I thought I would never own a boat. I’m from a coastal city, traditionally linked with the sea, but physically separated from it by some train tracks. I have lived turning my back to the sea and the ships. Sailing is also an expensive hobby, but that’s far less melodramatic that being from a coastal city dramatically separated from the coast by the train.
When I left Brussels and headed to Lake Maggiore my colleagues at work insisted: “you should buy a boat… or better a sailboat!” and I agreed (of course) but in the back of my mind I was never sure whether it would ever happen. But it did, when G. negotiated a deal obtaining the smallest possible sailboat for one thousand euros. I became then a happy co-owner of a floating piece of plastic shaped as a boat.
Lots of happy moments followed that acquisition: joyful reparations to tidy it up, races against the wind testing its limits, delightful routes with more women on board than lifesavers. But this is not the story of the glory of Namasté. I’m going to tell you how it went down. This is a sad story and your face should be now in a blueish mood after you stopped smiling. Let’s call it a sweet and sour face.
Proof that I had a sailboat.
Finding a name for a boat in the Himalayas
This blueish story kicks off in Kathmandu. The expedition formed by my co-captain G. and head of maintenance C. had just returned from Island Peak having reached above 6,000 meters. After three weeks of trekking our immunitary systems had gone on strike and we found ourselves being attacked by some exotic asian virus that took us regularly to the toilet. And in the toilet I was when my colleagues received the dramatic message: our boat was not where it was supposed to be. The message read: “Guys, have you lent your boat to someone? Because it’s not where it was!” Had we what!? Well, now I wish we had done that! Our friend D. had been left in charge of checking up if the boat was there, lying at the last row of the buoy camp. She still finds embarrassing to talk about it, but what else could she do? We asked to report whether the boat was there or not, and that’s what she did. The boat was not there.
We didn’t believe it, of course. But then a second message arrived. A. confirmed that nor the boat, nor the buoy, were in place. Which is a pity because A. would have done a great cook on board. We still didn’t believe it, but were forced to think about the eventuality of having lost the boat. Our minds were crazy thinking about options.
– They have stolen it! Sure! Somebody has decided to steal the shittiest boat in the place, and to do that, instead of cutting the rope that ties the boat to the buoy, they have cut the chain that ties the buoy to the bottom of the lake! Problem solved!
– It has sunk… No, that’s just not possible. Boats are made not to sink! And how could it have sunk, if the bomb connected to the solar panel was working fine. It’s true that there were some holes and the bomb was needed, and that there were several days without sun… but come on, how on earth might it have sunk! That’s nonsense!
It was especially painful to think that the boat had gone taking into account that we had found a name for it in Nepal! Namasté means “hello” and “goodbye” in Nepalese, and we had decided to name our boat after that word. And we had bought the greatest of the fleeces for our crew!
Checking it up, down there
A couple of days and two hundred visits to the toilet later we arrived back at the lake and got the confirmation by ourselves. There was no boat. It was actually difficult to remember where in the buoy camp it was moored, but finally we identified a spot where there was no boat, and no buoy.
Our friends had a great capacity to surprise us. And some of them really did when, while talking about the missing boat, proposed to dive and search for it.
– But guys, can you dive?
– Yes we can; we just need the oxygen tanks which you will rent in Varese and we just go down and check.
– When would it be good to do it?
– What about Monday during the lunch break?
The next Monday during the lunch break a small expedition left the JRC prepared to find the truth about the sunk boat. Two divers, M. and L., one guiding rower, myself, and a team of cheerleaders under umbrellas. We had confessed to the buoy owner that our boat (might) had gone down and he offered his best support. Which we needed to find exactly where our buoy was supposed to be: “I have a second buoy numbered 1234. Just find that other buoy, and then, 15 metres to the north alongside the coast, yours should be”.
It was raining. I looked at the plastic boat somebody had arranged for me. It said “to be used only by two people at the same time, or a maximum weight of 90 kg”. God, it was going to be hard. I got into it and started off towards the second buoy. Once identified, I rowed the 15 metres like I was following some treasure map. Once I considered myself situated, I gave turn to the divers. And down they went.
Then silence came. During 15 long minutes I stayed up there in a plastic boat for 2 people or 90 kg, during a Monday lunch break, under the rain, with some cheerleaders far in the coast under an umbrella, waiting for our brave divers to reappear in the surface. And when they did…
Eureka! It’s here! We found it! Yuhuuuu! Such an excitement, everyone was shouting. Once the divers were back in the safety of the moor, they reported: “It’s there, it’s right below the spot, around 10 meters down. It’s still tied to the buoy, and the buoy is compressed by the pressure, green because of the algae. All the fenders are compressed as well and pointing up. The boat is stuck in the mud by its keel. It’s going to be tough to pull it up.”
2 people diving at the same time and 90 kg on a plastic boat.
Thinking about pulling it up returned us to reality. We had found our boat, now what? The traditional harmony between both captains halted and gave way to a tense cold war at this moment. There were two radically different opinions:
– It should stay where it is. Lifting it up will cost us more than what we paid for it, and then we will have to fix it. It should stay where it is, let’s be practical. It was a nice story, now it’s over.
– I come from a city of sailors! There’s no way I’m leaving my boat sunk, it’s a matter of pride! We will do whatever it takes to lift it up! And hopefully not to pay for it!
At work, the word spread. Both fueled by its own power and by our own promotion; we just couldn’t be shy about it. Well, how cool is it to have your boat sunk? Different proposals started to make their way:
– You should fill it with tennis table balls! I’ve seen it in Mythbusters, and once you fill the cabin with balls, the air in them will gently push the boat upwards! (Fine, so how do you propose to sink several hundreds of tennis table balls 10 meters below!?)
– First you pull it up a bit to remove it from the mud. Then, carefully you turn it upside down, so that the boat won’t suffer any damage when going up; the keel will open the way! Then once it’s almost at the surface, you flip it again and voilà! (Not damaging the shittiest boat was not a real priority. But listen, if we flip a boat that is 7 meters tall, in a couple of flips we are already way above the water, aren’t we!?)
Finally, we luckily found a systems administrator who was as well a diving instructor who got in charge of the operations, and managed a crew of 3. All our friends who dived where on board, because… when were they going to get another chance to rescue a sunk boat?
Everything was ready for mid-december, but then… one of our crew members was leaving on holidays earlier. And my time in Italy was coming to an end; grey Brussels was waiting for me. When I left Italy driving my car I was leaving a lot of great moments and people behind. Some furniture waiting to be moved to Brussels. And a boat, somewhere below the lake.
The trace behind the boat indicates “full speed ahead”
Not the end of it: the rescue operation
April 16th, 2010. Already installed in Brussels, I came back to the lake to celebrate my birthday with my friends. We had planned a party by Laveno beach, and we had all we could need: a power generator, music, lights, great food, lots of invitees… and the crazy idea of decorating the landscape with a rescued boat! Could we carry out our latest plan in order to bring the boat to the party?
The balloon theory had won the contest of ideas. The plan was to bring 3 big oxygen balloons, flat. Our team of divers would take them down, attach them to the boat, and fill them up bt half (if they were full at that depth, they would explode on the way up when the air pressure was lower). With that thrust, the boat would have been removed from the mud, and lifted up to the surface. Once there, we had to decide where to take it afterwards, risking that it would sink again on the way… 3 balloons would have been enough. But we got the first setback from the very beginning: our team could only find 1 balloon.
But they were going down anyway. They got the balloon, the light, and the digital subaquatic camera and made it to the point where Namaste had been seen for the last time. They went down…
And after 20 minutes, the buoy went up. With no boat attached to it. Our divers made it back to the coast and reported what they had seen. They couldn’t find any place to safely attach the balloon. There was a metal bar at the stern, but looking so weak that pulling the boat from there would have meant rescuing only the metal bar. There was no other lifting point. The divers had clear instructions: if you cannot free the boat, free at least the buoy so that we don’t have to keep on paying the rent for it! So that’s what they did. And the buoy went up to get entangled with the mast, a meter shy from the surface. The divers were also trained in this eventuality. If nothing could be done, the mast should be sacrificed to avoid any risk to other boats passing up. They cut the fixations of the mast, and down it went. To the mud. Without resistance. And that was the end of Namasté.
Last captains’ meeting. Notice on the right the greenish, recently rescued buoy.
The buoy was free, and so were we from the rent. The boat was down, and its location will be kept secret except from some random diving pupil who will have the chance of visiting a sunk boat in the lake. Our minds were at that emotive moment running through the bright days of Namasté. When we first it took it to sail, with our lead female engineer D. fixing the engine. And when we last took it to sail, full with women all around on board. Feeling the wind in our faces, putting our fingers on the water to check if it was actually moving because no one would have said so on the boat. Between the first and the last sail, nothing, because we only took it twice to sail. As a homage to our episodes on the lake, we still keep treating each other by “captain”.
Namasté will be not be forgotten as long as there are stories about it going around the JRC. But the stories snowball and get weirder. Don’t you think that this one is weird enough? However, it has been so long since it happened, that you never know what parts are right, and what parts are just a cloudy dream…