The Itinerant Sailor

Today finds me in Alicante, in southern Spain.  While most of northern Europe is shivering in near, or below freezing temperatures, I am in shorts and light shirt, basking in 25°c.  It’s not very hard being me.

Give or take a week, it was about this time of the year, forty-eight years ago in 1968, that I first was in Alicante.  And the weather was like today.

I was on my way south to Gibraltar.  As a child, I had read of the history of Gibraltar, a tiny enclave of Britain, at the tip of Spain and separated by a short distance from Africa.  It had fascinated me.

Gibraltar was ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, but unfortunately, there was no map of the boundaries, nor any detail of what was entailed.  Unsurprisingly, to this day Gibraltar has continually been subject to differing interpretations.

I have no recollect of how I reached the Gibraltar border from nearby Algeciras, probably by bus, but when I did, I found the border was not open.  It had been closed on June 8 of the same year, by General Franco, the Spanish dictator, and it remained closed until February 1985.

The border between Spain and Gibraltar, as it is in modern times (photo from internet)


I spent the night close to the border, in La Línea, in a pension, in the dampest bed in which I have ever slept.  The room felt as if it had not been occupied since the Treaty of Utrecht.

The next day I went back to Algeciras, and caught a ferry across the bay to Gibraltar.  That access was surprisingly still open.

On the ferry, I met one of the most interesting people I have ever encountered.  He was a retired English sailor.  From early teenage, he had worked all his life on boats, all over the world.  He was a small thin wiry man with scarcely any hair, with a deeply weathered and tanned face.

He told me that when he was forced to retire, he tried to settle in England, but he could not fit in.  He had no family, no relatives, no real friends.  He was too restless to live in one place, so he had taken all his possessions in a small backpack and set off to follow his nose.

In the next four years, he had traveled all over the world, in all the continents, sometimes working his passage across the oceans.  He ended up back in England, but did not stay long.  When I met him, he was on his way back south.  He said he was not going back to England again.

I asked him where he was going after Gibraltar.  He said that he was going to catch a ferry to Ceuta and then overland to South Africa.

And what if got ill?  He said that he would be treated like the local people, wherever he was.  And when he died, he said that they could have his few possessions to pay for his burial.

He did not seem to be lonely.  In fact, he appeared to be very content with his life.  In some ways, the old sailor reminded me of the legend of the itinerant Jew, although, in the end, the latter just wanted to die.

The last I saw of him, he was heading to the offices of the ferry companies, to get a passage to Africa, and I headed to the town.

Since then, I have often wondered whatever happened to the old sailor.