Joseph Schembri (Bahhar)
Joseph Schembri was born in Naxxar on the 31st January 1937 under Aquarius, the eleventh sign of the Zodiac. At a very early age he felt the lure of the sea and, usually accompanied with friends, he uses to walk more than six kilometers for a swim in Salina Bay.
After finishing his Primary Education in Naxxar Public School he continued his education at I-Mriehel Technical School. Three years later he joined the Royal Malta Artillery at the age of fifteen where he was very active in the competitive sports of football, swimming and canoe-rowing.
In 1959, Joe married Connie Maria from Hamrun and had three boys - Patrick, Joe. Jr. (born in Toronto/Canada, died at the age of 41 in 2006) and Stephen; both Patrick and Stephen reside in Australia, Melbourne, Victoria. Joe and Connie are now great-grand parents.
In 1959 Joe was sent to Libya with the his regiment and it was there that he had a lucky escape, when a Hasting 109 he was supposed to be on crashed on take-off. He only missed that flight because he was ordered to stay and join a British Army Tank Unit for a few weeks as he was the only welder in that area at that time. Although at the time he was not happy with that order, it actually saved his life as many of his friends died in that terrible accident.
In 1962, when the Maltese were emigrating in droves in search for better life, he left his secure army job and, with his wife Connie, he left for Canada in search for adventure. But not to Toronto, were most Maltese flocked, but to British Columbia, “because I wanted to see the Rocky Mountains and live near the Pacific Ocean”.
His first job was as a welder, a skill that served him in good stead when later he decided to build his own yacht. Unfazed by repeated redundancies, Joe moved constantly from job to job which took him across Canada. One of the jobs took him to Montreal in the province of Quebec, from where they then embarked on a CPR train to Vancouver, a six day journey across this vast country. The scenery during this trip - the desolate beauty of the majestic Selkik and Rocky Mountains, the endless landscape which opened up into a carpet of green moss, blue thaw lakes and stunted spruce trees as they headed west - inflamed his love for traveling and seeing the world. “It was here that I saw my first Canadian moose. This big bull stood at the end of a gravel road looking at the slow moving train. He stood easily seven feet tall at the shoulders, with a rack of broad antlers.”
This was one of the many surprises he encountered while heading towards Vancouver and, some months later, going back east towards Toronto and St. John in Nova Scotia. With what little money they had, they rented a small flat in W.Vancover close to Vancouver General Hospital.
It took Joe a good three weeks to find work after spending many hours walking each day while looking for a job. With little money and no relatives or friends to turn to, life was hard. His first job lasted only six months as he was laid off work three days before Christmas Eve, and this after they spent most of their savings on a 1957 Ford Prefect, which he needed to commute since his job was in Westminster, a small town on the outskirts of Vancouver.
Without work and with little money left in their savings, he decided it was time to head east to Toronto as jobs were easier to find in that large city. So on Christmas Eve, Joe and his wife with their nine month baby left Vancouver and British Columbia.
“I knew that this trip was not going to be easy, as we had to drive across three mountain ranges, winding mountain roads, rivers, and apart from the danger of avalanches, at this time of the year the roads will be full of snow, ice or sleet and my driving experience was limited. When I bought this car the heater didn’t work so I knew this trip was going to be uncomfortable, to say the least. For warmth we had to wrap blankets around our legs while our breath made the windscreen foggy and covered with ice, so we had to stop many times and clean it. Connie, with her long finger nails, used to scratch the windscreen so I could see the road ahead, as this was in the middle of a Canadian winter. In fact, we were quiet close to the area where a Canadian record was set in 1974 when 118 cm of snow fell in one day.”
“However there was a positive side to this trip as well for we drove through some of the most spectacular nature beauty spots on this planet. The scenery was awesome especially from Reverstoke in B.C to Lake Louise and Banff in Alberta.”
“It was early morning when we left the city of Vancouver heading towards the town of Hope at the base of the Cascade Mts. about 92 miles east of Vancouver on the Trans- Canada Highway –1. The weather was poor and it drizzled all the way.”
Hope is a pretty little town which sits on the wide curve of the mighty Fraser River and the entrance of the Fraser River Canyon. This is the location were the movie Rambo-First Blood was made years later.
North of Hope is one of the most beautiful sights in British Columbia: Hell`s Gate. Its an awesome sight to behold as this is were the Fraser River waters churns through the famous gorge, and it is here also where millions of spawning salmon must pass through this part of Fraser River every year. “I never thought that 40 years later the only fish I like to eat in Malta, is wild salmon of B.C and Alaska”.
“Our first stop for the night was in a small lodge on the West Side of Riverstoke Trans -Canada –Highway in Glacier National Park, here you find the most inspiring panoramas in Canada as over 400 glaciers cover most of the terrain. We needed a rest badly as mout of the time I had to drive on snow or sleet covered roads and in these conditions - driving up hill on narrow dark mountain roads- it is nerve cracking situations. Later it was a bliss relaxing in the warm cozy room of the lodge after a hot bath and in front of an old fire place.”
“At around 6 in the morning, after we had breakfast, we wrapped some sandwiches and filled two large thermoses with hot water, we drove our little car towards Roger Pass. A series of mountain ranges rolls between the Thomson Plateau and the other side of the Highlands to the west, then more mountain roads as they rises dramatically in the Selkik and Monashee mountains between Revelstoke and Golden near the British Columbia-Alberta border Without snow chains around the car wheels, driving is always dangerous.
It was a miracle that we went through these road conditions without any serious accidents. The Roger Pass elevation is some 4500 feet/1380 m and it is located at the summit in Glazier National Park. I lost count how many times we skidded our car to the edge of the mountain and it was terribly scary looking down towards the chasm, thousands of feet below. We had to drive through five long tunnels to add a measure of protection from avalanches and for anyone driving for the first time it can be a bit unnerving, however crossing Roger Pass is one of the rewards of travelling in this part of the Trans-Canada Highway.”
“Road construction through this pass was completed in 1962, a few months after we went through it. Banff is a place that is hard to forget as it is one of those places that nature really blessed it, not just with scenic beauty but here you can find at lot of wild life. As the weather improved, I drove all day and most of the night to cross the Prairies from the Banff in Alberta to Kenora, north of Ontario. Thus we went through the three Provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Termed as the Breadbasket of Canada the Prairies contains the majority of Canada’s productive agricultural cropland and pasture, and much of Canada`s food is produced here. It is a vast area of some 520000 sq. kilometers. The characteristic of this region is flat, rural, full of wheat and oil and very, very cold.”
“Kenora is located on the northern shoreline of Lake of the Woods. When we arrived around midday, falling snow and strong winds made this touristy town very unattractive. As night was approaching I decided to keep driving towards the “copper” city of Sudbury which is some 150 miles south east of Kenora. That was not the best decision I ever took, as approaching the small settlement of Schrieber in –20C I plunged my car in a frozen river, but luckily, a farm was close by and after I escaped through the car door window I asked the farmer to help me pull the car out of the river, which he did, using some of his farm equipment.”
It took Joe ten days to complete the journey from Vancouver to Toronto, were he stayed for another two years working as a welder.
In his travels across Canada going from one job to another, Joe found himself working in Churchill Manitoba, on the shores of the Hudson Bay in the Arctic Circle “I wonder if I was the first Maltese that work/lived in the Arctic Circle,” he used to think.
Later on he moved to the US where he became a successful salesman, moving from State to State and door to door selling encyclopedias, scrubbing floor machines, and financial services in Detroit Michigan.
From 1963 to 1968 Joe and his family made several car trips from the U.S and Canada to Malta crossing the Atlantic Ocean by small cargo-freighters, leaving from St.John in Nova Scotia, Montreal or other eastern ports of the U.S and Canada.
On one of these trips, in December 1965, they embarked on a small 900 tons Norwegian freighter sailing from the Port of Montreal through the St Lawrence seaway. The ship hit a crawler (small iceberg) and Joe’s son, Joe Jn, was injured in this accident.
Arriving in the ports of Avonmouth in Bristol followed by Le Havre in France, they traveled to several European countries. In those days there was no Autostrada south of Naples. In July 1969 he went back to US but soon after was arrested and taken into custody in violation of immigration laws, and he spent three weeks in Warren Jail, at that time considered as one of the worst in the US. They even made a Hollywood movie about the terrible conditions found in this jail house.
Later on he moved back to the US where he stayed until 1973, when he decided it was time to move to Sydney, Australia, His sister Carmen and his brother Alfred settled there many years before. It was while he was here that he found out that two of his colleagues at work were boat owners, and most weekends he used to go sailing with them as crew. He thus became hooked on the idea of dedicating his life to sailing and cruising to distance places.
“I had become obsessed with the idea of taking on the challenge of living aboard my own yacht. It would be a whole new experience for me and my family and when I asked my wife and the kids what they thought about this new life, they were just as keen about it as I was.”
Joe began looking for a used boat, and finding nothing suitable decided to build his own, undaunted by the fact that he didn’t know anything about boat- building. He read every book he could lay his hand on about boats and boat-building, he listened and learnt a few things from experience sailors. Joe took 30 months to build his dream yacht, a 50 foot steel ketch named “Bahhar”, working 15 hours a day seven days a week. The next couple of years he sailed and cruised the East Coast of Australia learning the art of sailing and navigation. Later he attended Sydney Technical Collage where he took two courses in celestial navigation and Meteorology.
Two years later he sold his comfortable home in Glenfield in the Western Suburb of Sydney and moved permanently on the boat, and with the help of one of his friends he acquired a nice berth in Sydney Harbor close to Sydney Harbor Bridge. ”I could not ask for a better place to have, my yacht berthed in Sydney Harbor and not having to pay for such a place. That’s what friends are for.”
After many months of planning Joe felt it was time to leave Australia and sail to Malta with his wife and three young boys, then aged 14,16 and 18 The long passage took 18 months The route they followed included Darwin N. of Australia, Christmas Is. Cocos Keeling Is, Sri Lanka, India, Yemen, Sudan, the Red Sea, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, Italy and Malta. In this voyage they experienced all sorts of weather from clear beautiful nights with perfect winds under a sky full of stars, to storms and hurricane force winds
Joe spent most of his six years in Malta sailing and cruising the Mediterranean Sea. In 1996 he decided to return to Australia and as his wish was always to circumnavigate the world on his sailing yacht he decided to sail west via the Panama Canal. This time the route he followed included Gibraltar, Canaries Is. Cape Verde Is, Trinidad & Tobago, Venezuela, Columbia, most of the Islands in the southern Caribbean Sea, Panama, Galapagos Is. Marquises and the Society Is. in the French Polynesia, Nurie Is. Cook Is. Palmeston Is. Is of Tonga, Fiji, New Caledonia and arriving in Sydney in November 1996, thus he became the only Maltese that circumnavigated the world on a sailing yacht.
The longest passages during which he was constantly at sea was 46 days from Panama to the Islands of Marquises.
After a stay of two years in Australia, he sold the yacht and returned to Malta
He started sailing again, this time delivering yachts for a local agent and through other connections. In one of these trips he sailed as far south as Seychelles, Ile de Reunion and the Island of Madagascar, in the southern Indian Ocean. The previous owner of this yacht was Maya, the daughter of the famous painter Picasso.
“I enjoyed delivering sailing yachts as some of the trips I made took me to many interesting places in the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic. In the last four years I switched from sailing monohulls to multihulls …”
“I was hooked on mulitihull sailing when I was invited for a sail on a trimaran in the beautiful lagoons of Bora Bora in the French Polynesia. I bought my trimaran, a 31` Corsair, in Kadar in Croatia and I sailed single-handed to Malta, a distance of some 500 miles - hence a new sailing experience.”
“During my circumnavigation, I felt that I was happiest in the long stretches at sea far away from land…. Arriving at Sydney at the end of my circumnavigation I was filled with emotions because it was such a valuable experience that far exceeded my expectations. It was a great adventure that had many beautiful moments, although sometimes mixed with miserable moments too. I also met some wonderful people whose dreams were like mine…”