Travel December 2001

Storm Island

If you like extreme weather, the French island of Ouessant is a good place to find it

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.

My ship last December was a high-bowed 150-foot steel beauty driven by twin 2,500-horsepower diesels, with a high, wide bridge, two passenger decks aft, and a crane and a cargo hold forward—a vessel designed for hard duty. It was manned by a crew of eight and commanded by an articulate gray-bearded captain who had fished for tuna off San Diego and was known locally for his ship handling in heavy weather. Against a strong wind and in moderate rain, we rolled with the first fugitive swells while still in Brest's well-protected bay. Soon afterward we emerged into the open ocean, and the ship began twisting and shuddering through seas as high as twenty feet—steep slopes that reared to windward and broke across the entire superstructure. The crew worked the helm and throttles actively, sometimes slowing abruptly to keep the bow from battering the heaviest waves.

The ship was almost empty. Of the twenty-eight passengers aboard, most were islanders going home—a rugged-looking bunch. They sat in the warmth and isolation of the lower cabin, reading the standard French tabloids and hardly bothering to glance outside. Braced and sheltered by a steel bulkhead, I stood one level above on the exposed afterdeck as the waves broke against the hull and tremendous sheets of seawater slammed into the benches bolted farther aft. It was a good ride. The only other tourists on board were a Swiss couple, who came outside to share the view. They had not previously heard about the oncoming storm but had guessed correctly that on Ouessant in the winter they would find some solitude. The man enjoyed the action but went inside after a while to smoke a cigarette. The woman was equally game but soon grew ill. I held her by the belt as, between the waves, she vomited over the rail.

After an unusually slow trip of two and a half hours the ship arrived at the poorly sheltered landing on Ouessant, where, jolting against the stone jetty, it dallied just long enough to offload the passengers and a single packet of cargo. Then it cast off, hurrying home ahead of schedule. The wind by now was gusting to 50 miles an hour and driving veils of rain under a low, scudding overcast; the temperature was in the high 40s. I threw my suitcase into the back of a taxi-van and took the quick ride into Lampaul, where the choice of hotels in the winter is limited to two, both small and offering excellent southwesterly views of the town's treacherous, rock-strewn bay.

The larger of those hotels is the Roc'h Ar Mor (011-2-98-48-80-19), which has brightly renovated rooms with TVs, private bathrooms, and in some cases little balconies. Those with a view start at $45 a night. If you've decided on this trip for romantic reasons, you might want to go all out and spend an extra $20 to stay in the top-end "panoramic" room, which has wraparound windows. For my purposes the hotel seemed, if anything, too nice, though I did enjoy a spider crab for lunch at the restaurant there.

I checked into the other establishment, down the street—the Hôtel Duchesse Anne (011-2-98-48-80-25), a ramshackle house standing in isolation above the bay like a sentinel against the storms. For $28 a night I got a large and pleasantly seedy room that overlooked the water through big, rain-splattered French windows leaking wind. Downstairs the hotel had a small dining room, where I never ate, and a café-bar that offered a good $5.00 breakfast and where in the afternoons a group of aging regulars gathered to drink, smoke, and pass the time.

Presented by

William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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