Travel December 2001

Storm Island

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

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.

After a long struggle I came to the base of the lighthouse, a massive structure painted in black and white stripes, rising 200 feet above the sea, and topped by two levels of rotating lenses sending multiple beams into the inkiness of the storm. Those beams, turning silently overhead, angled strangely downward in a way that created the illusion of rotating cones, and passing through windblown waves of rain and ocean spray, remain in my memory as one of the world's fantastic sights. Eventually I pried myself away and continued toward the end of the island, along cliffside trails and across open terrain. Enormous waves slammed into the rocks below, shaking the earth and raising plumes that were seized and atomized by the wind and mixed with the rain. The resulting deluge pelted painfully against my face, limiting my vision and forcing me at times to turn and walk backward under the protection of my parka's tightly drawn hood. Twice when I tried to stand upright and face the storm, I was knocked down by the wind. The only way to proceed now was by crouching and, on uncertain ground near the edges, crawling. It was exhilarating work, but with care never unsafe, since the onshore winds shoved me not toward destruction but away.

I came finally to the westernmost tip of the island, where the shore took the form of gravelly shelves stepping down to the sea, partially protected by house-sized boulders that stood in shallow water and bore the brunt of the waves. I crept as close as I dared, wedged myself into the shelter of a rock, and spent an hour trying in vain to judge the scale of a gargantuan scene. The numbers don't matter anyway: the breakers were huge, and when they hit the boulders, they exploded twice as high. The wind and the water roared. The moon came out briefly and lit the boiling surf. When I grew cold from sitting, I found my way back to the hotel. The walking was easy downwind.

In the morning the seas remained rough, but the rain had stopped, the winds had dropped to a paltry 50 miles an hour, and the ferry was reported to be running on schedule. It was the end of the storm, the natural moment to leave. I had a breakfast of black coffee, paid my hotel bill, and arranged for the taxi to deliver my suitcase to the ferry landing. The last hours I spent walking again—as you might want to as well, to enjoy the calm. The ferry departs for Brest at 4:30 P.M. and arrives by 7:00, which allows you to get to Paris in time to spend the night, and the next day, perhaps feeling invigorated, to resume ordinary life.

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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