Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Escaping from an abandoned island prison off the French coast in the Med sounds like a Count of Monte Cristo story waiting to be told or a swashbuckling flick straight out of Hollywood’s golden years. When you’re a serial prison island escapist, it’s more likely another morning swim. On a sunny and windy Sunday morning, I am lucky to swim to the prison island Fort de Brescou with extreme swimmer Jacques Tuset and a friend, Axel Vander Elst.
At 10.30am, we meet on the parking lot. Overnight, westerly winds have picked up and the deep blue sea is rippled with interrupted white lines that fade as they stretch into the horizon. On surrounding dunes, seaside daisies sway in unison with each wind gust. As the air temperature’s on the fresh side (for the south of France 😉), I’m keeping my sweater on as the crew finishes to blow up an inflatable stand-up paddleboard (SUP) for William, Jacques’ son, who will accompany us along the swim. It will be great for visibility and for carrying flip-flops to the island. When it’s done, sunscreen appears out of a car boot to be rubbed onto our backs.
Though I’ve often heard about Fort de Brescou, I have never seen it with my own eyes. My dad’s told me many times of his feat of swimming there with his friend Louis in the 1950s – back in the days of swimming without goggles, swim caps, tow floats, or anything much apart from a swimming costume, really. I’m thrilled to finally see the iconic paternal spot but it’s hidden from sight where we are, so Jacques walks me to the middle of the parking lot and points in the distance. It’s out there, right beyond the harbor walls, a 17th century fort topped with a red and white lighthouse, standing strong in the sea. No-nonsense high walls, watch towers at each corner, the fort occupies much of the small volcanic outcrop and was clearly built for captivity – not a single bay window to enjoy that gorgeous sea view.
Jacques’ family has come in full force, his wife Fabienne hanging out with their teenage daughter and one of her friends while we set off. Jacques and I go back to 2015 when I swam the Défi de Monte Cristo, an iconic prison island swim that’s the highlight of many French open water swimmers for the beauty of its scenery in Marseilles. Yet another prison island swim for a swimmer best known to swim-scape from prison islands as a fundraiser for a disease that blinds young boys. Since Monte Cristo, we’ve kept in touch and I sporadically swim with Jacques’ group of open water swimmers in Occitanie. This group is where I met Axel, a swimmer with an ironman/triathlon background, a couple of weeks ago. Today, the three of us are eager to swim something more exciting than following a beeline of rocky breakwaters along the shore, however great that is too.
We walk down to the beach, Plage Richelieu – named after Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister of King Louis 13th, who built the sea wall and the harbor. Our first reflex as we step into the water is a sharp breath in. The body/water temperature differential always comes as a surprise which is weird when the water’s in fact a lovely 18C/64F – a great swimming temperature. In the shallows, we walk on the sandy bottom while William gets the hang of a SUP in windy conditions. In the distance, I spot a familiar sight that warms my heart.
Waist-deep in the water, we contemplate the jagged triangular shape in the distance – about 100 km/62 miles south of us, here is el Canigó, iconic Catalan mountain that we summited with my girls in 2012. I can’t believe the air visibility – that we can see a mountain in the Pyrenees rising from the sea so far along the coast. You might have guessed – el Canigó is not any old mountain. Symbol of Catalunya, it is celebrated every year on the night of St John with the Flama del Canigó. Remember The Lord of the Rings when the beacon of Minas Tirith is lit in Gondor to call Rohan to their aid? Same thing – just about. Every June 22nd, the fire of the Flama del Canigó, which has been burning throughout the year at the Perpignan Castellet, is carried to the mountain’s summit. At midnight, the fire from the flame is shared out among those present and straightaway they set off in the night (which can’t be easy, it’s not a cakewalk), splitting and spreading the fire to light the St John (Sant Joan) bonfires in hundreds of towns, villages and cities. Everywhere, when the flame has reached its destination, before the bonfires are lit, a common message is read out to remind everyone of its significance. As you see, el Canigó is so much more than any old mountain. But back to our plot.
Now fully immersed, it’s time for us to swim. I put my head in and instantly forget the temperature of the water. It feels good to swim though I’m rusty – my frozen shoulder had me stop swimming in August 2019 after I swam Windermere. As the slowest swimmer of the trio, I set the pace and both Jacques and Axel swim in spurts ahead of me before coming back, making sure that one of them is always buddying me. Past the breakwater, the sand disappears as the sea floor drops away. It doesn’t drop so far as to turn black but the deep water is a dark shade of blue green. With the chop, I can’t breathe every three without getting slapped by incoming waves and prefer to breathe every four or five strokes, depending on what’s coming at me. It’s easier that way and I can still keep a roughly straight course. Behind William, we aim East of the island to be pushed in the right direction. Every so often, we raise our head and adjust the course.
Stroke by stroke, the island gets closer. The sky is impossibly blue above our heads and we’re all getting slow-baked by the sun in the sea. From afar, I can see the lighter sand color of the beach where we’ll land. Jacques planned to land behind a jetty but a fishing boat docks in front of us and we switch landing spots. It’s not like we’re spoiled for choice anyway, there’s only two on either side of the jetty. In the last 100m, the sea floor reappears and with it, a scattering of fluffy seaweed, rocks and unidentified darker vegetation on sand.
“Beware the urchins,” say both Jacques and Axel. Urchins. That explains the dark spikes. Noted. Closer to the island, we don our flip-flops but it’s too tricky to tiptoe around the shallow rocks in flip-flops, swished around by the swell. What if one of the seaweeds hid an urchin? It’s easier to float and scull towards the beach.
Welcome to Fort de Brescou! It feels surreal to set foot on the prison island as the only humans. A rusty gate, padlocked, reveals a courtyard overgrown with sea malva, seaside daisies and other coastal greens. A sick seagull hobbles past us to go through the metal gate and take shelter inside where probably, a gate hides the actual fort. There’s no trespassing but Jacques, who’s been inside with Ned Denison, describes it to us. Past the door, you enter a courtyard leading to the lightkeeper’s house (on the spot of former army barracks), the lighthouse, a chapel and underground cells – which is far from 17th century design as illustrated by this 1787 map.
Once a hiding lair for pirates and privateers, the island’s destiny is sealed when Richelieu starts building an army harbor on the coast and converts a 16th century fort into a prison. From 1687 to 1852, the prison sees a variety of criminals, from rebelling Huguenots to libertine party animals, or Algerian prisoners of war. Reflecting societal order outside the island, wealthy prisoners are housed separately from poor prisoners, enjoying different privileges and prisoners all have to pay for their upkeep (food, heating, bed rental, gambling essentials). That’s unless they’re unlucky enough to be thrown in underground tower cells on order of the King, in which case prisoners probably rot away without much upkeep at all.
It’s time to return to shore. Our brief jaunt on the island only last 10 minutes, more than enough time to fantasize about visiting the fort again some day. To historical sites lovers, Fort de Brescou could be another Fort Jefferson, with a few million euros thrown in and the serious will to get things done.
We’re back in the water, only this time round, boat traffic is picking up. It must be around lunch time. Axel and I take the lead and swim on but Jacques and William stay behind. About half-way through the narrow strait, Axel and I spot a sailboat coming our way. Even with tow-floats, we are not taking any chances and prefer to stop and let the sailboat move on. Of course, that’s when they drop anchor and stop moving. Brief words with Axel, we keep swimming. By the looks of William’s white SUP closer the island, Jacques is quite far and we watch in disbelief as a motorboat speeds by in Jacques’ direction. William stands on his SUP and frantically waves at the oblivious boaters until suddenly, they hit the brakes. Sheesh. That SUP was a brilliant decision.
I can feel a current pushing us West, it’s gotten more noticeable up since the way over or we’re now swimming with a bit of a headwind. Regardless, I don’t fancy ending up in the Baleares or Corsica today.
Past the sea wall, we’ll be safe, says Axel. Come on, sea wall, get closer.
As young Dory would say, just keep swimming.
And so we keep swimming.
Head for the cranes, says Axel. Sighting in open water is always tricky and tall landmarks are the best way to navigate safely to land. These two cranes make a great sighting landmark in a sea that’s increasingly lively, churning us like flotsam. Finally Jacques catches up with us and the three of us are now swimming together with William as our SUP beacon. My, that last stretch is a bit of a fight but we make it and with the biggest grins on our faces, touch sand again.
There’s nothing more satisfying than a swim completed, particularly if conditions were on the interesting side of life. We get the SUP back to the parking lot and meet up with Jacques’ family again. Sounds like they’ve been having a ball and thanks to our orange tow-floats, Fabienne was able to track us from the jetty all along our swim up to the island.
Dry and dressed, we strike a pose for a parting shot.
For adrenaline fans, Jacques sums up our swim in a brilliant short video clip that shows how much he enjoys swim adventures.
Fort de Brescou – check.
Although. Learning more about the history of the place really piqued my curiosity.