do get moving and keep up with news. But when we’re both plugged in, tapping away on our respective laptops, we may as well be anywhere. And that is frustrating.
Sam is a born schemer and tends to use his connected time more productively than I do. He’s inventing things, fixing websites, campaigning on Twitter.
Turning to Facebook for a taste of the banter and closeness I miss so much, I find myself skipping in an unfocused way among depressing and flippant articles linked to by friends. A cynical chuckle here, a gasp of outrage there. The past few days it’s been a barrage of rhetoric about inhumane Tory cuts, rape, feminism’s pedantic internecine battles, climate chaos and suffering all over the world. I always make the mistake of reading the comments.
The cumulative effect is hideous. I fret to escape, as though I were a battery hen forced into this hunched stare by a wire cage. Pecking away at information. Knowing it will hurt.
That’s when I leave the boat, and the wind takes me. It is powerful, clean, huge. It speaks with one voice, sounding like thousands. I’m pushed along the coast like the rest of the trash, seafoam slung across my back in white shocks of salt. I climb slick rocks piled high to form the bowl of marina, and face the sea. As darkness falls, the horizon turns jade green and the lighthouses flash out their warnings.
The wind tries to blow me away. And I want to go.
Continued from Part 1
In the morning Joker was packed in snow, her lines festooned with ice teardrops. The power was still out. As I disembarked onto a skiddy pontoon a foot across, Sam chirped “If you fell off now, you’d probably die”.
Death averted- this time- we trudged through the storm to the Capitanerie. A generator burred in the jagged air. The heavily swaddled staff mooched around a dark office, devoid of screen glow.
Our cheese had arrived! Cradling it, we questioned the staff, who now said the powercut spanned the whole area of Val de Saire. “Maybe tomorrow” was the grim prognosis, complete with Gallic shrug. We asked how the tidal lock gates were powered, and they assured us the generator had it covered. Sam rigged the beaching legs when we got back. Just in case.
Huddled in the cabin, our breath swirling, we briefly succumbed to the homesick bliss of West Country Cheddar. We listened to French radio for any mention of the powercut, specifically any nuclear factors. France gets a higher percentage of its electricity from nuclear than any other country- over 75%, though Francois Hollande has pledged to reduce that figure to 50% by 2025. Sam was ready to whip out the Potassium Iodide tablets, but after a lot of amiable wittering about delayed trains and icy roads we figured there was no meltdown. Either that or they kept it very quiet.
We layered ourselves in all the warms we could grab, pocketed 70 euros and climbed back out with a rucksack each. Trudging through St Vaast, all the shops, restaurants and banks were closed. The streets were empty and white. Then again, it could just have been lunchtime. The French take lunchtime very seriously.
It was good we had cash on hand, because every cash machine was dead as a doornail. By the time we reached the SuperU we’d decided there was no chance of it opening. Approaching the doors, we saw a pair of crossed snow-shovels barricading the front door and a note: ‘Ouverture a 15h’. It was 14h. We made a snowman to pass the time. Several families arrived in crisp, clean snowsuits and hovered by the doors.
When the doors opened, about 20 people went in. Sam sprinted for the meths and snagged two large bottles. By the time we’d loaded up two baskets in the half-light of flickering flourescents, it was all gone. There was no bread. The meat counter was shut but there were some prepackaged cuts in warmish fridges. As we joined the queue the shop assistants closed the doors to new customers.
People ahead of us started groaning and packing up to leave without their food. Were the staff thinking twice about opening in this half-assed fashion? But they were only turning away people who tried to pay by card. It seems the generator wasn’t up to running the tills. We realised the people ahead of us had written all their prices on a piece of paper and were reading them out to the cashiers, who were unable to scan anything. We ceded our place in line and cadged a pen and paper. We had to return all our weighed veg as the electronic scales were out of action. Nobody had thought to replace them with a set of battery operated scales from their own stock, and had I felt more confident about my language skills I’d have suggested it. When we returned to the queue an old man was being turned away with nothing, having selected only unpackaged veg.
We struggled back to town with full rucksacks. By the time we reached the marina the sky was clearing, the wind had softened and the first meltwater drooled from the icicles. We bundled back in, fired up the stove and I made an epic beef stew with barley and carrots, boiling the bones for stock. We ate, then watched a film. In the morning the sun was bright, the air was calm, and nearly all the ice was gone. The power came back on around midday.
We could have lasted another week with the tinned and dry food we had, but we wouldn’t have felt as nourished and happy as we did after the stew. Having cash on hand was mere coincidence, but it kept us warm and fed. We’ve set some aside in the boat for emergencies, and ordered some freeze dried meals to backstop the fresh and tinned food.
And that’s how we spent the two days the local papers called ‘Apocalypse Snow’. It was by far the longest and coldest powercut I’ve ever experienced, and despite a few inconveniences we were able to enjoy it. Others in the area were not so lucky. 44,000 homes were without electricity, 14,000 without telephone service. Some were stuck on trains for two days, while others sat around in emergency help centres or camped out at work.
Many bonnehommes de neige were born. All perished.
It was a Monday. That’s Sam’s day to work, doing web admin for a UK charity. Generally I get on with blog stuff, video stuff or do some ‘wifing’. On this particular Monday I had my wifing planned out. Starting with checking the Capitanerie for our replacement propeller parts and a separate parcel of West Country Cheddar- the only UK foodstuff we really miss. Both were sent by my Dad, who is kindly hosting the spare engine that came with Joker in his garden. We were also low on food so a trip to the shops on the edge of town was in order. There’s a shop full of local and organic veg, next to a small but well stocked ‘Super-U’ that seems to have a little bit of everything.
On waking there was a scrim of ice over the windows and the wind was deafening. I had a dim memory of Sam leaping out bare chested in the middle of the night to lash down our flapping sail cover and returning all clammy and shivering. I crawled out of the hatch and set off along the pontoon, only to find I was woefully underprepared. Chunks of sleet were smacking me in the head and coating my jaunty poncho with a breastplate of ice. My hands ached, then numbed. I returned to Joker and grabbed gloves and a coat. The wind belted in from the sea and through the basin of boats, unravelling mooring lines, ripping sails to shreds and making the masts sing.
I got to the Capitanerie and picked up a parcel. Not the cheese. Damn. Just the parts for the propeller and drive shaft. Heading back into face-shredding horizontal ice I decided that further wifing would wait until tomorrow, and we had enough supplies on board to last another day. Another week or two if we ate small amounts of boring stuff.
On my return I lashed down the sail cover again, wishing I’d replaced the broken hooks with the ones I’ve had in my mending bag for three months.
An hour after I returned the power went out. Sam’s tethered internet phone lost reception, so he couldn’t communicate with the Bristol office. We tried to call the Capitanerie but- duh- same problem. We used the VHF radio, and when they came on line they said the whole town was in a blackout. It seemed likely that St Vaast’s electricity would be a priority, while we might wait forever for somebody to fix Pontoon E. So we waited. And waited.
We normally run an oil radiator on Joker as long as we have shore power. She’s so small that it’s possible to warm up quickly as long as there is a bit of heat, but without, the cold starts to crawl implacably through the hull. Home very quickly becomes a floating fridge.
I boiled up tea and hot water bottles on the alcohol stove and we set up the bed and got in our double sleeping bag.
I drew and read for the rest of the day and made a curry for dinner, while Sam wrote on his laptop about his latest inventions. I appreciated the excuse to draw for once, and came up with some good ideas for things- real 3D things, not made of pixels at all- that I could make. I also realised my handwriting has become disgusting as a result of typing everything. So I’ll be working on that.
Next time an icestorm is heading in and the larder is running low, maybe I will decide to head out for supplies immediately rather than settling in to wait it out. But on the whole we were well prepared for a temporary powercut. We switched the light on later than usual but our 2 leisure batteries were charged and the 12V power held out well.
We had light, some power, and the ability to generate more using our solar panels and a TEG (Thermoelectric Generator) unit on the meths hob if we needed it. The hob also helped heat the cabin, but we had to keep the hatch open to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Even then, the condensation soon drenched every inch of the walls. But our bed was warm. The only trouble was, we were low on meths.
Outside, total darkness swamped St Vaast, as the snow pelted down.
Continued in Part 2…
Continued from Part 1 We trudged down the howling stretch of freezing mud and huddled under the hull. The wind rocked Joker on trembling toothpick legs. We could already see that the rope was so tightly wrapped round the prop that it had busted off several parts, now lost to the sea. Sam crouched under the teetering bulk of our home and cut the blue knots away. I tiptoed back onto Joker to turn over and see if the drive shaft still worked. After a few knocks with a hammer, it did. But we couldn’t risk using it until we’d replaced the parts.
Now we knew the state of play, I left Sam to puzzle over engine diagrams and identify what parts we were missing. I had my own delightful job to do. Skip the next paragraph if you have a sensitive stomach.
During my illness I’d temporarily forgotten that even one piece of kitchen roll will clog our sea toilet. I’d chucked one down after a bout of vomiting and there it had stuck. For two weeks. It’s impossible to fix while afloat, as soon as you detach the U-bend the sea wants to come in. Which we can’t for obvious reasons allow. I have never smelled anything quite as disgusting as the green-grey rotted-puke and paper plug I had to dislodge from the pipe. I spent the next few hours cleaning the entire cabin so the smell would dissipate. After I’d stopped dry-heaving I was able to reflect that having a very simple plumbing system puts the power to deal with it firmly in our hands. Lucky us!
By now it was dark and freezing. Sam’s boots had filled with mud. It was four hours before we’d be afloat again. We hauled ourselves to a brasserie, who fed and warmed our mud-smeared carcasses with astonishing good grace.
At around 9pm the waves were lapping at the hull again. We lowered ourselves back onto Joker, ready for another hour or two of tightening ropes. As Joker started to lift off, she rocked side to side, the beaching legs stomping like an angry toddler. Pretty disconcerting, but only for fifteen minutes or so. Soon we rose with the tide, our surroundings back in friendly motion.
Knackered, frozen and frazzled, we listened for the bell signalling the opening of the lock gates. We really wanted to be back in the marina, safe, warm and still. The gates were less than 100 yards away.
The bell rang. The gates cracked open. We made a big mistake.
I loosed off the lines and pushed off with my foot. Sam kicked our puny outboard into reverse and we swung out into the tidal current. Suddenly we were helpless. Sam was still trying to reverse to get a good run at the gates, but in the meantime the current was dragging us straight for the seawall. As soon as we were pointing forward, our speed increased. I started shouting at Sam to steer this way or that, but he clearly had no say in it.
“Are we going to make it?”
I leapt for the bow, as I would in any other impending collision, to fend off with an arm or foot. 2 metres from impact I realised if I tried it I’d probably lose a leg.
I remembered that from the in-flight safety card. I threw myself to the deck with my arms around my head.
Joker shuddered and slammed bow-first into the wall. The current and driving winds were too strong to let us rebound. We were instantly slammed side-on to the wall and pinned there. The impact had bent the steel guide for the anchor chain at right angles, but otherwise no damage. Tough little boat.
What followed was a shaken, slightly hysterical wait for the tide to slacken. At one point a huge fishing boat lumbered in, nearly hitting the first seawall and looming far too close before making it through the gates. As soon as the pressure of the tide slackened a bit, the wind took over and we slammed repeatedly against the side.
We were just getting up the courage to try, when a man ambled over. The weathered, competent species I instantly recognise as ‘Proper Sailor’. We stammered through a stilted explanation in Franglais of what we were doing, that our main engine was broken and the other too weak to help much. Nonplussed by our indecision, he grabbed the bow line and hauled us along the seawall, while Sam fired the outboard and I fended off with my feet. As soon as we got past the wall the tide swung us into the main channel and we were swept into the marina, waving gratefully to our rescuer.
Feeling embarrassed but relieved, we chugged back to Pontoon E. Though free of the tide, the wind was still fierce enough to stop us reversing into our berth. We can’t plug into the shore power unless we moor astern, so we got off and manoeuvred Joker with her lines. The wind helped a bit too much on the final heave, and she crunched against the pontoon, breaking our self-steering gear. Joy.
We plugged in a battered, mud-spattered Joker and crawled into bed, firing up the heater and cracking a bottle of very cold red wine.
We still had to wait a week for parts before trying to fix the prop again.
We are not good sailors. Yet.
The long-awaited breath of spring has been blowing damn seldom in the past couple of weeks. That goes for both the physical and emotional weather.
It was with light hearts we finally set off from Pontoon P in Cherbourg, a day of gentle breezes and hardly any swell. A couple of miles out the sun broke through the clouds, and we chugged merrily towards our destination. The sun sparkling on the water and bouncing off the white rocks and houses on the coast filled our heads with dreams of the Med and the long summer days, when we’ll be able to leap off Joker and into the blue without freezing to death. We were moving!
Twenty minutes from St Vaast, I returned from my blissful doze at the prow to see a green float skating through the water behind Sam. Before we figured out what had happened, the prop choked and seized up. Looking around, it became clear we had motored into a patch of lobsterpots. We tried reversing but it only wound the rope tighter around the prop, which started making ugly noises. Luckily we have an auxiliary engine onboard- a 4 horsepower outboard. We fired it up but made no headway. The pot was anchoring us to the seabed.
After about half an hour trying to reach the lines now stretched between the keel, prop and tiller, and attempting to dislodge or drag the pot, we gave up. With sinking hearts we radioed the coastguard. At first they offered to send a lifeboat to tow us, but shortly after we hung up we were able to snag the rope attached to the pot, cut it and get moving again. We limped into St Vaast on our outboard, with a creaky rope-choked tiller, cursing ourselves for allowing the day to lull us out of watchfulness.
St Vaast (pronounced San Vaaah) is a beautiful little tourist town, though this time of year it is resolutely out of season. The marina is choked with fishing boats of all sizes, their trawling nets sprawled on the quayside and hanging down their sterns like elaborate hairdos. The local oysters are famous- gathered from acres of metal grids that emerge from the sea at low tide. Every day you can see a yellow tractor and scores of yellow-clad workers combing the grids. When the tide gets really low, the locals turn up in waders and head out to the tideline to gather mussels.
Sam went out in his trainers and got a good sized bushel from closer inland, but when we ate the stew I made from them we learned why the locals go so far out. Our moules were a bit sandy, but more importantly they were full of tiny crabs, who must have been taking shelter. Sam’s dangerously allergic to crustaceans so next time we’ll make the trek out of crab country. Once the unfortunate crabs were rooted out the moules were gorgeous.
We celebrated our 13th anniversary, with oysters. A few days later we both came down with colds and stomach bugs. (No connection with the oysters.) The balmy sea breezes and sunny days bit down into freezing mudswept winter again as we recovered.
Drying-out day arrived and we headed out out of Pontoon E and past the harbour’s lock gates, to lash our house to the seawall, put out a pair of scaff-pole stilts and wait for the tide to go out.
It was bitterly cold and our hands numbed as we tied ropes to corroded ladder rungs and ancient bollards. Joker slapped against the wall, rocked by the wind and waves. We took turns popping out to loosen the lines as we descended to the seabed.
Sam worried that the beaching leg nearest to the sloping wall may get stuck and put us at an awkward angle, but it was impossible to tell until it happened. His worries came true. As the water receded and the port leg still hung free, the pole on the wall side dug into hard rock, pushed the starboard side up and began to creak and crunch alarmingly at the small plate anchoring it to the hull. The port leg finally hit the seafloor and sank deep into soft mud.
We crept around the cabin like ghosts, listening for the creak. Freaked out as always by our gently swaying home becoming landbound. Our surroundings, normally in barely perceptible motion, suddenly look like artifacts in a museum: stiff, distant and fragile. Coupled with the fear of a sudden wrench and fall as the leg tears from the hull, we felt we were balanced in an eggshell. Below the hull, the waves gurgled and slapped, then were gone.