Someone, some­where wrote that George Mil­lar was incap­able of writ­ing a dull sen­tence, and never was that more true than in his three books of sail­ing mem­oirs. Oyster River, set in the Mor­bi­han in Brit­tany, and Isa­bel and the Sea, relat­ing a voy­age through the French canals to the Medi­ter­ranean in the after­math of war, have been reis­sued in recent years by Dove­cote Press, but A White Boat from Eng­land, describ­ing a voy­age around France and Iber­ia to the Medi­ter­ranean, had been out of print for many years until we reis­sued it. Peter Bruce, sail­or, writer and author of Adlard Coles’ Heavy Weath­er Sail­ing, kindly con­trib­uted this Intro­duc­tion to it:

Tru­ant was a sens­ible choice for George and Isa­bel Millar’s first ves­sel. She was hefty, work­man­like, equipped with power­ful engines and ­allowed Isa­bel to think of her as her home, it being a del­ic­ate mat­ter for a man with an inclin­a­tion for sea-going to entice a new wife to accom­pany him. Luck­ily for George, Isa­bel took to yacht­ing like a bee to nec­tar. A half Span­ish, half ­Eng­lish lady with rare cour­age, she showed no fear on horse­back, or on the sea. Not for her a ritu­al of safety meas­ures: she was more inter­ested in explor­a­tion and, as the daugh­ter of a dip­lo­mat, show­ing the flag, and she was happy to meet any chal­lenge head on.

George and Isa­bel must have stud­ied the passing yachts from Tru­ant in 1946 as they pro­gressed from Eng­land to Greece through the canals and the Medi­ter­ranean [Isa­bel and the Sea, Heine­mann 1948, reis­sued by Dove­cote Press 2006]. The appear­ance of a ves­sel became import­ant to them and they came to appre­ci­ate long over­hangs and a grace­ful sheer line. So a fast, close-win­ded ­ves­sel with low free­board and more than a touch of eleg­ance must have seemed the ­appro­pri­ate way to go, and the 46ft Ser­ica was just that. She had the breath­tak­ingly eleg­ant lines of Robert Clark, who still is one of the most aes­thet­ic­ally admired yacht design­ers in the world.

Isa­bel was able to point out Ser­ica with pride when at her berth, not only on account of her lovely shapely looks, but also because at that time just after the war few people owned yachts, and those that did sel­dom ven­tured fur­ther than their home waters. One can feel George and Isabel’s pride of own­er­ship when George, who had stud­ied archi­tec­ture at Cam­bridge, gives a sum­mary of the other Eng­lish yachts in com­par­is­on to Ser­ica. Clearly George took a close interest in naval archi­tec­ture as well as giv­ing his emphat­ic opin­ion on sun­dry build­ings that they encounter.

One soon becomes cap­tiv­ated, as one always is, by George’s unusu­ally acute powers of obser­va­tion and his abil­ity to ascer­tain and record exactly what was going on at every stop. Surely only George could have estab­lished exactly why the troop of school­girls at the rue Oud­inot in Quim­per needed an escort of no less than two mis­tresses and eight police­men, and could then relate the feud that caused it in graph­ic detail? When George takes his read­er bull­fight­ing we can clearly visu­al­ise the fight­ers and prac­tic­ally smell the bull. When we get trans­posed to Dor­set we feel more than a whiff of the real­ity and excite­ment of foxhunting—poor brave Isa­bel , though badly dam­aged when her horse failed at a jump, had no thought for her own pre­dic­a­ment, only the other riders—George makes us feel that we are right there, in the thick of it. No won­der, when before the war and work­ing as a journ­al­ist for the Daily Express, young George soon came into Lord Beaverbrook’s inner circle. He even tells us indi­vidu­ally how the fash­ion­able folk of Cas­cais dis­pose of their cock­tail sticks.

One of the joys of George’s col­our­ful prose is that we share his inner­most thoughts, even to what kind of fig­ure he would like for his hus­band if he had been born a woman; and he shares with his read­er the rather per­son­al con­fid­ences of his acquaint­ances, such as why the Span­ish prefer to shave in late even­ing… ­indeed George is fond of throw­ing in the occa­sion­al shock­er. He is also fond of occa­sion­al long involved sen­tences, for example his descrip­tion of Glas­gow trams employed a sen­tence run­ning to twenty lines, and there is so much intriguing ­detail with­in that we for­give him, and may even choose to read this massive sen­tence twice or more.

As befit­ting a war hero and his wife George and Isa­bel were well-con­nec­ted, and it is no sur­prise that they met the King and Queen of Spain, as well as three Admir­als. It becomes appar­ent that they have a gift of mak­ing friends, as well as being able to dis­tin­guish sin­cere, kind and mod­est people from their more pre­ten­tious fel­lows. Amus­ingly George avoids mak­ing any per­son­al remarks when he meets Don Juan, King of Spain. Almost every­one else he meets is made game for richly spiced remarks about their appear­ance and beha­viour. Per­sist­ent offend­ers earn a nick­name such as ‘The Blue­bottle’. On the other hand those who come to help George and Isa­bel, he hav­ing com­pleted their word pic­ture, are rewar­ded with gen­er­ous praise and even have their pho­to­graphs pub­lished. One won­ders how many of George’s rather frank com­ments got back to their sub­jects…

George repeatedly pleads inex­per­i­ence in yacht­ing mat­ters while oth­ers deny him the lux­ury of such an excuse. The fact was that both of them were at risk in mat­ters of seaman­ship out­side their exper­i­ence, though they had swiftly ­become expert in oth­ers. They made up for the gaps in know­ledge using their robust ­human qual­it­ies of com­mon sense, utter determ­in­a­tion, stam­ina and raw cour­age. When Ser­ica was caught out in a fero­cious levante off Gibral­tar all this was heftily put to the test once again. After the first tre­mend­ous night-time squall George makes light of the phys­ic­al effort needed to lower the jib, recov­er the tattered ­remains of the blown out main­sail and set the try­sail dur­ing the storm, nor does he men­tion that, without about 24 hours’ worth of sus­tained work at the pump, Ser­ica would very soon have sunk. Only inex­per­i­enced sail­ors would have chosen to sail into the Atlantic Ocean with decks that leaked like a sieve, not that they were aware of the extent of the prob­lem when they set off from Lis­bon. If George had man­aged to go slower and head down the seas, the deck would not have had green waves aboard, too many of which were find­ing their way below.

Ser­ica’s clas­sic lines gave her the envi­able abil­ity to sail to wind­ward on her own, but this qual­ity was not an advant­age when the unat­tired George and ­Isa­bel went for a swim from their becalmed ves­sel a mile off the Span­ish coast. As they enjoyed the cool sea sud­denly, to their hor­ror, the breeze came in firmly and ­Ser­ica was off like a lib­er­ated stal­lion. A chase seemed quite hope­less, but thanks to Isabel’s res­ol­u­tion the run­away was even­tu­ally boarded, the altern­at­ives being grim. This incid­ent is the most mem­or­able of the event­ful cruise and it is much to the cred­it of George that he records such invi­di­ous occur­rences with abso­lute accur­acy, just like all the oth­ers.

George Millar’s accounts of his adven­tures are always like a box of jew­els each giv­ing dazzling pleas­ure and glor­i­ous enter­tain­ment, and never bet­ter than in this deservedly revived book.