Le P’tit Jaune

Philippe Guisset was depressed. Belgian, married with two children but living alone in Madrid during the week while his family stayed in Barcelona. Work was good, and important, but trapped in the Spanish capital, his gloomy flat unnervingly silent, Philippe could feel a crisis beginning to gather. Perhaps, he worried, it was the big one, with the sports cars and youthy haircuts. He’d seen it happen to friends and colleagues. Life half over, halfway to dead. This storm was gaining strength through each dark night and moved in a low cloud.

If you read French and grew up anywhere near the sea, Voiles et Voiliers, Sails and Sailors, was your magazine. The one your father kept in stacks next to his bed or in dusty piles against the cellar wall. Tales of heroic crossings, detailed reviews of the newest gear, celebrations of the oldest traditions, Voiles et Voiliers has been the constant companion for francophone sailors for half a century. In the heat and dust of life in lonely Madrid, the magazine was a lifeline for Philippe, a distraction from the present and a reminder of colder days with the grandfather who taught him to sail, who dreamed aloud of letting the wind pull him across the salty Mediterranean, and watching its secrets unfold beneath the hull.

In 2007 French shipbuilder Jeanneau produced Yola, a 6.5 meter prototype with a bright yellow hull, shallow draft, two fins on the back and sleeping space for four. To test the seaworthiness of the design and whether it could, as hoped, take four people comfortably and quickly into nearly any harbour, Jeanneau launched a two year tour of the French coastline, out of the way harbours, tiny coastal villages, spots far-flung and out of reach for most sailors or those who write about sailing. And Voiles et Voiliers came along.

The stories and pictures of the little boat with its distinctive yellow hull as it explored the most forgotten and stunning portions of the French coastline caused a sensation. The boat became a celebrity. It’s original name forgotten, he (boats in France are always male) was now “Le P’tit Jaune”, Little Yellow, and a nation of sailors watched with pride and rapture as he circled the French Metropole.

In his apartment in Madrid, Philippe followed along. As Le P’tit Jaune’s tour neared completion the editors of Voiles et Voiliers wondered how to possibly write the ending of this two-year odyssey. The design had proved itself and Jeanneau didn’t need the boat back. Le P’tit Jaune had built its own life and personality, and a huge audience. Le P’tit Jaune, they decided, could not be allowed to languish in some forgotten marina. He would be given new life, as a gift to whoever asked for him best. An open call for proposals, with the winner sailing him home.

Philippe shook the dust from his keyboard and plunged into the full description of a dream that would change his family’s course forever. They had the money to maintain a boat, but not to buy one, he explained. Philippe felt pulled to the sea, but not presumptuous about whether his family would accept the sailing life, or, as he puts it, whether the sea would accept them. They would take Le P’tit Jaune and spend the next two years sailing around the Mediterranean, sending news and reports as they cruised. If all went well the saltwater and their blood would be mixed, impossible to separate, and they would know that graduating to a bigger boat was required. If it did not go well, if the sea refused their advances or the children couldn’t stand it, they would not need the boat at all. Either way two years from now they would give the boat to someone else. It could continue its story, move along the chain and end up somewhere new. To use the boat, then pass it along, in the spirit of the sea.

Philippe didn’t tell his wife Lili about the proposal until they were already semifinalists. With the pool shrunk from hundreds to just five, and Voiles et Voiliers’ editor calling regularly to say how excited he was, the chance that Le P’tit Jaune might soon be theirs started to feel real.

Lili, at least at first, was not impressed. It’s one thing to dream about winning a boat and sailing with the family off into the blue, to talk as many do about the big adventure that will change everything. There’s a benign ambiguity that keeps us safe, knowing the unlikely strength of the tide required to make such a change. But sometimes the moon swells like a balloon and pulls the tide past what we are used. And some dreams, once loosed from their pensive cells, fly on their own wings, strong and unconcerned with the havoc they cause or the fear that kept them in place for so long.

To use another analogy, “It’s like you go to the zoo,” says Philippe, “and there’s a small paper you fill out that says you may win an elephant. Now… what am I supposed to do with an elephant?”

But they did win. “You call them and tell them we can’t take the boat”, Lili told Philippe. But a few weeks later the two of them were standing outside a convention center on the outskirts of Paris, the President of Jeanneau by their side. The cloud of flashing bulbs and eager questions of the press conference drifting away in the open air, and there, sitting on a trailer with mast dropped and its yellow hull shining like the cleanest sunrise, was Le P’tit Jeaune. “It’s for you,” said Mr. President.

Soon after, sailing his new boat on the 120 mile crossing from the Spanish coast to the Balearic Islands of Ibiza, Menorca and Mallorca, Philippe knew they belonged on the sea. No going back. Philippe, Lili and their two children made Le P’tit Jeaune a part of their family. Instead of the planned sabbatical year, the family moored the boat in Garraf, just south of Barcelona, and rushed to it at every spare moment, casting off quick and heading out for days or weeks.

Two years later, on Le P’tit Jaune’s final voyage to the Baleares, the family officially outgrew the small boat. Rose, their third child, was conceived under the decks, with the warm waters of the Mediterranean rising and falling and the stars shining above the mast. The next time they got on a sailboat they would be five. Le P’tit Jaune had brought them to the sea, and it was time to sail further than he could carry them.

For Philippe, and for sailors around the world, the boat becomes a partner, a mother, a spaceship, a spine. The bond formed best on long solo crossings. On dark water, under the stars, out of sight of land and all alone, Le P’tit Jaune held him in its belly like a surrogate mother. On some of these crossings Philippe would tether himself to Le P’tit Jaune with a long rope, then slip into the sea, drifting like an astronaut on a spacewalk. Floating in black space, the sky above filled with stars. His life attached by a cord to this boat that pulled him gently towards home.

Just like in the movies, Philippe asked the truck driver if he could spend twenty more minutes with Le P’tit Jaune before it was towed back to France, to new owners and a new life. The driver had a coffee and a cigarette. Philippe climbed up into the cockpit, the boat high on the back of the trailer. He put his hand in its place on the wooden tiller and cried.

They did get another boat, one big enough to carry the five of them. It rests in the same marina where they had kept Le P’tit Jaune and sails in the same waters. The family is firmly in the grasp of the sea. According to Philippe, Le P’tit Jaune saved him from his mid-life crisis, or at least distributed it out over ten years. Mid-way through life one needs motion, purpose and perspective, not wild grasps at a fading youth. Their frequent voyages are less an escape than a way to gain perspective on the things they have back on land, how they’re spending their time, how to make decisions.

“Every time we go out and come back”, he says, “we return to life better.” To disconnect from the chaos and set sail, together as a family, a sturdy boat under them and the winds pulling them on, it’s impossible to return unchanged.