We Don’t Do That (murdering cruisers) Any More

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. I spent an idyllic few weeks living the cruiser’s lifestyle, but it wasn’t long before I started to get restless.

I was summoned back to Martinique. After just a couple of weeks on my cruising adventure, the charter cook job I had just applied for and a meeting with the Pôle Emploi about paying for my training course had me called back home before I’d really gone anywhere. But with my existential crisis about the unfocussed life of a cruiser, I felt like I needed some goals to aim for (also, Brexit required a whole load of tedious admin things to justify my future presence in European territories). It was time to head home.

I was hungover from my Valentines night out, so it took me a while to get going and leave Union Island. The first waypoint was to be Bequia, which I’d always thought was quite close, but it seemed to take an age to get there. People always say it’s tougher going north in this area than going south. I anchored as near to the entrance to Admiralty Bay as I could, and managed to get up early enough the next morning to do it all again. Even though I’d been nervous of stopping at St Vincent on the way down, the rougher weather made me cringe at the idea of going all the way to St Lucia in one shot. I was exhausted just thinking about it. Most of the bays on the Caribbean coast of St Vincent aren’t suitable for anchoring if you don’t have a lot of chain, the pilot book informed me. You needed a mooring ball, and I didn’t want to pay for one (it also seemed difficult and stressful if there was no-one there to help me – I didn’t fancy my chances catching one singlehanded at that time). I picked the bay of Chateaubelair, and whilst the pilot book warned that it was one of the places with the worst reputations for murdering cruisers, it also said that the people responsible had probably all gone due to a government effort to clean up the crime a bit. I hoped I would be OK. The first thing M. M—– had said to me when he sold me the boat (after saying ‘finish my voyage to Tahiti for me’) was ‘never go to St Vincent’. But I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice.

St Vincent, like Dominica, is one of these islands with high mountains blocking a lot of the wind as you pass in its lee. After a bumpy and tiring channel crossing, this phenomenon gave me a bit of a rest. But towards the northern half of the island, where there were less mountains and the waters were renowned for being more turbulent, the winds were gusty and shitty, and seemed to come at me from all directions. One minute I would be in a flat calm trying to stop my genoa flapping all over the place, the next I would be heeled right over, knocked down by a 25kt gust, the next I would be scrabbling about to avoid a gybe. For the first time in a while I started to feel nervous, unsure of my capabilities to handle the conditions. After a long stressful time of tacking backwards and forwards, I felt like I was close enough to the bay to justify the motor. I headed in, feeling anxious. I just wanted to stop for the night and move on. I didn’t want to be bothered by people, and I didn’t want any drama. But as I approached the area I’d read was ok for anchoring, a teenage boy paddled up to me on a surf board. This made me very jumpy. I was busy trying to get myself ready to anchor and I really didn’t want to be bothered by whatever he was going to demand. All the stories of the criminal activities towards cruisers leapt to the forefront of my mind, and this kid was Prime Suspect Number One. He tried to persuade me to go and anchor somewhere else, somewhere on the other side of the bay. I wasn’t sure why he would suggest that or what he was up to. I didn’t like the idea of everyone knowing I was over in an isolated spot all on my lonesome. I tried to stay polite and friendly, but I had no idea if I could trust him. I told him I was busy. I didn’t want him to see I was alone, but he stuck around, following me into the bay.

I tried to ignore him, and as I approached the town, found a small cluster of foreign boats anchored off the beach. I relaxed. Safety in numbers, right? And if they had managed to successfully anchor there, so would I. The wind had died and so no-one was facing the same way. You usually judge your approach angle based on where everyone else is pointed, trying to line up with them so you all swing the same and don’t hit each other (also, you need to do the manoeuvre facing the wind so it pushes you backwards and gives you a nice straight anchor chain). I took a guess at where everyone else’s chains were lying, and dropped my own. It was deep here, and I needed to let out nearly everything I had. I also didn’t want to get too near the shore (easy for someone to consider taking a swim over and maybe boarding me). I did my best. Now I was near the other boats, the kid disappeared and a woman in the water swam towards me to say hello. She chatted a bit, and invited me over to her boat for tea when I was ready. This exchange made me feel infinitely more relaxed about my whole situation. These other people clearly didn’t think St Vincent was too dangerous to stop at. What was I worrying about?

It was still afternoon and there was plenty of sun for me to go swimming first and check on the anchor. My chain was all over the place and it was basically a big mess, so I heaved myself out of the water and anchored all over again. The wind was calm right now, but overnight was another matter and it wasn’t a risk I wanted to take. As I was getting my act together to visit the other boat, a guy came up in a skiff to try and sell me fish and fruit. I was still wary of letting people think I was alone, so I called to Flav to ask if he wanted anything. I relayed the message – no thanks. The guy asked if I had anything to trade, so I rooted around and found him some batteries and fruit juice. It wasn’t much, but they were a couple of the things on his wishlist. Later I would learn that charter boats are treasure troves of French luxury goods, and fruit juice is always a favourite.

My next-door neighbours were a swanky catamaran full of very posh older folks. I swam over and soon found myself wrapped in a towel dunking Digestives in Earl Grey, telling them my life story. They were fascinated by the concept of me, although since I learned some of them were retired Eurocrats and one of them had been an EU Trade Negotiator, I would have much preferred to get their take on how Brexit was going. They were going ashore so I took the opportunity to hitch a lift (as I was still nervous to go by myself). As an island, St Vincent is starkly different to the Grenadines, which are technically the same country. While the Grenadines are first class Caribbean tourist attractions, St Vincent is rough and relatively unexplored by foreigners. Its dodgy reputation has a lot to answer for in this regard, although the powers that be do seem to be making an effort to attract more visitors. The hills behind the town promised lush jungle on a par with Dominica, and the island was frankly beautiful. Chateaubelair was kind of ramshackle, the poverty very evident. As we beached the dinghy, a guy jumped forward to help us tie it up and was looking for an arrangement so that he might ‘watch’ it. Other people approached, hoping to offer various services. I left the Eurocrats to deal with all this, as they actually did have money and knew they were expected to use it. It became quickly clear that you couldn’t really go anywhere without an escort. There aren’t many yachts stopping there and all of them are a source of income for local people in whatever way possible. You certainly don’t feel at ease there, but it’s beautiful and the people relatively cheerful. If you live in a community without a big tourist trade, it must be really strange to see these richly provisioned boats pop up in your bay and their occupants land on your beach to snoop round your village. An opportunity and an annoyance.

My new friends had got the hint that I didn’t want people to know I was alone. Maybe they got a bit carried away, telling anyone who would listen about the big guy I had back on the bateau. I don’t think people really believed them, but one of the guides who was looking for our business seemed to have decided that I was the captain of their charter boat, and was keen for me to take his number so I could work with him if I brought back another group. His details are now scrawled in permanent marker on my dry bag. It kind of made me want to get the job he thought I had, just because it’s so rare for the first guess of a man around these parts to be that you (a youngish woman) are the professional captain.

The guide who had adopted us walked us round the village, stoned out of his tree and bragging about his cannabis plantation up in the hills. He explained that the government’s proposed legalisation of marijuana wasn’t good news for farmers like himself. It might mean more income for the government, capitalising off an already booming industry, but for the growers it meant rich investors coming and offering them significantly less for their crop than they currently demanded. Someone else has also commented that for St Vincent to seriously make money from exporting cannabis, they need to much do better with their product. It might grow easily and naturally in the tropical heat, but it doesn’t stand up to the quality of the precisely and hydroponically grown Dutch stuff. Having this guy lead us round the village was profoundly awkward. Sort of like a poverty Disney-land. We were basically just wandering round the backs of people’s houses. After a while the Eurocrats wanted to find a shop to stock up on provisions, and we’d heard rumours that there was an actual restaurant somewhere.

Eventually they found the restaurant, and booked a table for that evening. I was invited. It was very kind, but talking to them was a bit like enduring an intense panel interview. Everything about me seemed fascinating to them. Don’t get me wrong, it was great for my ego, especially as they told me I’d made their trip much more interesting, but it got a bit embarrassing. I bet their stories were far more interesting than mine. That night, after they dropped me back at my boat, I dug out a stinky mouldy sleeping bag and settled Flav in the cockpit with his fake legs and a bandana over his face. He was to be the guard. I hoped anyone passing by might spot him and be scared off before they got close enough to see he was made of plastic. The people ashore had been perfectly charming, and none of the guys in the skiffs had been any more pushy than normal, but I was still freaked out about my friend’s story of being followed back to her boat when she’d been here. St Vincent’s reputation and my lack of knowledge of the people there made me jumpy and paranoid. Despite Flav’s presence in the cockpit, I hardly slept a wink that night.

Since this first trip to St Vincent, I’ve been back once, but only for a brief emergency overnight stop on a charter. Boats from my tour category were forbidden from visiting because apparently the insurance didn’t cover it. My colleagues on other boats always laughed at us, because they said it was a brilliant stop. Good parties in town, fun (if mad) people, and the passengers loved it because of the filming locations for Pirates of the Caribbean. But the picture of this place is a complex one. A colleague of mine told me about a time he’d wanted to do his Customs and Immigration clearance in Cumberland (one of the more popular St Vincent bays). His agent had been very on edge, and tried to persuade him to go back to Union Island and clear out there. He hadn’t wanted him to wander off alone or talk to anyone. My colleague said there was a really weird ambiance, and quite a few people there from other bays. (I get the impression the area can be quite territorial so coming to another bay is a big-ish deal.) Then he saw a haunting image he suspected had a lot to do with this bizarre and on-edge atmosphere: four dolphin corpses hanging up by their tails on the dock. Something very strange was going down. Bad things were happening and they didn’t want outsiders there. He got out of there pretty quickly after he’d done his paperwork. This tiny snippet of a story was fascinating to me – my imagination running rife plotting dramas worthy of a Netflix miniseries.

At the same time, I’ve heard people in Bequia complaining about the rising crime levels on their island, blaming the influx of people from St Vincent coming over on the ferry for a spot of weekend theft and stabbing. My teenage acquaintance in Bequia told me her father was from St Vincent and she’s met him once, when he’d visited the island – not to see her but to deal a few drugs and had been arrested before they could spend real quality time together. It’s safe to say St Vincent has a Reputation, and not just among cruisers. Many people seem to leave to make a better life for themselves elsewhere (the UK armed forces providing popular training opportunities). Now people have started returning, trying to work with the authorities to change the island’s reputation and make it attractive to tourists again. Time will tell I suppose. Nobody really likes mass tourism, but it’s vital for the economies of these islands. I guess I wish them well in the endeavour, although the thought of the lush jungle and wild beaches being destroyed by yet another resort makes me cry inside. Maybe that’s just my selfish foreigner viewpoint, fantasising about unspoilt scenery rather than thinking about the social and economic realities of local people.

The next day’s sail was a long slow slog to windward, and a navigation miscalculation obliged me to spend an unnecessary amount of time tacking past St Lucia. Marigot Bay (my intended destination) was rammed, and I almost chickened out of going in at all. I’d forgotten how far it was to Rodney Bay and I was starting to get optimistic I could make it all the way there. But then all the tacking happened, and eventually I was exhausted. There wasn’t much light left, and so I really really hoped there would be space at Marigot. There was, and I crawled gratefully into my bed, reassuring myself that there was just one day left and then I could relax properly (and maybe clean up a bit, the cabin was a state).

For my last leg, the weather forecasting app Windy had promised me a pleasant 16kts of breeze for my channel crossing back to Martinique. As I passed the last headland of St Lucia, I was perhaps overconfident and didn’t think carefully enough about the angle I needed for a comfortable point of sail. I should have been patient and gone just a bit further before turning to make the crossing, but I didn’t, and as a result I had a miserable time. The promised 16kts was a wishful dream, the reality being more like 30kts, and my shitty angle leaving me close-hauled for the whole journey. Without autopilot, this is a really tiring way to go, and going was so very slow.

As I approached Martinique, with a twinkle of hope that this exhausting ride might soon be over, I was hit by a punishing 40kt squall. I was knocked nearly flat, unable to do much about my sail size as it was all I could do to hold onto the tiller. I just about had the time and energy to get my foul weather jacket on. I couldn’t see anything, with the rain needling my eyeballs, and I was really nervous for the integrity of my sails. I braced myself in the cockpit, gripping the high side of the boat and basically just hanging on for dear life. But at the same time there was a calm inside me with Zen Master’s voice in it saying ‘on joue avec le grain’ (we play with the squall – the words he’d intoned all that time ago during our delivery to Guadeloupe). I held onto this idea, and hoped maybe with some skilful helming this grain would get me a few more degrees towards Sainte Anne. It was fine. I could endure this.

After way too long the squall passed and things calmed. I wasn’t far from the area I’d been sailing in with Rachel and Mme Ching when we’d had our little adventure before. I chuckled, trying to imagine how they would have coped with this episode; the heeling they’d found so scary being positively gentle in comparison. At any rate, I was glad to have gone through this alone: having inexperienced and frightened crew would have made it all a whole lot worse. Just as I was reflecting on this, my nerves still a little raw nonetheless, a pod of 30-60 dolphins (I have no concept of numbers) danced past. Oh, the majesty and pure joy of nature! Like after-birth hormones, they made me forget all the trauma that had just been and I was buoyed up, ready for my next exposed channel crossing.

I remembered to steer clear of the Ste Anne reefs this time, and found my place in the Swedish Boat Mafia encampment at the anchorage. I was cold and miserable and exhausted, but I’d made it all the same, and without grounding my boat this time. In terms of my history of arriving in Ste Anne, this one was a win for me. A lot of people gave me the impression they didn’t think girls could skipper boats. Captain Salsa liked to remind me (a lot) that women couldn’t be sailors because they’d just menstruate all over the cockpit. Oh! The outrage! The feminist bile welling up in my throat! Well, Captain Salsa, let me tell you this… halfway through that crossing I got my period in a big inconvenient flood (everywhere). So yes, in fact you’re right, they do just menstruate all over the cockpit. But… they still manage to sail at the same time (because women can famously multitask). And so that overshare, ladies and gentlemen, makes this not just a humble tale of grit and determination, it makes it a Woman’s Tale (of feminine toils and struggles, plus some sailing-themed grit and determination). You’re welcome.

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