Skyran

“Are you here for the poker?” I ask a surfing looking dude sitting back in a chair at Shrimpy’s laundry.
“No I’m here for my laundry.” says John, a long blonde haired single hander from Orkney. We exchange our stories and I tell him about Glee until the poker game is ready to start and he asks if I’d like a trip down the islands on his catamaran. “Why not,” I reply

The next day $20 out of pocket for the stake at the poker game, I’m bounding along the rolling swell of Marigot bay in the bow of John’s dinghy bouncing up and down on top of the sack of newly purchased provisions, bursting open the crisps an peanuts within. We motor round from Marigot to Simpson Bay to get an early jump on the sail to Nevis the next morning. We real out the line and lure along the way and pretty soon a lively fish is jumping and bucking on the line and we catch a spanish mackeral. I watched the fish with some remorse as it shook and shuddered in the bucket while it suffocated to death. I couldn’t bring myself to kill it so I turned my thoughts to other things.

Simpson Bay anchorage was still stacked out for the Heineken Regatta but we settled on the edge of the channel to the lagoon. Filleting the fish was straight forward and made for a delicious tuna type salad.

Up at the crack of dawn we head South East toward Nevis. The forecast was for 25 knot winds east south east, which meant sailing close to the wind. A catamaran typically cannot sail closer than 60 degrees into the wind.

Weighing anchor, we head out into the pre-dawn twilight. Reeling out the fishing line as the sun rose over Atlantic, we catch one barracuda within about half an hour, Clipping the harness onto the stern rail of the bucking and rolling Skyran, hauling the line in and hooking the gills to retrieve the hook from the needle sharp jaws returning it to the sea, then another returning it to the sea again and later a a third that we throw in the bucket.  10 hours of gale force buffeting by sea and wind, we arrived at Charlestown ferry dock settling down to meaty, bony barracuda curry.

Skyran, catamaran heading south from St Martin to Nevis a while back.

Posted by Paul Shepherd on Monday, April 24, 2017

Barracuda is a robust fish which has to be treated with caution as it feeds on fish that graze reefs of a poisonous algae. Ciguatera poisoning can be a real problem. It’s caused by eating fish that have eaten fish that have eaten fish that have eaten this toxic green algae. The toxicity accumulates up the food chain until it reaches the top. Large barracuda are one of the worst as they are a top reef predator. Blue water fish are not so much of a problem as they eat less of the algae eating reef fish that start the chain. If we were to eat the barracuda we had to assess the risks. We were far enough in blue water that this specimen’s diet was light on reef grazing fish and it was small (young) enough to have little accumulation. Additionally, we were at the lower borders of danger. South of Antigua is considered to have less of the particular algae on the reefs and we weren’t that far above that latitude.

We were the only catamaran anchored near the ferry dock. A mile north we could see the masts of the yachts in the mooring field. Checking in revealed that there was a mandatory mooring charge whether you used a buoy or not. There is more than one type of pirate of the Caribbean. there are the outlaws roaming the sea but far more prevalent are the uniformed rule makers of each ‘authority’ on the islands.

The Long Road To Sint Maarten

Stansted: My flight was from Luton but a sanctuary for the Yellow Van had been discovered by Neil, not far from Stansted airport in Essex. I gladly accepted the invitation to travel the day before and spend the night with Neil and Ginger Baker. Neil is an engineer and Ginger doesn’t mind tools in the kitchen and the vice clamped to the kitchen worktop. Neil is the master of the house. Ginger is a cat; Ginger doesn’t mind about much at all.

Gibraltar: I was on the wrong side of the plane to get the view as it rounded the rock on the approach to Gibraltar Airport. 7pm and dark with a cool breeze. Claes picked up my laptop bag as we walked to Joshua moored just over the Spanish border at La Linea. The loose plan was to sail and pick up tips with Claes’ business: Picture Perfect Adventure Sailing. I was happy to go with the flow, so we hung out like old friends even though we had only met a couple of times in Sint Maarten less than a year ago. I had no sleeping bag due to opting for only cabin bag travel. so sleeping in clothes with 2 blankets was the new model of rest in the unusually cool Andalusian nights.

Tarifa: Returning from a day sail in Gibraltar Bay, I saw Dunstan waiting on the pontoon near Joshua. He dropped by and invited us to Tarifa. I was planning on seeing him anyway so this was convenient. Tarifa marks the meeting of the Mediterranean and Atlantic and is always windy – except for the 2 days I was there. Frustrated Kite Surfers flew their kites on the beach hoping for a little more power to take them onto the water. From the battlements of Castillo Guzman de Bueno, you can see the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the buildings on the shore, appearing closer than they actually are, the straits busy with commercial shipping.

The Rock: The Cold wind blows from the north east. There is snow in Estepona just up the coast. I had packed for Sint Maarten so had the bare minimum with me to keep me warm. I set off toward the John Mackintosh Library in Gibraltar and stopped at the Lord Nelson for breakfast, warmth and WiFi. On the way to the library, I noticed steps going up castle street toward the Moorish Castle. My boots like hills so I turned left up hill surfacing out of the shade of the Main Street shops.

Bathed in the warm afternoon sun and sheltered from the north easterly breeze, I wandered up the winding tracks to the cable car station. The nimble footed and light-fingered macaques were at work on the terrace, mugging tourists and tormenting the cafe owners by letting themselves in. I paused to take some pictures and rest my shoulder from the weight of the laptop bag. But now it was all downhill from here. Continuing south along the ridge I came to the Charles the V Wall. A narrow high wall with staircase along the top leading down the Western face of the rock, castellated on the south side but only a thin steel rail on the north. Tall and narrow, it looked like a tightrope walk to me. Douglas lookout was closed for renovation and I continued to O’Hara’s Battery. It was closed since it was after 5pm but this was where the top of the Mediterranean steps emerged from the eastern face of the rock.

At this time of day, the Mediterranean steps are in the shade. The steps looked like they could be steep and exposed to sheer faces but it wasn’t clear looking down from the top as it wove it’s way through the shrubs. Each side of me along the ridge I could see sheer cliffs wondering how steep it could get. I’d go down and have a look and turn back if need be and if I had any energy left.

The Mediterranean Steps are one of the most beautiful walks I have been on; steep in places and level at others as it undulates down and along the rock face. Abandoned gun placements make interesting wild-camping spots for future reference. Sealed up cave entrances guarded the secrets of the Gibraltar Tunnels. Rounding Europa Point into the hazy orange sunset

Malaga: The highway from La Linea to Malaga follows the coast of the Mediterranean in sweeping undulating bends that looked fun for motorcycle or car. I was a passenger, grateful for the lift to the Malaga Airport. I had checked in online and needed to drop no bags so I was straight through to the gate just as it was opening for boarding. 2 hours later I was at Paris Charles De Gaulle.

Paris: There was still ice on the puddles next to the taxiway. I headed for connecting flights and was accosted by a man in a black with an ID lanyard.

  • “Do you have a connecting flight?”
  • “Yes”
  • “Do you need to collect your luggage?”
  • “No.”
  • “Where are your flight details?”
  • “Here.”
  • “No, you still have to go through immigration.”
  • “Then I have to go through security again?”
  • “Yes.”

My flight was for tomorrow and I was hoping to spend the night at the gates since the seating is generally more comfortable. Finding a secluded alcove to myself, I settled down for the night lulled by reassuring announcements that my baggage would be destroyed if I didn’t have it with me. I was next to full height window panes as that whole side of the airport appeared to be, and the cold of the night brought a convection current down across my legs. I dressed in my waterproofs I had brought with me for sailing to add another layer of insulation and slept as best I could.
I was the only one in security as it opened so straight through to the gates with 6 hours to spare.

the flight was full and I was the last one on. An old French couple were next to my window seat. the woman got up to let me through to the window seat but the man remained just looking at me until several requests gradually raising in pitch by his wife. Settling down, I noticed the man’s torso filled the space of his seat which meant that his arm was over the rest to my side. I tried to wedge my head into the window porthole to catch up on some sleep over the 9 hours that I’d be in the air. this was pretty comfortable until the times my head slid forward past the ledge and catching myself before impact on the retractable tray and a sly glance at my neighbour to check whether I should feel embarassed or not.

St Maarten: On the approach to land I was reminded how beautiful the island was. the Sea was as blue as the sky, and both seemed to merge into a pale stripe hiding the line of the horizon and the 27C sunshine was a welcome break from the onset of the long British winter.

Glee was pretty much as I left her – only a little rustier and tidier due to the kindness of the people looking out for her. After a couple of beers and a quick catch-up at Li Far East. Johan gave me a ride out to Glee, as my dinghy had been decommissioned on the Glee’s bow.

There were no sign of any cockroaches so the dumping of food stores and baiting of the food spaces did the trick to eradicate them while I was away. But the main thing was that I was home.

 

Wherever You Go.

IMG_20161104_154250The A420 down to Devizes. The afternoon light was slowly fading into an early autumnal dusk. Road signs lit up in the lights of the cars ahead but not for me at the tail of the automotive snake winding its way through the grey-green Oxfordshire countryside.

The bulbs burned a warm sepia glow in the dials but there was no evidence of headlights in the fading daylight, and I definitely had no full beam. I wouldn’t make Devizes before dark. Plan B was to make Swindon and continue in the morning. The slate grey clouds weren’t helping and it was pretty much dark when I peeled off the main road through the trees lining the road into Swindon and crunched the gravel into the drizzle soaked car park of ‘The Spotted Cow.’ Soup, warmth, WiFi for the evening followed by tucking up under the quilt with an episode of Game of Thrones.

The journey from now on would be day light only and the hours of light were being squeezed by the oncoming winter nights. Leaves dripping percussive rain drops onto the fibreglass roof over my head drummed me to sleep.

Devizes, a late October chill in the damp morning air. It gets harder to emerge from the Yellow Van when Winter is coming.

A fine, rainless morning for helping move Narrowboat Lechuga to new moorings near Bath. The air barely warms to the pale sun just clearing the near-naked hedgerows as I walk the towpath to meet Luchuga an her way from Caen Hill. The canal is low and exposes the muddy bottom like an ebb tide on a shallow estuary. The next stretch is almost full and I see Lechuga emerging out of the top lock at Seend. The lock paddles are left open to top up the empty pounds below and we follow the flow to the bottom of the flight.

By early afternoon, we reached Bradford lock where we stopped for lunch and phoned ahead with an ETA.. News was that the new moorings aren’t ready for another month or so. The owners were leaving the UK the following day… Solution? Lechuga would be my ward and home for a month or so. I love win-wins like this: home on the water for me and security for Lechuga.

C-SIC2 was its name. An orange lifeboat moored up at the service point at Bradford on Avon. Inside, I spotted Jess with her blond dreadlocks, we had worked together a couple of years ago at Bristol Veg Boxes. She had a flat battery and was blocking access to the water point, to the annoyance of the other canal users. Grabbing my tools from the van, I do what I can to extract the battery from its undersized cavity, take it over the bridge to Bradford Wharf for a boost on the mains.

The inside of the lifeboat is cozy and private. Lit by daylight from two hatches in the roof, with the door closed, no-one can see in. The space inside is the size of a small lounge with double bed traversing the space at the bow. We humans are creative creatures, we can make anything into a cozy home.

I settle down for some vegetable stew and red wine while we wait for the battery to take its charge. I could be just as happy in this lifeboat on this canal as a sail-boat in the Caribbean.

Wherever you go, there you are…

 

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.

Sotos

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

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

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

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

billboard

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.

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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.