This article appears in Chicago’s ‘Irish American News’ for November, 2016.
If there even was such an outlandish idea as having a ‘gap year’ back in the 70s, then I had never heard of it. It just wasn’t something that you did back then.
All I knew was that I had just finished reading James Michener’s huge novel The Drifters and – with the last of my exams out of the way — I was keen to wave goodbye to home and follow what was left of the hippy trail throughout Europe.
For an 18-year-old with a head full of romantic notions Mr. Michener had painted a hell of an enticing word-picture of free love, music, sunshine and adventure; and even though I was a decade behind his merry band of multicultural travelers, this was something I just had to do.
Try explaining to anyone under thirty what it was like for a teenager to get around Europe in those days and they’ll look at you as if you fell off the back of the turnip boat. Relax; I’m not going to drone on about 24 of us living in a shoe box in the middle of the road. However, I’m reasonably certain that today’s average kid would probably have a massive brain embolism if you suggested to him that he find his way through northern Spain without Google Maps or an iPhone to hold his hand every step of the way.
Travelling alone, my Bible – my absolutely essential, couldn’t-do-without-it, item – was a book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe. And with that by my side I had as wonderful and magical a year as any young man could wish for.
First experiences of Amsterdam, of Paris, of Marseilles. Seeing them again years later, with the quiet caution of an adult, would never compete with the colour-drenched adrenaline rush of that first time.
A trucker giving me a lift over the Pyrenees and watching the sun rise over them.
Of course, like many a numbskull before and since, I went to the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona and ran with the bulls.
And I can always say that I’ve seen wonderful Barcelona both before and after the Olympics.
After a couple of months, even living on inexpensive fruit, sunshine, fresh air and beer – as we all seemed to be able to do back then – my supply of money was dwindling. And by the time I reached Puerto Buenús in Spain I was just about running on empty.
(My money was kept, along with passport and traveller’s cheques, in an eye-wateringly bright electric-blue money belt worn around the waist, where of course no robbers would ever think of looking. Mind you, it did have the advantage that when they inevitably did look, they would have been struck blind on the spot.)
Several years ago I made the mistake of going back there. Yes, well…Lewis Carroll once said ‘I can’t go back to yesterday, because I wasn’t the same person then.’ And that misjudged trip taught me the truth of that. You really can’t go back.
I’m trying to be kind here, so let me choose my words carefully and say that Puerto Banús, which holds so many happy memories for me, is now just pretty much another Marbella tourist trap.
But back then…ah, to me it was not only paradise; it was where I was able to revitalize my cunningly concealed money belt.
In the mid-late 70s, Puerto Banús wasn’t much more than a couple of streets. However, even then – and as it had been designed to do – it was already attracting the big super yachts of the seriously wealthy. Of course, nothing like the 900 or so it serves as a marina for today; but for this green young fella they were quite something to behold, and my initial sight of them was one that I’ll never forget.
Out in the undeveloped scrub at the back was a cinema that was little more than a shack that showed films in English — and even back then I needed my movie fix. I recall seeing John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter with Orson Welles there. Well, I didn’t actually see it with Orson Welles but…you know what I mean. And you could sleep out on the beach, which was a blessing.
There was a little bar called ‘Tom & Jerry’s’ and, more importantly for my purposes, there was another one called ‘The Shark Club Bar’, which was open to the street and where people could put up notices. Also, and it seems incredible to me now, I was able to leave my rucksack unmolested against a wall there throughout the day.
In a move that should in theory have set me on course to be a politician, I put up a notice which blatantly lied that I was an energetic and experienced young bloke, fresh from working on Scottish fishing vessels and well used to rolling waves. Lies, all lies; but with those credentials I was immediately snapped up by a middle-aged German couple who had their yacht on the Mediterranean for the summer. He had recently had a heart attack and she wanted someone along with them.
Needless to say, being not even a particularly strong swimmer at that time, let alone an ‘old salt’, that majestically flat blue water managed to make me seasick. They were a kind couple, though, and I soon got used to – and really loved – life on board a yacht; and when they moved on I had no trouble picking up similar work.
Over the next few months I sailed back and forth to North Africa and Gibralter, whose borders were closed at that point, making going by yacht the ideal way to cross in from Spain.
I don’t suppose I’ve thought of those times in years. But this week some internet surfing washed me up at ‘Mayra’s Blog’ – and I was enchanted. Apparently, Mayra completed some training with a group called Bow Waves last year. Now she has been working on a 72ft sailing boat in the Caribbean for the past few months and dreaming of a career in the super yacht industry.
As it turned out, Bow Waves Sailing and Powerboat School are no less than neighbours of mine, with their offices in Galway. They assist with those wishing for a career at sea and have a comprehensive list of various courses to help anyone who is even simply looking for a fascinating hobby.
And reading through their site has brought back a multitude of wonderful memories for me, for which I thank them.
For a while this week the grumpy grouch of today was replaced with that smiling young man of forty years ago, shirtless and tanned on the deck of a yacht, on the blue of the Mediterranean Sea.
You can check out this sailing school at www.bowwaves.com