Brave lit­tle ship

The Oban Times - - Front Page - SANDY NEIL sneil@oban­

THE plea­sure boat Chico, op­er­at­ing out of Oban all sum­mer, has a fas­in­cat­ing his­tory dat­ing back to the emer­gency evac­u­a­tion at Dunkirk.

SHIPS, like peo­ple, har­bour in­cred­i­ble sto­ries, and no ex­cep­tion is Chico, a ‘gen­tle­man’s mo­tor yacht’ now tak­ing lux­u­ri­ous tours around the He­brides.

How­ever, 77 years ago she saved more than 200 Bri­tish sol­diers by evac­u­at­ing them from Dunkirk as the Ger­man army ad­vanced through France dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

Chico is the only ‘Dunkirk lit­tle ship’ still ac­tive in Scot­land, ex­plained her skip­per, Gus Ged­des, who runs this na­tional his­toric ves­sel for West Coast cruises from Oban and Mal­laig ev­ery May to Septem­ber since 2011, with his part­ner, Sue Ma­clach­lan. ‘Many peo­ple know the boat but not nec­es­sar­ily her his­tory,’ Gus said.

The ship, built in 1932 with pitch pine on oak and a cop­per-sheathed hull at St Mo­nans in Fife, was sold to the land and wa­ter speed record holder, Sir Mal­colm Camp­bell, in 1933 as Free­belle III. She was the third of four yachts he was to own, each in turn named Blue Bird af­ter his fa­mous record-break­ing car.

Blue Bird was sold to the Count­ess of Onslow for an el­e­gant life on the waves in 1935 but, at the out­break of war in 1939, was rudely req­ui­si­tioned by the Royal Navy, re­named Chico, fit­ted with Lewis ma­chine-guns and echo-sound­ing gear, and dis­patched to Dover for minesweep­ing du­ties.

Ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­a­tion of Dunkirk Lit­tle Ships, at 9.30pm on May 25, 1940, Chico and two other yachts, seven trawlers, five mo­tor boats and two drifters were or­dered to France, ready to ferry the re­treat­ing Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force off the beaches.

The or­der fi­nally came on May 30 when the 73ft-long Chico res­cued 217 troops back to Dover, then fer­ried 1,000 more from Dunkirk to wait­ing ships off­shore, and a fur­ther 100 men on her re­turn to Blighty.

‘She would have been a lit­tle top heavy,’ imag­ined Gus. ‘All the decks and cabin space would have been full of peo­ple, mostly com­pletely ex­hausted and sleep­ing the whole way back. The en­gine room is so cosy and warm, which they must have ap­pre­ci­ated af­ter wad­ing and swim­ming from the beach. They must have been so re­lieved to get away.’

A year later, while minesweep­ing off Dun­geness, Chico and three other small ships of the Dover Com­mand – the Fyldea, Young Mon and Fore­cast – saw ‘se­ri­ous ac­tion’ fight­ing off an at­tack by a div­ing en­emy bomber, shoot­ing off its tail with ma­chine-gun fire.

The en­gine fell into the wa­ter on each side of the Young Mon, leav­ing no ca­su­al­ties in any of the ships.

Chico’s com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, Jack Ma­son, was awarded the Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Cross (DSC) in recog­ni­tion of gal- lantry dur­ing ac­tive op­er­a­tions against the en­emy at sea.

‘We had one of his daugh­ters on board ear­lier this year,’ Gus re­called. ‘It was very emo­tional for her. She had never seen her fa­ther’s boat be­fore. He seems to have been an ex­tra­or­di­nary man, serv­ing with dis­tinc­tion in the RNVR be­fore be­com­ing a teacher af­ter the war.’

The war over, Chico had her ma­chine-guns re­placed by a deck sa­loon, and civil­ian own­ers re­turned to us­ing her as a char­ter or pri­vate yacht, in­clud­ing Garry and Beth Teni­son of Glas­gow, who owned her from 1954- 60 and cruised the same area as she does to­day.

‘Since then Chico has been in the Baltic, the Med, Bris­tol, Cri­nan, Aberdeen, the south coast of Eng­land, the Thames, France and who knows where else be­fore we brought her back to the west of Scot­land,’ Gus writes on Chico’s web­site. In the 1970s, Chico sailed to the Baltic and Rus­sia as a re­search and demon­stra­tion ves­sel for Mar­coni.

Gus and Sue bought Chico in 2010 af­ter they re­tired, and now live on the boat for three- quar­ters of the year.

Chico saw ser­vice last week dur­ing the 70th West High­land Yacht­ing Week, fer­ry­ing or­gan­is­ers in style be­tween the races at Craobh Haven, Oban and Tober­mory.

She was berthed at Oban Bay’s busy new £2.5 mil­lion pon­toons, which of­fi­cially opened just in time for the races. ‘ We have been look­ing for­ward to them open­ing since plans were fi­nalised last year,’ Gus said.

‘It makes it so much eas­ier to pick peo­ple up and drop them off. It cer­tainly will help our busi­ness and there are at least a dozen other char­ter boats that op­er­ate out of Oban. It is early days but I think ev­ery­one is very pos­i­tive about it. It is like open­ing a new car park: the space just fills up.

‘It is a very nice life,’ he re­flected. ‘It just floats by. We look af­ter her as best we can. You never re­ally own a ship like this. You just look af­ter her and hope to pass her on in as good a con­di­tion as you found her.’

The new block­buster Dunkirk is will be show­ing its fi­nal screen­ings at Oban’s Phoenix Cin­ema to­day (Thurs­day).

Gus Ged­des and Sue Ma­clach­lan on Chico’s bridge.

The Chico’s wartime crew fought off a Ger­man dive-bomber.

Chico has been moored at Oban’s new pon­toons.

Sub-lieu­tenant Jack Ma­son, com­man­der of the Chico at Dunkirk, was awarded a DSC.

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