Greece has graced us with gatherings and unexpected parties with sailors and new friends. Last Christmas we found under the tree some new valuable friendships. One of these is Thibaud and his incredible story of two ocean solo crossings and stories about his personal view of freedom. He’s someone who faces life at sea with the enthusiasm of a kid and is truly inspiring even to the seasoned sea wolves. His stories are of an old seadog coming from a 30-year-old.
Thibaud is of French and Swiss origins. He studied cabinet making for antique furniture in Belgium from age of 16 to 20, but as soon as he finished his studies, he started traveling. In the first winter, he worked in the Alps where he bought a van to live in while he worked six months a year and traveled the other six. Him and his girlfriend lived this way for a couple of years in France, until they sold the van and took off for Australia. The two worked on farms and in building jobs. You need money to travel!
After Australia, they traveled to New Zealand and Asia and Thibaud started thinking of new jobs or maybe learning something new so he could roam free around the world. He picked up journalism so he could freelance, submitted to Lonely Planet, but with no luck. Not one to be stopped, he taught himself how to build a website and make money from it. And if he worked a little more for his blog, he’d truly be able to find the freedom he had been seeking all of his life.
Thibaud traveled with a backpack, laptop, a motorbike, and stayed in guesthouses all over the world. He ended up a few times in India (including the day after this interview was recorded!). But, like having too much of a good thing, he found himself traveling too fast, and began to feel like he was missing a lot in the rush of always looking forward to something more and better. It was always about the next step and not about the present moment.
Too much freedom and rush created a puzzling effect, and new problems started scratching at the door: “What is the meaning of all of this, what am I doing on this planet, and where am I going?” Quickly, he got lost in his own mind and in the world. He discovered that being too free could be a problem too. He needed stability, and life in a van was the opposite of it. Living on a road was not an option anymore. The boat was the solution! A home not stuck by the side of a road and yet able to go into the wild.
And so began his life on the water. The following is in Thibaud’s words:
I’ve learned much about sailing on my first six meter boat, which I owned with my friend for a couple of summers. She was a Jeanneau Love Junior, and her name was Carib. I also had the chance to cross the ocean to the Carribean as a crewmember on a catamaran, but I didn’t get to learn much as there were many of us, shifts were short and never alone, and very few tasks.
Then I bought my first 31ft sloop Dufour (Orion). I fixed her up so I could leave as quickly as possible, even though she was not completely ready. I sailed south to Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, reached Morocco, then the Canaries. In the meantime, I was working hard installing the autopilot and the solar panels, so I could solo handle the boat without depending on anyone else.
From the Canaries I proceeded to Senegal, to Ziguinchor, sailing upriver Casamance. After a year of sailing, I stayed about 3 months around Niomoune and other villages, Saloum in North Gambia. My girlfriend left for work, and I decided to cross the Atlantic alone, from Senegal to Brazil. I burned all my diesel in lack of wind, motoring through many hot and humid squalls hunting me. Finally, I reached and hid in a natural reserve a few days away from my destination. Three days later, I rested, I was in Brazil in the French marina Jacare’. I absolutely loved being there, and even though it was dangerous, I felt alive. I’d learned to live in the moment.
After meeting sailors coming both from South Africa and Patagonia, I felt very inspired to sail South, instead of my original plan for the Carribean. I began to look for a slightly bigger boat to sail to Patagonia. I found a 60 ft wooden boat, ketch Plan Eugene Cornu, built in 1952, the Arvor II. The owner was looking forward to selling it, but the price was way too much and in any case the boat was too big for solo sailing. But although it was out of my range, I visited the boat anyway. The day after, the owner lowered the price by half! But I still couldn’t afford it, and had to decline again. My boat was a quarter of even the half-price, and that was if I could find a buyer for her.
On the third day, the owner decided to give me the boat and let me pay him whatever I could after I sold my own boat, whenever that would be. I could not refuse!
So at this point, I had two boats in Brazil, two months on my visa, no money to pay one of them and very little time to arrange everything. With a little help from my friends, we sailed both boats to Amazonia, Ilha do Marajo. In 10 days we managed to find each other! The plans were changed, with one boat to restore and the other to sell. Now I was heading to the Carribean. In French Guyana, I managed to sell the smaller boat. I had to do everything I could to save my wooden boat and I was very engaged because of the crazy way it all happened. I invested all I could to restore her. I worked with the boat in one of the most fascinating places in the world, where you could meet Hmongs, french government workers, Brasilians in search of gold. The cosmopolitan melting pot made the place extremely interesting for me. My girlfriend reached me and we sailed to the Carribean where we stayed for one year and I fixed everything on the boat.
After that year, I solo sailed the boat across the Atlantic back to the Med. It took me three weeks, but I felt safe because the boat was big, stable and the waves looked smaller in comparison to what they were and felt like on the nine meter boat. During the crossing, I was pushed close to Bermuda, the winds got stronger further North and my mizzen mast broke, so I had to put out very little sail. With a little luck I finally got to the Azores. This experience made me feel very proud of myself. I had to sail an old, 60ft, wooden boat, with a broken mizen on my own and I made it.
In Portugal, I met two of my friends and we continued our journey together through Gibraltar towards Spain and Mallorca.
The constant fixing, investing all my energies and all my money into the boat made so that I had to start working with it. Months of enormous pressure and stress followed. I started feeling stuck on the boat. I had to be always on anchor, as marinas were too expensive. I needed to take a break, but I couldn’t and it made me reach the point of saturation! I realized I couldn’t continue like that with this boat anymore. I left her on anchor in a sheltered bay in northeastern Mallorca, and escaped back to France, resolving to come back only to show the boat to potential buyers. Once I returned after a brutal storm to show the boat to a client and she had a broken mizzen-mast. I managed to sell it, however…and for a higher price than I purchased it!
I moved into an apartment in La Rochelle, with my girlfriend. The hot shower and all the comforts felt good for a while, but soon I got bored. I needed a new project, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. I continued to check out boat listings, and was curious to see what I could buy with the money from the previous boat. There was nothing that caught my eye or interest enough…until one did. The owner was very eager to sell, and would take into consideration any offer. The price was double the money I had, so once again I didn’t really try to go for this boat. I offered him the money I had, and told him that if he were to accept, I would come to see it.
That’s how I came to Corfu one year ago, to meet my Topkapi, a CNSO Mikado 56 ft. Very quickly, I decided to buy her. My girlfriend did not love the idea, so she left me. I was not able to change my idea of freedom, so I let her go.
I gave the deposit, even though, very soon I backed up because there was a lot of work to do. I wanted to even leave the deposit. But the owner asked me what would make me take the boat – it was the money to repair her. He accepted and so did I! So here I am with Topkapi.
Since then a year has passed and I keep on working hard, I have no girlfriend, no apartment, I don’t know if I want to travel, I don’t have plans! She is what I was looking for from the beginning: a big, comfortable boat, I can still travel or have my projects, be settled and live aboard full time. I give everything I have, every last energy I have, to my boat.
But if I do another trip, I wish to share it with someone I love, a family I wish for. Now I have been living in Corfu for a year, and I like to be able to slow down and to find my roots, but I don’t know if it will be here or not.
If you could change the name of the boat?
There was a name, but I wasn’t brave enough to change this one. It was “Renard” because when I was a kid I had a favorite plush toy, but I didn’t want to draw the attention of pirates, so the name stayed unchanged.
Would you consider any other type of boat? Why?
A catamaran. I really like seeing outside and having lots of light. I’d also love an aluminum boat, it is strong and minimalist as you have fewer works to do on it. I guess it will stay a dreamboat. However, I am really happy with this one and I am trying to be content with what I have and not constantly strive for more and more.
If you could pick a fictional character to sail with, who would that be?
My plush fox, Renard.
What is the place you’d like to sail to?
Patagonia. I tried already once but plans changed and the waves took me somewhere else. I’d love to see it because it is very wild, with no human destruction. Also, I wanted to go to Antarctica. I saw photos and it looks like another world and the wildlife is always around you.
What’s the most beautiful anchorage you’ve stopped in?
There are many, but the river Casamance, in Senegal was outstanding. It’s like taking a break from the sea. On the river you don’t have to worry about the weather anymore… there’s not much at all to worry about. Especially there, I loved exploring, being in the middle of nature, with not many tourists so it feels very special, and it felt very safe.
images taken from: https://www.facebook.com/CasamanceFreeState/
What is the craziest/ scariest thing that happened while sailing?
The fire on the wooden boat while sailing away from Brasil. It started on the electric panel. Fast enough I realized I could hardly stop it because of the heat and black smoke. We had the extinguisher but decided not to use it immediately, hoping it was unnecessary and trying to prevent it from destroying the rest of the panel. It melted the plastic on the other wires around the starting point and I didn’t know if I had control of the boat. And it started with just me changing a light bulb, which made a short contact. Luckily, after fixing what we could, everything worked again.
Do you have any favorite myths or legends?
I like the stories of the sailors because they are very superstitious and I am not, but I do understand very well why they are. So the one I like is a book by Dino Buzzati, “Le K”. It is the story about a fisherman who’s being followed by a monster whale – “K” – while he hunts other whales. So he is scared of her, thinking she wants to kill him, so he runs away from her all of his life, and each time he goes back to his village he can see her waiting for him at sea. But at the end of his life, he decides to confront the whale and goes to meet her. The conclusion of the book is that he was running away from his fear, and the whale represents only the fear that he had to face.
What’s your ocean anthem?
I don’t have one, but I listen to music a lot and in stormy or bad weather, I like listening to Beethoven.
Do you have rituals on the boat?
I am not superstitious, but I talk to my boat. Each time that I start a day, or have to fix things on the boat I say: “ What do we do today? What are we going to do now?” I refer to the boat and me as us. I treat her like a part of me.
What’s the best moment while sailing for you?
Being alone on the passage. There are moments of total peace, the wind is fine and comfortable, the sun starts coming out and warming you up, the night is over and you have your hot tea and you think to yourself, “Wow, I am really here!”
What’s your idea of freedom?
To my perception, freedom is to be able to be happy with what I have and not run constantly for something more. You have to slow down and accept what happens to you.
I am sure Thibaud will inspire young sailors around the world to learn constantly and develop a personal concept of freedom.
At this weird COVID19 moment, Thibaud is in India on a trip he took to the Ashram right after we did the interview. He doesn’t feel any pressure for not being able to come back to Corfu’ and, as usually, he sees everything in his most optimistic way.
We’ll meet again some day on a windswept anchorage in Patagonia for another round of salty tales!
Thanks for reading!