I Heart Cruising

Catch-up: early 2017 I’d bought a boat in Martinique where I worked, left it in Guadeloupe for hurricane season with a friend, become trapped there without a working engine, had faced 2 major hurricanes, had floundered around needing help from everyone, and eventually escaped my marina prison to finally get to a place where I could haul her out and do the work I needed to get back to Martinique. After ill-advisedly recruiting my delivery crew using Tinder, a slightly traumatic passage had me arriving in my new home, living a new life of lying around on beaches, drinking rum and occasionally going to work. After a bit of a push, I finally got it together to start taking command of the Anne Bonny myself and made it across the channel to a whole new country: St Lucia. After nearly sinking my boat, I was obliged to quit Martinique for the summer, but made it back for new repairs and the recruitment of a couple of awesome Cabin Boys. But my time with flesh and blood crew was coming to an end and I needed to strike out alone. I did my first single-handed sail, found a cabin boy made of plastic to join me in my adventures, and made my first tentative solo international journey. Now I was on a roll. I single-handed myself the furthest I’d ever been: all the way down to Bequia in the Grenadines.

Bequia was becoming one of the islands I’d visited most frequently, and because of my memories associated with it, one of my favourites. I’d first come with Captain Shiraz back when I’d started my adventures with Annie B, and returned the following year for an epic Swedish Christmas. It’s kind of a Little Sweden, with the amount of Swedish businesses there, and the way it seems to attract Swedish cruisers. I even ran into a Swedish celebrity chef there (have I said the word ‘Swedish’ enough yet?). As a sailing boat, you feel welcome in the gorgeous bay at Port Elizabeth. I spent an afternoon in a café chilling out with a local teenager (a pal of a land-based Swedish friend I’d made there) who explained a bit about the island’s relationship with the cruisers. When there are a lot of boats anchored, she told me, we’re happy. We know it’s going to be a good day. We’ll make money. They come to the shops, eat in the restaurants, use the yacht services, and they’re friendly. But the cruise ships… we hate them (the bay is regularly visited by the floating plague-prison monstrosities, disgorging boatloads of glassy-eyed passengers ashore to pack the beaches and shout loudly about the locals). They dump all their trash (which is difficult for a small island to process), they don’t buy anything, and the passengers are often really racist towards us. I nodded in sympathy. I hated cruise ship days. The town became like a tacky Disney-land and the loud English accents reminded me of a reality I’d run away from. But the Bequia cruiser-land was cheerful and welcoming, and it was clear why this bay was a haven for so many sailors. And why so many never left.

I spent the day after my arrival eagerly awaiting my ex-Cabin Boy Labrador Eyebrows. He was working as a cook on a charter catamaran, and I sat in my cockpit that morning watching every new charter boat that drifted in after their overnight passage from Martinique, wondering which could be his. I even casually rowed around the anchorage later in the day trying to see if I could spot him, but started to feel a bit stalkerish. I’d taken to rowing my dinghy rather than actually using the (perfectly functional) outboard engine. People would stop me, concerned, offering me either a tow or help with the repair. I probably should have taken the engine off (it definitely would have made rowing easier, but I liked to have it there as a back-up). People never quite believed me when I reassured them that I was just following the advice of someone I’d once sailed with that ‘rowing is an opportunity for exercise’. Who rows unless there’s something wrong? Along with the presence of Flav in the cockpit, it seemed to add to my eccentricity.

Labrador Eyebrows must have been busy working, because I didn’t hear from him until that evening, when I’d ditched Captain Imagine for the day and had eaten gloomily by myself, doubting he was really there and wondering what to do with myself. When his message came through he told me there was some kind of party at one of the beach bars that night, and though it wasn’t really his job, he’d agreed to take his passengers there. I could join them if I wanted. I was tired, but the thought of seeing one of my Martinique friends after my long adventure so far from home motivated me into action. By the time he messaged to say he was leaving, it was already pretty late, but I got ready and rowed my way across the bay. I wasn’t quite sure where on the beach this bar was supposed to be. I’d hoped it would be obvious, but eventually as I paddled my way through rocky shallows, I spotted another dinghy hauled up the sand. I tried to do the same with my own dinghy, water up to my knees, blind to the rocks and slippery seaweed, and surf pushing the boat ashore and sucking it back out again. Turns out that despite my new muscles, I wasn’t very strong. Once the boat was on the beach, hauling it up to the trees where I could tie it up was like dragging a dead horse. My motor was heavy and the support broken so that it couldn’t be lifted out of the way. Its propeller dug into the sand, making a very effective anchor that prevented me tugging it more than a couple of centimetres at a time. The decaying ropes at the sides snapped off in my hands. I was hot and sweaty and angry, severely reducing my enthusiasm for the night. I wanted to call someone to help, but there was no-one around, and Labrador Eyebrows was unreachable without his boat’s wifi. My progress was agonisingly slow. It probably took me about 20 minutes to get the dinghy high enough ashore to tie to the trees. Once there, I felt triumphant, but had no clue how I’d get it back in the water if I was forced to do this alone. And what was worse, there really was no sign of any big party anywhere around. Was my friend even here?

I headed along the beach towards the only bar I could see, but there definitely wasn’t a party happening there and I couldn’t see Labrador Eyebrows inside. I found myself wandering along the road, barefoot because I’d forgotten shoes. Eventually I found something that definitely looked like an event, but a guy on the door told me tickets were 50EC dollars. Seriously? I hadn’t even brought money with me. I hung around, trying to call LE, until the doorman said I could go and look for him. Round by the other entrance, there was no-one there. Could I just walk in…? I did. The place was half empty, the party winding up. I spotted a couple of white people who looked pretty French, bouncing away to the dancehall tunes. Labrador Eyebrows was outside having a smoke. ‘Hey!’ He hugged me. ‘What took you so long?’

We had about 15 minutes before the DJ told us the party was over. What a whole load of effort for nothing, but it was nice to see him. He and his passengers helped me get my dinghy back down the beach, and told me they’d meet me back at their boat for some drinks. I used the engine this time. Once aboard the fancy catamaran, I marvelled at the luxuriousness of the kitchen. This was where he cooked? He showed me around, explaining what he needed to do for his job and the sorts of meals he prepared. I had to admit, there was something very appealing about it. I am a really passionate cook, and the idea of being paid to do that and visit the Grenadines every week, with a whole week or so off in between stints, seemed like a great gig. Better than the day-in-day-out teaching arrangements I faced if I returned to the world of TEFL once my adventure was over. I knew that after this season was up, I was probably going to sell my beloved bateau. I needed to move on. But if I got a job like this, I would be able to support myself for as long as it took to sell her. In a way it didn’t make much sense as I already had my teaching certificate, giving me work that would be pretty well-paid, but I have a habit of not staying in one job too long. It’s not because I’m unfocussed, but because I constantly need new challenges. I didn’t fancy going back and doing the same thing again – I couldn’t see any development in that. (Just as I couldn’t see any point in perpetually cruising around like this once I’d achieved the goal I’d set myself.) A friend of mine (himself in his 70s) once said to me – why live the same year 70 times? So far I’d stayed in Martinique because each new year brought a new challenge, especially now I had a boat. But I would never be able to stick around if I was just going to repeat last year’s exploits. I loved my life there and wasn’t ready to leave yet, so a change in job ticked all my boxes. New things to learn! And all you needed, in order to start, was to complete a week-long safety course (along with the standard French administration Olympics) which the Pole Emploi (job centre) would pay for. In the days that followed, with Labrador Eyebrows’ advice, I wrote an application.

In the meantime, he had to leave and get on with his charter. He told me he’d be back in a week for another round, and I decided I’d wait for him. I wanted to properly chill out in Bequia, enjoy being there, relax into the life of an aimless cruiser now I’d got here. Captain Imagine hauled anchor to sail further south, so I was left by myself to bum around the island. I had another Swedish friend who based herself on the island for six months a year, and after a few days team Salsa turned up to moor just outside the café where we were eating cake. There were drunken nights out on the boat and in dodgy locals’ bars, and when they left I did something I’ve never been confident enough to do before – I went to a bar alone to make friends. It floated in the middle of the bay, just big enough for a small square bar to crowd around, a couple of swings and a corner for some musicians. I got in my dinghy and rowed over, discovering that people actually recognised me as ‘the girl who rowed’, now. I only had to buy myself one drink that night. After that everyone was curious about the unicorn that was the solo female sailor, and I met some very excellent people. I always had a phobia of going to bars alone, but here was a place mostly frequented by other cruisers – and they’re easy to get into conversation with. All you need to do is ask them about their boat and where they’ve been.

This week in Bequia was heaven – everything I wanted from cruising. A beautiful island to relax in, people there I could hang out with (my Swedish friend introduced me to some of her local friends too), and other cruisers to party and share stories with. I was reluctant to leave, but I knew I’d come on this trip to sail – not to grow seaweed on my anchor chain. Labrador Eyebrows returned with a new charter, but he was too busy to see me and I knew I wouldn’t have his speed to meet him at his next destination. It was fiercely windy, making hanging out on the boat annoying and uncomfortable. Every time I looked at the entrance to the bay, I lost my courage. I missed out on the lobster barbecue he’d invited me to at Mayreau, but there were other potential rendez-vous points on his itinerary. ‘Get that Karaté out into the wild’, he told me, and he was right. I needed to move on. The next day therefore really was leaving day, but the rain was torrential and the wind still blowing hard. I really didn’t want to go, and the morning was wearing on. But finally I got a grip and got myself away. One of my new friends from the floating bar followed me in his dinghy to say goodbye, and my neighbours kept a friendly eye out that I didn’t crash into their boat as I pulled up the anchor.

The swell was big and wind speeds high, but it didn’t feel any scarier than anything I’d already experienced. I put on my Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack (I’m not ashamed, it’s music written for this seascape) and felt like a conqueror of oceans. Some dolphins even came to play beside me. I sang. I lost my setting-off fear (which I always had at the beginning of a passage before I got into the swing of things) – I was totally loving sailing. And I was making quick progress, so I decided to message Labrador Eyebrows to say I could join him if he could tell me where he’d be. He must have been busy as he didn’t reply, so I pushed on with my planned stop at Clifton, Union Island. But as I drew nearer, my tablet with the GPS and Navionics chart suddenly died. Shit. This whole area was potentially very hazardous to navigate around, because of all the reefs, strong currents and different islands. It wasn’t the same as just tipping up to a nice wide clear bay at the only island visible after crossing a channel. Both my pilot book and paper chart were down below, and there was glass smashed all over the floor (the joys of rough waters and badly-secured kitchenware). I’d been using the Navik self-steering again, but it had disconnected as usual. I knew I needed to leave the helm – I’d examined the charts and pilot instructions thoroughly before I left, but I didn’t want to rely on memory – but I was nervous about an accidental tack as the weather helm pulled me to face the wind as it was wont to do.

I built up the courage and dived below. By some miracle I had managed to trim my sails so that they were actually quite well-balanced (I learned later that Annie B had 2 points of sail that she was able to keep a stable course on, and this was one of them), and as I left the helm to dodge cutting my feet open on the shards of glass down below, we stayed on course. I wasn’t entirely sure about my chosen anchor spot. There was another bay around the other side of the island that seemed more chilled, but I was nearly there now and since I had no word from my friend, I might as well go there and take a break.

For anyone who knows the Grenadines, Clifton is not a place for an inexperienced single-hander to try and anchor. Especially not in that wind. It was packed with boats, with only mooring balls available and certainly no anchoring space, riddled with dangerous reefs and unprotected from the blow of the wind. I motored in with my mainsail still blowing all over my deck, and immediately knew this had been a mistake. I didn’t feel confident about stopping here at all, not even for a short break while I waited for news from Labrador Eyebrows. I turned around and headed back the way I came, after checking the pilot book. I decided I would go to that other bay I’d fancied after all – Chatham. Wearily, I started my mainsail hoisting procedure, and realised the halyard was once again caught on the steaming light. It was the end of a long day, and I couldn’t face the tedious game of trying to flick the rope off the obstruction. I gave up on the mainsail, and tidied it away again, keeping the motor on and getting us out of the danger zone and into the channel beside the island. The wind direction was such that I could sail under just genoa, and as I unfurled it, I noticed that there was a nice long rip along the seam. Lovely. Luckily my engine wasn’t playing up.

An hour later I was in a beautiful wide bay, with only a handful of boats there, and had chosen an ideal anchoring spot. My manoeuvre had gone perfectly, and I still had a fair amount of daylight left to relax with a rum in my cockpit and admire the good job I’d done. A number of local guys came by in their skiffs trying to sell me stuff. Someone told me later that they normally have an agreement amongst each other to only go one guy per boat. But because I was a girl on my own… I can’t even be bothered to finish that sentence; you already know how it goes. As the sun was setting (and I was on my second or third rum), catamarans from Labrador Eyebrow’s charter company started arriving and staking their claims on the remaining good spots. I kept my eyes peeled, and finally saw his boat come and anchor right next to me. I waved. He didn’t see me. He didn’t even recognise Annie B. How rude.

I woke up the next morning after a late-night private party chez moi with Labrador Eyebrows, in time to wave him off as his charter continued. They really race you around those anchorages, it seems like such a shame. So now I was on my own, with no friends to distract me, and my ripped sail to deal with. The wind was still blowy and unpredictable, and the problem with fixing a furling genoa is that you have to take the whole sail down in order to work on it. Calm weather is really ideal for this, or the thing flaps and flails and probably blows overboard. Not to mention the difficulties of hoisting it back into place and re-furling it. After a while I got my sail tape ready (thanks Captain Salsa) and set to it. I quickly discovered that this is not an easy job on your own. However, I was an independent solo sailor, so I struggled away with it, taking my time. The tear was along the seam where the UV strip attached to the main part of the sail. It was definitely on its last legs. After a while of struggling away at this by myself, I noticed a couple of dinghies approach. Some guys from neighbouring boats were on their way to ask if I needed any help. Strong and independent as I liked to think of myself, help was definitely welcome, and between us we did the rough repair and battled the wind to hoist the sail back up the forestay, furling it neatly. And of course that’s the thing about cruisers – they have a lot of time on their hands and are always happy to help out their comrades.

After that I sat about, wondering what to do with my day. Exercise is always appreciated, so I packed a dry bag and swam ashore (I couldn’t be bothered to launch the dinghy). A few concerned people offered me lifts. Does no-one exercise in cruiser-land? Once ashore I ambled along the beach for a bit, before heading to the beach bar and getting myself a beer. No-one came to talk to me. I took advantage of the wifi and sat scrolling through my phone. Scrolling, scrolling. Was this really what I wanted my life to be now? An endless holiday with no real goals except sometimes sailing to places? What had I even done to deserve all this holiday? It wasn’t as if I’d been working hard and needed a well-earned break. But then I remembered all the people who sat labouring away in offices back home and shuddered. This was definitely the winning approach, right? I was in paradise and they were the suckers…? I felt frustrated and uneasy. I’d been looking forward to leaving the landlocked working life and sailing away on a cruising adventure for ages, but now I was here I felt aimless, and, honestly, lonely. I remembered a solo sailor friend of mine who had given up because she found it too lonely. I mean, there was the initial challenge of sailing to a new spot, but what did you do once you got there…? Sit on your boat admiring the scenery? Of course, in theory you were supposed to explore, but when I thought about the reality of that… wandering about on my own, being an easy target… I didn’t want to live my life cautious and afraid, but there are some things that just aren’t the same for a young woman as they are for men. I mean, I’m sure most of the time it’s fine, but there’s always that little voice in the back of your head that says ‘what if…?’ I just didn’t feel that free.

And there were other issues. What about the very essence of aimless cruising? Was running away from it all to ‘follow your dreams’ and live the good life on your little boat a worthwhile way to do life? In the long-run, I mean. What about taking part in the world? What about contributing? There’s so much shit going down on this planet, is it right just to hide away and pretend it isn’t happening? Perhaps only poking your head out once in a while to mutter about ocean plastics and call it a day? Then there’s your relationship with the islands you visit… Sure, you could look round a place when you arrive. Go on a tour, maybe. Hitchhike to another town and see what the interior looks like. But to get to the very depth of it, the very soul… you needed to spend time with people. You needed to stay there and join in. That’s always been far more interesting to me anyway. I like travelling, but I like living in a place and understanding it much better. Was I doing this all wrong, this sailing adventure thing? Perhaps the uneasiness came from a misalignment of being on a mission versus getting to know a place. Was I getting the two things all muddled up? Was everyone else doing this differently and I’d just totally missed the point?

I left Chatham Bay the following morning and headed back to Clifton (taking the route round the south of the island, continuing my loop). It was still fiendishly windy so I relented when the harbour guy approached and paid for a mooring. I went ashore to look around, but didn’t feel like there was much that was fun to ‘explore’ on my own. I got tired of being shouted at and followed by the local men, so returned to the bateau to hang out with Flav. It was Valentine’s Day after all, and my man needed me. I spent a bit of time unpacking my thoughts on the next steps Brexit was forcing me to take (a bit of a Brexistential crisis, as it were) and whether I was going to look for a long-term future in France (with all the European benefits that brought), or accept what I considered to be one of the biggest acts of self-sabotage a country like mine could make. Like, it might be nice to become French. Très chic. But…. Oh God the bureaucracy!

Feeling #blessed on Valentine’s Day with Flav

After a while I was feeling lonely again, so decided to try a repeat of my floating bar trick in Bequia and go out to find some friends. Clifton has a famous bar called Happy Island, built on a man-made reef island originally constructed from conch shells at the edge of the anchorage. I put Flav away, locked up the boat, and rowed my dinghy over to the island. It was still late afternoon, but I reckoned sundowner o’clock wasn’t far away. There wasn’t anyone else there except the bar lass setting up for the evening. She gave me some kind of potent rum concoction and we chatted about this and that. As I started to feel awkward drinking alone in this deserted bar, I considered giving up and going back to the bateau for a good night’s sleep. However, just before I did a bunch of manly boat types arrived and after letting me sit sadly by myself for a while, they invited me to join them. We got most drunk, and at the end of the night the bar staff asked if I wanted a job (I presumed to lure in other sailor types to spend way too much money on drinks). These guys definitely hadn’t planned to stay more than a round, but who could resist my charms? I staggered back to the dinghy to row home, but the staff were horrified by this idea and gave me a tow. I may have been deluding myself about my ability to get back on my own. At least I didn’t fall overboard. The next morning the bar team waved cheerfully as they passed my boat, asking if I was feeling OK. No of course I wasn’t. Thanks a lot. That was absolutely the last time I destroyed so many braincells with so much rum. The last time.

Nursing my sore head that morning it hit me… I’d only been going a few weeks, but I’d already fallen out of love with cruising. This couldn’t be all there was. I needed to get back on track and back to my mission.

Go back and read the blog from the start