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…

Irma: Part 3

Landing in Guadeloupe in the early afternoon came with a muted feeling. We didn’t need to think as we were herded onto buses and into a shell of a building that looked like an unfurnished departure gate. We were processed by the Croix Rouge that had a line of desks across the entrance. A make shift Maginot line for filtering unknown souls onto lists of names.

 

The atmosphere was calm but busy amongst the feeling of chaos. None of us knew what our destiny was. The Croix Rouge were briefed only on the processing and knew no more than any of us. It was understandable that some individuals were giving them flack but none of this was their fault. They were just following orders… if they had any. Given the situation, the leaderless Croix Rouge foot-soldiers were calm, helpful and empathetic.

Milling about the ‘warehouse,’ I felt like a sheep at a cattle market, dunking charitable biscuits into benevolent tea with the underlying urge to know what was to happen coming and going like waves on a windswept shore. “This too shall pass.” Time seems to slow proportionally to progress made.

Patrick was fluent in French and was a real asset to our small team of refugees. Patrick discovered Laidi Ben Haddou, a Guadeloupe local drifting around the melee. Laidi had seen the TV news of St Martin and came down to the airport to see if he could do anything to help. Four hours, he had been there without any information about how that might be.

Laidi had space for four people at his home and generously offered us shelter. Since there was no information about flights ‘home’ or anywhere else, for that matter, and perhaps only twenty camp beds at the far end of the warehouse, our small band split in half and notified a Croix Rouge official that we were leaving with Laidi. The official told us that they were not authorised to release us from the airport. We left anyway. Patrick, Vanessa, Lucy and I gladly piled into Laidi’s Renault.

Half an hour later we were standing on a veranda, facing the trade wind looking across the treetops and the water to sunset over Marie Galante: a stark contrast to the last week. Laidi and Cecile’s children playing in the pool, electricity, fresh water on tap and internet access. The ‘come down’ was starting; this sanctuary cleared a space in which emotions began to bubble through the surface of awareness. There is no word to describe the feeling, not sadness, not grief. Neither was it relief or gratitude. Yes I was grateful for this family’s generosity, and for my own survival, but this was a feeling of tears and butterflies, an automatic reaction that had no label.

Lucy was sitting in the chair next to me and spontaneously began to cry. She is more sensitive than me. I could only guess how she was feeling. Laidi noticed before any of us and asked Lucy to help out in the kitchen: a successful strategy for distracting her from her suffering.

Patrick and Vanessa seemed to be coping well. Looking over at them they were inscrutable. Vanessa didn’t say much and Patrick was talking in ‘shoulds.’ I remained on the veranda and fired up the PC for two reasons: one, take away the flame from beneath my own simmering emotion and two, reassure my friends and family that I was OK and on my way home.

A late afternoon swim rinsed away the sweat, dust and sorrow of St Martin. This cool immersion was as soothing for the soul as it was refreshing for the body.

As darkness fell, the table was set with food and wine, and we toasted good health and fortune, feeling humbled by such generosity and guilt that others back in St Martin were not so fortunate. I wondered what the locals were doing now, still in darkness, short of food and water. All I could do was choose a brighter thought. My own suffering would serve no-one, and so I purposely became present and focused on the ‘now’: the company of friends.

It was getting late and this transition from survival to recuperation left me exhausted. Yes, there were beds for four guests but they were doubles in two rooms. Patrick and Vanessa were business partners but virtually a couple, which left one bed for me and Lucy. I couldn’t have thought of many situations more comforting than sleeping next to Lucy, but I opted for the hammock suspended by the rafters of the moonlit veranda, cooled by the tropical Atlantic breeze. I thought of Debbie. If she was still alive then maybe I could have drifted away in her comforting embrace.

I’d read in the book, Papillon, that if you sleep diagonally in a hammock then you can lie flat. And sleeping in that position was pretty comfortable but the netting isn’t particularly windproof. At 4am I was chilled out… and not in a good way. Suspended by netting in a breeze wearing shorts and T’shirt doesn’t offer much insulation. Even so, I was too tired to get up and look for a blanket. I soon fell back to sleep: out cold, so to speak; and drifted off into a vivid dreamscape, as usually happens with a broken night’s sleep.

Just before dawn, I was wide awake. It would already be mid-morning in the UK so I logged onto email and Facebook and caught up on unread emails and messages. I had missed social media since Irma took out the utilities in St Martin. It’s my prime source of social contact since I became an itinerant nomad – maybe even before then. Wherever I go, my friends are always with me, WiFi permitting.

The house was stirring into life just as my battery was dying and after a leisurely breakfast and unsuccessful attempts by Patrick and Laidi telephoning for information, we packed our bags into Laidi’s car, who then drove us to the airport. Apparently, some evacuees managed to get a flight out in the early hours of the morning but nothing else appeared to be scheduled between now and Christmas.

The Croix Rouge seemed a little more organised now and were even distributing Pizza donated by local businesses, much to the irritation of Patrick who thought that food distribution should be the government’s job. It is what it is… no use complaining.

Lucy, Vanessa and I found some seats away from the busy entrance. An announcement was to be made at 3pm and we waited patiently for whatever news that would provide. The announcer, was surrounded by a huddle of people. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, and even if I could I didn’t speak French. Suddenly there was an uproar and a woman was bellowing at the unfortunate messenger. Crowds: not happy ‘without’ information; not happy ‘with’ information… Thursday, a flight would be scheduled for Thursday. That hadn’t gone down at all well, poor bloke. Today was Monday, maybe Tuesday, the days now all felt the same since Irma.

That night, Lucy insisted we switch and I have the bed. She wouldn’t have my protest so I had the bed plus a mosquito net. Not that mosquitoes were a problem last night. The bed was comfortable but hot lacking the tropical breeze of the veranda. Lucy cheated the hammock by sleeping in the lounge on the sofa, feeding the mosquitoes. I guess that’s what self sacrifice gets you.

When I awoke, it was daylight. I had slept well but didn’t want to get up until there was movement in the house. I checked the date on the computer. Tuesday 12th Sept. A full week had passed since I joined the shelter for Irma. It seemed longer somehow. Only one week and these new friends I had not known until Irma already felt like family.

Over breakfast, we discussed whether it would be worth trekking to the airport since the ‘Thursday’ revelation. Laidi had some business down by the airport anyway so our plan was to go to the mall to get some clothes for Vanessa and whatever else we needed then continue to the airport.

Patrick suggested he cook for the Ben Haddou family and that we all chip in for provisions. It was the least we could do. I felt there was not really enough we could do to repay their generosity. In reality, it was Patrick that provided the most payback as he was confined to the kitchen, slaving over a hot tagine while the rest of us socialised outside on the veranda.

We were living like kings. Three nights of good food and good company in the midst of disaster. I usually didn’t live this well in my normal life and the feeling didn’t sit comfortably.

Tonight I was back in the hammock. I had learned my lesson and taken a sheet from the bedroom to mitigate the wind chill. This night was windless, warm and humid. Kicking off the sheet invited the mosquitoes to a buffet and I quickly wrapped up again to sweat the night out.

Wednesday morning, day four in the Ben Haddou retreat. Laidi received a call that there was a flight out today. We were to be at the airport by 4pm. There were no other details so we relaxed at Laidi’s until 2pm then set off to the airport leaving time in hand for Murphy’s Law.

As usual, nobody at the airport seemed to know anything about this mysterious flight but we eventually found out which check in desks we should watch. The flight would be 9pm; a five hour wait. time would tell whether this information was accurate…

Lucy, Patrick, Paul, Laidi, Vanessa

Irma: Part 2

It became clear that I had made the best choices for my own survival. Shrimpy’s is a sturdy building with a flat solid roof. The people that were there became a top notch team for enabling survival and recovery. “The A Team” Lucy called it. The damage to Shrimpy’s was minimal. Other buildings didn’t fare so well. Reports came in that some of the big hotels had collapsed onto the people sheltering within. It was the flooding that gave the biggest problem at Shrimpy’s. The sea had caused minor damage and contaminated the drinking water in the cisterns under ground.

Calculations determined that, by salvaging the tap water we had saved for flushing the toilets and bailing sea water instead, we had enough to drink for two weeks with the eight of us their, which instantly halved as another ten people returned from hurricane shelters and damaged vessels. Ben devised a rain water collection system comprising barrels, pipes and guttering ready for Hurricane Jose tomorrow. The latest news was that Jose was tracking north of St Martin: more rain, less wind. ideal for what we wanted. Jose could become a blessing rather than a curse. St Martin is a dry island with no rivers or streams.

Jaco and his family joined us. Jaco and his wife, Judith, run Atlantech Divers and brought valuable knowledge and experience of the lagoon and what was happening at Sandy Ground, an area of St Martin notoriously vulnerable to violence and crime. We were more organised and prepared than many of the locals and people started coming to the door to ask for water and fuel. The looters had focused on high value goods to start with but were beginning to focus on food and water as hunger set in. Looters is an unfair term in the case of food and water since this is for basic survival. A truck was seen carrying away six brand new washing machines from a damaged store. the motivation for that is different to carrying away food and water from a supermarket. We were doing fine, at Shrimpy’s, but what would we do if others became desperate and knew that we had a stock of food and water?

Without Glee, all I had to do was live in the moment and help out as best I could. My life was not my own at this point but, apart from pangs of ‘survivor guilt’ this felt good: unburdened, I had all I needed. Every day trivialities were blown away with Irma and a community evolved out of the wreckage. We were focusing on life and survival without even thinking about it. It felt natural; almost tribal. we were looking after ourselves as well as the group. This is what the state constantly promises but fails to deliver.

With so many people here, my new bed was a foam pad on the laundry floor, tucked behind the counter near the machines to maintain a modicum of privacy. I wasn’t sleeping very well but still feeling grateful for being where I was. It was hot in the day and warm at night. The brackish water in the cisterns was good enough for a daily shower and we still had enough petrol to run the generators a couple of hours a day to cool the freezers and pump the water to the bathroom.

We were four days in by now. The Gendarmes were enforcing a curfew but there were no signs of relief activity from the government. Water and fuel was scarce. Anyone relying on government to solve their problems was endangering their lives. The relief would be coming from good hearted people, not the bureaucrats that feed off the populace.

Law enforcement was understandably over-stretched and the criminals had the upper hand, looting and robbing with impunity.

We managed to salvage Jaco’s outboard from Grand Key (Explorer Island) just in time by the looks of it. The hoses had been cut in preparation by looters who would return with the tools to remove it. We abandoned the dinghy it was attached to for the time being, maybe for ever. Jaco depended on his outboard for his business, what looks like just a boat engine to most of us was a hugely expensive lifeline for Jaco and his family.

On the way back, we called by Kochi, beached on Sandy Ground, to see if Carl was still there – we had heard him on the VHF but his catamaran looked like an abandoned shed. Carl emerged as we approached, clearly pleased to see a friendly face. He was aware of the marauding looters but had been so far overlooked. Carl was preparing his dinghy for water collection from the oncoming hurricane Jose.

Carl was a neighbour of mine in Providence Bay. Irma dragged him and his mooring block south under the causeway bridge to rest near the coast guard at Simpson Bay. Their astounding advice, considering the number of inverted catamarans, was to stay aboard. The back half of the Irma dragged him north, back under the causeway, eventually coming to rest ashore at Sandy Ground, the right way up.

Returning to Shrimpy’s, the latest news was that hurricane Jose was moving north away from its track to St Martin. We wanted the rain but not the wind and, in the end, we collected around 600 litres from Jose. the storm was short and sweet with hardly any wind as Jose wandered north into the Atlantic.

So far, I had been confined to Rue De Morne Ronde and Time Out Boat Yard area. Andy was on a mission to find more petrol for the generator so I hopped on the back of the quad to assist. The ride was like something out of a “Mad Max” movie, the road was covered by sand, boats parked at the roadside, houses reduced to match-wood. Seeing all this made me appreciate my luck in staying at Shrimpy’s. People were on the streets salvaging what they could. The gendarmes were posted at strategic points to enforce the 1pm curfew, and so we were turned back empty handed ‘tout de suite.’ The rest of the afternoon was spent washing sand out of the store room and general cleaning up. A period of solitude away from the bickering and frustration being expressed as the strain was beginning to show with people living in close quarters.

Sunday morning came, what was it, five days since Irma? it was hard tracking the days as they slid into one another, and I lay on the pad on the laundry floor as long as possible while people gathered at the start of another day. Andy fired up the quad and we went toward Grand Case searching for petrol. Rounding a corner revealed a 400 metre line of traffic leading to the petrol station. Andy pulled up at the back of the line while I walked toward the station. Talking to the locals, I found out the station was to open at 2pm, six hours from now. Pedestrians with jerry cans were gathered at the station in front of the traffic line. Six hours… we would come back later.

Arriving back at Shrimpy’s. Valerie, a slim dark haired French woman, arrived and announced that people were being evacuated from Grand Case and if we wanted to go we needed to put our names on the list she held in her hand, and to be ready to leave right now. This was a paradigm shift since I expected to be stranded for weeks committed to help Mike and Sally at Shrimpy’s. Lucy made the point that while we stay, we are using up resources, even though we were all contributing our efforts, this needed to be balanced. Ben was here and committed to his boat. Jaco and his family had nowhere else to go. Mike and Sally were in good hands and Shrimpy’s was in pretty good shape.

Glee had not been found, I had nothing here and felt a need to return to the UK. I was packed within two minutes and explained to Mike what I was doing. I felt bad about that but he told me “You must do what you must do.”

 

Within an hour or two eight of us from Shrimpy’s were on a minibus headed to Grand Case airport not knowing our destination, only that we were heading out of St Martin. The ATR 72 on the runway suggested we were on a short hop, not a long distance plane by any stretch. Guadeloupe or Martinique was my guess since they are the nearest French Islands out of the way of Irma’s footprint…

Irma: Part 1

The hurricane season is an annual affair for the Caribbean. I wasn’t here for last year’s so was interested to experience daily life throughout the Summer of 2017.

Every morning I flick on the VHF to tune into Shrimpy’s radio net which starts of with the weather from the Windguru web site. Other eyes are east across the Atlantic looking at developing tropical waves and storms. various systems formed and dissipated throughout June and July.

Harvey was the first we saw as a credible threat to Sint Maarten, but as the days passed we could see it roll south toward Grenada and develop into the Hurricane that flooded Texas and Louisiana.

“Bowling balls across the Atlantic,” my friend Gregg called them, “and we all hope for ‘gutter-balls’.”

Irma was the next potential slowly edging west. Starting at a more northerly latitude it normally would have turned north into the mid Atlantic and dissipated over cooler water but there was a high pressure system over Bermuda pushing the depression on a more southerly track.

The word across the lagoon was that Irma should turn north before too long and lose its power over cooler water. The forecast track eventually put Sint Maarten within the southern part of the ‘uncertainty cone,’ a wide area where the hurricane could possibly track. The longer the prediction the wider the track.

Tony on ‘SV Anna’ took an early decision. Irma may miss Sint Maarten but with Irma 5 days away he sailed South to Grenada just in case.

Irma started to increase in strength as she encountered warmer water and lose strength again as she passed cooler water. My neighbours and I in the lagoon started to prepare our boats for heavy wind, removing sails, awning and covers to reduce windage.

Days passed and the predicted northerly turn was not forthcoming and the Bermuda high was still pushing Irma south, threatening islands from Guadeloupe to St Martin and Anguilla.

The conversation turned to whether we would shelter the storm ashore or stay on our boats, if it came. Most of us opted for caution and arranged shelter ashore. Yordan on ‘Don’t Worry’ opted to shelter in a small space behind a previous wreck and the beach at the end of the causeway bridge with mooring lines out to anywhere solid. Carl on Kochi doubled up his anchor chain to his mooring with his Catamaran in the middle of Providence bay not far from Glee.

 

 

 

 

 

My dinghy and outboard were hauled onto deck and strapped down the day before Irma’s projected arrival. Irma had grown to a Category 3 hurricane fairly quickly so we thought a Category 4 was likely and hopefully pass north leaving us with 95 mile an hour winds.

On the morning of the 5th Sept, I packed my essentials in a bag and Jacob on ‘Lark’ gave me a ride to Shrimpy’s. Mike announced on the VHF net that anyone was welcome and to come early to help with prep. Mike had good resources including fast Wifi and provisions should we need them. We were clear then that Irma was a Category 5 hurricane with its straight line trajectory crossed St Kitts but forecast to curve north over Anguilla.

We stashed away and tied down as much as we could along the waterside of Shrimpy’s. Buckets were filled with tap water for flushing toilets. The Gendarmes came around and warned that the storm surge would be to the ceiling and that we couldn’t stay there. Mike pointed out the upstairs as a shelter and they left satisfied. Consequently, some of the residents of the crew quarters opted to evacuate to the school in Concordia. I was tempted but I consider Mike a friend and a feeling of loyalty and support tipped the balance to stay and help with prep.

 

 

 

 

 

Ben and Lucy from SV Mistress appeared later and boosted things along and by nightfall we were hunkered down in the laundry all on the Internet tracking Irma and waiting the weather to arrive.

It’s difficult to sleep when a monster is threatening to arrive at your door so I reflected on what needed to be done and considered what people would need should I not come through the other side. So I listed all my online accounts into an encrypted file and sent them to a trusted friend to forward to my family should I not be heard from for a month. The password for the file I sent to my son. He said that this was a bit worrying but I reassured him that it was only a precaution and I didn’t believe I would be harmed.

The wind slowly built through the early hours of the morning but we felt well protected in the building. the wind was howling from the north and we were protected by the terraced buildings that sandwiched us from north west to south east. when the point came that we should perhaps edge round the building to escape upstairs, Andy noticed that the power lines were live and jumping around in the wind and rain. It was too dangerous to risk getting to the stairs. if the electricity didn’t get us, the roof panels flying down the street might.

Just before dawn the floor started to become wet as the water began to rise and shortly started to pour in through the sides of the dock-side doors, holes and conduits, near the street and the surge pushing water through the doors waist high on the dockside, We still had power and were concerned that we would might get fried. I think Ben switched the power off at the main panel, I don’t remember whether it was that or whether the power finally failed, but we were in the dark with LED lamps. The water was already three inches high indoors but looked at least knee high on the street side.

The question then was how long and how high would the surge go and stashed my bag and laptop on top of the tumble driers eight feet off the ground. Looking around the room, there were tables we could stand on to et our heads up to the ceiling, a good 15 to 18 feet above sea level, surge being predicted to be 12 to 15 feet.

Daybreak came and the wind began to noticeably subside and realised that it must be the eye of the storm crossing the island. Quickly we decided to evacuate upstairs. The water pressure pinned the front door shutter closed and the sea-surge was still braying at the back door.

 

 

 

 

 

The window shutter was wound up to reveal a river on the street strewn with cars, sofas, fridges and general house contents and hopping out the window revealed calf deep-water and dead electrical wires. Sally, Mikes wife is elderly and infirm so Andy carried her up the stairs to the first floor apartment. The apartment is disused and has no facilities and by then had 2 inches of water over the floor, but at least there was daylight and no risk of flooding. Mike has seen a few hurricanes in his time on the island and was concerned about looters and stayed to guard the business. Ben valiantly volunteered to stay but I was hungry for daylight and morbidly curious about what Irma was doing.

The scene was shocking. houses flattened and leaves stripped from trees, boats upside down in boat yards and we were only half way through the storm.

The eye of a hurricane is a strange feeling: an uncanny calm amidst the destruction but logic reminding us that more is to come. On one hand feeling thankful to survive and on the other, reminding ourselves that this is not yet over.

I guess we had about half an hour of calm, enough to get established upstairs. The ridge line of the mountains disappeared from view replaced by a battleship grey curtain of rain. The eye-wall of the hurricane was on its way. Already, the water had subsided from the street somewhat and we could detect the breeze building in the opposite direction from the south pushing the water out of the lagoon.

We retreated to the balcony to relative shelter and observe what was going on. My phone was wet and beginning to fail, wet fingers failing to register on the screen but I still managed to get some footage.

the wind continued to build as I looked across the channel at the remains of the houses and boats. Leaning out from the balcony The horizontal rain felt like needles in my face and visibility was deteriorating fast. We retreated indoors and closed the sliding glass door, settling down away from the windows. I stood on the windward side of the patio doors looking north at the storm, noticing the glass of the door flexing and bowing inwards. We retreated into the centre bedroom, which had rooms bordering three sides and the passage that was a wind-tunnel on the forth. It was relatively peaceful there as we looked around in the dimly lit darkness; distant howl, doors banging and sporadic conversation.

By 10 or 10.30 the wind had dropped to a gale and I ventured outside. Ben and Lucy wanted to check on SV Mistress so I tagged along. The sight of the apocalyptic carnage was shocking. It was hard to identify the entrance to TOBY and the Stadium. The place was flattened and we walked over levelled chain-link fencing. toward the leaf-stripped mangroves. People were already out on the street collecting their own belongings or other people’s. The wind was still blowing a healthy 30 or 40 knots or so and it was sometimes hard to maintain balance over the debris.

 

 

 

 

 

Making our way through the stadium grounds, the astroturf underlay was everywhere carpeting the shore promising a soft impact if you fell but cloaking nails and shards beneath for the unwary. A surreal island of astroturf lay in the tangled bare mangroves but SV Mistress survived, still afloat amongst sunken and upturned boats at Time Out Boat Yard (TOBY).

 

 

 

 

 

Lucy and I left Ben busy preparing his boat ready for the following Hurricane, Jose, due to arrive in three days time and to inspect the damage made by solar panel frames that were peeled off the stadium roof and hurled through Mistress’ deck and hull like javelins.

The flooding at Shrimpy’s meant that sea water had corrupted the cistern tanks of drinking water. Drinking water became a priority if we were to survive for more than a week or two. the buckets we collected for flushing the toilets were collected and stored, now using sea water for cleaning, washing dishes and such.

The water flowing back out of the lagoon had a sage green colour and was tainted by diesel for the rest of the day, slowly clearing over the next day or two. we had to become conscious of hygiene as we started to clean the place up.

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I slept pretty well that night after being up two days straight. Hearing gunshots across the channel drew me to the dockside. Looking across to Sandy Ground, across the channel and out to Marigot Bay revealed nothing, there was only darkness where before there were lights marking the shore and streets of St Martin. This felt like a new dark age.

The morning came peacefully and we stirred into life to continue cleaning up. Jaco came by and relayed his account of his knife edge survival with his family. His shelter barely held together and he was at the mercy of the looters that came out mercilessly after the hurricane. Jaco’s boat, Osler, was not on its mooring and as far as we knew lost. Andy launched a dinghy and revived a waterlogged outboard and we headed off to check on our boats.

Passing the lagoon bridge, we noticed some debris tangles around a column, barely recognisable as a green monohull. Sticks, wires and broken panels lay flat on the surface. Rigging tangled where the bridge control room used to be. I guessed the mast was still up as the vessel was swept under the bridge in the storm.

The Boat yards either side of the channel were a chaotic mess. Catamarans upside down and monohulls on their sides dismasted. The scale of the devastation on the shore and emptiness of the lagoon that was bristling with yachts was breathtaking. My stomach knotted up with emotion as I tried to take it all in. Boats lined the shore either side, well up out of the water. Mount fortune, stripped of its vegetation was half a mile south. Around that peninsular was Providence Bay, home to Glee and my closest neighbours. I tried to resist imagining what I would find there.

 

 

 

 

 

The outboard spluttered it’s way around the peninsular revealing a handful of vessels dismasted still on their moorings a couple of masts sticking out of the water marking their sunken vessels and wrecks scattered on the shore. There was no Glee. We went to check on Yordan who nestled his small vessel between Growler, wrecked in 2014 by Gonzalo and the shore. His hatch was tied down from the outside indicating he had made it out and onto shore. SV Providence was perched high on the causeway bridge next to the road. A sorry looking state but relief to see Gregg on deck doing what he could to secure his vessel.

 

 

 

 

 

We continued the search for Glee south of the causeway past Port De Pleasance, taking in the scale of the destruction and circling round toward the airport back under the bridge, Andy spied Osler, Jaco’s boat, well up on the rocks without its mizzen mast but otherwise looking fairly sound. Andy had been moored near Jaco and we continued round the shore to where he had left her. She wasn’t there but as we moved toward a mast 50 metres away sticking out of the water with a tattered dinghy flying like a flag from it, Andy recognised it as his boat; now sunk in the lagoon. Neither of us showed any emotion for our lost vessels, I felt disconnected and in awe of how different the world had become. Andy lit a cigarette, turned the dinghy north to make our way to Marina Royale, eyes open for a needle in a haystack: Glee in a jumble of beached craft. No joy; of any description. Returning to Shrimpy’s and spying my rucksack had me realise how little I had left. I remember when I was packing thinking “I’ll leave that, I’ll pick it up after…”