Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Flip Side of our Holiday Life: Storms in Paradise

The first sloppy drops of rain hit my face about 1:15am. Close the hatch. An hour earlier we were headed to bed after some hours of mindless TV shows. I noticed lightening illuminating the clouds in the far distance. Not so unusual, but my instinct said “Bring in the cushions, clothes and towels strewn around the cockpit”. I had ignored it. Which meant I had to drag my groggy butt up to go do it now, in the event the rain got a bit heavier. I was lazy, annoyed at being woken, and hoping at least we’d gather some rain water.
“Hahaha!” said the weather gods. “You fool! You have no clue what I’m about to unleash!”. In that moment we were oblivious. We had absolutely no idea how intense things were about to get.
The wind picked up to an eerie howl and with it the sea gathered strength. We and three friend cat(amaran)s, more like sitting ducks anchored on the west side of the world famous Thunderball Grotto, a few hundred metres off Staniel Cay Yacht Club with it’s megayachts lined up on the docks. The wind was coming from the west. Open sea for miles. Open opportunity for nature to create Moby Dick sized ocean waves. And over the next 30 minutes that is exactly what happened. Shiloh bucked and jolted with each growing swell and things in the boat protested. Her walls creaked and groaned with the strain. Bottles and photos and glasses flew about. JW and I stood, holding on, peering out the sliding glass door into the cockpit and at the growing mayhem beyond. Rain pelted down, thunder clapped and the lightening strikes created flashes of daylight in the anchorage. We put the engines on but just couldn’t imagine heading out there to deal with what may come. We’d surely be thrown overboard!

I literally could not believe our anchor could hold us. The dinghy flew up to great heights behind us in the wild waves, and thudded back down, over and over. It was literally unbelievable. It looked as if it would flip with each sequence. We radio’d the friend boats. No one could offer much solace. We all huddled in our respective little vessels, praying in our own ways that this would stop. Nausea overtook my adrenaline at one stage and I fought the urge to hurl my protest into the ocean as well.  

“Let’s go sailing!” we said… “It’ll be fun!” we said….
“It’s a holiday life!” they say! Except when it’s not.
Also, having sailed in the Caribbean and the Bahamas for seven years we know that the wind mostly never comes from the west. Except when it does.
I knew it was really serious when, through the mist and pelting rain I could see the 150 ft megayachts bouncing about on the docks.
And then just like that, two hours later, the storm moved away. But it refused to take it’s bratty stepchild, the incessant swell, with it. We were left with the bitter aftermath. Discovering a couple of the boats had snapped bridle lines, our dinghy fuel tank had flipped and spilled it’s greasy contents into the dinghy, creating a bouncy soup of flip flops, oars and sopped oily rags… our water catcher jug – remember that?! It had been my only hope from the storm as it arrived. Yeah, well, it had been thrown overboard and managed to gulp up a load of sea water. Sigh… we hauled it back onboard and hauled our weary selves to bed.
But it wasn’t to be. “No!” said those pesky weather gods. “You didn’t want to sleep did you?! I have other ideas! You can levitate off your pillows for the rest of the night and swear under your breath as you watch the sun come up over the hatch.”
And the weather gods won. This morning we heard that other had faced a much worse fate than us from that evil storm. A mile away at Big Majors Cay – where the swimming pigs live! – boats were dragging and crashing into each other and the beach. Today’s damage count will be high. But there are more of the same expected for tonight. We need a safer anchorage. So we are on the hunt.
The ‘holiday’ plans of drinking peanut coladas on the Yacht Club patio will have to wait…

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Mutton, rail meat, Georgetown Beat!

We are eating out of Styrofoam in a shack. It’s a green shack and we’re eating mutton.
It’s a slapdash shack in a makeshift row of candy coloured structures, plucked together over the course of a few days. Wires and cables snake the ground around us and an open faced fan with exposed blades, throws warm dusty air at us. We are lined up against the wall with our tiny plastic forks, futilely spooning rice. The sticky plastic table cloth hosts a number of hot sauces and luke warm cream based salad dressings despite the lack of salad on the menu. There are the usual Bahamian offerings of barbecue ribs and chicken and mutton with peas and rice and macaroni and cheese and plantain. It’s all finger-lickin’-good. And it all goes to the hips. There must be 50 makeshift bars offering rum punches, sky juice (a trendy local gloopy white concoction of gin, sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk), and the local beers – Sands and Kalik, on special.

Over our heads, the local banter reaches epic volumes. It’s a ‘cacophonous symphony’ of shouts and laughter, knee slaps and hollers.
On another level, the base from competing sound systems lifts the floorboards to the incessant beat. Rake n' scrape, the local music pumps out hits like 'All Da Meat', 'Roach on My Bread', 'Bush Mechanic', 'That Ain't No Mosquito Bite' and more...
It’s hot and our clay-dust flip flopped feet have carried us around the tiny town, which is abuzz for the week. It’s the 66th Annual National Family Island Regatta in Georgetown. Big words for a set of boat races in the harbour. The wooden boats with their giant sails, have been made across the small islands of the Bahamas for generations. Communities across the nation have been preparing and perfecting their vessels and crew since last year’s race. The boat names and their colours are amazing. Barbarians, Confusion, Beerly Legal, I’ve Tried, Ruff Justice, New Slaughter, Termite… etc. all out there, sails puffed, ‘rail meat’ out on the boards, representing their islands!

And we are here, eating steamed mutton in a shack. We will head out to one of the many race viewing vantage points, once our bellies are full, to watch the spectacle unfold. To the untrained eye, it’s organized chaos. With a breathtaking turquoise backdrop.

In the evenings there will be marching bands and fashion shows; the finest and most bizarre come out and flaunt what their mama gave them. There are literally all shapes and sizes, dressed in every colour, material and style imaginable. And some unimaginable. 

There will be music pulsing from giant black speakers piled high, and the partying will continue literally until the sun comes up. Oh, and I’ll be part of that! Lying in bed, facing the music with my 33 decibel industrial grade ear plugs. Zzzzzz.
This is a big event for Georgetown and the ‘out islands’ as they’re called. And we are here. Loving every minute of it. And slurping our mutton bones gleefully.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Ragged Islands: water water everywhere...

Alan is a pretzel. Literally. Knees hug ruddy cheeks; arms twist above and below. He has worked his way down into the awkward cavity at the back of the boat; a salty pretzel with a wrench. The metal steering tiller arm threatens to behead him as he’s jostled about by the waves below.

Shiloh bucks and jolts in tune with the building seas. The wind is picking up which  was not forecast. Surprise surprise. We are anchored in 8 ft of water over the Exuma banks and land is miles away in every direction. We have come through Hog Cay’s narrow channel at high tide and the next island to find protection is over 30 miles away. In sailboat terms, that’s a lot of hours away.
Night is approaching and we are frantic. On anchoring, we discovered our floorboards floating in the port hull. 

With bulging eyes and sinking stomachs we exchange anxious glances. ‘Are we sinking?!!!’, is what we ask without asking. I stick my finger into the greasy sloshing liquid and realise it’s fresh water. Phew! But wait, this means our entire water tanks have emptied into the dirty bilges. Irretrievable. I want to cry.
A day before, we’d negotiated the tedious tying up at Exuma yacht club and spent an hour or two filling the tanks to the brim for our adventure in the land of remoteness…. $50 later, we left, tanks full, hearts happy and excited.
Now, as the water slapped back and forth with the bouncing of the boat, our hearts, if not our boat, have sunk.
The next 4 hours grind by in a sweaty frenzy, JW and Al pumping the lot of it out into the ocean and running tests with our remaining portable water jugs to locate the cause/leak. 

Our queasy guest downs a Gravol and slinks into a cabin into a comatose state to avoid the drama.
By dark, the lot of us feeling green and gutted; the guys have discovered the culprit. An old shower pipe on the ‘sugar scoop’ (back step) had burst and triggered the water pump. It had dutifully pumped the tanks dry. Sigh.
Well, we have to go back to Georgetown! How will we manage 3 weeks in the Raggeds without a drop of water?!
Alan the ultimate optimist jumps up, unfolded from his yogic position and protests. We do have watermakers. Between our two boats, we will make jugs and fill a tank just enough to give us three quick showers and a sink of dishwashing water a day. So hesitantly we agree, and try to regain our enthusiasm. But clearly this is not a good start.
The official Explorer Guides (many cruisers’ bibles for sailing) describe where we are headed as follows:
“This is unpopulated wilderness… You must be totally self-sufficient here…there is a palpable sense of remoteness… we do not encourage casual visiting… there are no marinas, no Search and Rescue help, no fuel, no water… you are on your own here.”
Sleep comes clawing and drags us under, despite the fact the wind has decided to hand us a further warning. It’s howling and kicking up the shallow waters around us, creating a wild vast washing machine as our night’s shelter.
Two days later, we are sitting on a beach, drinks in hand, snacks set up on a ragged piece of wood, chatting with the crew of two other catamarans we found as we sailed around the top of Flamingo Cay. Seems cruiser life as usual. Normal but for the constant drone of the watermaker motor, sucking in that sea water and miraculously churning out trickles of water we can use! Jugs are lugged up and down the stairs, keeping our tanks just full enough…
Fast forward one more day. The watermaker has died. And we are one further island down into the heart of the Ragged Islands. The area where ‘you are on your own, no help, no water, no marinas etc…. Again those exchanged looks of panic and some added frustration. Sod’s Law applies double fold in remote areas. We are not Robinson Crusoe and this issue needs fixing fast.
6 hours later, sweat, blood, chunks of metal rearranged, hammers, wrenches, rust flakes… the watermaker, having been dislodged from it’s cupboard below and brought out into the light, lies exposed on our cockpit table. A casualty of time and salt air. The prognosis is iffy. 

Alan zooms away in his dinghy with the cracked brushes (an essential motor part), and an idea. And we wait. And in the meantime he carries jugs and jugs of water from his boat to ours. Thanks goodness for buddy-boaters. And best friends. The Raggeds would otherwise have defeated us as the ‘holy’ book predicted.
We try to carry on with the business of enjoying the clear blue waters and white sand beaches while the patient lies like a rusty elephant on it’s makeshift hospital gurney. We cover him in old sheets for the night and hope for the best for the next day.

And doctor Al comes through first thing, sun shining extra bright, the water a blue shade of turquoise… with a home glued potentially life-renewing part!!!! 

After two more hours of surgery the patient is returned to his working compartment and the moment of truth… the on button. IT WORKS!!!!!! It works! Phew. It keeps working. Which means we can keep going. So after some cups of tea for the doc and pouring some libations to the gods of remote boat life… we are off. 

Monday, April 8, 2019

Grey to blue: a year in review

Across the tropical shores of the world, boats lie dormant. Bobbing, listing, withering, moulding. Birds gather, disrespectfully gossiping up on the spreaders, shitting on the abandoned dreams of the deck below. Some boats are bound in shrink wrap, as if to protect them from the inevitable decay. In the court of nature’s wrath, the all powerful sun, wind and rain beat them down for months, years. Voiceless, no creaking of footsteps, no parting of waves below their keels. Once majestic sails lie torn and shredded, threadbare. Deep inside, ecosystems thrive. The mould and insects that sense death, take over the coffin. The ugly, grey process of decomposition takes hold.

Each one has a story. It’s a story of family or of finance. One phone call, one diagnosis. A mother or a child. The anchor of land cannot be ignored. Sailors are recalled. Life on the water, with it’s fantastic highs and extreme lows, falls away.

A year ago today, my grey clammy skin recoiling from the harshness of mirror and light, I brushed my teeth. I gulped down coffee coloured liquid. I dressed in borrowed clothes, pulled on a thrift store pair of boots and faced the bitter cold, the slush, the highways. 

On autopilot we drove to and from suburbia to the city. Between the traffic, blurry hallways of hospitals welcomed us, inspid, assaulting all senses with the smell of bleach and urine and promising a set of heartwrenching hours ahead. It consumed me literally; entered my bones and my soul. 

It could have been any day.  Every one as grey as the last. My stomach cramped, echoing the hopelessness, the ache, the circles under my eyes. It wasn’t about me at all. But life’s knocks are blows. They wipe out families and communities and leave us all bruised and whimpering in a cold wet puddle.
My mother’s illness brought me ‘home’, only to discover that she was my home. That I am only from a place, but not OF that place.  Twenty something years away are lifetimes and lessons that add up to a stranger. A stranger in her mother’s house, weeping over the piles of things that will never be used again. Buried. 

Filling, carrying, handing over endless boxes of things in the back alleys of bleak parking lots. Wasted hot tears, spilling, heaving despair for a life that is over, despite the living breathing, suffering woman in a hospital bed some miles away.
A stranger in thrift clothing was I, living a year in turmoil, displaced and heartbroken.
A month ago today I woke to the gentle lapping of the dinghy and the cool breeze of a Bahama spring morning. I peered into the mirror at the brown Sunkist face, wiser for the extra lines. Drenched in sunlight through the hatch above, washed the sleep from the corners of my eyes in the cramped little ‘head’, excited to step up into the day.
Turquoise bombarded my senses – swimming-pool-blue ocean waters and periwinkle skies met my gaze as I devoured each indulgent sip of rich dark coffee. The warmth entering my bones, embracing my soul. 

It could have been any day. Every one as blue as the last. I don’t keep track in terms of day names. They are all blissfully soul nurturing. There are fluffy clouds and random storms and the hugs from friends. This is all about me. It’s the tear that slips down past my sunburnt cheeks, into the ocean. Heartache blows. It’s what you carry over the sea and share it’s burden with the sky above. 

My mother’s death taught me what I always suspected. That things are useless and pointless and that it's the choices we make and the perspective we embrace that lead to exactly where we find ourselves. We can’t control the wind or whether our mother will be waiting on the other end of the phone when we need to share. It’s life’s bitter twist. It’s inevitable. Life challenges us to find the beauty.
I am not a stranger here. You can’t be a stranger in your own life. If you are living your life. 


Shiloh had a story. She sat patiently if reluctantly bobbing between pilings, tied up and tugged by ropes, abandoned for a year. It took effort to bring her back from the brink. But there is life within her hulls again. The people who call her home know that everything is a fragile balance. There are a billion colours and smells and tastes to find and touch and taste and explore. Lemon sharks may be swimming below you, tropic birds chirping above. 

The stars shine most brightly when they are not obscured by the false lights of a city.

Thursday, April 12, 2018


As I recline on the couch, Dr Phil or Ellen or local news droning on in the background, my anemic toes stare up at me. 10 white reminders that I am not myself, I am uprooted, I am in crisis. Tanned skin retreats from crisis. Pale is the colour required.
The mirror is not my friend. Two tired eyes stare back. They are gathering baggage. Heavy, dark bags and the strain of their weight is showing. Gone is the glow, the energy, the fire that has kept me fueled for all these years. In it’s place a gaping wound. A reminder of life’s fragility. A monthly parking pass to a hospital.
My mom - the fiercely independent fireball role model of my life - lies in a bed there, in that hospital. Defenseless, vulnerable and afraid. The regal swans whom she has loved, companions by the lake’s edge, swim by. They are looking for her. They gather and make terrible noise. They cannot believe she has left them. And neither can I.
All of us have been drowned. Whisked into a dark vast cavern by a force of nature. Unexpected, uncontrollable, a stroke takes lives and knocks them sideways. Like dominoes in a storm, we all fall down.
They say it’s the most common cause of long term disability in North America. They say it’s the leading cause of death. They say someone has a stroke every 40 seconds. Those are just statistics.

They don’t say you will lose sleep. There will be tears. You will lose your independence, your free will, your health, your happiness. Your life. They can’t possibly write down what this ‘common’ occurrence will do to us all. It’s too hideous. Too morbid. Too gritty. They will tell me this post is the same. Harsh, negative. Ugly. And they will be right.
Unthinkable decisions to be made, lawyers to be consulted, forms to fill, belongings to discard, depressing facilities to be toured like holiday spas. Social workers, wheelchairs, hospital food. The smell of that. The reality is overwhelming.
How do you put this one in a box? Get it all settled and move on?! How do you protect your heart and soul from something so engulfing. Where do you find yourself again? It doesn’t exist. Not for my mother, not for me. Nothing will be the same again for any of us. And all by a tiny build up of blood, coursing through a vein, up into a brain. A tiny biological malfunction that ripples outward like an atomic bomb.
The frivolity of our lives in the sun, the coarseness of sand between my toes fades in my mind. I feel guilty at even the thought of it. Instead I reflect the grey around me. The sky cries onto the windows and her tears hit the cold lake, mixing with the weary waters of a Canadian spring day.

There is only one thing that keeps us all going. Pushing through the sludge. It’s the hug from my nephew. Warm, soft, beautiful in it’s innocence. It’s the hand squeeze from JW at the end of a trying day.
The friends of my mom who bend and stretch and reach out, far beyond what I could have imagined. It’s a testament to the amazing character of Jan. My mother is so loved. And it is love that shines through. It has proven to be the only force stronger than tragedy.
It’s what allows my sister and I to find laughter somewhere in all of this. Just to know that we are here for each other, for our mother.
So for now it’s the currency I’m working with. It’s the boat in a hurricane. And I’m just trying to hold on.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Shiloh at 19 - A boy to a star

Many lifetimes ago, on a continent far far away on this day, I made my way through the clogged and humid streets, a melting Spider Man cake tucked up on the seat beside me…
I’m on my way home from the one bakery that makes these specialty cakes. It’s far and the traffic is crazy in the way only African streets can be. Stray goats, Police roadblocks, hawkers touting smoked fish and exercise equipment. But I had to do it. You love Spider Man. And Bob the Builder. Or maybe Bob the Builder was last year or the year before. I smile to myself imagining your beaming grin, the kind that lights your magical eyes from within when you see it. The pride in your eyes when you scan the crowd – your cousins, your friends, the kids from the compound. And then I chuckle, knowing you will be the least interested in eating a bite. My sweet sweet boy who needs no sweets. it’s your sixth birthday.  

I might have lost my patience in the busy streets. I might be silently cursing Spider Man or worried that his melting face will be unrecognizable by the time I reach home. I have no idea how much I will cherish this day. How I will physically ache for one more chance to light your birthday candles. To witness your outstanding beauty. To hear you whine or laugh or even cry. Just to be near your life force one more time.
I am oblivious to the cruel future, I am limited, human in my lack of understanding of this world. It is your last birthday on this earth.
Gramma H, Quinci, Wesley, Shiloh, Auntie Jaqui

Grampa and Shi

My precious boy

Flying planes!

Think i had more fun than him!

The Vespa girl and her cool crew

brotherly love

Shiloh the ladies man

Still the ladies man

My little ham

Shiloh and his favourite dog Bob

Kristyn and Shi

That unmatched smile!!!!!!!

Hamming it up

Mother and son

Today I cannot imagine the 19th birthday you will never celebrate. There were no more cakes, no more parties, no bicycles or scooters. There was crushing pain. Emptiness where there had been laughter. Just void.
And now, so many lifetimes away, in a place under the stars, I celebrate only your ageless spirit. I can only walk the beaches and feel the sensory celebration of you. The roar of the ocean waves against the unyielding rocks at shore – that is your roar. The tiniest of delicate seashells that cushion my feet as I walk – these hold the whispers of your ancient soul. 

You were here with us as a child. You live forever in our memories, but you are so much more. Beyond the limits of our clumsy human form, you soar above in the shooting stars and today that is what I have to celebrate.
Shiloh Devon Nii Kpakpo Mingle January 9, 1999 – June 21, 2005