A brave little lady who rescued hundreds of men

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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 gallantry 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 now showing at Oban’s Phoenix Cinema until today (Thursday).