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.