Catch-up: 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. All with a lot of help from my friends.
Being in Gosier, Point-à-Pitre was a strange and liminal time. I had escaped my marina in St François, but I wasn’t fully free yet, and I still had a lot to learn about how to handle being a solo female boat owner. I only had about a week and a half before I needed to be back in Martinique, and a lot of work to do including fixing the engine (fingers crossed for the mechanic being able to make it in time), stripping all previous antifouling, inspecting the hull, re-painting the antifouling, repairing my mainsail, fitting the solar panels and their new frame, the associated electronics, and making sure the boat was fit to travel. Logistically, I also needed to organise a marina berth and new home at the other end, and of course get crew. So far Zen Master was signed up (bless his soul), but I was under strict instructions to find a third.
I’d arrived in Gosier on the Sunday, thanks to Zen Master and a neighbour from the St François lagoon, believing my time for haul-out was nigh and promised. On Monday I had no word for the Capitainerie and was told to be patient, there was a big queue because of the hurricanes. But Toussaint (when nothing would be running thanks to the holiday) was on the horizon and I was anxious about needing to be back in Martinique. On Tuesday I was told there was still no news but perhaps I could speak to the grutier (the guy in charge of the crane). Fine. I took a deep breath to summon all my charms and went to speak to him. He listened patiently while I explained how worried I was about the holiday, and how I was only a little boat with quick jobs to do… was there any chance he could possibly help me out and squeeze me in pretty please? He relented and made space for me, and I hated myself for using my feminine wiles when I’d spent so long complaining about women’s equality.
Seeing your naked hull emerge from the water when it’s all you’ve been dreaming of for the past three months is a pleasure like no other. She had such smooth lines, and such grace since I’d already given her underwater beard a good shave. She swung gently in her cradle as she was craned around the yard and eventually settled onto some stilts near the chandlery, blocking in a bunch of motor boats who looked like they were never getting back in the water, ever. I hired and ladder and a pressure washer, and felt like it was time to claim my independence, and do my own boat work without any of my helpful friends to lean on.
I was diligently scraping away at my antifouling with a tool borrowed from a friendly guy at the chandlery when I heard someone call my name and turned with a sinking heart to see a ‘helpful friend’ from my old marina. In some ways it was nice to see a familiar face, but this guy had proved himself to be a first class creep on a number of occasions and here he was, embarking on telling me what to do. He told me my antifouling removal strategy was shite, and that I should be hiring someone to do that job for me. My inner feminist spirit snarled. I was doing my own damned boat work, thank you very much. I was strong, I didn’t have muscles yet, but I soon would. He proceeded to point out the short amount of time that I had to do this work, and everything I needed to get done in that time. He pointed at a bunch of dejected looking Dominican lads who were hanging about trying to earn a crust after their island and entire livelihoods had been completely destroyed by hurricane Maria. He indicated their muscles. Why are you tiring yourself out with this easy job when there are so many other things you could be doing? A day’s labour from one of these guys will hardly cost you anything and it’ll be worth it. He was right. I laid aside my pride and took his advice, handing over the tool and explaining what needed to be done. Little by little the old paint was stripped back and revealed a galaxy of beautiful white spots which caused people all around me to mutter the dreaded word ‘osmosis’.
Osmosis comes for all older plastic boats in the end, and the treatment to cure it is a lengthy torture if you’re doing it yourself. It’s what happens when blisters start forming in your gelcoat due to various chemical reactions, letting in moisture and risking hull delamination. I decided I was deaf to the word and the sooner I got my paint back on, the sooner I could forget I’d ever heard it. It wasn’t a problem I had time for. I refused to let it become the thing that trapped me in Guadeloupe for all eternity.
The guys in the chandlery and my neighbours doing their own work were full of advice and loaned tools. My solar panel support was eventually installed, and someone taught me to wire the panels into the system. Little by little my bateau was being transformed. The real morale-booster was getting into a thin protective suit and rolling on first the primer, then the coats of antifouling to the hull. It’s a horrible toxic necessity, which costs a lot of money (everything that week was costing a lot of money), but once it was on, the boat felt fresh and new (and I did it myself, finally). And then the mechanic turned up. My Messiah. The chosen one. The one I’d been waiting for since the dawn of time. Alternative Mechanic had passed by and awkwardly been turned away. This guy was my saviour who was going to wave his magic wand and, for lots of money, make my engine work again.
Of course the problem with the enigine wasn’t what he’d thought it would be. In fact, it turned out it was something that didn’t even require the engine to be moved from its compartment to repair (costing me an extra grand and my sanity for all those month ffs). It was a problem to do with the propeller shaft like Alternative Mechanic had hypothesised. But anyway, anyway. Moving on from that and all the last minute reasons it didn’t seem like it was going to work, and more extra parts I had to buy, and general resentment for all the pain and misery he’d put me through: things were coming together. My time was nearly up, and maybe I would be able to get out of there. I organised a provisional leaving date with Zen Master (his schedule was also tight), and he reminded me I needed extra crew because he wasn’t going to risk my seasickness. I put an ad up in the Capitainerie and found 2 eager young boat hitchhikers up for coming. Excellent.
During this time I was also having my usual man problems. Initially, the one that pissed me off the most was that passers-by would come and speak to my mechanic about my boat and not me, as though I was invisible. Oh, what a lovely boat. Is it a Karaté? It must be, they were so legendary. (Insert boatish man-chat that I wasn’t invited to participate in.) Obviously since he was the only man associated with the project, it must be his project. Fuck them. But being the only woman in the boatyard also drew attention, and attracted hopeful men like flies. I ended up having to hide from some of the creepiest, including one of the grutiers who brought me croissants and pastries one morning (how kind!) and asked me to lunch. I said yes because I had no reason to say no, but of course this was stupid because then he started bombarding me with explicit propositions and I suppose I should have known (he was married ffs).
I don’t know why any of this would make me think Tinder was a good idea. But I was lonely and looking for people to hang out with I suppose. I was one of the only people living on my boat in the yard and it wasn’t a nice place to chill out in the evening (read: decidedly unsafe-seeming). Let’s just get one thing straight, though: I am rarely (never) romantically interested in people I might meet through Tinder (their expectations are so off-puttingly high), but it’s a good way to meet people in your area when you don’t know anyone. I almost always regret the whole business as soon as anyone starts talking to me on the app and then end up being guilt-tripped into meeting them. This happened with one guy that week in Gosier. But I needed to get off the boat for a few hours and forget about all the pressure I was under. He seemed nice enough (though not attractive to me), and he worked on boats so could understand my woes. I thought nothing more of him after our sufficiently passable evening. Until, the day before the bateau was to be returned to the water, my hitchhiker crew pulled out. They’d found a much nicer boat and were happy to ditch me. I don’t blame them, Annie B was a shithole. But I was in a panic because the boat was supposed to go back into the water soon, and a few days later I needed to leave to go to Martinique. What could I do? I messaged the few people I knew in the area asking if by chance they knew someone who could sail and would be up for coming with me to Martinique at short notice. One of the people I asked was Tinder guy. He didn’t know anyone but Of Course he would happily come himself. He was a skipper and all.
Problem solved, hurrah and celebrations. I informed Zen Master, who was pleased this guy was a skipper because… did I really need him to come? Like, really? Because he had some clients and… The idea of Zen Master pulling out was a big blow, but I knew how much he’d already put himself out for me and I didn’t want to continue to be a burden to him. I assured him it would be fine. He demanded that the skipper was experienced and had done the route before, and I said I’m sure he had. The bateau back in the water and the mechanic still tinkering with whatever continued not to work, Tinder guy came round to see me with his boss. The boss said – our man is a fantastic skipper, you have nothing to worry about. I smiled weakly, hoping that this time things would work out ok and that we really would leave tomorrow without any further complications. Despite a few deep-down misgivings, I was excited. I was finally having a sailing adventure without the supervision of my mentor.
So I very quickly learnt that Tinder Guy was the sort of person who did everything in slow motion (come on, let’s leave already – what are you actually doing in that shop?), and also had a very infuriating slow careful patronising teacher mode which would soon to find him swimming with the sharks if he wasn’t careful. He’d already gone through absolutely everything on the boat before leaving slowly and carefully, and brought along extra safety gear for good measure. This much was reassuring. Seemed sensible. Out in the bay, we spent about half an hour going round in circles until he declared the autopilot wouldn’t work, and from then on he was on edge. Since Zen Master had never seemed to think an autopilot was necessary, we’d never used it so I didn’t really know how to solve that problem. I had no issue with hand steering. It was a delight to helm my own boat.
However, whilst Tinder guy definitely seemed to enjoy instructing me, this wasn’t a trip on which I would be allowed to learn anything by doing. I had nothing to do with the sails and he kept taking the tiller from me. Then I discovered this was actually his first time acting as skipper (the French system allows you to be called a captain by merit of having worked on boats for the correct amount of time and doing a classroom college course). It was also his first time sailing to Martinique. I could feel Zen Master’s disembodied disapproval burning into me. In hindsight maybe he didn’t let me do anything because he was still learning himself and was completely under-skilled for a trip like this. But we both let it slide because I was desperate to get back to Martinique whatever the cost, and he was clearly desperate to impress a woman.
We made it as far as Marie Galante across the channel that day, and anchored as the sun was setting. It was so beautiful. Palm trees on the shore, colours on the water, the peace and calm of it all. I couldn’t believe we were actually on our way. With someone I was actually interested in this might have been romantic. Then I realised with horror that I’d walked into The Implication:
I had got myself trapped on a boat with a man who clearly had hopes for something with me, but who seemed not to have picked up on what I had thought of as my clear ‘I’m not interested’ signs. The evening was long with too much alcohol and deep conversation. I crawled into bed fully clothed to avoid creating more awkwardness and pretended I needed to pass out and LEAVE ME ALONE. Things had got too close, too personal. He was looking for ways in to make his move. I didn’t like it.
We got up early but Tinder Guy was maddeningly slow again, insisting we didn’t leave until it had stopped raining. I was keen to crack on because it was still an overnight mission from here to Martinique and every hour of daylight counted. Maybe he had good reasons but he didn’t really share them with me. We made it out to sea eventually and got the sails up. It was a little rougher than the day before but not too bad although we were heeling quite a lot. Out of nowhere we were taken by a massive gust and the boat was knocked nearly flat. It had gone from 10kts to 30kts as we left the shelter of the island. Tinder Guy swung us round into the wind quickly and scrambled about the sails to get a reef in. It was a struggle to hold us facing the wind (in hindsight, that’s not the best method for reefing) and suddenly he was grabbing a knife to try and cut something blocking the reef, about to do some damage to my expensive stuff. It was really stressful and I got a big jolt. An experienced sailor would have anticipated that wind change. Zen Master would have had the reef in already. He always said that in this region, unless there’s no wind at all you’re best to go out with at least one reef in as standard. This was why he had stipulated that the skipper knew the route.
We recovered and made good speed through the channel towards Dominica. Hand steering into the driving swell was hard work but manageable. It was a welcome break when we finally lost the wind and had to put the motor on passing the island, but by this time it was already approaching sunset. If we hadn’t wasted so much time leaving… There was a bit of breeze so we got the sails up again, but very quickly he started frowning and saying maybe we should stop for the night. He didn’t really explain why so I said I wanted to press on, as per our initial plan (Zen Master had said before that it might not be safe stopping in Dominica at the moment, since people were desperate and there’d been reports of boats being boarded). I was up for an overnighter, and he had been before we set out. This trip was supposed to be nonstop and we’d already wasted time anchoring in Marie Galante.
The wind was gusting unpredictably so we put away the sails again and started getting night gear out: life jackets, warm clothes, harnesses, head torches. I had the navigation lights on, but could see that once again the red one wasn’t working (the one I’d fixed back in Guadeloupe). Working nav lights are crucial to a night passage and you really can’t be out after dark without them. The sea was pretty rough and I found myself inching back and forth to the bow bearing tools, trying to find out what was wrong as the boat chucked us around and it got darker. Spattered by waves, already cold and wet and feeling a tiny bit seasick, I took the bulb out to clean it and was rewarded with an electric shock and handful of broken glass. But I had no choice, we had to have a working light. I stumbled queasily about below dismantling all the cabin lights until I found with one with a matching bulb. Clinging to the boat in my harness it really didn’t seem like it was going to work, but finally with some jiggling we had success and I breathed a big sigh of relief. We’d already passed our point of no return, and along with Tinder Guy’s smugness if he’d been proven right, I really didn’t want to be endangering our lives.
I steered while he snoozed, as night got itself firmly established. Later we swapped places, and I woke when the boat started rolling wildly from side to side. It was pitch black and the seas were heaving high on both sides. We’d reached the channel between Dominica and Martinique. We’d chosen not to put the sails up through lack of confidence in our own skills I suppose. He was seething saying we should have stopped for the night – this was way too dangerous (man up Tinder Guy, it would have been fine if we’d just used the sails, we would have been much more balanced. More and more he was showing his inexperience). I took the tiller so he could rest and tried not to feel frightened. His discomfort had unnerved me. I felt less confident and less safe. The boat felt like it would fling us out with every heave and all about was black. The moon caught off too-high waves.
He retreated below to try and sleep, so there was just me and nowhere we could go but onwards. He’d pointed to a star to follow so I gritted my teeth and tried to ride the waves, telling myself it would all be fine if we could just pass this channel. Telling myself the engine (which we were now abusing) had been thoroughly gone over by the mechanic and would easily get us through the passage. I thought about big oceans which must be far worse than this. I suddenly understood why sailors were so religious. How could you not be?
And actually it was OK. It wasn’t that I enjoyed it, but I sort of did at the same time. I could feel myself rising to the challenge and I was managing it, because I had no choice. Even though it may have been a stupid decision to keep going, I felt like it had hardened up my spirits. If I could get through this then maybe I’d have a chance against the more gruelling situations to come. All the same we felt like we’d been very lucky. (He kept muttering about being afraid of not being seen by other boats, and how much we rolled from side to side – from the benefit of the experience I have now, I think we were fine, but we should have had sails out.)
As morning broke (I’ve never been so relieved to see a sunrise) we were motoring through the bay of Fort-de-France, and eventually made it to Pointe de Bout, Trois Ilets. We hovered around the marina entrance for a couple of hours waiting for someone from the Capitainerie to answer the phone (or, heaven forbid, the VHF). It was a Sunday so it was a lazy start to the day for them. We were exhausted and a little shaken from the night before, and Tinder Guy decided to use this as an opportunity to lecture me. I was a little sick of his slowness and feeling criticised all the time. But I bit my tongue. This was nearly over…
The marina was a complicated place to park and Tinder Guy muttered about how awful Annie B was to manoeuvre astern (I now know that she handles like a dream in reverse, compared to other boats) but it happened and then we were on land checking in. Sweet land! In my new home! We were dirty and disgusting and hadn’t slept. I took him for breakfast and we found ourselves in a marina restaurant chatting to the owner, who promptly offered me a job teaching English to his staff. Someone else passed by the boat and asked if either of us did regattas, he had a crew of young people he liked to train up… (this guy turned out to be Moustache, one of my later mentors and good friends). In a few hours the curse of Hotel California in Guadeloupe washed away, and I felt like I’d come home.
By this time what remained of Tinder Guy’s charm had worn off and I wanted him out of my space. But his ferry wasn’t until the next afternoon. He suggested we go out for dinner and he talked and talked slowly and thoughtfully about himself and failed romances, and I realised that he was a tiny bit insufferable. I also feared he was trying to drop romantic hints at me. Back at the boat we chilled out listening to music and he at some point and leaned forward awkwardly and said ‘you know, in French we have this phrase voulez-vous coucher avec moi?’. And I nearly choked with discomfort and awkwardness at the horror of the proposition and said yes I was aware they had that phrase. Awkward pause. No, it’s not going to happen. He said ‘well I had to try’ and I thought ‘maybe this is a cultural thing but no, you really didn’t. Why ruin the atmosphere?’ I berated myself again on how stupid it was to go sailing alone in a very small boat with this guy I didn’t know, who I’d recruited through Tinder ffs. I made excuses and crawled into bed (fully clothed again), trying to ignore his sighs (had he deliberately booked a later ferry to have this night?). It was all too intense. The next morning I pretended to sleep until he got up and went out, and then later found myself making awkward conversation with him until it was time for him to leave. I felt like an awful bitch, because he’d done me a huge favour (which in fairness he wasn’t really competent for) and all I could offer in return was a slightly traumatic mini-adventure. Maybe I’m too harsh on myself – maybe he did just enjoy the idea of a sailing trip to another island. But because he’d propositioned me I felt like I’d lured him there on false pretences. Used and abused his kindness. To me, I’d used the contacts and resources I had on hand to find out if anyone would be up for doing this trip with me – I’d asked a whole lot of people I vaguely knew, and as far as I was concerned this wasn’t presented as a romantic excursion. I also hadn’t invited him specifically.
Even though this is a sort of funny situation now I’m not in it, I’m still frustrated with myself in hindsight for my hypocrisy. Throughout my time in French Boating Land, I’d been frustrated and outraged by all the sexism I’d felt I’d experienced. There were all these guys willing to help me but only because I was a woman and this upset me. At the same time, though, I was automatically using my feminine wiles to get what I needed. A colleague from a festival I used to work at once told me – ‘I see what you do. It’s very clever. You smile at people like that to get what you want and get people to do things for you.’ I was indignant because put like that it made me seem deliberately manipulative. To me I was just asking nicely because that’s what you do when you need a favour. You smile and you’re nice to people. That’s normal, right? People are welcome to say no. But you never really know how you’re perceived. I try and imagine myself from the outside. Did I seem lost and helpless to these men? Did I seem like someone they were trying to protect? A pain in the arse? Someone they just wanted to get into bed with? Did I seem vulnerable? Or a genderless person in a difficult situation they could empathise with? I just wanted to be taken seriously and treated like an equal – but in terms of giving something back in return, I had little to offer except my smile. I find it hard to believe that any intelligent woman actually wants to feel like they’ve got somewhere because of their feminine allure and can manipulate (maybe ‘charm’ is a nicer word) people into doing things for them. You often see that character portrayed in books and films (accompanied by the phrase ‘wrapped around her little finger’), but guys – I don’t think she’s doing it on purpose!
I have to admit, this wasn’t the last time I used Tinder for logistical purposes. As a way to quickly get in touch with people who know other people in a small community where you’re alone and Facebook isn’t coming through for you, it’s remarkably effective. I still try to live in the optimistic hope that people out there are kind, and happy to help you out when you’re stuck, for no other reason than that. Despite that, these days I’m so paranoid sometimes I can’t recognise genuine kindness from ulterior motives. I don’t yet know how to solve that issue, but maybe the best approach for now is: don’t use Tinder to recruit your crew unless you’re able to set clear boundaries in advance.