Salt in my veins – Chapter 1
The old wooden cutter Valkyrie must have made a picturesque sight buried under 6in of snow in Emsworth creek, England during the winter of ‘62. It was one of the coldest winters on record, and my parents had just returned from Bristol with their 2-year-old son and brand new baby. Below decks, the boat (a converted oyster smack) had two living areas: a saloon with galley to one side and a cabin with two narrow bunks; there was no standing headroom but there was, joy of joys, a woodburning stove. Every night my parents stoked the fire as best they could, and every morning they would have to coax the flames back to life again. It wasn’t everyone’s idea of a perfect place to bring up a young family, but years later my father would defend it fiercely, saying: “We were never cold. Because it was such a small space it heated up very quickly. We were very happy.”
That didn’t stop them from swapping Valkyrie for a rather large (and as it turned out slightly rotten) wooden ketch on which, a few months later, they set off down the French canals to begin a new life in the Mediterranean. I was four months old and my brother Simon two years older than that. We didn’t return to England for 15 years.
My parents weren’t hippies – in fact, my father was ex-Royal Navy and ran a tight ship, as they say. But they were misfits. My father was born in Hong Kong and spent his post-war years living the high life in California and Florida, while my mother had been evacuated to Australia as a child and brought up by an eccentric (not to mention often tipsy) single mum. Between them, my parents had been shipwrecked four times. Despite the best attempts of both their families, there was no way they were going to settle down to a ‘normal’ family life back in England.
After a few years struggling to make a living with English Rose, my parents decided a big old wooden sailboat wasn’t suited to the fickle Mediterranean weather and borrowed some money to buy a Scottish-built motor yacht they'd spotted in Nice. Silvretta (named after a mountain in Austria) would be our home for the next 12 years – and what a perfect home she made. Built to a high standard by the Silvers yard at Rosneath on the Clyde, she was beautifully fitted out with mahogany panelling and carpeted throughout. At 48ft long, she was the ideal size for a family of four – though as my brother and I shot up we would eventually outgrow her.
My parents’ business model was simple enough. In the summer, they would take people on luxury cruises to different parts of the Mediterranean, with my father as captain and my mum as cook/deckhand. To start with, my brother and I were both looked after by friends on shore – and if no friends were available, my parents paid suitable families to look after us. When we were older, my brother and I took turns going on board as deckhand, for which we were not only paid a weekly stipend but also collected tips from the charterers. Thus, from the age of eight or so, I learnt how to tie fenders, throw mooring lines, polish brass, operate an outboard, and all the other jobs needed to navigate the boat.
Although it sounds idyllic, it was also very hard work – particularly for my mother, who often had to get up at the crack of dawn to go to the local market to buy fruit and veg, before cooking three meals a day to Cordon Bleu standard for some often very demanding customers.
We did this for about three months of the year, living in the small foc’s’le at the very front of the boat, while charterers had the run of the rest of the boat. By winter, we had all the boat to ourselves, and would find some friendly harbour to moor up in. For our education, Simon and I first went to local schools in the South of France then, when we relocated to Greece, took correspondence courses.
In the spring, Silvretta would be taken out of the water at a nearby slip, and we would spend three weeks working on her, before the next charter season would begin.
My parents would be the first to admit that they weren’t pioneers, but they did have a knack of staying one step ahead of the crowd. Thus we spend the late sixties in the South of France, before the major conurbation began, and the early seventies in Greece, before the advent of mass tourism there. We even spent a couple of seasons in the former Yugoslavia before the Balkan powder keg exploded once more.
By 1977, we were back in England, just in time for punk rock, Star Wars and the Winter of Discontent.
The short version...
Nic Compton is a writer/photographer specialising in sailing - but with a keen interest in environmental issues. After an idyllic childhood on boats in the Mediterranean (see left), he returned to the UK at age 14 to complete his formal education, including in a degree in English with American & Commonwealth Arts at Exeter University. After a decade or so working as a journeyman shipwright, he studied Journalism at City University, eventually fetching up at the offices of Classic Boat magazine in land-locked Croydon. He was deputy editor and then editor of the magazine from 1996 to 2000. That was when he gave up the security of the monthly pay packet for the vagaries of freelance life. Since then he has travelled the world as a writer/photographer, contributing to a variety of magazines, and has written 18 books mostly about boats. He recently completed an MA in Global Political Economy at Sussex University, and co-wrote two books about economics. He currently lives by the River Dart in Devon, UK, from where he sails a 14ft wooden skiff.