Wry Society: The yacht race

Could Monsieur John be sailing a little too close to the wind in his pursuit of boating glory? Words by Sam Leith. Illustration by Phil Disley 

Image: phildisley.com

“Ah, Monsieur John! Vous triomphez encore!” A Gitanes bobbed on the grizzled lip of the fisherman Pierre Lamarche as he clapped his friend on the shoulder and commenced one of his approving coughing fits. John Gent, underneath his blue skipper’s cap, gave a complacent grin and hoisted his trophy aloft, the better to admire it. Later, he’d take it to Monsieur Duval to have his name and the date etched, yet again, on the plaque at its base. Monsieur John, as the locals all called him, was a well-known figure at the Café de France. A portly man now in his 70s, he had been visiting the little Norman town of Barfleur since he’d first tied his 30ft yacht, Outcast, in the harbour in the early 1970s having plotted a course for Cherbourg and missed. 

Refusing to admit his mistake to the friends he had corralled as crew for the cross-Channel jaunt, he declared that he had always been intending their destination to be Barfleur. “It’s magical here,” he said, inhaling the pong of seaweed and old mussels as he stepped up onto the quay. And so it had proved.

Now he was the owner of a modest house on the Rue St Nicolas, and visited three or four times a year. He liked to think of himself as an honorary local. He swam daily in the sea behind the church. He drank pastis in the Café de France, bought galettes from one of the town’s two bakeries and croissants from the other, and in time treated his grandchildren to beignets at the noisy funfair that appeared on the harbour in summer months. The highlight of his month-long summer holiday, though, was always the Cap de Barfleur yacht race around a course of buoys off the headland.

It was for small sailing boats, and Outcast just squeaked in to be eligible. Two-man and three-man boats, tourist hires, locals and flocks of teenagers in Optimists from the École de Voile: all made their way merrily around the course each year. Frites were eaten, pressions quaffed and the trophies awarded by the mayor in a simple ceremony on the pier. And each year, Monsieur John lifted the main trophy – oddly, given that on the face of it he was no Chay Blyth, what with the shouting and panicking, the flapping sails, the frequent near-misses with the boom.

There was a reason for this. He cheated. Each year, as soon as Outcast was a safe distance from shore, he would stomp unsteadily down into the bowels of the ship and turn on the motor, completing the far leg of the course at a stately clip regardless of where the wind stood. Monsieur John didn’t think of it as cheating, exactly. He huffily explained to his wife Pam when she asked that there was nothing whatever in the rules to prevent it, and unable to produce any evidence to the contrary, she let it pass. So, year after year, the modest trophy had sat in pride of place on the mantel of Rue St Nicolas, awaiting its brief return to the authorities in preparation for his next nautical triumph. So his mood, this unclouded afternoon, was a sunny one.

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John was just setting out for home, trophy in hand, when an urgent voice hailed him: “Monsieur John! Monsieur John!” He turned to greet the cagouled figure of Edouard, the principal of the École de Voile. “Vous avez gagné neuf fois,” he said. “Nayn tame?” “Oui,” said Monsieur John recalling with pleasure how more than normally peeved Edouard had looked earlier when he sailed home in second place.

Félicitations,” said Edouard, extending a hand. “Ah, congratulation, yes?” And then, half in faltering English, half in French, Edouard explained that he begged a favour from the victor. All the children were so excited to have a master sailor in their midst. “Bien sûr,” said Monsieur John, swelling with magnanimity, and imagining the signing of autographs.

“You will take the winner of the junior trophy round the course one more time, in my two-man Laser – show eem ’ow is done! Yes?”

“Ehm,” said Monsieur John, but he got no further when a cherubic eight-year-old in a lifejacket appeared from behind Edouard. “Monsieur John!” the boy exclaimed, face a picture of horrible joy.

Pam cut in before John could speak. “He’d be delighted to. Enchanté!” The child said something French that sounded like “Hurrah!”, and John’s status as a local legend was sealed. Especially, as it was to turn out, with the lifeboatmen. 

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