Living Aboard

This is the 19th and final episode of a travel memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told, about teenage Suzy’s family move to Europe to build a sailboat and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.

Circe under sail

Our first “shakedown” cruise took us around the Island of Mallorca and over to Ibiza, then back to Puerto before leaving for France.  I got seasick as soon as we hit the open sea.   My brothers had made several trips with Dad, but this was the first time for the rest of us including our dog Rusty and cat Anitra.

We thought we’d lost Anitra not long after we headed out, but we found her hidden in the towels in the “head.”   Whenever Rusty needed to relieve herself, she would go to the stern of the boat and bark. The boys would pull the dingy we towed up alongside, Rusty would jump in and do her duty, and then one of the boys would reach down and pull her back on board, while under full sail.  When we came into a harbor for the night, the boys took turns taking the dingy ashore to clean it out.

We soon realized we would need to make a harness for Anitra.  She would sneak off the boat as soon as we put into dock.  We trained Rusty to go look for her and more often than not she would be on another boat.  She hated her harness, but it was the only way to keep her from running away.  The boys tied the harness to the mainmast, so she could be on deck and see what was going on.

Anitra in harness

From my diary

August 27 – We sailed to France to the Bay of Roses.  Some of us were so sea sick we couldn’t even stand.  Mom, Jan and I stayed in our bunks.  Conrad and Frank, too, seemed to be sick.  I carried a bucket around for us to throw up in. The dog threw up in my bunk!  Dad, Tom, Hank and Carl were on deck most of the time.  The sea was so rough Dad tied the boys on ropes to the main mast.  I just wanted the motion to stop and tried to imagine myself gimbaled like the light fixtures.  The boat heeled over on its side so far, I thought we were all going to drown.

August 28, 29 – Port Vendres, France

August 30 – Sete, France –  We didn’t drown but the memory of that feeling didn’t go away soon.  We sailed into the French port of Sete.  Dad had given us directions on how to behave when the Port Official came aboard.  They searched for contraband or items we needed to declare such as liquor.  Dad had placed several bottles of wine in the wine cabinet and one bottle of Spanish Fundador Cognac.  These bottles, he would declare.  We all knew that he had dozens of bottles under the floorboards in the bilge, which he didn’t plan to show the police.  When the official came aboard he visited with Dad, asked questions, and wanted a tour around the boat.  When they came back into the salon Dad gave him a drink of cognac and with a twinkle in his eye handed the Port Captain a bottle of cognac for himself. I worried he might find the bottles hidden in the bilge, but he didn’t.

August 31 – We arrived in Marseille harbor late at night, in a storm.  The boys on deck had to find the harbor entrance in the dark with rain pouring down.  With the sails down, we motored into the harbor looking for a safe berth for the night.  The fumes from the diesel engine made me sick, but I climbed off my bunk and Jan and I made some soup because we knew Dad and the boys would be hungry.  Mom was too sick to get up.  Finally, they found a berth, and we dropped anchor and motored in stern to the dock.

The next morning, Anitra woke us with her crying and trying to get out on deck.  When we opened the companion way door, we found ourselves in the middle of the morning fish market.  Fishermen had their boats tied up on both sides of Circe.  They had their fish out on display for sale.  One of them started feeding Anitra tiny eels.  She ate them as fast as she could.  We created quite a scene in the middle of the fish market with our boat full of children and laundry hung on the lines to dry out.

Mom doing laundry

Many French people came up to the boat to ask questions about where we were from and where we were going.  Everyone seemed friendly, and they appeared to admire family of nine with cat and dog on a boat.  Our lack of knowledge in French became immediately apparent.

Circe in Sete Harbor

The port authority let us stay there until the afternoon, when we had to move the boat to the Yacht Harbor we hadn’t been able find the night before, in the dark.  We stayed two nights in Marseille and then headed east for Bandol.

September 2 – Bandol – Another little French town on the coast. Tom and Hank learned Bridgett Bardot lived here and went searching for her.  We were catching on to how this would work.  During the day we would set sail the head out to sea going east along the French Riviera.  By late afternoon Dad picked a harbor for us to spend the night in.  After the Marseille experience, he gave up nighttime arrivals.  We pulled into the harbor, dropped anchor and settled in for the evening.  Mom, Jan and I did the meal preparation and cleanup, while Tom, Hank and Carl did the deck work.  Conrad and Frank had pet chore with the help of Carl.

Tommy, Hank, Rusty, and Carl

September 7 thru 29 – Cannes –  As we came back to the Yacht Port in Cannes from doing our shopping, we heard her screaming.  We knew it was Anitra –  there was no doubt.  We thought maybe a dog had found her tied to the mainmast in her harness; my brothers took off running for the boat. We found her over the side with her “tail end” just in the water.  She had tried to jump to the boat next to us, but her harness rope wasn’t long enough.  The boys pulled her back up on deck and Jan took her below to dry her off.  After this episode, Mom decided to have Anitra “fixed”.  Pequeñas Cosas!  Carl, Jan and I went with Mom to the vet.  Mom didn’t speak much French, but she made herself understood by making a scissor sign with her fingers.  We left her overnight, which was difficult.  It took Anitra several days to recover, but after that she was easier to handle and she quit trying to leave the boat.

September 28 – San Tropez – Heading west once again, back to Toulon. Where to spend the winter? Mom and dad had a plan for spring which was to go along the coast of France and Italy to Greece, where we would spend the summer.  But, first we had to get through the winter, which would be cold and damp in this maritime zone.  They decided on Toulon, so we left Cannes and headed back west along the French Coast at the end of September.

As soon as we found a slip for CIRCE, I moved ashore and lived with a French family to learn French and take care of their four children. Once again I found myself in the difficult situation of trying to learn a new language and make myself understood, I knew how to do it this time, but I missed my friends and didn’t want to make new ones.  I wondered how many more new experiences were in my future before I turned eighteen.  My friends back in Oregon were preparing to graduate from high school and go to college. Where would I be when they graduated?

Frank, Dad, Carl, Suzy and Jan

© 2019 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at  Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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