Elvire II is a teak decked fourteen-metre Rorqual ketch that was constructed in the Vendee region of France in 1973. The last time that I had seen her was two years earlier, when I had helped Ian (the grandson of the owner) bring her back to her homeland from the Island of Sardinia. A journey which had given us a few exiting moments on the Northwest coast of Corsica, in a bay above Calvi ..
We had been surfing a clean four-foot point break that afternoon with only the two of us in the water under a derelict Napoleonic watch- tower found to the north of Calvi, where the sole spectators were the imprints of a past generation. Due to the quality of the waves that we had just scored, we decided to spend the night at anchor to the south of the break in a small sheltered bay, in the hope of catching a morning session with the daybreak. As we were well aware, waves do not appear from anywhere; somewhere a storm was brewing.
During the night the meteorological conditions deteriorated and we were woken abruptly at three am as the anchor ripped. The noise of the chain dragging across the sea floor was more than enough to wake the surf tired crew. Fast actions and reactions saved us from hitting the sharp rocks, which were now ten metres from the port beam and Elvire’s fragile hull.
We were lucky; the Volvo Penta engine kicked into action on the first touch of the starter button. Ian thrust on the power and utilising the now retaining anchor as a pivot, he was able to bring us around, while at the same time tilting Elvire on her side to miss all the underwater obstructions that were now less than one metre from our keel. When we were facing into the wind out of the reach of the rocks, I instantaneously raised the anchor as we headed for open water and safety through the six-foot waves that were now closing out the channel between the headlands.
From the wind-ravaged coast we sailed through the remaining hours of darkness and the next day, the jib our only source of power, the decision was made that returning to L'ille Rousse was not the best option as the developing storm drove us north towards France, the wind speed increasing by the hour, our destiny was in God's hands.
The barometer was still falling as we organised the boat for the following night. It was time to make our decision; we could wait out the storm at sea, or continue onwards to Eze-sur-Mer, confidant that we would find shelter behind the harbour walls. Both options were hazardous, as we did not know the depth of the storm, which was rapidly escalating to the south of us. Conscious that we had not slept well for two days and with the added problem of a broken autopilot, we decided to chance our luck and head for land.
The sunrise the next morning found us ten miles off the southern coast of France in a ten-foot swell and the wind gusting over force ten; things were starting to get serious! Luckily, Ian who had sailed this coast for the last thirty years was able to keep things under control, as we were forced into the harbour of Beaulieu–sur–Mer in front of the biggest storm to hit this region of France in over fifty years. The monster had tracked up from the south and had lasted two more days before its energy was exhausted, leaving twenty-five yachts up against the rocks and millions of francs worth of damage to the coastal villages.
Making the decision to head for land had been the good one, not just for Elvire and us, but also for a middle-aged lady from the village of Villefranche.
The next morning with the storm still raging, Ian strapped the surfboards to his car. Driving out of the harbour we headed over to Villefranche to watch the swell jacking up as it hit the reef on the other side of the bay. We were admiring the waves and talking about our timely arrival in France, when the cries of “man at sea” came cascading through the driving rain. Looking out to sea, I spotted a woman trying to keep afloat as she was being carried away from the coast by the powerful current. The swell and horizontal rain making her disappear for seconds on end. Pointing her out to Ian as I untied one of the surfboards from the roof of the car, I shouted above the wind “You’re the local boy, go save her”.
Ian just smiled as he pulled off his shoes and raincoat, before grabbing the board and jumping over the sea wall as a ten-foot wave smashed up against the reinforced concrete. He was lucky; the powerful back wash towed him out to sea, away from the deadly rocks.
Five minutes of difficult paddling bought Ian to the rescue of the lady, who we found out later on in the day had been swept off the sea wall by a freak wave fifteen minutes earlier. She was still afloat, lucky that forty years of swimming every day had given her the will power and strength to keep her head above the water in that savage sea. With the woman safely lying on his surfboard, Ian paddled them both back to the safety of the harbour, where he was met by the life raft that had just been launched for the rescue.
This act of bravery did not go unnoticed and an invitation to President Chirac’s summer party and a medal from the village of Villefranche was the reward. Now as part of the deal, he must report each year to his new boss, the Mayor of Villefranche on the problems confronting surfers in this region of France.