Saturday, 6 April 2013

Highway robbery

Yes! We've made it back on board. The return journey wasn't as smooth as we might have hoped, but more of that later.

We left off in the ferry terminal at Roscoff. Two other cyclists, a young Australian couple, joined us there and we passed the time pleasantly with them, waiting together for the ferry and then on board. We all bunked down on the floor of an otherwise deserted seating area, though Emma and Andrew were more comfortable than us, as they had camping gear along. Still, we managed a fairly reasonable six hours of sleep and felt in good shape on arrival in Plymouth.

Paul had given us good enough directions that we only had to phone him once during the ride from Plymouth to Plympton and you've already seen the breakfast that we were welcomed with.
We had a really restful and enjoyable 4 days there with Paul and his amazing super-fit 85-year-old mum, Joan. Our appetites took a while to reduce back to something like normal levels, but Joan fed us magnificently and made up any calorie deficit carried over from the ride.

We also boxed up the stripped down tandem for shipment  to Edinburgh, hopefully to reach there on Tuesday next.

It was very, very tempting to nip up to Scotland ourselves, but we knew it would mean delaying our return to the boat by a couple of weeks at least and now we want to get back to sea and head north home as soon as we can.

Luckily, our return fell on the cheapest ferry day, meaning that we could have a cabin for the same price as it would have cost without one a couple of days later. The Channel was fairly rough overnight, just after an easterly gale, and it was interesting to feel a big ship like that rolling and shuddering under the impact of the waves. It would have been a wild old night in a wee boat.

Though still cold, the weather held fair and it was with light hearts that we walked out of the ferry terminal back in Roscoff and stuck out a thumb to start the hitch south. Yes, we were hitch hiking. Provincial France isn't big on public transport. No buses to speak of and the layout of the rail network pretty much forces you to go to Paris first in order to reach any other part of the country - like the spokes of a wheel.

A fellow ferry passenger got us started on our way and with waits of anything from 10 minutes to an hour, we made steady progress, reaching Vannes by about 2 in the afternoon. We'd had 6 different rides to get there and all really nice. It was about another 100 km to Nantes, where we figured on stopping for the night and taking a direct train to Saintes the next morning. Our guard was down, and that's not good on the road.

A crappy old small car pulled in for us, but we didn't notice it until another driver pointed and we looked around. We didn't know how long they'd been there, so we ran over and hastily piled in without having a proper look first. Inside, three dodgy-looking guys, maybe early 20s, one with a heavily bandaged hand. We were both thinking, 'This ain't good', but trying not to be judgemental and hoping for the best. Anyway, it was too late at that point to do anything else but hope for the best.

They didn't speak proper French but made some sort of small talk until we reached what they said was their exit and did we want to be let off on the main road or up on the exit ramp. Exit ramp it was and they pulled over on the roundabout at the top. I was out first, grabbing the bags out of the boot and saying thanks and good bye. Thinking, 'Ok, they looked rough, but they were all right.' As Sonja stepped out, however, the driver hit the gas and off they sped, with two of our bags still inside. Unfortunately, one of them was the one with all the good stuff. The camera, the Kindles, the Spot Messenger, a phone, and so on.

It happened so fast there was no chance to do anything at all. No looking at the number plate, not even note the exact make of the car. Pretty hopeless, really. Sonja was clearly in a state of shock, but I was trying to keep everything calm, pointing out that we were ok and that it was just stuff, while we worked out what was gone. She said we should call the police and I was reluctant at first, figuring the chances of them being able to do anything about it were close to nil and not really wanting to spend the rest of the afternoon in the gendarmerie. Wanting, in fact, only to get away from there and on down the road. Luckily we had our wallets in our pockets and the passports were still in my jacket after the ferry.

Sonja did manage to convince me though and that was when we realised that we had absolutely no idea what number to ring for the police in France. We had to flag down another car to ask, and the woman inside didn't know either, having to phone her husband to find out. It's 17, in case anybody needs to know.

I did my best to explain the situation in French to the gendarme on the phone and he spoke some English, which helped. After getting the key details and our location, he asked us to wait and said a patrol was on its way. They reached us perhaps 20 minutes later. We gave them as much information as we could (all in French) and they asked us if we would come back to the station to file a report. It was back in the direction from which we had just come, but we agreed and then spent the next hour or so in the gendarmerie. They were very nice, very helpful, very courteous. I've always found the French police rather intimidating, with their paramilitary-style looks, but these guys were good.

Afterwards, they asked us where they could drop us off. At the train station? At a hotel? We were starting to feel rather wiped out at this point and opted for a budget hotel. It was maybe 5 o'clock by this time. We had no reading material and we were full of adrenalin and our heads were in something of a whirl. We went to the supermarket next door to grab some food and a bottle of wine and holed up in our room with the television. Lacking books, the TV came to our rescue, providing welcome distraction while we tried to calm down enough to get some sleep. The Simpsons, in French, an English film. It was all good and we did eventually drop off.

In the morning, Sonja more or less begged me not to do any more hitch hiking for the time being. I kind of thought we should go on, if only to break the fear. Get right back on that horse, sort of thing. I'm just a softie at heart though and soon we were on the bus into town, to the train station.

I had phoned our friends in Mortagne the evening before, to see if they'd be able to pick us up from the train station in Saintes, as we'd been planning to get the train there from Nantes anyway, so that was already arranged. We just had to get to Nantes in time for the 1305 train. We consulted the timetable in the station at Vannes. There was a train shown at 1130, reaching Nantes at 1240 - perfect. At the ticket counter, however, we learned that the train to Nantes wasn't running, due to works on the line. Replacement bus service? No, no, this is France! And no other sort of bus service either. In short, the only way to do it was by dusting off the old thumb and getting back on the road.

My beloved wife wasn't happy about it, but there was nothing else to do and we rode the bus back out to the edge of town and the motorway. Despite our best efforts to avoid it, we ended up at exactly the same spot where we'd been stung the day before. Sure as fate.

It wasn't an easy wait. Very cold, windy, and on a spot with grim associations. It was three quarters of an hour before a white van pulled over, driven by an obviously decent chap. We had a good look at him, believe me, and were suitably relieved to find that he was going all the way to Nantes.

Once on the train, I switched on the phone (it had been kept off to conserve power, the charger having gone with the bags). Two voicemail messages. One from a friend in Edinburgh, wanting to know if he could do anything to help. The other was from the gendarmerie in Theix - they had recovered our bags, with most of the stuff we'd listed missing!

Unfortunately, we found out later that it was not possible to have our things sent to us - we had to go there to pick them up. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a van from another friend here in Mortagne to make the 5-hour drive up and the 4.5-hour drive back yesterday. We were delighted to get most of our things back, especially the Kindles and the new cycle pannier but also the other less valuable but useful and even sentimentally valued items.

We still don't know how the stuff was found. It was scattered in a scrubby bit of forest in a very lonely and remote spot, to which we were taken to see if we could find any more of our stuff (which we did).

Now, the next day, tired, relieved to be back and to have made it through a difficult experience with relatively light losses. Chastened. The saddest loss is the GoPro camera, with the photos and video from our great tandem ride north. At least we have the shots we put up on the blog in Plymouth.

Moral of the story: stay sharp! Don't let your guard down on the road!

The important thing now is not to let that incident mar our memories of what was otherwise a great trip and I think we'll manage that just fine. It's a footnote, and a lesson. Now, it's time to focus on getting Fettler transformed back from winter quarters to sailing machine and watching the weather for the right time to get back to sea.