October 1992, all aboard! We were heading for Cherbourg to catch the St Killian II bound for Ireland. We checked the weather forecast on TV at lunchtime after the news, just before leaving; weather’s fine for sailing. The excitement was palpable when we all met at the Korners’ homestead, my friend Sergio waiting for us with a huge smile of trepidation as he welcomingly opened the front door.
– “That’s it isn’t it?” He just said.
– “This is it” I just replied.
“The Hero”, Arlene from Sligo, Sergio Korner and I couldn’t stop talking over each other while we packed our bags in the old Renault 4 that had served us so well in our young years of freedom. It was a special moment for Sergio; after long months of separation, he was going to see his girlfriend Kate again, who he met when we were together in Donegal town the previous year. It was her graduation in Dublin, and we were all invited. Arnold and Arlene would continue to the West of Ireland afterwards, and since I had no girlfriend to love anymore or even yet, I was just looking forward to the journey. The sea and me, like a lot of other hungry Bretons out there and from other generations, it contained all the spices of a complicated love affair…
When we saw the sign “La Glacerie”, the descent towards the Cotentin “City of Harbours”, we knew we were almost there. Sergio and I knew Cherbourg well, witnesses to scenes of violent demonstrations against “La Hague”, the beautiful peninsula used as a storage and reprocessing plant for half of the planet’s nuclear waste. We didn’t like it that much, but it was our inevitable winter getaway to our favourite green island. What a paradox!
We parked the car in the queue at the Ferry terminal, north of the city; an amazing complex of quays, docks and piers harbouring hundreds of fishing and sailing boats, military vessels, some more sinister than others, minesweepers and destroyers, pilot, tugboats and Ferries. Ours, the Irish Ferries’ St Killian II, was waiting for us to embark. “The Hero” looked in his rear view mirror and just said: “look at the Parigots!” (Provincial slang for Parisians). Parked behind us was a much more expensive Renault car, brand new and roomy. The registration indicated that they were from the French capital; well, just outside. The two middle aged couples seemed as impatient to get on board as we were, and Sergio courteously saluted them as we were stretching our legs. They looked very drab, wearing Barbour jackets with golden woodcock badges pinned on the breast. The women were wearing waxed hats, probably from the same range of clothes. They looked the part for an Irish trip “the French way”, or straight out of the 1977 movie “The Purple Taxi”. The wives laughed and cackled at the men’s jokes, until one of them said the unthinkable:
– “Well ladies, I hope the sea will be a bit rocky tonight!”
– “Hahahaha…” they laughed in unison.
Us Bretons are very superstitious when it comes to the ocean; we respect it and each family around the coast has lost a dear member of its family or a friend. That is the price to pay when you are from a fishing community, big or small. We never laugh about it, hardly speak about it and just about get on with it. I couldn’t let that one slide, I had to say something! Half serious, and the other not impressed at all, I betrayed one of my rules about respecting older people; they were after all the age of my parents:
– “Sorry to interfere, but you shouldn’t say that!”
-“Say what?” replied the smirking Parisian.
– “You know, wishing for bad weather before sailing, wishing for a storm… It’s bad news and bad luck”.
– “Ha! It was only a joke, get over yourself! You Bretons are all the same, with your superstitions and Grand mothers’ tales… We are in the 20th century you know? We were only having a laugh.”
– “I know that, still, you shouldn’t say that”
I left it there, remembering that we would have to be more than likely to bump into each other on this small floating environment for the next 18 hours and awkward encounters wasn’t my forte. We sailed in time, leaving Normandy with a dreadful prophetic sunset…
We went straight to the information desk and asked if we could get a cheap four berth cabin for the journey. The “On the road” guide of the time recommended to do that if one was a bit broke, rather than booking and pay the full price. The ferry was half empty and we got what we were looking for, at the bottom of the boat, just above the car deck; if anything, I think we were under sea level or at least, that is what it felt like. “The Hero”, Sergio, Arlene and myself climbed the steep stairs to the bar level for a few pints of stouts while the boat was cruising towards Cornwall. A soccer match was on the few TV screens and I asked the barman for four pints of “black”. An old Irish guy next to me was also waiting for his beer and just said:
– “I am a friend of the Captain; we are heading for a storm… At about 1 am!”
– “No way?!? I checked the forecast before we left; nothing for another 24 hours!”
-“This one is coming fast, what time did you leave?”
-“1 pm… “
-“Oh well, I thought I would let you know”
Puzzled after one of the most bizarre of encounters, I carried the pints to the small table in silence. I knew that Sergio and Arlene weren’t great travellers on water. Arnold and I were used to it, we sailed and worked on the Atlantic; he had been sick once, and to this day, I can proudly say that I never was. I told him quietly what the old guy told me and we enjoyed our few pints before heading to bed early. A night of gentle merry sway was soon to be turning into an unimaginable nightmare for most…
The morning finally came, after trying to hold on to the bunk bed with my arm and legs, as the water was savagely bashing against the wall of the cabin; I never slept that night. Only Arnold and I were able to get up, I was relieved to leave the close space to be honest; Arlene and Sergio had popped some sea sickness pills, so strong that they hardly left the cabin. We both knew how important it was to eat soon after getting up. Our old folks always said: “put some led in that belly”, or “if you are going to be sick, at least you will have something to be sick with…”. Powerful advice we’ve always heard in our young lives, finally put into practice. I used to work on the Islands of Hoedic and Groix and the captain of one of the boat used to say: “ a slice of buttered bread, sardines and a glass of red, your only man to keep you right!”. We climbed the stairs, our vertebrae being squashed when the boat climbed a huge wave, weightless when it fell from another. We reached the middle deck… Bodies everywhere, the serve over buffets of the cafeteria had toppled over. I felt something in my stomach, just pure fear. We went to the bar, at the front of the ship, over the bow. We asked the placid barman for some tuna sandwiches, dripping with mayonnaise and too much sweet corn, and two pints of Guinness to slide them down. A French teacher bringing his pupils on a school trip saw us devouring our sandwiches and got a bit, let’s say, overwhelmed. Ouch…
“The Hero” and I enjoyed looking at the dismantled ocean. We were sitting right above the bow, plunging in and out of the waves in the middle of an awesome nature display. We were pretty much alone in the lounge, chatting about this and that, punctuating conversation with “wow” and “look”, in our element really… Until “The Hero” turned suddenly white and grabbed the bolted table, staring at the window with a terrifying look in his eyes. The horizon line was gone, shadowed by a giant wall of water, in front of us and about to crash well over the whole height of the ferry… I screamed a Breton style war shout and we took the full blunt of Mother Nature…
The ferry stopped dead; engines still running, but on neutral. Not cool… We finished our pints, which strangely remained intact in our hands, and offered our services to one of the officers on board. We gave people black sugared tea and told them to eat something, told them that we would find easier water soon, and all will just be an unpleasant memory (well, great fun for me, less enjoyable for most). People suffering from sea sickness told me that they would give anything to be on dry land… That I can believe… Especially when I found my Parisian friends; one couple “Port”at the door, the other “starboard”, with the very gentleman who wished so much for a rocky crossing; he had his wish coming true as he cried and coughed, half his body inside, the other out, gasping for fresh air ( that, we had plenty of!). I could have said “I told you so”, but decided to be a better man. “Drink this, you’ll feel better, I promise”. I simply smiled with an honest sympathy… (And a voice in my head shouted: “ya freakin’ eejit”). It took us nearly 30 hours before we reached the safety of Rosslare…
The moral of this story is; eat well before a long journey, be careful what you wish for, and like my old friend Harvey used to say: “If you can’t stand the tide, don’t leave the harbour!”.
Keep Well and Eat Happy