Johnnersintheraw's Blog

June 1, 2010

FloatYourBoat

My Seaworthless life with Ships and the Sea

Considering I do not come from a seafaring family and have never been particularly interested in nautical themes, there is a certain strand that weaves through my life, and it has to do with boats.  Big boats and little boats and salt boats and powerboats and punts.  And even the odd canoe and kayak thrown in for good measure, possibly to torment me.

For whatever reason – perhaps because nobody else in our landlocked family wanted it – my early years (right up until my father died) – were blessed by an ancient deep-water ocean-going ketch.  The vessel had been built some time before the last war, and of course she was built of timber and acres of brass fittings.  And when moored in her accustomed berth on the south coast, she was possibly the most beautiful and graceful old lady for miles around.

My father was very attached to her, and I believe before he married my mother he used to sail her regularly.  And because she was a deepwater craft built for the southern oceans, it did not occur to anyone to sail her down to the Mediterranean and tootle round the various islands and hop off every day or so to sample what local delicacies were on offer at watering holes and ports of call.

Not a bit of it.  She was, after all, over one hundred metres long from stem to stern.  She had her pride.  And wherever her skipper happened to be heading when he set sail, you’d better believe that before he knew it she would be in mid-Atlantic and Patagonia-bound.

In other words, she was not some millionaire’s plaything – not like those floating gold-plated palaces owned by Greek shipping tycoons or Middle Eastern potentates.  She was sea-worthy and – to put in bluntly – the other ones were fit only for a paddling pool.

For years she had shared a mooring with another vessel, this one belonging to our dentist.  Now don’t get excited.  He may have been a reasonably proficient dentist, and I believe he actually had a surgery in either Harley Street or somewhere just around the corner.  In other words, he had a good income, which meant he paid most of it to the government in taxes;  whatever was left over he used to support a wife and two sons – both of which were in good, if minor, public schools.  For his sins, this dentist also owned a couple of shares in one of my family’s no-hoper steeplechasers.  But that was all in good fun, and in any case, he always looked forward to watching me race.  As he put it, “One of these days, Minger’s going to knock out all of his teeth, and that will make up for the money I’ve lost on that bloody horse you made me buy.”  But you know what they say about wishes.  I never obliged.  And in the end he got so desperate that he bought a leg and a tail of another horse, this one even less athletic and more hopeless than the first.   But he never learned.  He was hoping, of course, he would live to see the day when I would finally pay off the mortgage of his dental surgery, but – alas – the only damage I ever did to myself was south of my neck.  My teeth – much to his chagrin – ended up the same old teeth as the ones I had started out with.

Anyway, back to his boat.  Unlike ours, which was built for racing and for braving the South Atlantic swells, his was the ultimate in pleasure palaces.  The fittings were, of course, gold, and while it had masts fore and aft it was powered by an ill-tempered coal-fired furnace – and because of that it had a small but elegant funnel – painted white with gold bands.  Needless to say, our lovely lady (who was of the old school and who believed no yacht would be caught dead with an engine) looked down her graceful bow at her neighbour – as if it was some sort of flash playboy from the lower end of the village who’d won the football pools.    

The dentist never took this beautiful monstrosity out to sea.  In fact, when his great uncle (whose yacht it had been and who had had it built to his own specification) set off on his very first sea voyage from Portsmouth  to Monte Carlo, the vessel proved to be so heavy that it wasted no time in sinking to the bottom of the harbour.  The team that salvaged it merely shook their heads and murmured, “We told him so.”

When our dentist inherited the craft he had immediately put it on the market.  But it seemed no one wanted to buy a yacht, no matter how beautiful it may have been, if it couldn’t stay afloat.  And so what he did was to hire a birth next to my father’s sleek utilitarian ocean-going thoroughbred.  And then he rented the pleasure palace out as a honeymoon retreat or for dirty weekends to other dentists that were looking to impress their latest chorus girls.

Eventually – after a few years had passed, came the day when our dentist faced the expense and inconvenience of putting his white elephant in dry dock in order to have its ‘bottom scraped’.  Or as the dentist liked to put it, “the bloody thing has got to have its teeth cleaned, and it’s not even on the National Health.”

But then came one of those miracles every one of us is always hoping for but rarely encounters.  A young man walked into the surgery and offered to take the yacht off the dentist’s hands.  It goes without saying that the dentist was flabbergasted.  I believe he even said, “You know, of course, that it will bloody well sink.”

But apparently, the young man knew all that.  He simply wanted it as a folly.  It was beautiful, he said.  And since he could afford it that was enough.  But there was a hitch.  It seemed he had an island in The Seychelles he wished to unload.  Would the dentist be interested in a swap?  The dentist asked him if this particular island had a fresh water supply, and if it was on the route of any of the mail boats.  “Yes,” replied the young man.  The upshot was that the dentist inspected the island – accompanied by a lawyer and the appropriate authorities – and he ended up with a tropical paradise of his own.  He loved it so much that he moved into a shack that was on a cove on the eastern side facing the Indian Ocean; and before the first year was out, he had planted gardens and built shelters for domestic livestock.  And from then on, the dentist spent at least three months of every year as a lotus-eater in paradise.  And our ketch?  It lost its companion.  However, because it had always had to work for its keep – yachts being the money-pits they are – it continued to spend every single month of the year under charter. Eventually, the boat proved to be so popular with the charter company’s clients that it was relocated to Ushuaia on the tip of Argentina, where it stayed for the rest of my father’s life.  And after he died, the charter company bought it.  And I believe it’s still in service – or perhaps even enjoying a happy retirement at the bottom of the South Atlantic.

But do you want to know something?  Not once in the entire time that we owned the ketch did I even once get to sail in her – not even round the harbour or over to the Isle of Wight.  We simply could not afford to have her around as a ‘kept woman’.  The slut had to earn her keep – and she did.  And besides, I had the horses.

So much for my history as a yachtsman.

And now we come to cargo vessels of the tramp-steamer variety, as well as to those that regularly sank.

My uncle, who had lived his entire adult life in Mexico and who was one of those ‘man’s men’ of which certain novelists used to be so enamoured, was incredibly fond of the rickety old steamers that sailed between the salt mines on Baja California and a port on the southern Sonora coast.  For years he had spent his annual monthly holidays shuttling back and forth, getting drunk as a skunk with the captains and crews and raising hell.  To claim that these vessels were ancient would be an understatement. In fact, they leaked like sieves and were in such disrepair that they sank like clockwork.  Of course, it goes without saying that God loves a good-natured drunk; and as proof of this, none of the crew-members on board – all of whom were smashed out of their minds – ever got drowned during any one of the sinkings.  They simply drifted ashore on a raft of booze and with the Blessings of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and had the vessels – which were actually converted coastal steamers – refloated.  Again and again and again.

Eventually, my uncle bought two of them.  His retirement was not too far off, and he had it in mind to spend the rest of his life transporting salt back and forth across the Sea of Cortes in these banged up and rusting little hulks.

Sadly, that never happened.  His health broke down and his doctor ordered him to give up drinking; for his family’s sake he did.  However, without the booze spurring him on, he simply was not the same. He lost his zest for life. In fact, he became quite boring and conservative.  And after a while even his wife and daughter regretted that he had followed his doctor’s orders.  For the fun had all but left him.  And as for my mother (who had loved him perhaps more than any other person), she was heard to mutter that dying in his bed was not what he had had in mind – even if it meant being surrounded by his family.  And that what would have pleased him most was to have kicked the bucket drinking mezcal with his compañeros while aboard one of his pinche little coal scuttles.

And the pinche little coal scuttles?  Well, they kept sailing back and forth and back and forth, same as always;  the skippers and crews continued to drink each other under the table, and the boats ended their days on the bottom of the Sea of Cortes.  They are now reefs for the fish and toys for the baby grey whales.

Then there were the proper freighters that sailed the China route from Liverpool to Hong Kong and back again.  They were, of course, part of a small fleet belonging to a shipping company; it just so happened that some of our cousins had won two of them in a wager.  And having gained at least partial control of them, they leased them back to the company in question.  Which means they did rather well for themselves.

Naturally, all this didn’t have anything to do with us.  However, after my brother was killed in a motoring accident and my mother was unable to mourn, my father rang the cousins in question and struck a deal.  At the time he had part-interest in a tiny, mosquito-infested island off the coast of Sweden (yes, another island) and he said he would lease this island to the cousins in return for a favour.  Simply put, he wanted free passage for himself and for my mother and for me on one of the freighters from Liverpool to Hong Kong.  Return.  And so a month or so later, there we were on the docks in Liverpool, complete with a great many trunks (including one for my schoolbooks).  The three of us – plus a tutor for me for the outward bound leg – set sail and didn’t return for eight months – give or take a week.  As for the tutor, she got herself a free trip to Hong Kong plus expenses for her return journey.  A return journey, I might add, that she never made, for she fell in love with one of the stewards, got married, and settled down in Kowloon.

Unfortunately, I simply didn’t pay much attention to that period in my life (partly because I was forced to study day and night if I didn’t want to be shipped back home).  I do recall certain ports, among them  Port Said, but the reason that particular one stands out in my mind is that because our vessel was flying the Union Jack and the Suez crisis was still fresh in everyone’s memories; none of us was allowed by the Egyptian authorities to go ashore.  And vendors were not permitted on board.  However, a Gully-Gully man (whose family had worked the ships for generations and who – I believe – even had a Greek passport) spent a few hours with us in the smoking room.  But other than the fact that he was wonderfully funny and that his close-up magic was better than any I have seen to this day, I cannot remember what any of his tricks were, nor can I recall any of his patter.

We did linger at least two weeks in Port Swettenham, not an unusual occurrence.  For the port was very narrow and only a certain number of leiters were allowed for the off-loading of cargo.  I remember spending a day or two swimming at the officers’ club, after which we (along with my bloody books) went to stay with an Irish rubber planter and his Malaysian wife at a plantation in Jahore.  It was simply enchanting.  Typically – because of the climate – most of the exterior walls of the house folded back like louvers so that the breezes could blow through.  And I also remember they had built a swimming pool in the middle of a stream.  Which meant it was icy and fresh and cured what ailed you.

We then rejoined the ship and sailed to Singapore (where I was taken to lunch with Charlie Chaplin – who was not very nice, but who might have been nicer if I had been even nicer to him) and then on to Manila.  We arrived in the Philippines at the tail-end of a typhoon, which as far as I was concerned was rather fun – because to disembark we had to go down a very small ladder and leap across the churning swells on to very small boats.  And after we were ashore, we were packed into an ancient Cadillac limousine and taken up to the rim of a volcano – where we were treated to a cock-fight and then got to eat the loser.  Those were the days, my friend.  But never mind; in the interim the volcano blew its top and buried at least one hundred thousand people. Revenge is sweet.

The highlights of the entire voyage (as far as I was concerned) were that I got to ‘ride out’ at stud farms in both Singapore and Honk Kong.  And since I hadn’t been near a horse for what seemed an eternity, it was bliss!

The return journey – all four months of it – seems to have been one solid monsoon from the first day until the last, and seemed to consist of one endless game of mah-jong.  At least, when I was released from my ‘penal’ study servitude.  At the time I remember thinking I would have been much happier staying in Switzerland.

What else was there in my seafaring life?  Well, when I was in my late teens and putting serious thought into the prospects of becoming either a jockey or a show-jumper, my parents arranged with an American-based trainer to take me on (on approval, as it were).  Even though I had already lived away from home a great deal due to the fact that I had gone to boarding school, they thought it would be a good idea for me to put distance between myself and the trainers I had previously worked with. For I had never been able to work in a really first-class operation, and a first-class operation is a whole new ball game.  So off I went, and sailed to New York on the old Queen Mary (the one that is now a hotel in Long Beach, California).  I had an amazing few months, during which time I got incredible fit – fitter that I had ever been before – and decided to hold off any ideas I might have had about turning pro for another two three years.  I was all too aware of my limitations, and if nothing else the life of a jockey makes an honest man out of you.  Anyway, nothing having been settle either here or there,  I sailed back to England (this time on the old Queen Elisabeth (not the QE2, which is currently in Dubai, but the glorious old lady who now lies at the bottom of Hong Kong harbour) and got on with my life.  And in the process, I grew up a lot. At least temporarily.

Let us skip forward a few thousand decades.  When I was on the island a few years ago, a friend of a friend asked me if I wanted to join him and a few other strange people and tootle round the Atlantic in a converted trawler.  Well, I thought, why the hell not.  After all, I had grown up with a yacht I was never allowed to sail on, so why not make up for it now.  And everything was fine and dandy for about a week and a half.  And then – wouldn’t you know it – the craft foundered.  And not only did it founder, but it chose to founder off the coast of a country off of which one would never wish to founder.  Needless to say, because we were all idiots and if nothing else, God seems to love idiots (as well as happy drunks), all of us floated to shore – cling to bits of the wreckage – but very much alive. And with the exception of a few scrapes and bruises and a painful concussion for me – no one was hurt.  However, we were rounded up by some very solemn-looking very, very young boys wielding very serious machine guns.  And after they’d ordered us about for a little while and blew up a tree with one of their grenades, we were taken to an accommodation that looked suspiciously like it had formerly been used for pigs.  And there we stayed.  And we were fed yams and glowered at by the increasingly venomous young boys with the machine guns and grenades. They seemed fixated with waving their weapons in our faces and with shouting increasingly un-politically-correct slogans and with ordering us to march back and forth for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time, after which they took to fondling lengths of rope.  They would then sit on the ground and glower some more and – at odd intervals – shoot a few rounds at the shed where we slept and explode a grenade or two.  And this would continue with great monotony until the next day when it was time for them to start the cycle of yams and strangeness all over again. I might as well tell you now, that eventually they seemed to have gotten bored with simply unloading a magazine into an empty shed and blowing up chickens with grenades, and so they decided to see what would happen if they put us into the shed before shelling it with bullets.  And if that wasn’t enough to put us off our yams, their obsessive noose-making started to get up our noses – especially when they started using our necks to model their nooses, whilst simultaneously pointing to the nearest tree.  And spitting.  After a while we got religion; it wasn’t that we wanted be saved, but we wanted the boys simply to get on with it.  And we really started to dread the sight of yams.  I fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that at the very mention of yet another round of yams we would start to twitch, for the yams only heralded yet another afternoon in the pig pen. To this day, whenever I see a yam – even if it’s sautéed with ginger – I want to run for the hills.

Of course, because I am here and telling the story – I did not end my life there.  But the end was really rather an anti-climax. There was no rescue; no fight to the death; no histrionics! I mean, where was Vin Diesel when we needed him?  Where was Bruce Willis? All we got was the Woody Allen version!  In fact, it all ended with such a pathetic whimper that – had it been in a movie – it would have been laughed out of every theatre in every Cineplex in the world.  Even the climax of the Sound of Music was more nail-biting!  All that happened was that a couple of old men pulled up in three taxis.  They started yelling at the boys, who in turn simply dropped  their sub-machine guns and ran away into the bush.  The old men then proceeded to usher us into the taxis, and took us into town and gave us hotel rooms. With honest-to-goodness toilets, which almost even flushed!  And a meal without even a single yam.

And the first thing the next morning, they put us on a plane.  Not  a word was spoken.  It was almost as bizarre as a French film.

It goes without saying that since we were lost souls without passports or any other form of identification, there followed a great deal of humming and hawing, as well as interviews with a great many men and women in suits.  But eventually – I suppose because we had shown ourselves to be such complete imbeciles in the first place by tootling round the Atlantic in a leaky reconditioned trawler – they came to the conclusion that we had been kidnapped by aliens and that our brains had been replaced by those of Daffy Duck – and that talking to us was giving them a headache.  And so they send us home and told us not to do it again.  Just like they do on the M1 when you are stopped for exceeding the speed limit.

Oh, yes, there are one or two other boating adventures – my favourite of which involves a punt and a fiendishly attractive other person and a tomato sandwich thrown from a bridge – but I think you have had as much excitement as you can take for today.  Ciao.

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