Photo by Patricia Esteve
Port People - August 2001
There isn't too much English-language radio in Barcelona, but at nine o'clock on most mornings of the week, a short, rather specialised broadcast gets the guiris twiddling the dial in one part of town: around the port.
"Good morning everyone, this is Nora on Maru Cu", comes the voice out of the ether. "Could I have a radio check please?
Nora is this morning's presenter for the Net, a regular morning radio link organised by the English-speaking yachties in Barcelona ports to exchange information.
It goes out on a two-way VHF-band frequency, and the present of the day simply runs through a list of topics calling for contributions. New arrivals in the Port Vell or Port Olympic can introduce themselves, while those about to leave can say goodbye; people share information on medical and maintenance needs, issue party invitations and even amuse themselves answering quiz questions.
"And, has anyone got any Treasures of the Bilge to offer?" asks Nora. It turns out that Pat on the boat Manatee is selling a dinghy - excellent condition, only two months old - while on the Lil Ollie they are trying to raise the waterline by dispensing with a pile of second-hand books. A full list of titles, we are told has been posted in both the men's and women's showers at Marina Port Vell.
It's a community radio -because this is, in fact a small community. A little marine suburb of Barcelona where the lingua franca is generally English and people identify themselves as so-and-so off such-and-such a boat. It is, of course, a transient community - and at this time of year the Net is a very short programme, because most boats are out to sea for the summer. Yet Barcelona's attractions lead many foreign yachts to come back here year after year, frequently spending the entire winter in port, while some captains have gone even further and more or less let their boats merge with the pier.
"We couldn't believe it when we came out here at the start of last winter, and found about 120 English-speaking crews in port", said Gerry Beatty of the Obsession. Gerry, a 45-year old doctor from Glasgow, name his boat after the impulse that lead him to quit his job, and sail out to the Mediterranean with his wife, daughter and family dog. "In fact, we only meant to be here a couple of nights, but because we like the city and the friendly community here at the port, we didn't leave."
It is becoming a popular thing to do. Don and Linda, a retired couple from Toronto, have been here for two years with their boat the Glen Farr. "When we arrived we just sailed straight in and got a berth, but now Port Vell is book up a year ahead", said Don. In their case, a family connection is part of the reason they're here. Linda's daughter is studying here.
"We thought we might be able to help out", say Linda, glancing at their two year old grandson Nicolas, who they're looking after on the boat.
Home for these boat people is, in most cases, a 10-12 metre yacht, with just enough space for two or three people, most of the usual creature comforts, plus a few important extras like GPS navigation systems. Most of the live-aboards are couples, then there are a few families and a number of solo sailors, as well. In terms of nationality, the Brits predominate, followed by other English-speakers from North America and the antipodes, with smaller numbers from places like Scandinavia and South America.
Estimates for the average age are surprisingly high - over 50. Opting for a life on the ocean wave has been a retirement option for many. Former Liverpool fireman John Dewar cajoled his wife Renee aboard when he stopped fighting fires at 50 - that was 13 years ago. "I would say most people are living off a mixture of pensions and investments" said Englishman Paul Gardner. People are comfortably off, but many reject the suggestion that, to have this lifestyle, they must be rich. Some have sold their houses and have all their worldly possessions afloat with them. And, in many ways, life on board is quite cheap. "In Scotland, we would spend as much on heating as it costs to have the boat here", estimates Gerry Beatty.
This yachtie community has something of a feel of a mini-Marbella, an ex-pat colony, but it also has much more adventurous aspects. These people are the ocean-going equivalent of backpackers, with the nomadic ability to move when they feel the need for a change of air. Conversations are filled with mentions of Gibraltar, the Caribbean, the Portuguese trades, the French canals. Canals? Yes, it's a very common route to or from the UK, to drop the mast and motor through the network of canals in France, Belgium and Holland that link the Mediterranean and the North Sea. "It beats the shit out of the Bay of Biscay", says John Dewar. To which someone replied that no, he should say that Biscay beats the shit out of you.
Of course, the Barcelona boating fraternity has its other sub-groups too. As well as these live-aboards, there are the people who crew professionally on the larger boats - the so-called superyachts, with an average length of over 20 metres. "There'll always be a clear difference between the people on the smaller boats and us", said one superyacht skipper, "and that's because they're owners and we're employed."
A typical superyacht might have a crew of five or so, most of whom tend to be in their twenties and thirties, with a mixture of both sexes. Boats either serve a private owner - yachts owned by Bill Gates, David Coulthard, and the Getty family have been in town, recently, or else they work for charter. Apart from one or two which are actually based in Barcelona, these boats and their crews are likely to move around more. But they all need to stop for maintenance for at least a month or two every year, and Barcelona is ideally located on the charter yacht route, which normally sees the working around the Mediterranean in summer and cruising to the Caribbean in the winter. Moreover, the marine services in Barcelona have a good reputation and are cheaper than most other European or North American ports.
"We have an average of 20 yachts a month being worked on", says Silvia Chico, of Marine Barcelona 92, the only Barcelona shipyard specialising in yachts. "The majority of those have English-speaking crews." Naturally they work hard while they're here, but the fact that the crews have a buzzing city to enjoy in their time off is another drawing card for Barcelona.
Englishman Paul Metcalf has seen it from both sides of the gangway. He worked on superyachts for six years before getting his own smaller boat; now he's come ashore and runs nonstopyacht.com, an internet based marine supply company. He's not the only one in the office who has, as they say, "swallowed the anchor". Employee Donna Clay-Marshall and her husband have also moved from their to a flat in Maresme. "Actually I often feel quite cut off up there", she admitted. "I really miss the port community and the way you've always got friends around you here".
A different point of view come from New Zealander Neil Whirter, who has always been based on-shore, but for years did day-work at the port, mostly for local owners. "I tended to scrape by for nine months of the year without too much work", he said. "Then just before summer everyone remembers they've got a boat and wants maintenance done, and you can be working 18 hours a day. In summer, itself, there's work delivering boats to places in the Baleares or Costa Brava where the owners have their holidays."
But, if some sailors come ashore, others just can't get off the boat. Liverpudlian Renee Dewar thought she wanted to. After a year of moving round the Mediterranean she got homesick, and persuaded her husband to head back to the UK. "We arrive on August bank holiday weekend", recounted John Dewar. "It's raining and freezing cold as we come into our home port, and my wife looks up and says to me, "I think we've made a mistake".
So they went off again the next spring and, over a decade later, their floating odyssey goes on.