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.

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…

Fort Amsterdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pirates of the Caribbean

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“Have you had any scary moment’s out sailing?” I asked Roy at the bar at Lagoonies.
“Every day,” came the reply “But it’s only really a problem if you’re worried about dying.”

If I was looking for reassurance I was getting something else: the realisation that it wasn’t death that should be feared but that of ‘not living’ while you have the chance.

Most of the people here are established sailors and here I am, in at the deep end with a loose plan to take Glee out of the lagoon for a sail and not sink. It’s all too easy to forget about that and sit back in the sun and let life drift by with a book and beer. I feel content but I’m getting lazy. No, not so much lazy, more losing my thirst for adventure.

Adventure lives in uncertainty but so does fear. There is no fear in comfort but comfort can be a slow painless death.

There’s things I need to do to get moving and they have a monetary cost to get done. So much needs doing that it’s hard to draw the line on what’s just ‘good enough’. There is never ever nothing to do on a boat. As the jobs are checked off, more are added. As time goes by, I’m getting more familiar with Glee and can recognise that I don’t need much to sail within sight of land. I’ll be setting off soon with minimum requirements. Engine to go, anchor to stop, Sails to …  well … sail. What could possibly go wrong?

Today, I have a diver scraping the sea-life off the boat and cleaning the propeller so I can actually move through the water. I can hear the pleasant meditative scuba bubbles cascade around the hull as I’m writing. I won’t mention that as he might charge me for them- business has been slow for him lately.

Meanwhile, I’ve met someone who wants some prep for her skippers course that starts next week. I’ve agreed to help in order to add some motivation for myself to get Glee out and about. Mostly, I started to wake in the morning with a feeling of obligation and resistance, although the days have turned out to be rather enjoyable, give me a rewarding sense of contribution and expands my knowledge on sailing. With just a few days to go before the course starts, I’ve come to welcome the structure and will probably miss it when it stops.

Apparently, customs and immigration is a big deal in the boating world these days. This didn’t used to be the case, even in very recent times. I’m yet to register as the new owner with the small ships register. Without a piece of paper with my name on it, it will be difficult going anywhere. I’m confined to St Martin until I concede to the rules of the state. I resent this obligation. And, as usual, there is a fee involved; another form of extortion however minor.

Since being here, I’ve not had to show my ID or prove my paper existence to anyone. Only within the borders of St Martin do I have a sense of freedom. So the reality is that the only freedom we experience exists only in which level of imprisonment we choose. A permit or certificate merely releases us to the next level.

Theoretically, I can sail round the island without checking out at the harbour office but I will still be vulnerable to checks from the coast guard. €300 is a good collar for the Gendarmes – Modern piracy: better than working for a living eh?

Each time we bow to the state as an individual we lose a little bit of power and freedom as a collective. These individual acts gradually reinforce our bonds to a global faceless authority. So do I become a hypocrite to gain access to the sea or do I stick to my principles and risk the consequences? Do I give the bullies my dinner money or do I get beaten up after school? same thing.

Chances are I’ll just pay up for the pleasure of being listed on some database in exchange for an easy life today, as we all do, and then leave it to my children to sort out the Orwellian legacy to which this seemingly harmless act inevitably leads.

Deb’s Rock

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Descending from Glee with a soft thud of my old walking boots breaking the dawn silence on the dinghy hull, I tilt the outboard to get the propeller out of the water, deploy the oars and gently row away toward a clearing by the two tugs moored near Mount Fortune.

The morning is still, with hardly a ripple on the lagoon. There’s no-one else around, I could be the only man on Earth in this moment. The ‘slip, slop’ of the the oars stirring the water’s surface massages my mind for the few minutes it takes to reach the shallows. It’s a temporary relief from the pain of tragic news of the sudden passing of a close friend and lover.

The Sun had not yet risen but was now painting the tops of the cotton-candy clouds a new-born pink. Today is the dawn following the vernal equinox. The Sun had crossed the Equator confirming the end of the long British winter and on it’s way north to dry out my homeland and to turn up the heat in the Caribbean. I had felt happy to have escaped the cold and damp alone, but today I felt like I’d abandoned a treasured friend.

The water here looks about 3 inches deep but the dinghy’s draft is shallow enough to clear the bottom and I reach the cluster of rocks protruding from the shallows. The rocks are unyielding and solidly support my weight to keep my boots dry as I step across to land. The trunk of a nearby shrub offers the perfect mooring point.  It doesn’t cross my mind to use the lock and cable. I leave it unlocked.

If this land is private, I don’t care. We all belong to the land, the land belongs to no-one. Ownership is an illusion created by men and supported only by a collective belief.

I didn’t sleep well last night. Grief, guilt, regret, memories and thoughts of lost opportunities sprout out of the shock of unexpected loss. I think of all the things left unsaid, projects left unfinished and dreams left unfulfilled.

Glee is only about a hundred metres south of me but, even this close, gives the impression to be too small to be a home for anyone. The branches of the shrubs are low but thin and easily brushed aside as I turn to move inland. Within a dozen strides, grassland opens up before me.

This is not Britain; there are no badgers and hedgehogs here so what sort of creatures lurk beneath the undergrowth? I take a stick and sweep the knee high grass as I walk in order to disturb any snakes or whatever might be startled upon my sudden arrival. The vista is not so different from places I’ve been back home and reminds me of our stealth camping adventures around Britain. My throat starts to tighten and squeezes tears up to my eyes over the memories.

I bear left into the woodland. The trees are not as dense as they appear from the water and I easily crouch and duck my way through the woods and over the rise toward the rock at the end of the peninsula. Apart from some discarded boat batteries and beer bottles as I walk along the incline, the place seems unspoiled by civilisation and the land soon levels out to a clearing on a leafy Plateau.

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Through the branches of the trees I can see the boats on the lagoon but I myself am concealed from sight. Deb would have loved hanging out here. It would be places like this on our travels that we’d cook up a meal, read, doze in the hammock and quietly repack the van before moving on. These places were never a destination and we rarely visited the same place twice. Yes, we both would have loved spending some time here. I continue on, for today I have a purpose: to conquer Mount Fortune in the memory of Deb.

I arrive at the foot of the eastern side of the rock and look up, the climb looks too steep and the footholds too far apart so I edge around to the north to find an easier route. The western side beckons me to the summit, not so steep and with plenty of footholds; some steps were a stretch but it was neither difficult or dangerous.

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The sun had cleared the eastern hills and had beaten me to the summit. No matter, standing next to the cellphone mast, looking across to all points of the lagoon. I see the whole of the Dutch side to the south, the Lowlands to the west and, to the north, I make out Fort Louis at Marigot and even the island of Anguilla beyond. The view is spectacular. Below me, a small dinghy carves a white line into the dark blue water.  The livening easterly wind turns the faces of the yachts into the sun in unison, as if to present them for worship at its arrival.

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I wander around the mast taking photographs and eventually settle on a rock. The sun slowly escapes the hills and I take time to indulge my random thoughts.

Call it what you like, this is now ‘Deb’s Rock.’ If I had been the first Westerner here, ‘Deb’s Rock’ would be printed on every chart and map in the world. But this is the 21st century. What’s left to be discovered for us in this world? Wherever we go today, the towels are already on the deckchairs…

Grief comes in waves; in peaks and troughs. But unlike the ocean you can’t see them coming, you can only feel the effect as they pass. Here on the summit, I feel numb inside but I know this won’t last. The brain chatters like a waterfall, the heart surges like an ocean swell in a gale and the stomach knots up like a seasick passenger.

I’d stay here all day but what would be the point? I’d done what I set out to do. I’ve admired the beauty of the world and digested the experience. What’s left is all internal and I can take it with me back to Glee.

My own life is not yet done. Each day is a bonus. A bonus that Deb no longer has. If it were possible, I’d trade some of my time to have her sharing this day with me now; or the last few weeks on Glee; one more chance to get her out of the house that, on one hand, held so many good memories for her and her family, plus sustained her with an income, yet ultimately became a prison for her soul…

But these thoughts are futile. Whatever I would have done differently, it still would never have felt enough in the end. And if our choices happen to lead us to a path of self sacrifice then that’s no good to anyone.

Nevertheless, I feel I’ve somehow missed an opportunity for us both and I can change nothing about it now except change the feeling itself.

I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. (Ho’oponopono: ancient Hawaiian healing prayer)

 

Tip of the day: Live each day like it may be your last because someday you’ll be right.

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In Memory of Debbie Bulman:

2nd July 1961 – 21st March 2016