Sea story: Four months before the mast (1963)

1963-Storm

“I got it!” Charley Attard shouted in my ear. I could hardly hear him over the storm. “You get some sleep.”

The helm stiffened as he gripped the wheel, and I let go. As I stepped back in the dark cabin, Charley swung into my place. Grabbing a hand rail, I let myself down as the deck pitched. Another green wave smashed into the windows, and there was silence until the water ran off the coach roof and over the side. Then the howling wind took over.

There was no point in trying to make my way to our berthing space in the forecastle. Our bunks were made of canvas tied to pipes and hung in open brackets against the outer bulkheads. Everything in the forecastle, including our bunks, was tossing around wildly. One could get seriously hurt just opening the door. Between the forecastle and the bridge was the galley and the saloon. Everything that my brother David could put away was stowed, and the deck was slick with rain and sea water that had blown in from the bridge. David was huddled on the port side of the bridge. He wasn’t sleeping, but he wasn’t whining either. As the cook, there was nothing he could do until the storm blew over. I gripped a brass bar on a bench on the starboard side and closed my eyes. I was going to rest physically, whether I slept or not, because after the skipper took his turn, I would be at the wheel again.

This was our second day out of Syracuse, beating our way eastward across the Ionian Sea. We should have been abreast the light at Leuca on the heel of Italy by now, but it would take two more days before we were there, and we never saw the light. The nor’easter blew so hard that we were driven south of our course, more in line with Levkas than Corfu, our destination.

Corfu

Corfu

On the fourth day, the winds abated. By afternoon, the sun was beating on the Mediterranean like a tourist postcard. We turned northeast and soon sighted land.

Corfu

Corfu

Off the port bow lay Corfu, a granite god in a deep blue bath. David set about picking up the disaster in the galley, while Charley and I cleaned up the rest of the boat, including the forecastle.

Such was my introduction to a reality that the Mediterranean shares with the Great Lakes. Both are shallow, so when the wind blows long and hard, the effect is more dramatic than it is over the deeper Atlantic nearby.

This was my first paid job at sea, and it would not be my last. 1963-RDAIn May of 1963, my mother noticed an ad in the Rome Daily American for a cook and a deck hand for the summer only.

“Perfect,” she said. “You want to be a sailor, and you need a summer job!” That two untested boys not yet 16 and 14 had no business even applying for the job did not occur to her. She called the number and made us an appointment.

The Mitchells had a flat in the upscale Parioli section of Rome. A slender, dark-haired English gentleman, he looked something like a thin Paul Theroux, and I imagine he was every bit as well travelled. She was from Texas, with high cheekbones and dark, smiling eyes. She wore her curly dark hair down in that casual style that would become popular decades later. They had been married about three years.

The occupation noted in his sojourner’s permit was benestante, meaning “well-off” in English. Trust the Italians to have an official word for “does not need to work.”

He was surprised when he saw us, but let us in. As I might have expected, Mom had them convinced to hire us in less than an hour.

To take the job, we had to cut the last week of school and come back a week late in the fall. For me, that meant taking a B in one course by missing the exam. David was clear of exams. In late May we flew to Malta, G.C.

1963-07-04 CarlinaOur new home was the Sailing Yacht Carlina, a 95-foot, ketch-rigged motor sailer, registered in Malta and flying the red Ensign of the Royal Merchant Naval Reserve. Malta was still part of the British Empire. Launched in 1939, Carlina consisted of teak and mahogany from stem to stern. Normally, she would carry charter customers in the summer, but this year, the Mitchells did not have anyone coming, so they decided to give themselves the honeymoon they never had, by sailing around the islands for a couple of months. Just the two of them (we crew did not count, of course).

1963-08-03We went nowhere during June and part of July. Instead, we scraped, sanded, and varnished or painted every inch of the boat, including the 105-foot mainmast, and, in dry dock, the bottom. Charley Attard was the mate/leading seaman/boatswain/everything-but-the-cook, and our boss. He was a five-foot-two sunburnt Maltese who had retired after 27 years as a Leading Seaman (having been occasionally a Chief) in the Royal Navy. Every adjective he uttered was accompanied by “fohking” for emphasis, and you could hear the good humour and caring behind it, no matter how gruff he pretended to be.

“An’ you wanna be a fohking lootenan c’mandeer in the fohking US Navy? Pshaw! By the same iron bar, dey make a fohking battleship!”

I had to bite my tongue not to burst out laughing every time he said that to me.

Sliema

Sliema

By early August, we had Carlina painted, varnished, overhauled inside and out, and ready for cruising. I had callouses on my hands, so thick that I could hold a pot of boiling water in my palm.

Valetta

Valetta

We moved her from the dockyard at Sliema to Valetta harbour, then loaded stores. It was a sunny day for the run to Sicily, with a brisk easterly breeze speeding us along on a broad reach heading north.

The first day out, the freezer broke down. We had three dozen chickens in there, so David cooked them all as fast as we could eat them. By the time we reached Syracuse, the meat was green and slimy even after cooking. It would be a year and a half before I could even be in the same room where chicken was being served, and three years before I could eat it again.

Syracuse was a beautiful town, but we only stopped to refuel before heading to the Ionian islands of Greece. The storm was brewing even as we sailed from Syracuse. Ionian storms usually don’t amount to much more than strong squalls, so the four-day bashing came as a surprise.

1963-Paxos

Paxos

The beautiful weather after the storm passed stayed with us the rest of the voyage. We did not see much of the Mitchells, except when they were on deck, but, then, it was their honeymoon. Two teenagers and an old salt could figure out what they were doing.

She cooked for them, and David cooked for us. He discovered a surprising creativity in the galley, which was good, because there were only so many ways to fix corned beef and eggs. In the islands, he fixed a lot of mutton, potatoes, and greens. We called it David’s moussaka, but he did well with the limited ingredients he found in the markets in each port-of-call.

Our free time we spent walking near the port, or swimming over the side in the clear waters of the coves where the Captain chose to anchor. The routine was easy once we were sailing in good weather, so it felt as much a vacation for me as any I had ever had.

By early September, we were back in Malta, securing Carlina for a long stay. A week later, the Captain paid us off, and Mrs. Mitchell drove us to the airport. I received 600 British pounds (about 900 US dollars), the most I ever made at a summer job until I joined the Navy.

1963-Gaios Paxos

Paxos

With the $800 left over after I paid for my school books, Mom floated a $5000 loan to buy the sauna-massage-steam bath concession in the Cavalieri Hilton Hotel, which was just being built on the Monte Mario overlooking Rome. She sold it after I left home four years later, for $45,000. I never got my money back, but she was my Mom, after all, and I didn’t need the money.

The story would not be complete without the reaction of the first girl I asked to dance at the fall dance, just after I returned.

“My God,” she exclaimed, “what happened to your hands? They’re so rough!”

“Oh, that,” I said, surprised. “I guess I got some callouses working this summer.” Priscilla did not want to slow-dance after that…

© 2020, JT Hine

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