Friday, 3 October 2014

HERMIONE LAFAYETTE

Believe it or not, the boat I was a guest on is in this picture, about four boats back, directly behind the stern of the Hermione. It has a little blue awning at the rear.

For landlubbers such as myself, the thrill of the sea, being on the sea, takes us by surprise.  It is not usually the electricity of physical excitement or even geological difference (although those are important); rather, it is psychological, involving the removal of all responsibility other than that of the present moment, or the moments very shortly to come.  You leave the land behind.  It is rather like being in a happy gaol, where there are no gaolers, and if there were they’d be protecting you rather than warding.  You can’t simply get out of a boat.  Instead of barbed wire and floodlight, there is deep water and jellyfish.  That being said, there is a special delight in swimming from a boat.  I think it has to with depth of water, shared pleasure or perhaps simply being looked at.  
           So there is the freedom that restricted liberty brings; but there is also the bigness of the sky and the straightness of the horizon, and a sense of the world suddenly opened up.  And when the sky is cloudless and the sea nearly as smooth as a starched sheet, as it was on the Atlantic Coast of France between La Rochelle and Fouras on 7 September 2014, the possibility of life being near-as-dammit perfect, also opens up.
            On that day, I had the very good fortune to be invited to join John and Deb Gittins on their rather plush motor boat (it has a loo – I think we nautical types call it a “head” - but it isn’t a gin palace) as they motored out from La Rochelle, around Fort Boyard, anchored off the Ile d’Aix for a spot of lunch, before making our way towards the mouth of the Charente to witness the maiden sea voyage of the Hermione Lafayette, a French late eighteenth century warship lovingly restored to its original glory over a period of some 15 years.
            The river police quite rightly prevented us from reaching too far up river, and so we anchored, gradually joined by hundreds, perhaps thousands of other craft as the day approached tea-time and the expected arrival of the great ship.
            Very slowly she came.  First, in the distance, a suggestion of masts, thin verticals, complicated by horizontals.  Then, ever nearer, she hove into proper view, trailing an ever growing flotilla.  Helicopters buzzed.  The banks of the estuary were lined with sightseers.
            As she moved past, stately and beautiful, we joined the throng.  There were sailing dinghies and rubber dinghies and canoes and jet skis and yachts and gin palaces and oyster boats and catamarans and speed boats and excursion ferries.  The honking of horns and the blaring of klaxons was continuous, joyous.
            “Give it some horn,” insisted the glowing, lovely Deb.
            John, grinning at the wheel, gave it some horn.
            The other guests, Aldo and Sue and Scott, sat beneath the awning and watched and enjoyed.  John navigated, not without difficulty, in between these other craft, sometimes passing with a jolt of acceleration, sometimes being passed.  The sea itself was confused, lumpy with conflicting bow waves.
            Eventually we peeled off, keen to get back to la Rochelle before sunset and the crowds likely to follow.  John opened the throttle like the boy racer he still has inside him, and we bounced back through the ruffling sea, sunned and salted and sated.

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