Aimée Print E-mail
Monday, 24 January 2005

At 175 tons, the Dundee Harenguier Aimée was the largest sailing herring boat ever built in France. Her existence touched the lives of many in the fishing community of Boulogne-sur-Mer and, even today, there is uncertainty about her final fate.


At the turn of the last century Boulogne-sur-Mer’s greatest wealth was its herring fishery, but the history of the prosperity these small fishes brought to the town goes back many centuries.

As long ago as the 15th century, Boulogne herrings were available in the south, as a receipt for 3000 herrings from the abbot of Notre Dame du Gard, dated 4th Jan. 1418, proves. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the counts of Boulogne were sending out thousands of herring, as rent to monasteries and - with the patois words ‘A chacun sin pain s’ n’ hering’ (To each his bread and herring) their countesses were distributing this largesse to the poor.

The first Boulogne herring sailers described in detail were 15 tonners, built around 1330 By 1900, the fleet consisted of around 100 herring boats, displacing around 120 tonnes, equipped with 5 to 6000 metres of nets and capable of carrying up to 1000 barrels of herring.

In August 1908 the Seillier boatyard laid the keel for the greatest of them all, the 170 ton displacement Aimée (Beloved). She was destined to be the largest sailing herring boat ever built in France.

Everything about Aimée was big, she was nearly 35 metres long, drew 4 metres at the stern, carried 12 tons of ballast and 425 square metres of sail. Her equipment and provisions list was also impressive: 6 kms of hawsers; 300 herring nets, called roies; 3000 kilos of coal for cooking; 37,500 kilos of salt etc.

Her construction was typical of most large Boulogne boats. Doubled oak members were laid on the straight timber, which served as a keel, then linked with another longitudinal beam. Her planking was also oak, about 80 mm thick, but her deck would, probably, have been pitch pine since this was considered to give the best non slip surface.

Aimée and her consorts were ketches, or dundees, so named - some say - for the ‘dandy' air of their rig. They carried a large mizzen sail and a feature of their rig was the forward slope of the mizzen, or mat d’artimon, which was as tall as the main mast This slope was designed to reduce the force on the stern and to move the centre of effort forward.

In all but fair weather, Aimée would have carried a triangular mizzen top sail, instead of the pantalon in the photograph. If the wind increased the lower part of the mizzen sail, the bunnette de malet, would be unlaced thus avoiding taking a reef, on a boom which overhung the stern by 3 metres, and perhaps being swept overboard.

What powerful emotions, a mixture of awe, fear and pride, this beautiful sailing boat must have evoked in her ship's boys, or mousses, when they went aboard for their first voyage. lmagine the feelings of the mothers of these lads of seven to ten years old when the tug cast her off, the great sails filled and Aimée headed north.

Photo. Emile, one of Aimée’s ship’s boys, age 10.

In his 'History of the English Nation’,  Bede the Venerable, told how an unmanned barque, carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary, sailed into Boulogne in 633. As Aimée cleared the jetties, her crews would have looked to the little chapel on the cliffs, which housed the 'Sainte Image' and asked for the blessing of fair weather and a good catch.

With good winds, Aimée could average 10 knots on passage to the fishing grounds, whose location varied with the season. Her most northern destination would be off Fair Isle, in May, her southernmost Cap d'Antifer, in January. In between, during November, her twinkling lights would have been seen from Boulogne, as the fleet fished, by night, just a few miles off their home port.

The locality of the herring was fairly predictable, their precise position was not. Her master would decide where Aimée's nets were cast, after studying gathering seabirds, asking the hand with the line about the bottom and using intuition. The crew would swing up the beau pré (bowsprit) and, aided by the huge tackle, would lower beau pré and main mast until the mast leant back at an angle of 45 degrees. Under mizzen, Aimée would sail forward whilst the most experienced boy let out the great hawser carrying the nets and flotation barrels. Then, whilst the older members of the crew enjoyed a traditional ‘bonne bistouille’, an equal mixture of hot coffee and fiery eau de vie, the mousses, would have their lessons. They had to learn to splice, practice intricate knots and discover how to seal a barrel with clay, in between sweeping up and helping to prepare the evening meal.

Hauling in the 6 kilometre of heavy nets was an ardous process which could take up to 6 hours. As the fish came aboard, the master salter would supervise soaking the herring in his prepared saumure, a brine broth which was said to be the right strength when it would just float a potato. The crew would plunge gauntleted arms into barrels and vigourously stir the gutted fish in the saumure, before leaving them to marinade. When all were soaking, bow sprit and mast would be hauled up, sails unfurled, and Aimée would go on to her next fishing area. Weather permitting, this cycle would be repeated every 24 hours and Aimée wouldn’t head for home until the holds were crammed to capacity, with over 1000 barrels of herring.

The fishing community, though poor, was extremely proud and didn't mix with people of other trades. The fishermen's wives were known as matelotes and each had her traditional Sunday outfit - black or navy silk dress, white fringed shawl, heavy gold earrings and a white lace bonnet, appropriately called the soleil (sun), which framed the face. Often these costumes were 'hand-me-downs' but, if need be, a family would go short of food to provide a good outfit for one of the women.

These women were the 'bosses' where the family were concerned. That is not to say their menfolk were subservient, but they had the sense to realise that the woman must be in charge, because the man was so often at sea. It was the mate1otes who, dressed in their 'Sunday best', would go down to Aimée's armteur once a fortnight and collect their husband's wages.

Aimée had originally been built for m'sieur Leon Canu and was named for his wife, formerly Aimée Declerq, who was also the boat's godmother - all French fishing boats are christened in a ceremony, which parallels that of a child. Sadly, m'sieur Canu hadn't owned Aimée for very long before he went bankrupt and, on the 14th of January 1913, the great sailing ship came under the hammer. The reserve price was set at 11,500 francs but the bidding was so keen that this price was quickly passed and Aimée was, finally knocked down to the well known armateur, m'sieur Jean Huret-Fournay for 17,550 francs.

You cannot, literally, translate that sum into today's money but, as a room at a cheaper Boulogne hotel cost around 3 francs in those days, it would be the equivalent of around £875,000 today! I was puzzled about why hard headed business men should have pushed the price of an obsolete sailing herring boat so high. Traffic at Boulogne port was too great to allow Aimée to sail in and out, so her every departure and arrival neccessitated calling a tug and men who knew how to handle her massive rig were becoming increasingly difficult to find.

So why did Jean Huret-Fournay, owner of a fleet of steam trawlers, pay such a colossal sum for a sailing boat?

I think his grandson, Gerald de le Salle, has given the best explanation. 'It was a question of power and competence paying homage to quality and beauty.

Aimée had only followed the migratory herring for about a year, in Huret-Fournay's ownership, when war broke out. Even before hostilities began, the newest trawlers Turbot, Marie-Ste11a, Blanc Nez and Europe were requisitioned and, two days after the first shots, eighty more steam and motor fishing vessels were taken by the French Navy to serve as armed escorts or minesweepers. It was left to Aimée and her consorts to provide the people with fish, but it wasn't long before they too were actively involved in the war.

In 1915, Aimée was one of several sailing boats which helped lay a barrage of anti submarine nets, between Dover and Gris Nez. In 1917, she became part of the 'Coal Squadron' which played a dual role, depending on whether food for the people, or coal for the ships was most urgently needed. Some days she would seek herrings, on others she would sail to Goole, Grimsby or Hull and fill her fish holds with coal.

It was a hazardous time and, even when close to home, the boats were in danger. On September 4th 1917, the armed trawler Pelican took five sailing boats in tow for the entry into port. They were, immediately, attacked by two German submarines and Pelican was forced to abandon her charges who had beat their own way home, whilst the little trawler bravely fought off the enemy, reputedly sinking one submarine.

In 1913, Boulogne had still possessed a fleet of 40 sailing herring boats, at the end of the war there were just 14. The survivors continued to play a dual role for a while, following the herring from June to January and hauling coal, from January to June.

The last written newspaper report involving Aimée was this:- 'Etienne Alfred, owner of the trawler Lucienne has been awarded a silver medal for life saving. On December 14th 1918, he threw himself into the water, at night and with considerable risk of being crushed, to rescue a man who had fallen between the quay and Aimée’.

In 1924, Aimée was holed, when she settled on a rock, but she was patched, pumped out and then properly repaired, for m’sieur Huret– Fournay maintained his ships in perfect order. Once a week he visited the fleet, tapped each hull with a pointed malet and ordered the replacement of any defective timber; not after the next voyage, not a temporary repair, but a thorough and immediate restoration to original specification. His son, who took over from him, in 1919, was equally meticulous about maintenance.

Aimée’s final fate is uncertain. One Custom’s document indicates that she was broken up in January 1925 - a strange thing for a boat which had been well repaired in 1924. Huret-Fournay family records suggest she was sold to Fecamp and some say she went on to the bay of Gascony, where sailing ships were still in wide use.

The only concrete fact is that the Boulogne authorities drew a line through Aimée’s record in 1925; with the annotation “Changement de Tonnage: Avis de la Douane du 28 Février 1925.” How can you change the tonnage of a boat that was supposedly broken up a month earlier?

Marian Martin

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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