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Sunday, July 8, 2012, in Calvi, Corsica, France

Hi all. We’re finally on the move now, after two months of slow progress. Last week, we had just arrived in Cannes, on France’s Cote d’Azur.

Our month-long visit to Toulon was over. We’d found three favorite places for lunch formulas: La Tortue on the quay, Bistrot de Francoise in a shaded plaza, and Bistro 223 on a side street. We could walk from anywhere to anywhere, diverting our course depending on whether we wanted to pass or avoid the bustling Provencal market on our way from one place to another. Honorable mention goes to the mall across the street from our marina, where almost any daily need could be met, especially within the giant Carrefour market, with its own low-key traiteur for dinners that needed only a microwave oven, and for its hors d’œuvres that weren’t beef jerky and chips made from “cheez” but were lovely morsels such as pate en croute and goat cheese decorated with peppercorns. Food preparation was beginning to dissipate from my skill set.

We left Toulon early in the morning, knowing that the wind would be moderate, but unfavorable, and the sailing conditions would deteriorate as the day progressed. Without implying that sailing is as dangerous or at all as honorable as police work or the military, I note here that I recall the descriptions given about those jobs – that they amount to “hours of boredom interspersed with moments of terror”. Sailing can be like that as well, with my personal addition of ��undercurrent of seasickness”. So we motored into seas that increased in size and disruptiveness as we moved on. Our speed was compromised every time we recovered from cleaving an oncoming wave. I started to feel those markers of upcoming seasickness: cold, an acid feeling down my throat, and an overwhelming desire to lie down somewhere.

A minor terror was added to the mix when one of a cluster of chains that held the dinghy up in the davits decided to unlink itself in the middle. The dinghy is heavy, probably too heavy for our needs and heavy enough that we’d already bolstered the strength of the davits at least twice in the boat’s lifetime. Losing a chain at sea meant that we spent the day watching the dinghy jolt every time we crashed down from a wave, wondering if the whole thing would collapse at any time. Luckily, the wind calmed as we headed east, not great for a sailing fantasy, but providing some solace that we’d keep the dinghy in its place for at least another day.

Art had chosen an anchorage we’d visited on our last trip through the Cote d”Azur, the Anse (cove) des Canebiers. This bay is right alongside the bay that protects St. Tropez. My recollection was that it had been a small anchorage that could hold maybe twenty boats. I was wrong. It was huge, and there were already at least fifty boats there on a Saturday afternoon. Art recalled that it was a big bay and that it had been relatively empty when we visited before. He was probably wrong, too, since it had been a holiday weekend when we were there ten years earlier. The one aspect we both agreed was a change was the number of megayachts there.

By megayachts, I’m referring to boats that begin at about 150 feet. Nearly all of them were motoryachts, but one sailboat looked as if it could eat the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria without needing to cleanse the palate in between. The big boat nearest us had an inflatable sliding board so that you could climb to the flybridge and slide down into the water, swim around, climb aboard, and do it again. It was a portable waterpark. To accomplish a similar distance at home, you’d need a two-story house.

We’re lucky enough to have a boat that is arguably too big for two people, but I felt like I was living in a gazebo in someone’s back yard in the Hamptons.

Even when everything on the boat is working when you leave a harbor, it doesn’t stay that way very long. Moments after we left Port Napoleon, we had found a non-working GPS, which we fixed in Toulon. The boat was perfect again. Then the dinghy support chain failed on our first day of sailing. At night, Art tried to run the generator, but it didn’t sound right to him, and it turned itself off after some minutes. Even though he’d tested it at the beginning of the season, it was now clear that cooling water wasn’t going where it was supposed to be cooling. Now we had a list for Cannes.

I had made a reservation for a berth at Port de Cannes via email, and had confirmed our arrival a few days before we got there. But when we arrived at the port, on a Sunday morning, they shooed us away until noon. Apparently Cannes marina has a check-in time (and an enforced check-out time, for future reference.) So we exited the port and anchored nearby, in the company of a dozen other boats who had been similarly excluded. Apparently there was no snobbery here; the mix of civilians and megayachts wasn’t much different from our experience of the night before. At anchor, we faced the Cannes Carlton Hotel. It’s been the base for the gentry for a century, and is now a destination for conferences and tour groups, with a high profile during the Cannes film festival. Its famed twin cupolas were ostensibly based on the, well, silhouette, of a noted courtesan of the era. At noon, we waited out those boats that jumped the gun, avoiding the crowd in hopes of finding a helpful, or at least available, dockhand.

Someone showed up as we entered the harbor, and he directed us to a berth on the Quay St. Pierre, backed up to a pontoon along the edge of the quay. And there was my personal ad first date moment.

There’s a moment that occurs whenever you go to a marina you’ve never been, or in this case, a marina we hadn’t visited for ten years. You read about the marina in the cruising guide (the maritime version of a personal ad), so you know how many berths there are, where the visitors’ dock is, and what services are available. (“I’m an attorney; I like walking in the rain; I can’t stand phonies.”) There’s usually a drawing of the layout (“Here’s my picture, from fifteen years ago”). And then you get there, and instead of the lovely docks you’d expected, there’s construction on the footpath behind you, which will be gorgeous paver stones someday but is now a pile of rubble, and the pedestal for power is right behind you (good), but your passerelle is guaranteed to bang into it if you’re not exceedingly careful (not as good), and you’re at a quay, but there’s a floating dock, so it’s a steep descent to get off of the boat.

Furthermore, we were on what appeared to be the wooden boat dock (“and what was the composition of his other dock, Mary Poppins?”). I mean that the boats around us were classic wooden vessels, alive with natural materials and highly polished varnish. So we were kind of the wrong proportions for the boats alongside (older boats have lower, more graceful lines, and when our fenders were the right height for us, they were too high for our neighbors.) Thus, we had become the fiberglass eyesore among the slender lovelies on St. Pierre quay. Fortunately for those strolling along the quay, they could barely see any of us for the chicken-wire fencing and the construction rubble.

We went to the marine store a few minutes after it opened, resupplying our stores, replacing the broken chain, and getting the phone number for a mechanic to fix our generator. I was relieved that the store clerk told us “if you want to work on boats in Cannes, you must speak English.” I don’t like to be in the middle of a translation about how things work when I don’t know how they work in English. Last time we visited France, I was sure that a mechanic was telling us that our engine impeller was “in carbon” (maybe that means something to a technical fellow), when he was merely stating that it was still fine “encore bonne”. Roll it around on your tongue for a few moments and you’ll see what I mean. Though my French might have improved some since then, I’m always grateful when the mechanic’s English is better than my French.

Once we made an appointment for the generator, we went to nearby Antibes for the day. Our cousins were on a three-city tour of France, and happily for us, our cities coincided for a few days. A short train ride for us along the coast, and we met for a leisurely lunch and a stop at a café.

The generator was more perplexing than Art had supposed. The impeller that he had blamed originally was not at fault (again the impeller), nor was the heat exchanger. Both encore bonne, I suppose. The problem turned out to be a blockage in a hose that overheated the unit. It took about four different visits from Lionel, the mechanic, to diagnose and repair the overheated hose and discover the consequences of the blockage, a low voltage problem to the capacitors, which had been affected adversely by overheating within the generator. We could replace the hose with one better suited to the task, but not the capacitors. This was a repair that would have to wait until Malta, but we could use the unit inefficiently in the meantime.

Our other Cannes mission was a day trip to Italy. We knew we’d be arriving soon by sea in Sardinia, and it’s always preferred that we have Internet access even before we enter the airspace of a new country. We’ve become a little obsessed about this. We’d investigated a train as a day trip for our long stay in Toulon (expensive and impossible to coordinate the schedule), renting a car (expensive and a hassle to drive), and thought that we could simply sail the forty miles along the coast from Cannes to Sanremo. We found ourselves with an extra day in Cannes, train fare wasn’t too expensive to go to Sanremo, and we decided to give ourselves the option of sailing straight to Corsica upon leaving Cannes. Our plan was to buy data service from two providers, TIM and Vodafone.

It was a longer trip than we’d expected. We left Cannes train station at 9:30, but didn’t arrive in Sanremo until after noon. For a small town, the train station in Sanremo goes on and on. The walk from the tracks to the exit involved five of those moving sidewalks that they put into airports between gates. Only every other one was moving. We stepped up our gait and found a taxi to take us to the shopping district.

The TIM office was closest, but they were closing for the lunch break when we arrived. We took our place in line behind a family carrying an accordion. That’s something you don’t often see in Verizon offices. We bought voice service but they didn’t have time to sell us the data portion, so we headed to the Vodafone office to see when they’d open up after lunch. To our surprise and delight, they were open “non-stop” throughout the day. We got data service, and headed out to find ourselves some lunch.

Sanremo was our first stop in Italy on our previous visit to this area, and we wouldn’t have time for sightseeing in any case. It’s a lovely resort town. Alfred Nobel retired to there and lived out his years.

But our TIM office would be closed for two hours or more, so we took our time with lunch, and waited for the shop to reopen while sipping espresso in a café a few doors down the pedestrian shopping street.

We had our second Internet account within minutes of the afternoon shop opening, and made the train with only seconds to spare, one moving sidewalk at a time. Somehow we managed to get back to Cannes in time to see the French-subtitled version of “To Rome, With Love” (you have to see a movie in Cannes, after all.)

Provisioning as if we were going to sea for a month instead of taking a day sail to Corsica, we checked out of the marina and eased our way out from between the two wooden sailboats that had been our neighbors for five days. We had decided to obey Cannes hotel-like checkout rules and leave before noon. Though this would deprive me of a lunch ashore, we had remedied the problem by buying two sandwich baguettes at a boulangerie on the main walking street.

We didn’t go far, only across the bay between two islands, watched over by Fort Royal on Ile Ste-Marguerite. Cardinal Richelieu had this fort built in the 17th century, and its most famous prisoner is known as “The Man in the Iron Mask.” This is France, though, so the mask was velvet, not iron, and the man’s identity has never been established. Rumors flew that it was an illegitimate son or hidden twin brother of Louis XIV, or some other undesirable within the nobility. One of the more elaborate stories has the offspring of this prisoner whisked to Corsica, later to become an ancestor of Napoleon, in a variation of the bulrushes story.

Though we didn’t leave the boat for shore or anywhere else, we had our own brush with the law as the sun went down. A Customs dinghy with about a half dozen on board stopped alongside and informed us that they wanted to board. Normally, I welcome this, and I admit it’s not because I’m a good citizen. It’s just that I know that they probably expect that our European VAT tax isn’t paid, and it is, or that we’ve overstayed a visa, but we have an extended-stay version. I confess that I normally just like getting stopped so that I can disappoint them.

This time, though, I was a little out of sorts about it. They came down below and peered into cabinets. They looked under the floorboards. I had to empty the safe, in which we keep some euros and some dollars, well below the limit. But I felt weird dumping cash on my bed for them to rifle through. I kept glimpsing the large gun that the guy was carrying, and realized that he could just shoot me and I’d be powerless. And probably the biggest offense of all was that I’d just started to eat some ice cream which I’d waited to soften, and it was rapidly going from smooth to smoothie. I wasn’t nasty, but I wasn’t as cordial as I normally would be, and as I should have been.

We got an early start in the morning for our hundred-mile ride to Calvi, on the island of Corsica. As we left at five in the morning, we passed a megayacht that was anchored nearby. The crew was on deck, wiping dew off of the windows.

The winds were expected to be calm, and we began our day motoring. At mid-day, we could sail, and we probably would have made fine time without the engine at all. But the propeller blades wouldn’t fold, and even with the engine turned off, the engine shaft kept spinning. If we sailed with the engine off, Art worried that the spinning shaft wouldn’t be lubricated and might get damaged. He theorized that our time in the marina in Toulon was enough to produce growth in the propeller gears, and that was interfering with the folding action. He could check it the next time we were at anchor, which conveniently was at our next stop.

Thus we motor-sailed with the fewest of RPMs on the engine as we headed south to Corsica. At our halfway point, I spotted a whale, and we both watched as about a half dozen of them drifted northward not far from the boat. Seeing whales is joyous and frustrating. It never looks like that insurance commercial, the one with giant beasts flipping their bodies out of the water. First you see a spout somewhere along the horizon of the hemisphere on the side of the boat you happen to be watching. But you’re not sure, so you watch a little longer. Sometimes you’re right. Mostly you’re disappointed, and you have to start over.

When you’re right, and even when you’re wrong, you have to calculate where the whale might be next. This isn’t easy. You don’t know which direction it���s heading or how fast, and you have to adjust for your own speed. Sometimes you see a fin, and sometimes you’re lucky enough to see a rounded gray back for a fraction of a second. Then you wait until the whale or a nearby whale needs air. It’s probably a little like seeing a celebrity in the wild; you surprise yourself as to how much thankless energy you’d be willing to expend for even a momentary glimpse. It all takes place too fast for a photo, and usually too far as well. And with a whale, there are no autographs.

The island of Corsica knows how to make a grand entrance. It’s visible from a good distance at sea. At fifty miles, we could see a glimmer of it on the horizon; at thirty, the mountains are clearly outlined, and twenty miles away, it looks as if it’s nearby. The island also knows how to exit with a flourish, as I recall the striking, and receding image of Bonafacio from our departure last time around. When you’re close to Calvi, you’ve got a panorama of delights. The mountains that jut into the blue sky on one end, and the soaring citadel protecting the high part of the city on the other. In the middle, there’s a broad bay simply packed with moored boats, and behind that, against the quay, a marina. Sand-colored houses with terra-cotta roofs connect the lofty periphery together with umbrella-shaded cafés.

We arrived at Calvi after six in the evening, and decided to anchor in a bay nearby and leave the town-provided mooring for the next day. The anchorage was roomy for a summer Saturday, and a party boat blasted from a boom box until about 9:00 before taking their sunset revelers back to wherever they originated.

Hope you’re finding ways to stay cool. It’s hot here, too. We miss you all.

Love, Karen (and Art)