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.