I first saw her on a balmy autumn night in early October. We had walked down to the water's edge at about 10pm and suddenly there she was in front of me in the sea.
She was bathed in the soft glow of the moonlight which reflected her shimmering image onto the gentle wavelets lapping around her. She hadn't a stitch on and she was beautiful! I later discovered her name was Maria Christina.
It had all started in the summer of 1985. My mate Brian and I were having a quiet pint of Old Speckled Hen in the White Hart. We were both in our early forties; he was a widower having tragically lost his wife to leukaemia and my marriage had failed five years before, so we were fairly free agents. Right out of the blue he suddenly asked "How do you fancy a holiday on a boat?"
While my mouth replied "What do you mean by a holiday on a boat?", my mind alternated between images of a luxury cruise liner full of rich widows looking for fun and frolics in the Caribbean sunshine and my first boating adventure at the age of 15; one week in the rain and cold of the Norfolk Broads, on a cruiser that had seen better days, with a bloke I hardly knew.
Now, this is a story in itself!
It was the first time I had holidayed without my parents and it almost didn't happen. I was still at school and a freshwater fishing fanatic. In fact every weekend my best friend Wally Frost and his cousin David and I could be found fishing for carp, crucian carp and perch at Bent Marshals gravel pits that were situated right next to the famous WW2 fighter aerodrome at Hornchurch in Essex. The story locally was that they had dug out the sand and gravel to build the runway.
In the winter of 1956 we agreed to talk our parents into letting the three of us go on a week's fishing/boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads. After a few weeks of negotiation it was confirmed that their parents had agreed, as had mine. I asked my parents to make the booking and pay the deposit on our behalf for a week in late June 1957. Great, done and onto the detailed planning! We were to pick the boat up at Wayford Bridge on the river Ant and visit all the fabulous places we read about in the Angling Times.
By May we had it all sorted out when the bomb dropped! Wally and Dave's parents had not agreed and despite days of pleading were not going to agree or, more importantly, cough up their portion of the cost. My parents were furious. They could not cancel as the deadline had passed and they had to pay the balance which they could not afford.
My mum related this sad tale to her friends at work and a saviour appeared; Alice Aldridge. Alice had a son Alan about my age who was also a keen angler and she said he could come with me if he wanted, so halving the cost to my parents. We met, seemed to get on due to our mutual interest in fishing and, with just three weeks to go, he agreed to come with me. It was cold, wet and the fishing was terrible, but we got to drive the boat, drink beer, get up and go to bed when we wanted and we had a great time.
Still, I digress; back to the present and the White Hart and Brian explaining. "Well my brother-in-law has this friend Ken who has just gone through a messy divorce and wants a break. He's asked Brian to go with him on a sailing holiday to the Greek Islands and they need a couple of other blokes to make up the crew and share the cost. Ken's a qualified skipper and has delivered boats to Greece for a charter company. He knows the MD very well and says he can get a boat cheaply. Brian's asked me and I'm asking you."
"But we know sod all about boats" I replied.
"Don't worry! Brian says Ken says that doesn't matter. He can show us the ropes, literally, as we go along. I fancy the idea and, if you do, we can meet with Ken for a chat and get more info."
Well, I had not had a holiday in six years so the idea of two weeks in the sun, away from all the pressures, sounded great. So after two more pints and a bit more discussion I agreed to meet Ken the following week.
The four of us met on a pleasant summer's evening at the Nags Head. No, not the one frequented by Del Boy and Rodney in Only Fools and Horses, but the one in Brentwood, but it did have a yellow Reliant Robin as a permanent fixture in the car park! Ken explained that the company ran flotilla cruising holidays, but as he knew the owner, we could go off on our own 'bareboat', which got me worried about Ken's sexual orientation until he explained the nautical meaning which is you hire the boat and sail it on your own without a paid crew. He had pictures of the boats and the area, which looked really fantastic and he enthused about sailing in general. By the end of the evening we were hooked and had signed up for the trip: first two weeks in October including flights, transfers, a full tank of fuel for the boat, a starter catering pack plus full safety and bad weather gear etc, all for only £280 each. We only had to take ourselves, our clothes and money for food and drink. The wind to power the boat came free.
Ken said he would get us a few days out sailing on a friend's boat based at Burnham-on-Crouch during the summer to get a bit of experience, but that never happened. At 5am on 4th October 1985, Brian and I set off, in my old Volvo 440, to collect Brian and Ken from Ken's house in Brentwood. Now, where Ken lived was an up-market area of the town, full of big houses with wealthy owners and we spent half an hour driving around slowly looking for Ken's street, then stopping to peer at the house numbers and names. Eventually we found it, loaded up and set off for Gatwick airport.
Suddenly 'Nee Naw, Nee Naw, Nee Naw' and in the rear view mirror flashing blue lights and the word 'Ecilop' appeared. We stopped, wound down the windows and were greeted with "Good morning gents. Would you mind explaining what you have been doing here at this time of the morning?" spoken by a big bloke in a blue uniform. A quick look in the boot, an inspection of our air tickets and travel itinerary plus some judicious "Yes Ocifer, no Ocifer, three bags full Ocifer" and we were on our way again, looking at a mad dash round the M25 to make up lost time and not miss the flight. Luckily traffic was light and no more blue lights and blue uniformed men appeared to ask if we knew the speed limit was 70mph and not 105mph. We arrived at check-in just in time to go straight to departures, onto the plane and up into the wide blue yonder.
Breakfast was served, (you got that in those days on charter flights), followed by a whisky chaser to calm our nerves and then another; chaser not breakfast, then another which made the four hour flight to Athens pass very quickly. We arrived late morning, collected our luggage and were met be the cruising company representative to discover that the rest of the flotilla group, (15 to 20 people), had also been aboard the flight and witnessed our over-indulgence. A great start don't you think!
We were all put on a coach to be taken to the marina at a place called Porto Heli on the Algolid Peninsular where the boats were based. The route went from Athens to Corinth on a motorway, but after crossing the Corinth Canal, took a twisting route on normal roads to Porto Heli. It was a hot and tiring journey of six or seven hours plus a stop for lunch. Luckily this was not for us because, a few years before, Ken had worked for some time in the UK with a Greek architect and they had become good friends. Now back in Greece he lived in Athens and we were to join him for lunch. This we explained to the holiday rep, asked if they would take our luggage on the coach and said we would be at Porto Heli later that evening to take over the boat. All done and agreed.