I found a few scrawled notes in a drawer the other day and it took me back to a very interesting time. Often during life coaching or therapy I hear people mention how they would like to go back to an earlier period in their life but that is something that time seldom permits. And there is a reason for that. With memory being as plastic as it is, and all sorts of emotions playing around within your subconscious, “the past is seldom where you think you left it”. But should you be determined enough, you might just get your wish. All I can say, being one of those people, is be careful what you wish for...
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Let's face it, not many people in the first world who weren't desperate would work for £10 - £20 per eighteen hour day with under-maintained equipment and poor management, but if you are looking to spend your summer doing nothing but sailing and partying in the sunshine – well - you just might.
For those of you that are blissfully unaware, flotilla companies operate groups of sailing yachts (normally between 30 and 40 feet) in areas favoured for predictable sailing weather and holiday climates. Think Greece, Turkey, parts of the Caribbean, and so on. Families or friends take minimal training of around 4 days (even if they have never seen a boat in their life), and then get given one of these yachts to sail in a group of 2 to 12 other yachts, meeting up in the evenings and being looked after by a 'lead' crew on their own company boat. It gives people who are unsure a very gentle way of experiencing sailing, and it gives a form of employment to young (and not so young) men and women. These men and women get a chance to become skippers (captains), first mates, and engineers to look after these holiday makers. With a long summer before me and quite a few years of sailing behind me, how hard could it be?
My interview was over the telephone. I found the advert online and the company didn't fancy paying the train fare from Scotland to the South Coast of England to interview me. So that simplified things for everybody. Initially the job was for a Yacht Trainer (an instructor) and the pay was £300 per month. I thought they had made a typo but no, that was it. And I had to find my own food. I put on my most responsible voice and within 30 minutes I was on a short list, within 24 hours I had the job, and within the week I was touching down in Greece near the island of Lefkas. I was employed.
That was probably the first and last time I saw Eddie without a drink in him. Luckily the guy was as efficient drunk as he was sober and much friendlier too, so after another brief hello I changed into my uniform (with a pattern that resembled a table cloth from the Wizard of Oz), and headed down the pontoon with Adam to watch how things worked out here. Adam didn't seem too happy. Or seem anything at all come to that matter.
"Listen, I'm a bit hungover." He notified me. "Could you just start things off and I will take over later."
"Well, I only arrived last night. I know nothing of what the hell we are meant to be doing or..."
"Don't worry, it's easy. The guests have no idea what they are doing either, so just look professional while you do it and you will be fine."
"Yes Adam, that's the problem... do what?"
"Oh yeh - just give them a safety briefing on the boat and take them out and do a few manoeuvres under motor."
I laughed and was about to tell him to stop with the ‘winding up the new guy’ routine, when he pulled his hat back over his eyes.
At that moment James and Theresa appeared, a couple who were there to have a week of learning how to sail and then a week on flotilla. They were lovely people who immediately gave me a trusting smile as Adam slunk behind me. And then I knew he was not joking at all.
And that was my first hour of my first day in Nidri. I carried out the briefing making it up as I went along and describing flares and life jackets in the order that I randomly found them, hoping that the people I was teaching knew less than I did about the yacht we had just walked onboard. As I took our students out onto the water my confidence grew. Adam fell asleep. And somehow I got through the day and I figured that somebody would give me a grounding on what my job was the next day.
I spent the next day also doing the same training thinking maybe the next day I would get some sort of induction. Finally another member of staff turned up on the third morning looking for me.
"Are you James - the old guy who's just started?"
Mixed emotions went through my mind as I looked at the tanned, pretty, young American girl standing in front of me.
"That'll be me then."
"Great, Cindy (the boss) told me to find you."
"I thought so - it's a little late, but better late than never."
"What? Never mind. I've got these two guests and they are killing me - they keep stressing and they are not learning - they will never be ready for flotilla..."
"Whoa - what? You've got the wrong person..."
"No, she described you – you’re going to help me today."
I didn't want the rest of the description. I was the only guy there who was over 25 it seemed, so I knew with a sinking feeling that she did indeed have the right person. "So... what exactly is the problem?"
The problem was that this girl had just been left with a couple who were not completely at ease with each other or being on a boat, and she was suffering. As the poor kid was not even an experienced sailor let alone instructor her confidence was taking a beating and she was quickly becoming a Wizard of Oz table cloth on the edge...
Dean and Maria were not looking happy when I met them. They scowled at each other, and then looked at the table between us. The girl and I sat opposite them. It felt like a police interview room. I took a gamble and decided I was ready to act as marriage guidance councillor, and a tough one at that. They took a gamble and decided to go out on the boat for another day. I told them that I was an experienced employee of the company and I would assess where things were going wrong. I told them I would not put up with failure, and everything was going to be fine (I had already decided I was on a fine line here and thus had nothing to lose). They put up with these bullying tactics and as we set sail I asked them to demonstrate what they had learnt so far. Obviously they had learnt how to argue and feel terrified of a sailing boat. So I stopped the boat and gave them fifteen minutes on the importance of communication in a relationship, followed by a gentler reproach of how well they were actually doing, followed by a look that conveyed that they would not be setting foot ashore again until they sailed this boat. They could have reported me, but no, they looked at me in silence, and started working together. By the end of our second day together they had commended me to Cindy and had started the ball rolling for my promotion to skipper. As a side note Maria went from strength to strength after that holiday, and recently went to walk up to the Everest base camp...
My favourite part of the job other than the sailing was interacting with the guests. I became driven to make sure that these people firstly received a basic knowledge of how to sail, secondly that they felt they had had a good holiday, and thirdly that it remained memorable with them for long afterwards. That last point turned out to be an excuse for all sorts of stunts.
I was very soon offered promotion. Miss the stage of first mate James and go straight to Skipper. 100% pay increase, massive kudos, control and responsibility, and lots more frowning. OK? One of the conditions of this 'gift' was that I accepted a move to another base, and so I left the Ionian Sea and went to the eastern side of Greece... to Khalkidhiki in the Northern Aegean. I was feeling very proud of myself until approximately 10 minutes after arriving there. Sarah was the same age as me and the manager of this particular base in the middle of nowhere. I couldn't tell whether she disliked me from day one or if it just crept up on her; whether it was because she knew that I knew she couldn't sail, or because the day she lectured me on looking after the smartest boat in the fleet she managed to rip its mainsail in two and smash the forward hatch. Either way we would never be pals. And things got worse.
My first boat had a young engo (engineer) who was a nice lad, and a first mate who quickly pointed out that this job was beneath her. I struggled to think of anybody who this job was not beneath, but she was obviously feeling under-valued. Of course, the more she insisted on her importance the more we ignored her, until finally for various other reasons I knew she had to go. There is no place for low moral on a small boat, and no time to discuss it for too long either. After talking to her I spoke to Sarah and told her I needed a new first mate. Sarah told me to cope with her as there was nothing she could do. One week later I tended my resignation and surprise surprise within another week I had a new first mate. I guess I wasn't completely replaceable yet.
Rollo was young, but intelligent and most of all ready to push the boundaries and bend the rules a little too. As I was not quite the 'text book employee' either it was to prove a combination that resulted in our many warnings, lateness’s, poor behaviour, fighting, bonfires, total disregard for the rules, and everything else that made us perfect flotilla staff.
Nobody had told us it was illegal to light bonfires on the beach there, nor that it was unacceptable to moor the entire fleet at anchor next to a nudist beach. People on our flotilla had something to write home about though. And the fact that all of our guests were so happy when they returned every time, meant that I escaped any disciplinary for taking the whole group way further than the advised cruising grounds.
The main problem however was that the pay was so low, so there was scarcely enough money to buy what you needed... and eat. So we either ate in ports where we had an agreement with the local Taverna that we brought all of our guests to them (and 50 plus people buying food and drink is a big deal to a restaurant owner in a struggling Greek economy), or we relied on our guests good nature to buy us food. That however meant that we could not refuse when every family/group of friends wanted to have us on their boat each night, and ply us with drinks as they were in the holiday mood. If it sounds like we were cheeky looking to be fed don’t be alarmed; the poor condition of our lead boat meant no shower onboard, so once the flotilla had born witness to their host’s naked showers on deck, everybody felt reasonably close.
But it all paid off in the end, as just before I left I was attending a regular dinner (where guests got to meet staff before they go on flotilla) when an older lady wandered over and took me by the arm.
"Are you James, the skipper of our flotilla?"
"I am madam, very pleased to meet you. Are you looking forward to it?
She seemed to ignore the question and carry on.
"And is your first mate... Rollo?"
"That's right, we will be looking after you all next week."
She smiled with a glint in her eye.
"Then I am indeed looking forward to it. I've heard things about you two..."
She wouldn't answer my questions about what she had heard or from whom, but I felt in that moment we had really made some sort of impression.
The Edge... There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over."