When we conceptualised the idea of ‘Through The Porthole’ we agreed that its primary aim was to meet and introduce a yottie with a ‘low profile’. You know, someone you might see in the bar but know nothing about. A person none of us have ever really spoken to but have seen around the yard on the odd occasion. Why on earth, then, are we interviewing one of the highest profile sailors in Marmaris? Everyone knows Gwen: she’s the Wednesday morning net controller…schwaaaark! Well, her voice may be familiar but have you actually met her? Gwen, meet The Porthole reader. Reader, meet Gwen from ‘KW’…
Interviewing Gwen was easy in one respect. She’d been a journalist herself, working for a bridal magazine writing articles on honeymoon destinations (“I always managed to wangle some boating experience on those ‘business’ trips!”). As a journalist she knew the format and made this interview so easy that I didn’t have to ask any questions. It was difficult at the same time, however, because I was getting cramp in my hand trying to keep up with the yo-yo life she’s led. I was bound to get something wrong. “You know, that reminds me of the time I arranged for a load of roast chickens to be available to the yotties in Migros at Netsel. I spent ages negotiating and explaining the order to the manager, who spoke both English and French, as well as Turkish. He nodded and agreed and said he would get the roast chickens in as soon as possible. He turned up the next day with a trolley load of frozen turkeys outside my boat. That’s a bit like journalism – it doesn’t matter how hard you concentrate, you’ll always get something wrong”. That’s all right then, because we’ve got a shed load of facts on our infamous Net controller!
Gwen is a first generation Swedish American, though she does now claim to be Canadian: “Since Bush came to power I refuse to be acknowledged as an American. I worked in the foreign service on hardship programmes and trained in Washington before being posted to West Africa. A great experience marred only by the eleven obligatory injections. Despite majoring in a variety of subjects for 16 years I never actually got a degree so officially I wasn’t allowed to become an officer in the foreign service, but I’d built up so much experience they made me an officer anyway”. This experience lead her to Mauritius, where she met her Swedish husband. “At that time the president of the United States was paranoid of aliens cavorting with American workers like myself, so we were ordered to return to the States to marry. I was re-posted to Washington, which lasted all of two weeks, because then my fiancé got a job working for World Bank in the Middle East. Guess what the condition of his employment was? We had to be married! We drove the family from California over to Las Vegas and were married there, where my mother very kindly asked the judge if this marriage would last, what with it being my third, whilst my husband and dad went off gambling on my wedding night!”
Gwen and her husband were eventually posted first to Qatar for 3 years and then to Bahrain, where they stayed for 13 years. Her husband had always wanted to build a boat and felt that Bahrain was the right country to do it in. He went ahead with the plan to construct a 23m schooner, whilst Gwen continued to get seasick in the bathtub. “I was not a sailor at the time but I remember sitting in the hairdressers reading a magazine advertisement about ‘Eye Of The Wind’, a 90-ft brigantine in Australia. For a month one could sail this beautiful boat in the south Pacific, so I booked a trip on it to get some experience. By the end of the month I didn’t want to get off and realised sailing was for me. I went back to Bahrain and quit my job.”
Quitting work was not a foolish move as Gwen had another trade up her sleeve. Whilst she was an IT consultant, setting up IT infrastructures and training staff in the Sheikh’s palaces, she was also dabbling in stained glass. “My husband completed the construction of our boat, ‘Hellem Nooh’, and we started chartering to the banking fraternity in the Middle East. And do you remember Dior’s men’s cologne Fahrenheit? Well, we chartered its introduction in the seven Gulf States with Dior coming from Paris and ministers, photographers and journalists striding a red carpet to board the boat for a sunset cruise. I really enjoyed that – waiters in white gloves, a band on the poop deck. Caviar. Champagne. It was all very posh!”
“At the same time I was experimenting with stained glass as a hobby. The two came together after we took out the CEO of an architectural company for a week’s charter. It turned out he designed many of the Sheikhs’ palaces and, having seen my stained glass on ‘Hellem Nooh’, he invited me to create stained glass windows for the Sheikh. Well, this was a job offer I couldn’t refuse. It involved many chemicals, lots of experimentation and plenty of fire extinguishers! I learned how to make crystal and marble effects and would test my glass by taking it out into the desert. If the glass survived a summer in the desert heat then it was good enough for the palaces”.
Eventually Gwen and her husband got a little bored of chartering in Bahrain. “We were sailing from one sand dune to another, so I decided to move to Turkey whilst my husband stayed in Bahrain to fund my trip”. In 1994 Gwen headed to Albatros marina, spending the summer at anchor and the winter up the river. She hired a skipper to help her learn the local waters and ended up chartering to Americans. After five years she sold the boat and was on the market for a new floating home. “I saw a beautiful Nauticat in Spain, owned by a guy who lived in a pit of fag butts and rubbish. I came aboard and he didn’t even look up to greet me; he just said I could wander round. After walking into his cabin to be greeted with the sight of a naked woman in his bed, I quickly exited with the idea that this was the boat for me. I didn’t want that boat but I knew I wanted an identical one.” Gwen saw another in Portugal. “I went to see it at night time. The boat was up on sticks and with the marina flood lights beaming on this Nauticat it shone like a beacon, beckoning me to come aboard. I knew instantly that this was the boat for me and it was a done deal. Next day the previous owner and I had lobster and champagne for lunch, I took it out for a sea trial with some friends and brought her back to Turkey.” And that boat is ‘Kornwerd’: ‘KW’ to you and me. Home to Gwen and her cat, Simba. (‘Kornwerd’ is the name given by the previous owner, named after a family retreat in Holland.)
That’s the Gwen from back then, but what about the voice from the Net we know now? “I was asked by Karen of ‘Antigua Lady’ if I would like to do Wednesday’s net. I love doing it because I enjoy it. If anything becomes a hardship then I’ll stop doing it but I embrace new things. That’s how the trips started. I knew the Turkish coast-line but I’d never been inland. A Turkish couple who befriended me started taking me to these fabulous places and I wanted to discover more. I couldn’t afford the trips on my own so I got together a group of friends to help spread the cost. I don’t make any money from these ventures, I just want people to discover the beauty of Turkey. You know Afrodisias is more stunning than Ephesus: I go there and imagine Charlton Heston or Russel Crowe in that stadium. This country is riddled with history. King Midas, Homer…Turkey is loaded!”
And then I discover that I’ve already met Gwen: virtually, on the internet in a sailing forum! I’d posted one of my wind-up, angry threads about the rising prices in Turkey and Gwen had replied in Turkey’s defence. “I have seven good reasons for living in Marmaris: the people are warm hearted; it’s near to an airport; it’s close to Europe; it’s not expensive; there are great medical and dental facilities; the sea and air is unpolluted…and it’s never boring.” Can’t argue with that, Gwen