July 2003 Tour de France and Water Jousting
 
We left Cap d'Agde on the evening of July 3 for an overnight sail to Marseille. The winds were from the northwest and we were headed east, so it was a broad reach. The wind was building, and the French Meteo office was broadcasting warnings for force 6-7 (22-33 knots). We reefed the main and set the staysail instead of the genoa. The wind kept building, and the France Meteo office started predicting gusts of force 8 (34-40 knots, a "Fresh Gale"), so we took a second reef and furled the staysail, still making 7-8 knots in 6-12 ft seas, but now making the autopilot's job easier. It was boisterous but comfortable enough, even when the gusts hit 35 knots. When it finally got dark (it's light until about 10:30 at that time of year) we had a gorgeous starry night with the Milky Way bright and clear above, little traffic, and a coastline some 15-20 miles away. We realized we were now witnessing the weather that the Gulf de Lions is notorious for: the northwest wind called the Mistral.

We got to the Iles du Frioul, just off of Marseille, mid-morning on the 4th, and anchored in a small but deep bay on the "protected" SW side of the island. The wind still whistled through in gusts hitting 23. We got the anchor set after 2 tries, in about 20' of water, and decided we needed a midafternoon nap. We fell sound asleep, only to awaken about an hour later, bumping the boat behind us. Then followed some 3 hours of setting and re-setting the anchor, still in gusty winds and trying to avoid all the other boats and the rocks on the sides of the bay. Finally, we moved out toward the mouth of the anchorage and set both our anchors in 25' of water (meaning we needed about 125' of chain and line on each anchor, which just about exhausted our supply of anchor line). The anchors finally held, but what with all the maneuvering, laying down and hauling up anchors under all the disapproving French stares, our Fourth of July was definitely not a picnic!

The Iles du Frioul are a stone's throw, or a 10 minute ferry ride, from the Chateau d'If, the (in)famous prison of Count of Monte Cristo fame. We ferried past the island and its steep-sided fortress prison, but decided not to take the full tour of the place. We did learn though that the French tourist industry has succumbed to temptation, and have actually designated a certain room as the cell of the Count of Monte Cristo. It's complete with a tunnel through to the supposed Abbe's cell. The French are usually so rational, it's fascinating to see them mix fact and fiction for the sake of tourism income.

As we lazed along the south France coast, we went to smaller towns rather than the big name cities, and had a lovely time. In one place, a French boat came by to say "It's nice to see an American boat here!" Different from the France many tourists experience!

Because the Tour de France was on, we decided to go to Lyon to watch the finish of one stage and the start of the next. In part we went so that we could also experience France's famous high speed (TGV) trains. We left the boat in the marina at La Ciotat, east of Marseille, and went to Lyon. The TGV is great! Why can't the US do this? The train is as comfortable as first class on an airplane, and you don't realize how fast you're going (100 mph) as you watch the countryside in the distance; then you notice the telephone poles up close, or the cars on the roads you're passing and go "whoa!" Very enjoyable. We got to Lyon (the French spelling doesn't have an "s" at the end) just before noon, found a fleabag hotel for $30 right near a metro in the center of town, ate a picnic lunch, and headed for the Tour de France finish line at about 2:30-3:00 pm, with the finish expected around 5 pm.

The crowds were surprisingly thin. We somehow wandered through a forest of huge press vans to find ourselves opposite the finish line grandstand, between the broadcast van and the stage where they present the awards, about 20 yards beyond the finish line. Clearly, it was supposed to be a restricted area. Just as clearly, they weren't strictly enforcing it. So there we stood, watching the huge screen TV that provided live coverage, listening to the French announcer, and being entertained by the various sponsors, including Coeur de Lion, who were giving away mini-cheeses (also a stuffed lion to the winner -- you might have noticed Lance clutching one); Aquerelle, who were giving away water, Credit Lyonnais, sponsor of the yellow jersey (maillot jaune), who were giving out yellow baseball caps (we scored two). Despite the heat and the fact we were standing all the time, it wasn't boring. Especially since that was the stage of the race in which 2 guys did a breakaway and led for nearly 200 kms. When we began watching, they had an 18 minute lead, but the peleton continued to catch them, so we watched and listened to their lead diminish as the race approached Lyon -- to 14 minutes, 11, 9, etc. They still had about 11 second lead as they hit the final 2.5 km straight stretch to the finish, but it was not to be. The peleton caught the leaders with only about 200 meters left to the finish, and the whole mass of riders finished in a whirring blur right before our eyes. Quite a sight.

We learned that individual finishers, like the winners, are given their actual times, but all the riders in the peleton get the same finish time. The winner of the maillot jaune was Peña, the Columbian guy from USPostal, and it was his birthday, so he was a happy camper.

We retuned to the old city, did some sightseeing and had a great meal, retired to our room, tried to sleep in the heat and unaccustomed noise of the city. We were only partially successful, so got a later start than planned in the morning, and so were unable to enter the "start village" at the huge square in the center of Lyon, just 4 blocks from our hotel. If you're willing to show up real early, they simply let you into the village! We still got pretty good views of the start, and of some of the pre-start entertainment, which included a trick cyclist who hopped his bike from wall to wall to the tops of the metal restraining barriers! Wow! Also amazing was the sight of the huge bus/vans of each team, and the other support vehicles: at least three cars per team, each with 8 cycles on rooftop racks. The air shimmered silver above all their rooftops. Every cyclist actually signs in before each stage of the race! Team by team, they are called onto a small stage where each is introduced and each signs a big book. The last one to sign was at about 10 minutes before the start -- quite a startling way to try to get mentally geared up for the race. Then we learned that this was the "formal" start, and that the real start was about 4 km. down the road. We don't know whether they regrouped there, or were timed as they got there. Shortly after they were gone, we were back on the TGV, returning to Marseille.

Every day thereafter that we were in a town, we bought "L'Equipe" ("the team"), France's daily sports newspaper, to follow the action. There was assuredly a French bias to the reporting, but also a kind of grudging admiration for Lance Armstrong. When his lead was slim, article after article (over 4 pages of coverage) speculated on which rider had the potential to catch him, tinged with hopefulness. It's clear they either don't like Lance, or resent the fact he's American, or both. Lance speaks excellent French, and gives all his interviews in French, so that can't be it. There was a certain gloating air the morning that Ullrich narrowed the gap to 15 seconds. Then Lance did his devastating run on the last Pyrenees climb, and they jumped back onto his bandwagon. He's "le patron," "le chef," and "fou" -- crazy fast!

We were in a cafe several days after our trip to Lyon, to see the finish of the final individual time trials, where Lance finalized his victory and that was exciting. Several people, some French, some Danes, congratulated us! Nice. It's a strange sport, isn't it, where it's a team sport, but the team is there to support an individual. And there are all of these courtesies, such as not taking advantage of another guy's misfortune when he falls. Anyway, Lance's 5th consecutive victory brought tears to our eyes.

Well, after the excitement of the big city of Lyon and the Tour de France, we sailed to a couple of small towns -- Sanary sur Mer, then St. Mandrier, which is on a peninsula across the large bay from Toulon, home base in the Med. to the French Navy. We figured it would be a good place to watch fireworks for July 14th (Bastille Day), and we were right. Not only that, St. Mandrier was hosting a Provence water-jousting tournament, which we wanted to see.

Water jousting is a popular inter-village sport on the French Mediterranean coast. There's a whole circuit, with a joust each weekend. At each event there are two jousting boats, one red and one blue, about 20 feet long and pretty narrow, with cantilevered structures sticking off their sterns -- say, another 20 feet; you see them in every little harbor. In Provence, the boats are motorized, not rowed. (There are 5 versions of jousting in France, some motorized, some not.) At the end of the cantilevered structure, there's a small platform (2 feet square?) where the jouster stands. He (or she) is equipped with a large padded chest-protector, something like a baseball home-plate umpire's protector, made of wood, with a notch cut out of the upper right-hand corner. That's where the lance, a pole about 15 feet long, rests. The two boats approach each other at about 5 knots, and as they get near, the two "jouteurs" raise their lances in salute and then level them at each other. Just before the moment of impact, they both lean forward, thrusting their lances into the other's chest protectors. Oh, they also hold little box-like "shields" (about 6 inches square) in their free hands, but those are just to keep them from grabbing the other guy's lance. Of course, the loser is tumbled into the water. Great fun!

Each town has a team of some 30 jousters, divided by age but not size. In competitions, they wear an update of the traditional uniform, with t-shirts with sponsors' logos replacing whatever shirt they used to wear, and different towns having different colors. All wore long (at least below the knee) pants and a special sash, and some wore a red beret. They say that, if you don't wear the beret, you get points deducted because, "it's tradition."

Most jousts we watched ended with one person in the water pretty quickly. However, as the tournament progressed -- there were about 10 teams -- more technique became evident, and sometimes both jousters maintained their positions, with lances engaged and bending before glancing off each other, so they had a second and even third pass before one landed in the water, or stepped off of the platform. It was quite colorful and enjoyable to watch. Naturally, all the kids in attendance, when not watching, were shoving one another into the water. And what parent could chastise them? What would they say, don't be so childish? Grow up? Don't you know it's dangerous to knock people into the water?

So that's our experience of two sports in France. We haven't gotten into watching petanque (sometimes called boules or bocci) but it is surely popular around the Med. In fact, La Ciotat claims to be the birthplace of the sport. Also, La Ciotat was the home of a couple of brothers whose last name was Lumiere, who were the first to show a motion picture and charge admission for it. Have you ever seen that movie of a train coming into a train station? It apparently scared the hell out of the first viewers, who thought it was coming right at them! Well, it was from the same train station in La Ciotat from which we departed to Lyon. Cool!