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Roger's yachting yarns

In 2002 I had a completely unexpected opportunity to crew on a voyage to deliver a yacht to the South of France from Malta, an offer too good to turn down.

My previous sailing experience was back in the 1960's, taking 30 footers out from Malden down the Blackwater into the North Sea. Those were the days when Morse code was an integral part of the Yacht Master courses as were taxing questions from an old admiral in place of the practical required today. One had to be on the ball due to tides, buoys, channels, sandbanks and the like.

Work took me to landlocked Switzerland for the next 30 years. I've lived in the south of France since 2000 and in 2002 I was offered the chance to crew a FARR 41 on a delivery run from Malta to Saint Raphael on the Côte D'Azur. Subsequently as a result of this great experience I bought my own sailing boat, an old Dufour and I've sailed the coast from Livorno in Italy to Marseilles in France. I take particular pleasure in visiting the Italian islands, Capri, Elba, Giglio, Sardinia and the French, Corsica, Isle de Lérins and the Ile de Porquerolles.

This is the first chapter in the tale of Malta–St Raphael delivery run in the FARR 41. Her name was Dreamtime and she was 41 feet long, much like the picture below.

Dreamtime - Farr 41

The skipper was Chris, Jess was the cook and I was the engineer. Together we covered a fair old stretch of the Western Mediterranean, as the chart below shows.

Western Mediterranean

31 July 2002 - Getting there

Chris and I started our journey at Nice airport. Only one airline would sell us a one way ticket to Malta, good old BA, so we flew Nice-Gatwick-Malta and Jess joined us at Gatwick. This was one of those ‘bring your own…' parties – on this occasion we had our own Zodiac dinghy packed away in our luggage.

French customs officials were working to rule, no surprise there and so a short delay leaving Nice became a longer delay. No damage done, however, as luckily the Malta flight from Gatwick was also delayed. We finally arrived in Malta at 22:00 hours. Chris managed to contact Tony, the agent, who picked us up at the airport and then delivered us to the marina where we were able to board Dreamtime.

Tony dropped a bit of a bombshell when he told us there was a possibility that the boat might be sold in the next few days. A potential buyer was trying to get a bank loan and if he did then Dreamtime would be his. Not wanting to miss the opportunity for time afloat, our skipper decided that we would leave the following day and should the potential buyer obtain the loan we would return to Malta.

After a brief inspection we dropped off our gear and went in search of somewhere to eat. After passing two reasonably looking restaurants, cafes really, we entered one that only served liquid food. The owner was a really nice person who had once served with the RAF. He advised on the various types of liquid refreshment available locally, one of which was called Ciska. We decided that this was our beer of choice while we remained on Malta.

Six pints of liquid refreshment later we weaved our way back to pier B where the boat was moored only to find that the pier was closed and the gate locked. As you'd expect we tried to pick the lock, but that didn't work for some reason, and eventually a security guard let us in.

1 August 2002 – Getting Ready

We were awoken by the hustle and bustle of the morning traffic and general activity around the port. Life in a foreign country always has its little mysteries, doesn't it, and the mystery in Malta that morning was why all the road surfaces made the cars' tyres squeal, so it seemed in our sensitive state, at even the slightest change of direction.

After a quick inventory check, which showed that all major items were present and intact, we headed off to find a solid breakfast. It seemed only right and proper that just across the road from the port there was a café which provided a full English breakfast for the princely sum of £1.70.

Chris headed for an internet café to email the owner, in Australia, regarding the potential sale and to get a weather report. The email went off but Chris's money ran out before he could get the weather report.

We went to find the supermarket, but were diverted on the way by a chandlery and decided to get a replacement cylinder for Jess's super lightweight automatic inflation life jacket. As luck would have it there were two cylinders of the right type in stock at £12.00 each. The life jacket performed spectacularly the moment the cylinder was inserted inflating to its full size in an instant much to the surprise of us all. The shop keeper was a bit taken aback until he realized that he was about to sell the second cylinder. The second cylinder was fitted and again the lift jacket sprang to attention. The owner assured us he could resupply by the afternoon. We finally left the shop clutching the now deflated lifejacket know that a large supply of cylinders was on its way.

After a ten minute walk we entered the supermarket intent on buying the essential supplies for the voyage. As we entered the shop a security person sealed the lifejacket and other possession in a shrink wrap package. Only when we were inside the shop did we realise that our carefully constructed shopping list of supplies was now securely sealed in the package! Undeterred we continued our shopping expedition and succeeded in purchasing many of the desired items plus several more. Unfortunately due to the magnificent breakfast we were not very hungry and so many of the food items went unpurchased.

Jess asked the manager if he could order a taxi to transport our rather bulky package back to the boat. We were delighted when he offered to have it delivered free of charge.

Chris and Jess went off to find some outstanding items we needed while I rode back to the boat in the delivery van. We emptied the van and stored the supplies in the lockers. Jess arrived clutching 3 pillows, sheets, a kettle and a large saucepan. After all items were stowed Chris went off once more to the internet café to see if the owner had responded regarding the potential sale of the vessel.

Meanwhile Jess and I returned to the chandlery to have a third go at buying a gas cylinder plus rollocks and a pump for the Zodiac. True to his word the shop owner had replenished the supply of gas cylinders, one of which we purchased along with oars but declined the gold plated foot pump. We borrowed a foot pump later from one of the other boats moored on the pier and inflated the dinghy.

Armed with vast experience of fitting gas cylinders to life vests we deactivated the automatic inflation device before screwing in the new cylinder. Voila, the cylinder was in place and the vest had no erection! Unfortunately while re-activating the automatic inflation device it was over tightened and guess what? A fully inflated life vest, the only difference being, that this time we were on the boat! Poor Jess, the look on his face went to our hearts and we offered to buy him another cylinder for his birthday so off I went once more to the chandlery. As I entered the shop the owner said, “You haven't”, to which I replied' “Don't ask, just sell me another”.

I am glad to report that this time the cylinder was fitted correctly and we at last had our self-inflating life vest at the ready.

1 August 2002 16:00 Off We Go!

The skipper declared that he was satisfied with the preparation work and that we should check out the technical functions of the boat. Electrics, navigation aid, safety gear etc. Finally we checked out the engine which we knew had had some problems due to the lack of an anti-syphoning device on the exhaust system.

It was essential to follow a shutdown procedure to prevent sea water getting into the cylinders. Unfortunately before the problem was initially discovered water had got in the engine resulting in excessive wear of the piston rings which caused the engine to burn a considerable amount of oil. Due to this problem we carried a large supply of engine oil and topped up on a regular basis. The engine reluctantly started whilst discharging clouds of oil fumes. Once the engine warmed up the fumes decreased and we cast off and moved down the channel to the refueling barge. We took on 100 litres of diesel and several packs of ice for the refrigerator and then motored across to the marina on Manoel Island to replenish the gas in the camping gas cylinder.

Finally at 18:00 we steered the boat towards the open sea aiming for the Blue Lagoon off Comino which is a small, almost uninhabited island, sandwiched between Malta and its companion island, Gozo.

1 August 2002 18:00 The voyage begins

The skipper, the cook and I had spent the day in Malta taking on fuel and other supplies and checking out the FARR 41 yacht’s engine, confirming that indeed it was rather worn and would be hungry for oil. Sure enough, when it fired up eventually to take us out of the harbour, we were engulfed in clouds of oil fumes! Nothing daunted we set off, with just enough time to get to the Blue Lagoon off Comino Island before nightfall.

Comino is almost uninhabited, a rock set between the main island of Malta and its companion Gozo to the north. The Blue Lagoon is beautiful and we were looking forward to a peaceful evening and night there. Our plans did not survive even the first brush with reality, as you will shortly hear!

When we reached the harbour mouth, we realised that there was absolutely no wind, and so we couldn’t sail and had to motor over to Comino, about 12 nautical miles away. We thought we might manage between 6 and 7 knots using the engine, which would still get us to Comino before dark, but to our consternation, even with the throttle wide open we were only getting about 4.5 knots. Nothing could be done, however, so 4.5 knots it was and we puttered across with the sun already beginning to set. Happily for us it was a clear night and even when we arrived at about 20:45, there was enough twilight for us to pick up a buoy and tie up just outside the limits of the Blue Lagoon.

We were looking forward to a peaceful evening at that stage, but once the engine noise died away, we very soon realized we would be sharing this beautiful location with a lively shore party about 200 metres away. Although the music was quite loud it didn’t stop us from enjoying a glass or two of wine, a pre-dinner swim and dinner. We settled down to talk away the evening and sort out the troubles of the world, all very relaxed. An hour or so later, things had quietened down and we were thinking of turning in for the night when we became aware of a strange sound. It got louder and louder and then suddenly, all lights blazing and speakers blasting, a 50 metre superyacht rounded the headland!

The noise level was extraordinary, like being in the front row at a heavy metal concert. We watched open mouthed as this floating rock concert slowly edged into the mooring area to a spot about 200metres away. Even before the anchor had even hit the sea, dozens of young things were throwing themselves from the deck into the water below.

Jess grabbed the binoculars and after a careful survey, he declared that the swimmers were all totally naked. Each of us took turns with the magic binoculars, which became, I must confess, rather steamed up on the inside. Even though the superyacht was lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree, with the darkness and with compromised binoculars we couldn’t see exactly what was going on. But clearly it was one heck of a party and they certainly had never heard about health & safety!

Young bodies were continually leaping into the water and seemed to be swimming around to the aft to get back onto the boat. I was so intrigued by the whole event that I decided to swim over and investigate. Not wanting to be inappropriately dressed, I donned my birthday suit and swam over to the splash down area.

I quickly realised that Jess had misled us a little. All the partygoers were wearing one item of clothing. There I was, a complete stranger and probably three times the age of the revelers, swimming around completely naked, while everyone else was decorously briefed. The absence of health & safety people didn’t necessarily also mean an absence of security people. My mind rushed ahead in a jumbled vignette of various possible endings to my adventure, all of them humiliating and some of them positively life-threatening! Urgently, I swam back to the safety of Dreamtime. My fellow crew members were vastly amused and I could only be pleased that I had provided such extreme entertainment.

It didn’t look as if we were going to get any sleep at all, as the music was still blaring out well after midnight but at about one in the morning the anchor was raised and she slowly sailed away, the boom, boom of the music disappearing into the night. We were still rather taken aback by the whole incident and it took a further couple of glasses of wine before we could think of retiring for the night.

2 August 2002 07:00 A Slow Morning

I awoke the next morning at about 7:00 to find the sea still flat as a millpond and only a couple of sailboats moored in the same area. The Blue Lagoon shone in full splendour, so donning appropriate swimwear this time, I swam lazily into the amazing blue water. I swam on to reach the shore, past a low cliff face and was puzzled by fixtures carved into the rock at various levels. I got out of the water and took a short walk on the rather uninspiring headland before returning to the boat, where I found that Jess, our cook had woken.

Jess and I were both a bit concerned about our speed on the motor, as we had reckoned on a ten-day cruise, and we both had other commitments to go home to after that. I had expected to cruise a modern 41 foot sloop at about 6 knots on the motor but if we could only do 4.5 knots, the whole journey might take a great deal more time than we had expected.

I wondered if the lack of speed had something to do with the state of the hull and/or propeller and so I swam down to take a look. We knew that the boat hadn’t been much used and, judging by the good coat of barnacles on the underside, she hadn’t been anti-fouled for some time. It was too daunting a task to clear the hull but several dives and much scraping with a kitchen knife, saw the propeller cleared of sea life.

Jess and I had a leisurely breakfast expecting the skipper to appear any moment but it wasn’t until around 10:00 that our commander arose. Now we thought, we’ll get underway, but no, we were informed that the skipper was on his annual vacation and that haste was not on his agenda. Another dent in our 10 day schedule!

As the morning progressed more and more pleasure boats arrived, like the one in the picture, until we were surrounded by them. Some of the bigger boats had gangways to the cliffs using the strange fixtures I had observed earlier, so that what was what they were for! The smaller boats ferried their human cargoes ashore in a flotilla of inflatables. Eventually a bigger boat arrived and the captain indicated that we were occupying his mooring. The argument that our skipper was on his vacation and was in no hurry did not seem to impress, so we slipped the mooring and were at last on our way.

We slowly motored out into the open sea and set a course to bring us around the top of Gozo. We skirted Gozo and the skipper set a course for Marsala on the western tip of Sicily. Happily my propeller scraping paid off as we were now getting 7 knots plus out of the engine and we calculated that, weather permitting, that we should arrive there in about 24 hours, all being well.

to be continued...