It all began when Chris Stewart, 29 and out of work, bumps into a friend. “My great-aunt Jane has been on at me for weeks to find her a skipper [for her yacht], and I thought of you straightaway.” Which was a little odd because Stewart had never been on a boat before, never mind knowing how to sail. But he needed the job so he decided to keep minor details like that to himself.

A book, Teach Yourself Sailing, teaches him the jargon and how to tell one boat from another. He hopes this would be enough to impress grand-aunt Jane at their first meeting. (It is.) He is to pick up the boat, a Cornish Crabber, from a marina near Athens where it was being fixed by a Captain Bob Weare. He is to sail it to the island of Spetses, where Jane and her husband Bob would spend the summer. A dream job—provided Stewart could actually sail a boat.

He enlists the help of Keith, a “rather malodorous person with a black beard [and] a chubby boyish face” who has a crush on Stewart’s girlfriend, Ana, and who owns a boat, a “twenty-one-foot craft banged together out of plywood and tin”. All does not go well. There is thick fog and the boat capsizes, pitching them into the freezing sea. Fortunately, Keith knows how to right the boat by standing on it, and they survive.

Classes with a professional sailor, Tom Cunliffe, give Stewart enough knowledge to go to Athens with some confidence. He finds the Crabber in a terrible state—mouldy and without an engine. Stewart rescues it from Captain Bob and hands it over to two Greeks, both called Nikos. When Stewart worries that the keys are still with Captain Bob, one of the Nikos points out: “Keys are for engine. You got no engine.” Problem solved. New engine, new keys.

By the time Stewart has finished his stint with Jane, he is hooked on sailing. When Cunliffe asks if he would join his crew to sail to Newfoundland, Stewart jumps at it. They set out from Brighton on a rainy day in April, via Norway and Greenland. It is the first time that Stewart was going to be on a boat for weeks on end. He describes living on a boat: sharing a small space with other people (including Cunliffe’s wife and four-year-old daughter) in a small space, keeping watches at night while trying not to fall asleep, the cold, and the comforting tones of the shipping forecast. (And a very funny bit about trying to pee from the side of the ship in the freezing cold.)

They stop in a little town called Norheimsund, in Norway. The already stunning landscape of the fjords is heightened with white apple blossoms “as if bright patches of snow had lingered in the warm green valleys”. Norway is expensive so they live on fish they catch. A group of Norwegian men who come over for a night of drinking are horrified by this, and bring them enough smoked leg of lamb to last for the rest of the journey (which Stewart suspects wasn’t obtained entirely legally).

I love Stewart’s writing: he’s funny and lyrical and his vivid descriptions makes you feel you are there. And you can tell why people do get hooked on sailing: “as the land drops away astern, all the woes and worries that afflicted you on dry land—all the things you ought to have done but have left undone, all the drab detritus and clutter of your daily existence—slough away like the old dry skin of a snake”.

Chris Stewart is best known for the books he has written about living in Alpujarras in Andalucia, Spain,[1] and for briefly being a drummer in Genesis. I am so glad they kicked him out—it would have been a real loss to the book world if he was still drumming!


[1] See my reviews of his books: A Parrot in the Pepper Tree on this blog and Driving Over Lemons for Women on the Road (scroll down to the bottom of the page: it was the first one I wrote for the website!).