Position: 39°47’34.0″N 2°41’36.3″E
“Allo!”, called the man swimming towards Aleta. “I noticed your dinghy, and I would like to ask you some questions,” he said, pulling alongside. Always at the ready to answer enquiries about Porta-botes, we invited him aboard. Apologising for his “poor English”, that was actually very good (particularly as we’re linguistically embarrassed Americans), he explained that his current dinghy was an old inflatable, constantly losing air. It was time to replace it and ours looked intriguing.
We gave him a run down on the benefits of folding boats, and some of the pros and cons of Porta-botes. Then I promised to drop off our boat card with links to porta-bote.com and my review – in the interest of full disclosure, naturally.
Finally, we formally introduced ourselves. Jean-Marie entered the water again and began a gentle elementary backstroke towards his boat. “Perhaps we can share a glass of wine later, when you bring your card”, he suggested. “We’d love to,” we said in unison.
After a brief walk through the pretty town of Port de Soller, sustained by a couple of the best mojitos we’d had in ages, we finally dinghied Nell over to Jean-Marie’s boat for a demonstration. With a quick round of introductions, Pascal, Carol, Christian, out of the way, I invited Jean-Marie for a drive. He insisted that I man the engine as we drove around the harbour for a few minutes. Nell did her best to plane, her 6 horses pushing her along nicely. Back at the boat, I asked Pascal (introduced to us as the captain and owner) if he’d like to take her out. Bien sûr, he said, and was quickly carving donuts in the still waters surrounding us.
Wiry, with a Gallic nose and full head of dark hair, Pascal would never be mistaken for Jean-Marie’s brother. Tall and a little portly, Jean-Marie sported a most luxurious white beard, with long whiskers and prominent goatee. His small, round, red glasses stylishly setting off his cherubic features, he looked every inch the vintner he once was. Today Jean-Marie is looking forward to retirement and sailing away. He and Pascal belong to the same yacht club, where Jean-Marie is “George W”, the president, while Pascal is “Dick Cheney”, the veep. Except when they are sailing. On the water Pascal, the club’s head sailing instructor, is president and Jean-Marie Dick Cheney.
As vice-president and crew chef, Jean-Marie invited us to stay for dinner. Nothing complicated, he said, a lentil salad with peppers, onion, mushrooms, and oil and vinegar to taste. Bread, of course, followed by local cheeses. “When you’re sailing, it’s best to keep things simple in the galley,” Jean-Marie advised us. We knew exactly what he meant, and made mental notes to explore more creative culinary alternatives on Aleta.
The conversation gathered steam, fuelled by a seemingly endless supply of wine from the hold. By the third bottle we’d learned that all aboard were divers, sailing racers, and from the middle of France, a good three hours north of Marseille. Christian was quietly enjoying his wine. In due course we learned he is a passionate diver, with over 1,300 dives in 28 years. His favourite spot in the world? Indonesia. There aren’t, he said, many great places left in the Mediterranean. Except, the nature reserves. There aren’t enough reserves. On their return leg to France, they planned a detour to the Reserva natural de las Islas Columbretes. A protected area inside a dormant volcano where the fish are so bountiful it is ‘like being in an aquarium’.
At one point in the evening, we asked Jean-Marie how he became a wine maker. Moreover, a maker of organic, ecologic wines when such things were still in their infancy in France. He explained that his parents were farmers and his father liked making wine. That growing up he liked his father’s wine objectively, having had plenty of opportunities to compare other local’s vintages.
As he grew older, he and a school friend learned about grape husbandry and viticulture. For his entire childhood, his father’s measure of success was the quantity of grapes harvested, not the quality. Jean-Marie and his friend quietly started thinning his father’s vines and the vintages steadily improved.
After leaving school and spending several years working in a manufacturing plant, Jean-Marie’s interest in wine making became more than just a pastime. In his early 30s he began to seriously work the vineyard his father had established. As he explained, his father wasn’t a man who taught directly. Yet, they worked together, learning to make good wine. Without chemicals. In the way nature intended. And as they collaborated, Jean-Marie became best friends with his dad. And that lasted a dozen years until cancer called his father away. It was a time, Jean-Marie said, he’d never trade for anything in the world.
As our evening caroused on, our hosts graciously kept speaking English. For which we were both grateful and abashed. Eventually, nature called and we reluctantly said our goodbyes. Exchanging emails and Facebook accounts, we promised to keep in touch. Then we swerved the 30 metres back to Aleta in Nell.
As our hosts sailed past the next morning (looking pretty chipper I must say) we waved our under-caffeinated goodbyes. Personally, I can’t wait to find out what kind of boat Jean-Marie buys for his retirement.