Mistral and other misadventures

One of my fathers great friends, Jimmy Horsnel, was a London dramatic critic and often took  me to see the latest pantomime--I must have seen Peter Pan a half-dozen times. While only in his sixties Jimmy was overtaken by premature senility and had to be moved to a residential home where he had nothing from his previous life. His many friends got together and hired full-time care givers at great expense and managed to get him back in his own roof top apartment at the Lincoln Inn Fields. I often visited him but was never able to convince him that he really was back home. When I pointed out photos, invitations, cards he remained convinced that it was an elaborate stage set--the theatre had been his life. “I know, dear boy” he would say “ you’ve done a wonderful job……” It was my first encounter with a failing mind (but not the last) and I found it very distressing. Jimmy had been a kind and loving father to me after Arthur’s death in 1935.

Jimmy left me 350 pounds in his will, British pounds, which was quite a large sum in those days--especially for a 19 year old. So I  went looking for boats and finally bought an old six- meter built in 1899 with a cabin but no engine. It was a near fatal mistake since I had neither the experience nor the resources to manage a sailboat of this size and complexity.

A number of school friends-- most of them even more ignorant than myself--would make the trip to Itchenor for a weekend or longer. We were all experienced small boat sailors and soon became adept at maneuvering Mistral-- she handled like a dinghy--through crowded anchorages using two beefy friends equipped with paddles as an auxiliary motor. Itchenor had a public space, or hard, where anyone could tie up a boat. With 4-12 feet of keel we had to use sturdy legs on either side, so the boat didn’t roll over as the tide fell. This happened several times but as the boat heeled  the mast missed the surrounding boats.

One Saturday we decided to cross the Channel and pay a visit to the French coast. Undeterred by the lack of various essentials-- an up to date chart, navigation lights or a bilge pump four of us set of off one night. We caught the ebb tide down the estuary but in the aftermath of the war none of the channel markers were lit. It was a moonless night and we missed the sharp turn at the foot of the estuary leading to the open sea. We soon found ourselves hard aground on a large bank of.shingle, with a falling tide and with an iron keel beneath us. As the water receded the boat began to list the wrong way, (downhill) until our 42 foot mast was only 15 degrees from the horizontal. When the tide turned we could see that the open cockpit would fill long before the hull began to lift. So we nailed a spare jib to the cockpit coaming and waited. The next day was a Saturday which brought swarms of yachtsmen with their blazers and smart racing dinghies and cries of “Hard luck old chap--need any help?” No one has yet died of ignominy so we survived.

One of the crew, Sven Piotr, was so unnerved by this rather hit or miss style of sailing that he jumped ship in Poole Harbour and joined a yacht headed for the Scyllie Isles down the English channel. I heard later from a classmate that due to severe weather gale force winds, one of the crew was lost overboard and drowned.