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.