‘Deckhand wanted for Caribbean cruise.‘
There were two phone numbers after this entry, in bold, in the small ads column of the Daily Telegraph. They weren’t English ones.
I don’t read the Telegraph and never have. Except this was a discarded copy, chucked onto the train seat opposite me. At that point, I scanned every job ad in every paper I could set eyes on. I wrote the numbers down.
Travelling back home on the train from Marylebone, I was returning after another strangled, failed interview. I was trying for marketing. Or advertising. Or tobacco trading. Or just about anything I could think of. My day job was working at the DSS (Department of Social Services) in High Wycombe. I would sit in virtual silence, in a room with six others, putting up peoples’ pensions by 8%. In the autumn of 1982, I remember that a married couple’s weekly pension allowance was £54. It wasn’t the most exciting way to spend the day.
That evening I rang the first number from the ad. The ringing sound was long, thin bleeps. A crisp and rather posh, English, male voice answered. I was told to submit a CV to an address in London, and then await the possible call for interview.
That, I assumed as I joined my parents back at the kitchen table for supper, was that. I’d received an answer. Nothing I had ever done qualified me to be whatever being a Caribbean deckhand required. I sent off the the CV as a sort of reflex action. Not much of a covering letter or any attempt to sell myself. I had nothing to sell, apart from very average exam grades and a geography degree. Still, nothing ventured…
A fortnight later, again in the evening, the phone rang. Again, the same posh voice, brisk and to the point. I was instructed to be at an address, just off Park Lane, at 9.30am one day the following week. Negotiating a day off from my civil servant duties, I went. I was twenty one. London hummed with exotic excitement. The curl of cigarette smoke coming out of smart cafes as I walked nervously to the appointment reeked of metropolitan sophistication.
Exiting the elevator in an ill-fitting suit, my heart sank faster than the lift . About twenty people were sitting around on the comfortable furniture of a large anti-chamber. The age-range appeared to go up to grizzled, sea-faring folk in their forties. There were accents of all kinds. I overheard low murmurs about knots and sails and storms. I sat next to a bloke with enormous forearms. A South African, he’d just sailed a trawler from Copenhagen down to Cape Town. I’d once sailed a toy sailing boat across our school swimming pool. My inadequacy began to make me feel woefully detached.
My turn came eventually. I walked past the assembled bristle of maritime expertise and into a small office. A tousle-haired chap sat with his head in his hands, staring intently at his biro. He looked up. His face was crumpled fatigue.
“You don’t look all that happy,” I said, to open the conversation.
“Yes. I’ve got a terrible hangover,” he replied with a grunt. Something about him spoke of the military. The voice matched the phone calls. He flicked me a sharp glance. “Have you ever been sailing?”
“Can you spot one end of a boat from another?”
“As long as it’s sideways on,” I replied, truthfully. There was a pause. He went on, in a fractionally more kindly voice.
“Why do you want this job?”
“Because I’m working at the DSS in High Wycombe and it’s very boring.”
“Oh…Right.” There was a longer pause. He scrabbled for some paper behind him and showed me a picture of a gleaming, fantastical vision of a yacht. A motor yacht. A very big motor yacht. Brand spanking new and – helpfully – sideways on.
“There it is,” he concluded. “Pretty, isn’t she?” I nodded dumbly.
“Well,” continued the military man with a hangover. “Thank you for coming.”
“Thank you for seeing me,” I mumbled and backed out in what I thought was a pantomime of bravura tinged with suitable defeat. Game over.
Ripple dissolve to a fortnight on. Again, at the supper table, at home, with my mum and dad. (I was paying them rent of six bottles of wine a week from Wycombe Wine Stores.) It was a Wednesday evening. The phone rang.
“High Wycombe 30984,” I said.
“Hello. This is Richard Wolf, captain of the boat. You’ve got the job. We’re in Southampton. We leave on Friday evening. Can you be with us on Friday morning, by 10am?”
“Er. Yes,” I ventured and – after a scurry of resigning from Her Majesty’s Social Services inside one working day – I was.
My home, for the next six months, was the boat pictured above. It’s differently named today than when I crewed it with eleven other people. It was the most extraordinary adventure – from Southampton, to Holland, Dover, Guernsey, Spain, the Caribbean and back to Antibes. And it all started with a one line ad from a column marked ‘Classified’.