Sailing Lessons

In 2005 we met Emma-Kate and James in New York and we never saw them again until the day we rocked up, tiny toddlers in tow, at Marina del Sole in Cagliari.  They seemed happy enough for us to sail with them across the Tyrrhenian Sea, through the Messina Strait to Greece despite the fact I had never really sailed and my husband had finished his sailing instruction a mere nineteen hours previously.  Introductions and reintroductions were made and we walked into town for lunch.  Emma-Kate suggested that I might want to listen in on discussions my husband Manny was having up ahead with James.

‘I think he might be committing you to a lot of sailing.  Do you get seasick?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said.

‘Most people do.’

I did not heed Emma-Kate’s warning, it was too subtle, and we were all distracted by an incident with a drenching fountain.

Twenty four hours later with no hope of terra firma for another day and night, I was sick to my stomach with two terrified children who kept falling down the stairs into the nav desk, which I suppose was fine because at least my poor non-swimming angels were not falling into the sea.  I was nervous as if they were newborns.

‘When can we go for a little walk somewhere?’ asked my three-year old plaintively, and I thought: this is what my mum meant when she told me that any responsible mother would leave the children behind on dry land.

There was a watch system which meant the safety of the boat rested on my tender pink shoulders for three entire hours, three hours of slick black water and diamond studded night skies, of heart-stopping fear that we would all be dashed on my watch.  I heard an unusual sound and convinced myself in a fit of paranoia that the entire mainsail had shifted from where it should be and the boat was ruined.  Did these people know how clueless I was about boats (sailing vessel, yacht, whatever)?  I didn’t know what a jib or a jibe was (I still don’t but it occurs to me now that they might be related.)  What was that thing James said about 60 degrees?  Where did he say the fire extinguishers were?  And after he showed me the log book and explained about pressurised tanks and reading amps and volts and GPS positions, did he tell me how to hail a 900 foot container ship showing an imminent collision on the AIS system?  I had a feeling that he might have done so but if he had then I couldn’t remember.  And in the midst of the self doubt and mild hysteria I realised three things. 1) I hadn’t felt ill for several hours, 2) The stars were the best I had ever seen, and 3) I was hungry.

When people see land after a long passage they really do shout ‘Land ho!’, albeit with an ironic inflection.  The pizza I ate that night will probably never be beaten.

The next day Ustica was charming me until Paloma and I made a long swim to look at one of the famous grottos and Paloma was stung by something nasty and forced to swim most of the way home with a painful welt on her arm.  Luckily Paloma is both brave and pragmatic and made it back to Ondine.  James stepped up ready to pee on demand but Emma-Kate was quickly there with vinegar and a little medical book and we were all saved from that particular indignity.


Onward then to Stromboli and my first active volcano.  The larger eruptions of recent years have resulted in the deaths of several people and the destruction of a number of houses by flying volcanic bombs.  What could possibly go wrong?  James organised a six hour hike up the smouldering mountain, I opted to stay on board with red wine and mozzarella sandwiches.


If I could only buy food in one place for the rest of my life I think I would buy food in our next landfall, Lipari, as everything we bought on this small, smart island was delicious, from the first figs to the last tiny baci (chocolate coated cookie kisses).  I had my doubts about the bistecca but once the steaks had been doused in wine and barbecued under sail by our captain they too won me over.  But best dish of our time on Ondine, as voted by all my family, was undoubtedly the pressure cooker chilli with St. Lucian hot sauce. One morning Paloma made muffins.  She is ten years old and she made great muffins from scratch in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.  That blows my mind.


There were fireworks as we passed through the Messina Strait.  In the guidebook, sorry, cruising pilot, Rod Heikell describes these waters as an ‘intense cauldron’ but I could see nothing in the dark and I retreated to the bottom bunk in Ronan’s cabin (Ronan, superstar, the new best friend of both my children) only to get spooked by the sound of rushing water.  I was soon fretting restlessly about the boat sinking while I was on the opposite side to my family.  There was a bang at the door.


I leapt out of bed, struggled with the door knob, panicked when it wouldn’t open.

Perhaps Emma-Kate could read the terror in my eyes.  ‘It’s nothing bad,’ she said.


Her eyes gleamed like a child out after curfew.  ‘Do you want to see the intense cauldron?’

The waters were dramatic and unusual.  I was glad I did not drown.


But to say ‘I did not drown’ is the sum of my experience would be to do a great disservice to Ondine and her fantastic crew.  Yes, I was constantly terrified, but the thing about the Family Green is that they make it so easy to hide all that – to eat well, to see your children blossom and adapt, to be inspired by this crusading family, by the dolphins and the whales and the sound of Ondine weeping in the dark – and to find yourself having the time of your life.

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