When one meets a self-confessed moody old crook who was infamously known as ‘The Bitch of Smithfield’, who hung out with rogues like Drinking John down the meat market, was courting a bank robber and has set light to more cottages and cornfields than I care to count, one imagines getting the imposing Gina to drop her guard to be a bit of a challenge. This interview is proof of how wrong a man can be. Gina is quite possibly one of the most delightful and interesting conversationalists in the marina. After a chat with her one comes away feeling a little bit more enlightened about life…
Our interview started with ‘Fact of the Day’. “Did you know”, she begins, as she pours me a Diet Coke, “that this year’s St Patrick’s Day is actually today (Saturday 15th March), and not next Monday? This is because the official St Patrick’s Day falls within the Holy Week, an occurrence that won’t happen again until 2160. When this happens St Patrick’s Day is supposed to be moved back so it doesn’t clash with the Holy Week. Mind you, the Irish being Irish means they’ll just celebrate Paddy’s Day twice this year!”
Born in Portavogie, County Down, Northern Ireland, Gina describes the view from her family home, which looked across the Mountains of Mourne. She starts singing: “’With all that I’m feeling, I’m sure I should be, Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea”. She pauses. “I had a lovely upbringing: my family was quite well off. My aunt had the first flushing toilet in the village! My grandfather was a fishermen and we lived on a livestock farm. As a child I used to walk 50 cows down to the sea and usher them into the water, which was good for their feet, and I remember our head slaughter man killing a bobby calf and drinking its blood. This was my first introduction into the meat trade.”
The meat trade is where Gina earned her endearing nickname but before all that she was on the road to a career in music after spending her remaining childhood between Germany and Cyprus. “Back then Cyprus had no separation zone and the Greeks and Turks lived in harmony. We’d go out playing in the fields and if we wandered too far we’d nick a donkey and ride it back into town. Overnight the donkey had made it’s own way back to its field. Lizard racing was also popular, and I remember our school bus had machine guns mounted on each end of the vehicle! After all this, however, I moved to Wiltshire in the UK and went to music college, whilst enjoying a passion for photography” Gina’s family were all musicians and her father suggested she should take up the trumpet. “I tried that but preferred the French Horn. Having spent some of my childhood in Germany I returned there to study under a professor of music and ended up practising with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Playing with an orchestra was good money and a solo performance could fetch 225 marks (approx £25 in the mid 1960s). My biggest performance was in front of 6,000 people: as I was trying to play my solo the conductor kept looking at me strangely, and then a euphonium behind me came in on my solo. It turned out my horn wasn’t making a sound as my lips had stuck together because I’d been sucking on a sweet. I think it was a Spangle. Needless to say I didn’t get paid for that performance.”
Gina then moved to Jersey where she continued to play the horn, working for a music agency. “One evening we were celebrating a performance and, pie-eyed, climbed into a car. A few minutes later we had a crash and I went through the window and hit a granite wall. I lost all my front teeth and split my face open. Ironic, really, as I’d lost my fiancé in a car accident two years previously. That was the end of my music career. I could have carried on as a music teacher as I was qualified but I didn’t have the patience for kids then as I do now. Two children refused to come to my lessons because I scared them so much! After the accident I just lost interest in music.”
Gina then got a job as a hotel receptionist, working in the Royal Oak in St Hellier, and quickly made her way up to hotel manager. She was obviously good at it as she continued as a manager for Bass Charington, working in the UK. Eventually she decided to move back to Jersey, when she was phoned by an ex-employee of hers, Helen, looking for work. She invited Helen to join her and, on their way back via Wiltshire, Helen was introduced to Gina’s brother. They fell in love, got married and had two children. Gina and Helen became life-long friends. “She was the life and soul of every party, she was cheeky and she was my best friend. I was devastated, therefore, when I found out that she had developed MS.”
Gina was between jobs. She’d attended business college and started hanging out with friends in the meat trade, an environment she was familiar with due to her upbringing on the farm. “I watched them at work and thought ‘I could do better than that’, so I bought some pigs heads, got them de-boned and started supplying meat factories. In the end I was selling all over the country, including Smithfields in London. I was turning over £20m a year and would frequently walk round with £5,000 cash in an envelope, which I used to bribe the buyers with. In 1985, however, the tax man came knocking on the door. I didn’t mind, actually, as he was very tall and handsome! We had a pleasant chat, my accountant, the tax man and me drinking tea from the best bone china and nibbling on biscuits, when he politely asked me what I was going to do about the £1.35m tax liability I’d accumulated! I admitted to it all but somehow managed to negotiate a settlement of £700,000! I don’t believe in swearing and a ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ get you a long way in life. Even being polite to the taxman is important!”
Her criminal activities didn’t end there though. She moved to Ireland and started importing meat from the UK.
“We used to import tripe muscle, packed in boxes with ‘Reject’ stamped on them. We bleached, trimmed and repackaged it and sold it to Japan where it was a delicacy. Eventually, however, the tax man caught up with me again and I was done for £80,000!” Gina’s attitude to money is philosophical. “I’ve been rich in my life and sometimes I’ve had nothing. It doesn’t matter really, does it? The days I had money were no different to the days I didn’t. As long as you have enough for one meal or one car or one drink, you don’t need any more than that. I might have made a lot of money but I was never greedy and I would often help friends out if they needed it.”
Gina’s generosity knows no bounds. She retired in 1987 and designed and built her own house in Wiltshire but Helen’s MS was getting worse. Gina decided to take care of her and looked after her for 12 years. “She was bedridden for the last 7 years and I looked after her every day. She was my best friend for over 30 years and I refused to see her put in a care home. Wouldn’t you do the same thing?” Eventually Helen died in Gina’s arms. This tragedy was compounded by the death of her partner of 15 years, Tom, who died of gangrene poisoning.
The years of hard graft, tragedy, parties, law-ducking and selfless care for family and friends were now to be put behind her. It was time for Gina to do something for herself.
Helen’s children asked her what she wanted to do with her life now that their mum had passed away. “I’d like to buy a boat and sail the world”, was her flippant reply. “Are you serious?” they asked. She thought for a moment and said “I’m deadly serious”. The next couple of months was spent driving down to The Hamble to look at boats and watching DVDs on how to sail and maintain them. “I was advised to look for an old Moody. Quite appropriate that, isn’t it? I found one in Scotland and after I told my story about Helen the seller was adamant that he would not sell ‘Impulse’ to anyone else until I tried it. The next couple of months was spent going back and forth to Scotland with my niece and nephew, going for test sails around Oban. The seller could see I wasn’t a time waster and when he told me how obvious it was I was enjoying it, I explained about my grandfather and his fishing boats. Now I knew what being on the sea was all about and why he loved it so much.” Naturally Gina had a spare £5,000 in cash knocking about in an envelope, so the deposit was paid and before she knew it she was making her way to Gibraltar with a Motley crew quickly cobbled together!
It was in Gib that Gina had her heart attack. She’s been suffering from health problems for some years and has had 80 Ischemic attacks in her life. “An Ischemic attack is a mini stroke where the left side of the body goes dead, causing the sufferer to lose speech and sight. It’s a warning of a possible full stroke. I remember when I was a non-drinker for a couple of years and I’d get these attacks. I had a lot of trouble convincing people that I wasn’t drunk! I was often fed steroids and the doctors gave me two years to live. That was nineteen years ago.”
(Not that we should be encouraging Gina but she does have a great party trick. “My best is lining up 12 blended whiskies and being able to identify every one. Of course I’d have to drink each one first to do this!” For the record her fave ‘Scotch’ is actually a Jamesons, being Irish and all that.)
Gibraltar was also where Gina met ‘Storm Dodger’ and ‘Rhumb Do’ and, after rescuing ‘Storm Dodger’ from engine problems ‘Storm Dodger’ and ‘Impulse’ set sail heading for Turkey, shortly followed by ‘Rhumb Do’. “The problem was my crew I’d sailed down with had returned to the UK, so I was on my own.
Having only sailed for a year the idea of going solo scared the hell out of me, but I thought I could do it.” And so she did. After getting the sails up and berating herself for being a “stupid bloody cow” for going solo, she calmed down and successfully made the 4 hour trip to Estapona.
Well that four hour trip turned into a passage across the Med because Gina is now in Marmaris Yacht Marina, having sailed here by herself. Her confidence to sail by herself, her general goodwill and her rosy outlook on life are what gives Gina that extra something. “I have no regrets in life and I’ve loved my life to date but it’s important to give and to help people. That’s the way life should be, isn’t it?”