Gallic heroism

We had been at anchor in the ria for a few days and the weather was mixed. On one side were the moored local fishing boats and beyond us three other yachts – a French family, a Dutch couple and two German men. As evening wore on the wind grew stronger and a steady rain fell. It was about 9pm and I was serving supper on the table in the saloon when something caught my eye through the port light. It was the mast of another yacht, weaving about precariously between us and the Dutch boat.

Nosiness getting the better of me, I stepped up into the cockpit and watched as the crew of this new boat dropped anchor under sail. This was no evening for sailing in the confined space of the back end of a ria, and I assumed their engine was not working. The next thing the yacht – flying a French flag and with five adults on board – drifted dangerously close to the Dutch boat, much to the surprise and consternation of the Dutch couple!

I went back down to the saloon to eat dinner. Lily, dinner quickly eaten, went into the cockpit. ‘There’s someone in the water’, she called down. We assumed she was playing a trick on us and we’d go up to take a look and Lily would say ‘haha, only joking’! But not this time. There really was someone in the water. The French boat had by now drifted past the Dutch boat, past the other boats, and towards the rocky shore, with two anchor chains hanging from the bow and one of the crew in the water. Like the crew of the other three yachts at anchor, we watched the action from our cockpit.

The crewman in the water bobbed up and down on the choppy sea. When one of the others handed him down a knife, he clenched it between his teeth and disappeared under the water! Fouled prop, we thought. Poor guy has no choice but to dive into the chilly choppy sea.

Moments later he was back on the boat, in black swimming shorts and a towel draped around his shoulders. Now that I could see more than just his bobbing head on the surface of the water I realised he looked remarkably like one of my senior colleagues at Exeter University and imagining my colleague engaged in such heroics made me laugh hard! By and by, water and black exhaust fumes began to pump from the exhaust pipe, and we knew the engine was working again.

The yacht, however, was still drifting dangerously close to the rocky shore and our swimming hero appeared to be the only one eager to do anything about it, while the rest of the crew stood around looking dazed. For the boat to get away from the rocks, the two anchors needed to be hauled in, but it appeared that the anchor windlass was not working and our hero could not pull them in by hand. Next thing we knew, our hero had dived off the bow and disappeared down the anchor chain. Whether his actions saved the day or not, we don’t know, but a few minutes later he was swimming alongside and once again climbing aboard astern.

One anchor was hauled in and that freed the boat enough to get forward momentum away from the rocks. It was only a matter of minutes before the yacht had anchored successfully and the crew had all disappeared below decks.

The next morning, as we prepared to depart, we saw the skipper in the dinghy, repeatedly failing to start the outboard motor. After ten or fifteen minutes, he called up to the crew and someone brought him a jerry can of petrol. Oops! But, despite putting fuel in the tank, the outboard still wouldn’t start, and Julian and I imagined our hero once again diving into the sea, clenching the dinghy painter between his teeth, and swimming to shore, hauling the dinghy behind him. And we imagined his heroic return with a dinghy full of coffee and croissants for his famished crewmates. Alas, our fantasies were not to be fulfilled. With the useless outboard still attached, the five climbed into the little dinghy and our hero paddled them, canoe-style, to shore, like a latter day Merriweather Lewis!

You see, this is why I hate looking like a fool when undertaking boat manoeuvres. There are always people like me around, smugly sitting in their cockpits, glasses of gin and tonic in hand, guffawing at my poor seamanship.

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