Sailing across the med in an open boat.
Arrived at Valletta Harbour in Malta.
We had arrived in Malta on the 18th July 1973 having sailed the little boat for well over 400 miles. 9 days earlier the trip had nearly ended in disaster before it had even started.
We were preparing the boat for our sea trip in Naples and it was secured between our ship HMS Glamorgan and another Royal Fleet Auxillary vessel. As is customary in the Med, the ships were `stern to`, that is moored up with there back ends tied up to the quay and they would be anchored at the head. Between these giants, our little boat lay with her bow line leading somewhere ahead in the deep and narrow chasm between the ships and her stern to the quay. I let go the bow line in order to get aboard the boat unaware of a ships wash being funnelled down and amplified down this chasm. As the waves hit the boat it pushed her towards the quay smashing the rudder badly! But hey! We were the Royal Navy and we`d soon fix that and we did. Within an hour or two the shipwrights aboard had hammered, welded, sawn whatever was broken and we were away.
Being an open boat, pointed at both ends and only 27 feet in length, it offered little in the way of luxury accommodation! Our `yacht` had to keep 6 of us protected from the elements and we would all have to sleep aboard at sea and do all the other activities humans do on a daily basis. The whaler did not have any beds/bunks but two sheets of plywood across the middle and each side of the centre board enabled 4 of us to laydown in a somewhat cramped style with your head and toes making direct contact with each side of the narrow hull but at least facilitated the possibility of a sleep. The other two crew members would be on watch; one steering and the other……on watch!
We passed the Isle of Capris on the South side of the bay of Naples and was informed by Ken, our skipper (Lt Commander Kenneth Gristy) and my divisional officer, that it was now the home of Gracie Fields,
Dame Gracie Fields, to give her her full title, was an English-born, later Italian-based actress, singer and comedienne and star of both cinema and music hall. She was born over a fish and chip shop in Rochdale. From such humble beginnings she carved a very successful show biz career for herself and as we sailed past her island home I dropped my knife overboard and cursed. The weather was very good but we could have used a little more wind as we pushed on South. I cant remember much of the two days and nights sailing in that open boat except that the sea seemed an incredibly big place, especially being away from our mother ship. We saw no other vessels at all during that time and the weather remained calm throughout but we still got wet albeit from the dew in the morning. But our sleeping arrangements were tolerable as well as the cooking. We sailed most of the time although had to motor sail to keep to our schedule. On our first day at sea I recall our radio operator calling up our ship, “Golf Kilo Bravo Hotel, Golf Kilo Bravo Hotel this is seaboat, this is seaboat over……” The crackle and hiss of a lack of reply was to become ever familiar on that trip as unbeknowing to us we had brought along the wrong frequencies and so could not radio back our whereabouts! We stopped at some point to take a swim. I`ll never forget that feeling of being suspended in mid ocean and looking down into that very dark blue and fathomable deep yonder. We eventually awoke to another bright , hot flat sea with the mighty Stromboli volcanic island belching skywards; a very impressive sight only trumped by the two dolphins that escorted us in our bow wave towards our first port of call, Panarea. The little devils almost brushed my bare feet as they surfaced and arched their backs as I sat with legs dangling each side of our bow.
Panerea today has quietly become the epicenter of the chicest summer scene in the Mediterranean. Gaining admission, however, takes a bit more finesse than simply writing a seven-figure check: If you wish to possess one of the few, highly coveted homes there, you need to know someone who knows someone. And while a famous last name and a loaded bank account may be a given, if you’re not charming, forget it. “It’s all word of mouth,” Borghese says, “so the wrong people are simply not allowed.”
However back in 1973 we were allowed and more than that were made very welcome. After a shower, We spent the night in a very modest hotel/guest house and spent the evening sitting outside under the stars drinking beer and watching the `chitchats` running all over the white washed walls.
The following day we set off and headed South East towards the straights of Messina; that’s between the toe of Italy and the football of Scicily. The Strait of Messina connects the Tyrrhenian Sea with the Ionian Sea, within the central Mediterranean. At its narrowest point, it measures just 2 miles in width, though near the town of Messina the width is some 5 miles.
The strait is characterized by strong tidal currents, that established a unique marine ecosystem. A natural whirlpool in the Northern portion of the strait has been linked to the Greek legend of Scylla and Charybdis. In some circumstances, the mirage of Fata Morgana can be observed when looking at Sicily from Calabria. We did not see any Gods or Mirages but we did sail through the whirlpool; not that we could see it as a whirlpool at the time but sailing with two large foresails held out on poles that resembled an upturned kite, we smashed through it almost unaware of its very existence.
LtCommander Gristy decided to promote himself to Commander for our unannounced visit to Messina Naval base. I remember meeting an NCO in the Italian Navy (MARINA Militare) who interested in our sailing exploits made us aware of his `hard times` aboard the Italian Navy`s square rigged tall ship, the Amerigo Vespucci. She was named after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Its home port is La Spezia, Italy, and it is in use as a sail training ship. His macho assertions were his response and recognition to our understated voyage. We negotiated some shore side berths in the brand new naval quarters at the base – It seemed being a Commander held more sway that a Lt Commander! unfinished……………..
We sailed on later the next day and on into the night. As we bore South, some way off coast we could see the redish glow of Mount Etna; this was not the only light of course but it looked menacing none the less illuminating the smoke and steam belching from the bowls of the earth. I also remember the single sharp dotted line of the shoreline several miles from us but everywhere else a blackness that still invades my consciousness; that was the blackest night I`ll ever recall as we surfed along in a fresh breeze. While I lay across the boat attempting to have a sleep, I had the handle of the centre board between my legs. Suddenly, and with countless fathoms under us, it rose up sharply, and I lay down looking up at a metal erection pointing at the heavens waving at the stars! It was not the heavens that interested me however but what on earth would account for this force being asserted beneath our little boat? The look of astonishment on the helmsman’s face mirrored my own and only later, after succumbing to black sea monsters in our imagination did we find the probability of what had caused this mysterious phenomena, we had simply run over fisherman’s nets, because afterwards, we encountered lines of floats dancing in the waves ahead of us that I picked out with the search light.
The next day, we motored through another flat calm towards Malta. We arrived a day early, our ship far away still firing shells at Sardinia! We made landfall and headed along the coast to Gozo.
When we arrived we were greeted by the chef of police who telephoned his boss in Valetta. The response was not good news. As our ship had yet to arrive, we were technically illegal immigrants and were not permitted to land! Now this cop was a decent chap and said he felt bad about the situation and so in his `custody` would take us to a bar for a conciliatory drink. We staggered from that bar many hours later and I remember the chief swimming in the harbor with his clothes/uniform on! When we started to pull on the mooring lines to our boat to take our slumber, he insisted that we stay in his flat and gave us the key on the understanding we would be off and away first thing after sun up!