With great bateau comes great responsibility

What it’s like buying a boat for the first time

Introducing Anne Bonny

When I was a teenager dreaming of having a boat (a standard daydream), I felt like Anne Bonny would be a super cool name to choose because she was one of the few famous female Caribbean pirates, and ‘Mary Read’ just didn’t sound as good. I also loved the lyrical sound of the name, and that bonny means pretty in Scots. I felt like my boat would be a kick-ass feminist statement. Black Sails didn’t exist then, nor Assassin’s Creed and I only know there’s any connection because other people have said to me ‘oh, like in Black Sails’. No, goddamnit. ‘But she was so hot’. Yes, fine, whatever. I also liked the idea that Anne Bonny had come to the Caribbean from Ireland, a bit like my Antigua ancestors, so it felt appropriate. Thinking up a boat name can be a headache and I didn’t have much time to do the registration, so the easiest option was to be true to my dreamy teenage self. Together we would terrorise the seas (possibly for the wrong reasons but we’ll come to that in good time).

Apparently one of the reasons that changing a boat’s name was thought to be bad luck was that pirates used to do it when they commandeered a vessel. Like false number plates on a car or something. I didn’t have any qualms or superstitions about changing the name because frankly I hated the name Nomade. It seemed all vague, directionless and a bit self-centred: I wanted to be an adventurer, like good old Annie. I’d once had the attitude that a boat is a person, with its own history. Renaming seemed wrong, like renaming a child you’ve adopted. But I also didn’t want the boat to be Monsieur M—–‘s any more. I wanted it to be mine. I didn’t need his ghost watching over me, we didn’t get on that well. Naming her felt like she wasn’t a temporary acquisition, she was My New Boat.

She (although in French it’s a he) is a 1977 Karaté 33 (sloop-rigged, 10m, fin keel), which apparently French sailors are big fans of. There have been many a time (especially in the boatyard) when random gents have come up and asked (with a sort of awe/approval) if this was a Karaté (they usually asked my mechanic and not me though, because as a young woman I couldn’t possibly be the owner – they must default to the most senior man). ‘Ah! But they are great boats!’ they cry (in French). ‘It was my first boat! You must…’ and then proceed to give me unsolicited advice because of either my youth or my vagina or both.

I discovered that according to the lifejackets she’s had at least two previous incarnations before Nomade: Vika and Gemavi (which I think is one of those veryfunny French puns). I’ve used this as a naming system for my boat geckos (yes I have lizards, basically like in Death in Paradise. I think I started off with one but their fighting is sometimes breeding, it turns out. In the evenings we eat together, we chat – they make a very distinctive noise – and since I caught one running up the mast recently, next time they go up there they’re getting jobs). Since I don’t know which is which, they’re named in order of appearance during the day. The first gecko of the day is always called Vika, then it’s Nomade, then Gemavi. An exterior baby gecko is always called Alex (don’t ask) and a second exterior one is called Erik (don’t ask), although Erik is pretty rare. Erik also sometimes lives on the toilet brush. Yuck.

Making her mine, all mine

Anne Bonny whilst still Nomade

The early days after agreeing the price with Monsieur M—– were incredibly surreal. I was full of self-doubt. I fretted over currency fluctuations according to whatever noises Theresa May was making in Parliament at that moment, and wondering whether or not I was doing a totally mental thing. Like, how on earth was I going to cover all my costs? It was nearly all my money – what about repairs on my flat? I hadn’t done a survey, what if he was lying and something was broken? One morning I received a call at 5.45 (I hadn’t really slept anyway because of the nerves) from the international money transfer people checking my credentials. I’d selected the option ‘yacht’ on ‘reasons for transfer’. I felt like I was part of another world (one for rich people, not people like me). But then I was buying a yacht in the Caribbean, after all. Sometimes while on the way to school in the morning I would break out of my driving trance and crack out a huge smile. ‘I live in the Caribbean!!’ I’d shout to the sugar cane fields. And then I would just laugh because it’s hilarious really. Nothing could be further from Glasgow. Before I knew it, the transfer was made. Half of my pension savings. Quite a heady rush. Farewell future, hello now. So now I’d bought a boat, as you do. I drove home feeling totally elated and thinking ‘my boat comes with a piano.’

Ah yes, the piano. One of Monsieur M—–‘s cadeaux. I spent the evening chatting with the old guy whilst he showed me important bits and pieces and signing a piece of paper to say I’d paid a deposit. I was amazed at how I could have an actual conversation in French now. He talked about politics (de Gaulle), ranted about chocolate and palm oil and showed me his medals. He kept coming up with new presents he was leaving me, like the famous piano, a TV, spearguns, fishing gear, and all sorts of junk I never thought I wanted but was nevertheless very excited about. He seemed to be trying to fix as many things as he could before he left and he told me he was going to make a manual. I wondered if it was because I was a young lady and he somehow felt paternal towards me. It was a bit like hanging out with your grandfather passing on his life’s achievement. Everything felt so good that I was nervous; if this was a book it would be the forerunner to a big catastrophe that was just around the corner.

Monsieur M—– was starting to get agitated as he waited for me to get the money through to him. He seemed very keen to get going. It was a bit of a mission to get the bank to do it. French banking here seems to be stuck in the 1960s. They wouldn’t do me a transfer without a week-long palaver so I finally managed to get the woman to issue me a cheque, which she said I could have in two days’ time. I duly came back as instructed, to find she’d put the wrong figure on the cheque, and there was no way for me to pick it up the next day because the bank was closed. I was tearing my hair out because Monsieur M—– had already booked his flight and I felt very much under pressure. After much sad face on my part the lady eventually agreed that ‘exceptionally’ she would do the cheque for me there and then. I couldn’t really understand why she hadn’t done this at the start but anyway (that’s Martinique). I went to the marina and we signed the papers. A couple of days later Monsieur M—- was gone, never to be heard of again (apart from one email in which he didn’t answer any of my questions but did tell me he was going to Morocco to end his days now. Since then my friend and I have referred to dying as ‘going to Morocco’). All that was left behind was a very dodgy legacy (you knew this was coming).

Here is the process I went through:

  • Boat viewings (a few) and agreeing a price (negotiated down because the first price is never serious)
  • I didn’t get a survey because the boat was too old and cheap to merit it. Monsieur M—– assured me he had surveyed it himself when he bought it (LOL!)
  • Transfer a deposit to secure the sale (vendor signs a piece of paper with a photo of his ID)
  • Get money from the UK and transfer the whole amount
  • Sign an Acte de Vente in several copies (you always need these, better to have spares)
  • Contact French Douane (Customs) in the port where the boat is registered and request cancelling the registration. Send them: the sales document (Acte de Vente), the original registration document (Acte de Francisation), a form demanding the cancellation of the registration in France.
  • Go to the British Small Ships Registry website and fill in their registration details (Option 2 change of ownership followed by Option 3 to change the boat’s name). Pay them £25 (now £35). This was all in order to change from French flag to British. There was no particularly good reason for this except to avoid some annoying French regulations and charges, and in hindsight it’s made things more complicated for me now. I also came to realise that the Red Ensign isn’t that loved in this area of the world given our history, and for some reason people tend to think British sailors are arseholes. I was tempted by an Isle of Man registration to honour my paternal grandfather, but I didn’t have all that much tax to evade.
  • Read up on British legal requirements for boat security etc. and get new MMSI number for the VHF. Change number on VHF (luckily mine was one you can change yourself)
  • There are also a whole load of VAT and import tax issues to address. Because the boat was so old and becoming a UK vessel, I didn’t owe VAT. At the time I wasn’t a tax resident of Martinique so I didn’t have Octroi de Mer to pay either, although that came later with official residency. As a foreign vessel in French waters there’s also the ‘droit annuel de passeport pour les bateaux étranger’ (a tax) to take into account.

Shit I have a boat now

1977 Karate Sport

So I was now the proud owner of a very expensive liability, but I was over the moon to be spending my first night sur mon bateau. My Spanish housemates couldn’t really believe I’d actually gone and bought a boat (they were all 20-something language assistants fresh out of uni) and so had come to toast her. They were looking forward to hanging out on deck in crystal clear waters singing ‘I’m on a boat‘. Then they went away and left me alone to sit in the cockpit and gaze up at the mast among the stars. Parties were happening in bars elsewhere in the marina and some creepy guys were leering at me from the motor boat moored opposite. I ducked inside.

The next morning I jumped out of my bunk and got to work with enthusiasm. I had lofty plans to put her on Airbnb to cover my initial marina fees since I was still living in a house, but she was disgusting. My first priority was to clean (the stench of mould and diesel was making me seasick even whilst stationary). There was also the inventory to do, and the manual to check over… The manual turned out to be an exercise book with a couple of lines scribbled in, and then Monsieur M—- had very clearly given up. Oh well, after knowing what was on the boat I was sure the rest would be obvious little by little.

I had no idea what most of this stuff was. It looked like junk. But was it, perhaps, useful essential sailing junk? Popping up on deck for some fresh air, I was accosted by a gang of neighbours who were full of curiosity about the child now responsible for the boat ‘next door’. They didn’t need much encouragement to clamber aboard and offer all sorts of services. Two of the men came and rooted through my stuff declaring ‘poubelle! Poubelle!’ before chucking most of it in big black bin liners. Once or twice I managed to gasp ‘non! C’est utile!’ and I was allowed to keep something. I felt a bit powerless although they were very kind. They even found an enormous bottle of gas and sold it to a passing Italian (who later climbed on board to give his learned opinion on my plumbing systems). So all of my inherited goodies ended up in the bin. PS The piano didn’t work. It had to go. As did the TV. As did a massive sack of rice which had been infested with moths. I kept the 12 bottles of olive oil though, to use for trading. I did my best to eat my way through Monsieur M—-‘s rusty tins. I’d like to say I succeeded, but 2 ½ years later there are still 2 left and I suspect they might become the new owner’s problem.

Then one of the neighbourly women came and spent a day helping me scrub (those guys just sat in their cockpit in the marina all season so I don’t feel bad. This was probably the most interesting thing to happen all week). The mould! So much mould. I’m very grateful to her and her marigolds. Having so many people poking around my new man-cave was quite stressful. The space already felt so small and personal, and I couldn’t wait to get out of the marina to anchor life and peace and quiet. (Hmmm, that’s only partly true; the marina was so convenient and reassuring. Out there was where you needed to know how to Boat, and I definitely didn’t. But in the end my Airbnb scheme didn’t really work because the boat was so minging, and I couldn’t afford the marina any more so it was time to move out.)

I negotiated a mooring buoy with one of the charter companies and someone came along to help me get the boat there. I bought an inflatable kayak to use as a dinghy so my other one wouldn’t get stolen whilst left unattended for days. The kayak fitted easily in the car, and this was important because…… despite having this awesome new moveable home, I couldn’t live in her. Why? That bit comes next, with a bit of backtracking into life as a Language Assistant, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime…

Deep in the throes of this whole process, it slowly began to dawn on me what an enormous responsibility I was taking on. If something crucial needed fixing, it would need fixing right away. You couldn’t leave it for when you hoped you had more money (the boat might sink or you might irreparably destroy something). All the rules and regulations (especially the French ones) were mind-boggling and I know I didn’t do it all properly at the start because I’m now backtracking and picking up the pieces. And of course I hadn’t even thought about hurricane season and the fact that I was returning to the UK for the summer. Who would look after her? How would I pay to keep her?

Many guys I know say their boat as a bit like their girlfriend or their mistress (because apparently French men think women demand that you spend a lot of money on them, they’re a pain in the arse, but you love them anyway). I came to think of having a boat as a bit like having a child (I’m sure actual parents would disagree with me…). It’s suddenly your number one priority where all the income you thought was yours to spend becomes directed towards its upkeep. You want to buy that nice dress? You can’t, you have a boat. You want to go on holiday? You can’t, you have a boat. You want to spontaneously move to another part of the world? You can’t, you have a boat – what will happen to the boat??! A boat isn’t really freedom, it’s an expensive responsibility. But you love her all the same and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

The bateau at its first mooring

Read the whole blog from the start