While we weren’t quite there yet, it was starting to look like summer. The last of the days sunlight glinting off my proudly assembled collection of port and fine french cheeses stacked up on the passenger side dash was doing wonders for my visions of the coming months. The season of lazing in parks caked in brake dust, drifting in and out of sleep in the warm sun after nights abusing the metro tunnels of an arbitrarily selected european city. Weekends spent necking spemanti and rooftopping ONLY with barbecues. Road trips, ryanairs, eye-spy with 1UP tags. It was about bloody time, and after the freezing cold piss poor excuse for a winter we’d just been through, I was eager to stretch my legs away from the island and take the good fight to the Frenchies.
We were on the road to Brest. A 2000km gamble on the back of a blurry googlemaps image and an Argos dingy to try and find the French Navy’s warship recycle bin at Landévennec. No less than 10 frigates, destroyers and support boats all cozied up for the long stand ready for scrapping, ripe for anyone who fancied playing battleships for a bit and finding out what La Marine Nationale’s contribution was to the cold war at sea. I quite liked the prospect of living on a couple of warships for a weekend, and from what we could gather we were pretty much guaranteed a big old mouldy recon ship (Le Duperré), a bigger, mouldier missile thing that used to be a museum (Le Colbert) and a small support frigate that lay up next to it, if we could get on the damn things without drowning.
We’d just spent the night in the remains of a fairy tale chateaux on the outskirts of Abbeville, found thanks to a .kml i’d been generously sent by a good friend on the euroscene with so many French derp mansions and chateaux’s on it I couldn’t actually see France. If we’d have known it had burned down two years previous we’d have probably picked a different one, but I was actually quite glad for the gentle waking amongst the ruins with the cookoos sounding off in the distance, it had set me up nicely for the day of driving, not that I was doing any mind, that port and cheese wasn’t going to sink itself.
It was late evening when we finally arrived on the west coat. The approach to Landévennec sees you coming side on to the boats at the top of the cliffs that surround the rade de Brest, and the quick pit stop we did to give the situation a coat of lookin’ at presented us with a bonus prize. Two extra boats had been added to the grave yard, and with a bit of French language wikipedia digging, we found out we’d been blessed with a pair of anti-submarine frigates, Le Touville and Le Grasse, whose presence, to my knowledge, hadn’t yet graced the internet.
That would be a job for tomorrow though. We packed our bags and headed down to the river bank to have a look at the main group.
I’m not saying I had a bad feeling when putting to water in the HMS Only-Suitable-for-Children-Use-Under-Strict-Supervision, but the river looked fucking deadly. Even the 10000 tonne battle cruisers were slowing rocking in the wash, the gentle creaking of their ageing hulls echoing off the cliff faces and melding with the tidal waters lapping on the rocks below and distant calls of the few seagulls that were still awake.
The night was perfectly still, cloudless, and as we wobbled into our little green ferry and pushed out across the layers of seaweed that clung to the steep rocky cliffs and into the current, millions of luminescent plankton glinted around the tiny plastic oars as they flexed and bent in the water under their comically over specified load.
We did have the semblance of a plan. With the best possible intentions, we thought that I should row out first and take the daintiest member of our team with me to test the water, so to speak, and see how bad the current actually was. Once I was aboard, she could easily row back with only her own weight to shift and repeat the same trick with the next seaman in line until all 5 of us were aboard.
Despite the shitty plastic toy oars and cramped conditions in the inflatable, progress was slightly less than laughable. The technique of rowing such an unsuited craft in such strong waters wasn’t too hard to figure out, it’s mostly brute force, but coaxing maximum leverage, at maximum frequency without your paddles lifting out of the water is essential if you want to make any sort of headway in the face of such strong current. With this, we twitched, lurched and slowly progressed across the section of river in a parabolic trajectory forced by the torrent of the outgoing tide, getting closer and closer to the boats until we hit a spot of still water by one of the mooring points; a gargantuan block of concrete which was securing the Duperre to the bottom of the river. That little stint had certainly warmed me up for the climb I was about to embark on, and we gripped onto the enormous rusty chain to steady ourselves and I turned to my first mate – “you ok getting back..?”
She seemed confident, so I pulled up out of the dingy and made my way up the anchor chain to the aft deck of the ship. It was an awkward sod to climb. Not vertical enough to be a ladder and not flat enough to just walk up, it took all the strength in my arms to keep my body level and from toppling into murky drink below me. I hauled up over the decrepit back rail by the anchor winch, gave a thumbs up, and she cast off in a glitter of luminescent plankton, making her way back as I looked on from the rear of the deck.
I thought this had been too easy. The further she went from the sheltered waters by the anchor chain, the faster she went in the wrong direction, swept up in the flow pulling her in to the centre of river. I had either underestimated the strength required to get from ship to shore or the currents had gotten worse, and within 2 minutes of leaving the mooring buoy, she began to shout for help.
There was no way she could have gotten back to the cluster of destroyers now, so any assistance I could have offered in the form of rotted old rope or a life belt, even if they hadn’t all been nicked, were moot. The 3 who had remained on shore had realised what was going on, and a few bright torch lights started flicking about the river looking for the ocean bound bright green pooh stick that without some kind of drastic intervention would be happily on its way to the atlantic.
I then heard another shout from the banking, emanating from someone who sounded like they’d had a nasty surprise and saw what was probably a head torch and its unlucky owner careering down the steep cliff and landing with a resounding splash into the water below.
If I smoked, now would have been high time for a cigarette. With nothing remotely useful I could contribute to this absolute dogs breakfast of an evening that was rapidly unraveling before me, all I could do was helplessly lean on the nearest available railing and gawp.
In a flash of heroic inspiration faced with the prospect of a long trip to America, Lucinda started to take off her trousers. I wasn’t really sure where she was going with this, but looked on as she stopped shouting so much and in fact rowing altogether, and resolved instead to drop her legs into the icy water and start kicking for it. Within no time, she had made it to shore, and the casualty I assumed was waiting for her at the bottom of the cliff seemed to have dusted himself off and was flustering around with the rest of them helping her out the water. In the dead time between them sorting out their situation on shore and me presumably getting picked up, I went for a butchers at the Colbert. It was fantastic being on this thing by yourself in the middle of the night. All the eerie creaking and the slosh of the water in the spaces between the boats make for an intense sonic backdrop to this mossy rusty death trap of a boat as I made my way round it scaring off seagulls and putting my foot through hopelessly corroded sections of the deck.
Morse came and picked me up in the dingy, with the news that we weren’t going to be kipping on the boats tonight. Everyone had gotten a little shaken and fancied some tea, so we popped back over, got the super noodles on and vowed to have a bash the following day.
In the morning, we went round to have a look at the other set of boats, deciding to have another go at the main cluster again a bit later on. They were flanked by a local fisherman who seemed to have dug in for the morning, and as we’d heard tales of people being called into the navy coast guard for messing about on the gun boats we decided to wait for a bit, so spent some time kicking a football about and sun bathing.
This crossing, when it came down to it, was far more straight forward than the previous one. There was a current, but only half as stong, and the distance was less that half.
With in no time at all, we’d ferried us all across, boarded via the huge tow ropes and chains that were dangling off the sides and were sat on the back helideck eating salami sandwiches in the sun.
We set about combing the ship for a way in, which wasn’t as easy as it might have seemed..
Every pissing door was locked shut, and we’d surveyed the length of the thing trying every cupboard, hatch and porthole looking for a chink in its armour. I’d honestly all but given up when I came back round to the stern after checking what I thought was everything and discovered Lucinda had managed to fit through a 25cm cable hatch on the back helideck. Two of us managed to squeeze in after her, and we set off up and down the boat trying to find an door we could open to get the other two inside.
The innards of the boat were absolutely mint. Nothing had been nicked, or damaged. The only thing missing were the crew, a few bits of electronics and the bombs… It had obviously not been there for too long, and the documents left lying around the place pointed to this, although there was no time for paper work, we had some serious pratting about to do.
One of the more interesting rooms on the boat was the torpedo launch rooms, which fired great stonking exploding fish out of a side door which opened directly across one of the side gantries.
I was actually incredibly lazy when taking photos of the inside of this boat. Most of the details were captured on my phone which have since gone to the great delete bin in the sky (maybe I should ring the NSA to see if they’ve got a copy). I know for a fact the others got loads on their proper cameras, but you’ll have to email them if you want to see any more as I’m not sure you can even go yourself now. They’ve both been towed if wikipedia is anything to go by.
As night dropped in, we headed back to the scene of the previous nights disaster and had a think about tackling the main group again. This time, me and morse would go out together, one of us would board, and we’d repeat the trick another few times until we were all on.
We set off, just as before, and started to drift, hard style. We were making zero progress, our latitudinal efforts being perfectly counteracted by the weight of the dingy and the extremely heavy current. I think we’d timed it totally wrong again, and we had to head back to shore, finally landing almost a mile down stream from where we set off. A long walk back to base, some warm food and a bottle of wine sent me straight to my hammock ‘for a quick lie down while the current gets better’; of course, no one set an alarm.
I awoke quite early, and the first thing I noticed was the relative stillness of the water. If we just went solo, one by one with only our cameras (rather than a tonne of camping crap and food) we could probably all have a decent look at it without too much of a risk of drowning. In hindsight, it must have seemed like a utterly perfidious action to take, but at the time I figured it wouldn’t have hurt to quickly pop over on my todd as i’d be able to make the crossing in a little over 5 minutes on my own without having to cart the weight of another body with me, and probably be back in time for breakfast.
So off I went.
I think it was better at night time, although I managed to have a good rummage round before returning to shore, passing the dingy to morse, and getting on with some well earned breakfast.
He crossed with relative ease, and spent most of his time monkeying around on the masts. On his return, he offered up the dingy to anyone else that fancied it, but no one seemed too interested..
There was a second valiant attempt at a double crossing, starting from a few hundred yards further up river to ride the flow across to the destroyers, but it resulted in one of the toy oars finally snapping in the intense current, which called time on our nautical pursuits for the weekend. It was probably for the best as well. We had to get back to blighty.