St. Martin

90 miles upwind from the Virgin Islands you come to the island of St. Martin. Half french, half dutch with the line that goes through the middle seemingly inconsequential. Different rules apply when checking in. It costs more on the dutch side, with strict regulations and fees, but is way casual on the french. Just go to the Budget Marine and fill out the form on their computer. The business owner looks to make sure your passport and ships documentation numbers match. After that he could care less. As long as you check in and out from the same side you can travel throughout the island.

french-bakeryWhen in the french half I am back in France. The pastries are mind blowing and literally bring tears to my eyes after so much bland, english food of the last few months. Chocolate croissant, and a cafe au last. Oui, merci boucoup. Endless restaurants, patiseries, and the usual local ladies selling bright caribbean shirts and dresses made in China.  People so wonderfully french. A kiss on the cheek, then the other. Bonjour, bonjour. Not right down to business, but happy to see each other with a twinkle and a smile. French fashion invites me to let Elia dress me up as a little french man in my new lime green linen shirt.

lagoon-rust-bucketAnchored in the massive inner lagoon that has access through two antique swing bridges that open twice a day. We enter into a Mad Max world of rusted out ships sunk during hurricanes, boats in the anchorages funky, dirty, falling apart, some still lived on. Over 200 cruisers anchored, out of the wind, out of the swell. Each of those boats is emptying their heads into the water, so you don’t want to swim, and probably a good idea to wash your hands if you touch the lines that have been in the water.

apple-boatOn the Dutch side, of the lagoon are the mega yachts. Steve Jobs Apple boat nestled among the gleaming white and polished chrome. They wait here for their next cruise, getting repaired, having their stainless shined daily by the shore bound crews, who at night are seen drinking hard in the bars, in their matching shirts with the boat name on the front and the line drawing on the back.

Walking through town the sidewalks incomplete or mostly non existent with gaping holes to swallow the ankles of the inattentive. Cars whistling by, inches from our side. The smell we call sargasso of open sewers drifts by briefly as we walk the back streets. Car horns blast insistently in greeting. Dark skinned kinevils on scooters pull off 100 yard wheelies.

Rent the car, to the east side of the island. Beaches named Cocoa beach, Waikiki, huh? Where are we? Stunning white sand. Turquoise waves breaking. Parade of umbrellas and beach chairs, with topless ladies of many generations browning all of their parts. Jet ski’s zip along. Para sailors glide overhead. And the breeze, always the trade winds blowing strong from the east.

cruise-shipsOver to the dutch side on the $2 bus. We are the only white people aboard. Sweet smells of sweat. Quiet with the occasional, “stop de bus” heard. Hard to know where the line between countries is crossed. Into the main town of Philipsburg. Looking out into the harbor are 4 mega cruise ships regurgitating humans continuously onto the streets. They have a look these cruise ship travelers. Older, pasty, eating too much, drinking too much, They drop into a town on their excursion. Take some pictures. Soak up their 15 minutes. On to the next stop.

Which brings me to the joy of Orion. To sail away from it all and anchor off where the cruise shippers don’t reach and the tourists can’t go. Drop the hook, and dive into the crystal clear water. Just the turtles, coral, fish, Elia, and me. Peace.sunset

Kodachrome

pano-of-english-and-falmouth-harbors

The tropics are filled with saturated hues of color; the homes, painted mustard yellow, vermillion, bubblegum pink. The sea, with its shades of turquoise, azure, indigo, and, infrequently, charcoal. Palms clatter, showing verdant spears of light, and there are the phallic cacti, a dusty, desert green. Every color is intense, like the sun, and against this background I see the people: silhouetted in the glare, haloed by a ray of light as it penetrates the belly of a passing squall.
I am one to focus on landscape, on weather. You know this about me. But there are people here, passing through my journey, splashed across my photographs, snatches of their conversation peppered through my thoughts. My interior world is deep and I’m often lost in it. But, like the turtles, I do come up, occasionally, to the surface, and am always fascinated by what has appeared around me.
In this world people shift like a kaleidoscope. I walk down the street: in the parking lot of the Yacht Club there are the locals with their ropes of dreads piled into leather or knitted caps. They call to each other in the lilting sway of their Caribbean English. Three men are always sitting under a palm, by the fruit stand that is sometimes there. They drink lager all day and stare into the distance; their skin is glossy dark and their eyes are bloodshot red.
Up two blocks the yachties are parading up and down; decorative women smoking, with disheveled lovely children, and men with paunches. Scattered through them are the young crew that keep the superyachts shiny, ready for the one week a year they might be used. White shirts, brown skin. They are beautiful, young, capable of withstanding enormous amounts of tedium and alcohol. One is towheaded, mannered, with a posh accent (British) and I can see in him the watchful, tiny lad he was, and the tired old man he will become. His face is fascinating. He looks exhausted; his eyes are the palest, searching blue.
When we pass the basketball court, shining black, freshly asphalted and painted, there is a loose crew of island boys playing futbol. Assorted sizes, one tiny with a curly little man-bun. They are loose-limbed and barefoot. Careless of themselves, they dive for the ball, and are skillful in a casual way. The game is not that serious; they are delightful to watch, like dancers. I like the little one, with his shorts too big, as he is learning from the older boys. Where are the girls—they are braiding each other’s hair, or dancing in doorways, walking along the walls pulling at their school uniform skirts.
One man on the beach has a little champagne colored dog who I talk to, and he gives us some local fruit from his pocket; another man, wispy knots of nappy hair texturing his head, rides a donkey sidesaddle, bumming cigarettes, looking at the dark night through huge women’s sunglasses.
Later it’s drinks; we see another nice boat—this one has a washing machine. Women discuss laundry, cooking, keeping things clean. The men: solar panels, battery charge, engines. One-on-one it’s snatches of life: this one is a base jumper—“sometimes the guy jumping ahead of you dies, you just have to push it aside”—and plans his cruising schedule in the US around Dead & Co. shows; that one was married twice too, recounts the painful divorce and how we’re all on our second, third, down here. The boat life is relationship proving ground. Someone describes the death of her sister-in-law, how she cried every day for a year.
The essence of people, it comes unexpectedly and you see it if you happen to be looking, like the tarpon that arrow up and fly, fly, fly in a silver arc through the air. You just get a moment to see, and they are back down, under the surface. I like to look at people, the lines around their eyes, what shines out, or not. Catch them jumping.
Can I know them? Be known? How did I happen into this slipstream, this current? There’s nothing to hang onto, like the gleaming fish in the surge below, we drift, rise, disappear. We pass; the horizon remains bright, the houses gleaming, the palms chattering in the ever-present wind.

cloudscape

ps: I know, I don’t have any pictures of people . . .

I Heart Chris Parker

Our day starts at 7am when we turn on the SSB to channel 4045 and listen to weather guru Chris Parker. He lets us know how the day and week are shaping up, and it determines everything. Should we stay or should we go. How long until we can head east? When is the weather window?  Will we anchor on the south, on the east?  Will there be squalls?

ssb-picture
The Portal

While waiting in Hampton Virginia with close to 80 boats preparing to head for the Virgins there was a video feed every afternoon with Chris Parker broadcasting from Florida just what to expect. Well over 100 people grew silent as he spoke from on high about the low forming, and just when the best time to cross the Gulf Stream would be. He is like the rockstar weather man. People talk about Chris Parker sightings, Those that have actually met him brag about it.

Once we left Virginia, 600 miles from land his soothing tone became even more anticipated. When he says follow the rhumb line to the Virgins because just 50 miles to the east there is a low that has stalled off Bermuda that is kicking the winds up over 30 sustained, with gusts of 35-40, and 15 foot seas, there is a deep down sense of well being knowing that he is watching out for you.

When he speaks on the radio you can feel that he truly cares about you. He’s a sailor. He looks at weather through a sailors eyes. When the winds are picking up, the swells growing, and headed right for you, he lets you know your best plan of action, and that it is going to be alright, and that this too shall pass. You can call him by satellite phone, or call him on the radio. When he answers, “Orion, come back with your position”, you know that all of his attention is locked on you alone and is focused on your best interests. If only all of our gods were so attentive. 

In terms of the weather,  It’s not just the wind, or the squalls. Sometimes the biggest component is the swell. How big are the waves, how long the duration, and from what direction. They can make all the difference between a smooth, beautiful day on the water, or a ride through the washing machine from hell. And then, as we learned in the Anegada passage, there can be wave trains coming from 2 different directions. These are, what are called, confused seas. The motion is not smooth, even, but up down, side to side, bam, bam, bam.  At these time Orion creaks like on old Spanish galleon. Wherever you are sitting you are braced on at least two sides from an unexpected motion. When we slam into an especially nasty surge there is a bell below that clangs to punctuate the sensation.

When the swells get over 8-10 feet they feel more and more like walls of water coming at you. They are massive, and our 42’ boat starts to seem like a toy. The entire boat can be down low in a trough and looking out you see a wave coming in, high above your head. But instead of crushing you beneath its volume our lovely ship floats on up the side of it and then down the other side. When they are behind you they push you along, and you surf down the frontside, focusing on nothing other than to keep the bow pointed forward. The last thing that you want is to get sideways to a large breaking wave.

We have some friends that did just that. They had hired a “captain” that told them he had been doing this passage for years and years. No need to pay attention to Chris Parker, go east, then go south. That’s how it’s done. They went east of the rhumb line. They got into the big seas, the huge waves. In the dark a random surge came out of nowhere breaking over the side. filling the  cockpit, and gushing like a waterfall down the companionway. There were screams from below. Everything in the cockpit and above decks was swept overboard. All of the lines were dragging in the sea. It was a solid ship and the water drained quickly. The boat was fine. The people were shook up. The “captain” perhaps not quite so smug. I believe they have learned their lesson and have converted to true disciples of Chris Parker.

antigua
English Harbor Antigua

At this point we are in Antigua. We have done basically done all of the upwind, easting that we have to do. Now it’s just gentle tradewinds aft of the beam. Gentleman don’t sail to weather. And with Chris Parker on our side neither will we.

My New Mistress

It started out as infatuation. We had been introduced through the internet, She wasn’t the most beautiful to look at. Hadn’t been taken care of recently. Hadn’t felt loving hands for quite some time. I had a chance to do some research. Her family tree was strong. She came from a long and respected lineage. Somewhere she had gone wrong, was a little off. Couldn’t be sure just how far she had strayed by looking at her pictures online. The only way to really know was to meet her in person.

cropped-orion1.jpg
At first glance my heart started to tingle. She was lying still in the morning mist. Wisps of dew clinging to her lines. From the outside she looked as expected. A little tired, needing a little love. But what about when she opened her hatches to let me inside. There the truth would be much more obvious.

Her clasp was opened, her door slid back, and I eased myself down her ladder. Her open inner spaces were full, to the brim, with the treasures, of another man. I could see through the mess that she felt dirty inside, soiled, and it was out of her control. She needed to feel special, clean, proud, and I knew right away that this had been taken from her. I instinctively knew that I could bring the touch that would bring her inner light back out.

She wanted to shine, to fly free. It felt like a plea. Help me to be me. Help bring me back.

I heard her cries, but needed to be sure I could trust my instincts. I called in others to assist in my evaluation. There was agreement. She once was a thorough bred. and could be again. With some love, some patience.

lehman
She purrs, and keeps running till I push her button.

We needed time together. I slept in her that 1st night. In the forepeak, another night in the aft cabin, in the salon. It all felt so right. I opened her drawers. I looked through her most private places, read her history between the lines. She opened up to me fully. She needed no coaxing.

I decided that I would make her mine.

Since that fateful day I’ve always treated her like she deserves. I lavish money on her, and swell with pride when she shines in her sparkling, new, digs. She has needs, I know that. And as her needs get met, she is more appreciative and it shows. In how she reaches down wind, in how she holds her charge through the night. Of course she has moments when she struggles with her old ways. She will break down, sometimes covered in salty tears, and at those times it takes patience to listen, to feel, and finally to help to find the answer to her distress.

I pull out of the marina, my hand firmly on her wheel, and can feel the stares, the envy of those that I pass. They wonder who was I to  have tamed such an enchantress. What must I have to entice her to give herself so fully into my care.

And for me, it’s not about the envy of others. It’s about bringing her back to her true self. Letting her see and feel her youthful exuberance for life once again. I am merely along for the ride.

The 1 Percent

I sit writing the day before new years. Bitter End Yacht club. Virgin Gorda. The British Virgin Islands. Playground of the rich and beautiful. We get to park our little Orion for next to nothing and wander in and mingle. Truly phenomenal displays of wealth. The white plastic gleams. The stainless is always shiny. The toys come out. The inflatable slide from the top deck. 3 jet ski’s on the back. Yacht pulling powerboat, pulling dinghy. Money pouring down the drains and away. Inconsequential it seems.

our-neighbors
Our neighbors

And why do I rant. There is a part of me that admires people that have done well in their lives, taken the money to do extravagant things with their families. Introduce their children to new countries. What is money for really anyways?

But here, today, something feels different about the extreme decadence and the seeming ignorance of anyone else around. Drive that dinghy full speed through the harbor. Don’t give a thought to the boats bouncing around in your wake. Let the nice man in the clean white shirt bring you your orange juice. Life is as it should be. There are masters, there are servants. The world has always been this way. Some own the plantations, and then there are slaves to do the ahem, work. In so very many cases there is no connection between the two. The rulers rule, the laborers sweat. Why question your place in the grand scheme when it’s on top. Off to the vacation where the water is blue, the toys many. Rub elbows with your people. Life is beautiful.

Today I’m surrounded by the 1 percent. I’m not impressed.  For the 1st time in my life I am truly scared and sickened by our government and the people that are about to start running it. To me it’s always seemed relatively benign. I haven’t felt threatened. Me, personally, my world. White guy doing ok. And it seemed like things were essentially beyond my control anyways. Head down in the sand. My world was fine. Me, mine, me. No need for real worry. For Me.

I don’t feel that way today. At a deep down level, I feel like we are heading into a dark and frightening place. Maybe it’s gotten to the point where me and mine feel threatened. Is it the possibility of economic collapse? Or of my kids having to fight in a war because of an idiot pushing a button? My money, my security, my family. Too damn close to home. Me has expanded to my country. Took me long enough. And as I look inside at my barometer and take a reading my sense is that I am not alone. I feel a revolution coming on.

paradise
The hood…

Things That Are Scary About Sailing

orion-form-afarThe time has come.

The time is now.

Chris Parker has spoken: this afternoon we will leave for St. Maarten, a roughly 16 hour trip that will require us to sail overnight.

Because apparently I haven’t yet earned my hearty overnight sailor badge yet.

Because now there’s just the two of us, and if we’re going to go down island, I will have to take night watches by myself, upon occasion.

As we’re fiddling around, getting things ready to go on a longer sail, I cannot help but be reminded of our journey down here. You know, that roughly 1200 mile off shore passage that we did early November. With the 15 foot seas, and the squalls and the broken autopilot. You know—that one.

I hope—as I notice the butterflies that are present in my stomach,even though our departure is hours away—that I can enjoy this trip a little more. That I can not be terrified, overwhelmed, and sleep deprived. I mean, it’s only 16 hours—our trip down here was 11 days. I’ve been working on this thing called fear. I’ve been working on my perceived experience of Things That Are Scary About Sailing.

Going on the Big Ocean: The Slog Before

In preparation to make the Big Trip, we took Orion up to Maine and back down to Virginia. Of course, the trip up was with Malcolm’s two sons, Ethan and Max, for fun and family bonding etc. Largely successful with gentle wind (Deleware Bay excepted—ah, we’ll always have New Jersey …) and a fair amount of motoring. It was coastal cruising, always within a radio call of Tow Boat US or the USCG. The shore was always reassuringly there. We had the two strong boys to help with everything (even cooking!). It was a stretch for me physically, coming soonish after my last surgery. But I did it! We had a good time. Who knew teenage boys were so hilarious? (And stinky! Whew!) I still didn’t feel like a sailor, though.

The trip back down from Maine was a necessary slog, to get to VA where the Salty Dawg rally to the British Virgin Islands would commence. We had much scarier weather: big bouncy seas (buh-bye centerboard, somewhere in Massachusets you lie in your watery grave), bigger wind, and there was just the two of us to make it all happen. It felt exhausting, and I couldn’t shed the mounting unease about going on the Big Ocean, in November.

We were joined in Atlantic City by John Wandling,john our potential crew member for the Big Trip. Here was a person, live and in the flesh, who wanted to go offshore, just to go. Who was going to join us for fun. I could not imagine what he knew that I didn’t (well, I could, actually, since he’s been sailing for most of his 70-odd years, boats big and small). Welcome, John! Since we were in New Jersey (his home state, actually), nature dictated that we would have exciting adventures with drunken, crazy captains of the asshole variety (I will cut your docklines!), engine failure, and no wind. But John was mellow throughout, and seemed to take things as they came. Turned out, he had a friend who could accompany us too. Another person who was excited (imagine!) to go offshore—and a woman, to boot. Tracy McIntyre. She was an experienced sailor and a good cook too, John said. I was very happy about this. They both lived in Hampton, our jumping off place, which would prove so helpful and convenient as we prepared to go offshore.

Going on the Big Ocean: The Real Deal

We left at midnight, giddy, excited and—for me, filled with foreboding. First there would be the Gulf Stream, then some “easting” before the big right turn that would take us all the way to the BVI. The weather router—Chris Parker—had opined that the trip looked pretty good. I had no idea what that actually meant.

Gulf Stream in darkness. As John said, after, “I’m glad I couldn’t see the waves.” It was a side to side jelly roll for a few hours, where we got to test our seasickness mettle: all passed with flying colors. Though I think we did all pop a dramamine ahead of time. Well done us. Daylight brought the sea, already a different, richer sort of blue, and some non scary conditions—though, look ma—no shore! Many boats had left on our schedule, but we saw no one those first couple days.

The sea was kind at first; the dolphins came on day three for the official welcome, and I couldn’t help but feel that I might live to see the end of the journey. No kidding—I wondered often if I might die. This did not occur to many others I felt (I found other women later, on their first trips, experienced similar feelings), as people were bringing dogs, children, going with broken arms and even single handing. They all had to know that this going offshore was a Reasonable Thing To Do.

Exit dolphins, enter the next leg of the journey. The Big Seas and Broken Things.

Our one working head stopped working. Without getting into the finer details of how ours was incorrectly plumbed and the failure of impellers etc., suffice to say that John jumped in for a day of head-fixing, while we bounced and heeled in increasing wind and sea state. We were never without the smell of the thing, but at least he fixed it so we could poop somewhere besides the tupperware.

Once the sea state was really booming—visualize an endless wall of water behind the boat, shining with moonlit, horrifying splendor, while the wind wailed in the shrouds and the wind generator screamed constantly—the autopilot ceased to work. It was handsteering for all, which is much, much harder than it sounds, despite the fact that back in the day, that’s what people did. And some sailing purists don’t use them. I, needless to say, am neither interested in sailing purity or historical experience.

The wheel of a boat is big. “Ten and two” is like 2/3 of my total arm-span. The waves push and pull you one way. The sails are full of wind, pushing another way. You are pitching, bucking and rolling along, trying to keep the wheel steering on one approximate heading. Too much one way, you jibe—bad!—too much the other, the sails luff and flap horribly. Imagine exhaustion (because you never sleep properly), darkness, waves you can feel, but not see. No light. I was totally overwhelmed; one night on our watch I just sat and let the tears run down my face. I hate this. Malcolm let me go below and sleep. He kinda thought it was fun (the sailing, not me crying).

tracyTracy was game too, and never seemed scared or even mildly apprehensive. She volunteered to keep us fed, and she made endless cups of instant coffee. She could sleep anywhere at any time. She liked hand steering.  She was a lovely alien from the distant planet Offshore Is Fun. I was so incredibly glad she was there. Her courage and sang froid helped keep me ok inside. Go Tracy!

The autopilot got jerry-rigged: Malcolm and John’s handy persistence to the rescue. We eventually woke to a sea like glass. Tracy got me to actually leave the cockpit and walk around the boat. I was that wound up, even a toe in the water as we floated, gently, seemed almost too much. We had a beautiful cruise the last three days, with only huge freighters and cruise ships at night (“cruise ship Caribbean Star, this is Orion, do you see us, on your port bow?”) to keep the adrenaline flowing. We arrived at about 8 in the morning at the Bitter End (ah, the irony) Yacht Club, Virgin Gorda, BVI. Thank God. It was Over.

I had earned my Offshore Badge.

So What’s the Big Deal?

… About going 16 hours to St. Maarten? One overnight? Yeah, I know. I don’t have to be afraid. I have a relationship with Orion now.orion As Tracy said—“she’s a wonderful boat, like a big-bosomed lady, just taking you in her arms.” Orion likes wind at 25-30 knots. She enjoys a sporty sail. Ocean cruising was what she was made for. And she is a good, old girl. I know she will do her job, and keep us afloat. It’s really myself I worry about, my proficiency on deck alone, at night, to keep her pointed straight, even with autopilot, and keep the sails trimmed right.

And yet, isn’t that what I came here (this incarnation, this planet, this trip) for, to have adventures, and dissolve the edges of my fear, and live more and more fully with each year that goes by? My “yes” to taking this trip was reluctant, but I still said yes. I want to be the woman who knows and trusts herself on her boat. I may not want to ever make another offshore passage, but I want to do this thing. I want to be like Maxo (my bonus teen #1), who always says, “I got this.”

img_1267So. It’s time to stop writing. Make a last snorkel here in the BVI. And then we’ll be underway. I’m going to practice changing my perception about sailing at night, about taking a watch by myself. I’m going to pick away at the edges of my trepidation. What if it’s fun? What if I know more than I think I do, now, with several hundred miles under my keel? There’s not much of a moon right now, maybe I’ll see the Southern Cross.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

A Hard Day At Boat University

So I did it. I opened the floor up. Took the pipes apart. Figured, refigured, attached, detached, pumped, drained, and still couldn’t get the head to work. Amazing, right? Now it’s a little better than it was. I’m a lot grumpier. Elia not happy that  I was washing off toilet parts in the kitchen sink. Rough day at boat school.

I knew when I got this boat that I wasn’t getting the off the shelf model, and that it might need some work to get her into a “seaworthy” state. It was going to take a lot of love and attention. Cruising is going from exotic port to exotic port and fixing your boat. That’s what they say.

view-from-st-john
From high atop St. John

Part of getting the deep discount on the original purchase is knowing that the price will be paid somewhere. Either to somebody in the boat yard to get it fixed, or by fixing it myself. And as my cousin Clint so eloquently puts it. All Boatyards Suck! I was excited to learn about the systems. I like to fix things. And I realized that the only way I was going to learn about how things work was by fixing them when they broke. Be careful what you wish for at Boat University.

My usual method for fixing something is to break out the screw driver and vice grips and take it apart to see if I can figure it out. There is something inherently masculine about not needing help, not asking for advice. Head down, dive in, take it apart, and try not to drop anything in the bilge. When it goes back together hope that there aren’t any leftover parts.  In an amazing number of times I’ve found that this actually succeeds.

But I’ve been introduced to another way.  (Thanks Capt’n John) Turns out, there are manuals, where people that actually know how the thing works, describe in detail, sometimes with pictures and diagrams how it comes apart and goes back together. There are troubleshooting sections, FAQs. One can delve even deeper over the internet and find on youtube videos of people dealing with exactly that same problem who are excited to show you step by step how to fix it for free. And how about channel 68 on the VHF for a call out to other nearby sailors, for a part, for some advice. Professors are everywhere at Boat U if you know where to look for them.

behind-the-electric-panel
Behind the electrical panel

Yesterday when trying to figure out the auto pilot after pushing all of the buttons and feeling like it must be time to call in the $95 an hour guys as a last resort I opened  the book. On page 17 it said, make sure that the unit is grounded. I looked and found that old Bob hadn’t bothered to hook up that particular wire.  No wonder it has been squirrelly for the last 2,500 miles. I ran the wire, butt crimped on both ends, shrink wrapped it, hooked it to the bonding plate.  Took it out for a test run. And miracle of miracles, it’s working great. Cheap day at Boat University!!!

I change my oil. Slowly the old used up sludge is drained away. Close the valve. Into the system comes the new lubricant. Fresh, untainted. As I am reluctantly learning, fixing the mechanicals can at times be much simpler than changing the thinking on the 58 year old male brain.