Angel of the North

angel of the northI’ve been absent from writing for a few months now and getting back into the groove isn’t so easy. My excursion to Newcastle to pay my respects to Debbie Bulman might have had something to do with that. The trip was enlightening in that I unexpectedly felt estranged from the world; neither missed in one part nor welcomed in another. Deb has no physical memorial, her ashes have been scattered on the land and the sea. Her memorial is in the ether, and kicking over the Tynemouth sand lost in thought is as close as I could come to an appropriate prayer.

Retracing faded foot steps from shared adventures led me to what felt like a virtual simulation of a place I remembered. Time had subtly changed the landscape and the characters in only 2 short years. Despite Eileen (Deb’s mother) not wanting to see the yellow van as a reminder of the loss of her daughter, I did get to see Eileen and Deb’s family in the end when she became aware I had parked up a few days here and there, discretely far enough away from the neighbourhood. I may never see Deb’s family again now the link has gone with Deb’s departure. But now, it is done. I’ve said my goodbyes to my Angel of the North and the page turns over and away to a new chapter.

I considered taking a trip up to Scotland from there with no particular plan in mind. But I wasn’t in the mood for it in my own company, and instead headed back down south down the A1 to be close to my own family. I stopped at Newark for some of the calamari that Deb and I used to enjoy. The barman told me that it had been discontinued two menus ago. Two menus, wow! I hadn’t realised I had been gone that long… how long is a menu: months, years?

Exiting Newark on the A46, I received a call that my mother had been taken into hospital.

“Dizzy spells and short of breath. She’s in a ward… something French,” my step father said. It was the EAU (emergency admissions unit).

I was an hour and a half away so I headed directly for Northampton General Hospital. She didn’t know I was coming so it was a nice surprise for her to wake up to my 9pm arrival. 5 days later, she was home with newly fitted stents and improved circulation. But this was another reminder that time takes no prisoners and it’s up to us all to live now in this moment since, at the end of the day, this is all we really have…

Life Without Glee

Breakfast in the fens

Rusty boat, rusty van. It makes no difference. Time passes and life happens wherever you go. So much has happened in the last month that it’s been amazing how much time I’ve fit in feeling lazy and inactive.

Mission number one: to sell the van, is partially complete, well, as it turns out, not to sell it but to share it with a friend and distant relative, which means I can have wheels whenever I’m back in the UK.

Mission two: to pay my respects to dear departed Deb; in progress…

The yellow van got through it’s annual MOT inspection with a little remedial work from my Polish friends in Northampton, Google led me to an affordable insurance plan and the DVLA have continued to take installments for road tax while I’ve been away in the tropics. How do they do that? Time was, proof of insurance and road-worthiness were needed to be eligible to pay road tax but as long as it keeps the red flags down on the government databases I’m happy.

I had already had a week in Northampton and then down to Wiltshire to see friend and author, Jackie Cannon and healer, Gail. Onto Cardiff for an afternoon which turned into two wonderful days and nights with Rob and Cara, a night reconnecting with a neglected cousin, Andrew, in Ebbw Vale, a day with Sue in Gloucester. Back to Wiltshire then to Northampton for dinner with my family before engaging mission number two by heading up to Newcastle upon Tyne.

My good friend Julie said “That will be hard.” I thought nothing of it, but retracing a route Deb and I shared together a couple of years ago has the effect of picking at a scab on an unhealed wound.

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Humber Bridge Country Park, I check my phone as I exit the van. Two missed calls. Eileen, Deb’s mum. I call back as I walk down the trail. She’s been fretting. She’s upset: the thought of seeing me and the yellow van pulling up outside, she expects to see Deb step out of the van too. I’ve never visited alone so this thought had never occurred to me. As I slip the phone back into my pocket, I feel cut off, adrift.

This journey was my way of completion of our relationship: an insignificant punctuation mark at the end of a significant chapter. I had missed the funeral by about 4 months and 6000 miles with the promise that I would visit when I return to the UK.

Here in the woods on the north bank of the Humber, I walk toward the shore between the shade and dappled sun light dancing on the trail in time with the leaves above. Deb would have loved this. It was because of her I was here on my own now. We had been here before but never further than the car park on an overcast day, browsing the leaflets in the visitor centre.

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I order a beer at the Country Park Inn on the bank of the river. Despite my empathy with Eileen, I feel agitated. I don’t realise how much until I telephone my friend, Jackie and try to speak. I retreat to a quiet corner table bathed in the late afternoon sun next to a large window facing the river. I’m choked, my throat is tight and tears start to rise. Why now after so long? The tears release the tension and I become able to talk, so I let them lubricate the conversation. Anyway, no-one else seems to notice…

The phone call ends as do the tears and I feel calm: purged. What now, turn back? I don’t need to be anywhere in particular. Return where. I am baseless, a nomad. I order another beer and look over the river at the ant like traffic crawling across the pencil line of the bridge against the sky. I remind myself, “Am I not free, do I not have all the time in the world?”

Humber Bridge

This pilgrimage is becoming obscured by the fog of uncertainty. I’ll continue north along the east coast up to Newcastle. I don’t necessarily have to visit anyone. I don’t have to be there by Wednesday but I still do need a purpose. For now, being there is enough of a goal to aim for. I will find completion in its own time, maybe not in a certain place on a certain day but perhaps in how I now express my experience of life in the lessons learned on my past adventures with Deb. Completion: part feeling, part decision.

The distance between Northampton and Newcastle is just over two hundred miles and can be made in four hours. I am currently on Day 4 and I’m half way there, exploring the east coast as I go. The weather is fine with warm sunshine and cool calm nights. The sea reminds me of Glee on her mooring in St Martin. How would she fair, weaving around the offshore wind-farms of the British coast? Surprisingly, I don’t miss Glee, or St Martin. I’m conscious that, wherever I am, this is the same adventure – only with different scenery… perfectly playing out as it always does… all I have to do is to relax into it.

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.

Playa Azul

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.

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“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.

Tension

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The computer screen flashed white and then slowly unrolled the search results over Glee’s tardy 4G connection.

Urushiol! Not a word I recognised as I scrolled down the screen but I recognised the trademark poison ivy blisters from working in East Texas back in the eighties. Of course, back then, information was harder to come by in those pre internet days.

Urushiol (Yoo-Roo-shi-ol) from poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac. Wash it off within a few hours of contact and you won’t have a problem. The trouble was I had been marinating in it over night. It was after dark by the time I got back to Glee. Too late for a plunge in the sea and a rinse with the camping shower after the trek to St Peter’s and I went straight to bed: sweat, dust and urushiol.  By the time you see blisters forming, it’s too late. There follows two to three weeks of contact dermatitis until the weeping serum dries up and the skin grows back underneath.

To be fair, it could have been worse. My legs were fine and I only had blisters on my right wrist, elbow and between the fingers.

‘Leaf-lets three, leave it be,’ the web page poetically informs on poison ivy plant recognition.  No, I didn’t remember seeing anything like this on the trail. I was focussed on getting home before dark… and I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

It’s the end of the season here in St Maarten and the cruisers are evacuating north east and south for the hurricane season. I should be on the crossing on Cattitude any day now and I was busy taking down the sails and preparing Glee for the Summer secured in the lagoon. Taking down the mainsail would mean it would be in the way while I was living aboard so I dropped the skipper an email to get a date of departure…

The plans had changed. I was dropped from the crew at the last minute, along with another crew member. Disappointing, since we both had opportunities on other craft that we declined due to our commitment to this one. There would be no crossing for me this summer. However, now I’m not doing that, time is freed up for doing something else…

My return portion of my original flight between London and Houston is for 12th July, so now I’ll be flying to Houston on the 5th July and spend some time with my dad and catch up with old friends. There is some ‘tension’ within the family which means I am unable to stay at my dad’s apartment.

Meanwhile, there have been no more hikes or adventures while the poison ivy rashes have been healing. Instead, I’ve been working on a few online projects with mixed results. Earning an income online is harder than  these internet marketing guys lead you to believe. Not in the tasks involved but maintaining the interest in keeping it going.

Additionally, finding something enjoyable that pays is near impossible so I’ve settled on something that doesn’t pay in money but pays in personal satisfaction: blogging. At least the only investment is in time itself and keeps me inspired, mostly. All I need to do is do a little bit every day for a long enough time and the path will reveal itself. Instant gratification has always intervened to sabotage that plan but this time the primary focus is not on income, it’s on feeling good – a far better fuel for long term engagement.

One of the best things that has ever happened to me is getting out of employment and getting used to not knowing where the money is coming from and to relish the feelings of uncertainty. Adventures automatically present themselves and life becomes a game instead of a treadmill.

There is only one rule to this game and that is ‘to feel good.’ This has been the most unexpected revelation over recent years; from moving out of my flat to living in a van, living on the canals and finally aboard Glee. I have felt better in all those situations than in any of those ‘secure’ times that a regular income and mortgage allegedly provided.

Who knows what will happen in Houston? I may well end up living in a hire car for the week but whatever happens I will feel good because my thoughts are no longer ruled by circumstance, they are actively chosen – and wherever there is uncertainty, adventure calls.

Ups and Downs

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The ridge along to Sentry Hill was no less beautiful for treading the trail for a second time. The intention was to set off early but it was now 2pm: a result of being easily distracted doing ‘stuff’ on Glee. The breeze was refreshing and the scudding cumulus tamed the suns radiant heat.

St Peter’s Hill is due east of Glee and a mile away by line of sight but I opted for picking up the Sentry Hill trail two miles south east. Sentry Hill peak is an ideal rest point with plenty of tree shaded rocks to recline upon. The walking stick I picked up at the start of the trail made a great time and energy saver up and down the rocky slopes and I was soon at the Summit of Sentry Hill.

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I peeled off my t shirt and hung it on the branch of a tree for casting my perspiration out of the fabric and into the wind and as a symbolic flag of victory for a successful ascent. From this point forward, it would be uncharted territory for me.

From northward to St Peter’s, I could hear voices and see plumes of smoke from somewhere below me. Other people were on the trail but they didn’t appear to be either advancing or retreating. Even though we couldn’t see each other, my feeling of peace and solitude had been tainted.

Taking a deep slug of water and donning my dried out, salty t shirt, I resumed the path down the steep rugged path. The voices were from a trio of local labourers building a concrete staircase up the north face of Sentry Hill, and I eased down the rubble slope to the side of the wet cement. This side of Sentry Hill is steep and uneven. These men were heaving bags of cement and gallons of water up the side of the hill, putting my intrepid effort to shame.

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Putting a staircase up the side of a wild hill seems a bit sacrilegious and takes away a little of my own feeling of adventure but I stumble and slide on down with my stick like a novice skier trying to remain upright and waded into the forest at the bottom as the ground levelled out.

This stretch of the trail was more rugged and less beautiful than the southern part but pretty soon I arrived at St Peter’s Radio Station. From the lagoon, the station looks like a golf ball teed up on a mound (I just poked my head through Glee’s hatch to get that description.) Close up, the station is a fairly big and ramshackle cubed building festooned with antennas and buzzing air-conditioners, topped with a dome. I wasn’t here for that, I was here for the view and the razor wire protected station with the trees around the summit conspired to obstruct it. The wire fence had a concrete base that protruded a few inches and I was able to shuffle around between the shrubbery and the fence to the western side by clinging onto the chain-link fence and stepping along the narrow concrete base.

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There’s a nettle in Sint Maarten that doesn’t let itself known instantly but the sting creeps up over a matter of twenty or thirty seconds. Walking made it difficult to identify the culprit but sitting on a rock for half an hour with a small hairy leafed plant sprouting near and brushing my ankles gave me the perfect opportunity to identify the culprit.

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The sun was now over half way down the western sky. I had a couple of hours before dusk. I had a choice, do I take the service road down to St Peter’s and get a taxi or retrace the trail to either find a shortcut or get to One Way Road before dark? I knew the trail wasn’t too bad some way south of Sentry Hill so I returned back down the path on the look out for opportunities for escape down either side of the ridge.

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There’s a peak between St Peter’s and Sentry Hill that isn’t named on the maps I’ve looked at. Just a few metres south, there was a trail going west, straight down the slope to Cole Bay, right in line with where I’d moored the dinghy. The trail was about 4 feet wide and freshly cut with disused telegraph poles and fallen lines marking the centre. About a hundred metres, the freshly cut trail turned ninety degrees to the north back to St Peter’s Hill and the telegraph trail continued west, not so fresh but easily passable. West was in line with my destination so I continued down the steepening slope causing mini avalanches with the loose rocks between telegraph poles.

As the slope got steeper, the vegetation got thicker and the sun got lower. The thorny shrubs started snagging my skin and clothes as I inched down the slope. Cole bay looked less than a third of a mile away but I was only making about ten feet a minute as I fought to untangle myself from the undergrowth. The sun was already on the horizon and it was getting dark in the woods quickly now and I stopped to think. It was too steep to go back up the hill and fight the thorny bushes at the same time. I had to continue… I started to imagine spending the night in the woods. It wouldn’t be pleasant and the night would be long. There would be nothing to do apart from continuing in the dark. I continued on muttering “inch by inch, step by step.” A few places became so thick with thorns that I had to deviate from the half buried telegraph wires and hope that I could retrace them a bit further down the hill.

As the sun dipped behind the horizon the shrubs began to thin, the thorns slowly receded, the slope began to shallow and I made better headway. I emerged into a clearing in the woods that was cultivated as a secret garden. The trail became more clear as I re-entered the woods opposite and then I was threw a hedge and out onto Archimedes Road in the twilight, happy with the certainty that I was going to be enjoying a hot meal, cold beer and soft bed for the night.

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It was jam night at Lagoonies and I quickly made my way through the din to the dinghy to find a quieter refuge for refreshment across the lagoon.

Li Far East is a combination restaurant and bar that caters for local professionals, professional drinkers, waifs, strays, sanctuary seekers and tired hikers. It’s friendly, functional, doesn’t bother too much about appearances and – best of all – cheap. Wiping the dried blood from the cuts on my arms and legs passed the time before the food arrived. Plain food never tasted so good.

Such is the effect of the feeling of adventure. Things that are taken for granted have renewed value. Appreciation emerges for the familiar things in life.

Happiness is a product of gratitude. Gratitude emerges out of adventure, Adventure lives in uncertainty. Therefore, being happy requires venturing out of comfort, taking risks and embracing uncertainty… or you could just go for a walk.

The Mighty Quinn

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Saturday afternoon slowly melted into Saturday night at Little Jerusalem as I enjoyed another few beatings at our chess gathering. There were three of us today. The start of the hurricane season drains the cruisers away and I am left outclassed by the remaining enthusiasts. However, the benefit from playing against better players means I get to improve so much faster.

My improvement is noticeable; I get to lose with more dignity and style than when I first started. The season would soon be over and I could possibly upgrade my game ready for the next one. More likely, I will forget about it and resume at a lower level next season.

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I ferried Mike back to Quinn since he had got a ride in with Gordon who was out in Marigot Bay. I accepted the invitation for a cup of tea. I had drunk too much Presidente and not eaten enough food so was feeling a bit light headed with a hint of nausea but it was pleasant sitting out on the lagoon just chatting.

“You’re not really into sailing are you?” says Mike. That came as a bit of a shock and my old reactions to criticism came to the surface and started to feel justification come up.

He had a point. I’ve been here three months and not left the mooring. It’s not something I’d thought about apart from there is no rush and that Glee needs so much work. I had a lot of defensive comments surfacing but none of them were justified. “What are you going to do?” asked Mike. I was stuck for an answer and floundered for something plausible. It was a good question but it wasn’t all about me. Mike gave accounts of his vast experience and still claims he knows “damn shit” about anything. I guess he was giving me encouragement by easing any fear I might have about single handing for the first time but I was still defensively dredging for my own excuse in order to let me off the hook in the conversation. I felt exposed and didn’t like that feeling.

Nothing had been resolved by the time I climbed back in the Dinghy to return to Glee.

I ran through our little psychotherapy session in my bunk while going to sleep. Maybe I would take Glee out before I leave for the UK was pretty much the thought I’d settled on before drifting off into a lager and tea assisted sleep.

The next morning I awoke with sailing on my mind and all the preparation that was involved. I needed a good tidy up and to remove the awning, and to resign myself that I would be without navigation instruments. That should be OK within sight of the island. Time was an issue  because I was due to join Cattitude in a few days and I needed to secure Glee for the hurricane season. I was over-thinking again…

Greg, on Providence, had told me a few weeks before that too much use of computers and the internet affect our brains: we become fragmented, distracted and we lose our focus. Thinking about it, he seems to be right. This was what was happening to me. His comment helped resume my morning meditations, a version of running a disk clean and defrag on myself. Cutting down online time would help but that will happen anyway when the Atlantic crossing commences.

After a twenty minute meditation I received a sobering revelation; something I had learned in the past couple of weeks but had forgotten. “The only purpose in life is to feel good.”

Do I feel good? Yes, at least until last night’s conversation.
Do I need to go for a sail? No, everything I want right now is right here.
What would the others think if I never took Glee out? Who cares, all the matters is that I feel good.
Will I ever sail with Glee? Dunno, probably – in my own time.

I had been beginning to get drawn into old thinking habits that maybe I would feel like failure and I wouldn’t look good if I didn’t take Glee out before I leave on Cattitude. It doesn’t matter, I feel good right now and that’s all that matters. It’s possible that I may not sail at all but I doubt it, and it doesn’t matter. I just do what keeps me feeling good: reading, hiking in the hills, being in touch with my friends. Whatever my relationship with Glee, nothing is lacking. I’m doing the same things here now as when I was best happy on the canals back in the UK but with better weather, worse beer and different scenery. The next chapter in my life does not depend on whether or not Glee leaves the mooring. It’s about, how I feel and the actions that spawn out of that.

How did I feel now? Where there had been a feeling of pressure to take down the awning and tidy up ready for sailing, there was nothing but an easy contentment and I happily set about those tasks without intending to sail but because it felt good to just do it for its own sake without any other justification.

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The next chapter in life will be written in its own time. Pushing the pen faster only increases the resistance and detracts from the flow.

Gripping the brush harder spoils the painting. Our lives are our art and we are both its creator and observer.

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Create your life for yourself, not for others; they have their own life to deal with and dealing with one life at a time is enough for anybody…

Opportunity Knocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, next!

One Thing Leads To Another

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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