Transcending Borders

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The Traffic was slow enough that the silver SUV could collect me without pulling over. This was my first time on wheels on St Maarten, or even away from the shores of the lagoon. Looking at the size of the island on a map, you would think you could hop on a bike and cycle round it fairly effortlessly.  The roads are more like a roller coaster around the volcanic hills and, with so much traffic, I wouldn’t want to risk it on these steep, twisty and narrow concrete ribbons.

The change from concrete slabs to European Union characteristic tarmac signalled crossing the border from Dutch to French territory, as we headed inland. The vacant border monument seems purely symbolic.  Two nations controlling a tiny 37 square mile island… How many governments are needed in one place? In practice, we can cross borders at will.

We were late arriving at Quarter D’Orleans but there was plenty of time to explore the possibilities for the future between Lowlands Community Garden and Eco Vie. It was a pretty short meeting but long enough to see our commonalities and to for introductions.

One of our group invited us back to her home in Orient Bay. From the terrace looking Northeast over the palm tops to the Atlantic, a memory returned, this was a scene of a tropical dream I had carried for almost a lifetime. It was just like this: a table and chairs, a roof with open sides; perfect. And somewhere in the direction of my gaze my friends and family were sheltering from the cold, British rain.  It hardly seems like the same world.

During dinner and wine to lay on top of my Little Jerusalem shawarma from earlier on, I realised that none of us shared the same nationality but we all shared something that transcends borders. I can’t explain it  yet but being here in this place, with these people just felt easy.

If there is a secret to life it’s trading the familiar for uncertainty. As tempting as it had been for me to make an excuse to stay on Glee because I wouldn’t be able to row back against the wind. I would have missed this particular experience forever.

Taking the northern route back to Simpson Bay meant that I had completed a lap of the island. It was past 11pm by the time I was dropped at Palapa Marina and I was now standing looking down at my dinghy with the stale pop tunes blasting out of the neighbouring ‘Soggy Dollar Bar’ to a handful of souls that looked either bored, drunk or tired of their search for meaning.

The wind was still keenly out of the Northeast, I couldn’t stay here, it was warm enough outside but too noisy and too busy, The plan? The night was young, let’s get some exercise and row out into the wind and if it became too exhausting then change course for Cole Bay and either stay or hitch a ride from Lagoonies Bar.

Once you start rowing against the wind, a 10 second pause will undo 20 seconds of rowing. I fixed my light and set off for a marathon Gym session on the inflatable rower. I could see by the position of the masts of the boats in the anchorage that I was making headway be it slowly and I was settling into a rhythm against the short choppy waves when I saw another dinghy deviating out of the channel and heading my way. He was a young guy running a charter boat on the French side on his way back to his vessel, and offering a tow back to Glee. He’d seen my light and came out of his way to see if it was anyone in distress. As it turned out, it was me, no more distressed than normal but very grateful for the tow.

I was back to Glee earlier than I expected. I had needed nothing from by bag. What looked like a mini adventure from the outset turned out to be an evening that could hardly have been planned better; all down to perspective… If I wasn’t so full, I would have enjoyed a beer on the deck to complete the experience before turning in but that’s OK, the wind rocking me to sleep was good enough.

The Trip To Jerusalem

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Today is Wednesday, the 4th day of being without a functioning outboard motor. This means getting to shore has been a bit of a problem. Well, not so much getting ashore but getting back to Glee since the wind has shifted toward the North and Simpson Bay is to the South. It’s been blowing 10 to 20 knots for the last few days.

After breakfast, last Sunday at Vesna Taverna with Mike of “Quinn” and Mason of “Out of Africa” followed by restocking my supplies at the local mini-mart, my motor stalled about 40 metres out of Palapa marina in front of the mega-yachts, toward which the usual Easterly breeze was blowing me. It’s maybe 3/4 of a mile to Glee so out came the oars for a leisurely Sunday morning row and an opportunity to bask in the sun. It probably took me about 10 minutes to get a quarter of the distance before the folks from “Fawkes” offered me a tow for the rest of the way.

It’s one of the striking things about the boaters here that there’s always someone offering a hand to anyone who looks like they need a bit of assistance.

After a cooling dip off the side of Glee and a quick rejuvenating siesta I had a look under the cover of the outboard. It’s not much different to a lawnmower really. A 2 cylinder 2 stroke 9.8hp thing, which brought back memories of my first motorcycles back in the days when it was legal for school kids to buy a 250cc 90mph machine without having to pass a driving test for tempering our foolhardiness. Those were the days, for those of us that survived, anyway.

I found the carburettor drain screw and emptied the bowl. A couple of pulls of the starter cord and the motor fired up.

The good thing about breaking down so soon the next day was that it wasn’t too far to row back to glee, maybe 30 metres. Well, I had food on board; no problems for changing my plans and spending the day on Glee although it’s difficult to chill out with the main means of contact with land being out of action. Stripping down the carburettor revealed sediment and water in the carb bowl, fuel lines and tank. About an hour had the carburettor jets looking clean and pristine; flushing the lines cleared the rusty looking water and decanting the tank cleared the rest.

Not bad for an hour or two… for extending the range of the motor to 50 metres. I couldn’t understand it, the fuel system looked perfect. Brought back memories of all the times I fondly pushed my motorcycle home. Never liked 2 strokes.

The evening brought the stiff prickly sensation announcing the arrival of sunburn. Spending the afternoon, lying on the stern of the dinghy removing, disassembling, cleaning, reassembling, testing and repeating the process several times took time. Even though I was in Gee’s shade the suns rays were finding my pale English hide. It wasn’t too bad, it only hurt if I moved and it felt like I was sleeping on toast crumbs.

Tuesday I had a date with the people at Lowlands Community Garden and I needed to get to Simson bay to catch my ride. Although I was still in possession of a powerless dinghy with an immaculate looking carburettor, I wasn’t going to miss this. I’d been looking forward to it. A chance to get on land and in touch with the island.

Not knowing how to return to Glee would have been enough for me to back out in the past but that’s not been me for a while now. These things are the ingredients for mini adventures.

Here was the plan: the wind was from the North East pointing the stern of glee slightly up the shore from the dinghy dock at Palapa Marina, where I wanted to land. Glee is moored on a bow line so the stern always point downwind. The motor would get me about 50 meters before cutting out so I packed the basics for an overnight jaunt along with some tools and headed South West through the anchorage. By the time the motor died I was pretty much directly upwind from where I wanted to be and a leisurely 20 minute row with a cooling 5 minute rain shower saw me in on shore in Simpson Bay looking at the vegetarian options on the menu of Little Jerusalem, Lebanese cafe consisting of what looks to be a transport container and a covered veranda across the road from Palapa.

“Sit down, young man, and I bring you something berry good.”  That’s service for you, I didn’t even have to choose anything. A bottle of Presidente to wet my whistle before a giant shawarma was carried out in a white paper bag nestling on a disposable plate, reminiscent of a nurse bringing out a new born baby to meet its father for the very first time.

This thing is a kind of kebab of assorted mammals and fowl. Flexitarian – someone with the intent of a vegetarian, but hungry enough to eat any stray critter given the level of hunger. It was actually pretty tasty and very filling -too filling; the baby had returned to the womb.

I was out in time for my ride to the meeting between Lowlands Community Garden and Eco Vie, another community project on the other side of the island. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get back to Glee since the wind was, if anything, getting stronger. But I had a full belly and an overnight bag and this small island was my oyster…

The Matrix

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It’s Heineken regatta week here in Sint Maarten. Yachts from around the world congregate to race around the island in the day and party and rub shoulders with the sailing elite in the evening. Me? I’ll be hunkered down in Glee ignoring it as much as possible in my quiet corner of the lagoon imagining my own impending future. I guess my reasons for sailing a different from the mainstream; to live as free as possible from bureaucratic interference.

I’ve been here 2 weeks and 2 days now but it feels like I’ve been here at least three times that. I know my way around the Lagoon area  pretty well now and have got to know a few local liveaboarders. Glee is already kitted out as a liveaboard and, if I was happy with that, then all would be well as it stands. Adventure calls so some work needs to be done. For Glee, I’ve started on my Project Matrix: a handy tool for getting things done in Don Casey’s book “This Old Boat.” You can use this to prioritise almost any project so take note:

The Matrix

  • Get a large sheet of paper and split it into 3 columns and 3 rows.
  • Label the columns from left to right: 1, Immediate. 2, Less Urgent . 3, Someday.
  • Label the Rows from top to bottom: A, Structure. B, Feature. C, Finish.

You should end up with a matrix of 9 squares. The order of execution goes from A1 as items to be done first followed by B1 and C1, then up to A2, B2 etc. ending in C3. From this, you can see what jobs are out of order. It makes no sense for redesigning Galley to follow replace counter-tops. Most importantly for me, it chops up the work into small prioritised chunks so the overwhelm of thinking of everything at once doesn’t stop me from taking action altogether, and I get a real sense of progress by checking off each task. So as soon as A1 and B1 are complete, I can head out of the lagoon and continue as I go.

Sure it took a few days to get the pencil and paper out but what’s the rush? I’m still living on a boat in the Caribbean and that’s not too bad. I get the impression that the slower I go, the less money I spend and I get this dilemma between living rent free in the lagoon and funding cruising further afield.  Everything has a cost: tools and equipment for getting ship shape, check in fees at other islands, wear and tear, repairs, commerce geared up for the wealthy yacht set…

The other night I was talking to an Irish skipper over too many Irish coffees on his Catamaran and he said “Don’t get stuck in the lagoon refitting your boat. Get out there over to Anguilla and around the Islands while you do it. My brother and I took our first boat from Plymouth to Southern Ireland and we hadn’t sailed before…”  although he had been out in fishing boats. I take heart from those that have had less experience than me and think, “Well, if they can do it, so can I…” The other trick is to turn a deaf ear to the criticisers in the bars. “Take what you like but leave the rest” as they say…

It’s just too easy to sit back in the tropical scenery and let life drift away; no different to being in a ‘comfortable’ job back home. We can easily get sedated by comfort and we are not meant to find comfort as a destination, we are meant to grow.

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Last year I had severely decluttered and moved out of my flat and into my van. For the cold, damp, British winter, the plan was to hop  over Texas visit my Dad and return in the Spring to take the van down to Portugal before the next Winter and maybe help with some organic farming along the way. I’d expect some travel costs but not as much as for updating a yacht. I get the sense that my downsizing and economising has regressed from that path, so there is a real temptation now to just sit back in the sun on deck with a book and a beer, rather than trekking around Ace Hardware for wire brushes, electric cable, cordless drills and rust preventer at island prices.

Sure, the van to Portugal was the easier and cheaper option but Glee seems far more adventurous despite the work that needs doing. It’s like I outgrew my shoes faster than expected, and it’s time to take bigger steps.

Anyway, time for a beer before the sun goes down and the crickets start singing over on the shore…

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Cheers!

Table For One…

LA Main A La Pate

A boat is never finished. As you complete one item a another one or two crop up while you’ve been busy. It’s a way of life that you have to come to terms with; deal with the priorities.

The head (toilet) didn’t flush water through so I dismantle the pump and removed the pipes, Finally, expecting a surge of water, I opened the sea cock: nothing. I should have got a miniature fountain as the sea tries to reclaim its space invaded by Glee’s hull.

Into the water and under the hull I go. It’s like a lawn under there; sea life colonising Glee’s underside. I can’t see anything clearly without goggles but if I stretch my arm under and feel for the inlet then my face remains above water. After finding the sewage outlet, I can locate the water inlet as a faint depression. Poking at it with a screwdriver clears it. I now have a flushing head. My body starts to itch on the side that made contact with the hull and a red rash appears. Whatever microscopic sea-creatures live down there, they are not friendly. Bicarbonate of soda relieved the itching and I was pleased that one task was done.

Next was the throttle lever, which refused to move. A blast of WD40 and a wiggle not only cured the seizure but also evicted a family of cockroaches from the housing. Cockroaches keep making surprise appearances and their ‘re-housing’ has made the task list. If there was a recipe for them, they could probably sustain me on an ocean crossing. but no, they have to go.

I awake before the sun clears the eastern hills, my face is stiff and I can see my own cheeks in my itchy peripheral vision. My whole body looks like it has sunburn, only more as red specks on white background like an Andy Warhol impression than the usual uniform lobster pink. It could be one of two things: the chemical weapons of RAID and POB used in my war on cockroaches last night, or a reaction to contact with Glee’s undersea colony. I decide the latter and then got dressed. Pretty soon gravity helps me out and drains the swelling of my face and I actually looked 5 years younger; who needs botox and a sunbed?

I pump some air into my leaky dinghy, examine the couple of cupfuls of fuel left in the tank, pull the starter cord on the little Nissan outboard and head north across the lagoon to Marigot.

Marigot is only a couple of miles from Simpson Bay  on the Dutch side, but is a different country with a different language: France, to be frank. And, apparently qualifies Telecom services to apply roaming cell phone charges for services within sight of my sim card’s origin.

I buzz across the lagoon and refuel the outboard before tying up the dinghy at a fishing boat inlet, step over the basking Iguanas and head off into town with an underlying and enexpected feeling of emptiness and a lacking in joy: Glee-less, if that’s a word.

Table for one at La Main A La Pate didn’t do much  for me apart from keep the hunger shakes away and lighten my wallet. Table for one is pretty much the same anywhere you go. Today is picture postcard perfect and I feel it should be fun but it doesn’t register that way. I don’t belong. I’m a maverick wayfarer making his way through someone else’s party.

I make my way to Fort Louis. Looking south over Marigot and over the lagoon to Mount Fortune, affectionately known as ‘The Witch’s Tit,’ where Glee rests on her mooring, In contrast I feel restless and adrift. I may be in the midst of an adventure but life long thoughts of uncertainty and doubt revisit. Arriving anywhere is never as I expect. The location is beautiful but my unchecked thinking makes it meaningless.  Wherever you go, there you are… like going on vacation, your baggage goes with you.

Defining and pondering the roots of these sensations is uncommon, sometimes difficult and often rewarding.

South over Marigot to Mount Fortune 'The Witch's Tit'

First thought:Loneliness: companionship might be a welcome distraction and the shared experience might feel more fulfilling but for how long?  No I’m not really lonely.

Next thought: Selfishness: what am I actually doing for my friends and family – what can I do from here?  Selfishness is a judgement – it’s too early to judge; any guilty feelings are unwarranted.

Contribution: how am I contributing to anyone at all? So far, there is solitude and boat maintenance. Again, too early to tell.   Contribution follows purpose.

Purpose: what makes life meaningful here and how do I go about creating and sustaining myself within it? When a seed is planted, nothing comes of it until roots emerge and leaves sprout and its fruit emerges. The seed doesn’t worry about it, it just does it – we are all nature; we all grow at our own pace.

Nothing is either good or bad, only thinking makes it so!  … I remind myself that there is no rush, relax, settle in and take my time. See what happens tomorrow…

Crossing No Man’s Land

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As I sit watching the sun through the eastern facing window of terminal A of San Juan International Airport lifting itself above the tropical palm trees on the skyline, bracing myself against the icy breeze of the over enthusiastic air-conditioning, I feel in-between things – in no man’s land.  What if I’m out of my depth. Should I have made a smaller step rather than jump, both feet into the Caribbean yacht world? The runaway train of automatic thinking had broke loose from it’s couplings and I remind myself to let them go and return to awareness in the present moment

8 hours is a pretty long wait for a connecting flight but a some sleep here, a bit of a read of Hunter S Thompson there, and a wander over to the window opposite as the sun slides overhead towards the western horizon and the day quietly passes punctuated by safety and security announcements.

After a 2 hour delay, announced in 4 irritating bite-sized 30 minute segments, the final leg to Sint Maarten was under way.

It was dark by the time I had arrived at the yacht club and I recognised Elaine from her social media photos. After brief introductions over a small Heineken we were skimming the water in a 7hp rubber dinghy to Glee’s mooring on the French side of the lagoon. A quick tour of the boat and a return jaunt to get Elaine back to shore and I was buzzing back alone through the anchorage and under the causeway following the same waypoints back to Glee.

I was here; 22 hours since taking off from Houston Intercontinental. What if I’m out of my depth. Should I have made a smaller step… and with the thoughts rattling away out of tune with the wind in the rigging and the water lapping at the hull, I went to sleep.

Morning:

This must be how amnesiacs awaken, I have a vague idea of where I am and I recognise some of these things on the boat  but the unfamiliarity with so much at once is disturbing. Just a matter of time is all it is, relax, settle in… I could always sell up and go back to… where? No rush, I have time… and the thoughts recede as I step out on deck and admire the tropical sunrise across the lagoon. I have realised a dream and ticked off a major goal. What now?

I need a plan… no rush, settle in first, I have time…

A Gleeful Step Into Uncertainty.

wp-1455639551728.jpegI should feel excited but it feels like another day but with a bigger to-do list…

The excitement came few weeks ago when the dream scrolled into view on a  on a Facebook feed on my Dad’s PC: a sailboat named Glee for sale in the Caribbean.

Butterflies in the stomach made me lean forward and focus in a bit closer. I had the funds but would I have the nerve? This has been on my bucket list for since I ever heard about bucket lists in my ‘battery farm’ office job about 10 years ago.

The  moment had come and I hadn’t even been looking for it.

I’d committed to spending a couple of Months at my Dad’s in Houston Texas and now I am at Houston Intercontinental Airport waiting for the flight to take me to a new adventure. Living on a sailboat in the Caribbean.

I was convinced people would say I was nuts but that didn’t bother me. What bothered me most was cutting my family visit short but it couldn’t be helped, and I could always come back later.

In fact most people I spoke to were actually envious and supportive.  There was only one person that thought I was a complete idiot; but I’m sure Mum will come round to the idea eventually.

After plucking up the courage to force my index finger down on the mouse button, the rest was easy. I had a loose idea of how I wanted to live ever since 2009 when I found out about the fraudulent way money is created off the back of loans and mortgages. I didn’t want to be a part of this system any more…

Step 1: clear the crippling debt left by the career killing credit crunch that left me without an income. Solution? I challenged and stopped paying the alleged debt .

Step 2: clear the mortgage on a house that I didn’t even want to live in anymore. Solution? I stopped paying the mortgage.

Step 3: declutter. Solution? Sold, recycled, donated and stored the museum of artifacts that tend to drag along through one’s personal history. This is still a work in progress.

Step 4: find alternative accommodation. Solution? Purchase 15 year old van fitted out as a stealth camper and get used to living off grid.

Therefore, this is why this latest move was easy for me. I have little to lose.  I am unencumbered by the financial ball and chain that modern life attaches to each of us. Without having made those first steps, I would have to weigh up the idea of living on a boat in the Caribbean against having a home, family , work and that whole social bubble we all build for ourselves. That’s a big stake in the game of life. Unless you’re pressed against the buffers of western civilization and see first hand how far the decks are now stacked against you, you either fight for your slavery or fight against it; you can’t ignore it.

I’m no longer being played as one of society’s pawns, tomorrow I’ll be living on a boat named Glee in the February Sun… I have little idea of what’s going to happen next but that’s one of the joys of freedom – you don’t need to… the only guarantee we have in life is uncertainty. Learning to embrace it will help set you free.

More in a day or two. I have a plane to catch!