It’s a beautiful sunny February lunchtime when Penny Bell opens her door to me. We’ve met several times in social circumstances, but this time it’s official business. The look of apprehension behind her smile is totally unnecessary, as I assure her that I am simply there to hear the stories that her wonderful friends and fellow sea farers Phil and Anne Wade assure me are well worth the visit.
Her apartment is beautiful, large windows spill light everywhere and there is a really homely feel about the place, and that coupled with Penny’s infectiously happy demeanour simply adds to the atmosphere. The smells coming from the kitchen serve to remind me that I’m not just here for the interview, but to have lunch cooked for me by this most legendary and long serving of Yacht Chefs.
But Penny didn’t start out in yachting, her first passion was as a Jewellery Goldsmith and Gemmologist, which she trained as after she emigrated to Canada with her childhood sweetheart. However, as is so often the case, Mum knows best, as she had insisted that Penny have a back-up plan and that she should enrol in culinary college before leaving the country. With a little roll of her mischievous eyes she acquiesces that her mum was indeed correct. But first back to Canada.
At this point Penny was working at a jewellery maker, but rather than on the artistic and creative side, she found that she was more and more looking after the business and administration, which just wasn’t her passion. It was around this time that she also parted from her childhood sweetheart and so the adventure gene that was very firmly placed in her soul started to fizz and fizzle again. It was time for the next adventure to begin.
So, armed with a certificate saying she could cook and one that she could sail, having spent hundreds of hours exploring Lake Ontario by sailboat, and a copy of Cruising World 1983, it was time to find a new direction. With the help of a friend in PR she drafted a covering letter and wrote to each and every address featured in the magazine. And sure enough four job offers came winging her way.
Somewhat fittingly her first role was under the tutelage of one Captain Cook on a Chorley Trawler, called Polaris. To say it was a baptism of fire, yes actual fire, would be an understatement. Having arrived as an excitable 28 year old, Penny’s first task was a trial BBQ. No problem there. However there had been a request for baked potatoes, which, sensibly, Penny thought would be best to do in the galley oven. Unbeknownst to her, having only been on the yacht a small number of hours, and not been the one to maintain the upkeep of said oven in question, she had no idea that it was about to set alight as the back of it caught fire. Always a quick thinker, once the pouring smoke had been spotted she promptly doused the thing with a powder fire extinguisher and stopped a catastrophe.
Unfortunately our not quite so famous Captain didn’t see things in Penny’s favour and after a small grumpy outburst left the boat for shore leaving Penny to clean up ‘her’ mess. Day one, not so smooth, but surely things could only get better? It would seem Poseidon was not listening that day. Cue a few hours of galley scrubbing later and Penny came up for air on deck. Looking around she soon realised that the anchor had dragged and they were definitely no longer where they needed to be. Unfortunately Penny had not been shown how to raise the anchor, and in fear of touching anything else, she found herself in a bit of a predicament. Coupled with the fact that there was a no unauthorised personnel mandate on the boat, things weren’t looking good. Thankfully Francais came to the rescue in the guise of a Frenchman in a dingy, who no sooner had he fixed the problem was told a speedy departure was needed as our favourite captain was returning.
It turned out that the anchor, many months later, was discovered to have a bent shaft causing it’s constant need to drag, and was therefore, not Penny’s fault. Needless to say the first 36 hours of Penny’s solo jaunt into the world of yachting were not necessarily the most straightforward, however, not one to ever throw in the towel, this was simply the beginning and the following 35 YEARS have been a tale to behold. The same cannot be said for Polaris, she ended up at the bottom of the ocean after a particularly vicious hurricane, for once maintenance upkeep could not be blamed.
Roll forward a few years and we find our Penny in 1996. At this point in the story the two of us stop for a moment and savour the fabulous food that Penny has presented me with. Fresh bread, delicious pasta sauce and a little spicy accompaniment supplied from a character who will be making a large impact in our story soon. I ask her about food and her eyes truly light up. As a child she was always mixing different pots of charcoal in the outhouse, pretending that she was creating new and exciting recipes. Her mother identified her passion for this cooking early on and always encouraged her. She says she is definitely more of a savoury and sauce fan, having been French trained, than a dessert person. Though she confesses that she very much enjoys eating them. She also tells me that she is a nightmare at following recipes. No dish is ever the same, however whilst this may be a voyage of discovery with each meal it certainly means that no matter what is thrown at Penny you can be sure that she can make a meal of it, regardless of where she is in the world and with what provisions she may have, even maggot infested venison…
So, back to 1996. It was at this point that Penny found herself being interviewed for the role of chef on the first Timoneer. Captained by South African Phil Wade and run by his wife Anne, Timoneer was looking for a chef for a short five month stint where they would take her from New Zealand to Florida. Never one to make a rash decision, Phil mulled over his potential new chef, until he decided that yup, she was the wise choice and has subsequently said she was the best chef he has ever worked with and could equally serve a hearty crew meal or a 7 star banquet even with the boat on its ear, with a good amount of galley gymnastics going on. And so on Jan 3rd 1997 the crew of five left for Cape Horn. Penny made an interesting sight in those first few days clad in a sarong, a fleece and Ugg Boots and she had just done a ten month crossing on Zimbabalooba, with Captain Freddie Acke, from St. Maarten to New Zealand, just for the absolute fun of it. To say she was underdressed was an understatement. Still, sail they did, and what started as a five month crossing turned into a twenty year adventure of epic proportions.
By now, it is a few days after our first meeting at Penny’s house and instead we are sat sipping wine and enjoying Paella at the Molinar Yacht Club. We’ve been joined by Anne Wade and it is clear from the outset that they are the best of friends and that there is a bond here that is born out of countless hours and adventures both at sea and on land together. I asked Penny how many sea miles she has and she tells me that she gave up counting at 300,000! And that was a good while ago.
So we picked the story back up. Penny didn’t start immediately on Timoneer as the boat was coming out for refit and this would require a six month sabbatical. Instead of kicking her heels she embarked on a North Atlantic cruise from Southampton to Florida where there was never a dull moment. Barely out of the dock they were requisitioned by the Coastguard in order to practice rescuing off the aft deck. Sending the newly trained bunch off with tea and t-shirts the crew thought nothing more of it, that was until they passed Madeira and the Captain went into a diabetic coma. The only chance of his survival was to airlift him off the aft deck as they got closer to the Azores. Fully trained, thanks to the random coastguard intervention, he was safely airlifted to hospital where he received proper treatment and thankfully survived. Their ten day stopover turned into ten weeks, but it didn’t seem that anyone was complaining.
Eventually in the December of 1997 Penny joined Timoneer and it was here that the true adventure began. Phil and the subsequent six captains of both the old and new Timoneers took her, and her owners, now sadly passed away, on a voyage of discovery.
One time, when fishing in Alaska, Penny and Phil got up early and left in the crew dinghy at five in the morning, as it was important she was back in time to serve breakfast at eight. It was a flat, calm, mirrorlike morning as they quietly glided over the ocean. Only the lapping of the sub zero water at her toes disturbed the tranquillity of the moment. Wait, her toes were wet. And cold. Bailing out with all their might they realised that the situation was futile so they made to the closest land and beached the boat. Unfortunately that section of land was surrounded by towering cliffs meaning no radio signal. On top of this they had to keep an eye out for the rather ferocious locals, the bears. Thankfully Phil had not brought a deckhand but a chef, and one that was supposed to be on breakfast duty. It’s amazing how quickly an early morning empty stomach can mobilise a rescue party.
And then the stories start coming thick and fast and I’m still pretty certain that what I know of Penny’s life at sea is still only scratching the surface. There was the one time on Zimbabalooba when they reached the Marquesas Islands and decided to go ashore. Unfortunately, whilst exploring the palm groves she was literally the girl who kicked the hornets’ nest, and as is the way of hornets, they waited, then sent a signal, all attacking at once. Counting over twenty stings she quickly headed and jumped into the sea to take some of the burn out. Feeling much better in the water and appreciating the fantastic body surfing curl that was almost translucent in its nature. Translucent that is apart from a large dark shadow in its midst. Yep, that’s right, a 12 foot shark was hanging out in the wave. Those on shore confirmed that by the time they spotted it, it was on its third pass, so had thankfully wasn’t hungry that day. They hotfooted it, as fast as they could with a dinghy with engine failure, back to the boat, and got the hell out of dodge.
This isn’t the only experience that Penny has had with encounters of the Jaws kind. There was the time when Penny and her colleague went for a snorkel over the Quita Sueño Bank, a reef formation off Columbia, using Penny’s assets as keel for measuring the depth. After negotiating a tricky bit of coral they looked up into the toothy grin of a massive Hammerhead shark only a metre away! Thankfully they soon realised that the hammerhead was missing its hammerbody and had obviously been discarded by the fishery that they were facing. Regardless, a swift retreat to the safety of the deck was in order.
It would seem that Penny has something of an affinity with creatures of the deep as she regales me with another story straight out of Moby Dick or Robinson Crusoe. This time it is of the eight legged variety. Fishing off the coast of Alaska at one point, they accidentally hooked a rather leggy creature on one of the fishing rods. And so it was down to a rather brave deckhand to try and respectfully return him and his 8 foot leg span to his home waters. Eight legs versus two were not particularly fair odds however, somehow said deckhand, took a slow waltz to the rail and eventually managed to disembark the octopus, who, as a parting shot decided to get its own back for his unceremonious ousting by covering the whole waterline in its dark black ink.
Let’s not forget the time when the crew decided to take a dinghy into one of the waterways off the Panama Canal, one of the seven times that Penny has passed through this iconic canal. Suddenly noticing lots of red eyes just above the water, they realised that they were pretty much surrounded in an inflatable craft that could easily go pop. Thankfully they had a back up plan. One of those on board had a wooden leg and confirmed that he was willing to use it to defend the boat against the gators tracking them should it come to it. Thankfully all guests got off with all limbs, both flesh and wooden, intact.
There are so many more stories I can tell you of Penny (and these are the only ones I have been told), like the time that her foot was totally lobbed off in a car accident, yes you heard that right, and thankfully reattached, but which took months of rehabilitation and the help and support of the Wades to get back literally on her feet.
But Penny is very much back and fighting fit. Her enthusiasm for adventure on the high seas is infectious. Asked if she’s planning on slowing down she just laughs. With a new trip booked in taking her all the way to Ecuador, a jewellery studio set up in her third bedroom and an expanding portfolio into land based villa catering, there is absolutely no chance of our Penny hanging up her sea legs, attached or not!