Wednesday, 17 October 2007

La Rochelle

Last weekend I went on a sailing regatta with some people from work. It was 5 races over 3 days, with one race being 44 miles around an island just off the coast, at night. The sailing race was held in La Rochelle which is a town on the west coast of France, on the Atlantic ocean. La Rochelle is famous because in 1628 it was put under siege by Cardinal Richelieu and 23 000 people starved to death. The siege was because La Rochelle was at the time a Calvinist city in Catholic France and the Cardinal didn't like this. He also had a wooden dam built across the harbour so that the English couldn't sail in at night and supply the town with food. The harbour is pretty big so it must have been a big dam back then. Now there is a tower, the Richelieu tower, which marks the spot in the harbour where the dam was. The old town of La Rochelle is quite pretty, with two massive towers on either side of the entrance, not that I had time to explore as there was too much sailing to be done.

This picture is of La Rochelle harbour taken from the boat.

This picture is our boat, it was a good sized boat, very comfortable.

The sailing was really awesome, and the racing especially so. I've never raced before, but I'm pretty keen to perhaps do a course and get into some beginner's races back in Australia. We were in a pretty big boat, 36 foot, sleeping 8, and there were 8 people on board, me and 7 frenchies. It was a bit of a strange weekend, but certainly an insight into French culture. One of the nights was a sort of party, where the organising committee provides a whole stack of oysters and we bring along food and wine and spend the night drinking, shucking oysters, and singing. Yes that's right, there was a night of singing.

I knew that each team would have to perform a song at this party, which I thought was a bit different, but ok, they are French after all. So each team performs their song, and then the rest of the night people would keep breaking out into song and then everyone would join in. I think one of most surreal moments here is going to be singing My Bonnie (in english), with 10 other French people, to a room full of about 60 other frenchies. They also got the words wrong to the song, it's "My bonnie LIES over the ocean" and they had "My bonnie IS over the ocean" and the other line is meant to be "Last night as I LAY on my pillow" but they were singing "Last night as I LAID on my pillow", all in all it was pretty funny.

The sunset on the night of the oysters.

The main difference I found between the French and the Aussies (apart from the obvious one where everyone is singing) is that there were really different generations there, and yet they all knew the same songs. Sure people sing in Australia but I don't think we have these folk songs that everyone knows the words to, apart from Waltzing Matilda of course. So I think that if you had different generations together they really wouldn't know each other's songs like the French seem to. Sometimes you felt a bit out of place, I was the only non-french person there and a lot of their songs had death to the english lines in them, so it felt very strange to be singing along with those. The French really got into those lines too, they loved bagging out the english.

It was a strange weekend because of course they all spoke in French to each other all the time, so I really had no idea what was going on. There would be discussions over breakfast and they would come to some decision, but no-one would tell me that a plan had even been made or that they were off somewhere, or when the days races where on. So people would be all ready to go and I'd be like "are we going somewhere?" or "are we sailing now?". Because of my lack of French I also wasn't allowed to help out with the sailing, I can kind of understand that. The one thing I always remember about sailing is that it involves a lot of shouting and everything needed to be done a minute ago, and it's worse during races, so I suppose they didn't want the translation time-lag. So the first 2 days I just tried to stay out of everyone's way, but I did enjoy being on the boat.

It took a bit of getting used to this boat, as it was a monohull and I've only ever been on catamerans. When I have sailed before we have always kept the catarmaran flat in the water, but these monohulls are designed to REALLY tip over, I'm talking what felt like a 45 degree angle, where we are all sitting on the one side with our legs out to balance it. So the first day on the boat all I can see is that the boat looks like it is about to capsize and everyone is yelling in French, so I get a bit worried, thinking that everyone else was shouting as they also thought the boat was about to capsize. It turns out that these boats are really hard to capsize and that no-one was worried about that at all, it was just general sailing shouting. So once I found that out I certainly relaxed a bit more and could enjoy the boating.

There was a fuel station at the habour, which makes sense, but I had never seen one before. It's exactly like a petrol station just for your boat, you pull in, fill up and leave.

For the last 2 days one of the other people had left so I got to do the mainsail, even during a race, which was awesome fun. In fact the last race we did (where I had the mainsail) was perhaps the best race out of all of them. It was in really thick fog, with maybe 100m visibility, so boats would keep appearing out of the mist. Because of the low visibility they had to make the start line really short. The way sailing races work is that the start line is only set about 10 minutes before the race begins, and it is set so that it is perpendicular to the wind. But the wind then changes direction slightly so that when the race actually begins there is sometimes one side of the line which is much better than the other. This means that all the boats, in our case 7, want to be in the same spot at the same time. So the boats are all constantly tacking and circling behind the start line, trying to time their run so that they cross the start line just as the gun goes. If you cross too early you have to go back around the buoy before you can start. So there is a lot of shouting and barging between the boats, and as the start line was quite small there was a lot more movement than in the earlier races. That was certainly exciting, I'm just glad I didn't have to do the route planning but just pull the rope whenever they changed direction. We actually came third in that race too.

The night race was pretty exciting too, though I was "encouraged" to spend the night portion down below in the cabin. I guess I would have got in the way a bit, especially in the dark, trying to change sides of the boat everytime they tacked. But I could hear all the commotion going on up above. The end was particularly exciting, it started at 5pm and we didn't finish until about 1:30am. The race finished back in the harbour, basically where we keep the boats during the night, but by the time we finished the tide had gone out. The boats have a big draught, 2.2m of water they need, and by that stage there was only about 1.7m, so the boat kept getting stuck in the mud and they were constantly tacking to avoid sandbanks. I'm pretty keen to get good enough so that I can have another go at a night race, so long as I don't have to do the navigation :).

This boat is one we had just passed during the day portion of the night race and also a shot of two boats we were leading with their spinaker's up.

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