Exactly ten years ago…..
We knew a storm was in the offing. We were living aboard ‘Bolero’ a Moody 376 sailing yacht, in the marina at Les Sables d’Olonne on the west coast of France
But our minds were full of two other things as we approached the “New Millenium”.
One was the much advertised ‘Millenium Bug’ which was possibly going to return all clocks to zero, and render unusable all the navigation instruments on which we had come to rely…… The other was the ‘Mare Noire’ (Black sea). A few days earlier, the oil tanker ‘Erika’ had sunk of the west coast of France, spewing oil into the sea and onto the coastline. We had volunteered for duty searching the rocky shore for oil-damaged birds, equipped with huge gauntlets and cardboard animal carriers, and our trusty Brompton bikes.
Now, as the wind began to strengthen, as a precaution, we doubled up all the shorelines on the boat. The wind was getting up and there was an air of worried anticipation everywhere.
We took a walk to the end of the pier…or as far as we could get …..mountainous seas were breaking over the famous wall, from alongside which the sailors in the Vendee Globe Solo Circumnavigation Races, leave and return.
The impending storm took over as the prime the topic of conversation…. but our coffee break in a favourite bar was spoiled by an electricity cut….. We returned to the boat for an early meal…. ‘In case it gets too difficult to cook later on’
At seven pm, as we were finishing the washing up, there was a crash and the boat heeled hard to port.
Donning wet gear, we dashed on deck to find that we, and several hundred other boats were being flattened by the strongest wind that we had ever experiended, either at sea or in port. The port rails were in danger of being trapped under the pontoon… the likely consequence being holing the hull and then sinking.
For two hours, I was on the deck and Dave on the pontoon, both trying to get fenders in place to protect the hull. My shouts of ‘Mind your hands’…. became … ‘mind your arms’… then ‘mind your legs’ … as the wind and waves got bigger and stronger.
Then at nine pm, came another even louder crack. Looking up, I saw that all the boats on the opposite side of the pontoon (none of them occupied) were drifting away towards to sea, along with their sturdy pontoons.
Dashing below, I called the ‘Capitanerie’ on the radio, to report this latest calamity. (It had not ocurred to us to call for help for ourselves and our own boat)
Within minutes the heaving pontoon was swarming with strong young men. They tried in vain to rescue the drifting boats and gave up, and turned their attention to us and our predicament. What a relief!
Extra long lines and chains were brought to secure our boat and the pontoon to the shore. But then as bits of masts and radars started flying around, M. Jean Archambaud, the Port Captain, declared the marina a ‘No Go Area’ and we were taken ashore by strong hands, leaving our beloved home to the mercy of the storm.
Only two boats were occupied that night… the couple on the other one quickly left to stay with friends and we were offered a bed aboard the lifeboat alongside the sea wall. We politely refused as we thought it likely that it might be called out… but we were given bedding from it and put into ‘the clubhouse’ for safety. (Indeed, there was a ‘shout’ at midnight and the lifeboat was out all night)
Our refuge was a glass walled octagonal building. We spent eight cold wet terrifying hours in it, watching chimneys, trees, TV aerials etc etc, flying by…. then at daybreak, with the wind now down to just a gale force eight…. we dared to creep outside and go to see how ‘Bolero’ had fared.
Amazingly, she was afloat, with only one broken stanchion to show for her night of horror. We had really feared to worst, and had expected to see mooring lines leading down to her watery grave!
Elsewhere was total devastation
Dozens of large yachts and their accompanying pontoons had been washed away… mostly landing in untidy heaps on the other side of the marina, where the Vendee Globe yachts line up so proudly every four years before their circumnavigations.
Most of the boats lined up on the hardstanding were flattened, telephone lines were all down. Trees were uprooted. Chimneys and roofs were gone. Boats were sunk. Cars were overturned.
Once the storm had abated, we became aware of just how fortunate we had been. The strongest wind of the storm had been recorded just south of us at Oleron. At nearby La Rochelle, pontoons and boats were washed ashore where they demolished the marina headquarters, with great loss of life.
In the aftermath, we were the fortunate ones. On land, there were no telephones, electricity or water supplies for days… but we were self sufficient. We had solar power, a wind generator, a diesel generator, full water tanks and a boat full of food. And a mobile phone charged from an inverter.
We were happy to try to repay our saviours from the storm, as they endeavoured to sort out their broken marina, by providing cups of coffee and snacks all day.
By December 28th, the folk were getting their acts together, fallen trees were sawn up and roads were cleared. People were on the move again. We had many visits from local people, offering accommodation, washing facilities, drying rooms, meals, etc etc.
The best invite of all was from former neighbours in the marina the previous summer…. they asked us to join them for their fabulous millenium meal…. Twenty people at table for a feast that lasted 48 hours!
Ten years on… and it all seems like yesterday!