Article bu Katrin Deeg based on an interview with Alex Etourneau, February 2021
Tucked up along the west coast of France about 50 kilometres from the mouth of the Loire river, sits Noirmoutier. This island is home to renowned, centuries-old salt flats. It is also home to Alex Etourneau, co-founder of Les Caboteurs de Lune who have been a Voyage Coop Port Enterprise since 2016. Alex helped us understand how he has built a community of sail-cargo enthusiasts on his island and beyond.
New Dawn Traders: What is your first memory of the sea?
Alex Etourneau: An early memory that has stuck with me is from around the time that my mom and I moved to Noirmoutier. She would take me to the beach to do my homework! Moving here was a big change for us because we used to live in a tiny 15-person village in the rural countryside. So, yes, being near the ocean was something pretty incredible for me.
NDT: So you grew up in Noirmoutier?
AE: Yes, I was 6 when I arrived, and since then I’ve been in and out regularly. I lived here until I was 17 before going to study in Audierne, Brittany. I did general high-school studies for 2 years, and then I oriented myself toward carpentry, followed by marine carpentry. Then I went to England and worked with Ashley Butler and Ben Harris [two esteemed English boat-builders]. 4 years ago I came back to Noirmoutier. I’m not sure if I’ll spend my entire life here, but for the moment I really like it here.
NDT: What is Noirmoutier like, geographically?
AE: Flat. Not one little hill. It’s a great place for bike-riding, which is great because I’m not a huge fan of driving too much. There are little cities – well, more like big villages. Starting from the south, we have Barbâtre, La Guérinière, l’Épine, and Noirmoutier-en-l’île which is the capital and biggest town of the island. Then you’ve got l’Herbaudière all the way in the north, where we normally welcome the Gallant [37m schooner built in 1916] and other cargo ships. Everything is pretty close by here. The island measures about 25 km long and it’s pretty narrow too. It ranges from maybe 300m to 8km wide!
NDT: Who is the team behind Les Caboteurs de Lune?
AE: We are a group of traditional boat fanatics and environmentalists. Les Caboteurs de Lune began just after I returned to Noirmoutier from England in 2016. We are a non-profit organisation and there are about five of us on the board. Officially, I’m the president and co-founder. Axelle is our secretary and Frederique joined us to get our organisational ducks in a row. Then we’ve got Antoine the illustrator and Etienne the IT engineer.
Then – and this is important – we have just over a dozen volunteers who help us out. They’re called The Caboteam. They’re a group of active members; they join us for ship arrivals to help unload and distribute the sail cargo products. We’re actually all volunteers. Being a Port Ally can be full-on and a lot of work, to be honest. But at the end of the day, it’s a pleasure to take part. And the bigger we grow, the more likely it is that one of us can eventually earn a full-time wage from this.
NDT: How did The Caboteam start?
AE: I’ll tell you a story. The first sail cargo campaign we undertook here was a bit on the fly. This was 5 years ago when the Nordlys [an 1873 wooden ketch] docked up at Noirmoutier 3 weeks late! This isn’t too abnormal and it reminds us of the unpredictability of transporting goods by sail. However, it turns out that I had already booked a trip to South Africa with my mom for that summer. So, for our first-ever campaign, I wasn’t even there for the boat’s arrival!
That’s when The Caboteam was born. This group of people stepped up and unloaded the boat. Connections were formed and friendships were sown. These are people we can really count on.
NDT: Tell us about the process of creating and growing a community of clients in your region.
AE: It’s absolutely true that we CREATE a community, we create connections between people. But we don’t like to use the term “client.” Instead, we use the term Les Caboteurs. This network has grown slowly, through friends and family at first. The bigger we’ve grown, the more attention and coverage we’ve received from the media and journalists.
And in terms of how we grow Les Caboteurs, we only use email! I don’t really want to set up an online shop; I like that people put in a little effort to do their shopping.
NDT: How are you financed?
AE: We are financed by sail cargo products sales, but we don’t have that many outgoings to be honest. We’ve always believed that it shouldn’t cost the organisers a bunch of money to run this operation. So from the beginning, we’ve agreed that the profit we make on the products should be enough to pay the port fees. We don’t even have an office! We work from home, and I can store some of the merchandise in my wood workshop.
NDT: Share a fun or memorable experience working with Les Caboteurs de Lune.
AE: For the arrival of the Gallant in the summer of 2020 we joined forces with an annual maritime festival called les Régates du Bois de la Chaise. On the island, we have the Port of l’Herbaudiere where Gallant can enter easily, as well as the historic Port of Noirmoutier where the festival takes place. Originally, Port of Noirmoutier was the only port on the island so back in the day large ships entered regularly. As time has gone on and the port has been used less frequently, mud and silt have accumulated to the point where today, large boats like Gallant can’t turn around inside this old port.
So – what did we do? We managed to get the Gallant to enter the port in reverse! Once the lines were thrown, the Gallant was secure along the quay and we were ready to unload…that was a big moment for us.
Watch a video of this special moment HERE.
NDT: What’s the hardest part of this job?
AE: Managing to do everything that needs to be done without messing it up!
NDT: Who else do you collaborate with?
AE: We work closely with La Chaloupe, another organisation on the island. Among other things, La Chaloupe maintains small traditional boats. For the last decade or so, they’ve been co-owners of a traditional lugger from Bay of Bourgneuf along with 4 or 5 smaller boats which they lend to us so we can make small cargo deliveries to L’île d’Yeu and other stops along the coast.
Normally, we encourage people to pick their sail cargo orders directly from the boat when it arrives in Noirmoutier. But not all of Les Caboteurs live on the island! We have Caboteurs in Pornic, in Barre-de-Monts, in Sables D’Olonne, in St Jean de Mont, and on L’île d’Yeu. We wouldn’t be too thrilled if all these people came to pick up their orders by car. So we offer to deliver these products directly to them by small boat. This can take longer than the car, but it’s cleaner.
NDT: What do you get up to when you’re not working with Les Caboteurs de Lune?
AE: I have a workshop where I work with wood. I fix up boats and do house interiors. Anything with wood, I can do it. I am also involved in a collective that raises awareness about environmental problems.
NDT: What environmental problems do you face in your region?
AE: Here in Noirmoutier we have a battle with pesticides. Not with the farmers themselves, but with their methods. We’re concerned because the farmers in Noirmoutier earn a good living using harmful farming methods. And we believe that the solution comes through educating the public and building up pressure from the residents of this island. We are the ones eating this air and water pollution. It’s up to us to tell agricultural businesses: “We are fed up and we want you to change.”
NDT: Do these pesticides impact the salt in your region?
AE: We live in a polluted world. So yes, pesticides do have an impact on salt; water flows from the fields into the ditches, canals and then the sea. Salt flats are affected by pesticides as much as they are by microplastics and water acidity. This isn’t only a problem in Noirmoutier.
NDT: What makes salt more or less healthy?
AE: That’s not an easy question to answer. Partly, it’s a choice that comes down to the consumer: “Do I prefer to eat organically for my personal health, or for the health of the planet?”
I want to say that salt from quarries is probably healthier for your body, though it’s not produced or collected in the most environmentally friendly way. Salt mines are made up of very old layers of evaporated seawater. However, to collect that salt you need mechanical excavators and dynamite. On the other hand, in Noirmoutier we have sea salt. This salt may have a similar level of pollution as the ocean, but it is dried by the sun and the wind and collected through manual labour. I would say that the salt here is healthier for the overall good of the planet.
Oh! And there’s one more difference between the salt from marshes and mines. The pools of the salt flats in Noirmoutier and Guérande, for instance, contain a bit of natural clay. When this salt is collected, a bit of clay goes with it. And with that clay comes a whole load of trace elements that are good for our health.
NDT: If you had a magic wand, what is something you would change or improve, big or small?
AE: I would erase capitalism from people’s memory. I would change the world, basically. Of course, there are positive aspects to capitalism, but I’m referring to the way this system has manifested. This is one of my personal battles. And this is why Les Caboteurs de Lune has taken on a non-profit model. Our goal is not to make money, but to celebrate beautiful boats and healthy, affordable products, for everyone.
NDT: When are you most content?
AE: When we wrap up a sail cargo campaign and everything has gone smoothly. When the boat is leaving and we know we’ve spent a good time together. When we haven’t made too many errors, that’s when we’re satisfied. And I bet I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Find out more…
Les Caboteurs de Lune: http://lescaboteursdelune.fr/
Nordlys + Fairtransport: https://fairtransport.eu/nordlys
De Gallant + Blue Schooner Co: https://blueschoonercompany.com
L’association La Chaloupe: https://associationlachaloupe.org/
Coopérative de Sel – Noirmoutier: https://www.sel-marin-noirmoutier.fr/