Old Tricks, New Dogs
OK, I said I'd never go to sea with a Frenchman again after I spent five miserable weeks in the Southern Ocean with a grouchy French skipper who lived up to every negative stereotype, and then some. Then Bruno Troublé popped up with an invitation too appealing to resist. Anyway, I rationalized that Bruno is a Frenchman only by accident of birth. "He is a citizen of the world," his longtime friend, Christian Fournier, assured me.
So off we went down the chilly Chesapeake for a nearly 1,000-mile run from Annapolis to the Bahamas on Troublé's spectacular, custom-made, 57-foot sloop, Wanaka. (See "Generation Next," November 2003.) Wanaka sports a towering carbon-fiber rig, twin rudders, Kevlar sails, water ballast, and a lifting keel, whereas we are merely mortal flesh and blood, and five-sixths of that French.
Our crew was Fournier, a Parisian; Herve d'Hauthuille and his wife, Mailys, from Marseille; Troublé; Baptiste Roynette, our youthful nipper, brought along to scamper up the rig and dive under the hull as needed, which both proved to be; and me.
"Do you speak French?" each of the crew asked me when we convened at Sarles Boatyard and Marina, in Eastport, Maryland, to stow gear on a cool, clear, breezeless morning.
"Ah, mais oui, pourquoi pas?" I blurted enthusiastically, exhausting my vocabulary in one quick thrust.
In truth, the language barrier proved only a minor nuisance over the next six days. Sailboats are sailboats the world round, and the same strings move the same things no matter what you call them. One misunderstanding early on gave us a good laugh.
Bruno was up on the bow helping roll in the big genoa so we could switch to a staysail as the breeze built off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. I was in the cockpit trying to keep up with his orders by pressing buttons on the powerful electric winches. Things weren't going perfectly, to be honest, but I thought we had it in hand when new, excited shouts drifted back, an urgent expletive rising above the din, repeated over and over.
"Fock! Fock! Fock!" shouted Troublé. Something wasn't right, but what?
Well, it turns out he was shouting "Foc!" not "Fock!," the former being the French word for jib, which apparently has its origins in the Dutch language. Still, I've been around sailboats long enough to know that when the skipper's on the pointy end yelling "Foc!" over and over, you probably should do something no matter how you spell it, and somehow I managed to hit the right button. After that, I tried to shut out all jumbled oratory when things got testy, as they did from time to time.
For those who don't know, Troublé is a French sailing icon, an ex-Olympian in the Soling class, and a three-time skipper in the America's Cup. He started out in Newport, Rhode Island, with Baron Bich in 1977. Since 1983, his last Cup at the wheel, he's organized the Louis Vuitton Cup for challengers and is revered among newshounds like me for helping us understand what's happening on the water, then inviting us to elegant parties where we drink wine, eat gourmet food, and smoke cigars we could never afford ourselves.
But as well as I've come to know and appreciate Troublé over eight America's Cups in Newport; Fremantle, Australia; San Diego; Auckland, New Zealand; and Valencia, Spain, sailors will agree that you never really know someone until you've been to sea together. So the question lingered: What kind of skipper would he be?
His test came after we shot across the Gulf Stream in up to 28 knots of southerly breeze, charging through the big cobalt chop at nine, 10, and 11 knots under staysail and twice-reefed main. On the eastern side of the Gulf Stream, Wanaka fell into that huge, airless hole called the Bermuda High, and we fired up the engine. "Sailing or motoring," Bruno had promised before leaving Annapolis, "we will make about 220 miles a day. We should be there four days after leaving Norfolk, Virginia."
True to the skipper's promise, Wanaka clipped along at eight and nine knots under power, but a curious rumbling kept cropping up below. "It must be seaweed," said d'Hauthuille, a veteran ocean sailor who did a round-trip transatlantic with Mailys and their year-old baby in a 33-footer many years ago. He cranked the engine into reverse, backed down, and a cloud of gulfweed bubbled up.
Half an hour later, the rumbling returned, and the same fix was applied. This process worked four times in all, but on the fifth try, when d'Hauthuille popped the lever in reverse, ominously, nothing happened. The skipper came bounding up from the galley, where he was fixing another simple, delectable meal. He fiddled with levers, ran back below and checked the engine, then came back up and fiddled some more.