Embarkation of a French Naval Writer
“A French Naval Writer will be on mission from the 28th January till the 4th March 2019, on board the BSAOM D’Entrecasteaux, a vessel of overseas support and assistance, in Nouméa, subject to the ship’s operational constraints. This embarkation has been authorized by the French Navy (ALFAN / CAL) within activities of research led by the French Navy’s Centre for Strategic Studies.”
In order to grasp what it means to be a French Naval Writer, imagine an association of twenty writers known for their works inspired by the sea, individually and collectively committed to serving the Navy, with the honorary rank of Frigate Captain. Just like the French Naval Painters, we have the privilege of being able to board French Navy ships, according to the Captain’s will. I have recently been elected as a member of this association, thanks to my long-running activities as a painter and a writer. Born in Australia in 1963, I studied painting at the Paris École des Beaux-Arts from 1986 to 1992.
Oceans make up 71% of the planet. France is only the 41st largest country, and yet it possesses the second largest maritime domain thanks to its 8200 kilometres of coastline. 90% of its sovereign waters are located around overseas territories. Knowing that the Exclusive Economic Zone extends 200 nautical miles (370.4 kilometres) from the coastline, and that each coastal state exercises its sovereign rights over exploration and exploitation of natural resources, there is understandable interest in possessing overseas territories.
The list of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in decreasing order goes as follows: United States, France, Australia, Russia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Canada, Great Britain, Japan and Chile.
China is not included in these top ten countries, even though it has the fourth largest land mass. France’s EEC in the Pacific adds up to 7.6 million square kilometres, two-thirds of the total French EEC.
New Caledonia’s EEC covers 1.4 million square kilometres, and France is in charge of surveying the fishing sector, renewable marine energies, mining reserves and one of the three greatest reef systems in the world according to Unesco. The French Navy fights essentially against illegal fishing, drug trafficking and pollution. They provide assistance to populations in the event of natural disasters and ensure that good relationships develop between the countries of the Pacific. They also accomplish reconnaissance missions to various places, sometimes as small as a few rocks, visiting them in Zodiacs to show that they belong to France, and conduct representation missions, welcoming dignitaries from other countries on board to show the importance of France.
As far as New Caledonia is concerned, in the 80s what was known as “the events” took place: bloody confrontations between Kanak independentists and the French administration in New Caledonia, present since 1853. During these confrontations, against a backdrop of violent social unrest where dialogue had become impossible, the Kanaks took policemen as hostages in a cave in Ouvéa. Jacques Chirac decided to send in French military forces. Nineteen Kanaks and two policemen were killed. One year later, Michel Rocard managed to have both parties sign the Matignon Accords, bringing back civil order. But the moderate independentist leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who signed the Accords, was then assassinated by a extremist Kanak independentist. In 1998, Lionel Jospin signed the Nouméa Accords, which gave more autonomy to the archipelago and ratified the organization of a self-determination referendum that was to take place in 2018 at the latest.
In 2019, the referendum has been voted by the Caledonians. France narrowly remains sovereign.
Nouméa, late January 2019
The Captain of the D’Entrecasteaux, who accepted my embarkation and with whom I was in contact before leaving Paris in order to organize the voyage, meets me at Tontouta Airport. It’s late. I am the last passenger to go through the sliding doors into the arrival hall, without my suitcase, which was most likely lost in either Helsinki or Osaka. The Captain doesn’t complain and neither do I. Before starting the car, he hands me a necklace of flowers and leaves. “Tradition,” he tells me. We drive towards Nouméa, forty or so kilometres away in the tropical night. He explains what the D’Entrecasteaux and its crew will be doing before setting off at sea, as well as the visits to the Naval Base he organized for me. I listen as if I had often been on board a French Navy ship, when we both know it’s the first time. I am quite unfamiliar with military life.
He drops me off at the Circle Club of the Armed Forces, New Caledonia, where I will be staying before my embarkation. Midnight. The Circle Club is located at the end of Artillery Point, a dead end for those who do not work for French Defence. The room is efficiently bare, old style. Turn of the century documentaries of old French colonies, namely in Africa, flicker across the screen of a small television. I can’t figure out how to turn it off, so I pull the plug out from the socket.
In the morning, I pinned my Naval writer’s “insignia” onto my shirt, after clipping it onto my jacket, but it’s much too hot to wear a jacket. Walking along the coast towards the town centre to buy myself two or three light pieces of clothing – the Captain and I are expected for lunch at the General’s – I pass by an official building covered with posters of the young faces of thirty-year old Caledonians: “Thirty years after the events, the Southern Province celebrates its thirtieth anniversary.” “We, children of the Accords, will pursue the path for the upcoming generations.” “Knowing our history liberates us and teaches us how to live with others.” “By enabling everyone to be integrated through the work force, we can all construct our own future.” “It’s our turn to participate in the construction of our country while respecting everyone.” “What is important, is knowing how we will pursue life together.” “Tolerance towards difference is the starting point for our common history.” “I love my island and I’ll do everything to participate in its peaceful development.” “We are all metis, it’s our strength.” “Dialogue brings respect and respect brings dialogue, both are inseparable.”
I have the impression that Nouméa’s town centre has shifted to another place since I stopped over here in 2001, during a round the world trip on a container ship. All these hazy memories are linked to the brevity of stop-overs, to their precarity, because one remains in a bond with the ship, almost like a dream that gradually fades away when the ship eventually leaves shore.
Lunch with the General of the French Armed Forces in New Caledonia and his wife, the Captain (Navy), Commander of the Joint Task Force Maritime component in New Caledonia and his British wife who works in the Australian Consulate, as well as the Captain of the D’Entrecasteaux. The villa at the Artillery Point, near the Circle Club, was built at the very beginning of France’s presence on the territory, when the French convicts were sent there, and looks over the Moselle Bay.
The men are dressed in white uniforms, even the General, and the women in “light clothing” as was specified on the invitation. The General is a lover of the land. His vision of the sea is from the land, whereas, for a sailor, land is seen from the sea. The submarine commander mentions that there are two types of sailors: those who say they are never seasick and those who tell the truth. I bring up Nicholas Montserrat’s novel, The Cruel Sea. “Excellent remedy against seasickness,” he replies. “Everything appears to be dull in comparison.”
The General mentions French nuclear testing in the Pacific fifteen years ago and the resulting difficult relationships between France and Australia and New Zealand. We talk about France’s importance in the Pacific, how the Chinese buy up islands’ debt, such as the Salomon Islands, in order to be present in the Pacific, and the following dependence of these islands on China. And we talk about sea cucumbers, or holothuries, that Vietnamese blue boats fish for illegally and sell for fortune in China.
The Submarine Commander remarks that Australians seem to have always been wary of the Chinese.
We discuss the younger generations and their constant need to be connected, which is a problem for the profession and defence secrets. I suggest that being disconnected could valorise connexion, and be seen as an innovating, adventurous aspect of their missions, similar to how life at sea enhances life on shore. The Captain of the D’Entrecasteaux mentions how difficult it was to collect all the crews’ cell phones during a delicate operation.
Madame asks me how I intend to go about writing a book. I mention how new this experience is for me, and how I would like to capture the ambiance and the challenges. Truly speaking, I have no idea, only the ambition of writing a series of five novels, a novel for each ocean, starting with the Pacific.
At the Circle Club, a concert of birds wakes me at dawn. From the other side of the world, I read that the poet Emmanuel Hocquard has died. “When speaking and writing, reading and translating, we seek an outlet. Writing is that release.”
Breakfast at the Circle Club. On television, Florence Parly, the French Minister of Defence declares: “If Jihadists die in combat, so much the better.” What can the government do about Jihadists? “Strip them of their French nationality,” declares Christophe Castaner. Behind me, four soldiers, two women and two men. An advertisement for ambitious bachelors follows the French politicians’ declarations.
The Captain comes to collect me from the Circle Club and we drive to the D’Entrecasteaux where all the crew is on board to review safety instructions. We line up on the rear deck, the officers on one side and the crew on the other, “Garde à vous ! Repos.” The Captain introduces me to the others and invites them to mix with me, like a new foreign child in school. And we are indeed the same size as a class, with twenty-seven pupils. The average age is around 30.
The D’Entrecasteaux is a wide, tall ship that looks more like a tugboat than a warship. 64 metres long, 14 metres wide, with a draft of 4.20 metres. Like a warship, it is painted grey. In the officers’ mess, it looks white in one of its portraits, like a luxury yacht, however the Captain doesn’t agree with this observation.
A few weeks before I embarked, the Marine changed the names of these ships from “la Force d’Action Navale de Bâtiment Multi-Missions (B2M)” to “Bâtiment de Soutien et d’Assistance d’Outre-Mer (BSAOM).” The D’Entrecasteaux has two crews, team A and team B, composed of 23 members. 3 officers: the Captain, the chief mate and the OPS. 17 petty officers and three quarter-masters and deckhands. The teams take turns every four months. Three VOA, Volontary Officer Candidates, are also on board, young polytechnicians who serve in the forces for a year. There are four women: second boatswain in charge of communication, the chief of the health department, the officer candidate and the naval writer.
The D’Entrecasteaux was built in Concarneau and sailed to Nouméa in 2016 with the A team, the team I’ll be sailing with. They have been living with their families in New Caledonia for the past three years, and upon their return will have to move back to either Toulon, Brest, Lorient or Paris in France. Many have not yet been informed of their future working base.
Rear deck, starboard side: we are grouped by lifeboats and informed about what should be done in case of fire, water ingress, leaking gas, collision or attack. We all depend on each other: what happens if someone loses his cool, will we have time to pack a bag with warm clothing, water, food, sun cream, sunglasses, A3P mask, identity papers, knife, cell phone, life jacket, pyrotechnics… The bosun, from Brittany, tells us that if we are linked together in the sea, we would be more visible. All this reminds me of certain moments in The Cruel Sea when the vessel is torpedoed. In the lifeboats, some drift off towards death whereas others cling onto life and tell their dying companions stories to keep them alive. The Captain gives the order to leave the ship, the horn is blown for 10 seconds. Once again, the instructions are emphasized: dress warmly, drink water before evacuating the ship, go to the evacuation zone, use the nets and ladders. Jump at the head of the lifeboat’s order, and only inflate the life jacket once you’ve jumped.
Discussion with a Navy and Air Force commander, on board for lunch:
– The Caldoches (French residents in New Caledonia) don’t want to leave. New Caledonia is their home. Before they created farms, there was nothing here.
– Yes, they’ve been here for generations. But who says they should leave?
– If we weren’t here, it would be difficult for them.
A Caledonian who doesn’t complain isn’t… French!
Cocktail / dinner at the Submarine commander and wife’s house. The view from Chaleix Point is beautiful from both sides: over both the Baie des Citrons and the Baie de l’Orphelinat (named after the orphans sent to New Caledonia by the Empress Eugénie as wives for the first settlers).
Two young Chinese men, Feng X. and Zhen L., work for the company that will be dismantling the Kea Trader, a small-sized container ship that split in two and sank after running aground onto a reef. We talk about how China has changed since 1988, when I spent six months there with Sigolène Prébois. They weren’t even born. Another China, without cars. We seem to understand each other well, or they’re good pretenders. The spirit of China is millenary, thanks to our language, says Feng, and thanks to our ancient tablets, says Zhen. Numbers aren’t even numbers in China, James B., a British intermediary, explains.
“Laps in the pool”
Six Naval Fusiliers and three members of the French army have just joined the crew of the D’Entrecasteaux to take part in exercises with three other ships: the Vendemiaire, the Glorieuse and the La Moqueuse. The idea is to train for the best way to deal with incidents, while ensuring that the crew of the D’Entrecasteaux, ashore for four months, get their hand in once more. This lasts five days. Then we’ll patrol on the high seas, at 11 knots, not in a straight line like a container ship, but according to our needs. Towards Brisbane.
I’m waiting for an organized visit of the Vendemiaire, due at 10AM, and afterwards, lunch on board with the frigate’s Captain and officers along with the Captain of the D’Entrecasteaux. The other ship that will be exercising with us, the Glorieuse, is a P400 that I visited two days ago. The crew is uniquely masculine, because there are no separate toilet facilities for women. This old ship, relatively speaking, that dates from the eighties, evokes Le Crabe Tambour, both the novel and the movie written and directed by Pierre Schoendoerffer. The crew, very young, is particularly attached to the Glorieuse, but this ship even so is quite messy, at least during her stopover at the wharf. The young sailors are one on top of the other, their strong bodies bustling over the deck of the rather cramped ship. In their cabins, clothes are flung here and there, and a large pirate flag is pinned on the wall of the mess room.
More than inhabiting this ship, they serve it, repair it, paint it, and clean it. Another characteristic: Patrimony. A poster of a car from the eighties remains on the wall of the mess room. Tradition dictates: the decoration stays as it is.
One feels the ship’s age. The Vendemiaire represents the nineties. Ninety aboard. No portholes on this frigate, like a floating submarine. Her bridge resembles a cupboard compared with that of the D’Entrecasteaux, which is immense, open to 360°. However, the sailors from the Vendemiaire call the D’Entrecasteaux a “veau” or a “calf,” because the BSAOM is deprived of the physical attributes of the Vendemiaire, namely the 100 mm CADAT turret with a Najir fire control system, two Exocet MM38 missiles and two 20 mm model F guns.
The Tjibaou Cultural Centre
The D’Entrecasteaux is still berthed on Saturday morning, so I take a taxi to the Tjibaou Cultural Centre. These beautiful buildings, dedicated to the Kanak soul, designed by Renzo Piano, are constructed like several birds’ nests enlarged for human beings, with rooms open to the four winds.
I’m moved to return to this place that I’d strode around in 2001. The surrounding vegetation has flourished. Niaoulis, fruit trees, medicinal and sacred plants, auraucarias, palms. The gardens, traditional houses and their verticality shelter the Kanak cause that Jean-Marie Tjibaou, murdered nine years before this living museum was finished, would have wished for.
Discussion with the artistic and cultural director, Guillaume Soulard. He sees the Centre as a laboratory of global reflection, which tends towards a strong contemporary vision of the world, and without concession. What do we have in common? What does it mean to be a Kanak in 2019? Our identity is before us, he tells me. The Tjibaou Cultural Centre does not look backwards to France, but towards its own country, towards Oceania.
I’m looking for something quite apart, because as to what concerns culture, the Caledonians, Kanaks and Caldoches have a real religious and family life – in their tribes, in the countryside and in their towns. This enriches them; you can’t just offer them four shows a week like in France. You have to go and seek out the Oceanians, you have to appeal to them. They won’t come by thmselves. For the exhibition Let’s Save the World that we’re preparing now, someone whispered to me: “We need Jean-Jacques for this show.” Jean-Jacques has no telephone and no dossier to send by mail. We get the car out. We’re available. Off we go.
The dramaturge Pierre Gope is invited every year, like a chronicler who says exactly what he thinks about all the different parties. Written in 1997, his play Où est le droit ? (Where is the Law?) tackles rape and the clash between different visions of justice. His last play is called Moi, je vote blanc (My Vote is Blank). Nobody has any idea of what should be done in New Caledonia, and politics here is constructed around that. Everything remains blocked to the detriment of social causes and education.
“We’re fortunate being able to vote,” but in twenty years nobody has been able to convince anybody. At the last referendum, it was Mediapart who coined the phrase: The winners disappointed, the losers happy.
We’re thinking about reopening an art school, because the last one closed in 2001.
We’re discussing this with the University of Brisbane.
Guillaume Soulard gives me a tour of the museum’s reserve, a real labyrinth of stored Pacific works of art. Backstage, that’s why I love this job, he tells me.
I return with him to meet his wife, Phuong Do. A teacher, she works in collaborative research to encourage educational success in a multicultural Oceanian context. We become friends.
Back to the D’Entrecasteaux for morning exercises before we leave.
The Captain is the barometre of the ship. Ours is smiling, indefatigable, attentive, discreet, but always present. I meet the cook: there are always salads and fresh fruit aboard – we’ll serve you small portions if you like. Regarding the fact that he’ll be returning to France after completing his three-year mission: “My wife and the children loved it here.”
Departure’s in the air. The Army comes aboard.
The D’Entrecasteaux is shipshape; everything folded, stored carefully, mainly due to the bosun’s demands for meticulous work. On the bridge, the Captain’s throne in the middle looks over his realm. Justine, one of the candidate officers, is working on the navigation maps on paper. Depths of over twenty metres are in blue. Less than ten metres, in light blue. The foreshore, grassy marshlands where the tortoises live, at 0 metres, is coloured green. Land is yellow. Only things serving as landmarks are shown on land: pylons, water towers, Croix de Lorraine, heights. The seabed can change, and suddenly the maps are out-of-date. On the screens are other maps.
The Captain replies to his mail. Bearded sailors smoke on the bridge.
We’ll do “laps in the pool” all week in order to carry out the CAGOU exercise with an impressive air and naval presence. The Cagou, a New Caledonian bird, is threatened with extinction (she only lays one egg per year).
Among the Naval combat exercises: a simulated suicide attack by a small boat. ASYMEX (assymetric fighting). Man overboard. Fire. Towing. Refuelling at sea.
Fortunately, there wasn’t a real person overboard, because I glimpsed several shark fins, says the midshipman, the youngest officer in training.
At night there is no movement, flat calm.
“Branle-bas, branle-bas!” – the D’Entrecasteaux wake-up call. I go up to the bridge at daybreak, 5AM. Justine and the First Mate are calculating, a sailor is communicating by light signals with the far-off Vendemiaire. It’s cloudy. In this theatre, as one says for naval operations, the Pacific is in Atlantic disguise.
The nurse warns us of the symptoms of dengue fever: fatigue, aching muscles.
Somewhere far-off, I imagine officers’ wives partying in the houses and serviced apartments.
What’s said during these parties. What’s said between military personnel: “Dear politicians, it’s with great pleasure that we in the military place the entire responsibility of starting wars on you. As for us, we do our best, modestly, to bring peace as often as it’s needed.”
To be continued…
Translation by the author
Cover: Emmelene Landon, Houailou as seen from the D’Entrecasteaux (detail), painted on an expired navigation chart I