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Cordelia

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Laurie had had his doubts when Ralph first disclosed his plans to buy a boat; but, as 1948 turned into 1949, he realised Ralph could not have come up with a better use of the windfall he had inherited as sole surviving relative when his father died intestate. Of course, it did make Laurie into a sort of ‘boat widow’ on weekends, as Ralph spent all his spare time at the slip working on restoring the battered old boat he’d bought at auction. But it was decidedly better than Ralph drinking too much. That would have led to divorce. Laurie was wryly amused to find he preferred widowhood to divorcee status. As a child he had been aware his mother had felt the stigma of her divorce keenly; she too would have preferred widowhood, though not for the same reasons.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Ralph was always pleased to have an extra pair of hands, however inexpert, to help with seemingly endless sanding and painting. Raised in an inland village, Laurie’s understanding of sailing had been based on picture postcard images of pleasure boats at the seaside. It seemed there was a lot of maintenance behind those pretty images (and, Ralph reminded him, this was a cruiser, not a sailboat, anyway). Regardless, the two men now had an absorbing interest in common beyond memories of school life and the horrors of Dunkirk.

They debated renaming the old girl. Laurie thought Cordelia an odd name for a boat owned by two queer men; but Ralph reminded him all boats were women. “Besides, she knows her name, don’t you old girl?” Ralph patted her wheel affectionately.

In post-war England, supplies for refurbishment could be hard come by. Employed as harbourmaster, Ralph knew everyone based in the shipbuilding industry; but the rebuilding of a personal yacht was not considered urgent. Orders for the dockyard took priority over one man’s pursuit of his hobby. Laurie knew how frustrated Ralph felt by the snail-slow progress in getting his boat seaworthy again, but he also knew better than to suggest Ralph use his old contacts in the navy to scrounge the supplies he needed. The more he learned about Ralph’s nomadic career in the merchant marine before the war, the more Laurie realised how close won had been Ralph’s reprieve from disillusioned despair when they met again in Bridstow in 1940.

After Alec transferred south to Guy’s Hospital, he took to joining them on weekends. He was less inclined to help and more inclined to sip cocoa, pointing out bits Laurie had missed repainting. But Ralph enjoyed seeing him. Alec always came armed with anecdotes about the scene in Soho, which made Laurie eternally grateful he had found Ralph when he did. In private, Ralph told Laurie he thought Alec took too many chances. “He’ll run aground some day,” Ralph predicted gloomily, “and there will be no tugboat able to pull him off that reef.” He said none of that, however, when Alec brought the bottle of bubbly to break against the prow for Cordelia’s relaunch in 1950, just thanked him as he took the champagne off to the galley to find some glasses. “She already had that done when she was new,” Laurie explained quietly to Alec. “Apparently it’s bad luck to do it twice.” He did not add that there was already a bottle of champagne in the galley, bought by him for the same purpose. Laurie and Ralph would have missed Alec dreadfully when he emigrated to South Africa; but by then they were living in Glasgow and Alec’s visits had become less frequent.

One of Ralph’s old RNVR friends landed in port unexpectedly one day, his ship needing sudden and urgent repairs. His eyes opened wide when he saw the Cordelia, which only egged Ralph on to show off her inner workings and wax lyrical about her restoration. Laurie could only watch and wait (and settle down in the cabin to re-read a good book) as every inch was gone over; Ralph’s friend even asked to see the engines. Over an evening meal in the nearby Mermaid Pub, Charlie Thompson told them how, as a Sub-Lieutenant, he had been tasked to take the Cordelia across the Channel in May 1940. “That port engine–” he said, shaking his head in reminiscence, “bloody good thing you replaced the whole stinking mess.”

In October 1964, Laurie brought an article in the Sunday Times to Ralph’s attention. “Why not?” he replied. “Maybe the press coverage will teach those unruly boys a bit more respect for war veterans.” Laurie had recently been jostled and jeered at by a gang of teenage lads on his way home from work. Ralph – who always looked impressive in his harbour master’s uniform – had taken to escorting him to and from the office; but apart from turning the air blue when they encountered the disrespectful youths there was not a lot either could do. In May 1965 Laurie crewed and Ralph captained as they returned to Dunkirk; it was the farthest they had ever sailed in one outing.

In the late 60s Ralph and Laurie moved to Manchester. “No sense in courting trouble by staying north of the border,” Ralph had pointed out when the Sexual Offences Act went through in 1967. It took them a while to organise transfers (and Ralph had to take a cut in pay); but the peace of mind was worth it. Ralph was recovering from a nasty bout of influenza in 1975, and asked his old friend Charlie to take the boat over. He and Laurie watched the press coverage of the event on their television that night.

There was no need for anyone to sub in 2000 when Cordelia left Dover for the 60th anniversary re-enactment, Ralph at the helm. It was the last time the two joined the company. “We are getting too old,” Laurie explained at an Association dinner. However, they were on board in June 2012 when the Cordelia joined the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. After retiring to Ramsgate, Ralph had become involved with the Sea Cadets, who managed the actual sailing while Ralph commanded from his chair, grumbling all the while. “The Duke of Edinburgh isn’t sitting down; I don’t see why I should be.”

They had sold the boat by the time Christopher Nolan asked if any of the real Little Ships would take part in his film. But they enjoyed watching. “I don’t remember Dunkirk being quite so noisy,” commented Laurie on their way home from the cinema. “No doubt it was quieter without the soundtrack playing,” replied Ralph.