Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Day One in France: Be careful, the ferry exit is slippery...

On approach to Rosslare Harbour there are a lot of pubs, shops and petrol stations claiming to be the "last pub/shop/petrol station" before the ferry whisks you off to a land, apparently, without pubs, shops, or petrol stations. That's how it sounded to me anyway as I rode past on the VFR, another VFR behind me, in time for the ferry to France. Following advice dished out elsewhere I did actually find what I think is indeed the final petrol station before the ferry and filled the VFRs tank there so enable me a clear run from Cherbourg without too many worries about fuel. It would be the second stop in a petrol station that day for the first stop saw me hanging out at Waterford's old port facilities at Ferrybank where I had arranged to meet Paul on his red VFR. Paul's VFR is so clean it looks like it just came out of a showroom and while we debated whether or not his bike may have arrived in the UK, and then Ireland, from the US (I thought so due to the different colour of the switchgear markings, being red rather than white), the nearby car wash was misting both of our bikes. In between cars being washed we were able to grab a coffee, have a chat and even take a picture of the two us looking at MCN's recent new VFR800 review in front of our two 750s.
Paul and I looking at MCN. I think I may have been laughing at the lack of gear-driven cams in the new VFR. And the last ones.
Paul kindly gave me his copy of MCN for reading on the ferry and it came in very useful too, for which I offered him a bar of Cadbury's Caramel which had been packed into my tankbag the night before for the journey. With caffeine now in the veins we decided to move on towards Rosslare. Not to get all romantic about two-wheeled travel here but there really was something special in being accompanied down to the ferry by someone with whom I could talk about VFRs, shoot the breeze as regards bikes, and just have a great bike-related catch up with. While I was supposedly going to ride to La Ferte Bernard alone, it seemed that I was never far from a friendly person on another bike and this proved true on the ferry as well.

Boarding the ferry after filling up was a simple enough process, I followed the car lines, stopped at the checkpoint and handed over my documents and passport, was given back the passport and 3 tickets (not unlike cinema tickets in their look) and was instructed to follow lane 9. At the top of the lane a guy in a hi-viz instructed me on where to go next but really I was just following the bike in front of me. I thought it was a BMW but actually it turned out to be an MZ Mastiff, the first time I had seen one in real life! I was extremely gentle with the bike along the slippery ferry floor and kept my fingers well away from the front brake but the ramp on to the second floor of the car deck was good fun. My next encounter however saw me struggling with the strapping to tie the bike down. In the online videos it looks so easy, a monkey could do it. And a monkey could. But I am no monkey and I failed! After asking the MZ guy if he could help me out, which he did, I thought I was in business but the strap just kept taking up more and more room on the ratchet without really tightening on the bike. To top it all off my personal sauna was now up to temperature. Sweating underneath the layers of bike clothing and attempting not to breath in the fumes of cars surrounding me, it felt as if I had installed a small furnace of sauna coals inside my suit with each drop of sweat sending steam flying in all directions. To say this was less than comfortable would be quite the understatement. Obviously struggling and, being the only one left, I approached the lady who was helping to load the ferry by standing about in a hi-viz jacket and chattering on a radio (perfectly legitimate work perhaps). She was less than helpful and not terribly enamoured with the feminism which had changed men-women relationships over the last decades. "I am woman, you wait for man to come". "Em, ok, thanks", and off I went to continue my personal sauna session. When a man did finally come along he saw that the strapping I was using was faulty and found me a new one before lashing the bike down in a gentle fashion, asking me along the way if I were happy with the position of the strap and such. He couldn't have been more helpful.
Not a whole load of room...

Local bomb site after my "sauna"

One tip I should pass on to others here is that, if you are on an overnight ferry, keep a seperate set of overnight gear in a plastic bag in the topbox so you can just grab that gear (jeans, shirt, jumper, shoes, washbag) along with your tankbag (documents, camera, reading material, some munchies). Grabbing that stuff I found my cabin, dumped my stuff and had a post-sauna shower (the shower was remarkably good!)

It was my first time on a ferry so everything was a bit of a novelty for me but looking back on it, it's not a bad way to travel at all. Looking at people carrying whole bed clothes with them from their cars made me think of the lengths we go to conform to airline baggage regulations! This was a whole other kettle of fish. After my shower I rang home to say a proper goodbye having not left on wonderful terms. A lot of it was my own fault, I had wanted to "get in the zone" to begin thinking of the long journey ahead and plan through it one last time in my head but everyone (all 3 of them) was very closely watching, questioning what bike clothing I was wearing when usually not an eyelid would be batted and I felt like I was not being given enough space to get myself ready. There had been a whole morning for the questioning and general curiosity, now was not the time for it. I thought about it on the ride to Rosslare and had decided a phonecall was needed to clear the air and it doubled as the first phonecall from the deck of a ferry as I watched us steam out of the harbour.
Bye Bye Rosslare!

 Now it was time to go and explore the boat but I also had a few things to do, I had my route to plan over again, dinner to think of, the night sky to see, MCN to read and also some PhD books to read through. All was going well until just before dinner as the water became a little choppy. For most it would've been no issue at all but I was cursing myself for not bringing sea-sickness tablets and also becoming increasingly annoyed with the French schoolkids who thought that they had inherited a ferry and were now free to annoy everyone else. Then there were the small kiddies who were so excited at the prospect of being on a boat that they were running around between everyone and generally acting fearless. As my stomach churned a little and my head became light I felt more as if they were running on me, not around me. Thinking some dinner would fix this I made my way to The Left Bank brasserie, one of about four dining options onboard. Fish and chips for about €14 didn't sound as extortionate as it could have been but it didn't even come with peas. Maybe it was to stop excited kids throwing them at one another, or adults from throwing them at the staff due to having to suffer through a James Blunt album (yep a full album on the speakers in there...). Full, but not in a satisfied way, and not in a healthy way either, I retired to my cabin and lay down to watch a funny movie on the old heavy TV. The cabins are en-suite but the toilets flush like aircraft ones so there were times when a nearby toilet would flush but I thought, the first few times, that these were noises from the car deck. Visions of a VFR crushed up against a Ford Focus flooded into my head before I fiinally realised these were toilet flushes and the car deck was way too far down...I mean it'd have to have been a monster-truck destruction derby to hear it this far up the ferry. Funnily enough I had the best sleep I have had in a long time once the film was finished and I was after working out the source of the noises.

Reading the VFR review in MCN near the table-service (expensive, very) restaurant on board.

The next morning I woke up properly refreshed, something I never really feel when I wake up, and went in search of breakfast. Again it was fairly oily and expensive but I had it anyway. I could have been wiser in my choices, it's not necessarily a criticism of Irish Ferries. A coffee later and I could see land so I sat down to go over my route again, circling the towns I would go through on the way to La Ferte Bernard and writing the route on a piece of notepaper. Disembarkation from the ferry was like the queue for the last helicopter out of Vietnam as people rushed to the lifts and stairs. With less bike gear on this time (no bodywarmers) my sauna was turned off and I just observed the frantic mess going on about me while then remembering that I had no idea which car deck I was on. Therefore it was time to jump into said frantic mess. Meeting the guy on the MZ again we struck up a conversation about riding in France, bikes in general and I think there were times when neither of us understood the other due to noise and helmets but we were happy enough to agree on whatever point the other person was putting across. Then came the warning as the bikes lined up to get off the ferry, "it's very slippery at the end of the exit, be careful". Oh Oh. One by one the bikes went down the long ramp on to the slippery deck but everyone made it out ok. The wheels turning on French soil, the blue sky, the Gallic surroundings, all made for an incredible experience as the VFR left behind the shadow of the ferry.

Another tip, keep your passport in your tankbag as you will need to present it to exit the port facility. The French police woman examined it, looked at me through the helmet (wonder how she could tell it was me?) and then waved me on. I was in. Or at least I thought I was. Having put the sidestand down, when I put the bike in gear it cut out...embarrassing!

Stopping further up the road, following some advice given by the good people at irishbikerforum.com, I pulled in to the roadside and watched the traffic to adjust myself to it. Mr MZ was there as well and we chatted a bit more before my insulation tape came in handy to fix his charger for the GPS he was using. Within the conversation it came up that he had ridden a 125cc bike to Mongolia with a group of friends a couple of years ago and it was being featured in an adventure bike magazine this month. It made my own journey seem all the more small. I took a quick picture and soon we were both on our respective ways.

The MZ!
Once the MZ had pulled off it was time for me to crack on. The road to St. Lo was easy to negotiate and not unlike a motorway in Ireland and, so far, driving on the right, had proven relatively easy to do. Overcoming initial doubts about the route in St. Lo which necessitated a quick stop to check the map more thoroughly and for me to watch the temperature gauge climb up and me to picture some images of burnt electrics, I was on my way to Vire and then Flers before becoming very familiar with Alencon and finally making it to La Ferte Bernard. The roadsigns were always very clear, except for within some of the larger towns which is understandable given the amount of streets there were and the fact I was using "D" roads which are similar to regional roads in Ireland. Patience was the main thing, and besides, this was part of the experience, I was getting to ride in different towns and not simply bypass them as if they didn't exist. My one regret is not taking more pictures of this but I was becoming a little worried about my timing and whether or not I would arrive before dark as I was pretty sure the roadsigns wouldn't be half as useful when I would struggle to see them!

Once I arrived in La Ferte Bernard I made sure to send my long-suffering girlfriend a text massage to let her know I was just minutes away. On the verrrry empty D3 road that I had taken to get me to LFB I had practicing my standing up and waving routine. Any farmers in the area that I failed to spot must have thought it very strange indeed but at this part of the journey I was both hysterical with excitement, full of amazement that I was actually riding in France, and struggling to keep in mind that most accidents happen near the destination as the mind switches to think of other things. Once the bike was parked and I made my way into the apartment these are the things that were stacked on the table for me...

A few of my favourite things from the last time I was over

 I had become a real fan of Banania, baguettes and Speculoos the last time I was over, along with the rest of the pictures items. After riding 300 miles from my house to La Ferte Bernard it was a very good welcome present!

If you have read this far, thanks, and I hope you enjoyed it. I know this post had no real coherence to it really but it was a stream of thought/memories more than anything. Stay tuned to see if they improve...


  1. Glad you got over safely Nevin. Great to catch up with you before your departure.Keep us all posted with your very entertaining blog.

    1. Thanks Paul! Great to catch you on the way over. Send me on your email address and I will make sure to get those photos off to you!