The Atlantic crossing

I was 21 and had been working in Gibraltar in a bar and living over the border in La Linea in Spain for a few months. I’d just come back skint from an extended trip to Morocco and was looking for another job. In those days, the late ‘80’s, it was usually pretty easy to leave one job and walk straight into another.

However, it was late September, the end of summer, I’d been living by a waterfall in the Moroccan countryside and had just started dreading my hair so it was in its really ratty early stages. I’d also told the people in my previous job to stick it ‘where the sun don’t shine’ before I left, so maybe my chances weren’t so good.

After a couple of weeks and still no joy, things were getting a bit desperate. One day, walking around the small marina, I spotted a yacht with a hand-written ‘crew wanted’ sign, intending to sail to the Caribbean the following week. I jumped at the chance.

 I shouted a cheery ‘Ahoy there’, thinking that must sound nautical and experienced and a grey head popped up from below.

Captain Smets, from Belgium, a small, wiry man with a deep tan, initially seemed friendly enough. He invited me onboard to check out the space. Climbing down the wooden steps into the cabin I noticed that each side of the hatch also had steps carved into it – I remember wondering why. The 60 ft bluewater (sea-faring) sailing yacht had a compact galley all made out of light wood, and a stove on a gimbal, so it always stayed upright with the rocking. There was a hook each side of the hotplate where a strap could be attached that went around the chefs back.

Already there was a slightly older Spanish girl with bright orange hair, Marta – she was the other crew member and there was also a couple of wholesome, white-toothed American hippy kids who were along for the ride. They had spent all their money travelling around Europe and were waiting for Daddy to bail them out.

Captain Smets spent all summer as a yacht charter going around the Med, and all winter sailing between Caribbean islands- what a great life, I was intrigued!

 Although I hadn’t had much experience- i.e, any – with sails or sailboats, they wanted a chef and as I’d done some cooking of one-pot meals at my local pub in Brighton, somehow, I blagged my way in.  

I got the job, went home, packed and within a week, we were off.

A few days later we stopped at Las Palmas on the Canary Islands. Marta and I went off to meet a couple she knew that lived in the town. We ended up drinking cheap red wine all night, their excited Spanish got too hard for me to follow so I left them to it and went to sleep on the sofa in the spare room. A couple of hours later, around 3 in the morning they all come in drunk and naked, trying to entice me into bed with them. I just looked at them, slightly horrified and embarrassed and turned over.

The next morning, we got back to the boat really late. Captain was furious, shouting about getting our suitcases out and leaving us there. Marta was very apologetic, smoothed it over and we were allowed to continue.

Captain Smets was a bit of a drunk and a Francophile, admitting that he hated the English, which made it all a bit tense. I didn’t shave my legs in those days either, I’d never bothered because they were lightly hairy and barely noticeable but he would constantly moan about them possibly getting in the salad! After three weeks, I was dreaming of dry land only to wake up and realize I was still on the damn boat.

Don’t get me wrong, some of it was amazing- we all had to take turns in doing a four-hour night watch. I loved that, alone with the expansive star-filled skies and the inky blackness and it meant we got a hot chocolate and a precious mars bar.

It was fantastic watching the sea life during the day, the big fish, the dolphins, etc that followed the boat. One day I was resting, reading a book on my bed, the top bunk, when a flying fish flew in through the skylight, landing on my lap, freaking me out.

I also really enjoyed the cooking, I had my sealegs- I never felt seasick. Strapped to the stove, I even made fresh bread a couple of times- the Captain seemed pretty happy with my food. I also got quite proficient at rolling a fag one-handed, with my arm wrapped around the rope barrier. Skills!

Once, we were discussing what I was going to prepare for the next day and Captain Smets walked over to the freezer, pointing at something in the bottom. Long and silvery, it looked like a big fish with a lump of meat in its mouth. Horrified, I realized I had to cook a tongue, and even now, thirty years later, after working as a chef many times, it is still the worst thing I’ve ever had to prepare. It sat grotesquely in the bottom of the pan with a few capers and a dash of wine vinegar. Once it was cooked, it had to be peeled and sliced. Gross.

One night, mid Atlantic, I woke up suddenly as my bunk had turned into a pit, like I was in a freshly dug grave. The boat was lurching sickeningly. Something was seriously wrong – the yacht was on its side. I scrambled up to look over the edge of my bunk as Captain Smets door slammed open and, stark bollock naked, cock flapping, he bounded up the stairs cut into the side of the hatch in one go. Ah, that’s why there are stairs there, I realised grimly. Also, a reminder never to sleep naked, just in case. Heart pounding, I clambered out, walking on a wall which was now the floor and followed him outside.

It was dark but the moon illuminated the ashen faces of the dude and his girlfriend who had been on watch. We were in the middle of the Atlantic, dead of night, in big trouble.

We were still bombing along erratically, the boat on its side with the spinnaker- the big sail which normally balloons at the front of the yacht – under the surface of the water, rapidly filling up. Not good. In a whirl of shouting and activity, Captain quickly untied some lines to drop the other sails and slow the boat. One or two more, and eventually the boat bobbed back upright. Clutching onto the ropes which formed the barriers around the side we all grabbed a piece of the sail fabric and hauled it slowly onto the deck. Luckily we didn’t fully capsize and nothing was broken, all the masts were intact.

None of us had a life jacket or were tied on, it could have ended horrifically, anyone going overboard would have been impossible to find. That would have been it. We somehow all clung on. I don’t remember feeling scared at the time but afterwards as I was rolling a fag, I realised how much my hands were shaking, knowing it was such a close call.

We finally arrived in English Harbour, an old settlement and natural marina on the south of the island of Antigua. After six weeks at sea, when you disembark your legs are wobbly, as though you are still sailing, it’s difficult to walk. It was soon clear that these were not my sort of people, entitled, posh and stuck up and I was not comfortable with them and me as a ratty-haired punk-rocker type, they were obviously not comfortable with me.

I spent about a week there, walking around the lush jungle-filled interior of the island, studded with brightly coloured shacks, high-fiving the friendly Rastas smoking their chillums. The poverty of the locals was a stark contrast to the well-to-do yachty types chinking glasses in the sailing club. Those people I couldn’t relate to.

Eventually, Captain picked up some more appropriate crew, professional, ‘groomed’, of the same ilk and class as his potential clients.

After a bit of wrangling, Marta and I were given $1000 wages each and a ticket back to Europe – standard practise in the yacht industry. To get home, I first had to take a small twelve-seater prop sea-plane to the nearest island of Guadalupe, where there was a larger, international airport. That was wonderful. It flew low, skimming the water and reefs, revealing the shoreline dotted with fancy white villas and the gorgeous turquoise water peppered with yachts.

 I was back in the UK within a few hours, glad of the experience. I had a bit of money in my pocket, slightly relieved, ready for the next adventure, but I knew without a doubt that the yachting scene just wasn’t for me.