Brittany shapes the west coast of France into a ship's prow pushing bravely into the North Atlantic. At its farthest seaward extension lies Ile d'Ouessant, an austere and windswept island surrounded by reefs and strong currents, about two hours by passenger ferry from the port city of Brest. The island, four miles long by two miles wide, consists of pastureland cut by stone walls and edged by cliffs and offshore rocks slowly crumbling into the sea. It is inhabited by about 800 permanent residents, some of whom raise sheep, and an equal number of people who come only for the summers. British mariners, who call the island Ushant, have written about it for so long and with such foreboding that the name alone evokes dread. In particular, the wreck there in 1896 of the passenger liner Drummond Castle, in which at least 240 lives were lost, still scars Britain's collective memory. But that tragedy was just one in a long and unfinished list. Indeed, so many Britons have come to grief in these waters that, local lore has it, the royal family helped to fund the construction of a church and established the island's cemetery for the English dead.
The French, too, have suffered heavily on Ouessant, as have other seafaring people. In any language it is one of the ocean's notorious places, the treacherous leeward shore at the entrance to the English Channel, a deadly outcrop of rocks among strong tidal currents, where even now, in this era of powerful engines and satellite navigation, ships continue to be threatened. One reason is purely geographic: Ouessant stands so far to the west (at 5 degrees W, nearly the same longitude as Land's End, in England) that it interferes with the shipping routes to several major European ports, compressing an average of 150 vessels a day into narrow lanes that pass close offshore. But for visitors the more interesting reason for its reputation is the weather, which by coastal standards is some of the stormiest in the world. The relevant storms are enormous low-pressure systems that swirl eastward across the North Atlantic and hit the island undiminished by any landmass—usually in the period from October through February. They can generate mountainous waves and pack winds of well over 100 miles an hour.
During the summers, which are generally benign, the drama may not be obvious. You can make a tame day trip of a visit to Ouessant and tour the island on bicycles that are available for rental at the ferry landing. The roads are quiet. It takes about a half hour to wobble by bike into the island's only village, Lampaul, and another half hour to wobble to the cape at the far end. If you explore some of the hamlets, or stop for a traditional meal of crêpelike galettes and mildly alcoholic cider, you can occupy another few hours. The most likely excitement is a passing rain shower or an encounter with lambs; the greatest mental effort required is remembering to wobble back to the ferry in time. But even on a calm summer day you find evidence of the elemental battles that continue to be fought on Ouessant—in the unusual concentration of five lighthouses, and the grim radar tower looking out to sea; in the anchored haystacks and the braced sod shelters erected in the pastures for the protection of sheep; in the hunkered-down stone houses, many huddled shoulder to shoulder against westerly gales; in the clumped grass, wind-sculpted bushes, and stunted trees; in the stories of apocalypse that the residents tell to explain why their island is special. Forget the summer—Ouessant is a place to visit in the winter, during the fury of an ocean storm.
The timing is of course critical. Big storm systems, which are constantly metamorphosing, may be anticipated as much as five days in advance, but their path and intensity can be forecast accurately only about two days ahead of time. During the winter the island is served by a single daily ferry, which departs from Brest at 8:30 A.M. but suspends service during the most violent weather, so storm enthusiasts have to drop other plans and head for Ouessant almost as soon as the forecast solidifies.
Getting the forecast requires some effort, because on TV and in most newspapers Europe tends to go in for the "Mr. Sky is going to cry" style of weather reporting, which is not detailed enough. To move beyond this, though, all you really need to know is that Ouessant lies in a part of Brittany called Finistère. If you have access to the Internet, you can find your way to the French and British meteorological offices, which tend to demand subscriptions for their marine forecasts but do not charge for general information, which is serviceable. If you understand French, you can receive by telephone a five-day coastal forecast that's free except for the cost of the call: phone 011-8-36-68-08-29 and then press "*" followed by "2" for the waters of Finistère. You can also phone a service called Météo Consult (011-1-39-28-00-28) and for about $15 talk to a live person, who may or may not speak English. Or try the Web site, www. meteoconsult.fr. Before you do any of that, however, you need to look at the newspapers with decent weather pages (The Times of London, Le Monde, the International Herald Tribune) and wait for a really strong low to appear.
That's what I did last year—until, on a December evening at the close of a working week in The Hague, I noticed that what had been an innocuous atmospheric disturbance on the previous day seemed to have organized itself into a tightly wound system on a collision course with the French coast. I called France from a pay phone in a café and navigated through the choices to get the forecast for Finistère. A marine warning had been issued in anticipation of a storm of Force 12 on the Beaufort scale: winds greater than 74 miles an hour, air filled with foam and spray, sea white with spray, exceptionally high waves, visibility bad. The French were advising ships along the coast to seek shelter. The storm was due to hit Ouessant as early as the following evening. I had less than twelve hours to get to Brest and make the morning ferry—after which, I had to assume, the island might be cut off. My suitcase was, as usual, already packed; I caught the next flight to Paris and took the fast, four-hour train to Brest. I arrived in the early hours of the morning, in a heavy rain with lightning in the sky.
Brest is an ugly city—a deepwater port that was commandeered by the Germans during World War II, bombed into rubble by the Allies, and rebuilt badly afterward. But the waterfront is pleasant in a utilitarian way. If you arrive the night before your ferry, you can stay in one of several small harbor hotels, eat simply, and drink with the locals. The best of those establishments is the Maison des Gens de Mer (011-2-98-46-07-40), the Seamen's Home, where you can get a clean room for about $25. I had the traditional breakfast there—a pot of strong coffee and a sliced baguette with salted butter—together with deckhands and dockhands at the end of the graveyard shift and fishermen heading out before dawn. The ferry for Ouessant lies just across the street. Reservations are possible (011-2-98-80-80-80) but unnecessary, though it's prudent to keep a close watch on the departure schedule, which may suddenly be advanced because of an oncoming storm.