The Wine Dark Sea

Posted on Dora Katherine Money Elder’s birthday, and as such, the appropriate drink pairing for reading this essay is a Manhattan. She had a bit of the travel bug, from which there is no cure, only temporary relief.

Wednesday afternoon, mid-July. Recently this region of France, Herault, set a national high temperature record of 45° C. (113° F.). Today it was not quite so hot. Catherine and I arrived at the boat by tram and bus: our Renault is on its last legs. Robert and Jade, his daughter and Catherine’s friend, were already aboard, as was Ian, Jade’s godfather.

We stowed our gear, then got underway soon after. We had been planning to sail out of the harbor at Carnot, then moor out until morning. But once out past the harbor entrance, Robert, captain and the boat owner, decided we should continue on our way. And why not? The wind was favorable, the crew and boat ready, no sense in hanging around. Our goal was the Île de Porquerolles, off the coast of France near Hyères.

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I came somewhat late to sailing. My friend Bill, a sailor whose lovely home in Annapolis, along with his several boats, lies on a creek that leads to the Chesapeake Bay, told me (repeatedly) that I lived in an area that had some of the best sailing anywhere. Although I always liked water sports, it took about five years before I finally started sailing. In time I took lessons at sailing schools down the San Francisco Bay in Redwood City, then advanced ones out of Santa Cruz all over the Monterey Bay, and also up in Sausalito, which mostly consisted of sails on a variety of sailboats out to the Farallon Islands, trips which ranged from wonderful to wild. I sailed around the Bay Area, chartered now and then, crewed a lot, and for a while had a Laser, which I miss. Once in a while I did some longer sails.

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Montpellier dropped away, but for a while we could still see the outline of the Pic Saint-Loup, a sort of miniature Half Dome, which from this direction marks the beginning of the Cévennes. It was a warm evening, and because the breeze was from the land, there was little swell and we made good time. Ian made dinner, which Jade and Catherine ate without problems: they’ve been offshore a bit already, and although later they would feel a bit ill, no one barfed.

The sun stayed above the horizon until well after nine in the evening. We sailed the entire time, and several times had to reef. I spent a good bit of time at the wheel; I love helming a boat, especially sailing at night in warm weather with a strong breeze: it is one of the most wonderful, sensual experiences.

About 2:00 AM Ian went below to get some rest. Within the past seventy-two hours he had travelled from the western Pacific to his home in Portugal, and then on to Montpellier. Robert and Ian both work as consultants in the fishing industry. Robert is originally from Trinidad, and has lived in Canada, France, Rome, Thailand, and probably a whole bunch of other places I’ve forgotten. Ian is English, and like Robert, has lived in a variety of exotic (to me) locations. They are like characters from a Nevil Shute story, but instead of aviation and planes, for them it is the fishing industry and boats. Robert currently lives aboard his boat in Montpellier, while Ian lives in coastal Portugal, near a spot where he goes surfing with one of his sons.1At the moment I work in land locked in ...continue

I get the feeling Robert and Ian are two of about seven people in the world doing what they do. For example, I know that Robert sometimes consults to countries who need to rebuild their fishing industry after it has been devastated by a natural disaster. He advises them about what boats to buy, what type of nets to use, and so on. He has more work than he can handle. Their world is remote from my experiences in Silicon Valley, and it was interesting to talk to them about what they do, who their clients are, how they make money. My industry’s metrics—number of installs, lines of code, defect rates, a hypothetical opening share price—are meaningless to them. They work in a field that is important, and it seems we need more people like them, doing what they do.

Later that morning, still dark, Ian got up, and Robert took the helm as we motor sailed across the shipping channel entrance to Marseille. Our goal was to make the crossing quickly as we kept watch for large container ships; large, fast moving vessels are not something you want to meet up with at night.

By dawn we had reached the Île de Frioul, just off the coast of Marseille. It was too early to go into the marina, so we anchored out. We set outside the channel, not too far from some rocks, and worked to get the anchor set just right. On the third try Robert was satisfied that the anchor would hold, and it was time for morning rum drinks.

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We stayed on Frioul for a few days. The mistral was blowing up to 70/kph, we were in a protected, comfortable spot, and Robert didn’t want to expose the boat or crew to any unnecessary stress. That was fine with us; around the island there were plenty of things to do, and with a sailboat, there is always something to tend to.

Our spot in the marina was right in front of the captiannaire, or harbor master office. Berthed next to us was a retired French couple sailing a lovely Bavaria sloop. Further down was a sailboat with a Swiss flag and whose home port was Basel; I got a double take from the woman on board, when I greeted her with the very Swiss German greeting Grüezi. There were some restaurants, and a grocery which we frequented for food and adult beverages. There were trails to nearby swimming places, and sometimes we took the dingy over to others. The water was surprisingly cold. Evenings we cooked, drank beer, rose, and rum (not the girls), and on the 14 juillette, watched the fireworks.

On one of our outings Ian took to harvesting some sort of little shell things encrusted on some rocks right at the water’s edge. Later, after a little cooking, white wine, and garlic, they were quite tasty. Later I asked him about a recent headline: the Japanese had resumed whaling. He said there was nothing to be worried about and it wasn’t a news item, except to some uninformed reporter: the species of whale the Japanese hunted were in no way endangered.

For a lot of a sailing trip in a warm climate you are hot and tired. At night you might not sleep so well. Twice Catherine was bitten by mosquitoes: once on her eye, which looked a like she was punched, and the second time on her upper lip, which looked like a botched collagen lip enhancement. She was a good sport about it all and did not complain. One morning while in port wind came up, and it was almost cold, such that you needed a sweater until noon

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Our family lived in Marseille for almost a year, 2011-2012. The logistics and stress of moving a family of five to France had been very hard, and as we were planning to stay in France only for a year, and the future beyond that also uncertain. Amplifying the stress was our discovery that Marseille was not at all what we were expecting.

But we had made it through the bad shit, at least that particular bad shit, and Catherine and I were back as visitors, and as such, Marseille was wonderful. Ian, Catherine, Jade, and I went into to town via the boat shuttle, which dropped us in the old port. After lunch at a shaded, breezy restaurant, with several very cold beers, we went in search of a hardware store to get some things for the boat.

Another time just Catherine and I went into town, and we visited two of our favorite places in Marseille, two places that are a world apart, and epitomize the paradox that is Marseille, a city that is part Mediterranean, part French. The first destination was the Saladin market, epices du monde, in the suspect looking Noailles market, which might have been in Morocco or Tunisia. There the smell of spices is exotic and wonderful, and I bought curry for that evening’s fish stew, as well as some harissa sauce to bring back to Chur. For lunch, the French part of the day, we went to le Comptoir Dugommier, a restaurant near our old apartment.

As we walked back down to the port to catch the boat shuttle back to Frioul, I noticed that my favorite falafel place on rue de Canebière was no longer there2Yes Bay Areans, this place is as good ...continue. Tragic. Glad we moved.

~

After a few days we left Marseille and sailed towards the calanques. It was a warm sunny day, blue sky, blue water, on the left the white chalky cliffs of the calanaques. We anchored in the calanque de Sormiou. It was beautiful. It was a lovely. It was an over too soon idyll. We swam to shore, the girls messed about in the dinghy, we puttered on the boat, read, ate, drank slept, then repeated it all.

We would not reach the Île de Porquerolles on this trip. It didn’t matter. Next time.

~

The return sail to Montpellier began Wednesday morning; Catherine and Annie were flying to Montreal on Friday, and I had to be back in Switzerland soon. We left our wonderful anchorage in the calanque de Sormiou, turned right, headed west.

Robert’s mood was a bit different that day, and for the entirety of the return trip. He seemed unusually attentive to the boat, weather reports, sail trim, our heading. He was, as the French say content, which has a deeper meaning than its English usage; maybe better would be to borrow from sports: Robert was in the zone.

I took in the sightlines and horizons as much as I could, knowing it would be over soon. After too many months in Switzerland, where the mountains stunt your view, the pure flat geometric line of the ocean horizon was hypnotizing. Lately, when I leave Chur and return to Montpellier, I feel like the Brendan Fraser character in Blast From the Past3 ...continue, who after spending his childhood in a bomb shelter, finally emerges and is awed to see the sky and swim in the ocean.

~

The next morning, back in Montpellier the tempo picked up. First we tended to the boat: we scrubbed the decks, took out all the garbage, cleaned up, flemished the dock lines, all that Bristol fashion stuff. I think we had a last drink or three of rum. Then it was back to Montpellier for Catherine and I; Ian and Robert and Jade would sail around the area for a few more days, before Ian took Jade to Portugal to visit her mother and grandmother.

Friday I saw Annie and Catherine off at the train station: they were flying to Montreal for an almost one month visit. Afterwards I went for a swim in the 50 meter piscine Antigone (only two people in my lane!), then to Bonobo for a meaty brunch with a bloody Mary. Saturday were more errands, including a trip to the Wei-Sin Asian market near the train station. It’s run by a rock-a-billy style Viet-Namese guy who has guitars and posters of American bands hanging on the store walls. From him I bought rice cakes and seaweed salad to bring back. He was, sadly, out of kim-chee.

When I got back to Chur Sunday afternoon, I noticed that I had remember both the rice cakes and the seaweed salad, but I had forgotten Annie’s magical spicy sauce, and even worse, the wonderful harissa sauce from the Saladin epicere in Marseille. Merde!

References   [ + ]

1. At the moment I work in land locked in Switzerland, where people go hiking, and upon hearing about his surfing near his home, I was jealous.
2. Yes Bay Areans, this place is as good as the Falafel Drive In on Stevens Creek Blvd.
3. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/blast-from-the-past-1999

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