When I left Storm Dodger there were seven kids in the cockpit, one up the mast (with her arm in a sling), a couple more down below and an empty plate of biscuit crumbs. “We wouldn’t have it any other way”, states Roger. “On the rare occasion that Astrid and I are on our own we just get bored”. You see life with the Simms is all about family, and if anyone knows how to bring one up, it’s Roger and Astrid. They’ve done it 40 times…
Roger’s early life might just have well been lived out in the hit British TV drama, “Auf Wiedersehen Pet”, as many of his early adult years were spent in Germany working “The Black” (cash in hand manual labour), which is where he met his German wife Astrid. He had left school without any qualifications and went to Gibraltar with his mates with the romantic idea of sailing across to the West Indies. Unfortunately this fell through and he ended up working on a coaster called ‘Ramblas’ in Gib. In fact the similarity to “Auf Wiedersehen Pet” continues as he actually worked with Chris Fairbank who played Moxy in the drama. “He was a very funny man and always had us in stitches”. After a while Roger moved to Portugal to work on the oil supply vessel, “Valiant Service” which, on its way back to the UK, caught fire. “We were crossing Biscay in dead calm seas when the engine blew up. The entire boat caught fire but we managed to contain it and were eventually towed by a container ship to Guernsey”.
Although this didn’t put him off the seas he joined the land-lubbers in Germany to work as a crane driver, picked up welding as a skill and worked in the atomic power stations in Kandel. It was in Kandel that he met a certain bar maid who, after courting for a very short time, he proposed to and got married 3 months later in England. “Everyone thought I was pregnant”, jokes Astrid, “but we got married and I didn’t have Danielle until a year later. Honestly! People often wonder about our marital status because we have five children of very different ages, but I can assure you, they are all our own and we’ve been happily married for 27 years.”
Their own children are Danielle (24), Sarah (23), Jamie (22), Jordan (14) and Leah (8). Jordan and Leah currently live on the boat. “We planned for six kids and after 3 thought we might adopt”, continues Roger. “Of course financially it was very difficult for us so we’d frequently get cheap takeaways. It was in the local Chinese that I read an advertisement in a newspaper for foster parenting. This seemed to kill two birds with one stone as we could get paid to have more children”, Roger quips. This was the start of thirteen years of fostering, which also included child minding and foreign exchange. “We’ve fostered around 35 to 40 kids”, says Roger. “Some were short stays but some were with us for up to four years. We always had at least six kids in the house and it wasn’t unusual to see eighteen of us seated round the dinner table”. “You can imagine the size of the cooking pot”, adds Astrid. “I remember one child we nick-named ‘Letter Box Smile’ because he had a huge grin. He was from a very poor background and when I served up a massive pot of mashed potato he thought it was just for him! Of course the ladle had to be big too but he could fit the whole thing in his mouth.”
As they took on more children Roger decided to earn more money by becoming a motor-cycle courier. “Has he explained why he’s called ‘The Miracle Rubber Man’?”, asked Jordan. It turns out that Roger had an horrific motor-cycle accident in which he was run over by a ten-ton tipper truck. “He should have been dead”, says Yoland, Roger’s mother, “yet he came away with only a few broken bones and spent just seven days in hospital. He actually had the imprint of the tyre track on his back”. The story featured in a local newspaper which was picked up by a Sunday national and ran a full-page article entitled…. Yep, you guessed it… ‘The Miracle Rubber Man’. Next time you see Roger in the bar you know what to call him…
Fostering wasn’t without its tribulations. “Some kids were really difficult”, says Astrid. “We had a big house in Sutton which we spent all our money on to give them a great home, but we were frequently robbed”. One foster child made legal history when it was ruled that a child under sixteen could not be jailed if they were not a threat to the public. Instead they had to be put under the care of the local authority (Foster Care). “He was really well behaved with us but we soon found out that he was doing smash and grabs with a gang of kids who used to hire mini-cabs and travel around the country, racking up £750,000 worth of money, vouchers and clothes from M&S. It was so high profile the police set up ‘Operation St Michel’ in order to catch him. The thing was when he was caught he had to be returned to the care of the Local Authority. Guess who that was? The foster carers, which was always us!“ The police were convinced we were involved in the operation and we were under surveillance for nine months!
“It’s a real eye-opener”, commented Astrid. “Another time one of our girls used to get up at four in the morning to get the milk in off the door-step. When I told her she didn’t need to do this she explained that her mother had taught her to steal milk from people’s doorsteps. She was three.” Sadly another of their foster children got into a fight in an underground station and was knocked to the tracks and killed. “Of course that was very sad”, says Astrid, “as he’d only left our care a week before. We were getting through to some of the kids, though we had to be reminded by social services from time to time that what we teach the kids comes out later in their lives”. Roger and Astrid have many more memories, some bad, some sad, some funny and some just unbelievable.
Their last foster was three brothers and sisters aged 11, 3 and 2. “We were only supposed to foster teenagers but we took them in on the understanding that they would stay for three days. They left three years later to a family who adopted them. The funny thing was we were actually thinking of adopting them ourselves so when they left I was heartbroken. That, and growing regulation restrictions from social security, was when we realized we couldn’t do this anymore”.
Throughout this time Astrid would return to Germany to visit her sick father and she would travel by ferry, which always made her sea-sick. “So when Roger announced that he would like to buy a boat it was ‘no, no and no’ from me!” Still, they both loved travelling and the idea of being mobile really appealed. They ended up buying ‘Storm Dodger’ in Antigua, which Roger brought back with Astrid’s brother. She’s a ketch-rigged Moody 52 and only eight were ever made, yet none of the family had any previous sailing experience. “After the gear-box blew up near Gib I had to call Gina for assistance. Gina, on “Impulse”, called Ian on “Rhumb Do” and together they assisted Storm Dodger back to safe harbour. “Since you’ve missed your window trying to cross the Atlantic, “suggested Gina,” you may as well stay in the Med and head east”, and so they all sailed to Turkey together.
Jordan loves computers and is frequently seen walking the Simms’ dog, Mutley, around the marina. “The best part of sailing is swimming in anchorages and my favourite is in Kefallinia in Greece. I prefer getting to the destination than the sailing itself, though I would love to sail to China one day”. Jordan hangs out with the ‘Cowrie’ and ‘Pania’ boys “because we love playing computer games”. Science is his favourite lesson but he doesn’t like maths.
Leah on the other hand loves maths and doesn’t like ‘reading hour’ at school. “You have to sit really quietly for an hour and I just want to play with my friends”, which include Aiden, Catriona and Tiger. Despite her dislike of ‘reading hour’ Storm Dodger has children’s books falling out its bilges. Leah also collected beautiful string puppets and hopes one day to put on a show for the marina. Leah and Jordan told me an amusing anchoring story. Roger and Astrid had nipped over to see Gina whilst in a quiet bay, leaving Jordan and Leah on ‘Storm Dodger’ to amuse themselves. All of a sudden Leah could see her dad jumping up and down on Gina’s deck shouting that Storm Dodger’s anchor was dragging. Roger tried in vain to row over as Storm Dodger slowly drifted away, leaving Leah and Jordan to hoist the anchor themselves. Astrid, panicking, dived into the sea fully clothed and when she eventually got onto Storm Dodger and made the boat safe, she quickly changed out of her wet things. “Mum’s dress became see-through and it wasn’t until we re-anchored that we realized she wasn’t wearing any knickers!”
Great-grandmother Simms was sunning herself on the deck when we had a chat. Although she’s just visiting for a week she made her deft footwork centre-stage at Karen and Pete’s party on ‘Rama’ last week. “I used to dance like a feather back in the day. My late husband, Anthony, who was a true English gentleman, didn’t like dancing so he would sit at the bar with half a pint and watch with glee as I danced the night away”. Yoland, or Yolly to her friends, was born in Gibraltar but moved to the Pyrenees when she was four. “I got stuck in France. When my mother tried to take me back to the UK just before the war they refused me entry as my mother hadn’t registered my birth with the British consulate. When we returned to France Hitler had occupied it so when he came over for his conference with Franco all English people were locked up. I was sent to St Jean de Luz, even though I was just a child, and I remember sneaking up to the look-out turrets and, with a pair of binoculars, I could see Hitler getting off the train”. Yolly lived on a farm with no water, electricity or toilets. Water was taken from the stream up the mountain and the toilets…”You just chose whichever tree took your fancy!” Yolly’s husband passed away two months ago having suffered from Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, the same disease that killed Dudley Moore. “It’s still relatively unknown and I’d be very grateful if you could mention it in this article because there may be someone out there with a relative who suffers from PSP. The symptoms are always confused with MS, Parkinson’s and even Alzheimer’s, but it’s actually a condition caused by too much tau protein”. The symptoms include tunnel vision, loss of voice, loss of co-ordination and an inability to swallow. Yolly said that it’s still not always recognized and she often found herself having to educate doctors and nurses about the condition.
With Yolly speaking French, Spanish and English, Astrid from Germany and Roger travelling around Europe this is a family on the move. “I can’t stay put for too long” says Astrid. “The plan is to go into the Indian Ocean”, adds Roger. “Since we’re in this neck of the woods we may as well head east. We’ve only been sailing for a year but there’s no fun if there’s no risk”.