Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Castaway by choice - another level of paradise and a shark

John is on shark patrol. He walks slowly around the perimeter of the boat, donning the all important polarized glasses, scouring the endless clear blue for that long black slithering mass. The good thing is that we can see them for miles.
I am perched on the back ladder, armed with only a bottle of liquid soap, wearing nothing but a nervous grin. “Coast is clear?” “Yep, go for it”. This is not some swim-with-the-sharks adventure game. This is our daily shower routine. Rinse in ocean, soap up, immerse in ocean again, then jump out for a quick fresh water rinse.
We haven’t Googled anything in days. The phone reads boldly: “NO SERVICE”. Haven’t seen a building or heard the motor of a car. We are castaways by choice on the island on Conception in the outer Bahamas. It is apparently protected as a nature sanctuary and there is nothing here but white sand beaches, some bushes and the rugged rocks where the tropic birds nest. Oh, and the sharks. We used to swim and snorkel with wild abandon but the day before we left the relative civilization of Cat Island, we heard that a girl on an organized snorkeling trip in Nassau had her arm bitten off by a reef shark... Gives one a small cause for concern.
When we are not swimming in the shallows – ever alert for our black finned friends, we are walking expanses of sand - day or night. 


Back on the boat, the fridge has gone on the brink and we are testing what can be stuffed in the little freezer and what will last without growing mold here in 85% humidity and 33 degrees C.
Generator is pumping away on deck, charging up the batteries so we can desalinate some drinking water and run lights and TV at night. This is life off the grid. Disconnected but with all the modern amenities we need.
Occasionally another boat will arrive over the horizon to drop anchor here and sit with us in relative isolation and breathtaking beauty. And after a day they are off. Maybe they miss Twitter or the grocery store. Maybe they are on a tight schedule, heading back to the states for hurricane season. Perhaps they know something we don’t about the weather headed our way. We are oblivious. Haven’t seen a weather App for a week. We are reading the conditions the old fashioned way – look and see.
Today looks windy, a bit hazy. Think I’ll make a curry and we’ll take a long walk later. Bit of ‘house cleaning’ before exploring. Tides are our time. The beach is best to walk at low tide. Snorkeling best at slack tide. A dip in the rock pool on the north beach is wonderful at high tide when the ocean crashes violently through a crack in the rocks into the serene warm pond.



Yesterday we discovered the massive steel ruins of a ship that have literally grown into the rock around them. My mind exploded with wonder. How old is this ship?! What really happened? Were there survivors? If so how long did they live? What did they eat? Did they make shelter? It dawns on me that they were truly castaways and this is not Hollywood. This is a genuine story of adventure and tragedy. One that no one will ever know. It’s possible we might discover something if we Googled ‘Conception island ship wreck’. But you’d need Internet for that. Oh well, white tropic birds with their long tails flutter above, the turquoise of the ocean reflecting off their bellies. Who needs Internet?!

There are reefs surrounding the island, populated by the colour-by-numbers parrot fish and every other imaginable shape, colour and size of reef eater. I’ve been trying out my new gas-mask style snorkel gear with moderate success. No water or steam gets in but it seems to jam my jaw upward. It’s a first world problem. I can still see the beauty around me. 



I will happily sacrifice fresh milk (we’ve got the lovely powdered substitute), laundry (not wearing many clothes anyway), and the constant saltiness for this paradise. My skin is crispy, leathery, a disturbing terra cotta hue. My hair used to have highlights. It’s gone from styled to wild pretty quickly. The little greys poke out through the black roots while the rest is dry, wiry, wispy and toxic orange. Sun kissed rapidly turned to sun baked and now I’m basically fitting my role as castaway.
JW is mopping what we believe is migrated Sahara dust off the solar panels while I’ve tied up my orange mop and I’m sautéing onions in prep for my curry. I’m thinking it’s nearly time for a swim but then, through the galley window I spot him in the distance. The black slithering mass in the endless expanse of blue, winding his way toward us…

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Our easter blows!


My hair is airborne. Resenting it’s roots, it beats my face relentlessly. Medusa, spaghetti wars, the wind’s bad influence has made it all wild. I pry and pat and pull frantically, dragging strands from my mouth, trying to enlist my ears as clips. It’s all to no avail.

This is ‘our easter’. Not to be confused with the ‘other’ Easter; the Christian observance where a bloody cross is dragged through the streets, nor the highly commercialized holiday where children run around madly looking for eggs layed by a monstrous imaginary white bunny. And where there are chocolates. Lots of chocolates.

Though here in Bimini on ‘That Easter’ we did observe the massive cross being dragged up the one and only road that connects the two tiny towns. This one had a wheel at the bottom though, so, cheating really. We sat with the rest at Stuart’s Conch shack, our easter blowing the sharp stench of rotting conch shells toward the merry makers who listened to the local singer belt out his reggae versions of random songs. We all drank beers and for the brave, the infamous local drink, ‘Bimini Knock Out Punch’. 
No, our easter involves good old Mother nature. She has a vengeance against the west. Not the ‘West’ which refers loosely to countries like America, but in this case, down Florida way, she does seem to be ceaselessly battering the eastern shore. And it has been weeks. And we were there, trying to head east. In a sailboat. Doesn’t work so well. 

Though we did choose a day, motivated by visa concerns and the imagined worst case scenario involving coast guard and cops, not wanting to ‘overstay our welcome’; we made the first crossing into the Bahamas. And the ocean, wild and wavy, told us what it thought of that with a big bitch slap of salty water, right up and over the helm. The instruments, cockpit, even our indoor rug were all soaked. I stood there, dripping, shivering, completely indignant. Yet as the sea tends to teach, there is no time for self pity, I was changed and dried and back up at the helm for another nine or ten hours trading off and on with JW before we reached the safe harbor of North Bimini.

And here we are. Days and weeks have blown by. And boy has it blown. Our easter blows constantly. She is not concerned with the ‘one week off a year’ tourists up at the fancy rooftop pool of the Hilton. Those whose cocktails are pushed over, making sticky puddles that are then blown slowly across the fancy tiles… Where the infinity pool is splashing all the wrong places. Where the umbrellas are packed away for safety concerns.

Our easter has zero concern for our seasonal sailing plans, which involve leaving this tiny sliver of land and heading east. Oops. East. Sorry sailors, claims our easter with a wink. You won’t be going anywhere just yet! If you can keep your boat anchored without dragging like some of your neighbors in the face of my wrath, you have accomplished something! But sailing onward?! Ha!!! (She is heartless our easter).

And so we are here, the little A on the map. On this tiny island, 7 miles long, by only 200 ft wide, with a population of roughly 300. Plus us. 

The water is blue. The beers are cold. But the wind, she blows. 

We’ve had our first annual ‘talking heads’, however due to prevailing conditions, it was not in a bay on a remote island, but the huge hot tub of the Resorts World Bimini’s Hilton. We brought our own beers, the wind was provided.

We did sneak out of the inlet one day to investigate the Sapona, a massive concrete and steel wreck that was once a famous rum runner in prohibition days. Now, a tourist attraction and man made reef. But we had to retreat back to the relative protection of our bay. Our easter so demanded.


The weather sites are predicting a lull in the wind followed by a change of direction early next week. We’ll believe that when we see it, or sail it!!! For now, it’s not so bad to be stuck here; we found a Laundromat and refilled our propane tank. And we’ve got a beach and 5 pools to choose from. We can walk into town for cheaper beers and decent grilled meat by the roadside. 





We’ve heard the supply ship is coming from Miami today, so there might be something fresher than moldy $5 avocados. It will be the highlight of our day walking into town to investigate. Ok, maybe there will be a sojourn in the hot tub after that. Life is pretty good despite our easter. I just have to remember my hair ties!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Of luck and lateness and launches...


My eyeballs are pressed deeply into black rubber, protruding slightly toward the scene. As if I could perhaps tip right into the launch pad if I pressed the binocs into my face a little harder.
My elbows resting on the cool concrete of this beachfront condo roof, I am a million miles away, consumed by what unfolds before me. The voices of the other ‘observers’ around me fall away, lost in the nip of the evening breeze. For me this has become a personal show. A rocket is about to launch.


And as the cajoling and countdown subside, it takes over the world in a firelit spectacle. Millions of dollars and planning hours burst into the sky and head into space as a curly cloud of smoke lingers behind. A minute later the low rumbling of the take off hits our astounded ears.
We are ‘stuck’ in Cocoa Village Florida. The boat is sick. One of our two well used engines has been deemed dead. Irreparable. A transplant is necessary. And no one seems in too great of a hurry to get the replacement done. Once the reality sunk in that we actually needed a new engine, and choked down the horrendous ‘cruising kitty crushing’ cost, we were ready to have it over with and move on. Move south.
But two days have become two weeks and we have long overstayed our welcome on the free public dock. Our cabin/bedroom/engine room is a workshop of broken engine parts and our mattresses line the hull/hallway while we wait. And wait…

Our buddy boat had to bid us farewell and head further south, to meet up with others and continue the partying and reunions that we had planned. And each day we awake, wondering what this little town will have in store for us.
This morning we hatched a loose plan to catch the bus to the beach, take a nice long walk in the sunshine and take in some live music at an Irish fest.
By the evening we had met some amazing new friends, found ourselves in their gorgeous home sipping wine and eating organic wild boar that he had hunted himself, marinated in a rum barbecue sauce and served to us with some fresh baked Irish soda bread. We listened to music and planned the launch viewing up on their roof. 

This is our life. We make plans, things go wrong, then unexpected miracles happen. All the time. It is amazing and I will never take it for granted.
We arrived back on Shiloh after an epic Canadian road trip back in January with a plan to be out of the boatyard and into the Bahamas by the first week of February. But alas we are here, in central Florida in late March, sipping the richest café Americana at Ossorio Café, where the waiters now know our names. In a town we had no plans of spending a day in.
We have met up with a friend we once met in Grenada 4 years ago. His boat is anchored in our bay. He has taken us touring and for Wednesday night drinks with his buddies in town. 
People have reached out to us to console us on the break down of our engine. We have spent a moment or two wallowing in self pity over our predicament. But it’s all part of this amazing journey. Whatever we think is a curse becomes an adventure. We’ve got our tans back. The sun shines and there are long sand beaches to walk on. 
It takes an open mind and an open calendar. It’s freedom and it’s frustrating at times. But it’s a cruiser’s life and I’ll take it any day, or night for a rocket flight!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

When you don't have an address - the flip side of paradise


My nose is an icicle. Apart from my icy forehead, it’s the only part of me exposed to the artic air. Beside me the captain lumbers. He is a hibernating bear. If it wasn’t for his body heat, I’d have died during the night.
Outside there is the constant thwap thwap of some boat’s halyard’s and then she howls – the wind, through all the masts in the boatyard. It’s eery. And it lets me know it’s going to be even colder outside. God forbid one of us has to use a toilet. The walk across the yard is unfathomable.
 A week ago we arrived back in Florida, back to our boat. As we drove, we peeled off layers of Canadian winter clothes, migrated from coats, wool hats and leather boots to rubber flip flops. I announced the rising temps on our dashboard as we made it further and further south. And when we arrived, there was a full week of shorts and t-shirts and big silly grins on our faces.
But then winter followed us here, and it does not care about our lack of insulation. It doesn’t give a damn that when boats are on dry dock and you are silly enough to live onboard, you cannot use your own toilets and have to walk half a kilometer across the yard to use the grimy public ones…
We thought we were quite clever back in August, buying a car to take on an epic road trip – all to avoid working on the boat in the excruciating heat. We’d come back in January, we said. We’ll do the work in the cooler weather we said. Well here it is. I was far warmer in Canada on the minus 21C days. At least there was heat.
There’s a boat behind us that sits quietly for days at a time, waiting for it’s sensible owners who come down from wherever their home is, when the weather is good. And they work on her a bit, getting her ready for a season in the Bahamas, and then they go home again.
Home. It turns out that it’s not just a concept. Home is where the heart is, and all that. Nope. Those of us who have no home – except one that floats – come face to face with this all the time. “We live on our boat!”. “But where is ‘home’ really?”
For JW and I, the issue is even more serious. We have never lived together in either of our home countries. If we wanted to, it would involve a lot of immigration red tape. We lived in Ghana, we live on a boat. People thought it was exotic when we lived in Ghana, but this living on a boat?! We’re practically insane.
And to border patrol agents, we’re a couple of potential drug smuggling, tax evading, dirty-hippie, good-for-nothings.
We came through the border from Canada, like all the day trip shoppers in the queue of cars. And then we pulled up to the little window, handed over our passports and said those fateful words. “Where’s home?” “On a boat!”
“Please pull over to the right and enter through door 2.”
Oh no! And so we did. As all the people with homes drove through without incident.
Three hours later, we emerged from that interrogation shaken visibly. I wanted a cigarette and I don’t even smoke! I wanted a whisky too but had to make due with warm Diet Pepsi that I’d left in the car when we went through Door 2.
The moral of that story was ‘NEVER SAY YOU LIVE ON A BOAT.’ Even if it’s true. And if you are part of a couple where neither is legally allowed to live in each other’s home country, just give two separate addresses. Even if it’s not true.
It turns out that our officer-de-jour was hell bent on catching us out, proving we were smuggling something, evading something, living illegally in the states. Because no one lives on a boat, so we MUST be lying! In order to catch us out he interviewed us together, then threw a piece of paper at me and shouted, separated us and interviewed us with the same questions in different forms.
“Where do you work?”
“We don’t”.
“What do you mean you don’t work?!”
“Ok then, where do you pay taxes?”
“We don’t.”
“What?!!!! How can you not pay taxes?”
“Well neither of us work or own any property in either of our countries of origin and since we don’t live in any of those countries…”
“Stop, stop talking.”
“So,” He asked, with a snide demeanor, “you say you live on a boat?! Where is your home port then?”
“Toronto, in Canada, but the boat has never, and will never go there.”
“Why not?!”
“Well it’s too cold, and we’d have to pay duties and taxes…”
Eyeroll.
“So where are you going in this boat when you get to it?”
“Bahamas.”
“WHERE in the Bahamas?!”
“Well it’s a sailboat, so hopefully lots of places.”
That was obviously taken as insolence. He was sooooo unimpressed.
“Where will you dock the boat? What will be the marina base?”
“None. We anchor everywhere.”
Big big eyeroll. “Go sit down!!!!”
He then called me up alone and asked me “what contraband items am I going to find out there when I search your car?!”
So, shaking in my seat, I admitted to the bag of pitted dates I’d bought at Costco a week before…
“What?! Dates?!” He guffawed, rolled his eyes and dismissed me. And the dogs descended on our car.
So nearly three hours after it had begun, he called us both to his desk and admitted he could find nothing to hold us for or deny us entry. And he confided in us, “If you don’t want this to happen every time you come into the states, don’t say you live on a boat!!!”
So there it is. Our lifestyle is socially and legally unacceptable.
And it sucks when we are in a boatyard too. Way too hot or in this case, bloody cold. I can see my breath as I write and my fingers are seizing up. Also, when we are out there on the ocean there are storms and bad seas. Lots of things suck.
It’s definitely not always paradise. But it is amazing. It’s freedom. And when it’s good it’s nature and beauty and long walks on uninhabited beaches. 
 =============================================================================
But not today. Not this month. All this work will lead to one of those days, though. And then it will all be worth it.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Happy birthday from another world


My bum is numb. Most of my outer layers of skin have lost feeling, but for the random involuntary shivers. This hockey rink is freezing. Despite my efforts to stay warm – donning a full body sleeping bag/coat, thick stodgy Uggs, and matching teddy bear hat and mittens, complete with bulbous knitted nose and ears. Very chic.
I sip at my flask of pretend coffee, wiping the deep red wine stains from my lips after each little swig. I’m trying to fit in here and hoping my teeth aren’t noticeably purple/grey.


The parents in the stands jump and shout after each play. “Noah! Rebound control buddy!!!” It’s all very aggressive and serious. The players out there are 7 and 8 years old. The smallest one is my nephew.
It is our last day in Canada – unless the winter storm warning in effect delays us by a day. We’ve been here, visiting the house I grew up in, for over two months. At once I am sucked back into the rhythm of suburban winter life, and also repelled and alienated by the contrast to the life I’ve led for the past 21 years away.
My captain – so far out of his ocean realm, sits beside me on the stands, enthralled by the fast paced game on the ice below. His new cozy winter toque, pulled down over his ears, he blows into his bright red, dry and freezing hands in the futile attempt to warm them. I’ve dragged him here, into my family, my past, my people. And despite hockey’s foreign rules and cultural intricacies, he has fit right in.
Hot chocolate, egg nog, minus 21 temps. He’s shoveled snow, used the snow blower, poured warm water on our frozen car doors to get them open. Welcome to Canada baby!

I cannot believe it’s been 4 months since we left Shiloh and our sailing life behind – left her to face hurricane Matthew alone while we visited potato festivals in West Virginia and sampled Moose pie in Newfoundland. We 'oohed' and 'aahed' at the colours of the Cabot trail in Cape Breton, and marvelled at the 40 ft tidal swing at the Bay of Funday. We walked the red sand beaches of Prince Edward Island and sampled the world's best scallops in digby Nova Scotia.... Luckily Shiloh and her boatyard friends all weathered the storm without a scratch.







It’s been months since I had to steer the 15 ton boat up to a fuel dock, weather a storm, navigate a port entry… All my life stresses have been replaced by GPS driving stresses, finding motels, and finally juggling all the family and friend visits over the holidays.
Everything about life is in flux. Within a few days we will evolve from our hats and scarves to capris and flip flops.
Everything has been in flux – we’ve visited over 80 cities, towns, villages, islands in 2016. We are lucky. And yet the worst tragedy to befall a mother is my reality.
There is the matter of my six year old son, who today would be eighteen.
There are things I can reconcile – weather, financial strains, family differences, friends who disappoint.
But my baby boy – the one who coveted his can of red Pringles, who cuddled all the girls and declared that food is not food without rice! My Shiloh – who loved Power Rangers and Bob the Builder and Spiderman. My little guy, with stubby brown fingers and a soft blond peach fuzz on his silky little neck…  that he was born 18 years ago today. I cannot reconcile this in my feeble mommy brain. My mommy heart has missed the years between 6 and 18 where my boy would have grown, but where instead there was a void. A void within my heart, a place where the world stopped spinning and simply sat, dumbfounded by a loss so great.
 

So today, as I watch my little nephew barreling down the ice, caught up in the spirit of the game, I decide there is no reconciling the things that happen in this life.
We simply find ourselves in places in time and we must soak them in. We must exist in the here and now – all the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘could haves’ held at bay. Life is in this moment. This right here. The smell of warm chocolate contrasted by the bitter cold air and the cry of the overbearing parent.  The sour kick of red wine with the metallic aftertaste of the flask. My boy is gone but this boy is here, and he is life – all new and hopeful. And there is love that transcends. It holds families together, it holds us all together across time and space. But all we have really is what is in front of us right now.
I have memory, and love and family and the frivolous concept of plans. Adventures await.
For now, happy birthday my angel boy and Go Adam! Our boy of the day.