The reason I’m in Lefkada, I mean the main reason, the decisive one… is my boat. Nitroglicerina.
Before I moved here to be a skipper, I was a sailing instructor.
I worked between Puglia, Calabria and Basilicata.
One year I was contacted by a tour operator that organised study holidays for kids: the British Academy.
They needed a sailing instructor to control a herd of rambunctious kids.
At the time I was an instructor at the Castellaneta Marina section of the Italian Naval League and they had an old self-built catamaran there, more or less the size of Nitro but much more spartan, the good old Barbagianni.
So I presented my idea to the management who agreed to rent me Barbagianni for a couple of weeks.
I took him to Calabria, about forty miles west along the wild and beautiful Ionian coast.
It was a success.
The kids were thrilled, so they told their parents, who told the tour operator managers, who told me.
The following year the plan was to follow the British Academy to different locations during the summer season.
The catamaran solution was perfect for them.
They divided the kids into teams of 7-8 and sent each group to do a different sport. For example, the footballers were enclosed between four nets on a field, the archers were enclosed in a shooting range, the sailors were usually scattered on a beach waiting for their turn to get on a boat. With the catamaran the problem was solved: I loaded them all on board and made them work like animals.
They’d come back to shore exhausted, docile as lambs and there was no risk of losing any of them on the shore.
During the long Winter I searched for the right boat for me.
As always, luck was on my side and almost immediately I came across the right ad.
On Lake Como I found this boat, which from the photos seemed to be in a decent state at least, designed by Enrico Contreas guys, not just a few coins.
A Mattia 7.5c. With an airfoil rotating mast.
Despite being 30 years old, the line was very up-to-date. It may have had less volume in the bow than more modern boats, but the charm was that of the Made in Italy style. Timeless.
I made arrangements with the owner and, together with my father, we travelled the thousand kilometres that separate the two Italies.
The boat was under a shed, in a pitiful condition.
It was totally abandoned. He had spent the last years of his life in Corsica and his name had been changed to that of some French saint.
He was sad… he was asking for help, almost without believing it… he just wanted to get away from there, he still wanted to feel the sensation of the water rushing past under the hulls.
I caressed it tenderly and a layer of dust dirtied my hand. The colour changed from grey to pale white.
I looked at the owner with malice, I offered him much less than what he was asking for and after a few minutes of tugging and pulling we signed the contract, we hooked it up to the trailer hitch and between a creak and a jolt Nitro saw the light of the Sun again, and even if only from the trailer I could already hear her sighing.
As luck would have it, my father owns a mechanics company with a large yard in front of it and every kind of tool possible and unimaginable.
In a few days we built a couple of crawl spaces and put the hulls on them.
The first thing I thought of doing was making new sails. But since the voyage had severely tested the trailer, we started with it.
My father and one of his workers got it in condition to travel again.
Then I turned to Nitro.
I completely stripped it down, scraped off the old milky paint and once it was free of the old stuff I went to the great entrepreneur and my great friend Nicola Carenza.
Nicola is the owner of Carenza Colori, a company that is an institution about paint sector in Bari, and I asked him for advice.
He looked at the photos of the boat and imagined it thirty years younger.
He gave me an Ice white that in the blue of the Ionian sea shines and reflects as if it had a life of its own.
And that’s not all… we agreed on a sponsorship deal and so antifouling and other nautical products fell from the sky.
I repainted the portholes in electric navy blue and added the stickers of the other sponsors: Tenuta Viglione, which fills me with cases of award-winning wines every year, the British Academy and, of course, …. Ranieri Rettifiche, my father’s company.
When we finished sticking on the last sticker, I couldn’t hold back the tears….
It was beautiful, alive, aggressive, it was another boat…
He was talking to me… those who think that a sailing boat has no soul would do well never to get on it and also never to speak to the writer… for me, every single piece of matter that is able to transmit emotions has a soul, otherwise how could it do so? How would it communicate with that intimate and sensory part that is capable of making you feel emotions?
Nitro spoke to me… thanked me and said now let’s go to the fucking sea!
Now, the first thing I thought about changing was the sails, but before I did I wanted to try her out with her original ones.
So I took her to the boatyard, we put her in the water, we christened her with a bottle of Tenuta Viglione sparkling wine, or rather we renamed her and obviously I called her Nitroglicerina, her first name.
I’m very superstitious about these things, when you change the name of a boat there’s a very complex and serious procedure to follow, except when you give her back her first name. And Nitroglicerina is the most appropriate name you could give her.
I remember that moment as if it were yesterday: I started the engine and slowly entered the channel out of the harbour.
I lowered the guillotine halyards, started to hoist the mainsail and once outside she began to ride the waves, pawing.
I turned off the engine, pulled it up… opened the jib and took the wind to about fifty degrees. And then I said these three words clearly: ‘it’s not possible’.
As soon as the wind picked up, Nitro started flying over the water.
There were about fifteen knots in a swell and she was jumping from wave to wave with peaks of eleven….
I said “ok… no new sails for now, eh?”.
She accelerated in response, powerful and light, attacking the sea like a horse that had been kept in a cage for years, finally screaming its freedom at the speed of knots.
Have you ever heard the song of a sailing boat? It’s like a hissing sound, sometimes reaching unheard tones, a sort of sound between a scream and a moan;
when it does this it generally means that the sails are well set and that you are on the right course, the one preferred by the boat at that moment. Nitro was screaming angrily that day.
Like a pilot who screams his joy into his helmet after crossing the finish line first in a race. Nitroglicerina… explosive and untameable… well done whoever called her that.
We went back to the shore when it was already sunset, I moored on the shallows and I saw her there, in the twilight with the bow towards the sea.
“Don’t play games, eh? I’ll be waiting for you tomorrow… today I just warmed up a bit”.
After a week of pure fun in which we got to know each other, I got ready to tackle the 40 miles that separated us from our first stop. A beautiful resort in Calabria.
It was a memorable sail.
With me was Terry, a London taxi driver who had decided to change his life. Having a native speaker sailor was the icing on the cake for the British Academy.
It was the two of us and my three little dogs: Bibi, Pepi and the indomitable Tarallo: a cross between a fox and a dachshund who in his previous life was probably a cross between a Neapolitan mastiff and a Rottweiler.
Alina was not with us on this trip, she stayed behind to look after the photo shops in the tourist villages.
The season was fantastic, full of satisfaction.
Even today, years later, I get letters from kids who, after that experience, enrolled in sailing school and have now convinced (forced) their parents to buy a boat.
They were happy years as long as the British academy lasted, then there was a turning point and another adventure began in Salento….
Let’s face it: I’m not a very patient person… teaching kids was starting to tire me out, so when the offer dropped instead of rising we decided together that it had been great but I thought it was time for a change.
We had a crazy season in Salento….
Nitroglicerina is basically a racing catamaran with tiny spaces for nautical camping.
We lived in it for three months.
By we I mean me and Alina.
We had a van parked in the shade at a strategic point in the marina where we stayed where it was always windy.
It was covered and we could leave the windows open all the time.
We turned it into a mega kennel for our little dogs.
I envied the dogs every morning when I found them sprawled out sleeping in total comfort… the other patrons of the marina started calling my van the dog suite.
It had become something of an attraction. There are still photos around of my dogs on soft cushions, sleeping with their fur slightly stirred by the cool Summer Maestrale….
Terry joined us that year in his new camouflaged Land Rover….
English green of course…
he had waited an extra two months to get it in that colour…. And he had to sleep in a hotel for a week because he had rented his house in the meantime… a character I wish everyone to meet. If one day I write somewhere about our trip to the Canary Islands and how we met him… I would have many anecdotes to tell.
We realised that Nitro didn’t like Salento when we get our mast down.
Alina found it in her hand and to this day we still don’t know how she managed to deviate its falling trajectory by about thirty centimetres from the head of the daughter of one of the most famous Rome’s lawyers…. If she hadn’t succeeded, I wouldn’t be here to write about it, I would probably have gone straight to Albania…
Too many waves… really too many.
Nitro loves flat sea and strong wind, conditions in which he unleashes all his power and becomes really unbeatable.
“We have to find a different place… this is no good,” I said to Alina.
We were reminded of that beautiful bay we saw a few years earlier in Greece.
“what was it called? Vliho bay? That’s where that bench is,” said Ali.
“yes…. But we can’t sail only in the bay…”
“well you see what the surroundings are like…” my sweet blonde angel and his great ideas…..
The result was a month-long trip along the coast of Greece on the pretext of finding a suitable place to work with Nitroglicerina….
That is, we already knew that we would have chosen Lefkada, but to make sure we didn’t miss anything, we drove all over Greece clockwise in our van.
To be honest, first the Volos peninsula and then Elafonissos made us hesitate… but when we arrived in Lefkada…… well, those “surroundings” turned out to be perfect.
Its east coast is absolute perfection. Enclosed between the mainland, Meganissi, Kalamos and Kastos, with Itaka and Kefalonia acting as a barrier to disturbances from the south-east and with Scorpio and Madouri like two green emeralds in the middle, it resembles a big beautiful lake.
And then that sea… with colours that only in the Caribbean had I seen like that….
It became our home the following year….
During that trip… the one in the van I mean, while we were sitting on our bench dreaming of seeing Nitro floating in front of us, a mega Polynesian catamaran anchored in front of us. Gorgeous… red and white.
It stayed there for some time, and on the second day I saw a small dinghy break away from the boat and head for land.
“I know that boat… I’ve seen it somewhere,” I said.
“Can you see its name?”
“no it’s written too small”
A gentleman in an Australian wide-brimmed hat and a blonde woman were on board.
They took the ground right next to the bench.
The gentleman, who was quite elderly, threw two trekking poles on the ground and angrily said in English, “I hope there is good food here for making me do all this!”
I got up from the bench and approached him with the intention of helping him, so I said “I’m sure you’ll find good food here” and picked up one of the two sticks and handed it to him.
He mouthed something that sounded like “thanks”, pronounced like “t-k-s” and approached the bench, then he did what everyone does when they see the beautiful blond Alina for the first time… he smiled at her… and then he sat down.
Her companion turned the dinghy’s mooring line on a fishermen’s cleat and smiling in turn approached, playing with Pepi, the most sociable of our dogs.
“are you on a van trip?” he asked in undefined English.
“yes” Alina answered, “we’ve been all over Greece”.
“wow! And how long did it take you?”
“Great, we should get one like that too James, look how nice” she said pointing at Gypsy with her finger.
“eh! I’m sure it’ll be more comfortable than that one!” he replied, hinting at his beautiful boat with a shake of his head.
Then a light bulb went on…. James…. Polynesian boat…..
“Excuse me, but… your catamaran… is it a Wharram design?”
“yes it is!” the blonde lady replied smiling, “and he’s the designer!”
Jesus Christ… I was standing in front of James Wharram and Hanneke Boone…. Two legends of world sailing.
You know that water at the knees? That feeling of loss of balance, increased heart rate, cold sweats, slurred mouth and pale complexion? Eh… From the look on Alina’s face I must have looked something like that…
Now I don’t know if you can understand what it means for a catamaran enthusiast to be invited aboard the Spirit of Gaia, the flagship of Wharram Design, a 20-metre wooden and epoxy catamaran built by its designer, James Wharram, who was the first man to cross the Atlantic on a catamaran. A piece of wood also built by him but only 7 metres long.
Not content with that, in Trinidad he built another one, helped for a few weeks by a certain Bernard Moteisser, and with this second catamaran he returned to Europe, demonstrating to the world that upwind catamarans do indeed go upwind…
From this adventure came out a great book that I recommend to everyone, it’s titled “two girls and two catamarans” because there were three peoples on board: James, Ruth and Iutta, who in Trinidad gave birth to a beautiful baby conceived in the outward voyage…
To make sure they didn’t miss anything, in Spain they also took on board a beautiful little dog named Pepe.
We became great friends… and went back to Lefkada together… embarking from Bari where they arrived by plane.
We waited more than three weeks for a good disturbance from the north to make the crossing with Nitro, but nothing, perpetual south….
So we put Nitro on his cart and arrived in Lefkada at dawn….
I made arrangements with the yacht club… yes, the one I had my first time in Lefkada….
And we launched her in the beautiful setting of Vliho bay… good thing I had my sunglasses on…
That spring we slept on Spirit of Gaia, with Nitro moored next to us and James taking the piss out of me every other day, saying to Hanneke “hey honey, look what a nice dinghy we’ve got, she must be as fast as an Italian sports car”.
I learned more about sailing in those weeks than I had in a lifetime, and I transferred that knowledge to Nitro.
I spent hours in the chart room reading the logs from their round-the-world trip and studying the knots and splices that abounded in every corner.
It was a wonderful season, camping in the yard, with Nitroglicerina moored there… near the famous Spirit of Gaia.
We only parted company for a while at the end of the season when James invited us for ‘a few days sailing here and there’ between Ithaca and Kefalonia on his beautiful catamaran.
You feel it when you’ve found the right place, you feel it in the vibration of your soul.
Now I don’t know if mine or Nitro’s vibrated more, but she certainly doesn’t want to leave here.
How do I know? ….
Simple… she told me.