A cautionary tale for those contemplating a sailing holiday
It seemed quite a good idea at the time. We hadn’t planned a Summer holiday and the evenings were getting longer. Two acquaintances, Arnold and Myrtle, had invited us over for a drink and out of the blue they produced a video extolling the pleasures of a Mediterranean sailing holiday. The first week was to be spent in a Greek villa gradually acclimatising to the heat, the food and the drink. The second, in a flotilla of yachts, exploring idyllic islands and visiting friendly tavernas. It was, as the video explained, ‘the ideal compromise between a shorebased holiday and a holiday afloat.’ A holiday should never be a compromise.
Apart from the fact that Arnold was a sales executive, we knew hardly anything about him. ‘So how much sailing have you done?’ we enquired. Arnold brushed this aside abruptly, ‘Oh you’ve been sailing before and I can take a three-day course during the first week.’ ‘Good, good,’ I enthused, ‘But have you ever actually been sailing?’ ‘Look,’ he replied, ‘The brochure says the winds are only force 3 to 4. It'll be a doddle.’ ‘And I’m going to learn how to swim,’ added Myrtle encouragingly. For a brief moment, I heard the Meltemi wind howling down the mountains, and saw a tangle of fouled anchors, then Arnold was waving an application form in my face. ‘Shall we hire a spinnaker? It’s only sixty quid extra and what’s sixty quid?’ Following an explanation that this was not a high-powered skiff for nipping ashore, his enthusiasm for this optional extra waned. But we were gradually drawn into the spirit of the occasion and, in the early hours of the morning, the First Mate and I departed unsteadily to the sound of Zorba’s Dance thundering in our ears.
So the weeks flew by until one afternoon in August we were bouncing along in a coach on a dusty Greek road; four adults and their two teenage daughters in search of adventure. Ahead, the deserted prison island of Makronisos shimmered in the sun, and somewhere beyond the horizon, across a sparkling turquoise sea, lay the cruising grounds. Our arrival at the sailing club was greeted by an energetic team of young Brits, Australians, and New Zealanders who cheerfully escorted us to spacious and comfortable villas perched along the edge of a rocky cove. The water below looked so inviting that within minutes the two girls were diving from the rocks and beckoning us to join them. That evening, strolling down to the welcome barbecue, we helped ourselves to grapes clustering on overhanging vines and were serenaded by a thousand cicadas. There was not a single mosquito in sight.
The next morning it was all systems go. The two girls enrolled in the junior club and joined a training session on how to right a capsized dinghy. Myrtle watched them anxiously from the beach so we steered her in the direction of the local shops. Arnold strolled purposefully towards a group taking the three-day sailing course, whilst I attended the briefing for flotilla skippers. The sailing manager, a formidable lady, showed us how to use the radio and operate an engine. Later, she tested our competence at basic manoeuvres, and it was clear that she wouldn’t suffer fools gladly. Indeed, one or two of us discovered that our ‘many years of sailing experience’ were merely one year’s bad experience repeated many times. Anyway, in winds gusting around force 5 to 6, we enjoyed an exhilarating sail and returned to the bar to receive our skipper’s certificates.
Alas, the holiday of a lifetime lasted until 4.15. That was the time on the bar clock when First Mate approached looking quite crestfallen. ‘Arnold’s returned from his sailing course and he’s in a terrible state, I think he’s going to need a lot of reassurance.’ Our companion was distraught. ‘You've no idea what it’s like out there!’ he exclaimed as I entered the villa. ‘It's going to take at least four people to sail one of those things, and Myrtle can’t swim so she won’t be any help. She could be killed if that boom thing swings across and hits her.’ I tried to reassure him that the boats could be sailed single-handed but he wasn’t having any of it. ‘You think so? Do you realise that the average wind force here is 6 to 7? It’s the Meltemi season!’ All that was missing was the cello music from Jaws. We thought that a strong drink might calm him down, but it only had the opposite effect. ‘There's an incredible amount to this sailing business. Do you know we could have spent most of the afternoon learning all about navigation?’ I tried humouring him, ‘Don’t worry too much about that. I’ll admit my Merchant Navy career was undistinguished, but we never got lost.’ Now this was not entirely true; there was a deeply embarrassing incident in New York harbour involving a Black Star Line freighter, but this was not the moment to be candid. For the rest of the evening, Arnold insisted on describing all the potential disasters which might occur whilst sailing around the islands. Myrtle listened intently to her husband’s comforting words and we noticed how her morale was starting to ebb. That night, the First Mate thought she heard a mosquito in the bedroom.
The following day, Arnold suggested that we would do well to join him on the sailing course, but his offer was declined because we had another plan. When he was safely out of the way, we took Myrtle out on one of the day yachts moored in the cove and sailed to Cape Sounion. The purpose of this expedition was to admire the ruins of a temple perched on the cliffs, but our hidden agenda was to give her back some confidence. In fact, despite some heavy seas breaking over the foredeck on the return leg, she thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Back at the club, we relaxed until Arnold returned from his course. He was in a difficult mood and plied us with questions: ‘OK then, how much anchor chain should you normally let out?’ or ‘OK then, what should you do when you have a man overboard situation?’ or ‘OK then, how do you moor when there's only one person left aboard?’ We answered him to the best of our ability, but there were two phrases which we were starting to detest. One was ‘OK then’ for it heralded another question drawn from the copious notes which he had scribbled during the course. The other was ‘You think so?’ which, more often than not, was accompanied by a contemptuous sneer. That evening, a mosquito bit my big toe (starboard).
By the end of his sailing course, Arnold appeared to have undergone a considerable change of personality. At night, he sat in the bar explaining, with great authority, the finer points of sailing and offering to take anyone who needed extra practice for a spin. ‘What's a topping lift for Arnold?’ ‘Oh, its er... a minor adjustment, I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.’ We listened to this mutual exchange of ignorance in disbelief, but Myrtle seemed impressed. Indeed, one good lady leaned across and announced that we were very fortunate in having an expert like Arnold accompanying us. ‘Yes,’ said Myrtle proudly, ‘And he belongs to MENSA.’ How this transformation from nervous anxiety to supreme confidence had occurred was a complete mystery, but we now found that we had to bear the brunt of a querulous nature as well. ‘Why do the children always put their elbows on the table at meals?’ It was all getting a little bit unpleasant and we couldn't understand why. Here, at the villa, there was room to escape, but what of the second week when we would be living on top of each other? Our hearts sunk and we faced the rest of the holiday with considerable apprehension. That night, the mosquitoes attacked in force.
At the start of the second week, we travelled to the island of Poros by Hydrofoil to join the flotilla. These Russian-built sea monsters sped aggressively from one island to the next. We watched two collide and were determined to give them a wide berth. On the quayside, Joe, the flotilla leader from New Zealand, and Dave, his Australian engineer, showed us around our yacht Poseidon and outlined the various cruising procedures. Joe warned us not to waste our drinking water, but his parting shot, ‘So guys, don’t wash your decks in it’, caused a temporary misunderstanding. Ask a New Zealander to repeat that line and you’ll catch my drift. Dave explained the workings of the engine, and we complimented him on his lucid description. ‘Well,’ he observed, ‘I’ve spent a lot of time on this little bastard. No worries!’ It sounded ominous but we let it pass.
As we prepared for departure, Arnold took me aside. ‘How are we going to play this then?’ Initially, I was confused and assured him that he and Myrtle could have the main cabin; we would be quite happy in stern berths. ‘No, you misunderstand, I’ve done the 3-day course and I’ve acquired a lot of specialised knowledge which you don’t have.’ It suddenly dawned on me that Arnold desperately wanted to be skipper and that this had played on his mind for several days. I assured him that I would be happy to sail under his leadership, but checked this arrangement with Joe before leaving. Joe gave a broad grin, ‘I think we'll both be keeping a close eye on him.’
Somewhat to our surprise, it all went quite well. Once in charge of operations, Arnold appeared more relaxed than he had been for several days. He attended the morning quayside briefings punctually and made detailed notes on every minute aspect of the cruise. He avoided having anything to do with the sails or the anchor, but thoroughly enjoyed taking the helm. Of course, there were the occasional collisions in tightly packed harbours and the time when he ordered the anchor to be released in 300 fathoms. I even recall his ability to plot our position within an error of ten miles, but this is carping. Indeed, if anyone made a stupid error, it was me. I accidentally released the topping lift, just a minor adjustment - nothing to worry about, and Arnold received a very painful blow from the boom.
In the middle of the week, there was a dramatic change in the weather. An angry northerly wind, our friend the Meltemi, had returned and we became separated from the flotilla. After a fruitless search for sheltered moorings, we were forced to anchor during a rainstorm in Spetses harbour. Working from the dinghy, I laid out a second anchor and then took a stern line to a tree ashore. Anxious faces peered down, briefly illuminated by the glare of a lighthouse stabbing the darkness. ‘What on earth are you doing?’ exclaimed our skipper. ‘I was just taking some precautions,’ I replied, shaking the mud from my hands. ‘There’s nothing about that here,’ said Arnold waving his thick wedge of notes. He remained unconvinced and ordered Myrtle to pack their cases for a night in the nearest hotel. We ferried them ashore to the beach, then, laden like sherpas, struggled to the top of some cliffs from which could be heard the tinkle of bells. After stumbling around in the dark, they found a track leading to the town, and marched away escorted by a herd of goats. Anyway, the good news is that, later that evening, Arnold relented and returned with Myrtle to be with his crew. The bad news is that someone had sneaked alongside and pinched the dinghy.
Despite the Meltemi, the holiday was drawing to a satisfactory conclusion. Joe and his splendid team were always close at hand to solve any real problems, and we had enjoyed several lively evenings ashore with the other crews. But fate has a nasty habit of striking when it is least expected, and it was lurking in the narrow stretch of water between Skilli Island and the mainland. The flotilla was returning to Poros and Joe had advised us to use this gap as a short cut but to have our engines ready as the seas there were unpredictable. Arnold decided to make the journey entirely by engine, but reluctantly agreed to our raising the mainsail. The girls soon became bored and went below to play cards.
After lurching along in lumpy seas for a couple of hours, Poseidon reached the gap only to be confronted by Georgio, an inter-island battering ram heading in our direction. Fortunately, it failed to score, but while we were being tossed around in its wake, our engine started to cough. ‘What are you doing?’ screamed Arnold. ‘Nothing,’ I replied, 'But I think we have a problem - you better get your notes out.’ The engine spluttered and died, and the yacht started to wallow alarmingly. Arnold leaped down into the cabin, or rather the cabin reared up to meet him, and having regained his footing, he pressed the starting motor several times. The engine refused to budge. ‘Right,’ he cried, ‘Everyone get below!’ and Myrtle fled the cockpit leaving us to contemplate heavy seas breaking on the jagged rocks of an approaching reef. Keeping the bows up to wind, we set the headsail and off went Poseidon like an ocean greyhound. Having cleared the reef and set a course for Poros, we paused for a breather and looked down into the saloon. Arnold was pounding the VHF radio in desperation ‘Mayday! Mayday!’ and Myrtle had fainted. The two girls were still playing cards.
A rather subdued Poseidon approached Poros that afternoon. The support boat met us at the harbour entrance and our friend Dave removed an airlock from the fuel pipe. No worries. Arnold sat alone in silence on the foredeck. Despite assurances that we had never been in serious danger, Myrtle wept hysterically. ‘Weren't you terrified back there?’ she cried, ‘We could have lost our lives!’ One of us muttered, ‘Better than losing those ****** notes,’ and then we concentrated on making a final approach to the berth. At that moment, Arnold stepped into the cockpit and, pushing us aside, resumed command. Sensing a familiar hand on her tiller, Poseidon ploughed with a sickening crunch into the concrete walls of the quayside.
That evening, the flotilla held a final get-together in a lively taverna. After the meal, Joe made a short speech and awarded a prize to one member of each crew. He gave a tin of spinach to a diminutive lady who was always seen tugging at her anchor, and a pair of water-wings for the airline pilot who fell overboard in Hydra. There was a toy telephone for the Birmingham businessman who insisted on a daily fax from his office, and a tourist map for the family that accidentally sailed half-way to Crete. The skipper of Poseidon received a rather smart little sailing hat with a Greek inscription. Before leaving the taverna, we asked one of the waiters for a translation. It read, ‘I want to be Captain.’ According to our shipmates, the mosquitoes were very busy that night, but we slept soundly.