Leaving Antigua, W. I.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What do you feed a Gecko?

Our time in the States seemed to fly, although when we got there in June, we thought we had forever to enjoy life ashore.  It’s always a pleasure to see family and friends when we’re back there, but we can’t help being shocked by the contrasts to the simple life to which we’re accustomed.  There are so many people, moving so fast.  Apparently, they are all searching for something that eludes them, because they seem never to stop.  Individually, our countrymen are friendly and kind, but our society comes across as fast-paced, uncaring, and acquisitive to the point of obsession.

Shortly before we left on our return journey to the islands, we went grocery shopping at a discount department store with our daughter.  As she and Leslie browsed the grocery aisles, which took up maybe 15% of the store’s space (!), I stood in the front right-hand corner and gazed diagonally across the store.  The back left-hand corner was so far away that I couldn't make it out clearly, and I can pick out man-sized buoys at sea at a distance of well over a mile.  I was awestruck.  This one store could shelter the entire population of some of the countries that we visit, and it was stocked with more merchandise than the islanders could find in their whole country.  When we got back to her house, our daughter realized she had forgotten something.  “We’ll stop on the way to pick up Elise from school,” she said.  School was in a different direction from our morning outing, and she stopped in another store of the same chain, equally big, equally crowded, and equally well stocked.  It was no more than a few miles from the one where we had stopped earlier.

Now we’re back where the stock in even the gourmet grocery store depends on “what de boat brought las’ time.”  Life has taken on a more personal quality again.  While I got Play Actor ready to launch after her five months out of the water, Leslie walked a couple of hundred yards from the boat yard to the government office at Jolly Harbour to deal with Customs, Immigration, and the Port Authority.  The senior Customs officer greeted her with a, “Welcome back, Captain.  It’s been a long time since you las’ visit.”

“You haven’t been working here for the last year or two,” she responded.

“No.  I’ve been working at the airport.  It’s good to be back where I know the people I deal wit’.”

After she finished with the paperwork, the yard crew had the boat back in the water and we took her out to a mooring and launched the dinghy, returning to the yard office to settle up our account.  That taken care of, we walked across the street to the Epicurean Market to pick up some necessities, including fried chicken for lunch.

“You have no bananas,” Leslie remarked to the cashier as she rang us up.

“De boat from Dominica don’t bring one time.  Nex’ week, mebbe so.”

We went back to Play Actor and put up an awning.  Sitting in the shade eating our chicken, we were entertained by watching several geckos at our feet chasing bugs.  They moved aboard in our absence, apparently.  When we're in residence afloat, it's a bit like living in a castle with a moat.  Crawly creatures can't come to see us unless we (inadvertently) bring them aboard.  We have a whole new ecosystem now, just in our cockpit.  We contemplate our new neighbors as we eat.  We could do without the bugs, but the geckos are kind of cute.  We decide to see if they can handle our bug problem instead of spraying with insecticide, as we usually do after taking the boat out of storage.  Of course, we'll eventually have to start feeding the geckos; there aren't many bugs except ashore.  Nex' week, mebbe so.   It’s good to be home. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

It’s Hurricane Season – Smell the Roses

 This is the time of year when the first thing I do every morning is check the weather to see if a storm is brewing.  Usually, there’s a disturbance out to the east of us.  Sometimes, there’s just a tropical wave off the coast of Africa, thousands of miles away.  But often, especially this late in the season, there’s a closed low pressure system several hundred miles to the southeast.  Those I watch carefully.  I study the various forecast models from different sources, trying to guess the track of the potential storm.  I do the speed and distance calculations to see how long we have before we have to take precautions, and check our stock of groceries, diesel fuel, and fresh water.

During hurricane season, we’re normally at anchor off the west coast of Grenada, a few hours from our chosen “hurricane hole,” where we’ve ridden out one hurricane and several lesser storms over the last few years.  We have a healthy sense of anxiety; it’s not quite fear, because we’ve survived before and we know what to do.  It’s more annoyance at the disruption to our routine.  It takes a few hours to reach our hiding place, but then it takes a day to strip the boat and get the storm anchors in place.  Once we’re there, it’s much more difficult to get ashore and get groceries, so we have to prepare to be self-sufficient for an unknown period.  We also know that we won’t have reliable Internet service there, so we have to make sure all of our bills are paid, emails are answered, and relatives are informed that we’ll be out of touch for a while.  Of course, they watch the minute-by-minute hype on the weather channel, envisioning us in an epic battle with the elements.  We, on the other hand, are in a placid spot that looks more like a mountain lake than a Caribbean lagoon.  It’s pretty, but we miss the open water and the cool sea breezes.

This hurricane season, the first thing I do every morning is stagger to the kitchen. Kitchen?   We’re visiting Leslie’s folks in California for this hurricane season.  They have a kitchen the size of our boat.  I make myself a cup of coffee before I settle down in front of my computer for a few hours.  Some mornings, I take my coffee out into the garden and admire the flowers for a bit before I check email, book sales, Facebook, Twitter, and read the latest news.  A few days ago, Leslie’s mother mentioned a storm in the Atlantic, and I realized that I haven’t looked at the weather for weeks.  In the California desert, the weather doesn’t vary much this time of year.  It’s cool at night and hot in the daytime.  It doesn’t rain, and there’s not much breeze.  The folks here complain about the weather, but it really doesn’t have much effect on their lives.  By the time we return to the islands in November, hurricane season will be over; right now, I’m enjoying the flowers.

Friday, July 13, 2012

An Intergalactic Shipmate

Captain Ishtarek, aboard  Renaissance
 Did you ever read a book that had such vivid characters that they seemed real?  I recently had that experience with Diane Rapp's new book, Dragon Defense. There's review on my writer's blog at www.clrdougherty.com.  Here's a transcript of my interview with the captain of a different kind of voyaging vessel.

Character Interview with
Captain Ishtarek and C.L.R. Dougherty

Dougherty:     I shuttled onto the battleship Renaissance to conduct an interview with Captain Ishtarek.  Captain, please tell me about your unique heritage.

Ishtarek:  What?  You haven’t met an ordinary spaceship captain before?

Dougherty:     I met human captains, and sail my own ship on Earth, but I’m told your planet of origin is called Grawshishkeckkk…Sorry, I can’t quite pronounce the name.

Ishtarek:  (He grins, displaying sharp teeth, and his green scales gleam.)  I was making a joke with you, Earthling.  Your species is not expected to pronounce the name of my planet correctly.  (He makes sounds that start with a growl, change to a hiss, and ends with KKK.  He laughs at my startled expression.)   Humans on the crew call me and my planet “Gronk.”  They usually say this behind my back, unaware that my superior hearing detects the word, but it’s the closest sound your limited vocal chords produce.

Dougherty:     Gronk?  Can you describe the planet my readers?

Ishtarek:  (He nods and his neck crest quivers.)  It is the most beautiful planet in civilized space, filled with lush swamps, scented bogs, quicksand, and gigantic trees that we use to escape from dangerous predators.  Six moons orbit in a sky that shimmers in various shades of gold, although swamp mist often obscures the lovely sight.  (He gazes wistfully at the ceiling.)  Sorry, I haven’t visited home in several spans.

Dougherty:     I understand that Gronks are valuable members of the Institute’s military division.  How did you become a soldier?

Ishtarek:  From my first day out of the shell, I was tagged for military training.  As squirts we fight each other in a natural battle to select the strongest and most clever candidates.  The survivors move on to train in our military academies.  You notice that I’m over eight feet tall.

Dougherty:     Er, yes, I wondered if the males in your race are so tall.

Ishtarek:  Females breed a variety of sizes in each clutch, but my father’s bloodline is valued for well-proportioned bulk and high intelligence.  Large members of my race seldom achieve sufficient test scores for military training.  They often fill positions requiring manual labor.

Dougherty:     When you were chosen to command the Renaissance, did you understand the full scope of the mission?

Ishtarek:  You refer to Fremont’s decision to destroy the planet?  No, as my superior he did not feel it necessary to reveal his plans until we orbited Drako.  I am not at liberty to discuss Institute orders.

Dougherty:     Didn’t Fremont’s orders to destroy Drako seem excessive?

Ishtarek:  (His eyes darkened and his neck crest quivered.)  Human members of the crew objected on humanitarian grounds.  I allowed them to stand down, but I was unable to disobey orders.

Dougherty:     Gronks cannot ignore an order?

Ishtarek:  (His green scales darken.)  We are incapable of insubordination.  We follow orders to the letter regardless of its potential destruction. 

Dougherty:     No wonder Fremont requested you to serve as captain of the Renaissance.  He knew a human crew might not follow his orders.

Ishtarek:  Humans are a difficult race to fathom.  Now the dragons of Drako are charming creatures that appeal to my species.  Have you seen the variety of colors they display in their wings?

Dougherty:     I scheduled a dragon ride with Shariel tomorrow.  It should be an exhilarating experience.  Do you have dragons on Gronk?

Ishtarek:  There are draconic creatures on my planet, but their foul temperament does not encourage direct contact.  An unwary person might lose a limb or get its tail bitten off before escaping their ire.  (His tail swishes to emphasize the comment.)

Dougherty:     Have you met the telepathic wolves on Drako?

Ishtarek:  Yes, their leader, Kriegen, was a congenial host in a hunt with his pack.  We hunted a large stag, and I relished the taste of freshly blooded kill—a delightful experience. 

Dougherty:     Are you telepathic?

Ishtarek:  My species does not possess that talent, yet.  However, I understand humans developed the skill after many Transfers.  Reports of improved skills after Transfer give us hope. 

Dougherty:     How did you communicate during your hunt?

Ishtarek:  The daughter of Donovan, Tessa, acted as guide and interpreter.  She is beautiful—for a human—when she runs with the pack.  Perhaps I’ll return to Drako in a few spans and hold a telepathic conversation with the wolves, but I’d rather speak with the dragons.  Shariel claims that the color inside a dragon’s mind is vibrant.

Dougherty:     Can’t Shariel use her “mind control” ability to let you speak directly to the dragons?

Ishtarek:  (His neck crest flairs and his eyes narrow.)   A military leader never condones mind control regardless of the benign purpose.  Excuse me, but you must disembark before 1300 hours—unless you wish to take a long voyage into space.

Dougherty:     Sure, I’ll leave right away.  Thanks for the interview and I hope you make it back to Gronk before long.

Ishtarek:  (He flattens his neck ridge and extends his claw for a brief handshake.)  It was a pleasure to meet an Earthling.  You conducted yourself with sufficient decorum for an inferior species.  

Dougherty:     It was nice to speak with you, too.  Happy sailing, captain. 

Read my review of Dragon Defense at www.clrdougherty.com,, or buy a copy from Amazon's Kindle Store at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008KS3MG8

Monday, June 25, 2012

Layin' Low in Bimini

I’ve recently had some correspondence about Bimini with another writer, and her comments conjured up some fond memories.  The year we started cruising full time, we enjoyed a few weeks in Bimini, our first foreign port of call.  As I dusted off my recollections, I found a youtube clip that took me back to a pleasant evening in the Compleat Angler, where we heard this as a live performance:  "Layin' Low in Bimini - Stevie S.and the Calypsonians"

I was saddened to learn that the Compleat Angler was destroyed by fire a few years ago, and the owner and all of his Hemingway memorabilia perished as well.  Sic transit gloria mundi.


I was “Layin’ low in Bimini” one Sunday morning, relaxing by the pool at the Bimini Bluewater Marina, when two women intruded upon my solitude.

“Where are you from?”  One of them asked me.

“Well, ...” I said, in a down island tempo.

“C’mon!  That’s not a hard question.  Where do you live?”  She asked impatiently, her speech dripping New York.

I was rescued by an older Bahamian man who was sitting nearby, enjoying a rum and Coke.  “De mon, he live on de green boat, jus’ da,” he explained, gesturing toward the dock to show which green boat he meant.

“Yeah, but where do you live, really?”

“Where de green boat set.  Jus’ now in Bimini, I t’ink,” I answered, slipping into the local patois.

The old man nodded, sipping his rum drink and grinning a gap-toothed grin.  The woman picked up her book and pointedly began a whispered conversation with her female companion, obviously unhappy with my response.  After a few minutes, they gathered up their things and left.

“De ladies, dey from New York.  Push-push.  Dey come to relax, but dey don’ know relax,” the old man said.

Bimini, at the time we visited, was almost deserted during the week.  On the weekends, people in big, fast boats came from south Florida to fish and party.  A few tourists flew in on Chalk Airlines, on the little seaplanes that landed in the harbor a few hundred feet from our boat.  We had watched them take off from Miami Beach, from the Government Cut ship channel when we were there a few days earlier.  The visitors spent their time fishing or scuba diving from the fleet of charter boats in the harbor, and they spent the evenings at the Compleat Angler after dining at one of the tourist restaurants like the Anchorage, which had been Michael Lerner’s cottage.  Ernest Hemingway lived there while he wrote To Have and Have Not. 

The whole of Alice Town was like a shrine to Hemingway, and it would not have been a surprise to encounter him in any of the little open-air, dirt-floored bars along King’s Highway, Alice Town’s one street.  The bars doubtless looked much as they had when he was in residence.

Bimini was always a haven for smugglers, and it thrived during the prohibition era, enjoying another economic surge in the 80s from the drug trade.  By the time we visited, the drug runners had moved on to more efficient means of shipment, although there was ample evidence that small-time smuggling was still an active pursuit.  Duty-free rum for a few dollars a liter and Cuban cigars were readily available to tempt the boaters from Florida, and more nefarious items were rumored to be at hand, as well.  In passing time with some of the locals, we learned that things were relatively quiet in Bimini these days, although just a few years earlier, gun fights between drug dealers along King’s Highway were said to be a common occurrence.

We explored the island on foot, walking from the south end all the way to the north end.  As we passed through Bailey Town, which was much more residential than Alice Town, we made note of a hand-lettered cardboard sign hanging outside a loosely fenced compound.  The sign offered stuffed lobster dinners for $10 on Sunday night.  I checked my watch and discovered that it was Sunday. 

We studied the establishment for a few minutes, noticing that it looked deserted.  It comprised about an acre, with a few strands of broken barbed wire draped casually around the perimeter.  Just to the left of the driveway entrance, there was a shack about 12 feet square.  It sat on concrete blocks and had a large padlock on the door.  Goats and chickens foraged among the weeds and dust.  There were a few partly dismantled, wrecked automobiles in the yard, along with some small boats and large, rusty appliances. 

At the back of the lot was a two-storey structure that vaguely resembled a suburban split-level house assembled from mismatched materials.  High on the front of the house was a large sign proclaiming it to be “Tiger and Pat’s – hardware, building materials, groceries, auto & appliance parts and repairs, and plumbing supplies.”  We decided to return later and try the lobster.

We walked back to “Tiger and Pat’s” an hour or so after sundown, accompanied by two friends from another boat.  There were dim lights scattered around the yard, and the door to the small shack was open.  The inside of the shack was brightly lighted.  We went up a few rickety steps and found ourselves in a tiny grocery store, well stocked with canned goods and liquor.  There was a pleasant-looking woman behind a small counter.

“Good evening,” she said.

“Good evening. How are you?”  I asked.

“Fine.  And you folks?”

“We’re well, thanks.”

“Can I help you find something?”  She offered.

“Are we too late for the lobster dinner?”

“No.  You want 4 dinners?”

“Yes, please.”

“I will get them.  Cold drinks are in the refrigerator.  You may help yourselves,” she said, gesturing to a rusty old household refrigerator in one corner.

She went through an unnoticed door into a tiny, adjoining kitchen, and began assembling our dinners, loading an incredible amount of food into Styrofoam containers.  She brought them back in a few minutes and collected our money, suggesting that we have a seat outside as she flipped some light switches.

We went outside to discover a large cable spool tipped on its side under a tree, now brightly lighted by bulbs dangling from the limbs.  The makeshift table was surrounded by barstools.  We settled on the stools and opened our containers to find that we each had a huge stuffed lobster tail, mounds of peas and rice, and fresh green salad.  As we tucked in, a musical rumble came from the shadows nearby.

I glanced up to see a giant emerging from the dark, singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as he shuffled his feet in what I would have called a Gullah ‘shout’ in my youth.  Back in the days of slavery, rigid Baptists had forbidden dancing, but their strictures were circumvented by the expedient of ‘shouting’ prayers with rhythmic motions of feet, hands, and bodies.  This man’s movements were quite familiar to a boy from Geechee country.  He concluded his performance to our soft applause, bowed modestly, and introduced himself.

“Welcome, and good evening,” the big man said, in a smooth, almost impossibly deep, melodious voice.  “I’m Tiger.  My wife, Pat, made your dinner.  We’re glad you are here in Bimini with us.  Are you enjoying your visit?”

“Certainly, we are,” Leslie responded.

“Good,” he boomed, nodding.  “Bimini is mostly peaceful, now, but if anybody bothers you, you just tell them that Tiger looks after you.  Then no one will bother you, I promise.”

“Thank you, Tiger,” I said.

“You are welcome.  Enjoy your dinner, and if you are here next Sunday, come and hear me preach at the Baptist church overlooking the beach.  We would be pleased to have you visit.”

And with that, he faded back into the darkness, leaving us to reflect upon the diverse skills bred by life on a small island, and the fellowship that extended to all who ventured off the tourist path.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Farewell to the Islands

Most years, we leave Play Actor for a month or so of visiting family in the States.  This year, we’re making an extended visit, leaving her stored ashore in Antigua while we renew our experience of life on dirt.  This is the first time we’ve left Play Actor in Antigua, and only the second time in twelve years that we’ve left her for the entire hurricane season.

We arrived in Antigua at about 1:00 a.m. after a long, slow sail from St. Martin, and dropped the anchor a mile or so offshore to get a few hours of rest before dealing with the formalities of entering the country.   We took Play Actor in to the Customs dock at about 9:00 the next morning, and while Leslie went ashore to deal with the officials, I tidied the boat.  After a few minutes, the customs officer walked out onto the dock.

“Good morning,” he said, looking her over with an experienced eye.

“Good morning,” I responded.  “Will you come aboard?”

“Oh, no.  That’s not necessary. I just came out to welcome you to Antigua.  The captain (that’s Leslie) tells me you’re leaving Play Actor at Jolly Harbour until November.”

“Yes, we are,” I agreed.

“Well, don’t worry.  Everything will be fine.  The marina will take good care of her, and all of the paperwork will be handled directly.  Your wife will tell you all about it once she finishes with Immigration and the Port Authority.  We do this all the time.”

Leaving the boat for an extended period during hurricane season requires that we strip the exterior of sails, canvas, and any other removable items that add wind resistance.  Further, we shut down almost all of her systems – pressure water, electrical, refrigeration, etc.  This takes a few days to accomplish and leaves a vessel that isn’t really an attractive place to live.  We made arrangements with the boat yard to haul Play Actor early on Tuesday, and our flight to the states left early on Wednesday, so we elected to stay in a hotel near the airport for our last night in the islands.

Hotels in the islands fall into two categories.  There are resorts geared to foreigners, and there are basic hotels for the local folks.  The resorts are expensive – several hundred dollars per night in season; a few hundred during the summer.  For a place to sleep for a few hours, that’s too expensive for us, so we’ve always sought accommodations at the other end of the spectrum.  Finding them is a bit of a challenge.  They don’t advertise.  You won’t find them on the Internet, and there are no local equivalents to the AAA guidebooks, so you have to ask.

When we ask about local hotels, we’re invariably steered to the tourist places at first.  “Where would you stay, if you were visiting and just wanted a basic, clean place to sleep?”  We asked the ladies who work in the marina office, a few days before our haul-out date.  That resulted in side conversations as they came up with a list of places.

“The Amaryllis,” one of the ladies suggested
“It is finished,” another lady answered.

“Closed?”  The first lady asked.

“Yes.  Out of business.”

“The Loft,” a third lady offered.  “Very close by here.  Is nice.”

“Beachcomber,” the first lady volunteered.  “Or the airport hotel.”

“Yes, yes.  Airport hotel.  Very close.  Walk to the airport.”

“Do you have phone numbers?”  Leslie asked.  Telephone directories are rare, and always out of date, often with the key pages missing.  This resulted in another conference involving everyone in the office.  Several folks called friends – everyone has a cell phone – to ask for numbers.  After a few minutes, the receptionist presented us with a post-it note with three phone numbers, including “The Loft,” “The Beachcomber,” and “airport hotel.”

“Does the airport hotel have a name?”  Leslie asked.

“No.  Well, maybe, but everybody just calls it the airport hotel.  Everybody knows,” the receptionist explained.  “The number for The Loft isn’t actually for The Loft.  It’s for a person who knows the phone number, but I couldn’t get him to answer just now.  So, if you wish to call The Loft, you must call this person and explain.”

Back aboard the boat, Leslie called the airport hotel.  “I’m looking for a room for Tuesday night,” she said.

“Yes.  I have rooms.  $75 U.S. with a fan, $95 U.S. with air conditioning.  No problem.”

“I’d like to reserve one for Tuesday, please.”

“No, no need.  Plenty of rooms.  Just you come.”

“You’re sure you don’t want my name?”

“No… Well, all right.  What is your name? No, wait.  I must find the pencil… okay.”

“My name is Leslie Dougherty.”

“Leslie.  Okay, what time will you arrive?”


“Okay Leslie.  Don’ worry.  Plenty rooms.”

By noon the next day, Play Actor was out of the water, hanging in slings, and the yard crew was chipping a few barnacles from her bottom.  After handling the paperwork with the marina office, we caught a cab
“You go to the airport?”  The driver asked, eyeing our duffel bags.

“The airport hotel,” I said.  “Do you know it?”

“Of course, but who recommended it to you?”

“The ladies in the office.   Is it all right?”

“Yes, but not many visitors stay there.  Most stay in the resorts.  When is your flight?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Leslie said.

“You are taking British Airways to London?”

“No.  American Airlines to California.”

“Ah, but I thought you were British.”

We hear this often in the islands.  For whatever reason – appearance, manner, or speech patterns -- we are seldom recognized as American.

“Where is your accent from?”  He asked, looking at me in the rear view mirror.

“Savannah, Georgia.  It’s a tidewater accent,” I replied.

“You sound more English than American.”

After a few minutes, we arrived at the airport hotel.  It presented a spare, clean appearance, and there was no sign out front.  As the man told Leslie on the phone, “Everybody knows.”

We were greeted by two ladies behind the reception desk, one of whom presented a registration form to Leslie.

“What time is your flight?”  The other lady asked.

“9:00 a.m.,” Leslie responded.

“Okay. 9 o’clock; you must be there at 7.  You will wake up at 6 o’clock, and leave here at 6:50.”

“Will you arrange a taxi for us?”

“No.  No taxi.  We will take you.  Our guests do not take taxis.  At 6 o’clock, my husband will bang on your door until you answer.  He will check back after a few minutes to be sure you didn’t fall back to sleep.  He will take you to the airport when it is time.”

And so it happened.  We miss the islands, where everyone looks out for everyone else, and no one is too busy to take an interest in a visitor.  The transition was abrupt when we got off the plane at the Dallas – Fort Worth airport and joined the impersonal herd rushing about to cope with delayed and cancelled flights, but it’s good to be home, at least for a while.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Waiting for Weather

This morning

Next Tuesday morning
If you hang around with cruising sailors, you'll hear that phrase, "waiting for weather," often.  Here's why we've been waiting for weather to go from St. Martin to Antigua for the last week.

The little things that look like hockey sticks scattered across the weather maps show the wind direction.  The number of 'barbs' in the hook show the relative wind strength.  These winds are all in the 10 to 15 knot range, and that's a pleasant sailing breeze. The blue areas are rain -- the darker, the heavier.

If you look at the red dotted line on this morning's weather map, you'll see the route that we would have to follow to reach Antigua if we were sailing today.  Having the wind in our face doesn't mean we couldn't get there, but it would take us almost twice as it will take on next Tuesday morning, when we can sail right along the black dotted line.  That's about a 14 hour trip to cover the 90-odd miles, instead of the 20-plus hours that it would take if we were doing it today.  Of course, these forecasts are every bit as accurate as the ones that you get for your local weather.

The other option, if we were on a tight schedule, would be to use our engine to drive straight into the wind, but that makes for an unpleasant ride.  Aside from the noise and vibration, we would be plowing directly into the wind-driven waves.  The ride would be rough and the spray would be flying, and we would miss the stabilizing effect of the sails. That means we would also be rolling a good bit with the ocean swell.  So, we're waiting for weather, even though it's a beautiful day in St. Martin -- 80 degrees, partly cloudy, with a nice breeze, blowing straight from where we want to go. It's "Nassaba, mon. Jus' wait. Soon come." (Nassaba means not so bad, in the local patois.) as they say down here. We hope that you have nice weather wherever you are.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Squirrel's Tale (Apologies to Geoffrey Chaucer)

This little story is an excerpt from Dungda de Islan’.  Almost everyone I know who has read the book mentioned how much they enjoyed the Squirrel's Tale.  I hope that you do, as well.

October, 2004
Leaving the Chesapeake Bay, Caribbean bound

We had just turned into the Patuxent River after motoring down from Annapolis on a calm, crisp fall day.  Leslie took a stroll on the foredeck to escape the droning of the diesel, and came back to the cockpit to report that there was a squirrel on the bowsprit.  Hallucinations are not unusual among sailors, so at first, I just played along with her, figuring it would subside in time.  As her irritation with me increased, I decided that I should go forward and see for myself, just to keep peace.  Surely enough, when I got to the bow, I was greeted by a squirrel.  He was sitting up on the anchor platform looking back at me, and he appeared to be quite pleased with the accommodations we provided aboard Play Actor.

My first reaction was pleasure at the idea of a mascot, but then I recalled how much damage squirrels did in the attic of the house where I grew up.  As cute as they can be, they are still rodents, with a penchant for chewing holes in wood (lots of that on Play Actor) and making nests in all sorts of places where you'd rather they didn't.  The bagged sails came to mind.

We puzzled over how he had gotten aboard.  We had been at anchor for the whole summer.  The boat had not touched shore for months, so we could only conclude that he swam out on a calm night and climbed the anchor chain.  So, after a few minutes of reflection, we decided the squirrel had to go.  I went back up to the foredeck and unlimbered the high pressure washdown hose, taking careful aim at the varmint.  He was still poised in the same spot on the anchor platform.  He sidestepped the blast as gracefully as a prizefighter might slip an opponent's punch, and smiled at me, clearly enjoying this game.  After a few minutes, the foredeck, the sail bags, and I were drenched, and the squirrel was still sitting up on the anchor platform, watching calmly to see what I would do next.

I went back aft and rummaged in a locker until I found a two-foot long piece of 1 inch aluminum tubing, left over from some forgotten project.  Armed with the tube, I went forward again and confronted our unwelcome guest.  After a couple of swipes, he scurried aft along the port gunwale, all the way back to the cockpit, where Leslie stood at the helm, calmly steering the boat while offering helpful advice along the lines of, "Hit him with the tube!  He's coming this way."  I guess he figured she represented a safe haven of some sort, because he ran up her left arm and perched on her shoulder, waiting for me, grinning at me as if he knew I couldn't take a swing at him without braining Leslie.

I poked him with the end of the tube, and he ran across the back of her neck to her right shoulder, down her right arm, jumped to the starboard gunwale, and ran back to the bowsprit with me in hot pursuit.  He sat up there panting, awaiting my arrival, still grinning at me.  When I got there, he decided on another lap, back to the cockpit, across the imperturbable Leslie, and forward again.  After several rounds, I realized that all my years of long-distance running were paying off, finally.  The squirrel was a sprinter.  He was winded, slowing down perceptibly.  A few minutes later, he gave up, let me tap him on the head with my trusty tube, and dropped into the water.

I had the sensation of being watched, at this point.  I looked over my shoulder to see a large trawler yacht about 100 feet off our starboard side with two women on the foredeck, pointing at me and convulsed with laughter.  One was holding a camera with a telephoto lens, so I may hear from the SPCA, or the Game Warden.  Who knows?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"Bequia Sweet!"

"Welcome to Bequia. Bequia sweet!"  The customs agent greeted us as he stamped our paperwork upon our first entry into Bequia.

Every year when Easter comes around, we remember Regatta in Bequia.  For  those unfamiliar with the place, Bequia is a small island, part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Eastern Caribbean.  It's a special place to us, and to most cruising sailors who have spent time there. 

Bequia is an old whaling port, with the remains of try works used for rendering whale oil on one of the tiny adjacent islands.  It's only a few miles off the southwestern tip of the big island of St. Vincent, but more than miles separate the two.  Agricultural exports are big business on St. Vincent, but there was never much agriculture on Bequia.  Fishing is still a major activity, but it's small scale, one or two men-against-the-sea fishing.  Bequia's fishing fleet is made up of small, outboard-powered boats, and they venture far in search of Tuna and Dorado.  Given the strength of the prevailing tradewinds, an engine failure often results in what the local fishermen refer to as "Takin' the long ride."  Not very many return.  It's indeed a long "ride" to Central America for a man alone in a open boat with a bottle or two of water to drink and whatever he can catch for sustenance.

Whaling is still an active occupation in Bequia.  Under the international regulations, Bequia is allowed to take up to four whales per year.  They do it the old-fashioned way -- the hard way.  A few men in a small boat, a hand-thrown harpoon -- not a major threat to the population of whales -- they get one every so often.  The four-whale limit is probably seldom reached.  We were there once a few days after a successful hunt.  Everybody shared in buckets of blubber, and whale meat featured prominently on menus in local restaurants.  How long will a humpback whale feed a village of 5,000 people?  Whatever you think about the ecological impact of whaling, you have to admire the courage and seamanship of people who will take boats like this and hunt animals the size of a city bus.

Visiting Bequia is a trip back in time; a visit to a more relaxed era when people had more time to get to know one another.  There aren't a lot of people on the island -- just a few thousand, at most.  They're a wonderful mix of Scottish, Irish, English, French, Carib, African, and East Indian stock, mingled for many generations. There are some truly beautiful people here, and not just in a physical sense.

We were in Bequia once when our bank back in the U.S. was acquired.  We found out about it when our ATM cards quit working.  In a cash economy, that put us in a difficult situation.  A call to the bank resulted in an offer to wire us money until they could get us new cards -- the replacements they had sent a few weeks before were at our mail drop in Florida, but we discovered this on the Friday morning preceding a four-day holiday. 

There was no quick fix -- we went to the local bank before they closed to see about having the money wired, but they couldn't help us since we didn't have an account, and opening one for non-resident foreigners wasn't something that could be done quickly.  We'll never forget what the lady at the  bank told us.

"Don' worry.  Nobody goes hungry in Bequia.  You jus' pick up some coconut, some mango 'long the side of the road, an' we feed you.  Nobody goes hungry here."

We thought that was a nice sentiment, but we went back to the boat and made a careful assessment of our stock of groceries.  We certainly wouldn't starve for four days, but we would be eating "bilge food," as we call concoctions assembled from canned goods and rice.  Later in the day, we were swimming around the boat cleaning the water line when two fishermen came by.

"You like some Tuna?"  One man asked, holding a still-living ten-pounder up for our inspection.

We admired the fish and explained that if he came by next week, we'd buy from him -- that we were short of cash.

"We know that," he said.  "Lady from the bank, she tell we. You need the fish, you take the fish.  You pay us sometime.  Plenty here. Nobody go hungry in Bequia."

Bequia sweet, ver' sweet.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Grenada - a Cruising Sailor's Perspective

As I was working on my most recent novel, I was traveling up and down the islands of the Eastern Caribbean in my mind, remembering the wonderful places, people, and experiences we've enjoyed for the last 8 years.  I also spent some hours going through old snapshots, looking for potential cover art and stills to put into a video trailer for the book.  As I worked, I realized that some of these things should be shared in blog posts.  With the latest book behind me, I have time again, and I decided to post some snapshots and anecdotes.

We spend our summers in Grenada, and our winters in St. Martin.  We spend the perfect sailing time in the fall and spring working our way north and south respectively, spending time in favorite spots and looking for new places.  Even after 8 years, we haven't scratched the surface.

 I'll start at the southern end of our annual migratory path.  Let's take a look at Grenada.  Grenada is about 75 miles north northwest of Trinidad, which is on the northeast corner of the South American continent.
Grenada's flag

On our first visit, in June of 2005, we arrived just a couple of weeks ahead of Hurricane Emily.  Grenada was just beginning to recover from the ravages of Hurricane Ivan, which hit the island about 9 months before we arrived.  Ivan was the first storm to hit the island in 50 years; when Emily came along, 30 percent of the people still didn't have roofs over their heads, and they were busily digging themselves out of the wreckage.  Nevertheless, they still had time to make us welcome, they still had time to enjoy Carnival, and the island, despite the storm damage, was still beautiful.

Play Actor in the Lagoon
When we first started visiting, it was still possible to anchor in the lagoon at St. Georges.  Now, a big marina has pretty well taken over the lagoon, so we anchor outside, off the beach.
Grand Anse Beach, viewed from our cockpit

We were anchored in the lagoon at St. Georges, the capital city, when a young man paddled up in his kayak to introduce himself. 
Joel in his kayak
"Good morning, captain, ma'am.  I'm Joel.  I just wanted to welcome you to Grenada.  Will you stay for Carnival?"

"Good morning, Joel.  We're Charles and Leslie, and we'll most likely be here for Carnival."

"I hope you enjoy, and I'll see you again.  Good morning to you."

We saw Joel often and met several of his younger siblings over the next few weeks.  He was 12 at the time, the second oldest in a family of five children.  He would often appear with several other boys his age, paddling makeshift boats, or sometimes swimming.  He always introduced the others politely, and they would visit for a few minutes before splashing away to amuse themselves.
When school started, Joel came by to show us his new uniform -- he was quite proud to have been chosen on the basis of scholastic achievement to attend a particularly good secondary school. For the rest of our stay, he would come by to show us his homework and get an occasional bit of help. He was studying French and Spanish along with the more typical subjects for a student his age. We found him typical of the people of Grenada: friendly, bright, cheerful, and industrious. He shared with us his career aspirations once. "I want to build a marina, right here in the lagoon. I could hire all of my family and my friends, and we could take care of yachts like yours." We wished him well with that. Unfortunately, a developer from the U. K. beat him to it, and there's not much room in the lagoon for anchoring anymore.

Ripe nutmeg with red mace
We spent a good bit of time exploring Grenada during our first season there, taking in the natural beauty and learning about the people. Grenada produces a large share of the world's supply of nutmeg, as well as bananas, chocolate, sugarcane, and a myriad of spices. It's known as the Isle of Spice, and for good reason. A walk through any of the open air markets is an olfactory treat that defies description.
Ripe cocoa pod - future chocolate bar
Banana blossom
The island itself has a signature aroma. After a day in the open ocean breathing fresh, clean air, when we sail into the lee of the island, the distinctive smell welcomes us. We're downwind of the island as we sail the 20-odd miles from its northern tip down to the capital city of St. Georges, and we first notice the lush, rich aroma of the cultivated earth, picking up the overtones of fruit and the distinctive aroma of fires fed by cuttings from all sorts of exotic trees and shrubs and the shells of nutmeg. The smell of caramelized sugar from the cane mills and distilleries weaves through it all to produce a smell that is unique to this island.
Natural Beauty
7 Sisters Falls



Saturday, February 11, 2012

It's Great to be Green.

If your spouse woke up one morning and greeted you by saying, "It's nice to wake up with full batteries," what would you think?

Living on an anchored sailboat is living about as far off the grid as you can get.  There are no public utilities at sea.  In recent years, innovations in cellular and satellite telephony, computers, and the plethora of online services have changed things a bit, but not at a basic level.  At a basic level, we are on our own as far as water and electricity are concerned.  Fresh water is precious where we live, but with care and ingenuity, collecting rain meets our needs.  As for electricity, we've tried an number of different ways to cope.

As with water, our first step is to minimize use.  We use almost no energy to heat or cool our living space; we depend on shade awnings, breeze, and choosing a location with a benign climate for those things.  We cook with bottled gas, and it's surprising how long a 20 pound tank of propane lasts.  We normally use one tank for about four months.  Our water for bathing is heated by the sun.  Our lighting is almost all from highly efficient LEDs; we got rid of incandescent lights years ago.  Even when LEDs were expensive, it didn't take long to recoup the investment.

So, what's our biggest consumer of electricity?  Would you believe the refrigerator?  Right on the heels of the refrigerator comes…the computer and all of those related gizmos.  Our total electrical consumption is about 50 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month. In 2010, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 958 kWh per month.  The corresponding average monthly electric bill was $110.55.

We aboard Play Actor already look pretty green; we use about 5% as much electrical energy as an average U. S. household uses.  But what does it cost us for our 50 kWh per month?  All of our electrical energy is stored in a battery bank, and the bank holds enough electrical energy to last us for a day and a half, so in a typical month, we have to recharge those batteries about 20 times. 

If we used the most basic approach and ran our auxilliary engine to charge our batteries, we would have to run the engine for 133 hours per month.    That's $150 per month in diesel fuel, at $5 per gallon, not to mention the wear and tear on the engine, maintenance, etc, which will easily double that cost over the life of the engine, so we're looking at about $300 per month, and that only buys us 5% as much energy as the average residential user consumes.  That average U.S. household would pay about $6 for the amount of electrical energy that we use.

There are a number of ways to make burning fossil fuel to recharge our batteries more efficient, including bigger alternators, highly efficient generators, etc.  Those options require a sizable capital outlay, but none even comes close to getting our cost down to what the average U.S. residential customer would pay for our paltry 50 kWh.

We could turn off the refrigerator and unplug the computer, and some do.  Or, we could invest in alternative sources of energy.  Most long-term cruising boats choose this approach.  Aboard Play Actor, we have a wind turbine, which works well enough in the tradewind belt where we spend most of our time, but it still only provides part of our requirement.  We also have solar panels.  For most of the years we've cruised, we've had a small photovoltaic array.  The wind turbine and the solar panels met about 90% of our requirements, but still required us to run that diesel for a few hours a couple of times a month.

When we replaced the engine last year, our high-output alternator wouldn't fit the new engine, and our engine run time to charge the batteries doubled.  We looked into a new high-output alternator that would fit, and realized that for less money, we could double the size of our solar panel array.  That's what we did.  We don't run the engine to charge the batteries, ever, now.  We rarely run it to move the boat, except in close quarters where it's just not practical to sail, and Leslie wakes up happy because we have full batteries.

It's great to be green!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Lost in a Storm!

And the last post was all about the joys of a calm anchorage! 

Shortly before the last hurricane season began, we stored Play Actor in Grenada and flew back to the States for a couple of months to visit family.  As we were packing for our first visit ashore in over three years, I (Bud) discovered that I didn't have any shoes.  We're warm weather sailors, and we don't normally wear shoes on the boat.  We each keep a pair of heavy-duty flip flops in the dinghy, to wear when we go ashore.  Our real shoes are stored in a locker below the hanging locker where we keep our clothes, and my good boat shoes came out of there rotten.  They were only 15 years old, but the marine environment is harsh.  It was late in the day before our early morning departure, so I was in a bit of a bind.

It's not easy to find a good, inexpensive pair of shoes in the islands.  People down here either wear dress shoes or flip flops  The dress shoes are only for office wear, and then only sometimes, so they tend to look all right, but they aren't very good shoes, and like most things, they're expensive.  Boat shoes are sometimes available in limited sizes and styles from the marine supply stores, but they are even more expensive.  There was no time to go shopping, anyway.  

On top of this problem, one of our planned activities in the States was our nephew's graduation from the Air Force Academy, which was going to require that I cover my feet in something that went with a suit.  The suit, I could borrow from a family member, but I already know (done this before) that his shoes won't fit. I've been planning to buy a decent pair of everyday shoes in the States anyway, but I don't want to fly in my flip flops.  After all these years in the tropics, my blood is thin, and my bare feet get really cold in air-conditioned places.

Well, after digging around in several lockers, I found an old, disreputable pair of boat shoes that were still intact, although the soles were worn out.  I flew in those, and just didn't walk any more than necessary.  When we got settled in California, I found a nice looking, serviceable pair of casual shoes with a Vibram sole, good for wear ashore and afloat.  I bought them, thinking I had solved my problem, and I could even use them for boat shoes, too.

Leslie and her step-father, in their role as fashion police, didn't think they were dressy enough to wear with a suit.  After some debate, they presented me with a pair of nice, almost-new black dress shoes that they found on the half-price table at the Salvation Army store when they dropped off a donation.  I've never had a finer pair of shoes for $2.50.  That's only a quarter a toe!  I left those at her folk's place in California for future use.

We've been back aboard Play Actor for several months now, and my feet are back to normal -- brown, callused, sporting a few cuts and a sprained or broken toe or two.  So what's this about a storm?

Oh, yeah.  I got distracted, thinking about my feet, and shoes.  When we're settled in a place, as we are in St. Martin, we usually hoist the dinghy along the side of Play Actor at night.  That keeps barnacles and other assorted critters from growing on the bottom.  Last night, just as we were going to bed, a squall blew through our calm anchorage, with some gusty winds in excess of 40 knots.  We were feeling snug and cozy when there was a loud smack on the side of the hull.  Leslie went up on deck to see what happened and discovered that the dinghy had gone airborne, flying up on its tether and landing on edge alongside the big boat.  The smack was the top of the outboard hitting the hull.  That's about 300 pounds of dinghy flying around.

I climbed in the dinghy and managed to get it flying right-side up, using my weight for ballast.  We dropped it in the water and moved it to trail off the stern of Play Actor for the night.  After a good night's sleep, under covers, even, (a rare treat, in the tropics) we took a look at the dinghy in daylight.  Everything is fine, except…

There were only three flip flops in there!  Between us, we have four feet, so we knew right away that we lost one.  Of course, since I'm the one with limited footwear options, it was one of mine.  Now I've got to hop to the dive shop and see if I can buy a new Reef sandal.  With my luck, I'll probably have to spring for a pair.