Cordelia: A Short Story

It was love at first sight. The moment I set eyes on Cordelia I wanted her with a passion my wife neither understood nor forgave for years. Cordelia was resting on the mud, her distress obvious to me, yet her lines were classically beautiful. She had aged well, but neglect has taken its toll. She looked like a proud old lady who had fallen on hard times. She was, in fact, stronger than she appeared and cradled gently, she made the journey by road to her new home on the banks of the Thames.

Immobile though she was for some years, Cordelia still exuded charm, although at first, Jenny my wife, didn’t warm to her. This new addition to our household caused a certain amount of friction. Cordelia was an expensive mistress. For the first few years she demanded both time and money and Jenny resented this bitterly.

I had done some research into Cordelia’s background and her despite her obstinate silence on the subject, it was much as I imagined when I first met her. She came from the Isle of Wight and was seventy five years old. As part of an upper middle class family she travelled extensively. At an early age she played a small but important part in World War Two, and then travelled to Scotland where she patrolled the estuaries and coast. After the war she still travelled extensively around the south coast and spent some time in France.

Eventually the old lady was restored to her former glory. Gleaming and ready to go she was launched back into society. Cordelia tried her best but I could tell her heart wasn’t in it. She felt demeaned by her new role. She felt she deserved better than this, and I sympathised. She stood head and shoulders above most of the modern craft and she hated them with a vengeance. They trembled in terror at the sight of Cordelia approaching a lock, and only a firm hand at the helm persuaded this boat to behave.

Thus Jenny’s plan to take Cordelia to The Traditional Boat Rally, was a resounding failure. Cordelia sulked. She refused to move, and when her batteries were recharged, laden with food and champagne she reluctantly set out. She looked beautiful, teak decks gleaming in the sunlight, ropes neatly coiled, and with ten guests aboard, she motored confidently along the river. She then crashed into the side of the approaching lock. Cordelia made it quite clear that her role as some sort of floating gin palace was not to her liking as she then ran aground in the shallows.

To be fair she weighed eleven tons, was thirty five feet long, with a draft of three and a half feet, the upper Thames was not her natural environment. Jenny persevered for the rest of the summer but Cordelia’s behaviour did not improve. She was like a fish out of water and even Jenny finally agreed something must be done.

It was towards the end of the summer one warm evening as we sat on Cordelia’s deck enjoying a drink and the quiet peace of the river, when I casually mentioned the 70th anniversary of Operation Dynamo. Cordelia shifted slightly beneath us,  her mooring ropes tightened,  and even Jenny looked enthusiastic.

So early one morning the following April we set out down river, just the three of us. Jenny and Cordelia has arrived at some sort of understanding now and the boat negotiated the locks with ease as we approached the tidal Thames. Mast raised once we had cleared the bridges, both engines perfectly in tune, she headed for the Channel and joined the flotilla of “little ships” once again bound for Dunkirk. She was in her element, brimming with enthusiasm as her bow breasted the waves, and the spray rose over her fore-deck. A glorious reunion. Jenny and I were confident she would make it to Dunkirk and back. She’d done it before and she would again.

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25 thoughts on “Cordelia: A Short Story”

  1. Many thanks, Sheona and I’m amazed that they still keep finding and restoring these boats. It’s a hugely expensive project though, so I’m pleased that some people feel it’s worthwhile. Yes, they are very beautiful. My feelings about “plastic boats” are much the same as Cordelia’s. 🙂

  2. And we’re getting close to the anniversary of the “little ships”, Araminta. Would Hitler have agreed to German forces pulling back if he had realised that the UK could pull off the “Miracle of Dunkirk”?

  3. It was just as you say, Sheona, and that’s exactly why these “little ships” should be valued, in memory of that miracle and the bravery of those who crewed them.

  4. The reason that we managed to evacuate as many as we did at Dunkirk was because Hitler let us ( Not to demean the courage of those involved in Operation Dynamo of course. )

    At that time Hitler still hoped to reach some accommodation with the British.

    Re. Correlation. These big old wooden boats take some handling and I suspect Cordelia’so recalcitrance had more to do with the helmsman than anything else.

  5. You may well be right, Jazz, but it was a miscalculation on Hitler’s part, I believe.

    With regard to the handling of such boats on say the Henley reach, and when the river and locks were busy they can be tricky to handle in some ways: ” Cordelia” was a heavy boat, about 11 tons, teak hull and decks with twin engines and single screw. But but you have to remember that this is a story, it’s fiction and Cordelia’s recalcitrance was very much exaggerated.

  6. Araminta, Cordelia’s teak hull should last a very long time. There are records of teak built sailing ships lasting over 100 years. These old boats are well worth preserving if only to remind ourselves how to do things when we run out of fibreglass. Two engines and a single screw is an unusual arrangement for a small craft, although common enough in ships. Do you know what make of engines ? I’m guessing that Cordelia is not just a figment of your imagination ?

  7. Araminta, Cordelia’s hull is is Pitch Pine on Oak. Not as good as teak but pretty good. Teak would have been very expensive even at the time she was built (1934). Both Pitch Pine and Oak of sufficient quality are now also difficult to come by.
    The engines are BMC Commodore diesels with which I have some experience, having helped my uncle sail his motor yacht ’Truant’ (’Isabel & the Sea’ ) from Plymouth to Gibraltar. We got water in the fuel and a dud starter motor both of which I managed to fix thereby earning some Brownie Points and a large brandy and ginger ale.

  8. Jazz, the boat in my story was not called Cordelia, and she was not actually a Dunkirk little ship. The boat on which it is was based WAS teak on oak – and yes, it was expensive at the time, but she was commissioned by a fairly wealthy family. Her engines were as I wrote in my last comment.

  9. Araminta, I think I believe you, be more careful with boat’s names in future. BTW I don’t know what went awry with my HTML links ?

  10. I am very careful with boat names, Jazz, especially with those we may have owned, for reasons you will probably understand.

    I’ll see if I can check your links when I have more time. I’m assuming your first link should direct me to the little ship of that name.?

  11. Araminta: Well guessed.
    If you look at the Isabel & the Sea link you can see dolphins on the stern of Truant. They were still there when I sailed in her. My uncle had them picked out in gold paint I presume, gold leaf would have been a bit extravagant.

  12. 🙂 Janus. Jazz and I could probably go on for hours swapping boating stories, but I’d probably run out long before he does. 😉

  13. I sailed in Truant in 1968 she was painted white and her original gaff rig had been cut down to a Bermuda rig for easy handling.

    I like traditional boats but where I to have another boat it would be in fibreglass or steel, probably the former as it’s easier to maintain and repair.

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