1946: “We Should Have Had The Poisson” by Ernest Harston

This piece was written by E. S. Harston, Amokura’s first owner, and published in The Yachting Year 1946-47

I don’t think this story is altogether true, so that if any of the deleterious types who formed part of Amokura’s crew happen to read it, they shouldn’t be misled.  It deals with some of the yacht’s wanderings during 1946, and to be logical should no doubt begin with a description of the yacht herself.

She was built in 1939 after a lot of thought.  After all if we were going to have a war, there was no sense in building a yacht.  On the other hand, if we were going to build a yacht there was no sense in having a war.  So we built the boat: a 38-foot waterline bermuda yawl, designed by Fred Shepherd and built by Moodys; the requirements being a sea-kindly family cruiser that would be fun to sail at weekends.  She certainly came up both to expectations and specifications.  Arthur Ransome has said that there is nothing so painful as building a yacht—or words to that effect.  How right he is only those who roll romantic eyes and say inane things about dream ships don’t know.  But the pangs of parturition were worth it.  She is a beauty, as a couple of races round the tins and a slashing cruise to the Scillies and Brest soon proved after her launching in 1939.

When 1946 came, we took the yacht out of her mud berth and our creaking joints out of their shore going clothes.  Roger Pinckney, who is not only vice-commodore of the R.C.C., but also cruises, had said he was going to St. Peter Port for Easter; so, instead of following our own inclinations and going to Beaulieu, or even Y armouth, we shipped a crew consisting of Ruth as cookie, Joe, Tompy and Jim and slid down the Hamble, round the Wight with the east going tide, and out into a disturbed stretch of water called the English Channel, where we promptly began to feel somewhat odd owing to the quartering sea.

As Joe said to Tompy during the graveyard watch: “Beating back against this sea won’t be funny.”

And Tompy replied to Joe, about half an hour later: “No.”

That comprised the badinage of the watch, because I was listening in my little bunk below.

When I handed over at the end of my own watch some hours later, Tompy came on deck with the sweetest of smiles and said: ” Skipper, I have just had puppies.”

“What a happy thought,” said I, “so will I.” And did.

The joys of yachting!

However, we duly rounded the Casquets and slid down the Little Russel into St. Peter Port, tied up alongside a motor fishing vessel, and breathed more freely. Our first cruise, our first holiday, our first “foreign” port for six years.  I had to pinch myself and say: ” Relax you ass, this is really a holiday, the ‘phone won’t go, you have no appointments, nothing but the clear blue sea, the friendly folk of Guernsey, and drab old England of no beer, no spirits, no service, no anything is miles and miles behind you.”

Roger arrived in Dyarchy and with his usual superb nonchalance blew in before the wind carrying everything, chose an anchorage, discarded it, chose another, dropped his hook and lowered away.  A small 8-tonner piloted by a ruffian in a woollen hat turned out to be Humphrey Barton in Dalua.  The Tews and Commander Graham were already there in Mary Helen.  White Pearl owned by the Kendricks was there too.  A Guernseyman told me that his son had rushed into his room exclaiming: “Daddy, daddy, they’re back!”

“Who are back?”

“The yachts—come and look!”

The yachts were there, but not on show, no gleaming brass, no glossy paint or varnish, just the barest “fit-out,” but they had broken the ice.

This is hardly the place to talk of the Channel Islands and the war.  All one can say is that although much had changed, the old welcoming friendliness was there as before.  Everyone was busy painting, cleaning, repairing and removing the traces of the occupation.  The old abounding supplies no longer existed, but the hospitable friendliness always shown to yachtsmen by Bucktrouts and everyone else was there as before.

We slipped off quietly in a gentle breeze and made for Sark.  We lay with Dyarchy in the Havre Gosselin where the blue of the sea was beyond belief.  We climbed the cliffs, our lungs filled with the gorgeous air.  Joe took us to see the Dame of Sark and her husband back from his internment in Germany.  Their stories would make a book.  We grubby Londoners felt ourselves slowly reviving in their beautiful home.

At dusk we passed through the narrow channel between Brechou and Sark, went up the Great Russell, through the race and home to the Solent, determined to do it again at Whitsun—which is where the poisson comes in.

Now when Whitsun arrived the owner was somewhat sore stricken with divers diseases and the cruise began to look dim.  The same crew plus Jeremy were assembled full of expectations.  A gale had just blown itself out.  No one hoping to enjoy himself would set sail across the Channel.  So we decided to motor to Cowes and stay the night, which of course meant that we soon substituted Yarmouth for Cowes and ended in the Channel, bucketing about in the dark with the idea of getting to St. Peter Port after all.  But the wind decided otherwise, and after pitching up and down in the same hole in the water for a very long time, we put on the engine gently and wandered across, picking up La Hague in the early morning where it was expected.

Sailing is productive of many theories; the metacentric shelf, tacking to leeward, and so on, but the best of them all is Joe’s theory that it is all done by springs and mirrors.  It has never failed us.  When the land appeared where it ought to be, he assured us that that was how it had been done, and we believed him.

The tide, however, was busy going up Channel, so we did some gentle thinking.  It was no use bucking it for six hours, so why not go to Cherbourg for lunch?  Or better still what about Omondville?  Omondville la Rogue; romance, vin blanc and big langouste?  So Omondville it was, with magnifying glasses on the chart to distinguish the tiny harbour, and great expectations of lunch ashore in “furrin” parts.

We dropped the hook under the cumulative advice of the local fishermen.  We hailed an ancient of days on the breakwater.  Could we eat ashore?  Or should we practise la cuisine Anglaise and open a tin?  Assuredly we could eat ashore, en ville.  So all those with beards stroked them, while the rest waxed their moustaches.

We boarded the dinghy and headed for the breakwater.  The ancient of days told us that we could land by the buvette.  Exquisite tact!  We landed there, it was his.  Could we lunch—no en ville.  Un aperitif—why certainly.  But which?  With such exotic names it was hard to choose.  But the remedy was simple.  A row of glasses carried a sample of each.  The skipper, ex-officio, drank them all and chose.  The ancient approved.  Would he join us and would Madame?  Why yes—but he disappeared round to the back of the buvette, only to reappear with a posy of flowers for Ruth.  Some fishermen came in.  Would they join us?  Much anxiety on the part of M’sieu and M’dame—they were only fishermen!  But they did and a good time was had by all.  And so to the restaurant en ville.

“I know what will happen,” said Jeremy, “no vin, no din, no nothing.” And he was nearly right; but, as the smiling owner assured us, Madame was on her way back from Cherbourg and all would be well.  Madame arrived, chic, spotless.  Lunch?  Why certainly, and on went a huge apron and in she went among the copper pots at two in the afternoon.  Langoustes arrived with salad and vin blanc and suffered a merited fate.  Our English tummies were replete, but the waiter arrived:

“Should they cook the poisson now?”

We said we could not manage the poisson, but the waiter said there was steak to come after that! Steak?  Yes, certainly.  Well, we said we would have the steak, but couldn’t manage the poisson.  And so it was—acres of steak.  We divided it in two and struggled to eat a half, and nearly succeeded, and sat back for the coffee.  But weren’t we going to eat the cheese?  Sorry, no cheese.  Camembert?  Well—in that case, yes.  And three Camemberts arrived.  We ate one, and asked for the coffee.  But there is a sweet; Madame has made a sweet.  So of course our better judgment gave way to our good intentions and a huge bowl of whipped cream and liqueur with strawberries went most decidedly west, chased by the coffee and armagnac.

And then Rene Clair took charge, or rather matters looked like one of his films.  The crew, the proprietor, his friends—all of us processed through the village.  The harbour master told us about the tides.  The village came with us to the buvette.  A couple of car loads from Cherbourg joined the crowd.  Someone produced a pannikin and a bottle of cognac.  Others asked whether they might dare to offer a drink to any of the crew!  If they had only known!  “Le Philips” appeared—a loud speaker geared to a gramophone and would we dance on the beach?  A cheerful soul struck up “God Save the King.”  The ship’s company, not to be outdone la la-ed the “Marseillaise.”  A neat blonde model was detached from the outfit by her husband who explained that she was the mother of eight and from Paris.

The dinghy went slowly out to the yacht full of folk breathing stertorously and wondering in their comatose way when, if ever, they had eaten so much.  Their dumbfounded turns were wondering the same.  The sails went up and the yacht sailed slowly out beyond the breakwater for the Alderney race.  The crowd still waved.  So did we.

Joe looked very grave and thoughtful.  Something obviously was on his mind.  And at last it came out.

” Ernest, ” he said, ” we should have had the poisson.”