The Life & Times of Madame Fifi

The Life & Times of Madame Fifi

Mademoiselle Fifi was a character in a Guy de Maupassant novel, set in a chateau in Normandy, which appears to have been the inspiration (if that is the correct term) for the BBC TV comedy series "Allo! Allo!" Now, the novel was written a fair while back, and it's both unnecessary and impolite to be too precise about a Lady's true vintage, but suffice it to say that Fifi is now "of a certain age", and - although still very much in Normandy - has been reincarnated in GRP and 316 stainless steel, rather than flesh & bone.

Despite being an Anglo-German mongrel, the Viking blood runs thin in my veins, and I can no longer lay claim to being either the World's most talented seafarer, nor the most intrepid. I sail because it's fun, and when it's not, I don't (a good example of "not being fun" is February in Kent, under six inches of snow and braced against a vicious F5 easterly wind which even Henri Lloyd's finest foul weather gear seems powerless to resist). With this in mind, the open longboats of my distant ancestors hold precious little attraction for me, and after selling my fantastic little Fantasia last December, I was looking for something with a bit more in the way of creature comforts - and in particular, a proper wheelhouse.

Back in the days when Men were Men and Women were Prime Minister, the Brits came up with Colvic Watsons and Atlantas, but these were, to be honest, fairly agricultural and the ones I have been aboard appear to trace their sailing pedigree directly back to the galleons of the Spanish Armada. I also looked at a Southerly 105, which is a sweet boat, but apparently sails like a brick (and a brick without a keel at that). But sometimes life deals a cruel hand, and after several months of mugging up on Comfort Ratios and agonising over long keels and skeg-hung rudders, I had to concede that the only people who had come even close to designing something like what I was looking for were the French. Yes, I'm afraid that is what it has come to after all these years.......

I initially looked at a couple of Beneteau Evasion 34's (the Evasion 32 is an older design and is pretty much a dead ringer for the Colvic Atlanta 32); one of these looked interesting and had the benefit of a recent survey, but had been repaired after significant storm damage several years ago, and I wasn't convinced. (The other could be most charitably described as "a project boat", and was quite literally a non-starter).

And that's when I discovered - and fell in love with - the Jeanneau Espace series; built on approximately the same hull as the Sun Rise and later 34.2, the original Espace 1000 is 10.65m LOA and was later extended by the addition of a sugar scoop at the stern and re-badged as the 1100. A later model 990 has a different layout altogether, though I was (and still am) smitten by the "State Room" being set amidships in the original 1000 design, with a two-way door into the Heads allowing it to be termed "en suite". The saloon and U-shaped dining area are set aft, in the wheelhouse, with both an internal helm position and a tiller in the cockpit. For some reason I have yet to fathom, the French refer to this kind of design as a "Fifty", and although they appear to have gone out of fashion in recent years, at one stage they seem to have been extremely popular. (This observation applies both to yachts, and of course to the French in general).

I managed to get one sea trial aboard Madame F before lockdown, and although she is not going to win many races, she points nicely and - with a retractable bowsprit and a usable babystay - goes like the clappers once the wind is abaft the beam. (And when the wind isn't abaft the anywhere, she has a 55hp Yanmar turbodiesel under the bonnet just to keep things interesting). A chap named Luc Dupont has documented a circumnavigation in his Espace 1000 named Roxane - including Spitzbergen, the Northwest Passage, Alaska, the South coast of Australia and the Cape of Good Hope - so I am willing to believe she's a tough old girl as well as being built more for comfort than for speed.

Anyhow, as of this afternoon, Madame Fifi no longer bears the unpronounceable French moniker by which she has been known since forever, and is now recorded on Part 1 of the UK Ships Register under her new name, which I trust you will agree pays due homage to her rich cultural heritage, whilst respecting her feminine grace and dignified elegance (in a manner only the French could ever truly appreciate).

Unfortunately, she is still very much in Normandy, locked down for the duration, and no doubt looking wistfully across the Channel at her new home on the South Coast of England. She's going to need a small amount of work - mostly re-wiring and servicing the in-boom furling mainsail - and may get a new Code 0 if I'm feeling flush later this Spring - but other than not being a ketch, I think she is absolutely perfect, and the plan is, after quite literally "learning the ropes" up and down the English Channel this Summer, to set off through the French canals later this Autumn, and see where the wind takes me from there. (For those of you who watch *******, Michael Briant has an excellent video channel named Sailing Gently, and is an absolute goldmine of practical information and sound advice about navigating the French inland waterways short-handed).

However, whilst I am not necessarily a fan of British farce as a comedic medium, the bit that I am really looking forward to is finally bidding "au revoir" to Fecamp Port Control on VHF Channel 9, prefaced with the caution "Lissun carfulee - I vill say zis only wunce....."