As his wife, Catalina would tell you, Marius Albu is a very special man. Born and bred in the mountains of Romania, his burning ambition was to escape from the oppressive regime which ruled his country and sail around the world.
“We all thought that it was a great joke,” says Catalina. Besides the fact that he would never be given permission to leave the country, he had no boat. “And even supposing that he managed to build a boat, it was quite impossible for a small boat to cross the oceans in safety.”
In 1987 (three years before the collapse of the Communist regime) Marius and a friend journeyed in secret to the coast. They got hold of a huge rubber dinghy and they set off into the Black Sea, intent on reaching Turkey. The chief danger in this undertaking lay in escaping from the coast without being shot. After that it ought to have been straightforward, for the distance is only about 90 miles. Unfortunately, however, neither Marius nor his mate knew anything about navigation – this was, after all, the first time that either of them had ever been in a boat – and when they finally reached terra firma again they found that they had washed up in Bulgaria. As anyone over the age of 18 will know, Bulgaria, too, was still a Communist country in the 1980s.
Back the men went – at gun-point – and Marius spent the next two months in gaol. He was lucky; he could have spent the rest of his life locked away. Happily, however, his confinement coincided with the appointment of a new leader who wanted to be seen to be liberal-minded and generous. Marius and his friend were released; and back they went – to the coast – to have another try.
For his second attempt at liberty Marius acquired two small open fishing boats which he lashed together, in the darkness of the night, in the form of a catamaran. A drainpipe mast was quickly erected, and off the men went; there were eight of them this time, including Marius’ 14 year old son.
As the only one with any knowledge whatsoever of the sea, Marius was the skipper, but since he still hadn’t learnt much about the arts of the sailor the journey was not without its difficulties. Indeed, they had hardly cleared the land when the makeshift mast broke in half. Despite this setback, the mission was successful. Eventually. Five days after setting out, the strange little ship finally reached the coast of Turkey.
From Turkey, Marius and his boy went to Greece, and for the next five years our hero earned his living as a turner (a skilled machinist). In 1993 Marius returned home to Romania, but not with the intention of staying for good. The spirit of adventure was still upon him – he still had his dream – and he wanted to travel all over the world and climb mountains. Not just proverbial mountains, either, but real ones, with snow on the top.
Marius had spent his youth climbing the mountains of Romania and after his escape he had taken the opportunity to conquer the Matterhorn. Now he wanted to go further afield. His inspiration to sail came from the reading of a Romanian story book and from Francis Chichester, but amongst his heroes was the fabled British mountaineer and sailor Bill Tilman. Tilman is best known for the books in which he describes his journeys to and from the mountain ranges of the high latitudes, but in fact he was a man who merely sailed to climb; his beautiful old yachts were, for him, no more than transport vessels. Inspired by Tilman’s example, Marius decided that he could do likewise.
But that must wait; first he would tackle that old dream, and sail around the world.
Building a boat in Romania was no easy matter in the years immediately following the collapse of communism. Even the basic materials were hard to come by, and chandlery was completely unavailable. Marius did the best that he could. Following traditional methods, he built his keel and frames of oak, and he then clad them with pine planks. This hull was then sheathed with a layer of fibreglass thick enough to stand alone – indeed, effectively, Marius has two boats, one inside the other. When the boat was finished he fitted her with a car’s engine, but when he wanted to rig her he had to motor over to Greece. There were no such things as aluminium masts or stainless steel rigging or sailmakers in his native land.
“Why is your boat called Phoenix,” we asked Marius? Perhaps the man was not only a dreamer but also a philosopher. Perhaps he saw that his bird would rise from the ashes of a country ruined by half a century of oppression, and lift herself into glorious flight?
Marius laughed. “Actually, no. When I was building the boat I made a mistake with the paint. I didn’t know that it was a two-part paint, and so I covered the hull with the contents of the bigger tin. She looked very nice in her new red coat, but, of course, it didn’t dry. I had to remove the paint, and when I couldn’t scrub it off or scrape it off, I decided to burn it off.
Unfortunately, things got a little out of hand. The paint caught fire and suddenly the whole boat was engulfed in flames! I thought that I had lost her, but when the fire went out, she was perfectly unharmed – just like a phoenix.”
Phoenix is also the name of one of the hardest routes up a mountain which Marius used to climb, in his homeland. Every time he attempted to climb the mountain by this route Marius got a little bit higher until, finally, he succeeded. “I thought that my adventures on the water were a bit like that, too. I had had two boats – the rubber dinghy and my improvised catamaran, and each time I had succeeded a little bit more. This time I was building a boat which would enable me to fulfil my dream. I knew I would get there.”
Thus, there were two good reasons for naming the boat after the mythical bird.
Marius has now circumnavigated the world twice with his Phoenix, stopping on the way to climb various peaks. His current wife, Catalina, is also a keen mountaineer and when the couple visited Peru she became the first woman to climb the tallest mountain in America.
When we met them they were on their way down to Patagonia with Marius’ youngest son, Andre, aboard for part of the way. Like Mollymawk, the boat has no heater and no shower – but unlike us Marius does not plan to waste time stopping to build them. He is too busy galloping through life to worry about such trivialities.
As the first Romanian to have sailed around the world, Marius is a living legend in his homeland, and such glory has its reward. The yacht is adorned with so many trademarks that it is hard to find her name amongst all the other lettering, and each colourful logo represents a sponsor’s generous investment in the latest project. Every Sunday, Catalina telephones the national Romanian radio station and is interviewed about the past weeks adventures, and she also writes a report for a national newspaper.
There cannot be many cruising folk who have found such an efficient and painless way to pay for their travels – but nor are there many who have achieved so much, and from such inauspicious beginnings.