Opportunity Knocks

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2am in the fore-peak of Glee, squinting against the glare of the laptop in the darkness through half sober eyes after returning from the hike to Sentry Hill and the ensuing house party, a mail from Cattitude, the boat I’m due to help cross the Atlantic. I click to open. “Can you help me take Cattitude to Antigua tomorrow morning?” My mind was filling in the blanks. Does that mean we continue east to the Mediterranean from Antigua. The sails and awning were still up on Glee. It would take me a day to secure Glee for the hurricane season and pack up my stuff.

Glee wasn’t ready for being left a couple of months. I replied as much . No, Cattitude was to meet the owner and would return to Sint Maarten after the owner returned home. It would be a flying delivery, well the return part for me it would be. We were to be ready for the 10:30 bridge. 6 hours wasn’t much notice but do-able, so I agreed – this would be a new adventure, never been to Antigua, never been on a catamaran.

Cattitude was moored in the channel around Snoopy Island off the end pier of Simpson Bay Marina just near the fuel dock and I swung the dinghy round her to enter the marina and tie up at the dinghy dock. My hiking blisters were swollen but not ruptured and I walked on the edge of bare feet to protect them. The ground was warm but not yet up to grilling temperature as I padded around to the berth.

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A young Serb was diligently polishing the chrome on the stern. He wasn’t making the trip due to visa regulations for Serbs in Antigua. Me? I had the right little booklet that allows me to be waved past immigration. Bizarre, the Serb looked far more qualified and diligent than me. The power of mass belief in pieces of paper…

Cattitude is a gleaming white 75 feet long 36 feet wide catamaran which makes her area about the size of a tennis court and I noticed plenty of cleaning equipment out on the deck. There is no excuse for doing nothing as a crew member on a luxury yacht.
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The channel for Sint Maarten bridge is 55 feet. 10 feet clearance per side sounds quite a lot but it is nerve-wracking in the strong easterly crosswind and from the ships bridge, you can’t see the water either side. You have to commit to avoid being blown onto the rocks either side. The Serb and I were calling out distances and ready with a fender on each side. Steve, the skipper, was calm and collected and didn’t look at all rattled but admitted later he’s always relieved to have cleared each passage through the bridge.

After anchoring and taking our spare crew member back to shore and to check out of customs and immigration, we deflated and stowed the crew dinghy in the hold. I dropped down into the anchor locker to direct the Skipper along the path of the chain and to flake the chain into an even pile as the anchor was drawn up. The rusty, salt water made the uneven floor slippery so I had to try and brace myself out the way of the dripping chain and try not to tear my blisters on anything as my feet slid around. Pretty soon the three white markers indicating the arrival of the anchor appeared and I clambered out on deck. We were under-way.

5 knots into the force five wind is not the best conditions for a catamaran, we were pitching and sometimes crashing into the south easterly waves. Motoring was the only option into the headwind. On top of that, the engine could not get past fifteen hundred revs; the propellers probably needed a clean. At 3pm, we anchored in Anse a Colombier at Gustavia, St Barts for Steve to don his diving gear and clear the props. The sheltered bay was vulnerable to back-wind which would take us into shore, It was my job to stamp on the deck if we turned or if the Gendarmes came to see what we were doing there. We started to turn but I could see a gust coming out form the shore so hesitated with the alarm and after getting parallel to the shoreline we gently blew back out again. Later Steve said he was waiting for the alert as he was clinging onto the prop as the boat swung round. He was probably more worried than I was since we didn’t really know each other well.

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Steve emerged after about forty minutes covered in cuts and stings, crawling with sea fleas. The lax sewage control in Sint Maarten seems to make for a fertile environment for sea life on the underside of boats.

With the engines free-revving, we were back on course for Antigua. The delay meant that making for the anchorage at St Kitts over night no longer made sense, since it would be late night by the time we got there. We may as well continue to Antigua and sleep whenever we got there and so anchor only once instead of twice.

The music was playing in the darkness, 29000 hours of mixed genre material on shuffle, as we watched the distant lights of St Kitts pass slowly to the starboard side. The radar screen and chart plotter gave a soft illumination and occasionally were plunged into darkness as an intermittent fault with the Radar caused the integrated systems to shut down. The compass and autopilot still worked but looking out into blackness without any indication of obstructions was unnerving. Booting up again lost our plotting information but we kept the same course.

A green light off the starboard bow looked as if there was a sail-boat about 300 metres away, The radar indicated two miles distance and we would clearly pass each other. We were now on watches: one hour each before midnight and two hours each thereafter. Sleeping on the beanbags in the lounge was the most comfortable for the pitching of the vessel and, despite the occasional banging of the waves, I slept soundly in 20 minute segments, conscious of over-sleeping and waking to check the time. The clock downstairs was wrong and I was 20 minutes early for my watches because I hadn’t noticed. It gave the impression of enthusiasm on my part and I didn’t mind. The traffic on radar was pretty quiet now so whenever the system powered down, I left it the radar in standby for the rest of the watch so that the plotter stayed up.

Groggy with sleep, I ascended the spiral stairway to the bridge at 4am for my watch surprised to hear the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” blaring out. It took me back to the time of the punk revolution of the 70’s, a reaction to capitalism and elitism and here I was now on a luxury yacht in the Caribbean. I was experiencing a dissonance of the irony while full waking consciousness slowly returned. The other surprise was of seeing the lights of Antigua dead ahead. We were nearly there so we stayed on watch together. We had reached the lee of the island sometime during Steve’s watch and had made good time by motoring at 10 knots since the sea had calmed down.

We dropped anchor shortly before dawn and grabbed a few hours sleep before awaking in the bright morning sunshine in a beautiful bay in the southern part of Antigua. Now we were here it was time to get to work, cleaning and polishing to prepare Cattitude for the arrival of her new owner. While Steve went to check in at the Marina, I started swabbing the decks and scrubbing the exhaust stains off the starboard hull, aft of the exhaust port.  18 hours of motoring seemed to have  really cleaned out the engine bores and ports.

The sun was getting hot and I was feeling the accumulated sunburn of the hike and yesterday’s voyage and took advantage of the factor 50 sun-block I had spotted in the lounge. Pretty soon we were moored up in the Marina, I couldn’t tell you which one since I had my head down washing and scrubbing as we were under way.

The deck was becoming slippery with all the water and was treacherous in bare feet away from the textured surfaces. My blisters were holding up and the wetness of my skin probably helped stop them tearing. Even so, Steve gave me some electrical tape to bind up for protection. This was far more successful than the plasters I tried to use earlier. The owner was due in at 2:30pm but it was now four and Cattitude was now looking immaculate.

I was tired and thirsty but I took off to the shower block while I could, peeled off my sweaty clothing and sat down on the floor in the corner of the cubicle letting the cool abundant water cascade over me for about 20 minutes before finally washing down. After getting dressed and having a shave, I felt replenished and looked rejuvenated.

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The owner and his family had arrived while I was out. It was hard not to look like a hitch hiker as I returned to the boat with my trusty backpack. I was welcomed back aboard as the Skipper and Owner got acquainted. My role was complete and I was on the border of being sociable and discretely reclusive so as not to intrude. It wasn’t clear what my immediate future was, whether I was required as crew or whether I’d be dispensed with at the airport. As the evening wore on, it became clear that I was spending the night and was treated to a pleasant dinner together with Steve and the owner.

The following morning, I felt much better and my blisters had dried out and shrunk a little. Steve came down to the galley while I was clearing up after breakfast and said he’d found a flight for me for 10:20am. It was 8:15 already and we quickly booked it online. I had already packed so I grabbed my backpack and hopped in a taxi at the marina entrance to go the airport, and took in as much of the Antigua experience as I could. By 9:40 and tolerating the intrusive and demeaning security checks I was sitting at the departure gate with three destinations scrolling over the screen. Which one is it: St Kitts, St Maarten or St Thomas?

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The plane was an ATR 42 600, overhead wing, turbo prop. It was pretty much a flying bus, first stopping at St Kitts while people got off and others got on. Next stop St Maarten then continuing on to St Thomas. After about an hour I was back home. St Maarten, home. That’s what it is to me, home, and it felt good. How’s it going to feel leaving Glee behind for the Atlantic crossing and Summer in England? We’ll have to see but that time is not too far away now.

Cattitude won’t be too unfamiliar to me on the Ocean crossing. Of course, plans like this can change but, whatever happens, options and opportunity seem to be becoming more plentiful the less I think about the future and the more I pay attention to the present…

And the more opportunities I become aware of in the moment the happier I become…

Right, next!

One Thing Leads To Another

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‘One Way Road’ is a steep pass between Philipsburg and Simpson Bay. I’d finished breakfast at Lagoonies just after ten and was now on ‘One Way Road’ climbing the steep incline against the traffic. Technically this is not part of the hike but the heat from the sun above and the asphalt below were driving the breath and sweat out of my body with every stride. What is it, half a mile to the crest?

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Approaching the crest of the road presented me with the easterly breeze and a view of the Great Pond near Philipsburg. I rested on the roadside for five minutes savouring the cooling trade winds and rehydrating from my water bottle. “If you see Kooymans, you’ve gone past the trail ten paces” Mark on Sea Life had told me. I was sitting opposite a narrow dirt trail disappearing upwards into the shrubs on the southern end of the ridge of hills that extend north to Marigot. Next to me was a concrete track going south up the side of Cole Bay Hill. It looked like a good starter before the main hike and it was still early.

It wasn’t a long ascent but it was steep and the paved track narrowed to a dirt trail. Access to the summit was via the top of a dry-stone wall about three feet wide. Two goats stood as if guarding the peak and we looked at each other for a minute. The goats retreated as soon as I advanced along the wall to the newly installed beacon. The views were good but partially obscured the shrubs were thick and tall. Looking north I was level with the first peak on the ridge trail and could see Sentry Hill beyond. To get to that first peak would involve undoing all the gains I made up Cole Bay Hill and climbing once again to this same altitude over there. There were no shortcuts.

 

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Descending steep dry stone walls is pretty hard on the knees and feels as if there is more of a risk of falling but pretty soon I was scrambling up the loose dirt trail to the next beacon.

With the shade of the trees and the breeze coming out of the east, the climb felt easier than the walk up One Way Road. The views along the ridge are spectacular, at the crests and whenever I remembered to turn round and look back behind me on the ascents. Occasionally I would lose sight of Sentry Hill as the trail undulated through the shrubs and trees. From each hill-crest, Sentry Hill still looked a fair climb and, immediately ahead, the trail turned down-hill. Each stride down meant adding another stride up the following incline. I took an old branch to steady my descents on the loose surface while wishing for the ridge to level out  and stemming the continuing deficit in altitude. A stick makes a hike so much easier.

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It must have been about 1pm when I reached Sentry Hill. Cole Bay Hill had used up about an hour. The sun was in and out of the clouds and I was in and out of the trees and the breeze was constant. Sunburn might be a factor if I was out too long.

Sentry Hill has a craggy peak and hosts the best views on the island. The last forty metres or so became more like a climb than a hike but the effort to get to the top was well worth it. I was probably an hour there; admiring the view, contemplating, meditating and stripping down to dry out my shirt and socks, and to cool my feet.

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The buildings below looked like dolls houses it’s an odd thing that I can happily look down from this three hundred and forty metres high peak and get the jitters ten metres up a mast. St Peter’s didn’t look too far from here and it was tempting to go on but I was warned that the going gets tougher north of Sentry Hill. That would be for another day since I had a meet up at St Maarten Yacht Club at five..

Turning back along the same trail is as different returning as discovering another route. With the constant gradients, my feet were beginning to hurt and I could feel the pressure on my knees, especially descending One Way Road. I’m not that unfit but I notice the spring in my step has diminished with age. I pay it no more thought. Annoyed at the attitude of people to their environment, I start collecting trash from the verges along the way. People seem to be the same wherever I go. They turn paradise into a waste-heap. By the time I reach Cole Bay I have a Louis Vuitton shopping bag full of empty beer bottles, water bottles and cigarette packets.

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At the junction of One Way Road and Union Road is a cafe called Marge’s. With my Luois Vuitton bag, it looked as if I’d walked back from a shopping trip i Philipsburg. Marge’s is a locals place, I ducked in there as I could feel my energy ebbing. I had been wilting on the side of these hills facing the afternoon sun and being sheltered from the easterly wind. Half an hour with a couple of ice cold beers and a creole swordfish pasty while watching Cartoon Network with the owner’s daughter replenished my reserves to make the last half mile to the Dinghy moored at Lagoonies. I was running late. I had to meet friends at the Yacht Club across the lagoon at five and it was already four forty.

Louis Vuitton was deposited in the bins at Lagoonies and I skimmed across the lagoon in the Dinghy.

A party at a friend’s house, Mark had said. A millionaire’s pad with exclusive views over Simpson Bay would have been more like it. And here was me, beaten up walking boots, dusty t-shirt and backpack standing between the swimming pool and the balcony railings looking at the sunset reflecting off the bay.

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No second chance at a first impression, they say. No-one said anything so maybe I got away with my dignity intact.  After a cool beer and time for people to settle down in the pool I kicked off my boots and discovered a giant blister on each toe joint. The blisters hadn’t ruptured but were beginning to feel sore. I took advantage of the outdoor shower in the corner of the terrace and plunged into the pool. It was my first time in a salt water pool. The water tastes barely salty and feels totally natural. How I would imagine it would be like returning to the womb. It felt totally nourishing to the skin and body.

Unlike the UK, the interior and exteriors of houses aren’t clearly defined by windows. Open plan to the outdoors seems to summarise the effect. The pool table was in the kitchen and next to the balcony but part of both. Taking a last glimpse of the anchor lights in the bay, I wandered; How did I get here? I hardly knew anyone here and this wasn’t expected but I was in a state of total appreciation for fate or whatever you would call it.

I was here at the invitation of Mark. Mark had pointed me to the hiking trails the night before. I had asked someone a random question about any nice walks around the island and that person had said to ask Mark. The question arose because I was getting a bit stagnated on the boat and I looked online for inspiration. Something in the search results said that getting into nature is a good way to recharge the spirit; resulting in this particular trail from a moment’s discontentment to a day of appreciation.

One thing leads to another so be vigilant and receptive to everything in your life. One thing leads to another…

Fort Amsterdam

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The moments you have now are the special memories you have tomorrow. I’d just been uploading some photos of Deb from 4 years ago. It wasn’t bitter-sweet, it was just sweet. Somehow the bitterness gets filtered out in looking back. I exited Glee’s companionway with the realisation that even this simple act may well  become a golden memory in time. But only when this chapter had expired and I am immersed in new phase in life.

In the shade of the RBC bank, I squint into the afternoon heat along airport road looking at the registration plates of the vans as they approach. Taxi, no. Taxi, no. Bus, yes. Stepping forward facing the minibus is enough of a signal for it to pull over and stop next to me.  For a fair deal, the trick is not to look like a tourist. Asking “How much to Philipsburg?” is a dead give-away.

I slide open the door and squeeze into the last remaining seat with a casual greeting.

‘Pay on entry’ the notice says but the bus moves off and nobody flinches. I watch how the passengers leave and join. I get the system… they pay either in transit or on exit. I bask in the fan driven draught of the air conditioning trying to dry out the sheen of sweat between back and t-shirt. I should really set about these excursions at 8am except the sufficient motivation doesn’t usually overcome my inertia until gone noon. The penalty is to suffer the full force of the Caribbean sun.

These buses remind me of the blue and whites in Sharm El Sheik. They run on tacit local knowledge as money passes silently from passenger to passenger to and fro. The same behaviour in different cultures, different colours of notes and coins with different faces of historical heads of state imprinted upon them, yet under the very same sun.

Philipsburg is just over the hills to the east of Simpson Bay lagoon. Maybe three miles, separated by a ridge of tall hills. As we descended into the outskirts, I was looking out for some stores located near a set of traffic lights that had been recommended by some friends. The traffic had stopped and the bus swerved down a back street. My guess was that this was a rat run past the traffic lights.

Plan B was to stay on the bus until the far end of Philipsburg. There wasn’t much of note to see, to be fair. Apart from the humongous refuse tip that some bright spark decided to put in the Great Salt Pond in full view of the city centre. It  frequently catches fire and casts a noxious cloud over the city. The recent fire had died down and a faint plume drifted out of it like Smaug’s breath from under the Lonely Mountain.

Apart from looking out for the stores that were presumably bypassed along the way, I had no agenda and alighted at the library and wondered down to the coast near Bobby’s Marina.  A thick grove of palm trees offered a tranquil spot for some quiet contemplation. I didn’t need to do anything in particular so I ordered a beer in the shade of the palms.

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Nothing needs doing, which leaves a huge space for what I want to do, and what is that exactly? This kind of thing doesn’t come about by thinking… more by feeling. I could see an old fort across the bay, I’d go and have a look. Just because I feel like it.

The Boardwalk, they call it: a wide paved promenade that separates Philipsburg from the beach. Kicking off my deck shoes, I tread the warm, white sand down to the turquoise sea and west along the shore. The Boardwalk peters out as the commercial properties merge into villas.

Up and down the beach there is no-one within about 100 metres so I strip off and plunge into the cool blue water. Cool enough for relief but, unlike the UK, not so cool that skin feels like it spasms into two sizes too small for the body.  When I’m ready to get out couples emerge from east, west and over the ridge from the car park. No towel, no swimming trunks, no nothing. It would be hard not to emerge scuttling to my back pack without looking like Gollum back from a fishing trip.

Ten minutes later, two sets of couples pass by in opposite directions level with me. No-one ever looks back so I escape the water when they are ten metres past and sit on the sand between my bag and my clothes until most of the water drains from my skin. I then dress myself over the sticky salt water. The sand is coarse and covers my feet like breaded frozen fish ready for frying. I put my shoes in the back pack and pad toward the Sonesta Great Bay Hotel. The Fort is not far along the coast but there is no way around the Hotel. Walking with purpose around the Sonesta, I go unchallenged, use their fine bathrooms and find my way out to the road.

The pavement is smooth and warm under foot until the footpath fades into gravel filled gutter at the roadside.

Fort Amsterdam is obscured by the Divi Little Bay Beach Resort guarded by a military looking security gate. There are no restrictions for accessing the fort but I walk straight through as if I belong there anyway.

Fort Amsterdam is a neglected ruin but is preserved as a bird sanctuary. Pelicans were nesting below the cliff tops but fairly well hidden that they are heard and not seen. The place was deserted so it was an opportunity to try and shake this coarse sand out of my clothing. The sand would not brush away easily, it was stuck to my skin but I brushed and shook as much off and out as possible and got dressed. My shoes were back on but they were hot and rough as I walked over the rugged terrain of the fort. I kicked them off again as I retreated into the Resort complex and headed home.

Navstick Mike hasn’t worn shoes for ten years. He says your feet toughen up so I take his word and lead. Mindfulness while walking at the roadside is crucial. Green chips and shards of shattered glass glitter like emeralds in the afternoon light. Little gems the value of which expired at the transformation of bottle into fragments after last gulp of Heineken had been downed and the bottle launched into oblivion.

The footpath at G.A. Arnell Boulevard was a relief on the feet. The incline around the foot of Cay Bay Hill was fairly steep but the pavement was smooth. There was a traffic island at the top on the main road. I sat on the curb and put on my shoes seconds before a bus of smartly dressed commuters arrived to take me home.

I returned home feeling fulfilled. Had I achieved anything? no. But every moment of the day was lived. A series of seemingly ordinary moments strung together. But it was all something new to my senses and, whenever I think of Debbie and that all this is no longer possible for her, it reminds me to live consciously. Nobody dies with everything done, nothing needs doing above living your own life in the present moment… Do something new every day.