Location: On route – Monaco to Saint Jean Cap-Ferrat, France
Today is our first day of “paid” work. We both jump out of bed at 6am, dress in our new uniforms, bolt down a quick breakfast then I set about cleaning the boat while Bill disappears into the engine room.
It’s now 9am and Franco has just stepped onboard.
“Good morning Bill. Good morning Lauraina,” he booms across the deck. “Are you ready for our big adventure today? And is Caroline ready?”
“We certainly are,” chirps Bill, quickly appearing from down below before I have a chance to respond. He adds, “Caroline should be ready. We’ve spent all morning cleaning her.”
Hang on? What’s this ‘we’ business, white man? I ask him with a silent look. He has the good grace to avoid my gaze and continue smiling at Franco.
“Well done Bill. Well done!” Franco says loudly, slapping Bill on the back.
I’m discovering Francois incapable of actually speaking normally. Maybe he’s a bit deaf and compensates for it by setting all conversations at shout level.
After a full-on hour’s whirlwind introduction to all the sailing systems and routines, it’s finally time to leave. Franco takes his place in front of the steering wheel in the cockpit and opens the Perspex cover over the controls. He turns the key and the engine burbles into life, emitting the reassuring put-put-put rhythm of a powerful diesel. I do love that sound.
We all exchange happy grins. It’s pretty exciting and now time to take our pre-assigned places. Bill goes forward in preparation of unhooking the bow line while I head to the back (aft) of the boat ready to cast off the port rope.
Right now Caroline’s multiple cigar-shaped fenders hang vertically off her lifelines, tightly cushioning her between two much larger powerboats, in between a spaghetti network of ropes. My heart beats quickly. It’s going to be tricky easing her out of the tangle. I suddenly notice an army of white-uniformed young men who have silently materialised along the sides of the bigger powerboats beside us, each one holding a spotlessly white fender or boat hook.
Franco turns and peers at me from under a pair of silver bushy eyebrows. “Ready?”
I quickly switch my attention to him and nod.
“Cast off Bill,” he yells. Bill leaps into action, unwinding a long rope from around the winch at the front and dropping it overboard with a flourish, then runs down the side of the boat back towards us. His next job is to cast off the rope on the opposite side to me.
Franco calmly turns to me and nods.
That’s my cue. I start to unwind the rope from the winch I’ve been assigned, but suddenly get shoved aside, the rope being wrenched out of my hands. It’s Bill. He’s helping me. I think.
I stand confused for a second then hear Franco yelling at me to get the starboard line. Same rope. Other side. Surely that was Bill’s rope?
I stumble around Bill and start the same process, a bit more slowly this time. Maybe I had done something wrong? Again, I only get partway through the process before Bob pushes me aside and takes over. I relinquish the rope quickly and sheepishly.
“Sorry,” I mumble. What the heck is going on? Bill throws the final rope on the wharf and we’re free.
The engine burps into gear and we start slowly inching forward, out of the tangle of ropes and past the eerily silent honour guard, our fenders madly bouncing around as they are flipped over ropes and fenders belonging to other boats.
I position myself along the port side to untangle as necessary. Finally we’re clear and our neighbours slip behind us, gently bouncing towards each other as they subsume the gap. Franco nods satisfied, and my embarrassment at my obvious incompetence is overcome by a surge of excitement as we motor slowly away from Monaco’s busy marina and the gleaming white powerboats with their individual crews looking very professional in matching uniforms, busily washing down decks and wiping every available surface.
I wander up to the cockpit and sit behind Franco who is standing at the wheel. Bill sits beside me and casually rests his hand on my knee.
I take a big breath and swallow my pride. I’m here to learn after all.
“Sorry about before,” I say.
He nods and says nothing. I wait a bit.
“Sooo….. how could I do it better next time?” I ask quietly. I’m keen not to suffer the ignominy of a repeat performance, especially if there’s another audience. And if that means confessing my ignorance in front of Franco, despite viewing myself as an experienced crew member, then so be it.
Bill laughs and pats me on the back, “Amazing building on the cliff over there Franco,” he says. “Are those caves in the cliff-face under it?”
Franco throws us both a quizzical look before turning his attention to the shoreline. I’m obviously confused and Bill just as obviously doesn’t want to say anything about it.
“Yes, they are caves. You have good eyesight, Bill. These cliffs were well known smuggler’s haunts during the prohibition,” Franco says, and then passes the remainder of the hour-long trip giving us a potted history of the area.
After about an hour of motoring we pull into a bay called, Anse de La Scaletta at Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, where Franco shows Bill how to drop the anchor.
We then dress the boat in preparation for the season. This involves lining the hard cockpit seats with all of the cushions stored on the bunks in the guest cabins, mounting the skipper’s swivel seat behind the helm and launching the dinghy from where it has been stowed upside down all winter on the foredeck, over the life-lines and into the water below.
Franco shows us his preferred technique for tying it alongside the yacht then looks at us very solemnly.
I engage in eye contact and stand up very straight. He is obviously about to say something momentous.
“Rule number one,” he says. “Someone, at least one person, must be on the boat at all times. It is not safe to leave the boat unprotected. People climb on board and steal or vandalise things. You can either use the walkie talkies to communicate with each other while one of you is ashore, or if the distance is too far, use the boat’s iPhone.”
He then hands us a walkie-talkie each.
I put mine in my back pocket as I watch him and Bill carefully step down the ladder into the dinghy, gun its motor and shoot to shore to retrieve Brenda who has driven 15 minutes down the coastline, in the car with lunch.
I feel miserable as I watch them bounce away, as if I am missing out on something fun, but then I look around me at the stunning scenery, and the cockpit which is now so much more comfortable lined in its blue and white striped cushions. I feel the warm sun on my bare arms and golly gosh, next thing I know I’m waking up to everyone climbing back on board from the dinghy.
It’s called adapting!
Now it’s all systems go, preparing the gourmet lunch Brenda has brought with her. I set the cockpit table with tiny little hard-boiled quail eggs, two different meats, potato salad, the yummiest fresh white bread, salad, tommy tomatoes, roast potatoes and Quiche Lorraine (in my honour) plus wine to celebrate the start of the trip.
“Rule number two,” Francosays intercepting me on one of my many trips up and down the narrow steps from the galley to the cockpit.
“One hand for the boat and one hand for me?” I pre-empt him with a happy smile.
He nods, smiling also. “Always be careful walking up and down the steps. The boat is a dangerous place and we have seen many accidents.”
The table finally set, we sit down in places allocated to us by Franco while he and Brenda tell us about their previous evening at the inauguration of the new King of the Netherlands.
“He made a long speech and looked more sombre than usual,” Brenda says of the new king.
I indicate the wine in front of me and Franco nods so I pick it up and hand it to him to open.
“Why don’t you open it?” he asks.
“Because it’s customary for men to open the wine in Australia,” I answer, smiling at his obvious lack of etiquette knowledge.
His raised eyebrows immediately tell me that answer probably isn’t something “staff” say to their employer. And nor are we in Australia, come to think of it.
But to be fair, he graciously accepts the bottle and opener and begins the familiar ceremony of unwrapping the foil, screwing in the corkscrew and heaving at the cork. French wine still has cork corks.
Unfortunately, it all goes wrong. Hampered by the cockpit table and dare I say it, being the other side of 70, he doesn’t have the strength or leverage to remove the cork so he passes it to Bill.
Bill also has trouble and by now I’m glad I didn’t attempt it. He stands up, puts the bottle between his knees, goes red in the face and hauls on the cork, which finally, thank bloody goodness, pops out to everyone’s relief.
We eat. We drink. We chat. The sun continues to shine. And all is well.
After everyone claims they’ve had more than enough I stand and start to collect the plates, efficiently scraping the left-overs and egg shells onto the top plate so I can save ‘one hand for the boat’, going down the stairs.
“Oh my goodness,” Brenda exclaims.
“We NEVER scrape the plates at the table,” she admonishes me in a stern voice, shaking her head.
I smiled. Whew. Was that all? I take a deep breath to explain the, ‘one hand for the boat and one hand for me,’ technique, when she cuts in.
- No problem. No response required then. I looked at the plate in front of me already holding a neat little graveyard of eggshells. So, um…what to do now?
“OK,” I say smiling. “Thank you for telling me.”
“I would have thought you’d know that,” she says, then adds in a more friendly tone, “That’s OK. You’ve done it now.”
I pick up the plates and walk downstairs feeling confused for the second time that day. How on earth am I going to be able to hold onto the banister going up and down the steps if I also have to carry plates separately up and down my arm as if I was in a normal cafe? And speaking of normal cafe etiquette, was it set down on the right and take away from the left, or vice versa? I have no idea, but looks like I’m going to have to find out between now and the next meal.
After dumping the plates in the sink, I grab the strawberries I’d prepared earlier, and take them up to the table together with four bowls, then sit and wait for everyone to return.
They are standing on the aft deck looking through binoculars at an elaborate mansion set within a luscious garden of Eden, complete with Olympic size statues and windows set within the rock cliff wall underneath it.
I can hear Franco telling Bill it is owned by a wealthy sheik who only visits once or twice a year. I look with more interest at the main castle on the hill, which Franco says is the sheik’s home; the smaller mansion to the left perched on the edge of the cliff-top overlooking the sea, which is for his body-guards; and the servant’s quarters to the right, which are actually built into the cliff below.
“Those windows are so low they would be lashed by waves in a strong Easterly,” says Bill.
“They will never be broken,” answers Franco. “They are bullet-proof.”
I catch a hint of a strawberry aroma while I’m listening and absent-mindedly pop one into my mouth. No I wasn’t raised in a dirt hut in Africa during a famine—I just happen to have a cavalier attitude to food. As the sweet juicy flavour bursts in my mouth, I immediately realize my error, clamp my teeth close and try to crush my tongue up against the roof of my mouth so I can surreptitiously swallow the evidence as everyone wanders slowly back to the table.
It is a relief to get stuck into the dishes. Not half as complicated. At least, I thought so until Franco follows me into the galley.
“These three bottles here contain balsamic vinegar, olive oil and vinegar,” he says. “They must be put onto the table every meal.”
I nod and listen carefully, thinking I should be taking notes, except that I’m up to my elbows in soap suds.
“This fourth little bottle is reserved for the ‘special’ balsamic vinegar in the little bottle.” He pauses. I hold my breath.
“This little bottle cost over $1,000 so you only need to use a tiny little bit at a time.”
Are you serious? “OK,” I nod.
I’m just finishing up the dishes when he re-emerges, bare-chested in a pair of bathers. It’s only about 20 degrees outside. Far too cold for swimming I would have thought. Not so, Franco.
“You’ll catch a cold,” I warn him with a smile, shaking my head. He ignores me and continues going upstairs to the deck, where I hear him yell, “Yabba Dabba Dooooo,” as he jumps in.
I notice his hot shower afterwards lasts longer than the swim.
Eventually they leave the boat and Bill returns shortly afterwards from dropping them off on shore. I put the kettle on as we prepare to enjoy our first night at anchor, on a luxury yacht, all by ourselves, under the setting sun of the Med.
Just two minutes after settling down with a much welcome cup of tea, I feel a twinge in my lower regions. I have not felt a twinge there for several months. In fact I thought the last time I felt a twinge there was the last time I was ever going to feel a twinge there, being of that certain age where these things tend to slow, then eventually stop, at least according the medical literature I’d read.
Obviously ‘down there’ has not read the same literature.
I disappear into the head to check. Yep. Just as I suspected. The worst is happening.
“Bill?” I ask from downstairs.
“Any chance of taking me to shore?”
“No. You heard Franco’s rule. One person must stay on the boat at all times. No way can we break that rule. And no way will I break it on the first day.”
“I have my period and no supplies.”
I hear a groan, then feel him get up and start untying the dinghy.
I quickly run up, climb into the dinghy, then sit beside him as we belt to shore. He ties up at the rock wharf in front of a line of low-slung modern shopfronts and I clamber onto land. About then, I realise I was in such a hurry to leave that I left my purse on the boat.
Bill rolls his eyes. Back into the dinghy, while he berates me all the way back to the boat, grab my purse, into the dinghy again and back to the shops.
I feel like a guilty kid when we finally climb back on board. Relieved that we’ve gotten away with it but bad because we’ve broken THE rule.
Life suddenly gets worse. As I swing a leg over the railing we hear a small splash. It is one of the boat’s two walkie-talkies, which has just fallen out of my pocket.