Book extract: Being blasted by the Mistral during a kayak (mis)adventure

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    There was a slightly chilly, light breeze blowing
    and it was our first venture into the sea since our rather
    haphazard paddle along the English coast to Dover. But we soon
    settled into a steady rhythm, paddling about one kilometre
    offshore across the long sweep of the bay and making what we
    thought of as good time.

    In the first of our hourly paddling breaks, we cut
    through a large wave and Barbara was drenched by
    spray.

    I hope salt water is good for the complexion,” she
    said sarcastically as she wiped down her face.

    At midday we paused for our inaugural lunch at sea:
    a couple of apples, biscuits and some nuts. We ate reclining on
    our life jackets in the watery sun, gently rocked by the
    swells. It was still rather chilly, but held out the promise of
    my “Summer Holiday”-style expectations of the Mediterranean leg
    of the voyage.

    There were no other craft to be seen and, as the
    afternoon lengthened, there was no harbour in sight. However,
    we had for some time noticed a long stretch of sandy beach and
    houses to the north. We assumed this was Narbonne Plage, so we
    swung Amandla round, estimating that we had covered
    about forty kilometres. As we neared the beach, we caught a
    wave that carried us right up onto the sand.

    Our guess was correct; this was Narbonne Plage. The
    beach was perfect, gently sloping up to a short stone wall
    behind which was a road and a row of large holiday homes. All
    the shutters were closed. As in Agde, the “real town” must be
    beyond the beachfront, we thought.

    Sheltered by the stone wall, Barbara set up the
    kitchen while I scoured the area for rocks to hold down the guy
    ropes and tent pegs in the beach sand. The wind had picked up
    quite strongly and was very cold. Must be the Mistral, we
    concluded, not having a clue what that meant.

    We were soon to find out.

    Barbara had bought bread and pâté in
    Agde and we ate this as an
    hors
    d’oeuvre
    before her delicious
    Narbonne Plage curry (The recipe is in the book).

    The sky had cleared, and was sprinkled with bright
    stars. Once we had washed the dishes, the worsening wind chill
    forced us into the tent and our sleeping bags. What seemed like
    only a few hours later, but must have been in the early
    morning, we were woken by a noisy flapping on the side of the
    tent: in the howling wind the pegs holding the flysheet had
    pulled out of the sand, the rocks I had found not being heavy
    enough to hold them down.

    I crawled out and managed somehow to grab hold of
    the flapping flysheet and, with a combination of rocks and
    tied-together guy ropes, stop it from flying away. By the time
    the sun was rising the wind had picked up even
    more.

    This was the Mistral, howling down the valleys of
    the Rhône and across the Camargue, battering our tent in a way
    I had thought impossible. I found and carried rocks. And more
    rocks.

    Despite the slight shelter of the wall, and with
    every guy rope weighed down with rocks, the wind still seemed
    likely to rip the tent, rocks and all, off the
    ground.

    We had pitched tents in drizzle and even quite
    heavy rain, sometimes with the wind blowing. But never in wind
    like this. Finally, though constantly buffeted, the tent stayed
    up in one position. We watched, appalled, as the sea retreated,
    pushed back by this incredible force of nature. The beach grew
    wider and wider still, with depressions of pooled water soon
    dried up by the wind.

    As we peered dejectedly out of the tent, we began
    to feel like abandoned extras in a scene from some
    post-apocalyptic film. There were no people, no animals, no
    signs of life. Dried vegetation, like the favoured tumbleweed
    in scenes of ghost towns in Western movies, scooted silently
    across the deserted road and beach toward the retreating sea.
    Even the now clear, azure sky seemed ominous as the wind
    shrieked, with no let-up. No wonder all the houses were
    shuttered. But where was everybody?

    Most of that day was spent securing and re-securing
    the tent or playing travel Scrabble inside to try to take our
    minds off the wind. I think we opened a can of beans and
    finished off the remaining curry for supper that night as we
    huddled in the tent.

    Don’t worry,” I assured Barbara, “it’ll blow
    over.”

    But all that blew over was our shelter. Perhaps the
    wind subsided slightly during the night, but early the next
    morning we woke up tangled in the tent.

    After extricating ourselves we checked that
    Amandla, low against the wall and secured by rope and
    rocks, was still intact. Then we weighted down the canvas tent,
    flysheet and all, with our sleeping bags inside, intending to
    pitch it again once the wind dropped. Only it
    didn’t.

    Meanwhile, we staggered around the holiday resort
    of Narbonne Plage in the gale, finding no signs of life. It was
    weird, quite frightening.

    Finally, feeling miserable, we returned to the
    beach to look for heavier rocks to hold down the guy ropes,
    before again struggling to erect the tent. We probably didn’t
    even eat that night, as the Mistral continued to howl around
    our now rock-bound shelter.

    The next morning we decided that we had to find a
    living soul. So we staggered along the deserted streets, heads
    down and hats secured, often having to hold on to one another
    as we were hit by particularly strong gusts. We chose a
    different route from the previous day and, as we reached the
    corner of a street, there was evidence of human habitation at
    last: a small restaurant, and the door not
    shuttered.

    Through the glass there seemed to be people. Well,
    at least one person.

    Arms linked, we stumbled across the road and opened
    the door.

    We were greeted by a look of utter amazement on the
    face of the man we had seen, and a gasp from a woman —
    presumably his wife — standing behind a counter. We must have
    looked a sight in our bright orange anoraks, with the hoods
    pulled up over our bush hats and tied down firmly to stop our
    headgear from flying away.

    We introduced ourselves and tried to describe, in
    our unreliable French, how, having come from London in a kayak,
    we had ended up in Narbonne Plage.

    C’est
    fou
    ! (It’s crazy!)”
    the husband said to his wife in a just-audible
    whisper.

    Given the Mistral, it obviously was.
    DM

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