Meet Nils. Nils had skin like soaked leather and more stories than the Bible. The wrong side of 70, he had been a teacher, an organic pig farmer, a baker. He had lived lives. Our paths crossed at the end of my first holiday this year. We had flown from Dublin to Greece, rented a five-year-old 50-foot charter boat and pottered about three islands near Athens for five days when we met Nils . Nils had been sailing for two years, bobbing south from the east coast of Denmark to the Greek islands in a 17-foot bathtub. He has owned the boat since 1974. His children, now in their thirties, learned to sail in it. Since leaving Denmark, he had sailed the canals of Europe and emerged into the Med, and on the way met with charity and criminality and all manner of humanity. Nils had not been home in a long, long time and wasn’t sure when he’d see Denmark again.
For two years he’d been living on his barely sailable boat without water, without a toilet and by the looks of things, without much sunscreen. A friend had helped him sail the Musse-to, no bigger than a luxury couch, direct from Menorca to Sardinia in waves bigger than a house. And when we reversed into a med-moor spot at Korissias on Kea, we tied up between Nils’s poky bathtub and an 80-foot superyacht. Nils had a bottle of cheap brown liquor stashed under the cockpit bench. The superyacht had a fully-stocked bar on deck. We were somewhere in between. When we reversed into the gap, Nils offered us advice and caught a mooring line. The super-yachties offered us angry looks and contempt.
Sailing is funny in the variety of folks it attracts, and despite being a massive stereotype in itself, there’s no pigeon-holing sailors. A small boat does not equal a humble human and a superyacht sailor is not necessary a big-shot asshole. With Nils, what you saw was what you got. We spent an hour chatting on the dock on a Friday morning, me hung over and sweating, he unflustered and in a pair of black boxer shorts. He told me about his favourite free-range sow and his theories of freedom, the delinquent kids he taught and chased across Denmark, his wife and kids and his generous state pension. He told me how he had no house, no car, just some furniture in storage and some good friends back home. We talked about money and the joy of good coffee and the crude, salt-bleached tent that protected him from the sun.
Then I went to make some coffee and Nils came and joined us for that and we talked some more.
I spend my days scanning social media for news and contacts, collating stories from afar via YouTube and Twitter, helping journalists around the world get closer to stories they would have reported on from a hotel rooftop in the past. I connect with sources and witnesses around the world via every online means available to me. My conversation with Nils came on the last day of a week on a boat, with no email, no phone, no internet, no nothing – I was in a state of blissful disconnect. His stories were the best I’d heard all year. Although I monitor the most interesting stories from around the world in ‘real time’ every day, spending some real time with an interesting person is always more rewarding than any virtual connection.