Tuesday, 9 June 2015

All At Sea

When things go wrong, how often we say "well, it could be worse." That's supposed to make us feel better, right? Well a couple of years ago I was on a Bay-to-Bay excursion when things did get decidedly worse, then worse still. I decided not to write about it at the time out of sympathy for the boat owner, not wishing to further lower his reputation and possibly scupper his chances of making a living that season.

Time is a great healer though, eh? Or ought that to be "leveller", or perhaps it just "puts stuff into perspective"? Whatever, it's time I told the tale, 'cos if it wasn't so cringeworthy it would have been funny. Not very, though; least not for me or the guests.

The seagoing excursions often start quite late while the company and the boats wait for the sea to settle for the summer. They can start as early as mid-May, but more usually, as is the case in 2015, not until the first week of June. On the occasion in question, we started in the third week of May as it seemed that the sea and the weather were settling early enough and so I got the call and off we went one bright, though not entirely sunny morning. The weather forecast had given some cloud and the chance of a shower, which didn't make me feel entirely comfortable about doing an excursion with a couple of dozen guests on a small boat. This excursion needs wall to wall sunshine, a flat sea and roasting temperatures. You want the guests to be chaffing at the bit to plunge into the clear turquoise waters when the boat drops anchor for a "swim-stop". You want the guests dragging their hands over the side while they chill out seriously while the boat lazily chugs along at about 8 to 10 knots.

The boat we were using that season was a beauty to look at. Lovely blue hull and blue and white superstructure, a long bowsprit with that heavy netting hanging below that you could crawl into and laze in like a hammock while the shimmering Aegean drifts by just feet below you and breaks into a white foam around the bow. 

She was built in the 1950's and had been used to carry cargo between the islands for several decades before being converted for excursions. She looked the archetypal wooden Greek fishing vessel (even though she wasn't) with two wooden masts, the taller of which reaches so high into the deep blue sky that it seems to scrape long the heavens above you while you flow lazily across the waves. Remember that boat that Tom Conti took Pauling Collins for a ride on (quite literally it seemed) in "Shirley Valentine"? You've got it, that type of craft.

She was just large enough to take make 30 or more sun-loving holidaymakers very happy as they stretched out their towels on the roof of the cabin in front of the wheelhouse and got down to the serious business of lazing around. She had that lovely curved shape along the side, dropping in a gentle curve from her bow and rising likewise toward the stern, where she still sported the original wooden rudder, complete with that large wooden handle (tiller?) that the original crew would have to keep fast hold of to set her direction as she made headway from island to island. Nowadays she's steered from a wooden wheel inside the wheelhouse, but even that looks great as it's fashioned to look like the type of wheel that Blackbeard would have stood behind a few centuries ago.

We hadn't gone far, halfway along Kalathos bay and heading north, when the clouds covered the sun and all the guests sat up and draped cardies around their shoulders. It was the third week of May and instantly it felt cool. The crew of two, consisting of the ship's Canadian-Greek owner and his wiry Belgian right-hand man, decided to drop anchor just yards from the pebbly shore a few hundred yards north of the Atrium Palace hotel. Time for our first swim-stop, only no one felt like diving in. Instead everyone sat around staring at the cloud that covered the sun and the sea almost immediately took on a swell that it didn't seem to have had minutes before.

The guests were mainly French, although I did have a handful of British on board too. Among these was a fifty-something man with dyed hair accompanied by two lady friends, probably ditto in the hair department. They were nice enough and we'd struck up a fairly interesting conversation while we'd covered the distance from St. Paul's Bay in Lindos to where we were now. The cloud that covered the sun seemed to deliberately do its darndest to stay there as the air temperature felt to the skin like it had dropped 10 degrees. Hmmm, not ideal for a sunshine cruise.

Weather notwithstanding, the captain decided to drop anchor, since it was his scheduled location to do so, for the first swim of the day and so his first mate Hass, scuttled forward to the anchor mechanism on the deck near the bow to assist as the anchor was dropped. After the heavy steel gear around which the anchor chain would grind began to rotate as it rattled and clanked whilst the anchor was lowered, I looked skyward, willing that wretched cloud to clear off. I mean how annoying is it, when the sky is predominantly blue, yet you have a great big grey cloud just obscuring the sun and looking like it doesn't want to move on.

A couple of the guests did decide to risk it, threw off their shorts and plunged in. This, however, didn't start the mass exodus over the side that it usually does at a swim-stop. The others, not even attempting to remove any clothes, reached for their cans of beer and watched the swimmers in bemused fashion, no doubt wishing that their beer was a hot cocoa. The swimmers put on a brave face and waved as they tried to look as though they were actually enjoying themselves when the fact was that, with the sea at this temperature, it's only a pleasant experience to be up to your neck in it when the sun's beating down and the air temperature's in the upper twenties.

Most swim-stops are about half an hour to forty-five minutes and then the ship sounds her horn, the swimmers climb the ladder back aboard, the engine's fired into life and the anchor weighed ready for the next leg of the voyage. After we'd been at this particular location for almost an hour, I started smelling a rat. I became aware that I hadn't seen a glimpse of either of the crew for a quarter or an hour or more and it was well time we were under way. At least making headway would give the guests a little more cheer than sitting around on deck shivering and wishing they were somewhere else, somewhere where there's a lot less water around them. I broke off from my conversation with the three British guests and went back to the wheel house. Once inside I had to descend the almost vertical ladder of about 5 steps to the engine rom in the bowels of the craft.

As I poked my head into the engine room all I was confronted with was the two sweaty backs of the crew as they tinkered with the engine, all the while picking up spanners, attempted a twink here and a tweak there, and putting them down again in a pool of diesel fuel. Upstairs it may have been cool, but down here it was a cauldron and their t-shirts clung to their backs, drenched in sweat and looking like they were taking part in a cross between spot the ugly bloke and the wet t-shirt competition.

"OK are we chaps?" I meekly enquired. "We about to move off then? I mean, the guests are a little restless up there as it's still cloudy and not all that warm." I attempted a hopeful smile, but there was an air of foreboding about this scene.

From over the captain's shoulder came the words "No problem. We'll be off in a minute." He didn't even turn his head in my direction as he said this and the way they moved their heads conspiratorially closer together told me that all was not well, not well at all.

"What do I tell the guests?" I asked.

"Give us a mo', all right?" Came the terse reply.

Now, the atmosphere down there was so heavy with diesel fuel vapour that you could almost see it. It slithered into my nose and caught in my throat, sufficiently to persuade me to go above again to at least get some fresh air. As I ascended the ladder I felt quite nauseous and my face was probably turning green.

Let's get this straight right? I am good on boats. There was a time in the past when a smallish vessel tossing around on two or three foot waves would have me holding back the vomit, but having lived here for as long as I have and having now spent the time that I have aboard boats of various sizes I can confidently assure one and all that I have my sea legs. I have my sea stomach too. Arriving back on the outdoor deck I was extremely conscious of twenty or more faces all looking expectantly toward me and waiting for me to say "Right then! We're off now." They were hoping for a disarming smile of confidence to go with it too. I was to disappoint them on both counts.

"Looks like there is a small technical blip folks," I proffered, "But the captain assures me that all is well and we'll be under way directly." If they didn't believe this I don't blame them. I didn't either. The time dragged on, we'd been at this stop for an hour and a half when I went below again and was greeted by the same scene. The captain, sensing my presence, muttered in an irritated tone, "This never happens. I don't get it. I spent a fortune having her serviced over the winter. It's got to be  something obvious." Hass assented with a nod.

"Look, _________ (Captain's name used here) I've got to do something for the guests, they're getting fractious up there." I continued. No reply was forthcoming. Now imagine this scene being repeated several times more and you get the picture. A happy bunny I was not. The guests? Well, you can imagine. After two hours I was well impressed with a handful of my French guests though, who'd obviously decided that this still beat being at work and were talking in raucous tones and having a belly laugh. The rest of the guests were most definitely at the point of mutiny.

Another trip down below and I told the captain, "Look, I'm going to open the ice box and dish out some free drinks, as an apology for the delay. Can I at least do that?" Tell the captain that you're going to do something that'll cost him and you get his attention then all right. He straightened up, turned to me and suggested I give each guest a small bottle of water - on the house. Such generosity.

I'd lost count of the number of visits below I'd made, but the diesel had now really got into my system. Walking hurriedly to the side I was just able to hold back my spurt of vomit until I could project it into the sea and not over someone's towel, or worse. Whipping out my handkerchief to wipe my face and mouth, I felt the first spots of rain.

Episode 2 to follow!!

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