Hotel California

I started this writing project trying to be a blog (and if you’ve just arrived, here’s where to start), with posts having a central standalone premise, loosely held together by the memoir structure of how I got into sailing. I’m dropping that pretence now, because in reality it’s a story, and can’t be forced into out-of-context collections of topics. From here on, things get a lot more narrative…

September 2017

I’d been ready (emotionally) to leave my marina in Guadeloupe since before Hurricane Irma hit, but circumstances were not going to let me have it that easy. Since arriving after my break in Europe I had a month or so to get my boat ready, do a pilgrimage to Antigua (just an island away, but inaccessible by ferry) and get back to Martinique to start my new job contract and new life with the bateau. As I discussed in a previous post, my mechanic had uprooted my engine and plonked it in the middle of my living space, and then promptly left for a prolonged holiday. In order to fix what he thought the problem was, he’d told me the boat needed to be hauled out of the water and put in a boatyard. This was very expensive and the nearest boatyard was the best part of a day’s sail away near Point-à-Pitre (Gosier). I was stranded with no real means of moving my boat and no way of repairing it. The trip to Antigua quickly fizzled out of the picture, but I was still optimistic that I could get back to Martinique in time, with a little (ok, a lot of) help from my friends.

This post has proved quite difficult to write, because writing it involved reading back over my diaries and reliving something that for me was a really shit time. But it’s important to know that getting started with a boat is hard, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing, and it’s not just about those victories that make you feel like a superwoman. For me it was also about feeling utterly useless and dependant. And that’s not a nice way to be. It’s embarrassing to think of how helpless I was back then, but – spoiler alert – I got through it and since it didn’t kill me, it’s no doubt made me stronger.

My biggest issues were that I needed major DIY skills which I didn’t have, and I was relying on everyone’s advice. I couldn’t sort the good advice from the bad, and it was coming at me from all directions. I was leaning heavily on Zen Master, who was clearly getting more and more frustrated with me (Zen Master, I am eternally grateful for your patience during this time and everything you did for me). I, in turn, was frustrated by my lack of power in the situation and that I didn’t feel like I could make my own choices. I was reliant on the absent mechanic that Zen Master had introduced me to, taking his opinions as gospel. I felt like a prisoner. I had a really strong sense that I needed to get away and start being responsible for myself, and that drive to leave made me frantic. I would pursue any plan, no matter how risky/unfeasible, to get me out of there on schedule. On top of that, I was lonely and isolated and struggled to penetrate the marina’s clique of cool young piratey types. Anyone I did feel like I’d made friends with ended up having ulterior motives, so it became hard to feel like I could turn to anyone.

My isolation was partly down to my boat being in a different part of the marina to all the other liveaboards; opposite the row of noisy bars battling to play the worst music every night. This was solved by an incident that underlined my vulnerability. I was woken in confusion to someone’s shouting. There was a man, and he seemed to be getting us all up for the end of the world. I struggled to orientate myself to where I was and what was going on, when I froze at the words (something along the lines of) ‘et dans celui ça, une femme alongée’ (and in this one a woman reclined). The man was nearby and I realised he was looking down through my hatch at me as I’d been sleeping. He went on with his rambling yell and as he moved away I plucked up the courage to poke my head out of the hatch. He had a large dog, and was wandering among the boats, peering inside them all. And since he had seen me and clearly wasn’t right in the head, my internal rape alert flashed bright. Heart in my mouth, I rushed forward and pulled my sorry excuse for a front door in place. It didn’t lock from the inside. Then I closed the forecabin hatch and moved into the saloon to sleep, paranoid he’d be back or he planned to rob or board the boats, or something. The sense of threat slipped away as the sun rose, but I mentioned what had happened in passing to the Harbourmaster anyway, since I was there on other business. He immediately decided that I couldn’t be une femme toute seule on that dock and would move me at once. He mobilised his team and I was towed across the marina right into the heartland of the piratey clique. I felt most unwelcome, but a bit safer and less isolated.

This solution didn’t stop me feeling preyed upon, however. Now that the liveaboards were more aware of my existence, I started getting visits from friendly-seeming guys offering their services. They would look at my electricity, my engine, my dinghy, offered me drinks and sometimes took me for lunch when it was clear I wasn’t really eating. At first I was grateful for the idea of friendship, but each and every one of them would end up trying to get inside my boat, suggest I needed a cherie in my life to help out, and in one case even start being controlling and possessive over me. They would get drunk and make moves on me, and any women about hated me since not all of these guys were single. You might argue that this is flattering and to enjoy the attention etc etc blah blah blah, but it’s horrible and threatening. I was so lonely and really needed friends, but these guys didn’t want to be my friend. They just wanted to sleep with me and it was intensely creepy and relentless. (I was suddenly really grateful to the pirate guys who just found me annoying and mostly ignored me.) When they would offer me all this help or drinks or lunch I started to feel like a prostitute, because I had nothing to offer in return and I couldn’t turn down their offers. I really needed the help.

All of the above contributed to my broken-down state of mind, and my desperation to get out of there. Not long before Hurricane Maria arrived, Zen Master came by and said we needed to leave soon if we wanted to get to Martinique before October. Even though the mechanic was away, there was a chance he could meet us in Martinique and haul out there, and at least I’d be on the island for the start of my work contract. Zen Master was certain that since he’d been the one to remove the engine, he would be the best person to re-install it. I trusted him. Our plan was to do it all under sail, but there’s a large area of no wind as you pass Dominica, which Zen Master was particularly worried about. We started looking at solutions for using my hefty outboard as an emergency motor. And because of the seasickness episode from the way down from Martinique, he wasn’t up for going without a third crewmember in case I was incapacitated again. He had a friend who could come. Perfect! But her timeframe was narrow so it was now or never from her perspective.

Our first solution was to go to the chandlery (when I was able to get a lift with a kind person) and get a chaise (a mount for the outboard to attach to the stern). This seemed simple and effective. Nice. But as departure day drew near (and the chaise still not installed), weather reports weren’t looking promising and Zen Master started making noises about considering a plan B. If I needed to be in Martinique by a particular date then maybe I should consider getting temporary accommodation there and leave the beateau behind. This seemed unthinkable. All I wanted to do was leave. I couldn’t bear the idea of drawing out this stay any longer. The original departure day came, but weather wasn’t good, and checking out the chaise there were certain things we needed to install it which we couldn’t get hold of. The third crew member made other plans and left. More and more people came to look at the chaise and pronounce the complex installation operation that was before me, involving fibreglass work that I had materials but no skill for.

Then Hurricane Maria hit and changed our leaving plans again. Zen Master was no longer confident about leaving under sail because of the possible debris in the lee of Dominica (and risk of piracy if we needed to take a break there), and this scuppered my entire plan for waiting to get back to Martinique before dealing with the engine, and my precious schedule. Someone made me even more nervous by commenting, ‘they’re all talk here. No-one ever sails. No-one ever leaves’. Had I come to a prison I could never get out of? It was like the marina was cursed.

Everyone around me started to question my reliance on Zen Master’s advice, and the mechanic he’d introduced me to. Why didn’t I make my life a whole lot simpler and just find a new mechanic? At this time there were too many voices from all over the place telling me what to do. At one point one of those voices said – ‘at the end it’s your decision, c’est toi le capitaine’. Exactly. I needed to start taking ownership of this project. I called up some other mechanics and some other guys to do some stainless steel work. An Alternative Mechanic came to dive and look at the propeller from the water to see if the engine was really the problem at all. He thought it was an issue with the propeller shaft itself and not the engine. He said he could do the work there and then. Zen Master said he was incompetent. It all felt like a snakepit. The Harbourmaster advised me to trust none of them, and also to lock away my valuables. It felt like I was in a nest of pirates and criminals (a few had indicated they’d been obliged to leave France because of criminal activity, and a known cocaine smuggler paraded along the dock every couple of weeks while the lads clamoured for work with him).

In the end, I took charge of my situation and made the decision to wait. I was running out of time; the situation seemed too fraught and desperate. I would go back to Martinique to start my job, and return in the school holidays, haul her out then. This would give me more time to arrange the right people to work on it, and a secure haul-out slot in Gosier. There was a time risk with the holidays being so short, but I felt like it was a risk worth taking. I breathed out and Zen Master’s improved mood showed I’d made the decision he’d been hoping for. I took the chaise back to the shop (after a massive saga of trying to find solutions to install it and asking for a lot of favours). I swapped the heavy 30kg outboard engine for something small and slightly broken and much shitter, but which I could lift myself; and with some help from some of the pirate clique, learnt to service it and troubleshoot its problems. I had minor DIY wins, like mapping my electrical system and fixing a broken navigation light, and met other young people who wanted to hang out with me without trying to do cocaine or sleep with me. The Alternative Mechanic said he could do the work on my engine if the original guy didn’t get back in time. I left the island having scraped together a bit of breathing space.

Back in Martinique I’d had the luxury of forgetting about the bateau and all her associated strife for a while; catching up with friends, making new ones, and settling into a peaceful land-based life. Who needs a boat, really? Couldn’t I just leave her there and forget all about her? Of course not. Not after all we’d already been through and more to the point, all we hadn’t even been able to start doing yet. I was supposed to sail to Antigua. That’s why I’d come to the Caribbean in the first place. And I wanted to taste the cruising lifestyle. And before all that, I suppose I wanted to actually learn how to sail. So the school holidays came and I dragged myself back to Guadeloupe, feeling the weight lower itself back down onto my shoulders, letting me know it would crush me if I allowed my spirits to drop.

The first blow was the news that my mechanic was still not back from his hols and his predicted arrival was even later than expected. With only two weeks off for the Toussaint break, my timeframe was very delicate and I was starting to wonder if he’d be able to make it at all in time. Reluctantly, I let the Alternative Mechanic back into my life. He put the hard sell on me and in the back of my mind I knew there was probably a good reason Zen Master didn’t trust him, but my choices were limited. I made a plan with him and someone else from the marina to sail the boat to Gosier, in time for our haul-out slot, and for one night I thought I had everything sorted. But the next morning the world came crashing down round my ears when the boatyard called and told me that there was a week and a half delay on the haul-out waiting list. A week and a half? That was nearly my whole holiday, and I needed to not only get my engine woes sorted out, but redo all my antifouling, fit the new stainless steel solar panel frame and deal with whatever other horrors the haul-out revealed (not to mention do the actual delivery to Martinique). There just wasn’t enough time (again). I started to get desperate. I just couldn’t see how my mission was going to be possible. I started making mad plans again to go do the work in Martinique and find a new mechanic there. It would be do-able (if extortionate), but Zen Master put his foot down and said he didn’t want to risk going to Martinique without an engine. And I still needed him (and his extraordinary good will) for the passage. Time for a plan F. At this point the marina was feeling more and more like Hotel f***ing California (you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave).

I pulled myself together and asked for a week off work at the end of the holidays. Language Assistants skived all the time and I had always been goddamned professional. I promised them my eternal soul and, because my colleagues were brilliant, they granted me my wish. I got a new plan together. I just needed Zen Master to return from holiday and someone to tow me out of the marina and we could be on our way (once the boatyard gave the go-ahead). Some of the work I’d planned to do at the haul-out could still be done while afloat in the marina. It would be fine. Breathe. Zen Master called and informed me we’d need a third crew member because we were doing this mission under sail alone and some of the manoeuvres could be complicated. My paranoia started to tell me he didn’t really want to help (and could I blame him?). It seemed like every time I came up with solutions, he threw some more impossible tasks in my direction like the antagonist in a fairy tale. My original helpers had disappeared but the boatyard did call me to tell me it was my turn to haul out. Pity I wasn’t there.

The new deadline was a couple of days away. We were going to leave on Sunday, and by that time I was supposed to get my solar panel frame installed, scrape the hull so we could actually move through the water, and re-hang the foresail which I had no idea how to do on my own. Feeling determined, I wandered around the marina until I found someone with a motor boat and asked if they’d help me out with the tow on the big leaving day. His agreement gave me the heady rush of optimism that made me feel like I’d finally leave, so I headed to the Harbourmaster to pay my bill and get them to tow me to the lagoon to clean the hull. I’d be back in the evening to give the stainless steel guy time to do his work the next day, and to prep for leaving. The tow was such a disaster that one of the pirates had to come and help, and lectured me on all the things I was doing wrong with the boat. Why did I even have this beast? I felt completely incapable of doing anything.

But whatever, in the end the team got me hooked up to a flimsy mooring buoy (which I definitely shouldn’t stay the night on) and left me to my own devices. The weather was brooding, and frequent showers were cooling down the usual heat (which would have been useful on a day spent in the water). Diving for a first look under the boat, I nearly broke down at the sight of the coral reef below. I hate free-diving and could remember how traumatic the task was the last time. This growth was worse, if that was possible. Then the rain came. Everything in the boat was wet, I was freezing and the scraping endless and tough. The antifouling was so old barnacles were practically glued on and my hands and feet were cut up and bleeding.

As sunset approached I lay in my bed trying not to feel wet and gave myself permission to fail. I didn’t need to have a boat if it meant feeling this bad. I messaged everyone I could think of trying to find a third crew member, but not no avail and Zen Master was coming to the end of his patience with me. I accepted not being able to go back to the marina that day, cancelled my solar panel installation and (since I was tied to that dodgy buoy), prepared to put out my anchor as the pirate had instructed me to. This involved measuring out 10m of chain and taking the anchor out in the dinghy and dropping it. As I was struggling to get it into the dinghy the next bout of rain started and a guy motored past asking if I needed help. Together we got the anchor out and he said I’d need to go dive and check on it, but at that moment the rain was relentless. At around 5pm it was still raining but it was now or never before dark. I debated about bothering because getting back in the water filled me with horror but I decided this is what a responsible skipper does, so put my soggy bikini back on and a t-shirt and took the plunge. I followed the chain as far as I could and kept trying, peering through the gloom, but by this time it was already too late. I couldn’t see a thing. I went back to bed and started thinking maybe I couldn’t leave on Sunday. Maybe I’d be stuck in the lagoon forever. I morosely watched water dripping down the walls.

Next morning I decided to make an early start to dive on the anchor and finish the scraping. The weather was still moody and when I followed the anchor chain out I could see the anchor was just resting there. I tried and failed to dive down to do something about it. I gave up and went to scrape.

Diving under the boat was also too difficult and I began to despair again. I still had the whole keel to do and it was cold and miserable. I prayed for sunshine. At least then my stuff might be a little less wet. I plastered up my rubbed-raw feet and put the flippers back on. It was easier but still galling. I cut myself on barnacles and splashed blood all over the boat. But I couldn’t give up so I bandaged myself up and eventually finished. I was awash with extreme satisfaction, and as the sun came out I was ready to face the anchor. So I got back in the water and dived, and managed to shift it so it sort of dug into the sand. Buoyed by the success, the sunshine and calm weather, I decided to stop waiting for Zen Master to rescue me and paddled over to the next boat to ask for help with my foresail. It was the guy who’d helped me the day before and he came avec plaisir. So we did that and I ticked another thing off my impossible task list. Over beers he said that if I ever needed any help just ask, so I brazenly asked him to come sail with us the next day to Point-à-Pitre. He said yes. If I had transport back arranged (ah… Sunday. Sundays are a nightmare in the Antilles).

So buoyantly I puttered into the marina with nearly all my hoops potentially jumped through. I asked around and miraculously found a lift for my crew on Sunday. All I needed now was Zen Master’s OK and then I might actually be leaving. But it was getting late and he hadn’t responded to any of my messages. I went back to the boat and bit my nails. But then confirmation came with no additional impossible tasks. I confirmed with my other kind helpers and my departure was actually arranged. I went for goodbye drinks with the pirate clique, who seemed to have eventually just about accepted me.

Departure day was here and I hated myself for drinking the night before, the hangover gently creeping in with a sly I-told-you-so smile. I struggled my way through the leaving preparations and by the time I went to get Zen Master I was already running late. I realised I’d forgotten to get spare fuel for the outboard, so while I was on an epic quest on foot to find a petrol station, my crew finished what I should have done to prep the boat. A friend in a RIB appeared to tow us out of the lagoon, and suddenly it was time. Our tow led us to the rougher waters at the lagoon entrance and released us into the sea, but getting the sails up we found we weren’t pointing in the right direction with regards to the wind. We couldn’t get under way. The waves were pushing us back towards the lagoon, and the reef. It nearly ended in disaster, but my crew were pros. Zen Master had been right to insist on a third person for the trip, and the two old guys harnessed some wind and got us out of there.

The sea was calm, the sun was out, and the wind came at us gently from behind (which made it a comfortable but extremely slow trip). Everyone was in cheery spirits, and I couldn’t believe I’d finally escaped the grip of Hotel California. Eventually we were approaching the harbour entrance to Gosier, and the Capitainerie had sent someone to greet us and tow us in. I was deposited alongside a motor boat right next to the haul-out crane so I would be ready for my turn, and felt like no-one had ever needed as much help as me in the entire history of sailing. But the thing with boats is, if you don’t solve your problem the first time, you can’t just shrug and say ‘oh well I tried but it doesn’t really matter’. You have to keep trying because if you don’t then things just get worse until you’ve lost everything. At this time I felt useless and incapable of achieving anything, but I wasn’t allowed to give up, and it taught me a lot about perseverance. I hoped that in the years to follow, I would be finding my own solutions, but I would never forget the value of good friends.

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