"Four Men in a Boat" – original story by " Shipmate"



To gain entry into Honfleur from the sea it is necessary to approach via the great French river that runs through Paris, the river Seine.

The entrance to the estuary lies to the west of Le Havre on the southern part of the English Channel.  In former times, the magnificent cantilever bridge over the river had yet to be built.

Ferocious gales in the Channel had driven the small yacht that was bound for the Channel Islands, to take shelter in the nearest port and the crew was thankful of the respite afforded by their arrival at the ancient unspoiled town.

The land-locked harbor was entered through a large heavy pair of lock gates and once inside the vessels were fully protected from the winds by the beautiful medieval buildings surrounding the harbour on three of the sides.

The contrast between the dreariness of the never-ending waves, the howling winds, and the merriment of the tiny town, was exceedingly uplifting.

The colourful lights of the carousel and accompanying music set the scene for the festivities that were in full swing,

The yacht, a forty-five foot ketch, was directed to a berth alongside the harbour wall with access to the quay by about thirty steep iron rungs set into stone to which treacherous seaweed was clinging.  Large plastic fenders were positioned and mooring ropes were secured fore and aft.  The ever opened bar permitted the partaking of arrival drinks.

There were six people on board, the usual contingent comprising, Nev’, the skipper, John, the navigator and Keith the playboy.  In addition the guests were Ken from Darlington, who apart from being CEO of one of the group company’s was an ex merchant naval engineering Officer.  In addition, sporting his  ‘day-glow’ police issue jacket was Tom the policeman and last but not least came Stewart Garner who was Managing Director of a prestigious Petro-Chemical engineering company.

Neville, like all good skippers, was anxious that one of the guests should be suitably ‘christened’ and directed that they draw lots to see who went aloft to replace the masthead lamp that had succumbed to the fierce weather when crossing the channel.

Ken went first but being a mere engineer only reached the crosstrees before being overcome by an attack of vertigo.

Tom, the policeman went next and received a round of applause from local French onlookers as he neared the top.  Unfortunately he froze when he looked down to his companions who were shouting lewd encouragement from the cockpit causing his rapid return to the decks below.

Neville turned to John and said, “ Let’s do it the proper way,” so John rigged up a ‘boson’s chair’ and secured Stuart, together with a tool bag and spare bulb.  With three or four turns round the drum, the sixteen stone Stuart became airborne as Neville activated the electric windlass.  Stuart had not sailed with the trio before so was completely unaware of what was to follow.  Neville tied off the now stationary windlass leaving Stuart dangling in mid air while the others climbed the ladder and headed for the nearest bar.

Three hours later the crew returned somewhat red in the face.  Perhaps it was the strong ocean winds that they had been exposed to on the crossing or more likely the strong beer that they had for lunch.

Stuart, on the other hand had not indulged in the beer but it didn’t go unnoticed that he also displayed a face that would have matched “Geronimo’s’.

It was just as well he was almost unrecognizable, for as they winched him down it was certain that none of his employees would have been familiar with his vocabulary.  Most of the onlookers were foreigners and assumed he must be from a far off foreign country.

 A small mutiny erupted when all members of the crew refused to go aloft.

John said, “Well Nev, its left to us to show them the easy way to change the lamp.”

“You or me?” asked Neville.

“We’ll do it together.”

The crew looked on with eager expectations knowing their leaders had imbibed past the point of caution.

An interested crowd had gathered above and neighbouring boat people watched, hoping to witness a disaster.

Neither the Skipper nor his navigator spoke a word as they went about their task.

It seemed amazingly simple to some of the onlookers and the crewmembers that wondered why they had been ungainly hoisted aloft.

Neville nimbly scaled the steps with the end of a mast halyard, which he attached to a nearby bollard.  With the aid of a winch handle, John wound in the rope attached to the topmast.  Slowly the vessel heeled over with the mast nearly touching the quay.  Neville simply removed the spent lamp and inserted a new bulb.  The halyard was eased and the yacht resumed the upright position.

It may have been Neville taking a bow that sparked off the Dixieland band that started to play his favorite tune “ I just called to say…”

But in no time at all the dockside was filled with music and dancers, most of them unaware of what was being celebrated.  The pavement restaurants emptied as their customers joined in with the throng.

Members of a Canadian Brass jazz band looked on in amazement.  They were flown in each year in commemoration of the D-day landing in which their relatives had taken part.  The celebrations that were due to start at eight o’clock in the evening with a firework display and seemed to have begun a few hours early.

‘Damn’.  Thought Neville, the instigator.  ‘There goes my afternoon kip.’

As the dusk fell and the winds died, the floating pontoon that acted as a bandstand was anchored in the middle of the harbour.  The artists and their easel’s had long gone and were replaced by vendors of all kinds selling roasted nuts, ice creams and colourful streamers.  Fair- ground music drifted across from the carousel whose dazzling mirror backed lights flashed on and off in time with the music.  The aroma of barbequed meats wafted in the light breeze and children with sparklers and candyfloss mingled excitably with the crowds.

 The entire complement of the ketch eagerly climbed the iron steps in search of a suitable hostelry that would gain a few points if it also had somewhere to eat.  They had covered at least a hundred yards when they came upon an oasis amongst a variety of restaurants, cafes, and other numerous eating-places.  A corner Pub situated at the end of the quay and the road that sloped upwards to the cobbled square.  The lone bar had doors servicing both the jetty and the market square and boasted its own resident jazz band for the occasion especially with the weekend celebrations in mind.

Nearly four hours later all but Neville and John boarded a taxi bound for a nightclub.  The two senior members, in both rank and age, had elected to ‘mind the boat’ from their vantage point propping of up the bar and perhaps take turns to ‘check the moorings’ from time to time.

Before they left the two groups had a wager, which were free drinks for the following day.  A bet that neither party relished losing.  It was a simple bet that age-old honour, decreed that they all took part in the choosing of the winner and integrity ruled the outcome.  The two parties were to bring on board an unusual relic and the most unusual would win.

It was approaching one o’clock when the two sailors, mellow from celebrating, were homeward bound.  Luckily they remembered before descending the slippery iron steps and each took a different direction to scour the harbour.  A little later they met up again and as though they hadn’t seen each other in years and decided to find somewhere for a drink.  It was while searching for a bar, which was still open, that they espied an ideal souvenir.  The large concrete ‘no entry’ sign written in French and framed in a metal swivel frame, which, however, proved too heavy to carry.  Never in their wildest dreams, would the corner supermarket owners have imagined that two of their trolley’s had gone ‘AWOL’ on a nocturnal mission to assist the seafarers who were responsible enough to return them later from whence they came.  For most people, the task of getting the eight hundred weight trophy on board would be impossible.  Neville and John had no such trouble.  Their seamanship proved it’s worth when half an hour later in the cosiness of the saloon, they toasted their success.

John was always an early riser.  His friends had noticed he ‘died’ early on and could under no circumstances, be roused.  Yet come daybreak he woke refreshed and was ready to go.  Alas the loud banging on the outside of the cabin roof occurred just before dawn and it took John a few moments to come to his senses.  Neville in the berth opposite snored on.

As he opened the bridge deck hatch, the presence of the large concrete prize confronted him and he smiled at the memory of the night before.  Looking up, crowds of youngish people were gathered on the quayside and gabbling in unison.  He felt pleased that the locals had been stirred by their acquisition that is until he glanced on the foredeck.

He was unable to believe his eyes.  Taking up most of the deck space a double brass bedstead was sited, bereft of its mattress and looking singularly out of place.  Two young women draped in college scarfs, gestured at the bed and were mouthing to John what sounded like unpleasant names.

It suddenly dawned on the sailor both figuratively and literally that the bed was his companion’s relic and would undoubtedly be the winner.  The onlookers kept up their incessant babbling in French, so John, having no alternative, wakened Neville.

The Skipper, assuming he had been roused to take over the watch, demanded a cup of tea and lighted a cigarette.  John in fewer than ten words explained the dilemma.  Needless to say Neville didn’t believe him being rightfully wary that some prank was about to take place.

On spying the bed incongruously taking up the foredeck he changed his mind.

The verbal assault from above turned to laughter when the crowd, realized, slightly before Neville, that all he was wearing was silk polka dot boxer shorts which partly revealed his need to dispose of his excesses of the previous night.  Having little option Neville retreated into the saloon but not before his inexpert French had invited them all aboard.

There weren’t enough cups to go round so some of the lads were happy with beer.  Others elected to quench their thirst with wine and in spite of the hour a party soon got under way.  One of the girls was studying English at the Sorbonne and she was able to explain their anxiety.

They were all from Paris.  Their undertaking had started the day before when they had abducted one of their friends from his office on the Rue des San Joseph where he was a lawyer.  He was bound and gagged and driven over two hundred kilometers North to the ancient town of Hon Fleur, Here they released him and wined and dined well into the night.

He was to be married in the morning and their intention was to float him out into the middle of the harbour tied to the bed for the night.  In the event, the floats would not support his weight so instead they chained the bed to the wrought iron gates at the ornate entrance arch.

Although he was naked, it was a relatively warm night and being very late they did not expect any intrusions.  They had intended to release him at five in the morning in plenty of time to get back to Paris for his wedding.

They were deeply shocked to find both their friend and the bed gone and unable to think of an alternative, they wandered along the harbour, looking in the nearby passages and roads.  Shortly before the banging had occurred, one of them had spotted the brass bedstead some five meters below the harbour wall on the foredeck of a yacht.  Of their friend, there was no sign.

The party was becoming a touch more relaxed.  Someone had put some music on and the saloon was filled with Gauloise smoke.

The mystery was about to be solved when dreary eyed, Ken emerged from a door in the bows.  Being an ex seaman he didn’t like missing a party and being a smoker accepted the proffered smoke with appreciation.  With his beer in one hand and his cigarette in the other he recounted the previous night’s events.  It should be explained that as highly acclaimed as the Sorbonne is, it failed dismally when it came to Yorkshire English and the poor student lost her position of group translator to Neville who was better versed in the dialect.

Like all Geordies, Ken had an extremely dry sense of humour that was typified by his party trick.  Somewhere along the line, either in the engine room at sea or in his factory on one on his machines, he had lost the tip of his finger.  He delighted in shocking folk by sticking the stump in his ear, which to the unprepared, looked as though his finger was deep in his head amongst his brains.

 Neville, not only had to translate the words, but also had to censor the content and ensure that the Frogs understood without taking offence.  It suddenly occurred to Neville whether professional translators put their own slant on matters of state between two or more foreign governments.

The clubbers had returned towards three o’clock that morning and it wasn’t until the sign blocked their passage that they recalled the bet.  Back ashore; they split into two pairs in search of bounty.

The policeman was the first to see it.  Probably his training made him aware of anything out of the ordinary as this certainly was.  A naked sleeping figure tied to a brass bedstead that was itself, chained to the gates.  At first he couldn’t be woken and when he was they wished he hadn’t been.  A tirade, of what to them was nonsense, sprang forth from his lips.  Two of them went back to the boat for some stout bolt cutters to release the bed and roughly untied the victim.  Each taking a corner they stumbled along the cobbles with the Frenchman in tow beseeching them to leave the bed and help with his plight.  Oblivious to his pleadings they were determined not to lose their prize.  Back on board, Stuart with a rudimentary knowledge of French and with the help of a dictionary discovered the truth, which eventually led to their guest being assisted on his way back to his wedding in Paris.  Meanwhile the others wrestled the bed down onto the foredeck with expectations of a free day’s drinking.  Their tasked successfully performed; they joined Stuart who acquainted them with the groom’s plight.

A couple of hundred pounds in Francs was collected between them and Keith being the nearest in size, donated some of his clothes to the Frenchman and they escorted him on his way before returning to the yacht for what was left of the night.

Most of the partying Frenchmen left around eight heading for Paris via Deauville where some of the invitees caught a train to the Capitol but the party on board continued as other yachtsman took their place.

Business as usual.

It was after noon when the party broke up.  Keith, Tom and Stuart all had to be at work on the following Monday and so, to some extent, did the rest of them.  However it was eventually decided that due to the limited travel availability, a skeleton crew would remain to return to the U.K. when weather permitted.  This only left most of the rest of the weekend for the whole crew to be together.  Market day was nearly over by the time they went ashore and headed for their favourite corner bar.  It was heaving when they entered the numbers being swollen by the market traders who had started and finished early.  Within minutes the crowd had thinned and there remained only a few tourists and a couple of war veterans.  The jovial French barman now eyed his former favourite customers with a mixture of suspicion incomprehension.  Even the heavy drinking nautical party wouldn’t make up for his sudden lack of clientele.  Several of the musicians had also disappeared.

The cause soon became apparent when Tom returned from the Gents zipping up his fluorescent jacket whose logo was recognized the world over, POLICE.

Later that evening, John and Neville, persuaded the others to temporarily avoid the bar and they found a wonderful restaurant that specialised in seafood cooked, as only the French knew how.  Afterwards, another visit to the club was on the cards by those who went before so once again, John and Neville returned to the corner bar to listen to the ‘live’ traditional jazz.  Without Tom, they were made most welcome and were well and truly stomping, when, at gone two, they were the last ones to leave.

With hindsight, perhaps it was the drink, but they had decided to play a trick on their fellow crewmembers.

With the engine barely ticking over they took in the mooring lines and quietly and slowly made for the center of the enclosed harbour, Luckily the pontoon for the band had been towed back alongside after the evenings performance and the Canadians had returned to their Hotel in Deauville.

They arrived at the middle and let go of the anchor before extinguishing the lights after battening down all the hatches and locked the doors from the inside.

A bottle of Merlot was opened and the pair settled down in the dark to wait.  Hardly a sound broke the silence and even the town square’s clock was hushed throughout the night.

It was less than an hour and long before the first bottle was finished, when doors slamming and the shattering of the silence followed the sound of a car slowing to a halt.

In the still of the night they heard a slightly slurred voice say.  “ It’s gone!”

Keith was heard to respond, “It can’t be.”

Footsteps were heard to and fro along the quay until after ten minutes or so someone announced that they could just make out a shape in the mist.

A cry of “ You b…rds, come and get us or we’ll get you.”

The mist swallowed up the shape and it was as though nothing had been seen.

Those on board had difficulty in stifling a giggle particularly when the cork popped as they opened another bottle.

“Come on – it’s bloody freezing here,” shouted Keith.

After a wait of a further ten minutes or so and just before Neville and John’s curiosity got the better of them, a rhythmic splashing broke the eerie silence.

Two of the shore party had commandeered a large wooden box and were attempting to paddle their way across using planks pulled from the box.  They arrived somewhat soaked and boarded in a less than happy mood, which was made much worse when they discovered that they were locked out.

The assault on the openings decided John and Neville to open up and pretend they had just woken up.  Surprisingly they were believed especially when they blamed the Harbour Master for moving them to accommodate the pontoon.  The rubber dingy was launched to collect the rest of the party and with everyone back safely on board they celebrated with a nightcap or three.

At around noon the following day, a gap made by the fortuitous departure of a fishing boat, enabled the yacht to be re-moored alongside and by now it had acquired a doubtful reputation.  In truth the yacht was innocent and it was the crew who had become notorious.  As a consequence, a crowd of expectant onlookers who had assembled to witness the yachts arrival alongside was certainly not disappointed.

John was at the wheel and without the aid of bow and stern thrusters; he expertly brought the vessel abeam of the harbour wall.  His seamanship was faultless and the onlookers responded by cheering that accompanied the spontaneous applause that had broken out.  Neville was equally well practiced and in one casual throw lassoed a bollard to enable the stern to be secured.

Stuart, captain of industry he may have been, was as at home on a boat, as an Eskimo is in the desert.  His first attempt to land the bowline on the quay failed, as it splashed helplessly into the water.  Boaties will be aware of how it’s vital for unified and instant action to take place when mooring, without a moment to spare.

 It therefore caused quite a stir when the watchers saw Stuart pause to light a cigarette having coiled in his line before attempting a retry.

Luckily his poorly aimed rope was intercepted by a helpful teenage girl and was sipped over the adjacent concrete post.

Ken, meanwhile, was enjoying his vantage point in the cockpit and much appreciated his view.  The females in the audience would not have been so comfortable at seeing the old seadog quietly taking in the ambience had they known he was being treated to a worms eye view of their fashionable French lingerie.  Later, when regaling the others of his observations he remarked that it seemed a shame to hide such delightful creations.

The trouble began when Stuart heaved in on the bowline.  His knowledge of seamanship may have been weak but his physique was strong and proved too much for Neville, who, as a result, lost hold of the stern line.  As the bow rapidly went in the stern equally rapidly swung out.  John, not expecting a problem had switched off the engine and gone below to answer the call of nature particularly as the audience inhibited him from his normal practice of going over the side.  He was really quite modest and didn’t want to lose his fine reputation indicated by the earlier applause.  Had he not stayed below for an unseen beer, things may have turned out differently and the harbour master’s launch probably would not have been sunk.

The wind seemed to interfere as it often did, and got between the stern and the harbour wall.  The wall was immobile but the stern was not.  Assisted by Stuart’s zealous tugging, the stern gathered speed and the unsuspecting assistant Harbour Master had his attention drawn away by the arrival of a large fishing boat at the lock gates together with the road bridge being opened skywards.  Many people were to say later that the helmsman on the launch wasn’t looking when the impact occurred and it was fortunate that the assistant Harbour Master was able to use the dangling stern line to heave himself out of the water.  Neville added in broken French that the assistant harbour master was extremely lucky that his expert Captain had stopped the engine and that the propeller had posed no threat.  He rather cunningly avoided explaining how the yacht came to be ninety degrees to the quay.

They say that most things have a reason and the sunken launch was no exception.  People watching the rubber clad divers recovering the craft later, experienced no end of enjoyment.  Stuart felt unjustly proud of his contribution to the entertainment.

On Sunday afternoon, a taxi was arranged to take them to Le Havre so that the returning crewmembers could catch the night ferry crossing to Portsmouth.  John and Neville had stayed behind and Ken went with the taxi for a ride since it would be returning to Hon Fleur at no extra charge.

When Ken got back at a little after seven he fully expected to find both of his hirsute friends taking a nap.  He was in for an unexpected surprise.  The yacht was unoccupied apart from the stuffed parrot on its perch on the bridge.  Ken’s presence set it in motion and with a flap of its colourful wings, it asked Ken, “whose a petty boy then?”.  After a short while it croaked and answered its own question “Pretty Polly, pretty Polly.”

‘I don’t suppose you know where they are?’ asked Ken addressing the barman and thinking that the most obvious place would be in the bar on the corner.

“Haven’t seen them today,” said the barman.

“Tell them there’s a pint in the pump on me,” he added with a wink.

Ken exited on the square side and pulled his collar together against the wind and rain that had begun with a vengeance.

He walked the short distance up hill to the Hotel opposite the Church.

The receptionist was very pleasant and her English although delightfully accented, was most comprehensive.  She even understood Ken’s Darlington drawl, somewhat slowed down and carefully enunciated to help he listener.  The result was a sort of pigeon English that many foreigners are subjected to by Brit’s abroad.

“If you look in the lounge to your right, we have a number of overseas guests here at the moment.  You are welcome to stay and the bar is open as long as there is a customer, ” she said.

Ken entered the opulent residents lounge and quickly scanned the occupants.  No joy.

He carried on past the hotel’s customers towards the elegant bar smiling nonchalantly as he went.  In spite of the bar being busy his companions were nowhere to be seen but he felt obliged to buy a drink to justify his presence.  He ordered a pint of ‘Stella’.

From the timber Church opposite, came the strains of male singing as the monks offered up their age old chanting’s.  The congregation joined in with the responses.  It was difficult to tell from where Ken sat, as the singing was somewhat muted due the distance and thick walls in between.  He supposed that the service was in Latin, as he couldn’t understand one word,

Two pints later, as he went through the Hotel’s entrance door he could hardly believe his eyes.  He saw both John and Neville coming out of the wooden Church amongst the crowd of worshipers.

They feigned disgust at seeing Ken emerging from the Hotel, assuming rightly he had been sampling at the bar.

“Don’t you realise it’s Sunday exclaimed Neville?” as he put an arm around his friends shoulder.  John added, “Even we, have a day off in recognition”, he paused and continued under his breath,  “and to recover.”

Remarkably they passed the ‘Pub’ on the corner saying that the free drink promised by the barman could wait until the next day.     

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