Leaving Antigua, W. I.

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.