Témoignage de l’étranger

MARCEL BARDIAUX — THE LAST CHAPTER

« I honestly confess that many times, when I saw my sails in ribbons and my poor boat struggling desparately on a raging sea, plunging down terrific precipices, disappearing under monstrous waves that threatened to swallow her, then pointing her bows to the black skies as if to implore the mercy of him whose will dispenses life and death, yes many times I said to myself: ‘If I get away with it this time, I’ll never set foot on a boat again.’ »

— Marcel Bardiaux

French adventurer Marcel Bardiaux did keep setting foot on boats again, of course. One of those boats, the ketch Inox, brought him sailing up the Petitcodiac and into the lives of Metro Monctonians in the summer of 1986. Those who have wondered what ever became of him after he sailed out of Moncton a few months later will be sad to hear he has died. Given that he was 76-years-old when he visited Moncton, you might be surpirsed to learn he passed away just a few years ago. According to another French sailor, Alfred Walther, « Marcel went away in February 2000, in Redon. »

Redon is a city of 40,000 in Brittany, roughly as far inland from the Bay of Biscay as Moncton is inland from the Bay of Fundy. Redon is the meeting place of two major rivers and the Nanates to Brest canal though, so sailing into the city wouldn’t have been nearly as difficult as the master mariner’s entry to Moncton in 1986.

While people in New Brunswick were impressed by Bardiaux’s adventures, it seems few of us realized just what a celebrity he was in the world of sail. He was only the ninth man to sail around the world alone when he did it in the 1950s. Such a feat was first accomplished only 50 years earlier when Joshua Slocum, who was born not too far from Joseph Salter’s birthplace in Nova Scotia, gained fame for his solo circumnavigation aboard the sloop Spray. Even today, according to Commodore Ted Jones of the Joshua Slocum Society in Bethel, Connecticut, less than 50 men and women have ever completed such a journey. As well, Bardiaux was the first one to make the more difficult and dangerous journey westward around the Horn, something he would eventually do again in one of his three circumnavigations. At the time of his arrival in Moncton, he had also crossed the Atlantic alone 28 times, surely a record by far.

Despite these accomplishments, Bardiaux seems to have been forgotten in his native France. Alfred Walther, surprised to be contacted by a Canadian newspaper reporter, was nevertheless touched to learn of interest in the sailor on this side of the Atlantic. In an e-mail reply to the Times & Transcript’s inquiries, Walther said, « I am glad at least one of you worries three years after Marcel’s death, » and later, « I am totally surprised and ashamed of the lack of interest of French people for Bardiaux’s story and memory. »

Walther lives in Paris, a four hour drive from Redon, but visited Bardiaux whenever he could get to the city. Of the ancient mariner’s death, Walther says, « I get this only four months later while bringing him cake and cider to share with him as we had a short time/long discussions together about him, the boat and his navigations. »

Not only does Alfred Walther have the answer to what became of Marcel Bardiaux, he also knows what became of the last boat to sail into Moncton. He writes, « I bought Inox two years ago from his sole legatee, and since then I’m refitting the boat. » Walther was born in Madagascar and says he’s been fortunate to see much of the world himself. He plans to put Inox to sea again and keep a sailing tradition alive, but his exact destination is not yet firm.

The armchair adventurers among us who followed Bardiaux’s story closely in 1986 will remember his struggles to fix his boat’s motor and the cantankerous sailor’s battles with its British manufacturer R.S. Lister and Company Ltd.. The company at the time was surprised to learn an engine of that particular model was still out on the high seas decades after it was discontinued but managed nevertheless to find the parts Bardiaux needed and offered them at a cut rate.

Bardiaux thought the price — any price — was still too high, claiming he was promised a lifetime guarantee when he obtained the engine 30 years earlier. The company maintained the guarantee was good only for the first voyage. In the end, local people helped out, machining the parts Bardiaux needed.

One can’t help but smile ruefully at reading the comments of the new owner of the Inox. « I’m struggling with the motor, which is completely out of order (Lister FRM3, 27 PWH, 3cyl.) and for which, Lister company did not even answer to my request to get genuine parts, neither sponsor a new engine…! I am now looking for another one, and gosh! how difficult it is. »

It was in fact the motor problem that brought Bardiaux to Moncton on a voyage from Louisiana. Learning there was a French consulate in the city, he called ahead to ask that it hold his mail and that he would be arriving to pick up needed engine parts. Bardiaux was also looking forward to celebrating the Bastille Day in the company of his countrymen at the consulate and was sure to make land in Canada the day before the French national holiday Alain Sice, the consul at the time, knew he would be having an esteemed visitor. It was just that, « no one thought for a moment that he would be sailing up the Petitcodiac River, » Sice said at the time. The consul, however, noted wryly that nothing sailors did surprised him.

Marcel Bardiaux’s voyage to the city was in many ways a fitting end to the story of shipping and the age of sail in Moncton and on the Petitcodiac. He sailed past Fort Folly where for generations the Mi’kmaq had bravely gone to sea in fragile birch bark canoes. He sailed past Chipoudie, where Acadian mariners plied the waterways before the expulsion sent them to Louisiana and the angry Beausoleil put to sea in search of revenge.

Just as generations of expert mariners found themselves struggling to navigate around the dangers of the muddy tidal river, so did Bardiaux, as skilled a sailor as you might find anywhere. When Bardiaux got in trouble off Belliveau Village, a local fisherman, one of the last to pursue that other dead Petitcodiac industry, went to his aid, the fisherman’s helping hand a modern echo of the river crossings and fellowship between the Belliveaus and Steeveses who built small boats of their own on that stretch many years ago.

Bardiaux landed the ketch and tied up literally a stone’s throw from where Captain Hall landed the settlers who would do so much to build the future of Moncton. For months Bardiaux worked on the boat he had built himself at the mouth of Hall’s Creek just a mile downstream from the branch of the creek where Benjamin Stanton built the area’s first major vessel at Lewisville. His berth was the old Irving pier, the last wharf in Moncton and the spot where the steel ship Irving Elkhound tied up in 1949, the largest vessel ever to navigate the Petitcodiac. Less than a decade after Apex Machine Works had briefly revived shipbuilding in Moncton, employing the skills of modern metal working craftsmen, other local machinists volunteered their skills to get the voyager on his way again.

At the time of Bardiaux’s visit, many commented on the historical resonance of this interesting chapter in our lives. E.W. Larracey said in an intervioew at the time, « He has written what most likely will be the last chapter in Moncton’s history as a shipping centre. » Alain Sice commented on how the Frenchman’s landing even called to mind that of Champlain just down the Fundy coast in 1604, when the first European settlement in Canada was established on a tiny island in the St. Croix River near St. Andrews.

Finally, the story of Marcel Bardiaux symbolizes why we continue to be fascinated with the Moncton area’s golden age of shipbuilding and seafaring, even if the revisionist historians who question its overall impact should happen to be right. How many of us have dreamed of building a boat and setting out on the seven seas? How many of us are fascinated with the way the world’s waterways connect and how a message in a bottle tossed into the Petitcodiac might end up halfway across the world? The urge to travel and meet other peoples is eternal.

Before the aviation age ships were our only way to cross the vast waters of the earth. To be able to set sail from a creek in Lewisville and land in England or Buenos Aries is to change the whole way you view your world. To sail west around Cape Horn alone is to know what’s difficult is nevertheless possible, even when it’s as difficult an act as navigating the modern Petitcodiac.

« On land, it’s too complicated, » Bardiaux told the Times & Transcript in 1986, adding the sea afforded man one of the last havens of solitude and peace. « It’s the only place where you are really free. »

Before our railways and runways and freeways were our waterways. Marcel Bardiaux — and we hope, publications like this — remind us of that sometimes forgotten part of our past.

At the time of his Moncton visit, Marcel Bardiaux said in an interview he wanted to be the first centenarian to sail around the world. He didn’t quite make it, but did complete his last major voyage at 88, crossing the Atlantic from the Gaspé to Redon, where he tied up and continued to live aboard Inox, answering letters and writing a new book until he was hospitalized.

But for a scant nine years between Joseph Salter’s death and Marcel Bardiaux’s birth, the distance between our modern times and our distant shipbuilding past would have been a mere two lifetimes. Salter wrote the first chapter of our shipping history in the 19th century and died in the first month of 1901, what his contemporaries celebrated as the beginning of the 20th century. Marcel Bardiaux wrote the last chapter of our shipping history in the twentieth century and died in the second month of 2000, what his contemporaries celebrated as the beginning of the 21st century. We are left with two questions. Who will write the next volume? And when will the shipping story of a new century begin?

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