SETE, 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.