Captain's Log, Stardate:4/13/02
Hello to All:
Our Tunisia adventure is now over. We had gone immediately to Tunisia, on the N. Coast of Africa, for two basic reasons; we wanted to get south because it is still cold in the South of France in March and we wanted to immediately get our brand new boat out of the European Union where, after six months, a 20% VAT tax becomes due. You don't have to pay it but if you don't, they seize your boat.
We were half right. Tunisia is indeed out of the EU but, except for a spattering of days (and several weeks before we arrived we're told), it was brrrr cold. Mornings were in the 50's F and sometimes the days never got above 65.
Arabic and French are the two predominant languages of which Mary and I speak neither, although I have learned (the hard way) what a "faux pas" is but that's about all the French I know.
However, the skies were almost always blue and, with a light jacket, touring was great. In the Sidi Bou Said ("City boo sigh eed") area, 1800 year old Roman ruins were everywhere. You could be walking down a city street and find an entire square block or two fenced off where the ruins had been half dug up. It seemed like there were so many, there were not enough archeology students to go around. Some American friends we met, who were living there on business, had ruins in the back yard of the home they rented. They used an ancient stone catapult ball as a door stop, literally!
The museums would have mosaics done by Roman artists during the 3rd century AD. People could-and did-touch them and use flash cameras. I suppose the museum officials felt if tourists ruined these, they could simply dig some more out of the catacombs. The museum floor was also made of ancient mosaic. You could see where the tourists were starting to wear that out too so they roped off PART of the mosaic thereby directing traffic to areas with several dozen fewer years of wear! I guess, "when you got it, flaunt it."
Streets were much cleaner than other third world countries we've been in. Some bathrooms were despicable while others were tolerable, as is the case in other such countries. There are no fast food restaurants whatsoever. Our former crew, Donald and Pete, proudly announced they had spied a Pizza Hut but our American resident friend correctly pointed out it had been closed for two years because of a bureaucratic snafu.
Buses and trains are very efficient and comfortable, at least if you went first class like we did, with trains leaving and arriving on time to the minute. First class was air-conditioned, had plenty of leg room, had deeply reclining seats, and had a boy running a food cart up and down the aisles with beverages, snacks, and delicious sandwiches (made by his mother he proudly told us). Taxis are even a better deal. There are as many or more taxis per block in any city in Tunisia than there are in New York! But seldom did we pay more than a dinar for a ride which is 73 cents US! In that department, NY could take a lesson. I think the taxi drivers were just happy to be riding around in a car when they might, but for the grace of Allah, be picking olives (or strawberries) in the soon-to-be hot sun.
Although I offered beers to the many officials who, armed with stamps and stamp pads, made our visit legal, they do not consider beer or wine to be alcoholic. I guess you just can't get high enough on it and if you can, you pay the price the next morning . . . or something. But distilled spirits aresomething else. You can buy beer and wine in the grocery stores at a reasonable price but a bottle of whisky costs $80 US! I guess it's a quantum leap from a legal standpoint just as going from a double martini to a puff of marijuana is in the US.
While we were in Monastir, Tunisian President Ben Ali (no relation to Mohammed) came to visit. Not us, the great mosque. Trouble is, that was the day we took the train to Tunis with Teri and all her bags so she could catch her return flight home. Leaving the marina, we expected to hail one of the ubiquitous cabs but there were none. Even if there were, there was no place for them to drive because the streets were blocked off for a mile in any direction of the President's expected route. As we dragged our bags along the waterfront trying to get to the "outside," we could see police everywhere, many visibly armed with submachine guns. Some on foot, some in cars, and some on late model motorcycles. (What make of bikes do these third world cops drive you ask? BMW! I walked by one and said, "nice bike" and he instantly replied "oui!") Several times, a motorcycle cop whizzed from one end of a blocked off street to the other no doubt enjoying how much better he had it than a camel driver. I don't know if he was a messenger or what because there seemed to be otherwise no need for these quick spins. As predicted, some secret service-type guy stopped to ask us where we thought we were going with these duffle bags containing, as far as he knew, RPG's and automatic weapons. But we had no trouble convincing him we were not CIA because there was no discernible intelligence about any of the three of us. If there were, we would not have been there in the first place. So he let us continue making a fool of ourselves dragging heavy bags through a city full of the cheapest taxis anywhere in the world.
We could also see a gunboat a mile off shore and a military dinghy half way between the gunboat and the beach. If the US had had security like that in Dallas back in 1963 . . .
We found several cabs along the way but they were not in the mood for taking on a fare, at least not with their hero Ben Ali actually in Monastir! Finally, we came upon a horse drawn carriage which, at any price, looked really good to us after dragging three duffle bags about 1.5 miles by then. So it was clip-clop to the railway station where we fully expected all the seats to be booked by the crowds returning to their home villages. But we were able to buy three tickets for the 2.7 hour trip to Tunis for about $5 US one way.
Tunis is a bustling city of a million or so souls. Cabs, buses, and electric trolleys everywhere. They have a different zoning plan, or perhaps voluntary like the car dealers do it in the US. You have your book street, clothing street, electronics parts street (my favorite), carpet street, and like that. So when I was looking for electronic connectors, our American friend living in Tunisia suggested I go to Rue de Athene where I found shop after shop of electronic thingies. RCA phono plug jacks for 20 cents US, etc. Wow. Ofcourse not a single person speaks English so it's all pantomime and picture drawing. Hand gestures work very well too.
There was another Catana similar to ours in Monastir while we were there. A couple of Catana techs had flown in to get them caught up on their warranty work so they took the boat out for a shakedown. I was surprised to see them come back after sunset. All these boats, including ours, were "Med-moored." Instead of bringing your boat along side a dock or finger pier, you must back into the dock thereby allowing them to get about twice the number of boats to the dock than otherwise. So you must back over a mooring ball or two and then a crewmember tries to hook a line through the ring on the ball that is then attached to the bow. Thus the bow is prevented from swinging right or left and, of course, the stern is tied to the cleats on the dock. So when a French flagged 431 returned in the dark, its owner had quite a problem: How to back into the dock without fouling one of the lines coming out to the mooring balls from the adjacent boats? This is hard enough to do in the daylight. After several attempts, he did it. That is, he got his port prop caught in one of the adjacent boat's lines. So now what? He is pretty much screwed. It's dark, the water is icy cold, and even if he got it untangled, he would be prone to do it again. What a mess. Get on his cell phone and try to call a diver and get him out to the marina in the next couple hours while he is at the mercy of the 10-15 kt wind?
However "Markrum" was on the dock. He had helped us with our lines and guided us in when we arrived a few days earlier. For that, he got two beers and he was grateful. So Markrum donned a 3/4 wetsuit, flippers, mask, and waterproof dive light and jumped in! Dark, dirty, cold (61F/16C) water. He deftly untangled the prop, pulled other lines apart, and guided this brand new cat into its berth. Then he attached bow lines to the mooring balls while still in the water. So I continued to watch him get out of the water, change clothes in the 60 degree air temp, and stand around to see what else he could help them with and perhaps receive a reward. But it wasn't to be. Incredibly, the owner of the boat did not tip him anything! I mentioned it to Markrum the next day and he confirmed that fact but said "that's OK" and showed no bitterness whatsoever.
So when it was time for us to leave, we had 20 kts blowing us to port with lines and mooring balls all over the place. I discussed strategy at length with Markrum and in the end, he summed it up by saying, "don't worry; I will be here with you." For that, and for the great job he did on the other Catana a few nights earlier, I gave him a bottle of good whisky which is, essentially, contraband to the Tunisians. I knew it would be awkward to discreetly give him the bottle the next morning after he did his work and we were free of our berth so I gave it to him in the dark of night when nobody could see. He thanked me a lot. We agreed we needed to get an early start the next morning and he said he'd be at the boat at 7:30 a.m. Now that's the American way to reward and manage staff and employees, right? Wrong! This very reliable dock hand never showed up! I suspect his buddies and he killed the whole bottle the night before!
Anyway, the next morning we were off with the help of another lessor dock hand! But no lines caught in the prop so all's well that ends well. As soon as we were out of the lee of the African continent, we began to get some good sized waves in 20-30 kts off our port quarter. We neared a Tunisian island called Kuriate and anchored there for the rest of the day and night. Next morning we set out again even though the forecast was for it to eventually go to 35 kts, allegedly. I figured no problem because it was mostly coming from astern. We got some almost trophy sized waves-just Mary and me--but no sweat. I am more impressed with the boat with each passage. We did triple-reefed main with just a piece of jib out and surfed at a mere 8 kts. Last night, Tuesday, after the moon rose, I'd say we had an odd 15 footer, er sorry, 4 meters and plenty of 3 meters! (How do you say "10 footers" in metric-speak? 3 "meters" sounds simply like the plural for meter. "10 footers" are just that.) We'd sometimes roll more than cats are supposed to but it couldn't have been too bad: Mary slept almost the whole night through. I had to wake her as we passed between Malta and Gozzo, its sister island to the NW. During the first afternoon, however, the wind dropped to 7-10 kts, the calm before the storm I think. Anyway, we wrestled the spinnaker up and did 4-5 kts in 8-10 kts of wind. Not as fast as it was colorful! Did that for three hours, which hurt our average speed a lot. Most sane people would have started the iron jenny and motored at 8 kts. But no smelly, smoky, noisy, costly, polluting diesel (not necessarily in order of importance) unless absolutely necessary!
Then the wind clocked to our port quarter again and rose to 20 kts. We doused the spinnaker and triple reefed the main. This worked much better than last time when we had too much main up and it was shading the jib. Plus we could more easily adjust the jib than the main. Things were going so smoothly, I took a couple of Valium and got about five hours sleep with Mary on watch. That way, we were able to travel all night instead of stopping in Lampedusa, about half way there, like we had originally planned. Our insurance company would not appreciate an all night sail with only two persons aboard but I can argue it's as good as a day sail as long as one of us was wide awake. Heck, you can see other ships further away at night.
Although the guide book says not to do this, we anchored in a well protected cove on the NE coast of Malta without clearing customs first. We flew our yellow quarantine flag and got some good REM sleep before doing battle with customs the next morning.
When we awoke, we hoisted anchor and set off for Valletta harbor, 9 miles away. With 20 kts of wind on our stbd quarter, we had the jib all the way out making 7 kts. Very picturesque. Valletta Port control (VHF 12) directed us to the customs dock where we cleared in. Whereas the police in Tunisia would sometimes come right out and ask for a "tip" (a couple of beers would usually do it), the officials in this modern country were much more discrete: "You say you have 60 bottles of French wine on board? For your safety, you could give us a bottle to taste for you. If it's poison, you will know. But if you don't wish to do that, that's OK too." They were so nice that I later brought them a bottle. Later, when trying to figure out where to put the boat to get it off the customs dock, the same officials came by to tell us that, since we were only staying until just after our new crew arrived on Monday (4 days hence), we could just hand pull the boat further up the customs dock and leave it there. I much preferred that because, essentially, I'm still a student driver and terrified of bonking another boat, especially with this cockamamie Med-mooring system they have here!
Will send more after you've recovered from reading this . . . if you made it this far!
Coming about now,
Lee and Mary