Travel December 2001

Storm Island

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

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.

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.

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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