Since Xmas and New Year we’ve had a lovely but not very newsworthy life meeting enchanting strangers, practicing our French and eating wonderful sausage and bread. But two days ago our new friend Gaelle invited us to her college and introduced us to an artist who was preparing for the maddest Channel crossing imaginable.
This morning Nicolas Koch and his friend Max set off from Port Chantereyne, Cherbourg- not 200 yards from the good ship Joker- to cross the Channel on a creaky old pedalo.
Yesterday we arrived at the Ecole Superieure Arts et Media to find the two men putting the finishing touches to their craft. The drive shaft rested in a Spiderman paddling pool (the ‘lifeboat’) which churned merrily as they practiced for their ordeal. They expect to be at sea for 48 hours, but you never know what plans the sea might have.
The pedalo has a compass, front and stern lights, and a book of laminated pages including tidal and coastal maps. The cover is a glowing fish ‘n’ chip shop sign ‘for motivation’. A disposable camera faces the twin seats for those Kodak moments of camaraderie, exhaustion, and quite possibly terror. All these vitalcomponents are stuck on with Gaffer tape- affectionately called ‘Scotch’ in these parts.
Nicolas wheeled out a handbuilt trailer- of sorts- cobbled out of two-by-fours, and friends from the school helped them lift the pedallo on and lash it down. Thinking we’d do the interview at the school, we had come with all our kit- but as they were heading to our marina we decided to help them get there first.
It was lucky we did. 200 yards out the front left wheel fell off. After crossing the main road and struggling on, we lost the front right wheel. From then the whole edifice had to be pulled like a cart for 2km, on the equally shoddy back wheels. Sam intercepted their inevitable demise with half a roll of ‘Scotch’ and helped lift the back over tramlines and gutters. Halfway, I felt too guilty to keep filming and took my turn. The least we could do; they should really have been saving their strength.
Two friends rocked up, slightly pissed, and helped with the final stretch. We all decamped to Joker and broke out the vin rouge, 6 people being the maximum we can seat without injury.
“I was going to walk from Cherbourg to the other branch of the school in Caen. I looked it up on Google maps but there was a glitch- it showed that the route was via Portsmouth, the other side of the Channel. So I decided to go that way. There will be an exhibition in Caen when we make the return journey.”
His art has long been concerned with unusual journeys. For a project in Helsinki he cycled a stationary bicycle programmed with the terrain he’d have to cross to get to Russia. He obtained the correct visas and presented them at the imaginary border. “It was a journey without all the best bits.” At least we know he has strong legs.
To our delight, it transpired he was one of only four people to actually reach the mountaintop in Bugarach for the ‘End of the World’ on December 21st. As we’d expected he said the tiny village was packed with journalists and documentary makers filming each other, and lots of police; very few actual believers. Although Nicolas didn’t believe in the end of the world, he and some friends worked to provide the desperate journos with material. They created DIY spacecraft and sculpted a model of Bugarach’s ‘sacred mountain’ out of mashed potatoes in homage to Spielberg. They carried it through the streets and then ate it. It made the Telegraph and the Guardian.
You need a licence from the port authorities to cross the Channel from the French side. (As far as I know, the English let you risk your own neck). Nicolas researched it and decided there was no way he’d get permission, but decided to cross anyway. “If they stop us, we will try again.” When asked about his hopes and fears for the future, he said “I think artists are perhaps well prepared to have hope for the future. We are used to having nothing, living without money, helping each other. And we have a lot of dreams.”
As morning broke, we grabbed our kit and cracked open Joker’s hatch. The first thing I saw was a crew of marine gendarmes disembarking and heading to shore, where the pedalo sat on the broken trailer. We reached the pedalo to find them tutting and shaking their heads, chuckling incredulously. After a few minutes they returned to their boat. I hadn’t followed all the French, but the boys looked happy enough.
But they know you’re going to go?
Both Max and his father are experienced sailors, which may explain why Max looked more nervous than Nicolas- checking the horizon where a band of dark cloud loomed. Max’s father arrived in a small sailboat. He will accompany the pedalo, providing hot drinks and meals and a vital bolthole when their legs give out or the waves get too much.
A small knot of friends gathered to wave them goodbye. And without fanfare, they climbed aboard and pedalled out of the harbour.
Max’s father followed in his yacht. The coastguard swept out behind, to keep them in sight until they were out of their jurisdiction.
As I write this, they are pedalling to Portsmouth. Wish them luck and send good thoughts for a safe journey. They may well need it.
I bloody love crazy people. They make life worth living.