Swept Away HR46 at anchor Second Wind at anchor Northern Exposure at anchor

Sunday, October 2, in Port Napoleon boatyard, near Port Saint Louis du Rhone, France

Hi all. We’re at the boatyard where Second Wind will spend the winter. Last week, we had just crossed the border from Spain to France, in Port Vendres.

A slow sailing day took us to Sète, a sailing village that was larger, but no more imposing than Port Vendres. We had been told by Americans on another sailboat in Port Vendres that this was the first time that two American boats had been in the harbor at the same time. We called the marina office in Sète when we were on our way, and they told us that there was space for us. Then we called again when we were inside the harbor.

This time, the woman told us that they did have space for us, but that it wasn’t “nice.” We had no idea what she meant, but we were worried when she tried to convince us to visit a nearby vacation village instead of the town we'd picked out. We stood firm, and she directed us to a slip along a finger pier, next to the marina��s work boat, and close to the haulout slip. The main marina berths are simply too short for a boat of our length. We were officially outside the marina, but still within the protected harbor. But S'te obviously doesn’t draw much of the liveaboard crowd.

The view was industrial, but there was nothing wrong with the docking arrangements. I began to do research about the town. An onboard guidebook called it “gutsy and raffish.” One British newspaper had posted an article about visiting this unpretentious, not very touristy place, with charming photos of the port and the expected purring about the food. The commenters on the article weren’t kind, accusing the writer of cropping the pictures to eliminate an unsightly parking garage and warning him that they couldn’t trust his other recommendations for spending their hard-earned vacation budget if he actually considered this to be a vacation place. They would no doubt be happier in the resort town we’d avoided. We decided to go into town and find out for ourselves.

It’s a real town, a place where men wear berets without doing it ironically. There’s a long canal with unremarkable buildings along each side and with fishing boats in the middle. It’s clear that there’s a unique culture in town, a cuisine inspired in part by Italy. They call themselves Sètois and speak a language called Occitan. There’s an annual jousting competition (yes, jousting) that takes place on the canal, and a well-regarded music festival in the summer. They call themselves “the Venice of Languedoc” because of the canal system. Homeboy poet Paul Valery called it “the singular island”.

I actually knew of Paul Valery, due to a long career in technology strategic planning. If you’ve seen twenty PowerPoint presentations at telecommunications industry conventions, you’ve run into a particular Paul Valery quote (I confess that some of these slides came from me.) The quote is:

“…. the future is not what it used to be.”

I loved this the first ten times I heard it, and even the first five times that I used it on my own slides. Then I began to realize that the future will always be what it used to be, because it will always contain that quote.

Paul Valery is buried in town. To demonstrate how little there is to see in the town, I’ll point out that the cemetery with his grave is high on the list of sights. Instead, we thought we’d sort out Internet service, which we’d thought we got right when we bought it initially a year ago, and then refreshed it when we spent a day in Atlantic France at the beginning of the season. We found an Orange shop with a rep who spoke English.

We asked her about a promotion we’d seen in a shop and on the Internet, and she assured us that they don’t sell that promotion. She was very clear in her questions and answers, speaking English faster than we do. After about five or ten minutes of discussing our options (she also insisted that Orange doesn’t offer the plan that we are currently using), she told us that she can’t speak English, because she learned it in school thirty-five years ago, and that she was sorry but she couldn’t help us anymore. The next couple that needed service was an Englishman and his wife. She was mad at them before they even got her attention. “What is this, English day?” she asked loudly, in English, to nobody in particular. Later, we found the promotion we wanted to buy in both a tariff brochure in a different Orange retailer and on the web, but we were afraid to go see her again. There’s always another city.

Finding the uniqueness of a place you’re traveling is easy when there’s Internet access. Sète holds an important place in Jewish history. On July 11, 1947, it was the port from which 4500 Jews displaced by the Holocaust tried to immigrate to Palestine on a rickety ship in an initiative that reminded everyone of the biblical Exodus. Lots of adventure followed, but not the good kind, for the passengers or for the British trying to stem immigration before the formation of Israel. There’s a plaque on the quay in Sète that depicts this historic moment, and we walked by it every time we left the boat on the way to town. (Thus, in theory, we’d already visited the top thing to see in Sète before we even stepped ashore.)

You’ll have to go to the Holocaust Museum for the rest of the story about the Jews. The ship was eventually renamed the SS Exodus and inspired the title and theme of a Leon Uris novel and a movie. But this ship and its namesake had a history of their own.

At the time the vessel was in Sète, the ship had already been deployed at Normandy and been sold for scrap, acquired by an underground military Jewish organization. Its name was the President Warfield.

You never heard of President Warfield? Doesn’t it sound like the name you’d give the US President in an action movie? “Situation Room, this is President Warfield. On my command, fire the missiles.” Wouldn’t that just be the perfect president on the Simpsons?

Warfield was not a political president; it’s the name of the president of a railroad company, S. Davies Warfield. He should be a relative of the Simpsons; as his niece and sometime-ward Wallis Warfield (Simpson) became the Duchess of Windsor after Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry her.

S. Davies Warfield the company president was responsible for extending the Seaboard Air Line Railway into South Florida. So it turns out that the real President Warfield built the tracks that now help to bring hundreds of thousands of Jewish émigrés to South Florida every winter. Take that, Leon Uris.

We dawdled for another day in Sète, spending a good chunk of it in the large weekly open market that commandeered several of the streets and squares of the town. We left Sète in the crispness of late September morning, and sailed into perfect conditions – beam reach, ten knots of wind, and seas with only a wisp of a ripple – for hours. In Mediterranean style, the winds diminished in the afternoon, but we were not in a hurry to reach our anchorage. We anchored in the large bay outside Port Napoleon boatyard.

We knew that the boatyard was in the middle of nowhere. It’s on a large, empty tract where the Rhone River ends at the Mediterranean. The name for this area is the Camargue, a sweeping wetland where animals graze, where flamingos pick inside salt flats and swamp as far as you can see.

The next morning, we pulled up the anchor and motored to the channel into the port. On each side, fishermen had set up multiple rods, stuck into the mud, and were monitoring their progress on foot, in thigh-high water. More enterprising souls had set lounge chairs into slightly shallower areas. Beyond the fishermen was a large farm for mussels or oysters. Art watched the range marker and stayed inside the marked channel, then turned to find our way through the dredged area to the boatyard.

There is nothing at Port Napoleon but the boats. The nearby town, Port St. Louis du Rhone, is a few kilometers away, a half-hour walk or a short bike ride on the empty road. Nothing else is around. The bus doesn’t come to Port Napoleon.

The marina itself is well-equipped, and would have been perfect if the free wireless Internet worked reliably at the docks. There’s room for a thousand boats to spend the winter ashore. The marina is new, clean, and spacious. There’s a restaurant steps away so that you don’t have to find your way into town to have a meal out. They sell croissants and baguettes every morning and have good Internet access all the time.

The boatyard has rooms and small apartments to use when your boat has been hauled out and you can’t stay aboard. Marine workshops occupy nearly as much area as the boats do, engine mechanics, sailmakers, metal workers, carpenters. Art would find all of the workers he’d need within steps of our slip. The only question left was whether we’d go crazy sitting in a boatyard in the middle of nowhere for a month. This wasn’t Barcelona. This was the opposite of Barcelona.

We checked in, rented bikes, and checked out the marina restaurant for lunch. Someone came by to look at the cracked stainless support bracket under our davit. He had been recommended by the captain on board a nearby boat, and it was clear he was the right man for the job. We had no doubts we’d find good workers who specialize in whatever we needed. So far, everything had met expectations but the onboard Internet (we still had phone-based data service, which would meet our needs for mail and surfing; we’d have to do without online television, though).

On our first full day, we took the bikes to Port Saint Louis du Rhone, the town a few kilometers from the marina. There’s a sleepy road alongside the marina for about a kilometer, and then another one or two kilometers along a country road that’s equipped with a bike path. Since it’s swampland all around, the land is flat. It’s perfect biking country, some good thing, because even if you want to buy a pack of gum, you have to go to the town.

The town offers everything I expected and absolutely nothing more. A web site lauding French waterways calls it “featureless” and warns about the winds of the mistral, and the mosquitoes, morning and evening. There’s a big, well-stocked supermarket (half of which is non-food, as is common in Europe.) Beyond that, we didn’t see much commerce on Saturday afternoon. The restaurant menus in town were barely as appealing as the place inside the marina, although weekday menus are usually more interesting than weekend offerings. There’s a bus that takes you to Marseille (or Arles, which we have already visited on our last foray through the Med).

As we followed the river Rhone towards the end of town, we saw a canal boat docked alongside the bank. I’ve never seen one of these before. It looks like a slice that’s been taken out of a cruise ship horizontally.

So I think it’ll be something like Club Med. Without the glorious meals. Or the beach. Or the activities. For a month. In a swamp. With mosquitoes, when the mistral isn’t shaking the rafters. But we have good bikes. And French food. And sunny days. Still good.

We’ll be doing some day trips from here, and getting the boat ready for its winter hibernation. It’s been a great season, but we’re looking forward to going home and starting our normal life there. Hope you’re all doing fine. Write and let us know what you’re up to.

Love, Karen (and Art)