What’s it Like to Sail a Legend?

Sail News

At 110 years old, the storied pilot cutter Jolie Brise powers off the wind.

In 1851, the New York pilot schooner America sailed to England, beat the Brits at their own prestigious yacht race (which came to be known as the America’s Cup), and launched an evolution of the East Coast’s pilot craft into vessels that were the envy of the world. Their development was driven by direct competition to get their company’s pilots out to distant shipping lanes before any others while retaining the seakeeping capacity to stay out no matter what the weather.

In western Europe, the pilot cutter also had its season in the sun. From around 1850 until World War I, these craft, generally around 50 feet on deck, took off, outstripping their forebears in performance, seakeeping ability, and sheer good looks. England’s Bristol Channel produced some memorable craft (and I’ve owned a Bristol Channel pilot boat of similar vintage and sailed her across the North Atlantic to America via Greenland), but over in France, Le Havre had the final word with a 56-foot cutter named Jolie Brise. This workhorse-turned-racehorse went on to win yachting’s most coveted trophies and, in perhaps her greatest achievement, save 10 souls, becoming one of sailing’s most storied and significant vessels.

I’ve served as skipper aboard Jolie Brise, and I can say unequivocally that it’s hard to imagine any working gaff cutter standing against her in light weather or heavy. Powerfully built on grown frames interspersed with steamed timbers, this glorious vessel was never to fulfill her original purpose.


The legendary Jolie Brise is now a training ship for Dauntsey’s School in England.

Launched in 1913 as the swan song of Albert Paumelle—probably the greatest name among French pilot cutter builders—she was intended as a pilot boat engaged in the rough-and-tumble competition of seeking ships night and day in all weathers, putting pilots on board, and the devil take the cutter who arrived second. This was not to be, however. Even though JB, as her people know her, represented the pinnacle of pilot cutter development, history overtook her, and she was never to stand out bravely into the English Channel in pilotage livery. Instead, she found international fame in an unexpected direction.

After a short year or two working inshore off Le Havre, she was sold off by the pilots in the early years of World War I to a tuna fisherman on the Biscay coast where she fished as best she could until 1923. It was from this backwater that she had her stroke of luck, and her fortunes came good in a big way when she was purchased by E.G. Martin.

Martin was a giant of a man, standing 6 feet 7 inches and built to match. His plans outstripped the usual yachting round of inshore racing for those who wanted it and gentle cruising for any who didn’t. Martin had vision. He recognized that the real test of a yacht was to pit her against her peers on the high seas in whatever weather came along, and he wanted the sort of vessel that could do it. In Jolie Brise, he wasn’t disappointed.


A young Hannah Cunliffe stands watch in Bay of Biscay.

Along with a few like-minded chums, in 1925 he helped inaugurate what he called “The Ocean Race,” soon to be known as the Fastnet Race. Starting from Cowes on the Isle of Wight and racing to Plymouth in Southwest England by way of the Fastnet Light on its rock off southwest Ireland, this was exactly the sort of seafaring Jolie Brise was born for. Over a windy 600-mile course, she walked away with the silverware against a small fleet of yachts.

The Ocean Racing Club, founded among the competitors (and of which Martin was the first commodore), soon became the world-famous Royal Ocean Racing Club, with the premises it still occupies in London’s high-end Mayfair district. Jolie Brise went on to win two more of these great events, and under Martin’s hand she also earned her first Cruising Club of America (CCA) Blue Water Medal.

In 1926, Martin sailed her to America, where she competed in her first Bermuda Race. But it wasn’t until 1932 that she etched her name irrevocably into that event’s history as its hero.

Her Finest Hour

In 1932, Jolie Brise’s new owner was a young English aristocrat bearing the unlikely name of Henry Robert Somers Fitzroy de Vere Somerset. Known at sea simply as Bobby, he was directly descended from dukes—the top of the tree back home—and had been decorated for his service on the Western Front in World War I. His largely amateur crew included no less a luminary than Sherman Hoyt. The race looked to be a good one for the cutter; a reaching course all the way was going to give Jolie Brise a fair chance of a handicap win over the assembled schooners and yawls of the CCA.

In rough going on the first night out, Jolie Brise was sailing strongly and seemed to be well placed. She was shortening down when she sighted what she took to be distress flares being fired to leeward. Giving away a good position for what could turn out to be a fool’s errand rather than a rescue is never an easy decision, but Somerset did not hesitate. He heaved his 9-foot tiller up to weather and ran down to see what was happening.

Three miles to leeward he fell in with the schooner Adriana blazing fiercely from a conflagration that had started when the cabin fireplace cooked the contents of an adjacent oilskin locker. By the time Jolie Brise arrived, the crew were preparing to abandon ship to a dinghy and were not doing at all well. Realizing that they must be taken off immediately, Somerset brought the heavy, engineless cutter under Adriana’s lee, keeping vital way on with his main but backing his headsails to slow her enough for the crew to jump. And jump they did, while the schooner’s helmsman, Clarence Kozaly, kept her glued to her straight course. The yachts’ rails banged together with what must have been a sickening crunch, the topmast rigging made contact, and Jolie Brise’s tarred hemp deadeye lanyards momentarily took fire.

Ten of Adriana’s 11 crew leapt to safety as she slowly sailed past. Kozaly finally left the helm with the yachts several feet apart, but he was too late. He made a valiant leap but fell into the gap. Hoyt threw him a line, but Kozaly’s heavy clothing dragged him under, and as the cutter gathered way to safety, his grip on the rope failed, and he was lost. After doing his duty to save 10 lives, Kozaly lost his own.

This heroic action saw Somerset rewarded with a gold watch by the president of the United States as well as a lifesaving medal from the U.S. Department of State, while the ship received her second CCA Blue Water Medal.

As the story of this remarkable pilot cutter ran down the years of the 20th century, she passed through various short-term ownerships, survived World War II, and then was bought by sympathetic Portuguese sailors during the winter of 1946-47. There she remained until the mid-1970s, until a pending revolution in Portugal left her owners fearing she would be commandeered as a symbol of luxurious decadence. Arrangements were made for her to come under the wing of Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire, England. And so began the story of her life in modern times, which—much to my great fortune—included passing some of that time with me.

A Vintage Passage

After a major refit in Devon, Jolie Brise was ready to take up her new role as a sail training vessel under the leadership of a farsighted schoolteacher named Bill Parrish. At the time, I was dividing my work between examining yachtmasters for the government certification scheme and running a large Brixham sailing trawler. It so happened that I rafted this vessel up with JB in a crowded harbor one evening in the spring of 1981. Bill, who it turned out had an agenda, invited me to sail with them on the annual all-comers race around the Isle of Wight in June.

On the day, the weather didn’t suit us, and we weren’t placed on the 60-mile course, but Bill must have been satisfied that I knew a gaff from a bowsprit because he asked if I would take the boat to Spain and back for him later in the summer. Of course, I would. He needn’t have asked, but what, I wanted to know, was the purpose of the voyage?

“We’ll give you £2,000 in cash,” he began. This was 1981, remember. It was a lot of money, but it got better. “We want you to spend it on wine in the Rioja region,” he went on, “then bring it back for us to sell to the parents of the school students and raise money for the ship.”

No sailor worth the name is going to turn down a deal like that, so we signed on some crew from among my raceboat mates to augment the school’s trainees, and off we went. The first leg of the 1,200-mile round trip went smoothly and saw us berthed at the smart yacht club in Bilbao.

I had no clue how to set about sourcing the wine, but Jolie Brise saved me the trouble. Señor Urgato, the commodore, had already recognized her. He had raced against her years before, and nothing was going to be too much trouble. After sorting out an advantageous price for a fine variety of vintages, he leaned on the authorities to grant us an easy passage through the inevitable export bureaucracy. All he asked in recompense was that I share a bottle of the 1952 Grand Reserve Berberana with him. The perfect gentleman. What could I say?

We loaded 150 cases of Spain’s finest into the main saloon to keep the weight amidships. Then we chocked it off, only to realize that to reach the galley with its ancient coal-fired range, it would be necessary to execute a sort of infantry crawl across the top of the stack. This proved a challenge for the likes of me, who is generously equipped in terms of human tonnage. No such difficulties assailed my 2-year-old daughter or my wife, who was in charge of cooking. Somehow, the meals kept on coming as we squared away up the Bay towards home.

We spent a day comfortably hove-to in a gale at the north end of Biscay, then spread ever more sail as we sped up-channel. One night watch in the waters where she’d been built to work, she ran off 40 miles in four hours. During much of this spectacular sprint, the wake was a road of fire under the stars, and the mate, a veteran of many a Fastnet and at least one Whitbread Round-the-World Race, took his watch in a kitchen chair. It was not even lashed to the rail, so steadily did she reach. There was no way he was dragging any sail off her, and it was too dark to see the topmast bending, but we overtook more than one struggling coaster that night as we swept by with all of history thrumming in our sails.

Jolie Brise in her element, sailing past Fastnet Rock.

Sailing Into the Future

In the 40 years since that mad dash, Jolie Brise has distinguished herself as a world-renowned sail training yacht. She has sailed in six transatlantic races and won the international Tall Ships Races four times. Her captain for 27 years has been the inimitable Toby Marris, a man of whom Paumelle, E.G. Martin, and Bobby Somerset would have approved wholeheartedly. Today, JB is still maintained to top standard and is delivering the best of sea education under Captain Toby.

Last year I made a video on board. I hadn’t sailed on her for 40 years, and I suppose I’d forgotten something of her magic, but when the wind blew up and we bore away onto a beam reach with the sheets eased, she took off like the thoroughbred she is. Coming up for 110 years old, she was as thrilling as she’d been that starry night when we ran 10 knots off the reel from midnight to dawn. I looked at the faces of her young crew. They were grinning from ear to ear.

Jolie Brise

Built Paumelle 1913
Length on Deck 56 ft
Waterline length 48 ft
Sparred length 74 ft
Beam 15 ft 2 in
Draft 10 ft 2 in
Displacement 97,000 lb

Watch Tom’s video of Jolie Brise at youtu.be/ZzyGJeQg7bc

January 2023

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