Last Updated: 7 February 2023

Il était un petit navire (also known as La courte paille) was originally a sailors' song that evolved into a children's song in the 20th century.

The story of the song

Il était un petit navire tells the story of a young sailor who embarks on a fishing boat in the Mediterranean Sea. But the fishermen don't catch any fish and the crew is out of food. They draw straws to see who will be eaten and the young sailor is the lucky one. 

After a prayer by the ship's boy to the Virgin Mary, his patron saint, the miracle happens. Thousands of little fish jump into the ship, saving the child at the last moment.

Il était un petit navire. Photo DegrooteStock via Envato Elements

Photo: DegrooteStock via Envato Elements

From a sailor song to a rhyme

In the 19th century, the French chansonnier Clairville transformed this traditional sailor's song to make it more humorous.

Then, in the course of the 20th century, the refrain was added and the song was turned into a children's rhyme.

Il était un petit navire

Il était un petit navire

Lyrics, music, free download... let's learn more about the popular song:

Il était un petit navire

The lyrics in French

The original song of Il était un petit navire has 16 verses and a chorus.

Couplet 1

Il était un petit navire (bis)
Qui n'avait ja-ja-jamais navigué (bis)
Ohé ! ohé !


Ohé, ohé Matelot
Matelot navigue sur les flots

Couplet 2

Il partit pour un long voyage (bis)
Sur la mer Mé- Mé- Méditerranée (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 3

Au bout de cinq à six semaines, (bis)
Les vivres vin- vin- vinrent à manquer (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 4

On tira à la courte paille, (bis)
Pour savoir qui, qui, qui serait mangé, (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 5

Le sort tomba sur le plus jeune, (bis)
Le mousse qui, qui, qui s'mit à pleurer (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 6

On cherche alors à quelle sauce, (bis)
Le pauvre enfant, -fant, -fant sera mangé, (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 7

L'un voulait qu'on le mît à frire, (bis)
L'autre voulait, -lait, -lait le fricasser, (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 8

Pendant qu'ainsi l'on délibère, (bis)
Il monte en haut, haut, haut du grand hunier (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 9

Il fait au ciel une prière (bis)
Interrogeant, -geant, -geant l'immensité, (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 10

Mais regardant la mer entière, (bis)
Il vit des flots, flots, flots de tous côtés, (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 11

Ô Sainte Vierge, ô ma patronne, (bis)
Cria le pau- pau- pauvre infortuné, (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 12

Si j'ai péché, vite pardonne, (bis)
Je ne veux pas, pas, pas être mangé, (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 13

Au même instant un grand miracle, (bis)
Pour l'enfant fut, fut, fut réalisé, (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 14

Des p'tits poissons, dans le navire, (bis)
Sautèrent par, par, par plusieurs milliers, (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 15

On les prit, on les mit à frire, (bis)
Le jeune mou- mou- mousse fut sauvé, (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Couplet 16

Si cette histoire vous amuse, (bis)
Nous allons la, la, la recommencer, (bis)
Ohé ! Ohé !

Translation of the lyrics into English

Here is an approximative translation into English:

Verse 1

There was a little ship (bis)
Who had never sailed before (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!


Ahoy, ahoy Sailor
Sailor sails on the waves
( bis )

Verse 2

He set off on a long journey ( bis)
On the Mediterranean Sea ( bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 3

After five or six weeks, (bis)
The food supplies ran out (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 4

They drew straws, (bis)
To know who would be eaten, (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 5

The spell fell on the youngest, (bis)
The boy who started to cry (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 6

One seeks then with which sauce, (bis)
The poor child will be eaten, (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 7

One wanted to fry him, (bis)
The other wanted to fry him, (bis)
Aye! Aye!

Verse 8

While they deliberate, (bis)
He climbs up the big topsail (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 9

He makes a prayer to the sky (bis)
Questioning, wondering the immensity, (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 10

But looking at the whole sea, (bis)
He saw waves on all sides, (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 11

O Holy Virgin, O my patroness, (bis)
Cried the poor unfortunate boy, (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 12

If I have sinned, quickly forgive, (bis)
I don't want to be eaten, (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 13

At the same moment a great miracle, (bis)
For the child was performed, (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 14

The little fishes, in the ship, (bis)
Jumped by several thousands, (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 15

We took them, we put them to fry, (bis)
The young boy was saved, (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

Verse 16

If this story amuses you, (bis)
We'll do it again, (bis)
Ahoy! Ahoy!

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Il était un petit navire © French Moments

French Nursery Rhymes

My challenge for the year 2023 is to publish 80 French Nursery Rhymes lyrics and descriptions (list below). Come back as time goes by to discover the new articles:

About the author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of Discovery Courses and books about France.

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