The Collected Works of Victor & Hugo
Part One - Part Two
Like all great (mis-) adventures, this one began with an singular idea. The particular idea in question was first proposed on Duckworks by Brian Anderson in early September 2010. Brian's idea was to host a messabout on the Loire River in France in September 2011. His thinking was that people would come to France, build simple canoes and then spend a week paddling down the river from Blois to various points unknown.
My initial reaction was two-fold. First, I thought: "What a cool idea!" which was immediately followed by: "There is no way in H-E-double hockey sticks that I could ever do that!"
But the idea had caught hold in my consciousness. My wife and I had recently returned from our first trip to Paris a few months before. So I knew how to get to Paris. I knew how to catch a train. I knew how to build a boat. The price was right. The timing was, let's say, "doable". And so the burning question remained: "How could I possibly NOT go on this trip?"
I floated the idea past my lovely spouse. "What you think about another trip to France?" I said. Her ears perked up attentively. I described Brian's idea for the trip. "Oh no. Not me," she said shaking her head vigorously, "That trip is ALL YOU!" Leave granted, I began preparations to make the impossible, possible.
It was soon clear that I was not alone in my quest for France. A Yahoo discussion forum sprang up to discuss preparations. Wooden boat designer Michael "Mik" Storer also set up a website to assemble collected wisdom and guidance needed for such a trip. Before very long, a dozen or so adventurous souls were actively discussing options. My early preparations consisted largely of adding a nice dry bag and a new water-proof camera to my holiday wish list.
Over the next several months, interest in the trip would wax and wane amongst the random collection of would-be adventurers who would regularly sign up or drop out as our "normal" lives played hacky-sack with our various dreams and plans. Before the calendar flipped to 2011, even instigator Brian Anderson was agonizing over whether the trip was really a reasonable proposition.
But with a new year, came new hope and as the 2011 sputtered to life, it was clear that a core group was still committed to the adventure. With three to four months to go, it was time to put up or shut up for the most far-flung travelers as airfares fell into their most advantageous pricing periods. I anxiously tracked flight pricing each week until my lovely spouse once again stepped into the fray and said: "Will you just buy the damned ticket already?" I pushed the button. Leave papers printed. I had my orders. And so, with plane ticket purchased, my course was set. Now it was simply a matter of getting myself there and seeing who else was similarly crazy enough to show up for this odd adventure.
The trip officially began for me the afternoon of Saturday, September 10, 2011. As I boarded the plane in Charleston, SC bound for Paris, France, I was aware that a cast of characters had already begun to assemble in France ahead of me.
Our "in-country" host was to be Brian Anderson who had first proposed the trip on Duckworks. Brian, I would soon learn, was an American expat, originally from Ohio, who was now living in the France with Valerie, his beautiful (and very tolerant) French spouse and two lovely daughters, Rachel and Maia. In addition to being a fully-occupied stay-at-home dad, Brian was also skilled as a blue-water sailor, French-English translator, wood worker and a published author. (See: Small Boats on Green Waters: A Treasury of Good Reading on Coastal and Inland Cruising.)
Next in our cast of characters was Michael "Mik" Storer, a wooden boat designer hailing from Australia but who has seemingly discovered a magic formula for travelling the world on a shoe-string while continuing to manage his business ventures via the internet. I had first met Mik at the Puddle Duck World Championships in Allatoona, GA in 2009 and judged him to not only be a knowledgeable and skilled designer but perhaps more importantly, a genuinely companionable bloke.
Paul Herbert and his wife Sharon had similarly arrived a few days earlier from West Virginia. I had also previously met Paul when we sailed together at the 2009 Puddle Duck Worlds and I knew him to be a prolific boat builder, skilled canoeist and likable fellow. I was looking forward to meeting his spouse, Sharon, who would be the only woman (crazy enough?) to join us on the paddling portion of the trip.
I arrived in Paris on Sunday, September 11, 2011-the 10 year anniversary of the September 11 attacks and an oddly strange day to be travelling by plane. Transferring to France's extremely efficient rail system, I soon arrived in Montrichaud where I spotted the "three wise men" (Anderson, Storer & Herbert) huddled in their rain slickers on a depot bench, patiently waiting for me to arrive. I had successfully reported for duty.
Brian took us all back to his home where we were soon gathered around his dining room table for a delicious meal of hearty soup, French cheeses and a seemingly endless supply of crusty baguettes. With impeccable timing, our next illustrious explorer, Albert Marshall, a former Brit now residing in Brittany, arrived with a Bolger Pointy Skiff in tow just as we were sitting down for lunch
The final member of our group, Peter Lord, an Aussie ex-pat and retired veterinarian, would not arrive until the following day, having driven across Europe from his current home in Sweden with a newly completed skin-on-frame kayak on his roof-rack.
The "plan" was to spend our first week building boats and our second week paddling down the River Loire. The boat which we had settled on building was Mik Storer's Quick Canoe 155 design. (Plans can be found on Duckworks!) Since only Mik and I, and Paul and Sharon needed boats, two was determined to be the number of hulls we would need. Brian Anderson would be sailing & rowing his "Osprey", a 14' flat-bottomed daysailer of his own design, Albert would row his Bolger Pointy Skiff and Peter would paddle his skin-on-frame kayak.
A day before my arrival, the others had visited a true lumber yard, from which they acquired some beautiful 10'x5' sheets of Gaboon plywood. For dimensional lumber, they went right to "the source", essentially buying fresh sawn planks of real trees! Mik and Paul had spent much of the previous day sawing and planing this raw lumber down to the dimensions that we would need for our build.
For five people who had never worked together before, things went remarkably smoothly. With all of us having at least some degree of prior boat building experience, we were able to communicate primarily by way of grunts and nods with an occasional shove or shout thrown in just to keep things interesting. By the end of first day, we had all the panels for cut out for two hulls.
Departing from the workshop that evening, I got my first look at our accommodations for the first week. On Brian's excellent recommendation, the group had rented a holiday rental known in France as a "gite". Our gite was an old lock-keeper's house on the River Cher. True to its description, the house was located mere steps from the leisurely flowing Cher next to a long defunct dam and neighboring lock. For a mere 310 Euros per week, we had beds for six with full kitchen, laundry, etc. The fact that staying in an "old lock-keeper's house" had my head spinning with plot lines from numerous Scooby-Doo mysteries, I can only attribute to the fact that I had been awake for about 30+ hours.
Over that first week, we fell into a rather regular routine. Wake with the sun, enjoy a light breakfast of café and croissant, often fetched from the local boulangerie (bakery) during my morning jog, then swing through the local grocery and/or hardware store for supplies and then back to Brian's house to commence building. At mid-day, we would break for lunch which consisted of meals home-cooked by Brian and his mother Beth. Culinary highlights included home-made pumpkin soup and a delicious rabbit/plum stew all of which were accompanied by generous portions of French cheese and crunchy baguettes. Mik began estimating our group's bread consumption in terms of meters, i. e. 4-5 meters of bread per day!
By day two (Monday), the hulls went 3-D, having been "stitched" together with copious amounts of duct tape and then filleted and glassed with 2" tape on the interior. Day three (Tuesday) had us glassing the exteriors and assembling seats. By day four (Wednesday), the hulls were essentially complete but as always, the devil is in the details. Outer and inner gunnels, paddles and then sealing the hulls outside and in with epoxy would consume Thursday and most of Friday. For the outer coating, we mixed graphite powder (from Duckworks) into the mix to give our hulls a menacing black countenance. Somewhere along the line, we decided that the twin hulls would be named "Victor" and "Hugo" which seemed to please our newly acquired French sensibilities.
By Friday afternoon, our biggest challenge was getting the final coats of epoxy to harden in the cool, cloudy weather. While our black hulls absorbed the sparse and infrequent sunbeams, we decided that a road-trip was in order. After five days of seeing little more of France than the gite, French grocery stores and Brian's garage, we were finally going to see our first French chateau!