Ruette Tranquille…the art of losing yourself and finding your feet

Back on mainland UK, and our sealegs have still got us wobbling around the too thin streets and laneways like drunken sailors; holding onto the walls in the too thin corridors and uneven floors of my sister’s Wibbly Wobbly House – a 300 year old sailors’ rest that resembles a classic ol’ English caricature of a quirky quayside cottage. Uncle Pete thinks someone should strap down the land to stop it from rocking; I think someone should tell the English how to widen and flatten their thoroughfares.
But neither of these solutions would actually touch on the real issue of how you go from A to B in England in minimum time, without getting lost. Is it possible? This morning we just went looking for the post office on the high street before breakfast, and it still took us four times longer than we thought and we ended up having to have breakfast out.
But that’s got nothing on our second night in Guernsey. It was with supreme overconfidence and stupidity that I assumed Caro and I could find our way from Point A – Beaucette Marina, to Point B – our B&B…a distance (as the crow flies) of about 1 mile. It wasn’t that late, there was a map in a rental car and we assured the others as we left the restaurant early, that we’d be fine, we both just needed to get home to sleep…
Fancy imagining that we could follow a map with no street names, around twisting laneways with no street names, on an island that is totally covered with houses and laneways where the only signs that are occasionally apparent, read ‘Ruette Tranquille’. It seems that the Guernsians are actually leprechauns who steal street signs, hide behind hedges and laugh at lost tourists; and that Ruette Tranquille is simply and exactly as translated…quiet street!
Had we not been so jet-lagged and exhausted, we may not have ended up after half an hour at another strange, silent, suburban dead-end, wondering when the axe murderer was going to land on the roof. Having high-tailed it backwards out of there, we found ourselves pulled up alongside another endless bloody hedge, in another endless bloody Ruette Tranquille, laughing helplessly till we cried after another half hour of passing the same landmarks countless times! It was like being in a white-out on a snow bound mountain and completely loosing your sense of direction. The whole island is a maze of laneways and houses with only five major roads that are safe to follow. And for Australians who are used to wide roads in even wider spaces, the near panic of claustrophobia was closing in.
In such circumstances, it is bizarre what becomes of comfort… the ugliest landmark on the island, the electricity plant at St Sampsons, with its tall black chimney billowing clouds of grey smoke, finally appeared and we found our way home. It became our trusted landmark for the next four nights and days. We also learned to stay inside at night; and during the day, to appoint a navigator who called out how many Ruette Tranquilles we needed to count before making the next turn.
Thus a few days later, we found our way to a magic little picnic spot at Petit Bot, a secret little bay down a winding green trail, with an old mill, and steep dark cliffs looming over the ocean leading to France. Once the local leprechauns had let up their play, Guernsey’s hidden faerylands slowly revealed themselves…but it took teamwork! And we even found the high street of the main city of St Peter’s Port on the last day, despite the best efforts of the leprechauns and island geography to keep it hidden.
In contrast, I found my feet easily along the cobbled laneways of the little isle of Alderney. While the other’s found an old English pub for lunch, I wandered into quirky little shops on and off the high street, did my family pressie shopping and had fun connections with friendly locals. Didn’t get lost once…though I think the others lost me for a while. Even found a crazy little hardware with watercolour paints and brushes. Alderney is what we’d imagined Guernsey to be, and though we only stayed a short while, it was a lovely place to leave the Channel Islands from, with our sense of place (and direction) restored.
On the other side of the English Channel (which is really just another over-sized, wobbly laneway), the leprechauns were on our side and on Isle of Wight, we followed a dripping, emerald laneway in the rain, down a steep, overgrown coastal hillside, into a tiny glen with a hot glass studio by a beach, at the end. Unplanned and unexpected, the stopover at Isle of Wight Glass Studio turned any theory I may be developing of wonky English laneways leading to nowhere on its head! Our wonky old hire car adventure around the south and west coast of this lovely isle was everything the night time journey on Guernsey was not. If I wanted a taste of home, hanging around the furnace on a wild wet rainy day, in the totally familiar environment with friendly, warm and inspiring glassblowers, I could not have asked for more. And to restore my faith completely, there were so many well placed signs along the afternoon’s drive, we barely even needed a map!
But it makes you think about expectations. My sister Fran reckons we did need a map on Isle of Wight to get the lay of the land at least and know what direction to head out in. And I think she might be right…following our noses down the Ruette Tranquille can lead us down hidden laneways to beachside picnics and gleaming glass treasures, but if we rush out headlong into a maze of preconcieved ideas without so much as a sign to guide us, that very same quiet street can quickly become a wibbly wobbly road to trip us up…

Round in circles on a sea of stories

We’re flying along on a 10 knot breeze across the Channel. The ‘Betty Alan’ is in her element and so are my three trusty crewmates – all passionate sailors. I’m in storyteller’s heaven, adventuring somewhere out there in the world of my plays and short stories, one minute with Captain Baudin and his ‘Geographe’; next I’m dreaming on the wrecks of the ‘Lovespring’ and ‘Katinka’ in my beloved south west WA’s Hamelin Bay; then transforming my imaginings to the Dollmaker and her children swimming the ocean currents of the Sponge Dolls (yes I will post that short story soon). We’re all as happy as gannets and ahead of schedule to fly past the Needles and into the Solent of the Isle of Wight in 4-5 hours, a 12-hour cranking sail from Aldernay clocked up in our expectations based on Ed’s wind and tide planning. And I’m learning the art of taking bearings on huge container ships on the horizon, lumbering their way down the traffic lanes between England and France, and becoming attuned to the sounds of the boat as she slides and leaps through the light choppy swell….

The taste of salt spray, the feel of the wind, the sound of a…helicopter, what? We each turn our ears to the foreign noise, and see, scooting across the sea nearby, a green and grey British Navy hornet, looking for all the world like its heading straight for us…a bee to honey, a hornet to prey. Suddenly its upon us and hovering behind the yacht, twenty metres above the ocean, sending spray scooting up like a skater on air. ‘Betty Alan’ continues to slide her way north and we’re yelling at each other to grab the cameras. Fran and Pete and I all capture the apparition, then suddenly its upon us again, on our bow, right next to us. We are flumoxed, then Fran yells “maybe they’re taking our photo” and we get the strange paradoxical image of these two opposite craft, the magnificent 50 foot wooden yacht in full sail and the noisy hovering hornet in full camouflage, with occupants clicking away at each other. It gets us giggling at least, while still shaking our heads in disbelief.

Just as Ed appears from catching snatches of sleep below from the early start, the helicopter pulls off to the south west and hovers over its original spot. We are travelling so fast on the wind, we now watch from a distance as it hovers, then circles, hovers then moves lower. We have the radio on and between the Coast Guard static chatter, we start to glean snippets of conversation, “salvage”, “piece of debris”, “flotsam”, “floating objects”. Between us we start putting pieces of logic together. Could they have found some wreckage there? Were we perhaps passing through more? Fran sends me forward to the bow to watch we are not going to hit anything. Ed radios in to the Coast Guard. No reply. We’re still moving fast away from the helicopter. and then suddenly he is upon us again. We are in the midst of his spray and noise, he is buzzing us like a hornet to prey…he is beside me on the bow. They are suddenly on the other side, so close I can see the Pilot and his passenger, there are hand signals, unclear….are we about to get shot down! Shit this is too weird! I open my arms in helpless gesture. His white gloved arm signals upwards and they rise up and away as quickly as they came. We are all talking at once, the pieces of puzzle are coming together out of the seeming chaos of this bizarre anomaly. We try the Coast Guard again…”Betty Alan to Coast Guard…do they want us to investigate something floating there?” But why has the hornet not made contact with us themselves? The voice of the Coast Guard starts to relay to the helicopter…they want us to turn and check out a substantial piece of debris…they can not understand us on the radio…we are right in the midst of a large area they are searching due to lots of reports of unidentified items floating about. And thus we find ourselves in the midst of search operation. We drop sail and start the motor, turning around to spend the next hour or two working in a team with helicopters and Coast Guard operators to check out each floating item they find. The red and white Coast Guard helicopter which soon takes over from the Navy hornet is far more friendly and comforting – associations with worthy rescue rather than wrongdoing! The first debris item found, which caused the justifiable fuss, being a wooden hatch cover to a boat, the others less significant…a suncream bottle, a hard hat, pieces of wood, loose bubble wrap, a strange bit of spongey boaty stuff…. Eventually the Coast Guard decide to do their own sea search and we are freed to continue, somewhat bemused, none the wiser, but having taken part in what appears to be a possible disappearance of a unknown boat, perhaps lost, perhaps not…a strange experience of going round in circles chasing hovering helicopters in the open sea, that doubles as one of the busiest sea cargo highways in the world. It somehow felt like finding a car door by the road, then searching for a missing troopie on the Nullabor! Overwhelmingly though, I am left with the image of that huge ugly green hornet hovering in my face, waiting for the missile to fire…”Tomorrow, when the war began” in the midst of the English Channel.

We may not have found a lost boat but now we must catch up the lost time …the sails up again, the wind obliges and we take off for the south coast of England, and I witness with great joy, seeing my dear sister at her finest, standing at the helm of her beautiful boat flying up the Solent at dusk several hours later. But fortune will strike again before our day is done. A slight glitch in bringing down the mainsail sees us motoring in circles again, this time in the dark in the large ship turning area at the entrance to the Medina River, so close and yet so far from our berth on the Isle of Wight…a second and far more intense team-building experience (which clever Uncle Pete managed to sleep through most of). Suffice to say, we survive in tact, and moor at midnight at Cowes Yacht Haven, 14 exhilerating and exhausting hours after leaving the Channel Islands. We finally fall into our cots at 2am, our belly’s full of stew, our adventure debriefed, our stories shared over well earned whiskey and water.

Two days later, holed up still in our safe haven while it blows a 20-40 knot howler out there and delays our sea journey, I’ve been reading Alex Miller’s ‘Lovesong’, recommended by friend Robyn. Miller describes the difference between writer and teller of stories,
“The writer cruises the ocean currents, and often comes to grief out there. The writer who loses his way in what Christina Stead called the ocean of story. It happens all the time. We drown out there. We go under. A familiar voice falls silent and is never heard from again. The ‘Mary Celestes’ of the writing world. It’s not something you can calculate. The loss is mysterious and puzzling. The teller, on the other hand, keeps to a familiar stretch of the river and remains safe.”

So what am I, as I return to the fray? A bit of both I suspect, and loving the journey…