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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 26

Trial by Sea

Big suitcase in a small hatch

On board accommodations present interesting storage and egress challenges. Here's Meg's mondo-suitcase, with its enigmatic, masking taped, letter M, presenting one now.

It could have been that a couple of clueless chicks, blowing into town; buying a yacht virtually sight unseen, and right bloody now; intending to cross the planet with it, non-stop; oh yeah, and not knowing how to sail; was so freakishly beyond the bell-curve -- in that manly-mans' world -- that the poor boys didn't know what to do with us. One thing they definitely could get their heads around, was that we were a golden, ripe opportunity to unload a surplus charter yacht onto.

Between the boat's owner in Germany, the charter outfit carrying an underperforming asset, and the broker working on commission, it's safe to say, there was more than one party highly motivated to see us on the boat, and locked into the deal. That suited me just fine. It's not like we were window shopping, and we needed that damn boat to run for our bloody lives. It's why we -- okay, I guess it was more like, me, Elena had no idea what she was getting into -- jumped at the invitation to move aboard, while the transaction -- and a whole bunch of other stuff, I didn't want to think about all at once -- was dealt with.

The yacht was all ready for charter: beer in the fridge, flowers on the table. I was chuffed. Not only was the apartment-hotel running up the credit card something fierce, but we were taking action. It wouldn't be long before we were on our way home. We found a boat. We cleared a huge obstacle. From there on in, it was going to be clear sailing -- or so I thought.

Elena commandeered one of the cabins for her own personal space, something she'd never had until then. She hung her coat in the closet, stuck a postcard of Marmaris on the wall and placed her scuffed boots by the bedside table. On the bed, a small teddy bear her father had given her in better times, reclined against a pillow. How that scruffy, little teddy made it all the way to a sailboat cabin in Turkey, is a mystery to me. Elena, quite literally, had nothing left but what she could carry to Kiev in a small suitcase, and yet, there sat that cheap little teddy bear. I swear, she could break my heart a million ways to Tuesday.

Elena Ivanova in her lair

Elena claims her own space -- for the first time in her life -- aboard the yacht. Every thing she had left, from her life in Russia, had to fit in that suitcase (foreground).

The deal wasn't done, not by a long shot. You don't just buy one of those things and drive it on home from the used yacht lot. Noooo way. There's a whole song and dance involving about a zillion forms, fees, lawyers, surveys and conditions, registration, taxes, insurance; Erdem's list went on and on. I was in for the mother of all migraines, if I got even close to though all that.

"Next step is to remove conditions." Erdem told me. We sat across from each other at a marina picnic table. A citrus tree, its sagging branches covered with big, juicy oranges, provided shade.

Erdem was going over some really heavy shit. I needed to pay attention, but I was dying. Of course, I'd tried to eat one of those oranges. They looked delicious. By krikey, it tasted like insecticide! I could swear my throat was swelling shut. Erdem had watched me peel one and take a bite. When I started gasping and choking, all he did was raise an eyebrow and tell me they were only decorative, "Not for eating." Unconcerned by my imminent demise, he prattled on about some sort of conditions.

"What conditions, and what do they have to do with me?" I wheezed.

"Well, they are standard conditions, in the contract for your protection, and you need to remove them: a sea-trial and a survey to start with. They ensure you will only buy the boat when you are satisfied with it."

"A survey's an inspection, right?" I knew about that from buying property.

"That's right. The vessel must be surveyed by a professional surveyor. To make sure there are no defects the seller didn't know about, or forgot to mention. Your survey report will help you decide if the boat is worth what you offered." Erdem shuffled through yet more papers in his leather folio.

"And you said something about Israel, or a seat-rail, or something like that?"

"Ah yes, the sea trial. That is like a test drive. I suggest you take the Beneteau for the sea-trial first because it does not require any expense. If you are unhappy with the yacht, there is no need to spend money on a survey, and your deposit will be returned to you."

decorative poisonous oranges

A decorative orange tree in Netsel Marina, Marmaris, Turkey. A dangerous plant to have around Meg.

I broke out in a cold sweat. It could have been the poisonous orange, but probably not. Reality was, the oblivious dude in the three-piece suit expected me to take that yacht out for a spin. Get a grip, Meg. This is what you do. This is your speciality: getting in and out of tight spots is what you live for. Parking a neutral expression on my face, I racked my brain for some way out that didn't include telling this kid -- brokering the first yacht deal in his life -- that I didn't know the first thing about sailing a boat that big, let alone getting it off the dock. Scenes of apocalyptic destruction flashed before my eyes: the marina in ruins, boats going down, a flaming fuel slick, people screaming... and me, there at the helm, reassuring the terrified onlookers that, It's okay. No need to panic, it's only a sea-trial.

"Oh yes, the sea-trial," I stalled for time. "Well, what time works for you?"

"Perhaps this afternoon is convenient?"

"Ah, no. That won't work." No work-around in sight. I needed more time. "What about tomorrow? Yeah, that will be much better. Maybe there will even be some wind, so we can sail. Really put that yacht through its paces."

Erdem raised his sweat-free brows in that not-totally-convinced kind of look.

Why didn't he just agree, damn it! "By the way..." A flash of fiendish brilliance flew from my subconscious. "... since I want to be extra careful, and make sure there is nothing I miss on the sea-trial, would it be okay to hire a professional boat driver to take it out tomorrow? Someone you'd recommend, who knows this size and model?"

Marmaris, Turkey. Gulets, old town, and castle

Elena and Meg's first view of Marmaris from the water, taken on the way into Marmaris Bay for the sea trial (test drive). The castle of Marmaris, its historic center, and classic gulets are features of this photo.

Alors, bonjour!" The rent-a-skipper was the first to show up. He jumped on board, barking orders in French. I didn't know who he was, what he was doing on our boat, or why he was so freaking pissed off. Unbeknownst to us, there was a rumor spreading among the underemployed charter skippers: A pair of buyers in town, scooping up the charter fleet for a rich, Russian-Arab consortium. As if that wasn't bad enough, the buyers were women.

Mr. Congeniality looked sixty. He was probably in his mid-twenties. Built like a scarecrow, five-o'clock-last-week shadow, and sucking on a pongy, Turkish cigarette, he wasn't exactly the epitome of ingratiating. I looked around for Erdem.

"You are Canadian? Do you not speak French? Perhaps you are deaf?" Reaching around the comically big steering wheel, he flicked plastic covers off the instruments.

"We, are, not, leaving, without, Erdem!" My French sucks. Speaking loud and slow is the next best thing.

"Why not? This boat, I can sail her blind. She was to be my boat, my job. Erdem, did he not tell you? You come and buy the charter boats and now I am without a job. Merde! Tell your boss not to do business around here."

Elena emerged from below, wide-eyed at the Frenchman's theatrics.

"Our captain." I told her in Russian. Realizing, as I spoke, it was the same word in French.

"Non, you are zee cap-ee-tan. I am your humble servant."

Thank Dog! I saw Erdem way off in the distance, making his way down the dock. I waved a frantic hurry up at him, which got him into a trot. He arrived with every hair in place. His tie perfectly knotted and without not a hint of sweat. There was a brief exchange with the skipper in Turkish, then an argument broke out. I assume it was an argument, everything sounds like a fight in Turkish. Regardless, it ended all communication from the skipper, in English, French, or Turkish, or otherwise.

"Just so it's clear," I spoke to the skipper's back and hunched shoulders in a clear and commanding voice. "I'm leaving control of the yacht to you. I need to concentrate on its performance by watching and listening carefully." I'd been rehearsing that excuse in my mind since the poison fruit incident. I think I pulled it off slick-as-snot.

The engine was keyed to life. Ropes were untied, and we were underway. I observed everything like Poirot making mental notes for later recall. Passing what looked like a fueling dock, with prices listed for gasoline and diesel, I asked, "How much does fuel cost?" That way, I determined that we had a diesel engine without looking like a fool.

Away from land, a fresh breeze picked up. Erdem barked some Turkish at our skipper, and then, ropes were cranked through winches. An insanely huge mass of really heavy cloth and hardware -- the mainsail -- climbed up a slot in the towering mast and started flapping like crazy. Elena glared at me, wraith like, paralyzed on a cockpit bench. The skipper spat his cigarette butt into the water, and smirking at Elena, turned the big wheel. The yacht veered. FOOMPH - the huge mainsail filled with wind, taking on the shape of a giant wing. The yacht leaned, tilting away from the wind. Elena shrieked and scrambled for something to cling to.

Heeling sailboat

Heeling is something single hulled sailboats do when going upwind. This is a shot Meg snagged, for reference purposes only, during Elena's first time on a sailboat, and the sea trial that came damn close to ending her sailing career, once and for all.

Erdem was wrapping a giant metal spool with rope, when he saw her clawing at the deck for something to hold onto. "Are you okay?"

Elena glowered at me with accusing, laser beam eyes.

"What? This is great. Kick back, relax." I exuded pure calm, with a reassuring smile, mostly to cover my own feelings of WTF have I gotten us into!?

She wasn't buying it. "Mamachka!"

Worried about Elena, Erdem signaled the skipper to steer Shadow back into the wind. The boat leveled out, but now the big mainsail was flapping violently. Yelling over the noise, he asked me if we should go back for Elena's sake.

"Hell no!" I bellowed. The boat was sailing. That was finally something I understood. It was aerodynamics in action and I was thrilled. "She has to get used to it. Turn on back, and let's sail this puppy!"

Elena clammed up and stared dead ahead. Erdem hauled on the ropes and the skipper, grinning at me with crooked orange teeth, swung the wheel around. Wind filled the main and the yacht accelerated and leaned away from it. The skipper killed the engine. Sudden tranquility, just the swish of water rushing by the hull was magic. Then Erdem released some coiled up rope, the whole boat shook as an even bigger sail ahead of the mast unfurled and filled with a colossal bang. After some more pulling, winching, adjusting and yelling, Erdem and the skipper had the Beneteau seriously heeled over and veritably flying.

Having somehow survived the sea trial, and barely leaping distance from the boat to the dock, Elena jumped and bolted. She grabbed one of the dock's sunshade struts for support and hung on. Her face was a study in extreme stress, not to mention a pale shade of green.

Tying a couple of knots in the dock lines and jumping back aboard, the skipper recovered his English conversation skills. "Your crew, she maybe is not so happy." He gestured at Elena over on the dock, with a tar stained thumb, then chortling he plunged down the steep companionway. On his way back up, he had the case of beer the charter company stocked all its yachts with. "Your broker, he says you are to sail the Atlantic... with her!" Laughing, he thrust his chin toward the quivering Russian.

"What do I owe you?"

He jumped to the dock with the beer under his arm. Walking away without looking back he called out, "Paid in full... and, good luck, mes amies."

Entrance to Netsel marina, seen from Marmaris bay

Entrance to Netsel marina, seen from Marmaris bay. Photo taken while returning from the sea trial.

A survey was the last condition of sale, and it wasn't going to be easy. Of the professional boat inspectors the brokerage used: one was in the hospital with his third or fourth heart attack, one outright refused to survey sailboats because of their cramped spaces, and then there was the English alcoholic who hadn't been seen since a near legendary bar fight, days earlier. Krikey! All I wanted was to pay for the boat and get us the hell out of there.

"The survey, it is most important, I insist! I am sure, so too will your insurance company." Erdem was strongly in favor of doing everything by-the-book. "You will not get insurance without the survey, and for crossing an ocean, insurance, it is necessary."

"It is? I don't get the point." Seeing the whites of his dark, Turkish eyes that acutely was alarming. I had to elaborate before they popped from their sockets. "We go down with the ship, who's going to collect? Nobody knows we're doing this. If we don't make it to the other side, nobody will even know we're gone."

"I will not sell to you this yacht without a survey!" Boy, was he persistent. "If you do not conduct the survey, I will return to you, your deposit."

An older Canadian woman, in the brokerage to pick up some papers for a motor yacht she and her husband had recently purchased, overheard. "There is an Australian man overseeing the refit of our yacht. I am not sure, but he claims to be a marine surveyor."

"Really, where?" She certainly had my attention.

"Oh, right here in the marina. I believe he lives on a boat." Leaving, she took my arm and pulled me aside. "I would not trust him, but you need a survey and he might be able to do it, in a pinch. You really do not want him doing anything but a survey, though."

That was ominous, but like I had a choice. Under the brutal afternoon sun, Erdem, Elena and I wandered the docks. We asked anyone we saw, if they'd heard of an Aussie boat surveyor around there. We actually found him -- a late to middle-aged eccentric living on a humongous, worn out, Turkish gulet. Erdem couldn't believe there was a professional surveyor right there, in town -- in that very marina -- that neither he nor his brokerage knew about.

I smiled. Serendipity was, once again, on our side. We needed the survey and Harvey said he could do it. He showed me official looking papers -- way better than Alexi's -- and glowing letters of recommendation from insurance companies. He promised to undercut everyone else, and most importantly, he could do it right away. We struck a deal.

I liked Harvey. He reminded me of my favorite grandfather, but hearing snatches of course Russian, from somewhere on the musty, old boat, set me on edge. Harvey picked up on it. "Aw right, that's just my Russian girlfriend. She's got some people over." He grinned. "You know, I've just thought of something. Your Elena's likely missing fellow Russians. I just bet she would enjoy meeting my girlfriend."

Done with Harvey, Erdem and I wandered toward the brokerage. Elena ghosted off toward our own yacht. She'd gotten the creeps from Harvey and whatever was happening on his big, old gulet.

"Erdem, it makes zero sense." I sort of thought aloud.

"Miss Meg, what is it that is making no sense?"

"That man, the surveyor. Did you tell Harvey that Elena is from Russia?"

He thought for a second. Adjusted his tie. "You know, never have I seen or heard of that man before."

Meg Stone meets Harvey

Serendipity was on their side, for a change. Meg is enchanted by Harvey aboard his dilapidated ship.

"Ahoooooy, Meggy!" Came yowling through our cabin's hatch in one long yell.

Elena buried her face in my hair. "Oy-yoy-yoy, Meg! Someone outside is yelling. What is happening? You go to see."

"Why me?" I groaned, dragging my carcass out of bed.

It was Harvey -- that's the boat inspector, in case you forgot -- doing all the yelling. I should have known from his nasally, chain-saw voice. "Come on, I have the travel-lift waiting. I'm doing your survey now. Where are the keys?"

"Keys? In the ignition, I guess." Maybe, where you stick the key is different on a boat; some hoity-toity nautical term, like they have for everything normal: toilet-head, kitchen-galley, rope-sheet, left-port. You put the keys in the ignition to start a car. Same thing's probably Davy Jones' Navel on a boat. "Wadda-ya need the keys for? The boat's open."

"You need to motor this vessel over to the travel-lift, right now. Sorry for the short notice, mate. A cancellation came up, and the marina just called me."

"Me! Drive this boat? No way. It's not even my boat yet. Get Erdem." I think that's when my standing outside, in the cockpit, in nothing but an extra-large, men's T-shirt-as-a-night-dress, struck me as a really great way to violate about a dozen decency ordinances, should I bend over, or encounter a light breeze. I grabbed a handful of hem on each side and held it down.

"I called your broker, but he's still in bed," Harvey looked me up and down with a leer. "Like you and your sexy Ruskie, I s'pose." He winked with one eye, like he was trying to eject a contact lens, then regained his composure -- if you can call it that. "The travel-lift is only available for another half hour. We gotta get there now!"

"Look, I'm not dressed. Can't you do it?"

He was at the helm before I finished asking.

Elena stuck her head up from below. "Shto proisxhodit? -- What's going on?"

"We're moving the boat to the travel something-or-other. By the way, what time is it?" I backed down the companionway, holding the hem of my T-shirt.

"A quarter to seven!" Harvey yelled from the helm -- that's the steering wheel. "You two, get some clothes on before we get to the travel-lift."

Scrambling into whatever clothing I found lying around, I yelled back up to Harvey, "By the way, what's a travel-lift?"

His answer was not encouraging. "A big machine that takes boats out of the water."

Yacht ready for lifting from the water

The yacht is positioned over a cradle of nylon straps under a travel-lift: a large mobile crane for taking boats in and out of the water.

A ponderous mobile crane positioned itself above the boat. A cradle of nylon straps was lowered into the water, and then, the yacht rose, dripping, from the sea. With the boat tucked into the virtual belly of the gigantic machine, the travel-lift rolled glacially over a wide tarmac. Elena and I watched the Salvador Daliesque scene: a sailboat floating above an asphalt sea.

Harvey walked toward us with a lopsided grin. He snatched Elena's hand. "My, my... Wouldn't my girlfriend like to meet you."

"Why?" Elena yanked her hand back.

"She's Russian, like you. Thought you might like some company."

Elena whirled, marching away.

I admired the way she didn't suffer fools gladly, but damn, we needed Harvey. I ran to catch up with her.

"Why did you tell him I am Russian? I do not like this man! I do not know his girlfriend and I don't want these strangers to know anything about me."

"I didn't tell him anything! He knew about you when I met him yesterday. We need this survey and he's only being friendly."

"I do not trust friendly people. There is always a reason for them to be friendly. His girlfriend is Russian! You cannot trust Russians." Elena headed for the marina's exit into town.

I stood my ground. On the spot, like always.

"Sorry, mate, but you know how those Russians can be." Harvey slapped me on the back.

I backed away. Looking at the dripping sailboat in the slings, I wondered if all this was really worth it. The boat looked a lot bigger, out of the water, than afloat. "How long will this survey take you?"

"Four, maybe five hours."

"Fine, get Erdem when you're done and put it back in its slip." I turned and ran after Elena.

travel-lift (mobile crane) Netsel Marmaris Marina

The sailboat hangs in the travel-lift (mobile crane) above the tarmac, ready for inspection.

The Australian's behavior was unsettling, but what could I do? If it got us closer to home, I had to humor the creepies -- Elena didn't. Storming off, she was way ahead of me. Already crossing the canal bridge into town, before I broke into a run to try and catch up.

Marmaris's castle coalesces out of ancient Greek dwellings that grow in size as one climbs the hill the town is built on. The higher up the hill the dwelling is perched -- that's closer to the castle -- the more affluent its denizens would have been in antiquity. Because everything essentially grew together, like a coral reef, or cells of an organism, it is nearly impossible, at the plebeian street level, to make out the castle, itself. We didn't know we had reached it until the castle wall itself became an obstacle. A dead end. In the pizza-oven like heat, Elena plunked herself down, on someone's front step, to brood.

Sea-glimpses between buildings revealed the bay that had once been home and refuge to Alexander the Great's fabled fleet. I pulled the camera from my pack and snapped a few shots.

"I cannot believe we will sail this sea?" Elena waved at the scene I was shooting.

"Me too, just look at how beautiful it is." I tried for a shot with some foreground perspective. "Why can't you believe it?"

"What do you think? Of course, I am afraid. You have, at least, little experience. To me, I have none. I have never been at the sea."

"Yeah, it's scary, but we're doing everything right." I was trying for reassuring. Probably, I was doing more to convince myself. "We are getting the right kind of boat. Making sure everything is safe. Like, by getting a survey with Harvey, for instance. And what choice do we have? We have to leave Turkey. We have to do it on our own. You can't get a visa. Even if you went back to Russia and got arrested, and thrown in a mental hospital, you will never get out again."

Elena Ivanova

Elena sits on someone's front step to think things out and come to grips with what they were embarking on.

"I know that. It is why to me this," she waved at the cobblestones abutting the castle wall, "this is the end of the road."

"The end of the road is the beginning of the sea. Our only option is to sail, but we aren't throwing ourselves into the ocean tomorrow. We have time. I will make sure we are ready." The truth is, I was scared too. When I saw the boat hanging, like a toy, in that great, big crane I was starting to doubt myself. Only real difference between Elena and me, I thought, was that she could be scared. I couldn't.

"I know you will do everything you can." It was like she sensed my foreboding. Her voice softened. "I know we have no choice, but Meg, I don't know what I am capable of. We are facing oceans and seas, such an immense undertaking, and I cannot help but be afraid of it. It scares me just to talk about it here on land. At sea I will be useless. I am not just afraid, I am terrified. We are talking about death here. That time when we sailed with Erdem and that Frenchman, I could do nothing. I was frozen with fear. I couldn't even move, and that was only a sunny day in that pretty bay you take pictures of now." Elena raked both hands through her hair. "Even if I wasn't afraid, I still don't know how to sail!"

A red-faced troupe of profusely sweating Brits huffed past with cheerful greetings, before I continued. "Of course you don't know how to sail... yet, but that's not a problem. If you can ride a bike, you can learn to sail. We've got time before the deal on the boat closes. I'll sign you up for sailing lessons."

"You can not teach me?"

I snapped off a couple more shots. "I'd rather not. A professional will do a better job and cover stuff I might miss." It sounded plausible.

Elena hugged her knees. Went silent. I wondered how long she had before someone wanted to use their front step.

With something like a third-degree sunburn ravaging my nose, I reached down, took her hand. "It's time to go."

We started downhill on a narrow cart-passage of time polished, heat-shimmering cobblestones. Elena clomped beside me in her Doc Martens. Her hand was cold -- even in the searing heat -- and she held on, like she was afraid of letting go.

I was starting to worry about this adventure.

New Marmaris seen from the castle

The new -- well 'new' in that less-than-300-years-old sense of the word 'new' -- part of Marmaris and the bay Alexander the Great parked his fleet in during the off-season, as seen from the castle wall.


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