Boat jousting in France

Behold the king of the boat jousters.

The man-mountain stands silhouetted against the Mediterranean sun, gliding past spectators lining a canal: Aurelien Evangelisti, a.k.a. The Centurion, a Gallic Goliath of Italian and Maltese descent, a baby-faced, hook-nosed Hercules clad head to toe in nautical white, the heavyweight champion of a curious sporting spectacle that has defined this hard-working port town since the 17th century.

Evangelisti plants a trunk-like leg behind him on the tintaine, a platform atop the stern of a boat propelled by 10 oarsmen. Gaze fixed on his oncoming opponent, wooden lance at the ready, head low, he goes into a statue-like crouch behind his shield, all 365 pounds of him. It's as if Moby-Dick has sprouted arms and legs and gotten hold of a harpoon.

Oboes and drums play a fanfare aboard the boats as they converge, bringing the jousters face to face. The crowd murmurs. Battle!

Lances slam shields with the force of slow trucks colliding. Evangelisti's opponent finds himself lifted off his turret, limbs akimbo, lance flying, face filling with the fear of being suspended like this in time and space forever. Then Evangelisti finishes him with a blow from the shield, which is like getting hit by another truck, and the vanquished jouster drops a dozen feet into the water below.

Minutes later, the conqueror sips a lemon soda aboard a docked dinghy. As he awaits the finals of the Sunday tournament, Evangelisti explains the secret of his success: self-discipline. He avoids pastis, the anis-based alcoholic drink that most water warriors consider essential fuel along with la macaronade, a hearty dish of macaroni with dark sauce, sausage and other meat.

"I just drink limonada or soft drinks, and I don't eat to bulk up for competition, though there are some who do," says the 29-year-old, who works as a county transport planner. "Weight is not the most important thing. I'd like to lose some. I don't joust based on my strengths, but on the weaknesses of the others. I analyze the other jousters, analyze their style, and find their weaknesses."

The ritual of les joutes, or "the jousts," of the Languedoc region of southern France is a bit like bullfighting, or sumo wrestling. It is an art of controlled, codified violence, testing strength, skill and courage. The origins date to medieval times. Crusaders waiting to ship off to the Holy Land engaged in mock combat aboard vessels moored here. When the port of Sete was founded in 1666, the ceremonies featured a boat jousting tourney.

The competition evolved among the knights of the waterfront proletariat: fishermen, dockworkers, masons and other laborers, mostly Italians and Spaniards, who settled in the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Aquatic duels became a rite for integration of immigrants and initiation of young men, a stage for brawn bred by physical toil, an arena for bouts of eating, drinking and brawling by jousting clubs that represent neighborhoods and villages.

The appeal has widened beyond the docks. These days it seems everyone wants to heft a lance: psychologists and journalists, "bankers and bank robbers," says Germinal Rausa, the president of a league formed by seven clubs in the region.

This is not the dainty France of Yves Saint Laurent or Marcel Marceau. This earthier France evokes the world of Alexandre Dumas, the burly, flamboyant grandson of a black slave, who wrote about rogues, romantics and swashbucklers.

Jousters are the beloved musketeers of Sete, a cheerful, weathered city of 40,000 that spreads across canals and lagoons beneath Mont St. Clair about 15 miles from the city of Montpellier. Tournaments are held through the summer, culminating in the five-day, jampacked St. Louis festival, the Super Bowl of jousting, in the Royal Canal in downtown Sete.

But it is a point of pride that no one, except the musicians, makes money off jousting.

"It's for glory, it's for honor, like in the days of the chevaliers," Rausa says. "It's a mystique. The guy who wins the St. Louis tournament . . . becomes a star, a local idol to the kids. He represents discipline, morality, respect. So it has a social and sociological role: respect for combat, respect for life."

In a wing of the city museum devoted to the sport, the names of St. Louis champions are inscribed on an ornate shield. The regional newspaper runs a weekly jousting page. The mix of grit and pageantry attracts painters, photographers and ethnologists. Politicians curry the favor of jousting clubs; there is an elected councilwoman in charge of jousting; prodigies often land jobs in the public sector.

Rausa is a tanned, animated 58-year-old with corded arms and legs. He was born here to one of the many Spanish families that fled into exile after fighting on the leftist side in the Civil War of 1936-39. His gestures, amused gray eyes and machine-gun rasp fit into the Latin mix. Names like Gomez, Perez, Pugliano and Caselli dominate tournament rosters. The raffish local patois blends Spanish, Italian and Catalan phrases and inflections. The bands -- Los Ricardos, Los Marinos -- that blare pasodobles and tangos in the bleachers are an offshoot of bullfight culture.

Rausa is a former construction supervisor who owns a copy shop. Each year in late August he becomes the voice of the St. Louis festival. He spices up his play-by-play with political sniping and sly digs at rival towns, suggesting for example that they have funny accents. He particularly relishes taking shots at Frontignan, a village whose jousting prowess makes it the nemesis of Sete.

"What I like about jousting is the equality: Everybody gets wet the same as everybody else, no matter who they are," he says. "It's the same during St. Louis. When I have the microphone, I make comments about Cabinet ministers and prefects in the audience, I play with words. It's a moment when power is in the hands of the people."

On the morning of a recent Sunday tournament, Rausa hits the city's bustling covered market for the traditional preliminary rounds of pastis and gab. Old-timers crowd Diego's Bar: a swarm of beefy necks, broad backs, scarred jaws, mashed noses, mangled ears. It's clear why ambulances stand by at competitions. Even Mayor Francois Commeinhes, an amiable, bespectacled physician, shows off a minuscule scar near his right eye.

"You are not a real Setois unless you have jousted," Rausa declares.

Rausa and other veterans oversee schools for children as young as 3 who compete on skateboards until they learn to swim. And they are caretakers of a detailed rule book.

The basic format works like this: One combatant uses a red lance and shield, the other blue. Boats are steered by the rowers and a tillerman, skilled sailors who must account for vagaries of wind and current. The boats carry two musicians as well as jousters seated in order to distribute weight and ensure that tintaines are the same height. Combatants stab at a designated quadrant of the shield to knock each other into the water. A three-member jury watches for infractions that can also determine the outcome, such as dropping a weapon or striking a dangerous blow.

The league consists of categories defined by age and weight. The elite are adult heavyweights. They must tip the scales at 187 pounds or, if lighter, have proved their talent to take on the big boys.

"A lot of us play rugby, it's a similar atmosphere," says Mickael Arnau, who is 28 and weighs about 245. "You need big, strong legs. By the end of a joust you might have bruises on your chest, your side. I've broken my nose, had three stitches in the face. But we never hit the face intentionally."

Arnau pounds "yellows" (as pastis are called for their creamy hue) with Rausa at Le New Spot, a beachfront joint with young jousters carousing on the sand and exchanging backslaps and shoulder punches. Arnau wears sunglasses, a khaki hat and a T-shirt over a sunburn that has temporarily sidelined him.

Arnau has the distinction of having survived two showdowns with Evangelisti, who holds the No. 1 rank based on tournament victories. In 2002 and again in 2005, Arnau and Evangelisti battled to draws at the St. Louis finals, becoming co-champions by toppling each other simultaneously.

"St. Louis, that's like winning the World Cup for us," he says.

Some jousters like fighting at close quarters; some use judo-style tactics to turn a rival's momentum against him. Arnau's style is "80% shield" to take advantage of his bulk. In contrast to his silent archrival Evangelisti, he likes to unleash a roar at the start of the fray.

"It's liberating," he says, throwing back his head. "Aaaaarrrrrhh!!!"

Rausa heads over to the tournament at a coastal canal, a kind of warm-up to the upcoming St. Louis festival. Families watch from dockside cafes and moored boats, enjoying the sun, meals and conversation along with the show, which lasts all afternoon. Attention surges at spectacular falls and bursts of fury, as when a jouster gets mad at the jury and shatters his lance against the side of the boat.

Things stay calm. But fights among combatants or spectators are a fixture. The official account of the 2004 St. Louis heavyweight tourney mentions an interruption of "more than 20 minutes as the result of unacceptable incidents around the jury table" after which "a semblance of calm was restored."

The outlaw of the moment is the rangy Laurent Bodes, who got suspended recently for 12 matches after he attacked his opponent, shark-like, when they were in the water. Nonetheless, fights are less frequent than, say, in hockey.

The finals of the Sunday tournament bring surprises. Underdogs topple titans such as Bernard Betti, the winner of last year's St. Louis cup. All shoulders and head and gut, Betti has been known to wolf down three plates of macaronade, then drop a saccharine pill in his espresso, explaining that he is on a diet. His persistence among the top 10 is impressive because he's 48.

"It's true, I'm one of the oldest," he says in a voice that sounds like he is chewing rocks. "Today was a good reality check for me, a lesson in humility. I forgot my shield today."

As twilight descends, the audience cheers over another upset. A cagey veteran from the rival town of Frontignan, 45-year-old Claude Massias, brings down Evangelisti.

Evangelisti swims slowly to the dock and clambers out of the water. He lumbers over to an empty bleacher. He pulls off his shirt. As people gather at the other end of the canal for the prize ceremony, the behemoth sits alone, dripping prodigiously, his pose recalling that of a large, forlorn child.

But his expression is more contemplative than melancholy, as if he's already reviewing the lessons of this small setback. Rausa watches paternally from a distance.

"Look at the champion now," Rausa says. "See what I told you? Everyone ends up in the water sooner or later."

Redemption did not take long. As fate would have it, on the night of Aug. 25 Evangelisti and Massias battled again: this time in the grand prize finals of the St. Louis festival.

After two clashes without a victor, Evangelisti managed to knock Massias' lance out of his grip. And it was over.

Evangelisti had won his fifth St. Louis championship. He raised his lance in triumph, gliding through the spatter of flashbulbs lighting up the Royal Canal, the thunder of the crowd hailing the king of the boat jousters.