Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Ship Shape ?

We’ve just returned from one week of skiing, where I’ve discovered that I am in “ship shape”, which is to say, poor shape for active sports.   

The Savis trail, Ax-Les-Trois-Domaines, Pyrenees.

Our past 5 months on the boat have been active, but clearly not enough to maintain our pre-cruising life physical condition.  Patrick and I are both former marathoners, and I still run the equivalent of a marathon per week…when I’m not on the boat.  This last week of skiing made me realize that I’ve lost a lot of conditioning this year as the result of our time at sea, and something must be done.

This revelation may provoke a “well, duh” response from many, who rightly reason that sitting on a boat can’t maintain your physique in the same way that running does.  The problem is that after a long day of sailing, you genuinely feel tired.  You move and fidget all day long, adjusting sails, winching in sheets, and running stairs as you make the round-trip from the cockpit to the chart table countless times.  Exposure to sun and wind also contributes to a feeling of tiredness.  When we are in port, Patrick and I almost always pull out the bikes and explore the area, cycling between 15 – 30 kilometers (~10 – 20 miles) each outing, and on folding bikes, that’s pretty good exercise.  But clearly it’s not enough of the right kind.

There are numerous articles and work-out plans for staying fit at sea (see The Monkey’s Fist topic for some great articles). My strategy will be a simple one:  take my running shoes cruising with me…and then, of course, use them.


Thursday, 16 January 2014

Continental Pole Confidential

As we start our southward migration without reliable internet, here is a little story I wrote about one of our first sails in Brittany.  Y'all can chew on this for a week or so until we can post news from the land cruise.

This story has now been publisehd in The Island Review Magazine (June 2014).

* * *

“There she is! Mysterious Dumet Island!”  Yves, blue eyes sparkling mischievously, pointed to a rather unimpressive brown slab appearing on the horizon beyond our bow.

I squinted at it intently, searching for some physical oddity or telepathic emanations.  As we sailed closer, the slab transformed into a half-moon bay with a bright ribbon of sand and turquoise water protected by dark, jagged rocks.

 Still squinting, I turn to Yves.  “Okay, I give up.  Why is it mysterious?”

“Oh, there are so many stories, you know,” he said excitedly.  “They say the island was the site of some ancient druid cult with mystical powers, and during the war, there were secret military experiments here.  It was forbidden to go anywhere near the island for years.”

This was my first time sailing with Yves, but I already understood that this spirited octogenarian loved telling tall tales.  I looked dubiously at Luke, our skipper for this day sail, for some indication of whether or not I should just politely let this drop and go down below to start preparing lunch.

“No, it’s true,” said Luke.  “For several decades after the war, a couple of elderly mystics lived there as caretakers, searching for some sort of paranormal source of power on the island.” 

With growing exasperation, I pressed for details, but after several volleys of one-line teasers, each more bizarre than the last, I realized that I was unlikely to get anything resembling a coherent account from either of these two.

Although we had only recently moved to the south coast of my husband’s native Brittany in France, I was already getting used to the legends and folklore that saturate every rock, island, or inlet along the coast.  The caves and grottoes cut into Brittany’s rugged coastline are passageways to the land of the Korrigans, diminutive nocturnal sprites of repugnant physical appearance and unpredictable character who enjoy frightening humans and occasionally swapping their ugly babies for more attractive human ones. 

The coastline of the Korrigans.

Inside a Korrigan grotto.

The Bretons also have their own Atlantis myth, a sunken city called Ys (pronounced eez), traditionally situated in the Douarnenez Bay to the northwest, but with at least a dozen other islands and coastal sites contending for the title. Sometime around 400 B.C.E., Ys was one of the world’s most beautiful and advanced civilisations, protected from the sea by a large dike and lock system.  The devil, in the form of a charming knight, seduced the King’s young but sexually-perverse daughter and convinced her to steal the key to the lock system from her father.  In short order, the city was sunk and the King’s daughter transformed into a malevolent mermaid who still unleashes her wrath on mariners sailing these waters.  As an aside, the legend tells us that the bodies of her lover-victims are piled up in a ravine in the eerily beautiful river valley of the Huelgoat forest, having its own share of mysteries.

With one of the largest concentrations of megaliths in the world and human settlement that spans the last 7000 years, Brittany has no lack of fodder for fantastic fables.  But unlike the typical Breton tales involving fairies, druids, sorcerers, and trolls, my crewmates’ stories of Dumet Island were peppered with more modern and possibly verifiable enigmas.

We furled the sails and motored slowly up to anchor just off the beach.  What was immediately mysterious to me was that we had such a postcard-perfect beach to ourselves. Yves had mentioned earlier that this was a forbidden zone during the war, and I began to wonder if we were even supposed to be here at all, frightfully aware that breaking-the-rules-when-one-is-almost-certain-not-to-be-caught is a favourite French pastime.  The solitude was, however, anything but silent, with hundreds of screeching gulls signalling their collective indignation at our presence until one of them apparently suggested to the others that we might be sloppy eaters and they rapidly formed a more congenial greeting committee flotilla at our stern. 

Peeking up over the dune grass and wind-carved hedges were the remains of a small square fort that from the sea looked like something a child might draw; a perfectly square block with a square opening in the center and two arched windows on either side.  In response to my dismissive musings, I was informed that this was, in fact, a fort designed by Sebastian Le Prestre Vauban, King Louis XIV’s military architect, whose fortresses around France are widely considered to be some of the finest examples of military architecture anywhere, many of which are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Vauban fort at Dumet.

Close-up of Vauban fort at Dumet.
Sobered, I pointed to another circular construction sitting out on one of the spits of land encircling the harbour, which our coastal pilot guidebook identified as the ruins of the Fort Ré, built in 1756.

Fort Re

Fort Re

Pleasantly anesthetized by the sun and the wine, lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat, I was thoroughly pleased with my discovery of this little jewel of an island, now protected as a bird sanctuary.  I was, however, wholly unsatisfied with the unresolved mysteries and unfinished stories surrounding it.  As we finished our long languid lunch in the cockpit and headed home, I set myself the task of filling in the missing bits of the story so that I could regale my next crew with a more compelling tale.  

Long languid lunch at Dumet Island.

* * *

In carrying out my mission, I fully expected to stumble onto the typical fairy-laden fantasies to explain the stories that had been passed on to me.  Instead, my first finding was that mysterious little Dumet Island is, in fact, the geodesic pole of the world’s land masses.

In 1912, French physicist Alphonse Berget addressed the French Academy of Sciences to demonstrate that if you define a hemisphere on the globe that places the maximum of Earth’s land masses in one half of the globe (the continental hemisphere) and the maximum of water mass on the other half (the oceanic hemisphere), the pole of the continental hemisphere is located at 47° 24’ 42” North, 2° 37’ 13” West, or bang on top of little Dumet Island, measuring a mere 450 feet wide by 1800 feet long.  This finding came at a pivotal time in geodesic science as the nations of the world (or at least the French) were still settling the issue of the Prime Meridian.  Following the 1884 International Meridian Conference where the Prime Meridian was established in Greenwich, England, the French continued to use their own Paris Meridian for time keeping purposes until 1911, and didn’t get around to adopting the Greenwich Meridian for geodesic referencing until 1914.  While a world at war provided the winning argument for adopting a global standard system of geodesy, the 1912 sinking of the Titanic may also have contributed to convincing the French to accept Greenwich as the universal geodesic reference point, when it was realized that the telegram sent from the French vessel La Touraine warning the Titanic of icebergs in the area had issued this warning using Greenwich Mean Time but with locations still referenced to the Paris Meridian. 

The 1912 discovery of Dumet Island as the pole of the continental hemisphere may have helped soften the blow over the loss of the Prime Meridian.  While the French would be losing the honour of having the 0° meridian running through Paris, they may reasonably have hoped that Dumet Island, as the most central point to the majority of other inhabited parts of the globe, would be adopted as a sort of zero point for calibrating a system of universal time and distances.  Several months after Berget’s finding was announced, France hosted the first International Conference on Time, where they proposed the Paris Observatory as the global central time office with the Eiffel Tower serving as the most powerful wireless transmitter in Europe, with the argument that the installations in Paris were the closest to the continental pole capable of carrying out such a mission. Sadly, owing to the outbreak of World War I, the Convention was never ratified, but by general agreement, the Paris Observatory established the International Time Bureau and began carrying out its mission of calibrating time and distance.

In the wake of war, however, the discovery of the continental pole became little more than a geographic curiosity and quickly faded from memory.  In 1945, the work of Berget was further refined by the American geographer Samuel Boggs, who confirmed Berget’s triangular area estimation for the pole, but located his pole in the city of Nantes.  In 2000, an undocumented and possibly farcical claim put the location of the pole at the site of the newly-opened Cyber-Laundromat in the town of Damgan, about 7 miles north of Dumet Island.

But druids, mystics, and paranormal powers?  Where did those stories come from?  It is understandable that once the island was conferred the title of Ombilicus Mundi (the world’s bellybutton), it was also granted special powers as a center for all things mystical. To my surprise, however, many of the legends surrounding Dumet pre-date its discovery as the center of Earth’s landmasses. 

Like many sites along Brittany’s coast, the Dumet area has been inhabited since the Neolithic period, and over the centuries has been a magnet for both religious and military invasions.  Celts, Gauls, and Romans slept here, and according to legend, the Druids established an important religious site on the island.  One Dumet myth speaks of a cult of women priestesses called the Samnites who lived on the island and who, during one special day of the year, would destroy and then rebuild the roof of their temple before nightfall.  During this frenetic construction, if anyone dropped her building materials, she was immediately torn apart by her sisters as a human sacrifice. It has been suggested that this cult was linked to the ancient Celtic holy festival Samhain, held on the day of the year that marked the opening of a passageway between the world of the living and the dead.  This celebration was held at the end of autumn, corresponding to the more familiar Christianized version, All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day.

After successive invasions by Danes, Saxons, and the Vikings, the Benedictines managed to establish a foothold on the island that lasted over 700 years, during which time, various religious miracles were alleged.  In 1756, the French military built the circular fort, which they named, rather inexplicably, after the Egyptian sun god Ra.  After less than 25 years of occupation, Fort Ra (today Fort Ré) was curiously abandoned.  In the early 1800s, the square Vauban fort was constructed, and in the mid-1800s, renovations to the fort were said to be carried out in the greatest secrecy, mostly at night.  When the Nazis arrived in 1944, they promptly encircled the island and issued official warnings forbidding any attempt to approach it.

In 1955, a 30-ton vessel, the Grey Ganet, was found by fishermen at the headwaters of the near-by Loire river estuary with no sign of her six man crew.  Her home port identification had been painted over and no official papers were ever found.  Strange traces, thought to be made by some sort of machinery, were found on the deck.  These same traces were later found on Dumet Island.  Explanations put forth included alien abduction and offloading of top secret cargo from the island.  The investigation at the time classified the affair as a banal case of illegal trafficking by bandits plagued with transmission problems. 

In the early 1950s, a French aristocrat-turned-occult-scientist, Robert de Fleury Valois and his music-hall star wife moved into the remains of Fort Ré to serve as the guardians of the island’s new lighthouse. They were also looking for a paranormal phenomenon they called “the orange ray” (first Ra, then Ré, and now ray?) which they claimed was a source of energy and longevity important for humanity.  After 34 years of searching, aged 93 and 88, the guardian and his wife left the island.  When asked if he was disappointed about not having found the orange ray, he said he had come to realize that it was a terrible thing that should not be found, explaining that every time man has found a natural source of power, such as the atom, it has been used for evil.  We’re the devils!” he exclaimed. 

The couple also said they were happy to leave the island because the noise of the birds was driving them crazy.

A few months after my first encounter with Dumet, I was sailing in the area with a new crew.  As Dumet became visible over our bow, I exclaimed “Ah, mysterious Dumet Island!” in keeping with what I took to be the customary salute. 

Jeanne, our new crewmember, asked me why it was mysterious.  Poised to describe my recent findings, I stopped, suddenly overwhelmed by the task.  What do I say?  Druid cults? Portals between the world of the living and the dead?  Secret military experiments? Life-prolonging energy rays? 

I decided to take a conservative approach, sticking to the facts, and simply described Dumet as the pole of the continental hemisphere.

Jeanne’s face lit up.  “I did heard about that a few years ago, but I thought it was a joke. Something about the grand opening of that new laundromat in Damgan?” 

As we drifted past the island, I could hear the mocking laughter of the gulls.            

Monday, 13 January 2014

But I DO work !

Taking very early retirement to go sailing is not without its downsides, one of which is trying to respond gracefully to the question “so what do you do?”  I’ve tried explaining that we sail, which inevitably disappoints and confounds, creating an uneasy atmosphere as if we were trying to hide something shameful, or throwing out an enigmatic answer in a feeble attempt to change the subject. 

Although circumstances usually prevent me from saying so, the truth is that I have dedicated myself, full-time, to the pursuit of happiness (Iife and liberty having been attained through a combination of pure luck and the sacrifices of countless others, for which I am thankful daily).  But retiring early to chase bliss is not as easy as it sounds. Studies show that retirement increases the risk of depression by 40%, where a lack of purpose is often identified as the root cause.  If you think lack of purpose at 65 is tough, try looking at it through the eyes of a 45 year old. 

Purpose is, in my opinion, highly over-rated.  It may even be dangerous, especially for the recently retired.  I believe much of this purpose-angst has to do with large-scale social manipulation and a poor grasp of philosophy, at least in the west.  The ancient Greeks considered work to be degrading to virtue and something to be avoided if at all possible.  Aristotle called happiness the ultimate aim of all human endeavours, explaining that we desire things in order to be happy; we don’t seek happiness in order to achieve other aims.  He goes on to say that happiness is not a state of being but an activity, where contemplation is its highest virtue.  But in western society, the concept of happiness has become linked to contributing to society, and contemplation in the pursuit of happiness is viewed as a selfish and futile endeavour.

One of my favourite children’s tales is Frederick, by Leo Lionni, which addresses this sticky issue of the value of work and what constitutes a contribution to society. Frederick the field mouse is a dreamer and a poet who has difficulty staying “on task” during the preparations for winter, stocking up on food and supplies with his field mouse family.  When they complain about his laziness, he replies,

“I do work. I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.”

“I gather colours, for winter is gray.”

“I gather words, for the winter days are long and many, and we’ll run out of things to say.”

During the long winter, morale plummets as supplies dwindle, and Frederick’s family mockingly ask him to share the supplies that he has stored up for the winter.  Frederick asks them to close their eyes, and begins to paint stories in their minds with the warmth, colours, and words he has gathered in preparation for those dismal days when there is little to say.  As the story ends, he is applauded by his family who recognize the value of having a poet in the family.  


Active contemplation can take many forms.  Our favourite, of course, is travelling, mostly by sailboat.  Aristotle warns that there is no immediately practical result from a contemplative life, so I don’t know why I should feel compelled to identify one for my own.  For now, I’m happy gathering sun rays, colours and words, and travelling as often as I can to encounter new landscapes, cultures, and people.  And it makes me happy to try to take my friends and family along with me through stories and pictures along the way.  I still can’t answer the question “what do you do” very well, but it no longer bothers me.    

All of this is a rather long-winded way of announcing that I’ll be posting some cruising and travelling stories that I’ve stored up over several long gray winters along with updates from the road (as internet connections permit) during our upcoming southward migration. 

Monday, 6 January 2014

Epiphany: Hibernation or Migration ?

Our epiphany for 2014 was inspired by last winter’s experience of forcing ourselves to sail in the local conditions: we are migratory by nature, not hibernators. 

Two who missed the signal to head south in 2013...
Rather than hunkering down to brave the local elements, our instinct is to move to find those precious resources no longer available at home (warmth ! light !).  This year, while Spray is hibernating on her cradle in the boatyard, we will migrate…by land. 

In a few weeks, we will begin our journey south, first to the Pyrenees for some skiing and frolicking in the therapeutic geothermal springs there, and then on to Morocco for one month of exploring.  Like all wise migrating species, we’ve prepared for this voyage over the last month by packing on some extra body weight for the arduous trek ahead.

Cold is okay as long as there's sun !  (and hot springs...)

One part of our journey in Morocco will involve travelling by the ships-of-the-desert (camels) into the Sahara (warmth ! light !).  Friends who have done this report a feeling of awe at the immensity of the sky and the horizon that stretches out as far as the eye can see; a sensation you can only have in the desert or at sea.  Like most people, we’re drawn to majestic scenery (mountains, oceans, deserts) perhaps, ironically, because those grand spaces and their timelessness make us feel small and help us to put ourselves in perspective as small parts of a larger whole.

So strap on your virtual skis and keffiyehs (desert head scarves) and join us for a little alternative cruising while we wait for more hospitable sailing conditions.

* * *

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
-T.S. Eliot