In Search of The Spanish Main
Scratch every sailor, one writer commented, and you’ll find in their blood a blue water dreamer. That is: someone who secretly longs for an ocean passage, days and nights of being at sea hundreds of miles from land, relying on one’s own skill and resourcefulness to overcome adversity.
I shared this dream, but unfortunately had no skills or resourcefulness. Since we were heading hundreds of miles offshore it was good we had on board those who did. My lack of experience caught up with me almost immediately. We were thirty miles south-southeast from St. Thomas, now just below the horizon, heading for Venezuela; sailing under mizzen and full jib; wind 15 knots; six foot seas. It was a beam reach, meaning the wind was coming from about a 90 degree angle—a very desirable condition compared to others we would experience later. I was down in the cabin, working diligently at the chart table, trying desperately to become an old salt after decades spent at an office desk. Smug in the knowledge I’d successfully plotted our position—not too difficult in a world where you read off the coordinates from a GPS and merely draw the two intersecting lines on a chart—I stood and reached for the companionway ladder, eager to announce this first triumph to my betters up in the cockpit. Island Skipper, an Irwin 52 foot ketch, chose that moment to catch a wave, and healed over forty five degrees.
I’ve never experienced an earthquake, but fancy it’s a small thing compared to having the floor one’s standing on tilted half way to vertical in one second. We’ve all used the phrase “loose cannon” but at that moment I became the human version. All 195 pounds of white-collar, corporate desk jockey was launched at breathtaking speed across the fifteen-feet of Island Skipper’s main-cabin width. I didn’t make it to the other side. The cabin post, a vertical, lathed pole that most all large sailboats have just below the companionway, stopped the fall. To mimic this experience on land, stand on a railroad track and have a freight train run into you.
I collapsed instantly onto the floor, and didn’t quite black out. To it’s credit, my body had absorbed the impact along it’s entire length, and was urgently telling me so as the damage-assessment part of my brain kept functioning and the different parts of my anatomy began reporting in. Foot: crushed. Lower leg: smashed. Thigh: ruined. Hip: destroyed. Chest: heavily damaged. Arm: probably broken. Face: pounded to pulp.
Adding foolishness to the stupidity which had caused the accident, I tried to stand up.
“Whoa,” said Rob, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Take it easy. Just stay on the floor for a second. Catch your breath.”
Rob and Michelle, captain and first mate respectively of Island Skipper, had once sailed the boat through an Atlantic hurricane. They had lived on board—with few breaks—continuously for nine years. They were connected, on some deep spiritual matrix of DNA and fiberglass, with the boat’s very soul.
So I’d felt guilty buying it out from under them three years ago. Yet it had been their choice. Island Skipper is a crewed charter yacht that plies the Virgin Islands, carrying paying passengers on week-long sailing adventures, and trying to make a profit in doing so. It’s a business. Being skilled and resourceful, Rob and Michelle finally realized that owning the primary asset of the business was not financially desirable, so they’d sold it to Derry and me. If we had taken it out of chargter service, or preferred another couple, Rob and Michelle would have moved on to a different boat, and could have had their pick. The two are well known and hugely sought-after in the Caribbean crewed-yacht market. Frequently they are offered high-paying jobs on megayachts, those “if you have to ask how much they cost you can’t afford them” seaborne palaces over 100’ in length—and always starved for crew.
Of course we had no desire to replace Rob and Michelle, and contracdted with them to continue operating Island Skipper. Since then, various combinations of the family had enjoyed one-week sailing adventures of our own, becoming guests as well as owners. These would typically start in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, our home port. We’d sail several hours to Tortola and “clear in” (go through customs) at Soper’s Hole. Then spend 6 or 7 days in short sailing trips to different spots in the British Virgin Islands, none more than a few miles apart. The boat would anchor or moor in some idyllic spot each evening, and the biggest ocean challenge would be the gentle rocking that inevitably occurred when the wake from a mega-yacht—crusing by a mile or two away—eventually reached us. Michelle would serve gourmet feasts three times a day. Occasionally we’d scuba dive (Island Skipper carries 12 airtanks and full scuba equipment); sometimes snorkel; hike around on a deserted island; have dinner ashore; buy t-shirts; drink margueritas at happy hour; try not to get too sunburned. That kind of thing.
As a business, it wasn’t yet breakeven, but it was close. And Derry and I now owned an Irwin 52—our lifelong dream. Or at least my lifelong dream. Foolishly, perhaps, I’d always wanted to live on a sailboat, yet this is a dream that tends not to survive long once a person realizes how small and cramped a sailboat really is. Thus when I’d first seen an Irwin 52, at a boat show in Newport 25 years ago, I fell in love. Rather than a cramped pencil-like feel, the main cabin was a true living room. The galley was a kitchen. The aft cabin sported a queen size bed and its own reading area. Three tiny additional cabins offered private sleeping room for six more—total of eight. Living on an Irwin 52, I knew, would be like having a floating condominium.
“They’re nothing but floating condominiums!” grizzled, purest sailors have commented about these boats. Such people believe living aboard has to be a hardship, or it doesn’t count. When you call a boat a ‘floating condominium’ it’s meant to be an insult, the implication being that she’s fine tied to the dock or in a protected bay, but don’t even think about taking her offshore.
Yet Irwin 52’s have cruised the world. Island Skipper, in its past, had crossed the Atlantic four times, and sailed with only minor damage through a hurricane. Floating condominium indeed! Perhaps the best endorsement of an Irwin 52 came from one owner who explained his choice in these few words: “I didn’t want my wife to feel like she was camping.”
Finally, 26 years after that first sighting in Newport, I owned an Irwin 52, and that fact went a long way towards fulfilling my quest of living aboard a sailboat and crossing exotic seas. Except that I wasn’t living aboard, and I hadn’t crossed any seas. Did it matter? Recent memories included [list all the things you’e done aboard island skipper, with kids, derry, romantic evenings, exciting beats to windward up Sir Francis Drake channel in theBVI’s, moonless nights with my kids entranced with the experience of a billion stars overheaa, this kind of thing. Just over a year ago, we agreed with the crew to try half a season of charting the boat in a different cruising ground: St. Vincent and the Grenandines. [give account of the journey down, and the trip with the family, including Pirates of the Caribbean, longer trips betwenislands—half a day instead of half an hour, but none of it could be counted a true ocean voyage. Never out of sight of land, never far enough from a good harbor to take refuge if dirty weather appeared, the trip to ST. Vincent was a good next step, but it wasn’t the real thing. It wasn’t a bluewater passage.
That was then, this was now. This time, no more Virgin Islands relaxation. No more tepid Grenadine delights. No more island-hopping security. Island Skipper was, well, skipping the islands entirely, and heading for the Spanish Main. I liked the words “Spanish Main”. They had a romantic, adventurous quality. Of course they didn’t belong in this century, or even last, or even the one before that. The “Spanish Main” is a phrase once used to describe the mainland possessions of Spain in the New World. From the 16th through the 18th century, this was where vast riches were stolen from the Aztec and Incan civilizations, and shipped back across the Atlantic by Spanish treasure galleons—themselves prey to pirates and privateers. The Spanish Main was the hunting ground of some of history’s most famous and infamous characters: Blackbeard the Pirate, Captain Morgan, and Sir Francis Drake. It was the silliest romanticism on my part to pretend we were heading for the Spanish Main when our destination was actually Hugo Chavez’s modern day Venezuela. Yes, once it had been the Spanish Main, until Simon Bolivar’s wars of independence kicked Spain out of the Western Hemisphere entirely. But Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and Galveston, Texas were also once “the Spanish Main.” College kids on spring break in Daytona or Corpus Christi are actually vacationing on the Spanish Main, sort of. But—I fancied—we were heading for the real thing. And pirates were much on my mind.
Some years ago I’d read a terrifying Stuart Woods novel about a sailboat cruising along the Caribbean coast of South America, which was attacked by modern day pirates/drug-dealers. The crew had been killed or captured, and the boat sunk. IN the planning stages of this voyage, Rob had emailed me a map showing the currently-plotted “danger areas” for boats in the southern Caribbean. Circles of varying sizes, and darker shades of red, indicated where crime was a problem. Our destination was the city of Guira on Venezuela’s Paria Penninsula—directly across from Trinidad. A large, deepest-red circle had this place as its epicenter.
“I don’t think it’s a problem,” Rob noted in the email. “My research indicates its petty theft, motors stolen off dinghy’s, that kind of thing. We’ll just have to be careful.”
So the tradition of plunder begun by Blackbeard and Captain Morgan was now reduced to petty thieves pillaging dinghys. How the Spanish Main had fallen. Well, that was OK with me. There would be adventure enough on this voyage, I suspected, without having to deal with pirates. I envisioned squalls at sea, ripped sails, dangerous reefs, scary waves, man-vs-the-elements adversity at every turn—over all of which we would of course triumph. Yet these enobling challenges seemed impossibly out of reach, now that I was broken and sprawled on the floor of the main cabin. What would we have to do now, turn around and get me to a hospital in St. Thomas? Wow, quite the sailor. A little wave comes along and I’m hospitalized. Forget the floating condominium. I should have stayed in a real condominium and not gone past the safe swimming area at the beach. I seemed to be very good at looking at oceans on a map, and yet utterly-incapable of handling them in reality. As I nursed both my broken body and broken spirits, it would have helped to have known that this would actually be the trip’s low-point, and that during the next month we would in fact encounter squalls at sea, ripped sails, dangerous reefs, scary waves, man-vs-the-elements adversity, and indeed triumph over them all. It would have been uplifting to have known that before the voyage was over, I would graduate to Captain of Island Skipper, and with Rob’s approval, sail off on my own, in command of the floating condominium, er, I mean “ship.” But I’d known none of these things at the time, only that this trip which I’d planned for a year seemed to have come to a crashing end on its first day. Maybe after my bones knitted in the hospital, we could take a few day-sails in the Virgin Islands, as long as the breeze stayed gentle and there were no clouds. Even so, I’d probably get seasick.
“So, anything broken?” asked Captain Rob, now that he could see I’d caught my breath.
“Everything’s broken, I think,” I replied. He laughed, appreciating the joke; thinking it was a joke.
“Can you move your arms? Your legs? Neck OK?”
I tried sending test messages to various parts of my body, and there was in fact movement.
“Anything hurt when you do that?”
“Everything hurts, even when I don’t do that.”
“But nothing in particular? Good, you’re fine.”
I’m very affected by psychosomatic suggestion. If he’d said, after inspecting me, “Oh my God, Michelle, get the boat turned around, quick, radio for a Coast Guard helicopter and emergency medics!” …I’d probably have fainted in traumatic shock. Pronouncing me “fine” with a light-hearted indifference had the opposite effect. I could almost feel all those compound fractures healing themselves swiftly and miraculously. I was “fine.” Captain Rob had spoken it. Nay, had ordered it. I pulled myself upright, self-confidence roaring back. My injuiries were trivial, beneath mentioning.
“I’m guessing,” said Rob, “that will be the very last time you fail to hold onto something, while at sea.” He noticed I had a death-grip on the cabin post, and then I noticed the same thing.
“Good lesson,” said Rob, nodding approvingly, and thought no more about it.
Back in the cockpit, Michelle had a more nurturing approach.
“Wow, I saw you fly across the cabin. Are you OK? I bet you got a real shiner on your face. Do you want some ice for that? Can I get you anything?”
“It’s nothing,” I replied, now realizing it was nothing. The fact that my body was hurting everywhere meant it had absorbed the collision well, and was in fact not seriously damaged anywhere.
We were not gogn to have to turn around. I was not going to spend the vacation in a hospital. We were still heading south-southeast, into blue water. Our bow was still pointed towards the Spanish Main. And lesson #1 had been learned.
I suspected there might be others.
Life at Sea
We left St. Thomas Monday morning and caught a glimpse of St. Croix just before the sun set. After that I was to see no land, no ships, no people, no boats, no one but ourselves, for five days. Island Skipper had become it’s own small universe, with the four of us seemingly the only survivors left after an apocalyptic “Water-World”—style Hollywood disaster.
Life at sea has a strange rhythm, one to which we acclimated quickly. Fortunately, this rhythm had nothing to do with the ship’s clock which kept sounding various anyoing “bells,” (ding-ding!) the purpose of which was apparently to get us completely confused. Rob had tried to explain to me about these bells, but I couldn’t get my head around it.
“They’re based on old sailing watches, you know, middle watch, first dog watch, forenoon watch. Each bell is a half hour. So two bells of the forenoon watch is an hour into that watch.”
“And in real time, that’s like, when?”
“Well, it’s a function of when the watche would begin. If the forenoon watch begins at 8:00am, two bells would be 9:00.”
“And what’s a dog watch?”
“That’s a short watch, usually only two hours.”
“And when’s that?”
“Usually in the evening. Because of the shortened dog watch, it mathematically allowed everyone to change schedules every day.”
“So each day the watch schedule was different?”
“Well, the watches were different but on the same schedule.”
“So two bells always means something different each day?”
“No it means the same thing, but the watches change.”
The more Rob tried to explain it, the more confused I became. I decided to ignore the ship’s clock and it’s maddening system of bells, and concentrate on reality instead. Reality, in our cases, consisted of eight watches. There were four of us aboard: Rob, Michelle, my 21-year-old daughter Kristen who’d just graduated from college three days ago, and myself Each of us stood two watches in a 24 hour period. Each watch was three hours. It was Rob’s duty, as captain, to draw up our watch schedual and he put careful thought into it.
Island Skipper’s Watch Schedual (this needs to be fixed, totally screwed up)
The idea here was that Rob was most experienced, Michelle next, myself a distant third, and Kristen was the rookie. So you want the rookie standing the easiest watches, and the most experienced person, the hardest. The watches beginning at 6am and 6pm are the most difficult because of the lighting. It’s dusk, and that’s when it’s trickiest to see other ships. Rob got those. 9 to midnight suited Kristen because she got to stay up late and watch the stars. That’s precisely what she wanted to do on this trip. Midnight to three is the second most difficult because you have to get out of bed in the middle of the night which is disorienting. So Michelle was assigned to that. Three to six means getting up very early. As an early riser by nature, three to six was find with me. And then, just before the sun rose, it was Rob’s turn again.
The rhythm of life at sea is the rhythm of these watches. They controlled our world and were the main thing we thought about. If off watch, we were aware how long we had before our watch began. If on watch, we looked forward to the watch being over. As soon as it was over, you could sleep.
This is one of the ways the sea and the land are different. On land, sleepyheads who nap all the time are subject to ridicule. At sea, if you are not on watch it is almost your duty to be sleeping. This was because, at sea, you never get enough sleep. The constant motion of the boat, the rolling back and forth in your bunk, the many times at night that sail needs to be let out or brought in—requiring at least two if not three of us on deck—all these things deprive one of sleep.
I can admit now that I cheated. I had sleeping pills. The constant motion of the boat, the rolling back and forth in my bunk, the many times that sail needed to be let out or taken in—I slept blissfully through all these events and more. They didn’t name the prescription drug Halcion™ for nothing.
Even so, my life no less than the others, revolved around this watch schedual.
When on watch one is responsible for these things:
- Sweeping the horizon for other ships. (Every fifteen minutes)This must be done visually, from the cockpit.
- Checking the radar for other ships. (Every fifteen minutes) This is done inside, at the chart table.
- Checking our course. (Every fifteen minutes)This is done by reference to our little hand-held GPS, which knows where we’re going and knows where we have to be heading to get their. It pronounces its verdict continuously, in little digital imperatives: 3L, 2L, 4R, 0, 2R, etc. “2L” means you need to steer two more points to port. “4R” means four to starboard. “0” means you are on course.
- Checking our speed. (Every fifteen minutes) Again, the GPS knkows our speed since it’s constantly in touch with the satellites overhead which watch our progress meticulously. Gone are the days when sailors threw a knotted line over the side, and watched how fast the ship passed the equally-spaced “knots”. (Get it? Knots? That’s where the word comes from.) Also gone are the more recent days when a boat like Island Skipper would sport a knotometer, a device that measured speed through the water via a tiny spinning propeller mounted on the hull, which fed data back to an electronic instrument at the helm. Today, one need merely glance at the “speed” indication on the GPS, which—again by constant reference to those ubiquitous and invisible satellites overhead—knows how fast we must be moving. It seems astonishing that referring to a device 25,000 miles in the sky is more accurate than referring to a spinning propeller a few feet away, or a rope trailing alongside in the water. But such is the case. The GPS gave us not only our speed in knots, but our speed in tenths of a knot. We were averaging just under six knots. Occasionally we’d hit seven. Very rarely, eight. The rule was we were not allowed to go below 4 knots. This happened rarely, but when it did the “Commander of the Watch,” to use a glamorous phrase coined by Kristen, was responsible for either starting the engine and adding the force of the ship’s propeller to our forwad progress. Or letting out more sail. Or, if necessary, both. Over five days we used the engine only about six hours, and that was mostly to charge up the batteries. Sailing in the open Caribbean, in the winter, the trade winds are rarely insufficient to propel a sailboat.
- Plotting our course (once an hour.) Again, this was mostly a GPS thing. Push a couple buttons on the GPS and it would read-off exact latitude and longitude. During the day one person would shout those down from the cockpit to the person at the chart table. At night, one generally memorized the 2 sets of six-digits each and then rushed down to the chart table before they could be forgotten. Example: 15 degrees, 10 minutes, 12 seconds North; 62 degrees, 50 minutes, 02 seconds West. “North” means north from the equator. “West” means west from the prime meridian at Greenwich, England. The scale of our chart covered the entire Eastern Caribbean, and for convenience on this passage it was duct-taped to the chart table. One less thing to fly around the cabin when the boat heeled. We would use parallel rules to draw a perfectly vertical or perfectly horrizontle line corresponding to the proper latitude or longitude at the top or side of the chart. Only a half-inch or so line was drawn north/south, and another similar-sized one east/west, intersecting the first. Thus each position plot resulted in a tiny penciled-in cross on our chart. As the voyage continued, we could watch these tiny crosses, like the footprints of some aquatic beast which I suppose in a sense we were, steadily progressing across the sea towards our destination.
Oddly, the one thing we were not required to do while on watch was steer. Island Skipper steered herself. I would like to say she did so with that most blue-water piece of equipment, a self-steering vane. One sees these on sailboats in yacht harbors the world over, and they are signature proof that this boat has travelled across the sea to get here. Only boats that cross oceans need self-steering systems, and sporting one is like a merit badge.
“See, I have a self-steering vane! See, that means I crossed an ocean! Ha ha, you don’t have one. What are you, a floating condominium? Ha, ha ha!!!!”
Sadly, we had something much more sophisticated and accurate, yet totally invisible to anyone looking at us in the harbor. We had an electronic auto-pilot. In the bowels of the vessel a mechanical servo-arm was connected to the rudder post, and was controlled by an electronic instrument in the cockpit.
Here’s how it worked. After heading the boat in the proper direction using the ship’s wheel, you press “auto” and the auto-pilot takes over. It will keep the boat heading in that same direction more or less forever. (Until something happens, like South America.) If you want to go one or more points to port, you push the -1 button, one or more times. To starboard, the +1 button. Etcetera. Need to change ten or more points? Use the -10 or +10 buttons as many times as needed. Want to take the steering back from the autopilot? Press “standby” and the autopilot releases its control . Press “auto” and it takes over again. If this sounds ridiculously easy, it is.
So between the GPS and the autopilot, steering Island Skipper to her destination is embarrassingly simple. If the GPS says you need to steer 3R, you go over to the autopilot and press +1 three times. That’s probably all you’ll have to do for the next hour. Some boats have gone so far as to connect the autopilot to the GPS, so no one even has to serve as human intermediary between the two. But it seems to me that’s a very lubberly thing to do. The sea is all about hardship, challenge, navigational peril, trying to take a noon sight with a sextant from a rolling deck, and wrestling with the wheel in a typhoon while giant waves crash aboard. I’ve seen enough movies to know what life at sea is all about. On Island Skipper, true, we temper that experience a little bit with modern technology. We don’t physically steer the boat, or do anything directly to determine our position. But by God we still read off the course correction and manually—manually, did you get that?—enter the little +1 or -2 into the auto pilot right beside it. OK, maybe you don’t need two years before the mast to learn that skill, but at least it lets us scoff at the softies on other boats who had their GPS talk directly to their autopilot. No romance of the sea for them, that’s for sure.
Clothing is another thing that was handled differently than on land. Earth-dwellers are used to dividing up clothes into two categories: clean and dirty. You wash your clothes once a week, and then each day you wear a new outfit, before confinng it to the dirty clothes hamper. The next day you wear something else. Etc. At sea, clean vs. dirty is not the important distinction. It’s wet versus dry.
So you start the day with a pair of clean shorts and t-shirt. 10:45 in the morning, a squall arrives. You stay huddled under the bimini canvas top, but because Island Skipper is on a beam reach, the wind is blowing sideways right into the cockpit. The squall departs and you’re now sitting in wet clothes. You go down below and change into dry clothes. You put the wet clothes some place where you hope they’ll dry, such as hanging from the shower handle.
1pm, another squall arrives. You change into another set of dry clothes.
3:30, you’re up on the foredeck when Island Skipper hits a wave especially hard and wind-driven spray soaks the front half of the boat, including you. Another pair of shorts and t-shirt comes out. Changing clothes five times in the course of a day is not unusual.
Nothing ever gets especially dirty because (a) there’s no heavy work getting done, (b) clothing is continuously getting rinsed out with rain or sea spray, and (c) you change clothes so frequently.
No one wears shoes on Island Skipper. Ever. Those shoes that are worn in the tropics (Tevas or the like), are left in the dinghy before coming aboard. Feet do not get dirty because the boat’s decks are kept fairly clean thanks to the frequent rain squals and spray from the waves.
More important than the standard issue t-shirt and shorts is the most critical item of clothing: rain gear. Thumb through boating magazines and you’ll see many ads for yachting rain-gear. It’s always very hard core, and includes lower trousers that rise above the chest in bib form, and are held in place by integrated suspenders; plus a very serious rain jacket with a hood, complicated pockets, and an infinity of places that can be fastened with Velcro, snaps, zippers, etc. A set of sea-boots is usually an optional extra. Same color of course. Impressive adjectives like “Blue-water ready” or “Ocean-tested” often will accompany these ads. Price at retail can exceed a thousand dollars for a full set. It’s ocean-tested so that’s reasonable Yet the very complexity has always worried me. It would take ten or fifteen minutes to don such attire, even working from a stable platform like the foyer of your home. How would you even get into such rubberized cocoons while being flung about on a sailboat? And how could you possibly get into them fast enough to race up on deck to help shorten sail when a squall’s arriving? If you’re not up in the cockpit in sixty seconds, it’s probably too late.
Here we had benefited from Rob and Michelle’s experience. We’d noted before how they each had very lightweight, Gore-text rain jackets which were knee length, not waist length. They could throw these on in seconds as they raced up to the cockpit. They were long enough to cover shirts and shorts, but left the lower leg unprotected. That didn’t matter as no one cared if the lower legs and feet got wet. (See above.) After considerable surch for these unusual 2/3rds-length outfits, they’d found them only from L.L. Bean, and had recommended to Kristen and me before the trip that we purchase the same for ourselves. We had done so. (About $150 each.)
For some reason all of us had chosen blue, except Rob’s which was red. However, red and blue look the same at night when lights in the cabin must be kept totally off to avoid destroying the night vision of the watch commander. So it would often require consirable time to hunt around and find the right jacket—many minutes consumed here—before throwing it on in seconds and racing up to the cockpit. Eventually we evolved a system of stowing our raingear in defined places in the cabin, so we could grab it quickly at night, along with our safety harnesses.
We didn’t kid around with these safety harnesses, which were in fact blue-water ready, ocean-tested, brilliantly-engineered, over-built, and expensive. Rob and Michelle already had them, and when Rob suggested before hand we consider two more for Kristen and me, I was certain Derry would insist on it. Derry was already terrified at the thought of Kristen being up in the cockpit, all alone, on watch, at night. So was I.
Before we left the dock Rob pulled them out of the FedEx package and showed us how they work. Basically, the thing was just that: a harness. Made of nylon straps, you put it on sort of like putting on a coat. A plastic latch secures it, and this can be tighted as needed. Two large metal rings are attached on either side of this latch—one on the right, one on the left. After latching the harness, you attach the two metal rings together with a snapshackle, approximately at the location of your sternum. The snapshackle, in turn is attached to another heavy-duty nylon strap, about five feet long, which ends at another snapshackle. This nylon strap with the snapshackles at each end is independent of the jacket. It’s the lifeline you use to attach the harness to something hopefully secure on the deck. After attaching one end to yourself (the big metal rings) you can easily attach the other to most anything just by wrapping it around the object and snapshackling the strap back onto itself.
If it’s so simple, why’s it so expensive? Aha, because it’s not so simple. First, it’s brilliantly engineered. The snapshackle which attaches to the vest has a little two-inch string of solid rubber beads, about the size of marbles, secured to the handle of the shackle. This makes no sense and seems to have no purpose until you actually are using the vest. Then you realize how brilliant was the designer. Typically when you are wearing the vest it’s nighttime and everyone else is sleeping. The lights are off. IN the cockpit you have starlight if it’s a clear night. Down below is utter blackness. So when you go from the cockpit down to, let’s say, the galley, you’ll want to detach yourself from the nylon strap. How do you find the snapshackle? More importantly, how do you find the little tail of the snapshackle which is awkward to get to, and how do you know the right direction to pull it for releasing? Answer: this is where the little beads come in. For some reason, those little beads are extremely easy for one’s fingers to locate in the dark. As soon as you feel them, you know exactly where you are, and you know exactly what direction to pull. It doesn’t matter how much the boat is rocking, how dark it is, or how disoriented you might be. If you want to release yourself from the lifeline strap, you can do it in about one second because of those beads.
Rob explained to us that these safety-harnesses were so perfectly engineered that it did not matter how much “load” was on the shackle when you tried to detach yourself. He proved it by pulling hard on the strap while I was wearing the harness. One would expect this much load would cause a problem. It doesn’t. This shackle released no matter what the load. That was part fo the meticulous engineering. Why is it so important to be able to release the safety harness under heavy load? If the boat is sinking out from under you, and you’re still attached, a snapshackle that won’t release could ruin your whole day.
But even this didn’t explain the cost. These safety harnesses were actually much more than safety harneeses. They were—or rather they would become when needed—full US Coast Guard Category III personal flotation devices. As soon as you hit the water, these things turned into life jackets. They could do this because hidden behind the two front straps, and the one going behind your neck, were buoyancy tubes that would expand instantly when inflated. And the inflation mechanism was already in place: a primed CO2 cartridge, also hidden in the fabric of the straps.
The designers had one more challenge to overcome: How to make the CO2 cartridge know when to release its air into the tubes? There was a special cord you could pull which would do it manually. But suppose you fell overboard and were knocked unconscious. The CO2 cartridge needed to have a way to know it was in the water, and relase automatically. And this is where you have to love American ingenuity. (I assume it was American ingenuity. It would be dreadful to think they’d been designed by the Fench or something.) The mechanism to let the CO2 cartridge know it was in the water was…an aspirin! Just above the CO2 cartridge, a spring-loaded pin was sitting there waiting to pierce the thin sheet of metal covering the opening. The only thing keeping this pin out of the cartridge was an aspirin—carefully and firmly placed between the pin and the cartridge. You fall in the water, the water desolves the aspirin in five seconds, the CO2 cartridge is pierced by the pin, the gas fills the tubes, and the whole thing transforms from safety harness to personal flotation device.
And that’s why these things cost $350 apeice.
I knew Derry would not even blink.
Yet despite all this high-tech, brilliantly designed, superbly engineered safety gear, it still couldn’t save a person from their own stupidity. I was about to learn Lesson #2.
Fortunately this one happened when I was on watch, at night, alone, and there were no witnesses. Some background: The steering wheel of Island Skipper is attached on the aft side of a “pedestal” about three feet high. On top of this pedestal is the compasss. Surrounding the pedestal and structurally attached to it, is a steel tube which comes up from the cockpit sole, goes over the compass, and then back down to the floor. It’s sole purpose is to provide a handhold for sailors that have already learned lesson #1: the need to hold on. If this steel tube were not there, everyone would naturally be trying to grab onto the wheel, or the steering peestal itself. The tube sits there and says: “Please, grab onto me instead. That’s what I’m here for.”
So this tub3e was a ntural place on which to attach the other end of our lifelines. It was so popular fort his purpose that we always kept two, sometimes three, of the lifeline straps connected to the tube, with their other ends loose, but generally leading in the direction of the companionway steps.
When someone came up from the cabin, they would pause before climbing into the cockpit, find one of these spare straps, and attach the snapshackle to the double rings on their lifevest. Thus they were completely tied in and safe before even leaving the secxdurity of th cabin. It was an excellent system and I knew Derry wold approve. It would be difficult to imagine how even Kristen could endanger herself on watch alone at night, as long as this equipment was in use.
I was thinking about this very topic, thinking how safe I was, sitting there in the cockpit, behind the wheel, idly watching the cmpass, the stars, the waves, the GPS,a nd feeling quite smug. I’d been there perhaps an hour and I realized it was time to plot our position on the chart. This required going down into the cabin. I got up and—caerfully holding on of course, made my way forward to the companionway entrance. One always turns around facing aft as they descend thse stares, both because it’s a more stable positin with better handholds, , and also because it gives one the opportunitiy to release the lifeline from the safety harness.
With two feet on the top step, I turned to release my safety harness and discovered—to my horror—I’d forgotten to attach it in the first place. I’d been out in the cockpit at night, alone, the boat tossing every which way, utterly complacent because of my brilliantly-engineered safety harness, and the damn thing wasn’t even attached! I was so angry at myself I toyed with the idea of swallowing the aspirin as well, just to prove what a total idiot I was. I hadn’t realized utter incompetence and foolishness could reach such levels.
What made this so discouraging wasn’t merely that I’d made a mistake, nor even that it was such a dangerous mistake. It was the growing realization of just how many more mistakes must be out there waiting for me. How do you avoid mistakes? Through experience. How do you gain experience? By making mistakes. I was quickly becoming the poster boy for that phrase.
The only good news I could see in the situation was that I knew I would never, ever fail to keep a good handhold while at sea, and equally that I would never, ever fail again to attach my lifeline. Lesson #2 had been learned.
The phrase “Even Keel”—I looked it up—means things are balanced in one’s life. Ther term has its origins in the experience of sailors. But my guess is they used it as an idiom for being on land, not at sea. The “keel” is the long thin part of the sailboat that sticks deep into the water. It is heavily ballasted (weighted) with lead. The keel has two purposes, one is to serve as a counter-balance to the tendency of the wind to tip the boat over. A ballasted keel makes a boat self-righting. Theoretically—it does happen very rarely—a rogue wave in an ultimate storm can capsize a ballasted sailboat: turn it completely upside down. In this situation the keel hopefully will pull the boat back upright. It absolutely will, given enough time. But an upside down sailboat is almost certainly taking on huge quantities of water—for example thorugh the companionway entrance. So for those very few boats that have experienced this most extreme calamity, it’s a race between whether the keel will get the boat flipped rightside up first, or whether the boat will sink first. The lead in the keel is happy to serve for either purpose.
But all this is like worrying about getting hit by a comet. The one thing that absolutely cannot capsize a ballasted sailboat is the wind. Not that the wind doesn’t try. Think how it looks to the wind. You’re blowing, blowing, blowing across those endless miles of ocean, and all you can make happen is to push the water around a little and cuase some waves. How boring. Suddenly, right in front of you, is a funny, floating thing with this huge triangle of white sail sticking up inviting you, nay, taunting you, to try and knock it over. A sailboat is to the wind what a red flag is to a bull. As the wind charges, smashing into the boat—thinking it will have no trouble knocking this frail thing completely upside down—the sailboat heels (tips) away from the wind. This does two things. First, it hugely reduces the amount of effective area the wind has to push against. So as the boat tips, the sails gain immunity to the wind. It has less and less effect on them.
Second, the counter-weight of the keel (physisicsts would call this the “moment-arm”) is raised upwards from it’s desired position. The more the keel is forced out of the water, the more it tries to get back down—because of all that heavy lead.
In short, the more the wind succeeds in tipping the sailboat, the less effective the wind becomes at this task, and the more effective the sailboat becomes at resisting it. As one might expect, these forces quickly come into balance. The wind is able to tip the boat over a little bit, sometimes quite a lot, but no farther.
Nor surprisingly, sailboat designers have been aware of this for some time. So a sailboat’s hull is designed to perform better—be more efficient—at around ten degrees angle of heel.
Thus it is the job of the sailors on board to add or remove sail area as needed so the boat—in general—is tipped approximately this amount. More tipping than that does not put the boat at risk of tipping over. But it will slow the boat in its passage through the water. A sailboat tipped 45 degrees is not sailing efficiently.
Also, it takes a lot of force to push a ballasted keel boat 45 degrees over and keep her there. The fabric of the sails, the rigging, the lines—everything that helps the sailor capture wind and bend it to his will—is under tremendous pressure with the boat heeled that far. This is often when things break—with the boat “overpowered”.
So if a temporary gust knocks you over 45 degrees for a few seconds—no problem. The boat will quickly return to it’s earlier angle of heel. But if that gust turns out to be not so temporary, then it’s time to reduce sail area, which is known as “reefing.”
Of course with the boat tipped over 45 degrees, and huge forces knocking everything about, it’s not so easy to reef the sails. IT’s not so easy to even stand on the deck, the more the boat tips. Thus the well known axiom among sailors about how to know when it’s time to reef or unreef sails: “When you first think about reefing, it’s already too late. When you first think about letting out sail, wait awhile.”
Rob and Michelle are very good natured, and enjoyed teaching Kristen and me about sailing. They would do this in a light-hearted, patient manner. Up to a point. I was about to learn Lesson #3.
It was early afternoon, I was on watch. By chance, all of us were up in the cockpit, enjoying the day. We were sailing under full jib and mizzen. The jib is the farthest-forward sail, and is actually the largest sail on board. The mizzen is the smallest sail, attached to the mizzen—farthest aft—mast. The main sail, ironically, had not been used since we left port. With steady trade winds of 15-20 knots, adding the mainsail would have over-powered the boat. Plus the full jib (farthest forward) and full mizzen (farthest aft) balanced each other nicely.
You reduce sail area on the mizzen by simly releasing the halyard (the line that holds the sail up) and pulling the sail down, physically with your hands. It’s not elegant but it gets the job done.
The jib is utterly different. The jib is attached to a long, thin rotating cyclinder which fits over the forestay (the thin metal cable that connects the top of the mast to the front of the sailboat.) A larger diameter “drum” is welded to the bottom of this rotating cyclinder, and around this drum is wrapped the “furling line”.
If yhou pull on this furling line, the jib will wind up nicely around the forestay, and essentially disappear. If you release the furling line and pull on the appropriate jib sheet (the two lines attached to the after corner of the sail, and led back into the cockpit, one to starboard, one to port) the jib will unwind from the forestay and magically appear again. The technology of “roller reefing” as it’s called, is now almost half a century old, and is quite evolved. If the sail is designed to be a roller-reefing sail—and cut accordingly, and if the equipment is equally designed for this purpose, the sail can be partially reefed. As you wind it up or pull it back out, you can stop at any intermediate point. Hence you have a near-infinite amount of settings for how much sail you want to expose. Too much sail? Pull it in. Too little? Pull it back out.
Sound easy? If it does, then you’re imagining this operation performed inside a boat-show exhibition center, everything is flat and stable, and there is no wind. At sea, with the vessel healing far over, the wind battering into the sails and trying to rip them to shreds, and the wave motion bouncing everyone around like a mechanical bull with a bolt missing, things are a little different.
More importantly, roller reefing the sail—pulling the furling line—takes tremendous force when the sail is all the way out and fully-exposed to the wind. On a large sailboat like Island Skipper, one person isn’t strong enough to do it. Three people, pulling together, just might manage it, but there’s a better way. One person goes up to the foredeck, which itself is an unpleasant, difficult, and mildly dangerous maneuver at sea in a strong wind. The foredeck is pitching up and down, the decks are wet with saltwater, and spray is flying through the air constantly—especially now that the boat probably is heeled 45 degrees because someone waited too long to reef sails. Whomever was unlucky enough to draw this duty somehow makes it forward, grabs the furling line, wraps it once around the anchor windlass—remembers to remove the anchor chain from the windlass and cleat it off to the side—signals to someone in the cockpit that they are ready, and then will use the ball of their right foot to activate the electric windlass. The windlass is probably stronger than ten able-bodied seamen in their prime, and has no trouble at all pulling in the jib, no matter how much force is on it. But think what it’s like for the poor soul up their on the foredeck getting bounced around, and wetter by the minute. Remember the phrase: “one hand for the ship, one for yourself.” You always want to keep one hand free to hold on with. But to reef the jib you need both hands on the furling line to provide tension while the windlass is turning. You need one foot on the windless switch—it cuts off instantly if you remove the pressure. And that leaves only one foot “for yourself.” All other limbs are engaged elsewhere.
To make matters worse, not that they need to be, the maneuver always seems to be required the moment a rain-squall hits. So in addition to all this other misery is a vast deluge of rainwater pounding sideways into you.
While Kristen and I tried to bcome adept at all the jobs on board, big and small, glamorous and otherwise, rough specializations were beginning to occur. I was gaining more experience with steering the boat, using the engine, and tending the sheets (lines from the sails, run into the cockpit.) Kristen was gaining more experience and proficiency in handling the sails on the fore and aft decks: raising and lowering the mizzen, reefing the jib, and so forth.
Weather can change very fast at sea nad we were about to learn how fast. There we were, relaxed in the cockpit, not a care in the world, when I noticed the wind had picked up just a bit. Very, very slightly. No one else had noticed it. The boat was heeling a little farther then it had been.
“Might have to reef the jib pretty soon,” I announced, lazily. It was only a casual observation, like: “might see some rain tomorrow.”
“Who’s going to do it?” asked Michelle. “Are you going to do it, or will you have someone else do it?”
Hmmm. She seemed awfully serious. True, I was commander of the watch, so it was my responsibility to make such decisions. But there certainly wasn’t any urgency about it. I’d only made an idle comment…
The foredeck was pitching up and down, and getting washed by spray.
“Heck, I sure don’t want to go up there!” I said, jokingly.
“Me neither,” said Kristen. “Looks miserable.” She was also joking around. We were quite relaxed, there in the cockpit. Moving out of our comfortable positions sounded like so much effort. I was halfway through a light beer.
“Jacques, who is reefing the jib? We need to know, now!” Michelle’s voice had changed and she wasn’t smiling. Kristen and I caught the implication immediately.
“I’ll do it, Dad, no problem,” volunteered Kristen.
“Do you want her to do it?” pressed Michelle again, demanding a decision.
Sending my daughter alone up to that pounding foredeck violated every instinct in my DNA. It there was danger here, it was far better that I go. On the other hand, Kristen was by now an expert at hauling in the jib, and had done so in all conditions, even at night. It would take me time to remember exactly what went where, and make sure I had the right hands on the right lines. There was more danger if I did it, especially in these conditions. And by contrast Kristen was unpracticed at easing the jib sheet off the winch, back in the cockpit, in just the right way to ensure the sail didn’t get tangled as it furled. That was my specialty. If things got dicey, much better for me to be back here at the wheel, managing the jib sheet; especially with Rob ready to come to my aid if conditions worsened. But they were already worsening. Island Skipper was now heeling much farther, and the boat was straining against an overpowering spread of canvas.
I knew the right orders to give, even thought I hated them. I could wait no longer..
“Kristen, bring in the jib. Michelle, go up and help her. Rob, stay here and make sure I don’t screw anything up.”
Of course Rob, as captain, could have over-ruled me on anything. But unless he did, I was “Commander of the Watch.” I’d given the orders and—as if it were a military exercise—they were obeyed instantly and without discussion. The two girls clipped their safety harnesses on to the jackline (the rope lying tightly on the deck, attached to a cleat on the foredeck, and another on the aftdeck), and proceeded forward as quickly as conditions permitted. Kristen knew what she was doing and, though it wasn’t easy, managed to get the furling line around the windlass drum and the windlass activated. I eased the jib sheet off the winch at the right speed to keep the sail under control. Michelle watched over Kristen to make sure it was done properly. Rob watched over me.
“OK, that’s enough!” I yelled forward, and Kristen took her foot off the windlass switch. There was about 1/3rd of the jib still showing. Island Skipper calmed down immediately, the heel went back to a normal range, and with its very fabric the boat seemed to be offering me a silent “thank you.” I checked the GPS. We were still doing over six knots. Michelle and Kristen were back in the cockpit, and now everything wsas relaxed again: the boat comfortable, the right sail area showing, a modest angle of heel, and no worries. Except I’d screwed up and knew it.
“I waited too long, didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” said Michelle. “I wasn’t trying to give you a hard time. But when you think it’s time to reef, you don’t want to just kid around and talk about it. You want to reef, like, now!”
“Got it,” I said. Lesson #3 was behind me.
Steven Segal, that Rambo-like, motion-picture action hero, plays a character named Casey Ryback—ex Navy Seal, who now works as a cook in the military. In each of the “Under Seige” movies, he kills off all the lesser bad guys, and then ends up in hand to hand fighting with the main bad guy…in some kitchen. After delivering the inevitable coup de grace (carving knife in the throat, icepick in the eye, whatever) he always steps back and proclaims to the dying villain “No one beats me in the kitchen!”
He’s a cook, get it?
I was thinking about that line, and the intense combat that always precedes it, while trying to make breakfast one morning. Because of the nature of the watch schedule, breakfast was strictly an “on your own” and “at your risk” activity. If you wanted something, and were willing to make it, more power to you.
Rob and Michelle usually settled for a bagel, maybe with cream cheese, depending on the wind. (Wind? Heavy seas? OK, skip the cream cheese. Too much trouble.) I, however, was inclined towards eggs, bacon, and cornflakes. Well, I could skip the bacon. It just sounded like a nice thought. But the eggs were mandatory. Fortunately Michelle had hard-boiled a dozen of them the day before. A cheese and mushroom omlette would be best, but in a pinch a couple of hard-boiled eggs will do. One learns to adapt, at sea. But there were some compromises I wouldn’t make. I wanted those cornflakes, and I wanted them crackling in a bowl of cold milk.
So I was down in the galley, no less in hand-to-hand combat than were those action characters in Under Siege. My adversaries were not villains, but the elemental forces of nature themselves; in particular the big three. Gravity. Momentum. And the most powerful and mysterious one of all: the forcefield that somehow ensures that whatever you’re trying to retrieve from the refridgerator will be located in the far back and covered up with several layers of smoked turkeky. That force. Men know it well. Why it doesn’t affect women is a mystery the quantum physicists are still trying toi unravel. When a woman opens a refridgerator whatever she’s seeking will almost magically jump into her hand. You’ve noticed this, right? Anyway, this force that only affects men is uniquely powerful on water. Don’t ask me why.
The opening moves in this “Jacques vs. the Galley” drama began when I opened the door to the refridgerator and tried to find the milk. The refridgerator faces forwards, close to the centerline fo the vessel. That keeps it’s movement relatively dampened. Even so, to keep things from crashing into each other in a hopeless muddle, Michelle organized the objects to fit together snugly. Well and good, but the milk wasn’t in sight.
The milk carried on Island Skipper is the pasteurized, hermetically-sealed “boxed” variety that does not need refridgeration until it’s been opened . A couple ofthese boxes should have been right there in the front—all ready for the cornflake mission. But they weren’t.
Men normally handle the force-that-keeps-things-hidden-in-refridgerators by leaning down, holding the door open, and staring blankly into the abyss. We can do this for a long time, while the cold air spills out, and generally are able to keep doing it long enough for a nearby female to come over and say: “It’s right there, see?”—before reaching in front of you and grabbing the object you’ve been seeking. It’s not so easy on a sailboat. For one thing, the longer you hold the door of the refridgerator open, the greater chance that everything nside will spill out on to the floor, as the next wave passes under you. For another, it’s physically impossible to stand there holding the door open. What you have to do is sit on the floor, your back braced against the bulkhead, one hand holding onto a cupboard drawer handle for support, the refridgerator door held opened with one leg, while you watch everything inside spilling out.
Where’s a female when you need one?
Eventually I found the milk (unopened and lying on ints side under the smoked turkey at the back—don’t know why I didn’t look there first), and then the real problems began. Most of the food on Island Skipper—at least the food not in deep storage under berths and such—is kept in what Michelle calls “the pit”. Aptly named, this is a large, 2-foot-square hole in the galley counter that opens into a storage bin a full cubic yard in size. How is this storage bin organized? You drop things into the hole. Generally this method insures that when you need something, it’s at the bottom because it’s been 24 hours since you last needed it (example: cornflakes). In that time period everything else from the pit has been used and put back in, thereby continuing an endless cycle of food travelling from the top of the bit ot the bottom, generally arriving at its destination shortly before it is needed again. Knowing how the circulation dynamics of the pit worked, I had no trouble digging go the bottom and finding the cornflakes. Pit-stored food is contained in heavy duty ziplock plastic bags, generally a gallon in size. At the beginning of the voyage, Michelle had handed me a large box of cornflakes and said: “Here, take these out of the box and put them in one of the gallon ziplocks.” OF course cornflakes are ornery things when you try to force them into a container smaller than they would prefer. On the other hand you can overpower them fairly easily with brute force, and in this way I was able to get two-gallons-worth of cornflakes into a one gallon ziplock, although it didn’t’ close smoothly. I knew that as each day went by, the quantity of cornflakes would diminish, and the bag would more easily close. I had not counted on another factor, which was the effect on cornflakes of being located at the bottom of a food pit. By the second day, the cornflakes in the bag were half their original size, and I was feeling quite good about my control over them.
No matter how rough the motion of the boat, you can take a plain bagel from the galley up to the cockpit without great difficulty. Not so in the case of a bowl of cornflakes and milk. It was true that the longer we were at sea, the more our bodies became habituated to the back and forth rolling movement of Island Skipper, and the forward and aft pitching. We came to ignore it, and our hands would seek out things to hold on to with no conscious effort from the brain. In this way the boat’s motion eventually had no effect on us. We had adapted.
Milk in a bowl does not adapt. I had become reasonably comfortable working down in the galley. I could find the milk in the refridgerator, place it on the counter, dig into the pit and retrieve the cornflakes, open a cupboard and grab a small paper bowl, and pour the cornflakes into the bowl. Doing these several things might consume half an hour, so much attention had be devoted to not falling over and crashing against the far bulkhead during the process. But it was manageable. By contrast, milk in a shallow bowl on a sailboat is not manageable at all. It will do everything in its power to escape the bowl, and in fact requires very little power for this purpose. They say oil calms turbulent water, but another important nautical lesson I learned is that cornflakes do absolutely nothing to calm milk. Qite the opposite, they seem to endow the milk with a special urgency to escape the bowl, and the cornflakes love to go along for the ride.
So, thirty minutes into the process of trying to make breakfast, I finally was able to pour the milk into the cornflakes bowl and immediately discovered this was a very bad idea. The boat heeled far to starboard and half the milk, along with two thirds of the cornflakes, left the bowl and went sailing across the counter where they splashed up against the flatwear cabinet. Now the clean plates had milk and soggy cornflakes all over them. Island Skipper rolled the other way and this time the half of the milk remaining in the bowl saw its chance, went suborbital, and landed mostly on my shirt. Soggy cornflakes, and cornflake pieces were now strewn randomly across the galley. The only spot with absolutely no cornflakes or milk was inside the bowl itself.
That dry bagel—hold the cream cheese—was beginning to look very, very attractive.
But I am nothing if not persistent, andtook seriously my new favorite motto: “no one beats me in the kitchen.” Certainly not a bowl of cornflakes . Twenty minutes later I had everything cleaned up, and was ready for round two. Gaining experience rapidly, I set the bowl this time not on the counter, but on top of the gimbaled stove. A gimbaled stove is like a regular stove, but it pivots on strong metal rods set into the counter top. A gimbaled stove is relatively stationery no matter how much the boat is rolling. It was because of Island Skipper’s gimbaled stove that Michelle—a gourmet cook while at anchor—was able to at least serve us hot meals every night at sea: Dinty Moore Beef Stew, Chef Boy Are Dee Ravioli, Folsom’s Canned Chili, and the like. And by the way a warm bowl of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, sitting in the cockpit with the wind blowing, endless waves in all directions, and a spectacular sunset tastes better than anything you’ll ever be served at Lutèce in New York.
Because a gimbaled stove rotates so easily and rapidly on its gimbals, its motion must be dampened, which is achieved by twenty pounds of lead placed in a tray at the bottom of the thing. With the breakfast bowl now cleverly set on top of the gimbaled stove, I poured in the cornflakes, and added the milk. A physicist could have warned me what was about to happen. The boat rolled far to starboard and the stove—it’s motion nicely dampened by the lead ballast—slowly adjusted itself to horizontal. While it was slowly adjusting itself the milk—unencumbered by ballast—wasted no time and went flying out of the bowl immediately. Milk and soggy cornflakes were now strewn over the difficult-to-clean surface of the three-burner stove.
A quarter of an hour later I was ready for Round 3. The plan required both hands being free. So I positioned myself far enough from the counter to be able to lean against it at an angle that would keep me wedged in no matter how much the boat rolled. With one hand I grasped the milk carton and, with the other, I held the bowl of cornflakes in the air. In this manner I poured the milk into the bowl, the bowl stayed absolutely still because I was holding it away from the rolling counter, and the milk at last stayed put. I set the milk carton down, wedging it into a corner for security, picked up a spoon and ate the cornflakes while continuing to hold the bowl in the air—all the while leaning 45 degrees against the counter so as to keep both hands free for their respective tasks.
It was not the most relaxing meal, but I doubt I’ve ever enjoyed a breakfast more. Victory on the battlefield does something to the appetite. Steven Segal, I fancied, would have been very impressed.
“The only way to really handle an ocean passage,” commented Michelle one day while we were up in the cockpit, “is to shut down 75% of your brain.”
Her point was that you use up so much energy just being on the boat, adjusting to the motion, holding on and bracing yourself constantly, that except for those times when you needed to actually do something, the body was happy to just sit still and the mind was utterly content to merely stare at the waves. All of us did a lot of this staring at the waves. It was the single most popular form of activity. One might think that staring at waves could easily consume an hour or two, but after a few days the waves would begin to lose their appeal. Yet this is not the case.
They say that Eskimos have twenty seven words for snow: a word that means “wet-snow”, a word for “blowing snow”, for “old snow”, “falling snow”, etc. But they have no word for snow by itself. After five days out of sight of land, with no ships or other boats on either the horizon or the radar, the waves were all there really was to see. And the more I stared at them, the more I came to realize that the single word “wave”, as with the single word “snow” for eskimo’s, was utterly inadequate. I might wish we had unique words for these things: “dark waves”, “tall waves”, “fast-moving waves”, “steep-sided waves”, “confused waves”, “menacing waves”, “calm waves”, “scary waves”, and many other kinds of waves as well.
Rob and Michelle had spent many years looking at waves but fgor Kristen and me it was still a novel experience. Often we would find ourselves sitting in the cockpit for twenty minutes or so, not a word being spoken, both of us staring at the waves, and being utterly mesmerized by them.
On the passage to Venezuela we experienced waves as small as three feet, and perhaps as high as fifteen. I decided that anything over about eight feet was kind of scary, but only at first. That is, you’d come up into the cockpit after a nice nap, and discover that large, menacing, ten foot waves were bearing down on the boat, and with endless reinforcements right behind them, stretching all the way to the horizon. Looking downwind, you’d see these same waves marching off in their limitless rows towards the other horizon. At first glance it was terrifying. A ten foot wave is a huge, powerful wall of water and seeing one inexorably coming towards you—with absolutely nothing you can do to stop it or escape it—is intimidating. But the intimidation last only a few minutes. When you arrive in the cockpit from a warm bunk and see these scary things all around you, it’s easy to freak out. But then you notice that everyone else in the cockpit is just sititn gthere, staring at the waves, 75% of their brains apparently shut down, and you begin to realize there’s not much to worry about here.
There is something utterly magical, completely captivating, about watching these majestic walls of water approach the boat, feel the boat rise gently and comfortably up and over them, feel the waves continue onwards, softly dropping the boat back into a trough, and then watching the whole process start over again—endlessly, endlessly, endlessly. The more one stares at waves the more one becomes sensitive to each wave’s unique personality. Like those “no-two-are-alike” snowflakes, each wave is different. They’re not very different. But there is enough uniqueness there to somehow make wave-watching a fascinating hobby, and enough monotony there to at the same time hypnotize the observer. Perhaps there is some Zen-like process that takes place, but watching waves from a sailboat at sea is mildly intoxicating.
“People are always talking about all the things they’re going to do on an ocean passage,” continued Michelle. “You know, get little projects done around the boat, read all these books, whatever. But it never happens. You get out here, you sit in the cockpit, you look at the waves, you shut 75% of your brain down, and that’s about all you really want to do. I’ve never heard anyone say they get bored at sea. Yet all we do is stare at the waves.”
“I hae no problem with that.”
“Me neither,” she agreed.
This conversation had occurred without any eye contact between us. We were both staring at the waves.
Starry Starry Night
Perhaps the only thing that can compete with wave watching while at ea are the sunrises, the sunsets, and the starlit sky at night.
Viewing the starlit sky at night would be more enjoyable on Island Skipper if you could see it. The problem is that, generally, the sky is something we need to be protected from. Two bad things come out of it: sun and rain. So Island Skipper has a vast “Bimini” canvas top that covers the entire cockpit, and keeps us cool and dry. But the tradeoff is that w are deprived of what is arguably the most spectacular aspect of an ocean passage: the stars. You can see them, sort of. If you look to the sides, underneath the Bimini, you have a few degrees of sky just barely visible. The same thing is true looking astern. Forward there are too many obstructions: windscreen, ma’s st, sails, and the like. To really see the stars you have to go out on deck, which is against the rules unless someone is out there with you. Most of the time you’re alone, so you have to content yourself with leaning far back and trying to see the stars by stretching out backwards. This is comfortable only for a few seconds.
But it made no difference to Kristen, who’s main goal on the voyage was to be able to see the stars at night. Somehow she found a way to star-gaze, despite the Bimini.
“Dad, last night was simply awesome,” she would say to me in the morning. “You could see the ;askjdf;as constellation, and then there was the apsdfasd constellation, and the asdfs galaxy was actually visible.” Kristen had just come off a semester where she was “Optics Officer” for the Astronomy Club at Middlebury College and she was determined to give me the benefit of her knowledge about the twelve million stars, galaxies, planets and other phenomenon that could be seen from the deck of Island Skipper at night. She was just the one to do it, too, for Kristen’s Christmas present from her parents this year was a hand-held laser star-pointing device. Similar in size and purpose to a laser pointer for a PowerPoint presentation, the Star Pointer was more powerful, and produced a line of green light, not a single red dot. The thin line of light occurred because the laser illuminated the moisture in the air. (This is why it didn’t work well at all in Summit County, Colorado, where there is no moisture in the air.) Here’s how conversations proceed without a Laser Star Pointer:
“Hey, see that star, over there?”
“You know, kind of where I’m pointing…”
“OK, you see Orion?”
“I think so.”
“Yo use the star right next to the end of Orion’s belt, just to the left?”
“Not really, I see quite a few stars.”
“The one that’s off by itself. That star.”
“Most of the stars are off by themselves”
“Yeah, but this one is smaller than the others.”
“Maybe that’s why I don’t see it.”
This kind of conversation goes on endlessly when people are looking at the night sky and trying to talk about it. But with a laser pointer, the conversation goes more quickly.
“You see that star, over there?”
“Uh, which one?”
“That one!” A piercing green line of laser light shoots out, painting a clear path from where the observer is standing, directly to the star in question. One wonders how it is possible for the laser light to travel 12 million light-years to that star, in just an instant. Of course what’s really happening is that the laser light only needs to travel perhaps fifty feet in the air to provide a pointer that appears to be reaching all the way to the star. Truly, it tricks the eye into thinking it is touching the star itself. A laser pointer can easily and instantly pick out and showcase any star in the night sky, and immediately clear up any confusion about which one is in question.
“Oh, that star!” says the other person.
So for the rest of the voyage, anytime we were up in the cockpit and the stars were out, Kristen had her laser pointer her with her, and kept us entertained.
While the bimini worked against star-gazing, it actually framed perfectly the sunrises and sunsets.
The sun would always set just as we were having dinner, and thus provid kind of an evening showtime experience, turning Island Skipper’s cockpit into a dinner theater. As with other dinner theaters, all of us in the cockpit (that would be: all of us) would arrange our seating so as to watch the glorious tropical sunset. Even those sitting facing the wrong way would swing themselves around and turn their heads so they cold comfortably enjoy the show. Despite the generally clear weather on the trip, there were always just enough small clouds hovering around the sun as it was setting—sort of an honor guard—to make the event spectacular. The often lively conversations we enjoyed over dinner would tend to slow down, as the sun begin disappearing over the horizon and the sky grew inflamed with beacons of intense orange light. Despite having videotaped the whole thing the night before, and the night before that, and so on, I would always have my video camera handy, determined to capture this sunset for future generations. Kristen would start firing off still shots. Conversation would finally wind down all the way to long silences punctuated only by the occasional “Wow!”, “Unbelieveable,” “They don’t get any better than that!” or “This one’s really spectacular.”
One is closer to the elements in a sailboat at sea than perhaps in any other situation. After a long day—perhaps a day that involved rain squalls, winds, scary waves, and a lot of sail handling—after a day like that, the sunsets seemed a gift with which nature was kind of paying us back. “You did well today,” Mother Nature was saying. “You handled everything I threw at you, and you handled it well.” (Except for Jacques waiting too long to reef, but Mother Nature’s polite enough not to mention this.) “So here is my present to you, as we bring the day to a close: one of my best sunsets ever. Now rest and enjoy the night. The stars will be coming on stage shortly.”
Sunrises always happened just before my watch ended. There is nothing that breaks up the tedium of a night-time watch like the anticipation of a sunrise, and the sense that one is going to—on some level—be admired for having produced it. These thoughts were never voiced, but let’s consider the facts. Each evening after dinner, there was still light in the sky when I went to bed. Emerging hours later I would find utter blackness, something which must have happened on someone else’s watch. By the time my watch was over the light had been restored. I would not have been human were I to feel no pride whatsoever.
How Many Does She Sleep?
Non-jewelers give themselves away when they refer to diamonds as rocks. Jewelers never use that word. In the trade we call them stones. In the same way, coastal sailors reveal their true nature when they consider a sailboat and ask “So, how many does she sleep?” In other words, how many bunks was some designer able to cram into her? But sleeping on an offshore passage isn’t about beds. It’s about trying to wedge yourself into some corner tightly enough to stay put. As owner of Island Skipper, I was granted the priviledge of the aft-cabin. The one with the queen sized bed. Oh goodie! One doesn’t appreciate how vast “queen size” is until being rolled back and forth on one endlessliy, while trying to sleep.
Rob and Michelle wisely confined themselves to the crew cabin, as in: small, single bunks, set fore and aft near midships, and surrounded on all sides with confining vertical surfaces. In other words: Island Skipper’s version of the Presidential Suite, at least for offshore passages.
Kristen was assigned the forward bunk-bed cabin, but at sea anything in the forward part of a sailboat is like being inside a tether ball during a rough game. Kristen slept on the fore-and-aft couch in the main salon.
Common wisdom says that you don’t want to place berths athwartships (sideways) because an athwartship berth provides the user with nothing to brace themselves against when the boat is steeply heeled. Of course, if you’re outfirtting a floating condominium that will rarely leave the dock, it doesn’t matter. Island Skipper’s lavish aft cabin featured a Queen Size bed as one of its best features, but the designers could only fit such a luxurious thing into the space available by placing it athwartship. I could imagine the conversation during the design phase.
“Putting a queen sized bed in here will be a big draw for buyers.”
“Yeah, but you can only put it in sideways. You know what that will mean for the poor bastards who have to sleep on it!”
“Oh, get real. Most of these boats will never leave the dock in Ft. Lauderdale. Maybe an afternoon sail on Biscayne Bay. What do you think someone’s going to do, sail it to Venezuela? Ha ha ha!”
Now, enroute to Venezuela, I was the “buyer” who had indeed been attracted by the queen size bed, and was now the “poor bastard” who had to sleep on it. At first I tried to convince myself that being rolled around on a vast mattress was kind of fun, sort of like playing on a trampoline. But it wasn’t that much fun. Then I tried to ignore the movement and just fall asleep. Didn’t happen. I finally discovered a technique that kind of worked. My head was to port, which was the windward side, or the “high” side. Feet were at the bottom. If I positioned my feet all the way down against the cupboard at the lowest side of the bed, lay on my back, and kind of locked my knees, I was sufficiently braced to stop the movement. It’s not a normal position for sleeping, but it kept me from rolling around. That, plus another half a sleeping pill, did the job.
Sailing in the Trade Winds
I’d learned to sail as a child, first on the muddy Cedar River in Iowa, later on Lake Travis in Texas, and ultimately on Lake Dillon in Colorado. Common to all these bodies of water is the ongoing process of “tacking”. Tacking is when a sailboat, which can’t sail directly to its destination which is upwind, goes back and forth as close to the wind as it can, until it finally gets there. To go from one tack to another, you turn the sailboat into the eye of the wind, and keep turning until you are past the eye of the wind and you then let your sails out on the other “tack”. When sailing in confined bodies of water—which is what almost everyone does—you routinely go from one tack to another, which is called “coming about” and you do this frequently, perhaps every few minutes on a small lake. It is the most mportant skill to master in sailing: being able to come about and transition from one tack to the next. One of my goals on this trip was to get Kristen and me experienced enough with Island Skipper that we could ultimately handle her ourselves. Being on board for a month would certainly give us plenty of practice. And if “coming about” is the most important skill, we would take advantage of all the practice we were sure to get.
Oddly, we didn’t get any. At least not until the very end. We had left St. Thomas Monday morning, motored out of the harbor, turned to the proper heading, raised the sails, and …stayed on the same tack for the next five days. This was akin to someone wanting to try out a new sports car to find how she handled corners at high speed, suddenly finding themselves on Interstate 70 crossing Kansas. For five days, Island Skipper’s heading did not change by more than two or three degrees. And the direction of the wind did not change by even that much—at least so it seemed. The Trade Winds blow continuously, sometimes a little stronger, sometimes a little weaker, but almost always from the same direction: Northeast. Perhaps this is why they are called the “Northeast Trade Winds.” It would be hard to think of a better name. So if the wind direction never changes, and the boat’s heading never changes, how much practice does the crew get, learning to come about and “tack”? Answer: none. We were, of couse, learning many other skils necessary for offshore sailing, such as how to attach safety harnesses to jack lines, how to reef sails and let them out again, how to navigate and plot a chart position, how to use both the binoculars and the radar when scanning the horizon, how to spot an approaching squall and get ready for it, how to stay in one position on a queen sized bed placed athwartships, and—perhaps most importantly—how to pour milk into a bowl of cornflakes and keep it there. It just seemed odd that after three weeks sailing in the Caribbean, we never had an opportunity to practice that most quintessential sailing skill: coming about on another tack. Kristen was becoming very good at doing everything that needed doing on a 52-foot ketch at sea. But I knew that if she were to try sailing a tiny Sunfish or J-24 on an inland lake, she’d be clueless.
Sailing in the trade winds, it turns out, is really good practice only for…sailing in the tradewinds.
Chicken of the Sea
Nature entertained us adequately in terms of waves, starry skies at night, and spectacular sunsets. But sailing across the Caribbean is not like, say, visiting a game park in Africa. There was an infinity of fish and other exotic creatures in the water beneath us—we just couldn’t see them. Or we couldn’t see most of them. To their credit, dolphins appeared twice. They would come in herds or flocks, or whatever one calls the gathering of these marine mammals. One would appear, and then fifteen or twenty would join the first. All of them would then cluster up near our bow, and race alongside it awhile, either under the water or occasionally soaring above the waves. The humans on board would freak out and race around as well, trying to find video and still cameras, and take lots of pictures. At least Kristen and I did. Rob and Michelle had seen dolphins so many times that, while not exactly unaffected by the thrill, it didn’t carry them to the same level of rapture. It’s true that one dolphin picture, taken from the deck of a sailboat, looks much like another, which is caused by the fact that one dolphin looks much like another. Of couse, that’s how we see them. In the same way a Westerner will tend to think that all Japanese, for example, look the same, dolphins—to our eyes if not theirs—also look the same. Even so, Kristen and I could not help but seek urgently for our cameras, whenever we heard the shout “dolphins!” And if the pictures we took looked the same as every other picture taken of dolphins from a sailboat, well, the Eiffel Tower has also been photographed quite a few times and is no worse for it.
If Mother Nature was generally modest when it came to revealing all the slimy, wiggling things under her skirts, so to speak, she made an exception when it came to flying fish. These she served up with promiscuous abandon.
The first time one sees a school of flying fish burst out of the water and soar across the waves, one is mesmerized. The hundredth time, one finds it merely charming. When you join the ranks of the true flying-fish veterans, at the 10,000view mark and above, the sight fails to even register. Kristen and I had become flying-fish veterans by the end of the first day.
But at night the flying fish situation gets more interesting. Like most fish, those of the aerial persuasion are attracted by light. And there is enough light on Island Skipper—even at night when the Watch Commander keeps most of them off—to make the vessel irrisitable to fish. Fish without wings can be attracted all they want, and no one cares. Yet one ignores winged fish at their peril. The flying variety have both the ability and the desire to come aboard and join the party. And every night they did.
“We were sitting in the cockpit on one night passage,” explained Rob, “about four of us including two women. WE were just sitting around, having a good time, when all of a sudden a flying fish came in the cockpit and hit one of the women right in the face.”
“Man, did she scream,” noted Michelle.
“I’m not sure she ever fully recovered,” agreed Rob. “Probably still in therapy.”
On this voyage, none of the flying fish ever quite made it to the cockpit. But each morning it was fish tossing time. One of us would go around the deck and toss the flying fish (now dead, sadly) back over the rail. Perhaps we could have collected them and ultimately had a fish fry: chicken of the sea. But the darn things are so small—like three sardines tied together and wings glued on—it seemed of little profit.
The Iron Jenny
The “Jenny” is a sailor’s affectionate name for the genoa, a sailboat’s largest sail which attaches to the forestay. Engines on sailboats are often referred to as the “iron jenny.”
On this endless port tack from St. Thomas to Venezuela we ran the engine about an hour a day, and that was primarily to charge up batteries. It’s called motor-sailing when you are under both engine and sail power, and it usually adds about two knots of speed.
Rob earns money in the summer months as a marine engine mechanic in the Chesapeak Bay area, and is a stickler for proper maintenance. Three days into our voyage he announced it was time to check the engine. Island Skipper does not have its own engine room, one of the tradeoffs for being able to “sleep eight” in such luxury. To get at the engine, you have to take the main cabin apart. The settee table is removed and placed upside down on the dinette couch. The companionway steps are taken down and propped against a bulkhead in the galley. Then the carpet is rolled back in several pieces, to afford access to the necessary part of the cabin sole (floor). Plywood floor boards are removed, and when all this is completed the engine lies utterly exposed, now naked in the middle of the main cabin. To visualize this, imagine you could somehow disconnect your car’s V8 from under the hood, and set it down in the middle of your living room. It would look very out of place, and the whole boat seemed out of place with the cabin sole torn up in this way, and the engine now the “centerpiece on the table” as it were.
To check the engine at sea Rob had to work fast. The engine was of course turned off, the sails were dropped, and Island Skipper wallowed unhappily in the waves—converted from a lively, joyous thing to a wounded beast, at the mercy of, well—even the flying fish on some level.
“Oil, coolant, belts” Rob explained to me as I served as a good 2nd mate should and tried to hand him tools and other needed items. I did not enjoy having Island Skipper all torn up in this way, and helpless. None of us did. That’s why Rob worked fast.
“Isn’t it difficult,” I asked him, “given the motion of the boat?”
“Yeah, but it helps if you’ve done it 10,000 times before.”
Certainly he had, and that experience paid off now, as Rob checked the oil level, checked the coolant level, and checked the belts.
“Needs a little more oil,” he announced, and I handed him one of the gallon jugs that we carried of the stuff. He poured an estimated amount in, checked the levels again, and announced he was finished.
The floorboards, carpet, companionway ladder, and settee table went back into position quickly, sails were raised, and Island Skipper was once again transformed into a thing of beauty and grace, now in harmony with the wind and the waves. Her recent wallowing and nakedness were replaced with a clean heal and grim deterimination as she steadied again at 6.4 knots and resumed a course of south-southeast.
I knew what the boat was thinking. As with a medical exam she’d had to expose what to any self-respecting sailboat is her ultimate embarassment: the existence of an engine. Like a mad uncle in the attic who somehow escapes into the living room during a dinner party and is quickly ushered back upstairs, none of us were insensitive enough to mention it. But knowing the oil, the fluid, and the belts were all OK, and the iron jenny was ready to help out in anyway we asked it, whenever we asked, was comforting. It does no discredit to Island Skipper and her beautiful sails to admit this. But we certainly didn’t do so out loud.
Littering at Sea
Sailors cannot help but be environmentalists. They live so close to nature, and are so affected by it, one cannot imagine they would ever do anything to poison their environment. Thus it was quite surprising after one meal when Rob tossed his paper plate over the lee rail and it fell in undignified fashion face down onto a wave. While I was still trying to recover from shock, Rob took an empty Coke can, stabbed at it with his pocket knife sufficiently for several large holes to appear, and then sent it soaring over the rail after the paper plate.
“We don’t do this in coastal waters,” explained Michelle. But when you’re on a long passage, you simply can’t store all the trash that builds up. So anything biodegradeable, like paper plates with food on them, goes overboard. Anything metal, like aluminum cans, also goes over but only after it’s been punctured enough times that we know it will sink to the bottom. You wouldn’t want to leave trash floating around on the surface.”
Under these rules, the only thing we did not toss over the side was plastic. Plastic, obviously, would float, would never biodegrade, and would add to the ongoing problem of pollution in our oceans.
A lifelong environmentalist, one who doesn’t believe in capital punishment except maybe for polluters, it was healthy for me to be out here in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and discover how pristine and untouched by man everything actually is. On a map of the Earth, Island Skipper was not exactly in a remote part of the world. A few hundred miles to windward were the vacation meccas of the Lesser Antilles: Guadaloupe, Antigua, Martinique, St. Lucia, and so forth. Even the Caribbean Sea itself, in all its vastness, was puny compared to something like the North Pacific, or the Southern Ocean. Yet after that fleeting glimpse of St. Croix now several nights back, we had seen absolutely no remnant of human civilization the entire trip: no boats, no ships, no flotsam or jetsom. Nothing. And three fourths of the Earth’s surface is covered in water—vast seas just like this, with no trace of mankind visible to someone like ourselves, out in the mdist of them. Aliens arriving on the planet from a distant star, if they didn’t specifically try to find dry land, would be much the more likely to end up out in the middle of this watery vastness, and be convinced there was no intelligent life here at all. Especially after watching how the flying-fish kept soaring through the open hatches of their now floating space-ship. Of course, aliens arriving on Earth and landing in the midst of a presidential campaign debate would reach the same conclusion.
“I think the American people want change, and the change they want is change for the better!”
“We can do the right thing, or the wrong thing, those are the choices opened to us, and what this campaign is all about, is that the American people want us to do the right thing!”
“We can embrace the future, or wallow in the past. My honorable opponent, unfortunately, would have us move backwards. I, and the American people, believe we should move forward.”
“Nope,” I can see one alien say to another. “No intelligent life on this planet. These organisms are still trying to evolve out of the “empty campaign rhetoric” stage of biological development, and are not yet sentient. Let’s try Mars…”
I digress. Those plates and cups and so forth that we did not throw overboard and that were reusueable, we had to wash. On some level, Island Skipper might be considered a luxury sailing yacht. But that luxury did not extend to an electric dishwasher in the galley. We had manual dishwashers, and every one took turns equally in this duty. Washing dishes by hand on Island Skipper is much like doing the same thing back in your kitchen at home, except your kitchen at home is sitting still and not pitching and rocking and rying to do everything possible to slosh the soapy war out of the sink. Of couse to one who has learned to control a bowl of cornflakes and milk, and is experienced enough to always be holding on to somethg, or braced against osmetihng, especially in the galley, cleaning dishes is not particularly challenging. Island Skipper did boast a full size double sink, and our gas-powered water heater did an amazing job of delivering nearly unlimited hot water for things like washing dishes in sinks, not to mention taking showers when we felt the urge (best not to describe how difficult showers are, at sea, excedpt to say that the urge to take one has to be pretty severe). When I say “nearly unlimited” hot water, the limit was not the heat, but the water. Island Skipper could hold _____gallons of fresh water. With only four of us on board—half her carrying capacity—and with reasonable attention to conservation, this could last a long time. It could even last longer thant that, because a year ago Rob had installed a water-maker aboard. We could now manufacture our own fresh water at a rate of about 15 gallons an hour.
One might think having such a device aboard would make us all careless in our water use but the designers of the water-maker had considered that problem, and found a solution. The watermaker on Island Skipper (and I was later to ask others, on other boats, about their watermakers and was to learn they all had this feature built in), is so obnoxiously loud and noisy that it’s not realistically possible to run it for an hour without going crazy, getting a migraine, and wanting to abandon ship. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. The knowledge of the toruture we must inflict on ourselves everytime we had to run the watermaker, kept all of us honest in minimizeing water use during showers, washing dishes, and the like.
The one area where we did not need to economize on water use was in the toilet, or the “head” as it’s called. There are three tiny “bathrooms” on Island Skipper, which seems like overkill until you remember that Irwin 52’s are designed for the charter trade. People like their own bathrooms when they charter, and floating condominiums certainly must provide them. The functioning of the head itself was fairly straight forward. Seawater, via electric pump, came into the bowl, and everything drained out back into the sea. Anything draining out could be safely assumed to be biodegradeable. Very biodegradeable. Mana from heaven, to the plankton and microscopic life in the water. So we felt no guilt about using as much water as the task required, when emptying the head. The Caribbean Sea had plenty to offer, and we weren’t really using it anyway. Merely borrowing it. And paying good interest, as far as the sea was concerned.
One talks much about seasickness, and perhaps that is because there is no other kind of sickness to get, while at sea. Stories told on sailing ships speak of this phenomenon: the longer at sea, the healthier everyone gets. Infectious diseases simply can’t follow a ship out into the ocean—assuming, of course, there’s not a stowaway down below carrying plague. Scurvy used to be a problem for ships on long passages, until they discovered it’s a Vitamin C deficiency and is easily corrected by stocking fruits and vegetables. Histrocial trivia: The British, even today, are nicknamed “limey’s”, because of the Royual Navy’s proclivity towards citrus fruits.
So the only kind of sickness one worries about today is seasickness—an acute naseau brought on by the motion of the boat, and the psysiological confusion originating in the balance centers of the ear. Some people suffer from seasickness, and some people do not. I, fortunately, do not. Even so, knowing we would be at sea for the greater part of a month, on Rob’s advice I’d obtained prescription seasickness ear “patches”, which are like tiny, round bandaids that stick on behind one’s ear. You put one on, seasickness goes away, and you forget about the patch. It’s good for several days. Even if I didn’t’ need one, I thought it was a good idea to have them aboard, in case others on this trip had difficulty.
The morning of our second day, after I’d enjoyed a robust meal of milk, cornflakes, and hard-boiled eggs, I was sitting in the cockpit enjoying the view of the waves, and feeling quite smug about the fact that I never got seasick. Half an hour into these thoughts, I begin to not be feeling so well. It wasn’t seasickness. It was something else. Maybe there was a problem with the eggs or the milk. I thought it would go away but it didn’t. It seemed to be getting worse. I finally brought it up with Michelle.
“I’m not feeling so well,” I explained, “but it’s not seasickness.”
“Oh, what is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“How do you know it’s not seasickness?”
“Well, years ago, on Lake Michigan, I actually did feel a little seasick. This doesn’t feel like that, this is something else. I”ve never been seasick on Island Skipper.”
“What are the symptoms?”
“Well, my stomach doesn’t feel so great. Like maybe I ate something that didn’t agree with me, or I’m coming down with stomach flu or something.”
“Do you feel feverish? Need to lie down?”
“No, nothing like that. I don’t feel like lying down at all. I think that would make it worse.”
“Sounds like seasickness to me.”
“Michelle, it’s not seasickness. I don’t get seasick.”
“OK, but you brought those patches, right?”
“Let’s put one on, then we don’t have to wonder about seasickness, and we can figure out what it really is.”
There are no negative symptoms involved with using the little patch, and I thought in any case it might be a good experience to have tried one, just to help broaden my lore of the sea, and so forth. Michelle took a tissue, dipped it in rubbing alcohol, cleaned a small section of skin behind my ear, waited for it to dry, and then slapped the patch on—about the size of a quarter.
We kept chatting, and soon another hour had gone by.
“Just curious, how are you feeling?” asked Michelle.
“What do you mean? Oh, my stomach?”
“Uh, that problem seems to have gone away. I feel fine. I actually forgot all about it.”
“So now we know those little patches not only cure seasickness, they also cure that other mysterious illness you had.”
“OK, so you think it was seasickness?”
“Oh, it couldn’t have been seasickness. You don’t get seasick, remember?”
A couple of days later, I had my vengeance. We’d been going through some fairly rough waves for many hours.
“Jacques, you have extra ear-patches, right?” asked Michelle.
“Sure, I have a lot of them. Are you seasick?”
“No, I’m not seasick. But I’m wondering if I could borrow one of them.”
“Of course you can have one. I’m just curious why you’d want one, if you’re not seasick.”
“Well, I’m not seasick, but I’d feel more comfortable if I had one on , then I won’t have to worry about maybe getting seasick. It’s just a mental thing, for me.”
I gave Michelle an ear patch to help her address her mental issue. It seemed to work. I heard no more about this problem.
The patches last for several days, and mine finally fell off. I didn’t notice it had happened. Certainly I did not need to replace it, as I don’t get seasick.
Weeks later, on another rough passage between two islands, I was so proud of the skill I’d developed holding onto things, working in the kitching, handling the sails, and being completely at ease on the boat regardless of the wave motion, that I decided to take a shower. Someone was using the aft cabin to catch up on sleep, and so that meant the forward head. I knew that the forward third of the boat does not sustain human life, while underway, but I dismissed the problem. I was a veteran, an old salt, utterly unaffected byt the motion oif the boat anywhere, even in the bow while underway. I announced my intention to take a shower.
“Good luck with that,” said Michelle, appreciating what it would be like to take a shower in the forward head while underway in a rough sea.
“I’m up for the challenge,” I announced, knowing everyone would be impressed if I managed to accomplish the task.
Actually, it was a challenge. I can imagine one day this activity might make it onto reality television; something like Fear Factor or Survivor, where the competitor must overcome the highest obstacle: taking a shower in the forward head of a sailabot at sea. Succeeding meant the careful blending of a varity of skills:holding on, bracing against bulkheads, sitting down on the little shower bench when necessary, deftly manipulating shampoo, soap, and the telephone shower head, etc. It can be done, but it can’t be done quickly, and it was nearly thirty minutes later that I emerged all squeaky clean and infinitely proud of myself, back in the cockpit.
“There is no way I could do that,” Michelle announced, with admiration. “I would get so seasick.”
“I don’t get seasick,” noted Kristen (who doesn’t get seasick), “but I wouldn’t want to push my luck. I’m very impressed.”
I had about thirty seconds to bask in the glory of accomplishing what others feared to even attempt, before I began feeling not quite so sure of things. It wasn’t seasickness. It didn’t feel like that time in Lake Michigan. Nor did it feel like that time early on the voyage when I’d had some other problem that also wasn’t seasickness but which the ear patch had solved. No, this was something altogether different. Maybe I’d eaten something that didn’t agree with me, or…whatever.
I waited another half an hour and realized whatever the problem was, it was getting worse. I decided to use Michelle’s strategy and put on one of the little patches, just so I didn’t have to worry about getting seasick. It was a mental thing. Michelle was not at all surprised when I asked her for help in getting one on, and she was even polite enough not to say anything that included the phrase “I told you so.” She once again administered the rubbing alcohol and slapped the patch on behind my ear. I knew these things took about an hour to kick in, and I glanced at my watch, marking the time. If the ear patch could solve all those other problems, it might solve this one as well.
Thirty minutes later I noticed I was feeling much better. I didn’t bother to look at my watch when the hour mark came and went, because I’d completely forgotten about it. Whatever problem I’d had was gone. The ear patch was proving amazingly potent at solving almost every medical crisis aboard.
No doubt it was good with seasickness as well, but I wouldn’t know about that.
Mouth of the Dragon
On the morning of the fifth day out from St. Thomas, Michelle poked her head into my cabin.
“Your watch,” she said, and disappeared back to the cockpit.
On land it generally requires two, sometimes three, cups of coffee to bring me fully awake. Somehow Michelle shouting “Your watch”, as she was accustomed to doing now each morning at 3a.m., had the same effect. Adrenaline coursed through my bloodstream, I threw back the light blanket I slept under more for psychological benefit than warmth, donned my safety harness, and was quickly up in the cockpit with Michelle. It’s considered polite, even when it’s someone else’s watch, to stay with them for the first 15 minuts or so. This lets the newcomer get acclimated, take in the conditions of wind and sail, and hear anything of interest about the watch just ended. Often this will be something like “Wind dropped about an hour ago and I let out sail. Been holding over 6 knots ever since. Seems steady now.” Or “Had some trouble with the GPS power connector. Might mention it to Rob when he gets up.” Or “Saw a freighter way off to starboard around 2:30, but couldn’t pick him up on radar. He’s gone now.” Stuff like that. Usually the reports aren’t very interesting, because interesting things don’t often happen out in the middle of the ocean. And that’s good. But this morning Michelle was excited, and eager to share.
“We’ve been passing oil rigs,” she exclaimed.
“Yeah, oil rigs, drilling platforms, whatever you call them. I couldn’t fiture out what they were at first, I thought I was seeing ships. But they just had lots of white lights on them, no navigation lights or steaming lights or anything. And they were stationery. We sailed close to one and I cold really get a good look.”
“Couple of miles, maybe.”
“Cool.” I was hoping to see an oil rig. Actually, I was hoping to see anything. The few ships we’d passed on the voyage had not been on my watch. I was ready for scenery. Waves weren’t doing it for me anymore.
“I think you’ll see land when the sun comes up. We’re getting close,” said Michelle
That was rhetorical because of course it would be Venezuela. I’d been monitoring our progress for five days and we ewre making a beeline for the coast of South America.
“Yep, or Trinidad.”
That also was rhetorical. Trinidad is a large island nation that lies just to the east of Venezuela’s Guira Penninsula, the tip of which was our destination. If our navigation was accurate, the first land we would see would be Trinidad off our port bow and Venezuela off our starboard bow.
Actually, saying “If our navigation was accurate…” was also rhetorical, because of course it was accurate. Our navigation was based on GPS and had a margin of error of 20 feet in any direction. When we saw land, we were going to know precisely what land it was. Michelle headed back to her bunk, and I stared at the chart. The large “Pilot Chart” which covered the Eastern Caribbean, was physically taped to the chart table, and it was on this that we plotted our little latitude/longitude crosses, now indeed forming the path of a giant aquatic chicken marching towards Venezuela. Question: Why did the chicken cross the Caribbean? Answer: To get to the point where Trinidad was to his left, Venezuela to his right. Well, we had almost made it to that spot, and I pulled out the larger-scale chart of northeast Venezuela and the island of Trinidad. The west coast of Trinidad forms a broad curve opening towards the mainland, and directly across from it is a concavity in the Venezuelan coast. Taken together, a substantial bay is formed called the Golfo de Paria, or in English: “Gulf of Whatever Paria Means.” Europeans had discovered this body of water during Christopher Columbus’ third voyage to the new world. At the southern end, the southwest tip of Trinidiad comes close to the Venezuelan mainland, and the resulting straigt that is formed was named by Columbus “Mouth of the Serpent.”
The other entrance to the Gulf of Paria is at the northern end, where the northwest tip of Trinidad reaches out and almost touches the easternmost point of Venezuela’s Geuiria peninsula. In the five mile stretch of land between the two are set half a dozen small, mountainous islets, jutting up out of the water, kind of in a row. Someone with imagination might fancy these islands the “teeth” of a giant mystical creature, with Venezuela and Trinidad representing the sides of the mouth, so to speak. Apparently Cristopher Columbus had such an imagination. He named this entrance to the Gulf the “Mouth of the Dragon.”
I was an hour into my watch when the first lights appeared. At first I thought it was a ship. Then—wouldn’t this be exciting!—an offshore oil rig. But there were too many lights, and they were too spread out. The lights were off the port bow. Dead ahead, or to starboard, there were no lights. I studied the chart again. Our course and most recent position had us heading directly into the Dragon’s Mouth. Therefore those lights could only be…Trinidad.
Then I saw other lights. This was obviously a boat or small ship, directly to port, moving fast. I checked it on radar. Five miles away. They seemed to be on an intercepting course, and I panicked. Pirates! This was just what I was afraid of. Here we were approaching the Spanish Main, latter day pirates were of course waiting to pounce on any pleasure yacht foolish enough to come into their lair. Rob’s own research indicated this area was crime ridden. And of course they’d attack at night! And of course they’d attack during my watch! You could lay money on it, that’s for sure. I was about to call Rob and ask what to do about pirates when I realized they were head-reaching on us slightly. In other words, they were drawing ahead. If they were drawing ahead then by definition they were not on an intersecting course. Which meant they probably weren’t pirates. Then I noticed two more craft, these off to starboard. They, also, were moving faster than we were. And then it all made sense. Duh. The Dragon’s Mouth was one of the most important navigational spots in the whole area. The port cities and villages of Trinidad were all inside the Gulf of Paria. And according to the chart there were no harbors or coves at all on the north coast of the Paria Peninsula. Unless you slipped through the Dragon’s Mouth and came around on the other side, the nearest Venezuelan port was almost 200 miles east of our present position. Bottom line: every boat or ship in the area was heading into the Dragon’s Mouth. And, like us, they’d probably timed their arrival to occur at sunrise. No one wanted to enter the Dragon’s Mouth at night.
I felt foolish to have been worrying about pirates. I should have been worrying about collisions. It was Grand Central Station around here.
There was a glow to the eastern sky, and sunrise would come quickly. We had made a perfect landfall at a perfect time. Perhaps because he knew land was close, Rob arrived well before the end of my watch, bringing a cup of coffee into the cockpit and immediately glancing around the horizon. He took it all in quickly.
“Trinidad!” I said, pointing towards the lights, basking in the glow of having produced land after so long at sea.
“Well, that would sure be my guess,” he agreed. “What’s our depth?”
I glanced quickly at the depth guage. It didn’t have it’s own light, and I shone my little flashlight at it. “160 feet.”
“Hmmm,” said Rob, which is what anyone would say, just coming out of a sleep and trying to wake up.
The trade winds were still pushing us along at over 5 knots. The jenny was full out. We drank coffee and watched the sky grow lighter and lighter. As it did, we could make out the land itself. It was very mountainous, which I hadn’t expected. These were very steep mountains which dropped precipitously down into the sea, coated with soft, velvet greenery. Trinidad was to our left. Small islands were dead ahead, and these were obviously the Dragon’s teeth. Off to starboard was a large, mountainous land, still mostly in shadow. Venezuela.
“Well, we’ve got a decision to make this morning,” said Rob, tackling the thing by the horns. I knew what the decision was. For background, I had made clear to Rob at the beginning that I had three goals for the trip: (1) make it to Venezuela, (2) get Alex certified for scuba diving (he and Derry would be joining us for the last ten days of the trip, and somewhere in there Alex culd take his “open water” tests to complete his certification), and (3) gain enough competency operating Island Skipper so that we could put Rob and Michelle ashore and take the boat out ourselves for one or two days.
Items 2 and 3 were far in the future. But we had to make a decision soon about #1. What did “make it to Venezuela” actually mean? I’d always assumed it meant to touch land: to pull into a harbor, anchor, and go ashore. Going ashore for 30 seconds would be fine. I’d already been to Venezuela years ago (see: Destination: Rainforest!), and this wasn’t about tourism. It was about proving we could sail the boat from the Virgin Islands to South America. It was that whole “Spanish Main” thing.
The problem was finding a port where we could “clear in”. The need to “clear in” and “clear out” is a minor curse to yachtsman, helping offset the fact that yachtsman are a major curse to immigration officials. Think how the world looks to an immigration official. The whole justification of your existence is to carefully regulate and control who enters your country, and who leaves your country. You can only count yourself fulfilled if precisely the correct form is filled out in precisely the correct way, and signed in precisely the correct spot, by precisely the correct person, at precisely the right time, and given precisely to the right bureaucrat, who will then stamp it with precisely the right stamp—or more likely, a whole slew of them.
And immigration officials are able to control this process so precisely because they control the entry and exit points to their country. You see them when you first walk off the airplane, and you must get past them before you can even reclaim your luggage. The same thing is true if arriving by cruise ship (they control the gangway), or by car (physical gates guard the roads.) The only thing that threatens all these bueaurcrats are ocean going yachts, which have the ability to approach the coast at any spot, at anytime day or night. The people on board can come ashore in a dinghy, blend in with the local populace, and essentially disappear from view. Ocean going yachts, and their passengers, are an immigration official’s worst nightmare.
I imagine that when an immigration official is getting trained for the job, they save this problem to near the end of the training, and then—when they judge the wold-be officer capable of handling it mentally—they explain the special problems posed by private yachts. And after doing so there is a long, primal scream of hopelessness and despair, as the beaurcrat sees the true depth of their impotence and—by extension—the ultimate meaningless of their petty existence. AT least that is how ocean sailors fantasize that it happens. Or at least how I did.
Trying to fight back, immigration officials require that ocean yachts—arriving from another country—must “clear in” at an immigration office. Immigration offices are located in the primary ports, which are the places ocean yachts would typically want to go to anyway. On the other hand, immigration officials, bowing to the realities of the sea, recognize that an ocean yacht may enter a soverign nation’s territory and not immediately be able to reach an immigration office. For example, a yacht arriving into a harbor at night will at the least have to wait until probably 9am before the office even opens. Or a yacht fleeing bad weather may be forced to put into a sheltered cove wherever is convenient, and not all sheltered coves have immigration offices. Thus it is acceptable for a yacht to delay “clearing in” provided they fulfill three conditions:
- A yellow “quarantine flag” is hoisted at all times while in a new country and before the “clearing in” act has occurred.
- No one from the yacht sets foot ashore until those feet are literally heading to the immigration office.
- Once having entered soverign waters, the yacht proceeds to a point where it can clear in, and does not exit those waters until it has cleared in properly (and cleared out, when the time comes.) There is no rule that says how quickly the yacht must reach the immigration office, as long as it eventually does, and as long as conditions 1 and 2 are observed in the meantime.
In this way, the immigration officials hope to manage the unmanageable, and force those free-spirits of the sea to come into compliance with the cold, harsh, discipline demanded by land-bound bureaucrats.
Does it work? Of course it doesn’t work. Free spirits of the sea take great pleasure in ignoring the whole thing. How does a customs official know if a sailboat has properly cleared in or not? It’s like herding cats. Immigration officers can of course board a boat and ask to see its paperwork. But this almost never happens. Many ocean sailors never bother to clear in or clear out or have anything to do with immigration offices. But larger yachts ignore the regulations at their peril. Larger yachts are more likely to have their paperwork checked, and larger yachts are more likely to have paid crew aboard who aren’t paid enough to risk third-world prisons in pursuit of a little immigration mischief.
Island Skipper fell kind of between the two groups. We weren’t a mega-yacht. But we weren’t a 30’ home-built plywood trimaran either. And that brought us to the decision we now faced. The nearest Venezuelan port with an immigration office was the town of Guira, on the south side of the Guira Penninsula, and six hours of downwind sailing from the Dragon’s Mouth. Six hours downwind meant even longer on the return trip. We’d already been five days at sea. Guira would add at least a full day to get there and back again, probably more. Did we really want to visit Guira? The guidebooks indicated it was a bland, third-world, grimy port town, of no particular redeeming value. None of us spoke Spanish, except Kristen who had been in her high school’s Spanish Honor Society, and had taken a full two week Spanish-language immersion trip to the Costa Rican rainforest. However Kristen claimed the only Spanish she remembered was the word “taco,” which didn’t sound especially useful. One of the things I remembered from my earlier trip to Venezuela is that they don’t have Mexican food in South America. No one in Venezuela would know what a taco was.
All of us were quite keen to visit the island of Trinidad, and everything about Trinidad sounded better than anything on the barren Gueira peninsula of Venezuela. If we took the long detour to Gueira, we’d probably have to forfeit Trinidad in the interests of time. On the other hand, the whole point of this long trip was to reach Venezuela. And Venezuela—the Spanish Main—was right there, just a few miles away.
“It’s your decision,” said Rob, after all of us were up in the cockpit, enjoying the scenery and the rapidly approaching Mouth of the Dragon.
I took Kristen aside and we talked it through soberly. I didn’t want to weasel out of reaching Venezuela. Kristen had never been to Venezuela and wanted to count it as a new country. Yet neither of us liked the idea of six hours downwind, a nasty third-world port city, and maybe ten hours back again, just to be able to say we’d been to Venezuela. We studied the chart, and an idea came to me.
“Kristen, you see this line, that runs through the Mouth of the Dragon?”
“That’s the national boundary. East of that line is Trinidad. West of that line is Venezuela.”
“If we went west of that line, we’d be in Venezuela, right?”
“We would absolutely be in Venezuela.”
“Then we could sail back out again. Would that be legal?”
“Technically, no. Once you cross the line, you need to raise the quarantine flag and head for an immigration office.”
“So we could violate Venezuelan sovereignty, and get away with it?”
“I think so.”
We announced our decision to Rob, who endorsed it wholeheartedly.
“I recommend we put into Trinidad now, and then cross into Venezuelan territory on the way out of the bay, before sailing north to Grenada.”
Of course another option would have been to sail into any of a string of lovely, uninhabited coves on the south side of the GUira peninsula. We could have done so, swiftly gone ashore in the dinghy, touched land, rushed back to the boat, and sailed away with no one being the wiser. It’s not like there wasn’t precedent. I’d once invaded the territory of Namibia, hopped off a small boat, touched the soil, and then raced back to civilization (civilization in this case being Botswana, on the other side of the Caprivi River). Yes, we could have done this. But we also could have ended up in a Venezuelan prison if we got caught. I could imagine the four of us being held hostage in an American-baiting international incident. “They’re notorious drug dealers, sent to assassinate me by the evil warlord usurper, the one who calls himself President Bush!” Chavez would screech in a speech at the United Nations.
Pat Robertson would go on TV and thank the administration for following his advice, and sending a covert party to assassinate Chavez.
And there would be Condi Rice, urging Chavez to act with “restraint” in the matter.
Obama would weigh in, urging Bush not to declare war on Venezuela, but to use quiet diplomacy instead.
McCain would note that he, himself, had been tortured in a third world prison, and knew how serious the situation was. “Experience counts in these kinds of things,” would be his main talking point.
Al Quaida would denounce this latest example of American aggression and swear comradeship with the good people of Venezuela, suggesting cautiously that it would be better if they all converted to Islam.
France would agree with them, except for the Islam part.
China’s ambassador would communicate to the state department that they would be silent on the matter, as long as the U.S. would likewise voice no objection to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Larry King would invite Voorhees friends and relatives onto the program, and skillfully probe how otherwise upstanding citizens could have fallen to such depths. “Is it possible a terrorist actually lurks deep, in the heart of all uf us?” would be his main talking point.
Israel would publicly support this apparent invasion of Venezuelan sovereignty. The Mossad would cautiously send a probe to the CIA, offering to bomb Caracas if that would be in any way useful.
David Letterman would read off his top ten list of things you do NOT want to do in a Venezuelan prison…
No, all in all, it seemed better if we not physically touch the soil. But as for a deliberate violation of Venezuelan territory on the way to Grenada, a shameless thumbing of our nose to their immigration officials, a wanton disregard for Venezuelan sovereignty, and thus a harsh kick in the…teeth…to Chavez himself? Well, all of us were on board with that plan. And to implement it, we merely needed to sail west, past Longitude xxxx, , before turning north to Grenada.
We marked it on the chart, confirmed the plan in our minds, and then chose the eastern channel through the Dragon’s Mouth. Five days after leaving St. Thomas, we sailed into the territorial waters of the island nation of Trinidad.
Entering the narrow channel between the Trinidad “mainland” and the islet of ______, let’s call it the left molar of the Dragon’s Mouth, we started the engine, furled the jib completely, and then noticed that the jib halyard was broken.
This is like a race car coming in for a pit stop, and discovering that it’s rear axle is split in half. It’s not a minor thing.
“How the heck did that happen?” wondered Rob
“How did the sail stay up, with the halyard broken?” I asked.
“Maybe it broke just now,” suggested Michelle.
The jib halyard is a wire rope that goes from the forepeak of the hull to the top of the mast, over a sheave, and back down to the halyard winch near the base of the mast. The jib furls up around it, when the furling line is pulled. None of us could figure out how the wire rope had broken—or at least had only a few strands of wire left holding it—but we were all glad the problem manifestd itself when we were just a few miles from port.
“Can we fix it?” I asked Rob.
“Yeah, we can fix it,” he said. “We have spare halyard wire onboard. It’ll take some work.”
The beauty of the islands of Trinidad, sparkling green in the early morning son, was marred slightly by my realization that something as critical as a jib halyard could simply break—seemingly for no reason. It was another one of those lessons I was learning: always hold on while at sea, reef the sails immediately when you first thing about it, and now: anything that can break, will break. Sure, Rob had a spare wire-rope halyard. Rob would know how to replace it. Rob could solve any problem. But how the heck could I ever learn enough to handle Island Skipper on my own? I didn’t have a spare wire-rope halyard. And I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do with one. Left to myself, I’d proalby not have noticed the damn thing was broken in the first place.
It was like someone learning basic arithmetic having Einstein as his teacher. I told myself that I had to walk before I could run, that the knowledge I needed to amass was large but finite, and that I”d made considerable progress already. I could steer Island Skipper safely into the harbor at _______, and this I did. Who needed a stupid jib halyard, anyway?
The capital of Trinidad is a city with the incorrect name “Port of Spain.” It seems to have been a habit of the early explorers to try to make up being so far from home by naming everything after where they came from. Here was Christopher Columbus, on the other side of the world from Spain. He discovers a new land, finds a bay that can shelter large ships, and names it something it most clearly is not: “Port of Spain.” Like, who was he kidding?
“OK, men, I know you’ve braved uncounteable hardships, and are at the end of your tethers, after following me loyally to the ends of the Earth. Some of you, OK most of you, may have considered revolting against me, and taking our little Santa Maria back to our homeland. Some of you, OK, all of you, maybe wondering when we will ever see home again. But, not to worry. This little cove is actually, are you ready for this, named “Port of Spain.” So, things can’t be so bad, right? We’re actually, in a manner of speaking, already back home. Sort of. I mean, given the name of this harbor.”
And I can imagine the men speaking among themselves: “Is he bloody daft? Does he really think we’re that stupid? Here we are caught between the serpent’s mouth on one side, and the dragon’s mouth on the other, and if this place is not the end of the world, nowhere is, and he gives it a cozy sounding name like Port of Spain and thinks we’re all going to calm down?”
“Yeah, and he’s probably not even going to clear into the immigration office. We are so screwed.”
Anyway, you find this all over the new world, and everywhere for that matter. People arrived from Amseterdam and called it New Amsterdam. Then other people arrived from York and called it New York. Zealanders arrived from Holland and called their home New Zealand. Scots arrived at a south pacific island and called the place New Caledonia. The English settled mostly in the northeast of the Untied states and named it New England. The French settled in Canada and called it New France. (That lasted only until the Battle of Quebec in 1759 when the English decisively beat the French and changed the name to Canada.) Bruns arrived from Brunswick and gave their new homeland the title New Brunswick. Welsh settled Sydney harbor and gave the region the name New South Wales. Mexicans migrated north and settled New Mexico. French from Orleans founded New Orleans. Let’s give credit to the simple honesty of those who came from who-knows-where and landed on the coast of Rhode Island and gave the harbor the straightforward and accurate name of Newport.
Yes, the Spanish, who were the primary European colonizers of the Caribbean, liked to name things after their homeland. But even more, they liked to name things after their religion. Jimmy Buffet has a great line in his song “Boat Drinks,” which goes:
Newspaper mentioned cheap air fare
I gotta fly to saint somewhere
I gotta go where it’s warm…
The reason all the Caribbean islands seem to be named after saints is because the Spanish were the first settlers, and what better way to spread your religion than to name everything after your religious heroes? Well, that plus massacre the local population. The two together are quite effective, and this is why most people now living in these islands are Catholic. Trinidad is a very large island, and Columbus presumably thought it needed something more weighty than another “saint somewhere” name. So he called it “Trinidad” which is Spanish for “Trinity” as in: The Holy Trinity.
Island Skipper motored through calm water—our first in five days—protected by a combination of Dragon’s Mouth teeth and Trinidad itself. Early morning cloud cover burned off and the sun’s clean rays illuminated the lush green, broken only occasionally by a short, cleansing squall. Villas and small houses dotted the landscape, built far apart and in seemingly inaccessible locations hanging above the water. These seemed likely to be vacation homes for the rich, for they were well tended and showed no sign of neglect or poverty. Looking ahead, the Gulf of Paria opened up in limitless dimension, a true inland sea, yet so calm and glassy one might fancy it a mirage in the desert. Venezuela’s coastline faded southwards until finally disappearing into the haze.
The harbor marker was a green “can” buoy which we identified without difficulty, and kept to port as we turned eastwards into the marina at Chaguaramas, a small town just up the coast from Port of Spain itself.
One might ask, how did we choose this destination? How did we know about the town of Chaguaramas, or the fact that it contained a marina, or for that matter the fact that a green “can” buoy marked the harbor entrance?
We knew these things because of our reliance on “cruising guides.” Cruising guides are highly-specialized books, hopefully not too out of date, in which all this kind of information—and much more—is contained. Cruising guides fall under the “learn from other people’s mistakes” philosophy. One might imagine how impossibly difficult, even dangerous, it would be to arrive by small boat off the coast of a new country, unsure where to go, where to anchor, where dangerous reefs might be, what unusual clearing-in procedures existed, where one might buy supplies, do laundry, access the Internet or…tie up to a slip while repairing a jib halyard. Charts, of course, provide their own essential information, but they are annoyingly passive. When you look at a chart, it’s incumbent upon you the chart reader to notice that there is a section of dangerously shallow water just off this point of land, or that rocks actually appear above the surface at this spot here. A good chart, read carefully, will help avoid navigational dangers. But it will do nothing, for example, to tell you that the guy who runs the gas dock is named Jose, he’s lived on the island all his life, and will give you whatever advice you need about anything, as long as you bring something tasty to feed his blind dog Boca, who by the way is partial to raw eggs. In other words, all the really important stuff—the stuff you’d know yourself if you’d spent two or three years cruising these waters, isn’t contained on maps.
Taking cruising guides seriously, reading them well ahead of time, and making decisions based on them long before arriving at a new place, was part of the critical training that Rob and Michelle gave to Kristen and me.
Throughout this trip, Michelle, for example, would often come up to me and say: “So, we’ll be arriving in [St. Somewhere] at four this afternoon. What harbor are you going to choose? Oh yeah, why that one? OK, are you goingn to anchor or moor or get a slip? You’re going to anchor? OK, do you know where you’re gong to anchor? And where’s the nearest immigration facility to that spot? How deep is that anchorage? Do you know how much anchor chain you’re going to need to have out? Are there any unusual things you need to know about that anchorage? Any tricky currents or winds or anything? What currency do they use here? Are there ATM’s ashore? What’s the plan for dinner? Do we eat aboard or go into town? Have you picked a restuaurant yet?”
Early on in this cruise, I would look at her blankly and say “Gee, I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about any of that stuff.” Near the end I would look up calmly and say:
“We’re going to stay at Smithtown harbor because it’s closer to our present location, has better wind protection, and more facilities for yachts. There’s two anchorages. We’ll be using the one to the North because the holding ground is better. Average depth is 30’ so we’ll use 100’ of chain, no nylon rope, and we’ll have to snub the chain with a nylon snubber line which we should have ready after we clear the first breakwater. We’ll roll in the jenny after we come around the southern tip of the island, as we’ll be heading almost directly into the wind. The mizzen we’ll sheet in tight and ignore until we’re anchored, assuming the wind’s as light as I’m expecting past that headland. They use Eastern Carribean currency here, and there are two ATM’s, one is right beside the immigration oiffice which has a dinghy dock just opposite the northern anchorage. The immigration office is open until 6pm so we’ll go there immediately to clear in after we’ve set the anchor. I recommend we have dinner ashore tonight and there are half a dozen good restaurants along the water, if we walk southwards from the immigration office after clearing in. Tomorrow I thought we’d rent a car—I’ve already selected a rental agency—and go visit the windward side of the island which has a world-famous rain forest and you can hike to a waterfall. It’ll be a day trip and we’ll want to pack a lunch, which means we should thaw some turkey meat before we go to bed tonight. Oh, and by the way, the Chief Custom’s Officer is named Jose and his blind dog Boca is partial to raw eggs. I already have a couple in a baggy, ready to take ashore. Anything else you’d like to know?”
And Michelle would smile at me, nod smugly as if to imply her training had finally paid off, and say: “That’ll do for now.”
And I would mentally thank the author of the Cruising Guide that covered this island, and which had let me be so prepared and thus able to impress Michelle.
Now, approaching Chaguaramas, Michelle was standing over me with a whip—so to speak—urging me to quickly read up on the little town, which of course she had already done, and to make all the necessary decisions, which of course she and Rob had already made. In this way I learned
[Include here information from the Cruising Guide. And you will need to get copies of the cruising guides to fill in lots of infomraiton at these spots: Trinidad, Grenada, Dominica, Isles des Saintes, Guadeloupe, Antigua, Nevis, St. Kitts, Saba Rock, etc. Maybe you can get this same info off the Internet, for this purpose. You can just pretend it’s from the cruising guide.]
There were half a dozen small, rusty freighters in the approaches to the inner harbor, each one plucked from a Joseph Conrad novel, and each one desperate—so it seemed to me—to tell us where it had been, where it was going, what exotic cargo it was carrying, and a hundred or more tales of adventure it had experienced in the 65 years since it was launched in Liverpool or Marseille or Santiago. The less romantic side of my brain noted wryly that much the more likely story was that they’d been launched a decade ago and just looked 65 years old because of poor maintenance, their cargo was something boring like gravel, they probably had never been outside the Gulf of Pairia and it was an even chance they spent their time steaming slowly between Guira and Port of Spain, making endless roundtrips with a crew of illiterate peasants. Whatever the truth, it could not be denied that they looked stunningly picturesque with the early morning sun still illuminating everything vividly. Lush tropical vegetation smothered the mountains which nearly encircled the harbor. While the freighters were the most impressive, there were also commercial fishing boats, kind of younger brothers to the larger ships, proud of their own coatings of rust, veneers of utilitarianism, and shabby devil-may-care disarray. “Dishabille Chic” one might call it.
But by far the most prevalent craft, scores of them, were the oceangoing sailing yachts which of course had all arrived from somewhere else. Transoms, the back of the hull on which the home port is written, told the tale well: Cape Town, Oslo, Honolulu, Newport, Hong Kong. But there were also Caribbean home ports, such as Antigua, Grenada, and St. Lucia. Island Skipper displayed Charlotte Amalie, Virgin Islands as home. I was proud that we’d sailed from there directly across the Caribbean, rather than sneaking down the island chain as no doubt some of these people had. On the other hand our five day passage seemed a pitiful thing compared with boats from places like Oslo and Cape Town. It was another reminder of how pride is relative, and never more so than in a yacht harbor.
After five days at sea, we decided to splurge in Trinidad and actually tie up at a slip. That cost money, about $30 a night, but there were conveniences such as dockside AC power, a freshwater hose to refill our water tanks and scrub down the decks, and the convenience of being able to hop on and off the boat without using the dinghy. To organize a slip, we pulled into the marina’s main dock itself, kind of a “hotel check-in” situation.
Bringing Island Skipper into a dock is not an easy maneuver. One needs to remember that large ocean-going sailboats are rarely damaged while at sea. It’s land, and all the nasty, sharp, hard, pointy things on and near the land, that cause the problems. A sailboat captain’s primary mission in life is not to let the precious vessel ever come in contact with the land, because doing so can so easily involve damage. Docking is antithetical to this mission, and no one enjoys it.
I was steering and Rob was in overall command as we approached the marina dock at a speed just barely sufficient to maintain steerageway. Kristen and Michelle were busy tying “fenders” to the lifelines, large cylindrical floats that hung down near the water and would keep the boat from physically touching the dock. Or at least they would try to do so. Noticing our intentions, several dock hands were gathered, ready to assist by retrieving lines and securing them to cleats. No one spoke. There were no carefree, friendly greetings from the dock hands. No waving of arms or words of welcome. When a 50,000 pound vessel approaches a dock, it is a very serious business, and everyone knows it. If things go well, if the skipper is competent, the boat will ease up against the wharf and stop gently, fenders absorbing the strain, while lines are adjusted and made fast. If things do not go well, if the boat comes in too fast or is poorly handled, the dock could be damaged, one or more people could be seriously injured, and the boat itself might end up needing $25,000 of repair work. A few seconds of inattention, a misunderstood order, or an ill-advised turn of the wheel would be all it would take. That’s why everyone was so serious and quiet.
“OK,” said Rob. “I’ll take the wheel. Go up and take the spring line from Michelle. When I give the word, hop onto the dock.”
This I could do. Michelle was at the bow, Kristen at the stern. I stood outside the railing, holding the springline, as we inched nearer, and nearer. I gauged the moment carefully, and jumped across to the dock. In the same instant Kristen threw her stern line to a waiting dockhand, and Michelle threw the bow line.
The rule, when throwing a line to a dockhand, is to throw the whole thing directly at their face. Don’t try to do anything fancy, like drop it neatly at their feet, because you’ll screw it up, and the line will fall back into the water, get caught around the propeller, the propeller will rip out of its housing, holing the vessel, and you’ll sink in minutes. Well, it could happen. If you aim for the head, the line will tend to fall in such a way that the dockhand will be able to get at least one hand on it.
In this case the dockhands—not surprisingly—were experienced and did precisely what Rob told them to do.
“Get the bow line around that forward dock cleat. No, not that one, the one farther. That’s it! Don’t secure it, keep it loose.
“OK, now the stern line, around that post.
“Jacques, quickly, get the spring around that cleat. Don’t tighten it.”
When bringing in a boat of this size, it’s important to remember that no one is strong enough to physically pull the boat in with brute strenght, and certainly not to slow or stop it. Rather, the technique is to get the proper lines around the proper cleats on the dock, and take up slack as the skipper brigns the boat in and slows it to a stop with the engine. In the final steps of the maneuver, one or more lines is “cleated” temporarily, which generally means putting a figure eight knot around the cleat and keeping tension on the line.
“Jacques, cleat the spring!” said Rob, and I did so.
Island Skipper, barely moving forward at all, now felt the restraint of the spring line as the slack was taken up. The vessel eased closer into the dock, the dynamics of her forward momentum plus the restraint of the spring making this inevitable.
“Cleat the bow line!” yelled Rob, and the dock hand did the same thing up forward.
Island Skipper was now almost completely at rest, but not quite. The stern was very slowly swinging out.
“Cleat the stern line!” shouted Rob.
Now the boat was truly stopped, and was nestled properly against the dock, fenders absorbing the pressure between the hull and the pier itself.
No one said a thing. The silent air of anticipation hung over us all. Just because the boat seemed to be in precisely the right place, and everything secure, didn’t mean that it was. A gust of wind, a poorly positioned fender, a line led improperly around a stanchion, a rogue wave form a passing fishing boat, could still mean chaos and damage. But thigns were looking pretty good.
“Ease up on that bow line about six inches, please!” said Rob. The fact that he’d said “please” indicated his view that we were out of danger.
“Trim the stern line a foot,” he added.
The boat settled down furher and we all watched its motion. The lines were takng up the strain equally, the fenders were properly positioned, everything was as ideal as it could be.”
“OK, we’re good!” announced Rob, and I saw him turn off the diesel engine, officially ending our 600 mile passage.
Repairing The Jib Halyard
As we were to learn, when a cruising sailboat arrives at an exotic port, there are two competing imperatives: “housekeeping” issues, and tourism. The housekeeping issues include the sundry details of replenishing supplies, dealing with laundry, clearing into customs, organizing a slip (if needed), and any critical repairs. The general rule is that you handle housekeeping stuff first, before you go play.
First stop was the customs and immigration office. Conveniently, the office was placed right here amidst the various marina functions. Earlier trips had taught me the personality traits one needs to adopt on entering a third-world immigration office: humility, respect, and patience. Especially patience. If ever there is a moment to force yourself to go on “Island Time”, it’s when dealing with a third-world immigration official.
An observation: type-A, educated, competent, active, friendly, enthusiastic people do not become immigration officials. In fact, one suspects that any of these traits—were they to surface— might constitute grounds for dismissal. It was a theory unlikely to be tested.
At this immigration office there were two officials. A man and a woman. Both black. The man was sitting in a chair, up against the back wall, sleeping soundly. The woman was awake, sort of. “Awake” in the developed world, means the person looks at you when you walk into the room, perhaps says ‘hi’, smiles at least briefly, and generally evidences an attitude of being alert.
In the third world, “awake” means “eyes open and has a pulse.”
It’s uncertain what a customs official does when there are no passports to be stamped or “clearing in” forms to be signed. But this woman was doing it. She worked away at her own paperwork for at least five minutes, before condescending to notice us. We were the only people in the room, and so her ability to ignore us indefinitely was limited. Finally she looked up.
This was Trinidadian for “May I help you?”
Michelle had the paperwork handy and passed it over.
“We just arrived and are here to clear in,” she explained politely and respectfully.
The woman took the documents and begin examining them: ships papers, passports, and so forth.
Learning to clear in and clear out and handle all other aspects of Island immigration procedures was part of Kristen’s and my education, so we studied the process.
“Filltheesout,” said the woman, handing a pile of paperwork to Michelle.
There were several important things we’d been told to remember.
One: never, ever let anyone know how ridiculous you think the procedures are, or what an utter waste of time. To the contrary, study the papers as if you believe they represent a newly-discovered Gospel found in a Judean cave, and fill them out with awe.
Two: never say you are in a hurry. That will ensure the processing of the paperwork takes three times as long.
And finally: Act confused when you come to the line about how much wine or liquor you have on board. Ask the official for help. “Excuse me, sir, how should I fill out this part? We only have ship’s stores aboard.”
The concept is that the phrase “ship’s stores” is highly unprovocative—even boring. It implies stale saltine crackers, some mouldy cheese, maybe a warm six-pack of light beer with a couple cans missing. And it’s important to remember that the last thing the customs officials want to do is actually fill out more forms and compute duty and make a big fuss about something. It’s not like that does them any good. So by implying you merely have “ship’s stores” (true, actually), it gives everyone an excuse to gloss over the fact that you’re essentially importing a large quantity of alcohol into a soverign country. In fact, Island Skipper—embarked on a month-long cruise—was filled to the brim with ship’s stores, including a dozen cases of beer, perhaps fifty bottles of wine, and several liters each of rum, vodka, gin, scotch, tequila, and all the related mixes necessary to produce nightly rations of what the Jimmy Buffet song refers to as “boat drinks.” Imagine trying to walk past customs at the airport with that kind of cargo. But what’s a cruising sailboat supposed to do? Declare it all? Not a good idea.
When the Trinidad official heard we merely had “ship’s stores,” she leaned over and drew a line through the whole section. By acting confused, Michelle had avoided having to lie outright. Everyone’s honor was satisfied. In fact, we knew that Michelle had been perfecting this “I’m confused” act, with respect to alcohol, for ten years.
Walking away, Kristen and I admired our new passport stamps. “Republic of Trinidad and Tobago,” said the stamp. We felt we’d earned it.
We’d already moved Island Skipper from the entry dock to a nearby slip. Now she was truly tied up securely, and surrounded by other yachts, some bigger, some smaller. No one could claim our arrival had brought down the neighborhood. Yet it hadn’t raised it up much either. There were some big boats here, some much newer and shinier than our own.
And with a broken jib halyard, ours wasn’t feeling very shiny at all.
Rob has a way of always pushing guests beyond their comfort zone, encouraging them to do things they wouldn’t normally feel brave enough to try, like scuba diving at night, or learning how to change the engine oil. He enjoyed pushing Kristen especially hard, because he had yet to find some challenge she wouldn’t accept. A certified Mountain Guide in Colorado, patrol leader for horseback trips into the Rocky Mountain Wilderness, veteran of Outward Bound’s Costa Rica “Rainforest Challenge,” and passionate about learning new skills and overcoming obstacles, Rob was having difficulty finding anything that would intimidate her.
“Hey, Kristen, can I talk you into climbing to the top of the mast, and repairing the jib halyard?” said Rob.
“Sure,” said Kristen, immediately enthusiastic. “No problem.”
“Kristen, you don’t have to do this,” said Michelle.
“Sure she does,” protested Rob, used to pushing people into doing things they don’t really want to do, and not having internalized that Kristen had already accepted.
“Sounds like fun,” said Kristen, which must have frustrated Rob on some subliminal level. How could you push a person who needed no pushing?
The top of the mast was sixty feet in the air. I got dizzy looking up that high. The operation would take all four of us, plus the anchor windlass. Kristen wasn’t really going to have to climb to the top. The anchor windlass was going to haul her up there with raw, low-gear-ratio, electrical power. Kristen climbed into kind of a belaying harness, and was attached to the topping lift, a spare halyard running over a block at the mast head. I was stationed at the base of the mast, and assigned the duty of pulling down on the halyard, to take load off the windlass. Michelle was at the windlass, responsible for tailing the halyard line around the drum. Rob was set to pay out the fishing line smoothly while Kristen made her ascent.
One might question why fishing line was needed for this operation, and I’m now able to answer that question. To repair a broken jib halyard, follow these steps.
- Remove the halyard from the mast head. (This happened automatically when the halyard broke, and collapsed onto the deck. Step one: completed.)
- Remove the jib from the roller furling gear. (We had already done this earlier in the day, and the jib was now folded up neatly, and stowed down below)
- Build a new halyard. (This, also, had been accomplished by Rob, using the spare wire-rope we had on board, and swaging the ends into loops at either end)
- Run the new halyard through the block at the mast head, feed it down through the hollow mast, and out the hole near the bottom of the mast, just above the jib halyard winch.
#4 was the hard part, and that’s why Kristen had to go up the mast bearing a lengthy quantity of fishing line. The way this worked, at the top of the mast was a block (pulley). You attach a weight to the fishing line and let it down thorugh the hollow mast. Someone at the bottom of the mast sticks a hook into the hole where the halyard needs to be led, tries to catch the fishing line in the hook, and pull the line out the hole. Once accomplished, the other end of the fishing line is attached to the halyard, which in turn is pulled up to the masthead, goes over the block, down into the hollow mast, and out the hole near the base, being gently coaxed along this entire route by the fishing line which is pulling it.
Kristen had been instructed by Rob what she would find at the mast head, how she would have to lead the fishing line and the weight over the proper block, and what she needed to do while she was there.
When we were all set and in position, Michele started the windlass.
“Whrrrr, whrrrr, whrrr,” went the windlass.
Up, up, up, went Kristen. Soon she was dangling in the air, far above the deck. It was not the kind of thing that makes a father comfortable, but then, I’d seen Kristen fighting with jib sheets on the foredeck in a gail, with walls of spray soaking her to the bone, as ten foot seas roared past. Sitting here at a marina dock while Kristen played in the rigging seemed pretty tame by comparison.
The plan should have worked. Unfortunately, after arriving at the mast head, Kristen was having problems getting the fishing line and the weight to go into the mast. She was so far in the air it was difficult to even hear her. But apparently the situation up there was not as Rob had diagramed it. There was insufficient space to get the line into the mast.
Rob was getting increasingly frustrated, because he knew that this part should not be difficult. Finally, he gave the order for her to come down, and this was not difficult to make happen. Michelle and I merely eased the topping lift from the windlass and the halyard winch, and down she came.
“Sorry, Rob…” said Kristen, feeling like she’d failed him.
“It’s OK,” said Michelle, nurturing as always. “Not your fault. I can’t believe you were brave enough to even go up there!”
So Plan B was hauling Rob up to the top. This was approximately twice as difficult because he weighed approximately twice what Kristen did. Yet that was more a problem for the windlass than for us.
“Whrr, whrr, whrr,” went the windlass, groaning under the added weight.
Up, up, up went Rob.
“Hmmm…” said Rob loudly when he arrived at his destination and had a moment to examine the mast head. We all knew that meant: apparently, this is trickier than I thought.
Rob had a full complement of hand tools, and he set to work now doing what needed to be done. I couldn’t imagine that a mere masthead could slow down master-mechanic Rob for more than a few seconds, but he needed almost a quarter of an hour making adjustments. All of us stood cautiously far away from the base of the mast during this interval, not wanting to be the target for any tool Rob accidentally dropped.
In the end, it was done. The fishing line was led into the mast, Michelle—with considerable difficulty—was able to fish it out through the hole above the jib halyard winch, the new wire halyard made its journey successfully up to the top of the mast, down through the mast, and out the hole. The other end was still at deck level, but could be easily led forwad and attached to the head of the jib, when the itme was right. Rob had returned from his periolous duty and apologized to Kristen.
“My memory of the mast head was completely wrong,” he explained. “There’s no way you could have gotten it to work on your own.” I felt vindicated, at least vicariously. I hadn’t been brave enough to volunteer for the mission myself. Of course, someone had to stay on deck and supervise the whole thing.
After spending the rest of the day cleaing up the boat, making use of the Marina laundramat, and topping off supplies at a small grocery, we gave the cook a break and ate dinner ashore.
It seemed odd that night, lying in a bed that didn’t move.
A Good Lime
Trinidad is a regional trading center where commerce is taken seriously. Certainly those workhorse freighters in the outer harbor were doing so. Also taken seriously is tourism. Cruise ships dock in Trinidad occasionally. Yachts arrive from exotic ports. And large airliners filled with tourists land in Trinidad as well. If you take tourism seriously, you have to find things for the tourists to do—hopefully things that cost them money. The most straight-forward of these is to sell tours. And, speaking as a tourist with limited time available, there is perhaps nothing so worth doing as taking a tour.
At 7am a large van picked us up at the marina entrance. It held eight, plus the driver. Several were already in the van when we arrived, and the final two were collected from another marina. They were a young couple off a Westsail 32, which many consider a “cult” boat. Short, heavy, full deep keel, they are supposed to be a “sailor’s sailboat.” But that’s true only if you’re an ancient mariner like Joshua Slocum and don’t realize boat design has evolved in the last 100 years. As an armchair sailor in my college days, I’d gone through my own love affair with Westsails. But then I’d grown up.
Rob leaned over and whispered “We call them Wetsnails, that’s how slow they are.”
“So,” Rob asked the young couple who’d sailed in from St. Lucia, “what kind of average speed were you able to make on that passage? I’m just curious.”
“We did well,” said the guy. “Averaged over six knots.”
“Impressive,” admitted Rob, who then turned to me and rolled his eyes in and expression that said “The only way you’d get a Wetsnail 32 to average six knots is if you loaded it onto a container ship.” But he was polite enough not to say so outloud.
Our guide and driver was a very friendly, twenty-something black guy. Everyone on Trinidad is black, except for the tourists. The evolution of the Caribbean demographic is interesting. It started with white Europeans coming in and slaughtering the native Indians. Arguably, that was a good thing because the native Indians at the time were mostly Caribs, one of the most violent and bloodthirsty people of all time. They in turn had massacered the more peace-loving earlier tribes such as the Taino and the_____. What goes around comes around. The Europeans didn’t find any gold in the islands as they’d hoped, but in time realized they could make money the old fashioned way and grow crops. That required large supplies of inexpensive labor, and so the Europeans went to Africa and bought slaves. Now the Europeans were mostly gone and the descendents of the black slaves had pretty much inherited these lovely, sun-splashed islands…all the way from the Bahamas to Trinidad. This is what’s known as having the last laugh.
And present day “Trinies”, as they call themselves, laugh a lot. Our guide would point something out, or make a comment, or answer a question, and then would just start laughing as if the whole thing was the biggest joke. I have trouble with the Trinidad accent and could only understand maybe a third of what the man said, but occasionally I’d here complete sentences or be able to piece them together.
“In Trinidad, we don’t care how much something costs. If we want it we buy it. We want a car, we don’t care what it costs. We buy it. Ha ha! We pay so much money for everything. That’s why we have no money, maybe. Ha ha! You see that driver. She’s a girl driver. Most of the dirvers on Trinidad. They girl driver. And, oh, they drive so slow. Ha ha ha! But it’s OK. The ladies here, very independent. They have their own jobs. They get their own houses. We men, we just, well, we just watch them. Ha ha! Ho ho ho! We are very happy people, very contented. Most trini’s will leave the country but eventually they will come badck. You know, no place like home. Ha ha ha! Hey, see all those homes there, over across that street? That used to be a big plantation. Now the only thing around here they plant is houses. More and more houses. Ha ha ha! You know when Trinidad first got into the World Cup, we so happy! Ha ha!. When the team come back home, the government gave each of the players a house. As a reward, because we so proud of them! Ha ha ha! So, we pay a lot of money but the team makes us happy, it’s OK. It’s a good lime.”
I kept hearing that phrase “It’s a good lime.” He used it frequently.
“Excuse me, what do you mean ‘it’s a good lime.’ What is that?”
“Ha ha ha! You don’t use that phrase, good lime? OK, I tell you what it means. If you go out with friends, you have some beers, have fun, we call that having a good lime. You know, like the fruit. Not all limes are good. Some are not good. So a good lime means everything OK, it tastes OK, everything is fine, everything is alright. You know, ‘that was a real good lime, we had a good lime last night. Ha ha ha! Don’t you have that expression?”
I explained that we didn’t have that expression, but it was probably because we didn’t have that many limes in our daily experience, and so probably couldn’t really tell a good one from a bad. In fact, when I thought back on all the limes I’d had in my life, none stood out, either way.
Something else that had clearly taken root in the fertile soil of Trinidad was American franchises: KFC, Marriott, BurgerKing, and of course the ubiquitous Starbucks. Yet here they were rendered in typical third-world drabiness, as if maybe they’d been built twenty years ago by absentee owners. This used to depress me but I’ve discovered everything looks so depressing and moldy in the tropics not because of the culture of apathy, but because of, well, the mold. This nasty black mold grows everywhere in the tropics, and trying to keep if off hard surfaces is like trying to keep graffiti off subway cars in Manhattan.
Having left the marina and the suburb of _________, our car was cruising through the streets of Port of Spain, and I was trying to take it all in: lots of small cars as you’d see in Europe, everyone driving on the wrong side of the road, goats frequently on both sides of the road although everyone ignored them, a large field with a soccer game in progress, slum-housing that probably was Trinidad’s version fo middle class residences, small and grimy factories of uncertain purpose, lots of native people crammed into tiny pickups and onto the backs of noisy motorscooters, horns, stoplights, people waving. A miniature pickup truck with six guys in the back pulled along side our minivan at a stoplight.
“Hey! How are you? You having fun?” they called to me, when I waved.
“No worries. It’s a good lime!” I called back, and they roared with laughter and waved some more and pulled ahead when the light turned green and cut us off as they changed lanes without warning. Our own driver had to hit the brakes and swerve onto the shoulder
“That’s right, ha ha ha!” agreed our driver. “This is a good lime.”
A New York cabbie would have laid on his horn and given the pickup truck a middle finger. In Trinidad, everything was an excuse to laugh some more.
While Port of Spain was, not surprisingly, built on the small, flat, plain that seemed to border the sea, only a few miles inland the land rose up precipitously in steep, jagged hills, the harshness of the landscape modified only by the lush, green, vegetation. Our driver left the main highway, crossed a bridge, and found a narrow road leading inland.
“Hey, you see these bridges?” he asked, pointing to the one we’d just crossed, and another one farther up the small ravine. “You see they have big advertisements painted on them, advertising local banks, do you know why that is?”
“Why is that?” Rob asked.
“Here in Trinidad, we never pay for bridges. The banks pay for the bridges. They pay for the bridges so they can advertise their names on the bridges.”
I had to admit on one level it was a good system, almost a free lunch, but I wondered where it would end. We’ve gone down that road already in the States, with large sports arenas now beign sponsored by commercial enterprises, who in return receive naming rights. Rich, evocative names oozing with cultural significance are being replaced with bland, soulless, commercialization. Where once we had Candelstick Park, Mile High Stadium, and _________, now we have Qualcom Stadium, Invesco Field, and the Pepsi Center. Maybe that’s OK, if it goes no further. But here in Trinidad, bridges were being named after businesses. What would be next? Whole cities? Mountain Peaks? National Parks? Once you decide to erode a people’s cultural heritage for the benefit of a dollar, how do you break the habit? If a person could go forward a hundred years would they find Seattle renamed Microsoft City? The Eiffel Tower “GoogleNeedle?” The Rocky Mountains “Citicorp Heights?” The Mississippi “Big Perrier?” Or Florida “ReMax Gardens?” You heard it here first.
The air cooled as our minivan entered the mountains and climbed higher on narrow, winding roads, each switchback more impossible and dangerous than the one before. This was “Romancing The Stone” country, that movie in which Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas romp through the jungles of Columbia. Penetrating deep into the mountains of Trinidad, as we were doing, one’s hand reaches subconsciously for a machete, while the eye searches the rainforest for jaguar and caiman.
Unfortunately lesser eyes—such as ours—sought more modest prey. The whole point of our expedition was birds. Stupid, worthless, pathetic birds. This was not going to be a good lime, I could feel it in my soul.
I’d learned to despise birdwatching in Africa. Birds were always the animal of last resort for safari tour-guides, the go-to choice when there was no other, the thing you pretended to be all excited about when the real animals stayed hidden.
“Well, folks, I’m real sorry we’ve spent the day out here in the bush tracking leopard and giraffe, but I guess our lucks just been against us. Sometimes, that’s the way it…oh wait! Oh my God! Look! Up there in that tree. It’s…it’s…it’s a fish eagle!!!”
“Right there, it’s huge. Look at that thing. What a glorious sight that is!”
Two hundred yards away there might, or might not, be a small blur of white against a branch. Not that it mattered one way or another. With apologies to Samuel Johnson: “Those who watch birds for pleasure would go to Hell for a past-time.”
Yet in Trinidad, bird watching is all the rage, and our day-long tour was centered around this activity. I didn’t mind. I was along for the ride. We ascended higher and higher into the mountainous rainforest, and our guide kept a monologue going, pointing out this tree and that plant and the vast significance of each. I could only catch sentence fragments, and they did nothing to incline me to listen more closely.
“….like a potatoe but different…”
“…can also be used to make wine…”
“….turns blue in the winter…”
“…the nut is so large you can make a bowl out of it…”
Yeah, yeah, whatever. If there’s anything more boring than birds, it’s plants and flowers. I don’t mind looking at them if there’s nothing better to look at. They just don’t strike me as scintillating conversation material.
At one high place we pulled over to the side of the road and our guide urged us to get out. I was glad to do so, as we had been driving nearly an hour and it was time to stretch. But our guide was pointing urgently down into the valley. There, nestled in a lush green valley, were large fields. Something was growing down there. Probably marijuana or coca plants or something. Everyone was quite interested and asked lots of questions, but all I learned was that this was the largest chrystophene plantation in Trinidad. The others on the tour were fascinated:
“How many acres is this plantation?”
“Does the crop grow all year?”
“When is harvest time?”
“Are there other plantations like this one?”
“Do they export the chrystophene, or use it locally?”
I’ve never seen so many people interested in chrystophene. As we drove away, I was too embarrassed to ask the one question which I’d kept bottled up: “What the heck is chrystophene?” I never did find out. I’d never heard the word before. But in the future if I need any, I’ll know where to get it.
Finally we turned off the main road and entered [description]. This, we had been told, was where we would have our nature hike and bird tour. But before that was to begin we had half an hour to wander around, freshen up and so forth. Apparently this whole area was the “Asa Wright National Preserve” [history], and this large sprawling, tropical house was built [purpose]. In short, this was a destination resort, apparently one of the top such places in the world, for those who cared about such things. A large sign on the veranda explained just how lucky I was to be here.
Trinidad and Tobago:
The country with the greatest density in avian biodiversity.
|Country||Species per 1,000 sq.miles|
|Trinidad and Tobago||234.86|
Our group of eight was drawfed by much larger groups. A couple of tour buses were here, and perhaps 100 people were wandering around the grounds. When it was our turn, another guide, a specialist—obviously, led us down hill on a broad and dry dirt path. Many had come here before us and thank God it wasn’t rainy season. The tropics are famous for their cascades of mud and I could well imagine this place becoming one. Again, I wasn’t complaining. I was quite enthusiastic about going for a long hike, preferably at high speed. I love to walk fast, and there had so far been few opportunities for doing so on this trip. We set out now and it was delicious being able to swing my legs, move my arms, start to feel my muscles wake up a bit. And then we stopped. Stopped, after about twenty feet. Apparently there was a plant or flower here that our guide wanted to tell us about. I stamped around impatiently, not caring about the stupid green thing in the slightest; wanting to get moving. Finally we started up again. And then stopped almost immediately thereafter. A flower. A few more steps. A plant. Another plant. Then a vine. A tree. A root. Some kind of weed. After twenty minutes we’d progressed maybe 100 yards. And we’d seen lots of bright red and green and yellow flowers and all manner of rare and exotic plants. I’d caught the names of some of them: hibiscus, bamboo, powder-puff, bird-of-paradise.
Well there you go. It’s easy to win the avian biodiversity competition if you start naming your plants birds. No wonder Trinidad was so ridiculously ahead of all the other countries. In fact, the one thing we hadn’t seen any of yet were birds. Not even a boring sparrow or pigeon. Perhaps they’d all flown down to that lower valley and were feasting on chrystophene leaves.
Ah, but here was something interesting. Following each other in single file, coming up the dirt track, were the oddest collection of people. Covered head to toe in what looked like a kind of rubberized, canvas fabric, uniformly beige in color, with matching hats and gloves, and each bearing a large set of binoculars around their necks, or long-lens cameras, or sometimes both. Most of them appeared to be late middle-age women, gray hair, a bit paunchy, and no one was walking quickly. Some leaned on hiking sticks. I knew who these people were because I recognized them from Gary Larson cartoons: birdwatcheres! These were hard-core birdwatchers, the kind so often lampooned in Gary Larson comics, complete with thick glasses and questionable social skills.
That wasn’t fair, of course. No doubt they were nice peple. They were just so…Gary Larson. Months later I did some research on Trinidad, and within a few Googles came upon a report from a birdwatching party, no doubt very much like this one, on Day 2 of a sixteen day birdwatching expedition to Trinidad. I find the writing offers a glimpse into the soul of a birdwatcher…
Day 2: Today was designed as a gentle introduction to Trinidad birding however, so good was the birding, we only reached 300 meters up the road before it was time to turn back. In the Vervain bordering the car park we had 5 species of hummingbird within the first fifteen minutes. Up to 8 Copper-rumped Hummingbirds were soon joined by females of both Ruby-topaz Hummingbird and Tufted Coquette, a further 2 female Black-throated Mangos and a pair of Blue-chinned Sapphires. Our first tanagers, Palm and Blue-grey, chattered noisily in overhead trees whilst Yellow Oriole and wintering Yellow Warbler from the US added a splash of colour and the cackle of low flying Orange-winged Parrots was almost continuous. As we reached the road, Greyish Saltators and Tropical Kingbirds vied for our attention whilst Great Kiskadees were calling their name from all sides. A dead tree set back from the road not only held 2 juvenile Yellow-headed Caracaras perched atop, but a male Lineated Woodpecker was working its way up the main trunk. A matching tree on the other side held two more Tanager species, White-lined and the exquisite Turquoise whilst a male Barred Antshrike (Zebra in pyjamas) churred above our heads. 29 species in the notebook before the toast was ready. Once breakfast was finished, we spent just a short while looking out over the balcony at Pax, long enough to see a number of White-chested Emeralds diligently guarding their own “favourite” feeders from all potential visitors. We decided to walk the Parula trail on Mount St. Benedict before the sun got too hot and the forest took a siesta. Birding under the canopy was slow going but by late morning we had managed to find our 7th species of Hummingbird, a magnificent male Long-billed Starthroat. The flycatcher family was well represented with Tropical Pewee, Yellow-bellied Elaenia and Streaked Flycatcher showing themselves eventually whilst Rufous-browed Peppershrike and Tropical Parula added a touch of glamour. As always in the tropics, birding activity during the middle part of the day is at low ebb. We therefore relaxed on the balcony at Pax with American Black and Turkey Vultures constantly in the air. We enjoyed a rather tatty immature female Peregrine Falcon swooping along the tree line whilst closer to us a male Purple Honeycreeper (with bright yellow wellies) joined the resident Bananaquits at the feeders. A second forest trail walk during the late afternoon was rather quiet with just Whitebearded and Golden-headed Manakins for our trouble. By 17.00 however, the sun was hitting just trees at “Top of the Mount” and there followed a vocal feeding frenzy. This involved both male and female Green Honeycreeper and Blue Dacnis, a family party of 4 Boat-billed Flycatchers and an extremely tame and approachable Brown-crested Flycatcher in a nearby Cercropia tree. As the day drew to an end, a Magnificent Frigatebird circled lazily around with the vultures and our first parties of Crested Oropendolas flew up the valley, presumably to roost….”
What do you mean, you quit reading ages ago? Anyway, for my money I found the stereotype bird-watching party far more interesting than any of the plants or flowers, but soon they were gone and we continued. Eventually we arrived at a bird. I didn’t see it but I think the others did because they all took out their cameras and huddled around the guide who explained that this was actually the second-smallest bird in the world. Well, no wonder I couldn’t see the damn thing. I wondered if maybe the smallest bird in the world hadn’t actually been discovered yet because it was just too small to be seen. Sicentists knew it was there. As with distant planets they could infer its existence because of observed effects on things around it. But otherwise it stayed hidden. Like this bird.
Later we came to what was apparently a very rare, very special, very important bird. It was high up in a tree, deep in the forest. Our guide became quite excited about this bird, and tried to impress on us how lucky we were. I still couldn’t see it. Others were having the same problem. Some seeing it. Some not. Kristen said she could see it. I knew if it had been nighttime she could have pulled out her laser star pointer and shot a beam of light up the bird’s…tailfeathers. As an alternative, I handed her the video camera which has an amazingly powerful zoom. Kristen knew how to operate the zoom, and was able to zero right in on this fabulous specimen of wildlife. I never did see it, but later, examining the video tape in the relative darkness of Island Skipper’s main salon, I was finally able to see what Kristen had seen: the back of the damn thing. In effect: the tailfeathers. It wasn’t even looking at us! As far as I was concerned, what this whole nature preserve needed was a couple good ole boys from Alabama, a keg of bourbon, a pair of 12 gauges, and a pack of coon dogs. Now that would shake the place up. I bet we’d see a few birds then.
Back at the lodge, having worked up a piercing appetite with that 45 minute, 1/16th of a mile trek, we gathered in one of the rooms and were ushered over to long tables. A buffet lunch was served and Kristen and I found ourselves seated next to an interesting husband-and-wife couple. Perhaps late forty-something, they looked a bit odd to me, like maybe they had partial Asian ancestry. Or Incan. Or Kazakh. I couldn’t quite place their facial characteristics.
“So where are you guys from?” I asked, finding them vastly more interesting than the birds or the flowers.
“Alaska,” said the man.
More and more interesting.
“Where in Alaska?”
“Kotzebue? Hmmm. Isn’t that really far north? Like north of Nome, even?”
“Yes,” he said. “We live in far north Alaska. We are Eskimos.”
Kristen and I were quite captivated by these Eskimos, and enjoyed talking to them the whole meal. We’d never met Eskimos before.
“Why are Eskimos in Trinidad?” I asked them, reasonably. “Isn’t this a long way from home?”
“Yes, we like to go far away on vacations. You know, unusual places. Last year we went to Syria.”
“Syria? You went to Syria for a vacation?”
“Well, it seemed like a nice place. Next year we’re thinking of Bolivia. Or maybe Angola. We haven’t decided. Being Eskimos, we’re not really sure where to go. We don’t get out much, usually.”
Kristen and I found them adorable and when it was time to leave, I gave the man my business card, hoping he might stay in touch. He thanked me deeply, but looked at it with a confused expression, as if not quite sure what it was.
Our tour van headed back down the mountain and off to our next adventure. Apparently it involved seeing more birds. Since I hadn’t yet seen any, this was OK with me. I could not know that I was about to see more birds than I previously had seen in my entire life, and that I would find the experience amazing.
It pays to keep an open mind, when it comes to birds.
Another hour drive brought us back to the coastal plain, and our driver dropped us in a rural, partially-forested area, alongside a narrow river. Some worn out wooden pilings held in place a thin dock, along which had been nailed some used tires. Various hand-painted wooden signs referred to “Caroni Bird Sanctuary,” “Trinidad Mangroves,” and “Boat tours.”
Our driver handed us off to another local specialist, also a young black man, who spoke almost no English at all. Somehow he was able to make us understand that we were to wait a few minutes for a boat that would take us on a tour of the mangrove swamp and the Bird Sanctuary. Actually, I think we deduced that from the signs, and his hand motions which were to the effect of “stay here.”
A large group of what seemed like locals arrived in a dilabitated bus. All ages, all black, perhaps fifty of them. They were usuhured quickly into two large, open, wooden boats, about twenty-five feet long each, with bare, athwartship, plank seating. Each boat must have been close to maximum capacity, and I did not envy the job of the little 40hp outboard engine on the stern. But this group went away, amid much waving and laughing, and a few minutes later our own boat arrived—the same size as the other two. With only eight of us plus the driver, we were not crowded. It was late in the afternoon, and as we motored down the river the light blanketed the mangrove forest with eirie shadows, and the wake from our boat lapped gently against the gnarled and twisted roots.
Ocassionally our guide would slow or even stop, and point into the forest, and make it clear we should look at the bird. I might have seen one or two, at long distance, cloaked in shadow. Fellow passengers seemed equally unsure if they were seeing birds or shadows or clumps of leaves, or merely a random irregularity on a branch. No one minded. This was a very pleasant, shady river—shady because the thick mangrove forest provided a full canopy—and all of us were thinking the same thing: “Thank God I’m not in that crowded boat with no room to even move!”
At one point our driver pulled up to an overhanging branch and held out a long stick. Some tiny, insect-like creature climbed onto it, and he held the stick out to each of us, in turn, showing what he’d captured. It was some kind of locust, I judged.
Bugs. The day was going downhill fast. We’d come on a bug tour. Still, the mangrove sanctuary was interestign. We passed a small rowboat, tied up near a path ashore. Just disembarking was a grown man and what was probably his son, perhaps eight years old. The son was holding up a gigantic fish, over a yard long. Bigger even than the fish was the boy’s grin. We waved and clapped and he shrieked with laughted and pride.
Deeper into the swamp, we came upon a sloth. Even I could see the sloth—a large blob, hanging underneath a tree limb. Perhaps deliberately, he’d positioned himself fully in shadow, although a sloth looks much the same, whether hidingin a shadow or not. One might say shadows are redundant, where sloths are concerned.
Perhaps only an hour from sunset, our driver veered off to the left, following a new channel. And then intersected with another river or channel and followed that for awhile. Suddenly the claustrophobic mangrove forest opened up and we found ourselves in a very large lake or, more likely a vast sheltered inlet of the sea. The landscape was hilly, covered in lush greenery as was most all of Trinidad, and the wilderness isolation seemed complete. This open body of water was perhaps a mile in diameter, and near the far shore was a small island, jutting steeply out of the water, and also covered in green, bushy forest. Our driver killed the engine and let the boat drift quietly near shore.
We all sat quietly, curious what he was going to show us next. He did not try to point out any difficult-to-see birds further inland. He found no locusts for us to amuse ourselves with. There wasn’t even a sloth.
“We wait,” he said. “Wait, and watch that island.”
No one had a problem with waiting. The temperature was pleasant, the inland lagoon utterly lovely, and the low angle of the sun drenched the scnee with rich, vibrant colors. Things couldn’t be more peaceful.
And then it happened. Five white birds came in fast over the horizon, perhaps 60 feet in the air, not quite directly overhead. They made a beeline for the island, but just as they got there they broke left, flapping their wings, and soared around the far side. Emerging back into view the lead bird went ballistic—straight up—and his wingmen followed in perfect formation. Just before he stalled he banked gracefully, almost a barrel roll, and dropped smoothly down into the trees.
Wow! Now that was cool. I didn’t know what these birds were, but they weren’t sparrows. They were swift and elegant, with long necks and long sharp beaks, and they flew like a squadron of F-14’s out of the U.S. Navy’s Top Gun school at Miramar, California. They’d left me breathless just watching them. It had definitely been worth the tour, and the wait, just to see these five birds tear across the water at high speed and perform aerial acrobatics on their approach to the island.
More to the point, in just a few moments my whole impression of birds had changed. These weren’t frilly little foo-foo birds. No Tufted-Coquette or Rufous-browed Peppershrike, here. Those five white-feathered aerial rockets looked like they were fully capable of mounting a coordinated military attack against most anything on land or sea. It would not be difficult to imagine them dive-bombing into the water, capturing, and then flying away with a full-grown swordfish held firmly in their combined talons.
“What the heck were those birds! What were they?” I asked.
A German couple was part of our group, and the woman knew the answer. Perhaps she once been a birdwatcher herself.
“Egrets!” she exclaimed. “Snowy Egrets!”
I’d heard the term, but doubted I’d ever seen Snowy Egrets in the wild. I’d just become their number one fan.
“Here come some more!” said Kristen, caught up in the excitement. There were a dozen this time, and theyh flew directly over our position, no more than thirty feet above the water. I could almost feel the air moving from their wings. This new squadron also headed directly for the island, but this time the lead Egret broke right, and flew counter-clockwise around what must be their nesting area, before likewise shooting skyward and barrel-rolling down among the bushes. The others followed so perfectly it seemed they were connected with string.
“Unbelieveable!” said Rob, and there were similar murmurs from others in the boat.
“Look! Red ones! Red ones!” someone shoulted, and pointed across the water.
Half a dozen bright, fluorescent-orange, flashes of color shot in from the west, circled the island, went vertical to bleed off airspeed, and alighted gently and majestically down on the island. Other than their color, this new group looked similar to the Snowy Egrets, and apparently hung out with them.
“Red Egrets?” I asked the German lady.
“No, those are….let me think, I can’t remember the name. Um, um…Ibis! That’s it. They are Ibis. Scarlet Ibis.
“Incoming!” yelled Rob, and two dozen of the whites soared in from the North.
Only a moment elapsed and then fifty of the reds shot in low from the West. Then a hundred of the reds.
Fifty or sixty whites flashed past, heading for the island, coming from the North.
Then a hundred right behind them.
Then more reds out of the West.
My video camera, the one with the fantastic zoom, the one that had so far today not found much worthy of its interest, went into overdrive. These birds I could see. These birds I could capture. These birds were spectacular! I zoomed in on a division of reds just arriving out of the West. Soaring past a background of green jungle, catching the low rays of the setting sun, they looked like featured guests on the Animal Planet.
“More whites!” cried out Kristen, and I swung the camera back to the North.
What was amazing was how they all flew at such high speed, in such coordination, and with such beautifully-executed landing patterns upon arrival at the island.
New squadrons were arriving almost continuously now, perhaps every minuite. Reds from the West, Whites from the North. Each group would circle the island close to water level, rise straight up to slow their speed, and then disappear into the green jungle of the island.
Actually, they weren’t quite disappearing. They were apparently alighting on various branches and bushes. We could see little pin pricks of white and red, against the green backdrop. AS wave after wave arrived, the green began to disappear and the island turned red and white.
I was curious how the whites always came from the North and stayed with their kind, and the Red came from the West, and did likewise. But the island itself was not half white, half red. The reds and the whites seemed to co-habit unselfconsciously, and I would have been very curious to know what the social structure was between the Egrets and the Ibises. Was there a “pecking order” so to speak? One group inferior ot the other? Did they intermarry? And how did it happen that they all chose that one island? Perhaps its steep, mountainous shape afforded protection. Although, protection from what? Any carnivore making a frontal assault on Egret-Ibis Island would have been torn to shreds by these macho fighter-aces. And speaking of which, what must it be like to actually be on that island right now?
I don’t know how many birds there were by the time the sun went down, because our guide started the engine after what must have been at leats an hour of Egret and Ibis watching. I knew I’d remember this as one of the ten most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. And at the moment I couldn’t really remember the other nine.
Our guide headed us back through the labyrhnthine waterways and mangrove swamps, making good use of the quickly fading light. It would be dangerous to navigate through these channels at night.
The sloth, after all, was still out there.
Attack On Venezuela
We set off to invade Venezuela after lunch on Sunday. We’d just finished topping off our Diesel tanks with Hugo Chavez-subsidized diesel fuel at thirty five cents a gallon. I’d read that Chavez was bribing countries all over South America, both with cash and cheap petroleum products. Clearly, that included Trinidad, but the fact that some of that cheap oil found its way into Island Skipper’s tanks wasn’t going to influence us. Unlike U.S. Congressman William Delahunt (D) of Massachussets, who several years ago arranged for his state to be bought off with a gift of eight million gallons of home heating oil from friend Hugo, we hardened our hearts and set a course for the Spanish Main. If we’d had cutlasses, we’d have drawn them. IF we’d had a list of demands, we would have read them. If we had any friends unjustly imprisoned in Caracas, we’d have flown banners insisting they be set free. Our patriotic pride was reaching the boiling point. Or at least we tried to pretend it was.
We were motorsailing under Mizzen only, heading due West, when we cleared the last of the Trinidad offshore islands in the Mouth of the Dragon and the full force of the Atlantic hit us. The weather had been getting nasty all day, and somewhere to windward a storm was brewing. Vast, towering walls of water were rolling towards us from the Northeast. Actually, they weren’t walls, they were hills: vast rolling hills. One speaks of “rolling hills” and “rolling countryside” but it’s only a figure of speech. Hills aren’t supposed to actually roll, but these hadn’t got the memo. They were literally rolling: towards us. And the wind had freshened. A low cloud hovered over the Venezuelan mainland, and the rain squalls were drenching the Gulf of Pairia.
“This is not going to be a fun crossing,” said Michelle, eyeing the weather.
“How much farther before we pass the line?” asked Rob. He understood the importance of invading Venezuela, but as a sailor he was fretting over every yard to leeward our present course required. Given the weather, he was anxious to turn ninety degrees to starboard and head out across the Tobago Channel. The harbor at St. George’s, Grenada, was precisely due North, almost a hundred miles away across open water, and fully exposed to the Atlantic Ocean.
I was steering, one eye on the Venezuelan coastline, the other on the GPS. Precise latitude and longitude numbers were displaying on the screen, but of course I didn’t care about latitude. Heading due West, it wasn’t changing anyway. Today’s mission was about longitude, one longitude line in particular: 61 degrees, 30 minutes West. Cross that line, and we’d be in Venezuela.
Island Skipper rose up high as a new roller passed under her, but the boat didn’t seem to care. These broad rollers had such a long wave length they weren’t really noticeable. If you closed your eyes, you’d never know that Island Skipper was periodically rising up a dozen feet or so, and then slowly dropping back down.
The wind increased and I knew Rob was getting impatient. I eyed the longitude readouts desperately, willing the numbers to change faster.
Sixty-one degrees, twenty nine minutes, forty-five seconds
Sixty-one, twenty-nine, forty-seven
Sixty-one, twenty-nine, forty-nine
We were gaining a second of longitude about every two minuites on the clock.
The others were attending to various tasks around the boat, securing everything, doubling up on the dinghy line, stowing loose gear.
“Just think,” said Rob. “Hugo has no idea his territorial integrity is about to be utterly breached.”
“And by Americans!” I added.
“Using Venezuelan fuel!” noted Michelle.
“He would so hate that…” remarked Kristen.
Another roller, bigger than the others, sent Island Skipper soaring up again. Looking northeast over the Atlantic, the sky seemed to be darkening further.
“Damn, are we there yet?” asked Rob, rhetorically. He was so anxious to turn north he couldn’t stand it.
“Getting close!” I exclaimed. Now was not the time for Rob to chicken out. It’s true what they say about going into battle. The hard part is the waiting. “Steady, man!” I wanted to say to him. “Remember the Alamo! Remember the Maine! Remember the Halls of Montezuma! The Shores of Tripoli! Remember all that stuff you’re supposed to remember.”
Venezuela itself, the very heart of the Spanish Main, was still darkened by shadow. It’s very presence seemed menacing, dangerous, and almost evil. I tried to recall the good times I’d had in Maracay and Ocumare with Catia Salvadori, Bob Broennen, and the “Back Seat Bimbo’s” as we drove around the mountains in a rented Toyota Land Cruiser. But it all seemed very distant. A different time. A different place. A different geopolitical reality. We were about a mile and a half from the shore.
61.30.00 flashed the GPS.
“We’re there!” I yelled out.
“Yaaayy!” we all screamed.
“Take that, Chavez!” I shouted.
“Aaaarrrgghhh!” growed Kristen, brandishing a boat hook over her head menacingly.
Of course, it didn’t count without pictures. Rob took some shots of Kristen and me up near the bow, Venezuela behind us. Then we did the same for Michelle and him. I knew the CIA, of course, would be thrilled with this “on the ground” (sort of) intelligence.
The autopilot had kept us pointing West during the photo shoot, and by now we were deep into Venezuelan territory.
Any closer and we’d need to anchor. The depth guage was showing 90 feet.
“Change heading!” called out Rob. “90 degrees to starboard. Now!”
I spun the wheel and Island Skipper pivoted away from the lee shore.
To an ocean-going sailboat, land is what’s dangerous. Safety lies in open water. I knew this intellectually. Yet as our bow pointed almost directly into the rollers, the wind increased and night closed in, I felt I would much rather be safely back at the dock in Trinidad.
The invasion had been exhausting of course, but now we were facing a rough night at sea. As it turned out, Hugo was going to have the last laugh.
The Tobago Passage
There is all the difference in the world between a body of water in mild weather, and the same water on the edge of a storm. Coming south, we’d crossed the Tobago Passage—as the ninety miles between Trinidad and Grenada is called—without incident. Perhaps we’d been lucky. The islands of the the West Indies form a protective barrier that largely shields the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. From Cuba in the Northwest, to Trinidad in the Southeast, they are almost evenly spaced, but not quite. There are four prominent “passages” which are unusually large gaps in the chain, and which are known—not surprisingly—for rough water. They are:
The Windward Passage (Between Cuba and Haiti)
The Mona Passage (Between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico)
The Anegada Passage (Between the Virgin Islands and St. Martin)
The Tobago Passage (Between Grenada and Trinidad/Tobago)
The Atlantic Ocean’s wind and waves, generally frustrated in their attempts to penetrate the Caribbean chain of islands, has its chance at these four passages. In the Tobago Passage, which is the longest, another element complicates the issue. Grenada itself—below sea level—extends south towards Trinidad in a broad, shallow shelf which is named, inexplicably, Reindeer Shoals. Wind and waves that began their journey thousands of miles away off the coast of North Africa, and which have grown accustomed to having their way in the deep ocean, find themselves squeezed into the Tobago Passage, and frustrated by Reindeer Shoals. It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature, and you never know how she’ll react. The guidebooks all agree: expect anything in the Tobago Passage.
“Rob,” I said, as we consumed a delicious evening meal of canned ravioli, “do these waves look weird to you?”
I’d chosen the word carefully. I hadn’t suggested the waves were especially high, or scary, or dangerous. There was just something about them…
Rob looked out over the water and after a few moments he said: “Huh, they do look weird. Hey, Michelle, what do you make of these waves?”
Michelle poked her head up from the galley and took in the scene.
“Those are really weird waves,” she said.
What all of us were noticing was that there was no regularitiy to the waves. If there’s one thing you can count on with waves, it’s regularity. In fact, that’s almost their definition. Irregular waves is an oxymoron. Yet these waves had no pattern to them. There was a wave. Over there was another wave. There were waves everywhere. Not especially high, perhaps four or five feet, but they weren’t going anywhere. They were just kind of appearing.
“What the hell?” said Rob. His brow furrowed. “Oh, I know what’s going on. There’s a current here. Must be a major current, coming from the West. And the wind is from the East. That’s why the waves are all confused.”
“Should it concern us?” asked Kristen.
“I don’t see why. The boat’s pretty steady. It probably won’t last long.”
He was right about that. At this heading we were pointing as high into the wind as we could, carrying Mizzen and about half the Jib. If the wind backed even one degree, it would be foul and we’d have to take down the sail and motor to hold course. After dinner, it was my duty to go immediately to sleep, as my watch would begin at 3 in the morning. Yet I stayed up long enough to notice the wind increasing, and the waves returning to normal. The sea was getting rougher, but it was no longer weird. I wasn’t sure that was an improvement. I was getting used to weird.
Sometime during the night I subconsciously noticed that we’d started the engine, and knew that meant the wind had backed. For some reason perhaps having to do with the Bernoulli principle, when we turn on the engine we can point slightly higher into the wind, and the sails do not luff. The boat was still heeled to port so the sails were still up. I returned to sleep.
Later in the night I heard lots of feet stamping around over my cabin, on the aft deck. Rob was calling out things to Michelle but I couldn’t hear the words. Obviously there was some sail handling happening with the Mizzen. The Mizzen is the smallest and easiest-to-control sail. If there were any problems, they’d shout down for my help. In a few moments I fell asleep again. The next thing I remember was Michelle entering my cabin with her no nonsense greeting “Your watch!”.
Climbing out of the bed (I refuse to call a queen sized bed a “berth”), the first thing I noticed was the boat’s motion. We were rolling back and forth, not heeled steadily as we always were at sea. That meant the jib was down and we were under engine power alone. The next thing I noticed was we were rolling back and forth a lot. That seemed odd. Even pointing almost directly into the wind, the mizzen can be kept up and tightly sheeted. That stops the roll. What the heck was going on? In a few minuites I was in my rainjacket, safety harness on, and a cup of coffee in hand. Standing half way up the companionway steps, with some difficulty I managed to find one of the nylon tethers and clipped myself on. I large wave and subsequent steep roll almost sent me back down the steps, but I held on and made it into the cockpit. The night was utterly black. Dimly I could see we were surrounded with an infinitely of endless, massive waves. Ten footers, at least. Maybe twelve. No surprise there. But why the rolling? Michelle was sitting silently in her favorite position, legs folded beneath her, tucked into the forwad corner on the portside cockpit cushion. There was an unspoken etiquette on board that when the new watch comes on deck, you don’t talk their head off. It’s understood they’ve probably been sleeping and need a few moments to get settled. It’s polite to let them open the conversation, which they will after catching their bearings and coming awake.
Trying to catch my bearings and come awake, I stuck my head out from under the Bimini so I could see the Mizzen. It was gone.
“Michelle, where the heck’s the mizzen!” I was awake now. Ready to talk.
“We lost it.”
“It blew out. About an hour ago. You must have heard us stamping around above your head.”
“Yeah, I did. I thought you were just lowering it or something.”
“These crazy waves, the wind got really erratic. We got hit with a squall or something and ‘bam!’ it blew out the mizzen.”
“Wow. Does that happen often?”
“Almost never. But it was an older sail. The stitching was frayed in one corner. We knew it needed a patch. With these crazy conditions, well….”
“So that explains the rolling.”
“Yeah, sucks, doesn’t it?”
Michelle stayed with me awhile longer and then retired for a much needed rest.
I enjoy being in the cockpit at night, all alone, surrounded by the empty sea. There is something majestic about it, something that rekindles the soul.
Or not. It took me only a few minutes to decide I wasn’t enjoying this at all. Island Skipper did not feel happy. I sensed the boat liked this random rolling motion no more than I did. Halyards clanked listlessly. Cockpit cushions slid back and forth, each time coming up to the limits of their tie-down straps. Down in the lazarette, some nameless, awkward object was clunking back and forth. The wind was blowing hard and there was no sign the weather would be breaking anytime soon. Not that one could have seen a sign. It was too dark and nasty. I stared out at the waves. There was no warmth to them at all. No friendliness. No “nature’s beauty revealed” element that I had come to expect. They were jealous waves, annoyed at our intrusion, hoping to see us fail. No, not even that. The waves were utterly indifferent. Nature was utterly indifferent. We could live or die out here, and nothing within a hundred miles would even care.
In the Lord of the Rings, there is an episode where the evil wizard Sauraman seizes control of the weather, and tries to destroy Frodo’s party as they cross a mountain pass, by hurling all manner of wind and snow and avalanches at them. He nearly succeeds.
In some dark tower on the mainland behind us, was Hugo Chavez leeringly hovering over some magical device and casting spells out over the Tobago Passage, seeking our ruin, thirsting for vengeance?
I had to snap out of this. I was getting morbidly imaginative. I sipped my coffee, plotted our position on the chart, scanned the radar, stared at the waves—and tried to do everything possible except look at my watch. Three more hours before I’d be relieved. Michelle was right. This sucked.
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