Sunday, 2 August 2015

Onwards and upwards

After a couple of years of silence, I’m back!

The last two years have been very interesting.  After Wendy’s odd departure, there was a fairly frantic time to get back to some sort of financial stability, as she had cleared out the bank accounts and left me with very little. 

I realised that I needed to return to the UK, and so after La Route 2013, (the big maritime festival which has become a regular feature of my sailing calendar) I headed north to Audierne.  A contact in the Torpoint Mosquito sailing club introduced me to a couple of fine young lads who jumped at the chance of doing a cross channel trip, and so all was set for the return.

Before leaving Audierne, I decided to dry the boat out next to the harbour wall for a quick scrub to remove any stowaways.  Audierne has a flat granite bottom next to the quay which is perfect for the job, and so we were tied up ready.  As the tide fell, a large motor launch went past, producing an enormous three foot breaking wash. Freya Frey rose and fell with the wash, landing on the solid granite with a sickening bone-shaking bang, again and again, until finally the sound changed to a splintering crunch, followed by the sound of running water.  The leading edge of the port keel had been pushed through the hull, and there was a hole big enough to put my hand through.  We were in real trouble!

The hull, after removing the sikaflex

When I worked for the Royal Navy at HMS Raleigh, I had the experience of being in the DRIU (also known as Havoc) which is a damage control instruction unit.  Essentially, it is the centre section of a frigate on massive hydraulic rams which simulate the motion of a warship in heavy seas. The exercise consists of being below decks, and the motion starts.  It is so realistic that within a few minutes it is all but impossible not to believe that you are on a warship at sea.  Then there is a loud bang and the lights go out as the ship is hit by enemy fire.    Water immediately starts spurting in from splits in the steel bulkheads and up from the decks.  It is the task of the trainees to stem the flow of water coming in and save the ship by hammering wooden wedges into the splits and shoring up with pieces of wood.  
As the water poured in to the galley, I went straight into DRIU mode, stemming the flow with a tea towel stuffed into a cereal bowl wedged in place with cutlery. The tide continued to recede and we were left high and dry – for the moment. I inspected the damage.  There was a six-inch split across the hull, and the weight of the boat on the keel was keeping it wide open.  When the tide came back in we would be inundated, unless I could fix it.  I ran around the harbour, scrounging pieces of timber (not an easy thing to do in a tiny town at 9pm!) which I could use to cantilever the hull back together.  I decided to use Sikaflex (sailors are familiar with this:  it’s a general purpose sealant/adhesive which sticks like you-know-what to a blanket) and lever the hull to close the split. As the tide came in the keel would pull back down and squeeze the Sika into a watertight seal – I hoped!
Six hours of sweat followed.  The tide came in and we floated off. Miraculously the sika made a perfectly watertight repair, and we moved the boat off the wall.  Sure enough it was watertight, but if the boat was put on the ground again it might open up.   We set sail for the UK, with me constantly and nervously monitoring the repair, but it held and we made a safe passage back to Plymouth.
I was then offered some work by my very good friend Ali, whose boat needed significant TLC.   The boat was in a yard at Walton on the Naze, near Ipswich, which was a pretty long sail from Plymouth, but with prevailing SouthWesterly winds I made good progress, helped by a couple of friends who helped crew.  After a couple of weeks I arrived at Walton, and the boat was hauled out and put next to Ali’s.  Initially we thought it was not much more than sanding and re-painting, and so I cracked on with the work until the weather turned too wet and cold.
I then got a call from Ana, a friend in Spain, who was apparently being rushed into hospital and needed someone to teach and even act as Director of Studies in her English Language school.  Could I come out and do the job for six months? There were a hundred nurses in Ferrol waiting to start classes.  She was desperate. Accommodation would be provided along with a car and I would be properly paid.  I agreed.  I flew out a few days later.
When I got to Spain, I was introduced to my lodgings – a lovely three bedroom apartment with a sea view.  The car was a rather old and cranky Fiat Panda, but it was a car.  I was to be introduced to my first client on Monday, but in the meantime I should settle in and get comfortable, which I did.
The view from the patio of my apartment

Monday came and I was introduced to my first client, Michelle.  I was astonished by her English, which was as good as any native speaker, even down to a Hampshire accent.  I commented on this, and she said she came from the Isle of Wight.  I was confused. Why then did she need me to teach her English?  She didn’t!  But she did need me to look after her 4-year-old son for 38 hours a week, while she taught English at a language school.  As remuneration I would have the free use of the apartment with all bills paid, use of the car with 20 euros worth of fuel each week, and ...  wait for it ...  40 euros cash payment.  I – who had zero childcare experience - had been tricked into travelling to Spain to earn a euro an hour as a nanny!  I was well and truly cornered.  I would immediately lose the roof over my head if I quit, and I desperately looked for an escape route.  After a week, I managed to find temporary lodging on a Spanish friend’s boat, and I quit the job.  It turned out that Ana is known as “Ana loca” (crazy Ana), and that her language school does not exist, and has never done so.  A teacher I know in the town explained to me that she is delusional, incapable of distinguishing between the world as it is and the way she would like it to be.  She really believes she has a language school, and even pointed out to me the magnificent building in Ferrol where it supposedly is based.   Later she denied offering my anything, and kept this denial up, even when I confronted her with the emails she had sent me.  How sad.
In the meantime, I needed to get some sort of income.  Then a British couple arrived in Ortigueira in a 15m yacht, having read my article in Practical Boat Owner magazine.  They had decided to leave the boat in the marina over the winter, but had not realised how few berths were available.  Their insurance required that the boat should not be left unattended for more than 24 hours, and they offered me a  job boatminding, which essentially meant going on board each day and spending a couple of hours checking that all was well and having a beer or some coffee.  I accepted gladly, and even spent a few nights on board. 

Mid-December, and 24 degrees!  Warm enough to discard my shirt and have a beer on deck!

As Christmas approached, the weather turned colder, and even went below freezing a couple of times, although the days were still pleasantly warm.  Being on board the boat overnight was not fun when it got that cold, even when I slept fully-clothed inside the sleeping bag.  I needed to get somewhere ashore.
I made some enquiries of my friend Mila in the Tourist Office, and she called a lawyer friend of hers.  The conversation which followed was full of assurances that I was honest, clean, and reliable, and then the lawyer suddenly asked “What, you mean the Cornish chap?  Mila, surprised, replied “yes”.  The previous year I had helped a young fisherman out when his dory was holed on a rock.  He was in despair, but I glassed it up for him in a couple of hours, and he was delighted.  I refused any payment, saying that this is what sailors do for each other, although I did accept his warm invitation to go and have dinner in his home.  It turned out that the lawyer was his sister, and that their mother had a family holiday apartment in the town, and having shown myself to be a decent sort...  well, let’s just say they were delighted to help me out.

Inside the lovely apartment

There followed many parties, full moon suppers and a magnificent traditional English Christmas dinner with my friends.

These were some of the happiest times I have ever known.  Surrounded by lovely people, continual laughter.  They are very dear to me...

In the spring Wendy finally agreed to release my property from the storage unit, giving me a fixed date to meet in Cornwall, so I travelled back to sort it out.  When I arrived back in England, there was an email waiting for me, telling me that she had changed her mind, and had already done it.  It transpired that there was a fair bit missing, and some stuff broken through mishandling. The excuse for not returning my tools was that they were in the car when it was scrapped, whilst my crystal glasses were not there because “they got broken”.  No apology, no offer to replace the broken items, but that was the last contact I had with her, and from my point of view it was good riddance.  I was busy getting on with the rest of my life.  I cashed in an investment bond and bought a Honda Deauville which was a great machine, and which enabled me to get around again.

Honda Deauville 650.  With panniers, topbox, heated grips, full fairing...

An offer of work came along with the MOD, and I grabbed it with both hands.  Several short contracts later and my finances were looking better.  Between times I was working on Ali’s boat, sanding, painting and plumbing.  I was meeting new people in the sailing world, and looking forward to getting the boat sorted again.  

But that is something for next time!