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Home > Editorials > Captains of Ships – Chris Blunt

Captains of Ships – Chris Blunt

As is the way with many a child brought up on the coast of North Wales, Chris dabbled in dinghies from the age of ten.  In fact, his father built two of them in the front room, a Firefly for himself and a Cadet for Chris, auspiciously named Submergo – Latin for ‘I am sinking’.  Later on, he would compete against The Islander Editor Simon Relph in the 1974 GP14 Nationals at Thorpe Bay Yacht Club.  Chris won the practice race, but the next day the boat sprung a fateful leak.  The name Submergo came back to haunt him.

Chris had a rather enforced entry into his seafaring career.  Having served on fast torpedo boats in WW2, Chris’s father thought it was a sensible idea for him to attend naval training school at HMS Conway in Anglesey.  Once a wooden ‘school ship’, until she ran aground and was wrecked in 1953, ironically on her way to a refit, HMS Conway helped cadets prepare for the Merchant or Royal Navy.  Chris joined in 1963 and was more than happy to leave in 1965.  He hadn’t clapped eyes on a girl in two years and wanted his freedom.  Chris then opted for a rather less disciplined affair, a Marine Engineer apprenticeship with Shell Tankers – at least if he left Shell he’d be employable.

Chris continues:  “Age 20 I went to sea, Shell took us round the world.  Probably due to my HMS Conway training – thank you Dad – I did rather well and was promoted quite quickly.  By 21, I was married.  Back then, it was one of the only ways of escaping and gaining control of your own life.  We went on to have two children: Andrea and Martin.  In time, my father-in-law lured me away from Shell to manage his petrol station slash hire car business in Bangor.  Much like the marriage, it didn’t work out so well.

“My get-out clause presented itself in 1978.  A local boatyard asked if I’d help deliver a 30-foot Westerly from North Wales to Corfu.  Of course the answer was yes.  I was a complete novice yet somehow in charge of a crew of three.  Our first challenge came in the Canal du Midi, where a broken lock forced us to lift the boat out on a trailer then pop her back in a few hundred feet later.  Then, as we emerged into the Mediterranean, a mistral blew our socks off.  Nevertheless, we all made it to Corfu in one piece.  The following year, the owner asked me back to run his day charters.  As I’d pretty much split from my wife by then, the answer was, again, a yes.

“At the 1980 London Boat Show, I had an interview to run a flotilla of charter yachts in the Sporades for Island Sailing.  Now acclimatized to Greece, I took it on with great gusto.  Two years later I switched to the Ionians, and put in another few seasons.  Winters were spent across the Atlantic, cruising the Virgin Islands for the same company.

“It was hard work, but a lot of fun, with a few romantic dalliances along the way.  In the middle of it all I met my second wife, Shan, who worked for a rival charter firm.  We had a gentleman’s agreement whereby we’d vacate the local taverna when the next flotilla pulled in – purely as there wasn’t room for us all.  Shan and I would exchange pleasantries as we passed like ships at a taverna

“In 1984, fate comprehensively threw us together.  Shan had been working with author Rod Heikell in Turkey, researching for his latest cruising guide book, while I and my bosun-engineer were deemed to be the most experienced flotilla crew for Island Sailing.  We three musketeers were cherry-picked to spearhead the company’s first foray into Turkey.  First, we were despatched to the Beneteau factory in the Vendée to oversee the transportation of 26 new-born sailing yachts from France to Marmaris, and then dived into our first charter season.  I recall having broadcaster Peter Snow on board that summer, we spent a lot of time babysitting his son Dan.

“Turkey was quite wild in the mid-80s.  Greece was the safe family-friendly destination, but Turkey attracted a more mature adventurous charterer.  London-based talk radio station, LBC, decided to come and do a show on our flotilla holidays.  They came out to record and we duly led the production crew astray in the local watering holes.   One such night, somewhere in Marmaris, the bosun said I had an announcement to make, and I allegedly proposed to Shan.  We collapsed drunkenly into bed and thought nothing more of it – in fact, had it even happened?  According to LBC it had and, unbeknown to us, presenter Mike Carson started the ball rolling on our wedding.

“Early December, we were back at our Anglesey home and amongst the piles of post was a letter from LBC.  They’d been unsuccessfully trying to get hold of us, but they had it all planned – could we get married at the London Boat Show?  And so, with barely a month to get our heads round it, a drunken Turkish proposal snowballed into a very public Earls Court wedding on media preview day, 2 January.

“It started with an early morning LBC interview, followed by the official bit at Chelsea Register Office, and a blessing at St Cuthbert’s – two minutes’ walk from the exhibition centre.  Our guests were sent 50 media passes as invitations, and a P&O captain conducted a faux ceremony on the Guinness stand.  Why the Guinness stand?  It was the only place we could guarantee to get friends and family together at the same time.  We were then popped on a ten-foot boat and paraded around the venue’s magnificent indoor pool.  My mother has vivid memories of guarding our Guinness-inspired chocolate wedding cake, surreptitiously giving a piece to former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath.  Shan and I were all over the TV and newspapers and then, after our one day of fame, we were back on the Island Sailing stand selling charter holidays.

“That same year, Shan and I were poached by Peter Stuyvesant Travel – a start-up owned by the eponymous cigarette brand.  They were opening a spanking-new resort in Bitez, Turkey, with hotel, watersports centre, paragliding – you name it.  At the end of the season, we flew to Trinidad to meet Shan’s family.  Afterwards, we would return to Bitez in our new roles as regional managers – except we never did.  Instead, we were introduced to the world of private yachting, and hopped to Antigua to start work on 62-foot Gulfstar Lollipop.   In the 80s, that was a superyacht.

Lollipop was owned by two brothers from Ontario, neither knew anything about boats, and we went off cruising the Caribbean and Med.  In our time off, we memory-laned back to Greece and bought a tumbledown 21,000 USD house in Sivota Bay, overlooking the Ionian.  I say ‘house’, more of a livestock store with a mezzanine sleeping area.

“Back in Antigua, a third owner appeared on the scene and Lollipop was traded for 85-foot Lollipop II.  The itinerary got hectic, continuous back-to-back charters and, after two years, we called it a day.  We swapped her for a Little Harbor 63 named Babujich, owned by Italian meat moguls, the Fiorucci family.  It was a very nice stress-free experience with a fairly easy programme and no crew to worry about.

“In 1991, we left Babujich and came crashing back to earth with Irwin 65 Crosswind based in Fort Lauderdale.  Irwins, in general, were poorly constructed and Crosswind was one of the worst – ex-charter and full of cockroaches.  We were so embarrassed to be seen on the piece of junk that we’d only come into harbour under the cover of darkness.  It was a relief to escape the following summer.  Shan and I bought a yellow British Telecom van, loaded it up with tools, and drove to Greece to work on our house.

“Somehow, we were persuaded back to Crosswind the following winter, on the promise that things would be different, and they were, it was better, so we gave her another season before progressing to 28-metre Jongert Sea Shuttle in April 1994.

“Based in Newport, Rhode Island, Sea Shuttle was one of the largest sailing yachts at the time.  She lived up to her name, and we spent three or four years shuttling between the Med and Caribbean.  Our usual turnaround between trips was three days, three days to clean and provision, and after four years we were slaughtered.  The industry was also beginning to mushroom, and we wanted to grow with it.  So, in March 1997, Shan and I joined the Perini Navi ‘club’ – starting with 42-metre Christianne B.  There was no interview, we just shifted our stuff between boats on dock in Antigua.  Rupert and Toni Savage picked up the shuttling from where we left off.

“That same year, we gave half a thought to our eventual retirement and bought a piece of land with an ancient olive press – tafona – in Mallorca.  The capacious garage sold it for me, and I immediately parked my Citroën 2CV and Morgan inside.  A 1964 Mini Cooper and 1965 E-type Jaguar soon kept them company.

Christianne B was a serious charter boat and it was a big jump up, inheriting a seven-strong crew – my largest to date.  She was owned by a Scotsman who’d made his fortune through jeans and, on the strength of selling his business, had invested in supercars, nice houses, and this yacht.  The only fly in the ointment was that the sale of the business never went through and, a year or so into my appointment, the bank foreclosed on the boat.  The administrators told me to carry on with charter and keep costs covered until they could sell her.  So we finished a Med season, crossed the Atlantic and put her up for sale at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.  One of our charter clients, a charming lady, bought Christianne B and promptly put her into refit in Rybovich.

“It was 1999, the MCA were introducing new qualifications, and it made sense for me to split time between the yard and studying for my 3,000-tonne licence in the UK.  Having done my final oral exam in Fort Lauderdale, we said goodbye to Christianne B and, after a whistle-stop Mallorca visit where we set builders to work converting the tafona, joined 53-metre Perini Navi Independence in Cairns, Australia.

“We adored the family we worked for, no stress, just lovely people.  However, after four or five years, I grew weary of same old same old.  I met an agent friend in Palm Beach and he had plans for a 56-metre new-build Perini Navi spread out on his desk.  Would I fly to Viareggio and see the project through to conclusion?  I arrived in 2003 and Santa Maria was launched in 2004.

“The excitement of the build was quickly marred by attitude of her Portuguese owner.  Admittedly, we hadn’t got off on the best foot.  Two days before he arrived for his first trip, I was sideswiped by a car on my push bike and ended up in hospital for ten days with a fractured hip and torn shoulder ligaments.  A substitute captain was drafted in, and Shan set off on charter with them.  Within two weeks, she’d had it.  Apparently the owner was a chauvinist who was rude to his wife and nasty to the crew.  She would not survive a moment longer with this man and it wasn’t going to work.

“Fortunately, the phone went, a friend of mine was running 46-metre Jongert Wellenreiter in Greece and needed to get back home pronto to welcome his premature baby.  Still hobbling on crutches, I finished his summer charter season and immediately flew back to Greece to deliver a Perini Navi to Italy.  By November, I was crossing to the Caribbean on my next Perini Navi, 50-metre Is A Rose, courtesy of another special baby.  The current captain’s wife had been trying to get pregnant for years and, finally, her wish had come true.  He asked me to fill in until the little one appeared and, as the owner is a kind thoughtful septuagenarian lady, I happily obliged.

“With fully functioning hips and shoulders, I carried on doing most of the Atlantic crossings on Is A Rose, interspersed with freelance deliveries and charters.  These included a charter for Santa Lucia, now named Zenji and owned by Oracle magnate Larry Ellison, and briefly running a powerboat, which I instinctively disliked – aside from the commodious captain’s quarters.

“These days, Is A Rose has another captain, he does most of the work, and, age 73, I am teetering on the brink of retirement.  Speaking of winding down, we swapped the tafona for a city apartment, before the wonderful dream became a burden.  Meanwhile, Shan came out of full-time yachting several years ago when we adopted our late dog Jasper.  She wanted to give him her undivided love and attention, and quite right too.

“I plan to keep my licence going for another five years, remain available for the odd charter or delivery, and then hang up my superyacht sailing boots.  Then, the only yacht I wish to sail is our 20-foot Beneteau Jasper B moored outside our Greek pied-à-terre.  Shan takes command, I’m a mere deckhand, and we cruise the Ionian Islands which spread out from our doorstep.  We also want to take our caravan, imaginatively named Jasper, all round Europe.  We’ll stick our bikes in the back and do the Camino de Santiago, drive round the Peloponnese, explore Albania… and then return to either Mallorca or Sivota Bay for a rest.”

Sarah Forge, hello@sarahforge.com