French is the language of bureaucracy (and btw you’re never leaving again)

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 and found myself returning to Martinique.

Back in Martinique, I did what I came for and attended my job interview and meeting with the Pole Emploi, beginning another tedious round of French paperwork. I was annoyed that I’d cut my cruising adventure in the Grenadines short without making it any further south, and I hadn’t even explored the legendary Tobago Cays. But I reassured myself that if I started working Grenadines charters like Labrador Eyebrows did, I’d be visiting these places every week, and wouldn’t even need to risk my own boat on the reefs in the strong winds. Carnival was also just around the corner, and my friend Sadie the Goat (running short on female pirates) was coming from the UK to visit. She had a couple of weeks, so we were planning to Do Carnival, then sail to Dominica and Guadeloupe, from where she’d booked her return flight home. This would put me well on the way to my main target: Antigua.

I’d been mooching around in Ste Anne, trying to get my bateau back in order, hanging out drinking with the Swedish Boat Mafia and being generally lazy. I had a minor repair issue to deal with. When I’d anchored after arriving from St Lucia, I hadn’t been satisfied with where I’d parked, so had decided to move. However, now my engine seemed to be having some trouble starting. The next day Captain Salsa had come to take a look, and done a lot of sweaty poking around inside the compartment – disconnecting everything, reconnecting it, looking at wires and other things. It seemed to be working again and now it was time to leave and head back to Anse Mitan. Sadie was due to arrive in a couple of days time, and we were going to base ourselves in Trois Ilets to have convenient access to Fort-de-France for Carnival. I got a call from M. Escalade who wanted to come with me for the day sail. I hadn’t seen my old neighbour in a while and I reckoned it would be nice to have company. Jeanne had gone back to France so he’d brought a female friend whom I’ll refer to as Not Jeanne.

Remembering how long the trip had taken with Rachel and Mme Ching, I gave them a bright and early rendez-vous time. The currents would be with us and wind coming from behind, however, so I wasn’t anticipating the same kind of trauma. Plus M. Escalade had his own boat and regularly went out sailing with Moustache and his crew. This would be a nice relaxed journey with a 1st Mate who knew what he was doing. They were pretty late and I was champing at the bit to leave by the time I picked them up and brought them back to Annie B. The engine was a little dodgy starting, as it had been before when I’d wanted to re-anchor, and I was a bit nervous that Captain Salsa’s tinkering hadn’t done the job. She started though, and as we motored out of the bay, dodging the boat traps, I casually asked M. Escalade how he’d feel about anchoring under sail. He shrugged; he’d never done it before but was willing to give it a go. I’m sure it’ll be fine, I said. I’m sure we won’t need to. I tried to put it out of my mind and enjoy the sail.

It was a beautiful day and since the winds were mostly from behind, they felt light. It felt like such a luxury to have M. Escalade there to do the grunt work like hoisting the mainsail and handling the genoa. All I needed to do was relax at the helm. And after a while all I needed to do was give the helm to my crew and relax watching the scenery. We sang songs together – sea shanties in French and English. As we rounded the Rocher du Diamant, Not Jeanne was preparing to teach us the chorus to a gorgeous Breton song she knew, and I was instructing M. Escalade to get ready for a gybe. He’d been a bit over-cocky so far, undermining some of my more cautious decisions, and disagreeing with my choice of sail size and headings. I found it difficult to put my foot down, because he did also have a boat after all, but sometimes it was easy to forget that he didn’t actually know what he was doing, and was very young and prone to risk-taking. And also, I had far more experience than he did. I told him to centre the main for the gybe, and he reassured me it was properly centred. But as we gybed, the boom crashed over the boat with a terrifying thud, telling me he had nowhere near centred it. I should have checked, but it was too late to berate myself because with that powerful crash, the mainsail ripped entirely in half.

This was a massive oh fuck moment. I yanked the mainsheet to centre the boom properly, and checked that our course wasn’t leading us anywhere dangerous. We were OK. I tried to calm the fluttery panic that was threatening to emerge, and went to turn the engine on. Nothing. Of course nothing, perfect timing to give up. M. Escalade leapt up to the mast to drop what was left of the mainsail and pack it away. There was no amount of sail tape that was going to repair this tear. It was ripped right from luff to foot. I knew it was old and on its last legs, but I’d really hoped it was going to do me until the end of my project. I’d even considered ordering a new sail in the UK and getting Sadie to bring it with her. If I’d done that, she’d be showing up with my new mainsail tomorrow and this would only be half the disaster it was. As skipper, everything that happened on my boat was of course my fault, but at the same time I was fuming at M. Escalade for his carelessness.

With the wind behind us, we were able to continue sailing along under genoa alone, but manoeuvrability was more restricted, and we were entering an intense boat trap zone. I was stressed and annoyed, trying to work out a back-up plan for anchoring at our destination (or anywhere, really). I’d read up on how to anchor under mainsail, but had no idea how to do it under genoa alone. I didn’t have the seamanship skills yet, and M. Escalade certainly didn’t. I sent M. Escalade to the bow to keep an eye out for boat traps, and fiddled with the engine starter. This was another expensive problem that was going to need to be dealt with. Suddenly my voyage to Dominica with Sadie was seeming less and less likely. I was so angry.

Praise be to God, the saints, and all his shining angels. The engine eventually gave an unconvinced splutter into life. We were still making good way with just the genoa, but I didn’t want to take any chances. Now it was working, I was going to keep it on for the duration of the passage. I was no longer interested in taking our time and enjoying the sail, I just wanted to get home. The jovial spirit had left us and I was tense and quiet. I felt like I needed to concentrate hard to keep Annie B in one piece. Like it was my mental energy alone that was holding her together. As we rounded Cap Salomon on what always felt like the home run at this point, the wind strengthened and filled the genoa, tugging at its fragile seams. M. Escalade was still having the time of his life, wanting to push my boat to her limits as much as she could manage in her sorry state. The genoa did not look like it was in a good condition. With no mainsail in the way, I had a clear view of my dodgy sail tape repair, and I had the feeling that at any moment a gust could rip it to pieces like it had my mainsail. Against the protests of my crew, I decided to furl it in and finish the trip under motor. My charming dodgy motor. Even though by this time Anse Mitan wasn’t far, I felt deeply exposed and insecure. If the motor gave up on us again, we’d be in serious shit.

Once we were safely anchored in my usual spot, we bid farewell to Not Jeanne, and M. Escalade wanted to take me out for a drink to forget about my shitty broken boat. I went, but I wasn’t feeling it. Suddenly my life had acquired a whole load more problems to solve, which seemed par for the course with hashtag boatlife. My whole Antigua mission began to dissolve out of existence. I just couldn’t see how I’d get there.

If I wanted this new job with the charter company, I needed to do my marine safety course – and there were only a certain number of them running before my flight home for the summer. If I wanted to do that course, I needed to complete a First Aid certificate, swimming certificate, marine medical (with drugs test which I was nervous of since Labrador Eyebrows had failed despite not smoking anything ‘medicinal’ for 3 months), and a whole bunch of other bits of paperwork I forget now because they were so tedious. I also couldn’t arrange starting the course without visiting the Fisherman’s College in person, because 1) they didn’t answer the phone ever, and 2) they wanted me to queue outside an office there as well. The college was on the other side of the island, in a place that was very awkward to get to if you didn’t have a car. I cursed myself for having sold mine. All the paperwork and certificates seemed to have long waiting times attached, so organising this wasn’t as simple as you’d think. Enough to make my timescales for going to Antigua tight. Add to this the administration nightmare Brexit was causing me, obliging me to apply for a residency card (more paperwork, more long waiting times keeping my fingers crossed that my file would be accepted and I’d get a date for my interview), and it didn’t look like I’d ever be able to leave the island again.

But it was Carnival (nearly), and everything was going to be shut or at least non-functioning for two weeks minimum. I pushed all these annoying nagging things to one side, and focussed on Sadie’s visit. If we couldn’t sail to Dominica, we were going to Carnival the hell out of Martinique. The great thing about a friend visiting is you get to remember and show off all the things that are amazing about your home. Sadie was a natural adapter to my minimalist lifestyle aboard Annie B, even though guests never found the space particularly nice to cram into. We hired a car, and went on some jungle hikes, driving round some of the most spectacular parts of the island. At night we got into the Carnival spirit. Even though the official Carnival only lasts four days, the party atmosphere goes on for about two weeks. There are local parades during the daytime, and ticketed theme parties every night. Sadie had brought a great array of silly clothes, face paints and wigs from the UK to get us into the spirit of things.

For the main four carnival parades (not including the 3am pyjama parade which I’ve never yet made it to), there are specific dress codes. Dimanche Gras is themed ‘all the colours’ – it’s a big celebration day, to bring out the year’s Vaval (the Carnival King/mascot – a satirical effigy commenting on events of the year) and reveal him to the revellers. People tend to look like an 80s disco vomited all over the carpet, with extra glitter and neon tutus. Most people are choosing from the same selection of cheap crap dress-up gear sold at street stalls, so our imported wigs got a lot of envy. As the parade marches through the town, anyone can join it, and at the end the crowds and official costumed participants merge into one to run and dance through the streets, following booming music floats as they let everything go in the vidé. I’ve never been to Carnival in other countries, but people tell me Martinique’s is one of the most participatory and egalitarian around. Anyone can be part of it, even if your costume isn’t up to much. You just need to make an effort with the daily dress code.

Flav is thrilled by Carnival

Lundi Gras is the Marriage Burlesque where Vaval is supposed to marry the Carnival Queen. The main Carnival parade splits off into the island’s regions and the dress code is cross-dressing with your partner, wedding theme if you can. I didn’t have a partner, so substituted Flav. He didn’t seem happy about the prospect of coming with me on his first Carnival, but once he had his dress and wig on he looked much more comfortable in his own skin. The South parade was to be in a bay just round the corner from where we were anchored. My bateau was out of action, but a friend from the Bequia floating bar had shown up to Carnival with Sadie and I, and he had a lovely big boat. That morning we got costumes together and motored round to Anse d’Arlet with him, and found a spot to anchor before too many other boats showed up. This part of Carnival really is more fun for the boys, who basically spend two weeks in dresses looking disturbingly attractive. Sadie and I wore our normal trousers and painted on fluorescent moustaches, and I carried Flav in all his glory about on my hip. As we dinghied ashore, we were stopped by police and realised that they’d closed the dock so everyone could be filtered through the barricade to be searched. The only place to leave the dinghy was a tiny beach around the corner from town, already starting to get full and not very secure. Officially you’re not allowed to bring drugs or alcohol to the parades, but we were well stocked up on homemade cocktails hidden in the official Carnival free water pouches. We waited in the queue nervously, hoping they wouldn’t be confiscated, but Flav distracted the police so much they didn’t even bother to look in our bags.

He was a hit. Most people thought he was a real person until they clocked that he didn’t have any legs. People would shout jokes about my beautiful wife, demand to have their photo taken with us, and I was interviewed by a TV crew, trying to role-play Flav as my partner in my ropey French. Eventually we ran into the Poet, Labrador Eyebrows, and our other friends from Sainte Luce, and we all ran through the streets after the music floats dancing and trying not to catch the eye of former students (Carnival is that magical time of year when it’s perfectly acceptable to go into town in not much more than your lingerie, awkward).

By the time Mardi Gras came around, motivating ourselves to queue for the Trois Ilets ferry to Fort-de-France was a struggle, but Tuesday’s parade is the most charged of them all. The dress code is red and black, and the general theme is sex and devils. Everyone goes wilder and the party goes on much later into the night. The capital also feels that bit more dangerous after dark, but after a few years living in Martinique I was more comfortable with it than I had been before. The crowds are dense, but the island is so small you see people you know everywhere. As night fell I spotted someone I thought I recognised, a guy from a boat moored not far from Annie B in Anse Mitan. We’d never spoken, but since I’d had a few home-smuggled cocktails by now, I decided to forego my natural tendency towards ‘shy person who doesn’t know how to meet new people’. He didn’t really understand who I was or what I was trying to say to him, and after a few awkward minutes Sadie and I said goodbye and ran off. But since he later became my hero, I’ll give him his very own imaginative nickname: Boat Guy.

The last official day of Carnival is Mercredi des Cendres: the day when they burn Vaval on a big bonfire. Since it’s supposed to be a day of mourning, the dress code is black and white (the local funeral colours). The parade is usually noticeably depleted by this time, and Sadie and I couldn’t be bothered to go: the hangover too great, the energy too low. A few days later Sadie left me to go to Guadeloupe, the departure point for her homeward bound flight. I put her in touch with Zen Master and they met up for a Janzu session (underwater massage, or synchronised drowning as I remember it) – which was a nice connection since it had been a few years since we’d spoken by this time.

Once Sadie had gone, the real world came sneaking back to oppress me. I hitchhiked to Trinité to visit the fisherman’s college, and got started on my paperwork. And I finally looked at my sail. It was a depressing sight. I did have a spare mainsail; this boat had been kitted out for a trip to Tahiti after all. But it had been kitted out cheaply and poorly. The spare was an old sail for a much bigger boat, heavy and cut roughly along the foot with scissors. After an hour of hauling and tying, I concluded that if M. M—— thought this spare sail was going to fit the boat, he’d been dangerously optimistic. At a pinch it might work, but there weren’t any useable reefing points and I didn’t want to go anywhere single-handed if I didn’t have the possibility to reduce my mainsail. After a lot of dithering about what I could do, I decided to bite the bullet and buy a replacement. I couldn’t stretch my budget to a new genoa as well, so I took it in to a sailmaker who had just opened a workshop in the village. My bank account wept, but if I wanted to get to Antigua by the end of the season, it was my only hope.

A long waiting time was now inevitable and I rejigged my entire plan for the season, so that the pilgrimage to Antigua was the last thing I did before heading back to Europe for the summer. I was disappointed I wouldn’t have more time for my cruise, but the tedious administration was all-consuming. To make matters more stressful, my chances of having a marina place for hurricane season were slim unless I took the first berth that became available, and took it earlier than I really wanted (to pay for) it. This place was Païe Olive’s, and relied on Jeanne and M. Escalade being able to sell her (not easy, they’d already been trying for over 6 months). I didn’t want to move back into the marina. I didn’t want to hang around doing nothing in Martinique for weeks on end, but that’s how my life played out. The silver lining, however, was that I visited my new friend Boat Guy, and he turned out to be an electrician. With his help and that of another marina pal, we were able to identify the problem with my engine starter (dirty electrical contacts) and fix that issue. I didn’t have sails, but I could at least move the boat around which made me feel a whole lot more secure.

I enjoyed spending time with my land friends, and Boat Guy (who eventually moonlighted briefly as a Cabin Boy when I got my sails back), and I waited. Païe Olive was finally sold, and I moved into her spot in the marina. It was cramped and after the space and freedom of living at anchor, it felt like being stuck in a flat in a noisy dirty city. I waited some more. My sail arrived from the UK (second hand, and disguised as a repair so I wouldn’t need to pay the insane import tax). I was nearly there… I just needed my genoa back and to complete my STCW course so I’d be able to work for the charter companies next season. Boat Guy was at the Fisherman’s College doing a different training course, so when my week arrived I was able to stay at the place he’d rented and share his car (making my life 100% easier than it might have been otherwise). Doing marine courses in Martinique instead of mainland France was a whole different experience from the one most French sailors get. The majority of your teachers are local fishermen, and the instruction language tends more to Creole than French. Boat Guy spent his lunchtimes on the beach next to the College playing dominoes with the local guys from the course (you can’t get more Antillais than playing dominoes and drinking rum) – he told me he was learning more Creole and dominoes tactics than navigation.

There were only 4 people on my course: a woman from Corsica who had just arrived on an Atlantic crossing, 2 fishermen and me. It was my first time studying something in French, and it was a challenge to grasp the material and try and understand Creole at the same time. It was also my first time spending so much time with fishermen other that Mary’s boyfriend. Fishing is one of the few surviving traditional occupations around these parts and the fishermen always seem like symbols of the soul of the island. Mary’s boyfriend was an extreme example: he lived in a cabane on the beach under the watchful eye of a bunch of old salts who had been fishing out of those huts for generations, and he was basically a human dolphin. As a spear-fisherman, he had to swim and be deeply in tune with his environment to make a living since he didn’t have a boat for getting the big catch offshore.

The guys on my course were of the more classic ilk. One lived in the village of Tartane nearby and went out with local boats every day early in the mornings; the other lived in a huge house in the hills and owned a large boat called Rasta Family for fishing miles offshore. He would go out for weeks at a time with his crew and hunt the big fish. Along with the profs, they treated me with a kind of awed respect which I found touching and kinda baffling. As I’ve mentioned before, I’d got used to being treated by men here as a helpless damsel in distress, or dismissed as only useful for flirting with. But among the fishermen there was a sort of chapeau reaction to me. I was a fellow seaman, taking on the ocean just like they were. It was hugely encouraging when they enthusiastically cheered me on for my biggest mission yet, and the whole point of this long stay in the Caribbean: making the journey to my grandmother’s homeland as captain of my own boat. Finally, that’s coming next.

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