Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Caribbean contrasts

This is my first year cruising. In a couple months we’ll have spent a full 12 months living onboard our boat. To landlubbers it sounds like an eternity, but to seasoned cruisers, we are mere infants, barely initiated to the lifestyle.
I have to side with the sailors on this one. I can’t believe we’ve been living on the ocean for 300 days. And in this time, not including our flight back to Canada and some sailing trips up and down the same islands with visitors, we’ve only sailed the distance between Grenada and St Lucia, or in quantitative terms, about 150 miles.
150 miles. In 10 months. OMG! Good thing I was not expecting a fast paced lifestyle. It’s hard to imagine how we’ve managed to fill the time, for a good 7 months, waiting out the hurricane season in Grenada, and a bit of island hopping for the rest of the time. But it ‘sailed’ by really. Time flies when you’re having fun.
Having fun takes many forms. It’s the contrasts I love best.
Today, headed into the marina on Shiloh’s side kick, the I LOVE SHILOH dinghy, we were hailed by the gang of local fishermen at the entrance to the lagoon. Arms waving, conch shells piled high, the frantic group got our attention and we spun around to see what it was all about.
The old wooden boats, bashing together as the guys unraveled gunky nets, all rippling muscles, sharp knives and fish blood, provided the backdrop. They needed a favour.

A fishing boat - St Lucia

Minutes later we had a stocky, rough looking, local fisherman called Allison (no joke!) on board with his daily catch, dripping fishy juices out of the once white sack, between our toes, onto the dinghy floor. He lived in Gros Islet, the poor seaside town just on the other side. He needed a lift across the lagoon entrance with today’s bounty. 100ft later, we had him docked at his destination and we were on our way.
Minutes after that, dinghy ‘parked’ we’d walked across the boardwalk of the well manicured marina, stopped off among the 10 stylish patios, choosing the Italian pizzeria, and I was sipping the foam off my cappuccino, downloading programs on the free wifi.
From islands where goats rule the dusty roads, to others with cars spewing fumes down the highway strips.
From paint chipped, open gutter villages to the fanciest of marinas...

A local game of dominoes - Castries town, St Lucia

The fancy marina at Rodney Bay - St Lucia

A private residence on Rodney Bay Lagoon

We spent a month over the holiday season in Carriacou, where finding carrots or potatoes was hit and miss. Where the tiny local shops would wait with shelves emptying, for the promise of new stock brought over by the ferries. Christmas lunch was a hodgepodge of what we could find, five or six boats banding together to create a great day despite the lack of availability of much. Tomatoes were a scarce commodity, turkey brought in from Grenada – what a treat!, while tropical avocados were nowhere to be found.

Abundance in St Lucia after the droughts of supply in Carriacou

A few miles north, after a challenging sail, I am speeding through the aisles of a massive supermarket, where gluten-free has it’s own section and imported organic chocolates are prominently displayed. I can barely choose in this place. It’s sensory overload after months of living ‘island-style’ and making due.
Do I have enough room in my tiny impractical boat fridge for sour cream, yogurts, sliced hams, cheeses, corn on the cob, steaks, three types of apples, kiwis, chocolate milk (captain’s favourite) etc etc etc….
One thing is sure, I am going to gain weight over the next few months, judging by our (roughly) scheduled island stops. Martinique and Guadeloupe, still owned and well stocked by France promise great wine, cheeses, baguettes.
Maybe we should stop for longer in Dominica. There they’ve got more hills and forests to hike, and less restaurants and stores to indulge.
For now, I’ve got to get out of this café, walk off my lunch en route to buy ingredients for supper and maybe squeeze in a swim.
Oh, and some sailing might be scheduled for the near future as well!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

From suburbia to the deep blue sea

It’s times like these that I know I’m crazy. Completely off the rails. When will I wake up and realise I’m a little suburban girl from Canada, raised on shopping malls and bike rides through paved parks. Raised on safety handles and guard rails. Keeping me away from trouble and adventure.
When? Today? As my knuckles ache from the tight grip I keep on tables, counters, poles, jostled and thrown from side to side by the relentless waves of the ocean, my captain and partner at the helm, navigating through the swell.
As he shimmies along the smooth fiberglass surface, out of the relative safety of the cockpit to adjust lines and sails and other sailor-type-things, I start to contemplate my fate, should he be thrown overboard.
About all I know is the tiny man with his arms raised on our chart plotter – push that! – it’s the ‘man overboard’ button and it takes the GPS coordinates of where the ‘man’ was lost. Then what?! Our sails are up. Engines off. We are zipping along through huge waves. Turn the boat around? And what would happen to the sails? The boom would swing violently over… then I realise I don’t know how to take them down. Not really. I’ve seen JW a hundred times, I know the lines, the nicely labeled cleats, the winches and the rest, but doing all this myself? It seems I am a goldfish student as far as all of this goes, I get my command, I do the deed as best I can, and then I’ve forgotten.
As I watch him edging away, each moment a potential sea surge could throw him 10 feet, I start to think I should have taken sailing lessons. I should have spent more time practising knots and sails and less time slamming dominoes and beer! Less rum, more learning.
An hour earlier I did my ‘panic dance’, as JW likes to call it. Headed out of the calm bay, anchor up, and full sails rigged. The wind was 4 knots, then 12, then as we rounded the cliff it hit 25 knots in an instant. My eyes became saucers and every muscle clenched. 20 tons of boat jolted up, tilting with the full force of the wind in the sails. JW jumped to the ready, asked me to hold a line on the winch I think, but it’s all a blur, he had to ask me to move aside as my hands started to shake.
When, on this 9 hour journey, he needed to go down below for a bit of rest, having tethered me onto the boat with a bright yellow line, I took over the helm on watch. 5 minutes in I heard a snap bang. Looked around but couldn’t see much. After a while I noticed one of the ropes (lines) hanging down from the mast, looking broken and loose. I looked behind me and there was the same colour rope hanging out behind us in the water. Oh shit! This can’t be good. I had to wake the captain. Turns out the topping lift line had snapped and nothing was holding up the boom. I had no clue!
The day before we’d had a smooth sail – steady winds, calm seas, sun shining. Engines off, sails up, the wind carried us along confidently. We listened to music en route, sat on the bow, checked e-mails and facebook. Basically the kind of sailing I can handle. On days like those I think I’m really getting a grip on this sailing thing, that I’ve learned a lot and that I’m pretty cool. What a life! Carefree. 

 And then SLAM! The ocean gives me a face slap and I find myself trembling and of not much use to anyone in a situation where knowledge and experience are king. Where panic is superfluous and calm is necessary. Thank god for my captain.
My skills in blogging and Scrabbling have no use out here on the ocean. I realise my past lives have ill prepared me for this one.
But like I got used to 6 months with no power in Ghana all those years ago, sleeping on the floor and fending off malaria infested mosquitos for a good 5 years, I will also face up to the less-than-easy side of life on a boat.
I vow to pay more attention to words like halyard, rigging, topping lift, hove to. I promise to learn and practice some nautical knots and watch how the engines are maintained.
As long as I can soak up the beauty of a sunkissed mountain jutting out of the ocean on our arrival at a new island, try the bright pungent local fruits in the many bustling markets once we’ve arrived, and swim with the mind boggling number of wild and wonderful fish living just under us on this journey.
 And as long as I can find a good cappuccino, a bagel and cream cheese (dare I say with smoked salmon?!) here and there along the way, I wouldn’t trade it back for the safety of suburbia at all. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The waiting game

Well I’ve spilled chocolate cake mix into the holes of my beautiful brain coral, collected from some white sand beach… Who has these problems?!
And that is not the worst of it. Apparently boat ovens are a different breed, and the metal plate under the racks inside is an essential component for raising the temperature and distributing the heat. When I removed it, smelling with a burning oil, as I put in my chocolate cupcakes, it spelled baking disaster.
An hour later the batter, like thick soup at the top, and burnt to a shining rigid plate at the bottom of each doomed cake, I gave up. Maybe the fish enjoyed the congealed mess.
These are the activities that have filled my time during the week of waiting.
Our gasket has still not arrived, after being ordered from the US, sent to Grenada and now apparently on it’s way in the ferry, to Carriacou.
Yesterday after the awaited call from the shipping agent, we hopped on a local mini bus with our boat papers in hand and filled out forms at customs, then ‘mailed them’ aboard the ferry. The process was a hot and bureaucratic one. It seems we have spent far more in time and transport for this little item than it could ever be worth. But then without it we are stuck.
In one place, in a boat. Not what it’s all about really.
In the meantime, we’ve hiked the island in all it's glory, barbecued some pigtails, seen a dead cow face up, eyes bulging; had a chili party on Shiloh with 12 cruisers. Blessing, the entrepreneurial driver/tour guide/fast food delivery man showed us a fancy bar in a car wash and a jerk center in town. We tried mutton soup on the sidewalk, snorkeled on some great reefs and spent quite a few hours in the night hearing and watching the wind blow, it’s fierce force ripping ships from their safely nestled anchoring spots.

Car decor in the streets of Hillsborough

The dead cow

A view of Tyrell Bay from our hike

At Carriacou's southern tip - at Shell Bay

Our 'driveway' - the dinghies awaiting their captains

Kiosk in the streets of Hillsborough

Soursop for sale - apparently it fights cancer

The wind is supposed to die down and along with it, the 11 feet swells, by the weekend. By then we should have the awaited gasket as well, all installed and working. St. Lucia bound we shall be.
For now though, there’s Scrabble online,  Scrabble with sailors, suppers aboard, rum squalls and right now some more snorkeling!