Nature Boy

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. My cruising life was then put on hold for a while as I lost my mainsail and fell victim to the relentlessness of French bureaucracy. But a few months later, just before my time in the Caribbean was up for the season, I was ready to go.

When I was 4 years old my father retired from government service in Nigeria. As his health would not stand up to the English climate, he decided to take us all to Antigua, one of the Leeward Islands B.W.I., where his mother and father and a married sister were living. So my travels begin. We set sail on a cargo ship, a week before Christmas. My 2 elder sisters, an older brother and a younger brother Osbern. Osbern and I were both harnessed and roped securely, as the ship’s railings were few and far between. My special friend was the ship’s cook. Every day he would bring me a bit of bread dough to play with, only I ate it. We had a very gay Christmas, the entertainment was led by the wireless officer Mr Potter, (13 years later he was wireless & cable operator in Antigua and I was governess to his 2 children Wendy & Peter). The night before we arrived in Antigua I had a great shock, mum took away all our clothes and threw them overboard. What I did not realise till years later was, they were all winter garments.

(Joyce Robertson née Nugent, Some of My Travels)

 

As I finally set out on my pilgrimage to Antigua, it’s time we revisited the original concept for this blog. My official excuse to move out here, and try and get to this one particular island, was to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather Tony Robertson: to leave Glasgow, come to the Caribbean and to find Joyce Nugent. (Also, do boat stuff.) It’s quite a nice narrative idea: to draw meaning from a series of coincidences which have unintentionally pointed me in the same direction as a couple of forbears I’d never had a relationship with. I’m saying coincidences rather than family influence, because growing up I never knew this story. I never knew he sailed. I never knew he went to Antigua. I never knew she was raised there or that her family had been among the early colonial settlers.

 

There was also this other little idea lingering at the back of my mind… were they just coincidences? Or is there something that gets passed down the generations beyond simple genetics? Despite having practically zero sailing exposure in my childhood, did I love the idea of boats because both my grandfathers were sailors? Did I want to play the violin and make yoghurt and work in theatre because my grandmother had been into those things too? Was it written in my DNA? Where do any of these things even come from anyway? (Please note, I’m sceptical, but they’re fun coincidences.) In another post I also discussed the idea of personality traits (and hang-ups) being passed down. It’s kind of logical, I suppose. Anyway, it seemed like by doing this project I was somehow looking to fill the gaps in my identity. But was I really trying to prove that part of this grandmother I’d never known lived on in me? Did I really think finding out about her life would tell me more about myself? Or was this all just an excuse? A handy story to connect then to now so I could justify a possibly natural urge to go somewhere sunny and avoid working too much…?

 

Who knows. But while we’re talking about things being passed down, we can’t ignore the rest of the picture. When Joyce and her parents moved back to Antigua, they were cogs in a colonial system; ordinary agents of British imperialist power. Although they weren’t headline-grabbing historical figures, they had a part to play in the legacy colonialism has left, and its mark on the modern-day Caribbean. We can’t ever forget that. It’s actually probably the thing that interests me most about this whole investigation. As I began the last leg of my (physical and metaphorical) journey, I had no idea what I really expected to find in Antigua, or what I was even looking for. Reading the above snippet from her recollections, it appears neither did Joyce. But then, she was only 4.

 

 

June 2019

With my sails installed and tested, and all my tedious French paperwork and training courses completed, I was finally free to get back on the water and away from Martinique. There was no more time to waste: hurricane season had already officially begun and I had an imminent flight home booked. It was now or never for the Antigua mission. I don’t know why, but at the last minute I decided to invite the Poet to join me for the first part of the voyage. We hadn’t hung out much since the trip to Dominica, and we weren’t as close as we’d been before. Maybe I wanted to rebuild our friendship before we all went our separate ways at the end of the season. I was confident enough single-handing by this time that I didn’t need his help for the actual sailing, but instinct told me that with him, the trip would be a lot more fun.

We were supposed to meet at 10am but by 11 he still hadn’t materialised. I was beginning to wonder if he was coming at all when he was suddenly there on the ponton, beaming a massive smile. He wasn’t the same untamed puppy he’d been the first time I’d invited him to come sailing with me, but he still had a certain bounce and easy charm. His task had been to bring fruit and veg for the voyage, and being the Poet he’d decided to go foraging for it. He had bag stuffed with a load of different mangoes, avocados, a breadfruit, a papaya and a few other things. A few weeks before, I’d visited him at the squat (where he lived with Labrador Eyebrows and a couple of our other Sainte Luce friends) and had been greeted by the sight of avocados and mangoes laid out on all available surfaces. He’d found at least 7 different varieties, and he was sitting in the garden (newly planted with coconuts and wild cannabis) eating mango after mango, chucking seeds and skin over his shoulder to compost where they lay. He was noticeably thinner and dirtier than he had been when we first met. It had been six months since the Dominica trip, and in the intervening time he seemed to have turned somewhat feral. He only ate food he’d hunted or foraged for now, he told me, and the rips and stains in his clothes gave away his penchant for sleeping rough and his disdain for buying new threads. He’d had the same couple of outfits on rotation since he’d arrived 7 months ago. Material things (except for his iPad) were irrelevant. He was now Minimalist Nature Boy.

There wasn’t much wind to start with, and as we sailed gently into the Bay of Fort-de-France, he turned to me and looked me in the eye. You’re not going to like this, he said calmly, but I need to jump in the sea. What the- now really wasn’t the time. We were sailing, goddamnit! I promise I can get back on, he told me. I need to wash the coconut oil out of my hair. Now? Right now? Couldn’t you have taken a shower at home? As I was musing on whether this was a good moment to practise MOB, he’d suddenly dived headfirst overboard. I sailed on. He hurriedly grabbed the side and hung on for a bit, lolling his head back in the rushing water. Then he hauled himself up, a huge grin cracking his face. Wow, we were going faster than I thought, he said, shaking water all over the cockpit like a dog. It was never boring hanging out with the Poet, but you had to keep an eye on him. Perhaps I should have considered clipping him into the cockpit.

We were halfway to Saint Pierre when the bad luck began. The wind was still fairly gentle, but since it was coming from behind it meant we were obliged to gybe from time to time. The Poet was a great Cabin Boy – always happy to do the grunt work, as well as generally following my instructions without too much complaint. But do you remember the last time I spent time gybing and ended up ripping my sail in two? Well this new sail, which I’d ordered online, wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Although I’d thoroughly checked the measurements (it was small for the boat but I was never going to go full sail while single-handing), I’d failed to check the weight. It was alarmingly lightweight. So when we gybed off the north coast of Martinique, yes you guessed it… the sail ripped. I wanted to cry. It was only a smallish tear where I’d tied the reefed sail to the boom, but it was starting to feel like I wasn’t meant to get to Antigua. The gods wouldn’t allow it. We stayed calm and the Poet took the helm as I headed below to dig out the remaining scraps of the sail tape Captain Salsa had left me. We fired up the engine and furled in the genoa to have more control over the situation. The Poet was upbeat and reassuring, and helped me hold the boom steady as I lowered the sail and smoothed tape over the hole. I’d have to organise (ie pay for) a proper repair once I got to Antigua, but I wasn’t going to let it stop the voyage so soon after it had started.

Deep breaths, sails back up and en route. I helmed cautiously, nervous another gybe would make the hole worse, but we made it to Saint Pierre and our planned overnight stop. The anchorage was packed and since it’s so deep there, it wasn’t easy to find a place shallow enough for my short chain. It took us a while to anchor to my satisfaction and we were a wee bit close to a bunch of small boat moorings that kept popping up out of the blue the moment I thought I’d found the perfect spot. That evening the Poet dived over board with my dry bag and swam to shore, returning later with beers and jellyfish stings, to regale me with mad stories of his adventures since we’d been to Dominica together. From the sounds of things, he was one step away from living in a tree in the jungle.

I didn’t sleep all night, stressed out about the damaged sail and the weird noises the anchor was making. In the v-berth your head is right below the bow and if the anchor chain is disturbed, you hear it. It turned out it had wrapped itself around one of those kamikaze moorings. What a way to start. After we’d untangled ourselves, we motored away, enjoying the continued tranquil weather. There wasn’t much wind until we got into the channel between Martinique and Dominica, but by that time my anxieties about the sail had melted away and I could relax. The Poet chatted away, giving me stories about his more recent trip to Dominica as we motored past the island. He’d gone back to the Ital café in Roseau and got talking with another Rasta. This time he’d been invited to go home with him and had spent a week in the hills being spiritual in his enormous house. Dominica had always been a slightly witchy magical place to me, but the Poet had some kind of talent to find the soul of that and spend time with the people who would teach him the hidden secrets of the universe. Or something like that. I was a bit jealous. I knew I’d never be able to let go quite as much as he could. He had no fear, and never needed to worry about getting himself into situations which might be more risky for a woman. He told me my problem was I didn’t know how to establish boundaries; that’s why I was so bothered by what felt to me like this relentless pursuit by unwanted men. Maybe he was right. Or maybe experience has taught me not to trust people to keep their hands to themselves whatever your boundaries.

We anchored in Portsmouth, at the northern end of Dominica. The weather was moody and the Poet cooked a daal made of some old lentil scraps and the coconut he’d foraged on the way to the boat. As darkness fell, a dodgy looking dinghy puttered past towards a dilapidated sailing boat moored a short distance to starboard. It seemed to be well-laden with people. The dinghy disappeared, and reappeared not long after filled with more shadowy figures hunched in the bow. Traffickers, the Poet shrugged. The amount of people they seemed to be trying to fit in that tiny boat was astounding. Then they released the mooring and were gone. No wonder Dominica felt so empty.

The next morning the Poet pumped up the kayak and headed on an illegal trip ashore to find us some bakes. I’d fallen in love with bakes on my first trip to Dominica way back when, and had introduced the Cabin Boys to them on our last visit. They’re these little fried doughy buns, stuffed with mixes of saltfish, tuna or melted cheese, chives and mayo. To that add some mouth-destroying Caribbean chilli sauce and you have the ideal breakfast. The Poet was gone a long time (I swam a bit and prepped the boat for leaving in the meantime), but when he returned he had the goodies and a bonus bottle of peanut-flavoured Seamoss (another favourite part of the Dominican breakfast). He’d had to walk a long way, he explained, and searched high and low. I appreciated his dedication to bakes. They were important.

The wind today was stronger, stronger than I really felt comfortable with considering we’d opted to hoist the full main. I watched its fragile seams carefully, and the patch inexpertly jammed on. The Poet’s presence was reassuring, however (even though he was so distractable on the helm. He kept yelping in excitement at dolphins or the beauty of the world, and we’d find ourselves veering off course and the sails flogging). Whenever we worried that the wind was getting too strong for the rig, we depowered the main by loosening the mainsheet. I don’t know why I’d never used this technique before (I know, right?), and it turned out to be a lifesaver later on.

The islands of Les Saintes were on the horizon, across the short channel. I studied the pilot book carefully, making sure I was navigating us to the right pass. We were making good speed; this passage wasn’t a long hop, and our prompt start from Dominica (despite the delay to track down breakfast) meant we should be there by early afternoon. By the time we arrived at the pass, we were feeling pretty confident about our seamanship, and although it was narrow, decided to go as far as we could purely under sail. The Poet was still off in his own poetic world and I had to snap at him to focus and keep his eyes peeled for boat traps. They were everywhere, and I had to concentrate on the depth sounder and when I should tack so I didn’t ground us on the suddenly appearing shallows on either side of the pass. By the time we reached the other side we were so confident we were talking about anchoring under sail, just for kicks. I’d now managed to do this manoeuvre once before when Boat Guy and I had gone out to test the new sail and practise things like this for my future safety. We could totally do it.

Rounding the corner, however, the wind slammed into us from a new direction and although the anchoring spot I’d chosen was within sight, I suddenly felt a lot less confident about managing it. Anchoring in Les Saintes isn’t easy since in most places you’re supposed to take a mooring – we would probably need to do a lot of probing around before we finally found a suitable spot. The Poet leapt up to pull down the sails, and for some reason seemed to be bleeding freely from his hand. What’s happened? I yelled. He shrugged. Nothing, obviously, but he was bleeding all over my nice new sail. Great.

It was late in the season, and the moorings looked relatively empty. But there’s something all us budget sailors have in common… a fear of paying mooring fees when there’s a perfectly good anchorage available. (Never mind that constant anchoring from all the thousands of boats is damaging the sea bed and threatening the environment.) The main town on Terre-de-Haut had a veritable field of free spaces, but each one of them came at a price us cheapskates weren’t prepared to pay. I’d heard rumours of a bay where free-range anchoring was permitted, and saw a couple of other boats already settled in. The seabed was strewn with rocks, but we eventually managed to get our hook buried not far from the other boats, and after an hour waiting to see if the swing was going to take us anywhere dangerous, I voted us arrived and secure. We inflated the kayak and paddled ashore, leaving it discreetly padlocked under a tree. The Poet insisted I didn’t need to worry about such capitalist things as locks, and skipped off over the rocks to look for a path into town.

I was to be leaving him behind in Les Saintes. He had a fantasy of living wild and free on a beach in just his tattered sawn-off jeans, and had an instinct this was the place to do it. When the Apocalypse comes, he told me, this was where he wanted to survive. Sailors and other foreign Caribbean-dwellers talk about hypothetical Apocalypse solutions a lot. Maybe it’s the regular hurricane threat, or the closeness to a visibly declining natural world… you feel at the edge of things there. Like you’re just a breath away from the end. Hippie sailors, like those Preppers you find on blogs, love the idea of being forced to survive: so long as this Apocalypse leaves all the fresh fruit and fish intact. And you can steal a better boat.

The Poet was anti-property and as we ambled up the road towards the town (him barefoot, me in broken flipflops that I was struggling to keep attached to my feet), his eyes were trained on the fruit trees in other people’s gardens. As we passed a house, he spotted someone in the garden round the back and told me to wait a sec. He bounded up to an old woman and gushed some politeness in perfect French. He was asking her about hiring spear guns or kayaks or something, and she had some for rent apparently. But he hadn’t got round to his main aim yet. As he began to thank her and say goodbye, he casually asked if we could have a couple of star-fruit from her tree. She frowned, looking doubtful. But, did I mention how charming the Poet is? We walked away with one fruit each. You have to just ask, or you won’t get anything in life, he told me. But she only had about four on the tree…! I protested. But this was what the Poet was all about at that point. Living the best he could without taking part in traditional currency-based society. He had plenty of smiles to offer the world in return for its bounty.

We drank a couple of beers on the sea wall in town, admiring the incredible breath-taking beauty of the island, the Poet instructing me on its fascinating social makeup (mostly white Breton/Norman colonial settlers who nonetheless spoke Creole as a native language. They looked like French retirees, but when they opened their mouths you could tell they’d been on this island for generations). After a while he jumped up without warning and splashed off into the shallows to interrogate a couple of fishermen bringing in their boat. I think he actually managed to go out fishing with them a few times during his hobo residence on the island after I left.

After that he ran off because he’d spied a laden coconut tree nearby. I’d seen him scamper up a coconut palm like a local a couple of times before, and never failed to be impressed/scared for his life. He brought two back, smashing them open and handing me mine to drink. Afterwards he ripped his apart, scooping out the thin film of flesh to eat. He discarded the husks, flinging them out into the harbour in front of him. This was nature, and the coconuts were biodegradable after all. But pretty soon two very angry local women had approached us and were ranting at the Poet. I couldn’t quite catch everything they were saying, but essentially they were pointing out that the ocean wasn’t his poubelle. He argued with them about biodegradability for a while, trying to remain calm and respectful, but in the end they told him that here they burn their rubbish and that the coconut helped with the smell, which was why it was better in the bin. He was fuming, it was clear. Without warning he shallow-dived headfirst right into the harbour and retrieved every piece he’d thrown, a few curious onlookers gathering. The ladies seemed satisfied as he brought the husks triumphantly to the bin and deposited them with a flourish. After they’d gone a local man who had been watching the micro drama came up and said how impressed he’d been with the way the Poet had dealt with the exchange. There’s the feeling here that visitors didn’t always respect local people, treating the island as if they owned it. The Poet had done the right thing by listening to the women even though he disagreed. He was still seething despite the praise from the old man, and told me he’d been aiming for the shock factor. He regretted not stripping naked to dive in.

We explored further, finding a wild beach on the other side of the hill covered in sea sponges. We harvested some for the dishes, and the Poet told me that you could also wash up with the fibrous husk of a green coconut. He’d learned this with the Dominican Rasta. It didn’t scratch the pots and you could just throw it into the sea when it got too old. We found some noni fruit which he told me you had to pick and leave sealed in a jar in the sun, letting it ferment to make a potion to cure all. I’d had adventures with noni before, which is the worst smelling and tasting fruit in the world (aside from perhaps Durian), and I was deeply unconvinced by this experiment. Heading back to the boat, we found a cashew tree halfway down a ravine. The Poet left me on the track and scratched his legs in the undergrowth to climb it, rescuing a few apples. The fact that we eat cashew nuts at all in the quantities we do is astounding. The Poet explained the process we’d have to put one through to make it edible. The shell is very caustic, and needs to be treated carefully. To get the nut out, you have to roast it (but beware the escaping fumes). Wash the roasted shell thoroughly with soap to remove the last of the toxins, then peel them open to get out the flesh. The flesh itself needs to be roasted before you can eat it – even the cashews you can buy as ‘raw’ have been through this process. In short, it’s a lot of work and I was nervous to try it just for the three or four fruits we’d managed to harvest. Back at the boat we boiled up the fruit and made a juice to put in rum. It was meant to be full of great nutrients. It tasted nice too.

I was thinking about making dinner when the Poet suddenly jumped in the kayak and paddled ashore. On the way back to the boat a little earlier, I’d been unlocking our barque when he’d decided to bounce up to a mother and young daughter who were playing on the beach. Before I knew what was happening, he’d invited them visit the boat if they came back a little later. So here they were, about to be relayed back to Annie B. The Poet fed them green coconut and taught them about the ways of the Antilles (they were on holiday). I offered them rum with cashew apple. The six-year-old declined, but ate the creamy coconut flesh as though it was an entirely alien substance. Travel with the Poet was an adventure, and since his early days as one of my first Cabin Boys he’d evolved into an otherworldly creature. I’d originally planned to do the whole pilgrimage from Martinique to Antigua single-handed, but I’m glad instinct had suggested inviting the Poet. He could be hard work, and I’d warned him long in advance that he could only spend a few days with me before I’d get sick of him and need my space (hey, at least I was honest), but I loved seeing the world through his eyes. I hoped I could learn a few things from his attitude.

The next morning brought that glorious tropical deluge where you can see nothing but the rain. My buckets were out, collecting all the free water, and I saw that the other nearby boats had picked up anchor and left town. The Poet was still sleeping, and I couldn’t resist jumping into the warm water, its surface pounded by a thousand fresh needles. Swimming in the sea in the heavy rain is one of my favourite things, and since there was no-one around when I came out, I treated myself to a full soapy nude shower on deck. There was so much rain I could even wash my hair, which felt like such a luxury back then. Eventually the Poet emerged, but by then the magic of the downpour was fading away and the sky was clearing. He swam off bearing my speargun and returned later with a lobster and a couple of small fish. Our last meal together was fresh and perfect. Then bright and early the next morning I paddled his stuff ashore (he swam) to say goodbye. He was embracing his hobo beach fantasy. I was finally heading off alone towards my end goal.

I often reflect on our attitudes, as foreigners, towards living in these islands. (Because even as cruisers many of us are more than just simple tourists: we’re trying to live in a place, sipping on its resources and impacting the environment like everyone else.) The Poet was planning to live on Terre-de-Haut entirely reliant on the island’s bounty and the kindness of the local people. That he didn’t belong there wasn’t relevant – to him, all humans belonged everywhere. It’s a utopian sentiment. When Joyce and her family had landed in Antigua all those years ago, I suspect that they’d thought nothing of their right to settlement there. Their family had been there for centuries, they had a large family property and had previously owned various estates. But… it’s not like they would have been welcomed by everyone with open arms. The British haven’t exactly got a reputation for being well-behaved during their period of colonial governance.

If you’re white and ever want to feel bad about spending time in the Caribbean, have a look at Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (published in 1988). The whole first half of the book/essay is an elegant and punchy tirade against white people in Antigua (tourists, and the even more toxic British colonialists). She writes: ‘An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness…’ Reading it (especially if you’re arriving as a tourist with colonial ancestry) you think – there is literally nothing I can do to not fuck up this situation even more… Except perhaps give in to the author’s demands and not come at all, because after all 75% of the island’s economy is a product of tourism.

That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere. They are too poor… to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live… they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.

Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place (1988)

 

Although Kincaid’s piece makes uncomfortable reading, in many ways it perfectly describes the anxiety and conflicted emotions I think many of us feel when we move or travel abroad (especially if we are part of a historic racial conflict or economic imbalance). We worry: am I welcome here? How can I be a good foreigner, the one they don’t hate? It’s tough – in Martinique I felt comfortable living there and earning my crust, as a part of the European system, as other French people did. But from the perspectives of both cruiser and ‘settler’, there’s a slightly bitter edge to our presence. When you live there, you pick up the undercurrent view of many inhabitants that the flocks of boats anchored out in the bays a kind of plague (and don’t forget how much boats pollute the water). There’s also a negativity towards settlers/short term residents from Metropolitan France. The tensions of colonialism are still apparent here, and integration is difficult. We want to say ‘but that’s not me, I’m one of the good types, I integrate’. But even my Metro friend who recently started an initiative to do mass beach clean-ups to fight the boredom of Covid unemployment, and to do something for his adopted home, received some negative backlash. Amongst the Facebook comments was the sentiment… why is a white person coming and telling us how we should treat our island?

In the end perhaps you have to accept (like immigrants to any country do) that there are always going to be people who don’t want you there, and you can either plough on regardless and try and contribute as positively as you can (without being condescending, entitled, or insensitive to your impact). Or you can stay where you were born and never use the privilege of travel (a privilege that many of the people you visit might not have). God this is such a big topic, but these things were on my mind as I made my passage to Antigua. Let’s go back to the sailing for a bit.