My Life in Wine – Part 13 – Sail away, sail away, sail away

Astrid Cargo

Astrid’s Cargo

Much of the dinner conversation with the Cassins concerned the history between Bordeaux and the UK. I realised I was lucky in that Bordeaux and its surrounding regions – Aquitaine – are the most Anglophile part of France. In all my years there, I don’t recollect ever being on the receiving end of the sort of rudeness our British journalists regularly dish out to France.

Every year the good people of Castillon re-enact the Battle of Castillon, 1453, which ended the 100 Years War, but they always remind everyone that they were actually on our side! This wasn’t really a fight between the French and the English but between rival groups of French-speaking aristocrats, one of whom happened to sit on the English throne. The battle re-enactment makes it clear that the people of this region were very much on the side of the English King who, in response to a plea from the harassed ‘Anglo Gascons’ sent over an army. Unfortunately it was led by a 70-year-old general, rather past his best. And that was that.

Why the loyalty? Well, the King of England was also the Duke of Aquitaine and had been for hundreds of years. But really it was all down to … wine.

We, in our damp islands have always been noted for our excessive love of wine. Well, booze of any kind, really. It’s not a new thing. In the 12th century we in Britain, apparently consumed as much Bordeaux wine as we do today. With a population of what … two million? This thirsty market kept Aquitaine in the money for centuries. Monsieur told me there was this annual fleet of fat bellied boats called ‘cogs’ that sailed down the great sea highway that ran across The Channel and down the west cost of France at vintage time. It is possible to surmise – though it won’t win you friends in the region – that Bordeaux is not what it is today – the greatest region of fine wine on earth – necessarily because it makes the finest wines. It might just be because, for a thousand years, it was the handiest source of good red wine for the ever-thirsty British. My French friends say the ‘GB’ we stick on our cars stands for Geule de Bois or ‘wood-throat’; a very dedicated drinker. They say it with admiration. They love us for our thirst.

The Bordeaux wine trade in its Medieval prime was the greatest trade, of any sort, the world had ever seen. Monsieur Cassin told me this, thus precipitating another of our mad schemes; we would re-enact that trade.

Hugh Johnson was keen to sail. Madame Cassin was keen; she had an ancestor who was a corsair. The customers seemed keen on some waterborne wine. So I went off to Cornwall, found an old Brigantine square rigger called the ‘Marques’ which had featured in ‘The Onedin Line’ on TV and chartered her.

We set sail, Hugh, me, Colin Forbes the nautical cameraman, and a scary-looking bunch of wild Cornishmen, from Charlestown, a tiny port which has featured in just about everything filmed with an old sailing boat in it. With a brisk northerly wind, we roared down the coast to Bordeaux in just two days. There, the bemused but willing dockers of Bordeaux packed 2000 cases of claret into her capacious hold. They packed them extremely well … and later we thanked God for that. Fully laden we sailed back past the Médoc – where we took on a few barrels as deck cargo – and on out into a dead calm sea. We sat there and waited for wind whilst diving and swimming with the porpoises. This is easy, we thought.

The first storm warning came as we neared Brest. So we took shelter for a couple of nights. Unfortunately time and money were running out and we had an appointment with a BBC film crew in Plymouth. So we decided to make a run for it.

The big storm hit as we emerged into the Channel and darkness fell. The captain lowered all sails except for the two jibs and we had no option but to run before the wind, up the Channel. The ship had no electricity and the oil lamps blew out. Like a ghost ship, we apparently crashed through a French fishing fleet. By then, Hugh and I, believing our final hour might have come – and me only married a month – had got down into the focs’le with two bottles of extremely fine Cognac, a fortuitous gift from our friend, old Marcel Ragnaud.

In the cold wet light of morning there was no more Cognac. There were no more sails, only shreds, and a lot fewer barrels on deck; gone overboard. But we were still all alive and Colin, who was used to filming Southern Ocean races was having the time of his life. Me, I watched every towering swell, the size of a block of flats, bearing down on us, convinced this one would be the one to overwhelm us. But no, up we bobbed, every time, steady as could be, ballasted by 24,000 bottles of claret. Some years later, the poor old Marques did capsize, and sank off Bermuda with much loss of life. That time there was no wine ballast.

This time we got away with it as we nipped into the shelter of Torbay, and I started to breathe again. Alas the BBC were in Plymouth and had gone elsewhere by the time we sailed in after the storm. So we missed the hoped-for news feature. But we did unload every single bottle intact. And that meant 2000 happy customers.

But … never again.

The Astrid

The Astrid

… until 1991, that is, when for some inexplicable reason we did it again, on the ‘Astrid’; another ship which, some years later, sank, off Ireland.

Irene arriving in London

Irene arriving in London

… and then once more in 2010 on the ‘Irene’. That time the weather in The Channel was lovely. But over a two week voyage we somehow managed to get through four captains. Talk about Mutiny on the Bounty!

Irene's Cargo - safe and sound

Irene’s Cargo – safe and sound

Sailing with wine is not straightforward.

Unloading Irene

Unloading Irene

Are we mad? Certainly.

We have also chartered bigger, luxurious, sailing ships and loaded customers on as well as wine. On these voyages there was always extensive damage done to the wine cargo. But the passengers were fine … and very, very happy.

All this, inspired by a fascination with the Bordeaux Trade. A fascination which hasn’t gone away yet! If anyone knows of a nice old sailing ship with a large empty hold, and some mad people …

About Tony Laithwaite

Tony Laithwaite, founder of Laithwaite's, whose passion for wine is still going strong!