Leaving France

Leaving France

There are certain times in life when one takes that big step—graduation, new job, quitting a job, getting married, having a baby—and there is no turning back. What’s done is done and things will never be the same. Such it was one warm summer afternoon, August 29, 1982, when we literally cast off the ties that bound us, slipped out to sea across the Bay of Biscay—the Golfe de Gascogne—in France, never to look back.

I had lived in France seven years up to that point. My life had already considerably changed from the Southern California, American middle-class suburban upbringing that I was born into. Now I was transitioning again into a whole different universe, but this time in the company of my husband and two young children.

Our dream and goal of living on a sailboat and leading a nomadic lifestyle from port-to-port, country-to-country, didn't happen overnight. It had been gestating for about four years. We didn’t really start out with that intention. It just sort of evolved. I was pregnant with our first child, Sean, when the opportunity to buy a boat presented itself to us. We had already thought about buying a boat rather than a house, and not staying settled in France. My husband, Michel, and I both had a passion and strong desire to travel. We were living in the Bordeaux area of France, and had only been married about four years.

We were rather sure we wouldn’t always live in France, but we didn’t have any immediate plans on where we would go or how until one day, bam!—we discovered the magic of sailing across a wide body of water under one’s own steam, and awakening in another land. One summer a friend invited us to go on his sailboat on a small trip from the port of Arcachon, France, across the Bay of Biscay to San Sebastián, Spain. OH–MY–WORD—what an eye opener that turned out to be. It was the single most hallmark event that inspired us. It was a seismic, monumental experience! Even to this day, we can both turn to each other and practically note the time and date that we promised each other we would buy a sailboat and travel. It was the perfect solution, which we hadn't yet found up to that point, to taking a family with us. Now we could start to plan on children and know that if we decided to travel, we could take them with us too!

But deciding to buy a boat, and actually finding and affording one are two different things. Nevertheless, we embarked upon some long term planning: I became pregnant and Michel began boning up on his sailing skills, taking weekend sailing courses and weekend outings on the Gironde River near where we lived, through an accredited sailing organization. Aside from our summer week adventure at sea from France to Spain, both of us had only fairly minimal sailing experience dating back to our high school days: Michel’s was through some classes as part of his school's physical education program, and mine was from sailing occasionally with a friend and her father on weekends in Newport Beach, California.

It was during one of Michel's outings that he met a man with a 42 ft. ketch (two masts) for sale in Port Grimaud, near St. Tropez, France. The size and description seemed to fit what we would be looking for, and possibly the price. Seizing the opportunity for a road trip, we took a few days and drove to the Cote d'Azur (French Riviera) to check out this boat. Recognizing that we were novices about boats, and not real savvy on what constituted a viable boat, Michel had contacted a boat appraiser and expert to meet us at the dock, and render his professional opinion of the value, quality, and sturdiness of the vessel. The boat obviously needed a lot of tender loving care, and would have to undergo substantial interior renovation work in order to fit the lifestyle and use we envisioned. However, the hull and whole of the boat was deemed to be in solid, good shape by the expert, and well worth the asking price.

My husband, an architect, owned his own thriving architectural firm at the time. Several lucrative jobs were in the offing and consequently, we were able to purchase the boat. Getting the boat back to Bordeaux proved to be our first hurdle. There were really only two options: sailing it back via the Mediterranean, out past Gibraltar and up the southwest Atlantic coast to the port of Le Verdon at the mouth of the Gironde River, very near the Medoc wine region where we lived; or the more direct inland route, through the Canal du Midi by way of Toulouse and eventually Bordeaux itself. Since it was winter and we were short on time, we opted for the Canal route, which nevertheless was not as easy as it was projected to be. Our boat had a rather deep draft with a six foot keel, and in some places the Canal wasn't quite deep enough to accommodate this. Consequently, the boat took some scraping in narrow places. Michel cobbled together a sort of relay team of friends who helped us bring the boat back in stages—weekends, short vacations—since no one person or persons were available to bring the boat back in one single trip. I didn't participate in this first phase, being pregnant and not willing to face the rough living conditions on board that existed at that early stage.

Our now re-baptized “Cowabunga” settled in its new home near Bordeaux, in the port of Le Verdon by the winter of 1979, where it would be docked for the next three years as we diligently set about scraping, painting, hammering, and transforming.

The renovation project began immediately. First the boat was hauled out of the water with a crane so some major work could begin on the hull. It needed to be completely stripped down to the bare wood, refinished, and new bottom anti-fouling paint applied below the waterline. The two wooden masts were taken down as well, stripped of all the rigging for a new paint job. All the stanchions and every bit of any hardware on the deck was completely removed, thoroughly inspected, kept or discarded, new hardware bought, special ordered, or custom made in order to fit our new master plan. Michel gutted the inside, exposing the original structure and framing, rendering it a bare slate to reconfigure.

I wasn't really much help at this early stage, becoming more and more pregnant by the day. I assisted in scraping off as much of the old exterior paint as I could that was accessible from the least acrobatic standing position as possible. With somewhat of an initial "first stage" timetable targeted to get the exterior basically done in order to have the boat in the water by the summertime, wonderful friends came out of the woodwork to help us during these first busy months. Michel and company spent weekends, holidays, and an occasionally abbreviated workday, transformed into shipyard workers. The project overtook our budget, our birthday and Christmas lists, our dreams, our conversations. It was omnipresent in our day-to-day life.

Michou, our local fisherman friend, would often drop by and lend a hand with this or that once he docked his trawler after an all night fishing trip. He would also lend tools and supply us with buckets of fish and crabs for sustenance. Joel, a plumber who Michel often employed on his construction sites, became a fast friend as he often dropped by the wharf supplying plumbing materials, help, and strong-armed wrenching techniques. Then Philippe, who was to become a very close friend of Michel’s, also assisted when he could, but most importantly was perhaps the only other person besides me who understood Michel’s passion for this adventure. He gave us his treasured 19th Century antique barograph as a gift and it always held an honored perch inside Cowabunga for the 10 years it was our home. Today that same barograph continues to give us our daily weather fix in our current landlocked living room, 30 years after our departure, and also serves as a daily memorial to their friendship since Philippe’s passing several years ago.

Amidst all this, we managed to have our first baby, Sean, born in April of 1979. From day one he was surrounded by, and incorporated into, this project. I would visit the job site as often as possible with our newborn, yet his grandmother was only too thrilled to step in for nanny duty so I could pitch in for a full afternoon of work here and there, baby-free. We were avidly working to make the boat a viable navigable vessel with a comfortable living space to accommodate the three of us by that summer. The idea was to create some supplementary income by utilizing the boat for weekend day charter trips for tourists. Hopefully this would defray some of our costs by touting an introduction to a day at sea, and visiting the various coastal sites, which we did indeed manage to accomplish.

We continued devoting weekends, holidays, and vacation time to working on the boat and short sailing trips with the three of us throughout the following autumn, winter, and spring. By the second springtime, Sean was a year old, and we had more or less worked out the kinks of having a young child onboard, having “baby proofed” where necessary (i.e. netting all around the deck between the stanchions, high sideboard for his bed, and a harness when and if necessary on deck).

With a second summer just around the corner, we decided to put our words into action, and try living on the boat full time. What better time to start than in the warm weather? So, by July of 1980, we moved onto the boat for the season, still docked in our home port of Le Verdon. On weekends we would sail while Michel tended to architecture at his office during the week. The summer living experiment went so well that we decided to take things to the next step: move onto the boat for the remainder of the year and see if we could make it through a winter.

At this point, however, I wasn’t quite willing to give up everything yet, i.e. the washing machine, running water, bath and showers in a heated bathroom, and so on—especially with a toddler. So we compromised for the winter and rented a very small one bedroom apartment nearby as a “land base” station for the laundry and showers. We gave up the house we were renting that was close to Michel’s office, about a half hour away.

Working our way through the seasons, we worked out the kinks: a kerosene heater for those cold winter nights; dealing with the condensation that would accumulate over our heads while sleeping in our very small aft cabin; grocery “schlepping” from the car to the dock, to the boat; showers and baths in the apartment at a convenient time between Sean’s naps and the dinner hour; Sean learning how to walk on board and on land; where to store the tools for ongoing work that could be out of Sean’s reach; where to store our belongings and food; enough time for Sean to run on land; and taking advantage of space and room at his grandparents’ place on occasion.

By the time our third summer of the boat came around, Sean was 2 years old, and we began thinking about baby number two, since we were even more determined than ever to see our voyage come to fruition as a family of four. We had a daily living routine worked out by then, and this next year would see us undertake the challenge of being pregnant onboard. The renovation, improvement, and maintenance work was always ongoing and had become a way of life. Throughout the next winter I grew, and grew until I literally couldn’t fit down the passageway anymore—at about 8 1/2 months. I was due at the beginning of March 1982, so for the last two weeks of my pregnancy we stayed at my in-laws’ place, in nearby Montalivet, about a half hour from Le Verdon.

Brendan arrived true to his due date, and after a five-day stay at the hospital (as was the custom in France at the time) we brought Brendan directly home, to Cowabunga, the only home he was to know until we arrived in California eight years later. Only then did he live on land for the first time. Brendan has always been his own person—not easily influenced by anyone or anything. He has always been very pensive (and still is), and I can’t help but think that our particular lifestyle coming at this juncture in our life and coinciding with the beginning of his, reflects very much a part of his spirit and who he is today.

The Final Leap

The first entry of our ship’s log, begun by Michel at 3:00 p.m. August 29, 1982 opens: “...calm night, light breeze, not cold—perfect sendoff.” My journal says: “One dream, one sailboat, 3 1/2 years, two children later, we left today.”

It had been a wild ride from that spring day, shortly after Brendan’s birth when we decided that the moment had come to leave: August 29. Ready or not—and it was more “not” than ready—we would go. But we would never be completely ready. There would always be something more to do, something else to finish, always more money that could be put away. But at some point, one has to make that leap of faith, so we made the decision to jump. It would be the very next August.

As luck had it—and as we also had when we bought the boat—a good opportunity came along. A potentially very interested buyer of Michel’s business happened by at the right place at the right time. Negotiations were concluded, agreements made, and the countdown began. We would need every waking moment from that spring day until August to get ready to go. Some of the interior renovation projects finished up to that point proved not as workable as we would have thought, and Michel pulled out his tools once again for some last minute adjustments. There were sails and equipment to be bought. There was shopping to be done, and storage space to be wrung out of thin air. How much food and water would we need? Did I need all those baby bottles? Where could I store more diapers than usual? Which toys to keep...? Every time I thought of something, down on a list it would go. We would have to sell our cars, give up the apartment, dispose of the washing machine, pare down some clothes, buy some proper foul weather gear.

Eventually the months whittled down to weeks, then days. During the final week we did a final, major shopping trip. We literally had a palette of food goods delivered to my in-law’s house, and then we proceeded to drive carload after carload up to the boat. A new carload could only be delivered once the previous load had been properly stored on board. I only bought the final fresh fruit and vegetables at the last minute, the day before our departure.

Reactions from friends and family ran the gamut of emotions. Some never believed we would actually go, some were sad, some were proud. Michel’s father was perhaps the most bewildered by it all. His son had become an architect—a “someone.” He was proud of his son, and for the life of him could not understand why Michel was “throwing it all away.” His father was of the generation of WWII, and we were of the '60s—so much in between. His mother was profoundly sad. She was close to our boys, and we to her. She deeply apprehended the day we would leave, and although she knew it was imminent when the palette was delivered to their home, Michel thought it better we only tell her once we were gone and at sea, via the marine radio.

Time was running out on August 29. We had to sail with the high tide at 3 p.m. By 2 p.m. friends began to gather on the dock. Michou hovered around with his trawler, ready to escort us out of the harbor. Summer tourists milled around, as they would come and go from the nearby ferry. Sean knew we were getting ready to sail, but I don’t think he understood the magnitude of what we were about to undertake. By the deadline hour, we had a small crowd on the dock, there were hugs, kisses, good-byes and promises to meet again farther south, or on the other side of the Atlantic. Some of our friends boarded Michou’s boat. We dawdled as long as we dared, and then finally fired up the engine, threw off the lines, and angled the bow out the harbor. Michou and company followed us out as far as the lighthouse at Cordouan, a champagne bottle was thrust back and forth, the coast got smaller and smaller, and then it was just us.