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Two Italians on board

Still bemused by the lengthy immobility on the plane and drowsy with jet-lag, we find ourselves tossed about in an old taxi that takes us to the St Vincent harbour. It is very strange to be at the sea in February with the climate we have in Milan in June.

A tender comes alongside the jetty and two blue eyes smile reassuringly from under a mop of straw hair. "I'm Jack", "We are Pina and Nicolo, just arrived from Italy". The tender leaves the jetty and after a few minutes here she is: proud, elegant, majestic and bewitching, with two masts, her large square sailing neatly furled, shining fresh paint, she rocks gently in the morning breeze.

Nicolo and I exchange a rapid glance of connivance: our adventure is about to begin and our hearts beat faster like the first day of school.

The smiles of the crew welcome us on board like a warm embrace: sunburnt bodies, barefoot, hair ruffled by the wind (we will very soon discover that the wind always blows in the Caribbean) and the sure gestures that connote experience and skill. We settle down in the small, graceful cabin und then climb back on deck, where freshly washed colourful sheets and towels flap in the sunshine: Debbie, the Captain's wife, decrees "washing day" at each change of guests. A sudden cry startles me and, given my limited knowledge of English, I turn to Nicolo who acts as my simultaneous interpreter: it is Claire announcing mid-morning tea in the galley. We sit on the wood benches of the dining saloon and I can't resist the temptation to caress the old table made of one big slab of smooth wood. Claire brings us a large plate of chocolate cookies directly from the oven amid bursts of chattering and laughing. We are beginning to become acquainted with our travel companions but I am too shy to converse as I never find the right English words to express my thoughts. Amongst the hum of the conversation I slowly observe my surroundings: the crew, mainly young people, don't sit down at the table with us, they get their cup of tea and in small groups around the deck. Ross, the mate, a thick beard and a cap of raw wool always pressed on his head, looks carved in wood and very seldom speaks: maybe he too, is shy. Then there is Captain Tiger (we never discovered his true name): a dreamy look, white curls like an old child, a gentle smile and a low voice, I would not be surprised to see him fly in the air, instead of walking.

Next is John, the Australian, the exact opposite of Tiger: small, dark darting eyes, ringing voice and full-throated laughs, he is the Engineer that lakes care of anything that moves, from the engines to the toilet. He is never still or silent and darts everywhere like a cricket, with a smile and a joke for anybody he meets. Just looking at him makes me feel cheerful.

Suddenly the order to sail and I feel like I am in a Technicolor pirate film: Marco, Jack and Pasha climb the masts to unfurl the sails, John and Ross man the winch to hoist the anchor. Tiger stands at the helm to steer the ship and everybody else is at the lines to set the sails. While Nicolo understands the orders and joins the others, I'm confused so I approach Mathew and gesturing as we Italians always do to communicate, explain that I want to help. I don't know what Mathew understands but he immediately hands me a harness and with a cherubic smile, tells me to follow him up the main mast to unfurl the main sail, among a jungle of lines. For an instant I'm paralysed and my heart stops but, like a robot I follow him up the rope ladder whose steps are taller than my legs (I'm rather small). Before I realize what I'm doing, I find myself, for the first time in my life and at fifty-nine years of age, more than 30 metres up above a swinging, rocking emptiness; just imagining it would have made me throw up. But surprisingly I feel fine, my feel are steady on the lines, my hands work confidently as I help Mathew untie some knots blocking the sails and looking towards the deck I see a tiny Nicolo. As I climb down I'm so happy that I nearly cry and I want to embrace Mathew. This is happiness.

And this is only the beginning of fifteen dream-like days, spent on watch duty at the bow or the helm, up and down the masts to furl and unfurl the sails, interspersed with visits to beautiful islands, snorkelling, reading books and long chats with other guests. I succeed in overcoming my shyness and now I too participate in die conversation helped by the kindness of the other guests that slow down the pace of speech and articulate all the words, clearly. That is everyone but John, the Terrible, who not only speaks always full speed, but even that very peculiar version of English-Australianese. I speak with great pleasure with all the young people on the crew from England, Holland, Finland, Sweden and Australia. I feel like I belong to a large, harmonious family with members of all ages, fed and spoiled by the always bubbling Claire every day, who performs so well m the kitchen that I never regret good Italian cooking.

I already know that I shall miss the 6 o'clock rum punch on the deck at sunset, when the light and the sea taste of infinity. I also know that I shall return to my daily life richer in knowledge, experience, human contacts, love for the simpler life and for the sea life. On the plane flying back Nicolo holds my hand and whispers: "Next year we'll come back".

by Pina Callea

Fosdinovo 11/11/96

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