Man at the Top (This complete editorial can be found at: www.yachtingmatters.com Edition 31)
Interviewed by Colin Squire
Mike Brewer, often referred to as a legend within our industry by those that know him, has travelled to my home town of Bungay to let me delve into his life history. He talks about his early setbacks in life, how he overcame these and then began a very rough and tough career at sea, a vocation that eventually took him to Greece and then on to become one of the worlds most knowledgeable and respected yacht agents.
Mike, where and when were you born?
I was born in Cape Town in 1947 when my dad was in the Royal Navy, based in Simon's Town. He was transferred back to Chatham Navy Barracks when I was six months old and we moved back to England during the winter of 1948.
What was your dad's name?
Harry Charles Brewer and my mum was Joan Hazel Cathleen Wright, she obviously became Brewer, she was third generation South African, originally from Irish decent and she married my dad when he got back after the war. They had known each other for about five years and as soon as he returned from the war they were married. About one year and a bit later, I came along.
You mentioned your dad sailed on the feted HMS Hood?
He joined the Navy in 1935 and was de-mobbed in 1950, he was probably around 18 or 19 when he was on HMS Hood for about six months during the Spanish Civil war. Most of his time in the Navy he spent hunting submarines on the HMS Shropshire, a county class cruiser and the HMS Woodcock which was an anti-submarine frigate. He was in the Walker group, which was set up for hunting U-boats and he was given the DSM, if I am not mistaken, for an action where they sank two German submarines. Towards the end of the war he went out to the Far East and finished the war in Sri Lanka before transferring back to Simon's Town.
How long were you in Chatham for?
Just over a year. I contracted polio shortly after my arrival in England and I was kept in a glass isolation box for six months. I came out of hospital when I was just over a year old. My dad was de-mobbed and the Doctor said it would be better for me to be in a warmer climate and we went back to Cape Town when I was about two and a half. We were all treated as immigrants, in spite of the fact that I had been born there. After arriving back mum when to work and dad found a job and we settled down and started our life there.
What sort of job did he find?
When he was in the Navy he was an Electric and Electronic Technician as well as a Radio Operator. Jobs at the time were difficult to get, luckily my mum's uncle was very influential in municipal politics and was able to get him a job with the council and he worked there for about six months on the electrical side. Then he ended up working for the Otis Elevator Company as an Electrical Technician and he did that right up to his retirement at 65.
How did the polio affect you?
That is a long story....The polio affected my leg quite badly actually. It was from the left knee down and it retarded the growth of my left foot, resulting in my left foot being three sizes smaller than my right foot which makes it nigh on impossible to find a pair of shoes, even if you buy two pairs! It also destroyed some of the tendons in my foot so that it wouldn't straighten and I had to undergo a series of orthopaedic operations from the age of three that lasted for about 16 years. I seemed to end up in hospital every Christmas or during the June school holiday. I was in hospital for three weeks every year with my leg in plaster and stitches and everything else. It was most upsetting with my left foot having an orthopaedic boot with irons which was pretty useless until I started playing sport. I was encouraged to play sport and once I started I found that I enjoyed it, it helped my foot quite a lot. Things got a lot better after that, I became fanatical about sport and then I started to enjoy life, it was just the yearly operation that would bring me down. I was Captain of the very first Western Provence School hockey side, I played first division hockey and club cricket at senior league. Life was good, but I did want to go to sea and that is when things changed a bit.
What do you remember about school?
Academic wise I was not very successful, to put it mildly, I had no interest in school whatsoever and sport was the only thing that was ever of any interest to me. Besides wanting to go to sea, I certainly had no interest in becoming anything or studying anything and I didn't try very hard when I was at school and was glad to get out of it! I did have many very good friends though and they are still friends today. Then came the experience of leaving school and trying to find a means of living, which is where the fun started. I had wanted to go into the South African Navy, they obviously rejected me because of my foot. Then I wanted to go into the Merchant Navy as a Deck Officer, but was rejected from that. I certainly did not want to go into engineering as I had no interest and definitely no ability either. I was accepted to go as an apprentice deck officer on a very modern 50m fishing trawler, which I enthusiastically accepted, against my mother's wishes - she was quite horrified, she wanted me to go and work in the bank for the rest of my life. I took that job and that did not work out at all well.
Well each trip was two weeks, basically two days ashore and two weeks away, I did it for about six months. First of all we sailed out of Cape Town harbour and I became violently sea sick for a day and nearly died so that didn't endear me to it much. Then when I got used to that, I was doing bridge watches and I was taught what to do and how to do it etc, then after about a week or so into the first trip I was doing my own bridge watch when there was a slight mishap off the Namibian coast and not concentrating the way I should have been we lost the entire net which obviously the captain was not too pleased about, the only redeeming factor is that we did not lose the wires as they cost more than the net did.
They demoted me to assistant deck hand after that mishap and that was rough, having to work with some of the hardest fishing crew in the world, trust me. They were hard boys and to have a little white kid amongst them in those days in South Africa... The boson was a short well built fellow, very fair and very correct, but took no nonsense. He hit anybody that did the wrong thing at the best of times. One of my jobs was that when the trawl came up with anything between five and 20 ton of fish in it, an hydraulic door opened in the deck to what they called the stable, where they dropped the fish inside. This huge net would swing over the door and my job was to pull the rope that opened the net to drop all the fish down into the stable. Well I got it wrong once and half of it went back into the sea and the other half went all over the deck, to say that the bloke and everyone else was upset would put it mildly. He got so upset with me, I was bending over picking up fish, that he picked up this huge six foot octopus and threw it at me and it flattened me onto the deck. The octopus crawled slowly all over me and over my head and out through the scuppers and back into the sea, that was when I decided I really did not want to be a fisherman anymore.
How did you react to that, it must have felt horrific?
Absolutely, I cried, I was terrified, frustrated and everything else, that was ‘Welcome to manhood the hard way’. My next job on board came after that, ‘you don't seem to be too good on deck either, have you ever used a gun?' ‘Absolutely, I said’ They gave me a shotgun and about 1000 rounds and every time the net came up, which was about two times a day, I had to shoot the sharks that got close. The sharks caused absolute havoc with the nets and the deck hands would have to repair them for hours before we could re-launch again. There I was shooting sharks from about 20ft away, I shot and shot as there were thousands of sharks and I shot until I could not shoot anymore on one side and then changed to the other shoulder as I could shoot equally well from either. The net would then be re-launched and about eight hours later up it would come in again and I would shoot another 100 sharks, then the next day and the day after would be the same and by this time my shoulders were seriously hurting. I then made the fatal mistake, that anyone who has ever used a shot gun or rifle will know, that if you do not hold it very firmly into your shoulder you are going to get damaged, especially with a 12 gauge and I did, it kicked the hell out of me. It bruised my arm and shoulders and I went to the captain to complain and he said ‘what type of job are we going to give you now’.
It was then that I was demoted to the fish room, the fish factory below decks. There were about seven or eight sailors in a row each side of the conveyor belt and as the fish came by they would grab them, slash them down the middle and pull the innards out and throw the fish back on the belt and the innards went on another conveyor belt and over the side. You had to be very fast, and the knives were very sharp, by the time I had got a fish, poked the knife into it and felt around inside about 100 fish had gone past and everyone would be cursing me. I had to get out of there as I was doing more harm than good and so I was sent down the fish packing room to pack fish. After a day of working down in the ice room I decided that the fishing industry was definitely not in my best interest and I only had a couple more months of it to go. Every trip when I came home my folks would ask how it was doing, I had told them that I was going to be a fisherman and I was too embarrassed to tell them that I hated it and just couldn't wait to get out of it. So I stayed on it, I was promoted back on deck where I was a little more careful and soon picked up a load of experience even though I got pushed around a lot, which I don’t think did me any harm.
My dad walks in after one trip and said that the Cape Technical College were doing a course in marine electronics, which he thought I might want to try. I didn't know anything about electricity and wasn't interested in it. So my dad said ‘do you want to stay on that fishing boat, yes or no?’ I agreed to give it a go, anything to get off the boat and I joined this college two months in and had a lot of catching up to do which was really difficult. My dad having been in the same industry helped me every day after work, slowly pushing me through and I slowly caught up with the other lads. I eventually finished college which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Eventually I completed that and went to sea as an apprentice Radio Officer for six months for the highly respected Safmarine Company. I was the second radio officer and I was told by the Senior Radio Officer that my job explicitly on board was to sweep the radio room out every day and sharpen all the indelible pencils, they had no ball points. You were not allowed to use an ordinary pencil, there was carbon paper and everything was sent off to the Government at the end of each trip, so no mistakes could be corrected. We did not have air conditioning on ships in those days and when you went into the tropics your hands sweated and you rubbed your forehead and ended up with a purple face each day. After about five months I was actually allowed to operate some of the equipment. I finished there and worked on tankers after that.
You must have been to some pretty interesting places?
Well, the Med, the UK run, we did the South African coast, Mozambique, then on tankers for a few months travelling between the Persian Gulf and Bombay, Mombasa, Australia, Singapore and a few other places. That was eight months on and four months off, with a good bunch of people and a very nice ship. You did not really have much spare time on a tanker but, being the R.O. I had a lot of time off which I spent doing shopping for everybody else because they couldn't get off. The Persian Gulf wasn't very interesting simply because everything was switched off, all antennas had to be put in the earth position and the main switches of all equipment were sealed, a driver of a car with no car so to speak.
I was given the job of taking a big steel box with the vessels Wallport films ashore to the Seaman's Club. They had a wall to wall film storage room there where you changed the box and took a new set of movies back to the tanker. It was quite a difficult job as to get a steel box off a tanker that has about four foot of gas on the deck, imagine if you drop the box, in theory you would blow the ship up. I would return with these new big reels of film - we had a proper film projector on board and in the games room we had two film sessions a day. The lads on board would open the box up and say ‘what a tosser, what is this rubbish you have brought back?’ We would be given one war film, one cowboy, one romance, one sports and that was it. So they would say ‘use your imagination laddie, go ashore and get us some decent films’ so the next time I went ashore, when no one was looking I would swop the films around and get all the films that these lads had requested.
I had all sorts of funny experiences out there, but some should just not be repeated. There was the parrot that I had bought in Mombasa when I was out with the boys on the town one night and I got into desperate trouble as the next day we realised that all it could do was make a mess and chew up everything like my curtains, eat my bunk and anything else. We got to Australia and I declared this parrot and they called me and the parrot up to the captain's cabin. There were two gentleman, one in a suit and one in a white coat, the one in a suit made me fill out all kinds of papers and the one in the white coat took the parrot away. He made me sign a sworn declaration, where I had bought it, why I had bought it, what was its name and I said that it hadn't got a name and the captain said ‘for god sake Brewer give the parrot a ruddy name’ so I said Peter the Parrot and he said it that Peter or Peter the Parrot so I said yes Peter the Parrot, I had to read through the form and sign it. Whilst I was doing it there was a noise and then another squeak and squawk and then silence. What they had got me to sign was a death certificate and they had wrung the parrots neck behind my back and put him in a box. That's when I found out that Australians weren't very liberal about bringing birds into their country.
I then heard that a friend of mine from the Unicorn Shipping Company, which was basically a coasting company that did the West Coast of Africa on the log trade and the Indian Ocean Islands with general cargo had a vacancy coming up. My mate was a Radio Officer on the Indian Ocean Island run and he wanted to sign off in a month and a half and asked if I was interested in the job, I don't think there was a crew member in the Southern Hemisphere that didn't want to get on a vessel on that run. I applied for it, signed off the tanker and went and joined Unicorn. The post wasn't open yet so I spent about six weeks on the South African coast on a very small ship which was very interesting to put it mildly and then joined the motor vessel Bastion. I probably then had two and a half of the best years of my life. We did Cape Town to East London and then Reunion Island. Reunion to Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, Mozambique, Durban and back to Cape Town. I would stay in Cape Town for about two weeks and have all my washing done by my mum and then I was ready to go again.
They were very backward places but very nice. Things were very basic, no tourists around, except in Mauritius but there were not many there, as they had only finished the airport a few years before I was there. I did an enormous amount of diving whilst I was there, I made friends with local divers and we used to go diving every single day that I had off. I did all kinds of diving, it was what we take for granted today, but it was all very new in those days. Mozambique was lovely, it was long before they got their independence and you could live the life of Riley.
Were you allowed to go onshore and party?
Yes, absolutely you could do what you liked, you would be there for about four or five days at a time. Then a very unfortunate incident happened - we got caught smuggling, not myself, but a certain senior member of the crew was smuggling routinely to Mauritius and got caught by the authorities. He had about 25 crates of whisky and 30 boxes of cigarettes on board and an horrific fine was placed on this individual and we were in disgrace when we got back to Durban, we had let the company down and the vessel was taken off foreign and put on coastal articles and that was the end of us doing the Islands of the Indian Ocean. The vessel that replaced us, by some miraculous chance, had a Radio Officer on board that was a friend of mine and he was going deaf and was going to transfer out. I re-applied and got transferred to the replacement vessel and the fun and games carried on.
It was back to the Indian Ocean with diving and more parties and the good life. It all came to an abrupt end when we got a telegram staying ‘kindly confirm that the spare propeller is on board and exactly where it is’. Maritime language in those days was such that when that question was asked you were 99% sure that the vessel was going to be sold, this put us all in panic mode. We arrived in Durban and three men came on board in suits speaking a funny language. They walked around talking in English and then spoke to each other in their language and we were told they were Greeks inspecting the vessel with a view to buying in. They worked their way around the vessel and came up to the radio room and asked if the equipment was any good. In actual fact the equipment was ancient rubbish and but with me representing the best interests of my company I said ‘absolutely, this is all singing, all dancing, equipment’. Then they asked for and received the ok to do a trial trip with the vessel for three days down to Cape Town. One was a superintendent engineer and the other two were the potential owners. We proceeded down to Cape Town where they confirmed that they would purchase the vessel and then they approached me and asked if I would be prepared to work for them.
Now the Greek Merchant Navy in the very late 60s and the early 70s had the worst name in the maritime industry as it was associated with many flags of convenience. The actual Greek flagged vessels were not so bad but a lot of the ones on a foreign flag with Greek management or ownership had a very bad name. It was literally the worst thing you could say to someone, to ask them to work on a Greek ship. When I was asked this I said ‘absolutely no, but thanks’ and they asked how much I was earning and they offered me twice the money tax free. I went home and told my dad about it and he said ‘son you have been at sea for five years, how much money do you have in the bank?’ I said not much and he said ‘how much’ and I told him that I had nothing so he said ‘are you proud of yourself’ and I said ‘no, but I have had a good time’ so he said ‘that's got to stop sometime and you need to start making a living’. He basically told me to take it, so I took the job and it was a cultural change that I cannot quite describe, it was quite shocking, everything different to what I had been used to in every single possible way, the food , culture, language, habits and the mythology of the job too.
An all Greek crew?
All the officers were Greek, the Zulu crew that we had at the time stayed on board as they were offered really good wages and they were excellent at their jobs. The trouble was that the Greeks did not really understand the Zulus and there was a conflict there, you had to treat these people with respect and correctness and they would do anything for you. The Greeks did not do that and upset them quite a lot. We sailed to Lorenzo Marques and we had a one month trip from there to Venezuela. The captain announced that we could put in orders for bonded stores, I ordered 30 crates of beer and I was nearly fired on the spot. Amongst themselves they had decided I was probably an alcoholic and they did not want to employ an alcoholic, they wanted to chuck me off but couldn't find a replacement and kept me on board. The trouble was that when I went to sea I had no one to drink with as all my mates had gone and the Greeks were not drinkers. I would walk around the vessel asking if anyone fancied a beer, my 30 crates lasted me about five months instead of one.
We got to Venezuela, we were carrying rolls of paper, each roll weighing about eight tons and about six foot wide, when the gyro compass packed up. This was a serious problem and the captain asked if I knew anything about gyros. I didn't know very much but I offered to have a go at repairing it. We ran 40 ft of paper across the bridge, took the top of the gyro off and drew around it with a pencil and lifted it up and wrote Number 1, carrying on until we had totally dismantled the gyro and found the fault, then putting it back together we started at 173 and re-assembled. The gyro worked and the Greeks absolutely forgave me for my crates of beer, in fact I was given better beer after that. ‘Have some more Mr Mike’ and my relationship with them got better and better and then they asked me to be the ship’s doctor.
‘If anybody shows me an injection needle I faint so I can't be the ship's doctor’, I told them and they said there was ‘Radio Medico’ which was based in Rome at the time, it was the international medical centre and if any ship needed a Doctor, you could ring 24 hours a day for help. You had a standard ships medical manual on board, that could be referred to and you had the standard ships medical kit which was a huge wooden box with many numbered drawers. They said that I was the only person on board that could understand the book so I had to do it. I told them I would try and that was about all.
We left Venezuela and we had a new chefs assistant, a young kid of about 17, we got to Costa Rica and he came up and said ‘Sir, I have some disease in my parts down there’, so I opened the ships manual and said ‘argh yes, classical symptoms of Gonnereah, I will speak to the agent and see if we can get you into hospital’, the agent wasn't available and by the next day I had 11 crew come up with the same problem. I couldn't believe this, the entire crew barring the officers. We went down to the hospital with the whole lot. It was my job to go with them. The agent is talking to the doctor and the doctor has taken one look at this lot and says we need someone Spanish, I only understand English, so a middle aged nurse comes along and she doesn't understand a word of English and the doctor tells me to go with her. I follow her down the passage and she taps on the shutter in the wall and it opens up, it is the pharmacy, she is chatting away and then signals me to follow her into a ward with several men in it. She then gets one of these kidney shaped bowls and a couple of bottles, she was also holding a very big heavy glass syringe. She goes up to the first bloke and tells him to turnover, he says no when he sees the syringe but then turns over after a swift short reply from the nurse. She says watch and shows me where to give the injection, she slaps him and he tenses, then when he relaxed she gives him the injection. She then knocks on the shutter again and gets two big plastic bags full of stuff. She hands it to me and off I go back to the vessel with the crew and two bags of syringes and penicillin. First was the Venezuelan boy ‘right I need to give you an injection’ he looks at me and says ‘sir your hand is shaking, why don't you go for a drink and I will come back in an hour’ so I did, and he came back to try again and I gave him the injection, it was as easy as eating a piece of cake. I called the rest of the crew up, the first one was the boson, about 6ft 7” tall and very well built and also slightly worried as he knew I wasn't the official doctor. I told him to bend down, I slapped him and when he relaxed I tried inserting the needle, which unfortunately bounced off, he shouted out in pain, I try again, this time it goes in, he is screaming and shouting. I made a mistake though as with penicillin you have to push the plunger gently and I pushed it too fast which made it burn and hurt. The needle detached itself from the syringe and he pulled his pants up not realising this and was running about screaming. When I looked up at the port hole there were all these eyes watching, but by the time I opened the door they had all run away. Three days later I eventually finished the rest of the crew and that was my first and last medical experience.
I did lots of funny jobs that I had never done before; they made me steer in and out of every harbour as I could understand the pilot and the steering language. You get pretty good at that after a while. For example going up the Mississippi I would be eight hours at the wheel. Another one of my jobs was when we went deep sea and I would do the eight to 12 watch in place of the captain, if I saw anything I would give him a shout and he would come up to the bridge. In mid passage across the Atlantic I used to put positions on the chart at 10 o'clock and midnight and they couldn't understand how I could do that as I didn't know anything about taking star sights. This went on for about a month and they were getting seriously upset with me as they couldn't find out how the hell I was doing it, as there was no GPS in those days and all the other navigational systems did not work in the middle of the Ocean. All I did was, when I saw a ship coming close, I would flash him with an aldiss lamp and ask him to come up on VHF and I would say to him ‘I am just the apprentice on board and would someone give me an accurate position please’ and I would put it on the course line. If I didn't have a ship coming down I would call up two other ships on the Morse key and I would hold the key down and they would take a bearing of me with their DF and give me the reference bearing and I would just cross section it, but I never told them what I was doing. They couldn't figure it out.
I was generally well looked after by the Greeks when I worked for them. They pulled several tricks on me as when I was learning the language they would tell me the wrong words, I used to write the words down every day and I religiously studied this every night. One night I heard the captain shout out for the 2nd mate and I heard the word ‘horiste’ from the 2nd mate. I went to see him with my little book and a pencil and said what does that mean and he said that's only when the Captain is speaking to the 2nd officer, so I said ‘when he is speaking to the Radio Officer what do I say’ so he told me another word. I wrote this new word down in my little book and practiced it and about three days later the Captain shouts Marconi (that's what he would shout for the Radio Officer) I got my book out and shouted out 'K*f*la', I would not dare mention his reply to me, but needless to say it was not very nice, following that he came steaming up the stairs, red face asking why I spoke to him like that and asked me where I got that word from. I explained that the 2nd officer had told me that was the word I should use to respond to the captain. He went straight into the bridge and strangled the 2nd officer. That put me on my guard and made me very nervous and I didn't trust anyone after that, it was very unfortunate and I told them that I would leave at the end of the contract.
Did you have a set to with the 2nd officer?
No but I did have a problem on a cargo ship a couple of years before where my cabin steward took the shirt my girlfriend had given me. He stole the shirt out of my cabin, it was brand new and in its packet, the only person that could have had keys to my cabin was the steward and I reported it to the captain. He ordered the officers to search the crew accommodation and mess and they found it but not on the person so they couldn't prove anything. Later that day I was threatened by the steward who said that he would find out where I and my mother and father lived and settle up with me. I went ashore at night and stood behind a warehouse and when he came by I hit him around the head with a bit of 4 by 4 and did a few other things and that was the end of that, no one helped him and the story finished.
Nobody liked him?
Even though other crew watched me they knew that I was right and he was wrong and they just stayed out of it. The whole point was to show the bloke that he couldn't threaten me.
How did you end up on the Greek ship?
I earned good money with the Greeks but I couldn't spend it, they didn't have the same interest when we went ashore. I did have a serious complaint though about my life style because we left the Caribbean and west coast of South and Central America where we had been for eight or nine months and went up to Romania and Algeria and then we started trading Algeria and the West Coast of Africa and that was not nice, I did that for a couple of years and didn't enjoy it at all. We spent three and a half months anchored at sea off the Bonny River in Nigeria, with pirates raiding the ships. We had no fresh food on board, we had to catch it. When the vessel got back to Europe I signed off in Marseilles and I was about one third less in weight than normal. I arrived back in Greece and got married about one month later.
How did you meet your wife?
When I worked for the Greeks I had to fly to Athens to the company offices where I stayed a couple of hours signing contracts and discussing things and it was there that I was served a cup of coffee by my wife to be, Zafiria, who spoke to me in English, which was most impressive because at that time in Greece hardly anyone spoke English. It was a pleasant surprise and she was an absolutely gorgeous girl, but I had to join the vessel in Varna, Bulgaria. I was talking to the captain on the bridge one day and I told him about the gorgeous girl in the office and he promptly writes a letter and tells her I was madly in love with her and wanted her to write to me. She did and that's where it all started. I arrived back a year later and went to court her and met the family but none of them could speak English. The chap that worked in the office was English, Harry Wellman, and he spoke excellent Greek so he did all the translation and introductions and really helped the situation. They seemed to accept me and time passed and one day I am sitting with her father and a translator and he asked how much was an air ticket to go back to England. I said that I hadn't a clue and that I wasn't English but South African. He was not a travelled man and when he heard the word Africa this was enough for him ‘you are going to try and take my only daughter and go and live in a tree hut in Africa... you can forget about it, you are not going, as a matter of fact I don't think I want you near my daughter again’ so the next morning I was on the next plane back to South Africa. It was a big disaster as I really was seriously in love.
Anyway I got back to South Africa, I got into one of the most interesting jobs that I had ever done in my life. My cousin owned the second biggest earth moving company in the country and I did a three month foreman apprenticeship in earthworks and then I got a site foreman's job on a road that was being built along the west coast using very heavy machinery. Time and motion, time and money was explained to me with graphs, you had to move so much soil per day from here to there. If you meet the requirements you keep your job, if you move more soil you keep your commission. It was all explained and it was a fascinating job. You sat there with a stop watch and a notebook and you just made things work and calculated how long it took. The machine hardly ever stopped. It taught me a lot about work and how money was made.
I did that for about a year and then I had had enough and needed to be at sea again. I wrote to the Greeks and they said that they had a job for me. I was still writing to my wife to be then, I just used another line of attack this time. I went through her cousin who was a highly educated chap and he agreed to help me and I flew over and secretly saw her for about a week and then went to sea for another 14 months to make some money. The cousin worked on her father for 14 months, persuading him that I wasn't such a bad bloke, I came from a good family, so I was allowed to visit when I came back. I was accepted and then I went back to sea to make more money. That was in about 1977. I then came back to Europe signed off and went back to Greece and got married. All my family came over from South Africa, they enjoyed it thoroughly and I was starting a new life in a country where I couldn't really understand too much of the language. I was very lucky that I got a job almost straight away as the Technical Manager of a marine electronics company that did the service requirements for merchant vessels, communication and bridge equipment. I did that for eight years, that job I didn't like at all, it was very hard, you would go out to a vessel and come back three days later, you never knew if you had the right spare part with you, I would be flown all over the place under the most extenuating circumstances, it was a terrible job. After eight years, during which I had started my own company, I was asked to go and do an installation on a 35m yacht in London for a friend of mine.
You started a company?
Yes, I had started a company and had a customer base of about 28 vessels, I had a Greek partner in the beginning but he left as he got a job with the Government. I managed to persuade my clients that I could be away for five weeks to complete a job in England and they agreed to that and I went away to do this job which started at the Queens berth on the Thames. We ended up in Poole taking the boat out of the water and completing the installation there. The five weeks turned to five and a half months, I was well paid, my wife and young daughter, Joanne, were flown over for Christmas, everyone had a great time, it was one of our family experiences, they left, I finished the job. I went back to Greece and had lost all of my customers and that was the worst experience of my life, I was then unemployed for three months.
You mentioned you had a bad experience in Poland?.
Yes this was while I was on the Greek ship, I got on the wrong side of the law. It was in Gydinia and the laws were very strict under the Communist Regime. You made a full customs declaration on arrival and you were not allowed to take any currency ashore. You had to be supplied through the agent with Polish money which was Zloty, but if you could change money ashore you would get 10 x the rate, so it was in everybody's interest to try and smuggle money. What we would do is to take a couple of hundred in polish money from the Agent and go ashore with half the amount and come back and say here are my shoes I have just bought and that is what is left of my Polish money. I went ashore with my friend the electrician one night, I was wearing my turtle neck jersey as it was very cold and I had put $100 under the turnover on the jersey collar. We were stopped at the gate and taken up to the customs office for searching. They only picked on the Electrician and searched him everywhere. They let us go and by this time I was shaking with fear, we went out to a series of clubs in the hills which were fantastic and I became riotously drunk on vodka that cost next to nothing. The electrician fancied all the girls that were there and I fancied the Vodka, I ended up staggering back to a taxi at around midnight telling him where I needed to go and then promptly fell asleep.
The next thing I knew the taxi stopped, the door was pulled open and I was pulled out, there was thick mist and I could not see anything, plus heavy snow on the pavement. I kicked the bloke who was holding me right between the legs and ran off as fast as I could considering the condition I was in. Somebody stuck their foot out and I tripped over and three men jumped on me. Unfortunately for me the bloke I had kicked was a policeman, for some reason the taxi had taken me to the police station. I was dragged into the charge room, slapped about a bit, chucked into a cell and then taken back into the charge room and told I could sign a paper and go. I refused to sign it as it was in Polish and they slapped me around a bit more and threw me back into the cell. They then dragged me out of the cell into the courtyard, there were huge basins there full of water, each with a thin layer of ice on the top. ‘You like Polish Vodka’ I said it was excellent stuff, with this they grabbed me by my hair and dunked me under the water, then said ‘You like Polish Vodka’ I said I did and I was dunked again, I still refused to sign the paper and was put back in the cell and the whole procedure was repeated through the night. Each time the paper was changing colour, first white, then yellow, then blue, with different wording. They lost their temper and beat me up and threw me out of the police station where I landed in a heap on the snow. A taxi came to a screeching halt right in front of me. Two blokes jumped out, I explained the story. They took me to my gate, only to be stopped by the customs officer, I was covered in blood and bruises and he made me stand against the wall and lifted the $100 from under my turtle neck. I said ‘if you keep that, can I go?’ I got back to the ship and the Owner and Captain were standing at the top of the gang plank, they took one look at me and said ‘right let's call the agent and get you down to the police station to make a statement’, I told them it was the police that had beaten me up!
Going back to your career, you had lost your business?
Yes I was three months without a job, married with a new wife and a five year old daughter. It was the worst experience of my life, it would be for any man with a family. Then I was sitting in a pub with expat British people, a Superintendent engineer, charter brokers, etc. I met this distinguished looking English man called Roger Stafford, he was about 11 years older than me and seemed a very nice person, he was in the yachting industry. He said that his secretary had just left him and gone back to New Zealand and asked me if I knew of a lady that was looking for a job as a secretary. I explained that I was on the bones of my bum and was desperate to be considered for the job and he said, although it was slightly unusual, that he would give me a try. I explained I knew nothing about yachting. The hours were only nine to one and I started happy to have some money in my pocket again and that was when the good Lord was looking down on me to put it mildly.
It started the 2nd phase of my life and was my introduction into the yachting industry. I would sit behind the desk not having a clue what to do, he would say type this letter up, do a customs manifest, charter agreement etc. It all started slowly, he was a fantastic bloke with the patience of a saint, he would explain everything and we got on like a house on fire. In the winter he would come into the office with a bottle of brandy and at 1 o'clock he would say ‘right let's have a drink’ its freezing outside and in the summer time he would bring cold beer and do the same thing. Whilst I was writing out all of these invoices for his customers, I kept noticing there were all kinds of repairs being done, echo sounders, radars, SSB, VHFs etc etc. I told him that I used to do that and asked if I could do the repairs. He was happy and just asked that I added 15% on what I charged him and to go ahead. I was writing the quotations, doing the repairs and writing the account afterwards, suddenly I had a huge amount of repair work.
He ran a guardianage business, with about 28 boats, mostly sail boats, customers he had had for many years, this was before Greece entered the EU and we didn't have the luxury of European products. We had Retsina wine in Greece, which was bad by my standards, you couldn't get Marmite, back bacon and all the other luxuries that we now take for granted. We used to get them all from the truck drivers or the boats. When Rogers clients used to come out to take delivery of their boat they would bring a couple of bottles of wine from wherever they came from and we built up quite a large collection of good wine. I was doing my job in the morning and repairs in the afternoon. Roger and I had built a complete workshop in the kitchen, he would take the equipment off, bring it up to the office and I would repair it. It worked exceptionally well. In the meantime I was doing the odd merchant ship here and there.
I then worked as a consultant for a Greek company called Intermarine Electronics, who built one of the first GMDSS consoles. They built it in conjunction with an English company called ICS who made the modems and did the their approvals and we did the consoles and fitted all the equipment etc. I was involved in the type approval of a computer that went into it. No computer had ever been marine type approved before. This was going to be a first, it took me over a year, with myself and the managing director of the company flying to England and Holland to visit the various test laboratories, a very interesting job and all this while working for Roger.
I was pretty busy, earning good money and life was sweet. I didn't have to fly around doing vessel repairs, I had a normal home life with a lovely family. My boss Roger decided he was going to sell the company, he got a buyer, a famous yachtsman's called George Zaimis who had sailed with the King of Greece in the Rome Olympics in 1960 and had won. George had a company called Sea Trade, his nephew Andreas Polemis had just come out of college, he had been a professional basket ball player and George had said lets buy Roger Staffords business. Basically they bought in and bought me along with it. I picked up my bag trundled down the hill into the Sea Trade office and was given a desk and started with them. Rodger had taught me a lot, I had been doing repairs on GRP boats, rigging, carpentry, sail repairs, the things I didn't have a clue about I learned. He taught me not to park an aluminium boat alongside a coppered sheath bottom, lots of things. If you don't know the small yacht side of it you do not know the yachting business. The big yachts for me were easier. I had 11 years of training with Roger. At Sea Trade we got into the Agency business. People would come to us when yachts started to get to the 30m mark and they had arrived in the country and needed assistance. They wanted an Agent, we didn't really know what an agent was, we were doing things like going to the supermarket, ordering flowers, arranging doctor's appointments, we just did what was asked of us.
You got to meet some very influential people in our industry?
Definitely the better known. Yes, there was Ben Marshall from Red Dragon days, Richard Kirby from Mayan Queen, Mark Davies who is now the Fleet Manager at Hill Robinson and many many others.
There was an incident when I had been working for Roger for about one and a half years and a very smartly dressed young lad comes down the Quay, blond hair, blue eyes, South African, speaking more in an English accent than South African. He asked if we had any day work for him, I looked and though he didn't look like day work material, he looked more of a mummy's boy, I didn't think he was up to a good hard day's work. I asked him to come back the next morning and I took him on a 35ft GRP sail boat, we lifted up all the floor boards and I showed him the inches thick cement ballast that ran from stem to stern. I gave him a chisel and hammer and asked him to remove it all without damaging the boat and to bag it up and take it on deck for it to be cleared away. It must have been about 35 degrees outside, I hate to think what it was inside. It was the most horrible job you could have given anybody. He spent about two days doing it. Every time he looked at me there was loathing in his eyes and that young lad was Richard Masters from Master Yachts. He launched and is now running a company managing and building yachts of 100 metres plus, he is right at the top of the industry and I take my hat off to him. I like to think I helped him along the way in the beginning. He has never lost the opportunity of telling whoever wants to listen that I gave him his first and worst job in yachting. He is a dear friend and I feel proud that he has made such a success of himself.
How do you remember Ben Marshall?
Ben Marshall was a flotilla leader, he then got a job on a 20m Jongert owned by A Greek millionaires daughter. Later on he went onto Naos and he became very well known, then to Red Dragon. Not only very well-known but a popular, respected and much loved man in the industry. Roger went back further with him than I did, but I have certainly known Ben close to 27 years.
Roger died last year?
Unfortunately Roger passed away in April 2015 after a bad illness. He retired when he was about 60, he had lung cancer and had one lung completely removed. He had something similar to a stroke that affected his nervous system and his body just stopped working, he died in a very unpleasant way. It was very sad, he was like a big brother and best friend to me. My family and I are very thankful to him for giving me the break in life that I very much needed.
How did Sea Trade go for you?
I ran the agency side of it and still did a few repairs here and there, but I was 48 and my eyes started to deteriorate and you cannot do repairs on printed circuit boards unless you have very good eyes or use a magnifying glass. I realised it was the end of road for that in my life. Then I started expanding the agency business in Sea Trade, I used all the captains I knew, they gave me good references and recommended me to more people and more business came in. Andreas got me an assistant in the office to help, the business started to expand and it went well, I found more customers and made more friends.
Then in 2000 Makis and Rosemary Pavlatou in Rhodes, who had a company called Yacht Agency Rhodes, approached Andreas and said why don’t we join our two companies together as, even though we had worked together, we were in opposition to each other. Why don't we make a new company called A1 Yachting. There was a lot of talk about it and then the American owned yacht Battered Bull ran aground north of Santorini. She was severely damaged and was towed off by a tug boat to a repair yard in Piraeus, taken out the water and very large repairs were carried out over a five month period.
What caused her to run aground, there must have been an investigation?
There was, it appears someone had changed course and it was very unfortunate as this area is known to have extremely deep water but that bit was shallow. It caused a lot of damage to the vessel, most of the bottom plating had to be removed, shafts replaced, propellers replaced and we did the job together with Yacht Agency Rhodes. The money that we made from that job was basically the money that funded the start of A1 Yachting.
16 years later and we have quadrupled our employees. Makis Pavlatos was heavily focused on modernising the company in every way he could, he introduced intranet and computerised systems, a marketing plan was put into action, things that were never done before. Customers would just come to us, we never really advertised. We broadened our horizons and started opening offices throughout Greece, we went into partnership with Stefano Tositti and JLT in Venice. We then opened offices in Montenegro, Croatia and Turkey, those offices were called A1/JLT, JLT in Venice remained JLT, A1 in Greece remained A1, but the offices where we had gone into partnership remained A1/JLT and included the Luise Group. After that there was a discrepancy over the two names and it was decided to rename the company and start afresh, we started with our official headquarters in Lugano and started to move the whole operation three levels up and hence BWA was formed. BWA has expanded and opened up offices all over the world and are still expanding. We maintained A1 as it was and have just multiplied our offices around Greece to enable us basically to serve our customers anywhere in the country and at any given time.
A1 is a mixture of agency and charter?
There is the Athens office and Rhodes office, Rhodes handles the majority of the accounts, they have the charter department with Rosemary managing it, they have a ship chandlery business too. In Athens we have a very small part of the charter market as it is mostly handled by the Rhodes office, we have a brokerage office, an in house provisioning department, we also have an in house technical department. We took on the management of a 74m Nobiskrug built boat, about four years ago.
What is your main role now?
Agency manager, I have a very competent staff so it’s mainly problem solving.
If someone turns up in Greece on a large yacht are they duty bound to take an agent?
If they are commercial and over 24m then they are under Greek law, if they are private they can do what they like, but generally they always use one just to handle the bureaucracy side of things, even for us it is a nightmare, there are all sorts of laws, it is a complicated issue. We now have a dedicated concierge department with three people. Concierge was always a real problem for me because Captains would phone up wanting an Athens tour or kids taken to play-grounds, I have no knowledge of this so we set up a this special department, it is a roaring success. A daily example of where foreign yachts have problems in Greece is with the signing on and off of Non EU crew, this is a complex area and should always be handled by an agent.
Have you noticed much growth over the last three years?
No. In November 2008 the World economy crashed and 2009 was a disaster for the yachting industry. In the Mediterranean the 26-35m boats were just about wiped out, after that it started creeping up slowly. Then of course in the last two years we have been hit with what we have now in the eastern Mediterranean, the immigrant crisis, and a relatively nearby war zone which has put customers off, while the migrant problem seems to be at least temporarily solved the war zone still creates a nervous atmosphere for anybody thinking of visiting the area. If you mentiob the word illegal immigrant to the American market it means Mediterranean. In the European market why go to the Eastern Mediterranean when there are problems in Turkey with security and there are problems on the Greek islands with the immigrants coming in.
In reality the Eastern Greek Islands are safe but it is a case of what people read and want to believe. All of the islands along the Turkish coast are looked at as being in a dangerous area, when in actual fact they were never a danger, just an inconvenience if they spotted any immigrants in a boat, as under the Solas agreement you are obliged to stop and help anyone in distress. For the moment the migrant problem has been stopped. A lot of vessels would go to Turkey and stop in Greece, or they would go to the Aegean and carry on to Turkey because they could get duty free fuel there besides visiting Turkey itself, which is absolutely beautiful, people were very happy there.
It is sad when you see what Greece and Turkey have to offer, it's a yachtsman's paradise?
It is a magnificent cruising ground, south of Turkey and the West Coast of Turkey are amazing, it is a great sailing area and they are very protective of their seas, they are spotless, it is a crying shame that they have the problems they have. Like anything, historically, it has to come to an end, we will probably look back in a few years and see it as a bad time. It could be next season or in 10 years from now, this is the problem, personally I would feel as safe sailing on the Turkish coast as I would walking down a street in a large European city, there is a big political game being played and nobody knows how long that can last for.
Have you had many serious incidents with yachts cruising here?
All kinds of things have happened, every problem a boat has in our waters, if they are a client of ours becomes our problem. If they drop a load of fuel in the sea, then they get fined and the Captain has to go to court, then we have to go to court. We had a 50 m commercial yacht with a New Zealand Captain where a few hundred litres went over the side. The crew were fantastic, they went into the full drill, they got the equipment out, stopped it and started cleaning it up, but unfortunately the matter had been reported to the Port Authority who came down, took photographs and took the Captain off board and locked him up. The next morning he had to appear in court which was very interesting, there was a member from the Salvage Association acting on behalf of the yacht defence lawyers, us, and the Captain. The judge asked all the appropriate questions, what precautions were taken, how was it handled, the opinion of the port authorities, the captain was found guilty of the crime but no sentence whatsoever, but unfortunately the incident goes to flag which was not good for his reputation. That is the price you pay for being the top of the tree, it was very unfortunate.
You must have also had some very strange incidents?.
I have had some funny things happen. When Malta came into the EU in 2004, I had a sail boat come in with and English Captain, English Deckhand and Maltese Deckhand and they called me up, it was just before the Olympic games and the security was mind boggling. The boat came in at about 9.30, which was a problem as immigration closes at nine and the Maltese fella needed to be taken to immigration. I told them to keep him on board overnight then I would do the clearance first thing in the morning. I get a call at four in the morning from the central police station in Pireus asking if I was the agent for the sailing yacht as they had two of the crew in jail. I asked what they had done. They got into a taxi and held a gun on the back of the taxi drivers head and said ‘take us to the best bar or you are dead’. They had bought a plastic kids gun, completely out of their minds on drink and jumped into a taxi and pulled this plastic gun on the old taxi driver. When he tells me the full story I said do us a favour take them into the cell give them a good hiding and leave them there until tomorrow, so he said ‘we don't do that anymore sir’ he tells me to come around at about eight and sign for their release with no charges. I go at eight to find they have been released at seven, the Captain apologises and the story came out that they were taken to the charge office and told to sit on stools and to sit there and shut up and when they started to nod off they would kick the stool, they did this to keep them awake all night and then told them to clear off back to the yacht and not to do it again.
Probably the worst incident, that I have ever heard of and unfortunately was involved in as an agent, was back in the days when I worked for Roger, it happened on Poros island which is approximately 30 miles from Athens in a big bay, there was a big 50m yacht anchored there and the crew went ashore. They met some German / Greeks onshore and they invited them back to the boat. They were using a high speed tender and had had a lot to drink and they were driving these people back at high speed. Everyone was standing up in the tender and very close to the shore there was a 100 year old steel jetty. They didn't see it in the dark and one of the visitors was decapitated, another killed and one of the crew lost an eye and the other one was seriously injured. The response was quick and effective and the vessel was placed under arrest and investigated immediately. The next day a plane arrived with Greek and American lawyers and when the legal team arrived at the Port Authority wanting a statement there was a chart of Poros in the office which they photographed and then asked to see on the chart where the jetty was and it wasn’t there. The crew were taken to hospital and the chief engineer was handcuffed, he was the one driving the boat and was only slightly injured, he had a policeman sitting next to him 24 hours a day. We had a van and driver waiting outside the hospital at all hours for anything that the crew or their relations needed. One fine day the Chief Engineer woke up his hand cuffs were gone, there was no policeman sitting there and his passport was by his bed, he called the driver, put some clothes on and they did a duck out of the hospital and onto the ferry to Italy. The court case came up a few days later and they could not find the accused, he was missing so that was the end of that, the case was dropped. That was very sad and the bodies had to be flown back to Germany. What happened after that was not our concern.
What about the sale of Greek marinas, is that going ahead?
Well traditionally the marinas were owned by the government, Marina Flisvos and Zea Marina were partially sold off by the government before the Olympics in about 2002 and the government maintained shares in them both, if I am not mistaken about 25%. They sold them to private Greek entities.
Those marinas were eventually sold to D-Marin?
That is just recently, this was prior to the Olympics, after and more recently there was talk of selling the Alimos marina in Athens and building marinas throughout the country, a solution that everybody could be involved in, this was underway but unfortunately when the plans were just about finalised the government changed and the new government put an immediate stop to any form of privatisation and any marina plans, it has all been put on hold. Whether this will change time will tell, the main existing marinas throughout the country are Gouvia in Corfu, Vouliagmeni Marina near Athens, Athens Marina, Zea Marina, Alimos Marina, Flisvos Marina and Olympic Marina out near Lavrion. There are other marinas on Kos island, there was talk of building one in Mikonos but only a few jetties have been built for small boats. Another has been built down in Rhodes and not really been used, it wasn't really built in the right place. There is a lot of confusion in the country overall about what is going to happen regarding yachting, there is not much interest shown by the locals, their attitude is that it is for the rich and the money is needed elsewhere, when in actual fact it would bring money into the country and until this is understood things will not proceed. There are all the facilities for yachting, new builds have been made up to 60m, dry docks for any tonnage, travel lifts up to 800 tonnes.
And a big pool of expertise?
This is basically for commercial shipping, every classification society is represented in Athens and in Piraeus any form of backup system that is required can be found, all of the major engine manufacturers are represented, because of the fast ferries, as such they can attend to all the larger yacht requirements. The finer points of yachting interiors like you would get in Italy, England, Holland and Germany etc, no we do not have specialists for these finer points. There are companies that make interiors for larger cruise liners, as far as shipping goes everything is available, the smaller yachting side, the same applies, boats can be pulled out in numerous places, there are many winter storage facilities, but when it comes to painting there are no temperature controlled sheds anywhere in the country, it is done in plastic tents, but we do not have extreme temperatures, the temperature seldom drops below 12 degrees
Greece is a beautiful yachting area but there is a great need for berthing for the new breed of bigger Superyachts.
There are all kinds of possibilities available, the problem is the need for a little bit of political stabilisation where they can see the direction that they want the country to go and they can agree with it and plans can be made. People are frightened of investment at the moment because governments are changing. From that point of view the country is not progressing.
What about dry docking?
From the yachting point of view there are two 800 tonne travel lifts after that there are 500, 200 etc. a 65m can be taken out at the yard on Salamis Island which is only a few minutes away by ferry from the mainland. There are floating dry docks up to any tonnage yacht and some of the shipyards are not being fully used and they can take unlimited tonnage. For example there are graving docks up 400,000 tonnes for tankers and there are two very useful smaller graving docks in the main port of Piraeus. They have limited stay rules and limited facilities so they are only used for sudden emergency repairs. There is Syros Island which also has a very large dry dock facility, the shipyard has floating dry docks that can take bulk carriers, too big for the average yacht, they have a 2000 tonne Syncro lift the only disadvantage being the distance from Athens, any specialists and specialist parts have to be taken out there. Otherwise it is very well organised and well run. Generally speaking marine technical capabilities in Greece are excellent, as good and in most cases better than anywhere in the Med.
Haven’t Chartering rules and regulations changed recently in Greece?
The chartering laws slacked off slightly for the Olympic Games, but have unfortunately remained ever since. The Cabotage Law which was brought into effect, very basically, states that vessels under non EU Flags wishing to charter in Greek water can only do so on a basis of either they embark or disembark outside the country. International Charter for example, if they started the charter in Italy and finished in Athens, that is acceptable and vice versa and of course having Turkey and Albania close by makes these type of charters considerably easier. This was brought in to protect the ferry boat industry so that people couldn't hop on and hop off island by island and to protect the domestic market. Greek yachts have a peculiar system in place, which I do not fully understand, they call themselves Professional Yachts, not commercial for a reason that is only really understood by them. They are allowed to embark and disembark in Greece, then it was decided that EU flag vessels had the same rights. To obtain the necessary permission for an EU yacht to fully charter in Greek waters is rather unclear to put it mildly. They have to comply with the same requirements of a Greek yacht and for example a requirement of a Greek yacht is that the master must be able to speak Greek and by that they mean at least a high school education in the language. The Greek crews pay into NAT (Seaman's Pension Fund) which controls their pension and healthcare etc. They would expect that non Greek crews would have the equivalent, owners would be paying this on behalf of their crews and they would have the same amount deducted from their salaries. They also have to charter a minimum of so many days for so many years, the charter can be in other waters as well as Greece. They have to open an office in Greece and have a representative in the country so it really is extremely difficult for an EU yacht to come in and get Greek charter permission. There are a couple of yachts that have, there is one with a Dutch flag and full Greek crew, they went to Holland and did a small examination on Dutch maritime law so that they understood the Dutch regulations and what is required under the Dutch flag and they have permission to charter in Greek waters, very easy for them because the beneficial owners are Greek with everything in place so it was just a change of flag.
So basically, you would have to pick your charters up outside the country?
They just follow the Cabotage regulations i.e. once the charter has commenced from say Italy, when they enter the country and the passenger list is stamped and they complete the charter in Athens the entrance passenger list must match the termination list. Nobody can leave or join except for medical reasons and this is just the basic point. If they want to take duty free fuel for example they have to sign declarations, how much fuel on board, how much they will need, daily consumption and length of charter, then customs will decide how much fuel to give them. It is normally what they ask for. However if a boat uses 2,000 litres a day and is asking for 70,000 and he is going to do a four day charter they possibly are not going to give the boat the full amount of fuel.
I remember some 20 years ago even private vessels could take duty free fuel in Greece and unfortunately some took advantages and were eventually caught and prosecuted as a result of it. They don't exactly kill themselves to assist foreign yachting, they do not embrace it and make things easy. Things are getting much better though. Greece is one of the few countries in the world that has a dedicated ministry of Mercantile Marine, it was an absolute necessity years ago when they had more than 2,500 vessels under Greek flag and probably another 7,000 under foreign flag managed by Greek companies, this is now considerably reduced. The rules are set around mercantile marine and not yachting which is detrimental to the yachting industry and I do not think that mentality is going to change in the near future. The biggest problem is that in the islands there are not marina facilities for yachts to simply book ahead, sail in, plug in and have a safe area. Every Island has a main port for ferry services, fuel tankers, cargo etc so that the docks available when not being used commercially is for the use of yachts but it may not be in a prime area for beautiful Superyachts to go to. What we suggest to our customers is that the commercial traffic normally stops at around 7pm and that they use all the magnificent bays during the day and at night they go in and take the berth and then move out at 7am when the commercial traffic starts again. If you are a commercial yacht on a non Greek flag you are obliged to have an agent and with good reason, if the vessels crew try to do the paperwork themselves it will be an absolute nightmare, it's bad enough for the agent. Every port they go into they are obliged to clear in and out with port authorities, there is a fair amount of paperwork, they are obliged to send pre-arrival timings, departures etc, so a lot of work is involved, once they get the hang of it is is fine, but they still occasionally forget and then they get fined at least 300 Euros per fault.
Then there is port state control which some vessels have complained bitterly about, I myself being ex merchant navy do not see any reason to complain and I think the commercial yachts, especially the smaller ones, do not really understand port state control and the concept behind it. On the larger vessels most of the captains are ex merchant navy and they never seem to have any problems but at around 35m it is new to the captains and port state go on board and start at number one and check everything that is there and depending what they see they will put in the necessary remarks. I have had two vessels that have been stopped from sailing, for one we fixed the non conformities within 24 hours and the vessel was allowed to start sailing again. From my point of view they shouldn't arrive with guests on board in season and have port state control inspection it should have been organised when they are non operational.
They can actually call port state control in?
PSC are normally really busy people so when it comes up on the centralised computer based in Portugal, if they do not see that the vessel is due for inspection, they are very reluctant to come pay a visit. For smaller yachts to be clear on Port State they should call in the specialists, management companies have them, they can come on board and do an audit and then any problems can be addressed prior to the vessel coming into season, unfortunately on smaller yachts this is not always the case.
Do you find in Greece that captains can be misinformed, especially on the fuel issue?
Confused is the better word, the law does change occasionally, some ports let things go and others don't but the fuel issue for a commercial yacht is basically he has to have a relevant charter agreement, he has to fill in the forms to determine the quantity, when the vessels sails it must have guests on board and he must have a charter agreement that states on it that the cost of the fuel is to the owners account and not the charter account, whereas Clause 8 under the MYBA agreement says exactly the opposite, you have to put an addendum on the charter agreement stating this. Then if they meet these requirements they can take fuel up to 24 hours prior to the charter beginning. Problems only arise if a vessel comes along and suddenly says it needs fuel in 24 hours then it can be a problem.
Mike, we are getting towards the end of our little chat, where do you see your future?
All being well, I will stay in the company as long as they want me. I will either be thrown out or carried out is the way I see it. With my wife's pension and my pension, we would struggle even with a fully paid up house, pension laws have changed to the detriment of the working people and people hang on to what they have now, for as long as possible.
Where do you see the root cause of all these problems, you have been there a long time?
Yes, I have lived here for 40 years, there was a time when Greece was not in such debt. It was a very simple country with simple means and no extravagances at all and things worked. Then the country joined the EU and received lots of benefits etc. and unbeknown to the people, in the eighties the government had started borrowing money and the terrible shock came five years ago when it was realised one day what had been going on, the Prime Minister announced the facts and resigned, that was when the people became aware that we were into the hundreds of billions of debt.
Where did all that money go, you must have had a lot of theories?
Yes, but not for me to say, mismanagement would be the diplomatic and correct answer beyond that it is up to the imagination of the individual. The EU put a lot of money in, but in some ways did Greece no favours as when I first started in Greece they were producing all types of things, they had factories making electrical goods for export, the Nissan assembly plant was here and there were many other exporting industries that kept the country going. When we went into the EU it was more or less said to the Greeks that they didn't need to export goods and all the basic industries closed down.
Do you see it changing?
I cannot see it any other way.
The people do not seem to have the anger that they had a few years ago?
No, you now have total despair, when you have 25% unemployment and literally every single family I know have either got direct unemployment or related unemployment, it is causing a lot of misery. If it gets worse you would begin to worry about your safety. Visitors come in and do not really see anything on the surface, but it is the icing on a very thick cake. Wages have been cut, there is nothing good about anything at the moment and there is this total fear of what tomorrow will bring, it is very sad.
It is very sad, they are lovely people, I visit several times a year and have done for about 20 years. Anyway Mike thank you for travelling all this way for a fun couple of days.
Thank you, I wish we could produce the beer in Greece that you produce here in your Green Dragon pub, now that certainly would bring a bit of light at the end of the tunnel!
With many thanks to Mikes friends for the photographs.