We recently had the great fortune to spend time with an old friend on two continents to help with getting his new boat from her origin in France to her mooring in Massachusetts. In every way it was the experience of a lifetime. These two quick videos from the France leg of the journey are a great representation of the sailing part of the experience. If you’ve been following me on social media you probably have all kinds of what, where and how questions. For the details and backstory, read on!
It all started when Hew Russell an old friend from my high school era (from the era, but we didn’t go to school together) contacted me a few years ago saying he was coming to the Annapolis Boat Show and would we like to get together. He had mentioned that he was exploring the idea of a cruising catamaran and was coming to the show to research safety equipment. But first, Hew and I go back a long time with sailing transports to Maine on a mutual friend’s Tartan 41. We had a lot of miles together, a fun time that was eventually interrupted by our career years. We did correspond randomly over the years, including the J-105 North Americans when he brought his boat out to Annapolis. But that changed to a more steady interaction after 2014 on a pier in San Diego where a guy sat down and said, hey I know you. Turns out our kids were both sailing at High School Nationals and from there we corresponded more regularly, bringing us up to the the origins of his Feisty Girl.
In Annapolis he said, wanna come sail in France next year? It all seemed a little far away, but as Lisa says, when you get an offer like that, you reflexively say YES and don’t think too hard about it. He would be entertaining sets of friends for several months as he ostensibly was doing sea trials on the boat (part 1) before she headed back to the US on a ship (part 2) and the final transport from Baltimore to Marion (part 3). I’m not particularly a “travel blogger” and resisted the impulse to blog the legs day by day (that’s what I use Facebook for), and in order to keep this post from getting out of control, I’m just going to cover the basics with a few highlights. If you want a full blow by blow set of photos check my Google Photos album or see my Facebook page.
France – Part 1
Fast forward to March of 2022, Feisty Girl an Outremer 4x catamaran was in the water and we were in the air to France. While we do a lot of traveling domestically for shorter periods of time, Lisa had not had a real two week vacation in forever. We were psyched.
It all snuck up on us a bit and we were a little unprepared for the trip, but since Hew had been in France full time for several months already, we figured it would be fine. The theme of the trip was “huck and chuck” as we called it, where we played both the sailing and the sightseeing by ear based on the weather. As part of our unpreparedness, when I think of “The South of France” I think “summer”. Well, true, but not in March. It’s basically spring, similar to mid latitude US. But based on some hints from Hew and of course The Google, we packed cool weather touring and sailing gear.
The boat was located in La Grand Motte where the Outremer factory is located on the coast south of Montpellier. It’s a very interesting place from an architectural standpoint and it is a real maritime town with boat yards and the Outremer factory (now also making the Gunboat brand), so very much a working town. In addition, sailors with olympic aspirations are starting to train there as the 2024 games will be in Marseilles about 65 miles east. This would be our “home base” for the two weeks on the boat.
We did a number of day sails from La Grande Motte in order to get acquainted with the boat and due to the fact there really is nothing particularly close. The options are east to Marseilles and then further east to San Tropez, Monaco and Nice or west to Sete. Given the weather predictions, we eventually settled on going to Marseilles and if the predictions changed to San Tropez and back. As we learned there are two predominant wind patterns in the area, the Mistral that funnels down the Rhone valley from the north or the Scirocco which blows from the south across the med from the Sahara. What did we have? Either light thermal breezes or 30 knots from the east; always different from the prevailing pattern, that’s just the way these things go. Evidently that’s the thing here, feast or famine. Anyway, in the end I think it all worked perfectly because the day sails were fun and relaxing, and we had a lot of time to explore the area (Nime, Montpellier, Avignon and surroundings) as well as get in two multi-day sails. I know we we all enjoyed these different aspects of the trip when our friend Ali Meller commented on my and Lisa’s Facebook posts “Are you guys actually on the same vacation?” because mine were filled with sailing pictures and hers were filled with food pictures. Of course I also love the food part and she also loves the sailing part and the three of us had a fantastic time “hucking and chucking” (Hew is the master of just exploring and seeing what happens, especially in a rental car!), eating, sailing, laughing and catching up on many years of stories. Food, sailing and friends, what more can you ask for in a vacation?
The first long sail was from La Grande Motte to Marseilles, about 65 miles. While Hew had been there with a prior group on the boat, we left early in the morning wanting to arrive before dark. We wanted to make sure we got settled because the next 4-5 day weather pattern was the aforementioned 30 knots from the east. The breeze was lightish so we both sailed and motored arriving that afternoon. We got settled into a dock at a local yacht club and hit the town for dinner. We were going to leave the next day and head to San Tropez but it was hootin’ as the easterly came in. We thought, eh, let’s poke our nose out and see if we could do it. We screamed out of the harbor and eventually realized when we got around the point, there was no way we were making 50 miles upwind in 30 knots. Cats are not made for that, although even in a fast monohull, it would have been a very unpleasant trip. So we went back to Marseilles and camped there for two more days.
We explored Marseilles and the surrounding area as far as we could get on foot. It was a fun walk up to a church above the city with fantastic views. I found to be a very cosmopolitan and interesting place, but not too large despite being the second most populous city in France. One of the local sailors had mentioned to Hew, “Don’t go to Marseilles, it is ‘veal’ [vile], go to San Tropez or Nice”; evidently some French don’t think too much of it.
Of course with my eye on urbanism, I immediately noted a modern (and very ugly) parking garage right on the the city waterfront. Ick. There was also a plaza we spend a fair bit of time at and in seeing some local pictures and information, realized it used to be a brutalist parking garage in the 80s. So even the French were not not immune to that great experiment in automobilization, filling in a canal for an auto street, then a Brutalist parking garage. Leveler heads prevailed and it was returned to really nice pedestrian use, although still with a nod to the almighty automobile by creating an underground garage below the plaza.
After the two days of exploring and eating, it was still blowing 30 knots from the east so we decided to head back to La Grande Motte. It was going to be a fun sleigh ride downhill. Ultimately we ended up with a double reefed main and staysail and we were cranking along at 10-20 knots in 10-15 foot seas. Yee Haw! Most of the big air footage from this trip back was in the first video. The nice thing about a catamaran is even in these conditions, it’s stable and comfortable without gear and crap going everywhere blow. Although just in case we did put a towel around the crystal stemmed wine glasses 😉
Towards the end of the two weeks we did one more longer sail west to the city of Sete, definitely a working city with a fishing and light manufacturing background, and lots of “French people doing French things” (surprisingly, a *very* popular hashtag on Instagram, go figure). But that’s what I loved about it, it was a chaotic and real place where people live very locally. There are some tourists and tourist stuff for sure (not this time of year) but that was incidental. One of the popular events there is festival that includes “water jousting”. Seriously. Two long boats oared by 10 people with guys on bow platforms and lances trying to knock each other off. We stayed two nights at a cruise ship terminal (the one cat spot in the local marina was taken – but this was great as it was closer to the action) and sailed back the third day.
We eventually bid au revoir to Hew and Feisty Girl and headed back to the airport in Paris on the TGV with the wonderful glow of the trip still chuckling about one of our favorite lines told to us by a fromage vendor as we were trying some interesting cheese: “Don’t be afraid of the cheese…”
France to Baltimore (Part 2)
After we left, Feisty Girl had some final “punchlist” work done while Hew reconned the coast to Genoa Italy. Eventually, Hew and another set of friends departed east with the destination of Genoa Italy where she would be loaded on the the cargo ship Saimaagracht arriving several weeks later in Baltimore. Of course being the retired guy in the local area, I was all in helping with the unloading and preparation of Feisty Girl for the trip north.
I’ve had some limited experience with ports large and small (Elizabeth NJ, Fernandina Beach FL and Salem NJ) having shipped my boat to Bermuda for International Race Week a bunch of times. Based on those less than simple experiences with the shipping bureaucracy, I was wondering how easy the unloading would go for a project much more complex than a Snipe. Hew kept me informed as to the docking and unloading date and time and once he had confirmed details he flew out and we met early in the morning at the port gate and waited for the Saimaagracht to arrive. We had been tracking her on AIS up the bay and was able to see her come to the dock. Once she tied up, the loadmaster met us at the gate and escorted us to the ship (no doubt a port rule). But once we were on the ship we had unfettered access the boat on the cradle welded to the deck.
Hew did what we do when a hurricane approaches: “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” He had stripped as much running rigging as possible and covered as much stuff with wrap as possible as he had been warned about how dirty the ship’s exhaust could be. He told me he anticipated it to be covered in burned oil, so we were ready for a week’s worth of hard labor. Fortunately, when we got a decent look, there was not a lot of visible grime, just salt spray and general layer of dirt. Ultimately, we had several long days of cleaning and prepping for the trip north, not too bad in the scheme of things.
However, the most interesting part of this experience was the actual unloading. We were first on the unload list and once the ship crew got rolling, they rigged the straps and carefully threaded the needle with straps around the boat and rig (only by literally inches from her wind instruments). Once set, she was lifted up and over into the water. It was an amazing sight to see. After she splashed, we climbed down the ladder, fired up the engine and off we went, pretty much no muss, no fuss. All said and done it was about an hour. I found it amusing that throughout this process, no one ever checked any IDs or paperwork, we just powered away after she hit the water. Just two random guys waiting at the gate to take the boat off the ship… Adios! We motored over the the Anchorage Marina a few miles away where we had a reservation for the week.
Baltimore to Marion (Part 3)
After three long days, we were ready to head north. On the third clean up day, we were pretty much done around noon, so we did a really nice shakedown sail around Baltimore Harbor deploying all of the sails, rigging the reefing lines and capped it off with a tour of the inner harbor. I’ve been there many times but never by water and it was a fun sight seeing trip.
We both had things to attend to Memorial Day Weekend, so I went home and Hew back to Marion for a few days. On Memorial day morning I picked him and our third crew member Tom up at BWI and Ellie dropped us at the boat. We had already provisioned, so we were away from the dock about 9am. We decided on standing watches of 4 hours on, 5 hours off with one hour overlap for the first and last hour. This left 2 hours in the middle of the watch solo and a three hour shift every 24 so no one ever was stuck on the middle of the night watch.
The breeze was very light the entire first day with a high pressure sitting on us and we ended up motoring out the Patapsco River from Baltimore Harbor all the way north in the Chesapeake Bay to the Elk River, to and through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. The current was favorable through the canal and out into the Delaware Bay, but unfortunately, the breeze we had (up into the mid teens) was a late afternoon thermal directly on the nose. Given a catamaran’s lack of upwind prowess, short tacking up the Delaware Bay, continuously crossing the channel was not practical so we had to continue motoring. We did not exit the bay until about 2 am but were finally able to crack off and sail up the New Jersey coast in about 12-15 knots of breeze. I didn’t realize how far it was from Baltimore to the C&D canal and then how long it takes to get out the Delaware Bay. The Delaware Bay is especially boring and there is a lot of commercial traffic with a fairly narrow channel in which the pilots get quite irritated by non commercial traffic, even if one stays to the extreme edge of the channel. To make matters worse, there was no moon so it was a very dark night and it took a lot of concentration to keep on top of where we were. When I got off watch that night I slept really hard until about sunrise.
It was a cool and glorious sunrise and we enjoyed a nice 15 hours or so of sailing up the coast on the second day. My second night watch was midnight to four and when I was waking up about 11pm for my watch I definitely noted a different sea state so got up and dressed quickly and got on deck to some new weather. Breeze shifted right about 60 degrees, dropped in temperature and there was lightning. Hew had had some interesting time on deck solo as this new weather came in and was thankful for some help to reef the main as the breeze came up into the upper teens. It took a few hours for the breeze to settle down with +/- 45 degree shifts which the auto pilot was having trouble with even in apparent wind mode, so I ended up steering for about an hour. But once things steadied out, it was handling the conditions in apparent wind mode fine. We were cranking along at 8-10 knots boat speed at 70 degrees true aimed at the south shore of Long Island. Finally Hew was able to get some sleep and I did the solo part of my watch. The lighting was unsettling but it never metastasized into any serious weather.
About 3am Tom came on deck for the start of his watch and that last hour of mine; the company was definitely welcome. Again the night was very dark, even darker than the prior night because of the cloud cover. The breeze was up at times into the low 20s and was getting towards a second reef, but we ended up just pointing up a bit to slow the boat and lessen the pounding while making a slightly better angle on Long island. Fortunately, this far east, the sky starts to get light about 4 am and that greatly reduced the anxiety caused by wondering if we were going to hit any debris you couldn’t see as we crossed the NYC shipping channels. Once the daybreak came in earnest, I got a few hours more sleep.
About midday approaching the coast just south of Montauk, we ended up using some “iron genny” assist to get up over Montauk Point and into Block Island Sound. The breeze was dropping anyway and we had shaken out the reef so motoring was not unreasonable. The forecast was for the breeze to continue to go right to the SE which would give us a decent angle past Narragansett Bay up into Buzzards Bay. It remained light so we continued to motor sail all the way up Buzzards Bay. It’s funny, after being in open water for a while on this trip and in the Mediterranean, how small Buzzards Bay felt.
We finally approached Marion just as their Wednesday night racing was ending and we followed the fleet into the harbor. Unfortunately, it was not a quintessential Buzzards Bay Sou’wester, so we didn’t have the opportunity to arrive “in full regalia” jamming along at 15 knots off the wind, but c’est la vie. Turns out the Feisty Girl fan club had been watching our progress via AIS and we had an escort to her mooring! We moored about 8:30pm for a 59 1/2 hour trip of 351 miles, an average speed of about 6 knots, not too bad given the amount of motoring and upwind breeze. Hew and Tom took the BYC launch in (having a few beers with the aforementioned fan club) to sleep at home and I stayed on the boat as I was dog tired and just wanted to flop. I really slept well.
The next day we brought the boat into the BYC dock to unload a bunch of gear, clean things up a bit and chat with some club members. This might be the only time she is ever at that dock because Hew had to straddle a few empty moorings and winter sticks to get in there, obviously not realistic once the summer is in full bloom there. Walking down the dock to the club was literally a walk down memory lane for me as I spent many years sailing here with my father on his Bullseye and eventually my own Laser (and the 2003 Snipe Nationals!). It will always be a special place for me and finishing this special trip(s) with a special friend in a special place doesn’t get any better!