On board a French frigate in the Eastern Mediterranean (Lebanon) (AFP)

"Next time, I would go explore the city. Since I have been in the Navy, I have heard about this stopover," sighs Chief Petty Officer Julien, a paper mask on his face.

In the meantime, he watches the lights of Beirut slowly fade away.

Covid requires, the 170 sailors of the French frigate La Fayette were stationed at the quayside in the Lebanese port, where the gutted silos recall the tragic explosion of August 4.

Hard hit by the pandemic, Lebanon is on alert, with now more than 1,700 cases per day (for a population of 5 million).

Enough to make the first master Julien philosopher.

"This kind of boat is ready to fight against a lot of threats, but against a virus on board, there is nothing to do. It is better to avoid taking the risk."

No question for the Navy to relive the embarrassing episode of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, victim of massive contamination of its crew in full mission at the start of the pandemic, last spring.

Since then, precautionary measures have been put in place to preserve the crews and the continuity of operations: fortnight and screening test before boarding, wearing a mask, distancing, hydroalcoholic gel on all floors and abolition of permissions ashore during stopovers.

A hard blow for sailors used to being able to breathe a little on dry land after weeks of confinement at sea.

"We have never experienced this kind of mission. Normally the crew members leave the board, go to make visits, take a hotel room" at the option of the stopovers, explains the chef, the main master Eric, 35 years of Marine.

"In this context, meals taken on board are all the more important to help maintain morale."

- Barbecue at the dock -

If the crew seems to remain calm, some do not hide their bitterness.

"I was promised a lot of things. What I saw were three different docks," said a young sailor, a bit disillusioned by his first experience at sea.

"The young sailor signs to see the country and there we can not offer him", recognizes the commander of the frigate, captain Sébastien Martinot, well aware of the constraints weighing on his young crew, already deprived of wi-fi and social networks for long periods at sea.

"They haven't been out for three months. I am the only one to have done so in Lebanon, for a commemoration ceremony for the Drakkar attack" on October 23, 1983, during which 58 French soldiers perished in Beirut, tells the "pasha", who strives to find parades.

During the stopover in Beirut, the crew were offered a barbecue on the quayside and were able to participate in volleyball, football and basketball tournaments.

Internet access has also been made easier.

And during their last visit to Cyprus, the captain organized a "swimming pool": a moment of swimming at anchor, passing through the door from which the commandos usually come out.

"We are trying to restore the spirit of the stopover even if it is not completely satisfactory," he says, while recalling his responsibility: to block the road to the virus on board.

"Protecting the crew, maintaining barrier gestures and distance is a concern at all times," said chief medical officer Catherine, who has an automated test system allowing the detection of the coronavirus in one hour.

The La Fayette was the first French Navy vessel to be equipped with it.

Half a dozen sailors were thus able to be tested at the start of the mission, "to remove the doubt", as well as 8 members of the crew of the Tonnerre helicopter carrier, who came to lend a hand in Lebanon after the explosion of August 4. .

All were negative.

"For the youngest, it's a bit complicated, but the crew has a great collective spirit", relativizes Lieutenant (Navy) Denis, a Panther helicopter pilot.

"And then the constraints apply to everyone at the moment," he blurted out, as France began its second confinement.

© 2020 AFP