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Interview : Yves Marre, A Prince Amongst Men


Interview : Yves Marre, A Prince Amongst Men

He's not a racer, an architect or a builder. No, his speciality is generosity and human contact. You will have realised that this is no ordinary meeting. A ray of light in the Autumn misery ... A ray of hope. There are still people in whom we can believe, who give their all, and who fulfil their objectives, fighting wind and high seas, with their only thought being to help those who are in need. We met up with an exceptional and inspiring person: Yves Marre.

He's waiting for us, sat on the bridge of his Moon Boat, beached incongruously in a corner of Hall 1 of the Paris Boat Show. Black trousers, shirt and jacket: a sober exterior which stands out against the white of his hair and beard, the only indication of the passing years. He shakes my hand over the rail and fixes me with his blue eyes. The contact is direct and unpretentious. We had managed to nail him down for the whole of lunchtime for our meeting. The press attaché for the Watever association is despairingly trying to manage his coveted time. We promise that we will stick to our timing. In the end we only overshoot by 50%! Yves admits that he's a talker, and he frequently punctuates his long stories with an "I must try and be more concise". For nearly two hours, we are oblivious to the hubbub of the show. We don't even notice the people who come and go at the neighbouring tables. we are transfixed by a life story which is often stranger than fiction.

Yves Marre's first love was flying. The kid from Toulouse who lived by the Montaudran aerodrome. This was where many flying pioneers had left from, including his hero St Exupéry, and he in turn dreamt of a career as a professional pilot. His eyesight wasn't good enough though, although this wouldn't stop him flying around the world as a steward. A dream career too, and he would also become a hang glider and a para glider pilot, going on to teach both disciplines. He left his then Parisian home to fly, and became one of the first dreamers, or "madmen" to motorise their wings. He became the first person to cross the English Channel on one of them. This of course was carried out without any authorisation, and he landed in the garden of...a customs officer! He was charged with five offences but was let off, no doubt thanks to his appearance on the Canal + television station at peak time. This was a great grounding for learning about the role of the media in today's society. He transported doctors and medicines into the most remote areas of the world for Aviation Sans Fontières. An adventurous, sometimes risky business, which could have ended in a microlight crash in the Amazon. Where some only saw a green hell, he saw a Paradise. He's a resourceful kind of chap, and certainly has no intention of thinking about his holidays or retirement. No, what interests him is Life itself with a capital L, and all the immediacy that goes with it.

He would have continued with his high-flying professional career, but not wanting to tempt fate a little too often, he decided to transfer his passion from the air to the sea. Safer you might think? Not necessarily. He swapped his Parisian apartment for a small Joshua, and immediately took on the Atlantic Ocean. He was inexperienced though, and got lost, taking 36 days to sail from Brittany to Madeira! He was determined though, and despite the first hiccup, he managed a there and back transat, before selling his boat (or giving it away more like), to be able to settle in a 25m barge in the Paris region, all the time carrying out commercial flights. However, when you're flying all over the world, or coming back from a transat, the Seine can seem a little cramped. As he didn't have enough money to buy a sea-going boat, he set off in his barge! For a change of scenery, he went through Belgium, but by the time he reached Nieuport, he was still not satisfied. So, he cut radio contact, and set off! 36 days later it wasn't Madeira where he turned was Miami, where he managed to sell a boat which should never have reached there. This is one strong-willed guy

Back in Paris, he started to reinvent himself again. He had been accepted by the Bargemen as a one of them, in recognition of his odyssey across the ocean. It was whilst on board the aptly named "Saint Exupéry", that he learned of the government's plan to scrap all the " Freycinettes" barges. Through sheer perseverance, not a little haranguing, and thanks to a little help from politicians Michel Rocard, and Jacques Delors, the Transport Ministry caved in and offered him a barge if it were to be used for humanitarian ends. The preparation and the trip down to Port Saint Louis du Rhône were done whilst the Friendship association was being set up. Their destination was... Bangladesh! Getting over all the associated obstacles such as obtaining a flag, finding refuge in various ports in bad weather, or getting through a strictly controlled Suez Canal, (where the pilot who came aboard exclaimed "but you're not a yacht!") was just another challenge that our modern day Robin Hood took on with his usual conviction, blind courage, and not a little mischievousness! But who was going to stop him? He represented a noble cause. The idea was to transform the barge into a floating hospital for Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries. Being only just above sea level, Bangladesh is the Country of Water. Seen through a plane's window up in the sky, Yves Marre was fascinated by what appeared to be a huge mirror. At regular intervals, wild monsoons, floods, cyclones and tidal waves would cause thousands of victims.

Having finally arrived, the story was only just beginning. The Hospital Without Frontiers went bust and the boat was looted. Anything that could happen did. Yves Marre shook himself down and got to work, setting up Friendship Bangladesh, which he hoped would get the project of the ground. Something which would take three long years. During this time he fell in love with Runa, the daughter of the doctor who had welcomed him upon his arrival. Through Eugène Riguidel, he contacted Marc Van Peteghem, and so began a wonderful story: the meeting of two humanists, of two generous people, and especially the creation of the association "Watever": Catamaran ambulances; unsinkable fishing boats; research into bio-composites (jute, bamboo...); the launching of a local sea rescue company and the preservation of the magnificent Bengali maritime heritage, such as the famous Moon Boats. According to a visibly impressed designer, Christophe Barreau, they were "the most beautiful boats at the show". Today, having been made a Bangladeshi citizen by the Prime Minister himself is undoubtedly the highest honour which he could receive. Yves Marre lives with his family in Dhaka, and regularly visits the Tara Tari shipyard in Chittagong.

How can you condense Yves Marre's life into two pages? It's impossible. If you want to know more about his experiences, I can only recommend that you read his book "Lone Sailor." His life is like a picaresque novel, with the hero being a cross between Indiana Jones and the French anti-poverty campaigner the Abbé Pierre. He of course would be too humble to come up with such a comparison, but you cannot but conjure up such an image when this action man gets all emotional recounting Mother Teresa's visit on board the hospital ship "Friendship". She was the humanist symbol that he dreamed of meeting, who finally came to meet him. A wonderful present for a man who is more used to giving than receiving.

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