Crossing the Tyrrhenian Sea

We were safely holed up for the front coming from the west and set about making repairs. It was becoming apparent that Phoenix Charters weren’t particularly diligent about maintenance of Pantelisa. During the storm and heavy seas, water was finding its way through the closed hatch vents, soaking the forward berths and water was pouring through a ceiling panel near the foot of the mast. The compass lights weren’t working, The Steaming light and Deck light weren’t working, the bilge pump wasn’t working… and the list was slowly growing the more we were getting to know the boat.

The three days in Palermo were pretty concentrated on arranging or performing repairs and my blogging had taken a back seat. We stripped down the Bimini and took its cracked frame to be welded. The sailmaker did an excellent job of replacing a section of sail and fitted new slug slides, that hold the sail to the mast since these were pretty worn and brittle and a few had broken during the storm. The sailmaker suggested that the broken slug slide next to Thomas’s repair contributed to the torn sail as it would have offered a gap for the wind to take a hold and the resultant bulge at the would have ripped the sail from forward to back.

Thomas was a real asset here, as not being able to speak the language makes things 5 times as difficult, as I found in Catania. Not only that, Thomas has an eye for detail and a proactive attitude that gets things done, caring for Pantelisa as much as his own boat.

We were up early to leave Palermo. Half a mile out we noticed the wind direction and speed indicator wasn’t working. An impromptu meeting: should we return to the Marina to repair the indicator or continue to Sardinia? We could miss the weather window if we returned so we decided to continue; we could reef (reduce sail) and go cautiously at night.

That night we hit another lightning storm although I miraculously slept through this one, as we were slamming into waves in the centre of a thunderstorm with my head inches from the impact zone of hull on wave. Apparently, the lightning was all around and more frequent than the previous one. Julien said you could read a book by it, although I’d guess he probably wasn’t.

It was two nights voyage to San Pietro, a small island on the west coast of Sardinia

The next day was fairly straightforward, we had a dry day with a bright and breezy northerly wind that kept us sailing along. Nothing really to see or report

When I came on watch at midnight, we were already off the south coast of Sardinia with one ship to the north-east on an intercept course with our track. We were in the lee of Sardinia and motoring along a flat sea at a leisurely four and a half knots with the main task of keeping an eye on the approaching ship, I watched the giant cargo ship quietly pass at a half a mile off our starboard beam and steadily speed ahead of us. I didn’t have to change course or speed.

Being so close to the coast means that I could get internet so could catch up on messages. We were well ahead of schedule for early morning at San Pietro so increasing speed would be pointless. For the next couple of hours and in the absence of waves, I’d surf the internet for 5 minutes then check the AIS and scan the horizon.

We were due to change course at Capo Teulada to a northwesterly track toward Capo Sperone. Simultaneously we were out of the lee and the northerly wind heeled Pantelisa over five degrees. Without the wind indicator, it was hard to tell if it were enough wind to sail but sticking my head outside the bimini, it certainly felt like it.

Up until now, watches were just a case of holding one course and looking out for ships and problems. This was the first time I’d been on watch alone for a change of course so I steered the new heading and saw the wind was still at a favourable angle for sailing, if a bit close, and unfurled the genoa to the second reef. Easing back to tick over, the speed maintained at 5.5 knots and I cut the engine.

This change was enough to bring the skipper out for a double check which is as reassuring for me as much as him. It was deemed to be a good decision and Thomas retreated to his cabin and I enjoyed a good sail for a couple of hours without motor, the only concern on this new bearing was Isola Del Toro, a large rock hosting a lighthouse which was in our leeway (the path we drift due to the sideways push of the wind). Ideally, we should turn a new heading before then and, in the absence of boat traffic, the light on the rock was the only thing to look out for.

I was due to call Julien at four for his watch but I didn’t want to miss the new course change and stayed on for an extra half hour. The wind increased at the point I was thinking of turning which brought out both Julian and the skipper so we started the motor and changed course into the wind furling the genoa as a full crew.

I’d had a taste of single handing and it was sweet. It’s different to following orders as it involves an expanded awareness and often there is more than one choice for a given situation.

Under motor, head to the wind, Pantelisa was now banging northward through the waves but I was so tired I slept through it anyway, despite my cabin dropping over each crest into the concrete troughs below. My cabin had not dried out from the night before and was still leaking so I blissfully slept in my clothes under damp blankets.

I awoke to activity on the deck and grey light filtering through the hatch, and I arose just as Thomas came to announce we were nearly Isola di San Pietro. With a groggy head, even tying a clove hitch was a challenge but we prepared the fenders and docked neatly in Carloforte shortly before 9am Saturday 11th November.

We were sheltering from another approaching front. Forty knot winds from the west: the direction we wanted to go. So far, we were mooring more than we were sailing and the forecast looked like it was putting us here in Carloforte for at least five days…

The Javelins of Jupiter

As much as I felt at home in Catania, it felt good to get back on the water. With just three weeks on Pantelisa, I was the old hand; in years as well as time on board. We had new crew: Thomas, the skipper, and Julien ‘the hitcher’.

We set off just after first light to make the best of the weather: sunny with light airs and we turned north along the coast to the Straits of Messina.

The sail was hoisted and Thomas repaired a broken sail track slide that no-one had noticed before with a neighbouring one missing a loop with nowhere to hang the sail. The sun was warm and the following swell gently rocked us along. Etna’s peak to the east protruding the top of the fluffy cumulus, adding her own faint plume. We would arrive at Messina around 4pm and should be around the cape before dark.

The narrow Straits of Messina are a funnel, both for traffic and current. Traffic was light and the frequent ferries between Sicily and the toe of Italy’s boot were easy to avoid. The current was against us and the gentle swell turned into a spiky chop. The water was like a washing machine and we lost a couple of knots speed. Further north, the current reversed and travelled with the wind and swell, the water smoothed to almost a slick and our speed boosted to 10 knots.

Rounding the cape at Torre Faro, our gentle following breeze turned into a lively broad reach and, with the wind chill, the temperature began falling along with the evening sun. The gusts were trying to round us up into the wind but we held on knowing we would be in the lee to the north of Etna in about half an hour. In Etna’s lee, things became quiet. We fired up the engine and I turned in to get some rest before my early morning shift.

The wind and sea picked up as we emerged from the mountain’s shelter, so we edged closer to shore for an easier life. My watch was to be from 3am but with the state of the sea banging the hull under my bunk, I couldn’t sleep so was up on deck from midnight.

With the gusts trying to head us up into the wind, we furled the genoa (headsail) and motored for keeping a stable course over night. Julien turned in and we were in clear water with no marine traffic on the plotter as we motored into the night.

Squinting out over the starboard bow at about 3.30am, the horizon looked blacker than usual, I could see no stars ahead and there were some flashes in the distant sky. I went below to put on my waterproofs and life vest and alerted Thomas that a storm might be approaching. As I returned to the deck, Bam, a sudden thirty knot wind on the starboard bow changed from the steady twenty knot wind on the port, that had been with us all evening, like a light switch and Pantelisa heeled from one side to the other. I rounded up northward into the wind to ease the effect.

Thomas and I tried to get the sail down as fast as we could but the sail got stuck in the lazy jacks, lines that help guide the sail into its bag on the boom, and with the wind now gusting to 50 knots and rain restricting visibility, we could neither hoist nor lower the mainsail. The wind was shaking the rig and flogging our sail to shreds. We couldn’t see anything outside of the cockpit and all we could do was sit tight and hope that everything would hold together.

We were running blind. The motor was still pushing us along and the plotter reassured us we were heading in the right direction nowhere near land or any other boats, at least those that broadcast AIS. We had no idea how long this storm was set to last and moods were pretty low and the lightning was intensifying.

We were the highest point for miles in this storm and lightning was increasingly hitting the sea on all sides like javelins from the sky. I was looking astern when a blinding flash turned my head away and a deafening explosion less than half a second put the strike no more than one hundred metres away in our wake. We were right on that spot maybe thirty seconds ago. We either had divine protection or the ancient Roman god of thunder found us too small a target to hit. Thomas and I sat silently in the cockpit wrapped in our own thoughts, sparse insulation against the damp chill of the turbulent wind and rain.

By daybreak, the storm had eased and the tattered silhouette of the sail waved at us through the twilight. A sad sight, but we were lucky not have suffered worse. The sail had been torn across half way up with a few shreds linking the halves together. Thomas had found his repair had held but the sail had torn away from the rest of the fitting. He tidied up the sail from the mast end while I tried to zip up the cover from the other end. I thought the zipper had been torn away but it was discovered later hidden by a velcro cover. Meanwhile, we bound the sail up with a line to make ourselves decent before we entered Porto di Palermo.

We approached Palermo with sunlight penetrating the clouds and a rainbow arcing over the bay. A stark contrast to what went only hours before: perhaps a salute from the old god of thunder… Thomas is fluent in Italian so was easily able to use the VHF to locate a marina close to a sailmaker. Maybe the sail could be stitched back together. We would soon see.

Porto di Palermo is not pretty by any stretch, but the rusting cranes on the concrete shore were every bit as welcoming as Caribbean palms on a sun-kissed beach. The approach to the port was flat calm and the soggy grey clouds dissolved into the cool blue sky with hardly a breeze beneath the warm early morning sun and we coasted through the industrial iron seascape of Porto di Palermo toward Marina Nautico Galizzi.

Bad weather was forecast. Palermo was one of our intermediate destinations for sheltering from the forthcoming front, the other being the more beautiful Trapani. We had made it on schedule but not in the manner we had planned… and we had three days to make repairs if we weren’t to lose any time, and Palermo might just be the place to do that…

Down in Catania

Santo, the marina manager, caught the lines thrown from the stern of Pantelisa as she reversed into the berth. Santo remembered Toni from when he was in Catania a couple of years ago, which helped in the generous loan of his car to ferry the Italian Navy’s empty canisters to the fuel station, fill up and back, and relay by wheelbarrow and syphon to the boat’s fuel tank.

With the boat topped up, deck cleared and hosed down we could actually kick back and relax for a bit. Note for the future, check the cockpit windows are closed before hosing the footwell, Toni’s mattress got a good soaking.

However, “worse things happen at sea” and “every cloud has a silver lining and all that.” Removal of the mattress gives access to the fuel tank and revealed a diesel leak around the tank inspection hatch, so we caught that before it found its way into the bilge and started stinking the boat out. Accidental villain turned accidental hero.

Toni treated us to a few drinks at the Piazza Vincenzo Bellini and a nice meal at the Trattoria la Pentalaccia. It’s a different experience sharing space with people on land to on the boat and I get to know Toni and Rolf a little better. On the water, the background mission is always the boat. Our lives depend on it so we are never fully off duty.

With Toni and Rolf returning home to Switzerland, I’m left minding Pantelisa for two weeks until Thomas, the new skipper arrives. There are still jobs to get done: laundry of the bedding, repair cracked bimini frame, install anti-chaffing fitment at the top of the mast, and restock the galley.

I keep promising myself to take a trip up to Etna but I stay on the boat three days without leaving the marina. I see Santo and show him the cracked frame of the Bimini. “Tomorrow, com-see…” another day passes.

I go to the office to see Santo but Tony is there instead. Tony comes and looks at the crack and says “Ees too theen. See Franco tomorrow, over dare in ze bianco building.”
“What that white block with the three windows?”
“Si, bianco.”

The next morning, I pack up the laundry into my rucksack and head off a mile through town to the laundrette I picked out on Google Maps. I stop at Franco’s “Si, he no here. You com tomorrow.”

I return to Pantelisa with fresh and fragrant bed linen. One job ticked off.

The part arrives for the mast and I collect it from the office and contact Luigi who has agreed to go up the mast and fix it. “Si, I come Saturday.”

Saturday comes and the part is fixed after an hour and a half stint for Luigi at the top of the mast in the Sicilian breeze. Second Job ticked off.

Whilst checking my messages out on the deck a young French guy wonders up the pontoon and asks if I am going to Africa and could he have a lift. The answer was no, Gibraltar, and I’ll ask the owner and skipper if it’s OK and let him know.

It turns out it’s OK with everyone and I let him know to come in a week. He turns up an hour later with his rucksack and guitar. He’s been sleeping on the beach so I invite him to use a cabin for the week: my solitude interrupted.

The next day, Julien says he’s going to Etna and do I want to go. I look up at the peak. I see the snow and think of my flip-flops.
“No thanks. You go and let me know if it’s worth it.”

Etna: €30 Cable Car; €15 Bus and €9 Jeep to the summit. You could probably save money by walking up from the cable car but it would take a couple of hours; more in flip-flops.

Checking with Thomas the new skipper about provisions, he says get what you want and we’ll need about 100 litres of water… The store that Toni pointed out is three kilometres away. Apparently, they deliver. Problem solved… until I get there and they tell me they don’t “Ees no problem. When you ready, you com and I call taxi.” Fair enough. I match what’s on my list with what they have, leaving a quarter of my shopping list unsatisfied. I leave the water. I’ll get that later.

The chap who offered to phone a taxi is no longer visible. I consider pushing the shopping trolley three kilometres back to the boat but it would be a rough ride over the cobbles in the port. I attempt communication with a non-english speaking woman. She phones a taxi number using my phone and hands it back to me with a puzzled look. I dial the number again “You have insufficient credit for international calls, please top up your…” I hang up. The woman gets help from the attendant retrieving trolleys in the car park. He doesn’t speak English either. “I take machine. Twenty hours.” flashing his outstretched fingers twice, indicating twenty.
“You mean twenty minutes?”
“Si, twenty hours.”

I can wait twenty minutes so I agree and he disappears to retrieve a beaten up Fiat 127. More like twenty seconds. He takes me back to the marina and I sort out ten euros as a token of my gratitude.
“No ten hours! twenty hours!”
Ah, I get it… I hand over another ten euros. It was still worth every penny. Third job ticked off.

There’s a different guy in the office. Not Santo, Tony or Giuseppe. I didn’t catch his name. He speaks a little English. I show him a photo of a ten litre water bottle and ask him where I can get them. “Ees very far. Need taxi.”

I message Luigi to see if he can help fetch water “I haff water on boat. You can haff. I com Friday.”

Friday comes and he has 40 litres in 2 litre bottles to add to the 30 litres already found in storage on Pantelisa. That would do, there’s plenty in the tank we can use for tea coffee and cooking, and it tastes clean. Fourth job ticked off.

I see Franco at the ‘bianco’ building. He finds me a piece of pipe to strengthen the bimini frame but he can only fix it if I bring it in. The bimini frame looks like a giant metal puzzle and I have no tools or person to attempt a repair. The pipe is meant to go inside and then riveted in place but the insert is too narrow to be tight and too short to restrict movement. There has to be another solution. I decide to deal with it Saturday when Thomas is due…

Warship

We were three or four hours into our 20 litres. Less than 2 gallons left, in old money. Wind was forecast for the afternoon but hadn’t come out of hiding yet, so we plodded on at reduced revs to conserve fuel. Dolphins came to cheer us on and went on their merry way. We needed more wind or more fuel, either would do: we weren’t fussy. The forecasted wind hadn’t come and there was no hint of any on the horizon either.

Almost dead ahead, just off the port bow coming towards us, a tall thin vessel was heading our way.

“Looks like a sailing vessel.” I said but the AIS indicates it’s further away and much larger than I think. Toni checks the AIS. It has the name “ITS Alliance” but little other detail. He shrugs and says “They can only say no…” and goes below to the VHF.

Above the murmur of the engine, I hear only the response from the vessel.

“This is Italian Military Ship Alliance!…”

We’ve gone and hailed a warship?

Toni is a pretty good English speaker but the Italian radio operator was having trouble taking down details so I was conscripted as Pantelisa’s own radio operator.

“What is it you require?”

I relay Toni’s request, “Eighty to a hundred litres of diesel, to make the port of Catania.”

“Eighty two hundred litres of diesel?”

“Negative, one hundred litres of diesel.”

Then we go through a series of bureaucratic questions, not my favourite topic; I prefer ones on science or eighties pop-music…

The phonetic alphabet was a distant memory from my early days in the Air Training Corps back in 1978, rekindled by living on Glee in St Martin on the VHF. While I’m pretty fluent in reciting it sequentially, random order is a bit more of a challenge. What sounds like deliberate measured pace and clarity over the VHF hides frantic memory retrieval activity in my neurons “Paul: papa… alpha… uniform… lima. The port of Fethiye: foxtrot… oscar…” etc. After the information is relayed we’re asked to stand by.

“Shall we heave to?”

“Please, stand by…”

We maintain our course and speed of 4 knots and watch Alliance pass a half a mile away on our starboard beam at 5 knots. Looking at the AIS, we see Alliance begin to change course to round on our stern but she’s only doing 5 knots and she is now three quarters of a mile away. We cut the engine and drop our sails. If we were receiving assistance we wanted it before dark.

The VHF hailed from below. “Please stop your engines and everyone stand clear on the bow.”

We shuffle over to the bow and watch the orange rigid inflatable boat (RIB) get lowered over their port side and into the water.

The RIB took off on a wide arc and slowly spiralled toward us. We were being checked out. There were four or five men, one clearly silhouetted displaying a machine gun. I made sure my hands were clearly visible from a distance. The RIB came along our port side.

“We have one hundred litres of diesel for you.”

“Grazie Mille, how much do we owe you?” as we were hauling the jerry cans onboard

“Nothing, eez free!”

Toni threw the crew a Swiss army knife for their skipper as small token of gratitude and, with that, they sped off back toward Alliance with a friendly wave.

While Toni and Rolf were filling the tank from the new stock of jerry cans, I went to the VHF to express our gratitude. The radio operator said it was no problem and that instead of going to Catania, we should head to what I thought I heard as “Kintos.” I thanked him and searched in vain on the plotter for Kintos. If anything was closer than Catania, it wasn’t by much. It didn’t matter, we were set on Catania and we now had enough fuel to make it.

Neptune had come through after all, delivering a public vessel out of the blue right on our course. We toasted his health and that of the Italian Navy and we were on our way once again with over thirty hours of fuel and about the same amount of journey time to go. We were still cutting it fine.

Day five! This would be our last day before arrival at Catania so we stopped the engine for the opportunity for a blue water swim. The mainsail was still up and even with this asthmatic breathe of wind, we were breezing along at a knot and half so we made sure there was at least one of us still aboard and took turns for a swim.

The sea wasn’t particularly warm but then not as paralysingly cold as the English Channel. It’s a spooky experience seeing pure blue all the way down; nothing. Not even fish. Like flying in a second sky.

We’d had the fishing line out for days but nothing. Apart from the dolphins, this sea seemed pretty barren but the most disturbing part about it was the volume of plastic fragments suspended in the water: a plastic minestrone. Worse still, we don’t seem to be addressing the issue at all and the packaging assault on nature continues unabated…

I take an early nap and awake healed over to port. We have wind and the engine is off! Better late than never. I venture out into the cockpit. Rolf is asleep below and Toni is on watch. Pretty soon Toni turns in and, as he goes below, tells me to look out for small fishing boats, that wont show on AIS, as we near the shore. And so it’s just me in the cockpit. Five minutes later the wind eases and the sails flail around in the dying breeze. I wait a minute to see if it’s a temporary lull but no, I start the engine, furl the genoa, and tighten the main sheet. I’m familiar with this configuration by now.

Eyes peeled for small boats against the distant lights of the shoreline, I’m unable to concentrate on reading the kindle. Twenty miles to go at five knots. Four hours. Gets us into Catania at 07:30. the vessels that were around us when Toni retired had disappeared astern. Nothing on AIS apart from a cluster in the harbour. My time is spent moving from side to side like a dog in a car waiting for his master to return from the supermarket. The feeling of responsibility slowly mounts as we get closer in.

There is a dotted red line on the plotter about seven miles from shore that should coincide with daybreak. A good time to awaken the skipper I reckon.

Daybreak. Toni has a friend in the marina at Porto Di Catania. Luigi answers the call and alerts Santos, the harbour master, that we are on our way in . An hour or so later, Santos waves us into a vacant berth.

Catania. Sunday morning. Hallelujah…

God’s Breath

Sometimes you get those “Where the hell am I?” moments upon waking. My bag was at the foot of my bed and I was still in yesterday’s clothes with the blanket still folded next to me. I remember, Turkey, Pantelisa, I was on an adventure.

The sun was already up and it was already tshirt weather. Fethiye in October about 18C already.

Toni’s the skipper and tells me to check the food and buy what I want extra. I see ranks of closed cupboard doors and hatches and the fridge. The last thing I want to do is go rummaging around someone else’s boat on a food hunt. I look in a few assorted cupboards at brushes pans, plates, and food. I look at the multicoloured mosaic of packaging in the fridge and go and buy some peanuts and shower gel.

After topping up the water tanks, I head for the showers to be called back before I reach the block. Apparently we need to check out in a hurry. Someone has been waiting at customs for a us a while. We have to go by dinghy as the office is in a secure bonded area inaccessible by land. We have to exit the marina and follow the outside of the pontoon back to the port. If the outboard were to breakdown it would be here, the furthest point away from both Pantelisa and Customs, which it does. We paddle to the pontoon and walk back to the quay and borrow a speedboat.

Returning from the showers, Toni says “Do you want to go out for something to eat for lunch or shall we go now?” I say that now’s OK with me. After all, I was here for the voyage.

 

It was gone midday but when we departed was pretty much irrelevant as we would be sailing through several nights anyway. It didn’t matter when night came along the way. Half a mile out, we notice the autopilot wasn’t working so we swing around to the dock. The autopilot is virtually another crew member. One that never gets tired, eats, drinks or complains and has a steady hand on the helm. It’s a shame he’s blind though as otherwise we could leave him in charge.

The Raymarine engineer was due in half an hour so Toni suggests we go to the restaurant for lunch. Fajitas and a beer on the waterfront at Fethiye; I’ve had worse problems. About an hour later, with the problem traced to a loose relay, shortly after 2pm we were heading out. This was it, the first step in a 7000 mile voyage.

I’m still in discovery mode. Every skipper and crew has different ways of doing things. Some are strict and regimented, others are more easy going. I liked the casual and relaxed feel here. There was next to no wind but we expected it to pick up in a day or two. The weather never stays the same for long in the Mediterranean.

The watch rotation was informal. Sleep when you want and wake someone up when you feel tired. This sounded great at first but in reality I never really felt off duty and I tried to find my own slot in a regular part of the night watch to try and maintain a regular sleep pattern. Otherwise it is a long boring stint in darkness, from dusk ‘til dawn, looking out over the sea for lights and squinting against the glare of the Automatic Identification System plotter screen(AIS). Then the morning comes and I catnap through the day until night again.

We had no radar but AIS seems so well established now that almost every vessel is visible on it. That and a constant lookout would do us fine. What was that over there about half a mile away? some lights of a yacht look to be coming close. I check the AIS. A Cargo ship 7 miles away. Distances are deceptive at night. When I settled in, I’d read my Kindle on my phone for five minutes then check around and see what’s on the AIS. Still it’s pretty unnerving steaming ahead into inky blackness.

On the third day, the weather is warm and calm and we were motoring far more than anticipated. We decide to make a slight detour and dip into Neapolis on the Greek coast to top up on some fuel. Just as we moor up a Coast Guard official approaches and insists we check into immigration and customs. We only needed a splash and dash and try to appeal to his common sense. We couldn’t find any. I hadn’t even stepped off the boat so still never physically been to Greece. He took down names and passport numbers in his little book and released us on condition that we would go directly to Kalamata and clear in, paying the customary fees.
For what purpose this pointless bureaucracy for the sake of some fuel? Escaping from this agentic, power hungry drone, we rounded the southern point and switched off our AIS so that the Coast Guard could’t pick up our Westerly track away from Kalamata. We didn’t expect them to follow but we were checking behind us for a couple of hours anyway.

The sun was warm and the sea was flat. A little wind picked up early on but it was on the nose and it soon exhaled wit a wispy sigh again. At dinner we considered we had been neglecting Neptune. Some beer splashed into the sea as a toast and maybe he would smile upon us tomorrow.

Day four, we had been motoring almost constantly day and night. Whatever wind there was, it was a but a flirting breath on our faces. The fuel gauge had been showing full for two days and now it was beginning to plummet. We stopped the engine and Toni and Rolf checked the tank. We had about 20 litres left in the tank and a full 20 litre can in the locker. We estimated 3 litres an hour so maybe 14 hours left.. We had another 2 days to get to Sicily.

A decision was made. We would motor until the tank ran dry…

Turkish Delight

Gail is a free spirit like me. She lives semi-off-grid but civilised, like. With plug in power and running water etc. Gail is a healer and gives me tarot readings. I always feel good around Gail.

After a red-wine induced sleep, I remembered our conversation about signs from the Universe and hearing something ping into Gail’s phone. I promised to see Patrick Gamble, psychic artist, in Glastonbury. I didn’t want to go now in the sober light of day. Time was ticking and I still had to find a resting place for my big yellow van but “Said it, Doing it.” I thought; signs from the universe and all that… and I still had the rest of the day to get up to Ebbw Vale.

I was hoping My second cousin, Andrew, would be okay with looking after Big Yellow since he had offered last year. I’d been unable to raise him on the phone since I’d been back. I was due to visit him anyway this trip and if it was a problem then worse case would put me back in Essex with a long trip back to Bristol airport, or another cheap flight out of Stansted.

Patrick painted my spirit guide. Nice looking feller. Didn’t recognise him though. The message I got along with it was to be more audacious “Fly your flag, don’t have it folded in your pocket.” I take his point. I don’t like arrogance and don’t like being in the spot-light so I carry some dissonance with that as I exit Yin Yang into Glastonbury High Street.

Seventy Five miles to Ebbw Vale. I estimated that I had enough fuel so planned to leave big yellow stored with a mostly empty tank while I’m away. Approaching the Severn Bridge Toll gate, I knew there would be a delay while the inside is checked over and that my van really is a camper, saving £7 on the toll. I switched on my hazard flashers so following traffic can peel off to other gates. Yes, it worked for a few seconds until a car pulled up to my tail and blocked my flashers from view for everyone else. Still, it was only a short wait before a high-viz vested agent to skipped across the gates to peer through the door and put his thumb up to the cashier, to the relief of the growing queue of cars behind drumming their finger on their steering wheels and craning their necks out the windows.

Twenty three miles to go and fuel was falling faster than expected. The Welsh hills were taking their toll. I could top up at the next fuel station if need be. Turning off before Abergavenny, the steep hills became one stead climb.  The needle on the gauge was nudging the bottom of the red as big yellow heaved her way up the endless hill. This was new road freshly scarred into the green landscape and stitched along the edges with orange and silver road-cones. If there were any fuels stations they remained on a drawing board. My old sat nav put me somewhere in the wilderness trying to snap my track back into by-passed streets. The speed limit was 40mph but 30 was the best I can do, which prolonged the agony for me and the stream of traffic encouraging my progress from behind.

The gauge drops a little off the bottom of the dial as I arrive in Ebbw Vale and I make it up the drive and allow the tension ease over my shoulders. I must have helped Big Yellow up the hills…

Andrew wouldn’t tolerate me sleeping in the van, he gave up his room while he slept on the sofa in front of the roaring fire. I’m happy in my van but many people are insistant I go indoors. He’s a good man, is Andrew. With looking after his mum until she passed away and then his German Shepherds at home, he hasn’t been away much, I tell him to use the van while I’m away, take the dogs too. A call to the insurance company gets him onto the policy.

Monday morning 8am, Andrew drove me down to the railway station. I was on my way again, this time to Turkey to join Pantelisa, a yacht for delivery to Colombia. Sailing the Atlantic was on my bucket list ten years ago but this epic journey took in the whole of the Mediterranean and Caribbean too. And I wasn’t even looking for this and it just dropped into my lap via Lucy who had since taken another option.

Looking at the notice board against a slate grey Welsh sky 08:18 my flight was 15.55 so I had plenty of time to get to the airport and relax.

I stepped off the train in Bristol into a haunting, blood red sky with the sun an orange disk hanging in the clouds stirred by a warm, gusty wind. Hurricane Ophelia was making landfall in Ireland but it’s presence was felt here too. Hurricane Irma brought me home. Hurricane Ophelia sends me away…

Turkey reminds me of a Zoo… in that you have to pay to get in. They call it a ‘visa’ to give it some official credibility but it’s really no different to a ticket. Next to passport control was a ticket booth labelled ‘Visa Applications.’ The only application involved was handing over some cash. Kerching! Then to queue at passport control for a FREE rubber stamp thumped on top of it. Bonus!

A hundred years ago, passports were generally not required for international travel. Now look at this bureaucratic industry of fear mongering non-jobs that rake in millions of pounds every year disguised as being for our own security.

Anyway, $30 lighter, I march through the dark, warm air to the gentle fanfare of chirruping crickets. A motley collection of taxi drivers holding badly written signs stood at a barricade. “Paul Pantelisa.” That’s me, no-one had my surname but the sign served its purpose.
“Hello, I’m Paul” I say thrusting out my hand.
Perplexed, the driver offered me his limp fingers. The relationship progressed no further other than sharing the journey. The taxi was already paid and I had no idea where the marina was and it was too much bother me asking my Turkish chauffeur. Much easier to wait and see what was at the end of the magical mystery tour. Anyway, it would make no difference to the arrival time.

We travelled about 50km mainly in the middle of the road with me leaning toward the curb to encourage the vehicle over to the curb. This wasn’t the UK though. Hardly any traffic at this time of night and other drivers seemed to be expecting unstructured road-craft from their countrymen.

It was about midnight when I found myself at the gate at Marina Yat Limani, Fethiye.
“Pantelisa!” I told the guard.
…I think he asked for pontoon and berth…
“I don’t know… Boat! Pantelisa!”
Toni and Rolf, my Swiss crew mates appeared down the quay. I guessed they noticed the taxi pull up. It didn’t matter how. Problem solved.
“Is that all you got?”
“Yes, I travel light and I don’t like checking in bags.”
I was escorted to Pantelisa, directed inside, dumped my back pack into the starboard fore cabin and joined the guys for a beer on the stern.

New boat, new guys, new experience. The unfamiliarity feels awkward and I find it hard to fully relax in so much ‘newness.’ I know this feeling passes with time but I’ve spent long enough periods out of my comfort zone that I expect to feel more and more at ease wherever I go. This could be a remnant of seeking approval or fear of looking foolish: something interesting to put under the microscope before the next opporunity.

Meanwhile, the introductions are complete, beer quaffed and first impressions registered. Time to fumble my way to bed, banging doors of unfamiliar weight, size and direction, and figuring out where the light switches are. I’ll deal with my bag tomorrow. It’s dark and I’m tired. My next adventure was about to start… or maybe it already had…

 

The Chippenham Guy

Saturday. I spend the day on constructing a letter to Norman the doorman, with the initial intention of covering my backside from the ‘criminal’ justice system. Read that as you will. As I work through, I wonder, about the circumstances that drove this guy from starting off apparently well-intentioned in his tenancy to running away when asked questions? And so, the letter was composed and edited and re-edited adding more and more compassion and stating I wouldn’t be chasing the debt.

In reality, I would get no money back. Experience had proved that to me in the past.

When I think of Norman and my own experience of life, I’m trying to get through it as best I can. I guess we all are. And the letter ends up being both a legal notice and an illustration of how someones actions (or lack of) can affect other people’s lives.

A friend offers to ome along as a witness. Part of me says I’d like the company and part of me wants to be ‘self sufficient,’ however that may look. I gratefully accept.

Norman is due on duty at 22.15 and we arrive letter in hand at 22:05. Three people are on the door. Maybe I was wrong and one of these guys is Norman. So I check.

“The guy from Chippenham? Yeah, he sometimes works up at Moles near the Slug and Lettuce but if he’s on the rota, he usually pulls up on his motorbike over the road there.”

We wait over the road there.

22:15… 22:25… 22:35… he or his motorcycle fail to show. I walk into the bar to see the boss. The barmaid says the boss is not in so I explain I want to leave the letter for Norman.

“Oh the Chippenham guy, yeah I’ll put the letter in the office and give it to him when he comes in.”

I have another copy of the letter and head up to Moles to do the same.

“Oh the Chippenham guy? He won’t be in for a couple of weeks but we’ll keep it for him.”

I’ve done all I can. Notice has been served… He seems unlikely to challenge the repossession since it’s clear he lives elsewhere now anyway.

I suggested a quiet drink to celebrate repossession, somewhere away from the Saturday hustle and bustle. Maybe at The Globe on the way back to Bristol. My friend has a better Idea. Turtle Bay, a Caribbean cocktail bar near Pulteney bridge. Turns out, probably the most hustley bustley bar you are likely to find this side of Jamaica. I queue in the third rank from the bar watching cocktails being painstakingly mixed by hand and shuffling forward when orders were completed, paid for and new orders bellowed over the noise of the raucous crowd. I show the barman two fingers and point to the Red Stripe lager, since proper beer isn’t available here, and retreat to the terrace next to the river away from the reverberating bar.

Returning to Bristol Harbour, I decided to stay the night on the City Docks and Dock Estate’s parking area. There was someone already tucked up for the night, not far from the van in a doorway under blankets: a girl in her twenties by the look of it. I was tempted to check if she needed anything but she was asleep and looked quite comfortable and realised I was unlikely to extend the same courtesy to a guy in similar circumstances. I don’t see guys as quite so vulnerable. I slid the door closed behind me as quietly as I could and tucked up under my duvet.

It’s a mistake to camp in a city centre on a Saturday night. Shouts, screams and lunatic laughter from the alcohol fuelled zombie apocalypse puncture my sleep and pepper my dreams .

BANG! The van lurches to one side and I awake with a start as I’m teleported from the dream world to the waking one. There’s a commotion outside and I get dressed and emerge out of the side door to the shock of four youths next to a white hot hatch with yellow paint on its bumper. Someone was showing off by reversing out of a parking space as fast as possible.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, be cool, man!” as the biggest kid waved his hands in some kind of cultivated rap artist gesture. They hadn’t expected me to appear but it wasn’t me that was getting agitated, I was still waking up. No-one would tell me what had happened and the van looked all right so I left them to their inane jabbering and went back to bed to let the adrenaline from the sudden impact dissipate and allow sleep to return.

Dents are easier to see in the sunlight. Bottom corner of the door and it didn’t look too bad; the door opens and closes all right. Even if I’d have noted their registration, I wouldn’t have bothered with an insurance claim. I’d rather focus on more positive things, like a cruise across the harbour. The mission was to empty the toilet but a cruise is a cruise, especially on this near tropical Sunday morning.

The rest of the day was spent on the boat in and out of the sun, working on the Irma entries of this blog. Writing takes me a great amount of time and editing sometimes more and, since I was in company, it was quite late by the time I returned to the van. I’d moved to the end of the parking area away from reversing cars and my slumbering companion was back in her doorway.

Monday morning 9th October, tired after the remnants of the weekend’s zombie apocalypse paraded past the van in the night. If it was quieter, it was only slightly. Catching up with Sue from Gloucester but I also wanted to check flights to Turkey ready for the voyage to Colombia. They want me in Dalaman in a week. So a quick breakfast and WiFi session at the V shed before Sue’s arrival at 10:30 and shoehorn an itinerary for cleaning out the apartment putting it on the market and travel as far down as Devon and up to Powys to visit some friends and finish up where I hope to store the van once again. All that in a week.

Sue and I sat in the sun sipping green tea, later joined by Jackie. The shade moved round with the sun and it started getting cold and we sought shelter in Costa, preferably away from the air conditioners competing with the wind for the coldest breeze. I walked Sue back to the car and then continued with the WiFi at the V Shed once again. I found an Easyjet ticket out of Bristol to Dalaman, Turkey on the 16th for £49.48: booked and confirmed. I was to be out of the UK in a week; maybe for the rest of the year.

That night, I headed to Chippenham to clean up the flat. I spent the night there on the matress on the floor and called into Atwell Martin first thing in the morning to inform them that I now had possession and to book a valuation. Cleaning didn’t take long and Miles from Atwell Martin recommended a solicitor for the conveyancing and said I could get new window handles cheap from B&Q to replace the broken one. I thought they were bespoke to the window companies but no, shiny new handles fitted within an hour of Miles leaving.

Wednesday morning 9:30am and I was filling in forms and photocopying IDs at the solicitors. Things were moving fast now and life felt vibrant and exciting because of it. With forms signed and others taken away to fill in later, I was on the road to Devon. First stop, Lucy’s in Exeter. The weather was warm and sunny and Lucy showed me the sights. I like Exeter. Staying longer than a day would have been nice…

A text arrives from Atwell Martin… the apartment had been sold! Yes, things were moving fast now.

A quick coffee with Gary in Exeter services. I met Gary at a Chris Howard Seminar in 2006 and hadn’t seen him since. He was keen to get an update on Sint Maarten as he loves the place. He’s done well for himself and looks really happy with life. We only had an hour since I’d gone the wrong direction up the M5 on my way to meet but and I promised to take up his invitation and see him next time I’m back.

The van crunches the gravel in the village hall car park in Blackborough. They don’t like me parking there but I’ll be gone in the morning. Dinner and a bed for the night at Richard’s. He is the author of The Watchers, The Hidden Hand (under a pseudonym) and ‘Playing the Great Game of Life’ under his own name. He’s a mentor for me really who helped me recover from a painful separation and guided me to living a new life. I met him in Panama at an International Property seminar and he has since diversified onto a more esoteric and holistic path including hypnotherapy and writing.

10am the next morning saw me winding my way northwest through the sunlit autumn gold of the Somerset landscape…

The Earl of Manvers

I had achieved all I could in Chippenham. The apartment was secure and I had a lead for Norman the elusive Doorman, a night club in Bath.

I hadn’t seen many friends yet, a couple of which were in Bristol. Bath was on the way so ‘two birds with one stone’ and all that.

6pm on a Monday evening: not the best time of day for driving along the A4 through the centre of Bath but I feel it was time invested well enough to enjoy over in Bristol with Jackie.

The evening was hanging on to daylight as I turned past the cricket ground, across the Avon and left into Manvers Street. Turning down South Parade, there were some roadworks near the taxi rank. My van looked at home in its construction yellow livery next to warnings and barricades. I was unlikely to get a ticket. Walking toward the railway station looking at the door numbers of the subtle frontages had me walk right by Earls. It was closed all day today. In a way I was relieved. I didn’t particularly want to confront a doorman tonight; or ever, for that matter.

After queueing to get into Bath, I was queueing to get out again. It was dark by the time I got to Bristol and the postcode I was given came to a dead end. I was tired and irritable by the time I’d phoned for further directions. Driving through cities is not as fun as it used to be. I ended up at the City Docks and Dock Estates, a great spot for parking near the Watershed and harbour. And I would be safe from parking penalties until at least the next day.

I made my way to Chapel Street, where I used to drive out of delivering fruit and veg. There are no parking regulations there and I noticed two vans that had apparently taken up residence, judging by the stack of boxes and mess around them. Hippies? I guess I’m one too but I leave no mess behind.

The next day is spent in the Knight’s Templar on Temple Quay, soaking up as much WiFi as possible and catch up on what’s happening back in St Martin and organise my tour of the South West. There were various people I wanted to visit from Cornwall to Pembrokeshire to Anglesey to Yorkshire. It would take weeks – especially as I had the luxury of time to spend with people. I received a text from Lucy ‘Bit of a random one but an opportunity has presented itself. I’ve been offered a crew spot on a boat delivery from Turkey to Colombia and the boat owner has asked me if I know anyone else that might want to crew… There is one little issue and that is that he wants the journey to kick off from Turkey on 18th October (2 weeks).’

Two weeks, that puts the mockers on my UK tour of friendships.

It was Tuesday evening, time to drive over to Earls. I didn’t feel like facing that, or even driving after having just finished a strong beer. Packing up and exiting the Knight’s Templar. I looked briefly toward the footbridge that led the way to the van then turned the opposite direction and walked down to the harbour to see Jackie and Aris instead…

Wednesday evening, my birthday, as it happens, 8.20pm. I park up at South Parade in Bath and walk down to Earls. It’s open but there’s nobody on the door. I wander in and approach the bar and ask for Norman the doorman. The barman tells me he doesn’t know him and he’ll get the boss. I decline the offer of a drink with the excuse that I’m driving. Truth be told, the neon glare, cocktails and throbbing din of the tuneless beat are not my style.
“Who wants him?” the owner asks.
“I’m his ex-landlord and I want to know what he wants me to do with the belongings he left behind.”
“Ah, Okay…” He looks at the rota on his phone. “He’ll be in Thursday 21:45 and Saturday 22:15.”
“OK, thanks.” and I leave. I’m tempted to spend the night camped out in South Parade as it’s pretty quiet for the centre of Bath but returning to Chapel Street in Bristol puts me back in the city ready for morning well before all the parking spots fill up.

Thursday 7:08am and my phone buzzes. Checking my messages, I see it’s from Lucy. Lucy and her mother are coming to Bristol today. Would I like to meet up? “Yes, I would” was the short answer to that. There’s an authenticity about Lucy that is rare in others. It usually takes time to crack people’s shells and really connect with their heart… Lucy has no shell that I can see and I don’t know whether she ever had one. It would be good to reconnect.

I needed breakfast and a swim/shower. Breakfast is easy, the Knights Templar is cheap and filling. The rest is a variable. Crossing Bristol Bridge, there are steps down to the water that are bathed in sunshine but the water would be cold and the 2ft climb out would be a challenge. Worst of all would be so many onlookers on the bank and the bridge watching me lather what’s left of my hair. Maybe looking like Gollum prepping for a wedding…

I walk on. 10:20am, I arrive at the “Otium Leisure Club,” as indicated by Google Maps, for a shower and maybe a swim. The Otium is now the Mercure Hotel Health Spa. I buzz the door and follow the signs down stairs to reception and ask about a swim:
“£15 but there are swimming lessons now so not available for a while”
“What about a shower, I need to meet someone at eleven?”
“Sure, if you’re quick and don’t go near the pool.”
“Great, I’ll be 5 minutes, how much do I owe you.”
“Nothing, it’s OK. Just don’t go near the pool area.”

To be fair, I was 15 minutes as I sneaked a quick shave and stayed away from the pool area.

11:00am I was fresh and fragrant outside the Hippodrome waiting to meet Lucy off the Long Ashton Park and Ride. The streets were busy and the sun was warm on my face. The Long Ashton Park and ride doesn’t stop at the Hippodrome and Lucy appears as if out of nowhere. Lucy looked very well and somewhat different to the ‘hurricane’ Lucy with which I’d shared my recent adventure. It was a weird feeling having shared an experience like Irma  and then meeting them on more historic ground. Like seeing a favourite actor appear in a familiar TV series. The overlap didn’t seem to mesh easily but sharing space with both Nancy and Lucy for the day was a real joy and something of an escape from my current mission.

I arrive at Manvers Street early, maybe 8pm and squeeze the van into a tight space in South Parade. Far too early for Norman the doorman. I text Dunstan who lives on a boat on the Avon.
“Where are you?”
“Ha’penny.”
“WTF?…” It takes a moment to remember…  Ha’penny Bridge is the footbridge across the river from the rail station. Less than 100 metres from Manvers Street.

‘Purpose’ is moored against the railings under Ha’penny Bridge: a spacious GRP river cruiser with a homely interior. We share some hot detox tea and stories of our collective adventures while getting hammered at backgammon.
“One more?”
“No, I have an appointment to keep…”

There is a melee on the pavement outside Earls. Crossing the street I see the melee is for ‘Second Bridge,’ the sister nightclub to Earls. Earls is actually a cocktail bar. It’s 22:15, a half hour into Norman’s shift. There are three doormen filtering customers through the door by age, and appearance most probably. Which one is Norman? I didn’t have an accurate description. One guy is tall with dark skin, another is short, pale and scrawny with dark hair, which leaves the other: my height but more stocky with fair hair and beard. I think it’s him from conversations with Atwell Martin.

“Norman?”
Stocky’s head swivels round in an instant.
“Paul, your ex landlord.”
A slight moment’s pause.
“Sorry you’ve got the wrong bloke” and looks away.
His ID badge is on his right arm, which is facing away from me.
I didn’t anticipate this. How can I be sure it’s him? I was too tentative for the easy option and ask him to show me his ID. Instead I do what I do playing chess: think for a very long time. I can see him fidget a little. Silence can be painful sometimes… I still haven’t got the next move… I wait some more.
“Can I help you?” Tall guy asks, Tall and his friend, Short-and-scrawny, probably didn’t hear our brief exchange over the noise of the music and crowd along the pavement.
“I’m looking for Norman Smith…”
“But he’s not in.” chimes in Stocky.
“Not in?” laughs Short-and-scrawny, looking over at Stocky…

I get the picture now and ask Stocky:
“Norman’s left his stuff in my flat. Do you think he’ll mind if I put his things in his trailer outside so he can collect them whenever he wants?”
“I don’t know mate, you’ll have to ask him.”
“Will he be in Saturday then?”
“Don’t know mate…”

I take his lack of objection as implied consent…

‘Check!’ his move. and I return to the van…

The next day, Jackie, Aris and I meet at the flat and proceed to empty the apartment contents into the pig-trailer. It would have been a daunting task on my own but with three of us, we were done in a couple of hours sith the lock changed too. The trailer had no roof so I bought a tarpaulin to make it as watertight as possible. All that needed now was a bit of a clean up and repairing a handle that broke off when closing the window. I could do that later. I had issued a verbal notice and taken vacant possession. This felt like a huge stride forward. It was a nice apartment but I’m done with property. Too much hassle and an asset for the state to claw away from you if you fall ill or onto bad times. The game is rigged and I’m not playing any more. No, I’d be better off cashing in the equity and chancing my future as a modern day nomad, on land or sea. I felt freer already…

A Clean Start

I spent three nights at my uncle Terry and aunt Margrit’s not far from Heathrow. I needed some rest and recuperation and time to map out what needed to be done while back in the UK. I had only the clothes that I’d brought from St Martin so Terry donated some warm clothes and trainers.

Life is like a trek across the hills: once you’ve conquered one peak then the view opens up to the next. Now that I was back and over Irma’s peak I could get a clearer view of what was ahead. I’ve discovered that it’s pointless to try and guess what’s beyond the next hill and best to deal with what’s immediately in view.

A brand new chapter in my life’s journey and a fresh page on which to write it. My son’s 21st was in a couple of days and I wanted to be there for that. My Van was in the woods on a farm in Essex miles away and needed fixing up, that would take more than a couple of days. But the biggest mission was to restore the rental income that had dried up over the last few months due to an errant tenant that stopped paying on an apartment in Wiltshire. I needed transport to go and see for myself what was happening since the letting agents were not providing updates. Money was running out steadily.

I had originally intended only two or three nights at T&M’s but I still felt exhausted after two nights but the third night took me into Sunday where the public transport prices from Staines to Northampton were double what they would be for a weekday. Also, Phil, my old school-mate, was working and would be home Monday and I could walk to his house from the bus station. Staying the extra night solved a few problems and got me back to Northampton on the day of my son’s birthday.

Phil has a spare room and offers me sanctuary at his home whenever I’m back in Northampton. He kindly lent me his car so I could take my son out to dinner and then go and to visit my mother over the week I was there. My sister donated her old phone so I was getting back on my feet without too much effort on my part.

It was an odd sensation being ‘home.’ Everything you can think of is available here, where it takes some scraping around in the Caribbean to get what you want, often having to make do. The supermarkets are bursting with goods with room to move between the aisles – and ironically bustling with bored looking and unhappy crowds of people. A country so full that feels so empty…

The van was the next item on the list and Phil offered to drive me down to Neil’s in Essex. Neil was looking after the van on a friends farm while I was away and he offered me his sofa while we got the van road-legal. Together with a few of Neil’s friends, the brakes were fixed and we were awarded an MOT certificate for another year. In the back, I thought there would be mould in the bedding, since the UK is so damp most of the time but it was pretty good apart from being covered in mouse droppings and the corners of bags, boxes and books being gnawed away. Cleaning the van out revealed a mouse’s nest made out of Sainsbury’s carrier bag strands and flakes under the bed but no mice, dead or alive, and a trip to the launderette freshened up the bedding and covers.

It took about 3 days to sort the van out but Neil is good company so I spent a fourth night on his sofa before heading down to Wiltshire…

It was dark by the time I arrived in Devizes and I parked in a quiet spot just outside the cemetary gates next to the Canal. Handy for a Wetherspoons breakfast in the morning. The van had run really well. I was thinking I didn’t really need a boat… until spending the night in 4°C with Autumn barely upon us. I can handle the cold but not for the six months plus that it feels like in Britain.

After breakfast and a warm up in Wetherspoon’s, I headed back toward the van via Tea Inc. “Hello is it tea you’re looking for?” on the chalk board outside was the cheery greeting that welcomed me in as the hinges on the door squeaked my arrival. The owners who weren’t there, but Alex who was and we happily chatted over a cup of nettle tea until way past my parking limit. Facebook kept her up to date with my adventures abroad and felt like we chatted like old friends. It was easy to put off dealing with the property issue but the threat of a parking ticket was a big enough nudge to down the last of the tea and make my way…

I parked up in Chippenham and walked across the Avon Bridge to Atwell Martin Estate Agents. They didn’t recognise me until I told them the address I was enquiring about. Basically, they had not been able to contact the tenant (we shall call him Norman to protect his real name of Richard) for the last couple of months. It appears, Norman lost his job a few months ago and got some work as a doorman but they didn’t know where. And they thought it would be pointless me calling round since he was never in whenever they called. I already had a key so…

Pulling into the car parking area with the crackle of the Ford Diesel disturbing by stealthy approach, I noticed windows open but the blind down on the lounge window. I didn’t really fancy confronting a club bouncer about rent arrears but I had to stop the various scenarios spooling through my imagination and just go and take a look and see what happens…

The windows being ajar gave the impression that someone was home so I knocked on the door a couple of times: no answer. Likewise at the neighbours to try and get some info: nothing. Going outside and calling through the open window and lifting the blind for a quick look gave the impression that someone would be back soon. All it needed was a steaming cup of coffee standing on the table as a classic mystery clue.

Since there was no-one home and the windows were open, I used my key for ‘peaceful entry,’ or whatever the legal term is. As the door swung open, a pile of unopened mail swept along the arc of the door. Clearly, no-one had been in for days or weeks. The mould on the washing up in the sink kind of confirmed that too. Otherwise, the place looked ‘lived in.’ There was nothing much I could do apart from closing the windows before leaving. None of the scenarios I had imagined had played out in reality. In fact, the open windows did me a favour in allowing me grounds for legal access with no hint of adversity.

On my way out, I met William, the neighbour opposite. I hadn’t seen him for a year so we had a quick catch up about boats, hurricanes and homelessness before getting onto the history of Norman the elusive Doorman. Apparently, Norm hadn’t been around for a couple of months. He had a girlfriend here not long before disappearing and, since they’ve been gone, various people have been banging on his door. My guess is debt collectors looking at the mail envelopes. William told me
“He works as a doorman.”
“I know, Atwell Martin told me but no-one knows where.”
“No, he works at Earls in Bath. I see him when I walk to the station when I finish my shift. We say hello as I pass… Yeah, I saw him there last week sometime.”

This was getting to be fun. A puzzle to unravel. I had a lead…

Returning to Atwell Martin, I relayed my findings to their surprise, and tried to clarify the situation since the Tenancy Agreement had expired a couple of weeks previous and the property appeared to be ‘abandoned.’ There was no solid conclusion apart from to get legal advice. I went to the local pub with WiFi to ask on the property forum’s instead. It turned out that all I had to do was have a ‘duty of care’ for Norman’s belongings; safe storage for a reasonable period, apparently. Without this, a judge might take the side of the tenant should the matter go to court.

As luck would have it, there was a pig trailer in the parking area that William told me belonged to Norman. But, before emptying the apartment, I would go to Earls…

Irma: Part 4

6.00pm Pointe a Pitre airport, Guadeloupe. Two hours at a cafe table on hard seats surrounded by luggage and bustling, baggage laden itinerants is not a recipe for peace and tranquillity. Patrick was getting edgy and already wanted to join the queue that was beginning to form at the suspected check-in line. Lucy and Patrick had been falling out rapidly the last few hours. The uncertainty we were experiencing was morphing into stress. Vanessa and I remained placid and Patrick went to join the queue clearly irritated that none of us showed any sign of following. Standing for an hour or two isn’t too appealing for me and I remained seated with Lucy, while Vanessa diplomatically joined Patrick in the queue.

Around 7.30pm, some list wielding administrators bristling with highlighter pens appeared at the head of the queue and people started filtering past their new check point and toward the check in desks. Lucy and I collected our bags and joined the queue about six feet behind Patrick and Vanessa with about 5 people between us. My name was quickly found on the list, checked against my passport and I was politely waved through. Lucy’s name wasn’t visible. No Cooper on the list. Cooper, Cooper… No… no Cooper… Lucy’s heart was in her mouth. It still hadn’t appeared by the third time of scanning a finger down the column. Lucy retained the presence of mind to scan across to the first name column next to it… her official name, Thomasin, there it was. Thomasin Coter… a typo lost in translation. A quick cross reference of the passport number confirmed the error and she was waved through too, and we all eventually met up with Pat and Vanessa at the departure gate cafe and relax best we could. “There won’t be any food on the flight, better get something here.” Pat told us. Looking at the prices in the airport, I’d rather starve, if that was even a possibility of recent sumptious living at the Ben Haddou’s. It was past 9pm and judging by the last couple of weeks, departure could be between 15 minutes to a few hours, only left to our imagination and patience.

Peering at the plane through the windows into the darkness revealed no company markings I had ever seen. Airbus A 350 X-WB was it’s markings. A black and grey chequered tail with a giant A350 painted up it. I hadn’t heard of the A350. Boarding revealed an area of missing seats, masking tape and the aroma of new upholstery like a new car. This thing was straight out of the factory. A demo model, perhaps, that pilots could take for a spin…

Patrick and Vanessa took their seats and Lucy and I ended up about six rows and a toilet pod behind them, including the three of four missing rows across the empty space in between. No grand parting. this would be the last contact I had with Pat and Vanessa before they disappeared into the Parisian landscape. This was a wide bodied jet similar to the 777, nine seats across, and I was in the centre. The flight crew were more numerous than usual and wore no common uniform – perhaps they were volunteers, I don’t know. I’m grateful. As an evacuation, this was pretty luxurious.

Getting tired when we were established at altitude, I dropped the table tray, rested my head on my arms and fell asleep only to be awoken sometime later for an in-flight meal. I was too tired to notice whether I was hungry. Eating was something just to do as much as anything else.

Sometime later, breakfast was served and we eventually touched down at Paris Charles de Gaule. It was daylight, maybe noon, one,… I don’t remember. An official came to check our forward journey plans. Pat, Vanessa and Lucy all had theirs but I had not. Lucy had a plane to catch in a hurry and left straight away along with the majority of the passengers. I was instructed to wait for someone from the British Embassy and to stay in my seat.

Lucy had become my closest companion since the hurricane and her presence had worn away my skin of solitude and her leaving left a graze of loneliness. That skin would have to grow back in its own time, I had other things to do. Things were getting back to normal fairly quickly and I had to keep moving forward. I’d be home soon, family and friends. the book of life had suddenly flipped to a new chapter before expected.

After about ten minutes with a dozen or so assorted passengers in various states of anxiety, I was asked by an official what I was doing there and promptly ushered off the plane into the Croix Rouge centre. A Parisian 13℃ is quite a drop from the 28℃ of Guadeloupe, especially donned in flip flops shorts and T’shirt.

Milling around the distressed families in the Croix Rouge centre, a volunteer asked what my plans were and then told me to go to Terminal 2E or 2F where I could get a train or flight. Sorting through a jumble of clothes, they found a jacket three sizes two big for me. That with shorts and spindly legs made me look like a giant chicken. I didn’t care, it was warm and I could carry my passport in the pocket.

This was the end of the line. It became clear that I had fallen off the edges of the evacuation. My route to the UK was now up to me and that was OK. I was alive and still had all my faculties. Indeed, I was lucky.

Airport Information told me Eurostar would be the cheapest option and pointed toward the Gare Aeroport. Patrick and Vanessa were already taking the 11pm bus. Lucy was probably already boarding her Exeter flight, if she made it in time. I checked the Eurostar fare online rather than trek down to the railway station, €210 not worth the effort, maybe that was a mistake and should have padded my way down to the station and ask. Skyscanner, Easyjet: all three figure sums.

The Air France office was just across from the public desk I was using. €80 departing at 4pm and since it was already 2.30pm, I could check in at the same time. Did I really want to wait nine hours for an overnight bus to arrive in London just as the city was waking up? Normally I would, since I could think of the €50 saving as a net-wage for the day. But not today. Getting to family for solace, company and a comfortable bed for tonight would be worth the extra rather than an uncomfortable sleepless night on a bus. I felt both tired and abandoned now: alone, Glee was lost. I was in a 13℃ Paris with a rucksack. Even if Patrick and Vanessa showed up for the same one. I was done. I bought the Air France ticket.

The security gate at the far end of the hall had no queue and was a standard affair except that I was detained until I downed the water that the Croix Rouge had given me and thrown the remainder in the bin half full of other bottles in case it was explosive. If a bottle made a big bang then how about a bin full? Pockets emptied into trays, boarding pass clenched between teeth, laptop out, money, passport piled in the tray and then passed behind a screen under the gaze of a bored looking security agent, looking out for our safety and probably wondering how he could cover his mortgage with a more fun existence.

The passengers were already at the gate, jostling for position so that they could all leave the tarmac into the sky at exactly the same time. As usual, I joined the queue as the last few stragglers were filtering through. Checking my pockets, there was no passport. I knew it wasn’t in my bag but emptied it on the floor anyway. The driving licence wouldn’t cut it with the airport officials. European Union, open borders but still need a passport. By now, everything I had was over the floor. No passport, or anyone else left at the gate ready to board. I told the agent on the gate about my journey from St Martin and they became warmer in their manner. The flight was already past its departure time but an unannounced delay meant I still had a few minutes. I ran back to the security belt, remembering it was at the end meant that I didn’t have to check more than one. A glance at the photo confirmed that the one they had in their hands was mine and I ran back to the gate to bundle everything back into the bag and shuffled down the ramp to the plane. There was still a queue at the door of the plane, so I could just stand for a moment and reset myself into the normal course of things. Maybe pretend that this didn’t just happen.

From Heathrow, the bus to Staines was a short wait, and I texted my Aunt and Uncle that I would be in The George. The bus arrived and soon found itself in the evening rush hour queue along the London Road. I disembarked early, as I could walk the remaining half mile faster than the traffic, even in flip flops.

Adnams Regatta with its picture of a sailboat seemed a fitting end to the journey and an appropriate toast to Glee somewhere in the lagoon in St Martin. About a third of a glass down, Margrit arrived with a big smile and gave me a big hug. Terry followed and laughed out loud at how I was dressed, drawing attention to us all. It didn’t matter, I was just happy to see them. I didn’t really want to return to England but it did feel good to be back, at least for now…