Buscador Days

by George Edwards

As a kid growing up in Malta I was amphibious. Weekday mornings were usually devoted (I take the concept of devotion lightly) to school, but it was a sensible school, which recognised the realities of education in the soaring temperatures of summer, and ended daily shortly after noon. So afternoons were free for swimming and fishing, fishing in the thoroughly unsporting way the locals had taught us, using long poles, bread balls, and nasty three-hook-snags, more hauling fish from the water than any semblance of sport.

On weekends though, as I looked from my bedroom balcony over the bay of St Julian, or lazed on the rocks, I would often see the old blue form of the "Buscador" appearing around the sight line of the corner of the bay, past the tower. Buscador was - the skipper, John Calvert claimed - a Cornish fishing boat.

Wood built, two-masted with central wheelhouse cabin, and living accommodation below, it was a floating adventure playground for us kids. John was good with kids. I think nowadays this would have been regarded as behaviour bordering on "grooming", but in those times few were concerned at the number of semi-clad lithe young boys - never girls - that swarmed onto his boat at weekends to "help" him sail it around the coast of Malta.

One of the standard "games" John used to encourage was called "scraping the hull". This was huge fun, as it involved us getting filthy and cut to shreds while at the same time leaping frequently off the decks into the water, carrying scrapers John had fashioned from old metal, wood and string. Holding our breath - for we were all semi-aquatic, we would swim down under the hull, and devote a half minute to scraping the growth off the hull, watching the detritus fall away through the water to the bottom of whatever bay we were anchored in, the fishes darting in to take advantage of the free feed. Later in the year I remember John telling us we would have to cycle over to the old dockyard near Valletta for the next couple of weekends, as he had had the boat slipwayed for some maintenance, and with the hull already pretty well cleared, only had to dry it out, rub it down, and apply the orange and delightfully messy anti-fouling paint. Needless to say, he had a supply of brushes and cans for any helpers who arrived!

Our reward for all this help was copious supplies of tea made with condensed milk, and bread and honey, which seemed to be his staple diet. He did have a galley, and a small gas refrigerator, but as far as any of us could recall, he never actually cooked. As we became more aware in our teens, we realised that his diet was frequently supplemented by whisky - when he could get it duty free, not all that hard in Malta in those days of the British garrison.

John was a hoarder and adapter par- excellence. Some of the stuff he had on board would today be regarded with curatorial wonder, but he usually found a use for it. One summer he introduced us to diving. We arrived at the Buscador by swimming out from the rocks of Balluta late one morning, and found a strange shaped costume on the deck of the boat, a roll of green garden hose, and a big helmet. We all recognised the helmet from our comics, and pretty soon we were taking turns clambering into the diving suit, bolting on the helmet, attaching the hose - literally a hose, and lowering ourselves in leaden boots over the side. On the bottom of the bay we could walk around in wonder, lifting stones and slowly chasing fishes, as the air was pumped down to us from the deck compressor.

No one ever thought of the dangers involved. Certainly had the air stopped we'd have been drowned, as we couldn't have got out of the suit and boots below water. There was no filter on the air supply - it did smell rather of diesel. And there was no buddy system or indeed any precaution at all. But as so often in those days of the mid 20th century, we survived the hazards that today the health and safety police would have denied us.

John was also a handyman of some capability. The one time I remember him actually spending real money - although he must have had enough to run the boat - was when he decided he needed a new tender. He's seen the arrival of the new inflatables around the island, and liked the design and the unsinkablity. Being John, he wasn't going to buy one. So instead he built one. In doing so he slightly missed the point, for he built it from marine ply, canvas and glass fibre. It was this a very sturdy boat, the same general shape as an inflatable, but lacking in one essential characteristic. But it created the need for an outboard.

In those days petrol on the island was about 15p (US 30cents) a gallon, and as ever, was regarded by all as criminally expensive. John wasn't going to pay THAT sort of price. He acquired a second hand, early model Yamaha outboard, and a spare fuel tank which he filled with cheap kerosene. The island was largely heated by kerosene, and it was used in many homes for cooking as well, so like pasta and bread, it was heavily subsidised, almost free. With one tank of kerosene, and a gallon of petrol in the other, John would start up the outboard on petrol, and after about 30 seconds turn the tap to the kerosene tank. Amazingly, the outboard ran on - smelly, less efficient, but it still propelled the tender quite satisfactorily. Later we came up with a wooden water sledge, and John would tow us around St Julian's bay while we learned the rudiments of water skiing.

Time gets telescoped when you are young, and I suspect our adventures with the "Buscador" covered three summers at most, and even then I was sent off to boarding school for some of the time. But the shape of "Buscador" would still appear on the horizon as I grew into my late teens, and when I acquired my own boats I would sometimes sail or motor out to meet him, and chat to John more as an old mate than a kid of seventeen, while a new generation of younger children "assisted" with the sails, cleaned the decks, painted the hull and varnished the woodwork.

I once asked him on one of those early man-child chats what he was going to do "at the end". I have no idea how old he was then, I guess now he must have been in his early sixties. He was quite honest. No family he cared about, no property in England, and nothing to leave to anyone. He seemed to have no religion or faith, nor fear of death. One day, he said, the "Buscador" would be found drifting, empty, in the Mediterranean. He would have gone. That was all.

As I enter my own third age, and the empty "Buscador" long ago must have been found drifting, I too feel an attraction in that plan.