Sunday, September 8, 2013

Antigua, Part II. Life, Part III

North coast of Bermuda

In an attempt to pick up where I left off, I’ve resorted to sifting through diary pages to recall what seems like a century ago, considering what I’ve put myself through in the months since returning to Miami.

With 180 nautical miles left to go to Bermuda, and just a matter of days until landfall in Maine, the reality of facing a difficult stage in my life began to loom.  Yes folks, the end of my marriage. 

It was a despairing feeling to be hundreds of miles from land, trying to preoccupy my mind on a small boat with little at my disposal… a handful of books I just could not focus on, and one diary, whose 200 pages I filled in just a few days.  I was thankful to have two close friends I’ve known for years aboard too, but no amount of talking can alleviate the feeling of absolute limbo, when you know what has to be done, but you’re powerless to move forward due to current circumstances.  All you can do is wait, try to keep the latent depression from crystalizing (thank-you Bruce Cockburn) and stare at an endless horizon that only ever appears closer as darkness falls.

Somewhere south of Bermuda
As usual, it was wonderful to smell land again as we made our transit through the cliffs that mark the entrance to St George’s, Bermuda. It was the middle of the night, 3 AM to be exact, and church bells were ringing, oddly enough.  To my senses, the scent off the land was of jasmine and orange pekoe tea of all things.

Having already given the heads-up to Customs that we’d be arriving overnight, an officer was there to meet us at 3:30 to clear us in. With that out of the way, we went below and shared cheese and crackers and each drank a Heineken. Another Heineken brought us to dawn, and Dean, Anne-Louise and I took the party to the cockpit. I just about died laughing at a rooster than sounded like he was still learning to crow, which wouldn’t have been half as funny I’m sure if I hadn’t had two beer and only fitful sleep for the previous five days.

As with Antigua, it had been ten years since I’d last sailed to Bermuda.  Not much had changed, aside from the regular technological advances like anywhere else.  The internet café was no longer an internet café, the days long gone where your only option in remote areas such as this was to pay $10 US for half an hour of online access. Now, we just used the WiFi on our phones and lingered anywhere we could find a signal. And the Whitehorse Tavern was more-less as I remembered it, aside from it being starkly vacant, and having giant flat-screen televisions adorning the 83-year-old stone walls, zombifying its handful of patrons and diminishing any side-effects of their attempts of socialization.

Departing St George's
We stayed in Bermuda long enough to wait-out a passing weather system off Cape Cod.  I don’t remember anything from that leg of the trip, until my first sunrise watch since leaving Charleston.  We were 36 hours from landfall in Maine, and did I ever luck out.  Alone on deck, just as the night sky began to brighten, I began to see huge dolphin jumping, and I thought I saw a whale a few hundred feet ahead off the starboard bow.  I ran up to the bow, and the dolphins were shooting clear out of the water and at twice the boat speed, like torpedoes.  One kept throwing himself out of the water and landing on his side; I surprised myself by laughing out loud, didn't even know it was coming.  Then, I heard a deeper breath, and my jaw dropped, literally, as a small humpback whale came up, having just crossed our bow, his tail not 5 feet from the side of the boat. I was in awe.  He must have seen or heard us, right? We didn’t just almost T-bone the massive creature? I’ve been similarly close to humpbacks and killer whales in the past, to the point where you want to gag at the smell of their breath, but they’d always been swimming alongside the ship, following the same course. This really felt like a close call.
Approaching the Maine Coast, entering the fog.
As I turned around, intending to head back to the cockpit to finally adjust course for a freighter whose AIS I had picked up before the wildlife show began (bah, he could wait) I saw a sunfish, waving its dorsal fin. Right about then, the sun broke through the red clouds, and the environment completely changed. The smell of salt air turned to the smell of refrigeration and minerals, a low surface fog developed, and I watched the water temperature drop by… I can’t remember now, 25 degrees? In less than five minutes… Something as equally unbelievable as everything I’d just witnessed.  But that was the very reason; crossing the thermocline brings a predictable abundance and variety of sea life from every rung of the Atlantic’s food chain.

Re-living that moment now reminds me, quite simply, how much more there is to life than any of the anguish that has manifested itself in recent weeks.  It is all temporary, but nonetheless painful.  One of the crew I met in Antigua, who’s been through a couple of divorces in his time, said something that has stuck with me.  He said “It really is ironic, when you’re going through something as painful and difficult as divorce, especially when you once considered your partner to be your best friend, that’s exactly when you need love the most. And you can’t have it.”  Don’t I know it.

And Rob Brezsny’s advice this week to Aquarians was that it is “important to appreciate and learn from the messy stuff in your life, and to even admire its artistry”.  Yeah, OKAY, Rob.  You don’t know what I’ve just been through.  But, he’s been bang-on so many times before, I can’t help but give him the benefit of the doubt, and take his input into consideration.

For now, I’ll continue to attempt to embrace my new lifestyle, and all the unforgettably hideous moments it has already provided.  Whether it’s moments like yesterday, as I finished locking the boatyard gate, and I turned around to watch my ’69 Beetle freewheeling down the incline, directly towards Fred’s car (last time this happened, I caught up with her just before she rolled off the dock onto my boat.  True story) or having to share a shower with cockroaches, frogs, and those little worms that go crunch when inadvertently stepped upon, or any number of other moments I may never develop the courage to share here (I’m starting to discover my limits).  And although it will be particularly challenging, I’ll try to forgive myself for my mistakes and any and all behavior I engage in in the next year (Irish advice) until I’m myself again, and will endeavor to build some worthwhile bridges, as I allow others to burn.

I’ve often felt completely and utterly isolated over the years as I’ve found myself alone in various places far from home, and right now is hardly different, save for a couple of close friends.  I’ve never felt entirely comfortable here for one reason or another.  Perhaps because I’ve never allowed myself to really kick off my shoes, or maybe this never was the place for me to begin with.  I have yet to decide solidly on anything, but it gives my mind great relief to think about another adventure.  So with a haul-out booked for Annie Laurie and my Run Gene securely where I left it, I think another trip to the Bahamas might soon be in order.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Bermuda Triangle

Four hundred nautical miles south of Bermuda, or 400 miles north of the Caribbean, smack dab in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle, on a small schooner bound for Maine, I was awoken from a vivid dream.

I was on a railway bridge, somewhere along the Fundy shore of Nova Scotia, where the difference between low and high tide was monumental.  The tide was so low there was no water in sight, only mud flats as far as the eye could see. The bridge was an old wooden structure, and someone was instructing me to climb to the top.  My gaze drifted higher and higher, following every support and cross-tie; each log as wide as a California redwood, and as smooth as a telephone pole.  I was petrified.  Something in this persons voice convinced me that this was not a choice I was being given, and so I accepted, and began my clumsy and precarious ascent.

My knees shook and buckled and my hands were slick with sweat as I carefully squirmed along the steeply-angled ties, slow as a caterpillar.  I looked down occasionally, to remind myself to not let go, the smooth mud flats able to do as much damage as concrete should I fall from any great height.

Hours went by before I finally found myself on the verge of successfully scaling the bridge.  I reached upwards, and outwards, wrapping my hands around a tarry railway tie that was nearly out of reach. Kicking one leg over the top, then the other, I was atop the bridge, albeit uncomfortably.  Then, the bridge began to teeter.  I refused to stand up, as I held on tightly, terrified I would lose my balance and skip unintentionally over the edge.  I was quivering with fear as I wondered what I could possibly do next to get out of this situation.  I closed my eyes and began to wait.  For what? I didn't yet know.

Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta
My journey to the mid-Atlantic began 1800 miles earlier in Charleston, South Carolina.  I joined the schooner at City Marina, where I've found myself numerous times over recent years, both with Annie Laurie and without.  I'll accept any offer it takes to catch up with my good friends Banff, Jodi, and Jeff.  Following a whirlwind catch-up, the schooner was bound for Antigua, 1400 miles to windward.  

Nova Scotia Cutter Samara T sailing the Antigua Classic
As we were on a tight schedule to make the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta in 10 days, we didn’t have any time to dilly-dally.  Sailboats are meant to sail, so forcing her directly into the wind by motoring at 2200 rpms, she wasn’t pleased, and she let us know. I think it’s safe to say most of the crew, most of the time, were counting down every minute of every mile.  The relatively miniscule 3 to 5 foot seas caused the entire boat to shake and shudder with every second wave, the force of which easily transferred to our bones, leaving us sleepless, bruised, and seasick.  Although I never personally ‘fed the fishes’ during the passage, I had a feeling of perpetual hungover-ness for most moments throughout those 11 days.

My bunk. Deceptively motionless.
I began to have fantasies of a handsome helicopter pilot who would magically appear over us, 200 miles offshore, who would look down at the little schooner smashing away and think, “Hey, that looks uncomfortable, maybe I should help” and offer to take each of us hovering, even for 5 minutes, to have a brief interruption from the boats erratic motion.  I had a whole system for staying secure in my bunk, especially on a port tack when I didn’t have the inside of the hull to lie up against.  I would roll up a sleeping bag and duvet lengthwise, which acted like another body between me and the lee cloth, then I’d take two pillows and shape them like a "V" and wedge them under my head and shoulders.  It worked well; I never did get fully launched from my bunk.

If it were my boat, I’d feel free to elaborate further on the boat aspect of the passage, and how I’ve never been that uncomfortable even in far worse conditions aboard other vessels, but it’s not, so I won’t.  Suffice to say, I will never ever sail any boat 1400 miles to windward ever again. 

I found it a great comfort to cling tightly to my Keep Calm and Carry On mug, to remind myself that I was, in any given moment, ultimately O-K, and that none of it was going to last forever.  But what really saved the day, as is usually the case with boat deliveries, was fellow crew.  Father and son Don and Eben from Maine were aboard for the Charleston to Antigua leg.  Don was an experienced sailor and constantly vigilant and eager to do anything that would make things easier for someone else.  He baked fresh bread from scratch and put Chef Ramsay to shame by putting together gourmet meals in what I would have otherwise considered impossible conditions.  I have added him to my very short list of people with whom I’d sail anywhere.

I later learned it could
have been worse
I was shocked at how few signs of life we observed over those many miles. Granted, I slept through the Gulf Stream crossing where you’d expect to see the bulk of the sea life.  But still, I spent many of my waking hours searching the horizon for anything to indicate life... another ship, a dolphin, a bird.  Until we lucked out and saw a juvenile humpback losing his mind with excitement over launching himself out of 7-foot waves in the Caribbean Sea, the only other sea-based life I observed were hundreds of flying fish.  One awoke me as I was dozing upright on my 12 to 3 am watch by smashing into the back of my head.  Eben pointed out it was lucky my hood of my jacket was up, or I would have been dancing the Gulf Stream Shuffle.

Homer hitching a ride
We did have one land-based visitor too, Homer, a homing pigeon. We met him about a hundred miles north of Puerto Rico.  Don first spotted him peering through a porthole, double-checking that we didn’t have a ships cat and that the coast was clear. I called him over, and he came right to me like a well-trained dog. I held him for a while, and copied the numbers on his message. We made him a little nook in the companionway, where he rested, ate, drank, pooped, and was on his way.  When he finally took off, he set off intently in one direction for about 20 seconds, then abruptly changed course. A minute later he switched to a new course, which he stayed on until he was nothing but dust on the horizon. Though he didn't seem to immediately know where it was he was going, it seemed clear that he knew it was time to go. 

El Morro, San Juan
The day after Homer’s visit, a quick stop in Puerto Rico was necessitated by low fuel and torn sails. We offloaded both sails in San Juan around sunrise, all 2,359 square feet of them, fueled up, motored the 30 miles around the northeast corner of Puerto Rico to Fajardo where our repaired sails awaited, lashed them back on, found a restaurant with the best yucca I’ve ever had.  By 10 pm, less than 24 hours since it began, what became dubbed the Puerto Rican Smash-and-Grab was complete and we were underway once again to Antigua.  

Old San Juan
I took the first watch, and before I went to sleep, we were almost smash-and-grabbed too, by what I think might have been my first near-encounter with pirates.  The rest of the crew had retired to their bunks as we motored along in shallow dark waters towards Antigua, when I was blinded by a 2 million candlepower spotlight being shone from a small boat 20 feet off our stern.  I thought it was rude of these drunk, curious locals to blind me just to get a better look at our visiting yacht, especially at this late hour. So I went below and grabbed our high-intensity spotlight and shone it back at them. 
Possibly one of the perps

Three dark figures stood aboard the 17-foot center-console powerboat.  As I tried to find some sort of identifying marks on the vessel, I eventually noticed flashing blue lights, though very small, above their steering wheel.  I then assumed they were on some sort of official duty, and I went below to wake the captain.  By the time I came back on deck 20 seconds later, they had turned off all their lights, and were heading towards the island of Culebra at a speed of about 25 knots, which I only knew by the small reflection their boat left on our radar.  Perhaps seeing our homeport was the mainland United States, they might have assumed I was running below for my assault rifle, and thought it best to abort the mission.

Aside from pirates, I have one other cautionary tale to other long-distance sailors.  The last time I was down island, and bound for England on the square-rigged ship Eye of the Wind, I couldn't stop singing the romantic lyrics of Roger Whittaker's The Last Farewell.  Now, ten years later, as I was bound for Antigua, I couldn't stop thinking about “popping tags” at the Thrift Shop.  So take it from me and think twice before listening to Macklemore as you head to sea for 11 days without other music to cleanse your mind.
Approaching Falmouth Harbour, Antigua

As we approached Antigua late afternoon, the unforgettable scent of the island wafted over the water as our first greeting, and memories of the last time I was ashore here came flooding back, along with the urge to relive all of the good ones.

Don and Eben flew home the day after our arrival, and we were joined by a few more crew; Dave, Nigel, and Sandy would be aboard for the week of racing, and Dean, a dear friend from my days aboard Bluenose II in Nova Scotia, would race as well as join us for the Antigua to Bermuda passage.
The Race Crew: Dean, Moi, Sandy, Dave, Nigel, Frank

Shirley Heights
What stood out most in my memory of the Antigua night life was Shirley Heights.   Regarded by National Geographic as being ‘The place to be in the world on a Sunday night’, Shirley Heights is a hilltop overlooking both Falmouth and English Harbour, consisting of a bar, a kitchen serving excellent BBQ, a pre-sunset steel drum band that serenades as you watch the sun fall behind Montserrat, and topped-off by a reggae band that, if enough people insist, will play until dawn.  That’s what was etched in my memory.  Last time I was there I was 22 years old, surrounded by more than a dozen good friends from Eye of the Wind, and we all had the time of our lives. 

Ten years later, and ten years older, four of us arrived at the top of the hill well after sunset, greeted at the door with half-priced admission, which should have been our clue to turn around and try coming back another night.  There were only about a dozen others in the sprawling courtyard, we were the last to line-up for BBQ, and the reggae band begun packing up their instruments a few minutes after we arrived.  Trying to relive old memories can be sad, but when surrounded by good people and new friends, the new memories made can replace the longing for the old ones.  The night was still young, so we all decided to head back into town to see what sort of trouble we could get into.
One of my favourites, schooner Lily Bolero

Upon stepping outside the doors of Shirley Heights, we were approached by “Plastic”, a local, and evidently popular, drug dealer.  All the taxis were downtown at this point, and the walk was long, so seeing the opportunity to make some cash, he offered us a ride.  After the four of us piled into his tiny car and were committed, four of his closest friends and/or clients came out of the bushes.  They were young, giggly, and friendly as they joined us by climbing into the rear half-trunk, then overflowed into the back seat as Plastic pushed them to make room for the door to close.  As the fun but smothering ride to town drew to a close, Plastic said he had many ways he could make us happy, offering to 'take us up to the snowy mountains, or to the green valleys below'. We politely declined, and he dropped us off on the front steps of Lime, where a talented reggae band played six nights a week.  We danced shamelessly like white people late into the night, and I completely forgot how old I’d been feeling in previous days, and completely stopped my pattern of wishing for time to rewind.

Oh and yes, there were a few days of racing.  It was stormy, borderline gale-force winds at times, and being already completely shattered by the south-bound trip of previous days, and without having time off to recharge, I was dragging my feet when it came time to leave the dock each morning, and thoroughly dreaded the coming day.  I was constantly in fear of something breaking and someone getting hurt in such conditions.  Those weren’t unreasonable expectations, as was proved by numerous dismastings of a few other boats on one particularly blustery day day. 
Bad day for Blue Peter

A better day of racing, as far as I was concerned, was the day of the dory races, where I was excited to take part in the Ladies category, rowing our ships tender against those of other ships taking part in the Classic.  When in Miami, I spend most mornings on the River rowing my almost unrowable dinghy for an hour, sometimes two, so I was feeling prepared.  It was very much a ladies race, as you could hear a constant hum of ‘I’m sorry! Sorry! Oops, Sorry!’ as we accidentally smashed into one another and splashed each other with our oars over the short course.  I placed 2nd, beat only by a girl from Cornwall, which according to Dave, also from Cornwall, was acceptable and there was no need to be ashamed.

Eventually, the sad day came to say goodbye to my new friends, and to Antigua itself, and we weighed anchor and set a course for Bermuda, 800 miles due North. 

We were halfway there as I crawled back into my bunk post-watch, weary and craving sleep.  As I lay there contemplating the miles left to go, I was soon clinging to that towering wooden bridge, eyes squeezed tight not knowing what I'd do next. It was then I felt a hand on my shoulder, belonging to the person who'd insisted I climb that bridge in the first place.  I opened my eyes to find that the bridge was now entirely surrounded by water. The tide had risen to meet me, and there was nowhere to fall.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Once A Sailor, Always A... Writer?

I’m in the mood to write now, as I often am, but too often agonize over how to tie my words into my existing blog, which is why I have not completed a log entry since last July.  Seeing as how my life has changed from when I originally kept my blog, it’s time for me to continue writing my experiences as they come, sailing related or not, though I do have some exciting sailing-related news in the very near future. (!)

Miami River, looking west to 27th Ave Bridge
Some of you have asked what life is like on the Miami River. I’d have to say that having lived directly on the river, it’d be hard to imagine living anywhere else in the city.  It hardly feels like a city of 2.5 million when I’m on the boat (it does, however, feel exactly like living 3.6 miles from Miami International Airport).  Away from the shadows of downtown high rises, and the uniformity of the suburbs, it’s an ever-changing landscape of sailboats and cruisers heading out to Biscayne Bay to make weekend memories, tugboats, commercial shipping, kayakers, and passionate boat owners toiling over their labors of love (or, instead, paying someone else to do it) in the boatyard directly across the river.  The best show of all is watching the skill of the local tugboat captains as they expertly maneuver huge freighters up and down the narrow river.  Sometimes while texting.  It’s truly impressive.
Hempstead Marine's tug Atlas tailing Betty K VI
I can’t get enough of the local history surrounding the river, yet have managed to find few resources.  The best so far is a book that was originally on loan from my friend, but it’s now mine (according to my interpretation of Florida Law, if I pay the taxes on it, 6% of $9.99, then I can claim it). Sorry Eric, but to see the law in action, just Google ‘Boca Raton mansion squatter’.  See?  Your $0.60, in the form of a check, is on its way. Thanks for an awesome book Eric, you’re a true friend.

The river has changed somewhat from the Cocaine Cowboy days of the early 1980’s, when Miami boasted the highest homicide rate in the world.  One of the victims washed up at the stern of my friends boat, at the very dock Annie Laurie now calls home.  Thirty years later however, the river is now a relatively safe place to find yourself, though I still see things I’d rather not, thanks to the religion of Santeria.  Some who practice it seek out areas like rivers, or train tracks, where either the current or a passing train will presumably carry away their sins with the sacrifice they've offered.  Sometimes it’s roses, sunflowers, and butternut squash, and other times it’s not. In 1993, a case in Miami was taken to the Supreme Court, and it was ruled that animal cruelty laws didn’t apply to their religious practices.
Manatees swimming under SW 1st St Bridge

Despite the River being a fairly industrial area, the water is still sufficiently clean to support wildlife: numerous types of fish such as mullet and tarpon, manatees, dolphin (almost daily lately), all of which I pause to watch if I’m working away on the sailboat. Which, I usually am.

Joys of wooden boat ownership
Annie Laurie has been socking it to me for the last 18 months or so.  Water in the transmission, bad leak in the fuel pump, rotten floor down below, a couple of rotten planks and areas of adjacent decking (though it’s been a manageable dockside repair).  As I near completion on the starboard side, it’ll soon be time to turn my attention to the port side.  Yes, having a wooden boat in the tropics is like painting a bridge.  Just when you think you’re finished, it’s time to start all over again.

Funny the topic of bridges should come up!

Bridge controls
Since returning from Nova Scotia last September, I’ve been working on the Miami River as a bridge tender.  There are 10 bridges on the main river, and I work in the oldest (circa 1929) bridge house, thanks to the Flagler bridge house collapsing, without warning, with the tender inside a few years ago.  I stand in a little 10’ by 10’ box, and push a series of buttons that stop vehicular traffic, drop gates, and lift the spans of the bascule bridge, allowing various vessels to head up and down the river.  I’ve been reassured that despite the age of the house, it’s not going to fall.  I sometimes have dreams at night of one of the tugboats experiencing an engine failure as it’s pulling a freighter, and I have to say, the dream never ends the way I’d hope it would.

Flagler Street Bridge
In my first day of training, the bridge tender told me I looked a lot like another tender she once knew “before she went and got fat”. Duly noted.  An 8-hour shift, and unable to leave the bridge house unattended, you’d think it’d be easy to stay skinny there. In the beginning I packed a healthy lunch of apples, oranges, yogurt, and salads.  But a few weeks in, for some mysterious reason, I had an urge to pick up a box of Oreos on my way to the bridge, literally having not touched a store-bought cookie since childhood.  This behavior quickly escalated, as I began to take notice of other easily snack-able items produced with high fructose corn syrup, palm oil, and a selection of preservatives making expiration dates irrelevant, and expiration itself virtually impossible.  And despite the boredom and temptation, I was adamant about keeping the television off, which I succeeded at for the first few months. Gradually, though, I succumbed to its siren song.  So, my favorite new shows in descending order are: The Mentalist, Big Bang Theory, Law and Order: SVU, CSI Miami, Bones, How I Met Your Mother, Burn Notice, and Fox News no just kidding.

Under the bridge, where I park my car, live a dozen or so homeless people.  I was wary at first, descending the stairs to the dark lower street following my shift at 11pm (wouldn’t you be after the Miami Zombie?).  From the pregnant crack-head who repeatedly ensures her own chemical imbalance, and who manically rinses her clothes in a Home depot Homer bucket with river water, to the tall, fit Haitian who paces as he shouts quotes from the Bible, I was initially instilled with the proclivity to walk fast with my head down.  But as I got to know a few others, I became much more at ease. 

What I wish the Beetle looked like
Rafael admires my ’69 Beetle, and pleads with me everyday to never sell it for a penny less than it’s worth, because I “wouldn’t believe what those cars go for in Puerto Rico!”  I’m not sure mine would fall into the category of others he may have seen back home, considering my feet get wet when it’s raining, the windshield is opaque when met with oncoming headlights, and when my horn makes it’s own decisions of when it’s appropriate to sound.

Then there’s Reggie, who speaks and carries himself like a retired professor. Always pleasant, always smiling.  It’s natural to wonder how many of them have family somewhere, why they aren’t with them, and if maybe their family and friends are wondering where they are and have given them up for lost. Like Wizard, whose real name I don’t know because he doesn’t speak, who spends many an afternoon chain-sawing his way through invisible forests, and stacking invisible bottles from the sidewalk onto invisible shelves in the bushes.

What the Beetle actually looks like
I saw many of their true colors one day when someone tried to break into my Beetle. I stood up from my seat to see what all the hollering was about, and a man had the hood and rear of my car open, and was trying to open the passenger door.   The homeless guys were converging on the location like flies to honey, except for two, one of whom was running up the stairs to ring the bell of the bridge house to let me know what was happening, and Wizard, who just continued to trim trees.  Knowing there was nothing worth stealing, I just stood back and observed, and smiled.   These guys, many with nothing more to their name than the clothes on their backs, had my back.  My homeless homeboys.

In my next update, I'll share news of my upcoming sailing adventure.  Standby!
Approaching the top of the Miami River