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Home > Editorials > Captains of Ships – Colin Bryson

Captains of Ships – Colin Bryson

“I grew up on the outskirts of Liverpool and apparently had a relatively poor upbringing, although I didn’t know much about it.  My mother and father did seem to be working all the time, but I had a happy secure childhood alongside my twin sister, who I still tease ruthlessly about being a swapped baby.

“Small cracks started to appear at school.  Despite being academically mediocre and finding it difficult to focus and pay attention, I kept wondering why so many people seemed to be satisfied with a humdrum life.  I spent summers messing around with friends on the beaches at the top of the Wirral.  As the tides came in and out, well beyond the horizon, I would gaze across this dramatic vista and believe that there had to be more to life.  A decade or so later I discovered I was dyslexic, which certainly explained a few things.

“My main passions were flying and aircraft, and I got my fix by being an Air Cadet.  I loved the science, the physics, but, despite progressing well in a sponsored private pilot’s licence, my abysmal school exam results put paid to my dream of becoming an RAF pilot.  Gutted, and kicked out into Mrs Thatcher’s non-existent workforce, I was lucky to be invited to join a MOD civilian avionics apprenticeship due to my exemplary service with the Cadets.

“Learning about engineering and aircraft became my life.  I seemed to do well.  I completed my time, did advanced studies and was posted around the country.  But mainly we were working underground in technical laboratories, doing very dull stuff, and my aviation dreams had ended up in a hole.

 

“Most of my colleagues were the old boys of WW2, working out their final years to pension.  They kept telling me ‘get out of here!’, ‘get a life!’.  So I resigned, put £250 in my pocket and set off to explore the world.  Plan A was to cover the UK.  I hitchhiked to Knutsford Services and my next thumb was with a truck driver en route to Brittany; Plan A quickly morphed into a rather more exciting and international Plan B.

“In France, the truck driver got me a job loading and unloading lorries, but it was all too easy.  I needed an adventure.  In retrospect, I was probably looking to see if there was indeed more to life.  I politely quit and made my way south, ending up at the French National Sailing School.  I’d sailed since the age of six.  My best friend’s father was an enthusiastic sailor, who used to stick us in plastic macs and lifejackets and sail us up and down the Mersey with all of its treacherous tides.  At that age, we didn’t know how much danger we might have been in, but to be fair we only got rescued a couple of times.

“With my general engineering and sailing background, the School took me on, then a request came up for an English-speaking instructor.  I’d never actually taught before, but ended up spending the summer on the beach, teaching kids to sail, canoe, climb and holiday.  I had a blast.

“Once summer finished, I did the right thing and went back to work in Liverpool.  It was a big mistake, another universe away from where I had been.  With the ‘there must be something more to life’ mantra ringing, no, shouting in my ears, I left again for an outward bounds position in Spain.  There followed another season as a windsurf instructor on a small Greek island.  I was living the dream.

“During the winters, I’d return to Liverpool and try to settle back into normal life – but it just didn’t happen.  My long-term relationship died because I wasn’t there, so I took the last available job in the world at the time – in Yugoslavia.

“I applied for a flotilla engineer role.  Before the interview, I read the book ‘101 Questions on Diesel Engines’ and promptly got the job.  I knew that avionics stuff might come in handy one day.  As the first 120 guests arrived, the flotilla captain disappeared and was never to be seen again.  So my first job working on any yacht was as a captain in charge of 120 guests on a dozen Jaguar 27s.  At the welcome dinner, one of the guests kindly asked me: ‘How long have you been doing this type of work?’. I answered: ‘Including today?’.

“The following summer I became a Topdeck flotilla leader in Corfu.  Basically, old London double-decker bus trips for mainly antipodean ladies who would arrive every four days, then I’d take them Greek island sailing.  I did quite a few of these trips, it’s all a bit blurry, but I recall living off a diet of multivitamins, alcohol and a hell of a lot of fun.

“At the end of that summer I headed to South Africa with the new love of my life, wonderful South African lady.  We toured southern Africa in a beat-up Beetle until we ran out of funds.  It was an incredible eye opener, especially for a city boy from the north of England.  I still have problems trying to quantify some of the staggering things I have seen and done in my life.  Out of cash, I needed a job.  The sailing academy in Durban took me on as an RYA instructor.

“Two years later in January 1992, at the ripe old age of 29, leaving the ‘love of my life’ behind, I very naively delivered a Sovereign 54 racing yacht across the Southern Ocean from Durban to New Zealand.  The owner apparently insured her for quite a bit more than she was worth.  He was ill-prepared when it turned up a few months later, somewhat battered after its Southern Ocean trip.

“Now totally addicted to a life of adventure and challenge, I single-mindedly charged straight back to Europe for the start of the next spring season.  Fueled by blind enthusiasm, hyperactivity and a total lack of direction, I moved on to my next job – a Mediterranean season working for a Maltese gentleman on a classic motor yacht, one of the Dunkirk little ships.  He told us at the end of a wonderful summer that he had terminal cancer.  It was the last trip.  I wish he’d told us before, but his wife divulged that he wanted to be around young energetic happy people.

“I then picked up a telephone call from one of my ex students in South Africa.  He was about to sail round the world with his wife and three young children but had got cold feet just as they were about to leave.  I refused the job as the captain but talked him into employing me as an unpaid babysitter.  Theoretically, I came along for the ride as an insurance policy, but I unknowingly entered into something very different.

The owner became an accidental reluctant life coach, a mentor, and a surrogate father.  Like a giant metaphorical Ritalin, I calmed down and started to see and feel more clearly.  It might have been the steady balanced diet, but I had never been so happy and relaxed – from Cape Town to the Caribbean, Panama to the Galapagos, Fiji to New Zealand on a 47-foot sailing boat.  It was hilarious, messing up along the way.  On many occasions I would quote US test pilot Chuck Yeager: ‘If you can walk away from it, it’s a good landing’.

“I met my future wife in Whangarei, New Zealand, on the day Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.  To celebrate, we hoisted the old South African flag.  Delene randomly spotted it, wandered over to say hello, and left a note asking if there was anything we needed.  Five weeks later, when the boat was out for servicing, I called her and, well, here we are 27 years later.

“Unfortunately, the family had to call the rest of the trip off and headed quicksmart back to South Africa.  At the same time, we found out Delene’s ex doctor boyfriend had wangled a job in the local hospital where she was the speech therapist.  She wanted out, so I invited her along for the trip home.  We did sail away in the nick of time, with the ex waving from the quayside.  The boat was safely delivered to South Africa and we emigrated back to New Zealand to take a real job with a charter company north of Auckland.  Unfortunately, something wasn’t entirely right and we left just before the company folded.

“Delene ended up making a huge success of herself as a top speech language therapist in New Zealand’s only children’s hospital.  I wasn’t doing so well, struggling to settle down to any normal 9 – 5 job, which included fitting a fire alarm system to one of the local brothels.  Even as a qualified avionics technician, I managed to get turned down to repair lawn mowers.

“In 1997, an opportunity came to do a new build in Auckland, destined for the Asian market.  As I was delivering her up to Hong Kong, the Asian Financial Crisis took hold.  The new plan was to divert to Thailand and keep the boat out of the way until things settled down.  It ended up being a long, long time apart from Delene.  I used most of my salary on phone calls and, even though I was in paradise, it was hell.  I quit.

“When I came back, Delene was working all hours, leaving at 7am and returning well after 7pm – it wasn’t working.  My next attempt at finding stability was another new build in Auckland.  The boat was supposed to be transported by ship to Cyprus but, in light of my experience, it was suggested that I sail her instead.  This time, Delene came with.  At the end of the 11,000-mile delivery, the owner was standing on the quayside with his bags, ready to move onboard.  From then on, he just didn’t leave, he loved it.  We did the Mediterranean followed by the Caribbean.

“When I finally caught up with my learned colleagues back in the Mongoose Bar, Antigua, they were all talking about these new MCA qualifications.  Like any good game of poker, you had a choice, you are either in, or out.  I wanted to keep playing, I knew I had a good hand, so I was in.

“So I resigned and went to study with John Percival at Hoylake Sailing School.  Totally forgetting I was dyslexic and hyperactive, we spent our life savings and house deposit and gambled on me.  Delene stayed in Antigua day working, while I studied.  I did my final Class 4 oral two days before the closing date.

“It was great to study alongside other captains, sharing stories, and melding a lifetime of experiences into one recognised piece of paper.  It was also an enormous relief to get the last exam done, and for Delene to know her gamble might have paid off.

“Armed with my new certificate and a fair amount of debt, we went to France and took on the re-build of a beautiful mahogany J Class copy, a Bruce King.  We affectionately named her the ‘St Tropez trollop’ – extremely good looking, wildly expensive, but no use to man nor beast.  Once finished, we did a short fill-in on a motoryacht, a 94 foot Ferretti.  It was a strange realisation that guests only seemed to have fun when the boat was stopped.  It was all about point B, whereas sailing is about the gap between A and B – I like that gap.

“Whilst onboard and seeking maritime tax advice, we were offered a mortgage.  We found a stunning little converted art gallery close to St Tropez and snapped it up.  Boom, we were homeowners.  Ten days after we got the keys, the boat was randomly sold and we were left unemployed.  We needed to find a job and quick.

“It was now 2007, and we unhappily left France taking a car ferry to Mallorca to work on a 42 metre Jongert.  We arrived at 5am, and with the last of the young people unloading out of the clubs on Palma’s Paseo Maritimo, it all looked fabulously relaxed.  Sometimes we saw our home in France less than five days a year, but it was a real privilege to spend seven seasons sailing in and out of Mallorca and we certainly learnt to love the place.

“During this time, after 17 years together, Delene and I finally got married – mid refit of course.  On budget and on time – refit and wedding.  My biggest fear about getting married was that something might change.  If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.  Six months later I remember having that perfect ‘oh yes!’ moment – everything was just fine.

“Next, we picked up a last-minute commission of a new-build Dykstra in Turkey, a copy of Windrose.  I went straight off the plane to Bodrum and found a 47 metre schooner parked in a brand new shed.  She was being constructed like an Airfix model, all parts built by separate contractors and then put together on site.  At her launch, she was pulled across the beach on greased railway sleepers and slid into the sea – fantastic to watch if you’ve never seen it done.  Rigged, commissioned, surveyed, and up and running, the boat was signed off to the new captain; I was once more on the job hunt.

“Our next interview was to re-commission a broken 42 metre Jongert that had been iced for a couple of years.  Our meeting in the New York Yacht Club seemed more like a family get together than an interview.  The banter started within minutes.  I was handed a folded piece of paper on the way out with my salary offer.  I went back to the hotel, checked the exchange rate, and our next wonderfully warm telephone conversation was all about us playing different sports – him ping-pong and me tennis.  Needless to say, they responded with a reasonable asking salary and Delene and I joined our next quest.

“It was now time to fix the boat.  We stripped the engine room of anything that was broken and, in order to do this, the saloon floor and ceiling had to come out.  The owner looked down into this cavernous hole in total shock.  ‘There is good news,’ I said, ‘I’ve only taken out the broken bits’.  ‘But there’s nothing left?’ he said.  ‘Exactly my point,’ I replied.  Three months later his engine room was back together again, sparkly white, and on its way to another Caribbean season.

“We spent two years plus happily sailing together, but the responsibility of his age bore heavily on my conscience – I resigned.  I really appreciated our time and loved his fascinating conversations about everything that probably matters.

“When I left in 2015, I was invited to join a team of industry professionals in search of the perfect sailing yacht for a gentleman who wanted to travel the world with his family.  The search took us to a 40 metre Huisman in Mallorca.  He asked us all to look around and make a list of what was wrong with the boat.  Five minutes later I was back in the cockpit for a cup of coffee.  Surely, I shouldn’t have been that quick?  I told him that you won’t find out what’s wrong with a boat by just looking at it, instead talk with the stewardesses, they know everything.  I had my list.

“I was invited to lunch with the owner and he admitted he should have looked for a captain well before he started looking for the boat.  I advised him that all Class 4 captains were perfectly well qualified and able to do the job, it comes down to whether you like and trust them.  He asked the quickest way of finding that out.  I suggested he take them to the pub or ask to see their cell phone as it contains all their life’s secrets.  He asked to see mine, I retorted: ‘Yes, but yours first, transparency is a two-way thing’.  A week later, we started our latest adventure.

“Royal Huisman wanted to do a year-long refit in their shipyard in the Netherlands.  The owner only had a small window of time to do this trip due to children’s education and so on, so I suggested we do the refit in the water in Mallorca.  I believe this was the first time the Dutch superyacht builder had worked outside their shipyard on such a large project.  We did the projected work in three months.

“We then travelled the world like I’d never travelled before, three years pretty much nonstop – they flew past.  The boat essentially became a sailing dive boat and we cruised to remote islands chasing anything exciting.  We had two months in the Galapagos with marine experts and scientists onboard.  The boss invited us to join him on most of the experiences.  He pushed for us all to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we all wanted to be there.

“In 2017, a moray eel bit my hand whilst filming bull shark feeding and three fingers were damaged.  Towards the end of 2018, the day after we finished for the year, I was in the operating theatre.  But there was something wrong.  Apparently, I wasn’t fit for surgery and needed a rest.  So, on 1 January 2019 I resigned.  We were gutted, it had been the best job ever.

“Back home in France, I bought a motorcycle and Delene and I toured Europe.  It was so different to explore everything from land.  We also finally got to know our neighbours and our community.  We should have started looking for new work mid-September, but didn’t.  The weather was so beautiful, that we ended up touring Tuscany and Barolo instead.

“I also had the chance to go back to those childhood sand dunes and take in that same view out to sea.  I realised my hunch was right, there is so much more to life.  And hyperactivity, dyslexia and, above all, eternal optimism, might not be so bad after all.”

Sarah Forge, hello@sarahforge.com