Piddle Warsby Don Pinnock / Illustration by Rob Foote / 17.07.2013
Sheboo was a large, languid Afghan hound and I hated him with all my heart. It happened like this. I’d oversold myself into a job as crew on a yacht based in Valetta harbour, Malta, and read Sailing for Beginners on the plane over from London. Carlina was, even to my untrained eye, a beautiful ketch – 28 metres of shiny brass and Burmese teak built for the America’s Cup years earlier and now fitted as a cruise boat.
We spent the first six weeks caulking her: jamming cotton waste in the gaps between the teak strips and sealing it with tar. Unlike modern racing yachts, Carlina had been built for both speed and beauty, with finishes clearly done by a master cabinetmaker. Everything that wasn’t wood or glass was brass: door handles, cleats, the base of doors, window frames and the large dome over the emergency tiller.
The skipper, an elderly, wealthy Brit with a trophy wife and a seven-year-old daughter, was of the old school. Ropes had to be wound from the outside to the centre, wood and caulking had to be checked each day for cracks or gaps, windows had to be as clear as crystal and the brass was polished to a perfect gleam. Each morning the Union Jack was raised and again dipped it at sunset.
We set sail in the teeth of an election campaign which hinged on chucking the English off the island. The crowds hurling Molotov cocktails at yachts were heading down the quay as we cast off and backed up under sail (the skipper abhorred using the engine unless absolutely necessary). We’d hardly cleared the bay on a course for Sardinia when the weather turned into a seething monster or, as the skipper put it, ‘a bit of a blow.’
Up to that point Sheboo had been living in the family home on Valetta and only came aboard as we left. It did occur to me that a large, long-legged, clumsy hunting hound was an odd choice for a yacht dog. But hey, what did I care? I hauled his sand box down below and forgot about him.
The storm raged through the night and into the next day. While I’d done my homework with Sailing for Beginners, it hadn’t prepared me for the wild leaping, plunging and crazy gyrations of a craft under full sail in a gale. I was alternating between hanging onto the bucking wheel and chucking up over the side.
I didn’t see Sheboo during the storm, but I suspect he was down below somewhere plotting revenge. The storm abated, we anchored in a glorious Sardinian bay and he appeared, trotted aft and pissed on the brass tiller cover. The yellow stream ran across the deck and splashed up against the brass door lining. I was on deck duty so I snarled at the dog, washed the muck overboard, scrubbed the deck and got Brasso going on the cover and door.
We sailed for six months, wandering around the Med by way of Sicily, Italy, Monte Carlo, France, Spain and Morocco. Without fail, on my shift, Sheboo pissed on the tiller cover, then walked to the bow and shat on the curled-up rope. Then he’d give me a snooty look, as only Afghans can, and lumber down below to sulk.
By the time we left Tangier heading back up Spain on our way back to Malta, I was beside myself with fury about Sheboo’s toilet habits. I raised the matter with the skipper. He looked at me down his nose, just like the dog did, and said: ‘He doesn’t like the sand box.’
The wreck we hit, at full sail in the dead of night, was on no chart we owned. It was on a sand bank way over the horizon from land and did brutal damage to our delicately caulked teak hull. Carlina sank in four minutes.
It’s amazing what adrenaline can do. In that time we’d unlashed the rubber duck, screwed on the motor, piled everyone – four crew, the skipper and his wife and daughter and Sheboo – into it and unclipped the emergency life raft. It popped into a creditable little floating tent with breakfast and flares. As we watched Carlina slide into the dark sea, someone noticed we hadn’t remembered the fuel tank. We were in for the long haul.
As we decamped into the larger life raft, the problem of Sheboo became evident. He had very long nails and we were in an inflatable raft. We could chuck him overboard, I ventured, but the seven-year-old threw her arms around the dog and glared at me ferociously. All I had on was a pair of jeans with a belt, so I hauled out the belt and tied Sheboo’s legs together. He lay there glowering at me.
There was an on-shore wind, and though it took us about 24 hours of drifting, we eventually landed on a Spanish beach near Catania. A civil guard marched up and demanded our passports. The skipper used some very low-class English and the cop backed away. We were all standing on the beach when Sheboo barked. We’d forgotten him in the raft.
I untied his legs and reclaimed my belt. He leapt out into the surf, glanced back at the sea with palpable contempt, and took off down the empty beach as only an Afghan can run. Everyone yelled and urged him back, but he just kept going. Eventually he was a moving dot, then he disappeared round a corner. As far as I know, he was never seen again.
Then I understood. He wasn’t the sort of creature designed for sand boxes and moving decks. He was born and bred a hunter. And every day, on my shift, he was letting me know his objection to poodle status. In the end, I forgave him.
* Illustration © Rob Foote