Christ Roi Print E-mail
Monday, 24 January 2005

The Last Shrimper


On 23 May 1940 the French General Blanchard signed one of his last orders: “Forces will regroup around the rivers Aa and Lys and the canal de derivation to form a bridgehead protecting Dunkirk. This bridgehead will stand firm, there will be no retreat."

One of the most strategically important places in the area around Dunkirk was Grande-Fort-Phillipe, a tiny fishing village situated where the river Aa meets the open sea. Had it fallen, an enemy shore battery could have picked off the ships which sailed in to evacuate the troops along the 39-mile route Z, the shortest safe path from Britain to the beaches.

In that last week of May Grande-Fort-Phillipe was under siege, its 3,500 population swelled by 20,000 refugees. There was only bread and a few sacks of vegetables left to feed them, and water, gas and electricity had been cut off. Heroism was the order of the day: the heroism of British tanks retreating from Calais who stopped without orders to defend the Aa bridge and fought until their ammunition ran out; the heroism of the French battalion which continued to hold nearby Gravelines, after both food and cannon shot were exhausted.

Eventually, Dunkirk fell and Grande-Fort-Phillipe’s survivors were left to survey the appalling aftermath. Houses were still burning, boatbuilders' workshops were in ruins, and the ebbing tide exposed the pathetic shells which were all that remained of the town's fishing fleet. Although many refugees had died in the crossfire, there was still a vast number of people to be fed and little to feed them with. In those first weeks of occupation sunken ships were cannibalised at low water for parts, and long-abandoned vessels which had somehow escaped major damage were patched up and dragged into the water.

For nearly two years Jean-Baptiste Fournier struggled to feed a wife and nine children using a boat hardly fit to leave the estuary. Then he decided to approach the local German commander to see if he could order a boat from another part of France. There was no possibility of getting one locally as the yards had been destroyed and both materials and skilled labour were unavailable.

The commander positively welcomed the idea of adding a well-found boat to Grande-Fort-Phillipe's rag-tag fleet as many farm animals had died in the fighting and fish was a much needed source of protein for his forces. Fournier had no trouble getting permission to travel to Normandy to find a yard to build his boat, but excitement at the prospect of a new boat was tempered with anxiety. Fournier was a fisherman, not a boatbuilder, and was worried about choosing a good yard, so he asked Louis Jonnquin, a carpenter friend, to go with him. Jonnquin recommended  the Fecamp boat builder Argentin, well known in the area for his production of 33-50ft (10-15m) trawlers.


Fournier ordered a 33ft (l0m) oak-on-oak workboat, fully-rigged and with a 30hp Bolinder diesel engine. The sail plan was two foresails - a foc on the bowsprit and a trinquette on the stemhead - a flèche (topsail) and a loose-footed grande voile à corne (gaff mainsail). The sheet of this sail slid on an overlope, a word of obvious English origin which describes the near semi-circular metal horse. For the mizzen, Fournier specified a triangular sail in place of the usual voile au tiers (lug sail). Argentin felt this combination was not so well-balanced and set the main mast further back than usual.

Christ-Roi was launched in December 1942 and Jean- Baptiste and his crew went to bring her home. They were told, by the Germans, to keep to the coast and travel only by day and, having waited for suitable tides, made Boulogne-sur-Mer in one day's motor sailing. This was a good day's journey by any standards, but then their luck ran out: for a week Christ-Roi remained gale-bound. When the weather changed, Fournier made for Calais and on to Grande-Fort-Phillipe next day.

Imagine the scene when those tan sails were spotted! A new boat is a cause for celebration in any fishing community, but for occupied Grande-Fort-Phillipe Christ-Roi's arrival was more than that. It was a symbol of hope and the banks of the Aa were lined with excited crowds as the little boat sailed in. Jean-Baptiste was delighted with the sturdiness and sea-keeping qualities of his new boat, and soon several other Grande-Fort-Phillipe fishermen decided to ask permission to order Argentin boats. Within a few days Christ-Roi was at work. The little fleet was constantly circled by a fast German gunboat and, in each group of three boats, one had to carry a German soldier Ostensibly he was there to shoot mines drifting too close, but the fishermen felt he had another duty: to prevent them slipping away to join the Free French forces.

Although designated a crevettier (shrimper), Christ-Roi caught anything she could in those war years: flat fish, conger, cod, mackerel and herring. When the  migrant herring came to French waters that November, they fished a l'étalage (in tandem). Boats were anchored, nets drifted in the current and trapped herring were transferred by landing nets. In that short season the little boat caught 25 tons of the silver-scaled fish and, even though the Germans had fixed a herring price of only 9 old francs per kilo, this staggering success paid for her building cost of 130,000 old francs. Everything else she caught in her first year was profit.

According to Jean-Baptiste's son, of the same name, Christ-Roi was always a lucky boat and never more so than when, despite the armed German guard, a mine struck her fishing gear. The explosion lifted the little boat clear of the water, but she suffered no damage.

When war ended, Christ-Roi gained a wheelhouse and a more powerful engine. The main and foresails were removed and the mizzen was shifted forward to be used as a steadying sail. Thus equipped, Christ-Roi headed for “Arwick” – as the locals call “Harwich”, leaving Grande-Fort-Phillipe on the first of the flood for Kentish Knock before bounding along on the northward tide to the mouth of the Orwell, where lurked the delectable crevettes roses (prawns). "What about territorial limits?" I asked Jean-Baptiste. "Well, it was only three miles then." he replied with a wry grin before adding there only seemed to be very small boats fishing out of Harwich at that time.

So what happened to those other Argentin boats which joined that little French wartime fleet? Sadly, most met their end in encounters with mines, only Christ-Roi and monsieur Creuten's Rose-Marcelle survived. The latter was sent in the early 1970s to be broken up and her end illustrates the excellent construction of these boats. The procedure for breaking up boats of this size was to lift them with a crane and drop then onto concrete from 5m. After this crashing fall, Rose-Marcelle sat intact and had to be cut up with a chain saw. It is dreadful to think of a boat sound enough to survive such maltreatment being destroyed, but northern France doesn't have a wealth of creeks where obsolete boats can be left until someone decides they are worth restoring.

Jean-Baptiste junior fished in command of Christ-Roi for over 20 years until, in 1971, he decided she was too small and sold her to Edouard Caboche of Boulogne. It must have been a sad parting for, of all the boats Jean-Baptiste has fished in, it is Christ-Roi whose photos decorate the walls of his home. Caboche worked the vessel until his retirement when he sold her to another man looking for a bigger boat.

In the recession of the 1980s, Jean-Claude Liegois lost his job and spent his savings on a flobard, a local beach boat; Christ-Roi was a step up for this natural fisherman and he fished her until, in 1986, the maritime authorities refused the boat a licence. Christ-Roi was then taken to Boulogne's boat graveyard, the disused dock by the manganese factory.

Jean Caudron is a reluctant landlubber who, but for parental opposition, would have been a fisherman instead of a Firestone technician. He is passionately interested in working sail and the region's maritime history. When he spotted the neglected old boat a year after it had been abandoned, he vowed that somehow he would save the one surviving example of northern France's once prolific dundee-crevettiers.

Jean acquired the sad remains of Christ-Roi and had her lifted out and, for two years, the boat sat on dry land in Boulogne while he planned a step by step restoration. He even took a year's leave to attend a practical course on wooden boat building techniques, but this still left the problems of how to finance the project and where he could rebuild the old prawner. The turning point came when a Grande-Fort-Phillipe councillor learned of the project and offered to house Jean's old boat in the town's municipal workshop. Christ-Roi was taken home.

The project soon gathered impetus. The Federation Nord/Pas de Calais pour la Culture Maritime loaned woodworking machinery acquired from the yard of a former Dunkirk boatbuilder and, early in 1991, the Federation's president Francois Guennoc became the joint owner of Christ-Roi. Two local firms promised sponsorship and on 15 August 1991 the workshop was opened to the public. Among the many who came to see the boat were her first patron's three sons, Jean-Baptiste, Charles and Julien Fournier and, although some of the less knowledgeable were sceptical about the project, these three had no doubt that Christ-Roi would sail again.

With the help of volunteers, alternate planks were removed from Christ-Roi's hull and several hundredweight of concrete was removed from the bilges. The workshop had once been a boatyard and its former owner arranged the delivery of grown oak timbers and seasoned planks, while one local firm provided nails and other fastenings and another printed publicity hand outs.

Jean had intended to rebuild Christ-Roi in easy stages, but now he had a partner it was decided to enlist skilled professional help to speed up the work. Michel Deloison, a St Valery-sur- Somme boat-builder, agreed to undertake the restoration. He had a reputation for excellent workmanship and had built many solid little wooden trawlers before the attractions of glass fibre deprived him of many clients. Deloison took lodgings in Grande-Fort-Phillipe in October 1991 and began work on Christ-Roi.

His first move was to make and fit a new stem and renew the stern timbers, before going on to remove every alternate frame in the boat. About 80% of these would, eventually, be discarded and replaced by new ones. Futtocks were joined in the traditional manner, using a galvanised 12.5mm iron rod called a broche driven into a 10mm hole. By 6 December, when 100 invited guests came to the workshop, the pile of grown oak had diminished and the old boat, though rather naked, was definitely on its way. The press were present that day and their reports prompted considerable interest. There are few families in Grande-FortPhillipe which don't boast a grandfather or uncle who owned a crevettier or crewed on an Icelandic sailing trawler. More funds began to come in, ranging from the sponsorship of Electricité de France and the local Tourist Board to small sums earned by selling postcards and badges.

Pine spars and masts were ordered from Laricio du Marqenterre in the bay of the Somme, a Baudouin engine was rescued from a derelict péniche (barge) and a local blacksmith began forging the ironwork. One day, a visitor arrived. "You can borrow these to copy," he said. It was monsieur Creuten, come to offer the bronze ecubiers (fairleads) which he had kept as souvenirs of the ill fated Rose-Marcelle.

Deloison worked with great care, often using chalk as a tell tale to check joints fitted perfectly, and almost three months went by before the basic framework had been completed and the keelson was in place. He decided the old keel could be used but, because the holes had become worn, the original broches had to be replaced with galvanised bolts. Apart from volunteer assistants, Deloison had, up till this time, been working alone. Now his eldest son joined him to assist with steaming and fitting the planking, using galvanised carvelle nails. Engine bearers were made, the deck planks were fitted and, a month later, the youngest Deloison also joined his father and brother. A number of new volunteers joined the team, smoothing timbers, fitting the ironwork and helping with caulking, using cotton for the oak hull planks and oakum and pitch for the pine deck. As the scheduled launching date of 14 June 1992 - fifty years after she was built and a month before the Brest '92 festivities began  loomed ever closer, more volunteers were enlisted to apply the traditional linseed oil-based paint and help mount the engine and other mechanical parts.

On the appointed day, Christ-Roi's marraine (godmother) broke the champagne bottle against her bow and a crane lowered the almost-new boat into the water.

The river Aa took on an Old World air that day; several old sailing ships came to pay their respects to the newest member of northern France's traditional fleet and, on land, groups in regional dress sang and danced to old tunes. Christ-Roi was back in her natural element.

Maiden Voyage

The invitation to join Christ-Roi on her maiden voyage was irresistible. A few weeks after she was launched I arrived in Boulogne at crack of dawn to sail on the second leg of her journey from Grande-Fort-Phillipe to St Valery-sur-Somme. Jean Caudron (left) was taking her there to be a surprise guest of honour at the wedding of Michel Deloison’s son.

The Boulogne fishing fleet had its nets down off Le Portel and several patrons glanced curiously at the old sailing ship.

Then one cream coloured boat peeled away from the others. Jean-Claude Liegois had come to meet the boat that had set him on the road to becoming a successful fisherman.

Leigois’ boat returned to the fishing grounds and we bent on our foc and continued south. Suddenly the seas grew very steep and the boat began to pitch unpleasantly and take water over the bow but, although Christ-Roi was very lively, she gave an impression of immense solidity and security. Soon we were approaching the Somme estuary, but with several hours to wait before the flood tide would allow us into the harbour and with the south westerly wind already gusting to Force 7 and threatening to increase, Jean Caudron decided he couldn’t risk the boat. We started ‘Philo’ and we ran back for Boulogne under engine, trinquette and reefed main.

Philo is the 12.5 litre Baudouin BD4 engine salvaged from an ancient péniche of the same name. To start it, fuel is pumped manually from the main tank to the ‘day’ tank, which gravity-feeds the engine. Then a starting cartridge is fitted to the front three cylinders and each one is individually primed. Once the engine is running, cylinder number four acts as a compressor, replenishing the air tank. The idea was to have a period motor, but I couldn’t help feeling a smaller unit would have been more suitable – you could have fitted several bunks in the space occupied by the monster and its ancillaries.

Running before the wind was definitely more comfortable and with Philo’s help Christ-Roi returned to Boulogne a lot quicker than she’d left. Even so, she’s hardly a greyhound and several modern yachts also seeking shelter from the worsening weather, gradually caught us up. The contrasting behaviour of old and new hull design was striking. Christ-Roi has the typical old fishing vessel flotation line, stemming from the days when a sailor’s greatest fear was being pooped in a heavy following sea. With a great deal of the rear hull under water, she rode the waves more easily than the yachts. Soon they had dropped their mains, reducing sail to just tiny storm jibs, whilst we continued to bowl along with some 33.5m² aloft.

That evening we dined as Jean-Baptiste Fournier would have dined aboard Christ Roi. We’d filled pans with sea water and into these went a few chopped onions and those prime sole. The result, eaten with French bread and washed down with white wine, was delicious, and we didn’t have Jean-Baptiste’s wartime restriction of five litres of wine per family per month!


Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
< Prev   Next >