From Spain to Malta on a beat

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The boat is ready. We all meet and greet at the pontoon at Almerimar marina, where Peter and Hilary are making the final preparations before we set sail. After a quick tour of the boat, which is set to be our home for the next week or so, we all get to take one final fresh water shower on land and then we’re off.

I am excited, a little bit nervous, and not sure what to expect. Above all, I am not sure if I have the confidence and the knowledge to be able to withstand six days out at sea. It will be my first long trip. The thought of having to cover over 850 miles non-stop is daunting, to say the least, but the familiar deep blue tinge of the Mediterranean Sea is reassuring.

The weather is kind to me. Whilst the more experienced members of the crew are praying for strong winds from day one, and ideally a westerly which will push our boat nicely on a run and get that spinnaker out, I am secretly praying to the Gods of the wind to be gentle to us, at least for the first day, until I get accustomed to life at sea, and adjust to living on board. My prayers are heard, much to the disappointment of crew and skipper, and as we slowly make our way out of Almerimar marina into the open sea, I get to have a go on the helm.

‘Head East – 090!’ It’s easy, just hold that wheel steadily and adjust a little bit every now and then to keep her hovering around the 90 degree mark. But not too much! Otherwise Nisi goes out of control and skipper gets upset!
Eventually, we get into a routine of watches. We’re eight on the boat, so we take turns – four hour shifts during the day, and three-hour shifts at night. Again, I do not know what to expect at night. I am hoping it will not be like when I was doing my day skipper course, and was given what seemed then an impossible task to taking the boat safely into Portsmouth Harbour. That night was a hairy experience. There is nothing worse than not knowing what you have to do and being asked and expected to do it. Once again, my prayers are heard! We are extremely lucky, I am told, because we’ve got a full moon which will light our night skies all through the journey. In fact our sailing at night is made much more comfortable, and we soon learn to use the stars to guide our way when helming the boat.

As we slowly progress, one watch after the other, we get into a routine. It takes a while for me to adjust, as I find my little corners and hiding places on the boat where I can place my gear, so that I can find it when it’s time to go back on deck. I get a little obsessed about my hiding place for the life jacket, and in one instance, at five o-clock in the morning, when I’m feeling dizzy, nauseous, sweaty and grumpy, May loses her temper with me when I point out to her not to touch my life jacket.

As the days and nights go by, we learn to live in confined spaces, we learn to share and work together, and above all, we become more tolerant towards one another. Because let’s face it, here we are, on a boat in the middle of the Med, trying to get from point A to B when some of us have actually not known one another before. But we are fast learners, and soon enough we learn to capitalise on our strengths. On our watch we have Terry, ever so reliable, whose presence on a watch is reassuring, and whose incredible long sighted eyesight which enables him to spot vessels and the faintest of silhouettes at night earn him the nick name of ‘eagle eyes’. We have Jenny, our watch leader, whose bubbly personality, easy-going approach on deck and excellent coaching skill and patience give me the confidence I require in the first few days. Her incredible repertoire of songs, musicals, actors and film stars is nothing short of impressive, and we are all kept entertained by her and may who sing along to all manner of tunes and songs, until skipper loses it one night and tells us off at our rapturous attempt at singing Bohemian Rhapsody at three o’clock in the morning!

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The Car Accident

After day two on the ‘Big Brother’ boat, I now feel more confident on the helm. The winds have now finally picked up, and we have a steady twenty knots of apparent wind and are sailing close hauled bumping away, and giving the other watch resting below a hard time. We all take turns at helming, and we all do very well, although I suspect that Jenny is being very forgiving with us. As I take over the helm from Terry, I wonder whether I can do as good a job as he has. In fact, it was not to be. The wind suddenly picked up from twenty to about twenty-five knots. One of the big waves hits the bow at the wrong angle. I slam the boat, and suddenly feel something give way. The wheel feels different. I suddenly lose control. Panic takes over. Jenny comes to the rescue. May bravely tries to figure out what is wrong. We realise the jib has gone lose, so we figure we must winch in the jib sheet. As we do so, Peter senses something is wrong from down below and quickly comes up. Immediately, he spots the problem. The car has collapsed and has given way. Quickly, he takes control of the situation. He orders me to let go of the jib sheet and undo the stopper knot. In the panic of the situation, I cannot figure out the difference between ‘push’ and ‘pull’, and instead of releasing the jib sheet as ordered, I pull it towards me. Not a good move, and as skipper rightly frowns at me, I feel a sense of guilt taking over, not knowing exactly whether the ‘car accident’ was actually my fault and could have been avoided with a more careful and experienced helm. Everybody reassures me that there was nothing I could have done to avoid the accident. Eventually I confess to Peter that I was helming when the accident happened. I am relieved to know that the car was actually defective and that it should withstand a good 40 knots of wind.
Later on that day, I overcome my fears after the bad experience at the helm, with Peter close by to coach me. The movements of the wheel are minimal and calculated, the response is quick and precise. Less than half an hour later, I find myself in the helpless situation of a nasty backwind which stalls the boat and turns her in the opposite direction. This time, it is my fault, and I apologise profusely for being so insensitive to the movements of the boat. This incident helped me understand the consequences, and from then on, I am more careful and take better control, although I must admit there were other instances when my over steering could have resulted in a little disaster!

The change of watches become engrained in our systems, and by day four on the ‘big brother’ boat, the hand overs run smoothly. Hilary’s cheerful smiles accompanied by a very welcoming cup of tea as I walk up the companion way reminds me of a boxer on his way to the boxing ring, as he is cheered and encouraged to give his best performance out on the ring. Thankfully, our performance on the ring of Nisida is hardly ever so challenging, and we never got battered by very strong seas or heavy seas throughout our trip.

In the hand overs, we would all excitedly report about our sightings, and we had quite a few interesting ones – from dolphins playfully accompanying our boat, to turtles of which we spotted two, one of which was so small that only ’eagle eyes’ could see it, as well as a boatful of clandestines on their adventurous crossing from Algeria to Spain.

We also had some unexpected visitors on the boat. A little sparrow came over for a free ride and a rest, whilst a flying fish decided to terminate her life by crash landing on our boat, much like a Japanese fighter pilot, member of the suicide squad.

Finally, on our second half of the journey, as we went past Tunisia and turned round the corner past the island of Pantelleria and the reassuring light beaming our way off the island of Linosa, we were all heartened by the fact that our arrival on Friday night, a day before our expectations, had suddenly become a possibility. And we all woke up on Friday to the rhythms of Caribbean music, all in good spirits, knowing that it won’t be long before we reach Valletta and the Grand Harbour Marina, encouraged by the promises of an enthusiastic Joe Cross waiting with his beer on the pontoon, and an evening festival in Birgu, at the very same place where we would be moored, almost to welcome Nisida and its crew after her brave voyage across the Med.

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Claude Zammit Trevisan
9th October 2009

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