The yacht that went to war
At her quiet berth in Galveston, Grey Mist embodies a span of stories lived over 95 years. The most compelling of these stories involves her participation in the evacuation at Dunkirk, one of the most decisive episodes of the Second World War.
Some of her history is apparent in her fabric. Her topsides, up to the main deck, show the kind of riveted construction that characterizes the 1877 bark Elissa, restored and on exhibit in Galveston’s port. This kind of construction ended with the Second World War.
Bulwarks above the main deck and much of her traditional counter-stern show modern welded construction, obvious signs of later rebuilding. Her deckhouse is original, in varnished, paneled wood, though with a modern sliding-glass door into the saloon. The deck seems to be in its original configuration, with seating areas designed for gracious entertaining.
Her upper, or “boat” deck, with owner’s stateroom, wheelhouse and stack, are later modifications in welded steel, as are the raked supports, or “gussets,” for the boat deck, and the fixed awning, or “Bimini,” shading the after main deck.
Looking at her from the dock evokes a sense of the settings of stories that engage us today, from “Downton Abbey,” to “The Great Gatsby” and “Some Like It Hot,” to the epic story of Great Britain’s most desperate hours early in the Second World War.
At 135 feet long, Grey Mist was for her time what’s now called a mega-yacht. Laid down in 1919 for N.H. Anderson, she was launched in 1920 at Southampton, England, from the venerable Camper & Nicholsons yard.
Since 1784, Camper & Nicholsons International has been in the business of building, brokering and chartering high-end yachts. Among its offerings today, for example, is the 338-foot Christina O, once the private yacht of Aristotle Onassis. She sleeps 34 guests, and is manned by a crew of 39. She can be chartered for your next Mediterranean cruise for a mere $455,000 per week.
Grey Mist was the height of luxury herself as the Jazz Age began. Six years after her launch, she was purchased by Sir John Archer and in 1934 by Harry Vincent. Lady Maud Burton and her husband Ronald Rothbery Burton, British nobility, bought the boat in 1939.
Unfortunately for Lady Burton, Grey Mist was requisitioned by the Royal Navy in November of the same year, as were many private yachts at the onset of the war. Grey Mist was outfitted with radio gear to serve as a “signal ship,” and served in that capacity in the evacuations of Boulogne and Calais.
Her most important duty was soon to follow, as she joined in “Operation Dynamo” from May 27 to June 4, 1940.
The British Expeditionary Force had been sent in 1939 to help defend France against the invading German army. War planners had underestimated the strength and tactics of the German Panzer divisions, however, and the British, with a good part of the French and the remains of the Belgian army, were cut off and pushed north to an area along the channel coast, including the port of Dunkirk, some 39 miles by sea from Dover.
In an unprecedented evacuation from the port and surrounding beaches, more than 338,000 British and French troops, including about three-fifths of the British Expeditionary Force, were boarded onto ships and boats under heavy shelling and air attack, and made it back to England. The success of the operation was made possible by the participation of hundreds of smaller yachts and working vessels — the exact number is not known — most of whom served to ferry evacuees from the shallow, shelving beaches out to larger ships waiting in deeper water.
Grey Mist, drawing about 10 feet, was one of those ships. In addition to her service in communications during the action, she carried troops home on several trips from Dunkirk to Dover. She spent the remainder of the war in service with the Royal Navy.
At the war’s end, she was returned to Lady Burton, who sold her in 1951. Grey Mist was taken out of British registry, making her subsequent history difficult to trace.
Her latest owner, Fort Worth businessman Holt Hickman, who recently died, discovered Grey Mist in Dearborne, South Africa in 1993, much the worse for wear. He bought her, and after preliminary repairs, she was taken around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, to her new home in Galveston in 1998. Her owner began a complete refit of the yacht in 2003, which was completed in 2011.
Now she is for sale, listed at $999,000, which might be a thrifty alternative to chartering Cristina O for a few weeks.
“We get inquiries about her all the time,” said Paul Stehfest, Grey Mist’s broker at HSR Yacht Sales in Kemah. “Not just from millionaires who want a big yacht, but mostly from British World War II veterans who are connected with her story. They‘re getting old, though.”
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