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Sunday, May 20, 2012, for a third Sunday in the boatyard in Provence

Hi all. Well, it took a while to get the boat ready to go, and by the time that it was, the weather decided to turn on us. So we’re still here in the boatyard at Port Napoleon, and the weather is getting less like spring the longer we stay here. Last week, of course, we were here as well.

Sunday was sacrificed to the mistral, with winds upwards of 30 mph and gusts that just seemed spiteful. We took a trip in our car to a large supermarket that advertised Sunday hours and found it shut tight. We detoured to another large store which was similarly deserted. Next, we noticed a shop in our own Port St. Louis du Rhône flanking the gas station. We��d avoided it for weeks, thinking that it was just a mini-mart, but it was actually a well-stocked market, with good prices on its own brands. This didn’t keep us from a visit to the hypermarket the next day, as the due date for our wheels was creeping up within days. From here on out, anything heavy we���d buy would have to be carried back to the boat, step by step.

We also used the opportunity to explore the Camargue, the wilderness delta of the Rhône River. Though it doesn���t have the untouched beauty of, for example, the Alps, which aren’t all that far away, or the rugged topology of Corsica to the south, the Camargue is at the very least evocative. Birds find it irresistible, including flamingoes, which are drawn to the salt marshes. The area is dotted with ranches called manades and the cowboys called gardians who breed a unique bull with wide horns and a sturdy-looking white horse that’s emblematic of the region. These animals might have ancient, even Paleolithic origins, or they might have been imported, the horses by Arab visitors and the bulls perhaps by Attila the Hun. There’s bullfighting in the area, but in this case, the goal isn’t to kill the animal as it is in the more controversial cultures. In this place that looks like all the medieval fairy tales you ever saw, they try to hook a ribbon that’s on the animal’s horns. That’s it. Nobody dies. I’m guessing that the bulls still don’t like that, but it’s probably preferable to ending up in the local delicacy gardianne de taureau.

The park is quite large and relatively unstructured, with much of the land in private hands. Our choice of venue was a nature center on the east side of a lake, where we availed ourselves of the mile-long circle of a nature walk. There were blinds alongside various stopping points for the birds, and the denouement overlooked a marsh where dozens of flamingoes rummaged through the salt.

Why is it that I can look at flamingoes all day? I think it’s because, like a camel, a flamingo is kind of a live-action cartoon. Its bill is designed to curve down for scooping food. It appears that its neck is longer than the rest of its body, which would probably make it disproportional even to a giraffe (just picture a giraffe teasing a flamingo about its long neck.). You never see a flamingo lie down; one theory is that they stand on one leg because a flamingo has an odd ability to let one half of its body sleep.

So we looked at the flamingoes for a while and then we headed back to the boat, knowing that we’d soon have to give up the car that made a lot of our touring possible. Being on a boat is a great way to travel, especially to old places, as a lot of civilization began near water. But you spend most of your time on the edges of the world, and it’s always a pleasure to dig deeper into the land once in a while.

And in the same way, we used the opportunity of our car-rental return to spend some time in Arles.

To me, Arles is sort of the Club Med of Provence. Many years ago, Club Med had an ad campaign with a narrator telling you about all the activities available to guests. You could play sports, swim, learn, and I don’t remember what else. You heard about all of these activities from the energized announcer. But the whole time you’re listening to all of this frenzy, you’re staring at the lovely back of an anonymous woman in a giant sun hat, facing the turquoise water, who is just sitting on the sand for an unspecified duration. You could do all of those wonderful things, or nothing at all. That’s Arles.

You could spend your time visiting the UNESCO-ranked Roman coliseum smack in the middle of town and explore the ancient Roman theater. There’s a Roman obelisk in the center of the main square and other Roman sites. A lovely medieval church is nearly overlooked in favor of so much glorious Roman infrastructure. In fact, if you’re a fan of antiquities, there’s a well-regarded museum to while away the day.

Maybe instead, you’re drawn to the delicate light that inspired Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Picasso. You could stroll along the streets and duck into galleries. Van Gogh painted hundreds of works in Arles, but none of them are viewable in town, unless you count the reproductions on the tee shirts of visitors. His house isn’t around anymore either. Even without much evidence of his history there, Van Gogh is a strong presence.

Festivals, concerts and entertainment abound. There are bullfights (of course, the Camargue type, where the bull is adorned with ribbons and can be a bigger celebrity than the matador.) You could spend the day browsing for tablecloths with olive designs in primary colors or earthenware in peculiar and appealing shapes.

Or you could just go the Club Med route. Sit at a café on a cozy public square, shaded by plane trees, look at the unheralded remnants of old buildings, and sip espresso while tour groups scurry from one itinerary stop to the next.

We’d visited Arles on a previous trip through Provence, so we chose to take a walk on a guidebook-recommended route to reacquaint us with the charms of the village. Hands down, of the places we’ve visited this season, Arles is the most Provencal. It seems more French, with its awning-shrouded cafés and the tables begging for occupants. It’s proud of its artistic tradition, with signs on buildings that tell you which artist lived out his years there (noticing another artist who got to Arles and never left to live somewhere else, I started to think of Arles as the Boca Raton of France.) I started to understand it. Once you’re in Arles, why go anywhere else?

The bus that took us back to Port St. Louis du Rhône was nearly empty. Unlike the course-plotting choices we’d make (or the GPS would make for us) in the car, the bus doesn’t take the direct route. It needs to stop in every town that’s anywhere near the straight line that connects Arles with the termination of the route in our town. Normally, I’d consider that a minus. But the trip back was relaxing, with white horses fenced in at every turn, and with tiny centers of civilization here and there. The bus driver takes you on all the back roads and he never gets lost. Who wouldn’t like that?

It’s hard not to take this personally, so I’ll just report it straight out. Marseille doesn’t want us to visit. At the end of 2011, our intention was to arrive at Port Napoleon in early October and then take another sail eastward to visit Marseille. The weather was right, so we gave them a call for a reservation. Even though it was beyond the season and a weekday, they told us that there would be no room for a very long time, because of a regatta or some other event. So this time we decided that Marseille, about 20 nautical miles away, would be our first stop.

The weather hadn’t been great. The mistral blew more days than not, and the morning temperatures were a little cooler than they should be. When the wind was blowing, the days never got really warm. But the boat was finally ready to go after so many delaying issues. We found one single day where the morning weather would let us leave, travel a short distance, and head into port.

We called our marina of choice in Marseille. They told us that they would not be able to accommodate us at all and gave us the number of a nearby port. The harbormaster there asked us to call back in the afternoon, when he’d know if the one boat that was taking the place we could dock was leaving. We called again at the designated time. His response: “Call tomorrow at nine in the morning.”

That wouldn’t work. The decent weather would end at mid-day. The weather window was only a matter of hours .We needed to leave early to get to Marseille before the wind kicked up again. If we couldn’t go to Marseille, we couldn’t go somewhere farther away, either. And the weather would be bad again for nearly another week.

We’d given up the car, so our touring radius was considerably smaller than it had been. Our daytime choices were to stay in the boatyard or walk to town. The walk wasn’t as bad as we feared; on a nice day, it was a half-hour stroll. But even walking to the main building of the marina during high winds, or, on Friday, pouring rain, wasn’t fun, and nobody entertained leaving the premises.

So Art busied himself with more boat tasks. He rewired the autopilots so that they’d be easy to switch if the one we were using failed. And then he went to work on our fresh-water leak. The leak was driving him crazy.

Fresh water can enter the bilge only two ways. Either it can drip out of the water system, or it could come from rainwater that finds it way inside. The leak originated somewhere in the forward part of the boat, because it flowed to the bilge from an obvious place forward of the main cabin. Art ruled out rain, because the leak was continuous, setting off the bilge pump, and it hadn’t rained for the two weeks we’d been onboard. He ruled out the pressure system, because the bilge pump went off to get rid of the leaking water, but the water pressure pump never went off when a tap wasn’t in use. It wasn’t salt water. Art tested the leaked water (by tasting the runoff under the floor, yuck) many times, and tested the water in the harbor many times (double yuck.) The leak was fresh water, and the harbor was very salty. Remember that King Louis IX financed his crusade to Jerusalem with salt from the area. Remember the flamingos, who like their water marguerita-style, not sweet.

He followed the lines that he could see and found nothing leaking. He did a test of each of the stainless water tanks by topping one off and closing it for a day or so. Neither showed the slightest sign of leaking. He tore apart cabinets and poked wires through openings. No leak was found. He began to think that we had a fresh-water spring onboard that made its own drinking water. Gosh, then we wouldn’t have to bother fixing the watermaker.

But at this point, he had no other boat projects to do, and we weren’t going anywhere soon. He tested his own assumptions about the source of the leak. Maybe the theory about the pressure side of the water wasn’t right. Maybe the water-pressure pump wasn’t losing enough water to turn on the pump before we energized it by turning on a tap. Finally, he checked one more time inside the clothes washer, and found a drip in a hose in the back. He tightened the hose clamp and the leak was gone. He did it.

Days passed, and we alternated between Josephine’s in the boatyard for lunch on days that had the most distracting winds and walking into the village when days were windy enough to keep us in port but not windy enough to keep us indoors. The mornings were surprisingly cool, and on the windiest days, I’d put on a down vest and wool cap just to walk to the shower block, dressed as if I intended to scale a nearby Alp. Of course, most others in the yard were in shorts or tee shirts, prepared for afternoon balminess, but they didn’t look as comfortable as I felt. These chilly circumstances didn’t normally last until noon, but somehow this didn’t seem like the lavender-scented Provence of guidebooks and my own recollections.

The weather forecast looks okay for a departure in mid-week, and Art predicts that Wednesday will also be the first day of uninterrupted summer weather. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Love, Karen (and Art)