Tom Cunliffe: A good book takes Tom back to the Marseilles of 40 years ago and the fisherman who took him on as a deck hand

One of my first jobs was at a sailing school near Marseilles. As the blazing, Mistral-swept summer gave way to more pleasant conditions, the place shut down leaving me with no plans, so I rode the motorbike down the coast to see what I could find. Fortune sent me to the little port of Carro where I secured a fair hearing from a fisherman with the local name of Marius.

Marius seemed built of granite; powerful shoulders, beret, the universal blue
overalls of France and the shambling gait of the seaman. He smelt of Pastis and fish. As it turned out, his lad had left for pastures new and so, after sizing me up, he took me on.

I can see Marius’ boat now as clearly as I did in the Mediterranean sun of my youth. Wooden, of course, as they all were then, she was a classic example of the plumb-bowed, work-stained, double-ended open craft that graced every harbour from Gibraltar to the Peloponnese. Amidships, a rickety box covered her two- cylinder Baudouin, which started manually and ran so slowly it seemed to fire in time with its owner’s heartbeat. Although reliable, it suffered what those of us bred in gentler times might consider the drawback of having no gearbox. Marius had a different perspective.

‘Gearboxes?’ he spat in the bilge with a Gallic shrug. ‘Nothing but trouble.’

Looking back over the years, gearboxes have caused me as much grief as engines and I understand that he had a point. To make good the shortfall, the motor was hooked up directly to the propeller. If the Baudouin ran, so did we. When it was shut down, we carried our way until we stopped. It was tricky approaching a net buoy in a seaway, but Marius was a master-craftsman and he rarely missed.

Our days began by sculling out in a rough old punt to the boat, moored in the centre of the port. Marius would scramble aboard, unbutton his overall and relieve his personal hydraulic issues into the bilge. Then he’d wind up the motor without comment, I’d sling the mooring buoy miles away from the propeller, and off we went at a surprising rate of knots. Fishing was largely a matter of hauling bottom nets we’d laid the day before. Anything marketable was tossed into the pound. Starfish were lobbed back, but undersized crabs received harsher treatment.

I don’t know what he had against them, but Marius kept a 2lb hammer handy by the thole pin. Its sole purpose was to smash crabs on the gunwale before he shovelled the messy remains after the smirking starfish. Not to everyone’s taste, maybe, but he knew more than I did and no doubt he had his reasons.

‘Looking back, gearboxes have caused me as much grief as engines’

I moved on to a different life and although I sometimes wondered what would happen to a man like Marius when he grew too frail to start his engine and haul a net, I didn’t dwell on the subject until I fell in with the author and journalist Sebastian Smith outside a pub in Falmouth more than forty years later. The meeting spurred me to look for his books and I particularly enjoyed Southern Winds, which describes a Mediterranean cruise in a Contessa 26.

The tale is constructed around the named winds of that sea-of-gales in the context of his own voyage and those of others back to Odysseus. It’s a great read, but what caught my eye was a paragraph about a fisherman in Carro. The pêcheur talks to Smith of an older man who had long ago lent him nets so he could get started. The man had later been lost overboard while hauling in open water. His name was Marius.

So Marius never did grow too old to fish. Rediscovering him after a lifetime reminded
me that while the sea we sail is vast, the human element can be surprisingly tight-knit. Sebastian and I had never met before, yet Marius brought us closer together. May he rest in peace.