I told my sister I was writing a blog, and very supportively she said ‘that’s fantastic, I’m sure you’d be good at that’. Then she wrinkled her brow when I said it was more of a memoire type narrative. ‘That’s not really what a blog is any more’, she said kindly. ‘They’re supposed to be more like standalone articles’. ‘Like a magazine?’ I said. ‘Like journalism’ she said. So this one’s for the search engines (and if you came here that way, hurray! Now go read the backstory.)
This isn’t really one of those girl (woman) quits job, sells possessions, starts a crazy boat life kind of narratives. I feel like that’s presented a lot as the standard ‘follow your dreams’ storyline and people who dream love the idea of quitting the rat race. I didn’t have a job to quit – I had a haphazardly cultivated ‘portfolio arts career’ which I was starting to do pretty well at, and I quite liked it. I also had a flat in Glasgow I had no intention of selling because it’s all I have towards my pension (ah, the Arts). But I did know there must be some other way to do life, and since I always pursue my goals one way or another, this was the time to press pause and see what a new approach could teach me. I already knew I wanted to spend time in the Caribbean because of my family history in Antigua, and I also had a long-term yearning towards boats (see intro). It was time to say goodbye to Scotland for a while.
First of all, I didn’t come to the Caribbean with hopes, wishes, and no plan. I spent a year at evening classes training to teach English (Trinity College Cert TESOL), and then I applied to the British Council Language Assistant programme asking to be sent to Martinique (which I knew was part of Europe and where I had already discovered a number of language schools where I might be able to get another job later on). Much of the Caribbean is English-speaking, but there are several islands which aren’t, and so teaching English is a good option. In terms of the British Council, I didn’t hold out much hope for being given what I wanted because
1) the programme is aimed at third year university language students (I graduated in 2008 with a degree in basically folklore, and this was 2016)
2) you should be able to speak French to a reasonably good level (I hadn’t spoken French for 12 years and had never been very good at it – in short I stretched the truth on my application) and
3) ask away but they can send you anywhere in France.
Long story short, I felt very lucky and definitely like an imposter when I found myself in a sweaty welcome meeting with 40 early-twenty-somethings six months later. At 30, I was around ten years older than everyone else and had never had any ambition to work as a translator or to speak French. Despite this, I am eternally grateful to the British Council for letting me onto this fantastic programme because it has truly changed my life in so many unanticipated ways. If you’re reading this and are eligible to join a language assistants programme, it’s worth it. Just do it.
Martinique is an island in the Caribbean but… wait for it… actually also part of France. Like Paris is, or Clermont-Ferrand. Lots of people (including people who live in France and actual French people) seem surprised by this. It’s in a little club called the DOM (Départements Outre Mer) along with Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Mayotte and La Réunion. They all use the Euro and are administrated as though they’re part of mainland France (but with various political consequences). You’ll find Martinique in the Lesser Antilles, nestled comfortably between our friendly neighbours of Dominica and St Lucia; north of countries such as St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada; and south of places like Guadeloupe and of course Antigua. As a European, moving there, getting work and becoming a resident was fairly straightforward (Frenchhellbureaucracy aside). So once in Martinique I felt like I would have my foothold in the region, and I would be able to start to explore my family history out here with a sense of the broader Caribbean context.
A quick note on other work opportunities: The Brexit vote had just happened when I moved out here, and my heart was broken at the thought of my place in the incredible international partnership project that is Europe being taken away. Now, more than ever, it was important to have a European base. I don’t know what the future will hold for British citizens in Europe, so in terms of ‘advice for getting a job’, I can’t be terribly precise. As a European who can speak French, there is a lot of seasonal work available in restaurants, bars and water sports (diving, kite surfing, etc). I have international friends here who are tour guides for cruise ships, and I will be working as a cook on charter boats going to the Grenadines. Now that I speak French and English and have a reasonably good technical knowledge of boats, I was offered work in ‘client relations’ at a boat rigging and electrical systems workshop. As a monolingual English speaker, if you’re a qualified ESL teacher there are also quite a few opportunities if you are able to get here and look, and my US/Canadian friends seemed to manage to get visas. It’s like going to mainland France, but without an official job like the language assistant programme, it may take a while to build clients. To be honest speaking French is a major advantage when getting clients and I’ve found myself working in a primary school as a bilingual classroom teacher. I also know non-native speakers who can work here as English teachers so long as they’re qualified. And of course there are numerous boat people who make a living at whatever they do working remotely. If you have your own experience to add of finding work in the Caribbean, please leave a comment below.
Find a boat
The great thing about the Language Assistants programme is that you have school holidays available to travel elsewhere in your region. I spent New Year 2016/17 staying in Guadeloupe on the boat of a guy I came to refer as ‘The Zen Master’, who became an early-days boating mentor. By this time I’d already had my revelation that I would be renewing my contract for the next year and getting a boat (see intro – this definitely hadn’t been my plan when I’d first arrived). We went sailing together and he was full of excellent advice for living aboard in the tropics and what sort of boats to look out for. New Years Eve came and I found myself sitting alone in his cockpit (the friends I’d found all had tickets to a black tie all-you-can-snort cocaine party in a big house somewhere), eating lentils from a tin because nowhere would serve me food without an expensive reservation. I looked at the stars, listened to the frogs sing, caught the whiff of filthy marina water, and knew that this was the best way to enter 2017: as I meant to go on.
It wasn’t long after this that I started to seriously view boats and one day picked up a guy in the marina who I’d met through Crewbay. He’d said ‘coffee’ and I’d managed to turn that into ‘we don’t know each other, but please come and view this boat with me’. The vendor (Monsieur M—-) was a 75-year-old ex-marine injured former rugby coach self-proclaimed Gaullist whose first comment to me was that Brexit was a great thing. He’d just crossed the Atlantic with his 18-year-old son (yes, I did the maths too) and he gave me some story about his son needing to go home to start university. Later I deduced that they’d probably had a bad time in a storm and his son had realised that Papa wasn’t quite the sailor he used to be. To continue would be a very loyal suicide.
I’d already viewed a couple of boats at this point, and this was certainly a bit bigger and a bit more expensive than I’d planned. I lowered myself clumsily down the companionway and although it was a bit of a mouldy armpit, I knew this was my boat. My advisor thought it was a bargain since the old guy was basically leaving all his stuff, and I liked the full-length mirror on the toilet door (don’t judge). We asked some token technical questions in bad French, and I trusted the advisor because he seemed to know his stuff. I made an offer later that day and spent ages biting my nails waiting for his response. The more I had to wait, the more I adjusted my life plans in my head and the more I wanted this boat. Finally he got back to me, and after a bit of bartering we agreed on a price (which was less than he was asking but still probably more than I should have paid). At that point I decided that I wasn’t going to fly or take some other boat to Antigua, I was going to sail myself there in my own boat.
When we took it out for a test drive Monsieur M—- scraped it off a reef and lost a mooring line over the side; little alarm bells began to ring and I could feel anxiety rise – was this ending before it had even begun? He gave me the tiller, and this was very exciting and nerve-wracking because I was still a very new sailor. He told me I was a natural barreuse (helmswoman) and I have no idea if he was bullshitting because he wanted me to buy his boat, but I felt pretty good about how all this was going. The sea was turquoise and the hills were clad with jungle. There was a soft breeze and the sun wasn’t too aggressive. It was the perfect Caribbean sailing paradise and I felt like everything I’d been aiming towards was now falling into place.
Monsieur M——- gave me a bit of his life’s history as we tacked across the bay. He said he was born in Marrakesh and had been in the SAS, before going on to building racing cars, houses, and was a marine expert (had my doubts about this last one). He’d beaten up his wife and got involved with swingers when he lived in Martinique back in the day. He’d had this latest offspring in Tahiti had been taking his son on a pilgrimage back to his homeland when I presume the Atlantic storms had spooked him. At this point he looked me seriously in the eye and said ‘il faut que vous finisserez le voyage de mon bateau jusqu’au Tahiti’ (but with more accurate French no doubt), and in that moment I thought ‘yes! My dream is to cross the Pacific! I’ll finish the journey the boat set out to do. What a brilliant story this would make!’ I tried to get more of a history of the boat itself, but he didn’t seem to know. She was called Nomade, because that’s what all his boats were called, and without an interesting story around that it was definitely something I would be happy to change. Screw Neptune and superstition.
Buying a boat in the Caribbean is relatively cheap and easy (although always make sure you have at least 1/3 the value in spare cash for all the repairs you’re going to do). They’re usually for sale on Facebook groups or second hand sites like leboncoin.com, and Martinique is a massive marine hub in the region. If you’re there on the ground already and have local friends, you can often come across interesting unadvertised boats, and with the right contacts and advice can find a good bargain. The Caribbean is one of those end-of-the-road broken dreams kind of places, where boats arrive from their Atlantic crossing, perhaps do a cruise about, and then the owners need to get rid of them. They’re not always in great condition but many can be well kitted out, as the owners just want to go home and leave all their gear behind.
Welcome to the life!
So anyway that’s the story of how I got the bateau (as I affectionately refer to it), which actually turned out to be a 31st birthday present to myself. I’d really milked turning 30 and had been so enthusiastic about it that I joked it would be difficult for my 31st to live up to it. I posted a picture of myself excitedly draped around the forestay announcing that for my 31st birthday I had opted to become one of those people who has a property in Scotland and a yacht in the Caribbean. I thought it sounded very sophisticated. Social media thought it was a joke but couldn’t work out why it was supposed to be funny. Mum likes to tell her friends that that’s what her daughter does because it sounds better than the reality. My brother tells his friends I’m a penniless artist who lives in Switzerland (he’d mistook Martinique for Martingny so a lot of his comments about my lifestyle are jokes about our wonderful snowy mountains). Most of what my friends and family know about life in the Caribbean comes from the TV series Death in Paradise, so as far as they’re concerned I run around in the sunshine under the palm trees drinking rum and solving whimsical murders.
So now I had a job (and lots of spare time since the assistants only work 12 hours a week – thanks again, British Council!) and a boat in the Caribbean, which is the dream, right? Obviously things are going to get a lot more complicated from here on in.