15/01/2021
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Home > Editorials > Captains of Ships – Jeremy Hance

Captains of Ships – Jeremy Hance

Cheshire-born Jeremy has always had a penchant for being on another planet.  Growing up, he had a huge imagination, a fascination with stars and space, as well as an infatuation with the sea.  Jeremy’s father was a talented sailor, a man who battled to cross the finish line in the infamously tragic 1979 Fastnet Race, and he clearly passed this passion to his son.     

Unlike his unassuming mother, Jeremy’s hard-working father was from a rather well-to-do background.  His sister worked with the Royal Family, a cousin was related to the Whittingtons of Lord Mayor of London notoriety, and together they had use of a holiday home and beach hut in the Welsh seaside resort of Abersoch.  It was here that Jeremy and his best-buddy younger brother Ben started dinghy sailing, a pastime that intensified over the years.  At one stage they had four sailing boats to their name, and would do the six-hour round trip every weekend, plus long summers, to race with the South Caernarvonshire Yacht Club.  Jeremy’s poor sailing-widow mother disliked the water, couldn’t swim, and was regularly abandoned to the beach with a book – which she infinitely preferred.

School wasn’t really Jeremy’s thing; he did just enough to pass what was necessary in order to keep peace at home.  His father wanted him to go to uni, be a high achiever, but all Jeremy really had his heart set on was getting out of school as soon as possible.  Ben showed greater academic promise, but got drunk in the park on the last day of exams, became belligerent with the headmaster and walked out.  Ben happily got into painting and decorating.

Jeremy picks up the story:  “My first foray into the world of work was a YTS with lithographic printers.  Dad was happy I was making my own way and let the high achiever fantasy go.  I earned 25 quid a week and, most paydays, lost it all on cards.  Jobs two, three and four came simultaneously:  making cards for silk-weaving looms, shelf-stacking at Sainsbury’s and creating injection moulds in a factory.  As a former ‘paper boy of the year’, I was used to hard work.

“I then moved on to a building company specialising in damp proofing and timber treatment.  Often working for the National Trust, we’d tear down and reconstruct old buildings, and I loved the practical investigative nature of the work.  Boss Martin Hahn was a real inspiration, put his trust in me, and I repaid his faith by staying there for eight years.  

“But, parallel to this level-headed working life, was another life immersed in ‘Madchester’s’ underground music scene.  I’d walk off site, stick on a pork pie hat, and go and watch bands.  It started with the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, then evolved to the acid house of The Haçienda, before I got a real taste for electro.  I was young, never ran out of batteries – the drugs helped to be fair – so held down the double life with ease. 

“Age 20, during my parents’ difficult separation, I rented my first flat in the basement of an Indian family’s house.  Ben moved in for a bit, drank all my not-quite-ready home brew and vomited everywhere – we were kicked out.  I then yo-yoed between my Dad’s house and friends, until Mum moved in with a new partner and kindly gave us the keys to hers. They were great rent-free years, working, clubbing, and smoking too much pot.

“I got a call from Mum with tragic news.  My diabetic father had suffered a severe hypoglycaemic episode, knocked his head, and drowned in a stream.  He was 51.  As a seasoned sailor, it seemed somehow fitting that water should be involved in his death – but devastating for us.

“My aunt suggested it was time for a change.  Be a pot-smoking partying builder forever or…?  As executor of the will, not that there was a huge amount to distribute, she wasn’t going to give a 20-something an open cheque book.  What did I like doing?  Sailing was the answer, but professional yachting wasn’t really a ‘thing’ back then like now.  We approached the Solent Sailing School in Hamble and they put together a six-month course for Ben and me.  It was the best six months.  Sailing every day except Christmas Day, we were out in all weather, crossing the Channel in gale force winds.  I never got out of thermals.  We passed our Yachtmaster and stayed on as trainers.  

“After a while, we were sick of turning blue with cold and decided to hit the sun, Marmaris Turkey to be precise.  Rucksacks on our backs, we sought out the local bar whereupon the barman fed us raki until we passed out.  At around 4pm the next day, we woke up on the beach, still drunk, and made our way to our planned accommodation.  The landlady eyed us with sheer terror.  Our foreheads were blistering and barely had I introduced myself before I promptly passed out.  She rushed us to the doctors where we were diagnosed with second-degree burns.  After three weeks of six-inch cream and careful rehydration, we were fit to work, albeit with skin revoltingly flaking from our faces.  Ben got offered a job on a big sailing yacht and went off to Antibes.  I got one looking after a Swan 65 and ate at the local soup kitchen near Marmaris station.

“By May 1993, I was working for a Yugoslavian couple who were running a fleet of ten 50-foot Kiriacoulis charter yachts.  Soon enough, war escalated in the Balkans and my employers vanished.  The harbourmaster handed me keys to ten 50-foot boats and a storage container, where I slept in 100-degree heat surrounded by ropes and mosquito coils.  I did the 70-mile deliveries from Bodrum to Marmaris alone, consuming the leftover food and beer, music on sails up, until a rep from Kiriacoulis appeared and said the Yugoslavs sadly wouldn’t be coming back. 

“I couldn’t continue to be a bare-footed sailing bum eating out of soup kitchens, it was time for another life change.  A gun pointed at my head in a bar provided the catalyst I needed, and I jumped on a bus to Bodrum.  My first route out was delivering a Swan to the UK but, when I saw the crack in the keel, I declined.  The second was delivering a homemade ferro-cement boat, also to the UK, for a famous English artist and his pal – I took it. 

“It was like sailing a car park.  There was a horrendous mistral off Sardinia and we sat in the same place for four days.  I went off watch, on watch, off watch, on watch, and Stromboli was still there staring at me.  Finally in Sète, we dropped the mast, wound the keel up, and navigated the Canal du Midi to Bordeaux.  Each day we’d refill a plastic container with wine and get tiddled in every region – fantastic.  You couldn’t go far wrong on a canal with a hangover, that is until we hit a lock and lost a huge piece of concrete.  I went to the builders’ merchant and plastered it over, adding a layer of house paint – a pretty good repair. 

“Having finally made it home to Macclesfield, I discovered my on-off girlfriend of seven years had left me, so I joined Ben in Las Palmas. Ben was Mate on a Jongert and his owners practically never came, so the boat became a bit of a hostel for strays.  Each morning a new person would be washing up in the kitchen and assert, ‘Ben said it was ok to stay’.  I dossed there for a while, using up the rest of my money on beer and weed.  

“Each November, the Arc Atlantic Rally for Cruisers would leave for Saint Lucia.  I bumped into an American guy with a 60-foot ketch.  He’d just fired his crew and needed someone to take her across the Atlantic.  I had my Yachtmaster, literally no one else for miles around had one, so I was hired on the spot.  I plucked two random Dutch guys out my brother’s boat to join me. 

“My ‘crew’ had zero experience – a plumber and someone who’d been on a jetski once – but off we went.  The boat had an electric cooker, a microwave, everything a boat shouldn’t have, and 200 miles south of the Canaries the transmission went on the gearbox.  We had no engine to drive or charge the batteries, so we trudged back up to the Islands and got engulfed by the mother of all storms.  The sea was frothing, visibility nil, and even the supertankers were hiding – as was the owner, in tears in his cabin.  I said ‘we must take the mainsail down’, ‘no way’ shouted the owner, and then, boom, it exploded, ‘don’t worry mate, it’s down now’, I replied.  I didn’t panic, remembered my training, popped lines out to slow us down, and managed to get in the lee of the land and drop the anchor.  I loved it, it brought back memories of the Solent.  I guess I’m a bit gale happy.

“We booked the traumatised owner a flight and were knee-deep in repairs when a coach-load of stunning bikini-clad Miss Canaries turned up.  Could they use our boat for a photoshoot?  Er, hell yes.  We joined them for lunch, and I picked up a couple of phone numbers.  That night, we had a last-ditch farewell party, got spiked with LSD, but somehow managed to get the owner to the airport the next day, before the Dutchies and I sailed to Saint Lucia. 

“Having exploded another sail thanks to a jammed roller reefing in 45-knot winds, we placed ourselves into the hands of the gods for the two-week crossing.  The fridges went, the booze dried up, the bilges filled up, and we survived on one fish a day, but I don’t remember being bothered.  I taught myself astral navigation and, alongside hand chart work, we arrived bang on location in Saint Lucia.  Our Rastafarian welcome party passed over a spliff and we proceeded to lose an entire day. 

“Naturally, we were in trouble with the local authorities for not checking in, and they emphasised their right to send us back to our previous port.  Slowly sinking, and with no food, that wasn’t going to happen.  I sent the Dutch boys home and was stuck on the boat alone.  The owner refused to send money, until I started to sell off parts of the boat to survive, and then some cash arrived.  I flew back to Macclesfield, learned that the ex had moved to Australia to get as far away from me as possible, and decided there was nothing for me in the UK.  In April 1995, I went to Antibes – I stayed there for nearly a decade.

“I started on 55-metre Lady Mona K, formerly Lady Ghislaine, the boat Robert Maxwell infamously stepped off and drowned.  It was my first motoryacht, like working for the devil, and the skipper didn’t even have a Yachtmaster at the time, so I did most of the navigation.  I then met a girlfriend and split my time between building, day work, deliveries, and house parties. We rented a place on the Promenade des Anglais and would fly the likes of Tony De Vit and Boy George out.  I then hosted free parties at Rio’s Banana Café in Golfe-Juan – they were awesome.  I always had my record bag with me. 

“While working on a Swan 651, I ended up in Palma, Mallorca, and started to base myself here a bit.  To be honest, Antibes was going stale, too much hedonism, the theme of my life, and Palma offered me the stability I craved.  Until one day, in 1998, Mum called to say Ben was dead.

“Ben was in Thailand.  He’d called me the night before saying he was in trouble, needed help, and when Mum rang I already knew what she was going to say.  Over the course of three weeks, Ben was gone, a mutual friend of ours overdosed on drugs, and another died in an overturned bus in South Africa – they were all just 25 years old.  It was a testing time, all the funerals.  Ben was buried at sea, like my father.

“Having told the Swan owner to stick to his job after a severe disagreement, I went back to Antibes where I split up from the current relationship.  My problems with addiction hit new heights and I descended into a massive depression fuelled by drugs and debauchery.  But, somehow, probably thanks to a lifetime’s practice, I still managed to hold down a job. 

“In 2000, I day-worked on 75-metre Blohm+Voss Katana, living with the crew in Germany.  Then Fred Dovaston gave me a ring, there was a great opportunity on 47-metre Feadship Paraiso as second engineer for Captain Derek Prosser.  I was doing my Class IV at the time, so grabbed it.  Leaving my girlfriend, bike, clothes and records behind, I came to Palma with just a wallet and a phone.

“I joined Paraiso in winter 2001.  Every year the itinerary would run like clockwork:  Monaco Grand Prix followed by a Med summer season, winter in Fort Lauderdale and Cancun, then after Christmas through the Panama Canal to Acapulco, sometimes Cabo San Lucas, returning to Cancun for Easter, back to Fort Lauderdale, the Bahamas, then across the Atlantic once more. 

“Derek was a guiding light.  He gave me the structure, safety and security I subconsciously hungered for, and I learned so much.  He also indirectly led me to my wonderful wife, Carolina, the Argentinian manager of a Spa-hotel in Isla Mujeres.  She showed up at a Full Moon party where I was DJ. 

“Tragically, Paraiso’s owner died in 2007.  She stopped doing the transatlantic circuit and based herself in Mallorca, while family matters were being ironed out.  Carolina quit her job in Mexico to come and live with me, and I left Paraiso to work with Captain Charles Bushell on Benetti classic Desamis B.  Charles affectionately called me his ‘mutinous mate’.  I had a fabulous charter season, problem solving, repairing and officially becoming an engineer for the first time in my career.  But my wife wasn’t settled.  She’d given up everything for me, and was unsure of living in Europe, so I gave up yachting for her and we moved back to Isla Mujeres. I enjoyed a rest, infused with day working, DJ-ing and partying.     

“By summer 2009, Paraiso had been taken over by the late owner’s youngest son and Derek invited me back to help with her refit in Astilleros de Mallorca.  Derek regrettably left and I was put in as captain by the owner, but I simply wasn’t in the right head space.  Once more, the demons started to take over my mind – I went to rehab for two weeks. 

“For six months after, I was good. I did my Y4 and joined heavily-chartered 43-metre Benetti Diane as second engineer.  By the end of my two-year stint, I was chief engineer and had Y3 under my belt.

Paraiso was still bobbing around, going through crew and captains like hot dinners.  The owner heard I was ready to move on from Diane and, in 2014, persuaded me back for a third term.  Diane’s Captain, Philip Lougher, was working on Paraiso at the time.  Together, we rebuilt the crew and, well, I’ve been there ever since.  On paper I’m now captain, but in reality I’m chief engineer and manager. 

“Our modus operandi isn’t every seafarer’s cup of tea.  The owner adores the boat, is on board a lot, 11 out of 12 months one year, and we live a sort of Downton Abbey Upstairs Downstairs existence.  I love the job, it suits me, but I can see how it wouldn’t suit everyone.

“I’ve also finally removed myself from the vicious circle of addiction.  After years of giving my wife, family and friends hell, disappearing for days on end and not being fully present for my 11-year-old son, I called the EMA addiction clinic in Palma.  I signed up for one-to-one therapy, progressing to group therapy, and I have been drug- and alcohol-free for three years. 

“Clearly I need to keep feeding my addictive personality, so I’ve thrown myself into a number of extra-curricular ventures outside of Paraiso;  music production, working with Maritime Network Systems, LED lighting and control with Lumacon, and am studying for various courses, from transactional analysis to coaching. 

“Knowing how I suffered, and armed with deep understanding of the disease, because that’s what addiction is, a disease, I’ve set up a local support group using the services of specialist psychologists.  Many yachties have my phone number and regularly call me just to talk, as a brother, without judgement.  It’s something I hope to expand on.

“Yachting Gives Back flickered on my radar soon after lockdown started, and each week I deliver a boot-full of pasta to the charity – without fail.  If I’m eating, someone else should, and it’s another way I can be of service to the community that supported me so well over the years.   

“The Johnny Rotten of yachting has checked out and I won’t fall down that rabbit hole again.  I simply can’t be that person, there are too many people relying on me.  Not that I regret any of my past, as it’s made me who I am today.” 

www.emamallorca.com

Sarah Forge, hello@sarahforge.com