Thursday, April 24, 2014

Seven Days at Sea

In households around the western world, eggs were painted in pastels and hidden, cheap chocolate animals in foil were unwrapped and stuffed into the mouths of babes, and the great bunny’s name was evoked. In churches globally, the sermons were doled out, same as last year and the year before…  the institution of Easter was being observed.
Yet we missed it. We were on this planet in an entirely different realm for the past week. Land and society and all it’s rules and celebrations, comforts and conveniences were a distant memory. Left on a shore as we pulled out of the bay for our longest ocean passage to date.
Day 1: Between the squalls that pile up in the sky in so many shades of black and grey and cobalt, there are the other colours. We are between sky and ocean, and the colours are everything. Periwinkle, robin’s egg blue, muted royal blue, true turquoise, ice mint, and indigo sea below. Sunset splashes the sky with peach and fuschia and finally a rich purple before dipping us all into complete darkness.
Day 2: I’ve watched the sunrise on an indigo abyss. Our crew is getting into the groove of a moving home, sleeping, sitting watch, sleeping, sitting watch… our huge rainbow spinnaker is all puffed up, proudly pulling us along. It’s midday and we’re all awake and taking it in. The ocean lies around us, undulating and powerful, and then it happened. Three sets of eyes behold the beauty of a whale, breaching. Her massive body completely airborne. A mammoth ballet. It was a secret viewing, one of nature’s gifts. My heart sang. Sailing is amazing and this is why. 
Day 4: I’m bracing myself aboard, the thrashing seas lifting and dropping Shiloh, though her chain and anchor somehow manage to keep us in one place, against the 30 knot gale that has blown incessantly since we arrived at the first sight of land, this tiny desolate mound of rock and sand, two days ago. I pick at the crusty weeping salt scars that cover the boat and squint over at the little island, so close yet so far away. My legs long to walk, to stretch, to feel that warm sand but we cannot get into the dinghy in the waves, and ashore the surf is building and crashing violently. No chance. Haven’t been able to cook in days, each step aboard is an exercise in balance and strategic grabbing of walls and surfaces… yet still, I am bruised. It’s been rough. It’s still rough. We settle down to watch a movie as the ferocious elements bash us from all angles…
Day 5: Trudging through deep soft sand, my legs ache and burn and it’s a sweet pain. Awoke in the morning to a glass surface. Mother nature’s anger is gone and in it’s place a breathtaking beauty and an invitation to the beach.

Our flotilla, like insects in a jar in the grubby hands of a curious child, we’d been plucked up and tossed around for days, falling about each other in a tiny container, and then we were dumped out on land. We scattered. Running, kicking, exploring our new surroundings and spreading out. Bliss.
We walked most of the island that day. Dodging little cacti, picking up shells, kicking up the sad signs of civilization – plastic bottles and single shoes, washed ashore, leaving their stories with far off people. We climbed the hill and listened to the fish eagle’s sermon atop his broken lighthouse perch. 
Day 7: We are in a 65 mile wide shallow swimming pool. It is flat and as clear as the air, with a turquoise hue. We sailed the deep channel across to tiny Fish Cay at the edge of the main Caicos bank of the Turks & Caicos. After one night we decided to set off into the middle of the shallows and drop anchor. The closest land is at least 20 miles away but the water below us, no deeper than the deep end of a suburban pool. It glistens and shines under the sun. And we are awoken by dolphins. This is as close as our world can get to perfection. Beauty. The smile becomes internal. You glow. You haven’t seen other people or a building or a wifi signal for a week. And it doesn’t matter. It is nothing. 
And we begin the last leg of this passage – we head toward relative civilization, toward immigration formalities and stores and restaurants and bars and other people. To the Internet. But not before we soak in these last few hours on the bow of the boat. Legs swinging over the edge, sun on our shoulders, Shiloh’s hulls cutting through the serenity. Orange starfish dotting the vast sandy bottom, sting ray, nurse shark, all greeting us on this surreal trip.
With extreme caution we use the age old method of eyeball navigation through the coral bommies and patches of reef, and make our way into Southside Marina anchorage. Our depth metre reads zero and we are practically aground it’s so shallow. But now we must turn to earthly concerns. This part of the journey is over.
On shore, the immigration and customs officers are called and the flotilla crews are buried in ipads and laptops. We complete check-in around a picnic table in the gazebo and bid farewell to the officers, who’ve recommended tomorrow’s fish fry and a visit to Boogaloo’s while we’re here. In the evening there is a cruiser potluck and so it begins - the overly friendly interaction characteristic of sailors who know the other side, the world out there with no one else. No passports or paperwork, no crowded malls or Google references. A world of wind and waves, a world without Easter.

Friday, April 11, 2014

‘No-see-ums’ – the Bane of the Beach Braai (barbeque)

Caribbean beaches, pristine white sand framed by regal swaying palms and shallow turquoise waters, welcome sailors daily, and provide the backdrop for engine repair and general boat maintenance.

On many occasions though, boat work abandoned, spanners and hammers and grimy rags tossed aside, cruisers are enticed to drop their dinghies and head toward that beckoning shore. Promises of warm sand through the toes and wading in the tepid blue waters make the prospect irresistible. But there is an enemy lurking. A vicious and relentless monster – but you won’t see ‘um!
Our little flotilla of sailboats, mostly South African cruisers arrived in Tank Bay, Vieques the other day, after quite a bashing sail in high seas from mainland Puerto Rico. One of the boats is waiting on a boat part to be delivered (surprise surprise!) so we have a week to bide time – so why not visit all of Vieques’ beaches?!
After we’d settled and had a swim it was decided – we’d have a beach braai! Everyone busied themselves thawing sausages and chops, packing a lovely little picnic and putting the rum and cokes on ice.
The men, chests puffed up in anticipation of the age old testosterone building ritual of fire making. They rushed to the beach, secured the dinghies and went about searching for suitable firewood, and a protected spot for the fire pit, out of the wind.

One by one all the dinghies were on the beach and the evening was looking promising. What could be better than hanging with good friends on a post card pretty beach, cocktail in hand, meat on the fire.
But then, as quickly as if they’d known, there was the total onslaught. A take over to rival any rebel army. It was the 'no-see-ums' , affectionately known by scientists as ceratopogonidae.
We all began to jump and scratch and yelp uncontrollably. It was a spectacle of limbs flailing, rum splashing, cocktails tossed aside for the protection of ‘Off’. Cans were sprayed wildly as the people bounced around, but it was no use, the little invisible vermin were immune to chemical sprays and slaps and pleadings to cease. They ignored swearing and were not remotely bothered by smoke as we formed a tight cluster there, hoping it would flush them away. Instead, there we were a huddled mass of miserable bitten sods, eyes watering from chemical sprays and smoke fumes, still smacking and slapping ourselves silly.
Getting settled - already one friend is covering her head from incessant bites

And another on the right is shaking out her hair

The last photo taken - itching in full effect - Off bottle empty. Soon, mass exodus!
A rumour began, that they would all go away and this hell would end, as soon as the sun went down. So we braved on, we tried to withstand the attack in hopes of an end in sight. It was a miracle we lasted over an hour in the midst of the invisible war. The beach terrorists showed no mercy though. The sun dropped as it does, beyond the edge of the world but we were still under attack. The troops suddenly cracked. We could stand it no longer. Once the meat was cooked, it was thrown onto paper plates, stuffed into sandy bags, and the crowds made a mad dash for the water and for the safety of our respective boats.
We arrived back out of breath, as if we’d outrun a frightful enemy. I sat on the sugar scoop (back step) of Shiloh, still rubbing my scalp where they’d managed to burrow and bite, causing a lingering itch and eventually I poured myself over the side into the cool and welcoming water.
For some reason, these tiny no-see-ums are limited to one area of attack. They can’t get to us over the couple hundred meters of sea across the bay. It is the one stroke of luck we have. One thing the terrorists cannot penetrate.
I sighed a huge sigh of relief as I climbed out of the water and peered over at the moonlit beach. So, this is why we have ‘sun downers’ on our boats in these beautiful bays. It’s what preserves our image of such wonderful places. If we had to spend even one more evening on a beach, I think we’d all give up sailing completely.