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     Volume 11 |Issue 34| August 31, 2012 |


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Yves Marre A French-born Bangladeshi Adventurer

Morshed Ali Khan and Reaz Ahmad

Yves Marre

In the early 1990s, Yves Marre, the French - born Bangladeshi, survived a plane crash on the river Apaporis in the Amazon rain forest while teaching flying to a French doctor working there with the Macuna tribe.

At the age of 33, he sailed across the Atlantic solo in a small boat. At 17, before he could get his driver's license, the Frenchman from Toulouse obtained his amateur flying license. His dream to become a commercial pilot was shattered when he was disqualified by a whisker on an eyesight test.

The accomplishments of this soft-spoken Frenchman are diverse. While he taught paragliding to men and women in France, he invented the first ever motorised paraglide and became the first man ever to cross the English Channel using a motorised paraglide, his own invention.

Having failed to become a commercial pilot, Yves joined Air France as a cabin crew and flew across the world. It was during his numerous flights over Bangladesh that he was attracted to this amazing country “floating on water”.

“In Paris I was living in a river vessel with a flat bottom,” said Yves talking over a cup of tea at The Daily Star lounge, “At the time, the French government decided to discard the old flat bottom river vessels and replace them with modern ones,” says Yves.

And that very moment, the Frenchman's destiny was tied to Bangladesh. “Why don't I take one of these vessels to Bangladesh, a country with 150 million people, and convert it into a floating hospital,” he thought. Yves was confident about realising his idea for once before he had navigated a similar vessel across the Atlantic to Miami.

Easier said than done, recalls Yves, “It took me months to convince the French bureaucrats to obtain the 120-foot long vessel for a symbolic price of one French Franc. They would not give it to me for free because they thought if I met with an accident they might be held responsible.”

For Yves' dream, obtaining the vessel was like the first step to climbing the Everest. “It was 1993, I had no contact whatsoever in Bangladesh but I had to go there to assess the situation,” he adds.

On a flight from Paris, Yves arrived in Dhaka in 1993 for his dream's feasibility study. “I had three questions in mind. Would Bangladeshi dockyards be able to maintain and repair the ship? Secondly, would the rivers offer navigability for it? And shall I be able to get a sponsor for the hospital?”

“I was introduced to Mr Alim of the Bangladesh Notary Club, who later became my father-in-law. The Notary Club agreed to sponsor it once the vessel arrived in the country,” says Yves, “Having found all three answers, I returned to France for the crucial part of my dream.”

As Yves prepared for the long voyage, bad news came from the government office. The bottom flat river vessel would not be allowed to sail the seas. It was too fragile for such a voyage across the seas.

“I have a friend from Saotome and Princepe, a tiny island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, who offered to register the vessel so that I could become its flag carrier,” he adds with a sigh. “This also meant that the vessel was now immune from French maritime restrictions.”

Once he managed to get the river barge from the French authorities it was still not an easy sail for Yves to take that vessel to Bangladesh. He struggled to get a crew for it. Finally the one person who showed interest to accompany him through this long cruise was a financial director of a company who had never sailed in his life.

It was better to have company than being all alone. Yves took him along and sailed for the Mediterranean Sea en route to Bangladesh. Bad weather forced them to make unscheduled stopovers in Sicily and Crete.

Yves had a hard time negotiating with the authorities at the Suez Canal who wouldn't easily let pass his vessel that appeared too fragile to cruise in rough seas. Yves sent an urgent message to home, asking for reinforcement in terms of a crew who could join him during that ardent yet troublesome voyage.

"As we crossed Suez, a French guy came by plane to join me," recalled Yves smilingly, adding that the 'new crew on board' insisted on finishing what he had to say before starting the voyage. "I told him we've got two more months to sail to reach Bangladesh and you would have plenty of time to tell then. But he wouldn't agree."

The most urgent two things that he had to tell Yves were, in a nutshell - 1) he had never before sailed in a river vessel and 2) he had just been released from jail after serving a 16-year rigorous imprisonment for robbery and murder.

"As I was feeling very unsafe while navigating along the Red Sea, and shuddering in fear of pirates, I gained mental strength in the sense of my jail-released crewmate's presence."

At Djibouti, Yves got assistance in the form of workmanships from French naval personnel stationed there, who helped him repair the barge's radio and a few others gadgets. On the island of Bam Bam, Yves was touched by the magnanimity of a Christian Missionary-run school teacher who offered him his month's salary to pay for a gate-pass.

Finally Yves entered the Bay of Bengal in May '94. But a brewing tropical cyclone impeded him from anchoring at Chittagong and he was forced to land at Mongla. By landing there, his eyes met, in Yves' own words, the world's best treasures of country boats. He fell in love with those boats.

His chance meeting with Alim Ur Rahman Khan, who could speak French, not only helped Yves in shaping the floating hospital but it also helped shape his own life. Yves, who thought of living a bachelor's life, got heart-struck at Alim's house upon meeting his daughter Runa Khan, a divorcee with two kids. Yves married Runa in 1996; the couple have a child and are living happily. Yves was recently given full Bangladesh nationality.

“The best thing about the whole adventure was the arrival of Mother Teresa on the boat at Demra,” said Yves. “Her graceful presence on the vessel at Demra and then her help in turning it into a hospital threw me into tears,” said Yves, who is now the managing director of the Taratari Shipyard in Chittagong.

Equipped with modern medical facilities, the vessel under the name of Lifebuoy Floating Hospital can be found roaming from village to village on the rivers Brahmaputra and Jamuna in the Northern parts of Bangladesh.


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