It is widely said that all Greeks are sailors. And so, for a young man’s 21st birthday, the custom here in Greece is for him to be bought or inherit a boat which will last him his whole life. For girls it’s to be given or inherit a house in which to have and raise their many children. And so it was, using a tricky variant of this custom on an innocent mark, Kyriakos bought me the boat I hoped I might keep for the rest of my retired life; which would probably be somewhat shorter than the rest of a 21 year old’s.
Drenched in sweat caused by the humidity and searing 40 degree heat of Greece in July, I stood on the bow of the island taxi boat approaching our harbour. As we turned to let some returning fishing boats in ahead of us I got my first look at the newly restored ‘Neraida 2’. And hadn’t Kyriakos done well! Freshly undersealed, propeller polished and protected by a new anode, her hull painted and topsides varnished, with her new flag flying and her cabin doors wide open in a gesture of welcome, she was every inch this bedraggled Barrister’s dream of how a retirement should be approached. Waving to Kyriakos, I stepped off the taxi and positively sprinted round the harbour to get aboard. We shook hands warmly and I immediately presented his two thousand euro commission. Teak decked and with her brass portholes and ship’s bell sparkling in the sun, under my bare feet she felt as solid as a tank. Then I spotted something lying on the foredeck which I hadn’t seen before:
‘What’s in that bag?’
‘Oh. The jib sail. I negotiated it into the deal. She’s primarily a motor boat – nearly all Trexandiris are nowadays – but he had the sail, which was made for this jib and because he got paid in full, he threw it in to the deal. As you know, payment in full is a rarity here. Honestly, I think he’s glad to see the back of this boat.’
Looking out at the shimmering uninhabited islands of Kira, Ipsili, Diaporia and Leousis, I imagined the northwest Meltemi wind filling Neraida’s jib sail as we passed by our home island. After buying drinks, salads and pork steaks for everyone in our tiny boatyard who’d helped or encouraged Neraida back to this immaculate condition, I slept the sleep of the teenage boy who’s just passed his driving test and is looking forward to speeding through country lanes in his very first car: a newly restored Porsche 911. What could possibly go wrong?
Well the first thing to go wrong arose from that ancient ragged rock upon which so many things in life falter: presumption. I’d presumed everything mechanical about Neraida 2 would be as new. I presumed I’d be allocated a place in ‘our’ harbour. I presumed that in the chain locker there would be enough chain of the appropriate size and length to hold the boat when at anchor. [Here we say that it’s not the anchor which holds the boat, it’s the chain that holds the boat] Oh and I presumed I’d quickly be able to manoeuvre her without difficulty around the Aegean Sea.
Of course, none of these presumptions became truths. One impeller was badly worn and because it was in an awkward place, hadn’t been replaced in years. So that was why one side of the V8 Cat engine got a lot hotter than the other. Repairing that was time consuming and costly. I then discovered that there was in effect an unofficial system of securing harbour places: in which no-one ever died and so the Register recorded that some of the places were occupied by men who were well over a hundred years old. On a neighbouring island I spent a truly awful day in searing heat dragging eighty metres of overpriced No14 chain from the Chandlers (more of a hut with things strewn and entangled everywhere underfoot) down a narrow rough concrete road for about half a mile until a kindly young stranger with a big motorbike offered to pull the chain behind the bike and put me on the back. For amusement while dragging the chain, I’d mentally listed the organisations which were on strike in Greece at the time: courts, lawyers, police, all civil servants, teachers, phone companies, drivers of all types of public transport including to my cost, taxis. The long list went on to include hairdressers, radio broadcasters, licensed sellers of sewing machine needles etc etc.
But eventually the day did dawn when I thought I’d take the boat out for a gentle poodle around outside the harbour and maybe just a mile or so out to look across the sea and pick out my house. Ah the joys of owning such a lovely boat in the Greek islands!
In theory I’d mastered all there was to know about the ‘Four Square’ method of tying boats down here; but in practice I quickly discovered that it’s the fifth line which is most important. The one with the float on it leading to a stern line which one hooks when the bow is only a couple of metres from the quay. Well of course before even getting out of the harbour, I’d waved apologies to several of the smaller boat owners for reversing too close to their stern lines. The afternoon wind was about a B4 but it looked a lot less inside the harbour. I’ve since learned how to interpret the behaviour of flags, and not to look at the sea. Suffice to say Neraida 2’s first excursion was to exit the harbour sideways on the wind. Then I had to recover some semblance of control or she’d be on the rocks only a hundred or so metres away. Rather slamming her into reverse, I shoved on way too much power and immediately churned a lot of white water. I now know I could’ve broken the bottom rudder fixings which would probably have sunk her. But at the time I was in such a panic I was just glad not to have hit those rocks on her first ‘voyage’.
And so it was with my heart thumping in my chest, my mind whirling about how to handle this big heavy wooden boat in the wind and a foreboding sense of having done the wrong thing, I somehow got her back into the harbour: but a little too quickly only to whack the quay with her steel bow strap. Only the good offices of others saved me from endangering the smaller boats on either side and I was grateful to them.
Once she was safely tied and I stood looking at her from the quay, my mind turned to what I know best. For cases in the High Court we always send experienced, well prepared senior counsel who may have a junior sitting by his or her side learning. I didn’t get that experience. My very first case as a lawyer (albeit a Barrister) was to prosecute the High Court. These were extraordinary circumstances but I did well and at the end was invited to eat chicken and drink port with the judge in his Chambers. Well, the trepidation which that High Court case produced was nothing compared to the dread I had in my heart when trying to handle Neraida 2 in a B4. And so it was, after only a very short outing, I realised the error of my ways. Growing in to such a vessel might take months or even years if I wanted to take on the really bigger seas down towards the Cyclades Islands. So one night only a few months into owning Neraida 2, I formed a second plan.
I only took Neraida out when Kyriakos could come with me. We did sail on the jib past our house and I did learn how to handle her harbour approach speed and that critical fifth line. But all the while, there was a video and lots of pictures on the internet offering a sparkling Neraida 2 for the bargain price of forty two thousand euro.