A New Dawn (Abandon Ship part 2)

Airport

… the door opened revealing a 79 year old man in green t shirt and khaki shorts draped around inadequate legs and creaking knees. Time has been indifferent, neither cruel or kind, to my father. Time chips away at the days, sneaking in an extra wrinkle here and there and slowly sapping our strength as it passes. But time has added another wrinkle by starting to steal my father’s memories. Stroke induced dementia, is the label the experts have given it. “Come in, son. I’ve only just got up.” I stepped through the doorway ignoring Duke the springy black and white chihuahua jumping up and down to groin height next to me on the carpet.

The script I had mentally prepared fell away like cigarette ash. The cryptic messages over the past weeks that I had assembled like jigsaw pieces to form a picture of reality bore no relation to the experience of the here and now. Apart from the absence of my step mother, It was as if nothing had changed over the five months or so since I was here.

Settling into the yielding sofa next to the window, I was conscious of a new chapter as the page turned in the book of life. Glee was 2000 miles away and, after a day in the hands of civil transportation and a night in a hire car, an unwritten week was ahead of us. Coffee had freshly percolated and I accepted the cup with both hands, like a receiving of a peace offering between tribal chiefs. A proud man is Doug, frustrated by the invisible thief of dementia. He still functions and recalls many old memories, some of which are best forgotten, but things like where car keys are put down, how to print out a document or why he got up to go to the kitchen aren’t commonly retained.

The absence of Michele meant we could talk freely without moderation if we wished but we soon relaxed into periods of comfortable silence.
“Why has Michele fallen out with me?” I asked.
“She thinks you’re a freeloader.” he said.

It didn’t feel true but, still, it crept into my subconscious for later processing anyway.

I smiled as I thought about it. Its probably why she left with his car, taking his credit card and cheque book with her.

Doug’s always been a generous man and always insists on picking up the tab. My mother says he always had plenty of friends when he was on leave from the merchant navy – until his money was spent.

This week would be different. He had been left emasculated in a land where money means almost everything to almost everyone. He was a modern day knight stripped of his sword he had been disarmed and left defenceless.

I carried the sword now; we had money and a car and I was in the driving seat. As a guest, I had always felt like the passenger. Today was a feeling of freedom and possibility. The world was our oyster and to celebrate, we went for lunch and margaritas at the local favourite, Playa Azul Oyster Bar.

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And so the week went on in gentle conversation and shared space and time.

Doug doesn’t socialise too often these days, so I organised a few meetings with a few of his life-long friends. He said he enjoyed these outings but he prefers to stay at home, these days, either alone or with Michele.

To me he looked unhappy with either situation and sometimes drifts away from social engagement with his mind wandering out of the present and into the past or future. Dementia seems to bring with it depression and frustration.

I couldn’t help thinking that his condition could only worsen so I was glad I didn’t take the recent messages and phone calls to not visit literally. If I hadn’t have come, I might have regretted it for the rest of my life.

Jaco, a diver in St Maarten, shared his story of visiting his father, leaving nothing unsaid or undone before passing away shortly after. He was so glad that he thought about it while his own father was still around. Jaco reminded me that we only get one shot. There is no guarantee that any one of us will wake up tomorrow… likely, but still no guarantee. Nothing we value should be put off if it can be done today. There is no going back…

Whatever happens today, I will remember to follow my heart and have no regrets.

Stirring the crushed ice with a straw into his margarita, Doug asks “What do we have to do to be happy, son?”

“Happiness is not a doing, it is a being.” I replied “You take it with you, it’s part of the journey …” and I thought about it some more… later wishing I had been quick enough to follow it up before the moment had passed.

The arrival of something new sometimes stimulates happiness and we mistake whatever that ‘new thing’ is as the source. The source is actually the appreciation that is stimulated from that ‘new thing.’ When the appreciation wears off, the feeling of happiness goes with it. The route to happiness is in gratitude: an appreciation of all that is and all that you have today. It must be harder to be grateful when your memories are slipping away: having the record of your personal life slowly erased… In the absence of gratitude comes wanting: unfulfilled desires attempting to be quenched by the next holiday, new car, new job and whatever is thrown at us by hypnotic TV marketing and culture of conditioning. But all that got thrown on the “I wish I’d have said that at the time” pile…

And so the week slid by day by day, eating Mexican food and drinking American beer in thick ice-frosted glasses in the polar blast of air-conditioned cafe bars under the stifling Texan sun, then getting back to the apartment for an afternoon nap, ignoring the NBC nightly news while eating blue cheese and crackers; and reminiscing on what could be remembered and trying to figure out what couldn’t.

It doesn’t sound much to write home about but one day was blissfully like the other, no pressure to do anything, just to be in each other’s company, read, stay in, go out, whatever… the ultimate freedom, bewildered by choice but going with the flow down the path of least resistance…

“Sorry you keep picking up the tab, Son.” Doug said, as we were finishing off our beers in Soto’s Cantina.

Sotos

“It’s no problem, really. Whatever the pleasure you get in picking up the tab is a pleasure that I can get to enjoy this time. Besides, you gave me this life I have and that’s priceless.”

He laughed but it wasn’t enough for hiding a dissonant look: guilt, embarassment or disempowerment or whatever it was his conditioning had him feel. For me, it felt like the rare opportunity to practice being an adult within our relationship. I took a mental note to remember to leave that space for the relationship with my own sons.

Departing the apartment at noon on the final day was an understated affair. It felt like I was going to Kroger’s for a loaf of bread. I began closing the door on the man and his dog looking back at me through the narrowing gap. “Take care, son. And keep in touch.” Doug said.
“Will do…” I replied, before the door clicked shut.

Silence alone in the car back to the airport has a different flavour to the silence in the company of someone special: silence with an accompanying emptiness. The increasing traffic volume and the slowly extending estimated time of arrival at the airport soon distracted my thoughts to immediate objectives. Tight deadlines have the effect of sharpening focus an elevating anxiety. I don’t mind flying but I dislike airports with their Gestapo like bureaucracy and their subjugating security practices.

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Two hours later, I was through airport security, putting back on my boots, threading my belt back through the loops and scooping my change out of the plastic trays after their journey through the scanner. I had noticed the small sign that gives the option for a manual search rather than being irradiated by the cylindrical body scanners. I had plenty of time, so I had opted for the manual assault: the tiny bit of civil liberty allowed in this process.

TSA

It was only a five minute wait before a TSA agent dressed as an impersonation of a police officer turned up, wearing thin blue latex gloves. I was given the option to go into a private room but I was happy in jeans, t shirt and socks to go through the routine in public. Nobody took any notice, what with being too busy removing shoes, emptying pockets and surrendering nail scissors and half empty bottles of sun cream. To be fair, the TSA agent looked more embarrassed than I did – and the experience wasn’t that intrusive. After the months skinny dipping in the lagoon and showering on the open stern of Glee it seems bizarre at what people should feel embarrassed about, if it’s other than the erosion of our personal freedom.

777 Feet

By the time I settled into the crowded 777 looking out at the flat hazy Houston cityscape receding below me. I wondered if I would ever see my Dad again: if that was the case, our parting had been muted. While it was sad to leave, business was calling back to the UK: a host of loose ends left undone by my impromptu detour to St Maarten in February – and a chance to see some valued friends and family.

Drop off

7.45am I stepped outside Heathrow’s terminal 5 onto the elevated passenger drop off into the crisp 55°F breeze and pale English sunrise and sat on the curb.

“Look out for the Ford Galaxy,” Terry had told me. I could barely remember what their’s looked like as Ford Galaxies of all ages and colours came in, spilt people and luggage out onto the concourse, and drove away again one after another. Twenty minutes later, I could see Margrit’s curly haired silhouette through the reflected clouds in the windscreen as the car exited the top of the ramp and pulled up to the curb next to me.

Dropping my rucksack into the back seat and clipping on the seat belt in the front, we drove away and my eyelids began to feel heavy. It was a new dawn welded onto yesterday without the usual separation of a night’s sleep. My body was telling me it was bed time but the scenery told me it was already tomorrow morning.

This dawn was another marker; the end of something past and a clearing for something ready to be written…

Abandon Ship

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Its almost 6 months since I left the UK with nothing more than cabin baggage. My van is still parked on my uncle’s drive. This loose end needs resolving urging my return to the UK is on the 12th July. The return portion of the original British Airways ticket flies out of Houston to London so presents an opportunity to visit my Dad while I’m there.

It’s officially hurricane season now and Glee has to prepare for the worst if I’m not there. The mooring has already been overhauled with new line and chain. The foresail is down and bundled in the saloon. The mainsail was still on the boom since it would be in the way while I’m living there.

Yesterday, I treated and patched most of Glee’s rust and sprayed grease on the outstanding areas.

The big jobs now were to stow the dinghy and outboard and remove the mainsail plus rig up the automatic bilge pump. Time is running out. The flight is at 14.20 which leaves a handful of hours to get it all done.

An outboard motor is an unwieldy beast and even more tricky to manhandle standing in a Dinghy keen to move away from my centre of gravity at any lateral force. I rigged up the main-sheet as a block and tackle on the boom to use as a hoist. Tightening the topping lift to raise the boom for clearance over the lifelines and stanchions. I swung the boom out above the outboard and rigged a harness and winched the outboard up on the main-sheet over the lifelines. I hung the outboard on the companion way washboard and flushed the cooling system with fresh water by running the engine in a large bucket of fresh water and then disconnected the fuel line to drain the carburetor.

Mason on Out of Africa kindly offered to give me a lift ashore at eleven.

Eleven came and so did Mason. I had removed the mainsail and was busy oiling the cylinders of the outboard. The dinghy was still in the water and I needed a hand hoisting it aboard. We rigged up the spinnaker halyard and looped the dinghy painter to create a secure harness on the bow. After a lot of grunting on the self tailing winch and some snags on the line we swung the dinghy onto the fore-deck, catching some razor sharp barnacles across my arms and shoulder. The blood looked ‘Tarantino’ impressive but the cuts were thin and shallow. I still had much to do so Mason retreated to his boat until I was ready and I retreated to the galley for some hydrogen peroxide.

The outboard was stowed in the saloon and the bilge pump was rigged up to the batteries but failed to work with the float switch. There was no time to resolve that one so all had to be abandoned. The debris in the cockpit was thrown into the saloon. It would have to do. I only hope Glee doesn’t spring a leak while I’m away. No bilge pump means an almost certain sinking with a leak on an unattended vessel. I called Mason on the VHF and gathered my things together throwing my hiking boots and socks into an additional plastic bag; I was too hot for donning socks and boots.

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It was 1pm when I arrived barefoot at the airport. It was pointless wearing the boots because they would come off again at the security scanners. The ceramic tiles were exchanging their cool for my warmth through the soles of my feet but didn’t relieve my thirst of which I was becoming increasingly conscious. The self check-in instructed me to seek assistance by joining the slow and lengthy queue at the American Airlines desk. Less than an hour until the flight and I had moved ten feet in twenty minutes. “Anyone for flight 866?” called out a camp looking attendant. Yes, I was through. There was no queue at the passport check into departures until reaching the top of the stairs into security. I was parched. I had been too busy to drink anything while I was sweating away on Glee. Another passport check into security, shoes off, belt off, x-ray, obedience and subservience and I was into departures. I grabbed a bottle of ‘Fiji’ spring water from Duty Free brought half way around the world to quench my thirst and downed it at the gate while the crowd were boarding before yet another passport and boarding check at the gate. Amazingly, I had made it onto the plane on time. It felt like a long day. We waited while the fueling was casually completed in Caribbean style which delayed our departure.

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Charlotte, North Carolina. I could see a queue of airliners backed up from the terminals. Obama had been at the airport that day and caused havoc with the scheduling. Our gate was still occupied and so we were an hour behind by the time we disembarked. My connection was only an hour away but I had to clear the demeaning immigration routine first. The Houston flight had a two hour delay that was some consolation but that would mean the hire car desk would be closed upon my arrival. One step at a time.

Arriving at the gate, I had time to call the hire company on their toll free number. My phone has no service in the US so I searched for a payphone; none. They had been recently ripped out. Do we assume that everyone has cellphone service internationally or even has a cellphone now? I found a kind looking American girl in the queue who lent me her cellphone for the quick toll free call.

“Yes, we close at eleven, sir.”

“Can I keep my reservation open for tomorrow?” “Yes sir, no problem, That will be an additional $70.”
“What, how come I pay more for a day’s less hire?”
“The rate’s changed sir. Do you want me to continue?”
“Er, yes, thanks. See you at 7am…”

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Thankfully there were no more checks exiting Houston airport and I hopped onto the rental car shuttle. I arrived at the hire car desk at 11.20 intending to lounge around the shopping mall like car hire centre until 7am but Hertz, Enterprise Thrifty and EZ Car Rental were still open.

Enterprise: “Do you have a reservation?”
“No”
“Sorry we have no more cars.”

Thrifty: “That will be $980 for the week sir”
“Sorry out of my budget.”
“If you just have basic insurance then it will be $760”
“No sorry, I had a reservation at Payless for $167 for the week”
“Ah but that doesn’t include taxes and insurance. by the time they are added it’s the same price as us”
I left.

Hertz: “$1100….” I didn’t hear anything after that and I walked off to the desk with the queue at EZ Car Rental. I remember trying to book a car with them online which failed only because they didn’t accept debit cards. No negotiation with a computer message obliterating the painstaking form filling on the web pages leading up to the abrupt rejection. So here I was in a 5 man queue clicking a thumb nail across the corner of my debit card in an impatient kind of meditation, picturing in my mind the outcome of this folly.

“Sorry we can’t take Debit Cards, we have to do a credit check first.” The disappointed customer mumbled something and wandered off. I picked up my bags and approached the desk.

“Should we do a credit check first?” to hasten the disappointment.
“Let’s see” said the woman half obscured by podium, desk and computer monitor “What is it you want?”
“The cheapest vehicle for seven days returning here noon the 12th”
“We have no economy or compact but we have a standard for $480 all in”
“Yep, I’ll take it.” I had no hotel booked and could sleep in the car for the night.
I didn’t ask what the differnce is between my British debit card and the domestic cards, I didn’t really care.

After mapping the dents and scratches as diligently as possible on the form to avoid any penalty later I was off into the muggy 30C night. A black Kia Optima with a New Mexico registration navigated through tired eyes at half the speed limit.

In the mirror, I could make out the outline of the roof lights of a Police cruiser following me. Signalling my escape, I pulled into a fuel station. My tail had disappeared. Four cop cars were parked around the forecourt. I walked in to buy some water and a map. Eight cops were sitting round a table eating donuts and drinking coffee. It was more like a movie scene than anything in my reality but nothing dramatic happened, which is a much more familiar experience in my reality. I moved invisibly around the store, paid for my map and water and disappeared into the black night in the black Kia.

I arrived at my Dad’s at 2am. ‘Don’t come here.’ was the last message I received so I was reluctant to knock on the door. I parked outside the apartments on the street and settled down to sleep feeling the cool interior slowly edge up degree by degree to meet equilibrium with the muggy darkness. At least Glee has a breeze across the water to take the edge off. Houston tonight was a concrete windless heat trap.

At dawn, my heavy eye lids opened and I put brought the seat upright and looked out on the world for 5 minutes in the morning silence. I remembered Taco Plus along Grant road did tasty breakfasts. It was an excuse to get the air conditioner to chase the heat out of the car. I arrived at 6.30; opens at 7.00. The condensation on the outside of the windows suggested it was cool indoors; I waited while the daylight slowly turned from blue to yellow as the sun came over the horizon.

Taco Plus was freezing. I went back out to the car to fetch my jacket.
“Do you have Wifi?”
“Si, Senor!”
“Is there anywhere I can plug my charger?”
“No, Senor!”
I didn’t bother.

I drank the coffee huddling around the mug watching the passing traffic through water beaded window panes. ‘Don’t come.’ What could that mean? and there was the message from my step mother ‘I’ll be away for the week. If you don’t come he’ll have no-one to look after him.’

8am seemed a civil enough time. ‘Don’t come.’ What’s going to happen now? It doesn’t matter, I’m here now. 7.50 I knocked on the door trying not to dream up fictional scenarios…

Anse Marcel

 

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Venturing north across the lagoon to Marigot is a rare occurrence. the North side of the lagoon is exposed to the wind and an inflatable boat in a cross wind is not a comfortable ride. Besides, Marigot has a reputation of thievery. Leaving a dinghy for the day on the French side can be a bit of a concern but my dinghy’s leak makes it a less attractive target as the faded sides begin to sag.

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Despite the expensive restaurants and poorer disposition compared to Simpson Bay, I like Marigot. English is not widely spoken and I feel less like a tourist. This side of St Martin is a bonafide member of the European Union whereas Sint Maarten is an independent dutch territory. However, the feeling here is more foreign and less cosmopolitan.

The buses in the station were stacked up and empty of passengers. Drivers were standing in groups of three of four. Nothing was moving. I guess they were waiting for the schools to turn out and so decided to walk out of the turgid uncertainty toward Grand Case, not to walk the distance but to find a quiet bus stop that would give me a longer view at the approaching buses heading in the appropriate direction… more time to select the right one to get me to Anse Marcel. No buses stop at Anse Marcel and the recommendation was to go further east to Cul De Sac and walk north to the coastal hiking trail.

Anse Marcel

I unfolded the map and noticed that Grand Case was just as close. The plan was set. The first bus to arrive was the biggest and had been at the head of the line in the station and now it was almost full: a mixture of school children and local women speaking across to each other in French or Creole.

Grand Case has narrow streets and looked more a sleepy village than the map suggested and as far a contrast to Philipsburg on the South coast as you could get. Between the silent villas and apartments I had tantalising glimpses of white sand and turquoise sea. A path along the side of the Octopus Dive School gave me access to the beach. The bay was a tranquil scene with few moored boats or activity anywhere, the only movement being the gentle swell of the sea – a picture reminiscent of a Mediterranean fishing village than a Caribbean resort. The direction I wanted to walk was blocked by a wall of a building that extended into the sea and I retreated back to the road to progress further east along the coast.

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Theoretically, the path follows the coast from Grand Case to Anse Marcel and continues around the north eastern point to Cul De Sac. In practice, a security gate prevents access from the drive to the beach. Nobody was around bar a solitary Iguana and I doubled back to rejoin the main road out of Grand Case to find the inland track over the hills. A half fallen ramshackle gate allowed me access to an abandoned housing development and up the western escarpment in hope of finding the track to Anse Marcel. The brush is drier and not as thick as the western side and I, once again, resorted to blazing my own trail through leaf and thorn in search of ‘the way.’

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Among the trash in the woods, discovery of an old tent pole section made the perfect aid to steady my way up the hill and over the rugged ground

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Squeezing between the barbed wire strands of a short rusty fence. landed me on the cart track to Anse Marcel; this was the track marked on the map. I had gone further south than I imagined. Now the going was easier up the incline. The hills were bigger than the map led me to believe and the windless climb along pass in the midday sun was sapping my energy .

Over the crest, I could see scattered buildings and a network of tracks. Below me about a third of mile away there was a small white car next to a shack. Having climbed the hills I was reluctant to go all the way down and find it was the wrong route. The occasional blue mark on rock and tree confirmed the way but they were absent at the junctions and the track wound its way down the hill.

The track curved to the north at the bottom of the hill and I heard voices on my right through a closed gate and recognised the white Hyundai that I had spotted from the crest of the pass. I climbed over the gate and walked up the lane. Three workmen were in the shade of storage container “parlez vous anglais s’il vous plait?” is about the extent of my French. “Yes,” came the satisfying response. This gated dirt track that looked like a private entrance was actually the road to Anse Marcel.

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Passing the immaculate but vacant tennis courts and skirting the Resort and Marina, inanimate and silent apart from the distant sound of a dog barking echoing around the valley, I found the start of the hiking trail; an access lane to a water purification plant. The bay in Anse Marcel is a narrow and quiet anchorage nestling between steep hills on either side. Only two yachts were anchored. If I were to sail here I would anchor for the peace and quiet; to read and contemplate life. I should bring Glee here -it would be an easy sail or more likely a leisurely motor, head to the wind.

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A sign nailed to a pallet pointed the way into the brush to follow the route to Cul De Sac. The trees were tall enough to obscure the view to the sea and the hills. The path was rugged but clear of undergrowth and gently climbed inland away from the sea. At reaching the crest of the trail, the path fell away with the trees to the north east to reveal an idyllic unspoiled coast line. A sailboat was in the distance completing a postcard perfect picture.

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Unseen from the top, the path wound its way down to the deserted beach and soon my boots were treading the soft white sand like first steps on the moon. Planting my stick in the sand and staking my claim, I sat down looking out to sea in appreciation of this spartan paradise. I peeled away my sweaty clothing, hung my damp t shirt on the stick and plunged into the turquoise Atlantic surf. It was cooler than the lagoon: not cold but refreshing; like the advertisements for toothpaste or aftershave imply.

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The beach was a narrow band of white sand marking the border between the blue of the sea and the green of the land. An opening in the shrubs revealed a cool and shady glade. An oil drum actingas a trash can for empty water battles and some netting, rigged as a hammock, were the only sign of ‘civilisation.’

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Resting in the hammock being gently cooled by the sea breeze, listening to the turquoise surf and watching the hermit crabs shuffle along the sand in their stolen mobile homes had me consider spending the night and continuing on in the morning. It was only four o’clock and the promise to someone I’d be in Simpson Bay later was enough to scotch that idea.

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Round the rocky point, the beach turned into large white pebbles that rattled like china plates as I stumbled across them. The ground was level but keeping balance across the unstable stones was an effort for keeping up a reasonable pace.

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As the coast turned to the south east, the terrain changed again into a dirt track. The topology began to remind me of the Exmoor coast back in England, if it weren’t for the alien looking cacti and lack of grey cloud and rain this could have been Somerset. It was getting late and I still had a few miles left to go.

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Arriving at a giant refuse site, I walked along the service road and picked up the pace a little. A para-glider was coming into land just over the ridge and was packing his chute away into his car. A couple in a white pickup were parked on the shore and we nodded silent greetings in passing.

I was back in civilisation and on the road to Cul De Sac. I put my hiking stick across my shoulders and rested my arms over each end and wearily marched along the road as if to my Crucifixion. Two minutes later the white pickup truck came by and stopped to offer me a lift and I climbed over the tailgate and into the back.

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I didn’t ask where he was going but there was only one road through Cul De Sac to the road back to Marigot. “Do you want to go to the roundabout?” asked the driver. I didn’t know where that was so I said yes. This turned out to be the intersection with the main road and I sprung out using up my remaining strength to stop my tired knees from buckling from underneath me. The ride saved me a good two miles walk. Turning right on the roundabout toward Marigot, I noticed a bus approaching the junction and I quickly flagged it down as it entered the roundabout. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

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The gate to the dinghy dock was locked. There was no other way in and the top of the tall iron gate was bristling with barbed wire. I had noticed a shellfish merchant next to where I tied up earlier in the day. This unmarked anonymous looking workshop next to the gate must be the other side of this same building. The door was open. “Hello?” No answer. I walked into the darkness to the opposite wall. It was too dark to see the detail of anything inside and I felt down the door to find a security bolt. Luck, there was no lock through its shackle.

Sliding the bolt across, the door swung open onto the quayside. My deflated dinghy was a welcome sight – my sole access of returning to Glee. It was dusk by now and retrieving my pump from my back pack, I resuscitated the dinghy’s empty lungs and revived its shape and rigidity.

The motor started easily enough but wasn’t revving. I was getting one or two knots out of the dock and into the lagoon. It was better than nothing. It was like it was firing on only one cylinder. I resigned myself for a twenty minute cruise when the motor started nudging forward a little bit. I could feel an intermittent kick and after a few seconds full power was restored and I began planing across the darkening water in a calm windless twilight.

The motor was humming, the water was smooth. I took advantage of the situation to make my way to Simpson Bay Marina for a falafel and a well earned glass of rum at Byblos Lounge in the good company of unexpected friends. And tonight, among all nights, Sint Maarten felt like home.