Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year - to following your dreams!

As the final hours of 2012 tick by, my captain is bouncing in the turquoise swell at Shiloh's edge, squinting into the beating sun with a hose contraption connecting him in the dinghy to the mothership. He is surrounded by blue plastic jerry cans containing the ever precious commodity: water. He is transferring the life giving liquid to our empty and parched tanks. He will speed across the bay a few more times, from the dock and back to bring our tank levels back up. Then we might head over to the vibrant, fish abundant reef. And such is a day in the life.

A year ago today we had no clue. Having just slipped out of corporate life in 'the land of the expat', we had gone from a catered existence to an extended holiday. We were perpetually visitors to friends and family, chatting endlessly about our 'plan' to move onto our boat and start our 'cruising life'.

Our complex back in Ghana - the expat life
Before: visiting with friends in Canada

Day one on Shiloh - moving in
Since then we have been moulded by a year of experiences. Our hair, now bleached flaxen and much much longer, has not seen a stylist in as many months. Our skin, leatherish, baked, tells the story of sunshine and salt air. Our muscles stronger, our joints always aching but far more alive than before.

The non-glamorous side of life onboard - chores!

Our livers must have seen less active years than this. I believe we have discarded too many empty rum bottles to count.
This has been our first year of living on a moving vessel.  Wherein manually pumping out the toilet has become normal, and where a drag means not a boring time but something far more interesting! Where storms are to be respected and feared and where we are constantly reminded of our relative insignificance in the face of mother ocean.

I have learned more in these months than in several years before combined. I can now talk on a VHF radio with the ‘rogers’ and ‘overs’ in the right places. I can drop an anchor in the sandy patch and squabble with my captain about the process for an amazing length of time. I’ve learned that anchoring is an art, whereas picking up a mooring ball is more of a comical dance – provided you don’t try to hold the 20 ton boat by refusing to admit you’ve lost it and pulling the lines (ropes). Ahhh, the lessons in patience, tolerance and our own inadequacies. It’s humbling but so rewarding to get through each drama or potential disaster.

I have gotten used to our tiny living space, that becomes a workshop often, and can be turned upside down to access the awkward storage spaces in a split second!

All the inconveniences though, are made so worth while by breathtaking sunsets, the unfathomable number of blues around us, the wildlife, and the awesome friends we have made.

The sunsets

The colours! Tobago Cays
The wildlife
Oh, the friends!  Too many pics to add...
I have explored my creative side this year too - learning the art of making 'beach shoes ' and now I'm hooked! Not sure I can grow a business though - I want to keep most pairs I make!

Yes, it’s been a full year. And we have only begun. Shiloh has traveled a millimeter in the scale of the ocean’s offerings. We could fill a lifetime with what is yet to be experienced.

It's been more than a year since we faced the letting go of our youngest boy into the world, and the letting go of the security of jobs and society and stability. It has meant following our dream, and I don’t take that for granted even one second.

Saying goodbye to our youngest

Shiloh - truly our new home

I am grateful for this life, for the chances and the choices we’ve made. And I am looking forward to the next year with a bursting heart.

Happy New Year everyone!!!!!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas from Shiloh

Merry Christmas. It’s pouring, the dark skies are dumping big time, and the wind is whistling. We awoke to a leak in the hatch above our heads. Drip, drip, drip.

At 4:30am the Holy Church of Blasting Music set up their deafening speakers somewhere on the beach to enlighten us out in the bay through distorted gospel tracks and pastor/DJ on a power trip. Welcome to Christmas morning, Carriacou style! The good thing about the rain was that it drowned out the sound system. Hopefully that was literally!
If I sound a bit bah-humbug, it’s not intentional. I am on a boat in the tropics after all. It just doesn’t seem like Christmas to a Canadian.
There was a time when a storm outside at Christmas meant cuddling up in bed, with the fireplace crackling and the sounds and smells of the season wafting through the house. Baking, cinnamon, dry warmth, the smell of new plastic toys…. Here it means jumping up and peering through the pocked Perspex windows, watching our position in the bay, with a keen eye on our proximity to the others – have we dragged? Is anyone else dragging? Are any hatches open or leaking? Do we have the rain catchers out? 
Shiloh all dolled up for Christmas
There is no commercialism here. No shopping - it's difficult to find carrots! No traffic, no hectic rushing around. Nothing to stress about (except the weather!). But also no family.
This is the first Christmas without any of our children. They have grown and have made other choices, spending time with other families, other friends, other countries. It’s a good feeling to know they are happily living their lives, as are we. But I still have those small pangs – wishing I could see their sleepy faces on Christmas morning, gifts under a tree… playing silly games, their youthful banter.
I must say though, that sailing friends are special. We’re all in the same boat, so to speak. Each of us with stories, families, lives far away that we’ve left behind in this nautical pursuit of freedom and fun and adventure. We connect. We gel. We bond instantly. And we learn how to say farewell as easily.
We definitely know how to have fun. So Carriacou it is for this holiday. It could be any island really, it's the people who make it shine. Along with a lot of rum!
The gang - pre-Xmas party at Miss Lucky's
But last night, as Shiloh lapped calmly in the bay, Christmas lights aglow, and we mulled amongst the party goers on shore, another Shiloh called me. All the happy voices muted, the festive faces blurred. An angel of Christmas past touched me lightly and settled into my heart.
A time before boats and bays, when my little one would wake on Christmas morning excited for the day. When his gaze, so deep would meet mine and melt me. The boy I could never hold tight enough. Couldn’t keep him here for the many more Christmas mornings he should have seen.
 He visited with a grin though, a deep wide grin and I held him there, oblivious to the chatter and cheer around me. That was my Christmas present this year. 
I am headed to a party of 20 on a boat. Good friends and good cheer. My boys are in my heart and they give me the happiness at the end of every day, that makes the season truly joyous. Merry Christmas Quinci and Merry Christmas Shiloh. Love you forever.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

About travelling in circles

Our head gasket is blown.
Sounds so dramatic. I envision cartoon explosions and resulting water fountains. But in reality we’ve lived with this for the past two weeks, making like all was well with our guests on board, filling the water in the one engine for each trip, then switching that engine off right after leaving the bay and back on again to assist with maneuvering on arrival at a new port.
Between this and our bulkhead coming away from the hull, causing an unsettling rubbing motion in a cupboard, (temporarily fixed by my captain with clothes pegs), we decided we had to head back down to Carriacou for the repair work. And due to timing, for Christmas too.
Some say we are going backwards. This makes me wonder about destinations and goals and ‘keeping up with the mariners’ in our newly chosen life of cruising. It is a phenomenon that cruisers congregate in ‘safe zones’ like Grenada in hurricane season, then head either north or west as soon as November rolls around. And they seem to head out FAST – skipping what are, in my opinion, a lot of great islands and adventures therein.
What direction is right, when we are surrounded by a tropical paradise on all sides and we are not living to anyone’s schedule? Is it human nature to set goals and linear directions, so as to strive toward achievement?
We have definitely tread backward over our blue tracks on the radar/GPS. But then we have done this for weeks, taking visiting guests to islands we loved, places we knew were worth sharing. Each time, through the eyes of someone else, we discovered something new and amazing. Is that backwards?
As we pulled around the jutting rock at the north end of Salt Whistle Bay on the quaint island of Mayreau for the third time in as many weeks, JW and I busied ourselves with the anchoring – searching for sandy patches in the clear water below, assessing the swell in the bay. And then I noticed our guest, like the one before her, standing up front, taking in the beauty before running for her camera. She was in awe. We had brought her to paradise. 
Salt Whistle Bay, Mayreau
 And though we booked lobster supper with Black Boy and Debbie on the beach each time, it was a new experience each time. We were seated at the two picnic tables with different diners from far off places – Sweden, France; new locals with quirky personalities and various techniques for their marriage proposals to our visiting single ladies. We were treated to a new musical serenade for our supper each visit. From Dolly Parton to Euro pop, to reggae Christmas numbers. Each time though, the buttery, garlicy lobster was divine – special to be feasting with our toes in the sand below.
In Canouan, an island run almost entirely by a mysterious company ‘CCA’ who’s vehicles line the dusty goat ridden streets, we discovered only on the third visit, a set of beaches on the windward side, and a little gem of a restaurant. Run by some young Italians, with separate menus for tourists and for workers of the omnipotent company, we managed to wedge our way into their hearts and cheaper set of menus. Surrounded by Romanian, Croatian and Italian men with hearty appetites and boisterous pool games underway, we felt transformed to a different galaxy. A glimpse of another world.
These experiences are what make cruising so intriguing. The smells and sounds of the newly discovered. The promise that you will meet someone new, try a different food, swim at a new beach.
Hiking through the centre of the mystical island of Mustique, I was transformed to a Canadian park in the summer. Acres of manicured park lawns, horse stables and children’s playgrounds. There is no other place in the Caribbean like this.

A tortoise we met on the roads of Mustique
 As we headed through the winding roads, met by many slow moving tortoises just roaming freely, we noticed one striking thing. These were our only friends along the way. Mustique was a ghost town of an island, created as a private retreat for the rich and famous, it doesn’t allow anyone residency unless they buy, or are working in one of the 54 mansions or few tiny exclusive hotels. The result is a spooky quiet that permeates. The houses are set far off the road, behind huge imposing gates.
The main strip, with it’s 4 shops – a bakery, 2 boutiques and a gourmet grocery remind me of a cottage town in Canada as well. Manicured and garbage free for the most part, it’s an example of what the Caribbean could look like with a few clean up crews on duty all the time!
The boutiques on Mustique
 We splurged and ate at Firefly at the top of the hill, Shiloh down below in the distance. I felt like a spoiled elitist, spending crazy money on Perrier and cute food, sitting at an opulent table where Tommy Hilfiger (a resident) and Alicia Keys had been dining a few days earlier.

But I had just as much fun in the streets of Union island at a free local festival celebrating the nine mornings before Christmas.

In a Roots shop on Union's main strip during the night festival

Last night, all the way ‘back’ in Carriacou we joined the barefoot gang of cruisers and a few locals, raising funds to build a new little house for ‘Slow’ – a local character who’d had a mishap with a mosquito coil…. We ate ‘oil down’ from a huge cauldron and washed it down with 5EC rum.
And so we’ve come full circle. From south to north and back south, from the exclusive to the down to earth venues, from one spot of paradise to another.
And no doubt we will head further north, but slowly! And if we decide to sail somewhere we’ve already been, I won’t consider it a backward move. Because our need for a new gasket head brought us back to a family of friends and fun for our first Christmas on Shiloh.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fierce winds and following seas

It’s 2:30am. Of course it is. Because I am up and there is something dramatic going on outside. Tonight it is gale force winds. As I stand in the relative protection of our cockpit, other boats in the bay come in and out of view. The wind and rain beat the boat and the water’s surface, and we are swinging wildly from side to side on our mooring ball. Thank heaven for the mooring ball.
Earlier we headed out of Mustique, intent on never looking back after two days and nights of a swell that came into the bay and hit us side long, with force. It had been like anchoring out in the middle of the ocean. Our guest gagged while JW and I puttered around with flashlights, holding on so as not to fall over, or off the boat completely. We checked the mooring ball and the lines (ropes) for chaffing. The squeaking sound of the ropes, fighting an uphill battle with the forces of nature were more than unnerving.
The decadent evening at Firefly earlier in the night, where we had snuck into the fold of well-to-do landlubbers, dining on rare beef and banana flambee, had dissolved into a haze of erratic motion and whipping winds. We could no longer imagine sipping after supper liquers and retreating to stable, large, soft, four poster beds.
 Instead, I steadied myself against cupboards, walls, poles and prayed for morning to come quickly.
After one last visit to the civilized strip of shops on Mustique, chocolate croissant crumbs at the edge of our lips, we had to face the reality of getting out.

Once out of the bay, waves piled up behind us, pushing us along in huge navy mountains of water. We put up a reefed mainsail and cut the engines. The wind, directly behind us at 20 knots, rendered our autopilot useless for the first time, and we manned the helm in turns.
As my arms tensed against the force on the steering and the waves gathered and grew to walls, coming up behind us in 3 to 4 meter swells, I peered around for any sign of other boats. But no one had been silly enough to head out in these winds, these waves.
The overwhelming feeling that we had no control over our boat and our surroundings kept me in a mild state of unchecked panic. JW, my calm and able captain took it all in stride and kept up small talk with our guest. All I wanted was to reach the other side, have a few straight shots of rum and climb down into a deep non-rolling sleep.
Just then, between waves, appeared another Lagoon cat, coming diagonal to us, beating directly against wind and waves. Each undulation of wave sent one hull completely up and out of the water altogether. It was at once beautiful and frightening. And as they came closer, the 4 crew came into view and we waved madly, a sense of crazy camaraderie overtaking us all. And then they were gone. Disappeared in the distance, behind the mass of waves.
And eventually we came into the lee of Canouan and the huge Charlestown bay.
But my dreams of leaving behind the wind and tucking in to the safety of land disappeared as the gusts continually hit 22 to 25 knots, deep in the bay.
We followed the small crowd of boats, tucked in as close to land as possible, to avoid the swells. Dropped anchor and let out a lot of chain. But the strength of the wind didn’t allow us to switch off engines and relax. I donned my snorkel gear and jumped in to assess our holding.
The surface of the ocean, slapped by wind, slapped me in turn and with my snorkel continually full of salt water, I could only see that our anchor was dragging slowly, puffs of sandy dust billowing up below me. JW tried again and once again until the local guys from the charter company in their little speed boat came to warn of more serious winds in the night and offered us a mooring ball, if we agreed to put our anchor down as well. Double protection.
If only all the ‘protection’ against dragging meant a peaceful night’s sleep.
If only the wind, determined and powerful wouldn’t target our anchorage, and when I peer out my cabin porthole I didn’t see a huge Lagoon charter boat, dragged or lost it’s mooring, trying desperately against the storm to re-anchor.
If only this life in paradise didn’t come with the unpredictable chaos of weather.
But then, with only turquoise seas and rum punches to look forward to, we might get bored.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A little bump and grind with a single captain

As we sat on the warm sand, squinting against the setting sun, a perfect day coming to a peaceful close, the last catamaran before sunset was arriving in the reef protected Tobago Cays.
View from the beach in the channel - Tobago Cays
 We watched with amusement and a few sharp gasps, as the captain pulled the charter boat in quite close to the beach and rocky underwater reefs, and glided by the few anchored boats.
The Dutch speedo clad elderly guy on a small old monohull was not amused by the cowboy moves, and his gestures didn’t leave any doubt. Well, this catamaran, by now identified by it’s French flag, was not about to anchor right there. So, he pulled forward, and edged closer and closer to Shiloh.
My amusement dissolved into anger and worry pretty quickly and I turned to my captain to complain.
“He can’t stay there?! Is he dropping anchor?! No way! He’s like RIGHT beside us!”
We both remember our earlier experience in this very anchorage a few months back, where we awoke in the night to find our boat caught in a strange current pool, spinning in unnerving circles. I reminded JW of this, and how it would be more than slightly unnerving, should it happen with another 15 ton catamaran within arm’s reach of us.
As usual, my captain calmed my ragged nerves. Meanwhile, our perfect guest sat grinning, mounding a belly out of sand and patting the Buddha shaped hill. She by now, knows all about our banter.
Moments later, the passengers of the offending cat, pile into an ill-equipt little dinghy in their matching ‘60th Birthday’ t-shirts, and the tiny, wiry little captain hops aboard, only to discover the dinghy motor dead. Luckily they were anchored a few feet from the beach, as they eventually had to row across, all manual style.
They beached, and lumbered out, one by one. The little captain heaved his dinghy onto the sand and headed directly for us.
In the glaring sun,we made out his small features, a match for his little frame, as he spoke; in broken English he told us he was a paid charter captain, he had come from Martinique, he lived like a monk in his little cabin and might be looking for a little action. In the night. We could only laugh.
JW asked him what the Dutch guy had said to him as he slid past and he only shrugged,
“I don’t know, he was somehow angry”.
Then he excused himself to meet Romeo, a local on the beach to organise supper for the guests, who were gathered by now, downing champagne from the bottle.
We got back to the boat, my anger waning after meeting the strange little captain, but went to sleep with one eye open. From our cabin porthole, his boat loomed too close, the hull blocking our view of the beach. And we slept.
The last photo at dusk, of our too close neighbor
 At 12 JW leaned over me to look out and within seconds he had leapt over me and was up the stairs. In that instant I knew this was going to be ‘one of those nights’.
Up on deck we stood in that alternate universe, moonlit, bright grey light, boats swirling, sailing back and forth across the channel on their anchor chains.
Our neighbor was up, all lights on, engines revving up. He’d realised he was practically on the beach and still moving in unpredictable directions.
He was so close to us, not fully in control, and the proximity of these two huge fiberglass beasts had me hopping.
“Hols, bring the torch” (flashlight for us North Americans) I hopped, dashed, adrenaline pulsing.
“What now? What is he going to do? What is he doing? Is he on the reef? Is he lifting anchor?!” These came out of my mouth in frantic stream. No answers came and that was fine. I just needed to express my concern and mounting panic.
We could only watch and stand ready. Ready for what?
Seconds later, with full engines, he plowed through the water directly toward Shiloh. My eyes, like saucers, trying to will him away by their very size. OMG!
“What is he doing?!!!!”
“Holdsworth, calm down. Get the fenders.”
I knew that command was not a good sign.
The French cat swung just past us into the channel, but his anchor chain was still in the water. JW headed to the front of the boat to watch him closely, while I scratched around in the front hatch for the fenders.
I looked up once, only to see his lights and that ominous white hull, moving not away but toward us. JW called out to him to reverse. Nothing. Something was wrong or he hadn’t heard.
As I struggled on my knees with the pile of junk that held our fenders captive below, my butt high in the air, I felt the crack thud.
Oh my God! He hit us!!!!!!!
My mind swam with visions of Shiloh’s front cabin filling with gushing seawater, as the ugly crack groaned against the force.
I finally got a fender free and threw it at JW who was trying to push away the other boat and wedge the fender between us. I was simply incredulous. Full of fear and rage. How could he have anchored right there?! Why didn’t we stop him earlier?
Finally, with captain and a couple of the male passengers on deck, they managed to maneuver away. Still, the boat hovered, and Shiloh moved around as well, with these strange currents.
JW peered over our side with the flashlight. No damage!
But then the captain called over, so calmly, politely:
“Excuse me, my friend, I’m sorry, but can you lift your anchor? It seems ours is caught in your chain”.
WHAT?! He cannot be serious. This sent my mind into another tyrade of hideous possible outcomes. Tangled chains means boats getting even closer and bumping inevitable. Disaster.
I ran down into the perfect guest’s cabin where our anchor windlass trip is, and found her awake, peering out at the action of the night. Not the type of action our captain had expected.
I quickly explained our dilemma and she followed me up to witness the fun and games.
For an eternity thereafter (or most likely 15 minutes), we stood with fenders in hand, engines on and ready, pacing back and forth on deck, watching this boat move in snaking circles around us, trying to get his tangled anchor chain up. I held my breath for more than half of those adrenaline soaked minutes.
And as the chain grinded and jerked, the noise finally came, followed by his visible anchor. He was free, and he had not been caught on Shiloh. For that instant I was filled with joy. I actually jumped up and pumped my hands in the air, giving him a victory symbol across the water. He nodded, pleased with himself, and headed out of the channel, to safer waters – where he should have anchored in the first place.
I looked around as we were propelled back and forth in the channel, now free to move, and noticed the lights were on in all our neighbors’ boats. No one slept as they watched powerless how mother nature toyed and played with them. By morning the channel was calm, we floated in a regular wind pattern, anchor in tact. Ready for another day in paradise.
A few days later, over one of Black Boy’s famous rum punches at Salt Water Bay’s gorgeous beach, a local captain explained that the tides do this for three days before and after every full moon. Over the years he had seen many boats smash and tangle in that very channel during those few days.
It had been a coincidence that we’d been there once before, and it had been sheer luck that we didn’t have more than a harmless bump with our neighboring clueless captain.