In the interest of having all of our stories from this trip in one place, here's a reprint of Part 2 of our trip, with pics and captions to follow. All photo credit is to Meredith Block/Blocksail.com
Euro Vacation - Part 2Customarily Pissed
HARBOR, n. A place where ships taking shelter from storms are exposed to the fury of the Customs.
-Ambrose Bierce (1842 - 1914), The Devil's Dictionary
When Mer and I planned our itinerary for our month-long trek through Western Europe, we allotted three full days in Zeebrugge, Belgium to collect the Melges 24 "Sevenstar SLAM" from the Port, deal with customs, and solve any road issues before our drop-dead date to leave for Sardinia. Thank god we did. We thought we'd been hyper-conservative on time, and that we could look forward to a lazy trip through the Alps and along the Tyrrhenian coast, but a zealous Belgian Customs Officer had other ideas. Instead of a leisurely trip, our little Customs nightmare meant an all-night, time-crunched drive through Belgium, France, and Switzerland. Another lesson learned from this most unpredictable and irrational branch of governments worldwide.
We were already half-expecting some misfortune after the English part of our trip went so swimmingly. We landed in London before noon and by 4 p.m. we were cruising a shiny new Nissan pickup down to Hayling Island Sailing Club to check in with our pal James Hill, the owner of the truck and trimmer for Sevenstar SLAM at the upcoming Worlds. After picking up three bottles of wine for his top performance in that day's RS Elite pennant series, James was happy to show off his club, and we quickly were blown away by most everything about HISC. The sheer volume of dinghies is unfathomable for a US sailor - there is no club with close to that many boats anywhere in the states, and the number of people on the water in all conditions boggles the mind. Even the RIBs are something to see - a half-dozen or more orange safety boats sit lined up on the beach just above the high water mark, looking like swimmers on blocks waiting for a starting gate. I thought the club's location on a perfect spit of sand inside a big, breezy harbor explained HISC's popularity, but there are thriving clubs full of one-design dinghies and keelboats in nearly every corner of the harbor. US racing needs some of whatever the Brits are smoking to get so high on their boats.
That night, we blasted down miles of country roads to pick up our new trailer from the home of Richard Gifford-Hull, the head of RM Trailers in Southhampton. We hitched up outside his quaint hillside home, and as we drove through the gate and onto the farm lane, we ran into what would become a recurring theme for the next few thousand miles. We couldn't make the turn. No way, no how. Both James and I can move a trailer exactly where we want to, but the space just didn't exist. Nothing to do but to unhitch, push out, rehitch, and off you go. We're towing with a Nissan Navara, which is something like a Frontier pickup in the states. This one has a long wheelbase, four doors and a shell over the bed, and its grunty little 3 Litre diesel engine pulls better than a GMC Yukon while getting around 15 miles per gallon. It's a sweet package, but it's a long one. The total rig is around 50 feet long, and nothing in Europe is designed to accommodate that length except main roads, and even those can be sketchy. Getting around with our rig in the towns here takes something we're a bit short on: knowledge of local roads.
It was no matter though. Dinner that night was the UK's best; a great big pile of curried everything, and our ride to the coast the next morning was simple and pleasant. Even our ferry trip was a piece of cake, and Dover offered us the chance to see another fascinating subject for a sailor - the Dover ferry terminal. It's like the Grand Central Station of ferry ports, with ships everywhere on dozens of quays, passengers milling about, and vehicles lined up in more than a hundred separate queues, along with tens of thousands of tons of cargo headed for Europe. Set against the imposing bone white cliffs of Dover and an antique fort, it's something every sailor should see. Our luck was so strong that we were amongst the last passengers to get into Calais before the local Pêcheurs decided to blockade the port completely, shutting down the entire Dover-Calais line for days and causing a logistical nightmare for thousands on both sides of the channel.
Another short drive took us to Zeebrugge, one of Europe's busiest ports for auto shipping and ro-ro traffic, and the place where Sevenstar shipped our Melges. With plenty of daylight left even at 8:00 p.m., we drove around in search of lodging for the night, and somehow found ourselves in a beachfront kiteboarder bar, watching a few brave souls rip through the waves on 30 knot North Sea blasts. It was a nice welcome to the town that would be our unintentional home for the next three days.
That's how long it took for Belgian Customs and Dirk the Agent to figure out which official documents, how much tax, what percentage bond, and what releases were necessary to get our little raceboat into Europe. The sticky part seemed to be our arrival and departure via different means through different ports of entry. The process they use for dealing with temporary importation of boats is completely different from that for, say, competitive racecars, or something else more portable than a cruising boat. We sat in the office of the Director, trying not to laugh as he pulled volume after volume of ancient bound legal volumes off the shelf, showing us what we had done wrong, and three days later, he finally signed the release for our boat. Funnily enough, he used the exact same procedure that we'd proposed at our very first meeting. Thank god there were no issues with the boat itself - Sevenstar Yacht Transport and their local agent in Belgium, Transfenica, were extremely efficient in their work - something that can't be said about the government.
We were finally on our way, but Belgium wasn't through with us yet. Our own unfamiliarity with the tiny roads was nothing compared to the confusion of the big-breasted Belgian girl in the little Peugot who decided to pass us in a construction zone that was barely wide enough for one car. She tried to poke her nose between a rock (the concrete center barrier) and a hard place (our galvanized steel trailer). When the road narrowed further, she lost her bet, and I barely felt the impact as her rear tire caught the fender of the trailer, shredding the tire to bits. She immediately slammed on the brakes, ensuring that the steel would rake the side of her car as I traveled forward mand she slowed down. An hour later we'd changed her blown out tire on the side of the highway and sent her on her way to deal with the insurance company, and we could finally head South to the warm weather we'd been craving.
Our trip through the Alps and the coastal range in Italy might have been more fun if we had the ability to take some scenic routes, but every time we pulled off the highway for any purpose, we got in trailer trouble. The GPS wasn't any help either - with a typically British sense of humor to go with her lovely English countryside accent, we dubbed our GPS "Victoria." She so properly tells us "at the roundabout, take the third turn, then in one hundred meters, turn left," but neglects to mention the one-lane bridge that we can't cross because of the width of our rig. Vicky's knowledge of hotels is wonderful, but unfortunately she can't tell us which hotels have parking of any kind, much less parking for what we're pulling. Italy is so unfriendly to big rigs that we found ourselves on the Northern Italian coast - the land of quaint bed & breakfasts and seaside cottages - and we had to stay the night in a godawful Holiday Inn. Of course it was overpriced, but at least the décor was replete with faux wood trim and style cues taken from Miami Vice, circa 1987. If only we had a disco ball, some hairy chicks and powdered drugs...
Only when we stopped for our final tank of diesel did life start to make sense again. A billboard at one side of the Q8 service station property featured nothing less than the brand new Audi TP52 blasting along in a big breeze, and the tiny shop inside sold SLAM gear. It may not be quite NASCAR, but it was pretty damned close - most US residents have seen almost the identical promotion for stock car drivers Exxon stations in the states a dozen times if not much more.
Once aboard the ferry to Sardinia, we sat back and relaxed a bit while catching up on some work. Happy families played cards or read books, while the on-board bar did a brisk business while showing practice for a Formula One race on the television. We asked a couple at the next table to watch our gear while we explored the big ship, and had a huge surprise in the souvenir shop: Mescalzone Latino shirts and bags on sale! I suppose we should have realized how deep the ferry company, Mobylines, is into racing. They are one of the sponsors of the upcoming Melges 24 Worlds, and they have been sponsoring dinghy and yacht racing for years. Mescalzone Latino is some kind of licensing partner with Moby, and photos of AC, Farr 40, and Mumm 30 racing covered the walls of the lounge. We actually started to feel at home, and Mer caught a nap as I edited videos with headphones on, oblivious to the hundreds of formerly adorable children who'd turned into shrieking banshees after realizing that there were another 2 hours of travel ahead of them.
Porto Cervo is everything you'd think given the thousands of photos and stories that have come out of here over the past decades. It seems that every big-name fleet of boats has competed here, and with the breeze that we've seen in the past two days and a perfect little harbor, it's easy to see why they come back. Even with three dozen early Melges competitors jockeying for time on the hoist and trailer positions, things still remained relaxed, with everyone understanding that logistics coordinator Alessandro would get it done right.
We've run into some old friends and met some new ones already, though the funniest episode yet was a hilarious ten minutes watching Melges 24 legend Brian Hutchinson figure out how to load a scooter into the hatchback of a tiny Fiat. I can guarantee you that there is much, much more to come.
We want to welcome Joe Fly Racing Team to our own On-The-Water Anarchy team as our Technical Partner for the next couple of weeks. Owner Giovanni Maspero has brought his support to our coverage by lending us some technical know-how and equipment so we can bring you everything we want to without the endless I.T. issues we always seem to be dealing with. Frederico and Constance have been extremely helpful, and the entire team is excited to be part of OTW Anarchy for this event. This shows a very cool side to Maspero, who was widely flamed on both SA's front page and in the forums for the public complaints he made after losing last month's Farr 40 Worlds in the protest room. Giovanni and the rest of the Joe Fly team seem to seriously appreciate the kind of open forum that the SA community is based on.
Check out the thread from our trip so far for pics and some videos that will go up soon, including Hutch's "how to load four feet of mo-ped into 3 feet of hatchback." It's good stuff, and of course it's all thanks to Dave Ullman and his extended family at Ullman Sails, the Title Sponsor for this exciting SA event. Thanks again, bro.
Photo Caption: James Hill and I Clean check out a new Bieker I-14 at Hayling Island. There are rows and rows of 'em.