Travel December 2001

Storm Island

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

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.

I went outside to explore Ouessant in the worsening weather. For six hours, into the night, I sloshed down the lonely roads, past sheep and shuttered hamlets, to the windward western coast, where a heavy surf pounded the rocks, raising brown salty foam that tumbled in patches through the pastures. I ran into the Swiss couple, who, despite their original intention to read cozily in a café, had been caught up in the spirit of the place and, like me, had been walking for hours. The scenery, we agreed, was eerily beautiful, and of course evocative of the sea, but what mattered was not anything specific so much as the mood: the entire island was infused with the drama of the oncoming weather.

That evening, at the bar of the Duchesse Anne, there was suddenly reason for doubt: from Brest the television news reported that the storm had diminished to Force 11. Though its winds were still forecast to be severe, the system was lingering offshore and was not expected to peak at Ouessant until late the following night. The man with whom I watched the news had spent decades as a volunteer on the Ouessant lifeboat, an all-weather vessel with a history of heroic rescues. He turned away from the TV with Gallic disdain and said, "Alors, it's a storm for sissies."

Nonetheless, the next day passed in continuing expectation. The ferry made a valiant run hours ahead of schedule, and after a brief pause at the jetty, turned and disappeared into the turmoil of the sea. By lunchtime the mood on the island was electric with the news that the mightiest rescue vessel of them all, a celebrated ocean tug named Abeille Flandres, had taken up position in the partial shelter of the island, where it would patrol for the duration of the storm, ready to assist any passing ship that began to drift or founder. I spotted the tug that afternoon, while walking along a coastal trail; its brutish form emerged slowly from a squall and idled through the worsening weather with a distinctive arrogance. Awhile later the clouds lifted for a time, the rain stopped, and the winds died down—a tedious spell during which I walked my clothes nearly dry. But the regulars at the Duchesse Anne assured me that the fury would be upon us late in the night. The hotel's barometer was falling rapidly. And sure enough, with darkness the rain returned and the wind shifted and freshened.

By dinnertime the wires and stone corners of the village had set up a mournful howl. I took refuge in Lampaul's best restaurant and bar, a small, attractive place called Ty Korn, which specializes in local seafood and, with its narrow confines and paneled walls, has some of the warmth and intimacy of a wooden ship. The two Swiss were there, chatting happily with others at the bar—a comfortable and cosmopolitan crowd, many of them, including the owners, refugees from mainland life. The storm was expected to hit its peak from 1:00 A.M. to 3:00. I told the Swiss that I planned to head out around midnight and walk to Ouessant's principal lighthouse and the exposed westernmost point that lies beyond it, and I invited them along. They declined, which was just as well, because the utter solitude of that walk turned out to be part of its appeal.

The night was cold and wet. I don't know how hard the wind was blowing, though I later heard that it was sustained at 90 miles an hour, with higher gusts. Outside the shelter of the village the walking was slow, like straining uphill but on flat ground, leaning forward with arms folded back, powering into the gale. I left my flashlight in my pocket, preferring to move in the darkness, drawn by the distant lighthouse as migrating birds caught in bad weather are said to be. There were no cars on the roads. At one point a power line arced, throwing sparks into the night, but otherwise there was no sign of damage or flying debris—for the obvious reason that Ouessant is naturally well scoured.

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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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