Your Eastcoaster Editor has just returned from a European road trip where she spent a couple of hours wandering the quaysides of Sète in the Mediterranean sunshine, trying to find where our boat ‘Cachalot’ may have moored in 1955. Built in 1898 at Folkestone, Kent, we know she cruised extensively during the 1950s. Our search in France was based on a photo from an article in ‘Yachting Monthly’, May 1956.
Whilst researching the history of our boat, we came across an article in ‘Yachting Monthly’ written by her then owner, Edward Elwyn Nott-Bower. He describes his last voyage in ‘Cachalot’, departing Crosshaven near Cork Harbour, Ireland on 9 June, 1955 with his wife, Angela and their daughter Jill. Their passage took them down the coast of France to Bordeaux and then through the French canals to Sète, crossing to the Balearics and finally leaving her, laid up afloat, in Andraitx, Majorca.
“Nearing Bordeaux on 28 June, we had now to face the problem of getting our mast down before entering the canal which would take us to Sète on the Mediterranean coast and we found the answer readily forthcoming at the most convenient place, about three miles short of Bordeaux. Here, on the starboard hand as you go up, is the headquarters of the Sport Nautique de la Gironde. Numerous yachts are moored here and a high steel girder landing stage is built out into the river. At slack tide, guided by the club’s factotum, a very small agile and excitable Breton, we manoeuvred ‘Cachalot’ under the girders. All was ready except for knocking out the wedges which seemed to have been put in with glue. There was only one set of tools which the little man thought he could wield best on deck while I was convinced that the region of the cabin table would be the more fruitful field. Jill’s diplomacy was fully stretched as her diary indicates:
‘Give me the mallet, mam’selle.’
‘My father is using it.’
‘Mais … gobble gobble gobble’
‘Daddy, he says he must have the mallet.’
‘Well, tell him he b– well can’t have it.’
‘Bang, bang, bang.’
‘In a moment, monsieur. Would you like a cup of tea?’
Eventually we had to withdraw and come again at slack tide next morning after the wedges had been completely pulverised. As soon as the mast was secured on deck we started up river under power with the flood tide gathering strength, and were soon through Bordeaux and into the pleasant country beyond. The distance to the lock at Castets where the canal begins was about forty miles and we were doubtful whether we could make it on one tide. About half-way therefore we hailed a petrol barge which was about to pass us, and they very kindly took us in tow. It was lucky we took this precaution as two hours before we reached Castets a strong ebb tide set in which our engine could certainly never have stemmed. As it was, starting at 10am, we were in the first lock at 5pm.
The trip through the canal, which should have been eight days’ pleasure, turned out to be ten days’ purgatory. We struck the first heat-wave of the year and the temperature in the Midi during a heat-wave is ferocious. During the day, in order to keep alive at all, we stripped in turn and poured buckets of water over each other. The circulating water of the engine kept on getting blocked up with refuse from the locks, sending the temperature up even higher; the exhaust pipe, fatigued by the white heat and vibration, broke clean in half miles from anywhere, filling the ship with dense and dangerous fumes. The helmsman had to squat on deck with his head out over the quarter steering with one foot while the other two sat forward of the cabin top. Petrol barges with conspicuous notices saying ‘Defense de fumer’ kept us at a respectful distance.
At the hottest part of another day the holding-down bolts of the engine came loose and all the packing pieces fell into the inaccessible part of the bilges under the engine, the propeller shaft came off and its nuts and bolts and my spectacles followed the packing pieces. Most of this happened in a lock while two barges highly charged with ‘empressement’ were waiting to come in. The furious cries of the bargemen and the lock keepers and the plaintive explanations of Angela and Jill mingled with my own oaths and the intermittent screams of the engine as we pushed and pulled ourselves out. When I had recovered the pieces I gouged a large piece out of my thumb doing things up really tight . . . Jill was afflicted over all this period with a savage and persistent heat rash, and her wails of ‘Epsom salts or I die’ (when the Lord knew how one got Epsom salts on a French canal) added to the difficulties of rapid navigation . . . But enough. Such glimpses of scenery as I had were not without charm, the evenings and nights were pleasant and peaceful, and voice and guitar helped to heal the ravages of the day . . . Angela found a tree replete with ripe figs which she adores.
On 9 July we at last emerged from the canal into the Etang de Thau, and crossing this entered the main waterway through Sète, tying up to the quay after passing the last bridge. Sète is a town of great beauty and well worth a visit even though the sea can be reached more quickly by a branch canal which takes off soon after passing Carcassone and enters the Mediterranean farther west at the little port of La Nouvelle. A round jovial friendly Italian with a name like Riccardi and a vast fund of amusing anecdote, seems to do all the work for all the yachts in Sète. On the job he is a flash of lightning, but the difficulty is to get him corralled. He bounces along the quay every morning exchanging pleasantries with the yachtsmen and then suddenly disappears for the rest of the day. Somebody has pulled him in, put a fence round him, and got him down to a job. He got up our east for us the day after we arrived although it was a Sunday. He would bring the wedges, he said, that evening. But it was not till Tuesday that we cornered him and got the job finished. The Spanish Consulate sold us visas for Spain at 16s each, and a pump at the harbour entrance provided petrol for mariners at a very cheap rate; we took on board plenty of wine, fruit and eggs and sailed out into the Mediterranean at 1130 on 12 July.”Extract from ‘Seeking the Sun: how we took our old 8 ton cutter from Cork to Majorca in the summer of 1955’, E E Nott-Bower, ‘Yachting Monthly’, May 1956
After a helpful conversation with a local man, we were directed to the possible area of the town, and found a spot to park the van to continue our search on foot along the several waterways that make up the modern port. We’re fairly confident to have found, roughly, the quay where ‘Cachalot’ may have raised her mast nearly 70 years ago.
Words and modern photos: Beverley Yates
Archive photos: E E Nott-Bower, Yachting Monthly
Find out more about ‘Cachalot on her website