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The Bucket Holder

28th December 2017
The first time since Glee, I was the skipper of a vessel, except this one will be off its mooring ball. Herbert and I deposit Thomas and his luggage ashore at 10.30 and we refill our water tanks. We arrange to meet at Kokoarum after returning Pantelisa to the mooring. All set, we fire up the outboard and it dies within 30 seconds. I’ve already let go of the line and we are drifting with the wind toward Mexico. Our Aussie neighbour on Aegis was watching, probably with some amusement, as we paddle Hawaii 5’0 style against the trade wind and the Aegis tender comes to rescue us. An hour and a half later of spark plug cleaning and pull cord workouts we hail the capitainerie on the VHF who tell us 5 minutes. 20 minutes later I call again and they say “We are too busy” Empty promises from officialdom strikes again. We flag down our nearby Neighbour, Thomas on Shiraz who kindly ferries us and our dinghy ashore.

The consensus is that we have a carburettor problem and we add the task of repair to our growing list of issues. We bid farewell to our former skipper and set about planning the time we need for chores and travels. Ideally, we want a Marina spot and Martinique fails to fulfil our needs both here at La Marin as well as at Fort De France. We feel like Josef and Mary returning to Bethlehem for Christmas. There is no room at the inn.

I’m not too taken with Martinique. Whilst it isn’t hostile, it is too crowded and too busy for my tastes. I feel no empathy either from or toward the place. But at least we were ashore and I set about compressing and uploading my Atlantic vlogs to youtube and planning a resolution to our transport problems. The sole available outboard mechanic (Meca’ bats) can only fit us in next week. I ask about some carb cleaner but the mechanic takes time to explain the intricacies of the Yamaha four-stroke carburettor. I abandon the thought of a DIY carb clean pretty quickly. The results of our efforts to coordinate and resolve our various problems are mixed. 3 steps forward and 2 back at the very least.

I check the winds on the internet and make a tentative plan to sail up to St Martin where I know I have allies and I can reunite with some good friends. Herbert is up for it. He’s already put a lot of trust in me as a skipper and I’ve so far proved myself with manoeuvrability around the harbour and docking to the buoy and thinking ahead before acting (apart from letting go of the dinghy line before the motor was running).

Herbert and I feel slim reward for the day’s efforts as we dine at the internet table at Kokoarum. I settle for a chicken burger in the absence of all their vegetarian options. It’s either chicken or grass. We head off back to the dinghy tied up near Meca’ bats about 9pm.

Passing the dinghy dock at Kokoarum, we spy a couple either mooring up or unhitching their dinghy and decide to abandon the walk to our own and try our luck to find prompt sanctuary aboard Pantelisa for the evening. We meet Byron and Katie who are only too pleased to give us a ride, especially as it’s pretty much on their way to their own boat, Ceylon. They remind me somewhat of Riley and Alayna from Sailing La Vagabond. Fellow free spirits that take a bold step into the unknown and work life out as it happens. We had the pleasure of sharing a beer with them onboard Pantelisa, brightening up a dreary slog of a day.

I awoke at 2 am, a little hungover, and set about sorting through the options for escaping the mooring field. Predictwind.com’s animation puts the wind direction swinging from the south-east after 2nd January. That puts the mockers on making it back to Martinique from St Martin for collecting Rolf on the 6th. Plan B. There are nice marinas down at Grenada and the wind direction is friendly both ways between now and the 6th so that’s what I propose to Toni, the owner. The answer later in the morning would be no, he has a better idea.

30th December
Katie comes by to take me and Herbert ashore at 7.30 and we three share coffees and a green tea. True to form, the waitress brings black tea and says “We have no green.” These little signs that life isn’t currently 100% in alignment. I tell her I’ll take the bag out early so it’s only light brown then. I set about reigniting the todo list and call Toni. He thinks we can make St Kitts and back before the wind changes and we can collect a dinghy from a friend of his there. I feel like an employee and agree although the plan is sound. I’ve not set foot on St Kitts before and Herbert is up for the challenge so that’s what we commit to. With that commitment, a lot of stress and uncertainty dissipates. I feel good about escaping Martinique and good about the mission ahead and head toward the capitainerie to settle the bill and clear out.

Halfway through clearing out, Herbert comes in and tells me Toni says we don’t need to clear out as we will pick up the dinghy and come straight back to Martinique. So we abandon the computer terminal and leave.

Thinking about it, it makes it difficult to get ashore anywhere else, like Nevis to see a friend that owns a beach bar there. We will have to be outlaws to do that. Cest la vie!

We retrieve our dinghy from the dinghy dock without even bothering to try and start the outboard. A French couple is just leaving and Herbert uses his best French to secure a tow back to Pantelisa. The members of the sailing community, really are gems. Everyone is so pleased to help their fellow mariners without thought of reward. It’s an attitude that seems embedded in the cruising world.

We immediately deflate and pack away the dinghy and put the ‘bucket holder’ on its frame. Everything here must have a use. We slip the lines at 12.45 and then follow the convoy exiting the channel from the harbour to the open water…

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Arrival: Martinique

We arise one after another. Herbert was already enjoying the Martinique morning while I prepared my cereal upon a level surface for the first time in weeks.

Motoring into La Marina Du Marin. I hail the Marina to announce our arrival and the response is that Pantelisa has no reservation and there is no space for new arrivals. I relay the information to Thomas who tells me to tell them that we made a reservation days ago “Try again.” is the order. Did the entry magically appear? No. I radio for a mooring ball. “Go between mark 7 and 8!” We see no marks and abandon the VHF to take any mooring ball we find.

At 2 pm the dinghy is deployed with the 2.5 HP Yamaha outboard. It’s tiny. Thomas and Herbert go to clear in at immigration and connect to the world wide web. I opt to remain aboard since they will only be a couple of hours and three guys with three bags looks a little too intimate in a dinghy so small. Anyway, one more day won’t make much difference. I’ve already missed the Christmas routine of greetings. Besides, I can use the opportunity to catch up on some sleep and then go in later.

6pm my phone rings unexpectedly. It’s Thomas “Someone has stolen our dinghy…” This is not the welcome I had in mind for celebrating our acheivement…

With Herbert and Thomas stranded somewhere in Martinique, darkness falls and I settle down to some writing and editing since there isn’t much else available and the cleaning can wait until daylight. I’m too tired for reading tonight. 8.30pm and some activity on deck. Thomas and Herbert are delivered by the crew of the Czech boat “Victoria.”

The next morning, we slip the lines on the mooring ball and motor round to the old galleon “Victoria.” The sea bed is grass and holding poor for the anchor so we tie alongside Victoria’s service boat and intrude on Josef and his crew to take photographs and talk about their project. I’m not sure where Thomas’ interests were at the time. Victoria is moored in a quiet corner of the bay. There are an eclectic collection of vessels scattered around the lagoon which reminds me of where I was moored in St Martin. Freedom seekers existing on the fringes of the state prescribed way of life.

We secure another mooring buoy slightly closer to shore and not so close to other vessels. Josef swings by soaked by the spray whipped up by the headwind as the dinghy moves through the water and ferries us ashore so we can work out our game plan. Drifting into the dock, we spy our dinghy and outboard. Whoever took it brought it back, it is a mystery but the game is now changed…

Thomas goes to the chandlery, which is now open, to get a cable and lock while I catch up on contact and updates. There is so much to do, it feels overwhelming and I restrict myself to messaging and telephone calls which keeps me busy throughout the day. With this being Thomas’ final evening before he flies home, and treating us to a beer and tour of his own boat moored in the marina, Herbert and I offer him a farewell meal at Kokoarum, and we make our way through the tropical downpour to secure a table. The tables are full, the restaurant heaving and the band is swinging. The contrast is too much for me after the quiet of the sea and I give up the battle to communicate over the noise and take in what I can. I was happy to return to Pantelisa in our overcrowded dinghy and staying relatively dry of rainwater from the ankles up.

Things were looking up. We had transport, a mooring and a cold beer aboard a luxury yacht in a tropical paradise. Even though our mission to Colombia was not complete, this felt like the closing of a chapter and I felt sorry that our harmonious trio was disbanding…

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Atlantic 2: Into the West

Day X (7 to 9)

Days slide seamlessly into one another: stirred together by the passing of the sun from dawn till dusk and dusk till dawn. Date and time mean less and less until the question of air tickets and departure dates crop up.

Rumour has it, there is a zen-like quality after a week at sea. It’s not here yet, although I am finding more time for myself for reading and sleeping. The consistency of the weather helps wind speed, direction and sea state. Any change necessitates a change in sail configuration and trimming thereafter. We had set course for the Caribbean way before the intended arrival at our intended latitude but still, the 20-knot winds are in our favour.

The weather is noticeably warmer as we follow the wind to the west, which necessitates longer running of the fridge, and therefore, the engine for charging the batteries if we want to maintain our food stores for the next 2 weeks. Provisioning is an art I have not yet mastered and still have little interest in until I’m hungry.

We found another broken sail slider even though we haven’t had hard winds. All seem to be the same old type. The new ones seem OK. We dropped the mainsail anyway as Pantelisa is more stable under headsail only in winds over 15 knots. More importantly, the autopilot can’t handle sailing with the mainsail in a following wind.

Herbert was keen to get the fishing line out and so the old rusty hooks were removed and the line restored with fancy new hook and lure. As we let out the line, Thomas was telling us it could be days before we catch anything. Moments later, flapping on the surface at the end of our line; a beautiful young Dorado, less than a kilo. Summarily filleted and prepared for soup, sushi and risotto.

The next day, within half an hour another Dorado, twice the size, soup sushi and curry. We were sick of fish by then. No more until the vegetables run out.

Fate appears to have drawn us together, we all have an interest in the depth of life and the search for its meaning. Herbert’s thesis for his PhD is self-actualisation. Thomas, a medical doctor who has explored meditation and psychedelics. My life has become an unstructured experiment of self-discovery and quest for freedom. 3 different backgrounds converged into the same boat. Our conversation is rich, yet we are comfortable with long periods of silence in each other’s space. We are one third the distance.

There’s a feeling that the ripples of life are calming down even if the sea isn’t. I’m a frequent user of the internet, especially Facebook. Do I miss it? I’m not sure that I do. I hardly give it a thought until I come to write this blog or want to Google whether a fish is called a Mahi Mahi, Dorade or Dorado. Meanwhile, no internet connection will be enjoyed until landfall. I know the first thing I will do ashore will be to get online. The blog will take some time, as will catching up with messages.

These last nights, the light of the moon had disappeared as it renews its lunar cycle. The only lights are from the navigation instruments and the stars shimmering overhead. We could be astronauts orbiting the earth, be it at sea level. The feeling of solitude distorts the passage of time: speeding it up when the mood is high and slowing it down when fatigue sets in. Four hours, every night. It’s the hardest part of the day and constantly checking the time doesn’t help.

The green bananas hanging in the cockpit turned yellow and then to black, faster than we were eating them. The last three flambéed after tonight’s dinner on the 9th day.

Day Y (10th to 14th)

Found two flying fish on deck. Herbert cooked flying fish burritos with them. We were past half way so cracked open the Lanzarote wine for celebration.

We’ve been lucky with rain but today looks decidedly grey and showery. The motor went on early and woke me at 7.30. Looking out from the stern, I could see a grey haze on the horizon: rain. I went below and re-emerged with my wash-bag and towel, kicked off my clothes and had a cool refreshing shower. There’s a primal rejuvenating feeling associated with showering from heaven rather than a tap. Refreshment of the soul as well as the body.

Fasting day for Thomas, and Herbert and I join him in the fast. I was awoken early to help deploy the Gennaker. The wind was light but gusty as we rolled around. We hoisted the sail into it’s flowing beauty into the sky and it sagged briefly into a shapeless curtain and popped open by a sudden gust, tearing the sail along the foot. Thomas was upset by it…

We put its remains away and adjusted sails for spinnaker boom to port, main to starboard. Sea easing, winds down to 10 knots. Nice night shift.. the wind eased to an ancient sea gods breath and the sails banged a little in the breeze as Pantelisa swayed danced with the ocean swell.

I had a restful sleep, rocked by the easy waves. I was awakened as the motor started up at 7.30 but still, I Laid in until 9.50. Showered on deck using a bucket of seawater then a freshwater rinse. Trimmed sails and spinnaker boom back to starboard and main to port. Small waves gently rocked us along, the sea a deep royal blue. the weather now warm, wearing swimming trunks with no shirt now. Broke the fast with eggs and bread. Felt tired after. Long siesta t shake off the lethargy of the food. Lentil and Sweet Potato soup went down really well and enjoyed a chilled out evening in the cockpit with Thomas and Herbert.

So tired coming out on shift. Not conscious enough to switch the light on in my cabin, I grope for the door to let the light in from the navigation desk and I stagger up into the cockpit. Sitting near the helm, Thomas’s voice has a distant echo like the ears of a fighter hearing a referee assessing whether the fight should continue. 3am and I’m on my feet, hands on the bimini frame looking windward.

The wind suddenly increased from a light breeze puffing us along at 4 knots. I looked at the instruments, 9 knots. Still standing on the stern, a shadow catches my eye and gives me a start. Thomas, unheard and awakened by the torrent rushing past the hull, has come up to join me. “See anything unusual?” “No.” If it was a squall it was an invisible one with no rain and the wind veered. south pushing us northwesterly.

Day Z (15th onwards)
There are days which just happen which are sheer bliss and it’s hard to say why. Today is one such day. Bright sun warm and dry, calm sea although the sails bang in the lulls. Reading and napping in the sun, I can feel the warm tingle of today’s sunburn on my shoulder blades. Herbert interviewed me for his thesis on self-actualisation which stimulated my mindscape and brought consciousness to my own existence. The sun leaving indigo and magenta skies as it descended into its peach and pink horizons.

A Royal blue seascape capped by snow white crests, Pantelisa swaying and creaking in the breeze. We are still doing 5 knots courtesy of the light breeze at the Atlantic current. Skipper’s not entirely happy. His flight is out of Martinique on the 28th. ETA for us is 26th PM with still above 600 miles to go. Wind was promised for today but failed to be delivered. Patience… but I have no pressure of a deadline. The gentle breeze steady from the east meant we didn’t have to touch the sails. I tightened the two preventer lines to confine the banging to the sail instead of the boom when the wind deserted the sails.

A flash of green astern indicates activity on the line. “Fish!” I shout and Thomas and Herbert emerge from the saloon. Three times, three Dorado within an hour of casting the lure. Today it will be my turn for the Pantelisa rite of passage. This beautiful green fish is the biggest so far, maybe 2Kg: enough easily for two meals. Thomas stuns the fish by pouring rum through it’s gills. The fish freezes and I give silent thanks before cutting the spine behind the head as fast as possible. I’m wearing my last clean Tshirt but it’s too late for me to change now with blood on my hands. I have the benefit of the first two masterclasses of filleting and opt to retain the tail to use as a handle while I descale, gut and fillet on the stern of the cockpit. I take my time and the skeleton comes away complete. With so much meat we opt to forgo the Fish soup and dispose of the head and carcass over the stern. We are now equal hunter-gatherers in the Pantelisa tribe.

Arrival 26th December
Midnight. As usual, I surface bleary-eyed for the night watch. Lights in the west. Martinique glimmers on the western horizon and I settle down to admire the unfamiliar sight of land. 30 Minutes in, I realise the Genoa is poled out to the port side which means I have limited manoeuvrability southward. I check the plotter and we are projected to clip the southern shore so I take an early deviation of course to give us plenty of leeway.

Thomas appears at 2am ready for anchoring in St Annes bay near La Marin. Rounding the cape, the sea becomes flat and we get respite from the relentless roll of the Atlantic swell. We are in the lee, downwind from civilisation and its characteristic aroma: drains.

4am and the anchor is deployed and the chain becomes like a steel rod as Pantelisa reverses to test the holding. Herbert remains unconscious in his bunk while Thomas and I toast our arrival with a Rum laced Ginger infusion.
The calm is unfamiliar as I lay back on my bunk and the unfamiliarity, the lack of motion, creaking and banging bleeds into my dream world and I experience a restless sleep…

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Atlantic 1: Cape Verde

Day 1: Wednesday 6th December

With the three horn blasts of the Tui cruiser, we abandon the calibration of the wind vane in the harbour and hotfoot it out into the Atlantic pursued by a reversing cruise ship. An inauspicious departure heralded by the skipper blowing Pantelisa’s wheezing plastic horn.

The sun was advancing ahead of us into the west and Arrecife was retreating behind, the ocean expanding its vastness ahead and astern. To the starboard were the lights of Lanzarote and then, further south, Fuerteventura. Close enough for comfort and data signal well into the next morning.

This was it. ‘Atlantic Crossing’ had been half-heartedly on my bucket list for more than 10 years. I never really thought it would become a reality, and to be honest, it was just something drummed up while chewing the end of a pencil, trying to think of worthy endeavours to fill the void of a broken marriage. So here it was. List item becoming reality once again, as Glee had become less than two years before.

Day 2: Thursday 7th December

The wind had increased to 25 knots making for a steep and confused sea with waves coming from all directions. The waves and wind conspired to turn Pantelisa into the wind and rattle the sails and rigging. We reduced sail by reefing the main and increased a little in the Genoa to balance a little better, which it does but still not perfect.

Our spell ashore has reset Herbert’s seasickness tolerance back to zero and he waits for the effect of the medication to kick in. Other than taking time and rest, there is not much he can do about it.

The autopilot can’t cope with its two adversaries, the waves and the wind. It puts us into a gybe and the wind backing around the mainsail issues a violent bang as the boom is restrained by the preventer line and the sail suddenly bulges in the opposite direction. Human intervention is required. We can at least see the approach of the waves from astern and start the recovery turn before the wave arrives. It takes constant concentration and physical effort.

We goose wing the sails and run more with the wind. The autopilot doesn’t get it and wants to gybe and head into the wind. We are now rolling from side to side more now the wind is no longer holding us over. Our mast is like the inverted pendulum of a metronome and the movement a challenge to Herbert’s seasickness.

The autopilot situation is untenable. It takes great effort as a trio to keep Pantelisa on course. Herbert is learning fast on the helm but is prone to overcompensate when steering to the compass, so duties fall on me and Thomas until we divine the secret of Pantelisa’s balance in the wind. We reef the Genoa and tighten it hard so it is less prone to flapping when the wind takes us. Other than that there is little improvement. Day 2 into a 21-day voyage. It feels like we have set off on a marathon at a sprint and I wonder how far we can get before fatigue wipes us out and we have to heave to or sail off course at an angle to the wind in order to get some sleep.

Thomas searches the settings on the Raymarine autopilot and in desperation, presses the ‘Reset to Factory Settings’ option. It’s better, much better. Only we’ve lost the sensitivity option where we can define how hard or easy the autopilot works so we can save power. Changing course slightly to put the gybing point further out of reach, we do not yet trust the autopilot and take it in turns to eat while one of us stays on the helm.
The waves are relentless and take Herbert by surprise knocking his dinner off the table into the seat. Another wave pushes into a gybe as the autopilot attempts to respond in time.

An awful night of hand steering for four hours. It could only have been worse if it was raining. That was the only positive I could take from the experience. I did not Gybe but was spun windward a few times by the steep waves that seemed to arrive in teams of between 3 and 7. This sea state was beyond Herbert’s current skill level at compass based helming and Thomas took his shift.

Day 3: Friday 8th December

I emerged from my cabin at 08:00, after a three-hour sleep, to relieve Thomas of his double shift. Thomas had an idea: drop the mainsail and leave the Genoa up. It made sense to me on a logical level but Thomas was hesitant since Jimmy Cornell, founder of the “Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC)” had advised never to sail without the main so you could sail in any direction in an emergency. We were desperate so…

We had to head into the wind to bring the sail down and the sea and wind were particularly hostile as our speed in the water minus wind speed changed to speed through the water plus wind speed as we changed course.

The banging of the bow into the waves and the water coming over the deck brought Herbert out of his cabin to see what was happening, just in time to help with the halyard. Thomas was wrapped around the swinging mast in the sea spray pulling down the sail and I went out to help him tie it down to the boom. Returning to the shelter of the cockpit made the mission feel like we had been out on a spacewalk out of the space shuttle.

Resuming course with a reefed Genoa and no mainsail, the transformation was astounding. Pantelisa was now perfectly balanced and now had stability: easy to steer, even in the steepest waves. Even the autopilot was happy and resumed its competence. Plus we were still making 7 knots speed.

The night watch was far more relaxing this time. I steered for three hours and allowed the autopilot an hour while I could sit back and enjoy the moonlight over the heaving black mountain range of the Atlantic.

Day 4: Saturday 9th December

I emerged from my cabin into a granite grey sky, over an industrial slate grey sea. The milky white sun strained through the cloud around noon but gave up its pitiful struggle soon after. Steering was easy but tedious after about an hour. Nothing to fix a sight on to use as a bearing, no boat traffic, only numbers on a compass swinging to and fro with the game to keep the needle on 240.

I envisioned a sumptuous dinner of Egg, chips, beans and mushrooms. Something different from the sauce based pasta and rice that conveniently was served in pans and bowls. That was the plan I was looking forward to. It was a disaster, the gas could not heat the oil enough for fries and the potatoes melted into an oily mash that stuck to the bottom of the pan. Egg, mushrooms, beans and pasta in a bowl wasn’t quite what I had in mind but we were famished and wolfed it down. The only food we left was the oily mash stuck to the pan.

I was feeling the fatigue as the alarm woke me for my midnight shift and I stumbled out of my cabin dragging my deep sleep with me. It was hard to keep balance as I stepped into the cockpit and I was on the back foot when it came to getting up to speed with the current status. Our course was 247 and the Genoa was reefed to the first marker and as tight as a drum. “Safer in the prospects of a gybe.”

Thomas said I could let some more sail out if the wind eased. Unlikely, I thought as the wind whistled past my ears and I could see our speed over ground indicator nudging 8 knots. I steered for maybe twenty minutes before making tea and grabbing some biscuits. The wind wasn’t cold but I felt it, and folded a blanket around me. I let the autopilot steer the rest of my shift.

Day 5 Sunday 10th December

Waking with heavy eyes in the light of day, I could feel the fatigue maintaining its grip, due to the constant movement of the animated sea. The floor of my cabin covered with clothes and things that flung themselves off cupboards during the night. The swish of my washbag on the top of my locker as it slid back and forth to the rhythm of the Atlantic swell kept me hovering on the border of sleeplessness.

Where is the phone? There it is over the other side of the bed sliding back toward me as the port side takes another heaving swell from the east.
My heavy eyes read for a short while, losing half the words they send to my tired brain.

I postpone venturing out on deck, trying to reclaim some energy from lack of sleep. It doesn’t work: a mental form of seasickness where it is not the body reacting but consciousness itself.

I start my computer to catch up on the rough drafts of blog posts hastily scribbled on paper. 77% the Lenovo battery icon tells me. Maybe an hour to craft an approximation of elegant writing – it will be rough but at least it will BE. It will exist.

Electricity is at a premium, we can’t just plug in when we want. The solar panels turned away from the sun by the angle of the wind starve our batteries of charge while the oscillating autopilot sucks away at the voltage.

Phone at 72% fares better in airplane mode and used almost entirely for telling the time and sounding an alarm for the start of the night watch… If it were not for the phone, I would not know what day it is. One day leads seamlessly into another, light and dark undefined by sleep cycles.

The 5th day. It could be the 10th. Land is a distant memory in such a short space of time. It’s gone noon when I emerge from my cabin into the cockpit. Thomas and Herbert are already there. I apologise for being late, not that there is any obligation or time frame other than the night watches we set our selves. The sun is bright and the wind and waves have eased. Perfect sailing and we are still at about 6 knots speed.

By late afternoon I feel more energised. Partly because of writing earlier gave me a sense of accomplishment and partly by just relaxing in the sun in calmer weather expended less energy in order to remain upright. At 5 pm Thomas suggested I take more rest and that made a big difference. I slept well for a couple of hours and woke for dinner before returning to bed again at 21:00.

The forecast predicts strong wind from the east north of Cape Verde. We could save miles and time by turning west early as long as the winds do not lead us into a calm. We turn west. We wouldn’t be visiting Cape Verde…

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Herbert

November 29

Motoring under the pedestrian drawbridge out of Marina Lagos saw us on our way to Lanzarote. We had lost Jan to seasickness and abandoned him in the marina so we were a trio once again. Out in the ocean, the swell was larger and more spread out than on the way by Tarifa and Herbert started feeling the effects and went below for relief.

It had only been a day since he’d started his seasickness tablets so I was optimistic he would be OK. The best thing he could do was take care of himself in the meantime rather than try and push through and prolong the discomfort. Thomas and I had everything in hand but, as a duo, it could get tiring if Herbert was still laid out for an extended period.

The sails were goose winged again and we were rolling around but making good speed.

The next day, Herbert was feeling better and was even functional below decks: the acid test for seasickness when you lose sight of the horizon and by the third day, he was as fine as Thomas and me. Totally cured. He had his sea legs and recovered as a fully participating member of the crew.

Every day we were blessed with good weather with the swell easing too and our speed held fast. Once again, the days were merging into each other one sunny day after another bracketed by dry moonlit nights. The decision to go to the Canaries via Lagos was genius. The route looks a little crazy on the map until you overlay the weather front coming in the opposite direction. Anna had told me there was heavy rain and thunder in Gibraltar on the day of our departure. Consequently, we got the very best of the sailing weather, making good time all the way.

3 Dec

Night fell and the moon rose, full and fat. Tomorrow was supposed to be a supermoon but it appeared to have come early for Pantelisa on the Atlantic. The wind died away during the night, just for a few minutes. I hated it, not because of the lack of speed, but because the waves would rock Pantelisa about from side to side and the empty sails would flog banging the boom at the limits of the mainsheet and preventer line in the silent darkness.

4 Dec

I came out on watch at midnight, I could see the lights on the north shore of Lanzarote. An unlit rock was noticed on Navionics on the phone but wasn’t marked on our Raymarine plotter, we had long past the range of the downloaded plotter maps for Turkey and Greece. Against the indigo sky, a black silhouette to the port bow toward the horizon was easily visible in the full moonlight. Thomas marked a waypoint to the rock’s position and emphasised to avoid it, “Do not steer to that waypoint.” Tell that to the wind.

Instructions were to keep west but the wind was veering more directly astern to push us on a more easterly track as I steered to protect the mainsail from a gybe. The line on the plotter that indicated the course we were heading was swinging about like a windscreen wiper, catching the rock in its sweep. Odds were that we would avoid the rock by a couple of miles as long as the wind didn’t veer further westward with its spontaneous gusts but there’s no guarantee what the wind would do. If it did veer, we may have had to adjust course and to pass to the eastern side instead and gybe for the westerly track.

We arrived in Arrecife at 8am, entering the harbour under sail before firing up the motor and hauling down the main. Marina Lanzarote is a beautiful Marina serviced by Cafes on the Marina promenade and Tapas bars around the old fishing harbour. It was warmer here than Gibraltar too. I set about cleaning the boat while Thomas organised the sail and wind vane repairs. there was good news on the repair front. The sailmaker could come today and the Raymarine engineer had parts on hand and could troubleshoot the system tomorrow

I spend all day updating my blog and check the admin edits in WordPress. Completing two blog posts in one day is pretty tiring and a waste of good weather in an unexplored location but since there is no internet access at sea, it has to be done now if it is done at all. Herbert had a friend visiting Lanzarote and after a brief introduction on the boat, he left to spend the day with her instead of two salty sailors.

Don’t wait up was the message I inferred from their departure. The evening was soon upon us and I invited Thomas to dinner and after browsing the Tapas bars around the old fishing harbour, we happened upon “Cala” and enjoyed a spontaneously pleasant evening with fine Tapas and Lanzarote wine from grapes grown actually in pits dug in the volcano.

Upon our return, Herbert was waiting up for us. He had only just missed us when we left the boat. The irony of my “don’t wait up” thought was amusing, if only for me.

5 Dec

Things looked promising for departure tomorrow so victualling had to be done for the long voyage across to the Caribbean. My least favourite job of sailing but eased by having an accomplice, Herbert. Herbert and I located Mercadona which couldn’t deliver until Thursday since it was a public holiday tomorrow Wednesday, so we ended up in Hiper Dino. Pretty soon we were two trolleys fully laden with groceries and €340 lighter.

Herbert was on a mission to source some fishing hooks to replace ours that had rusted away between Turkey and Gibraltar. He sent a photo to check whether they were the right ones. I told him they looked fine but when I saw them live they were 4 times as big as the old ones: an error of relative scale in the photograph. These were shark hooks. 18:55 and still no grocery delivery. Waiting onboard Pantelisa was pointless so I went to the cafe joined later by Herbert and Thomas. We were enjoying a beer at the cafe with a clear view of both the car park and pontoon gate. Seconds after our order arrived, the Hiper Dino van turned up and the occupants set about loading crates onto their barrow and we escorted them down to the boat. After two trips, Pnatelisa’s cockpit was stacked with carrier bags full of food, beer and wine.

6 Dec

The wind vane fault was confusing the engineer. The transducer at the top of the mast was proven to be faulty and the repaired one still didn’t work. It was either the cable in the mast or the control box.

A test of the control box revealed it was faulty too. Why? We were puzzled until Marco asked, have you been near any lightning?

Sicily! We were in it with strikes as close as 100 metres in the same storm that tore our mainsail in half. We hadn’t looked at the wind vane when we limped under motor into port in Palermo. I had assumed that the repair of the steaming light in Palermo disturbed the cable of connectors to the wind vane instruments.

With the repair complete we installed the Genoa that had been neatly strengthened and folded on the pontoon from the night before and we were ready to go.

The Atlantic Trio

With spirits high, we went for a farewell drink at the local cafe and headed out into the harbour to calibrate the wind vane. Two cruise ships were moored there but we still had room to circulate clockwise until the computer said OK. Three blasts from the Tui cruise ship’s horn indicated that her engines were astern and we were 200 metres behind her. It was time to make a sharp exit abandoning the calibration. We could mentally compensate for the thirty-degree error in the wind direction but the calculation for true windspeed would be incorrect. The main thing was that the autopilot could now steer to the wind. instead of only to a bearing.
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Trafalgar

Rounding Tarifa point, we were out of the current and up to 8 knots, hitting 9 briefly. We were flying out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic. The new crew weren’t experienced so Thomas was coaching them in meticulous detail. Thomas is a fine teacher, he reminded me of things I had either forgotten or had never noticed before.

We had goose-winged the Genoa. All was going well until the seasickness kicked in. Jan clipped his safety harness on and hung his head over the side of the boat. The waves weren’t high but they were steep and short in wavelength from the stern, which made the boat roll from side to side.

There was plenty of traffic about into the night, The Straits of Gibraltar and its approaches are a funnel for cargo ships. Herbert joined me at the change of watch and I relayed as many tips and info as I could. Jan slept in for a couple of hours and Herbert fetched him at 2am. Poor guy was sick all night. I turned in at 5.20am and could hear him wretching an empty stomach for the rest of the morning.

We made good speed night and day and we were due in Lagos early afternoon, earlier than expected. We decided to head for Portimao, and anchor at the mouth of the Arade river for the night. We were still running with the wind and needed a change of course northward pretty soon. We would sail west for 7 or 8 miles and turn north transferring the Genoa to the port side to join the mainsail for a broad reach. 10 minutes later, the wind veered 30 degrees to the north, flapping the Genoa. I put 10 degrees on the autopilot and hauled the Genoa over to port for a beam reach. The new course would cut the corner of the original and we still made good speed.

4pm, we had dropped anchor behind the breakwater of the Arade River. We were the only vessel there and had the estuary to ourselves. Jan and Herbert seemed keen to get ashore. Although Pantelisa was hardly moving in the calm behind the breakwater.

We inflated the dinghy and the duo rowed ashore to Praia da Rocha. I stayed aboard with the skipper to enjoy the peace and quiet and set about making a curry for dinner.

The evening was pleasant and relaxed at anchor with the wake of the outgoing fishing boats lapping gently at our hull while sharing a curry in the warm glow of the saloon followed by a tranquil and restful night.

Weighing anchor, we only needed 6 miles to Lagos but decided it was nice enough for a sail rather than to motor for an hour. With the wind from the east, we would travel out to sea on a beam reach and gybe on broad reach into Lagos.

By 11, we were moored on the pontoon in the river near the Marina office jumping through bureaucratic hoops with a pleasant coast guard official wearing a fetching beret on his head and a shiny gun on his hip. I couldn’t see him ever using it but appearances have to be maintained I suppose.

It was a hard day in Lagos after we docked in the Marina. I envisioned myself laying back on my bunk drafting my next blog post but instead, I was scrubbing decks, sponging the condensation out of the bottom of the fridge and cleaning the floor. I discovered a drain plug in the fridge and could see a hose leading into the bilge below. I took up the floor panel to find a mini pond of stale water with mosquito larvae cheerfully swimming around. In the bottom of the bilge, there was a drain hole and Thomas prodded it with a screwdriver and the water began to drain into another compartment.

Eventually, all the holes were cleared and we drained and cleaned the bilges. A thunderstorm passed overhead and the rain washed the soap off the decks for me.

The showers were superb, I stayed under the hot spray until my fingers and toes began to wrinkle and the water started to run cool.

After a few hours ashore, Jan began to recover from his seasickness and consulted Thomas about continuing to the Canaries. It was decided Jan would abandon the trip here. The prospect of 5 or 6 days of seasickness was too much to stomach…

Herbert, Jan and I walked through the twilight to the local supermarket for the victualling. Shopping is an unpleasant task to start with. Decoding Portuguese doesn’t help one little bit. We got most of what we needed or decent substitutes and returned after darkness fallen.

Seeing as this was our first and last leg as a quartet, we went out to dinner to celebrate a perfect passage. I was famished with all the activity, as I’m sure Jan and Herbert were with their stomachs emptied.

I’d done a fair bit of writing but not much editing and I had been falling behind on the blog again. The rest of the night I spent determined to get out another blog post before setting off to the Canaries. After the evening meal, being easily influenced, I ducked into Spinnakers for a nightcap with Thomas, Herbert while Jan retreated to Pantelisa. Football commentary was barking out of the three flat screen TVs accompanied by the groans and criticisms of the handful of Brits at the bar.

In contrast, we found ourselves engrossed in conversations about psychology, ayahuasca, higher powers and other deep life subjects. Not the common topics discussed in sports bars. I’m not one for small talk but big talk like this that gets to the core of living is food for the soul which energised me for the rest of the evening.

When we got in I fired up the laptop and got stuck into the blog, feeling inspired. I finally got to sleep at 3am. First drafts are getting rougher, refinements are getting more frequent and edits take longer. This method ensures I keep on top of the details of the ever-changing adventure but means editing gets stacked up and becomes more difficult to process before publishing.

Additionally, I’d been on a month-long program called 28 days of courage, where I picked something in which I wanted a breakthrough and then committed to it for 28 days. This year it was making videos – purely because I feared public speaking and being in the limelight. There was only one aim: to make a video every day. Quality and content was not a factor. As I write, I have one more to do and since we are a few hours into Day 1 of our leg to the Canaries, setting off later today, it will be on day 2, well offshore and out of contact, by then. The knock on effect of doing these videos every day had improved my relationship with video and audio communications, live and recorded. Writing is still my favourite medium but audio and video are so much more heartfelt in personal communications.

Heavy showers continued throughout the night permeating my dreamscape by keeping me on the edge of consciousness, intensifying this other life and when I awoke, bleary-eyed, the sun was up along with the temperature.

My first mission. this morning, was to get more beer and water for the trip: heavy items that exceeded yesterdays carrying capacity of our rucksacks. I called Anna to tell her we were off and to wish her luck on her new adventures and she told me that there were currently heavy rain and storms in Gibraltar heavy enough to hide the view of the rock. I could hear the thunder down the phone above the inane piped music down aisle 7 of the supermarket.

The weather was perfect where we were and after a regretful farewell to Jan, we were soon heading southwest to Lanzarote as a trio with a lively north wind pushing us from our starboard quarter (back right, to you squire.) The Lagos dogleg was the better decision. Not only did we avoid the storm we would have had to motor through but we also benefited from good winds. Longer in miles but shorter in time and diesel.

The further we got from shore the more the wind built and higher the swells rose. Pretty soon, Herbert retreated to his cabin for relief from the rolling seas.

The seasickness tablets hadn’t kicked in just yet and if they never worked then there would likely be another 5 days of this…

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Anna

Tuesday 21st and our long-delayed arrival at Gibraltar ended with the tying of the warps to Pantalan 12, berth 43 at Alcaidesa Marina, La Linea, where Herbert was ready and waiting to join the crew; and had been for the past two weeks, and Anna was due to join tomorrow afternoon.

Herbert stepped off the pontoon onto the boat and settled his bags into the forward port cabin next to mine. While we set about cleaning the boat and tending to laundry. Julien took care of his cabin and ‘fresh-water’ laundry, while I headed to La Linea to look for some detergent.

I was gone for a while, searching dusty featureless streets of shuttered stores and finally found an open shop, Super Sol supermarket bucking the Siesta trend. I was hungry by then so dropped into the modestly named Okay Cafe along the Calle Real pedestrian precinct for a Tuna sandwich and Green Tea, wild character that I am. It was better than OK, it was all right and cheap too.

Returning to Pantelisa, Julian bid his farewells and joined his brother on his way to Morocco. There was only an hour before the evening dew would be settling on the decks, so my laundry was postponed until the next day. The forecast was warm and sunny: an ideal drying day. Herbert left to meet friends in La Linea for drinks and I turned in at 8pm for a deep restful sleep since I had been up 20 hours since the extended watch into Gibraltar.

9am the next morning, I crossed the entertaining border into Gibraltar and I thought I’d try out an experiment and produced my driving licence at the Gibraltar side.

“That’s a Driving licence.”
“I know, I’m Britsh.”
“But Britain is not part of the Schengen agreement”.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Certain states agreed to open their borders and ‘WE’ didn’t agree. And ‘WE’ never voted for Brexit either…”
“So Gibraltar is a part of Britain?”
“Yes, and it will be hell here at the border when Brexit kicks in in a couple of years.”
“But I’m British, why can’t I get in using my licence?”
“We are not in Schengen.”
… pauses to get passport out of bag.

I found my way out of the bright sunlight, through shade of the Landport Tunnel into to the Britishness of the Lord Nelson pub on Casemates Square and caught up on some communications and writing then went for a haircut. The barber was an English guy from Poole, telling me about the Costa del Crime up the coast towards Marbella. Still an attraction for wannabe gangsters apparently, even though the extradition protection for criminals on-the-run disappeared half a century ago.

Freshly trimmed, I explored a little around the back streets of Gibraltar and made my way back to the Nelson to finish off some notes for the blog. Anna should have landed at Malaga at 2pm, as I recall, and I messaged her to say she could meet me in Gibraltar if she liked but she replied that she was still a fair way off. I packed up at 4.30 and headed back toward the boat, instead settling in the sun’s warm rays at the skate park next to the marina. Anna was only half an hour away, so it was a good excuse to hang around and generate some vitamin D. Traveling southwest along the coast in a navy blue Skoda estate, courtesy of BlaBla car. €8 from Malaga to Gibraltar. I’d used BlaBla Car before, but only as a driver, using the company van stacked to the roof with organic fruit and veg, transporting a bemused young lady from Swindon to Bristol for about a fiver.

The language barrier between Anna and the driver made an interesting interaction, I heard later, but the driver showed her how to switch on live location in WhatsApp and she got me to do the same. You can imagine how that works. It’s like Google Maps but you can see other people’s movements who share their location. The icon roaming around the map of La Linea kept me entertained for the rest of her journey and pretty soon her icon materialised into a real person into my physical reality across the skate park.

Boarding the boat, Herbert was relaxing in the cockpit and had been there for a couple of hours but Thomas was already at the Lord Nelson with a keen hunger for fish and chips so we made our way across the border and airfield into the pub for our first introduction as a full crew of four on Pantelisa. After a fish and chip dinner and drink together, Anna and I went for a catch-up pint at Ocean Village Marina. It didn’t matter that the London Pride tasted like vinegar, the reunion was sweet enough.

I went to the Nelson for a breakfast. Getting there just before the noon deadline. The barman glanced sourly at the clock and resigned himself to accept my order. I stayed there all day updating the blog. Anna joined me later that afternoon for a couple of drinks. I closed my laptop and abandoned my work without hesitation. Good company is rarer than WiFi and more transient. These opportunities should not be missed.

Anna told me about a tapas bar that her mum recommended called “La Chiminea” and we headed over the border into La Linea for dinner recalling our adventures around Antigua and Dominica. During the big blank in my blog between March and June when I first met Anna on Skyran, her Dad’s catamaran, and we both jumped ship in Dominica to Susie’s boat “Spirited Lady of Fowey.” Somehow, all that seems a different era, especially with St Martin flattened by Hurricane Irma and claiming Glee and Dominica being flattened by Hurricane Maria. La Chiminea slowly filled with cheerful and gregarious locals generating a friendly ambience. Good food, cold beer and warm company made for a rare escape from my usual ‘table for one’ experience in cyberspace.

Anna has a cousin in Gibraltar she had never met and went to introduce herself the next day, while I trecked over to Morrisons and flip-flopped through the aisles for the victualling. There had been some action on the ‘diesel contribution’ front, while I was away. The same issue I brought up with Michael in Colombia, who said he’d speak with Toni and was awaiting a response, but remained as yet unresolved. It was near dusk when I returned and, however the diesel issue had been raised, it felt like there had been a mutiny in my absence.

Thomas messaged Toni to clarify and we nervously awaited the outcome. Claes hailed me from the pontoon gate to join him for a beer at the Marina bar. We were all meant to finish the victualling at the cheaper Mercadona in La Linea but the diesel issue presented an obstruction too large to be ignored and so was abandoned.

The verdict was in: seeing as how the time pressure had us motoring a lot more due to unfavourable winds (if any) the diesel would be paid as long as it was for the case of unfavourable winds or emergencies. That seemed fair to me I was happy since I hadn’t budgeted for the fuel. Anna and Herbert were chatting together near the shower block and I cheerfully went over to share the good news. I expected everybody would be happy with the outcome. Anna decided she still didn’t want to continue because of various other issues, and Herbert was now undecided too. We could be losing two crew in as many days. Herbert went for a solitary stroll to think things through.

With the shopping abandoned, I joined Claes for that beer. Every cloud has a silver lining. The bar was empty apart from Claes and me and we had a good catch up. I had been looking after his boat in St Martin which sank in the lagoon along with mine. Anna joined us later saying she’d probably stick around La Linea and figure out what she wanted to do. I was simultaneously disappointed she wasn’t coming and impressed that she wasn’t bailing out to just go home. Instead, she would seek out her own adventure in Andalucia.

Herbert dropped by the bar to say he was still in. I was pleased to hear that: a ray of sun in a stormy sky. Herbert is an interesting young guy easy to be around and I had a good feeling about him. We could continue as a trio but he had a candidate in mind for Anna’s replacement.

We were up at daybreak all set to sail to Lagos to avoid a storm that was heading towards us up from the Canaries. Instead of sailing through it against wind and rain, the plan was to navigate around it and catch the turn of the wind from Lagos to Gran Canaria. We would be slightly closer but also have more options on the angle of the wind.

Claes joined us and the crew for a farewell cup of tea on the back of the boat. Anna’s replacement, Jan, joined us. I said goodbye to Anna and hello to Jan. This was the first time I’d met him but Herbert knew him from mingling and dumpster diving with the hitchhikers around the dock. Pretty soon, we were off, around noon. We motored around Punto del Carnero into a healthy tailwind. We were moving through the water fast but doing only 4.5 knots over ground. The current was against us. As the wind picked up, we ‘goose-winged’ the sails, rigging the Genoa out windward on the Spinnaker pole and leaving the mainsail leeward and then sailing along at a healthy 6 knots, although Pantelisa felt twitchy wanting to constantly turn toward the following swell. With a confused sea, it made helming unpredictable although it looked promising to arrive at Lagos during daylight the very next day…

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The Rock

Thursday 16th November. At last, we were on our way to Gibraltar. We slipped the lines at Marina Sifredi before sunrise and motored toward the reddening sky over Sardinia before being chased out of the harbour by the Carloforte ferry.

Bearing west around the southern cape of San Pietro, the waves were short in height and long in wavelength from the north-west giving us a gentle roll on our way.

When dusk faded into the night, I cooked up a Spanish Tortilla. Not a great choice with Pantelisa hard over on heal. I was sliding across the sloping floor. I took my socks off to help get some grip and leaned into the stove to get some balance. I got away without burning anything, including the dinner but it would be wiser to tailor dinner to the conditions.

I came on watch at midnight. If we are sailing, we hand steer to save power. The new compass lights were too dim to make out the bearings and I began to bear away to the south squinting into the globe for a clue. Pantelisa has two steering wheels. Over on the starboard side is the autopilot with its bright screen giving the bearing in digital format but that side is exposed to the stream of the cooling wind. I stayed there a while while I scanned the constellations in the sky and picked out a pattern of stars ahead and retreated to the leeward side of the boat and steered towards them. After a while, clouds formed ahead covering my astronomical beacons but I discovered if I looked abeam or astern, I could just as easily keep my course using those constellations. And so, Ursa Major, over my right shoulder, became my guide.

The next day, the wind shifted to the north-west pushing us further to the south so we adjusted away from the Balearics toward to Algerian coast. At 3am, the asthmatic wind quietly passed its last breath and the motor was brought to life again and we chugged our way on the edge of the shipping lanes.

I emerged from my cabin the next morning to the surreal sight of a mirror calm sea reflecting a soothing yellow sun. the mumble of the Perkins Diesel the only disturbance of the tranquillity. A turtle bobbed to the surface, startled by the arrival of humans over its domain. It reminded me of the carving I’d made that was left on Glee.

The afternoon gave birth to a light breeze: an opportunity to try out the gennaker with the spinnaker boom that holds the billowing sail out into the wind, a huge delicate sail designed to catch light airs. A useful exercise if not a convincing contribution to our progress. With the engine pushing Pantelisa along at 5 knots in a 5 knot tailwind, the sail hung limply in the resulting calm. We routed the sheet the wrong way around a line that acted as a stay for the boom. The result was an annoying squeak when the wind filled the sail and pulled on the boom rather than moving clearly through the block. Eventually, we hauled in the gennaker but left the boom out for later.

At sunset, the wind had faded leaving the wind vane at the top of the mast spinning like a windmill as we rocked from side to side. And, to the south, the lilac silhouette of the Atlas Mountains painted their rugged outline against the orange sky.

With the wind gone, we bore north toward the Spanish coast accompanied by the hum of the engine. When I came on the night watch, we were within mobile signal, which brought me in touch with the digital world and contact with friends and family. We were well north of the shipping channels but we still had to look out for hazards: especially fishing boats and cruise ships from the shore, so a look around every five minutes was still vital.

Mon 20th, We were motoring too much but, without wind, we had little choice. New crew were awaiting us in Gibraltar. The fuel gauge started to fall, which was a warning from last time that we were already short of diesel and I reduced the revs by 100 when I was at the helm. As soon as some wind presented itself, the Gennaker went up and bulged with healthy force adding over 2 knots to our speed and we cut the engine until the wind died at 2pm and we hauled in the sail.

Coming on watch at midnight, Dolphins were splashing in the green light of the starboard navigation light. They would escort us all the way to the rock of Gibraltar. I could make out the rock of Gibraltar in the distance against the hazy sky illuminated by the city lights of Tangier, over the straits. What was it 5 miles, 8 maybe? I checked the plotter. 14 miles. Still 3 hours away. It was time for Julien to come on watch but I was happy here and stayed on.

We had some wind from the south that brought out the Genoa, adding some speed and cutting back the revs to save some fuel. The gauge was at a half which indicates about 20 litres or 6 hours motoring. We were still about 3 hours away. Every breath of wind was a welcome help.

The wind switched to the north as we got closer to the rock and I trimmed the genoa to the starboard tack. The shipping traffic was busy to the south and the anchored vessels that we were approaching were weighing anchor and moving off out of our path with no need to adjust our course.

Europa point lighthouse was dead ahead, winking at me as it had been all night. We were lucky in catching the ebb tide which counteracts the inward current through the straits of Gibraltar. With the headsail up we were making 6 knots at little more than tickover.

Dawn broke as we approached Europa point, painting the sheer east face of the rock in a warm shade of peach. After a knock on the door from the skipper, Julien emerged at 7.30am just in time to catch the view as we rounded Europa point. The light at Europa point went out as we rounded into the bay around the anchored shipping and into the current. I checked the fuel gauge; little more than a quarter, and who knows how much that indicates.

Docking at the fuel station, we took on 241 litres of diesel in our 250 litre tank. The gauge shows just over a quarter. Pretty much useless as an indicator. We can estimate that we have 12 hours of cruising when the gauge starts to move off full, and that is not much considering the scale of the passages we are engaged in. We should use the engine hours indicator as our fuel indicator from now on.

Pulling into Alcaidesa marina, Herbert was already at the pontoon, cheerfully smiling and waving while Thomas delicately reversed Pantelisa into the berth and Julien and I were tending the warps and adjusting the fenders…

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Notes From A Small Island

A Bill Brysonesque title, I would agree. Smaller island, fewer notes so no real comparison.

Carloforte! A beautiful town of narrow cobbled streets of quaint Ligurian architecture with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. As soon as we moored up Pantelisa, scrubbed her decks and hosed her down, Thomas led us to a local Cafe for the best cappuccino I had ever tasted. I’m not normally a coffee drinker but no-one else seems to do coffee like the Italians. It was a warming interlude in a relentless cycle of marine maintenance.

The brightening sun chased away the morning chill as we returned to the boat and set about decamping the forward berths and drying out the mattresses on the quayside in the brilliant ascending sun. Julien was, once again, hoisted up the mast. This time to replace the cable from the newly fitted deck light inside the mast to the connector between the deck and internal panel that leaked like a shower at sea.

Up on deck, the screws holding the conduit channeling the cables from the mast through the deck were loose. Replacing the screws with nuts and bolts and tightening the flange cured that leak. Next were the hatches.

The O rings had perished on the hatch ventilators which were dripping in water along the screw through their holes. Not a lot but over the course of hours and days, enough to give anything below a good soaking. We had a big box of O rings but none the right thickness to replace the old ones. Thomas had the idea of putting an O ring inside between the hatch and the screw head instead. That worked as long as the screw wasn’t so tight as to deform the O ring. My job was to go round all the hatches adding O rings to screws, testing with the marina’s hose as I went. Seemed to do the trick.

Sunday

Thomas suggested a bike ride. I wanted to catch up on my blog but said yes anyway for a feeling of team bonding and camaraderie, besides, if I don’t do anything, I have nothing to write about. Julien said ‘non’ and stayed behind, he appears to be more antisocial than me, he does what he wants without apparent concern for what others might think – which is a skill I’d like to cultivate to the point of second nature without having to work at it. The urge to ‘Fit in’ has been a terrible curse in the past.

The cycle hire shop was closed but the owner responded to a quick phone call. I produced my last €20 note but it wasn’t required until we returned the bikes and so it returned to my pocket.

“Documenti?” the shop owner asked. We had none but instead accepted €100 deposit. The day was bright with a chill wind but a few minutes with pedals and heart pumping up the Sardinian hills by groves of lemon and olive trees, I soon warmed me up.

The cool northerly wind whipped up the white horses along the blue straits between Carloforte and Sardinia, while trying to push me back down the hills I was panting up. We reached the north point to experience the full force of the mistral out of France and over the sea. Foaming waves crashed on the rocks while the spindly shrubs turned their backs and bowed their heads to the south.

“Il Fungo” Thomas said, pointing at the map. An almost legendary giant fungus was marked close by and we set off on a quest around the narrow and undulating gravel tracks. After a while of navigating the back lanes, we gave up and resorting to Google searches revealed that the colossal mushroom had collapsed in 2010 and left no remains.

Thomas asked if I’d like to go on but after the hour or so of standing up on pedals and getting off to push the bike up the steepest slopes, I said I wanted enough energy to get back to town and we turned back. The return journey turned out to be a fast downhill descent into the town and we were back within 15 minutes. If I’d have known, I could have carried on for another hour or so… we were back early.

Monday

A grey, damp and windy day that felt more like Wales than the Med. This was why we were marooned in Carloforte, pinned down by the Mistral out of the north… I caught up on my blogs, well almost anyway. A slight interruption of returning the bikes back spoilt my flow. Checking my pockets for the €20… gone. It must have worked its way out while I was grunting my way up the hills. Gutted. It reminded me when Deb lost £50 in Bath Abbey, which seemed like a big deal at the time. Deb died three years later which put some perspective on it… and I had a thought: I get to live the years that she no longer has. Being ‘not dead’ is priceless.

I noticed the guy in the boat next door leaves his folding bikes unlocked on the quay. There appeared to be a surprising lack of crime here, something that endears me more to this island, even on this cold and blustery day. We leave the boat open without worry the whole time we are here.

The best strategy for today was to stay on the boat and sit under the blankets to keep warm: writing, remembering, editing, rewriting and re-editing. None of this writing comes easy but what better excuse to shelter from the cold wind?

Tuesday

I wandered around Carloforte, still cold but dry and bright. At the top of the hill, perches the remains of the town’s fortifications, a stately looking school, and a museum. The museum was closed and didn’t advertise its opening hours. The heavy wooden doors gave the impression it wasn’t even interested in visitors. A sign outside portrayed an old fleet and mentioned Napoleon within its Italian text. I took a few photos of the view across the straits to Sardinia and turned my back on the Mistral to flip flop my way down the echoey narrow streets back to Pantelisa.

Thomas asked if I had been shopping. I had inherited this god-awful task by volunteering to look after the kitty. I said “No, I’ll do it tomorrow morning.” until it was pointed out we had nothing to eat except pasta and parmesan. Thomas offered to come along and invited Julien too. Julien said ‘Non.’ So Thomas and I went to the local supermarket to stock up on €155 worth of groceries for the forthcoming leg to Gibraltar. Dinner turned out to be pasta and parmesan, I ate with feelings of bemusement and resentment. At least the victualling was done.

Wednesday

I awoke at 7 to noticeably less condensation around my hatch and a bluer sky above. There would be no rain today, but the Mistral, although less powerful, still nursed a northerly chill.

My role today was ‘Hunter Gatherer’ with a mission to find some eggs, which were sorely lacking at last night’s supermarket. At noon, I followed the narrow sunlit cobbled streets of Carloforte southward toward somewhere marked Mercato del Mercoledi on Google maps and happened upon an open-air market just before its 1pm closing. Fruit, veg and eggs were displayed aplenty. The sun perfectly aligned to the longitudinal streets warmed my back in the cool air I dawdled back to the marina.

The town was unusually busy and children were thronging the streets. The pleasant, communal atmosphere reminded me of my childhood back in rural Northamptonshire that had long since eroded by the tide of time.

I discovered a cafe in the corner of the Piazza Repubblica and settled on a quaint table under the parasols on their patio in the square to order a cappuccino. A corner table of the corner cafe in the sun. Ten minutes later, the town was deserted. Apparently, 15th November is the celebration of Madonna dello Schiavo. I don’t know where everyone went but I ordered another cappuccino anyway to savour the peaceful contrast.

Returning to Pantelisa, the weather looked like a ‘go’ for tomorrow so we prepared the boat for sail before dusk. We discovered that one of our valued crew was absent for the voyage: the autopilot… which was now dead or in a coma. We convened a meeting at a bar across the road where we voted to continue to Gibraltar steering by hand – old style. It would be hard but we were all agreed: we would proceed and get it fixed in Gibraltar.

Relieved about the spirit and solidarity of the crew, We finished our beer – all the sweeter through Thomas picking up the tab.

By the time we returned, Rolf forwarded some instructions via WhatsApp for what and where to check for the autopilot. Julien located a faulty fuse that when touched with a fingertip brought the autopilot to life. Julien switched that fuse with one of the same rating on the inverter and both devices seemed happy with the exchange, and we were happy that Ray, the Raymarine autopilot, was well and awake and hoped he would still be with us tomorrow and all the way to Gibraltar.

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Crossing the Tyrrhenian Sea

We were safely holed up for the front coming from the west and set about making repairs. It was becoming apparent that Phoenix Charters weren’t particularly diligent about maintenance of Pantelisa. During the storm and heavy seas, water was finding its way through the closed hatch vents, soaking the forward berths and water was pouring through a ceiling panel near the foot of the mast. The compass lights weren’t working, The Steaming light and Deck light weren’t working, the bilge pump wasn’t working… and the list was slowly growing the more we were getting to know the boat.

The three days in Palermo were pretty concentrated on arranging or performing repairs and my blogging had taken a back seat. We stripped down the Bimini and took its cracked frame to be welded. The sailmaker did an excellent job of replacing a section of sail and fitted new slug slides, that hold the sail to the mast since these were pretty worn and brittle and a few had broken during the storm. The sailmaker suggested that the broken slug slide next to Thomas’s repair contributed to the torn sail as it would have offered a gap for the wind to take a hold and the resultant bulge at the would have ripped the sail from forward to back.

Thomas was a real asset here, as not being able to speak the language makes things 5 times as difficult, as I found in Catania. Not only that, Thomas has an eye for detail and a proactive attitude that gets things done, caring for Pantelisa as much as his own boat.

We were up early to leave Palermo. Half a mile out we noticed the wind direction and speed indicator wasn’t working. An impromptu meeting: should we return to the Marina to repair the indicator or continue to Sardinia? We could miss the weather window if we returned so we decided to continue; we could reef (reduce sail) and go cautiously at night.

That night we hit another lightning storm although I miraculously slept through this one, as we were slamming into waves in the centre of a thunderstorm with my head inches from the impact zone of hull on wave. Apparently, the lightning was all around and more frequent than the previous one. Julien said you could read a book by it, although I’d guess he probably wasn’t.

It was two nights voyage to San Pietro, a small island on the west coast of Sardinia

The next day was fairly straightforward, we had a dry day with a bright and breezy northerly wind that kept us sailing along. Nothing really to see or report

When I came on watch at midnight, we were already off the south coast of Sardinia with one ship to the north-east on an intercept course with our track. We were in the lee of Sardinia and motoring along a flat sea at a leisurely four and a half knots with the main task of keeping an eye on the approaching ship, I watched the giant cargo ship quietly pass at a half a mile off our starboard beam and steadily speed ahead of us. I didn’t have to change course or speed.

Being so close to the coast means that I could get internet so could catch up on messages. We were well ahead of schedule for early morning at San Pietro so increasing speed would be pointless. For the next couple of hours and in the absence of waves, I’d surf the internet for 5 minutes then check the AIS and scan the horizon.

We were due to change course at Capo Teulada to a northwesterly track toward Capo Sperone. Simultaneously we were out of the lee and the northerly wind heeled Pantelisa over five degrees. Without the wind indicator, it was hard to tell if it were enough wind to sail but sticking my head outside the bimini, it certainly felt like it.

Up until now, watches were just a case of holding one course and looking out for ships and problems. This was the first time I’d been on watch alone for a change of course so I steered the new heading and saw the wind was still at a favourable angle for sailing, if a bit close, and unfurled the genoa to the second reef. Easing back to tick over, the speed maintained at 5.5 knots and I cut the engine.

This change was enough to bring the skipper out for a double check which is as reassuring for me as much as him. It was deemed to be a good decision and Thomas retreated to his cabin and I enjoyed a good sail for a couple of hours without motor, the only concern on this new bearing was Isola Del Toro, a large rock hosting a lighthouse which was in our leeway (the path we drift due to the sideways push of the wind). Ideally, we should turn a new heading before then and, in the absence of boat traffic, the light on the rock was the only thing to look out for.

I was due to call Julien at four for his watch but I didn’t want to miss the new course change and stayed on for an extra half hour. The wind increased at the point I was thinking of turning which brought out both Julian and the skipper so we started the motor and changed course into the wind furling the genoa as a full crew.

I’d had a taste of single handing and it was sweet. It’s different to following orders as it involves an expanded awareness and often there is more than one choice for a given situation.

Under motor, head to the wind, Pantelisa was now banging northward through the waves but I was so tired I slept through it anyway, despite my cabin dropping over each crest into the concrete troughs below. My cabin had not dried out from the night before and was still leaking so I blissfully slept in my clothes under damp blankets.

I awoke to activity on the deck and grey light filtering through the hatch, and I arose just as Thomas came to announce we were nearly at Isola di San Pietro. With a groggy head, even tying a clove hitch was a challenge but we prepared the fenders and docked neatly in Carloforte shortly before 9am Saturday 11th November.

We were sheltering from another approaching front. Forty-knot winds from the west: the direction we wanted to go. So far, we were mooring more than we were sailing and the forecast looked like it was putting us here in Carloforte for at least five days…

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The Javelins of Jupiter

As much as I felt at home in Catania, it felt good to get back on the water. With just three weeks on Pantelisa, I was the old hand; in years as well as time on board. We had new crew: Thomas, the skipper, and Julien ‘the hitcher’.

We set off just after first light to make the best of the weather: sunny with light airs and we turned north along the coast to the Straits of Messina.

The sail was hoisted and Thomas repaired a broken sail track slide that no-one had noticed before with a neighbouring one missing a loop with nowhere to hang the sail. The sun was warm and the following swell gently rocked us along. Etna’s peak to the east protruding the top of the fluffy cumulus, adding her own faint plume. We would arrive at Messina around 4pm and should be around the cape before dark.

The narrow Straits of Messina are a funnel, both for traffic and current. Traffic was light and the frequent ferries between Sicily and the toe of Italy’s boot were easy to avoid. The current was against us and the gentle swell turned into a spiky chop. The water was like a washing machine and we lost a couple of knots speed. Further north, the current reversed and travelled with the wind and swell, the water smoothed to almost a slick and our speed boosted to 10 knots.

Rounding the cape at Torre Faro, our gentle following breeze turned into a lively broad reach and, with the wind chill, the temperature began falling along with the evening sun. The gusts were trying to round us up into the wind but we held on knowing we would be in the lee to the north of Etna in about half an hour. In Etna’s lee, things became quiet. We fired up the engine and I turned in to get some rest before my early morning shift.

The wind and sea picked up as we emerged from the mountain’s shelter, so we edged closer to shore for an easier life. My watch was to be from 3am but with the state of the sea banging the hull under my bunk, I couldn’t sleep so was up on deck from midnight.

With the gusts trying to head us up into the wind, we furled the genoa (headsail) and motored for keeping a stable course overnight. Julien turned in and we were in clear water with no marine traffic on the plotter as we motored into the night.

Squinting out over the starboard bow at about 3.30am, the horizon looked blacker than usual, I could see no stars ahead and there were some flashes in the distant sky. I went below to put on my waterproofs and life vest and alerted Thomas that a storm might be approaching. As I returned to the deck, Bam, a sudden thirty-knot wind on the starboard bow changed from the steady twenty-knot wind on the port, that had been with us all evening, like a light switch and Pantelisa heeled from one side to the other. I rounded up northward into the wind to ease the effect.

Thomas and I tried to get the sail down as fast as we could but the sail got stuck in the lazy jacks, lines that help guide the sail into its bag on the boom, and with the wind now gusting to 50 knots and rain restricting visibility, we could neither hoist nor lower the mainsail. The wind was shaking the rig and flogging our sail to shreds. We couldn’t see anything outside of the cockpit and all we could do was sit tight and hope that everything would hold together.

We were running blind. The motor was still pushing us along and the plotter reassured us we were heading in the right direction nowhere near land or any other boats, at least those that broadcast AIS. We had no idea how long this storm was set to last and moods were pretty low and the lightning was intensifying.

We were the highest point for miles in this storm and lightning was increasingly hitting the sea on all sides like javelins from the sky. I was looking astern when a blinding flash turned my head away and a deafening explosion less than half a second put the strike no more than one hundred metres away in our wake. We were right on that spot maybe thirty seconds ago. We either had divine protection or the ancient Roman god of thunder found us too small a target to hit. Thomas and I sat silently in the cockpit wrapped in our own thoughts, sparse insulation against the damp chill of the turbulent wind and rain.

By daybreak, the storm had eased and the tattered silhouette of the sail waved at us through the twilight. A sad sight, but we were lucky not have suffered worse. The sail had been torn across half way up with a few shreds linking the halves together. Thomas had found his repair had held but the sail had torn away from the rest of the fitting. He tidied up the sail from the mast end while I tried to zip up the cover from the other end. I thought the zipper had been torn away but it was discovered later hidden by a velcro cover. Meanwhile, we bound the sail up with a line to make ourselves decent before we entered Porto di Palermo.

We approached Palermo with sunlight penetrating the clouds and a rainbow arcing over the bay. A stark contrast to what went only hours before: perhaps a salute from the old god of thunder… Thomas is fluent in Italian so was easily able to use the VHF to locate a marina close to a sailmaker. Maybe the sail could be stitched back together. We would soon see.

Porto di Palermo is not pretty by any stretch, but the rusting cranes on the concrete shore were every bit as welcoming as Caribbean palms on a sun-kissed beach. The approach to the port was flat calm and the soggy grey clouds dissolved into the cool blue sky with hardly a breeze beneath the warm early morning sun and we coasted through the industrial iron seascape of Porto di Palermo toward Marina Nautico Galizzi.

Bad weather was forecast. Palermo was one of our intermediate destinations for sheltering from the forthcoming front, the other being the more beautiful Trapani. We had made it on schedule but not in the manner we had planned… and we had three days to make repairs if we weren’t to lose any time, and Palermo might just be the place to do that…

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Down in Catania

Santo, the marina manager, caught the lines thrown from the stern of Pantelisa as she confidently drifted stern-first into the berth after a powerful burst of throttle. Santo remembered Toni from when he was in Catania a couple of years ago, which helped in securing the generous loan of his car to ferry the Italian Navy’s empty fuel canisters to fill up with diesel at a gas station and back, then relay by wheelbarrow to syphon into the boat’s fuel tank.

With the boat topped up, deck cleared and hosed down we could actually kick back and relax for a bit. Note for the future, check the cockpit windows are closed before hosing the footwell, Toni’s mattress got a good soaking.

However, “worse things happen at sea” and “every cloud has a silver lining and all that.” Removal of the mattress gives access to the fuel tank and revealed a diesel leak around the tank inspection hatch, so we caught that before it found its way into the bilge and started stinking out the boat.

Accidental villain turned accidental hero, me.

Toni treated us to a few drinks at the Piazza Vincenzo Bellini and a nice meal at the Trattoria la Pentalaccia. It’s a different experience sharing space with people on land to on the boat and I get to know Toni and Rolf a little better. On the water, the background mission is always the boat. Our lives depend on it so we are never fully off duty.

With Toni and Rolf returning home to Switzerland, I’m left minding Pantelisa alone for two weeks until Thomas, the new skipper, arrives. There are still jobs to be done: laundry of the bedding, repair cracked bimini frame, install anti-chaffing fitment at the top of the mast, and restock the galley.

I keep promising myself to take a trip up to Etna but I stay on the boat three days without leaving the marina. I walked down the jetty to see Santo in the Marina office and show him the cracked frame of the Bimini. “Tomorrow, com-see…” and another day passes.

I return to the office to see Santo but Toni is there instead. Toni comes and looks at the crack and says “Ees too theen. See Franco tomorrow, over dare in ze bianco building.”
“What that white block with the three windows?”
“Si, bianco.”

The next morning, I pack up the laundry into my rucksack and head off a mile through town to the laundrette I picked out on Google Maps. I stop at Franco’s “Si. He no here. You com tomorrow.”

Flip-flopping the Sicilian streets gives psychological break and drifting around the sultry plazas while the clothes and bedding were tumbling dry loosened some of the brain cells that start to stagnate in comfortable surrounding. I return to Pantelisa with fresh and fragrant bed linen. A job on the list ticked off, achieving a sence of achievement.

The part arrived for the mast and I collected it from the office and contacted Luigi who had agreed with Toni to go up the mast and fix it. “Si, I come Saturday.”

Saturday came and I winched the little Italian up the mast with his drill, bag of nick-nacks and the all-important part.   All was fixed after an hour and a half of Luigi swaying nonchalantly in the Sicilian breeze at the top of the mast.

Second Job ticked off.

Whilst checking my messages out on the deck a young French guy shouldering a generous backpack wanders along up the pontoon and asks if I am going to Africa and could he have a lift. The answer was no, Gibraltar, but if he wanted to go there instead, I’d ask the owner and skipper, if it’s OK, let him know.

It turns out it’s OK with everyone and I message Julien to come in a week. He turns up an hour later with his rucksack and guitar. He’d been sleeping on the beach so, as much I preferred to stay I Pantelisa alone, I invited him to use a cabin for the week.

The next day, Julien says he’s going to Etna and do I want to go. I look up at the peak. I see the snow and think about my flip-flops.
“No thanks. You go and let me know if it’s worth it.”

Etna: €30 Cable Car; €15 Bus and €9 Jeep to the summit. You could probably save money by walking up from the cable car but it would take a couple of hours; longer wearing flip-flops.

Checking with Thomas the new skipper about provisions, he says “Get what you want and we’ll need about 100 litres of water…” The store that Toni pointed out is three kilometres away. Apparently, they deliver. Problem solved… until I get there and they tell me they don’t

“Ees no problem. When you ready, you com and I call taxi.” say’s the store manager. Fair enough. I match what’s on my list with what they have, leaving a quarter of my shopping list unsatisfied. I leave the water. I’ll get that later.

The manager who offered to phone a taxi is no longer visible. I consider pushing the shopping trolley three kilometres back to the boat but it would be a rough ride over the cobbles of the port. I attempt communication with a non-english speaking woman. She phones a taxi number using my phone and hands it back to me with a puzzled look. I dial the number again “You have insufficient credit for international calls, please top up your…” I hang up. The woman gets help from the attendant retrieving trolleys in the car park. He doesn’t speak English either. “I take machine. Twenty hours.” flashing his outstretched fingers twice, indicating twenty.
“You mean twenty minutes?”
“Si, twenty hours.”

I can wait twenty minutes so I agree and he disappears to retrieve a beaten up Fiat 127. More like twenty seconds. He takes me back to the marina and I sort out ten euros as a token of my gratitude.
“No ten hours! twenty hours!”
Ah, I get it… I hand over another ten euros. It was still worth every penny. Third job ticked off.

There’s a different guy in the office. Not Santo, Tony or Giuseppe. I didn’t catch his name. He speaks a little English. I show him a photo of a ten-litre water bottle and ask him where I can get them. “Ees very far. Need taxi.”

I messaged Luigi to see if he could help fetch water “I haff water on boat. You can haff. I com Friday.”

Friday comes and he has 40 litres in 2 litre bottles to add to the 30 litres already found in storage on Pantelisa. That would do, there’s plenty in the tank we can use for tea coffee and cooking, and it tastes clean. Fourth job ticked off.

WiFi is good at the Marina. I signed up for a course that a friend of mine was running called “28 Days of Courage,” which takes a specific personal challenge at gets you to take small actions to break down any resistance and change habits. I decide on posting a video every day since I hate being in front of the camera, public speaking and presenting. It occurred to me that perhaps I’m on a journey that might offer value for others if I shared it. I don’t know. Perhaps it will bring some purpose in my uncertain future since the recent sinking of my home in the Caribbean.

I see Franco at the ‘bianco’ building. He rattles around some boxes to find me a piece of pipe to strengthen the bimini frame but he can only fix it if I bring the whole frame in. The bimini frame looks like a giant metal puzzle and I have no tools or other person to attempt a repair. The pipe is meant to go inside and then riveted in place but the insert is too narrow to be tight and too short to restrict movement. There has to be another solution. I decide to deal with it Saturday when Thomas,  the skipper, arrives and share the burden …

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Warship

We were three or four hours into our 20 litres. Less than 2 gallons left, in old money. Wind was forecast for the afternoon but hadn’t come out of hiding yet, so we plodded on at reduced revs to conserve fuel. Dolphins came to cheer us on and went on their merry way. We needed more wind or more fuel, either would do: we weren’t fussy. The forecasted wind hadn’t come and there was no hint of any on the horizon either.

Almost dead ahead, just off the port bow coming towards us, a tall thin vessel was heading our way.

“Looks like a sailing vessel.” I said but the AIS indicates it’s further away and much larger than I think. Toni checks the AIS. It has the name “ITS Alliance” but little other detail. He shrugs and says “They can only say no…” and goes below to the VHF.

Above the murmur of the engine, I hear only the response from the vessel.

“This is Italian Military Ship Alliance!…”

We’ve gone and hailed a warship?

Toni is a pretty good English speaker but the Italian radio operator was having trouble taking down details so I was conscripted as Pantelisa’s own radio operator.

“What is it you require?”

I relay Toni’s request, “Eighty to a hundred litres of diesel, to make the port of Catania.”

“Eighty two hundred litres of diesel?”

“Negative, one hundred litres of diesel.”

Then we go through a series of bureaucratic questions, not my favourite topic; I prefer ones on science or eighties pop-music…

The phonetic alphabet was a distant memory from my early days in the Air Training Corps back in 1978, rekindled by living on Glee in St Martin on the VHF. While I’m pretty fluent in reciting it sequentially, random order is a bit more of a challenge. What sounds like deliberate measured pace and clarity over the VHF hides frantic memory retrieval activity in my neurons “Paul: papa… alpha… uniform… lima. The port of Fethiye: foxtrot… echo…” etc. After the information is relayed we’re asked to stand by.

“Shall we heave to?”

“Please, stand by…”

We maintain our course and speed of 4 knots and watch Alliance pass a half a mile away on our starboard beam at 5 knots. Looking at the AIS, we see Alliance begin to change course to round on our stern but she’s only doing 5 knots and she is now three quarters of a mile away. We cut the engine and drop our sails. If we were receiving assistance we wanted it before dark.

The VHF hailed from below. “Please stop your engines and everyone stand clear on the bow.”

We shuffle over to the bow and watch the orange rigid inflatable boat (RIB) get lowered over their port side and into the water.

The RIB took off on a wide arc and slowly spiralled toward us. We were being checked out. There were four or five men, one clearly silhouetted displaying a machine gun. I made sure my hands were clearly visible from a distance. The RIB came along our port side.

“We have one hundred litres of diesel for you.”

“Grazie Mille, how much do we owe you?” as we were hauling the jerry cans onboard

“Nothing, eez free!”

Toni threw the crew a Swiss army knife for their skipper as small token of gratitude and, with that, they sped off back toward Alliance with a friendly wave.

While Toni and Rolf were filling the tank from the new stock of jerry cans, I went to the VHF to express our gratitude. The radio operator said it was no problem and that instead of going to Catania, we should head to what I thought I heard as “Kintos.” I thanked him and searched in vain on the plotter for Kintos. If anything was closer than Catania, it wasn’t by much. It didn’t matter, we were set on Catania and we now had enough fuel to make it.

Neptune had come through after all, delivering a public vessel out of the blue right on our course. We toasted his health and that of the Italian Navy and we were on our way once again with over thirty hours of fuel and about the same amount of journey time to go. We were still cutting it fine.

Day five! This would be our last day before arrival at Catania so we stopped the engine for the opportunity for a blue water swim. The mainsail was still up and even with this asthmatic breathe of wind, we were breezing along at a knot and half so we made sure there was at least one of us still aboard and took turns for a swim.

The sea wasn’t particularly warm but then not as paralysingly cold as the English Channel. It’s a spooky experience seeing pure blue all the way down; nothing. Not even fish. Like flying in a second sky.

We’d had the fishing line out for days but nothing. Apart from the dolphins, this sea seemed pretty barren but the most disturbing part about it was the volume of plastic fragments suspended in the water: a plastic minestrone. Worse still, we don’t seem to be addressing the issue at all and the packaging assault on nature continues unabated…

I take an early nap and awake in darkness healed over to port. We have wind and the engine is off! Better late than never. I venture out into the cockpit. Rolf is asleep below and Toni is on watch. Pretty soon Toni turns in and, as he goes below, tells me to look out for small fishing boats, that won’t show on AIS, as we near the shore. And so it’s just me in the cockpit. Five minutes later the wind eases and the sails flail around in the dying breeze. I wait a minute to see if it’s a temporary lull but no, I start the engine, furl the genoa, and tighten the mainsheet. I’m familiar with this configuration by now.

Eyes peeled for small boats against the distant lights of the shoreline, I’m unable to concentrate on reading the Kindle. Twenty miles to go at five knots. Four hours. Gets us into Catania at 07:30. the vessels that were around us when Toni retired had disappeared astern. Nothing on AIS apart from a cluster in the harbour. My time is spent moving from side to side like a dog in a car waiting for his master to return from the supermarket. The feeling of responsibility slowly mounts as we get closer in.

There is a dotted red line on the plotter about seven miles from shore that should coincide with daybreak. A good time to awaken the skipper I reckon.

Daybreak. Toni has a friend in the marina at Porto Di Catania. Luigi answers the call and alerts Santos, the harbour master, that we are on our way in. An hour or so later, Santos waves us into a vacant berth with the engine sipping the last of the fuel.

Catania. Sunday morning. Hallelujah…

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God’s Breath

Sometimes you get those “Where the hell am I?” moments upon waking. My bag was at the foot of my bed and I was still in yesterday’s clothes with the blanket still folded next to me. I remember, Turkey, Pantelisa, I was on an adventure.

The sun was already up and it was already tshirt weather. Fethiye in October about 18C already.

Toni’s the skipper and tells me to check the food and buy what I want extra. I see ranks of closed cupboard doors and hatches and the fridge. The last thing I want to do is go rummaging around someone else’s boat on a food hunt. I look in a few assorted cupboards at brushes pans, plates, and food. I look at the multicoloured mosaic of packaging in the fridge and go and buy some peanuts and shower gel.

After topping up the water tanks, I head for the showers to be called back before I reach the block. Apparently we need to check out in a hurry. Someone has been waiting at customs for a us a while. We have to go by dinghy as the office is in a secure bonded area inaccessible by land. We have to exit the marina and follow the outside of the pontoon back to the port. If the outboard were to breakdown it would be here, the furthest point away from both Pantelisa and Customs, which it does. We paddle to the pontoon and walk back to the quay and borrow a speedboat.

Returning from the showers, Toni says “Do you want to go out for something to eat for lunch or shall we go now?” I say that now’s OK with me. After all, I was here for the voyage.

 

It was gone midday but when we departed was pretty much irrelevant as we would be sailing through several nights anyway. It didn’t matter when night came along the way. Half a mile out, we notice the autopilot wasn’t working so we swing around to the dock. The autopilot is virtually another crew member. One that never gets tired, eats, drinks or complains and has a steady hand on the helm. It’s a shame he’s blind though as otherwise we could leave him in charge.

The Raymarine engineer was due in half an hour so Toni suggests we go to the restaurant for lunch. Fajitas and a beer on the waterfront at Fethiye; I’ve had worse problems. About an hour later, with the problem traced to a loose relay, shortly after 2pm we were heading out. This was it, the first step in a 7000 mile voyage.

I’m still in discovery mode. Every skipper and crew has different ways of doing things. Some are strict and regimented, others are more easy going. I liked the casual and relaxed feel here. There was next to no wind but we expected it to pick up in a day or two. The weather never stays the same for long in the Mediterranean.

The watch rotation was informal. Sleep when you want and wake someone up when you feel tired. This sounded great at first but in reality I never really felt off duty and I tried to find my own slot in a regular part of the night watch to try and maintain a regular sleep pattern. Otherwise it is a long boring stint in darkness, from dusk ‘til dawn, looking out over the sea for lights and squinting against the glare of the Automatic Identification System plotter screen(AIS). Then the morning comes and I catnap through the day until night again.

We had no radar but AIS seems so well established now that almost every vessel is visible on it. That and a constant lookout would do us fine. What was that over there about half a mile away? some lights of a yacht look to be coming close. I check the AIS. A Cargo ship 7 miles away. Distances are deceptive at night. When I settled in, I’d read my Kindle on my phone for five minutes then check around and see what’s on the AIS. Still it’s pretty unnerving steaming ahead into inky blackness.

On the third day, the weather is warm and calm and we were motoring far more than anticipated. We decide to make a slight detour and dip into Neapolis on the Greek coast to top up on some fuel. Just as we moor up a Coast Guard official approaches and insists we check into immigration and customs. We only needed a splash and dash and try to appeal to his common sense. We couldn’t find any. I hadn’t even stepped off the boat so still never physically been to Greece. He took down names and passport numbers in his little book and released us on condition that we would go directly to Kalamata and clear in, paying the customary fees.
For what purpose this pointless bureaucracy for the sake of some fuel? Escaping from this agentic, power hungry drone, we rounded the southern point and switched off our AIS so that the Coast Guard could’t pick up our Westerly track away from Kalamata. We didn’t expect them to follow but we were checking behind us for a couple of hours anyway.

The sun was warm and the sea was flat. A little wind picked up early on but it was on the nose and it soon exhaled with a wispy sigh again. At dinner, we considered we had been neglecting Neptune. Some beer splashed into the sea as a toast and maybe he would smile upon us tomorrow.

Day four, we had been motoring almost constantly day and night. Whatever wind there was, it was a but a flirting breath on our faces. The fuel gauge had been showing full for two days and now it was beginning to plummet. We stopped the engine and Toni and Rolf checked the tank. We had about 20 litres left in the tank and a full 20 litre can in the locker. We estimated 3 litres an hour so maybe 14 hours left. We had another 2 days to get to Sicily.

A decision was made. We would motor until the tank ran dry…

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Turkish Delight

Gail is a free spirit like me. She lives semi-off-grid but civilised, like. With plug in power and running water etc. Gail is a healer and gives me tarot readings. I always feel good around Gail.

After a red-wine induced sleep, I remembered our conversation about signs from the Universe and hearing something ping into Gail’s phone. I promised to see Patrick Gamble, psychic artist, in Glastonbury. I didn’t want to go now in the sober light of day. Time was ticking and I still had to find a resting place for my big yellow van but “Said it, Doing it.” I thought; signs from the universe and all that… and I still had the rest of the day to get up to Ebbw Vale.

I was hoping My second cousin, Andrew, would be okay with looking after Big Yellow since he had offered last year. I’d been unable to raise him on the phone since I’d been back. I was due to visit him anyway this trip and if it was a problem then worse case would put me back in Essex with a long trip back to Bristol airport, or another cheap flight out of Stansted.

Patrick painted my spirit guide. Nice looking feller. Didn’t recognise him though. The message I got along with it was to be more audacious “Fly your flag, don’t have it folded in your pocket.” I take his point. I don’t like arrogance and don’t like being in the spot-light so I carry some dissonance with that as I exit Yin Yang into Glastonbury High Street.

Seventy Five miles to Ebbw Vale. I estimated that I had enough fuel so planned to leave big yellow stored with a mostly empty tank while I’m away. Approaching the Severn Bridge Toll gate, I knew there would be a delay while the inside is checked over and that my van really is a camper, saving £7 on the toll. I switched on my hazard flashers so following traffic can peel off to other gates. Yes, it worked for a few seconds until a car pulled up to my tail and blocked my flashers from view for everyone else. Still, it was only a short wait before a high-viz vested agent to skipped across the gates to peer through the door and put his thumb up to the cashier, to the relief of the growing queue of cars behind drumming their finger on their steering wheels and craning their necks out the windows.

Twenty three miles to go and fuel was falling faster than expected. The Welsh hills were taking their toll. I could top up at the next fuel station if need be. Turning off before Abergavenny, the steep hills became one steady climb.  The needle on the gauge was nudging the bottom of the red as big yellow heaved her way up the endless hill. This was new road freshly scarred into the emerald green landscape and stitched along the edges with orange and silver road-cones. If there were any fuels stations they remained on a drawing board. My old sat nav put me somewhere in the wilderness trying to snap my track back into by-passed streets. The speed limit was 40mph but 30 was the best I can do, which prolonged the agony for me for the following traffic encouraging my progress from behind.

The gauge drops a little off the bottom of the dial as I arrive in Ebbw Vale and I make it up the drive and allow the tension ease over my shoulders. I must have helped Big Yellow up the hills with my prayers…

Andrew wouldn’t tolerate me sleeping in the van, he gave up his room while he slept on the sofa in front of the roaring fire. I’m happy in my van but many people are insistent I go indoors. He’s a good man, is Andrew. With looking after his mum until she passed away and then his German Shepherds at home, he hasn’t been away much, I tell him to use the van while I’m away, take the dogs too. A call to the insurance company gets him onto the policy.

Monday morning 8am, Andrew drove me down to the railway station. I was on my way again, this time to Turkey to join Pantelisa, a yacht for delivery to Colombia. Sailing the Atlantic was on my bucket list ten years ago but this epic journey took in the whole of the Mediterranean and Caribbean too. And I wasn’t even looking for this and it just dropped into my lap via Lucy who had since ducked out and taken another option.

Looking at the notice board against a slate grey Welsh sky 08:18 my flight was 15.55 so I had plenty of time to get to the airport and relax.

I stepped off the train in Bristol into a haunting, blood-red sky with the sun an orange disk hanging in the clouds stirred by a warm, gusty wind. Hurricane Ophelia was making landfall in Ireland but it’s presence was felt here too. Hurricane Irma brought me home. Hurricane Ophelia sends me away…

Turkey reminds me of a Zoo… in that you have to pay to get in. They call it a ‘visa’ to give it some official credibility but it’s really no different to a ticket. Next to passport control was a ticket booth labelled ‘Visa Applications.’ The only application involved was handing over some cash. Kerching! Then to queue at passport control for a FREE rubber stamp thumped on top of it. Bonus!

A hundred years ago, passports were generally not required for international travel. Now look at this bureaucratic industry of fear mongering non-jobs that rake in millions of pounds every year disguised as being for our own security.

Anyway, $30 lighter, I march through the dark, warm air to the gentle fanfare of chirruping crickets. A motley collection of taxi drivers holding badly written signs stood at a barricade. “Paul Pantelisa.” That’s me, no-one had my surname but the sign served its purpose.
“Hello, I’m Paul” I say thrusting out my hand.
Perplexed, the driver offered me his limp fingers. The relationship progressed no further other than sharing the journey. The taxi was already paid and I had no idea where the marina was and it was too much bother me asking my Turkish chauffeur. Much easier to wait and see what was at the end of the magical mystery tour. Anyway, it would make no difference to the arrival time.

We travelled about 50km mainly in the middle of the road with me leaning toward the curb to encourage the vehicle back into its lane. This wasn’t the UK though. Hardly any traffic at this time of night and other drivers seemed to be expecting unstructured road-craft from their countrymen.

It was about midnight when I found myself at the gate at Marina Yat Limani, Fethiye.
“Pantelisa!” I told the guard.
…I think he asked for pontoon and berth…
“I don’t know… Boat! Pantelisa!”
Toni and Rolf, my Swiss crew mates appeared down the quay. I guessed they noticed the taxi pull up. It didn’t matter how. Problem solved.
“Is that all you got?”
“Yes, I travel light and I don’t like checking in bags.”
I was escorted to Pantelisa, directed inside, dumped my backpack into the starboard fore cabin and joined the guys for a beer on the stern.

New boat, new guys, new experience. The unfamiliarity feels awkward and I find it hard to fully relax in so much ‘newness.’ I know this feeling passes with time but I’ve spent long enough periods out of my comfort zone that I expect to feel more and more at ease wherever I go. This could be a remnant of seeking approval or fear of looking foolish: something interesting to put under the microscope before the next opportunity.

Meanwhile, the introductions are complete, beer quaffed and first impressions registered. Time to fumble my way to bed, banging doors of unfamiliar weight, size and direction, and figuring out where the light switches are. I’ll deal with my bag tomorrow. It’s dark and I’m tired. My next adventure was about to start… or maybe it already had…

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The Chippenham Guy

Saturday. I spend the day on constructing a letter to Norman the doorman, with the initial intention of covering my backside from the ‘criminal’ justice system. Read that as you will. As I work through, I wonder, about the circumstances that drove this guy from starting off apparently well-intentioned in his tenancy to running away when asked questions? And so, the letter was composed and edited and re-edited adding more and more compassion and stating I wouldn’t be chasing the debt.

In reality, I would get no money back. Experience had proved that to me in the past.

When I think of Norman and my own experience of life, I’m trying to get through it as best I can. I guess we all are. And the letter ends up being both a legal notice and an illustration of how someones actions (or lack of) can affect other people’s lives.

A friend offers to ome along as a witness. Part of me says I’d like the company and part of me wants to be ‘self sufficient,’ however that may look. I gratefully accept.

Norman is due on duty at 22.15 and we arrive letter in hand at 22:05. Three people are on the door. Maybe I was wrong and one of these guys is Norman. So I check.

“The guy from Chippenham? Yeah, he sometimes works up at Moles near the Slug and Lettuce but if he’s on the rota, he usually pulls up on his motorbike over the road there.”

We wait over the road there.

22:15… 22:25… 22:35… he or his motorcycle fail to show. I walk into the bar to see the boss. The barmaid says the boss is not in so I explain I want to leave the letter for Norman.

“Oh the Chippenham guy, yeah I’ll put the letter in the office and give it to him when he comes in.”

I have another copy of the letter and head up to Moles to do the same.

“Oh the Chippenham guy? He won’t be in for a couple of weeks but we’ll keep it for him.”

I’ve done all I can. Notice has been served… He seems unlikely to challenge the repossession since it’s clear he lives elsewhere now anyway.

I suggested a quiet drink to celebrate repossession, somewhere away from the Saturday hustle and bustle. Maybe at The Globe on the way back to Bristol. My friend has a better Idea. Turtle Bay, a Caribbean cocktail bar near Pulteney bridge. Turns out, probably the most hustley bustley bar you are likely to find this side of Jamaica. I queue in the third rank from the bar watching cocktails being painstakingly mixed by hand and shuffling forward when orders were completed, paid for and new orders bellowed over the noise of the raucous crowd. I show the barman two fingers and point to the Red Stripe lager, since proper beer isn’t available here, and retreat to the terrace next to the river away from the reverberating bar.

Returning to Bristol Harbour, I decided to stay the night on the City Docks and Dock Estate’s parking area. There was someone already tucked up for the night, not far from the van in a doorway under blankets: a girl in her twenties by the look of it. I was tempted to check if she needed anything but she was asleep and looked quite comfortable and realised I was unlikely to extend the same courtesy to a guy in similar circumstances. I don’t see guys as quite so vulnerable. I slid the door closed behind me as quietly as I could and tucked up under my duvet.

It’s a mistake to camp in a city centre on a Saturday night. Shouts, screams and lunatic laughter from the alcohol fuelled zombie apocalypse puncture my sleep and pepper my dreams .

BANG! The van lurches to one side and I awake with a start as I’m teleported from the dream world to the waking one. There’s a commotion outside and I get dressed and emerge out of the side door to the shock of four youths next to a white hot hatch with yellow paint on its bumper. Someone was showing off by reversing out of a parking space as fast as possible.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, be cool, man!” as the biggest kid waved his hands in some kind of cultivated rap artist gesture. They hadn’t expected me to appear but it wasn’t me that was getting agitated, I was still waking up. No-one would tell me what had happened and the van looked all right so I left them to their inane jabbering and went back to bed to let the adrenaline from the sudden impact dissipate and allow sleep to return.

Dents are easier to see in the sunlight. Bottom corner of the door and it didn’t look too bad; the door opens and closes all right. Even if I’d have noted their registration, I wouldn’t have bothered with an insurance claim. I’d rather focus on more positive things, like a cruise across the harbour. The mission was to empty the toilet on a friends boat but a cruise is a cruise, especially on this near tropical Sunday morning.

The rest of the day was spent on the boat in and out of the sun, working on the Irma entries of this blog. Writing takes me a great amount of time and editing sometimes more and, since I was in company, it was quite late by the time I returned to the van. I’d moved to the end of the parking area away from reversing cars and my slumbering companion was back in her doorway.

Monday morning 9th October, tired after the remnants of the weekend’s zombie apocalypse paraded past the van in the night. If it was quieter, it was only slightly. I was to be catching up with Sue from Gloucester and I also wanted to check flights to Turkey ready for the voyage to Colombia. They want me in Dalaman in a week. So a quick breakfast and WiFi session at the V shed before Sue’s arrival at 10:30 and to shoehorn an itinerary for cleaning out the apartment putting it on the market and travel as far down as Devon and up to Powys to visit some friends and finish up where I hope to store the van once again. All that in a week.

Sue and I sat in the sun sipping green tea, later joined by Jackie. The sun moved around putting us in the shade, and it started getting cold and we sought shelter in Costa, preferably away from the air conditioners competing with the wind for the coldest breeze. I walked Sue back to the car and then continued with the WiFi at the V Shed once again. I found an Easyjet ticket out of Bristol to Dalaman, Turkey on the 16th for £49.48: booked and confirmed. I was to be out of the UK in a week; maybe for the rest of the year.

That night, I headed to Chippenham to clean up the flat. I spent the night there on the mattress on the floor and called into Atwell Martin first thing in the morning to inform them that I now had possession and to book a valuation. Cleaning didn’t take long and Miles from Atwell Martin recommended a solicitor for the conveyancing and said I could get new window handles cheap from B&Q to replace the broken one. I thought they were bespoke to the window companies but no, shiny new handles fitted within an hour of Miles leaving.

Wednesday morning 9:30am and I was filling in forms and photocopying IDs at the solicitors. Things were moving fast now and life felt vibrant and exciting because of it. With forms signed and others taken away to fill in later, I was on the road to Devon. First stop, Lucy’s in Exeter. The weather was warm and sunny and Lucy showed me the sights. I like Exeter. Staying longer than a day would have been nice…

A text arrives from Atwell Martin… the apartment had been sold! Yes, things were moving fast now.

A quick coffee with Gary in Exeter services. I met Gary at a Chris Howard Seminar in 2006 and hadn’t seen him since. He was keen to get an update on Sint Maarten as he loves the place. He’s done well for himself and looks really happy with life. We only had an hour since I’d gone the wrong direction up the M5 on my way to meet but and I promised to take up his invitation and see him next time I’m back.

The van wheels crunch the gravel in the village hall car park in Blackborough. They don’t like me parking there but I’ll be gone in the morning. Dinner and a bed for the night at Richard’s. He is the author of The Watchers, The Hidden Hand (under a pseudonym) and ‘Playing the Great Game of Life’ under his own name. He’s a mentor for me really who helped me recover from a painful separation and guided me toward living a new life. I met him in Panama at an International Property seminar and he has since diversified into a more esoteric and holistic path including hypnotherapy and writing.

10am the next morning saw me winding my way northwest through the sunlit autumn gold of the Somerset landscape…

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The Earl of Manvers

I had achieved all I could in Chippenham. The apartment was secure and I had a lead for Norman the elusive Doorman, a night club in Bath.

I hadn’t seen many friends yet, a couple of which were in Bristol. Bath was on the way so ‘two birds with one stone’ and all that.

6pm on a Monday evening: not the best time of day for driving along the A4 through the centre of Bath but I feel it was time invested well enough to enjoy over in Bristol with Jackie.

The evening was hanging on to daylight as I turned past the cricket ground, across the Avon and left into Manvers Street. Turning down South Parade, there were some roadworks near the taxi rank. My van looked at home in its construction yellow livery next to warnings and barricades. I was unlikely to get a ticket. Walking toward the railway station looking at the door numbers of the subtle frontages had me walk right by Earls. It was closed all day today. In a way I was relieved. I didn’t particularly want to confront a doorman tonight; or ever, for that matter.

After queueing to get into Bath, I was queueing to get out again. It was dark by the time I got to Bristol and the postcode I was given came to a dead end. I was tired and irritable by the time I’d phoned for further directions. Driving through cities is not as fun as it used to be. I ended up at the City Docks and Dock Estates, a great spot for parking near the Watershed and harbour. And I would be safe from parking penalties until at least the next day.

I made my way to Chapel Street, where I used to drive out of delivering fruit and veg. There are no parking regulations there and I noticed two vans that had apparently taken up residence, judging by the stack of boxes and mess around them. Hippies? I guess I’m one too but I leave no mess behind.

The next day is spent in the Knight’s Templar on Temple Quay, soaking up as much WiFi as possible and catch up on what’s happening back in St Martin and organise my tour of the South West. There were various people I wanted to visit from Cornwall to Pembrokeshire to Anglesey to Yorkshire. It would take weeks – especially as I had the luxury of time to spend with people. I received a text from Lucy ‘Bit of a random one but an opportunity has presented itself. I’ve been offered a crew spot on a boat delivery from Turkey to Colombia and the boat owner has asked me if I know anyone else that might want to crew… There is one little issue and that is that he wants the journey to kick off from Turkey on 18th October (2 weeks).’

Two weeks, that puts the mockers on my UK tour of friendships.

It was Tuesday evening, time to drive over to Earls. I didn’t feel like facing that, or even driving after having just finished a strong beer. Packing up and exiting the Knight’s Templar. I looked briefly toward the footbridge that led the way to the van then turned the opposite direction and walked down to the harbour to see Jackie and Aris instead…

Wednesday evening, my birthday, as it happens, 8.20pm. I park up at South Parade in Bath and walk down to Earls. It’s open but there’s nobody on the door. I wander in and approach the bar and ask for Norman the doorman. The barman tells me he doesn’t know him and he’ll get the boss. I decline the offer of a drink with the excuse that I’m driving. Truth be told, the neon glare, cocktails and throbbing din of the tuneless beat are not my style.
“Who wants him?” the owner asks.
“I’m his ex-landlord and I want to know what he wants me to do with the belongings he left behind.”
“Ah, Okay…” He looks at the rota on his phone. “He’ll be in Thursday 21:45 and Saturday 22:15.”
“OK, thanks.” and I leave. I’m tempted to spend the night camped out in South Parade as it’s pretty quiet for the centre of Bath but returning to Chapel Street in Bristol puts me back in the city ready for morning well before all the parking spots fill up.

Thursday 7:08am and my phone buzzes. Checking my messages, I see it’s from Lucy. Lucy and her mother are coming to Bristol today. Would I like to meet up? “Yes, I would” was the short answer to that. There’s an authenticity about Lucy that is rare in others. It usually takes time to crack people’s shells and really connect with their heart… Lucy has no shell that I can see and I don’t know whether she ever had one. It would be good to reconnect.

I needed breakfast and a swim/shower. Breakfast is easy, the Knights Templar is cheap and filling. The rest is a variable. Crossing Bristol Bridge, there are steps down to the water that are bathed in sunshine but the water would be cold and the 2ft climb out would be a challenge. Worst of all would be so many onlookers on the bank and the bridge watching me lather what’s left of my hair. Maybe looking like Gollum prepping for a wedding…

I walk on. 10:20am, I arrive at the “Otium Leisure Club,” as indicated by Google Maps, for a shower and maybe a swim. The Otium is now the Mercure Hotel Health Spa. I buzz the door and follow the signs down stairs to reception and ask about a swim:
“£15 but there are swimming lessons now so not available for a while”
“What about a shower, I need to meet someone at eleven?”
“Sure, if you’re quick and don’t go near the pool.”
“Great, I’ll be 5 minutes, how much do I owe you.”
“Nothing, it’s OK. Just don’t go near the pool area.”

To be fair, I was 15 minutes as I sneaked a quick shave and stayed away from the pool area.

11:00am I was fresh and fragrant outside the Hippodrome waiting to meet Lucy off the Long Ashton Park and Ride. The streets were busy and the sun was warm on my face. The Long Ashton Park and ride doesn’t stop at the Hippodrome and Lucy appears as if out of nowhere. Lucy looked very well and somewhat different to the ‘hurricane’ Lucy with which I’d shared my recent adventure. It was a weird feeling having shared an experience like Irma  and then meeting them on more historic ground. Like seeing a favourite actor appear in a familiar TV series. The overlap didn’t seem to mesh easily but sharing space with both Nancy and Lucy for the day was a real joy and something of an escape from my current mission.

I arrive at Manvers Street early, maybe 8pm and squeeze the van into a tight space in South Parade. Far too early for Norman the doorman. I text Dunstan who lives on a boat on the Avon.
“Where are you?”
“Ha’penny.”
“WTF?…” It takes a moment to remember…  Ha’penny Bridge is the footbridge across the river from the rail station. Less than 100 metres from Manvers Street.

‘Purpose’ is moored against the railings under Ha’penny Bridge: a spacious GRP river cruiser with a homely interior. We share some hot detox tea and stories of our collective adventures while getting hammered at backgammon.
“One more?”
“No, I have an appointment to keep…”

There is a melee on the pavement outside Earls. Crossing the street I see the melee is for ‘Second Bridge,’ the sister nightclub to Earls. Earls is actually a cocktail bar. It’s 22:15, a half hour into Norman’s shift. There are three doormen filtering customers through the door by age, and appearance most probably. Which one is Norman? I didn’t have an accurate description. One guy is tall with dark skin, another is short, pale and scrawny with dark hair, which leaves the other: my height but more stocky with fair hair and beard. I think it’s him from conversations with Atwell Martin.

“Norman?”
Stocky’s head swivels round in an instant.
“Paul, your ex landlord.”
A slight moment’s pause.
“Sorry you’ve got the wrong bloke” and looks away.
His ID badge is on his right arm, which is facing away from me.
I didn’t anticipate this. How can I be sure it’s him? I was too tentative for the easy option and ask him to show me his ID. Instead I do what I do playing chess: think for a very long time. I can see him fidget a little. Silence can be painful sometimes… I still haven’t got the next move… I wait some more.
“Can I help you?” Tall guy asks, Tall and his friend, Short-and-scrawny, probably didn’t hear our brief exchange over the noise of the music and crowd along the pavement.
“I’m looking for Norman Smith…”
“But he’s not in.” chimes in Stocky.
“Not in?” laughs Short-and-scrawny, looking over at Stocky…

I get the picture now and ask Stocky:
“Norman’s left his stuff in my flat. Do you think he’ll mind if I put his things in his trailer outside so he can collect them whenever he wants?”
“I don’t know mate, you’ll have to ask him.”
“Will he be in Saturday then?”
“Don’t know mate…”

I take his lack of objection as implied consent…

‘Check!’ his move. and I return to the van…

The next day, Jackie, Aris and I meet at the flat and proceed to empty the apartment contents into the pig-trailer. It would have been a daunting task on my own but with three of us, we were done in a couple of hours with the lock changed too. The trailer had no roof so I bought a tarpaulin to make it as watertight as possible. All that was needed now was a bit of a clean up and repairing a handle that broke off when closing the window. I could do that later. I had issued a verbal notice and taken vacant possession. This felt like a huge stride forward. It was a nice apartment but I’m done with property. Too much hassle and an asset for the state to claw away from you if you fall ill or onto bad times. The game is rigged and I’m not playing any more. No, I’d be better off cashing in the equity and chancing my future as a modern-day nomad, on land or sea. I felt freer already…

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A Clean Start

I spent three nights at my uncle Terry and aunt Margrit’s not far from Heathrow. I needed some rest and recuperation and time to map out what needed to be done while back in the UK. I had only the clothes that I’d brought from St Martin so Terry donated some warm clothes and trainers.

Life is like a trek across the hills: once you’ve conquered one peak then the view opens up to the next. Now that I was back and over Irma’s peak I could get a clearer view of what was ahead. I’ve discovered that it’s pointless to try and guess what’s beyond the next hill and best to deal with what’s immediately in view.

A brand new chapter in my life’s journey and a fresh page on which to write it. My son’s 21st birthday was in a couple of days and I wanted to be there for that. My Van was in the woods on a farm in Essex miles away and needed fixing up, that would take more than a couple of days. But the biggest mission was to restore the rental income that had dried up over the last few months due to an errant tenant that stopped paying rent on an apartment in Wiltshire. I needed transport to go and see for myself what was happening since the letting agents were not providing updates. Money was running out steadily.

I had originally intended only two or three nights at T&M’s but I still felt exhausted after two nights but the third night took me into Sunday where the public transport prices from Staines to Northampton were double what they would be for a weekday. Also, Phil, my old school-mate, was working and would be home Monday and I could walk to his house from the bus station. Staying the extra night solved a few problems and got me back to Northampton on the day of my son’s birthday.

Phil has a spare room and offers me sanctuary at his home whenever I’m back in Northampton. He kindly lent me his car so I could take my son out to dinner and then go and visit my mother over the week I was there. My sister donated her old phone so I was getting back on my feet without too much effort on my part.

It was an odd sensation being ‘home.’ Everything you can think of is available here, where it takes some scraping around in the Caribbean to get what you want, often having to make do. The supermarkets are bursting with goods with room to move between the aisles – and ironically bustling with bored looking and unhappy crowds of people. A country so full that feels so empty…

The van was the next item on the list and Phil offered to drive me down to Neil’s in Essex. Neil was looking after the van on a friends farm while I was away and he offered me his sofa while we got the van road-legal. Together with a few of Neil’s friends, the brakes were fixed and we were awarded an MOT certificate for another year. In the back, I thought there would be mould in the bedding, since the UK is so damp most of the time but it was pretty good apart from being covered in mouse droppings and the corners of bags, boxes and books being gnawed away. Cleaning the van out revealed a mouse’s nest made out of Sainsbury’s carrier bag strands and flakes under the bed but no mice, dead or alive, and a trip to the launderette freshened up the bedding and covers.

It took about 3 days to sort the van’s MOT certificate out but Neil is good company so I spent a fourth night on his sofa before heading down to Wiltshire…

It was dark by the time I arrived in Devizes and I parked in a quiet spot just outside the cemetery gates next to the Canal. Handy for a Wetherspoons breakfast in the morning. The van had run really well. I was thinking I didn’t really need a boat… until spending the night in 4°C with Autumn barely upon us. I can handle the cold but not for the six months plus that it feels like in Britain.

After breakfast and a warm up in Wetherspoon’s, I headed back toward the van via Tea Inc. “Hello is it tea you’re looking for?” on the chalkboard outside was the cheery greeting that welcomed me in as the hinges on the door squeaked my arrival. The owners weren’t there, but Alex was and we happily chatted over a cup of nettle tea until way past my parking time limit.

Facebook kept her up to date with my adventures abroad and felt like we chatted like old friends. It was easy to put off dealing with the property issue but the threat of a parking ticket was a big enough nudge to down the last few gulps of the tea and make my way…

I parked up in Chippenham and walked across the Avon Bridge to Atwell Martin Estate Agents. They didn’t recognise me until I told them the address I was enquiring about. Basically, they had not been able to contact the tenant (we shall call him Norman to protect his real name of Richard) for the last couple of months. It appears, Norman lost his job a few months ago and got some work as a doorman but they didn’t know where. And they thought it would be pointless me calling round since he was never in whenever they called. I already had a key so…

Pulling into the car parking area with the crackle of the van’s Ford Diesel engine disturbing my stealthy approach, I noticed windows open but the blind down on the lounge window. I didn’t really fancy confronting a nightclub bouncer about rent arrears but I had to stop the various scenarios spooling through my imagination and just go and take a look and see what happens…

The windows, being ajar, gave the impression that someone was home so I knocked on the door a couple of times: no answer. Likewise at the neighbours to try and get some info: nothing. Going outside and calling through the open window and lifting the blind for a quick look gave the impression that someone would be back soon. All it needed was a steaming cup of coffee standing on the table as a classic mystery clue.

Since there was no-one home and the windows were open, I used my key for ‘peaceful entry,’ or whatever the legal term is. As the door swung open, a pile of unopened mail swept along the arc of the door. Clearly, no-one had been in for days or weeks. The mould on the washing up in the sink kind of confirmed that too. Otherwise, the place looked ‘lived in.’ There was nothing much I could do apart from closing the windows before leaving. None of the scenarios I had imagined had played out in reality. In fact, the open windows did me a favour in allowing me grounds for legal access with no hint of adversity.

On my way out, I met William, the neighbour opposite. I hadn’t seen him for a year so we had a quick catch up about boats, hurricanes and homelessness before getting into the history of Norman the elusive Doorman. Apparently, Norm hadn’t been around for a couple of months. He had a girlfriend here not long before disappearing and, since they’ve been gone, various people have been banging on his door. My guess is debt collectors looking at the mail envelopes. William told me
“He works as a doorman.”
“I know, Atwell Martin told me but no-one knows where.”
“No, he works at Earls in Bath. I see him when I walk to the station when I finish my shift. We say hello as I pass… Yeah, I saw him there last week sometime.”

This was getting to be fun. A puzzle to unravel. I had a lead…

Returning to Atwell Martin, I relayed my findings to their surprise, and tried to clarify the situation since the Tenancy Agreement had expired a couple of weeks previous and the property appeared to be ‘abandoned.’ There was no solid conclusion apart from to get legal advice. I went to the local pub with WiFi to ask on the property forum’s instead. It turned out that all I had to do was have a ‘duty of care’ for Norman’s belongings; safe storage for a reasonable period, apparently. Without this, a judge might take the side of the tenant should the matter go to court.

As luck would have it, there was a pig trailer in the parking area that William told me belonged to Norman. But, before emptying the apartment, I would go to Earls…

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Irma: Part 4

6.00pm Pointe a Pitre airport, Guadeloupe. Two hours at a cafe table on hard seats surrounded by luggage and bustling, baggage laden itinerants is not a recipe for peace and tranquillity. Patrick was getting edgy and already wanted to join the queue that was beginning to form at the suspected check-in line. Lucy and Patrick had been falling out rapidly the last few hours. The uncertainty we were experiencing was morphing into stress. Vanessa and I remained placid and Patrick went to join the queue clearly irritated that none of us showed any sign of following. Standing for an hour or two isn’t too appealing for me and I remained seated with Lucy, while Vanessa diplomatically joined Patrick in the queue.

Around 7.30pm, some list wielding administrators bristling with highlighter pens appeared at the head of the queue and people started filtering past their new check point and toward the check in desks. Lucy and I collected our bags and joined the queue about six feet behind Patrick and Vanessa with about 5 people between us. My name was quickly found on the list, checked against my passport and I was politely waved through. Lucy’s name wasn’t visible. No Cooper on the list. Cooper, Cooper… No… no Cooper… Lucy’s heart was in her mouth. It still hadn’t appeared by the third time of scanning a finger down the column. Lucy retained the presence of mind to scan across to the first name column next to it… her official name, Thomasin, there it was. Thomasin Coter… a typo lost in translation. A quick cross reference of the passport number confirmed the error and she was waved through too, and we all eventually met up with Pat and Vanessa at the departure gate cafe and relax best we could. “There won’t be any food on the flight, better get something here.” Pat told us. Looking at the prices in the airport, I’d rather starve, if that was even a possibility of recent sumptious living at the Ben Haddou’s. It was past 9pm and judging by the last couple of weeks, departure could be between 15 minutes to a few hours, only left to our imagination and patience.

Peering at the plane through the windows into the darkness revealed no company markings I had ever seen. Airbus A 350 X-WB was it’s markings. A black and grey chequered tail with a giant A350 painted diagonally up it. I hadn’t heard of the A350. Boarding revealed an area of missing seats, masking tape and the aroma of new upholstery like a new car. This thing was straight out of the factory. A demo model, perhaps, that pilots could take for a spin…

Patrick and Vanessa took their seats and Lucy and I ended up about six rows and a toilet pod behind them, including the three of four missing rows across the empty space in between. No grand parting. this would be the last contact I had with Pat and Vanessa before they disappeared into the Parisian landscape. This was a wide-bodied jet similar to the 777, nine seats across, and I was in the centre. The flight crew were more numerous than usual and wore no common uniform – perhaps they were volunteers, I don’t know. I’m grateful. As an evacuation, this was pretty luxurious.

Getting tired when we were established at altitude, I dropped the table tray, rested my head on my arms and fell asleep only to be awoken sometime later for an in-flight meal. I was too tired to notice whether I was hungry. Eating was something just for something to do as much as anything else.

Sometime later, breakfast was served and we eventually touched down at Paris Charles de Gaule. It was daylight, maybe noon, one,… I don’t remember. An official came to check our forward journey plans. Pat, Vanessa and Lucy all had theirs but I had not. Lucy had a plane to catch in a hurry and left straight away along with the majority of the passengers. I was instructed to wait for someone from the British Embassy and to stay in my seat.

Lucy had become my closest companion since the hurricane and her presence had worn away my skin of solitude and her leaving left a graze of loneliness. That skin would have to grow back in its own time, I had other things to do. Things were getting back to normal fairly quickly and I had to keep moving forward. I’d be home soon, family and friends. the book of life had suddenly flipped to a new chapter before expected.

After about ten minutes with a dozen or so assorted passengers that were experiencing various states of anxiety, I was asked by an official what I was doing still sitting there and promptly ushered off the plane into the Croix Rouge centre. A Parisian 13℃ is quite a drop from the 28℃ of Guadeloupe, especially donned in flip flops, shorts and T’shirt.

Milling around the distressed families in the Croix Rouge centre, a volunteer asked what my plans were and then told me to go to Terminal 2E or 2F where I could get a train or flight. Sorting through a jumble of clothes, they found a jacket three sizes too big for me. That with shorts and spindly legs made me look like a giant chicken. I didn’t care, the jacket was warm and I could carry my passport in the pocket.

This was the end of the line. It became clear that I had fallen off the edges of the evacuation. My route to the UK was now up to me and that was OK. I was alive and still had all my faculties. Indeed, I was lucky.

Airport Information told me Eurostar would be the cheapest option and pointed toward the Gare Aeroport. Patrick and Vanessa were already taking the 11pm bus. Lucy was probably already boarding her Exeter flight, if she made it in time. I checked the Eurostar fare online rather than trek down to the railway station, €210 not worth the effort, maybe that was a mistake and should have padded my way down to the station and ask. Skyscanner, Easyjet: all three figure sums.

The Air France office was just across from the public desk I was using. €80 departing at 4pm and since it was already 2.30pm, I could check in at the same time. Did I really want to wait nine hours for an overnight bus to arrive in London just as the city was waking up? Normally I would, since I could think of the €50 saving as a net-wage for the day. But not today. Getting to family for solace, company and a comfortable bed for tonight would be worth the extra rather than an uncomfortable sleepless night on a bus. I felt both tired and abandoned now: alone, Glee was lost. I was in a 13℃ Paris with a rucksack. Even if Patrick and Vanessa showed up for the same bus. I was done. I bought the Air France ticket.

The security gate at the far end of the hall had no queue and was a standard affair except that I was detained until I downed the water that the Croix Rouge had given me and thrown the remainder in the bin half full of other bottles in case it was explosive. If a bottle made a big bang then how about a bin full? Pockets emptied into trays, boarding pass clenched between teeth, laptop out, money, passport piled in the tray and then passed behind a screen under the gaze of a bored looking security agent, looking out for our safety and probably wondering how he could cover his mortgage with a more fun existence.

The passengers were already at the gate, jostling for position so that they could all leave the tarmac into the sky at exactly the same time. As usual, I joined the queue as the last few stragglers were filtering through. Checking my pockets, there was no passport. I knew it wasn’t in my bag but emptied it on the floor anyway. The driving licence wouldn’t cut it with the airport officials. European Union, open borders but still need a passport. By now, everything I had was over the floor. No passport, or anyone else left at the gate ready to board. I told the agent on the gate about my journey from St Martin and they became warmer in their manner. The flight was already past its departure time but an unannounced delay meant I still had a few minutes. I ran back to the security belt, remembering it was the one at the end meant that I didn’t have to check more than one. A glance at the photo confirmed that the one they had in their hands was mine and I ran back to the gate to bundle everything back into the bag and shuffled down the ramp to the plane. There was still a queue at the door of the plane, so I could just stand for a moment and reset myself into the normal course of things. Maybe pretend that this didn’t just happen.

From Heathrow, the bus to Staines was a short wait, and I texted my Aunt and Uncle that I would be in The George. The bus arrived and soon found itself in the evening rush hour queue along the London Road. I disembarked early, as I could walk the remaining half mile faster than the traffic, even in flip-flops.

Adnams Regatta with its picture of a sailboat seemed a fitting end to the journey and an appropriate toast to Glee somewhere in the lagoon in St Martin. About a third of a glass down, Margrit arrived with a big smile and gave me a big hug. Terry followed and laughed out loud at how I was dressed, drawing attention to us all. It didn’t matter, I was just happy to see them. I didn’t really want to return to England but it did feel good to be back, at least for now…

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Irma: Part 3

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy, Patrick, Paul, Laidi, Vanessa

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Irma: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Irma: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony on ‘SV Anna’ took an early decision. Irma may miss Sint Maarten but with Irma 5 days away he up-anchored and took off South to Grenada.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

The wind slowly built through the early hours of the morning but we felt well protected in the building. the wind was howling from the north and we were protected by the terraced buildings that sandwiched us from north-west to south-east. The wind was becoming savage. Roof panels were flying down the street. The point came that, if we were to make it upstairs for the storm surge, we would have to move now. Andy checked our path to the stairs and noticed that live power lines were down, whipping and sparking in the wind and rain and, with the sheets of aluminium roofing flying down the street, maybe it was safer to stay put. If the electricity didn’t get us, the roof panels might.

Just before dawn, the floor started to flood millimetre by millimetre as the sea level began. A minute or two later, water started to pour in around the edges of the dock-side doors as the waves surged over the submerged dock and beat at the wooden doors. Holes and conduits on the street side began to pour water as the level rose op the street. We still had power and were concerned that we would get fried. I think it was that Ben switched the power off at the main panel, I don’t remember whether it was that or whether the power finally failed, but we were now in the dark except for portable LED lamps. The water was already three inches high indoors but, estimating the height of the holes that water was pouring in, was at least knee high on the street side. The waves at the dockside door were climbing slowly, halfway up and water streaming around the hinges on every wave. These heavy wooden doors opened outwards and, as long as the hinges continued to support them, I wasn’t worried that they breach inwards.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The window shutter was wound up to reveal a river on the street strewn with cars, sofas, fridges and general house contents and hopping out the window revealed calf deep-water laced with dead electric wires. Sally, Mikes wife is elderly and infirm so Andy carried her up the stairs to the first-floor apartment. The apartment is usually empty and unused and so has no facilities and, by then, was 2 inches deep with water, but at least we could see daylight through the windows and there was no risk of flooding. Mike has seen a few hurricanes in his time on the island and was concerned about the aftermath of looters and decided to stay to guard the business. Ben valiantly volunteered to stay with him but I was hungry for daylight and morbidly curious about what Irma had done and would do on the back end.

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

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

I guess we had about half an hour of calm, enough to get established upstairs. The ridgeline of the mountains disappeared from view replaced by a battleship grey curtain of rain. This was the eye-wall of the hurricane and it was heading our way. Already, the water had drained from the street, revealing asphalt half buried by sand and debris. We could sense the breeze building now from the south-east, thankfully pushing the water out of the lagoon seaward.

We retreated to the balcony to relative shelter and observe what was going on. My phone was wet and beginning to fail, wet fingers failing to register on the screen but I still managed to get some footage. The wind continued to build as I took in the scenes across the channel with the remains of the houses and boats. Leaning out from the balcony The horizontal rain felt like needles in my face and visibility was deteriorating fast. We retreated indoors and closed the sliding glass door, settling down away from the windows. I stood on the windward side of the patio doors looking north at the storm, noticing the glass of the door flexing and bowing inwards. We retreated into the centre bedroom. This room was dark as it had rooms bordering three sides and the passage on the forth. Although the passage was a howling wind tunnel, it was parallel to the sole window that let in a suggestion of daylight. It was relatively peaceful there as we looked around in the dimly lit darkness; the howl of the wind seemed more distant. Even the echo of the door of the front bedroom seemed muted as the wind smashed its way through the windows and clawed it off its hinges.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

We continued the search for Glee south of the causeway past Port De Pleasance, taking in the scale of the destruction and circling around toward the airport back under the bridge, Andy spied Osler, Jaco’s boat, resting at an acute angle well up on the rocks without its mizzen mast but otherwise looking fairly sound. Andy had been moored near Jaco and we continued around the shore to where he had left her. She wasn’t there but as we moved toward a mast 50 metres away sticking out of the water with a deflated dinghy flying like a tattered flag from it, Andy recognised it as his boat; now sunk in the lagoon.

Neither of us displayed any emotion for our lost vessels, I felt disconnected and in awe of how different the world had become. Andy lit a cigarette looking at what he could see of his boat, blew out a cloud of smoke and turned the dinghy north to make our way to Marina Royale, eyes open for a needle in a haystack: Glee in a jumble of beached craft. No joy; of any description. Returning to Shrimpy’s and spying my rucksack had me realise how little I had salvaged. I remember when I was packing thinking “I’ll leave that, I’ll pick it up later…”

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Skyran

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Paul Shepherd on Monday, April 24, 2017

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

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

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The Long Road To Sint Maarten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wherever You Go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wherever you go, there you are…

 

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Angel of the North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life Without Glee

Breakfast in the fens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humber Bridge

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

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

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A New Dawn (Abandon Ship part 2)

Airport

… the door opened revealing a 79 year old man in green t shirt and khaki shorts draped around inadequate legs and creaking knees. Time has been indifferent, neither cruel or kind, to my father. Time chips away at the days, sneaking in an extra wrinkle here and there and slowly sapping our strength as it passes. But time has added another wrinkle by starting to steal my father’s memories. Stroke induced dementia, is the label the experts have given it. “Come in, son. I’ve only just got up.” I stepped through the doorway ignoring Duke the springy black and white chihuahua jumping up and down to groin height next to me on the carpet.

The script I had mentally prepared fell away like cigarette ash. The cryptic messages over the past weeks that I had assembled like jigsaw pieces to form a picture of reality bore no relation to the experience of the here and now. Apart from the absence of my step mother, It was as if nothing had changed over the five months or so since I was here.

Settling into the yielding sofa next to the window, I was conscious of a new chapter as the page turned in the book of life. Glee was 2000 miles away and, after a day in the hands of civil transportation and a night in a hire car, an unwritten week was ahead of us. Coffee had freshly percolated and I accepted the cup with both hands, like a receiving of a peace offering between tribal chiefs. A proud man is Doug, frustrated by the invisible thief of dementia. He still functions and recalls many old memories, some of which are best forgotten, but things like where car keys are put down, how to print out a document or why he got up to go to the kitchen aren’t commonly retained.

The absence of Michele meant we could talk freely without moderation if we wished but we soon relaxed into periods of comfortable silence.
“Why has Michele fallen out with me?” I asked.
“She thinks you’re a freeloader.” he said.

It didn’t feel true but, still, it crept into my subconscious for later processing anyway.

I smiled as I thought about it. Its probably why she left with his car, taking his credit card and cheque book with her.

Doug’s always been a generous man and always insists on picking up the tab. My mother says he always had plenty of friends when he was on leave from the merchant navy – until his money was spent.

This week would be different. He had been left emasculated in a land where money means almost everything to almost everyone. He was a modern day knight stripped of his sword he had been disarmed and left defenceless.

I carried the sword now; we had money and a car and I was in the driving seat. As a guest, I had always felt like the passenger. Today was a feeling of freedom and possibility. The world was our oyster and to celebrate, we went for lunch and margaritas at the local favourite, Playa Azul Oyster Bar.

Playa Azul

And so the week went on in gentle conversation and shared space and time.

Doug doesn’t socialise too often these days, so I organised a few meetings with a few of his life-long friends. He said he enjoyed these outings but he prefers to stay at home, these days, either alone or with Michele.

To me he looked unhappy with either situation and sometimes drifts away from social engagement with his mind wandering out of the present and into the past or future. Dementia seems to bring with it depression and frustration.

I couldn’t help thinking that his condition could only worsen so I was glad I didn’t take the recent messages and phone calls to not visit literally. If I hadn’t have come, I might have regretted it for the rest of my life.

Jaco, a diver in St Maarten, shared his story of visiting his father, leaving nothing unsaid or undone before passing away shortly after. He was so glad that he thought about it while his own father was still around. Jaco reminded me that we only get one shot. There is no guarantee that any one of us will wake up tomorrow… likely, but still no guarantee. Nothing we value should be put off if it can be done today. There is no going back…

Whatever happens today, I will remember to follow my heart and have no regrets.

Stirring the crushed ice with a straw into his margarita, Doug asks “What do we have to do to be happy, son?”

“Happiness is not a doing, it is a being.” I replied “You take it with you, it’s part of the journey …” and I thought about it some more… later wishing I had been quick enough to follow it up before the moment had passed.

The arrival of something new sometimes stimulates happiness and we mistake whatever that ‘new thing’ is as the source. The source is actually the appreciation that is stimulated from that ‘new thing.’ When the appreciation wears off, the feeling of happiness goes with it. The route to happiness is in gratitude: an appreciation of all that is and all that you have today. It must be harder to be grateful when your memories are slipping away: having the record of your personal life slowly erased… In the absence of gratitude comes wanting: unfulfilled desires attempting to be quenched by the next holiday, new car, new job and whatever is thrown at us by hypnotic TV marketing and culture of conditioning. But all that got thrown on the “I wish I’d have said that at the time” pile…

And so the week slid by day by day, eating Mexican food and drinking American beer in thick ice-frosted glasses in the polar blast of air-conditioned cafe bars under the stifling Texan sun, then getting back to the apartment for an afternoon nap, ignoring the NBC nightly news while eating blue cheese and crackers; and reminiscing on what could be remembered and trying to figure out what couldn’t.

It doesn’t sound much to write home about but one day was blissfully like the other, no pressure to do anything, just to be in each other’s company, read, stay in, go out, whatever… the ultimate freedom, bewildered by choice but going with the flow down the path of least resistance…

“Sorry you keep picking up the tab, Son.” Doug said, as we were finishing off our beers in Soto’s Cantina.

Sotos

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

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

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

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

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Two hours later, I was through airport security, putting back on my boots, threading my belt back through the loops and scooping my change out of the plastic trays after their journey through the scanner. I had noticed the small sign that gives the option for a manual search rather than being irradiated by the cylindrical body scanners. I had plenty of time, so I had opted for the manual assault: the tiny bit of civil liberty allowed in this process.

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It was only a five minute wait before a TSA agent dressed as an impersonation of a police officer turned up, wearing thin blue latex gloves. I was given the option to go into a private room but I was happy in jeans, t shirt and socks to go through the routine in public. Nobody took any notice, what with being too busy removing shoes, emptying pockets and surrendering nail scissors and half empty bottles of sun cream. To be fair, the TSA agent looked more embarrassed than I did – and the experience wasn’t that intrusive. After the months skinny dipping in the lagoon and showering on the open stern of Glee it seems bizarre at what people should feel embarrassed about, if it’s other than the erosion of our personal freedom.

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By the time I settled into the crowded 777 looking out at the flat hazy Houston cityscape receding below me. I wondered if I would ever see my Dad again: if that was the case, our parting had been muted. While it was sad to leave, business was calling back to the UK: a host of loose ends left undone by my impromptu detour to St Maarten in February – and a chance to see some valued friends and family.

Drop off

7.45am I stepped outside Heathrow’s terminal 5 onto the elevated passenger drop off into the crisp 55°F breeze and pale English sunrise and sat on the curb.

“Look out for the Ford Galaxy,” Terry had told me. I could barely remember what their’s looked like as Ford Galaxies of all ages and colours came in, spilt people and luggage out onto the concourse, and drove away again one after another. Twenty minutes later, I could see Margrit’s curly haired silhouette through the reflected clouds in the windscreen as the car exited the top of the ramp and pulled up to the curb next to me.

Dropping my rucksack into the back seat and clipping on the seat belt in the front, we drove away and my eyelids began to feel heavy. It was a new dawn welded onto yesterday without the usual separation of a night’s sleep. My body was telling me it was bed time but the scenery told me it was already tomorrow morning.

This dawn was another marker; the end of something past and a clearing for something ready to be written…

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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 carburettor.

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 difference 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…

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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.

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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.

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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 halfway 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 lookout 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 through 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.

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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…

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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!

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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…

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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 naked 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 backpack 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 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 backpack and pad my way 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 underfoot until the footpath fades into a 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 the 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 of 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 and completed, nothing needs doing above living your own life in the present moment… Do something new every day.

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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 between 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 equipment for sailing 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 skipper’s 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 use to be the case, even in very recent times. I’m yet to register as the new owner with the small ship’s 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 around 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.

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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 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 my close friend and former lover, Debbie Bulman.

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 its 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

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Billy Folly

Billy Folly, Sint Maarten

I BRING THE dinghy into Palapa Marina dinghy dock cutting the engine early, drifting the last few feet on a light following breeze. I padlock the steel cable to the rail, grab my backpack and step out onto the quayside. I’m the first of our group at Vesna Taverna for our regular Sunday morning breakfast but our usual table and all the other tables are taken.

I turn around and sit at the outside bar under a palm tree and take out my notepad and pen to start some kind of to-do list for the day. Instead, I start to sketch a redesign for the layout of Glee. Mike walks in, barefoot as usual. I wonder how he deals with the shards of glass along the side of the road. His soles must be like leather. I can barely walk along gravel without impersonating a chicken. I stuff my things back into the bag and join him at the bar just as Jaco and Johan from Atlantech Divers roll up and we quickly grab our regular table now that it had been vacated. Mason from Out of Africa arrives as we are about to order and we set about simply enjoying each other’s company in a shared meal.

Mason and Mike have so much to say, I end up listening in fascination most of the time.  In this new world, I know nothing. How can these people know so much? Boat life is perfect for reading and working stuff out. Our vessels are little sanctuaries of peace, study and tranquillity.  Glee still needs some work but is patiently waiting for the end of my ‘non-doing’ phase. There is a dilemma here that work is going to cost while leisure is free; it’s the opposite of having a ‘job’ where work usually means income.

Our two-hour breakfast quickly passes and I ponder what to do for the three hours before the Mexican Train Dominoes starts at Little Jerusalem. I hadn’t played it before but I heard the game broadcast on the VHF Radio Net for cruisers around the lagoon. Besides, it’s an opportunity to make new contacts.

Mike points East down Airport Road and suggests exploring the road to the South that turns right past Burger King. Tick, next… that will be at least an hour taken care of.

It’s hot along the roadside and the shops and cafes both shield the breeze and trap the Sun’s heat and I feel the sweat building between my back, t-shirt and Cabin Max backpack. This bag was designed for airport restrictions, not hiking in the tropics.

In the shade at the Burger King Junction. My cheap and cheerful tourist map shows either that the road loops around the shore in an elongated circuit or fizzles out indeterminately. When I look around, I see one road that veers off at thirty degrees South of East and another that seems to turn back on itself to the South West, which has to be the one that follows the shore further down.

These thin soled deck shoes are not made for walking but Mike’s bare feet return to mind. These will do nicely. The road winds around and up and down quaint palm tree fringed resorts, cafes and casinos. The resorts and time-shares hint toward retirement homes rather than holiday accommodation. People must come here for relaxation rather than activity.  It’s a different feel to the main drag through Simpson Bay.

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A green iguana and I startle each other and it races off down the sidewalk with its comedy waddling gait along the foot of a wall looking for cover, by the time I take out my camera, it’s barely visible beneath the palm tree on the lawn around the end of the wall. I rest for 5 minutes removing my pack and cap to cool down.

There’s a whisper of a breeze, which is faintly heard in the palm fronds in this neighbourhood. I get a glance from a man in a small white Hyundai as he approaches the junction and turns left and up the hill. It must look as if I’m waiting for a lift or burglary or something. There’s no-one around and nothing at this junction apart from private apartments and time-shares, gleaming white in their immaculate paint under the tropical sun showing off closely cropped lawns.

I stride economically up the hill in the wake of the white Hyundai and in the dappled shade of the palm trees feeling no cooler than before. I turn right continuing uphill to the peak of Billy Folly. There’s nobody on the streets, cars are in drives and wrought iron gates with security intercoms are closed.

The road is steep and eventually, the surface changes to a shale track and starts to level out through shrubs and short trees but there are no signs or gates restricting access. At the end of the track is a turning area, service building and storage tank. It appears to be a dead end. A finely worn groove hints a clue that the route to the peak skirts a twenty-metre diameter holding tank and between some overgrown shrubs. Before I know it I’m on top of a slab of white pumice presented fully to the fifteen-knot cooling easterly trade wind and a perfect view of the island from Cole Bay to Anguilla, nine miles North of St Martin. To the south is an expanse of royal blue ocean flecked with flashing white horses leading to a faint outline of the luxurious island of Saint Bartholemew.

The view is strikingly beautiful. I can see the whole of the lagoon,  the giant yachts in the lagoon marinas below me, Glee, in miniature, at the foot of Mount Fortune just over the causeway, Marigot and Fort Loius beyond, the white buildings of Anguilla toward the horizon and the giant blue KLM 747 over at Princess Julianna Airport preparing for its departure for Amsterdam. An unexpected pleasure on this Sunday… what time is it?

After taking some pictures I make my way back down the hill, I wasn’t expecting this outing so I didn’t have any water with me. I feel hot and tired as I start to dehydrate. I slow a little and distract myself with the scenery. Twenty minutes later I’m perched on a stool at the Buccaneer Beach Bar and order a glass of iced water and a bottle of Presidente lager. No rush.

Manchester City are playing Manchester United on the flat screen behind the bar; echoes of a former existence. The faces of the football fans look milky white in the colourless gloom of the long British winter. Twelfth of January I left the UK but it seems like a year. I’d packed light for a two-month air-conditioned stay in Houston and I look incongruous in salt-stained deck shoes, heavy jeans and navy t-shirt. I’m hot and in need of some shorts and sandals.

Downing the water, I suck on the ice cubes and think of Debbie; of our summer travels around the southern counties of England and our winter escapes in Egypt. As beautiful as this location is, it loses some of its lustre without the sharing of it. I see someone approach out of the corner of my eye. Moving my backpack off the stool, a man sits next to me with a nod of thanks. I nod back but we don’t speak. Instead, I watch the beer bottle sweat the tropical condensation and reflect on times past and times to come…

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I sip at my beer as he half watches the football over the top of a bar menu, I guessed it must be lunchtime and quietly finish my beer, don my cap and backpack and shuffle along the soft sandy beach like some sort of displaced time traveller…

I’m late for the Dominoes…

Thought for the day: You can’t really plan for adventure since adventure lives in the ‘not yet known,’ which means having to overcome the fear of uncertainty.  Embracing uncertainty is the route to the life you dream of and all its treasures along the way.

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Barnacles

IMG_0126THE SEABED IN the lagoon has a gentle slope up to the beach at Great Key, a small island in the lagoon unofficially known as Explorer Island, which means I have to step out of the dinghy into the water before I reach the shore. What is this growth under the water, does it sting? I don’t want to get my shoes wet. I step barefoot out of the bow and I pull the Dinghy up to the sandy beach – all’s well. The small beach faces west and is enclosed by shrubs that make it fairly private. A wrecked wooden fishing boat lies 20 metres to the south in the water as does a cosy looking barbecue area, under a single palm tree, separated by the waterline. If I wasn’t alone, I’d be making more a more leisurely use of this hideaway.

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The sun is quickly gaining in ferocity since I failed to set off at dawn for taking advantage of the most comfortable temperatures. What is it, about 10.30? It must be 80F/26C in the shade already.

I unload the dinghy placing the fuel tank into the shade of a shrub on the beach, take off the outboard and flip the dinghy upside down half in the water and half up the beach. The cooling water on my feet counteracts the effects of wearing a black t-shirt in direct sun.

There are not many weeds but lots of barnacles across the hull. Oxalic acid and a wipe, the Google search told me. Spraying the oxalic acid got the sea lice scurrying from under cover of the weed and the bottle only just about covered the hull.

“I want to clean the underside of my dinghy,” I said to the folks at Budget Marine. “You need this.” handing me a giant green scotch-bright pad.  The weeds wiped off fairly easily but the barnacles were stubbornly ripping the pad to pieces. The oxalic acid hadn’t touched them at all. They were still welded to the hull.

The edge of a screwdriver was slow but effective. rotating my cap to shield the sun from burning my neck, I set about dislodging the shellfish. A sweeping sideways movement of the screwdriver shaft dislodged 80% of them but the other 20% needed a diligent chiselling motion to avoid the screwdriver going through the soft fabric.

Thirty minutes later, I was onto the outboard. The outboard is heavy and I am feeble through inactivity but I find an old Mercury outboard cover used as a seat in the barbecue area and invert it to use as a cradle. On the end of the leg, just above the propeller is a delta wing. Underneath the wing was a wing-shaped colony of barnacles with no remaining surface visible. Patient chiselling with the screwdriver cleared it in about 20 minutes and another 5 minutes on the propeller had that clear too. The effort under the searing sun had me soon finish my water bottle. After reassembling the outboard and reloading the dinghy, I steered out into the lagoon. I was on the leeward side of the island so the water was almost mirror flat. I’d earned myself a reward and started off toward the causeway to veer south toward the Dinghy Dock and get something to eat. The dinghy was up on the plane in no time and skimmed along the surface like a pebble across a pond, what a difference. How much fuel had I been wasting by dragging these sea passengers around with me?

Out of the lee of the island, I was against the wind on a rough chop which made the extra speed bouncing from crest to crest with the dinghy contents jumping up and down uncomfortable and dangerous. Three-quarter throttle was just about right for the rest of the way.

Cafe Atlantico is a French bakery on Airport Road, Simpson Bay. Approaching the cafe, Mike from Quinn spots me passing the neighbouring mini-mart and calls out from the checkout. The attention from people makes me feel popular and I spend enough time alone to enjoy company when it’s available and gladly amble together with Mike onto the cafe’s wooden veranda. The breeze is perfect for helping me cool down. I take off my cap and put it on my lap to feel the cooling effect of the sweat evaporate from my forehead into the breeze.

For $10, I get a carton of coconut water to quickly rehydrate myself and wait for my Mexican omelette to arrive. Mike had already eaten so he sips iced tea and updates me on his latest project whilst watching me eat. Somehow, being watched feels uncomfortable and I find myself eating faster than usual.

Mike’s an interesting guy: a single-handed transatlantic sailor who alternates between St Maarten and the Canaries each season. He created the Nimble Navigator Navstick which is a USB stick that plugs into a laptop and contains a GPS and all the charts of the world so you can see and plot your position in real time from your computer. He was telling me about his new project of integrating Automatic Identification System (AIS) which shows ships in the vicinity of VHF range. Collision in the ocean from freighters is a serious risk so having ships visible on your plotter is a big bonus when you’re out in the ocean. His claims of laziness aren’t well founded – he just does what interests him to generate an income from his peeling boat, which doesn’t include painting. Whereas, I think about what might interest me for no income at all, which also doesn’t include painting. I win.

Tip for the day: As soon as you’re aware of procrastinating just do one small thing for five minutes to stop the barnacles from dragging on your mental to-do list. Do it if it’s likely to get worse with time, delegate it if necessary. Ditch it if it isn’t important but whatever you do, get back to living a life you love. And if you aren’t doing that then you need to find out what that is and start navigating toward it.

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Check Mate

chessMONDAY. A RAINY day in paradise. I’m laid out in the fore-peak getting online stuff done while the rain drops beat a drum-roll on the hatch. It’s a comfortable 75 F (24 C) although it feels muggy with it. I’ve been collecting water off the awning into my 25 litre canisters. I doubt there is any pollution to worry about here but need to be careful of bacteria if I keep it for very long.

Saturday was the monthly flea market at Time Out Boat Yard (TOBY). The previous night’s rain had deposited a few gallons of water in the dinghy which needed to be bailed before setting off. Also, the slow air leak needed compensation with the pump to firm up the chambers. This would be the furthest trip I’d made since fixing the carb problem in Port de Plaisance. It was a pretty stiff east north-easterly across the open northern part of the lagoon and any breakdown here would have seen me blown out to the western side of the lagoon near the airport.

The motor sang sweetly over the water but the choppy waves were slapping the starboard side of the Dinghy and giving me a soaking. Moving to the port side gave me the feeling that any gusts under the starboard might flip me over. The other thing with switching sides is that the throttle control feels awkward since using the left hand on the starboard side rolls it backwards to accelerate while the right hand on the port side rolls it forwards. The whole thing feels reversed.  I settled for crouching low in the centre of the dinghy. Uncomfortable but not far to go.

It was gone ten by the time I got round to embarking on this outing and people at TOBY looked like they were all ready to wind down but there were still lots of interesting items available. I had a bit of a casual browse. I spotted Des from the night on the catamaran on a metre squared stall selling his Irish Coffees – he’s a specialist, Irish Coffee is his only product. He told me that Irish Coffee has the four major food groups: sugar, caffeine, alcohol and fat. Sounds like a fair breakfast, so I bought one. Does a good job of lightening the head on a warm, sunny Saturday morning.

After dumping my trash and happily discovering a glass recycling container, I skimmed the waves back to Glee. A dip in the lagoon and a quick shower after lunch was a great reviver physically and mentally.  I’ve been here a month now and this tropical paradise has become almost as normal to my senses as mowing the lawn and driving to work in the 8.40am drizzle in a previous life.

It’s clear that I didn’t just buy a boat here, I bought a whole new lifestyle in a ready-made community. This part came without a price tag but is probably the most valuable part of the whole deal. I didn’t haggle about the purchase price for Glee for that reason. And when my fellow liveaboarders said “Ooh! $12,000 is too much for Glee. Seven max!” Of course, they are already in the environment and are focussed on the value of the vessel alone. I bought a boat plus a stake at the table: a ready-made home in the tropics: solar, dinghy, outboard, mooring in a free anchorage, the works! I bought a total package for a new life that was once just a dream.

Saturday afternoon was chess at Little Jerusalem. A great excuse for sitting with people for long periods without having to say a word apart from “Sorry, is it my go?” I hadn’t played chess for years but I enjoyed it. Won one, lost one but both games were fun and I got to know some more salty sea dogs.

Skimming across the lagoon, I looked down at the basket where I keep my things out of the bilge: empty. I had bought some almonds, crisps and a baguette. They were still on the dock where I had been preoccupied with untying the dinghy without blowing into the shore. I couldn’t just leave it since my wallet and phone were in the same bag. Technically, the bag hadn’t left my line of sight but if anyone wanted to, they could have walked off with it while I observed from a safe distance while returning to the dock from the water. If I have a system of checking I have everything with me, it doesn’t work very well.

Sunday at breakfast, we were talking about the ideal model of Government and it was settled on that individual self-governance would probably be the best. All other governing models force the will of the majority, dictator or oligarchy upon the rest. We seem to have self-governance here in the lagoon. Technically, we are under French jurisdiction but they leave us alone. We are all individuals that do their own thing without interfering with the rights of others but if anyone runs into trouble, the community kicks in to come to their aid. This is the free-est I’ve felt since I was 4 years old, when ‘the law’ said I had to go to school or else. This model only probably works below a certain size threshold before it breaks down and society becomes vulnerable to corrupt and greedy power hungry sociopaths, but why not have millions of small communities like this? Power hungry psychos can’t get a foothold in small communities. The rocks are too small for the cockroaches to hide under.

I remember things being similar in my grandmother’s village in the late 60s early 70s. If anyone was up to no good, everybody knew about it. I hadn’t felt this gradual erosion of community before, which brings me gratitude for the life I have now. All this could change tomorrow; a security crack-down, Fees being levied and regulated for mooring, US invasion? Time to be grateful here and now.

Thought for the Day: What would your dream life look like if you chose it today, and if you traded your current life for that dream, what would you miss about the life you have now?

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Port de Plaisance

port de PlaisanceTHE MISSON FOR today? Get some parts for the outboard and start replacing worn items. Toward the end of the morning broadcast of St Maarten’s radio net on the VHF, Mason on ‘Out of Africa’ announced he was off to Budget Marine straight after the net, I could ask him for a lift, so I quickly got dressed and I gave him a radio call. No answer. He wasn’t kidding when he said ‘straight after’, I could see him through my porthole. That was him in the distance climbing into his dinghy.

It was a leisurely row downwind to Port de Plaisance, it’s not that far, perhaps half a mile. Tying up on the northern corner of the marina under the watchful gaze of two Iguanas, I climbed out and made my way down quayside. I was parched already. I had prepared a bottle of filtered water but left it on the galley counter and the day was warming up quickly. It was only about 10am and I was making my palm tree shaded, looping way along the drive of the marina to the main road. I didn’t realize the road was so far away from the shore and, turning right, I still had a distance to go to get to the Chandlers.

A happy discovery along the way was the Carrefour supermarket. Dropping my backpack in a shopping trolley, I slowly wandered up and down the aisles, flapping my t-shirt to dry my back where the pack had been restricting ventilation. Carrefour’s air conditioning plus chilling out in the chilled food area did the trick nicely. Buying a bottle of water,  abandoning the shopping trolley and donning the back pack, the next stop was 5 minutes down the road at Ace Hardware. More free cool air, free toilets and cheap hose clips.

Both the chandlers, Budget Marine and Island Waterworld, are next to Lagoonies Bistro and Bar so I settled there for an hour, sipping iced mint tea, browsing the internet and catching up on email. The beauty or curse of my life here is that there is virtually no time frame to get things done. One day can run into the next. If the dinghy isn’t repaired today then maybe the next day. Even though I was on a self-imposed mission, I was enjoying the walk, the exploration and resting in the breezy shade of Lagoonies. Really there isn’t any work or play, it is all life. Employment installs the illusion of this separation.

Island Waterworld is a Santa’s Grotto of boat parts and yachty stuff. They are not cheap since the number of boats that come to this part of the island means that the law of supply and demand is well in the merchants’ favour, and the presence of ‘tax haven’ registered super-yachts means that a good proportion of their customers are reasonably well off.

Neither chandlers had the gasket or the diaphragm: a simple paper ring and piece of plastic film, but they did have the carburettor repair kit which included those two parts for $115. I settled for an in-line fuel filter and a can of carburettor cleaner spray and kept the $115 in my bank account.

I made my way back to the marina via Carrefour, to stock up on some groceries and grab some lunch from their buffet counter. Lunch was a picnic in the shade of a palm tree in the marina grounds, squinting at the white boats, basking in the sun on their pontoons.

Through the steel gates, nodding to the security guard I made my way back along the quayside to the dinghy. Breaking out the tools, spray and filter, I set about taking the carburettor apart again. I could almost do it with my eyes shut by now. My spectators were the yacht owner where I’d tied up near almost under his bow and a large Iguana at his feet. Buchi was a Harbour Pilot and the Iguana was no relation; it was wild and came to the boat looking for food. After giving me some advice and some distracting entertainment, Buchi left to collect his kids from school.

I gave the carburettor a good spray in every nook and cranny and reassembled everything within 10 minutes. My plan was to get as far as possible and as close to the shore as possible. The shelter from the wind that the shore provided would make rowing back to Glee a bit quicker and easier, and perhaps I’d be out of hailing distance from Buchi when he came back.  As it happened, the motor started after a few pulls and revved higher and smoother than it had since it broke down. The best part was that it kept on going all the way back to Glee. I was home in 5 minutes. Whatever the problem, the spray had probably flushed it out of one of the narrow channels between the jets in the carburettor.

It’s such a rewarding feeling having a problem solved by your own hands. Not only did I save money but I learned a great deal about this outboard motor that I would never have done if someone else had fixed it for me.

Tip for the day: Try one thing new today. Something that has an uncertain outcome. Drive a route you’ve never driven before without using your Sat Nav. Try some food you’ve never tasted before. Try fixing something you think you know nothing about – the internet is a great resource for this sort of thing. Each of these small things builds a habit of adventure and personal growth.

 

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Transcending Borders

borderThe 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 palmtops 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 my 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.

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The Trip To Jerusalem

stmaartenToday 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 after setting off ashore 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. It brought back memories of all the times I fondly pushed my motorcycle home. I 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 Glee’s shade the suns rays were reflecting off the water and 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 Simpson 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 bowline so the stern always points 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 onshore in Simpson Bay looking at the vegetarian options on the menu of Little Jerusalem, a Lebanese cafe consisting of what looks to be a transport container and a covered veranda across the road from Palapa Marina.

“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 newborn 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…

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The Matrix

IMG_0068IT’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 are 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 shipshape, 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…

research

Cheers!

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Table For One…

LA Main A La PateA BOAT IS never finished. As you complete one item 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 seacock: 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 a 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 the Dutch side of Simpson Bay, 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 on the dock and flip flop off into town with an underlying and unexpected 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 keeping the hunger shakes away and lightening 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. There’s a thought in my head tapping away like a woodpecker that ‘I don’t belong.’ I’m a maverick wayfarer wandering through someone else’s party. I tell the woodpecker to shut up.

I make my way to Fort Louis up on the hill. Looking south over Marigot and over the lagoon to Mount Fortune, affectionately known as ‘The Witch’s Tit,’ where Glee rests peacefully in her mooring, In contrast, I feel restless and adrift. I may be in the midst of an adventure but lifelong thoughts of uncertainty and doubt orbit my mind.

Arriving anywhere is never as I expect. The location is beautiful but my unchecked thinking as yet fails to give it meaning.

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 but 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, 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!  … and thoughts are only thoughts, only having the meaning we give to them.

I remind myself that there is no rush, relax, settle in and take my time. Water the garden of the mind and see what sprouts tomorrow…

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Crossing No Man’s Land

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AS I SIT gazing through the east-facing window of Terminal A of San Juan International Airport, Puerto Rico, yawning at the sun 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 broken loose from its 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 some sleep here, a bit of a read of Hunter S Thompson’s Rum Diary 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 threatening to destroy my possessions.

After a 2 hour delay, announced in 4 irritating bite-sized 30-minute segments, not knowing how many of those there would be, the final leg to Sint Maarten was underway.

The aircraft window framed briefly the famous Princess Juliana international airport where the planes skim the beach to land at Sint Maarten. The sun was sizzling on the horizon as I started walking along the airport road towards Sint Maarten Yacht Club. Sint Maarten is a small island, how far could it be? 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 9.8hp 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 skimming back alone through the anchorage and under the causeway hoping I was 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 fell asleep in the dusky damp Caribbean humidity and the aroma of ancient sailboat filling my nostrils.

Morning: Wednesday 17th February 2016

This must be how amnesiacs awaken, I half expected to be back home in the UK but I had a vague idea of where I was and I recognised some of these things on the boat but the unfamiliarity with so much all at once was disturbing and hardly believable. New to sailing. Seriously sailing, not just pottering about on the Solent or RYA courses, I knew no-one here. This was home now – almost too much to deal with at once. A kind of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ moment. I’d have to readjust to my surroundings.

“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 needed a new plan… no rush, settle in first, I have time…

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

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

Butterflies in the stomach had 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 ever since I ever heard about bucket lists in my ‘battery farm’ type office job about 10 years ago. Luckily, I had a window that I could look out of and dream myself out of it beyond the car park boundary.

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

Chasing a Dream

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 Puerto Rico and Sint Maarten 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… much. What bothered me most was cutting my family visit short but it couldn’t be helped, and I could always return later.

In fact, most people I spoke to were actually envious and supportive.

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 anymore…

Steps into Uncertainty…

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 legally unverifiable debt.

Step 2: Clear the mortgage liability on a house. 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 artefacts that tend to drag along through one’s personal history. This is still an ongoing process.

Step 4: find alternative accommodation. Solution? Purchase 15-year-old van fitted out as a stealth camper and adapt to a nomadic lifestyle, living off grid.

Therefore, this is why this latest move was easy for me. I had 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 know further than the next step… 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!

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